“I don’t understand this.” Kyle Bannon’s expression mixed confusion with the beginnings of anger and a sprinkling of disbelief. Addison watched them swirl together and begin to color his face a deep scarlet.
“What don’t you understand, Kyle? Our sexual harassment policy is very clear.” Addison kept her tone steady, her face neutral, when in reality, she wanted to smack him. He knew better. He knew muchbetter, and to be frank, she hated that he’d put her in this position.
“But it’s not sexual harassment if we’re together, right?” Jerrika Marshall’s voice was small, hesitant, as if she thought speaking might disrupt something in the atmosphere.
“Exactly,” Kyle said, pointing at her, but clearly not on the same page as she was with regard to tone. “She’s my girlfriend. So how am I harassing her?” He was pissed; that much was clear.
Addison felt her own ire rising, her increased heart rate making it feel like her heart suddenly took up too much space in her chest. “Do you think I want to do this, Kyle? Do you think this is fun for me?” She shook her head. “You touch her ass when you walk behind her. You flirt with her. And don’t get me started about the make-out session in the supply closet. You put us here. The two of you.”
He stood in front of her large mahogany desk, hands on his hips, and stared her down through his wire-rimmed glasses, his dark eyes flashing behind the lenses. He had a lot to say, Addison could see it all over his face. He said none of it. Next to him, Jerrika stared at her shoes.
“We are an arm of a very large, very well-known company. If I make an exception for you, I’ll have to make them all over the place and that will bleed into the rest of Fairchild Enterprises, which I cannot let happen. You’ve left me without a choice. Have you seen the news lately with regard to sexual harassment? One of you has to go. I’ll let you decide which.” She folded her hands on the desk and waited, schooling her features, staying completely neutral even though her stomach felt like a giant pool of acid.
“I’ll go.” Jerrika’s voice was so quiet, Addison wasn’t sure she’d even spoken until Kyle jumped in.
“No. I’ll go.” And then he grabbed her hand and entwined their fingers, pulled it up to his mouth, and kissed it. The gesture felt much more intimate than it was and Addison had to fight the urge to look away as if she was intruding.
Jerrika looked up at him for the first time since they’d been called into Addison’s office. “No, you’ve been here longer than I have and the Maintenance Department needs you. You should stay. I can find another job.” Her eyes welled up and Addison got the impression that made her angry. When Jerrika turned her gaze on her, Addison knew she was right. A little crackle of fire sparked as Jerrika pulled off her clearance pass and tossed it onto Addison’s desk. “I’ll go pack up my things.”
Kyle let go of her hand and watched her leave the room, stayed looking at the door long after she’d disappeared through it. When he looked back at Addison, she wondered if the fire had spread when he and Jerrika had held hands. The same anger glowed on his face. “You know what?” he said to Addison, as he yanked off his own pass. “I’ll pack up my things, too.” His pass joined Jerrika’s on the desk.
“Come on, Kyle,” Addison began. Things had gone exactly as she’d expected up until this moment. “You’ve got a good job here. You don’t really want to do this.”
“No. I don’t.” He narrowed his eyes as he tossed her words back at her. “You’ve left me with no choice.”
With that, he stormed out of her office, not quite slamming the door behind him, but not being gentle. Addison stared at it, at her coat gently swinging from the hook mounted on the back, while she wondered how she’d miscalculated the outcome of this so badly. She’d expected them to protest. She’d expected Jerrika to be the one to quit, based on the meekness Addison had seen so far. She had not expected Kyle to follow suit. That was going to cause extra stress for Addison, and it was as though the acid in her stomach heard the thought and agreed, churning extra horribly. Addison gripped the edge of her desk and willed herself not to throw up as a now-familiar pain squeezed her abdomen. When the willing didn’t work, she had no other option but to hurry to the ladies’ room down the hall from her office.
Ignoring the judgmental looks from others in the open office setting was something she was used to. She could hear her mother’s voice in her head. “You’re not here to be their friend. You’re here to run this company.”Still, Kyle was popular, and it was obvious from the veiled unhappy glances that news of his departure—and Jerrika’s—was already spreading. She wouldn’t hang her head—she had nothing to be ashamed of, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t uncomfortable to know how her employees felt about her.
