For the hundredth time in an hour, Angela Pierce heaved a sigh and turned her eyes toward the ceiling. There was only so much she could take before she had to call it a day. Her vision blurred with the headache she’d been sporting since lunch time, her thin fingers pressed to her brow. She barely heard the incessant droning that came from the other end of the phone line. A glance toward the clock indicated that he’d been prattling on for nearly forty-five minutes. Just another half hour and it would be five o’clock, time to call it a day. Just half an hour and the corporate world would grind to a halt, and she wouldn’t have to worry about solving anyone’s problems until Monday. She could go home, take off her shoes, and then her life would begin.
Her eyes crossed, and she forced herself to look away from the clock. “Listen, Roger,” Angie interrupted. “Wherever the papers got filed, it’s too late to look for them now. Just call and say you need an extension and we’ll look for it on Monday. Even if we printed new copies for their contract, we couldn’t have them signed until Monday at the soonest. Just don’t worry about it, and go home!”
“But- But Miss Pierce-” Roger started, his nervous stammering grating on her last nerve.
“Stop,” Angie said, clenching a hand into a fist atop her desk. “Forget it. Call for an extension and we’ll deal with it on Monday.”
“Yes ma’am.” The agreement on the other end of the line made her roll her eyes as she hung up the phone, and she buried her face in her hands. Sometimes, she felt like an office job was the exact opposite of what she wanted. She rummaged in the top drawer of her desk, cradling her forehead in one hand as she dug out the bottle of aspirin she kept there, specifically for days like this. Two painkillers swallowed with the last mouthful from her bottled water would take care of her headache.
“Susan,” she said, leaning forward wearily to speak into the intercom. “Take the rest of my calls and leave me a note for anything important, would you please? I’m going home a little bit early.”
“Is everything all right, ma’am?” Susan’s voice crackled over the speaker, Angie couldn’t help but smile at the concern the older woman showed.
“Lady problems,” Angie said with a wry smile to herself. One of few benefits of working with a building full of men was that no one ever questioned that as a reason to leave early. “Have a good weekend, Susan. I’ll see you on Monday.” She crammed paperwork into her laptop bag, scooping her purse up from under her desk and planting it on top. She tossed her empty water bottle into the trash on her way to the door, wiggling fingers in a quick goodbye to Susan at the receptionist’s desk.
She exhaled as soon as she was in the elevator, lounging against the hand rail as it made its sluggish descent. The bell for the first floor dinged and she hefted her bag higher on her shoulder, digging around in her purse to find her keys on the way into the lobby.
“Angie!” Her name echoed in the roomy foyer and Angie grinned, waving to the woman that had just come through the revolving door. Lauren Langdon might have lacked fashion sense sometimes, teetering toward her on heels that were far too high, but the tall, rail-thin blonde made up for it in personality. With her own stocky build, black hair and definite lack of height, Angie felt like the physical opposite of her best friend.
“I was just about to call you, Lauren!” Angie laughed, sweeping her former classmate into a quick hug. “You take off early, too?”
“Ugh.” Lauren rolled her eyes. “I should have washed my hands of that disaster earlier in the day. You can tease me all you want about having an easy job, but at least you don’t have to deal with people.”
Angie scoffed at that. “I don’t? Oh, please. It might not be face to face with a hundred in a day, but people like Roger over in the Milwaukee branch are enough of a headache to make up for it.” She fell in step beside Lauren, pushing out into the sunny Saint Louis afternoon.
“Roger might be bad, but I’d take that over a teller job any day,” Lauren sighed, shading her eyes with one hand as they started down the sidewalk.
“Speaking of jobs, did you ever hear back about that receptionist spot?” Angie asked. “You’ve been with the bank forever, seems like you’d be a shoo-in.”
Lauren shrugged. “Seems like, but they still haven’t called me. I’m hoping I’ll hear something after the weekend. Can’t let you be the only young professional, after all.” She nudged Angie with her elbow.
“Twenty-eight is not that young anymore.” Angie laughed. “You know they brought in an intern that’s still in college? He’s aiming for a position as a head of one of the software development teams. I’m not even sure he has to shave in the morning.”
“Yeah, well, things are easier for some of these kids that are getting into the technology field. If you didn’t work for a software company, you probably wouldn’t have to deal with them. I’m pretty sure some kids now are born with a cell phone in their hands.” Lauren rolled her eyes, turning the corner into the parking garage. “I’m on the first floor today, where did you park?”
“Fourth floor.” Angie grimaced. “Actually, would you want to go grab something to eat? We can just take your car and you can drop me off back here afterward, that way we only have to pay to park one car.”
“You know I’m always up for dinner with you, hon.” Lauren batted her eyelashes. “But if you don’t mind, I’d rather grab some different shoes first. Meet me at my place and we’ll go from there?”
Angie smiled at that. “Lead the way, then, sugar. You know I’ll be right behind you.”
* * * * *
“Ouch.” Angie cringed, hobbling to the cluttered couch, shoving a blanket aside to make room to sit. She rubbed at the toes her shoes left exposed, looking down at the pile of books she’d tripped over. “I thought you were going to get some more shelves!” She called, watching Lauren disappear around the corner, into the bedroom of her apartment.
“I did, but I had more than what would fit onto them,” Lauren yelled back.
