Home > Right Where I Want You(5)

Right Where I Want You(5)
Jessica Hawkins

As I stood and surveyed the room, Sebastian entered, the last to arrive, as if he’d been loitering outside. A young man gave up his seat to Sebastian, joining a group gathered at the back. Sebastian was important around here, but was he more than a boss to these guys?

“Morning, everyone,” Vance said, and the room quieted. “Please give a warm welcome to George Keller, who’ll be joining our team as a publishing consultant and PR specialist for the next eight weeks.”

I laced my fingers in front of myself and smiled, ignoring the rumble of whispers through the crowd.

“George comes to us with many successful years in media consulting and PR crises,” Vance continued. “Remember how the features editor of Moms and Babes spent a month in rehab for opioids?”

The men mumbled. “I never heard that,” one said.

“Exactly,” Vance said, rocking on his heels and smiling as if he’d pulled off the feat of hiding her overdose from the press himself.

“I stopped the story before it leaked,” I said, “then, with the help of her staff, we put out one of the magazine’s best-selling issues to this day.” I scratched under my nose. “Although, I did sign an NDA about the opioid thing, so if we could keep that in the room . . .”

Everyone laughed. Well, almost everyone. Sebastian just tapped his pen on his notepad.

“George has helped turn around several media-based companies, which resulted in over a million dollars cumulatively earned.”

I nodded at Vance as he took the seat next to me. “Thank you for that generous introduction, but you’re giving me too much credit. The real magic happens because of the team.”

A mustached man to my left put up his hand. “What exactly is a publishing consultant and . . .”

“PR specialist,” I finished.

“As you all know, Modern Man has experienced a few down quarters and more recently, it’s been in hot water with the press.” Vance spoke cautiously about what I could only assume was a sore subject. “George is here to get us out of it.”

“How?” the man asked.

“Good question,” I said. “You are?”

“Boris,” he supplied.

“First, we’re going to tackle the PR side of things, Boris. MM’s brand, messaging, and image needs work, and this is the perfect time to fine-tune it considering the magazine is under attack.”

Someone from Sebastian’s section of the conference table muttered under his breath, but I did my best to ignore it.

“Once I perform a little emergency PR magic,” I continued, “then comes the part I love most about my job—getting to the bottom of why things have stalled when you should be thriving. I’ll sit down with each of you to see how you feel the publication is doing and what improvements can be made. Entirely confidential, of course. We’ll collaborate to refine Modern Man’s image and identify and remove the reasons we’re losing our readership. But change begins with all of you.”

Justin grimaced. “Change?”

“Justin doesn’t do well with change,” Boris said. “He likes the status quo.”

“I’m the same,” I said. That was more or less true—no human being really loved change, especially in the workplace—but in past assignments, I’d made the most headway commiserating with the team’s resistance rather than fighting it. “It doesn’t have to be extreme. We’ll review and tweak, review and tweak, rinse and repeat. Baby steps to figure out why you’ve lost ground to your largest competitor—and how to regain it.”

Sebastian stuck the capped end of his pen in his mouth. It was a small tell, but perhaps a clue as to what he was thinking. How did he feel that his ship had begun to sink under his command?

“You can also think of me as a job therapist,” I said. “Feel free to come to me with anything. I’m here to uncover your untapped potential and exploit your strengths—and weaknesses—to the magazine’s benefit as I whip you into shape.”

“Uncover, exploit, whip,” Sebastian listed as he made notes. “Maybe this won’t be so bad after all. It’ll be nice to be on the receiving end for once.”

Some men chuckled. I sought out the only other woman in the room, who rolled her eyes with a shrug. Typical. If Sebastian thought this was a joke, he was about to learn a hard lesson.

“Don’t let them get to you,” Vance murmured.

I had no intention of that, but Vance’s under-the-breath comments wouldn’t do anything except undermine me. “It’s okay,” I whispered loud enough for Sebastian to hear. “A sense of humor will help ease the sting.”

