I've been a little burned out and had to take a hiatus. But I'm back now with a Christmas novel. The inspiration for this one is: when you read A Christmas Carol as a kid, did you ever kinda wonder what Tiny Tim would be like as an adult?? Yeah. So.
“I’m sorry, Elizabeth. We still haven’t received the fax.”
I squeeze the receiver of my desktop phone as I listen to Nick Danvier’s assistant’s clipped voice. I should buy myself a stress ball before I break my phone in two pieces. I can’t believe it’s somehow taking my new assistant, Roberta, two entire days to fax a few sheets of paper. This is ridiculous.
“I’ll try faxing it again,” I say. “I’m so sorry about the delay.”
“Nick is going to be very upset if he doesn’t have this prior to the meeting tomorrow,” she reminds me.
Gee, is that so?
The Danvier chocolate account is huge. Beyond huge. If we land it, it will guarantee my promotion to the job that my former boss and mentor, Marley Jacobs, has recently vacated since her death. The job I deserve. I can’t do anything to screw this up. It doesn’t matter that it’s three days before Christmas. There are no excuses.
I take a deep breath. “Again, I’m terribly sorry. I’ll fax it personally. Right now.”
I slam down the phone, hoping the assistant doesn’t misinterpret my anger as being directed at her. All of my anger is directed at Roberta Craft. What is wrong with that woman? I told her how important this is. And all she’s managed to do today is distribute some freaking chocolate chip cookies.
I storm out of my office and make a beeline directly to Roberta’s cubicle. Roberta is the only person at Janetta who has visibly gray hair. She’s in her early sixties, which I suppose isn’t that old in general, but it’s absolutely ancient in advertising world. This woman is a relic. Nobody here is over fifty. I’m still in my thirties. Marley was in her forties and she was the CEO of the whole damn company. Roberta should have been put out to pasture ten years ago. God knows why Marley kept her.
And now that Marley is gone, I’ve inherited her.
Roberta is sitting in her cubicle, talking on the phone, and I can tell right away it’s a personal call.
“Don’t buy too much, Timmy,” she says. “It’s going to be such a hassle to get it upstairs. And anyway, the kids never eat much.”
I stand in front of her cubicle, my arms folded across my chest, the vein in my neck throbbing. But Roberta doesn’t seem to be getting off her phone call.
“All right, honey,” she says. “I’ve got to get back to work. Be safe. I love you.”
Roberta finally puts down the phone and turns to me. She flashes an apologetic smile. “That was my son. He was calling me from the grocery store… He’s buying far too much. And he can’t… Well, you know.”
I don’t know what in hell she’s talking about. All I want to know is where that fax ended up. This woman is beyond incompetent—she needs to retire. But I fire her three days before Christmas, some might construe that as being heartless. Not that I care what everyone thinks, but it does seem particularly cruel.
I’ll wait until after Christmas.
“Roberta, did you fax that document?”
She blinks up at me. “Yes. Of course I did.”
“But you never gave me the confirmation sheet.”
“It never came out.”
I frown at her. “Did the fax go through?”
She nods vigorously. “It did. It made the noise like it went through.”
I let out a sigh. “Can you show me what you did? Where is the document?”
“It never came out.”
That’s odd. The document is supposed to come right out after it faxes. Presumably, it’s sitting in the fax machine with my confirmation page. Or a page saying that the fax never went through.
Even though I have a ton of work to do, I have to spend my time marching over to the copy/fax machine with Roberta to confirm she actually faxed it as she was supposed to. She points to the machine. “I just fed it up into there and it made a noise like it was faxing.”
Oh my God. I cannot believe this. I cannot believe how stupid this woman is.
“Roberta,” I say through my teeth, “that is the shredder.”
“The shredder?” Her eyes widen. “Are you sure?”
She furrows her brow. “But it makes the noise when I put the papers through.”
“Yes, that’s the noise it makes when it shreds paper!”
People in adjacent cubicles have started to turn around to look at us. I hear somebody snicker. I suppose I’m making a scene, but I can’t help it. I’m furious.
“But…” She wrings her fists together. “I’ve been using that for the whole two months!”
I get a sharp jabbing pain in my right temple. I can’t be hearing this right now. I can’t just be discovering now that everything I thought Roberta was faxing since she started working with me has actually been shredded. It’s too horrible to wrap my head around.
“Is this how you faxed stuff for Marley?” I say, my voice verging on hysterical.
She shakes her head vigorously. “I never faxed anything for Marley. Rachel did that. I just got her coffee and lunch and took her phone messages. Oh, and I used to pick up her dry cleaning.” Her eyebrows bunch together. “Do you need me to pick up dry cleaning for you?”
