I haven’t felt this out of my element in years. I didn’t have enough patience with school to stick around long enough to get a graduate degree, which meant the last time I was on a college campus was about three years ago.
But I’m on a mission. Which means I’m not going let the fact that I’m a little overwhelmed distract me from my ultimate goal: talking to Marley.
She’s been on my mind quite a bit since our awkward meeting at Brenton’s office. I know we don’t know each other very well, and maybe I have no right to seek her out at work, but I feel like she deserves an explanation. And Brenton will probably kill me for spilling our secret to yet another person, but if there’s anyone who deserves the truth, it’s Marley. She’s been put through enough in terms of her relationship with Brenton. She doesn’t need any more doubt and distance.
So, I did my research. I know what college she works for and which department within that college, so it just took a quick internet search to find out which building her office is in and the hours when she’s guaranteed to be there. Once I had that information on hand, I took an extended lunch break and told Clay to call me if there were any emergencies and here I am, walking through the front doors of the business school.
The only trouble is that this building is huge and I don’t even know where to start, so I pull aside the first coed I see and ask, “Hi, do you know where I can find 4.193?”
“Take that elevator to the fourth floor,” she says, nodding to a bank of elevators to her right, “Take a right when you get off and it should be down the hall on the left.”
“Thank you so much,” I grin, turning towards the elevators. I rock back and forth on my heels nervously as I wait to arrive on the fourth floor, and even when I’m standing outside her open office door, it takes me a few moments of slow breathing and a small pep talk to get up the nerve to actually knock on the frame to announce my presence, smiling softly as I do. “Hi.”
It’s her office hours, which means the sound of a voice doesn’t surprise her, but when she looks up and our eyes meet, she stutters in shock, “R-R-Raina. What are you doing here?”
“I feel like we need to talk.” I step into her office, but I don’t make myself at home, knowing I need her to want to have this conversation too.
She sighs and returns to her task of stapling graded rubrics to the backs of what looked to be research papers. “About what?”
“You know what,” I reply. Considering I’ve never before visited her at school when I wasn’t with Brenton, it’s safe to say she knows why I would come on my own.
Shrugging tensely, she squeezes her stapler with a little too much force. “It’s not really my business.”
“Is that why you’re on the verge of breaking your stapler?” I shoot back, my eyebrows lifted pointedly. She’s clearly upset and she has every right to be.
Deciding that there’s no point in arguing about her current emotional state, she sighs again, her hands coming to a rest on top of her desk. “I just feel so stupid.”
That certainly isn’t where I saw this conversation going. “Why?”
“Because for a fleeting moment there, I actually thought we could have something amazing,” she replies softly, her eyes slowly filling with a sadness that could only come from a place of genuine sincerity.
“You really care about him,” I say in awe. It’s not that I ever doubted her feelings, and seeing as I didn’t really know her that well, I can’t really judge that anyway, but it’s clear from the way that she talks about him that she feels something that’s more than just a passing appreciation for his looks and money.
“I did,” she replies, taking a few moments to realize that she shouldn’t be speaking in the past tense and changing her response to, “I do.” There’s a moment of silence and I want to say something reassuring, but before I can, she shakes off her sadness and sits up straight, clearing her throat and speaking again. “I shouldn’t be saying these things to you. You’re his fiancé.”
It’s still weird to hear myself called that, but it gives me the perfect segue into why I came to visit Marley in the first place. “Brenton and I, our relationship is complicated,” I begin, “We’ve been friends our entire lives and…,” I pause glancing back at the open doorway and realizing this is more of a private conversation, “can I close the door?”
Marley looks intrigued as I close the door and slip into a chair across from her. “Are you about to tell me something that’s CIA classified?”
“How would I know something like that?” I laugh.
“I don’t know,” she shrugs, looking a bit more relaxed, “You’re just being very secretive.”
“Yeah, because what I’m about to tell you can’t leave this room,” I say, knowing my insistence on privacy probably seems a little over the top. But the truth is that I know that I’m not supposed to be saying any of this in the first place and it makes me feel better to take extra precautions.
Luckily, Marley seems to understand my stress, and leans back in her chair, smiling encouragingly. “Okay.”
“And I know Brenton would kill me for saying anything,” I say, noting that she’s somewhat enthralled by the idea of knowing a secret, “but I don’t want the two of you to throw away something fantastic.”
