Two years ago, Kennedy Mitchell was plucked from the reception desk and placed in the corporate boardroom in the name of diversity. Rather than play along, she and her best friend founded Token, a boutique PR agency that helps “diversity-challenged” companies and celebrities. With corporate America diversifying workplaces and famous people getting into reputation-damaging controversies, Token is in high demand.
Kennedy quickly discovers there’s a lot of on-the-job learning and some messes are not so easily fixed. When Kennedy’s ex shows up needing help repairing his company’s reputation, things get even more complicated. She knows his character is being wrongly maligned, but she’s reluctant to get involved—professionally and emotionally. But soon, she finds herself drawn into a PR scandal of her own.
“A smart, sexy rom-com that had me chuckling from the first page. I loved it.”—BRENDA JACKSON, New York Times bestselling author
Looking for a job sucked.
Getting laid off sucked even more.
Three weeks ago, Kennedy Mitchell found herself in both unenviable positions.
While searching for a new job in her field of expertise—marketing and five solid years of it—she’d accepted a four-week receptionist position to tide her over. Hey, student loans didn’t pay off themselves and they couldn’t care less about your employment status. But, as grateful as she was to have money coming in, she hated the part of the job that had her slapping herself awake every five minutes.
That also sucked.
It would be one thing if the place were a bevy of human activity (she generally liked people and they tended to like her back). Nope, that wasn’t even close to what she was dealing with. Per the visitor log, a grand total of six had passed through the first-floor lobby of ECO Apparel in the two weeks she’d been there. Three on one day alone. And during the hours when the employees were upstairs ensconced at their desks, the place resembled a ghost town. Seriously, she wouldn’t be surprised to see tumbleweed roll past the reception desk one fine windy day. Although, for a ghost town, the lobby was sleekly modern, all sharp angles, and glass and chrome.
Glancing down at her cell phone, Kennedy released a long-suffering sigh. How was it possible that only three minutes and not an hour had passed since her last five-minute check-in? This was usually when she prayed for one of two things: the power to control time, or another job.
Since the chances of either happening within the next seventy-two hours were zero to none, she grudgingly resigned herself to her fate and tapped the keyboard, bringing the sleeping monitor back to life, and the email from an interested recruiter back into view. Seven hours to go, and the jury was still out on whether she would make it until noon—much less to the end of the day. The ding of the elevator broke the lonely silence and was soon followed by the click of heels on the faux marble floors. Twisting in her seat, Kennedy spotted Nadine from Administrative Services striding purposely toward her, folder and purse in hand. She hastily closed out of her email and treated the brunette to a bright smile.
“Hey, Nadine, is it break time already?” The pretty admin assistant usually came to relieve her for a midmorning break at ten. Currently, it was an hour shy of that, and taking a break right now would upset the monotony of her day. How would she cope with the upheaval?
“Mr. Mullins wants to see you in his office, and I’ll be filling in for you for the rest of the day,” her coworker announced abruptly.
Kennedy stiffened and her eyebrows rose at the hint of annoyance and resentment threading Nadine’s tone.
Well, good morning to you too.
What the hell happened to the pleasant, chatty girl of not even twenty-four hours ago? And why on earth did the director of Human Resources want to see her in his office? Especially as she, like Nadine, reported to the manager of Administrative Services.
Then Nadine’s folder landed with a splat on the desk near the monitor. Kennedy’s gaze flew to hers and she found herself on the receiving end of a very pointed come on—get a move on, girlie. There’s only one chair and you’re sitting in it look.
That was enough to galvanize Kennedy into action even as her jaw ticked and she prayed for calm. She hurriedly collected her purse from the bottom drawer before surrendering her seat to her visibly impatient coworker.
As if it’s my fault she’s getting stuck down here answering the phone.
Despite Kennedy’s own growing annoyance, she paused and turned before leaving, her shoulders squared, and chin lifted. “Any idea why Mr. Mullins wants to see me?” Her voice was stiff but scrupulously polite.
