Showing posts with label the life of Riley. Show all posts
Showing posts with label the life of Riley. Show all posts

forest story, Part II

The next move is obvious. Prescribed, even. Conceived by some bolder, more seductive version of herself lured from hiding by the intent eyes of a stranger in plaid.

But as she composes the message for his delivery boy, Riley questions her verve. Where is she going with this, anyway? Will she follow through? Does she even want to? The illicit thrill of committing mutiny with Baxter just inches away in the driver's seat is too delicious, though. She hits send.

Tell your boss I'll come drink his moonshine, but only if he does NOT sell my boss that trash can. 

Her heart thumps. Shots fired.

Ok will do, comes the reply at once. Would you like me to give him your number, or make him wait?

Another flutter of inspiration. The tenth muse is hovering close. The Muse of Modern Flirtation.

You can keep it as collateral for now. Give it to him on Friday...but only if he's nice to you for the rest of the week.

It's hard not to smile at the scene she knows she's just created. She can picture the laughter, the teasing that has doubtlessly erupted amongst the lumberyard crew. The proprietor's pleased grin. He's handsome, yes, but substantially older than his strapping--and also handsome--young assistants. Riley knows this will constitute a win for him. And she enjoys giving it to him.

After a pause during which she imagines the colorful exchange between employer and employee, an affirmation of her thrown-down gauntlet comes back: I like how you think.

Riley is barely aware of the ride back to the office.

---

Thursday, just after ten a.m. The optimistic ping! of an incoming text. Riley unlocks her phone.

He wanted me to send you these pictures and tell you he was up all night making moonshine for you.

A kitchen counter. Vials, rubber tubing. A gallon glass jug nearly full of yellowish fluid. Riley ignores all of it, honing in on other, much more interesting clues to this stranger's life. The clean, white subway tile backsplash. An expensive looking gas range. A vintage surfboard propped against a wood-paneled wall. And most curiously, a vase teeming with the elegant stalks of peach-pink peonies.

She stares. They're her absolute favorite. What are the chances? And why on earth? A single, straight man buying himself cut flowers? Riley decides to fish a little, when she does reply--but she waits until nearly 3pm to do so.

Tell him his flower arrangement is very pretty... But the intermediary doesn't pick up on her sarcastic implication.

Are you going to be there when I deliver the beams? I'm leaving here now to bring them.

I'm not, no. Riley wonders whether, if she were, there'd be something for her to receive as well as Baxter. Maybe it's the flowers, she thinks. Maybe they're for me? She decides to give the mystery moonshiner the benefit of the doubt. His advances were much too direct to be hiding a wife or girlfriend.

Impulsively, she continues: But tomorrow when you see him, tell him I just signed the lease on a new apartment, a 1920s building with what I believe are original hardwood floors. Tell him I could use his advice on how best to care for them. She sends a photo of her new place, the richly grained floor striking in the empty space. He might have to do the consultation in person, though. Oh, and he can have my number...as soon as he let you guys go home for the day.  

---

Friday, at the office. Riley's phone lights up with a unrecognized number. She swipes the screen.

The flowers are for you. I hope you like peonies.

She looks at the time. It isn't even noon. Has he really let his employees go a full half day early, just to get her number that much sooner?

I guess there's no point in not admitting that they're my favorite. 

Too bad you made me wait to get your number. They're a bit wilted now. And I only just today got the picture of your floors. If I'd had that sooner I'd have delivered them in person to your door once I tracked you down. That seemed a little stalkerish, though, so I figured I should wait to be invited in.

Well that's a bold claim. You really think based on a pic of my floor you could find me? Lots of old buildings in this city. Either way, here's a better shot. Though I won't be walking on them for a couple weeks yet. 

Riley, thoroughly enjoying herself, watches the phone as he types his reply. When it comes, however, her smile evaporates and her jaw drops, as she sees her street address pop up in the message window. Then, a second later, a link to the Craiglist ad for her very apartment. The one she'd just signed a lease on.

Are we really going to make me wait a couple more weeks? I'm a pretty popular guy walking around with all these flowers.

Gobsmacked, flattered, upended, and slightly nervous, Riley shakes her head. Okay I'm impressed.