As was her regular course of action, she did her best to shake it off.
Not for the first time, she wished she had her own private bathroom attached to her office. There was one woman in the ladies’ room, but thankfully, she was washing her hands and finishing up. Addison managed to hold it together until she left before bolting into a stall and throwing up what little lunch she’d eaten.
It was the third time this week.
“Son of a bitch,” she said quietly as she waited it out, head in her hands, not wanting to leave the safety of the porcelain bowl until she was sure she was finished. She flushed and then sat there, noting the surprising cleanliness of the floor, the grout between the tiles. She squeezed her eyes shut, then opened them again, her gaze falling on tiny lettering next to the toilet tissue dispenser.
Fairchild is such a bitch.
“Immature, totally uncreative, and shows a stunning lack of originality,” she muttered. Realizing it was written in what looked to be Sharpie, she shook her head, making a mental note to get a maintenance guy in to scrub it off somehow. She pressed her fingers to her temples and moved them in a slow circle. She’d always been prone to headaches, but lately, she seemed to have one constantly. On very bad days, it would bloom into a migraine, which was the worst because she could lose an entire day. She fought them hard, but they rarely let up until hours had gone by.
Four more minutes on the floor was all she allowed herself before she slowly stood, hand on the metal stall wall for balance. Her head felt a bit light and she waited out a wave of dizziness. The pain in her stomach was gone, though, and that was a good thing. With a slow intake of breath, then a slow release, she exited the stall and headed to the sink to rinse her mouth and wash her hands.
The reflection in the mirror startled her.
There was zero color in her face. She looked like a corpse, her skin pale and carrying a tint of gray. Dark circles underlined her eyes, announcing to the world just how little sleep she’d been getting. Her brown hair, which normally shone with gentle red highlights, hung limply, no wave to it, no happily curling ends to skim her collarbone. Just…hair. Hanging there. Lifeless. She braced herself on the counter with both hands and leaned in close to the glass, squinting at her own face.
She didn’t look healthy.
“Shake it off, Addie,” she whispered as she scratched the side of her neck, leaving angry red lines. “You’re fine. Just tired. Get your shit together and finish this day.”
The pep talk bolstered her just enough to straighten her posture and get her to walk, head high, steps typically quick, back to her office. Then she collapsed in her chair as if she’d just run a sprint. Not good. As she gave herself a moment, she gazed out the window, watched as Kyle—box under his arm—chatted with another employee while standing next to his car. Both sported the red winter jackets with the Fairchild Rentals logo embroidered on the front and khaki pants…the official uniform of the maintenance crew.
Fairchild Rentals was Addison’s baby, one arm of the enormous Fairchild Enterprises, a commercial real estate company her mother had started nearly twenty-five years ago. There were three offshoots, each run by a Fairchild sibling. Addison was in charge of Fairchild Rentals, the company that operated and maintained five apartment complexes across the county. Her younger brother, Jared, oversaw the running of four malls in two counties. Her younger sister, Katrina, was the CEO of the Fairchild Research Hospital and Cancer Center.
Recently, her mother had been hinting about retirement. She’d worked hard for a long time and turned a company she’d started from the ground up into something huge and well-known, with a sparkling reputation for treating its employees wonderfully and giving a boatload of money to charity each year. But she was tired. She wanted to enjoy the fruits of her labor. And she had three children, any one of whom could take over for her.
Addison wanted that job so badly, she could taste it.
She picked up her mug as she watched Kyle get into his car and took a sip of very cold coffee, which hit her stomach like liquid fire. She grimaced and set it back down. She’d had more than enough caffeine today—she could almost hear Sophie, her best friend since college, scolding her about how much coffee she drank. “Jesus, Fairchild, you’re already wound tighter than anybody I’ve ever met. There’s this new thing called decaf. You should try it some time.”
Addison managed half a smile at the thought, but it was curtailed by the throbbing in her head, which seemed to suddenly increase. With a quiet groan, she opened her desk drawer and pulled out the jumbo-size bottle of Motrin, which had recently become her constant companion. She shook four pills into her hand and washed them down with the same awful coffee, just as the phone on her desk began to ring.