“No,” I spit out. “I don’t need you to pick up my dry cleaning.”
This is my fault. I should have been checking to make sure the documents were faxed properly. And not shredded. And there’s also one other thing I should have done much sooner.
“I’m so sorry, Elizabeth,” Roberta says. She looks up at me with those watery blue eyes. “If you could print out another copy of the document, I’d be happy to put it through again.”
You mean through the shredder?
“That won’t be necessary.” I clear my throat and square my shoulders. “I don’t think this is working out, Roberta. I’d like you to clear out your desk. Right now.”
Roberta lets out an odd squeaking noise. The wrinkles around her eyes deepen. “What?”
If everyone wasn’t staring at us before, they definitely are now. “Your services are no longer required here. I need to have a secretary that I can trust. This isn’t working out.”
Roberta’s eyes fill with tears, and before I know it, they’re spilling over. Oh God, she’s crying right in front of everyone. I should have waited till the end of the day and done it alone, in my office. What was I thinking? This is so unprofessional. Marley never would have done something like this.
On the other hand, I want to make sure people respect me. And maybe this is the best way is to show them the consequences if they don’t do as they’re told. I hate to make an example out of Roberta, but it needs to be done.
“Please, Elizabeth.” She puts her hand together, begging me. I’m scared she’s going to get down on her knees. “Don’t do this. Please… give me another chance. I know which one is the fax machine now. I swear. It’s that one.”
And oh Lord, she points to the shredder.
I take a step back. “I’m sorry. I think this is for the best.”
“I don’t think this job is right for you,” I say. “It’s best for both of us if you move on.”
Everyone in their cubicles is watching us and several people have come over to stare. Roberta is standing there, quietly sobbing. I whip my head around to glare at all the gawkers. “Don’t you all have work to do?”
“Please, Elizabeth,” Roberta murmurs. She takes another step towards me, and I try to back up but hit the fax machine. Or shredder. “I can’t tell my children I got fired. It will be so… It’s Christmas… I can’t…”
“You’ll receive a severance package,” I say. “It will be generous.”
That’s a lie. Our severance package, created by none other than Marley Jacobs, is not generous. Far from it. But I don’t want to say that in front of the entire office.
Roberta finally lowers her eyes. “Okay. I understand.”
I let out a breath as she finally backs away from me. It was a scene, but it could’ve been worse. At least she didn’t throw anything. I have demonstrated that I know how to deal with an employee who is not pulling their weight. It’s what Marley would have done.
Now I have to fax this damn paperwork.
As I’m heading back to my office, I pass one of my employee’s cubicle just as I get a horrible pain in the ball of my foot. I think a blister popped. I slow down for a moment, debating if I should take off my shoes and walk back to my office barefoot. That’s when I hear the voice:
“God, Elizabeth is such a bitch.”
I suck in a breath. Then I hear a second voice: “I know. She’s even worse than Jacobs.”
“She probably needs to get laid.”
My face grows warm. Typical men. Anytime a woman is assertive, it’s because she needs to get laid. I should march right into that cubicle and tell the two of them off. But somehow my feet are frozen in place.
“Too bad nobody would ever fuck her.”
What? What is that supposed to mean? That I am unfuckable? I am very fuckable, thank you very much.
At times like these, I really feel like I need a cigarette. Of course, I don’t smoke and I never have. Marley was the smoker. That’s what led to the heart disease that killed her way too young. But at the same time, it seemed to relax her a lot. She would take a long puff, and I would see all the tension drain out of her body. She didn’t have time to go downstairs to take her smoke breaks like everyone else, so she would open up the window in her office and smoke there. She said she used to get her best ideas when she was smoking.
I need something like that. A distraction.
I go back into my office and slam the door behind me. At least I’ve got an office and not a tiny cubicle. At least I have a place to be alone.
I wish there were someone I could talk to about this. My sister Polly would be willing to listen, but she wouldn’t get it. Not really. She would make some comment to make me feel better, and I’d realize how little she understands and how different she and I are, and the whole thing would make me feel worse. My mother was the same way. They both meant well, but they didn’t get it.
I used to date another person at the company named Richard. He and I used to talk about work stresses together. But now he’s my competition. If I told him how I was feeling, he would just take advantage of my weakness. No, Richard is totally off the table.
Marley was the only one who really got it.
Why did she have to die? It’s so goddamn unfair.
I sink into my leather seat and bury my face in my hands. I wish this holiday season would end already. Christmas… Bah humbug! Soon it will be January, and everyone will have forgotten about Roberta Craft. They’ll have their holiday bonuses, and they’ll be happy. And God willing, I’ll be CEO of this company.
