It’s a relief that we’re at this point. The sooner we leave here, the sooner we can get it over with. My mind has run every scenario possible, in my dreams, in my every waking moment. And the only certainty I have is, whatever happens, it will all be over soon.
Josh has been in Mr. Bexley’s office for over an hour. There’s been raised voices, Mr. Bexley shouting, and silence. It hasn’t helped my anxiety level.
Helene went in earlier to intervene. More chillingly, Jeanette hustled past me about forty-five minutes ago and stepped into the fray. Maybe Josh’s strategy involves major workforce cuts and she was called in to consult.
When she left, she paused by my desk, and looked at me, and laughed. It was the kind of laugh tinged by hysteria, like she’s just heard the funniest thing.
“Good luck,” she tells me. “You’re going to need it. This is beyond HR.”
We’ve been found out. Someone has seen me and Josh together, and we’re busted. Danny has told someone. It’s out. This scenario wasn’t in the mix. I lean down and press my cheekbone against my knee. Breathe in, breathe out.
“Darling!” Helene is alarmed when she walks to my desk. My vision is gray. I try to stand and weave on the spot. She makes me sit back down and hands me my water bottle.
“Are you all right?”
“I’m going to faint. What’s going on in there?”
“They’re talking about the interviews. Josh’s idea for the future doesn’t quite align with Bexley’s.”
She pulls over a chair and sits beside me. I’m about to be fired. I begin wheezing.
“Am I in trouble? Is he doing some kind of pre-interview? Why aren’t I doing one? And why was HR involved? I kept hearing shouting. And Jeanette said something spooky. About how I was going to need luck. Am I in trouble?” I end on the same pitiful note I began.
“Of course not. It’s a bad argument they’re having in there, darling. They have disagreements all the time. I thought it best to bring Jeanette up to remind them of professional etiquette. Nothing worse than two men barking at each other like dogs.”
Helene is looking at me strangely. I must look terrible.
“Is he . . .” I bite off the words, but she won’t let me get away with it.
“Is he what?”
“Is he okay? Is . . . Josh okay?” She nods, but the thing is, I know he’s not. The last two days have been exhausting. Josh has been nothing but grave civility, but I can now read the nuances of his face better than ever. He’s worn out. Sad. Stressed. He can’t decide what’s worse; eye contact, or none.
And I understand. I really do.
I find if I keep my eyes off him, and fixed on my computer screen, there’s less chance of feeling my stomach flip. I can keep the butterflies out of my system if I can avoid seeing the blue of his eyes or the shape of his mouth. The mouth I have kissed, over and over. No one can kiss me like he does, and it’s more proof the world is unfair.
The hurt over his comment, I’m not going to need any help beating her, has dulled into a callus I can’t stop pressing. What a shitty thing he said. But if the roles had been reversed, and it was Helene out there tormenting us, who’s to say I wouldn’t have said the exact same thing? I’m not the blameless little victim in our private war.
We’re like this because we’ve found someone who can take it as good as they can dish it out. And I’ll guarantee one thing. I’m going to dish it out at the interview. Even in my dreams, I know the answer I’ll give to any question they ask. He sure will need help beating me. Helene is watching me, her eyes soft with empathy.
“It’s sweet you’re concerned for him, darling, but Josh is a big boy. You should be more concerned about Bexley. I know who I’d put my money on.”
“But why is Mr. Bexley—”
“I can’t say. It’s their confidential business. Let’s talk about your interview. How did the meeting with Danny go?”
“It’s going well. He’s going to do that old thriller Bloodsummer in ebook for me. It was my dad’s favorite book. He’s doing it over the weekend, and gave me an incredible rate.”
“Well, that’s good of him. If the presentation impresses the panel, maybe he’ll end up getting some consulting work out of us. How is your dad? When are you going to go home, darling? Your parents must be missing you.”
“The long weekend that’s coming up. That’s when I need to go. Actually, I’d like to take a week.” In the pause that follows, I realize that my usual caveat of if that’s okay didn’t attach itself to that statement. The old me is shaking her head in disbelief.
I look at my lovely, generous friend and like I knew she would, she nods. “That’s fine. Take a break before the new job begins.” Her faith in me has never wavered.
My newfound assertiveness doesn’t help me shake the feeling something bad is going on. I look at Mr. Bexley’s closed door again.
