“So, this guy at the gym actually has the nerve to insult me but make it sound like a compliment before trying to ask me out on a date,” Teddy said, stuffing a piece of pie in her mouth. Pointing her fork at Margeaux, she added, “I mean, I work hard at the gym to stay in shape, why should he pay so much attention to what kind of drink I have with me?”
Curiosity piqued, Margeaux asked, “What did he say?”
“ ‘You look healthy’—Teddy mimicked while flexing her arms—“But it wasn’t just what he said, it was the way he said it, M. He looked at my dark chocolate full-fat bottle of milk and then scanned me over before speaking. Chauvinistic jock.”
“What did you do?”
“I raised a brow, sloshed my bottle of milk at him, and then walked away. No one gets to tell me what to do, especially guys like that who want so badly to be on top they manipulate to suit their own ego.”
Margeaux nodded. “I know exactly what you mean. I used to work with a guy that was a real”—she raised her fingers for air quotes—“charmer.”
“Ooh, this is a story I gotta hear,” Teddy said, leaning into the table and pushing aside her empty plate.
“It was a long time ago, no need to rehash the past, and we have a movie to get to.”
“No, no, no,” she wagged a finger, “this is a story I want to hear. We have plenty of time before the movie starts, and I mean, come on, Margeaux, you’re freaking gorgeous with your chestnut skin, long black hair, and grey eyes; you’re nearly a copycat Naomi Campbell. I have no doubt in my mind that lots of people have manipulated situations to get your attention and overlooked your brains. I need to hear this story.”
Margeaux frowned, “Teddy, that’s unfair, you’re gorgeous, too. Curly red-heads are totally in vogue.”
“Don’t change the subject,” she said, flapping a dismissive hand. “I want to know why you’ve never brought this up before. I know from experience that when people figure out just how smart you are, they feel threatened by it. It makes for entertaining moments and, later, stories.”
“For you maybe,” Margeaux frowned in reply. “For me it’s just annoying when people only see me for my looks.”
“True, but that is why you keep me around. I love that genius noggin’ of yours. Now, storytime.”
“You’re one to talk, Madam President of the local Mensa Chapter.”
“Stop changing the subject, M. Story,” Teddy demanded.
Margeaux sighed, knowing that her best friend’s determination would not let her escape until the full story was told. Taking a sip of her Malbec, she took a moment to decide where she should start in the story. “It was the first job I had after graduating from Princeton. The job had been recommended to me by my Maths professor because he knew the vice president of the department.”
“Naturally,” Teddy said.
My heart raced as I rode the elevator toward my fresh start. College had been an amazing four years and now it was finally my turn to pave the way into a life I wanted. There was definitely a mixture of anxiety and excitement in equal amounts. Because of my degree, I no longer had to walk someone else’s dream for me. I may have been recommended for this actuary position by my professor, but I was more than willing to prove myself as capable and apply the knowledge acquired.
The bell dings as smooth doors slide open, bringing me out of my thoughts, and I step out onto a generously spaced office floor with huge glass windows completely lining two sides. I smile, feeling energized by the natural light flooding the space. My eyes roamed for the manager’s desk and I spot the woman I interviewed with deep in concentration, her finger pointing to various lines on her computer. She was the office and project manager for everyone on the floor. Taking a deep breath, I walked to her desk and tapped lightly to get her attention.
The woman, Jenny, turned and then gave me a huge smile. “Margeaux, you’re here! How was the commute?”
“Well, it’s nothing like I’m used to, but I did enjoy people-watching,” I replied.
Jenny smiled. “I’m a reader myself, though I do enjoy the occasional people-watching session.”
I nodded, knowing I would likely turn into a reader once I became comfortable with the different stops.
“Let me show you to your desk so you can get settled.” Jenny moved around the L-shaped furniture and gingerly pointed to the area where I would be sitting. “You’re with the junior analyst for now, but I know you’ll move up quickly.”
I smiled, though she couldn’t see me; the compliment meant more to me than she knew. I was so thankful to have interviewed with a woman that saw past my classically pretty features and really drilled me on my knowledge. It had been a refreshing experience from what I knew growing up. Jenny hadn’t let me off easy either, she had asked me some really tough on-the-spot math formulas that I had to solve in front of her. I was going to like having her as a manager.
As we moved toward my work area, she pointed out the kitchen, what groups sat where, and the location of the small copy room.
“Here’s your desk, Margeaux,” Jenny said when we reached the spot.
My desk sat in the back corner of a string of cubicles. Two of the sides were fabriced in a lovely emerald green where I could pin up some decorations, or likely in my case, long sheets of paper to write out formulas. The side shared with my neighbor was entirely a whiteboard, and the entrance to my new space was completely glass equipped with a sliding door that faced a wall of windows. The sleek, black-bodied, all-in-one computer blended with the black desk. I was utterly in love and I hadn’t even stepped inside the space. I couldn’t help myself, I bounced a little on my toes in excitement.
