Chapter One

“Jessica, I want you to help get our intern acclimated to the firm.”

The Diet Coke Jess was sipping shot up through her nose, drops of it landing on her silk Chanel blouse. She should have opted for the sparkling water.

As the burning sensation ebbed, she stared at her father in disbelief, silently ticking off the reasons she must have misheard. One, this was so not her thing. She was the head of marketing, not a babysitter. Two, her father rarely asked her to perform any actual work and never held her responsible for anything. Why her, why now? Three, intern? Derrick Spaulding was worth billions—with a B. His investment advisory firm was small but highly respected, with billions of assets under management. Interns should occupy as much space in his head as sunlight.

It wasn’t possible she’d heard him correctly.

“You expect me to believe you’re interested in an intern’s first day?”

“I’m interested in her project. As you should be. She’ll be doing a case study on the firm, and if it goes the way Philip intends, it will be taught at some of this country’s best universities.”

Philip Ridge and her father had been college roommates. He was the dean of Griffin University’s business school, where the two had met as undergraduates.

“Have Gary handle it,” Jess said. Gary Treanor was the firm’s chief operating officer, her father’s right-hand man and stepson. Unlike Jess, he was a fixture at the office.

“I don’t want her to focus on the side of the business Gary handles. I want you to show her other aspects.”

“Such as?”

“How you and Brooke manage to bring in so many new clients.”

Of course. Brooke. This was Derrick-speak for her sister’s ability to sell anything to anyone, but he was being kind enough to include her. Brooke could sell sand to Saudis and portable heaters to Algerians.

“If she’s doing a case study on the business, shouldn’t she spend her time with the investment managers?”

“I want her to focus on sales and marketing, without which we’d have a sliver of the assets under management that we have.”

It was as close to a compliment as Jess had ever received from him in a business context, and she took to it like gum to a shoe. “I’ll help in any way I can. What do we know about her?”

“According to Philip, she was the impetus behind the program.” The Derrick Spaulding MBA program was a sixteen-month accelerated curriculum that included a two-year nonprofit-sector service requirement post-graduation. It was Ridge who ensured that if Derrick made a sufficiently large contribution to their alma mater, he’d work his magic to get the program named for Derrick. Jess was well associated with it because Derrick’s donations were one of the things she adored most about him and one of the reasons she worked so hard, albeit surreptitiously, on Magnate’s behalf. The higher Magnate’s profits, the more Derrick gave to various causes. Prospective investors interested in learning the character of the firm’s founder found an extensive bio on the corporate website, much of which related to Derrick’s philanthropic interests.

Jess closed her eyes and placed two fingers against each temple as if channeling an otherworldly entity. “Okay. I’m getting brainy, dull, and single-minded. Am I close?”

Derrick offered his winning smile. “Once you’re through with her? Not a chance.” He winked.

Another compliment. Apparently this internship was a bigger deal than she anticipated. “You haven’t met her?”

Her father shook his head.

“Do we know if she has more than the social grace of a hyena?”

“Except for her chronic halitosis and unseemly body hair, I imagine she’ll be fine.”

Jess loved it when her father bantered. At home—at least when her stepmother was out and she dropped by—he proved a great foil, engaging her with humor and interest. Work was another story, where he scarcely acted as though they were related. She could probably unicycle in front of him wearing a gold-lamé bodysuit that shot sparklers out of her bustier, and he wouldn’t notice. She treasured these unguarded moments, wishing desperately they could share more of them. But she’d take what she could get.

“Bring a little Listerine and some tweezers?” she asked.

“And a brush for the dandruff.”

“I’ll put it in my purse.”

“My little Girl Scout. Always prepared.”

Jess kissed her father on the cheek. “For you? Anything.”

 

v

 

TJ evaluated her outfit. The black pantsuit was the same she’d worn to her mother’s funeral four years ago. She had two suits and three blouses, all of which fit more loosely than they once had. Although her internship was paid, she wouldn’t receive her first paycheck for two weeks. That meant rotating through her meager choices until she could go shopping at the thrift store. At a posh firm like Magnate Investment Securities LLC, her clothing would stick out like an unruly cowlick.

The shoes were presentable yet uncomfortable. There was no way she could make the walk from the bus stop to the firm’s corporate office in the unforgiving synthetic materials. TJ didn’t own a briefcase; she’d have to make do with her backpack—yet another thing that would scream of the differences between her world and theirs.

She took a deep breath. Focus on the positive. The opportunity. She had every right to this internship and would do whatever it took to succeed.

At her sister’s door, TJ knocked as she entered. “Wake up, Kare.” The lump in the bed didn’t stir. “Kara! Up. Now.”

From under her pillow, Kara peeked at her clock. “Go ’way.”

“You need to be up before I leave or you’ll never get to school. Come on. Up.”

“I have another hour.”

“Not for the next three months you don’t. I have to catch an earlier bus, which means you have to get up too. Take a shower, eat your cereal, and study.”

“Ugh.” Kara covered her head with her pillow.

TJ walked over and snatched it out of her hands. “Kare. You promised.”

“Okay. Okay.” After sitting up, Kara rubbed her eyes. “I’m up.” She crawled out of bed and gave TJ the once-over. “You look nice. Funeral attire is perfect for a corporate job. Good choice.”

“I’m not sure when I’ll be home, so eat when you’re hungry. There’s leftover pasta and garlic bread. And a little salad left in the blue Tupperware.”

“Are you kidding? If you’re not home, I’m starting with the M&Ms.” Kara padded into the bathroom. “Good luck today.”

 

v

 

After offering a beverage and exchanging pleasantries, Gary Treanor asked TJ, “What do you want to get out of this internship?”

“An understanding of how the firm’s achieved such extraordinary success in a field rife with competition. I’d like to write a case study that shows the primary factor the firm has leveraged to allow it to consistently excel.”

“You’ve given it some thought.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’m not sure it’s in our best interest to let the secret sauce out.”

TJ expected the COO’s question and launched into her prepared spiel. “It could be another tool you use to gain clientele. Something’s obviously working, and reporting on that methodology, especially in the form of an objective study published by a prestigious university, might benefit you. But the firm doesn’t have to commit to anything. I’m already operating under a nondisclosure agreement. It’s up to the firm to decide if it wants to confine it to my professors and me or publish it.”

“Tell you what. Let’s start you in marketing. We spend millions annually to find new clients and educate them about the benefits of moving their assets to us. I’ll have you work with Jess, our head of marketing. Meanwhile, I’ll consider your case study.”

TJ’s optimism was waning, but she didn’t let that fact show. This wasn’t a marketing internship. She was here to learn how to operate a successful business and understand how it differentiated itself. “That sounds great.”

“Follow me. If she’s here, I’ll introduce you.”

Gary started to lead her down the hall but stopped. “Her lights are off.”

TJ heard someone mumble, “So to speak,” from behind a cubicle wall.

“Let’s set you up close by,” Gary said.

After signing payroll forms and being issued a laptop, TJ began filling the time scouring the Internet for articles on Magnate and its charismatic owner. The hustle and bustle surrounding her was as easy to tune out as the conversations she ignored when she waited tables.

Two hours later, she decided the laptop was an expensive paperweight for what she was getting from it. Thin and sleek, it would provide more value as a warming pad for a resourceful feline. Without access to the firm’s trading software and client account records, and someone to train her to utilize them, TJ might as well be reading her leadership book. She was ignored and left without any tasks. If this was supposed to be a case study in mindfulness and living in the moment, she’d missed the memo.

TJ was a doer. These people were supposed to train her, not pay her to fog a mirror. She briefly considered contacting Professor Ridge, but she was supposed to be acquiring leadership skills. The order of the day was action, not kvetching.

She decided to focus on what she knew so she could ask educated questions when the time came. It was hard to argue with facts. Magnate had a stellar record of beating the market. Bull and bear markets provided the overall trends, which the firm necessarily followed, but it tended to best the category indexes by ten or more points. In its seventeen-year history, through which it saw two major market collapses, Magnate had posted negative returns in only three years.

