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There weren’t many things that I didn’t like about Adam when I first saw him across the crowded bar at the Grosvenor Hotel in London, aside from his lack of empathy. I’d just come out of an incredibly dull “Future of Recruitment” conference and needed a drink far more than he or the barman realized.
I’d been standing at the bar for what felt like an eternity, theatrically waving a battered ten-pound note in the air, when, just along from me, a dark-haired man muscled his way to the front, holding a credit card. “Yep. Over here, mate,” he said in a booming voice.
“Er, excuse me,” I said, a little louder than I intended. “I think you’ll find I was here first.”
He shrugged and smiled. “Sorry, but I’ve been waiting ages.”
I stood and watched openmouthed as he and the barman shared a knowing tip of the head, and without him even saying a word, a bottle of Peroni was put in front of him.
Unbelievable, I mouthed, as he looked over at me. He smiled that smile again, and turned to the throng of men beside him to take their orders.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I groaned, before letting my head drop into my arms while I waited. I was sure that it would be an inordinate amount of time until my turn.
“What can I get you?” asked the man behind the bar. “The guy over there reckons you’re a rosé kind of girl, but I’m going to bet you’re after a gin and tonic.”
I smiled despite myself. “As much as I’d like to prove him wrong, I’m afraid to say a glass of rosé would be perfect, please.”
I went to hand him the tenner as he placed the glass in front of me, but he shook his head. “No need,” he said. “Please accept it with the compliments of the gentleman who jumped the queue.”
I didn’t know who I loved more: the bartender who, in my opinion, ought to be elevated to chief sommelier, or the really rather nice fellow smiling down the bar at me. Oh, the power of a chilled pink blush.
My face flushed the same color, as I held the glass up to him and headed over to where my seminar colleagues were gathered in a corner, each nursing their own alcoholic preference. We’d been strangers up until seven hours ago, so it seemed that the general consensus was to get your own drink and not worry about everybody else.
Mr. Peroni obviously doesn’t have the same arrangement with his own acquaintances, I thought, smiling to myself as I looked up and saw that he had continued to order his round.
I took a sip of wine and could hear my taste buds thanking me as the cold liquid teased them before hitting the back of my throat. What is it with that first taste that can never be replicated? I sometimes find myself postponing that initial swig for fear of losing that sensation.
I’m making myself sound like a raging alcoholic, but I only ever drink on weekends, and on mind-numbingly tedious Wednesdays after being holed up with two hundred HR personnel for the day. We’d been helpfully informed during a lecture entitled “Nobody Likes Us. We Don’t Care” that a recent survey had revealed that recruitment consultants were fast becoming the most disliked professionals, second only to real estate agents. I wish I could defy the haters and prove that we weren’t all morally lacking, unethical deal makers. But as I looked around at the brash, loud, would-be City boys with their slicked-back hair and insincere expressions, I had to hold my hands up in defeat.
Despite having introduced myself in the “forum” earlier in the day, I felt I had to do it again as I approached the baying mob.
“Hi, I’m Emily,” I said awkwardly to the guy in the outermost circle. He wasn’t someone I was particularly interested in talking to, but talk I had to, if I wanted to finish my glass of wine without looking like a complete Norman no-mates. “I’m a consultant at Faulkner’s,” I went on.
I offered my hand and he took it, shaking it brusquely in a slightly territorial fashion. This is my manor and you’re on my turf, was the message he conveyed, even though we’d spent the entire day learning how to do the exact opposite.
“Be open. Be approachable,” Speaker No. 2 had stated earlier. “Employers and employees want to deal with a friendly face. They need to feel that they can trust you. That you are working for them, not the other way around. Deal with your clients on their terms, not on yours, even if it does put a dent in your pride. So, read each situation individually and react accordingly.”
