The story’s all done, and if memory serves (which it doesn’t always), there are only two more installments after this one. That kind of blows my mind. That means I’ll have spent an entire year on this. I’ve made a few corrections along the way as I’ve struggled with how much to say about the twins’ background and when to reveal those details. Writing in serial format where I’m releasing just a little bit at a time is a completely different experience than writing a novel from beginning to end and then editing it all as one cohesive unit. Thank you all for being so patient with me during this process!!
And without further ado – here’s part 10! :-)
“Miss Prentice, can you come here for a moment?” Maxie’s warm voice rumbled from his side of the office.
“Hm?” Couldn’t he just tell me from there?
“Come look at this.”
Oh. I guess I did have to go over there. And stand near him. And smell his manly cologne. He had the best-smelling cologne.
“Sure.” I made my voice as chipper as I could. No need for him to know I was picturing myself walking to the guillotine in an attempt to slow down my racing pulse. For the record, it wasn’t working.
Maxie jabbed a finger at his computer screen. “What do you think?”
“Um…” Was there a polite way to say it looked like a rainbow had puked all over his computer screen? “It’s interesting.”
His smile came out of nowhere and blinded me with its brilliance. I didn’t often get to see his full-blown genuine smile. They usually only peeked out when the kids were around. This one was just for me, though, and it nearly knocked the breath right out of me.
He rescued me with a shake of his head. “I asked the marketing department to come up with some new branding ideas for the European conglomerate.”
“And this is what they gave you?”
Always efficient, he gave a single nod.
“I’ve never been to Europe, but even I can tell you they’re more monochromatic than they are…” I waved my hand at the screen. “Than they are…whatever that is.”
He rose from his desk. “We’re meeting in the conference room in five minutes. Get your things.”
Oh. Yeah. Meetings. That was part of my job. “I’m on it, Boss!”
Everything was perfectly ordinary until we approached the conference room. Maxie held the door open for me. And rested his hand at the small of my back as we entered. Then he kept it there, branding my skin with the heat of his palm, all the way to my usual seat.
I mean, opening the door for me, sure. He’s a gentleman. But hand on my back? Maxie wasn’t a touchy-feely guy to begin with. Sure, he was affectionate with the kids. But had he ever intentionally touched me before? Other than shaking my hand when he first introduced himself to me? If so, I couldn’t remember it.
Once I was seated, Maxie moved to the head of the table and took his seat. “Everything you sent me was utter rubbish. Can you explain?”
Maxie wasn’t the type to raise his voice, but his people knew when he meant business. Every single one of their spines straightened, and almost everyone’s eyes swiveled to the man in the navy button-up shirt.
The man in the blue narrowed his eyes at Maxie. “You said you wanted something fresh, something that would speak to newer generations.”
Maxie tapped his pencil – a writing utensil he never actually used in meetings. “Maybe we don’t have the same definition of ‘newer generations.’ What do you think the target audience is?”
Navy shirt guy’s chin jutted out the barest amount. “Millennials. Gen Z. Maybe Gen C.”
“Then why did you give me something that looked like it was designed for preschoolers on an acid trip?”
Oooh. That red face did not go well with that shirt. Oddly enough, blue shirt’s eyes kept sliding to me before returning to Maxie. What was that about? His eyes zeroed back in on Maxie. “You said you wanted new, fresh, and exciting. I gave you three concepts that are all of those things. If you didn’t like them, you could have just told me to go back to the drawing board. Why call a meeting?”
“Fair point.” Maxie steepled his fingers. “I wanted to ask your team where the concepts originated and if anyone had voiced a dissenting opinion.”
A brown-haired woman in a power suit leaned forward in her seat. “It was a collaborative effort, Sir. As with any project, there are always dissenting opinions. That’s how we function and build off of each other’s ideas. We may have misunderstood what you were asking for, but nobody on this team is going to throw anybody else under the bus just because you’re unhappy with the results.”
Maxie studied the group at length. I was used to his stares, and even I couldn’t tell if this was a good one or a bad one. Right as it started to get uncomfortable, he leaned back in his seat. “Very well. You get one more chance. I want a fresh look, something with more energy than what we currently have. But somebody needs to do their market research and understand what corporate branding in Europe looks like. None of the concepts you sent me were suitable for this purpose, but the one that looked like a unicorn and a leprechaun got into a fight? Don’t send me anything like that again. Ever. You have seventy-two hours.”
He stood as the team was still trying to formulate their response.
I scrambled to my feet and moved toward Maxie. I usually followed behind, but he waved me ahead of him and once again rested his hand feather light against the small of my back.
