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When I Saw You by Laura Branchflower (1)

1

Fifteen years later…

“Mommy…Mommy…Mommy,” Taylor Merrick said as she pulled on her mother’s arm.

“Taylor, please.” Lia Merrick’s eyes remained on the legal document in her hand. “Can’t you see I’m busy?”

“But, Mommy,” Taylor continued, tugging harder, “you have to see this. Lizzie and Raymond have been turned into turtles and they’re—”

“I can’t right now. I have to finish reading these documents.”

“I just want you to see this one part.”

“Taylor, no!” She closed her eyes, instantly regretting her harsh tone. “I’m sorry.” She turned to Taylor, running her hand down the girl’s mane of dark brown hair. “I just can’t right now.”

“Why are you crying?” Taylor asked.

“I’m not.” She wiped at the few stray tears beneath her eyes. “Go finish your show and let me finish reading this, and then we’ll watch a show together, okay?”

“Okay.” Taylor wrapped her small arms around her mother’s waist, giving her a tight squeeze. “I love you, Mommy.”

“I love you too,” she whispered.

As soon as Taylor left the kitchen, Lia’s eyes returned to the document. She was legally divorced. It felt surreal and yet there it was, in dark, bold letters. She was no longer Mrs. Ned Merrick.

She walked the short distance from the kitchen to her bedroom and lay down on the unmade bed, rolling onto her back and staring up at the ceiling. Ned was free to marry Candice. The thought made her stomach turn.

She must have fallen asleep because sometime later, Taylor was waking her up.

“Mommy, I’m hungry.”

“What time is it?” She turned her head towards her alarm clock.

“I think it’s eighty-two,” Taylor answered.

“Eight twenty,” she corrected, her eyes focusing in on the red digital display.

“I’m hungry,” Taylor repeated.

“I know.” She reached for the bedside lamp and turned a small knob, lighting up the room. “I must have fallen asleep.”

“You must have,” Taylor agreed. “Did you finish reading your paper?” She picked up the divorce papers from the bed.

Lia’s eyes focused on the document in Taylor’s hand. “No.” She took the papers and set them on the nightstand next to the bed. “I’ll finish them later. How about Chick-fil-A for dinner?”

“Yeah!” Taylor jumped into the air. “Can I play in the—”

“No, just the drive-thru. It’s late.” She slipped off the bed she used to share with her now ex-husband and looked down at her wrinkled suit, regretting not changing into something else before lying down. “Let me put on some jeans and I’ll be ready.”

“Okay. I’ll get Maggie.” Taylor ran off in search of her favorite doll.

Lia pulled open the middle drawer of her dresser, riffling through her clothes in search of a pair of jeans. She sighed, remembering she needed to do laundry. Taylor didn’t have anything clean to wear to school the following day. She walked into the closet-sized adjoining bathroom and found some jeans lying over a wicker basket in the corner. After judging them clean enough to wear, she walked back into the bedroom and changed out of her suit.

She was in desperate need of new casual clothes, she thought as her eyes focused on the frayed knees of her jeans. But then again, she needed a lot of new everything.

Her eyes swept over her bedroom with its worn beige carpet and off-white walls, which, like the rest of the apartment, looked like they were decades from their prime. She pushed down the feeling of self-pity attempting to surface.

It could have been worse, she reminded herself. She could still be a twenty-eight-year-old living with her mother and stepfather, upsetting their lives. No. As old and decrepit as the apartment was, at least she had her own place and she was managing, albeit barely, to pay her own bills.

Lia pulled her long hair back in a ponytail and tried to remember the last time she changed its style. Too long ago, she decided when she couldn’t immediately recall. She knew she was pretty with her light blue eyes, ivory skin, and dark hair, but she also knew she was dated.

She found Taylor lying on the carpet in the windowless family room, which, after several steam cleans, still looked soiled and stained. “Come on, Taylor.”

“But I think Ross and Rachel got divorced,” she said, pointing at the television screen. “Look, Ross is in bed with somebody else. He must be married to her now, right?”

Lia looked up at the ceiling. She needed to start monitoring Taylor’s TV watching. “He must be,” she agreed before pushing the off button on the remote. “We have to go if you want to eat.”

“What are we going to do tomorrow?” Taylor asked moments later, preceding her mother out of the apartment.

“The same thing we did today.” Lia closed and locked the door before taking Taylor’s hand and leading her towards the stairs. “You’re going to preschool and I’m going to work.”

“Ohhh,” Taylor whined. “I don’t want to go to school. I hate school.”

“You told me yesterday you liked school.”

“Well, I don’t.” She held on to the rail with her free hand as they walked down a flight of stairs. “Can’t I go to Grandma’s?”

