Mending Heart

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Chapter 22

Charity

“Make somebody happy today. Mind Your own business.” – Ann Landers


Beep! Beep! Beep!

I groaned, extending my arm to hit the snooze button and shut off the alarm.

Beep! Beep! Beep!

Beep! Beep! Beep!

“It’s Saturday for crying out loud!” I mumbled, still half asleep. Blinking a few times to clear the sleep from my eyes, the bright white numbers staring back at me on the screen read four-thirty in the morning.

I also had three texts from Kate.

Kate: Good morning!!

Kate: Wake upppppppp!

Kate: Please tell me you didn’t forget about the 5K today.

“Fuck.” I sighed, falling back on my pillows. After a good ten minutes of glaring at the ceiling in the dark, I willed myself to get up. Pushing the covers off me, I sat on the edge of my bed before I finally got up and made my way to the bathroom.

Someone, please tell me why the hell I agreed to this? Because it’s for charity – duh, the annoying voice in the back of my head reminded me.

Every year, Thomas and Cooper participates in a 5K charity run for Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. It was our way of giving back to the community, and a great team outing. All of the volunteers usually grab brunch together afterward and get pretty shit-faced off Mimosas and Bloody Mary’s. You might not think it’s possible, but trust me it is.

Grabbing a pair of black yoga pants and a white tank top from one of my dresser drawers, I quickly got dressed. On my way out, I pulled my hair into a high ponytail and laced up my favorite pair of running shoes before locking the door behind me.

When I finally made it to Millennium Park, I spotted Kate with a couple of people from accounting. “Hey.” I greeted everyone with a polite smile. Although, there’s a pretty good chance that smile could be interpreted as a scowl – oh well.

“Look who finally made it!” Kate smiled, giving me a quick side hug.

“Yes, yes.” I playfully rolled my eyes. It was a well-known fact that I wasn’t a morning person.

“Mr. Thomas!” Kate straightened, her eyes darting behind me. “Good morning.”

Twisting my head back, I saw Ethan walking towards us. His eyes brightened noticeably when they fell on me, and my heart involuntarily skipped a beat. Things between us had been strange lately – ever since I found out about his wife, or soon-to-be ex-wife I should say.

After he cornered me in my office a few weeks ago, I stopped avoiding him like the plague and the two of us talked here and there. However, it wasn’t anything like we used to. We mostly talked at work and about work-related things, except for a few days ago when he texted me and asked me to Sunday brunch.

I thought about saying yes but ultimately decided against it. I was still trying to figure out what exactly my feelings for Ethan were. There was definitely something there, I just wasn’t sure whether it was worth pursuing. Especially when he was in the middle of a nasty divorce.

The two of us were talking – which was an improvement – and I was willing to see where it went, but I wanted to slow down.

“Good morning everyone.” Ethan smiled, unscrewing the cap on his water bottle. “And Kate, please – I told you to call me Ethan.”

“Sorry.” She sheepishly said.

“Why are you so happy in the morning?” I couldn’t help but ask. I’d do just about anything to be this happy in the morning and not feel like the dead.

Ethan laughed – a deep and unrestricted laugh. “Why are you such a grinch in the morning?” He retorted.

“Touché.” I bit back a smile.

Just then, one of the executives – Cory Sanskirt – waived him over. Excusing himself, I watched as Ethan’s back retreated before returning my attention to the current debate between Kate and Lisa from accounting.

Water vs. Gatorade – which one was better for hydration?

........

At seven on the dot, the race began and everyone took off.

Now, thirty minutes later, Kate and I were leisurely jogging while others sprinted past us. I’ve never been a big fan of running, and Kate despised it. I convinced her to be my running buddy a while back, and ever since then the two of us have stuck together.

Today was particularly bad because it was supposed to be in the high nineties, and the sun was already beating down hard.

“I have to ask you something, Kenz.” Kate stole a sideways glance at me, her face scrunched up from exhaustion.

“What’s up?” I asked, just as we passed the two-mile marker.

“What’s going on between you and Ethan?” She hesitantly asked.

“What?” My head snapped sideways in her direction, and I almost tripped over my own two feet mid-step. Stepping off to the side and out of the way of the other runners, Kate followed suit. Placing her hands on her knees, she tried to catch her breath. “What do you mean?”

