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Olivia Frost dribbled water from a measuring cup onto herb seedlings lined up in tiny pots on the windowsill above her kitchen sink. Parsley, dill, rosemary. The window looked out on the alley behind her Boston Back Bay apartment but received enough sunlight to grow a few herbs.
No sunlight today, she thought, setting the cup in the sink.
Just when New Englanders hoped they could put away their hats, gloves and boots, March had decided to turn into a lion again. The weather forecast promised the dreaded "wintry mix" by early afternoon.
Olivia sighed at the fresh green of the herbs. She didn't hate winter but she was ready for spring. March had less than two weeks to turn into a lamb and usher in April showers and May flowers. She couldn't wait to drive out to the hills and quiet back roads of Knights Bridge, her out-of-the-way hometown west of Boston, and plant her herbs at the early nineteenth-century house she'd bought last fall. The purchase had felt impulsive, but the owners, desperate to make a quick sale, had offered her a great deal. She had never been one for extravagant spending and kept her expenses as low as possible in Boston. Instead, she had saved her money and was able to snap up her historic house, as picturesque as her hometown itself.
Except for the eyesore just up the road, but that was a problem for another day.
She had enough problems for today.
"Challenges," she said aloud, turning from the sink. "Challenges, not problems."
She was already dressed for work, opting for a black skirt and blue merino sweater. She'd add what she needed to accommodate the weather, but she had a client luncha critical client lunchand wanted to dress less casually than when she knew she'd be holed up at her desk all day.
She'd been too keyed up to sit at the table for breakfast, instead downing coffee and a bowl of oatmeal with walnuts at the sink. She liked her apartment, even if it was small and overlooked an alley. When she'd moved to the city five years ago, she had talked her landlord into letting her paint the walls and woodwork, choosing cozy, cheerful colorsmisty-greens, rosy-pinks, summer-cloud whitesto offset the dreary light. On her way home from work last night, she'd picked up a dozen pink tulips and divided them between two glass pitchers and placed one on the kitchen table and the other on the dresser in her bedroom.
Tulips and herbs. Olivia smiled to herself. All would be well.
With a deep breath, she walked through the adjoining living room. The wood floor and her sofa were stacked with books on herbs, artisan soap-making, landscaping, old houses and painting furniture. All winter, she had half dreamed, half plotted how she could convert her historic house into a destination for weddings, showers, lunches and small one-day conferenceseventually, perhaps, into an overnight getaway.
She hadn't thought of her notes and plans as distractions, but maybe they were. Maybe, in part, they were the reason today's lunch was so critical.
She reached into the closet by the front door and reluctantly got out her scarf and coat, a full-length blend of black wool and cashmere that she planned to wear for years. She skipped gloves. She didn't care about sleet, snow and freezing rain. It was mid-March, and she wasn't wearing gloves.
Her iPhone dinged and she saw she had an email from Marilyn Bryson, another graphic designer and one of her best friends.
Hey, Liv. I can't get together while I'm in town after all. I'm so busy these days I can hardly breathe!
I love what I'm doing. I look forward to getting up every morning. I can't wait to go to work.
Olivia noticed Marilyn didn't mention when they might get together or ask about her, but she pushed back any disappointment and typed a quick response.
Glad to hear all is well. Have a fun time!
That was diplomatic, she decided, glancing in the small mirror she had positioned by the door after reading a book on feng shui. Her dark, shoulder-length hair was still slightly damp from her shower. She'd fussed with her makeup more than usual, but it was still understated. She would have to remind herself to put on fresh lip gloss before her lunch.
With another deep breath, she headed out, making her way down the steps of her building, a former single-family house, to Marlborough Street. Gray clouds had descended over the city, but there was no precipitation yet. Olivia tried to focus on her familiar routine. Her lunch was with Roger Bailey of Bailey Architecture and Interior Design, her biggest client. Something was off in their recent communications, and she was worried he was about to jump ship and had scheduled a face-to-face meeting.
The wind picked up as she walked to her building, a five-story brick bowfront just past Copley Square. Roger wanted to refresh the look for his company and she assumedno, she thought, he'd told herthat he wanted her to take on the job. Landing his Boston-based firm as a client two years ago had been her first high-profile achievement as a graphic designer, and her work for them had won awards. She and Roger had hit it off from the start. Losing him as a client wouldn't be good.
Jacqui Ackerman, the slim, fifty-four-year-old owner of Ackerman Design, one of Boston's most prestigious studios, greeted Olivia with a quick "good morning," then disappeared into her first-floor office. Olivia tried not to read anything into Jacqui's behavior. She could be in a hurry. She could have a client on hold.
Olivia walked back to her own office and switched on her computer as she pulled off her coat and scarf. She had several small projects that she could clear off her desk this morning, and she'd go over her Bailey Architecture and Interior Design files before lunch, so that everything would be fresh in her mind when she met with Roger.
Three hours later, as Olivia reached for her coat to head to her lunch with Roger, she received a text message from his secretary: Roger has an unexpected conflict and can't make lunch. He apologizes and will call tomorrow.
Olivia stood frozen by the coatrack. The secretary couldn't call? Did that mean the cancellation wasn't that big a dealor that it was a huge deal?
