by Karin Kallmaker
Simply the Worst…Alice Cabot’s only great love is science, but a lapse in judgment has exiled the New York journalist to the glitzy Gallerias and vapid bubble-babble of Beverly Hills. The assignment to do a flattering feature series on Simply the Best and the superficial nonsense it sells threatens to crush what little is left of her spirit.
Simply the Best…Pepper Addington can’t believe she’s moved up from grunt intern to personal assistant for Helene Jolie, the celebrity socialite founder of SimplytheBest.com. Succeeding at the job she worked so hard to get is her only priority. Keep a cynical know-it-all reporter in check? She promises Helene that she can.
Simply Irresistible…Expecting nothing but games from the beach-blond surfer girl that Helene Jolie has assigned to keep an eye on her, Alice is fully prepared to resist any and all of California’s charms. Or so she thinks.
|Publication Date||August 12, 2021|
|Cover Designer||Kayla Mancuso|
GCLS Goldie Awards
Simply the Best — Finalist, Ann Bannon Popular Choice.
Simply the Best — Finalist, Romantic Blend.
FROM THE AUTHOR
"Alice Cabot’s world has been unraveling for a decade. It’s torture to make nice with the kind of people who take anything they want and close their eyes to the damage they’re doing. Pepper Addington knows the world is flawed, but she still trusts she can share in the simple rewards of life–friends who love her, a decent place to live, and pride in her own capabilities.
The attraction between them is immediate, but Alice can’t risk Pepper making her feel anything good, and Pepper can’t allow Alice to drag her off the path she’s worked so hard to be on.
Two years and the longest book of my career later, what I love most about Simply the Best is that it became the story I needed to read. Alice’s despair and Pepper’s hope are flip sides of the same coin that keeps us looking for light when all we see is dark. Writing it showed me what that coin is made of, and I truly hope it will for everyone who reads it.
It also has what I think is the funniest 60-word sequence I have ever written. Feel free to let me know if you think you know what it is!"
Alice Cabot braced herself as her editor tossed his Ticonderoga #2 onto his desk. She was all too familiar with this signal of his exasperation.
The pencil bounced. Hard.
Abruptly aware that she might be in more trouble than she had thought, Alice caught it before it rolled off the edge of his desk and meekly returned it to his No News is Bad News mug-slash-pencil holder.
At least she hoped her expression was meek. These days her inside face was showing on the outside.
Ed Becerra’s voice was soaked in irony as he observed, “I would have thought, given your feminist principles, that you wouldn’t use a term like ‘douchebag.’ I thought douches and the bags they came in are tools of the patriarchy that serve no purpose.”
Alice spread her hands in acceptance. “You prove my case. The congressman is, quite literally, a douchebag.”
His snort might have held agreement, but Ed’s vexation wasn’t feigned. His remarkable bushy eyebrows were a single line across his untanned, lined forehead as he glanced at his computer monitor. No doubt he was consulting the email he’d received from a power-that-be about the trending #CongressmanDouchebag.
She braced herself for the compulsory lecture. The sooner it was over the sooner she could get back to her own desk and her deadline.
“You’re a journalist, Al. Or you used to be. You can’t call people names. There are always cell phones pointed at politicians, and those people don’t care you were having an off-the-record conversation. You know that.”
“He thinks ninety-nine-point-nine percent of all scientists are conspiring to lie about everything from climate change to viral vectors because it’s inconvenient to him financially.”
“You can’t call people douchebags in an interview and claim objectivity.”
There were days when she was convinced objectivity was kindling for the planetary inferno. Ed was right, of course. It was not a good mindset for a journalist or a scientist. This discussion wasn’t going like all the others, so she mentally stowed her notes for the article due this evening so she could focus on Ed. She’d no sooner logged out of the quantum computing summit than the phone had rung with his summons.
“Objectivity doesn’t mean there’s no right and wrong. I will never accept that his ignorance deserves the same respect and reporting as actual facts. Calling attention to how his deliberate ignorance hurts everyone else while he lines his own pockets is part of my job.”
Ed pursed his lips and waited.
She finally muttered, “But name-calling won’t happen again.”
“You’re right, it won’t. You’re moving to Style.”
Alice thought for a moment he’d spoken in Gallifreyan or Elvish. She pushed her glasses back up the bridge of her nose as if that would help. “What?”
“You heard me. S-t-y-l-e. You get one last chance to prove you can play well with others and be a journalist.”
Her feet thumped on the floor as she sat up straight in the chair. “What the actual fuck, Ed?”
