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Want You Back by Lulu Pratt (1)

Chapter 1

Sierra

 

I CHEWED ON the end of a pen and my eyebrows furrowed with concentration as I murmured, “Almost there, almost there… Come on…”

Riiiing.

I shoved away from my desk, frustrated. I’d been so close to finally aligning the grid margins of our big presentation. Some people call me anal. Those people would be right. If the grids weren’t perfectly centered, the presentation would look unprofessional and then I’d look unprofessional and the whole thing would be a disaster. I know I sound crazy, and I’ve made my peace with that. I’m focused, I’m meticulous, and I love things with bows.

So whoever was on the other end of that line was gonna have to apologize to me and my grids for interrupting such good work.

“Hello?” I said, jabbing a button and talking to the receiver.

“You sound pissed,” the voice noted mildly.

Oh, shoot. The voice was, alas, very familiar. “Erm, sorry about that, Joe. It’s the — never mind, what can I do for you?”

“I want to see you. In my office. In about one minute.” His tone was brusque, and given some recent mishaps, his tone did not thrill me.

I bit down on the tip of the pen I was still holding between my fingers. “Right now?”

“Well, in one minute.”

I sighed quietly to myself, but replied brightly, “Of course.”

Those grids were going to have to wait. I hit ctrl-s twice, just in case. Joe was my boss, so when he said jump, I asked how high. I thrust my feet back into the less-than-sensible pumps beneath my desk and grimaced. My Deep South upbringing had somehow wheedled me into a constant, incomprehensible need to wear shoes that made me blister and bleed. But damn, were they cute! They had a little Mary-Jane buckle with a bee as a button, and they were shiny patent red, like Minnie Mouse, and—

Right, the meeting. I pushed away from the minimalist white desk with perfectly organized sticky notes in different colors, inspirational quotes, a picture of my dog and a heavily marked-up wall calendar. Under my breath, I grumbled. Anything Joe wanted with me, he probably could’ve handled over the phone. Unless it was something bad, in which case it would only be polite of him to deal with it face to face. Oh God, it was gonna be something bad. What had I done? Had he seen me take my shoes off, that wasn’t very professional, after all…

“Pipe down, you!” I muttered to my nagging inner voice. “It’s probably nothing. You’re being a D-R-A-M-A queen.” My internal monologue tended to do that, so sometimes I had to loudly and forcefully tell her to take a damn hike.

Inner voice in check, I strode the couple of doors from my office to Joe’s, feet sinking into the gray carpet, and entered without so much as a knock. It’d taken some time for me to get over my formal ways, but Joe had insisted upon it. After all, construction companies aren’t exactly hallowed institutions of etiquette. I think his words were ‘you’re being a priss.’ And a priss I remained, though I played along with him and his brother for team morale or something.

“Hey Joe,” I said with as a cheery voice as I could manage as I entered his office, a relic to bygone manhood, adorned with dead fish, Revolutionary war muskets and other pointless junk. “What’s up?”

He growled a ‘hello’ from his worn-in leather chair. I wondered what would happen if he left that chair for too long. Would it just burst into flame? What was a dog without its ever present master?

“Sierra, come on in, pop a squat,” he ordered.

I took a careful seat on the moth-bitten flannel couch across from his arm chair. Joe, along with his brother Tom, ran a fairly successful business and I worked in the Fort Myers head office, but you’d never know it from the way he presented himself. While I was all high heels and barrel curls, he looked like he’d been marooned with the rest of the Gilligan’s Island crew. Of course, it didn’t hurt that he was a man, part owner of a construction company, one of the last bastions of raw manhood, and could get away with showering only every other day. The patriarchy sucks — and also kinda reeks.

“What’d you wanna talk about?” I asked politely, eager to get my clean pencil-skirted behind off the couch and back to those grid margins.

“The retirement village job.”

I nodded eagerly. I was always ready to talk about the village. “Peachy. I’m just working on the presentation now, rest assured, I’ll have it in time for—”

He interrupted me with a wave of his hand. “Don’t mean to cut you off, Sierra, but it’s not about the presentation.”

“Um, pardon?” My eyes squinted with confusion. “Then, er, what’s it about?” The presentation was my main obligation on the project, as marketing manager. It’s not like we could exactly talk shop over timber varieties.

He picked up an unlit cigarette from somewhere in the piles of shit on his desk and rolled it between his fingers like a worrying stone, giving him an oddly monk-like air.

“Well, you see,” he began, his voice gravelly from years of smoke, “we gotta go meet with Charles up in Jacksonville.”

Again, I nodded. I knew all this. Charles was the owner of the yet-to-be-built retirement village, and I’d been carefully researching him for weeks to gear the presentation towards his interests. Charles was traditional, but a touch eccentric. Needless to say, I recognized the name. “Right, for the presentation. The one I’m working on. Which I just told you.”

Aw dang it, my smart mouth was running away from me again. Mama always said if I didn’t zip it I’d trip on it, and someday soon. And that had certainly proven true in the last few weeks…

Joe raised an eyebrow, suggesting that he’d clocked my uppityness, but he didn’t address it. “We’re going down to meet the client,” he repeated. “And I need you to come with us.”