The phone rings on my desk. Not many people have my direct number, so I’m guessing it must be the chocolate people. I take a deep breath to clear my head, then I snatch the phone off the hook.
“Elizabeth Scribner,” I say in my most professional voice.
“Hello.” The male voice on the other line sounds unfamiliar. “You said this is Elizabeth Scribner?”
The voice deepens a notch. “You’re the one who fired Roberta Craft today?”
I frown at the phone. Who is this? Did Roberta lawyer up already? That doesn’t sound like something she would do. I assumed she would go directly home and bake more cookies. “Yes. That’s right.”
“Well, this is her son,” the guy barks at me. “And my mother is currently lying in her bed, sobbing over what you did to her.”
Roberta’s son. Timmy Craft. I've seen a photo of him pinned up on Roberta's cubicle--an old photo of him in a cap and gown from his college graduation. He was really hot in the picture, and I nearly snorted with laugher with Roberta claimed he wants to get married “so badly” but alas, can’t find the right woman. The Boy Scout who was out buying groceries for his mother earlier today. And now he’s calling to yell at me for firing her.
“Your mother is completely incompetent,” I say in an even voice. “What I did was absolutely justified.”
“She’s worked at that company for twenty years,” Craft shoots back. “And you’re saying she’s suddenly incompetent at what she does?”
“She’s worked for me two months, and she’s been incompetent for both of them.”
“Or maybe she’s just too old. Is that it?”
“I don’t care how old she is. I just care that she can do her job.”
Craft snorts on the other line. I don’t care how good-looking he is—this guy is an asshole. “My mother is a great secretary. She didn’t deserve to be fired, and she certainly didn’t deserve to be fired in front of a room full of people.”
“I apologize about the room for people,” I say with as much sympathy as I can muster. “But I don’t apologize for firing her. She had no business being in that job.”
“And three days before Christmas!” he goes on. “You fired her three days before Christmas. What kind of heartless person does something like that?”
“This is not a mom and pop corner store.” I grit my teeth. “This is a multimillion dollar advertising company. If she can’t do her job, she shouldn’t be working here. I don’t care if it’s Christmas or New Year’s or Kwanzaa or whatever.”
He’s quiet for a minute on the other line. “You know, even Marley Jacobs would never have done something like this.”
“Well, I guess I’m a bigger bitch than Marley Jacobs.”
“Congratulations,” he says. “You managed to make a really wonderful woman cry. Three days before Christmas. I hope you’re pleased with yourself. I hope it was worth it.”
“It absolutely was.”
I hear Craft slam down the phone. I guess he’s decided to hang up on me.
I look down at my hands and notice they’re shaking. I don’t know why. Plenty of people have screamed at me in the past, far worse than this guy did. This guy was a lamb compared to some of the dressing downs I’ve gotten in the past. Usually it rolls off my back. Why is it getting to me now?
Maybe I really will take up smoking.
Even though I’m exhausted, I stay at the office until just past eight o’clock working.
I’ve got the presentation ready for tomorrow, but I want it to be absolutely perfect. I can’t leave anything to chance. I want to make sure I’ve memorized it backwards and forwards. I need to be able to recite it in my sleep.
But there gets to be a point when I can’t look at the damn thing another second. There was a time when I might’ve stayed until ten o’clock at night, but I just can’t right now. It’s been a hard day. I want to go home.
When I get out of my office, I hear music in the hallway. It’s a Bruno Mars song. I can’t name that tune, because I’m seriously out of touch with music lately. Who has time to listen to music these days? But I recognize his melodic voice.
The music is coming from the conference room. Apparently, they’re having a party. They must’ve started after quitting time. And obviously, nobody felt the need to invite me. Which is fine. I wouldn’t want to go anyway.
All I want is to go home.
I start toward the elevators, but in my haste, I snag my coat on that stupid, ostentatious Christmas tree. I don’t understand the point of Christmas trees. Why would anyone want a giant tree in their house? That thing is both an eyesore and a hazard. I take a step back and realize my coat sleeve is stuck on the wing of a little angel ornament. I look closer and discover the angel has created a sizable rip in the fabric of the coat.
Great. This stupid cheap ornament has ripped a hole in my Chloe coat that cost over a thousand bucks.
I pull the ornament off the tree, and before I can stop myself, I hurl it at the ground. It shatters on impact, but the sound is dampened by the music. I stare at the shards of glass on the ground and I feel just a little bit better.
I rip a second ornament off the tree. This one is a snowman sparkling with glitter. I throw it at the ground. I watch it shatter just like the other one.
I throw three more ornaments from the tree onto the ground. A reindeer. A snowflake. A ball with a picture of musical notes on it. The reindeer and the snowflake shatter, but the ball bounces. I reach for another ornament, but then the music volume increases suddenly.
