I look at my fingers, picking at the chipped, midnight blue polish. “Waiting until I’m in love is not making a big deal out of it.” I drop my hands back on the couch and look at her. “You act like I’m some kind of freak for wanting that.”
Her feet wiggle in my lap. “You’re a twenty-two-year-old virgin. Nowadays, that makes you a freak.”
I laugh and roll my eyes. “I admit, it’s a little old-fashioned, but when I meet ‘the one,’ he’ll appreciate it.”
“Screw ‘the one.’ Here’s what you do: bang a lot of guys before you find the love of your life. That way when you finally meet him, he won’t be able to resist your sexpertise.”
I giggle. “That’s messed up, and you know it.”
She giggles too, and her head falls back toward the TV. A green-skinned evil scientist with an oversized head enters the frame. “Oh, dear, delays,” he says, “delays, nothing but delays.” The scene cuts to a steel, blue dungeon door with “MONSTER” stamped across it. It rattles with beastly growls, but the scientist unlocks the door calmly. “Come, Rudolph,” he instructs as the looming, heart-shaped monster is revealed. His pulsing, vermillion fur is marked only by large, scowling eyes. “There is a rabbit loose in the castle, Rudolph. Return him to me, and I shall reward you with a spider goulash.”
Frida bursts into a seemingly endless fit of laughter. She points at the screen as Rudolph grins and disappears on his rabbit hunt. “Cataline,” she sings madly at the screen. “My virginal Cat-uh-leen, who walked into my life at eighteen, with just a single bag, what a terrible drag.”
As I watch her laugh so hard that she almost falls off the couch, I’m only thankful. Four years earlier I boarded a bus alone from my high school graduation ceremony to this doorstep knowing only the grand things I’d heard about the big city. I dragged a bag in one hand and in the other, clutched New Rhone’s “Classified” section with this address scribbled across it in red pen. Frida opened the door, all jet-black hair, piercings, and bossy attitude. But it was only minutes before my shoulders relaxed, and she was gossiping about Russ across the hall’s affair.
Tonight as I fall asleep, thoughts of Lyla from accounting plague me. She has fine blonde hair and yellowish skin that stretches over high cheekbones. Her eyelids sag under periwinkle eye shadow that gathers in the creases around her eyes. She is things I'm not: brazen, pushy, confident. She finds cheap thrills in alcohol and late nights. She doesn't seem to have trouble finding men, only keeping them.
Men like Calvin, who would take her home and bestow her with a smile I’ve never seen, something sweet and personal. A smile just for her. He’d trail his fingers through her hair and down her naked back. I shiver wondering how his touch would feel against my skin, and suddenly I’m Lyla. It’s my spine his fingertips drag down and then back up until reaching the ends of my long, murky mane. He’d remove his glasses to look into my blue eyes and take my jaw in both palms. I can almost feel his lips on mine now, opening me up as his fingers slide into my hair to play in the tangles. His kiss would mean something. Behind his glasses, as I stripped away the brusqueness of him, the curtness of his every move, I’d find tenderness. People like him are hard because they have something to protect. Even from a distance, I know that something is worth protecting. Goodness that’s buried like treasure.
There are two things that get me through my workday—meeting Frida for lunch and staring at Calvin Parish. Currently, I’m doing the latter. The office is my dreamland and Calvin, my star. At the moment, he’s sexy-prowling toward my desk, irradiated by ribbons of sunshine as he passes by each window.
“Cataline,” Mr. Hale hisses.
I jump, and my chair groans as I whip around to the cracked door. “Yes?”
“I’m not here,” he says before disappearing back into his office, locking the door after him.
My fantasy disintegrates. Calvin is striding in my direction, and since the sky is currently overcast, any sparkling sunshine was merely a figment of my imagination.
“Mr. Hale isn’t in right now,” I say barely in time.
Calvin grunts, sparing me no glance as he continues forward.
Fear propels me out of my seat to block the door. I splay my arms across it just as he reaches for the handle.
“I need to leave this for him,” he says to a spot above my head. He slices a Manila envelope in front of my face. His body heat practically fuses my back with the door. I’m spellbound by him, his scent, the proximity of him, all the while seeking out his eyes. Just as I open my mouth, his gaze drops. His glasses slide a millimeter as his head tilts, and for one vibration of a second, our eyes connect. Even behind the glass shield, I see the worldliness in him—a soul that seems equal parts calm and stormy. I have no breath, though my lungs burn for it. His glance is so quick that it ricochets off me, but it leaves me heady nonetheless. “Do you mind?” he asks, anger edging his voice.
