I, Lacey Chamberlain, am not a morning person.
There. I said it.
I never have been a morning person, even when I’ve tried (cough / college / cough). When my alarm goes off in the morning, what I really want to do is hurl it across the room so that it shatters (silently, of course) into a million pieces, allowing me to stay in the warm coziness of bed until I’m good and ready to get up. Around ten or so. Maybe ten thirty.
Luckily for my financial well-being, I’m structured and I’m a rule follower, which means, in actuality, when my alarm goes off, I have no choice but to obey it and get my ass out of bed. I’m never happy about it, but I do it. Because I have a job.
Leo, on the other hand, is all about the morning. The terrier mix I rescued two years ago scrambles up from the foot of the bed every morning, as soon as the second alarm begins its obnoxious ringing. He knows I always hit the snooze button. Once. That’s all I allow myself. So, when the alarm goes off the second time, he sees that as his cue for morning doggie lovin’, which I live for, I have to admit.
“Okay, okay,” I mumbled to him. I was still half-asleep as I simultaneously tried to love him and keep him from poking his tongue in my mouth. “Dude. Ease up. I love you, too. I swear.”
This game went on for a good ten minutes, me covering my head with my down comforter as Leo scratched at it madly with his tiny paws. I peeked out just enough for him to see me and dive for my face before I pulled the covers back up. It’s our daily routine, and after a few minutes, I’m usually laughing and almost awake. Almost.
Two hours and two cups of coffee later, I packed Leo into the car along with my messenger bag filled with client folders, and a travel mug filled with yet more coffee, and we headed off to work. The drive is about twenty minutes, and I always use it to mentally go over my schedule for the day. Whether I have people to meet or just paperwork to do, I lay it all out in my head while I drive. Leo was seat-belted into the passenger seat, his sweet brown eyes scanning the scenery as it flew by. I learned the hard way to belt him in…one day, as we sat at a red light, I thought I’d be nice and slide the window down a bit for him so he could stick his little nose out. I neglected to put the child lock on, however, and all it took was him standing on the button before the window was down far enough for him to jump out. And he did. I watched it happen in slow motion, I swear to God. I leaned to grab him, but I missed. I can’t believe he didn’t break a leg—it was a long way down for his ten-pound body—and it’s a miracle he didn’t get flattened by a car as he darted across two lanes of traffic. The beeping horns, screeching tires, and shouts from his terrified mommy were apparently enough to scare the bejesus out of him, though, because he doesn’t seem to mind the belt at all.
It was a really beautiful, not-yet-spring day in suburban Philadelphia. The sun was shining, which always makes me happy, so I slid on my Ray-Bans, sipped my coffee, and felt pretty close to fully awake. While the nights can still get pretty cold in early March, the daily temperatures had been hitting the high fifties, and that told me spring was just around the corner. Thank God. I hate being cold. You think I’d be used to it after thirty-three years in the same city, but sadly, I’m not. I live for spring because it means summer is coming, and summer means warmth. I’m like an old lady; I really should move south.
I swung my car into the parking lot of Dogwood Landing, the commercial building where my office has been since my father started it when he was thirty. He’d retired two years ago at sixty-five, and I took over fully, having worked side by side with him for almost nine years. As I aimed my car at my usual space, I thankfully saw a flash of bright yellow out of the corner of my eye and slammed my foot on the brake just in time to narrowly miss having my front bumper ripped off by that little bastard who works at the hardware store on the first level of the building. My nose crinkled up as I growled, causing Leo to look at me with alarm.
“That kid and his muscle car are going to kill somebody one of these days, Leo,” I muttered, staring after him. In all honesty, it was the exact same line I muttered almost every day. His name was Kyle, but I’d nicknamed him Nascar Kyle. He was about twenty, and he’d worked for Mr. Archer in his small hardware store since before he graduated from high school. He was actually a really nice kid when he wasn’t behind a steering wheel. I didn’t know what happened to him when he plopped his butt in the driver’s seat, but I knew I didn’t like it.
When I looked forward again, I grimaced. My good mood was fading fast. There was a moving truck in my usual parking space. In fact, it was taking up three spaces. I took a big breath and blew it out slowly as I maneuvered my car into a spot I never parked in.
“I don’t know, Leo,” I said, as I slipped the gearshift into park. “I am not in love with where this Monday is going so far. Are you?”
Leo cocked his tiny brown-black head, his mismatched ears pricking up as he listened to me, and I couldn’t help it. I grabbed his face and kissed it. Several times. Loudly. “You are my love,” I told him, the first of about fifty-seven times I’d mention it that day.
I threw my messenger bag and my purse over my shoulder, clicked Leo’s leash onto his harness, locked my car, and headed in.
The building is old. Hell, it was old when my dad started his business here thirty-seven years ago. But it’s not run-down. The management company does a really good job taking care of it, and they respond quickly when there’s a problem. The rent is reasonable, and the location is terrific, so I can’t complain. There’s also a security code to be entered in order to get through the door, but that door was propped open by a box. I’m usually a stickler about security, but I couldn’t realistically expect the movers to punch in a code every single time they needed to carry something up, so I let it slide.
My office is on the second floor, and as Leo and I hit the stairwell, we were met by two burly men pushing a handcart. They grunted greetings as they passed. I reached our floor, went through another propped-open door, and stopped in my tracks.
Boxes and boxes.
Leo and I maneuvered our way around them like we were working an agility course until we got to our own door, which was open, just the way Mary likes it.
My office is actually two. Sort of. There’s a smaller area immediately inside the door. Sort of a reception space. That’s where Mary’s desk is, along with things like the printer / copier / fax behemoth, the coat rack, and four chairs for people who are waiting to see me. I don’t think more than two chairs have ever been occupied at once. In the corner is a small coffee station and a mini fridge. Clients can use the single cup Keurig to make themselves some coffee. I also keep bottled water in the fridge and a selection of tea bags for the crazy people who don’t drink coffee. Beyond Mary’s desk is a doorway that leads to my larger office.
“There’s my little munchkin,” Mary said, immediately bending down in her chair so she could lavish attention (and too many treats) on Leo. He, of course, ate it up—figuratively and literally. He’s no dummy, that boy of mine.
“Yeah. Hi there,” I said, with a little wave, when Mary finally looked up at me.
“Oh, hi, Lacey. Are you here, too?” she asked with a smirk. Mary Kirk worked with my father and has known me since I was a kid. When my dad retired, she wasn’t ready to, and it seemed nothing but super smart to keep her around, as she knows the ins and outs of many of the clients better than I do. She’s in her sixties, her bob a chestnut brown that she gets touched up every four weeks like clockwork. She’s small, friendly, and frighteningly efficient. I’m reasonably sure the office would crumble around my ears if I didn’t have her. Especially at this time of year, I thought, as the phone rang.
“Chamberlain Financial,” Mary said, in the almost musical tone she uses when she answers the phone. “How can I help you?”
