When I first met Luke Thayer, I hated him. If this were a movie, that would be an instant indication that we were going to fall desperately in love (eventually), but in real life it just meant he was a huge arrogant pain in the ass.
I met Luke during my first semester as an undergraduate at Harvard University. There are two kinds of people who end up at Harvard: those who are smart and poor, and those who are rich and dumb. I fell into the former category. I had earned my spot in what was arguably the best college in the country by being the biggest nerd in my high school. I was the valedictorian, captain of the math team, captain of the chess team, and I hadn’t had even a hint of a date in my short lifetime. I spent no time on my appearance, beyond making sure I was showered and dressed, resulting in hopelessly frizzy hair, oily skin, and a wardrobe that in retrospect, is pretty embarrassing.
I was a computer science major. It seemed like a practical choice at the time, one that I don’t regret. The poor/smart kids generally ended up in more scientific majors, whereas the rich kids did business majors or government majors. Government was the classic major for the dumb rich kids. The classes were ridiculously easy and you could get a 3.7 average while still partying and picking up chicks every night. At the beginning of each year, we received a book that rated every course in the college in order of difficulty, and the lowest scores generally belonged to Government courses. (Although to be fair, the easiest course, with a difficulty rating of 1.2 was a course titled “Reading Italian for Scientific Papers.”)
As a result, the poor/smart kids and the rich/dumb kids didn’t have to intermingle at all. Except for expository writing: the great equalizer. Every single freshman had to take expository writing (expos), forced into tiny groups of 10-12 studies writing essays about gothic fiction or 18th century poetry. That was how I met Luke.
My expos class was on The Interpretation of Short Stories. I was lucky in that my roommate Delia was in the class with me. I liked Delia, and she was hopelessly poor just like me, so we agreed to share the considerable cost of the course reading material. Everyone else in the class was unfamiliar to me, but I couldn’t help but notice the boy sitting across from me. He was possibly the best looking guy I had ever seen in real life, with perfectly chiseled features and a solid upper chest that was obvious even through his expensive-looking sweater. He could have been in movies easily. They didn’t make ‘em like that at my public high school in Jersey.
We went around the room and had to introduce ourselves, and give three facts about ourselves, two of which were true and the one of which was false. Then everyone had to guess which was which.
“My name is Ellie Jenson,” I said when it was my turn. “I was born with six fingers on each hand and had the extra two removed when I was a baby. I have never read any of the works of William Shakespeare. And I’ve never left the United States.”
I could see everyone in the class looking at me, from my frizzy hair to my hopelessly unfashionable T-shirt and shapeless jeans, trying to work it out. One kid piped up, “Does that even include Shakespeare’s sonnets?”
“Yes,” I said, because that was one of the true ones. In a true testament to the public schools of New Jersey, I somehow made it through fifteen years of schooling without once being forced to read anything in Old English. I wondered if I’d be as lucky at Harvard.
“It must be the extra finger thing,” another kid said, craning his neck to get a better look at my hands.
I looked at Luke, who was silently studying at me. Finally, he smiled smugly. “I bet she’s been out of the country at some point. Everyone’s at least been to Canada.”
That was the first time I hated Luke Thayer. Because he was absolutely right. I’d been out of the country just once and it was during a drive to Canada. I didn’t even need a passport.
The class voted and mostly thought that I had been born with ten fingers. When I held up my hands to show off my tiny scars, Delia cried out, “Ew!”
Luke’s turn came soon after mine. “My name is Lucas Thayer the third but everyone calls me Luke,” he said. I had never met someone with a roman numeral before. “I have spent every summer in Greece since I was an infant. I have seven brothers and sisters. And I speak four languages fluently.”
The Greece thing was surely true, as evidenced by his glowing tan. I found it very hard to believe that Luke could speak any languages other than English fluently, and I even had my doubts about English. Then again, something about Luke screamed out “only child.” But maybe in the huge mansion that was surely his home, seven siblings wouldn’t be that noticeable.
