In the grand scheme of things, going out with Stella was probably a bad fucking idea.
I had been best friends with Stella Armco since freshman year’s first frat party, where we did six vodka shots in a row and subsequently threw up in the small dorm bathroom together for the rest of the night. Stella liked to joke that nothing bonded two gays together more than alcohol poisoning; I liked to ignore that she knew I was gay from the classy French tuck of my t-shirt that night.
It should have been a clue, then, that when Stella called me at six o’clock on a Sunday night for a quick catch-up session before she caught her plane to London in the morning, that we wouldn’t actually be having a nice, relaxing Sunday hangout.
Instead, true to color, we had drunk all of the liquor in Sunny’s Tavern, an incredibly hipster gin bar in downtown Seattle, complained about our terrible love lives, and then dragged our asses back to my apartment at four in the morning.
It was creeping on seven-thirty now. Fuck. I was going to be late for work.
Despite this, it took about ten more minutes of groaning into my pillow before I could even attempt to drag my sorry ass out of bed. I stumbled into the bathroom, the harsh bright light overhead making me wince.
I was halfway done with brushing my teeth when I glanced up at the mirror. A bright pink sticky note was stuck to my forehead. I frowned at my reflection, letting the toothbrush dangle from my mouth as I pulled the note off.
Stella’s lopsided handwriting was as recognizable as her signature move of posting notes wherever she wanted. Hell of a night, Half-Pint. Got a plane to catch. See you in a few weeks. Love you! -S.
I rolled my eyes and went to crinkle the note before the sappy part of my hungover brain had me sticking it to the mirror instead.
Getting ready for the day took another fifteen minutes, but even that extra time didn’t actually help much. I took one last look in the mirror, cursing at my bloodshot eyes and wrinkled button-down before darting out of the house.
The fresh air helped immediately, and the extra-large, extra-strong Americano I ordered from the cafe halfway between my apartment and the office helped even more. My mouth was cotton, sure, but it was coffee-flavored cotton now. The heaviness of my head was countered by the warmth of the sun and the rolling nausea in my gut—well, actually, that one kind of just sucked. There was no real upside to being nauseous.
Still. By the time I made it to Spectrum Enterprises, I was only ten minutes late and the Americano was half-empty. Ten minutes late was pretty par for the course for me, and at least this time it was for a good reason.
I laughed to myself as I pushed the button to the elevator. I doubted my boss, or anyone at the company really, would think getting smashed with Stella was a good reason.
Oh, well. You win some, you lose some.
Someone’s arm reached past me and the elevator button smashed again.
“Already did that,” I said, lifting the coffee cup to my lips. I glanced over and grinned wide behind the brim of the cup when I saw Luke Wilson glaring back at me.
Ah. Speaking of losing some.
Sweet, spitfire Luke Wilson. Second in his class at business school, right below me, third in class overall—and, okay, I was fifth. We had both started at Spectrum at the same time—half a week after graduation two years ago. I started in sales; Luke started in admin.
Somehow, we both worked in the same department now, in client services, underneath the same general manager. I’d been here for two years, and still couldn’t figure out their sideways promoting. I would never understand how promotions worked. I’d just keep my nose to the ground and hope I’d get one.
Luke, on the other hand, was not a nose to the ground kind of guy—not that he wasn’t a hard worker. He was great, even if I’d rather have my teeth pulled than admit that to him. He was just way more into brown-nosing and looking around as if the secrets were in the walls.
And, it was always important to note, Luke’s main career move was just glaring at me. And huffing at me. And rolling eyes at me.
“Didn’t think you’d remember to click the button,” he said, stepping past the opening elevator doors.
And speaking to me like a child.
I laughed and followed him into the elevator. So the guy hated me. I thought he was hilarious.
I leaned against the corner, letting Luke punch in the floor to our offices. I sipped at my coffee, shoving my sunglasses up on top of my head, and watched as Luke tapped aggressively at his phone.
“Good weekend?” I asked.
Luke grunted. Not a response coming out in a grunt, but a literal just push of air. I snickered into the cup and then tried again. “Did you see the game this Saturday?”
Luke sighed. His head fell back, eyes squeezing shut. His mouth was opening and closing as if he was talking to himself. I took the lid off of my coffee cup and took a huge gulp. I waited until Luke lolled forward, eyes opening again, and started typing at his phone.
I wasn’t really sure why he didn’t like me. Could be our different work ethics—I couldn’t imagine Luke even once getting drunk on a Sunday night, best friend leaving the country or not. He stayed late nearly every night. I left at five-thirty on the dot.
It wasn’t that I didn’t try hard at work. It was just that I knew, maybe a little better than other people in the office, how short life could be. It was about more than just a good job.
And, clearly, he could have a good job without all the terrible restrictions he put on himself. After all, we had the same job.
I took a step closer to him and peered over his shoulder. “Who is even up this ear—oh my God. Is your phone off?”
Luke’s head snapped up and he shoved the phone, which definitely had a blank screen, into his pocket. “It—died. I forgot to charge it last night.”
I laughed, the nausea in my stomach fading almost completely, because I was too delighted by his bright red face and narrowed glare. Ah. Apparently, there was at least one cure for hangover nausea: Luke Wilson being caught as a dramatic bitch.
