Isla trudged along the hallway toward her apartment, high heels swinging from her finger. Usually she wouldn’t dare go barefoot on public carpet—especially not in a building of questionable standards, like this one. But after walking six blocks to get home in the pretty, stiletto-heeled death traps, her feet had officially given up the ghost.
Besides, foot hygiene was the least of her problems. With another rejected job application—this one coming through before she’d even made it home from the interview—she had bigger things to worry about.
Isla unlocked her front door and stepped inside, her lips quirking at the familiar sight. Her little sister, Dani, was standing next to the wall, one hand resting on a makeshift barre crafted from a shower curtain rod and some wall brackets they’d found at the dollar store. She was dressed in a plain black leotard and a pair of pink ballet tights with a hole in the knee. Her battered pointe shoes were frayed around the toes, though the ribbons were glossy and new, stitched on with the utmost care.
Classical music blared from the stereo and Isla hit the pause button. “What have I said about disturbing the neighbors?”
Dani paused mid-plié. “If you’re going to do it, do it properly.”
“That’s not what I said.” She shot her sister a look, trying to ignore how her leotard was digging into her shoulders. It was clearly a size too small because the damn girl was growing like a weed. At fourteen, she’d already surpassed Isla in height.
“Oh, that’s right.” Dani grinned. “You said that about schoolwork. But, to be fair, ballet is even more important than schoolwork, so…”
“We’ll agree on that when you can pay the bills with pliés.” Isla hung her keys on the hook by the door and dumped her purse onto the kitchen counter.
“Working on it.” Dani continued warming up, her pointe shoes knocking against the floorboards. “How was your day?”
Ugh. You mean, how were the three dozen rejection letters and this last interview, which was clearly only for curiosity’s sake because the recruiter straight up laughed the second I left the interview room?“It was…fine,” she said, without much commitment.
In reality, it was anything but fine. What had her old boss called her? Oh, that’s right: Instagram poison.
“You told me once that saying something is ‘fine’ is no better than saying it’s ‘purple pineapples.’” Dani dropped down from her relevé and frowned. “What happened?”
What hadn’t happened?
Isla pulled a bottle of wine out of the fridge and poured her-self a glass. She’d been rationing it, since the only stuff that was left after this was a box wine of unknown origin. “Amanda lost her contract with that makeup company and her movie is flopping. She sent me an angry email today.”
“Whatever happened to all publicity is good publicity?”
“It’s a myth. Turns out some things are career killers.” Isla took a gulp of the wine. “And now I’m that woman who filmed a Disney princess vomiting all over herself.”
After the live video had been splashed across the internet and featured on network television, Isla had swiftly been fired from her job as a senior social media consultant with the Gate-way Agency. All her freelance clients had dropped her like a hot potato, too. Now, anyone who searched Isla’s name got page after page of the same thing: vomit girl and the person who was too dumb to stop recording.
Hence the growing pile of rejected job applications.
“I take it the interview didn’t go well?”
Isla cringed at the concern in her sister’s voice. Most fourteen-year-olds were worrying about frivolous things, like which shade of lip gloss was the most on trend or how to craft the perfect TikTok dance routine. Hell, she would argue that’s the stuff they should be worrying about. Not whether they were going to have a roof over their heads.
“No, it didn’t,” Isla admitted. “But honestly, I’m not sure I would have wanted to work there anyway.”
It was a total lie.
Isla was ready to take anything at this point. It was humiliating to be begging for jobs she could have done ten years ago with her eyes closed, only to be rejected because the recruiters had found someone “with more experience.” Umm, what? In other words, she’d been officially blacklisted from the social media industry.
“How come?” Dani walked over to the kitchen, her arms swinging gracefully by her sides. Her dark hair was in a neat bun on top of her head, tied with a piece of leftover ribbon from her pointe shoes. “Were they not very nice?”
Dani came up to Isla and put an arm around her, stooping so she could lean her head against her big sister’s shoulder. Some days it felt like it was them against the world. Given they didn’t actually know where their mother was these days—and they hadn’t seen either one of their dads in God only knew how long—they really did have to stick together.
