Monday morning we arrived at work, together and on time for a change, despite everything that was working against us.
For a start, Dodge had woken me at five-thirty, insisting that it was time to run, even though his chest and thighs were still covered in a milder version of the rash that had been coming and going all weekend. We’d finally figured out Sunday afternoon that it was always at its worst an hour after he ate, which always coincided with when he had to take his pills. He’d tried calling the hotline on the back of the pill bottle that connected directly to the people running the program, but had been informed that their office hours were between nine and five Monday to Friday.
Good little test subject he was, he had continued taking his meds, but was planning on calling the hotline again the moment he had a chance this morning. In the meantime, he’d spent more than his usual excessive amount of time in the bathroom after the run and breakfast as he attempted to safeguard himself for the day of pill taking that lay ahead of him.
“Come on, Dodge! I need to get ready for work too, you know!”
I don’t know how many times I’d banged on the door, yelling for him to hurry up so that I could shower, but when he finally stepped out into the hall I had to stifle my laughter. Apparently, while I assumed he was just going through his normal routine extra slowly because of the excruciating pain from rash, he was actually doing extra. Like wrapping his limbs in lotion soaked bandages that I could see peaking out of the sleeve of his shirt. And covering his face in makeup. I didn’t even know he had make up, but there you go.
“I need to pick up some more moisturiser today,” he informed me. “I’ve almost depleted my supply.”
“You can’t be serious,” I said, examining his face carefully. It looked much better than it had on the way back from the run, but that was probably the layer of foundation covering his cheeks. “You had something like thirty bottles last time I checked and that was only a couple of days ago.”
“Small bottles,” he said, gingerly adjusting the bandage at his left wrist. “And most of them were only half full.”
“Whatever, just get out of the way. I need a shower ASAP. I’m starting to offend myself with this smell I generated on that torture you call a run.”
He’d stepped aside to allow my passage and I’d rushed through my shower, allowing my hair to dry into a natural frizz as opposed to my usual hairdryer induced frizz and caught up with Dodge just as he was heading out the door.
As we made our way across the lobby, we were ambushed by a rather dishevelled looking Emily, by which I mean a single strand of hair had escaped her bun, marring her otherwise pristine facade. “Eric just got a text,” she announced. “The boss will be here in five minutes.” As if she’d only just noticed Dodge’s appearance she added with raised eyebrows, “Roger, are you wearing make up?” but before he could so much as open his mouth to defend his decision to paint his face, she’d hurried on. “It doesn’t matter. Just get to the office and start working. We need to make a good impression.”
And, like always, she disappeared.
“Do you smell brimstone?” I asked Dodge in a casual tone, looking through my purse for my company ID. “I swear she’s got a deal with the devil. It’s the only explanation for how she can be here one second and out of sight the next.”
“All I can smell is my lotion,” he griped. “I think I got it up my nose.”
“Ugh,” I groaned, ignoring his complaints like a pro, I’d had years of practice after all. “I must have left my ID in the car. I was fiddling with it on the way here. I’ll be in in a minute.”
I was half way across the parking lot, headed for Dodge’s car, which he’d been forced to park in the back corner due to the inordinate number of vehicles clogging the closer spaces today, when peculiar movement in the corner of my eye prompted me to turn. And as I landed on my rear in a mist of déjà vu, I almost wished I’d kept walking. Perhaps then I wouldn’t have been run down by Riley with his damned unicycle again.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I exclaimed, climbing to my feet once more and looking down at my torn stockings and the dirt dusting my black skirt. I’d made the effort to look as presentable as was humanly possible this morning so as not to be fired on sight by this mysterious boss guy. I’d even allowed Dodge to pick out my clothes for me, and now look what good it did. My Emily-wannabe look was ruined by a badly timed trip to get my ID.
“I’m sorry,” Riley told me. “Do I need to take you to the doctor again?”
“No,” I assured him, dusting myself off with jerky motions. “I’m fine. What are you even doing here?”
He sent me a rakish grin. “My unicycle must like you a lot. He doesn’t usually run people down like that. Especially not twice in one week.” Riley travelled his gaze up and down my body slowly before moving it to the building behind me. “So this is where you work?” he asked. “I pictured SHIELD Headquarters to be more elaborate and perhaps floating and invisible. That’s what it was like in the movie.”