“Look,” She sighed in between pants. “I’m not here to judge – whatever the two of you do is your business. I’m only asking because there are rumors HR wants to sit down with the two of you soon.”

“Why?”

“There was an anonymous complaint made about the nature of your relationship.”

“Excuse me?” My heart jumped and I blinked in surprise. “Even if there was a relationship, which I’m not saying there is, it’s not an HR violation.”

“It’s not – ” She agreed, slowly nodding. “But the complaint claims Ethan’s been showing preferential treatment towards you.

“That’s ridiculous!” I scoffed, my voice raising of its own accord.

This is not happening.

“I know.” Kate nodded sympathetically. “Like I said, it’s none of my business what the two of you have going on, but I just wanted to give you a heads up.”

Mumbling a quick thank you, the two of us fell into step again. While Kate was talking about her upcoming trip to San Diego, my mind drifted a hundred miles away.

........

After crossing the finish line, I spotted Ethan not too far away laughing and talking to some of the executives. Telling Kate I would catch up with her later, I slowly made my way over to them.

“I’m sorry to interrupt,” I said, heat threatening my face with insecurity. I always hated being the center of attention. “But can I borrow you for a minute?”

Ethan nodded, excusing himself and falling into step with me. “What’s going on, McKenzie?”

“Do you know anything about a complaint made to HR about the two of us?” I asked, tilting my head back so I could see his reaction.

“What?” His head whipped in my direction and he came to an abrupt stop.

“Some bullshit about you showing me preferential treatment.”

“This is the first I’m hearing about it.” His expression was a mixture of a scowl and confusion.

“Look – I don’t want any issues. Whatever went on between the two of us was one hundred percent consensual, and you and I didn’t even work on any projects directly.” I said, continuing to hold his gaze.

“And you said it was an anonymous complaint?” He asked slowly, and I could see the wheels turning in his head.

“Yeah.” I nodded. “Why?”

He looked hesitant, but then I reminded him, “You promised to be honest moving forward.”

He sighed deeply, crossing his arms over his chest. He stood still for a minute, before finally replying. “I’m pretty sure Stacy had something to do with it.”

My eyebrows shot up. “Stacy? As in your ex-wife?”

“The one and only.” He scowled, his jaw clicking.

“I thought she was out of the picture.” I scoffed, hands on my hips.

“Her last visit wasn’t because she missed me, McKenzie.” He gave me a dry smile. “She wanted a bigger settlement. I told my lawyer to give her what she wants – on the condition that she leaves me alone. I’m assuming she didn’t take that too well, and this is her revenge.”

“Why would y –” My phone chose that exact moment to ring. Glancing down at the caller ID, it was Megan. I looked up at Ethan apologetically. “Sorry – I need to take this.”

“Yes, Megan?” I answered.

“I am getting married in less than a week!” She shrieked into the phone. “A WEEK!”

“Yes, you are.” I couldn’t help but chuckle. “Why are you freaking out this time?” For the last month, my dear best friend had been calling me at least five times a day to rant about various wedding-related things. Last night at midnight, it was about the reception venue.

“The restaurant we booked for my bachelorette dinner called and canceled because they overbooked.” She whined on the other end. “Who the fucks just overbooks?”

“Just breath Megan.” I rolled my eyes, waving goodbye to Kate who squeezed my shoulder in passing. “We’ll find another place to have your bachelorette party. Worst case scenario, we’ll order take out and get shit faced at my place before taking you to a strip club.”

She was slowly but surely turning into a bridezilla, and unfortunately, I had to bear the grunt of it since I was her maid of honor.

From the corner of my eye, I saw Ethan’s attention was focused on me and his eyebrows furrowed together in confusion. I can only imagine how this one-sided conversation sounded. I quickly mouthed, “I’m sorry.” He lazily shrugged, as he continued to wait for me to get off the phone.

“I can’t just breath!” Megan snapped. “God – why did I decide to invite this many people to my wedding. Eric and I should have just eloped.”

“I hate to be the one to say I told you so...”

“You are sooo not helping.” I could almost see her rolling her eyes.

“Look Meg – I have to go, but I’ll stop by tomorrow and we’ll figure everything out. Just breath.” I reassured her. Ethan had lifted his sunglasses, and his piercing gaze was now resting on me.