I headed into my office, Leo opting to stay with Mary and the treats. Not unusual. She has a little dog bed under her desk that he loves to nap on. He spends more time with her during the day than with me, greeting the clients and keeping away burglars, I’m sure.
Things were starting to get really busy, well on their way to the chaos that is late March / early April for me and every other accountant in this country. The fact that I was there before nine was a big clue, as I prefer to come in closer to ten or eleven and work until six or seven. But when April 15 is closing in fast, I can find myself working fourteen- or fifteen-hour days, and then taking work home and putting in a couple more hours in my jammies. I had nine client visits lined up that day, plus a huge pile of returns to complete and file.
I took off my coat and hung it in the tiny closet in my office, the tiny closet crammed with pamphlets and supplies and a change of clothes (I’ve been known to fall asleep at my desk). A glance out the window showed me the movers working hard, this time a large drafting table being carried between them. Back out in Mary’s area, I asked, “Were the movers here when you got here?”
“They were just starting, I think,” she replied, her eyes never leaving her computer screen. Leo was curled up in her lap. “They’re going into the office next door.”
“Really?” My eyebrows rose. The office next door had been empty for over a year. It was about three times the size of mine, maybe more, and it had its own full bathroom—the only reason I ever considered maybe moving one door down, but I couldn’t justify the rent increase, and I didn’t really need that much space. Now the option was no longer available, which was probably for the best. I could stop thinking about it. I had, however, been enjoying the quiet of having nobody occupy it. “So much for the silence, huh?”
“We’ll see.” Mary shrugged. “Might be nice to have some neighbors, though.”
“Maybe.” I moved to the doorway and watched the movers carry the drafting desk past. I could hear a male voice from inside the other office telling them where to put it and I was tempted to go say hi, see exactly what was happening over there, but the phone rang. A glance at Mary told me it was a client, so I headed to my office and began my day.
The music started up just after lunch.
I was in the middle of talking with Mr. Robichaux, a man older than my father who was very hesitant to let a woman do his taxes when my dad announced his retirement. I’m not exactly sure what he said, but Dad got Mr. Robichaux to keep his business with us, and I’ve done a pretty good job, if I do say so myself. But “Single Ladies,” much as I and all the world love Beyoncé, wasn’t a terrific soundtrack for Mr. Robichaux’s tax filing, and the disapproving look on his face made that pretty clear.
I held up a finger. “Hang on one second. I’m sorry. Excuse me.” I opened my door just enough to stick my head out so I could ask Mary to take care of the nuisance, but she was on the phone. With a sigh, I turned back to Mr. Robichaux, whose bushy gray eyebrows had formed a stormy V at the top of his nose. “I’ll be right back.”
The hallway was still an obstacle course of boxes, some stacked four or five high, and I wove my way around and between until I reached the door of the next office. The movers had obviously finished, but there were three people flitting around inside like worker bees. I knocked on the doorjamb, but nobody looked up from what they’re doing, probably because they couldn’t hear me over the music. There was a woman in the back corner putting things in the drawer of a desk. She was African American and looked to be in her mid-twenties from where I stood, her head bopping to the beat. The bottom half of what I could only assume was a guy stuck out facedown from underneath a table. The third person was a young man, tall and lanky with glasses and tousled dark hair in need of a trim. He was standing in front of the largest whiteboard I’ve ever seen, his hand closed around a variety of dry erase markers. None of the three noticed my presence.
“Excuse me,” I said, raising my voice to be heard over the music, and finally the girl and the whiteboard guy looked in my direction. Under-the-table guy cracked his head loudly and dropped an F-bomb. The whiteboard guy approached me, his expression neutral.
“Can I help you?”
“Yeah, um, I’m in the office next door.” I jerked a thumb over my shoulder. “I’m with a client and…” I glanced around for the source of the music, but couldn’t find one. “The walls here are pretty thin…” I waited for him to catch up, but he simply blinked at me.
“The music, Brandon,” the woman said, shaking her head. “I told you. Turn it down.”
I nodded and shot her a grateful look.
“Oh. Sure. No problem. Sorry.” The whiteboard guy moved to a computer, clicked the mouse a couple times, and Beyoncé quieted right down. Then he returned to his whiteboard without so much as a second glance at me.
“Okay,” I said, because I could think of nothing else. Under-the-table guy was back, well, under the table. The woman in the corner gave me a smile, though, so at least one person in the room might not be an android, and I nodded at her. “Thanks.”
Mary was still on the phone when I returned, Leo snoring loudly at her feet. I rolled my eyes when she looked at me and headed back to Mr. Robichaux, who had, thankfully, not left.
“I’m sorry about that,” I said as I sat back down behind my desk. “New people are moving in next door.”
Mr. Robichaux grunted in response, his usual reply to any sort of small talk, so I got right back to the numbers, which immediately helped me relax.
The rest of the afternoon flew by. There were no more disturbances from next door, aside from the occasional bump against the wall or slight shake of the floor as something heavy was obviously dropped. Sounds to be expected on moving day, I supposed. I could hear voices through the wall at times. Excited conversations. Laughter. One squeal (of delight?). There were definitely more than three people there at different stages of the day, but I was too busy to go introduce myself, especially since our first meeting had consisted of me complaining about their music. I preferred to wait for a fresh day.
Mary headed home at five thirty. Leo and I were there until almost eight. When we finally packed up our things and I shut the door behind me, the lights were still on next door, illuminating the hallway that was dimmed for the night. The music had gotten louder again over the past hour, but I really had no right to complain when it was after business hours. I gave Leo’s leash a gentle tug, and as I stepped farther into the hall, I could see the office door, its window freshly logo’d.
Just Wright Marketing & Graphic Design
“Interesting,” I said out loud, but that was the last thought I had, as my brain was fried from such a long day. Plus, I was starving. “Come on, Leo. Let’s go home and find some dinner.”
Tuesday morning dawned cold and rainy—so much for impending spring. I was already not in the greatest of moods when I braked slowly to a stop and simply stared at my usual row of parking spaces. No moving truck this morning, but there were four unfamiliar cars parked one next to the other in the row that was usually pretty empty. Except for the baby blue BMW convertible. That one was parked in my spot. And enough into the next spot over to prevent me from parking there either. A glance at the license plate told me immediately who I was to direct my silent anger toward.
I shook my head. There were no assigned spots, so I didn’t have any real reason to be mad. It just harkens back to my being a very structured person. I like routine. I find a parking spot I like, I park in it every day. Just like I have been for the past two years. It was my dad’s unofficial spot. Now it’s my unofficial spot.
With a shiny BMW in it.
