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VERONICA LARSEN

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ALL YOUR BROKEN PIECES!

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1

Alexis

     This is my moment to prove the past is in the past. To prove I’ve moved on with my life and haven’t bothered to look back. 

     I convinced myself I didn’t care he moved on so soon. I went this long without wondering about her or what she looks like, but alone in my office, with the silence pressing in around me, my resolve isn’t as strong. 

     A picture of them finds its way onto my laptop screen. My eyes trace over the details of the image with razor-sharp scrutiny. I forgot how handsome he is. His exotic features lay against lightly-tanned skin, perfect eyebrows frame brown eyes. The woman resembles me at first glance. Golden-brown hair, green eyes and a pointed nose. Except, her teeth are sort of large for her smile and her chin juts out in an asymmetrical way.

     I should be happy for him. I want to be happy for him. But, I’m not. I can’t bring myself to be. I can’t seem to pull the maturity it takes to even pretend.

     I manage to tear my eyes from their faces to look down at the invitation in my hand. White and teal lace is etched around the corners of the white cardstock. In the center, royal-blue lettering curves into nearly illegible cursive.

Mr. & Mrs. Williams

Request the honor of your presence

at 

The marriage of their son

Jeremy Williams

To

Sophia Bell

     I can’t help it. I look back to the picture and stare at it for way longer than I want to admit. As though the answers to all the questions I can’t bring myself to ask are between the pixels.

     The more I contemplate it, the more I notice something strained about the way the lovely couple looks at each other. They are mid-laughter, her hand slapping his arm playfully, but something about their chemistry is missing. It’s as though the photographer repeatedly ordered them to laugh in pretend joy. For the Williams family, capturing a real moment isn’t as important as faking the perfect one. Sophia will need all the practice she can get in the art of faking it. 

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     The silence beyond my office door hints that everyone’s already gone home. My eyes are starting to ache from a long day, and I know I should close my laptop and leave. 

But my sights lower to the invitation again. 

     This time, a familiar burn of resentment surfaces. I didn’t mean to spiral into this pathetic rabbit hole of tortured nostalgia. When my ex-mother-in-law addressed the invitation to my office, she knew I wouldn’t be able to miss it. And even though I tried to banish it to the depths of one of my desk drawers, the invitation seemed to possess a life of its own when it resurfaced today, finding its way into my hands again.

     A question has gnawed away at me for months.

     Why? Why would Dolores invite me in the first place? 

     I’ve always known her to care about one thing above all else: appearances. Her son may have failed at his first marriage, but she is intent on making it appear the most successful misstep in history.

     I never intended to respond to the invitation. But today, a part of me wishes I had. Even beyond the grave of my marriage, Dolores tries to manipulate my emotions. Always trying to have the last word.

     Not that it matters now, anyway. The wedding is tomorrow, and soon I won’t have to hear from this family ever again. 

     I snap my laptop closed and yank open my bottom desk drawer. A bottle of amber liquid glints in the florescent light. It was a gift from one of my clients last year. I don’t drink whiskey, but now seems a good a time as any to start.

     I twist open the cap and bring the bottle to my lips. I swallow and cough.

     What is the allure of this poison? All it does is burn.

     The thought makes me take a larger swig.

     Jeremy dazzled me with charm and promises, and let me think I was in control, until the day we said our vows. I never expected what would happen next. I was outnumbered. He and Dolores were a mother-son team, conspiring behind my back, trying to pressure me to set aside my silly ambitions for the greater good of the marriage.

     It wasn’t that I didn’t want children. Back then I did. It just wasn’t the right time. Starting a company from the ground up sucked up all my time and resources. The feat was made even harder since I didn’t have Jeremy’s support. He fought me every step of the way. He threatened to leave me, even when I promised him I’d be ready for children once things slowed down.   

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     I’d always wanted a family. It was something I looked forward to. I was going to have it all: the career, the family life. But it wasn’t the promise of children he wanted. It was the promise of my submission to him, my absolute yielding to his idea of a wife, of a woman and her inferior place in the world. 

     He tried to break me, and in many ways, he did.

     But he never really knew me if he thought he could stop me. As far as Jeremy was concerned, my ambitions made him out to be half a man, when really, it was all the man he could ever be.      He was gone before my company could get off the ground. It took me some time before I would realize what a blessing this was.

