"Is this it?"
Donna's voice tore through the office, rendering Josh both speechless and motionless where he sat behind his desk. One of his hands hovered over an opened folder; the other held the phone to his ear. His eyes darted toward Donna, who had materialized on the opposite side of his desk. Sam had been right; women were masters of stealth. Josh cleared his throat. "Uh, Toby? Yeah, I'm going to have to call you back," he said, tracking Donna with carefully neutral eyes, alert for swift, sudden movements.
The phone's receiver hadn't settled in the cradle before Donna piped up, one hand propped on her hip. "I'm normally not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, Josh, but is this your way of saying that you're going to take me to Aruba, or is this it? A seashell." Donna raised her hand, her fingers curling around the orange spire of the shell as if it were a miniature Nerf football.
Josh squashed the urge to take cover under his desk. He forced his posture to relax, slumping against his chair. "Why would I want to take you to Aruba?"
"Because," Donna said, pausing to cross her arms over her chest, the shell still in hand, "I think I'd like Aruba, and I could use a vacation. You could use a vacation."
The truth in her reasons-one, at least-nearly drew a smirk, but he quickly cut her short before she could run away with the idea. "I'm not going to take you to Aruba."
"So it's really just a shell?" she asked, unfolding her arms. Donna balanced the shell in her hand and extended it toward him.
Josh stood and rounded his desk, swallowing against the bubble of disappointment scratching along his throat. "Well, yeah, it's a seashell, but it's-" He released a blustery exhale. "It's not, you know, your run-of-the-mill sand dollar."
"I know what a sand dollar is, Josh," Donna said.
"Do you know what this is, Donna?" Josh nodded toward the shell.
Donna peered at him, pressing her lips together.
"I'll take your silence as an embarrassed 'no'," Josh said, his mouth curved in a half-grin. "But, in a second, I might pretend to ignore the fact that you barged into my office with your foot in your mouth." His grin widened as Donna dropped her eyes for a moment and squirmed, pushing a strand of hair behind her ear.
"What is it?" she asked, her tone soft, her eyes curious as she glanced at his face.
"A conch." He stepped forward and pointed at the shell's smooth, curved lip. "A queen conch, actually. Or a pink conch, which"-his finger followed the shape of the ridge, colored with a pearly, deep magenta that reminded Josh of lipstick-"takes its name from its color. Here."
Donna trailed her finger behind Josh's. "Where did you get it?"
"I found it," he said, dropping his hand and slipping it inside his pants pocket.
Donna's finger stalled along the shell's lip as she met his eyes. She quirked her eyebrows, doubt drifting across her face. "You found it?"
Josh flashed a grin, a flicker of charm, determined to quell the nervous flutters in his stomach and smother the disbelief in Donna's voice. "It-found me," he said, shrugging. "Maybe. At my mother's for Thanksgiving. Washed up on the beach. I got it."
"Because you thought I'd like it."
Josh bumped the charm-needle into the red, flashing a full smile. "I knew you'd like it." He reached for the shell again, but Donna twisted away, hugging the shell against her chest.
She pursed her lips, shaking her head as she said, "In case you've forgotten-and it wouldn't surprise me if you have-I've never seen the ocean." She pointed at him, her fingertip a pencil's width away from his nose. "And I don't count the view from airplane windows. I'd love to see it, Josh, but I was stuck in Wisconsin for most of my life, and the rest of the time I've been working for you, and-"
"Donna." He considered holding his breath, speaking until he ran out of words-anything to keep himself from deflating.
"And I'll pretend to ignore the fact that you gave this to me out of some mean-spirited, twisted attempt to rub it in my face."
Josh reached for her, cupping her bent elbows, hoping that the touch would recapture her focus. "No, Donna. It's not-it's not mean-spirited," he said, releasing her with an aimless wave of his hands as he scrambled to recover. "Here, just hold it to your ear."
He shuffled a step closer. "Because-" He offered her a weak smile, shaking his head at himself. This plan had sounded much better in his head. "Because you can hear the ocean. You can hear it if you, you know, listen." Josh lifted his hand, holding an imaginary shell to his ear.
"If I listen to the shell?"
"I'll hear the ocean?"
A tiny spark of confidence lit in his chest as a smirk teased Donna's lips. Josh drew a breath and nodded once, quickly. "Yeah." He forced himself to stay silent, blinking and raising his eyebrows at her. Counting the passing seconds, he bounced on the balls of his feet. The spark inside him flared into a flame, fanned by Donna's reluctant smile as she angled her head and lifted the shell to her ear.
Falling back onto flat feet, he watched her face, tension finally easing out of his shoulders. He lowered his voice, whispering, "So, the queen conch? They produce rare pink pearls. Did you know that?"
Donna lowered the shell, sweeping her hair back, and eyed him. "But not this one?"
"This particular one?"
"But you felt that I needed to know that this particular conch did not produce rare pink pearls?"
"I thought you'd appreciate a nugget of useless information," he teased, smirking at her.
"Ah. I see," she said. "You were being cute."
"That's right." Josh stepped backwards and perched on the edge of his desk, noticing when Donna's mouth curved into a frown as she concentrated. She turned the shell over in her hand, tracing its spikes, its smooth glaze. He shifted, trying to displace the hot, tight pull behind his breastbone. "It-" Josh swallowed, shaking off the false start. "It reminded me of you. It, uh"-Josh dropped his head, his hand slicing through the air-"protects the thing, the snail or something, that lives in there." Josh lifted his head, sure to meet Donna's gaze, holding steady before he continued. "It-the snail, it couldn't live without it. It couldn't live without that shell."
Josh stared at her, watching her as she wet her lips. She opened her mouth as if she wanted to speak, but closed it again, silently opting to glance at the shell instead. Josh's heart beat a cadence loud enough to echo in his ears. He slid off the desk, never looking away from her face. "Donna," he whispered. "I didn't mean to say-"
Donna crossed the space between them in a couple steps, peeking over her shoulder before coming to a stop. Josh forced a swallow, studying Donna's eyes for a sign that he might have upset her, that this shell really had been a stupid idea.
Josh didn't need to try to hold his breath as Donna curled her arms around his shoulders and brushed a fast, feather-light kiss on his cheek.
"Thank you. It's a beautiful gift," she said, pulling back to offer him a warm half-smile before she headed toward the door.
The residual heat of Donna's mouth, her breath, still warmed his cheek when he called after her. "Uh, Donna?"
"Yeah?" she asked, stopping in the doorway.
"You'll get to the ocean, okay? I'll make sure of it."
Donna smiled, nodding. "Okay," she replied, stepping into the hall, and walked toward her desk.
He watched her go, waiting until she was out of sight to shout after her, "Just not before the next presidential election!"
Donna's voice burst through the open doorway. "Yeah, yeah! I got it."
Josh grinned to himself as he took a seat in his chair, leaning forward to reach for the phone.