“Hey.” I get a flatter version of How You Doing?
“Hello,” I respond stiffly and walk on tiny stilts to my desk.
What he says next astonishes me. “I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry, Lucy.”
I believe him. The memory of his raw expression as he stumbled away from me at the bar has made it near impossible to sleep for two nights in a row. Now is the moment. I could take us back to our normal status quo. I could snap at him; he’d snap back. But that’s not the person I want to be.
“I know you are.” We both nearly smile and we look at each other’s mouth, the ghost of the kiss jangling between us.
He’s not his immaculate self today. He’s a little rough around the edges, probably from a few bad nights’ sleep. His mustard shirt is the ugliest color I have ever seen. His tie is badly knotted, his jaw is shadowed with stubble. His hair is a mess and has a devil’s horn on one side. He’s practically a Gamin today. He looks divine and he’s looking at me with a memory in his eyes.
I want to run until my legs give out. I want to sweep everything off his desk with my arm. I can feel my clothes touching my bare skin. That’s how Joshua’s eyes make me feel when he looks at me.
“Let’s put our weapons down, okay?” He raises his hands to show he’s unarmed. His hands are big enough to encircle my ankles. I swallow.
To hide my awkwardness, I mime taking a gun out of my pocket and toss it aside. He reaches into an imaginary shoulder holster and takes out a gun, putting it on his planner. I unsheathe an invisible knife from my thigh.
“All of them.” I indicate under the desk. He reaches down to his ankle and pretends to take a handgun out of an ankle holster.
“That’s better.” I sink into my chair and close my eyes.
“You’re deeply weird, Shortcake.” His voice is not unkind. I force my eyes open and the Staring Game almost kills me. His eyes are the blue of a peacock’s chest. Everything is changing.
“Are you going to report me to HR?”
Something in my chest folds painfully. So that’s why he looks like shit. He’s had a hellish day yesterday, anticipating being marched out of the building by security upon my return. My empty desk would have been terrifying. He sat there, visualizing the moment he is locked in jail for being a molester of tiny women. I understand now. Stupid me.
“No. But can we please never mention . . . it . . . again?” It comes out of me a little hoarse. I’m letting him off the hook, instead of taunting him with the prospect. Another step toward being the person I’d like to be. Regardless, he frowns like he’s been deeply insulted.
“That’s what you want?”
I nod, but I’m such a little liar. All I want to do is kiss you until I fall asleep. I want to slide in between your sheets, and find out what goes on inside your head, and underneath your clothes. I want to make a fool of myself over you.
Mr. Bexley’s door is ajar so I speak as quietly as I can. “It’s freaking me out.”
He can see that it’s the truth. I’ve got desperate, crazy eyes. He nods and just like that: Control, A; Delete. The kiss never happened.
I pray for a diversion. A fire drill. Julie calling me to say she would never meet a deadline ever again. I’m not the only one praying for the floor to cave in.
“How was your . . . date?” His voice is faint, his knuckles white. Being nice to me is a lot of effort.
“Fine. We’ve got a lot in common.” I try in vain to wake my computer.
“You’re both extremely small.” He’s frowning at his own computer as if this is the worst conversation he’s ever been party to. Being friends with me does not come naturally.
“He didn’t even tease me about the strawberries. Danny is . . . nice. He’s my type.” It’s all I can think of to say.
“Nice is what you want, then.”
“It’s all anybody wants. My parents have been begging me for ages to find myself a nice guy.” I keep my voice light, but inside, a little bubble of hope is rising. We’re talking like friends.
“And did Mr. Nice Guy drive you home?”
I know what he’s asking me. “No. I got a cab. By myself.”
He breathes out heavily. He rubs his face in exhaustion, then looks at me through his fingers. “What shall we play now?”
“What about Normal Colleagues? Or the Friendship Game? I’ve been dying to try either of those.” I look up and hold my breath.
He sits up straight and glowers at me. “Both would be a waste of time, don’t you think?”
“Well, ouch.” If I say it sarcastically, he won’t know I’m serious. He opens his planner, pencil in hand, and begins making so many annotations that I blink and turn to my computer. I can’t care about his stupid planner anymore. His pencil, my spying experiment. It all ends right now. It’s all been a waste of time.
I tell myself to be glad.
