I calmly level my eyes at Mr. Bexley, and he physically jolts. He quickly averts his eyes and begins to comb his fingers through his sparse hair, his face burnished red.
Man, I kick ass today.
Josh clenches his jaw and looks down at his glass desk so angrily I’m surprised it doesn’t shatter.
“From the little sneak peek I had in Helene’s office, I do think you’re well prepared. Doctor Josh, we may need to discuss strategy.”
Holy shit. He’s going to tell Joshua about my project. I swing my panicked stare to Josh, who looks at his boss like he is an absolute idiot.
And then he reminds me that no, he is not my friend, and no matter how much kissing we do on his couch, we’re still in the middle of our biggest competition.
“I’m not going to need any help beating her.”
He’s cold as ice and the tone gives me flashbacks. He says it like it is the most ridiculous thing he’s ever heard. Silly little Lucy Hutton, impossible to take seriously, and absolutely no match for Joshua Templeman in any arena. I’m a joke. I’m not getting the job, because why would I? I have to be coached through a phone call.
“Maybe not,” Mr. Bexley muses. Clearly pleased to have kicked over two beehives, he plods off. As he waits for the elevator, he looks back at us.
“But then again, Doctor Josh, you may want to rethink that.”
The elevator door closes as Josh’s silently mouthed Fuck you fragments around us. Then he looks at me.
“I was lying.”
The silence rings like crystal wineglasses touched together.
“Well, you’re quite a good actor. I sure believed it.” I pick up my bottle of water and sip, trying to ease the angry tightness in my throat. I’m actually grateful to him. This is what I’ve been missing. We’re two racehorses pounding toward the finish line. I’ve been flagging, but I’ve just felt the first lash of the whip. I need to hold on to this feeling until I walk out of the interview.
“I always have been. I was mad at him for looking at you like that and it came out wrong. I’ve got a bad habit of snapping. Look at me, Luce.”
When I do, he repeats himself slowly. “I did not mean it.”
“It’s all right. It’s what I needed.” I use the same flat, icy tone that he’d just used with Bexley. I have no idea how I can make my voice so cold when anger feels like a blowtorch in my chest. I’m a good actor too.
His forehead has his trademark crease of concern. “You needed that? Me being an asshole? It’s all you seem to get from me.”
“You’ve just given me what I needed to hear.”
Life is all about perspective, and if I choose to believe I’ve just received a boost to my motivation from my competitor, I can ignore my bruised pride. I am going to keep my focus forward. My focus is now a laser beam that he has given me.
My computer chimes. Five minutes until I have my meeting with Danny to discuss working on my ebook project.
“Wait. We need to clear this up. I can’t quite explain it yet, though.” His face twists in agitation. “The timing is all off. I didn’t mean it the way it sounded.”
“I’m going out.” I begin gathering my bag and coat.
“And where are you going? In case Helene asks me,” he amends. He looks miserable. “Are you coming back?”
“I’m meeting someone for coffee.”
“Well,” Josh says after a second. “I can’t stop you.”
“Thank you for allowing me to do my job.” After spitefully pushing his in-trays crooked I march to the elevator.
I walk to the Starbucks across the street. The thing about being in combat with Joshua Templeman? I never truly win. That’s what is so deceptive about it all. The moment I think I’ve won, something happens to remind me I haven’t.
Please, let me enjoy this moment. Joshua Templeman is officially my friend.
It’s nothing but win, then lose, lose, lose.
Danny’s already at a seat by the window. The fact I’m late is another nail in my professionalism’s coffin.
“Hi. Thanks for meeting me. Sorry I’m late.”
I order coffee and then briefly outline my idea.
“I’ve got time this weekend,” Danny offers nobly. He’s been looking at me with undisguised interest; my tied-up hair, my bare throat and the red of my mouth. I have a bad feeling he’s hoping our bad kiss was a blip.
“I’d be paying you out of my own pocket. Can you give me an idea of how much?”
Danny doesn’t look concerned. “Why don’t we make a deal. Credit my work in the interview and mention my new self-publishing software to Helene. There may be some cross-functionalities that could suit your project. And . . . three hundred bucks.”
“That’s fine, and of course I will,” I rush to assure him. This is something I can do. Give him a little exposure to the exec, and help build his business.
