I DESERVED THE promotion. Not because I felt entitled based on my seniority or status with the company, but because I had the education, the work ethic, and dozens of satisfied clients singing my praises. Working as a digital media strategist for Emerald City Advertising for the past three years had filled out my resume nicely, providing me with a multitude of skills and even a few awards to boast about. Don Hinkle, the agency’s managing director, had all but assured me the job was mine.
But I didn’t get the promotion.
Instead, Don pulled me into his office to inform me he’d offered the job to Chad Alders. Chad Alders, my work nemesis, was an insolent bully, and the primary reason I lay awake at night fretting about my designs.
If I hadn’t already been sitting when Don delivered the news, my legs would have collapsed, and I would have face planted onto his desk. “Chad?” I asked, certain I’d misheard. “You’re making Chad the department manager?”
He gave me a sympathetic smile. “I know you and Chad don’t always see eye-to-eye, but he has some great ideas to move this agency forward.”
How could we see eye-to-eye when we weren’t even the same species? Chad was a festering fungus with a God complex. He didn’t have great ideas. His latest design for McCall Medical Group was the picture of ignorance and frivolity, from the tacky neon lettering to the inappropriate sexualized image. When I’d voiced my critiques, he countered with condescending allegations that my designs were “too safe” and encouraged me to “step out of my box.” He somehow managed to make me sound like the industry’s biggest wimp as he drew attention away from his crap-lousy ad. And this wasn’t the first time he’d put out garbage. His unorthodox methods usually resulted in rushed, haphazard designs, whereas my marketing utilized data from focus groups and qualitative research.
And now he was my manager. It felt like an enormous slap in the face to all my hard work and dedication.
“I know you’re disappointed,” Don said, leaning forward in his chair and clasping his hands in front of him.
Disappointed? This was the third time I’d been passed up for a promotion. The first two times, I lacked experience and the more qualified candidate won.
But this time… Chad?
There was no justification for losing to that ignorant, flashy poser. I wanted to rage and scream and demand an explanation, but that wasn’t my way. Instead, I sat there trying to catch my breath, gripping the chair’s armrests like they could magically shield me from this new reality. I didn’t want Chad to be my manager. Heck, it was bad enough I had to endure his misguided critiques as a coworker. The realization that he’d now have power over what I created tied my stomach in knots. Still, I held my tongue, just like I always did. Don had already given the position to my nemesis and nothing I could say would make a difference. Speaking up now would only make me appear petty or confrontational and possibly endanger my job.
“Why don’t you head to lunch,” Don suggested, standing to signify that our meeting was over. He ambled over to the door and opened it, waiting expectantly. “Take a couple of hours to process.”
Chad got the promotion, and I got an extended lunch to deal with my disappointment. He’d get a raise and more responsibility, while I’d be the recipient of pity-filled glances and whispers about how I needed extra time to deal with my girly emotions.
On wobbly legs, I stood and made my way out of Don’s office into a sea of grey cubicles. Chad’s desk was on the way to mine, and as I walked around the dividers, I prayed that he was either on a break, choking on his victory, or that I could gain temporary invisibility long enough to slip by him unnoticed.
No such luck. The jerk was sitting at his desk. Wearing a smug smile that complimented his douchy bright blue corduroy blazer and skintight beige slacks, he couldn’t draw more attention to himself if he tried. His outfits were almost as showy and tasteless as his marketing, making me question Don’s decision even further.
Is this really who we want representing our company?
I was no fashionista, but at least my outfits were suited for the office, not a Las Vegas show stage. My insulting thoughts made me feel petty and vindictive. That wasn’t who I wanted to be, so I tried to shake them off.
“Good morning, Jessica,” Chad said with a grin, no doubt eating up every ounce of my soul-crushing disappointment.
There was nothing good about this morning, but I forced a smile anyway. “Mornin’.” I made myself march past him and sat at my desk, silently dying a little inside. Holding my breath, I waited for him to follow and gloat. When he didn’t make an appearance, I thanked my lucky stars and opened my company-issued laptop. I had a ton of work to do, but couldn’t muster up the focus or desire to tackle any of it.
