A/N: Hello, I'm back with another story! This is probably a little more mature than Roommate Diary (Just for those who have read). Ahem, right. Let's see where these characters take us, shall we? Enjoy.
Chapter 1: The Slap Heard 'Round the Room
Flounderer. That is my name.
After all, I flounder when it comes to managing my bill payments and all related money issues. Or when I date men who might have some genuine interest in me. Even now, I botched a critical assignment, which might lead to an involuntary resignation of my freelance position at Modern Suave, a magazine agency that covered bachelors under 30 who were loaded with cash for the benefit of single ladies all over the country.
It was only the magazine's most read, most discussed column.
And because of my incompetence, we were without a story to publish for next month's issue. And I was without a chance in hell for the promotion that I've yearned for months.
Gratus, my 43-year-old boss with a ruddy face and an equally sanguine personality to match, twiddled his thumbs behind a sturdy mahogany desk in his glass-paned office. He did not smile for once.
"Hmm," the rumbling hum came from his throat. "Hmm."
It was a non-committal grumble that didn't clarify whether he was disappointed or thoughtful. I figured it was the former considering the reason of our meeting. He needed to figure out what to do with me. The flounderer.
I sat across from him, anxious, skittish, sweat pouring off of me as if I'd taken a dive in an Olympic pool. My feet were bent inward, touching at the toes of my high heels, and they bounced off the carpet in a feverish motion. This was a hundred times worse than the annual employee evaluation. Right before the bomb counts down to an explosion.
Gratus began, "Elsa—"
"I'm sorry!" I broke under pressure. "Please don't fire me! I shouldn't have lost my temper with that man. But he was so...so... insincere and loathsome!"
"I can't live if I don't write, and if I don't write, there's nothing else to do for a living," I pleaded without shame. I had to find a way to please Gratus. I was close to supplicating on all fours.
Gratus was a corpulent man, not unlike Santa Claus plus twenty more pounds. It was difficult for him to make any sudden move. But at that moment, seeing my uncontrollable grief and regret, he reached across the table, stretching to his potential, and patted my hand to comfort me. Sympathy written across his face.
Good, an encouraging sign. I needed the man's pity.
"Elsa, you did bungle a fairly important assignment, I won't sugarcoat that. That column launched Modern Suave to its pinnacle of success. This is the first time in history where we won't have a story to run."
I nodded. Eight years ago, Modern Suave first introduced the column to the public, each month interviewing one bachelor with reputation of an angel. Four years later, we had moved unto men notorious for their "naughty boy" behavior. It was just my luck that I got set up with the worst of the rotten bunch.
"I know you can write," Gratus said. "Hence I gave you an opportunity to prove your journalism skill as soon as you requested. And you know I would, in a heartbeat, give you a steady position in my company as opposed to guest writing all the time. You just need to show me something substantial."
"And the chance means the heavens to me. You are the best, kind boss there is," I sniffed and hoped I could withhold my mucus waterfall a little longer.
"Would you like to tell me exactly what occurred during Mr. Raiden Ko's interview? It'll allow me to assess the situation with better impartiality if I hear your side as well."
Instantly, my cheeks flamed. It was rather an embarrassing narration. Given the option, I would rather forget it. However, I poured out the whole narration, seeing as there wasn't much of an option for me.
4 DAYS AGO
My interview with Raiden Ko was set at 4:30 pm.
To prepare, I scrupulously checked my Gucci suit (the most expensive piece of clothing I owned) for loose threads, lint, or stains for no less than an hour. Okay, maybe two. It was an impressive getup that modestly defined my curves. Topping it off, I wore my wavy hair in a fancy bun, allowing several curls to spill out as not to look overly contrived. I had learned that trick from my perfect cousin Kat. By the time I left my apartment, I was satisfied to know that I didn't reveal anything I didn't want revealed, and that it was professional and classy enough to greet a wealthy prince.
Mr. Ko's double-storied mansion was built on the side of an enormous hill, overlooking the landscape view of Los Angeles. According to my files, there was a golf course three miles to the west and a lake ten miles to the east. Both belonged to him.
Once I arrived at the destination, I realized his house took up the entire side of the hill.
Just who was this guy?
An attractive man in a semi-unbuttoned dress shirt and gray slacks opened the double stone and glass doors for me. He had a humorless expression that made me feel judged. He was young, perhaps in his mid-twenties. Comparing this man to a mental photograph of Mr. Ko that was stored back in my computer file, I knew he was not the man I came for.
"You are...?" he said, sounding husky as an acoustic singer's. His eyes, dark as obsidian, skimmed over my figure. He could have been a detective investigating me for all I knew.
"Elsa Marr, journalist from Modern Suave. I have an appointment with Mr. Ko."
"Oh, right," he said. Then something in his face shifted. He gave me a more welcoming smile and invited me in, notifying me that he would announce my arrival to Mr. Ko.
"Would you like anything to drink?"
"If you have any sort of tea, that would be delightful," I answered. He went away.
