Soft sunlight trickles in through the window as Isha pulls up the comforter to her neck and snuggles deeper into the pillow. She feels the side of the bed next to her sink in and she smiles, still keeping her eyes closed. A familiar hand slips under the covers and starts to draw circles on her back. Her body flows in sync with those movements; still keeping her eyes closed, she turns around to face him and nuzzles into his chest. She feels the warmth of his body through his T-shirt as she continues to lie warm in his embrace.
He is lying down next to her, propped up on one elbow, holding her close to him with one arm around her. He is overwhelmed with happiness watching her fall back asleep as if she’s found her forever home in his embrace. He lets her sleep a little longer, continuing to hold her close and running his fingers through her lush dark hair.
As the morning light warms her olive skin, her eyes flutter open. He gently picks up her hand, plants a warm kiss on her palm and places it on his cheek, holding it tightly.
Opening her eyes, she sees this lovely man looking at her longingly, wearing a faded blue T-shirt with a picture of Beast from the X-Men. She props up on one elbow and faces him directly. He leans in and kisses her cheek softly, slowly making his way to her warm lips and patiently waiting for them to part. She lets out little whimpers of anticipation as his rough stubble teases her soft skin. Her hands work their way across his fair skinned muscular body as his hands explore the curves of her petite frame. He lets her go just for a moment, to look at her beautiful doe eyes, giving each other a moment to catch their shaky breaths. Brushing her soft hair away from her face gently with his fingers he stares at her admiringly. His lips lean in for another kiss, except a slow, soft, and comforting one replaces the former fiery one. Resting his hand below her ear and with his thumb caressing her cheek, he gazes into her sweet brown eyes. “Be Mine?” His voice trembles as his soulful blue eyes sparkle with joy.
Grinning through her tears, she runs her long fingers through his scruffy light brown hair and plants a peck on his cheek, right below his eye. “My favorite spot.” With a mischievous grin, he kisses her neck, patiently waiting for her to answer his question.
Taking absolute pleasure in his impatience, she replies, “I adore you.”
Throwing his head back, he lets out a hearty laugh. “You are going to regret that.” He pulls his T-shirt over his head and tosses it to the floor, and reaches for her body underneath the covers.
The blaring sound of the alarm jolts Isha from her deep slumber. She rolls over to mute her unwelcomed wake-up call, accidentally knocking over a picture frame sitting on the nightstand a moment ago. Fussing with her sheets, she slides off the bed to pick up the frame from the floor and sets it back on the nightstand. Letting out a silent yawn, she contemplates snoozing for just five more minutes. As her focus drifts in and out, longing to go back to the comfort of her bed, a sudden jolt of clarity shocks her body before her head can hit the pillow again. She quickly grabs the picture frame and notices the man on her arm, her loving husband Liam Turner smiling at her on their wedding day, five years ago. Holding the frame close to her heart, it slowly dawns on her that the overwhelming emotions she experienced a moment ago were a dream and the person she felt complete with was a stranger. Massaging an unexplainable ache in her chest, she gets off her bed and hops in the shower.
Warm drops of water trail her back as her mind wanders back to the stranger. She stands with her eyes closed towards the stream as though to purge the bad dream, except it continues to play like a broken record. Despite her best attempt to shake it off, she keeps falling victim to her curiosity. Who was that man? Why was I with him? Why did I feel right at home in his arms? Images of their intimacy cycle through her mind sending tremors through her body. The security in his arms, the familiarity of his touch and an overwhelming sense of serenity that enveloped them all leave a troubling knot in the pit of her stomach. She finds no reason for an unnecessary attraction towards a stranger, when she continues to experience marital bliss with Liam. Sure, there have been ups and downs, like any normal couple, but nothing that warrants her inner conscience to play this trick card. The timing of the dream, however, feels like a cruel joke. Her employer, Genex, a leading biotech company, has announced layoffs this week due to poor performance of the company in recent years. Although deep down she believes she is safe from the layoffs due to her stellar work ethic and strong performance reviews over the years, it is stressful going through this ordeal and subsequent changes that will follow. With the baseless dream adding to an already stacked brain, an uneasy feeling takes permanent residence inside her. Losing her job will jeopardize her career leading to financial stress along with taking a solid blow to her confidence level. Losing Liam, on the other hand, would irreparably destroy her.
