“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 bullying her like this, but there wasn’t even a chair on the other side of his desk for him to offer. He could probably hear the sound of her knees knocking together.
“Thanks to your generous offer last night -” she began cautiously, wondering if that was what the man wanted to hear, but he interrupted her with a wave of his hand.
“I’m talking about before, Ms. Moon, not now. Why did you apply here?”
Jia swallowed hard, her memories instantly slip-sliding down the troubled terrain of their last encounter - besides last night, of course. Did that mean he remembered everything? If that was the case, then what was the purpose of all this? Was he making fun of her, setting her up for humiliation?
But no, it hardly seemed his style. Well, not that she would know such a thing intimately - maybe what she meant was, it hardly seemed like something he would be even remotely interested in. He was rich and famous. Surely he had better ways to pass the time than to harass an ordinary blue collar worker?
“I have a copy of your application here, Ms. Moon, as well as your resume. And after last night, I’d like to remind you that you are in no position to be dishonest.” Mr. Grayson leaned back in his chair, but he used the fingers of one hand to spread apart the two sheets on the surface of his desk. “Knowing that, I suggest you choose your words carefully.”
His electric blue eyes pierced her with all the delicacy of a honed kitchen knife, and Jia found herself quickly reconsidering the response she had been about to give.
“The benefits,” she said, and she suppressed a wince at how blunt she sounded even to herself. “Full time employment with Pandora Lights promises medical and dental coverage for the employee and immediate family.”
He must have known somehow, she thought. The sharp, knowing look he was still giving her told her enough. But that was all she was going to say: even if he wanted specifics, that was all he was getting from her.
Of course, unless he blackmailed her for that information. But surely he couldn’t possibly care enough to go to such lengths. He was wasting his time here, and so was she. Unless he really intended to offer her a job, that is.
“A custodial position,” he said. “Why were you interested in that?”
Jia paused at the question for a moment before answering. “All legitimate employment is respectable,” she said carefully.
“I don’t mean it in a demeaning way, Ms. Moon.” Atlas tapped the copy of her resume on his desk with two fingers. “You have several years experience in management. The custodial positions here are considered entry level, and the pay reflects that. I find that your experience over-qualifies you.”
He narrowed his eyes slightly, and Jia felt a chill run down her spine as if he had just caught her doing something she shouldn’t have been. Why was that? She had done nothing wrong. As a matter of fact, he was the villain here - if he were a good, decent man, he wouldn’t have coerced her into coming here in the first place.
“I’ve never actually been in management,” she said softly, daring to contradict him despite her misgivings about doing so. Judging by the way his eyebrow slid up at her objection, he didn’t quite like that. “But I find that assisting those in management comes easily, because I enjoy making things easier for those around me.”
Mr. Grayson’s chin tilted up slightly, and Jia found herself blinking in surprise. That couldn’t have been an expression of approval, could it? It had disappeared in a flash, vaporizing instantly like a wisp of smoke in a hurricane, but she thought…
No. She had just imagined it, Jia decided, because the way he was looking at her was most definitely not approving. Cold, more like. Very cold. She shivered.
“If that’s the case, then you’ll fit well in a position that’s just opened.” Mr. Grayson leaned forward to press a round, black button near a corner of his desk. “Lydia.”
“Yes, sir, Mr. Grayson, sir?” A woman’s voice, light and bubbly, spoke out of the flat speaker situated next to the button.
“You have an assistant. I’m sending her out to you. Get her trained.”
“I...An assistant, sir? Mine?”
Suddenly, Mr. Grayson’s mouth set in a hard line, and Jia realized he did not like repeating himself. Not one bit. He hadn’t looked happy a minute ago, either, when he had had to repeat his question to her. “Yes,” he said, and the single word made Jia’s toes curl in her shoes with its sheer frigidity. “Is your speaker malfunctioning?”
“N - no, sir!” the woman nearly cried in her haste to rectify the crisis. “I understand, sir. I apologize - yes, sir.”
Mr. Grayson didn’t even wait for the woman to stop stammering her last words, and he lifted his finger from the intercom switch to return his attention to Jia. “Out,” he snapped. “Today’s your first day on the job. You wanted a custodial position, but since there’s none open, you’ll have to make do with cleaning up after one person instead of the entire building.”
