The rest of the week and the weekend were probably the most uncomfortable she'd ever experienced in her apartment. She tiptoed around like a stranger in her own home, and although Kristen still behaved like usual, Christina still locked her bedroom door and was careful not to leave anything out that she considered valuable. She remembered the way Kristen had behaved towards Nicki, and there was no way she was going to give her the benefit of the doubt.
On the other hand, because she was so excited about progressing through L'Amore Perfetto, she could ignore bother her problems at home and her problems at work. She gave up trying to take credit for her work with Erik and just did what was necessary to get the project done. She'd never sleep with him, and frankly, aside from the bigoted pigs that were her bosses, everyone knew Christina was doing all the work anyway. They came to her with their questions and reported back to her with their work. She was the acting team leader, even if Erik had the position in name. Because of that, she chose just to ignore him.
And now that she was in a perpetual good mood, Sunday came around before she knew it. That afternoon at around 2, she received a phone call, again from an unknown number, but when she answered, her caller ended up being Elizabeth Lambert, Nicki's new mother-in-law, and, apparently, Christina's appointment specialist.
"Hello, Christina. It's nice to speak with you again. I was glad to meet one of Nicki's close friends at the wedding."
"Hello, Elizabeth. I'm glad it's you calling me. I remember Nicki mentioning how much of a blessing you were when she went through the application process."
"I'm flattered, and I hope I can be as helpful for you as she says I was for her."
"You're already helping me feel a bit better."
"I heard Kristen is giving you a hard time, just like she did Nicki. Are you okay?"
"I'll be fine. For now, I'm more nervous about the interview tomorrow."
"Don't worry about that. Nicki tells me that you work in advertising at your company and are used to dealing with boards and meetings. Just go into the interview with the mindset you use to speak at the meeting through your work. It'll be about the same amount of pressure. I'm sure you heard from Nicki how intensive the program is. This interview is designed to see if you'll fold under pressure as well as the answers to the questions. Just relax and stay calm, and you'll be fine."
"Thank you, Elizabeth. How is everyone doing?" The conversation continued for a bit, talking about the joyful expansion of her family as all her children found their soul mates and how she had three wonderful new children. By the time they hung up the phone, Christina was smiling. Nicki was right about Elizabeth. She was incredibly kind.
Now, all Christina needed was to choose her outfit for tomorrow. She had plenty of work-appropriate attire, but she didn't want to appear too dull or unapproachable, so after deciding on her favorite pair of slacks, she dug through her closet for a good hour trying to decide on the most flattering blouse she owned.
In the end, she chose a green blouse made of deliciously slippery satin material. The cut and ruffles at the front made her breasts a little more pronounced, but not in a whorish way, and the tapered design made her waist appear trim. The affect, overall, was to make her curves obvious without making her look chunky, which was hard to do with such a voluptuous figure.
By the time she had everything prepared for the next day's interview, the sky was already darkening outside, and her nerves began to rise again. What if she completely botched the interview? She'd have five people who might have a hand in deciding whether or not she would find her soul mate staring at her while she stuttered. Pushing the image from her mind, Christina went out to the kitchen and put together a light meal: fruit, yogurt, and a little granola. Then, to help keep her centered, she retreated once more to her room and pulled out her sketch book, losing herself in the strokes of pencil on paper until she was tired enough to put it away and go to sleep.
The next morning, Christina got up, got ready and was out the door by eight, deciding she wanted to grab breakfast at a coffee shop somewhere near where the meeting would take place. That way, she knew she'd be there on time, and she also knew Kristen wouldn't get up until around 10, so if she got out early, she definitely wouldn't run into and have to explain herself to her slightly cuckoo roommate.
Settling on an iron-wrought chair at an outdoor table at a Starbucks about a block away from the meeting place, Christina nibbled on a scone and a fancy water bottle, not wanting to deal with coffee breath right before an interview. When she finished, there was still about 30 minutes until the appointed time, so again, she pulled out her sketchbook and worked on her latest piece.
The next 15-20 minutes went by immediately, and the moment Christina checked her watch, she shoved the book into her bag and marched the block all the way to the obscure alleyway door she'd found before she went to find breakfast. The silver button she pushed sent a silent signal to somewhere inside, and Christina had only to wait for a moment before the door before her opened, revealing a beautiful woman she seemed to remember as being related to the Soranno family.
