The Blush Factor

A romance

By Gun Brooke

A two chapter excerpt

Chapter One

 

Something about this young woman made it impossible for Eleanor to merely close her laptop and stop watching. Eleanor noticed the nearly transparent hazel eyes immediately. A charming band of freckles danced across her nose, which, together with her full, soft, pink mouth, gave her an aura of innocence. Her blinding smile, wide and guilelessly open, pulled Eleanor in. She called herself “Blush,” and this girl seemed to know everything about makeup, hair, and skin products—anything related to beauty. Blush acted so natural in front of the camera, whether at her vanity or in any other room in her home. Her voice was melodious and her laughter contagious.

Eleanor had found this woman’s channel on YouTube while searching for the beauty gurus that had the most subscribers. With more than 350,000 subscribers and millions upon millions of hits on her more than five hundred clips, Blush was among the most successful. Young girls and women couldn’t seem to get enough of her advice, her reviews, or her tutorials. Eleanor snorted. She was no different. This was the third evening in a row she’d sat for hours, thinking she would click on just one more link, watch one more clip of this fresh-faced young woman. So she did, like an addict.

Blush’s intro played and her now-familiar face came into view. Her hair in a ponytail and with no makeup on, she seemed to be wearing only a bathrobe, which made Eleanor swallow twice. Frowning, she tried to focus on what Blush was saying.

“Hello, you wonderful people,” Blush said, waving. “It’s been a whole week, I know, and I’m sorry. Real life entered and I had to…deal with stuff.” A shadow flickered across her features but was gone so fast Eleanor knew she would be replaying the clip later to see if she’d imagined it.

“Today I thought I’d show you how you can look better for less. I know we all love the expensive brands, but hey, most of us can’t afford them. I can’t, normally. Some of the high-end brands send me samples and new products to test, but you know my rule: if I didn’t buy it, it’s not going on my channel. I usually end up giving those items away to charity. The sealed ones, that is.” She shrugged, a funny little jerking movement of her left shoulder. “I built this channel by earning your trust, guys, and I’m not going to ruin that by being greedy. So, here’s my idea for a nice look for work that can easily morph into a nighttime look if you don’t have time to go home and change.”

Blush expertly put on a neutral makeup, using brands Eleanor had never heard of, as she didn’t buy her makeup at the pharmacy or the local grocery store. No matter what she used, Blush looked stunning. She chatted about everything and anything while she applied her makeup, giggling when she made a mistake with the liquid eyeliner, but then turned that into a lesson in itself, showing how to remove and reapply.

Once she was done, Blush leaned closer to the camera, turning her head every which way to show off the result. “There, you see? Isn’t that color gorgeous? Remember, this goes with most eye colors, especially green and brown, of course, but anyone can rock this look.” Smiling broadly, she suddenly looked off camera. “Yes. I’m recording. Yes, I’ll be done soon. Go back to bed, honey.”

Eleanor sat up, frowning. Was that a husband? A boyfriend?

“Sorry, guys. My sister needs my help, so I’d better wrap this up. I’ll be uploading a new clip tomorrow that I shot today when I got some new things in the mail. I know you love those haul videos.” She smiled broadly and there it was again, that shadow that slipped across her features without warning. “If you have questions or want to request videos, you can write me via the YouTube messaging service. If you have a professional issue or question, feel free to use my business email below. Night-night!” Blush waved again, and the screen went black for a second before the YouTube default setting appeared.

Eleanor had a lot to think about. She copied Blush’s email address into her contacts, knowing she needed to approach this young woman. Inheriting an old makeup company that had been waning for almost thirty years, mismanaged by none other than her father, Eleanor needed an innovative approach to turning around its fortunes. Social media had been a revelation, and she’d joined Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and YouTube using a pseudonym. Now that she was about to contact Blush, she’d have one of her assistants use the company email. In the meantime, she’d keep researching what young women, and men, for that matter, thought of modern beauty products.