Derrick Spaulding was Wall Street’s golden boy. He’d worked his way up the ranks of the NYSE before branching out on his own and taking clients with him. That entrepreneurial spirit had served him well and brought an influx of interested clients. He defied conventionality by opening an office on the West Coast and maintaining only a small one in Manhattan. There were, of course, detractors on the Street, claiming the consistently high returns were impossible and thus fabricated. Nevertheless, his reputation remained untarnished. During interviews he reminded naysayers that an independent accounting firm audited his firm annually. He had nothing to hide.

A sudden change in noise caught TJ’s attention. Phone conversations muted as a cheery voice crescendoed. TJ turned toward its direction. A late-twenty-something blonde was making her way through the office, waving to some and chatting briefly with others.

TJ couldn’t describe fashion to save her life. An image of Monty Python’s Keeper of the Bridge of Death popped into her head. She would undoubtedly face a question requiring her to know what the hell a décolletage was and be cast into the gorge of eternal peril when she erred. She had learned all she knew about it from scanning magazines lining the checkout stands at the grocery store. But if TJ had to describe this woman in one word, it would be fashionable.

Her blond hair curled at the ends and stopped at the top button of her jacket. She wore a long-sleeve, black suit jacket that buttoned just below her cleavage, which her red lace blouse seemed to make stand out all the more. Her matching black pencil skirt and black high heels limited the woman’s stride to require nearly two steps for every normal one.

That was all it took for TJ to amend her earlier thought. Not fashionable. Airheaded. Watching the woman’s ridiculous half-step attention-seeking performance, TJ briefly wondered whether she’d stumbled onto the set of a reality show where the gorgeous woman chooses her male quarry and leaves with him to fulfill some sort of everyman fantasy involving a hot tub and plenty of naked women.

Jess removed one of two wine bottles from a rectangular box. The label was blank except for the words Red Wine. “Gather ’round, gentlemen. Come see the latest promo.” She handed out the bottle to be passed around. “Anyone can do generic and mediocre. But what do you get when you pair your demand for quality with your desire for personalized attention?” She lifted the second bottle. The label was elegant. “Spaulding” was embossed in gold calligraphy above the vintage, and the distinguished Golden Oak picture hugged the lower half of the bottle. “You get uncompromising.”

The men clapped and whistled.

What Jess didn’t say was how each of the prospects from the firm’s own Pebble Beach Classic would be getting a box, the second bottle personalized for him or her. The accompanying invitation included a unique toll-free number that would allow the answering account rep to identify the caller for a custom experience.

“Golden Oak doesn’t partner with anyone,” someone said.

“Really? Hmm. Maybe it’s a mistake.” Jess winked. She didn’t delve into the details of her lengthy pursuit of the brand. The winemaker had refused to allow any co-branding until she convinced them of the good PR they could achieve at little cost. They embraced her idea to allow each Classic attendee to purchase up to six of the personalized bottles (names of individuals were acceptable but company names were not), which were twice as expensive as retail. Golden Oak pledged the net proceeds to the firm’s university fund. Even if the customer didn’t pursue a relationship with the firm, the only path to getting the special bottles was to call and provide the unique code on the invitation. The prospect would feel good about his or her exclusive purchase, the firm, the winemaker, and the charitable contribution. Down the road, some would become Magnate customers.

Jess never revealed the effort behind her marketing coups. Her reputation was that of a spoiled princess who got by on good looks and Daddy’s money, and she excelled at maintaining it. She occasionally paraded a new promotional item around the office to keep the team convinced that some marketing transpired, but she kept her hard work to herself. When she wanted to stand out, she did so on physical appearance, not brainpower. Female Spauldings simply did not compete for thought leadership.

The men in her office seemed to believe new clients arrived at Magnate’s door due solely to the superior market returns it earned. Reality suggested otherwise. It took brand awareness—the figurative pounding into people’s consciousness the positive results to be achieved by changing investment firms. That awareness required significant amounts of capital to maintain and expand. Thankfully, due to the overconfidence of her colleagues and the façade she cultivated, it was easy for Jess to let the staff continue their beliefs.

TJ heard the group provide several more accolades before breaking apart to return to work. The blonde headed past TJ toward the corner office. That the woman was walking like Morticia Addams reminded TJ of her own funereal attire, and she again felt her socioeconomic status like a tattoo on her forehead. TJ brushed the thought aside; she’d earned this chance.

Stopping at the door, TJ knocked on the frame and peered in just as the blonde set down her purse. “Excuse me.” Blue eyes met hers.

“Yes?”

“Are you Jess?”

“I am.”

“I’m TJ, the new intern. Gary said I’m to work with you.”

Jess crossed the office and extended her hand. “Nice to meet you. Welcome to Magnate. Please come in.” She gestured to one of the guest chairs as she took a seat behind a gorgeous wooden desk with stunning marquetry. Likely handcrafted in Europe, it probably cost more than TJ would make this decade.

“What a beautiful piece of furniture,” TJ said, mindful not to run her finger across its edge like she wanted.

Jess took a moment to appraise it, as if she’d never seen it before. “I suppose it is. A little something I picked up years ago in Italy, but to be honest, I haven’t really noticed it in forever. I can already tell you’ll be good for me.” She smiled warmly. “Now let’s get straight to the hard questions. Is TJ your given name or a nickname?”

Amused by the softball she was thrown, TJ replied, “Nickname. My real name’s very feminine. It’s awful.”

Jess laughed. “Do tell.”

It was TJ’s turn to smile. “Not on your life.”

“Ah, the gauntlet is thrown already. Mark my words: I’ll get it out of you. Tell me a little about yourself. I’m familiar with your MBA program. You must be smart.”

TJ sank into the soft leather chair and ignored the comment. She didn’t want to start off their get-to-know-you by tooting her own horn. “You’re the head of marketing?”

“Or the tail. I’m the only one in marketing, so you can decide which end I am.”

“The high end.”

Jess sat back. “Then I’m doing something right, since our asset minimum for clients is ten million.”

“It must be tricky talking about managing assets.”

“How so?”

“Don’t be offended at the comparison, but when I’m waiting tables, I’m constantly getting inappropriate responses to my questions. Diners often purposely misconstrue an innocuous ‘Is there anything else I can bring you?’ or ‘Can I interest you in dessert?’ as sexual. If your typical client is an older white male, I imagine you get a lot of innuendo regarding managing assets. Yours.” If TJ waitressed in anything as suggestive as what Jess wore, which wasn’t particularly revealing, she’d be pawed incessantly.

“How do you handle that?”

“Politely. They have no right to call me babe or honey, yet they think they do, and I don’t want to negatively impact my friend’s restaurant by calling them out on their improper behavior.”

“And you want your tips,” Jess suggested.

“Not at the expense of doing what’s right. If it wouldn’t adversely affect my employer, I’d have no trouble telling them theirs is no way to treat a woman.”

“I hate to disappoint you on your first day, so I’ll be sure not to tell you that we don’t typically discourage our more politically incorrect clients. They like an audience.”

TJ smirked. “Thanks for not telling me.”

“But speaking of waiting tables, may I take you to lunch? One of the benefits of getting in late is I can head to lunch as soon as I get here and forgo the need to do anything at all constructive.”

TJ wasn’t sure of the proper protocol here. She expected to work through lunch and had brought hers. Yet Ridge had counseled her to be open to everything they threw at her and ask for more. She heeded his advice. “That sounds great. Thank you.”

“Let’s go.”

TJ followed as Jess baby-stepped through the office. TJ kept her eyes on the back of Jess’s head instead of the tight-fitting fabric that surrounded her backside. The woman obviously worked out. And although the outfit seemed designed to garner notice, TJ wasn’t about to be caught checking out her new boss.

