The headache barreling its way through my brain is something else. It hasn’t stopped since we got these stupid pinecones that smell like cinnamon. I took one whiff the first time I opened the box and that was it. I was done for—and still am. Cracking open a bottle of water, I pop two pills and chug half of it. At least we get to send the damn pinecones back in two weeks. Christmas will be over, and the holiday rush will be done. A smile lights my lips at the thought.
The office is buzzing. It always is during the Christmas rush. Pinching the bridge of my nose, I try to focus on the computer screen as I input numbers and names into the schedule. It’s a pain this time of year—so many people requesting off for vacation. I am in charge, so I get to decide who works when. It’s one of the bonuses of being the only employee in human resources.
The sharp pain in my head is too much. I close my eyes, finish out the schedule—which takes me three times longer than it normally should—and I shut the program down. I need a break. Taking my half-finished water, I step out of my office and into the fluorescent lights of the department store. My store manager catches my attention from down the hall with a curious glance in my direction. I shake my head at her, spin my finger in a circle to indicate I’m making my rounds. She nods and steps into her own office, her hips swaying with all the confidence in the world. I wish I had that.
I didn’t think I’d end up working here for the rest of my life but it’s not a half-bad job. Am I using my degree? Nope. But what the hell was I going to do with a degree in philosophy anyway other than teach, and no thank you…not me.
Walking around the store always clears my head. When I start on the first part of my loop, the tension in the back of my neck eases, and I know I’ve made the right decision. The white linoleum flooring is harsh in the bright lights but is mostly covered with items meant solely for selling at Christmas. The store is huge and has three floors, with different departments and sub-departments on each of them.
The bottled water against my tongue is tepid, but I know it’ll help kick the last of this migraine. Well, as much as it can. Those damn pinecones are going to be the death of me. I’ll have to remember this for next year, since they seem to be a hot item and will likely come back. I sigh as I turn the corner into the shoe department.
What has my life become? I didn’t think I’d be working the same job I started in high school. I mean, I’ve been here twelve years already and worked just about every position possible except store manager, which is no position I’d ever want. My boss has even tried to train me for that position. She thinks I haven’t noticed, but she’s not as sneaky as she thinks. I’ll stick with HR if I have to stay here. It seems so…ugh…I don’t even know. Easy? Boring? Simplistic?
That’s the word. Sighing again, I step onto the escalator, taking me up to the second floor. There’s even more Christmas stuff up here. A man stops me, his hand on my forearm. He is far too close, and it unnerves me, setting off warning bells I can barely keep under control.
“I’m looking for a gift for my wife,” he rushes to speak, his fingers tightening their grasp on me.
I have to grit my teeth and keep my body still. As much as I want to rip his hand off, I have to play nice. Damn retail. These are the moments I wish I’d chosen another career path, or one that didn’t involve customers. I put on my best customer service voice. “Was there something specific you were hoping to buy?”
“It’s our fifth anniversary, so it’s the wood one, I think? I have no idea what to do with that.”
I give him a phony smile. “Why don’t you head to the third floor and check out some of our handmade local items? There are some beautifully carved wooden figurines she may love.”
“Oh!” His eyes lit up. “Thank you!”
I nod and step away, putting the space between us that I’d wanted since the moment he touched me. “It’s immediately to your left as soon as you step off the escalator. You can’t miss it.”
“Thank you, again.” He grins as he walks away.
Sighing, I begin my circle of this floor. I should have stayed in my office. At least there I can avoid customers. That is also the distinct advantage of working in HR. Plastering a smile on my lips, I greet customers as I walk past them. I give a real smile to those I work with. I wish I had a five-year anniversary to celebrate. Scoffing, my heart sinks. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.
Last year I dated Linwood, a stunning vision of casual business with short blond hair, vivid blue eyes and muscles that went on for days. He’d been perfect for me in a lot of ways, and I could not stop wondering if he wasn’t the one. What if he wasn’t what I wanted? There was always something missing. That’s why we’d broken up. I couldn’t get rid of this need, this wondering, this curiosity about what else is out there. How do people do it? How do they stay in a relationship with one person for the rest of their lives? Hell, for even five years?
I groan as I sip my water. I’m never satisfied with my love life—even with Milo, who is so sweet. But I still feel as though there’s something missing. He’s not Lin, the complete opposite almost. He’s soft where Lin is hard, but that doesn’t mean I can’t have both, does it?
This time of year always makes me depressed. I hate it. Christmas is all about families and love and giving gifts and being together, and I’m left with what? My parents? My sister? But I want to find someone so much, to have my own family. I always have. It brings up everything I feel I’m missing, and I think I’m missing a lot. I know I am.
