Thirty-four men and women lined the hall, all looking immaculate, beautiful, and intelligent. Morgan wondered where they’d all been hiding when she’d been the one doing the interviewing, because her last personal assistant had been short and bald, and although he had perfect recall, an outstanding resume, and an Ivy League education, he’d been a bit frumpy around the edges. It seemed that the day’s joke was on her, because she’d left the hotel believing she was the best of the best.
Sitting along the wall to wait, she kept her gaze carefully trained on the screen of the BlackBerry in her hand. Look busy, look important. Think aloof.
It didn’t matter that her service had been disconnected. No one would know that.
A tall, leggy brunette stood and took a moment to make eye contact with the others waiting, stating, “You can all go home now. I have this one in the bag.” With that she giggled and followed the woman with the clipboard who’d called her number.
Morgan looked down at her own number, forty-two. It was going to be a long morning. Remembering the coffee shop next door, she stood, planning to go down for a latte and a croissant. Then she winced, remembering that the seven dollars and odd change in her designer bag wouldn’t cover both. It would have to be the latte.
The woman with the clipboard returned to the hallway. “In case you missed the earlier announcement” -- she looked directly at Morgan -- “do not leave. If you do choose to leave, your number will be collected at the elevator by security, and you will not be permitted to return.”
Morgan looked toward the elevator, noted the security guard, and asked, “I was going to try to find a restroom. Is there one on this floor?”
The woman with the clipboard arched her eyebrow and pointed toward a small alcove halfway down the hallway. “Men’s room on the left, ladies' on the right.”
Morgan knew she didn’t believe for a minute she’d been planning on finding a restroom, but she thanked the woman and headed straight toward it. As she did, another woman asked, “Will we be allowed a lunch break?”
The short answer was no. When the woman elaborated that she was hypoglycemic and could not go more than two hours without food -- ever -- the lady with the clipboard said, “I’ll go ahead and remove your name from the list now.”
“But I have a medical condition --”
“Your physician’s disclosure was part of the application process. If you were unable to tolerate long hours, irregular meal times, and interrupted sleep, you would not have even been considered for the job.”
Morgan smirked as she entered the restroom, noting the clipboard lady just called Ms. Hypoglycemic a liar in a very politically correct fashion. When she returned from the restroom, the young woman was no longer occupying a seat, but Ms. Clipboard was still speaking. “You are all here because you have been personally selected by the best corporate advisors in the industry. In case the recruiters were not clear, this position requires long hours. You will in essence be turning your entire life over to meet the needs of Mr. Cannon. If you have children, a spouse, or parents who would generate a conflict in your mind as to where you should be and what you should be doing, this job is not for you. You will be required to attend to Mr. Cannon’s needs first and foremost before your own. This is a twenty-four-hour, three-hundred-and-sixty-five-day job. Period.”
Three stood, two women and one male, and left their numbers with the security guard at the elevator.
“Mr. Cannon does not have time to wait for you to acquire a passport. If you do not have one in your possession at the time of your interview, a requirement that was made clear by the recruiter, do not waste our time by staying. Having applied for a passport does not constitute having a passport. So if you do not have your passport in your possession as requested by the recruiter or do not have someone to bring your passport to you before you go through the office door behind me -- leave now. For those of you selected today -- by that I mean Cannon Group will be narrowing the field to the twelve best contenders -- tomorrow's interviews will be conducted in Paris. You will leave from here and be taken directly to the airport.”
Two more women left the group. Morgan sighed with relief; she’d remembered hers at the last second.
The brunette who had gone in with confidence suddenly exited the office in tears and ran to the elevator. In her head, Morgan thought, Twelve down, thirty to go, but then four others suddenly stood and took the long walk to the elevators. Whether they didn’t have passports or there was something else they couldn’t abide with, she wasn’t certain. At this rate, she’d be inside the office in no time.
Six hours later, she wasn’t as perky or certain. Sitting to her left were three remaining people with numbers ahead of hers, and one still in the office. To her right sat eleven people who had exited the office glowing and had not yet been dismissed. She immediately started sizing up the remaining applicants knowing only one slot remained.
She had to be the one to fill that slot. Normally she would go for intimidation to scare off the competition, but no one was talking. Her competition was tense and white-knuckle. They sat stiffly, not even texting or talking on their smartphones.
Number thirty-eight strode from the office and did not take a seat to her right. Number thirty-nine, a young Asian male, stood without being called; however, he waited at the doorway to be escorted in.
Morgan asked the woman sitting in the chair to her right, “Did the recruiter tell you the job title?”
