Home > Right Where I Want You(6)

Right Where I Want You(6)
Jessica Hawkins

“She wouldn’t give him the time of day,” Sebastian said.

“And why not?”

“Because she sounds like the perfect woman.”

The comment shouldn’t have stung, but at five-foot-two with reddish hair that needed taming each morning, and coordination that had even failed me at Mario Kart, I was nothing like Cyndi. If Cyndi existed outside my imagination, that was. But was she the kind of girl who made Sebastian forget his morning meetings? And why did it matter to me? It didn’t. It shouldn’t.

“My point is,” I said, powering through my self-doubt, “this ‘how-to’ doesn’t take the woman into account at all. You need to identify interests for finding common ground. A woman—feel free to take notes—is much more likely than a man to fall in love based on proximity and personality rather than looks.”

“That explains why Sebastian’s perpetually single,” Justin said.

“So you think I’m good-looking?” Sebastian asked him.

“I’ve heard that from women.”

“Then at least I’ve got that going for me,” Sebastian said. “You’re just ugly and boring.”

“A great sense of humor trumps all,” I interjected. “With that, a man can win over almost any woman. So once our ‘geek’ has this information, he’ll enter the interaction with a lot more confidence no matter how he looks. Even if he plays Battlefront II.”

Some of the men laughed. “He just has to find his Battlefront princess,” Albert said.

“Exactly. Common interest.” I was still fuzzy on the details, but my research had shown that the recent release in the Star Wars franchise had been boycotted by true gamers. I’d spent part of last week brushing up on my references so I could at least pretend to be in the know. “Then we slap on a headline like, ‘How to Meet Your Princess Leia.’”

“‘How to Get Leia-d,’” Albert suggested.

Justin perked up. “How about ‘Your Guide to Meeting a Geek Goddess’?”

I laughed. “Even better. I’m not here to brainstorm cover lines. I’ll leave that stuff to you.”

“So we have full creative control over headlines?” Sebastian asked.

I smiled. “Of course not. The cover is the face of Modern Man. I’m here to make sure people are not only picking up those issues but becoming repeat customers—and telling their friends about it.”

“You’re implying our current covers don’t do that,” he said.

“Right now, you’re using women to show sex and say sex.”

“Sex sells,” Boris said so seriously, I couldn’t help but sigh.

“There’s nothing sexy about hitting people over the head with it,” I explained. “I want you to show sex and say class. Say smart. Say style. Sell sex, not a back-alley screw.”

Justin widened his eyes. “That paints a picture.”

I shrugged. Men were visual creatures, right? “There’s a female demographic—and male—that craves a men’s magazine but is put off by most of our material. I can make this happen, provided you’re willing to work with me, not against me.”

“I think you’ll be surprised to see how many female readers we have,” Sebastian said.

“I was surprised when I got the numbers,” I said, glancing at the upcoming deck of slides on my computer. I’d decided to play the next part by ear. I wasn’t sure I should get into the exposé yet since it warranted a meeting of its own, and so I wouldn’t potentially embarrass Sebastian within an hour of meeting him. That didn’t worry me anymore. “Females make up a little under sixteen percent of your reader demographic.”

“It’s closer to eighteen,” Sebastian said.

“It was. You’ve lost two percent this year, and we haven’t even seen the results of the exposé yet. That’s cause for concern, especially considering the industry standard is over twenty percent and women typically show higher brand loyalty than men.” From the ensuing silence, I could tell nobody but Vance and I were aware of that. “Do I need to cover male readership too?”

“No,” Sebastian said, shifting in his seat. “We’re up to date.”

I didn’t like calling him out. I understood he fought this because he cared, and he deserved recognition—the magazine’s readership had skyrocketed the year Sebastian had taken over. But it’d gone stagnant the last several quarters. That wasn’t abnormal for a publication that’d grown at an exponential rate like Modern Man, but numbers had started to slide backward. I couldn’t help wondering if something specific was affecting Sebastian’s work performance.

I flipped to the next slide, page one of a ten-page spread with a bolded headline across the top: “The Bad Boys of Publishing.” Sebastian flicked his thumbnail under the plastic lid of his coffee but kept his eyes on the screen behind me. “I know you’ve all seen this,” I said. “Regardless of what’s true or false, it has hurt us.”

Sebastian shifted his gaze to me and stopped fidgeting with his drink. “You don’t think it’s all true?”

For the first time since I’d walked in, his bravado faltered. I hoped the exposé, at least, wasn’t a joke to him. “It’s definitely sensationalized to get eyeballs,” I said, noting the way he nodded, “but there are some valid points at the core of it. Modern Man has been stuck in the same narrative that popularized it years ago and has since been recycling material. Now it needs to mature. The article paints us and some of our peers, including Poised, in a negative light.”

“Poised is a woman’s mag,” he said. “It’s basically the female version of us. Why aren’t you over there right now?”

“I’m in touch with them, but because I’ve consulted there before, they have the tools to survive this. Women’s magazines have faced challenges like this since their inception. When a men’s magazine and its leaders are accused of sexism, the implications are much different and the response requires a more strategic approach.”

“We’re not sexists,” Justin said. “We do all this because we worship women.”

I moved on to a photocopy of the magazine’s advice column, Badvice, with a small round picture of Sebastian next to his byline. “In just this edition,” I said, pointing behind me, “you recommend dating several coworkers at once, going Dutch with girls you don’t want to see again, and that short men should wear lifts because, and I quote, ‘the more height you have on her, the more she’ll respect you.’”

Sebastian sat forward. “The column—”

“I know,” I said. “It’s Badvice—fake, terrible advice that the exposé definitely misled readers into believing was true. That’s how I know the columnist was looking for a certain reaction. But the reason I agreed to take on this assignment is because I know you guys can do better than this.”