And therein lies the reason I’m willing to let another person in on the secret in the first place. Because although I know how important this appearance of this engagement and the potential of being CEO is to Brenton, I also know that he’s completely in love with Marley. And I think that part of the reason he’s never fully acted on his feelings is that he thinks she’ll get a taste for his lifestyle and the pressures of his job and run the other way. And maybe that’s true, but Marley deserves the chance to make that decision for herself.
She takes a deep breath to prepare herself for the bombshell I’m about to drop. “Okay?”
“The engagement is fake.” I blurt it out before I can lose my nerve.
Her eyebrows shoot upwards in surprise. “What?”
“Brenton’s father is a few months away from retirement,” I explain, feeling somewhat relieved at having shared the burden. I think the guilt of lying to my parents is still taking its toll on me, “and he’s kind of deciding between two candidates to replace him as the head of the company. Brenton thought that being engaged would show his parents that he’s got his life altogether.”
She processes that information for a few moments, her face completely expressionless as she asks, “Why are you telling me this?”
“I thought you deserved an explanation,” I shrug.
“But why?” She furrows her brow in confusion. “Brenton and I aren’t…anything.”
Despite the heaviness of everything I’ve just said, I laugh. “Do you really believe that?”
Over the course of the three years that Marley and Brenton have known each other, I’ve seen them in the same room together exactly three times and even I, who hasn’t felt a romantic feeling since the stone age, can tell that they’re hopelessly devoted to each other.
She thinks over my question and sighs in frustration, reaching up to tug at one of her springy curls. “I love my job.”
“That’s great,” I reply, not saying much more because I sense she has a point.
“Teaching is all I’ve ever wanted to do,” she continues, “When the professor I used to be a TA for asked if I’d come on as a full time lecturer, I said yes right away. I thought my life was set. There was nothing more I could possibly want. And then in walks stupid Brenton Knox. I won’t let myself get hurt again.”
Her last sentence intrigues me and it takes me a moment to realize what it means. “You’ve had your heart broken.”
“Hasn’t everyone?” she shrugs, completely unperturbed at the thought, which in turn, completely baffles me. Something in my expression causes her to lift one eyebrow in surprise and she softly says, “Except you.”
I wonder how she could possibly know that, seeing as this is the longest conversation we’ve ever had. I can’t possibly be that easy to read. I feel a bit flustered, so I default to my natural state of sarcasm and avoidance. “Yeah, well, I think you have to be in love for the breaking to happen. Luckily, I don’t feel emotion, so I don’t have to worry about that.”
It doesn’t work. Marley keeps her gaze direct and says, “You’re good at avoiding difficult conversations, huh?”
That is an accurate assessment of me. And part of me wants to just ignore her question and change the subject, but another part of me feels a sense of safety in baring my soul to someone who’s practically a stranger, so I reply quietly, “If you never talk about it, you don’t have to feel the pain.”
“If you don’t feel the pain, you’ll never heal,” she shoots back quickly.
I snort. “Who says I need healing?”
She doesn’t back down at my attempt to lighten the tone, tilting her head to the side, her gaze still scarily direct. “Do you?”
“I don’t know,” I admit, my heart thumping in my chest. We sit in silence and I wonder if she expects me to continue, before realizing she’s allowing me the choice, so I decide that now isn’t the time or place to have this conversation. “Shit, I didn’t come here for a therapy session.”
“Oh, honey,” she laughs, the sound releasing the tension in my shoulders, “I haven’t even gotten started.”
I exhale in relief, content in knowing that there is no expectation I explain myself more, but that if I want to, Marley’s chair is always open. I grin. “You’re awesome.”
“Thanks,” she smiles back.
I realize we’ve gotten off topic and I have to leave soon, so I steer the conversation back to why I came. “Look, I love Brenton. He’s my family. But he can be a bit of an asshat sometimes.”
“Yeah, I got that,” she replies, though the corners of her lips are lifted slightly upwards.
“I’m not gonna pretend that I know any of the details of your relationship,” I continue, “But I do know the way his eyes light up when he talks about you. And you can’t just throw away that kind of joy.”
I may not know much about love, but I know enough to realize that if they walk away now, they’ll regret it forever.
“Yeah, well, we’ve been dancing around this for years,” she whispers, “I think he’s made his choice. Maybe it’s time for me to move on.”
“Are you sure that’s what you want?”
“No,” she admits, “But I think it’s what I need.”