She finally closed her laptop, rose from the large armchair by the window, and padded over to her bed. It was way past midnight, and she had several meetings lined up before lunch the next day. As she climbed into the king-size bed and settled against the down pillows, she closed her eyes, completely exhausted. Even so, hazel eyes and a smiling pink mouth appeared in her mind. The perfect complexion, the quick, tapered fingertips that applied makeup with sure strokes, and the voice…

Eleanor huffed impatiently and rolled onto her side. “I need to sleep.” The laughing young woman only nodded at her in her mind and stuck her tongue out to the side as she painted a perfectly winged eyeliner. “Oh, God. I must be going mad.” Eleanor tugged yet another down pillow close and gave in to whatever her mind was set on displaying. She knew better than to fight it. Sleep would come eventually.

 

#

 

“My head hurts today.” Stacey showed up in her pink flannel pajamas, holding her left temple. “I still gotta be in school. Mr. Geller is posting the final result of the auditions.”

“And you want to be Elphaba.” Addie Garr looked affectionately at her younger sister. She remembered with both terror and nostalgia being a junior in high school. “Do you know any of the ones auditioning for Glinda?” The glee club was producing Wicked—the Musical for spring, and five girls, her sister among them, were in the running to play Elphaba. The fact that her head hurt again was worrisome though.

“Yes, one of them. Charlene is in my French class. She’s really good. I think she’ll get it, unless Mr. Geller is suddenly tone deaf.”

“Has he shown any such tendencies?” Addie poured herself some coffee and then pulled some extra-strength Tylenol from a cabinet. “Here. Take two. If we nip it in the bud, you can still make it today.”

“Ugh. I hate swallowing pills, but I don’t have any choice, do I?” Stacey made a disgusted face and swallowed the capsules. “Yuck.”

Addie checked the calendar. Stacey needed surgery as soon as possible and she still had no idea how to come up with enough money for the rehab. Medicaid paid for the basic care, but the doctor had emphasized how vital it was for Stacey to have a topnotch physical therapist. Not just once a week at the clinic, but every single day during the first weeks. If not, she would in all likelihood miss out on most of her junior year and definitely wouldn’t be playing Elphaba in Wicked.

Addie’s stomach hurt at the thought of it all, and she had still hadn’t told Stacey the cold facts. She’d been running a virtual persuasion campaign directed at her bank contact to get a loan, even if she didn’t have any collateral or equity. Miracles could still happen, couldn’t they?

“I’ll just grab a banana now and get something more at school later, okay?” Stacey said as she put on her jacket. “If I go now, I can ride with Maureen and her mom. The school bus sucks when my head hurts.”

“I know, honey. Thank Mrs. Henderson properly.”

“Yeah, yeah. Always do, sis.” Stacey gave her a hug as she passed her on her way to grab her backpack. “Good luck with today’s makeup session. Any new pervs sending you stuff?”

“You brat. And no. Well, I haven’t checked my mail since noon yesterday. So who knows? I promise I’ll let you know when you get home.”

“I’ll text you when I know about the part.”

“Can’t wait!” Addie waved as Stacey walked out the door and down the narrow path to the curb, where an SUV had just pulled up. She watched through the window as Stacey climbed in and hugged her friend Maureen. They’d known each other since they were four.

Opening her emails, she was once again very glad she had a great filter system. It was wonderful to get what Stacey called “Addie’s fan mail,” and she tried to answer most of it, but she usually had to resort to some automatic-response version. No way could she write hundreds of individual emails every day. She still thought it was totally surreal that she received emails from total strangers who felt they knew her.

She shifted her gaze to the folder where anything business-related ended up. Three new emails. She clicked on the folder, hoping it wasn’t the usual “endorse our product and we’ll send you all the mascara you’ll ever need” kind of email.

