“Take a deep breath. Now let it all the way out. Another deep breath. Allow the herbal aroma to enter your lungs. Are you feeling relaxed? Very good. Now close your eyes. We are going to take a voyage of exploration through your psyche and try to determine the root of your fear of intimacy and commitment.”
The therapist’s voice droned on and Kara Wilson shifted impatiently in her hammock chair, watching as her fiancé of five years, Brad Dodgeson, had his psyche probed. The fumes from the purifying sage incense tickled her throat, making her want to sneeze, and the fruity tones of the therapist made her want to gag. She was beginning to think that the Holistic Healing Couples Clinic on Kennedy Avenue had been a poor choice on her part. But it had practically taken an act of Congress to get Brad there in the first place, and she was pretty sure if she tried to change therapists now, he’d quit therapy altogether.
She’d chosen the Holistic Clinic because it was just down the street from her job at Smythe Labs, enabling her to take her lunch hour for therapy sessions. Today, the hour was almost up. She glanced anxiously down at her watch, noting that she had less than ten minutes to get out of the clinic and rush down Kennedy before she was late. And if she was late just one more time her supervisor, Lilith Buchanan, would almost certainly fire her.
“Excuse me?” she whispered to the therapist, a tall, thin woman with thin, mouse-colored hair that was twisted into a bun and held in place by decorative black lacquered chopsticks.
The therapist stopped waving the herbal incense in Brad’s face and gave her a disapproving glare. She raised one skinny eyebrow as though daring Kara to interrupt again.
“I’m sorry but I sort of have to go back to work,” Kara said desperately. “If I’m late one more time-” She ran a hand though her flyaway, naturally curly red hair, hoping she didn’t look as frantic as she felt.
“You may go if you do not wish to participate in the healing of your beloved’s psyche,” the therapist intoned. She had a surprisingly deep voice for a woman and if looks could kill, Kara knew she would’ve found herself flat on the all-natural fiber, oatmeal-colored carpet.
“Kara?” Brad cracked one pale blue eye and got into the conversation. “Are you leaving? It was your idea to come here in the first place.”
“No, no.” She settled herself more firmly in the ergonomically correct hammock-chair that was hung from hooks in the ceiling, like the rest of the furniture in the office. “I’ll stay, honey. I’m sorry.”
“Fine.” He closed his eyes again and the therapist, with one last reproving glance, went back to fanning incense into his face. The smoke almost obscured his carefully gelled blond hair.
Kara watched her fiancé relax in the hammock couch which was swaying lazily in time with his breathing. It was a wonder it could hold him up, she thought uncharitably. Brad wasn’t much taller than her own five-foot-seven, but he was one of those short men who makes up for lack of height by having huge muscles. He had surfer-boy good looks and was a personal trainer at the gym she attended, which was how Kara had met him in the first place five years before. Back then she’d thought his physical presence was attractive but lately she was wondering how any man could be so physically strong and so emotionally weak at the same time.
She glanced at her watch again. The small diamond ring that Brad had grudgingly given her two years before when they finally moved in together winked at her reproachfully, daring her to think more mean thoughts about the man she loved.
“I think it all started my sophomore year in high school,” Brad’s slightly nasal voice began. He hadn’t liked the idea of therapy in the first place, but he was instantly into anything that made him the center of attention, Kara thought sourly, glancing at her watch a third time. That was it-she was officially going to be late. There was no way she could get to work on time now. She sighed and settled back in her hammockchair, trying to pay attention.
Brad was relating a story of high school angst she’d heard him tell many, many times before. It was actually a pep talk he used to motivate his clients at the gym. “… so there I was-just me, a ninety-eight pound weakling facing off against the three biggest, meanest guys at my school …” he was saying.
Kara bit her lip in frustration. She was going to lose her job to hear this old story again? She’d heard it so many times already she could practically quote it word for word with him as he spoke. It was, according to Brad, the defining moment in his life, more so even than the day his mother choked to death on a pork chop or the day his father lost the family fortune on an illadvised stock pick. It was the moment when had decided to turn his life around and start weight training.
After the three bullies held his head in the toilet and flushed repeatedly, he had gone straight to the nearest gym and started bulking up until he was the fine physical specimen that appeared before them today, he always told his clients. The next time he faced off against the bullies, Brad was the one doing the ass kicking and the toilet flushing. And his life had never been the same since. Blah, blah, blah …
Suddenly the therapist’s voice cut into Kara’s impatient thoughts.
“And you feel this caused you to build a wall around your emotions? This decision to never be weak again is what makes you feel unready to commit to marriage?”
