Elegant Deception

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After the meeting, Rhea and I asked Zoey to stay for a few more minutes. Once the conference room was cleared out, I saw Zoey relaxed from her usual professional façade. It wasn’t the first time I’ve seen her like this.

Before Zoey worked for Julian, I’ve heard a lot of stories from my little sister – her best friend – about the daily repugnant behavior she had to deal with her previous boss. Then she applied for this secretarial job and met Julian. I thought she finally caught a break. But society always finds a way to show you a dark reality of the world we lived in.

“How are you holding up?” I asked when she hadn’t spoken since the rest of the secretarial staff left the room.

She stood up and took another deep breath. “I’m fine. And I need to keep saying that or I might have a mental break down.”

I pulled one of the chairs closes and asked for her to take a seat. “Do you need me to get you some water or anything to eat?” I asked, then I remembered it was already noon. “Would you like me to ask Greg to get you something from the bistro? Or do you have other plans for lunch?” I offered.

Zoey looked up to me and nodded. “No, I’m staying in. Julian has a meeting. And I’m sure he’s leaving Greg with me today. So it’s safe to ask him to order take-outs from the bistro. Also, would you mind joining me for lunch?”

“Of course,” I replied and turned to Rhea. “Could you stay here while I talk to Greg?”

“Sure,” Rhea said.

I hurriedly walked out of the room and nearly bumped with Julian. “Mr. Hawksley…” I gawked at him in surprise.

He didn’t register that we nearly collided. His eyes were fixed at the door behind me where Zoey and Rhea remained. “How is she? Did the meeting go well? Did she ask you?” His words came out in a rush.

A bit hesitant, I placed a hand on his arm to grab some of his attention. “She’s fine. And she was able to ask the secretarial staff.”

He peered down and smiled. “Good. I’ll just talk and tell her I’m heading out now.” As he was about to march inside, he turned and grab my arm. “Amy, would you stay and watch her for me?”

I didn’t let him finish his sentence. “I already promised her, Mr. Hawksley. Don’t worry. Go and talk to her or you’ll be late for your lunch meeting.”

He nodded and thank me one last time before entering the conference room. Now that Julian was there, in a couple of seconds, Rhea exited the room and left the two lovebirds.

“I’ll go and check on Kyla,” Rhea stated as she walked with me.

“Are you going to have lunch with us?” I asked as we walked side by side.

“If you’d like my company?” Her words hanged into a question.

“Please join us. I might call my sister in as well,” I added in thought.

Rhea grinned. “That’ll be good. With all of this happening so suddenly, Zoey might have not told April anything.”

That made me rethink my thoughts. “Maybe I should not. My sister is a handful. I don’t want Zoey to be stressed out even further.”

“Is that how she thinks if she’s there?” Rhea asked. It was an obvious question as well. And knowing my sister and Zoey, she’d want all the moral support she needed.

“I’ll call April while I tell Greg to grab some lunch.” I decided.

“I’ll see you in a few.” Rhea waved at me as we reached her desk. I could see Kyla already up and about, ready to go somewhere for lunch.

“Yeah, see you,” I called and hastily made my way back to the reception desk.

Once I was there, I didn’t skirt around and asked Greg to grab some lunch as I grab my purse. It was then Dean interjected. Looking at the vibe, he got a hint.

“Does this mean we’re canceling lunch today?” He asked.

Greg was already by the elevator yet he heard us. However, Albert, who was closest to us, clearly felt the tension between Dean and I. But he kept it cool and stood up, pretending to get ready to go out when Julian arrived.

I stared at Dean in surprise, though I clearly heard him as well. “What?”

“We’re not having lunch together?” He phrased again.

“Now! Who asked who here?” Greg called out but the elevator’s door opened.

I turned to Greg and gestured at the exit. “Go, Greg. Please!” I exclaimed.

He chortled but followed nonetheless. Once he was gone, Albert had found the confidence to speak up. “So, are you going to answer that question? Who asked who?” He questioned.

Dean stared at me at the same time I glanced at him. Once we caught looking at each other, I quickly turned away as he did. Because of that timid response, Albert started chuckling. “You two are too cute.”

Dean snorted at his remark. But didn’t say anything to differ it.

And thankfully – as my day had been so far – luck was with me as Julian and Kyla walked out. Seeing the three of us standing idly in the reception area made the two suspicious.