“Looks like this Mr. Wright certainly knows how to make an impression,” I said to Leo. Then I chuckled. I couldn’t help it. “See what I did there, Leo? Mr. Wright? Funny, huh?” I chuckled some more at my own joke as I steered my Toyota two spaces down to a new spot, mentally challenging myself with facts and solutions. If you get here earlier, you can probably snag your spot before Mr. Wright and his fancy car arrive for the day. I snorted, which caused Leo to give me a look, because we all know I’m not coming in any earlier. Damn it.
I unclipped Leo from his seat belt, grasped his leash and my messenger bag—which bulged with work I’d taken home—and headed inside, hurrying through the rain and drenching one foot in a puddle I’d seen too late. I wasn’t happy to find a piece of wood wedged in the door, keeping it open so I didn’t have to use the security code. Not cool. I kicked the wood out and let the door shut completely. Once in the stairwell, Leo and I both took a moment to shake ourselves free of rain and to shiver against the low forties that the day wasn’t getting out of, according to the cute meteorologist on the morning news. Then we headed up.
As soon as I opened the stairwell door to the second floor, my senses were assaulted. First, my ears cringed. I don’t actually know if ears can cringe, but it sure felt like that’s what mine were doing at the onslaught of Taylor Swift reverberating down the hall. Then my nose wrinkled at the smell of something unfamiliar, but…kind of yummy. Eggs? Bread? Not bacon, but something close. Ham?
The door to Chamberlain Financial was open, and I absently realized that might have to change from here on out if the music was going to be a regular occurrence. Please don’t let it be a regular occurrence. Mary sat at her desk, a slice of what looked like pizza in her hand, a smile on her face as she munched away.
“Good morning, Lacey,” she said in her ever-pleasant tone. Then, as usual, she devolved into baby talk as I let go of Leo’s leash, and he bounded over to see her.
“You know,” I said to my dog, “you could at least wait until I’m sitting at my own desk before you drop me like a hot potato for your mistress here.”
Leo, of course, paid me no attention, his focus completely on whatever food Mary had.
“What is that?” I squinted. “Pizza? In the morning?”
“Breakfast pizza,” Mary clarified. “Scrambled eggs, cheese, and diced ham. The new neighbors brought it over.” She used the slice to gesture in the direction of the music.
“How long has the noise been going on?”
“Oh, that was on when I got here.”
I inhaled slowly, then let it out. Was this how it was going to be now? I pointed at Leo, told him to stay, and headed down the hall with determined steps.
They’d done a ton of work since I’d been there thirteen or fourteen hours ago, and it stopped me in my tracks.
The first thing I noticed was color.
There was color everywhere. Bright. Cheerful. Lots of oranges and greens. All the laptops had colored covers. The chairs had red, blue, and hot pink seat cushions. The windows were wide open. Not open, but devoid of blinds, all of which had been pulled all the way up to let the daylight in. Despite the gray and rain, this space felt jovial and inviting. To my left, they’d set up a sort of food station with a large table covered in a lime green tablecloth, a mini fridge, a red Keurig, and two stacks of brightly colored coffee mugs. The breakfast pizza box was there as well, a stack of orange paper plates next to it.
In addition to the three people from yesterday, there were two more who seemed very busy. Another woman, a stunning redhead who was either talking on a Bluetooth or to herself and gesturing with big arm movements as she laughed at whatever she was hearing, and a handsome young man with thick, wavy dark hair any animated Disney prince would kill for. He squinted at an enormous computer monitor and never even looked in my direction. I wondered if he was Mr. Wright, and I pictured him in the BMW convertible, that mane of hair being tousled by the wind.
I was still taking it all in when the volume of the music decreased suddenly, and I looked over to see the woman from yesterday grimacing at me from a different desk than before.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, as she crossed the room to me. “I told Brandon we have to keep it down, but he’s in his own little world sometimes.” She shot him a look as he paid us zero attention and rolled her eyes good-naturedly. “I’ll do my best to keep the volume down during business hours.”
“I’d really appreciate that,” I said.
She stuck out her hand. “I’m Gisele. Gisele Harris.”
I put my hand in hers. Her grip was firm and she paired it with a friendly smile. “Lacey Chamberlain.”
“Oh, that’s a great name. It’s nice to meet you, Lacey.” Her eyes moved to her right as she asked, “Are you hungry? There’s breakfast pizza left.”
“No. Thank you. I’m good.” Gisele was nice enough, but I was still slightly aggravated that Brandon hadn’t thought there might be others in the building who didn’t want to rock out to his tunes first thing in the morning.
“Well, come on over if you change your mind,” Gisele said.
“I’ll do that.” I cleared my throat. “Also, I’m not sure if it’s you guys, but the door at the bottom of the stairs can’t be propped open. It’s for security purposes.”
Gisele nodded. “I’ll tell these guys.”
“Thank you.” I took one more look around, my eyes stopping on the redhead. She was still talking animatedly, but her large eyes were focused directly on me. Even through the black-rimmed glasses, I could almost feel her gaze. As she spoke to the person on the other end of her call, she raised an eyebrow and one side of her mouth quirked up as she continued to hold my gaze. Whether intended or not, it was very sensual. Sexy even, and I felt my face flush. Suddenly, I was roasting like a red pepper in my winter coat I hadn’t taken off yet, and the sudden urge to flee hit me like a slap. I swallowed hard, gave a lame wave to Gisele, and hurried out of there as if a swarm of wasps were chasing me.
Back in the office, I took a deep breath and removed my coat. Leo looked up at me, chewing, and I gave Mary a look, silently telling her I knew she’d given him some of her pizza crust. She pretended not to see it.
The phone rang as I made myself a cup of coffee. Mary gave me a heads-up with her eyes. I headed back to my office, coffee in hand, dog dissing me yet again by staying with my secretary, and my day began.
A steady stream of phone calls, returns to file, and face-to-face appointments made my morning fly by, and the next thing I knew, it was nearly 1:00 p.m., and I was pretty sure my stomach was eating itself. I’d put nothing in it but coffee since the chicken salad sandwich I’d made at 9:00 last night.
I hit my intercom. “Mary, I’m going to order some lunch. Want anything?”
“Nope,” she said, and it was obvious her mouth was full. “I’m good.”
“Oh. All right.” I dialed ChopStix, my favorite Chinese place and a number I had programmed into my contacts on my phone. Don’t judge me.
“Hello, Miz Chamberlain. Your usual?” It always freaked me out at least a little bit when they knew who I was before I uttered a sound. Or that they knew what I ordered: chicken lo mein, steamed rice, two spring rolls.
“Yes, please, Julie.” There was a bit of satisfaction knowing this would be either lunch and dinner or lunch for the next three days.
“Be there in twenty.”
The whole conversation took less than two minutes. Efficiency at its finest.
It was a good time to relieve my poor bladder of the four cups of coffee that had been sitting there for far too long, and I headed out to Mary, who was in the middle of taking a bite out of what looked like a turkey sub from D’Amico’s Italian Deli.
“When did you get lunch?” I asked, knowing if she’d left, she’d have stashed Leo in with me.
