Chapter 1 - The Morning After
“Miss O’Neil,” the sour voice on the other end of the phone stunned her. She couldn’t remember answering the phone. The annoying ringing had been there, in the background, as she stared at her computer screen in disbelieving shock but, given what she was seeing, she shouldn’t have picked up the call.
This wasn’t real. None of this was real. It must be a dream, no, a nightmare. Wake up, wake up, wake up, she chanted to herself as she closed her eyes and scrubbed her face with the hand that wasn’t holding the phone.
“Miss O’Neil, I know you are there,” the acidic voice forced her eyes open. No change. The screen was the same.
“Yes?” she didn’t recognise her own voice.
“Mr Wood would like to see you in his office at 10am sharp,” the short sharp words caused her to take a sudden intake of breath. Mr Wood was the CEO of Wentworth Accounting Services and she’d been trying to get his attention for the past year. This, however, was not part of the plan.
“I’m sick,” her voice stuttered, “I’m sick today.”
“I’m not surprised,” the woman at the other end of the phone sniffed in what sounded like disgust.
Andrea cringed at the monitor again. It wasn’t possible that Mrs Windsor, head of Human Resources, had the graphic pictures plastered all over her screen too, was it? This must be about something totally unrelated.
“Irrespective, you will be in Mr Wood’s office at 10am and I do not suggest you make him wait.”
“There’s been a mistake,” her voice quivered as her eyes burnt. This wasn’t happening. Why was this happening? “It’s all a big mistake.”
“Yes, that too is evident,” Mrs Windsor’s cold voice interrupted her as she started to mumble out an excuse. “You will have an opportunity to explain your actions to Mr Wood in the meeting. Good day, Miss O’Neil.”
Good day? Andrea looked at the dead receiver. Good day? How could anyone possibly construe today as a ‘good day’?
She glanced at the screen which was now making frantic pinging noises as the number of unread emails and Facebook messages banked up. The images were still there. The woman on the screen still looked identical to her and if Andrea’s head had been glued onto someone else’s body it wasn’t comically obvious.
She stumbled out of the chair and headed for the shower. That would make this better. She smelt like vomit, stale beer and cigar smoke. She stood like a statue as the hot water cascaded over her. Usually this relaxed her and erased her worries. Not today. Today she was too busy fighting to remember what happened last night. How did she get into this mess?
The WAS company Christmas Party was traditionally held on a Wednesday night during the height of the festive party season. So, with no clashes with other functions, it was compulsory for everyone to attend. It was usually a fun night but something had happened last night and now she wished she had been somewhere else, anywhere else. Part of the problem was that she couldn’t remember the sequence of events that would make those pictures make sense. Arriving, yes that was clear, the Christmas Party speech was also fresh in her mind, but everything after that was a blur. Getting drunk and being photographed in Joshua Wood’s office chair, on his desk and in various positions around his office weren’t even faint memories. How could she possibly ‘explain her actions’ when she had absolutely no idea how or why she did what those pictures claimed she did?
She ran the towel over her numb body, that wasn’t her. It couldn’t be her. She was the good girl. In High School she had been the invisible nerd. In college she had been the unadventurous straight A student. And now she was the ambitious accountant. She didn’t ‘do’ parties. She didn’t get herself into these situations. She sat in the front row and took notes.
Hesitating in front of her wardrobe, she pulled out a suit. No, it fell to the floor, the skirt was too short. The next one followed the first, the blazer too tight. Soon a pile of pressed business clothes lay heaped at her feet, each more inappropriate than the last.
The phone rang. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. This time she wasn’t going to answer it.
“Andrea Ethel O’Neil,” the answering machine amplified the shrill voice of her mother. She grimaced. Her mother only used her middle name when scolding her and the use of name itself was punishment enough. “Pick up the phone young lady. I’ve just turned on the computer and you have some explaining to do. I’ve already had Aunty Doreen in my ear. How could you do this to me? I brought you up better than that! If the golf ladies see this,” the voice trailed off as her mother issued a plaintive moan, “It’s your father’s side of you. I knew it would come out eventually. I can’t believe you would do this to me. I’m speechless Andrea, utterly speechless. What can I do when you show so little respect for me and the way raised you? I can’t talk to you. I simply can’t. You need to make this go away. Fix this Andrea. Fix this now.”
The crash of the call ending made her flinch. Why did she link her Facebook account to her mother and all her extended family? Oh hell, she realised, when she was tagged in those pictures it must have made them visible to all her Facebook friends.
Grabbing a pair of dark trousers and the most covering shirt she could find, she threw them on and headed back to the computer. Her mother was right about one thing, she needed to fix this now. Kicking herself for being so stupid she clicked on the first picture to delete it. That’s when she noticed the boxes beneath; Likes 25,674; Shares 33,569; Comments 46,985. How was that possible? The pictures were only posted a couple of hours ago and she didn’t have that many friends.
