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Love this website so much
30 July 2020 (00:29)
Dear friends working in the library I truly appreciate the value and importance of your job, it's amazing , particularly to people like me living in Iran that due to unkind sanctions and devaluation of Iran's currency unfortunately can't do you a favor. It is what it is. I wish you every happiness and luck, thank you all very much.
29 September 2020 (09:18)
it's hilarious and a page turner.. c
15 October 2020 (10:31)
God bless y’all honestly
30 November 2020 (23:11)
Love and appreciate this website. Much thanks.
09 December 2020 (20:31)
Zlib..... You guys are amazing.... Thank you so much
21 December 2020 (00:37)
Thanks a lot for the amazing work
31 December 2020 (14:54)
I'm a poor kid. With no sufficient money to buy a book. Thank you Zlib. Best website. Ever.
31 December 2020 (17:43)
Words are short to explain how great this site is
09 January 2021 (13:44)
this book is amazing,its worth it and this site is the absolute best, good bless u all.
09 January 2021 (13:55)
Decent. 3/5. This book had a good had a great concept. As you see enemies fall for each each other. The one thing I didn’t like was their should have been more focus in the main characters life. Through the book it feels like she doesn’t have anything accept work. Nothing about her personal life. But yea it was decent.
16 January 2021 (19:55)
perfect romance, cute details
18 January 2021 (14:03)
In love with this website, I personally always wanted to be a book lover but never had an interest in reading but thanks to zlib, during quarantine I got a few books and read them. Now reading is one of my new hobbies and I love it! This is the best website!!!
22 January 2021 (03:45)
I love this website for reading fantasy books since they tend to be longer I like reading them digitally.
26 January 2021 (02:45)
Honestly, thank you guys so much! This website is a life-saver. I can't thank you enough!!
26 February 2021 (19:56)
the red dress scene, the tension built up is *chefs kiss*
it is one of my fav books I recommend to everyone
loved this so much
the red dress scene, the tension built up is *chefs kiss*
it is one of my fav books I recommend to everyone
loved this so much
16 March 2021 (04:43)
Love the books
Thanks so much for the website
Thanks so much for the website
21 March 2021 (00:29)
I can’t be happier that I found this website. Thank youuuuuu!
24 March 2021 (14:06)
I really appreciate you guys a lot. Thank you for providing books for us
25 March 2021 (18:00)
I so love this website ! Thank you guys ❤️❤️❤️
27 March 2021 (09:42)
Hassan Abdi Jama
Wow !! The best website i have ever came a cross. Thank you alot. You've solved different kind of problems ,thank you once again. Greeting you from Mogadishu,Somalia
28 March 2021 (10:55)
so fun to read, i only read the book for smooth 6 hours!!!
05 April 2021 (08:29)
This website??God bless all of the participanta of this project
Thank u all for bringing this much joy and knowledge into our lifes
Thank u all for bringing this much joy and knowledge into our lifes
05 April 2021 (20:40)
Try to read Twice Shy and Tweet Cute. Totally worth it. Leagues better than this one. And if you liked these two, read The Flatmate for good measure.
10 May 2021 (18:29)
New favourite book
Definitely a page turner could read it in one go
If you're some who loves a snuggly romance I bet you'll love this
Definitely a page turner could read it in one go
If you're some who loves a snuggly romance I bet you'll love this
11 May 2021 (11:12)
Best website ever!!!!!!!
14 May 2021 (03:23)
omg, love this web. thank u so much.
23 May 2021 (12:27)
I couldn't even express through words how much I love this website!
27 May 2021 (11:04)
I’m grateful and appreciate this website, God bless y’all
05 June 2021 (08:39)
I really appreciate this website and thank you so much,God bless you all
05 June 2021 (17:50)
Thanks to this website I can read all the books I wish to read. The best reading app there is
07 June 2021 (21:46)
I love this book! I found myself laughing out loud which is kinda rare.
13 June 2021 (12:38)
one of the bests of 2021!!! READ IT
15 June 2021 (19:30)
romcom books on this website have some of the most surprisingly wholesome comment sections. enjoy the book y'all it's a fun read!
17 June 2021 (07:43)
love love this website
19 June 2021 (11:15)
My file isn't opening
22 June 2021 (19:30)
Thank you so much for the creator of this link/website
29 June 2021 (16:01)
If I said I enjoyed this I would be lying the main character is just so unbearable. She's to likable in her world and the only 2 people who hate her hate her either becuse of a misunderstanding and its not her fault or actually love her.
03 July 2021 (05:18)
I love this book too much and I definitely recommend it<3
05 July 2021 (00:22)
The perfect man.❤️❤️❤️ ~sigh
18 July 2021 (12:37)
If you want your expectations to increase tenfold then read this book. If you want to live a normal life then I would suggest you don't.
26 July 2021 (22:13)
This book is perfect.I've read it like a thousand times ?
28 July 2021 (15:09)
One of my favourite Book thanks to z lib I am able to read it
04 August 2021 (10:36)
Very funny book. Enjoyed reading it.. On the downside, nothing much happens and she objectified guy rather much.
07 August 2021 (11:26)
Great book, read it in a day. Thank you zlib
20 August 2021 (12:40)
Great book!!! Loved the love hate dynamics. Enemies to lovers always hits that spot. Read it in one day.
26 August 2021 (12:27)
please please in Spanish!! ??
03 September 2021 (10:16)
I absolutely LOVEEEEE this book!!!! It is beyond the obvious enemies to lovers trope and I 1000% recommend!!!!
04 September 2021 (14:25)
loved EVERY SINGLE THING about this book!
caring H/h ✅
love in air ✅
caring H/h ✅
love in air ✅
15 September 2021 (12:26)
Dedication In loving memory of Ivy Stone Contents Dedication Acknowledgments Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19 Chapter 20 Chapter 21 Chapter 22 Chapter 23 Chapter 24 Chapter 25 Chapter 26 Chapter 27 Chapter 28 An Excerpt from The Comfort Zone About the Author Praise Credits Copyright About the Publisher Acknowledgments This book is my dream come true. I have had a wonderful cheer squad of friends encouraging me to pursue this dream: Kate Warnock, Gemma Ruddick, Liz Kenneally, and Katie Saarikko. Each has played their part to support, push, and inspire me. You’re all pretty special. Thank you to Christina Hobbs and Lauren Billings for supporting my writing endeavors and for introducing me to my lovely agent, Taylor Haggerty from Waxman Leavell Literary Agency. Taylor, thank you for helping me to achieve this dream. Thanks to the friendly and efficient people at HarperCollins, especially my editor, Amanda Bergeron, for making me feel like one of the family. Speaking of family, I want to send love to my parents, Sue and David, my brother, Peter, and my husband, Roland. Rol, thank you for believing in me. Even though my pug, Delia, cannot read, she has been remarkably supportive and I will love her until the end of time. Carrie, whoever or wherever you are: That one word, nemesis, was such a gift. You gave me the prompt that sparked this entire book. I am very grateful that you did. Chapter 1 I have a theory. Hating someone feels disturbingly similar to being in love with them. I’ve had a lot of time to compare love and hate, and these are my observations. Love and hate are visceral. Your stomach twists at the thought of that person. The heart in your chest beats heavy and bright, nearly visible through your flesh and clothes. Your appetite and sleep are shredded. Every interaction s; pikes your blood with a dangerous kind of adrenaline, and you’re on the brink of fight or flight. Your body is barely under your control. You’re consumed, and it scares you. Both love and hate are mirror versions of the same game—and you have to win. Why? Your heart and your ego. Trust me, I should know. It’s early Friday afternoon. I’m imprisoned at my desk for another few hours. I wish I was in solitary confinement, but unfortunately I have a cellmate. Each tick of his watch feels like another tally mark, chipped onto the cell wall. We’re engaged in one of our childish games, which requires no words. Like everything we do, it’s dreadfully immature. The first thing to know about me: My name is Lucy Hutton. I’m the executive assistant to Helene Pascal, the co-CEO of Bexley & Gamin. Once upon a time, our little Gamin Publishing was on the brink of collapse. The reality of the economy meant people had no money for their mortgage repayments and literature was a luxury. Bookstores were closing all over the city like candles being blown out. We braced ourselves for almost certain closure. At the eleventh hour, a deal was struck with another struggling publishing house. Gamin Publishing was forced into an arranged marriage with the crumbling evil empire known as Bexley Books, ruled by the unbearable Mr. Bexley himself. Each company stubbornly believing it was saving the other, they both packed up and moved into their new marital home. Neither party was remotely happy about it. The Bexleys remembered their old lunchroom foosball table with sepia-tinted nostalgia. They couldn’t believe the airy-fairy Gamins had survived even this long, with their lax adherence to key performance indicator targets and dreamy insistence on Literature as Art. The Bexleys believed numbers were more important than words. Books were units. Sell the units. High-five the team. Repeat. The Gamins shuddered in horror watching their boisterous new stepbrothers practically tearing the pages out of their Brontës and Austens. How had Bexley managed to amass so many like-minded stuffed shirts, far more suited to accountancy or law? Gamins resented the notion of books as units. Books were, and always would be, something a little magic and something to respect. One year on, you can still tell at a glance which company someone came from by his or her physical appearance. The Bexleys are hard geometrics, the Gamins are soft scribbles. Bexleys move in shark packs, talking figures and constantly hogging the conference rooms for their ominous Planning Sessions. Plotting sessions, more like. Gamins huddle in their cubicles, gentle doves in clock towers, poring over manuscripts, searching for the next literary sensation. The air surrounding them is perfumed with jasmine tea and paper. Shakespeare is their pinup boy. The move to a new building was a little traumatizing, especially for the Gamins. Take a map of this city. Make a straight line between each of the old company buildings, mark a red dot exactly halfway between them and here we are. The new Bexley & Gamin is a cheap gray cement toad squatting on a major traffic route, impossible to merge onto in the afternoon. It’s arctic in the morning shadows and sweaty by the afternoon. The building has one redeeming feature: Some basement parking—usually snagged by the early risers, or should I say, the Bexleys. Helene Pascal and Mr. Bexley had toured the building prior to the move and a rare thing happened: They both agreed on something. The top floor of the building was an insult. Only one executive office? A total refit was needed. After an hour-long brainstorm that was filled with so much hostility the interior designer’s eyes sparkled with unshed tears, the only word Helene and Mr. Bexley would agree on to describe the new aesthetic was shiny. It was their last agreement, ever. The refit definitely fulfilled the design brief. The tenth floor is now a cube of glass, chrome, and black tile. You could pluck your eyebrows using any surface as a mirror—walls, floors, ceiling. Even our desks are made from huge sheets of glass. I’m focused on the great big reflection opposite me. I raise my hand and look at my nails. My reflection follows. I stroke through my hair and straighten my collar. I’ve been in a trance. I’d almost forgotten I’m still playing this game with Joshua. I’m sitting here with a cellmate because every power-crazed war general has a second in command to do the dirty work. Sharing an assistant was never an option, because it would have required a concession from one of the CEOs. We were each plugged in outside the two new office doors, and left to fend for ourselves. It was like being pushed into the Colosseum’s arena, only to find I wasn’t alone. I raise my right hand again now. My reflection follows smoothly. I rest my chin on my palm and sigh deeply, and it resonates and echoes. I raise my left eyebrow because I know he can’t, and as predicted his forehead pinches uselessly. I’ve won the game. The thrill does not translate into an expression on my face. I remain as placid and expressionless as a doll. We sit here with our chins on our hands and stare into each other’s eyes. I’m never alone in here. Sitting opposite me is the executive assistant to Mr. Bexley. His henchman and manservant. The second thing, the most essential thing anyone needs to know about me, is this: I hate Joshua Templeman. He’s currently copying every move I make. It’s the Mirror Game. To the casual observer it wouldn’t be immediately obvious; he’s as subtle as a shadow. But not to me. Each movement of mine is replicated on his side of the office on a slight time delay. I lift my chin from my palm and swivel to my desk, and