     I take another swig of whiskey and cough yet again.

     In the silence, I whisper goodbye to a life that seems to still have its hooks attached to me. And in the wake of my whisper, another sound reaches me.

     A man’s voice, somewhere in the distance. 

     I straighten, realizing I’m not alone. A glance at the clock on my wall confirms it’s a few minutes past six o’clock. The last Friday of the month is usually a half day for my staff. Certainly,      I wouldn’t have risked downing whiskey straight from the bottle at my desk had I known someone was still in the office. The last thing I need is for my employees to start thinking I’m an alcoholic.

     I wipe my lips, store the bottle away, and head out into the hall.

     The office is a graveyard of empty halls and abandoned chairs. The still air is disrupted once again by the low grumbles of a man’s voice. I follow the sound to the break room and stop at the doorway. 

     There’s a man standing in front of the new espresso machine. A tall, light-haired man dressed in a white button-down shirt and grey slacks. Both of which fit him impeccably.

     Leo Conrad.

     Our new Director of Engineering was a coveted addition to our team. But he and I haven’t had many opportunities to speak one-on-one. Most of the interactions I’ve had with him have been in team meetings.

     He seems sharp. Quick to point out flaws in our planning, which annoys some of the other directors, but it impresses me and that’s what’s important. This is exactly why a fresh pair of eyes stirs up a company. He brings perspective we desperately need.

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     Right now, he looks lost for the first time since he started. He bangs on the side of the machine with an open palm. 

     “Come on. You piece of shit,” he mutters.

     He’s slapping it into submission.

     It must be the whiskey, but my face grows warm. My eyes sweep over the back of his body, the way I’d never dare to do if he were watching. 

     He’s fit, with a physique that can’t hide under layers of clothes.

     Watching Leo in an unscripted moment of frustration is amusing to me. I’ve considered him over the past few weeks and found him hard to read. Reserved, but not quiet. Polite, but short of friendly. And though he’s confident and sometimes abrasive in the way he states his opinions, he doesn’t strike me as egotistical. 

     I can’t decide if I like him or not, but I guess an opinion would be premature at this point.     Especially when he’s strong-arming an inanimate object. 

     I forget who talked me into buying the espresso machine, but we did get a good deal on it. The fact it has a built-in coffee grinder and can froth milk for my lattes was enough to warrant its purchase in my eyes. Once we installed it, we quickly realized the machine is a huge pain in the ass. Turns out, no one was in the mood for a learning curve to get a cup of coffee in the morning.      Luckily, my office staff is smart—a quarter of them are engineers. They figured it out fairly quickly. But every time a new person comes in, watching them struggle to make a cup of coffee is almost an office joke. 

     I take a step inside and the floor creaks beneath me. Leo stops and looks back, his blue-gray eyes narrowing as he notices me for the first time. 

     “How long have you been standing there?”

     I hesitate for a moment because I’m not sure I want to admit the answer.

     “Long enough to witness you harass the machine. And call it a piece of shit.”

     I’m sure my tone is matter-of-fact, but the corners of his lips twitch.

     “Heard that part, huh?”

     “I did. That piece of shit cost an arm and a leg.”

     “My apologies.” There’s no embarrassment in his tone, only amusement. 

     He puts up his hands in surrender, but despite his gesture, there is nothing yielding about him. His gaze is tenacious in a way that makes me feel alert. 

     I can’t deny he’s attractive. His smoky-blue eyes lower my guard a notch, tricking my subconscious into remembering him as someone I used to know, a long time ago. 

     He goes on, “I know what that must’ve looked like—I assure you, I don’t typically hit things when I’m frustrated. Only coffee machines. And sometimes computers.”

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     I smile because I can’t help it, and because the warmth of the whiskey is still licking away at my stomach. I have to remind myself to keep my tone professional, which is strange for me. I typically don’t need reminding.

     “Noted,” I say. “Do you need help?”

     “No, thanks, I almost have it.”

     In the second or two he considers me before turning around again, his eyes glint with words he must decide at the last minute not to speak. I walk farther into the room as he figures out how to navigate the various options of the machine.

     I’m watching him keenly again, which is easy to do when he’s right in front of me looking the way he does. His dark-blond hair is cut under his ears and lays in a natural pattern atop his head.      He’s a masculine sort of handsome, not a pretty boy by any stretch of the imagination. No. Leo is all rugged good looks and, if I’m honest, pure sex appeal. 