Uh oh. Somebody’s coming out of the conference room.
I quickly duck down behind one of the cubicles. Everybody hates me already, and I don’t want to think about what will happen if they find out I’ve been smashing ornaments like some cartoon villain. I peek around the side of the cubicle to see who’s emerging out of the conference room.
It’s Richard, my former boyfriend. And Courtney, one of my pretty, blond employees who is ten years younger than I am.
The two of them are going at it like this ship is going down. He’s pawing at her and sucking her face, and she’s loving every second of it. Ugh, disgusting. Was I that pathetic around Richard? No, I wasn’t. I knew better than Courtney.
“Oh, Richard!” she murmurs.
If I had agreed to go out to dinner with him tonight, would he be with me right now instead of making out with Courtney? Or would he have blown me off for a girl ten years younger?
I peek around the cubicle again, and now Courtney’s pulling Richard’s jacket off. Oh my God, they’re going to have sex right here. Right in front of me. I can’t be here to watch this. I’ll need therapy forever.
But if I start moving toward the entrance, they’re going to hear me. My shoes are not quiet. Or fast.
There’s only one way to get out of here. And that’s crawling.
When I’m down on my hands and knees on the floor of the office, I get the sense that if the board saw me this way, I would not get that CEO job. Of course, it’s not like Richard looks so great right now either. But the lady slinking around the floor is definitely more pathetic.
Marley never would’ve crawled across the office on her hands and knees. She would have stood up tall and confronted them. Then again, she would’ve been smart enough not to get involved with Richard Hall in the first place.
Forget going home. I need a drink.
There’s a bar named Bull’s Head that’s a block away from the office building that houses Janetta advertising. I’ve been avoiding it lately because so many people from the office go there afterhours and I don’t feel like running into them, but I know they won’t be there today. I’ll have Bull’s Head all to myself tonight.
It’s freezing out and my Chloe coat was nowhere near warm enough even before I ripped a giant hole in it. I’m wearing a flimsy skirt, and my pantyhose provide zero protection against the wind. I had planned to hop in an Uber as soon as I left the building. Instead, I hug my body for warmth as I brave the semi-deserted block on the way to the bar.
Maybe I’ll get mugged. That will make this the perfect day.
By the time I reach the bar, both ears and the tip of my nose feel absolutely frozen. My hair is messy from the wind and has come partially free from the French twist. Instead of attempting to redo it, I pull the clip out entirely and shake it loose. It’s not like I’m trying to impress anybody. I just want to sit in the corner with a drink and not speak to anybody.
I shrug off my coat and hang it on the back of my chair with my purse. I shiver, because the bar isn’t nearly warm enough, but I know the alcohol will warm me up. I catch the eye of a waitress, who looks less than thrilled to be coming over to my table. She looks like a sort of waitress whose tips depend largely on the size of her tits, and she knows I couldn’t care less about her substantial cleavage.
“What would you like?” she asks in a flat voice.
I start to order a glass of red wine, but then I change my mind. A glass of red won’t be enough to numb the pain from this day. “I’ll have a gin and tonic.”
One thing I have to say for the waitress is she’s quick. A couple of minutes later, she returns with a glass of clear liquid with a lime wedge stuffed inside. I throw back about half the glass like I used to when I was in my twenties. And all of a sudden, it doesn’t feel so cold in here anymore.
Alcohol—the temporary answer to all life’s problems.
I don’t know how Marley did it. If she were here right now, that’s what I would ask her. What do you do when you get lonely? What do you do when you feel like you’re the only one who cares?
What do you do when you’re worried you might never have sex again?
Since Marley isn’t here to answer, I do the only thing I can: I drink the rest of the gin and tonic. One more of these and I won’t be worried about anything anymore.
I start to flag down the waitress to order a second, but when she comes up to my table, she’s already got a drink on her tray. She places it down in front of me.
“How did you know I wanted another?” I say, impressed. Maybe this woman could replace Roberta.
“I didn’t.” She jerks her head to the right. “This is from the guy over there. In the gray shirt.”
A man bought me a drink? Wow, that hasn’t happened in ages. A long time ago, I made it a rule to never go home with a man I met at a bar, and I don’t intend to break that rule tonight, no matter how many shots of gin I’ve had. I’ll have to tell this man thanks, but no thanks. I look over where the waitress is pointing and…
Oh my gosh.
I might have to break my rule.
This guy is hot. He might even be hotter than Richard. He’s a little geekier than Richard though, and he’s definitely not as well dressed, but I like his casual button-down gray shirt with the T-shirt peeking out underneath. And his black-rimmed glasses are almost cool. He’s hot, but at the same time, he looks nice and down to earth. He doesn’t seem like a sort of guy who would be hitting on women at a city bar. But then I catch his eye, and he raises his fingers in greeting.