“I didn’t,” she said, holding a hand in front of her mouth as she chewed. “The new neighbors brought it over when they borrowed the bathroom key.”
I furrowed my brow. “Doesn’t that office have a bathroom?”
“It’s not working.”
“I see.” I glanced at Leo, sitting at Mary’s feet, watching her with laser-like focus. “Um, why does Leo have mayonnaise on his chin?”
“I have no idea,” Mary said too quickly, not looking at me.
I shook my head. “You’re going to lose visiting privileges, mister,” I scolded him. He ignored me, like he always did when food was nearby. I headed for the door and noticed the empty nail on the wall. “Have they not brought the bathroom key back?” I asked.
“Oh. No, I guess not.”
I sighed. Fine. Back to the world of color, music, and endless food.
Imagine Dragons was playing this time when I approached the door to Just Wright Marketing & Graphic Design, but at a tolerable level. The door was open, and the people inside flitted around like worker bees accomplishing various tasks. I rapped my knuckles on the doorjamb and the guy with Disney prince hair glanced my way, a thick, dark eyebrow raised in expectation. I decided to nip that in the bud by striding across the office, hand outstretched.
“Hi. Lacey Chamberlain. I’m in the office next door.” I jerked my chin to my left.
Disney Prince looked momentarily confused by my introduction, but recovered quickly and shook my hand. “Patrick Cabello. Hi.”
“You can call him Pantone,” said Gisele from her back corner of the room. “Everybody else does.”
“As in the color chart?” I asked, recalling something vague from a college art class I took forever ago.
Patrick—err—Pantone nodded. “Exactly.” He returned his attention to his monitor, but Gisele was coming my way, so I didn’t have to stand there like an idiot.
“Is the music too loud?” she asked me, a slight grimace crossing her pretty features.
“No, no, not at all,” I assured her. “I’m actually here for my bathroom key. Somebody borrowed ours?” Gisele furrowed her brow, and I explained: “Each floor in the building has a couple of bathrooms, and they’re designated to specific offices. So, you, me, and two other offices in this stretch share the one at the end of the hall.” My eyes wandered to the door of theirs, back by Gisele’s desk. “Until yours is fixed, I imagine. We all have a key to our designated restroom so random strangers from outside don’t wander in to use the facilities, you know?”
Gisele nodded. “I get it, but I’m not sure who borrowed it. Pantone?” After a beat or two, she asked, “Did you borrow the bathroom key?” He shook his head, his eyes never leaving his monitor. “Brandon?” she called out. He was at the opposite corner of her desk. “Bathroom key?”
Apparently, eye contact was not big at Just Wright because he didn’t look up either as he answered, “Alicia has it.”
With a nod, Gisele said, “Hang on,” and headed back to where I’d seen the redhead on the phone earlier. She was nowhere to be found now and Gisele made a show of looking under papers and folders, in drawers. Hands planted on the desk, she looked up at me with an expression of sympathy. “I’m going to guess she put it in her pocket and forgot she had it.”
“Oh,” I said, because what else could I say?
“I’m so sorry. She should be back in an hour or so…” Gisele let her voice trail off because it was obvious that she, too, wasn’t sure what else to say.
I shrugged. “Okay, then. I’ll try back later.” I give a sort of half-smile because I wanted to remain friendly. It wasn’t Gisele’s fault the sexy redhead had left with my key. I headed down the hall to the stairwell on the other side of the wing. It took me down to Archer’s Hardware. Bill would let me use his restroom. It was the least he could do to make up for the dozen times a month Nascar Kyle nearly killed me with his ridiculous car.
I sat at my desk, eyeballing the remains of my Chinese food at 8:45 that night. Initially, I’d been trying to decide if I should heat it up in the microwave and work for another hour or pack it all up and go home before my brain short-circuited from overwork, leaving Mary to find my lifeless body in the morning. But now I didn’t feel great, and even the thought of more lo mein did not make my stomach happy. I blinked at the containers across the room and wondered if I didn’t feel well because I was hungry or because of what I’d eaten. Eat? Don’t eat? It was a simple decision that shouldn’t have taken more than a second or two, but I sat there, staring, squinting, decisionless.
I swallowed, feeling that slight, scratchy irritation that marked an impending sore throat. Which, for me, meant I was probably coming down with something. No wonder I was so tired.
A knock on the door of my office startled me out of my health analysis, making me realize that I’d left the door ajar. I always close it when I’m there after hours. Despite the keypad at the entrances to the building, it’s not hard to get in, as evidenced by the propped-open door that morning. I must not have latched it properly, and it swung open before I could even get to my feet.
There stood the redhead from next door, her hair falling around her shoulders in waves the color of the sunset, her black pantsuit with the jacket sleeves rolled up to just below her elbows making her look like she’d just gotten dressed instead of it being long past business hours. The glasses were missing, which only served to amplify the blue of her eyes. In her arms was Leo, looking just as happy as he could possibly be.
“What the hell?” I said, and jumped up from my chair. “How…what…?”
The redhead chuckled from somewhere deep in her throat as she turned her face to my dog and he licked her nose. “I was working and looked down to see I had a visitor,” she said. “Honestly, he scared the crap out of me at first. I thought it was a raccoon or something. I’m surprised you didn’t hear me squeal like a little girl.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said, taking him from her arms and trying not to notice his reluctance. The redhead smelled amazing, though, like peaches and cream, so I couldn’t really blame him.
“It’s no trouble at all. I met him earlier when I borrowed your bathroom key, which…” She reached into the pocket of the black blazer and pulled out the key, let it dangle from her long fingers. “I then took off with. My apologies.” She wrinkled her nose and made a face that would make me look silly, but only made her seem fun.
I took the key and tossed it onto my desk, then turned to kiss on my dog, horrified that I hadn’t even noticed he was missing. I was way too tired.
“He’s got some great energy, that little guy. I might need to borrow him in the future for brainstorming sessions.”
I had no idea if she was serious, but before I could say a thing—thank her, introduce myself, speak in tongues because I was too tired to remember my base language—her cell phone rang. She pulled it from the pocket of her blazer and glanced at the screen.
“Sorry, I’ve got to take this.” With a wave, she hurried out the door as I heard her call a cheerful greeting into the phone.
I stood there staring after her, for longer than I needed to, stuck in a trance of fatigue. Finally, I stepped to the door and closed it with a click, then set Leo down.
“Dude, seriously?” I said to him as he looked up at me with the sweet brown eyes that won me over when I first saw him at the shelter. “You can’t just leave like that.” Leo cocked his head to the side as if thinking this over. “I’m not kidding. You could get lost. You could get hurt. You could give Mommy a stroke.”