Angie made a face. She’d been an avid reader before her job had taken off, but her interest in books had been limited to the stories between their covers, rather than the books themselves. It seemed like Lauren collected books just for the sake of having them. She picked one up off the pile nearest to her, raising a brow at the cover. “The Vampire Watcher’s Handbook? Really, Lauren? I thought you got out of that supernatural phase back in high school.”
“I did, but have you ever known me to get rid of a book?” Lauren said, laughing. She came back to the living room minutes later, walking more confidently in knee-high boots with a chunky heel.
Angie’s jaw dropped. “You can not be going out in that!” she said, disbelievingly. Lauren grinned at her, turning about where she stood. She’d let her blonde curls down and smudges of smoky eyeshadow accented her chocolatey brown eyes. She wore hip-hugging wet look vinyl pants, her top was just a corset. From head to foot, she was clad in black.
“And you can’t be going out in that. C’mon, Angie, we’re practically the same size. I know I’ve got something less dowdy than that,” Lauren grinned.
“There is nothing ‘dowdy’ about a suit,” Angie huffed, folding arms across her chest. “And anything that fits you is going to be either too long or too tight on me. When did you start going the fetish route?”
“Around the time I figured out that dressing the part makes it easier to get pictures of the groups I’m trying to photograph.” Lauren smirked. “Come on. If we’re going to go out, we’ll go somewhere interesting. I’m bound to get some great pictures at a club. Maybe I can get some photos for that article about local night life I keep wanting to put together.” She hopped over stacks of books to get to the couch, grabbing hold of Angie’s arm, hauling her onto her feet.
“Please tell me you’re not dragging me to some dark poetry reading or something like that,” Angie groaned, stumbling over books that were strewn across the floor.
“I’m not,” Lauren laughed. “I promise. Now come on, let’s get you dressed.”
Lauren’s definition of ‘getting dressed’ wasn’t as simple as a change of clothes. By the time the curlers came out of Angie’s hair, the sun was low on the horizon. It washed the bathroom of the apartment in a ruddy light and Angie frowned as it left a blinding glare on the bedroom mirror.
“Oops, hold on. I’ll get that,” Lauren muttered, shutting the blinds and flicking the light switch before turning to Angie again. “So what do you think?”
“Ehh…” Angie hesitated. Her black hair fell in tight ringlets around her face, and dark eyeshadow made her baby blues look extra bright by comparison. The black dress Lauren had given her showed off her satisfactory cleavage with a sweetheart neckline, flattering her collarbones with spaghetti straps. The fabric hugged her body until the swell of her hips, where it fell into loose ruffles that hung to her knees. Black stockings hid her pale legs, patent leather pumps giving them the perfect toned look beneath her nylons. “You’re good at putting together an outfit, I’ll give you that. It makes me look thinner. But I think I preferred my dowdy old suit.”
“Well, that’s too bad. When was the last time you actually went to a club, anyway?” Lauren asked, sweeping her lips with a pale pink gloss before picking her purse up off the bed.
“Probably before I got this job,” Angie muttered.
“That’s what I figured.” Lauren shrugged, pausing on her way out the door to grab her camera off a shelf.
Angie raised an eyebrow. “I’m surprised you still have that thing,” she said. “For as many odd places as you take it, I’d have figured it’d be stolen by now.”
“I’d be surprised if anyone wanted this old thing.” Lauren hefted the old-fashioned, professional grade camera against her shoulder. “I may just be a banker now, but maybe someday I’ll be shooting for the best magazines out there.”
“Or the trashiest tabloids money can buy,” Angie said dryly, brushing her shoulder-length curls back, a bounce in her step as she snatched up her purse and started for the front door. “You said we’re going to a club, right? Better hope I pick up a date, or you’re paying for dinner!”
“Dream on, sweetheart,” Lauren laughed, locking the door behind them.
* * * * *
The booming bass of the music put a tremor in their legs before they’d even made it to the front door. They’d parked only two blocks away and Angie already regretted the heels Lauren had convinced her to wear. Wearing them to work was one thing, when she was behind a desk all day. Walking – and if she was lucky, dancing – was a whole different ball game.
“You know, when we agreed on dinner, I was thinking something a little heavier than nachos,” Angie complained.
Lauren laughed, waving her camera in front of her friend’s face. “C’mon, just let me snap a few shots. Then we can go get a burger or something. I just told you, I want to try to submit a piece about the local night life to the Post-Dispatch.”
Angie sighed. “Just make sure I’m not in any of them. I don’t need any more trouble from my coworkers, thanks.” She felt herself shrinking under the scrutiny of the club’s bouncer, slipping forward with cash and her ID in hand.
Lauren led the way, weaving a path through the crush of people with an easy spring in her step. The din of voices was smothered by the music. The multicolored lights that swirled over the dance floor made Angie’s head hurt. She squinted at the floor as she walked.
“Why don’t you go sit down for a bit?” Lauren shouted to make herself heard. She already had her camera in hand. “I’ll just get a couple shots out here, then I’ll be right over.”
Angie rolled her eyes, but saw her friend off with a smile. Taking Lauren up on her suggestion, she pushed her way to the edges of the crowd. With some jostling, she worked her way toward the back and slipped into the first empty booth, tugging her skirt farther down her thighs as she settled. Through the milling swarm, she barely caught glimpse of Lauren with her camera, trying to protect it from the crowd long enough to focus a shot. Angie smirked, watching and twisting one of her black curls around her finger.
“You know, it’s usually more fun to be out there. Rather than just watching.”