"Hello, Tina. My name is Pia, and welcome to our office. Do you have your check?" Christina nodded and pulled out her checkbook out, scribbling out the amount, signing it, and handing it over to the small Italian woman.
"Thank you, Christina…Have we ever met?" she inquired politely.
"I was at Nicole and Christopher Lambert's wedding."
"Ah!" Understanding dawned across her face, and the expression made Christina smile a bit. "Well, good luck on your interview. It will be through that door there."
"Thank you." Christina smiled then moved to the door and slipped through. Glancing at the arrangement of chairs in the middle of the room, Christina gulped, nerves fluttering slightly in her stomach. It was almost like the Inquisition. Nevertheless, she settles in the chair right before the other five and waited. A second door off to the side opened only moments later, and she stood to greet the five people entering, each one of them seeming slightly familiar. Christina hadn't realized exactly how many of the L'Amore Perfetto members had attended Nicki's wedding. Of course, it had been a huge affair, so there was no way she could have kept track of everyone.
Paolo greeted Christina and introduced her to each of the other four people in attendance. Marcello, Paolo's father and the original founder of L'Amore Perfetto (that introduction certainly made Christina's heart beat a little faster), who preferred Marco, Donatello, Marco's brother and also a founder of L'Amore Perfetto, Pippa Nessida, a cousin, and her husband Juan Nessida. All family, and though they seemed kind, the intensity of their gazes made Christina want to squirm, but she held herself together and appeared calm as they all took their seats. And so began the interview.
"That's the last of our questions, Miss Christina. Do you have any yourself?" Marco inquired kindly when the grueling interview was over. Christina smiled in return.
"No. When Nicki went through the application and after she finished the program, she was very open about L'Amore Perfetto. She believed you would successfully find her soul mate, and she was right. I'm going to do the same." There were smiles across the board, and Christina hoped that was a good sign.
"Thank you, Christina," Paolo murmured.
"Thank you, sir- Ah. I mean Paolo." With a small smile to every one of the interviewers, Christina stood, smoothing her hands on her slacks before bending over momentarily to grab her purse. "Thank you, everyone." Turning on her heel, Christina stepped back out the room, waving at Pia sitting at the front desk on her way out. Hopefully, her answers were appropriate, even when she had none. Nicki had mentioned to her that her being honest about not knowing the answers was just important as knowing the answers. Christina wasn't a fan of lying in the first place, but she didn't even stretch the truth for answers she didn't have enough information for. If everything went right, she would get past Step 2.
The drive home took a while, but Christina enjoyed it. It was a warm spring day, so she rolled the windows down all the way and turned up the music. Not very loudly because she didn't want to disturb other people but just loud enough so she could hear it over the sound of the wind. The next hour was full of Frank Sinatra crooning to her. Finally, when she got home, she was in such a great mood, she didn't expect what was waiting for her when she walked through the door.
"Where have you been? Today was supposed to be your day off," Kristen almost snarled. Christina blinked in surprise, closing the still open door behind her.
"It's nice to see you too, Kristen" she replies, slipping her keys into her purse before standing calmly before Kristen's tense stance. Kristen rolls her eyes in return.
"I mean it, Tina. Where did you go?" Christina frowned, giving Kristen a long, scrutinizing look before answering.
"I didn't realize I had to report my every plan to you, Kristen. If you must know, I had a meeting today." She didn't expand, instead changing the subject. "Why are you acting so strangely, Kristen?" Kristen huffed a frustrated breath in reply, like she was trying to come up with something to say without giving too much away. Christina knew why Kristen was behaving so oddly, but she wanted to see what the little sneak would say.
"I was just worried about you, Tina. You just disappeared," she finally settled with, avoiding meeting Christina's eyes, which narrowed slightly in frustration.
"Sometimes, even when I have days off, I have things to do. You know how busy it's been, what with the product launch. Speaking of, I still have a few phone calls to make. Do you mind letting me through?" Kristen looked as if that was the last thing she wanted to do, but she was all out of steam. There was nothing left for her to get onto Christina about without outright admitting she's illegally gone through somebody's mail and destroyed it. Instead, she stepped out of the way and let Christina through.
