Chapter 4 - Apart
"I don't know. I guess I've never thought much about it."
I shook my head at Ali, my best friend since freshman year of college. We were discussing what celebrity we'd use in the event of a hall pass situation.
She asked and I shook my head again.
"No, the whole idea is bizarre to me. Even theoretically it seems inappropriate."
I swirled my spoon in my bowl of pistachio ice cream that I was demolishing.
The day had been weird and I'd needed the sweetness. After my interview at Bolthouse, Ada had convinced me to stick around so she could show me the ins and out of the office even though I technically would be working on the floor below once the renovation was completed. I had no other plans so I agreed. Then I saw the most beautiful woman I think I'd ever laid my eyes on step off of the elevator and wrap herself around Mr. Bolthouse's finger with no effort at all. He looked like he wanted to die when he looked into her eyes. As if he'd ripped his own heart out for her to do what she wanted with. His eyes lingered on her belly and it didn't take a rocket scientist to put it together. I felt Ada tense beside me and she mumbled something about the girl under her breath but I knew office gossip was below her. She let it go and didn't mention it again during the next hour as she continued showing me around.
But the way he had looked at that woman. It stuck with me. I'd craved that look for so long and went to some stupid lengths trying to get it. I found myself so far down that it pained me to think back on that time. I was verging on losing myself while trying to find someone to look at me like I made their world go round.
But I'd wised up.
I knew my worth and I wasn't afraid to wait as long as it took to find a man who knew it too.
"Oh come on. . . Jason Statham? Chris Hemsworth? Michael B Jordan?"
Ali's brows grew higher with each actor's name but I shook my head.
"Nope. When I find the one, hall passes won't even be on my radar."
I told her as I scooped the last bit of ice cream into my mouth.
She murmured as she grabbed my bowl and headed to the kitchen.
I leaned back onto the couch as I grabbed the remote and turned Netflix on.
"What are you up to this weekend?"
She asked as she plopped onto the couch next to me.
"I'll have Penelope all day tomorrow and I need to go buy a new wardrobe. Everyone at Bolthouse is so fashionable."
My sister was working a double shift so I would more than likely stick around on Sunday too. Guess that meant I was going to have a shopping partner.
After flipping through Netflix's new releases section and coming up short I gave up and handed the remote over to Ali.
She asked. I was notorious for going to bed early but 7 pm on a Friday was truly something else.
"Yep. Good night."
She said as she took over the television.
Nothing sounded better than curling up under my covers, waking up at 5 am and getting my time with my little best friend. If I didn't think my sister would try to mother me too then I would've already moved in with her and Penelope.
But I was a grown-up and all, so.
Sleep came easily and by the time my alarm woke me the next morning, I wasn't swatting it away like usual. I'd slept better than I had every night in the past two months combined. Funny how job security could do that to a person.
I swung my legs off of my bed and decided to take a quick shower before heading to my sister's house. After using the majority of the hot water I wrapped up in a towel and made my way back to my room. Normally I'd just wear leggings and a t-shirt but I remember the shopping that I needed to do.
Which reminded me. I had virtually no fashion sense and everyone else in the office looked like they could walk a runway at a moment's notice.
I chewed my thumbnail while debating what I should do next.
I could text Ada. She had two babies and was more than likely awake at this hour.
It felt a little odd to me but Ada made it anything but that. She made me feel comfortable around her. More like an old friend than the woman that the guy I was obsessed with used me for. But that wasn't exactly fair either. Sebastian was never anything but kind to me, even when he was turning me down. Meanwhile, I practically threw myself at his feet.
Exactly the type of memories that I tried to erase. He was a catch, no doubt. He just wasn't my fish.
So maybe it wasn't weird at all to text Ada for advice.
I grabbed my phone and pulled up our last conversation then sent her a quick message. Not even two minutes later my phone vibrated with a response.
Ada: Actually, Jess (the crazy girl in my office) and I are going shopping later. Why don't you join us?
Me: I'll have Penelope. Is that okay?
Ada: Of course. I'll text you later when Jess decides where we're going first.
