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Swallowing the last few mouthfuls from her coffee mug whilst shooting another quick glance at the clock, Emma was almost ready to brave the elements of another day, working for a leading marketing consultancy in the heart of London’s City area. Slipping into her coat and heading into the hallway of her apartment to collect her keys, she paid one last check to her hair in a mirror near the doorway, making a final customary pat on the thick, blonde bun at the back of her head to ensure all was still securely in place for the day. Satisfied, she headed through the door and descended the staircase of her first floor apartment building into the familiar listlessness offered by most January mornings in London.

It was habitual for Emma to arrive for work a good fifteen to twenty minutes early – she believed that presentation and timing was everything to a smart, career-minded woman like herself. Even though a daily occurrence, it still amazed her to watch panic-driven colleagues rushing into the office at the last moment, frantically trying to juggle three tasks simultaneously before taking immanent meetings and the like. No, it was a stark contrast to Emma’s daily routine, which always ensured she arrived with enough time to spare for a quick coffee and chat with her colleagues, before preparing her workload for the day ahead. It was a practice that rarely went unnoticed by her bosses, especially her immediate one, Colin, who frequently praised Emma on her dedication and work rate. She’d just logged on and started the process of checking her e-mail when she heard the door of his office click open. Sara, one of the personal assistants, emerged carrying a number of box files, and placed them on her own desk directly outside Colin’s – a dark-haired, beautiful oval-faced woman with wide, sparkling blue eyes. Emma guessed her to be around her mid-twenties, like herself. Her glossy, dark brown hair was always meticulously cut into a short pixie crop, clippered closely in back to around mid-ear level before blending in with longer layers on top. Many thought it to be quite an eye-catching haircut on her, although maybe a little too ?drastic? for some tastes.

A couple of years prior – having only worked for the company for little under eighteen months at the time – news of Sara’s sudden promotion to a position of such responsibility had certainly raised a few eyebrows within certain circles as to quite how she’d managed to leap-frog some half a dozen more experienced candidates. And to add insult to injury, it wasn’t even as if she’d gained the appointment via the usual number of intermediary promotions either. It had been a bitter pill for some to swallow. In point of fact, if the rumourmongers had had their way they’d have placed Sara in an extremely delicate position – like kneeling down with her pretty head someplace between Colin’s knees between meetings! Had Colin not been so widely known and respected, this would’ve been a dead-on certainty, but if that didn’t cull any lingering corner-mouth whispers, Sara’s aptitude for her job swiftly became plainly evident for all to witness. She must have been singled out as an extraordinary talent, most thereafter reasoned.

Personally, Emma quite appreciated her suitability as PA to the company’s top dog. She’d long admired this striking young woman – her tenacity, efficiency and presence of mind under pressure. They’d worked together a couple of times when the department had needed to meet tight deadlines in order to prepare presentations for new accounts and clients. Emma had often found herself observing Sara with a natural curiosity; she couldn’t help feeling that Sara epitomised the design of all her own career aspirations. Although always smartly dressed herself, Emma couldn’t help the odd pang of envy when it came to Sara’s clothes – just one of those suits must set her back the equivalent of my entire month’s salary, she would reflect whilst taking in the perfect fit of Sara’s clothes. She somehow doubted she’d worn such smart, expensive clothes before working for Colin (which had been prior to Emma joining the company), and wondered whether he’d actually sought the services of his own tailor upon first appointing her. She’d somehow never dared to ask!

Finishing a brief phone call, Emma looked over towards Sara’s desk to find her walking towards her, her face offering the usual friendly smile.

?Morning Emma,? she greeted her. ?I don’t suppose Colin has had chance to tell you yet – regarding that new contract he landed yesterday? You remember the meeting he had with Kessing Associates yesterday afternoon??

?Well, I knew about the meeting but it was still in progress when I left for the day. All went well then?? asked Emma.

?Extremely! Colin’s landed their entire UK marketing contract, so it’s ‘all systems go’ for the initial presentation next Monday. The only thing is that it’s not down here in London as we presumed – it’s being held up at their main offices in Manchester,? Sara explained.

?Quite a coup! But Manchester… next Monday! Heavens, that’s cutting it somewhat fine even for you isn’t it?? replied Emma jovially. They both laughed.

?Call that a total understatement!? Sara went on. ?Colin’s asked me to head up there in advance to start work on it. He’d probably prefer to take care of it personally, but he’s a couple more appointments with other important clients here over the next few days.?

Sara continued: ?We’ve already been discussing recent developments at length this morning. Obviously, the emphasis of the next few weeks is on enormous team effort, with your name being mentioned as a spearhead to co-ordinate things in my absence. He’ll wish to speak to you sometime during the course of today.?

?Really?? replied a surprised Emma.

