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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Sweet Life

The Serial

Francine Pascal

St. Martin's Press



"They're ready for you," Katy Johnson, Jessica Wakefield's assistant/savior, said as she peeked into Jessica's double-windowed corner office, iPad in hand. Katy was wearing one of the new red lipsticks Revlon was introducing. It showed up brilliantly against her deep brown skin.
"Come in. I'm crazed; they're going to hate it."
"No way," Katy said, stepping into her boss's office. "They're gonna love it. They so love everything you do. Did you forget you're the resident genius?"
"Yeah, right. As long as you don't tell."
Jessica was convinced that she would drown under everything if it weren't for Katy. Six-foot-tall Katy, who claimed Watusi somewhere in her background, came closer than anyone else to knowing how vulnerable Jessica really was. What she didn't know was how much Jessica worried that if ever Katy left, she'd write a tell-all book about her, and everyone would know that half the time the Queen of Green was scared shitless and had no clue what she was actually doing.
The meeting today was for her to present her latest project. This time for Revlon. They'd just started a new line of green cosmetics, and she'd been tapped to do the big intro gala. Everyone, all the big shots, was waiting in the meeting room for the Jessica Show.
In three years, from part-time assistant to nobody, Jessica had become a vice president of the My Face Is Green marketing company, now renamed
It was a green marketing and promotion company owned by George Fowler, her best friend Lila's father. Originally based in Sweet Valley, but now with offices in Chicago and New York, as well, the company specialized in introducing new green cosmetics for the popular market. It was a little idea Mr. Fowler had hit on at the right time and place and that in the last five years had exploded onto the national consciousness.
Right from her first week there—actually, from her first day—Jessica knew the job was made for her. It was as if she had the idea gene. Ideas just popped up naturally, practically jumping out of her head.
And the weird thing was, she was usually right. Like the first campaign she did for Almay. She did a whole big splash costume party in L.A., and every local magazine and newspaper covered it. Even some national media ran stories.
It all started with a face mask she found made out of seaweed. She made it the center of the promotion and threw a fabulous Marie Antoinette–themed, seaweed-masked ball that everyone had just loved.
The mask even sort of worked. Well, it was no worse than most of the cure-all creams out there. Whatever. It earned her the title Queen of Green. Perfect.
Besides her anxiety about the possible tell-all, Jessica worried that whatever magic genius she seemed to have would one day vanish into the same place it came from—nowhere.
Right now was no time to worry about that. She had her first Revlon presentation today. And it was far-out.
Katy said she loved it, but Katy could be far-out, too.
A touch of panic hit Jessica as she rolled up the new Revlon invitation layout, rubber-banded it, and stuck it in the corner of her fake-fur laptop case (made specially for her), which was jammed full with papers already. She grabbed more papers and stuffed them in alongside, and then, holding the bag right at the edge of her desk, swept myriad makeup samples from every corner of the glass top of her personally designed desk, where the only thing you could ever find were your feet underneath it, into the overflowing bag. Not everything she got from her idea gene was perfect.
"Do you need all that?" Katy asked.
"I'm cutting out right from the meeting. I am so going to be late, Todd will kill me."
Katy handed her a large envelope. "The photos?"
"Oh, God, I'm such a wreck, I would have forgotten."
Together she and Katy walked down the hall toward the meeting room, shoulders back, heads high—very high in Katy's case—trying to look invincible.
The meeting was in the grand conference room and was packed with everyone from the top execs of to the heads of Revlon's marketing department. No one wanted to miss a Queen of Green presentation.
As prearranged, Katy stood in the back.
Jessica knew that not everyone loved her. There was some serious jealousy, especially from the original marketing side. They had been swept aside by Jessica's new promotion group and sorely resented it. Especially Tracy Courtright, an elegant middle-aged woman who had been with the company since it first started. As the former top dog in marketing, she was devastated to find that her work now consisted mainly of carrying out Jessica's ideas.
The minute Jessica walked into the meeting room, the enthusiasm could be felt. She was, after all, Jessica, the star.
But a star can fall. And Tracy Courtright was ready to give her the necessary shove at the first opportunity.
Michael Wilson, the executive vice president of the Sweet Valley office, introduced Jessica.
She stood up and looked around, confident and comfortable as the beautiful blond-haired prom queen she had always been. All jitters vanished; this was her territory.