“No. You’re five now, remember? Kindergarten is going to start in a couple of weeks and you can’t miss school anymore.” She continued to hold Taylor’s hand as they walked out into the parking lot.

“Where did I park?” Her eyes scanned the parking lot in search of her two-and-a-half-year-old Honda, which Ned surprisingly let her keep. She recalled how happy they were the day they bought their first new car. It was Labor Day weekend and they were celebrating Ned’s new position at Blackman and Associates. He’d been working for the district attorney’s office in Fairfax County, Virginia, just outside of Washington, DC, since graduating from University of Virginia Law School two years prior, and the new job came with a substantial pay increase. Of course, if she knew then it also came with a woman who would steal her husband, she may not have been so happy.

“There it is.” Taylor pointed to the blue Honda Accord across the parking lot.

“Good job, sweetie.”

It was 10:00 p.m. when Lia finally closed Taylor’s bedroom door. She needed to organize her life a little better, she decided. Taylor never seemed to go to bed before ten and getting her up and ready in the morning was becoming an increasingly difficult task.

As she headed towards the laundry room, balancing a basket of dirty clothes on her hip, her cell phone began to ring and she glanced at the display. She thought about not answering it, having no desire to talk to her now ex, but after a moment’s hesitation she brought it to her ear.

“Did I wake you?” Ned asked.

“No. What do you need?”

“We never spoke logistics about Friday.”

“We didn’t?” She set the basket of clothes on the dryer and began sorting through them.

“Not that I recall.”

“We agreed you would pick her up from my mother’s at six thirty,” she said, knowing he was lying. Ned remembered everything.

“Right, okay.” There was a pause and she knew he was about to reveal the real reason for his call. “Did you get the papers today in the mail?”

“The divorce papers? Yes.”

“Good. I’m not sure what’s going on with your job search, but the rehabilitative alimony only goes on for another year.”

“I’m aware of that, Ned,” she said shortly.

“These temp jobs you’re working for twelve dollars an hour aren’t going to be enough.”

A now familiar sinking feeling gripped her stomach. “I received my degree in May.”

“May was three months ago, and you should have been looking for a job before you graduated. This area isn’t even in a recession. I don’t understand why you haven’t found a real job yet.”

“Remind me of how this is your business. You’re not my husband anymore, remember?”

“But I am Taylor’s father. I don’t like her living in that dingy apartment.”

“Well maybe you should have thought about that before you left her.”

His sigh was audible. “Look, Lia, I’m sorry I hurt you, but we need to put this in the past. Candice is going to be a big part of Taylor’s life, and—”

“Are we done?” she asked. “Because I have things to do and frankly, Ned, I don’t want to waste any more of my time talking to you.”

“Actually, there is one more thing. I want to keep Taylor overnight on Friday.”

“We’ve been through this. Taylor is not spending the night with you while you’re living with a woman you’re not married to.”

“Well, you see, that’s the thing. That’s why I’m asking. Candice and I got married yesterday.”

Her grip on the phone tightened. “Then I guess she can. Is that all?”

“Yes. That’s all.”

“Goodbye, Ned.” She slowly sunk to the floor.

“Taylor, your waffle’s getting cold,” she called out the following morning. She poured herself a cup of coffee and leaned back against the counter, still feeling numb after the events of the previous evening.

“Can’t you bring it in here?” Taylor called from the family room.

Lia was about to tell her she had to eat at the table, but stopped herself. Who cared where she ate her breakfast? “Here you go,” she said moments later as she set a cut-up waffle and glass of milk on the coffee table in front of the couch. “Don’t spill the milk,” she called over her shoulder as she left the room.

“I won’t. Mommy, you forgot my fork.”

Lia went back to the kitchen and forced open the utensil drawer, which seemed to have come off its rollers. As she picked up a fork, she noticed an unheard voicemail from the evening before on her cell phone.

“Hello,” an unfamiliar female voice began. “This message is for Lia Merrick. My name is Cecile Mann, and I’m in human resources at Zurtech in Reston. We received your resume last week and are interested in speaking with you and setting up an interview. Would you please call me at (703) 555-8910 at your earliest convenience? Again, my name is Cecile Mann and I’m in human resources at Zurtech.”

“Thank you, God,” Lia said looking up at the ceiling

Lia felt a little nervous as she pulled her Honda into the massive parking lot at Zurtech’s sprawling campus in Reston, Virginia, two weeks later.

After what she thought was a promising interview the previous week, she’d received a phone call Monday morning with the news that they were going with a different candidate.