A cold breeze caresses her body from behind as Liam opens the door to join her in the shower. He inches closes to her, wrapping his arms around her shoulders, and steals the stream for a few seconds.
Slicking his hair back, he whispers, “How are you feeling?” as he leans down and kisses her neck. At six feet tall, he is beautifully fit, warm brown skin with honey eyes and strong arms large enough to wrap around her dainty body.
“Extremely nervous, barely got any sleep.” She turns around to face him.
“Let me help…” He lifts both her arms over her head and holds them against the tile while his lips make their way to the curve of her breasts. She moans, struggling to free her arms from his grip.
“So very impatient.” He smirks and trails his hand over her back, caressing her curves, to the back of her thighs as his lips find hers. Slowly releasing his grip on her arms, he reaches for her thighs and in one quick swoop lifts her off the floor. Wrapping her legs around him, she forgets all about her bad dreams as he enters her.
Before heading out to work, Liam holds Isha at the door on a cheery spring morning. “No matter what happens today, we have each other. Half the battle is won, the rest we can handle together.”
Isha lights up looking into his eyes. “Love you to the moon and back.”
Isha weaves through the streets of Philadelphia to Genex. Her best friend Claire Adams meets her on the steps of the building, dressed in a white-and-gray chevron print Portofino shirt with a pair of black columnist pants. Coral lipstick complements her brilliant blue eyes, and a pair of gold spear drop earrings playing hide and seek in her wavy blond hair add just the right sparkle.
“Rough night?” Claire inquires, noticing a look of concern on Isha’s face.
Claire and Isha have known each other since college. They both went to the University of Pennsylvania and pursued their degrees in biotechnology. During this time, they landed internships at Genex, which is headquartered in Philadelphia. Soon after graduation, they were offered full-time positions at the same company. Now, after six years in various roles, they work in the coveted Strategy and Development group, coming up with creative ways to do business efficiently. After so many years together, they have seen each other’s best and worst and sometimes know each other better than they know themselves.
Isha contemplates sharing her peculiar dream with Claire but scratches that thought immediately. She chooses to focus on her logical fear of losing a job over a pointless fear of falling for a stranger.
“I am petrified.” Isha presses the button for the twelfth floor in the elevator and catches her reflection in the mirror.
Dressed in a floral, lavender and coral sleeveless sheath dress, Isha personifies elegance despite chaos clouding her mind. Her olive skin and long dark hair perfectly complement her delicate, feminine frame while her striking eyes and mesmerizing eyelashes add a touch of innocence to her soft features.
“You have nothing to worry about, you have been killing it with Project Nexus; they’d be fools to let you go.” Claire tries to help.
Project Nexus is a strategic initiative aimed to improve process performance across the network by leveraging historic data trends, led by Isha and a small team supporting her.
The elevator bell rings on the twelfth floor, and they step out to walk towards their desks. It is a bright floor with glass windows along the perimeter, conference rooms lined up on the left and private offices for directors on the right. In the middle are row after row of cubicle desks; Claire and Isha’s are located towards the end of the second hallway facing each other.
As they make their way toward their desks, they come across the concerned faces of colleagues confiding in each other.
“I am the sole breadwinner of the family. This will be a huge hit to us…”
“We are in Strategy and Development; these kinds of layoffs seldom impact us. There are plenty of divisions to target before they even think about us…”
“This is why you should be friends with your boss. It also helps if you are a top performer like me…”
“This is not helping my anxiety. I swore off Xanax three months ago. I don’t think I can get through tonight without it...”
Isha and Claire feel more nervous listening to these conversations. Claire drops her bag in her cube and walks over to Isha’s.
Leaning on Isha’s desk, Claire states dejectedly, “I would like to get this over with as quickly as possible.”
“Couldn’t agree more. The anticipation alone is killing me.” Isha takes a deep breath to calm her nerves.