“Is there something wrong here?” Kyla asked.

Albert cleared his throat to defuse the slight tension, which was palpable.

I cleared my throat as well before answering. “No. I’m just heading back inside. I’ll be having my lunch with Zoey, Rhea, and April today if my sister is free.” I informed offhandedly.

Kyla disregarded the previous tension and got distracted with what I said. “I wish I could join you ladies today, but I’m having lunch with Jensen today. He just got back from a short business trip.”

I smiled and reassured her, “It’s okay, Kyla. Please be with your husband. The girls and I will be with Zoey. And I’ll let you know, Mr. Hawksley, if she needs anything.” I added the last tidbit as I noticed Julian opening his mouth to interrupt.

“Thank you, Amy,” He nodded and peered at Dean, who still sat by the reception desk. “Dean, aren’t you joining Albert and me? I think Greg can handle everything here.”

Dean finally glanced away and stood up. “Got it.”

With that, the group hastily walked in the elevator as Albert held it open for Julian and Kyla. As the door closed, with Dean in front, I met his gaze one last time. He looked disappointed. But not too much since he winked at me before he disappeared from my view.

I didn’t know I was holding my breath when I started coughing as I’ve choked on my own saliva. I shook it off and regained my composure to focus what I was trying to do. With my phone in hand, I scrolled through my contact and called my sister.

I was able to get hold of her as I make my way back to the conference room. But she sounded swamped. She hesitantly declined after I offered her to join us for lunch. However, she wasn’t quick to end the call. Knowing her, I quickly gave the heated office gossip. She was as rattled as any of us in the office when I broke the news. On cue, as I entered the room, she asked for Zoey. I handed my phone to her before taking my seat.

“April,” Zoey said. “Yes, I’m fine. No worries,” she continued after a brief pause.

We listened to the one-sided conversation until Zoey put it on speaker. “It’s better to tell you at the same time. I think Amy and Rhea would want to know the whole story as well.” She stated.

“Okay,” my sister’s voice was clear on my phone’s speaker.

Zoey took a deep breath before she got to her story. She looked shaky. “A couple of years ago my parents made a bad investment which led to them to declare bankruptcy earlier in the month. However, they only told me until yesterday. Knowing who I’m involved with, they wanted to keep it a secret. But then, the bank is seizing most of my parent’s assets. They couldn’t keep quiet for long,” she paused to take another deep breath.

This must have been a rough day for Zoey. No wonder she’s beside herself.

“I’ve been so busy and swapped with the ground-breaking for the new resort, and then Julian proposed. I didn’t notice my own parents were…” She looked like she was about to break. “I should have known something was wrong.”

“You’re doing your best, Zoey,” I reassured her.

“Your parents only thought best for you,” Rhea added.

However, it was April who asked the million-dollar question. “Did the paparazzi found out?”

“Yes… When I exited the elevator earlier this morning, they were asking about it… and then… they have the nerve… the nerve…” She paused as she started getting choked up.

I moved around the desk as Rhea and I comforted her. “It’s okay, Zoey. Take your time.”

She nodded and took another deep breath before continuing her speech. “Well… they have the nerve to say that I’ve only gotten engaged to Julian because I had financial troubles. Since Julian and I haven’t made any official announcement of our engagement to the press, it’s making everything look bad. And I thought we’ll make the announcement formally at our engagement party, which we’ve planned to be by the end of the month. But now…”

We could hear the frustration and her pain from what happened. If I was in her position, I wasn’t sure what to do as well. It was truly uncalled for. They made something special seemed dirty. And of course, the media doesn’t care about the well-being of the lives of people they’ll ruin.

“Julian, Kyla, the PR, and lawyers are making sure that this doesn’t circulate further. But these people already know. And I’m not sure I could handle tomorrow if my family’s dirty laundry going to be aired out in public. That’s stress and attention I don’t want for my parents.” Zoey added.

“Zoey, we’re here for you. Don’t let those tabloid reporters get to you. I know it’s uncalled for that they dug up a vulnerable time your family is going through. But don’t let their words diminish your worth. Everyone who knows you two recognized that your relationship isn’t for show. It’s real. Always remember that.” I stated firmly.