“I’m glad you like it,” Jenny said. “I’ll go back to my desk to give you access to the different systems we use. You’ll receive a link in your email for each one. Come find me when it’s time for lunch. It’s my tradition to order something for you on your first day.”
I gave her owl eyes. “Really, Jenny, you don’t need to do that.”
“It’s not a problem. Officially, I can’t take you out to a one-on-one lunch so this is my compromise. Thanks to you, there are now exactly fifty-two people in the office, not including myself and those above me. In truth, you’re helping my office budget be perfect.”
I laughed, “Well if it helps the numbers add up, I can’t refuse.”
Jenny gave me a wink and a smile for my horrible math joke before winding her way back through the banks of cubicles to her desk. Turning back to my new workspace, I dove headlong into my new career.
By the end of the week, I was exhausted from the amount of formulas my brain had calculated and processed. A lot of the programs available to me could also solve the equations, but I mostly used them to check my answers. Even though it had been challenging, solving the complex risk analysis problems was my version of Elysium.
Grabbing my purse, I turned to find a good-looking man blocking the open door of my cubicle. I wasn’t really one to notice other’s attractiveness first thing, but I would have had my head in the sand if I didn’t notice this man. His blonde hair, blue eyes, square jaw, and gym body made him look like he came out of a Ken-doll mold. This guy wants people to notice him, I thought. The small smirk he gave me confirmed my musings, and I nearly narrowed my eyes in annoyance.
“Hello,” he said.
“Hello?” I heard the uncertainty in my voice, but I couldn’t help it. Something about this guy was intimidating, and I wanted more than anything for him to stop looking at me.
“My name is Aidan, I’m the supervisor for the actuaries.”
“Jenny informed you were here.” He tapped my nameplate. “The French spelling, too. I like it.”
“Thanks?” I was really starting to get uncomfortable with this guy.
“Sorry, I didn’t come by to introduce myself sooner, I had a big project due this week that kept me busy. Jenny says you’ll be the newest star of the department. Your first week and she’s already singing praises. I like to keep a special eye on things that sparkle.”
I was grateful for my chestnut skin just then since it hid blushes better. His comment was proof enough that Jenny didn’t pay attention to my features, so her words meant the world to me. To Aidan, I nodded, not entirely sure how to respond. He was still blocking my way and all I wanted was to go home, pour a glass of red, make some popcorn, and settle in for the night with my copy of Things to Make and Do in the Fourth Dimension by Matt Parker. The math explanations were really simplified, but I was enjoying the author’s storytelling.
“Several of us are going to Voyeur Nightclub in Midtown Village, and I wanted to see if you would like to join us,” he said.
I was so shocked by his offer that I stood there for a few drawn seconds trying to process such a simple request. I didn’t party in college because I’d experienced my fair share as a teen, and I was too concerned about keeping my grades up to keep my scholarship, so there was a little piece of me that wanted to experience downtown Philadelphia—even if it was only once. On the other hand, my original Friday night plans were tempting as well, though, going out tonight was an opportunity to get to know my coworkers, but I also wasn’t one for crowded spaces.
“So, that’s a ‘not this time’?” Aidan asked with a perky brow and a smirk.
I made a quick decision. “Um, sure. What time?”
The smirk bloomed into a Cheshire grin. “We’re going to dinner first at VALANNI at seven-thirty before we head to the club if you’d like to meet us there, or we’ll be at the club around nine.”
I did a quick calculation of my commute time. “I should be able to meet you for dinner.”
“Great, we’ll see you in a few hours!”
Aidan didn’t wait for my reply but strode away with all the confidence a man has when he knows he’s the center of attention. I had seen a lot of those strides over the years when I was pushed into modeling by my father as a teenager. That alone made me wary of him, but I’d already agreed to go, and I wasn’t the type of person to back out of something unless it was an emergency, but a gut feeling told me to keep my eyes peeled.
Dinner was fabulous. I’d never had anything that was mediterranean-latin and I was pleasantly surprised by the combination. I made a mental note to go back again sometime as we walked the few blocks to the nightclub. I heard snippets of the bass as the doors of the club opened and closed at random intervals. This was definitely a place to not hear yourself think. Just before we reached the doors Aidan turned to the group.
“You are going to love me,” he said.
I noticed that everyone present gave him a starry-eyed nod.
“As a celebration for our newest analyst joining the team, I secured us a space in the semi-private seating with bottle service.”
“Dude, how did you manage that?”
“James, a gentleman never reveals his secrets.”
