Some of the wattage went out of his smile at that, but she didn’t care. Last week in the employee break room he’d made a move on her. He’d cornered her between the sink and the refrigerator and tried to kiss her. She’d shoved him back, maybe a little harder than the situation warranted, but really, he was just lucky she’d let him keep his balls.
At the shove, he’d fallen backward into a table, spilling a glass of water, which in turn soaked into the seat of his pants. He’d made a joke of it then, apparently thinking that laughing it off would be the easiest way for his ego to handle the rejection, but she knew he’d been pissed.
“You’re still upset about the kiss,” he said in an annoyingly patronizing tone. “Honestly, Mia, the way you leaned into me, I thought you wanted me to kiss you.”
“You’ve been fantasizing again.” She liked kissing, very much. But as the queen of compartmentalizing, she’d long ago divided her needs into little groups. First and most important, job. Second, men.
Never the two shall meet.
The men in her office, and there were many, had correctly read her back-off signs. She knew they called her Ice Queen among other less flattering things, and she didn’t care, because what Ted hadn’t anticipated when he’d made the move on her was how he’d unwittingly put her into the position of power, a situation he greatly regretted. His eyes were no longer friendly.
“I’ll get to the point of me being here,” he said.
“Why don’t you.”
“You got the Anderson account.”
The two of them might be equals on the scale when it came to the ladder of success within this company, but that was only because he’d been here longer. Mia was better at the job. She knew it, everyone in the office knew it, and Ted knew it, too.
He just didn’t like it, or her aggression in getting other—and winning—accounts. Bottom line, he was lazy. She was not.
“Yes, I got the Anderson account,” she said.
“You stole it out from beneath me.”
Ah. The victim angle. She should have guessed he’d go that route. She’d won the account fairly, with blood and sweat and tears. Okay, maybe not with blood or tears, but certainly with long, hard hours over the past several months. She’d put her heart and soul into it, and she wanted to hear him say it, even knowing he’d never give her that satisfaction. “I don’t know what your problem is,” she said quietly. “But I bet it’s hard to pronounce.”
The muscle in his jaw twitched. “I should have gotten that account.” He pushed a file across her gorgeous Baker desk. “My ideas were better.”
“Now, that’s just plain not nice.”
“You’re insulting my entire creative team.”
“Just stating fact.”
The man was impossible. She picked up his work and dropped it in the trash.
His eyes filled with anger. “Bitch.”
“Oooh, ouch. You got me, Ted. Now get out.”
“That account should have been mine.”
“You know what? I can stand your arrogance, and maybe even stand your smugness—though it’d be easier if you weren’t wearing such a tacky suit—but I won’t stand being accused of stealing. Get out.”
“You should have to share that account with me.”
“When hell freezes over.” Planting her hands flat on her desk, she leaned over and looked him right in the cold eyes. “Read my lips, Ted. I don’t share.” She shoved his loafers off her desk and stood her ground while he slowly, insolently rose to his feet. Never had she resented her average height more as he towered over her, leanly muscled and ticked off.
“I want that account, Mia.”
“Get out. Now.”
For one long beat he stood his ground, staring her down, no longer even attempting to hold the façade of friendliness.
She stared back, bitterly resenting that she had to tip her head up to do so. Tomorrow she’d wear her five-inch stilettos, if it meant looking this prick right in the eyes.
Finally he slowly backed off and walked out, shutting her door too hard, rustling her new gorgeous plant. Not sure how many more people she was going to piss off today, she shifted the pot away from the door, then stood there, her heart beating just a little too hard for comfort. God, she really hated a bully, but she especially hated that he’d gotten to her and made her uneasy.
And just a tad nervous.
Refusing to let him ruin one more second of her time, she got busy, burying herself in the groundwork for her next conquest, a major athletic shoe account. She and Dick had nicknamed the file “Runner” to keep it quiet from other firms. That very secrecy and care was what had garnered her such an Ice Queen rep, but she worked hard, so what? Others could do the same; she’d only respect that.
She’d already been briefed by the Runner company on what they expected and wanted, and now it was up to her to create a campaign from scratch. Her favorite part. Most times, this involved her creative team. She loved those late-night meetings, where ideas flew freely and the creative muse took control.
But for now, with this account, she was on her own, and she worked on the research until noon.
By then she’d forgotten all about Ted, and she sat with Tess in the employee lunchroom.
“He was smiling when he left your office,” Tess reported over her moo shoo. Others were around, including Margot, so she leaned in for privacy. “Smiling like a snake, too. He left for a meeting on fourth, the rat-fink bastard. I hope the layoff rumors have him worried and he’s looking for a job elsewhere.”
“Not likely. Don’t worry, I can handle him.” Mia sank her teeth into a pot sticker. She could handle anything, she thought. Suddenly the smoke alarms went off. Everyone ran into the hallway.
The thick smoke cut off Mia’s air. Janice and Tami from her creative team had their laptops hugged to their breasts, but Steven and Dillon were nowhere in sight. People were already evacuating when Mia darted into her office to grab her laptop, where she found an unwelcome surprise.
The smoke came from here. Specifically, her trash can. “Shit.” Grabbing the water bottle off her desk, she raced to the trash can and dumped the contents over the flames, which gave one last surge—straight upward and into her face—before dying with a hissing gasp.
“Shit,” she said again, stumbling blind backward. With a gasp, she remembered her new plant. Panicked, she whirled around. It looked a little wilted but okay, and she gratefully hugged the pot close as she sank to a chair.
Margot was the first to show up, with half the building behind her. “The fire department is on its way—Ohmigod, Mia! Are you hurt?”
“No.” Mia swiped her sweating forehead with her forearm, which came away black with soot. Ugh.