Jessica wasted no time. "Simply put, I'm taking the green out of Sissyland, Organicville, and Priustown, and from now on, it's gonna be down and dirty!"
She didn't have to wait long for the approval response; it came instantly in big smiles and enthusiastic head nodding. They liked it. Better than that, they loved it. Now she turned directly to Reggie Weiner, the head of marketing for Revlon.
"I'm calling it MeanGreen and it's going to be all those fabulous off-the-charts colors your people have come up with. For anyone who hasn't seen them yet, they're twice the depth of what's out there now. Like reds that stop just short of black and pinks that are so bright they're electric."
There were even more smiles. Especially from the Revlon group.
"I've added a little contribution that you might find interesting. Whatever you're wearing on your lips is also your eyeliner."
"Ugh." Tracy Courtright practically jumped out of her chair. "Red eyes?"
"I know the eyeliner part sounds scary, but I promise it's not. It's totally subtle. Just a hint of a connection. But the lips and the nails—they are definitely scary."
She could see that some in her audience were a little put off by the eyeliner idea, but Jessica wasn't worried. Geniuses are allowed to take that extra leap sometimes. She could lose the eyeliner easily because the pièce de résistance was her gala idea. That was the Jessica touch they were all waiting for.
"I just want you to take a look at the costumes for the MeanGreen gala."
Jessica picked up the large envelope next to her chair. She opened it and slid out the photographs. She kept one and started handing out the others.
"There will be fifteen models. This is the first one," she said, holding up a picture of a stunning model dressed completely in green paint.
Before anyone else could respond, from her positioned place in the back of the room, Katy jumped in. "It's totally fantastic!"
Everyone turned. "If you didn't see the zippers," she continued, "and the flowers on the thongs, you would swear it was paint on naked skin."
"It really does look like she's naked," one of the Revlon people added.
A murmur of agreement went through the audience.
"Absolutely," someone else said.
"She is," said Jessica.
"No way." Back to Katy in the back with her important line. "I can see the whole zipper down her side. And the thongs with the flowers…" And then, as if she had just caught on, "Oh, my God, I can't believe it!"
"You better believe it." Jessica gave the punch line: "Trompe l'oeil."
Jaws dropped. "The thongs and the zippers are painted on. The models will actually be totally nude under the paint. A definite knockout when the media finds out, which I'll make sure they do. But not till the end."
By now everyone was craning to catch a glimpse of the pictures. It was a sensation. Neighbors were poking neighbors to make sure everyone got it, and then someone in the back suspiciously close to Katy (maybe it even was Katy) started to clap. And everyone picked it up. Almost everyone.
"I'm not sure we can do such a thing. I mean, after all, naked? Revlon?" Tracy looked to Weiner, expecting support, but all she got was an Obama "Yes, we can."
Michael Wilson stood up. "Brilliant! This could be bigger than the mask gala. Thank you, Jessica, and your fabulous team." He motioned in the direction of the seven-man promotion section, thereby closing out any further objections.
Tracy Courtright was on her feet again. "We just had a gala. I think we used that up."
Jessica was ready. "This isn't just a gala. It's a dinner at Vert Farmhouse with chef Jean Pierre, and everything on the menu is sustainable, homegrown organic from their own acreage—"
"Not exactly earthshaking. Organic food."
"—and an outdoor concert with a hot live band that is still a secret." Jessica pulled that out of nowhere. Well, Liam O'Connor, her movie star friend, would help. Whatever. For the moment, it shut up Madame Courtright. But from experience she knew it was only momentary.
"Thank you, everybody," Jessica said. "I would love to stay and listen to more, but I really am late." She scooped up her laptop bag and, like the star she was, left them wanting more.
These were the times when she absolutely loved her work. Sometimes, hours would pass in the day when she didn't think about anything else. Not even Jake, her two-year-old. Of course, she was always there if he needed her. One call and she'd be out the door.
She checked her watch. It was six thirty, and by the time she got home she'd be almost an hour late and Todd would be furious.
"Jessica." Michael Wilson followed her out the door. "This will only take a couple of minutes."
She really liked Mike. He was a great boss, about thirty-seven and very good to look at. He was also single. And sort of interested in her, maybe more than sort of, but he kept his distance. If you didn't know the situation, you wouldn't, except everyone in the office did already. Gossip, that's what coffee machines were for.
