"Happy birthday, Miranda." She sighed softly as she retreated from my office, her shoulders slumped down in misery. It was only when I heard her heels at a suitable distance did I spin slowly in my chair, no longer facing the view of New York but the space she had occupied moments ago. I removed my glasses, rubbing the bridge of my nose carefully in a vain attempt to relieve my headache and echoed her sigh. Happy anniversary, Andrea.
One Year Previously
Another year older. Another plethora of falsity, fake smiles and wishes before a grand ball entirely in my honour. These people admired me, possibly; envied me, certainly. But not a single person amongst them wanted to celebrate my birthday because they were thankful I was here, grateful I existed. The evening rolled around slowly; Andrea having organised everything as usual and leaving me with little to do but sit and allow make-up and hair artists paw at me incessantly. I was ready, wearing a black dress Valentino had made especially for the occasion. I checked the mirror only once, having done this for so many years, I knew instantly whether it would pass for various lighting and photographs; for instance, my typical entrance atop the grand staircase, and the dance I usually opened with my date. Except tonight, I was going to be alone on that floor. Divorce number three had been finalised only a few days ago and I thought it would be imprudent to arrive with someone else. I had considered Nigel as a dance partner, then forgone the idea altogether and informed Andrea as such. I paused my train of thought, as usual, to consider Andrea. My first assistant, my most valued employee. The woman anticipated my every whim nowadays, it became something necessary in my day to day work – but it wasn't for this reason that Andrea had not yet received the promotion she had earned repeatedly. The brunette fascinated me, she was so unlike anyone else I encountered on a day to day basis.
I shivered slightly, ridding myself of thoughts on my intriguing assistant with a small sigh that didn't quite escape the notice of Roy, who glanced at me in the rear view mirror for a split second. He knew better than to ask me anything, but I was aware he wanted to. I looked away pointedly, ignoring his slight sigh. We arrived at the venue later than expected by a few minutes, and yet I was still mentally preparing myself. I would keep Andrea at my side the entire night, I decided, and be as regal as I could manage. My divorce papers were burned into my memory, but it wasn't because of Stephen's absence. It was yet another failure on my part, a bad choice that would haunt me for as long as I lived because of how it affected my girls. They were still so young, just barely eleven, and for all their games against my assistants, they were sweet children. It hurt them to see the headlines about my personal life, slating the home we had together. I shook my head a little, trying to clear my mind of such melancholy thoughts, and slid out of the car when Roy opened the door for me. I nodded once at him, almost pausing in the beginning of a stride when I heard his quiet "Happy birthday, Miranda." I chose not to acknowledge him without really thinking about it, continuing my stride through a swarm of photographers towards Andrea. My new second assistant stood next to her, but I barely noticed. Andrea looked stunning, her deep burgundy dress accentuating her figure perfectly. My eyes hovered over her body as I finally reached them, and I caught myself quickly, fixing my eyes to her face before she thought I was looking at more than just her outfit. A faint blush tickled her cheekbones, but she smiled brightly at me as usual and stood aside to let me through the door. She took my coat carefully, passing it to the second assistant with barely a glance away from me, her eyes roving over the bare skin of my shoulders. My own dress, with its deep cut, was clearly holding her attention. She blushed harder when she caught me watching her with an amused glint in my eye.
"Walk in behind me. Both of you." I said to them, before stepping towards the entrance, a large marble staircase that led into a grandiose ballroom. It was decorated pleasingly, and I knew Andrea had been involved in every last detail. I had heard her organising the party for months now, over the phone at her desk, her voice becoming more and more demanding as weeks passed. She had quickly realised how infuriating it could be to deal with people who had no idea how to do their job, and it had made her even better at her own. I even once heard her end a phone call with a curt "No freesias. That's all." It had taken all my self-control to stifle a laugh at that.
I returned my thoughts to the evening ahead of me, beginning my glide down the staircase, aware of my assistants following close behind me. Instead of holding the bannister, I walked confidently down the centre of the wide stairs, the two women staying one step behind me, flanking either side. I smiled blithely at the thought that we probably looked like Charlie's Angels, but stopped quickly. By the time we reached the foot of the stairs, I was ready for battle. Happy birthday, indeed. Forty-seven years old. Three divorces, two children that were constantly left waiting for me to come home, a fashion empire I was becoming slowly disillusioned with. Money. Lots of money. But happiness? True love? I loved my daughters, and they certainly brought me happiness, but at the same time I was consistently left feeling unworthy of their attentions, guilty at being the most unavailable mother.
Once more, I dragged my thoughts to the people around me, gracing them all with a fake smile. The incessant chatter was already giving me a headache. I offered a true smile to Andrea when she passed me a champagne flute, and a blush graced her pretty face once more. People came and went around me for what felt like eternity, birthday wishes from all angles from excited party-goers, desperate for a second of attention. I smiled until my face began to ache.
"Andrea, no more photographs tonight. No phones, no cameras, am I understood?"
"Of course, Miranda."