As they exited the building, Jess walked toward a sleek black sedan from which a stocky, forty-something man in a suit emerged and opened the rear door. Once Jess sat and swung her legs inside, the driver opened the opposite door for TJ, and she sat with none of the grace of her companion.

TJ scanned her surroundings. The plush leather interior and dark-tinted windows made her feel she was with some sort of celebrity. In front of each seat was a monitor for video entertainment, and the wood-trimmed console between them offered individual climate controls and a smartphone charger. “I’ve never been in a car like this.”

“The amenities become more impressive every year. I could do without the heated door panels and armrests, but I confess to taking advantage of the hot-stone massage feature on occasion,” Jess said.

“Hot-stone massage?”

“You’ve never had one?”

TJ shook her head.

“It’s kind of like someone’s gently poking you with warm snooker balls. Want to try?” Jess reached for the remote control, but TJ stopped her hand.

“I’ll take your word for it.”

“We’ll eat at Donatello’s, if that works for you. Michael Warren Davidson is executive chef.”

“Sounds like a serial killer or assassin,” TJ said while tracing her fingers along the interior’s curves.

Jess cocked her head.

“The middle-name thing. John Wayne Gacy, John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, Michael Warren Davidson.”

“I’m sure he’d be honored to be in such esteemed company,” Jess said wryly. “I take it you haven’t heard of him?”

“No, but I’ve a feeling you and I don’t run in the same circles.” TJ pulled on a small handle in the console and stared as a metal arm slowly rose, revealing a laptop table. “They’ve thought of everything.”

“This model comes with an option for owners of small dogs. They swap this console for a car seat with a safety strap and removable cover for easy cleaning. The airbag goes there.” Jess pointed to the area between the monitors.

“You’re pulling my leg, right?” TJ folded the tray back into its compartment.

“You must be sensing the shiatsu option designed to help you stretch while you ride.”

TJ felt beneath her seat before narrowing her eyes. “Okay, you got me. Fido’s SOL and there’s no shiatsu. Does this mean there’s no hot-stone massage?”

“Now that’s most definitely real.” Jess pressed the remote control. “Close your eyes and enjoy.”

Moments passed in silence, the road noise so muted that TJ occasionally peeked out her window to see if they were still moving. “Mmm. Sold. This feels wonderful. How about we go for a drive and skip lunch?”

“And miss our chance at being poisoned by the infamous Michael Warren Davidson?”

“We could get takeout and eat in here. Die happy.”

“Where do you live, TJ?”

TJ stiffened, the question effectively cooling the heated seat. She didn’t want to lose their surprisingly easy banter. “Maddiston. On South Cedar, near the old theater.” South Cedar was in an industrial area of Maddiston, the city that abutted affluent Montgomery Hills. Most people didn’t realize there was any housing there.

“The abandoned drive-in?”

“That’s the one.”

“Yikes.”

TJ sat straighter. “We all have to live somewhere.”

“Sorry. I just meant that area lacks…well…is it safe?”

“The neighbors watch out for each other. It’s home. And it’s close to the bus station.”

“That’s a good thing?”

TJ eyed her companion. “Why wouldn’t it be?”

“The transients and drug dealers, to start.”

TJ shot out her hand to turn off the massage. She was about to cross a line but could stop it as well as an open palm against a moving train. “People need to get to work or school. We don’t all have a car service at our disposal.”

“I didn’t mean to offend you. As to this,” Jess waved a palm to the interior, “I don’t drink and drive, so when I’m entertaining like I am tonight, I use the service. It also makes it easy to ensure others in my party get home safely.”

“Admirable.”

“Yes. I can tell from your tone.”

TJ’s voice was still too controlled. “More people should use other means of transportation if the alternative is driving drunk.”

“Unless that alternative is a limousine.” Jess’s irritated tone mirrored TJ’s.

TJ regretted her comment. She’d responded to judgment with judgment. Regardless of anyone’s means, she strongly believed no one should drive while intoxicated. TJ’s years of watching her mother kill herself with alcohol informed her decision to minimally partake of it; she needn’t condemn folks like Jess who took a different, yet responsible route.

“Whether you walk, take a taxi, ride with a friend, or use a limo, anything’s far preferable to killing or injuring someone, and if I made it seem otherwise, I apologize. Frankly, as guardian of a teenager, I appreciate your foresight in ensuring there’s one less drunk on the road tonight.”

The remaining minutes passed in silence, with TJ lost in her own thoughts. As the Mercedes slowed to a stop, TJ became aware of her surroundings. A valet approached and opened her door. TJ stepped out onto a busy thoroughfare cordoned off by two orange plastic cones. She hoped the valets on this side of the street received hazardous-duty pay.

Once they were inside, an impeccably dressed host immediately acknowledged them but held up a finger while he finished his telephone conversation. Several couples occupied waiting-area benches, though TJ suspected the majority of the lunch queue was enjoying adult beverages in the adjacent bar until called. After the host hung up, his eyes alighted on Jess and he smiled.

“What a pleasant surprise, Ms. Spaulding. Please come with me.” He pulled two thick rectangular menus from a slot and led them through the opulent dining room. White linens covered the tables, walls and ceilings were adorned in red-and-brown-patterned velour, and wooden dining chairs held crimson cushioning. Warm hues emanated from candles within glass globes on each table, adorned with elegant formal place settings. TJ forced a smile in response to the host pushing her chair forward as she sat.

“I recommend either the risotto or the swordfish, but I’ve never had anything here I didn’t enjoy,” Jess said as she perused the menu. “The beet salad or Castelvetrano olives make an excellent first course. I find four courses too much if we want dessert.”

TJ’s stomach dropped when she saw the prices for the three-, four-, and five-course options. The three-course option cost more than her monthly bus pass, and that was before tax or tip. She wasn’t expected to pay for the meal, but she wouldn’t be able to enjoy spending more for one meal than she spent on groceries for two weeks. Worse, when she’d heard how the host greeted Jess, she realized her dining companion was none other than the daughter of Derrick Spaulding. One of the online profiles she’d read on him mentioned his family. How was she supposed to relax in the company of the founder’s daughter?

Finally, Jessica Spaulding seemed completely immune to the excess surrounding them. Her head, which never swiveled from the host’s lead during the walk to the table, was now bent as she studied the menu. She acted as if she had no notion of how special this type of dining experience would be for the vast majority of the population. It seemed Jess looked forward to eating here as much as TJ did to eating at McDonald’s, which was to say she didn’t.

TJ found herself in a quandary. She couldn’t feign illness because she needed to return to the office. She couldn’t back out of lunch because she’d already agreed to it, no matter that she hadn’t known her companion’s lineage or the destination. Honesty was the only way forward.

“Ms. Spaulding.”

Jess raised her head. “Please. It’s Jess or Jessica.”

“I can’t eat here.”

It took a moment for Jess to reply. “I should have asked whether you had any food sensitivities. But they can accommodate almost anything. Vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free—”

“I’m not comfortable having you pay for a meal like this when I can’t return the favor. I’d offer to go Dutch, but honestly, I can’t spend this kind of money on one meal.”

Jess set her menu down. “I’d never ask anyone to lunch and expect reciprocation. Also, I’m not paying for it. It’s admirable of you to be concerned with the cost, but this is a business expense. Magnate’s picking up the tab, no strings attached.”

TJ shook her head. “I’m not comfortable with it.”

Jess’s narrowed eyes gave away her exasperation. “Is this because of my comment about the limo?”

“No. It’s because I can’t accept something for nothing.”

“It’s lunch. A normal part of everyday business. Someone new starts, you take them to lunch. End of story.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Fine. It’s a progressive town. Pretend we’re on a date.”

“I don’t date.”