?Don’t worry,? Sara smiled back at her, ?I know he rates you very highly, and losing me to Manchester for the next couple of weeks is obviously leaving him slightly short-handed.? Sara then suddenly laughed, whilst characteristically pulling her hand over her mouth. Emma thought it such a wonderful mannerism, hinting at a playfulness of nature that few would see outside of her personal life. Sara ventured: ?Anyway, I doubt he’d remember the names of half our clients without someone to keep an eye on him!? They both laughed further at the remark – Colin’s abysmal memory for names and faces was a running joke within the whole department!

Emma noted, ?It’s still quite an unprecedented step to take though, sending you all the way up to Manchester on the basis of satisfying a sole client??

?That’s precisely what I thought, at first,? Sara explained, whilst unconsciously rubbing her hand against her short, clippered neck. ?But apparently the tentacles of this particular company are quite widespread, including quite an impressive list of blue-chip clients around London and the home regions, too. Colin’s more than keen to go the extra mile or so on this one – fully ingratiate them, to use his own words – and promote our own reputation.? Emma nodded in silent concurrence.

As Sara rubbed the back of her clippered neck, momentarily lost in thought, Emma found herself checking the bun at the back of her own head as if being in close proximity to such a short haircut placed it in jeopardy! Although she’d readily agree with anybody that Sara’s haircut suited her (complementing every facet of her exquisite features, in fact – especially her gorgeous eyes and high cheekbones), Emma couldn’t begin to imagine what it would be like wearing her own hair that short. For practicality’s sake, she nearly always wore it up in either a bun or French twist for work, but when loosened it would glide silkily down over her shoulders to halfway down her back. When returning home from work of an evening, one of her favourite rituals would be to change into her dressing gown before curling up on the sofa and removing the restraining pins holding up her beautiful long, blonde tresses. Emma was certainly conscious of the fact that it was one of her finest assets and, especially when worn loose, drew frequent compliments. Her boyfriend, she knew, always became greatly aroused whenever she asked him to brush and pamper it for her (this being her favourite hair ritual of them all) – her requests to such an indulgence never requiring second invitation! He’d relish drawing his fingers through its alluring, silky-smooth lengths. Curiously, she’d often catch herself thinking of these rites of sensuality whenever she regarded Sara’s hairstyle for any lengthened period of time. It was such a huge contrast to Emma’s silken mane.

Emma snapped out of this sudden reverie to inquire when Sara was leaving for Manchester.

Sara let out a faint sigh. ?I’m booked onto the 7 o’clock train from Euston tomorrow morning, so I’ll be heading home within the next ten, fifteen minutes or so, run a few errands and get packed etc.?

Emma wished her luck before Sara concluded brightly: ?As I said, Colin will brief you personally about it sometime today – and don’t worry! At least I’ll know part of my job’s being left in safe hands,? she winked over her shoulder whilst walking back over to her desk.

That morning seemed slow to pass to Emma. Despite having more than enough work to contend with, she couldn’t seem to find her accustomed level of concentration. There were numerous comings and goings from Colin’s office, mainly by Kate Henley, another of his other key PAs. In her mid-forties, she was the oldest and least attractive of all the females on Colin’s main staff. Not that she was particularly unattractive, just that in comparison to the others who were not only particularly beautiful, were all around fifteen to twenty years younger. Kate’s most obvious feature was her height, however. At just below six foot she towered over the other women PAs, and a couple of male ones to boot. Her black hair was cut into a one-length bob at chin level, with a fringe that fell to around an inch above her eyebrows. Emma had always considered her to be something of an enigma; she rarely socialised within company circles, and the absence of any rings on the telltale left hand piqued Emma’s curiosity as to what kind of life she actually led outside office hours. Playing a far more ‘behind the scenes’ role for Colin, her offices were actually situated two storeys above his, on the top floor.

By midday Colin still hadn’t called for Emma, and she left for lunch wondering for just how much longer she’d be kept in suspense, and that remained the case until Emma saw Kate reappear around mid-afternoon, making her way towards Colin’s office in her usual brisk manner. Around five minutes later his office door swung open and Emma looked up to see Kate swiftly walking towards her.

?Would you follow me, please Emma,? came the almost terse direction from Kate, before swinging around in an almost perfect 180-degree arc on her heels and crossing back towards the still open door. Quickly standing and brushing down the front of her trim blouse and skirt, Emma followed as close behind as she could manage without compromising what little composure she felt she had left!

It was far from being her first time in his office, but she was always impressed nonetheless: predictably spacious and expensively furnished, with a dark, oak-wood desk with two plush, black leather chairs before it. At the other end of the room, a large plasma screen television displayed muted CNN news, positioned directly opposite to where Colin was now sat at his desk, with two sofas stretched perpendicularly before it with a glass, rectangular coffee table situated in between. Kate was sat on the sofa just to the right of the TV with several folders and documents strewn out in front of her on the coffee table.

