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The French Kiss by Lauren Landish

The French Kiss by Lauren Landish PDF

Author: Lauren Landish

Publisher: Independently published


Publish Date: September 9, 2022


Pages: 350

File Type: Epub, PDF

Language: English

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Book Preface


“Excuse me!”

I bump and swerve through the crowd of people also crossing the street with the light, faking left but then, seeing a hole to the right, I dodge that way instead. “Excuse me . . . pardon me . . . coming through, please.”

Despite the overly practiced manners that would make my small-town mother proud, I get stuck behind a man in a suit with a phone pressed to his ear. “No, unacceptable. Call him back and tell him to be in my office within the next hour or there’ll be hell to pay,” he says snootily, sounding like the worst thing he’s capable of doing is making someone persona non grata at the country club in Martha’s Vineyard.

I’m sure the phone call is significant to him, but nothing is as important as my getting to work on time, this morning of all mornings. I don’t make it a habit of running late, another politeness Mom ingrained in me at an early age—on time is late, early is on time—but today is critical. My boss, Nora Jacobs, has a video conference with Jacqueline Corbin, Madame of the renowned House Corbin.

If there’s a hierarchy of fashion houses, Jacqueline sits on a bejeweled throne at the tippiest, toppiest point. For someone like her to request a meeting with Nora, who sits solidly in the wide and populous middle of the fashion designer pyramid, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity, even if we have no idea what it’s about and had to sign non-disclosure agreements before they’d put Nora on Jacqueline’s calendar.

So I will not be late. No matter what it takes.

I press my red-painted lips together, steeling my spine and sending a silent apology to my mother who will probably feel the disruption in the atmosphere when I drop the niceties of my upbringing and go with my more recent training as a New York City transplant. “I said . . . excuse me, but what I meant was . . . get out of the way.”

I elbow my way past the guy, secretly taking twisted delight in the grunt of surprise he lets out. “Hey!” he grumbles. And then, seeing me, his tone changes. “Heyyy!”

I know what he sees—a young, attractive woman with flaming red-orange hair, pale skin dotted with freckles, and curves that belong on someone several inches taller. I’ve been called everything from a leprechaun to a fairy when people are feeling kind, or a fire crotch or Oompa Loompa when they’re not. Best guess? This guy is leaning toward the former and not particularly upset at my aggressive passing move.

I’m already hustling on, my red heels clicking and clacking down the street, adding to the symphony of city noises. It used to bother me, the constant whirlwind of activity in the bustling streets, buzzing and beeping cars, yelling pedestrians, and crowded sidewalks. But now, the energy of it all is what keeps me moving. The entire city is just . . . alive.

Like my spirit.

I came to life the day I arrived in the Big Apple for school at the Fashion Institute of Technology. I’d applied secretly, knowing my mother would think my big dreams were ridiculous. She’s always been supportive of me, but her world view is limited to the next county over from our small town in Massachusetts, where the biggest event of the year is the Fall Apple Festival. The pinnacle of the festival? The Apple-Sauce-ing, as in a relay where teams race to bob for apples, peel them, boil them, and smush them into applesauce. Whoever gets a full cup of applesauce first, wins. My mother was Apple Sauce Queen three years in a row in her early twenties, and she wanted me to carry on her legacy.

I think I rolled my eyes dozens of times at her through my teen years as she tried to impart her racing wisdom while I was spread out on my bedroom floor, making patterns for the outrageous outfits I would create for myself. “Autumn, are you listening? You have to twist as you smush to get the most sauce with each press.”

But all that apple smushing practice gave me the strength to elbow that guy out of the way, so perhaps it wasn’t in vain, after all. Mom would be equally horrified at my lack of manners and proud that I’m using the lessons she’d taught me for something, considering I haven’t been to a festival in five years.

“Coming through!” I call out in warning to another throng of people ahead. To their credit, they do glance over their shoulders and make a hole for me to dive through.

“Thanks!” I shout as I run down the street, aiming to make the next light crossing too. The crossing light is a flashing stop hand, but I risk it with a wave at the line of cars sitting there as though they’re contemplating hitting the gas before they get a green. A courier gambles with me, going the opposite direction and shooting me a wink as we pass.

“Almost there,” I tell myself, thankful that I can see the sign for my first destination ahead. I don’t actually know the official name of the café I frequent every morning for Nora’s mandatory caffeine fix. The sign simply says Coffee, and the baristas wear whatever wrinkled shirt they pulled from the floor after rolling out of bed at five A.M.

But they make the strongest Americano in a ten-block radius, and without it, Nora goes into withdrawal by ten.

