42. Picturesque and Willful
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Out of all the 99.9% possibility of refusing the variety show, Sena suddenly broke everyone’s expectation by fulfilling that miniscule .1% chance. With a smiling face and casual attitude, she received the contract and signed her name in an elegant script using a white custom made fountain pen. 

“There is going to be an interview, a pictorial, a brief documentary about your daily routine and a short tour of your home as an introduction for the opening of the show. Are these things agreeable with you?” Apple reminded her.  

She nodded, then reached for her tea, took a sip and smiled. 

“This is not the same as doing runways and ads, you are opening yourself to the public.”  

Sena reopened her abandoned social media profile page and began to organize some things with the help of Apple. With the sudden rise of her audience to an unprecedented five million, Apple had to take over handling public relations.  

“It’s alright, since I decided to participate I’m ready for the outcome.” After all, she is just showing a small part of herself. 

“Also, Lady Doukas sent her regards. She said that after your shooting, you have to visit her atelier to see the new collection.”     

“I will make time soon.” She said, her eyes gentle when recalling the flamboyant woman who made her very first couture dress. It was a lovely princess gown rich with flower and crystal embellishments for her seventh birthday. 

The dear old girl is the third generation head of Doukas Fashion House, the one behind the world-renowned luxury brand Kalliste. After signing the document Apple dragged April across the metro to relay the boss’s decision and arrange everything needed for the show. In the office, Sena called for Rui to visit Mrs Carol’s home to formally start the transaction.

As a woman who built her fortune through grit and hard work, Mrs Carol’s house is not as extravagant as any houses she knew. It reflected her simple personality and her wise handling of her assets. But since the house is going to be put up on sale, they did not have to follow the last owner's aesthetic. 

Rui, one of their best agents who was very sensitive to style ruthlessly pointed out every aspect that needed to be changed and enhanced to prepare it for the market. During the discussion, Mrs Carol only nodded her head and did not let out any objection.

As a businesswoman, she naturally would like to get the most out of this deal and she knew that Diamond Realtor’s side would hand it to her. There was no need to scrimp or haggle with the budget needed for renovation. When this place is sold, they would earn back the amount used. 

It was another long and fulfilling day for everyone. 

  

At home, Sena munched on a fruit plate while lazily hanging herself on the sofa listening to April’s chatter.

“Boss, the program is going to take a short video of your schedule for a whole day. The rest of the cast for season four had already finished theirs. I heard it was Ms Sherry’s show who was going to cover it.”

Both programs came from the same network but they had nothing to do with each other, one is a reality show while the other is a talk show. 

“Someone from the cast requested it should be done this way,” Sena said indifferently. “They wanted to create hype to make way for those who wanted to use Challenge Me as a springboard to fame.”

It had nothing to do with her, but the idea of playing cat and mouse with the enemy roused her interest a little. Unlike the idiot that she was before, she would never give in this time just for the hope of gaining the miniscule love of her unfeeling father. Being awake and sober, she knew she could never have what was not given in the first place. 

Perhaps Maya’s launch to this industry is still inevitable. But whether or not she could use and squeeze her like last time is yet to be known. She knew Maya wanted to create the effect of the poor Cinderella haunted by a vicious step sister to gain everyone’s love and sympathy. After that, she would then change her image to a strong and mature woman honed by experience. 

“Tomorrow, the photoshoot starts.” April interrupted her inner monologue, “It’s a good thing we go off work very early so you have enough beauty rest.”  although she doubts if her boss still needs any. 

The two turned in early unaware that the long quiet unit on the other end of the corridor finally lit up. 

Early the next morning, when Sena first stepped into the studio, the heat coming off from the roof and walls overwhelmed her, opening her tightly closed pores. The place only lacked towels and essential oils and she would mistake it for a sauna. Even so despite the horrendous atmosphere, she did not show it to her face.

“I should have brought our electric fan, the studio couldn’t seem to afford their electricity bill,” April muttered on the side. 

Sena poked her forehead, “Shh, you’ll hurt their feelings.”

April stuck out her tongue and laughed.

Her old apartment was a lot hotter than here. She did not complain in those days she lived in a tiny room while sharing her private spaces-- including food, with mice and cockroaches. This little inconvenience cannot faze her.

