I keep waiting for the sudden demand to entertain her business partners or a family friend. And I’m always grateful when she’s decided to leave me alone for the night.
I type “notes” onto the small tablet in my lap. Really, I’m outlining an assignment I have to complete tonight for one of my business courses at Wharton. I may have graduated from Penn last year, but now I’m in the big leagues. Grad school. I want an MBA. I don’t need it. Not really.
I’ll be CEO of Cobalt Inc. with or without the degree. But the respect I crave won’t be handed to me so easily.
My phone buzzes in my pants, loud enough for Steve Balm, the COO and my mother’s most respected board member, to pause his discussion on finger paints. Steve has been ranting about primary colors and the hearts of children everywhere. He wants to f**k over Crayola. Not his words, but I read between the lines.
“Are we interrupting you, Connor?” Steve asks, his gray brows furrowing critically. Steve and I have a long history. I suppose it began at birth—when he was dubbed my godfather.
I don’t make a move for my phone. “Did I say anything?” I refute. I hit the mute button before it can vibrate again.
“Aren’t you going to answer that?” Gary Holmes, a stocky-built board member asks a few chairs down. “Could be Hollywood. You’re a movie star now, aren’t you?”
Light chuckling filters across the room. They jest because they knew me when I was seven years old, when my mother carted me through the hallways.
I am a boy in their eyes.
I won’t win them over by arguing, by pounding my fists against my chest and demanding to be taken seriously. So I turn to Steve. “If you’d like to drive this company into the ground, by all means choose to spend millions of our research fund into finding an unpatented health-friendly finger paint.”
Steve doesn’t reveal whether he agrees or not, his face as blank as mine.
“Katarina wants to expand.” Steve directs the statement to the boardroom. “She’s giving us a week to propose viable options to take Colbalt Inc. to the next level.”
“We could just get in bed with Fizzle,” Gary says, “Connor’s already a quarter of the way there.”
Before the room can erupt in another wave of laughter, I ask, “And what would we do with Fizzle? We’re a paint and magnet company. Should we poison consumers with our magnetic soda cans?” Everyone remains quiet, eyes flitting between one another. I keep my gaze pinned on Gary as he reddens and sinks lower into his chair.
I straighten, silently reminding everyone who’s not a child in the room.
“It was a joke,” Gary says in defense. He looks to Steve for support, but my godfather never offers him a life vest. If you’re drowning, you f**king drown.
“Unless they involve productive opinions, keep your jokes to yourself,” I say sharply. Now I slip my phone out of my pocket. It was a text…
Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, Anne Brontë – Rose
My lips threaten to rise, and it takes all my strength not to smile. I begin typing and speaking at the same time. “Katarina just notified me that she’s on her way,” I lie. Though after reading a quick email this morning, I do know she’s coming later.
Fuck. Kill. Marry. I type back and hit send before pocketing my phone.
“Any other fabulous ideas, Gary?” Steve asks. And there it is. His opinion. I meet his eyes and he gives me a small nod, letting me know he agrees with me. I don’t let out a breath of relief. This is just one meeting of many.
Katarina arrives only five minutes later, and after Steve offers her a brief update, the board members clear out of the conference room. Leaving me alone with my mother.
Her deep, dyed red hair cascades in waves over her shoulders. She takes a seat in Steve’s open chair at my right-hand side. This won’t be a quick conversation then, but I’ve already spoken to her about the reality show.
I laid out the pros and cons in a spreadsheet, outlining all the reasons why I should be in the show. Mostly for Cobalt Inc.’s benefit. Exposure. Putting a face to our brand. It’s something that my mother wants but has never been able to do.
The only risk is bad press. Fizzle and Hale Co. stocks dropped considerably after Lily’s sex addiction was publicized. I was distanced enough from Rose’s sister that Cobalt Inc. didn’t suffer, but I’m edging myself closer to the Calloways. My mother has voiced her mild disapproval. She doesn’t like taking risks or getting her hands dirty. But that’s why she has me.
“Where are the cameras?” she asks, diving right in.
“There are only three cameramen,” I explain again. “They won’t follow me if I’m not with someone else. So if you’re worried about them coming into this building—”
“I’m not.” She pulls out her smart phone and simultaneously types an email while she speaks to me. “I’m worried that this girl is going to ruin you.”
“Her name is Rose, and she’s not going to ruin me.” She’s never met her, but they’ve both been pressuring me about letting them have coffee together or brunch. I just don’t see what good will come of it. And so I make excuses about my mother never having time to see Rose. And Rose never having time to see my mother. It’s a shit thing to do, but I’m certain they’ll hate each other. I also believe Katarina will try to run Rose out of my life, and I want her firmly by my side.
My mother pockets her phone and her eyes darken with displeasure. “She’s a powerful girl who started her own business as a teenager. She’s driven, independent, and passionate.”
All the things I admire, and yet, I know she’s about to turn every quality into something sinister and wrong.
“Working women don’t have men. We can’t keep relationships. We are married to our careers.” She announces each sentence like a nail in a coffin, pounding down the reality around me. “The children we do have are sent to boarding schools or are raised by nannies. It’s the life I wanted, even at the sacrifice of my husband and my child. You don’t want to walk into that, Connor. You’re smarter than that.”
I refuse to stare at the table, to look away from her dark blue eyes. I meet her powerful gaze with one of my own. Her words may affect me to some degree, but I won’t ever show it.