Inside, a blend of coffee, cinnamon, and spice hits my nostrils, and I breathe in deeply, hoping it’ll hit my veins through my lungs. Luckily, the line isn’t too bad this morning and I stand in the back, tapping my foot and wiggling my hips to a tune only I can hear. It basically sounds like ‘hurry, hurry, hurry . . . I need to hurry’ and probably makes me look like I need to pee, but no one pays me any mind. If it’s one thing people in New York City know, it’s to mind your own business. If someone wants to break out into a full-blown tap dance Broadway number, complete with striptease in the middle of the morning coffee rush hour, you keep your head down, not seeing a thing, and your hand on your bag.

“Hey, Carrot Top! I’ve got your order going over here!” a friendly voice calls. There’s no way she’s speaking to anyone but me, so I step out of line and head to the end of the bar.

“Hey, Claire! Thanks,” I say gratefully as I mentally count the number of minutes she’s saved me. Claire is my angel this morning, though she’s wearing a cropped band shirt that I think once said Dirt Puppies, ripped black jeans that hang low on her hips, and smudged eyeliner that’s definitely a few days old. Punk rock is too soft for Claire.

Claire shrugs, her hands never stopping their brisk, efficient movements as she methodically mixes up her magical concoctions. It looks like she’s working on my latte. “No worries. I thought Clay would want extra whip today. That’s why he’s got a dome lid this time.”

I glance at the tray of drinks she’s indicating and see that she’s done my co-worker Clay a favor with a super generous glob of whipped cream that’s piled up well beyond the hole in the top of the dome. “You know I’m going to have to watch him lick that up like a dog with a pup cup, right? It’ll be downright obscene, and that’s before he tries to irk me by suggesting I could learn a thing or two from him.”

Claire laughs, well aware of Clay’s bluntness. She’s also aware that he’s not wrong. I could definitely learn something from Clay, who takes full advantage of the city and all its offerings, going to art gallery openings, dancing at various nightclubs, and checking out new restaurants, all with a different guy nearly each outing.

Meanwhile, I go from work with Nora to my teeny-tiny studio apartment, where one month’s rent is about as much as Mom’s mortgage for six months, and work on my own fashion projects.

A social life? What’s that? The sum total of my social interaction is my morning conversation with Claire as I pick up our coffee order.

“Maybe see if Clay would put that tongue to use on you,” Claire suggests playfully, and a shiver works its way through my body, one I exaggerate for effect.

“Definitely not. I’m not his type, and he’s not mine.”

Truth be told, I’m not sure what my type is. I’ve dated, though infrequently. Guys simply never held as much interest for me as my work, nor do they usually understand the passion that I feel for it. A date once actually told me that ‘no one cares what you wear, only how you look when naked.’

He most definitely never got the chance to find out.

In school at FIT, the guys understood the fashion obsession since they were equally affected, but the competitiveness was sharp and fierce, leading to friends with benefits situations at most.

“What about you?” I ask Claire, remembering that she told me about a customer she was considering taking up on an invitation for sushi.

“Crash landing on Steve-O. He came in again, ordered two drinks. Second one was a half-caf, double-whip, stevia, oat milk, caramel hazelnut frappe.” She gives me a knowing look.

“Would you have rather he ordered a plain, black coffee?” I guess, confused.

“I would’ve preferred he tell me upfront that he was looking for a third for him and his wife. No guy drinks that, so I asked who the chick was.” She purses her lips, her hands a bit aggressive with the machine’s buttons she’s pushing. “Said he didn’t want to spring it on me until he checked our chemistry,” Claire says in a mockingly high pitch before, in her own sultry tone, adding, “Told him the only chemistry we’d be having is the Ex-Lax I’d be slipping in his drinks if he came back.”

She laughs, and after a mental check to make sure she’s kidding, I join her. “Damn. Sorry, girl.”

She sets my latte in the tray, slipping a straw between the drinks and apparently already over the potential loss of Steve’s ‘opportunity’. “All set. They’re on Nora’s tab.”

“Thanks,” I tell her, slipping a five in her tip jar. “I can see if Clay could set you up with someone?”

That draws Claire’s attention, and she shoots me a middle finger and retorts, “Have the day you deserve. See you tomorrow, Autumn.” Before she looks down, she’s already grinning again.

I grab my tray of drinks and beeline for the door. “Excuse me . . .”

It’s a hard habit to break, even though it doesn’t work the way it does at home. I back into the door, pushing it open with my butt, and join the morning rush of people on the street once more.

I make it to the corner and go through the glass double doors simply marked Jacobs in a beautiful gold script font. Nora’s storefront has a small selection of off-the-rack options, but the bulk of her work is through custom designs and the few boutiques she works with directly. Inside, I’m hit with a bustle of activity as assistants run back and forth to set up racks in the conference room.

“What’s that for?” I ask an intern.

“Backdrop scenery for the call. Nora’s early morning, brilliant idea,” he replies, never pausing.