I thanked her then ran to my closet and tried to find something that would work for a shopping day with those two. I googled Jess Kirkwood when I got home yesterday. She was a sought-after designer who had more clients under her belt than other designers twice her age. Elle magazine just did a piece on her shoe sense alone. She might've been intimidating but I don't think I could've been in better hands as far as shopping went.
I slipped on a wrap dress and some flats before slinging my bag over my shoulder. I tiptoed out of the apartment and tried my best to not wake Ali. Once I got to the garage I crossed my fingers that my ten-year-old Sentra would crank and exhaled the breath that I was holding when the engine successfully turned over then I rubbed my hand across the dashboard like a real weirdo.
I drove the fifteen minutes to my sister's house totally engrossed in the true-crime podcast that I was obsessed with and made a mental note to listen to the rest while Penelope napped later.
I pulled into the driveway and admired her cookie-cutter house. My sister truly was something else. She somehow managed to keep her shit together after her husband couldn't. I think she knew long before the wedding that their marriage wasn't going to work out. He was too flighty and she was the most grounded person that I knew. She wanted the husband, the house, the family and he was just along for the ride. Until the ride got a little bumpy. Now she couldn't even pin down his location long enough to get him to sign the divorce papers. Last I heard he was in Columbia and didn't mind that he was still legally married and a deadbeat dad. But that was his loss.
I used my key to open the front door and was instantly greeted with the smell of bacon frying in the kitchen. I smiled as I walked into the kitchen and saw Penelope waiting patiently in her high chair.
"You're up early."
I told her as I twirled her tiny blonde pigtail around my finger.
She squealed as she held her hands out for me.
I unclipped the buckle and moved the tray forward before lifting her.
I said as I turned toward my sister with Penelope on my hip.
She smiled at me then turned the bacon in the pan.
"Hey is it okay if I take her shopping with me today?"
"Sure. For your new job?"
She wiggled her brows and I rolled my eyes. While I was googling Jess, Evie was googling Mr. Bolthouse and drooling over him.
"Yep, they are very fashion-forward."
"I'm happy for you Eliza. I have a good feeling about this one."
She told me as she tucked my hair behind my ear.
We weren't all that far apart in age but to her, I was still just a kid that she needed to look out for.
"I better go. Bacon is done and the pancakes are in the microwave, they should still be warm."
She said as she turned the burner off and kissed Penelope on the cheek.
"Love you, Penny."
Penelope waved her little chunky hand as Evie left the kitchen.
I put her back in her high chair and just as I'd sat down to eat my phone buzzed.
Ada: Can you meet us at Buckhead Village at 10?
Me: 10 is perfect.
We finished up breakfast and I changed Penelope out of her sticky clothes. Toddlers and syrup didn't exactly mix.
"We're going shopping with my friends later. Well, sort of my friends. Anyway, we're going shopping. Are you excited?"
She nodded, probably only humoring me so I'd be quiet long enough for her to finish the episode of Paw Patrol she was watching. I cleaned the kitchen while she was preoccupied then went to the living room to join her. After pulling out every toy in her toy box and cleaning them up she brought me her shoes.
She asked and I laughed.
She plopped down on the carpeted floor and I put her tiny sandals on her feet.
I grabbed her bag before I loaded her stroller in my car then buckled her into her seat.
We would be a little early but that was fine.
I pulled into the parking lot and shut my car off. Once Penelope was secured in her stroller we started walking. She pointed at everything around and begged for a ballon that I promised her we would get as we left so that I didn't have to wrestle with it all afternoon.
I heard Ada's voice behind me and turned around. Jess was on her heels, with her head down typing away on her phone.
Ada squeezed me into a hug the second she was close enough then she crouched down to get closer to Penelope.
"Hey, pretty girl."
She said as she waved.
Penelope waved back shyly and Ada smiled warmly at her.
"Sorry about that."
Jess said as she tucked her phone away in her bag.
"She's a busy lady."
Ada said as she bumped my hip with her own.
"Busy. . . Stressed. They seem interchangeable at this point. But no more of that. We're on a mission."
She rubbed her palms together like some sort of evil genius and I suppose she sort of was.