I raise my fingers back.
I expect him to come over, but he doesn’t. He raises his eyebrows though. Apparently, it’s my move now.
Should I go over there? Is this a mistake?
Oh, what the hell. Just because I’m up for a big promotion, that doesn’t mean I have to be celibate. Even Wonder Woman had Steve Trevor. (And sometimes Superman. Or Batman. Or even Aquaman, but I never saw the appeal there.)
I quickly swipe on a layer of Mistletoe Berry that’s in my purse. I take one more swig of gin and tonic for courage, then bring the rest of the glass with me to the hot guy’s table. His blue eyes light up behind his glasses when he sees I’m about to sit with him, like he just won the lottery. It’s flattering. It’s like he doesn’t even know how hot he is.
“Thanks for the drink,” I say.
“You looked like you could use it.” There’s something vaguely familiar about his voice, but I can’t put my finger on it. There’s also something familiar about his face, but on the other hand, I’m certain I would remember meeting a guy like this.
“Yeah.” I take a deep breath. “That’s for sure.”
He smiles at me, revealing a hint of a dimple on his left cheek. He also has very nice, straight teeth. I’m a sucker for a set of nice teeth. “I’m Tim, by the way.”
“Hi.” I take his outstretched hand and shake it. His fingers and palm are surprisingly rough and calloused, given he doesn’t look like he’s any kind of manual laborer. But I don’t want to make assumptions. For all I know, he’s a construction worker. “I’m…”
I hesitate. I had been about to tell him my name is Elizabeth, but something stopped me. I don’t want to be Elizabeth anymore today. I need a break from Elizabeth Scribner. And I feel like this is a guy who can give me a break. Just for tonight.
“I’m Ebbie,” I finally say.
“Ebbie,” he repeats with a grin. “That’s cute.”
“Is it short for something?”
Again, I bite my tongue. I lean forward to get closer, so he can hear me over Guns N Roses playing on the radio. When I get within six inches of him, I realize he smells nice too. It must be his aftershave.
“Listen, Tim,” I say. “Here’s the thing. My life is… It’s crazy. I’m in no position to get involved with anyone. I don’t want to share life stories tonight. I don’t want a second date. But if you want to hang out tonight… just tonight… well, I’d really like that.”
Tim’s smile falters. I have to respect him for that. The guy isn’t looking for a one night stand. But I’m willing to bet he’ll take one if it’s offered.
“Okay,” he finally says. “Let’s hang out.”
Tim flags down the waitress and orders us some food. Before he put in the order for the loaded nacho appetizer and the mushroom Swiss burger, I hadn’t realized how hungry I was. My stomach lets out a resounding growl that I pray he doesn’t hear.
“What would you like?” Tim asks me.
I’d like exactly what he ordered. A big juicy burger, medium rare, dripping with cheese. Then again, when your mentor and idol drops dead of a heart attack at forty-six, it makes you reevaluate your eating habits.
“I’ll have the spinach salad,” I say.
“You’re so good.” Tim shakes his head as the waitress walks away. “That’s what I should be eating. I’ve been having way too many burgers lately.”
I look him over. He’s slim but the sleeves of his shirt are rolled up and he’s got these great muscled forearms. It makes me think of the roughness of his palms—I wonder what the guy does for a living. Anyway, he does not look like a guy who needs to watch what he’s eating.
“I’m just trying to impress you,” I say. “If you weren’t here, I’d probably have two burgers.”
Tim laughs. “If you ate two burgers, that would impress me.”
His laugh is really nice. I look down at his left hand—no ring. And no ring tan lines. Of course, it’s December. Tan lines would have faded by now. I don’t think Tim seems like a cheater though. It’s just surprising a guy like this is single.
“So what do you do for a living?” I ask.
“I teach computer science in high school.”
Ha—I knew he looked like a bit of a geek. “Where?”
He names one of the worst high schools in the city, where I’m pretty sure I read about a gang related shooting last year. I let out a gasp. “Oh my God. I would be terrified.”
He shakes his head. “Really, most of the kids are good kids. And what I do is especially important, because most of them aren’t going to college, so this is their only opportunity to learn computer skills they can use for the rest of their lives.”
He said it really seriously. I can see in his vivid blue eyes that teaching is incredibly important to him. He’s one of those teachers that people make movies about. I’ve had a few teachers like him over the years, and I’ve never forgotten them.
“I bet your students love you,” I say. “Especially the girls.”
He winks at me. “Well, I’m really nice. And I give almost everyone A’s.”
