Tuesday, January 9, 2018

IAJOT - Chapter Two


            Chapter Two


Jillian sat up straight, and suppressed a groan. Olivia swiveled toward the door and stiffened.

Nothing about the short, voluptuous woman glaring at them could be good. Jillian glanced at Olivia. Her assistant gripped the legal pad with tight, white knuckles.

Please, Lord, don’t let these two go for each other’s throats.

The other manager shredded through assistants like copy paper, and when she was between victims, Olivia became her go-fer.

Complaining did no good. No one with any authority would touch the situation. The office politics that allowed Vonda to abuse her power made Jillian furious.

Olivia looked at her and asked, “Would you like me to have security remove this problem from your office, Miss Reynolds?”

“We don’t have security, Olivia.”

The assistant turned to glare at Vonda. “Well, we should.”

Jillian sighed. Olivia refused to bow down to the queen of nasty.

“Why don’t you go staple something?” Vonda hissed.

 Olivia shot to her feet and snapped the notepad on the desk.

“I will end you,” she said and rolled her neck.

Her assistant took a step forward. Fear flitted across Vonda’s lovely caramel features.

“Olivia.” The word was meant as a reprimand, but Jillian couldn’t help the hint of a smile tugging at the corner of her mouth.

Olivia stopped, but didn’t to turn around.

“Would you file this for me, please?” She picked a random file from a stack on the corner of the immense desk, and waited for her friend to accept the folder.

When Olivia did, her bright blue eyes snapped with fire.

“You know you want me to,” she said.

“I do.” After all the malicious gossip and attempts to take credit for Jillian’s hours of extra labor, it was tempting to let Olivia use her kickboxing lessons to sock the other manager in the nose. 

However, it wouldn’t be right.

“But not right now.” Jillian handed her the file. Olivia hesitated a moment, but took the folder. Her curvaceous form rivaled Vonda’s, and as she sashayed from the office her hips swung into the manager and knocked her off balance.

Vonda righted herself, and glowered at the assistant’s back.

Her caustic gaze swung to Jillian. “I’m going to speak to HR and have her fired.” Her shrill voice carried into the outer office, and the sound of a filing cabinet drawer slamming shut reverberated into the room. The smug satisfaction on Vonda’s face infuriated Jillian.

“No, you won’t.” She struggled to remain calm. “Now what do you want? You’re the one who barged into my office, remember?”

The smugness evaporated, and Vonda’s full crimson mouth pinched into a thin line. “Is it true Billings offered you a partnership?”

“Where did you hear that?”

“Never mind where I heard it. Is it true?” 

Jillian had an idea where Vonda got her information, but kept her opinion to herself.

“Vonda, I have no idea what you’ve heard, but if you have questions about Mr. Billings’s personnel decisions, why don’t you speak with him?”

“Cut the crap, Reynolds.” Uninvited, Vonda moved to one of the dark brown chairs, and dug her scarlet talons into the leather as she leaned toward Jillian. “I’ve busted my butt with this firm for ten years, and I have no intention of letting you steal this partnership out from under me.”

The woman wanted to be the top female executive in the firm, made no secret about her ambitions, and seemed willing to use any means necessary to achieve her goal. Jillian sank her teeth into her inner cheek to stop a crass comment from slipping out. Before she bit hard enough to draw blood, she said, “Vonda, I’m not stealing anything from you. If you have a problem with Mr. Billings’ or the other partners’ decisions, take it up with them.”

“I’m taking it up with you,” Vonda said. She leaned further over the chair, and the button on her crimson silk jacket threatened to pop. Jillian feared being blinded by the flying button if the threads snapped.

“Get out of my office.” She rubbed her tired eyes and glanced at the stacks of engagements waiting to be reviewed. “I have work to do and don’t have time for your office games.”

Vonda bared her teeth. “You won’t get away with this!”

That’s it. Jillian stood, and pointed at the door. She wasn’t prone to violence, but she wanted Vonda out of her office, now. She’d grab the woman by her raven hair and drag her out if necessary. In fact, she might just recruit a little help.

“Olivia, could you come in here please?” She pinned Vonda with a pointed stare. “Last chance. Get out now, or we’ll throw you out, and I don’t care who knows it.”

A wild shiver wracked her body. A threat? Did she issue a threat? It was another impulse, like the idea to go after the elusive account. The heady thrill tingled along the nerves of her scalp, and made the hairs on her neck stand up.

Vonda glanced behind her. Olivia stood in the doorway, and people in the main work area poked their heads around the sides or over the tops of their cubes to see what was happening. Olivia laced her fingers together and cracked her knuckles, her face split by an ominous grin.

Vonda turned panicked eyes to her. “This isn’t over.” The manager spun on four-inch scarlet heels, and attempted to squeeze past Olivia, who refused to budge.

Her friend huffed, and they watched Vonda stomp past the partitions back to her office. “That woman’s not fit to carry your briefcase.”

Jillian smiled at her friend’s loyalty, but cautioned, “You shouldn’t antagonize her.”

Olivia shrugged. “It’s worth it. She shouldn’t be allowed to treat people that way.”

“And you’re gonna stop her?”

“I’m gonna try.”

Jillian stared out into the common area. The heat of the moment was wearing off, and regrets nibbled at her. “I shouldn’t have threatened her.”

“She deserved it.”

“It doesn’t matter. I lost my temper.”

Her friend leaned against the door frame. “Well, don’t expect me to feel bad about it. She deserved a quick jab in the eye for treating you like that.”

Jillian sighed. “I don’t think Vonda’s had an easy life.”

“Why do you think that?”

Bits and pieces of conversations she’d heard over the years floated through her memory.  “Just a hunch.”

Olivia crossed her arms over her chest and scowled. “Yeah, well, lots of people have it rough. That doesn’t give her the right to walk all over everyone.”

Weariness seeped into her spine, and she sagged in the seat, too tired to debate the issue. Instead she asked, “Any messages for me?”

