For The Love of Pete
part of The Flamingo Island Romance series
Blimey, I was number 56.
A decade of working at McMillin, Andrews and Colin, a prestigious Boston marketing firm, meant tonight was my tenth annual holiday party.
Held at my boss’s palatial Beacon Hill mansion, Steven McMillin offered a plated meal, open bar, live music, and his version of the traditional “Yankee Swap” gift exchange often held this time of year.
Anyone who’d participated in this silly game popular among the Yanks knew the best numbers to get were number one and the last number, and I’d never drawn either.
After what had been a long stretch of personal and professional disappointments (we’re talking three plus years), I had somehow managed to pull the folded piece of paper from the crystal bowl that had the last number.
Fifty-six company employees.
Yes, everyone at the office was “volen-told” they’d be taking part, not counting spouses and significant others.
Not that anyone minded because the stack of wrapped, unmarked gifts offered up every year always included a few special ones from the partners of the firm.
Luxury car leases for a month.
An all-expenses-paid European cruise.
Season box tickets at Fenway Park or Gillette Stadium (if you were into American football, which forgive me, my English relations, I am).
A diamond bracelet that would put a healthy chuck into anyone’s college debt.
Oh, there were the usual items. Gifts from lower management and the worker-bees like herself. Bottles of wine, lottery tickets, a Gucci bag made an appearance last year (most likely a re-gift, but still), a cashmere something or other.
This year I had splurged on a hammered stainless steel 9-piece bar tool set and a bottle of 12-Year-Old Redbreast Cask Strength Irish Whiskey. (Again, apologies to the British side of my family for the choice of liquor.)
Oh, did I mention I’m a born and bred Brit?
Yep, born and raised in London.
However, thanks to my American dad (he was a serviceman who married me mum, but it didn’t last) I came across the pond to study art in college. The only good thing my pop ever did was offer to pay for my education. I ended up switching to marketing and after graduation stayed here in Boston.
And after dating a fellow for five years whose family had a bar in the city’s North End. my love for Irish whiskey stayed long after what we had—courtesy of him being caught red-handed cheating on me by me—crashed and burned.
In all, my swap contribution set me back over two hundred dollars.
All in the name of making a good showing at tonight’s shindig.
Appearances counted at McMillin, Andrew and Colin.
Sometimes even more than the work, I’m sorry to say, but such is life in the cutthroat world of marketing. Besides, it usually got around by the end of the night—or over the next few days at the office—as to who had brought what to tonight’s party.
As one of the three Assistant Vice Presidents at MAC vying for a sought-after promotion, I had to make sure I appeared ready to move—
“Well, Lucy Smith, aren’t you the fortunate one tonight.”
You ever meet someone and know right off the bat they were going to be a sworn wanker?
No? You’re lucky.
Brooke Cavvendish (yes, with two v’s) was one of the other AVPs in our office, along with Ed Davis, a sweet bloke with little ambition other than his grandchildren. He’d risen through the ranks, having been at the company the longest and seemed perfectly happy with his position.
At MAC only three years, her moving up so fast on the corporate ladder had been a surprise—three promotions so far—in a company known for the long tenures expected of its senior team.
And having not yet celebrated her thirtieth birthday.
A fact she loved to remind me of at least once a week in a voice that grated on every one of my last thirty-five-year-old nerves.
“Yes, I guess I am.” I took a gulp of the bubbly liquid in my glass, ready to down it all so I’d have the excuse of a refill to get away. “How about you?” I asked, only because she was waving her tiny slip a paper practically in my face.
“Number 20,” Brooke said, a small pout of her bright pink inflated lips. “Nearly the middle of the group.” Followed by a practiced dramatic sigh. “I doubt I’ll get anything good this year. Or if I do, someone will take it away.”
Yes, because the trip to Paris she picked up at last year’s party, and the personal limo service for a whole month the year before, were gifts she always managed to steal away from someone else.
Oh, sorry. Swap away. And no one dared to take a gift from the she-devil.
I forced a smile. “I’m sure you’ll do fine.”
“I usually do, don’t I?” Her eyes narrowed as she took a step closer to me. “Then again, so do you.”
Okay, where was she going with this? With Brooke it could be anywhere.
“Landing the XS Games account this week proved that,” she continued.
It also proved what working for the last month on four hours of sleep and downing more pots of tea than been tossed in the bloody harbor (an event they are so proud of around here!) could do.
“And painting those cute little posters to be used for each event,” Brooke failed at her attempt to sound impressed. “How clever!”
I hadn’t thought so at the time.
“None of us at the office knew you fancied yourself a real artist,” she cooed.
I don’t. “I’m not.”
Yes, it’d been my passion growing up, even what I first majored in when I went to college, but that dream had been squashed my sophomore year.
I’d picked up the paintbrushes a few times since then, more to get the creative juices going than any other reason.
It’d been years since I’d included original art in a client presentation. Thanks to a public dressing down by a former partner of the firm, who instructed me to leave my amateur attempts at being the next Picasso at home, I hadn’t dared.
If it wasn’t for the client spotting the paintings I’d done for my own inspiration in my bag, I wouldn’t have included them at all.
As it was, Extreme Sports was the only major account I’d scored over the last year, never mind how hard I worked to keeping my other clients—long-term, and money-full clients—fat and happy.
The plan had been to match Brooke client for client, but she’d managed to score three times the number over the same time frame.
A fact that made me boiling mad and scared me silly.
Especially as Brooke had all but boasted at the firm’s annual meeting back in July, she was packed and ready to move into the sought-after corner office. The one with a breathtaking view of the Boston skyline, that went along with the newly created Vice President position announced at the same time.
Just a coincidence she claimed. How she’d known about that job before everyone else I could only guess.
