When we left our intrepid couple last month, things were getting just a little bit flirty between them. In a slightly awkward kind of way, of course.
If you want to refresh your memory on any of the previous installments, you can find them here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6. and Part 7. Otherwise, you can dive right in to see what Maxie and Zephyra are up to. :-)
The next three months of working for Maxie were…interesting. Sometimes fun, a little wild and crazy. I mean, have you met those kids? Sometimes tense, though. Or maybe stressful? Hm. I’m not sure either of those words did it justice. There was a bit of an adrenaline rush that came with the office work. I didn’t expect to enjoy corporate shenanigans as much as I did. That wasn’t really tension or stress, though. It was kind of fun…but in a different way.
Every now and then, I looked back at the last few months and couldn’t believe how far I’d come. After such a long time of barely scraping by to survive without work, the time I’d spent with Maxie and the kids was a blessing beyond blessing. An overflowing blessing? Blessing in abundance? There had to be a good biblical term that encapsulates what I meant, but I kind of liked thinking of myself as blessed beyond blessed.
Because Maxie paid well, I managed to get myself caught up. I hadn’t been able to tuck anything away in savings yet, but I was up-to-date on my rent, car payment, and all that good stuff. I was also caught up on utilities, had paid off the money I’d borrowed from a friend, and had managed to mostly pay off that pesky credit card I shouldn’t have been using to fund my ramen lifestyle.
This was the day, though. It was Manda’s first day back. Which meant it was the first day of my newish job. Only, I still wasn’t completely sure what that was supposed to look like. When I’d tried to pin Maxie down about it last Friday, he had given me that wide-eyed look he used whenever he thought I was supposed to be able to read his mind.
A mind reader I was not.
And that was how I found myself marching into the office building with absolutely no idea if I was actually supposed to show up or not. I was pretty sure I was wearing my uncertainty like a cloak, right out there on top where everyone could see it.
Cloaks were old-fashioned. Nobody really wore them anymore. I kind of felt like I was going to face the big, bad wolf, though, so a cloak seemed appropriate.
With a chime-like ding, the elevator doors opened, and I stepped into the executive suite.
Mrs. Steinbogget spared me half a glance.
Manda stood inside Maxie’s office door, pad in hand, scribbling down notes as he fired off commands at her.
Where was I supposed to go?
I glanced back over my shoulder at the closing elevator doors. Maybe I shouldn’t have come. Maybe…
Where did all my confidence go? If I could face down a classroom full of half-crazed kindergartners on Sunday morning, surely I could handle one adult male who occasionally liked to growl. Especially since he’d never really growled at me.
Straightening my shoulders, I strode over to his door and landed two knocks against the frame. Manda’s startled gaze swung my way. We’d never actually met. She hadn’t been able to train me like planned because of her emergency maternity leave and bed rest. Those early days had been filled with a lot of sink-or-swim. Thankfully I hadn’t needed inflatable arm floaties to keep my head above the water.
“And you are?” Her words held a hint of curiosity. At least she wasn’t going full-on bodyguard and trying to bar me from Maxie’s office.
Her eyes widened. “Oh.” She looked me up and down in less time than it took me to notice her pen was bright pink.
I stuck out my hand. “It’s nice to meet you.” Hopefully my palm wasn’t grossly sweaty.
A smile touched her eyes as she shook my hand. “Likewise. Thank you for filling in while I was gone.”
“Congratulations on the baby, by the way.” Yikes. Boy or girl? Name? I couldn’t remember any of it even though Mrs. Steinbogget had filled me in more than once.
This time the smile touched her mouth, too. “Thank you. Flynn is a dream baby, and the cutest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Ah. First-time mom. I could spot them from a mile away.
I glanced over at Maxie, still not sure where I was supposed to go or what I was supposed to do. His face was neutral, though, as he tipped his head to his left.
Huh. That didn’t used to be there.
I pointed at my chest, and mouthed the words, “For me?”
He rolled his eyes. “Who else?”
Well. I guess that settled it, then.
I still had a job. Not that I’d thought he’d go back on his word. That wasn’t the kind of guy Maxie was. I hadn’t quite expected to have my new desk set up in his office, though. That was a surprise.
A nice surprise. A very nice surprise.
Now, if only I knew what I was supposed to do while at that desk.
“Here you go! Lunch.” Manda carried in a large brown bag and set it on the small conference table that took up one corner of Maxie’s office.
I’d spent the morning moving back and forth from my desk and Manda’s as I’d filled her in with the different things I’d been working on at the end of the previous week. Maxie hadn’t given me anything new to do, so between helping Manda, I’d been playing solitaire on my computer.
Except that had felt wrong, so then I’d started reading up on the company. There was a lot of information out there, some published by reputable news sources and bloggers and some by agencies that seemed to have an axe to grind.
There was also a lot of speculation about Maxie’s social life. Was he dating? Who was he dating? When had he started dating? When had he stopped?
I saw some articles about his sister, too, but I didn’t look at them. I wanted to know, of course, what had happened. Going behind his back to read about something so raw and personal, though… It felt wrong. I couldn’t do it. I know, I know. I’d had months. I could’ve asked at any time. I kind of spent most of that time expecting the other shoe to drop, though, and pushing painful buttons hadn’t seemed like the best way to keep my job.
“Aren’t you hungry?”