Startled, she turned her head to look at the man that spoke beside her. His dark eyes were trained on Lauren over the rim of his martini glass. Dressed in black, he blended in with the movement of the people beyond him. He turned, setting a drink in front of her. “Cosmo?”
Angie arched a brow. “I don’t drink, but thanks,” she said, leaning back into the padding of the booth, giving him an appraising look. He was well-groomed, his dark hair gelled back, his dressy clothes looking freshly ironed. His features seemed somewhat European, his complexion unusually fair. He had a sarcastic twist to his mouth and eyes so dark they looked black.
Handsome, she supposed.
“Everybody drinks,” he replied with a lopsided smirk that was either endearing or irritating, she couldn’t figure which. He slid into the seat opposite hers, setting his Manhattan on the table. “It’s just a matter of whether you drink water or whiskey.”
Angie grimaced as he made himself comfortable. “You’re in my friend’s seat, you know.”
“I’d be more than happy to leave it, if you’d come along.” He jerked his head in the direction of the crowded dance floor. “Or did I waste six dollars on that cocktail, trying to sweeten you up for it?”
“Wasted it, and you overpaid.” Angie smirked, pushing herself up from her seat before it could even get warm. He was good looking, charming enough, and Lauren was busy anyway. Why not? “You coming?” she asked, brushing hair back, starting into the throng of people dancing with a graceful swing in her hips.
She felt him close against her back as she moved with the pulsing bass, caught the scent of his musky and citrus-sweet cologne.
“You’re too graceful for a club,” he said, just loud enough for her to hear.
“I’ve had dancing lessons,” she replied. “You got a name?”
“Blaine.” He spoke louder, laying his hands against her waist. “Yours?”
“Angela.” She swayed against him easily, hands over her head, letting her eyes close as she lost herself in the music.
Lauren was there when she opened her eyes and Angie squealed at the visible click of the camera.
“Don’t worry, that one’s for the private scrapbook.” Lauren grinned, giving her friend a naughty smirk when she caught sight of Blaine’s hands on her hips. “You stealing my date?” she asked, giving him a pointed look.
“Just borrowing,” he replied.
Lauren winked. “Well treat her gently, then, I want her back in good shape when you’re done.”
“Hey!” Angie protested.
Lauren laughed, giving her shoulder a pat. “I’m just playing, Ange. I gotta get a few shots of the DJ, then I’ll be done. I promise.” She smiled, giving Blaine a childlike wave before she disappeared into the crowds again.
“She’s cute,” he murmured.
Angie pushed his hands from her hips. “I’m not a stepping stone on the way to my best friend.”
“If I was interested, I’d be dancing with her instead of you,” Blaine stated.
“Really, now?” she challenged, folding arms beneath her breasts. “So what does that make me?”
“Interesting,” he said, giving her a wry smirk.
She eyed him a moment, an amused smile twisting the corners of her mouth as she turned to strut back to the empty booth. “You know, I think I changed my mind.” She eased back into her seat, crossing her legs. “I think I’ll have that cosmopolitan after all.”
“So all it takes is a dance to loosen you up?” Blaine mused, sitting down across from her again, two fingers on the base of his glass drawing his Manhattan closer.
Angie gave him a shadowed look, eyes narrowing. “I don’t think ‘loose’ is ever a good word to use with a lady.” Her tone was half play, half threat. She regarded him over the rim of her glass for a long moment before she finally took a sip.
“My apologies then, I don’t mean to offend. It’s just that I hadn’t planned much past the part where I tried to get you to dance,” he said, sardonically.
She chuckled, leaning forward to rest elbows on the table. “Well, see, after that comes the part where you talk to me.”
“About what? The weather? The last Cardinals game?” Blaine raised a brow. He pulled the stem off the cherry in his drink, twisting it idly between his fingers.
Angie shook her head. “I’m not much of a sports fan. You could always tell me a little about yourself, though.”
He cringed. “I already know all about myself. Where’s the fun in talking about that?” He flicked the stem across the table. “So why don’t we start with you? I’m here a lot, but I’ve never seen you.”
“I don’t do this sort of thing,” she told him, flatly. “I’m only here because my friend wanted to do some photography work tonight. I have better things to do than go clubbing.”
“Like what?” Blaine asked, leaning back, folding arms across his chest.
Angie snorted. “Like working?” She laughed humorlessly. “My job doesn’t afford much time for things like this. It doesn’t afford time for anything, really.”
“And what do you do?” He urged her on, tone curious and coaxing. The weight of his gaze made her uncomfortable.
She downed the rest of her cosmopolitan. “I’m an art director for the advertisement branch of Silicon Cluster. It’s not a dream job, but it pays the bills comfortably, I suppose.”
Blaine shook his head, frowning.
Angie blinked. “What?”
“I’ve never understood that,” he said, brow furrowing. “Why people would stick with a job they clearly don’t enjoy, just because it pays well. As if there’s nothing else in the world that would pay as well, as if there’s no chance they’d ever land a job they actually enjoyed doing.”
“Hey, work is work,” she muttered defensively. “My rent is paid and I’m putting a dent in my student loans. For where I’m at in life, I don’t think I could ask for much better than that.”
“You could always ask for better, it just doesn’t mean it’ll be handed to you.” Blaine smirked at her. “What did you go to school for?”