The two first emails were just that, and Addie sighed deeply as she clicked on the third. It was from the president of a company, Face Exquisite. Addie frowned, tapping her lower lip. The name of the company was familiar. A quick search via Google confirmed that it was a makeup brand. It used to be highly regarded, but most people now thought of it as a brand for older women, loyal customers stuck in a rut, who wouldn’t change brand regardless. What could Face Exquisite want from her? Addie made it perfectly clear that she was mainly about the affordable drugstore brands and such. Sipping her coffee, she began to read.

 

Dear Ms. “Blush,”

 

My name is Eleanor Ashcroft, President of Face Exquisite and also of the Ashcroft Group, a conglomerate of companies located all over the Eastern Seaboard. I have a business proposal for you.

I am not asking you to endorse any products, but rather to consult with us and help us bring forward new, exciting beauty products under the Face Exquisite label. As you might be aware, being self-employed as a consultant is financially beneficial and would allow you to keep up the excellent work on your YouTube channel.

If this proposal interests you, please call my assistant to set up an appointment. If you are located far from New York, we would be happy to cover any expenses you might have to fly here.

You will find all the details you need to contact us below.

 

Yours sincerely,

Eleanor Ashcroft

 

Back on Google, Addie instantly found the information about Eleanor Ashcroft she wanted. The woman was not only stunningly beautiful, but she was also extraordinarily wealthy. The official photo of her on the Ashcroft Group’s website showed a woman of indeterminate age, perhaps her forties. Short blond hair, kept in a stylish, wavy hairdo, barely touched her earlobes. Perfectly groomed eyebrows framed clear gray eyes. Her face, with its high cheekbones and slightly square jawline, suggested strength of character.

Skimming through the short biography on the official site, which really didn’t say a lot other than that Ms. Ashcroft was single and very successful, Addie then turned to other, more gossipy sites. There she read that Eleanor Ashcroft was infamous for being a direct, no-nonsense, and not always very well-liked woman. She knew what she wanted and made sure she obtained her goal, whether in business or otherwise. What this “otherwise” entailed wasn’t quite clear, but perhaps the powerful businesswoman was used to landing the man she wanted for the moment as well. Maybe a barracuda both in and out of bed? Could Addie see herself being associated with someone like that?

She reread the email and kept returning to the sentence that spoke of their potential collaboration being financially beneficial. Was this the answer to her prayers? Was this Stacey’s chance to get the rehab she’d need?

As a barista at Starbucks, Addie didn’t make enough to support them and keep the house, but the extra income from the ads on her YouTube channel filled in the gaps unless something unforeseen happened. Their father’s life insurance had been enough until Stacey became ill. It was a blessing that it had made it possible for them to keep the house after the accident. As usual, the thought of her parents made Addie’s stomach tremble. She pushed the images to the back of her mind and walked into the room where she kept her computer, coffee in hand.

Addie checked her watch. She was on the late shift today. No matter what, she needed to keep her annoying weasel of a boss happy until she found something else. Impulsively, she pulled the keyboard closer and began typing.

 

Dear Ms. Ashcroft,

 

My name is Addison Garr, but you know me as “Blush.” Thank you for writing me with your suggestion. As you might realize, I get a lot of email from viewers and quite a few suggestions from makeup companies that want my endorsement, which I’m hesitant to give—unless I found and paid for the product myself.

I admit you have caught my attention with your email, though, and I will be calling your assistant—Ms. Fuller, was it?—to see if we can find a date that works for both of us.

I live in Newark, so I’m just across the Hudson. No airline ticket required.

Looking forward to meeting you, Ms. Ashcroft!