Back to the chaos, she thought as she snatched up the handset.
“I was beginning to think you weren’t going to make it. Again.” Sophie Bennett sat at a table for two in Vineyard, her favorite wine bar. She did her best to school her features and not look all that annoyed, but Addison knew her well.
“I told you I’d be here.” Addison shed her coat and glanced surreptitiously at her watch as she did. Yeah, she was nearly half an hour late, which wasn’t like her. She prided herself on being punctual, but lately, things seemed to be getting away from her. She felt the grimace cross her face, felt the frustration ripple through her.
“You told me that the last time, too.” Sophie sipped from her glass of some kind of red. “And you blew me off.”
“And I apologized.” Addison didn’t want to get annoyed, but she felt it bubbling low in her gut. With a sigh, she sat. “I’m sorry this time, too. Rough day.”
Addison and Sophie had been best friends since they were matched up as suitemates in college. There had been four of them in the suite, but the other two girls were friends from high school and did everything together, leaving Addison and Sophie on their own. They had similar interests and equal drive, and it just seemed natural for them to pair up. Sophie had been pre-law, Addison had a dual major of economics and business management, and together, they’d helped each other graduate with honors.
Sophie, now thirty-one, was one of the best-known attorneys in the city, and if Addison had to pinpoint her best weapon, it would be her appearance. Small in stature, blond with big blue eyes, prominent cheekbones, and a voice that registered a bit on the high side, Sophie tended to snow just about everybody. Nobody ever expected her to be a badass. She was the epitome of cute, and people had a way of making instant assumptions based on appearance. It was only when Sophie was ripping out their jugular while they were on the stand that they realized what a fatal mistake they’d made in assuming her appearance had anything to do with how she did her job.
The waitress came over with a glass of red. She was friendly, her dark ponytail swinging behind her, an inviting smile on her face. She grinned at Sophie as she set the glass in front of Addison, and with a cock of her head in Addison’s direction, said, “She made it.”
“She did,” Sophie replied. “Thanks, Bridget.”
Addison blinked as the waitress left. “What just happened?”
“I ordered a glass of wine for you ahead of time so you wouldn’t have to wait. Or make a decision.” With a nod toward the wine, she said, “Drink. You’ll like it.”
The only reason Addison didn’t argue was because Sophie knew her that well. One sip proved her right: the wine was delicious, a rich blend of cherries and pepper on the front…something earthier on the back. She hummed her approval.
“So.” Sophie propped her elbow on the table and her chin in her hand. “You look like shit, Fairchild. What’s going on with you?”
“Jesus, are we doing this again?”
The stand-off across the table was not their first and it certainly wouldn’t be their last. Sophie usually backed down first. Ninety percent of the time, Addison won these things. But not this time. Sophie’s blue eyes held hers and she let her head tilt a bit to the side—a gesture she used on juries all the time when making a salient point.
“Come on, Soph. Not after the day I’ve had. My phone rang off the hook. I expected to fire one employee and I lost two instead, one that will be hard to replace at this time of year. And I threw up in the ladies’ room while reading about what a bitch I am on the stall wall.”
Addison saw her mistake too late. She shouldn’t have mentioned the part about getting sick and tried to backpedal. “No big deal. I think I ate something that didn’t agree with me.”
“Yeah, I’d believe that if you ever ate.” Sophie narrowed her eyes. “You need to see a doctor, Addie. Get checked out. You’ve lost weight. You never feel well. You’re getting sick on a regular basis. You don’t eat. You don’t sleep. You live on coffee. None of this is good. You know this, yes?”
The bubbling in her gut began to boil. The wine didn’t help. “I don’t need this today, Sophie. I already have a mom, thank you.”
Sophie’s right eye twitched. That was the only way Addison could tell she’d hit a nerve, and she was immediately sorry but couldn’t bring herself to say so. Sophie looked away and took a sip of her wine, while Addison used the moment to calm her heated blood and choose her words.
