Excerpt: Satisfaction Guaranteed

Robillard’s by R.D. Hero

Diego tilted his head, a small, vague smile on his face as he watched the father-son duo of George and Faisel Harrington argue with each other in an ever-exceeding volume of whisper. George kept looking to Diego, and chuckling, as if to show just how silly the whole fiasco was, while Faisel, a boy barely breaking out of teenhood, was red-faced and focused on his father.

Eyebrows rising, Diego decided to let their conversation play out rather than try any smooth interception, so he glanced down at the notes he had already taken.

Twenty-one, recent graduate. Nepotism? G. seems worried about prospects.

Diego straightened his sleeve, a frown on his face as he thought, but he was careful to pay attention to the cadence of the argument, so as to know when to look up with his salesman’s grin. Faisel seemed like trouble. He was already scowling when he trailed in after his father, and when Diego pulled out a nice, conservative navy suit, he had almost fled.

“It’s a tech startup, George,” Faisel said. “They wear jeans!”

Diego feigned scratching his nose to hide an insuppressible smile of amusement. But then he caught George shooting him a facial expression that screamed SOS, and cleared his throat. “Mr. Harrington, I can assure you, when it comes to the interview, you want to look your very best, no matter what the company’s day-to-day dress code is.”

Faisel looked to him as if just noticing Diego was still standing there, eyes narrowed in obvious disdain. “These are like, twenty-five year old dudes, they don’t care.”

“Their backers care,” Diego replied shortly. Faisel immediately blushed, and George snorted. Good. It was a gamble to be rude, but Diego had already learned through countless consultations with George that he appreciated sincerity.

However, there was rude, and then there was lecturing. Diego could already see the warning signs that Faisel was closing off completely to any sort of suggestion. “Then, Mr. Harrington,” Diego said, turning to run a hand down the arm of a suit hanging behind him. “Think of it this way. Women appreciate a man who knows how to dress himself.”

“If a girl can’t handle how I dress now—”

Diego hid his growing annoyance by looking at the suits again. This Faisel was obnoxious; he would be an insult to the suit he was wearing, anyway. “Well,” Diego said coldly, “by all means—”

“Come check out the modern wear over here,” came a laid-back, unaffected voice, with just a hint of humor. Diego nearly bit his tongue.

Josh Braden, he of the perfected surfer-boy-all-grown-up look, had a hand resting on Faisel’s shoulder. With a curled lip, Diego appraised him, wondering just how low Josh could sink, even poaching a customer right out from under Diego’s nose. “I’m sure a more conservative approach—”

“Yeah, modern’s alright,” Faisal said, gawking at Josh’s dark green suit and baby-blue dress shirt. It hurt Diego’s eyes to look at it.

Diego opened his mouth to protest—Josh was wearing pure black Converse shoes, for god’s sake. It had been like this since Braden had come to work as a suit salesman at Robillard’s three months ago, drawing away most of the younger men who may have come to Diego just because he was close enough in age, unlike the older salesmen.

“I haven’t seen him before,” George said, reminding Diego that he still had one customer at least, his cheeks heating when he realized George probably caught him openly glaring.

“Yes,” Diego said, keeping his voice level, “he’s new.” He made sure to say ‘new’ like ‘an idiot’.

“I’ll just be happy if I can get the kid in a tie,” George sighed, turning to rest his arm on the cufflink display, quirking a small smile at Diego. “His mother sends him out here with no warning, and expects me to get him a job. I’m a restaurant owner, what do I know about this Twitter-Facebook-tech crap?”

Diego put on the understanding smile he reserved for clients who shared just a little too much for an employee-customer relationship. “A clean, stylish suit is always a step in the right direction,” he said, careful not to glance over to Josh and Faisel, lest he be proven entirely incorrect on that front.

George smiled in return, nodding. “Anyway,” he said with a laugh and a wave of his hand. “Hopefully you’re not too disappointed with just me?”

Quickly shaking his head, Diego gestured at a rack he had wheeled out earlier. “I have already selected a few sports jackets from the new season, as you requested.”

Yes, he was talking stiffly. He had seen younger salesmen do the eager-to-please act, and sometimes that worked, but usually their desperation rolled off them in waves, and it made most clients uncomfortable. When Diego finally scored a position at Robillard’s, he was careful to observe the assured expertise of the seasoned salesmen.

Not that Diego wasn’t desperate. But George Harrington didn’t need to know that.

George moved to stand by Diego by the racks. “I can already tell I’m going to like these.”

“Just from the sleeves?” Diego replied, pulling out the first jacket, a warm-toned brown blazer. When George acknowledged him with an exhale of amusement, he then said, “When you mentioned you wanted to go a bit more casual…”

George’s lip rose. “Yes?”

“Well,” Diego continued, and held the blazer up against George’s chest, “I was surprised.”

Some honesty is allowed, with a well-built client relationship.

“Don’t worry,” George laughed, “I’ll still be needing those nice, high-priced suits in the fall.”

Diego smiled a secretive little smile, brushing his hand down the front of the blazer, feeling the pressure of George’s chest behind it. There was a low “Hmm…” from George.



