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Authors: Beth K. Vogt

Tags: #Fiction, #Retail, #Romance, #Top 2014

Somebody Like You (3 page)

BOOK: Somebody Like You
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“A pre-meeting?” The warmth of the coffee seeped into his palm but did nothing to cut the chill that settled along the back of his neck. What was up?

“No sense in dillydallying. We didn’t get the contract.”

“That’s impossible—our preliminary discussions bordered on a guarantee—”

“Doesn’t matter—the only thing that matters is who gets the final approval, and it wasn’t us.” His boss removed his silver wire-framed glasses, rubbing his bloodshot eyes. “The company can’t weather a hit like this, not with the economy we’re in.”

“What does that mean—practically?” Setting aside his coffee, Stephen braced his hands on the flat surface of the table.

“It means layoffs. I’ve avoided it as long as I could, but I’ve got to cut costs until we get more business. I hate to do it, but Jenkins has to go. As my lead architect, you—”

“Jenkins? He’s got a wife and twin preschoolers. And if the office grapevine is correct, baby number three is on the way.”

“Like I said, I hate to do it—but this is business. Jenkins was the last architect hired, so he’s the first to go.” His boss broke eye contact. “I’ll talk to him before the employee staff meeting this morning. I’m also going to ask Gilberts to go half-time.”

Stephen couldn’t push his mind past his boss’s announcement that he was letting Jenkins go. He tugged at his tie. What could he do? The decision was made. Another solution skittered through his head. Impossible. Mr. Talbott wouldn’t approve.

But he had to try.

Ignoring how the oxygen seemed to be disappearing from the room, Stephen sat up straighter. “Excuse me, Mr.
Talbott. I have a suggestion that would allow Jenkins to keep his job.”

“You do? What, exactly?”

He rushed the suggestion past the mental barricades being set up by the realistic side of his brain. “Let me take his place.”

“You’re joking.” Mr. Talbott sat with his cup of coffee halfway to his lips.

“I’m absolutely serious—I’ll take Jenkins’s layoff.”

“Why would you do something like that?”

He had no idea. It was irresponsible—essentially walking away from a job he loved. But the thought of Jenkins . . . his wife and kids . . . the man had a family. Stephen had a loft apartment. And no one waiting at home for him.

“I can take the hit, sir. I haven’t got a wife and kids.”

“I don’t know what to say.”

“Don’t say anything to Jenkins. We have our eight o’clock meeting. Announce that I’m being cut from the team—”

Mr. Talbott dismissed his suggestion with a shake of his head. “Do you really think anyone is going to believe that?”

“Fine. Tell ’em I quit. I’ll clean out my desk and be gone before anyone gets here.”

“Stephen, I can’t give you anything more than I was going to offer Jenkins—a month’s severance. Three months’ insurance.”

Reality sharpened as he realized there’d be no paycheck automatically arriving in his bank account. He stood, rubbing his hands together. He could do this—he wanted to do this. Why, he didn’t know. “My dad taught me to save before spending—and I don’t have any debt. I’ll be fine.”

His boss grasped his hand in a firm handshake. “I’ll write you a stellar recommendation—don’t worry about that.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“No, thank you. I didn’t think men like you existed anymore, Ames.”

“Just trying to do the right thing.”

“Exactly.”

So much for going forward.

Stephen pushed back from the drafting table in his loft, his gaze landing on the black and white framed photograph of the Lone Cypress Tree hanging on his wall. It had been one month since Elissa rejected his proposal and his boss accepted his resignation. And what had he accomplished in the past four weeks? The diamond ring sat in the jeweler’s box in his backpack, dumped just inside his bedroom closet. He’d updated his résumé, trusting Mr. Talbott’s recommendation to be all the entrée he needed for interviews—and a new job. So far, not a single door had swung open for him.

And he certainly couldn’t do anything about Elissa’s musing that he was searching for someone. Elissa had no idea how close she was to the truth . . . and how far off. Yes, he and his brother hadn’t talked in twelve years. But that didn’t mean Stephen wanted to go find him—or could change anything even if, by some miracle, he did track Sam down and they managed to have a conversation. He might as well try repositioning the Rock of Gibraltar on dry land. The Ames brothers had disappeared twelve years ago—but Sam still shadowed him. No, Sam stared at him every time Stephen looked in the mirror. He just never said anything.

What was that verse in Romans?
As far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.
Peace with Sam meant he lived his life and Stephen lived his. No communication meant no arguments. Nobody got hurt.

Returning to his desk, Stephen lost himself in sketching a building, giving himself freedom to daydream with each stroke of his artist pencils. He was unaware of the sky darkening outside the windows until the ring of his phone pulled his attention away from the designs. He picked it up, intending to silence it, when he saw the name of the caller.

His mother.

She always called three times a year: his birthday in May, Thanksgiving, Christmas. Easter, if the mood struck her. It was the end of August—the only things being celebrated were back-to-school sales.

“This is Stephen.”

The seconds ticked away in silence, and then his mother cleared her throat. “Stephen?”

“Yes, it’s me. Everything okay?”

More silence.

“Mom?”

“I had to call . . .” Her voice trailed off into a choked whimper.

“What’s wrong? Are you sick? Did something happen?” He and his mother weren’t close, but that didn’t mean he wanted her facing a crisis.

“Not me . . . your brother . . .” Another whimper followed by a shaky inhale and a rush of words. “Sam was killed during his deployment in Afghanistan.”

two

JANUARY 2013

T
his conversation wasn’t going to be easy.

