>I know you said not to text you, but we need to talk. Meet me for lunch, Packer’s.
Alice frowned. She’d never told Elise, her BFF, not to text her. What was that all about? And then she realized the phone in her hand wasn’t hers; it was Joe’s, her loving husband of twenty-five years.
A ball of ice formed in her chest. Her guts went watery.
The car behind her honked, joined like a flock of irritated geese by several others.
Alice swallowed the peach pit sized ball of alarm in her throat and accelerated through the light. Why would Elise be texting Joe? And why would they need to talk? Talk about what?
Alice was tempted to pull over and go through Joe’s text history and see if there were more messages to her husband from her long-time friend, but traffic was heavy, she was already late and she had a presentation to give at ten o’clock.
That’s what she should be thinking about, the presentation. She ran nervous fingers through her carefully arranged hair. Damn! The engagement ring from her wedding set got caught in a tangle. Driving one-handed, she tugged and tugged but could only manage to free her finger from the ring leaving it stuck in her hair. Crap, crap, crap, carp, crap!
Alice clutched the steering wheel with white-knuckled determination. Focus! This was her chance at a major promotion. She’d been working toward this for three months, since the V-P of marketing announced her plan to retire.
Maybe that’s why Joe was talking to Elise? Maybe he felt like Alice had left him out, not been paying enough attention to him? But he said he understood. He knew how important the promotion was to Alice; he’d said so many times. But did he mean it, or was it a cover for chasing after someone more attentive, more available?
The message revolved around in her head, stealing away her concentration on the upcoming presentation.
Elise and Champ were going through a nasty divorce. Maybe Elise was using Joe as a shoulder to cry on? That kinda made sense. With her all-out effort to get the V-P job, Alice hadn’t been available to Elise at a time when her friend needed her. But Elise had said she understood. “You can’t do anything but listen to me bitch,” Elise had said, when Alice apologized for being so busy. “And I’m trying to save all my rage for that asshole I was married to.” She had laughed bitterly. “Don’t worry about me. You do what you must do. You’re the right person for that job.”
Her husband and her friend were so supportive! And now this? But what was this, or was it anything at all?
Alice wrangled her car through the parking garage and pulled into a space without hitting anything or running over anyone, which was a mercy given how rattled she was. This was not a time to be distracted! Something slid against her cheek and she almost jumped out of her skin before she remembered the ring tangled in her hair. She jammed it into a clump of curls and breathed in a calming breath. She would untangle it when she reached her office.
Winded and anxious – despite using her time on the elevator to regulate her breathing and reach deep for the last shred of calm she could find – Alice stepped into the lobby of Able Analytics with a smile and cheery hello for the receptionist.
“Good morning, Alice,” Sally said, and tipped her head in that bird-like way she had. “Are you okay? You look a bit frazzled.”
Leave it to Sally to see beneath the pasted-on grin.
“I’m fine. Bit nervous about my presentation.”
“Well, you never mind about that! You have the veep job in the bag.” She winked and answered the gentle tinkle that indicated an incoming phone call.
Alice hurried to her office. “Hold my calls, Scott,” she said to her admin as she sailed by. “I want to go over my presentation one more time.”
Scott raised an eloquent eyebrow. “Are you all right? You seem a bit…”
She fished Joe’s phone out of her handbag. “Run this up to Joe. He’s probably going nutso without it. And see if he has mine. I think we accidentally switched this morning.” She was babbling and knew it. Normally Alice didn’t ask Scott to run non-job related errands, but Joe was partner in a venture capital company that occupied a suite of offices on the top floor of the building, so it wasn’t a big deal and wouldn’t take long. She wanted to make sure her husband got his phone. He had to see the message.
Inside her office, she dumped her briefcase and purse in the middle of her desk and pulled a mirror out of a drawer.
Shesh! No wonder everyone asked if she was okay. Her face was flushed. Her hair looked like she’d been tackled by a tornado. There was a definite ‘v’ between her eyebrows that indicated she was mad, worried or thinking. She drew in a breath and relaxed her face. The ‘v’ smoothed out. Light flashed off the diamond ring caught in her hair. She began untangling it hoping she wouldn’t have to resort to scissors.
A plan had been hatching in her head. She wanted Joe to get Elise’s text message. It was the only way for her to find out what he would do. Meet her BFF – Alice stuck her finger in her mouth and made fake gagging noises – and – and what? She didn’t know, but she was for damned sure going to be there!
Right now, she had a hair emergency to resolve and a presentation to make.
Alice was a serious contender for the V-P position because of her ability to focus and perform under pressure. By ten she was ready. At ten forty-five she walked out of the meeting with a lock on her dream job, which gave her plenty of time to get ready to spy on her husband (maybe not for long), and her best friend (gag, gag).
She was in a hurry to leave, but a bit disappointed there were no well-wishers waiting in her office to toast and roast her. Everyone had been so supportive. Where were they now? She shook her head. She needed to leave anyway. The phone on her desk buzzed.
“Hunky husband on line one,” Scott said.
Damn! He would want to know the outcome of the meeting. How thoughtful. Unclenching her teeth, she picked up the phone.
“I hear celebration is in order. Congratulations!”
