My mouth welled with saliva as the nausea brewing in my gut almost bubbled over and up my throat. Closing my eyes, I shook my head, swallowed fiercely, and willed my body to get itself under control.
I white knuckled the steering wheel of my Pagani Huayra and took a few deep, steadying breaths. The nausea calmed a bit, and I focused on the sign hanging on the cement wall above the parking stall in which I was parked.
Reserved for CEO
Even after seven years it still felt strange to see my name under the letters ‘CEO.’ Strange, but right. This job was my life. And there was nothing more important to me than seeing the company grow—just as it had been since it was founded all those years ago in my little college dorm room. A dream had become a very concrete reality in a short amount of time and I still had to pinch myself to remember that this was my life now. And I couldn’t have been more grateful.
Although, with the hangover I was currently nursing, I wished I didn’t have to go in to the office today. Staying back at my penthouse, alone, watching reruns of shitty sitcoms while sipping on a cocktail—of the dog that bit me, of course—would be much preferable to responding to emails and sitting through back to back meetings later this afternoon.
But duty called.
Groaning, I opened the gull wing doors of the Huayra and stepped out. Well, staggered out, I guess. It took me a moment to get my balance and I braced myself with one hand on the hood of the glossy black vehicle as the doors, currently opened like the wingspan of a bird of prey, slowly lowered back into place and sealed.
Pushing myself away from the support of the car I made my way over to the elevator, which opened up for me as soon as I pressed the button to call it. I stepped in and jabbed the button at the bottom of the pad that read ‘Nova Corp’ rather than choosing a floor number. It was on the very top level, floor eighty, and had a magnificent view of Los Angeles from every room. My office had the best view, naturally, looking out across West Hollywood. From the office tower’s central spot right in the middle of downtown LA. I was lucky to be able to see all the way to Beverly Hills from here.
It wasn’t until the elevator had passed the tenth floor that I realized Christmas music was playing. Thank God there weren’t any words blaring and it was just instrumental. I could better ignore it that way. It was only the last day of November, for fuck’s sake.
Couldn’t they hold off on the cheesy Christmas tunes for one more damn day?
Grumbling, I crammed my hands in the pockets of my wool business coat and nuzzled my chin into the lapel. It wasn’t all that cold this time of year in the city, but it was certainly chillier than us locals liked, and no matter how much the rest of the northern world grumbled about our sensitivity to the cold, we didn’t give a damn. With December one day away I was more than entitled to wear my winter coat and damn well enjoy it, though at this point I was inside the heated building and the comfort I took from it may have had more to do with my state of mind and body than the cold weather.
The elevator doors slid open and spit me out on the eightieth floor. It was awash in sunlight as I crossed the lobby to the double wide glass doors adorned with gold lettering declaring the space beyond as the ‘Nova Corp Head Office’.
I tugged the door open and stepped inside.
As usual, the office felt alive with busy bodies rushing to and fro going about their work. People hurried past with a quick ‘hello’ or ‘good morning’ as they went about their business. Then, when I passed the reception desk, I heard my receptionist, Casey, clicking her tongue at me.
I shrugged out of my jacket and hung it on a hook near her desk as Casey rested her chin in her hands and arched an auburn eyebrow at me. “Good morning, Max.”
“Casey,” I nodded, as I tightened my tie at my throat.
“How was your Thursday evening?”
I knew the word ‘Thursday’ had been thrown in there intentionally. “Went out with some old friends and got a little too carried away.”
“So it would seem. You smell like a bar.”
“I do not.”
“Alright,” Casey shrugged as she dropped her head to go back to her work, which was scheduling out my days of the upcoming week. “You’re right. You don’t smell like spiced rum and tequila. I was lying.”
Casey smiled and tapped the side of her nose with her pen. “You can’t pull one over on me, Max Miller. I’m like a bloodhound. There’s cologne in your desk. Top right drawer. I suggest you use it before your afternoon meetings.”
I rubbed the back of my neck. “Where would I be without you, Casey?”
Casey stood up from her chair and walked around her cherry oak reception desk. It was a massive piece of furniture, full of drawers and shelves for her to keep her essentials, which ranged from anything between pens and sticky notes to sandalwood and vanilla candles. She doubled as a house keeper for Nova Corp and she kept the atmosphere more than pleasant.
Casey pressed a notebook into my hands as she passed me. “I made some adjustments to your schedule this morning. You had your call with Isla King at eleven, but I discovered she is getting on a flight to Rome at eleven thirty. So I figured I’d shuffle some things around. I know you’ve been trying to get through to her for a long time.”
“She’s a busy woman.”
“With connections we can use.”
Casey nodded. “Most definitely. Coffee?”
“Yes please,” I said as she walked away and down the hallway to the common kitchen in the middle of the office.
I watched her go, wondering why nothing had ever happened between the two of us. She was cute, and smart as hell, and just the sort of girl a guy would want to bring home to meet his family.
But, to me, Casey had always felt like more of a big sister. And, as a man with a younger sister, once I had that thought I couldn’t shake it. It was probably for the best. A personal relationship with a colleague was never a good idea, unless you were interested in something that was destined to go up in flames and make working together for who knows how much longer intolerably horrible.
