Copyright © 2013 Mary Hughes
All rights reserved
It was personal, and terribly, terribly unprofessional. She was grateful he didn’t embrace her, which would have confirmed she was too thin-skinned to play in the big boys’ sandbox; even worse it would’ve shown he didn’t truly understand. Either would kill her a little inside.
But he did rub her shoulder consolingly as she worked it out. It was nice.
When she had wound down to red eyes and sniffles, she said, “Crying is the absolute worst thing you can do in a business environment. It’s a sign you’re not professional. And here I’ve done it twice, in front of the CEO. I guess that proves I’m not cut out to be a professional.”
Cliff shook his head. “Maybe they wouldn’t think so at Stuffed Shirt Corporation. But not here.”
Vickie looked up at him; she felt her heart was in her eyes.
He gave her an understanding smile. “You know what I think? I think a real professional admits their problems and shortcomings, personal and business, and then does the job anyway. You do that.”
She rubbed her nose. “I thought you had to be perfect.”
“Sure, if you buy into that style of professionalism—the uptight, anal‑retentive kind that can’t integrate different parts of life.” He watched her closely.
She nodded glumly. She couldn’t integrate working for him, working with him, being friends with him, and definitely not this physical need for him.
He sighed. “I’m not going to try to talk you into being my lover. That’s not fair to you. But I do want you to understand my feelings on being human and professional. Think about it.”
Vickie wiped her eyes. Being human and professional. He really got it. She’d have said something then, embarrassed herself by asking him if he did care even a little.
But he went on. “Anyway, I think we’ve done all the damage we can do here. I recommend we shower, get some food and get back to work. I could eat a moose, hooves and all.”
That brought some normalcy back. She decided now was definitely not the time to go into feelings. If he was hungry, and she knew from experience, he was not going to be thinking of much else until he was fed.
But while, after that workout, she certainly could use a shower before going out in public, she’d never used the one in the locker rooms, having been warned by John they were irritable like Grumpy Cat. “I didn’t bring a towel.”
“There’s a supply closet just outside the stalls. Towels are there, shampoo and extra soap too. Just drop the towel in the hamper when you’re done.” His stomach growled. “Let’s get going.”
“Okay.” She turned from him to head for the women’s locker room. Stopped and asked without turning, “Did you really mean that, about being human and professional?”
“Hopefully you know by now I mean what I say. C’mon, shower and something to eat. I’ll even share my dessert.”
“Well, how can I resist such a selfless offer?” She walked as sprightly as she could away from him, into the women’s locker room.
Once she gained the safety of the closed door, she sank back against it, utterly miserable. She’d just told the best damn man she’d ever met that she didn’t want to be his lover—when that was all she wanted to do.
She heard Cliff banging his locker; odd, she hadn’t heard it when they came down here before. She bit her lip and fought back tears again. Cliff wasn’t Ron. He proved that just now, proved he cared about her. Sure, maybe he didn’t want to be her one-and-only, but what was wrong with having at least part of him? Carpe diem, as Grandpa used to say.
The thought galvanized her. She straightened and went to the small locker. What would it be like, being Cliff’s lover? She pulled the shoulder of her leotard off, imagining that his hands were doing it. She rolled it over her breasts, seeing his eyes riveted to her. Her hands pushed the stretch material over her hips. She bent over, dreaming that she was exposing her most private areas for him.
A door banged. The sharp hiss of a shower next door told her she’d better get a move on. Now would not be the time to be late.
Vickie pulled off the rest of her clothes and hurried across the ceramic tile, her bare feet making little pungs on the floor in her impatience and confusion. She’d blown it for today. But there was always tomorrow, right? Great, just put her in an antebellum gown on the steps of
She spun the shower dial. Water blasted out cold; she gasped and grabbed the
knob to adjust it to less than arctic temperature.
“Gotcha, didn’t it? I forgot to warn you about that. These showers are a bit temperamental.”
Vickie jumped. Cliff’s voice seemed quite near. She scanned the stall. It took a moment to find the section of wall above her, apparently open between the two showers. “Cliff, is that you?”
“You were expecting maybe the Spanish Inquisition? No, John just finally got around to calling the plumbers in. That wall was opened for repairs to this cranky plumbing.”
“Are you sure you don’t have a ladder over there? I mean, for the repair work and all?” Vickie stepped under the shower, wet her hair and began to shampoo, keeping one eye on the hole.
“Scout’s honor, Vickie. But if it’ll help, I’ll be glad to talk to you. Or better yet, sing.”
“Sweet Simon Cowell, not another bathroom Star Search.”
Cliff began to warble tentatively. “Mi, mi, mi. Ah, such good acoustics. I never could see why opera wasn’t performed in the shower instead of a great drafty barn. Okay, now. Vesti, Pagliacci.” He swarmed up to the high note and cracked broadly. “Say, remind me to tell you how tenors really get the high ones.”
Vickie sighed to herself. ‘She could even live with his singing. She was an incredible dope. Or he’s an in credible man, a little inner voice reminded. She began to soap her body, trying unsuccessfully to avoid stimulating her overworked libido.
Cliff began again, this time with something he called Madama Butterfly. He briefly sounded as though he were drowning, then began again.
“What did you ever do with all the money your mom gave you for singing lessons?” Vickie assayed this little dig as a sign of her professional resilience.
“Ha.” Cliff forced his voice like a rusted locomotive up the mountainside, creaking precariously among the high notes.
“Ouch!” A bar of soap had just hit her in the head.
“Hey, where’d my soap go?” asked Cliff.
“Here, on my head,” she called back. “I probably have a concussion. What were you doing, anyway?”
“Just putting a little oomph into it. I must have shot it through the gap in the wall. I bet I couldn’t do that again in a zillion years.”
Vickie picked up the soap from the floor. This was his soap. It smelled like him. She closed her eyes and filled her lungs with the scent.
“Hey, Vickie, just toss it back over to me.”
She imagined herself to be the soap, gliding over each wonderful, strong curve of his body, secretly kissing every part of him.
“Okay, Vickie, I promise not to sing any more; just give me back my soap. Vickie?”
She took a long, ragged breath. It was time to stop playing games. With herself, with Cliff, with any time they might have left together. She took another breath to tell him. Her heart dropped dizzyingly into the pit of her stomach. Her throat dried and she could barely speak.
But she forced herself to say the words. “Why don’t you come and get it?”
There was a stunned silence, then the other shower turned off. A faint creak from Cliff’s shower door. A few moments of breathless anticipation.
Her door opened. She turned in the shower, one arm crossing her breast to her shoulder, the other holding the soap out, trying not to tremble. The steam boiled across the door and cleared.
Cliff filled the doorway, motionless as though carved from rock. The powerful beauty of his naked body struck Vickie physically. Hair was plastered over his brow, making tiny rivulets down his jaw, neck, torso, trickling down his smooth tanned skin.