Some days, it just paid to stay in bed.
Sam rolled over and groaned. Her head hurt, her mouth was dry, and she felt as though every kind of creature was crawling over her eyeballs. She covered her face with the pillow, and listened to the clock radio. It was singing at her, telling her it was time to get up. But how could she? She had stayed out way too late with her friends last night, and ended up so sloshed she couldn't even stand upright on her own.
And she had never, ever, in her entire life, been drunk! Till last night...
The phone rang, and Sam heard stars. She wondered if that was what dogs heard when they heard high pitched whistles. She groaned louder and reached for it, if only to stop the sharp jangling that was raking across her eardrums like nails on a blackboard.
"Ye - hello?" She could barely speak.
"Sam, it's Ellie. I just wanted to make sure you were awake. Don't forget the presentation is today."
Sam sniffed, and Ellie asked, "Are you okay, love?"
Sam sniffed again, and said, "No...just kill me now!" And then she hung up.
The phone rang again and the stars in her head sang more sharply. Sam tried to ignore it, but it wouldn't stop. She let the machine pick up and heard Ellie's voice.
"You'd better not be late, Sam! Our jobs are riding on this presentation!"
Her friend's sharply worried voice penetrated the haze of discomfort and pain in which she was enclosed, and Sam sat up. Slowly. She supposed she had better see about getting ready. Maybe after a hot shower, some coffee, and a whole lot of makeup, she could pass for a human being at work today.
The shower helped, and she managed to swallow two painkillers and half a toasted bagel, though it took two strong cups of black coffee, which she hated, to get them down. She put the mug in the sink, picked up a peach from the fruit bowl on the kitchen table, and took a last look at her face before she walked out to her car. She guessed it'd have to do.
Ellie was already in her cubicle when Sam walked in. She eyed her friend speculatively, and asked,
"Where were you last night? I tried calling three times, but you didn't pick up!"
"Some friends came in from out of town!" Sam's answer was short. She wasn't sure she wanted to share her evening's escapade with Ellie, who was the epitome of responsibility and decorum. Not that Sam wasn't responsible herself, but Ellie had it down pat, where Sam still needed to work on it.
"Well, I hope you've rehearsed your part," Ellie said, looking at her worriedly. "You look a little green around the gills."
Sam ignored her and pulled the portfolio out of her soft leather briefcase. She opened it and studied the pages, sipping a third cup of coffee. Her stomach was starting to hurt, and she knew it was a combination of too much caffeine and nerves. She took calming breaths as she read, and hoped no one would know just how badly off she was.
She and Ellie walked down the hall to the conference room ten minutes before the meeting was scheduled to begin to make sure all they would need was in place. Sam took her place next to Ellie at the head of the table and watched the men file in. Not one woman, she thought, and then her jaw dropped. Right behind her boss, dressed in a dark grey suit that fit his sleek frame like a glove, stood the one man in all the world she did not expect to see ever again...and he was having the same effect on her now as he had had all those years ago when she was younger and hot for him.
She felt herself blushing, and lowered her eyes, but not before he saw her, and she registered surprise, and something hot in his gaze. Samantha Redfern was not a coward, but she would have given anything right then to have the supernatural power of invisibility.
"Good morning, everyone!" Her boss, Bob Daniels, stood and spoke to the men as they filed in and helped themselves to the breakfast fixings on the side table. "Glad to see you all here today! We have a big project on today's agenda, and the ladies have worked very hard to put together a presentation I'm sure will give you all the information you need to get the job done. Gentlemen, meet Samantha Redfern, and Elizabeth Black."
He gestured to the women, and sat down. Ellie and Sam had agreed that Ellie would go first, and Sam breathed a sigh of profound relief as Ellie stood up to do her part. It gave her time to get her color and her breathing under control. She felt nauseated, and wished she could sink into the floor. She cast her eyes down at said floor, and it swam before them. Oh no! She was going to throw up in her boss's conference room!
She stood up hurriedly and tried to rush away before disaster struck, and that was all she knew.
Theo felt his heart thudding in his chest as he watched the others gather around Sam's unconscious form. The last person he had expected to see at this meeting was the one woman he lusted for every damn day, the woman who kept him up at night, literally and figuratively...the woman who had disappeared from his life three years ago with no explanation. He wasn't sure whether what he felt was anger or desire, and he decided, as he tried to stop his hands from shaking, that it must be both.
