Carnival Lights: Chapter Eight
Christina woke to a bluish morning light wafting through the curtains of the bedroom window. But before she even opened her eyes, the events of the night before flooded her consciousness. She knew immediately that she was in the guest bedroom of Matthew and Mary Gordman. And she remembered explicitly what she’d said to Jason.
That she was attracted to him.
Had been since the moment she’d first seen him.
She’d almost let him kiss her again.
Groaning painfully, she flung her forearm over her still tightly closed eyes.
“Oh God,” she whimpered, sinking disgustedly against the soft mattress underneath her. “What the hell did I say?!” She could feel heat infusing her body, her limbs growing stiff as the image of his face—utter shock and revelation—passed across her mind.
How the hell would she ever face him again? The urge to vomit, to physically be ill, crawled up her throat. It had felt so natural at the time. She hadn’t felt a twinge of regret as she’d assaulted him with the words of her great secret. In fact, she’d felt oddly powerful, hurtling the reality of her feelings at him, calling him out for playing on her vulnerabilities.
No, she hadn’t felt regret. No then. But she did now. A terrible, lowering regret. The kind that usually follows an evening of over-indulgence with alcohol. The kind that comes after the sort of knock-down drag-out fight when terrible, untrue things are said, used to hurt—
What was it about the seductive cover of night that makes nothing of pretense and protection?
“Shit,” she whispered, as tears squeezed out of the corners of her eyes. Her chest felt tight, and her breathing came in sharp gasps. “You idiot. You stupid, stupid idiot,” she cried. Turning on her side, she curled her legs up to her stomach, huddling into a ball under the covers of her blanket.
How was she ever going to face him again?
With a muted cry of despair, she flung the covers up over her head.
It was the soft knock on the other side of the door however, that reminded her she couldn’t stay like that forever.
“Christina? Are you awake?” Mary’s voice was softly inquiring.
Christina swallowed thickly. “Umm…Yeah. Yes, I’m awake,” she called out, ignoring the slight quiver in her voice and praying it hadn’t traveled through the thick door separating them. The last thing she needed was questions from Mary. “Breakfast is ready.”
Christina blanched. “Oh. Uh, thanks but I’m—I’m not hungry…”
“Nonsense. It’s important to start the day with a hearty meal,” Mary returned, as Christina knew she would. No one said no to Mary; not when it came to food.
Still. She had to try. To sit across the table from Jason, after everything what had transpired the night before, would be interminable. “I, uh, I can’t. I have to get home. To, to change clothes and you know, get ready…”
“Oh posh!” Mary hollered, still speaking through the door (but if she found this to be unusual behavior, she didn’t let on). “Matthew will understand if you need to come in a little late this morning. It was at our insistence that you spent the night, after all.”
And that’s how Christina found herself, uncomfortably dressed in the clothes from the day before, crossing the massive foyer and into the Gordman’s kitchen, some twenty minutes later. Her blonde hair was swept artfully off her freshly scrubbed face, and though her skirt was a little wrinkled and her shirt a little limp, she consoled herself that she’d done she could. Besides, what other choice did she have?
So, proper attire in which to arm herself, Christina took herself in to breakfast. To say it was an awkward encounter would have been over-simplifying things a bit. She was unusually shy and tentative as she pulled out her seat and asked politely for a piece of toast and a poached egg.
Matthew frowned. Christina was like family. She’d long since stopped acting like a timid guest at their dining table and yet, here she was, practically squirming in her seat. Her eyes remained determinedly fixed on her plate as Jason sauntered into the room behind her, and the fingers holding her fork clenched so hard it was a miracle the damn utensil didn’t bend in half.
And Jason. For his sake, he was quiet and reserved as he filled his plate. The expected joke about Christina’s rumpled appearance never came, and Jason never missed an opportunity to get a rise out of Christina; if there was one thing she was meticulous about it was her grooming. It was almost too easy and yet not a comment was uttered. He chewed his food wordlessly. Only his eyes were watchful on Christina’s averted face, her clumsy movements.
Hell, she almost knocked over her orange juice but other than quickly reaching over to right the glass, Jason had said and done nothing, merely resumed eating as though it were a matter of course. And Christina for all her usual poise, only managed a barely recognizable, pertly polite, thank you.
Matthew’s frown deepened. The lines of his forehead creased.
It was almost ten o’clock by the time Christina showed up to work—having escaped from the Gordman’s house as soon as decency allowed. Beautifully turned out in a tailored suit with a glass-green button down shirt, her feet tucked into black pumps, and her face and hair decked out, Christina marched up to her desk. She should have felt better. This was her power outfit. But she didn’t. She felt like a fraud. Popping her purse determinedly in the filing drawer she reserved for herself, she started up her computer.
