She stabbed a sausage with a pitchfork, done in miniature, and popped it in her mouth. It burst on her tongue, salt and fat exploding. The flavor wasn’t as satisfying as the act of impaling it had been, which said more about her state of mind than the quality of the food at this soiree. She’d grazed past at least three different buffet tables laden with cold canapes and chafing dishes before settling on that particular sausage, knowing she needed to eat something, anything, since the glass in her hand held more rum than coke. She wasn’t driving, thanks to Melinda, but this was a work function. It wouldn’t do to be tipsy.
Her boss appeared to be tipsy enough for them both.
That wasn’t fair. She might not have been tipsy, but with Jamie, it was hard to tell the difference. She had her arm draped over the shoulder of a Greek god in a suit, judging by the size of the man’s shoulders. His back to Olivia, she could see Jamie was nearly nose to nose with the man. Only Jamie would be tall enough—or brazen enough—to pull that off. Her boss was pushing six foot on a regular sensible flats day, but she’d donned stilettos tonight. Downright Amazonian, that woman. She couldn’t hear what Jamie was saying, just that she was standing entirely too close to what she could only assume was a potential “supporter,” and guessed that Jamie knew that the suit had very deep pockets.
Her face was only a breath mint apart from his, but whether that was due to Jamie’s lack of personal boundaries or the near-empty martini glass in the hand that wasn’t over his shoulder was anyone’s guess. Normally, a desk separated her from Jamie’s effusiveness, during weekly check-ins and cluster meetings, but on the few occasions when the two of them had gone to grab coffee, her boss had demonstrated an overfamiliarity that initially stunned her, slipping into “girlfriends” mode the moment they’d left the office.
“In this job,” Jamie had told her between sips of americano, “we have no time for a real life. We just don’t.” Such was her boss’s apparent justification for throwing professionalism out the window. She hadn’t realized during her interview process just exactly what her boss had been screening her for: teammate, underling, and apparently, bestie.
Forcing her eyes away from the scene that only she was noticing, she snagged a shrimp by the tail, lifting it from a tray of ice. She didn’t notice the silver bowl of cocktail sauce until she’d already taken a bite and by then it was too late. No double dipping. She finished her shrimp, then cursed herself for failing to take a plate first, staring at the sad little tail that she just knew was going to leave her fingers smelling like a cheap seafood joint if she couldn’t find a trash can quickly.
She downed her drink and started towards the side door, the one nearest the waitstaff entrance to the kitchen, hoping to find a place to ditch the shell, but didn’t get more than three steps before an arm snared her elbow.
“Olivia, have you had a chance to meet Harold Lieberman yet? He’s the Council’s fundraising chair this year.”
Only the desperation in Melinda’s eyes told her that this was not an introduction but a cry for help. She glanced down at the sad shrimp remains in her hand, and quickly transferred the tail from her right to her left, pinching it between fingers that were also holding the now-empty tumbler before reaching out to take Lieberman’s fat hand, already extended to greet her.
“Olivia Markham, Southern Territory Executive,” she recited, glad she hadn’t had so much rum that she’d forgotten her title at the bottom of the glass.
“Miss Markham, the pleasure is mine,” Lieberman answered, not noticing Melinda’s half-step away from him, sidling herself firmly next to Olivia. Fair enough. Melinda had to do this sober. Olivia could take the bullet. She was lubricated. And still holding a shrimp tail.
She hated fundraisers.
It was part of the job. How big a part, she hadn’t realized, idealizing her dream job as, well, the job of her dreams. The social awkwardness of it was only half of it. Mingling was hard enough. Begging for money from donors was worse. If it were up to Olivia, she would let the kids do this part for themselves. And they did. Most of the money the organization raised was at the unit level, from friends and loved ones of kids in the program. But to get at the deep pockets, you had to bring out the caviar and champagne. Or shrimp and rum, for Olivia.
She’d been Territory Exec for three months, and in those three months, this was the third major fundraising event she’d suffered through, and yet summer was, according to Melinda, “the off season.” Melinda would know, having survived two years with the Council herself, and taken Olivia under her wing on her very first day, whether by Jamie’s explicit instruction or just in relief and excitement to have another female around her age in her cluster, she couldn’t say. Either way, Olivia was glad to take her cues from her veteran colleague, even if it meant letting Melinda pick out her ensemble for tonight’s event.
“You can’t wear those shoes, Olivia,” she’d said without preamble. “Go back inside.”
Olivia had glanced at her footwear—a pair of low black wedges—and frowned at her DD for the night. “What’s wrong with them?”
Melinda sighed, as if explaining something so patently obvious that she couldn’t believe she had to spell it out to her fledgling coworker. “They do nothing for your calves. And they’re matte. Go back, higher heel, shiny. Peep toe if you got ‘em.”
Olivia knew better to argue. She went back up the stairs
to her apartment, leaving Melinda leaning against her Toyota Tundra. Melinda gave a curt nod of approval when she’d returned in heels that pinched her toes. They pinched her toes even worse after standing for two hours. Was Mere ever going to take the mic?
