Authors: Barbara Valentin
On his way down to the lobby, Nick inspected his zipper. The flowery scent that lingered on his coat collar infiltrated his nose. He closed his eyes, inhaled deeply, and whispered to no one in particular, "What the hell are you doing here?"
* * *
The restrooms at the Gazette with their art deco design, dark marble floors, soft lighting, and private stalls still bore the luxurious touches of the newspaper's golden days. Ducking into one situated down the hall from the elevators, Mattie yanked open a stall door, stepped inside, locked it, and took in several deep breaths. Resting her forehead against the cool chrome, she grasped the coat hook affixed to the door just above her head and whispered, "What the hell are you doing here?"
Beads of sweat moistened her forehead. Her cheeks were flushed, and she felt hives beginning to break out under the wool blend material stretched tightly across her skin. The urge to peel it off and splash herself with cool water was overwhelming.
The calm she longed for was not coming without a fight. The too-close-for-comfort encounter with her former fiancé's body double threatened to stir up a hornet's nest of emotions.
She tried taking several deep breaths but just felt more light-headed than she already was.
"Well, at least no one else saw it happen," she thought to herself. The last thing she needed was another public humiliation.
When her breathing finally returned to normal, she forced the image of Nick from her mind and unlocked the door. After checking to make sure she was alone, she stepped in front of the mirror.
Her hair, which she had spent over an hour that morning trying to smooth, was coiling back into ringlets before her very eyes. After combing through it with her fingers, she dabbed cold water on her face, cleared the mascara from under her eyelashes, and inspected the hole in her dress before tucking the errant thread back into it.
Looking long and hard at her reflection, she announced with as much determination as she could muster, "I am not coming back without a raise."
* * *
For the second time that day, Mattie took the long walk down the hall leading to the office of the
publisher. She knocked as loudly as she dared on his door and from within, heard his voice boom, "Yes?"
Pushing it open, she stepped in, doing her best not to be intimidated by the man or his office. When she noticed his eyes zero in on the hole in her dress, she folded her arms high across her chest and said, "Mr. Crenshaw, I believe we had a meeting," and braced herself for his reply.
Lester bounced up like a spring and nearly sprinted around his desk to greet her. "Mattie, is it? I do apologize. How's the, uh, family?"
He looked at her like a lion eyeing a raw steak.
Holding her left hand mid-air, she gave the ring on her finger a twirl and replied, "I'm not here to talk about my family. I'm here to talk about a raise."
In response, Lester sat on the edge of his desk. "Sure, sure. Listen. I have a new, high profile assignment for you. Your readers are going to love it. If you pull it off, I can promise you a very nice bonus, and I'll see what I can do about syndicating that column of yours."
"What?" Caught off guard, Mattie struggled to take a breath, but was prevented from doing so by the ultra-restrictive spandex undergarments. She dropped into the chair that was closest to Lester's desk.
Settling into its warmth, she relaxed, smiled, and said, "I'm listening."
Mattie was well aware of Lester's power to persuade. As Dianne had warned her, "Think of the best chocolate mousse you've ever had. He's that smooth. No.
Lester didn't disappoint.
He tried complimenting her. "You always had a keen eye for a great story."
If that were true, I wouldn't be here, talking to you now.
He tried commending her. "Think of the example you'll be setting for your readers."
I couldn't care less.
He tried enticing her. "Think of how victorious you'll feel once the new, fit you crosses that finish line."
He kept slinging his pitch until Mattie felt her resolve crumble faster than a warm chocolate chip cookie dunked in cold milk. By the time Lester had finished, she was mesmerized.
Barely aware that the words were coming from her own mouth, she heard herself say, "So all I have to do to get a raise is train for the Chicago Marathon and chronicle my experience?"
Lester nodded, smiling. "All that's standing between you and your dreams is twenty-six point two miles."