Her hand shook as she manoeuvred the mouse looking for the delete menu. Facebook wasn’t something she was that familiar with. Sure, she checked in every morning and evening but that was for the funny anecdotes, cute cat pictures and occasional status update about people who had lives, but in truth it was more for entertainment than social networking.
It was then she noticed the clock in the corner of the screen. Her heart sank. She was out of time. Already late for work, if she didn’t leave now she wasn’t going to make this meeting with Mr Wood. Abandoning the computer she grabbed her things and headed for the door. This would have to wait until she could ask Jill at work how to delete. Another hour wasn’t going to make this any worse.
At 9.45am she walked into head office. Andrea’s plan was simple. Everyone would be at their desks working, she would calmly and discreetly walk directly to Mr Wood’s office and then she would find Jill. She had never been called to Joshua Wood’s office so she knew this was serious but it couldn’t be connected to the pictures. Neither he nor Mrs Windsor had any social connection to her and she doubted that the broody workaholic even had a profile on Facebook. It stood to reason that if she was that drunk she must have embarrassed herself in some other way.
The security guard on the entrance door to the building was leaning back in his chair looking her up and down as she waited for the elevator. She turned her attention to the metal doors in front of her. It was all in her head. Paranoia was setting in. Either that or these pictures were just the tip of the iceberg. Had she had made a sceptical of herself in public as well as within the private office of her CEO?
In the lift she closed her eyes and tried to mentally prepare herself. It wasn’t uncommon to get drunk and do embarrassing things at the company Christmas party. Last year Jack Welsh had got sloshed and had draped himself all over any woman who came too close. Everyone laughed that off. The year before Beth, the receptionist, threw up in the fish tank. She was teased but nothing more came of it. Andrea knew if she could ignore the jibs it would become old news and people would move on.
So when the doors opened she exited the lift with her shoulders back and her head held high. The open planned floor was humming with activity as she strode towards the office at the south end. She released the breath that she hadn’t been aware she was holding in and her lips twitched into the small smile of relief. It was all in her head. Her overactive imagination had made this into a bigger deal than it actually was.
Half way across the floor, as she did every morning, she turned to say hi to Jill. Her step faltered. The smile frozen on her face she just stopped mid step. Everyone was looking at her. Before she could think about it she had twisted in a full circle. Everyone was staring at her with wide eyes and shocked expressions. Then it hit her, the deafening silence. It was like someone had hit the pause button stopping time for everyone except her.
She teetered, unsure as to what to do.
“Slut,” the word cut the air. It came from somewhere behind her but, as she subconsciously swung to face her attacker, the insult released her colleagues from whatever held them in place. The stunned looks changed to glaring scowls and looks of open disgust. The silent air became alive with a discontented buzz.
She took three slow steps backwards, towards her original direction, before turning and with shaky steps she continued, head down, shoulders stooped, and with numb movement. Something hit her and bounced off. She scurried through the growled words and accusations but her brain refused to process them.
These people she had worked with for three years. She knew these people. They were her friends. This wasn’t right.
Blinking back tears she almost ploughed into a door. Looking up at the tall dark wood directly in front of her, she knew that she had run in the wrong direction. She should have made for the exit. Her racing heart was telling her to get as far as possible from this place. But instead she stood at the place she least wanted to be - Joshua Wood’s door.
Blinking rapidly she contemplated running. If she made it back through the gauntlet she might escape this hell. One foot was twisting free of the stilettos she foolishly wore today when the door opened.
There he stood. Despite everything she felt she couldn’t help but admire the man. Joshua Wood was six foot two worth of toned flesh, broad shoulders and chiselled face that renaissance painters would have queued up for. To say that he was gorgeous was the understatement of the year.
“Alright, get back to work,” his gravel voice, directed at the office behind her, had her weak knees shake further. “Miss O’Neil,” his jaw tightened as he stood aside to allow her to enter his office.
She stabbed her foot back into the shoe as she stumbled into the room that was now so familiar to her.
“Mr Wood, there’s been a mistake,” stuttering she faltered under the weight of his cold eyes.
“Take a seat Miss O’Neil,” a raw rage was barely concealed in his short clipped words. “You know Mrs Windsor and I’ve asked Mr Shaw to join us.”
She shrank into the chair offered to her with Mrs Windsor scribbling notes to Mr Wood’s left and an empty chair his other side. They sat in ominous silence as they waited for her manager to join them. Something inside of her wanted to make small talk about the weather, anything to break the tension in the room. But she sat watching her hands as a cold foreboding seeped into her bones.
