Chapter 1 : Into the Chocolate Box
"I'm so sorry I'm late, Vic," said Mabel Jones. She was flushed and a little sweaty as she tied her apron on, having just rushed over five blocks.
"Don't worry about it, Bel. I'm happy to do it," said Victoria Slade. She began to untie her own apron, the same brown one that had the name of the coffee shop "The Foxhole" printed on it in white. Her eyes were soft with concern. "Is Jenni going to be okay?"
"Yes, she's better now. I'll have to take her back to the doctor tomorrow for another checkup, but at least her wheezing had stopped. Thanks so much for taking over my shift." Mabel gave Victoria a tight hug. "I've had too many absences this month, I'd probably have gotten fired if you hadn't covered for me."
Victoria could see the faintest sign of tears in her friend's eyes. Clearly her daughter Jenni's latest asthma attack had been pretty bad, and had left her shaken. "Are you sure you're going to be okay? Because I'm happy to work your whole shift if you need to be home."
"No, no, I'll be fine. You better get going, you have that job interview this afternoon. Oh dear, can you still make it?"
"I think so." Victoria looked up at the wall clock behind them. Three thirty. She had half an hour to her interview, which meant she had no time to go home and get dressed.
Five minutes later, in the locker room, she was trying to smooth the wrinkles on her grey skirt. Her black top was of a soft lightweight wool that didn't need pressing, however, it was old and a little shabby. Not the ideal attire to a job interview, but it would have to do. Her long wavy auburn hair hadn't been properly washed since yesterday, and it smelled like turnovers, so she had hurriedly tied it up in a bun. She still had a chance to make the interview, and for that she was thankful. When Mabel called her at noon to ask if she would take over her shift for a couple of hours, she didn't hesitate. Victoria needed to get the job she was interviewing for, but Mabel needed the café job even more. She had a sickly six-year-old daughter at home whom she was raising by herself: there was no one else to take her to to the hospital whenever she had one of her asthma attacks.
When she got to Third Street, Victoria's eyes scanned the high rise buildings above her. She wasn't familiar with L.A.'s financial district, and she would have looked up the map online if she had the time. She looked at her watch for the third time in the past minute: three fifty-five. She looked up again and after a moment, she finally spotted the address.
The Mattheson Building loomed tall and stately, all gleaming glass and steel in the L.A. sunshine. Victoria's misgivings about her clothes increased as soon as she walked into the elegant and richly appointed lobby. It was like stepping into a box of expensive French chocolates, except the place may have smelled even better. Her pace slowed down, every step an apology to the pale cream marble floor with gold flecks which her cheap flat shoes had no business touching.
As she pressed the elevator button for the 55th floor, it suddenly dawned on her that it had to be a mistake, this job interview. People who had offices on the 55th floor didn't hire tutors who advertised on community newspapers and questionable online ad websites, which was the only places she could afford to post ads for her services as a tutor. She did try an agency, but they wouldn't take her for her lack of experience. She was fresh out of graduate school, and trying to make ends meet with freelance magazine writing jobs and her stint at the coffee shop.
The 55th was even more luxurious than the lobby. A chandelier graced the high ceilings, and sofas in rich leather rested on thick-piled carpeting around the round receptionist desk where a man and a woman sat, both on the telephone, as she walked towards them. Whoever it was she was interviewing with, they could definitely afford her rates.
The man saw her approach, and she gave him a nervous smile. While he nodded in return, he continued his phone conversation.
Victoria waited, but a minute passed before the man finally hung up.
"Hi. I'm Victoria Slade," she said. "I have an interview for the tutor position at four." She grimaced. "I'm so sorry I'm late."
The man smiled pleasantly. "Unfortunately, Ms. Slade, it's ten minutes past four," he said. "Mr. Chase is no longer available to see you."
Her heart sank. "I can wait. Or perhaps we could reschedule? I'm willing to come back anytime that's convenient." Who did he say it was? "Anytime it's convenient for Mr. Chase," she added.
He smiled at her sympathetically. "I'll see what I can do. However, Mr. Chase is extremely busy, and I highly doubt he would be willing to schedule another appointment."
"Is that him?" She pointed to a tall man in a suit emerging from a door on their left. He was followed by a lanky, younger man carrying a briefcase and some folders.
"Mr. Chase!" she called out, walking toward the man as fast as she could without running.
"Ms. Slade, please—" the receptionist started to say, but she didn't hear the rest of it.
When Chase met her gaze, Victoria nearly froze.
She had fully expected him to be some middle-aged man, since the job she had applied for was as a tutor for a fifth grader. So it was a bit of a shock to find a man who couldn't possibly be older than thirty-five or thirty-six.
