“Patty?” Alice blinked at her friend as if she was some figment of her imagination, and not standing in front of Alice in a bright red coat that made her stand out against the last bits of snow and brown trees behind her. Running into someone you know, let alone a friend from work was almost unheard of in this city.
“Alice,” she said cautiously. Probably because Alice stood frozen like a scared rabbit.
“What are you doing here?” Instant regret filled her for sounding so accusatory.
“Meeting Steph who has never seen the Jefferson before. Can you believe it?” Patty moved forward. “Then we’re going to the mall to throw snowballs at hot men. It’s the new flirting. So. Taking a little romantic stroll around the monuments?” She eyed Theodore up and down.
“Alice thought I should finally see it—”
“Oh, no. Just taking a walk and we ran into each other—”
She and Theodore’s words ran over each other in a mad gush.
Shit, shit, shit. Patty was no fool and her face practically reflected back all the things Alice and Theodore had been doing for the last two days. Patty had a radar for sex like nobody’s business.
Alice cleared her throat. “I mean—“
“We talked about—” Theodore started.
“At the office—”
“My ex girlfriend and—”
“How DC—” Will the man just shut up already?
“Has so many monuments—”
“That he’d never—”
“And then peaches came up—”
“Stop, stop.” Patty held up her hand, then twirled her finger in the air. “These are cherry trees not peaches?”
Theodore grinned widely. “Damn. Foiled.” He was having too much fun with this. Didn’t he get it? Patty worked at Edison Tech. She knew everyone and everything and even though she was Alice’s friend this did not look good. Not at all.
“You can stop trying to make something up.” Patty drew closer. “Now quick. Before Steph gets here. One, is this real love or a fling? And two, what counter story do you really want me to plant?”
Alice smacked Theodore in the chest with the back of her hands. “Told ya’. Patty’s got our back.”
Theodore grabbed her arm, held it. “We don’t know yet.”
Patty crossed her arms. “No, really, we need to come up with something. And fast.”
Theodore held Alice’s arm to his belly which really was not helping the situation. “No, I’m answering your question,” he said. “Real love or a fling. We don’t know yet.”
Was he kidding? Alice slowly swung her head his way. “It’s a little early—”
“To call it? Yes, I agree. We’ll have to see on National Bae Day.” He still had a hold of her arm.
Patty raised her eyebrows. “What?”
Alice yanked herself free and waved her hand. “It’s a day where lovers celebrate their one and only. Like ‘before anyone else’?”
Patty’s eyebrows raised even more. “Are you serious? In Washington DC? The land of men married to their cell phones and laptops?” She scoffed.
“And here I thought you were the cynical one,” Theodore muttered to Alice.
The man was so naïve. Alice turned her attention back to Patty. “The truth is, we have a … chemistry thing here. And we just needed to talk about it. Sort it out.”
Patty half smiled the nodded slowly. “Jamie Frasier did it again. Completely smothered any sense out of a woman.”
She had that right.
“Well, we have to come with something pronto, ” Patty said. “After you left? There was talk. And Roger was being…himself.” She dramatically rolled her eyes.
Great. The rumor mill had already started about them. Why did she have to faint? And why did Theodore catch her? In front of everyone to boot.
Alice swallowed. “Talk? Like what?”
“Tricia and Steph think you have a crush on Theodore.”
“I do not. Sorry, Theodore,” she added quickly.
“I wouldn’t call it a crush,” he said with an annoying twinkle in his eyes. “More like—”
Before he could say anything more because clearly the man had no sense of self preservation, she held up both hands. “We need your help, Patty. To set the record straight. What happened with Roger?”
Patty eyed her suspiciously, then shrugged. “Something set him off.” She straightened her glasses, cleared her throat. “Okay, before we create this false story—and I know it’s false so don’t argue with me about it…” She pointed at Alice. “…here’s the current situation at work, the environment in which this counter story will be spread. The office was a total mess when you two didn’t come back. Technically, when Alice didn’t come back.”
“What happened?” The last thing she needed was Roger to be upset by her sudden absence, especially after too many people watched Theodore carry her out of the lobby and Roger found them together at her apartment.
Patty continued. “Harry’s car wouldn’t start again so thank god you left the jumper cables but no one could seem to know how to work them and then when we got back in Roger was muttering and kicking things—”
That got Theodore’s interest. “Kicking?”