I loved that guy. Too bad we’d never be friends.
The elevator dinged as we reached our floor. Level eleven, where half the offices for the company were. The other half were on twelve and thirteen, split because those were bigger. One day, I’d end up on thirteen.
Luke can have twelve, I thought, grinning.
I held the coffee cup in my mouth with my teeth clamped around one edge. The lid was still in my hand, and I used the other to salute Luke as I squeezed past him, just to annoy him.
He huffed. I felt another laugh building in my throat.
Stopping by the recycling bin, I downed the rest of my coffee, tossing it and the lid away before making it to my desk.
I only managed to shuck off my jacket and start the computer up before my work phone rang. I answered it quickly, frowning at my schedule on my cell phone. I didn’t have any planned calls, and it was only 8:13.
“Stephens. How can I help you?”
Harris Winston’s voice firmly wiped the smirk off my face. “Max. Get into my office. Now.”
He hung up before I could answer. I sighed, turned the computer screen off, and got back into the elevator.
The trip two floors up to the CEO’s office seemed to take three times longer than usual. The headache and nausea that had been slowly receding came back full force, an angry rush of hangover symptoms that a meeting with the big man induced.
I strolled past his secretary and knocked on the door twice before letting myself in.
Harris Winston was a brute of a guy. Physically and in business, he was a massive man. It was difficult to be in a room with him and not feel like a scrawny teenager.
Which, luckily, I was not anymore. I was just a thin twenty-three year old, thank you very much. I smiled brightly at him and threw myself into a seat, lifting my feet onto his desk and crossing my ankles. “Hiya.”
I blinked in surprise. It was ten minutes. How had anyone even—
Fucking Luke Wilson, the narc. He had been late too. I’m sure he forgot to mention that part.
“Yep?” I didn’t really see the point in denying it. Any sort of checking would result in him knowing immediately. Belatedly, I added, “Sorry.”
Harris lifted one thick, bushy eyebrow at me. His mouth was a souring frown and I had barely said three words. “This tardiness won’t stand.”
I sighed and lifted my hands placatingly. “It was the line for coffee. And also how late I woke up. I’m sorry.”
Harris gave me a dissatisfied once-over. “Get your feet off my desk.”
I rearranged myself so I was sitting more properly. “I am sorry. I just forgot to set an alarm.”
Harris sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose in an exasperated and familiar way. “You’re a good kid, and a good worker. You need to be a better employee.”
The wave of unsettledness that went through me had nothing to do with the hangover this time. I nodded quietly.
He sat back and looked at me, considering. I tried not to fidget under his scrutiny. Still, CEO or not, there was only so long I could sit there quietly. “Anything else on your mind, Uncle Harris?”
He narrowed his eyes at me. “Don’t call me that here at work.”
I knew the spiel and recited it under my breath as he said it. “No one here knows you’re my nephew. I don’t treat you no different, so I don’t want to be accused of treating you different. It’s bad for you, too.”
“Bad for me, too, yep, got it.”
“This isn’t funny.”
The sides of my lips quirked up in amusement anyway. “What should I call you then, by the way? Sir? Master? O Ye Who Signeth The Checks?”
Harris sighed heavily, sounding so much like my mother at that moment that I did burst into laughter. His lips twitched in amusement and he waved me away. “Get to work, you brat.”
In a mirror of leaving another annoyed guy earlier today, I saluted Harris before sauntering out of his office and taking the stairs back down.
The whole eleventh floor was full now. I rapped my knuckles on Luke’s desk when I passed him, just to see that sharp, narrow-green-eyed look of distaste. It brightened the rest of my journey back to my station.
The joy, however, was short-lived. The day of a junior employee in client services was not a glamorous one, and by twelve o’clock, I was ready to give into the seduction of quitting and finding a cheap plane ticket to London with Stella.
But then the burrito truck was outside at lunchtime, and that buoyed me enough to survive the rest of my shift.
I bumped into Luke a few more times during the day, but luckily, nothing too involved. We didn’t have to talk—meaning I didn’t have to talk while he corrected me rudely and rolled his eyes—and some days, that was just going to have to be enough for a win.
Back in college, Luke and I had been in a lot of the same classes, in a few of the same clubs, generally just on the periphery of each other’s lives. He’d hated me the whole time.
I used to try and understand why, but after a year or two, the effort became more than it was worth. Sure, the guy said snide things and rolled his eyes when I answered questions in class, but his hostility was harmless — and honestly, a bit, well, cute most of the time.
It didn’t seem to be tied to any sort of homophobia, since half of our mutual friends in college were gay and he didn’t have a problem with them, so I decided it didn’t really matter.
Luke was always going to hate me, and he was probably always going to be peripherally in my life. I learned a long time ago that I didn’t get to control other people, had no say over fate. If I could accept it back then, when things were hazy with smoke and grief, then I sure as hell wasn’t going to get hung up on a coworker’s attitude now.
The rest of the day passed at the same breakneck speed as the morning, and before I knew it, I was clocking out and on my way home.
I made it to my apartment with a half a leftover burrito to eat for dinner, the number of one of the guys interning in sales, and no more conversations with cranky men who cracked me up. It was a pretty all-right day, all in all.