We voted and it turned out that Luke was, in fact, fluent in Greek, French, and German. His parents, while Anglo, loved Greece and had a summer home out there. (Actually, he called it “a villa.”) He was an only child.
On the way back to our dorm, Delia lectured me on how I needed to never tell anyone about my little twelve-fingered secret because it was “gross” and I’d never get a date. I acted like I didn’t care, but the truth was, I was a little worried. I was 18 and boys were something I was starting to think about.
“By the way,” Delia said, “you know we have a small celebrity in our class, don’t you?”
“Really?” I asked eagerly. “Who?”
“Lucas Thayer the third,” she said in the falsely haughty voice that such a name demanded. She giggled. “You know Thayer Hall?”
Delia raised her eyebrows.
“Oh no,” I groaned. “We have Thayer Hall in our expos class. Fantastic.”
“I know,” Delia said. “He does seem like an arrogant prick, doesn’t he?” She paused thoughtfully. “But you have to admit, he’s awfully cute.”
“Ugh,” I said, despite secretly thinking the same thing myself.
Aside from choice of majors, the other thing that separated the poor/smart kids from the rich/dumb kids was how we paid for our education. I’m sure Luke Thayer’s dad just withdrew his petty change from one of his Swiss bank accounts to pay Luke’s tuition, but my grade school teacher parents didn’t have enough money to afford their third child’s private college tuition. So I ended up with loans and work scholarships. The work scholarships meant that I got to pay off some of my tuition by scrubbing the toilets of my classmates.
It was the ultimate humiliation to have to clean the bathrooms of the students I had just been sharing a lecture hall with hours earlier. I preferred it when I was assigned the upperclassman dorms because it meant I at least wouldn’t recognize them. But because all the freshman dorms were in Harvard Yard and that was where I lived as well, my assignments were almost invariably to those of freshman rooms.
Whenever I got assigned to clean bathrooms in Thayer Hall, I’d think about Luke. Delia’s and my impression of Luke as an arrogant prick was right on the money. He often dominated the discussions during class, insisting that his interpretation of Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” was the correct one. I disagreed with him vehemently on nearly every point, then I’d go off to my Computation Theory class and he’d go off to his Macroeconomics class and we’d never be forced to talk again.
It was good to think about Luke as I scrubbed toilets. I’d think about our most recent class discussion, the things I said, and the things I wished I could have said if the professor wasn’t there. Then I could take out my anger on the Thayer toilets.
One day in October, I was scrubbing a particularly filthy bathroom in Thayer. Most bathrooms were just grimy, but this one had dirty towels tossed all over the floor and boxer shorts hanging off the sink. I picked them off and threw them into the living room, trying my best not to inhale. What a bunch of slobs. You just knew this bathroom belonged to a bunch of rich brats who had no experience cleaning up after themselves.
“Hey!” a voice interrupted my thoughts. “It’s the twelve-fingered girl who never read Shakespeare!”
I looked up and there he was: Luke Thayer. I guess it made sense he’d live in Thayer Hall. He was watching me with an amused expression on his face. I so wished I hadn’t admitted I’d never read Shakespeare to the class. Ever since that time, Luke claimed that every short story was some sort of reference to a Shakespeare play, and if I’d read any Shakespeare, I’d surely know that.
“Aren’t you going to say hello?” Luke pressed me.
I gave him a dirty look.
“I guess they didn’t teach you manners in school either,” he said with a shrug.
My blood boiled. I grabbed a dirty, moldy towel from the floor and hurled it in his direction. I had wicked aim and it nailed him right in the head. He pulled it from his face, looking pissed off. “What the hell is wrong with you?” he snapped. “You know, I could get you in a lot of trouble for that, Twelve Fingers.”
“My name is Ellie,” I said through my teeth. “And it’s your goddamn towel, douchebag.”
“Actually, it’s Steve’s towel,” Luke said. “He’s the slob around here.”
“Sure, whatever you say.”
