Skin of the Night

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Chapter 86: As Quiet As A Corpse

William

I had dreaded returning to work for a while now for several reasons. I was anxious about my ability to perform seeing as my brain was still working slower than usual. Work at the office was a fast-paced environment, and I was sincerely worried I wouldn’t be able to keep up with my colleagues.

By now, I suspected that I was falling into depression, and I mainly thought so because I hardly had the will to wake up in the mornings anymore, and my appetite had just about vanished. There was also the fact that I felt fatigued at any hour of the day to consider, and being unable to find proper sleep did not aid my case. It had all become a vicious cycle, and I saw no solution for breaking the wheel of it.

Most importantly (or so I felt), I had dreaded it because I knew I would be forced to interact with her. I had no idea whatever of how to handle it, much less how to feel about it. Simply, I was scared of what I might find. Part of me was looking forward because I hoped to disclose evidence that she was as shattered as I was, but another feared I might discover evidence of the opposite.

Why had she returned my gift? Could she truly have moved on? The idea had haunted me all weekend. If only she’d added a note. It was truly cruel of her not to have included one. How could she expect something like that to be intuitively understood? Just a simple explanation would have sufficed.

Since I did not want my return to the office to be made a great deal out of, I arrived half past seven with the intention of avoiding most of my colleagues. The plan was to head in unnoticed before I would slide into the current dynamics as discreetly as possible. I was the only person present in the lift, but once I stepped out, I saw that a few of my colleagues were already here.

“Will!” Matthew – one of our legal assistants – called from his desk.

I glanced over to pay him a nod. “Morning,” I greeted, but made it clear from my strides that I did not intend to stop for a chat.

I had just opened the door to my office when she came dashing toward me from inside, and I gathered from her haste that she must have heard Matthew and hadn’t meant to be caught in here.

I couldn’t quite describe the ridiculous hope that unfurled within me upon the unexpected encounter with her, nor could I describe the feeling when she abruptly halted and looked up into my eyes.

There she stood, wearing a navy blue dress that hugged her figure as though it loved her as much as I did. I was jealous even of her dress in that moment, because it was doing what I no longer could. I’d said before that the sight of her often made me question whether there could be a God, and in that instant, I was quite certain He was laughing at me, as if He’d purposely arranged for this to happen to remind me that only hell awaited me now.

I found I’d been rendered speechless, because I could not utter as much as a word. All I could do was stare. In fact, I could not seem to stop. She was standing mere inches away from me, gaze fleeting as if she were ashamed of herself. When I caught a whiff of her perfume, I stopped breathing. It was as though her proximity only intensified her absence from my life. During those seconds I missed her more than I ever had, and I hadn’t thought that was possible.

“I’m sorry,” she said without looking at me, and the unexpected sound of her voice stupefied me. It wasn’t that I had forgotten it, but I had forgotten its effect. She had a low voice for a female, but so beautifully soft. Mollifying, like a never-ending lullaby.

I had no idea whatever of what I looked like when she stole a glance at me, but I noted that she was quick to avert her eyes. Why the hell was she here? I could hardly fathom her presence. Her being here was nothing short of overwhelming. I’d no idea how to react.

“I hadn’t expected you so early,” she continued when I failed to speak. “I was just sorting out some files on your desk, for the new case you’ve been assigned to.”

I spoke the only thing I could think appropriate to say, “New case?”

Her pretty face turned up again and I took advantage by analysing it in great detail. If eyes could caress, mine were doing it right in that moment. Engrossed in her beauty, I admired the somewhat slanted form of her deep blue eyes and the freckles that lay scattered across her small nose, but I dared not look at the fullness of her lips, because I couldn’t bear no longer being entitled to their kisses.

“Acquisition case,” her mouth moved, but I barely heard her.

“Sorry?”

“Acquisition case,” she repeated. “Acionna Shipping means to purchase SwiftSeas. Frederick and Lucy have already started the due diligence process just last week, and you’ve been assigned to their team. I wanted to help you get back on track as smoothly as possible, so I’ve written a document that includes what areas you should prioritise as you get up to date on it. The relevant files are attached to the respective bullet-points. There are a few licences and legal documents you’ll need to look over, to confirm that everything is in order for the purchase.”

