PART ONE


-- ONE --


Renee Heaton had three minutes to get ready for Jennifer Aniston to step into her office. She pulled her black peep-toe pumps back on her feet, cleared papers off her desk and turned on some quiet music in the first thirty seconds. She straightened her black blouse and skirt, put some red lipstick on and straightened her short blonde hair in the next thirty seconds and then spent the next two minutes trying to decide what to do with the framed picture of her husband and son. Her husband had given it to her for Christmas, never minding the gaudiness of a big smiles snapshot in a business like fashion, like clothes design. Should she leave it on the desk for a conversation starter? Or hide it in a drawer? She looked at her son, who was six- she knew this because she had missed his sixth birthday party and her husband had been very upset- but she found no answer in the picture. At the last second, she shoved the picture into a drawer and sat down, every bit as confident and beautiful and determined as the actress strolling in.

Getting up out of her luxurious leather office chair, she walked around her pristine glass top desk with her arms out, prepared for the polite embrace. The two shared a brief hug and the vital air kiss on each cheek before Renee went back to her seat and invited the star to make herself comfortable, pointed to one of the lush, yet simple chairs facing her.

"Oh darling, I'm delighted to see you again. It really has been too long" Renee gushed, never missing a beat. "Now what can I do for you? Please tell me you have a spectacular event coming up!"

Jennifer was all smiles, just like they all were. She was an open book within fifteen minutes and was laughing and recounting good and bad memories. Renee listened, nodding and shaking her head when appropriate, the best friend, the trusted fashion advisor and sister all rolled into one.

By the time Jennifer left, Renee had a new project and a big smile on her face for her "friend." They waved to each other and Renee watched Jennifer leave. And then called her assistant into her office: the assistant who had given Renee only three minutes to prepare for an A-list celebrity. The young woman trembled as she made her way to the door, knowing exactly what awaited her on the other side. She had heard it many times before, and now it was her turn. Her hand shook violently as she reached for the knob and she took a deep breath to soothe her nerves before she entered. Pulling open the door, she could almost swear the room was actually ten degrees colder than the rest of the building. Her heart was beating wildly and her voice had left her the second she laid eyes on Renee. She took a few steps forward and waited to be addressed, but was greeted with nothing but silence. After another awkward minute under the icy glare of her boss, she took a few more shaky steps forward.

"Umm," she tried to keep her voice in check, not letting the tremors she felt to surface in the sound, "you wanted to see me?" she finished weakly.

Renee smiled at her, which was perhaps the scariest thing yet.

"Yes. Yes, I did want to see you." Renee moved from behind her desk. "You see, Amanda, I don't believe in breaking up over the phone... or terminating people over the intercom. I think the personal touch is what it's all about." She smiled again. "You gave me three minutes to prepare for Jennifer Aniston. Three minutes, Amanda. Three minutes. Do you understand how long three minutes is? Hmm… no, I bet you don't." She paused. "I'd like to show you. You, Amanda, have three minutes to get everything you own out of this building. And don't plan on coming back." Renee looked at her watch. "Your three minutes have already started, my dear."

Amanda nodded and bolted to the door, running back to her desk as fast as she could. She looked around frantically for a bag or a box, anything she could put her belongings in. When no other option could be found, she ripped the garbage bag off her small little bin, which was thankfully still empty, and began to toss everything she owned into the bag.

Immediately upon clearing her desk, she sprinted to the staff area to grab her coat, mug, and lunch, praying her three minutes weren't up yet. The zipper on her coat, however, refused to cooperate and she cried out loud as she struggled with it. Deciding she could live without it, she spun around to find Renee standing in the doorway. Amanda froze, quite reminiscent of a panicked animal illuminated by a pair of oncoming headlights, and she knew she was in trouble.

"Your three minutes are up," Renee said. "There's an exit directly behind you." Renee gave her classic smile, the smile that could put a little chill in anyone's blood. "Get. Out." She laughed then. "Oh, Amanda, Amanda... a trash bag. Honestly, you look like some ridiculous Santa who's been fired on Christmas. How tacky. Well, stop standing there and get out."