“Look. I appreciate your concern. I do. I love you for it. But it’s not necessary. I’m fine. Am I stressed out? God, yes. What else is new? We’re rewriting the leases, Hammerhead needs new roofs on all the buildings, maintenance has a skeleton crew right now, and my mom is going to retire after the first of the year.”
Sophie’s head snapped back around at that news. “She is?”
Addison nodded, sipped.
“Finally. I didn’t think she ever would.”
Sophie brought her glass to her lips, drank without taking her eyes off Addison. Addison hated when she did that. Sophie Bennett had crazy intense eye contact, which she used on witnesses for her opposition when she thought they were lying on the stand or when she was trying to suss out something they weren’t saying. It took every ounce of energy Addison had to keep from squirming in her chair and looking away in guilt. She saw the moment Sophie figured it out; her eyes widened just a touch and she sat back in her chair, folded her arms across her chest.
“One of you is taking over for her.”
She didn’t need clarification, but Addison gave it anyway. “Yes. Most likely me or one of my siblings. I suppose there’s an off chance she’ll tap one of the guys who has been with her since the beginning—maybe Jack or Robert—but they’re both the same age as her, and I imagine they want to retire as well.”
Sophie leaned her forearms on the table. “So it’s most likely you, Katrina, or Jared.”
“And you want it to be you.”
“Absolutely.” Addison sat back, sipped her wine. “It should be me. I’m the oldest. Jared doesn’t have enough experience. Katrina…” She let the sentence dangle. Her little sister was her real competition, and while she was reasonably sure the job would be hers, she couldn’t deny that Katrina was a savvy businesswoman. She shrugged in an effort to highlight how very nonchalant about it she was. Yup. Totally cool. No big deal. “People like her.”
Sophie looked like she was going to delve into that. She actually opened her mouth, apparently thought better of it, closed it again. After a sip of wine, she completely changed the subject. “Tell me about your terrible day.”
Grateful for the shift, Addison rehashed her issues with Kyle and Jerrika. “I looked the other way for a while, but when they got caught in the supply closet…” She shook her head. “A couple people complained, and with all the headlines about sexual harassment lately, there was no way I could get away with doing nothing.”
Sophie grimaced. “So, she went, I assume? She’s only been there a short time, right?”
Addison blew out a breath. “Yeah, that’s how I thought it would go. But then Kyle went all Knight in Shining Armor and quit on me.”
“Huh.” A ghost of a smile played across Sophie’s lips.
Lifting one shoulder, Sophie asked, “Don’t you think that’s kind of romantic, though? That he stood up for his girl like that?”
Addison rolled her eyes. “Now is not the time for chivalry. He had a good job. Decent pay. Benefits. Christmas bonus coming up in a month.”
“He was following his heart.”
“Or his dick.”
Sophie snorted a laugh. “My best friend, the pessimist.”
“I’m not a pessimist. I’m a realist. Big difference.”
“Po-tay-to, po-tah-to,” Sophie said and finished her wine. “Think he’ll be back?”
“I don’t. He was pretty pissed.” Addison wasn’t looking forward to replacing him, but she’d figure it out.
They caught up on the rest of life over a second glass of wine and a shared cheese board, and when Sophie glanced at her iPhone, her eyebrows went up. “I’ve gotta get home,” she said. “I’ve got depositions tomorrow I’m not ready for. You good?”
Addison nodded and decided not to mention that over the past several minutes, she’d felt that same pain in her stomach and a light-headedness that was new in its intensity. She hoped it would just pass, as such things usually did, but when she stood from her chair, it was as though she’d lost all feeling in her legs and she collapsed to her knees before she even knew it was happening. Vaguely, she heard Sophie say her name, but it seemed so far away, and like she was underwater. She wasn’t sure which of them was underwater, though. Was it her? Was it Sophie? Why couldn’t she seem to answer this simple question?
And then the answer didn’t matter because everything went black.
“I’m telling you, Jack, that girl is going to be the death of me.”
Samantha couldn’t see Meredith Fairchild, but she could hear the concern in her voice even from the other side of the office wall. It wasn’t the concern of a boss or even that of a friend. It was the concern of a mother, and Samantha could detect the tiniest bit of panic in the worried tone.
