Monday morning saw me at the office even earlier than usual. I was always the first person to enter the building and usually the last to leave, but not today. Today I was the second person in and that made me feel a little on edge. It wasn’t as if I was worried that the person who had beaten me to the desk was out to usurp me from my position. It was just because of who it was. Branwen Campbell.
Seeing her seated at her desk as I pushed open the outer door filled me with a mixed bag of feelings, the main one being guilt. Any other person would have bitten the bullet and made an apology, blamed the short and sharp response from the previous encounter on stress or being inundated with work. But not me. I just stood in the doorway and stared stupidly at her, my eyes willing her to look up and make some kind of connection without me having to do so. But it seemed as if she was so intent on what she was working on that I believed I would still be standing in the doorway when the rest of the office workers arrived if I didn’t do something.
I made to step more fully inside the office, but stopped before I did. From my viewpoint, I could see her perfectly. Her head was tilted to the side, her cheek resting on her upturned hand, those brown eyes seeming to caress the screen in front of her.
Caress? I honestly didn’t know why I had thought of that word in conjunction with the act of reading a computer monitor. But, if I am being honest here, I don’t think it had been the first time I had thought of that when looking at Branwen.
‘You’re early.’ My voice came out harsh and accusatory. Branwen jumped backwards, her expression reflecting the shock of being interrupted.
‘Hold all my calls until ten thirty. Coffee when you have time.’ I’d done it again but this time with fucking bells on. I hadn’t even let her wish me good morning without cutting her off mid flow and barking some mundanely shite orders in her general direction. But, even though I knew I’d been a twat, I didn’t let my face contort into the gurning mask of the mortified until I was safely inside my office door, my back slammed firmly against the wood.
I had to wait a moment until I had stopped willing the ground to open up and swallow me whole before I made my way over to my desk and clicked on my computer.
This day was not going to go well.
I was right about the day not going well. I didn’t look in Branwen’s direction when she brought my coffee to me a little while later. I had so many things I wanted her to do throughout the morning, but I was too ashamed of my earlier behaviour to call her through and ask her to do any of them. By lunchtime I was nearly pulling my hair out. Being in the office for five hours without asking anyone to do anything was driving me mad. I emailed requests for work to be done, granted, but it wasn’t quite the same as discussing, in person, all the things I wanted her to do. And when I said ‘person’, I meant me discussing work stuff with Branwen.
It wasn’t until I had put myself into some kind of exile, or even a fucked up version of ‘Branwen Embargo’, that I realised how much I liked talking to her. Actually, it wasn’t just the talking to her I liked. I liked the way she would always look interested in whatever I said even if it was about numbers and charts and profits. I liked the way she would frown slightly when she didn’t quite get what I was asking her to do, but then how her face would seem to blossom when realisation hit, how her eyes would sparkle, her lips bud open and release a delightful sound of her understanding.
Shit. And then double shit.
I hadn’t thought of this before, not consciously. Yes, I’d noticed the how delectably brown her eyes were a few days before, just after noting the wonderful timbre of her voice. But I had honestly thought it was a new thing and not information my subconscious had been gleefully gathering so it could expose all my inner thoughts in one foul swoop and make me feel as if I couldn’t speak to Branwen Campbell for fear of baring my soul. Had my id taken over my ego and was secretly planning my ultimate downfall? Was it hoping I’d continue acting in a completely fucked up way and end up completely isolating myself in my office for the rest of the day?
Decision made, although I hadn’t realised I’d been making one until I was half way to the door. I was going to talk to Branwen like a normal human being and not splutter, shout, act churlish or be a bitch. Quite an achievement for me, and not just of late.
In less than thirty seconds, I was in the reception area and staring at a petite blonde woman who was seated in Branwen’s chair.
‘Who are you?’ My voice seemed too loud for the area, but I didn’t care.
Blue eyes shot up to meet mine and the woman opened her mouth and closed it again.
Leaning forward, my hands on the desk, I asked her again, but this time my voice came out lower although not friendlier. ‘Who are you?’
‘Erm.’ The blonde stood up and held her hand out in greeting. I just stared at it before looking her straight in her eyes again, my head tilting slightly to the side as I waited. ‘Chloe Benson.’
‘Yes. But who are you?’ I was beginning to think the woman in front of me was an idiot – a glowing red idiot at that.
Chloe dropped her hand, her body language screaming ‘flustered’. I leaned even more forward making the young woman move backwards, her back touching the wall behind her.
‘I’m … I’m your new secretary.’
‘You’re my WHAT?’ What the fuck? A new secretary? Why on earth would I have a new secretary when I already had a perfectly good secretary in Branwen?
Chloe seemed to shrink slightly at the volume of my question, her body inching to the side as if she was going to make a dash for it. I moved to block her escape. Frantic eyes flicked to the gap, to my face, and to the gap once again. What was I doing? I was terrifying a woman I had just been introduced to and it was getting me nowhere.