?Hi Emma – please, take a seat,? said Colin, motioning to one of the chairs in front of him. ?I understand that Sara’s already given you a vague briefing about yesterday?? Emma nodded concurrently. He took a cigarette holder from his shirt pocket and offered one to Emma, who graciously declined, before lighting it with a heavy emerald green and black onyx lighter.

?Don’t blame you . . filthy habit! Been trying to give up for ages,? he exhaled whilst holding the cigarette vertically between thumb and forefinger, observing it as if more like a sacrosanct jewel than a cancer stick. God, he looks like a condemned man, thought Emma, whilst needing to suppress a smile!

?So… excellent!? he continued. ?We can dispense with the more generic details, as it were, and discuss a role – a new challenge, if you wish – for you on my PA staff. One that I feel is ideally suited to your talents, obviously.?

?That sounds marvellous; I’m certainly willing to do whatever I can,? said Emma. ?What would the role entail??

?Remember that superb presentation that you prepared with Sara last autumn,? Colin recalled, ?for the Ammesons contract??

Emma nodded. ?Certainly, yes.? Ammesons were one of their major clients, and after winning the contract she’d worked with Sara for the first time to prepare the company’s first major presentation for it.

?They’re launching a new advertising campaign, which is why we’ve a meeting scheduled with them in three days time. Of course, given recent developments it couldn’t have come at a worse time for us, so we’re going to be relying on each other on this one. Your hard work and commitment has been most creditable to this department, Emma,? Colin continued, inhaling on his cigarette once more, ?and we’re all in agreement that you’re the most suitable candidate to co-ordinate affairs in Sara’s absence. How do you feel about that, personally??

?I’d be very pleased to be involved,? replied Emma honestly. ?I always appreciate a challenge, especially when the task is as interesting as this sounds.?

After Colin nodded in acknowledgement, Emma noticed him switching eye contact with her to where Kate was sat behind her, issuing a conferring nod to her also. Emma had virtually forgotten her presence, her concentration being as intent as it was on what Colin had to say. Emma turned her head slightly to the left as she heard Kate approaching the desk to hand Colin a small dossier folder, which he quickly flicked through himself before sliding it across for Emma to study.

?To start with, here is a rough outline of what we’re proposing to the client so far,? Colin announced whilst Emma quickly scanned through the folder. She noted that although only in its formative stages it still amounted to almost thirty pages!

?And of course, you’ll be helping me to brief the client, alongside a few others, naturally,? Colin added with an engaging smile. ?Any questions??

Emma looked up from the dossier once again. ?Well this seems to cover most of what I need to start off with. When would you like me to start – straight away??

?As soon as possible, yes. But before we get down to business properly I’ve asked Kate to brief you in more detail on some of the other issues – contractual and salary issues for instance, amongst other things. I’m sure you’re already aware that you’ll be meeting some of our top clients over the forthcoming period, which will mean tailoring your dress code to reflect your worth to our company. I always entrust Kate to take care of such matters personally, so for the rest of today she’ll be covering more of the logistics with you.?

Colin smiled broadly again. ?Tomorrow morning she’ll be dealing with making you look even more beautiful than you already are! All I ask of you, Emma, is to trust Kate’s judgement – I’ve always known it to be quite impeccable. Well, on that note I think we’ve covered everything for now; I’ll hand you over into Kate’s dependable hands.?

Emma followed Kate to the elevator where they headed up to her very spacious office – consisting of two rooms in fact, although she couldn’t determine the size of the other as its door was closed. She began to wonder precisely how large a role she played in the company to warrant such an extravagant amount of space for just her. Most puzzling!

As Colin had mentioned, the remaining hour or so of that afternoon was spent covering the remaining points of detail. Despite feeling very happy – even if a trifle overwhelmed – about the course of today’s events and her new-found responsibilities, she couldn’t help letting out a small sigh of relief once she’d left Kate’s office. There was something in the way she’d occasionally catch Kate looking at her; it was almost akin to the glint that certain men have in their eyes when they’re mentally undressing a woman they’re talking to – almost, but that wasn’t quite ‘it’ in this case, Emma pondered. Whatever ‘it’ was, she found it discomfiting – it was almost as if Kate had seemed intent on logging every minute detail of her appearance into her mind for subsequent analysis. Emma wondered what it would be like if she could just get inside Kate’s mysterious mind for a moment or two. There again, she smiled to herself, maybe not! She’d heard that therapy doesn’t come cheap these days… hey, what in this world does?

Once home she changed out of her work clothes and went into the bathroom to start running the shower – something she often did to cleanse away the pressures of the day, but also tonight to wash and condition her hair. After this she sat at her bedroom dresser to carefully brush out its moist lengths with long, soothing strokes. As it began to dry, she once again slipped off her dressing gown to enjoy the sensation of its silkiness against the bare skin of her back and shoulders. She cast her mind forward to the next morning, when Kate (albeit on company expenses) was to ?make her more beautiful than she already was,? to quote Colin’s exact words. He’d specifically asked her to put her trust into Kate – she only hoped his judgement wasn’t misplaced! No, don’t be daft, she chided herself; Sara had probably been through a similar procedure and just look at how well things turned out for her!