Wow! Kara’s head popped up and she stared at her fiancé. Could there really be a nugget of wisdom hidden in that old story? One she hadn’t seen before because she’d been so bored with hearing it over and over again? She suddenly felt ashamed of her impatience. After all, if this was what it got to get Brad to say “I do,” then losing her job would be worth it. She’d been waiting for him to pop the question for over five years now and, as her mother was constantly reminding her, she wasn’t getting any younger.
Not that a girl couldn’t have a perfectly happy and fulfilling life without a man but Kara had invested a lot in this relationship. Getting Brad to therapy was a last-ditch effort to convince him they were ready to become man and wife, not just roomies. Maybe her dream was finally about to come true.
“… very good. I feel that we’ve made a real breakthrough here today, Bradley.” The therapist sounded pleased. She blew out the incense and rose gracefully from her hammock chair. That was more than Kara could manage. The swinging chairs were obviously made for tall, graceful, model-type people rather than girls who were constantly watching their weight.
You would think with a personal trainer for a fiancé she would be in excellent shape, but that wasn’t quite the case. As she struggled out of the deep, swinging fabric chair, Kara promised herself to lay off the midnight raids on the Hershey bars. It was just that she got so tired of protein shakes and plain chicken breasts for dinner all the time.
Brad and the therapist were already making arrangements for the next session but a glance at her watch told Kara that she had to go. If she ran like a crazy person, she might make it back to Smythe Labs only fifteen minutes late. And if Lilith, her supervisor, was taking a long lunch, she might manage to avoid the axe.
“Thank you very much,” she babbled, pumping the therapist’s skinny hand. “See you later, sweetie.” She planted a hasty kiss on Brad’s muscular cheek and dashed for the door.
Smythe Labs was an imposing black monolith of a building right at the corner of Kennedy and Westshore in South Tampa. It was down the street from the Starbucks where Kara usually got her lunchtime cappuccino. But there was no time for coffee now. Kara skidded to a halt. Or was there? Her mind ticking rapidly, she ran for the Starbucks.
Her boss, Lilith, was the only person she knew that had a bigger sweet tooth than Kara. If she came back from lunch late, but bearing a big glass of that fancy new hot chocolate they were serving, chantico, topped with whipped cream, Lilith just might overlook her tardiness. It might not be very honest to bribe her boss with chocolate, but at this point Kara was desperate.
Thanks to the friendly counterman, who she knew from her other lunchtime forays, she got the grande hot chocolate and was on her way in next to no time. She was now going on being twenty-five minutes late, but the hot drink in her hand was going to be her salvation-she just knew it.
Kara hit the front doors of the shiny glass building running, the cup held out in front of her like the Olympic torch. Sure enough, Lilith was sitting at Kara’s usual seat behind the high marble reception desk, a scowl firmly plastered on her pinched features. She hated having to answer the phones when Kara was late, hated having to do anything other than the stacks of paperwork that seemed to fill her life with grim joy.
“Ms. Wilson,” she snapped, coming out from behind the high sides of the rounded marble desk. “Do you have any idea what time it is?”
“I know and I’m so sorry,” Kara said rapidly, continuing her headlong flight across the slick black marble floor. “But when I saw the Starbucks I thought you might like-” From the corner of her eye she saw a figure in a lab coat step into her path. It was the absentminded Dr. Robertson, his nose buried in a mass of technical data as usual. He was stepping right between Kara and Lilith, who was standing with her arms crossed over her pristine, and no doubt very expensive, white silk blouse, tapping her foot impatiently.
“Look out!” Kara yelled, unable to stop herself on the slippery floor. Dr. Robertson turned his head toward her. Behind his glasses she saw his large brown eyes widen, no doubt in shock, to see a crazy redhead with a large cup of very hot liquid bearing down on him like a runaway train.
He ducked, but not fast enough to get completely out of her way. As though in slow motion, Kara saw everything happen without being able to stop it. She stumbled over the crouching scientist, squeezing the hot cardboard cup reflexively as she fought for balance. The lid on the grande chantico popped off and a long waterfall of steaming hot chocolate and whipped cream flew through the air on a collision course with her boss’s clean white blouse.
“Oh, no!” Kara wailed as chocolate and silk collided. She would have fallen herself if a pair of strong masculine hands hadn’t caught her and set her back on her feet.
“Are you all right?” Dr. Robertson was peering into her face, looking worried. His research was in a white drift of paperwork scattered at his feet, but he seemed more concerned with Kara.
“No,” Kara said, too upset to be polite. “I’m not okay. I think I just lost my job.” She turned back toward Lilith, whose expression had gone from mild irritation to outraged fury in an instant.
“Ms. Wilson,” she ground out between tightly clenched teeth. “Do you have any idea how much this blouse cost?”