“Sorry I’m late,” the voice was bright as the door closed behind Henry, “It’s been a hell of a morning. You’re a wild card Andy. If I was a betting man I’d have empty pockets today.”
She winced, an automatic response not to what he said but to Henry’s persistent use of that name. She hated her name being shortened to the male version and, despite her insistence, he seemed unable to comply.
She didn’t move her eyes from her hands as he fell into the only chair left in the room. He would have winked at her if she had and today she couldn’t deal with him. He was harmless really. Over confident in an upfront in-your-face way, but most of it was for show. There was no denying he was handsome but no matter how expensive his clothes were he always looked a little scruffy and lacking something she couldn’t quite put her finger on. Even though they were friends and of similar age, Henry Shaw didn’t compare to Joshua Wood.
“I’ve called you into my office today Miss O’Neil to explain you actions,” Mr Wood’s eyes did not lift from the paperwork on his desk.
Andrea’s mouth opened and closed but no sound came out.
“Your behaviour was totally inappropriate and not what we expect from an employee. We encourage everyone to enjoy the Christmas party and maybe, in retrospect, that was a mistake. Frankly Miss O’Neil, I’m shocked and appalled that you have such as low regard for the company’s reputation and my personal credibly.”
“I don’t understand?” a small voice she’d never heard before left her lips.
“Do you deny that this,” he slid the full colour printouts across his desk in her direction, “Is you? Can you tell me that this woman is someone else?”
“No,” she whispered as couldn’t take her eyes from the pictures, the same ones that were on her computer this morning, “But how?”
“How indeed, Miss O’Neil, please tell us how and why you did this?”
She shook her head not knowing what to say.
“Has the company done something to you that would warrant this action? Have I offended you, upset you or caused you embarrassment?” he continued when she shook her head, “Then, please explain to everyone here, why you would attack the good name of this company and my own personal reputation?”
“I don’t know,” her eyes flicked around the room in panic before finding a spot on the carpet to focus on.
“So you have no reason or defence for your transgression?”
“Come on Josh,” Henry sounded like he was rolling his eyes, “The women of WAS all leave little wet puddles around this office because of you. Sooner or later something like this was bound to happen. I can’t see why you are making such a big deal over it.”
“This is not a laughing matter Henry. What would you have me do?”
“Granted, it shouldn’t have gone public but that’s not her fault. I would have thought you, of all people would have wanted to downplay the event.”
“It’s out of my hands,” he growled. “I have no choice but to make an example of her. It’s up to me to discipline her.”
“I thought you’d already done that,” Henry laughed under his breath.
Andrea looked a Henry, confused by his obvious joke, and found that she wasn’t the only one trying to understand his ill timed humour. Mr Wood glared at Henry and shook his head with the slow movement of someone trying to hold their temper in control.
“Apparently,” he closed his eyes and when he opened them he ignored everyone else and looked directly at Mrs Windsor, “Because we provide unlimited alcohol and have no written policy on conduct during company functions, I cannot dismiss you outright.”
“Dismiss me?” Her credit card debt, car loan, and rent payments flashed before her eyes. This was her dream job and she’d worked her butt off to get it. She couldn’t afford to lose it.
“That’s a bit harsh, isn’t it Josh?” Henry scoffed.
“The company name is all over the pictures Henry,” Josh biting tone left no doubt how furious he was, “My name is being smeared all over the internet, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Google.”
“YouTube,” Henry added.
“And gawd knows what other,” Mr Wood paused, “YouTube?”
“But they were only on mine. Just on my Facebook,” panic was clear in her voice.
“They are everywhere Andy,” Henry shrugged, “You and Josh’s little tryst is travelling faster than Pepe Le Pew on Viagra.”
“Me? What tryst?” Mr Wood growled.
“No,” She whimpered as his hard angry expression turned to her.
“Come on Josh,” Henry laughed, “It takes two to tango, or has it been so long that you have forgotten how sex works?”
“Are you implying that Mr Wood features in this indiscretion?” Mrs Windsor voice was cold and calm.
“The YouTube footage only shows Andy’s performance. But she’s not the only one in the room and, although you don’t see his face, who else would it be?”
“What?” both Mr Wood and Andrea uttered the word simultaneously, differing tones but the same word.
“Have a look,” Henry shrugged like this was nothing to be worried about. “Google ‘W.A.S. it good for you?’ a nice play on the company acronym, or ’Why wouldn’t you, Mr Wood?” It’s listed under a number of more vulgar references but those two are my favourites.”
Andrea stared at Henry, her mouth hanging open. In the background Mr Wood’s fingers hit the keys with harsh resolve. The computer made a sound. Then it came to life with her voice.
