The first lunch meeting ended quickly, which Julian promised it would. It pushed aside our pettiness and focused more on the business in hand. As we were back on the road again, we headed to a lunch meeting with his little brother and his wife. That one got me off the railings a bit. I’ve seen his younger brother from the family picture at his condo. But I got nothing about his wife other than he worked in the same place. And I didn’t even bother to say hi. At least Julian had willingly given me the name of his niece, Charlie.
When we’re escorted to the right seats, we were greeted by the two, who was looking at me longer than necessary. I took it as cue to speak up. “Mr. and Mrs. Hawksley. It’s nice to meet you. And congratulation on the birth of your daughter, Charlie.” I smiled.
It was his brother who shook my hand first and replied. “Ms. Curtis. It’s nice to meet you as well. I just heard from my wife. My brother hadn’t really told me he got a new secretary. Sorry if I looked a bit surprised.”
“No. It’s okay, sir. I’m as surprised about this as you are yesterday when I found out.” I informed to ease the tension.
“Wow, you knew about this yesterday… and you didn’t even care to tell me?” He snorted and glanced at Julian.
“You’re married and have a kid. Do you really have time for gossip and idle chitchat?” Julian sarcastically asked and sat down.
“At least leave me a message,” his brother offered.
Julian waved his hand in dismissal on the conversation. “Can we order now? I’m hungry.”
“Ms. Curtis, please sit.” The wife finally spoke and gestured towards the chair beside her for me to take.
I smiled and followed. “Thank you, Mrs. Hawksley.”
“Please, call me Kyla. Mrs. Hawksley is Jensen and Julian’s mother.”
I nodded. “Then call me Zoey, Kyla.”
Beside me, Julian cleared his throat, getting both of our attention. “She’s allowed to call you by name, but not me?”
“You can call me Jensen, Zoey. I presume you call my brother by our surname. It’ll makes it less confusing for you.” Jensen interjected before I came up with a witty response.
I beamed and answered. “I do. Thank you, Jensen.”
“Zoey?” Julian inquired again when we’ve ignored him.
I kept a calm expression even though my heart was flipping. “Please refrain from addressing me by my first name, as I had said before, Mr. Hawksley.” I stated without looking at him and held up my hand, getting the waiter’s attention.
From the soft chuckles from Jensen and Kyla, I didn’t need to see Julian’s expression to know his discontent.
“You’re rigid as always.” He remarked before the waiter interrupted and asked for our meal order.
“Speak for yourself.” I mumbled too loud, which wasn’t my intention.
Surprised at my sudden comeback, Jensen and Kyla looked at me in astonishment. I was about to apologize for the slip until Kyla patted my arm, looking proud.
“Rufus really did know what he was looking for when he found you.” She commented.
Feeling rude for the delay on ordering, I briefly studied the menu and settled for a light meal. I’m not sure how much more I could stomach through this lunch meeting. Like Kyla noticed my discomfort, she shifted elsewhere. She started gushing about her daughter, Charlie, and Jensen jumped in without any second thoughts. Julian seemed genuinely interested with the stories, which was entertaining to see.
To my relief, the lunch ended earlier than I expected. Since Kyla was working in the same office as we were, Jensen left his wife in our care. Jeffrey was already outside with the car parked in front of the entrance as we parted ways. And behind him was another vehicle with a tall dark and dashingly handsome man holding the passenger door open. Jensen hugged Kyla and planned a brief kiss on her cheeks before he got in the car. The man who closed the door for Jensen turned in our direction and nodded in greeting between Julian and I. And to Kyla, he smiled and gave her a brief ‘see you later, ma’am.’
Kyla answered my unspoken question.
“That’s Dante. He’s Jensen’s personal assistant and chauffer.”
I nodded, appreciating her freely sharing that information.
As we got in the car, I was about to beeline towards the front passenger seat when Kyla suddenly got ahead, giving Jeffrey a bit of a surprise as he kept the two door open for us.
“Kyla, I don’t think…” I was about to protest when Julian got in the passenger seat in a bit of rush.
“Get in, Ms. Curtis. We have a long afternoon to deal with,” Julian called out when I remained by the front passenger door, looking at Kyla’s sly smirk.
When I hadn’t budge, Julian called out again but more sternly. Not liking his tone, I sighed and entered the back seat with him. Jeffrey hurriedly closed the door and got in the driver’s seat. The man was good with his job since not a minute later, we were already speeding through the main street towards the office.