Luke watched me for a second. The towel had mussed his dark hair and as much as I hated to admit it, he looked very sexy like that. It was frustrating that someone I hated so much could be so physically attractive.
“So tell me, Ellie,” he said. “What’s the trick to getting a toilet so spotless and clean?”
“Fuck you,” I replied.
“If you’re not going to tell me,” he said, “maybe I should watch.”
The thought of Luke watching me clean his bathroom was almost too humiliating for words.
“You can’t watch me,” I said.
“Then how will I know you didn’t dunk my toothbrush in the toilet?” he said.
“I would never do that!” I was totally planning to do that.
“I bet you wish you had kept those other fingers,” he mused. “You’d probably be much faster at scrubbing toilets.”
That did it. I struggled to my feet, using the toilet brush for support. I poked him in the chest with the brush. Hard. “Hey!” he cried, looking down at the splotch the brush left on his chest. “You got toilet water on my shirt!”
“Listen, Thayer Hall,” I said. “You can’t talk to me that way, just because your great-great-great-grandfather was some rich asshole who gave the college a bunch of money.”
“Geez, you’re touchy, Twelve Fingers,” he said. “Are you on your period or something?”
I swear to god, I nearly decked him. “That’s it!” I snapped. “You can clean your own goddamn toilets!” And I stormed out in a huff. Unfortunately, I left all my cleaning supplies behind and had to sneak back later and get them.
After that, I went from disliking Luke Thayer to downright despising him. The conversations in expos class became dominated by Luke and me throwing back and forth arguments. Whatever he said, I disagreed with. Whatever I said, he disagreed with.
“My god,” Delia said, after class one day, which had involved a particularly heated debate. “Why don’t you and Luke just skip the foreplay and have sex already?”
“What?!” I was enraged by the suggestion that there was even a hint of sexual tension between me and that self-involved prick.
“It’s so obvious you two like each other,” Delia said.
“I do NOT like Luke!” I shuddered. “He’s horrible… he’s so self-entitled… and arrogant… and… and…”
She was wrong though. Like I said, maybe if this were some romantic comedy with Kate Hudson and, like, I don’t know, Matthew McSomething, we’d fall head over heels eventually. But I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to stop hating Luke any time soon. Especially after I noticed his grade on the last paper was an A compared with my measly B. How did he get an A?? He wasn’t even smart!
The night before final exams at Harvard was something called Primal Scream. It was a way to release a little stress before exams. Basically, the students (mostly male) would run a lap around Harvard Yard screaming. Also, they would be completely naked.
I had zero intention off running Primal Scream. First off, we were in the throes of a New England winter and it was down in the teens with the wind chill factor. Secondly, the last thing I wanted to do was show off my freshman fifteen to the entire school.
But that didn’t mean I didn’t want to watch. Delia and I bundled up in our down-laced winter coats, put on our warmest hats, and perched on the steps of our dorm to see the boys run past. It was a particularly frigid night and we were both hugging ourselves and bouncing up and down. “I’m freezing,” Delia said. “My teeth are chattering. Look!” She showed me her quivering jawline.
“We just need to put on more weight,” I said. “The warmest shape is spherical.”
“You’re such a nerd,” Delia said.
“Look who’s talking, pre-med.”
We were near the end of the circle so we watched as the herd of naked students made their way toward us, desperate to find their friends with clothing. I heard they usually run pretty fast, but it had snowed yesterday and the path around the yard was covered in ice, so they boys were moving at a snail’s pace to avoid slipping. I could pick out each individual body, each individual set of genitals. Even as I tried not to look, it was impossible not to.
“Hey, there’s Luke!” Delia said.
I saw him. Luke Thayer, completely naked. And… oh. My. God. If I thought he looked good dressed, he looked incredible naked. I felt my jaw fall open. I was so mesmerized that I barely even noticed he was walking towards me.
“Hey, Twelve Fingers!” he cried.
He was standing about three feet away from me, completely naked. He must have been freezing, but he seemed totally comfortable. I, on the other hand, was having some trouble taking deep breaths. I couldn’t look him in the eyes, but then again, where the hell was I supposed to look?
