For the hundredth time in an hour, Angela Pierce heaved a sigh and turned her eyes toward the ceiling. There was only so much she could take before she had to call it a day. Her vision blurred with the headache she’d been sporting since lunch time, her thin fingers pressed to her brow. She barely heard the incessant droning that came from the other end of the phone line. A glance toward the clock indicated that he’d been prattling on for nearly forty-five minutes. Just another half hour and it would be five o’clock, time to call it a day. Just half an hour and the corporate world would grind to a halt, and she wouldn’t have to worry about solving anyone’s problems until Monday. She could go home, take off her shoes, and then her life would begin.
Her eyes crossed, and she forced herself to look away from the clock. “Listen, Roger,” Angie interrupted. “Wherever the papers got filed, it’s too late to look for them now. Just call and say you need an extension and we’ll look for it on Monday. Even if we printed new copies for their contract, we couldn’t have them signed until Monday at the soonest. Just don’t worry about it, and go home!”
“But- But Miss Pierce-” Roger started, his nervous stammering grating on her last nerve.
“Stop,” Angie said, clenching a hand into a fist atop her desk. “Forget it. Call for an extension and we’ll deal with it on Monday.”
“Yes ma’am.” The agreement on the other end of the line made her roll her eyes as she hung up the phone, and she buried her face in her hands. Sometimes, she felt like an office job was the exact opposite of what she wanted. She rummaged in the top drawer of her desk, cradling her forehead in one hand as she dug out the bottle of aspirin she kept there, specifically for days like this. Two painkillers swallowed with the last mouthful from her bottled water would take care of her headache.
“Susan,” she said, leaning forward wearily to speak into the intercom. “Take the rest of my calls and leave me a note for anything important, would you please? I’m going home a little bit early.”
“Is everything all right, ma’am?” Susan’s voice crackled over the speaker, Angie couldn’t help but smile at the concern the older woman showed.
“Lady problems,” Angie said with a wry smile to herself. One of few benefits of working with a building full of men was that no one ever questioned that as a reason to leave early. “Have a good weekend, Susan. I’ll see you on Monday.” She crammed paperwork into her laptop bag, scooping her purse up from under her desk and planting it on top. She tossed her empty water bottle into the trash on her way to the door, wiggling fingers in a quick goodbye to Susan at the receptionist’s desk.
She exhaled as soon as she was in the elevator, lounging against the hand rail as it made its sluggish descent. The bell for the first floor dinged and she hefted her bag higher on her shoulder, digging around in her purse to find her keys on the way into the lobby.
“Angie!” Her name echoed in the roomy foyer and Angie grinned, waving to the woman that had just come through the revolving door. Lauren Langdon might have lacked fashion sense sometimes, teetering toward her on heels that were far too high, but the tall, rail-thin blonde made up for it in personality. With her own stocky build, black hair and definite lack of height, Angie felt like the physical opposite of her best friend.
“I was just about to call you, Lauren!” Angie laughed, sweeping her former classmate into a quick hug. “You take off early, too?”
“Ugh.” Lauren rolled her eyes. “I should have washed my hands of that disaster earlier in the day. You can tease me all you want about having an easy job, but at least you don’t have to deal with people.”
Angie scoffed at that. “I don’t? Oh, please. It might not be face to face with a hundred in a day, but people like Roger over in the Milwaukee branch are enough of a headache to make up for it.” She fell in step beside Lauren, pushing out into the sunny Saint Louis afternoon.
“Roger might be bad, but I’d take that over a teller job any day,” Lauren sighed, shading her eyes with one hand as they started down the sidewalk.
“Speaking of jobs, did you ever hear back about that receptionist spot?” Angie asked. “You’ve been with the bank forever, seems like you’d be a shoo-in.”
Lauren shrugged. “Seems like, but they still haven’t called me. I’m hoping I’ll hear something after the weekend. Can’t let you be the only young professional, after all.” She nudged Angie with her elbow.
“Twenty-eight is not that young anymore.” Angie laughed. “You know they brought in an intern that’s still in college? He’s aiming for a position as a head of one of the software development teams. I’m not even sure he has to shave in the morning.”
“Yeah, well, things are easier for some of these kids that are getting into the technology field. If you didn’t work for a software company, you probably wouldn’t have to deal with them. I’m pretty sure some kids now are born with a cell phone in their hands.” Lauren rolled her eyes, turning the corner into the parking garage. “I’m on the first floor today, where did you park?”
“Fourth floor.” Angie grimaced. “Actually, would you want to go grab something to eat? We can just take your car and you can drop me off back here afterward, that way we only have to pay to park one car.”
“You know I’m always up for dinner with you, hon.” Lauren batted her eyelashes. “But if you don’t mind, I’d rather grab some different shoes first. Meet me at my place and we’ll go from there?”