“But –” Megan began protesting before I interrupted. “Gotta go. Love you. Byee!”

“Secret boyfriend?” Ethan teased, a smile dancing on his lips.

“Ha-ha. Very funny.” I rolled my eyes, shoving my phone in the side pocket of my yoga pants. “So, about the HR thing?”

“Don’t worry about it.” He said casually, ignoring the questioning look on my face. “I’ll talk to Terry and sort it out.”

I continued to eye him suspiciously, before finally nodding. “Well, I should probably get going.” I lamely replied, shifting my weight from one foot to the other.

“You’re not joining us?” A flash of disappointment crossed his face before he quickly masked it.

“I have other plans today.” I shrugged, a smile tugging on my lips. “Next time.”

He nodded apprehensively as if weighing whether he believed me or not. “I’ll see you around, McKenzie.” His lips curved to one corner as he brushed past me, his shoulder purposely bumping into mine.

..........

While I’m certainly not one to ever turn down free brunch and Mimosas, I did promise an old college professor I’d have lunch with him.

Professor Navid was my old advanced accounting professor back in the day. While I typically was not one to kiss up to my professors and keep in touch with them outside of school, Professor Navid quickly became a mentor.

Shortly after I graduated, he retired from Loyola and went on to work for the IRS. We typically had lunch once or twice a year to catch up, and this happened to be one of those times.

“McKenzie.” Professor Navid looked up from his phone when I approached the table. He was well into his fifties, with a full head of black hair and only a few wrinkles visible. His dark brown eyes were friendly and welcoming – just as they had been when I first sat in the front row of his lecture terrified I was going to flunk out. He had a sandy complexion, smooth and tawny which was accentuated by the bright sultry sunlight seeping through the window.

“Professor Navid.” I smiled, taking a seat across from him. “It’s good to see you.”

“I’m not your professor anymore, McKenzie.” He playfully rolled his eyes, picking the menu.

While he was indeed no longer my professor, it felt weird to call him Harris.

“How is the IRS treating you?” I asked, mimicking his actions. As my eyes scanned the menu, the avocado toast with bacon caught my eye.

“Same ol’, same ol’.” He said casually, glancing up just in time to catch my eye. “You know how these government jobs are.”

Can’t argue with that.

We were halfway through our meal when Professor Navid asked the inevitable. “So,” He started, a glint in his eyes. “How is Thomas and Cooper Consulting treating you?”

“We do this every year, ” I had to physically tell myself not to roll my eyes. “And my answer never changes.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about McKenzie.” He said, taking a sip from his steaming hot coffee mug.

“Oh please – ” I bit back a laugh, leaning back in my seat.

“Can you really blame me?” Professor Navid sighed in defeat. “You were one of my best students. You’d be an asset to my team.”

“While I appreciate the compliment,” I give him a sheepish smile, crossing my arms over my chest. “I don’t think I’m ready to give up my corporate job just yet.”

“Don’t think of it as giving up your corporate job. Think of it as relocating on the other side. You’d still be working on corporate clients – you’d just be auditing them to make sure they stay above the law.”

“Yes – relocation with a major pay cut.”

“I never said it was all glorious.” He smirked, taking in my reaction.

“I’ll tell you what,” I said, leaning forward in my seat and clasping my hands together in front of me. “If the private sector ever becomes too much for me, you’ll be my first call.”

He sighed with an unbothered smile. “All you have to do is say yes, and the job is yours.”

The offer was tempting, but it wasn’t part of my fifteen-year plan.

When I graduated college, I told myself I’d work in the private sector for the first fifteen years of my career, and then after having kids, I’d consider going to work for the government.

I didn’t want to be one of those absentee parents – I wanted to raise my kids the way that my mom raised me, which was as a stay-at-home mom for the first couple of years. Afterward, I would go back to work, just not in the same role. Maybe something in government. A job that would allow me to still work, but would also ensure that I could be present for bedtime, birthday parties, dance recitals, and all that good stuff.

So far, I was only eight years into that fifteen-year plan – yet something in my heart told me not to dismiss Professor Navid’s offer completely just yet.

But maybe, just maybe, it was time for a change. After all, my fifteen-year plan didn’t seem to be working out the way I was expecting it to.

____________________________________________

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