James nodded sagely as if this had been the most important piece of wisdom Aidan could have said. It was easy to see how someone could get pulled into Aidan’s gravity, his charisma was cultivated to the point that it would not be ignored. Except, he wasn’t the first person I’d come across with this same kind of pulling personality. My dad was a lot like him, and it was why I was so successful in the modeling world as a teenager. How could anyone feasibly ignore the beautiful daughter of the man with a 1000-watt smile? These were the kind of people that made you feel good about yourself because if they liked you, then everyone would like you. Instant popularity.
That realization made my hackles rise. What was I doing here? These were not the type of friends I cared to keep. Before I could step away, though, Krissy—who had taken a shining to me at dinner—looped her arm around mine and began dragging me along. No escaping this time, it seemed. We each flashed our ID’s to the bouncer and wound our way through the crowd, following Aidan to the reserved table. The music pulsed in my ears making my brain rattle. Listening to this music was an instant flashback for me since this was the most common type of music played at photo shoots and runways.
Once we got settled and our group found the rhythm of conversation, I had to admit that this club was pretty nice. I still wouldn’t have called it my scene, but the chandeliers and plush seating made it inviting. The majority of the conversations amongst my coworkers centered around intellectual topics that actually interested me. After a round of drinks, my coworkers decided to hit the dance floor for a few songs, which left me alone with Aidan. A tingling feeling went up my spine as he settled next to me on the sofa, an arm draped lazily across the back.
“So, Margeaux, are you having fun?” He asked, his voice still smooth despite having to nearly shout at me.
“I’m having a good experience.” I couldn’t say I was having fun, but I wasn’t hating the night altogether.
“Excellent.” After a few moments, Aidan added, “Not much for conversation?”
I smiled at him. “Not so much.”
“That’s alright, we need a couple of quiet folks in the group. This ragtag bunch talks a lot, as you’ve witnessed.”
“What do you mean a couple of quiet folks in the group?”
Aidan gave a general nod that indicated the people who had just been at the table and were currently on the dance floor. “The nine of us always get together to do things on the weekends and fairly often for lunch. It makes our mind-numbing jobs more bearable.”
“So, I would be number ten?”
“If that’s how you want to look at it, sure,” he said with a shrug.
His reply was casual, but I could see there was something calculated about his response.
“Why did you invite me, Aidan?”
“Why are you inviting me to join”—I gestured—“your crew? Why not one of the other junior analysts?” I had purposely said your because he was clearly the mastermind. From what I’d seen in the few short hours, Aidan might as well have had ‘puppet master’ tattooed across his forehead.
Aidan worked his lips for a moment before saying, “I’ve tried to invite them, but our personalities clash.”
It didn’t feel like a straightforward answer to me but I had no evidence to call him out on what he said.
The next month went smoothly. I joined 'The Court'—a name I had applied to them—from time to time on their outings, but not always. As much as I hated feeling like an add-on, it was nice that they all seemed to notice me for my intellect and not my looks. At least that’s what I thought until Aidan invited me to a weekend out of town.
“Knock, knock,” he said in time with his action.
I was in the middle of monster analysis and didn’t really want to be bothered, but he was my supervisor, so I scooted my chair back and allowed myself a mild stretch. I caught a glimpse of an appreciative look from Aidan as I did so. Uck, really? I had been expecting that and waiting for it, but I’ll admit the naive part of me was hoping it wouldn’t occur.
“We’re going down to Atlantic City this weekend for sailing and to have some fun. You should join us,” he said.
“I can’t, I’m sorry. I have other plans, and I will not be able to join you on outings in the future,” I replied.
I wasn’t about to tell him that my little sister was moving in with me this weekend. She had been pushed into modeling the same as me and also hated it. She had graduated high school just a couple weeks ago and wanted to get as far away from Dallas and our father as she could manage. My little sister would always take precedence over my coworkers and I would do anything to take care of her. Aidan nodded, but I could see there was something deeper than disappointment running through his mind.
“That’s too bad. We’re going to have a lot of fun. You’ll regret not joining us.”
A small shiver slithered down my spine as he walked away.
Monday came too soon, but I felt good since my sister was settled in her room at our Lincoln Square apartment and was spending today looking for a part-time job so she could start school in the Fall. She had her heart set on attending the JNA Institute of Culinary Arts and our new place would allow her to walk to school. It made for a further commute for me, but it was worth the loss in 30 minutes of sleep to see her happy.
I barely had time to lock my purse in my desk drawer before Aidan set a stack of manila folders on my desk. What appeared to be names of different companies were scrawled across each tab. This is not what I wanted to see on a Monday morning after an exhausting weekend with a massive project already on my plate. I looked at the offending folders for a few moments before making eye contact with Aidan.
“What are these?”
“Some easy analysis that I need done by Wednesday.”
“I’m already in the middle of a huge project that needs to be done by Wednesday,” I replied.