“Journalism,” Angie jerked her head in the direction of the dance floor. “Same as Lauren out there. We were going to go into it together. I was going to write the stories, she was going to do the photography part. You know, that stupid idea that best friends have to do everything together.”
“And what stopped you?” he pressed.
Angie hesitated. “You know… I don’t know, really.” She paused, laughing. “What is this, 20 questions?”
“Only if you want me to keep asking.” Blaine chuckled, sipping his drink.
The sound of her name being called made her jump. Angie turned, looking for the source, groaning when she found it. “Oh, God…” she moaned, pressing her head into her hands.
Blaine gave her an odd look, glancing out to the man that was pushing through the crowd. “Not a good friend, I take it?”
Angie winced. “My ex.”
“Since when are you a party girl?” The smarmy tone of the question made her cringe. The expression on the face of the athletically-built man that approached their table wasn’t any better.
“Since never, Jason. Don’t you have someone else to talk to?” She forced a smile, rubbing her temples with forefinger and thumb of one hand.
“Sure, but I’d rather talk to you,” Jason said, giving Blaine a shadowed glance. “There a reason you don’t answer my calls?”
“Yes, actually, it’s because I changed my number,” Angie countered, pushing herself up. “I have to go. But it was nice meeting you,” she remarked to Blaine, not waiting for a reply before moving to work her way to the front of the club. She slipped out past the line now waiting to get in, folding her arms as she hurried down the cracked sidewalk.
The air was thick with humidity cast off from the Mississippi, though the wind was cool for summertime. Gray clouds blotting out the inky sky promised rain.
She hugged herself, walking a little faster, cutting a path toward the lights of the Metrolink station ahead. She paused at the street corner, looking back. Seeing Blaine behind her made her hesitate.
“Seeing women out alone doesn’t sit well with me,” Blaine protested, his face masked with concern.
Angie forced a smile. “I’m a big girl. I can take care of myself.”
“I’m not saying you can’t,” he replied, uneasily. “Wherever you’re going, let me walk you.”
“And they say chivalry is dead!” she laughed, turning on her heel to start off again. It didn’t take him long to fall in step beside her, positioning himself between her and the curb.
“You really don’t have to, you know,” Angie murmured, looking at the sidewalk beneath her feet. Already, the club’s music was nothing more than a dull bass hum behind them.
“A city is a city. It can be dangerous after dark. I wouldn’t want to think of something happening just because I didn’t follow you,” Blaine said.
She shrugged. “Regardless, thank you. That’s a lot more considerate than what I’m used to.”
He did not respond.
There was a small gathering of people waiting for the train. Blaine stopped at the edge of the station’s lighting. “I can see you home,” he offered, a strange note of insistence in his voice.
Angie shook her head, giving him a smile. “I’m fine. If you go back to the club, tell Lauren I picked up my car and went home. I’d call her, but I think I left my cell phone at her apartment.”
Blaine nodded. “Good night, then.” There was a subtlety in his tone that gave her a chill.
When her train came, she could still see him watching as it pulled away.
Angela groaned. Morning light spilled across her bedroom through blinds she’d forgotten to close the night before, warning her that it was closer to lunchtime than breakfast. A dull ache pulsed at her temples. She scrubbed grit from her eyes with the heels of her palms, sliding out of bed and grumbling when her feet touched the cool hardwood of her bedroom floor.
Her apartment was functional, but little else. A one bedroom space on the second floor of a historical home, the bedroom held a bed and dresser and nothing else. The living room was more furnished, with an entertainment center, bookshelves, lamps, even a rug under the couch, but it all screamed temporary – Even now, two years after she’d moved there.
Angie shuffled her way into the kitchen, finger-combing tangles out of her hair. The phone rang just as she reached for the fridge. She muttered to herself, turning to answer.
“Hello?” She yawned, pressing the backs of her knuckles to her mouth.
“Angela, where are you?” The words on the other end were a sharp whisper.
Angie blinked, brow furrowing. “Susan?”
“Please don’t tell me you forgot about the meeting this-”
Angie shrieked, slamming the phone back down on the hook. How could she have forgotten? She’d written it down on every calendar she had, and set the alarm on her phone… She slapped her forehead.
“I left it at Lauren’s! Stupid, stupid…” she hissed to herself, scrambling to get into her clothes. She twisted her hair up with one hand, jamming a hair stick through it with the other. She grabbed her keys from the shelf, slamming the door behind her.
She was late.
The conference room was empty, save a lone old man at the head of the table. Angie cringed, biting down on her lower lip as she gathered the courage to face him. She closed the door behind her, muting the click of the latch with her hands.
“You’re late.” The man at the table never even looked up from collecting papers, shuffling them into a neat stack, tucking them away in his briefcase. “So late, in fact, that you missed the entire presentation.”
Angie swallowed. “Dad, listen…”
“If you don’t take your job seriously, I hope you realize how that reflects on me,” he continued, moving around the table at a weary pace, stacking the empty paper cups that sat scattered across it. “Do you know how awkward it is for me to sit here with shareholders, trying to assure them how successful this next ad campaign will be, when my advertising director isn’t even able to appear for a meeting? A meeting that’s been scheduled for a month, at that.”
Angie sighed, shoulders sagging. “Dad, I’m sorry. I had a hard time last night, left my phone at Lauren’s and didn’t have-”
“Angela Addison Pierce! You are a twenty-eight year old college graduate!” he snapped, glaring. “When I gave you this job, I expected better from you. This is not some college job you can skip out on just because you were out late partying with friends! Not only is this a solid career, it’s a job that demands full participation from the person holding it. If you can’t support your job, then this company will not support you.”