He waved off her outrage with a thick-knuckled hand. “Nobody wants to work with you. The line editors hate you. You have no allies in management. You burn boats to prove you’re not afraid of fire.” He took a deep breath and lowered his voice. “What do you want from me? Get out of town for a while and get your head right. You’re not the only person hurting right now. We’re all hurting.”
Alice cleared her throat and nodded at the truth of his statement.
“At a minimum, take your potty mouth out of my office. I have better things to do than this.”
“It would be great to get out of Manhattan,” she retorted. “It’s like the inside of a microwave out there, and September isn’t going to be any better. Wait—you’re sending me somewhere? There’s money for that?”
“A very small sum of money. So small that sum is an overstatement. I’m hiding you, for all the good it’ll do me. There are other people here who want this assignment. You screw it up and there’s no point coming back.” He pushed a folder at her, good ol’ Ed, who still believed in writing on paper. “I want you to do it because if you can’t I have no use for you. We’ve been down this road for the last time and we’re only going down this road because there’s a journalist under there somewhere.”
She started to open the folder, but Ed added, “This isn’t negotiable. There’s no point looking it over. Yes is your only answer or you can rant into the wind somewhere else. Reality check, Al. Most newspapers don’t have a hard science beat anymore. You know how many people we lost and how many never came back from the last furlough. Grow up. You have to earn a place here, every day, regardless of who your mother is.”
She glared at him, pissed that he’d brought her mother into it. He knew she hadn’t earned this place with nepotism.
He glared back, not a muscle in his face moving an inch.
He meant it. Damn.
Closing his office door behind her, she maintained her poker face as she stalked between metal desks, following the gray path worn into the once-yellow 1970s linoleum. With mindless recall she turned left, right, right, left, left, and ended up at her own desk on the other side of the floor without bumping into anything or anyone. She sat down with relief. She’d managed not to look at the chairs that were empty.
Jobs gone forever.
People gone forever.
Funerals never held, memorials en masse—the room was full of ghosts whose names she wouldn’t allow herself to remember. At least not sober.
She tried to look busy as she purposely did not open the folder Ed had given her. Her mental notes about the article structure for the quantum computing conference call were jotted. The space limit for tomorrow’s article was verified. Social media pings from other journalists wanting a comment on #CongressmanDouchebag were read and ignored. Pencils were sharpened. The sweltering Manhattan street five floors below her was examined—alas, no sign of her favorite kebab vendor.
Finally, there was no choice left but to go out into the blistering, dank, foul-smelling late afternoon. The smell was not improved by the dirty, soapy water spilled across the sidewalk by a worker polishing the letters of “Media Holdings Group” on the side of the building. If she looked closely she could see the faded outline of the newspaper’s name, excised nine months ago in favor of the name of the conglomerate. She chose not to confront that particular reality today. She was as stubbornly defiant about it as a sports fan who deemed all attempts to rename ballparks and stadiums as capitulation to evil forces subverting all things good and right in the world.
As usual, she paused just outside the doors to wipe her lenses free of the condensation of fetid air on her air-conditioning chilled glasses. Every day of the humid summer she wished she could wear contacts. She didn’t put her glasses back on immediately as she was going to have to wipe them off again. Though the world was blurry, she could make the walk down Eighth Avenue to McGinty’s, including navigating around the broken curb at 35th Street. She’d need a drink before she could read up on her assignment with anything like equanimity.
After a block she resorted to a trick learned during the pandemic—peppermint lip balm and a mask. It made the world smell a whole lot better. There were always a few people wearing masks these days. She now kept one handy year-round, but mostly it came out during the smelly summer and whenever her Spidey sense felt something contagious could be incubating in crowded transit hubs—especially the subway. Plus she felt a little bit like QE the First, who’d held orange and clove pomanders to her nose to traverse the sewage-strewn streets of London.
Her humidity-soaked polo shirt had dried out and the barkeep had brought her a second Buchanan’s 12-Year by the time she opened the folder where Ed had scrawled “STB” on the tab.
STB—Some Total Bullshit?
One of the managing editors wanted an in-depth series into the corporate success of socialite entrepreneur women’s empowerment guru Helene Jolie and her brainchild lifestyle brand, Simply the Best. Deliverable the first week of December.
Holy mother of fuckall.
She wanted to set fire to the folder right then and there. Nevertheless, she had a hefty swallow of her single malt and persisted. The assignment was an in-depth series. The scope should include interviews with top corporate execs on handling whiplash ups and downs in the economy, product developers on market trends that had persisted in spite of pandemics and recessions, and local stakeholders in Los Angeles who had been delighted to lure the Long Island-born Jolie and her Manhattan-birthed company into the glittering landscape of Beverly Hills.