By the way, I believe the floors are 3.25" face CVG Douglas Fir. Haphazardly replaced with a knotty pine. 

Okay, I'm *really* impressed.

Good. You're meant to be. Now, when are you free? You can come to Santa Monica tonight and drink my moonshine, or if you'd like, come with me to the forest tomorrow to look for wood.

The next move is obvious, too.

forest story, part I

Wednesday, middle of May. A lumberyard in the valley. Riley descends lazily from the cab of the car into stultifying heat. She winces as her crisp white tennis shoes sink thickly into the grit. Her sweater, a necessity in the chill of Baxter's frigid office, begs to be shed, but the only thing underneath it is a clingy, strappy tank top. No.

Riley allows her boss to charge ahead, his mission and vision clear, as ever, only to himself. Whatever impossibly specific standards he has for this, his latest project, her input will only be shrugged off. Better to let him wear himself out, and give in, bitterly, to some substandard offering--or conversely, be the sole victor in his quest. Riley need only stay out of his way--and his wrath--and she'll live to die another day.

Baxter, knowing what he wants, inspects stack after stack of wood while Riley, shielding her eyes in the glare, inspects the property. Squared-off logs in haphazard heaps. Old wood, deep and darkly hued in chocolate, amber, red, and Riley's favorite, weathered taupe. The beams are menacingly splintered but undeniably sturdy. Grand, even, if two-by-fours can be grand. This is not Home Depot. This is a place for connoisseurs, artisans, and the aesthetically-obsessed, eco-minded design buff. Riley once again gives a begrudging tip of the hat to Baxter's taste.

Something about this place, though. Something familiar and warm. She's just about to puzzle it out when a booming, friendly voice fills the space just to her right. "And who might you be?" Riley turns to an eyeful of man, a great hulk of muscle and flannel and ruddy beard. An honest-to-goodness lumberjack, peeled straight from the paper towel's label. He carries a box spilling over with what appear to be tubes and glass beakers. Everything about his comportment says good humor and confidence, including the blue eyes that are definitely twinkling at the presence of such an unexpected fish out of water.

Riley accepts the challenge. "Me? I'm nobody. He's the one you have to worry about." She nods ahead toward a scowling Baxter, hunched over in examination of a particularly hefty beam.

The man at her side gives her a curious half smile. "Oh, I doubt that very much," he rejoins, but allows Riley to drop back while he greets the customer on his lot. As they confer, Riley's attention returns to her surroundings. To the shambles of a cabin with a wraparound porch, from which strains of Led Zeppelin pour like spilled whiskey. To the cutting table, where two young men, her juniors by a decade, face off across an expanse of raw timber. They, like their boss, are piqued by Riley's appearance in their dusty workstation. Riley is aware of this, and feels a flush of self-consciousness. The flush deepens when she notices their boss, ostensibly in conversation with her boss, is staring directly at her. Something is going on here. There is a buzz in the air that has nothing to do with circular saws.

And in a rush, the familiarity gains a name. Bonnaroo. This feels like fucking Bonnaroo. Good old boys. Sunshine. Music.

But something more demanding than putting a label to this colorful scene is pulling at Riley's attention, and for once it's not Baxter. It's the lumberyard's owner, who is positively refusing to avert his eyes from her. Riley hasn't been the object of such unbridled and shameless scrutiny in a long time. She flushes again, uncomfortable in all the right ways.

A transaction unfolds. Protracted, of course, because Baxter being Baxter has demand on top of demand as pertains to cost, cutting, delivery. Throughout the sale Riley tries to adopt a casual, meandering attitude, as if politely interested in the wood's age (five hundred years) and value (three hundred dollars) but not acutely aware of the chemistry between herself and its vendor. But it's no good. The chemistry is electric, and Riley is pretty sure everyone including her boss has caught onto it.

She fetches the checkbook from the car, ditching her sweater and the last shreds of pretense along with it. Fuck it, she thinks, striding into the cabin where she finds herself alone with a very intense, very interested man she estimates as having at most five years on her. Neither of them say a word at first, as Riley thumbs through the binder to a blank invoice. Then: "Sorry for the mess. I'm making moonshine."

"Of course you are." She shakes her head. She can't help it. The man is a caricature.

