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Someone to Watch Over Me
By MICHELLE STIMPSON
Kensington Publishing Corp.Copyright © 2011 Michelle Stimpson
All right reserved.
I crossed my fingers in hopes of being named Top Quarterly Producer for my department. I mean, every single one of my clients had experienced Web site traffic and sales above the projected estimates, and I had even received two letters from pleased customers. "Tori's expertise made all the difference in our product launch," one had commented. "We'll be using Net Marketing Results for a long time to come!" Planning and implementing online advertising and marketing campaigns came with its own sense of fulfillment. After all, depending on who you asked, the Web pushes America's economy even more than a good old-fashioned mall.
But even as we stood around the conference room waiting for the announcement, I felt queasy. What if they didn't name me? One look around the room sparked another dose of apprehension.
Lexa Fielder was recently hired, yet she'd already managed to land a pretty impressive list of new customers for the company, though it was rumored she did quite a bit of work on her back.
Brian Wallace was one of the older marketing representatives, but he still had a few tricks up his sleeve. Every once in a while, he pulled off a last-minute record-breaking month for one of his clients and caught management's eyes.
There were only four eyes I wanted to catch, and all of them belonged to Preston Haverty. Okay, he really only had two eyes, but he did wear a set of insistently thick glasses that took on a life of their own at the center of his slight facial features. Every time I saw him, I felt like I was in a scene from The Emperor's New Clothes. Like, why won't somebody tell Preston those glasses are ridiculous, that we do have technology to free us from such spectacles? Probably the same reason no one talks to Donald Trump about that comb-over.
Anyway, Preston was good people, glasses and all. I appreciated his "hands off" management style. He didn't really care where or how we worked, so long as we got the job done. I only hoped that I'd done a good enough job to add to my collection of blue and green plaques given to outstanding employees. Lexa and Brian aside, I appreciated being appreciated. And God knows I'd put in enough woman-hours to earn this recognition.
"And the top producer for this quarter is ..."—Preston announced as everyone in the room beat a drum roll on either the sixteen-foot table or some spot on the surrounding walls that wasn't covered with a motivational poster—"Tori Henderson!"
My cheekbones rose so high I could barely see in front of me. Is this what it's like to be Miss America? Everybody applauding, confetti flying, the runners-up on the sideline clapping wildly to distract themselves from their jealousy and impending mental meltdowns following the show?
Okay, maybe it wasn't that serious, but I sure felt like a pageant queen. My fellow coworkers, probably twenty-five people or so, cheered me on as I walked toward the head of the table to receive my plaque. "Good job, Tori!" "You go, girl!" Their affirmations swelled inside me, feeding my self-esteem. If only my mother could see me now. Maybe then she'd forget about 1996.
I shook Mr. Haverty's hand and posed for the obligatory picture. In that moment, I wished I'd worn a lighter colored suit. Black always made me look like a beanpole. Gave no testament to all my hours at the gym and the doughnuts I'd turned down to keep the red line on my scale below one hundred and twenty-five.
I wasn't going to pass on the sweets today, though. Jacquelyn, the lead secretary, retrieved a towering pink and white buttercream frosting cake from somewhere and brought it forward now to celebrate my achievement.
Preston offered, "Tori, you get the first piece."
"Get some meat on those bones, girl," from Clara, the Webmaster.
But the mention of meat and the sight of the cake suddenly made me nauseous. To appease the group, I took the first piece. Then Jacquelyn got busy cutting and distributing pieces as everyone stood around milking the moment before having to return to work.
I sat in one of the comfy leather chairs and took a bite of my celebratory sweetness. Almost instantly, my stomach disagreed with my actions. My hand flew to my abdomen, lightly stroking the panel of my suit. People were so busy devouring the cake they didn't notice me catching my breath. Whew!
I pushed the plate away from me, as though the pink mass possessed the power to jump onto my fork and into my mouth. This was clearly not the cake for me. I thought for a moment about how long it had been since I ate something so densely packed with sugar. Maybe this was like red meat—once you stop consuming it, one backslidden bite tears you up inside.
No, that's not it. I'd eaten a candy bar the previous week, before my monthly visitor arrived. Renegade cramps? I rubbed my palm against the aggravated area again. No. The pain was too high in my torso for female problems. This had to be some kind of bug. Whatever it was, it didn't like strawberry cake, so I quietly tossed my piece in the trash on the way back to my desk.
An hour later, I felt like I could throw up so I sat perfectly still at my desk because ... well ... any movement of my torso sparked a pain in my side that might trigger this upchuck. I just didn't feel like I wanted to go through the process of throwing up. I would never tell anyone this, but I find vomiting an altogether traumatic experience. Such a nasty feeling in one's throat. And the aftertaste, and the gagging sounds. Not to mention getting a close-up look at the toilet seat. It's just not humanlike and should be avoided at all costs, in my opinion.