The staff were all over the room preparing the lighting, reflectors and cameras when the new casts stepped in. Everyone is aware that season four will become much more bloody than the former three seasons because the guests invited this time was not only rising stars in their field but individuals of excellent origins as well. It is inevitable to have friction. 

Sena first greeted the photographer, the man is named Bambi with his hulk of a body and moustache. If she hadn’t seen him in a magazine as one of the most promising talents in this profession she would mistake him as a gangster. 

April had the same thought as well, she got a little weak-kneed when the huge guy walked near and thought he came to rob them! 

“Sena?” Bambi extended a friendly hand. “It’s nice to meet you.”

“Hello, nice to meet you too.” 

For a big guy like him, he unexpectedly had a soft voice… and hands. She was then instructed to move to the lounge. As the first one to enter the frame, she was pushed to the make-up table to be ‘tuned’ of her imperfections. If there were any. The grumpy make-up artist holding the foundation brush didn’t think so. 

Gosh, what did this girl eat growing up? Her palm could fit this girl’s entire face. In her profession, she had met plenty of beautiful people, some with corrections in inconspicuous places, but this is her first time ogling at her subject. 

April sitting behind pretending to peruse over some magazines noticed that boss’s makeup was yet to be started so she cleared her throat. “The photographer only gave us a quarter of an hour.” 

“Oh, yes. Sorry, I was spacing out.” the makeup artist laughed nervously. 

She tried hard not to destroy her natural foundation by putting this offensive makeup. Sena was satisfied to see that she was not smothered with all kinds of liquids and powder in the end. She only had her eyebrows drawn, her lipstick changed and eyelashes brushed. Within ten minutes, she was done with her preparation and went back to the studio to take her photo. 

Maya and her companion arrived right after she came out of the make-up room. Thanks to this the whole place was no longer burning like an inferno. If the trick of turning off the air conditioning was to make her uncomfortable and sweaty only the culprit knows. Sena did not mind her petty tricks, the more she does, the sooner she will stumble. 

“Sena,” Maya greeted with her usual practised smile. 

Stepping on her Manolo shoes, Sena did not stop on her track and just tipped her head back in response. 

“Cousin, why is she here?” the girl beside Maya spoke with a scowl. “Don’t tell me she also plans to enter the show business just to spite you?!”  

“The head of the program group invited her to join. Say less of these things in the future.” 

“Does uncle know?”

“Yes, I already told father. He had no opinion about this as long as she didn't make a scandal.”

The girl just now was Yuni, someone very familiar to Sena. Aside from being Maya’s cousin from her mother’s side,  she is also the daughter of a businessman. She had no idea that they were already this close at this time. Isn’t Meribeth her closest BFF?

It was a bit puzzling but she didn't continue to dwell on it. Today’s shoot is nothing glamorous and cumbersome, it was just a normal photo to be used in the poster of season four of Challenge Me. They were required to wear clothing that directly reflects their personalities. Maya came today in a ruffled white chiffon dress with wide sleeves that sets her petite and slender physique like a doll. It was light and easy to the eyes, especially when paired with a nice pearl choker. Most importantly, her clothes today fit the bright and elegant set. 

“I was right when picking these clothes,” Yuni said proudly. 

Maya smiled back at her. 

On the other hand, Sena who wore several shades darker seemed to clash with the background. A high-waist dark blue skirt and a burgundy silk blouse would look either too sombre or vulgar but when she walked closer, the sense of contradiction everyone was expecting did not appear. The girl confidently walked on satin heels, exuding a breath of a superior. Instead of looking old in dark colours, she seemed to have matured gracefully. 

The set is an elegant tea room with several pieces of delicate chinawares. Each cast has to choose their place for a solo photo then everyone gathers for a group portrait. She chose the unlovable corner with just an embroidered settee. The wall behind it is only adorned with a simple mid-century painting. 

Maya watched silently on the side with a subtle arc on her mouth. She thought that she would know which location was best, but she thought wrong. 

Another cast member named Luan tilted her chin and snorted, “If I’m not mistaken, she is Sena Erde correct?”

“Ms Luan recognizes her?” Maya amiably engaged on the side.  

“Paula Erde’s daughter, how could I not?”

“It must have been great to be born from a glamorous mother.” The sarcasm and envy were heavy on Yuni’s tone. “I thought she would do better than this. I guess without the umbrella sheltering her, she could only be mediocre.” 

