Friday, January 10, 2014

Meet Tori Winters from Billionaire's APPRENTICE

NOTE!!!!: We released the book a day early for fans of the blog, priced at just .99 for 24 hours only! You can get it here, but don't wait. It goes back up tomorrow!

On Monday, January 20th, I'm beginning a completely new era in my publishing career. Billionaire's Apprentice is a romantic thriller written by Chase Carroway, and it is going to knock you off your seat. When I was first approached with the idea of working on a romance, I was terrified. I know nothing about the genre except that it has millions of devoted readers, and that, ladies and gents, is ambrosia to any writer. I decided that if we were going to do a romance, it couldn't be the syrupy, flowery kind. It had to be something with a little kick. It had to be something a woman could hand to her husband and say, "Read this. You will love it!" 
I'd like to introduce you to Tori Winters, the female lead of the story. When we first meet her, she's a struggling young woman just trying to make ends meet. Her search for a job will lead to an adventure filled with romance, adventure, and unbelievable things so wondrous, companies will be racing to invent them. 
There is a world of possibilities out there. This is what discovering them looks like... 

From Billionaire's Apprentice (January 20th)

The gate to the Atticus Estate was hidden from the road, so that any cars driving past saw nothing but decorative concrete walls that stretched endlessly in either direction. The walls were thick, and tall, and textured beneath a layer of thick vines and moss. It gave them the appearance of the kingdom of some medieval lord. Which, in many ways, is exactly what it was.
The gate was set nearly twenty feet back from the driveway's entrance and my car's bald tires squeaked on the red cobblestones. I stepped on the brakes, and they squeaked as well, but even more loudly. The gate itself was a majestic thing, constructed from brushed aluminum that gave it a shimmering green hue in the afternoon sunlight, blending it in with the leaves and vines. The gate looked as if it were something made long ago by careful artisans that had grown up in a family that spent generations perfecting the ability to bend iron into art. It was the kind of thing you didn't see anymore. In a world of Home Depot and Lowe's, everything had become pre-fabricated and mass-produced, giving the entire world a shallow sort of sameness.
I knew that my levels of poverty had reached critical conditions if I was fawning over the kind of wealth that could afford such a gate. Or even the artisan who was paid to make it. Hell, right then I would have settled for the paycheck of the person who worked the damn thing.
Behind the first wall was a second one, built ten feet back. The space between the walls left a ten foot trench, forming a path of low-cut grass. How odd, I thought, to have a trench along the perimeter of the estate, until I saw a sign mounted above it that read: Caution Non-Lethal Landmines Present. Do Not Enter. There were other signs mounted along the interior wall that showed stick-figures stepping on one of the landmines and being zapped with electricity. You know, just in case the person trying to break in needed a visual aid of what would happen.  
I pressed the button at the callbox in front of the gate, wincing at every one of my car's horrible rattles and sputtering, choking sounds the engine insisted on making. I became convinced it was going to stall out right at the entrance. Wouldn't that be just perfect? What an excellent impression to make at a job interview. Hi, nice to meet you. Can you call me a tow truck?
They'd probably decide I wasn't responsible enough to work in their big fancy house if I wasn't responsible enough to maintain a car. Well, Mr. Big Shot Rich Person, it's not like I'd be asking for a job scrubbing floors and toilets in your Big Fancy House if I could already afford a nice car, now would I?
Just turn the car around now, Tori.
For a second, I almost did. But the callbox chirped in my ear before I could turn the wheel, saying, "Hello? Can I help you?"
I took a deep, calming, breath and tried to find my center. Hey, never let it be said a semester taking yoga as an elective went completely to waste. "Hi, Tori Winters," I said. "I have an appointment with the head of staff at two o'clock."
There was silence on the other end of the line as the person typed something rapidly into a computer. I heard a ding, and they said, "Give us a moment to check the list, Miss Winters. All right, here you are. I will now open the gate, but please be sure you do not stop your car en route to the house or get out of it for any reason."
The car rattled and shuddered in response. The gate started to open and I pressed the button on the callbox nervously, "Hello? Quick question, what if I have car trouble on the way up? It's not running exactly right at the moment." There was no response and I added, "I'm not sure why. It's never given me any trouble before. I always keep it in perfect condition." I pictured the security officer watching the gate's camera calling everyone else in to look at the moron driving the piece of junk up the driveway. 
The callbox chimed again, "That's all right, we'll know if you stop, Miss Winters. If anything happens, please remain inside your vehicle until help arrives."
