Authors: RaeLynn Blue
Antonio’s eyes widened. “Yes, I will do it.”
“Double her regular salary.”
“Yes, double.” Antonio nodded repeatedly. His head moved like a Bobblehead doll.
Brice stepped back and adjusted his shirt. Antonio wiped his face and blew out a sigh of relief.
“One more thing.”
Antonio groaned and whimpered all at once.
“Don’t tell her about me.”
Brice swore. He couldn’t do any more than he had just now. Yes, his sister worked for the health department so the threat wasn’t idle, but now Tawana would make his life miserable at C.A.K.E. He didn’t give idle threats and neither did Tawana.
So why did he get Aerial her job back? He frowned as he reclaimed his suit jacket and tablet from the table. Normally, he didn’t do anything for anyone, except himself and the clients he served to close the sale. The last time he opened his heart and gave, it cost him everything, including six weeks of his life in a hospital.
Brice couldn’t risk that again.
So, he left the restaurant with his mind still on what had taken place there. A woman Aerial’s size was difficult to miss in such a cozy little place. Something about her movements between the tightly packed tables and chairs mesmerized him. She had grace like a ballerina, and her laughter sailed over all the buzzing conversations and whining computer noise. It struck him how free it sounded, not forced or faked, just a light sailing of mirth and happiness. When he realized she was his waitress, he’d been taken aback and embarrassed to not have made a selection. He overreacted to avoid criticism and he expected her to react like all the other servers and wait staff, with a “yes sir,” and a vanishing act.
Surprisingly, Aerial hadn’t done that at all.
It had been a long time since someone surprised him.
A long time, indeed.
The parking lot of C.A.K.E.’s two-story building teamed with cars at two o’clock. Overcast clouds clustered tightly together and threatened to bring rain to join the increasing humidity. Blares of horns and screeches of tires saturated the moist air as Aerial turned into the lot. Behind her, angry drivers shot around her. They jerked her out of her reverie. She’d been thinking about her audition. Nearly half way through Ophelia’s soliloquy, she’d fumbled the lines. Her brain couldn’t get over the strange call she’d gotten last night from Antonio. He’d offered to give her the job back and with double the salary. It made no sense, but she’d make close to twenty dollars an hour. Not to mention, he apologized profusely for his ‘mistake.’
A raw wind blew by her SUV, rocking the vehicle. She pulled into a spot marked
and threw the vehicle into park. She’d left the auditions for The Triad Stage’s production of
with a lesser part, but still a speaking one. She’d managed to convince them of her comedic talents, and so they’d rewarded her with one of the parts of the gravediggers. Nevertheless, her curiosity couldn’t be contained. Antonio wouldn’t be so generous on his own.
Suspecting Tawana, she’d called, but it went straight to her voicemail. Now, she would get to the bottom of this. She’d confront her face to face. It wasn’t that she minded getting her job back, but Antonio sounded scared on the phone—panting and stuttering. If he’d been truly sorry, that would be one thing. But to offer an apology and her job back out of fear and coercion, well, he’d only end up resenting her. In the long run, it would make her job worse.
So she had declined.
And Antonio cried like a baby, until she agreed to come back.
Now, seated outside of C.A.K.E., she had to know what her sister had done to make a grown man wail. Motivated, Aerial unbuckled her seatbelt. Her cell phone rang.
“Yes, Chloe,” she answered, seeing her cousin’s picture on the incoming call screen.
“What’s up? You’ve got like 10 minutes before I go into a very big meeting.” Chloe sounded breathless.
“Okay, quick. What did T do to Antonio?”
“You know, Antonio. The manager at the café.”
“Um, she didn’t do anything to him. We left with you and as far as I know, she hasn’t had any contact with him. Why?” Chloe sounded clear, honest and without her customary joking. At work and in attorney mode, her cousin locked down her usual candor.
“He offered my job back—”
“Oh, good,” Chloe interrupted. “Maybe he saw the error of his ways. T didn’t have to do anything, Munchkin.”
“…and doubled my wage.”
Chloe was quiet.
Aerial filled her in on the rest of the weird call.
“Did you and T threaten him?” Aerial asked. “Seriously, I’m old enough to take care of myself.”