“Hi,” I finally said.
“I hope you realize how cold it is,” Luke said. He grinned. “I wouldn’t want you to think that this is all there is.”
“Uh…” I said. I didn’t know what he was talking about at the time, but Delia later explained to me that he was referring to his penis. Not that I was able to look down there. Heaven forbid.
“I guess I’ll see you around,” he said, and gave me one last wave before jogging off.
Delia took one look at my face. “So you don’t like him, huh?” she teased me. “Suuuure….”
I believed in my heart that Delia was wrong, that I didn’t like Luke, that I could never like someone who was such an asshole. Yet after that night, I found myself having dreams about him. Dreams of him naked, in bed with me, kissing me. And when I awoke, I’d always feel a touch of disappointment that it had all just been a dream.
After final exams were over, all I wanted to do was sleep, but Delia wouldn’t hear of it. She pointed out that I hadn’t gotten drunk once all semester and I deserved to unwind. “We’re only eighteen,” I pointed out. “We’re too young to drink.”
Delia groaned. “I’m going to smack you, Ellie. Seriously.”
Delia had leads on a few parties, but the first one we tried wouldn’t let us in because we were freshman. That is, we were freshman and we weren’t hot enough. We tried a second party though and nobody was guarding the door, so we walked right in.
Despite how cold it was outside, the party felt like a sauna. It was so hot that steam immediately filled my glasses and I had to take them off to clean them. I could feel my hair curling. The place was dimly lit and there was loud music playing the background. I took off my coat and tossed it onto a pile on the floor.
“Hey! Twelve Fingers!” I nearly groaned when I heard the voice coming from behind me. I didn’t want to turn around, but Delia had mysteriously disappeared and we were packed into the room like sardines. I took a deep breath and came face to face with Luke Thayer.
“Thayer Hall,” I said, forcing a smile. “How are you?”
“Fan-fucking-tastic,” Luke said, with a grin to show that he wasn’t on his first drink of the evening. He thrust a tiny paper cup into my hand, like the kind you put ketchup in.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“Jello shot,” Luke said. He had one in his other hand, and he popped the contents into his mouth, then tossed the cup onto a nearby table. “Go ahead.”
“I don’t really drink,” I mumbled.
“Of course you do,” Luke said. “This is college.”
I looked down doubtfully at the green jello. It looked innocent enough, I guess. Anyway, how much alcohol could it possibly have? I took a deep breath and popped it in my mouth, nearly choking on the taste of rum.
“They’re strong, huh?” Luke said.
I nodded, still coughing a bit. I noticed Luke was standing very close to me. He sort of had to be because the room was so packed, but he was even closer than he had to be. His shoulder was touching mine.
“You were a worthy adversary this semester, Twelve Fingers,” Luke said. “I’ll miss you.”
I laughed. “You’ll miss me? Really?”
“Of course,” he said. His hair was kind of damp from the heat in the room. “Won’t you miss me?”
“Um.” I wasn’t sure how to answer that question. “I sort of thought you… hated me?”
“Hated you?” Luke gave me a confused look. “I don’t hate you, Ellie. In fact…” He moved a bit closer. “I really like you.”
This was the first time a boy had ever told me that he liked me and I couldn’t believe it was Luke Thayer. “You do?”
Luke didn’t answer my question, but instead took this opportunity to press his lips against mine. After a split second, his tongue slipped in between my lips and my mouth tingled as it massaged my own. His breath tasted like rum and cigarettes, which to this day is a combination that never fails to turn me on.
I allowed Luke to kiss me for probably thirty seconds too long before I pushed him away. He grinned at me. “Was that your first kiss?”
“What?” I cried. It totally was. “Did I do something wrong?”
“No,” he said. “It was great. You just… I got that feeling.”
I wasn’t about to admit he was right. “Look, Luke, I can’t do this.”
His face fell. “Why not?”