Joshua Wood swore as he closed his eyes and dug his fingertips into his forehead. When his hands dropped to fists on the desk the computer was all but singing his name in her voice. From the slither of screen she could see, she couldn’t believe what was vivid, clear and indisputable to everyone in the room. The pictures had come to life with added detail. Currently the ‘her’ on the screen was rubbing his name scroll in a way that left nothing to the imagination.
They all looked at the name scroll still sitting centre front on his desk. It was a company thing. Each employee was given a triangular shaped cylinder and two pieces of paper. Once a year, they were asked to write their career goals on one sheet of paper and their personal goals on the other. The papers were folded together and slid inside the sealed scroll which carried their name. The theory was their goals would be in front of them every day and motivating them by having them within reach. His goals however, were motivating her to reach something that she doubted he had written on either sheet of paper.
“Holy hell,” he groaned as the version of her on the screen writhed.
She felt the blood run to her feet. She didn’t want to believe any of this. She couldn’t believe any of this. And yet her voice was very clear and that creature on the computer was an exact replica of her, right down to the scar she received as a teen. Her stomach rolled. A plastic lined bin appeared before her just in time to catch the contents of her stomach.
“That’s not me,” Mr Wood was pointing at the silhouette of a man on the screen.
“She’s moaning your name Mate,” Henry laughed. “Don’t worry about it, Josh. It proves you’re a man not a machine. I mean, what guy wouldn’t react like that to a performance of such quality. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
“It. Wasn’t. Me.” Mr Wood spat the words out individually.
A glass of water appeared before Andrea.
“Irrespective of whether it is you or not,” Mrs Windsor sounded like her teeth were glued together. “We have a lot of damage control to do and I don’t have time to sit here and listen to you two bickering.”
“How did you get into my office?”
Andrea lifted her head and was temporally mesmerised by his steely glare.
“How did you get the key for my office?” Mr Wood repeated.
“I don’t know,” tears burnt in her eyes as her throat constricted with emotion.
He growled a frustrated noise.
“We can’t fire her? We still can’t fire her, can we?”
Andrea closed her eyes as the tears bled down her cheeks.
“Miss O’Neil, I am formally issuing you with a warning. Should you do anything further to discredit Wentworth Accounting Solutions or any of its employees or management, I will be forced to terminate your employment. Do you understand?”
A sob escaped her as she nodded her head.
“Collect your things and report to Mrs Windsor. Thank you Jane,” he said as Mrs Windsor left the room her phone glued to her ear before she was even out the door.
“But,” she hiccupped, “You said I wasn’t fired?”
“That is correct,” his voice held no emotion, “But given your new celebrity status we can hardly have you in a customer facing position. I’m moving you from the Audit Department to Internal Finance.”
“Whoa!” Henry choked, “She works for me!”
“Not anymore,” Mr Wood was scribbling his signature on something. “I’m putting her where I can keep an eye on her. You must be aware of the position she’s put me in.”
“I think we are all aware of the position she wants you in!” Henry laughed.
“Henry,” Mr Wood ground his teeth.
“Come on Josh, do you really think that’s wise? Having her,” Henry’s left eyebrow twitched, “working on your staff?”
“Henry, that’s enough,” Mr Wood stern warning was met with a smirk.
“Think how the staff will react to the news that’s she’s working under you,” the innuendo was thinly disguised in Henry’s voice but Andrea was too distraught to react.
“That is entirely inappropriate, Henry.”
“The whole situation is inappropriate Josh! Leave her where she is. Let the whole matter blow over.”
“No, there are two million hits on this You Tube clip. I have no idea what I’m going to tell the customers. She’s violated my office, my stationary and my furniture. Even the stapler wasn’t spared. The board will be after my blood for this. And I will not allow the staff to think she has gone unpunished.”
“Two point six million hits,” Henry looked at the screen, “And rising.”
“You are not helping Henry,” his voice was cold. “If you want to do something constructive you can take Miss O’Neil with you as you leave. Ohh, and take the bin with you, I have enough vomit in this room.”
Her eyes followed his to the wet spot on the carpet that was stained an unnatural colour. Red Bull. She remembered being handed something called a ‘Mighty Aphrodite’.
When she turned back to Mr Woods to apologise, he was already on the phone.
“I suppose that means the promotion is out of the question,” she said to Henry as he helped her up.
“I think that’s safe to assume,” he smiled sympathetically. “Hang in there Andy. You’ll be laughing about this before you know it.”
Laughing about it? Maniacal, crazy laughter as she was being committed to some psychiatric hospital was always possible. Other than that she couldn’t see any end to this nightmare. Her career was in tatters and she was one step away from being unemployed and bankrupt. Everyone she knew, including her mother, herself and the cleaner who she nodded a hello to every morning, hated her. And to top it all off the man she had fantasised about for the past three years couldn’t stand the sight of her. Yes, she could definitely see herself laughing about this.