In the conference room, Nora’s presence is commanding as she gestures and gives orders to the people scurrying about to do her bidding. At five feet eight in her bare feet—not that many see her that undone—she’s sharply dressed in a white pantsuit with a custom hand-embroidered rose on the lapel of her jacket. It’s her own design, of course.

She looks around sharply, her detail-focused eyes missing nothing. Including me.

“Oh, thank God! I need that to settle my nerves,” she declares, beelining toward me and her precious caffeine. She snatches her Americano, taking a deep pull and then sighing happily. I keep my mouth shut, not mentioning that coffee is probably not the cure for nervousness. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Nora presses her hand to her belly and a burp escapes her pink lips. “Oh, my goodness!”

I give her a questioning look, noting that there are concerning growls coming from her midsection that would make Sesame Street’s Oscar the Grouch proud. “Nora, you good? What do you need? I’ve got Tums in my bag,” I offer.

She waves me off. “No, just been queasy all morning. Touch of gas, probably. Nerves, you know, from my impending meeting with The Jacqueline Corbin.” She goes a little pale, and I get it.

“Sit down. Put your head between your knees and let us get everything ready. We’ve got you.”

I take the vow seriously and shove Clay’s drink toward an intern. “Take this to Clay, now.” She squeaks and does as instructed.

I step back to give an analyzing look to the backdrop that’s been created. “Switch those two,” I say, indicating a black gown and a white jacket. “The jacket will blend with Nora’s hair.” They make the switch, and I imagine Nora’s premature gray-white bob backed by the black. “Better.”

And just in time. Nora’s laptop makes a dinging noise, alerting everyone to an incoming Zoom call. There’s an anticipatory squeal from someone, and then everyone scatters. I set a piece of paper on the table next to the laptop and tell Nora, “If you forget what to say, here’s some ideas focusing on the upcoming collection and future plans.”

“Thanks, Autumn. What would I do without you?” Looking at the computer, she straightens her spine, focuses her eyes, and then clicks her keyboard. I stay out of view, pen at the ready to take notes for Nora.

“Bonjour!” sings a heavily accented woman’s voice over the laptop’s speaker. “It is wonderful to see you again, my dear Nora.”

Again? I think. Nora and Jacqueline have never met, but I’m sure someone of Jacqueline’s status probably forgets the ‘little people’ and plays the odds. It’s not like anyone would dare correct her.

Madame Corbin, how lovely to . . . see you,” Nora answers, catching herself from saying ‘meet you’ just in time. Mentally, I swipe at my brow at the close call. “It’s such an honor.”

“Yes, yes,” Jacqueline replies, sounding dismissive. “Shall we do away with the niceties and get down to brass tacks, as you Americans say?”

I’ve never once heard anyone say that, especially not Nora, but she smiles congenially. “Of course. What would you like to discuss today? I have a current collection available that focuses on fine fabrics, particularly silk, and a small seasonal offering coming soon.” Nora pauses hopefully.

“Hmm?” Jacqueline hums as though she wasn’t listening. “Oh, yes. About that . . . your designs are quite lovely. I saw them just this morning, in fact. I was particularly pleased with the patterned silks you used.”

The compliment is kind, but if Jacqueline only saw Nora’s designs this morning, then why did she schedule this meeting days ago? Nora seems to have skipped right over that, hearing only the praise, because she glances up at me over the laptop screen with dancing, bright blue eyes.

“Thank you,” Nora gushes, completely failing at keeping her cool. “I sourced them from Karnataka, India, especially for the collection. The designs—”

Jacqueline cuts Nora off. “Dear, if I may . . . While your designs are quite lovely, this call is not about your work, unfortunately. It’s about your assistant, Autumn.”

My head jerks up so fast that I lose my balance and fall out of the chair I’m sitting in, my red heels clattering before going airborne. “What?” I mouth to Nora, my eyes bugging out of their sockets. I probably look like one of those cartoon tomcats when they see a sexy girl cat to chase. Aaaoooga!

Nora recovers before I do, and off-screen, waves a staying hand in my direction. I don’t dare move, afraid that if I try to stand, I’ll fall over in shock once more.

“Autumn is amazing. She’s been vital to my last two releases,” Nora says easily. Talking about herself, she’s nearly puking on my shoes. Talking about me? No biggie, I guess.

“Yes, well . . . Ms. Fisher entered a contest with House Corbin. The Fashionable Females Under 25?”

She doesn’t pause, though my heart completely stops in my chest, remembering how Nora encouraged me to complete an application as my first post-graduation project. It had been a way for Nora to familiarize herself with my work style and methods to see where we could best work together. The application itself had been the culmination of that work, mostly the cherry on top of a pipe dream.