She glanced up and Olivia grimaced. Her assistant went to her desk, grabbed a stack of papers, and handed them to Jillian.

“All of these are for me?” She flicked through the messages.

Cindy, 1:42 p.m., Cindy, 1:47 p.m., Cindy . . . Cindy . . .

She shuffled through seventeen pages and looked at Olivia.

“All of these are from my sister.”

“She is a scary, scary woman.” Olivia moved toward the door.

“Don’t I know it.” Jillian reached for the phone, and dialed her sister’s number at the family law office.

“Want some advice?” Olivia asked.

Jillian waited to be connected. “What’s that?”

“Change your name, change your phone number, and move away. Hide from that woman.”

Laughter erupted from her chest, but she pressed her lips together when Cindy shrieked in her ear. “Where have you been? I’ve been trying to reach you all afternoon.”

“I’ve been busy.”

“I can’t get that assistant of yours to tell me anything. Just that you’re in a meeting. How important could some accounting meeting be, anyway? She should be fired for incompetence.”

Jillian covered the mouth piece with her hand and whispered, “Cindy thinks you should be fired.”

Olivia snorted. “So who doesn’t today? I must be doing something right.”

She grinned at her friend, and Olivia discreetly closed the door on her way out.

“Cindy, I had a meeting with my boss this afternoon.”

“He could have waited.”

Jillian rolled her eyes. “It’s the epitome of stupid to keep your boss waiting. Dad would never stand for that, and you know it.” She didn’t understand how Cindy could work in their father’s law firm. He treated his employees like servants, including his own children.

Cindy must have decided she couldn’t argue and win that point because she changed the subject.

“We expect you to be at the Fourth of July party next Wednesday.”


“The Fourth of July.” Cindy’s impatient tone grated on her nerves. “I told you about it last week.”

Ah, yes. The decree had been issued and her presence demanded at the overblown cocktail event. Jillian sighed. “I told you, I’m not coming.”

“You have to be there. How will it look to everyone if you don’t show up?”

“Like I didn’t want to come.”

“Jillian! You have an obligation to your family to be at this party.”

“That’s ridiculous. I don’t want to come, and I’m not coming.”

She knew she sounded childish, but didn’t care. Family parties turned into Bash-Jillian parties the moment she walked in the door. It made her head hurt and her heart ache. They wanted her at this get-together for two reasons: to belittle and degrade her for not becoming an attorney like the rest of them, and to give their colleagues from the law firm the impression that all was well on the Reynolds’ home front.

“Will Mom and Dad be there?” Jillian rubbed her hand over her stinging eyes again.

“Of course Mom and Dad will be there. It’s their party.”

“Will Dad’s girlfriend be there?”

Cindy sucked in a sharp breath, and then silence.


“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”


Another pause.

“Will Curtis be there?”

Cindy shrieked. “You leave my husband out of this!” Jillian could almost feel the waves of fury pulsing through the phone line.

“Is he going to be there?” Her grip on the phone tightened.

“Yes.” Her sister spit the word out.

“I won’t go through another party like the Easter luncheon.”

Cindy’s voice was tight. “That was a misunderstanding.”

Jillian gasped. “Your husband tried to grope me in the bathroom.” She shuddered at the memory. The smell of alcohol and orange juice on his breath, mingled with his musky cologne had assaulted her senses before his hands ever reached for her.

“I don’t believe this conversation is relevant to the matter at hand. We expect you at the party on the Fourth.” Her sister’s imperial tone struck a nerve.

“So if he comes near me again, you don’t mind if I knee him in the groin like last time?” Resentment sent the taunt flying from her mouth before she could stop it. But she could still see her brother-in-law curled in the fetal position on the floor. Nausea roiled in her stomach as she remembered the feel of vomit oozing between her toes after Curtis puked on her shoes.

And her family’s indifference stung like a sharp slap in the face.

She took a deep breath, and pushed the painful thoughts from her mind. “I’m not coming.”

Her sister erupted into a hysterical tirade.

Jillian leaned her head back against the chair and wondered why she put up with these antics. Her fingers itched to slam the phone down, but she dared not. If she hung up right now, there was no doubt Cindy would be at her office in fifteen minutes, throwing a temper tantrum worthy of an Oscar nomination.

She swiveled in her chair to look out the window. Shimmering waves of heat rippled across the crowded pavement below. Thankful for the air conditioner cooling her office, her gaze roamed into the church parking lot.

She blinked at the sight of shirtless teenage boys pounding a basketball against the sizzling asphalt. There was a scuffle of motion as the guy with the ball drove for the basket and shot a lay-up. High fives between half the players and slumped shoulders from the other half brought a grin to her lips.

She scanned the lithe bodies near the goal, hoping to catch a glimpse of a taller, more muscular physique among the slighter teen builds. But then she saw all the boys turn toward the back entrance of the building, and her eyes followed.

Brandon stood on the back steps, and motioned for the youth to come inside.

While the kids shuffled through the lot, Brandon lifted a hand to shield his eyes and glanced toward her building. Though she knew he couldn’t possibly see her, icy fingers tickled down her spine, and her stomach twisted into a knot.

Oh, boy.


She dropped the phone, and she fumbled to pick it up again, her ears ringing.

“Yes? What? Hello?” Her heart thundered in her chest and adrenaline rushed through her limbs.

“You haven’t heard a word I’ve said to you!”

“What? Oh, no, no. I’m here.” She laid her forehead in the palm of her hand and took slow, deep breaths to calm her racing pulse.

“I told you grandfather and grandmother expect to see you at the party on Wednesday,” Cindy said.

She shook her head and scrambled to grasp a coherent thought. Why had she let herself get distracted during a call with her sister? A rookie mistake like that could cost her lunch at her parents’ house every week if she wasn’t careful.

“Cindy, I can’t—” Jillian gasped as she looked at the clock on the wall. How had so much time passed? Well, a conversation with her sister was like being pulled into a sucking void. “Oh, no. Cindy, I have to go.”