“I do have another vacancy,” Cecile Mann continued before the rejection took full root in Lia’s mind. “We have an opening in our Marketing Department, and I think you would be perfect for the position. I know your resume indicated you are interested in finance, but would you consider a different direction, possibly?”

Lia assured her she would, admitting she was more interested in working for Zurtech in general than in any specific department. Now she was sitting in their parking lot, twenty minutes early for her 11:00 a.m. interview with the vice president of marketing, trying to preserve her confidence. Receiving the initial call from Cecile Mann the same day she received her divorce papers wasn’t a coincidence. No, she was meant to work for Zurtech and this job was going to serve as the catalyst she needed to turn her life around. Not even Ned’s recent nuptials could dampen her excitement at the prospect.

An international company with offices in fifty countries and one hundred thousand employees in North America alone, Zurtech was one of the largest computer technology companies in the world. Their Reston location, which housed over fifteen thousand employees, served as the corporate headquarters.

In a classic-cut black suit and a chic new shoulder-length haircut, Lia looked the part of a young corporate professional as she entered the lobby of building number five. After giving her name to security she was handed a badge and sent to a bank of elevators with instructions to go to the sixteenth floor and ask for Stan Hall.

Lia stepped off the elevator into a reception area, and a young woman sitting behind a desk looked up from her computer. “Good morning. May I help you?”

“Hi, good morning. I’m Lia Merrick. I have an appointment with Mr. Hall.”

“Please have a seat,” the receptionist said. “I’ll let him know you’re here.”

“Thank you.” Lia turned and almost collided with a tall, distinguished-looking man of about forty-five with sandy-colored hair, a lean build, and intense blue eyes.

“Lia, I presume?” he asked, touching her arm briefly to keep her from walking into him.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t see—”

“It’s fine,” he said, smiling. “I’m Stan Hall.” He held out his hand.

“Hi.” She slipped her hand into his, feeling mortified she’d practically plowed him over.

“You’re blushing,” he said, his eyes alight with humor.

Lia forced herself to maintain his gaze. “It’s a trait I curse daily.”

He laughed aloud. “I’ve been looking forward to meeting you, Lia. Cecile couldn’t stop raving about you. Let’s go back to my office.” He released her hand and led her through an expansive open space, filled with sleek gray-and-white work areas, to a corner office.

“After you,” he said, pushing open his door.

Lia preceded him into his large office, her eyes taking in the modern furniture. Floor-to-ceiling windows offered an unobstructed view of the woods surrounding the campus.

“Have a seat.” He indicated a conference table to their left with the toss of his hand.

Lia lowered herself into one of the eight high-back leather chairs, her eyes continuing their perusal of his office. “This is nice.”

He followed her gaze to the two abstract paintings on the wall behind his desk. “Are you into art?”

“I like it,” she said. “I don’t really understand it.”

“Liking it is enough.” He took a seat across from her and opened a folder on the table, his eyes briefly scanning her resume before lifting to hers. “Are you aware you’re interviewing for a position in our Marketing Department?”

Lia felt her face heat up. “Yes, that resume was tailored to the finance position I applied for a couple of weeks ago. I didn’t see any entry-level openings in the Marketing Department.”

“You’re blushing again,” he said, a hint of a smile on his lips.

“Sorry,” she breathed, shaking her head.

“I’m teasing you,” he said. “And we don’t advertise for positions in our Business to Business Division. We either hire from within or human resources will identify promising candidates—like in your case.”

“I’m definitely interested in marketing.”

“Good.” He didn’t speak for several seconds, his intense gaze meeting hers. “Cecile’s right,” he finally said. “You’re a natural fit for this division.” He closed the folder. “Why don’t I tell you about the position and then you can tell me what you think?”

“Yes, please,” Lia said, barely able to contain her enthusiasm. She was going to leave his office with a job. She could feel it.

Zurtech’s Business to Business Division, or B2B, functioned as the Marketing Department’s VIP service, responsible for nurturing Zurtech’s most important customers.

“The B2Bs sell goodwill,” he told her. “And that goodwill fosters loyalty, which ultimately results in increased company revenues. I personally created this division four years ago. Within the first year, revenue from our select group of clients increased over fifteen percent. The number of clients we now consider elite has quadrupled in the past three years. The personnel in this division are the crème de la crème of my marketing staff, and they are compensated accordingly.” He leaned back in his chair, his hands clasped on the table. “I’m not going to lie. This is a competitive division and there is nowhere to hide. I have fifty percent attrition in the first year with my new hires. Some quit, but most are fired or transferred to other divisions.” His intense eyes continued to meet hers. “This job isn’t for everyone, but I personally feel it is not only the most important division within marketing, but the most rewarding. You are basically paid to pamper and spoil some of the richest and most powerful men and women in the world. The value of the contacts you’ll make here is immeasurable.”

