I could feel the change spreading inside of me with every move I made; in my eagerness to get out of bed in the morning, in the vibration of my lips as I hummed a song while getting dressed, and also the daring force in my foot as I pressed the gas pedal just a bit further than usual. I felt feather light as my legs and feet carried me into my office - he last place on earth I wanted to step into on any day of the week. Still, everything seemed so much brighter this morning, much friendlier. As if someone had finally pulled the dusty curtains aside and let the early sunlight flood the room.
Dropping my purse on the floor, I sank into my chair, pulling off my jacket with a little complication. My arm got stuck somewhere along the way. Typical.
"Morning, Bella," Eric, one of our photographers, said with a bright smile as he hurried past my desk in the direction of Victoria's office. He was always quick on his feet, running from place to place. To be honest, I could not remember ever having seen him walk before. Sometimes I even wondered if he stopped moving long enough to take a picture. He could not possibly take such beautiful pictures while running past the target.
"Morning," I answered, but he was already out of my sight. I snickered, finally able to wriggle my arm out of my jacket.
Switching on my computer, I knew this would probably be a day like every other; more work than I could handle, no sense in anything, and standing in the cafeteria without the hope of actually getting something to eat for myself. The soft humming of the booting computer lulled me into a trance, my eyes staring blankly ahead. I tried to recall the soft, husky voice, the way my skin had tickled and my heart had raced. The mere memory of the conversation with Jacob caused an unfamiliar sensation of hope to blossom inside of me.
The sudden interruption of my thoughts caused my elbow to drop from the table and unfortunately, I – in an act of laziness – had been resting my chin on top of my balled fist. The rather inelegant jerk of my head and the sharp scratch of the desk against my skin caused me to whimper quietly. First my finger last week, now my arm and head. By the end of next week, I would probably be in a hospital, in a coma, with no arms and legs.
When the stars in front of my eyes started to vanish, I refocused on Jessica, who stood next to me, tapping her red pumps against the carpet floor.
"Morning," I answered, rubbing the sore skin of my elbow.
"Victoria wants to see you in her office later. After lunch break," Jessica told me, her voice on the edge of annoyance.
I felt fear boiling inside of me. Victoria had never asked me into her office before. Of course, I had been inside that office on multiple occasions, but never because she openly asked me to. This was bad. I could not afford being out of work.
"Why?" I asked, my voice the opposite of Jessica's. Shy, fearful.
"You'll see," she answered shortly, before turning on her heels and prancing away.
"Shit," I whispered, my mind working on overdrive. It had always been like a painting book. Ever since I had to worry about things, since I was old enough to be responsible for anything, I had had too many expectations, like small movies in my head on how things would go. Which answers I might get. Which decision might be made. What the consequences might be.
What if I lost my job? My salary was enough to pay my rent, feed myself and be able to buy myself a little thing here and there. What would I do without it? Sure, Angela would probably allow me to stay at her house for a little while. But what would happen after a little while was not enough anymore? I had nowhere else to go, and no other friends around here.
Once again, the consequences of my change became apparent to me, the fatalities that my withdrawal from life had caused.
I was all alone.
Releasing a long held breath, I shook my head, trying to calm myself. Whatever was going to happen would happen after lunch. Not now. For now, all I could do was type my password and sigh at the sight of the stack of papers on my desk.
Strange how dependent you can become on something you hate.
When the clock on my computer switched to twelve, I dropped my pen and leaned back into my chair. My lower back felt sore from my unhealthy posture, the fingers of my right hand stiff from writing hasty notes for hours.
I found myself in a dreadful situation. For once, Jessica had not sent me out to run her errands, and there would be plenty of time for me to actually do something good for myself, like getting one of those delicious salads from the cafeteria, or catch some fresh air in the small court behind the office building, where the sun would now be shining.
But now that I had the possibility to do all that, I felt no desire to get out of my chair.
It was the creeping fear that glued me to my chair, that kept me from moving but an inch. During the last hours, my work had kept me busy, focusing my mind on nothing but the white sheets of paper and the yellow post-its. There had been no room to fear the near future.
But now my refuge was starting to lose its usefulness, its protective shield around my mind.
My eyes focussed on the silver pen in front of me and I wondered if just a second ago would be the last time I ever wrote with it. There was a chance that, if I stood up now, I would only return to this desk to pack my scarce personal things.
But, why? Why should that happen? As much as I hated this job, I had done my best work. Then again, maybe my lack of passion for every sheet of paper, for every paper clip around here, had finally shown. They would have no use for someone who secretly cursed this place.