I gathered my things as I scolded him, having decided I was just too exhausted to look at any more numbers. I fastened Leo into his harness, slung my bag over my shoulder, and hung the bathroom key back up. Then I locked up the office. In the hall, I could hear the redhead talking animatedly with whoever was on the other end of the phone, speaking a bit louder than regular volume, as people tended to do on cell phones. It sounded like an early morning business call, her voice fresh and energetic. I tried to tamp down my envy as I fought the temptation to peek in the open door, see who else was in there; I could make out the low hum of another conversation happening as well, but my exhaustion won out.
“Come on, Leo, before Mommy falls asleep right here on the floor.” I’d had enough for one day, and whatever creeping crud I had was going to take over much faster if I didn’t get some rest. Leo and I drove home, I made some tea and downed a handful of cold medicine. I should have eaten, but my stomach eighty-sixed that idea. Instead, I crawled into bed and Leo curled up in the crook of my knees, his usual spot. I glanced at the clock. It wasn’t even ten yet, so I hoped a full eight or nine hours of sleep would head this cold off at the pass.
When my alarm went off at seven the next morning, I was pretty sure somebody had snuck in during the night and stuffed my head full of cotton. I squeezed my eyes shut, my face in my pillow, and willed the alarm to be a dream sound. Maybe it was really only two in the morning, and I could sleep for several more hours.
Leo’s warm and wet kisses told me it was no dream. It was morning, I had six clients to meet with today, and I was definitely sick. I sat up slowly and Leo cuddled in close, pushed his wet nose against my neck. “Good morning, little guy,” I croaked, wincing, my throat on fire.
This was the worst time of year for me to be sick, and I grumbled in annoyance about it the entire time I got ready. A hot shower helped a little bit, but I wanted to stand in it for hours, not minutes. I had no desire to style my hair or put makeup on, but I did both, not wanting to scare away clients with my Death Warmed Over look. I made tea instead of coffee, chose the strongest English breakfast tea I had, as I needed the caffeine, but also something to soothe my throat. A touch of honey helped, but not enough.
It was going to be a long day.
Like yesterday, the day was gray, damp, chilly. I longed for spring, especially when I didn’t feel well and wanted nothing more than to burrow under my down comforter and go back to sleep. But it wasn’t quite spring yet, and I had too much work to do to even think about taking a sick day. I turned in to my office parking lot, and as I lamented my sad, sad life, Nascar Kyle cut off the guy in front of me, causing him to slam on his brakes, which made me slam on mine. Leo gave a little yelp as he was thrown forward but stopped short by his seat belt. My front bumper was a scant inch or two from the rear bumper in front of me. I glanced up to see the other driver looking at me in his rearview mirror. He gave a little wave of apology, and I waved back my forgiveness.
“Not your fault, sir,” I said aloud in my empty car. “Welcome to my world.”
Again, the baby blue BMW was in my spot, but I had no energy to muster up any anger. “Stupid Mr. Wright,” I muttered instead, then shrugged. I parked four spots down from my usual, gathered my things and my dog, and headed inside.
Mary was just biting into a delicious-looking cherry cheese Danish when she looked up at me and her face fell. “Wow. You look awful,” she said.
“You sick?” She set her pastry on a small paper plate. A glance at our little coffee area told me we had neither those plates nor tasty-looking Danishes.
“Unfortunately, yes.” I gestured at her plate as I removed Leo’s harness and he zipped right over to hop into Mary’s lap. “Where’d you get that?”
Unsurprisingly, she jerked her chin toward the far wall. “They needed the bathroom key again.” She smiled as she looked down at her lap where Leo sat, watching intently as she chewed.
“Don’t give him any of that,” I ordered, pointing at her.
She made a face that said, “Please. Who do you think you’re dealing with?” But I knew her, and I fully expected to find Leo with cream cheese on his face later.
In my office, I dumped everything on the floor next to my desk and fell back into my chair, my body feeling as exhausted as if I’d been there for ten hours already. I allowed myself three minutes to just breathe, but that was it. My first client was due any minute, and I needed to prepare. She was new, a referral from a longtime client, and I wanted to make a good first impression. I hauled my ass up out of my chair and straightened up the office. Then I called up her information on my computer and was ready when Mary buzzed me.
“Lacey? Sharon Antonelli is here for her appointment.”
“Great. Send her back.”
I loved when we did the intercom thing. It was so professional (and so unnecessary, as we were barely twenty feet apart, but whatever. It was fun). I stood up and met Sharon Antonelli at the door of my office, my hand outstretched. She grasped it firmly and we shook.
“It’s so nice to meet you,” I said. “Please. Sit.” I gestured to the two chairs across from my desk.
“Well, Richard Bell speaks very highly of you.” Sharon Antonelli was in her fifties, maybe, well-dressed and very put together. In her simple yet elegant gray pencil skirt and burgundy silk top, she gave off an air of sophistication. Of class. She was an independent contractor for the ad agency she worked for, so she had expenses and things to itemize. Over the phone, she’d told me she could probably manage to file on her own, but simply didn’t want to deal with it. Her previous CPA had retired last year, so here she was.
“Richard’s great,” I said, as I took my own seat behind my desk. “He was a client of my father’s and then when my dad retired, he trusted me to take over. So, I speak very highly of him as well.” I hit a couple keys on my computer. “Okay, let’s talk about your expen—” My sentence was completely obliterated by an obnoxiously loud whirring sound coming from the other side of the wall behind Sharon Antonelli. She turned to look as I squinted.
What the hell? I thought, but kept it to myself, as I didn’t think swearing around my new client was a smart move. Abruptly, the sound stopped.
Sharon turned to look at me, her perfectly tweezed eyebrows raised up in question.
“I have no idea,” I said. “I apologize.”
We got back down to work. A good five minutes went by before it happened again, catching both of us off guard enough to make us jump in our chairs.
I sighed quietly and held out a placating hand toward her. “Please excuse me for one minute.” Determination in my steps, I walked out of my office, through Mary’s area—both she and Leo looked up at me in surprise—and out in to the hall. The door to Just Wright Marketing & Graphic Design was standing open, because of course it was, and I didn’t bother knocking. Nobody would hear me over what sounded like the sound of a jet taking off. Instead, I marched all the way to the back of the office where the whiteboard hung on the wall shared with my office. The redhead, Brandon, and Pantone Patrick were all standing around a card table they’d apparently set up. On it were bowls of fruit, sliced or chunked or whatever, a pitcher of orange juice, and a large container of yogurt. In the middle of it all stood a blender, one of those high-end ones that could make a steak into a milkshake if you ran it long enough.
“Excuse me,” I said loudly, but not loudly enough, as nobody even looked my way. I tried again, louder, pretty sure the combination of my shouting and the chainsaw-like screaming of the blender was about to make my head explode.