He narrowed his eyes at me, but that earned me a smile from the woman.

“Miss Keller has my complete support,” Vance said. “For now, I request that everything go through George first, whether it’s story ideas, advice, events, web, or print—”

“It’s a shame we don’t already have someone for that,” Sebastian said. “Say, a creative director.”

“This applies to you too, Quinn,” Vance said. “Georgina lays eyes on everything.”

“You promoted me years ago to take this magazine to the next level, and that’s what I did. Now all of a sudden I have to run my ideas by someone else?” He glared. “I’m not doing that.”

“You will. I don’t care if Miss Keller wants to know the color and consistency of your morning dump.”

“That . . . won’t be necessary,” I said.

With a light knock on the door, a pretty blonde girl who couldn’t be more than twenty-one or twenty-two entered. She crouched in a way that the neckline of her billowy blouse exposed a nude bra. The room quieted as she rounded the table and smiled at Sebastian, but she whispered as she set a giant coffee cup in front of him. “Dunkin’ delivery.”

He smiled back at her. “Thanks, June. You saved me today.”

She winked and slunk back out of the room as the guys watched. Maybe it was the cynic Neal had awoken in me, but I couldn’t help wondering if Sebastian had slept with her or was working on it. Was anyone immune to his charms? Was I? Based on the way jealousy sparked in me—I wasn’t. He’d captured my attention this morning with practically no effort on his part.

My cheeks warmed when I noticed only Sebastian had turned forward again, and he was scanning my face. As if reading my every thought, he raised a dark, knowing eyebrow, then reassumed his perma-scowl.

I cleared my throat, calling their attention back once June had closed the door behind her. “May I continue?”

A man signaled that he had a question. “Are we in trouble?”

Vance opened his mouth, but I spoke first. “No,” I said, “but you’re headed for it.”

“Are you like Anthony Pellicano?” Justin asked. “You inflict pain and make things . . . go away?”

Sebastian sat back in his seat and spoke around the end of his pen. “She doesn’t know who that is.”

“You can think of me as Pellicano if that helps, minus the dead fish and prison sentence,” I said. Something like approval passed over Sebastian’s face, but he quickly schooled it. “But when I say ‘ease the sting,’ I mean there’ll be growing pains. Maybe an example will help. You’re all aware Modern Man is one of the country’s top ten men’s interest publications, but do you have any idea how it tests with women?”

“Doesn’t matter,” Sebastian said. “Women aren’t our demographic.”

“That’s where you’re wrong,” I said, then turned to Vance. “And therein lies one of your biggest problems. While I admit your publication has made great strides in the diversity arena, that only pertains to men. By ignoring the female demographic, you’re automatically excluding fifty percent of the world’s population.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Sebastian said.

“Is it? Take a look at this pie chart.” I picked up the remote and flipped the slide. “Women influence over eighty percent of consumer spending in the U.S. That’s trillions of dollars you’re leaving on the table by ignoring them. Of primary shoppers in a household, over fifty percent are women. Tell me, Mr. Quinn, who does the grocery shopping in your household—you or your wife?”

Sebastian flexed his right hand as his eyes flicked to my chest. I wasn’t sure how, but I instinctively knew he was thinking about our pre-collision flirtation that morning. “That’s sexist,” he answered.

“I see. So, you do the majority of shopping for you and your wife?”

“I’m single.” He smirked. “And I test great with women.”

“So I’ve heard.” I gave him my most sugary smile. “Unfortunately, I’m looking for someone who can score more than one night.”

“My wife does the shopping,” a man volunteered, and everyone turned to him. “I haven’t stepped into a supermarket since I got married, and I’m fine with that.”

“What’s your name?” I asked.