The folder slipped from her nerveless fingers onto the worn finish of the old oak bar. It was a puff series for a part of the paper where a managing editor’s daughter-in-law, who’d known Jolie since Wellesley, could suggest such coverage as “upbeat, good people news.” It would feature a woman and such series were done for men all the time, after all.
Alice had no problem with that—but it was not the kind of thing a science journalist like her did or wanted to do.
“You’re here early.”
“Shit, you startled me.”
She didn’t look at Simon as he slid onto the barstool next to her. The bartender had a gin and tonic in front of him before he’d finished mopping his ruddy brown face with a napkin. She’d wait for him to take a few sips before telling him her bad news. She knew she could count on his sympathy since he was one of the colleagues who hadn’t survived the corporate changes. Sports had gone all freelance, and Simon had rebooted himself as a specialist stringer in local sports, particularly baseball.
She tapped her own glass for a top up. “I’m in hell.”
“Janet is back?” His deep voice gave her ex’s name the same intonation he reserved for pitchers who’d left the Yankees for the Red Sox.
“Much, much worse.”
“Really? The only reason I’m still friends with you is that you finally broke up with her.”
They toasted each other as testimony to the truth of his statement. Janet had had limited good qualities, all of which were private. It wasn’t as if Alice had ever had a lot of friends, but after six months coupled with Janet she’d realized the few friends she had, like Simon, weren’t turning up at drinks and were increasingly slow to respond to her messages.
By then she was also not entirely sure what she even saw in Janet, who was foul-mouthed, always sure she was right, and wore cynicism like a badge of honor. And was really good in bed. “We were way too much alike.”
“True. You’re both bitches. You in the good way.” Simon’s second sip from his glass ended with a low hum of pleasure. “I couldn’t handle the two of you at once. You at least make me laugh, so I picked you.”
“Thanks. My day is not complete unless I can pick at old scabs with you.”
“I live to serve. So, no evil ex—why the extra snarky attitude?”
“I got bumped to Style.”
He gave a philosophical grunt as he ran another napkin over his tightly textured hair, still as short as it had been during his long-ago stint in the military. “The video was great, by the way. I grabbed the popcorn and watched six times in a row. ‘Douchebag.’ So appropriate.”
Great, she was more viral than she thought if sports-focused Simon had seen it.
“And I enunciated it so clearly.”
“All in all, not the best move when Science and Tech staff are dwindling.”
A fact she ought to have remembered before she opened her big mouth. “I know. I think Ed was given the green light to can me, but instead, lucky me, I get to do a Style profile feature. In-depth. Major research.”
“It’ll be a change. Change is good, usually.”
“In Beverly Hills.”
He spluttered into his drink. “That’s a punishment? You get to go to California and you’re complaining?”
“It’s not the redwoods, or high country, or even Death Valley. Beverly Hills—where fake meets made-up. And this company…” She pushed aside the top sheet of the papers in front of her to read in a high-pitched whiny tone, “That, like, you know, highlights the attractor in every woman and, like, the perfection of the life ahead of her.”
Simon’s face scrunched into confusion. “What does that even mean?”
“It means a company worth three hundred million and change. If you take their vitamins, you won’t ever miss another day at the beach.” A glance at Simon’s face in the gilt-edged mirror behind the bar showed a pain in his expression to match her own. “It depresses me that women don’t question a claim like that.”
“Hey, it’s not just women. Change ‘day at the beach’ to ‘night with a supermodel’ and a lot of men will pay out big bucks.”
“According to this, their beauty bloggers have a morning routine for perfect workday energy. It includes starting the day with an hour’s bath and thirty minutes of detox yoga and exactly the right supplements based on the weather.”
“The yoga I get. But what if you use the powder for rain and it doesn’t rain?”
“That’s on you, you loser. Your day goes badly, you didn’t push all the buttons in the right order. After having time for a bath and yoga, you blitz your breakfast in the branded special blender and pour it in the branded travel mug—which comes with a detox crystal in it—because you need to save time for your busy day, like getting the kids to school.”
“Wait. A woman with school-aged kids has time for a hot bath in the morning?”
“If she doesn’t, she needs to do more shopping at Simply the Best.”
“And the money rolls in.” Simon’s phone buzzed and he glanced at the display. “Well, hell. I forgot first pitch is early today.”
She watched him finish his G and T in two gulps. “Grab some peanuts or you’ll fall over.”
