“Bet you a dime Stuckey says umm nine times while talking to Frannie.”
I look up from my copy and in the direction my cubicle mate is pointing. Frannie Harrison, our supervisor, is standing just outside her office door, talking to her supervisor, George Stuckey. George appears to be an intelligent man, but when he’s in the vicinity of Frannie he turns into a bumbling idiot, which always has some entertainment value.
“Sixteen,” I counter, assessing the way Stuckey is leaning against the wall, his hands in his pockets. This could be a long conversation.
“Come on, Quinn—you been smokin’ crack?” Coleridge Tate wheels his chair out of his cubicle and half into mine, and we cock our heads towards the Suits to see who will win.
“I just…umm…think we would…umm…be better served if we…umm…stationed a Training Specialist in Customer Relations…umm…permanently. It wouldn’t…umm…you know, be a reduction of your staff, and the employee would still…umm…be doing some of the training materials, but they would mostly be…umm…assisting the customer service representatives. Then your staff wouldn’t have to…umm…keep running downstairs to Customer Relations all the time.”
“George, I’m not giving up any of my staff to Customer Relations. I will, however, consent to in-depth training for one customer service representative, who can then train his or her coworkers.” A small frown creases Frannie’s brow, and I can tell she’s clamping a lid on her temper.
“How many times was that?” Collie whispers, leaning close enough to me that I can smell the tantalizing scent of his aftershave. “Seven or eight?”
“I thought it was six.”
“No way. I was still closest. Pay up.” He holds out his hand, and I rummage in my desk for a dime. Grinning like a pirate with mayhem on his mind, he escapes with his treasure, disappearing into his own cube.
Coleridge Tate would make a bet on how many times his own mother tripped going up her front steps. I don’t know if he’s a compulsive gambler or if he’s just bored out of his freaking mind with his job, but ever since I started working here four months ago, he’s been betting me a dime on almost anything, up to and including how many times our pregnant supervisor makes a trip to the bathroom on any given day.
I huck a paper clip over the cubicle wall between us, hoping to bounce it off his head. A couple minutes later it comes back over, holding a paper replica of a dime, which cracks me up. Not everyone appreciates Collie’s sense of humor. Take Brooke Fields, for instance. She rolls her eyes at his jokes, makes muffled mmphm sounds when she finds him loafing, and is downright cross and impatient when, at the end of the week, she finds he’s completed more work than she has in spite of his long periods of idleness.
This same chick, however, wastes no time cozying up to him at company functions or the rare times she joins us for Happy Hour at Tony’s, a bar that seems to be a local tradition for the employees at Harper & Lyttle, Inc. For some reason, this job drives many to drink. (Speaking of… Frannie looks distinctly as though she’d like a big-ass margarita herself as she watches Stuckey shuffle away. When he’s out of earshot, I clearly hear her mutter, “Moron!” Collie smothers a laugh.)
When I started working here four months ago, I was paraded around and introduced to the rest of the Training Division staff like a prized cow. In fact, Collie calls it “the prized cow tour”. I know why they do it—so that you can place in your mind where everyone sits—but still, it’s a bit humiliating. This is Sarah Jane Quinn, the latest addition to our herd. Make her feel udderly welcome. Honestly.
Anyway, when I was taken around to Brooke’s cube caddy-corner from mine, she flounced her perfect Baywatch-blonde hair and fixed me with haughty blue eyes. “Brooke Fields. I’ve heard all the jokes, so don’t bother.”
I didn’t—and still don’t—know what jokes she’s referring to, but the chip on her shoulder is obvious. At the time, I dropped the bitch on wheels label on her, and I’ve yet to see any reason to lift it.
Needless to say, Brooke isn’t often invited to our after-hours gatherings. Usually it’s just me, Collie, Hannah, Lauren, and Allison, and we’ve drank more than our fair share of rum. The girls and I usually take it in the form of daiquiris, but Collie claims that’s a fru-fru drink. He orders his straight up or in some vile concoction he calls an Acid Trip (rum, vodka, gin, Midori, and tequila. I call it a Get-Down-and-Crazy, and it’s just begging for a What-Did-I-Do-Last-Night incident of epic proportions).
Collie kicks the divider between us. “Hey, Quinn, going to the Christmas party tonight?”
“Come on. I don’t wanna go if you’re not gonna be there.”
“I thought you had the munchkin tonight and couldn’t make the party.”
“That’s just what I told Brooke to get out of her trying to make this into a date. My parents are keeping Munchkin overnight.” Munchkin is Collie’s daughter. Her real name is Megan, but since he let her watch The Wizard of Oz and dress up as a munchkin for Halloween last year, she only answers to Munchkin.
Okay, I have a confession to make, and you damn well better keep it secret. There’s something about a good-looking man in the daddy role that I find sexier than hell—not that I’d ever tell Collie that. It’d make things weird between us, and I don’t want that.