“Don’t let those jerks ruin your mood, Zoe. I know it can be difficult, but it’ll only be more difficult from this point on. You’re marrying the heir of a multi-million-dollar business. These type of things will continue to happen. You can’t let it get to you every time. You’ll break what you have with Julian.” April said over the phone.

“Do you love him, Zoey?” Rhea asked.

Zoey turned to her, and for the first time, we got a sincere smile. “Of course, with all my heart.”

“Then, that’s all the assurance you need yourself. Whatever false accusation they have of you, as long as you know they’re not true, it doesn’t mean anything.” Rhea said.

“But I don’t want Julian’s image get ruined because of me,” Zoey finally admitted one of her fears. Somehow, I’ve noticed that when they both started dating. She always kept herself clean and poised, both personally and professionally. And that truly does put unnecessary pressure.

“Zoey, Julian doesn’t care about any of that.” I pointed out. “I’ve worked as part of his team for nearly seven years. And I’ve heard a lot of things about Julian from the tabloid, but Julian never bothered himself with it. You shouldn’t as well.”

Zoey nodded and grinned. “I know what you mean. It didn’t even faze him when his ex-girlfriend created all those dramas over a year ago.”

“See, even you see it as well. So don’t let this get to you,” I affirmed.

Zoey nodded and took another deep breath to compose herself. “Thank you for listening to me and for your advice, girls. It means a lot.”

“No worries,” April said.

“As we’ve said, We’re here for you,” I added. Rhea and April seconded in agreement.

After that heartfelt conversation, April excused herself and ended the call to get back to work. On cue, Greg had timely arrived with our food. We offered him to dine with us. Since my sister wasn’t there, Greg took her share. Once we finished lunch, we saw a change in Zoey’s mood. She was out of her slump and back to her old self.

I saw a better outlook for the afternoon. Then I saw Dean and remembered how I didn’t come through with my promise. There was some tension in the reception that Greg and Albert alternately keep a light chatter in the background while I worked. However, it wasn’t until after office hours Dean spoke up.

“Since we didn’t have lunch earlier, would you be open to having dinner with me tonight?” He asked as Albert and Greg got ready to escort Julian and Zoey back to their apartment.

Greg overheard him, of course. He had been peering between us, waiting from something to happen all afternoon. Now, Greg’s imagination was set in motion again.

“Oh! Dinner, yes. You two should go out for dinner. You’re free later, right, Amy?” Greg interjected before I could reply.

I glared at him and arched my eyebrow. “Aren’t you supposed to check the lobby? Mr. Hawksley and Zoey are heading out in a minute now.” I redirected his attention, which did the trick.

However, he put on a bit of fight as he slowly pressed the call button for the elevator. To his luck, it took some time for it to arrive. The reception area was eerily quiet for once.

“Would you like to have dinner with me?” Dean asked again when I still didn’t reply.

“I’m…” I paused in thought, a bit hesitant. I planned to do some extra work throughout the evening. I’ve already compiled some resources for Zoey when I helped Rufus looked for a temporary lease for the Chicago branch in its early stages. And looking at my computer monitor, I could do more if I stayed longer.

However, I didn’t get to give him my answer.

We were interrupted again when Julian and Zoey walked in. They both quickly noticed the tension in the room.

“Is there something wrong?” Zoey was the one who broke the ice.

I looked at Julian, who was staring between Dean and I. He then abruptly turned to Albert, who silently joined Greg by the elevator. “Zoey, let’s go.” He lightly nudged her towards the exit.

Then Julian turned to Dean, “You can have the rest of the evening off, Dean, as promised.” And with a smirk, he said to me, “You have a lovely evening, Amy.”

Zoey looked up to Julian in confusion. “What’s wrong?” She asked again as Julian nearly dragged her towards the elevator, which timely opened to their luck.

“I’ll tell you on the way back,” he replied.

With one light nudge again, they entered the elevator. However, Zoey lingered for a moment.

“Is there something wrong with Amy and the new guy?” Zoey trailed off as she got a good look on Dean. “Wait, is he…?” She stared at him in surprise.

But she wasn’t able to finish her sentence when Julian tugged her inside the elevator and quickly pressed the close button.

Finally, we were alone again.

As that thought dawn on me, my stomach plummeted with nerves. I could feel my palm starting to sweat.

“What do you say?” He asked with less formality now.

Should I?

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