She paused. “Are you threatening to fire me?”
“I don’t make threats, Angela. You’ve spent your entire life with me, you know that,” he said, snapping his briefcase closed.
Angie’s jaw tightened, her gaze falling to the floor. “Yes, sir.”
“I’ll have notes on the meeting left on your desk for you to review in the morning,” he informed her, almost emotionless. “I expect you won’t have any problem catching up.”
“None at all,” she replied coldly, giving a stiff nod as she left the conference room. Her hands clenched to fists at her sides, her stride long and deliberate. It took a great deal of restraint not to slam the door behind her when she reached her office. She didn’t have time to fume before the phone on her desk started ringing.
Angie sighed, dragging her feet on the way to her desk, dropping limply into her chair as she picked up the phone. “Silicon Cluster, Inc., Angela Pierce speaking.”
“Angie! There you are, God…”
“Mom?” She leaned back. “Why are you calling me here?”
“We couldn’t find you!” her mother scolded. “I called your phone four times before Lauren answered it. She said you’d left it at her apartment. She was all in a panic, she’d been by your apartment and you weren’t there. Why did you leave without telling her?”
“Mom, please. I thought that – Oh, never mind. I’ll tell you about it when I’m not afraid Dad will stomp in here to breathe down my neck.” Angie rubbed her eyes, squinting at the mascara and eyeliner that rubbed off onto her fingers.
“Well, that’s Martin for you. How long are you going to be in your office today?”
Angie glanced at the clock. It was almost noon. Her stomach protested the time with a low grumble. “Actually, I haven’t had breakfast yet. I wouldn’t mind some company, if you feel like leaving home.”
“Oh honey, you know I’d never turn down lunch.” Her mother laughed. “I’ll meet you at that little corner bistro at twelve thirty.”
Angie smiled. “Alright, Mom. I love you.”
“You better, kiddo!” came the response on the other end.
Angie stifled a laugh and got her purse out of her desk.
* * * * *
“Did he really say that to you? Ugh! I should have divorced that man years before I did.” Rebecca Cline-Pierce leaned back in the wrought-iron chair on the bistro sidewalk, regarding her daughter with a frown.
“That’s not very nice, Mom,” Angie chided, slathering another piece of bread with butter before she sank her teeth into it.
“Nice or not, it’s the truth,” Rebecca muttered with a sigh. “I worry about you, honey. I worry about what this job is going to do to you.”
“Sometimes I worry about it too,” Angie mumbled. “I mean, I appreciate everything Dad has done, but sometimes I want to be… well, I want to be Angela Pierce, self-made woman. Not Martin Pierce’s daughter, who tried for a year to land a job before daddy finally took pity on her.” She rolled her eyes.
Rebecca patted her arm. “I don’t think anyone thinks that of you, dear.”
“I’m pretty sure they do,” Angie said sullenly. “Until recently, I was the youngest one in the office. There’s plenty of people under me that are jealous that I got the job before they did, and I don’t even know if I want it. Sometimes I feel like I’m losing myself, Mom. All work, no play. I don’t know when the last time I went out with Lauren was, before last night.”
“You need to call her, by the way,” Rebecca half chided. “I told her I found you, but she was still all a-pieces after I did.”
Angie frowned, holding a hand to her mouth, not wanting to speak with her mouth full. “I know, I feel horrible now. I left because Jason was there, he saw me and I sort of freaked. I thought Blaine was going to go back to the club and tell Lauren I left, though.”
Rebecca arched a brow. “And who is Blaine, exactly?”
Angie made a face. “A gentleman that I met last night, mother.” She lifted her bread to take a bite, pausing with it poised before her mouth. “Certainly isn’t bad to look at, though.”
“Oh, do go on!” Her mother laughed. “Did you get a phone number?”
“Mom!” Angie protested.
Rebecca shrugged. “I’m just asking! Have you even been on a date since you split up with Jason?”
“When am I supposed to have time for it, Mom?” Angie sighed. “And no, I didn’t. I mean, I’d be lying if I said it hadn’t crossed my mind. The whole dating thing, that is. But I don’t want to be that girl that goes hounding good-looking men for a phone number, just because they bought you a drink once. I want to be the one pursued, this time.”
Rebecca tilted her head thoughtfully. “What kind of drink did he give you?”
“A cosmopolitan,” Angie said, cramming the rest of her bread into her mouth.
“Did you try tying the stem on the cherry into a knot with your tongue? Sometimes that helps.”
Rebecca laughed. “I’m just playing, sweetheart. Though I do wish you’d be a little more aggressive. I want to see you happy, but I also want to see you settle down. I’m getting old, you know. I’d kind of like having grandchildren.”
Angie cringed. “I don’t know if I even want a boyfriend right now, much less kids. I don’t even know what I’m doing with my life. I didn’t want to be in this job forever, maybe not even this city. But then I look back and I see I’ve already been working for Dad for five years. It’s been three years since you sold the townhouse, two since I moved out on my own, and I still don’t even have furniture for my apartment.”
“There’s nothing wrong with any of that, baby girl,” Rebecca soothed.
“Maybe not, but it feels like I’m creeping up on 30 and still waiting for my life to begin. When you were my age, you were already married and had two kids.” Angie shook her head.