Angie smiled at that. “Lead the way, then, sugar. You know I’ll be right behind you.”
* * * * *
“Ouch.” Angie cringed, hobbling to the cluttered couch, shoving a blanket aside to make room to sit. She rubbed at the toes her shoes left exposed, looking down at the pile of books she’d tripped over. “I thought you were going to get some more shelves!” She called, watching Lauren disappear around the corner, into the bedroom of her apartment.
“I did, but I had more than what would fit onto them,” Lauren yelled back.
Angie made a face. She’d been an avid reader before her job had taken off, but her interest in books had been limited to the stories between their covers, rather than the books themselves. It seemed like Lauren collected books just for the sake of having them. She picked one up off the pile nearest to her, raising a brow at the cover. “The Vampire Watcher’s Handbook? Really, Lauren? I thought you got out of that supernatural phase back in high school.”
“I did, but have you ever known me to get rid of a book?” Lauren said, laughing. She came back to the living room minutes later, walking more confidently in knee-high boots with a chunky heel.
Angie’s jaw dropped. “You can not be going out in that!” she said, disbelievingly. Lauren grinned at her, turning about where she stood. She’d let her blonde curls down and smudges of smoky eyeshadow accented her chocolatey brown eyes. She wore hip-hugging wet look vinyl pants, her top was just a corset. From head to foot, she was clad in black.
“And you can’t be going out in that. C’mon, Angie, we’re practically the same size. I know I’ve got something less dowdy than that,” Lauren grinned.
“There is nothing ‘dowdy’ about a suit,” Angie huffed, folding arms across her chest. “And anything that fits you is going to be either too long or too tight on me. When did you start going the fetish route?”
“Around the time I figured out that dressing the part makes it easier to get pictures of the groups I’m trying to photograph.” Lauren smirked. “Come on. If we’re going to go out, we’ll go somewhere interesting. I’m bound to get some great pictures at a club. Maybe I can get some photos for that article about local night life I keep wanting to put together.” She hopped over stacks of books to get to the couch, grabbing hold of Angie’s arm, hauling her onto her feet.
“Please tell me you’re not dragging me to some dark poetry reading or something like that,” Angie groaned, stumbling over books that were strewn across the floor.
“I’m not,” Lauren laughed. “I promise. Now come on, let’s get you dressed.”
Lauren’s definition of ‘getting dressed’ wasn’t as simple as a change of clothes. By the time the curlers came out of Angie’s hair, the sun was low on the horizon. It washed the bathroom of the apartment in a ruddy light and Angie frowned as it left a blinding glare on the bedroom mirror.
“Oops, hold on. I’ll get that,” Lauren muttered, shutting the blinds and flicking the light switch before turning to Angie again. “So what do you think?”
“Ehh…” Angie hesitated. Her black hair fell in tight ringlets around her face, and dark eyeshadow made her baby blues look extra bright by comparison. The black dress Lauren had given her showed off her satisfactory cleavage with a sweetheart neckline, flattering her collarbones with spaghetti straps. The fabric hugged her body until the swell of her hips, where it fell into loose ruffles that hung to her knees. Black stockings hid her pale legs, patent leather pumps giving them the perfect toned look beneath her nylons. “You’re good at putting together an outfit, I’ll give you that. It makes me look thinner. But I think I preferred my dowdy old suit.”
“Well, that’s too bad. When was the last time you actually went to a club, anyway?” Lauren asked, sweeping her lips with a pale pink gloss before picking her purse up off the bed.
“Probably before I got this job,” Angie muttered.
“That’s what I figured.” Lauren shrugged, pausing on her way out the door to grab her camera off a shelf.
Angie raised an eyebrow. “I’m surprised you still have that thing,” she said. “For as many odd places as you take it, I’d have figured it’d be stolen by now.”
“I’d be surprised if anyone wanted this old thing.” Lauren hefted the old-fashioned, professional grade camera against her shoulder. “I may just be a banker now, but maybe someday I’ll be shooting for the best magazines out there.”
“Or the trashiest tabloids money can buy,” Angie said dryly, brushing her shoulder-length curls back, a bounce in her step as she snatched up her purse and started for the front door. “You said we’re going to a club, right? Better hope I pick up a date, or you’re paying for dinner!”
“Dream on, sweetheart,” Lauren laughed, locking the door behind them.
* * * * *
The booming bass of the music put a tremor in their legs before they’d even made it to the front door. They’d parked only two blocks away and Angie already regretted the heels Lauren had convinced her to wear. Wearing them to work was one thing, when she was behind a desk all day. Walking – and if she was lucky, dancing – was a whole different ball game.
“You know, when we agreed on dinner, I was thinking something a little heavier than nachos,” Angie complained.