The waitress returns with a bowl of nachos, dripping with guacamole and melted cheese and ground beef. My mouth waters, which seems to amuse Tim. “This is for both of us, you know.”
“You’re the devil,” I say, but I go ahead and take a nacho. After all, I’m not made of stone. And I need something to soak up all the gin. Although right now, I don’t feel quite as much of a need to get completely sloshed. “Do you live around here?”
He shakes his head no. “I live downtown.”
I frown at him. “So why are you at Bull’s Head? It’s nowhere near your school or your house. And… I mean, it’s not like this is some sort of amazing bar. It’s not exactly the Cheers bar.”
Tim hesitates. “It… It’s kind of a long story. It’s dumb.” He chews on his lower lip. “There was somebody I wanted to talk to tonight, but… it was a stupid idea. So I came here instead.” The right corner of his lips quirks up. “And I’m really glad I did.”
Obviously, there’s something he doesn’t want to tell me, but there’s a whole lot I don’t want to tell him, so I let it go. This is definitely a one night stand—as I said to him, I don’t need to know his life story. So it makes me a little uncomfortable when he says to me, “So what do you do, Ebbie?
Don’t get me wrong—I’m proud of what I do. I’m proud of everything I’ve accomplished in my life. I started out with nothing. My dad abandoned us, my mom worked two jobs to make ends meet, and the second I was old enough, I took a job of my own. I got through college on scholarships, loans, and work-study. Everything I have, I worked my butt off for. Nothing was ever handed to me. I’m a workaholic down to the bone.
But I don’t want to be that person tonight.
“I’m a…” I search my brain, trying to come up with an occupation that I can fake my way through. “An architect. I’m an architect.”
An architect? How did I come up with that? I don’t know anything about architecture. I just said it because architecture and advertising sound similar. Or at least, they start with the same letter.
I wish I could take it back, but I see the impressed look on Tim’s face. It’s too late now—I’m an architect. “Wow, that’s amazing. Are you responsible for designing any of the buildings in the city?”
“Oh no, nothing that big.” I clear my throat. “I mostly design… like, houses. Small houses. Nothing you’ve ever heard of.”
“Well, you look like you’re doing very well.” His eyes flicker over my clothing, and it’s clear he notices how expensive my suit is. For a moment, the thought pops into my head that maybe he’s a gold digger, and that’s why he targeted me tonight.
But no. That’s paranoid. I can tell from looking at this guy that he’s no gold digger. I mean, he teaches computer science in a high school that’s one step above a prison. This is a good guy. He’s such a good guy, that I know I can never see him again after tonight. Because if he knew anything about the real me, he wouldn’t want to be with someone like me.
“I do okay,” I say. “But I don’t really want to talk about my job. It’s what I do all day. Let’s talk about something else.”
“Sure. Like what?”
I search my brain for a conversation topic. I’m drawing a blank. I can help run a multimillion dollar company, but apparently I can’t hold up my end of a dinner conversation with a hot guy. “Um…”
He grins at me. “A while ago, right before I was being set up on a blind date, I memorized a list of questions you’re supposed to ask somebody when you’re out on a date.”
I raise my eyebrows at him. “And is this a date?”
“Um, yes? Hopefully?” He stuffs another nacho in his mouth. “I mean, I’m not going to play games here. I didn’t buy you a drink because I wanted someone to play pool with. It’s pretty obvious what my intentions are, right?”
“Do you go out on a lot of dates?”
“No,” he admits. “There was a time when I used to. But after I hit thirty, somehow I lost the motivation. And I never entirely got it back.”
I study his face, trying to figure out how old he is. He doesn’t have any gray hair. He has a few lines around his eyes, but not as many as Richard. Somewhere around mid-thirties. I’d like to ask him, but then he might ask me. And that’s a secret I’ll take to my grave.
“Do you date much?” he asks me.
I shake my head. “Like, never.”
“Well, I feel honored then.”
“If this is a date.”
I take another nacho, loaded with greasy cheese and spicy guacamole. “So what were the questions on the list?”
He rubs his thumb against his chin. “Hmm, let’s see. Do you collect anything?”
“When I was a child.” I think back to my comic collection. I don’t even know what happened to it. All I’ve got now is the number one edition of Wonder Woman from Marley, which I keep in the drawer of my nightstand. “Not now.”
“Adults collect things.”
“Like… Baseball cards. Match boxes. Stamps. Comic books.”
He grins lopsided. God, he’s really cute. Marley wouldn’t have liked him—he’s a bit too geeky for her taste. She would have said he didn’t have enough game. But I always liked that type. “No, I don’t. But I’m just saying, there’s nothing wrong with it.”
“What’s another question?”
“Are you close with your family?”