Sighing, I did the only thing I knew that might comfort me in this moment. It was something I usually would never have done, but the current situation and the fear of loneliness, caused me to reconsider my old behaviour. I needed to start acting like the old Bella, the person I had long considered as collateral damage, buried. Forgotten.
Feeling almost like a criminal, I dialed Angela's number, all the while letting my eyes roam my surroundings. The last thing I needed was for Jessica to make a fuss about me having a private conversation.
The monotone beeping sound of the telephone increased my fear of being caught. The steady rhythm was much like a clock ticking at night, keeping you from falling asleep.
My forehead wrinkled immediately. I knew this specific sound of Angela's voice, the ragged, slightly breathless edge to her usually very clear but warm voice. She had been crying.
"Hey, Angela," I said plainly. Experience told me that the better option was not to mention anything; act like everything was normal, pretend I had heard nothing, and that I did not know.
"Bella? Is everything alright?"
"You've never called during your lunch break before," Angela said, her compassionate concern for people almost concealing the disturbance in her voice.
I suddenly felt very conflicted. She was obviously having problems, problems I never knew she had to deal with. It seemed like an ironic turn of fate that I was to find out about those problems at the exact moment I needed her to calm my own. I knew the sound of her voice after she had been crying, really crying. Not the way you cry when you watch a sad movie. No. This was the sound of tears shed in utter despair.
It had been awhile since I had last heard her like this and since then, I had been sure that she was coping. That there would be no more tears like that to shed.
Apparently I had not only failed myself, but my best friend, as well.
"Well, I just felt like calling," I said lamely, not wanting to bother Angela with my potentially empty fear.
"Bella, what is going on, for real?"
I sighed. I should have known that I would never get away with a lie.
"Jessica said that Victoria wants to see me after lunch break. I have no clue why," I admitted, tapping the fingers of my unoccupied hand nervously against my thigh.
"Did you miss any deadlines?" Angela asked me, her voice oozing with encouragement. Still, I could make out the façade.
"Did you have any kind of trouble?"
"Can Jessica work without you?"
I snorted, feeling a hint of self-confidence growing inside of me.
"I don't think so. I'm her slave."
"Well, if you didn't sleep with that photographer, I don't think they have any reason to fire you," Angela said reassuringly, laughing just a tiny little bit.
I had to suppress my own laughter, knowing it would give me away immediately.
"Angela! That could have been Alice's line."
"I know," Angela laughed. It was too shallow. "Anyway, I really don't think you need to worry, Bella. Why would they fire you?"
"That's what I keep asking myself," I answered, dread filling my mind once again. I peeked up from my desk, only to see the same group of middle-aged women passing by my desk that I had already seen last week. They shot me the same ungrateful, nasty stare. In the meantime, I had found out that they were trying hard to get advertisement for their cosmetic brand in our magazine.
"Don't do that, Bella. You go in there and don't worry. I'm pretty sure it will all turn out well."
Sighing, I nodded to myself.
"Oh, and Bella?"
"Hmm?" I murmured, my eyes now glued on my computer screen.
"You do know that I am really mad at you? Like, I-could-throw-something-at-you-kinda-mad?"
My insides twisted, my stomach doing a back flip. What had I done? There was no way I could be the reason for her tears…
"What do you mean?" I stuttered, feeling utterly stupid.
"Don't you play dumb with me. I mean, I might not be Alice who wants to know all the, what does she call it? Juicy details? But that does not mean I'm not a little bit curious."
Slowly, realization started to enlighten my foggy mind.
"Oh," I said, feeling a blush tint my cheeks. "Isla and Finley told you, then?"
"Of course, they did. You didn't honestly believe you could keep that a secret, did you?" Angela laughed warmly, making me feel relieved that her anger had only been mocking and that I was not the reason for her tears.
"I didn't even realize there was anything to keep secret, to be honest. It's not a big deal. We only had dinner."
"And, as I understood it, you have a date on Wednesday," Angela said.
"Ehm.. well, yeah. I guess," I stuttered, unsure how to approach this topic.
"Do you think this is going anywhere?" Angela asked curiously, although I could hear the hint of hope behind her question. She had never actually said anything to me – that was just not who she was – but I knew she probably would have liked to introduce me to some men she knew. If she had not known I would refuse, she would have tried her hardest to make me happy.
"I don't know. He's… really nice. I had a great time. But, I'm not thinking that far ahead right now," I tried to explain my insecurity, knowing Angela would not try her hardest to tickle any details out of me. I was very grateful for that.