Lauren laughed, waving her camera in front of her friend’s face. “C’mon, just let me snap a few shots. Then we can go get a burger or something. I just told you, I want to try to submit a piece about the local night life to the Post-Dispatch.”
Angie sighed. “Just make sure I’m not in any of them. I don’t need any more trouble from my coworkers, thanks.” She felt herself shrinking under the scrutiny of the club’s bouncer, slipping forward with cash and her ID in hand.
Lauren led the way, weaving a path through the crush of people with an easy spring in her step. The din of voices was smothered by the music. The multicolored lights that swirled over the dance floor made Angie’s head hurt. She squinted at the floor as she walked.
“Why don’t you go sit down for a bit?” Lauren shouted to make herself heard. She already had her camera in hand. “I’ll just get a couple shots out here, then I’ll be right over.”
Angie rolled her eyes, but saw her friend off with a smile. Taking Lauren up on her suggestion, she pushed her way to the edges of the crowd. With some jostling, she worked her way toward the back and slipped into the first empty booth, tugging her skirt farther down her thighs as she settled. Through the milling swarm, she barely caught glimpse of Lauren with her camera, trying to protect it from the crowd long enough to focus a shot. Angie smirked, watching and twisting one of her black curls around her finger.
“You know, it’s usually more fun to be out there. Rather than just watching.”
Startled, she turned her head to look at the man that spoke beside her. His dark eyes were trained on Lauren over the rim of his martini glass. Dressed in black, he blended in with the movement of the people beyond him. He turned, setting a drink in front of her. “Cosmo?”
Angie arched a brow. “I don’t drink, but thanks,” she said, leaning back into the padding of the booth, giving him an appraising look. He was well-groomed, his dark hair gelled back, his dressy clothes looking freshly ironed. His features seemed somewhat European, his complexion unusually fair. He had a sarcastic twist to his mouth and eyes so dark they looked black.
Handsome, she supposed.
“Everybody drinks,” he replied with a lopsided smirk that was either endearing or irritating, she couldn’t figure which. He slid into the seat opposite hers, setting his Manhattan on the table. “It’s just a matter of whether you drink water or whiskey.”
Angie grimaced as he made himself comfortable. “You’re in my friend’s seat, you know.”
“I’d be more than happy to leave it, if you’d come along.” He jerked his head in the direction of the crowded dance floor. “Or did I waste six dollars on that cocktail, trying to sweeten you up for it?”
“Wasted it, and you overpaid.” Angie smirked, pushing herself up from her seat before it could even get warm. He was good looking, charming enough, and Lauren was busy anyway. Why not? “You coming?” she asked, brushing hair back, starting into the throng of people dancing with a graceful swing in her hips.
She felt him close against her back as she moved with the pulsing bass, caught the scent of his musky and citrus-sweet cologne.
“You’re too graceful for a club,” he said, just loud enough for her to hear.
“I’ve had dancing lessons,” she replied. “You got a name?”
“Blaine.” He spoke louder, laying his hands against her waist. “Yours?”
“Angela.” She swayed against him easily, hands over her head, letting her eyes close as she lost herself in the music.
Lauren was there when she opened her eyes and Angie squealed at the visible click of the camera.
“Don’t worry, that one’s for the private scrapbook.” Lauren grinned, giving her friend a naughty smirk when she caught sight of Blaine’s hands on her hips. “You stealing my date?” she asked, giving him a pointed look.
“Just borrowing,” he replied.
Lauren winked. “Well treat her gently, then, I want her back in good shape when you’re done.”
“Hey!” Angie protested.
Lauren laughed, giving her shoulder a pat. “I’m just playing, Ange. I gotta get a few shots of the DJ, then I’ll be done. I promise.” She smiled, giving Blaine a childlike wave before she disappeared into the crowds again.
“She’s cute,” he murmured.
Angie pushed his hands from her hips. “I’m not a stepping stone on the way to my best friend.”
“If I was interested, I’d be dancing with her instead of you,” Blaine stated.
“Really, now?” she challenged, folding arms beneath her breasts. “So what does that make me?”
“Interesting,” he said, giving her a wry smirk.
She eyed him a moment, an amused smile twisting the corners of her mouth as she turned to strut back to the empty booth. “You know, I think I changed my mind.” She eased back into her seat, crossing her legs. “I think I’ll have that cosmopolitan after all.”
“So all it takes is a dance to loosen you up?” Blaine mused, sitting down across from her again, two fingers on the base of his glass drawing his Manhattan closer.
Angie gave him a shadowed look, eyes narrowing. “I don’t think ‘loose’ is ever a good word to use with a lady.” Her tone was half play, half threat. She regarded him over the rim of her glass for a long moment before she finally took a sip.
“My apologies then, I don’t mean to offend. It’s just that I hadn’t planned much past the part where I tried to get you to dance,” he said, sardonically.