He pointed at the double doors leading out of the office when Jia failed to move immediately. “Do I need to repeat myself?” he asked, his voice growing more arctic with each syllable until Jia thought her ears were contracting a viral strain of frostbite.
“No, sir,” she answered, and she was proud that somehow, she didn’t stammer as ‘Lydia’ had. God knew she wanted to.
He had nothing else to say, evidently, and moved her resume and application away to the side of his expansive desk. By the time he drew a stack of papers and folders from one of his drawers, Jia was already halfway out the door. He watched with a discreet eye as she held the handle and controlled the door’s swing; it closed quietly behind her with a near-imperceptible click as the latch slid gently into place.
He continued to stare for a moment in silence, considering what he had just seen. It wasn’t until an entire minute had passed when he realized that he had been idling.
“Fuck,” Atlas muttered. With an irritated sigh, he snatched the papers up and began rifling through them without really reading them. He continued for another few minutes before giving up entirely and setting the stack back down on his desk.
“The first rule you need to know is that you never ask him any questions. None.”
Jia blinked. “Excuse me?” She looked the other woman up and down, trying to riddle out exactly how serious she was. “Can you repeat that?”
“First rule, section two - don’t ask him to repeat himself. Mr. Grayson hates that.”
Okay, that much Jia had deduced already just moments ago when she had been in his office. His assistant - my name is Lydia Worthington, a pleasure to meet you - was standing in front of her with an open binder stocked full with sheets, and she was tracing each line with her index finger as she read aloud the ‘rules’ of Pandora Lights Agency.
“Rule two, appearances are everything.”
Jia drew back in alarm when the other woman gave her a thorough ironing with her eyes.
“For example, this won’t do.” Lydia waggled her finger rapidly as she pointed it up and down Jia’s figure. “Not at all. We have several clothing departments in the building, so we’ll stop by for an emergency pick-me-up in a few minutes -”
“Is there something wrong with what I’m wearing?” interrupted Jia. She looked down at the sensible black slacks she wore and pulled at the hem of her white blouse. Sure, maybe a heavily worn pair of women’s loafers didn’t look so glamorous, but surely the rest of her attire made the cut.
“Where do I start?” Lydia huffed, and she pointed at Jia’s hair. “First of all, is that a straight cut? Unacceptable. And that top looks like three different people fought over it in a bargain bin, besides the fact that ruffle collars went out of season, oh, four years ago. And don’t get me started on the false buttons, either.”
Jia glanced down at the little plastic pieces sewn down the sides of her blouse.
“And slacks? What were you thinking? What, are you going to be working in construction all day?”
Jia frowned, thoroughly confused. Construction? In slacks? And still Lydia continued:
“Heels normally put it all together, but at the same time, your flats are so...rustic, charming. I can see the appeal - like a farmer’s daughter. I’d give you points for that.” Lydia tapped her chin with her finger as she carefully observed the loafers with a curious but admiring eye. “And the weathered look is so realistic. Well-done, you’ll have to tell me where you bought them later. They almost look like they’re years old. Very authentic-looking.”
Jia’s eyes darted shiftily from side to side. Her parents had bought her these from a supermarket when they were still alive eight years ago. She was fairly certain these didn’t even have a brand.
“But other than that, atrocious. We can’t have you looking this way. You’re representing someone who’s representing our CEO, Mr. Grayson, and that means you need to look immaculate at all times.” Lydia turned around to drop the binder on her desk before whipping back around with a determined grimace.
For all her insults, Jia couldn’t help the feeling that the woman truly meant well. There was a clear openness in the woman’s emerald-green eyes untainted by malice or pettiness. Her voice had been stern rather than jeering, scolding rather than arrogant.
Yes, her vanity shined through every word she uttered like a lighthouse beacon, but perhaps that was simply the result of a particular kind of upbringing. Jia had no idea what brands or materials the other woman was wearing, but every piece of fabric on her looked far more expensive than anything she had ever bought for herself. Maybe Ms. Worthington wasn’t as wealthy as someone like Atlas Grayson, but it was obvious that she wasn’t of little means, either.
She seemed...innocent, if a little materialistic. Well, fine, very materialistic.