I wince. The last thing I want to talk about right now is my family. I don’t want to tell a guy I really like about my dad who ran out, my mom dying when I needed her most, and the sister I never see even though she begs me to visit. I don’t want him to think I’m a head case. This is a date, not a therapy session. “Not really. How about you?”
“My dad died when I was a kid.” He lowers his eyes. “So I never really knew him that well. And my mom did her best. She’s great, actually. She’s the kind of mom who always had cookies baking in the oven, you know? And obviously, I wasn’t the easiest kid.”
Obviously? What does that mean? Tim seems like a really nice, laid-back guy. Why would I assume he was a difficult kid?
“Also,” he adds, “I’ve got two older siblings, who are both way too interested in my personal life.”
I smirk. “Yeah, I can relate to that. My sister is always asking if I’ve met the one yet. If I let her, she would set me up with a different guy every night.”
He clutches his chest. “Blind dates. The worst, right?”
I nod emphatically and raise my glass of gin and tonic, which he clinks against his own beer bottle. “The worst.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a good one.” He tilts his head thoughtfully. “It’s just a matter of how bad it is. Like, if she takes one look at me and says, ‘Nuh uh.’”
I laugh. “That is incredibly hard to imagine.”
“Well, thanks for saying so. But it happens plenty. Women can be just as superficial as men.”
What in the holy hell is this guy talking about? He’s super hot. What woman in her right mind would take one look at him and say, “Nuh uh”? I can’t even fathom it. Modesty is an admirable quality, but come on. I can only imagine he’s digging for a complement.
“Well, I think those women are crazy,” I finally say.
His smile widens. “Oh, I agree. I’m awesome. Those women missed out.”
The waitress shows up at that moment with our dishes. In spite of the fact that I helped him demolish the plate of nachos, my mouth waters at the sight of his greasy burger. My salad looks unappetizing and just generally disappointing in comparison. Why did I order a salad? It’s been a horrible day—I deserve a greasy burger.
After the waitress sets down the food, she rests one of her hands on Tim’s shoulder, showing off her long black fingernails. She smiles at him with a sweetness that I never would’ve imagined she possessed. “Everything okay? Do you need anything?”
“No, thanks. I’m good.”
“Okay then.” Her voice is sugary sweet. “Let me know if you do. Just give a yell, hon.”
As the waitress saunters away, I stare at him, open-mouthed. “Wow, she was really flirting with you. Right in front of me. Unbelievable.”
He laughs. “Nah, she wasn’t flirting.”
“Then how come she asked you if you needed anything, but not me? It was like I wasn’t even here. I mean, come on.”
He shrugs. “That happens to me all the time. I barely even notice it anymore.”
He barely even notices when a beautiful woman is flirting with him? I know some guys are clueless, but this is over the top. But I’m not going to make a big thing about it. I don’t want to seem like I’m jealous. Anyway, it’s not like this is a real date. Or at least, there isn’t going to be another date. This is a one-night only thing.
Although as the night goes on, I’m sort of regretting those ground rules.
“Would you like a bite of my food?”
I look up at him. “Why?”
“That’s one of the questions I memorized. Would you like a bite of my food? But also, I’m looking at your food and feeling sorry for you. Do you want some of my burger?”
I can’t suppress a smile. “Yes, please.”
Tim picks up a knife from the table and carefully slices about a third of the burger off for me. “I don’t want you to think I’m doing this because I don’t want your cooties. I actually would love your cooties. I’m trying to be polite though, and I’m presuming you don’t want my hands all over your food. Although…” He holds up his hands. “I want you to know that my hands are very clean.”
“Yes.” I smile at him. “I agree. They are very clean.”
Tim’s burger is just as good as it looks. I take a big bite, and it’s almost orgasmic. The truth is, I don’t get to eat big greasy burgers or have orgasms very much anymore. So even just one of the two is fantastic.
He watched me make what are actually very embarrassing noises of pleasure from the burger. When I put it down, he is laughing into his napkin.
“What?” I say.
“I’m just really glad I offered you my burger.”
I roll my eyes.
“Also,” he says, “you’ve got some ketchup on your lip.”
My cheeks burn as I quickly grab for my napkin. The last thing I want is to look like a slob in front of this cute guy. But after several seconds of dabbing as daintily as I can, Tim shakes his head. “Let me,” he says.
He reaches out and very gently dabs at the corner of my lips. As he leans in close to me, it’s like time stops. Ed Sheeran stops playing on the radio. I can’t hear the dishes clinking together anymore. The only thing I’m aware of is Tim’s lips less than a foot away from mine.
And when I look up at his blue eyes, I can tell he’s thinking the same thing.