Her mother laughed. “And a husband that was gone the whole time. It was almost like he was cheating on me with his company. Listen, Angie, I’m not trying to pressure you. I’m just trying to tell you that you can do a lot better than I did. It might take some time, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Just don’t forget that you won’t be young enough for a family forever.”
“I know, Mom. Believe me, I know.” Angie sighed, pushing herself up from the table. She cast a glance to the skyscrapers that loomed overhead. “Listen, I gotta run back to the office and get some things to work on over the rest of the weekend. I appreciate you having lunch with me, though.”
“It’s always a pleasure to have a meal with one of my girls.” Rebecca smiled. “Just remember. If you see that young man again, you’d better get his number!”
Angie rolled her eyes, wiggling fingers in a wave goodbye as she started off down the city street.
* * * * *
There was a mountain of paperwork to be taken home. Angie didn’t know how the paperwork piled up so fast, but everything from internet ads to radio spots had landed on her desk. Half of them she wasn’t even sure were within her jurisdiction. Saturday had slipped away, Sunday evening had come, and she’d barely made a dent in the work she’d brought home. Her laptop bag still brimmed with jobs she’d have to oversee.
She rubbed her eyes, dropping another paper to the growing stack on the couch beside her. The clock on the wall said it was nearly ten. She couldn’t remember if the clock was fast or slow. Stifling a yawn with the back of her hand, Angie pushed herself up, picking her purse up off the floor. There was a coffee shop that stayed open late around the corner, and something caffeinated was calling her name. She jammed her feet into the sneakers she’d left by the door, scuffling out as soon as she’d jostled her purse to make sure her keys were in it.
The city cast a warm glow against the clouds overhead. Lights above the sidewalk kept it almost as bright as daytime, but being out alone set Angie on edge for some reason. She made her way down the street at a quick pace, relaxing when she rounded the corner and saw the coffee shop’s lights on. Bistro furniture still sat out front, though the tables were unoccupied. Bells jingled when she opened the door and it made her smile, as it always did.
There were still a few people inside, sitting at tables here and there, laptops or books blinding them to the rest of the world. One barista swept the floor, another lounged behind the counter. Angie inhaled deeply, making her way toward the counter. The barista behind it straightened.
“Just a mochaccino, please. Biggest you’ve got,” Angie murmured, digging her debit card out of her purse, tossing it to the counter. Her eyes wandered while she waited for her drink, gaze drifting across faces until she saw one she knew. All of a sudden, she felt rather self-conscious about the t-shirt and denim cutoffs she wore.
Blaine watched her intently from where he sat at a table, newspaper spread out before him, cup of coffee close at hand and still steaming. He looked at her in a way that made her uncertain he remembered who she was.
“Hi,” she squeaked out, awkwardly.
He didn’t reply, turning his stare back down to the newspaper on the table before him. Swallowing, she took her drink, stuffing her card back into her purse as she crossed the room.
“I didn’t expect to see you here,” she continued, blowing on her coffee.
Blaine looked up, startled. His eyes swept her over another time, raising both brows. “I didn’t know you were in the area,” he replied. “You look… different, out of that little black dress.” He fumbled over his words, substituting clumsiness for every bit of casual grace he’d held the night before.
Angie offered a nervous grin. “Is that a bad thing?” she asked, sipping her mochaccino.
“No, not at all,” he replied a little too quickly, pushing his chair back to rise.
Angie held a hand out to stop him. “No, no, don’t get up. I’m just grabbing a drink. I’ve got a million things I need to do before work tomorrow, I just thought I’d stop and say hello. Like I said, I didn’t expect to see you.”
“Well, I live just around the corner,” Blaine said, folding his paper. “Are you just passing through, or…?”
Angie shook her head. “No, I live just a few blocks away from here, actually. I’ve never seen you in here before, though.”
“Or maybe you have, and before the other night, I was just a nameless stranger that was easily forgotten,” he suggested, amused.
She half smiled. “I know it’s late notice, but would you want to get breakfast or something tomorrow morning? Before I head in to work?”
Blaine cringed. “Mornings and I don’t get along. I’ve always been a night owl. Assuming your job’s a 9 to 5, that’s a bit too early for me.”
“Is that a no?” She crossed her arms, mindful of her coffee.
“No,” he managed, haltingly. “It’s more of a how about dinner, instead?”
The corners of Angie’s mouth twitched into a smile. “Only if you don’t mind having to come get me after dark. I get the feeling I’ll be working late tomorrow.” She sat her things down on the table, digging in her purse to retrieve a business card and a pen. She scrawled a number on the back, shaking it to dry the ink before she slid it across the table. “Here’s my card,” she offered. “Work and cell number on the front. Home number on the back.”
He took it without looking, turning it over several times before he tucked it into the pocket of his dress shirt. He pulled the pen out of her hand, writing on the top corner of his newspaper. He tore it off, handing it to her with a sly sort of smile that sent pleasant tingles down her spine. “I’ll call you later,” he said. “Have a good night.”
Angie grinned at him, clutching the torn paper in hand, scooping up her purse and drink without another word. She felt his eyes on her as she walked to the door and she added a little extra swing into her hips for good measure. She waited until she was halfway home to look at what he’d written.
Blaine Moreau, 836-8335.
