His Perfect Partner
Max is about to wave goodbye to his colleague Ava–can he tell her how he feels before it’s too late?
There are three things you should know about me: one, I’m rich; two, I’m successful and three, I don’t do sentiment. One and two, have three to thank.
It’s not that I’m cold. It’s just that I don’t let emotions drive my decisions. Unless you’re talking about my gut instinct. Now that I listen to. And my gut has told me for the past five years to quash the feelings I have for Ava. That they have no place in the office, which of course they don’t, and the company rules are there to safeguard it.
Rules I felt a ridiculous urge to verbally emphasise to her on her very first day. And she had looked at me, her perfectly freckled skin blushing deep at the insinuation and I had wanted to kick myself back into shape. It wasn’t like she had given any indication she would do such a thing. It was me, the surprising force of my attraction, that had me laying down the law and getting my own body to stand down.
It’s not like she’s my secretary though, far be it for me to succumb to that cliché. She was brought in as my Chief Operating Officer, but she’s my equal, my opposite, the one I go to first with an idea and we hammer it out together.
But no more.
Today’s the day she shows the world how far she’s come.
Today’s the day she leaves to head up her own firm on the other side of the world.
Today’s the day she leaves me.
‘Can I help you, sir?’
My eyes shift from the abundant array of hearts and flowers in the window display before me to see the florist in the doorway. She’s smiling at me expectantly, her warm Valentine’s Day aura permeating the frigid February air.
I sound dumb, like I know I need more help than this one woman can provide. What was I even doing standing here like some love-sick fool contemplating what exactly? A goodbye gift? Or something more…
‘Yes, sir, you’ve been stood here for the past ten minutes.’ Her smile grows as she rubs her hands together for warmth. ‘I thought you might like some assistance in making a selection?’
A multitude of scenarios play out up top, stumbling over one another. There’s the one where a bouquet sends Ava beet-red, the same colour as her silken waves, her embarrassment crushing at my insides as I feel our camaraderie die a death and the relationship we’ve built, gone in a puff of roses.
And there’s the other, that instantly heats my body top-to-toe, where a bouquet is the icebreaker, the thing that has her own feelings coming to the surface, and life becomes one big fairy tale.
Trouble is, I don’t do sentiment, and I sure as hell don’t believe in fairy-tales.
I give her a smile and sense her breath catch, just a little. I know my smile does that to women, it even happens with Ava, but I can’t believe it means more with her. Why is that?
‘No,’ I say, ‘thank you though.’
I turn and carry on my way. The office is only two streets away now and my walk to work was to clear my head, to prepare me for Good Bye, not some strange delaying tactic to let sentiment get the better of me.
There are no more Valentine’s displays to draw my eye, but there’s love everywhere. The pedestrian footfall is heavy, it’s London rush hour, but today feels different. I see every hand being held, every farewell kiss, even the stray eye of passers-by as they trail after another.
No, I don’t do sentiment. But this Valentine’s Day, the day she leaves, I can feel I’m morphing into someone else. Someone I almost don’t recognise. And for the first time since I was a child, I’m scared.
My office is busier than usual when I enter. Of course, it is. I’m late. I’m never late.
I can see the brief flare of surprise in my employees’ eyes as I pass and exchange a multitude of ‘Good Mornings’, not really registering a single one. Until I get to Tom, my PA, and he looks like the weight has just lifted from his shoulders.
‘I was about to send out a search party!’
‘I’ve no meetings until 9.’ I continue past him and push open the door to my glass-walled office, he follows close behind.
‘No…but…well, it’s 8:30, it’s…’
I turn to look at him and he promptly tightens his lips with a nod. ‘I’ll get you a fresh coffee, that one will be cold.’
He looks to my desk and I see my mail stacked up, a takeaway cup next to it. ‘It’s okay, just reheat it.’
‘Re—’ he stops promptly at my swift nod. It’s not like I’m going to taste it. Not today. ‘Of course.’
He leans over my desk to extract the cup, and as he does so, I spy a red envelope protruding from the mail. Its colour bright against the monochrome backdrop.
I finger it unthinkingly, slipping it out from the pile.