"What's up?" Jessica asked.
"We should talk about the green paint stuff."
"I was just on my way out. I'm really late."
Now here was the running problem: the mother/wife stuff. At the office, they didn't want to think about her personal obligations. And she couldn't look like she was letting them cut into her work. Not a whole lot different from Todd's problem with her, only inverted.
Which kept her always teetering on the brink between crazy and balanced.
"You can't give me ten minutes?"
"Can't." Being a pro, she took the coward's way out. "Theater tickets."
And it worked.
"Oh, sure. It can hold till tomorrow. Enjoy the show."
Theater tickets he understood. Motherhood, not so.
"See ya." She caught a glimpse of Katy's knowing look, winked, and was out the door.
And inside of three minutes, she was in front of her silver BMW that was waiting in its own parking space, the one with her name printed on the wall: JESSICA WAKEFIELD-WILKINS. As much as she pitched "going green" at work, she would never be caught dead driving a Prius!
She was very late, but luckily there wasn't much traffic, and inside of twenty minutes flat she was home in Sweet Valley Heights.
She left the car on the street in front of her town house, which looked exactly like every other one on the block. The only thing they let you choose was the color of the front door. Being Jessica Wakefield, she chose pink. Yves Saint Laurent Pink Ice number 22, to be specific. No one ever had trouble finding Jessica.
As soon as she opened the car door, she heard her son's squeals of terror and delight. She could see the monster box game through the window. A moment of silence and then Jake's favorite two-year-old word: "More!" And by the time she got to the door, he was squealing again.
She opened the door and Jake saw her. He was torn. He loved his mommy, but he loved the game, too. Todd was on the floor with him, holding a cardboard box over his head, ready to raise it and make the big growl noise that had delighted Jake for months now. Todd's face was turned away from her, but she knew he had to be pissed.
She watched Todd raise the box in one grand finale of monster roar, get the expected scream of joy, and put the box down on the floor and free Jake to run to his mother.
Jessica scooped her precious baby into her arms and covered him with kisses. The chill coming from Todd, who was on his feet now, folding up the cherished box that was practically collapsing on its own from overuse, was almost palpable.
If she could just keep kissing Jake, she could postpone the bad part that was coming. But unfortunately she couldn't because Jake was squirming out of her arms, rushing to get back to the game. But the game was over.
For her, too.
"I have to be in L.A. for the game tonight. You knew that. I'm never going to make it by eight."
"I'm really sorry. I just didn't realize and I had that big meeting…"
"And I have a game…"
"And I had a meeting," she shot back.
Todd turned away from Jake and in a whisper that was as piercing as a hiss, said, "Another half hour and I'd have put him to bed and he'd have missed seeing his mother for the whole goddamn day because her work was more important than her kid!"
"That is so unfair!" She answered him in that same sizzle of words. "How many times do you miss putting him to bed?"
"I'm not his mother!"
"You're his father and that's just the same and—"
"Forget it." He cut her off before it got even nastier. Both were suddenly aware that Jake was listening.
It was the two-year running argument that never got solved and only turned into more vicious accusations that cut deep and left scars that might not ever heal. "I left his clothes on his dresser."
Jake was trying to reassemble the box, but Todd took it from him gently. "Mommy will save the box and we'll do it again when I come next Wednesday. First thing, okay, buddy?"
"Now," Jake said, even though at just two he knew it wouldn't be now. But that didn't stop him from hoping.
Todd kissed the top of his son's head, said, "See ya," and went toward the door. The walk took only a few seconds, but they were heavy with emotions: anger, hurt, and the twinge of regret. And somewhere in there, love. On both sides. Albeit the leaving was easier now than it had been that first time. But still painful.
He couldn't turn around and look at her. That would be too hard.
And no matter what had happened in these last four months, when Jessica looked at Todd, she was still excited by that tall, gorgeous man with the silky blondish brown hair, the errant piece that kept slipping over his forehead only to be swept back in that familiar gesture she'd been watching for all those years. She remembered how she and Elizabeth used to make fun of it, but now every time she saw him do it, her stomach clenched.
No question but that he still had the body of the fabulous basketball player he was in high school. A body she'd grown to know so well. And even now longed to feel against hers, to feel the warmth of him touching her, his arms tight around her, holding her, loving her. She knew he didn't feel that way about her anymore; he was too angry. He felt he'd been tricked. She wasn't the woman he had fallen in love with.