What on earth was that about!? He was wreaking havoc with…well…everything. The synapses in my brain were short-circuiting. The nerves in my back were going haywire. My lungs were seizing up. And I’m pretty sure my knees turned to gelatin.
When I turned left toward the office, Maxie guided me to the right with his hand. leading me to the elevators.
“Wh-where are we going?”
Eyes on the elevator door instead of on me, he answered. “Lunch.”
Once the elevator doors closed behind us, I stepped away from Maxie. “What’s going on?” I mostly kept the tremble out of my voice.
His eyes softened as he looked at me. “I needed to send a message.”
“You sent it loud and clear. They failed, and they have three days to fix it.”
He shook his head. “A different message.”
I took another step back. I’d felt a lot of different things about Maxie in the time I’d known him, but I’d never before felt used. Whatever message he was trying to send, he was using me to accomplish it. If the twisting black oily feeling in my middle was any indication, I didn’t like that. “You used me.”
His eyes widened. “No, definitely not. At least…I didn’t see it that way. I didn’t mean it like that.”
“What message were you sending that required you to…” put your hands on me, make me feel things I didn’t want to feel…just to make a point? What message was so worth hurting my feelings like that?
“Which one’s Dave?”
Maxie gave me a puzzled look. “He did most of the talking.”
Oh. Blue shirt. I nodded for Maxie to continue.
“Dave filed paperwork with human resources that indicated his intention to pursue a relationship with a co-worker.”
“He’s all wrong for you.”
“Dave. He’s all wrong for you.”
I ran back through the meeting in my mind. Blue shirt – Dave – and the way he kept looking from me to Maxie. “He listed me on HR paperwork before he’d even spoken to me?”
His eyes widened as the irises darkened into a richer and somehow more somber color. “You didn’t know?”
I couldn’t ignore the rest of it, though. The way Maxie had rested his hand at the small of my back entering and exiting the meeting. The way he’d walked me to my seat. Taking me toward the elevator rather than the office afterward. “Wait. So, you didn’t think I’d be able to decide for myself if I wanted to date someone?”
Maxie ran a hand down his face. “He’s using you to get close to me.”
“Because I’m dried catfish? Nobody would ever possibly want to date me for me, I guess. I’m only worth anything because of who my boss is.” The electrical spark that had skittered across my skin at his earlier touch was now a raging inferno – but of an entirely different kind.
“Zephyra, that’s not how I meant it. That’s not what I think.”
He’d never called me by my first name before, and all I could do was stare at him. The fact that this hurt so much more than it should told me clearly what I’d already known. I cared too much. Way too much. Unhealthy, obsessed-with-my-boss too much.
If I wanted to continue working for Maxie, I was going to have to get those unfortunate and misguided feelings under control. And for that, the first thing I needed was some space.
When the elevator door opened, I hit the button for Maxie’s floor before stepping out. I put up a hand to stop him when he made to follow me. “I’ll be dining alone today. And it’s ‘Miss Prentice’ to you.”
I turned on my heel and marched for the building’s front door. I tried to surreptitiously wipe the tears away as they tumbled over my lower lids. Only a few tears. I could allow myself that many. This wasn’t significant enough to warrant more.
Of course, once I was out on the sidewalk, I realized that I had neither my coat nor my purse. I had my note-taking book and two pens. Unless I planned on sucking the ink out of the pens for sustenance, lunch was a no-go. I couldn’t even go somewhere for coffee to kill time and make a point.
The wind picked up as I stood there, a frigid force of nature laughing in my face.
Just as I was thinking it might be time to give up and head back inside, Manda stepped up beside me. “Mr. Short sent me down with your coat and purse.”
I blinked at her before taking the proffered coat. “Was he mad?”
Manda’s head tilted to the side. “Pensive. Maybe sad. Whatever you said to him got under his skin, but he wasn’t mad.”
With my coat buttoned, I took my purse from her hand. “Does he ever get mad?”
“Rarely. And when he is angry, he gets quiet instead of loud.”
What was I supposed to say to that? The closest I’d ever seen Maxie to angry was when the twins had stink-bombed him on the way to church. “Thank you. I’ll be back after lunch.”
It wasn’t until I was sitting in the window seat of a bistro two blocks away that I realized Maxie had been looking out for me. Maybe not with Dave – that remained to be seen. He’d known I didn’t have my coat or purse, though, and he’d sent Manda racing after me to make sure I was taken care of.
He was a good guy.
I knew that.
Yet, somehow, I still felt completely betrayed.
Did I feel betrayed by him, though? Or by my own feelings?