“Oh, now I need to hear the story. You can’t dangle that carrot in front of me and not expect me to bite.”
We laugh as we enter the room. Chris is already sitting at the table in front of the TV we use for video conferencing.
“Christopher,” Kara purrs, sliding into the seat next to him. He rolls his eyes and places his hand beneath the table onto her leg. I’m not sure what he does, nor do I want to know, but whatever it is made her almost jump entirely out of her seat with a squeal of delight. I take my seat next to Kara and open my notebook.
“Okay ladies, are we all set?” Chris asks, opening his own notebook and clicking a few buttons on his computer, bringing the TV to life. Kara never told me what the meeting was for, so just to be on the safe side I find a clean sheet of paper but still feel unprepared.
The murmuring of voices on the TV suddenly get louder and I freeze. My breath catches in my throat and I try to swallow. I know those voices. Slowly, I turn my head to Kara, who gives me a sideways, unapologetic glance. Sly little witch. She mouths “you’re welcome” to me and I feel my cheeks reddening by the second.
I try to keep my eyes cast down, for I know what I’ll see if I look at the screen. But I can’t very well sit on a conference call and not make eye contact with everyone. Biting the bullet, I raise my head slowly, finding three very familiar faces in front of me. Two of them are smiling brightly, but the third, the one sitting directly in front of me, is the one that makes me stop breathing again. He looks horrible. Well, not entirely awful. He’s still gorgeous to me, but he looks ragged and worn out. Dark circles rim his tired blue eyes and his generally well-styled hair is more of a mess than usual. Those beautiful full lips that I’ve felt on almost every inch of my body are turned down at the corners, causing the ache in my chest to expand to an almost painful level.
There’s a delay in the video feed but as I take him in, fully take in his beauty after not seeing him for five days, I know the moment he sees me. Andrew takes a sharp breath, almost inaudible to everyone except me. But that’s because I can always hear him just like I always see him. Our eyes lock, hazel to blue, as the others begin talking around us. Their voices fade into the background, becoming nothing but a hushed murmur. Still aware of everything around me, I kick Kara under the table and she discreetly elbows me in the side. She’s going to pay for this one.
“Thank you for meeting us this way. Video conferencing is always more efficient than teleconferencing. At least I think so.” Chris laughs. “Of course, you remember Kara and Tessa.”
“Yes, of course. Lovely to see you both again,” Charles says with a broad smile.
I nod my head, but only because I’m too distracted by Andrew to do anything else. A joke is told and everyone around us laughs. Everyone but Andrew and I. He just keeps looking at me, his eyes raking over my face nonstop. I watch as his chest expands, taking in a deep breath, as if sitting there is painful for him.
Well, you and me both, buddy.
My heart hurts just looking at him, knowing he’s there and seemingly suffering like me. Although I must say, I’m slightly more put together, at least on the outside.
Breaking our staring contest, I focus on the paper in front of me, taking down notes as the other four people involved begin talking about strategies, timelines, and accomplishments. But as I write feverishly on the paper, I can feel Andrew’s eyes follow every small movement I make. Every time I tuck a strand of hair behind my ear, I hear a faint groan. My eyes flicker to his and sure enough they’re still locked on me.
“Andrew should arrive the week after next to oversee the building site, making sure that it’s still a good fit. He’ll bring the designs for you to give to your contacts to begin the bidding process,” Priscilla says.
My head snaps up so fast it felt like it was going to fall off. Did she just say Andrew was coming here? As in Minnesota? In two weeks? The butterflies begin fluttering in my stomach again at the prospect of seeing him in the flesh, being close enough to touch him again and fuel the flames that have dimmed in my blood. My body yearns for him to touch me again, not fully realizing it until this very moment, when reality and fantasy could potentially crash together.
“Yes, I’m very excited to meet up with you and Tessa so we can go over the plans together.” Andrew’s lips turn up in the corners for the first time as his tongue caresses my name. God I love the way he says my name, letting it roll off his tongue as if he’s said it thousands of times. But there’s also a note of pain in his voice. A pain I have caused by my lack of communication and the Dear John letter I left for him before leaving without an explanation. Apparently, he doesn’t know my new situation yet and once again it’s up to me to break the bad news to him.
“Actually, you’ll just be meeting with Kara. I’ve been given a promotion and will no longer be working on this project.”
My heart goes into full arrest as the beautiful smile that graced his face falls, pulling his entire demeanor with it. Can he really be that upset that I’m no longer working with him?
Charles and Priscilla both congratulate me as I force a smile on my face. “Thank you. I’m very grateful for the promotion and am saddened to not be working on this project anymore. I really do love the work your Foundation does.”
“Well, we will definitely miss your presence but at the same time are glad that you’re able to move forward in your career with other projects,” Priscilla says.
The meeting continues, banter flowing freely between the five of them, well, really the four of them. My eyes find Andrew’s occasionally and he’s almost stoic now, looking forward or down, his gaze only skirting over me when he thinks I’m not looking. I take down the notes of everything that will be needed prior to Andrew’s arrival. Sadness sweeps over me as I realize this will be the last thing I do before I leave this project and never have to work next to Andrew again.
Chris’s booming voice brings me out of my melancholy as we say our goodbyes. Risking a glance, I lock eyes with Andrew and he smiles at me. And not the forced smile he was giving before. A genuine smile. My favorite smile. The one reserved only for me. Andrew mouths something to me, but I can’t quite make it out. My brows furrow and confusion clouds my face as I shake my head. And then the call ends. The screen goes blank and yet Andrew is still sitting there in my mind’s eye, smiling at me. I turn to Kara and glower at her.
“Okay, explain to me why I needed to be here for that? I know it wasn’t for my superior note taking skills, as you so kindly put it.” The loud thumping of my pen against the paper causes a laugh to bubble up from Kara’s throat.