“Thank you, Garth. That’s precisely my point. Do you know the average wait time in a grocery store checkout line? Up to five minutes.” I moved to the next slide without bothering to turn and check it. They could read. “What do grocery stores sell in the checkout aisles? Impulse buys.” I hit the button again. “Do you know how much more likely women are to impulse buy than men?” I looked out at a sea of blank faces. Only the woman nodded. “Exactly my point,” I said. “You don’t know, because you don’t know women. I do. And this is just a preview of the kind of research my agency has compiled.”

Sebastian turned to Vance. “Are you hearing this? She’s talking about single-copy sales in the grocery store aisle, a space everyone knows is dead.”

“True, consumers are no longer bored at checkout,” I said. “They have their phones, and the team back at my office is analyzing your online presence as we speak, but don’t discount print yet. It supports digital, enhances branding, and draws in lifestyle readers with more disposable income.”

“Anyone can Google statistics,” Sebastian said. “How do you suggest we implement all that without alienating our male readers?”

“My agency actually conducted much of this research,” I said, reaching under the table for my purse, “so, no, it’s not available to anyone with a Wi-Fi connection. Part of what you’re paying for is my data.” I pulled an August 2017 issue of Modern Man from my bag and flipped to a Post-it near the middle. “Here we have a ‘dating hacks for geeks’ article authored by Garth Hurley and presumably edited by Sebastian.”

Sebastian slid his tie through his hand. Its gold color only enhanced the idyllic green of his eyes, but he must’ve known that when he’d purchased it. He nodded me on.

“Your advice is that they use their brain power for ‘something useful’ such as memorizing Modern Man-approved pick-up lines or choosing books from the ‘panty-dropper library’ on the website.”

“That page gets a lot of hits,” pointed out a man I assumed worked in web.

“Then, you suggest they swap their glasses for contacts—which is archaically stereotypical—and their Star Wars t-shirts for a tailored outfit from Saks for the first date.”

Garth pointed at Sebastian. “May the Fifth Avenue department stores be with you.”

“Lastly, Garth, you’ve prepared talking points for these guys limited to the day’s headlines, exotic travel, and healthy food and habits.”

Garth shrugged. “Women love to talk about wellness and shit.”

“You tell them never to bring up video games, math, or even books or movies unless they’ve familiarized themselves with something Modern Man deems ‘sexy.’ Basically, you tell them how to be someone else.”

“I don’t see the problem,” Garth said, cinching his eyebrows. “They’re geeks.”

Was short and squat Garth with his mid-forties receding hairline and custard on his tie being deliberately obtuse? Or was it that hard for him to grasp that a relationship built on lies was doomed to fail? I set the magazine on the table. “The term geek has been rehabbed. Look at contemporary film and TV—geek is the new chic. Some women want a more sensitive, adept man. Some women find geeks incredibly sexy.”

“Yeah,” Justin agreed. “They’re called geek-ettes.”

I sighed, trying to decide where to start. “There’s a difference between bettering yourself to meet a partner and flat-out deceit. What happens once he’s used up his one outfit? Or when his date wants to cook him the broccoli rabe he claimed to love?”

“He’ll eat the damn broccoli rabe whether he likes it or not,” Sebastian said. “Everyone pretends to be someone else when dating. Have you ever been on Tinder?”

“Aside from making broad, false generalizations, you’re shaming these guys for being themselves,” I said. “And you’re setting them up for failure.”

“Albert here.” A hand shot up in greeting, then gestured down the conference table at a heavy-set, bespectacled man with floppy, brown hair. “If you know of a better way to get Derek in IT a date, we’re all ears.”

Derek—I presumed—threw a balled-up napkin at Albert. “I have a girlfriend, you tool.”

I rubbed my eyebrow, thinking. “Take my cousin Cyndi for instance. She’s blonde with blue eyes, five-foot-eight, and does commercial modeling on the side. Her real job is a data scientist for the FBI, but nights and weekends, she’s hooked on Red Dead Redemption. I’ll bet she’d love to talk tech with you, Derek.”

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