Authors: Kate Lambert
Erica’s mind was wandering. Contemplating the décor of the lobby, she noted that if its purpose was to intimidate people, it was doing a pretty good job. The sleek, monochromatic lines of the room (not to mention the impeccably groomed and textbook-attractive receptionist) seemed to be asking, “Erica Moore, are you sure you are chic enough to be here?” Erica certainly did not feel chic or important enough to be in Maxwell & Brown, the foremost real estate agency in Miami. She’d been awake most of the night in her budget motel, thinking about the interview she was now about to have with Nicholas Maxwell himself. Her sleeplessness showed in the bluish circles under her eyes. Neither was her mind quite as sharp as it generally was.
Before she could ruminate further on her sluggishness and haggard appearance, the receptionist cleared her throat. Erica’s head snapped up.
“Mr. Maxwell will see you now.”
Erica smoothed her pencil skirt as she stood. Heading in to Maxwell’s office, she breathed deep and prepared to embarrass herself in front of one of the most powerful and handsome men in Dade County. The heavy door of his office clicked shut behind her, and she was confronted with the man himself.
Nicholas Maxwell was on the Miami Herald’s list of most eligible bachelors every year, and his face was plastered on various benches and buses throughout the city, radiating charm and trustworthiness. But the reality of him was quite different from his two-dimensional representations; his smile. for one thing, was absent. He was, preposterously, larger and even more imposing than he seemed on his billboards. His presence filled the room, in the same arresting way that his wide shoulders filled out his obviously bespoke suit. The warm brown eyes under a mop of thick, dark hair were the only things about him that seemed at all approachable. The rest of him, his body, posture, and surroundings, spoke simply and quietly of power. This power he emanated wasn’t malevolent or frightening, but it was clear that the man was in total and complete control. Of what, Erica wasn’t sure. Himself? His work? And possibly, now that she was in his orbit, Erica?
Maxwell glanced up as Erica took her overly long assessment. She was standing motionless in front of the door, clutching her briefcase to her chest. Surprise, indecision and a little awe were written across her pale, delicate face. Where Maxwell was rugged and substantial, Erica was wispy and fragile-looking. The circles under her eyes that she’d so recently fretted over served only to make her seem more melancholy and preoccupied, like a silent film star playing an anguished, unrequited lover.
Maxwell, amused by the woman’s apparent inability to move, broke the silence first. “You can come sit down, and don’t look so nervous. It’s an interview, not a firing squad.” Erica laughed, first at him and then at herself, and took her seat, trying to dispel the thoughts she’d just been having about what might or might not be under Maxwell’s navy blue suit.
He wasted no time in getting to the important questions.
“So, it’s Erica Moore, right?” Erica nodded.
“Okay, Erica. I’ve got your resume here. It all seems pretty cut-and-dried, don’t think we need to talk about it much. Just tell me, why do you want to work for Maxwell & Brown?”
Because I think I may be in serious lust with you. ”Uh.” She paused and willed herself not to say anything stupid. “I’ve watched this company from afar for a while. For the past few years, it seems like you guys have had a hand in every high-profile sale in Miami.”
She took a deep breath. “But that’s not why I want to work for you. In town, you have a reputation for being fair and honest. That’s quite an achievement for a real estate company, especially in this economy. I’ve also taken note of your investments in up-and-coming neighborhoods, and I think you’re making some really smart decisions that will benefit both your company and this city in the years to come.”
Maxwell raised his eyebrows, but said nothing. Erica’s confidence dropped once again. “Plus, the lobby décor is lovely,” she added hastily. Now it was Maxwell’s turn to laugh, leaning back in his big leather chair. “Really, you like it? I think it’s a bit austere. I don’t go in much for the whole modern minimalist thing, but George says it makes us look classy.”
Erica smiled too. “Actually I think it’s kind of intimidating. I’m sure it helps weed out the faint-hearted.”
