A Valentine’s Sampler

In honor of Valentine’s Day, I’ve posted a relevant chapter from one of my completed novels. There is nothing quite like Valentine’s Day in the corporate setting–it’s unlike any other atmosphere, and is usually full of both joy and heartbreak. I hope my glimpse into the corporate world on this most stressful of holidays rings true and entertains you for a moment.

This blog is part of the Love at First Sight Blogfest (being hosted at Courtney Reese’s blog). This actually isn’t love at FIRST sight, but perhaps a glimpse of the first sight of love in a relationship.


EVER NOTICE CUPID RHYMES WITH STUPID?

 

A strange phenomenon occurs around certain holidays, specifically Valentine’s Day and Christmas. People begin acting weird. Conversations are started randomly and sometimes abandoned mid-sentence, an action that would be deemed rude any other time of the year. Men flirt shamelessly with women, and women flirt back with a reckless lack of inhibition.

 And oh, how the e-mails flow. PowerPoints with random philosophical anecdotes and precious photographs of fuzzy little animals sweeter than sugar clog e-mail inboxes, and frantic discussions interrupt the work flow to an almost alarming extent, covering such live-or-die topics as what color/style/length dress should she buy and what restaurant/movie/bar should he take her to.

As Valentine’s Day approaches—heralded with an anticipatory air of a long-awaited triumph…or a disaster of epic proportions—tempers flare and patience vanishes, and even the most serene employees succumb to the edgy atmosphere in the office. Well, the exception being Sam Harrison, who seems to take every-damn-thing in stride. I don’t think you could ruffle that man no matter how hard you tried, and to be honest, if he wasn’t such eye candy I’d have to bonk him over the head for being so irritatingly even-keeled. Even Frannie—whom I know loves him passionately—rolled her eyes one day and muttered under her breath, “I married freaking Pollyanna.”

 Office romances sprout like strange flowers—or mold, in some cases—and just as rapidly dwindle out. Established romances weather sudden flash floods…or don’t.

 

Collie and I already know about one such relationship, and I’ve been watching it closely—watching it slowly fall, that is, much like the Roman Empire. Gus and Gretchen are on the tips of everyone’s tongues, but of course at a moderately low decibel inaudible to either of them. That’s how the grapevine works.

 It’s tragic, really, like witnessing the demise of a mortally-wounded magnificent beast too stubborn to give up and die. They aren’t going down in sensational, scandalous flames; I can’t imagine Gretchen ever being anything but proper and private, and Gus is nothing but a gentleman. But going down they are, and the last count is coming soon. You can tell by how cordial they are with one another—too cordial, too careful, not like the easy way Frannie and Sam interact.

 “Bet you a dime they don’t make it to Valentine’s Day,” Collie murmurs to me in the break room one morning.

 I look up in time to see the not-so-happy couple pass by, careful distance between them.

 “That’s not a bet I want to take part in,” I reply quietly, because I’m sad for both of them.

 “Yeah,” he admits, “I don’t really want to, either. Say, what are you doing for Valentine’s Day?”

 “Nothing much. Reading a book or something. Renting some shoot-em-up flicks, maybe.”

 “What kind of evening is that?” He makes a horrified face. “Let’s go out to dinner. There’s this steak house I want to try. The parents have Munchkin for the weekend; they’re taking her to Disneyland.”

 “Wow. Will they adopt me?” I ask, only half-joking.

 He grins. “If you ask nicely; my mom’s a sucker for a waif in need. Let’s save Disneyland for next Christmas. It’s awesome at Christmas. Come on—whaddaya say? I’ve been cramming fast food down my throat for two months. I need a good steak.”

 “I thought you’d have a date or something.” Well, I hadn’t really thought he’d have a date; I more feared it than anything else.

 He scowls at me. “Why would I do a thing like that? We’ll go right from here; it’s closer than if you go all the way home, and we can get on the waiting list early enough that we can eat before ten.”

 “That sounds promising,” I reply dryly, but inside I’m doing the Happy Dance. Dinner with Collie at a nice steakhouse on the most romantic night of the year. Even if it’s not really a date, I’ll still have his company, and I won’t be wondering if he’s out getting to know the girl of his dreams.