Theo wanted to rush over and tell them all to take their hands off his woman, but he kept his seat. He was a visitor here, and Sam had made it clear, by her three-year silence, that she wanted nothing to do with him. When they managed to wake her up, she stood shakily, avoiding his eyes, and he watched her walk on her boss's arm out of the room. He tried to ignore the soreness around his heart as he watched her studiously ignore him, but it ached anyway. He rubbed his chest unconsciously, and stopped when he realized what he was doing.
He forced himself to concentrate on the presentation, which it appeared the other young woman would now be doing on her own, but he couldn't help wondering what had caused Sam to pass out. He could imagine how embarrassed she was, not only for passing out in front of them all, but because he was here, and she hadn't expected him to be... He hoped she was okay, and heaved a silent sigh of relief when she walked back in, under her own steam, and took her place quietly next to her colleague. She was nothing if not brave, and he felt a surge of pride in her, even as his heart broke to see her where he could never reach her again.
He braced himself to hear her voice again, for the first time in three years. Always, in the past, before they had parted ways so unceremoniously, she had only to say hello to wake the animal in him. He pulled himself closer to the table as a precaution, in the event that she still had that power.
"Good morning, gentlemen!"
Theo felt the force of Sam's voice in his groin like a whip, and he only managed by a supreme effort not to rub the ache that seemed to find a home there the instant she opened her mouth. A velvet, husky voice she had, and an adorable lisp, almost imperceptible, but there. Or maybe it was just him. He blinked and forced himself to concentrate on what she was saying. Be cool, he admonished himself, be detached. Pay attention to the content, don't focus on the vehicle. He needed to do something with his hands, but he couldn't write with them trembling like that. He withdrew his little tape recorder from his briefcase and pressed record. So much for cool detachment!
The meeting seemed interminably long to Theo who, by the end of the first session, had loosened his tie. He had tried to keep his eyes on the Smart Board that Sam was using for her presentation, but every now and again his eye strayed -- to the soft curve of her dusky brown cheek, to the long fingers holding the pointer, to the roundness of her bottom and her wide hips, to the full lower lip, colored a brown only slightly darker than her milk-in-coffee complexion.
Shit! He wouldn't make it without a break. He stood up, hoping his pants didn't tent in front of him, and excused himself from the table. He hoped she didn't think he was bored or uninterested, but he could not stand another drop of the sweet chocolate of her voice. Any more, and he would be in serious danger of embarrassing himself. He slipped quietly from the room, wondering, as he walked down the hall to the men's room, why he cared what she thought. She had ripped his heart out. She didn't deserve any consideration. He splashed cold water on his face, and groaned softly as he dried the excess moisture off. She deserved to be treated coldly...
...but he still loved her. Passionately, with every single cell of his body. If he had had any doubts, his meeting her today, here, completely erased them. And now, for the first time since he was a callow boy, he was afraid. Very afraid. Afraid that she would rip his heart apart again, before it had healed from the last wounding. But like a moth to light, he was drawn to her. And he knew, as he walked back to the meeting, that this time, no matter what, she would not escape him...
He returned in time for the second break of the morning, and watched her as she skirted the table to get coffee. She looked unwell, as though she had eaten something that was not agreeing with her. He knew she didn't react well to too much coffee, and he saw her fill the cup but leave it black. Hmmm! She WAS sick. He stood a moment, debating whether or not he should approach her, and she looked up as he moved. Their eyes met, and anyone watching would have seen the electric spark that arced between them.
She lowered her eyes, and walked away, as though she knew he was planning to come to her. She kept at least two people between them, and it hurt him to see the evidence of her lack of interest in his attentions. He detoured, heading for the table with the food instead, and helped himself to a scone and coffee. He deliberately turned his back on her -- two can play THAT game, he thought bitterly, and swallowed some of the coffee, scalding his tongue.
Sam had no idea how she made it through to the end of the presentation, nor even how she managed to field all the questions that were fired at her and Ellie. Once she cut Theo dead, and saw him retreat, she steeled herself to do her job, ignoring the pain in her chest, which she knew was a combination of upset stomach and regret. She had seen the hurt look in his eyes when she put distance between them, and she had seen him turn his back on her. Oh God, but that hurt! She blinked to clear her vision as tears sprang unbidden to her eyes.
