I was almost disappointed when I arrived at the airport and didn’t see sunshine or celebrities. Well, the sunshine might’ve been there, but it was outside and seeing it through the large windows wasn’t the same as feeling it on my face, the sure way to confirm to myself that I’d really arrived, that being here wasn’t a dream.
I did see a few men in black suits and dark glasses crowding around someone presumably important, but I couldn’t tell who she was. If it hadn’t been for the sheer difference in the size of airports, I could’ve convinced myself that I’d arrived back to the place I’d just left.
Zanesville, Ohio. Close enough to the southern part of the state that I had a bit of an accent, but far enough from the bigger cities for me to have been raised in a fairly sheltered environment. Not naïve, just…protected. Between my parents and my older brother, I’d been shocked they’d let me out of their sight long enough to go to college. And even then, I’d wondered if they’d agreed because I had an aunt and uncle only twenty minutes from Ohio State University.
My family was a large part of the reason I decided to fly to the other side of the country just a week after graduation. I had an MBA, and had graduated near the top of my class, so finding a job wouldn’t have been a problem, even if my family hadn’t owned their own business. My dad’s grandfather had started the auto shop, and even though we’d never gotten rich, our family had been rich enough that we’d never needed to pinch pennies.
I sighed as I picked up my suitcase off the carousel. I’d told my parents that I was helping Juliette out while she looked for a business manager to replace the one who’d quit. A bit of a working vacation reward for having done so well in school. While that was the general truth, I hadn’t told them that, if Juliette liked my work, she planned to offer me the position permanently.
We were sisters, but she was just as much a businesswoman as I was. She wouldn’t hire me if I wasn’t a good fit. She would, however, help me find another position on the West Coast if I wanted to stay anyway.
Juliette was five years older than me, twenty-six to my twenty-one, and it’d been almost that long since I’d last seen her. I stepped onto the escalator, lost in my thoughts. I hadn’t really thought about it, but Juliette was my age when she’d come home for Christmas, only to tell our parents that she’d be moving to Los Angeles permanently after graduation. If our parents had been upset when she’d chosen to go to Berkley instead of OSU or Bowling Green, it’d been nothing compared to the explosion that’d happened when Juliette made that little announcement.
I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the windows as I walked toward the baggage claim. I’d cut my blue-black curls short when I went to college, a style similar to the one Juliette had been sporting the last time I’d seen her, though her hair wasn’t curly. I wondered how much we still looked alike. We both had light violet eyes, similar features. We were both tall, with Juliette topping out at almost six feet, four inches taller than my own five-seven. I hadn’t filled out until I was in college, but I was fairly sure Juliette and I were even built the same way – curvy.
At least she wouldn’t have any problem recognizing me, I thought wryly as I stepped outside.
A blast of heat greeted me and I tipped my face up to the sun. Southern Ohio wasn’t exactly cool in June, but there was something different about stepping out of LAX compared to walking out of the Columbus airport.
This was California heat.
I took a slow, deep breath, feeling all of my tension bleed away. I was miles away from home, from my parents, with only one suitcase and a carry-on, with no real plan other than trying my hand out at managing my big sister’s catering company.
I’d never felt so free in my life.
I loved my family. Loved my parents. Loved my older brother, RJ, and his wife, Abbie. I didn’t even really mind Zanesville itself.
But I needed to get away. I thought I’d have the chance at college, but my parents had been notorious for ‘popping in’ to see my aunt and uncle at least once a month. And, of course, they’d had to come visit while they’d been ‘in the neighborhood.’ It’d been annoying when I tried to act like a normal college girl, go to a party or two, get some alone time with my boyfriend. Then he’d dumped me over winter break freshman year, citing that he couldn’t do the whole long distance thing. After that, the only thing my parents had interrupted had been my studying.
This was would my time to explore, spread my wings, figure out all of those lovely clichés that meant I was getting to be an adult for the first time.
A warm breeze blew across my face and I became more aware of everything around me. The cars lining up to pick up other passengers. The press of bodies, the sound of people talking…
Except no one was talking to me.
I frowned as I looked around. I didn’t see Juliette anywhere. And unless my sister had gotten some serious work done, there was no reason why I wouldn’t recognize her. No one here looked even close.
I pulled my phone out of my pocket and turned off airplane mode. It took a minute for it to connect to the network, and I waited a minute longer to see if anything would come in.
Not a single call or text from Juliette telling me that she was running late. I would’ve even been happy to see a text with an address to take a cab to. Instead, there was nothing.
I closed my eyes and clenched my teeth, counting to ten in my head. My mom told me that I’d be home in a month because Juliette would drive me nuts. Dad had said that Juliette’s company would go under in days because it’d been her business manager keeping it going, since there was no way irresponsible Juliette could’ve done it herself. RJ had pretty much said the same thing, just in a different way.
I really didn’t want them to be right. I wanted Juliette to be the cool older sister I’d always thought she was. I also didn’t want to have to go back to Zanesville and work under my parents at the auto shop.
I opened my eyes.
