Wednesday nights at La Dolce Vita had never been so disastrous. This time, it was as if every rich businessman breathing in the Manhattan borough of New York City had stampeded through this restaurant, but as it so happened, the lowest point of Jia's evening hadn't even come to pass yet.
She had known something was wrong when Richard sent everyone else home minutes after the massive VIP dinner event concluded - but then asked her to stay behind to clean up. Alone. Yes, he was an exploitative asshole who freely abused her vulnerable circumstances, but he had never done this kind of thing before: he simply hadn't ever been around for the Wednesday night clean up himself.
If anything, he was the one who always went home early after the weekly Hell Night and made everyone else take care of the mess without him. But not today, though. No, not tonight - because the owner of the five-star La Dolce Vita was intent on making an even worse mess rather than cleaning anything up.
A wine glass behind Jia toppled over and spilled its half-drunk contents onto the white tablecloth. She was beyond caring about it now, however, and she blindly reached behind her for the empty bottle she knew was close by. When she found it, she wrapped her fingers around the slender neck and swung it around herself with all her might.
This had not been part of the job description.
Richard dodged away just in time as she brandished it threateningly at him. "You bitch," the man seethed. He shrugged off his uniform suit jacket and tossed it to the floor. "This is happening whether you like it or not -" His voice began to climb to a snarling shout, but suddenly he lunged forward mid-sentence, grabbing for any part of Jia he could reach.
She tried to swing the wine bottle at him again, but this time, he simply swatted it away and sent it shattering against the wall. Too shocked to scream, Jia blindly clawed at him, her breath coming out in strangled, high pitched huffs like a tea kettle beginning to whistle. Why couldn't she scream? Why wasn't her voice coming out?
Oh, God, she thought as she felt his hands squeeze around her wrists. Oh, God -
He slammed her backward with such force that she staggered on her feet, and he took the opportunity to grab her by the shoulders and shove her onto the table once more. He then drove her back with a ruthless push until her legs dangled off the edge, feet straining to find the ground again.
Dishware, utensils, and wineglasses tumbled off the table in a violent cacophony. He grabbed one shoulder strap of her tuxedo apron, shaking off her scrabbling hands, and with one mighty pull, he ripped her uniform. The white button-down dress shirt underneath would soon follow suit -
Except it didn't, because the double doors behind Richard swung open savagely, striking the walls so hard that the sound of wood cracking split the air. The shocked man had no time to protest before a fist crashed into his face - two fists, actually, in quick, savage succession. The crack of knuckles hitting bone sliced through the VIP room, making Jia flinch as if she was the one getting thrashed.
As it happened, it was Richard who crumpled like a trashed solo cup and hit the ground face-first. Silence fell, and the unexpected Good Samaritan looked up from the prone man's form to catch Jia's wide-eyed stare.
In the sudden stillness, she scrambled to her feet and stepped on a wine glass that had rolled in the way. Glass shards shattered and splintered over the floor, but before she could trip and fall into the deadly mess, strong arms caught her by the waist.
The rescuer said nothing about it, and she was glad - she didn't know how she would have replied if he had. She instead jumped back as if he had burned her, and she scrambled to hold together her tattered tuxedo apron in order to salvage what little remained of her professional demeanor.
"I'll call the police," the stranger said, his voice emotionless and cool. He began sliding out his phone from the pocket of his suit pants.
Jia's head jerked up. She hadn't had the presence of mind to look the man in the face yet, but now she did - terrified of the calamity his help would bring down on her head. "Wait!" she cried out, reaching up to try to grab the phone away from the man's ear. "Wait, please!"
The man easily held it out of her reach, nearly a foot taller than she was and with arms to match. "Excuse me?" he asked, and Jia flinched at the irritation in his voice.
She remembered the voice well, she thought. That smooth baritone. The cruel articulation of every sound on his tongue, crisp and clean like polished diamonds. The biting venom that only barely concealed itself behind each syllable.