“Yes, and I need these done as well.”
I just stared at him. Was this punishment for not joining him this weekend? I didn’t snub him to be malicious, but the level stare Aidan gave me in return told me he felt snubbed none-the-less. Men like him had such fragile egos.
“I’ll do my best,” I said. It wasn’t worth fighting him, and I knew in my bones that it wouldn’t do me any good.
“I’ll be really disappointed if those are not done. I’ll have to report you to Jenny.”
I gaped at him, but his back was already to me.
I wasn’t able to get the last-minute analysis Aidan requested done on time, they turned out to not be so easy. If only I had known that this would be a downhill slide for me. I was given more and more analysis, at least one new one appeared on my desk each day, which put me more and more behind. It was starting to make me look bad in front of Jenny, who had pulled me aside to ‘chat’ about my productivity. I would be lying if I didn’t say that was a low point for me. All I really wanted was for people to notice my good work ethic, and I was so buried by the extra projects Aidan kept adding to my queue, it looked like I was failing miserably at my job, which in turn was making me miserable. I had been so excited to be here, and now my dreams of showing the world what my mind could accomplish were beginning to crack and shatter.
At some point during my downward spiral, I pulled my head out of my work long enough to notice members of 'The Court' were usually at one another's desks chatting, while myself and others were hard at work for a full eight hours. When I had realized this, it seemed only fitting to deem us ‘the peasants’. Those not welcome in the circle of 'The Court' looked classically ‘nerdy’. I didn’t really like to use that term because I was a total math nerd, but my other coworkers were not a motley crew. They all wore big black-rimmed acetate glasses, had pocket protectors or a pencil stuck behind the ear, and tended to dress in plain but respectable clothing. ‘The Court’ on the other hand wore sleek-bodied designer suits in colors that suited their skin-tones with complimentary ties, shoes, or scarves. I dressed the same as them, thanks to my years as a model, but I definitely wasn’t one of them.
This backward progression in my career continued until one day Jenny came to my cubicle and asked to speak with me. I knew in my gut this was going to be bad, especially when I saw Aidan and Jenny’s boss waiting in the conference room. The conversation went as expected. My performance was bad, I needed to do better, they had such high hopes for me. All the standard lines, which I mostly tuned out. The entire time my gaze kept sliding to Aidan. He was keeping a placid face, but that was more telling than he knew. He had damaged my work reputation on purpose, and sitting in this meeting, one that I didn’t really belong in, made me see red. I could honestly feel the heat rushing to my brain, and I so desperately wanted to lash out and ruin Aidan’s reputation along with mine. I had observed enough of ‘The Court’s’ antics to know that I had the ability to blackmail them.
When the meeting was coming to a close, Jenny asked me if I had anything to say. Keeping eye contact with Aidan, I opened my mouth to deal the damage and an image of my father overlaid Aidan’s face. That snapped my mouth shut. I had promised myself that when I left for college, I was no longer going to let men like him control my life. I was smarter and more capable than blackmail, and I was done dealing with Aidan’s petty revenge because I told him ‘no’ one too many times.
Turning back to Jenny, I said, “No, thank you. Unless you specifically need a letter, you can consider this verbal statement my resignation.” I turned my gaze to Aidan. “Turns out, I’m just a lamb amongst too many wolves. Thank you for the opportunity, I’ll have my desk cleared in the next 30 minutes.”
Jenny and her boss were in utter shock, but Aidan had the nerve to smirk at me. Yep, I was glad to be done with this den of predators.
“Wow, M, that’s intense,” Teddy said as I finished my tale.
“I learned my lesson. I made sure the next job I took was limited in the number of people so there was less of a chance for a click to form,” Margeaux replied.
“Good thing, too. You’ve been at that company for how many years now?”
“Ten, and I still love it. There are only three of us and we get along famously.”
“Your story makes my experience at the gym paltry.”
Margeaux shook her head. “It’s not, Teddy. Anyone who lets power corrupt their actions is wrong. It’s not a sliding scale. That guy at the gym clearly thought he was better than you because he doesn’t consume cane sugar.”
“Well, that’s dumb,” she said with an eye roll. “Of course he probably isn’t, I’ve had a stupid fast metabolism my entire life. You’ve seen how I eat regularly, I deserve chocolate milk at my workouts.”
Margeaux smiled. “Definitely.”
“We better get going,” Teddy said looking at her watch. “That movie starts in twenty minutes.”
Standing, Margeaux replied, “I can’t believe you made me retell that story.”
“Ah, come on, M, I like stories. That’s why we’re going to see this cute rom-com!”
Margeaux smiled and shook her head. At least she was content with where her life was now and that she had a good friend to walk it with. Maybe she could almost consider meeting the prince of hospitable wolves worth it.
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