“What is this?” Angie shouted, slamming her coffee mug down on her desk. The paperwork piled up before her computer made everything she’d taken home look like a joke. The pages on the top were already filled out and signed, colorful sticky notes designating where they needed to be sent. She couldn’t even get to her keyboard to see what kind of email there would be to go with it. Her office’s answering machine blinked with twenty-one new messages.
“Susan!” she called, turning heel, marching toward the receptionist’s office. “What is all this on my desk? This can’t all be mine!”
The graying receptionist looked worried, fumbling through her notes. “I don’t know, Miss Pierce, I didn’t see anyone take anything in.”
“Are all of these calls from this morning?” Angie asked, dismayed.
“Since before I came in to the office, Miss Pierce. Since then, I’ve gotten a few calls about paperwork that’s late being faxed in, but I’ve taken messages on everything,” Susan said, shuffling a few papers into order, holding them out for Angie to take.
“Thank you, Susan,” Angie sighed, taking the offered papers, all but marching down the hall.
Martin Pierce stood in the conference room, shuffling files on the table into order, preparing for an inevitable meeting coming later in the afternoon.
Drawing a deep breath, Angie smoothed her hair and straightened her suit as she pushed into the conference room. “Dad, would you care to tell me why there’s other people’s work sitting on my desk? You do realize I was not caught up, right?”
Martin paused, frowning. “Your boxes were empty this morning, so I had them filled.” He tapped the bottom of a stack of papers against the table. “After all, you can’t make progress in your position if you have no work to do. So I had some things transferred to you. Things you can do without visiting other locations right away, like setting up magazine advertisements and whatnot. I’m sure you can handle them.”
“I will not handle them!” Angie protested, scowling. “I don’t have the time to balance this with the rest of my life. And for the record, the only reason my boxes were empty was because I took everything home with me, so I could work on it over the weekend. I’m getting a list of contacts from Susan and I’m transferring their work back to them. Half of this isn’t even mine. I’m a director, I’m not supposed to be striking the deals!”
“You do the work or you look for work,” Martin said, leveling a firm look with her. “The entire advertising branch is behind schedule. If you ever want to be more than a regional director, you’re going to get it done, you’re going to be happy about it, and you’ll thank me for the opportunity later.”
“End of discussion!” he cut her off, gesturing toward the door.
Angie clenched her teeth, hands balling into fists. Out of better judgment, she didn’t speak, turning heel and letting the angry clomp of her shoes be muted by the office carpeting. She slammed her office door closed behind her, sweeping piles of papers off her desk with both arms. She pounded the keyboard to wake her computer from sleep mode. The morning’s email set to print, Angie flopped down in her chair, putting feet up on her desk and rubbing her temples with both hands.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a full coffee mug on the corner of her desk. A gift from Susan, no doubt. She felt a weary smile pulling at the corners of her mouth. She plucked the mug up in both hands, drinking from it gratefully while the whirring of the printer heralded the beginning of a long day.
* * * * *
The doorbell ringing jerked Angie awake. She scrambled off the couch, shoving feet into her heels. “Coming!” she called, primping her hair, pulling wrinkles out of her dress before opening the door.
Lauren’s eyebrows lifted at sight of the knee-length blue dress Angie had on. She looked down to the bags of chips she held in either hand. “Little dressed up for movie night, aren’t you?”
“Oh… Oh! Lauren, I’m so sorry! I completely forgot,” Angie buried her face in her hands, groaning and rubbing at her eyes.
“You forgot that we’ve watched a movie every Monday night for the past eight years?” Lauren laughed, pushing inside without a moment’s hesitation. She dropped her purse on the couch, wandering into the kitchen to put down the chips.
“No, I forgot that it’s Monday,” Angie said sheepishly. “I thought you were someone else.”
“I thought I was someone else too, when I saw you dressed like that! You look good.” Lauren winked, leaning against the doorway. She grinned when her friend blushed. “So who are we waiting for, all prettied up like that?
Angie fidgeted with her dress, kicking her shoes off again. “Just a gentleman I ran into while I was getting coffee. Nothing special.”
“Special enough for a blue dress, not special enough for a red one. Gotcha,” Lauren teased. She dropped down on the couch, making herself comfortable without a moment of hesitation. “Better call him and reschedule, then. Best girlfriends trump boyfriends any day of the week.”
“He’s not a boyfriend,” Angie objected. “He’s just… someone I’m seeing.”
“So tell me about him!” Lauren giggled, pulling a handful of DVDs out of her oversized purse.
“We met at the club the other night,” Angie explained, settling on the couch beside her. “I’m sure you remember. I left when I saw Jason, but he was nice about it. Walked me to the train. After I got home, I regretted not getting his number, but I guess he doesn’t live too far from here. He was down at that coffee shop I like, last night.”
“He lives here?” Lauren looked surprised, glancing over her shoulder. “I mean, in this neighborhood? That’s kinda weird. Are you sure he’s not, like, some kind of creepy stalker or something?”
Angie blinked. “Well he doesn’t seem like a creepy stalker,” she muttered. “Besides, he gave me his last name and his phone number. That’s enough to get him arrested with, if he did turn out to be a stalker.”
“Well, maybe he’s not a smart stalker,” Lauren offered. She dug the remote out from between the sofa cushions, turning the television on. The doorbell chimed and Angie gave Lauren a stern look as she got up to answer it.
“If he’s a creep, don’t worry. I’ve got mace!” Lauren yelled.