smoothly he does the same. I’m twenty-eight years old and it seems I’ve fallen through the cracks of heaven and hell and into purgatory. A kindergarten classroom. An asylum. I type my password: IHATEJOSHUA4EV@. My previous passwords have all been variations on how much I hate Joshua. For Ever. His password is almost certainly IHateLucinda4Eva. My phone rings. Julie Atkins, from copyrights and permissions, another thorn in my side. I feel like unplugging my phone and throwing it into an incinerator. “Hello, how are you?” I always put an extra little bit of warmth into my voice on the phone. Across the room, Joshua’s eyes roll as he begins punishing his keyboard. “I have a favor to ask, Lucy.” I can almost mouth the next words as she speaks them. “I need an extension on the monthly report. I think I’m getting a migraine. I can’t look at this screen any longer.” She’s one of those horrific people who pronounces it me-graine. “Of course, I understand. When can you get it done?” “You’re the best. It’d be in by Monday afternoon. I need to come in late.” If I say yes, I’ll have to stay late Monday night to have the report done for Tuesday’s nine A.M. executive meeting. Already, next week sucks. “Okay.” My stomach feels tight. “As soon as you can, please.” “Oh, and Brian can’t get his in today either. You’re so nice. I appreciate how kind you’re being. We were all saying you’re the best person to deal with up there in exec. Some people up there are total nightmares.” Her sugary words help ease the resentment a little. “No problem. Talk to you Monday.” I hang up and don’t even need to look at Joshua. I know he’s shaking his head. After a few minutes I glance at him, and he is staring at me. Imagine it’s two minutes before the biggest interview of your life, and you look down at your white shirt. Your peacock-blue fountain pen has leaked through your pocket. Your head explodes with an obscenity and your stomach is a spike of panic over the simmering nerves. You’re an idiot and everything’s ruined. That’s the exact color of Joshua’s eyes when he looks at me. I wish I could say he’s ugly. He should be a short, fat troll, with a cleft palate and watery eyes. A limping hunchback. Warts and zits. Yellow-cheese teeth and onion sweat. But he’s not. He’s pretty much the opposite. More proof there’s no justice in this world. My inbox pings. I flick my eyes abruptly away from Joshua’s non-ugliness and notice Helene has sent through a request for budget forecasting figures. I open up last month’s report for reference and begin. I doubt this month’s outlook is going to be much of an improvement. The publishing industry is sliding further downhill. I’ve heard the word restructure echoing a few times around these halls, and I know where that leads. Every time I step out of the elevator and see Joshua I ask myself: Why I don’t get a new job? I’ve been fascinated by publishing houses since a pivotal field trip when I was eleven. I was already a passionate devourer of books. My life revolved around the weekly trip to the town library. I’d borrow the maximum number of titles allowed and I could identify individual librarians by the sound their shoes made as they moved up each aisle. Until that field trip, I was hell-bent on being a librarian myself. I’d even implemented a cataloging system for my own personal collection. I was such a little book nerd. Before our trip to the publishing house, I’d never thought much about how a book came to actually exist. It was a revelation. You could be paid to find authors, read books, and ultimately create them? Brand-new covers and perfect pages with no dog-ears or pencil annotations? My mind was blown. I loved new books. They were my favorite to borrow. I told my parents when I got home, I’m going to work at a publisher when I grow up. It’s great that I’m fulfilling a childhood dream. But if I’m honest, at the moment the main reason I don’t get a new job is: I can’t let Joshua win this. As I work, all I can hear are his machine-gun keystrokes and the faint whistle of air conditioning. He occasionally picks up his calculator and taps on it. I wouldn’t mind betting Mr. Bexley has also directed Joshua to run the forecasting figures. Then the two co-CEOs can march into battle, armed with numbers that may not match. The ideal fuel for their bonfire of hatred. “Excuse me, Joshua.” He doesn’t acknowledge me for a full minute. His keystrokes intensify. Beethoven on a piano has nothing on him right now. “What is it, Lucinda?” Not even my parents call me Lucinda. I clench my jaw but then guiltily release the muscles. My dentist has begged me to make a conscious effort. “Are you working on the forecasting figures for next quarter?” He lifts both hands from his keyboard and stares at me. “No.” I let out half a lungful of air and turn back to my desk. “I finished those two hours ago.” He resumes typing. I look at my open spreadsheet and count to ten. We both work fast and have reputations for being Finishers—you know, the type of worker who completes the nasty, too-hard tasks everyone else avoids. I prefer to sit down with people and discuss things face-to-face. Joshua is strictly email. At the foot of his emails is always: Rgds, J. Would it kill him to type Regards, Joshua? It’s too many keystrokes, apparently. He probably knows offhand how many minutes a year he’s saving B&G. We’re evenly matched, but we are completely at odds. I try my hardest to look corporate but everything I own is slightly wrong for B&G. I’m a Gamin to the bone. My lipstick is too red, my hair too unruly. My shoes click too loudly on the tile floors. I can’t seem to hand over my credit card to purchase a black suit. I never had to wear one at Gamin, and I’m stubbornly refusing to assimilate with the Bexleys. My wardrobe is knits and retro. A sort of cool librarian chic, I hope. It takes me forty-five minutes to complete the task. I race the clock, even though numbers are not my forte, because I imagine it would have taken Joshua an hour. Even in my head I compete with him. “Thanks, Lucy!” I hear Helene call faintly from behind her shiny office door when I send the document through. I recheck my inbox. Everything’s up to date. I check the clock. Three fifteen P.M. I check my lipstick in the reflection of the shiny wall tile near my computer monitor. I check Joshua, who is glowering at me with contempt. I stare back. Now we are playing the Staring Game. I should mention that the ultimate aim of all our games is to make the other smile, or cry. It’s something like that. I’ll know when I win. I made a mistake when I first met Joshua: I smiled at him. My best sunny smile with all my teeth, my eyes sparkling with stupid optimism that the business merger wasn’t the worst thing to ever happen to me. His eyes scanned me from the top of my head to the soles of my shoes. I’m only five feet tall so it didn’t take long. Then he looked away out the window. He did not smile back, and somehow I feel like he’s been carrying my smile around in his breast pocket ever since. He’s one up. After our initial poor start, it only took a few weeks for us to succumb to our mutual hostility. Like water dripping into a bathtub, eventually it began to overflow. I yawn behind my hand and look at Joshua’s breast pocket, resting against his left pectoral. He wears an identical business shirt every day, in a different color. White, off-white stripe, cream, pale yellow, mustard, baby blue, robin’s-egg blue, dove-gray, navy, and black. They are worn in their unchanging sequence. Incidentally, my favorite of his shirts is robin’s-egg blue, and my least favorite is mustard, which he is wearing now. All the shirts look fine on him. All colors suit him. If I wore mustard, I’d look like a cadaver. But there he sits, looking as golden-skinned and healthy as ever. “Mustard today,” I observe aloud. Why do I poke the hornet’s nest? “Just can’t wait for baby blue on Monday.” The look he gives me is both smug and irritated. “You notice so much about me, Shortcake. But can I remind you that comments about appearance are against the B&G human resources policy.” Ah, the HR Game. We haven’t played this one in ages. “Stop calling me Shortcake or I’ll report you to HR.” We each keep a log on the other. I can only assume he does; he seems to remember all of my transgressions. Mine is a password-protected document hidden on my personal drive and it journals all the shit that has ever gone down between Joshua Templeman and me. We have each complained to HR four times over this past year. He’s received a verbal and written warning about the nickname he has for me. I’ve received two warnings; one for verbal abuse and for a juvenile prank that got out of hand. I’m not proud. He cannot seem to formulate a reply and we resume staring at each other. I LOOK FORWARD to Joshua’s shirts getting darker. It’s navy today, which leads to black. Gorgeous Payday Black. My finances are something like this. I’m about to walk twenty-five minutes from B&G to pick up my car from Jerry (“the Mechanic”) and melt my credit card to within one inch of its maximum limit. Payday comes tomorrow and I will pay the credit card balance. My car will ooze more oily dark stuff all weekend, which I will notice by the time Joshua’s shirts are the white of a unicorn’s flank. I call Jerry. I return the car and subsist on a shoestring budget. The shirts get darker. I’ve got to do something about that car. Joshua is currently leaning on Mr. Bexley’s doorframe. His body fills most of the doorway. I can see this because I’m spying via the reflection on the wall near my monitor. I hear a husky, soft laugh, nothing like Mr. Bexley’s donkey bray. I rub my palms down my forearms to flatten the tiny hairs. I will not turn my head to try to see properly. He’ll catch me. He always does. Then I’ll get a frown. The clock is grinding slowly toward five P.M. and I can see thunderclouds through the dusty windows. Helene left an hour ago—one of the perks of being co-CEO is working the hours of a schoolchild and delegating everything to me. Mr. Bexley spends longer hours here because his chair is way too comfortable and when the afternoon sun slants in, he tends to doze. I don’t mean to sound like Joshua and I are running the top floor, but frankly it feels like it sometimes. The finance and sales teams report directly to Joshua and he filters the huge amounts of data into a bite-size report that he spoon-feeds to a struggling, red-faced Mr. Bexley. I have the editorial, corporate, and marketing teams reporting to me, and each month I condense their monthly reports into one for Helene . . . and I suppose I spoon-feed it to her too. I spiral-bind it so she can read it when she’s on the stepper. I use her favorite font. Every day here is a challenge, a privilege, a sacrifice, and a frustration. But when I think about every little step I’ve taken to be here in this place, starting from when I was eleven years old, I refocus. I remember. And I endure Joshua for a little longer. I bring homemade cakes to my meetings with the division heads and they all adore me. I’m described as “worth my weight in gold.” Joshua brings bad news to his divisional meetings and his weight is measured in other substances. Mr. Bexley stumps past my desk now, briefcase in hand. He must shop at Humpty Dumpty’s Big & Small Menswear. How else could he find such short, broad suits? He’s balding, liver-spotted, and rich as sin. His grandfather started Bexley Books. He loves to remind Helene that she was merely hired. He is an old degenerate, according to both Helene and my own private observations. I make myself smile up at him. His first name is Richard. Fat Little Dick. “Good night, Mr. Bexley.” “Good night, Lucy.” He pauses by my desk to look down the front of my red silk blouse. “I hope Joshua passed on the copy of The Glass Darkly I picked up for you? The first of the first.” Fat Little Dick has a huge bookshelf filled with every B&G release. Each book is the first off the press; a tradition started by his grandfather. He loves to brag about them to visitors, but I once looked at the shelves and the spines weren’t even cracked. “You picked it up, eh?” Mr. Bexley orbits around to look at Joshua. “You didn’t mention that, Doctor Josh.” Fat Little Dick probably calls him Doctor Josh because he’s so clinical. I heard someone say when things got particularly bad at Bexley Books, Joshua masterminded the surgical removal of one-third of their workforce. I don’t know how he sleeps at night. “As long as you get it, it doesn’t matter,” Joshua replies smoothly and his boss remembers that he is The Boss. “Yes, yes,” he chuffs and looks down my top again. “Good work, you pair.” He gets into the elevator and I look down at my shirt. All the buttons are done up. What could he even see? I glance up at the mirrored tiles on the ceiling and can faintly see a tiny triangle of shadowed cleavage. “If you buttoned it any higher, we wouldn’t see your face,” Joshua says to his computer screen as he logs off. “Perhaps you could tell your boss to look at my face occasionally.” I also log off. “He’s probably trying to see your circuit board. Or wondering what kind of fuel you run on.” I shrug on my coat. “Just fueled by my hate for you.” Josh’s mouth twitches once, and I nearly had him there. I watch him roll down a neutral expression. “If it bothers you, you