The redhead noticed me then, and her blue eyes widened in surprise. She immediately hit a button that turned the blender off, and the ensuing quiet was bliss. “Hi there,” she said, unassuming. I simply blinked at her as my ears adjusted to the change in sound. Undeterred, she smiled, accentuating the cleft in her chin and the perfection of her cheekbones, which I would’ve taken time to notice if I didn’t feel like I just wanted to lie down and go to sleep. She wore a bright lime-green top that was perfect against her creamy skin and sunset hair. “We have to come up with a pitch for marketing this thing,” she indicated the blender with one hand, “so we’re making smoothies. Want one?” She held up a glass filled with what I wanted to admit was a delicious-looking pink concoction—strawberries, maybe?—but I was too frustrated at the cluelessness of the three of them.
“No,” I said. “No, I do not want a smoothie.” I swallowed as I walked toward their whiteboard and put my palm against it. “This wall,” I said, and had to clear the frog out of my throat, “is shared with my office. This one.” I patted it. “Right here.” Another pat. “Shared wall.” I moved my hand to my forehead, massaged it with my fingertips. “Over there, right now, on the other side of this very thin shared wall, sitting in a chair in my office, is a new client who wants me to do her taxes for her. I’m hoping maybe I can talk to her about some investments as well. But thanks to your eardrum-busting blender, I can’t hear a thing she’s saying to me. Not a word. So, what I do want is for you to please, please keep it down.” My head was throbbing, as if a little man was inside my skull and going to town with a sledgehammer, and I just kept talking. “First my parking space. Then the security door. I’ve asked more than once about the music. Now the blender. This is a place of business, and I don’t think I’m asking a lot.” I took a breath and adjusted my voice so that it was less irritated and more of a plea before I added, “Look, I don’t want to have to ask to talk to the guy who owns this company, but I will if I have to.”
Brandon gave a snort, which had my eyes snapping up to glare at him as he smiled and looked away. Pantone Patrick was gazing at his shoes. I couldn’t be sure, but he seemed to be hiding a grin as well. The redhead, however, gave me direct eye contact as she held out her hand.
“We haven’t been properly introduced,” she said, her voice calm, a subtle smile on her face. “Alicia Wright. The guy who owns this company.”
Yeah, I know. I should’ve seen that one coming.
I stared at her outstretched hand, and wrapped a hunk of my hair around my forefinger to twirl, a habit I’d had since I was a kid. As I felt my face heat up, I closed my eyes and slowly shook my pounding head back and forth, then put my right hand in hers. “I’m so sorry,” I croaked. “I…” I shook my head again, no words springing forth to help me dig my way out of this.
Alicia Wright, on the other hand, seemed perfectly comfortable with the situation. Of course, why wouldn’t she be? She hadn’t embarrassed herself. Nope. Just me. Suddenly, the inconsideration of the loud noises didn’t really compare to my automatic assumption that this company would be run by a man. What kind of feminist was I anyway? What kind of lesbian?
A lousy one, the little voice in my head replied.
“I sincerely apologize for the noise…” Alicia Wright let her sentence dangle and was looking at me expectantly, my hand still held warmly in hers. It took me longer than it should have to recognize she was asking my name.
“Oh. Lacey. Lacey Chamberlain.”
“I’m so sorry, Ms. Chamberlain. We’re not used to sharing office space, so it’s taking us some getting used to. I promise we’ll try to be better.” Reaching around with her other hand, she picked up a clear plastic tumbler full of that pink smoothie. “And if you don’t mind my saying, you look like you could use some extra vitamins today.” Before I realized what she was doing, she’d let go of my hand and her own had drifted up to my face where she gently brushed some of my hair off my forehead. “You look really exhausted,” she said, and her voice was soft, seeming to hold genuine concern as she handed me the cup.
Too mortified to analyze any further—or let her continue to touch me because that was weird and awesome at the same time—I muttered one more apology, turned on my heel, and fled that office as quickly as I could. My heart was pounding and my head felt foggy, but for different reasons than my cold. It wasn’t until I was safely back in my own space, standing in front of Mary’s desk, that I noticed I had the smoothie in my hand.
“Oooh, that looks good,” Mary commented, and I set the cup on her desk without another word. Thank God, Sharon Antonelli was still sitting across from my desk. I literally shook my head to rid it of everything that had just happened—not a great idea, given the head cold from hell—and headed back into my office.
Sharon Antonelli sat where I’d left her, scrolling on her phone. She glanced up at me, her face open and friendly. “Mystery solved?” she asked.
“High-speed blender. They’re a marketing firm, and I guess the blender company is their client.”
Sharon nodded as if this type of thing occurred every day in her office. “I want one of those things. A friend of mine has one and makes a shake using kale and bananas, but it just tastes like bananas. Kale is so good for you, but that’s the only way I’ll eat it.”
“If it tastes like bananas?” I asked with a grin.
“If it tastes like anything that’s not kale.”
We both laughed and then got back to her taxes. The blender remained quiet.
The rest of my day was nonstop, and thankfully, there were no more sounds of rockets launching or dance parties or firecrackers going off next door, so I chalked it up as a win for me, even though a small sliver of shame still held on in the back of my mind. My head continued to stuff throughout the day, and by four o’clock, I was pretty sure it weighed more than the rest of my body. Keeping it upright on my neck took massive effort on my part. I downed another dose of cold meds, wanting desperately to go home but knowing there was no way. I had so much to get done and not enough time or energy to do it.
I had two evening appointments still to go and I wasn’t at all sure how I was going to pull that off. A knock sounded on my door, and before I could call for the visitor to enter, the door opened.
“I heard you were under the weather.” Leanne Markham stood in my doorway, a white plastic bowl in one hand. Her dark hair was pulled back in her daily ponytail, her lab coat peeking out from under her jacket.
“And how did you hear that? Are you psychic now?”
“Sadly, no, but I know how to get information out of your secretary.”
Mary’s “ha ha” came from the outer office, and I smiled.
“Come in,” I said, waving to the empty chairs. “I’ve got some time before my next client.”
“I’m going to guess you’ve eaten next to nothing today, so I ran home and grabbed some of this for you.” She set the bowl on the desk in front of me and peeled away the lid. The steamy gloriousness of Leanne’s chicken soup wafted up, and I closed my eyes, trying to sniff but failing miserably. “I made it last night.” She pulled a spoon from her pocket and handed it to me. “Eat.”
She didn’t have to tell me twice. I dug in, surprised that it was hot, but also not surprised. Leanne was a caretaker.
We’d been together once. It lasted for nearly two years. More than dating, but we never managed to get any further along than simply talking about the future. We never lived together, but we spent time at each other’s places and that worked for a while. As fate would have it, our individual businesses took off at the same time. My dad retired, and I took over his company. Leanne is a doctor, a general practitioner, and she hit the ground running with her practice. We had trouble finding time for each other. Actually, no. That’s not quite the truth. We had trouble making time for each other, Leanne more so than me. When I finally called her on it, she told me that she thought we’d make better friends than partners. When I asked her why, she said it was obvious that I was too routine and set in my ways to make that significant a change. “It takes so much effort to pull you an inch out of your comfort zone, Lace.”