Was I hearing her right? “You’ve done what?”

She turned a delicious shade of pink in front of me. “I wanted to be of help.”

I didn’t know what to say. She must have spent all weekend working on this. Was this her trying to tell me that she hadn’t moved on, or was she merely expressing that she hoped we could remain professional?

“The files are on your desk, because I know you prefer to work with paper format, but everything else is still in electronic form, so if you need me to print anything, let me know. You’ve got a meeting with Acionna’s representatives tomorrow, namely Lloyd Bister and Frank Gordon, and you should be able to find the appointment in your virtual calendar. If you need me to help you prepare for it, I’m able to stay here the entire evening. For now, you’ve got a meeting with Lucy and Frederick at nine where you’ll be briefed on the case.”

I couldn’t stand her professional behaviour. She was acting completely indifferent to our past, as if the recent weeks we’d spent apart hadn’t been at all unendurable, and I took it as an insult. How could she look at me like that, as if her world hadn’t been completely shattered the way mine had?

“Anything else?” I gritted my teeth to prevent my bitterness from spilling.

She brushed her hair behind her ear and motioned to the corner of my office where the black leather sofa stood. Something green had found a home there since last. “I... I brought you a plant, as a welcome back present. It’s a Japanese peace lily. I thought it could stand in your office. Something green’s been missing in here, and it will help oxidise the room, which is good for relieving stress.”

That nerd in her was irresistible, and it had used to bring me such delight. All it did now was bring misery upon me, because it reminded me of what I no longer had the option to enjoy whenever I felt like it.

I wanted to ask her to carry the plant out, because I did not want it or anything else that could remind me of her, but it seemed a childish thing to do, so I didn’t.

“You look...” she paused and motioned toward me, “you look... Good.”

Did I? I found that hard to believe. And why would she say it? If it were purely out of civility, I’d rather she spared me.

It occurred to me to repay the compliment, but I chose not to because I resented the fact that she looked as beautiful as ever. If she had displayed any signs of sleep-deprivation or recent tears, then I might have told her.

“I’ll get out of your hair,” she murmured.

Even though I wanted her to stay I stepped aside to let her exit. I stared after her with an awful sense of longing, but as I watched her graceful walk, that demon in my brain whispered to me the thought of her with him.

She had said she would be available the entire evening, so it was not impossible that she had been keeping him company all of last week, perhaps even last night, to clear her schedule. Had he stripped a dress like that off of her? Watched her in abandonment like only I was supposed to, and then held her while asleep?

I slammed the door shut after myself.

Once I reached my desk, my eyes scanned the files she had laid out. I had always adored her sense of order. That trait of hers was one of the first things I’d noticed after she’d stepped into my office after two months spent apart. I’d even underestimated her in the beginning, only to be rendered greatly impressed by her ability to adapt to her circumstance. She’d proven herself a quick learner just on her first day.

My notion of her tidiness had been solidified after I’d spent time at the flat she shared with Jason in Camden. Always after breakfast, she’d clean up after herself, and often after Jason as well. No dishes were left for later, and her bed was always made whenever I came over. I saw no dirty laundry ever, apart from the items I stripped her body of in throes of passion.

What a wife she would have made for, independent, domestic and nurturing as she was, and yet I wouldn’t be the groom waiting at the end of the aisle.

Sinking into my chair, my gaze slid over to my new plant. I fucking hated it. A Japanese peace lily, as if the name signified our reconciliation? Could she have given me anything more ridiculous?

With anger in my movements, I opened the first folder to get started on my day while I waited for my stationary Mac to revive, and I already dreaded the amount of system updates I’d have to make it complete. They would certainly delay my work.

I’d been sitting there for twenty minutes by the time someone knocked on my door.

I released a frustrated sigh. “Yes?”

Dad stepped in. “Morning, chap. I heard you arrived early.”

“Yes.”

“How are you feeling? Good to be back?”

“I’m working on getting à jour with the case I’ve been assigned to.”

“Yes, that I can see.” The plant caught the corner of his eye, so he turned his head to study it. “That’s a lovely plant.”

I did not agree. “It’s a plant.”