Jacqueline’s still talking. “I’d like to invite Autumn to Paris, to House Corbin, for a month-long contest of sorts with the other finalists. It will be all-expenses paid, of course, including flights, lodging, and materials. Some of the other young ladies are not currently associated with designers, but seeing as Ms. Fisher is on your roster, I felt it only proper to notify you first.”

I’m shaking. I’ve managed to sit up, at least, but I’m still on the linoleum floor and there are interns looking through the glass on the side of the room in concern. I flash them a shaky smile so they don’t barge in to rescue me from myself.

Nora smiles, well aware of my shock. “Of course. I’ll be sad to lose Autumn for a month . . . or more” —she tacks on with a wink— “but I know she’ll be head over heels at this opportunity.”

Is she seriously making fun of me at a time like this? I’m going to kill her. After I kiss her for making me apply in the first place.

“In fact, Jacqueline, Autumn is here, taking notes for me. May I ask her to join us?” Nora inquires politely.

I flail about, trying to get up and get my dress smoothed down my legs—not that Jacqueline will see that far down—and slip my hair behind my ear. I take a steadying breath and step around the table next to Nora, waving stupidly at Jacqueline Corbin, the CEO, head designer, and model of House Corbin. She began as a one-woman show and is a long-time force to be reckoned with.

And I just waved at her like I’m Forrest Gump about to talk to her about shrimp.

If I could smack myself in the forehead, I would.

Jacqueline Corbin is thin, her face angular and interesting. Her trademark hair is pitch black, cut through with a single streak of silver. From what I can see, she’s wearing a black, high-neck blouse with a tiny, delicate ruffle along the collar. It’s the only nod to femininity or softness in her entire look.

“Hello, Madame Corbin. I’m shocked . . . and elated at the opportunity. Thank you,” I say, vowing that I will tell Mom how much I appreciate her teaching me manners, even if I didn’t use them earlier, because they’re thankfully not failing me now.

“Ah, yes, dear. Then you accept?” Jacqueline says. She’s looking down at a piece of paper on her desk, and I realize that, for me, this is a life-defining moment, but for her, this is a mere formality. One call of several. It’s a bit disappointing, as I want to jump around and celebrate and squeal all at once.

Nora pinches my thigh under the table, out of sight, and I jerk my eyes to her. She’s smiling from ear to ear, happy for me. I let my eyes jump to the windows where the concerned interns were a moment ago to find them all wide-eyed with excitement for me too. I realize that I will be able to celebrate the way I’d like to with my family here at work.

I swallow and primly tell Jacqueline, “Of course. I would be honored to participate.”

“Excellent. I will have Albert send over the details today, and we will see you soon, dear.” Jacqueline glances up, but not to the screen, and nods. It must’ve been an order to her assistant because the screen goes blank.

Three, two, one . . .

“Oh! My! God! Autumn!” Nora screams. She jumps up, pulling me to my feet to jump with her. I can’t help but be infected with her excitement, and it replaces the shock, slowly changing my thoughts from ‘what the hell?’ to ‘I’m going to Paris!’

“I’m going to Paris!” I shout, letting the idea loose to the universe, daring it to disagree. But it doesn’t . . . because it’s real!

The interns rush us, squealing in joy. “So happy for you,” several people say.

“I knew it,” someone else says confidently.

“I get her chair!”

“Not IT on coffee duty!”

Okay, so some people are more pragmatic, but I can’t blame them. I know how cutthroat fashion is. I’ve worked my way to my position too, and my being gone for a month means the fight will be on to fill my shoes.

“Nora! I promise I’ll come back as soon as I can. And I’ll make sure Clay is caught up on everything before I leave,” I rush to tell her, knowing that the interns can handle the professional stuff. But Clay, as Nora’s personal assistant, will need some calendar information too. I work hand-in-hand with him most days to keep Nora on track and able to focus on the creative aspects of her work.

“No, you won’t. You’re going to get out of here. Go home, pack, prepare.” She pauses, looking at the crowd around us. “And when you get back, you’ll step right back into being my right hand. Unless you win the whole damn thing and go off on your own. Then I’ll stand back like a proud mama and clap louder than anyone else for you.”

I really hit the jackpot with Nora. She’s the best mentor anyone could ever wish for.

My head spins, the room whirling wildly, but it’s because everyone is hugging me and then passing me on to the next person for a hug. “Is this real?”

“Oh, it’s real, alright,” Nora says. “Go show those Frenchie-Frenches what us NYC bitches can do. It’s about damn time.” She claps as she says it, and I can’t help but grin.

I, Autumn Fisher, a NYC designer from small-town Massachusetts, am going to Paris, France to design for House Corbin.

It’s a bigger dream than I could’ve ever dreamed. And it’s coming true.

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