Sebastian sat back again and picked up his coffee. I expected him to retort, but instead, he seemed to be listening. Maybe I was getting through to him. Or maybe the exposé already had. His demeanor had softened since I’d brought it up. Was he actually ashamed of the things they’d printed? And just how much of it was true?

Albert grimaced. “Badvice doesn’t really work if it’s not, um, a little . . . polarizing.”

“Polarizing is okay,” I said. “But I’d still like to phase it out.”

Sebastian’s mask slipped back into place. “You’re missing the point of it—and Modern Man—completely.”

“I promise I’m not here to turn you all politically correct,” I said. “That’s not what this pub is. Instead, we’re going to elevate it. I want to immediately disassociate you guys with the sexist label. For the long-term, I want to make you a better magazine. When it comes to women, be deliberate, not callous.” I flipped to the profile of Sebastian, one of the seven men in publishing that’d been targeted. It was accompanied by an image of him at an event in a tuxedo, grinning off to the side with a girl on each arm. I’d seen it more than once over the past week, but with only days to prepare, I’d been much more focused on the article’s content.

I cleared my throat and read a paragraph off the screen.

“‘Hemingway and Bukowski were maligned for their machismo, but at least they contributed significantly to American literature. Quinn and his team of equally objectionable men make no apology for their juvenile humor and misogyny. One source who prefers to remain anonymous claims Quinn told her ‘the magazine is full of shit, but would you flush a golden turd?’ Golden, because it has been said that Modern Man is one of the fastest growing publications of the decade. We say there’s nothing modern about sexist rhetoric that pushes an old-school agenda to value women based on how they can serve men. Modern Man treats all women as sex objects.’”

I glanced at Sebastian, whose jawline had sharpened. Though I didn’t wish this kind of character assassination on anyone, I was glad to see the words on the screen were getting to him. It would be easier to get him to let me help navigate him through these next couple months.

I skipped to the next passage I’d highlighted. “‘The creative director is no better. A love-’em-and-leave-’em lothario, he and his sidekicks treat the city like their playground, attending each party, restaurant, and club with a new ‘delicacy’ on their arms (a term that comes directly from Quinn’s write-in BadVice column, in which he frequently associates women with food). Quinn’s affinity for damaging beautiful women and flashy cars has landed his name on Page Six more than a few times. It’s time for him to go. The good news? If he keeps it up, the magazine will soon be as obsolete as his caveman ways.’”

The room remained quiet. Sebastian had stopped clenching his teeth, but he tapped the end of his pen on his notepad in a slow, steady rhythm. I couldn’t tell if he was more pissed or pensive, but I’d ripped off the Band-Aid and now the healing could begin.

Justin broke the silence. “A lot of that is overblown,” he said. “There was one accident several years ago, and it wasn’t even—”

“I never said that thing about the turd,” Sebastian said. “At least not like that. I was trying to be clever, and she twisted my words.”

“You know the source?” I asked.

“She’s a woman I . . .” He glanced at Justin for help.

“I see.” Considering I’d been aware of Sebastian’s playboy reputation, it came as no surprise that he’d scorned some women along the way. I’d seen firsthand how easy it would be to fall under his spell. I wanted Sebastian to know I wasn’t there to tiptoe around his bad rap. “You fucked her, so she fucked you back.”

A few of the guys, including Sebastian, widened their eyes. “Jesus, no,” he insisted. “After the conversation she was referring to, she assumed she was leaving the party with me and wouldn’t take no for an answer. I had to be blunt with her, and she didn’t take it well.”

I wasn’t sure what to make of that. Did Sebastian see himself as such a catch that he was turning away women left and right? And could I really challenge that, considering his magnetism had left me nearly speechless earlier? I wouldn’t blame Sebastian for fibbing to cover his ass, but that wouldn’t get us anywhere. “Much like a lawyer,” I said gently, “I need honesty so I can anticipate any incoming problems.”

“What I just told you is the truth,” he said.

“Well, to the public, truth doesn’t matter,” I said. “I’ll also need to be made aware of any interoffice, ah, relations.” It wasn’t the first time I’d made that request of clients, so why was I fighting off the blush creeping up my neck? Because it was the first time my personal interest overcame my professional one. I’d soon know whether Sebastian and June were more than coffee buddies.

“There are no relations,” Justin said with a sigh. “Believe me, I’d know. The gossip around here is slower than Garth’s comprehension on a good day.”

“He’s right,” Vance said. “Fraternization has been strictly forbidden since Dixon Media had some problems at another publication.” Vance quickly added, “But never this one.”

“So I was right,” Sebastian said. “You’re more or less here to babysit us.”

“Don’t be babies, and I won’t have to,” I replied.

Vance applauded. He’d heard some of this over the phone already, at least what I’d been able to pull together in such a short amount of time, but he still seemed impressed. A few joined in, and others looked to Sebastian for direction. He was definitely more than a boss to these guys. It irked me that he scowled. My presentation had been short, sweet, and backed by numbers—men appreciated that. There was no denying I’d made my point. Why wasn’t he applauding? Because he didn’t, others refrained as well.

“We’ll do whatever we can to accommodate you, Miss Keller,” Vance said.

I smiled out at the men, and a few smiled back. Progress. “Call me George,” I said, addressing them all. “Except for you,” I said to Sebastian when I caught him looking at my chest. I adjusted my neckline. “While I’m brandishing the whip, Miss Keller will be fine.”

More laughing, and this time, Boris slapped Sebastian on the back. “Lighten up, Q.”

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