Marina sighed, leaning against the railing at the bottom of the steps in her front hallway. It had seemed like a perfect solution at the time: After the zillionth man tried to get into her pants, figuring he could take her money or take over her position as CEO of Kazama Motorcycles, she was going to give up on the male half of the population and stick with women. Being bisexual had to have some perks, right?
And then after a single week she remembered that the women were just as bad. So she decided it was time to take herself off the market entirely.
Marina checked her watch again.
"Ms. Kazama?" The hesitant voice called from the top of the steps.
Not looking up, Marina reached into her pocket for the keys to her Aston Martin. "You're ready, Konomi? I need to put in an appearance at this party soon."
"I'm…not sure this is a good idea?"
Rolling her eyes, Marina turned. "You agreed—" Words failed her as she looked up at her personal assistant. At least…she assumed it was Konomi. It was difficult to tell, blinded as she was by the gorgeous apparition standing above her. And then Konomi blinked, face turning even more anxious, and she was recognizable.
"Um…ma'am?" Konomi managed.
"You look…" Marina groped for words. Her assistant showed up to work every day in a nearly identical gray suit that was practically shapeless, so how was she supposed to know that under those suits was a shape like that? "You look great," she said eventually.
Konomi looked down, hands waving a bit helplessly at the pale blue concoction that hugged her curves. "This dress, it's, are you sure?" Her voice squeaked a bit at the end. "They insisted on doing my hair too."
Marina dragged her eyes back up long enough to recognize that yes, her assistant's hair had been teased out of its bowl cut into something wavy and adorable. "I'll double what we agreed to pay them," she breathed.
"Never mind." Marina shook her head. "Come on, we're already fashionably late and if we want the paparazzi to get a good shot of us, we need to get there soon."
Konomi blinked a few more times (and Marina realized she wasn't wearing glasses). "Are you sure?"
"Yes, I'm sure," Marina said. "If I have to deal with one more gold-digger, I'm going to run them over with my favorite bike and I won't even feel bad about it."
Konomi tried to keep from fidgeting as her boss drove with her usual flair toward the evening's event. Part of her mind—the part that made her an excellent personal assistant—was cataloguing exactly who would be at the event and who Ms. Kazama needed to speak with.
The other part of her mind was freaking out over her role in the entire affair. This was not part of her job description, Konomi thought in despair. She was perfectly willing to work long hours, travel to far-flung motorcycle factories, and spend endless hours reviewing ad campaigns, but attending fancy parties was not her job!
"Ms. Kazama," she tried again. "I don't—"
Ms. Kazama took her eyes off the road long enough to lift an eyebrow. "You'll have to call me Marina if anyone's going to believe we're dating."
Konomi blinked and reached up to adjust her glasses before remembering they weren't there. She blinked a few more times to get the contact lenses seated properly. "Marina," she said carefully.
"Good." Ms. Kaz—Marina smiled and it made Konomi's stomach feel funny. "It's too late to turn back."
Konomi stifled a sigh and tried not to fiddle with the hem of her dress, which was much too high. Why did Ms. Kaza—Marina get to wear a pantsuit and she had to wear a dress?
As if she was a mindreader, Marina said "The dress really does look nice on you."
"Oh. Uh, thank you." Of course, her boss looked nice in her suit. But then she looked nice in any—
Konomi resolutely turned her thoughts back to people who needed to be contacted at the party.
As expected, the photographers at this evening's industry event were thrilled to take pictures of the Kazama CEO and her date. Marina hated running the gauntlet but was used to it by this point; however, she could feel Konomi's arm trembling where it wound through hers. "You're doing fine," she murmured in Konomi's ear, which inexplicably caused her assistant to shiver more.
They finally made it inside and both women sighed in relief, exchanging smiles as the realized it. And then the vultures descended.
Marina tried not to roll her eyes at how apt her mental comparison was as two men and three women rushed up to them, eyeing her like a particularly tasty bit of roadkill. Seriously, she just wanted to make motorcycles and get to ride the best bikes she could, why did she have to do this as well?
But there were a great many employees depending on her, so she took a surreptitious breath and smiled at the vultures.
Konomi wished she could say it wasn't as bad as she'd thought. Unfortunately, it was even worse.
"And who are you, darling?" asked a woman in a red dress cut so low, Konomi could see the top of her nipples. She vaguely recalled the woman was an heiress with no useful skills and almost no useful contacts, so Konomi had forgotten her name.