Casey disappeared around the corner into the kitchen and I stalked from her desk to my office a mere twenty feet away. My door was unlocked and the blinds along my glass walls were all open. I liked to keep it that way. It could become too isolating, and spending my entire day locked up in my office out of sight from all my employees wasn’t good management.
It also made it impossible for my staff to determine whether or not it was safe for them to come and knock. I only drew the blinds and locked the door during important calls that could not be interrupted, and my team knew that.
I left my office door propped open and flicked the lights on before going over to my desk and taking Casey’s advice. I sprayed a bit of cologne in the air and walked through it before tapping the keyboard of my computer to wake it up.
Casey came back into the office minutes later. I had just sat down when she placed a mug of steaming black coffee in front of me. I picked up on notes of cinnamon and nutmeg and scowled. “Let me guess. You’ve already gone out and bought that Christmas coffee you love so much?”
Casey clasped her hands together and nodded. “You bet your ass I did. And you can make that face as much as you like. You left me in charge of all office supplies and that includes coffee.”
I lifted it to my lips, took a sip, and winced as I burned myself.
Casey put a hand on her hip. “Careful, Einstein. It’s hot.”
“Thanks,” I grimaced, putting my coffee down and fanning my mouth.
Casey watched me with an air of ‘I-don’t-know-how-else-I-can-help-this-guy’ before she reached into the pocket of her royal blue sweater. She held out a little Ziploc baggie. Inside were four aspirin. “I found these in one of the kitchen drawers. Take them. I’ll replace them when I go out for my lunch break.”
“I’m alright, Casey. Thanks though. I’ll just—”
She shook her head. “No. You have a busy day. And a lot is riding on your meetings. The intelligence agencies are not going to be impressed when the guy they hired shows up to the meeting looking and smelling like he just rolled out of a trucker bar.”
She tossed the baggie on top of my keyboard. “That’s how you’ll look in their eyes. Now channel your inner Tesla. Put your game face on, Max.”
Casey left, pausing in the doorway to my office to point at the baggie on my keyboard. Sighing in defeat, I opened the baggie and poured the four pills into my palm. I tossed them into my mouth and swallowed them dry.
Casey was watching me from her cherry oak desk. I locked eyes with her and opened my mouth wide, sticking my tongue out to show her I’d swallowed the damn pills. She giggled and shook her head as her cheeks warmed with a complimenting shade of pink. She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and I looked away, knowing I was playing with fire.
I might see her as a sister, but that didn’t mean she saw me as a brother. And I didn’t want to lead her on. Not Casey. She was too pure and too sweet for that. And I needed her in my life. I wasn’t going to spoil a good thing by being my normal self.
The normal self I’d been last night, for example.
I’d almost taken a girl home with me. It had been a long time since I’d done that. She was a ten out of ten, with long black hair and full dark red lips. Her teeth had been spectacularly white. The sort of white you can’t stop looking at because you’re so damn confused as to how someone could maintain such a stark color. She’d smelled like coconut and sunscreen. Like summertime. And, with Christmas rearing its ugly head, I’d been drawn to the scent as well as her tan and her open toe heels.
After a few drinks and a couple of dances where we’d crushed our bodies up against each other and shared a few kisses, she told me her name was Maggie. I’d told her my name was Miller. She had no clue who I was or what I was worth and she was still interested.
But, as the night wore on, I tired of her. She had a couple more drinks and became looser lipped with her opinions. I like a woman with opinions. Hell, I like a woman who can challenge me and make me change my own opinions—but Maggie wasn’t a challenge. Her head was full of sawdust.
At three in the morning when I’d asked her if she wanted to head out and grab a bite to eat, she said anything gluten free, because if she had gluten it would make her terribly ill. Which was fine, aside from the fact that she was sipping her fourth beer of the evening.
A couple more moments like that sealed the deal and I bailed, heading home alone. As usual.
Now here I was, nursing a pounding head and a rolling stomach that I knew was going to last all day. My meetings would feel like pulling teeth. I had to stop doing this shit to myself.
My day was uneventful. I didn’t throw up, which, according to Casey and the rest of the office employees was a glowing accomplishment. Apparently they’d all placed bets on how long it would be before I either puked into the trash can under my desk or made a beeline to the bathroom to vomit in there. Needless to say, most of them were out twenty bucks.
I stepped out of my office at quarter after five. Most of the employees had already left, but Casey was still sitting at her desk preparing for the next morning. She looked up and smiled as I took my coat off the hook and shrugged into it. “Any plans for the evening, Max?”
I nodded. “Heading up to Keith’s place for dinner.”
“Wonderful. Make sure you actually eat something. You haven’t eaten all day.”
I fixed the collar of my jacket in the mirror on the elevator. Then, down in the parking garage, I got into my Huayra and peeled out onto the busy LA street. I zipped through cars, the quick and sharp angles making my stomach churn even now.
It was ten to six when I pulled into Keith’s driveway. Keith was my stepfather. My stepbrother’s black Ford Escape was parked in the spot in front of me.
I sighed and looked up at the house through the windshield. I had to give Keith credit where credit was due. The white colonial home with black shutters looked exactly the same as my mother used to keep it, sparkly green, red and gold Christmas wreath on the front door and all.