The Price of Scandal
The south Florida humidity hit me like a hot, sweaty fist the second my heels touched the sidewalk in front of my office building. It was a little early for swelter, even by Miami’s standards.
Between the mosquitos, the lizards, the worst drivers to ever get behind the wheel of a vehicle, and the oppressive heat, Miami had a natural defense system built in against people who didn’t belong here.
I, however, belonged.
My mother had lobbied for a more respectable address, and my father, a Miami native, had eventually compromised with the family penthouse in Manhattan for the summer months. But my heart remained firmly attached to the neon lights and swaying palms.
“Thanks, Jane. I should be ready to head to lunch by one,” I told my assistant slash driver slash occasional security detail. Jane was shorter than my five feet seven by enough inches that I towered over her in heels. Free from the demands of permanent public scrutiny, she consistently opted for sensible sneakers or boots and wore her dark hair in a tight bun. A nod to her time in the Marines.
She dated like it was a competitive sport and dabbled in adventure sports on her days off.
Sometimes I wished I’d been born a Jane instead of an Emily.
“Need me to text you fifty-six times to remind you, boss?” she quipped, closing the door of the Range Rover behind me.
I tapped my coffee to hers. “I think I can manage,” I said dryly. “Now, go do whatever it is a Jane of all trades does when she’s not babysitting me.”
Her brown eyes lit up. “I could squeeze in a breakfast hookup. Or a workout. Or maybe I’ll just drive around and yell at people out the window,” she mused.
I grimaced behind my sunglasses. Jane had a freedom that I never would. And I wouldn’t know what to do with it even if I had it.
The air conditioning in the marble lobby fought a never-ending battle against the heat outside. Nodding to the security desk, I went directly to the elevator.
I checked my emails again on my way to the sixty-second floor. My day had started hours before my arrival at work. I’d already taken care of the “urgents” and “priorities” that cropped up during my five hours of sleep.
But there were always more.
The glass doors with ‘Flawless by Emily Stanton’ etched in gold script slid open to greet me.
“Good morning, Ms. Stanton. Divine dress,” the receptionist said. At twenty-four, she was a breathtaking beauty who wanted a foot in the door at Flawless more than she wanted attention for her looks. I liked that about her, and once her eighteen months on the front desk were up, I’d be happy to move her into marketing or research or wherever her summa cum laude University of Miami heart desired.
“Morning, Rosario,” I said with a wave as I continued past the desk.
The Flawless offices were sophisticated and feminine. Photos of women with unlined, dewy faces decorated the ivory walls in heavy silver and gold frames. The sofas were sleek, creamy linen. Vases of fresh white and pearly pink flowers were delivered twice a week. The carpet, a luxurious cream cloud of it, cushioned busy feet in stilettos.
There were mirrors everywhere for discreet lipstick and teeth checks. And a reminder of why we were occupying the top floor of one of the most exclusive buildings in the Miami skyline. We trended female on our staff and not just because we sold the world’s most effective wrinkle reducer.
Flawless was my baby. My legacy. My reputation. To others, my company was a billion-dollar game-changer. To me, it was my life. And I hired people who would be invested in the jobs I paid them handsomely to perform.
I passed two conference rooms full of people I employed who were working on ways to make more money on the products we developed. At this level, I knew all of their names. But there were hundreds more in distribution, sales, and, of course, research and development.
It didn’t keep me up at night as much as it had. The ever-present responsibility of employees. People and families who depended on me to make the right choices in every area of my life. This work, this company, paid peoples’ mortgages and sent kids to college. It bought homes and built retirement savings.
The ten-chair on-site salon was almost empty. Employees had the option of starting their day with a professional makeup application and blowout, a perk many enjoyed.
I preferred to do my own hair and makeup in the mornings after my workout. It wasn’t so much a point of pride as it was the fact that, once I walked through these doors, every minute of my time was already spoken for. There were decisions and meetings and endless conference calls. Everyone needed a piece of me, and it was my job to give them undivided attention. That didn’t leave time for mascara applications or straight irons.
“Good morning, Ms. Stanton,” my assistants chorused.
Easton had been with me for close to five years. He was well-versed in my specific requirements of an assistant. Namely, he didn’t hover, and he guarded the doors to my office and my calendar as fiercely as a disdainful dragon. We understood each other and worked well together. He dressed impeccably—better than I did—gossiped only when necessary, and had to be strong-armed into taking his vacation time every year. He terrified almost as many people as I did.
However, with my workload steadily increasing, a second assistant was an unfortunate necessity. Finding a carbon copy of Easton was proving to be difficult. We were on our sixth second assistant. Or seventh?
Number Two, whose name escaped me at the moment, stood next to her desk, hands folded in front of her as if for inspection. She’d started last week, and I’d yet to determine whether or not she had potential.
It wasn’t that I was an exceedingly difficult boss. Really, it wasn’t. I was particular and dedicated to my vision. So far, my candidates did not fit my requirements. They either lurked too much or didn’t make themselves available enough. They were too chipper in the morning or showed up late too often.
“Good morning,” I returned, pausing to scoop up the messages and meeting reminders from Easton’s desk. Number Two produced the daily hot sheet that documented the top priorities of each department with a professional smile.
“You have the product development team in Ocean Conference Room at nine. Online sales at eleven-thirty. Lunch with your mother at one-thirty at the Palm. Then back here for a briefing with legal at three.” Easton rattled off the highlights.