"He's a really great guy, Bella. Give him a chance. You won't regret it, I'm sure."
"I might," I sighed, checking the time. "I guess I'll get ready. Can I call you tonight and let you know if I'll need shelter anytime soon?"
"Sure. Call me whenever you have the time. And don't worry so much, Bella."
I sighed once again. "Bye."
"Bye, Bella," Angela said calmly, before the line went dead.
Feeling every nerve ending electrified, I hung up the phone and took a deep breath.
I tried my best to appear confident and reassured as I opened the milky glass door of Victoria's office, my heart racing wildly.
"Hello, Bella," Victoria said in her sweet, soft voice as I closed the door behind me, standing in the elegant, a bit too sterile office without really knowing what to do. "Have a seat."
As I made my way to the leather seat across from Victoria's desk, I tried to make out her intentions as inconspicuously as I could. But no matter how hard I tried, this woman had always been and would always be a riddle to me.
Everything about her was contradicting. Her fragile, thin body and pale, innocent skin was such a contrast to her fiery, almost violently red hair. The soft, enchanting and almost childlike sound of her voice was surprising. Her elegant, gracious, cat-like movements were mixed with an occasional warm smile. There was a sadistic edge to her fierce and determined personality.
The leather seat was cold and scarcely used. Victoria never wanted to meet clients in her office. I always considered the reasons for that to be her privacy. No one really knew who this woman was; where she came from, if she was married or had children. She let absolutely no one in.
She smiled at me, but still I knew that I could not rely on this polite gesture. She might as well be torturing me in this moment.
"Did Jessica tell you why you are here?" she asked, her fingers folded and resting immobile on her dark, wooden desk. Had her red hair not been piercing my eyesight, the stark contrast between her pale skin – so much paler than mine – and the dark wood might have reminded me of Snow White.
"No," I answered, trying not to make my discomfort all too obvious.
Victoria laughed, the sound as clear as bells and yet far from innocent. "That suits her. She's been keeping it a secret for a little while now."
I was getting confused. There was nothing I could make up in my head that Jessica Stanley would not be announcing to the entire world. To be honest, up until now I had been unsure whether or not she was even aware of the word secret.
"Isabella, you've done great work over the last two years. Jessica and I are both very thankful for everything you have done."
My stomach started to twist even more and I was starting to be afraid that I would have to vomit. This sounded bad. Really bad.
"We both feel very confident in offering you something more than you have now, although it will only be temporarily. But, who knows what chances that might bring for you."
My mind was racing, the office around me blurring.
"I'm sorry. I don't think I understand what you mean," I said with a trembling voice.
"I want you to take over Jessica's position. For a little while," Victoria finally explained clearly, straightening her shoulders a bit more.
"I… why?" I asked, confused. This was the last scenario my mind had come up with.
"Jessica is pregnant, Isabella. She's been keeping it a secret for the last three months, but now it's time to start looking for a replacement for her once she has to leave. We both agreed that looking for someone new is much too complicated and inefficient. So, I want to promote you until Jessica is ready to work again."
I stared ahead blankly for a minute, letting the sticky sweet words sink in.
"What do you say, Isabella?"
I felt myself shuddering, goose bumps erupting on the small of my back, and sweat drenching my palms, before I finally regained control over myself.
"Ehm, yeah. Of course. That's great news. I would be honoured."
Victoria clapped her small hands, smiling triumphantly. I had a vague suspicion that she was the only one who had really considered me as a proper replacement for Jessica.
"Fantastic. Well, it will be a couple months more before Jessica is scheduled to leave, but it's best if she soon starts to, well, explain things to you," Victoria said, raising herself from her chair with a gracious movement.
I mimicked her, although I knew I probably just looked like a clumsy girl, eager to get away.
"I'm sure you will do a fantastic job," Victoria told me, reaching out her hand. I shook it, feeling how thin and fragile her fingers really were. It seemed queer that her hand did not give in under the weight of the huge, golden ring she was wearing.
"Thank you," I answered politely, before carefully stepping around the leather chair and making my way back to the milky door and the silver pen and yellow post-its on my desk.
I'm really sory this took me so long too update. First, it took me a while to write and then there were some beta complications, otherwise I would have updated this chapter last week. But here it is :D
School is being very stressy, so don't expect an update every other week. But I will continue, of course. It just might take a little while now and then. But I'm really looking forward to write the next 3 chapters. be prepared for a lot of cuteness. That should make up for the fact that there was no Jake in this chapter.