I can’t get my seat belt on properly. I’m so wired it’s like I’m having drug withdrawals. He taps my window to make me lock the door.
I’m halfway home when a scary thought crystallizes.
I can’t wait for work tomorrow.
TODAY HIS SHIRT is the color of a saucer of cream.
Act natural, Lucy. Walk in there like sex on legs. No awkwardness. Go.
He looks at me, my ankle wobbles, and I drop my handbag. The lid of my lunchbox pops off and a tomato rolls across the floor. I drop to my hands and knees and my stiletto heel gets caught on the dangling buckle belt of my coat.
“Crap.” I try to crawl.
“Smooth.” Josh gets up and walks to me.
He unhooks my coat and gathers up my lunch, before holding a hand down to me. I hesitate minutely before I take it, letting him haul me up.
“Can I rewind my entrance?”
He pulls the coat from my shoulders and hangs it up for me.
Mr. Bexley’s door is open and the lights are on. Helene’s a late starter. She’s probably still in bed.
“How was your evening, Lucinda? You look tired.”
My stomach sinks in dismay at his impersonal tone until I look at his face and realize his eyes are lit with mischief. If Mr. Bexley is eavesdropping, he’ll hear nothing out of the ordinary.
This is a dangerous new game, the Act Natural Game, but I’ll give it a try. “Oh, it was nice enough, I guess.”
“Nice. Hmm. Get up to anything interesting?” He’s got the pencil in his hand.
“I sat on the couch.”
He shifts in his chair and I look at his lap.
“Serial killer eyes,” I mouth at him. I sit on the edge of my desk, take out my tube of Flamethrower and begin to apply, using the wall nearest me as a mirror. He looks at my legs with such naked lust I nearly smudge it. “And what did you get up to, Josh?”
“I had a date. At least, I think it was.”
“What’s she like?”
“Clingy. She really threw herself at me.”
I laugh. “Clingy is not an attractive trait. I hope you kicked her out.”
“I guess I sort of did.”
“That’ll learn her.” I begin to gather my hair into a high bun before smoothing down my dress. It’s a fine cream wool knit, stretchy and warm, and I admit I wore it to match his shirt. He likes prissy librarian Lucy? He’s got it today.
He watches my hands. I watch his. They’re white-knuckled.
“Not sure if I’ll see her again, though.” He sounds bored, and he’s clicking his mouse on his computer. When his eyes cut sideways to mine, I flash to last night and my insides clench.
“Maybe take her to your brother’s wedding? Always gratifying to walk into one of those situations with a hot date.”
We both look at each other, and I ease myself slowly into my chair. The Staring Game has never felt so dirty. The phone rings. I look at the caller ID and the word FUCK lights up in neon in my brain.
Josh takes one look at my face. “If it’s him, I’m going to—”
“A bit early for her, isn’t it? You’re going to have to be firm with her.” The phone continues ringing, and ringing.
“I’ll let it go to voice mail. I’m too tired to deal with this now.”
“You will not.” He dials star-nine and answers my extension. They teach call center operators to smile when they answer a call. People can hear a smile in your voice. Joshua needs to learn this.
“Lucinda Hutton’s phone. Joshua speaking. Hold.” He hits a button, and points at me with his receiver. “Do it. I’m watching you.”
We both watch the hold light flashing.
I’m still that smiling girl in the strawberry patch. Look at me, I’m a good girl. I’m the sweet little thing, adored by everyone. Nothing is too much trouble.
“I want to see you be as strong with other people as you are with me.”
I press the flashing button. “Hi, Julie, how are you?” My ear nearly burns from her deep sigh.
“Hi, Lucy. I’m not well. I’m incredibly tired. I don’t even know why I came in. I’ve just sat down, and already the screen is killing me.”
“Sorry to hear that.”
I lock eyes with Josh. He intensifies his eyes into narrowed scary blue lasers. He’s imbuing me with his powers. I am NOT going to care what excuses or requests she’s going to make. “What can I do for you today, Julie?” Professional, but a hint of warmth in my tone.
“I’m supposed to be working on this thing for Alan, which he’s going to polish up and send up to you.”
“Oh, yes. I need it by close of business.”
Josh gives me a sarcastic thumbs-up.