Samantha Morgan was the direct admin to Jack Saunders and had been for the past two years. Jack had worked for Meredith for nearly twenty years, and when his long-term secretary had finally retired, Sam had somehow, against all odds, gotten the job. She’d wanted it badly; working for Fairchild Enterprises was a big deal. And a good one. Excellent pay. Even better benefits. A management team made up of good, hardworking people who did a ton of charity work in the name of their employer. Sam worked her ass off to prove herself worthy of her position, and luckily, she excelled at her job. Over the past twenty-four months, she’d made herself indispensable, and in the process, she and Jack had become almost friends. He was like a second father to her…or maybe a favorite uncle. His trust in her grew and he gave her more and more responsibility, which she took on happily. Now? Jack barely knew what day it was without Sam to remind him.
As she sat at her desk outside Jack’s office, she listened through the wall and the open door.
“What did her doctor say?” Jack’s deep voice. He, too, sounded concerned. Not surprising, as he’d known Meredith’s children since they were all still in school. He was probably like an uncle to them, too.
“Not her doctor. The emergency room doctor. Sophie had to take her to the damn hospital. She’s got an ulcer. She’s way too stressed. Her heart rate was through the roof. She’s lost another six pounds…” Meredith’s voice broke and Sam felt her own heart constrict at the sound. “She works so damned hard, Jack. I don’t know how to get her to ease up.”
“Addison’s always been this way, Mere.”
There was silence for several moments, and Samantha prayed the phone wouldn’t ring. She felt slightly guilty eavesdropping. But only slightly.
“I think we revisit the personal assistant idea,” Jack said.
“We tried that. She refused.” Meredith was obviously annoyed by that. “You know how damn stubborn she is.”
“Like mother, like daughter.” The affection in Jack’s voice was easily heard.
“Ha ha. She’ll never agree to it.”
“So we make it mandatory.”
A beat of silence passed before Meredith said, “You mean…require it?”
“You’re the boss.”
“I am, aren’t I?” Jack must have nodded because Meredith went on. “How do you suggest we find such a person?”
That was all Samantha needed to hear.
The school bus pulled up to the bus stop and, not for the first time, Katie Cooper marveled at how much bigger it seemed than she remembered. She knew it was an illusion because of how very small Simon and Noah were, but still, she found herself thinking, were they always such behemoths? Even when I rode one? She knew the answer was yes, but she asked the question every day anyway.
She felt Noah’s little hand tighten its grip inside hers. He was nervous again, and Katie tightened her own fingers to reassure him. Squatting down to meet his blue eyes—which were slightly wider than usual—she brushed his white-blond hair off his forehead.
“Hey,” she said quietly. “You’re going to be fine. You’re going to have a great time at school. Remember how much fun you had yesterday?”
He nodded but looked uncertain.
“It’s going to be like that again, but probably even better. You’ll make stuff and you’ll play with cool toys and I can’t wait to hear all about it tomorrow. Okay?”
He nodded again, and it was obvious how hard he was trying to be brave, tears welling in his big blue eyes but not spilling over. Holding his other hand was his twin brother, Simon, who had no qualms whatsoever about getting on the bus. “Come on, Noah,” he said, trying to be patient and failing as he gave his brother’s hand a tug.
Katie shifted her stance so she could grab Simon’s face with both hands. She placed a kiss on his cheek, then whispered in his ear, “Do me a favor. Go easy on your brother, okay, buddy? Look out for him. Can you do that for me?”
Simon nodded enthusiastically because he loved being given things to do for Katie and she knew it.
She did the same thing with Noah—took his little, frightened face in both hands and kissed his cheek. “You’re going to have such a good day.”
He nodded once more—Katie had learned it was his go-to when he was trying not to cry—and allowed his brother to tug him onto the bus.
The bus monitor, a woman in her sixties, gave Katie a reassuring smile and mouthed I’ve got them, which Katie greatly appreciated.
