A Brit Complicated Sneak Peek
A BRIT COMPLICATED - sneak peek
Bradley Waring-Smith is a knobhead.
A fact confirmed by him dropping my draft design docs on my desk with a big red Try Again scribbled across the top. Like I’m an underachieving high school student. He doesn’t even say anything as he strides away, his long legs carrying him back to his glass-walled office, where he surveys us all. We’re the peons and he’s lord of the manor.
I clench my hands and resist screaming. Barely.
“Scarlett St Julien, don’t you dare give in.” Tom pushes half of a Cadbury Dairy Milk chocolate bar across the two-inch gap separating our desks. “It will only bring you the wrong kind of attention.”
“You mean I’ll come across as angry as opposed to incompetent?” I take the chocolate bar and break off a square. “I don’t even understand why he moved me to this team if this is what I get from him. Do you know how long I spent on this design?”
Tom does know because he’s sat at the desk across from me for the past two months since I’ve joined the workplace design team. He’s seen me go through what I call the Stages of Employment: Up Before the Alarm; Two-Coffee Mornings; Four-Coffee Mornings; Running late. Again; Attending the Company Picnic; and Organizing the Company Picnic. It’s kind of like the stages of grief but without inner peace at the end.
“Read Brad’s comments before you lose it. They might not be that bad.” Tom’s a two-coffee morning kind of guy. I’ve hardly ever heard him swear.
Which doesn’t make me the ideal colleague. “Do you believe that? Because scrawling Try Again across designs I’ve spent two weeks on is supposed to be fucking motivational?”
“No, but you know when he does compliment your work he means it.” Tom smiles. He has a good smile, straight white teeth that glow against smooth ebony skin. Most of the time I can’t help smiling in reply.
But today I won’t be swayed. “The distance between encouragement and downright demoralizing is pretty great. I’m not asking for praise here, just a speck of support.”
Tom nudges the chocolate bar towards me again. “Have some more chocolate. It might make you feel better.”
“It won’t.” I take another square anyway and flick through the sheaf of papers. “Tell me again how you’ve been his business manager for five years? You moved here for this company.”
“Eh. New York isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.” Tom glances up at my expression and shrugs. “The truth is, Brad’s built an incredible company and even though he’s tough, he’s fair. You prove yourself and the world is your oyster as far as WS Consulting is concerned.”
Proving myself obviously means something different than what I’ve been doing. But what? I’ve been working twelve hours a day, six days a week for the past two weeks and it’s not enough. I sigh and take another square of chocolate, eyeing Tom across his desk. “When I have a fat arse, I’m holding you responsible. Or him.”
I twist around to glance at Mr. Waring-Smith. He’s on the phone, looking out over the street below, his back to us. I admire the pull of his dark gray suit jacket across his shoulders. Although Bradley Waring-Smith is a twat – my name-calling game is strong – he is something to look at. Black wavy hair, perpetual five o’clock shadow dotting his olive skin, dark brown eyes, and an undoubtedly killer physique beneath those tailor-made suits. He’s not movie-star handsome – his nose is a tiny bit too hawkish and he could use a brow trim – but he’s sexy as hell. If he had half a personality to match, I’d work my twelve hours a day happily.
Because, of course, he logs all the hours I do and then some. I come in before eight, he’s already on the phone. I pack up after the cleaners have come and gone, he’s focused on the giant computer screen in front of him or scrawling in a notebook. Sure, he disappears to the gym most afternoons, but it’s probably the only time he sees daylight.
It’s also the only time the office lets its collective hair down. People laugh, linger over the kettle in the kitchen, and talk about footie scores or weekend plans. From two to four p.m., we’re free to be human. Not that there’s an explicit rule against it, but it’s implied. WS is one of the top architectural and interior design firms in the U.S. and it’s not going to break into the London/European market with a bunch of slackers sailing the ship now, is it?
I turn to Tom, who’ s back to his keyboard. “So, proving myself? How does that work? Because I thought I was doing that.”