“Glad to hear you aren’t one of them. It seems like you know more than a little about what we do here. So, tell me this, then: why do I want you to work for me?”
Right. This was the really tough question. Erica had her real estate license, from taking night classes back in Orlando, but she didn’t have any experience. She had only taken a serious interest in it for the last couple years, as she hadn’t been much interested in her actual job. Erica was a 29-year-old failed lawyer. After law school, at which she’d excelled, she’d left Miami for a prestigious corporate law firm in Orlando. Just a few years on the job were enough to disillusion her completely, about law and, to an extent, about human nature. The companies she defended and advised cared about nothing but the bottom line and high shareholder returns; she’d seen, up close, corporations working at the expense of the environment and preying on the poor and uneducated.
While real estate might not seem like the logical next step for someone who was tired of taking advantage of people, Erica knew that Maxwell & Brown was different. They managed high-profile, astronomically expensive sales, yes, but a fair part of their business was in mid-range homes for more or less average people. To that end, they funded financial literacy classes at community centers across Miami. They made sure people knew how to handle mortgages, equities, refinancing, everything a homeowner needed to know. They also didn’t try to trick people into buying more than they could afford. That reputation of trustworthiness, along with all the good press from their community outreach, was how they’d built their business, and how they managed to stay buoyant in the post-crash housing market. It excited Erica to see in action that good business could mean good for both the company and everyone else. It also excited to her to see the man behind the business was essentially a Greek god in a suit.
Maxwell was still waiting patiently for her to answer.
“You should hire me because you could use a legal mind. I have plenty of experience spotting liabilities, dealing with banks, and in contract law. I’m smart and I’m a hard worker. I may not the world’s fastest learner, but once I’ve learned something I don’t make a lot of mistakes. I have good instincts and I listen to them. And I believe in your business practices and your company.”
Maxwell was impressed, but trying not to show it. Erica wasn’t sure if his silence indicated she should keep talking or not. Emboldened by her performance so far in the interview, she quipped, “Also, I have great taste.” On this she smiled playfully, looking right into his warm brown eyes.
Maxwell returned the glance, albeit with an impenetrable expression. “Oh, I believe that.” His relaxed manner was gone, his tone somewhat serious. It put Erica on edge; she’d thought she was doing well.
Maxwell straightened the papers in front of him and paused, looking thoughtful. “Erica, I have to say I think you’d make a great addition to this company. When would you be able to start, if we offered you the job?”
“The second you want me,” Erica said, trying to match his less lighthearted tone. The sentence came out sounding a bit more suggestive than she’d intended.
Maxwell made no indication that he’d sensed the subtext, and got up to show her to the door. “You’ll definitely be hearing from us soon.”
Erica couldn’t repress a full-blown grin, now. Nailed it. And in front of one of the most physically attractive men she’d ever seen, too. She stood up, fishing her keys out of her bag, walking with her head a little higher. So high, in fact, that she didn’t notice where she was going. As Maxwell reached for the door, she bumped right into him. Flustered, they both pulled back, Maxwell drawing his hand away from the doorknob. In their untangling, Maxwell’s arm brushed Erica’s chest, beneath her tissue-paper-thin white blouse. The simple contact caused Erica to draw her breath in sharply, and drop the keys she was dangling in her left hand. She felt goosebumps rising on her arms from the heat and surprise of his touch. Maxwell looked still unruffled but slightly puzzled as he reached down to get her keys. Erica reached down too, and their hands collided on the keys. For a beat, Maxwell’s rough hand rested on Erica’s tiny one. Then they both drew their hands back, as if burned. Maxwell immediately straightened, tried to smooth his tie and regain his unflappable appearance. Erica, wide-eyed and embarrassed, snatched the keys and mumbled her thanks as she practically ran out of the office and then the building.
Back outside, in the sticky Miami heat, she shook off the melodrama of the odd little interlude with Maxwell. Instead she focused on what he’d said right before: you’ll definitely be hearing from us soon. Erica dug the phone out of her bag and dialed.