Since her interaction with him was limited to a brief walk-by wave on her first day during a tour of the offices, she was at a loss. Nadine gave a bored shrug. “I hear no evil and speak no evil. They tell me nothing. I just go where I’m told to go, and do the work they pay me to do, if you know what I mean.”
Kennedy’s heart instantly softened, and she excused Nadine’s uncustomary churlishness for what appeared to be the frustration that came with being the Jane-of-all-menial-work of the company.
“Believe me, I know exactly what you mean.” They shared a commiserative what we women have to put up with look before Kennedy took the elevator up to the eighth floor.
Honestly, the drawbacks of possessing a vagina were sometimes too much. Giving birth was only one of them. Or so she’d been told. Her turn in the stirrups hadn’t come yet, but she assumed one day it would, and it wouldn’t be pretty.
The company directory alone pointed to an obvious gender bias. Not one woman held an executive, director, or senior-level management position.
And it had been eight years since the previously all-male clothier had ventured into female clothing. One would think that one woman would have made it to the ranks of at least a senior manager position by now. What were they waiting for, a march on Washington?
But wait. If she didn’t think it could get worse, it did. Kennedy had yet to see one Black face of any hue in the parade of employees who walked by her every day—that was, unless she looked in a mirror, and her hue skewed to the lighter shade of that spectrum. She wouldn’t be surprised if that was one of the reasons she’d been picked to grace the reception desk. In the twenty-first century, one would think that impossible. Especially in the city that didn’t sleep, and could be touted as America’s United Nations, every race, ethnicity, language, and sexual orientation duly represented on the postage-stamp island.
Be that as it may, Kennedy knew better than most that the city tended more toward separate individual dishes—separate being the operative word—rather than one big old melting pot. Once off the elevator, she detoured to the bathroom, where she freshened her lipstick, powdered the shine off her forehead, and gave her long, thick brown curls a few twists.
With her hair and face in order, she ran a critical eye over her outfit, a purchase of pure indulgence. Although had she even the vaguest idea that she’d be unemployed a week after she bought it, she most assuredly would not have indulged.
But the cream pencil skirt and the baby blue fitted shirt ensemble had called out to her. Buy me. I come in your size. Your body will thank you in the end. And Kennedy, self-proclaimed clotheshorse that she was, hadn’t been able to resist the Siren’s call.
Okay, so maybe due to financial constraints she was more a clothes pony.
After ensuring no visible panty lines ruined the overall effect of polished professionalism and stylishness, she proceeded to Mr. Mullins’s office.<
She found him at his desk, the door to his office wide-open. Upon seeing her, a smile broke out across his face. “Ah, Miss Mitchell, come in.”
Kennedy met him halfway, where they shook hands, and she offered a pleasant greeting. He then gestured toward the table and chairs at the other end of the room. “Please sit down. Make yourself comfortable.”
Average in height and build, hair graying and thinning at the crown, the man himself was as nondescript as middle-aged white men came. If his smile—wide and genuine—was any indication, she could relax, which she did one vertebra at a time. It didn’t look as if she was about to be let go early. Typically, people didn’t smile like that when they were about to deliver bad news. Unless, of course, they were psychopaths. No, they tended to furrow their brow, feigning concern and sympathy.
Kennedy took a seat where instructed as Mr. Mullins swiped a sheaf of papers off his desk before joining her. She looked around for somewhere to put her purse that was not on the table or the floor and found nothing suitable. In the end, she simply plopped it on her lap.
Sliding on a pair of reading glasses, Mr. Mullins glanced down at the papers in front of him before directing his attention back to her. “So how are you settling in? Everyone treating you all right? No one bothering you, I hope.”
Yeah, nope! Absolutely not. No way was she falling into that trap. This was the kind of throwaway question people asked when they didn’t want or expect an honest answer.