Tom stops typing and looks at me like he’s trying to decide how honest he should be. “Review the notes he’s made on your designs, then ask for a meeting so you can discuss his comments and how they align with your vision. Brad moved you up to the workplace design team and gave you responsibility for the meeting rooms because he thinks you’re capable, but if you incorporate his feedback at the expense of your unique perspective, then what’s the point of having you on the team? He could have done it himself and next time around he will.”
Well. Tom decided to be very honest. Ouch.
He lowers his voice. “Look, you have a real opportunity here. Take it.”
I let out a long breath. I know Tom’s right. But every fiber of my being protests Bradley’s approach. I’ve read books on management and have had other bosses – including my own mother – but none have made me as frustrated as Bradley Waring-Smith. It’s not like I’m fifteen and cowed by authority. Hell, Bradley Waring-Smith is less than ten years older than me. I’ve slept with men older and more powerful than him. But they weren’t men I wanted to impress.
Which is the crux of it. Even if I don’t earn his praise, I want Bradley Waring-Smith’s respect. Or at least enough of his respect to get promoted. I pick up the sheaf of papers on my desk. I’m going to follow Tom’s advice to the letter, which means cooling off and addressing these suggestions one by one.
Starting with ignoring the red Try Again at the top and diving into his actual comments, which, after an initial scan, focus on aesthetics like materials and practicalities like cost and supply. His comments, though red-penned and plentiful, are straightforward, and by the time I’ve gotten through the whole document I’m nodding in agreement.
A fact that doesn’t escape Tom, who grins at me when I look up and says, “Feeling better, Snow White?”
I stick my tongue out at him. “I told you not to call me that.”
“Skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood, and hair as black as ebony. The shoe fits.”
“Which dwarf are you today then? Dopey?” Tom and I almost have a script for this and, while I usually play along, now I need to focus on other things. “Never mind. Question for you, where would you get silk from if you were the one sourcing it?”
Tom goes straight into work mode. “A lot of people would go to Peregi because they’ve got the name recognition, but I’d check out the Textiles Co. over in Shepherd’s Bush. They’re not as upmarket, but they’re competitive and they’ve got an incentive scheme. What are you using it for?”
“I think it will add a certain flair as a wall covering in the conference rooms.” Tom opens his mouth but I continue. “Especially if it’s hand painted.”
“You’re going to paint silk?” Tom asks. “That sounds expensive. What makes it a better option than wallpaper?”
“Clients come in expecting a level of luxury and if we take them to meeting rooms with flowered wallpaper and rosewood tables, they’re going to go somewhere else. I know I would.” I glance at my computer screen. “The WS logo is green and white. Not my favorite color combo, but when it’s cream-colored silk with leaves and blossoms, it’s not so bad. Plus, it’s very Japanese, which lends itself to more interesting furniture and accessories.”
Tom nods. “Is that how you’ve positioned it in your design brief?”
Well, no. And having talked it through, I see what my original was lacking. I still don’t think it warrants a red-penned Try Again, but what I’ve got could be a lot better.
I stick my lower lip out a little in a pout. “Don’t you dare say ‘I told you so’ or I’ll tell Tara you lurve her.”
“You wouldn’t.” Tom’s tone is guarded and I’m not sure if it’s because he thinks I’d do it or he doesn’t like me teasing him about his crush on my roommate in our open-plan workspace. At the pub on a Friday night is one thing, and I immediately look around. No one’s listening or paying us any attention that I can tell.
“I wouldn’t. I’m just being hateful.” I give a simpering smile. “Please accept my apologies.”
“On one condition.” Tom raises a brow. “You and your gorgeous roommate come to the protest march tonight.”
“The protest march?” I know what he’s talking about. I’d have to be deaf and blind not to. Social media is in an uproar about the contracts the U.K. government has with a company that’s taking a lot of heat for human rights violations. Six p.m. outside Downing Street. “I won’t be done with work by then.”
“This is important. Make an exception.” Tom raises an eyebrow at me.