I’d always prided myself on doing exactly that, hence why I’d been the top consultant at Faulkner’s seven months in a row. In person, I was the antithesis of what people expected since I was honest, considerate, and blasé about target-chasing. As long as I had enough to pay my rent, eat, and heat, I was happy. On paper, however, I was smashing it. Clients were requesting to deal exclusively with me, and I’d secured more new business than anyone else across the five-office network. Commissions were flooding in. Perhaps I should have been the one standing on that podium, telling them how it’s done.
The man, from an obscure agency in Leigh-on-Sea, made a half-hearted attempt at pulling me into the throng. No one introduced themselves, preferring instead to eye me up and down as if seeing a woman for the first time. One of them even shook his head from side to side and let out a slow whistle. I looked at him with disdain, before realizing it was Ivor, the bald, overweight director of a one-office concern in Balham, whom I’d had the misfortune of partnering with in the role-play exercise just before lunch. His breath had smelled of last night’s curry, which I’d imagined he’d scoffed impatiently from a silver-foil container on his lap.
“Sell me this pen,” he’d barked, during our how-to-sell-snow-to-an-Eskimo task. A cloud of stale turmeric permeated the air, and I wrinkled my nose in distaste. I’d taken a very normal-looking Bic Biro from him and had begun to relay its redeeming qualities: the superior plastic case, the smooth nib, the flow of the ink. I’d wondered, not for the first time, what the point was in all this. My boss, Nathan, insisted that these conferences were good for us: that they kept us on our toes.
If he was hoping that I’d be motivated and captivated by new and exciting ways to do business, he’d booked the wrong day. And I’d certainly been paired with the wrong man.
I’d continued to enthuse about the pen’s attributes, but as I’d looked up, Ivor’s eyes hadn’t even been attempting to look at the tool in my hand, preferring instead to fixate on the hint of cleavage beyond.
“Ahem,” I’d coughed, in an attempt to bring his attention back to the task at hand, but he’d merely smiled, as if relishing in his own fantasy. I’d instinctively pulled my blouse together, regretting the decision to wear anything other than a polo neck.
His beady little eyes were still on me now. “It’s Emma, isn’t it?” he said, stepping forward. I looked down at the name badge secured to my left bosom, just to check for myself.
“Em-i-ly,” I said, as if speaking to a toddler. “It’s Em-i-ly.”
“Emma, Emily, it’s all the same.”
“It’s not really, no.”
“We were paired up this morning,” he said proudly to the other men in the group. “We had a good time, didn’t we, Em?”
I’m sure I felt my skin crawl.
“It’s Em-i-ly, not Em,” I said, exasperated. “And I didn’t think we worked particularly well together at all.”
“Oh, come on,” he said, looking around, his face betraying the confidence in his voice. “We were a good team. You must have felt it.” I stared emptily back at him. There were no words of recourse, and even if there were I wouldn’t have wasted my breath. I shook my head as the rest of the group looked awkwardly to the floor. No doubt as soon as I turned on my heels they’d be patting him on the back for a job well done.
I took myself and my half-drunk wine to the space at the end of the crowded bar. I’d only been there two minutes before I realized that the reason no one else was standing there was because, every few seconds, I was getting hit in the back by a bony elbow or shouldered out of the way by the waitstaff, as they busily collected drinks and returned glasses. “This is our area,” barked a young girl, her face all pinched and pointed. “Keep it clear.”
“Please,” I said under my breath, but she was far too important to stand still long enough to hear it. Still, I edged up a little to remove myself from “her area” and rummaged around in my bag for my phone. I only had three more sips, or one big gulp, of wine left. Four minutes max and I’d be on my way.
I surreptitiously ran through my emails, in the hope that (a) I wouldn’t be bothered by anybody and (b) it’d look like I was waiting for someone. I wondered what we’d done before mobiles and their far-reaching information trails. Would I be standing here perusing the Financial Times or, better yet, feel inclined to strike up a conversation with someone who might prove to be interesting? Either way, I’d most definitely be better informed as a result, so why, then, did I log on to Twitter to see what Kim Kardashian was up to?