The twins found their seat and waved out the window at Katie as the bus pulled away. She waved back, her heart squeezing in her chest as if the boys had come from her own womb. They’d been going to pre-K for nearly two months now, but she still got teary as she watched them head off on their own.
A ding sounded from her back pocket, indicating a text, and she was glad for the distraction.
Still looking for a second job?
It was from Sam. Katie typed back.
Sam’s reply came almost instantly, as if she wasn’t even waiting for Katie to answer.
Can you meet me tonight at 5:30? Jade’s. I think I can help.
Well. That was intriguing. Katie sent back a reply saying she’d be there, then headed into the Anderson house to clean things up before she left.
The scent of peanut butter still hung in the air in the gourmet kitchen, remnants of the twins’ lunch they’d had just before school. They were in the afternoon class, which worked better for Katie because, once she got them onto the bus, she was able to go home and help her mother for a while. She’d had a job she loved as an account executive at a tech company, but when she’d inquired about shifting her position to part-time in order to help her parents when her father became ill, she’d been denied, which had surprised her. And stung, if she was being honest. Evidently, they didn’t love her in her job as much as she liked being there. She’d started nannying the twins in July, their mother working in the mornings and then relieving Katie in the afternoons. Now that they were in school for half a day, she missed them, which was a bit puzzling, as she hadn’t missed them when their mother came home and she left them during the summer. Maybe it was actually putting them on a bus, sending them off to school, out into the real world, that felt so very different from leaving them with their mother. She wasn’t sure. All she knew was that watching the bus drive away with them each day was more emotionally wrenching than she’d expected it to be.
Gathering her things, she locked the house and drove her eleven-year-old Honda home. Well, to her parents’ house. No, home. She still hadn’t gotten used to that. She’d left the apartment she’d shared with Samantha a month ago and moved back to her parents’ house in order to help out, financially as well as physically.
Dementia was a horrible, horrible thing.
It had only been a year, but David Cooper had developed early-onset dementia caused by Alzheimer’s and Katie was often shocked by how quickly her father seemed to be…disappearing. He’d gone from being a gentle, funny, loving man to somebody who was anxious, confused, or angry much of the time, often all three at once. Sometimes he was fine. Almost his usual, normal self. Other times—and often mere minutes after seeming to be fine—he would explode in anger. Or worse, he’d dissolve into tears. Katie was often left feeling like her head was spinning and she had no clue what to do. This was their new normal. And it was devastating most of the time.
In the driveway, parked behind her father’s Toyota that he no longer drove, Katie turned off the engine and sat. Collected herself. It was new and necessary, this pause before entering the house she grew up in. This steeling herself. Bracing. Because that’s what it was: bracing. Katie had learned to brace herself before going inside because the reality was, she never knew what she was going to walk into. Would he be sleeping peacefully? Had he had a good morning, and therefore, Katie’s mother would seem the tiniest bit less stressed out than usual? Or had it been a horrendous morning that left her mother haggard and frazzled, her father violent and angry? Would he be happily watching television? Or throwing things across the living room?
It was getting to the point where she never knew.
Deep breath in. Slow breath out.
Katie headed inside.
Liz Cooper appeared from the kitchen, a dish towel in one hand, the other holding her forefinger to her lips in the universal request for silence. Then she pointed to the recliner in the living room where Katie saw her father, eyes closed, apparently napping.
Liz waved her into the kitchen.
“How’s he been today?” Katie asked, barely above a whisper. She knew how much these breaks—when her father crashed into a nap—were a necessity for her mother. And her mother’s sanity.
“Eh. Not great. Not awful.” Liz shrugged as she folded the dish towel in thirds and hung it over the handle of the oven. “Want some tea?” she asked Katie, as she put the kettle on the front burner and turned it on.
She pulled out a chair at the small kitchen table and watched as her mother busied herself with mugs and tea bags. Katie didn’t get a lot of time alone with her mother anymore. There was some, but most of the time, Liz was so utterly exhausted that she took whatever breaks she got to grab a nap or go for a quiet walk. They didn’t really talk like they used to, either. Katie missed that. Her mother had always made the best sounding board. Even in school, her friends were amazed by the relationship she had with her mom. Disagreements between them were rare; Katie liked to think that was because she was a good girl and her mother was a reasonable parent. As a teenager, she actually wantedto spend time with her mom. When most of her friends heard that, their eyes bugged out in disbelief and they wondered why in the world she’d want to do such a ridiculously lame thing.