As Claire steps back into her cube, Isha waters her plants. Propped up in colorful containers on a mini stand are rose-colored Echeveria along with a Jade and a Stonecrop plant. She picked up her green thumb at an early age from her mother. Growing up as an only child, she spent most of her free time with her mom in their garden learning how to graft roses and grow and harvest produce with care. Daily meals were made from the produce straight from the garden. While Isha played the role of sous chef, her mom, Anjali Khanna, a OBGYN by practice, would effortlessly whip up a dish without a recipe and the family often ate together on the patio under rows of string lights. A simple family tradition she unfailingly carries forward with Liam. Putting away her mini copper watering can, she admires the picture of Liam and her from their beach vacation earlier in the year, push-pinned into the wall; immediately, the face of the stranger flashes across her mind, leaving her feeling uneasy. Looking at her flawless husband, she wonders what could have prompted such a dream. Refusing to entertain any further thoughts, she gets on with her work.
An hour into the day, Roberta Williams, a sweet-spoken admin in her mid-fifties, stops by. “Ladies, Human Resources are here. They just got off the elevator,” she informs them in a hushed tone and walks over to the next office to update them with the same thing.
Claire and Isha exchange nervous glances towards each other.
A couple of sharply dressed Human Resources associates make their way into a conference room, set their laptops on the table and retrieve a stack of documents from their bags. Reaching for the phone on the desk, one of them rings the number of the first employee they have to see today to deliver the unfortunate news of the end of their career at Genex. John Doran, a project management associate, walks nervously towards the room and closes the door shut behind him. Moments later, a distraught looking John is accompanied by one of the Human Resources associates as he makes his way to his desk to collect his phone and wallet. The associate then walks him to the elevator and impassively makes his way back to the conference room to join his colleague to repeat the process.
“We just wait? Until someone calls us?” Claire places a hand on her stomach as if to stop the uneasiness she is feeling at the moment.
“They won’t call us. They just can’t.” Isha nods with forced confidence.
An hour goes by and the Human Resources process continues, while several colleagues get escorted out of the building.
“What about their things?” Claire asks, sitting on the floor in Isha’s cube eating a bag of chips that she retrieved from Isha’s stash of Birdbox Supplies—a pile of emergency food Isha started hoarding after watching the movie Birdbox.
“I think Human Resources send all your personal things to your home address,” Isha responds as she munches on some chips herself.
From the floor in Isha’s cube, they have a decent view of the conference room where all the action is taking place.
Another hour goes by and they stop seeing foot traffic heading towards the conference room.
“Is that it? I can’t tell, how are we supposed to know it’s over?” Claire asks as she pours the crumbs from the bottom of the bag directly into her mouth.
She almost chokes at the sound of the phone ringing in Isha’s cube. Isha stares at the phone in shock as tears form puddles in her eyes. Claire drops the empty bag on the floor and holds Isha’s hand in shock. “I am so sorry.”
Isha smiles through her tears and pats Claire on the back. “It’s alright. I am happy it’s not you.” She answers the phone and agrees to Human Resources’ request to meet them in the conference room.
Leaving her cube, she tells Claire, “Don’t let anyone kill my plants.”
Claire forces a smile to be strong for Isha but tears trail her cheek. Giving her friend a quick hug, Isha makes her way to the conference room, fighting a strong urge to let her tears run.
How did I let it get to this? Liam will understand, right? Dad will be so disappointed in me. How can I not see Claire every day? How can I explain this at my next job interview? And many other thoughts flood her mind in the two minutes it takes her to make it to the room.
She opens the door to two stuffy suits sitting with a stony expression on their faces.
“Hello.” She takes a seat across from them.
Claire plunks to the ground, appalled for her best friend. She met Isha on her first day at Penn and ever since they have been inseparable. Together, they fought many insecurities and challenges and grew up to be strong, independent women. One’s presence made the other feel invincible and together they have dreams of becoming unstoppable forces in their industry. As a child of divorce, Claire constantly fought a fear of abandonment, but being a part of Isha’s family for the past 10 years has helped heal many old wounds. Not once has it crossed her mind that she may have to walk alone without Isha and it depresses her, bringing back old buried emotions. She irrefutably believes that Isha is a strong asset to the company, who does not deserve to be fired before she’s even had a chance to make her mark. Before her thoughts can go any further, she gasps at the sight of Bob Parker, Head of Strategy and Development, making his way to the conference room.
Claire quickly transfers all of Isha’s plants and photos to her cube. She is not letting some snooty Human Resource guy go through her friend’s personal belongings. After what seems like an eternity, Claire watches in disbelief as Bob Parker, the head of the strategy team, gets escorted out. He has been with Genex for 20 years. He is knowledgeable, friendly and loyal. His only downside is that he isn’t quick to adapt, which seems like a minor reason to let him go when he’s dedicated 20 years of his life to the company.