Amanda could hear her perfectly well, yet for some reason, she couldn't seem to get her feet to work. She wanted them to, oh God how she wanted them to, but they wouldn't move.

"Amanda," Renee warned, the ferocity of her tone intensifying with her building rage "I believe I told you to GET OUT!"

Amanda nodded quietly and tried again to leave, getting all the way around this time, but still having a difficult time making it to the door.

"What is wrong with you?" Renee shrieked, finally exploding with suppressed emotion. "Get out! Get out of my sight right NOW or I will have you REMOVED!"

Amanda let out a little whimper, doing her very best not to cry while concentrating on moving her shaking form to the door.

"Oh, HONESTLY!" Renee breezed past her and flung open the door. "There you go! You're free! Get back to your depressing little life, and out of mine!"

With one final burst of strength, Amanda propelled herself out the door, and ran to her car as if her life depended on it.

"Ma'am?" another assistant asked very quietly from behind Renee. "Um... I'm sorry to disturb you but Jennifer just called and said she thinks she lost an earring in your office...? She'd like you to call her back."

"Of course. Be a dear and have a look around my office, will you?"

The assistant did as she was told and Renee picked up the closest phone. "Hello, Jennifer! Oh yes, dear, we'll find it right away. I think we should do lunch sometime..."

Renee let herself into her home that evening and prayed her son wouldn't pounce on her. Much to her relief and surprise, he didn't seem to be around. In fact, no one was in the living room at all, but somewhere in the house, she could smell something hot and fresh and decidedly spicy. Given that she hadn't made time for a lunch break today, the scent of food was certainly enticing. She hung her coat up in the closet and carefully placed her shoes back in their assigned place, hung up her keys, and lined up her purse with the rest of her 'business' collection on the top shelf. Dinner was calling her, so she went straight to the dining room, wishing fervently for quick, quiet meal.

Jazz music met her ears as she walked into the dining room. She didn't know anything about her husband's music, really. His taste tended to go in the direction of older music, of local talents, of little known artists, while Renee kept up to date on the music her clients made. She didn't have time for music as recreation.

"Well... good evening, Lady Renee." The slightly raspy, well rounded voice of her husband came from the doorway.

He'd already had some of their wine, she could tell by the name he'd used for her and by the way he was smiling at her. A little wine always seemed to lace his thoughts and make him forget too much.

"You look lovely. Are you hungry?" he asked, padding over to her on bare feet.

He hugged her, smelling like the theatre, smelling like cologne and cooking spice. She let him hold her for a brief moment before pushing him off.

"Yes, I'm starved. Let's eat."

Plopping down into the nearest chair, she delicately unfolded her napkin and set it on her lap before picking up her fork and starting without him. She quickly drained her glass of wine and poured herself some more; thankful for the relaxing effect it had on her after a stressful day.

Her husband, Michael, pretended not to notice her behavior and held on to his smile as he put the rest of their meal on the table and sat across from her.

"Shawn's at Brian's house tonight," Michael said, picking up his own fork and looking at Renee. "So... we have the house to ourselves."

He was wearing one of his gray sweaters, the kind that smacked of a teacher, of someone who shouldn't be married to a fashion designer. She knew good and well he had better clothes in his closet, because she'd bought them for him herself. But of course he didn't wear them often. No, he wanted to dress like the middle class artist. Or the rich boy who liked to pretend to be the middle class artist. She failed to comprehend why he had to be so stubborn about his appearance. He may be a man of the theatre, but he was the owner of his theatre, and that meant he was a businessman, so why couldn't he dress like one now and then? Was that really too much to ask? She was a designer! Did he not realize that it reflects poorly on her if he dresses like a common workhorse? She shook her head, trying to banish the irritating thoughts from her mind so she could at least attempt to enjoy her food. His comment about being alone was bothersome though. She had important things to tend to, especially after the near disaster Amanda had caused today. Jennifer's dress would have to be the most fantastic work of fabric art the world had ever seen to erase any potential of a poor performance on her part during their impromptu meeting. Cuddling on the couch and time in the sheets were definitely not on her task list for this evening.