It’s blank and I frown. ‘What’s this?’
‘It was already here when I came in…’ I can hear the speculation in his tone. ‘…and you know what day it is!’
He turns light on his feet and sweeps out, his jovial parting comment landing heavy. I’m in no mood for silly infatuations or jokes for that matter. It wasn’t the first time an envelope had appeared on my desk. It wouldn’t be the last. I’m not an ogre, I can put down some misguided affection, and I can joke with the rest of them if that’s what it was. Just not today.
It’s her. My pulse fires, the world stills and I wait a second before I can lift my eyes to hers, before I can mask it all in a smile.
Her smile heats me from the inside out. Her hair is pinned back, her lips shine pink, and her cheeks flush rose. But it’s her eyes that hold me. They are blue and bright, shining with passion and intellect, and the more I stare, the more I’m drowning in them. Until they narrow. Her brow creasing. ‘You okay, Max?’
I swallow past the tightness in my throat, and rake a hand through my hair, my fingers catching in the normally smooth strands, a clear sign of the times I’d repeated the gesture that morning. ‘Absolutely. You ready to face your last day?’
Her lashes flutter and her eyes change, they almost glisten. With sadness, regret? For work…her colleagues…me? If only…
‘Almost, a few things to wrap up and then I’m good to celebrate.’
‘We are doing drinks this afternoon?’ She asks it slowly, like she spies my hesitation. Only it’s not about the drinks, it’s about the word: celebrate.
‘Of course, I’ll offer up a toast to your future.’ But I won’t be celebrating.
‘Good.’ She nods and just then Tom returns, his cup in hand minus the lid now and a ton of steam—he’d truly nuked it.
‘Sorry got side-tracked.’ His eyes flit between us and I get the distinct impression he feels he’s interrupted something. Which maybe he has. Could I have explained myself to her, there and then? To hell with the consequences. I watch as she nibbles over her lower lip, a move I’ve come to watch for and know, and my heart clenches in my chest. She’s nervous, hesitant. Did she have something to say?
‘Well…I’ll leave you to it, maybe you should get through your mail…’ Her eyes flit to my desk, to the red envelope that now glares like a beacon. Oh God. I want to hide it away, but I know the move will be too obvious, so I don’t, I simply nod and watch as she walks away.
‘1pm?’ I call after her.
She turns briefly, gives me that radiant smile and nods.
‘Sorry about that,’ comes Tom’s awkward apology as he places my cup down on the desk. But I don’t really hear him.
I don’t hear much for the rest of the morning either, other than the countdown clock ticking away in my brain, telling me that time is running out. And at five to one, she appears at my door with a gentle rap. ‘Ready?’
I look into her face and an honest ‘No’ creeps out.
She wets her lower lip, and it shimmers in the office lighting. ‘Shall I meet you there?’
No. I don’t want to go. It’s ridiculous. Like not going will somehow mean it’s not real.
But you can’t stop time, you fool, she’s going anyway.
‘Just give me a few minutes.’ Her eyes fall to my desk and I remember that blasted envelope is still there.
‘You haven’t opened your mail?’
I have. Just not that one. ‘Not yet.’
She nods and combs her fingers through her hair, she’s in wind-down mode, she’s untied it so it falls over her shoulders, a blazing contrast to the deep blue silk of her blouse. She’d unbuttoned that too. At least one, maybe two, the hint of cleavage calling to me.
She issues my name like a command and my eyes snap to hers in question. She lifts her chin, like she’s about to do battle. ‘Do me a favour, open it.’
It? I look to it in confusion.
‘I’ll wait for you at the lift.’
And then she’s gone and my eyes are burning into the red envelope as a weird flutter takes off inside.
Could it be?
I’m already lifting it, opening it, my fingers unsteady as I pull it out. It’s a simple slate-grey card, Be Mine, Valentine in black and red. I flick it open and the blood sings in my ears:
The rules don’t apply any more,
I look to where she’d been stood and then I’m walking, no running across the office. I don’t care that people look, I don’t care what they think, all I care about is getting to her and the future she spelled out.
First published in Love Sunday magazine on the 10th February 2019.