“I don’t work for SHIELD,” I reminded him in a decidedly curt tone. I’d been doing so well until he’d turned up. If it weren’t for him I’d probably be sorting my photocopying jobs by now. And I wouldn’t have to make a trip to the ladies upon returning to the building to take off my pantyhose.
“That’s exactly what a SHIELD agent would say,” Riley said, picking up his unicycle.
“Look, Riley, now’s not a good time. My boss is gonna be here any second now and I need to be at my desk doing my job when he arrives.”
“Of course,” he said easily, tipping his imaginary hat to me. “Have a nice day, Agent Cooper.”
I sighed. “I’m not an agent.”
The main meeting room was absolutely packed, as every single employee attempted to cram into the insufficient space. It was obvious that full staff meetings were not in mind when the building was built, or there would have been a larger room provided that was not the gym. As it was, Emily had to object vehemently before Eric – and the new mystery boss – agreed to hold this supposedly very important meeting in the conference room as opposed to the workout room. And my nostrils and I were eternally grateful for not having to inhale stale sweat on top of the mixture of perfumes and colognes that filled the room.
It was already ten thirty and no one had seen hide nor hair of this boss guy, except, we assume, Eric. Since Emily had received a short email from him informing her that Mr. Walker had arrived and could she please organise a general meeting for an hour and a half’s time. Which not to point out the obvious or anything was the reason we were all crammed into the tight space. Or at least attempting to cram. I had only made it about three feet in the doorway before the mass ahead of me had stopped moving. Behind me were approximately twenty-five more staff members that just weren’t going to fit inside.
“They should set up a live feed in the other conference room for half of us,” I mentioned to no one in particular, casting my eye around in search of Dodge and the saved seat he’d promised. It was difficult to see through the crowd, though, given that quite a number of them were a damn sight taller than I was.
“Okay people,” Emily’s stern voice from somewhere to my left. “If the people in the back section could make their way through the door to the adjoining conference room, we’ve set up a live feed in there so that we can all be a bit more comfortable. And also we still need to adhere to restrictions set by the fire department. “People in the hall, if you could make your way next door as well that would be brilliant,” she added as the assembly surged slowly forward.
Shuffling past the rows of occupied chairs, I’d just resigned myself to the standing area at the back of the room when I was grabbed around the waist and thrown over a shoulder. I imagined a caveman hauling a random woman back to his cave to ravish her and make her clean the mammoth skins he’d salvaged and hoped, for his sake, that it wasn’t Dodge because he would get a serious ass whooping if it was. The next thing I knew I was dumped into a chair in the front row and forced to stare straight into the face of one hell of crotch. Definitely not Dodge.
Slowly, I found the presence of mind to drag my gaze away from the neatly outlined package and up to the actual face, which prompted an immediate eye roll and the crossing of both my arms and legs. Derek. I felt mildly grossed out, just knowing that it was his hands on my body.
“What the hell?” I demanded.
“Emily wants you up front,” he informed me coolly, crossing his own – muscled, tanned, gorgeous, and any number of other adjectives – arms over his chest as he stared down at me with narrowed eyes. “Where she can keep an eye on you.”
“She thinks I’m gonna do something?” I asked incredulously. That just didn’t make sense. Emily trusted me, provided I wasn’t looking up lasers on company time, which admittedly, I did do again this morning, but only because I needed to make sure that there were absolutely no non-lethal but still lesson teaching lasers that I could attach to my photocopier and program them to do shoot people if they so much as attempted to open the settings menu. It was the simply peace of mind required for me to be able to move on to other options. So maybe it did make sense that she wanted me under her supervision.
“I don’t know what she thinks,” Derek informed me, as he took the seat beside me, making sure that he invaded my personal space as much as possible. “Sometimes I’m not even sure she’s capable of original thoughts. She’s part computer, right?”
I tossed a glare his way. “Stop trying to engage me in conversation.”
