Fired. It was such a simple little word, one that had rolled off her boss's tongue with a certain ease. A simple little word that had turned her life upside down and sent her spiraling down a dark shaft of despair. Laurel had never been fired before. She couldn't wrap her brain around the fact that she had been fired. And, oh boy, had she been fired. Her boss had practically kicked her to the curb himself. If she bothered to look she was sure there would be a footprint on her backside.
She clutched the small box of her belongings between clammy fingers. Just a handful of mementos to accumulate on her desk over the past four years she'd been the Senior Designer for Vartan Multimedia. She was leaving nothing behind and taking nothing with her that would be missed.
Staring up at the glass plated building that stretched up to meet the gray skies above, Laurel wondered if she was dreaming. She closed her eyes, hoping that when she opened them she'd find herself at home snuggled in her bed and all the ugliness would fade away. But when she opened them, she was still standing there, just like she knew she would be. Purse slung over her shoulder, a box in her hands, stripped of the last shred of dignity she had left.
A thief, he had called her. A scheming, manipulative thief. She was lucky, he'd said, lucky he didn't call the police and have her arrested. "Arrested for what?" she'd asked. Vartan had shaken his head, disgusted that she would even ask. "Arrested for embezzlement," he'd informed her. Embezzlement? What? Up until this morning that word had been as foreign to her as the Tuscan sunset she would never see.
No one had access to the petty cash drawer but her, he'd said. How could she have stolen from him? After he'd taken a chance on her, given her the break of her career? Was this how she repaid him for taking her under his wing? Laurel shook her head. One minute Vartan was hurling accusations, the next she was being escorted from the building while her co-workers gasped and whispered behind her back.
Even now, with the whirlwind behind her, she still wasn't exactly sure what had happened. She hadn't taken any money. She had told him that, hadn't she? She couldn't really remember. The entire five minutes, the worst five minutes of her life, were no more than a blur. She stared up at the windows, counted five floors up, and wondered if anyone was looking down upon her. She couldn't bear the thought of what those people might be thinking.
Laurel turned away. Overhead the sky grumbled. Dark clouds rolled in, blocking the warmth of the sun and sending a shadow of gray to blanket the city. There would be no sunshine in her life today.
A tear-choked phone call later, Laurel was on her way to their favorite little coffee house just four blocks from the scene of her supposed crime. She'd been more than a bit relieved when Nathan had called, and she'd damn near lost it completely when she heard the sound of his voice.
Laurel pulled out of the parking garage and fat raindrops fell from the clouds above. The sky had darkened to a bitter shade of gray, turning afternoon to dusk long before it's time. She turned out into traffic, her car groaning at the request. It sputtered and jerked, losing momentum. Laurel yanked the wheel, pulling the car to the curb; it gave one last grunt and died.
"Shit," she cursed, resting her forehead on the steering wheel. She was half tempted to wish this was all just a bad dream again, but she knew it wouldn't do any good. She'd still be here, stuck in a broken-down car, rain streaming down the windows, and four blocks left to get to her destination.
Laurel took off her seatbelt, threw open the car door, and stepped out into the rain. Why hadn't she thought to grab an umbrella or, at the very least, a jacket this morning? This was so not her day.
She wound through the city blocks toward the coffee house, the rain plastering her hair to face. By the time she reached the door, she was soaked clean though. She didn't care, all she wanted was to see Nathan. To have him draw her into his arms and tell her everything was going to be okay.
She stepped inside the cafe and the warm, dry air wafted over her, sending a shiver through her body. Her heart warmed despite the chill that plagued her, Nathan was already there. She drank in the carved features of his face. His hair was damp--rain-slicked hair sure looked better on him. His head was tipped downward and he didn't see her come in. He stared at a single red rose as he twisted the stem between his fingers. Laurel let a smile, the first real smile of the day, slip over her lips. They hadn't been together long, but she was growing fond of Nathan.
She crossed the cafe and, at the sound of her footsteps, he looked up. Offering her a weak smile, he motioned to the chair across the table from him. She had hoped for a warm embrace, but there would be plenty of time for that later. She took her seat and glanced at the flower. "Is that for me?"
Nathan nodded and pushed it across the table to her. "What happened to you? You're soaked."
She picked up the rose and lifted it to her nose, giving it a sniff. "My car broke down."
Before she could elaborate, the waitress sidled over, a hefty swing in her full hips. She gave Nathan an appreciative nod that made Laurel's jaw clench. Was she completely invisible today? The waitress turned to Laurel then, her brow wrinkling. Guess not. "Can I get you a towel or something?"