"I'm sure she's nobody," said the man beside her, eyeing her like a small animal that had accidentally wandered inside. "If she was somebody, I would recognize her."
Konomi took a breath and just smiled at them, feeling like the world's biggest idiot. "I'm Konomi Amagai."
The two just shrugged, not recognizing her name and obviously not caring one bit.
On their other side, Konomi could see Marina chatting with the soccer star, George Ikaruga. Her PA instincts immediately went into overdrive, since she knew her boss had been trying to get Mr. Ikaruga as a spokesperson for years.
"He's out of your league," the woman said, smirking.
Konomi chose to ignore her, watching her boss smile and laugh with Mr. Ikaruga. Why, if she didn't know that Ms. Kazama had given up on men, she might even think that…but no. No, of course not.
Ikaruga laughed, touching Ms. Kazama's shoulder, and before she knew what she was doing, Konomi had pushed past the two bothering her and stood beside her boss. Marina looked over with a bit of surprise, but her smile when she saw who it was seemed genuine and wide. She held out her hand and Konomi automatically took it. "Hi, come meet our newest spokesperson."
"Oh!" Konomi momentarily forgot all her anxiety. "That's wonderful, M…Marina!" And she felt a big grin spreading across her face.
Marina's smile got wider and for a moment they just stood there smiling at each other, until Ikaruga cleared his throat. "Well, I've got to be going, but my agent will be in touch."
Marina started as if she'd forgotten he was there. "Oh, of course. We look forward to working with you. I think this will be profitable for both you and the company."
"My coach is going to have a fit about my safety, but that's his problem."
"You don't have to actually ride the motorcycle," Konomi said.
He threw his head back in laughter, looking (Konomi had to admit) extremely attractive. "Oh no, you're not going to cheat me out of my motorcycle rides. If I'm going to do this, I get to play with some of your wonderful toys." The look he shot at Marina was entirely clear about some of the toys he would be interested in.
With a friendly but distant smile, Marina tugged on Konomi's hand and Konomi obediently stepped closer, until they were almost shoulder to shoulder, still holding hands. "It will be a profitable business relationship," she said.
Ikaruga nodded, his smile less lascivious. "It will. And now I have some potential sponsors to speak with."
He took his leave and Konomi couldn't help the small sigh of relief. "Congratulations," she said.
"Hmm?" Marina looked at her.
"On getting him to agree."
"It wasn't me."
"What?" Konomi blinked a few times, wishing she had her glasses on.
"It was your hard work that convinced him." Marina looked at her. "The research you did, the reports you put together…that's what finally tipped him over the edge."
"Oh." Konomi blinked more, not knowing how to respond. The way Marina was looking at her…Konomi's breath caught.
And then she remembered that her boss had looked pretty much the same way at George Ikaruga and that beautiful rock star she'd dated last month and the hot blond VP the month before.
Konomi smiled politely at her boss as she let go of her hand, stepping away. She had to remember not to get carried away. If there was anybody who knew how quickly Marina Kazama went through partners, it was Konomi, so she should know better than to get caught up in the scheme and forget that (unlike the VPs and musicians) she could lose her job if she wasn't careful.
This really was a terrible idea. With a murmured excuse, Konomi slipped away.
Marina stared as her assistant tried to run away. Granted, Konomi's experience in heels was little enough that Marina could have caught her easily, but she seemed upset about something, so maybe it was best to let her have a break.
Besides, Marina needed a moment to process what had just happened. The connection she had felt, no, that they had felt. That was new and unexpected.
A local politician hailed her and Marina automatically brought out her best smile. Sometimes those tax breaks were the only thing that kept the factories from making staff cuts.
Fortunately, they were almost immediately joined by the VP of the electric utility, who wanted to complain about taxes, so all Marina had to do was nod at appropriate intervals and not commit herself to either of their positions.
So she nodded and smiled and tried to figure out what had happened. Konomi had been her assistant for…how long now? Only four years, she supposed, but she was hands down the best assistant ever.
Konomi was always there, arriving early and organized. She knew what needed to be done and did it well. But Marina hadn't really looked at her. Until now. Konomi was just the constant fixture in her life that made everything run properly. She was smart and quietly funny. And it turns out that she was also drop-dead gorgeous.
She needed to find Konomi.
Konomi avoided meeting anyone's eyes as she found her way to the hotel ballroom exit and looked for the restroom. She needed a moment to clear her head. This was no time to remember how much she admired her boss. Er, admired her in that way.