TODAY IS A magnificent black T-shirt day. Write today in your diaries. Tell your grandchildren stories about it. I tear my eyes away, but they slide back moments later. Underneath that T-shirt is a body that could fog an elderly librarian’s glasses. I think my underwear is curling off me like burning paper.
It’s a week after the kiss that I never think about. Bexley & Gamin’s Alphabet Branch is being herded onto a bus like cattle.
“Waivers,” Joshua is saying over and over as people slap them into his hand. “Waivers to me. Cash to Lucinda. Hey, this isn’t signed. Sign it. Waivers.”
“Who’s Lucinda?” someone farther back in the line asks.
“Cash to Lucy. This ridiculously small person right here. Hair. Lipstick. Lucy.”
I know someone who is going to be riddled with paint shortly. The line surges forward and I’m nearly flattened against the bus.
“Hey, I didn’t tell you to trample her.”
Joshua whips them all back and rebalances me beside him like a bowling pin, the warmth of his hand searing through my sleeve. Julie then touches my other elbow and I nearly jump out of my skin.
“Sorry for missing the deadline the other day. I can’t wait to have a proper night’s sleep. I’m like a zombie.”
She hands me her twenty and her nails have French tips. I curl my slightly chipped nails into my palms.
“I was hoping for a favor,” she says, and over her shoulder I can see Joshua tense, ear tilted to our conversation like a satellite. Eavesdropping is unbecoming. I draw Julie away a little, my hand outstretched as people continue to slap twenties into it.
“Okay, what is it?” Already my stomach is sinking.
“My niece is sixteen, and she needs to do an internship. Her school counselor thinks it would help her to gain some perspective. She can’t skip classes and sleep all day, you know? Teenagers have no idea of the concept of work.”
“You could talk to Jeanette, she could arrange something.” I take someone else’s cash. “They always want to work with the design team.”
“No, I want her to do an internship with you.”
“Me? Why?” I’m seized with the urge to run away.
“You’re the only person here who’d be patient enough with her. She’s a little bit opinionated.”
This is a world first, but I wish Joshua would interrupt. Something happen. Please. I am beaming messages his satellite ear is not receiving. Joshua, Mayday, Mayday, I will do anything for you if you interrupt.
“She’s got a lot of issues. Drugs, and a few other things. Please, would you do it? It’d mean a lot to her mother, and it might get her back on track.”
“Well. Can I think on it?” I avert my eyes from Joshua who has abandoned eavesdropping and has now turned to face us, hand on hip.
“I need to know now. She’s meeting with her school counselor in half an hour. She’s meant to have something lined up.” Julie looks at me, her mouth curled in an expectant smile.
“How long would it be for? Like, a day?”
Julie takes a step closer, squeezing my arm painfully in her beautiful hand.
“It’d be for two weeks during the next school break. You’re such a sweetheart. Thank you, I’ll text her now. She won’t be happy but you’ll bring her around.”
“Wait,” I begin, but she’s already climbing onto the bus.
“Well, that went well. You know what I would have told her?” Joshua says.
I stick a hand into my hair. My scalp feels hot and prickly. “Shut up.”
“I’d have said one little word. It’s simple, you should try it sometime. Say it with me. No.”
“Hey,” Danny says with a smile as he joins the queue.
“No. Hi.” I do my cutest grin. I hope he’s wearing sunscreen on his pretty silver-blond skin. “You made it. I guess paintballing is a good way to celebrate your last day.”
“Yeah, it’ll be fun. Mitchell said I didn’t have to come, but I wanted to. The team took me out for a farewell lunch too.”
I know most of this; we’ve been emailing all week, and I helped him carry some boxes to his car. The little envelope icon on my toolbar has been giving me little twinges of excitement. I’ve been hot and restless all morning. Light-headed. I definitely have a crush.
“Waiver,” Joshua interjects. Danny hands him the paper, not taking his eyes from me.
“I love your hair today,” Danny tells me and I duck my head, flattered. It’s the correct thing to say to me. I’m ridiculously vain about my hair. My conditioner is probably worth more per ounce than cocaine.
“Thanks, it’s gone a little crazy. I think it’s a bit humid.”
“Well, I like it a little crazy.” Danny touches the haywire curls resting on my upper arm. We make eye contact and start laughing.
“I’ll bet you do, sleazebag.” I shake my head.
“Give her the money, then get on the bus,” Joshua says slowly, like Danny is very simple indeed. They exchange an unfriendly look. I take his twenty and give him a Flamethrower smile in return.
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