Angie didn’t bother putting her shoes on before opening the door. Blaine stood with hands in his pockets, shirt tails untucked from his jeans. He had an amused look on his face.
“If I’m a creep?” he asked, laughing.
“Oh no, you heard that?” Angie grimaced. “I’m sorry! I don’t think you were supposed to hear that.”
“Yes he was!” Lauren shouted, leering at them over the back of the couch.
Blaine smirked. “Message received, thank you.”
“I’m sorry,” Angie winced. “I forgot what day of the week it was, with me working over the weekend and all. We always watch movies on Monday night.”
He shrugged. “If it’s a bad time, you can tell me. I don’t mind rescheduling.”
“He should stay and watch the movie with us, Ange!” Lauren called.
Angie hesitated, giving him a curious look.
“If that’s what you want to do,” Blaine said indifferently. “I don’t mind.”
“Only if you mean that.” Angie stepped back. “Come on in, have a seat. Lauren was just putting in the movie.” She waved toward the couch, slipping into the kitchen to get a glass out for each of them.
Blaine closed the door behind him with barely a sound. “What are you planning on watching?”
“Dracula.” Lauren grinned, putting the disc in and waving the movie case.
Angie groaned. “You only brought that because I was picking on you for having that book!”
“You bet.” Lauren made herself comfortable on the couch again, a remote in either hand.
Angie grumbled, shuffling in with drinks in hand. “You know how I feel about scary movies.” She dropped down on the sofa, positioning herself in the middle, holding a glass of cola out to either side.
Blaine eased himself down to sit beside her, taking the glass by its rim.
“It’s not that scary, I promise,” Lauren said, plucking her glass from her friend’s hand, taking a gulp as she turned up the volume.
Angie cringed, gathering a pillow into her arms.
“Relax.” Lauren patted her shoulder, pulling her feet up onto the couch. “You’ve seen this before!”
“Doesn’t mean I’m going to like watching it again,” Angie muttered.
Each scene change set her on edge and Angela nestled her face into the pillow she clutched each time Dracula came on screen. Lauren scooted to the edge of the couch in rapt fascination. While Blaine stayed quiet, Angie caught glimpse of him tensing at each scene with blood out of the corner of her eye.
At Dracula’s first feeding, he turned his head, pushing himself up in a hurry. “I can’t watch this,” he said, turning toward the door.
“What’s wrong?” Angie asked, practically jumping out of her seat.
“I don’t do well with bloody movies,” Blaine admitted, avoiding meeting her eye. “I think I’d better call it a night.”
“No, it’s okay, we can stop the movie,” Angie offered.
“It’s fine,” he murmured. “You two go ahead and finish. I’d rather just go.”
Angie gave him a miserable look. “All right, if you think it’s best. But we can reschedule, right? And get dinner?”
Blaine nodded as he ran fingers through his short, dark hair. “Is next weekend good for you? Friday after next, maybe, same time?”
Angie nodded and opened the door for him. “Friday after next sounds perfect.” She lingered in the doorway as he slipped out onto the narrow porch. “I’m still sorry about tonight, though,” she sighed regretfully.
“Don’t be.” Blaine shrugged, giving her one of his crooked smiles. “Good night, Angela.”
“Good night,” she murmured. She closed the door after he turned to descend the stairs.
Lauren snickered. “Wow. You guys have got some killer sexual tension going, there.”
Angie rolled her eyes. “I’m going to go change,” she said, shaking her dark hair out as she stalked down the hallway.
* * * * *
Lauren frowned as she heard Angie close the bedroom door behind her. She pushed herself up from the couch and slipped out the door, leaving it open behind her. She bounded down the stairs. Blaine hadn’t gone too far. He was still within sight, walking with an easy stride, hands in his pockets.
“Hey, you,” Lauren called, planting hands on her hips.
He paused, turning with an expectant look.
Lauren pursed her lips. She closed the distance between them before she spoke. “Okay. First things first, I think it’s wonderful that you two decided to see each other or whatever, but as her best friend, I’ve got to set some things straight first.”
Blaine folded arms over his chest. “I’m listening.”
“First,” she ticked a finger at him. “I fully expect that when you take her out to dinner, it’s going to be better than fast food. Second, I also expect that you will understand and accept that since I’m her best friend in the whole entire world, I’m always going to take precedence over you. Unless you get hitched.”
He snorted a laugh. “You do realize this was our first date, right? If you can even call it that.”
Lauren scowled. “Third, but by no means least important, I understand that you might fight, and you might disagree, and you might just have days where you hate each other. But if you so much as think of hurting her like Jason did, I will hunt you down and make you regret you ever lived.”
“I don’t particularly appreciate you comparing me to other people. Especially not at our first proper meeting,” Blaine said, dark eyes narrowing. He settled his weight on one foot.
Lauren lifted her chin defiantly. “And I don’t appreciate having to worry about some beast of a man hurting my best friend again. I swear, if I ever catch word of you laying one finger on her, I will gut you like a fish.”
He paused. “I beg your pardon?”
“You heard me,” she insisted.
Blaine studied her expression for a long moment. A frown worked its way to his face. “I see,” he observed.
She waved a hand. “That’s all. I’ll let you go do… what were you doing, again?”
He hesitated, casting a glance over his shoulder to the dim glow the city reflected into the sky. “Nothing important,” he replied, turning and starting off again. “Just going to get a bite to eat.”
* * * * *
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