“Can’t imagine why,” Jess said under her breath. She was flabbergasted. When did having lunch become such a big deal? Why was she suddenly having so much difficulty with this intern? She didn’t need the drama. Abruptly, she grabbed her purse and strode over to the host, not bothering to see if TJ would follow. If TJ wanted to get out of here so badly, she would. “Victor, please forgive my horrid manners for leaving so soon.” Jess cut him off before he could get a word in, surmising from his wide eyes that he believed the staff had screwed up. “As always, I appreciate your exemplary service and promise I’ll be back soon.”

Her driver was waiting in a no-parking zone out front and immediately pulled the car forward. Jess was so furious she nearly threw open the door but kept her manners and allowed him to open it. Moments later, TJ slid in next to her.

“Back to the office, please.” Jess had done her duty, having tried to play nice with the intern. Now, she’d toss the keys to Gary. He was in the office daily, which was where TJ would be spending her internship. Jess had no need to be involved. He oversaw the financial-modeling and market-research aspects of the business, which were the areas TJ would want to focus on.

She stewed over their conversation. With prospects and clients, Jess routinely steered clear of controversial topics and ignored irritating comments made by those she wooed because most of them liked to listen to themselves talk. She had no desire to change their ways of thinking; she aimed solely to get them to move their money stashes to the firm. It was amazing, the power of her acquiescence to whatever they said. They never put two and two together to realize she let them win any present argument so that they’d feel more impressed by her. It defied logic. But this intern wasn’t a prospect, and Jess had no reason to play her usual smile-and-nod bobblehead.

Still, Jess felt an uncharacteristic wave of guilt. She should have kept her dating rebuttal to herself. TJ hadn’t done anything wrong or said anything disdainful—well, except for the comment about the limo, for which she’d apologized. She had merely voiced her unease.

And admittedly, the teenager comment intrigued Jess. TJ hardly seemed older than a teenager herself. Jess couldn’t imagine living in TJ’s neighborhood or pushing her own needs aside for someone else. Motherhood was not in her five-year plan.

The silence in the car was so thick Jess grew irritated with the incredible German engineering that effectively negated the road noise. She pivoted to face TJ. “My sarcasm was completely uncalled for, and I’m sorry. I’ve never had a lunch outing turn south so quickly. I’ll make sure Gary takes care of everything you need for your internship.” She shifted her body so she again faced the window, but realized she wasn’t finished and turned to TJ once more.

“Also, though I said it derisively, frankly I can’t imagine why you don’t date. You’re obviously smart or you wouldn’t be in the program, and look at you. Your cheekbones are perfection, you have a celestial nose my stepmother’s friends pay plastic surgeons to emulate, and your gray eyes are hypnotic. You could have any man you wanted. Assuming he let you pay,” Jess couldn’t help adding.

“I don’t have time, and even if I did, I wouldn’t be interested.”

“In dating?”

“In men.”

Jess was incredulous. “Did you just come out to me?”

“I did.”

“How is that possible?”

“That I’m gay?”

“That it was easier for you to come out to me than have lunch with me.”

“Having lunch with you wasn’t the problem. Having lunch there was the problem.”

“Because of the cost.”

“Yes.”

“You ax prospective dates based on income?”

“It wasn’t a date.”

“That wasn’t the question.”

“I told you, I don’t date.”

The reasons were becoming all too clear. TJ was attractive and likely hit on routinely, but she had a damnable pride that probably put off potential suitors faster than claiming an STD. “When someone asks you out, do you hand them a job application to weed out anyone above a certain income level?”

“Come to think of it, that must be why the number of billionaires knocking on my door has trickled lately.”

“You do realize you’re interning at an organization that caters to people for whom a lunch like that is the equivalent of eating at Subway?”

“Good to know I wasn’t wrong.”

“About?”

“The fact that you didn’t appreciate a single facet of the experience.”

“You mean the food I didn’t get to order? You’re right.”

“The service, the uniforms, the muted conversations, the fabrics, the art, the heft of the wine list, the window treatments, the menu choices, the view!”

TJ was right. Jess hadn’t noticed any of those things. She’d been trying to welcome the newcomer and instead was being criticized for not being awed by a site as familiar as her hand. Jess kept her remarks as cool as steel. “If you can’t accept wealth, you’re interning at the wrong establishment. We market to people and organizations with hundreds of millions, and yes, billions of dollars. If you can’t stand to be in a room with them, I suggest you rethink the next few months.”

The sedan slowed to a stop outside the firm’s offices.

Jess remained seated. “I won’t be back today. You’re free to leave for the day or have Gary give you something to do.”

 

v

 

With a free afternoon, TJ stopped by the blood bank, which often gave movie passes to thank donors. Today was no exception, and she gratefully accepted.

Once home, she went to Kara’s doorway, pleased it was uncharacteristically open. Kara, sporting the look she’d adopted in middle school of black skinny jeans, T-shirt, and a men’s cardigan, lay on the bed playing her Nintendo. The handful of games she owned was long stale from overuse, but TJ had come to believe that to Kara they were like dog-eared books. The stories were familiar, the characters old friends. Maybe it didn’t matter that they couldn’t afford new games every week.

Negotiations took place over homework and movie selection, and they dissected the movie’s strengths and failings during their meal.

TJ didn’t require too much family time except for dinner, and typically Kara would immediately head to her room afterward. Tonight she lingered, rimming her water glass with her finger.

“How’d it go today?” Kara asked.

TJ spoke over her shoulder as she scrubbed the plates. “Fine, I suppose.”

“Must’ve been pretty bad for you to leave early.”

“The person I’ve been assigned to isn’t exactly…I’m not sure I can learn from her.”

“So, like, Mr. Ferris?” Kara’s freshman-year foreign-language teacher had been as helpful to the students learning Spanish as whistling to communicate with birds. Kara had complained, suggesting she’d learn more from Spanish language audiobooks than attending his class. TJ had agreed, and instead of suffering in his class each day, Kara went to the school library and followed the lessons. She was now in Spanish AP.

“I don’t know if she’s that bad, but we definitely don’t see eye to eye.”

“About what?”

TJ didn’t want to talk to Kara about her exchange with Jess. But it was rare these days for Kara to be so unguarded, and TJ didn’t want their time together to end. When their mom had died—which to TJ was far too passive a way to describe it—TJ had been forced into a guardianship for which she was ill prepared. Kara blamed herself for the loss while TJ blamed their mother. As Kara grew older, she retreated into her games, growing more sullen and standoffish.

Cars were the only thing these days that pulled Kara out of her doldrums, a subject that often put the two of them at odds. Their relationship had morphed into a bifurcated not-parent, not-sibling thing TJ couldn’t describe. Now, their closeness was sporadic. She didn’t know how much of Kara’s moodiness was due to normal teenage angst or to feeling worthless.

For several months after their mother’s passing, Kara, twelve at the time, had often cried that she wasn’t good enough—wasn’t enough, period—to keep her mother interested in this life. Since then, Kara never talked about their mother. And neither did TJ.

TJ set down the glass she was cleaning and dried her hands. Two chocolate muffins had been warming in the oven, which she tossed into two bowls. She dropped a dollop of ice cream onto each one and sat next to her sister, who immediately began to eat.

“I haven’t been able to stop thinking about something she said.” TJ interpreted Kara’s full-mouthed mumbled question as only a sibling could. “Scary I understood that.” TJ sucked on a small bite of the mint chocolate chip. “She asked if I weed out prospective dates based on income.”

“You talked with your boss about dating? On the first day?”

“Not talked about it, exactly. It came up.”

“Did she hit on you?”

“No! God, she’s straight as a pole.”

“Paulina Zeilinski just transferred from Warsaw, and she’s anything but.”

TJ pushed her sister’s shoulder. “Smart aleck. Fine. Straight as an arrow. Broom. Line.”

“How do you know she’s straight?”

“She wore a sign.”

Kara returned the shoulder push. “Do you?”

“Do I wear a sign?”

“Weed out prospective dates based on income?”