How could he give the job to Chad? What did I do wrong?
The question hammered my brain, forcing me to evaluate every interaction I’d had with Don. He’d never expressed dissatisfaction with my work. Yesterday he’d dropped so many hints I’d get the job that I updated my business cards in preparation.
“Are you okay?” my coworker, LaTisha, asked, interrupting my thoughts as she slipped inside my cubicle. “You keep thinking that hard, and you’re likely to blow a fuse.”
LaTisha was our top data analyst and one heck of a nice person. She always seemed to know when I was in a funk and needed a pick-me-up. However, I was still trying to process what had just happened in Don’s office, and I wasn’t ready for her soft eyes, encouraging smile, or concerned questions.
“I’m fine.” I opened my email and pretended to look for something, hoping she’d get the hint.
“Chad giving you a hard time again?” she asked, tenacious and observant as ever.
The sudden lump in my throat made speaking impossible. I wanted to cry or yell or hit something. I settled for a stiff nod.
“You’re too nice, Jess. These guys continue to wave their dicks around because they know you won’t rip their balls off.”
Too nice. Too safe. Why did all my qualities suddenly sound so negative? “This is a place of business,” I replied. “No physical mangling should be required.”
She laughed. “You can’t even say balls, can you?”
I was trying to be professional, but she made me sound like a prude. “Yes.” I lowered my voice as my face heated. “Balls.”
She only laughed harder. “Ah, Jess. You’re too good for this office. If you really wanted that promotion, you should have dropped your pants like Chad did.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked, stunned that she would go there.
She scooted closer and lowered her voice to a whisper. “I know you don’t want to hear this, and I’ll probably regret telling you, but Don and Chad are bumpin’ uglies.”
Certain I misunderstood, I snorted. “As in having sex?”
She nodded wildly. “Yes. They have been for a while now. I’m pretty sure that’s the only reason the big boss keeps him around.”
The accusation was too scandalous to be real. Wondering if she was just trying to make me feel better, I stared up at her. “Don’s married. To a woman.”
“It’s sweet that you assume marriage guarantees monogamy, but not super realistic. Trust me, Jess, they’re knockin’ boots. Everyone knows it. Hell, I heard the two of them going at it yesterday.”
Now she had my full attention as well as my disbelief. “You heard them? At work?” Lowering my voice, I added, “Having… sex?”
“Not during work hours, but after. Forgot my purse last night and dipped back in to grab it. A light was on in Don’s office, so I was going to stop in and say hi—maybe kiss a little ass because I’m not gonna lie, I could use a raise—but the grunting coming from the other side of that door made it clear your boy Chad was already working on his promotion.”
I refused to believe it. “How do you know it was Chad?”
She leveled a stare at me. “As if anyone else in the world sounds like that little weasel. I’d know his high pitched, nasally voice anywhere.”
She had a point.
“Maybe Chad was giving Don a massage?” I was grasping at straws, but I needed this to be false. I couldn’t work for a dirty cheater. Besides, Don was smarter than to have an affair with a subordinate. He had to be. “Don wouldn’t risk a sexual harassment case for a lay. Sex is not worth all that.”
She pulled back like I’d slapped her. “Okay, clearly you’ve never had a mind-blowing orgasm, but trust me, good sex is worth everything. Men have waged war for it. Risking a career… it’s stupid, but it happens. You’re sweet, Jess. Always trying to give people the benefit of the doubt and expecting them to be upstanding citizens. There was massaging going on in Don’s office, believe that, but not the kind you’re thinking of. I know the sounds of two people doing the nasty. And those two are filthy.”
My stomach roiled at the image she painted. “I think I’m gonna be sick.”
“You? I’m the one who heard them. I can never un-hear that. Never. Trust me. I tried to drink myself into a coma last night to forget it.”