“I’m not your type.”
“My type?” Luke shook his head. “What’s my type?”
“You know…” I had seen Luke around campus with a few stunning, tall blondes. I was about as far from that as you could get and still be of the same species.
“No, I don’t know.”
I sigh. “Also, we have nothing in common.”
“So…” I was at a loss. All I knew was that being with Luke would compromise everything I believed in. I hated him. Well, I didn’t hate him. But I hated everything about him. He was the absolute worst kind of person. I had already given him my first kiss—I couldn’t give him my first anything else. It would be like compromising my soul. “I just can’t, Luke.”
He looked like he was going to argue with me more, which is kind of what I would have expected from Luke, but then his shoulders sagged and he seemed resigned to the fact that this wasn’t going to happen. “It’s too bad,” he said. “We would have made a great team. Twelve Fingers and Thayer Hall.”
As Luke walked away, I felt a moment of regret. Luke was sexy as all hell and the rum was starting to hit me. But no, I couldn’t fall for Luke Thayer. He was an arrogant asshole and I knew he was just going to get worse as he discovered that everything in life could be his with just a snap of the fingers. Luke was never going to know a moment of hardship. He was always going to be a spoiled brat.
14 YEARS LATER
“We have a serious situation, Ellie.”
My friend Jenna tends to be a bit of a worrywart so when she comes into my cubicle with a morose expression on her face, I don’t automatically take her seriously. The last time she said “we have a serious situation,” it turned out we were running low on coffee filters.
“What’s the problem?” I ask, getting out of “friend” mode and into “concerned supervisor” mode. Technically, I’m Jenna’s supervisor, since my promotion six months ago. But we still basically do the same work as software engineers and I still have my crappy cubicle one row over from hers.
“The company’s being taken over,” Jenna says.
At first I think it’s some sort of horrible rumor, but then she lays the company newsletter down in front of me. It’s true, all true. The company has been purchased by a larger company, had been keeping it quiet due to blah blah blah… oh god, this isn’t good. Companies getting bought out don’t mean more jobs. And in this economy, I don’t want to be out of a job. How will I pay for my apartment?
“This is bad, right?” Jenna asks me. Ever since I became her supervisor, she needs my confirmation on everything.
I need to try to be strong though. After all, I’m the supervisor. Despite still working in the same crappy cubicle. “It might not be. Maybe they want to expand?”
As she scurries away to spread the gloom and doom, I take a second to read the newsletter more carefully. It seems that our company was bought out by the multimillion corporation Boston-based, Thayer Industries. The name jogs my mind as being mildly familiar from somewhere but I put the thought out of my head as I continue to read. It says nothing about jobs or cutbacks, but that seems fairly inevitable.
“You read the article, Harvard?”
I look up from the newletter to the face of Lewis Grunseich, another supervisor in my department. Lewis is the most obese man in our department by about twenty pounds and his suits are always a size too small. Sometimes I can see a bit of belly hair peeking out between the straining buttons and I have to throw away much lunch. Ever since Lewis found out I went to Harvard, he’s taken to calling me that as my nickname. It’s charming. And by that, I mean it’s obnoxious as all hell and I hate it.
“It’s going to be fine,” I say confidently.
“Oh, stop it,” I say. “We make a good profit here. They didn’t buy the company just to fire us all.”
“They break the company apart and sell the pieces for profit,” Lewis says.
“I think you’re thinking of stolen cars.”
“The same is true of companies!” Lewis insists. “What do you think? This Luke Thayer guy is some kind of saint?”
Luke Thayer? Did he say Luke Thayer??
No, it can’t be.
“Hey, Harvard, what’s wrong?” Lewis is saying.
“Nothing,” I say, forcing a smile. I need this conversation to end right now. “I, um, have to make a call.”
Thank god, Lewis takes the hint and ambles back over to his cubicle. I pick up my phone, pretending I’m going to make a call, but as soon as he’s out of sight, I’m on Google. Google: my savior, what did I do without you to spy on people for me? Okay, Thayer Industries… Thayer Industries…
Yes! Here, Thayer Industries, an old corporation founded by the well-respected Thayer family… current CEO Lucas Thayer… and… photo… come on…. yes!