“Why? I mean, I think the whole thing is terrible, but it’s not my problem.” I shrug.
Tom stares at me. “Not your problem? Please say that again so you can hear how self-centered that sounds.”
“You know I didn’t mean it that way.” My words come out in a rush and I feel the pink rise in my cheeks. Talk about acting like a knobhead. “I’m not that awful.”
“Prove it, Snow White.” Tom gives me an evil grin and he taps his fingers on his desk.
My lips twist with the effort not to smile. Damn Tom and his ideals. And the fact that he’s been nice to me from the minute I walked in the door and doubly nice since I took up residence across from him. He’s senior to me, part of Bradley’s inner circle, and way more competent than I’ll ever be. He could make my life hell, but he hasn’t. He wouldn’t. Because of course he’s also a better person than I am in at least ten different ways.
Eleven, counting tonight’s protest.
I flick my phone on and text Tara. Hey, what are you doing tonight? Want to come shout at the PM with me and Tom?
I hear her phone ding across the room and she glances up, nodding as she catches my eye. Two seconds later her thumbs up comes through and I sigh.
I glance up at Tom and nod. “Looks like we’re going to a protest march. I guess it’s good I wore flats today.”
“Almost as if it were meant to be.” Tom’s smile widens.
Finally, I laugh. In the long list of things that are meant to be, this is so not one of them. It’s not even on the list.
Tom holds my elbow and I link my other arm through Tara’s. It should be Tom holding onto Tara, considering the crush he has on her, but it’s so crowded, I don’t dare shuffle around.
“I told Claire we’d meet her and Greyson by Horse Guards Parade and we can walk down from there.” My voice is loud, almost yelling over the sound of steel drums and chanting. Normally I keep quiet about my closest friend and her hot Hollywood actor boyfriend, but if they’re here, they’re not concerned with privacy.
“You do realize there are thousands of people here?” Tom looks dubious and I don’t blame him. Finding anyone, even Greyson Vaughn, is going to be like looking for a polar bear in a snowstorm in this crowd.
“Look for a gorgeous guy being hounded for his autograph,” I say.
“Are you kidding? I’m a huge Star Fleet fan. I know who Greyson Vaughn is, but I’m not sure that will help,” says Tom.
Tara yanks my arm. “Is that him?” She points to our right.
I strain to see, but all I see are heads bobbing up and down to the beat as the crowd works its way down the street. “I can’t tell. Let me call Claire.”
I slip my phone from my bag and dial Claire. She answers on the third ring. “Hey. Where are you? We’re right near the gate.”
I swivel my head around. “We’re right near the gate, too.”
“Okay, I’m waving. Can you see me?” Claire’s voice muffles. “Hey, love, wave so Scarlett can find us.”
“So it’s love now? Oooh la la.” I smile and look up, seeing two hands raised about ten meters in front of us. “I see you. Stay there and we’ll be right over.”
“Where?” asks Tom.
“Over there.” I follow Tara’s lead as she weaves through the crowd, dragging Tom forward until he’s by my side. “You know, I’ve been thinking, in exchange for coming here tonight, are you going to help me finalize my designs?”
Tom narrows his eyes at me. “I thought you were here out of social consciousness and the goodness of your heart.”
“I am. But I’m mostly here for you.” It’s the truth, even if I’m not supposed to say it.
Tom looks like he wants to say a million things, but he settles for, “Well, I appreciate it.”
“Hey, no work talk, you two,” Tara says, poking me in the ribs with her elbow. “I had a shit day and I’m looking forward to screaming my lungs out. I don’t need any more ammunition.”
“We’re not talking about work. We’re talking about Scarlett’s lack of social conscience.” Tom smiles, but there’s no joking in his tone.
Tara, my old friend, roommate, and now coworker, has never struck me as very socially conscientious either. But then she says, “It’s her privilege showing. It was going to come out sooner or later.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” My tone is straight up defensive.
