I’m itching to get back to my desk. I need to update my CV. “Do you mind if I work on my application during my lunch breaks?”

“Darling, I don’t care if you work on it all day until it’s due. Lucy Hutton, chief operating officer, Bexley and Gamin. It sounds good, doesn’t it.”

A grin spreads across my face.

“It’s yours. I feel it.” Helene makes a motion of zipping her lip. “Now go. Get it.”

I sit at my desk and unlock my computer to open my woefully outdated CV. I’m lit up inside by this new opportunity. Everything about today has changed. Well, almost everything.

I notice a shape standing over me after I’ve been editing for several minutes. I breathe in. Spicy cedar. His belt buckle winks at me. I do not break my keystrokes.

“The job is mine, Shortcake,” Joshua’s voice says.

To stop myself from standing up and punching him in the gut I’m counting one, two, three, four . . .

“Funny, that’s what Helene just told me.” I watch his backside walk away in the glossed surface of my desk, and vow that Joshua Templeman is going to lose the most important game we’ve ever played.

Chapter 4

Off-white stripes today, and I’ve got a big red cross in my planner for Friday. I would bet a hundred dollars there’s an identical red cross in Joshua’s. Our job applications are due.

I’m half-insane from rereading my application. I’ve become so obsessed with my presentation I’ve started dreaming about it. I need a break. I lock my screen and watch with interest as Joshua does the same. We are aligned like chess players. We fold our hands. I still haven’t seen his pencil in motion.

“How You Doing, Little Lucy?” His bright tone and mild expression indicates we’re playing a game we almost never play. It’s a game called How You Doing? and it basically starts off like we don’t hate each other. We act like normal colleagues who don’t want to swirl their hands in each other’s blood. It’s disturbing.

“Great, thanks, Big Josh. How You Doing?”

“Super. Gonna go get coffee. Can I get you some tea?” He has his heavy black mug in his hand. I hate his mug.

I look down; my hand is already holding my red polka-dot mug. He’d spit in anything he made me. Does he think I’m crazy? “I think I’ll join you.”

We march purposefully toward the kitchen with identical footfalls, left, right, left, right, like prosecutors walking toward the camera in the opening credits of Law & Order. It requires me to almost double my stride. Colleagues break off conversations and look at us with speculative expressions. Joshua and I look at each other and bare our teeth. Time to act civil. Like executives.

“Ah-ha-ha,” we say to each other genially at some pretend joke. “Ah-ha-ha.”

We sweep around a corner. Annabelle turns from the photocopier and almost drops her papers. “What’s happening?”

Joshua and I nod at her and continue striding, unified in our endless game of one-upmanship. My short striped dress flaps from the g-force.

“Mommy and Daddy love you very much, kids,” Joshua says quietly so only I can hear him. To the casual onlooker he is politely chatting. A few meerkat heads have popped up over cubicle walls. It seems we’re the stuff of legend. “Sometimes we get excited and argue. But don’t be scared. Even when we’re arguing, it’s not your fault.”

“It’s just grown-up stuff,” I softly explain to the apprehensive faces we pass. “Sometimes Daddy sleeps on the couch, but it’s okay. We still love you.”

In the kitchen I am hanging my tea bag into my mug when the urge to laugh almost knocks me over like an ocean wave. I hold on to the edge of the counter and soundlessly shake.

Joshua ignores me as he moves around preparing his coffee. I look up to see his hands opening the cupboard miles above my head, and I feel the heat of his body inches from my back. It’s like sunshine. I’d forgotten that other people are warm. I can smell his skin. The urge to laugh fades.

I haven’t had any human contact since my hairdresser, Angela, gave me a head massage, probably eight weeks ago. Now I’m imagining leaning back against him and letting my muscles go slack. What would he do if I fainted? He’d probably let me crumble onto the floor, then nudge me with his toe.

Another freeze-frame snaps through my brain. Joshua grabbing me, stopping me falling. His hands on my waist, fingertips digging in.

“You’re so funny,” I say when I realize I’ve been silent for a bit. “So very funny.” I swallow audibly.

“So are you.” He goes to the fridge.

Jeanette from HR materializes in the doorway like a dumpy frazzled ghost. She’s a nice lady, but she’s also sick of our shit.

“What’s going on?” She has her hands on her hips. At least, I think she does. She’s shaped like a triangle underneath the jingling Tibetan poncho she must have bartered for on her last spirit quest. She’s a Gamin, natch.