"Would you like to come back and try it, when it's done?" He teasingly withholds her pen as he asks this. The two hundred dollar pen Baxter insists on her using, despite her protestations, because he likes how "official" it makes her look. Riley lets the full weight of the man's gaze lock her in place. The air in the cabin feels thicker than honey, and just as sweet. Almost unbreathable. Almost. But before she can choose her own adventure, the screen door clatters, interrupting the flow of honey.

Baxter, ignoring or perhaps truly ignorant of the moment he's walked in on, has another demand. He wants to buy the vintage steel trashcan sitting outside on the porch. Lidded, with ribbed sides and just the right faded patina, it's the sort of charming antique that will go perfectly at his ranch house. He wants it, and he wants to know how much for it.

"Not for sale," replies the proprietor, much to Riley's surprise.

"Sure it is. Everything's for sale. How much?" Naturally, the refusal only inflames Baxter's desire to obtain.

"Honestly, I'd never planned on selling it. I'd have to think about it." Riley is loving this. Baxter not getting what he wants? Delicious. So rare and so delicious.

"Okay well you decide on a price, and have your guy deliver it along with the beam. I'll pay him cash for it then." Baxter, having arrogantly declared a presumptive win, clatters back out. Apparently taking with him some of Riley's verve, because suddenly she can think of nothing to say to this man, this tower of hypermasculinity, other than, "Here's your check." And with that, she steps back outside, flustered and unsure.

The stranger picks up the slack, though, and offers a final parting shot. "If you wanna try that moonshine, you're gonna have to leave me your number." He calls this out loudly, right in front of his employees. Right in front of her boss. Again his directness brings color to Riley's cheeks. Thankfully by now she's found her moxie again, and calls coolly over her shoulder: "I'll give it to your boy when he makes the delivery." She walks backward for a few final moments of eye contact between them before turning away, breaking the spell.

Well, this was fun. 

Riley congratulates herself on some top-notch flirting, undecided as of yet whether she'll pursue the lead. Either way, worth the dirt on her shoes.

Definitely worth the dirt on her shoes.

goats

Riley is worried about the goats. Goats she's never seen. Goats she knows next to nothing about. Goats the sale of which was arranged over the phone, triangulated between herself, her boss, and a gentle-sounding rancher named Flavio.

Flavio called Riley late on Sunday, troubled about the circumstances under which he'd just delivered four goats (including a baby and its mother) to one of Baxter's properties. Namely: in the dark of night, to a peculiar man he'd never met before, who paid him by check. A man who'd insisted on the late-night delivery, despite Flavio's objections. (I'll pay you extra, whatever you want. Money's not an issue. Just bring the goats tonight. Can you do that? Can you drive them down tonight? If not I don't want them. I'll find someone else.)

"It's okay," Riley assured him. "The check isn't going to bounce." Riley told the rancher a bit more about her boss's businesses so he'd feel at ease. "He's weird. For sure. But there are caretakers on that property, and the animals will be looked after." This was only a slight exaggeration of the scarce information she had. She knew Thorne had a few acres of land in Palo Alto, and that there were animals on the property. She knew that at least one gardener visited regularly, and that there were tenants living next door whom Baxter paid to handle some of the upkeep. But she couldn't say--not with any genuine truth--that the goats were and would be fine. Not yet, anyway. But damned if she wasn't going to make sure of it, as soon as possible. Riley loved goats.

Which is what she changed the subject to, with Flavio. A baby! Three weeks old? Riley asked all the questions she could think to, about what the animals would need that Baxter and his staff might not know.

"Hopefully I can go see them this weekend," she said. "I've let Thorne know how much I'd love to visit the ranch, and when I do, I promise to report back. With pictures," she added.

After she'd ended the call Riley reflected, not for the first time and certainly not for the last, on the unpredictability of her job. Yes, her boss could be nightmarishly difficult. Yes, he took sadistic delight in making her jump through hoops of fire. But then: goats.

Goats.

see no evil

Of all the stupid, pointless, utterly time-wasting--

Riley's inner monologue was interrupted by his call. She plugged her left ear against the chaotic din of the bustling toy district and pressed the phone tight against her right. "Hi, Thorne." 