“You’re white, upper middle class, and there’s a whole host of things you’ve never had to worry about because of it.” Tara shrugs. “It doesn’t mean there’s no hope for you, but awareness is kind of the first step.”
“Wow.” I stop in the middle of the crowd. “Have you always had such a low opinion of me or is this something new?”
“I don’t have a low opinion of you or we wouldn’t be friends, let alone roommates. But truthful things are truthful.” Tara shrugs again and says, “A lot of people see someone with brown skin and make assumptions. When you grow up with those assumptions, you recognize pretty quickly when someone hasn’t had the same experience because their set of assumptions are totally different.”
“Like what?” I wish I didn’t sound scornful, but I did. I do.
“Easiest example, when you get on an airplane, people nod and smile. When I get on an airplane, people assume I might blow it up, and if not me, then one my brothers.” Tara’s eyes dare me to challenge her.
But I can’t. She’s right. I still remember our Art History trip to Italy when we were in sixth form. Tara and her twin brother got pulled aside at passport control and questioned for so long we thought they’d miss the flight. Tariq had gotten on the plane madder than a bee in the bottom of a wellie, but Tara had just been resigned.
“I know.” I sigh and nod. “Point taken. I’m an asshole.”
Tom, who’s been quiet during this whole exchange, pipes up and says, “Nah. If you were really an asshole, you’d have stopped listening by now.”
“And you wouldn’t be here fighting the good fight.” Tara yanks me forward. “Buck up, sister. You could still be at work.”
“Who says ‘buck up?’ Have you been taken over by a sixty-year-old man? Because, if so, I’m going to have to rethink our roommate situation.”
“It’s Tara-speak,” says Tom. “Don’t worry about it.”
“You know I speak English better than you do.” Tara laughs. “I am fully versed in the Queen’s English as opposed to that rubbish from the colonies.”
“I have nothing against the Queen’s English. It’s the Queen’s spelling I object to,” says Tom. “As for the colonies, let’s just note which side of the pond I’m on.”
Tara laughs. “Indeed. Long live the Queen.”
I don’t want to get into a long political discussion – ironic, I know, given where we are – so I nudge Tara in the side. “Greyson and Claire are just there. Do you see them?”
She nods and pushes a strand of hair behind her ear. “I still can’t get over that you know Greyson Vaughn. Do I look all right?”
Point A – Tara looks way better than all right. Her long black hair hangs in messy waves to the middle of her back, and with her full lips and slightly hooded eyes, she always looks like she’s just finished a super-hot make-out sesh. She could be a model if she were taller, but at just under five feet, she’s shorter than most twelve-year-olds.
Point B, which I say out loud, “Greyson’s with Claire. Trust me, he’s not going to notice you.”
“Well that’s depressing.” Tara makes a face. “If she wasn’t your friend all bets would be off, you know. I don’t meet potential sugar daddies every day of the week.”
My heart aches a little for Tom and I say, “What on earth do you need a sugar daddy for? You’re going to make your fortunes as an architect at WS.”
“I know.” Tara rolls her eyes. “But it’s just so much work, especially given the WS part of that equation.”
Because Tara and I are roommates and coworkers, we’ve had our fair share of bitch sessions about Bradley Waring-Smith and his insane expectations. But before I can agree, Tom says, “Hey, no work talk, remember? Besides, here are your friends, Scarlett.”
Sure enough, there are Claire and Greyson three feet in front of us, looking adorable. Claire’s got an arm around Greyson’s back and he looks…relaxed? I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen them together in public and Greyson’s always on high alert. Like he’s expecting the paparazzi to descend and catch him with his hand down his pants.
“Hey, you two,” I call, tripping across a guy’s foot to land toe-to-toe with Claire. “Sorry. Trying to make an entrance.”
“We’ll just call you Grace,” says Claire, leaning over to kiss my cheek.
Greyson smiles and leans down to kiss my cheek, too. “It’s good to see you. I was surprised when Claire said you’d be here. This doesn’t seem like your thing.”
Seriously? On one hand, it’s good to know my reputation is consistent. On the other, my reputation is consistently kind of crap.
