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It definitely wasn’t Big Frank’s.

Jackie and I decided to meet at the farmers’ market for coffee before one of us possibly lost her livelihood. We grabbed two cups of the best coffee we’d ever tasted and waved at Mykia as she attended to some early customers.

“Seth and I simply could not work together,” Jackie explained as she sipped her coffee. “All of his ideas centered around sex. Or something sexist. Or both.”

“Well, two of us are going to get the boot. I’m worried for Glynnis. And for myself.”

“I’d like to say I’m worried for all of us, but I’m not,” Jackie admitted. “I don’t want to go, and I don’t want you to go either.”

“Lukas was toughest on mine. It’ll be me and Glynnis.” I pushed the unkind thoughts from my mind. The ones that said I wished it would be Rhiannon and Byron, because they were young and would bounce back a lot quicker than I would. I tried to bury my fear down even deeper—what would I do? How would I continue paying the mortgage? How could I help Trey pay for college? But it kept bobbing to the surface, leaving an oil-spill residue of anxiety.

Nervous, Jackie and I both checked the time on our phones. “Let’s get it over with,” she said.

We climbed the stairs to Guh, our footsteps heavy with foreboding. I’d worked for Giacomo for seventeen years. Nearly Trey’s entire life. Would getting the boot ruin me? I thought of the garden, of Lukas’s insincere promise that opportunities would abound. Maybe I’d make my own opportunities. Maybe . . .

When we stepped in the office, Byron, Rhiannon, and Glynnis were already at their workstations, saucer eyed. They pointed to the chair where Seth usually sat. An opened envelope, torn in half, rested on the keyboard.

“He’s gone,” Glynnis said, pink cheeked, likely embarrassed by the relief in her voice. “But he didn’t go out the back door.”

“Good for him,” I said, but then my comment trailed off as I saw the pristine white envelope wedged into Jackie’s keyboard. With Seth gone, it didn’t take much to imagine what hers said. My mouth opened. “Oh, honey . . .”

She ran to her desk and snatched the envelope, clutching it to her heart instead of opening it. “No,” she said. “No way. I’m not leaving.”

“I’m sorry, Jackie,” Rhiannon said. She stood up and awkwardly attempted to offer a hug. “I really, really am.”

Jackie shook her off. She pushed her shoulders back and lifted her chin. “I said no. I don’t accept this.”

“I don’t know if you have a choice,” Glynnis said. “I’m so sorry.”

Jackie glanced at Lukas’s closed office door. “Hell if I don’t have a choice.”

She marched over to his office, and in a rare show of office solidarity, we all followed her. Jackie didn’t hesitate before knocking.

“I’m busy at the moment,” Lukas called out. Was that a Madonna-esque fake British accent I’d heard?

Jackie busted into his office anyway. We were at her heels. Adrenaline pulsed through my body with such force I felt light-headed. Jackie, red faced and determined, was nearly vibrating with energy. You can move mountains, I thought. Start pushing.

Jackie tossed the envelope on Lukas’s desk. “Big Frank would never have done this. Never.”

I winced. Don’t lead with that!

Lukas stood. “In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not Big Frank. We all agreed to this, Jackie.”

“I didn’t agree to anything.”

Lukas slowly picked up the envelope and held it out to Jackie. “If you’d opened this,” he said, “you’d have found a very generous severance check. I didn’t have to do that, but I’m thankful for the years of service to Guh—”

“Giacomo!” Jackie screeched. “It’s Giacomo. Always has been. It’s your name and birthright, but I’ve given my adult life to this company. I believe in it, I believed in your dad, and I even believed in you! Don’t do this.” She paused to collect herself. “Please, Lukas.”

Indecision flickered over his Big Frank–like features. Lukas took us in, standing behind Jackie. I had put one hand on her shoulder, and Rhiannon had done the same on the other. We were a force to be reckoned with. A beleaguered but energized foe.

Lukas took a deep breath. “I don’t believe Petra would approve.”

“Petra says we should embrace failure,” Byron piped in. “Wouldn’t keeping Jackie on best illustrate that principle?”

Byron’s smooth baritone delivery made Lukas take notice. Glynnis practically swooned. “He’s right,” she said in a whisper.

Lukas pondered this for one excruciating moment. “I suppose re-adding Jackie to the mix would make the next contest all the more of a challenge. Petra does discuss the nature of competition more comprehensively in chapter 5.” He held up the white envelope. “Upping competition should add an element of risk. You are welcomed warmly back to Guh, Jackie. However, if you lose the next contest, there will be no severance. Do you accept that term?”

I could feel Jackie trembling beneath my hand. I wanted to squeeze her shoulder, but would she take that as encouragement to accept Lukas’s offer? I wasn’t sure what she should do. How much risk was too much?

“I accept,” she said.

Lukas nodded. “That goes for everyone. There will be no severance for whoever loses the next challenge. I’ll have our lawyer draw up a legal document. I’ll expect you all to sign it.”

That was our cue to leave. We filed out, subdued with worry.

“Paige,” Jackie murmured in my ear. “Will you go with me to the bathroom? I think I might be sick.”

CHAPTER 16

“You’ve got aphids,” Mykia said while peering at one of my tomato plants. “No biggie.”

I breathed an enormous sigh of relief. “So they’re not doomed?”

“Nope. I’ve got a spray. Made from chrysanthemum flowers. It’ll do the trick. Let me go dig around in the truck. It might be buried, but it’ll be there.” Mykia had parked on my driveway, prompting a Mr. Eckhardt sighting. He watched us with an eagle’s pointed glare, but we ignored him.

Before Mykia arrived, I’d spent the morning fretting about the health of my tomatoes. Trey had slept over at Colin’s, so as soon as the sun rose I’d brought my superstrength coffee outside and lay on the ground, watching the families of puffy green bugs congregate on the stems of my beloved plants. I had briefly flirted with the idea of tossing the hot coffee on them, then decided I was not only stupid but also possibly sociopathic, and texted Mykia instead.

The garden was again morphing into something different. The flimsy young plants had taken root for the most part, and they were careening through adolescence like teens on a bender, their leaves seeking independence by growing into places I hadn’t predicted. Plants did not merely grow tall; they grew wide, curious about their surroundings, eager to seek nourishment from anywhere they could get it. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes I had to prune them back or watch a branch snap and wilt. My garden was a patchwork of failures and successes. I loved it.

But when it was threatened?

Anger. The fury I felt at Jesse’s death, Lukas’s antics, and the mere fact that my well-planned-for future could no longer happen heightened my need to protect the few things I did care about. I wanted to scream and rage and storm. I wanted to squish those bugs into oblivion.

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