Once she got to her room, Christina knew she had to call somebody, on the chance Kristen was listening through the door. Realizing that she hadn't talked to her little brother or sister, she decided to call them up. Glancing at the clock, she saw it was about 5, so she probably couldn't call her sister, who'd gotten in the habit of taking as many afternoon and night classes as she possibly could, so she could work in the mornings and during the day. Her little brother, however, was living with Aunt Clarisse, their mom's sister, and her husband Rick while he finished school. It looked like she was calling Alex.
"Hello? Chris?' his warm, welcoming voice came through the line, making Christina smile.
"Hey, Alex. How are you doing? Are you doing well in your classes?" she asked.
"Eh, it's going okay. You wouldn't happen to want to do my homework, would you?" Christina laughed, thinking that she hadn't realized how much she missed her little brother.
"No, no. As much as I'd love the opportunity, I'll have to decline your generous offer." They laughed together and began chatting. Alex told her how his classes were going and how Aunt Clarisse and Uncle Rick were. She teasingly asked if he had any girlfriends, and he returned the taunting. Before she knew it, 20 minutes had gone by, and Aunt Clarisse was calling Alex away to do his chores before dinner. Christina wished her precious brother well and asked that he pass her love on to their aunt and uncle, and he, in his teasing teenage manner, said she needed to go find a man.
Once that conversation was over, she sent a quick text to her sister wishing her well and saying they needed to make time to call each other sometime soon. Then, she leaned back on her bed and considered how the day had gone. It was honestly probably the best day she'd had in a long way, and that was saying something, since she had a stressful interview and a confrontation with Kristen to boot. She really hoped she was accepted into L'Amore Perfetto. It would be the perfect excuse to step back and take a break from life. Heaven knows, she wouldn't have the strength to take that step back on her own. Instead, she would be stuck in an endless downward spiral.
Brushing that depressing thought off, Christina resolved herself into soaking in the contentedness she had earned from her day. She even decided to go bake something. It's funny how easy it was for Kristen to forgive her for some imagined slight when Christina was waving some homemade cookies under her nose. Score one for Christina on harmonious home-living. After that, she resolved to relax and watch tv, and though she knew it was just the eye before the storm, she enjoyed the laughing and chatting she did with Mallory and Kristen that evening.
The next morning, Christina went to work practically glowing. That's the only explanation she could come up with. She must have been visibly happy, too happy apparently, because Erik had decided to make it his mission to finish off making her work life a living hell. He was succeeding, too, because by the end of the day, every tiny bit of relaxation she had earned was gone. She was feeling even lower than she had the week before, and of course, Erik decided that was the perfect opportunity to make his move.
"Hey, babe," the sleazy greeting came from beside her car. She hadn't seen him at first, since she was looking for her keys in her purse. When she looked up and saw him waiting there for her, she wanted to scream. However, she was so tired due to the piles of work she'd had to deal with that she didn't even have the strength to put up a fight from the get-go.
"What do you want, Erik?" she asked weakly when he wouldn't let her get by to her car.
"Christina, I've been thinking," he began. Christina was already rolling her eyes. "We're so good together. Don't you think it's worth it to give us another shot?"
"No, I don't," she replied without hesitation, "Now, would you please move?" Erik brushed off her question without a blink and instead gave her a slow smile that used to make her stomach flutter in happiness but now just made it roll with disgust.
"Don't be so quick to deny your attraction for me, Tina."
"You know, what with you cheating on me the first time, then the second time, and now being an all-around asshole and stealing credit for all the work I have been putting into the project, I don't know why you would think I had any attraction left for you in the first place," Christina returned testily, "But if none of that was enough for you to understand before coming to speak with me, why don't you settle with I hate you and move away from my car?"
Erik seemed surprised that Christina had said what she did, and she, herself, was shocked and a little worried about the consequences, but she'd had enough. She was so tired of having to deal with this shit at work and at home. She hoped she received an acceptance letter soon, because she couldn't wait to be out of this place. Getting into L'Amore Perfetto was as much a ticket to freedom as a route to finding her soul mate as far as Christina was concerned.
He still hadn't moved away from the driver door of her car, so Christina quickly stepped around her car to her passenger door, and before she could react, she had hopped in through that side and locked all her doors. He tapped on her driver window while she crawled over to start the car, but she ignored him, turning her key in the ignition and screeching out of there as fast as she could.