"Hey babe. So what's going on? Did you get the monkeys?" 

"Well...no." Riley took a deep breath, steeling herself. Nothing to be done. It was her fault for getting such a late start today. "The shop is closed. It was closed when I got here." She paused, then added slightly defensively: "All the others are still open."

Thorne sighed heavily, and she felt herself slip down a notch. Maybe a few. This was not the indispensability she was going for. But goddamn it, it was ninety degrees in downtown Los Angeles today. If she'd come out any earlier she'd be soaked with sweat and useless for the rest of her day off. As it was she was already overheated, grumpy, and way behind on sleep.

But Thorne wasn't in the mood to yell. Maybe he was tired, too. She was going to get off easy today. "Alright well maybe she just went to lunch." At three thirty? Riley was doubtful. "Check the other stores in the area and the double back to hers, okay?" 

"Yep. Will do." Riley stopped there. She wanted to say something assuring and competent-sounding, about how she'd do laps up and down the noisy, filthy streets until she found her boss's monkeys. She wanted to tell him that she'd had the sense to call ahead and get the shopkeeper's assurance she'd be there until five, and that when she'd walked up to a shuttered storefront she'd immediately begun hunting elsewhere. But she knew that as far as he was concerned, the conversation was over. Orders had been issued. Time for the soldier to salute and fall out.

She slipped the phone back into her pocket and took stock of the situation. Her assignment was simple enough: find a store that sold or would order the talking, dancing, battery-operated stuffed monkey that for whatever reason Thorne Baxter had taken a liking to, and buy $1000 worth of them, so he could pass them out as gifts. 

But it wasn't the assignment that was troubling her, despite the fact that so far no one in the dozen shops she'd visited even recognized the toy she dangled in front of them hopefully, much less were interested in ordering it from China. It was the inanity of the errand. This was not what she'd signed up for. This did not even remotely resemble light office work. And this was just the latest in a series of utterly random and seemingly absurd projects Baxter had tasked her with since starting. And at some point, Riley was sure, that list would be complete, and she'd be out of a job. Because how much nonsense could one eccentric millionaire inventor cycle through before he got bored and got back to real work? And what would she assist in then? Riley knew Baxter was too much of a control freak to delegate any important responsibilities. He simply thought everyone was too stupid to get it right. How many times had she heard him ranting? Gotta do it myself. Gotta do every last goddamn thing myself. Bunch of idiots around me. Bunch of fucking idiots!

Riley shrugged it off. No use worrying about things that hadn't happened. For now, anyway, she had something to do, and something to get paid for. That's all that mattered. If she could come through for her boss on the small things, maybe he'd entrust bigger things to her down the road. Then she'd be indispensable. It was possible. 

An hour later, however, and Riley had not come through. The monkey Thorne wanted was apparently one of a kind. A fucking unicorn. No one knew anything about it. They shook their heads helplessly, some even averting their eyes as if what Riley brandished were dangerous. Crawling with Baxter's bad vibes, perhaps. Oh sure, there were other monkeys. Plenty of soft, cuddly, plush dolls with embroidered smiles and squishy tummies. But none of the rough, black-furred, mean-looking toys her boss liked. What was it about them, anyway? And why monkeys? Why not teddy bears? Everyone loves teddy bears. Monkeys, though--there was something going on there, Riley knew. Some hidden insult. Some message Baxter wanted to send. You are all fucking monkeys, every last one of you. And I am king of the jungle. 

An old man in a tattered t-shirt and jeans pedaled by in front of her, his bicycle retrofitted with a platform for stacking flattened boxes. The jumble of cardboard was strapped down tight--the discarded shells of mass-produced, factory line fun. On impulse, Riley snapped his photo, and he smiled at her. She nodded back, then marched forth on her fool's errand feeling, for some reason, ever so slightly less foolish. 

---

PROGRAMMING NOTE: Hey kids, how goes it. Listen, if you're enjoying Riley's adventures here then come check her brand new Instagram account, @righthandriley! Expect exclusive, behind-the-scenes content (namely, photos) that you won't see here, plus captions so long you'll instantly regret following! Or maybe not, maybe you're a glutton for my shitty prose.