It had hurt, the first few times Konomi watched Ms. Kazama prep for a date. It hurt even worse trying not to think about what they might do when they returned.
And then those dates would disappear after a week or two. It was important to remember that part, she thought as she stared at herself in the brightly lit mirror. Leaning on the cold marble counter, she examined the face she saw.
The reflection bore a vague resemblance to her, she supposed. The shape of the face, for example. But the contact lenses made her feel weird and she missed her glasses. The fluorescent lights made her skin look slightly diseased, she thought, squinting.
This wasn't her, Konomi thought, trying to tug the dress to a more comfortable length. Ms. Kazama didn't really want her; she wanted another fling.
She was so focused on her thoughts that she didn't notice when the door opened. She didn't notice until two bejeweled ladies appeared behind her, sneering at her reflection.
"Look what the cat dragged in," one drawled.
Konomi fought to not roll her eyes. Really, these two would have to acquire a lot more brain cells before they could come up with a decent insult for her. Too bad she wasn't wearing her glasses, because being called "four-eyes" was always good for a chuckle. And she could use a laugh right now.
"Whatever is Marina doing with her?" the other said.
"Clearly it's a pity thing. This nothing couldn't possibly be of interest to anyone."
"Or maybe Marina has gotten desperate." They both giggled.
"After all, she's rich, but really who could want her? She's so mannish."
"And dull." More laughter. "All she can talk about it work and those ridiculous bikes she sells."
Konomi had never realized that the phrase "seeing red" was literal, but her vision was obscured by a haze of red anger. She whirled and the two women recoiled, presumably at the look on her face. "You will not speak of Ms. Kazama in that fashion!"
"I—" one of them tried.
"She is worth a dozen, no, a hundred spoiled brats like you!" Konomi took a step forward and they took a step back. "Do you have any idea how hard she works? How many families her factories support? Of course you don't! Because all you care about is getting your hair done and spending money!"
"I'm not done." Konomi glared at them and their mouths shut abruptly. "I suggest before you make any further judgements about her, you educate yourself. If you're even capable of that."
Pushing off the balls of her feet, she pushed between the two stunned women and burst through the door out of the ladies' room. She almost fell on her ridiculous heels, caught at the last moment by a hand grabbing her arm. "Than—" She choked, staring at the stunned face of her boss.
"You heard that." Konomi's chest hurt. "Oh my god."
Ms. Kazama looked alarmed. "Yes, but—"
With a twist, Konomi freed her arm and started backing away. "You weren't supposed to hear that."
"Why not? It…" Ms. Kazama took a breath. "It means—"
"No." Konomi blinked, trying to clear the tears out of her eyes.
"I can't—I won't be toyed with."
"What? I wouldn't do that."
"Like you wouldn't with all the others?" Konomi swallowed sharply. "Remember who you're talking to. I'm sorry, but I can't be like that. Please don't make me. I'm…I need to go home." Turning, she ran down the hall.
Her mind was filled with the look on Ms. Kazama's face, which was nothing like she'd ever seen before. Maybe it was fear or maybe it was pain, but it took all Konomi's strength to keep moving. She had to keep moving.
Marina wasn't sure how long she stood in that hallway. Long enough for someone to ask her if she was okay or needed a doctor or a drink. She wasn't sure how she responded, but it must have been reasonable, because they left her alone.
Her thoughts kept circling: replaying Konomi's spirited defense and then her obvious rejection. Rejection of dating her. Which was…a part of her mind insisted that didn't happen to her and another part pointed out what an awful and self-centered thought that was.
Eventually her brain stopped circling and she convinced her legs to work and take her toward the doors. Still only half mentally present, she retrieved her car from the valet and drove home.
As she was pulling into the garage, her phone pinged. Marina took a few deep breaths, reminded herself it could be a dozen different people, then entered the passcode to unlock the phone.
It was an e-mail.
Dear Ms. Kazama:
It has been an honor to work with you. I hope that despite my behavior, I will receive a recommendation for
Marina dropped the phone like a hot coal. No. No no no no, Konomi was not allowed to leave over this. Absolutely not. Averting her eyes so she wouldn't accidentally see the rest of the message, she managed to hit reply. Then she panicked when she realized she had no idea what to say.
She sat in her fancy car in the fancy garage just to the left of the fancy house and thought that she would give it all up in a heartbeat to ensure Konomi would be there in the morning, pushing her glasses up and seriously considering the merits of different shades of red in a logo. To be certain that she'd have someone who knew both her strengths and weaknesses and stayed anyway.
