With two paracetamols working their way into my system, I quietly sat at my desk in an attempt to weaken the pounding currently taking place in my head. Tension congregated in my lower neck and spread to my shoulders, painfully making me aware of last night’s fatal mistake. I had fallen asleep on Sam’s sofa and woke up some time later in a position that would have any chiropractor recoiling in horror. The injury I was now packing hardly made the three and a half hours of sleep seem worth it. Alex had been kind enough to offer a switch but I declined for obvious reasons. Spencer would drop dead at the thought of me, alone, in his bed.
Cora’s sweet voice stabbed at my brain’s required silence and forced me into opening both eyes.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt.”
“You’re not.” I smiled, or at least I tried to.
She kindly ignored my traumatised state and went on to explain why she needed my assistance. “Can you run the team meeting next week? Scott and Rosalie have a scan that morning and I’d rather not move it and risk upsetting you know who.”
“Simon-smiles-a lot?” I smirked, sympathising with her situation. “Of course I’ll run it. Don’t worry about rescheduling.”
“You’re the best!” she sang, backwards walking out of my office.
As she left, a sudden thought occurred, prompting me to shout her name as a way of getting her to back track.
“Can you mark my absence for this Wednesday, please? I won’t be here,” I explained, averting my gaze elsewhere.
“Sure. Are you conducting team visits?”
I shook my head.
“No, if you could put it down as annual leave that would be great,” I smiled, still not brave enough to initiate eye contact.
I could tell she was intrigued and appreciated her need to remain professional. Cora wouldn’t dare question personal matters at work and I admired that most about her. She knew her place.
“Of course. I’ll add it on there now.”
She left my office and it allowed me the opportunity to breathe. Mum’s funeral was taking place in two days and conducting the whole shebang in secret was already proving stressful. I knew my appearance wasn’t up to scratch, though suspected most were putting that down to my split with Spencer. Fooling Scott was going to be difficult. He had observation like no other and would no doubt require a reasonable explanation. I just hoped he would be satisfied with a heartfelt, “I miss Spencer, that’s all.”
Speak of the devil and he shall come barging into my office carrying wallpaper samples…
“Hey, what’s with all the wallpaper?”
“Calvin and his team want approval by Friday. We’ve got five options.”
“For the Tuscany site?”
“Yeah. The reception area,” he elaborated, dumping the folder on my desk.
The first was floral and I immediately expressed my disliking towards it. It was dated and over the top, something in which I seemed to recall us wanting to stay away from.
“It’s awful, isn’t it? I told Calvin that over the phone.”
“What did he say?” I laughed, imaging the two bickering.
“Told me to shove it up my arse.”
“Sounds about right.”
Scott closed the door to my office and took up residence on a chair opposite me. He instantly relaxed into its soft cushions and pulled out his phone.
“Hold it up and look disgusted. I want to send him a picture.”
I did as instructed and made a point out of looking truly horrified, almost insulted. Scott laughed as he composed his message to go along with it and hit send once happy.
“Back to business?” I asked, shooting him a smirk.
“Back to business,” he echoed, pointing towards a more simplistic design. “I’m drawn to this one.”
“It’s less busy which I think is needed in a hotel’s reception area,” I agreed, though I wasn’t overly keen. “People will be stressed after their flight. We don’t want to add to that by presenting them with an eyesore.”
Scott picked up on my reluctance. “But?”
“How did you know there was a but?” I asked, narrowing my eyes.
“I just know. You don’t seem happy with it.”
I looked at it a moment longer, feeling the pain in my head easing with each passing second.
“It’s a little safe,” I began, sounding much like the professional I wasn’t. “I do like it but it doesn’t necessarily bring out a reaction in me.”
“Does any wallpaper bring out a reaction in you?” He laughed, running his gaze over the sample.
“Yes, the first one did.”
“For all the wrong reasons,” he added, rightly so.
“Exactly. We want people to be pleasantly surprised. It’s the first thing they’ll see upon arrival. We want to create a great first impression.”
Scott paused for a moment, flicking through some papers.
“What about this one?”
He showcased a mint green swatch and met my own expression with one of delight. This was our choice and we both knew it. The colours were warm and inviting, yet jazzy enough to leave a lasting impression. The pattern—a simplistic swirl—offered the piece sophistication without overstepping the mark and the texture was premium enough to be associated with our brand.
“I love it!”
“Now that was a reaction,” delighted Scott, lowering his hand. “I’ll run it past marketing and get their feedback.”
“Good idea. Let me know what they say. I’d be interested to know.”
He collected his many samples and made to leave, stopping when I called his name. I needed to warn him of my absence on Wednesday and attempted casualness in my doing so.
“I’m taking annual leave this Wednesday.”
Please don’t say anything, please do not say anything.
“Oh, okay. Is everything alright?” he asked, making my need to overcompensate painfully tedious.
“Fine, good. Everything is great. Just some family stuff.”
Scott seemed a little suspicious but didn’t dare investigate. “Okay. Rosalie and I have a scan next Monday...”