She arrived an hour early for work the next morning, having woken up almost an hour before her alarm was set to go off. She’d decided to wear her favourite white blouse with a black skirt and jacket, which she thought looked professional enough to at least start the day in, despite whatever clothes Kate was planning for her later on. She’d put her hair up in its usual bun.

They were due to meet up in her office at 9 o’clock sharp, which left her with ample time to fetch a coffee and turn her attention to some of the tasks outlined in the dossier Colin had given her the previous afternoon. As the hour drew ever closer, Emma couldn’t help becoming slightly nervous, which she regarded as totally natural given the circumstances. Nerves aren’t necessarily a bad sign anyway – they usually add an extra sharpness to one’s thinking.

She actually made her way up to Kate’s office a minute or two early, where Kate began to inform her about their movements for the morning.

?You won’t be over-exerting yourself this morning, Emma,? began Kate with uncharacteristic cheerfulness. ?Hopefully, it should all be most enjoyable in fact!?

Ten minutes later they took the elevator down to the basement car park where Kate led the way to where she’d parked her grey 5-series BMW. Emma still hadn’t been told precisely where they were going, this seemingly being Kate’s idea of a magical mystery tour!

Just after passing Hyde Park Corner, Emma proffered her final deduction: Knightsbridge, knowing of its many exclusive designer shops and boutiques scattered around this elite district. She was nonetheless surprised, however, when they were parking behind Harrods some five minutes later. Following Kate, they entered the huge store and headed directly up to the first floor, which located the many women’s designer concessionaires.

Absolutely nothing was overlooked. With the help of the sales assistants, Kate seemed in her element whilst selecting various dress and trouser suits, jackets, skirts and blouses. Emma would never have guessed that she could ever be so animated, so impassioned. Here’s a lady who must have a true penchant for retail therapy, Emma guessed while gazing with astonishment at the ever-growing combination of selected garments.

Then it was on to ladies’ shoes and, if Emma wasn’t overwhelmed enough so far, they then took the escalator back down to the ground floor to leatherwear, namely handbags. No expense spared, whatsoever, as Kate charged everything onto company platinum-plastic. With Kate having requested for all purchases to be automatically dispatched to one of the door points for later collection, Kate announced after making the last of these purchases that perhaps Emma might wish to spend a while perusing by herself.

?Whilst I’m here there are a couple of small things I’d like to pick up,? Kate explained. ?We’ll meet back here in, say, thirty??

Emma glanced at her watch: ?One-fifteen then. Sure, that’s fine.?

?Wonderful! Perfumery & cosmetics are just the other side of the food halls, through there, if you feel like treating yourself,? said Kate, pointing over Emma’s shoulder.

In agreement, she turned around to follow Kate’s directions before something made her turn around briefly in curiosity of which direction Kate actually went off in, but she’d already disappeared. There were only two doorways she could have accessed so quickly; the first leading into the fine jewellery department, and the other signed to the escalators they’d come down by and also menswear on the lower-ground floor. Emma assumed it had been the former, and continued towards what she hoped was the perfumery section.

She returned to leatherwear after their arranged thirty-minute interval via ladies’ accessories where she’d not been able to resist buying a beautiful tortoiseshell barrette for her hair, thinking it would go wonderfully with some of the new clothes they’d just bought. After meeting up they collected their appreciable number of shopping bags which two doormen helped carry outside to the car before they drove straight back to the City. The volume of traffic had increased significantly since their journey into Knightsbridge, and Kate began to show faint signs of agitation as she kept glancing towards the clock on the dashboard.

?Are we okay for time, Kate?? Emma inquired.

?Hopefully, yes.? A smile venturing onto her lips, Kate added: ?We’ve another appointment for you at two-thirty this afternoon, back in my office.?

Emma looked across at her quizzically, but Kate’s sole response was tapping the right side of her nose with her forefinger. God, she’s really getting off on this, Emma mused! Once they’d passed Trafalgar Square the traffic eased up slightly and were back at Moorgate by 2.15 p.m., repairing directly to Kate’s office, where she immediately began the task of sorting through the abundant carriers. Never one to dwell on a decision process, Kate soon selected a chic, navy coloured skirt with matching jacket along with a clean-cut, sharp white blouse. Kate checked her watch yet again.

?I’ll leave you to change into these for a moment, Emma; I just need to check on something. Don’t bother with the jacket just yet as we don’t want to sp?? She suddenly trailed off. ?Never mind,? she said, quickly recovering herself. ?I’ll only be a few minutes, so I’ll leave you to decide on a suitable pair of shoes.? With that, she left the room leaving Emma to promptly undress and start changing into one of her new outfits. She loved the very feel of it, not to mention its appearance as she checked herself in a full-length wall mirror, turning one way and then the other as she tried to observe them over each shoulder from every angle. She was still doing this when the door opened and Kate reappeared, followed by a man that Emma guessed was in his late twenties/ early thirties, carrying a small black satchel. He was of Mediterranean appearance judging from his short, dark hair and olive-toned skin.