Mr. Gordman was already in the office. His private door was firmly shut and for some reason, she was hesitant to knock on it and ask if there was anything he needed. And that was the problem. She shouldn’t have been. It was standard operating procedure, after all. She was his personal receptionist. She pulled a face. This was exactly what she’d been afraid of. This was exactly the problem.
Things were different now.
And not just on her side either. Mr. Gordman had been different that morning, too. Distant. Like he’d known something. But Jason hadn’t said anything. True to his word, he’d kept his mouth shut. And Christina certainly hadn’t let anything slip. And still, breakfast had been an ordeal. The first meal in memory that had been consumed in almost complete silence by the entire family.
There had been an unannounced tension in the air. It had been as undeniable as it had been staunchly ignored.
Mary had looked confused.
Jason had looked—well, actually she wasn’t sure. She’d been careful not to glance his way.
But Mr. Gordman…. He’d looked suspicious. Christina sighed wearily. She supposed he had a right. When he’d gone to bed the night before, everything had been normal. Jason and she had been up to their usual bickering, Christina had been warm and generous with Mary, and then this morning…well, try as she might, Christina had never been much of an actress.
She’d felt the friction in her shoulders, heard the mechanical tone of her voice. She’d seen their eyes on her down bent head, but…
She looked longingly at her boss’s door. Every morning since she’d started, she greeted him with a cup of coffee and a notepad, ready to get a jumpstart on whatever project he had lined up that day. And now, here she sat, like a coward, unwilling to so much as announce her presence. It was supposed to be Jason she was uncomfortable being around. Not her boss. Not Mr. Gordman.
It had spread. Which was ironic because it was the sole reason she’d stopped Jason the night before. Because she’d refused to ruin the great job she’d carved out for herself here. She’d refused to ruin the closest thing to a family she had in Matthew and Mary.
She stared blindly at her computer screen. Her fingers lay numb across the keyboard. She should be checking the company emails right now. That was one of the first things she did each morning. But if she did that, she’d eventually reach one that would need to be sent on to Mr. Gordman for confirmation and that…
With a half strangled sound, she pushed her body away from the desk. With a jerk, she brought herself out of her chair and, indeed, was halfway across the cluttered bullpen before she knew where she was going. Her heels clicked sharply against the concrete flooring, she raced for the staircase on the other side of the building. Within minutes she found herself on the basement floor, her body propelling her frenetically toward the only office down there.
Knocking sharply on the side of the doorway, Christina hardly waited for an answering response before stepping inside the office. A large architect table stood in the center of the room. Multi-colored posters of every shape and size were taped haphazardly to the walls. And sitting in the mess of it all was a slim, dark haired woman.
“Please tell me that after two months of dating, you’ve decided that Max’s charms were entirely overrated?”
Without so much as a flicker of surprise, Jackie looked up the mock she was editing. She grinned. “Hey Christina.”
Christina nodded sharply. “Well?” She waited impatiently for the other woman to speak. A coworker in the graphic arts department, Jackie had recently become something of a good friend to Christina. In fact, Christina had played a rather significant part in her recent love story to a local doctor in the city, Max Thompson. After a traumatic accident on a bus that had sent Jackie to the emergency room, the girl’s had bonded over Jackie’s ensuring infatuation with the doctor who’d saved her life, and all the tumultuous feelings that had come along with it.
Leaning back in her chair, Jackie tapped a finger against her chin contemplatively. “You know, I’m kind of getting used to your particular way of beginning conversations.”
Christina only raised one eyebrow.
Jackie smirked. “You know, without preamble or back-story.”
“One of my many charms, I’m sure,” Christina related, grinning a little herself. Then she straightened. “You still haven’t answered my question.”
“No, I haven’t.” Jackie pursed her lips. “Is this the part where I’m supposed to ask his name?”
Christina growled. “I wouldn’t if I were you.”
“Wipe that grin off your face.”
“No can do, buddy.”
In answer, Jackie held out a bag of candy. “Want some chocolate?”
Begrudgingly, Christina found herself being lured forward, her hand already reaching for the bag of sweets. “Shot of whiskey would be better.”
Jackie gasped. “What would Mr. Gordman say?” she asked mockingly.
Christina bit her lip, her eyes closing painfully on the unintentional words. The candy fell limply down at her sides.
Jackie pulled her chair upright at that look. “Whoa. Hey. What’s going on?”
Christina smiled thinly. “I’ve done something rather stupid, I’m afraid.”
“I doubt that.”
Christina shook her head.
Jackie’s eyes narrowed. “Tell me.” She pushed her work to one side of her desk. “Now.”