“I don’t know. It’s not like women come up to me and say, ‘Hi, I made two million last year and here’s a copy of my 1040. Want to have dinner?’”

“Probably not a great pick-up line.”

“For a lot of women, it would be.”

“Gross.”

“I know. But part of me thinks she’s right. What if I judge people based on how they live? More specifically, their earnings? How does that make me any different from people who judge me based on the sex of the person I prefer in my bed?”

Kara grinned and waggled her eyebrows. “Sex and bed. You never talk sex and bed.” She scooped another spoonful of ice cream and muffin into her mouth.

“Never mind.”

“She rich?”

“As Croesus.”

“Who?”

“Iranian Bill Gates, sixth century BC.” Unless a history lesson related to automobiles, Kara lost interest, so TJ often modernized and packaged historical facts into sound bites to keep their conversations on track.

“She hot?”

“What does that have to do…were you not here for the part about the arrows and lines?”

“What if…what if a beautiful, bright heiress worth bazillions asked you to dinner?”

“How could I enjoy the meal? How could I ever pay her back? I’d sit there and think of all the ways I’d fall short and how I couldn’t remotely give her anything she’s used to.”

“Why would you need to pay her back? Dude. Pretty—”

“Don’t call me dude.”

“Don’t interrupt. Pretty, smart heiress is—”

TJ scoffed. “You can scrap smart.”

“Goes without saying if someone asks you out. But dimwitted heiress is asking you on a date, not pulling out her little black bookie book to track who owes who.”

“Who owes whom. And I can’t accept something for nothing.”

“I’m speaking colloquially, Grammar Police. She wouldn’t be asking you to. She’d be asking you to respond with, like, part of you, not part of your checkbook. She’s surrounded by people who could do that, but she asked you. What if you’re the antidote to her having to deal with all the Class As trying to get into her pants because they paid for some fancy dinner?”

Class As were assholes. TJ didn’t allow Kara to swear. When either wanted to call someone a nasty name, they were Class As.

“I don’t know that I could prevent them from trying.”

“If she knew you were by her side, she wouldn’t care that they did.”

“Fake heiress in said fake situation sounds intriguing, but don’t you have some homework to finish?”

“So she’s hot.”

“Homework.”

 


Chapter Two

“Why can’t she learn about sales? You’d make a far better teacher,” Jess said.

“She’s gay?” Brooke asked, completely sidestepping the question.

Jess pushed the eggs on her plate around with her fork, feeling every bit the petulant child. After telling her sister about the disastrous outing with the intern, the only thing on Brooke’s mind was business. Brooke wasn’t inquiring out of personal interest. “You’re not going to help me, are you?” Jess asked.

“Interesting.”

Jess watched the wheels turn in her sister’s mind. Brooke was hatching some scheme. “You could make her get your coffee every morning,” Jess said.

“I don’t need another assistant on my heels like a Chihuahua. Is she pretty?”

“What does that matter?”

“I want to know if she’s attractive. Describe her.”

“I don’t know. Ask Gary.”

“Come on. Are we talking Grace Kelly or Winston Churchill?”

Despite herself, Jess snorted. Brooke could always make her laugh. “Definitely not Churchill. But not Grace Kelly’s kind of pretty. Not as feminine. More like…I don’t know. Attractive for sure. Good-looking.”

“Pantsuit, no makeup?”

Jess nodded. “With eyelashes that could fan Cleopatra, who needs it? Dark-brown hair in a shortish, wavy bob I’d call contemporary messy. Trim. Tall.”

“Invite her to the party.”

“Why?”

“She sounds just like Muriel’s type.”

If laid flat, Muriel Manchester’s dollars could blanket the globe twice over, covering the Earth’s landscape with green and white pictures of elderly white men with bad hair. Magnate had been trying to land Muriel’s business for ages.

“We’re not playing matchmaker,” Jess said.

“No. We’re trying to show Muriel we embrace diversity.”

Jessica laughed. “Since when?”

“Since always.”

“We don’t employ a single person of color, almost no women, no gay people, and no one with a disability.”

“That doesn’t mean we’re averse to doing so. In theory. And we have our first lesbian. Might tip the scale with Muriel.”

“Even if TJ accepted, how exactly do you propose we inform Muriel of our incredibly diverse practices? Hire Neil Patrick Harris for the evening’s entertainment and throw a rainbow LED necklace around TJ that flashes ‘I feel pretty’?” Though the thought was ludicrous, the mental image of subjecting her father’s typical guests to such a display amused her. It would definitely spice up the evening.

“First of all, she’s an intern. You don’t invite her. You insist she attend. Second, it’s not about getting her together with Muriel. It’s about us being accepting and welcoming, conveniently in Muriel’s presence. Make sure she brings a date.”

“You want a lesbian couple parading around one of Daddy’s parties.” Jess had been at the receiving end of too many of her stepmother’s public smiles that said “What a pleasant surprise” concurrent with the disparate murmured audio that said, “What in God’s name is this?” Lilith would call security at the sight.

“There needn’t be any parading. We’re not talking drag queens. We’re talking you and me laughing and getting along swimmingly with our lesbian guests. Bonus if Muriel happens to notice.”

 

v

 

TJ walked along the side path beyond the courtyard, carrying a Tupperware container and a cup of water. The firm’s offices disappeared from view as the walkway wound through the sheltering trees to a minipark.

Dropping onto a bench seat, she closed her eyes and inhaled the garden scents of lavender and jasmine. Alone in this small sanctuary, she simply enjoyed the moment. The peacefulness of this spot reminded her of home. Daily she traveled unforgiving streets only to cross the threshold to her apartment and joyfully leave the world’s ugliness at the door. Here in this setting, the yards separating her from the firm’s office felt like miles, and she reveled in the divide.

Day two of one of the most sought-after internships imaginable, and she had yet to learn anything. Three months wasn’t long to gain a comprehensive understanding of a business and write a lengthy case study about an aspect of it that warranted examination. TJ had hoped to document the strategy and execution that made Magnate’s success exceptional, but being stuck in marketing without a marketing expert made the task seem impossible.

Another deep breath helped temper the frustration. Lunch break meant taking time out, and damn it, she would focus on this moment outside, not what was waiting for her inside. Breathe in. Breathe out. In. Out. How did she get here?

 

TJ cleared the plates from table twenty-three and wondered whether someone had switched them for natural stone tiles. After two hours on her feet without a break, they felt that heavy. The Saturday-night shift meant more tips, but the work was exhausting.

She approached the middle-aged couple at table nineteen and faltered mid-sentence as she recognized her former teacher. “Nice to see you, again, Professor.” It was the fourth time in two months she’d waited on him. “One might get the impression you had something on your mind other than the bouncing beef tenderloin.”

Professor Ridge introduced his fellow diner. “Deadline’s Friday, TJ.”

TJ addressed Diane, his companion. “Would you care for a glass of wine or cocktail this evening? Perhaps a citrus martini?”

Diane bent down for her purse and pulled a card from a cardholder. “If you’d like help with any part of the application, please call me. I’m a graduate counselor and can provide feedback on your essay, personal statement, and statement of purpose. Whatever you need. And yes to the martini.”

TJ placed the card in her vest pocket and eyed Ridge. “More of the soft sell, Professor?” She had to give him points for tenacity.

“This program was made for you, TJ. I’d say don’t disappoint me, but don’t disappoint yourself. This is a great opportunity, and you know it.”

 

Ridge had been one of the few attendees at her mother’s funeral. He was the only teacher—the only person—she’d told of her difficulties caring for a parent with end-stage alcoholism, playing guardian to a tween, and working full-time while taking night classes. Four years ago, when the strain of her family’s fragile finances had finally forced her to abandon her educational aspirations and take a second job, she visited him during office hours to apologize for dropping his course. She’d broken down in his office under the crushing weight of her obligations.