I had a vivid imagination.
And an eye on that corner office for myself.
“Oh, and I love the new ‘do,” she leaned in, her voice now a stage whisper as she broke into my thoughts. Ever had someone talk to you that way? Yeah, it basically means she was whispering loud enough for those nearby to hear as if she were on a Broadway stage. “The bright red really hides the gray.”
My jaw clenched as my fingers tightened round the slip of paper in one hand while the other squeezed on the crystal goblet.
I opened my mouth to reply, hoping for a snappy comeback, but it was a waste of time. Brooke had stepped away, not bothering to hide the fact she was scanning the room, looking for somewhere to move onto.
“Don’t do it.”
My bestie’s voice came from behind me, and I realized I had already tipped my champagne glass at Brooke’s retreating back, ready to fling the sparkling bubbly at her.
Jazlynn White, my best friend, also worked at MAC, had the uncanny ability to read my mind…and my actions.
Gorgeous enough to be a model with her creamed coffee brown skin, startling blue eyes, and a row of straight white teeth, what she was instead was a CPA, whip smart and the finance manager at the firm.
We were each other’s plus ones tonight.
She reached for the glass, straightening it in my hand. “Don’t let that bee-otch get to you.”
“That’s the best you can do when it comes to describing her?”
“No naughty words tonight.” Jazlynn made like she was zipping her lips. “Too close to Christmas. Santa might be listening. Besides, she isn’t worth it.”
“She will be if she gets that promotion.”
“You’re going to get that promotion. If that’s what you want.”
Now what did she mean by that? “You know it is.”
“Then stop worrying.” Her simple command was an island of calm in this crazy, glittery evening. “Hey, I heard you got a great number. I got 13, can you believe it?”
“Your lucky number.” I smiled now, so thankful for her support and friendship.
We’d been though a lot together in the last decade. Marriage, miscarriages, and a divorce (her), a parent’s illness and messy breakups (me). The friendship formed our first day at the office as newbies remained strong and true and one of the best things in my life.
“Come on,” she linked her arm through mine, after she’d snagged each of us a fresh full glass of bubbly. “The boss’s new wife—number three is it, thanks to their Thanksgiving wedding—is beckoning to the crowd. Let’s get a good spot so you can see all the goodies!”
Two hours later and they were on number 55.
One more and it would be my turn.
I could take the last remaining wrapped gift, or I could take one of those already opened.
Including the gem of the night, a thirty-day paid sabbatical.
On Flamingo Island.
A tropical paradise off the coast of Florida, at the boss’s lush beach house.
In March. Away from the snow, sleet and winter mess that would be typical in New England in three months’ time. Away from my cramped one bedroom apartment. Away from the craziness of the office.
A bright pink metal flamingo keychain, decked out in rhinestones, held the key to the front door.
It had been pulled fifteen gifts ago.
And was currently clutched in the purple tipped talons of Brooke Cavvendish.
When it’d been her turn, she’d passed up two already opened luxury gifts and instead picked out a small subdued green package with a simple red bow. The surprise in her exaggerated rounded eyes as she pulled out the keys had been just shy of genuine.
Almost as if she’d known what had been inside.
I watched as the others ooo'd and ahhh'd over her luck, the devil on my shoulder already daring me.
Take it right out of her tight grip.
Take the month and enjoy your first vacation ever (going home to London to see mum every year doesn’t count.)
You deserve it. The boys can go with you. You’ve worked hard the past year.
The past thirteen years.
Starting as an unpaid intern the summer before senior year in college, busting your arse making your way through the ranks.
Maybe you could even paint—
“Lucy, girl! Wake up! It’s your turn.”
Jazlynn nudged me with a sharp elbow as Henry Andrews, one of the partners, bellowed out my name, adding girl like he did every time he talked to one of the firm’s female employees.
“You fall asleep waiting?” he added with a guff of laughter, drawing more of the same from the crowd.
“No, sir,” I shot back, feeling my cheeks burn hot and hoping my smile wasn’t too bright. I slid my gaze around the room. “Just dazzled by all the goodies on display.”
“So, are you going to take the last gift and hope it’s something fabulous?” Jazlynn chimed in, raising her glass in a toast, showing off the sparkly bangle on her wrist she’d opened.
She gave me another nudge that pushed me into the center of the room. “Or is there something that’s already caught your eye?”
Oh, how something had.
But could I do it?
I still lived in the same apartment I moved into right after graduation. Still worked at the same job. Still drove the same thirteen year old car (again, a graduation gift from me pop who never made it to the ceremony).
Still had the same non-existent love life, mainly for my poor choice in men, but I can also blame working long crazy hours, my fondness for the company of my cats and a good cuppa of PG Tips.
I took a step forward.
I lifted the last gift off the table, a silk sack of red and green stripes, dangling it by its satin ribbons with one finger.
Chatter broke out.
Everyone had moved on to speculating about Donna, one of the graphic designers who had gotten the slip of paper with the number one and wondering what she would do as the last go round.
But Donna was a die-hard Red Sox fan, often stating that fact was stamped on both her birth and marriage certificates. The way her hubby, a good-natured bloke, was holding onto the season tickets for next year, she was keeping the gift no one had the heart to take away from her all night.
The hard gleam in Brooke’s gaze went from smug to a dare in a heartbeat when our eyes met. My feet felt like two blocks of ice, but I kept walking, aware of the hush that settled in the crowd again.
I stopped when I reached where she sat, the shock in her eyes genuine now as I held out the gift to her.
“No need for you to get up, Brooke,” my tone merry and surprisingly strong. “Here’s your gift and I’ll be taking those keys to the beach house. Oh, and Happy Christmas to you.”