She had to say something. She couldn't just…declare her love over e-mail, but she had to say something.
Konomi huddled on the floor just inside the door to her apartment, chin resting on her knees as she stared at her phone. It had taken her 15 minutes to get the nerve to push send, but her professional pride wouldn't allow her to not show up to work without providing an explanation. It hurt, but it was for the best…right?
The reply e-mail came much faster than she expected and she felt a pain in her chest. If her boss was that ready to be rid of her then she supposed it was for the best. She was going to miss this job.
Oh, who was she fooling now? She was going to miss Ms. Kazama and her amazing hearing and the way she could go from polite to icily dangerous when someone offended her. She was going to miss strange last-minute requests to find information that seemed useless but ended up being the key to a new motorcycle design. And she was going to miss laughing with her over cups of tea and biscuits.
Breathing in deeply and letting it out, she hit the button to open the message. Better to get it over with now so she could be done crying sooner rather than later.
Please don't say you're leaving. Give me another chance? If it doesn't work out, if you're uncomfortable staying, you'll have the best reference I can give, but I don't want to lose you like this.
Konomi blinked a few times, then shakily stood to find her spare pair of glasses (since she'd realized her regular pair was still at the mansion). But the message read exactly the same once she'd exchanged contacts for glasses.
Ms. Kazama wasn't going to fire her. That was possibly the only thing that was clear and it was, Konomi supposed, a relief. But…pretty much everything else was still ambiguous.
She wasn't being forced to leave. She didn't want to leave. Which left going back to work in the morning.
But how could she show up and pretend nothing had happened? Ms. Kazama wasn't just going to let it go. She never let anything go!
This was going to require some serious thought.
Marina stared at the window of her home office at the neatly trimmed lawn and rather boring garden, taking a moment to consider some of the many absurdities of her life. For example, it was astounding that her personal assistant showed such an ability to avoid her and any personal conversation that might occur. You wouldn't think someone in Konomi's position could manage it, let alone for five entire days.
Then again, Marina thought with a sigh as she looked at the stack of paperwork her assistant had managed to sneak in like a ninja, even most people in Konomi's position weren't as smart or talented as her.
The bit where she managed to meet with Marina in the mansion's kitchen, with the cook and a maid listening to every word…that was sheer genius. Infuriating, but genius. There was no way Marina was going to have a personal conversation there, unless she wanted that conversation to be public information in less than an hour. And the way every time she set foot in her office at the factory at least two other people were tagging along…
This was an untenable situation, Marina thought with a tinge of despair. If Konomi was afraid of her, then maybe it was better to let her go. The last thing she wanted was to make her unhappy.
Whatever the final decision, they had to have a real conversation, whether Konomi liked it or not. Pushing the paperwork aside, Marina focused on the vital task of cornering her assistant.
It took another full day to manage it, but with the collusion of almost every other senior staff member in Kazama Motorcycles, Marina entered the almost-empty conference room, wincing at the look on Konomi's face as she whirled around.
Konomi looked helplessly around the room, knowing as well as her boss did that there was no escape, unless she wanted to jump out a second-floor window. And, as much as she didn't want to be there, she wasn't quite that desperate. Yet.
"I don't want to have this conversation." Her breathing sped up and she had to blink back tears of distress at speaking to her boss in this way. "I don't…I told you I don't want to leave."
Marina stared at her. "What?"
"I don't want to leave y—my job. But I can't stay like this." Each breath made her chest hurt more.
"I know!" Marina paused and took a breath, leaning her hands on the conference table. "I know this isn't working but I don't want you to leave either."
Konomi sniffled. "I want things to go back the way they were before."
"That's not the way the world works." Marina gave her a small smile. "But they can be better."
"First…you need to stop running."
Konomi felt her face get warm and she stared down at her feet. "I didn't—"
"It's okay," Marina said quickly. "I understand. But please, instead of running, can you tell me why you're so upset? I…I was so happy when I heard you defending me. I thought…well, just tell me why you're unhappy."
Konomi couldn't look up. Wringing her hands, she searched for the words.
"Whatever it is, please tell me. Please."
"Ifellinlovewithyou," Konomi managed to spit out. There were a few moments of silence.
"Great, then that works out nicely, since I’m pretty sure I'm in love with you."
Konomi's head shot up and she felt a small burn of anger in her stomach. "No."
Marina tilted her head. "No?"
