You ever experience one of those moments when people stare at you like you’re a turd that won’t flush? That’s pretty much how I felt the night of the Christmas party at Anna’s law firm. Dressing up in a suit was like putting on a costume, and I have to admit I looked damn good that night, but underneath, I was still Jason Reitmiller—a partially disabled, minimum-wage-earning dog washer.
All of her coworkers knew that, of course, which had to be weird for Anna. I could tell she was nervous, because she kept asking me if I was all right. No headaches? No impending panic attacks or outbursts of temper?
I couldn’t blame her for fearing a repeat of the meltdown I’d had only a few months earlier at her place of employment. None of these lawyers would have forgotten that drama. Thus the curious looks at the turd in their midst.
Anna gripped my arm and occasionally leaned in to point out someone. Until now, they’d been faceless names featured in stories about her work life. But there was no way in hell I was going to be able to connect all these names to faces in one evening.
“There’s Jules Arden.”
I knew I had to at least program Arden into my low RAM memory. The senior partner was Anna’s mentor, the man who helped guide her career at Haggenstern and Lowe.
“Jules. Got it.” I looked at the beautiful woman beside me, and suddenly the rest of the room and all my anxiety disappeared. What the fuck did I care what a bunch of strangers thought of me and the way I’d humiliated myself in front of them? Anna wanted me here by her side at this fancy social event. I would keep my shit together and do her proud.
“Did I remember to tell you how gorgeous you look?” I asked.
Her gaze stopped darting around the room and came to rest on me. She smiled, and her beautiful brown eyes sparkled. “Several times. But you know I don’t have a problem with you repeating things.”
“In that case…” I leaned close and whispered, “You look fuckin’ awesome, and I can’t wait to get home and peel that dress off you.”
“Any time,” she murmured. “If you start to feel stressed out or get tired, let me know and we can leave.”
For just a moment I considered taking her up on the offer. I wasn’t at my best in crowded situations. Since the car accident which had left my brain scrambled and my body lame, I struggled to perform daily tasks, let alone process a lot of new input all at once. But then the very fact that Anna had offered me an out made me not want to take it. If we were going to last as a couple, I had to be able to fit into her world at least a little bit.
“No way. I’ve got the prettiest woman in the room on my arm, and I intend to show her off.” Sometimes I amaze myself with my suaveness. Maybe it’s a hint of the player I used to be before the accident.
Anna smiled again, and I thought she seemed a little less nervous. “All right, then. I want to introduce you to Jules.”
We waded through a stream of sparkling party dresses and starched white shirtfronts, which gleamed under the Christmas lights illuminating the banquet room that the law firm had rented for the occasion. The sweetness of too many perfumes and a tang of pine from decorated trees along one wall mingled into a strong odor that made me need to sneeze.
As we made our way toward what’s-his-name—JULES. Jules Arden—Anna occasionally stopped to introduce me to the people she worked most closely with. I smiled, shook hands, and tried to file away names, but they flitted out of my consciousness almost as soon as they entered. I could hardly pull out my I-pad and type them in, and without that organizational tool, I was lost.
“Nice to meet you. Anna’s mentioned you many times,” I said to one guy, whose name was Dan or Doug or maybe Dave.
“All good I hope.” A guy with slicked-back hair studied me intently. Definitely a turd-gazing look.
“Absolutely.” I’d decided that would be my word of the evening. People love to be agreed with, and I could get by best by keeping it simple.
“I doubt that. There aren’t many stories that have Dave as the hero.” A tall woman with long brown hair that was tousled as if she’d just fucked somebody in a janitor closet came up beside DAVE—not Dan. She wore too much makeup, and her sequined dress nearly blinded me as it caught the light. Cindy. I remembered her name from the couple of times I’d met her. Anna’s best friend at work.
“Good to see you again, Jason.”
“You’re looking, uh”—I hunted for the word—“festive, Cindy.”
She smiled and peered at me with unfocused eyes. Drunk. “Aren’t you the cutest thing.”
It was both a compliment and sort of demeaning. I had no idea what to say, so I just smiled back.
Thank God, Anna pulled me away. “See you guys in a bit. I want to introduce him to Jules.”
The music played by a DJ in one corner was loud, forcing everyone’s voices to be louder. And I thought the dogs at the kennel where I worked were noisy. Their yapping was nothing compared to a room full of half-drunk lawyers.
“Merry Christmas, Jules,” Anna greeted a balding man wearing old-fashioned half-moon spectacles. What an affectation. “I want you to meet my boyfriend, Jason.”
My boyfriend. I wouldn’t get tired of those words any time soon. After the bleak, dark days when I thought I’d never see Anna again, the fact that I was here with her now in the role of “boyfriend” was a minor miracle. I’d fucked myself over doing something stupid, but she’d forgiven me and come after me.
“Nice to meet you, sir,” I said, offering my hand for a shake.
“Please. Sir makes me feel old. Just call me Jules.” The lawyer’s voice was a pleasant rumble that would sound very convincing in court. “I’ve heard a lot about you, Jason. How are things going for you?”
“Can’t complain.” Keep it simple. He didn’t really want to hear about the intricacies of dog washing or cleaning kennels.