Tess shoved her way in, yelling, “Clear the way, let me through, damn it!” Then she skidded to a stop. “Oh, my God—”
“I’m okay,” Mia said quickly.
“But honey, your eyebrow!”
Gone, Mia discovered. Just like her trash can.
But she still had the plant.
“You’d better work on that rejection policy of yours,” Tess said in the employee bathroom a few hours later, after Mia refused to let the paramedics fuss over her, after everyone had been allowed back in the building and been thoroughly lectured by the fire marshal.
He’d deemed the incident “suspicious in nature,” and an investigation was under way.
Mia instantly thought of Ted, but he’d been gone from the building. Which meant she had someone else after her, a fact that Tess pointed out with great worry.
“Who now?” she fretted. “Who else have you succeeded past, made look bad, or walked all over?”
She would have protested, but the truth was she hadn’t made a lot of friends over the years. She stared in the mirror at her singed eyebrow. “I guess I could make a few social changes.”
Tess let out a sound that said, “Ya think?”
Mia just sighed again. Maybe she could try to adopt a new kinder, gentler manner.
Oh, and a new eyebrow.
Sixteen-year-old Hope Appleby was going somewhere if it killed her.
And given that she’d never felt more alone, hungry, or desperately afraid she’d never get out of her car and into a real bed again, it just might.
She chewed on a fingernail and hummed as she drove, trying to fool herself into a lull of comfort. But she’d been driving so long now, and for so many days, the scenery blurred into itself. Tennessee to Los Angeles…a lot farther than it had seemed. Still, she’d always dreamed of seeing the country, and finally, at sixteen years, two months, and three days old, she was seeing it plenty.
Just not quite in the style she’d imagined.
State after state passed as she headed west, Arkansas into Oklahoma into Texas into New Mexico. She’d been sleeping in her car to save money, trying to keep one eye open as she did because, as everyone knew, bad guys preyed on people sleeping alone in their cars.
Especially female people.
She had a flashlight, but she’d dropped it at a rest stop about five hundred miles back and couldn’t get it to work after that. She’d been singing to the radio just to hear a real voice, but now she couldn’t get any stations that weren’t farm weather reports. Now she had nothing but herself for company, and she’d never been much good at small talk.
Not that she wanted company from strangers. No, thank you. They all looked at her funny, as though they’d never seen anyone dress Goth before.
It was just black.
And a few chains.
No big deal. She’d started dressing like this only to look as different on the outside as she felt on the inside.
She’d lifted a steak knife from Denny’s the day before, which was dull as a plastic butter knife but flashed fairly impressively in the light. It would be good for show, if need be, and hopefully that was all she’d need to do—even the thought of blood made her want to hurl.
She was eating as cheaply as she could and bathing in public restrooms, which were really gross. People were universal slobs, and if she had to look at one more slimy sink or toilet…
But she was in the home stretch now, nearly to her aunt Apple’s in Los Angeles, and she patted the dashboard of her beat-up 1989 Dodge Diplomat. “Not much farther,” she promised.
The car coughed.
Oh, God. Her biggest fear. “Don’t die on me now,” Hope begged it and patted the dash again. “We’re going to be okay, really we are.”
Or so she hoped. The problem was Apple didn’t know she was coming, and Momma didn’t know she’d gone.
Which left Hope in her usual spot—a big mess.
Unable to read the map and drive at the same time, she pulled off the freeway, not daring to turn off the engine for fear it would never start again. Only she didn’t have much gas left…
“Please find it,” she whispered to herself, running her finger over the foldout she’d pilfered from a 76 station somewhere in Arizona. She’d felt a stab of guilt until the grimy two-hundred-fifty-pound guy behind the counter looked her over, making her skin crawl like that time she’d gotten ants in her bed after her momma had left out a box of Twinkies.
When Hope had asked the guy for the key to the restroom, he smiled (missing a front tooth!) and offered to take her himself.
So she said no thanks, left with the map, and then cursed him the whole time she was peeing in the woods.
Now she unraveled the small scrap of paper that had Apple’s address on it. The ink had gotten smeared. Was that 11732 High Waters Drive or 11735? Five, she decided and hoped she was right. She searched the map for High Waters, feeling a little frantic. “Please find it, please…”
She wasn’t too far now. Probably she could get there by nightfall, which was good because she was in the last of her clean clothes. She thought of how surprised and shocked her aunt Apple was going to be, and swallowed the niggling doubts that she should have called ahead.
And she would have, except for two things. One, her aunt hadn’t called her. Ever. Though she did send birthday cards every year, with increasingly larger checks enclosed.
Momma said Apple never called because she’d gotten a big head—so big Momma was surprised she even bothered with the cards and money—but Hope figured that Apple was somebody now, and somebodies took care of their own, busy or not.
Hope didn’t care about phone calls, or even about Apple, really. She just needed out of town, away from the trailer park, away from the stupid boys and mean girls, away from being a nobody.
Her aunt probably didn’t give a rat’s ass about Hope, either, but that didn’t matter. Apple lived in Los Angeles, the city of angels, the city of hope.
Surely that was a sign, right? Hope belonged there. She was going to stay with Apple and become a marine biologist and swim with dolphins for the rest of her life.
And like her aunt, never look back.
She was going to get better grades, get into Stanford, and then get rich. She’d have a place by the ocean, a new car—“Sorry,” she whispered to the Diplomat and stroked the dash as she sipped from the 7-Eleven Big Gulp she’d used her last bit of change for. She was going to have a real pool, too, not a plastic little thing where she couldn’t get all wet at once. Yeah, she had big dreams, and she would live ’em, assuming she didn’t run into any trouble—
A hard rap on the window jerked her so hard she nearly came out of her own skin. Soda soaked into her chest and belly and legs, her hand hit the horn—which made her jump again—and she hit her head on the visor she’d pulled down to block the lowering sun.