Except back then, when she had first met him - what, six months ago now? - he hadn't bothered hiding it at all. He had given her his scorn freely, and she had weathered it all under the staring eyes of everyone around them.
"Do you think you're special?" he asked coolly, his words marble and his eyes ice. "Chasing me down yourself and trying to persuade me with passion? Was that the plan?"
Jia continued to hold the paper out in front of her, presenting it with both hands to him. "Please," she said, keeping her voice strong and steady even though she thought she could feel him killing her with just a look. "I need this job. I'll work harder than you could ever want. You won't regret it, sir."
He swiftly snatched the sheet out of her hands with murderous grace, and with his other hand, tore the paper in two. He overlapped the two halves and tore them into quarters - and then into eighths, and then half that again. He tossed the pieces to the side, letting them flutter down to the asphalt.
"I don't need more desperate, entitled faces in my agency. If I ever see yours again, I'll have security handle it."
And now, here he was. Atlas Grayson, CEO of Pandora Lights Agency, the most lucrative company of talent scouts this side of the country. Maybe on both sides. In any case, he was one of the faces who had attended the VIP dinner earlier tonight, and she had recognized him then, too. But Jia had tamped down her embarrassment and anxiety and behaved as usual, turning on the professional warmth and charm that she was known for instead.
She had nothing to worry about, she had told herself at the time. Atlas Grayson saw so many faces in a day that he would never remember her; it was no use being paranoid. Aside from asking for another refill of refreshments, he didn't have a single reason to look twice at her. And when all the guests had left for the night, him included, she had breathed a sigh of relief. Nothing had happened. He hadn't made a move to embarrass her or confront her in any way.
But here he was now, staring her down with their faces scant inches apart. "Correct me if I'm wrong," he said, "but I think it's necessary to call the authorities since a man just tried to force himself on someone."
His disdainful tone sounded more like a criticism of her intelligence rather than a show of concern, but Jia forced her lips to move in measured pleas rather than in retaliatory defensiveness. She had to stop him, she thought desperately, before he ruined everything.
"I can explain. It wasn't what it looked like. Thank you, but it isn't necessary - wait! Please!" she begged when he shook his head and made to dial emergency again. "The thing is, he's my boss, and..."
"That's irrelevant. He assaulted you. The authorities will take him away."
"It's not...I - he's been paying me in cash for some time to work here," she said weakly. She hoped he would understand without her going into too much detail - that she was working for money under the table. Quite illegal, and most definitely punishable by law.
So despite what Richard had just done, she couldn't afford to give him the chance to take her down with him. He was the kind of man who would do such a thing, too, without a doubt: out of pure spite, he would report to them exactly how much unreported income one of his employees had received over the past eight months.
Forget prison time - there was no way Jia would be able to pay the heaping back taxes the authorities would find out she owed.
And then she would lose Jisu and Jini, too, in the process.
When Atlas Grayson continued to stare at her, she quickly forged ahead, desperately trying to change his mind no matter what it took. "I didn't have a choice," she said. "I have a family. They need me. I didn't know what else to do, and I needed the money fast. Richard had an opening. And everyone else wanted to run credit checks on applicants, and I've never had a credit history. And I don't have my own vehicle, and no one considers the subway-bus route reliable transportation -"
"I'm not interested," the man interrupted. "Tax evasion concerns aside, you do realize that if you don't report this, your boss here will probably end up hurting someone else."
Jia's face immediately twisted in guilty shame, but she continued to hold her ground. She couldn't give in. If there was anything less at stake, she would have been happy to do exactly what she ought to do, but she had so much to lose..."I can't," she insisted. "I can't. I'm sorry."
"Save your apologies to whoever he hurts next."
Despite his condemnatory words, however, Atlas Grayson refrained from dialing 911 and simply observed Jia's face with a hawk-like intensity. Jia quavered under the force of his electric-blue eyes that felt like they were searing straight through her. His perfectly arranged black hair - neither messy nor too obviously groomed - and clean-shaven, professional countenance felt too powerful in their regal, elite beauty.