should speak to him. Stand up for yourself. So, painting your nails tonight, desperately alone?” Lucky guess on his part? “Yes. Masturbating and crying into your pillow tonight, Doctor Josh?” He looks at the top button of my shirt. “Yes. And don’t call me that.” I swallow down a bubble of laughter. We jostle each other in an unfriendly way as we get into the elevator. He hits B, but I hit G. “Hitchhiking?” “Car’s at the shop.” I step into my ballet flats and tuck my heels into my bag. Now I’m even shorter. In the dull polish of the elevator doors I can see that I barely come halfway up his bicep. I look like a Chihuahua next to a Great Dane. The elevator doors open to the building foyer. The world outside B&G is a blue haze; refrigerator cold, filled with rapists and murderers and lightly sprinkling rain. A sheet of newspaper blows past, right on cue. He holds the elevator door open with one enormous hand and leans out to look at the weather. Then he swings those dark blue eyes to mine, his brow beginning to crease. The familiar bubble forms in my head. I wish he was my friend. I burst it with a pin. “I’ll give you a ride,” he forces out. “Ugh, no way,” I say over my shoulder and run. Chapter 2 It’s Cream Shirt Wednesday. Joshua is off on a late lunch. He’s made a few more comments to me lately about things I like and do. They have been so accurate I’m pretty sure he’s been snooping through my stuff. Knowledge is power, and I don’t have much. First, I conduct a forensic examination of my desk. Both Helene and Mr. Bexley despise computerized calendars, and so we have to keep matching paper schedule books like we’re Dickensian law clerks. In mine, there’s only Helene’s appointments. I obsessively lock my computer, even if I go to the printer. My unlocked computer in the vicinity of Joshua? I may as well hand him the nuclear codes now. Back at Gamin Publishing, my desk was a fort made of books. I kept my pens in the gaps between their spines. When I was unpacking in the new office, I saw how sterile Joshua kept his desk and felt incredibly childish. I took my Word of the Day calendar and Smurf figurines home again. Before the merger, I had a best friend at work. Val Stone and I would sit on the worn-out leather couches in the break room and play our favorite game: systematically defacing photographs of beautiful people in magazines. I’d add a moustache onto Naomi Campbell. Val would then ink out a missing tooth. Soon it was an onslaught of scars and eye patches and bloodshot eyes and devil horns until the picture was so ruined we’d get bored and start another. Val was one of the staff who was cut and she was furious I didn’t give her some kind of a warning. Not that I would have been allowed to, even if I had known. She didn’t believe me. I turn slowly, and my reflection spins off twenty different surfaces. I see myself in every size from music box to silver screen. My cherry-red skirt flips out and I pirouette again once, just for the hell of it, trying to shake away the sick, troubled feeling I get whenever I think of Val. Anyway, my audit confirms that my desk has a red, black, and blue pen. Pink Post-its. One tube of lipstick. A box of tissues for blotting my lipstick and tears of frustration. My planner. Nothing else. I do a light shuffling tap dance across the marble superhighway. I’m in Joshua Country now. I sit in his chair and look at everything through his eyes. His chair is so high my toes don’t touch the ground. I wiggle my butt a little deeper into the leather. It feels completely obscene. I keep one eye permanently swiveled toward the elevator, and use the other to examine his desk for clues. His desk is the male version of mine. Blue Post-its. He has a sharp pencil in with his three pens. Instead of lipstick he has a tin of mints. I steal one and put it in the tiny, previously useless pocket of my skirt. I imagine myself in the laxative section of the drugstore trying to find a good match and have a good little snicker. I jiggle his desk drawer. Locked. So is his computer. Fort Knox. Well played, Templeman. I make a few unsuccessful guesses at his password. Maybe he doesn’t hate me 4 eva. There’s no little framed photo of a partner or loved one on this desk. No grinning, happy dog or tropical beach memento. I doubt he esteems anyone enough to frame their likeness. During one of Joshua’s fervent little sales rants, Fat Little Dick boomed sarcastically, We’ve got to get you laid, Doctor Josh. Joshua replied, You’re right, boss. I’ve seen what a bad drought can do to someone. He said it while looking at me. I know the date. I diarized it in my HR log. I get a little tingle in my nostrils. Joshua’s cologne? The pheromone he leaches from his pores? Gross. I flip open his day planner and notice something; a light code of pencil running down the columns of each day. Feeling incredibly James Bond–ish, I raise my phone and manage to take one single frame. I hear the cables in the elevator shaft and leap to my feet. I vault to the other side of his desk and manage to slam the planner shut before the doors spring open and he appears. His chair is still spinning gently out of the corner of my eye. Busted. “What are you doing?” My phone is now safely down the waistband of my underwear. Note to self: Disinfect phone. “Nothing.” There’s a tremor in my voice, convicting me instantly. “I was trying to see if it’s going to rain this afternoon. I bumped your chair. Sorry.” He advances like a floating Dracula. The menace is ruined by the sporting-goods-store bag loudly crinkling against his leg. A shoebox is in it, judging from the shape. Imagine the wretched sales assistant who had to help Joshua choose shoes. I require shoes to ensure I can effectively run down the targets I am paid to assassinate in my spare time. I require the best value for my money. I am size eleven. He looks at his desk, his computer’s innocuous log-in screen, his closed planner. I force my breath out in a controlled hiss. Joshua drops his bag on the floor. He steps so close his leather shoe touches the tip of my little patent heels. “Now why don’t you tell me what you were actually doing near my desk?” We have never done the Staring Game this close. I’m a pip-squeak at exactly five feet tall. It’s been my lifelong cross to bear. My lack of height is an agonizing topic of conversation. Joshua is at least six-four. Five. Six. Maybe more. A giant of a human. And he’s built out of heavy materials. Gamely, I maintain eye contact. I can stand wherever I like in this office. Screw him. Like a threatened animal trying to look bigger, I put my hands on my hips. He’s not ugly, as I’ve mentioned, but I always struggle to work out how to describe him. I remember eating my dinner on the couch a while back, and a soft-news piece came on the TV. An old Superman comic book sold for a record price at auction. As the white-gloved hand turned the pages, the old-fashioned drawings of Clark Kent reminded me of Joshua. Like Clark Kent, Joshua’s height and strength are all tucked away under clothes designed to conceal and help him blend into a crowd. Nobody at the Daily Planet knows anything about Clark. Underneath these button-up shirts, Joshua could be relatively featureless or ripped like Superman. It’s a mystery. He doesn’t have the forehead curl or the nerdy black glasses, but he’s got the strong masculine jawline and sulky, pretty mouth. I’ve been thinking all this time his hair is black but now that I’m closer, I can see it is dark brown. He doesn’t comb it as neatly as Clark does. He’s definitely got the ink-blue eyes and the laser stare, and probably some of the other superpowers, too. But Clark Kent is such a darling; all bumbling and soft. Joshua is hardly the mild-mannered reporter. He’s a sarcastic, cynical, Bizarro Clark Kent, terrorizing everyone in the newsroom and pissing off poor little Lois Lane until she screams into her pillow at night. I don’t like big guys. They’re too much like horses. They could trample you if you got underfoot. He is auditing my appearance with the same narrowed eyes that I am. I wonder what the top of my head looks like. I’m sure he only fornicates with Amazons. Our stares clash and maybe comparing them to an ink stain was a tad too harsh. Those eyes are wasted on him. To avoid dying, I reluctantly breathe in a steady lungful of cedar-pine spice. He smells like a freshly sharpened pencil. A Christmas tree in a cold, dark room. Despite the tendons in my neck beginning to cramp, I don’t permit myself to lower my eyes. I might look at his mouth then, and I get a good enough view of his mouth when he’s tossing insults at me across the office. Why would I want to see it up close? I wouldn’t. The elevator bings like the answer to all my prayers. Enter Andy the courier. Andy looks like a movie extra who appears in the credits as “Courier.” Leathery, midforties, clad in fluorescent yellow. His sunglasses sit like a tiara on top of his head. Like most couriers, he enriches his workday by flirting with every female under the age of sixty he encounters. “Lovely Luce!” He booms it so loud I hear Fat Little Dick make a wet snort as he jolts awake in his office. “Andy!” I return, skittering backward. I could honestly hug him for interrupting what was feeling like a whole new kind of strange game. He has a small parcel in his hand, no bigger than a Rubik’s cube. It’s got to be my 1984 baseball-player Smurfette. Super rare, very minty. I’ve wanted her forever and I’ve been stalking her journey via her tracking number. “I know you want me to call from the foyer with your Smurfs, but no answer.” My desk phone is diverted to my personal cell, which is currently located near my hip bone in the waistband of my underwear. So that’s what the buzzing feeling was. Phew. I was thinking I needed my head checked. “What does he mean, Smurfs?” Joshua narrows his eyes like we’re nuts. “I’m sure you’re busy, Andy, I’ll let you get out of here.” I grab at the parcel, but it’s too late. “It’s her passion in life. She lives and breathes Smurfs. Those little blue people, yea big. They wear white hats.” Andy holds two of his fingers an inch apart. “I know what Smurfs are.” Joshua is irritated. “I don’t live or breathe them.” My voice betrays the lie. Joshua’s sudden cough sounds suspiciously like a laugh. “Smurfs, huh? So that’s what those little boxes are. I thought maybe you were buying your tiny clothes online. Do you think it’s appropriate to get personal items delivered to your workplace, Lucinda?” “She’s got a whole cabinet of them. She’s got a . . . What is it, Luce? A Thomas Edison Smurf? He’s a rare one, Josh. Her parents gave it to her for high school graduation.” Andy blithely continues humiliating me. “Quiet now, Andy! How are you? How’s your day going?” I sign for the package on his handheld device with a sweaty hand. Him and his big mouth. “Your parents bought you a Smurf for graduation?” Joshua lounges in his chair and watches me with cynical interest. I hope my body didn’t warm the leather. “Yeah, yeah, I’m sure you got a car or something.” I’m mortified. “I’m fine, sweetheart,” Andy tells me, taking the little gizmo back from me and hitting several buttons and putting it in his pocket. Now that the business component of our interaction is completed, he pulls his mouth into a beguiling grin. “All the better for seeing you. I tell you, Josh my friend, if I sat opposite this gorgeous little creature I wouldn’t get any work done.” Andy hooks his thumbs into his pockets and smiles at me. I don’t want to hurt his feelings so I roll my eyes good-humoredly. “It’s a struggle,” Joshua says sarcastically. “Be glad you get to leave.” “He must have a heart of stone.” “He sure does. If I can knock him out and get him into a crate, can you have him delivered somewhere remote?” I lean on my desk and look at my tiny parcel. “International shipping rates have increased,” Andy warns. Joshua shakes his head, bored with the conversation, and begins to log on. “I’ve got some savings. I think Joshua would love an adventure vacation in Zimbabwe.” “You’ve got an evil streak, haven’t you!” Andy’s pocket makes a beep and he begins to rummage and walk to the elevator. “Well, Lovely Luce, it’s been a pleasure as always. I will see you soon, no doubt, after your next online auction.” “Bye.” When he disappears into the elevator, I turn back to my desk, my face automatically faded to neutral. “Absolutely pathetic.” I make a Jeopardy! buzzer sound. “Who is Joshua Templeman?” “Lucinda flirting with couriers. Pathetic.” Joshua is hammering away on his keyboard. He certainly is an impressive touch typist. I stroll past his desk and am gratified by his frustrated backspacing. “I’m nice to him.” “You? Nice?” I’m surprised by how hurt I feel. “I’m lovely. Ask anyone.” “Okay. Josh, is she lovely?” he asks himself aloud. “Hmm, let me think.” He picks up his tin of mints, opens the lid, checks them, closes it, and looks at me. I open my mouth and lift my tongue like a mental patient at the medication window. “She’s got a few lovely things about her, I suppose.” I raise a finger and enunciate the words crisply: “Human resources.” He sits up straighter but the corner of his mouth moves. I wish I could use my thumbs to pull his mouth into a huge deranged grin. As the police drag me out in handcuffs I’ll be screeching, Smile, goddamn you. We need