“Go home, darling. No one should ring this late on a Friday anyway. It should be illegal. What are you up to this weekend?” I have the weirdest feeling that she’s testing me.
Unless it’s to Josh, I can’t lie properly. “I think I’m going on a road trip with a . . . friend. Actually, not a friend. But I can’t quite decide if I should.”
The word friend feels like a foreign word I’ve mispronounced. Frand. She catches the pause, and smiles.
“You should go. I hope you have a wonderful time with your friend. You need one. I know you’ve been lonely since the merger, when you lost your Valerie.”
Unexpectedly, she takes my shoulders in her hands, and kisses both of my cheeks. “I can see your brain working. I think just for this weekend you need to put it all aside. Forget the interview. One day, this interview will be a faint memory.”
“Hopefully a good memory. A triumphant memory.”
“It’s up to the recruitment gods now. I know you’ve done all you can.”
I have to admit it’s true. “As long as the ebook formatting doesn’t screw up, I’d be ready to be interviewed now.”
“I’m your boss, and I am ordering you to live a little this weekend. You’re fading away these last few days. Look at your eyes. All red. You look as bad as Josh does. We’ve driven you both to a nervous breakdown, announcing the promotion.” She purses her mouth unhappily.
“There are moments when I wish this had never happened. None of it. The merger. This office. This promotion. It’s ending something, and I’m not ready yet.”
“I’m sorry.” She pats my hand. “So sorry.”
“I’ve been getting my filing up to date, in case I have to leave. I’ve emailed my CV to five or six recruitment firms. I’ve cleaned out my drawers. I’m pretty much packed. Just in case.”
Helene looks at Josh’s desk, which seems even more sanitized than usual. He’s been doing the same. You could perform surgery on his desk.
“I can’t lose you. We’d find you somewhere else in another team. Somewhere you’d be happy. I don’t want you to be fretting all weekend, thinking you have no options.”
“But how could I bump into the new COO in the elevator? How humiliating.”
I can imagine it now. The heat would rise in my body, and the tiny hairs on my skin would rise in memory. He’d look down at me, eyes coolly professional. I’d greet him politely and remember how he pressed me against an elevator wall once in a total game changer. Then I’d reach my floor and leave him behind to continue his journey upward.
It’s better to leave here completely than have to look at him across boardroom tables and glimpse him in the basement parking lot. He’ll find a new woman to torment and fascinate. One day I might see a gold ring on his hand.
“Why would I keep torturing myself like that?”
I think my expression must be stark, because Helene makes an attempt to cheer me.
“Live a little, this weekend. Trust me. It will work out for the best.”
“I’ll put the phones through to my cell and let you know if anything urgent comes in.”
I need to go downstairs to my car. I want to open the trunk, look at my packed bag, and try to dodge the big question a little longer. The how do I feel about Josh question. My car keys glow in my bag. I could get in my car, and drive.
I pat my pockets and realize I’ve got a major problem. My cell phone is gone. I look under my desk, in my bag, in folders, and paperwork. I can’t even remember the last time I saw it.
I find it beside the sink in the ladies room. When I return to my desk, Josh is emerging from his meeting with Mr. Bexley without a hair out of place.
What was all that about?” I hug the back of my chair.
“Professional disagreement.” He lifts a shoulder carelessly, reminding me of what he’s wearing. When he walked in today, he was wearing a pale green shirt I’ve never seen before. I’ve spent today trying to decide if it’s a harbinger of doom, or if I love it.
“What’s with the green shirt?”
“Green seemed appropriate, given my little scene in Starbucks.”
Mr. Bexley puts his head out of his office, looks at us both, and shakes his head. “Hell in a handbasket. I tell you, hell in a handbasket.”
A witchy Shakespearean crone has nothing on him right now.
Josh laughs. “Richard, please.”
“Shut your mouth, Bexley,” I hear Helene call faintly. He harrumphs and slams his office door. Josh looks at his desk and picks up his tin of mints, pocketing them. He flicks his phone to voice mail and pushes his chair in. It looks exactly like his desk on the first day I met him. Sterile. Impersonal. He walks to the window and looks outside.
It’s that first moment all over again. I’m standing by my desk, nerves shredding me from the inside out. There’s a huge man by the window with glossy dark hair, his hands in pockets. As he turns, I pray he’s not as gorgeous as I think he is. The light catches his jaw and I’m pretty sure.