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I thought of how he’d handled Mr. Eckhardt’s fury. He was firm, but also respectful and even-keeled. “I can see that. You’re very good at what you do.”

The compliment made him obviously uncomfortable, and he shifted away, losing himself to the garden again.

“What does this mean to you, Paige? Have you worked it out yet, or are you acting on instinct?”

I wasn’t sure if he was talking about the garden or our possible coupledom. I decided my answer would be the same. “If I say instinct, would you think less of it? Of me?”

“Of course not. Some of the best choices in my life I made not because I carefully thought through the potential outcomes but because I trusted my gut. It’s okay to do that when that small part of your brain that you trust implicitly tells you to go for it.” He turned to me, the intensity in his eyes telling me what was coming. He put one strong hand on my shoulder, gave me a moment to stop him, and when I didn’t, leaned over and touched his lips to mine.

He moved slowly, conscious of my shyness. Jesse’s kiss had been the kiss of long-term love, of familiarity, of confidence in the future, of a comfort born of many years together. Sean’s touch was unfamiliar and . . . different. The differences kept me from telling him to stop. The strangeness of it offset some of the guilt. But then I thought about what Trey would think, and potential disappointment if it didn’t work out, and the sheer terror if it did. I could lose someone again. I could be left alone. I could—

And then I heard Jesse’s voice in my head. He told me that it was okay to be new with someone and that growth was the natural by-product of change. He said I shouldn’t fight it or taint it with guilt or wish I’d been more like this new self with him, because it would discount the beauty of what we’d had. He said I should be open not only to life but also to love.

“Okay,” I whispered.

“What?” Sean said, a quizzical look on his face. “Did I say something?”

“No, I did. I wanted to know if you’d be interested in having dinner with me this week.”

The shy smile returned. “I was going to ask you. You beat me to it.”

“Is that a yes?”

“It is,” he said. “Unequivocally.”

“Good,” I said.

“Are you sure it is?”

“Yes,” I said. “Unequivocally.”

“Can I sit here for a while and watch your garden grow, Mary, Mary?”

“I’m not the least bit contrary.”

Sean laughed. “You might want to reevaluate that statement.”

He settled onto the cement porch, took my hand, and pulled me down next to him. “You know, I’m like those beneficial bugs Mykia was talking about at the party.”

“She’s obsessed,” I said, smiling at the memory of her talking animatedly about soldier bugs, lacewings, and beneficial nematodes.

“They might not look all that good, and you might mistake them for a pest, but they end up helping things along and keeping the bad stuff at bay. They move quickly and take care of the lesser business so the plants can take care of the big stuff.”

I squeezed his hand. “I’m grateful for them,” I said. “I really am.”

CHAPTER 24

“So are we just going to ambush her?” Byron sat at the conference table in the spot normally held by Lukas, who was out, supposedly at a lunch meeting, though we suspected he was yet again shopping for the perfect outfit for his upcoming audience with Petra Polly.

Rhiannon sighed. “This doesn’t make any sense. You all realize that, right? We’re going to embarrass ourselves.”

Lukas’s plan was very simple. Lukas, Byron, Rhiannon, and I would get in line at different points. When it was our turn to approach Petra, we’d give her an elevator pitch. Hopefully, by the time the last of us reached her, she’d be so charmed she’d be willing to stop by Gossamer Space for a full presentation. Jackie and Glynnis were to stay in the office and get things ready, a job both grumbled at, and both suspected was the lesser position.

“I don’t see why I can’t go,” Glynnis whined to me. “Why do you get to go?”

“Maybe he wants one old person there. The voice of authority.”

She shot me a dubious look. “You’re not that old. You know the real reason.”

The stress of possibly losing her job had made Glynnis a touch cynical. Cynicism was a natural by-product of being in a corporate atmosphere, but Glynnis wore it awkwardly, like an ill-fitting shirt.

“Will you talk to Lukas about letting me go to the bookshop?” she pleaded. “Maybe if you say something . . .”

She didn’t finish her sentence. Passive-aggressiveness was one of my pet peeves. “What would happen if I said something? When has Lukas listened to me? The only thing you can control is the job you have to do.” That gave me pause. Was that advice I wasn’t heeding myself? I wanted to control Trey and Lukas and even Mr. Eckhardt. Perhaps I had to let go of those feelings and focus only on what my brain and two hands could do.

“You know there’s more to it,” she said. “I’m learning that, so I suspect you’ve known it for a long time. Office politics. The balance of power.”

“Aren’t you being a little dramatic?”

Tears sprang to her eyes, and I immediately felt like a villain. We were all stressed and worried, but was there something else going on I didn’t know about? Was this about Byron and Rhiannon?

“Are you okay?” I asked gently. “Is something else bothering you?”

She glanced at Byron, who was punching something on his keyboard. “No,” she said dully. “I just don’t understand why there needs to be a competition. We all add something to this company, don’t we?”

“We do.”

“Even Seth did. He shouldn’t have been fired.” She fiddled with her phone. “I don’t like change, especially when it happens because of stupid reasons, because then the outcome is just as stupid.”

“That’s something I can understand.” Jesse’s death was stupid. “I don’t think many people ask for change on a regular basis,” I said. “But it happens. You have to learn to react to it. To take action.” The garden flashed through my head. Mykia. Sean. Was I finally breaking a pattern?

“I take action all the time,” Glynnis said, sadness in her voice. “It doesn’t matter if no one is paying attention. People pay attention to you, Paige. I could come up with the greatest ad in a hundred years, and no one would pay attention to me in the slightest. I wasn’t lucky enough to get . . . what is it? Charisma.”

“That’s not true,” I soothed. But . . . maybe she was right. I followed Byron’s lead, punching on my own keyboard, because this conversation was getting uncomfortable.

I’d always felt success was won by hard work—I lived my life by it. But what role did luck play? I didn’t like to think luck had much to do with it, because that would mean life was mostly random. To think of the major happenings in my life as flukes belittled them. To say Jesse was merely unlucky didn’t sit right with me. Why would the death of a healthy, larger-than-life forty-two-year-old father and husband result from a small, random occurrence? How would I get meaning from it if I bought into the notion that shit just happened, and I had to buck up and accept it? Maybe life just unfolded like those ash snakes on the Fourth of July—messy and moving in unpredictable directions, sometimes longer and sometimes snuffing out before things really got started. If that were so, where would I find meaning in something that was so fundamentally unfair?

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