A couple of B&G people are queuing for coffee and look at us with speculative glances. Another walks past on the street and waves at me. I’m sitting in a big glass fishbowl. My cheeks start to burn when I think about everything I’ve said and done with Joshua on the top floor. The barbs, the insults, the circuit-frying kisses. In our own isolated little world, everything seemed so normal and acceptable.
“Thanks for thinking of me on this.” Danny sips his coffee.
“Well, after our dinner on Monday I knew I could trust you with my little secret. And like you said, I needed some help and you were the first person I thought of.”
“Oh, so it’s a secret?”
“Helene knows, of course. Mr. Bexley knows about the project concept but not the actual finished product I’m hoping to present.”
I wish I didn’t have to say this next part, and I’m sad at how messed up this situation has gotten.
“I need to ask you to please, don’t say anything to Josh. I know you won’t see him again, but let’s keep it between us. He’s so sure he’s getting the job. It’s more important than ever I beat him.”
“I won’t. But, actually, he’s over there.”
“What?” I nearly scream it. I can’t turn around. “Act businesslike.” I draw a diagram on my notepad and Danny draws some slashy lines on it.
“What is his deal? He always looks furious.” Danny shakes his head at my notepad and we do a bit more business-miming.
“That’s his face.”
“You guys have a weird dynamic going on.”
“There’s no dynamic. No dynamic.” I begin swigging at my coffee. It’s too hot and a terrible idea.
“But you know he’s in love with you, right?”
I inhale my huge mouthful and begin to drown on dry land. Danny leans over and thumps me between my shoulder blades. Tears are streaming down my face. I wish he’d let me die.
“He’s not,” I wheeze. I use a napkin to wipe my face. “That is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. Ever.”
“As your friend,” Danny articulates with a little smile, “I’m telling you he is.”
“What’s he doing?”
“Scaring the cashier shitless. People are concerned about how things will be if he gets the job. We know how good at cutting staff he is. A few guys in design are brushing up their CVs, in case.”
“I’m sure he’d be fine to work for.” I muster my diplomacy. I won’t stoop to Josh’s level. I stand up and gather my things.
“Let’s say hi to him,” Danny says and I’m pretty sure he’s messing with me. His mouth is lifted into a half smile.
“No, we’re going to climb out the bathroom window. Quick.”
He laughs and shakes his head. Once again, I’m impressed by his bravery. Everyone else tries to avoid the monster in their midst. But I do know a secret about Josh. I think of him last night, taking my pulse, counting each beat of my heart. Covering me with a blanket, tucking my feet in. It’s quite remarkable how he’s managed to maintain this frightening façade for so long.
“Hi,” we both say in unison as we approach.
“Well, hello,” Josh says archly.
“Quit stalking so much.” My tone is so aggrieved that the girl at the coffee machine laughs out loud.
Josh fixes his cuff. “Missed each other, did you?”
I am lasering the word SECRET into Danny’s brain. I raise my eyebrows and he nods. Josh watches this exchange.
“Lucy’s talking to me about an . . . opportunity to . . . work with her.” Danny is a genius. Nothing is more believable than the truth.
“That’s right. Danny’s helping me with my . . . presentation.” We couldn’t seem more shady if we tried.
“You’re working on your presentation. Right. Okay.” Josh takes his coffee when his name is called and gives such an accusing look my face nearly melts off. “And were we doing that too, Lucinda? Last night on my couch?”
Danny’s jaw hits the floor. I am not amused. If this got out, my reputation would be in shreds. It’s too juicy. Danny’s still in contact with too many people in design. And he’s also a sticky-nosed gossip hound.
“In your dreams, Templeman. Ignore him, Danny. Walk back with me.”
I tug Danny ahead so he doesn’t get tossed into oncoming traffic. Josh follows at a languid pace, sipping his coffee. I’m holding Danny’s arm so tightly he winces as I drag him across the road.
“Even if he kidnaps and tortures you, don’t tell him what you’re doing for me. He’ll use every bit of information he can to screw me.”
“Wow, you guys really are mortal enemies.”
“Yep, to the death. Pistols and swords at dawn.”
“So he’s doing this to try to find out your interview strategy?” Danny says hi to a colleague and checks his phone.
“Exactly!” I let out a nervous whinny. I think everything is covered up. “I’ll call you after work once I’ve worked out what book I want you to format for me.”
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