He rapidly crunched up an ice cube before lamenting, “What a waste of a good drink. I should have gone right to the park. Same time tomorrow?”
“Until the exile begins.”
He gathered his phone and wallet as he got to his feet. “How soon?”
“I’ll do as much as I can without being there first. Hopefully never.” Maybe Ed would change his mind.
A reprieve seemed unlikely though, she told herself on the A train from Penn Station toward her condo in Chelsea. He’d said her only choice was yes. Since she wasn’t willing to quit—yet—then she was going to have to do the assignment. Find the strength somehow to set aside her snark. Do the job.
She wished she’d had another drink as she melted her way through the heat vapors rising off the 14th Street sidewalk. Takeout from Po’Boy Palace sounded good. It was the weirdest fusion sandwich ever—New Orleans-fried crawfish with Korean kimchi slaw on a New York hero roll—but it always satisfied. She would have her sandwich and finish her quantum computing summit piece before the deadline at nine tonight. Ed hadn’t said anything about not finishing her existing assignments for Science and Tech.
Now that she thought about it, she had a tickler file with about two weeks’ worth of follow-ups on articles she’d published so far this summer. It would be responsible of her to finish them as scheduled—until she was told otherwise. Give Ed a chance to cool off and #CongressmanDouchebag to stop trending. It wouldn’t be long until someone else said something stupid.
Air-conditioning on high and a quick shower restored her melted bones. She made short work of the warm, spicy, crunchy sandwich, including licking the drippy hot sauce off her fingers. Her cheap but always reliable friend Jim Beam, along with a splash of ginger ale over ice, joined her at her desk as she logged into the paper’s gateway and banged out the eight hundred words she’d been allotted.
Eight hundred words was her limit to fully explain why a computer that held both 0 and 1 in the same bit would lead to advances in artificial intelligence, vastly speed the work of contact tracing when it was needed again, and deliver computation speeds that would make a supercomputer today look like an abacus. She submitted it with thirty minutes to spare.
Expecting to get line edits back in ten minutes, she picked up her phone and tapped the icon for her mother.
“Is it miserable in the city?” Barbara Paul Cabot had never bothered overmuch with social niceties like “Hello.”
“It would be a step up to get to ‘miserable’.”
“Good to know. I have an upcoming ladies-who-lunch thing.”
“I’ll drink to that.” She heard the clink of ice in a cocktail glass and pictured the long salon where her mother had for decades entertained writers, visionaries, athletes, actors, musicians, artists, and many other interesting people. Once upon a time, an invitation to rub shoulders at “Barbara’s little place in the Hamptons” meant you were fascinating in ways beyond how you made money. A basketball player had talked Alice’s ear off once about mapmaking, a subject that had seemed not all that important to her until he’d connected the historic process to colonialism and narratives of cultural supremacy.
It was one of many surprising conversations that had inspired her to question assumptions presented as facts. Every so often Alice wished she were seventeen again, and hopefully naive about the power of knowledge to transform the world. Instead she was looking at forty in the rearview mirror and painfully aware that too many people preferred a fact-free existence. That even more people didn’t want to pay for news and therefore the news they got was worth what they paid for it.
“Did you just file today’s story?”
“Waiting on edits.”
“I see. You thought you’d call your poor, old, lonely mother to kill some time.”
“Not poor, not old, not lonely.” Alice actually wasn’t sure about the last item. Her mother’s salon was quiet these days. She was still asked to conduct interviews with the occasional esoteric personality, but the demand was infrequent. When asked what she was doing with a retirement she had never asked for or announced, her mother said she was in the early planning stages of an outline to encapsulate the notes for the foreword to her memoirs.
“Well, sixty-five is the new thirty, unless you’re a woman in the public eye where it’s vice versa.”
“One reason I’ve avoided television,” Alice pointed out. “Besides, I’m not blond and I will never wear a sleeveless blue dress.”
“I’ll drink to that. What’s otherwise new in your world?”
“You haven’t seen the video?”
“What did you say, Al?” The unspoken “this time” hung in the air.
“I may have called someone a name and it got caught by a cell phone camera.”
“Was it true?”
“It was as accurate as it was inappropriate. A congressman who thinks science is a plot against his bank account.”
Her mother hmphed. “The fact that it was inappropriate doesn’t change the reality that it was true. I hope it was at least pithy.”
“Pithy enough to get me moved to Style.”
After what might have been a gasp of surprise, her mother said, “Not permanently, surely. Style is not your, well, style.”
