She ran over her schedule for the day. She had to video call her three most important clients—and be assertive. Then there was the midday meeting with the design team, all the rest of whom were men. She was still a woman fighting to establish herself in a man’s world. Nothing had changed in two hundred years. The rest of the day would just be about getting the work done. She would need to micro-manage the other women. The day wouldn’t be easy, especially with the worsening pain in her ankle.
She glanced in the mirror. That was not the look she needed today. She examined the dressing table. Which face should she put on: Millicent, fun and lively with cherry red lips and wiry auburn hair; Beryl with grey eyes and faded blond hair, rolled into a French plait; Grace, quietly confident with sincere brown eyes and full burnt umber lips; or one of the other seventeen arranged neatly in front of her?
It had to be Grace. She quickly pulled on the wig and smoothed the face-skin onto her cheeks. A little old-fashioned makeup covered the joins. She touched up the lipstick. Yes, Grace would do. Grace would do very well indeed.
The platform at the commuter station was crowded. An elbow stuck into her side. Someone pushed her from behind and her nose was thrust into the coarse woolen coat of the man in front. Her ankle throbbed. She felt nauseous.
“We apologize for the late arrival of the 7:55. Estimated time of arrival is now 8:03,” said the loudspeaker.
She had hoped to travel on the 8:10. Would it be better to wait for that, or would it also be delayed, making her late for the office?
The train swished into the station. She was still undecided.
“Are you going or what?” The person who had been pushing her before was now almost guiding her towards the open carriage door.
She stepped on to the train. The platform guard used the prod to squeeze more people on. Someone kicked her ankle. She thought she was going to faint. Still, there were enough people here that she shouldn’t fall to the ground if she lost consciousness. She managed to stay awake.
No one offered her a seat. They probably couldn’t see her pain. The mask did limit facial expression a bit. And that at least had changed in the two hundred years since the Pankhursts. It was now considered patronizing to offer a lady a seat. Especially a lady like Grace.
She wished she hadn’t bothered with a coat today and had just taken a private transporter. But that was the not the right look for Grace either.
She arrived at the office feeling battered, but she was glad to see that Trudy was her PA today.
“Good morning,” chirruped the young girl. “All of the files are loaded for your client consultations. And I’ve almost finished your notes for the design group’s meeting.” She grinned. Her green eyes sparkled and her smooth bob implied fun and efficiency. “Coffee?”
She left without requiring a reply. A few moments later she returned and placed a mug of the steaming black liquid on Grace’s desk—as well as a glass of water and two pain-killers. How had she known? This girl was pure gold.
The Grace mask, the strong coffee, and the pain-killers got her through her consultations. Successfully at that.
“So yes, we’ll take the Pimlico range of beach towels,” said the CEO of a large holiday resort.
“You won’t regret it,” her Grace persona replied.
“Can you give us a quote for twenty sets of the white Ramsden dinnerware?” asked the celebrity chef.
“What we want to create,” said the regional manager of the Beechwood luxury hotel chain, “is a relaxing atmosphere in our lobby. Can you provide the lighting to do that?”
Her Grace persona accepted the challenge.
The Trudy girl offered her a memory stick as she emerged from her office. “And here are the notes for the design meeting.”
She had a few moments yet, so she popped into the bathroom on the way to the conference room. Yes, Grace was intact. She applied a little more lipstick. That would do. She was indeed ready for these men.
They were all there when she got to the conference room. It was Arnold, Simon, and Trevor today. Trevor and Arnold wouldn’t be much trouble. They were old-school—tweed jackets, smart ties—yet surprisingly and comfortingly open to new ideas. Simon would be the difficult one, always so assertive and always playing devil’s advocate. Still, Grace was ready for him.
Arnold operated the console. His patter was smooth. “These are the latest ideas for the new partyware range.”
They were good. They looked like glass but were in fact a type of reinforced plastic. “And once the customer has tired of them,” Arnold continued, “they are fully recyclable. The customer simply returns them to the plant and we turn them into something else or refurb and sell on.”
She and Trevor clapped. Simon guffawed. “Child’s play.”
Trevor showed them pictures of a new pattern for home furnishings. “This design can be made into cushion covers, throws, and curtains. Ideal for the domestic bedroom.”
“Boring!” shouted Simon.
His own designs were extraordinary. Purple and bright-pink glasses floated towards happy party-goers. “Now this is progress,” he said. “This is the future.”
She recognized something in him. Something that was more than just Simon.
Her turn came. Trevor and Arnold were mainly polite about her suggestions for a brightly colored dinner set for younger families, her designs for the towels for the old-people’s home, and her pictures of a set of nursery furniture that challenged the stereotypical pinks, blues, and lemons. Simon smiled as if he were amused.