I'm keeping the account private and capping the follow count off at 100, since I do need to be careful about privacy and I guess I have some dumb idea that I can keep things under control that way. Probably not. It's all probably a huge mistake. But my mistakes have always been your entertainment, amirite? Also I'm not accepting follows from private accounts, sorry. But as long as you seem normal and not nefarious, we're good.

- E

Mia

"She's a gold digger. Plain and simple. Like all women. They just want to use me. Suck my blood. Drain me dry. You see it, right?" He glances at his assistant, but the neutral expression on her face fails to satisfy him. "No, you don't see it. You don't see it."

Baxter jerks angrily in his seat, gripping the wheel of the Mercedes and shaking his head in disgust. Disgust at what, Riley isn't sure. The woman in question, Mia? Herself? All of the above? 

She doesn't say anything, because she doesn't know what to say. This is the hardest part for Riley: resisting her instincts to speak up. To speak out. To disagree. Because there is no disagreeing with Thorne Baxter. Not yet, anyway. Right now there is only compliance. And lots of nodding, with pursed lips to express sympathy. But in her head--well, that is a different story. In her head there is an endless stream of sarcasm and eye rolling. 

Yes, Thorne. I see it. I see how put upon you are. How unfair the world is to you. What a victim you are, with your millions, your endless resources and privilege. It must be so hard for you. 

"It's definitely weird," she says carefully. This is tricky ground. Baxter expects agreement, expects her to be one hundred percent in his corner in all his many battles--but he can tell when she's faking it. Conversations with her boss can quickly become minefields in this way. "I thought she had her own money--" she starts.

"Ha!" Baxter's contempt flies like spit at the windshield. "No way. No, no, no. Let me tell you something, okay? Women over forty? They get fucking weird, man. They go crazy." Thorne screws his face tightly at the horror he describes. "The ones that have kids, that are divorced? They're desperate. They have no fucking money. Leeches. They just want a meal ticket. And the ones that don't have kids? Loony birds. They lose their minds." He nods at his own wisdom. Riley sits motionless, strangely fascinated by his hatred. "This chick? Mia? She's no different. Saw me, saw a free ride."

It all started at brunch on Saturday. The blind date Riley was paid to sit in on, for reasons she is still not clear on. The one with lovely, funny Grant Bloodworth, who set it up. Thorne was especially dickish to her that day, despite all plans to assert herself, to make clear her refusal to be ordered around like a dog. Or maybe that was why. Squash the rebellion early. Nip it in the bud. Can't have the help thinking it deserves humane treatment. 

Anyway, that was the day he met Mia. He really liked her, at first. Riley did too. She was fearless in the face of Baxter's assault. Sassy, self-assured. She met his pushy come-ons with good humor, more patience than Riley could believe, and a generous helping of wit. Spoke lightly of her connections in entertainment, politics. Casually dropped the right names to set Baxter's interest on fire. But there was something else to Mia, Riley could sense it. An anchor of experience that she recognized. Hurt of some kind. Loss. Determination to get back to the top where she'd been. If Mia was going to be used, she was going to use back. 

In the days following brunch, Thorne was whipped into a suitor's frenzy. He texted Mia constantly. Rather, Riley texted her constantly. Handling her boss's phone conversations had quickly become one of her duties. For one thing, Baxter was usually driving, and didn't have the patience to wait until he'd stopped to send a message himself. For another, his grammar and spelling were atrocious. And so it was Riley's job to handle the phone and the texting. Women. Setting up dates. Business discussions. Exchanges of information. Directions for Baxter's various vendors, employees, tenants, and other associates. All in Riley's hands. 

But something went wrong somewhere. Mia pushed too hard, too soon. Tipped her hand. Asked for something. A piece of jewelry. Expensive. Testing Baxter. Seeing what she could get from him. And what she got was an explosion of indignation the shrapnel of which was still raining down on Riley.

"This is what I'm talking about. All this shit. People. They just slow you down. You can't have friends. You can't get married. You gotta stay free." He eases into his words. They are a familiar, safe space. His prayer to himself. "You gotta look out for yourself, and only yourself. You know how much money I'd have if I'd let some wife get a hold of me? If I'd had kids?" Riley knows the correct answer, but lets her boss push through his whole monologue uninterrupted. "None. None. Relationships are just a big fucking drain. You can either have money and happiness in this world, or you can have relationships. Isn't that crazy? Isn't that a trip?" They're at a stoplight now, and Baxter takes the opportunity to give Riley a long, searching look. "You get it now, don't you? You see it?"