?Ooo la-laa!? exclaimed Kate, clapping both hands together in rapture. ?How impressive we’re looking now, my dear. Doesn’t she look wonderful, Pietro?? she asked the man standing at her side.

?Quite charming,? came his sole reply, slipping the bag from off his shoulder. He then approached Emma to run the creases of her new, crisp white blouse between his middle and forefingers whilst Kate stepped up beside him. He had the most penetrating eyes Emma could remember seeing.

?There’s just one thing we’ve overlooked … chin up!? Kate instructed in almost matronly fashion.

Feeling slightly nonplussed, Emma raised her chin as Kate leaned forward and proceeded to fasten the top two buttons of her blouse so that it was buttoned up high to her neck.

Kate stepped back in reappraisal. ?Mmm… oh yes!? she exclaimed, quickly locating her handbag from which she pulled a small Harrods bag.

?Chin up again, please Emma!? she piped again as she produced a navy-blue tie from the bag. Albeit looking slightly perplexed, Emma again lifted her head back as Kate flicked up her collar and dextrously fastened the tie around her neck.

?Perfect! Now, could you turn around slowly for us, please Emma – show Pietro what we’ve got to work with?? enjoined Kate after another moment’s reappraisal.

Emma complied, naturally wondering who on earth this Pietro guy was and, moreover, what he was here to do. Emma had surmised this appointment to be with a beautician, or of somebody along those lines. Somehow, she sincerely doubted this man was here to apply lip-liner and eye shadow! As she was completing her turn and began to face him once more, she was surprised to catch the eyes of both Pietro and Kate looking at the back of her head, before averting their attentions to more generic details of her appearance. Pietro nodded, the trace of a smile etched upon the corners of his mouth.

?There’s nothing to be concerned about,? Kate said, noting the worried expression on Emma’s face and laying a hand of gentle assurance on her arm. ?You’ll be turning every male head in this building by the time Pietro’s worked his magic with you – not to mention a few of the women’s, too, quite probably! Pietro’s a hairdresser – one of Mayfair’s finest, in fact!?

As Emma visibly relaxed with this revelation, Kate added with another smile, ?Pietro is here to add the finishing touches – the pi?ce de r?sistance, as they say.? It had only been a couple of weeks since she’d visited the salon, but Emma felt delighted at the prospect of being pampered by a top London hairstylist.

?So, are we ready to start, Pietro, do you think??

?Certainly,? he responded cheerily. While retrieving the large satchel that Emma now assumed contained his equipment, Kate retrieved a small set of keys from one of her desk drawers. Emma watched with curiosity as she approached the door to the, so far, unrevealed second room of her office and unlocked it. With this, she merely unlatched it and pushed it open by several inches before turning back to Emma.

?After you, please,? she bade, her arm motioning towards the partially opened door. Emma nodded and started forward.

The room was dimly lit as she entered – the only evident light filtering through closed Venetian blinds hanging over its only window. The floor felt different beneath her tread, and was surprised to look down and notice what appeared to be white ceramic tiles, being in such stark contrast to the deep, lavish pile of the carpet in the main room. A few steps further into the darkened room and she heard a light switch flicking on behind her, and she could barely contain her total astonishment. The room was around half the size of the main one, but still being fairly spacious, and sitting at dead-centre stage of this was nothing less than a barber’s chair. Emma felt an arm move around her shoulders.

?Impressive, isn’t it?? said Kate with obvious pride. ?I inherited it some years ago from a relative of mine.?

Impressive was one word for it, Emma supposed, but the understandable question on her mind was what the hell it was doing in the middle of her office, but she remained so totally dumbstruck the words simply refused to come out of her mouth!

She was still staring at it within this deep state of surprise and consternation, taking in the deep, red upholstery as Kate began to gently guide her towards it.

?Go on – take a seat,? she heard Kate’s voice ask, almost as if spoken from another room. Emma hesitantly lowered herself into the chair, with just enough composure of mind returning to register just how snug it was! Kate now beamed down at her just before she felt the strangest sensation of the chair being hoisted, and of her feet actually leaving the floor.

?There, doesn’t that feel marvellous… relax now!?

Emma watched as Pietro pulled a metal wheelie-trolley situated near the window across to just behind and to the right of her. Then, from the various muted metallic sounds, she knew he was unpacking the various tools from his bag and placing them onto the trolley. Meanwhile, Kate opened the Venetian blinds to admit more daylight onto the proceedings, before joining Pietro behind the chair.