He shrugged, stretching his legs out in front and slouching down in his chair. For a moment, I thought he may have actually take my instruction, but then he opened his big trap. “So how’s the office revolution going?” he asked casually, like he was asking about my weekend. “I haven’t noticed any brave little desk jockeys invading the Squad’s break room time yet today.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I grumbled, kneeling up on my chair and turning around to see if I could spot Dodge. “You know, there are more polite ways of getting a girl to sit with you,” I mentioned, craning my neck some more in an attempt to see past Beanpole-Benny. “Like asking.”
“You’d have said no.”
Startled, I couldn’t help but shoot a look in his direction. What was he playing at? Six months ago I doubt if he would have been able to single me out in a crowd, now all of a sudden I was the centre of his focus. He was doing everything in his power to make me miserable, including making me feel like a snob. “You don’t know that for sure,” I said, brow furrowed as I continued to search for Dodge.
“Will you sit with me?”
His words barely registered in my mind as I caught sight of a charcoal grey designer vest that I knew for a fact could only belong to Dodge. I jabbed my hand into the air, hoping to get his attention, but he was already lost in the crowd once more.
“What are you doing?” Derek asked beside me, looking over his shoulder.
“Dodge was supposed to be saving me a seat so we could sit together,” I replied distractedly, glancing over the familiar faces one last time before turning around with a huff and sliding back into my chair properly. Probably, Dodge had been carried away in the wave of people to the other room.
Derek leaned away from me to murmur something in the ear of the Squad member that sat on his other side and it appeared that our conversation, such as it was, was at an end. Not that I was complaining. I didn’t have enough in common with the terrorising meat-head to continue for much more without resorting to inarticulate grunts.
For a long moment silence passed between us, taken over by the chattering of the waiting crowd at our backs. Just as I was working up the courage to say something – God only knows what, or why – he grabbed me around the waist once more and pulled me sideways one seat as he moved along as well. I pushed at his formidable chest to get him to let me go, but needn’t have bothered as he quickly released me and turned to the front once more, leaving me frowning in confusion.
“You at least have to buy me dinner first.”
My head snapped up at the amused tone in Dodge’s voice, sounding from so close by. Coming across the open front section of the room, where the podium and projector screen had been set up, was a nameless member of the Squad with none other than my very own Dodge thrown over his shoulder. As I watched, Dodge splayed his hands across the firm backside easily within his reach and gently squeezed, causing the poor guy’s eyes to bug out of his head. Not surprisingly, he also picked up the pace, crossing the last ten feet in two strides and dumping Dodge unceremoniously in the chair beside me before backing away quick as a lightning strike.
“Bye, handsome!” Dodge called after him, sending him a smile and a flirtatious wave. I couldn’t help but laugh as he then bumped shoulders with me and murmured, “I should travel by Squad Man Shoulder more often. There are definite perks.” On the last word he held his hands out before him and squeezed the air in the same motion he’d just used on the Squad Man’s tush.
“Easy for you to say,” I whispered back. “It doesn’t seem quite so domineering when they do it to you.” I pointed over my shoulder with as tiny a gesture as I could manage while still making sure that Dodge got the picture.
“You too?” he gasped.
“Me too,” I agreed, wriggling on my seat so that I was practically in Dodge’s lap as I attempted to put as much distance as possible between me and the He Man creature on my other side.
That’s when Emily decided to re-enter the room, spearing me with a hard stare, as if to make sure that I was where she’d requested I’d be. I gave a small finger wave and as light a smile as I could manage while being smothered by the testosterone wafting off Derek. In reply, she raised a single eyebrow, and then she was at the podium, addressing the masses.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” she said in that loud, commanding voice she had perfected. “It is my pleasure to introduce Mr. Riley Walker, CEO and part owner of Walk Safe Security.” With a gallant gesture to the side, she stepped back from the podium as a dark haired man in rectangular glasses and a pin striped suit made his way over.
I recognised him in an instant, all the air leaving my lungs as I grasped Dodge’s wrist tight. “Dodge,” I mumbled under my breath.
“I know,” he breathed by my ear. “Totally dreamy.”
“Dodge, that’s Riley,” I hissed.
“Duh,” he whispered back. “That’s what Emily just said.”
I dug my fingernails into his arm, in an effort to make him see my point more clearly. “It’s Riley the Unicyclist,” I insisted.