The last question seemed to have been answered, and she and Ellie were packing up, when Bob said,
"Gentlemen, lunch will be in the conservatory. Ladies, I expect you to be there as well!"
Sam groaned inwardly. Damn! She was now going to be forced to spend the next two hours -- she knew how these conservatory lunches went on and on! -- in close proximity to the man she wanted to feel nothing for, but whom she knew would haunt her dreams for the rest of her life. She closed the flap on her leather briefcase and braced herself to walk past him. She would make it through this day, and then she would never see him again.
"Sam," Bob called to her, "come say hello to the CEO of Blackfriars."
Sam looked over at her boss, and almost passed out again. Theo was CEO? She felt her face settle into shock, and wished she could run away and hide. Blackfriars was not the largest, but it was the best historical tour agency in the country. They did business with tourist boards from all over the world, and brought a lot of business to Sam's company. And Theo was the head honcho! Just my luck, she thought.
She walked over reluctantly, and plastered a hard, plastic smile on her face. She wondered how she would speak without cracking the façade wide open. Theo forestalled her.
"Miss Redfern and I know each other, Bob! We met four years ago, I believe?" Here he turned to her, but his eyes did not look at her. "A convention, as it happens." He extended a hand. "How nice to meet you again, Miss Redfern."
Sam took Theo's hand, and every thought she had in her head departed through the fingers he held. Her knees felt like jelly, and her voice had also taken a vacation, it seemed. She shook his hand, and removed hers from his grasp as soon as she could. Touching him had been more than her nervous system could handle. She felt the nausea rising again, and she rushed away, dropping her briefcase as she bolted out the door, uncaring what impression she was making. Better to look a fool by departing unceremoniously than to be a fool by vomiting all over her boss and his guests.
She barely made it into the bathroom before the contents of her stomach rose up to meet her and deposited themselves on the floor in front of the stall she had been heading for. She heard a noise behind her as she retched, but could not seem to stop the violent upheaval.
"Sam? Are you okay? Oh my God! What's wrong with you?" Ellie's voice moved from concern to alarm.
"Hangover!" Sam mumbled, as she stood up finally and went to get paper towels to clean up the worst of the mess.
"Here, let me help you!" Ellie offered, but Sam waved her away.
"Just put a sign on the door to say out of order, and call housekeeping for me, okay?" She looked at Ellie as she spoke, and added, "And please ask Bob to excuse me from lunch. I don't think I can face food right now."
Ellie paused, her hand on the door handle. "Are you sure it's the food you can't face, Sam? Or is it the man?" Sam turned so sharply her head spun, and she groaned.
"What are you talking about?" she snapped, fighting another wave of nausea.
"Sam, it's me you're talking to. Ellie! I was there, remember? I saw what went down!"
Ellie's voice was a whip cross the scarred surfaces of Sam's conscience. A sob escaped her, and she dropped to her knees, uncaring that she was on the floor of the ladies room, the odor of her own vomit around her. She wept, and could not stem the tide. She didn't hear Ellie leave, not did she notice when she returned a few minutes later, mop and pail in hand.
"Sam, you need to get a grip. We have to clean up this mess, and then we have to go and make nice with the company's clients. We don't really have a choice."
Ever the practical, level-headed one, Ellie got water and cleaning solution and began to mop around her friend. Sam gasped, feeling the pain inside her spread, and she groaned and swiped a hand across her face.
"I have a choice!" she said, her voice low but fierce. "I can quit!"
Ellie stopped mopping. She propped the mop against a wall and came to crouch next to her friend.
"Look, Sam, I don't know everything that happened between you and Theo, and I'm guessing I don't want to know. But whatever happened, it can't be so bad that it made you get drunk, something you've never done, on the eve of a major presentation. And it can't be so bad that it's making you think you can quit the job you've worked so hard to gain and advance in." She stood up and held out her hand. "Now, come on, help me clean up, and let's get out of here. I'll ask Dave for the office remedy for hangovers -- he's come to work with one often enough."
Sam took her friend's hand, and stood shakily beside her. "Okay," was all she could manage.