Heat licked at Laurel's cheek. Judging by the waitress's scowl she must have looked as bad as she felt. "No, thank you. I'm fine."
"Well, then what can I get you?"
"Can I get a large vanilla latte, please?"
The waitress nodded, then turned to Nathan. Her brow unwrinkled and a smile tipped her lipstick-lined lips. "And for you, handsome?"
The waitress gave a nod and with one last appreciative look, turned away.
"You're not having anything?" Laurel rested the rose on the table between them.
He shook his head. He toyed with the napkin now just as he had fiddled with the rose. He was fidgety, edgy, which was strange for the cool, confident architect. "Look, Laurel..." His words dropped off, like he wasn't sure what he wanted to say, or perhaps how he wanted to say it.
Something was definitely up. Laurel could feel it down in the pit of her stomach, burning like acid. Judging by the look on his face, this was not going to be good. "What's going on, Nathan?"
He reached across the table, covering her hands with his. "This isn't going to be easy to say, so I'm just going to come out and say it."
Oh God, she thought. He's dying. "You're scaring me, Nathan."
"The firm is expanding and they're opening a new office in L.A."
"They want me to go down there and get it off the ground. They offered me a partnership."
All the nerves within her body lit like a firecracker, sending a wash of relief to douse the acid churning in her stomach. "A partnership, oh, Nathan! You've worked so hard for this. No one deserves it more than you. L.A. I can't believe it. And the timing couldn't be better. I've had the worst morning, you wouldn't even believe it if I told you. I thought my life was over. I didn't know what I was going to do. But L.A., oh, Nathan, that's the perfect place for us to make a new start."
He pulled his hands away, letting them rest in his lap. "There's more."
"More?" She wouldn't have dared to ask for more, what could be more perfect than a new start? A smile bloomed on her lips.
"I'm going alone."
Her smile slipped away. "Alone? I don't understand," she said, shaking her head.
"Look, this is a huge deal for me. I'm going to be working long, hard hours. I won't have time for a social life, much less anything else."
"Alone?" she repeated, hoping she hadn't heard him right the first time.
"Let's not kid ourselves here, Laurel. You know as well I do that this isn't going anywhere. It's been fun and all, but I really need to focus on my career."
She stared at him, trying to digest everything that had transpired in the last few hours. How could she go from being in this really good place in her life with a career ahead of her and decent boyfriend for once, to being fired, soaked to the bone and dumped over coffee? How the hell had that happened? Had she pissed off the powers that be? Had she thrown her karma out of whack? Maybe she should feng shui her loft? Was this really her life?
"Laurel? Say something, please."
She drew in the stunning features of his face, letting her gaze slip over his kissable lips, his perfect nose, and settling on those deep hazel eyes. The waitress had been right to stare, to appreciate. Nathan was handsome but now Laurel knew that beneath the chiseled chest was a heart of ice. Never trust a man prettier than you are, wasn't that what her mother had always told her? She never dreamed there was any truth to it. But here she was, getting her heart handed back to her by the very man her mother had warned her against. Damn, she hated it when her mother was right.
The knife penetrated her heart. It sawed away at the fibers of her heart. She was lightheaded and dizzy, as if her body had been drained of every ounce of blood. She didn't know what to say. She didn't know what to do. She couldn't bear to have him look at her that way, like she was a child who'd just lost her puppy. But Nathan wasn't a puppy and it wasn't like she was going to find a replacement boyfriend in a cardboard box. Free Boyfriend To Good Home. She nearly laughed at the absurd thought.
She pushed herself away from the table, sending the chair tumbling backward as she shot up from it. She stumbled toward the glass door, ramming her shoulder against another customer.
"Hey," he grumbled, touching a hand to his arm.
A lump rose in her throat where her voice should have been and so Laurel said nothing as she broke out onto the rain-sodden street. She turned one way and then another, trying to decide where she belonged. Cars rushed by at dizzying speeds, a blur of color and sound that sickened her. The world spun circles, like it had suddenly let loose of its axis, making her stomach to roll. Lost and dizzy, she stumbled forward again, then doubled over and threw up her breakfast.
A pair of flimsy, bright sandals caught her regurgitated bagel. Laurel blinked, trying to clear her blurred vision, but the whirling only made her stomach gurgle.
Oh hell, she thought as the world drifted away and she slipped into a black void.