Riley looks at her boss, sadder for him than she's ever been for anyone. "I see it," she lies, feeling herself land safely on the far side of the minefield. "I get it."

The light turns green, and the Mercedes drives on. 

green II

The phone rings only once before a woman sounding entirely too nice to do any sort of business with Thorne Baxter answers. The sweetness of her voice makes Riley want to hang up at once. Pretend she didn't get through. Lie and say the number was no good. Anything to keep her boss out of this poor lady's life. But nothing doing. He's sitting right there, watching expectantly as she moves systematically down the scrawled list of numbers he shoved at her within seconds of sitting down.

"Yes, hello. Are you...are you someone I could talk to about goats?" Riley has no idea how to phrase her request, largely because she doesn't comprehend it. Baxter rarely gives her more than the bare minimum of instruction to go on, when he assigns her a task. He prefers to keep her slightly unsure, so that when she inevitably asks questions, he can be impatient with her for not understanding. And so Riley has learned to pay extremely close attention at all times, in hopes of knitting together the random strands of Baxter's desires ahead of his expectation that she fulfill them.

It is exhausting.

It is, thankfully, part-time.

Mercifully (it's the third number down on the list and Thorne is getting annoyed at her poor success rate), the woman on the other end of the line is indeed someone to talk to about goats.

"Wonderful," gushes Riley, hoping to offset her boss's inevitable future rudeness with as friendly a tone as possible now. "I'm afraid I've never rented goats before, so you might have to walk me through the--"

"Buy!" snaps Baxter. "I don't want to rent them I want to buy them!" He rolls his eyes at his assistant's incompetence, and Riley catches Grant Bloodworth politely look down at his coffee.

"Actually we'd like to buy them, sorry. Do you have any to, ah, sell?" Riley has to shout this last, as Baxter has chosen this moment to finally explain to her what it is he wants. (I just want four or five goats to live on one of my properties and clear the grass. That's all. Tell her I just want to buy some goats, I'll pay whatever she wants, but they need to be delivered today or tomorrow. Just find me some goats. Come on, girl!) 

This new information doesn't matter, however, because the woman on the phone has just inquired of Riley where the goats are wanted. And they are wanted some four hundred miles away from where they currently exist. "Oh, you're in Sonoma..." repeats Riley for the benefit of her boss. "That might be too--"

"Hang up! Just hang up!" (Which she does, but only after thanking the woman kindly for her time. Because no matter how poorly her boss might conduct himself in his business and interpersonal affairs, Riley has pledged not to let him rub off on her.)

Grant is first to break the silence following the call. He puts a hand lightly across Riley's wrist. "Darling, I can find you goats. My dear friend Alex has a massive orchard, and keeps several of them. I'll speak to him and then pass his info along to you."

Riley could kiss him. Not for the referral, which she suspects won't be good enough for Baxter (it isn't) but for his gesture of warmth in front her boss. Any reminder that she is flesh and bone and feeling, not some robot to be loaded up with commands and functions. She silently renews her determination to use today's brunch as another such a reminder. Riley sits up straighter in her seat as the waiter approaches.

"I want my usual. The Baxter omelet." Thorne hasn't even given the waiter a chance to speak. "What's your name? Mario. Mario, listen. I'm gonna take care of you, okay? But listen to what I want. I just want the omelet I always get, ask Sally, you know who Sally is? Good. Ask Sally what I get. She knows. Just the omelet and two plates. We're gonna split it." At this he waves a hand dismissively toward Riley. In all the time she has worked for him, in all the restaurant meals they have shared together, not once has she been allowed to order for herself. So this is no surprise.

But...it's Saturday. And, she reflects, I wasn't even supposed to work today. This is my day off. I'm doing him a favor, by even coming here today. I'm basically being a wingman, and he knows it. It's Saturday, she repeats to herself, gathering the courage to speak up. 