?Emma, there are two points I must make here,? Kate stated after a brief moment. ?Number one: whatever happens within this room today will never be mentioned outside of it.? Another brief pause. ?Secondly, and I can assure you of this – and I mean absolutely assure you,? she reiterated firmly, ?is that you will never grow to regret it.

?You are not the first to sit in this chair, and will doubtlessly not be the last. Colin always entrusts the future development of his female staff to me, and you only have to look at them now to see what they’ve gone on to achieve for themselves. Do I make myself understood??

As totally bizarre as her predicament was, Emma did understand – she now understood everything perfectly. Nothing could surprise her any longer, especially after this!

She nodded forward, ?Yes. I understand,? she uttered clearly and calmly.

?Very well,? came Kate’s sole reply.

A long (and almost interminable, as it seemed to Emma) stillness seemed to descend heavily upon the room before Kate spoke again, although the reality of the moment would probably have measured a mere ten seconds. Reality was now something that she could never have envisaged feeling so disconnected from.

?You simply can’t help noticing what a beautiful hairline Emma has, can you Pietro?? Kate eventually said, as she began tracing her right index finger, ever so slowly, around the edges of Emma’s neck. Down from just behind her right ear, across her nape and back up to just behind her left ear.

?Quite perfect, indeed,? Pietro responded.

The man of many words had spoken again, Emma rued to herself. She thought hairdressers were supposed to be good conversationalists – confidants to some, even. She doubted whether this guy’s topical prowess progressed much further than the day’s weather!

?It would be a crying shame not to make the most of it.? Kate paused briefly, awaiting Pietro’s concurrence. He merely nodded in agreement.

Kate then moved around and stood in front of Emma, furrowing her brow in deep thought with her forefinger pressed against her lips. Emma looked up at her nervously, not even knowing what to contemplate as a worst-case scenario.

?Let her hair down,? she suddenly instructed to Pietro. She watched intently as he began removing the numerous pins holding Emma’s thick bun in place at the back of her head, until her blonde mane fell loose and cascaded down the back of the barber’s chair. Gathering the hair together in both hands he pulled it into a ponytail at her nape, assessing its weight and lustre as he slowly ran his right hand down its full length. He did this several times before releasing it, and Emma soon felt the soothing strokes of a hairbrush moving from the crown of her head all the way down to the ends which, again, was administered several times.

Kate nodded faintly, and stepped forward to turn the chair around so that the back of Emma’s hair faced the window. She began easing Emma gently from right to left, observing the effect and movement of the reflection on her hair from bright sunlight streaming through the Venetian slats at the window that also cast wide, thin silhouettes across the back wall of the room.

After ceasing the rocking motion, she caressed the back of Emma’s hair momentarily before lifting the front sections gently over the shoulders to hang down to her breasts and swivelled her around to face the window once more.

?You have beautiful hair, Emma… so glossy and healthy,? Kate noted admiringly.

?Thank you,? came the subdued reply.

She addressed Pietro. ?She requires something ultra sleek . . . something ultra sleek and irresistibly sexy. Give her a short, inverted bob: one-length to the lips in front, and angled up to here to make sure her earlobes show,? she indicated, angling the edge of her hand at mid-ear level. Emma took a sharp intake of breath, visualising all her long, blonde hair falling around her to the floor.

?And buzz her nape really short,? Kate continued, ?so the weight line falls to around here,? she showed using the same hand method as before, placed halfway up the back of her head. ?Do you think you’d like that, Emma… having your nape clippered nice and short??

Without giving her the chance of answering the question (not that Emma was altogether sure of what she might have said had she been granted it), Kate added, ?I think it will complement your new wardrobe superbly!?

?An excellent choice,? said Pietro. ?How short??

?A number two guide should do it nicely, I think.?

?Very well,? said Pietro. Taking a comb and metal clip from the trolley, he made a horizontal section across the back of Emma’s head, levelled at around an inch above her ears, and deftly wound the remaining section above this parting into a loose knot, which he secured at the top of her head with the clip. Replacing the comb on the trolley, he picked up his trusted scissors and started pulling the loose section of hair hanging down into a ponytail, closer to the nape than he’d done earlier. Kate took a seat just to the side of the room as Pietro spent a moment ensuring no stray hairs had escaped his grasp. She was watching with an intensity that would have made Emma feel even more nervous had she been able to see her – if that was humanly possible, and right now it certainly didn’t feel like it to her!

Her mind was spinning… her stomach churning over more and more with the prospect of what was about to happen to her lovely hair. She suddenly thought of her boyfriend and his probable reaction when he next saw her with the hair he loved so much all cut off… not to mention the buzzed nape. What possible response was there to give? She couldn’t help playing a likely scenario through her mind:

?Hi honey – my hair? Oh yes, one of the PAs thought I needed a new look and invited me into the secret room in her office where she keeps her barber’s chair… honest!? Yeah, right! The next time I’m introduced to a strange room it will have nice, thick padded walls!