“Emily?” Erica was grinning again. “Guess who’s back in town, for good?” The high pitched squeal in reply was so loud Erica had to hold the phone away from her head.
“Yeah, yeah, he’s gonna hire you. Fine. Great. Now I need you to tell me if he looks as good as he does on the back of the bus!”
Emily and Erica were having a early dinner at their favorite hole-in-the-wall Cuban joint, Mama Elena’s. They’d found the place one day, freshman year of undergrad, while they were searching for a shady head shop purported to have a fake I.D. business in the back. They never found the head shop, but they did find Mama Elena’s, and the food was so good they forgot about their planned underage drinking.
Of course, being now both adults on a sweltering late-June day, they were drinking ice-cold Victorias with their sandwiches and platanos. They only ever went to the restaurant with each other, because, as Emily said, “I won’t let anyone else on this earth watch me scarf food like a starved hyena.” It was hard to be a ladylike eater at Mama Elena’s—the size and irresistibility of the Cuban sandwiches pretty much necessitated a messy, hands-on experience.
Erica’s mouth was full of one such messy bite now. She swallowed with difficulty before replying to Emily. “He looks even better. It’s unreal, to be honest.”
“Ooh, you already have a crush! Tell me more. Does he look built?”
Erica put on a faux-lovestruck expression, fluttering her eyelashes and speaking in a high, breathy voice. “Oh, Emily, he’s so handsome. I just want to rip open his shirt and...” (she paused for dramatic effect,) “lick his chest hair!”
“Ew, Erica, you creep!” Erica dodged the plantain that Emily had flicked at her, laughing like a kid antagonizing her teacher.
“Okay, okay.” Erica dropped the act and spoke earnestly again. “Actually, he probably does have a lot of chest hair. He’s so manly. Like, old-school manly. I bet he’s never played a video game in his life.”
“What? You’re making him sound like he’s eighty years old.” said Emily, through a full mouth.
“No, no. He’s not even forty, you’ve seen his picture. He just seems serious, somehow. Not like all the man-boys that have plagued my life thus far, as you well know.”
Emily did know. When she and Erica were roommates in college, they commiserated over the immaturity of the guys in their classes. After college, they assured each other, they’ll grow up. And Emily had indeed found a reasonably adult boyfriend after college; Manuel, whom she’d married when they were both in med school. Erica had no such luck. Her twenties had been a series of romantic missteps with petty, childish men. Emily had heard all Erica’s woes through the years: the 26-year-old whose parents still paid his rent, the 28-year-old who still slept on a mattress on the floor, the 34-year-old who’d forgotten about Erica’s birthday because a much-hyped video game had been released the night before.
The latter had nearly broken Erica’s spirit. She sobbed on the phone to Emily, wondering if it was just the men in Orlando, or if it was her, if she somehow subconsciously broadcasted ‘Date me if you want a mother, not a girlfriend!’
Emily had tried to reassure her, as always, but deep down she was angry too. Why was there no man who could match her friend’s intelligence, her drive and her kindness? Why should Erica, one of the most lovable people Emily knew, be doomed to uncaring, perma-adolescent boyfriends? Emily decided that Erica could not be allowed to let the real thing slip away, and she had a growing suspicion that Nicholas Maxwell might be the real thing.
All the while Emily was thinking, Erica continued to talk.
“...and he has the nicest eyes, brown but almost kind of amber-colored.... Emily? You listening?”
“Hm? Oh, yeah. Amber. Nice. So listen, do you have an outfit in mind for your first day? If we eat fast, we can get to J. Crew before it closes.”
“Oh, Sure, I guess.” Now it was Erica’s turn to be preoccupied. “S’pose I could use some new blouses. I haven’t got the rest of my stuff from Orlando yet, and I’m going to have to impress clients.” Erica said clients, but she was thinking only Maxwell. They resumed inhaling their sandwiches, Nicholas Maxwell on both their minds.