“Jeanette! Making coffee. Can I tempt you?” Joshua wags his mug at her and she waves her hand irritably. She hates him deeply. She’s my kind of lady.

“I got an emergency call. I’m here to referee.”

“No need, Jeanette. Everything’s fine.” I dunk my tea bag gently, watching the water turn brick red. Joshua dumps a spoonful of sugar into my mug.

“Not quite sweet enough, are you?”

I make a fake laugh at the cabinet in front of me and wonder how he knows how I take my tea. How does he know anything about me? Jeanette is fisheyed with suspicion.

Joshua looks at her mildly. “We’re making hot beverages. What’s new in the human resource field?”

“The company’s two worst serial complainants should not be left alone together.” A corner of her poncho gestures to the kitchen.

“Well, that’s a bind. We sit in a room together alone, all day. I spend between forty and fifty hours a week with this fine woman. All alone.” He sounds pleasant, but the subtext to his dialogue was Fuck Off.

“I’ve made several recommendations to your bosses about that,” Jeanette says darkly. Her subtext reads the same.

“Well, I’ll be Lucinda’s boss soon,” Joshua replies and my eyes snap to his. “I’m professional and can manage anybody.”

The way he enunciates anybody implies he thinks I am mentally deficient.

“Actually, I’ll be your boss soon.” I am syrupy sweet. Jeanette’s little hands appear from under her poncho. She rubs her eyes, making a mess of her mascara.

“You two are my full-time job,” she says softly, despairingly. I feel a stab of guilt. My behavior is unbecoming of a soon-to-be senior executive. Time to repair this relationship.

“I know in the past, communication between myself and Mr. Templeman has been a little . . . strained. I’m keen to address this, and strengthen team building at B and G.” I use my best smooth professional voice, watching her face pinch suspiciously. Joshua flicks his eyes toward me like laser beams.

“I’ve drafted a recommendation for Helene outlining a team-building afternoon for corporate, design, executive, and finance.” We call it CDEF for short, or the Alphabet Branch. This is my latest brainstorm. How excellent would this sound in the interview? Very excellent.

“I will cosign to show my commitment,” Joshua says, the goddamn hijacker. My wrist trembles with the need to flick hot tea in his face.

“Don’t you worry about a thing,” I tell Jeanette as we stand in front of her. “It’ll all be fine.” Her poncho jingles sadly as we stride off.

“When I’m your boss, I’m going to work you so fucking hard,” Joshua’s voice is dirty and rough.

I am struggling to keep up with him now, but I make myself. Some of my tea spatters onto the carpet. “When I’m your boss, you’re going to do everything I say with a big smile on your face.” I nod politely at Marnie and Alan as we pass them.

We round the corner like racehorses.

“When I’m your boss, any more than three mistakes in your financial calculations will result in an official warning.”

I mutter under my breath but he still hears me. “When I’m your boss, I’m going to be convicted of murder.”

“When I’m your boss, I’m implementing a corporate support uniform policy. No more of your weird little retro costumes. I’ve already got it circled in the Corporate Wear catalog. A gray shift dress.” He pauses for effect. “Polyester. It’s supposed to be knee length, so it should reach your ankles.”

I am insanely sensitive about my height and I absolutely hate synthetic fibers. I open my mouth and a cute animal growl comes out. I hustle ahead and bump the glass door open to the executive suites with my hip.

“Is that what it would take for you to stop lusting after me?” I snap and he looks up at the ceiling and lets out a huge sigh.

“You got me, Shortcake.”

“Oh, I’ve got you all right.” We’re both breathing a little harder than the situation warrants. We each set down our mugs and face off.

“I will never work for you. There’ll be no polyester dress. I’ll resign if you get it. It should go without saying.”

He looks genuinely surprised for a fraction of a second. “Oh, really.”

“Like you wouldn’t quit if I got it.”

“I’m not sure.” He’s gimlet-eyed with speculation.

“Joshua, you need to resign if I get it.”

“I don’t quit things.” His voice gets a galvanized edge to it and he puts a hand on his hip.

“I don’t quit things either. But if you’re so certain you’re going to get it, why would you have a problem with promising to resign?” I watch him mull this over.

I want him to be my subordinate, skittish with nerves as I review a piece of his work, which I’ll tear up. I want him on his hands and knees at my feet, gathering up the torn shreds, burbling apologies for his own incompetence. Crying in Jeanette’s office, berating himself for his own inadequacies. I want to make him so nervous he’s tied in knots.

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