I sit at the edge of my seat waiting for the photo to load, my nose practically touching the screen. The Ethernet connection isn’t fast enough for me. I watch as an image of the guy who simultaneously made my first semester of college hell and frequented all my fantasies comes onto the screen.
Shit, it’s him.
The image is a little fuzzy, but I’d say he looks pretty much the same. Of course, his hair is shorter, more professionally clipped rather than the shaggy college student look he used to sport, and he’s wearing a nice suit and tie. His face has filled out a bit, which, I’m sorry to say, makes him look even more handsome than he did before. It’s unfair that men seem to look better when they get a few lines on their faces, while women just look old. Anyway, he looks great. I don’t even see any sign that his hairline is receding. Just like I knew would happen: he’s never suffered a moment of hardship. He went from being the rich heir to the rich businessman without batting an eye.
It would be a lie to say that Luke spent even a minute mourning my rejection of him at that party. The next time I saw him, he was walking across the Yard, holding hands with some tall skinny blonde. I averted my eyes and didn’t say hello. Actually, I don’t think Luke and I exchanged two words for the rest of college. I always wondered how drunk he had been at that party and if he even remembered our one kiss. Maybe he remembered it the next morning and was totally disgusted.
And now he’s my boss.
Not a lot of work gets done today as everyone is pretty much freaking out over the whole Thayer takeover business. Near the end of the day, I get an email saying that all supervisors will be asked to meet with Mr. Thayer in the morning to discuss strategies for running the company.
“You’ll tell him about the software package I’m developing, right?” Jenna asks me anxiously. She’s like this about men too. Always freaking out until she gets them freaked out too and they run away.
“Don’t worry, Jenna,” I say, for what feels like the ten-billionth time today. It seems like it’s always up to me in life to be the one who isn’t freaking out.
“What do you think he’s like?” she asks.
“Who?” I say.
“Luke Thayer,” Jenna says. “What do you think he’s like? I read that he’s only 32. That’s pretty young to be a CEO.”
“Well, it was a family business,” I point out. “I think I read his father had a heart attack.”
Jenna nods. “I read that he’s doubled the company’s profits while he’s been in charge. You don’t do that by being nice.”
“Jenna, I’m sure he’s…” My tongue sticks on the word “nice.” Luke isn’t nice. He was never nice. He’s probably more of an asshole now than he ever was.
At 5 o’clock, I give up on trying to get any work done and I head home. Even though I work in the financial district of Boston, I can’t afford a decent apartment in the Boston area. I already work in a cubicle, so I refuse to live in one as well. I picked a nice one bedroom apartment in Brookline, an urban suburb of Boston that’s just a 25 minute Green Line trip away from work. I own a car that I only use a few times a month, on the rare occasions I want to go somewhere outside the city. It’s nice not having to deal with traffic, but on days like today, in the dead of the summer, when the T is packed to the brim and I have to stand for the entire ride next to a perspiring overweight businessman, I kind of miss driving a car to work.
As much as I want to get into bed and go straight to sleep, I end up stumbling in the direction of the bathroom to stare at myself in the mirror. In all modesty, I look way better than I did in college. I may have been young and nubile in college, but now I’ve at least got a modicum of style. I get my hair professionally straightened and highlighted, wear contacts instead of glasses, and I no longer buy the majority of my clothes at K-mart (I’ve upgraded to Target). My weight has stayed steady and I don’t have any unsightly wrinkles. I’m slightly hot.
But inside, I’m still the same girl I was when I was 18. I’m still a huge nerd. I still get nervous when I have to meet new people. I still prefer staying home to going out and socializing. I think that might be why I’m still single. I haven’t managed to meet any guy who was better company for me than myself.
Does that make me a loser? I don’t know. Probably.