He was a powerful, wealthy CEO, and she was just a waitress in a pathetically torn uniform, shaking in her shoes. She wondered what the likelihood was of the man dropping dead from a sudden, miraculous aneurysm right this second.
"I'm sorry," she said again. She knew what she was doing was wrong. Knew what she was asking of him was wrong. But Jisu and Jini didn't deserve to suffer for her mistakes, and she couldn't let them face the inevitable consequences that would result if she let this problem get any bigger.
The silence clawed around them with every second that ticked by until finally, the man opened his mouth again. Jia's heart clenched in her chest. It was too late, she thought. She had to get out of here and figure out what to do, how to make Richard shut up about her, and how to keep the twins out of this mess -
"Fine," said Atlas, and though the word he spoke was a concession, a surrender, Jia suddenly felt the hairs on the back of her neck rise as if she were in danger.
She took a fast, deep breath. "Thank you," she said in a rush. "Thank you so much. I'll take care of this, so please allow me to call a cab for you."
She had to get him out of here before he could change his mind. She made to move around him to get to the double doors leading out of the VIP room, but an iron grip around her upper arm made her stop short. She looked up in shock when the CEO pulled her close and leaned into her face with a menacing glower.
"I wasn't done talking," he said. "In return for this favor, you're going to do something for me."
Jia's face paled. "What's that, sir?" she asked, simply because she could feel him ordering her to, silently, with the cold look in his eyes. Her voice came out in a whisper, but it seemed to satisfy him anyway.
"You're going to work for me," he told her, his voice dripping venom. "Until you drop dead."
"Your address, miss?"Jia's head jerked up. "Sorry," she said hastily, wanting to pinch herself for zoning out in a stranger's car.This was why she preferred the subway. Yes, it would have taken far longer than this forty minute drive from Manhattan to the Bronx, but anonymity among strangers felt so much safer. And she could only imagine what kind of attention they were attracting now as they cruised down a dirty, pot-hole ridden street manned only by a few homeless, some delinquents out past curfew, and generally everything that the rich and glitzy Manhattan wasn't. The Bronx borough - particularly this side of it - was a different kind of beast altogether. "Mr. Grayson, you have a guest waiting in the lobby. Would you like to see her now?""We're not done here.""Yes, sir. My apologies, sir."The intercom clicked off with a swipe of Atlas's finger scarcely before the woman on the other end of the line, his newest assistant, had finished speaking. "You can continue, Daniel," he said with a wave of his hand as if he hadn't just potentially scarred yet another new assistant with his coldness. It didn't matter. She probably wasn't going to last long anyway. "You were saying?"Another man stood before him on the other sid
In the Shadow of the CEO 3 - The Resume
"Mr. Grayson, you have a guest waiting in the lobby. Would you like to see her now?""We're not done here.""Yes, sir. My apologies, sir."The intercom clicked off with a swipe of Atlas's finger scarcely before the woman on the other end of the line, his newest assistant, had finished speaking. "You can continue, Daniel," he said with a wave of his hand as if he hadn't just potentially scarred yet another new assistant with his coldness. It didn't matter. She probably wasn't going to last long anyway. "You were saying?"Another man stood before him on the other sid
“Why do you want to work here?"Jia hesitated. “I’m sorry?” she asked, eyeing the man behind the desk with a leery uncertainty disguised as a case of bad hearing. Or maybe she really had heard him wrong, because what he asked made no sense at all. Last she had checked, she hadn’t had a choice in coming here.“Why,” he repeated, stressing the syllable with a sardonic impatience, “do you want to work here, I said.”“I…” Was this a test, or some kind of sick joke? She was here because he had blackmailed her, plain and simple. Jia wished Mr. Grayson had at least invited her to sit before b
