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“Unacceptable,” he said before I could apologize. “Completely unacceptable behavior.”

“Give them to me,” I said, thrusting my hands over the fence.

Without another word, he scooped them up and dumped them into my waiting arms. I tossed them onto my patio.

“You need to—”

I didn’t let him finish. I got into my car, dirty hands and all, and sped off to work.

The parking lot showed no sign of the farmers’ market, and without the stark white tents and colorful people, it looked a little dreary. Still, I could park within a few yards of the door. That was a plus.

9:08 a.m. The conference room door was shut, and I heard the low sound of one voice, female, and knew they’d already begun.

If Big Frank were alive, he’d have shoved a cup of coffee in my hands and made a crack about being glad I’d decided to show up.

If Jesse were alive, I wouldn’t have been late.

Since my first day at Giacomo, my work performance would have been rated exemplary, had Big Frank actually believed in annual reviews. Frank understood that I was both responsible and artistic, a combination he felt was rare. He’d tried to balance it out with the other employees (Jackie and Glynnis had practical, grounded souls, and Byron, Seth, and Rhiannon, while not the most reliable people, were idea factories). “But you’re the whole enchilada, kiddo,” Big Frank frequently told me, and I appreciated his appreciation. It took a great deal of work to give myself the freedom to create while helping Frank maintain an organized, well-run operation. I made every deadline he set for me. Until Jesse died.

I’d fallen apart like a sloppily sewn scarf, a thread here, a thread there, until the unraveling got to be so noticeable that Big Frank picked up a needle and did some repair work. “Pick a few things you don’t want to let slide, and let the rest sort itself out,” he said gently after one particularly rough day. “When someone leaves this world, everything else gets jostled because of the empty space. You’re gonna land in the wrong spot for a while. Sooner or later, you’ll find where you fit again.”

That kept me going, until it was Big Frank who left a hole, and I found myself surrounded by emptiness.

I slipped into the conference room as quietly as possible, but every head swiveled in my direction, disapproval etched on each face. Glynnis, standing in front of her ad, let whatever was tumbling from her mouth trail off into silence. Her cheeks flushed a concerning shade of crimson.

“Lateness isn’t merely a sign of disrespect,” Lukas began, his gaze never shifting from the front of the room, “it’s an affront to the creative process. Any interruption in the flow can have disastrous consequences. Petra addresses this in chapter 6.”

I took a seat quickly. “I’m very sorry. I had some plumbing issues at the house.”

“Glynnis,” he said, ignoring my apology. “Do you feel you can go on?”

The poor girl looked terrified. I felt horrible then, and had to give this one to Petra—it did suck to be interrupted. I smiled broadly at her. “Sorry, Glynnis. I’d really like to hear about your ad. It looks great.”

I wasn’t entirely sure it did—I’d forgotten my glasses—but the compliment seemed to work. Glynnis nodded and directed everyone’s attention back to the whiteboard behind her. She finished up, and after offering her some generic compliments, Lukas called Jackie to the front.

Jackie had dressed up, which for her meant her usual look dialed up a notch. Creased mom jeans. Frosted lipstick. I could see the curling iron marks in her hair. She wore a button-up shirt with a pink tank underneath. She looked fantastic. Like a suburban, middle-aged Lita Ford.

Up went Jackie’s ad. She’d used a stock photo, a cute, freckled kid about to stick his fingers into a jar of jam. In bold font at the bottom, it read: This is only going to get better.

“Nice job,” I mouthed to her.

The others sat silent, turning their heads and attention from the ad to Lukas. “What do we think?” he asked, and I could tell from the tilt of his head that he knew exactly what he thought.

“It’s cute,” I said loudly. “Appeals to both mothers and kids. I can see bits of fruit in the jam, which makes it seem natural and wholesome.”

Jackie flashed me a quick smile.

Rhiannon clucked her tongue, which I was fairly certain was the most annoying sound in the world. “I’m not so sure,” she said slowly, pretending to ponder my contribution. “Mothers and kids? Haven’t we all agreed using that demographic is dated and pointless? How many mothers still make their kids’ lunches? And anyway, they’re already buying jam—shouldn’t we be targeting the people who would normally pass it by?”

Lukas nodded sagely. “Go on.”

Rhiannon unwound her legs from their yogic position and straightened up. “Well, I hate to use the word ‘hip’ . . .”

Lukas laughed. “We all hate to use that word. You’re not alone.”

The others nodded so vigorously I worried for their cervical spines.

“I just think the whole point of this assignment was to focus on fresh. This doesn’t feel fresh. I’m not saying it’s bad, Jackie—”

“Oh, no,” Jackie said quickly. “Of course not. Because it isn’t.”

“Jackie,” Lukas warned.

Jackie’s voice wobbled when she said, “I’ve been doing this for thirty years.”

“That’s apparent,” Rhiannon said under her breath.

Lukas steepled his fingers, and I readied myself for a lecture. “We know you’re experienced, Jackie, but collaboration must be part of our process if we’re to succeed. This isn’t a critique session—it’s, as Petra calls it, a group exploration into the possible. Do you understand how that works?”

“Perfectly.” Jackie switched off her laptop and took her seat.

“Paige?”

“What?” I’d been so distracted by Jackie’s defeat that I hadn’t realized Lukas had recalibrated his laser beam stare for me.

“You have the next opportunity.”

“Opportunity for what?”

“You’re up,” he said tersely.

Working in advertising had taught me to think on my feet, but this required more than a quick joke or a tossed-off tagline. Lukas’s expression, a slightly predatory look of anticipation, clued me in on how important my success was, and I basically had nothing. An idea had occurred to me as I rushed through the kitchen, but it was so fuzzy and unfinished I knew it would look exactly like what it was—my very last resort.

I pulled the ziplock bag from my purse and walked to the front. Six heads tilted, and fingers began punching at laptops.

“Did you send it to everyone?” Rhiannon asked.

“Er, no. What I have is a visual presentation.”

Puzzled, she kept tapping at her keyboard. “What do you mean? Did you post something to YouTube?”

“No, I brought something with me.” During the endless walk to the front of the room, my brain was like a contestant on Supermarket Sweep, dashing around my skull and grabbing whatever it could. Trembling, I took the cardboard plate from the plastic bag and held it up to the whiteboard. The beetroot cake had left a circular mahogany stain, crumbs stuck to the center. Splashes of red wine dotted the space surrounding it, along with a dark smear of dirt.

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