I’ve had job interviews that felt like a matter of life and death before, but this one actually was.
The elevator shared none of my fears and shot skyward. I watched the golden numbers light up, one by one, ignoring the butterflies trying to start a dust devil in my empty stomach. In typical Los Angeles fashion, even the damn elevator was more glamorous than me.
I patted my unruly, shoulder-length hair—a nervous habit I’d developed over twenty-nine years of experiencing it having a mind of its own. There was no mirror to check it in, so patting would have to do.
I patted at it some more.
The nagging fear I might be underdressed rose with every floor I passed.
Twenty-three lit up, and the doors slid open with a quiet whoosh, reminding me of one of Aunt Alice’s disapproving sighs. Aunt Alice and her perfect children never had problems getting their hair to behave.
I stepped out into the silent, insulated corridor and checked the note I’d written on my left palm hours earlier when my handler had called to set up the meeting. The ink had faded from four bathroom breaks in the interim, but I could just make it out: 2317. The door I needed. I walked until I found it then made sure my shaking hand gave it a firm, audible knock.
I took a moment to steel myself. I was about to meet my first potential client. If he hired me, I would risk my life to protect him.
If he didn’t hire me, maybe I could talk him into pushing me down the elevator shaft on the way out.
I shouldered past the heavy door and stepped into a room that looked like it had been plucked from a European design magazine, complete with a gorgeous view through the floor-to-ceiling windows and a sleek rosewood desk that had nothing on it but the token MacBook Pro. I fought back a smirk. Where did this guy keep his stuff?
The man in question was sitting behind the desk, surveying me with a cool expression. He looked to be in his mid- to late-thirties, but in the sexist way of the world, the lines on his face made him seem distinguished. His dark hair was a smidge past buzz-cut length and struck an incongruous note, hinting he was more practical than the office suggested. My gaze dropped from his hair down to his eyes. They were the stern gray of an overcast wintry morning—the likes of which I hadn’t seen since moving to California—and just as inexorable. The clean-shaven square jaw and broad shoulders did not soften his image.
No, there was nothing soft about this potential client, and he didn’t look as if he needed my protection either—a notion intensified by the fact that my knees were wobbling and his weren’t. I told myself it was interview jitters and had nothing to do with the way his eyes were roaming over me.
Or my fleeting wish that it was his hands doing the roaming.
He did not invite me to sit, and I wondered if this was so he could gauge my competence level by my traitorous knees. I sat down anyway, lifted my chin, and put on my best impression of professional indifference.
My fear had been warranted; I was underdressed. The conservative navy-blue dress and heels I’d chosen to make the most of the slim build, blue eyes, and pale skin I’d inherited from my mother seemed drab compared to his sharp, tailored suit. Sure, I’d inherited the dress and shoes from my mother too, but I had been hoping they were old enough to pass for vintage.
By the time his eyes finished their roaming, his mouth had formed a hard line.
I forced myself to meet his gaze.
“Isobel Avery, I take it?” he asked.
He didn’t react to my Australian accent. Some Americans found it charming. My potential client wasn’t one of them.
“What experience do you have?”
I resisted the urge to lick my lips before answering, leaving me acutely aware of how dry they were.
“I’ve been selected for you by the Taste Society,” I said. “That’s as much as you need to know.”
In other words, none, zilch, nada. I’d just finished eight months of intensive training, and aside from that, I was as wet behind the ears as a newborn hippopotamus.
This job would either be my saving grace or the final rut in a long road of potholes. If I tripped and fell, I would lie and die where I landed, and they could use the shallow depression as the beginnings of my grave—since I sure didn’t have enough money for a proper burial.
One step at a time, I told myself. First get the job, then concentrate on whether you can pull it off.
I stared at him, willing him to say yes.
“You’ll have to do, I suppose,” he said.
I let out the breath I was holding. It wasn’t the most affirming job offer I’d ever received, but desperation is a wonderful substitute for rose-tinted glasses.
He stood up and withdrew two envelopes from his inner breast pocket. I caught a whiff of cold, biting citrus and sun-warmed leather as he handed them to me. They were toasty from being against his chest, and, for a brief second, I imagined slipping my hand under his jacket to the place they’d vacated.
I needed to get out more.
“The first envelope is from the Taste Society,” he said. “They asked me to give it to you if I approved you for the job. You’ll start at breakfast tomorrow. Before that, have my stylist give you a makeover.” He scanned me again. “A big one.”
He didn’t pause to let the insult sink in. “The stylist’s number and my schedule are in the other envelope.”
“Anything else?” I asked.
“Get a tan.”
“Sorry, I don’t tan.” Also compliments of my redheaded mother.
“You do if I say so, sweetheart. You’re in LA now, and I’ve got a reputation to maintain.”
Ugh. Sweetheart. “No, I mean my skin goes bright red, then white again. So your options are beetroot or potato.”
“It’s called a spray tan.”
“I’m allergic,” I lied. He’d already given me the envelopes, and I figured it’d do him good to broaden his horizons. I smiled sweetly. “So, if it’s all right with you, I’m gonna go ahead and live to a ripe old age as a potato.”
I couldn’t tell if the barely perceptible shift of his eyebrows was from anger or amusement. “You chose an interesting profession for that.”
I brushed aside his comment and headed for the exit. After all, recruitment had told me the job wouldn’t affect my chances of longevity too much, and despite rumors to the contrary, I was taking their word for it.
I was broke, not suicidal.
In a last-ditch effort to resuscitate my dreams of leaving a good impression, I paused at the heavy door and gave my new client a wave. “See you tomorrow.”
He didn’t reply, but when I glanced back, I saw his contempt for my appearance hadn’t stopped his eyes from following my ass on the way out.