to get even, because it’s not fair. He’s gotten one of my smiles, and seen me smile at countless other people. I have never seen him smile, nor have I seen his face look anything but blank, bored, surly, suspicious, watchful, resentful. Occasionally he has another look on his face, after we’ve been arguing. His Serial Killer expression. I walk down the center line of the tile again and feel his head swivel. “Not that I care what you think, but I’m well liked here. Everyone’s excited about my book club, which you’ve made pretty clear you think is lame, but it will be team building, and pretty relevant, given where we work.” “You’re a captain of industry.” “I take the library donations out. I plan the Christmas party. I let the interns follow me around.” I’m ticking them off on my fingers. “You’re not doing much to convince me you don’t care what I think.” He leans back farther into his chair, long fingers laced together loosely on his generic, flat abdomen. The button near his thumb is half-loose. Whatever my face does, it makes him glance down and rebutton it. “I don’t care what you think, but I want normal people to like me.” “You’re chronically addicted to making people adore you.” The way he says it makes me feel a little sick. “Well, excuse me for doing my best to maintain a good reputation. For trying to be positive. You’re addicted to making people hate you, so what a pair we are.” I sit down and tap my computer mouse about ten times as hard as I can. His words sting. Joshua is like a mirror that shows me the bad parts of myself. It’s school all over again. Tiny, runt-of-the-litter Lucy using her pathetic cuteness to avoid being destroyed by the big kids. I’ve always been the pet, the lucky charm, the one being pushed on the swings or pulled in a wagon. Carried and coddled and perhaps I am a little pathetic. “You should try not giving a shit sometime. I tell you, it’s liberating.” His mouth tightens, and a strange shadow clouds his expression. One blink and it’s gone. “I didn’t ask for your advice, Joshua. I get so mad at myself, letting you drag me down to your level all the time.” “And what level are you imagining me dragging you down to?” His voice is a little velvety and he bites his lip. “Horizontal?” Mentally I hit Enter in my HR log and begin a new line. “You’re disgusting. Go to hell.” I think I’ll go treat myself to a basement scream. “There you go. You’ve got no problem telling me to go to hell. It’s a good start. It kind of suits you. Now try it with other people. You don’t even realize how much people walk all over you. How do you expect to be taken seriously? Quit giving the same people deadline extensions, month after month.” “I don’t know what you mean.” “Julie.” “It’s not every month.” I hate him because he is right. “It’s every single month, and you have to bust your ass working late to meet your own deadline. Do you see me doing that? No. Those assholes downstairs give it to me on time.” I dredge up a phrase from the assertiveness self-help book I keep on my nightstand. “I don’t want to continue this conversation.” “I’m giving you some good advice here, you should take it. Stop picking up Helene’s dry cleaning—it’s not your job.” “I am now ending this conversation.” I stand up. Maybe I’ll go and play in the afternoon traffic to let off steam. “And the courier. Just leave him alone. The sad old guy thinks you’re flirting with him.” “That’s what people say about you.” The unfortunate retort falls out of my mouth. I try to rewind time. It doesn’t work. “Is that what you think you and I do? Flirt?” He reclines back in his chair in a way I can never manage to do. The back of my chair doesn’t budge when I’ve tried to recline. I only succeed in rolling backward and bumping into the wall. “Shortcake, if we were flirting, you’d know about it.” Our eyes catch and I feel a weird drop inside. This conversation is running off the rails. “Because I’d be traumatized?” “Because you’d be thinking about it later on, lying in bed.” “Been imagining my bed, have you?” I manage to reply. He blinks, a new rare expression spreading across his face. I want to slap it off. It looks like he knows something I don’t. It’s smug and male and I hate it. “I bet it’s a very small bed.” I’m nearly breathing fire. I want to round his desk, kick his feet wider, and stand between his spread legs. I’d put one knee on the little triangle of chair right below his groin, climb up a little, and make him grunt with pain. I’d pull his tie loose and unbutton the neck of his shirt. I’d put my hands around his big tan throat and squeeze and squeeze, his skin hot underneath my fingertips, his body struggling against me, cedar and pine spicing the air between us, burning my nostrils like smoke. “What are you imagining? Your expression is filthy.” “Strangling you. Bare hands.” I can barely get the words out. I’m huskier than a phone-sex operator after a double shift. “So that’s your kink.” His eyes are going dark. “Only where you’re concerned.” Both his eyebrows ratchet up, and he opens his mouth as his eyes go completely black, but he does not seem to be able to say a word. It is wonderful. IT’S A BABY-BLUE shirt day when I remember the photo I took of his planner. After I read the Publishing Quarterly Outlook Report and make an executive summary for Helene, I transfer the photo from my phone to my work computer. Then I glance around like a criminal. Joshua has been in Fat Little Dick’s office all morning, and weirdly the morning has dragged. It’s so quiet in here without someone to hate. I hit Print, lock my computer, and clatter down the hall. I photocopy it twice, making the resolution darker and darker until the pencil marks are better visible. Needless to say, I shred all unneeded evidence. I wish I could double-shred it. Joshua’s begun locking away his planner now. I lean against the wall and tilt the page to the light. The photograph captures a Monday and Tuesday a couple of weeks back. I can see Mr. Bexley’s appointments easily. But next to the Monday is a letter. D. The Tuesday is an S. There is a tally of tiny lines adding up to eight. Dots next to times near lunchtime. A line of four X’s and six little slash marks. I puzzle covertly over this all afternoon. I’m tempted to go to security and ask Scott for the security tapes for this time period, but Helene might find out. It’d definitely be a waste of company resources too, over and above my illicit photocopying and general slacking. The answer doesn’t come for some time. It’s late afternoon and Joshua is back in his regular seat across from me. His blue shirt glows like an iceberg. When I finally work out how to decode the pencil marks, I slap my forehead. I can’t believe I’ve been so slow. “Thanks. I’ve been dying to do that all afternoon,” Joshua says without taking his eyes from his monitor. He doesn’t know I’ve seen his planner and the pencil codes. I’ll simply notice when he uses the pencil and work out the correlation. Let the Spying Game begin. Chapter 3 I don’t get quick results with the Spying Game and by the time Joshua is dressed in dove gray I’m at my wit’s end. He has sensed my heightened interest in his activities and has become even more furtive and suspicious. I’ll have to coax him out. I’m never going to see the pencil in motion if all he does is half frown at his computer. I start a game I call You’re Just So. It goes like this. “You’re Just So . . . Ahh, never mind.” I sigh. He takes the bait. “Handsome. Intelligent. No, wait. Superior to everyone. You’re coming to your senses, Lucinda.” Joshua locks his computer and opens his planner, one hand hovering over the cup with the pens and pencils. I hold my breath. He frowns and slaps the planner shut. The gray shirt should make him look like a cyborg, but he ends up looking handsome and intelligent. He is the worst. “You’re Just So predictable.” Somehow I know this will cut him deep. His eyes become slits of hatred. “Oh, am I? How so?” You’re Just So basically gives both players free rein to tell the opponent how much they hate each other. “Shirts. Moods. Patterns. People like you can’t succeed. If you ever acted out of character and surprised me, I’d die of shock.” “Am I to take this as a personal challenge?” He looks at his desk, apparently deep in thought. “I’d like to see if you attempt it. You’re Just So inflexible.” “And You’re Just So flexible?” “Very.” I fell right into that one, and it’s true. I could get my foot up to my face right now. I recover by raising an eyebrow and looking up at the ceiling with a smirk. By the time I lock eyes with him again, my mouth is a neutral little rosebud, mirrored off a hundred glittering surfaces. He drops his eyes slowly down to the floor, and I cross my ankles, belatedly remembering I kicked off my shoes earlier. It’s hard to be a good nemesis when your bright red toenails are showing. “If I did something out of character, you’d die of shock?” I can see my face mirrored on the paneling near his shoulder. I look like a black-eyed, wild-maned version of myself. My dark hair falls around my shoulders in jagged flames. “Might be worth my while then.” Monday to Friday, he turns me into a scary-looking woman. I look like a gypsy fortune-teller screaming about your imminent death. A crazed lunatic in an asylum, seconds from clawing her own eyes out. “Well, well. Lucinda Hutton. One flexible little gal.” He is reclining in his chair again. Both feet are flat on the floor and they point at me like revolvers in a Wild West shootout. “HR,” I clip at him. I’m losing this game and he knows it. Calling HR is virtually like tapping out. He picks up the pencil and presses the sharpened tip against the pad of his thumb. If a human could grin without moving their face, he just did it. “I meant, You’re Just So flexible in your approach to things. It must have been your wholesome upbringing, Shortcake. What do your parents do again? Could you remind me?” “You know exactly what they do.” I’m too busy for this nonsense. I grab a stack of old Post-its and begin to sort them. “They farm . . .” He looks at the ceiling, pretending to be wracking his brains. “They farm . . .” He leaves it dangling in the air for an eternity. It’s agony. I try not to fill in the silence, but the word that amuses him so much comes out of my mouth like a curse. “Strawberries.” Hence the nickname Strawberry Shortcake. I indulge myself in molar grinding. My dentist will never know. “Sky Diamond Strawberries. Cute. Look, I’ve got the blog bookmarked.” He does two double-clicks with his mouse and swivels his computer screen to face me. I cringe so hard I sprain something internally. How did he find this? My mom’s probably calling out to my dad right now. Nigel, honey! The blog’s had a hit! The Sky Diamond Daily. Yes, you heard right. Daily. I haven’t checked it in a while because I can’t keep up. Mom was a journalist with the local newspaper when she met Dad, but she quit to have me, and then they opened the farm. When you know her backstory, the daily entries make a sad kind of sense. I squint at Joshua’s screen. Today’s feature story is about irrigation. Our farm supplies three local farmers’ markets as well as a grocery chain. There’s a field for tourists to pick their own and Mom sells jars of preserves. In hot weather, she makes homemade ice cream. Sky Diamond was certified organic two years ago, which was a pretty big deal for them. Business ebbs and flows, dependent on the weather. When I go home I still have to take my turn at the front gate, explaining to visitors the flavor differences between Earliglow and Diamonte strawberries. Camino Reals and Everbearers. They all sound like the names of cool old cars. Not many people look at my name badge and make the connection with the farm’s name. The Beatles’ fans who do are deeply, smugly pleased with themselves. I bet you can guess what I eat when I’m homesick. “No. You didn’t. How did you—” “And you know, there’s the nicest family picture somewhere . . . here.” He clicks again, barely needing to glance at the screen. His eyes light with evil amusement as he watches me. “How nice. It’s your parents, right? Who’s this adorable little girl with black hair? Is it your little cousin? No . . . It’s a pretty old picture.” He makes the picture fill his entire screen. I’m turning redder than a flippin’ strawberry. It’s me, of course. It’s a photo I don’t think I’ve ever seen. The blurred treeline in the background orients me instantly. I turned eight when my parents put those new rows into the west quarter block. Business was picking up then, which accounts for the pride in my parents’ smiles. I’m not ashamed of my parents, but it never ceases to amuse those who were raised in the city. Most white-collar jackasses like Joshua find it so quaint and cute. They imagine my family as simple folk, hillbillies on the side of a hill covered in rambling vines. For people like Joshua, strawberries come from the store prepackaged in plastic boxes. In this picture, I’m sprawled at my parents’ feet like a foal. I’m wearing stained, dirty short overalls and my crinkly dark hair is a scribble. I have my patchwork library satchel looped around my body, no doubt crammed with The Baby-Sitters Club and old-fashioned horse stories. One of my hands is in a plant, the other filled with berries. I’m flushed from sun and possibly a vitamin C overdose. Maybe