“I’m sorry, but I have a ton of work to finish before I can go home tonight. I’ll talk to you later.” Preferably never.

“Are you coming to the party on the Fourth?”

She cringed. The easy answer was yes. The expected answer was yes. The consequences for saying no . . . she shuddered. But her mind flashed with the looks on her family’s faces after she dropped Curtis like a stone for something he deserved . . . she couldn’t go through that again.

“No, Cindy. I’m not coming to the party. I have to go now. Good-bye.”

She hung up the phone, and folded her hands into her lap to stop them from shaking. Oh, dear. What had she done?

She swiveled back to the window, and remembered she had been staring at . . . she jerked forward and pressed her nose to the glass, but the back steps were empty. The church parking lot was clear. No teens remained. No Brandon either.

Jillian sat back with a sign, and tried not to let disappointment overwhelm her.

Then she gave herself a mental shake. What was she thinking? She had no time to moon over Brandon like a love-sick teenager. She had big plans. Junior partner by twenty-six, senior partner by thirty-five. Neither her brother nor sister could make that claim. And they were already in their mid-thirties.

A wistful sigh escaped her. Besides, no relationship had ever survived after meeting with her family.

Ignoring the loneliness digging into her heart, she turned to her computer and went back to work.



    Jillian lifted her briefcase from the floor, and flicked off the light as she left her office. The sound of a vacuum somewhere between the cubes signaled the cleaning crew was almost done for the night.

            She’d made a list of potential new accounts to go over when she got to her apartment, but her growling stomach refused to be ignored any longer. So she exited the building, turned left, and walked toward the deli for the second time that day.

A warm breeze swept the hair from her cheeks and twisted it behind her as she marched down the street. Though the sun sat low on the horizon, sweat still beaded on her forehead and upper lip.

As she neared the restaurant Jillian checked her reflection in the glass on the side of a building, and gasped. Her hair was a flyaway mess, and she smoothed it down as much as possible. 

She entered the restaurant to the instant relief of air conditioning and the smell of fresh baked bread. Her mouth watered as she moved past the glass case full of meats and cheeses to place her order. She waited as her sandwich was made, massaged the tense muscles in her neck, and scanned the intimate eatery.

The concrete floor was stained and sealed in a rich mocha, and complimented the burgundy counters and warm yellow walls. Square tables and straight-back wooden chairs crowded the floor space. Large plate-glass windows ran the length of the building with the lower halves covered by creamy canvas café curtains, and the upper halves bared to allow the sun to stream in during daylight hours.

She loved the warmth and vibrancy of the restaurant. It was such a stark contrast to her own beige and white kitchen. Too bad the rental agreement said no bold colors. Not that she would dare anyway.

In a world of cherry-chocolate jubilee, she was vanilla.

Jillian paid for her meal and turned to find a seat when the door opened with a jingle of the bell and a hurricane of teenage hormones poured in.

She counted eight boys in their mid-teens wearing ratty t-shirts, baggy shorts, and smelly sneakers. The pungent stench hanging over the group rivaled the delectable smells of the food being served, and customers near the door tried to discreetly fan the foul odor away.

She decided on a seat at the back of the room and moved that direction. The bell above the door rang again and two men entered the deli behind the teens. Her heart skipped a beat and she bobbled her tray as she recognized Brandon among the crowd.

He wore the same yellow shirt and jeans from earlier that afternoon, but construction boots covered his feet. He laughed at something the shorter, blond man said, but then his eyes locked with hers, and his laugh turned into a yummy grin.

Her breath hitched. Look away, just look away. You shouldn’t encourage . . .

His cool turquoise gaze made her stomach flutter.

He mumbled something to the man and moved toward her. Jillian put all her concentration into keeping her knees from quivering. She wanted to look calm and in control, but found it hard to pull off as she juggled the tray and briefcase and tried not to fall flat on her face.

“Hey,” Brandon said. “Can I help you with that?” He eyed the tottering tray and reached out to help her.

“No, I’m fine.” She shifted and the chips slid toward the edge like loose cargo on a storm-tossed ship.

“Really, it’s no problem.” He grabbed for the tray, but she pulled it away.

“I’ve got it.” She wanted him to go away. He was too cute and too nice. She didn’t know how to handle cute and nice. Pompous, conceited, arrogant . . . yes. Kind, thoughtful, respectful . . . no.

Brandon shoved his hands into his back pockets, and she adjusted her chips to stop them from going overboard.

Hoots and cat-calls erupted from the group of boys. The teens snickered and pointed at them, and the other man by the door smacked the back of several heads in an effort to hush the rowdy crowd.

The heat of embarrassment burned her cheeks. Brandon scowled at the kids. Perhaps she wasn’t the only one embarrassed by their juvenile flirting.

Her eyes rounded. Was she flirting? Oh, no. No, no, no. No flirting allowed. Not now, not ever.

Men could not be trusted, not when it came to matters of the heart. Her father and brother taught her that lesson early in life.

She’d taken a risk once and allowed herself to tumble head first into love. It did not end well. She still had foot prints on her back after he met her family once and raced out of her life.

“Jillian, are you okay?” Brandon’s tone was gentle, the corners of his eyes creased with concern. Jillian realized she was shaking her head as she stared at him.

“You’re a man,” she blurted.

Brandon blinked at her. Confusion replaced the concern in his eyes.


“I have to go.”

“Oh, uh, okay. Maybe I’ll see you around sometime. Maybe we could go—”

“I’m sorry. Good-bye.”

She darted past him and found an empty table in the back corner. She sat with her back to the room, too ashamed to face the crowd. When she dared to glance over her shoulder, Brandon stood at the end of the line, waiting for his food. Humiliation slithered into her chest, and coiled around her heart.

What was wrong with her? Sure, Brandon was off-limits, but that didn’t mean she had to act like a fool in his presence, did it? She peeked again and admired the easy banter he shared with the youth around him. Why couldn’t she express herself with such ease? 