Lifting my hands, I held them up in surrender. ‘Hey, hey, hey. I’m sorry.’ I took a step forward, but she seemed jumpy once again so I moved backwards. ‘Didn’t mean to startle you, but I was expecting to see Branwen here.’ I released a nervous laugh right after I said the last bit, almost as if I was illustrating my vulnerability to the woman who was obviously trying to work me out. ‘Sorry if I was a tad aggressive.’ Tad being an understatement. ‘It’s just that when came in this morning, Branwen was here … she brought me coffee …’
‘She’s been redeployed.’ Chloe’s voice was cautious as if she expected me to leap the desk and pin her by her throat. To be honest, I wasn’t too sure if I wasn’t going to do just that – my record of late had been a little disconcerting.
I pressed my lips together and silently counted to five before asking, ‘And, if it is not too much trouble, could you tell me where has she been redeployed to?’ The smile I conjured didn’t feel genuine. I could feel the tightness of it across my cheeks and lips.
‘I am not too sure.’ With those words, I felt my smile slip slightly. Chloe seemed to notice the slight shift so I pulled it back into place as if it was tethered to my visage by invisible corded ropes.
I nodded, my eyes blinking to give my appearance one of condescension. Sometimes I really despised myself and my penchant for being a fucker. But needs must.
‘Well, Chloe.’ I nodded at her. ‘Let’s make it your first job shall we?’
She frowned at me as if she didn’t quite understand where our conversation was going. Not the best way to impress your new boss, but I let it slide.
‘You have thirty minutes to find out where Branwen Campbell is. Do you understand?’
Chloe nodded, but I shook my head.
‘Alas, Miss …’ I waved my hand at her.
‘Thank you. As I was saying … Alas, Miss Benson, I don’t think you do understand.’ I leaned over the desk at her once again. ‘You have thirty minutes to find her or else you will find I have no use for you in this office.’
‘But I …’
‘Yes you had.’
With the last few words, I turned and re-entered my office, the door slamming shut behind me.
As soon the door closed I felt a sickness wash over me. Branwen had left. Gone. Disappeared. And I would probably never see her again. How could I apologise to her if I didn’t know where she’d gone?
Fuck. It wasn’t just about me apologising to her for why I was so gutted. Branwen was the first woman to get through to me since Shannon had left, and if I was absolutely honest with myself, it was probably longer than that. The problem with this titbit of information is that I had only just recognised that this was the case – a bit like shutting the gate after the horse had bolted.
I pressed my back against the wood of the door and closed my eyes. Inhaling deeply, I allowed the image of Branwen to infiltrate my consciousness. Those gorgeously dark eyes that seemed to absorb me completely on one look; those perfectly full lips … the way she would chew the inside of her mouth when she was reading back through her notes or checking through the ones I had given her. Thick dark hair that framed her beautiful face and dipped just past her shoulders; full, rich hair that, subconsciously, I’d always wanted to run my fingers through.
The breath I had inhaled eased out through my lips, but the feeling of panic was still rampant, so I inhaled once again – held it – released it, and continued to do so until I knew I could move from the door to my desk without my legs giving way.
My body hit my chair with some force, the effort of seeming weightless completely leaving me to make me feel heavy and so very tired as all my energy seeped away and evaporated into the air.
Slouching forward, I placed my head into my hands. More images of Branwen came crashing into my mind. Her laughing with other members of the team and then stopping as soon as she saw me approach. It was amazing to see how she could suddenly shift from playful to professional in the blink of an eye, although by my acknowledging that, I also had to acknowledge that Branwen didn’t see me as someone she could have fun around.
Who am I kidding? Of course she couldn’t have fun around me. I am – was – her boss! She didn’t have time to joke around. This was an …
Fuck. What had I become? Couldn’t have a joke because there was work to be done? Couldn’t make connections, build relationships with colleagues because there was fucking boxes to tick and columns to fill?
A groan escaped my lips and I pushed my fingers into my hair to grip and pull. Even the pain of this action paled in comparison to the pain in my chest. No wonder Branwen hadn’t bothered telling me she was moving to a different office. She was probably glad to get away from me.
A knock sounded on my office door and I shot to my feet, my legs feeling slightly shaky.
‘Come in!’ And just like my legs, my voice was slightly shaking too. I think they both believed that the knock had been made by the woman I had spent the last ten minutes agonising over.
Chloe’s head peaked around the partly opened door and initially I felt disappointed. But then my hopes began to lift once again. Maybe she had found Branwen in less than the allotted thirty minutes. Maybe she wasn’t as useless after all.
‘Sorry to interrupt, Ms Staunton, but you have someone here who would like to see you.’
A grin split my face. I don’t honestly know why I thought it was Branwen Campbell come back to apologise for leaving me with a thick blonde piece of ass, but maybe it was because I was even more stupid than I thought I was.
I hadn’t even announced ‘Send her in’ when Chloe seemed to be pushed out of the way, the door flinging backwards.
It was at this precise moment I wished I had stayed in bed after all.
Standing before me was someone I was hoping I could have avoided for just a while longer. Carilyn Phillips. The same Carilyn Phillips that I was supposed to be meeting for lunch but I had completely forgotten about. And again, the same Carilyn Phillips whom I had been having sex with for the last god knows how many years. Sex with no strings attached. That Carilyn Phillips.