I don’t know much about the circumstances of his daughter’s birth, but I do know that he’s never been married and that he learned he had a child only when Child Protective Services contacted him after Munchkin’s mother abandoned her at her daycare provider’s. To get custody, he had to jump through a whole bunch of hoops, consent to two years of CPS monitoring, and get a better job, which is how he ended up at Harper & Lyttle, but he apparently did so willingly and with enthusiasm. His daughter is four now, and he’s had her for just over two years. CPS lifted their monitoring about three months ago. He’s a good daddy, another thing I find sexy as hell—with men in general, not Collie specifically. If you try to say any differently, I’ll deny it to my grave.
“Bet you a dime you go tonight.”
“Bet you a dime I don’t. Why don’t you just bring Munchkin over and we can watch classic Christmas movies all night?”
“Sarah,” he says expressively. He only calls me Sarah when I’ve tried his patience beyond endurance. Otherwise I’m just Quinn—or, when he’s trying to needle me, Prized Cow. “Die Hard is not a Christmas movie.”
“The hell you say! I’m taking back your Christmas present. For what I spent I could buy the first two seasons of Dexter on DVD.”
“Then you spent too much on me. You should have spent it on Munchkin.”
“I spent more on Munchkin, so there.”
“Told you not to.”
“You’re not the boss of me,” I reply, grinning, knowing he’ll give up the argument now. And I’m right. He sighs expressively.
“Don’t know what I’m gonna do with you, Quinn.”
“You’ll think of something.”
I walk into the party with dime in hand, but Collie is already deep in conversation with one of the programmers from Concept Development over near the buffet table. He’s not so distracted that he doesn’t notice me; he catches my gaze briefly, a glint in his green eyes. I know he’ll be by to collect later.
Lauren, Hannah, and Allison wave to me from a festively decorated table, and I hurry across the room to join them, as much as I can hurry in heels and a dress. I don’t ordinarily wear heels, as I’m not outstandingly graceful in stilettos, and come on, be honest—no one wants to watch a girl who walks like a linebacker, am I right? I slide into my seat with no mishaps, and the girls’ conversation continues as though there’d been no interruption.
“She said she came with him, but I don’t believe it.” Allison shakes her head in disgust, sending her auburn curls flying into her face.
“I saw them come in different cars,” says Hannah, leaning in toward the rest of us so we can hear her lowered tones over the strains of the string quartet. Harper & Lyttle spares no expense on their parties. In fact, some events live on in company legend, such as the one three years ago that ended in Las Vegas with Sam Harrison married to his vile office manager. I haven’t heard the whole story, but I know she died in a car crash after shooting him on the company campus. Nothing exciting like that has happened since I’ve been here. Figures.
“He avoids her like the plague,” I chime in, because I know this firsthand. Collie and I are pretty close friends. “He told her he wasn’t coming tonight just so she wouldn’t try to turn it into a date. You know how she is—she’d have glued herself to his side like a leech.”
“I don’t know why he doesn’t file complaints about her,” Hannah grumps. She’s a petite American-Asian with perfect, doll-like features and glossy, straight black hair, so cute you want to just put her in your pocket and take her home. We all thought for a long time that she would be the one Collie asked out, but to tell you the truth, I’m not quite sure Hannah even likes men. She never talks about them, anyway.
“Because she’s vile and if he filed complaints, she would be even more vile. Sometimes discretion is the better part of valor.” I send a look across the dimly lit room where Collie is still talking to the programmer. He’s gesturing with his hands as he talks, which makes me chuckle. “I wonder if he could talk if we tied his hands behind his back.”
“I’d like to tie his hands to something,” mutters Lauren. She’s going through a dry-spell of dating right now since she gave the last one the boot. She came home from one of our daiquiri get-togethers at Tony’s to find him dressed in her lacy Victoria’s Secret lingerie. That was too much for her; she said she could deal with the surprise of learning her boyfriend likes to cross-dress, but no-one—stress, no one—wears her undies.
“No lie,” I agree with her absently, still watching him across the room. He’s wearing a suit jacket tonight, which he normally doesn’t at work; it’s the first thing to come off as soon as he reaches his cubicle, and by nine-thirty his tie is undone and either hanging around his neck or is stuffed into the pocket of his jacket. It looks like he got his hair cut after work but he didn’t shave; he looks handsome and rakish, and I’m not the only one who’s noticed.
At the sudden silence around the table, I drag my eyes away, feeling a blush heat my cheeks. “What? I appreciate a good-looking man the same as anyone else.”
We all start talking at once as they disagree and I defend myself. Hannah breaks up our good-natured argument by snapping her fingers in our faces.
“I’m out of punch. Let’s go get more.”
Women never go anywhere alone—you’ve probably already noticed that yourself, especially when we go to the restroom. A friend of mine says that’s because you never know if the stall you’re choosing is out of toilet paper until you get inside and settled, and you need someone to hand you a wad under the stall divider.
My own personal philosophy is that many women are so lacking in confidence that they’re afraid to go somewhere alone, in case they don’t know how to do something required of them once they reach their destination. I rather suspect both theories are right.