“I think your mother had one of those a few years back. A Japanese peace lily, is it?”

She had?

Since I didn’t respond, he faced me again. “Did you have it brought in yourself or is it a gift?”

“A gift.”

“Who from?”

“Cara.”

“Oh, that’s a lovely gesture. I always thought you could use a bit of green in here.”

“Was there anything in particular you wanted?”

He approached my desk with his hands in his pockets, and I could tell from his expression that I was about to get schooled. “I came to check up on you. Your mother and I have barely heard a word from you since the incident.”

“I’ve been requiring some time to myself.”

“That’s all fine, but you could at least have called us every now and then, William. Your mother’s been worried sick.”

“I’m sorry. That wasn’t my intention.”

“So I called Jason, since you weren’t picking up.”

The silence that ensued was filled with tension, and I knew at once that he was more informed than I would have liked.

“And what did he have to say?”

“That you hadn’t picked up his calls either.”

“Like I said, I’ve required time to myself.”

At last, he fired his shot, “He also mentioned you’d broken up with Cara.”

I faced away from him, unsure of what to say. It had crossed my mind that I would need to inform him about the turn our relationship had taken, but I hadn’t yet been able to decide what to say, because what could I possibly say without painting the wrong picture of both her and myself?

I couldn’t simply tell him that I was jealous, and that I felt unbearably insecure in her because she’d decided to return to a man whom she had spent three years fucking before I entered her life, a man whom she had proven time and again that she still harboured sincere affection for, and who had confessed he was in love with her. If he hadn’t managed already, I was certain he was working overtime trying to win her romantic affections once and for all. Competing with that – with him, a man who knew her superlatively better than I did – wasn’t something I’d subject myself to. I did not deserve to have to convince her of why I was the better choice. I deserved only that she would find it obvious that I was.

What made everything truly intolerable was that she had proven once, when she’d brought him home with her that awful night, that she was perfectly capable of ignoring her feelings for me. While we hadn’t been exclusive at that point, the principle it revealed was that her feelings for me were not enough to prevent her from enjoying other men. She was perfectly capable of forgetting me when it came to him, and I couldn’t forgive her for that. It scared the bleeding hell out of me. She couldn’t be trusted with him. It was that simple.

It wasn’t appropriate to share those details with my father. Our problems were too complicated for an outsider to understand. So instead, I said, “I did.”

“William, what have you done?” his tone was accusing.

“I’ve done nothing but express loyalty. A favour she couldn’t return.”

His orbs widened. “Has she been unfaithful?”

“Not technically, as far as I’m aware.”

“Explain, William.”

“I’d rather not.”

“But you will,” he ordered.

I glared into the blue colour of his eyes, a feature I’d always been told I’d inherited from him. “You won’t like it. It’s really not appropriate, Dad.”

“Tell me.”

“I refuse. You wouldn’t understand. I’m telling you to leave it.”

“But she’s a wonderful girl. I don’t understand.”

“Mind your own business!” I snapped.

He studied me as though I were only a small cub pretending to be a grown lion. “As my son, you are my business, William, but all right, then. I’m only worried. After everything, a broken relationship strikes me as the last thing you need.”

“You’re quite right, Dad. It is the last thing I need, and I certainly don’t need to be reminded of it, either.”

“Do you think you’ll be able to maintain a professional attitude toward each other?”

“Will you fire her if I say no?” My instinct was to protect her from such an outcome, but upon second thought, it also tempted. God, how it tempted. I wouldn’t need to see her ever again then, or her ridiculous plant, which I would order her to bring right along with her.

He snorted. “No. She’s proven herself an excellent intern. I intend to hire her once she’s finished with her degree, so that would be ridiculous.”

I sucked in a breath of air rather harshly. He meant to hire her? “Then why do ask?”

“Because we’ll have to take preventive measures. She won’t be allowed to work with you under any circumstance if that’s the case. And I don’t mean to sound cruel now, but you’ll disappoint me if you force me to go to those measures. I expect you to be able to act civil and compartmentalise your feelings. Keep your private affairs private. They don’t belong in the workplace. And her gift is clearly a token of affection, William. She wants this to work. Act your age and treat her accordingly.”