Before I can respond – either in self-defense or sarcasm – Tom extends his hand and says, “Hi, I’m Tom George. It’s nice to meet you. I figure I should get the ‘I’m a big fan’ thing out of the way.”
Greyson shakes Tom’s hand. “Great to meet you, too. Where are you from in the States?”
I hear Tom say Long Island and turn to Claire. “Hey, lovely. You remember Tara? Beware, she’s got a thing for your boyfriend.”
“I do not.” Tara bumps my arm and turns her attention to Claire. “I think we’ve met. You were at the flat a few weeks ago and I buzzed in to grab my purse.”
Claire nods. “I remember. You had a date waiting at the pub down the street. Did it work out?”
“They never work out, but I like to keep the door revolving.” Tara offers a fleeting grin and says, “Should we try to move up a little?”
Number Ten Downing Street is almost right next door to Horse Guards Parade, and given the size of the crowd, I’m not sure there’s much moving to be done. Claire looks skeptical, too, and says, “I’m all for staying here until the actual march starts.”
“Speaking of, what are you guys doing here? This seems like the kind of thing that would make Greyson break out in hives,” I say.
“God, no. The minute he found out about this, he texted and asked me if I would meet him so we could come together. He’s so frustrated by the whole global political situation that having something tangible he can do is a win-win. Plus, I’m not too pleased with the way this has been handled. Who does the PM think we are?” Claire’s voice rises to a level usually reserved for talking about her grandmother.
“The way I see it, if we don’t stand up, it’s the same thing as approval,” Tara starts. She continues talking as Claire nods and I tune her out.
On the other side of me, Greyson and Tom debate the merits of various New York pizza places. All around me, people talk, gesture, and wave signs. The atmosphere is upbeat. It’s not a party, but it’s not a far cry from angry and angsty. Definitely not what I expected. Maybe this does beat being in the office?
When a whistle sounds over the crowd, a cheer erupts. Followed by the group next to me starting to chant, “Human rights are not optional.” I peek at my watch. Six o’clock on the dot. Brits are nothing if not prompt, even in protest.
The crowd surges forward and I stumble, grabbing the arm of the guy next to me. I look up to apologize and freeze. Shit, shit, shit, what are the odds? A million to one? Greyson Vaughn to Jack Black? That doesn’t even make any sense, which is a clear sign I’m flummoxed.
Because the arm my silver-painted nails dig into as I try to regain my balance belongs to none other than Bradley Waring-Smith.
“Scarlett?” Bradley Waring-Smith looks down at my hand. “What are you doing here?”
I’m not sure what to say, so I settle for the truth. “I came with Tom and Tara.”
Bradley looks around and then back to my hand, which is still wrapped around his forearm. His very muscular forearm, if my grip doesn’t deceive me. I let go like he’s on fire and he says, “Well, good to see you.”
That doesn’t sound convincing, but instead of saying something similar and moving away, I can’t help asking, “What are you doing here?”
Let’s face it. If being at a protest march doesn’t seem like my thing, it certainly doesn’t seem like Mr. Workaholic’s. So, it wouldn’t surprise me if his being here were accidental. As in, ‘I was trying to get to Regent’s Park and took a wrong turn.’ I would believe that. Harder to believe? When Bradley says, “Taking a stand like everybody else.”
“Against the U.K. government, the company they’re keeping, or both?” Bradley Waring-Smith is American, but he’s expanding his business in the U.K., which means he’s impacted by U.K. politics. I get that. But I still don’t get why he’s here.
“If I had to choose, I’d protest your PM, specifically. Silence in these situations is the same as consent and I can’t condone that.” For a second I’m afraid Bradley’s going to start listing issues and I’m going to have to pretend to be more well-informed than I really am, but instead he says, “Where are Tom and Tara?”
Oh crap. I don’t want to get separated from them. I look around, but I can’t see them. Or Greyson and Claire. They were talking and moving, and for all I know they’ve been swallowed up by the crowd. Which means I’m here with Bradley Waring-Smith or on my own. At least that choice is clear. “I don’t know, but I’m sure I’ll find them.”