Nothing prepared her for the intensity of his blue eyes or the perfection of the rest of his face. His light gray suit looked like it had been molded on to his trim figure by one of the renaissance sculptors. Michelangelo, maybe. Her knees turned to jelly under her, but something about him kept her moving inexorably forward. It was almost like gravity.
"Yes?" he said.
"I, uh," she stammered.
He raised an eyebrow, but didn't break a stride.
"Hi, I'm Victoria Slade," she said, finding her voice. "Your four o'clock? I know I'm late but—"
"Punctuality doesn't seem to be a priority for you, Ms. Slade." He brushed past her.
"I apologize," she said, walking beside him. It was hard to keep up with him and his long legs, but she did the best she could. "I thought perhaps we could reschedule. I'll come back anytime—"
"Your resume says you work at a coffee shop," he said, interrupting her again. "Is that the best you could do with your masters degree?"
"No. I mean, I've stated in my resume that I also write for magazines."
As they walked past the reception desk, the man behind it gaped at her silently.
"You do freelance writing," Mr. Chase said. "And you don't make enough that you have to wait tables at a coffee shop, and now do tutoring work?"
"I have to make ends meet, Mr. Chase. Writers don't exactly get paid as much as hedge fund managers."
"No, but surely a woman of your intelligence and credentials should be able to manage her career and finances better."
"I don't understand. What does that have to do with the tutor position?"
They were walking toward an elevator. It had wider doors than the others, and was positioned farther away from the other. A personal lift, perhaps? His assistant rushed ahead of them and tapped a card on a panel on the side, and the doors opened silently.
"I'm looking for someone to entrust my child's educational care. I cannot give it to someone who can't seem to take care of their own financial well-being. Or," he said, looking at her pointedly, "can't seem to show up for a job interview on time."
She opened her mouth to argue, and realized she had nothing to say to that.
He got inside the elevator with his assistant, leaving her standing outside.
Victoria wasn't sure what possessed her, but in a moment of impulse, she dashed inside the elevator before the doors closed.
"Ms. Slade, what are you doing?"
I don't know, she thought. It was as though she was compelled by forces beyond her control.
"I, uh ..." she stammered. Great going, Slade. Really articulate. She cleared her throat. "Mr. Chase, I completely understand how you feel."
"Do you?" He nodded to his assistant. "Let's go, Frank."
His assistant pressed a button for one of the basement floors. The elevator doors closed and they began their descent.
"I'm not an economics or finance major," Victoria continued, seeing as he made no move to kick her out of the lift. "I'm pretty good with numbers but horrible with money. As a matter of fact, I only like money as much as it can pay for my groceries or my car insurance. But I don't think your child needs a financial advisor right now. What he needs is someone who believes in the importance of learning, someone well-rounded who can make him see how different areas of knowledge are connected. Help him see how education is relevant to real life."
Chase didn't look at her as she spoke. He kept his eyes on the doors of the elevator, his face expressionless. Was he bored? Was he even listening to her?
"I think you want this for him," she added. "This is why you asked me to come for this interview despite the fact that I've had no experience. The reason you considered hiring me was because of my educational background in English and Literature, and the fact that I write for science magazines."
She studied his face, waiting for a response. Nothing.
"You didn't hire an experienced tutor because he probably already goes to school run by highly paid teaching professionals," she said. "But you want him to acquire an imagination, which is why you want to hire me."
"Anything more, Ms. Slade?" he said, still not looking at her.
"Uhm, no. That's it."
"I see. Frank, we'll be dropping Ms. Slade off at the first floor."
She watched Frank push the first floor button, and her heart sank.
"My apologies, Ms. Slade, if you were under the wrong impression about this job," Chase said. "I'm looking for someone to take responsibility for my son's education outside of school. His school demands much from him, and I want to make sure he is able to keep up with these demands. I don't believe you and he will make a good fit. Thank you for your time."
"Oh. I see." She had hoped he would at least tell her he would think about it and get back to her, but this was clearly a man who didn't like to waste time. Disappointment felt like a physical lump in her throat, but she straightened her back, looked him in the eye and forced herself to smile.
"I understand. Thank you for your time, Mr. Chase."
When the elevator opened at the first floor, she walked out. But a sudden thought made her stop and turn. "You seem to care for your son very much," she said. "I hope you find what you're looking for."
Victoria turned and walked away just as the elevator doors began to close.
Well, that was that. She did her best, at least. She was still surprised at how she had jumped into that elevator without a thought in her head. They could have thrown her out the building for that.
What were you thinking, Slade?
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To be continued.