Thank God I made it all the way to my apartment before I finally had to look at the inside of a porcelain throne, only this time I hadn't even eaten anything. Bile spewed out of me, splattering in the toilet water. The pain in my side shot up to 7 on a scale of 1 to 10.
Now that I'd done the unthinkable and temporarily lost all self-respect, perhaps my body would relent. I could only hope the worst of whatever this was had passed (albeit out of the wrong end).
I managed to thoroughly brush my teeth and gargle a great number of times, assuring myself it was safe to swallow my own spit again. The image staring back at me in the mirror was normally me after a good workout—kinky twists dampened slightly at the base by my sweat, light brown face glowing in the accomplishment of burning hundreds of calories. Today, however, my sagging eyelids told the story of a woman who'd ... vomited. I tried smiling, elevating my cheekbones even higher. No use. Maybe my mother was right when she'd told me, "You're not that pretty, Tori, but you can keep yourself skinny and, when you turn fifteen, I'll let you wear makeup. Fourteen if you're really ugly by then."
I closed my eyes and pressed fingers onto my temples, reminding myself that people told me all the time I was cute. One time, I went to this women's empowerment event my client was hosting, and I won a T-shirt that read I'M BEAUTIFUL with some Bible verse on it about being beautifully and wonderfully made. I wore that shirt to Walmart and a total stranger walked up to me and said, "I agree." So why did the only voice ringing now belong to my ever-beautiful mother, the timeless Margie Carolyn James, who bragged of still being carded at age forty?
My side still ached enough for me to call off the evening's kickboxing class. Good thing Kevin was out of town working. He probably would have called me a wimp and dared me to run at least two miles with him. And I probably would have at least attempted to make Kevin eat his words, despite the pain now radiating through my stomach.
After downing a dose of Advil, I trudged to my bedroom, changed into a nightshirt and gently lay across the bed. I didn't have the energy to answer my landline when it rang. I could only listen for the message.
"Hey, I'm gonna lay over tonight. My flight comes in at seven, I leave out again tomorrow morning at eight. See ya."
I was hoping that by the time he got home, I would have awakened from a refreshing nap, totally healed and ready to finish up some of the work I'd had to bring home with me in light of the unproductive afternoon I'd endured. Yet when Kevin returned, he found me hunched over the toilet seat again.
"What are you doing?"
"What does it look like I'm doing? Uuuuck!" The wretching produced another plop of bile into the commode.
"Are you okay?"
"What's going on?"
"I'm pregnant," I quipped, though the hint of mockery escaped my tone thanks to the reverberating bowl.
"Oh my God, Tori. You're kidding, right? You know how I feel about kids," he yelled. "How could you—"
"Stop freaking out. I'm joking."
He balled up his fist and exhaled into the hole. "Don't give me a heart attack."
"I ate some cake today at work and got sick."
He backed out into the hallway. "Let me know if you need me."
I rested an elbow on the toilet seat and looked up at Kevin. Six foot one looked even taller from my bathroom floor perspective. His deep sandy skin contrasted perfectly with his ivory teeth and hazel eyes that, according to him, had won over many women back in the day. I wasn't one of those eye-color crazy girls, but I was definitely a sucker for track star legs, and Kevin had those for miles and miles. Watching him unveil those limbs when he undressed was definitely the greatest benefit of moving into his condo eighteen months earlier. Well, the legs and the free rent. And the sex, when my mind cooperated.
Kevin was the modern, metrosexual type when it came to clothes, but he had some pretty old-fashioned ideas about finances. Who was I to argue with him? He paid the major bills. I handled groceries, the housekeeper, dry cleaning, and all things communication related since I needed high-speed everything for my job. I often wondered if he was being chivalrous or if he never obligated me to a substantial bill because he still thought of the condo as his place.
At first glance, our living quarters still resembled a bachelor pad. Simple furniture, mix-and-match bath towels. Not one picture of us on display, though I had plenty on my computer and stored on my camera waiting to be downloaded someday.
Either way, I'm no fool. Thanks to our financial arrangement, I had a growing stash of rainy-day money I'd earmarked to start my own business after an early retirement.
My stash was chump change compared to Kevin's anyway. I'd seen a few of his pay stubs lying around the condo from his work in telecommunications sales. Made my college degree seem like a huge scam to keep the masses from getting rich.
Thoughts of my master plan to retire well and get rich later compelled me to hoist myself from the floor to a semistanding position and shuffle back to bed. Sick or well, there was work to be done.
Kevin did check on me, but only by default as he changed into his running clothes.