‘Erin, baby!’ Her voice sounded harsh, almost painfully shrill. ‘And here I was thinking you must have either been in a very important meeting or …’ Carilyn made her way over to the front of my desk and stopped. Her face turned to where Chloe was standing open mouthed. ‘Why are you still here?’
The tone of her voice at that precise moment made all my attempts at being an ogre in the workplace seem tame. Chloe’s eyes widened in shock and she started to scuttle backwards, her hand grasping for the door handle in the process.
Slam. And then there were two.
Carilyn turned back to face me, a self-satisfied smile distorting what could have been a beautiful face. Her hand swept back the stack of papers on my desk and my eyes followed its movement, the red nails glinting in the fake office light. An envelope caught my attention and I wasn’t sure if it was because of the bright blue paper clip attached to it or whether it was the familiar neat handwriting. I stretched out my hand to grab it but was stopped by the appearance of Carilyn’s backside that had landed on the sleek, wooden surface.
‘As I was saying …’ Carilyn leaned closer to my face, her ice blue eyes cutting through me. ‘There must have been a very good reason why you left me waiting for over an hour at the hotel restaurant.’ She placed the tip of her index finger on the bridge of my nose and trailed it down to the tip, then over and onto my lips.
I moved away from her touch, shaking my head a little as if to dispel the sensation she had left.
‘I haven’t got time for this, Cari. I’m busy.’
Carilyn tilted her head, her eyes trawling up from my chest before glancing disinterestedly into mine. Her expression seemed bored, and this was backed up when she sighed and stood up.
‘That was the whole point, wasn’t it? A warm body when one was needed?’ Her fingertips danced over the tops of my pens in the pot before hooking one and pulling the pot over, the contents spilling and rolling over the desk as if trying to escape the confrontation that was obviously going to happen. ‘You are always busy, Erin. That’s why I am so convenient for you.’
I leaned back in my chair, my hands interlocking with each other and creating a steepled effect. ‘Didn’t hear you complaining before, Cari. Thought we were each other’s convenient fuck.’ Carilyn flinched at the coarse term but didn’t pull me up on it, probably because it was true. ‘So if you …’
‘You are going to end up on your own, do you know that?’ The words were not spoken to warn me about my future of solitude. They were more like a gypsy curse, condemning me to a life deprived of contact, devoid of love.
I laughed without humour, the reaction only infuriating Carilyn even more.
‘You’re a little late for that, honey.’ The endearment sounded hollow. ‘I’m already on my own.’ She pursed her lips as if she was going to respond but shrugged instead.
‘Well …’ Carilyn stepped back and turned her body slightly towards the door. ‘I hope you tell that secretary of yours that she hasn’t got a cat in hell’s chance of getting anything more than a quick fuck from her boss. I’d hate for her to find out what an unfeeling cow you really are after you’ve shagged her.’ Cold blue eyes turned my way, a half smile adorning her face. I shrugged, my outward appearance of nonchalance whilst inside I was seething.
‘No hard feelings, Erin. I know how much you’d like to show her who’s boss, but …’
‘For fuck’s sake, Cari. She only started working for me twenty minutes ago.’ I stood, leaned over the table, my expression showing her that I wanted her to leave, preferably without saying another word.
Unfortunately, Carilyn was not the kind of woman that could read body language unless it was sending out signals for unbridled and uncomplicated sex.
‘No she hasn’t. She’s been here for at least six months.’
I slammed my hand onto my intercom and didn’t even wait for Chloe to speak before asking, ‘Can you come in here for a moment?’
It was as if I lifted my fingers off the call button and the door opened to announce a very nervous looking Chloe.
‘How long have you worked for me?’
‘Worked for you? Erm …’ Her eyes glanced at the clock on the wall behind my head. ‘About half an …’
‘Not her. The other one.’ Carilyn turned in my direction. ‘The gorgeous brunette. The one with …’ She lifted her hands and mimicked an ample bosom.
The anger coursing through me was immediate.
‘How dare you disrespect a member of my team.’ I could barely get the words out, the fury immediate and pulsating. ‘Branwen Campbell is one hell of a worker. One I would never disrespect with such degrading actions or suggestions.’
Instead of backing down or showing any remorse, Carilyn laughed at my ire. ‘Disrespect? When have you ever giving a flying fuck for anyone apart from yourself?’ She moved closer to me, her heels making her a tad taller than myself, not that her slight height advantage bothered me at all. ‘What’s the matter? You actually fancy her or something?’
I opened my mouth to refute her claim but stopped.
Carilyn’s eyes widened, a laugh of disbelief shooting out. ‘You like her.’ Another laugh. I just shook my head, the words not coming. ‘You do. You fancy your secretary.’ Her head shot back to release a manic cackle into the air. ‘This is absolute class. Talk about karma.’
Before I had a chance to respond, Carilyn was at the door, Chloe anxiously looking up at her.
‘I imagine this is goodbye, yes?’ She didn’t give me a chance to answer. ‘For your sake, Erin, I hope you do the right thing this time.’ It was to be the first and last time I ever heard Carilyn Phillips speak with a modicum of concern for anyone other than herself.
Maybe we were suited after all.