I wanted to argue with her, I really did. But instead, I agreed with her. Because she was right. I spent several weeks crying over the fact that what she really, indirectly, had said was I was boring. I never mentioned that to her, but it’s what I’d heard. Took us a while, but our friendship held on and grew stronger, and now she was one of my closest confidantes. Weird, I know.
Leanne grabbed a seat and watched me eat for a moment before asking, “So what’s new?”
I shook my head, savoring a bite of soup before swallowing it, a little surprised I could even taste it but grateful that I could. “Just busy.”
“It’s that time of year for you, and I’m sure you’re working way too many hours, which is why you’re sick now.”
“Yes, Doctor. I’m aware.”
“You need to pay more attention to what you eat, Lace.”
I was saved from further scolding by a loud sound that shook the floor, like something very heavy had fallen. Leanne’s eyebrows went up just as I heard a muffled, “Sorry!” come from the other side of the wall. Alicia, I was pretty sure, and I didn’t mean to, but I grinned.
“What the hell was that?” Leanne asked, turning in her chair.
“My new neighbors.”
“They finally filled that office, huh? I didn’t think they ever would. How long’s it been empty now?”
“Over a year. Year and a half, maybe?”
“Who moved in?”
“A marketing and graphics company. A loud one. They’re young and hip and they like to work to music and make smoothies and they eat like pigs. And they’re loud. It’s like Google moved in next door.”
Leanne just blinked at me for a beat before asking, “What are you, eighty-seven years old? They sound fun. I want to work there.”
With a groan, I let my head drop down a bit. “I know. I’m so bad.”
Leanne’s chuckle made me feel the tiniest bit better. “No, you’re not. You’re just routine and set in your ways, my friend. You don’t like change.”
I opened my mouth to argue, but Leanne’s expression looked almost like a dare, and I shut my face. She was right and we both knew it. Which didn’t mean I was unfun. Did it?
My intercom buzzed and Mary told me my next appointment had arrived.
Leanne stood to leave, shaking her head with a grin. “That intercom still cracks me up. She’s literally right there.”
“Hey, we run a professional operation around here. Intercoms are professional.” I snapped the lid back onto the now-empty bowl and handed it to her. “Thank you so much. I needed that.”
“You’re welcome.” Leanne took the bowl and kissed me on the head. “Don’t work too late tonight. Go home and get some rest.”
I almost said, “Yes, Mom,” but that was never a thing that went over well with Leanne, as she was fifteen years my senior—another aspect of why we didn’t work—and had never found it funny to have our age difference pointed out in jest. Instead, I smiled and said simply, “I will.” I followed her out and greeted my next clients, the Carlsons, a newly married couple who’d come directly from their jobs, judging by the business attire they were both wearing. I directed them to head into my office and have a seat as Mary stood and donned her coat.
“I’ll see you in the morning,” she told me, then added as an afterthought, “Oh. Leo is next door.”
My eyes flew open wide. “Wait, what?”
“Yeah, he loves that redheaded woman. What is her name again?” She gazed at the ceiling.
“Alicia,” I supplied.
“Yes! Alicia. Every time Alicia comes to borrow the bathroom key, he runs right over to her. She says he’s got great energy. He followed her out earlier, and when I called him, she said not to worry, that he was fine and she’d bring him back later. She’s so nice. I like her.” With a little wave, she was out the door, leaving me standing there absorbing the fact that my neighbor had “borrowed” my dog without my permission.
I marched my ass right out into the hall, down it, and stopped in front of the closed door of Just Wright Marketing & Graphic Design, which had been painted a bright and cheerful red in the past day or two. I could see through the glass, around the logo. Four people were seated around a table in front of the enormous whiteboard. Alicia was standing in front of it, pointing with a marker and saying something I couldn’t hear. Leo was in her arms and looked stupidly happy to be there. Alicia said something, Leo gave a little yip, and the people seated all laughed. I couldn’t help it. I smiled.
“All right,” I said to the empty hall. “It’s okay.” I could admit to myself that I was a little jealous Leo was so happy at Just Wright, but he’s a social guy who loves to be around people, and people love him. And I had the Carlsons waiting for me. I headed back to my office, making sure to leave all the doors open so I could see straight out into the hall from my desk chair. I sat down, shot one last glance toward the hall, then turned my focus to my clients.
Two hours later, I had made it through both client meetings and had at least made a small dent in the pile of work I needed to finish by the weekend. But I was exhausted. Leanne’s chicken soup was long gone, and I knew I should eat something—should have eaten something way before now—but my stomach again felt a little wonky. I set my pen down, propped my elbows on my desk, and let my face rest in my hands.
When I registered the gentle tap on the doorjamb, it took me a moment to comprehend whether I’d actually fallen asleep. I didn’t think so, but wasn’t totally sure. I looked up at Alicia Wright in her black-rimmed glasses, Leo in her arms. I could see his tiny nub of a tail sticking out from behind her bicep, wiggling like crazy.
“Well, hello there, my tiny guy,” I said, ridiculously happy to see his furry face. Alicia set him down and he ran to me—the best feeling in the world, really. He leapt up into my lap before I had a chance to bend down and grab him, and he put his front paws up on my chest so he could lavish my face with his kisses. “I missed you,” I said to him, devolving into baby talk before I realized it. “Yes, I did. Yes, I did.” A couple moments of this went by before it occurred to me that Alicia was still here. A glance in her direction showed me that she was leaning against the door frame, arms folded across her chest, an expression of sheer amusement on her face.
“I hope you don’t mind that I borrowed him,” she said. “Mary said you wouldn’t, so…” She let her voice trail off. “He’s just so adorable and was terrific for our brainstorming session.”
I continued loving my dog as I listened. “I was a little surprised,” I said honestly. “But it’s fine, as long as you keep your door closed. Otherwise, he might bolt.”
Alicia said, “Oh,” and gave a quick nod. We both sort of blinked at each other for a beat until she pushed off the door frame, stood up straight, and said, “Come have a drink with us.” It was as though she’d blurted out a secret, because we both looked kind of surprised.
She jerked a thumb over her shoulder in the direction of her office. “We’ve had a long day over there and we’re going to go out for drinks. A lot of times we do that right in the office, but we all feel like we need to get out of here, you know? You’ve been here as long as I have today. Come with us.”
“Oh, no,” I said immediately. “I’ve got more work to do. And then I need to go home.” I unintentionally punctuated that with a cough. “Thank you, though.” Was that an expression of disappointment that zipped across her face? I wasn’t sure.
“You do sound pretty stuffy. I bet a shot of whiskey would help.” She gave me a wink.
“So would a shot of NyQuil,” I responded with a grin.
“Whiskey would taste a hell of a lot better.”
I was shocked to feel myself wavering. “You make a fine point,” I said, although I didn’t actually enjoy the taste of whiskey, so I’m not sure why I said it except…Alicia.