Only when she mentioned the commission for the hotel lighting did he come to life. He sprang to his feet. “We can do that. Some green lighting for relaxation. Dimmers on some of the central lights, so they can be adjusted at certain times of the day. And some pools of stronger, warmer lights. I’ll put some examples together.”
He caught her eye. It was as if he knew the real her. She felt her cheeks starting to burn. Thank goodness for the mask. Grace would remain calm and in control. At all times.
Was it him? Was it really him? She found she couldn’t concentrate on the rest of the meeting. She had to rely on the mask, thankful she could trust Grace to look engaged and intelligent. Underneath it all, though, her pulse was quickening, her mouth growing dry. She was hoping that something would happen but dreading what it might be.
The meeting ended. She should get away, go back to the safety of Trudy and her comfortable office. Yet she was glad he walked with her down the stairs.
They said nothing. She was aware of Arnold and Trevor chatting mindlessly. She could hear the general noise of the open-plan office: the buzz of the air con, the swish of photocopiers and printers, the tippity-tap on keyboards. And the hum of human voices.
But none of this mattered. All that mattered was the one at her side.
He touched her wrist. A thrill went through her whole body. It wasn’t Simon touching Grace. It was him touching her.
“Come to lunch with me,” he whispered. “Please?”
She paused and looked at him, searching beyond the Simon eyes for him. She couldn’t quite find him yet. She was sure she would, though.
“See you in the lobby in ten, then,” he whispered.
“I’m out to lunch,” she informed Trudy.
Trudy raised an eyebrow.
“It’s a business meeting,” the Grace in her said.
She could hardly breathe when she saw him in the lobby. Simon was fading. Grace was relinquishing her control as well.
“Is Italian OK?” he asked.
“Perfect,” Grace helped her to whisper. All she could have done on her own was nod.
He hailed a private transporter. “We’ll be there in five minutes,” he said. He gave the location number to the computer. She wanted to touch him. But she mustn’t yet. Simon and Grace were still with them.
The restaurant charmed her. Its retro design created the atmosphere of a 21st-century eatery. Despite her nerves the smell of garlic and basil made her hungry.
“We can relax here,” he said. “We’re on a break, and there are no cameras.” He, not Simon, took her hand.
Grace was also losing her control.
They ate oysters and drank champagne. He touched her face, slipping his fingertip gently under her mask.
“That feels nice,” she murmured.
She slid her hand under the table and touched his thigh.
He chuckled. “Careful. Simon would hate to lose control.”
She dreamt of ripping off his mask, joining her lips to his, and then feeling him enter her.
They had wine with their main course and declined a dessert.
He took her hand as they waited for their accounts to be charged.
“I have a suggestion,” the Simon mask said. “We could go and check out the hotel.” Simon slipped away. “And we could take a room for the afternoon. We can tell them at the office that we were doing research.”
There was only one sort of research she was interested in. Grace was trying to tug her back but she ignored her.
At the hotel she admired his control. He let Simon book a room. “I’ll be working on the lighting contract all weekend. So I’d like a room for two nights and I’ll check in now.”
He lined up his iris with the scanner. He calmly picked up the key card. He would fetch his luggage from his personal transporter later, he said. He was a little tired now and wanted to rest. He offered the receptionist no explanation for Grace’s presence.
She hovered like a ghost. The Grace mask was really irritating her. Would he hurry? Would he please hurry?
Then he turned and smiled at her. It was him, not Simon.
There was a queue for the lift.
“Stairs?” he said.
“Yes.” Her voice was hoarse.
They set off up the sweeping staircase, their pace quickening as they neared the top of the first flight. There were two more to go. As they turned toward the second the pain in her ankle returned. It was jabbing and sickening.
“Argh!” she screeched as her leg gave way and she fell to the floor. He tripped over her. They rolled down the stairs. Their masks fell away and a mess of plastic and wiring spread over the steps. She couldn’t move but she could still hear and see. He was totally motionless. The Simon eyes stared blankly at her.
There was a lot of shouting and running around. And then she was aware of being lifted.
“It’s a shame.” She could see a Robomedic bending over him. “B 7345 is only fit for scrap. What about that one?”
She felt whoever had lifted her scan her tag. “A 6492. Salvageable. But they’re going to have to modify the sex drive if they want to get it to work properly. These two were a bit too eager, methinks.”
“Shame. They were made for each other.”
“Oh. Look at this.”
She felt rough hands on her ankle. Didn’t he know he was making it hurt even more?
“Looks like the outer shell’s cracked. It’s only hairline though. Wonder how she did that? Wearing the wrong sort of shoes, do you think?”
“Better put her out of her misery.”
She felt him tap the switch at the back of her neck. She was thankful for the blackness.