“So Zoey, I hope you’ve settled in well. If you need any help with anything, you could go to my office and ask my secretary, Rhea, for a hand. She’s very resourceful.” Kyla spoke up, breaking a slight tension in the back seat.
“Thank you for the offer, Kyla. I’ll be sure to drop by.”
“How about you come over a few minutes before heading back to your desk?” She offered, turning briefly around and peered behind us. I saw her eye darted hastily towards Julian, who was looking out the window in silence.
I followed her gaze and peered down at my watch. It was nearly one thirty in the afternoon. From memory, I remembered Julian had a meeting at two with one of the department head. “I could suppose drop by a minute,” I muttered with uncertainty.
“Do you mind, Julian?” Kyla called out Julian’s attention.
He looked haughty turning towards her. “I need her by two.”
“Great.” Kyla seemed smug hearing his response.
Since I knew he could see me in his peripheral vision, I strained myself not to snuck a peek. I sighed in relief when Jeffrey parked the car outside our building. As we walked towards the busy lobby, I followed Kyla to the elevator with Julian trailing behind us in silence. Reaching our floor, the man remained quiet until Kyla and I halted in front of her office. A blonde petite girl who sat outside her office stood up and greeted towards the three of us. But Julian hadn’t heard her greeting as he gave me a brief command.
“Be back before two.”
“Of course.” I curtly replied as he continued walking towards his office.
Once he was gone, Kyla and her secretary escorted me inside the office on my right. Upon closing the door, the two nearly erupted in slight gibberish until I caught a few words like ’he met his match’ and ‘I can’t believe Rufus allowed this.’
“Ah, hello. I’m still here.” I waved sheepishly, waiting for them to cool down.
“I’ve never seen Julian looked frustrated until she was in the same room as him. I didn’t know it was possible.” Kyla looked ecstatic, which I’m still confused as to why.
“I don’t think he looked remotely…” I was about to argue until the other girl, who I’m sure was Rhea, interjected me.
“Oh, I think there’s something. Because as I passed by his office this morning – and I apologize for snooping around – I saw him staring at her with his eyebrow creased. He looked frustrated all right. And I’ve never seen him sporting that expression unless someone made another stupid technical error in the accounting sheets.” Rhea jumped in.
I glanced at the two of them, confused where the conversation was going. “Okay, I’m not sure what you two are implying here. But whatever it is, it’s not true. Mr. Hawksley and I… it’s purely professional between us.”
“Is that so?” Kyla smirked.
“I’m serious. And I have a boyfriend.” I firmly stated. As I said those words, I felt I’ve been drenched with reality. “I’m in a committed relationship with my boyfriend of three years. Though we are currently in a small rough patch, which might be half my fault, we are going strong.”
“Okay.” The two said in chorus.
I cleared my throat and changed the topic. “It’s nearly two. I’m heading back to my desk. It was nice talking to you Kyla. And I assumed you’re Rhea, her secretary?” I finally inquired.
Rhea looked a bit ashamed and hastily offered her hand towards me. “I’m sorry. I am her. It’s nice to meet you, Ms. Curtis.”
I briefly shook her hand with a meek smile. “Please call me, Zoey.”
Rhea timidly smiled and gestured towards the door. “I’ll escort you out.”
Before exiting the office, I looked at Kyla one last time. “It was lovely talking to you, Kyla.”
“I hope I didn’t put you out, Zoey. And I’m serious about my offer. If you need anything, my door is open.” Kyla stated.
As I headed back to my desk, I snuck a peek at Julian clear office and found his gaze in my direction. When I caught him ogling, he smoothly picked up his phone on his desk and turned his leather chair around. I contemplated if I’m reading into thing too much as Rhea’s words repeatedly echoed in my ears. ‘I saw him staring at her with his eyebrow creased. He looked frustrated.’ And he did look like it before he turned away.
But I pushed aside those complicated thoughts – shoving them up to the farthest corner of my mind where I filed everything that wasn’t important in my life right now. I don’t need this drama. I have work to do. When Julian got out of his office for his two o’clock meeting, we both walked in perfect synced and poker faces as we entered the conference room. There was a lot of introduction on my part.
I peered towards the clear glass behind me towards the open work area, and one by one people headed home. But for me, looking at Julian who was on the phone in his office, it felt like the day might not end at all. When dark clouds covered the once blue sky, the light around us brought the city to life and everyone had gone home. It was then I noticed the time on my desktop computer, quarter to eight in the evening.