I have one really stunning suit in my closet that I got from Chanel. It fits like a glove and brings out curves I never knew I had. I bought it at the mall six months ago and wanted to wear it for the perfect occasion, but nothing was ever good enough. But I think seeing your hotshot new boss that you rejected back in college should count. Hello, Chanel.
I’m determined that when Luke sees me tomorrow, I may be a loser, but at least won’t be a frumpy old hag.
My meeting with Luke is scheduled for ten o’clock the next morning. I can’t get any work done before the meeting, partially because I’m too nervous and partially because Jenna keeps coming over every five minutes to ask if I had the meeting yet. I also go pee about ten times because that’s what I do when I’m nervous and each time I check my make-up. I don’t usually wear make-up, so I’m worried I put on too much. No matter what, I can never seem to get the hang of putting on make-up. I always end up stabbing myself in the eye with the mascara pen.
“Are you wearing make-up, Ellie?” Jenna asks me during one of her trips to my cubicle.
I touch my face self-consciously. “Why? Does it look bad?”
“No, you look great,” Jenna says. Then she adds thoughtfully, “You know, Luke Thayer is single.”
“Uh,” is all I can come up with.
Obviously, I’m not interested in Luke. I wasn’t interested in him when I was young and stupid, so I’m certainly not interested now that I’m old and jade… er, wise. And anyway, I don’t have any room in my life for a relationship right now. I’m at a point where I need to completely focus on my career. No relationship seems worth the effort right now. And Luke is just too… well, he’s too good looking, to be honest. Pretty boys are not my type at all.
At 9:55, I head upstairs. Luke is apparently temporarily using one of the offices on the floor above us. Presumably, he won’t need an office anymore after he finishes stripping and dismantling our company, then selling the pieces for profit.
My stomach is all butterflies as I exit the elevator and traverse the hallway to Luke’s office. I see him from afar, although I’m not entirely sure it’s him until I’m a few yards away. Yesterday I looked at myself in the mirror and thought about how different I looked from my former self. But it turns out Luke Thayer’s got me beat by a million miles.
Luke’s in a wheelchair.
No, he’s not just in a wheelchair. He’s crippled. He’s very obviously crippled. I know that isn’t the PC word, but it’s the one that immediately comes to mind as I watch Luke talking to some other guy in the hallway, presumably some lackey. Gone is that fantastic body that I saw on the night of Primal Scream—instead of the washboard stomach, he’s got a gut, and he’s hunched up a bit in his wheelchair. And as I get closer, I notice his hands too. There’s something wrong with his hands. They’re… I don’t know. But they don’t look right. They look crippled. I’m sorry I keep using that word. I’m embarrassed, really, but I just can’t think straight right now.
For a second, I consider making a run for it. I sense an extremely uncomfortable situation coming on. But at that moment, Luke lays his eyes on me and I see no glimmer of recognition.
“Eleanor Jenson?” he asks. His voice has changed too. It’s harder, colder. The voice of a ruthless businessman. Someone who’s going to fire us all.
I nod. My own voice has vanished.
“I’m Lucas Thayer,” he says, as if there was any chance I didn’t know who he was. “Please come into my office, Ms. Jenson.”
I watch as he pushes those crippled (sorry! sorry!) claws against the wheels of his chair and enters his office. When he turns his chair and slides seamlessly behind the desk, it occurs to me that he’s been in this wheelchair for a while. He’s comfortable in it. This is who he is now.
“Have a seat, Ms. Jenson,” he says, since I’m still standing in the doorway, gawking at him.
“I’m sorry, sir,” I say in a soft voice as I practically faint into the leather chair in front of his desk.
“You don’t have to call me ‘sir,’” he says. “You can call me Mr. Thayer.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Thayer,” I mumble. God, he’s still such an asshole. This is going to be miserable.
“I know there’s been a lot of slacking off around here,” Luke continues in that hard voice. “But that’s going to end. Right now. Anyone who doesn’t take their job seriously is going to be looking for work elsewhere. Do you understand, Ms. Jenson?”