Oh. Oh. That wasn’t what I’d been expecting, not a bit. Ordinarily, I passed the presentation on to Joe, allowing him to do the speechifying. I mean, I didn’t mind going, per se, but it was odd. Or was I overreacting? Perhaps he just wanted me to assist with last-minute changes or help gussy up the presentation a bit, seeing as how he didn’t exactly give off respectable vibes. My mind raced with questions as I tried to process this information. Joe must’ve seen the inquisition flitting across my face, for he added:

“Yes, even in spite of… recent events.”

I swallowed. “Are you sure?”

“Well, we can’t bench you forever.”

“But you said—”

“I know what I said,” he retorted. “And you screwed up, Sierra, no doubt about it, but now it’s time for you to make amends. This is a huge team effort, and we need all hands on deck. Even yours. I’ll overlook your little… uh, what’s it called?”

“Instagram,” I said shortly, knowing where this was going.

“Right. I’ll overlook your unprofessional little Instagram mess up if you help us close this deal.”

That was a relief, I’ll admit. I don’t really want to talk about it, but I guess you need to understand the basics. So suffice to say I accidentally posted something a touch — er, a whole lot — unprofessional to the company’s Instagram account, which I ran, instead of to my own personal account. Why a construction company needs a social media presence is beyond me, but apparently we did, and apparently it was my job to maintain one. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube, you name it. I guess it makes us ‘search engine optimizable’? Or something like that. Anyhow, I’d been digging myself out of the dog house for a couple of weeks, and anything I could do to curry — or rather, re-curry — Joe’s favor would just have to be done.

But that still didn’t really answer why they needed me for this trip.

I leaned a bit forward, tilted my head, and asked, “That’s great, Joe, and gosh knows I’m happy to do my part for Pillers, but… er…”

“Why you?” he said with a ghost of a smile.

I swallowed. “Well, yeah.”

He put the cigarette between his lips, at last lighting it with a Bic that appeared to have survived the Cold War. It was unclear how a construction company co-CEO got away with defying building codes like smoking indoors, but little things like ‘the law’ had never seemed to trouble Joe.

He puffed out some smoke, and replied, “This guy Charles is all about family-oriented businesses. You know, ones that looks mom-and-pop-y. We’re brother-and-brother, but same difference.”

I nodded, following along. From my perspective as the head of marketing, I was familiar with the trend of companies trying to appear as though they were bringing jobs back home. Plus, this job was building a retirement community, and amongst old people there was a greater desire, according to analysts, to have local companies involved.

Anyways, it’s sort of a vapid movement, considering that it didn’t amount to much, but given that Pillers was, as Joe mentioned, an actual family operation, the trend had done good things for our bottom line, so I dropped my quibbles.

“So you want me there just to help him put a face to our team?”

“Confirmed.”

Well, that was fair. It was, after all, my job to help this sale go through, and anything I could do to make that happen was a bonus. Besides, I was itching for the chance to move past my social media catastrophe. Jacksonville was a snooze fest, but I could handle it for one weekend.

“We’re staying at Charles’ mansion,” Joe added offhandedly.

Oooh, not bad. “Very nice,” I said mildly, stifling the more pronounced excitement that had just arisen in my throat. As much as I might be a down-home girl, I can appreciate the finer things in life, including, for instance, sprawling mansions on the coast.

In the same bored tone, he concluded, “And you’ll need a date.”

“I-I’m sorry?” I managed to stammer out.

“Yeah,” he replied, casting a sidelong glance in my direction. “Family-oriented, remember? We want this whole thing to scream ‘committed, settled, picturesque.’”

“But, Joe—”

“Doesn’t matter who it is. Guy, girl, I don’t care. Not my business.”

My face colored. I was reluctant to own up to the truth, but there was no way around it. I quietly replied, “I don’t have a, er, romantic partner, Joe.”

I always tried my best to keep personal stuff out of the office, and here he was, dragging it right in. It’s not that I was ashamed about being unattached, exactly, but I didn’t need this pressing reminder that I was nearly thirty and currently prospectless. I wanted a family, kids, the whole shebang, and constant reminders of my proverbial clock weren’t lessening my rampant anxiety.

Joe seemed to entirely miss my consternation, skirting past it to reply, “No worries. We’ll set you up with someone.”

We?” I questioned with extreme trepidation, my hands pressing into my knees as I tried to contain an outburst. “‘Set up’?”

“Yeeep,” he confirmed. “Don’t sound so nervous, Tom and I will figure it out. Who knows? Maybe you’ll even fall in love.”

I snorted. “With, what, one of your construction guys? Not likely.” I bit my tongue, but Joe didn’t react as he was probably just as nervous about this arrangement as I was.

“Good, because I was kidding. Can’t have our marketing head dating within the company. That’s a good way to mess up a good thing.”

“Yeah,” I said with a mildness I didn’t feel. In my head, I added, you don’t have to worry about that happening. I was a lady, after all. When I pictured my perfect man, I saw one in a perfectly pressed suit with a clean shave and a briefcase. Someone like me — well-dressed, well-educated, well-spoken. Not someone who did manual labor. Not that I objected to that, but I worked with men who did manual labor and I wanted someone I could relate to.

“So you’ll do it,” Joe finished, the end of his sentencing dropping down an octave to indicate that it had been a statement, not a question.

I restrained myself from the indulgence of an eye roll.

“Fine,” I replied, the words barely getting past the uncomfortable lump in my throat. “I’ll do it.”

“Make sure you pack for every occasion. He mentioned golf, dinner, et cetera. Charles has promised us that this will be a weekend to remember.”

I smiled weakly. I just hoped it would be a good memory when all was said and done.

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