"Could I just..." Riley puts out a hand to receive one of the menus the waiter holds. But Thorne is having none of it. "No, just the omelet for the two of us." He yanks the menu out of her reach. She blinks, fast, while Grant orders his own breakfast.

Again it is Grant who cuts the tension. "What is it you don't like?" he puts to Riley, and she recognizes the opportunity to use an allergy, or a strong food aversion to explain why she wants to order something else.

But Riley can't help herself. Months of biting her tongue have left her with nothing the faint taste of blood in her mouth. "Being told what to do," she says dryly. Half-hoping the humor of the remark will carry her safely across the grave she probably just dug herself. Knowing, of course, that it won't. Even Grant winces, splashing his cup down heavily.

"Then you can bring your own money next time." Thorne's retort is barbed, certainly, but there's something even nastier in it. Something resentful. Riley isn't sure what it is, but she supposes it has to do with her boss's need to keep her as low--and lowly--as possible. A king doesn't feel kingly without servants to provide contrast. And Thorne Baxter needs desperately to feel himself a king.

Riley knew it was coming, had walked herself right into it. Still, it stung. They always did, Baxter's snipes. The trick was to shrug it off and quickly change the subject before he got himself worked up to even more anger.

And as luck with have it, a change of subject had just arrived at the table. Five foot five. Curvy, dark-haired, and dark-complected. In a graphic t-shirt (I rock, you roll), sleek black riding pants, and lightly clutching a dove grey ostrich Birkin. A single statement ring coiled like a tiny gold snake around olive-skinned fingers polished in cocoa. This must be her boss's date. Naturally Riley knows next to nothing about the woman, who greets her with a flashy smile as Riley excuses herself from the booth.

"So nice to meet you. I've got to make some calls about goats, and rather than shout in everyone's ears I think I'll just step outside..."

"Goats?!" the woman, introduced now as Mia, exclaims with delight. "I love goats!" Riley catches the flicker of irritation that crosses Thorne's face. Took the attention away from you, did I, old boy? Made my job sound interesting and fun? Have to acknowledge that goats are lovely and lovable animals and not just more bodies for you to boss around?

Riley was glad to have a reason to escape for a few minutes. She took her time making calls, learning about the various species of goats available, leaving voicemails for the ranchers to which she was referred. More than anything she wanted to be able to return to the table triumphant, to announce that suitable, geographically close goats had been found. Alas. When Riley returned to the table it was to declare her failure. Just as Baxter preferred it.

At least the food had arrived. Something to keep her boss happy for a full ten minutes. And, Riley as soon realized, the arrival of Mia was an even better addition to the table. Because Mia--despite every aspect of her appearance suggesting otherwise--was definitely another ally.

green

Riley is choosing an outfit for brunch. She holds the double doors of her closet open and scans the clothing inside. But really, this is just going through the motions. She's already made up her mind. A dress. Something altogether unlike the bland, unassuming pants suits she's worn all week. Something bright and daring. Something that hints at the life he doesn't know a thing about. It's high time he was reminded that she has that life. Outside of his demands. Beyond his reach. Free from his tyranny.

She weighs her options, calculating the impact of each. A sheath will accentuate her slimness, the one physical trait of hers he dares to comment on. (And comment he does, with unapologetic approval. You're lucky you're thin. Most women aren't so lucky. Riley has to bite her tongue not to correct him in these moments. Luck has little to do with it. But of course, everyone's else's success is just good fortune; his, however, comes from hard work and perseverance.) A sundress would be pretty, but pretty isn't what she's going for. Striking. That's what she wants to be. Striking enough to cast a slight shadow over his date, who'll undoubtedly be attractive--though older than Riley.

The dress she settles on is almost scandalously short. Tight across the top, cut narrow at the armholes to show off her shoulders. Playful pleats fan out from a snug empire waist. Mid-weight fabric woven in purple and pink hues that complement her auburn hair. It looks expensive. It was expensive. Riley may not have much to spend these days, but she has always known how to shop.

---

She takes an Uber to the restaurant, a luxury she'd never indulge in herself. But those were his instructions, when he invited her last night. Take an Uber. Black. Take an Uber black. Bribed is really the better word for it. Because this isn't a social event. This is work.

