New York, New York
Melody Spencer was rushing up Madison Avenue when she spied him.
The tall, lanky man in a black Stetson, log-jamming the flow of foot traffic by moseying along at a lamb’s pace, craning his neck up at the skyscrapers as if he couldn’t believe they made buildings that lofty.
Two simultaneous thoughts popped into her head. One was: what a hick. The other was: I’m homesick.
She’d marveled at the towering buildings herself when she arrived in the city seven years earlier, and while she no longer stared at the high-rises, she still lived by one motto—keep looking up. Vision, commitment, and hard work were what had brought her to this juncture where she was about to receive the promotion she’d worked a lifetime to earn.
Why else would her boss, Michael Helmsly, have texted her and asked her to come in for a private meeting thirty minutes early on the same day the creative director was retiring?
A river of people flowed around the cowboy, some muttering obscenities, others flipping him off, a few glowering, but most not even bothering to acknowledge him at all. He was nothing more than a speck in their obstacle-laden day.
Although one smart aleck teen—probably a tourist—hollered at him from a passing taxi, “Why aren’t you naked in Times Square, cowboy?”
The man tipped his Stetson at the taxi, briefly revealing a head of thick, whiskey-colored curls and a sense of humor. A navy blue, western-cut sport coat hugged his broad shoulders. The crowd obscured her view of his backside, but she would have bet a hundred dollars that tight-fitting Wranglers cupped a spectacular butt.
Cowboys always seemed to have spectacular butts. Probably from all that riding in the saddle.
He turned his head and the morning light illuminated his profile—straight nose, honed cheekbones, chiseled jaw. He was freshly clean-shaven, but she could tell he had a heavy beard and that long before five o’clock he’d sport a shadow of beard stubble. In that regard he looked a bit like the actor, Josh Holloway, who’d played Sawyer on the television show Lost.
That’s when the cold jolt of recognition smacked into the pit of her stomach. She knew this man! Had once both loved and hated him.
From her hometown of Cupid, Texas.
Her chest tightened and suddenly she couldn’t breathe. What was Luke doing in New York City attracting attention like the proverbial fish out of water?
What if their gazes locked and he identified her? Melody ducked her head and scurried to the far side of the sidewalk, heart thumping crazy-fast. She had no time to take pity on him and help him navigate the city. He was on his own.
Coward. You’ve got fifteen minutes to spare. You’re using the meeting as an excuse to get away from him.
Right-o. And a good excuse it was. She needed a few minutes to compose her thoughts and tamp down her excitement before heading into her boss’s office. Cool, calm and unruffled. That was the image she projected on the job.
Praying that Luke hadn’t seen her, she held her breath until she’d put an entire city block between them. By the time she exhaled, her lungs felt stretched and achy. Okay, she’d dodged a bullet. Onward and upward.
She pushed through the frosted glass door of the building that housed the Tribalgate offices. In the lobby, the security guard positioned at the check in desk nodded a mute greeting as she used her ID card to swipe her way through the turnstile that granted access to the elevators.
Because she was a bit early, there was no one else waiting for the elevator to the thirty-fourth floor. On the ride up, she whipped out her cell phone to text her boyfriend.
Jean-Claude was a top tier photographer, who traveled all around the world and Melody still couldn’t believe he’d chosen her when he had his pick of beautiful, fascinating women. Yes, sometimes he was distant and a bit self-absorbed, but what artist wasn’t?
For the last two weeks, she’d been living with him in his brownstone on the Upper West Side right across from Central Park. It was definitely a monumental step up from her former loft apartment in Queens. Although moving in with him had taken a nerve wracking leap of faith on a relationship that was barely two months old. But her landlord had jacked up her rent and one night Jean-Claude casually offered to let stay with him. For once in her life, she’d plunged in feet first without calculating the risks and so far, so good.
Jean-Claude was catching a plane to South Africa the following morning for a ten-day photo shoot and she wanted to give him a proper send off.
Dinner 2 nite. My treat. She texted. Fingers X we’ll have something to big celebrate.
She waited a moment to see if he’d immediately text back. When he didn’t, she got online and logged onto Open Table. Since it was a Monday, hopefully, she could swing a reservation at their favorite French restaurant located inside a landmark Manhattan hotel.
Open table came back telling her there were no vacancies at her preferred time of eight p.m. but there was a table available at five-thirty. It was a pretty early for dinner, but hey, she’d at least scored a table. She accepted the five-thirty spot through Open Table, and then on impulse called the restaurant and asked to have a bottle of iced Dom Perignon waiting tableside.
After all, It wasn’t every day a girl made creative director at one of the best ad agencies in the country.
She shivered, Her mother was going to be over the moon.
Only a couple of executive assistants were in the office. She waved hello and headed for the coffee machine. She poured herself a cup, but only drank half of it, not wanting to look jittery when she walked into her boss’s office.
With a couple of minutes left to kill, she popped into the ladies room and reapplies her lipstick. She smiled at her reflection.
“Why thank you for this opportunity, Michael,” she said, practicing accepting the position. “I do appreciate your confidence in me and I promise you won’t be disappointed in my performance.”
She straightened her collar that wasn’t askew and brushed lint off her clothes that wasn’t there, gave herself one hard appraisal. “Here we go,” she whispered. “Ms. Creative Director.”
Michael’s door stood ajar.
She poked her head in.
He sat at his desk, scowling at the computer screen. He looked so much like the Mad Men character, Roger Sterling, that he was almost a caricature, although he possessed none of that character’s easy-going, playboy ways. Personality-wise, he was more like Don Draper. Brilliant, but darkly moody.
Michael glanced up and his scowl deepened.
Her euphoria evaporated. What had upset him? “Do we need to reschedule?”
“Come in,” he said curtly. “And close the door behind you.”