Jillian gulped down her dinner in record time and stood up to throw her trash away when her cell phone rang. She read the number on the screen, and breathed a sigh of relief it wasn’t her sister.

She answered it. “Hi, Renee.”

“Where are you? I tried your apartment and your office.”

“I’m at Rosenberg’s.”

“You went to the deli without your best friend?”

Jillian cringed. Renee Cunningham, her best friend since elementary school, also worked a few blocks away, and they frequently had lunch together at this restaurant.

“Sorry, I was working late and needed to eat.”

Renee grumbled. “You still could have called me.”

“I thought newlyweds couldn’t bear to be parted after the five o’clock whistle blows.”

“Jason could have come with me.”

“Yeah, right. Like I want to watch the two of you smooching all over each other while I’m trying to eat. Like, gag me.” She did her best Valley Girl imitation, and Renee laughed.

“Whatever. Soooo . . . anyone interesting there tonight?”

Jillian imagined Renee wiggling her eyebrows up and down, and rolled her own eyes. But she glanced over her shoulder again at Brandon, the blond guy, and the rowdy crowd at their table.

The boys were trying to gross each other out by lifting their arms and waving the B.O. from their armpits toward each other. Jillian wrinkled her nose in disgust and turned away as the blond man snapped at the kids to knock it off.

“How have you been?” she asked.

“Don’t try to change the subject, Jilly. He’s there, isn’t he?”

She sighed. “Yes, he’s here with a bunch of kids.”

“Did you talk to him?”

“A little.”

“Did he ask you out?”

“No . . . well . . . hmmm.” She thought for a moment. Didn’t Brandon start to say something to her about doing something before she took off? “Maybe.”

“What do you mean, maybe? He either did, or he didn’t.”

“I think he started to, but I got nervous and left.”

“Jillian! What is wrong with you?”

“Nothing is wrong with me.” Her voice rose, and she glanced around hoping no one heard her. “I don’t want to date anyone right now. I have too much going on at work.”

“You can’t hide behind your job and your family forever.”

She tried to change the subject again. “Mr. Billings is offering me a junior partnership in the firm.” She yanked the phone away from her ear before Renee’s scream pierced her eardrum.

“That’s great. You’ve worked so hard and you deserve it. When does it start?”

“Well, there’s a catch. I have to prove my age isn’t a factor by bringing in three lucrative accounts in the next six months, or no deal.”

“What?! They can’t do that. You work twice as hard as anybody in that company. How dare they . . .”

Renee ranted about the injustice of the situation as Jillian turned ever-so-casually toward Brandon’s table. She watched him take a drink and focus on the young man beside him. The kid spoke with passion, and perhaps anger, thumping his fist into his hand for emphasis, and Brandon nodded, absorbed in the conversation.

The absolute trust on the teenager’s face as he spoke to Brandon, and his complete focus on the young man beside him, dug at something buried in her heart. She dared not dwell on the feelings he stirred in her, even from a distance.

“Renee, I’m sorry to cut you off, but I need to go. I still have work to do tonight, and I need to get out of here.” She ignored the underlying truth of those words.

“Okay, well, how about we do lunch tomorrow? Can you handle the deli for two meals in two days?”

She laughed. She’d just eaten there twice in one day.

“Yeah, I think I can handle it.”

            “Okay, see you tomorrow.”

She closed the phone, slipped it into her purse, and grabbed her briefcase. I will not look at him, I will not look at him, I will not . . .

She strode from the restaurant into the night and stared straight ahead.

            A few steps down the sidewalk, the sound of heavy tromping echoed behind her.

A memory of her brother-in-law’s clomping feet before he grabbed her in the bathroom sent fear skating down her spine. Her step faltered. She screamed as she started to fall. A large hand gripped her elbow.

Jillian imagined Curtis’ fingers closed around her elbow, his other hand coming around her shoulder to grab . . . 

She screamed louder and whirled away, swinging her briefcase in a wide arch, intent on clubbing her attacker in the head. Her elbow was released, and she heard a loud grunt as the projectile motion of her briefcase was halted by an arm coming up to block the blow.

“Whoa, whoa, take it easy,” a familiar voice said.

Jillian panted in her warrior stance and stared at Brandon, who was crouched in a defensive position with his arm raised.

“What are you doing?!” Jillian yelled. Her heart thundered in her ears. She took deep, ragged breaths to calm her jangled nerves.

“I was going to walk you to your car.”

“I thought you were a homicidal rapist trying to attack me.” Jillian glared up at him. “You could still be one.” Her eyes narrowed to slits as she brought her briefcase back for another swing.

“Wait!” Brandon put his hands up and backed away a couple of steps. “Really, I saw you leave by yourself, and thought it might not be safe for you to walk to your car alone at night. I was just going to come with you.”

“Until we came to a dark alley?” The suspicion in her voice made Brandon chuckle. Jillian did not find the situation amusing. She knew she was overreacting, but didn’t care. She continued to glare, and Brandon’s chuckle ended in a cough.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to frighten you.”

“Hey, lady, are you okay?” Two guys stepped out of the deli a few yards away and approached the couple on the sidewalk, staring at Brandon with skepticism.

Jillian looked at him and sighed. Would she always be a jumpy, jittery mess around him?

“Yes, I’m fine. My friend just startled me.” He blew out a breath and his shoulders slumped. He gave a short wave to the two men before they returned to the deli, and faced her again.

“Thank you. I thought they might try to pummel me.”

“You probably deserve it for scaring me like that.” She lowered her briefcase and shifted her weight onto her other foot. “Well, I need to go. Thanks for the offer.” She turned to leave, but jumped when he fell into step beside her.

“What are you doing?”

“Walking you to your car.” Brandon looked at her as if she had a bulb burned out upstairs.

She returned the look.

“I told you I was fine. I don’t need your help.” She stopped on the sidewalk.

Brandon stopped, too.

“I’m walking you to your car.” His ‘that’s final’ tone raised her hackles.

“No, you’re not.”

“Yes, I am.”