Life was different now. Changed. Altered. Not that she didn’t want to hang out with her mom any longer, just that it was harder and harder to find time for just the two of them. Her father, who used to be the guy to bring light and energy into any room, now seemed to suck out all the air more and more often. God, it was hard to watch.
Liz set two mugs of steaming tea down on the table, then doctored her own with cream and sugar. Katie grinned, as she always did when she did the same thing to her own tea.
“Like mother, like daughter,” Liz said quietly, her standard comment when they had tea together. “How were the boys today?”
This felt almost normal, this type of conversation, and Katie was thankful for that. Every snippet of normal she could grab, she snatched at, held it as tightly in her grip as she could. “Noah is still a little ball of nerves. I feel so bad for him. He’s trying so hard to be brave, but he’s just scared. Simon is pretty good about helping him along, but he’s got zero fear, so I’m not sure he gets what the big deal is.”
“You were like Noah.”
“For kindergarten, yes. You were terrified. And so was your mother.” Liz covered her sheepish grin by taking a sip of her tea.
“You were? Why?”
“You had no siblings and not much in the way of extended family. It had been just you and me for four years. Part of me was worried about how you’d do, surrounded by other kids, because that would be so new for you. The other part of me wondered what I was going to do without you.”
“Aww, Mom.” Katie reached across the table and squeezed her mother’s forearm. “You never told me that. What happened?”
Liz chuckled. “You met Samantha, that’s what happened.”
“And the rest is history.”
“It sure is.”
“Speaking of Sam, I’m supposed to meet her tonight when she gets out of work. I think she might have a line on a job for me.” Katie squinted at her mom. “Are you okay if I scoot for an hour or two later?”
“I won’t stay out long. I can give you a break now for a couple hours and I know you’ll need another one by tonight.”
“Sweetie, it’s fine. Go have a drink with your BFF and don’t worry about me. I can handle things here.”
Katie forced a smile onto her face for her mother’s benefit. Liz needed Katie to know she was handling things, even when she was barely holding on. Katie understood that and played along, but she was always watching out of the corner of her eye. She worried almost as much about her mother as she did about her father, as she was reasonably sure that either one of them could topple at any given moment. Katie had to be ready to catch them. She had to.
Yeah, this new normal? Katie was notenjoying it.
“She’s so tired, Sam.” Katie shook her head, then took a swig of her beer. “She’s got dark circles under her eyes. She’s stopped wearing makeup because she doesn’t have time to put it on. She’s constantly in sweats because she’s too exhausted to put an outfit together.”
“God, that sucks.” Samantha sipped her Cosmo. “How’s your dad?”
Katie tipped her head one way, then the other. “Depends on the day. Today wasn’t bad. He was napping when I got home, and he stayed that way for over an hour. I sent my mom out to the store. I don’t think we needed anything, but she barely leaves the house unless I insist.”
“This has to be so hard for her.” A sheepish look crossed Sam’s face as she averted her eyes so she was staring at the pink liquid in her glass. “I want to call her, to check in, to say hi, but…” She frowned as she looked up at Katie.
“You don’t know what to say.”
A small nod. “I do text her.”
“It’s okay, Sammi. I get it. Keep texting. She likes hearing from you.”
Katie nodded. “She doesn’t talk to people very often. Dad takes up so much of her time and energy.” She didn’t like to think about it, about how lonely her mother had become. She and Katie’s father were the epitome of soulmates. He was her air, and she his. Katie couldn’t begin to fathom the depths of the cracks that must be forming in her mother’s heart over this.
A beat went by before Sam said, “Okay, let’s talk about something happier.” Her smile was gentle and tender, making it clear she wasn’t brushing aside what Katie and her family were going through. She’d never do that; Katie knew it. They’d been best friends for twenty-four years and nobody knew her better than Sam. She set down her martini glass, put her forearms on the table, and leaned forward. “I have a proposition for you.”