“No, everyone has been great.” She certainly wasn’t going to tell him that two of the managers had asked for her number and the head of IT asked her out for dinner. As someone personally opposed to mixing business with pleasure, and that included dating coworkers—been there, regretted that—invitations like that were shot down faster than a clay pigeon at a skeet shooting competition.
“Good, good, good. Now, I’ve just been looking over your résumé—” he paused, glanced at it and then back at her over the rim of his glasses “—and by the looks of things—your previous experience and education—it’s apparent that you’re overqualified for the receptionist position. Any receptionist position, for that matter.”
For the measly sum of two hundred and fifty grand—the majority of which had been covered by scholarships or else she wouldn’t have been able to afford a school like Columbia—for both her undergraduate and graduate degrees, she sure hoped she was overqualified for the task of greeting visitors and forwarding calls.
“Yes, but this wasn’t supposed to be permanent. The agency said it was a four-week assignment.”
Mr. Mullins nodded. “That’s right. I’ve been told Nancy should be back in a few weeks.” He lowered her résumé, but still held it loosely between his fingers. “Does that mean you aren’t interested in a permanent, full-time position? I might have thought you’d prefer something in Marketing.”
Kennedy watched as he turned the situation over in his mind. He seemed determined to solve the mystery of the overqualified temporary receptionist. But this wasn’t Agatha Christie-level stuff. No amateur sleuthing required.
“I was laid off and this just sort of fell into my lap. The right job at the moment,” she stated simply.
There were layoffs and then there were layoffs. Hers had been the latter, as she’d been assured she’d keep her job after the merger. The following week, she’d walked into the offices of Kenners in the morning and was carting a box with every personal item she’d accumulated over the course of five years—including a dazzling pink slip—out the front door by the time the clock struck noon.
Just like that, five years of job—no, financial security—ripped out from under her. And to add insult to injury, two weeks of severance was all she had to show for years spent busting her ass putting in fifty- and sixty-hour weeks.
God, how she hated them, pink slips, which shouldn’t be pink at all. They should be black like the hearts of the people who played favorites with other people’s livelihoods.
“Completely understandable,” he replied, nodding. “Now, getting to the reason I wanted to speak with you. I assume you’ve heard of Sahara, right? She’s a singer. Won several Grammys. I believe she’s recently gotten into acting. Really a lovely young woman.”
Have I ever heard of her?
Almost everyone on planet Earth had heard of Sahara, and she wasn’t just some wannabe actress. Her first role garnered her an Oscar nod. Not too shabby for a small-town girl from New Jersey, who bore such a striking resemblance to Aaliyah, some people in the music industry called her Baby Girl. Rumor had it she hated the name with the fires of a thousand suns. If true, Kennedy didn’t blame her.
She’s a woman. Call her by her stage name, dammit!
Ironically, her real name was Whitney Richardson, a name she decided not to use professionally, fearing it would invite certain comparisons. One Black superstar singer named Whitney was enough.
“That’s a pretty sound assumption.” Especially since her songs were on heavy rotation on every major radio station in almost every major city in the country. “She’s very popular.”
Popular was an understatement. Sahara was huge. As big as Beyoncé but with first-rate acting chops. And her social media game was, bar none, the best Kennedy had ever seen. Her fans called themselves the Desert Stormers and congregated at OASIS, an online community, to discuss everything Sahara. And God forbid anyone say one bad word about their Desert Queen, they went after them guns blazing.
“I had a feeling you would,” he said with a smugness Kennedy found hard to fathom. It wasn’t as if he’d discovered Jimmy Hoffa’s remains or the identity of Jack the Ripper. “Well, this afternoon we are going to have the pleasure of her company. She and her representatives will be meeting with our executive team.”
“That’s…wonderful.” She didn’t know what he expected her to say. Was he looking for tips on how to interact with young Black women and assumed she was an expert on the subject? Should she tell him she hadn’t yet read this month’s issue of The Secret Guide to the Black Female Mind?