“Leave me alone!”

“As soon as we get to your car!”

They glared at each other. She was the first to break eye contact. She gave an exasperated huff and marched down the sidewalk. Brandon followed.

“Boy, you’re stubborn,” she muttered.

“Right back attcha,” he said.

Jillian shot a glance sideways and found him smiling at her. She looked ahead, but couldn’t help the slight grin tugging at the corners of her mouth.

Neither spoke as they walked to her car. She tried to ignore the subtle scent of his cologne, crisp and clean, but found herself sniffing in his direction. Her senses reeled from being so close to him. Questions pin-balled around her brain; she wanted to know more about him, but refused to ask. She also refused to acknowledge the prickling disappointment when they reached the parking lot behind her building.

“Well, thanks,” she said as they approached her vehicle. She unlocked the Toyota and put her briefcase in the backseat.

“Anytime.” The deep timber of his voice embraced her in the dark.

“So . . . ” She rocked on her heels in an effort to put a little distance between them and waited for Brandon to leave.

“Do you want to go out with me sometime?”

Her body went rigid. Brandon stood with his hands in his back pockets. It made him seem vulnerable, perhaps nervous about being rejected, and guilt pressed into her chest.

When she looked into his clear aqua eyes, Jillian saw the promise of something deeper. A look that said she could trust him, that he wouldn’t break her heart, and that he was a man of commitment.

“Ahhh . . .” Just say, yes. Just say, YES!

What was it about this man that made her want to drop her defenses, take a chance, and see where it led? She blew off dates all the time. Why him, and why now? When she had so much at stake, why was she letting herself be distracted?

The ring of her cell phone broke the magic of Brandon’s gaze. She fumbled through the purse until she found it, and almost cursed.


Yet another reason she could not accept his invitation.

Brandon, I’m really sorry, but I don’t think it’s a good idea for us to go out.”

He pressed his lips together and studied her. Jillian grew uncomfortable under his penetrating stare, and answered the call as a distraction.

“Jillian, where are you?” her sister demanded.

“Cindy, give me a minute, okay?” She lowered the phone and could hear her sister shouting at her to get back on the line.

“Sounds pretty important.” Brandon nodded toward the phone. His face was blank, his tone neutral. Jillian wanted to say something, anything to bring the magic moment back, but the Wicked Witch of Texas had broken the spell.

“Yes. I should take this.”

“Maybe I’ll see you around.” He stepped away.

“Yeah, maybe.” The screeching coming from the phone could have made dogs howl, and Jillian said into the mouthpiece, “Cindy, hang on, I’ll be right with you.”

He waved and said, “Bye,” before turning and striding across the parking lot toward the church.

She got in her car, locked the doors, and asked her sister what was wrong. As Cindy raged about her deplorable lack of phone etiquette, Jillian thought about Brandon. Why did she have such mixed feelings for him? One minute she wanted to throw herself into his arms and let him carry her off into the sunset, and the next she wanted to get as far away from him as possible.

She let her head fall forward, and as Cindy lectured, Jillian pounded her forehead against the wheel.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

It's a Jungle Out There


 by Denice Christensen


    Chapter One


            Jillian Reynolds rushed down the sidewalk, her ravenous stomach leading the way. She needed food. She couldn’t concentrate on her job as an Assurance Manager for her CPA firm without it. Skipping breakfast had been a mistake, but she was behind on a couple of projects and wanted to catch-up.

So what? She was always behind. She should learn to say no to extra work. Then she might not be so overloaded and cranky.

Hurrying past the historic storefronts of downtown Grapevine, Texas, her stomach rumbled and her hands shook. Sweat prickled along her hairline, and she swept her shoulder-length brown hair off her neck, hoping to catch a breeze. The stifling heat radiated off the concrete and brick buildings around her. She might as well be a pizza baking under the sizzling June sun.

Just one more block to the deli. She had to hurry. She needed to eat so she could get back to the office. Accounts waited for her review. Tax seniors demanded her signature on their work. Her boss might be on his way to fire her.

Yes, her afternoon schedule was full.

An icy shudder wracked her body despite the hot and humid day. Best not to think about the potential eruption from Mr. Billings. Eat first, think later.

Jillian passed the black wrought-iron fencing next to the open air patio in front of Rosenberg’s Delicatessen. Round Formica tables with green umbrellas were scattered along the pavement, their occupants too submerged in the delectable cuisine of the upscale deli to care about the suffocating heat.

Her cell phone rang and Jillian paused at the door to check the screen.



No way. She shook her head. She did not have the energy to deal with her sister. Whatever message Cindy had been recruited to deliver would have to wait until after she ate.

And after she found out if she still had a job.

She grabbed the handle to open the door and had it wrenched from her fingers. A man the size of a Dallas Cowboys linebacker charged through the exit and almost knocked her over.

“Uff.” Jillian stumbled back, and strong hands reached out to steady her.

“I’m so sorry, miss. I didn’t see you.” The deep voice rumbled from a massive chest and she looked up into familiar aqua eyes.


A soft sigh escaped before she could stop it, and Jillian struggled to tamp down the giddy excitement dancing in her belly. “That’s okay.”

He looked down, surprise flitting through his turquoise eyes, and then a slow, delicious smile spread over his face.

“Hi. I haven’t seen you in a while.” He sounded so happy. Happy to see her?

The giddy dancing continued, and she concentrated on not letting his winsome grin captivate her. “I’ve been busy.” Too much work, and too much crazy family. No time for men; no time for dating.

He nodded, but still didn’t release her. She should say something. She should take a step back. She should run as fast as her legs could carry her. Being attracted to him meant trouble.

She didn’t move.

But a man behind Brandon coughed, and she was released. They both stepped aside to let the customer slip by, and she used the interruption to find the strength to resist Brandon’s overpowering charm.

“Uh, I need to get something to eat and head back to the office.” Brilliant.

Brandon glanced over his shoulder at the restaurant. “Turkey and cheddar on whole wheat with ranch, right?”

