“And I have the flu. What if I can’t stay?”

Mary has snubbed me up to this point but she’s never been hostile, and my brow furrows. “It’s with Ricco Alvarez about a large sale. I’d reschedule if I could, but I’m not sure he’ll agree. If you’re still sick and want me to try, I can.”


“Ricco Alvarez,” she repeats, and her lips thin. “Of course it is.” She walks away.

I frown. What the heck?

Ralph walks into my office and puts a packet of papers on my desk. “An inventory listing with the price lists I create monthly.” He lowers his voice, saying, “Steer clear of Mary when she’s sick. She’s been known to rip heads off and leave you bleeding.”

“Thanks for the warning, but it’s a little too late,” I hiss softly.

“Better late than never.”

“Not in this case, and why did she act funny about me seeing Alvarez?”

“She’s ambitious and competitive and he wouldn’t give her the time of the day before Rebecca or after.”

“Why?”

“Her personality just doesn’t jibe with certain people.”

“But everyone says Alvarez is difficult.”

“I guess that’s why Bossman hires charmers like Rebecca and yourself. To get past the difficult to the payday. He knows Mary is a personality time bomb.”

“Then why keep her?”

He glances over his shoulder and then back at me. “She was close to being fired after a blowup with Rebecca but she did some kick-butt scouting and found a couple of unpriced pieces Bossman snatched up for the next Riptide auction. She earned a safety pass.”

“Wait. She’s working with Riptide?”

“Oh no. Remember, I said she’s a personality time bomb. She was told to hand over all the management of the pieces to Rebecca.”

Amanda appears in the doorway. “The Riptide accountant is on the line for you.”

Ralph pops to his feet and gives me an apologetic look. I watch him leave and my thoughts are going to bad places. How much did Mary hate Rebecca? How certain was she that getting rid of her would lead her to her career goals? I don’t want to think about what that might mean for me.

My fingers press to the tightness at my temples and I massage. I’m worried about Rebecca. I’m worried about Ella. I don’t know how to locate either of them. Heck, for the longest time, I don’t think I even knew how to find myself, even when I was staring at myself in the mirror.

One thing I do know, though, is that all these things seem more doable with Chris in my life. I can’t sit back and wait for us to crash and burn, but I feel like we are headed that way. I draw a heavy breath and accept that I have to talk to Chris, to lift more of the proverbial veil, and do so before I lose my courage.

Snatching my jacket from the back of my chair, I shove the papers into my briefcase, grab my phone and purse, and head out of my office toward the reception desk. I bring Amanda into focus and keep walking past her. “I’m going next door to get a mocha and study some work I was given, if Bossman is looking for me.”

I start rehearsing different ways to approach Chris about what’s on my mind before I’ve ever left the gallery, but the biting wind blasts coherent thoughts into oblivion. I push through it and enter the coffee shop, where I have mixed feelings about the young college guy behind the counter who takes my order, indicating Ava’s absence. Picking her brain about Rebecca and Alvarez before tonight’s meeting is on my agenda today, but at this moment, I can’t think of anything but Chris anyway.

With more coffee I don’t need, I settle into a corner table, slide out of my jacket, and retrieve my phone from the pocket. I take a deep breath and dial Chris. My pulse beats about ten times for every ring until his voice mail picks up. I don’t leave a message and I’m officially sick to my stomach. I’m not touching my coffee.

My cell vibrates in my hand and I look down to see a text from Chris.

Hey baby. I had an early breakfast and didn’t want to wake you up. At the hospital. Is everything okay?

My entire body feels lighter with his message and I type: Yes. Just wanted to talk. Call me when you get a break?

His reply is instant. Already planned to. Call you in about an hour.

Thanks, I reply automatically.

Thanks? You sure you’re okay?

Yes. Too much caffeine. I hesitate and decide there is no in between. Not enough you.

I’ll make you prove that over and over when I get back.

I plan to, I respond and set my phone down, not expecting a reply or getting one.

My pleasure at the exchange should calm me down a bit, but it only sparks a heavier dose of nerves. Can I really tell him?

Ten

I’m staring at the clock, waiting for Chris’s call, when Ava walks into the coffee shop. Needing a distraction from the circles I’m running in my head, I watch her pause by the coatrack at the door and peel off her jacket. She’s in slim black slacks with a red blouse, and her tousled long, dark hair is striking as it cascades down her back. Maybe it’s the numerous tables and displays separating us, but her skin, even just out of the harsh wind, appears a flawless milk chocolate.

Spotting me, Ava waves and heads toward my table. There is a casual confidence and grace about her that I admire immensely. I am confident that Ava would not spill her coffee as I had the first day I’d encountered Chris here at the coffee shop.

Ava slides into the seat in front of me and we exchange greetings. My laptop is occupying the small round table and I shut the lid, drawing her gaze to the papers in front of me. “More assignments from Mark?”

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