Mattie blinked. The spell was broken. "Tell me that's not the tagline for the feature." While he denied it, she could see from his expression that he was seriously considering it. He turned his back to her, looked up, and muttered to the ceiling. "Running down a dream…the long road from buxom to buff…"
Stunned, she cried, "Hey. I'm sitting right here."
Lester turned to face her, looking like a die-hard vegetarian who just got caught scarfing down a cheeseburger. "What?"
Taking a deep breath, Mattie shook her head and said, "You know what? I can see where this is going. Before and after pictures. Publicizing my weight and measurements. Let's turn the fat girl into someone more socially acceptable. I'll pass, thanks."
Standing up, she added, "I need—I
a raise right now. Not ten months from now."
As she turned her back on him, Lester shot out a rapid-fire reply, barely pausing to take a breath. "I don't see why you would pass on this outstanding opportunity. We'll set you up with your very own trainer, a world class running expert, who will work with you every step of the way. Quite literally. Of course, we're going to advertise it all over the city, but think of the exposure. If this takes off—which I'm sure it will—it'll run in all of our affiliates. You'll be famous. Now, I think that family of yours can do without you for a few hours a day, can't they? All you have to do is put yourself in Coach's hands, and he'll make a new woman out of you."
Mattie was flummoxed. "I think I'm fine just the way I am, thank you very much."
At that, Lester stood up and started ushering her to the door. "Think it over. I want to see your first piece by Thursday." He handed her the sheets of paper Nick had left behind and added, "In the meantime, find some place where you can get a quickie physical, and sign this waiver, all right?"
Just as he placed his hand on the doorknob Mattie stopped him and said, "Hang on. What do you mean a couple of hours a day? And who's 'Coach'?"
* * *
Nick stepped out onto the sidewalk and pulled his jacket collar up against the cold wind that was whistling down Michigan Avenue. He stalked toward the train station as fast as he could manage given the swell of commuters following suit. His mind was swimming with a future he couldn't see, a dream that eluded him, and a woman who had a long track record of driving him absolutely crazy.
He was halfway across the bridge spanning the Chicago River when he stopped cold in his tracks, causing other pedestrians to brush by on either side of him, annoyed at the obstacle he had become.
"There's no way," was all he said before turning and jogging back to the Gazette's building.
By the time he made it to the lobby, he had compiled a list of excuses to back out of the deal if it turned out his hunch was correct. Topping the list was "I can't help people who refuse to help themselves."
Next was, "I'd rather get a job bagging groceries."
Last was, "I've been in love with her since the third grade."
By the time he made it to Lester's office, Nick knew that he would talk him out of the first two. The third, he had no intention of sharing.
He lifted his hand to knock on the door, but paused when he heard Lester's voice boom from the other side, "I think that family of yours can do without you for a few hours a day, can't they?"
That family of yours?
A rush of relief washed over Nick. He let his hand fall to his side and was turning to leave when the person in there with Lester replied, "I think I'm fine just the way I am, thank you very much."
A cold chill ran down his spine.
Mattie? Has a family?
Nick took a deep breath and was trying to process what he had just heard when the door yanked open from the other side, and she stood before him for the second time in an hour. But this time, she didn't look defiant and flustered. She looked confused and somewhat defeated.
He had seen that look before. If it weren't for Lester beaming behind her, he would've thought he'd walked through a portal in time that dumped him back into the bridal room at St. Matthias.
His eyes swept over her left hand to confirm what he thought he had overheard. There it was. A wedding ring.
Well, I'll be damned…
Taking a step back to let her pass, he heard Lester exclaim, "Nick. Perfect timing. I just found your victim."
Well over a minute went by before anyone spoke. All they could do was stare. Mattie and Nick at each other and Lester at the two of them. Each bore different expressions that somehow managed to convey the same unspoken thought:
This just keeps getting better.
Lester was the first to break the silence when he burst forth with, "Don't tell me you two know each other."