Oh my God, she thought abruptly, being brought out of her reverie as she felt the cold of steel rest against her neck, tight against her nape. Pietro began the first cut, pulling the blades together as tightly as he could around the thick ponytail. Emma closed her eyes as she heard the loud rasping of the shears, only reopening them when she felt the ponytail coming away from the back of her head.

After a moment she heard a click as he snapped a guard onto the clippers, and she jolted at the sound of them popping to life just behind her, as Pietro laid his hand firmly against her crown. She bowed her head, acquiescent in the approach of the humming clippers as he gently eased her head forward and placed them just beneath the middle of her nape and slowly raised them up over her hairline. Emma hadn’t a clue how she might react to this part of the haircut, but she certainly didn’t anticipate the sensation she was now experiencing – the feeling of the vibrations filtering through the guard and to what felt like the very core of her. It felt so, well… sensuous!

As the pitch of the clippers deepened, the higher Emma’s nerve-system seemed soar into sensory overload as the vibrations passed all the way up from the bottom of her nape to where Pietro withdrew them halfway up the back of her head. She writhed slightly as they began their second passage just to the right of the previous path. As the clippers warmed up, so did her sense of ecstasy – this was beyond her wildest fantasies!

Pietro continued with the clippers until he was content her neck had been evenly buzzed, a mere fraction of an inch left behind in their wake, and snapped on the 0000 blade to score a sharp outline around the edges of Emma’s slender neck. As the clippers were flicked off, Kate arose from her seat to take Emma’s hand in her own.

?Feel it, Emma,? she said, guiding Emma’s slightly shaking hand around to the back of her head to acquaint her fingertips with the bristly, ultra-short stubble of her nape for the first time.

?I assure you,? she furthered, ?this can become very addictive!? From the moment Emma felt it for herself, she knew she was already hooked – it felt like her neck had been coated with a thin layer of velvet. Kate retook her seat and Pietro withdrew the clip from the top section. Emma writhed again slightly at the unfamiliarity of long hair passing over the bristles of the bottom half of her neck, enjoying its silky-softness for what she knew were the last moments.

Pietro combed through the hair once again before retrieving his scissors. He then started following the angle Kate had stipulated, from Emma’s lips to precisely the middle of her right ear, and she watched as the first pieces of long, blonde hair began to collect in her lap. As she heard the now familiar rasping of the blades passing around to the back of her head, she was amazed at how much lighter her head felt on this side compared to where long hair remained on the other. Within minutes, this too was methodically snipped off to slide down over her chest and join the awaiting pile of severed tresses in her lap. Emma appeared to be stroking them in a form of silent farewell; she was actually reflecting back upon the last time she’d sat brushing it at her dresser. It seemed almost impossible to believe it had only been the previous night, not even twenty-four hours having yet elapsed.

After further snipping and carrying out of a few minor adjustments here and there, Pietro brushed off the clippings and announced he’d finished. Kate got up to carefully appraise the cut for a few moments.

?Another superb job Pietro, I must say,? she complimented. ?She’ll have every guy in the land wanted to rub their fingers over this gorgeous, sexy nape of hers,? giving it another quick brush with her own hand for good measure. Pietro bowed his head briefly in appreciation as he began lowering the chair.

Kate stood in front of Emma offering outstretched hands to assist her out of it, which Emma actually felt quite grateful of, considering she doubted whether her legs were quite steady enough to take her weight – maybe they needed time to adjust to the amount they felt they’d mislaid, which had just come off her head!

?Let’s take a look at the new you, shall we?? Kate invited as she took Emma’s hands. As she slowly got to her feet, the remnants of the locks that had been lying in her lap fell to the floor, and her eyes scanned down in astonishment at how the rest encircled the chair in deep, golden coils. It felt strange to think she’d been carrying it around all of her life, and now there it was, lying against the cold tiled floor.

Feeling Kate’s hand rest on her arm, she turned around and was led to a large, eight-foot square mirror. She couldn’t quite believe her own reflection at first; she turned her head slightly to the one side, then the other, observing the angle of the cut from her lips to the middle of her ears. She was still in shock but, by what she could tell so far, she thought it looked rather nice, very suited to her face in fact. She thought back to the previous day when Colin had entreated her to trust Kate’s judgement, and also of the many times she’d thought of how suited Sara was to her dark crop. Now, she’d been given the same treatment, and yes, she liked it!

Pietro passed Kate a hand mirror, which she held up behind each of Emma’s shoulders for her to see the back of her new bob for the first time. She regarded the way the angle swooped up in back to the centre of her neck and the abrupt, heavy ‘step’ of the weight line (level with the tips of her ears) abridging the clippered nape, before the angle descended back down again to the other side. No, she didn’t like it… she loved it!

After Kate withdrew the mirror, Emma began to shake her head slightly from side to side, loving the swing and movement of the bobbed hair, and also the sensation the rubbing of her nape aroused in her, which she performed repeatedly.