“I figured you needed a little push. Don’t hate me because I’m right.”
I lean across her body to catch Chris’s gaze. He, too, gives me the same not-so-apologizing grin as Kara. Great, they’re both plotting against me. I do not stand a chance at this point.
“You need to do something with her. Her matchmaker skills need to be tamped down a touch.”
He shakes his head and laughs. “You think I can control her? I’ve been trying for years. You know how stubborn she is. Once she has her mind set on something it’s hard to convince her otherwise.” I groan loudly and put my head on my folded arms on top of the table. The muffled sound of their laughter is not welcome as I lay here and wallow.
He looked so broken, so sad. The light that is usually in his eyes wasn’t there. They seemed almost dull and lifeless; missing the spark that had drawn me in the first time I saw them. Am I really the cause of his pain, just as he’s the cause of mine? No, I caused this pain all on my own, first with my stupidity of falling in love with him and second with voicing that same stupidity to him.
Somehow I gather my strength and pull away from the table, standing to my full height. Kara and Chris are whispering to each other, giving loving caresses before having to go back to the public eye of the office.
“Well, if you two are quite done meddling in my life I think I’ll head back to my desk and get to work on this new task.” I glance down at my watch and note the time. “Are we still doing lunch at noon?” I ask, turning in the doorway.
Kara nods and wraps her arms around Chris’s waist. “Yep, I think Thai sounds good,” she says in answer to my question but never once taking her eyes off of Chris. “How about you, hot stuff? Care to partake in some pleasant female companionship during the noon hour?” It’s almost obscene the way she’s batting her eyes and running her tongue over her teeth at him. Just short of stripping down to her garters and bra, although I wouldn’t put it past her. I know she’s done it before.
Chris leans down and kisses the tip of her nose before grabbing her ass and squeezing hard. “I will pass on lunch with you two. However, I am expecting dessert later.” Kara cups his face, gently pressing her lips to his.
“Fine. Have it your way.”
“I always do.”
“Come on, Tessa. I think the special today is Cream of Some Young Guy. And you know I’m all over that.” She casually tosses her arm over my shoulder as Chris stands there, mouth gaping as we laugh down the hallway.
I glance over at her and roll my eyes. “You are so going to get it later for that comment.”
Kara wipes a tear from the corner of her eye. “I know, but it’ll be worth it.”
I leave her at her office and slide into my chair. Andrew’s distraught face still haunts my mind as I try to make sense of this new situation. Kara’s previous words also float in my head from before. Should I listen to my head or my heart?
The text message alert draws me from my thoughts and I know who it is before I even open it.
It was wonderful to see you, Tessa. You looked just as lovely as I picture you every day in my mind. Can we talk, please? ~A~
How can I deny him now that I’ve seen him? We do need to talk, that much is true, especially if we’ll be seeing each other in two weeks. I won’t be able to avoid him then because he’ll come find me if he doesn’t see me in the office. That I know for a fact. But the ache in my chest tightens at the thought of cutting him out of my life completely. Kara’s right. We do need to talk.
You looked sad Andrew and I’m sorry I’m the cause of your pain. But just so you know, I’m hurting too and it’s not something I can turn off overnight. I’m not saying that I don’t want to talk, but I’m just asking for some time to think. ~T~
There, I’ve said it. It’s not a brush off, but it’s not a promise that anything will happen. There has to be a level of caution with us. Things started fast the first time around. If anything happens now, it needs to go slow.
We’re both hurting unnecessarily and I apologize for that. It pains me to know you’re hurting. But my feelings for you haven’t changed Tessa. They’re just as strong as ever. ~A~
I just need some time to sort a few things out. Please give me that, Andrew. ~T~
Okay, love. Just please promise to think of me, of us, while you’re sorting things out. I miss you deeply. ~A~
He’s not going to make this easy is he? Time. Time is what I need. Time to sort out my feelings for him and see if they’re strong enough to survive my dark thoughts. But I miss him too and it brings me some comfort to hear that he feels the same.
Hauling up the numerous garment bags from my shopping appointment that Natasha set up for me, I groan as I shut the door to my apartment with my foot. Honestly, I didn’t think I had bought this many items. Okay,
didn’t buy them but it seemed like far fewer things when I just kept handing them to the young lady helping me out.
I promptly hang them in my closet to avoid any wrinkles and stare. The closet is almost full now, at least three-quarters. Business suits, dresses, and several new jackets now occupy the once nearly empty space. And, of course, it was required that I get shoes to match each outfit, which are now lined on the floor underneath the clothes.
Lastly, I put away the formal gown for Friday night’s party. I stare at it as it sits awkwardly next to my older clothes. In my mind, I keep singing
one of these things is not like the others; one of these things just isn’t the same.
Pathetic? Probably. Nerdy? Most definitely. God, I can’t even be normal in my own head. My hand runs over the satin and beads, still unbelieving that it’s really mine. It was perfect the minute I put it on. Trudy, the lady helping me, said not to bother looking at anything else because this was the one.
I crawl onto my bed and sit cross-legged, just staring into the closet full of clothes. Reaching for my phone, I dial my father’s number and listen to the ringing on the other end. Maybe he’s not home? And if he’s not, please don’t let Sharon answer. On the third ring, someone finally picks up.
“Tessa?” He seems surprised that I’m calling, which I sort of am too. It’s not as if we have that natural father/daughter relationship where I call every night and tell him about my day or he calls wondering what I’m doing for the night.
“Hi, Dad. Um, is this a bad time?” This suddenly seems like an awful idea as I pluck the little fuzz balls off my slipper socks, my replacement for the puppy dog slippers that I threw away Sunday morning after Kara’s chiding remarks.