Larkin Mallory normally loved her job. Retained unexpectedly in the Rome bureau of The International Chronicle after her one-year internship suddenly morphed into a staff position (thanks to a reporter who decided not to return after maternity leave), she often found herself waking up in the most breathtaking European cities, sent there by her editor to cover stories that ranged from hard-hitting journalism to special-interest feature pieces.
It gave her a chance to really spread her wings professionally, sometimes doubling down with her journalistic chops to cover meaty stories, but also being able to delve into fluffier pieces about, say, cheese rolling contests in England. She liked to say you’ve not lived until you’ve watched a bunch of less-than-sober revelers race down a steep hill in pursuit of runaway wheels of cheddar. Especially considering paramedics are at the ready for the inevitable injuries that come with being accidentally run over by nine-pound spools of wayward cheese coming at you with the velocity of a speeding train.
Never once had she challenged her editor, Piers Woodberry, a paunchy, balding, white-haired Brit who’d held stints at various European tabloids before settling down to work for the more austere international paper. He was usually fair-handed in assigning stories, and Larkin couldn’t think of a time she got stuck having to interview someone she didn’t want to talk to.
The fair-skinned reporter with cascading blonde curls and soft blue eyes tended to hide behind thick tortoise-shell eyeglasses and frumpy clothes, and enjoyed her quiet little slice of the world. She dressed in neutral colors so as to not draw attention to herself, and loved to travel, but only when she could do so on her terms. Not one to indulge in expensive hotel rooms, fine dining or fancy clothes, she was perfectly happy wandering the streets of a given city in yoga pants and trainers, grabbing easy street food (crêpes in Paris, kebobs in Istanbul or supplì in Rome) rather than having to dine alone in a restaurant where she feared she’d stick out like a sore thumb simply because she was on her own.
Even though the reality was that she was alone, and she made no mistake about it. The very nature of her job meant she didn’t get to focus on nurturing friendships, apart from a few colleagues in her office. So while Larkin’s professional life was fulfilling, her personal life was somewhat lacking, right alongside her wardrobe and her sense of self.
Somehow she wasn’t particularly good at envisioning herself as more than the nuts and bolts reporter she was, even though she had the good fortune of doing it in a wonderful part of the world. After all, she wasn’t stuck covering city sewer commissions into the wee hours of the night back home in Virginia where she grew up. Instead, she could as easily find herself strolling along the Champs-Ëlysées as through the rabbit warren-like alleyways of the medieval medina in Marrakesh. In some ways it was a gilded life she led, but somehow she managed to tamp down the exotic nature of it by insisting on being plain old Larkin Mallory, the girl who played flute in her high school marching band and wore thick corrective glasses that perhaps helped others not be able to see her for who she was, which was fine by her.
Larkin was putting the finishing touches on a story about a man who was walking through the Swiss Alps backwards when her boss shouted for her.
“Mallory,” her barked. “You’re going to Fashion Week. Milan. I just lost Silvia, who was supposed to cover it. She’s got bed bugs and isn’t coming back until she’s rid of them. Which means you’re on the Fashion Week beat until I say you aren’t.”
Larkin blanched. Fashion Week? She no sooner belonged in the rarified world of high fashion than she belonged in a medical lab concocting the cure to cancer. Both environments were so not in her stratosphere. She knew precisely nothing about fashion except that you put on your clothes every day and hoped that they matched. And wearing all black kept you from having to even worry about that.
“But Mister Woodberry,” she said, a pleading look in her eyes as if she were a cow imploring the butcher sharpening his knife not to proceed with the impending slaughter. “You’d be better off asking anyone to do that than me. Take Paolo, for instance,” she said, pointing at her colleague standing at the Nespresso machine fixing his fourth espresso of the morning. “Paolo, see, he’s Italian. He knows the world of fashion. Just look at him! He dresses in various shades of black, always so chi-chi and clearly up on the best of what to wear.”
Paolo looked up from his task. “But of course,” he said, tossing back his espresso as he returned to sit at his desk. “La bella figura. It’s the Italian way.”
“Bella figura?” Larkin said. “What the heck is that?”
Paolo stood up again, placing his hands casually in his pockets and striking a pose. He cut quite the handsome figure in his hipster-cut black wool pants and dark gray pin-striped button-down, with a coordinating lighter gray silk tie. His dark hair was perfectly groomed, his face cleanly-shaven, his sleek shoes polished and stylish. “La bella figura is the Italian way of life,” he said, adjusting the knot in his necktie, punctuating his point. “It’s about presenting our best face to the world.” He swept his hands along his body as if to demonstrate.
Larkin nodded. “So yeah,” she said, nodding at her colleague. “That.”
“That?” Piers said.
“I mean Paolo’s your man,” she said. “He’d be perfect to cover Fashion Week. He’s clearly knowledgeable about it and very fashion-forward. He’s Italian, and that helps. Plus, he’s handsome, which I’m sure will get him in with all of the beautiful fashion models for interviews and such.”
Her boss shook his head. “Too late,” he said. “Paolo’s traveling with the Pope to Africa.”
“Awwww, man,” she said. “I’d love go with the Pope to Africa. I’d do a great job. I like that pope. He’s a good guy. Besides, I’m Catholic. He’s my people.” Of course she knew Paolo was likely even more Catholic than she, being Italian and all.
“No can do,” Piers said, shaking his head. “Paolo’s up on his shots and has been taking his malaria medicine. Besides, you don’t cover someone to be a cheerleader for them. If I wanted that I’d give you pom-poms and a megaphone. Sorry,Mallory, everyone around here is locked into assignments and you’re the only one I can spare,” he said, tapping her on the nose with the tip of his pen. “That’s what comes with being low man on the totem pole. But chin up! Maybe you can get some fashion pointers while you’re there.”
Larkin sighed and grumbled. Fashion pointers, indeed. Crap. It was going to feel like high school all over again: the dowdy girl in the band trying to blend in with the prima donna in-crowd beauties. This was gonna suck massively.
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