“We’re just going to that place down the sidewalk a bit. Boomer’s, is it?”
Boomer’s was a quick two-minute walk, and I could easily lock Leo in the office for a bit. There was something about Alicia, something about her face, her demeanor, that tugged at me. I held up a finger. “One. Only one drink.”
I thought she’d already been smiling but was quickly proven wrong when her entire face lit up. Those blue eyes sparkled; it was obvious, even behind the sexy glasses. “Fantastic! The others already headed down. Let me go lock up and I’ll meet you in the hall.” And she was gone.
“This is a terrible idea,” I said quietly to Leo, as I looked at all the work scattered across my desk. Leo cocked his head at me and I kissed his nose. “But I’m still going. You stay here and hold down the fort, okay? I won’t be long.”
He had everything he needed, so I left the lights on, stuffed several tissues into my purse, and locked both doors behind me.
Alicia came out her own door at the same time and we smiled down the hall at each other. For a brief instant, I had a vision of the two of us in high school, standing at our individual lockers, tossing glances at one another without anybody around us noticing. I tried not to stare as Alicia walked toward me, but I had to force my own eyes away and I pretended to be engrossed by the ring of keys in my hand. So interesting, they were!
I nodded and followed her down the stairs and out into the chilly evening.
Turned out it was karaoke night at Boomer’s. Which meant it was super loud. The guy singing “You’re So Vain” couldn’t possibly have been more off-key. I actually did a little stutter step in the doorway, as if my head was revolting and physically yanked my body to a halt. But Alicia’s warm hand slid down my arm and closed around my wrist, and she pulled me gently toward her and pressed her lips near my ear.
“Just one,” she said.
I nodded. A) I’d made a promise, and B) her proximity was doing things to me. I couldn’t have left if I’d wanted to. I followed her, noticing she had yet to let go of my wrist, and we stopped at a round table where the rest of Just Wright sat. Alicia directed me into the chair next to Gisele, then headed toward the bar. I watched as she found a spot and squeezed in. The man to her right immediately turned on his stool and struck up a conversation with her. She smiled widely, genuinely, and spoke back.
Fun fact about me: I have zero gaydar. It’s true. Unless somebody is a walking stereotype, I’m never really sure which team they play on, and with Alicia, it was especially difficult because she was touchy. That tended to tip the scales for me. But they could be tipped just as easily in the other direction. So Alicia practically touched her lips to my ear and she almost held my hand on our way in. The scales tip. Then she goes to the bar and a man obviously flirts with her and she obviously flirts back. Scales tip the other way.
“How are you feeling?” Gisele’s voice pulled me back to the table and out of my own head.
“Like my head weighs three hundred pounds.”
“Oh, man. I’m sorry. But I’m glad you’re here.” Her smile was sweet and friendly and it occurred to me that probably nobody ever met Gisele without liking her immediately.
Alicia returned with two whiskeys, neat, and set one in front of me, then sat in the chair to my left. She held up her glass until I picked up my own. “To the end of your cold.”
“I’ll drink to that.”
We clinked glasses and I sipped. I hate whiskey. Did I mention that? It’s awful stuff, like lighter fluid burning its way down my throat. It doesn’t really taste any better than NyQuil, to be honest. But I know it’s good for what ails you, as my grandma would say. And also, the fact that it was suggested by and then purchased by Alicia made it somehow more palatable. Not much, but a little.
Alicia made a face as she swallowed her drink, and I grinned at her.
“Why are we drinking whiskey?” I asked, raising my voice over the girl singing “I Will Survive” so Alicia could hear me.
“Because you’re sick and this is supposed to help.” She held up her glass.
“You’re not sick. Why are you drinking it?”
“I like it.”
I laughed. “No, you don’t.”
“No, I don’t. But I didn’t want you to drink it alone.” Her smile was soft.
“That might be the sweetest thing anybody’s ever said to me.”
Alicia’s eyebrows went up. “You need to get out more, my friend.” She bumped me with a shoulder and suddenly, I didn’t feel so sick.
Wait. No, that’s not true. I still felt sick. But I also felt…happy being out with these people. Happy being out with Alicia. I’d stepped out of my comfort zone of routine and the world hadn’t crumbled. On the contrary, I found myself actually having fun.
“Tell me about how you got Leo,” Alicia said, pulling me out of my head and scooting her chair closer to me. Suddenly, all I could smell was that peaches-and-cream scent of hers.
“Well.” I took another sip of the whiskey because, despite the unpleasant taste, I was starting to feel warm inside and my throat didn’t hurt quite so much. “I’d been single for a while, living on my own. We had a dog when I was a teenager, but he died when I was twenty-three and my parents didn’t want another. I wasn’t ready for one of my own at that time either. But about two years ago, I started thinking about it. I knew I wanted something small—my place isn’t that big—but wasn’t sure where to start. I visited a local shelter just to get a feel for how it’s done.”
Alicia shook her head as she grinned. “Yeah, I can’t do that.”
I furrowed my brow. “What? Rescue?”
“No. ‘Visit’ a shelter.” She made air quotes around the word “visit.” “I would end up bringing them all home.”
“Yeah, well, Leo was there and I had to have him. It was the weirdest thing.”
“Really? How so?”
I thought about it, sipped the whiskey as I tried to recall that day in detail. “It was like he was mine. Like he was already mine and was just waiting for me to come get him.”
Alicia propped an elbow on the table and leaned her head against her hand. “That is so cool.”
“It really took me by surprise.”
“I’m not kidding when I say he has great energy. Everything gives it off, but some more than others, and some have more positive energy than others. That’s why I snagged him earlier. He’s great for creativity. I have no idea why.”
“You have any pets?” I asked, realizing I knew next to nothing about Alicia Wright.
She shook her head and her red hair bounced lightly. “My schedule’s kind of crazy.”
“Yeah, that can make it hard. I lucked out with Leo being okay in my office. Perks of being your own boss, right?”
“Definitely.” Alicia held up her glass and we clinked again, then each emptied our glasses.
“Speaking of, I should go get my boy and finish up some work.” I didn’t want to leave, but the responsible part of me had somehow escaped her binds and gag and was now poking at the part of me that yearned to stay right here, right now, with this woman.
Alicia earned extra points by not trying to stop me. “I’d love for you to stay, but I know you’ve got stuff to do. You promised one, and you kept your promise. Thank you for that.”
That soft smile again. God, she was beautiful.
“Thank you for the invite. Sometimes I need a nudge.”
“I’m making a mental note.”
Our gazes held as I stood. I turned to the rest of the group and waved my good-byes, feeling the tiniest bit rude for not having conversed with them at all. Next time.
I’m pretty sure I wore a stupid grin the entire walk back to my office, even as I coughed like an organ was about to come up. I hadn’t had that good a time in longer than I could come up with, and I tried to ignore the fact that I was mentally making a list of reasons I might have to see Alicia tomorrow…