I move to step away, but then Bradley says, “Why don’t you stay with me until you do?”
Um, because if I stay with you the chances we’ll have to speak go up by a thousand percent, which seems like a bad idea all around. Worse if I take into account we’re not in the office with a stack of papers in front of us, so what on earth do we talk about?
It’s not like Bradley and I have never talked. We have. But not spontaneously. Unless you count the few times we’ve met in the kitchen and chatted while waiting for the kettle to boil. But that’s a minute, maybe two, always with an end in sight. This? Not so much.
However, there’s no graceful exit now. Besides the fact my friends have disappeared, I’m not keen on getting through this crowd. So I say, “Sure, thanks. Great idea.”
Bradley shuffles forward with the crowd and I follow. I want to pull my phone out and call Claire or Tara, but what if that comes across as I don’t want to be here with you? I don’t want to be here with him, but I don’t want to look desperate to escape either. Then again, what if he’s waiting for me to phone them? He said he’d stay with me until I found them, but it wasn’t exactly an invitation.
I’m second-guessing myself all over the place, so I’m distracted when Bradley says, “Pardon me for saying so, but this doesn’t seem like your scene.”
“Wow. I’m glad to know I’ve made such a positive impression all around.” The words are out before I can stop them.
Bradley raises his eyebrows. “I’m not sure I understand.”
“You’re right. Tom guilted me into coming, so here I am. Otherwise, I’d still be sat at my desk working on my designs.” This was beating that by a hair, but not anymore.
Bradley raises an eyebrow at me. “Well, surely being here at this march you want no part of is better than still being in the office? It’s a gorgeous evening.”
I swear there’s a smile lurking in his eyes, but it doesn’t make me feel any less flustered. I mean, yes, being here is better than being in the office. Sort of. But I can’t say that to the boss. I settle on, “Let’s just say it’s nice to be out of the office at six o’clock.”
“If you want to be out of the office by six o’clock, why don’t you leave at six o’clock?”
“I thought…” I don’t know what I thought. The truth is I thought putting in more hours would make me appear more dedicated, which I thought would help me rise through the ranks more quickly. I want to be part of the luxury accounts team within the year, which is next to impossible, I know. But I didn’t write my grad school thesis, “The Impact of Color and Art in the Workplace on Employee Satisfaction,” to be relegated to workplace design even if – as my mum is so fond of pointing out – my current job description could have been lifted almost word-for-word from my thesis. However, as my mum’s also fond of pointing out, if there’s anyone who’s got an eye and a taste for luxury, it’s me.
I also didn’t park my dream of being a “real” artist to be stuck designing meeting rooms, but that’s another thing altogether. A thing I try not to dwell on.
Bradley shrugs. “There’s no policy about working hours. Tom leaves at six most nights.”
This is true, but I thought it was because he’s already paid his dues. “Has he always done that?”
“Apart from client events or occasional crises, yes.”
I’m about to ask what constitutes a crisis when the crowd around us erupts into chanting as we approach Downing Street. It takes me several rounds to figure out what they’re saying until I realize the chant is, “Worker’s rights are human rights.” When I look up, Bradley isn’t half-heartedly chanting along, he’s shouting. The veins in his forehead stand out and his tie looks too tight around his neck. It’s disconcerting, and not only because he looks angry, but because he looks so…passionate.
I mean, sure he’s passionate at work. It’s his company after all, and you don’t achieve his level of success at such a young age without passion. But that’s work passion. This is boardroom-to-bedroom type passion. It’s…hot.
My eyes dart away from Bradley Waring-Smith faster than if he just flashed his privates at me. Good God. It’s one thing to think he’s hot within his glass castle. It’s another when he’s next to me on the street without a design document in sight.
I pull my phone from my bag and scroll to Claire’s number. Screw it. I don’t care if I look rude or self-involved. It’s better than looking interested.
In my boss.