In the past, Roger would have called or texted himself.
"This can't be good," Olivia said under her breath.
Bailey Architecture and Interior Design was not only her biggest and most prestigious client, it was one of the biggest and most prestigious for the studio. The last thing Jacqui would want would be for a defection of that magnitude to start a stampede out the door.
Taking a moment to pull herself together, Olivia put her coat on, anyway, then finally texted the secretary back: You caught me just in time. Thanks, and let Roger know I look forward to speaking with him.
She slid her iPhone into her handbag and left, grateful that she didn't run into Jacqui or anyone else she knew. It was just as well Marilyn couldn't get together while she was in town. Olivia had to admit she was too preoccupied with her own problems and wasn't in the mood to see her friend. Marilyn had worked hard to revitalize her own graphic design careerwith Olivia's help. Marilyn had been stuck at a mediocre agency in Providence. She hadn't been bringing in clientsnever mind top clientsand her work hadn't been setting anyone on fire. Last fall, she had asked Olivia's advice on how to break through, and together they had mapped out a Marilyn Bryson career revitalization plan.
It worked, too, Olivia thought as she crossed the street and walked toward Copley Square, not even certain where she was going. The wind was biting, bringing with it sprays of cold rain mixed with sleet. She pulled her scarf over her head and tucked in her chin, rushing with a small crowd across Boylston Street.
From November to mid-January, Marilyn had called almost every day and often emailed throughout the day and into the evening. She was focused, determined, hardworking and open to constructive criticism and advice from wherever she could get them. Olivia had admired her friend's resilience, her insights, her dedication to her work.
"When I'm successful," Marilyn would say, "I'm getting all new friends."
A joke, of course. An irreverent way for her to deal with her uncertain situation. She and Olivia had met at a graphic design and digital media conference in Boston not long after Olivia had started at Ackerman Design and had been friends ever since.
Not only did Marilyn revitalize her career, she opened her own studio in February, immediately wowing everyone. It was as if she had reached critical massa tipping pointand her success only brought more success. No longer in need of advice and moral support, enormously busy with her work, she got in touch with Olivia less and less frequently and took longer to respond when Olivia initiated contact. Visits to Boston and invitations to Providence for late-into-the-evening brainstorming ended. By early March, Olivia realized their friendship was in a lull if not in jeopardy, and she backed off, letting Marilyn take the lead.
Nothing happened. Marilyn disappeared, until the email two days ago that she would be in Boston this week and would love to get together. Then came this morning's email, canceling.
Olivia turned into the wind on Newbury Street and half wished she'd woken up with a sore throat and had just stayed home and planted more herbs, but it wouldn't have changed anything. She continued down the block, finally reaching one of her favorite restaurants. She descended concrete steps to a small open-air terrace that in warm weather would be filled with diners. It was empty now, a few handfuls of salt and sand scattered on the concrete. The interior of the restaurant, however, was crowded with people who had braved the lousy weather.
Lowering her scarf, Olivia pushed open the glass door. She would enjoy a pleasant lunch by herself and think about how to restart her own career if Roger defected. She couldn't deny reality any longer. He was on his way out. The signs were there.
The cold, wet wind followed her inside as the door shut behind her. Then again, maybe she'd just never mind her high-stress, competitive career for an hour and think about her herb garden and the color scheme for her house in Knights Bridge. She had never been one to stay in a rotten mood for long. Even if she wasn't as super-hot as she'd been two years ago, she was still an established, respected designer. Designers and studios lost clients all the time. It was the nature of the business. Why should she be exempt?
She unbuttoned her coat and pulled off her scarf. She was looking forward to warming up with a pasta sampler plate and salving her wounded ego with a glass of Chianti.
The bartender, a slender, black-haired man, waved to her as he filled three glasses in front of him with red wine. The restaurant was narrow, with small tables lined up along a brick wall on one side and a dark-red painted plaster wall on the other, both walls decorated with inviting black-framed prints of Tuscany. Five years ago, Olivia had celebrated her first night in Boston at a table in the far corner. She hadn't known if she would last six months in her graphic design job, but she was still there, still working.
She noticed that the far-corner table was open, but as she started to take off her coat, her gaze fell on a man and a woman seated across from each other halfway down the brick wall.
Olivia didn't need to look twice. The woman had her back to the entrance, but Olivia recognized Marilyn Bryson from her glistening pale hair and the way her hands moved when she was animated and trying to make a point. The man was even easier. He faced the entrance where Olivia was standing, coat half off. She only needed a glimpse to recognize stocky, gray-haired Roger Bailey.
She was positive that Roger and Marilyn hadn't seen her.
They couldn't see her.
Olivia had never been good at the small social lie and knew she couldn't come up with one now, under pressure. Instead, she mumbled something unintelligible to the bartender, then fled, pushing past a couple coming through the door. Ignoring the icy conditions, she raced up the steps back out to the street.
Out of sight of anyone in the restaurant, she adjusted her scarf and debated her options. Just go back to work? How could she? She'd have to tell Jacqui what she'd just witnessed.
Unless Jacqui already knew.