The gate clanged loudly as it retracted into the walls, and I delicately eased the gas pedal down, patting the car's dashboard encouragingly. "Come on, honey. You can do it. Mama doesn't wanna get blown up by an electric landmine today."
The driveway was a long, winding, upward slope that wound around a series of gardens and ponds filled with cherubic statues that urinated sparkling water in tall arcs. Burnished wooden bridges traversed the ponds, and some were so close to the driveway I could see the large golden and red fish swimming inside.
My car groaned going up a stretch of steep incline, squeaking painfully as I navigated a pass that looked out over a series of tennis courts and horse stables on one side and apple orchards and fields of Japanese cherry blossom trees to the other. The trees rained petals of white and pink onto a series of walkways and benches that wound in and out of sight, but eventually connected them to the ponds below.
Something flickered in the air to my left and I turned sharply to see a bright flash in my face. I heard a soft whump-whump-whump and realized there was a strange looking metallic bird flying in the air next to my car, taking pictures of me.
I stopped the car in amazement and looked at it, and it flashed again. It wasn't a bird at all. It was some sort of mechanical device that looked like three Frisbees molded together with a large antenna at its center. A camera was mounted to the bottom of the device and each Frisbee section had rotating turrets making the whump-whump-whump sound that kept it in the air. It was a drone, I realized. Some kind of security drone the government used to spy on people and now it was hovering around my car, taking pictures of it and my license plate and me.
I remembered the callboxes instructions not to stop for any reason and I pressed down on the gas again, forcing the team of squirrels and hamsters that were surely holding my engine together at that point, to keep going.
By the time I made it to the top of the hill and could see the front of the Estate, the drone had flown off. The driveway was made of paved stones and every parking space was taken up by some sort of fantasy vehicle you saw on MTV Cribs, but never in real life. There was a menacing-looking red Ferrari; a vintage Aston-Martin from the early James Bond movies; an all-black, muscular Bentley, with obsidian windows and sparkling black chrome wheels and grill; and finally, a custom motorcycle with the initials D and A embossed on the gas tank.
I pulled into the only empty parking space and shut the engine off. The car continued to click and whine even after I pulled the key out and there were small puffs of smoke sneaking past the sides of hood, but it didn't matter. I had made it to the interview, and even if the car broke down on the way home, hell, even if the damn thing blew up, that was all right.
If I got the job, it would be worth it. 
I opened my car door very slowly, holding it tight to avoid any chance of bumping the motorcycle. That thing's paint job was probably worth more money than I already owed for three years of college.
The front entrance to the Estate was a tall, columned affair that reminded me of the White House. There seemed to be multiple other structures connected to that first building by walls and archways, but it was impossible to tell how big the house was.
I walked up a flight of marble stairs to the entrance. It was a thick set of wooden doors framed by stained glass, and there were two golden lion's head doorknockers on either side. I grabbed the ring dangling from the first lion's mouth to knock, but when I moved it, there was a soft bell chime inside.  
 Both doors opened for me, revealing a thin, older gentleman wearing an old-fashioned butler's uniform. He smiled warmly at me and bowed, actually bowed, before saying, "Good afternoon, Miss Winters."
I stared at him with a dopey smile for a moment, unable to speak.
"Are you all right, my dear?" he said.
"Yes," I said, trying to recover. "I'm sorry. This is all just so much to take in. I've just never seen an actual butler before. I feel like I should take my picture with you and send it to people I know just to prove it really happened."
He closed his eyes and nodded, as if he were used to people saying that all the time. "Do come in," he said. "My name is Connor, welcome to our humble residence."
His eyes glanced past my shoulder at where my car was parked. I'll give him credit, he tried his best not to flinch. He looked back at me and said, "We will have to move your car, I'm afraid. If you leave me your keys, I will send for someone who knows where to park it."
I could see him mentally calculating how steeply the property value of the estate was dropping every second my hunk of junk was parked in front of the house, and I apologized as I handed him the keys.
The floors of the home's foyer were exquisite Italian marble. Large, framed oil paintings lined the walls, but they were different than anything I expected. Instead of stuffy old museum pieces, these were done by fresh and exciting artists of the new school.
I stopped at the first one to my left and gasped. Brightly colored and enormous, it was a man's skull with fences scrawled across the forehead and a patchwork of blues and oranges covering his face. "That's a Basquiat," I whispered. "Is it an original?"
"Mmm, yes," Connor shrugged. "Not quite my favorite, but Jean-Michel gave it personally to Mr. Atticus and he has always been quite fond of it. Of course, I much prefer it to this," he said, looking disdainfully at the large painting hanging over the staircase.