Isla remembered the day it all happened—the eve of her twentieth birthday. Their mother had announced she was eloping overseas with a boyfriend she’d known less than a month, and they hadn’t seen her since. Apparently motherhood was a temporary commitment, in her eyes. That left Isla responsible for the well-being of another human, and more terrified of the future than she’d ever been.
Six years later, Isla had built a life for them both. She’d fostered and financed her half sister’s dreams, built up her own dream career and done it all while hiding how often the numbers weren’t in their favor. But the older Dani got, the more keenly she observed what was going on.
“Maybe you can ask the ballet school for our money back,” Dani suggested quietly.
Her spot had been secured for the summer intensive ballet camp months ago, before Isla’s job situation had fallen apart.
“I know it was really expensive,” she added.
Isla felt tears prick the backs of her eyes, but she refused to let her sister see even a sliver of her emotion. It was her job to be a pillar. To be the strong one. To be the positive mother figure neither of them ever had.
“Dani, I would sell my right kidney if it meant you could go to ballet camp.”
“I’m pretty sure that’s illegal.”
Isla snorted and wrapped her sister into a big hug. Like al-ways, she smelled of oversweet vanilla perfume and mango-scented shampoo. She would do anything for this kid. Anything to make sure Dani grew up knowing that dreams were worth chasing, and that family came first no matter what.
“And how do you know so much about black market organ sales?” Isla raised a brow and Dani laughed.
“Ah, of course.” She laughed. But when Dani pulled back, Isla noticed her sister’s characteristically carefree attitude was hidden under the worry swimming in her blue eyes. Isla hated seeing that. “Why don’t we go to Central Park, huh? We’ll take your phone and I can get a few shots of you for your Instagram account.”
“Really?” Dani’s eyes lit up.
“Sure. Just let me get changed.”
“I promise not to make you take a hundred photos this time.” Dani grinned and did a little pirouette in the kitchen. “Not even half that!”
“Don’t make promises you can’t keep,” Isla shot over her shoulder as she headed into her bedroom. “Trust me, I know where you get those perfectionistic tendencies.”
The second Isla closed her bedroom door behind her, she slumped against it and deflated like a balloon the day after a birthday party. Outside, the city roared with life. Sirens and horns, music blaring from the open window of another apartment, the shrieking laughter of people enjoying the early evening. She gazed out of the window, her eyes catching on the usual things that faced their cozy (read: cramped) place. There was a glimmer of light as the sun reflected off glass panes, and the zigzag of a fire escape from the building opposite them. The same three apartments always had their blinds wide open—either inviting voyeurism or not caring enough to prevent it.
Sometimes she wondered about their lives. Had they been stuck and struggling at some point like her? Had they lost faith in themselves and the world?
After she got fired, Isla had assumed it would all blow over if she kept a low profile and didn’t make matters worse. But then Amanda’s movie tanked and all her sponsorships fell through, and people stopped taking Isla’s calls. Even when she’d tried to laugh the whole thing off as a “Miley Cyrus exercise” her contacts had frozen harder than an Upper East Sider’s Botoxed face.
New York could be like that—when you were successful it felt as though the sun was made of gold. And when you fell from grace, you hit the concrete so hard you shattered every bone in your body.
How much longer was she going to be able to keep faking that everything would be fine? Rent was due next week and the final payment for Dani’s elite ballet camp had come out of her account a few days ago. Isla’s eyes had watered at the amount. But Dani had worked so hard, practicing every day and pushing herself to the limit to beat out the rich kids with their prestigious coaches and private lessons and their lifetimes of opportunity.
How could Isla pull the rug out from under Dani like that? What kind of lesson would that be teaching her?
“You’ll figure this out,” she said to herself. “Someone will hire you.”
After all, she had to make it work. Because letting her sister down was not an option.
Excerpted from The Dachshund Wears Prada by Stefanie London, Copyright © 2022 by Stefanie Little. Published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.