Getting beat out for a promotion was painful enough on its own. Knowing I’d gotten passed over because my coworker was screwing the boss added salt to the wound. Don had been a good boss and mentor, and I’d sort of looked up to him over the years. Knowing he was a dirty cheater felt like a kick in the stomach.
“I really am gonna be sick,” I muttered.
“I don’t blame you one bit. Maybe you should take an early lunch and get yourself together.”
What had previously sounded like fodder for my coworkers to think I was weak and emotional was now a necessity. I’d never needed a break so badly in my life. “I think I will.” Closing my laptop, I stood and grabbed my purse.
“Hey, do what you gotta do.” LaTisha’s eyes filled with compassion as she stepped aside and waved me by.
Blinking back tears, I practically sprinted to the elevator. As I climbed into my car and drove to my apartment, my emotions flew through the gambit: shock, disbelief, realization, acceptance, hurt. By the time I parked and stepped into the elevator, I’d morphed into a ball of anger and dissolved into incoherent mutterings and wild hand gestures.
“How dare he?” I asked the empty space as the elevator doors closed behind me. We trusted Don to be an honorable boss and lead us with integrity, not his penis. And as for Chad… “Don’t even get me started on that jerkwad. Too safe?” My market research was thorough, and my focus groups were on point. “That doesn’t make me too safe, Chad, that makes me a responsible advertising director,” I ranted, wishing I could turn back time by one hour. I’d do things differently. I’d fight for the promotion I deserved rather than sitting on my butt and gaping like a fish out of water as Don shattered my faith in humanity.
Okay, that was a little melodramatic, but these were theatrical times. My boss was cheating on his wife with my coworker. My male coworker. If that didn’t sound like a movie plot, I didn’t know what did. And the fact that I’d lost a promotion over it…
“Well, pardon me if I don’t take it up the ass, Chad!”
That was a good one. I couldn’t wait to share it with my roommate, Carly. “Why is this elevator moving so slowly? And you know what else? Who uses neon lettering for a doctor’s office ad? It’s not a freaking nightclub, Chad,” I spat as the elevator stopped. I was so angry that if he was standing in front of me at that moment, I would have really let him have it.
The elevator doors opened, letting me out on the third floor of my apartment building and putting an end to my one-sided argument. Desperate to start it up again—and this time, to a sympathetic audience—I marched straight to my apartment and threw open the door. “Carly?” I shouted.
My roommate should have been home. This morning, her plans included dropping her five-year-old son, Trent, off at school and spending her morning off cleaning and doing laundry. Our apartment wasn’t messy by any means, but she was a neat freak. I watched Trent in the evenings for free, and she showed her gratitude by deep cleaning our space with the enthusiasm and precision of a germaphobe jacked up on energy drinks and cocaine. By now, she should be wiping down the ceilings, bleaching the bathrooms, or something equally unnecessary but welcome.
Irritated by her unfortunate absence when I needed her steadfast solidarity, I stepped into the kitchen and froze in my tracks to take in the scene. A half-eaten kid-sized bowl of soggy Rice Krispies sat on the table, guarded by an arc of plastic Army men.
Some kids had security blankets. Trent had Army men. Whenever he was frightened, he lined them up to form a defensive wall around him and those he cared about. Cereal was his meal of choice, and he’d eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner if allowed. He’d never willingly let that crispy goodness get soggy. Even if he did, Carly would die before she left a wasteful mess like this.
Something was very wrong.
The hair on the back of my neck stood up. “Carly?” I shouted again, rushing down the hall to check her bedroom. The place had been ransacked. Empty dresser drawers hung open, the closet was bare, and the suitcases she and Trent kept stuffed under the bed were gone.
Did she run?
We had originally connected about six months ago when she answered a roommate wanted ad I’d listed online. She was moving to Seattle from some town I’d never heard of in Idaho and was already in Spokane. I wasn’t sold on renting to a single mom and her child, but agreed to meet with her when they arrived. She called me a day later. Her Honda Civic petered out on the freeway, leaving them stranded just inside Seattle’s city limits. They had nobody and nowhere to go, so I picked them up and the three of us went for pizza. Trent was both hysterically funny and adorably sweet, and Carly had a determination and inner strength that I couldn’t help but admire. The three of us hit it off instantly, and I let them move right in. I’d never once regretted the decision.