“Do I have to pay for all of this?”Lydia gave Jia a scolding look with a furrow of her perfectly plucked eyebrows. “Don’t be silly,” she chided before dropping the pile of clothes into the other woman’s arms. “Who would make you pay to take old discards? Imagine. We have to pay to get our trash taken out, you know.”Jia’s eyes dropped down to inspect the expensive fabrics with an apprehensive grimace. True, she had never had an eye for fashion. But these looked just as stylish and modern as any ensemble fitted onto mannequins in department stores, all far beyond her budget. Trash, Lydia had said, but if this was trash, what did that make her wardrobe?“Are you sure these are discards?”she repeated skeptically, and squinted at the topmost article on the stack. Was that a Gucci logo? Discard, really?“Well, all right, not all of them are,” admitted Lydia. “But the damage you would do to our image if
Jia breathed a sigh of relief when Lydia finally put away the binder full of the Dos and Don'ts of dealing with Atlas Grayson. The other woman was still barreling through a heated scolding session on how inappropriate Jia's conduct had been back in the CEO's office, but after twenty minutes of haranguing her for it, she finally seemed as though she were beginning to tire out.“I understand," said Jia, keeping her voice patient and calm as if soothing a spooked horse. “It won't happen again.”“I told you to never question him! Even things like how he would like his coffee or how the day is are off-limits, and then you go and directly contradict him - !”Jia resisted the urge to jump up and flee the room. Of all the ridiculous insanities of her circumstances, the reverential fear the assistant had for her boss had to take the cake. What was this, a cathedral? Was Atlas Grayson the pope? She swallowed the resigned sigh building in her
“Mr. Grayson is unavailable to take your call, but I can pass on a message for you.”Lydia was somehow juggling three binders, her smartphone, a stack of unstapled sheets, and a large coffee while handling the phone call with the utmost professional demeanor. She sounded downright automated.“I will make sure your message reaches him. Thank you, Mr. Li. We look forward to the conference tomorrow.”The phone dropped back into the pocket of her slim suit jacket, and Jia was left mystified by how exactly the woman had achieved such a feat when both of her hands were still full. Lydia seemed to think nothing of it as she proceeded to speed down the corridor with all the urgency of a Formula 1 car on a straightaway. Somehow, despite being taller than the blonde and most definitely possessing a longer stride, Jia found herself panting slightly to keep up.“Daniel is our Chief Operating Officer,” said Lydia as they rounded
“Close the door behind you, please.”Jia floundered for an instant before she regained the sense of mind to respond to the request. Right, the door. She hastily stepped forward so that she could let it latch shut behind her, but her stare quickly darted back to pin itself onto the young man again. He was the Chief Operating Officer? But how…? Maybe she just thought she recognized him, she told herself, but that couldn’t be it: he had recognized her, too. He had even called her by name.And there was no mistaking that face, of course. A woman would have to be blind to not confess his beauty, with those elfin features and striking green eyes.She didn’t realize she was still staring goggle-eyed at him until Lydia discreetly jabbed her in the side with a well-placed elbow in passing. “These are the documents,” the woman was saying, and Jia catapulted herself back into the present with a firm mental slap. She succeeded just in tim
“Last night?”“Yes,” said Daniel, and Jia had to force her facial muscles to relax so that she wouldn’t remain a dead ringer for a marble statue, paralyzed by panic. Those extraordinarily intelligent eyes wouldn’t miss a thing; she needed to say something to dispel his curiosity before he delved any deeper.She had to act natural, casual. And bored, too, she thought frantically, but without making it obvious she was hiding something. The last thing she wanted was to accidentally pique his interest by being too mysterious.But what should she say? Should she lie? But what if he then asked Atlas, who might or might not reveal everything anyway? Maybe a half-truth then - but Jia couldn’t rifle through the facts and figure out which were ‘boring’ enough to safely tell.Whatever you say, don’t say that it’s a funny story, she told herself sternly as she took in a deep breath, still scrambling for the right words