 That’s my biggest fear, you know—that he’ll meet someone and be whisked away from me before I even have a chance. But paralyzing as it is, that fear doesn’t stop me from choking back my feelings any time I get a wild impulse to just blurt them out. There’s this logjam that happens when I have any strong emotion about something; everything just stops short of my tongue and piles up, unsaid but felt so strongly that I ache. I spent so much of my childhood choking back my anger and pain that it became instinct to hold everything in. Now I freeze up anytime the situation calls for defending or expressing myself—hence the ex-boyfriend’s crowning of me as the Ice Queen when he left for warmer emotional climates.

 Back in my cubicle, I’ve barely resumed my work when Collie says in a low voice (so as not to incur the wrath of Stella): “Bet you a dime you wear a dress.”

 “Bet you two dimes I don’t.” I hate dresses. I wear them when I have to, but it’s reluctantly and with discomfort. I feel so…exposed when I wear them, know what I mean?

 After a moment he replies, “Big spender.”

 “Will you two knock it off?” Lauren complains, tossing a paperclip over the cube wall at him. “I need to talk to Sarah, Collie, so buzz off.”

 You buzz off,” he replies amiably. “You’re supposed to say ‘Sarah, let’s get coffee’ and go to the break room to have your conversation, not interrupt everyone’s work so you can have your conversation.”

 “You weren’t working, you were talking,” Stella chimes in, her tone acerbic. Hannah and Allison snicker. I can hear Allie typing rapidly, so when I get an IM from her, it’s no surprise. She’s faster when she’s not keying from copy.

 ALLIE: So…do I understand that correctly? Did Collie ask you out for Valentine’s Day?

 Lauren comes into my cubicle and I motion her to wait while I reply. She leans against my desk and reads as I type.

 ME: I don’t know what you think you heard, but it’s not a date. Just hanging together.

 ALLIE: Hanging where?

 ME: Some new steakhouse he wants to try. He said watching shoot-em-ups and reading was no way to spend Valentine’s Day.

 ALLIE: Sarah, you’re so naïve. I heard him on the phone two weeks ago asking his parents to take Munchkin this weekend so he could make plans. He might have seemed casual about it, and he might have made it seem like a night of “just friends,” but he planned this out.

 I look up at Lauren, who lifts a brow and gives me the thumbs-up.

 ME: Maybe those plans fell through and I’m just the back-up. Ever thought of that?

 Lauren snorts and shakes her head.

 “Hey, are you guys talking about me over there?” Collie calls out, eliciting a disgusted snort from Stella.

 “Not everything’s about you, stud muffin,” she says drolly. “I’m going to get coffee. And I mean I’m really going to get coffee. If anyone follows me, I’ll put thumbtacks in your Hershey’s kisses.”

 She whisks away and we all snicker—in low voices, so she can’t hear us. We never know with Stella if she’s serious or just messing with us. And she’s been a right crab-ass the last couple of months as her wedding looms closer.

 ALLIE: You disgust me. Go talk with Lauren before she has a nervous breakdown.

 Chuckling, I stand up, looking toward her cube. She’s standing too; she rolls her eyes and I pretend to scratch my nose with my middle finger. She grins and ducks back down into her chair as Stella comes back. I grab my coffee cup and Lauren’s arm, and drag her off to the break room.

 “What so important you couldn’t talk to me in my cube?”

 

“I didn’t want Collie to hear. He’d try to set something up, and I don’t want anyone to interfere.”

 “Set what up? What are you talking about?”

 “What do you know about Stewart?”

 “Stewart? Stewart who?” I rack my brain for a mental image to go with the name, but nothing comes.

 Stewart!” she repeats impatiently. “You and Collie call him Wonder Geek.”

 Oh! Wonder Geek! What about him?”

 “Does he have a girlfriend? Or probably more importantly, is he straight?”

 Oh yes, that is indeed the more important question. A girlfriend can be gotten rid of; gayness—well, that’s not so easily surmountable.

 “Far as I know.”

 Lauren leans across the table, her expression intense. “Tell me everything you know.”

 “It’s not like he tells me all his deep dark secrets, Lauren. I barely know the guy. Frannie knows him better—maybe you should ask her.”

 “Are you kidding me? You know Frannie; something would just slip out during conversation, and the cat’s out of the bag.”

 I see a problem with this way of thinking. “Well, Lauren…isn’t the cat going to be out of the bag if you end up getting a date with him?”