When the woman turned her face toward Morgan, she decided “girl” would be a more apt description, since she barely appeared twenty. The girl rolled her eyes sarcastically and answered, “Personal assistant.”
Personal assistant? I’ve been sitting here for seven hours for the job of personal assistant? Seriously? Oh God.
She shook her head, not knowing whether to believe her. She could just be playing a mind game to get her to leave before her interview. No! What was she thinking? Personal assistant? She couldn’t possibly fall so low.
Number thirty-nine exited and, beaming, took a seat to the right. Ms. Clipboard came out and announced, “I’m sorry to the remaining candidates, but the twelve slots for consideration have been filled. Cannon Group appreciates your attendance at today’s event, and if you would like to visit our Web site to apply online for another position, please feel free to do so. Cannon Group is always looking for fresh, new faces.”
Morgan gasped, realizing she’d sat for seven hours for nothing.
To the chosen twelve, Ms Clipboard announced, “Follow me,” before walking down a side corridor that did not lead to the main elevators. As she walked, the candidates followed in a tight row like goslings, hanging on her every word. “Please be prepared to turn over your cell phones before boarding. You will be permitted to make one phone call before surrendering your phones. You will each be asked to fill out a confidentiality agreement before we leave the building. Over the course of the next twelve weeks, a candidate will be eliminated biweekly until a suitable applicant is chosen. Congratulations on making it through round one.”
Morgan sat stunned. The others who weren’t chosen began gathering their things and walking silently toward the security guard and the elevator, which would take them back to the lobby.
This can’t be happening. I need this job!
As the security guard took their numbers, Morgan stood and slipped through the door she assumed led to Donathon Cannon’s office. She didn’t expect to collide with him. “Oh!”
She swallowed hard; his arms had wrapped around her when she’d bounced into him. Her eyes were level with his, which meant he was about six-two since in her stocking feet she was five-ten and at the moment she was wearing four-inch heels. She stepped back and gaped. She’d known he’d been named the most eligible bachelor in the city by the Post,
but had no idea that “most eligible” meant hot
He had rock-solid abs, which she couldn’t see but could definitely feel under his white silk dress shirt. He was the epitome of tall, dark, and handsome. His skin was the color of caramel, his eyes dark chocolate. In a word he was yummy
He tilted his head to the side as he asked, “Morgan James?”
It sounded like an accusation. Doubts assailed her. What was she thinking? Did she really believe Donathon Cannon would see her as a viable candidate? He’d seen the news, saw her judgment called into question, watched the collapse of her empire. If she couldn’t handle her own company, what business did she have assuming she could benefit his? He’d laugh her out of his office. Truth, not sarcasm. After months of having her name linked to the worst financial crisis the country had ever faced, she’d come to expect it.
The nation had needed a scapegoat, and all the fat, bald guys on Wall Street became boring news within a week. But throw her face into the lynching pool and suddenly the story had gained new life. Young and sexy sold. Sensationalism was in; truthfulness in reporting was out.
Yes, she’d made mistakes, and she’d have been the first to admit hers if anyone had taken the time to ask, but no one did. The news media preferred making up the story as they went. It all came down to timing. The day all hell broke loose on the global economy, she’d been vacationing in Greece. The media’s payoff and her supreme misfortune boiled down to the first photos of her hitting the tabloids. Sunbathing. Topless. She stopped looking at periodicals after BusinessWeek
ran her face with the headline: THE MORGAN JAMES PARTY IS OVER.
Inside was the story of how much money her account executives earned in salaries and bonuses. Yes, they earned a lot of money. They also deserved it. They also deserved the flashy, expensive training seminars and annual luxury vacations. But that was her opinion.
She swallowed, finding her mouth had gone dry. She whispered, “Yes,” then cleared her throat and said more strongly, “Yes, sir. I’m Morgan James.”
He released her and stepped away, walking into the depths of his office, asking, “To what do I owe the honor?”
He sounded sarcastic and looked none too pleased as he tapped his computer screen.
“We had an appointment,” she said.
“I’m sorry. I’m leaving for the airport, and I don’t see you on my schedule.” He looked up at her, and she wished they’d met before. His hair had been shaved down to barely more than stubble; an equal amount shadowed his jawline. He looked like he belonged on the cover of GQ
, not stationed behind a desk.
“My secretary can schedule you for another time --”
“Mr. Cannon, I was one of the candidates who came here today to interview for a position.”
He laughed. “I’m sorry. I think there’s been some mistake. I was interviewing today for a personal assistant
. All of my upper-level management positions are filled.”