Maya tapped a finger to her chin playfully. If Sena was a huge stone blocking her way, Sena also is blocked by a huge mountain that is her mother. Everybody thinks so. All her life she can only live under the shadow of her glory. 

Look at this situation, for example, she just thoughtlessly chooses some random area. It was the most inconspicuous place in the set where there were no other props and colour to elevate the atmosphere. Everyone was also dismayed when they expected her to choose a good spot considering an international brand had chosen her. Maya was relieved secretly, she is now convinced that Sena would not do well once the reality show starts. 

But Bambi was different, he was anxious to begin shooting. As soon as she walked in that corner the dull area immediately came to life. Her manner and movements attracted his eyes. There was no need for other props; she is the highlight!  

He believes that Sena Erde chose that spot for a reason. 

“Ready?” 

Sena started the shoot without any hindrance surprising the onlookers who were waiting to see a carnival. From the position of lights, the correct angle of her body to what posture and expression she must do, Bambi did not have to remind her. Which delighted him greatly. 

Her dark clothing instantly bloomed in the off-white background. Every minute of movements, facial expressions radiated with natural energy. It was so rare that the picky photographer held a smile while he issued praises like a giddy child.

“Princess, you are superb.”

“Smile for me more!”

Maya watched in stiff silence on the side. Even Yuni did not like what she was seeing. 

Bambi’s ramblings following the rhythmic clicking of shutters attracted more and more people to the set. The model in front languidly leaned on the chaise, her light green cat eyes bored as if contemplating which unlucky mouse to tease next. Sometimes she is as sweet as caramel and soft as a feather when smiling through the camera but mostly she was decadent yet sharp like a noble lady of the house. Bambi had a lot of fun taking her pictures.   

He captured everything that caught his eyes. Sena had a good grasp of the flow. It’s no wonder why Kalliste would choose her. The work finished so smoothly with no whining, no shouting nor repetitions leaving people's mouths agape.  

Luan elbowed Maya on the side, “With her doing this intense opening salvo, the pressure is on us.” 

Which was Sena’s purpose exactly. The cunning girl secretly arched the corner of her lips.

Maya bit her molars, had she known it would end up like this she should have instructed Manager Gina to put her half-sister last. “It cannot be helped, she is experienced in this field and is bound to get Bambi's favour.” 

But instead of relieving the other casts, they felt it was unfair for Sena to come in first. 

“Bambi is known for his eccentric temper…” Nancy, a newly signed teen celebrity spoke hesitantly. If the next person does not meet his standard, he will drill them hard until he gets a more than ‘good’ shot. 

Bambi is a famous figure in the industry, the bigwigs had to call him specifically for the fourth season’s casts.   

When Sena got out of the frame, she could feel eyes on her. 

“Good job,” Luan said coolly. 

Sena stopped in front of her and smiled lightly, “I guess I was too early.” 

Seven people are sitting in the empty lounge now including Luan, Maya, Nancy in lolita costume, Yuni and another girl in a bomber jacket. The remaining two are men.  

Someone scoffed in the background, “The call time was nine o’clock in the morning. It seems Ms Erde is too excited she came very early.”  

“Come again?” Sena widened her eyes to the person. 

It was a guy in a grey shirt with blue hair, several kinds of earrings and a labret piercing on his lower lip. He looked like a hedgehog. Unfortunately, Little Hedgehog looked even more disgusted when she appeared to look lost. 

“You are too early.”

Sena swiped on her phone showing the message from the program manager, “It says here eight, so here I am. If I’m not punctual I assume not only you but the photographer as well would complain.” 

“I did not mean…” Hedgehog muttered but stopped himself when he saw she wasn’t interested in hearing the rest.

Some people exchanged looks. Luan frowned. Maya on the side had her attention somewhere else while Yuni kept rolling her eyes. These people here have been introduced to society early and they naturally know the intricacies and tricks involved. No doubt Sena Erde was the first to be targeted. 

“I didn’t know you had a different schedule.” 

The hostile gaze the little hedgehog gave her lessened several notches making her smile inwardly, surprisingly it wasn’t so spiky. Kinda adorable in some way.  

“Well, it’s good that you start early.” Luan also gave in but snorted. It had less acid though. “Might as well begin our own so we can go home and prepare for the interview.” 

Sena shrugged indifferently and went to her EA. 