it’s why I’m so small. It stunted my growth. “You know, she looks a lot like you. Maybe I should send the link in an all-staff email to B&G, asking them who they think this wild little girl could be.” He is visibly trembling with the need to laugh. “I will kill you.” I do look completely wild in this photo. My eyes are lighter than the sky as I squint against the sun and do my best big smile. The same smile I’ve been doing all my life. I begin to feel a pressure in my throat, a burning in my sinuses. I stare at my parents; they’re both so young. My dad’s back is straight in this photo, but each time I go home he’s a little more stooped over. I flick my eyes to Joshua, and he doesn’t look like he wants to laugh anymore. My eyes prick with tears before I stop to think of where I am and whom I’m sitting opposite. He turns his computer screen back slowly, taking his time closing the browser, a typical male, awkward at the sight of female tears. I swivel and look up at the ceiling, trying to make them drain back down to where they came from. “But we were talking about me. What can I do to be more like you?” An eavesdropper would think he sounds almost kind. “You could try to stop being such an asshole.” It comes out in a whisper. In the reflection on the ceiling I see his brow begin to crease. Oh lord. Concern. Our computers chime a reminder: All-staff meeting, fifteen minutes. I smooth my eyebrows and fix my lipstick, using the wall as my mirror. I drag my hair down into a low bun with difficulty, using the hair elastic on my wrist. I ball up a tissue and press it into the corner of each eye. The unsaid word homesick continues to rattle inside my chest. Lonely. When I open my eyes, I can see he’s standing and can see my reflection. The pencil is in his hand. “What?” I snap at him. He’s won. He’s made me cry. I stand up and grab a folder. He grabs a folder too, and we’re seamlessly into the Mirror Game. We each knock lightly twice on our respective boss’s door. Come in, we are simultaneously beckoned. Helene is frowning at her computer. She’s more a typewriter kind of woman. She used one sometimes before we moved here, and I loved hearing the rhythmic clacking of keys from her office. Now it’s in one of her cabinets. She was afraid of Fat Little Dick mocking her. “Hi. We’ve got an all-staff in fifteen, remember? Down in the main boardroom.” She sighs heavily and raises her silver-screen eyes to me. They’re big, dark, expressive and sparsely lashed under fine eyebrows. I can detect no trace of makeup on her face bar a rose lipstick. She moved here with her parents from France when she was sixteen and even though she’s now in her early fifties, she still has the remnants of a growly purr in her voice. Helene doesn’t notice that she is elegant, which makes her even more so. She wears her hair in a short, neat cut. Her short nails are always painted cream pink. She buys all of her clothes in Paris before visiting her elderly parents in Saint-Étienne. The plain wool sweater she’s wearing now probably cost more than three full carts of groceries. In case it’s not painfully clear, I idolize her. She’s the reason I stopped wearing so much eye makeup. I want to be her when I grow up. Her favorite word is darling. “Darling Lucy,” she says now, holding out her hand. I put the folder into it. “Are you all right?” “Allergies. My eyes are itchy.” “Hmm, that’s no good.” She scans the agenda. For bigger meetings we’d do a bit more preparation, but the all-staffs are pretty straightforward since the division heads are doing most of the talking. The CEOs are there mainly to show involvement. “Alan turned fifty?” “I ordered a cake. We’ll bring it out at the end.” “Good for morale,” Helene replies absently. She opens her mouth, then hesitates. I watch her try to choose her words. “Bexley and I are making an announcement at this meeting. It’s very significant for you. We’ll talk about it straight after the meeting.” My stomach twists. I’m fired for sure. “No, it’s good news, darling.” The all-staff meeting goes according to plan. I don’t sit next to Helene during these meetings, but instead prefer to sit with the others, mingling in. It’s my way of reminding them I’m part of the team, but I still feel their reserve with me. Do they honestly imagine me snitching to Helene about their shitty days? Joshua sits beside Fat Little Dick at the head of the table. Both are disliked and seem to sit together inside a bubble of invisibility. Alan is pink and pleased when I bring out the cake. He’s a crusty old Bexley from somewhere in the bowels of the finance section, which makes me feel even better about making the effort for him. I’ve passed a pretty frosting-covered peace offering over the fence between the two camps. It’s how we Gamins roll. In Bexleyville they probably mark birthdays with a new calculator battery. The room is crowded with latecomers leaning against the walls and perched on the low windowsill. The buzzing chatter is overwhelming compared to the silence of the tenth floor. Joshua hasn’t touched the wedges of cake that sit within arm’s reach. He’s not a snacker or even an eater. I fill our cavernous office with the rhythmic sounds of my carrot crunching and apple biting. Ziplocs of popcorn and little pots of yogurt disappear into my bottomless pit. I demolish tiny crunchy smorgasbords every day, and in contrast Joshua consumes peppermints. He’s twice my size for heaven’s sake. He’s not human. When I checked the cake, I’d groaned out loud. Of ALL the possible cake decorations the bakery could have used. You guessed it. A consummate mind reader, Joshua leans forward and takes a strawberry. He scrapes away the icing and looks at the little blob of ivory on his thumb. What will he do? Suck it? Wipe his thumb with a monogrammed handkerchief? He must sense my anticipation because his eyes cut to me. My face heats and I look away. I quickly ask Margery about her son’s progress learning the trumpet (slow), and Dean’s knee surgery (soon). They’re flattered that I remember, and reply with smiles. I guess it’s true that I’m always observing, listening, and collecting trivia. But not for any nefarious purpose. It’s mainly because I’m a lonely loser. I catch up with Keith regarding his granddaughter (growing) and Ellen’s kitchen renovation (nightmarish). All the while, the following plays in the back of my head in a loop. Eat your heart out, Joshua Templeman. I’m lovely. Everyone likes me. I’m part of this team. You’re all alone. Danny Fletcher from the cover design team signals to get my attention from across the boardroom table. “I watched the documentary you recommended.” I wrack my brains and come up blank. “Oh, um? Which?” “It was a couple of all-staffs ago. We were talking about a documentary you’d watched about da Vinci on the History Channel. I downloaded it.” I make a lot of small talk in my role. It never occurred to me anyone was listening. There’s an intricate sketch in the margin of his notepad and I sneakily try to look at it. “Did you enjoy it?” “Oh, yeah. He was pretty much the ultimate human being, wasn’t he?” “No argument there. I’m such a failure—I haven’t invented anything.” Danny laughs, bright and loud. I look from his notepad to his face. This is probably the first time I’ve looked at him properly. I get a little kick of surprise in my stomach when I flip off the autopilot switch. Oh. He’s cute. “Anyway, did you know I’m finishing up here soon?” “No, why?” The little flirt-bubble inside my stomach bursts. Game over. “A buddy and I are developing a new self-publishing platform. My last day is in a couple of weeks. This is my last all-staff.” “Well that’s a shame. Not for me. For B and G.” My clarification is as subtle as a love-struck schoolgirl. Trust me to not notice a cute guy in my midst. He’s been sitting right opposite me, for heaven’s sake. Now he’s leaving. Le sigh. It’s time I took a proper look at Danny Fletcher. Attractive, lean, and in shape, with soft blond curls cropped close to his head. He’s not tall, which suits me fine. He’s a Bexley, but not of the typical variety. His shirt, while crisp like a birthday card, is rolled at the cuffs. His tie is subtly patterned with tiny scissors and clipboards. “Nice tie.” He looks down and grins. “I do a LOT of cutting and pasting.” I look sideways at the design team, mainly Bexleys, who all dress like funeral directors. I understand his decision to leave B&G, the most boring design team on this planet. Next, I look at Danny’s left hand. Every finger is bare, and he drums them lightly against the table. “Well, if you ever want to collaborate on an invention, I’m available.” His smile is mischievous. “You’re freelancing as an inventor as well as reinventing self-publishing?” “Exactly.” He clearly appreciates my clever wordplay. I’ve never had anyone flirt with me at work. I sneak a look at Joshua. He’s talking to Mr. Bexley. “It’ll be hard to invent something the Japanese haven’t thought of.” He considers for a moment. “Like those little mops babies can wear on their hands and feet?” “Yes. Have you seen those pillows shaped like a husband’s shoulder for lonely women to sleep on?” His jaw is angular and shadowed with silvery stubble, and he has one of those slightly cruel mouths, until he smiles. Which he does now, looking right into my eyes. “Surely you don’t need one of those, do you?” He drops his tone, below the chatter of everyone else. His eyes are sparkling, daring me. “Maybe.” I make a rueful face. “I’m sure you could find a human volunteer.” I try to get us back on track. Unfortunately, it comes out sounding like I’m propositioning him. “Maybe it would be fun to invent something.” Helene is tapping her papers into order and reluctantly I turn in my chair. Joshua is glaring at me with angry eyebrows. I use my brainwaves to transmit an insult to him, which he receives and pulls himself up straight. “One more thing before we depart,” Mr. Bexley says. Helene tries to not scowl. She hates when he acts like he’s solely chairing meetings. “We have an announcement about a restructure in the executive team,” Helene continues seamlessly, and Mr. Bexley’s lips tighten in annoyance before he cuts over her. “A third executive position is being established—chief operating officer.” Joshua and I both do electric-shock jolts in our seats. “It will be a position below Helene and myself. We want to formalize the position that oversees operations, leaving the CEOs free to focus on more strategic things.” He casts a thin-lipped smile at Joshua, who nods intently back at him. Helene catches my eye and raises her eyebrows meaningfully. Someone nudges me. “It will be advertised tomorrow—details on the recruitment portal and the Internet.” He says it like the Internet is a newfangled contraption. “It’s open to both internal and external applicants.” Helene stacks her papers and rises. Fat Little Dick stands to go, and selects another slice of cake. Helene follows him, shaking her head. The room once again explodes into noise and the cake box is dragged across the table. Joshua stands by the door, and when I stubbornly remain seated, he slinks off. “Looks like you’ve got some work to do,” Danny says to me. I nod and gulp and wave good-bye to the room in general, too overwhelmed to make a graceful exit. I break into a run when I leave the room, taking the stairs two at a time. I see Mr. Bexley’s door close as I hotfoot it into Helene’s and skid to a halt, swinging the door shut behind me and banging it closed with my backside. “What’s the reporting line?” “You’d be Josh’s boss, if that’s what you’re asking.” A sensation of pure elation floods me. Joshua’s BOSS. He’d have to do everything I say, including treating me with some respect. I am at risk of wetting my pants right about now. “It’s got disaster written all over it, but I want you to have the job.” “Disaster?” I sink into a chair. “Why?” “You and Josh do not work well together. Chalk and cheese. Adding in a power dynamic like that . . .” She clucks doubtfully. “But I can do the job.” “Of course, darling. I want you to have the job.” My excitement grows as we talk about the role. Another restructure is looming, but I’d have a direct hand in it this time. I could save jobs instead of cutting them. The responsibility is greater and the raise is substantial. I could go home more often. I could get a new car. “You should know, Bexley wants Josh for the job. We had a big fight over it.” “If Joshua becomes my boss I will have to resign.” It comes out of my mouth instantly. It’s like what someone in a movie would say. “All the more reason for us to get you the job, darling. If I had my way we would have just announced your promotion.” I nibble my thumb. “But how is it going to be a fair process? Joshua and Mr. Bexley are going to sabotage me.” “I thought of that. An independent panel of recruitment consultants are doing the interviews. You’ll be competing on an even playing field. There’ll be applicants from outside B and G too. Probably a pretty strong field. I want you to be prepared.” “I will be.” I hope. “And part of the interview is a presentation. You’ll need to get started on it. They want to hear your thoughts on the future direction of B and G.” I’m itching to get back to my desk. I need to update my CV. “Do you mind if I work on my application during my lunch breaks?” “Darling, I