I groaned inwardly as I heard someone shout, “Emily, fancy another drink?” Really? Did he not get the hint? I looked over at Ivor, but he was engrossed in conversation. I had a furtive glance around, embarrassed to know that the person who had said it would be watching my confusion. My eyes fleetingly settled on Mr. Peroni, who was grinning broadly, revealing straight white teeth. I smiled to myself as I remembered Mum’s erstwhile advice. “It’s all in the teeth, Emily,” she’d said after she met my last boyfriend, Tom. “You can always trust a man with nice teeth.” Yeah—and look how that turned out.
I put more importance on whether someone’s smile reaches their eyes, and this guy’s, I noticed, definitely did. I mentally undressed him, without even realizing I was doing it, and registered that his dark suit, white shirt, and slightly loosened tie were hanging from a well-built body. I imagined his wide shoulders sitting above a strong back that descended into a narrower waist. Triangular-shaped. Or maybe not. It’s difficult to tell what a suit is disguising; it could be hiding a multitude of sins. But I hoped I was right.
Heat rose up my neck as he stared intently at me, his hand pushing his hair to one side. I offered a watery smile, before turning my head a full 360 degrees, looking for the voice.
“Is that a yes or no?” it said again, a little closer now. Mr. Peroni had maneuvered himself so that he was now my next-door neighbor but one. What an odd expression that is, I thought, oblivious to the fact that he was now standing right beside me. Can you also have a next-door neighbor but two, and three? I wondered.
“How many have you had?” He laughed as I continued to look at him blankly, though not without acknowledging that he was taller when he was close up.
“I’m sorry, I thought I heard someone call my name,” I replied.
“I’m Adam,” he offered.
“Oh. Emily,” I said, thrusting out my hand, which had instantly become clammy. “I’m Emily.”
“I know, it’s written in rather large letters across your chest.”
I looked down and felt myself flush. “Aha, so much for playing hard to get, eh?”
He tilted his head to one side, a naughty twinkle in his eye. “Who said we were playing?”
I had no idea whether we were or weren’t. Flirting had never been my strong suit. I wouldn’t know where to start, so if it was a game he was after, he was playing on his own.
“So, what’s the deal with the name badge?” Mr. Peroni, aka Adam, asked, as coquettishly as a man can.
“I’m a member of an elite conference,” I said, far more boldly than I felt.
“Is that so?” He smiled.
I nodded. “I’ll have you know I’m the cream of the crop in my industry. One of the highest-ranking performers in the field.”
“Wow.” He smirked. “So, you’re part of the Toilet Roll Sellers seminar? I saw the board for it when I walked in.”
I suppressed a smile. “Actually, it’s a secret meeting of MI5 agents,” I whispered, looking around conspiratorially.
“And that’s why they wrote your name all over your chest, is it? To make sure nobody finds out who you are.”
I tried to keep a straight face, but the corners of my mouth were curling upward. “This is my undercover name,” I said, tapping the cheap plastic. “My conference pseudonym.”
“I see, Agent Emily,” he said, rolling up his sleeve and talking into his watch. “So, is the gentleman at three o’clock also an agent?” He waited for me to catch up, but I didn’t even know which way to look. I was twisting myself in every direction, haplessly trying to find three o’clock on my internal compass. He laughed as he caught hold of my shoulders and turned me to face Ivor, who was gesticulating wildly to a male colleague, while looking longingly at a female dressed in tight leather trousers behind him. She was happily unaware that his eyes were drinking her in. I shuddered involuntarily.
“Negative,” I replied, one hand to my ear. “He is neither an agent nor a gentleman.”
Adam laughed, as I warmed to the theme. “Can we class him as the enemy?”
“Affirmative. Take him down if you wish.”
He squinted, in an effort to read the perpetrator’s name badge. “Ivor?” he questioned.
“Ivor Biggun?” He looked at me, waiting for a reaction. It took me a while, a long while, in fact, to get it, but until I did, he just stood there, staring at me.
Copyright © 2018 by Sandra Sargent