We go as a group for more champagne punch…four times in forty minutes. I’m into my fifth cup when I realize I’m a little lightheaded.
“Hey—is this stuff alcoholic?”
“Where’ve you been, Sarah?” Allison shakes her head, laughing. “It’s champagne punch, hence the little place-card in front of the punch bowl that said Champagne Punch.”
“I didn’t see it there. I wouldn’t have had so much had I realized.” It doesn’t, however, stop me from finishing my current cup.
Hannah levels an assessing look at me and nods. “Truth-or-Dare or Truth-and-Dare?” she fires at me. The other girls fall silent.
Truth-or-Dare/Truth-and-Dare is a game we’ve played since we all started hanging out together outside work. You know the basics of the classic truth-or-dare game. Truth-and-Dare is a twist we added; if you accept the truth-and-dare challenge, you’re dared to show, do, or say the truth of the challenge. I don’t think I need to tell you the stakes are sometimes high.
“Oh, come on, not now!” I protest.
“Truth-or-Dare, or Truth-and-Dare?” she repeats insistently.
I huff out an impatient breath. “Okay, fine. Truth-or-Dare.”
“You can’t,” Lauren pipes up. “You took Truth-or-Dare last time. You have to take Truth-and-Dare.”
Another one of our made-up rules, one I myself initiated. I knew someday it would come back to bite me in the ass.
“Okay, fine. Give it your best shot.”
“Okay, this is your Truth-and-Dare. You have to do something that will show us your true feelings for Coleridge Tate.”
I skid my chair back several inches from the table, totally unprepared for this particular challenge.
“No way.” I’ve never dodged a challenge before, but this is one I can’t take. I can’t do this; if I open the floodgates on my secret dreams, there’s no telling whether I’ll ever be able to slam them shut again.
Okay, I’m a coward. Now you know the sordid truth about Sarah-Jane Quinn. If the truth is out, I may have to act on it, and if I act on it, I may be rejected, and if I’m rejected, I may simply die from humiliation and shame. Yup. Coward.
“Honor system, Sarah. You have to accept the challenge, or we can’t speak to you for a week and you’re our coffee girl for that week. Those are the rules,” Allison reminds me solemnly. She’s blonde, like me, only her hair is lighter, closer to platinum (and completely natural); the dim lighting in the convention room makes her hair seem to glow silver.
“Oh, shit,” I murmur. Collie’s dime is still clenched in my hand, its serrated edge biting into my palm. I ease my grip and take a steadying breath. “Okay. Okay, I can do this.”
“I told you she had more-than-friendship feelings for him!” Lauren crows triumphantly. The other two reluctantly hand over dimes, and I roll my eyes. Collie has everyone betting on everything.
My legs shake as they carry me across the room. My fingers holding the dime between them in a death grip have gone numb by the time I reach him. He flicks me a glance as I approach but the programmer doesn’t seem to notice me. He continues on with his droning monologue and only stops—in shock, I’m sure—when I step up close to Collie, hook my hand around his neck, and pull his head down to mine. His hand goes automatically to my waist, either to pull me closer or push me away, but before he can do either, I kiss him. My kiss is brief but full on his lips—no mistaking my intent for it to be more than just a friendly peck. When I draw away, he lifts his head, staring at me with an indecipherable expression. The programmer takes a breath.
“So as I was saying, Collie—”
“Excuse me a moment, Henry. I must show Sarah how to do this properly.” His hand snakes around to the small of my back, anchoring me against him, and his kiss is anything but brief. It’s slow and leisurely, thorough and completely devastating. If you’d told me at noon today that I’d be standing by the buffet table at seven o’clock French-kissing Coleridge Tate, I’d have said you were out of your mind.
At long length he draws away, his lips lingering against mine for a long moment, still wearing that maddeningly unreadable expression.
“Well, Sarah,” he drawls. “So how much of that punch have you had?”
“Too damn much.” I hold out my dime to him, but he’s holding out his hand to Henry, who is digging in his pocket for a dime. “What’d you bet?”
He presses a finger against my nose playfully. “Never you mind. I believe you owe me a dime yourself, Quinn.”
I drop it into his hand and he pockets it. “Collie—”
“Now off you go to your table, and do try to stay out of trouble.”
“Collie,” I try again.
“Sarah,” he says, his pirate’s grin at odds with his tone of long-suffering patience. “I’m just a man. There are limits to my self-control, so before I embarrass myself in public, you’d best—” He motions toward my table and I nod mutely, taking several steps backward before I abandon all dignity and flee back to my group of girlfriends, who are staring at us, slack-jawed. I wonder what we’re going to do now, how this is going to change our friendship. I mean, honestly—that was not the kind of kiss you give a casual friend. My greatest worry is he’ll start the avoidance routine, and that would hurt unbearably.
About ten minutes later, I chance one more look at him, finding him looking back. He winks and I relax. Everything will be fine.
In retrospect—many months later—I’ll wonder whether he set it all up, because planning ahead on a devious scale is Coleridge Tate’s extraordinary talent.