“Great job boss. You work hard,” April greeted handing her a bottle of iced cucumber juice to quench her thirst. After a few seconds of enduring the stiff air she murmured, “Boss, these people looked like they had eaten something bad. They can’t even manage a decent face.”

“Must have been the weather. Food is easy to spoil,” she replied jokingly. 

Pfft~ April muffled her laughter. 

“This is my first time seeing a pictorial. Thank you for bringing me!”

Sena who was desperately sucking on the straw savouring the sweet and fresh taste looked at her, “You like the whole vibe?” 

April nodded. 

“This is for a television series,” the poses have to be subtle and appropriate for the program. “If you want to see a real photoshoot I’m bringing you abroad next time. Be ready.” 

Abroad? Does that mean… April’s little tail perked up. 

“Really?! You’re going to, to--”

She shushed the silly girl in time. 

“Sena!” Maya called out. 

“Anything?”

Maya smiled generously, “No, I was wondering why you seem to be in a hurry? The rest of the cast are going to arrive soon, would you mind going with us for a lunch date?” 

What joke is she planning this time? Sena thought warily. 

Yuni also came close bringing with her that sarcastic smile. “Maya, if you want someone close to accompany you just ask me. Also isn’t your boyfriend coming too? Why bother with her?”

“Yuni didn’t mean that,” she patted Yuni’s shoulder. 

Sena looked at her watch, “Actually I have a client to see so it is very inconvenient for me. Right, April?”

April pulled out her tablet and nodded. “Boss has two client meetings today. Then going on-site to check the agent's work progress.”

She could only look at the cousins with feigned regret. 

Maya’s eyebrow twitched. She invited Dresden to come specifically today in order to announce to Sena of their relationship. As far as Maya knows, they haven’t met for a long time. What would she feel if one of the people closest to her is now her boyfriend? Thankfully before Sena could leave, she saw Dresden enter the door just in time. 

“Dresden!” Maya waved sweetly. 

Almost everyone inside riveted their gaze to the entrance of the studio. Many heads turned to the man in a dark suit walking straight to Maya Luz. He was tall, highly sophisticated and steady, unlike any immature men they saw. The handsome visage was striking enough to captivate women’s hearts but the arctic chill surrounding him made them dare not be bold. 

Like a prince in a fairy tale, he came to her side just like how she envisioned it to happen. Maya was beyond ecstatic. Then she surreptitiously peered at her half-sister. Unfortunately, she couldn't see the surprise she wanted.

What went wrong?

“By the way Sena, this is my boyfriend--”

“We have met.” Dresden cut in. “Sena is a close friend.”

The onlookers made awkward gasps. 

Sena shrugged nonchalantly, “Just met on a few occasions during vacations.” 

“A few? You practically grew up in our backyard,” he emphasized. His eyes are not leaving her face and exuding a bit of pressure.

Maya, who was excluded in the conversation, forced a smile. “It seems you haven’t seen each other for a while…”

Dresden nodded. 

Realizing that he wasn’t cooperating, Sena decided to break the pretence. “Sorry, bad memory.”

“Grandfather would be sad if he knew.” 

Fart! After leaving him in the restaurant the other day, she thought she had made it clear not to disturb her in the future. Why was it hard to make people understand this? Sena calmed down. She better not lose her temper. 

There was invisible friction between the two but others interpreted it as an elder softly reminding a junior.  

“You shouldn’t forget next time,” Dresden said with a slight chill in his tone. Sena was not intimidated by him and did not take his temper to heart. “I kindly escorted you to your sixteenth ball but you mercilessly stepped on my foot.”

She looked at him straight with a bland smile. 

“Oh, so you were that big brother after all! I’m terribly sorry-- there were plenty of friends in my circle,” 

“It’s alright as long as you remember,” he replied with a rare smile. 

This piece of wood knew human expressions?

Sena snorted inwardly then turned to her half-sister who was silently fuming with the lack of attention. “I see, I see… No wonder Maya loved to watch the footage of my sixteenth birthday party. It turns out, she was looking at you.”

The healthy colour left Maya’s face.

Dresden looked as if he swallowed nails. “What did you say?”

“Nothing,” Sena said with an exaggerated smile. “Congratulations on your relationship, by the way, it was meant to be.”     

She urged April to come closer than the two of them packed up swiftly to return to work.

“You’re not staying?” Dresden stepped forward with a frown. 