don’t care if you work on it all day until it’s due. Lucy Hutton, chief operating officer, Bexley and Gamin. It sounds good, doesn’t it.” A grin spreads across my face. “It’s yours. I feel it.” Helene makes a motion of zipping her lip. “Now go. Get it.” I sit at my desk and unlock my computer to open my woefully outdated CV. I’m lit up inside by this new opportunity. Everything about today has changed. Well, almost everything. I notice a shape standing over me after I’ve been editing for several minutes. I breathe in. Spicy cedar. His belt buckle winks at me. I do not break my keystrokes. “The job is mine, Shortcake,” Joshua’s voice says. To stop myself from standing up and punching him in the gut I’m counting one, two, three, four . . . “Funny, that’s what Helene just told me.” I watch his backside walk away in the glossed surface of my desk, and vow that Joshua Templeman is going to lose the most important game we’ve ever played. Chapter 4 Off-white stripes today, and I’ve got a big red cross in my planner for Friday. I would bet a hundred dollars there’s an identical red cross in Joshua’s. Our job applications are due. I’m half-insane from rereading my application. I’ve become so obsessed with my presentation I’ve started dreaming about it. I need a break. I lock my screen and watch with interest as Joshua does the same. We are aligned like chess players. We fold our hands. I still haven’t seen his pencil in motion. “How You Doing, Little Lucy?” His bright tone and mild expression indicates we’re playing a game we almost never play. It’s a game called How You Doing? and it basically starts off like we don’t hate each other. We act like normal colleagues who don’t want to swirl their hands in each other’s blood. It’s disturbing. “Great, thanks, Big Josh. How You Doing?” “Super. Gonna go get coffee. Can I get you some tea?” He has his heavy black mug in his hand. I hate his mug. I look down; my hand is already holding my red polka-dot mug. He’d spit in anything he made me. Does he think I’m crazy? “I think I’ll join you.” We march purposefully toward the kitchen with identical footfalls, left, right, left, right, like prosecutors walking toward the camera in the opening credits of Law & Order. It requires me to almost double my stride. Colleagues break off conversations and look at us with speculative expressions. Joshua and I look at each other and bare our teeth. Time to act civil. Like executives. “Ah-ha-ha,” we say to each other genially at some pretend joke. “Ah-ha-ha.” We sweep around a corner. Annabelle turns from the photocopier and almost drops her papers. “What’s happening?” Joshua and I nod at her and continue striding, unified in our endless game of one-upmanship. My short striped dress flaps from the g-force. “Mommy and Daddy love you very much, kids,” Joshua says quietly so only I can hear him. To the casual onlooker he is politely chatting. A few meerkat heads have popped up over cubicle walls. It seems we’re the stuff of legend. “Sometimes we get excited and argue. But don’t be scared. Even when we’re arguing, it’s not your fault.” “It’s just grown-up stuff,” I softly explain to the apprehensive faces we pass. “Sometimes Daddy sleeps on the couch, but it’s okay. We still love you.” In the kitchen I am hanging my tea bag into my mug when the urge to laugh almost knocks me over like an ocean wave. I hold on to the edge of the counter and soundlessly shake. Joshua ignores me as he moves around preparing his coffee. I look up to see his hands opening the cupboard miles above my head, and I feel the heat of his body inches from my back. It’s like sunshine. I’d forgotten that other people are warm. I can smell his skin. The urge to laugh fades. I haven’t had any human contact since my hairdresser, Angela, gave me a head massage, probably eight weeks ago. Now I’m imagining leaning back against him and letting my muscles go slack. What would he do if I fainted? He’d probably let me crumble onto the floor, then nudge me with his toe. Another freeze-frame snaps through my brain. Joshua grabbing me, stopping me falling. His hands on my waist, fingertips digging in. “You’re so funny,” I say when I realize I’ve been silent for a bit. “So very funny.” I swallow audibly. “So are you.” He goes to the fridge. Jeanette from HR materializes in the doorway like a dumpy frazzled ghost. She’s a nice lady, but she’s also sick of our shit. “What’s going on?” She has her hands on her hips. At least, I think she does. She’s shaped like a triangle underneath the jingling Tibetan poncho she must have bartered for on her last spirit quest. She’s a Gamin, natch. “Jeanette! Making coffee. Can I tempt you?” Joshua wags his mug at her and she waves her hand irritably. She hates him deeply. She’s my kind of lady. “I got an emergency call. I’m here to referee.” “No need, Jeanette. Everything’s fine.” I dunk my tea bag gently, watching the water turn brick red. Joshua dumps a spoonful of sugar into my mug. “Not quite sweet enough, are you?” I make a fake laugh at the cabinet in front of me and wonder how he knows how I take my tea. How does he know anything about me? Jeanette is fisheyed with suspicion. Joshua looks at her mildly. “We’re making hot beverages. What’s new in the human resource field?” “The company’s two worst serial complainants should not be left alone together.” A corner of her poncho gestures to the kitchen. “Well, that’s a bind. We sit in a room together alone, all day. I spend between forty and fifty hours a week with this fine woman. All alone.” He sounds pleasant, but the subtext to his dialogue was Fuck Off. “I’ve made several recommendations to your bosses about that,” Jeanette says darkly. Her subtext reads the same. “Well, I’ll be Lucinda’s boss soon,” Joshua replies and my eyes snap to his. “I’m professional and can manage anybody.” The way he enunciates anybody implies he thinks I am mentally deficient. “Actually, I’ll be your boss soon.” I am syrupy sweet. Jeanette’s little hands appear from under her poncho. She rubs her eyes, making a mess of her mascara. “You two are my full-time job,” she says softly, despairingly. I feel a stab of guilt. My behavior is unbecoming of a soon-to-be senior executive. Time to repair this relationship. “I know in the past, communication between myself and Mr. Templeman has been a little . . . strained. I’m keen to address this, and strengthen team building at B and G.” I use my best smooth professional voice, watching her face pinch suspiciously. Joshua flicks his eyes toward me like laser beams. “I’ve drafted a recommendation for Helene outlining a team-building afternoon for corporate, design, executive, and finance.” We call it CDEF for short, or the Alphabet Branch. This is my latest brainstorm. How excellent would this sound in the interview? Very excellent. “I will cosign to show my commitment,” Joshua says, the goddamn hijacker. My wrist trembles with the need to flick hot tea in his face. “Don’t you worry about a thing,” I tell Jeanette as we stand in front of her. “It’ll all be fine.” Her poncho jingles sadly as we stride off. “When I’m your boss, I’m going to work you so fucking hard,” Joshua’s voice is dirty and rough. I am struggling to keep up with him now, but I make myself. Some of my tea spatters onto the carpet. “When I’m your boss, you’re going to do everything I say with a big smile on your face.” I nod politely at Marnie and Alan as we pass them. We round the corner like racehorses. “When I’m your boss, any more than three mistakes in your financial calculations will result in an official warning.” I mutter under my breath but he still hears me. “When I’m your boss, I’m going to be convicted of murder.” “When I’m your boss, I’m implementing a corporate support uniform policy. No more of your weird little retro costumes. I’ve already got it circled in the Corporate Wear catalog. A gray shift dress.” He pauses for effect. “Polyester. It’s supposed to be knee length, so it should reach your ankles.” I am insanely sensitive about my height and I absolutely hate synthetic fibers. I open my mouth and a cute animal growl comes out. I hustle ahead and bump the glass door open to the executive suites with my hip. “Is that what it would take for you to stop lusting after me?” I snap and he looks up at the ceiling and lets out a huge sigh. “You got me, Shortcake.” “Oh, I’ve got you all right.” We’re both breathing a little harder than the situation warrants. We each set down our mugs and face off. “I will never work for you. There’ll be no polyester dress. I’ll resign if you get it. It should go without saying.” He looks genuinely surprised for a fraction of a second. “Oh, really.” “Like you wouldn’t quit if I got it.” “I’m not sure.” He’s gimlet-eyed with speculation. “Joshua, you need to resign if I get it.” “I don’t quit things.” His voice gets a galvanized edge to it and he puts a hand on his hip. “I don’t quit things either. But if you’re so certain you’re going to get it, why would you have a problem with promising to resign?” I watch him mull this over. I want him to be my subordinate, skittish with nerves as I review a piece of his work, which I’ll tear up. I want him on his hands and knees at my feet, gathering up the torn shreds, burbling apologies for his own incompetence. Crying in Jeanette’s office, berating himself for his own inadequacies. I want to make him so nervous he’s tied in knots. “Okay. I agree. If you get the promotion, I promise to resign. You’ve got your horny eyes on again,” Joshua adds, turning away and sitting down. He unlocks his drawer and takes out his planner, busily sorting through the pages. “Mentally strangling me again?” He is making a mark with his pencil, a straight single tally, when he notices me. “What are you smirking about?” I think he makes a mark in his planner when we argue. “I’D BETTER GET to bed.” I’m talking to my parents. I’m also gently cleaning the two-dollar eBay Smurf I got a few weeks back with a baby’s toothbrush. Law & Order is on in the background and they are currently pursuing a false lead. I’ve got a white clay mask on my face and my toenail polish is drying. “All right, Smurfette,” my parents chime like a two-headed monster. They haven’t worked out they don’t have to sit cheek to cheek to fit onto the video-chat screen. Or maybe they have, but they like it too much. Dad is dangerously suntanned, bar the white outline of his sunglasses. It’s a sort of reverse-raccoon effect. He’s a big laugher and a big talker, so I get a lot of glimpses of the tooth he chipped while eating a rack of ribs. He’s wearing a sweatshirt he’s had since I was a kid and it makes me ridiculously homesick. My mom never looks properly at the camera. She gets distracted by the tiny preview window where she can see her own face on screen. I think she analyzes her wrinkles. It gives our chats a disconnected quality and makes me miss her more. Her fair skin can’t cope with the outdoors, and where Dad has tanned, she has freckled. We have the same coloring, so I know what will happen if I give up the sunscreen. They dapple every square inch of her face and arms. She even has freckles on her eyelids. With her bright blue eyes and black hair, tied up in its usual knot on top of her head, she always gets a second glance wherever she goes. Dad is enslaved by her beauty. I know for a fact, because he was telling her roughly ten minutes ago. “Now, don’t worry about a thing. You’re the most determined person there, I’m sure of it. You wanted to work for a publisher, and you did it. And you know what? Whatever happens, you’re always the boss of Sky Diamond Strawberries.” Dad’s been explaining at great length all the reasons why I should get the promotion. “Aw, Dad.” I laugh to cover the leftover bubble of emotion I’ve been feeling since the blog meltdown in front of Joshua. “My first act as CEO is to order you both to bed for an early night. Good luck with Lucy Forty-two, Mom.” I caught up with the last ten blog entries while I ate dinner. My mom has a clear, factual style of writing. I think she would have been working somewhere major one day if she hadn’t quit. Annie Hutton, investigative journalist. Instead, she spends her days digging up rotting plants, packing crates for delivery, and Frankensteining hybrid varieties of strawberries. To me, the fact she gave up her dream job for a man is a tragedy, no matter how wonderful my dad is, or the fact that I’m sitting here now as a result. “I hope they don’t turn out like Lucy Forty-one. I’ve never seen anything like it. They looked normal from the outside, but completely hollow on the inside. Weren’t they, Nigel?” “They were like fruit balloons.” “The interview will go fine, honey. They’ll know within five minutes that you live and breathe the publishing industry. I still remember you coming home after that field trip. It was like you’d fallen in love.” Mom’s eyes are full of memories. “I know how you felt. I remember when I first stepped into the printing room of a newspaper. The smell of that ink was like a drug.” “Are you still having trouble with Jeremy at work?” Dad knows Joshua’s actual name by now. He just chooses to not use it. “Joshua. And yes. He still hates me.” I take a fist of cashews and begin eating them a little aggressively. Dad is flatteringly mystified. “Impossible. Who could?” “Who even could,” Mom echoes, reaching up to finger the