“First of all, no, you’re not, and secondly, no, we didn’t,” Chloe said. “Listen, I’ve got to go. Maybe he just decided to stop being an ineffective boss. Okay, kiddo. I’ve got to go.”
Chloe ended the call, leaving Aerial unsatisfied. All her brothers were out of town on business or tied up in some family matters. Chloe didn’t do it. She could tell when Chloe lied, because she giggled. That left only Tawana. Despite what Chloe said, she couldn’t account for T’s every move since Friday. Shoving her sunglasses into her hair, Aerial checked for an umbrella and got out of her SUV.
She waved to the security guards, Felix and Bobby. At one point, when Tawana had first started working here, everyone thought Aerial was the oldest, because she was taller. Not any more. She strolled by the receptionist’s desk, knowing the way to her sister’s office by heart.
“Hey!” came a female shout.
Aerial turned around.
“You get yourself back here and give me a hug!”
A short, pudgy woman with a gray afro stood up from her desk with her hands on her ample hips. “Aerial Gibson!”
“Oh hiya, Mrs. Owens!” Aerial felt like such a heel. She walked quickly back to the ancient receptionist and hugged her tight, bending to do so. The woman had made a delicious cake for Aerial’s college graduation and a wedding cake for her eldest brother’s wedding.
“Look at you, all grown up and all grown
!” Mrs. Owens beamed. “You here to see your sister?”
“Yes ma’am.” Aerial blushed. Mrs. Owens sure did know how to embarrass a grown woman.
Mrs. Owens walked back to her desk and touched the monitor’s screen. “Well, I think she’s in a meeting in the boardroom. You can wait outside her office. Here take this visitor’s badge.”
Aerial frowned, taking the sticky nametag from her. “This is new.”
“Yeah, well child, about six months ago, a woman went nuts and threatened Mr. Silver’s fiancée. Had to bring Felix and Bob to the front of the building instead of flanked inside. Now we check everyone’s I.D.s and make sure we know where everyone is all the time. Mr. Silver’s wants us all to be safe.”
Aerial walked down the hallway, passing rows of cubicles and conversations, employees and computers. No one paid her any attention. Most were caught up in working. She reached her sister’s department, Sales, in the right corner of building. Sure enough, her office door was locked. The sales people had cubicles, but Tawana, as manager, had an office. This section seemed deserted, emptied out, unlived in, probably because most of the sales force spent the day out recruiting clients.
“Oh!” said a male voice just as Aerial sat in one of the lobby’s chairs.
“You.” It was all she could think to say. Brice Middleton had come around the corner, papers in his hand. When he saw her, he froze with that silly expression on his face.
Aerial rose. It made a funny sort of sense now that she saw him. Chloe had been positive Tawana had not done anything to Antonio, and women didn’t really scare Antonio. Though she had to admit, her sister could be intimidating, more than likely someone else had put the fear of Jesus in Antonio.
“You threatened Antonio.”
Brice scowled. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
He started forward, but she got in his path. “I’m a big girl, so moving me isn’t going to be easy.”
Brice smirked. “If I really wanted to move you, you’d be moved.”
“I don’t think so. I grew up with three older brothers. So you can try.”
Please try. I’d love to wrestle your beautiful self to the ground. Lick you all over like lollipop.
Aerial chuckled at the saucy thought. Sure, she’d thought about him and his sexy self. Moreover, she’d dreamed about him tossing rose petals across her nude body and planting kisses as he picked them off.
Brice sighed noisily and tried to step around her again. Once more, she blocked his path. Without actually touching her, he wouldn’t get by.
“Nuh-uh. You’ve got that look,” she said.
Brice glared. “First, you insult me. Now you accuse me. What is your problem?”
“What’s yours? First, you’re incredibly rude to me, and then you force my boss to hire me back, at double the salary—an incredibly nice act.”
Brice’s face went blank, but he swallowed. Aerial watched his Adam’s apple bob as he did so. This guy should never play poker. She smiled at him.
“You’re not as mean and aloof as you want everyone to think, are you?”
She tried to step back, but he smelled so incredible, she found herself leaning forward. He looked as good as he did Friday evening.
