"Dude." Doug gave me a droll look. "I'm trying to be a rock star, and my sister lives with me. That's not sweet. "
"Working hard as always, I see," a smooth voice said.
We both looked up from our banter. "Paige!" I exclaimed delightedly. I would have hugged her, but we'd never exactly had a touchy-feely relationship.
Our long-absent manager stood in the doorway. She almost looked casual in loose black slacks and an empire-cut pink maternity blouse. Her stomach had grown even more in the last month, and seeing it made a little fuzzy spot tickle in my chest. I'd been unable to conceive a child while mortal and could not now as an immortal. That knowledge still stung on a personal level, but I never held it against those I knew. I loved pregnant women and babies. I was happy for Paige, happier to see her back and looking well.
A smile played on her glossed lips as she took in the two of us. "Georgina, could you come to Warren's office? We want to talk to you. It won't take long."
"Sure," I said standing up. Doug quietly hummed the Jaws theme.
Paige, Warren, and I sat down in his office with the door closed. I didn't really think I was in trouble, but being with them like this felt kind of intimidating. Especially since both seemed to be watching me expectantly.
"So," began Paige, "we've been looking over all the accounts of what happened while we were gone. We've talked to some people too." She paused purposefully. "You've been busy."
I smiled, relaxing. "It's always busy here. If I wanted a slow store, I'd go down to Foster's."
Warren laughed. "I heard he offered you a job."
"Yeah, but don't worry. I'm not going anywhere."
"That's good," Paige said crisply, "because I understand we now have some sort of annual event you've got to plan. Lorelei Biljan sent me e-mail asking to be invited back to next year's Emerald Lit Gala."
"Fest," I corrected. "It's a fest."
"Whatever. The point is, what you did was remarkable...if a little unorthodox. To pull that together so quickly and then turn over such amazing sales stats." She shook her head. "It was superhuman."
I squirmed at the adjective. "It needed to be done."
"And you did it. Just like you've been doing a number of other remarkable things around here. Things that we're very impressed with."
"Hey, now," I said, suddenly uncomfortable with the way they both watched me, "don't think that was an ordinary day. It was kind of an exception. I can't do that kind of stuff all the time. I was just having a good day, that's all."
"You've had a lot of good days, Georgina," Warren spoke up. "You haven't had a full staff here in weeks. You've come in on your days off. You've run this place when no one else was around to do it. You've handled crisis after crisis - and not just the Fest thing. I'm talking about the whole situation with Doug too."
I sat up straighten "What are you going to do? You aren't going to fire him, are you? Because it wasn't all him...I mean, there were extenuating circumstances. He's better now. He's the best employee you've got."
"We've spoken to him," said Paige calmly. "And he'll stay on for now, although he understands he'll sort of be on probation."
Relief coursed through me. "Good. That's really good."
"I'm glad you think so because you'll be the one who's supervising him."
"I - what?" My train of thought derailed horrifically, and I looked back and forth between their faces, waiting for the punch line.
"This pregnancy is proving more difficult than expected, as you've probably guessed. The baby's healthy, and I'm still on track for a normal delivery, but I need to eliminate certain risk factors. One of them, unfortunately, is working."
I stared. Paige had hired me. She couldn't leave. "What are you saying?"
"I'm saying that I can't keep working here."
"But...after the baby...you could come back, right?"
"I don't know, but I'm not going to put the store on hold while I figure that out. I'm resigning, and we want you to take my place."
"As manager," added Warren, like that wasn't perfectly obvious.
"I...I don't know what to say."
"You'd get a salary increase, of course," she said. "And then we'd hire someone to fill your old position. You'd take over all of my duties."
I nodded. I knew what her duties were - especially since I'd done them for the last few weeks. They involved more paperwork than sociability, but certainly Paige had worked the floor plenty and interacted with others. The job still involved people, but in a different way. I'd have no peers and no one above me save Warren. It could potentially put a damper on how much I hung out with the staff after work - particularly my goofing off with Doug. The position would entail a whole new set of complications and difficulties.
On the other hand, I'd have a lot more freedom and power. Paige planned all of our signings and promotional events, much as I had the Fest. It had been fun. I could do that all the time now. I could experiment with new things. That had appeal - a lot of it. And really, the challenging aspect of it also had its appeal. It would be new and different. I'd lived for centuries, and I knew the dangers of a static lifestyle. I had enough experience and education to take on very prestigious occupations - and I had done so in the past. This time around, I'd chosen a more laid-back job; was I ready to move on now?
My decision was made, but when I saw how anxious my silence had made them, I couldn't resist a little teasing. "Would I get my own office?"
They nodded as one, still tense, thinking that was what held me back.
"Oh. Okay. Sold."
I went home that night heady with the knowledge of my new job. I would miss Paige, but the more I thought about it, the more excited I grew about being store manager. Celebration was definitely in order, so I called Hugh and the vampires, and we went out on the town. I had fun with them, but honestly, I wished I could celebrate with someone else.
The late night of drinking made me sleep in considerably the next morning. I awoke to Aubrey sprawled across my neck, dangerously close to cutting off my air, in a position only a cat could find comfortable. My clock read noon, and I lay there, warm in the blankets and wondering what I was going to do with myself. The store wasn't open. It was Thanksgiving.
My phone rang. I rolled over and grappled for it, just barely avoiding getting Aubrey's claws in my jugular.
I stared at Seth's name on the caller ID as if it had magical powers. Taking a deep breath, I answered.
"Happy birthday," I said, trying to sound cheerful and not utterly petrified.
There was a pause and then a small, surprised chuckle. I hadn't known what to expect when he and I finally resumed contact after last week's drama, but his laughter hadn't been a contender. Unless it was bitter laughter while my heart bled onto the floor and I begged for forgiveness.
"Thanks," he said, his voice sobering a little. "But, uh, I don't believe you."
"Believe me what?"
"That you want me to have a happy birthday."
"I just said I did."
There was a long silence. My anxiety grew with every passing second.
"If you wanted me to have a happy birthday, you'd come over to my party. "
"Your party," I repeated flatly.
"Yeah, remember? Andrea invited you?"
I remembered. I'd been thinking about it every day this week.
"I didn't think I was still invited." I hesitated, heart aching. "I didn't think you'd want me there."
"Well, I do. So hurry up. You're late."
We hung up, and I just sat there. Seth had called at last. And he wanted to see me. Now. What was going to happen? What should I do? I looked at Aubrey and sighed.
"Guess I should have kept that last pack of ambrosia, huh?"
Seth had chided me for being late, but with five daughters, the Mortensens were always running late. So no one, except Seth, really paid much attention to my tardiness.
Likewise, with so much chaos, no one really noticed that he and I didn't talk much. The girls spoke more than enough for all of us, and I took some comfort in their presence. As always, they couldn't get enough of me, crawling all over me and tugging at my sleeve to make sure they had my undivided attention. I enjoyed it all in a bittersweet sort of way. Convinced Seth and I were on the verge of a break-up, I mostly kept thinking that this would be the last time I would hang out with this wonderful family.