Excerpt Fugly

EXCERPT: Fugly

CoverFinalLG-Fugly

chapter one

 

They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And while I can’t argue with that, I can say the same holds true for ugly. Especially in my case.

I used to think I was beautiful—on the inside, anyway—and he was the monster. A horrible, unscrupulous, arrogant prick hiding behind the face of a bona fide, modern-day sex god. CEO, model, a man who had everything.

I was wrong. About both of us. And my blindness has led us to the edge. A pivotal cluster fuck.

My name is Lily Snow. I am twenty-five years old, five foot six, weigh one hundred and twenty pounds, and I have just fucked up my life. Along with his.

Good God, I never should have put him in a position like this. But what else could I do? I’m just an ugly girl in love with a beautiful man.

I’m so sorry, Max. I’m so, so sorry.

~~~

 

Two months earlier.

 

Do not be afraid. He’s just a person. Do not be afraid. He’s just a person. As I fidgeted on the white couch in the middle of the minimally decorated lobby—bright white walls, floors, and furniture with a few oversized photos of red juicy lips on the walls—I quietly prepared for the most important interview of my life: a role as junior sales manager at Cole Cosmetics—aka C.C.—in Chicago where I now lived. Getting this job would symbolize walking through a door people said would never be open to someone like me. And once I got in, it would serve as a stepping-stone for everything I wanted in life, mainly starting my own cosmetics company.

Someday.

In the meantime, I needed this—the experience, the prestige—and to prove to myself I had what it took to work at the world’s most edgy, glamorous cosmetics company that had set every trend for the last six years. One whisper from C.C., and the stylish masses of A-list actresses, pop divas, and fashion designers scrambled to catch up. This summer, sea-foam-green eyeshadow and orange lips were God, but I didn’t dare wear anything so bold. Calling attention to my face was not a smart move.

“Lily Snow?” I heard a woman call my name.

I looked over at the slender, gorgeous redhead, not much older than me, wearing a fitted blue dress and strappy blue heels. Her smoky, mascara-caked eyes scanned the nearly empty lobby, looking right over my head.

“Hi. I’m Lily Snow.”

Her eyes fell on my face with a spark of shock she quickly tried to conceal. “You’re…Ms. Snow?”

I gave her a quick nod.

“Oh,” she said stiffly. “Don’t you have lovely hair.”

Her comment was what I liked to call a “conscience clearer.” It was when someone realized they just acted like a coldhearted ass and then quickly tried to make it up to me with a compliment. Usually about my long, wavy blonde hair or my “cute little body.”

I stood from my chair and extended my hand. “Thanks. I’ll trade my hair for your shoes. Your Manolos are to die for.” They were a limited release made just for Oscar season. Very expensive.

My shoes, for the record, were Franco Sarto heels I’d found on clearance at The Rack, black and simple, just like my pencil skirt and blouse. I would’ve loved to wear something more expensive, but the job I’d been in—a one-year consulting project at B&H Cosmetics—was for the experience rather than a big paycheck. I could’ve done better, but I’d had my sights on C.C., and I knew Mr. Cole, the owner, worked at B&H right after college.

I’m on your heels, big man.

A little smile popped on the redhead’s face. “My boyfriend got them for me,” she said, doing a little pivot to show off the shoes. “He works for Babs Levine.”

Uh. Wow. Babs was the world’s top formal dress designer, who once worked for some of the biggest names in fashion before going out on her own. She practically owned the red carpet this last season.

“Well,” I smiled, “if you ever get tired of your boyfriend, I’m single.”

She laughed so loud her voice echoed off the sterile-looking walls of the lobby. “I don’t think so.”

I wasn’t sure if she’d meant she’d never give the guy up or that he’d never go for me in a million years.

Both. Definitely both. I didn’t take offense, though. I’d made the comment to break the ice, and it worked. She introduced herself as Keri and became all smiles and warm chatter on the elevator ride up. I liked her immediately.

“So what’s it like having Maxwell Cole as your boss?” I asked.

The stainless steel doors slid open, and we entered the executive lobby on the top floor of the Chicago high-rise. Holycrap. Everything had an epic, larger-than-life feel—the floor-to-ceiling glass windows, sleek black furniture, and five pairs of red lips with the C.C. logo etched onto the cement floor. I half expected angels to come fluttering from the walls, blowing their horns. It’s like meeting a real live god.

And a god I would meet.

Maxwell Cole, the founder and CEO, was thirty-three, a marketing genius, Stanford grad, and handsome as hell. And he had morals. No, I’d never met the man, but I did my thesis on his company’s business model, and he was the heart and soul of the place, which was why he handpicked his corporate office salespeople even if they’d report to someone else. Which I would. Something like three levels down.