Stableboy by Leona Carver

Stableboys led a good life for the most part. Nic really couldn’t complain. Much. Though, when an adventure party rode into his stable yard a mere thumb-width before sunset, he thought he might make an exception.

“Here, boy.” A muscular mountain of a warrior bestride an even greater landmark of a beast tossed the reins down, catching Nic in the face. “This one needs a watchful eye and a quick step. Don’t let her bite or she’ll never let go.”

Nic gaped up at man and dapple grey mare both, his stomach sinking. The horse didn’t need a stable; she needed an armoury. On the battle field she probably counted as a siege engine. She stood nineteen hands at the shoulder, easily towering over Nic’s head. As he quivered, his hands wanting nothing more than to drop the reins like hot coals, she turned her head and glared at him with a baleful, white-rimmed eye. That eye had seen men die. From trampling. Under her huge, sharpened hooves.

The warrior didn’t seem to notice Nic’s dismay. He swung down from his red-blooded siege engine and swaggered unhurriedly toward the rest of his party. A thin man in a cleric’s robes slumped atop his mount, just one more saddlebag among many on a shrivelled nag—Nic mentally sighed in relief; that one would be easy to care for. A rare Amazon woman in her traditional garb of very little rode a spry, golden jungle beast, as much antelope as horse. Their last companion, a woman sheathed head to foot in leather, rode a coal black stallion. Nic counted them and steeled himself for a full night’s work, starting with the battle mare.

He grudgingly attempted to tug her head toward the stable door, clicking hopefully. She responded with her huge yellow teeth and he leapt back to avoid losing an arm.

“Quit messing around, boy,” the inn’s owner bellowed across the yard. Quietly, he added, “My deepest apologies, sir. The boy is an idiot. A pity hire.”

Their amused stares burned between Nic’s shoulder blades, igniting an embarrassed flush. With renewed determination, he faced the horse: His personal Bull of Atredes, the favoured mount of the patron god of headaches, and a difficult battle faced by at least a dozen mythical heroes. Much like the bull itself and Atredes’ maligned demesne, overcoming her required equal parts gentility, trickery, and obstinacy.

He grasped her rein and, when she made to snap at him again, offered up a palm of oats. Her eye rolled, but she lipped it up instead of snapping his hand off. Before she could change her mind, he canted a hip to show her the pouch at his hip, swollen with a feast of equine delights. At his next tug and click, she practically lunged toward him, and the cruel chuckles of the innkeeper died away.

She chased him into their largest and sturdiest stall, nipped at his leg when he scrambled over one of the walls, and kicked at the heavy boards with an angry hoof when she realized he had locked her in. Her furious snorts and whinnies sounded more bovine than equine, strengthening her resemblance to Atredes’ vicious mount.

“I’ll be back, Bull,” he called over his shoulder as he darted back to the yard, resolutely ignoring the throb in his thigh. He would have tooth-shaped bruises come morning.

The cleric’s nag followed slowly, exaggeratedly dragging her hooves and hanging her head. “You’re a sharp one,” he murmured, watching her ears swivel. “As wise as your master, I’m sure. I think I will call you … Deacon.”

He tugged and tempted her with his oats, to little effect, until they passed into the building and its warmth surrounded them. Then she pulled ahead. He let her make her way into one of the waiting stalls, content to let her choose her own place to bed down.

The Amazon brought her own mount in. Her obsidian eyes flicked over Nic and dismissed him as she passed him in the aisle. “Fresh hay, clean water,” she said without turning her proud face.

“Straight away, madam,” Nic replied, automatically bowing although she wasn’t looking at him. “Once your companions’ horses are inside.”

She didn’t respond. However, as Nic didn’t immediately find himself bleeding from a grievous Amazonian wound, she accepted his offer.

That one is … Daffodil, he decided, mostly out of spite for the no doubt warlike, but coddled, animal.

When he trotted back into the yard, the sun had sunk behind the inn’s peak. He blinked into the purple twilight and seething shadows, unable to find the last traveller and her black horse. Then something moved, close enough to feel the huff of a breath, and he startled violently sideways.

“Sorry,” murmured a husky female voice. “I forget. Most eyes cannot see us when we stand still.”

The last rider melted out of the shadows by the stable wall. The lamplight streaming through the door picked out ruddy highlights in her black, sleekly tied hair. Her skin glowed like moonlight, marking her as a northerner, but her eyes were warm brown, a hue more common in the south. She held her stallion’s rein in a gloved hand and passed it into Nic’s palm.

“Treat Ash with respect and he will do the same for you,” she said, forming a weary smile. That close, Nic could see the signs of a recent fight in the swelling of her lower lip, an abrasion on her cheek, and a darkening bruise under her eye. Not unusual in the parties that tended to frequent the inn, but unfortunate on such a lovely visage.

Ash whuffled and nudged Nic’s stomach.

The woman laughed. “But I am sure you will. He is a good judge of character and I believe he likes you.” With a parting pat on Ash’s arched neck, she turned toward the inn door and disappeared into the twilight. Nic constrained a shiver at the eerie sight. He had overheard enough late night, liquor-soaked conversation to know an assassin when he saw one.

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