“You also might want to take a moment to look at the new mock-ups for the marketing campaign,” Number Two chimed in. “Water cooler rumor has it they’re considering going in a different direction.”
Of course they were. I hid my reflexive annoyance. If everyone would just do the damn job I tasked them with, I wouldn’t need to micromanage every damn thing that happened on the sixty-second floor.
“Also, I love your dress,” she added.
A show of loyalty and a compliment. Smart girl.
“Thank you.” My smile was a touch more genuine. After all, it was a lovely dress. Soft spun vanilla wool in a sleek silhouette. I chose it knowing my mother would approve.
I stepped through the frosted glass doors and into my sanctuary. It was a comfortable, cozy space. Smaller than the average CEO’s—no airy corner office for me—but it was decorated to within an inch of perfection to make up for the lack of square footage. There were more ivories and creams in here warmed by grey and beige tones. The color came from the windows that captured Biscayne Bay in panoramic glory.
Blues and greens that sparkled so brightly I had to squint if I wanted to stare off into the horizon. I rarely made time for squinting and staring.
It was miles away from the fluorescent-lit, basement lab where it had all started.
I ditched my bag on the console table inside the door and headed to my desk, a custom design with a frosted glass top and shiny metal legs. I had fifteen minutes to check in with Lita before the day spun out into a chaotic hurricane of details, questions, and requirements.
I picked up my phone and dialed.
“Hey,” I said when she answered.
“Agh! You’re early,” she groaned.
“I can come to you,” I volunteered. Lita had mentioned on more than one occasion that she didn’t like being “summoned” to my office like an underling, and I’d taken the criticism to heart.
After all, there wouldn’t be a Flawless without her.
“You could, but you’d have to come to the coffee shop two blocks down,” she said. “I thought I had more time.”
“No problem,” I said, already mentally rearranging the next thirty minutes. Lita was historically and consistently late. She’d given up apologizing just as I’d given up on expecting her to value punctuality. “Pop in when you get here.”
“I’ll bring you a latte,” she promised.
* * *
The latte and Lita arrived twenty minutes later.
Both were lukewarm.
“What’s wrong?” I asked as she collapsed her curvy frame onto the low-backed linen couch.
“Just the teensiest bit hungover,” she rasped, guzzling her own coffee.
“It’s Tuesday,” I said, more amused than appalled.
Lita snorted inelegantly. “We’re not in college anymore, Lady Stanton. Drinking isn’t just for the weekends. You’re missing out.”
The nickname, born freshman year when I’d arrived on campus with a driver and matching Louis Vuitton luggage, used to irk me. It reminded me that I didn’t quite fit in. But I wasn’t concerned with fitting in anymore.
I winced at her bloodshot eyes. “I can see that.”
“Forget about me and my insatiable need for grease right now,” Lita insisted. “As chief marketing officer, I’ve got an urgent request for you.”
“Uh-huh,” I said, scrolling through my inbox again. I was waiting on news. Big news.
Lita and I had started the company together. However, it had been my trust fund that founded Flawless. Lita came from a working-class family in Virginia. When she wasn’t late or hungover, she brought ingenuity and creativity to the table. I brought the science and the money. On paper, the business was mine. But I couldn’t have done it without her. And she knew it.
“Hey, there, Madam CEO,” she said, snapping her fingers. “I need your focus for ten whole seconds.”
Reluctantly, I shifted away from my monitor and all the red flags that were currently demanding my attention. “What’s your urgent request?”
“The IPO is in fifty-nine days,” she began.
“I’m aware of this,” I said, tapping my nails—a classic French manicure—on my desk. The initial public offering was only the culmination of fifteen years of blood, sweat, and science.
“This is a huge deal, Emily,” she reminded me.
“We’re already a huge deal,” I pointed out. We’d built a billion-dollar company together. I felt like that monumental achievement was being overshadowed by the potential influx of even more cash. It felt… desperate? No. Perhaps just a little unseemly to be salivating over what some would see as “free money.” But it was the next logical step.
“We need to keep the press positive,” she said, unfazed.
“And as the face of the company, you’re going to need to step up your public appearances. Keep reminding the world of how beautiful and talented and genius-y you are.”
I bit back a sigh. “What do you want me to do?”
Lita sat up straighter. “It’s just dinner with the bachelor son of a hotelier.”
I let my impeccable composure slip just a little bit and dropped my head back against the white leather of my desk chair. “You want me to go on a date to make the company more attractive to the public?”
My stomach gave a warning gurgle. I’d never admitted it to anyone, but certain situations threw me into anxiety-induced diarrhea with alacrity.
I always carried an emergency stash of Imodium with me.
“There’s my grumpy, geeky friend,” Lita crooned. “It’s a tough job going out to dinner on the arm of a handsome, single entrepreneur.”
“Entrepreneur’s son,” I corrected.
“Whatever. Dinner. A nice dress. A few pictures. You’ll be home in bunny slippers by nine. We need every ounce of positive attention we can get between now and the IPO.”
At least it wasn’t a gala or a charity golf tournament.
“What’s in it for him?”
“This guy is launching a luxury underwear line,” Lita said straight-faced.
“You’re kidding, right?”
She grinned. “You wish. Publicity for him, pretty pictures of you. It’s a win-win.”
I sighed, and Lita knew she’d won.
“I’ll text you the details,” she said triumphantly.
“Can’t wait,” I lied.