“One moment, almost done.” Lydia was preening, using the reversible mirror on her desk to make sure that not a single strand of her blonde perm was out of place. “Once we get you some acceptable clothes, we’ll come right back - I need to walk you through Mr. Grayson’s meal plan.”
Jia swallowed hard. This wasn’t what she had been expecting when she had walked into the building today. Maybe she should have just taken her chances on the streets and looked for a new job on her own.
Besides, she thought with a sinking heart, was it even a guarantee that she was getting paid for all of this in the first place? Maybe Atlas Grayson was going the whole nine yards and blackmailing her for free labor. She cringed at the thought and immediately began formulating a plan to escape -
“Okay, let’s go.” Lydia turned around and, with a quick adjustment of her precariously steep high heels, she began click-clacking out of the room. “For future reference, we always carry an earpiece in case Mr. Grayson needs us when we are not at our desks. I’ll pick one up for you from the tech department on our way back up.”
The blonde woman tapped the small, black, plastic piece in her ear for Jia’s benefit as she opened the door leading out to the hallway. Looked like a bluetooth, Jia noted. Too bad she had no idea how to use one.
“Rule number three. Never, ever, be unavailable for Mr. Grayson. Well? Come on, chop-chop.”
Jia hesitantly followed her out, and Lydia allowed the door to slowly close shut behind them. “Um, Ms. Worthington, I was wondering…?” she began, but a flap of the hand from the other woman made Jia stop mid-sentence.
“Call me Lydia,” she said with a shake of the head and a radiant smile. “And - before I forget...I know I can rub people the wrong way, but I love working here, and I want you to love working here too. So, I guess what I’m saying is, just stick it out. Don’t let me be the reason you change your mind, okay?”
Jia stared at the pretty blonde with wide eyes for a moment. “Oh, I...Sure,” she said weakly, but even before she had finished agreeing, Lydia was already sweeping off, her stilettos clattering officiously against the tiles.
“Hurry up! No time to waste!” called the woman over her shoulder, and Jia quickly chased after her with a bemused smile.
“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
Daniel already knew how and where and when everything had begun, but the true dilemma had been knowing how little Jia could get away with telling him. She didn’t want to reveal the minute details of her home situation no matter how helpful he wanted to be, or even genuinely seemed to be.But without the proper context, it was impossible to make him understand why she had been so afraid of getting the police involved, why she had begged Atlas to let it all go, and how he exercised such a lopsided advantage over her now because of it.But above all else, Jia knew her priority was to extricate herself from Atlas Grayson’s powerful grasp. She had responsibilities, two kid siblings who depended on her back home. Whatever Atlas’s game was, she knew it couldn’t possibly be good for her.There was no reason to believe this bogus “position” he had given her as the assistant of his assistant would even pay her any wages, muc
Daniel had barely opened the door when a hand forcibly pushed it open the rest of the way, forcing him to step back to avoid being brained on the wood. Jia was twisted around at the waist in her seat to stare over her shoulder at the unfolding scene. All the strength in her body had fled when she heard Meghan’s stammered warning, making it impossible to trust her legs to hold her up.“Ex - excuse me.” Meghan squeezed out from between the two men to beat a hasty retreat. They were staring at each other over her head with an intensity that made even Jia’s skin crawl, and she was sitting ten feet away. She could only imagine how the poor Meghan was holding up in the middle of the crossfire. “I’ll be out of your way, then. Mr. Grayson, Daniel.”Meghan must have been even more nervous than she looked; she dropped slightly in what appeared to be a flustered, hasty curtsy before she clattered away on her heels.Meanwhile, Daniel and Atlas
Jia sat in stunned disbelief as Atlas and Daniel discussed the terms of her employment, now official, between themselves. Daniel occasionally deferred to her on some select points, giving her a pointed look when he expected a reply, but it was all Jia could do to nod and go along with whatever he suggested.Atlas definitely noticed it all, she thought numbly. She had seen him watching her with that piercing, ice-cold gaze on several occasions. More than several, actually. She was fairly certain he had been glaring at her for more than half the conversation.“If that’s all, that will all be in writing before you leave for the day, Ms. Moon,” Daniel was saying as he rose from his seat, and Jia quickly sprang to her feet with only the slightest of clumsy stumbles to follow suit.She cursed the black stilettos she wore again for their part in nearly making her fall over herself just now, but she didn’t have long to ruminate on the