“I only corrected a wrong,” Brice confessed at last. “It wasn’t anything more than that.”
Aerial couldn’t believe it, though it didn’t surprise her. He stalked around her. Following, Aerial continued to ask questions. If he answered one, he’d answer more if she asked enough times. She felt a connection with him and the chemistry between them burned. Not ignoring her hot lust for him, she kept plugging.
“Why what?” He reached the copier, and began making photocopies. Leaning back against the wall beside the machine, Brice stared straight ahead, with his arms folded protectively over his chest.
“Why did you do it?” She walked by the machine and stood against the cubicle wall across from him. He did not meet her eyes. “Why did you think it was wrong?”
The muscle in his jaw ticked and his mouth worked behind closed lips. He wanted to talk to her, but he battled with the decision.
Tawana had explained on the way to church how no one liked him, how they called him Brooding Brice, and how all the other salesmen envied his success. Inside of him a good man resided. Tawana had spent the better part of church on Sunday, berating Brice Middleton.
Aerial remained unconvinced. She liked him—was attracted to his opposing viewpoints. Opposites attracted and Aerial was absolutely attracted to
. Despite his initial rudeness at the café, she suspected that somewhere inside him was a man other people liked or else they wouldn’t sign advertising and marketing contracts with C.A.K.E.
Oddly enough, Aerial saw it. Like a ray of sunshine gleaming through a tiny hole in rock.
“Tell me, please.”
Brice pushed off the wall, and went to the copier, putting his back to her. “Why don’t you just leave? You got what you came here for, right? I told you. I made the manager give you your job back. I did it so your sister wouldn’t take it out on me. Okay?”
Aerial went to stand beside him at the machine. “No, you didn’t. You didn’t want me to know, remember? So you couldn’t have done it to appease Tawana.”
“For the love of Mike!” Brice swore. He ran a hand through his hair and shook his head in frustration. “What do you want?”
“What’s so damn funny?” he asked.
“Does that normally work? The shouting, the banging, the
leave me alone
voice?” she asked.
He took the copies and turned to face her at last. A cloud floated across his face, but for a brief second, she saw the angst beneath his mask of apathy. He covered it quickly enough, but she
“Okay, sorry! Here’s what I want. I want you to tell me the real reason you did what you did.”
Brice’s shoulders sagged. “I already told you.”
“Not that bogus reason. The
one you keep locked in there.” She pointed to his heart, which he kept his papers protectively over.
Brice’s eyes actually connected with hers and for the first time they seemed to warm. Swept into them, Aerial’s body became hot. He opened his mouth, and she waited, air caught in her chest, unable to breathe. Now, she would get an honest, forthright answer.
“I didn’t think it was right that you were fired for making a single mistake,” Brice said and rushed by her.
Aerial whirled around to stop him, her feelings crushed. She started after him, to tell him about how ridiculous his lie sounded when she heard it. Her sister’s loud cackling.
Tawana stood at the base of the staircase, laughing and walking with Kaiden Hu. The immaculately dressed, international sales manager stopped whole conversations just by entering a room. He wore his hair cut short and modern, dressed in a three-piece suit including a vest. Aerial didn’t find him as striking as her sister did, but then her sister liked Japanese men.
“Aerial? What are you doing here? What’s wrong?” Tawana’s smile slipped from her face as she hurried over. Kaiden followed with concern on his face as well.
“Nothing’s wrong. Mom and Dad are okay. The brothers are fine,” Aerial said. “I came by to…to…”
Tawana nodded to Kaiden. “See you.”
She looked back at Aerial, and touched her arms. “Aerial, what’s going on?”
“I got a part in the
“Oh great!” Tawana hugged her. “Make sure I get the dates. You hungry? I didn’t get lunch due to that long conference call. Evelyn is in London and she and that fiancé of hers, are trying to expand the marketing campaign for Tudor Urban Clothing. The clothes are a hit in Japan, too. You want to grab lunch?”
“Yes, sure,” Aerial answered, listening to Tawana babble on about work related stuff. Her sister was completely clueless about her good news. She scanned the row of cubicles. In one of those, Brice had disappeared. “Lunch sounds good.”