His expression became earnest as he leaned forward, bringing his face closer to hers. “The CEO of the company would like you to attend.”
Her jaw dropped. A sound escaped from her suddenly dry throat.
Okay, that she hadn’t seen coming.
She reflexively convinced herself he couldn’t have meant what she thought he did, since she was certain she’d heard him correctly.
“Do you mean attend the meeting? With Sahara?” She needed to make sure they were reading from the same hymnal.
His mouth twitched. “Yes.”
Her fingers curled around her purse strap. “Why would Mr. Edwards want me there?” She was a temp. How did the CEO of the company know who she was? Or that she even existed? She only knew his name because it was at the top of the company directory. She couldn’t say for sure she’d actually seen him in the flesh, and if she had, he certainly hadn’t introduced himself.
“Well, you see, Kennedy, I believe the collective thought was that you represent exactly the type of young woman Sahara will be targeting with her clothing line, and having you in the meeting would make her…more comfortable. Put her at ease.”
Ah, yes. She got it, all right. As clear as glass.
“I’m afraid I’m not sure what you mean. What type of woman is that?” she asked, all wide-eyed and guileless.
Surely, he meant intelligent, professional, ambitious, and highly educated?
The crests of his cheeks reddened, but he was stalwart in his determination to hold her gaze. “Well, you’re a beautiful young woman with an obvious eye for fashion, and her line hopes to encompass all aspects of work, life, and play.”
Nice save, bub. But not good enough.
“And the fact that I’m Black didn’t have anything to do with the decision? Not even a little?” she coaxed, doubting anyone had ever taken him to task on the subject of race this directly, if at all.
His Adam’s apple bobbed. “Well, yes, there is that too.” No, there was no too—that was the whole of it.
Suddenly, his expression turned apprehensive. “I hope that didn’t offend you. With this whole #MeToo movement, I’m not sure if I just crossed the line. Am I still allowed to compliment you on your looks?”
Oh dear lord, shoot me now.
Did this man not interact with any women in a professional capacity? A sensitivity class or four wouldn’t go awry at this company.
“No, I’m not offended.” At work, she generally took such compliments in stride. As long as they weren’t accompanied by a suggestive leer and a hotel room key card pressed into her palm during a handshake. True story. That had actually happened.
“Things have changed so much lately, sometimes it’s best to ask, or the next thing you know… Well, who knows what will happen,” he finished, flashing her an awkward smile.
“Anyway,” Kennedy said, eager to get back to the subject at hand, “about the meeting. As much as it would be a thrill to meet her, I’m not sure I’d be comfortable with that. I don’t know very much about the inner workings of the company. I’m probably not the right person—”
But Mr. Mullins was having none of that, bulldozing her objections with, “For your additional responsibilities, you’ll receive five thousand dollars.”
Kennedy had to steel herself from physically reacting. On the inside, however, it was nothing but fits of jubilation. Cartwheels and back handsprings that would make the women’s Olympic gymnastics team proud.
Five thousand dollars! Found money, all of it. And to think of how happy she’d been last month when she found a twenty between the cushions of her sofa and last year when she’d discovered a ten spot in the pocket of an old pair of jeans.
Careful to calibrate her response, she began slowly, “That is—”
“No, no, my mistake,” Mr. Mullins interjected again, his eyes darting from her face to the paper in front of him, which he proceeded to tap repeatedly with his finger. “I meant seventy-five hundred. An additional seventy-five hundred.”
Kennedy sat there utterly gobsmacked. “Mr. Mullins—” “Ten thousand.”
Another minute and Kennedy was certain the strain in his voice would give way to full-blown panic.
Ten thousand dollars for one meeting? Oh my god, that’s wild.
But the best kind.
With dollar signs flashing like a bright neon sign in her mind, she smiled. “What time should I be there?”
Excerpt from Token by Beverley Kendall.
Copyright © 2023 by Beverly Kendall.
Published with permission from Graydon House/HarperCollins
All rights reserved.