My gaze swung to the man himself. He stood at the conference table. The brown bag was neatly folded, and food was set out for two people. “Oh. Is that for…?” Me? Is that for me? Am I twelve now? Unable to complete sentences when talking to the cute boy in class?
He lifted an eyebrow but managed not to mock me. “Lunch. You didn’t look like you’d brought anything to eat today. We need to talk about your position and my expectations. I figured this was as good a time as any.”
I moved to the table and took a seat. Everything felt weird and awkward. But why? It didn’t make sense. I’d never felt this way around Maxie before.
“What’ve you been doing to keep yourself busy this morning?”
I looked up from my to-go box filled with what could only be bún chả – my favorite Vietnamese dish ever. I’d been raving about it during dinner with the twins a few weeks ago. They weren’t picky eaters, but my ability to cook anything fancy outside of breakfast was limited. So, I would tell them about the interesting foods I liked, and eventually they would wear me down and I would try to cook them. Those dishes didn’t always turn out, though, so I mostly saved my experiments for nights when Maxie had a late meeting and wouldn’t be joining us. Which only happened about once a week. He was good about being home for dinner and spending time with the twins, looking at their homework, asking them about their days, and all that parent-y stuff.
“Hm?” His eyebrow lifted, and I realized I hadn’t answered his question.
“Helping Manda a little. Reading some about the company.”
He gave a single nod before bowing his head to pray over the meal. When he was done and we’d both said, “Amen,” he asked, “Do you have any questions?”
About the company? Or…? Might as well just go for it, right? “What happened to the twins’ parents?”
Oh, dear. Oh, oh, oh dear. If that other shoe was going to drop, now was definitely the time for it. I should have waited until I’d built my savings back up.
His reaction was limited to a clenched jaw. “They died.”
“I…” Oye. He wasn’t going to make this easy, was he? “I…I see.”
I should have left well enough alone. He was my boss, not my BFF. There were limits to what I could say, to when I should push.
He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Ask your question. Or questions. What do you really want to know?”
His jaw was no longer clenched, but was that enough? “It’s none of my business. Never mind.”
I mostly meant it, too. I didn’t want to cause him pain, and I imagined that any talk about his deceased sister and brother-in-law had to be painful.
I picked up my chopsticks and started eating. If I kept food stuffed in my mouth, I’d be less likely to ignore my own good intentions.
“They couldn’t have kids of their own, or so they thought. They tried for two years to adopt. When they were told about the twins, they were ecstatic. People naysayed them. They were white, and the babies they were adopting…weren’t. It never crossed their minds to care, though. They loved Amaria and Alistair long before they ever met them. They poured their whole hearts into loving those babies and planning for their life together.”
He paused, looked over my shoulder, and clenched the hand that rested on the table. “When the twins were six months old, they got a sitter. It was their anniversary and the first time they’d let anyone other than family watch the kids. They never made it to the restaurant. A high-speed chase got out of control. The police were after someone who was suspected of a triple homicide. The suspect either didn’t see their car or didn’t care. He plowed right into them, and both vehicles went flying. No survivors, including the baby none of us knew my sister was carrying. I don’t even know if she knew she was pregnant. I was named guardian, and in their will, my sister and brother-in-law asked me to adopt Alistair and Amaria, give them my name, and raise them with all the love they wouldn’t be able to give them.”
What was I supposed to say to that? We sat kitty-corner at the table, and I reached my hand out and rested it on his still-clenched one. The kids are blessed to have you. Your sister is in a better place. You’re doing a great job. All things I wouldn’t want someone to say to me at a moment like that. In the end, I settled for, “I’m so sorry.”
His eyes finally met mine, his pain brutal and stark, on full display. “Thank you.”
“What sorts of things do you and the kids do to remember them?
He gave me a squinty look. “What do you mean?”
I offered him a half shrug, suddenly aware that I was treading into deep waters. “Sometimes kids go through life wondering if they’re really loved or wanted. Alistair and Amaria know you love them, but as they get older, you may find yourself at odds with them from time to time. Do you do anything special to remind them of the parents who first adopted them, who loved them so much and awaited their arrival with such joy? It might be good for their young hearts to know just how loved they’ve been in their lives. Adoption… I don’t know what sorts of challenges or doubts that adopted kids face, but I know that kids in general can never have too much love.”
“Isn’t it cruel, though, to tell them about a love they’ll never get to experience?”
“I don’t know. Maybe that’s a question for someone more experienced than me. But I can’t help but think what a tender salve it could be to know how God cared for them and filled their lives with people to care for them, no matter how briefly… It seems to me that it could be a really special part of their lives, that your sister and brother-in-law could still have a place in this family in a different kind of way. I don’t know…” It suddenly sounded like a dumb and dangerous idea. I should have kept my mouth shut.
Maxie turned his hand over, grasped my fingers in his, and gave them a squeeze. “I’ll think about it. Thank you for listening, and thank you for caring. You pour a lot of love into their lives, too, you know. You even seem to know what you’re doing. I try to love them and end up teaching them that it’s okay to stink-bomb their uncle for fun.”
Laughter burst out of me before I could stop it. I gave him a wink and reached for my chopsticks again. “Yeah. You might be a little on the permissive side.”
He reached for his chopsticks. The shadows were still there in his eyes, but they weren’t choking out the light like they had been when he’d told me about the twins’ parents. “So…about this new position. Let me tell you what I have in mind.”
Have a marvelous Easter, and I’ll catch you all with part 9 next month! :-)