Excerpt: More Than a Job
Paige stumbled across the office complex parking lot toward her car, shaking as reality hit her. She blinked at the tears blurring her vision and attempted to straighten her spine, to keep her head up, but her body was stiff, wooden, clumsy. She clutched the box of remnants from her office, representing ten years of her professional life. Could she make it to her car before she fell apart completely? Why had she parked so far from the door?
For the exercise. She was such a fool.
A car horn blared in the silence, close by, startling her. Her heart raced as she turned toward the sound, and turned an ankle in the process. She went down on her knees and the box slid out of her arms and across the pavement, scattering her destroyed career over ten square feet of asphalt.
I am unemployed. She couldn’t catch her breath. The job she’d poured herself into for the last ten years was over. She fought back sobs by gulping air. I have to get up. Have to get out of here.
“Are you okay?” A deep baritone penetrated her foggy brain. Shiny dress cowboy boots appeared almost within reach of her left hand. Paige pushed up with both hands and leaned back on her heels. She glanced up briefly, then reached for her fallen sunglasses and shoved them back into place, hoping they would hide some of the tears running down her cheeks. Her knees and her palms stung from contact with the rough pavement.
A man towered above her, backlit so she couldn’t see his face, only his long, lean silhouette and the hand he had extended to her. “Can you stand? Let me help you.”
A witness to her embarrassing downfall. Shaking her head, unable to speak, she gathered the items she could reach. A few books. A desk clock. The picture of her parents, the last one taken before her mother died. She turned it as she pulled it closer. The glass was broken. That indignity was the final straw, and she let everything slip from her trembling hands as she sobbed in earnest.
The man dropped to one knee beside her, suit and all. He hesitated a brief moment, then brought his long, lean, tanned face close to hers, placed a hand gently against one of her cheeks and nudged her so she looked up.
This time, she could see his eyes. They were compassionate, dark with concern. He said gently, “Are you injured?”
She shook her head, but could not find her voice.
“Good.” He sounded relieved. “I was worried. Listen, just sit here a minute. Let me pick up your things. It’s the least I can do.”
She didn’t have the strength to argue and watched numbly as he righted the box and organized the items inside it. He moved around her, leaning, reaching, pulling together the scattered pieces, then set the box on the back of a red convertible angled across the drive. Its driver’s side door gaped open, left that way when he’d rushed to her aid. A gentle ding, ding, ding warned that the keys were still in the ignition. To stave off her distress, she fixated on his boots. Finely tooled leather cowboy boots. Then he was at her side again, crouching beside her.
“Ready to stand?” he asked.
Paige looked up into his warm brown eyes and lost herself in them for just an instant. She found it calming not to have to think, not to have to handle this moment alone.
“I think so.” She reached for his extended hand and let his warmth surround her as he grasped it firmly and pulled her to her feet. She wobbled just a little, found her balance again. Her ankle was only a little sore. She could bear her own weight
The stranger tucked her arm into his. “May I walk you to your car?”
She managed a smile. This would be a romantic meeting if she weren’t so sad. She stared down at her torn tights, runs feathering out in all directions from her skinned knees, and winced. She nodded her permission and gestured six spaces down. “It’s the silver two-door.”
He placed his other hand over hers where it rested on his arm. “You’re gonna be okay, you know.”
She didn’t know how. Despair washed over her again, and she stumbled against him.
He stopped, steadied her, and put his arm around her. “It’s okay.”
Somehow she found that leaning into his strength made things at least a little bit okay. She was aware, under her misery, of his height and the long, hard muscles under her hand. Had he gotten all those muscles from time spent in the gym or from working hard? Or both?
He cleared his throat. “I didn’t cause you to fall, did I?”
What did he mean? She looked up to see if his expression gave her a clue.
“If I’d hit the brakes instead of my horn, you might not have taken that spill.”
“You are not at fault, really.” She smiled a little smile. Maybe he was being so nice because he was afraid she’d sue him. “I wasn’t watching where I was going. I had too much on my mind. And my ankle twisted out from under me before I knew what happened.”
They had reached her car door. She unclipped her keys from her belt, and found the weight of them in her hand odd. Where she had carried a dozen keys — for her office, group homes, med cabinets, and fire alarm systems representing her job responsibilities — now she had only two. Her car key and her apartment key seemed very lonely on the large hook.
“You go ahead and sit, and I’ll bring your box.”
She kept her eyes on his back as he moved away and shivered in the autumn air, aware of the loss of his body heat. She popped open her trunk and waited for him, still standing, reluctant to drive away.
He placed the box into the trunk and turned, taking both her hands in his and examining her palms.
“You need a little first aid. I see you’re prepared.” His words were ironic, really. Would she have carried a first aid kit in her trunk if her job hadn’t required it? He nodded toward the mounted white box. “May I?”
“Thank you, yes.” Usually she would have said no. She didn’t like needing help and tended to push away such offers. She could take care of herself. But she didn’t want him to go just yet. His hands were warm and felt good holding hers.
He guided her to the driver’s seat where she sat sideways, feet on the pavement, while he got the first aid kit, then knelt to clean and dress the scrapes on her hands. He dabbed at her knees with the wipes, too, but appeared baffled by how to work around her torn hosiery.
“Here, let me. They’re ruined anyway.” She tore the fabric open at each knee, giving him full access to her wounds. He rested a palm on the side of one knee to steady his hand as he cleaned away the gravel. The gentleness of his fingers against her legs was very professional. So why did she sense a shiver of eroticism underneath his almost medical touch?
“You’re good at this.” she said, once the gauze pads were firmly in place, the bandages neat and tight.
He gave her a little smile. “I’ve bandaged a few scrapes in my time.” He looked up, catching her in the rich chocolate of his eyes. “Never for so beautiful a patient, though. Now, which ankle is bothering you? Let me give it a look.”
Paige extended her left foot. “This one, although it’s better. I twisted it when I went down, but it’s not too sore. I don’t think it’s sprained.”
The man felt her ankle, probing a little. “No pain? I can wrap it for you if you want.”
“No, I don’t think it’s necessary. It’s nothing a little rest won’t fix. I’m okay, really.”
He nodded, snapped the first aid kit closed, and returned it to its rack, pushing down on the trunk lid to latch it, then wiping his hands with another wipe. He collected the trash, and she held out her hands for it. “There you go.”
“Thank you.” Such inadequate words. Without his gentle insistence, she might still be sobbing on the asphalt. She stuffed the trash into the bag by the seat and turned to look at him. “You’ve been so kind to me, and I don’t even know your name.” She extended a bandaged hand in greeting. “I’m Paige.”
“Joshua.” He grasped her hand gently in a handshake, then covered their joined hands with his other hand. “You gonna be all right, Paige?”
Drat it all. Sympathy undid her every time. She sucked in a quick breath, bit her lip, fought back her tears, and nodded. She sniffed, horrified her nose was running, and worse, turning red as tears gathered in her eyes. Time to get out of here. “I’ll be fine. Thanks for helping.”
“My pleasure. I hope we’ll meet again another day.”
Before she could question herself, before she could berate herself as a fool under stress, Paige gave in to an impulse. She leaned toward him where he bent over her, fished the pen from the breast pocket of his Western suit, and turned his hand palm up. She scribbled her cell phone number on the smooth brown surface, right along his long life line.
“If you mean it, call me in a week or two.” She loved the way his eyes widened, then crinkled in a smile. “Maybe I’ll be having a better day.”
“Count on it.”