 

Yours sincerely,

Addison Garr a.k.a. Blush


 

Chapter Two

 

Addison cursed the train as it slowed down and came to a halt again. Glancing at her watch, she realized if this kept up, she’d be late despite having given herself plenty of time to make her meeting. Desperate to call the restaurant, she checked her cell and cursed the nonexistent bars of the connectivity indicator. Eleanor Ashcroft was probably entering Aquavit, a posh, very trendy Scandinavian restaurant, at this very moment. If she thought Addison had stood her up, she’d be pissed off big-time and retract her offer in a flash. The thought of missing out on the opportunity to make some real money made her nauseous. She hadn’t yet told Stacey about this new development, as she didn’t want her to be heartbroken if it didn’t pan out.

True to her nature, Addison had researched Eleanor Ashcroft and her company further and had actually come across a few clips of her on YouTube. One clip showed her giving the commencement speech at Harvard Business School two years ago. The woman was charismatic, in an intimidating sort of way. She exercised considerable charm while addressing the graduates, but also nailed them with icy gray eyes, as if challenging them. She hadn’t said, “If you don’t live up to your potential, I’ll blacklist you in the business world,” but that was what Addison took away from her speech. What would it be like to be the sole recipient of that laser-like focus? Addison shuddered. Unless the train remained stuck forever on the damn track, she’d find out soon.

#

Eleanor checked her Rolex and frowned. Addison Garr was almost fifteen minutes late. She wasn’t sure why she wasn’t adhering to her usual rule: wait ten minutes and, if the person guilty of tardiness had still not shown up, leave. Tapping her glass of mineral water with perfectly manicured blunt nails, she glanced out over the restaurant patrons.

Hasty steps made Eleanor turn her head toward the entrance. Addison hurried toward her, her long auburn hair fluttering freely around an expertly made-up face. Of course.

“Ms. Ashcroft? Oh, God, I’m so sorry. The train ran into some problems and just stopped, and I didn’t even have a chance to jump off and run here. I swear I left Newark on time. I’m usually never late.” Addison stood next to the table, fidgeting with the shoulder strap of her pale-tan purse. The faux leather had cracks along the creases and clearly wasn’t new. She was dressed in black leggings and a long dark-green knitted top, its large neckline slightly off her right shoulder.

“Have a seat, Ms. Garr.” Eleanor gestured at the chair across from her. “I took the liberty of ordering something for both of us to be served upon your arrival.” She watched as Addison hurriedly sat down after folding her jacket over the backrest. “I normally don’t wait if someone is late, but I’m also aware of this city’s unreliable transportation system.”

“Thank you for being so understanding. And please, call me Addie. Everybody does.”

“By all means. I’m Eleanor.” She raised an eyebrow deliberately, knowing full well the effect this had on people. “Nobody calls me Ellie.”

“Ever?” Addison smiled shyly, but she didn’t seem intimidated, which was a surprise.

“Ever.”

A waiter arrived with their salads, which gave Eleanor a chance to observe Addison as she communicated with the young man. Her smile was kind, but not flirtatious. She was obviously polite and well brought up, and even though the young man fawned over her, Addison seemed more interested in the food.

“This looks wonderful,” Addison said to Eleanor. She pushed her fork through a piece of apple, dipped it in the dressing, and put it in her mouth, actually whimpering as she chewed it. “Apple, blue cheese…and this vinaigrette…mmm.” She smiled. “Awesome.”

Eleanor had dined at Aquavit many times and, she admitted, become somewhat jaded by the fantastic food, though she still enjoyed it, of course. Watching the young woman across the table, clearly in a blissful state over a mere salad, she wondered if she’d ever been that young and impressionable. She was pretty sure she’d never been that unknowingly sensual.

“First time at Aquavit, I presume?” Eleanor began eating her own salad. The melding of flavors was exquisite, and she nearly hummed too.

“Oh, for sure. I’ve heard about this place, though. I mean, even Obama comes here. Slightly out of my price range, to be blunt.” Addison looked with some sorrow at the quickly disappearing salad.

“Don’t worry. This is a two-course meal.” Eleanor felt her mouth curl into a smile against her will.