Why did swirlies erupt in her chest just because he knew what she liked? Big deal. But she couldn’t stop grinning like an imbecile. “Yep.”

He nodded and brushed sun-streaked copper waves off his forehead. Hair like his belonged on a rock star. It fell below his ears and hung around the collar of his bright yellow t-shirt. Faded jeans, flip-flops, and a killer tan completed his laid-back-surfer look.

She stared down at her own starched white button-up blouse, heather gray pencil skirt, and sensible black pumps. Not to mention her very pale, easily sunburned skin. Their styles didn’t exactly jive, now did they?

“I should really go.”

He nodded, one corner of his mouth still turned up. “Maybe I’ll see you around.”

It was a definite possibility since they had been bumping into each other for the past three months at the deli. No need to mention she ate here every day hoping to bump into him.

Brandon also worked at the church across the alley from her accounting firm. No need to bring up the time she spent gazing out her office window at his building, either.

“Yeah, maybe.”

She said good-bye and hurried into the cool, air conditioned deli. After ordering her sandwich, a bag of chips, and a diet soda to go, she paid for the meal and bolted out the door.

            Jillian snarfed her meal and marched back toward the two-story, red brick building that housed Billings, Krugel, and Associates. Not a dignified way to eat her lunch, but files awaited her attention and engagements could not be ignored for a mundane task like eating. She paused outside the door of the accounting firm long enough to wipe her mouth on a paper napkin and stuff the empty paper bag in a trash can before entering.

            She took an immediate left turn and climbed the stairs to the second floor, sucking her drink through the straw. But she hesitated on the landing.

The remodeled rectangular building had a bank of offices down one of the long walls for tax managers and their assistants, office equipment, and extra storage. The main floor space had been gutted, but the brick-covered support columns remained. The area contained twenty gray, partitioned cubicles for tax seniors and staff. The other side of the building had two conference rooms, and the senior partners’ offices were located down a short hallway behind them. Most of the accounting staff worked on the first floor, as well as the junior partners’ offices, the IT crew, HR, and the office administrators.

Jillian glanced along the row of managers’ offices and saw a red jacket hanging in the corner of one.

Uh, oh. Vonda was back from lunch.

She headed for the opposite wall, and marched past the conference rooms to her left and the cubicles to her right. She wanted to duck down so her head didn’t peek above the partition walls, but she wouldn’t give the woman the satisfaction of making her cower.

Her office was located along the far back wall of the building, tucked in the corner, and she had a spectacular view of the fire escape, the alley, and the parking lot.

And the church next door.

She grinned. Maybe Brandon would be playing basketball this afternoon.

She spotted her assistant, Olivia, at the desk in the outer alcove. “Hey.”

“Hello, Miss Reynolds.”

Jillian stopped. Miss Reynolds? Her friend and confidant never used her last name.

Olivia stared with wide, glittering blue eyes. Her fiery curls swished as she tilted her head toward the office, and she mouthed, “He’s in there.”

Jillian peeked through the crack between the door and the frame and saw familiar salt and pepper hair. Panic rose up to swallow her, and her mouth fell open. “Oh, no.” Her thoughts scattered and she tried to decide what to do first. Run. Don’t think, just run away.

She pivoted on her heel to take flight, but a set of fingernails dug into her arm and halted her progress. She glanced over her shoulder to find her assistant sprawled across the desk holding her in place and glaring.

“Don’t you dare.” Olivia released her and settled into the chair. “I risked life and limb to warn you about this.”

Jillian snorted, but placed a quieting hand to her lips and watched the door. No one emerged and she looked at her friend. “You didn’t risk life and limb. You had a conversation with Margie in the bathroom.” She was amazed at Olivia’s magical ability to talk people into revealing their deepest secrets, including Mr. Billings’ stalwart secretary.

“Po-tay-to . . . po-tah-to. If Margie suspects I told you Mr. Billings was unhappy when he saw the Acquisitions Report, she’ll skin me alive.”

This was true. Even the head of the firm seemed afraid of Margie the Marine.

Jillian’s gaze darted to the door again, and her chest constricted with fear. “I can’t face him.” She dropped into a chair on the other side of the desk.

“Yes, you can.”

“Mr. Billings is going to fire me.”

“No, he’s not.”

“I scooped that client from his daughter.” Jillian wrung her hands together. What had she been thinking? Why had she done something so . . . impetuous? She didn’t do impulsive. Her days were planned down to the minute. Out of the box wasn’t her thing. She liked it in the box. It was safe there. What possessed her to go after Harrington Energy?

“Mr. Billings told everyone at the last quarterly meeting to show some initiative. You did.”

“Not by taking a lucrative account from his only child.” She scooted to the edge of her seat. “I must have been insane.”

“You’re working to get a promotion. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s not like she was trying anyway.” Olivia spoke in hushed tones, and checked over her shoulder to make sure their boss didn’t appear. “He handed Harrington to her, and she sat on it for months. You did him a favor. If he was mad, it’s because his daughter let him down.”

“I went too far.”

“You had lunch with an old college friend. Her father happens to own the company. She sits on the board of directors.”

Jillian wiped her damp palms on her skirt. “I suppose.”

“Besides, it’s not like you’re sleeping with a partner to get promoted.”

She followed Olivia’s hostile gaze toward Vonda’s office. “We don’t know that for sure,” she said.

Olivia snorted. “I know what I saw.”

Jillian shot her a warning look. “And we’re keeping what happened under that conference table to ourselves, right? It was after hours and dark, and you can’t be certain, okay?”

“It wasn’t that dark.”


Her assistant huffed. “Yes, I’m keeping it to myself.”

She nodded and looked at the partially closed door.

“You have to go in, Jilly.”

She met her friend’s compassionate gaze, and tears stung the corners of her eyes. “I don’t want to get fired. How will I face my family?” She imagined the harsh, disapproving stares of her parents, grandparents, brother and sister if she lost her job. In a family of legal eagles, she was the lone accounting pigeon, and they didn’t waste any opportunity to remind her of what a disappointment she was.

