Carnival Lights: Chapter Twenty-One
Christina didn’t call Mary back. She tried. She got as far as dialing her number a couple of times but at the last minute, she’d freeze, the phone resting uncalled in her hands. Of course, it wasn’t so easy to avoid Mr. Gordman, but that was different. They were both too professional to allow for a fissure and so, by unspoken mutual consent, the conversation changed, just like that and personal talks dwindled to an absolute minimum. Both pretended not to notice this shift—and not to be hurt by it either.
Mr. Gordman was too much of a gentleman to bring up any mention of Jason. That or he truly didn’t think it was any of his business. Or maybe he was just waiting for her to bring the subject up. Either way, they went on as though nothing had changed. Only, Jason was never brought up in one another’s company. Conspicuously so.
“Mary wanted J…she called my son to ask about that infernal—”
Christina did her best not to flinch when these stumbles happened. Mostly because she desperately wanted to hear his name spoken, because she wanted to yank the work out of Mr. Gordman’s mouth, to savor the sense the sound of it against her ears…. Because she missed him. Christina missed Jason in a way she usually didn’t allow herself to admit; but then, before she got to hear about him, got to talk about him—everyday living off crumbs that had kept her, well, in a weird sort of way, close to him. And she was tired. Because really, what the hell did her feelings for Jason matter anyway? Her relationship with the only two people she’d never wanted to change had, well, it’d changed.
Which is why she supposed driving out of the work parking lot that afternoon, she’d more or less deserved Jackie’s saucy, knowing grin when that girl had spied Christina logging out of her computer almost two hours early, getting ready to leave for the day—
It had been almost three o’clock and Jackie had been on her way to Mr. Gordman’s office to have a small meeting about a new ad campaign when she’d spied Christina reaching for her light spring jacket.
Jackie’s eyebrows had risen just slightly. “Off early today?” It was something of an office joke that Christina was the first to arrive and typically the last to leave.
Looking a little distracted and harried (which was unheard of for the calm, poised Christina DeLuca), she only nodded, reaching inside the bottom drawer for her purse.
“No…” Christina’s fingers dug through the contents of the bag, searching for her keys.
“What?” At the question, Christina frowned. She shot Jackie a look. “No.”
“Jesus Jackie, what is this?”
Jackie grinned, one finger pointing to the side of Christina’s lip. “You’ve got a smudge of lipstick here.”
With an impatient finger, Christina wiped it away, but not before unconsciously turning toward the small mirror she had hanging up on the wall beside her desk, just to double check her appearance.
“Off to see Jason then.” It was a shot in the dark.
Christina’s eyes darted frantically toward Mr. Gordman’s closed door. “Shh!” She hissed.
Jackie gasped, one hand going up to her mouth. “You are!”
Christina rolled her eyes.
Jackie glanced down at her wristwatch. “I mean, it makes sense. School’s almost out for the day….”
“Shut up, will you?” Christina grumbled.
“Finally surrendering, huh?”
“Oh stop it,” Christina insisted, one foot stomping down emphatically beside her. Digging through her purse once more, she produced the roll of ticket tape she’d accidentally stolen from the ball game last weekend. “No. I need to return this. It belongs to the school’s baseball team.” Christina had looked smug for all of five seconds after delivering this but then Jackie started to laugh—soon enough, she was laughing so hard she was bent over double, her hands slapping against her knees.
Christina’s eyes narrowed, that foot now tap-tapping an angry tattoo on the carpet. “Are you finished?”
“Seriously? That’s the most pathetic thing!” Jackie laughed hard over her words. “That. I’ve ever…heard!”
“Oh come on!” Jackie cried, jerking her thumb back over her shoulder, indicating Mr. Gordman’s door. “You think he couldn’t have done that for you?”
Christina hefted up her chin. “It’s not his responsibility. It’s mine.”
Jackie shook her head meaningfully, a wry grin replacing her laughter now. “It’s so telling sometimes, the flimsy excuses people will try to morph into the most logical of reasons.”
“Oh shut up,” Christina grumbled, but she knew she’d lost so instead of denying it, she patted the side of her hair. “How do I look?”
Jackie’s mirth subsided almost instantly. She gave Christina a considering look. Then she smiled. “You look beautiful. You always do.”
And she did. Her blonde hair, with almost white blonde highlights, shone from her expertly styled chignon, and her makeup was flawless in a face of classical lines and large, almond-shaped eyes.
Christina nodded once, sharply. Grabbing her purse, she slung it over the crook of her elbow. “Okay,” she said, her eyes taking in the big clock. “I’d better get going.”
Walking into the school ten minutes later, the commons area flooding with kids exiting their last classes of the day, that the years’ old sort of celebration floating through the air at the final bell, Christina tried to look as though she belonged—her eyes searching through the throng of bodies, her nerves deserting her in this unfamiliar place.
What if she missed him? What if he was already leaving for the parking lot, getting into his car—what if he had kids staying after, waiting to ask him questions about their recent history test…
It was too late to turn back now. Carrying her forward, she walked in the muted lighting of the school’s main office. Smiling brightly, she brought herself up to the middle-aged woman sitting behind the front desk.
“Hello?” The woman asked politely, looking up expectantly as Christina entered.
“Hi,” Christina said, her voice a little breathy. “I’m looking for a Mr. Gordman? Could you tell me where I can find him? That is if he’s not busy right now?”
“Sure. He’s just down that hallway—” she pointed out the door, and down to the right “—fourth door on the right.” She cocked her head a little to one side, her gaze narrowing on Christiana’s unfamiliar face. Probably, she was trying to figure out whose kid she belonged to—or why she needed Mr. Gordman in the first place…
Without giving her the opportunity to air those questions, Christina took a quick step back and with a sharp turn of her heel and a softly worded “thank you”, she scuttled quickly back into the parade of teenagers heading for the outdoors.
Her heartbeat was shaking her so hard Christina found her breath wheezing out her nose as her feet took her down the now mostly deserted hallway. When she reached his room—number 435—Christina took a moment to compose herself, to steady her breathing before she felt her fingers twist over the doorknob.
With her right hand, she knocked on the door while simultaneously pushing it open. “Hello?” She called out softly, but when she popped her head around the door, an empty classroom met her gaze. Taking a quick step inside the room, she tried to get a better vantage point. Thirty or so desks stared back at her, unoccupied, facing a large whiteboard with a projector pushed against one wall. To the back of all of this stood a large teacher’s desk, but Jason was not seated behind it.
Feeling all of the energy ooze out of her body, Christina sighed. “Dammit.”
“Swearing is usually prohibited on school grounds.”
At the sound of Jason’s quietly amused voice coming from behind her, Christina whirled around. There, standing just inside the door to the classroom she’d entered only seconds ago herself, he stood. He was holding a cup of coffee in one hand.
He held it up as though by explanation. “Just got myself a little pick-me-up,” he said easily. “I’ve got papers to grade tonight.”
“Oh.” She wasn’t altogether sure what to do with her face.
He, on the other hand, didn’t seem the least concerned with her appearance. “This is a surprise.”
She narrowed her eyes. “You don’t look surprised.”
“Don’t I?” He asked amusedly. “Then I’m hiding it well.”
His grin lengthened. Leaning up against the door jam, he seemed in no real rush, either. “What can I do for you, Christina?”