Still, I wanted to know everything about working for the man. I was ready to please him, bow to him, and make little origami shrines at his feet while he sat in meetings. The chance to work with a legend like this, even from afar, was a dream come true. And exactly what I needed if I were to run my own cosmetics company—one that I’d dedicate to making women feel beautiful and special no matter what they looked like.

Someday.

Keri’s smile melted away into something I’d describe as a polite smirk—like she knew something I didn’t. “Working for Mr. Cole is…great. Demanding, but great.”

For some reason, the only part of her comment I bought was the word “demanding.” I found that strange.

She added, “But you’ll get to see for yourself in two minutes.” She showed me into a small conference room in the corner, just big enough to seat four around the tiny orange table. The room, though it had an amazing view of Chicago and Lake Michigan, felt far too cozy and instantly put me on edge. I realized how close I’d have to sit to Maxwell Cole. And while I wasn’t ashamed of myself, I wanted him to focus on my words and my résumé, not on my face.

It’s Maxwell Cole. He’d never judge you like that. How’d I know? In an interview he’d done for Money Magazine, Maxwell Cole talked about how he only dated women whose “souls turned him on.” Anyone who followed celebrity gossip knew he’d meant it, too. That man had been seen dating some of the least attractive women in Hollywood. Okay, some pretty ones, too. But he didn’t seem to care one way or another. More importantly, he’d built his entire company on one philosophy: “When it comes to your looks, the only opinion in this world that matters is yours.” C.C.’s in-your-face, anti-idealization of women went as far as frequently featuring some pretty imperfect models in their ads. Definitely not your standard Victoria’s Secret gals. Of course, the C.C. women—wrinkles, gapped teeth, very average looking—were all runway beauties compared to me. But that was something I’d come to grips with years ago.

“Thank you,” I said to Keri and took the seat that put my back to the view of the city so I wouldn’t get distracted during the interview.

“Can I get you anything, a water or coffee?” Keri asked with a warm smile before taking her leave.

She seemed like a genuinely sweet person, which felt encouraging. I wanted to work with nice people. It was why I came here.

“Thanks,” I replied. “Water would be great.”

“I’ll be right back, then.” She left, and I looked up at the clock above the doorway. Four o’clock on the dot. Interview time. Okay, stay calm. You are smart, overqualified for this role, and have a perfect résumé. And you’re nice.

As I gave myself a pep talk, I noticed a large figure looming in the doorway, and then, just like in the movies, everything around me dissolved into nothing. There was just him.

Holy shit.

His beauty was pure male magnificence—high cheekbones and strong jaw that gave his face a masculine sculpted look; and lips that were full and sensual, surrounded by a wash of dark brown even though I could tell he’d shaved this morning.

Mr. Cole was so goddamned beautiful it hurt to look at him. But how the hell is it possible he’s better looking in person? And his cologne was…was…I never knew a man could smell that good.

It’s really him. Then my blasted brain kicked on and urged me to mentally strip away that perfectly tailored, navy-blue power suit covering his lean, muscular, exquisite body—the one he’d shown the world last season in the “Get Naked. Get Real” campaign for their new Nude and Natural makeup line. With the exception of his penis, which had been tragically blocked by his large hands, he’d displayed every ripped inch of his abs, chiseled pectorals, bulging arms, and tats.

He is un. Real. I mentally sighed. And those eyes…

As I basked in their hazel beauty, his eyes met mine, and it felt like a cold slap. I saw that same look on everyone’s faces the first time they saw me. Pity or revulsion. Luckily, most tried to mask it once the first wave of shock passed. Then they got to know me, and I won them over.

However, before I could utter a word, his superbly masculine face went from having a subtly sickened expression to a displeased one—a slight hardness in his eyes and firmness of his lips. Body language says a lot, too, and the tension in his tall frame said he didn’t want to waste his time with me.

But wait. Why is he put off by my looks? That didn’t make sense given who this was. Had I imagined it?

“You must be Lily Snow,” he said, still standing in the doorway, his voice cold, hypnotically deep, and authoritative.

I smiled nervously and stood, extending my trembling hand. “Mr. Cole, it’s an honor to meet you. I did my master’s thesis on your company.”

His hand reminded me of an old, rusted-out clunker with a stalling engine, painfully chugging its way to meet my awaiting handshake. When his reluctant palm finally made contact, I couldn’t help wanting to interpret the human warmth of his skin as reassurance I had imagined his reaction to me.

Yes, he’s an important man with a lot going on. With a company this large and billions on the line, it was very possible he had a few fires on his plate. His mood had nothing to do with me. It couldn’t.