“I admit I’m famished. Too busy today to eat anything. Just a mug of coffee this morning and that was it. You’d imagine I’d be sick of coffee by now, but really, who can get sick of the best hot beverage known to mankind?” Addison quieted, her flawless forehead furrowing. “Unless you’re more of a tea person?”

“I dislike tea.” Eleanor couldn’t remember anyone daring to talk to her like this young woman did. Why wasn’t she intimidated? Nervous, yes, but not scared and panicky.

“Me too.” Smiling more broadly now, Addison showed more of her YouTube persona, Blush, with each passing moment.

“Why do you call yourself Blush?”

“When I decided to create my own channel, Stacey insisted that it needed a really cool and catchy name. We made list after list, even going so far as to create an Excel document and matching up words. Eventually Stacey came up with The Blush Factor. It covers so much. Blush as in makeup, blush as in how flustered I was at being on camera.                                                                        The word ‘factor’ hints at the old makeup brand, Max Factor, which I used to buy all the time before they stopped selling it in the U.S. And from that, I chose Blush as my nickname because I don’t want people to know my real name. Plenty of weirdoes out there.”

“And Stacey is?”

“Stacey is my younger sister. She lives with me.”

“Younger, you say? How much younger?”

“She’s a junior in high school.” Snapping her head up, Addison looked alarmed. “Is that going to be an issue? I mean, my having responsibilities and such?”

Blinking, Eleanor was taken aback by the panic in Addison’s eyes. “I don’t see why. Do you foresee a problem?”

“No. No, not at all.” Addison smiled weakly. “It’s just…some employers do when they learn of someone my age caring for a teenage girl.”

“I wouldn’t be your employer. I’d be your client.” Eleanor leaned back when she’d finished her salad, and immediately the attentive waiter was there to remove her plate. Addison had finished hers, and he smiled warmly at the young woman as he cleared her plate as well.

Addison returned the smile, then turned her attention back at Eleanor. “That’s true.” She seemed to ponder this while sipping her water. “I did a bit of research. I wasn’t aware that Face Exquisite belonged to your conglomerate.”

“It doesn’t. It’s an independent company that used to belong to a relative of mine. I inherited it and found it needed a complete overhaul. Admittedly, the beauty industry isn’t something I’ve had cause to look into before, which means I need to surround myself with the right people.”

“And you really think I can do this? From watching some of my YouTube vids?” Addison seemed astonished.

“All of them.” Eleanor cursed herself for admitting to that. At least she hadn’t revealed how many times she’d seen some of them. “I wanted to determine for myself the reason behind your success. Having so many subscribers and that many hits—it’s not commonplace.”

“God, I have to pinch myself every day. I mean, I’m just a regular girl from Newark, serving coffee as my day job.”

“Serving coffee?” Eleanor had raised her glass to sip her water but halted halfway to her lips.

“I’m a barista at Starbucks in NewPark Mall.”

“I was under the impression you did The Blush Factor full time.” Eleanor was seething. A barista? Heads were going to roll in her research department. 

The waiter returned with their main course, Penobscot chicken breast, and seemed to notice the deteriorating mood. He murmured, “Enjoy your dinner, ladies,” and left quickly.

“I’ve thought about quitting Starbucks, but I need the money and the insurance. If it had been just me, fine, but I have Stacey. I can’t risk not being able to provide for her.” Her shoulders slumping now, Addison pushed the food around listlessly. “You seem disappointed.”

Eleanor regarded Addison and saw her close her eyes hard for a second before sitting up and squaring her shoulders. This impressed her most of all. Addison seemed sure Eleanor was retracting the offer and was trying to not look devastated.

“I’m not. Just taken aback, a feeling that every single person working for me can testify doesn’t sit well with me.” Eleanor motioned toward Addison’s plate. “Eat while it’s hot. I think you’ll enjoy it.”

“So, you’re still interested in using me. I mean, my expertise?” Addison cut off a piece of the chicken and placed a piece of butternut squash on top before placing it in her mouth. Her full lips closed around the bite and she hummed as she chewed.