There went those strong, milk chocolate legs again.
"I'm going for a jog at the track. Might head over to Cameron's after to watch the game."
I gave my best big-brown-doe-eyes routine. "But you're leaving again first thing in the morning. Can't we spend time together?"
He held up a cross with his fingers. "I don't want to catch whatever this is you've got. You looked pretty distraught in that bathroom there a minute ago."
"Thanks so much, Kevin."
"Any time, any time," he smirked. "I do feel bad for you, if that helps."
"You need me to get you anything while I'm out?"
"A new stomach."
"No can do, babe. How about Pepto-Bismol or Sprite? That's what my mom gave me when I was sick."
I scrunched my face. "Didn't your mom also make you swallow Vicks VapoRub?"
"Yeah," he supported the madness. "Makes you cough the cold up. Worked every time. If you're getting a virus, you might want to give it a shot."
My stomach lurched at the thought. "No. I don't want anything else coming up out of me tonight. Just ... call and check on me."
He detoured to my side before walking out of the room. A gentle kiss to my forehead was his first affectionate gesture, despite more than a week's passing since we'd seen each other last. I suppose it would have been hard for him to kiss me since I was engulfed in the commode earlier. Still, I wanted him to rub my back or something. What I really wanted was for him to stay home and ... I don't know, watch me suffer. Hover like they do when women are giving birth in those old movies. Put a damp towel on my forehead and encourage me, "You can do it! You can do it, Tori!"
Who was I kidding? Kevin would hire a birthing coach before he'd subject himself to my labor. Not that I'd ever find myself in a position to give birth so long as Kevin stubbornly refused to father a child. I held hope, however, that things would change after a few of his friends settled down. Sometimes guys are the only ones who can convince other guys to grow up. It's a sick reality.
I decided to put the suffering out of my head for a moment. The Advil had taken the edge off the pain, so I carefully reached onto the floor and pulled my laptop bag onto the bed. The sweet challenge of work carried me into a trance that dulled the pain for a while.
I tapped on the mouse to wake my computer and then resumed toggling between the open programs on my computer desktop, making sure my client's newsletter matched the updated blog content precisely. Next to update their social media networks with useful information about the company's new products.
With reviewing several press releases still on my agenda, I really didn't want to stop working. But the pain in my midsection returned with new vigor, biting into my concentration. I powered down my computer for the night and made my way back to the restroom for another bout with bile and a double dose of Advil. If the pain wasn't any better by tomorrow, I'd have to miss work so I could visit the doctor.
Kevin rolled in a little after eleven to assess me again. He slipped a hand beneath the comforter and rubbed my backside. "You all right now?"
"No," I groaned.
He nibbled on my ear, a sure indication of his intentions. "Mind if I make you feel better?"
"That won't help."
"Marvin Gaye says sexual healing is the best thing for you."
"Marvin Gaye never felt this bad. Besides, I might have germs."
Kevin tried again, lapping my neck with his tongue. "I don't care. I miss you."
Now he doesn't care about the germs.
His hand moved around to my stomach, warranting a stern rejection. "Kevin, I cannot do this tonight. Move your hand."
He jumped up from the bed. "Fine. Fine. I understand. I'll be on the couch."
Chapter Two"Maybe it's because you haven't eaten anything," my secretary speculated when I told her I felt like I'd been kicked by a horse. "You tried crackers?"
"Yes, but they wouldn't stay down," I confessed. Jacquelyn had never seen me so miserable—in fact, no one had ever seen me so miserable because I'd never been so miserable in my whole life. I hurt so bad I was close to crying, which is the only reason I decided not to hang around the office another hour before my eleven o'clock semiappointment with Dr. Lightfoot.
His receptionist had assured me, "You may have to wait a bit when you get here, but we'll try to work you in as soon as possible."
I figured if they were going to work me in some way, I might be able to get the ball rolling sooner if I got there earlier. I grabbed my laptop bag and purse, and stopped by Preston's office on my way out the door. By this point, I was nearly doubled over in pain.
"Tori, can I get someone to take you to the doctor?" he asked. "You really don't look well."
Truth be told, I would have preferred a ride. I'd even considered calling Kevin, but if he came home, he probably wouldn't be able to reschedule his flight and make it to Chicago in time for his next presentation. Still, the logistics of having a coworker take me—leaving my car in the parking lot, getting someone else to pick me up when this was all over—was too much to ask. Plus there was always the possibility I might barf upside someone else's door panel before they could pull over, like I'd contaminated my car only three hours earlier.
Excerpted from Someone to Watch Over Me by MICHELLE STIMPSON Copyright © 2011 by Michelle Stimpson. Excerpted by permission of Kensington Publishing Corp.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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