“Anna tells me you’re taking a class.”
“Yes. Intro to Business.” Which was going a little better than expected. There were a lot of terms to memorize, and I sucked at that part. But I could wrap my head around the basic idea of supply and demand.
“You hope to own your own business someday?”
“Maybe. I… It’s hard to think that far ahead,” I admitted. “I’m just taking it day by day for now.”
“Well put. We should all slow down and focus on the present instead of always thinking ten moves ahead.” Jules indicated the crowd around them. “Many of us here could work on that.”
He was a pretty nice guy.
As their talk drifted to a case they were working on, I zoned out a little and gazed around the room, noticing the resemblance between some of these people and certain breeds of dog. The long-legged, long-haired woman in white looked like an Afghan hound I’d groomed just last week. A short, bug-eyed man reminded me of a pug. And there were poodles and terriers aplenty.
Anna caught my eye, giving me an are-you-okay look. I smiled to show her I was, and to underline it, I said, “Think I’ll go get a drink. Do either of you want something?”
Arden held up his half-empty scotch and said he was fine.
Anna asked for a gin martini but continued to question me with her eyes. It was pretty annoying. Sudden irritation flared through me, and I tamped it down. Mood swings are a fun symptom of my brain injury I’ve had to learn to control.
I bee-lined for the bar and waited in line. Standing in place is the worst thing for my messed-up leg, and my hip was throbbing by the time I reached the bar. Then I couldn’t remember what Anna had ordered or think what I wanted myself. The bar was right by the damn DJ, and the music was too loud.
I ended up repeating what the guy in front of me had just said. “Two rum and cokes.”
I turned around with a drink in each hand and searched the crowded room for Anna. She wasn’t where I’d left her—or where I thought I’d left her anyway. I started to walk, scanning faces and feeling increasingly uncomfortable.
“Hey there, Jason.” The sly-looking guy, Dan or Dave, was right beside me. He and a few others stood in a cluster I’d wandered into. “You lost?”
“No. Just misplaced. Anna’s around here somewhere.”
“She ditch you?” His eyes twinkled as he smiled in a not-merry way. “So, Jason, I hear you work with animals. Like a veterinary assistant or something?”
“Something like that.” I wasn’t about to mention dog washing to this group.
“You used to clean the building, right?” an equally sharp-eyed woman asked. “I remember seeing you sometimes in your little uniform.”
“Would you consider your career change a step up or a lateral move?” Dave asked.
Several people hid smiles by sipping their drinks. A pack. That’s what they were. Nipping at the flanks of an outsider who didn’t belong.
“I enjoy what I do.” I kept my tone smooth and even, suppressing a fresh wave of irritation. And then I remembered what Anna had told me about Dave. He was the horn-dog of the office, who’d hit on every attractive female at some time or another, including Anna.
I glimpsed the Afghan hound lady across the room. She was overdressed even for this swank event, sparkling with diamonds and wearing floor-length white satin as if she were at an awards ceremony. I couldn’t remember her name, but Anna had pointed her out as one of the senior partners—the top dogs in this pack. No longer young, but she was beautiful and reeked of power.
“Hey, Dave.” I lowered my voice, while the rest of the group continued their own conversations. “Who is that woman?” I nodded toward the Afghan. “The woman in white.”
Dave followed my line of sight. “Cara McElroy? What about her?”
“She was standing near me when I was at the bar. I heard her talking to that other lady about you.”
Dave’s eyes narrowed. “Yvette?”
“I guess. Anyway, she was saying she’d like to… Let’s just say she sounded interested.”
“In getting laid.” When he looked at me doubtingly, I shrugged, nearly spilling my rum and cokes. “She sounded a little sloshed. But she definitely told that other lady ‘I’d like some of that’ and mentioned you by name.”
I’d never been fishing that I could remember, but I felt the thrill of an angler as the hook bites in firm and deep. Still, there was a trace of doubt in Dave’s voice that I needed to ease.
“That’s what staff Christmas parties are for, right? What happens at the party…”
“Stays at the party,” he completed. I could almost see the guy’s brain calculating, weighing pros and cons, wondering if making a move on his superior would be a plus or a minus for his career. He cut another glance at me. “Why would you bother to tell me this?”
I shrugged. “Why not? You’re one of Anna’s friends, right? I want you to know, I’m just a regular guy.”
Dave continued to look at me, then back at the sexy older woman. “Yeah. Okay. Thanks for the info, man.”
I spotted Anna at last, making her way over to me. “There’s my lady. Gotta go. It was nice meeting you. Hope you enjoy your Christmas and whatever early present you might get tonight.”
I winked at him and limped away.
Anna sashayed up to me in that gold dress that clung to every curve. I wanted to kiss her right there. Instead, I handed her a drink.
She sipped it and stared after Dave. “What was that? You were talking to Dave?” She said the name as if it were a disease.
“It’s sort of a guy-bonding thing. I’ll explain later. Want to dance?”
Anna’s eyebrows shot up. Dancing was more her speed than mine. But I’d come a long way since our first date, which had ended in disaster followed by seven minutes in heaven, and I wanted to show her that. We set our drinks on a table. I took her hand and twirled her out onto the dance floor.