“Well, a big shipment of paper came in and the storeroom’s full and no one knew where to put it so it’s in the hallway which is what got Roger bumping into things. He literally kicked a box until it split open. He was muttering something about the Twins coming down next week and not knowing what people are really like and—.”
Alice gasped. “The Twins? Come down? You mean…” she pointed her finger up and then down. “…they’re leaving their penthouse view downtown to visit us?”
Susie and Samuel O’Flannery weren’t technically twins, but a brother and sister team that hit it big in the heyday of the Internet bubble in the early 2000s. In fact, they made so much money on their first venture, they could separately fund several new companies each. It became a game for them, trying to one-up one another until they called a truce and formed Edison Tech together.
The staff saw them exactly one time a year—the annual St. Patrick’s party which is what they liked to do versus an annual Christmas party. They stayed for 30 minutes, drank one green drink developed just for the event. Last year it was a horrid Girl Scout cookie concoction with real crumbled-up thin mints over whipped cream drizzled with crème de menthe. Alice could throw up just remembering it.
Focus. She had to focus because Patty went on to describe Friday afternoon’s breakdowns.
“Then, the copier…” Patty dropped her voice a whisper “…the big one? Wouldn’t work.” She lifted her gaze to Theodore. “The copier is in love with Alice and only works when she’s in the building. That really put Roger in a tizzy.”
“A copier?” Theodore pursed his lips. “Then again Alice does have a special touch.” He grinned down at her.
Patty’s eyes softened. “Aww, that’s sweet.”
“Patty.” Alice snapped her fingers in front of her friend’s doe-eyes. “I can deal with all that later. What you don’t know is Roger showed up at my place on Friday afternoon after Theodore drove me home. He assumed certain things.”
Patty’s mouth dropped to an “O” and then she stared up at Theodore. “You really are a Jamie.” She practically sighed the words at him. She recovered quickly, however. “Okay. Spill it. What’s going on with you two?”
“We’re … exploring.” Alice might as well admit it. And it was a good word to describe their weekends he supposed. “We were just talking when Roger showed up,” Alice said quickly. “Theodore made me …. tea.”
“I did not.” He scowled. “There was nothing that resembled tea in that apartment.” He turned to Patty. “After getting her to her car—”
“After the big fainting episode. I heard,” Patty said. Everyone likely had.
“She couldn’t drive home seeing she had no car.”
“Still stuck from Thursday night. So, naturally we went to look for it. It had been towed and thanks to this country’s adherence to the capitalist regime, we were able to liberate it for the bargain price of $700.”
“You went with her?” Patty’s eyebrows were in the clouds now.
“Of course. Have you ever been to that section of town? One would need num-chuks and a German shepherd to get out alive. Then I took her to lunch which again had no proper tea, I might add.” It appeared Patty wasn’t the only drama queen today.
Patty leaned toward him. “You got a brother, Theodore?” If Alice didn’t know better little invisible hearts were floating out of Patty’s chest.
“I’m afraid not.”
“An Uncle? Aging father who looks like you?”
“Patty!” Alice couldn’t watch this back and forth with the two of them anymore. The clock was ticking.
“Right. My entire future including my future children I’m going to have with one of his chivalrous bloodline can wait. We need to decide how to handle this because Roger will just use it against you.”
Alice grasped her friend’s elbow and moved her to the bench. “We’re sitting. In case Steph walks up, it’s just you and me. We ran into each other. And Theodore… go…” She waved her hand. “Over there.”
“No,” Patty whined. “He needs to know the story, too.”
“He knows it already. Like he said, on Friday, we got my car and then went to lunch and began our interview.” No need to talk about afterward or the ensuing 36 hours.
“And after?” She waggled her eyebrows. “The interview continued? Inventoried all your, um, skills?” she whispered.
“Patty!” She was getting tired of screaming the woman’s name.
“Okay, okay.” Patty shook off the mental images that played across her face quickly. “You can fill me in on the salacious details later.”
Absolutely not. “Nothing to tell.”
“Uh, huh. Sure there isn’t. And what about Roger? You said he showed up.” She gasped. “He was boss interruptus? Was there a duel? A fight for your honor? Dammit, and I missed it.”
Patty always was theatrical. “Nothing like that. He was just checking on me.”