“Well, I’m having a bit of trouble finding some of the old reports in the network drive. It keeps saying shortcut moved. Anyway, I’ve tried a bunch of things and I think I need to step away, you know?”
“As long as I get it by five, it’s fine.” Josh looks at the ceiling and shrugs. I thought I was being firm there, but he’s unimpressed.
“I was hoping to go home and get it done first thing tomorrow, when I’m fresher.”
“Didn’t you just get here?” Am I going crazy? I recheck the clock.
“I came in quickly to check my email.” Her tone is that of an absolute trooper.
“Alan said it would be okay if I cleared it with you first.” She’s jingling her car keys in the background.
I steel myself with blue-laser strength. “I’m sorry, that’s not going to work for me. I need it by five, please.”
“I’m aware of the deadline,” she counters, voice sharpening by one degree. “I’m trying to let you know Alan is not going to have it to you on time.”
“But it’s really you who needs the extension, not Alan.” There is a long pause while I wait for her to speak.
“I thought you’d be a bit more flexible on this.” Her tone is slipping further into an impressive combination of petulance and ice. “I am unwell.”
“If you do need to go home,” I begin as I watch Joshua’s brow transform into a scowl, “you’ll need to take today as sick leave, and bring a doctor’s note.”
“I’m not going to the doctor for tiredness and a headache. He’ll tell me to sleep. That’s what I want to go and do.”
“I’m sympathetic if you’re feeling unwell, but that’s the HR policy.” Josh smoothes his hand over his mouth to hide his grin. I’m playing the HR Game with Julie.
“Sympathetic? I wouldn’t call this sympathetic at all.”
“I’ve been fair with you, Julie. I’ve given you extensions a lot of times. But I can’t keep staying late to finish these reports.”
Josh circles his hand in the air. I keep going. “If it’s late, I end up having to stay back.”
“You don’t have any family here, or a boyfriend, do you? Late nights don’t affect you like they do for people with husbands and . . . well, people with families.”
“Well, I’m not going to get myself a husband or a life if I keep staying until nine o’clock at night, now am I? I’ll expect the report from Alan at five.”
“You’ve spent too much time in the company of that horrible Joshua.”
“Apparently so. Also, I can’t do the internship for your niece, it’s not convenient for me.” I terminate the call.
Joshua lies back in his chair and starts laughing. “Well, shit.”
“I was amazing, wasn’t I. Did you see me?” I punch the air and mime giving Julie an uppercut. Josh rests his folded hands on his stomach and watches me shadowbox my reflection.
“Take that, Julie, and your life and husband and your phony sleep disorder.”
“Let it all out.”
“Take that, Julie, and your me-graines.”
“You really were amazing.”
“Take that, Julie, and your French manicure.”
“Okay.” He’s smiling at me, openly, in this exact office that was once a battlefield, and I flop back down into my chair and close my eyes and feel the glow of his pleasure from across the marble superhighway. So this is what it feels like. This is what it could have been like, all this time. It wasn’t too late.
“No more late nights for me. I’ve probably totally destroyed my relationship with her, but it was so worth it.”
“You’ll have a life and a husband in no time.”
“No time at all. Probably by next week. I hope he’s super nice.” I open my eyes and the way he looks at me makes me wish I hadn’t said it. We both hesitate, and his eyes flick sideways. I’ve interrupted our flow.
“Please, let me enjoy this moment. Joshua Templeman is officially my friend.” I link my fingers and stretch my arms over my head.
“I’m going for my breakfast meeting. Josh, I need those figures by lunch,” Mr. Bexley says, walking in between us. I think we all know this breakfast meeting is with a plate of bacon.
“They’re already done; I’ll email them through now.”
Mr. Bexley harrumphs, I suppose his best attempt at thanks or praise, and then turns to me.
“Good morning, Lucy. Nice dress you’ve got on there.”
“Got your nails sharpened, do you then? Interviews coming soon. Ticktock.” He ambles to the edge of my desk and peruses me from the neck down. I resist the urge to cross my arms over myself. I don’t know how Mr. Bexley hasn’t noticed Josh’s murderous glare refracted dozens of times. He continues his usual gimlet-eyed assessment of my appearance.
“Don’t,” Josh says to his boss, voice metallic.
“I’m pretty well prepared for the interview.” I look down at my front. “Mr. Bexley, what are you looking at?”
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