I sipped, cautiously.
Marty Fuller worked his way around the table over to where I stood. He had on a cashmere sweater over gray slacks that exactly matched his graying hair. “Nicole! You made it!” He grasped my hand in an unfeigned welcome. Marty turned to my husband. “Like I asked last week: when are you coming back to us in Management?”
“Never!” Rich answered. “Life’s beyond the desk. It’s good to get out and see what the competition is up to!”
Marty took my glass before I could protest. “Let me top off that drink.” He replenished his too, and handed mine back with a smile.
“Nicole!” someone exclaimed, and I turned to say hello to Rich’s colleagues. Voices murmured. Should I measure the drinks by the alcohol content or the number of glasses? The room was too warm.
Marty was back. It dawned on me that my husband’s boss was flirting. The concept of Marty making a pass at me was absurd…so absurd I smiled back.
I looked through the open door of the conference room and the twinkling lights on the lobby’s Christmas tree glowed. Miranda stood by the window talking with a man. He turned, and it was Rich. My husband bent his head as he listened to what she was so earnestly saying.
Marty repeated my name.
“I’m sorry, what was that?”
“I said, it’s nice to see you again. Rich tells me the shelter keeps you busy and that’s why you don’t come to many office functions. Do you have a lot of women staying there?”
“Women?” I was baffled. “Oh! I get it, you’re thinking of a women’s shelter!” I began to laugh and couldn’t stop. “Yeah, women and children and house pets. All those helpless creatures. No, no, no.” My head felt thick all of a sudden.
Marty observed me with concern.
“I run an an-nim-mal shelter,” I enunciated.
“Oh Christ! I knew that,” Marty said. “I feel like an idiot.”
I touched his hand with mine. “It’s okay.”
“You just don’t look like someone who works with strays,” and his direct look swam through my fuzzy vision to embrace my outfit. His fingers squeezed.
“Well,” I remarked inanely, and braced my free palm against the conference table.
He put an arm around me. “Dizzy?”
“Don’t tell me, that drink was a triple.” In the other room Rich shook his head again at Miranda. She put out a hand and he gripped her wrist, stopping her movement. Miranda’s arm dropped to her side and Rich turned. He crossed the lobby and came back in the conference room to where I leaned against mahogany.
Marty’s hold tightened as Rich came closer. My husband’s boss gave me a hug. “You’re a lucky bastard, Rich.” Reluctantly Marty removed the arm. “I think that last drink I made Nicole was a little strong.”
“You know holiday parties,” Rich agreed. “Everyone likes them strong.”
“I just need to get something in my stomach.” I turned to look for silverware. I got a plate of food and sat down; I couldn’t eat fast enough. When my plate was empty I rejoined them.
“Feeling better?” Rich asked.
“Ready for another?” Marty asked, before Rich could do the chivalrous honors. He mixed me a fresh gin and tonic. I took the proffered drink. “A toast to the coming year!” Marty proposed.
“Here here!” we all approved, and lifted our drinks. A young woman hung a bunch of bright berries with silvery green leaves over the doorway. “Time for mistletoe!”
I shook my head back and forth, trying to focus. Suddenly, I was furious. “Rich.” I pulled him over to a corner. I stared over the rim of my drink. “Would you say that you’re really a glorified ambulance chaser?”
“What? God no, of course not! Everyone needs insurance.”
I grasped his arm. “What’s your insurance?”
Rich looked at me sharply and decided I wasn’t trying to pick a fight. He drained his drink. “You and the kids, Nick. The four of you are all that stand between me and the void. You don’t get that? That’s what it is for any man with a family. I’ve told you a hundred times: the job’s a game. A game,” he quietly repeated. “I do it for what isn’t a game: you.”
My husband was oddly out of character and I didn’t like how serious he was. “Let me read the fine print.” I wiggled my eyebrows at him.
“Nick, let’s get out of here. We still have to get the kids and go to your folks’.”
“Oh come on.” I patted his solid butt. “Show me your holiday policy’s bottom line,” I giggled.
Rich rolled his eyes as he hugged me. “I love you when you try to drink. You’ll regret this later, but not before I take advantage of you! By the way, I think Marty hopes you’ll grant him sexual favors.”
“It would be a big favor!”
Rich laughed at my indignation and hugged me closer. “Did I ever tell you the one about how the woman boss chose which applicant to hire?”
As we headed laughing out the door I caught a glimpse of Miranda’s face. It wore a look of desperate tenderness. She saw me watching and held my eyes. Miranda stared at us (at Rich) and raised her hands to her temples, massaging them. Her gaze dropped as she went red. I wondered, looking at her expression, if she had a migraine.
© Jadi Campbell 2016. From Grounded. Go to following link to order my books: https://www.amazon.com/author/jadicampbell
Gin and tonic image courtesy of dreamstime.com.