Ridge had found a way to help. One of his friends owned Zelda’s, the restaurant where she now worked. On the strength of Ridge’s recommendation, the friend hired her. The increased tips at this more upscale restaurant allowed TJ to scale back to one job and re-enroll in school.

Ridge was intent on her applying to a new accelerated program that would allow her to earn an MBA in Nonprofit Management. It targeted the best and brightest underserved students, those with limited finances. The program only provided loan / scholarship awards that carried a service obligation. The loans were forgiven when graduates hired by qualifying nonprofits met the two-year service commitment. Otherwise, the loan became due with interest.

Businesses that had integrated philanthropy models similar to those of Salesforce and Google wanted to be seen as community-focused and socially aware. They supported the program by providing paid internships. Interns would gain real-world business experience and prepare a case study as to the primary element (e.g. supply-chain management, customer service, product innovation) that set the company apart. The university would select the best report to polish and publish in its prestigious Business Review as best of breed, an honor for any business.

Ridge had told TJ he’d had her in mind from the outset of the program’s design. TJ was adamant about her lack of interest in grants or scholarships designed for financially struggling students. Yet she didn’t want to incur massive student loans. Even if she were willing to go into debt, no funding sources covered both student and family expenses. As her family’s breadwinner, she had no options.

Until Ridge. His creation brought industry and nonprofits together, aligned their goals, and promised positive outcomes for student, firm, and foundation alike. For students like TJ, who wanted to run her own charity one day, Ridge’s program was perfect.

TJ started at the sound of footsteps, and when she looked up, her eyes met Jessica Spaulding’s. Tension crept into her shoulders. Yesterday’s exchange had stayed with her more than she wanted to admit. Three months was a long time to work in close proximity with someone with whom you didn’t see eye to eye.

What was it about the woman that was so bothersome, like a stiff clothing tag on a shirt collar that wouldn’t lay flat against the skin?

Jessica stopped several feet away with a wary gaze TJ assumed she mirrored. She tried not to white-knuckle the plastic container. Was Jess here to dismiss her? Maybe that shouldn’t surprise her. Mouthing off to the big boss’s daughter was probably as smart as hiking Everest in flip-flops. At least she was being granted privacy rather than being humiliated in front of other staffers. The kid gloves were an unexpected touch.

Jess stepped forward and offered her hand. “Hi. I wanted to introduce myself. I’m Jessica Spaulding. You’re the new intern, I presume?”

TJ’s momentary confusion gave way to relief. Jess wasn’t here to terminate her. Setting aside her lunch, TJ stood and shook hands. “Yes. TJ Blake. Nice to meet you.”

Jess sat across from TJ. “I’m in marketing.”

“I believe I’ll be working for you.”

“No one works for me. If anything, we’ll be working together.”

“Sounds good,” TJ said.

“I’d love to take you to lunch tomorrow, but some rather unscrupulous hackers have targeted us, forcing us to temporarily close our corporate credit-card accounts. I’m afraid it’s every woman for herself until we can clear that up. That means I can drive us, but you’d have to pony up for your meal. Not very welcoming, I know.”

“Sounds serious.” TJ appreciated the artifice. Apparently Jess had taken her words to heart about not wanting an expensive meal.

“It is. I’d offer to cook, but that would be even more disastrous. National-guard level. We can always postpone if you’d rather.”

“No, no, no. I’m happy to pay for my meal.”

“Any suggestions as to where we should eat?” Jess asked.

“How about Waverley Beach Park?”

“There aren’t any cheap restaurants there. There’s only Le Papillon and Manresa’s. Fine dining.”

“Let’s go to Al’s Sandwich Shop and split a deli sandwich and their world-famous coleslaw. They provide napkins, utensils, paper bags, and cups for water. We’ll take everything to the park and sit on a bench overlooking the ocean.”

“No dessert? Dessert is essential,” Jess said.

“They’ll toss in two Andes mints for free.”

“Excellent. Ande and I go way back. How much will this lunch set us back?”

“Seven dollars. Three-fifty each. Million-dollar view.”

“Perfect. We’ll take my car,” Jess said.

“Is it safe?”

“Doubtful. I’ll be driving.”

“Does it have airbags?”

“Only for canines.”

 

v

 

Once TJ finished her lunch, she dropped by Jess’s office for an assignment.

Jess grabbed her keys and purse. “Let’s go to the Players’ Open. It’s one of the top tennis tournaments in the world, and it’s local. We’re sponsoring it, and we’ve got a suite. I’ll drop you off here afterward.” Jess passed TJ and headed for the exit.

“What will I be doing?” TJ asked, sliding into the passenger seat.

“Getting a sense of how we gain and keep customers. It’s not all about investment returns, believe it or not.”

“It’s admittedly a stretch to imagine having enough money to invest, but if I did, returns are the only thing I’d care about.”

“All our investors have multiple channels through which to invest. Our job is to differentiate ourselves. If we can get our clients to value our services—including investment returns—on a different level than they value others’, we give ourselves the breathing room to occasionally drop out of the top quartile without repercussion because of comprehensive value perceived.” Jess gave TJ a quick smile before shifting her eyes back to the road. “Not that we’ve ever dropped out of it.”

During the drive, Jess shared some of the methods Magnate used to try to stand out from other investment advisory firms while TJ listened. Everything Jess said made sense and sounded far more astute than anything TJ had come to expect from her.

Once they arrived and turned the car over to the valet, Jess led TJ through the stadium grounds and up to the VIP boxes. The suite they entered was spacious. Several young servers stood shoulder to shoulder, ready to do the bidding of a client. A set of rectangular tables housed nonalcoholic beverages and snacks, and each small round table set up for more intimate conversation had a small menu atop it for custom orders, including alcohol.

TJ passed through the sliding-glass door between the suite and the spectator seats reserved for suite guests. She was so close to the tennis players she could see the sweat beading on their foreheads between points without having to glance at the television monitors overhead. Jess joined her for the next two games, and as the players switched sides, she indicated for TJ to follow her into the suite. There, she introduced TJ to one of the two investment advisors manning the event, who brought Jess up to speed as to which clients and prospects had thus far attended.

TJ’s attention turned to a seated ruddy-faced man in his fifties speaking with another man while holding a young server around the waist. Each time the server made a move to depart, the man tugged her back and laughed with his male companion. The young woman was trying to peel the man’s hand from her waist as politely as she could, clearly uncomfortable.

TJ watched the man pull the server onto his knee like she was a child and he was Santa Claus. But these were no reindeer games. He was intoxicated, and the more the young woman tried to disentangle herself, the more he laughed. A quick scan of the room for any sign of someone to come to the woman’s rescue bore no fruit until she was finally able to make eye contact with Jess. TJ flicked her head in the direction of the drunk. Jess followed TJ’s gaze, watched the scene for several seconds, and met TJ’s eyes. She shrugged. TJ looked at her pointedly and tilted her head in a manner that suggested Jess take action. Jess shot back a warning and shook her head.

TJ crossed the room seconds later. “Get your hands off her,” she said as she stood over the man.

“I beg your pardon?” he replied as his laughter died.

“She’s not your chattel.”

His red face reddened further. “How dare you—”

“Mr. Torrington,” Jess interjected. She scooped his free hand in both of hers, shook it, and offered him a wide smile. “How lovely to see you. I’m so glad you could make it.” She nodded to the other man. “Mr. Adams. Thank you for coming.” She then turned to the server and lost all geniality. “I’m still waiting for the drink I ordered ages ago. I’d appreciate it if you’d resume your duties instead of chatting up our guests.” The startled woman looked like she was about to cry. Jess barked at TJ. “This isn’t what we pay for. Please handle it.”

TJ had no idea what just happened but didn’t need to be told twice to get the woman away from the Torrington creep. Her anger, already at the boiling point when she confronted Torrington, was shooting into the stratosphere with what she witnessed from Jess. How could Jess take the situation out on the unfortunate and powerless young woman?