“I’ll see that he gets it, Mr. Parish.”
“He’s not in?” Calvin asks. “You’re sure?”
His hand dashes by me, brushing my waist to turn the handle. The lock breaks with a loud snap, and the door swings open.
Mr. Hale’s voice comes from behind me. “Mr. Parish. Can I help you?”
I shrink down as Calvin glares over my shoulder and then at me, this time holding my gaze. “No. I’ll just leave this with your secretary.”
“Executive assistant,” I correct automatically.
“Mouthy for someone who just lied to the man who holds her fate in his hands.”
“Fate?” I repeat.
“Your job.” He says job as though I’m the most incompetent person he’s ever encountered. He pivots away, tossing the envelope on my desk without a backward glance.
My muscles liquefy, a belated reaction to being within inches of the subject of my frequent daydreams. His scent lingers in my nostrils, intoxicating my already whirring mind. Or perhaps it’s just the memory of him? My urges morph between laughing and crying with each rapid heartbeat.
I might’ve stood there all day if not for Mr. Hale’s barking. “Miss Ford. Come in and shut the door.”
My shoulders square before I turn around and seal myself in his angry bubble.
“What the hell was that?”
“He wouldn’t listen to me.”
“He waltzes in here all the time unannounced. Just because he owns the company doesn’t mean he can do whatever he damn well pleases.”
“Actually, I think it does.”
“Then I guess I don’t need an assistant, do I? If you’re not there to take my messages or to prevent people from treating my office like their own, maybe I should just manage the desk myself.”
I cross my arms behind my back because my hands involuntarily curl into fists. “Yes, sir. You’re right. I won’t let it happen again.”
I meet Frida downstairs for lunch, gasping for lungfuls of air like they’re my last. Smog suffocates, and the sky has been clouded grey for a week, but I’m thirsty for all of it after the stifling fortieth floor.
“Let’s eat somewhere new,” Frida says. “I’m tired of Armando’s.”
“But I really like Armando’s.”
She takes my hand and pulls me in the opposite direction. “Didn’t you move to the big city to experience new things? Get away from suburbia and that awful excuse for a family?”
I hurry to keep up. “They aren’t as bad as you make them out to be.”
“Yeah, yeah,” she says. “Putting a roof over your head and making sure you didn’t starve to death wasn’t doing you a favor.”
My sideways glance is reproachful, but she doesn’t see it. “You’re exaggerating. Things could’ve been much worse. The Andersons were a gracious foster family.”
She snorts. “Graciousness cannot replace love.”
“I wasn’t their own,” I say.
She squeezes my hand in hers. “Here we go. Taco Shack. Still Mexican for you, and something different for me.”
The wait is longer than Armando’s, and it’s twenty minutes before we’re finally making our way to a booth in the corner. Mouth open wide, I lean in to take a bite of my chicken taco. Before I can, I meet a pair of clear blue eyes across the restaurant. They’re openly staring, which turns my cheeks warm, but I can’t look away. It’s a moment before I notice the vibrant tattoos that sleeve his arms. Sculpted arms, actually, that strain the sleeves of a button-down shirt the same golden-khaki color of his hair. Another man nudges him while balancing a tray of food.
Frida’s words snip the moment in half like scissors. “I’ve been thinking about our conversation a couple weeks ago. You know, where you admitted you needed a good lay?”
I scoff. “Might want to take it easy on the pot. Your memory seems to be failing you.” I take a mouthful of taco.
“I worry about you,” she says. “You’ve been in this city for years, and I’m your only real friend. Your last date was, like, six months ago.”
I roll my eyes at my taco as I chew. “Feigning an emergency and ditching me with a co-worker is not a date.”
She smiles proudly. “But it is sort of brilliant.”
“You don’t need to worry,” I say, ignoring her. “I just do things differently. Dating for the purpose of dating doesn’t appeal to me.”
“Your confidence is low, and your standards are high,” she continues. “You’re making excuses so you don’t have to put yourself out there.”
I bristle and drop my taco into its basket. “That’s not true. I am ready for a relationship, I just haven’t met anyone decent.”
“What about Cal—”
“Shut up,” I say, ducking my head and scanning the room. “What if someone from my office is here?”