With no small amount of effort, Mattie pulled her gaze from the same long-lashed hazel eyes that had reeled her in so many times before. Only this time, they were in someone else's body. Someone who didn't think she was good enough to marry his brother.
Why, just the other day, she told the new cashier at the little bakery down the street. The sturdy elderly woman with an eastern European accent sympathized completely.
"He actually zed that to your fiancé? What a
. And on the eve of your vedding? You poor ting." Handing Mattie a freshly-baked Napoleon, she added, "Dis one's on da house, OK?"
It wasn't the first time Mattie had played the jilted bride card to her benefit. Had she known it would be the last time, she likely would've opted for something bigger. Like a whole cheesecake.
Giving her head a quick shake, she glanced at Lester and tilted her face towards Nick before responding. "Don't tell me this is 'Coach.'"
When he grinned and nodded in response, Mattie thought she could actually hear the sound of the cash register that was Lester's brain make a "cha-ching" sound.
"Oh, please. How does he qualify as 'world class'?" She made quotation marks with her fingers as she said it.
Lester passed the buck to Nick. "Sorry to put you on the spot, Coach, but do you mind filling Mattie in on your credentials?"
Nick looked at her, eyes narrowed, with an expression that read, "You know damn well what my credentials are," but he listed them anyway.
"In high school, I broke every record on the books. As team captain, I led my team to the state championships three years in a row. After that, I got a full ride to Oregon State, where I was captain of the men's cross-country and track teams and broke a bunch more records. Before graduating, I tried out for, and got a spot on, the Olympic track and field team—"
Unimpressed, Mattie interrupted, "As an alternate. That hardly counts."
Nick chuckled and shook his head in disbelief. "I've been trained by some of the best coaches in the world. You don't think I can coach a—"
He held his hand out, as he searched for the words to describe her.
Somehow, Mattie knew those words wouldn't be "successful female journalist."
Before he could deliver his description, she arched an eyebrow and whispered, "My fan base is over a half a million strong. Screw with me and you're toast."
Smirking down at her, he replied, "Better start you on a low-carb diet then."
Mattie sneered, "Thanksgiving is next week."
"Is that an invitation?"
Undeterred, Mattie addressed Lester and delivered the best punch to Nick she could without actually making any physical contact. "Since when does the
hire ex-cons? Or is this part of some twisted work-release program?"
Except for a flicker of disappointment that extinguished the glint in his eyes, Nick didn't flinch.
He gave a quick nod to Lester and said, "Catch you tomorrow."
Mattie glanced at the all-powerful publisher. His eyes were closed, but his lips were moving, which only meant one thing—he was seeing headlines, flicking them across the blank front page that was his brain.
She heard him mumble, "From Sedentary to Sensational…"
He looked at her over his reading glasses and then waved her away, saying, "You kids work this out. I have a newspaper to run."
Before she could get away, Nick wrapped his fingers around Mattie's upper arm. Like a blood pressure cuff, he slowly strengthened his squeeze as he closed Lester's door behind them. Just as he was about to cut off the circulation in her arm, he pulled her close and spoke into her ear. "We gotta talk. Now."
Mattie surveyed their surroundings. In front of them was a bright, wide-open office space with lots of prying eyes and cell phone cameras at the ready.
Her eyes fell on the stairwell door through which she planned to escape, alone, when Nick whispered, "Any place we can find some privacy around here?"
Mattie yanked her arm from his firm grasp and turned on him, ready to issue a condemnation so scathing, he'd leave the building and never look back. Damn the assignment, damn the raise, damn her career.
But then she noticed his face.
No longer a mirror image of Eddie, Nick's countenance had become leaner and harder since the wedding-that-wasn't, reflecting a wound she couldn't see and a scar for which she could not take credit. Not entirely.
Suspecting that the arrogant, smug, carefree Olympian she mistook for her fiancé the day before her ill-fated wedding was long gone, she stashed her verbal daggers and softened her tone, just a touch.