He leans in slowly. Slowly enough to give me time to back away if that’s what I wanted. But no way that’s what I want. I haven’t been kissed in a very long time, and this is like breaking a famine with lobster from the best restaurant in town. Tim kisses so good. His lips are soft but his breath is hot. His calloused fingers slide along my jaw and a tingle goes down my spine. I don’t know what sort of kiss he meant to give me, but it ends up so intense that when our lips finally separate, I’m shaking.
I’d say only a player could kiss that good, but when I look at Tim’s hands, they’re shaking too, and there’s a slightly bewildered expression on his face. “Wow,” he breathes.
“Yeah,” I say.
Both of us cast glances at our plates. A minute ago, we were devouring our food. But right now, I’m only hungry for one thing. Even this amazing burger is a poor substitute for what I really want.
I want to rip his clothes off.
I swallow hard. “I don’t live too far from here. Would you like to… come over to my place for… coffee?”
He raises his eyebrows. “Coffee?”
My cheeks burn. “I’m trying to figure out a way to invite you over without sounding like a slut.”
He laughs. “That would be great. I would love some… coffee. I’ve got my car right outside. I could drive us.”
“You got parking right outside? There’s never any parking here.”
He shrugs. “Yeah, well.”
That doesn’t explain it, but I’m not going to question his primo parking spot. And I’m not going to worry about the fact that I’m inviting a man I just met to my apartment. I know any woman would tell you that’s a mistake, but when I look at this guy, I know it’s not a mistake. He’s not going to hurt me. There’s no way in hell.
Tim holds up his hand to signal for the check. The waitress fawns over him again when she hands it over, and he gives her his credit card. I chew on my lip. “We can split it,” I offer.
“No. Come on.”
“But you’re a public school teacher. And I’m an… architect.”
“I may not make the big bucks, but believe it or not, I can afford to pay the tab for dinner at a bar,” he says good-naturedly. I start to protest one last time, but he shakes his head. “I’m the guy. I want to pay.”
By the time the waitress returns with his credit card, I’m trembling with anticipation. I can’t believe we’re going to my house and we’re actually going to have sex. When I close my eyes, I imagine him ripping my expensive suit off my body. It makes me dizzy. God, I can’t wait to get home. If we don’t leave in the next sixty seconds, I’m going to explode.
He signs the check, and I get to my feet. Tim reaches under the table, and to my surprise, he pulls out two metal crutches. Not the kind I used when I twisted my ankle in high school, but the kind with handles that you grab onto and plastic rings that go around the forearms. The kind of crutches somebody uses when they’ve been using crutches for a long time, and intend to use them for the rest of their life. Before I can ask what he’s doing, he grabs the handles and drags himself to his feet, leaning heavily on the crutches.
When he lifts his eyes, he sees the expression on my face.
“Oh,” I say, because I’m not sure what else to say. There’s no way I could hide my reaction. “I didn’t realize…”
His face falls. “You didn’t? I thought you saw me when I went to the bathroom before you came over…”
“No.” I clear my throat. “I didn’t. I didn’t see…”
Well, that explains a lot. It explains his rough palms. It explains the muscles in his arms. It explains the great parking spot. It explains how nice the waitress was to him. And the fact that even though he’s hot as hell, a woman might take one look at him and say, “Nuh uh.”
“Shit,” he says under his breath, so low that I almost don’t hear it. He let out a long sigh. “Listen, Ebbie, I didn’t realize you didn’t know that… Anyway, we don’t have to do this. You’re off the hook. No hard feelings, I promise.”
I guess this has happened to him before. He’s being gracious about it. But the fact that he needs those crutches to stand doesn’t change how ridiculously intense that kiss was. Or how attracted I am to this man. I’m still dizzy with desire. No way I’m letting him off the hook.
“I still want you to come over,” I say.
He narrows his eyes at me. “If you’re doing this because you feel sorry for me, then don’t bother. Really.”
“I’m not. I wouldn’t.”
He stares at me for a moment, studying my face. Eventually, a smile creeps across his lips. “Okay, then. Let’s get out of here.”
It’s obvious that navigating a crowded bar is not an easy thing while leaning on crutches. The tables are all squeezed together and Tim is carefully picking his way between them. At one point, the bottom of one of his crutches snags a chair, and for a moment, I’m scared he’s going to go down. But he manages to maintain his balance. When we get past the tables, I hear him let out a breath.
I start for the exit, but he stops me. He nods his head at a different door on the side. “There’s a ramp over there,” he explains. His ears turn pink. “It’s a little easier for me. If you don’t mind.”
“I don’t mind,” I say quickly.
I’m dying to ask. Why does he need the crutches? Has he had them forever? Will he have them forever?
But it’s not appropriate to ask. I know that much.
To be continued...