 Lauren’s face scrunches into a frown, and I have to fight down a wave of laughter; she looks like one of those smashed-face cats. “My God, why do I even ask you anything? You call that help?” And she flounces away, stomping back to her cubicle, her temper piqued.

 Back in my own chair, I contemplate an act of subtle—or not so subtle—revenge. I even bring up the online employee directory and look up Stewart Drummond’s extension. My hand hovers over the phone…and then falls away. What do I think I’m doing anyway? I can barely order pizza let alone spill a friend’s secret to a guy I barely know.

 I shake off my irritation and go back to work. Lauren’s not the only one who’s succumbed to the office tension; the whole damn company feels like a powder keg about to blow. It’s nothing personal.

 But the e-mail that comes into my inbox a few minutes later is personal—highly personal. Not to me, but to others in the company. At first I ignore the little e-mail notification in the tray at the lower right of my screen because I’m recording keystrokes for a video training clip. But when Collie gives a low whistle, Allie murmurs “Holy shit!” and Stella exits her cube at top speed, her chair crashing into the partition between her and Collie with enough force to rattle the whole cube farm, I know something’s up. She meets up with Frannie and both disappear into Gretchen’s office, the door closing behind them with a loud bang.

 I bring up my inbox and click on the unread e-mail, which comes up slowly because there’s a picture inserted. The subject line says “The Naked Truth,” and it’s been sent to everyone in the company. Because the addresses are listed individually in the To field and not from a system group, it’s fairly obvious that they were copied from the employee directory on the company website and that this came from outside the system.

 

And then the picture loads. My mouth drops open in shock and I’m only vaguely aware of Collie wheeling his chair into my cube.

 “Guess it’s a good thing you didn’t take my bet, Quinn,” he says soberly, his eyes on my monitor.

 “Guess so.”

 My screen is filled with an image of Gretchen Clark, but it’s a Gretchen I’ve never seen before—and never had any desire to see. The lighting is intimate—as is her pose: her head tipped back, eyes half-closed, her dark hair swirling down her back in rich, gleaming waves. Her blouse is half-off her shoulder, revealing a spaghetti-thin black bra strap.

 And the man with her, his lips pressed to the bare upper swell of her breast, is not Gus Haldemann. The date stamp in the lower right-hand corner says the photograph was taken eight days ago.

 “Who is he?” I whisper to Collie.

 “Not sure. Bet you a dime to a doughnut it’s her ex-husband.”

 “Date stamps can be faked, can’t they?”

 Collie shrugs. “Sure they can.”

 I look up at him, glance toward Gretchen’s closed office door, and then back at my monitor. I click the delete button, sending the mail to the trash bin. And then I empty the trash bin. The e-mail’s left me feeling slimy, dirty, because I found myself riveted to the image in spite of the knowledge that I was witnessing a deeply private moment. The obvious arousal and intimacy in her expression strum a longing deep inside me, a longing for a relationship that inspires that kind of consuming passion.

 Collie’s hand on my neck, warm and gentle, brings my head up again. He nods at the monitor. “You have a good heart, Quinn,” he says softly.

 “Did you delete it?”

 “As soon as I realized what it was.”

 Rapid footfalls pass our cubicle, and I look up in time to see Gus Haldemann striding past. His face is completely expressionless. He pauses at Gretchen’s office, straightening his shoulders, and then knocks on the door. A moment later, he slips inside, closing the door silently behind him.

 “Glad I’m not in there,” I say.

 “Me too. Let’s go make sure there’s a pot of strong coffee made. I have a feeling it’s gonna be needed.”

 He pulls me out of my chair, and three steps out of my cube I grab his hand to stop him. “You have a good heart, Tate.”

 Collie smiles and I swear to God my heart stops beating for a timeless moment. He links our fingers and tugs me along, half a pace behind him. I have a marginal sense of guilt for feeling so exultant while Gretchen’s world is falling apart as we speak, but that’s the nature of love. Cupid’s a lousy shot sometimes, and I came to the conclusion long ago that most of his shots find their mark in your heart or in your ass.

 Guess we all know where Cupid shot Gretchen.

 


Creative Commons License
Excerpt of The Secret Dreams of Sarah-Jane Quinn by Sharon Gerlach is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

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