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Ch 2. A Vision of Pine Trees and Cowboy Boots

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"You're late!"

Beth heard Donna sing-song her announcement as she rushed between desks. It was just past 8:40.

"Yeah, but only by five minutes," Beth replied, grabbing her file and notes.

"By whose watch?"

"Mine, baby, mine! Which room are they in?"

"End of the hall," Donna said as Beth continued her headlong flight down the hallway. The meeting had started promptly at 8:30. Beth knew this because all meetings that Jerry presided over started promptly. The man was a maniac. Every other manager at the House and Garden Inspiration would rather be run over by a car than start a meeting on time, but her manager was Jerry.

"Hi, everyone, so sorry. Keep going, I'll get notes afterwards," she whispered and slunk into the closest available seat.

"I'm so glad you could join us this morning, Beth. Oh, and congratulations on the vacation prize. I saw that on Connections last night," Jerry said. "So, Mike, tell me more about the living room green-house idea you want to cover."

Beth opened her laptop and hit the power button. The battery was dead. This was embarrassing. Thinking she had a charger in her bag, she started to dig around in her case. Several coworkers were watching her instead of listening, and Susan, Jerry's wife, sighed in exasperation next to her.

A charger came sliding across the table. She looked up and noticed that Russell was sitting opposite her and had given her his power cord. She smiled. He frowned. Apparently, the fact that he was loaning her something did not mean he was going to be warm or friendly about it. Leaning over the table, she plugged the end into a socket in the middle of the table.

He raised his eyebrows at her pointedly and scratched the side of his mouth.

She touched her cheek; drying strawberry jelly from her toast was caked on it. Just when she thought her humiliation had reached rock bottom, it sank to new, previously unexplored depths. Of course, it would be Russell who noticed.

The man never said a word beyond stiff greetings and goodbyes if it was not work related; which was a crying shame because he had to be the hunkiest coworker ever. If there was an awards ceremony for sexy colleague, he would win hands-down every year. Not that he was some Adonis or George Clooney. He was simply rugged and rough around the edges where most men were either pudgy or trying too hard at the gym.

When he had first showed up two years ago, all the single (and several not-so-single) ladies in the building had been reduced to smoldering bachelorettes who alternately laced every sentence with innuendos or sat slumped over their desks, hoping desperately for an invitation into the office supplies closet with the bachelor of the year.

He never asked one of them out on a date. At some point, a couple of the other women reported that they had spotted him at this or that restaurant with a blonde or a red-head or a Latina woman. General consensus determined that if he didn't date anyone from the office, it was probably because he was into BDSM, or 'tie-me up kinkery' as Donna called it. This didn't make it easier to resist his charms.

Beth had sailed through this time on the sweet wings of her new marriage, but the landing in reality had been a killer. Now after six months of what-the-hell-just-happened-to-my-marriage loneliness, her hormones were beginning to rebel and her emotions did not know where to go.

Russell seemed blissfully unaware of the effect he had on the females in the office, and now that he had tipped Beth off to the jelly on her face, she might as well not exist any longer. His stony gaze moved from speaker to speaker during the meeting. Or just past each speaker, she realized. The walls were more interesting than their colleagues.

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