Ignoring this blatant form of teasing, Christina pressed her finger down on the intercom button so hard her nail almost split with the pressure. She was so unsettled that she hardly even noticed.
“Mr. Gordman,” she called out. “Your son’s here to see…” she wasn’t even given the chance to finish her sentence before Mr. Gordman’s door was opening, the man himself scuttling quickly out of it. His jacket was still slung over the crook of his arm.
“Jason!” He cried, stepping forward to pat his son rather too brusquely on the back of his shoulders.
“Ready for lunch?” Jason asked, flicking a look down at the watch on his wrist. He glanced over at Christina then, who, for her part, was trying to look both desperately busy with the single sheet of paper on her desk and totally disinterested with the display before her. “Hungry, Chrissy?”
Startled by the question, Christina didn’t have time to school her features. Abandoning the paper in her hands (for really it was a lost cause—no one believed her anyway), Christina’s eyes flew up to catch Jason’s gaze. But before she could so much as form a thought much less a word, Mr. Gordman was speaking.
“Come on Jason,” he said impatiently as he shucked on his jacket. “Let’s get going. I’ve got a meeting at two o’clock.” Without bothering to glance at Christina, Mr. Gordman ushered his son out into the bullpen—just as though Jason hadn’t offered the invite, just as though Christina hadn’t clearly heard it…
Blinking, Christina could do nothing more than watch, mutely as they made for the building’s entrance. She tried to swallow normally, her cold hands shaking almost uncontrollably on the top of her desk. Her tongue felt thick in her mouth, and her breathing was coming too fast, almost choking her. Humiliation, in all its myriad fathoms, flashed over her person. She could feel her cheeks heating up under the reality of having been not-so-subtly snubbed. And by Matthew of all people.
“Shit,” she whispered hoarsely to herself, turning forcibly back to her computer screen. The spreadsheet she’d pulled up on the screen earlier blurred before her eyes now. Rows upon rows upon columns of financial projections swarmed nonsensically…. There went her hope that Mr. Gordman hadn’t noticed anything amiss between her and Jason.
There went her hope that nothing would change.
There went everything.
“Shit,” she whispered again, for no other reason that the sound of her voice, no matter how small and fragile, filled the looming ache rising up her throat.
The imprint of Mr. Gordman’s slighting hung like a heavy cloak over her shoulders. He’d never done that before. Ignored her. Left her out. Treated her as though…treated her as though she were merely his secretary.
For the second time in as many minutes she felt an almost crushing wish to see her mother once more, to talk to her, call her up on the phone. Just to hear her voice. Staring harder at the computer screen, her eyes tried to conjure that woman’s face, transposing the image over the data on display there.
Dark blonde curls hanging just past her shoulders, paper-thin lines crinkling out from the edges of her eyes, most noticeable on Sunday mornings when she used a little too much ivory-tinted powder, complete with the most startling green eyes, Natalie DeLuca was, had always been, a stunner. A tall woman, she’d never known weight problems, and hadn’t ever suffered fools of this epidemic lightly, nor had she ever truly faced the anguish of high-heeled shoes. A homemaker, she’d always been there when Christina got home from school as a child—and always, always with a batch of hot cookies just out of the oven.
Though, if cookies and an apron slung over her hips sounded homey and sentimental, that was as close to that image as Natalie DeLuca got. She was a tough women. Born on a farm with more brothers and sisters than there was food on the table, she’d learned how to fight. That’s pretty much how she’d caught hold of Mitch DeLuca—pure determination to never live that kind of life again. And lawyer’s wives, after all, didn’t have to worry about something as frivolous as a grocery bill. Yet, if you were lucky enough to be loved by her—Christina sniffed, the corner of her hand coming up to wipe at her nose discreetly, well, then you knew how comforting that fierce protectiveness was. How safe.
Almost without knowing it, Christina found her lips jerking up a little at the sides. If her mother could see her now, moping over a man! “Lift that chin up when you talk about yourself,” Christina could almost hear her saying now in that smoker’s rasp she’d acquired over the years. “No man will make my baby feel less of herself. Especially when you’ve done nothing wrong.”
Of course, that would rather be the tricky point, wouldn’t it? Proving to her mother that, indeed, Christina hadn’t provoked this undue attention on herself. That she hadn’t chased after Jason in the first place.
No. Natalie wouldn’t believe Christina.
After all, she’d been fooled by her daughter once before.
Shuttering, Christina could still hear her mother’s voice screaming from that long ago day, her face almost puce with rage when she’d found out. Flinching, Christina tried to block the memory, but it shouted between her ears:
“…what the hell were you thinking?” Shaking, Natalie’s eyes had snapped fire. “You’re, you’re, oh God you’re exactly what women are terrified of. We’re terrified of girls like you—teasing men when they have no right to it!”
Disgust had radiated off the pucker of her mother’s lips, her hands, clenched into fists, shaking with rage and the purest form of disgust. Christina could still feel the curved design of the door pressing against her back as she’d slunk back away from her mother’s wrath.
“…I raised you better than that,” she spat, her lips grimacing as they took in the shrinking form of her daughter. “I know I did. I know it! I sure didn’t raise this,” she insisted, her hand flicking over Christina’s shaking person.
For her worth, Christina had tried to explain. “Mama, please—”
With a flush, Christina could almost still feel the crack of her mother’s hand as it slapped across her cheek, the sting of the air as it pressed up against her raw flesh.
“Get the hell out.” Natalie’s voice was strangely even. “Get out. I don’t ever want to see you again—!”
Pressing her lips close together, Christina could just about rememb…
“Hey, Christina are you okay?”
Jerking up at the question, Christina half turned to see Ashley Brightly, the office intern, standing beside her desk, a deep frown etched on her overly-tanned face. A couple of pieces of paper were clutched tightly in her left hand, but then Ashley seemed to have forgotten them in her anxious scrutiny of Christina’s face.
For the first time, Christina felt the wet trail of tears on her cheeks. Brushing them back with the cuff of her shirt, she sniffed. “Yes. No.” With a sudden, desperate shake of her head, Christina rolled her chair back. “No. I’m not.”
Ashley’s eyes widened.
Christina hardly noticed. She only knew she had to get the hell out of there. Now. Before she made an even bigger as out of herself. Gaining her feet abruptly, she tried to smile at Ashley. The result was an ugly twitch of her mouth and eyes that couldn’t quite meet the intern’s face.
“I have to leave,” she insisted, grabbing her coat off the back of her chair. “Please tell Mr. Gordman…” she paused, shrugging into her coat. Honestly, she didn’t care what Ashley told Mr. Gordman. “Tell him I’m not feeling well.”
“Yeah. Of course,” Ashley assured her, her head nodding along to this nonsense all too eagerly.
“I’ll be back in tomorrow,” Christina said, her eyes flicking nervously over her desk.
“Sure…” but Ashley may as well have saved her breath. Christina was already gone, her steps, a little uncoordinated in her rush, taking her tersely through the bullpen and out the front door.