skin by her eye. “She’s little and cute. No one hates little cute people.” Dad seamlessly agrees with her and they begin talking as though I’m not even here. “She’s the sweetest girl in the world. Julian’s clearly got some sort of inferiority complex. Or he’s one of those sexists. He wants to bring everyone else down to make himself feel better. Napoleon complex. Hitler complex. Something’s wrong with him.” He’s ticking them off on his fingers. “All of the above. Dad, put the Post-it note over the screen so she can’t see herself. She’s not looking at me properly.” “Maybe he’s hopelessly in love with her,” Mom offers optimistically as she looks properly into the camera for the first time. My stomach drops through the floor. I catch a glimpse of my own face; I am a clay statuette of frozen horror and surprise. Dad scoffs all over the place. “Ridiculous way of showing it, don’t you think? He’s made that place a misery for her. I tell you, if I met him, he’d have to do some groveling. You hear that, Luce? Tell him to shape up or your dad’s gonna get on a plane and have a few words with him.” The image of them face-to-face is weird. “I wouldn’t bother, Dad.” It’s the segue Mom needs. “Speaking of planes, we could put some money in your account so you could book a flight to visit us? We haven’t seen you in so long. It’s been a long time, Lucy.” “It’s not the money, it’s getting the time,” I try to say, but they both begin talking over me at once, in an unintelligible combination of begging, pleading, and arguing. “I’ll come as soon as I can get some time, but it might not be for a while. If I get the promotion I’ll be pretty busy. If I don’t . . .” I study the keyboard. “Yes?” Dad is sharp. “I’ll have to get another job,” I admit. I look up. “Of course you would. You would never work for that jackass Justin. “It would be good to have her home though,” Dad tells Mom. “The books are not adding up. We need some extra brainpower.” I can see Mom is still fretting about my job situation. She’s a penny pincher, and she’s been living on a farm long enough that in her imagination the city is a heinously expensive, bustling metropolis. She’s not far off. I make a good wage, but after the bank sucks my rent payment out, I’m stretched pretty tight. The thought of getting a roommate fills me with dread. “How will she . . .” Dad shushes her and waves his hands to dispel the mere thought of failure like a puff of smoke. “It’ll be fine. It’ll be Johnnie unemployed and sleeping under a bridge, not her.” “That will never happen to her,” Mom begins, alarmed. “Have you made up with that friend you used to work with? Valerie, wasn’t it?” “Don’t ask her, it upsets her,” Mom scolds. Dad raises his hands in surrender and looks at the ceiling. It’s true; it does upset me, but I keep my tone even. “After the merger, I managed to meet her for a coffee, to explain myself, but she lost her job and I didn’t. She couldn’t forgive me. She said a true friend would have given her warning.” “But you didn’t know,” Dad begins. I nod. It’s true. But what I’ve been grappling with ever since is, should I have somehow tried to find out for her? “Her circle of friends were starting to become my friends . . . and now here I am. Square one again.” A sad, lonely loser. “There are other people at work to be friends with, surely,” Mom says. “No one wants to be friends with me. They think I’ll tell their secrets to the boss. Can we change the subject? I talked to a guy this week.” I regret it immediately. “Oooh,” they intone together. “Oooh.” There is an exchanged glance. “Is he nice?” It’s always their first question. “Oh, yes. Very nice.” “What’s his name?” “Danny. He’s in the design section at work. We haven’t gone out or anything, but . . .” “How wonderful!” Mom says at the same time that Dad exclaims, “About time!” He puts his thumb over the microphone and they begin to buzz to each other, a hornet swarm of speculation. “Like I said, we haven’t gone on a date. I don’t know exactly if he wants to.” I think of Danny, the sideways look he gave me, mouth curling. He does. Dad speaks so loudly the microphone gets fuzzy sometimes. “You should ask him. It’s got to beat sitting in the office for ten hours a day slinging mud at James. Get out and live a little. Get your red party dress on. I want to hear you have by the time we Skype next.” “Are you allowed to date colleagues?” Mom asks, and Dad frowns at her. Negative concepts and worst-case scenarios do not interest him. However, she does raise a good point. “It isn’t allowed, but he’s leaving. He’s going to freelance.” “A nice boy,” Mom says to Dad. “I’ve got a good feeling.” “I really should go to bed,” I remind them. I yawn and my clay face mask cracks. “Night, night, sweetie,” they chime. I can hear Mom say sadly “Why won’t she come home—” as Dad clicks the End button. The truth? They both treat me so much like a visiting celebrity, a complete and utter success. Their bragging to their friends is frankly ridiculous. When I go home, I feel like a fraud. As I rinse my face, I try to ignore my Bad Daughter Guilt by deciding on the items I would take if I have to live under a bridge. Sleeping bag, knife, umbrella, a yoga mat. I can sleep on it AND do yoga to keep myself nimble. I could get all of my rare Smurfs into a fishing tackle box. I have the copy of Joshua’s desk planner on the end of my bed. Time to do a little Nancy Drewing. It’s disturbing that a piece of Joshua Templeman has invaded my bedroom. My brain stage-whispers Imagine! I guillotine the thought. I study the copy. A tally—I think those are the arguments. I make a note of this on the margin. Six arguments on this particular day. Sounds about right. The little slashes I have no idea about. But the X’s? I think of Valentine’s cards and kisses. None of those are going on in our office. This has got to be his HR record. I fold up my laptop and put it away, then brush my teeth and get into bed. Joshua’s jibe about my work clothes—my “weird little retro costumes”—has prompted me to find the short black dress from the back of my wardrobe to wear tomorrow. It’s the opposite of a gray ankle-length shift dress. It makes my waist look little and my ass look amazing. Thumbelina meets Jessica Rabbit. He thinks he’s seen small clothes? He ain’t seen nothing. Little runts like me usually come across as cute rather than powerful, so I’m pulling out all the stops. The fishnet tights are so fine they feel like soft grit. My red heels that boost me up to a towering five-feet-five inches. There’s not going to be a single mention of strawberries tomorrow. Joshua Templeman is going to spray his coffee out his nose when I walk in. I don’t know why I want him to—but I do. What a confusing thought to fall asleep with. Chapter 5 Falling asleep with his name in my head is probably the reason for my dream. It’s the middle of the night, I’m lying on my stomach and I press my cheek into my pillow. He’s braced over me, pressed against my back, warm as sunlight. His voice is a hot whisper, right in my ear as he twists his hips to grind himself against my butt. I’m going to work you so fucking hard. So. Fucking. Hard. I get a full impression of his heaviness and size. I try to push back against him again to feel it again, but he mutters my name like a reprimand and crawls up higher, his knees straddling my hips. His fingertips smooth along the sides of my breasts. His exhale steams against my neck. I can’t get a decent lungful of air. He’s too heavy and I’m too turned on. Sensitive, forgotten parts of me blaze to life. I scratch my fingertips against the sheets until they burn with friction. The realization that I’m having a dirty dream about Joshua Templeman suddenly jars me and I teeter on the edge of waking, but I keep my eyes shut. I need to see where my mind takes this. After a few minutes, I sink back in. I’ll do anything you want, Lucinda. But you’ll have to ask. His tone is that lazy one he sometimes uses when he looks at me with that certain expression. It’s like he’s seen me through a hole in a wall and knows what I look like, down to my skin. I twist my head, and see his wrist braced by my head, the sleeve of a business shirt loose with no cuff link. I can see an inch of wrist; hair, veins, and tendons. The hand bunches into a fist and the mere thought of him being overcome makes me clench inside. I can’t see his face. Even though this may destroy everything, I roll over onto my back, the blankets and sheets beginning to twist me up. I’m tangled up in his arms and legs. I realize I’m turned on, and the realization that I am probably wet hits me as I look into his brilliant navy eyes. I let out a theatrical gasp of horror. A husky laugh is his reply. I’m afraid so. He doesn’t look sorry. There’s so much delicious weight, pressing me down. Hips and hands. I move against Dream-Joshua sinuously, feeling him bite back a groan, and I realize something shocking. You want me desperately. The words echo out of my mouth, true and undeniable. A kiss on the pulse in my jaw confirms what I already know. It’s stronger than attraction; darker than wanting. It’s a restlessness between us that has never had a true outlet, until now. The cream sheets are blazing hot against my skin. You’re tied up in fucking knots over me. I feel hands sliding along my body, weighing curves, buttons popping and seams unfurling. I’m being peeled, inspected. Teeth bite, and I’m being eaten. I have never had anyone burn for me like this. I’m shamefully turned on and even though I’m on my back, the look in his eyes confirms it’s me who is winning this game. I try to tug him down to kiss me, but he evades and teases. You’ve known all along, he tells me and his blazing smile tips me over the edge. I tremble awake. I jolt my hand away from the seam of my damp pajamas, my face burning red in the darkness. I can’t decide what to do. Finish the job, or take a cold shower? In the end, all I do is lie there. The hanging shape of my black dress at the foot of my bed is menacing and I stare at it until my breathing slows. I look at my digital clock. I have four hours to repress this memory. IT’S SEVEN THIRTY A.M. on a Cream Shirt Day. The reflection in the elevator doors confirms my trench coat is longer than my tiny dress, so I look like a high-class call girl, en route to a hotel penthouse with only lingerie on underneath. I had to get the bus today. I could barely climb from the curb onto the first step without showing my underwear, and as the doors closed behind me, I knew this dress was a catastrophic lapse in judgment. The enthusiastic set of honks from a passing truck as I teetered up the sidewalk to B&G confirmed it. If Target were open this early, I’d duck in and buy some pants. I can get through this. I will need to remain seated for the entire day. The elevator doors open and of course Joshua is at his desk. Why does he always have to be at work so flippin’ early? Does he go home? Does he sleep in a morgue drawer in the boiler room? I suppose he could ask the same of me. I was hoping I’d have a minute or two alone here in the office to get settled in for a long day of remaining seated. But there he is. I hide myself behind the coat rack and pretend to rifle through my handbag to buy myself some time. If I focus on the dress as my main issue, I can ignore the flashbacks to last night’s dream. He lifts his eyes from his planner, pencil in hand. He stares at me until I begin to untie the belt on my trench coat, but I can’t continue. The blue of his eyes is even more vivid than in my dream. He’s looking at me like he’s busy reading my mind. “It’s cold in here, no?” Mouth pursing into a kiss of irritation, he waves his hand in circles as if to say Get on with it. Fortifying myself with a deep breath, I take off the coat and hang it on my special padded hanger. I feel the friction of the tiny fishnet diamonds between my thighs as I walk toward our desks. I’m pretty much wearing a swimsuit. I watch his eyes drop to his planner, dark lashes making a half-moon shadow on his cheeks. He looks young, until he looks up and his eyes are a man’s, speculative and hard. My ankle wobbles. “Wowsers,” he drawls, and I watch his pencil make some kind of mark. “Got a hot date, Shortcake?” “Yes,” I lie automatically and he puts the pencil behind his ear, cynical. “Do tell.” I try to perch my butt nonchalantly on the edge of my desk. The glass is cold against the backs of my thighs. It’s a dreadful mistake but I can’t stand back up now, I’ll look like an idiot. We both stare at my legs. I look down at my bright red heels and I can see faintly up my own dress, the tiles are polished so bright. I let my hair fall across my eye. If I focus on this stupid dress, I can forget how my brain wants him to lick me, bite me, undress me. “What’s up?” For once his voice sounds normal. “What’s happened?” I pick vaguely at an irregular diamond on my thigh. The dream is surely written all over my face. My cheeks are getting warm. He’s wearing the cream shirt, soft and silky as the sheets in my dream. My subconscious is a deviant. I try to make eye contact but chicken out and manage to saunter around to my chair. I wish I could saunter out of here, all the way home. “Hey.” He says it more sharply. “What’s up? Tell me.” “I had a . . . dream.” I say it like someone might say, Grandma’s dead. I sit down in my