I entered, cutting across the foyer, and marveled at my reflection from the sheen marble floor that tiled the whole house. I wandered deeper within into the den. It was as grand as a Hollywood movie set: high ceilings and arches; expensive handcrafted furniture; décor in the contrast of black and white. Rather than paintings on the walls, there hung sculptures, carvings, and contemporary art not on flat canvases.
It was then that I inhaled a whiff of rosewood and apple cinnamon.
"I'm glad you share my taste in art," a velvety voice said from behind. I turned to catch a different man climbing the stairs at a leisure pace, surfacing to the first level from below.
I also saw him cloaked in a woolen bathrobe, with nothing except a pair of boxers underneath. His feet bare; his hair damp. Even stranger, he held a bowl of cereal.
"Um," I mumbled, then cursed inwardly at my unprofessionalism. "I apologize if I have arrived at an inconvenient time. I am willing to wait until you are dressed and ready for the occasion, Mr. Ko."
"No need. I'm comfortable this way," he said.
"All right," I added hesitantly as I handed him my business card. He glanced at it and tossed it on a low coffee table made of glass or crystal. Maybe even diamond.
"Follow me. We'll conduct the interview there if you don't mind." He led me into a room that resembled an office or a library. Furniture was sparse, though the most arresting vision was an aquarium that spanned an entire wall and stood tall as a person. Various species of exotic fish and corals glided to and fro from within the thick blue glass. Across the tremendous fish tank was a built-in bookshelf, a majestic array in its own right. Most volumes were placed in alphabetical order. Some were stacked on small tables, perhaps being read at random.
He took a cozy recliner and pointed me to a leather sofa a few feet away from his executive desk. He continued to spoon corn flakes out of his bowl. I tried very hard not to smirk or act uneasy at his near nakedness.
"Dastan will be back soon with your drink. I took the liberty of requesting a glass of brandy on the rocks instead."
"I—I can't drink on the job. I'm sorry," I muttered. "Tea would have been fine."
He inspected me, saying nothing otherwise. A thin smile spread over his face, giving me an eerie sensation. It wasn't an apologetic grin for sure.
"Well then, Miss Marr, how may I help you this evening?" he asked languidly, detaching himself before we had even begun.
I uncovered a notepad and pen from my purse. "I have a list of questions—"
"Unless there is another way to do this? Get to the point, please," he said, sighing and rolling his eyes to one side.
I was unprepared by his belligerent attitude, thus speechless for a couple seconds. "R-right. Could you share a bit of your family history with our readers? How are your parents like? Any siblings?"
"What to say?" he asked.
In hindsight, it was a rhetorical question; he knew exactly how to respond. "My father is a state-of-the-art dick weed. A real classic prick. Mother is a degenerate sow, good only for wiping asses."
"P-pardon me?" My voice nearly cracked at the horrifying language.
"Can we move to the next question, please?"
Easier said than done. I had a difficult time transitioning to the next question when my nerves were in a wreck. "Mr. Ko, you're 27 this year."
"Seeing how I was 26 just a few short months ago, yes, I would say 27 follows 26. You're so very smart." He dripped with sarcasm.
I gritted my teeth and built up a brave font so I could resume without incident. "What I meant was, you're young yet extremely successful, in terms of your financial status and social position. How do you earn a living? Your parents were quite wealthy, I understand. As were your grandparents."
"If you are, in any shape or form, insinuating that I've inherited my wealth just like this," he snapped his middle finger and thumb, "then you are entirely mistaken, Miss Marr. That topic is off-limit. What's next on your laundry list?"
I placed a supporting hand at the back of my neck as I took a deep, slow breath to relax my stiff shoulders. It was harder and harder to remain in the same room as he. This man was ready to jump at my throat for no apparent reason. I had never met any one so irate before him. I didn't think anything I said that night would placate him. Worse, he provided no useful information for my article.
To my delight, Dastan the Savior swept in with a silver tray, balancing on it two tulip glasses and a genie bottle filled with lucid caramel liquid.
"Miss Marr doesn't drink, Dastan. Flush it," Raiden said without pause. I squeaked with guilt, but it was at such a low volume neither of them heard.
"Would you still want yours?" Dastan's quiet and soothing voice comforted me even if he wasn't meant for my ears.
"Please." Raiden extended an arm to retrieve the wine glass without ice, subsequently placing his cereal bowl on the tabletop. He cupped the glass in his palm, swirled it gently, letting it warm in his hand before sipping it.
Dastan quitted the room afterwards. But not prior to showing an apologetic look directed at me. I could almost fathom why. Working for a devil like Raiden Ko must be agony.
"I doubt your interrogation is finished," Raiden remarked, withdrawing my attention back on him.
"Interrogation...?" I choked. "I'm sorry this is trite for you, but this is an important assignment for my career."
"Can we bring up more interesting subjects? Something more risqué perhaps? What do your readers—I'm assuming they're predominantly women—want to know about bachelors who are still single?"