“Why, Samantha Morgan. And all this time you’ve been telling me you don’t play on my team.”
“Ha ha. You’re hilarious.” Sam’s green eyes twinkled as she brushed a hunk of red hair off her forehead. “I like my own team just fine, thank you, and I have a jobproposition for you.”
Katie cocked her head, definitely curious. “I’m listening.”
“I know your hours have been cut with the twins heading off to school. I also know you need as much money as you can get to help out at home.”
A grimace crossed Katie’s face. “My dad’s medical bills are getting crazy. I think my mom’s close to panicking but won’t tell me that. I have to sneak peeks at the mail.”
“I figured. So, here’s the deal.” Sam gave a brief rundown of the conversation she’d overheard earlier. “I talked to Jack afterward and he told me they’re getting Addison a part-time personal assistant until she’s back to a hundred percent. Which means it’s temporary, but the pay is beyond generous. I told him about you, that I’ve known you since we were kids, that you have a business degree, that you’re crazy organized. I told him you’d be great for the job, and he trusts me. He wants to meet with you first, but if you want the job, it’s yours. He’s already told Mrs. Fairchild, and she trusts him, so…” She let the sentence dangle.
“Wow,” Katie said, because it was all she could manage in the moment. She took a beat with the information, let it absorb into her gray cells. “So…how temporary are we talking?”
Sam shrugged. “I don’t know for sure, but Jack and I thought at least three months. Possibly four.” She named a figure that had Katie’s eyes opening wide.
“Wow. For three months?”
Katie nodded slowly. “What happened to her? To Addison?”
“I’ve never met her, though I’ve seen her several times. She works herself to the bone, according to Jack. She’s constantly overstressed, and apparently, it caught up with her last week. She was out with a friend and fainted. She tried to brush it off, but the friend insisted on taking her to the emergency room where they ran a bunch of tests. She’s got an ulcer, high blood pressure, an endless headache, she’s too thin. Lots of issues.” Sam paused to sip her drink and Katie saw a shadow cross her face.
“What? What aren’t you telling me?”
Sam shook her head. “Nothing. Just that…she has a reputation for being kind of a…” She pursed her lips, pushed them to the side of her face as she searched for the right word.
“Whirlwind? Amazing boss? Bitch?”
“Yes.” Sam pointed at her. “That last one.”
“Come on. You’ve handled four-year-old twin boys for over a year. I think a type-A personality businesswoman would be a piece of cake for you.”
Katie narrowed her eyes. “You make a fine point, my friend.”
“And as I said, I’ve never actually met her, I’m just telling you what I’ve heard. So this could all just be rumor and innuendo. She could be lovely.”
“That issomething to take into consideration.”
“As is the money.”
“As is the money. Yeah. So there’s that.”
“Just talk to Jack. How about that? Come by tomorrow after you put the boys on the bus and see him. I’ll sit in if you want.”
Katie realized in that moment how silly she was being. “No need. I’m a big girl. I can talk to him myself. Okay.” She slapped a hand down on the table. “Let’s do that.”
They set up a time and then shifted focus to talk about other things. In the back of her mind, though, Katie was keeping track of the time, knowing her mother was going to need to be tagged out.
Half an hour later, on her drive home, Katie felt herself getting excited about the possibility of a new job, about being able to contribute more to help with the bills that seemed to be piling up despite her parents’ insurance coverage. About being able to use her degree. She loved being a nanny, loved Simon and Noah like they were her own. But nannying wasn’t what she wanted to do with her life. She hated that her parents had spent all the money on college and she wasn’t using her degree at all. That fact sat under her skin and niggled at her uncomfortably. Maybe this personal assistant job was just what she needed until she could find something more permanent.
Maybe it would change her life.
A small snort of a laugh pushed out of her as she grinned at her own melodramatic thoughts. It was a job, though. One that would use her degree and pay her generously, two things that made her very happy in that moment.
And just like that, she was looking forward to tomorrow.
She had a good feeling about working for Addison Fairchild.