chair, pressing my knees together until the bones grind. “Describe this dream.” He has the pencil in his hand again and I am like a terrier watching the motion of a knife and fork. We start playing Word Tennis. Whoever can’t think of a reply first loses. “Your face has gone all red. All the way down your neck.” “Quit looking at me.” He’s correct, of course. This mirror-ball office confirms it. “Can’t. You’re right in my line of vision.” “Well, try.” “It’s not often I see such an interesting choice of thigh-revealing attire in the workplace. In the HR manual for appropriate business attire—” “You can’t take your eyes off my thighs long enough to consult the manual.” It’s true. He looks at the floor but after a second the red sniper-dot from his eyes recommences at my ankle bone and slides up. “I have it memorized.” “Then you’ll know that thighs are not an appropriate topic of conversation. If I get my polyester sack dress I guess you’ll be kissing them good-bye.” “I look forward to it. Getting the promotion, I mean. Not your thighs— Never mind.” “Dream on, pervert.” I type in my password. The previous one expired. Now it’s DIE-JOSH-DIE! “It’s my job, not yours.” “So who’s your date with?” “A guy.” I’ll find one between now and the end of the workday. I’ll hire a guy if I have to. I’ll call a modeling agency and ask for the catch of the day. He’ll pick me up in a limo out front of B&G and Joshua will have egg on his face. “What time is your date?” “Seven,” I hazard. “What location is your date?” He slowly makes a pencil mark. An X? A slash? I can’t tell. “You’re very interested; why is that?” “Studies have shown that if managers feign interest in their employees’ personal lives it increases their morale and makes them feel valued. I’m getting the practice in, before I’m your boss.” His professional spiel is contradicted by the weird intensity in his eyes. He’s truly captivated by all of this. I give him my best withering look. “I’m meeting him for drinks at the sports bar on Federal Avenue. And: You’re never going to be my boss.” “What a total coincidence. I’m going there to watch the game tonight. At seven.” My clever fib was a tactical error. I study him but can’t tell where his face ends and the lie begins. “Maybe I’ll see you there,” he continues. He is diabolical. “Sure, maybe,” I make my voice bored so he can’t tell I’m simultaneously fuming and panicking. “So this dream—a man was in it, right?” “Oh, yes indeed.” My eyes travel across Joshua without my permission. I think I can see the shape of his collarbone. “It was highly erotic.” “I should compose an email to Jeanette,” he says faintly after a pause and a throat-clearing rasp. He does a poor imitation of typing on his keyboard without even looking at the screen. “Did I say erotic? I meant esoteric. I get those mixed up.” He narrows one eye. “Your dream was . . . mysterious?” Here goes nothing. It’s time to take my chances with the human lie detector. “It was full of symbols and hidden meaning. I was lost in a garden, and there was a man there. Someone I spend a lot of time with, but this time he seemed like a stranger.” “Continue,” Joshua says. It’s so strange to talk to him when his face isn’t a mask of boredom. I cross my legs as elegantly as I can manage and his eyes flash under my desk, then back to my face. “I was wearing nothing but bedsheets,” I say in a confiding tone, then pause. “This is strictly between us, right?” He nods, spellbound, and I mentally high-five myself for winning Word Tennis. I need to prolong this moment; it’s not often I gain the upper hand. I put on lipstick using the wall as a mirror. The color is called Flamethrower and it’s my trademark. Vicious, violent, poisonous red. Slit-wrists red. The color of the devil’s underpants, according to Dad. I have so many tubes that I always have a tube within a three-foot radius. I am black and white, but thanks to Flamethrower, I can be Technicolor. I live in terror of it being discontinued by the manufacturer, hence my hoarding. “So I’m walking through this garden and the man is right behind me.” Today I am a pathological liar. This is what Joshua Templeman does to me. “He’s right behind me. Like, up against me. Pressed up against my ass.” I stand and slap my own butt loud enough to make my point. The words ring so true, because mostly it is true. Joshua nods slowly, his throat constricting in a swallow as his eyes trail down my dress. “I seem to recognize his voice.” I pause for thirty seconds, blotting my lips, holding it up to admire the little red heart-shaped mark on the tissue before scrunching it and putting it in the wastebasket near my toes. I start reapplying. “Do you always have to do that twice?” Joshua is growing irritated by this stilted storytelling. He taps his fingertips impatiently on the desk. I wink. “Don’t want it kissing off, now do I?” “Who is this date with, exactly? What’s his name?” “A guy. You’re changing the subject, but that’s okay. Sorry for boring you.” I sit down and click the mouse until my computer whirs to life. “No, no,” Joshua says faintly, like he is completely out of air. “I’m not bored.” “Okay, so I’m in the garden, and it’s . . . all reflective. Like it’s covered in mirrors.” He nods, elbow sliding forward on the desk, chin in hand. He is inching his chair back. “And I . . .” I pause, and glance at him. “Never mind.” “What?” He barks it so loud I bounce an inch out of my seat. “I say, Who are you? Why do you want me so badly? And when he tells me his name, I was so shocked . . .” Joshua dangles from the end of my fishing line, a glossy fish, flipping and irrevocably hooked. I can feel the expanse of air between us vibrating with tension. “Come over here, I need to whisper it,” I murmur, glancing left and right although we both know there’s nobody for miles. Joshua shakes his head reflexively and I look at his lap. He’s not the only one who can stare underneath the desk. “Oh,” I say to be a smartass, but to my astonishment color begins to burn on Joshua’s cheekbones. Joshua Templeman is turned on in my presence. Why does it make me want to tease him even more? “I’ll come over and tell you.” I lock my computer screen. “I’m fine.” “I have to share it.” I walk over slowly and put my hands on the edge of his desk. He looks at my fishnet legs with such a tormented expression I almost feel sorry for him. “This is unprofessional.” He glances at the ceiling for inspiration before finding it. “HR.” “Is that our safe word? Okay.” In this fluorescent lighting he looks irritatingly healthy and gold, his skin even and unblemished. But there’s a faint sheen on his face. “You’re a little sweaty.” I take the Post-its from his desk and plant a big, slow kiss on top. I peel it off and stick it in the middle of his computer screen. “I hope you’re not coming down with something.” I walk away toward the kitchen. I hear the wheels on his chair make a faint wheeze. LIVE A LITTLE. Danny’s cubicle is stripped down and a little chaotic. Packing boxes and stacks of paper and files are everywhere. “Hi!” He jolts and makes a jagged gray smudge on the author photograph he was Photoshopping. Real smooth, Lucy. “Sorry. I should wear a bell.” “No, it’s okay. Hi.” He hits Undo, Save, and then swivels, his eyes sliding up and down me as fast as lightning, before getting snagged on the hemline of my dress for an extra few seconds. “Hi. I was wondering if you’d come up with any inventions for us to get started on?” I can’t believe how forward I’m being, but I’m in a desperate situation. My pride is at stake here. I need someone sitting next to me tonight on a barstool or Joshua will laugh his ass off. A smile spreads across his face. “I’ve got a half-finished time machine I could get you to take a look at.” “They’re pretty straightforward. I can help you out.” “Name the time and place.” “The sports bar on Federal? Tonight, seven o’clock?” “Sounds great. Here, I’ll give you my number.” Our fingers graze when he gives it to me. My, my. What a nice boy. Where on earth has he been all this time? “See you tonight. Bring, um, blueprints.” I weave back through the cubicles and climb the stairs back to the top floor, mentally dusting my hands. Time to work. I drop back into my seat and begin work on the proposal outlining our desire to run a team-building activity. I put two signature spaces at the bottom, sign my name, and dump it into his in-tray. He takes a full two hours to even pick it up. When he does, he reads it in about four seconds. He slashes his signature onto it and flicks it into his out-tray without a glance. He has been in a weird mood this afternoon. I steeple my fingers and commence the Staring Game. It takes about three minutes but he eventually heaves a sigh and locks his screen. We stare so deep into each other’s eyes we join each other in a dark 3-D computer realm; nothing but green gridlines and silence. “So. Nervous?” “Why would I be?” “Your big date, Shortcake. You haven’t had one in a while. As long as I’ve known you, I think.” He indicates quotation marks with his fingers at big date. He’s positive it’s all a lie. “I’m way too picky.” He steeples his fingers so hard it looks painful. “Really.” “Such a complete drought of eligible men here.” “That’s not true.” “You’re searching for your own eligible bachelor?” “I—no—shut up.” “You’re right.” I drop my eyes to his mouth for a split second. “I’ve finally found someone in this godforsaken place. The man of my dreams.” I raise my eyebrow meaningfully. He makes the connection to our early-morning conversation seamlessly. “So your dream was definitely about someone you work with.” “Yes. He’s leaving B&G very soon, so maybe I need to make a move.” “You’re sure about it.” “Yes.” I can’t remember the last time he has blinked his eyes. They are black and scary. “You’ve got your serial killer eyes on again.” I stand and take my proposal from him. “I’ll get you a copy for Fat Little Dick. Don’t screw this up for me, Joshua. You’ve got no concept of how to build a team. Leave this to the expert.” When I return he’s a little less dark looking, but his hair is messed up. He takes the document, which I have stamped COPY. He looks at the document, and I can see the exact moment he has his idea. It’s the sharp pause that a fox makes as it mooches past the unlatched gate of a henhouse. He looks up at me, his eyes glittering. He bites his bottom lip and hesitates. “Whatever you’re thinking, don’t.” He takes a pen and writes something across the bottom. I try to see, but he stands and holds it so high a corner touches the ceiling. I can’t risk standing on tiptoes in this dress. “How could I possibly resist?” He rounds his desk and touches his thumb under my chin as he brushes past. “What have you done?” I say to his back as he walks into Mr. Bexley’s office. I scuttle into Helene’s, rubbing my chin. “I agree,” she says, laying the document aside. “This is a good idea. Did you see how the Gamins and Bexleys sat apart in the team meeting? I’m tired of it. We haven’t done anything as a team since the merger-planning day. I’m impressed that you and Joshua came together.” I hope my weird brain doesn’t file away her last filthy-sounding sentence. “We are working out our differences.” I have no trace of lie in my voice. “I’ll talk to Bexley at our four o’clock battle royale. What are your ideas?” “I’ve found a corporate retreat that’s only fifteen minutes off the highway. It’s one of those places with whiteboards all over the walls.” “Sounds expensive.” Helene makes a face, which I had already anticipated. “I’ve run the numbers. We were under the training budget for this financial year.” “So what will we do at this corporate love-in?” “I’ve already come up with several team-building activities. We’ll do them in a round-robin style, rotating each group so teams get regularly mixed up. I’d like to be the facilitator for the day. I want to end this war between the Bexleys and Gamins.” “People absolutely hate team activities,” Helene points out. I can’t argue. It’s a corporate truth universally acknowledged that workers would rather eat rat skeletons than participate in group activities. I know I would. But until business team-building models make a significant advance, it’s all I’ve got. “There’s a prize at the end for the participant who’s made the biggest effort and contributes the most.” I pause for effect. “A paid day off.” “I like it,” she cackles. “Joshua is planning something though,” I warn. She nods. She enters the Colosseum at precisely four. As usual, I can hear them shouting at each other. At five, Helene comes out of Mr. Bexley’s office and arrives at my desk in an irritated state. “Josh,” she tosses over her shoulder, her voice colored with dislike. “Ms. Pascal, how are you?” A halo floats above his head. She ignores him. “Darling, I’m sorry. I lost the coin toss. We’ve gone with Josh’s idea for team building. What is the thing called? Paintballs?” Sweet baby Jesus, no. “That wasn’t the recommendation. I should know; I wrote it.” Joshua nearly smiles. It shimmers like a holograph over his face. It vibrates out of him in waves. “I took the liberty of providing an alternative to Mr. Bexley. Paintballing. It’s been shown to be an effective team-building activity. Fresh air, physical activity . . .” “Injuries and insurance claims,” Helene counters. “Cost.” “People will pay twenty dollars of the