Maya also chirped and held her boyfriend’s arm possessively, “I thought you are coming to lunch with us.”

Sena pointed at her watch. “Busy.”

No one thought that as soon as she was done, she would just pat her butt and leave when she should be out there making her half sister’s life miserable. Everyone more or less understood what transpired. 

Maya is now in a relationship with Sena’s former friend but instead of getting affected, she appears not to mind and gives her blessings instead. Based on what they heard, it seems Maya had her eyes on this high-quality man for a long time already. 

Women are really a vengeful lot! 

The studio was quiet for several minutes after Sena left. 

She came and disappeared as fast as a whirlwind but the unexpected drama was so rich they could gossip about it for several months.

In the car, April could no longer hold it and laughed freely. 

“Happy?” Sena pouted. 

“Why not? I never thought second-hand embarrassment was real until I saw Maya Luz’s expression.” 

Poor girl just stood there awkwardly and couldn't butt in. 

“She asked for it.” 

“Ms Luz was probably aiming to show off in front of you Boss.” Sadly she was faced with Sena’s weird temper. Instead of getting angry, she looked like she couldn’t wait to pack them up and deliver them straight to the altar.

“Forget about them, we have more important things to do…” Sena waved lazily.  

It was already dark when they arrived home. Sena had to deal with her agent's issues for it not to affect their performance. Because she paired up Jue and Katya on one of her luxury house listings, their relationship improved more than just colleagues and tends to develop into romance. 

She had no problem about that originally, but something happened in between that needed her push. Jue had always been shackled by that clingy childhood friend of his. Lately, the girl has been making trouble. She went as far as going to Jue’s office to disrupt his work.   

She was also persuading Jue to personally ask the boss to end his cooperation with Katya. 

Why on this day did she have to deal with other people’s relationships consecutively? This world doesn’t even treat singles like her humanely! 

Annoyed and tired from work, Sena unwrapped a lollipop to vent. 

“Say, April. If you were Jue, would you rather choose sentiments with a childhood friend over the person you like?” 

April: Boss, don’t put me on the hot seat. 

They were walking in the corridors towards the elevator. 

“I’d be with someone my heart chose,” April answered vaguely. “What about you boss?” 

She laughed. Typical of Sena when she’s in an awkward spot. “How do I choose when I don’t have anyone?”

 “None?!” April snorted. “How about Chief Saldini--- or Sir Nicholas?”

“Ah?” She grinned silly making the lemon-flavoured lollipop bulge on her cheek. “Those two?”

“Well, there was that man earlier.” 

At the issue of childhood fiend over a sweetheart, the topic also seems to fit the Boss’s situation. 

Sena made an ugly face. “No.” 

Means, those two are irrelevant. 

“Alright, let’s stick to Mr Saldini and Mr Aiguille then.” April corrected with an eye roll. “Which one does Boss favour? They are both excellent choices. Handsome as well. I bet many women are chasing after them... especially Sir Nicholas.” 

At that time when the handsome man rang their doorbell to deliver her drunk employer, April thought he was her boyfriend. Don’t ask how she knew without asking, it was on the way he held her carefully and looked at Sena like a princess rather than a drunk piglet that made her think that! 

“You think Nicholas is handsome?”

April scratched her head: I also mentioned Chief Saldini, don’t be too biased! 

“He is, isn’t he?” Sena said playfully, they were nearing the elevator. “Handsome little devil that he is, you’re right people lining up to him could circle the globe. Too bad he is a playboy though.”  

Three meters behind them, a tall silhouette followed going in the same direction. 

Nicholas, in his home clothes holding a cake box in his hand, strutted on his long legs and casually stopped in front of the elevator. He looked at the girls in silent amusement as to how a zookeeper looked at his favourite monkeys playing. 

The two had been chatting in neutral voices but everything that should be heard in such a distance was already heard. 

Sena felt like the capillaries on her face suddenly burst creating this hot sensation washing her face. The lollipop on her mouth fell, Nicholas with good reflexes snatched it and pushed the sugar ball back to her lips. 

“Don’t waste food.”

“You’re… here?” Sena blurted out. 

April sidestepped and pretended to be a good monkey. 

But her boss was the kind who likes to struggle till the very end. With her voice cracking, she greeted, “W-Welcome back…”

“Well, I’m glad to be back,” Nicholas replied warmly, a smile lighting his eyes. 

 

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