“There is no product selling?”

“No. You sell our brand. This is high-end customer service. Essentially, it is your job to become friends with our top clients. Friends like to buy from friends. It’s as simple as that.”

“So, on a day-to-day basis, what does that entail, exactly?” She was a bit confused.

“It entails getting to know our VIPs,” he said. “Learning about every facet of their lives—whether they are married, their children’s names, their favorite foods, favorite vacation spots, their hobbies, even their favorite color—anything and everything you can learn. The B2B staff has spent the last few years compiling extensive files on our elite-level customers.” He leaned forward, placing his elbows on the table, his chin resting on his fists. “We create an energetic, friendly, and pleasure oriented environment, which will feel more like a cocktail party than a meeting, but make no mistake—you are there to work.” He watched her in silence for a long moment. “You still look confused.”

“No. I’m just— Where do these interactions with the customers take place?”

“We have suites at most of the venues in the Washington area. We host our clients for sporting events, concerts, even the occasional ballet. We also have the Zurtech house: a ten-thousand-square-foot facility in Great Falls we use to entertain.”

“So would my hours be predominately in the evening?” She hated asking, but as exciting as the position sounded, she couldn’t leave Taylor five nights a week.

“Not quite.” He smiled. “I’m trying to sell the position, so I was highlighting the perks. Most of your time will be spent in the office updating client files and identifying potential elite-level customers both from within Zurtech and from our competitors.” He glanced at his watch. “How about a tour and lunch? And then we can talk compensation.”

It was a few minutes past 5:00 p.m. when Lia parked her car in her mother’s driveway in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia. Her mother had proved to be a godsend over the past two years, faithfully serving as Taylor’s babysitter while Lia completed her bachelor’s degree and then later when she began to work for a temp agency. She was literally living paycheck to paycheck, and there was no way she could afford an outside caregiver. Plus, knowing Taylor was with her grandmother removed some of the guilt she felt for being away for nine or more hours a day.

“Hello?” Lia called out as she stepped into her mother’s foyer.

“Hi.” Her mother approached from the back of the house. At fifty-five, Elaine was still quite attractive, with dark hair and the same high cheekbones as her daughter. “Well?”

“I got it!”

“Oh, Lia, that’s wonderful.” Her mother gave her a hug. “I had a good feeling about this one. When do you start?”

“Monday.” She followed her mother to the kitchen at the back of the house.

“Monday? That soon?”

“Yes. Their employee-orientation programs begin the first Monday of the month, so it was either Monday or I’d have to wait another month.” She set her purse on the kitchen table and turned towards the family room, which was separated from the kitchen by two steps and a wooden railing. “Hi, Taylor.”

“Mommy!” Taylor scurried up from her position in front of the television and ran across the room. “You’re here!” She jumped into Lia’s arms.

“I missed you.” Lia gave her a hug. “How was school?”

“Good. I got to be the teacher’s helper.”

“That’s nice. What does the school helper do?”

“Teacher’s helper. Not school helper.” Taylor laughed.

Lia smiled. “Sorry, teacher’s helper. What does the teacher’s helper do?”

“She helps the teacher.” Taylor smiled. “You’re funny, Mommy.”

“So are you.” She kissed her small, upturned nose. “I love you.”

“I love you too.” Taylor struggled out of her arms. “Can I watch the rest of my show?”

Lia glanced towards the television and was relieved to see a cartoon on the screen. “Sure,” she said to Taylor’s quickly retreating back.

“Hi, Frank,” she said to her stepfather as he came into the room. Frank Law, her mother’s husband of just over eight years, was one of the nicest people Lia knew. After a career in the government as a program manager, he’d retired the year prior and spent most of his days in his garden or golfing.

“Hi, Lia.” He smiled. “I’m sensing congratulations are in order?”

“Yes, I start Monday.”

“Very good.” He patted her arm before leaving to join Taylor.

“Would you like something to eat?” Elaine asked.

“No, thanks. I had a late lunch.” She lowered herself onto one of three barstools lining a granite island.

“I want to hear all about it,” Elaine said before setting a bowl of tortilla chips and guacamole onto the counter. “Tell me everything.”

Lia quickly recounted details of her new position to her mother. “And,” Lia said after several minutes, pausing with a chip at her mouth, “I get a clothing allowance. Well, not exactly an allowance. I meet with a personal shopper at the Neiman Marcus at Tyson’s, and I’ll be completely outfitted. Zurtech has an account—it’s all paid for.”

“Neiman Marcus?” Elaine’s eyes widened. “Wow!”

“I know. I feel like pinching myself. It seems too good to be true.”