The Plan

By: Qwen Salsbury


Dedication


To Deb for the welcome,

Chantel for the spark,

Heather for the gauntlet

Rie for the shoulder,

and Kellie for the shove.





Prologue


Day of Employment:

372…381…maybe 495…something. They all run together.



2:00 a.m.


* Champagne: I’m covered in it.

* Petals: Litter my entire room.

* Balcony Door: Open.

* Room: Effing freezing.

* Nipples: Probably hard enough to puncture this silk camisole.

* My Heart: Who the hell knows at this point?


THE CURTAINS FLUTTER OPEN. It’s not the breeze. It’s him. He steps into the room, watching his own feet move.

He barely resembles the man who makes grown men cry, who barters lives and livelihoods like wares at a flea market, who I have fantasized about for over a year.

His hair is slick and dark and drips champagne. A single, thick lock escapes, flipping forward as he rakes his fingers through it. His gaze never leaves the floor.

“Just tell me why,” he whispers, barely audible over the street below.

Every instinct in me screams to run to him, to wrap my hands around him, to lose myself in his touch…in him.

I would do just that. Lose myself.

It has all been make-believe.

“You don’t know me,” I say as softly as I can, as if for the first time I consider that I need to be soft, that he might actually be breakable.

His head snaps up, and his eyes—oh, God, his eyes!—they swim, an unfocused torment swirling in their depths.

“How can you say that? After all…after everything?”

“This is not me. I’m not what you think I am.”

“You are everything I want.” He moves to me. I move twice as far away.

“Alaric, I’m not who you think I am. I’m a liar. And I can’t be what you want.”





Day of Employment:

359



7:25 a.m.


* Location: Bread in Captivity Bakery.

* Breakfast: Early coffee date.

* Date: As compatible as arranged ones typically are.

* It: What I am not into.


IT IS A FACT, UNIVERSALLY ACCEPTED, that a single man in possession of a fine ass must be observed like wildlife.

Like how Marlin Perkins watched wildlife for Wild Kingdom. Catalog. Thorough. Precise.

Constant.

Not that this is an edict. It is simply unavoidable.

And twenty feet in front me is the equivalent of a one-hundred-car pileup wrapped up in a pair of pinstripe pants.

Regrettably, three feet in front of me, and blocking the view of aforementioned ass, is my date.

He forks at a spinach leaf in the quiche that I would lay money down he’s ordered primarily to impress me.

I would be far more favorably impressed if he had ordered bacon I could swipe.

Over his shoulder, Mr. Pinstripe sits down to a working breakfast with the potential clients I watched arrive in our office yesterday afternoon. I can’t see his plate, but I know he’s having his usual fare: peanut butter cinnamon roll with crushed nut topping. Locally sourced milk. Take-out order of hot rolls to be delivered with check.

“So, Emma, you’re friends with the girl who owns this place, right?”

The word “girl” makes me twisty-eared. My date gestures casually with his fork to a few points around the bakery, which is indeed owned by my best friend. The offending piece of spinach finds its way to the floor.

I nod yes and note that the table behind him has, even before the to-go hot buns are delivered to their namesake, already erupted into deal-sealing handshakes. Looks like I will be entering some new orders this afternoon.

“These are great,” my date says and tears off a bit of maple long john. “You know, Emma, our firm will be looking for an intern after the first of the year. You’ve been taking classes long enough to qualify, haven’t you?” He speaks around half-masticated pastry. “If you’re going to go into tax law, I can put in a good word for you.”

“Yes, great,” I say. The party behind him appears close to wrapping things up. “Erm, uh, oh, sorry. No, but thank you. I’m not really interested.”

That phrase works on so many levels.

“Emma, you seem distracted. Was this place not all right? You should have told me you didn’t want to come here when I suggested it.”

The place is perfection. Scenery especially.

“It’s fine. My apologies. I’m just distracted by…something at work.”

The table behind us adjourns.

They will be heading back to our office. My legs twitch.

“Actually, Matt, I—”

“Mark,” he corrects. His mouth skews.

“Oh, Mark, pardon me. I really have to get on the clock.” I smile, hope I manage to look a bit embarrassed. I know his name. I also know that I would rather go get a high velocity mammogram than have another experience of being regaled with tales of his new partnership at Crusty, Dull, and Dusty, LLC, so fumbling his name seems less confrontational than telling him as much.


7:57 a.m.


THE ELEVATOR INTO WHICH I’M SARDINED cannot hold another soul.

Good thing the guy trying to squeeze on is reputedly not encumbered with one.

“Morning, Mr. Canon.” A random coworker steps off and gives up his spot. Canon and his pinstripe suit slide in and regard the man in much the way one would jetsam.

The elevator whirs upward. Everyone looks dutifully forward at the climbing numbers.

Everyone except Canon, who stares at his phone, and me, who stares at Canon staring at his phone.

I will savor the next eleven floors just as I do the hint of cinnamon roll that still emanates from him.


7:59 a.m.


* Floor: 8.


JUST THE TWO OF US.

This has never happened.

In 359 days of working in the same office with him, I have literally never happened to be in the same proximal location as the man before.

Red numbers climb. The floors. My body temperature. Not going to quibble.

He continues to assault his phone and a few of my favorite senses.

Wintergreen. Pumpkin spice and coffee. Sunshine.

I swear, heat actually rolls off of him. Scorches. Vibrates. We are riding up in a stainless steel, solar hot-plate box.

I inch closer. Tilt my head and try to break into his peripheral. Waste a few moments distracted by angular jawlines that put a 1980s Rob Lowe on notice. Gesture toward the elevator keys in a motion as if I mean to verify that his floor button has been already pushed.

You know, as if it would’ve escaped mine or anyone’s notice that they work in the same place as this guy. You could pick him out in a Cecil B. DeMille crowd scene.

This was not the most stellar plan. I just wanted to steal a moment. Get a tiny bit of eye contact. It would be a welcome pick-me-up after such a dud date. Plus, I must admit I put in a little extra effort today; it’s a rare Good Hair Day with big, fat waves rather than motley curls. The kind of day where you’d refer to your hair in terms of descriptive endearment such as “auburn” or “chestnut” rather than most days when you just want the brown lot of it out of your way in a hair band and be done with it.

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