It was a red portrait of Queen Victoria with her skirt hiked up and a pair of thigh-high stockings beneath as she sat on the face of another woman.  
"I have positively begged him to take that down, but he will hear nothing of it," Connor sighed. "Of course, it is better than the one his father insisted on hanging there."   
My eyes widened as I looked the painting over and said, "Wait, I've seen that before. It's a Banksy. You have an actual Banksy? This is amazing, Connor! This artwork is worth a fortune."
"It is?" he said dryly. "Oh, dear. That means it won't go with the rustic, homespun d├ęcor we've been trying so hard to achieve since Mr. Atticus redecorated. I suppose I'll have to break the bad news to him now."
He winked at me and I felt my cheeks grow hot with embarrassment. Connor's voice was gentle as he said, "It becomes much less impressive when one must stare at it every day, I assure you."
There was an elevator at the far end of the hall and staircases on either side that travelled up two floors. Long hallways extended from either side of the hall, leading farther than I could see. "I'm sorry," I said. "I know I sound like an idiot. I've just never seen anything like this."  
He nodded patiently and said, "All it takes is vast amounts of money, my dear. That's all."
 I grunted as I looked around, "I can only imagine what it takes to keep this place running."
"Well, in this wing alone we have a kitchen staff, a full-time mechanic, a facilities department, myself, a hairdresser, the group of housekeepers you are applying to, and their head of staff."
I removed a folded piece of paper from my pocket and showed it to him, "Is Miss Chen Tanaka the head of staff?"
"Just Chen," Connor said politely. "Or Miss Chen, if you simply must call her anything. Dorian prefers to keep things as informal as possible." He cocked his head to glance up at the staircase and said, "And if I'm not mistaken, here Chen comes now."
The first thing I saw were the unmistakable red soles of a pair of Christian Louboutin shoes descending from the top of the marble staircase. Miss Chen's long legs were shapely and toned. Her calf muscles flexed as she walked. This woman had spent no little amount of time on an elliptical trainer. Her business suit was custom fit to her narrow waist and her long, black hair pulled back in a severe ponytail. She stopped on the second floor's landing and looked down at me. Her almond-shaped eyes were drawn to fine, cat-like points as she looked down at me and said, "Tori Winters?"
"Yes, ma'am," I said.
Her exquisitely angled features revealed no trace of either pleasure or displeasure with my answer. She simply turned around and said, "This way, please."
Connor smiled at me and gave me a quick thumbs-up. I mouthed a quick thanks and hurried after Miss Chen, trying to catch up to her. "Thank you for seeing me," I said.  
She kept walking and did not reply.  
"I really love your shoes."
Miss Chen stopped for me on the landing and turned to give me a brief once over. Her eyes fell on my shoes, assessing whether or not they were worthy of a returned compliment. Apparently, my twenty dollar value find at Payless didn't fit her standards.   
She led me down the hall and through a door to a more routine stairwell and we started up toward the third floor. "I always take the stairs," she said, looking back at me, as if she could tell I'd been looking at her calf muscles.
"Do you have a lot of other options in this place?" I thought to myself.
We emerged in another hallway and she took me around the corner. There were so many doors my head was spinning. It was like walking through an endless series of cavernous hallways in a museum. Finally, we came to an office door and she let me in.
The interior was weirdly futuristic and digital with high density plastic furniture that was curved into uncomfortable-looking ergonomic designs. The kind with S-shaped seats that had no arms or backs. Lights blinked from multiple wireless devices and the walls were lined with digital picture frames that cycled images every thirty seconds. As I tried to figure out how to sit down on one of the chairs across from her desk I noticed that all of the digital frames were showing the same cycle of pictures and that none of them appeared to have anything to do with Miss Chen. They were all showing the display images you saw in the store.
"So, tell me about your schoolwork," Chen said. "What do you do there?" 
It was go-time. I took a breath and said, "I have one year left on my Business Administration degree and I'm trying to finish it out. Aside from that, I was on the equestrian team. Uh…I took yoga last year."
Chen placated me with a smile and said, "How are your grades?"
"Excellent. Well, they were, until last semester when I had to get a full-time job to try and cover tuition. Now, I just need to work and save and try to get back to finish because I already feel like I'm forgetting everything. Also, if I'm not enrolled by next semester, I have to start paying back the student loan."
Miss Chen nodded silently. Her expression did not reveal any hint of compassion. It was evident she'd never had money problems. Probably came from well-off parents who paid her way through school and now she's got a job with an office that looks like a science fiction movie and shoes expensive enough to pay my rent for two months.