They didn’t come without their problems. Carly was closed-lipped about her past. Trent often woke crying from nightmares about a ‘bad man’ who wanted to hurt them. Regardless, the pair were thriving here, and I couldn’t see them just up and leaving without so much as a goodbye. I dug my phone out of my purse and called her.
“Hey Jess, how’s work?” Carly sounded stressed, but that was pretty much her norm. Being a single mom and working two jobs to survive was no joke.
Relieved to hear her voice, I let out a breath. “Work is… ugh. We’ll talk about that later. What’s going on with you? It looks like you left in a hurry. There’s a bowl of cereal on the table, and your room is all torn up. Did you take off?”
“Oh yeah, I was gonna message you. I didn’t expect you to come home for lunch. Sorry, that must have looked bad. We’re totally fine, though. Wasp came and picked us up and we’re gonna stay with him for a few days.”
Wasp was her ultra-buff, super-hot boyfriend. He belonged to the motorcycle club that owned the Copper Penny, the bar Carly tended in the evenings. He was good for her, and great for her son, but I was still confused about her sudden absence. “You were going to send me a message? Are you moving in with him? What is going on? I come home for lunch, after a craptacularly bad morning, and the house is blown up, you’re gone, and…”
“Yeah, Jess. I hate to cut you off, but I need you to lock the door.” Carly snapped. She sounded frantic, her words were clipped and hurried. “Stay in the apartment.”
“What? Why? I can’t stay in the apartment. I have to get back to work.” Still, spurred to action by the seriousness of her tone, I hurried to the door and did as she said, looking through the peep hole. The hallway was empty, and this felt a whole lot like overreacting.
“There’s a guy chasing me, and Wasp is afraid you’re in danger.”
“What guy? Crap, I knew you were running from something. Are you sure you’re okay?” My nerves ramped up to prepare for a five-alarm fire. “Carly?”
I could hear Wasp talking to her in the background. The phone muffled for a moment and then she was back.
“You know that bouncer I work with? Spade?” Carly asked.
The name rang a bell. “One of the guys who volunteers at Trent’s school?”
“Yes. He’s on his way to the apartment. Wasp and Havoc will be there soon as well. Just hang tight until they get there.”
“Okay.” I pushed off the door and went to the kitchen to get a drink. “But why am I holed up in my apartment? Start talking, lady.”
“There’s this guy from my hometown—Nate—he’s… batshit crazy. I never told you about him, because I was hoping to leave it all in the past.”
“Is he the ‘bad man’ Trent’s scared of?”
“Yes. I’m so sorry, Jess. I didn’t think he’d find me here, but apparently, he’s been following us. He left a note in Trent’s bag, and when I found it, I panicked. I didn’t even think about you being in danger. I had to get Trent to safety.”
I couldn’t fault her for her actions. Trent would have been my priority, too. “But you guys are okay? You’re safe now?”
“Yes. We’re at the Dead Presidents’ clubhouse. It’s you I’m worried about. You shouldn’t be in that apartment. I should have called and warned you. I should have… Shit. I’m so sorry, Jess. You’ve been nothing but amazing to me and Trent, and I never meant to put you in danger.”
She was all over the place. “Carly, calm down. I’m fine. I’m in the apartment, the door’s locked, and your rescue team is on the way. Now, start from the beginning. What’s going on? Who is this crazy Nate guy?”
Before she could respond, my apartment door came crashing in. Fake wood splintered and the door bounced off the wall, half off its hinges, as a man wearing a sleeveless flannel shirt and faded jeans barreled into my apartment. His dark hair was buzzed, and his brown eyes were wild as his gaze darted around my apartment before settling on me.
“Where the fuck is Carly?” he roared.
Releasing 8/19/19. Pre-order now!