Now that her mood was completely shot, she didn't even want to return to her apartment only to have to deal with all the suspicious and accusatory looks Kristen would probably be giving her again. With her current luck, Kristen would probably soon reach the mean, petty point of her jealousy that led to the destruction of other people's property.
Still, she didn't really have a choice. There was nowhere else to go, and she definitely wasn't in the mood to kill time at the movies or shopping or something. She would spend the whole time moping. Nope. She'd have to go home, but she wouldn't spend more time with Kristen than she had to. Christina was going to pull her sketchbook out again and try to pretend she wouldn't have worse to face tomorrow.
She did. And worse the next day. And the next day. If she thought Erik was bad before, he was positively nasty now. It was obvious to all who observed that he had a personal vendetta against her. He clearly did not handle rejection well. Needless to say, when an envelope from L'Amore Perfetto came across her desk, she was both relieved and terrified. A denial into the program would just be the icing on the cake of hell right now. Still, she had to know, so after taking a deep breath, her shaking hands carefully tore open the envelope.
Congratulations on making it past step 2! Only 15% of our applicants make it this far.
You will be receiving a call very soon from your appointment specialist to set up your physical.
Christina's relief was so palpable she could literally feel it lifting the weight of her stress off her shoulders. She didn't want to appear weak or inefficient to her coworkers, but she could not stop the tears from welling up in her eyes and spilling down her cheeks, making little plops on the paper and smearing some of the ink. Embarrassed, she tried to hurry and wipe away the evidence of her emotions, but in her distraction, she didn't notice Erik step up and snatch the paper from her hand.
"You are not permitted to receive personal mail at the office," he sneered before looking over the letter. "What is this?...L'Amore Perfetto?" Christina jumped to take the letter from his hands, but he snatched out of the way and read it over once more.
"Isn't that the dating service your friend used?" he asked with a slight air of disbelief before turning a nasty grin on her, "Oh, Christina, if you are getting that desperate, I am always willing to throw you a freebie, you know, for old times' sake." He knew what her response would be to that, but that wasn't the purpose of his offer. He'd pitched his voice just loud enough to carry across the office. Their coworkers were trying to be discreet, but she caught their sideways glances, gazes that showed a mix of pity and disgust. She knew the pity was probably for her and the disgust probably for Erik, but it didn't matter. He'd put her on the spot with the purpose of humiliating her. He was practically crowing; his smug expression said it all.
"What is this disturbance?" Mr. Thompson snapped as he stormed up to Christina's desk. "Miss Tolbert, you should know better than to bring your personal problems to the workplace. It's unprofessional." Suddenly, it was all too much, and Christina clenched her fists at her side in an effort to reign in her emotions. Unfortunately, it didn't help.
"That's it! I quit!" she yelled. The office was suddenly shell-shocked. Erik, Mr. Thompson, and each of her coworkers wore an amazed expression. None of them had ever heard her raise her voice before, not even Erik, and most likely, they'd never expect her to up and quit. "That's right. I'm done. This is the worst job I could ever imagine having. You, Mr. Thompson, are a sexist pig. The 'disturbance' here is a result of Erik's incessant need to compensate for his lack of sexual prowess, but I suppose, in your world, men don't make mistakes like that. If you don't stop treating your female workers this way, the 21st century is going to leave you behind. And you!" She turned and jabbed a finger into Erik's chest. "What you just did, what you've been doing for months, is called sexual harassment and is punishable by law. I guarantee you if you decide to chase me around any further with your behavior, I will get the police involved. Maybe a restraining order will do you some good."
Seizing the sheet Erik had taken from her, Christina gathered her purse and anything else that belonged to her that she found important and headed in the direction of the door. She was about to march right on out when another thought occurred to her, so calmly, she stopped and turned to face the crowd of the office, who was still all staring at her.
"Oh, and good luck getting this new project off the ground. None of you knows enough to really finish what we started, since I did all the work thus far, so you'll need to scramble to get your acts together or all the resources we've poured into it will go to waste. I don't know about you, but I've seen the charts. I'm pretty sure the company won't recover from that." Satisfied her point had been put across, Christina turned back around and exited the building feeling more free than she ever had before. Even if she got denied by LAP, she was glad to have this awful job gone forever. Even Kristen couldn't ruin this. No. Plus, if she were to be truthful, she was even more determined not to enter L'Amore Perfetto. She deserved it, and she knew it. She just hoped they felt the same way.