“Your family needs to get over it. You’re the best manager in this firm, hands down, and if they would get their noses out of the air, they could see that.” Olivia smiled at her. “And don’t worry about Mr. Billings. He’s a sharp man. He’s not gonna shoot himself in the foot by firing you.” Olivia handed her a tissue and Jillian dabbed moisture from beneath her lashes.

“I guess I’d better get in there.” Jillian stood on trembling legs.

“I’ll be right here if you need me.”


She stepped up to the door, and paused. Lord, I don’t know what’s going to happen now, but please give me the strength to face this situation with courage and dignity. Amen.

Jillian pushed the door open, and plastered her most confident smile in place.

“Mr. Billings, hello. Sorry to keep you waiting.” She rounded one of the two cocoa brown chairs reserved for clients and shook her boss’s hand.

Mr. Billings stood for the handshake, and waited for her to take her seat behind the large, walnut desk before returning to the chair. “No problem. I just thought I’d pop in before heading to the golf course. Didn’t know you’d stepped out to lunch.”

She nodded, and tried to keep the desperation from her voice. “I ran down to the deli for a sandwich. Missed breakfast today.”

“Can’t work on an empty stomach, eh?” He smiled, and she was reminded of a cobra charming its prey before the deadly strike.

“What can I do for you, sir?” She folded her hands together on the desk to stop her fingers from trembling.

Her boss tapped a manila folder against his charcoal gray pants and continued to grin. “Please, call me Ted.”

Yeah, right.

“How’s your dad?”

Jillian resisted the urge to squirm. “He’s fine.”

“We’re supposed to play a round tomorrow.” Tap . . . smile. Tap . . . smile.

“Dad always loves a good game of golf.” The man was toying with her. Making her dangle like a worm on a hook.

Man, she hated fishing.

“How’s the rest of your family getting on?”

She wouldn’t know. They only called to nag about her life, and criticize when she didn’t live up to their expectations. But that probably wasn’t the answer he was looking for.

“They’re doing well, sir.”

He wagged a finger at her. “Now, now. Call me Ted.”

“Of course, si—Ted.” Her throat was going dry. She wanted to grab a bottle of water from the mini-fridge under her desk, but remained seated. Pressure started to fray the edges of her sanity.  But if she’d survived years of emotional abuse from her cold, overbearing family, she would handle Mr. Billings.

“So you must be wondering why I’m here?”

To fire her? But she kept quiet and cocked her head to the side, waiting for him to continue.

“A report came across my desk this morning.” He held up the manila folder.

She said nothing.

“I wasn’t aware of your authorization to pursue Harrington Energy.” His smile remained, but it didn’t reach his eyes. They were cold, challenging.

This was it . . . her moment of truth. She could grovel and beg his forgiveness. Claim she’d gone temporarily insane. Promise she would never do anything so foolish again if he would only please, please not fire her.

Or she could bluff.

“I believe you mentioned wanting to see more initiative from your managers . . . Ted.” She stared into his eyes and willed her lips not to quiver.

He said nothing for one long, heart-stopping moment. Then, “Yes, I did.”

She clenched her fingers tighter to control the tremors. “I was simply taking your advice.” Maybe he didn’t hear the squeak in her voice. Or maybe he’d think she was just doing a Minnie Mouse impression.

Another tense moment of silence crept by before he spoke. “I didn’t know you were acquatinted with old Ronnie Harrington.”

“I’m not, but I went to college with his daughter, Lisa. I was a freshman, she was a senior. We clicked.” Stop rambling. She clamped her lips together.

“And she’s on the board.”

She nodded. “Yes, sir.”

Mr. Billings opened the file, and skimmed through the papers inside. Jillian waited, and wondered if there were any extra boxes in the storage room so she could clean out her desk. She didn’t think she’d have trouble finding another job, but the idea of starting over at another firm left a gaping wound in her heart.

Then he snapped the folder shut. “This is just the kind of gumption I like to see from someone we’re considering for a partnership.”

A pent up breath whooshed from her lungs and bright starbursts exploded before her eyes. She blinked and sucked in deep gulps of air.

“Thank you, sir, er . . . Ted.” He wasn’t going to fire her. Promotion. He’d said promotion. Joy bubbled in her heart and her stomach fluttered.

“Don’t thank me yet.” His smile became predatory, and her happiness withered in her chest. She shifted in the chair and inched away. He returned to tapping the file against his knee and studied her across the desk. “You’re not like most of the young women we’ve had in the firm over the years.”

            Huh? She twitched, but regrouped and relaxed her features into a neutral expression. “How so?”

            “You don’t flutter around here talking about shoes and purses. You don’t sneak around the building and gossip about your latest boyfriend. I don’t even know if you date. And I like that.”

            Jillian frowned. Where was this conversation going?

            “You’re focused. You’ve got drive. You don’t let silly things get in your way.”


“The other partners and I have decided to make oil and gas a separate division with a new managing partner.”

            She nodded and waited for her boss to continue.

“Bringing Harrington Energy into the firm showed you might have what it takes to become a junior partner and manage your own division, but your age is an issue.”

            She scowled. “My age? Sir, I don’t believe my age should have any bearing whatsoever on my ability to do my job.”

            Mr. Billings raised his eyebrows at her. “It’s a concern.”

She bristled, but kept her tone light. “That almost sounds like discrimination.”

A dark glower marred his forehead. “Do you think you’re being discriminated against?”

Maybe. But saying so would do her no good. She could complain to the other partners, but they’d laugh her out of the building. She could bring a lawsuit against the firm, but her father was the company’s legal counsel and he’d have no problem shredding her to pieces in court. After all, business came before family.

            “Well, sir, I may only be twenty-six, but I believe I’m perfectly capable of taking on a partnership. I earned my accounting degree in only three years with a four point grade average. I interned here every summer and worked my way up to mana—”

            Mr. Billings held up a hand. “You don’t have to rattle off your resume to me, Jillian. I hired you, remember?”