“Yes, well, it’s a good thing in more ways than one.” Did she sound a bit bitchy? Yeah, probably, but if she found out he was cheating on her…
“Hugs and kisses ‘til this evening. We’ll go out to celebrate!”
Sure, Joe, you bet, depending on what happens at Packer’s!
She told Scott she had an appointment she’d forgotten about and left with her gym bag over her shoulder. In the lobby, she ducked into the public restroom where she changed into workout clothes she kept at the office for those times when she actually went to the gym. Something she hadn’t done in months, so fortunately they didn’t stink. She jammed her hair under a cap and donned a pair of sunglasses. Nobody would give her a second look.
“Have a nice day, Mrs. Foster,” the security attendant said as she scurried by.
Three more people said, “Hi, Alice,” as she emerged from the building, which she managed to pretend she didn’t hear, and another said, “Have a good work out, Alice. See you at the gym!”
So much for nobody giving her a second look.
Her cellphone sang her daughter’s ringtone as she power-walked with her head down. Yes, Scott had made the switch. She had wanted to ask if Joe acted nervous or strange when the switch happened, but that would seem strange, wouldn’t it?
“Hey, beautiful girl!” she said to her daughter.
“Mom? Are you okay? You sound a bit, I don’t know, winded, like you’re running or something.”
“Oh, uh, no, no, I decided to work off my excitement with a walk. I got the job!”
“Amazing! I knew you were a shoo-in. Listen, I was wondering if we could meet for lunch. I know it’s short notice, but I was in the area and wanted to see how things went and maybe celebrate with you.”
Alice bit her lip. “Uh, well,” she stuttered. “I, mmmm, have an appointment, uh. I’m running late. We’ll talk later, okay? Bye.”
A boatload of guilt washed down on her when she broke the connection. She was the absolute worst liar!
She sped up. She had to arrive in time to get seated before noon, hopefully in a strategically located spot, a vantage point from which she could watch the door.
She arrived at eleven forty-five. Packer’s was already busy, not unusual for mid-day in an area surrounded by offices and retail shops.
She took a quick look around to see if she saw Joe or Elise, but there were too many people milling around waiting to be seated, many of them from her office. Several waved.
This wasn’t going to work. What a stupid place to have a secret meeting or to spy on people having a secret meeting.
Right. A very stupid place. If this was an assignation… a rendezvous… a romantic hook up… Aaaargh! Nothing she could think of fit. Her husband with another woman? Her BFF with her husband? It didn’t add up. What was she thinking? Noon on a workday at Packer’s was the least likely place for them to meet privately. The chances of the two being seen together was astronomically high. Then why didn’t they say anything? Why hush hush?
“How many?” the hostess asked, jerking Alice’s attention back to the moment.
“Uh, I, one.”
Alice blinked. “Miller. Sally Miller.”
Shit! What if Sally decided to come for lunch here? Worse, what if Alice didn’t get seated before Joe and Elise showed up? What if she was seated somewhere at the back where she couldn’t see anything?
Alice searched frantically for a place to wait inconspicuously. She sidled over to stand behind a spreading fichus and felt like an idiot. She should leave. Instead she sat on a cushioned bench next to a hyper toddler whose mother looked ready to fall off her seat from exhaustion. Those were the days. Alice thought back when the kids were small. Marissa three, Caleb four and baby Andrea, eight months – Andy Pandy, they called her, waiting to be seated at an Applebee’s. Alice had just wanted to go home and sleep for a week. And then suddenly, they were teenagers and didn’t need her as much. That’s when she got the part time job at Able Analytics in the public relations and marketing department.
The mom and her toddler left to be seated. Alice, head down and trying to avoid making eye contact with anyone she knew, scooted over to make room for a woman wearing spectacular Jimmy Choo’s. Hmmmm. Did they look familiar? The shoes made her ratty trainers look even more grotty. A man sat on the other side, his grey slacks sharply creased, his black brogans polished to a high shine. This was not possible. Not friggin’ possible!
She bit her lip and ducked her head lower.
“Alice Foster, party of thirty-six,” the hostess said.
The familiar scent of citrus and the unique smell of her man assailed Alice’s nostrils as Joe whispered in her ear, “Gotha!”
The tinkling laugh that was signature Elise washed over her from the Jimmy Choo’s – or at least the woman wearing them.
“We decided the only way to surprise you was to get you here under false pretenses. I knew you couldn’t ignore the possibility handsome here was seeing me behind your back.” She giggled and winked. Alice wanted to slug her. Instead, she embraced them and cried, grateful they had gone to such lengths to make her day even better. Now that she was looking up and not down, she saw all three of her children, her co-workers, people from Joe’s office, her parents, Joe’s parents and several friends. If the hostess was right, thirty-six people all gathered to celebrate her promotion.
She’d known all along that the very idea of Joe and Elise together was ridiculous. Wasn’t it? Alice slipped a possessive arm around Joe’s neck and gave him a thorough kiss, which – after a few seconds of surprise – he returned enthusiastically.
“Eeew!”Marissa said. “Save it for later!”
With that they filed into Packer’s events’ room to the sound of popping corks, laughter and Cyndi Lauper belting out Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.
Image: Tracy LeBlanc on Pexels.com