     “Planning for a late night of work?” I ask.

     “I’d honestly prefer to come in tomorrow, but I’ve got a commitment.” He glances back at me.      “Are you here for a coffee as well?”

     I blink, then recover by reaching into a cabinet for a cup. 

     “Yes, I’ve got a few more things to wrap up tonight,” I lie.

     He reaches out his hand toward me before he looks back around. I feel myself tense up, unsure of what he is trying to touch. His eyes meet mine and seem to catch my reaction.

     “Let me have your cup,” he says.

     Of course. The machine can brew two cups at once. I hand it to him and our fingers brush.

     Jesus, I’m enjoying this more than I should.

     The machine makes a beeping sound, churns to life and starts brewing. Leo turns to survey me again, leaning back against the countertop, his hands in his pockets. I suddenly feel a spotlight on me. I wait for him to speak, but he doesn’t. Not for a second, maybe even ten. All I know is, he’s looking at me and I’m resisting the urge to shift my footing.

     A long time ago, I learned to use lulls to disarm people. Silence feels unnatural and compels people to blurt things out just to break it, revealing things by accident. I rarely even notice when      I’m doing this. It’s become an automatic part of my interactions with strangers. I notice with Leo. Because with Leo, I’m the one squirming on the inside.

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     Finally, he says, “Can I ask you a serious question?”

     I clear my throat. “Sure.”

     “Why is the coffee machine this complicated? Is it a ploy to ration the coffee around here?”

     My lips threaten to curve upward. “The rationing of coffee will never happen, I promise.”

     “Ah,” he says with a small smile, “our leader is as merciful as she is beautiful.”

     My lips part a few seconds before I’m ready to speak again. Was that an innocent compliment or is he flirting with me? He sounds so comfortable saying it that it makes me feel ridiculous for reading too much into it.

     That’s twice now he’s made me nervous. 

     Apart from his small smile, his demeanor remains professionally detached, with no indication he is consciously coming on to me. I tell myself perhaps this is how he interacts with women. A man who looks the way he does must be accustomed to female attention, must make a habit of unconsciously casting out sex appeal like a lure, just to see what bites. 

     I’d like to think I’m the one who makes people nervous, men in particular. Men are easy. Or, at least, they’ve always been before. I’m not sure I enjoy it when the tables are turned. 

     I glance back at the doorway. My subconscious is willing for someone to walk through it so I don’t have to be alone with Leo anymore. But I know no one is coming. It’s possible we are the last two left in the office.

     “Who’s getting married?” He asks.

     The randomness of his question rattles me. Then I follow his gaze to what I’m still clutching in my left hand. The invitation. Have I been holding it this whole time?  I swallow and resist the urge to crumble it up, revealing my disdain to this stranger.

     He notices something in my reaction because he saves me from responding.

     “That’s the one downside to living in San Diego,” he says. “It’s wedding season year-round. I’ve got one myself, tomorrow.”

     Coincidence? I try to think of a way to pull more details from him, but he turns toward the freshly brewed cups. 

     “I hate weddings,” he goes on, handing me my cup. This time, our fingers don’t graze, yet I sense the absence of his touch as distinctly as I felt the presence of it. 

     “Why is this one special?”

     “It’s not. I’m attending on behalf of my father. The Bells are business partners of his. It seemed important to them that someone in our family witness their propensity for extravagance.”

     “Did you say Bells?” The name slips from my lips in surprise.

     Leo nods, “Do you know them?”

Mr. & Mrs. Williams

Request the honor of your presence

at

The marriage of their son

Jeremy Williams

To

Sophia Bell

     Could it really be the same wedding? 

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     “The same sounds familiar,” I say.

     I clutch the invitation tighter, but if Leo notices, he pretends he doesn’t. 

     We stand side by side as we flavor our coffees on the counter. He adds sugar but no creamer to his, I add creamer but no sugar to mine. We share a fleeting look, but neither one of us speaks. The silence between Leo and I crackles with a tension I can’t describe, and I like it in ways I don’t want to admit. Instead of walking away when I finish preparing my coffee, I stand next to Leo and start drinking it. He does the same. I stare back at him even as he studies my expression. He is trying to read something under the layers of it. He is unapologetically intrusive, but I refuse to cast my eyes away. Not again.