Haley pulled off the faded fatigue-patterned ball cap, twisting it in her hands as she approached the front counter of the gun club. Thick arms crossed over his barrel chest, her boss chatted with Frank, a club regular.

“Wes, I need to talk to you—”

The man wrapped up his conversation with a gravelly laugh before clapping the guy on his back and focusing on her. “There a problem, Hal?”

A glass display case separated them, filled with two shelves of handguns—ranging from .32 caliber to 9mm—that members could rent for use on the range or purchase. “I need to talk to you about taking maternity leave.”

“Now?” Wes stopped prepping to count up the day’s take. “I thought the baby wasn’t due for a few more months.”

“Not until April.” She scuffed the faded patch of carpet with the toe of her brown cowboy boot. “But I need to get off the range.”

“What’s bothering you?” Wes dumped his unlit cigar in a spotless ceramic ashtray.

Haley twisted one of the strands of hair that had slipped free from her ponytail. “One of the women in the gun safety class asked if it was safe for a pregnant woman to be on the range.”

“Is that all?” He dismissed her concern with a wave of his beefy hand. “Of course it’s safe. We have the best ventilation system in town.”

“But what about the noise? I hadn’t even thought about that.” Repositioning the hat on her head, she rubbed the palms of her hands along the front of her sweatpants. “I wear stuff to protect my eyes and ears—but it’s not like I can soundproof my belly. I haven’t read a lot of the information online, but I do know unborn babies hear sounds.”

“So what are you telling me? You want to quit because your baby might be bothered by the noise?”

“I didn’t say quit. But maybe . . . a leave of absence? Just to be safe?”

“You know I’m short-staffed as it is, Hal. Who am I going to get to teach your classes?”

“How about I make a few phone calls? Maybe someone at the Olympic Training Center might know of a competitive shooter looking for part-time work. And maybe I can do some shifts behind the counter. Let’s both sleep on it and talk tomorrow or the next day, okay?”

A few moments later, Haley stuffed her gear bag into the backseat of her Subaru Forester, standing to stretch the ever-present ache in her lower back. One more decision to make—and no one to talk it over with. She couldn’t even ask someone to help her remember to make the phone calls—except for the virtual assistant on her iPhone.

Why couldn’t that woman in her class mind her own
business? Most people didn’t even notice she was pregnant, especially when she wore one of Sam’s baggy chamois shirts.

Once on the road, Haley shifted in the seat, one hand on the steering wheel, the other hand holding a Three Musketeers bar as she tore at the silver wrapper with her teeth. Even as she inhaled the first whiff of sugary chocolate, she promised herself something healthy for dinner when she got home. Like a banana. Wait. Did she have any bananas? Did she have any fresh fruit at all?

The Forester’s in-dash clock declared it was nine thirty. “Sorry, buddy.” She patted her rounded tummy underneath her cotton henley top. “But it’s not like you’re running on a regular schedule in there—not the way you like to roll around right when I want to go to sleep.”

Only a few more miles and she’d be home. Was it only two months ago that she’d signed on the multiple dotted lines and bought a house? When she stared down the woman in the mirror brushing her teeth twice a day it took a few seconds before she recognized herself.

Owning a home was one thing.

Being pregnant . . . well, by the time she got used to that life-and-body-altering idea, the baby would be here and she’d be wrestling with the up-close-and-personal reality of motherhood.

And now, four and a half months later, she still shifted under the heaviness of the word
widow
. There was no dodging the truth. But when would the nightmare of Sam’s death stop slapping her awake in the early hours of the morning?

Haley rolled her shoulders—backward, forward—in an attempt to ease the tautness that had settled right between her shoulder blades. Until tonight, work had given her a respite from thinking about the what-ifs and the what-nows stalking her. She usually got a kick out of teaching the weekly women’s gun safety class.

But not tonight.

Doubt had followed her out to her car and settled in the passenger seat beside her. Some trained professional she was—she hadn’t once thought about how being on the range might affect her unborn son. But then, hearing the “Mrs. Ames, we’re sorry to inform you . . .” speech from the military representatives four months ago had muted every other reality in her life—even her pregnancy. What kind of mother didn’t go to her first OB appointment until she was sixteen weeks pregnant? Had she been too relaxed about being on the range?

Haley crumbled the candy bar wrapper and stuffed it beneath her seat. She hadn’t enjoyed a single bite. After months of spending her days staring into the bottom of a bucket—or worse, the toilet—she could eat again, and she wasn’t even paying attention.

As if a Three Musketeers bar would give her anything more than—what?—two minutes of enjoyment. Not that something as temporary as a sugar rush mattered anymore. She needed to take care of, well,
everything
—and that included the baby. Her son. Sam’s son. And if it meant starting to act as though she was pregnant and taking a leave from her job, then that’s what she’d do.

But first she’d grab a banana or a bowl of cereal—something—to eat when she got home. And she needed to surf some of the pregnancy websites she’d found when she first realized she was pregnant. Her friends with kids said there was lots of good information available on the sites. But had they meant the slideshow labeled “Poppy seed to pumpkin: How big is your baby”? Imagining her unborn child as an ear of corn was odd enough. But would she ever get used to the thought that by the end of this pregnancy, she’d be carrying around something—
someone
—the size of a small pumpkin?

Sam would have laughed at the entire fruits-and-veggies slideshow, probably juggled a few of the oranges and apples in the fruit bowl—if they had any—to make Haley laugh, and then suggested they go out to eat.

BOOK: Somebody Like You
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ads

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