“Cora said. I’ll run the team meeting,” I replied, noticing his instant appreciation.
“Great. It saves upsetting Simon. That man is prone to complain when we implement change.”
“That man is prone to complain, period,” I corrected, throwing him a serious look.
He shot me an apologetic smile and proceeded to exit, no doubt on his way down to marketing. I decided to busy myself with some emails and logged on to my outlook account, firing dad a quick text as I went about doing so.
JESSICA: Hi. Are you okay? x
Before I could read my first email, I had a reply.
DAD: I’m fine, petal. Are you? How’s work? I still think you should’ve taken a few days off.
My need for normality still didn’t sit well with him. Before leaving yesterday, he had tried his hardest in persuading me to take a few days off but I declined. Aside from raising suspicion with Scott, I figured the sooner I threw myself back into work, the sooner I could move on from this horrendous situation. I was struggling to find the appropriate emotions and took to the notion of not thinking about it instead. I missed Mum more and more each day and was struggling to grasp the appropriate reaction. Was I sad, angry, relieved?
Who fucking knows?
JESSICA: Work is good. It’s keeping me busy. Are you free tonight? Want to stop at mine? x
I hoped my need for company wouldn’t set him off on a, ‘You need to tell Spencer’ rant. Another thing he still wasn’t one hundred percent onboard with was my decision to keep him in the dark. He respected my wishes but made damn sure I knew of his feelings on the matter.
DAD: Of course I’m free. I’ll pack a bag and stay for a few nights. How about I cook us a cottage pie?
JESSICA: Sam will want to get in on that. x
DAD: I’ll give him a call. I’ll let myself in with my spare key. See you after work. Love you.
JESSICA: Love you too x
With my evening plans sorted, I took to reading my first email and felt somewhat accomplished by the end of it. A Facebook notification popped up in the form of a sympathy message from an old friend of Mum’s. Diane was her name and I remembered her well. They worked together at the bank and would often accompany each other on a night out. She was a lovely woman but a bit of a scatterbrain. The type of person to send a Christmas card in January and think nothing of it. I quickly messaged her back and gave out the details for Wednesday’s service. Then, guilty of burying my head in the sand, I switched off all personal electronics and concentrated on work-related tasks only.
By lunch time, my headache had completely disappeared and by four O’clock, it was back again. I guzzled two more paracetamols and forced myself to eat, hoping that would take the edge off. It didn’t. Instead, my body proceeded to feel like shit to the point where I left work early. I told Scott I was taking off and he shot me a concerned glance in return. His mention of, “Take tomorrow off if you want,” was certainly appreciated but not at all necessary. I refused his offer and jumped in a taxi, feeling slightly better by the time we pulled up at my flat. I flashed the driver some cash and took to walking up the flight of stairs. Upon entering my home, I was instantly hit with the intoxicating smells of minced beef and rich gravy, courtesy of Dad’s signature dish.
“I’m back!” I announced, peeling off my coat.
I poured myself a glass of water and downed the lot, feeding my dehydration the liquids it required. Dad was over my the stove, stirring his wonderful concoction.
“How are you feeling? You look exhausted.”
“I am,” I admitted, kissing his stubbled cheek. “Nothing your cottage pie won’t fix.”
Dad smiled at my comment and continued to stir, barking out orders of, “Get changed into something more comfortable.” and “Put your feet up, petal.” In the end, I did as I was told and slipped into a pair of comfortable pyjamas. I paired it with fluffy socks and an oversized dressing gown, feeling the need for extra comfort. Then, content with listening to him stumbling his way through concocting a cottage pie, I fell asleep to thoughts of being held in the safety of Spencer’s arms, lovingly so. I pictured him rocking me to sleep and smiled my appreciation as if it were really happening. I could’ve sworn I detected his smell, though knew it to be an allusion. Still, I imagined his sweet voice telling me he loved me and for the first time in a long time, I felt at ease. I didn’t know it was possible to feel such a thing at this moment in time. I missed him terribly but it was different to the way I missed Mum. I accepted her departure as a need to let go and find peace. Spencer’s was a result of being backed into a corner. Sure, it was our decision but did we really have any other choice? Losing custody of Leila wasn’t an option and that right there was the only thing keeping me from reaching out. I needed Spencer but I needed him to be happy more.
Like Bethany had said to Sam, “Your happiness is my happiness” and I wouldn’t settle until Spencer had Leila back for good. I may have felt helpless in this entire charade but I still had a huge part to play. My search for Alister had been put on the backburner when news of Mum’s unexpected death reached us but it was time I busied myself with it again. If only I knew how. Google was pretty much useless and I knew of no one I could truly confide in. The last time I attempted that, Spencer got wrongly accused of abusing me and lord knows I wasn’t about to do that again. My only friends were friends of Spencer’s and I didn’t want to add unnecessary stress to his situation. Besides, he specifically asked me to keep things quiet. Because of that, I was alone in this and had to pick my next move carefully. Manipulative. Cunning. Sneaky. I had to beat Alister at his own game. I just had to.