“Yes.”

Addison swallowed quickly. “Oh, good.” The relief was obvious as she lit up. “I suppose you’ll have to tell me what you want from me. Need. Advice for new makeup? Insight into what’s current? Trends? An evaluation of existing lines?”

“That’s a good start.” Eleanor put down her utensils. “I take it you’ve heard of Face Exquisite. Have you ever used any of its products?”

“Eh…no.” Addison shrugged apologetically. “They’re too pricey for me, and, to be honest, they’re not made with women my age in mind. I mean, I remember my grandma using stuff like that. Even my mom thought it was, uh, meant for the older generations.”

Eleanor wanted to strangle her father. When he took over the company, Face Exquisite had been the preferred brand among models, actresses, and celebrities. How the hell had he been able to run it into the ground to such a degree that even women her generation and older thought it was a brand for senior citizens?

“I mean, nothing wrong with that,” Addison said contritely, “if that’s what you’re going for. Some people only trust one brand and stick with it all their lives. But if you want to expand the demographic for your products, you have a tough journey ahead.”

“And you know this because…?” Eleanor was aware her voice had sunk to a very frosty octave.

“Because I know makeup. I know the women and girls who buy it.” Addison had answered calmly and then finished her entree. “Surely you realize this, or you wouldn’t waste your time on a beauty guru from Newark.”

Addison had guts. Eleanor wasn’t sure how it had happened, but she seemed to have stumbled upon one of the few people she didn’t automatically intimidate. Sure, if she tried, she could probably scare the living daylights out of the girl, but Addison’s direct and open glance showed promise.

“Very well. Do you have an attorney?”

“Um, in a manner of speaking. My friend’s older brother is a lawyer, and he helped me when I started earning money from YouTube.”

“Then I suggest you bring him with you when you come to my offices next week to sign your contract.”

“Okay. The only thing I know about contracts is never to sign anything without reading it first.”

Eleanor had to smile. “That’s the cardinal rule. If you get back to me in a few days with information on your fees, I can have my attorney work it in. That way we save time. I want to get this show on the road as soon as possible.”

“Fees. Okay.” Addison nodded, then brightened. “I look forward to this. I love makeup, as you might have guessed.” She laughed, sounding a little breathless.

The sound of Addison’s nervous laughter, paired with the enthusiasm she radiated, sent a pleasant shiver through Eleanor. She couldn’t fathom what it was about this woman young enough to be her daughter that made her respond like this. Whatever it was, she needed to get a grip before it got in the way of business.

As Eleanor took care of the bill after texting her driver, she harnessed that rebellious part of herself that found Addison utterly charming. Instead she put on her game face, slamming it in place with a force that actually hurt. This was about saving Priscilla’s company, about undoing what Eleanor’s father had done to his only sister. She couldn’t let any odd, unwelcome attraction get in the way of that. As she said a stern good-bye to Addison, she could tell the other woman sensed the difference.

“Thank you for lunch, Eleanor. See you next week.” Addison shook her hand and blinked as her smile was left unreciprocated.

Eleanor strode out of Aquavit and found where her driver was idling. Getting in the car, she took a deep breath.

“The office.” The driver pulled into traffic just as Addison stepped out of the restaurant. She was on the phone with someone, smiling widely and gesturing descriptively in the air, as if the person on the other end of the conversation could actually see her. Her long hair fanned out in the wind as she skipped along the sidewalk a few steps. The New Yorkers just walked on by as if they saw nothing odd about anyone jumping for joy.

No. Eleanor pressed her lips together. She had to remember, no matter how lovely this woman was, Eleanor Ashcroft did not let anything get in the way of business.


I hope you liked this excerpt and that you hopefully enjoy the book when it comes in both hardcopy and ebook in February 2014, published by www.boldstrokesbooks.com