“So. I’ll tell them I need you for something.”
I glanced in the direction of Burge’s office. “That’s not going to work. Especially now that everyone knows we are together. Just wait and see me after work.”
I frowned. “This is not how our marriage is going to work.”
“Yeah. You know, that thing after engagement? To have and to hold, and all that?”
“So you are planning on marrying me.”
I growled into the phone. “I’m hanging up now. I’ll see you tonight.”
There was a click, and he was gone. I buried my head in my hands.
Somehow, I made it through the rest of the day. I cringed at every interaction with Burge, waiting for a comment, a question, a statement. But he was purely professional, and I wanted to hug him for that. He also seemed to lack the workaholic gene, and walked out the door at six, another point in his favor. Five minutes after he left, my cell rang, Brad’s name displayed on the screen.
“Hey. How much longer are you going to be there?”
I looked at my watch. “Thirty minutes?”
“Great. Want to come to the house and eat?”
“Sure. But I’m not going to stay over; I need to be at home tonight.”
He grunted something into the phone. “Just hurry.”
I rolled my eyes and ended the call, focusing on my computer screen. I didn’t really have anything to do, just wanted to wait for everyone to leave. And, with Burge out of the building, everyone else should soon follow suit.
They did, no one bothering to swing by my office and say goodbye—an oddity, but one I was grateful for. I waited until the wing was silent for a good ten minutes, then gathered up my items and snuck out. I was being weak and cowardly, but I didn’t give a damn. I wanted nothing more than to crawl into someone’s arms and have a good, long cry.
Seeing Martha opened the dam. She swung open the back door before I even reached it, concern already on her face. “Honey, I can tell from the way you’re walking that you’re down in the dumps.”
I smiled at her, feigning casualness, but that facade lasted only a step or two, and I launched myself into her arms, sniffling. She held me tightly to her chest, patting my back and shushing me, walking us backward into the kitchen. I was distracted for a brief moment and snuck a glance to the stove, seeing fried pork chops sizzling in a skillet. Then she had me on a stool and sat across from me.
“Julia. Last week your life was in danger, and you held yourself together just fine. What is going on?”
I spat out words quickly, jumbling my sentences together in a mush of tears, indignation, and stress, and she had the gall to laugh when I finally took in a big, gasping breath. I swallowed a lump of saliva and glared at her. Brad spoke from behind us. “What’s wrong?”
I covered my face quickly, my hands squeezing any tears off the skin, my eyes blinking quickly in an effort to return their appearance to normal. “Nothing.”
Martha, damn her, spoke, “Julia’s upset because the women at the office were mean to her. About the engagement.”
I glared at her fiercely, my back to Brad, and waited for him to join in the laughter fest. Steps were heard on stone, and then he was behind me, wrapping his arms around me and turning me into his chest. He tilted my chin up, looking into my eyes, his own turning troubled when they saw my face. “You’re crying about this?” His voice was so baffled that I almost laughed, a strangled sob coming out instead. I flung myself into his warmth, body shaking, my sobs now wet and sticky, seeping out of my body in huge waves of emotion. He held me and kissed my head. “Julia, stop crying, please.”
“I don’t want to go back,” I whispered. “Burge knows, he might say something to me, Sheila is going to write me a bad recommendation, and everyone keeps pointing and whispering.” A surge of anger hit me, and I pulled back, reaching out punching his hard chest. “This is your fault! I didn’t want to tell anyone, and now everyone knows!” He caught my fist before it landed another blow and tried to frown at me, the corners of his mouth fighting to turn up.
“Julia. I need you to be strong on this. Fuck the office. I’m getting my own pushback from the staff. We need to be united, a team. The girl I fell in love with doesn’t hide in the corner on stuff like this.”
Fuck. How could I respond to that? He was right; I was normally good in situations like this. I wasn’t an embracer of confrontation, but I could hold my own. Why was I hiding in my office? I sighed, leaning back into his arms. He tightened his hold on me, and I closed my eyes, taking a last, delicious moment of feeling sorry for myself. Then I straightened, keeping my arms around him and looked up into his face. “Okay.”
He frowned, wiping moisture gently off my cheeks. “You always say that, and I never know what it means.”
“Okay. I’ll stop being a baby about it.”
He grinned, leaning down and brushing his lips against me. “Good.” He glanced over at Martha. “Martha, how much longer do you need?”
She shrugged. “It’s ready now.”
We ate, just the two of us, at the kitchen table. Martha had fixed a plate and taken it upstairs, her preferred way of dining. Brad drank from his glass of tea and looked at me. “Let’s talk about your parents.”
I chewed furiously, trying to get the piece of pork chop down my throat before I spoke. “Okay.”
“I know next to nothing about them.”
I shrugged. “There’s not much to know. They’re pretty normal.”
He smiled wryly at me. “Well, I’m not too familiar with normal. Humor me.”
“Okay. Mom’s a botanist. She works for a co-op of local farmers, helping to increase their field’s production, developing hybrid strains of cotton, that kind of thing. Dad’s retired from Gulfstream—he spends most of his time fishing or going to garage sales, a hobby that drives my mother absolutely crazy.” I grinned for a moment, forgetting the horror that had been my day. “I should go home more. With school and work ... I haven’t been home as often as I should. But, now that you’ll be driving me crazy, I am sure I’ll make the pilgrimage more often.”
A look of mock pain crossed his face. “That’s mean. Really mean.”
“I’m sure your ego can handle it.”