How she had managed it, I don't know, but I was pleased when I watched the receding backs of everyone holding a camera. Those left mostly worked at Runway, or were board members at Elias-Clark. I didn't care to think about what that said about my personal life. There were a few old friends in the crowd, but no one from my youth, no family. I had made sure that no one remained in direct contact with me before I had even gained the Editor-in-Chief title, and my family remained in England. Not that we considered ourselves "family" nowadays. I hadn't spoken to any of them in –
I was cut off from my train of thought yet again by none other than Irv Ravitz. Suppressing a shudder, I smiled carefully.
"Happy birthday. Almost the big five-oh." He winked conspiratorially.
"Yes, I'm aware. Hopefully for my 50th the party will be ever bigger than yours was, assuming you can remember that far back." I felt my cheeks twitch with genuine mirth when his eyes narrowed slightly. He left soon after, leaving me stood with Nigel and my second assistant for company. I drained the last of my champagne only to find the empty flute quickly replaced with a full one. Andrea smiled at me before stepping back into line next to… oh, whatever her name is. Polly… Poppy… Precious – something with a P?
"Can you make absolutely certain that you're paying attention, please, Francesca?" Andrea said sharply under her breath. Ah. Not a P then. The girl looked suitably chastised, turning fire engine red and looking to the floor. I smirked. The night changed quickly from soft classical music and polite conversation to an actual party. I watched people visibly relax, dancing happily to a much more upbeat song. No one appeared to have noticed I had neglected my first dance. I silently thanked Andrea for a night that was so meticulously planned, it appeared as though no work had gone into it at all. It continued in much the same fashion, and I spent the best part of the next hour conversing with Nigel about the upcoming issue. Andrea and assistant two stood behind us, muttering together about the guests. I heard snippets of well-articulated critique from Andrea, and nothing more than sheer bitchiness from the other one.
"Anyway, Miranda, I've left a date by the bar. He's potentially so drunk that he can't see, but I'd like at least one dance at one of these events with a nice looking man!" Nigel air kissed my cheeks, and whispered a quiet "Happy birthday, Miranda. She hasn't taken her eyes off you all night, you know." He caught my eye bravely and vanished into the crowd.
I felt my eyes widen. He knew. How could he? Did that mean other people knew? Oh, God, did Andrea know about my little infatuation with her? I faced my apparently-oblivious assistants quickly.
"You're relieved for the night." I said to the other one, and turned my gaze to Andrea. The other girl disappeared quickly.
"Can I get you anything, Miranda?" Andrea asked softly when there was no one else in earshot.
I let my eyes travel up and down her body appreciatively.
"That depends," I said, just as quietly. Her face flushed pleasantly.
"That gown is exquisite, Andrea."
"Thank you, Miranda. Nigel suggested it."
"Did you know it's my favourite colour?" Her eyes widened at my admission, but she smiled.
"No, I didn't. I'm very glad you like it," she blushed harder.
"I wonder why Nigel would dress you in that particular shade." I ruminated, taking a tiny step closer to her.
"I… um… I…" she stammered, the nerves she hadn't succumbed to around me in a while finally showing themselves once more. It was endearing, incredibly so.
"I don't know, Miranda." She cleared her throat and tried to compose herself once more. "You look beautiful, though. Even more than usual." She seemed surprised by her own words, but didn't take them back or try to apologise.
"Mmm. I'm glad you think so," I said, hearing how low my voice had become. I was speaking to my first assistant in what could only be described as seductive tones. Judging from the hitch in her breathing, she knew it. Her expression changed quickly, however, as her eyes slid to someone behind me that she did not appear to be pleased to see. I felt a hand on the small of my back, and turned quickly to see its owner.
"Good evening, Miranda." Came the pleasant voice. I nodded once.
"John. A pleasure." We air kissed, but he was standing a little too close. I could practically hear Andrea bristling.
"It's a good party." He gestured around, drink in hand. I felt my mouth purse slightly in distaste, but as usual, the editor for the New Yorker was disinterested in my reactions. His gaze, instead, focused purely on the skin showing above my designer neckline.
"Thank you. Excuse me." I turned back to my assistant pointedly. "Tell Roy to be outside in five minutes."
She did so quickly, whipping out her phone and firing a text away before I had a chance to think of my next instruction. Her beautiful eyes met mine once more and I berated myself for thinking of her attractive qualities while she was this close to me.
I swept away from her, back up the marble staircase with Andrea close behind me, ready to retrieve my coat and bag. She passed me them, and I couldn't resist brushing my fingers against hers as the soft material exchanged hands. I nearly shuddered when she bit her lip for a second, but I turned on my heel and left with a swift, "Come along, Andrea."
Roy opened the door for me while Andrea waited one step behind me, attentive as ever. I caught her eye as I climbed into my usual seat and tilted my head slightly, indicating she should get in. Quickly, she moved around the boot of the large car and was in the seat next to me before Roy had made it to the driver's seat. So efficient. She smiled brightly at me, noticing that I hadn't yet looked away from her.
"The town house, Miranda?" Roy asked carefully, glancing in his rear-view mirror. I nodded once, and the car merged into the busy traffic of New York.