Uh-oh He sounded put out.
Chin up. Don’t let his demeanor throw you. She stepped into the room and quietly shut the door.
Michael did not ask her to sit down. In fact, he stood up.
Her pulse quickened.
“Jill Jones called me over the weekend,” he said.
Jill Jones was a difficult client who represented, Mowry and Poltish, a major chemical company looking to rebrand their image. Melody and Ms. Jones had a difference of opinion over the direction of the recent ad campaign, but she believed they’d ironed out their differences.
“Oh?” She struggled to keep her tone neutral. Where was this going?
“Jill’s asked that you be removed from the campaign.”
Melody gulped. “Okay.”
“She says your values aren’t consistent with Mowry and Poltish’s vision.”
She sank her hands on her hips. Yes, she wanted this promotion more than anything in the world, but she had to set the record straight. “Ms. Jones requested an TV campaign that essentially claims their new cleaning product is one hundred percent safe. Her idea was to have a mom cleaning a cutting board with it and then without rinsing the cutting board, cut up raw fruits and vegetables on it and serve the food to her family.”
“Sounds like you’re making a mountain out of a mole hill.”
“The cleanser should thoroughly be rinsed off. It says so on the labeling. The chemicals could be harmful if ingested.”
“Did Jill ask you make false claims about the product?”
“It’s not your job to police our clients ethics.”
“But such a—”
“How many times do I have to tell you we’re selling the sizzle not the steak? Advertising is about playing on people’s emotions, not about bald face facts.”
“I know that, which is precisely why I objected to Ms. Jones’s vision of the ad. Her version would make people feel safe, but it’s a false sense of security and I pointed this out. She agreed to allow the TV mom to thoroughly washing the cutting board before cutting food up on it. I don’t see—”
“That’s just it. You don’t ‘see’.”
He shook his head. “Jill says you’re difficult.”
A weighted sensation settled on her shoulders. She was not about to get that promotion after all. In fact, she was definitely being called on the carpet. “So being ethical means I’m difficult?”
“Jill didn’t ask you to tell a lie.”
She held extended her arms out to her sides, palms up. “So I shouldn’t have said anything?”
“Never argue with a client.”
“Even if I believe the ad they want would intentionally mislead the consumer?”
“The truth is rubbery, especially in advertising, and you know it. There’s nothing wrong with bend the truth around as far as it will as long you don’t break it.”
“You’re telling me that you want me to lie?”
“That’s not what I said.” He stalked around the desk to stare her down. “The fact that you can’t tell the difference between a lie and a creative slant on the truth concerns me.”
A hot blast of adrenaline shot through her veins. Stunned, she curled her hands into fists. “What are you saying?”
“This isn’t the first time your provincial ethics,” he spat the word with disdain. “Has gotten in the way of a campaign.
Taken aback, she placed a palm to her chest. “What are you speaking of?”
“The Palmer ad.”
“But I only worked on the Palmer ad for a few days,” she protested.
“Exactly. Palmer said you were argumentative so I put you on another campaign.”
“I wasn’t argumentative. I merely pointed out that the campaign they wanted was lewd and suggestive. The insulation of a ménage-a-tois featuring their garden hoses was in poor taste.”
“And yet, that ad went on to become Palmer’s most successful ad campaign ever. Implied sex really sold those garden hoses.”
“It also garnered more consumer complaints than any other ad we ever did.”
“Which goes to prove controversy is a good thing. You seemed to understand that when you first came to work here. That family feud television spot you created for Frosty Bites was not only hilarious, but it was one of Tribalgate’s most successful campaign in the last decade.”
“So what’s the problem?”
“That campaign was six years ago. What have you done for us lately that rivals it?”
“I won a Clio last year!”
“Which means absolutely nothing. The ad you won the Clio for was cute and attention getting, but in the end it did nothing to increase the sales of the cars it was advertising. And Hyundai dropped Tribalgate over it.”
“All right,” she nodded, her heart finally catching up to the reality that not only was she not getting the promotion but also, she’d been called on the carpet for her values and beliefs. “I see your point. Message received. I will strive to get over my ethics and infuse ads with more scandal.”
He shook his head. “I’m sorry, but no you won’t.”
“I don’t understand.”
“It’s not your fault.” His voice softened. You come from a small town. You’re just not sophisticated enough for Tribalgate.”
Her jaw dropped. “What do you mean? I’ve been in the city for seven years.”
“Ms. Spencer, Melody…”
Goose bumps spread over her arm. This couldn’t be happening. “What are you saying?”
“Not to sound like Donald Trump or anything, but you’re fired.”
Stunned, she stood there, jaw unhinged. Then all at once it hit her what day it was and relief washed over.
“Oh very funny, sir. You almost had me going there.”
He frowned. “What are you talking about?”
“I’ve got to hand it to you,” she went on. “It’s the best April Fool’s joke anyone had ever played on me.”
Slowly, he shook his head. “This is not a joke.”
The dread was back, heavier than ever. Oh shit. “This wasn’t a prank?” she whispered.
“You sure Ashton Kutcher isn’t going to jump out of the closet and declare I’ve been punked?” she asked hopefully, even as she knew she was well and truly sunk.
No joke. He was serious. She’d been fired.
Her boss held out his palm. “Please hand me your identification badge.”
Pressing her lips into a straight line, she fumbled with the ID badge clipped to her lapel, she could barely see against the mist of tears welling up in her eyes. She swallowed the saltiness, blinked hard and passed her badge to him.
Michael took the badge that represented her entire sense of self, glanced over her shoulder, and nodded.
She turned and for the first time saw the two security guards standing behind her.
“They’ll take you to your desk to collect your things,” Michael intoned. “After that, they’ll escort you out of the building. I’d appreciate it if you didn’t cause a scene.”