“How long remains to be seen.” Alice thought about asking her mother not to call her Shirley, but digressions made Mom cranky. Another thought occurred to Alice and should have sooner. “I truly called simply to say hello, but I’ve just realized you might know something about my new big assignment that I must do if I want to continue to have a job. Ever heard of Helene Jolie?”
“Of course. Her parents still live out here.” With her usual subtle shading that blended innocence with irony, she added, “They are quite proud, to the extent that they’re capable of genuine, unfiltered emotion.”
“Do tell.” She grabbed her notepad, jotted the date and time, wrote “background” and “BPC” at the top of the page.
“It’s too late for much detail. Come to dinner Friday and stay the weekend. It’ll do you good to get out of the city.”
She couldn’t argue with that. She would never be too old not to enjoy being fussed over by her mother. What had at first seemed a vexing inconvenience had turned out to be one of the luckiest breaks of her life—she’d been at her mother’s when the first lockdown order had hit. The Wi-Fi was good and they’d not run out of toilet paper. Colleagues less fortunate had called trips outside their apartments ‘boxing with the Black Death.’
Alice had returned to her apartment two months later with video chat exhaustion, new skills in data compilation from ad hoc reviewing of stats for the Health reporters, and an encyclopedic knowledge of Katherine Hepburn movies.
She struck through her entry in her notepad. “We’ll cover it this weekend, then. Can I bring you anything?”
“Vienna roast from Porto Rico’s and some of their house-blend Russian tea. I know we can order it, but it’s not the same. I like the crinkly plain brown paper bags filled right there in the shop.”
“I know just what you mean. I’m happy to make a trip down to that part of the Village. Gives me an excuse to go to Big Gay Ice Cream.” Her computer chimed and she checked the notification. “My edits are back.”
“See you Friday. Kiss kiss.”
“Love you, mean it.”
Mindful of Ed’s assertion that the line editors hated her, she agreed to the three changes without comment and closed out her workday with a sigh.
Her second bedroom slash home office fell silent, though she could still hear murmurs of conversation next door and the rumbles of cars on the street four floors below her. She effortlessly shut it all out, which made the silence in her own apartment even louder.
The deadline-met good mood faded as she stared at the blank screen.
The congressman was indeed a douchebag, and she regretted losing her cool. Ed hadn’t told her she had to apologize, but she would do so in the morning regardless. It didn’t matter that an elected official paraded without shame his corrupt and self-serving ignorance. She was a journalist and name-calling was bad. Now that her mother knew there was a video to be found, her mother would find it, and there would be a lecture on Friday over dinner—a lecture she deserved.
La La Land with even more La La.
She’d been to Southern California many times, but Beverly Hills just once, for a small science conference on artificial intelligence. The conference was great, but after a stroll down Rodeo Drive, she’d concluded that “artificial” was an understatement and “intelligence” was questionable. Though she had grown up in the Hamptons and had dated several women who dripped Prada and Chanel, she’d still found the plastic and mirrors galleria glitz complete with $400 ripped jeans pretentious to the point of an alternate reality.
At least there had been a good bar in the hotel.
She was pretty sure it was Beverly Hills where she’d hooked up with that bartender with the purple hair, long legs, and an appetite that had kept them up most of the night. That was before Janet made it onto Alice’s List of Huge Mistakes. It turned out being alone was better than feeling alone with someone else.
I’ll drink to that, she thought.
She was exiled to make nice-nice with flim-flamsy people who sold bogus New Age nonsense. And the absolute worst part was that she couldn’t blame anyone else for it. Beverly fucking Hills.
Steeling herself, she went to SimplytheBest.com. Right there on the home page under Creating a Positive Environment—quantum crystals.
They were using quantum as if it was a synonym for shiny.
How was she going to survive this assignment without calling someone a douchebag? Were frontal lobotomies available at the Botox drive-thru?
Depressed and feeling as if she had every reason to be, Alice recalled the good old days of heading out in search of New York nightlife regardless of the humidity and the eventual hangover. It wasn’t even ten o’clock. But she was already on her way to drunk, and the thought of sweating under her leather jacket only to be disdained by chic college girls at the Purple Diva was too much. She poured another drink, stretched out on the sofa, and popped in her noise-canceling earbuds. A couple of clicks later she fell deep into her favorite jazz brass band mix channel.
She’d gotten used to having her own party, just her, a sultry songstress, and the comfort of her dark living room. The inner bitch voice she’d named Sass suggested that a recliner and a half-dozen cats would complete the picture.
Eyes closed, she let the percussion rattle at her ears until the horn section came in, rising like pure light that could save her soul. With every note Beverly Hills went farther and farther away.