Riley is being paid to go to brunch with her boss this Saturday morning.

With her boss, with some woman he's never met, and with another male friend. She's not really sure who either of these others are, or what their relationship is to the man writing her paychecks. She only knows he needs her there, for various complicated reasons, and is willing to compensate her for the time and effort. So after several weeks of having his casual invitations rejected, he's upped the ante. I'll give you some green. We'll count it as a work day. Just be there at eleven. 

And so here she is, walking briskly down the boulevard in blazing sunshine, to a Hollywood restaurant as famous as the celebrities who've dined in it over the past hundred years, wearing a dress she knows will catch her boss off guard and possibly annoy him. Because she's only supposed to look so good. Good enough to make him look good--not good enough to shine herself. The assistant who should be seen, not heard, and only noticed in passing anyway. The prop to increase his social cache and, when necessary, leverage against the women in his life. Leverage but never threaten, because who is threatened by a nobody?

Well, it's Saturday, and I'm not a nobody on the weekend, thinks Riley. Nope. I'm a real human being, with brains and personality and yes, even sex appeal.  

She arrives before him, panicking slightly when she doesn't see his scowling face anywhere in either of the restaurant's two rooms. If she's fucked this up, if she's at the wrong restaurant... She dials his number on her cell phone, wincing at the clipped tone in which he answers. As if she's already done something wrong. But no, it's the right place; he's just running late. He tells Riley to find Grant Bloodworth, who should be there already, seated at their regular table. Riley has no idea who Grant Bloodworth is or where the regular table is, but as everyone else her boss associates with is either rich or famous or both, she suspects a quick check of Google will show her who to look for.

She's right. Grant Bloodworth is a renowned celebrity stylist. Dark-haired and pale, with the tragic skin of an aging rockstar. Most photos show him wearing a hat of some variety. Riley lifts her eyes from her phone and sees, in a semicircular booth against the wall, a shriveled looking man in a black homburg, hunched over a coffee cup. Bingo.

She approaches with a trepidation that proves immediately unnecessary. Grant greets her before she can say a word, rising to shake her hand and calling her, surprisingly, by name. Either he's got a great memory, great manners, or Thorne has been talking to him about her at length. Riley scoots awkwardly into the booth, knowing her boss will want to square off against his friend from the opposite head of the table. She casts about for small talk; not something she ever has trouble with, but it's early and she's still groggy from a late night out with friends.

Turns out, so is Grant. "You'll have to forgive me, love," he pleads in a charming Cockney accent. "Had a lot on my mind last night, so a friend gave me a Xannie. Didn't know they were so strong!" He chuckles, flashing stubby, yellowed teeth in a genuinely warm smile. Riley likes him instantly. And it becomes clear, as they pass a few minutes chatting, that Grant is an ally. Familiar with Thorne's...challenges. "What's it like to work for him, then?" he asks politely, throwing her a glance that tacitly acknowledges everything he won't say out of loyalty and she can't say out of fear. Riley is relieved, as ever, to meet someone who gets it. Who gets Thorne. Who knows how awful he can be. Who likes him anyway. As she does--in spite of everything.

And then suddenly, as if summoned by their conversation, Thorne himself appears, in the usual getup. Black jeans, black t-shirt, black combat boots. Leather jacket that likely cost more than Riley's sofa. The usual accessories, too. Silky ivy green scarf. Vintage black leather doctor's bag with the luggage tag attached, the one that Riley's eyes go to every time he screams at her. IF FOUND CALL (323) 555-1234 REWARD $10000. And the hat. An olive cashmere gatsby he wears absolutely everywhere, weather notwithstanding. Thorne Baxter cuts an imposing and stylish figure, there is no denying that. Riley now wonders whether it was Grant who helped him get that way.

But her moment's worth of reverie is short-lived, because her boss is already issuing commands, muttering to himself about the day's agenda (Agenda? I thought this was just brunch...), seemingly irritated by things that haven't even happened yet. It's all Riley can do to scarf down a slice of buttered bread before she's scrambling to take notes, make calls, and check Thorne's email for him.

The third guest--whom Riley has now surmised is not only a potential romantic interest but a possible business partner as well--hasn't even arrived yet.