I asked and Ada snorted.
"She's dramatic. But I told her that we were getting you office attire and she canceled her zoom meeting."
"Oh, you didn't have to do that."
I said but Jess shook her head.
"I live for this. It's my favorite thing to do. And you're the absolute perfect model."
I would've blushed if I'd had time but Jess wasn't joking. She was indeed on a mission and one that had a time limit. Before I knew what was happening she'd pulled me into the first store and was holding dresses up to me.
"Ada, you're on baby duty."
She said as she pried the stroller out of my hands. Ada didn't hesitate to take over and Jess pulled me toward the dressing rooms.
"She'll be fine."
Ada assured me as I looked back toward them.
Once I was in the dressing room I stepped into the first dress and stepped out so Jess could see. Within two seconds she nixed it, claiming the color washed me out.
Twenty minutes later, the bench in the dressing room was covered in clothes. And a salesperson was now helping Jess pull more options. I zipped myself up in a black jumpsuit and opened the door but Jess wasn't there.
I stepped out further and heard her voice mixed with someone else's.
"Ms. Sanderson, it's nice to see you again."
Mr. Bolthouse wasn't wearing a suit but he somehow still looked expensive in his dark jeans and a fitted t-shirt.
I nodded as I walked closer to the group.
"What a weird coincidence that you're here too, Brady."
Ada said as she rubbed Penelope's back. She looked so comfortable with Ada, she was almost asleep.
"It is. And who is this?"
Brady asked as he tilted his head toward my niece.
"Ah, the famous Penelope."
He smiled and I glanced at Jess and Ada as they exchanged a confused look.
"In the flesh."
I told him as I pulled at the tag that was poking into my arm. I made the mistake of glancing down at it and saw the price that was printed across the bottom. My hands instantly got sweaty at the numbers.
I looked back up to see Mr. Bolthouse eyeing me suspiciously. I think he wanted to ask me something but he held it back.
"I'm just here picking up a gift for my dad. I'll see you lady's later. Goodbye, princess."
He spoke the words to all of us but he was focused on Penelope, she waved goodbye to him and I saw a little piece of him melt. She had that effect on people.
We returned to our task and after I swallowed the hard pill of knowing that I'd be paying off my credit card until I was fifty years old I actually started enjoying myself.
We narrowed it down to fourteen pieces that could be worn countless ways and I was officially in awe of Jess' mind. Ada held onto Penelope as she napped and they both seemed to be over the moon for one another.
As the cashier rang up my total and bagged all of my items I took deep breathes and told myself that it was fine. I could make the minimum payments on my credit card with ease now that I landed this job. I was almost completely fine with the idea when the saleswoman told me that I was all set.
"But I haven't paid yet."
I explained to her in a hushed tone.
"Mr. Bolthouse took care of it. He said whatever you needed should be put on his store tab."
She smiled sweetly as if it was normal and it might've been for other people but not for me. I wanted to demand that she let me pay because it was something beyond weird to have my new boss pay for anything for me.
But I didn't say a word. I smiled and took the bags from the counter and was about to turn away when she spoke again.
"Oh, and this."
I looked back over to see her holding a bright pink and silver balloon shaped like a tiara.
I didn't reach out and take it immediately so she spoke again.
"Although I suppose this is meant for the baby."
She smiled again and I extended my hand to take the balloon from her.
I told her as I walked back to where the girls were.
Penelope was awake and was already reaching for the ballon.
"Where the heck did that come from?"
Jess asked and I froze.
I wasn't sure what to say. But the truth was probably best.
I told them.
Ada sighed and she sat Penelope back into her stroller. She tied the string of the balloon onto the handle so that Penelope could hold onto it.
"What do you mean?"
"He notices things, he pays attention even when you think there's no way that he could be. He might have the mind of a businessman but he has the heart of a saint."
Ada explained and Jess nodded along.
"He's not even my boss but I can assure you he's not your average boss."
Jess added and I had to agree.
If there was one thing that I'd learned about Brady Bolthouse in the short time that I'd known him it was that he wasn't average at anything.