Chapter 9

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My office looked like a circus tent. All the walls were now covered in garishly bright stripes, the elegant cream-colored armchairs had been replaced by two semi-circular, red velvet sectionals, and Ferrero stood in the center like a ringleader directing the placement of two mannequins and a golden sculpture of a poodle standing on his front paws. A standard poodle.

I took one look and turned to run.

Unfortunately, Ferrero had keen eyesight.

“My muse,” he called out.

Shoulders slumped in resignation, I walked into my office to face the disaster.

“Where have you been all morning?” he chided.

“Errands,” I said dismissively, hoping he would drop the topic, “I am a very busy woman.”

He waved both soft hands in front of his face. “No more,” he clucked. “From now on you are only my muse. You shall eat, breathe, drink, love the Spring Collection. If I work, you work. If I rest, you rest. We are the same person.”

Closing my eyes against his over-the-top display of artistic temperament, I wished this all away like the remnants of a bad dream.

Couldn’t we go back, like, five days? Just before I walked through that door with Phelps and my life hurtled out of control. No, that wouldn’t be far enough. I’d have to go back at least until before I told Jawbreaker about the NEB in the first place.

Cherie?” His multi-accented voice invaded my delusional fantasy. “Cherie, we must to work.”

Reluctantly opening my eyes, I found the workmen gone, the mannequins standing at either end of my desk, the golden poodle on my desk—where my monitor use to be—and Ferrero reclining on one of the red sofas with a sketchpad in hand.

He looked enthusiastic. Anticipatory. Predatory.

“All right,” I replied hesitantly, “what do you want me to do?”

I crossed to my desk and rummaged around for a sketchpad of my own. And surreptitiously slid the bags of Jolly Ranchers, Cinnamon Bears, and Squirrel Nut Zippers into my lower left drawer. A feisty Zipper dropped to the floor and I knelt under the desk to fetch it.

I had just closed my fingers around the nutty treat when Ferrero said, “First, you must take off your clothes.”

“Wha—aaack!” The crown of my skull connected with the solid wood of my desk drawer, sending lightning bolts of pain to every nerve ending I possessed.

“Are you okay?” Ferrero asked, in a suspiciously un-accented voice.

He rushed to my side and tried to help me up but I smacked away his hands.

“What did you just say to me?” I rose to my feet and put some extra distance between us as I rubbed my throbbing head. My left hand tightened into a fist around something solid. I looked down. The Squirrel Nut Zipper.

While Ferrero formulated a response, I unwrapped the prodigal candy and devoured it.

“I only meant,” he began, Italian accent firmly in place, “that you should be in something more comfortable than what you have on.”

He gestured to my ivory pencil skirt and matching cashmere turtleneck sweater. I scowled. “I am perfectly comfortable as is, thank you.”

“Fine, yes, of course.” Ferrero hurried back to the couch and sketchpad. “Only thinking of your comfort, cherie.”

“Right,” I replied.

With my own sketchpad in hand, I sat down on the opposite couch, facing him across the—I shuddered to think—black lacquer coffee table.

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