A tall, slender woman with long ash blonde hair and dark gray-blue eyes was standing to my right, looking at me with a professionally polite expression.
“Yes.” I gripped the handle of my suitcase tighter.
“I’m Emmalyn Baxter.” At my blank stare, she added, “Juliette’s personal assistant.”
Okay, so my sister had a personal assistant. I hoped that meant my dad was wrong about the state of Juliette’s business.
“Your sister didn’t tell you I was coming.”
It was a statement, not a question, but I still shook my head.
“It doesn’t surprise me.” Emmalyn gestured toward a decent-looking sedan. “I’m sure I don’t have to tell you how single-minded Juliette is. Once she gets something in her head, it’s pretty much impossible to distract her.”
I put my luggage in the trunk and got into the passenger seat. Emmalyn didn’t sound rude, but I still had the distinct impression that she didn’t like my sister very much. Or maybe she didn’t like anyone.
“Juliette told me to take you back to her apartment.” Emmalyn didn’t look at me while she drove away from the airport. “She should be there in a couple hours.”
“Do you guys work a lot of Saturdays?” I asked.
Now Emmalyn shot me a sideways glance. “There are two kinds of people in LA. The ones who don’t have to work because they either have money or their family have money, and the ones who have to work their asses off.”
I didn’t need to ask which one Juliette fell under. The way Emmalyn said it, however, told me which one she thought she deserved to be, and it certainly wasn’t working as an assistant at a catering company. I wondered how she’d ended up with the job in the first place. Then again, maybe I was reading her wrong. She could have even just been having a bad day. I’m sure picking up her boss’ little sister hadn’t been on the top of her list of things she wanted to do today.
Juliette and I had been texting and emailing more and more over the last two years as it’d become clear to me that Ohio was becoming too stifling for me to stay, but she hadn’t sent me any pictures of where she lived. To be honest, with my parents’ concerns ringing in my ears, I’d been a bit concerned about where I’d be staying until I found my own place. Hell, I’d been concerned about even being able to find a decent place. So I was beyond surprised when we pulled up in front of an absolutely gorgeous apartment building.
Growing up, our family had always had a house. Granted, it’d been so small that Juliette and I’d been forced to share a room, but I was always thankful that we hadn’t grown up in an apartment. I’d always thought of them as cramped and crowded.
This apartment was anything but that.
“Here.” Emmalyn held out a key. “She’s in C14.” She gestured toward a building. “There are signs.”
I clenched my jaw and took the key, trying not to show how frustrated I was at being dumped off in a strange place with barely a word. Then again, I reminded myself, if I’d moved out here like Juliette had, knowing no one, I wouldn’t have even had a ride or a place to go.
There was one thing I had to know though. “Has she lived here long?”
Emmalyn seemed impatient as she answered my question. “A year maybe? She had a studio apartment a couple of blocks from here for a couple years.”
“Business must be doing well.”
She shrugged. “Well enough, I guess.”
An awkward silence fell for a few moments. Apparently, I wasn’t going to get anything else out of her.
“Well, thanks for the ride.” I opened the door, waiting for an acknowledgement. The only thing I got was a curt nod.
I climbed out, got my luggage and headed for the closest set of double doors. Emmalyn was already pulling away before I’d taken more than a couple steps. I hoisted my carry-on higher on my shoulder and told myself that I could do this. This was what I’d wanted, after all. Independence.
With that firmly in mind, I managed to find the right apartment with little difficulty. When I stepped inside, I had to take a moment to stare. Everything was pristine and elegant. I didn’t know if Juliette had decorated herself or if she’d hired someone – or if apartments just came this way out here – but it was perfect.
Art on the walls, but nothing tacky or distasteful. A modern kitchen, but not cold and chrome. I went through the kitchen to find a small but serviceable dining area that bled into a living room. The furniture was sparse, but expensive-looking. As I set my luggage down, I saw a set of double doors that appeared to lead onto a balcony.
Leaving my things by the couch, I began to explore more, opening doors to find two bedrooms with walk-in closets, two bathrooms, and even a washer and dryer. I realized it was as big as the entire house Juliette and I had grown up in.
Since it would be a while before my sister got home, I decided to shower and catch a nap so the jet-lag wouldn’t hit me later. I carried my suitcases into what was clearly the guest room. The bedroom and bathroom were the same size as the other room, but the closet here was smaller. Then again, small was a relative term.
I took a few minutes to unpack, as much to make myself feel like this was less of a vacation and more of a semi-permanent thing, then headed to the bathroom to wash off the long flight. Well, long for me anyway. It’d been my first time on a plane.
As I showered, I wondered about Juliette’s life out here. She’d told me that her catering business had taken off the past two years, and since she had several full-time employees as well as a part-time wait staff, I’d assumed she’d been telling the truth. What I couldn’t understand was how in the world she’d managed to make enough to afford a place like this. I’d done my research. Cost of living in California was quite a bit higher than Ohio. It seemed that Juliette was much more successful than anyone in our family had realized.
Or, at least, that’s what I was hoping.