But I'll just keep on playing the game, sitting here answering inane questions about how my unfinished business degree qualifies me to scrub toilets in your mansion, okay, Miss Chen?
"What are your qualifications for this position?"
I looked at her. I wanted to tell her I was pretty sure cleaning bathrooms didn't require many qualifications, which is why people paroled from prison were often hired to do it, but I just kept right on playing along. My smile was so fixed, I felt like it was cracking my cheeks. "Well, my father owned a cleaning service when I was growing up. I helped him when I wasn't in school. We stripped floors, cleaned bathrooms, did windows, you name it. I can even do painting and trim work if you need me to."
"How quaint," she said.
"Not everyone gets everything paid for in life," I said.
If I could have grabbed the words out of the air and stuffed them back in my mouth I would have. It was like my words were out there, floating around, and she was just looking at me, trying to figure out the most professional way to tell me to get the hell out of her office.
I poured a big dose of honey into my voice and said, "I meant to say that I grew up around people who had a lot more money than I did, so I'm used to being around those who need help. Because they're so busy, I mean."
Chen didn't look like she was buying it, but she said, "Mr. Atticus is not busy. He is wealthy. Ridiculously wealthy. If anything, he has too much time on his hands."
"Wealthy with leisure time," I said softly. "Sounds like a good problem to have."
"Indeed," she replied. She folded her hands on the desk and said, "Thank you for coming in, Miss Winters. We'll be in touch if there is anything further. Please see yourself out."
I nodded dumbly and felt the breath go out of my chest like a car tire hitting a nail. That was it. I'd blown it. Me and my big mouth.
I went to get out of Chen's stupid chair and leave when the phone on her desk rang. She cupped her hand over it and said, "Yes, sir?"
There was a pause as she listened, and I saw her eyes glance up at me. For a moment, there was something else there, something that penetrated her carefully maintained air of cold disinterest. "All right," she said. "As you wish."  
I watched her put the phone down and when she spoke, it was like having a piece of bread stuck in your throat and no water to wash it down. She folded her hands and said, "Please sit down, Miss Winters. It appears I spoke too soon."
I lowered myself back into the seat but said nothing. If I'd just been rescued from the brink of death, I didn't want to do anything to blow it.
It was Chen's turn to take a deep breath and collect herself then. "Most of the people who work for Mr. Atticus do not have much in the way of resources, and to be around someone who has so much can lead to resentment," she said.  
"Honestly, I would just be grateful to have a job," I said. "There's no resentment, I promise."
"You say that now, but soon, you would be tempted," Chen said. "People seek to profit from exploiting Mr. Atticus in a countless ways, whether by selling information or photographs to the tabloids or his corporate enemies, or even trying to get close to him in a…personal manner."
"I understand," I said. "I'm just here to clean the bathrooms, I got it."
She kept going, "In order to ensure the loyalty of our employees, we've devised a benefits package that will compensate for any temptations you might face, so long as you obey the rules of your contract."
"Benefits?" I said. "I wasn't aware the job came with benefits."  
"It's something we do not advertise, Miss Winters. And neither will you, because one of the rules of your contract is that you do not divulge its contents to anyone."
"Okay," I said, nodding slowly. "What kind of benefits?"
"A standard medical and dental package, with no co-pay."
"Seriously? I haven't been to a real dentist in years. I've been using the clinic at school."
"In addition, we offer an education incentive to employees. Mr. Atticus will reimburse your tuition provided that you maintain a 3.5 grade point average. There are bonuses for making the Dean's List, cum laude, and summa cum laude, as well."
"Shut up," I said to her. "You're kidding me, right?"
"Lastly, you will be provided a room on the estate free of charge. It is not mandatory you stay here, although many of the girls do. Even if you do not live here, you will still have a room you can use, and I recommend that you keep at least one change of clothes in the room in the event you ever work late and need to sleep here."
"What, no car?" I said with a half-smile.
"Our staff has access to a pool of fleet cars and may also reserve time with the resident mechanic. Perhaps that way, your vehicle would stop leaking oil all over the driveway outside."
I looked at her for a long time without speaking then. I turned and looked over both shoulders, checking the walls and ceiling for television cameras. When I didn't see any, I turned back to her and said, "This is all a joke, right? You're filming me for one of those dumb reality shows just so I freak out and you all get to laugh about it."
"We are filming you," Chen said. "But not for television. Every inch of this Estate is under surveillance for security reasons. But no, this is not a joke and it's the absolute truth. Do you accept the job?"
"Y-yes," I stammered.
"Good," she said.

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