“His ego demanded to check in on her,” Theodore said, still not walking away.
“He does have a big one, and yes I know all about you being Miss December, Alice, even if you didn’t let me in on it. I forgive you by the way.” She raised one eyebrow.
Alice sighed. She did not want to get into her unwise decision to go out with Roger with anyone ever again. “Can you just tell people tomorrow morning that you talked to me and I’m fine now. After Theodore and I just had an interview lunch, he then brought me back to my apartment.” Technically true. He just stayed. “You can say, I spent the weekend in bed.” Also true, just with Theodore.
Patty’s smile returned in full force and she nodded knowingly. “Because you weren’t feeling well again?”
“You can say that.” A tiny lie. It wasn’t her fault National Pie Day was mentioned by the waitress sending Theodore into a big “it’s a sign” speech that somehow broke down all her defenses. It was her fault, however, for getting them to try out all the sexual positions she could think of for the next thirty-six hours.
She wasn’t sorry. Not even now after defying all statistical probability by immediately running into a co-worker friend out of 5,490,000 people in the greater Washington DC area.
She took her friend’s hane. “You didn’t see me or hear from me until right here where I sat with you. Only you.” Also factual. Theodore remained standing.
“True. We sat together. Theodore is not on the bench.”
Alice always knew people under estimated Patty’s cleverness. “And on Monday, Theodore is launching into his set of interviews which you are very much looking forward to, right?”
She nodded vigorously. “Oh, yes. Very much. Bring a family tree of all the single men in your family, Theodore. So.” She slapped her lap. “I see Steph over there, so run away you two. I got the story.” She rose and held out her hand, which Alice took. “Good and done.”
“Good and done,” Alice repeated, and began to push Theodore away. “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go.”
Theodore shook his head. “You two scare me.”
Alice grabbed his arm and pulled him away. When they were a safe distance away, that is Patty and Steph were nowhere to be seen, she stopped short.
“That was close.” Her breath came out in puffs. The temperature had to have dropped another ten degrees since they’d been outside.
“Why do you do all those things?” His too-blue eyes bore down on her.
“Jumper cables, storeroom inventory, copier maintenance.”
She rubbed her hands together. “That’s all you’re worried about? We almost got caught, Theodore.”
“And what’s this about Miss December?”
“It’s nothing.” Please don’t ask me about that, she silently begged.
His lips thinned. “You’re right. I need to get to work. Right now.”
Her heart split in two. One half jumped for joy that they were going to go back to their original plan: Be all business until June 10 when it was National Bae Day. The other half? Crumbled to dust by his sudden cold turn.
It was ridiculous. She’d known this man for mere days. Granted, they’d done things she’d never done with anyone but still… They’d done things.
Maybe it was truly over.
She shook her head a little, as if that would make it straight again. “You’re right. I should, too.” If that’s how he wanted to play it, she wouldn’t stop him.
“No, you should go home. I’ll take the office.”
Oh, he was delineating territory already, was he? Before she could argue, he spun on his heel and began to march away. With every step, the side of her heart that was Team Theodore beat louder and louder. But she held her ground, watched his broad back, his long strides take him away from her. Her pride demanded she not run after him. Instead, she stood there, stupidly pining for… what?
But then he inexplicably turned, faced her. “I’ll text you. That’s not against the rules, right?”
She shook her head. “So long as you make it good.” She wouldn’t let him see any hurt.
Several people on the sidewalk glanced at them. She closed the distance between them. “I mean, happy to answer any work questions you might have, Mr. Gaston.”
His lips quirked up. He leaned down and whispered in her ear. “You ever had text sex, Miss Crawford?”
Oh. She swallowed. Maybe he wasn’t dismissing her so thoroughly. Perhaps he was trying to do what she’d asked originally—not put her in a difficult position at work. That’s what it must be.
So, sexting, huh? That wouldn’t be breaking their agreement, would it? They’d agreed no touchy-feely stuff which they’d spectacularly broken over the last two days, honestly, thanks to her. Their new agreement said once he was officially on board, which was tomorrow morning at 8 a.m., they were officially all business.
He arched an eyebrow in question.
“Not any good sexting,” she’d whispered back.
He straightened. “Challenge accepted.” He picked up her hand, kissed it and walked away.
And he proved once again, he was a man of his word. As soon as she got home, her phone pinged.