I smiled, seeing he was at last willing to humor me. "You are known to have somewhat of a naughty streak in you. One infamous nickname you bear is "Woman-eater, man-killer". What does it mean and how did you deserve it?"
"Simple, I go through women as often as I shave. I don't linger long enough for a second date, because, by the first date, I've seen them bare all. Au contraire, men despise me. Jealousy, maybe. There's no woman I can't conquer. None is safe around me."
As much as his haughtiness and self-righteousness upset me, I didn't let it show. Or I hoped it didn't. "Do you believe women like you for your charms?"
"Having money doesn't hurt," Raiden smirked briefly. I noticed there was no humor behind it.
"Have you thought about settling down? What qualities would you look for in your mate?"
Raiden turned annoyed, as if I had slandered his honor. He got up from his chair and circle halfway around to the front of his desk, plotting down on one corner, his feet still remaining in contact with the floor. I was closer to see the inside of his bathrobe.
"Miss Marr, I'm sorry, but what kind of hackneyed, idiotic questions are these? You're a columnist, yet you lack any sort of originality or freshness. Why don't you ask me about my techniques in bed, or how I keep my women satisfied? Do I look the type to settle down?"
My mouth unhooked from its hinges, shocked enough to cease functioning.
"Are you a recent college graduate by any chance? You're, what, 22, 23?"
"23," I replied, anger rising. "As a matter of fact, I did graduate recently. About eight months ago. What of it?"
"Ever test the instrument between your legs?"
"Instrument between—" I gasped.
"No? Then you are as inexperienced and straight-laced as you appear. A complete obedient schoolgirl. There's a good chance I'd probably hurt you because of your lack of knowledge in the bedroom scene. We're done here." The discontent in his face confirmed that he had dismissed me. He only had time to buzz Dastan on the intercom when I went and stood directly before him.
He assembled a lazy glimpse on me. "Are you gifting yourself to—"
"Why bother accept this interview at all? Why meet with an audience when you're not even dressed? Your tone was nothing but disrespectful, and you were out to lunch the entire duration. It's very unprofessional and rude, not to mention inconsiderate," I spat in one long breath. By the time I finished, my chest heaved.
Raiden managed to laugh, deep from his belly. "You really want to know, Miss Marr? Because the name of my interviewer was a woman. I decided, 'Take a chance, why not? I might get her laid, teach her the Kama Sutra and more.' But after, seeing you in this Halloween costume…I don't know. You're wrapped tighter than a mummy, the sign of a true prude and virgin. I lost all interest."
I slapped him with such force, his neck almost circled itself. Then I yelped at the pain of my own palm and rubbed it against my thigh. The imprint of my hand surfaced on his cheek right away.
"No woman should ever be debased by you like this. You are a vile human being, worse than fungi. It's no wonder your parents are as you described. Who wouldn't be ashamed of you and turn a little crazy? You are rotten inside and out! Grow up!" I spat the last two words.
"Are you finished?" he said, quietest he had ever been since I had met him. For only a second, I feared for my life. Really feared it as if I were in a dark subway underground with shady obscure figures.
Raiden pressed the dial on his table and a click radioed in. "Dastan—"
"Raiden, I'm already here. You buzzed earlier," a heavenly vocal instrument to my ears said.
"Lead Miss Marr out. We're finished."
To me he said, "I'll be calling your boss about tonight. Wait for a lawsuit."
"I could care less!"
Truth was, I shouldn't care less. I was terrified of my action and its looming consequences. I had no funds sufficient enough to carry me through a court battle.
Dastan led me to the front when he stepped out with me and closed the doors behind him. I felt curious at his peculiar behavior.
"Miss Marr, a few minutes of your time," the voice breathed like a dream. His shoulders were stiff and withdrawn. He stuck his hands into his pants pockets.
"Elsa, please," I corrected.
"Elsa, initially I believed you were one of Raiden's dates. I apologize for my rudeness. I also apologize on behalf of his horrifying actions. However, I can't say I'm pleased with you slapping Raiden. After all, he is my boss and I care what happens to him."
So he had absorbed every dramatic detail, had he?
"I understand," I said, hoping it wasn't going to be a lecture like my mother's. I was a grown woman, damn it.
"I have worked for him long enough to know that he acts this way toward any woman. I'm sorry again."
"Then why do you work for that basta—him?" I asked, almost too sharply.
"Because he is also my friend. I'm his only close confidant."
"I should hardly be surprised, considering how he acted."
"On the other hand," Dastan let slip a smile, "that slap was the first of its kind."
"What? Has he never been slapped before when scathing words like that come out of his ugly mouth?"
"He has," Dastan admitted, chuckling. "Just not within an hour of meeting someone for the first time. You're quite something, Elsa."
I wanted to trust his words, really. I went home, thinking I had done humanity an immense service and my ego swelled up a few houses. It was just so difficult to remain jubilant and optimistic when I accepted my hefty rewards from Gratus in the days that followed.