She chuckled, leaning forward to rest elbows on the table. “Well, see, after that comes the part where you talk to me.”
“About what? The weather? The last Cardinals game?” Blaine raised a brow. He pulled the stem off the cherry in his drink, twisting it idly between his fingers.
Angie shook her head. “I’m not much of a sports fan. You could always tell me a little about yourself, though.”
He cringed. “I already know all about myself. Where’s the fun in talking about that?” He flicked the stem across the table. “So why don’t we start with you? I’m here a lot, but I’ve never seen you.”
“I don’t do this sort of thing,” she told him, flatly. “I’m only here because my friend wanted to do some photography work tonight. I have better things to do than go clubbing.”
“Like what?” Blaine asked, leaning back, folding arms across his chest.
Angie snorted. “Like working?” She laughed humorlessly. “My job doesn’t afford much time for things like this. It doesn’t afford time for anything, really.”
“And what do you do?” He urged her on, tone curious and coaxing. The weight of his gaze made her uncomfortable.
She downed the rest of her cosmopolitan. “I’m an art director for the advertisement branch of Silicon Cluster. It’s not a dream job, but it pays the bills comfortably, I suppose.”
Blaine shook his head, frowning.
Angie blinked. “What?”
“I’ve never understood that,” he said, brow furrowing. “Why people would stick with a job they clearly don’t enjoy, just because it pays well. As if there’s nothing else in the world that would pay as well, as if there’s no chance they’d ever land a job they actually enjoyed doing.”
“Hey, work is work,” she muttered defensively. “My rent is paid and I’m putting a dent in my student loans. For where I’m at in life, I don’t think I could ask for much better than that.”
“You could always ask for better, it just doesn’t mean it’ll be handed to you.” Blaine smirked at her. “What did you go to school for?”
“Journalism,” Angie jerked her head in the direction of the dance floor. “Same as Lauren out there. We were going to go into it together. I was going to write the stories, she was going to do the photography part. You know, that stupid idea that best friends have to do everything together.”
“And what stopped you?” he pressed.
Angie hesitated. “You know… I don’t know, really.” She paused, laughing. “What is this, 20 questions?”
“Only if you want me to keep asking.” Blaine chuckled, sipping his drink.
The sound of her name being called made her jump. Angie turned, looking for the source, groaning when she found it. “Oh, God…” she moaned, pressing her head into her hands.
Blaine gave her an odd look, glancing out to the man that was pushing through the crowd. “Not a good friend, I take it?”
Angie winced. “My ex.”
“Since when are you a party girl?” The smarmy tone of the question made her cringe. The expression on the face of the athletically-built man that approached their table wasn’t any better.
“Since never, Jason. Don’t you have someone else to talk to?” She forced a smile, rubbing her temples with forefinger and thumb of one hand.
“Sure, but I’d rather talk to you,” Jason said, giving Blaine a shadowed glance. “There a reason you don’t answer my calls?”
“Yes, actually, it’s because I changed my number,” Angie countered, pushing herself up. “I have to go. But it was nice meeting you,” she remarked to Blaine, not waiting for a reply before moving to work her way to the front of the club. She slipped out past the line now waiting to get in, folding her arms as she hurried down the cracked sidewalk.
The air was thick with humidity cast off from the Mississippi, though the wind was cool for summertime. Gray clouds blotting out the inky sky promised rain.
She hugged herself, walking a little faster, cutting a path toward the lights of the Metrolink station ahead. She paused at the street corner, looking back. Seeing Blaine behind her made her hesitate.
“Seeing women out alone doesn’t sit well with me,” Blaine protested, his face masked with concern.
Angie forced a smile. “I’m a big girl. I can take care of myself.”
“I’m not saying you can’t,” he replied, uneasily. “Wherever you’re going, let me walk you.”
“And they say chivalry is dead!” she laughed, turning on her heel to start off again. It didn’t take him long to fall in step beside her, positioning himself between her and the curb.
“You really don’t have to, you know,” Angie murmured, looking at the sidewalk beneath her feet. Already, the club’s music was nothing more than a dull bass hum behind them.
“A city is a city. It can be dangerous after dark. I wouldn’t want to think of something happening just because I didn’t follow you,” Blaine said.
She shrugged. “Regardless, thank you. That’s a lot more considerate than what I’m used to.”
He did not respond.
There was a small gathering of people waiting for the train. Blaine stopped at the edge of the station’s lighting. “I can see you home,” he offered, a strange note of insistence in his voice.
Angie shook her head, giving him a smile. “I’m fine. If you go back to the club, tell Lauren I picked up my car and went home. I’d call her, but I think I left my cell phone at her apartment.”
Blaine nodded. “Good night, then.” There was a subtlety in his tone that gave her a chill.
When her train came, she could still see him watching as it pulled away.
— Keep reading: Chapter Two