“You have my word.”

“Good. How is your therapy going?”

I bit down for a beat as I weaved together something to say. “Dr Fielder is a brilliant mind.”

“That’s good to hear. He was highly recommended by Peter,” who was Dad’s closest friend from childhood and had, like Garrick, served in Afghanistan.

“I can see why.”

He shrugged. “I’ll leave you to it, then.”

“Thanks.”

“Come for dinner on Wednesday. Your mother needs to see you.”

“Fine.”


It was nearly time for lunch, which I intended to spend in the privacy of my office, when somebody knocked on my door.

“If it’s Andy you may piss off,” but it was Violet.

“Only me.” She grinned as if I were an old, cherished friend she hadn’t seen in far too long, which I supposed I was.

“If you’re here to welcome me back, the rest of the building has already beaten you to it. I’m quite finished with recounting my ordeal by now.”

She rolled her eyes. After shutting the door after herself, she approached my desk with her arms folded. “I was wondering if you’d lunch with me.”

I focused on my work again. “I’d rather not.”

“We can stay in here, if you like.”

“I’d like to be left alone, Violet. I’ve got a fuckload of work to catch up on.”

Her manicured fingers spread over the document I was reading. I’d never understood why women liked to wear nails that long. They were neither pretty nor practical. “You’ll overwork yourself. You need a break.”

“From people, yes.”

“Always so witty,” she groaned and grabbed my jaw to force me to look at her. “I’m not here to bother you about her. I’m here to ask you how you’re doing.”

I writhed my jaw out of her hold and watched her round my desk to have a seat on it right in front of me. Some months ago, I’d fucked her right there, and she’d been in exactly that position. Strange to think of now. The idea of enjoying any other woman than Cara was completely inconceivable. So suddenly, my promiscuous days were entirely over. Simple lust had met eternal death for me. I would never hunger for a woman in the absence of love ever again.

“Don’t be such a hard man, Will,” she scolded. “I’m not here to judge. You know that’s not my style.”

It was a response to impulse, but upon the thought of Cara, my eyes strayed to the plant she’d given me, or rather the jacket of my suit that now covered it from view, and Violet was quick to follow.

“That’s a tad extreme, don’t you think?” she commented.

“I thought you said you weren’t here to judge.”

“Really, though? It’s a plant, Will.”

“It’s too distracting. Too... green.” Like myself.

The irony of my own statement was not lost on me – on the contrary, it was deliberate – but it appeared lost on her. Violet had never been able to detect the double meanings I often included in my statements, which was another reason as to why I’d never been able to view her romantically. She was admirable, indeed, but quite boring in her own way. There was no doubting her intellect, but her wit was another matter.

There was only one woman that had ever been able to discern my concealed wit as though it were entirely blatant, and she would have asked if green wasn't my favourite colour right about now.

Violet looked back at me with a raised eyebrow that revealed her scepticism.

“I’d like it if you left me alone, Violet.”

“I can tell you about my life?” she proposed through a winsome smile. “Or we can just be quiet together. I just don’t appreciate you being alone right now, Will. Your behaviour today has got me worried. You’re not acting like yourself.”

“Well, I don’t quite feel like myself, so perhaps that’s why.”

“You’re my best friend, Will. I hate to see you like this. Just let me be there for you. That’s all I ask.”

I knew I was because Violet didn’t have many friends. Ever the workaholic, she only had the capacity to maintain a select few relations. Over the years, her friends had grown tired of being neglected and had left her to manage on her own.

I sighed. It was odd how her presence managed to make me feel a slight bit less lonely and depressed. In the wake of this chaos, she was the first person apart from Alex to express support regardless of my decisions. She wasn’t taking sides as if she had a right to get angry with me for ruining my own life, and that wasn’t something I took for granted.

“Do you promise you’ll be quiet?”

“Quiet as a corpse.”

“Fine.”

Enthused, she reached for the telephone of my desk. “What shall we order for lunch?”

“I’m not very hungry.”

“I’ll make that a club sandwich, then. You were always able to gobble those down even when you weren’t hungry.”

For the first time in what seemed like days, a chuckle slipped out of my mouth. “As you please.”

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