Finally, the Human Resources personnel step out of the conference room and head towards the elevators; Claire realizes she is safe from the layoffs, but the thought of Isha being escorted out any minute numbs her to stillness.
Isha steps out of the conference room with a stack of papers and walks over to her desk. Claire starts weeping at the sight of her friend, mouthing, “Sorry,” to her.
Isha rushes to Claire, squeezing her hand. “I am not getting fired! I will tell you everything in a moment. Ron is coming this way to address our team.” She swiftly walks back to her cube. Claire stares at her with a befuddled expression while Isha smiles noticing all her personal belongings on Claire’s desk.
The vice president of the organization, Ron Summers, addresses the concerned team that has swiftly gathered around the conference room table. As he looks around, he notices a combination of apprehension as well as relief painted across the faces of the team members who survived the tribulation today. “This is a difficult day for all of us. While this wasn’t an easy decision, it is a much-needed one to support the growth of Genex. We want no one but the best to join us on this path to making Genex the number one biotechnology company in the world again. We are excited to continue that journey with you. I am looking forward to introducing Bob’s replacement to you at four p.m. today. He has a strong background in strategy and development and is an incredibly sharp guy. Under his leadership, I trust that each of you will work together to make this team stronger. Together, we will achieve unprecedented success. Thank you.” Ron nods towards everyone and exits the room.
A sense of relief falls over everyone as they come to terms with losing their co-workers and friends and accept the sweet reality that they are not impacted.
Isha takes her phone and starts typing, “Baby, I am safe!”
Seconds later, Liam replies, “Never doubted that for a minute, darling.”
Feeling calmer, she puts her phone away and hurries towards Claire. They take the elevators to the rooftop for some privacy and arrive at their favorite coffee shop, Joe’s, with a sweeping view of Center City, Philadelphia in the background.
Sitting across from Claire, Isha fills her in on the reason she was called in. “Human Resources was concerned about Project Nexus and wanted me there to discuss any pending items with Bob before they let him go.”
Claire stares at her in disbelief. “This feels surreal; I was devastated at the thought of…”
Isha takes Claire’s her hand in hers. “I know … me too.”
“You do not get to leave me, do you understand?”
As an only child, Isha always craved the company of a sibling and when she met Claire, it was friendship at first sight. Her parents welcomed Claire as their own, making her an integral part of the family over the years. Her heart ached at the thought of not seeing her every day.
Breathing a sigh of relief, Claire asks, “Who do you think is replacing Bob?”
Isha replies, “It could be anyone. Someone from within our group. Someone from another site. Someone from another company. So many possibilities.”
With her brow knit in concern, Claire asks, “Do you think it’s Mark?”
Isha is alarmed at that suggestion. “No way. That would be disastrous.”
“There is no chance in hell he would let us take any credit for the work we do.”
Isha notices Mark walking towards them and immediately straightens in her chair.
Isha Turner and Mark Feinberg have been working together for a few years now. He is a well-built man with dark hair and piercing green eyes and an affinity for high-end trimmings; a man with a good mix of looks and brains, but an attitude that tends to rattle many.
“Good to see you here. Feeling good about dodging the bullet today?” Mark pauses by their table.
“Just as much as you are, Mark,” Isha replies without missing a beat.
Irked by her quick jab he says, “Too bad you couldn’t drive a decision before Bob left.”
Isha tries to save face in front of Mark. “How do you know that I haven’t already? Besides, I don’t remember you being in there with Bob and me to do the knowledge transfer.” She hasn’t driven the decision yet, but she isn’t going to let Mark know that. Isha picks up her drink and signals Claire to follow her.
They make it back to their desks and Isha places her chai down as she starts reviewing her project files to brush up on all the details in order to quickly bring her new boss up to speed. As she progresses through the slides, her thoughts inadvertently drift back to the stranger from her dream this morning. With sparkling blue eyes, scruffy light brown hair, a warm, chiseled body and a mischievous grin surrounded by neatly trimmed stubble with a hint of grey, he felt familiar. She feels anxious about the connection she experienced with him. Dismissing the burgeoning fear inside her, she lets out a small prayer to never let that dream come true.