She steered the server out of the suite. “Are you all right?”

The woman kept her gaze to the floor and nodded.

“Where’s your manager?”

“This way,” the woman said with a nod of her head toward the hallway.

As they started forward, Jess burst through the suite entrance and rushed toward the server.

Before Jess could say anything, TJ put her arm between them. “Haven’t you done enough?”

Jess glared, pushed TJ’s hand away, and returned her attention to the woman. “I’m so sorry for that man’s behavior. I’d like to talk to your manager and get you sent home.”

The woman’s chin trembled. “But I didn’t do anything wrong.”

“No, you didn’t, which is exactly what I intend to tell your manager. Can you get him or her for me?”

“So you can get me fired?”

“I don’t intend to get you fired. I thought you might be more comfortable heading home than going back in there.”

“You didn’t order any drinks from me, and I wasn’t chatting up that man.”

“I know. I didn’t want the situation to escalate.” Jess shot TJ a glance. “He’s drunk, and if confronted, he’s either going to deny any wrongdoing or insinuate that you brought it on yourself. I had to trump up a reason to send you out. Now where can we find your manager?”

“I can’t leave this soon into my shift. I need the money.”

“How much would you make if you stayed?”

The woman shrugged. “Thirteen dollars an hour plus tips. I’m still on for three more hours.”

Jess reached into her purse, thumbed through her wallet, and extracted five one-hundred-dollar bills. “Here. Will this cover it?”

Wide-eyed at the sum, the woman nodded and tucked the money in her pocket. “I’ll go get him.” The server rushed down the hallway.

“Hush money?” TJ asked venomously.

“What? No. She shouldn’t have to remain on shift after that.”

“No, but you’ll pretend to blame her so that man can stay without rebuke and continue to act like an ass with anyone else of his choosing?”

Jess crossed her arms. “I said what I said in there in order to do the least damage possible for all involved.”

“No. You said it so you could avoid having me tell him to his face that his behavior is unacceptable.”

“He’s a client.”

“I’ve no doubt,” TJ spat.

“I see. You told me yesterday you accept certain objectionable behavior because you don’t want to negatively affect your friend’s restaurant. But I can’t do the same.”

TJ snorted. “It’s not the same thing at all. Your friend Torrington was physically assaulting the poor girl. That goes well beyond sexist comments.”

“Assault’s a bit hyperbolic, isn’t it? They’re in a public place. Torrington doesn’t get violent or touch in places he shouldn’t.”

TJ couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “He does this repeatedly?”

Jess sighed. She dug through her purse and drew out her office keys and valet ticket. “You’re here to learn what makes businesses succeed. The time will come when you’ll have to decide whether to show a prestigious client the door due to bad behavior or find a way to live with it. If you prefer to leave, take my car back to the office. I’ll finish up here and either have one of the guys drive me or take a cab.”

TJ stared at the objects in her palm. They hadn’t been here long, she hadn’t gotten much of a sense of any of the marketing aspects of the event, she was once again aware of a rift between Jess and her, and Jess was right. She was here to learn, and she’d have to handle sticky situations with donors.

Jess closed TJ’s hand over the keys. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” With that, Jess disappeared into the suite.

TJ tried to get her head into a more conciliatory space before following. She found Jess laughing with Torrington and Adams, sitting close to Torrington as if they were old friends. Occasionally Jess would swat at Torrington’s arm in a flirtatious manner, which sent TJ’s blood pressure skyward.

When the manager arrived, TJ handled it herself, relaying to him what had happened, apologizing for their client, and informing him that his server handled the situation admirably. She didn’t add that the client hadn’t even had so much as his wrist slapped. Well, that wasn’t exactly true. He was getting his wrist slapped playfully by a beautiful blonde who seemed to have regressed into some caricature of herself, the way she’d been when she arrived at the office yesterday.

TJ spent much of the next hour mingling but found she desired to remain in earshot of Jess. Jess mostly giggled, smiled, nodded, and gaily swatted. She asked questions the men would answer jovially and, as if they thought they were charming and brilliant enough to carry the conversation, didn’t bother asking Jess’s input on anything. Jess acted as if there was nowhere else she’d rather be. This persona was a stark contrast to the woman with whom TJ had shared the car ride over. A game-show line popped into her head: Will the real Jessica Spaulding please stand up?

After Torrington departed, TJ and Jess returned to the car. Jess turned on the radio after taking TJ’s hint she wasn’t in the mood for conversation. Halfway through the forty-minute drive, Jess lowered the music and broke the silence between them. “I feel as though I kicked your puppy.”

TJ laughed, despite herself. “That was random.”

“You wanted a different outcome.”

The insightful remark surprised TJ. “Yes.”

“You wanted to punch his lights out.”

TJ laughed mirthlessly. “Yes.”

“And mine.”

“Briefly.”

“At least you’re honest. Still angry enough not to talk to me?”

“I’m not angry.”

“You’re disappointed,” Jess said.

“I’m not naive. I’ve been in the service industry long enough to know how these things shake out.”

“Then what’s bothering you?”

What was bothering her? That Torrington consistently got away with his unseemly pawing of a young woman was par for the course. She hadn’t expected anything to the contrary. It had bothered her that Jess had been initially so flippant about it, shrugging when TJ brought it to her attention. Although TJ silently acknowledged that the server wasn’t being assaulted, it didn’t mean the sexual harassment should have been tolerated. As the most senior company representative in attendance, Jess should have stepped in immediately. Still, Jess had inserted herself directly into the line of fire afterward, allowing herself to be the target of Torrington’s advances until he retired for the day. Moreover, Jess had quickly defused the potentially volatile situation TJ was stirring up, summarily extracting the server from her plight without harming Magnate’s relationship with its client. As disgusting as Torrington’s behavior was, it wasn’t Jess’s fault that his race, gender, and money allowed him to get away with it.

What was bothering her was her confusion about the woman seated next to her. Jess had as many riches as Fort Knox, part of the nation’s uber wealthy that got away with exactly the kind of unforgivable behavior Torrington displayed. Yet she was approachable and unconceited. She was also a beautiful woman. Had she the smarts to go with it, Jess would be quite an attractive package. Certainly she’d shown flares of intelligence, but they were enmeshed among great swaths of doltishness. It was like being around Mister Ed: when you were alone with him, he was precocious; when others were around, he was simply a horse. TJ didn’t appreciate feeling so disoriented around her and lashed out unfairly.

“We’re not friends, Jess. You don’t have to ask me what’s wrong.”

Jess nodded slowly. After a minute, she turned up the volume of the stereo.

TJ inwardly kicked herself for her childish reply. Jess was being thoughtful, and TJ was pushing her away because she couldn’t neatly fit Jess into her rich-girl stereotype. She switched off the music. Before she could apologize, Jess cut her off.

“My father’s having a little soiree in a couple weeks. Saturday the ninth. You’re invited.” Jess’s tone was as warm as frostbite, belying the overture. TJ supposed she deserved it.

“Work-related?”

“Always.”

“A party full of Torringtons. Lovely.”

“If you intend to run a nonprofit one day, you’d better get used to schmoozing. Even if you have a development director, you’ll be expected to press the flesh.”

“I don’t expect Magnate’s clientele to be the kind of folks I’ll be dealing with in the future.”

“Don’t be naive. One day you’ll be soliciting donations. That means you’ll need to get comfortable talking to people with money. Lots of it.”

“Employees need time off with their families. I don’t plan to be the type of employer who requires night and weekend…” TJ stopped short. The set to Jess’s mouth suggested no latitude. TJ inhaled and then exhaled deeply, trying to keep calm. “You’re requiring my attendance?”

“I’m inviting you to a party and giving you plenty of notice,” Jess said evenly.

But Jess held no cards. “Magnate needs me to be successful in my internship so I’ll be hired. Otherwise your idyllic inaugural graduate-program statistics will go up in flames. I’ll pass.”

