My feet pounded against the ground, sending pebbles skittering across the blacktop. I channeled the focus of an Olympic sprinter, though I doubted any of them had ever had to book it up the world’s longest driveway, clutching a portfolio and hoping to hell their hair still looked fine when they stopped.
I am so late.
The mansion loomed ahead of me. Close, but not close enough. I pushed on.
My phone vibrated in my pocket. I tore it out and answered it, trying to sound casual. “H-hello?”
“Ms. Paulson,” the cool voice answered. “This is Todd Franklin.”
“Mr. Franklin! I’m so sorry! I haven’t forgotten, I just forgot the code for the gates so I parked at the bot—“
“That’s fine,” he said, cutting me off. “I see you now. I just wanted to make sure you were well.”
The front door of the manor, a creaking oak behemoth, swung open. I was close enough to make out the features of the man standing in the doorway. Average height, salt and pepper hair, and a kind of condescending smile.
“There’s a call button on the keypad,” he noted, still talking into the phone I could see he was holding.
“I didn’t see it and I kind of panicked.”
The distance between us closed enough for me to make out a stern brow and a prominent, hooked nose. I finally started to slow my pace.
“So you scaled the gate?”
My lungs were heaving, making it an effort to continue talking. “I would have called, but your number just showed up as private when you originally called me, so—“
Instead of cutting me off this time, he just hung up his handset. We were only a few yards apart now, and I could have continued with my hurried explanation, but it didn’t seem wise.
“Follow me,” he instructed. “We’ll conduct our interview in the library.”
Todd turned and disappeared into the house. I rushed after him, hurriedly tugging my hair through my fingers in an attempt to look at least moderately presentable.
I could see why the mansion needed renovating. It reminded me of what the Addams Family manor might have looked like if Gomez and Morticia had favored crushed red velvet instead of cobwebs. It even smelled as I imagined the Addams mansion would have. Musty. Old.
We reached the library and Todd turned, gesturing toward a desk and two chairs. “Sit.”
“Again, Mr. Franklin,” I said. “I’m so sorry for being late. I feel like an idiot.”
His thin lips curved into a smile. “It happens. You’re not the first person to miss the call button.”
“I brought this for you to look through,” I remembered the thin portfolio clutched in my death grip, and slid it across the table.
Todd began to flip through it, his face betraying nothing about what he thought. Was he pleased? Irritated? Constipated?
“Your portfolio is impressive,” he said, closing the ringed binder with a light snap and sliding it back to me. “I am, however, concerned by your lack of experience.”
My mouth was dry. My hands were sweaty. But I did expect this objection.
“I understand your concern,” I replied. “That’s why my bid is less than your budget. This project would be beneficial for my career and I’d like to incentivize hiring me as much as possible.” I sat forward in my chair, capturing his chocolatey gaze. “I’m the least experienced, yes, but you won’t find anyone cheaper, more motivated, or more eager to please.”
Todd nodded with what I hoped was an approving smile. “I can tell. I’d like to help you, Ms. Paulson, but this is a high-profile renovation.” He gestured around him. “This place needs a lot of work. I want to make sure you can handle it.”
“I can handle it.”
I sound too eager. There’s no way I’m going to get this job. It’s out of my league.
My self-respect was telling me to shut up, but desperation was urging me on. I made one last attempt.
“Listen, Mr. Franklin,” I said. “I’ve worked my ass off to get where I am. I wouldn’t even be applying for this job if I didn’t think I could make this mansion breathe again.”
Amusement glinted in his eye. “I wasn’t aware a house could breathe.”
I glanced at the dust motes swirling in the thin strip of light from the mid-afternoon sun, then back to Todd. “Of course they can. But right now, this one’s wheezing.”
“Tell me, then,” he said. “What changes would you make to this library?”
I didn’t even need a minute to think about it. “Right now, the focal point is the fireplace over there,” I pointed to the south wall. “Is it even functional?”
Todd nodded. “As long as one doesn’t mind billowing smoke. The chimney hasn’t been cleaned in years.”
“Okay, well that should be sorted out first.” I shifted my attention to the colossal east-facing windows. They were covered in thick, velvet drapes. Barely a crack of sunlight made it through. “The library should be centered around those windows. We’re lucky to live somewhere with all four seasons, people should be able to see them.”
“I’ve often thought the same,” Todd agreed. “There’s a garden on the other side of that window.”
“And this carpet makes the place look dated.” My toe rubbed against the burgundy flooring. “I’m picturing cherry hardwood instead, to match the bookcases, with shag rugs in the seating areas.”
Todd smiled. “I think Mr. Bentley would approve of those changes.”
Right. I’d forgotten the client was actually the mysterious Mr. Bentley. I couldn’t remember whether Todd was Bentley’s personal assistant or his butler. Probably a bit of both.
“I’ve got tons of ideas and drive,” I said. “I’m the right person for this job.”
I hoped I sounded more confident than I felt.
“There are other aspects of the job that don’t involve designing,” Todd reminded. “What kinds of challenges have you faced with clients in the past?”
“All the usual ones,” I deflected diplomatically. What challenges hadn’t I faced? I may not have a lot of experience, but every client brought their own difficulties. The problem was, it never sounded professional to complain about past clients to future ones, and until he gave me a firm no, this man was still a potential client. He didn’t need to hear me complain about clients who changed their minds about colors partway through painting, or customers who couldn’t make up their minds in the first place.