“Just give him some time,” I urge her, not wanting her to make a hasty decision, when this entire situation could be not even an issue in the near future, “In a few months, we’ll be able to call off the engagement and once he’s CEO, he’ll have more control over his life.”
There’s a glimmer of hope in her eyes, but still responds, “We’ll see.”
I suppose there’s really nothing else I can say, so I settle for, “No matter what happens, can we still be friends?”
“Of course,” she grins in response.
“Good,” I nod, pushing myself out of the chair, “I should get going. I’ve been on my lunch break for way too long. It was good to see you.”
She stands as well, walking around her desk to open the door for me, whispering, “You too,” after squeezing me in a tight hug.
I leave the campus feeling much lighter than I had when I arrived. It turns out luck is on my side for my trip back to the gallery and I hardly have to wait for the train and twenty minutes later, I’m walking through the front door to find a tall, dark skinned woman standing in the lobby, gazing admiringly at an abstract of a mountain on the wall.
“Hello!” I greet her as I enter, my mood always lifted at the sight of anyone appreciating art, “I’m Raina Fenwick, the gallery manager. Can I help you find something?”
“Raina!” she turns to greet me, her smile widening and her eyes lighting in recognition, “It’s good to meet you in person. I’m Larissa Collins.”
“Miss Collins,” I reach out to shake her hand, the thumping of my heart resuming as I wonder if I completely forgot that we were supposed to meet. “It’s a pleasure. I’m sorry, did we have a meeting today?”
“No,” she reassures me, dropping my hand after she shakes it and wrapping her fingers around the straps of her purse. “I was just finishing up another meeting in the area and I thought I’d stop by.”
Relieved that I haven’t been incredibly irresponsible, I gesture to the gallery as a whole, beaming. “What do you think?”
“It’s quite extraordinary,” she responds, her eyes trailing the structure of the walls and the architectural design of the gallery space.
“I’m glad you think so,” I reply, “Do you have some time? I’d love to get some of the details of the program.”
She nods. “Sure.”
“Come back to my office,” I offer, leading her to suite of rooms off to the side where my desk lives. “Can I get you anything? Tea? Coffee? A bottle of water?”
“I’m quite alright, thank you,” she replies politely, slipping into one of the scoop chairs across from me once we arrive at my office.
“So, how exactly does this work?” I ask, making myself comfortable and lacing my fingers together atop my desk. “Do you already have artists lined up?”
“Yes,” she nods, launching into what sounds like a spiel she’s had to give a few times, “We have three that we’ve reached out to already and a few more who expressed an interest in participating in the program. I’ve sent members of my team to take a look at their work and decide whether it will fit with our exhibitions and we will display a few pieces of work from each selected artist in your gallery and if the public wishes to see the rest of the artist’s work, they can come to the museum. Our ultimate goal is to both showcase the works of new and exciting artists while simultaneously promoting art throughout the city by encouraging people to visit local galleries.”
“Sounds like a good deal to me,” I say enthusiastically, excited about any chance to publicize the Harrington Gallery. “How many galleries in total are participating?”
“You and three others.”
I furrow my eyebrows in confusion at the low number. “Surely there’s more galleries than that in the city. I probably have contacts there if you’d like their information.”
“That’s not necessary,” she shakes her head. “We’ve selected the galleries we would like to partner with specifically.”
“Oh?” I say, wondering if I should be flattered or concerned. “May I ask what the criteria was?”
“For this gallery in particular?” she replies, continuing when I nod, “You came highly recommended by a member of the museum’s board.”
“Who?” I whisper, though I’m almost positive I already know the answer.
She confirms my suspicion when she says, “Harrison Knox.”
“I see.” I can’t get my voice to go above a whisper and my head is reeling to the point that I feel it might explode.
She further solidifies my fears on the subject when she adds, “He tells me that you and his son are engaged. Congratulations.”
“Thank you,” I reply automatically, doing my best to smile as though there’s anything about this situation that makes me happy.
Here I am thinking I’ve been given the perfect opportunity to prove to the Harringtons that I am fully capable of managing their gallery and it turns out that the only reason the gallery was selected in the first place is because of my relationship with Brenton. I know better than to throw away the opportunity for the sake of my ego, but that doesn’t mean I don’t find the predicament upsetting.
Larissa apologizes, saying she must go to another meeting, and bids me goodbye, and as I walk her to the front door, I wonder if the gallery would have been selected for this program if Harrison knew that Brenton and I have no intention of actually getting married. And I wonder what it will mean for my career if he ever finds out.