I don’t talk to my mother about my relationships very often, and any mention of Rose usually accompanies some sort of disparaging snort and blasé brush off. When I told her that I was moving in with Rose, she wouldn’t speak to me for weeks. She’d prefer that my girlfriend moved in with me. Not the other way around. I was willing to uproot my life for Rose, and according to Katarina Cobalt, other girls would have gladly walked into my home. In her eyes, I chose a path that doesn’t benefit me.
I had to use Steve Balm as an intermediary just to talk to her during that time.
Our communication reopened only after I explained the reality show and how it can help Cobalt Inc. if I take the right steps.
“You need to set your sights on a girl like Caroline Haverford,” she tells me. I internally grimace, but I don’t let on that her name sends knives into my spine. I dated Caroline. I f**ked Caroline. But it was business. Like my relationship with my mother. Like my life.
Is it so bad to want something real?
“I’m with Rose,” I say sternly. “That’s not going to change.”
Her nails rap on the table, frustrated. Katarina Cobalt always gets what she wants, and this is the first time I’ve put on the brakes, unwilling to give in to her requests.
“Caroline will be there for you. She’ll have time for you. Rose won’t. You’ll grow resentful and bitter of each other. And as years pass, you’ll realize you’re sleeping next to a stranger.”
“Are we still talking about my relationship?” I ask her with an arched brow.
Her lips press in a tight line. “Do you love her?”
“Love is an irrational feeling,” I say. I hate that I actually believe these words. “It makes smart people do stupid things. My relationship with Rose is…stimulating.” I think I’m a sociopath. Fuck. I need to see Frederick.
“Good,” my mother says with a nod. “No need to make this into some tragic Shakespearean tale. At least she hasn’t corrupted your mind yet.”
My mother rises from her chair and straightens her pencil skirt.
“I’d like to meet her,” she tells me for the thousandth time. “Schedule an appointment with Marci, and if you don’t, I’ll call Rose myself. We don’t need you to lie for us anymore.”
Her heels click away, leaving me to picture the impending meeting of Katarina Cobalt and Rose Calloway.
There will be screaming. Yelling. Possible bloodshed.
Though she’s resilient, I’m not so sure Rose will come out victorious this time.
My cellphone chimes and I see the name flash across the screen. Scott Van Wright. Wonderful.
When I answer the phone, I make sure I have the first words. “Scott, how sweet of you to call, I was beginning to suspect you didn’t like me very much.”
“Why would you get that idea?” You want to f**k my girlfriend.
“You like Rose better.” I throw out the bait, testing his response.
“I do like her better,” he tells me. “She’s prettier.” I wait for him to add something crude like “and she has a p**sy” but he doesn’t. Either I’ve been hanging around vulgar people for too long or he’s censoring himself.
“Many men would disagree,” I say casually. “So why the sudden call?”
“I’m picking up food from the grocery store. I thought I’d get some of Rose’s favorite things. What does she like?”
He lets out a laugh. “This phone call is being filmed, you know. I have you on speaker.” He says it like he caught me in a spider’s web.
“She also loves my cock, my hair, my brain, my body—”
“Yeah, she loves you so much that she’s still a virgin.” He must have discovered that from an interview. Or maybe footage of someone mentioning it. Rose isn’t ashamed of being a virgin at all, so I could see her admitting it to the cameras.
“And you’re her ex-boyfriend,” I say blankly. “She has intimacy issues, and it’s not a far reach to conclude it’s from your impotence.” None of it is true, but I hope he airs this.
“Oh, and she loves dark chocolate,” I say.
“I’ll just grab the condoms. How’s that?”
I clutch the phone tighter. “You’re asking for my permission to have sex? That’s kind. And the answer is no. I’m already taken.”
He laughs dryly. “You’re a f**king prick.”
“I’ve been called worse,” I say, my voice casual still. “But I’m the prick with the girl. And she’s not inflatable.”
“I’ll see you at the townhouse,” he says, ignoring my comment. “You’ll be back really late, right? You’ve got work, college. All that shit. Don’t worry, buddy. I’ll keep the girls company.”
He hangs up, and I replay the conversation in my head. He unnerves me more than any other human being, and the fact that I don’t have to impress him makes my lips unnaturally loose.
He called me. To f**k with me.
[ 7 ]
“You’re not supposed to look at the cameras,” I remind Lily for the umpteenth time. She’s trying to ignore Ben and Brett as they film us from two different angles, but I can tell they make her uneasy.
At least without Loren around.
Her boyfriend seems to take her mind off of everything else, melting her nerves to a placated pool.
Lily tags along by my side as I bustle around the kitchen and make a Cobb salad to bring with me to the Calloway Couture offices. I try not to overanalyze why she’s become glued to my hip.
She leans in to whisper, “What if I have a booger or something in my nose?” Her eyes flit anxiously to the lens again. “Or what if I get sauce or cheese or peanut butter all over my face? I’m a messy eater. Are they going to use the footage?”
I set the carrots on the counter and when I turn around, I almost bump into her again. She steps back and I place my hands on her shoulders.
“I don’t have any control over editing,” I tell her for another umpteenth time. I also want to tell her that she doesn’t have to do this. That if she wants out of the show, I’ll be okay. I’ll be happy.
But that’s not the complete truth.
The success of Calloway Couture relies on this show, and the success of the show relies on Lily and Loren.
“I’m going to get over it,” she tells me, reading my expression well. “It’s just new. New things are always kind of scary, you know? Well, you probably don’t know.” She laughs nervously. “You’re not scared of anything.”