     “You don’t talk much, do you?” he asks.

     His tone is unassuming. I can hardly hear the insinuation that I’m standoffish. It’s not that I wouldn’t rather be personable, or even charismatic. That would be ideal, of course. Those things just don’t come naturally to me, not until I’ve known someone for a while. I can turn on my people skills when it comes to business, but whenever I find myself in a casual setting with a stranger, I struggle to keep the conversation going. An anxiety comes over me that I’ll reveal something I don’t mean to. The less I speak, the more confident I feel.

     “I’m not big on small talk.” 

     He lets out an exaggerated sigh that seems to be part of an internal joke. “I thought I’d get a chance to know the boss. The elusive Alexis Stone.”

     “I go by Lex,” I say without a moment’s pause. Though for the first time in quite a long time, I like the sound of my full name. It may be his voice, somehow gravely and smooth at the same time.

     “What's wrong with ‘Alexis’? You don’t like the name your parents gave you?”

     “I don’t like it for exactly that reason.”

     I'm glad he doesn’t seem to catch the meaning behind my words. Instead, his expression teeters between polite interest and bemusement. He doesn’t seem fazed in the least by the silence following our speech. Anyone else would be twitching in discomfort and itching to return the conversation to a comfortable zone. But not Leo, not this blue-eyed specimen of a man. 

     God, why am I silently counting down the time it’s been since I last felt a man’s body pressed to mine? 

     Stop it.

     It’s been a while. A long while. 

     He pours out the rest of his coffee in the sink and I cringe inside, seeing my favorite substance circling the drain. I look down and notice my own cup is all but empty. How long have I been standing here, avoiding his questions but basking in his intense gaze?

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     He reaches for my cup and asks, “May I?”

     “Yes, thank you.” 

     He takes it from my hand and places it in the sink with his.

     “Well, Alexis.” He pauses, waiting for my objection. The fact he insists on using my full name isn’t lost on me, but I don’t take the bait of bringing attention to it. He tilts his head forward, and with a quick clearing of his throat he adds, “Nice chat.” 

     I don’t miss the sarcasm. I know I’m not the easiest person to make small talk with. 

     He begins to walk forward and I, anticipating he is going to move to the right, go left. We almost collide. I have to put my hands up in front of me to prevent his chest from pressing into mine. 

     “Whoa there,” I say.

     In the fraction of a second my palms feel his chest, I make contact with firm muscles through his shirt.

     We lock eyes again. He’s close enough for me to smell his cologne. It’s a subtle smell, but sophisticated and masculine. Notes of leather and the faintest traces of spearmint trickle through my nostrils. The scent caresses my senses and stirs the impulse to envelop myself in it. On him.

     “Sorry about that,” he says respectfully as he looks down at me. His tone is detached, but he makes no effort to pull away. In those short seconds, I don’t want him to. I nearly blush again.

     This is ridiculous. I can’t remember the last time I wanted to intimidate someone. A familiar competitiveness roars to life within me. I don’t like to feel like someone has something over me.      Even if that something is the mere effect of their presence. I want—no, I need—to get a reaction from him. Any reaction. Simply because I do. 

     I have barely a second to react, but a second is all I need. Leo is a man and if I know one thing about men, they are fickle and predictable.

     We separate and, as I walk past him, I lean into him and whisper, “Don’t be sorry.”

     My voice is smooth and suggestive.

     When I reach the door, I turn back to see him rooted to the spot. “Goodnight, Leo.” 

     I walk away, feeling a delightful rush of energy run down my core. Seeing him finally react to me in a tangible way makes me feel like I’ve won. Won what? I don’t know, but it hardly matters. 

     I’m not one to believe in signs, but the possibility of Leo going to the wedding tomorrow feels like a dare. A tug at the center of my belly, urging me to do something I never thought I’d do. 

     I’m going to crash my ex-husband’s wedding.

     The resentment I felt earlier is now replaced with an electrifying sense of mischief. I realize I do like Leo. I want to do things to him I shouldn’t even allow myself to consider. I can’t remember the last time a man’s presence stirred me this way. 

     My excitement seems to coil down and turn into an ache, and my imagination runs wild. 

     I tell myself that’s okay.

     The scenarios I entertain in my own head are none of his business.

-End of preview-

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