I shoved my nerves down a deep dark hole and gave his hand a firm, confident squeeze to demonstrate my assertive nature.

He jerked his hand away.

What in the…? My mind scrambled, reaching for an explanation, any at all, as I sat and laced my fingers together in my lap. I couldn’t make sense of this.

“So.” He took his seat and scooted back against the wall. He’d put himself only a few feet away, but it was an unnatural distance that left a space between the table and his long legs. “You are interviewing for the junior sales position.”

“Yes,” I replied, trying to hold it together and hoping to God I was wrong about what was happening. Perhaps he was a germophobe or one of those people who hated to be touched?

With an unsteady hand, I slid my résumé from my black leather portfolio and passed it to him. I’d sent a copy of my CV to his HR person, but who knew if he’d had time to read it.

Nope. I guess not.

His intense hazel eyes began skimming while I sat there staring, mortified and unsure of what to say or do.

“You’re not qualified.” He threw the sheet of paper on the table and shot me a harsh look before abruptly standing.

“But I—”

“Thank you for coming,” he said in a tone that told me he wasn’t thankful at all. More like put out, annoyed, maybe pissed off.

My mouth hung open as he walked out of the tiny conference room, not bothering to shake my hand or look at me or hear anything I had to say.

My emotions fell somewhere between epic rage and heartbreak. He’d treated me like a leper or some mangy dog with rabies. And as my mind quickly digested everything that happened in the last sixty seconds, I could only come up with one reason for his behavior: my looks. And, hell no, I wasn’t crazy or making it up. That expression on his face when he’d walked in the door? The way he’d shaken my hand?

I covered my face and let out a shaky breath. This can’t be happening. I expected this sort of behavior from a shallow, pompous asshole that only valued women for their beauty, but from Maxwell Cole?

My mind went into a tailspin of anger, despite my conscience urging me to take the high road—a road I knew like the back of my hand. After all, I was a nice, caring person. I didn’t yell at people—or hadn’t in years. But that had been back in school, and only when some jerk decided to mess with one of my painfully shy friends or my disabled brother.

But you can’t let Maxwell Cole do this, Lily. I’d worked my ass off to have the right experience for a job like this. Okay, yes, I had other options besides C.C.—I wasn’t stupid or naïve enough to put all my eggs in one basket—but those other companies weren’t Cole Cosmetics. They weren’t companies I related to and believed in. Those other companies didn’t tell the world you were beautiful for who you were on the inside and to buy their products simply because you enjoyed pampering yourself. Cole Cosmetics didn’t believe in making women feel ugly to sell makeup. And that’s exactly what inspired me to work in this industry. We all deserved to feel beautiful and have nice things regardless of what others thought about our looks.

Only that prick has been lying to the world.

I grabbed my résumé from the table and stormed after Mr. Cole, quickly spotting him disappearing into a room in the opposite corner. Probably his private office.

So what? Let them drag me out. First, he was going to hear what I had to say.

When I stormed through the doorway, Maxwell Cole already sat at his fancy-shmancy, black-cherry desk, talking on the phone in all his handsome asshole glory, looking perfectly unruffled, acting like that hadn’t just happened.

His eyes locked on mine, and he seemed unfazed as I approached his glorious fucking desk, where a glorious fucking built-in display case behind him exhibited his multitude of shiny plaques and awards like a shrine to himself. A giant whiteboard on the wall to his side had the words “I’m a Take What’s Mine Kind of Woman” written on it, and the floor-to-ceiling glass on the other side of the room gave him an amazing view of the city. One he probably didn’t appreciate.

Oh. I’m takin’ what’s mine, buddy. And I was after my pride.

“You’re a f-fucking asshole.” I threw my résumé in front of him, my hands shaking half with fear, half with anger, and half with adrenaline. That’s right. Three halves! I’m a dangerous woman!

His hazel eyes shot up at me with extreme irritation. “I’ll call you right back, Chuck.” He hung up the phone, not taking his eyes away.

“You didn’t even read my résumé,” I spat, my heart pounding. I couldn’t believe I was doing this, yet I couldn’t help myself. Maxwell Cole suddenly represented every person who’d ever done me wrong, and I was tired of taking that stupid high road. I was tired of shrugging it off. I deserved a fair fucking shake, goddammit!

“I read your résumé,” he said with a deep smug voice, lacing his fingers together over his stomach and leaning back in his shitty, black-leather exec chair like the huge dick that he was. “You’re not a fit. Now get the hell out of my office.”