The afternoon continues with overhearing conversations of colleagues detailing events that happened earlier in the day to their friends and families on the phone or just with any colleague that passes by. Having your career on the line and your livelihood threatened can be quite a traumatic experience. Sharing the details and reliving the moment of how it all unfolded is, in a way, a cathartic ritual for many today. What comes next, who their new boss will be and how to handle the workload with fewer members on the team are just some of the many questions lingering in everyone’s mind. It is going to take a few days or maybe even a few weeks of recovery before things go back to a normal state.
As Isha wraps up reviewing her project documents, an Outlook reminder beeps on her computer reminding her of their upcoming announcement; a fresh batch of unwarranted nerves take over. Blaming the nerves on pure anticipation of the announcement, she makes final edits to her files, saves them and heads to the restroom before walking to the conference room.
She runs into Claire on the way to the conference room, “Are you okay?” Claire notices an apprehensive look on Isha’s face.
“I may be coming down with something.”
“Well, whatever it is, shake it off. Time to dazzle the new boss.”
Isha nods in agreement.
Ron set up this meeting in the executive center located towards the west wing of their floor. With large windows on one side and glass doors on the other, it provides an extensive view of the city as well as a view of the office spaces across from it. With a podium towards the front of the room and three rows of seating facing the podium, it is large enough to accommodate 30 people. A room that would have been perfectly sufficient for her old team now seems too big for the folks who still remain, unscathed by today’s ordeal. As they take their seats in the second row, Isha tries to remember all the key points about her project just in case she is put on the spot to go over it. As she glances at the crowd, she notices a mix of concerned faces continuing to reel from the events earlier in the day, along with the ones who are ready to turn the page and are prepared to grab the attention of their new boss at any cost.
It is now five minutes past four and they see Ron walking down the hallway towards the conference room. Next to him is a man who looks like he could be in his late thirties. He is dressed in a fitted powder-blue shirt paired with classic fit navy blue pants and brown leather shoes. As they come closer to the conference room door, the crowd gets a better view of the two men walking into the room.
Ron opens the door to let his guest in and at the sight of him a shiver passes through Isha’s frame, numbing her to absolute stillness. The man they have all been anxiously waiting to meet, makes his way to the front row and sits across from Isha. She can see his left profile from where she is seated. Light brown hair, neatly trimmed stubble with a touch of gray on the chin. Her heart races faster.
She can barely hear Ron’s words over her inner turmoil. As she tries to regain her attention, she catches the last of Ron’s speech. “With that, I introduce to you Nathan Walker, head of Strategy and Development. Let’s welcome your manager with a round of applause.”
It can’t be. This is not happening. Isha, seated with her legs crossed, is now frantically shaking the tip of her right shoe. Claire takes one look at her and understands something is truly bothering her and tries to calm her by placing a hand on her knee. Isha immediately grabs her friend’s hand as her heart slams in her chest.
Nathan walks up to the podium and introduces himself. “Hello everyone, I am Nathan Walker.”
Hearing him speak flashes her back to the dream. She recalls the same voice asking her, “Be Mine…”
“I am excited to join this team…” His words trail off as the visions of her dream come rushing to her mind. Fighting the tears forming at the corner of her eyes, she desperately tries to regain her composure.
There they are, the same sparkling blue eyes that looked at her longingly in her dream, now hiding behind a pair of black-framed glasses. The hands that are leaning on the podium were holding her face this morning.
“I am looking forward to working with all of you…” His eyes catch Isha’s and he loses his focus for a split second. Clearing his throat, he continues with his speech.
A stranger who had her in his arms in the early hours of this morning is now standing in front of her. Every cell in her body wants her to make a run for the door, and that’s precisely what she does as Nathan wraps up his speech and the team starts to introduce themselves to their new boss.
“If anyone asks, I have a meeting conflict.” Claire nods watching Isha exit the room without looking back. Nathan notices Isha leave the room but gets sidetracked by the other staff coming forward to make introductions.
Isha panics and exits the building hurriedly. How can this be happening? Is this a cruel joke? Is it really the stranger from my dream? How am I supposed to interact with this man? And many more questions choke her up as she makes her way home through the crowded city streets.