"Shawn's looking forward to you coming to his play on Saturday," Michael said, the British accent of his character taking over his words. He poured himself more wine and looked at her. "I'm looking forward to it, too. He's worked so hard... and he's very good. A natural actor." He smiled at her. "Remember when you saw me in 'Hamlet' the first time?" He seemed to be taking a long trip down memory lane. "You were the prettiest girl there; sitting in the front row... you never took your eyes off me and nearly made me mess up my lines... You were wearing that little sundress with the flowers on it. I wish I'd got a picture of it."

"I'm glad you didn't! I wouldn't want any record of that fashion disaster" she replied with a little laugh. "Now, remind me again, when did you become British?"

She looked up at him with a clearly unimpressed glance before swallowing half her wine and returning to her dinner. He sat and just blinked at her, silent for a long time.

"I think I became British about a month and a half ago when I accepted the starring role in 'Gossip', which is about a British man," he said finally. "You know... the play that got the good reviews in the papers?"

She furrowed her brow, trying to pull something out of her memory about a British play.

"Oh, yeah, that" she said in the traditional, noncommittal fashion she always answered with when she had absolutely no recollection of the subject.

Why was the man so insistent on talking? Was it always necessary to talk while you ate? She finished off her drink and emptied the remainder of the bottle into her glass. Dropping her eyes to her plate, she silently prayed that he would take the hint and give up the pathetic attempts at pointless small talk.

Michael got up and took his plate to the kitchen. He came back a few minutes later with another bottle of wine and opened it, pouring himself another glass. He sat and watcher her eating until she felt nervous and when she looked up, he met her eyes and held them. She hadn't looked at him in a long time, really. He was a handsome enough man, aristocratic and graceful whether he wanted to be or not, he had a rather long and distinct nose... but he wasn't Brad Pitt. He wasn't pretty, and he wasn't her client.

He got up from his chair as she finished eating and stood over her, holding his hand out. "I think we should call it an evening. We've both had enough to drink and we have some time alone."

"I have a lot to get done tonight, I had to fire someone today and I'm still cleaning up her mess"

Michael looked down at her, shaking his head. "Renee... can't you do it later? I want some time with you. I haven't seen you in three days except when we bump into each other as we brush our teeth. That's not a marriage, that's boot camp. I want you to come to bed now."

"Well I'm sorry Mike, but I can't! I can't help it that every celebrity client I have can make or break my career! I can't just drop everything because you decided to feel needy. We don't always get what we want, Mike. That's life."

"Don't call me 'Mike'," he said and picked up the wine bottle. "I hope you have a good evening with your celebrity clients. They'll be more than happy to sleep with you." He walked out of the room and down the hall to their bedroom, taking the wine with him.

"YOU'RE DAMN RIGHT THEY WOULD!" she hollered after him.

With an air of annoyance, she uttered a sigh and shook her head, going straight to her home office to camp out for the night. She wanted to get the first draft of Jennifer's project done immediately so she could impress her with the speed of progress. She was a very valuable and loyal client, and the last thing Renee needed was to lose her. Grabbing her sketch pad from the drawer, she immersed herself in carefully sculpting the perfect red carpet ensemble, ignoring the yawns that gradually became more frequent.

By three in the morning, her brain was slowing down, which just made her curse her own weaknesses and want to search out some coffee. She started to get up and nearly ran into her husband. He was standing in the door way, half dressed, holding a hot cup of coffee for her.

"I thought you might need it," he said quietly. "I'm sorry about what I said earlier."

"It's alright, I've already forgotten about it." she said half-heartedly, gladly taking the coffee and taking a long sip. "Thanks" she added, raising her mug to him slightly, and walking back to her desk.

"Good night, Renee. If you want to come to bed later, you know you'll be welcome but... otherwise good luck. I love you," he said and left her office.

A few minutes later she heard the very distinct sound of retching. Michael had never been able to drink. Even in college, she'd be on her fifth and he'd be throwing up his third. She tried to block it out, but unfortunately it continued in punctuated unpleasantness. With a scream of frustration, she whipped her sketch book across the room and rubbed her face. She'd had more than she could take today. She got up and went back to the closet, taking out her shoes, coat, and purse. She'd had enough; she had to get out of there.