“No. You didn’t,” I argued, “because if you had, you’d see that I have an MBA from Stanford, just like you, and I have two years of sales experience, which includes one year at B&H Cosmetics. You’d also note that I graduated top of my class, and that I have a letter of recommendation from Mark Douglas, who I believe is not only CEO of Wow-Wow Clothing and my college mentor, but a personal friend of yours, which is how I learned about the job. Not that I’d expect favoritism, but you know the man; he doesn’t lie, and his standards are ridiculously high. So when he says I’m a good person and extremely capable, he fucking means it.”

“You. Are not. Qualified,” Maxwell Cole growled, his beautiful horrible face a blistering shade of red.

“The job only requires a bachelor’s and one year of sales experience. So please explain where I’m lacking.” I folded my arms across my chest.

Mr. Cole stood from his desk, scowling, and forcing me to look up, up, up. Even in my three-inch heels, I suddenly felt tiny, like he was a huge dragon preparing to unleash his fiery breath and smoke my ass until I was nothing but a pile of ashes.

“What you lack, Miss Snow, can’t be captured on a piece of paper.”

Just then Keri, his assistant, entered with an armful of files.

Guess she forgot about my water.

“Oh. Mr. Cole. Uhh…” Her eyes darted between her prick of a boss and me. “Is everything okay?”

“Get the hell out of my office and shut the door behind you,” he said.

I thought he’d directed the comment toward me, but when I glanced back at him to say that I wouldn’t leave until I got an answer—the real answer—I realized he’d spoken to Keri.

She tiptoed backwards out of the room and shut the door.

“You want an answer, Miss Snow?” Mr. Cole snarled with those beautiful sexy lips he didn’t deserve. “I’ll give you an answer. My salespeople need to step into a room and deliver an image that makes the customer want to buy our products. Not make them search for the nearest hill.”

That had been a polite way of saying I wasn’t good-looking enough, but the rage inside me wanted to hear him say the blunt, fugly truth to my face. I deserved to hear it. I wanted him to admit what a disgusting excuse of a human being he really was.

“Just say it,” I fumed. “I’m fucking ugly, and you’re a fake superficial asshole.”

He stared coldly, and there was this moment where my body felt like it was falling through the air without a parachute, just him and me surrounded by nothing, seeing each other for who we were: Him a complete bastard—only beautiful on the outside—and me, the exact opposite.

“Yes,” he replied, snapping me out of a surreally vivid moment.

I took a deep breath and felt this strange knot in my chest. Despite already knowing the truth, hearing the words come from his gorgeous mouth cut me deep. Right down to the bone. And for the first time ever, I felt ugly. Truly ugly and unworthy of anything good in this world.

I pressed my lips together and stared down at my black heels. My heartbeat galloped at a million miles an hour, and my brain spun with a thousand ugly thoughts. I’d walked into a dream that ended up my worst nightmare.

When I looked up at his face, that strikingly handsome fucking face with the strong jaw and perfect goddamned chin, I wanted to rip it from his skull. I hated that this man wasn’t who I thought. I hated myself for being so naïve and believing I could get anyone in the world to see past my looks.

And then the thought occurred to me; maybe the world had been politely lying to my face and this asshole was the only person who’d ever been honest. Maybe no one had ever really seen me, the real me, except for my family.

Had I been living a lie? Just like good ol’ Mr. Cole here?

Fuck. I hated myself for even entertaining the thought, for allowing him to undermine who I was.

I lifted my chin and stared into his cold, beautiful hazel eyes, only they weren’t so cold anymore. They were tormented.

I can’t imagine why, you dick. Maybe because you’re a mess of a human being, and you’ve just admitted it. Ironically, he’d admitted it to a stranger he considered unworthy of sharing the glorious air he breathed.

“Well, Mr. Cole, at least my problem can be fixed with scalpels. But you’ll always be an asshole. A fake, unlovable, shallow prick. Good luck with that.”

I turned to leave.

“So why haven’t you?” he asked sharply.

“Excuse me?” Halfway to the door, I turned to face him again. “Why haven’t I what?”

The condescending look in his eyes knocked me down a peg. “Fixed your problem. If it’s so damned easy, why haven’t you done it?”

How fucking dare he. “Because there’s nothing wrong with me. But you should know that since you’ve made billions telling women that ‘beauty is soul deep.’” It was a slogan they’d used for years.

He crossed his arms over his broad chest, flashing his shiny silver cufflinks. “Don’t tell me you don’t know the difference between marketing and reality.”

“Yes, I do. And the reality is you’re a fake.”

He nodded with a chilling gaze. “Takes one to know one, Miss Snow. Now if you’ll excuse me, real life is calling and there’s no room for self-righteous, delusional little girls. Big boys only.”

Motherfucker.

I straightened my spine, pasted on a smile, and gave him a cordial nod. “It was a pleasure meeting you, Mr. Cole.” Because now I won’t feel any guilt when I start my own company and take you down.

Someday.

I turned and left his office, hearing him telling me to wait. Wait for what? More insults? I left without looking back.