Together, they set the bathroom back to rights, and Sam washed her face, used the toothbrush and toothpaste Ellie had also thoughtfully secreted in her pocket, and then looked at herself in the mirror.
"I look a lot like I feel, don't I?" she asked her friend.
"Easily remedied," Ellie replied, and produced lipstick, powder, and blush. "Hurry up! It's already past the salad stage."
She left with the mop and bucket and returned as Sam was straightening her clothes.
"Ready?" she asked as she washed her hands, then dried and lotioned them with the sweetly scented lotion provided for the female employees.
"No, but you're right, I have no choice." Sam squared her shoulders, and walked with her friend back to the dining room where the men were all assembled. Bob Daniels approached them immediately.
"Are you all right, Samantha?"
His eyes held concern and curiosity, and Sam could just imagine what he was thinking. She would have laughed had it not been such a serious moment. The only man she would ever want to be pregnant for was also the only man she had deliberately hurt, and he was standing at the other end of the long room, in conversation with two other men.
"I'm much better, Bob!" she said, as lightly as she could. "I'm not sure I can face food right now, but I'm definitely feeling better." She smiled at him, to reassure him, and then found herself being whirled around and hugged.
"Sammie! Where have you been, girl? It's been too long!"
Sam pushed away from the warm embrace at the sound of a familiar and beloved voice.
"Dirk? For goodness sake, what are you doing here?" She laughed and hugged him back.
"Boss needed a last minute negotiator. I know, I was very late, and I'm sorry. Couldn't get out of the airport snarl. I'd have loved to see your presentation. Bob assures me it's all in the handouts, so I'll spend a little time with them. But it'd be nice if we could sit and chat a bit, when you've eaten."
Dirk Bentley was her friend, and had been since they were both two years old. They had grown up together, and he was the big brother she never had. They shared a birthday, but Dirk was born three hours before she was. She gladly went with him to the table and watched as he filled his plate. She took crackers and decided that perhaps coffee wasn't such a good idea, so she took plain milk instead.
"Sick?" Dirk asked, eyeing her plate.
"A little! Long story! Let's go sit over there!"
She pointed and looked up, and met Theo's eyes. They were cold, and they slid from her face to Dirk's. Sam felt her heart sink to her toes. Oh no, now Theo thought she and Dirk were an item. The anger and resentment she glimpsed in his face, before he smoothed it over to a blank mask, was painful to watch. But she realized, as she walked away, that here was her chance to get rid of him for good.
She reached over and took Dirk's arm, and cast a surreptitious glance Theo's way. The hurt she saw on his face almost killed her, and she averted her eyes. Who was she kidding? This was hurting her as much as she was hurting him. And why? So she could live the dream she always wanted, and be free to pursue her life as she saw it. And so that she wouldn't be beholden to any man. Not even the man she loved.
Theo swallowed the last mouthful of Coke and turned to place the glass on the table. He had spent the last two hours watching Sam cozy up to Dirk Bentley, and only his very deep natural reserve kept him from making a first class jackass of himself and starting a brawl in the dining room. He didn't know what was between them, but he knew he wanted it to be much more space than was currently the case. Sam's hand often fluttered to Dirk's sleeve, and her smile lingered around those lush heart-shaped lips a little too long for Theo's liking. What could they possibly be talking about?
"So, Theo, when can we expect the new office to open?"
Mark Waters' voice snapped him out of his angry reverie, and he turned uncomprehending eyes to his colleague's face.
"What?" He blinked, and then the question registered. "Oh, within the next six months," he answered. "Give or take a few weeks." He cleared his throat, and took a deep breath. "Will I see you at the opening?"
"Wouldn't miss it for the world!" Mark said, grinning. He was a pleasant man, a little round in the middle but tall enough to carry it off, balding, and quite possibly the most cheerful person Theo had ever met. Usually, his good cheer amused Theo, but today, it grated on his nerves. He gritted his teeth and said, hoping he didn't sound like he felt,
"Well, I hate to eat and leave, but I have a few errands to run before quitting time. I'd better go bid farewell to Bob." He walked toward the corner where his briefcase was lying on a table, hoping no one else stopped him. He couldn't bear to be in the same room as Sam a moment longer. He picked up the briefcase and turned to walk toward Bob Daniels...and walked right into Sam, who was herself about to leave.