"You want the woman who had the fancy dress and the fancy hair, but that's not me. I can't be her." The tears threatened again but she'd gotten this far, so… "I just want to be me and do my job and pretend it all never happened and be happy again."
"What are you wearing right now?"
Konomi sniffled, then looked down at herself. "A…suit?"
"Did you buy out an entire store of—sorry, I'm getting distracted." Marina shook her head. "You're wearing one of your usual gray suits. And flats. And your glasses. Just like you have been all week."
Konomi touched her glasses, momentarily feeling as if someone might rip them away. "I…yes."
Marina stepped around the table, moving closer and smiling. "You're not wearing makeup and you don't have a fancy hairdo."
Swallowing, Konomi ducked her head. "That, I mean, you don't have to rub it in."
"You're not understanding." Marina sighed.
And then Marina was right there, hand on her chin, making her lift her head. "Don't apologize. That's my job."
"I need to apologize for…" She sighed again. "For so many things. Taking you for granted. Being shallow and not noticing you until they dressed you up. Not explaining things properly at the party and expecting you to just go along with what I wanted."
Konomi stood still and blinked, having trouble getting past the feel of Marina's fingers on her face.
Studying her, Marina went on. "Yes, you looked wonderful in the dress with the shoes and all that. But that's not why I love you."
"Oh?" Konomi's voice was almost falsetto.
"You're smart and funny and competent and I've happily spent most of my waking hours with you for four years. That's more than I can say for anyone I've ever dated. The reason I never stayed with any of them was that they bored me. Or irritated me. Or downright angered me."
Konomi blinked and stared. This was a dream. Or something. Her brain was unable to process so it just…stopped.
"Can you…say something? You're starting to worry me."
"You love me? The real me? This me? You're not going to dump me after a few days?" Konomi whispered.
Marina laughed softly. "I'm pretty sure that's what I just finished saying."
"Really. I'm tired of dating idiots who want my money or my business or my body but don't care about me. I can't believe I was so blind that I missed you here the whole time."
"Can I kiss you?" Marina sounded hesitant.
Blinking, Konomi stared at her for a moment. "Um…yes?"
Marina's smile was blinding as she took a half-step closer and brushed their lips together softly. And again. Konomi couldn't believe that a simple touch like that could make her whole body shiver, but it did.
Slowly, Marina swept her lips across Konomi's cheek to her ear. "You can try it too, you know."
"Oh! I'm sorry, I—"
"No more apologies. Just feel."
Konomi didn't know what to do with her hands, but she kissed Marina's cheek. Which felt nice, but not quite what she was looking for. She tried the nose, which got a chuckle and was definitely an improvement. She tried the lips and they bumped noses, which was kind of awkward, but then they both tilted their heads and it was much better.
Marina reached up and took off her glasses. "Trust me," she said.
"I do. I think."
Marina laughed, a little helplessly. "Oh, I do love you." She leaned in to kiss again, this time almost nipping at Konomi's lower lip and ah, that was definitely better. So Konomi tried the same thing and the reaction was extremely gratifying.
"Please promise not to hide from me again."
Marina bumped their foreheads together. "If there's a problem, talk to me. These past few days have been horrible. I didn't know exactly what was wrong or what I could do to fix it." Before Konomi could speak, she quickly said "And don't apologize. There's no need to apologize, okay? Just talk to me next time you're upset."
Marina kissed her again and Konomi tried to mimic what she was doing. If the slightly dazed look on Marina's face was any clue, she seemed to be doing well.
"I wish I could drag you home with me right now," Marina whispered in her ear.
Konomi shivered all over, swallowing to try and alleviate her sudden dry throat. "You have a 2 pm meeting that you can't skip," she said after a moment.
Arms sliding around her, Marina pulled her close. "You're such a taskmaster," she said, a smile in her voice.
"That's what you pay me to do. Oh god, this is going to be awkward, isn't it?" Konomi tried to pull away.
"No." Marina held on tight. "We'll figure it out, okay? In a lot of ways you've always worked for me and not the company. Nobody will care as long as we're happy."
"Are we going to be happy?" Konomi knew it was a ridiculous question but she had to ask.
"Of course we are. It's the perfect time for our happily ever after."
Smiling, Konomi buried her face in Marina's neck. Maybe one day she'd even put on the dress again, since it had made her Prince(ss) Charming so pleased to see it. But not the shoes. She was pretty sure she didn't love Marina enough to wear those heels again.