And he was right. She had changed and grown. Why wasn't that good?
And why was it still so weird seeing him but not being with him, even though they'd been separated more than four months?
They didn't argue about why anymore. Nobody was defending his or her side, it was not as if an explanation would change anything anyway. In fact, they hardly said anything except what had to be said about Jake. Even that was uncomfortable and awkward, and loaded with lots of unsaid stuff that stuck in the throat.
She didn't ask him about his work, and he certainly didn't ask her about hers. That was the last thing he'd ask. This guy who was always complaining in the beginning that she didn't "do anything." And then when she started doing so well at her job, he seemed happy until it hit him that it wasn't just another one of her phases and that maybe it was going to be a big deal. And being a mother and a wife wasn't going to divert her.
She always felt that she had given up almost everything for him, most important, the closest person in the world, her twin, Elizabeth. And what did he give up for her? Nothing comparable. Okay, that was probably unfair, but still, what he gave up didn't come close to what she had given up. She'd given up love for love. That was the hardest sacrifice.
All she asked was that he understand that this was the way her life was now! Well, maybe not all she asked, but still, this was the way it was going to be, and too bad for him if he couldn't accept it.
Except what sucked was that the real "too bad" was for Jake. She still got sick to her stomach about what she was doing to her baby, but it wasn't just Jessica, it was Todd, too. Actually, she felt it was mostly Todd. Jealousy, that's what it was. It was a response she'd never expected and he would never admit. In fact, his whole attitude about her career was so retro. Were they really back to where the woman had to stay home with the children or have some kind of unimportant job that was totally second to her husband's and could be dropped whenever he needed it to be?
Jessica knew she could work and succeed and be as good a parent as he was. That was the difference—she wanted him to measure being a father on the same scale as being a mother. So far, he couldn't seem to do that. Or just wouldn't.
Maybe that was a reach, but she'd made up her mind it was the goal she was aiming for.
Todd had underestimated her. Everyone had, herself included. And now they were all waking up. Todd especially. She was so not his "old Jessica," and he really was feeling threatened.
All the signs were there: She was probably going to be very successful, possibly more than he was. Shallow Jessica Wakefield, the lightweight, was not so lightweight anymore.
And he better watch, because this Jessica was only starting to climb!
Oh, God! It hit her: Did Jake eat?
She texted Todd. He shot back: R U KIDDING? I DON'T NEGLECT MY SON.
Oh, like I do? She rolled her eyes and didn't even bother responding.
Instead she texted her sister, who answered right away: BRINGING DINNER.
Her identical twin lived part-time in a penthouse in Beverly Hills and the other part, mostly weekends, in a mansion in Sweet Valley Hills about fifteen minutes away from Jessica—fifteen minutes and four million dollars away. Dinner from the mansion was the best takeout in all of Southern California, maybe the whole state. Yvonne Dechamps, her fancy French master chef, prepared it.
The whole situation was so unlike her down-to-earth, unpretentious, best-friend-anybody-could-ever-have-in-the-world Lizzie, but she was getting used to it. Living with Bruce Patman, who, in the last three years (thanks to his own dotcom stuff and family real estate investments) had become a multimillionaire. Actually, maybe even a billionaire, heading his own multimillion-dollar charitable foundation and an important social impact company and becoming, at thirty, a force to be reckoned with, possibly a kingmaker, maybe even a king himself.
Incredibly enough, Jessica was not envious. Not to misunderstand, she was still Jessica Wakefield, very competitive and self-absorbed and never bothering to hide it. But now she was too busy succeeding to waste time on envy.
As far as being self-absorbed, that worked because Jake was a part of her, so he never lost out. Todd was, too, when he was. And in a unique way, so was Elizabeth. Even after what had happened. No question that a lot of people might wonder, "So how could you do what you did to her? How could you marry your sister's ex-boyfriend?"
It was still too hard a question for her to answer. Would love be a good enough answer? How ironic, all that pain they'd suffered was for nothing. Everything she gave up so much for was gone.
She felt like her sister had forgiven her. Maybe not completely, maybe never completely, but enough so that Lizzie could love her again.
Me. Me. Me. See, she was still Jessica Wakefield.

Copyright © 2012 by Francine Pascal