Lieberman looked at her expectantly, and Olivia realized she’d tuned the old man out, thinking about her toes and the shrimp tail and the packing she had to do, and was just about to do the unthinkable and admit she hadn’t been listening when Mere Franks ambled out of the crowd and stepped behind the podium. Olivia smiled, and gestured to the Council President behind Lieberman’s head, causing him to turn and take notice of Franks at the microphone. She hoped he hadn’t noticed that she’d gestured with a shrimp tail.
“Good evening,” Franks began, pausing to allow the crowd to quiet down and feet to shift so that everyone could see him in his respectable navy suit and striped red tie.
She never loved that man more than she did in that moment, not just because he was, as “big bosses” go, the funniest, most grandfatherly man she’d ever met, and she hoped he’d eventually adopt her even if she was twenty-seven and both her parents were still alive, but also because she was able to slink away from Lieberman and his fat, sweaty hands, and find a trash can near the wall. She dropped the shrimp tail in the garbage and absently sniffed her fingers.
How could something so delicious smell so bad on your skin? She crinkled her nose, chiding herself for intentionally sticking her fingers in her own face when she knew what to expect, and her inner critic was answered by a low rumble.
To her left, against the wall, was Deep Pockets. Her brain belatedly realized that rumble was a laugh. Deep Pockets was laughing at her. Not pointing and laughing. But still laughing. A little. He must have seen her face after getting a whiff of shrimp. And now he was looking at her, the corners of
his mouth turned up ever so slightly.
If she wasn’t sure he qualified for Greek god status before, now that she’d seen his face, she was certain. No wonder Jamie was standing so close. His cheekbones were obscene. His smile, slightly crooked, and yet somehow more dashing because of it. Maybe he didn’t have deep pockets. He wouldn’t need money for Jamie to want to stand close enough to smell his aftershave, straight from his pulse points.
Olivia didn’t smile back. She couldn’t. She might drown in his dark eyes if she stared at him for another moment. All she could do was tear her gaze away from this impossible creature and focus on Mere Franks, still talking, still thanking everyone.
But she’d heard this speech before. Or one very much like it. Franks’ speeches hit the same bullet points every single time, and if pressed, Olivia could probably do it, note for note, should he ever need a stand in. No matter how hard she tried to focus, her rum-addled brain kept suggesting—no, ordering her to go back to basking in the gaze of Possibly Deep Pockets next to her. Traitor.
The logical part of her head assessed the situation, realized that being a good little underling was not in the cards tonight, and gave her permission to tune out Franks and focus on her to-do list instead. Her plane left at eleven a.m. She had to get to the airport two hours early, thank you TSA. Her shuttle was lined up, having declined Melinda’s offer to ferry her to LAX. Nobody deserved that. She had at least one more load of laundry to do tonight, figuring if she waited to do it in the morning, the complex laundry room might be overrun with early risers who kept normal schedules and wanted to get a jump start on their Sunday morning with a load of whites or delicates. She couldn’t risk it. Her uniform and most of her underwear sat in a pile on her couch and when Franks stopped talking, she’d beg Melinda to get her out of here and take her back to her apartment, pleading laundry.
She’d already packed what she could, using the
National-issued checklist, but Melinda had stolen it from her and added other items that the official one omitted. Bikini. Boots—cowboy with heel, not hiking—those were already on the list. Halter top. Olivia didn’t even own a halter top, so she bought one, nor boots as specified, but the next day, Olivia found a pair on her desk. They were red, and ridiculous. And Melinda’s. There was a sticky note on them. “Don’t scuff these, Bitch.” Such sweet friends.
But she’d deferred to Melinda, because Melinda knew what she was getting into, and Olivia was still very much in the dark. She had no analog from her former life. There was no IPST in the legal field. All she knew was, all Council staff had to go through IPST—Intensive Professional Seminar Training—within three months of employment. Olivia technically should have done it by now, but they only held IPST’s once a month, always two weeks long, always in Austin, Texas, run by National. But Jamie hadn’t signed Olivia up for the first one fast enough, and slots filled up. And last month, Olivia’s territory’s day camp overlapped with the second week of the IPST. So tomorrow, she’d board a plane, fly to Texas, and sit through what promised, by the paperwork, to be the most boring two weeks of her life.
Or not, judging by Melinda’s annotated list.
Either way, she wasn’t looking forward to it. Wasn’t looking forward to the laundry or the flight or mass-produced hotel food for the next two weeks. At least it meant no fundraisers for a fortnight.
The crowd erupted in applause, and Olivia joined in, realizing that was her cue to snag Melinda and make their escape. She kept clapping, but hustled towards Melinda, who made a quick apology to Lieberman, and nodded to Olivia. She knew her friend had a plane to catch. Olivia flashed a bashful smile at Lieberman, who gave the young women a little wave as Olivia nearly dragged Melinda out the door.
She absolutely did not look back at Possible Deep Pockets. Thank God she’d never have to see him again.