This was her chance to walk away with her dignity intact, but as her armpits grew wetter, she knew she couldn’t walk away. She squared her jaw. “I’m aware of that. I came here to interview for the position of your personal assistant.”
He smirked and rubbed his rough jaw. He glanced around the room. “Right. Are you wearing a camera? A microphone? Is this some reality show? Punk’d
? ” He laughed outright, a big belly-roll laugh. “You almost had me.”
He stepped around his desk. “I really don’t have time.”
She stepped closer, as close as the desk between them would allow, unless she actually climbed over the top of it. “I’m serious. I came here to interview. This is not a prank.”
“You want me to hire you as my personal assistant?”
He squinted, eyes challenging. “And why do you think I’d even consider you for the job?”
Lifting her chin, she answered, “I know the job inside and out from your side of the desk. There will be no second-guessing. I will know what you need done before you even realize it yourself. I have no one, no responsibilities, to distract me from the commitment I make to you.”
He stroked his chin, a single finger brushing over his bottom lip, obviously thinking, sizing her up. She didn’t flinch under the scrutiny but did decide he had an absolutely kissable mouth. She blinked. Get your mind back in the game. You’ve had years of solitude to keep you warm at night; thirtysomething hormones are not going to derail you now.
“I have already picked twelve candidates from which to make my final selection; perhaps if you’d arrived earlier.”
“I arrived before the appointed time and took a number, the same as everyone else.”
“And yet the number you were given was not one of the first given out.” He walked toward the door. “I don’t like excuses, Ms. James.”
“Neither do I. I think you knew I was waiting out there, and in order to not have to interview me, you chose from the earlier slots.”
He turned to face her. “That seems like a very paranoid deduction.”
“In your business, you need a personal assistant who has learned the hard way to be very paranoid. All I’m asking for is an opportunity.”
He sized her up again, and she didn’t like the way he looked at her.
“Beg,” he said.
“Excuse me?” She pretended she hadn’t heard, but she had; she knew he was toying with her now, getting amusement from her predicament. In his shoes, she would have too.
He turned away from her and headed toward the door.
Morgan dropped to her knees and folded her hands under her chin. “Please, Mr. Cannon, give me the opportunity to prove I can do this job.”
He turned back to face her. “I don’t think there is a chance in hell you can do this job, Ms. James. You’re too self-serving, too egocentric. You’re too smart, too conniving. I think until a few months ago, you were considered one of the most brilliant minds of our generation, and deservingly so. But like a supernova, even though for a moment you outshined the best and brightest, now you are fading. In a blink, it will be as if you never were.” He shook his head. “I need someone I can count on. Someone who won’t run to the next best opportunity they are offered on their climb to the top.”
She nodded. “I’ve already been to the top; the view wasn’t that great. I’m not going to be dazzled by better offers.” God, why did I say that?
He pulled on his suit jacket, which was hanging on a mahogany valet stand tucked inconspicuously in the corner, all the while watching her. “The salary isn’t near what you are accustomed to. There won’t be any seven-digit bonuses in your future.”
She winced. The return of her last bonus, ten million dollars, still rankled. She’d taken the blame for the industry’s mistakes. Others in her position had done the same, knowing there was no way out. “I’ll do anything you ask.”
His left eyebrow arched. “Crawl to me and kiss the tops of my shoes and beg me like you really, truly need this job.”
There wasn’t any doubt she needed a job. He knows I won’t. This is his out.
Closing her eyes, she couldn’t believe she was going to do this. He probably thought he was humiliating her, but he didn’t know anything about her. How could he know how tough she was? Or what had made her that way? It didn’t matter; let him believe what he wanted, as long as she landed the job.
Opening her eyes, she caught his gaze and knew his attempt at a stare down was to intimidate her. A dare. Heart thundering in her chest, palms sweating profusely, she knew she was never going to get a better offer. Not in this town. Not in this industry. Her future appeared bleaker than she’d ever considered it could. So in her mind at least, there was never a doubt she would do exactly as he asked. Holding his gaze, she crawled across the richly carpeted floor on her hands and knees. Her eyes didn’t leave his until the last second, the moment she lowered her face to kiss the top of his shoe.
It was in that instant she realized how desperate she really was and emotion exploded through her chest, her life passing before her closed eyelids. She’d worked her way to the top of the success ladder; she’d had it all, and tonight, if he didn’t take her with him to Paris, she would be going to bed without any dinner. Tomorrow she would be packing up her bags and heading out onto the streets. She would be homeless for real. A sob broke in her chest as she said, “Please.”