?I assume everything meets with your approval then, Emma?? she heard Kate ask. ?I told you there’d be no regrets, didn’t I??

?It feels amazing,? Emma said as much to herself as in reply to Kate’s question.

?Good! There were a few moments when I had my concerns for you. Still, I can appreciate what a – well, shall we say peculiar experience this must have been for you. It’s something that, I assure you, everybody handles in their own individual way. Sadly, we’re through in here for today but you’re going to need regular trims every three or four weeks, especially to keep that lovely nape of yours in fine trim. You might call it one of the many perks of your new position in the company.? Kate smiled.

?Nevertheless,? she continued, ?I think it wise you take the rest of today off. You’ll need time to think about things, and start adjusting to your wonderful new look. Somehow, I doubt you’ll find it too difficult, judging by the way you keep rubbing that neck of yours!?

Pietro finished transferring his tools back into the black satchel, and pushed the metal trolley back into the corner, then followed Emma and Kate as they moved towards the door into her main office. There she thanked him again for his services and, with a brief shake of Kate’s hand, he left.

?Well, my young lady,? Kate sighed. ?As I said, go home now for the rest of the day. Of course, from tomorrow we’re going to need to start dealing with what we’re actually paying you to do. But you probably feel you’ve been through enough for one day! As for all these clothes – let’s help you downstairs and try and hail a cab for you.?

?That’s very kind, thank you,? replied Emma. Since leaving the ‘Twilight Zone’ of the other room, the tentacles of reality had gradually begun to weave their way back into her mind again.

?Welcome to the team, Emma!? Kate smiled, shaking her hand firmly.

Soon afterwards, Emma was on her way home. Kate had swiftly managed to hail her a taxi just outside their building, in which she now sat looking down at the numerous boxes and shopping bags whilst recapping events as best she could. Much of it, she knew, had been spent inside a kind of haze, as she’d attempted to catch some kind of grip on what was happening to her.

She suddenly recalled the tortoiseshell barrette she’d bought – when my hair was long, she thought as she rubbed the prickly bristle at her nape yet another time. She rummaged through some of the carriers until she found it, and then unrolled its protective layer of tissue. It certainly hadn’t been cheap.

?Oh well,? she sighed, running her fingers along it, ?I’m sure it’ll make somebody a lovely Christmas or birthday present.?

She felt she’d more than enough mementos to remind her of this particular day of her life.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Colin had thought his late afternoon meeting would never reach an end; now, at just turned 7.30 p.m., he was finally able to wind down. He checked whether the staff had all swiped out for the day on his computer. Content they had and with no risk of unwanted interruption, he walked over to open the cabinet holding the array of video equipment installed next to the giant TV set and inserted the tape he’d recorded at the beginning of the afternoon. He’d far preferred to have watched it live, had it not been for an earlier meeting. Picking up the remote control he made himself comfortable, stretching his legs along one of the long sofas and pressing the play button on the remote.

The scene that flicked onto the huge screen was of Kate’s back office: Emma standing just inside the room and Kate behind her in the doorway, her hand on the light switch that was wired to activate the cameras concealed behind the large, two-way mirror on the wall opposite the doorway. It had been his own brainchild, something that always brought a wry smile to his lips whenever he watched this cunning piece of inventiveness in action, so to speak. Although, it had been Kate that had given him the initial inspiration when she mentioned the old barber’s chair her uncle had bequeathed her.

He lit a cigarette and continued to watch Emma’s haircut unfold, nodding approvingly to himself as Pietro buzzed her nape in his usual, fastidious manner. He’d reached the point where Pietro was adding the final touches when there came a quick knock on the door and he bade her to enter. Kate looked across at the television with a satisfied expression whilst Colin returned his attention to Emma being finally brushed down, and to Kate leading her to the mirror to consider her newly bobbed hairstyle. Colin watched avidly as she ran her right hand up and down her freshly buzzed nape. When the recording ended he flicked off the TV, and looked over to Kate who’d now taken a seat along the opposite sofa.

?Everything meet with your approval?? she inquired with a raised eyebrow.

?Perfect Kate, absolutely perfect,? congratulated Colin, ?she looks a million dollars.?

?She didn’t come too far from actually costing it either!? Kate laughed together with him.

After a moment he asked, ?Do you have that other r?sum? I requested??

Kate slid the folder across the coffee table to him and he made a precursory scan of its contents.

?Rachael Stephens,? he began reading, ?degrees in both English and media studies. Twenty-six years of age, joining the company in September 1999.

?A very pretty, charming young lady,? he followed momentarily. ?I want you to keep an eye on her for me over the next six to eight months, Kate. She sounds ideal: long, dark auburn hair down to her hips.?

Kate smiled, ?Let’s hope she keeps it that way in the meanwhile then, shall we??

The End

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