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From col arbone to scalp, the burn of infuriation ignited my face in what I was sure was a beautiful shade of tomato red. My outstretched arm, with a rigid, pointed finger at the end, silently warned Grant to leave.

“Back away slowly, Mr. Bristol. No sudden movements,” Beth said.

Grant nodded, stepping backward until he was out of sight.

Beth placed a smal bag on my desk. “Foundation, blush, mascara and gloss. Get it on. I’ll meet you downstairs in fifteen.”

She closed the door softly behind her, and I took a deep breath. Just get through the day, I thought.

My cel phone rang once. “Not now, Jared,” I said aloud, knowing he could hear. The second ring cut short. “Thank you,” I whispered. I opened the compact from Beth’s bag, and looked at myself in the mirror. “Holy Banshee, Nina! Get yourself together!” I said to myself.

Sasha stood next to the coffeemaker in the meeting room. “Miss Grey,” she said handing me a fresh, steaming mug.

“Thanks,” I said, frowning with confusion at her polar disposition. Wondering what she was up to was not on my agenda for the morning, not to mention I didn’t have the time or patience for it. That wouldn’t stop me from finding out, however.

The meeting went smoothly, and then I returned to my office, opening the door long enough for Beth to fol ow me through. I turned to see Grant and Sasha just behind her, but I shut the door. “Not now,” I said flatly.

“Okay, Nina. Total y unprofessional,” Sasha said, half laughing, half surprised.

Beth watched the door for a moment in shock, and then turned to me. “What the heck’s going on with you?” she asked. “And what’s that smell ? Have you been…camping?” she said, sniffing once.

I puffed, blowing my bangs from my face. “No. The loft is gone. Burned to the ground.”

“What?” Beth yelped.

“Keep it down. I don’t need a bunch of sympathetic wel wishers in and out of my office al day. Do me a favor?”

“Sure, Honey, anything.”

I pul ed a black credit card from my purse and handed it to her. “Go shopping for me. I need work clothes mainly, and undergarments, and a new briefcase. Makeup. You know what I use. And,” I looked down, “I want a pair of those,” I said, nodding to her pink satin pumps. Even in my foul mood, I couldn’t stop admiring the black lace col ar and bow at the toe.

Beth smiled. “Yes Ma’am. You need a place to stay?”

“I’m back at home.”

“Yikes,” Beth said, her mouth pul ing to one side.

“Tel me about it. And, Beth? If you can find anything to get the smoke out of my hair…get it. I don’t care how much it costs.”

“Lemon juice,” she said. “Then wash it out with shampoo. That’s what I do after I visit my Uncle.”

I nodded. “Thanks.”

Beth shut the door, and then I heard a scuffle.

“I said no!” Beth said, stumbling back against the door.

Sasha pushed her way through, and then smiled, smoothing her blazer and hair. “Nina. I need to talk to you.”

Beth stared at Sasha as if she’d gone insane.

“Nina,” Sasha said with a smile, breathing hard from her scuffle with Beth. “It wil just take a minute.”

“It’s okay, Beth,” I said, motioning for Sasha to sit.

Beth narrowed her eyes. “Maybe for you, but if I wasn’t at work I would have kicked her bony little ass,” she said through her teeth, slamming the door.

“Wel ,” Sasha said, settling in the seat. “So much for southerners having manners.

“Keep in mind Beth holds grudges,” I said, thumbing through papers on my desk.

“What do you mean? She’s... southern.” She said the word with disdain. I could see in her eyes that at least five generations of Eastern audacity had blinded her to how tacky she sounded.

I looked up. “Yes, wel …they’re polite. That doesn’t mean you can’t make an enemy out of them.”

“Oh,” Sasha said, looking back to the door nervously. “I…er…Grant wanted me to ask you about the Christmas party.”

I raised an eyebrow. “I have faxes coming out of my ears, and you’re shoving your way into my office to talk about finger foods? Don’t waste my time.”

“No, no….” she fidgeted. “I wanted your permission to chair it this year. I was hoping we could make it into more of a bal .”

“A bal ,” I deadpanned.

Sasha smiled widely. “Yes.”

I waved her away. “Check with Jessica on the second floor about the budget. Stay within parameters, and personal y, Sasha, I couldn’t care less.”

Sasha’s strained smile barely lasted until she reached the hal .

The rest of the day passed without event, or maybe it was because no one dared to approach with me with anything less urgent than my office being on fire. The consequential spunk the insufficient sleep had graced me with was working. I hadn’t enjoyed Titan that much since I moved into Jack’s office.

By the time five o'clock rol ed around, I trudged to the elevator and welcomed Jared’s arm when he offered it. The sluggish, heavy feeling over my body was familiar. I was reverting back to my former zombie days.

“No, you’re getting sleep tonight. Bex wil be there at seven.”

I wondered if I’d said anything aloud, but didn’t have enough energy to ask. Just sitting in the passenger seat, watching trees and pedestrians move past my window was exhausting. If I was coherent, I would feel ridiculous for the permanent shocked expression on my face as I tried to keep both upper lids away from the lowers by pushing my eyebrows as high as they would go—but I wasn’t.

Jared wrapped his arm around my waist, leading me into the house. When the old, heavy door closed behind us, Jared stopped.

“Nina,” Cynthia call ed, appearing from the hal way. “You have a guest waiting for you in the Great Room.”

I puffed.

“Let me take your things, Love,” Agatha said, pul ing my make-shift brief case from my hand.

“Thank you,” I mumbled. I walked down the main hal , into the Great Room, blinking to focus once I recognized that it was Kim sitting alone on our large, green sofa. She sat on the edge of her seat; her hands bal ed tightly together atop her knees. I sat across from her in my mother’s favorite Italian occasional chair.