            She pursed her lips together and waited.

            Finally, he spoke. “I’ve been following your career. Your name comes up time and time again with some of our most profitable and satisfied clients. And you’ve proven you can land an elusive account.”

            She nodded.

            “But you don’t have enough real world experience to qualify you for this position. I talked to the other partners this morning and we believe you need to prove Harrington Energy wasn’t a fluke.”

            “How am I supposed to do that?”

            “By bringing in more accounts.”

            Jillian bit back a sigh. “I’ve brought in accounts, sir.”

            Mr. Billings nodded as if he perfectly understood where she was coming from. “True. But it’s not enough.”

            This conversation was morphing from a dream into a nightmare. What kind of hoops would she be jumping through to earn her boss’s version of enough? Dread pressed against her abdomen and the acid in her stomach churned. She needed this promotion. Becoming a junior partner would prove to her family, finally prove that she—

            “Jillian? Did you hear what I said?”

            Her attention snapped back to Mr. Billings, who glared at her.

            “Ah, I’m sorry, sir. You were saying.” She gulped as the furrows in his forehead deepened.

            “I said,” he repeated slowly, and with a hint of sarcasm, “that we feel three more accounts in the next six months would be adequate to prove you are up to the challenge of managing your own division.”

            “Three more?” Little black dots danced before her eyes. “Sir, there are managers, and partners, who don’t bring in three new accounts in a year.”

            He grumbled. “I’m aware of that.”

            She wanted to growl. She wanted to cry. She drummed her fingers against the gleaming surface of the desk. What was going on here? None of the other junior partners had been given a test to prove their worth. They worked hard, climbed the ladder in the small, but prestigious firm, and earned their place at the top. 

            She studied her boss, unsure what to say next, and saw it. A twitch. Just below his right eye. Something was up.

Should she say anything?

Another twitch.

Might as well.

“Mr. Billings, what’s going on? Why am I really doing this?”

His eyes narrowed to slits and she wouldn’t have been surprised to see fire shoot from the sockets. But she held his gaze and refused to back down.

Finally, he sighed. “Krugel and I have been talking with the other partners. Oil and gas has been in the works for a few months. Everyone agrees we need a new partner to handle it, but no one can agree on who it should be.” He grimaced. “Krugel wants Vonda. Three of the junior’s agree with him. I chose you. Two believe you’re the best choice. If you get these accounts, I can prove my case. Harrington helped, but it’s not enough.”

She absorbed this new information. “So all I have to do,” Jillian continued to drum her fingers, “is bring in three more oil and gas accounts in the next six months.”

Mr. Billings nodded. “And these accounts need to bring in as much or more revenue than the Harrington account.”

Her fingers stopped drumming and went numb. Her whole body felt numb. She tried to wiggle her toes, but her shocked brain couldn’t send the signal that far.

“More . . . revenue . . . than the Harrington account?” She didn’t recognize her own voice, but her boss nodded.

“That’s right.”

“With all due respect, sir, it took months of extra work to get that account. How do you expect me to get three accounts of that size on top of my normal workload in only six months?”

His grin had all the warmth of a barracuda. “You’re a bright girl, Jillian. Graduated with a 4.0 in only three years. I’m sure you’ll figure something out.”

Eating that much crow left a bitter taste in her mouth. She reached under her desk, opened a mini fridge, and pulled out a bottle of water. After a long swallow, she asked, “Would you like something to drink, sir?”

“No, I need to get back to my office. Got some calls to make before I leave for the club.” He stood, stepped around the chair, and moved toward the door. “I also wanted to remind you, since the Fourth of July falls in the middle of next week, the firm will be having a cook-out the following Saturday for employees, and a few potential clients.” He gave her a long, hard look as he opened the door. “You might want to check your calendar, see if you’re available that afternoon.”

She stood behind the desk. “Yes, thank you, sir.”

“Sure. And just call me Ted.” He strode away, leaving the door wide open.

Jillian thought of several names she wanted to call her boss at that moment, but not one of them was Ted.

She sank into her chair as Olivia poked her head in the door and asked, “Is the coast clear?”

“All clear.” She took another drink of water. She was parched, weak, and her legs wouldn’t stop shaking.

Olivia trotted into the office with a notepad and closed the door behind her. She slipped into the vacated chair and asked, “So, what happened?”

Jillian finished the water, threw the empty bottle in a recycle bin by the wall, and pulled another one from the fridge.

“Thirsty?” Olivia asked.

Jillian drained half the bottle before answering. “Scared to death.” She returned the plastic container to its chilly home and flopped her arms onto the desk. Her head dropped onto her arms, and she groaned.

“That bad?”

“He offered me a promotion. Junior partner and manager of a new division.”

“Oh, no. That evil swine.”

Jillian lifted her head at the monotone sarcasm. Olivia shook her head. “That sounds like great news, Jilly. Why are you so bummed?”

“Because I have to bring in three more oil and gas accounts in six months to get the promotion.”

Olivia’s eyes flared wide, but she said, “Three doesn’t sound so bad.”

“Three accounts bigger than the Harrington account.”


“I know.” Jillian dropped her head again.

“That’s over a quarter of a million dollars.”

“I know.” She mumbled into the desk.

“Where are you gonna find three more accounts worth a quarter-million dollars?”

“I don’t know.”

“I mean, I know this is Texas and all, but wow! That many oil and gas companies that are doing well . . .”

“I know.”

“And looking for a new accounting firm . . .”

“I know.” Jillian raised her head long enough to scratch her nose, and let it fall on the desk again, her energy sapped.

“And willing to give their business to a woman . . .”

“I know.”

“And someone as young as you . . .”

“I know, I know, I know. Would you let it go already?” Her friend’s words pounded the impossible situation into her brain. “I know what I’m—” She looked up.

Vonda stood in the doorway, and Jillian’s stomach dropped to her toes.

“Facing,” she finished.

Uh, oh.