“I’m so sorry!” Kara shook off the concerned hands of the scientist and ran to her supervisor. Grabbing a handful of tissues from the dispenser on the reception desk, she began blotting at the steaming dark brown stain that covered the front of Lilith’s blouse. Underneath, Lilith’s sallow skin was turning an alarming red. “Are you burned?” Kara asked anxiously. “Do you need to take it off?”
“Stop it!” Lilith slapped at her hands angrily, halting her progress. “Do you think I want to strip down to my unmentionables in front of the entire lobby?” She eyed Dr. Robertson, who happened to be the only other person in the large reception area, as though he was a known serial rapist on the loose.
Does she really think he wants to see her bony old carcass in her underwear? Kara thought, before she could stop herself. She turned her head toward the scientist as well and saw a slight smile twitch in the corner of his full mouth. Apparently it was a shared thought. She looked away quickly before she broke out in hysterical giggles. Spilling hot chocolate all over Lilith was bad enough, laughing about it would only make things that much worse.
“Doctor,” she managed to say, avoiding his eyes, “if you could give us a little privacy I’ll be happy to bring you your paperwork in a few minutes.”
“Certainly, Kara,” he said, surprising her by knowing her name. “I’ll be in my lab. Thank you and I’m sorry I was in your way.”
“Oh, no-I shouldn’t have been running-” she began.
“You shouldn’t have been late in the first place,” Lilith snapped, cutting her off.
“I’m sorry,” Kara began again as Dr. Robertson slipped away. “But I meant you should go to the ladies’ room to take off the shirt-not strip right in the lobby.”
“Oh, you’ll be sorry all right,” her supervisor said grimly.
“And you’ll be collecting unemployment as well.”
“Honestly, I only wanted to bring you some hot chocolate,” Kara protested weakly, but she felt her heart sink. This was the last straw and she knew it. Lilith had been itching to fire her almost as soon as she had been hired. Why her supervisor disliked her, she didn’t know. Maybe it was because Kara had learned the names of everyone in the building in a matter of hours and exchanged friendly jokes and greetings with people Lilith had never given more than a frosty nod to in her years at Smythe Labs.
Kara knew she wasn’t great at paperwork or being perfectly on time every single day, but she was friendly and outgoing and genuinely liked her job as a receptionist at Smythe Labs, whereas Lilith disliked anything that took her away from her beloved columns of figures. Kara had been hired for her people skills and, no matter what Lilith said about her tendency toward tardiness and the hot chocolate all over her white silk blouse, she was about to be fired for them, too. If only she’d had the money to finish her business degree she wouldn’t be in this mess right now!
“You will stay and finish the day while I go get myself cleaned up,” Lilith said, confirming her fears. “If you choose not to stay, I will personally see to it that you do not receive your two weeks severance pay. And as of five o’clock today you will turn in your key card and consider yourself terminated. Do I make myself perfectly clear?”
“Yes,” Kara said miserably. She stooped and began gathering the white snowdrift of papers that Dr. Robertson had left behind, as she watched Lilith’s ramrod straight back march to the ladies’ room, no doubt to see if cold water would take out the stain.
“You don’t look so good,” Dr. Robertson observed as Kara lay the neatly stacked pile of paperwork on the table he was sitting at in the lab.
“I’m not so good,” she confessed with a sigh, sitting back on one of the high lab stools for a moment to rest her back. Getting his paperwork back in order, especially when it was essentially all Greek to her, had been no easy task. It had taken her several hours and her termination was looming closer and closer.
“What happened?” His large brown eyes were genuinely concerned behind the glasses he wore. For the first time, Kara realized that he wasn’t too much older than she-certainly he was the youngest scientist on staff at Smythe Labs. He had the reputation of being a brilliant researcher, having come straight from Harvard with a degree in some kind of physics.
“I got fired,” she admitted, looking down at her hands. “I was afraid if I was late one more time … and of course spilling that all over …” She shook her head, unable to continue, tears stinging her eyes.
“I’m so sorry-this is all my fault.” Dr. Robertson ran a hand through his thick black hair distractedly.
“N … no, it’s not. It’s all my fault,” Kara said, trying unsuccessfully to hold back the tears. She usually hated to cry in front of people but this had been such a terrible afternoon she didn’t seem to be able to help herself.
Robertson came around the lab table and patted her shoulder awkwardly. There was so much simple caring in his gesture that Kara suddenly found herself in his arms, spilling the whole sorry story in his lap-the crazy therapist, her commitment-phobic fiancé, her lost job … it all came out. If Dr. Robertson was surprised to find himself suddenly holding a double armful of sobbing redhead, he didn’t show it. He just handed her tissues and let her cry, listening patiently as though he was as used to hearing personal problems as he was to solving quantum physics equations.