“Yes, Mr. Thayer,” I say. I feel sick. Luke used to be a jerk, but he was never this horrible. I get what’s going on here. He’s bitter because he’s in a wheelchair. He wants to ruin everyone else’s lives the way he ruined his. He’s angry because he can’t walk and it seems like he can’t move his hands either. He’s just a bitter cripple who probably has to pay women to have sex with him or something.
“Good,” he says. “Because I’m going to need your help cutting the fat. Tell me, are there any female employees that you think are going to be getting pregnant in the near future? We don’t want any maternity leaves right now.”
I know Gloria, two cubicles down from me, has been trying to get pregnant, but I can’t tell him that. I don’t want her to get fired.
“No, I don’t,” I say quickly.
Luke narrows his eyes at me. “Are you lying to me, Ms. Jenson?”
I swallow. “No, of course not, Mr. Thayer.”
“Next,” he says, “I want you to do a thorough search through the company employees’ medical records.”
“Medical records?” I stare at him. This has gone from evil to illegal.
“That’s right,” he confirms. “I want to weed out any abnormalities, any critical medical conditions.”
I nod, thinking of poor Bob in sales, who had a heart attack last year.
“But mostly, anything weird,” he says. “I don’t want any freaks working under me. I want them fired. Especially anyone born with extra toes, extra fingers…”
At that moment, I look at Luke’s face and I see a grin slipping through.
Shit, he recognized me.
“Ho ho, very funny,” I say.
“Oh, come on, Ellie,” Luke says, grinning full on now. “That was freaking hilarious. The look on your face… I wish I had a camera.”
“I didn’t think you’d recognize me,” I admit.
“Of course I recognized you,” he says. “How could I forget my first college crush? Who horribly and painfully rejected me, I should add. And now I’m her boss.” He grins wider at the expression on my face. “Lucky for you, I don’t hold a grudge.”
My shoulders relax as I study Luke’s face for a second. As messed up as he is below the neck, he’s still very attractive from the neck up. Now that I’m looking closer, I notice a small pale scar under his right eye and one down along his jawline. The scars mar the perfection of his features, but also give him this really sexy rugged look. I’m not sure why I’m thinking about this though.
“So aren’t you going to ask?” he says.
“Huh?” I reply innocently.
“‘Oh my god, Luke, what happened to you?!’ Or something along those lines.” He raises his eyebrows at me.
“What do you mean?” I say delicately.
“Oh geez, Ellie, I guess you didn’t notice… I’m in a wheelchair.” He gives me a mock sober expression. “A lot of people think I just shrunk or something.”
“Okay, okay, I noticed,” I admit. “But you don’t have to tell me anything.”
He shrugs. “It’ll save you the trouble of asking Google. Anyway, I broke my neck. Rock climbing. Damn 23 year olds, think they’re indestructible.”
If he was 23 when this happened, that means he’s been disabled for nearly a decade. I guess that explains why he’s so comfortable wheeling himself around.
“Anyway,” he says, his voice growing more formal, “this isn’t entirely a social call, although I admit it’s been fun. The truth is that there are going to be cutbacks here. Big ones. But I’d like to make the right decisions, and that’s why I need your help.”
I nod, feeling slightly ill. If he makes me fire somebody, I may have to quit.
“Don’t worry, I wouldn’t ask you to fire anyone,” Luke says, demonstrating he still has the ability to read my mind. “But I need your opinions. You’re smart, Ellie. In fact, I heard you went to Harvard.”
I make a face at him. “You got a higher grade in expos than I did.”
Luke grins. “I said you were smart. I didn’t say you were smarter than me.”
I finally leave Luke’s office with an agreement to meet tomorrow for a working lunch to talk more about the cutbacks. Every time I close my eyes, I can see the image of Luke sitting in that wheelchair. I’m not quite sure how to feel about it all, but I’m beginning to get the sense that I was really wrong about Luke Thayer all those years ago.
To be continued....