I stop short as I reach the escalator. Do I want to go up and potentially run into a touchy-feely customer again? It doesn’t even take two milliseconds to make that choice. Walking around the escalator to the other side, I go down instead of up. I always have something I can do in my office.
As I reach the escalator’s end, I stop short. Linwood Ault. There he is. All man. I curse my day. Nothing can go right. Planting a scour on my face, I attempt to skirt around him, but he catches my eye and immediately comes over. He’s so tall, so perfect. Lin offers me a gentle smile as he stops two feet in front of me.
“JJ,” he says in that deep, rumbling tone of his. I can’t quite read him anymore, not like I used to, but he still sends a shiver up my spine. “Fancy seeing you here.”
“Did you forget that I work here,” I ask, raising an eyebrow in his direction. He’s easily a foot taller than my short frame, but fuck do I remember the fun and creative positions that gave us. Another shiver, and I curse my traitorous body.
“Right. I…um… How are you?” His awkwardness could not be cuter.
“I’m fine. You?” I don’t know why I’m being so curt with him—probably because I was just thinking about the past, about how I gave up all that perfection. There is nothing wrong with him. It is all me, all me and my stupid desires and curiosities. Lin was, and is, always the perfect gentleman.
“I’m good.” His voice is strained. He draws in a deep breath, his chest pushing against the baby-blue crisp button-up shirt he’s wearing. He always does dress impeccably, and if I remember correctly, I’d bought him that shirt to match his eyes. I hold back the smirk that wants to grace my lips. “I…uh…I was trying to buy a gift for my mom.”
“I never remember that perfume she likes.”
“The one I got her for her birthday?” I ask.
Lin nods sharply. “Yeah, that one. You got it here, right?”
I smile, my eyes crinkling in the corners. When I answer, I add in a teasing flirtatious tone. “I did.”
There’s an awkward pause. I know he’s waiting for me to tell him, to show him, but I wait. I want him to ask for it. This man, he always is a tightly wound firecracker ready to go off, and I love teasing that out of him. He stares back at me with pale blue eyes, those long lashes fluttering shut as he blinks, then he’s back to looking into my soul.
Lin runs a hand over his short, buzzed hair. “Will you tell me what it is?”
“Gladly.” I let out a wry chuckle as I lead him up to the second floor where I had just been. Lin follows behind at a distance, but I do catch the look he gives my ass. Satisfied, I make sure he gets a good view as I step off the escalator. “It’s Henry Rose, one of the newer scents…Windows Down.”
“Windows Down?” Lin asks with a disbelieving tone.
“Don’t ask.” I flash him a smile before stepping up to the counter and grabbing it. “Does she really need it, though? It hasn’t even been a year.”
“Apparently she liked it so much that she rationed it out and shared it with her friends. They all loved it.” Lin let out a small, hesitant laugh.
Satisfaction hits my chest. I had at least done one thing right in that relationship. His mother loves me to bits. As I hand the perfume over, our fingers brush and that familiar tingle of electricity moves from my spine into my chest, hardening my nipples. Damn, even after almost a year of not being together, he still has this effect on me. I know there’s something still there, but I’m currently taken. Milo. Sweet, sweet Milo. Still, I can’t help playing with fire.
“Don’t need a second one for your girlfriend?”
The color rushes from Lin’s cheeks, and he shakes his head. His voice is harsh when he speaks. “No.”
“I’m sure, JJ.”
Again, that name. He is the only one who has ever been allowed to call me that. I give him a small smile with a pout. “Pity.”
I step around him, hoping to end this conversation before it moves into dangerous territory. I know what I’ve given up. This tall, handsome man, this man who has a heart and love to give—and he gave it all to me at one point. What did I do? I walked away, just like I’m doing now.
“I’ll see you around, Lin.”
I stop at the top of the escalator and face him. “Yeah?”
“For what it’s worth, I do miss you.”
Tears well in my eyes, and the breath is knocked from my lungs. He could always do that, and now is no different. Lin can always take my breath away, always make me feel everything at once. But that’s not who I am. I’m not the woman for him, not the one he needs. I can’t give him what he wants.
“I miss you, too,” I whisper, not even sure if he can hear me from all the way over at the perfume counter. A little louder, I call, “See you around, Lin.”
Walking away is harder than I thought it would be. The headache from earlier comes racing back, pounding in my skull. I grip my nearly empty water bottle hard as I take the escalator down to the first floor and hurry to my office. I should have stayed hidden. Making rounds was a bad choice. In my office I don’t have to see what I am missing, don’t have to be reminded that love and family and finding ‘the one’ isn’t for me. Poor, Milo, he won’t know what has hit him.