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I picked up a rocket-shaped tube of lipstick. A bold shade of pink called “One Large Step for Womankind.” Miss Trinka knew what she was doing. I hoped Lukas did.

“Who’ll be the lead?” I asked. Lukas couldn’t pull his democratic office bullshit when a client such as this was at stake. We needed to focus, bring our A game, as Big Frank would say.

“There should be a lead,” Jackie said, nodding in my direction. “Frank would have chosen one.” As the words left her mouth, she realized she’d overstepped. “It just seems like a good idea,” she muttered.

“Let’s sit down,” Lukas said, and my stomach sank to my knees. Lukas had a plan. The set of his brow, the way his lip curled in when he was deep in thought, the slow push of his forefinger against the glossiness of the conference table, leaving a mark—he was about to get into why we were really in this room.

“Quite simply, the work we present to Landon needs to be exemplary in every way. There needs to be no question that not only are we the best, we offer something so new, so fresh, the other agencies seem stodgy and dated in comparison.”

His tone implied that we were somehow lacking. I felt like one of us should say something to defend ourselves. “We can do it,” I said, and Glynnis nodded. “Whatever it takes.”

“Ah, but we’ve never been challenged like this,” Lukas said, offering a smile I took as condescending. “When I left Miss Trinka’s office, I told myself we’d need to approach this in an unusual way. She’s absolutely unique and deserves a campaign worthy of her originality.”

We were all nodding now, though by habit. What was he getting at?

Lukas stood, placed his hands on the table, and leaned in. “By the time you leave this room, the outer office will be reconfigured.”

“Again?” Jackie said.

“Temporarily,” Lukas responded. “The computers will be set in pairs, and so will you. Each duo will have two weeks to design a campaign for Landon. At the close of the competition, Miss Trinka and I will judge the winner. It’s a bit unorthodox, but I’ve discussed it with her, and she’s thrilled.”

“Doesn’t it make us look indecisive?” Rhiannon blurted.

“Not in the new, new creative workplace,” Lukas intoned, quoting the ever-present Petra. “To Miss Trinka, it appears that we’ve devoted our entire staff to her company. She’ll have one stellar campaign to run with and a backup if she changes her mind.”

“But there’s a third,” Byron said. “If we’re going to be divided in twos.”

“Which also works for us. The third-place duo will be terminated.” Lukas had the decency to look faintly apologetic. “As you recall, competition should be—”

“Friendly and fierce,” Glynnis said miserably.

“Exactly,” Lukas said.

“You said we had until the end of the summer,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady. “I don’t think that’s fair.”

“I’m taking advantage of an opportunity,” Lukas responded. “I think this is a very fair way to handle the dismissals. It’s merit based. I don’t think you can argue with that.”

I could, but I wouldn’t. I stayed silent.

Lukas shifted his attention to Byron. “Rhiannon and Byron, you’ll be working as a team.”

The undercurrent to his words was, you’re the A team. Byron winked at Rhiannon. Seth, Jackie, Glynnis, and I all shifted in our seats, wondering where we should place our allegiance.

“Seth and Jackie, you’ll be working together,” Lukas continued. “And, Glynnis, you’ll be with Paige.”

Seth stared blankly at Jackie, who’d unconsciously gathered the cosmetics to her chest during Lukas’s speech. “Oh,” she said, looking down and pushing them away. “Sorry.”

Glynnis moved her chair closer to mine. “We’re being set up,” she whispered, so faintly I almost didn’t hear her. “We’re the most likely candidates for termination.”

I swallowed, acknowledging silently that she was right. Still, it wasn’t going to stop me from fighting. “Doesn’t mean we can’t win.” I tossed the lipstick into the air, launching the rocket. Lukas had hung the brass ring. I’d need both hands to grasp it.

Lukas demanded that we spend our lunch hour aligning forces with the other half of our duo. None of us could focus. We stayed inside, and I squirmed as grayish clouds hung heavier and heavier, the promise of rain was one that would be kept. We barely ate, and talked in low, protective voices. Glynnis was carefully mapping out a division of duties in her notebook, and I glanced around the room. There should have been a villain, someone to secretly hope would get the boot, but my mind wouldn’t easily go there. Byron could be smug, Rhiannon obnoxious, Seth pervy, Glynnis too wallflowery, Jackie too behind the times. And me? I was distracted and not working to full capacity. But we were all decent people. And I knew without a doubt that, for various reasons, we all needed this job. Was one person’s reason better than another’s? Probably. But in the end, what mattered was what we would create. Surprisingly, the plan of action suddenly made sense to me. Lukas was creating a merit-based office world. I couldn’t fault him for it. Heck, I thought Frank might be frowning at the methodology but approving of the outcome. Instead of being coddled, we were being pushed to be our best. Lukas was right—it was hard to argue with that.

“How do we decide which concept to use, mine or yours?” Glynnis’s voice brought me back from my musings.

“We can’t let our egos get in the way. You come up with something, and I’ll do the same.”

“But who decides?”

The idea that there wasn’t some arbiter, some authoritative decision maker, pained Glynnis. I realized that it would have bothered me a few years ago, too, so I tried not to give her a hard time. “We decide,” I said. “Together.”

She nodded, though I sensed she didn’t believe it would work.

“Can we work at your house?” she asked. “I still live with my parents, and they’ll want to involve themselves somehow.”

I thought about how I worried about helicoptering Trey and smiled. “That’s fine.”

“And maybe I could help with the garden?” she asked, the question lined with hope and vulnerability.

“Of course. I need all the help I can get.”

“No, you don’t,” she said. “But it’s nice of you to say.”

I grabbed her hand. “Hey. Listen to me. When someone wants your input, they aren’t being nice, they’re hoping to gain something from it. You understand that, right?”

Glynnis sighed. “I guess.”

“No guessing. It’s true.”

“Whatever,” she said. “Can we get started? So should we each try to come up with something or try to do this together?”

“If we each present something, then we have two ideas to work from.”

“You can go first,” Glynnis said quickly. “I’m okay with being second. Really, I am.”

I started to tell her that wasn’t an asset, but then I shut my mouth. Some things needed to be experienced to be learned. “Thank you,” was the only response I could come up with.