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Net Worth
Author: Amelia Wilde

 

 

1

 

 

Charlotte

 

 

I’m not going to be defeated by a zipper.

My vision blurs. I blow out a breath and steady my hand. The needle loops through the fabric, drawing tight. A sense of calm settles over me. This is working.

The sewing machine would be faster, but I need to do this by hand. Maybe it seems silly to pin my hopes on the fit of my suit. In a world falling apart, this is the only thing I control. This is how I’m holding my family together, stitch by stitch.

Done. I take a step back and lift up the skirt.

“This is going to work,” I say, though it’s not clear who I’m trying to convince.

“The skirt or the meeting?” Elise’s voice comes through the speaker on my iPhone. I perched her on the windowsill so she could keep me company while I got ready.

“Both.” The fact that it’s raining on the day of the most important meeting of my life isn’t going to change a thing. Tiny, spitting raindrops tap on my bedroom window while I pull my silk blouse over my head, careful to keep my makeup intact. Then I pull the skirt over my hips.

“That’s the spirit,” she says. “Who are you meeting with, again?”

She’s fishing for a name. We both come from a world of power and money. If there’s a major player in real estate, we know about it. Never mind the fact that my family lost all our wealth, and Elise left hers behind. “The letter didn’t say. It’s from a corporation called Phoenix Enterprises.”

“Are you sure they’re not wasting your time?”

“No,” I say, honestly, though I don’t want to think about that possibility. “But I had the family lawyer look into them. They have invested in some major properties in New York City. And internationally. They’ve got the money. The only question is whether they’ll give it to me.”

“Are you wearing black?”

I laugh at her. “Of course. I picked out something last night. Laid it out on the bed. Then at midnight I woke up with this idea for a new suit—a jacket and skirt. I’ve been awake since then making it. It turned out even better than I imagined.”

She sighs, the sound full of longing. “It’s criminal that you don’t do this full-time. I want to wear only Charlotte Van Kempt pieces for the rest of my life.”

“Get in line,” I say, teasing her. She knows I’ll make her clothes any day of the week. Unlike my Etsy shop, which has a waiting list a mile long. I’m grateful for that little shop. It’s been supporting my family for over a year now. The problem is time. I only get to sew at night. Each piece costs a lot, but it also takes days to make.

“I would,” she says, “if you’d hire a seamstress.”

I make a noncommittal sound. We’ve been over this. I have dreams about having my own fashion line. Or at least expanding my online shop. But that requires time.

All my time is spent trying to save the family business.

Elise doesn’t understand. Or maybe she understands too well. Elise Bettencourt cut ties with her rigid family and built her business. She started selling cupcakes on DoorDash. Now she does cakes, and they’ve been featured in major bridal magazines.

“All I have to do is finish the Cornerstone development,” I say, repeating what she already knows. It’s been my mantra for the past twelve months. “Once I do that, the business will be solvent again. We’ll be able to hire a proper CEO. And I’ll be able to focus on my clothes.”

“Shouldn’t your dad be the one going to this meeting? It’s his business that’s about to fail and put you out on the street, not yours.”

“It’s a family business.” I turn this way and that in front of the mirror. Fashion is a cutthroat business, but even I have to admit it looks good. No one would guess it hadn’t walked down the runway at Prague. It could be hanging on a rack at Saks. Whoever I’m meeting with at Phoenix Enterprises probably won’t care, but I’ll know.

“Oh my god,” she groans. “I love you so much.”

“Really? Because when you say that, it sounds like—”

“Like I’m making fun of you? I am, but only a little bit. Who looks at bankruptcy as a great opportunity other than you? I love that you’re helping your family, even if I wish you would focus on your own dreams.”

“We’re not bankrupt,” I say, scolding. “There’s still time.”

“How much time? An hour?”

I laugh at her, but it’s mainly to cover up the clenching fear at the pit of my gut. Elise’s right. We don’t have much more than an hour. Days. A few weeks at most. We have to come up with the cash or the Cornerstone development will be a pile of rubble. “I’ll figure it out.”

“Are you trying to convince me or yourself?”

“You.” It comes out slightly forceful. “All I need is enough time to go to this meeting. And I’m going to be—” A glance down at my phone screen. “Shit.”

“See? This is why the alarms aren’t enough. You have to answer my calls, otherwise you’ll be late. Okay, go. Call me after and tell me everything.”

“Bye.” I end the call while Elise is telling me she loves me. I’m forgetting something. The outfit isn’t complete. I scan it one more time in the mirror.

It’s jewelry.

My hand goes to my throat, even though I know the necklace is missing. All of my jewelry has been sold over the past year. Every single piece, even the necklace my mom gave me on my eighteenth birthday. It was my great-grandmother’s—a teardrop diamond set in platinum. Now it belongs to a pawn shop in exchange for paying off six months of our electric bill. We started out with what my parents called “estate sales” to bring in serious buyers. Now there’s no estate to sell.

I feel naked without it. Like I’m going out into the world without armor.

Which means I have an opportunity to find something even better.

First I have to put on my plain Target heels. Once upon a time, I would have worn Louboutins. I had a closet full of designer shoes. I scrunch my nose a little at the sight of the heels in the mirror. The people at Phoenix Enterprises aren’t going to pay attention to my shoes. They’ll be so excited about the Cornerstone development that they’ll sign a deal.

The hall outside my bedroom echoes the sound of my heels. It’s not just my shoes and clothes that had to be sold at those sales. It was everything. Antique tables that held vases of fresh flowers. The carpet that used to cover the big staircase leading down to the center of the house. Any piece of art that hung on our walls.

My heels clack all the way down the bare spiral staircase.

“Where are you going, sweetheart?” My father’s voice travels down from his office on the first floor. He heard me coming. It’s impossible not to, now that the carpet is gone.

“Into the office. I’ll be back later, Daddy.”

“Call if you need help,” he says, but I know he doesn’t really mean it. In a few hours he’ll be halfway through a bottle of vodka. And he hasn’t been to the office in months.

I haven’t told him about the meeting. It would only raise his hopes. Or worse, he would reject the entire idea. He refuses to really accept how dire things are at Van Kempt Industries. The business is drowning in debt. Our personal finances are no better.

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