“Ms. Curtis.” I jolted in surprise. And standing outside his office was Julian, who had suited back up in his navy blazer.
Though I saw him in the whole get up this morning, even after a long day the man remained unruffled. But his tired eyes said otherwise. When I hadn’t replied and kept ogling, he cleared his throat and called again.
“Ms. Curtis.” He waited until I finally responded.
“Yes, Mr. Hawksley.” I nearly chocked out the words.
“Have you already booked your flight this weekend to New York? And please tell me you got the hotel booked as well.”
“I already booked the hotel room, Mr. Hawksley. Don’t worry about the little details. If you’re worried, I’ve also reserved three restaurants for all your lunches and dinner while staying in the city. If you have other things in mind before we head out, I’m all ears and happy to help.” I kept my tone clear and professional.
“Thank you. But I’m only interested in whether or not you’re going on this trip with me.” He pointed out again, his words seemed like there was a double meaning.
My eyebrow creased. “Why are you so bothered about it? Since you said I’m going, then I am.” My voice was nearly on the edge of getting pissed off.
“You hadn’t verbally told me you are.” He quipped.
“Then, to assure you again, sir. I’m booking my ticket now.”
“Good. Then, that will be all for today, Ms. Curtis. I’ll see you tomorrow at seven in the morning with my coffee in hand this time.”
I was about to make a clever retort, but held my tongue back and nodded instead. “Of course. Have a good evening, Mr. Hawksley.”
I watched Julian’s eyes narrowed and his lips pursed at my response. It might not have been the words he wanted to hear from me. But I didn’t give him the opportunity to do so. When I saw no signs of Julian in the hallway, I cleared out my schedule for the weekend and finally booked my ticket for New York in the same flight as Julian. It wasn’t an easy task since I had a few days’ prior notice and the flight was nearly fully booked. But with my skill in the art of secretarial power and persuasion – and possibly dropping Julian’s name – I got my ticket in time. By the time I was done, it was pass nine in the evening.
I headed home and made a quick detour for a take-out. Once I was in my apartment, I settled down on my living room and popped open one of the takeout plastic container. Then I dealt with the next agenda of the evening. I called my parent’s home on loud speaker while munching on my oriental salad and fries. Someone answered on the fourth ring.
Hearing the familiar voice, I quickly greeted. “Hey, mom. It’s Zoey. I called to let you know I won’t be able to visit this weekend. I have a sudden business trip with my boss.”
“Zoey, dear. How are you?”
“Great, mom. How about you and dad?”
“We’re good.” I could guess her smile across the phone. “And what was that you said again?”
“I can’t visit you this weekend. I have a business trip with my boss to New York.”
“The Hunky looking one?”
I sighed. “The same one.”
“Have you made sure this man isn’t the same as the last prick you worked for? Because I’m not sure I’m comfortable about you going on a trip with him.” She firmly inquired.
“I’m not asking, mom. And to reassure you, he hadn’t done anything remotely in line with sexual harassment other than his passing remarks, which are manageable. And most of the time he did say something, I think it was only to tick me off.”
“But are you confident enough to sleep in a room with this guy?”
“What does this conversation got to do with him and me sharing a room? It’s a three-day business trip. Purely for business only, mom.”
“You keep repeating the word ’business’, honey. Are you sure that’s all there is to it? And you didn’t answer me if you are sharing a room with him?”
“I’m not repeating the word unconsciously, mom. It’s for you to clearly comprehend it. And goodness, no, mom, we’re not sharing a room.” I sighed heavily. This was the second time today that people tried to make up something between Julian and I that weren’t even there.
“Good. Then have a safe trip, honey.” She gleefully said like her previous inclination meant nothing.
“Bye, mom.” I hastily ended the call before she could think of another topic to tick me off.
As I was about to burry my phone away from sight, to give me a few minutes of peace with the television, a message flashed in my screen. I hastily opened and read the content. My heart suddenly softened when I saw who it was from.
How are you, Zoe?
I wanted to call but I know it’s late and you might be working or asleep. I want to be the first to say I’m sorry. I reflected what I had done. And I know it was my fault. I wanted to talk to you face to face quickly as I could but I’m held up at work. I’m currently heading on a flight to New York for a meeting with a gallery there. And baby, I have some great news.
When you have the time, please call me.
Suddenly, the trip to New York didn’t seem like a death wish.