Jess regarded her for as long as she could before endangering them on the road. “Percentages, not individuals, matter. You may think you, specifically, do, but you don’t. You won’t be able to secure any kind of recommendation from us. Yes, it would be ideal if you succeed here, but the MBA program will do so regardless.”

TJ studied Jess, who’d gone from solicitous to Queen’s Guard frigid in seconds. She owned to causing the change. “What I said before, about us not being friends, was uncalled for. I’m sorry. You confuse me, which makes me uncomfortable. When you asked what was bothering me, that’s the answer. Please accept my apology.”

Seconds ticked by with only the music playing in glorious surround sound. Standard road noise was apparently something the wealthy could opt out of on their vehicles. TJ wondered what the option cost.

Belatedly, Jess replied. “Apology accepted. Thank you for being honest. What exactly confuses you? I’m not particularly complicated.”

TJ snorted. “First of all, you’re a woman. All women are complicated. It’s in the handbook.”

“There’s a handbook?”

“Lost in the Great Flood, unfortunately. Never made it onto the ark.”

Jess tsked. “Could’ve come in handy.”

“You’re telling me.”

“Okay, I’m complicated. But confusing?”

“You’re different when we’re alone.” Gone was TJ’s lighthearted tone.

“In what way?”

TJ wanted to say, “Smarter and more genuine,” but that would be akin to telling Jess she was otherwise stupid and shallow. She wasn’t at all sure-footed in this conversation. “More yourself.” It was a shot in the dark. TJ knew the real Jessica Spaulding as well as someone in a grocery checkout stand knows the true lives of the celebrities splashed across the entertainment magazines.

Jess frowned. “My life’s a dichotomy. At least usually. I’m either by myself or in a work setting surrounded by others. I’m not used to being shadowed.” Jess drummed her fingers on the steering wheel for several seconds. Then she flicked her eyes to TJ and offered a smile. “You’re throwing me off my game.”

It was a cliché, but TJ sensed truth in the statement. Was Jess used to playing a cunning game when she wasn’t alone? Did she purposely affect simplemindedness when in company? If so, why? “How long have you been playing it?”

“Turn of phrase.”

TJ let it go for now. “Can we get back to this soiree matter?”

“Sure, though your apology doesn’t buy you a get-out-of-jail-free card.”

“I don’t really do dresses,” TJ admitted.

“It’s black tie. That includes tuxedos. Rent one and expense it.”

“You want me to wear a tuxedo to this shindig?” TJ couldn’t have heard correctly. “You realize that could be construed as my being gay?”

“What does being gay have to do with wearing a tux? I have a tux. In fact, I have two. Gucci and Burberry.”

“Will you be wearing one?”

“No. But there’s no reason you shouldn’t.”

TJ mulled this over. Something didn’t quite fit, like a woman trying to shimmy into her wedding dress on her twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. “Okay, what gives? I imagine my wearing a tux to this affair would go over like Ford’s pardon of Nixon.”

Jess sighed. “Muriel Manchester. Heard of her?”

“No.”

“One of twenty-three female CEOs in the Fortune 500 and one of only three out executives among them. She’s worth several billion, and we’ve been pursuing her for years since she travels in my parents’ social circle. She insists the firm’s an all-boys network and refuses to give us the time of day until we embrace diversity in the workplace. We want to show her we’re not like that, or if we were, we’ve changed.”

TJ gaped. “Have you looked around the office?”

Jess bit her lower lip. “I know.”

“One lesbian staffer isn’t going to change her mind.”

“Probably not.”

“Then what’s the point?”

“One point five percent annually of billions in assets under management.”

TJ tapped her fingers against the armrest. “I’d have to bring a date in order to make it perfectly obvious.”

“Yes.”

“I don’t have anyone to ask.”

“I don’t imagine you’ll have any trouble,” Jess said.

TJ was oddly pleased by the notion that Jess thought so. While it was true TJ wasn’t usually turned down, she rarely did the asking. There weren’t enough hours in the day for dating. “Even if that were true, it’s not dinner and a movie. Getting gussied up for a party with a group of strangers isn’t first-date material.”

“Ask a friend. No one would ever know she’s not a real date.”

TJ wondered how much to divulge. During the years of her mother’s decline, after she’d moved back to help care for Kara, she’d lost touch with most of her friends. Long hours working and studying left little room for downtime, which she willingly allotted to her sister. Though she missed her friends, there was no contest when it came to being there for Kara versus having a social life.

“The idea is to prove to this Muriel Manchester, if she happens to notice, that the Spaulding clan is perfectly comfortable hanging out with homosexuals?” TJ asked.

“Yes.”

“Are you?”

Jess was taken aback. “Of course I am. How can you even ask me that?”

“Not you. Your family. As a family-run business, your family sets the corporate culture.”

It was a question Jess struggled with, especially as gay rights remained at the forefront of federal and state news, from marriage to marriage licenses to bathroom utilization to faith-based discrimination. If Derrick and Lilith knew any gay people besides Muriel, they didn’t mention it. On more than one social occasion, Jess had overheard derisive comments made by her stepmother’s friends on the subject of gay marriage. Her stepmother never corrected them. Gary never said anything bad about anyone except for their attire. Brooke said mean things about everyone. Jess had never heard her father bad-mouth gays, but Muriel had a point: Magnate was hardly a model of anti-discrimination practices in the workplace.

Jess blew out a breath. “I don’t know.” Whatever reaction TJ was set to give, Jess wanted to be honest with her.

After some deliberation, TJ asked, “Are you bringing a date?”

“I am.” Jess infused the comment with as much excitement as she could muster. She wondered if it was convincing.

“Someone special?”

“Yes.” It was a lie. Chad Astor was a known quantity. They dated occasionally, Chad always wanting more than Jess was willing to give. But as something of a player, he didn’t pressure her because he could readily find women who were charmed by his good looks and moonstruck over his fortune. The fact that he was an Astor shot him straight to the top of Lilith’s list of suitors for Jess. Too bad his brain was two sizes too small for his opinions. He wasn’t an awful person and could be fun at times. Best of all, as far as Jess was concerned, he was low maintenance. They mutually used each other to attend various social engagements when the other was available.

“Okay.”

Jess heard the disbelief in TJ’s answer, turning it into two syllables and lilting the “y” upward.

“You don’t even notice when you do it, do you?” TJ asked.

“Do what?”

“Slide into your public persona.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“The way you said, ‘I am’ and ‘Yes.’ It’s as if you’re trying to believe what you’re telling yourself.”

“You don’t know me well enough to make that kind of statement.”

“Fair enough. How would it go over with your family if you brought a woman to the party?”

“Everyone including Muriel knows I date men. She’d see through it immediately. It would be so obviously platonic, what would it accomplish?”

“Sorry. What I mean is, for the sake of argument, pretend you actually wanted to date a woman. How would it go over with your family?”

Jess deliberated. “I don’t know. My parents’ friends are fairly conservative, and my stepmother’s all about what people think. She’d freak out about what it would mean to her reputation, and my father would probably defer to her in terms of how to handle it. I think they’d be disappointed.”

And there it was. It wasn’t until she’d said it aloud that Jess hit on the truth. Her parents were homophobic—at least Lilith was. And Jess didn’t have the backbone to stand up to it. She felt her face flush with shame. Would TJ notice? Thankfully the interior of the car was fairly dark.

“That’s not an uncommon parental response, unfortunately. But at the risk of downplaying umpteen million dollars, the more important question isn’t what Muriel thinks of Magnate, but whether my date and I will be sending a truthful message. If there’s no will on your family’s part for substantive change regarding diversity in the workplace, it’s…artificial.”

Now Jess felt like a pimp as well as a spineless drudge. She pulled into Magnate’s parking lot. “I’m sorry I mentioned it. It was selfish and unfair of me to ask. Rest assured you’re under no obligation to attend.”