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See Me(14)
Author: Nicholas Sparks

For the time being, she was stuck. She’d made it through the conference but vowed not to put herself in that kind of situation again. She’d avoid the break room and be a bit more cautious about working late, especially when she knew Ken would be there. For now, that was all she could do, aside from pray that he turned his sights back on one of the paralegals.

It was yet another example of the ways in which life had turned out to be more difficult than she’d imagined it would. When she’d started her first real job, she’d been idealistic; life had seemed more like an adventure. She’d fully believed that she had a meaningful role to play in keeping the streets safe and in giving victims a way to seek justice and redress. But over time, she’d begun to grow jaded about the entire process. It had become evident that even dangerous criminals often went free, the clogged wheels of the system turned impossibly slowly, and her caseload was never-ending. Now she was living again in the city where she’d grown up and practicing a kind of law vastly different from what she’d known as an assistant DA. While she’d been certain that things would be better once she was settled in, she’d slowly come to realize that job stress simply came in different flavors, and this one wasn’t much better tasting than the one before it.

She’d been surprised by that, but then, she’d been surprised by almost everything in the last seven years. The world might view her as a young, home-owning professional, but there were moments when she felt like she was faking the whole thing. Part of it was financial – after paying her bills at the end of the month, she had less spending money than she’d had as a teenager – but the other part was that most of her friends from college were already married, and some of them already had kids. When she talked to them, most came across as completely content, as though their lives were unfolding exactly as they’d planned, while she, on the other hand, had a sex-crazed boss, a condo she could barely afford, and a younger sister who seemed simultaneously wiser and more carefree than Maria was. If this was adulthood, she wondered now why she’d been in such a rush to grow up in the first place.

For the next hour, she pulled steadily at the paddle, the board gliding forward as she did her best to enjoy her surroundings. She noted the slowly shifting clouds and the trees reflected in the water. She concentrated on the salty fresh scent of the breeze and basked in the warmth of the sun on her arms and shoulders. Every now and then she snapped a photograph, including a good one of an osprey clasping a fish in its talons as it rose from the water. It was too shadowed in the viewfinder and a little too distant, but with enough work in Photoshop, it might be something worth keeping.

When she finally returned home, she showered and poured herself a glass of wine, then sat in a rocking chair she’d placed in the small confines of her rear porch. She watched people as they walked along Market Street, idly wondering what their lives were like. She liked to invent stories about them— That one’s probably visiting from New York, or I’ll bet that mom is taking her kids out for ice cream. It was a harmless, relaxing capstone to a weekend that had its share of both highs and lows.

Like the blown tire. Which reminded her that she’d have to run out tomorrow to get it replaced. But when? She knew that while she’d been out of the office at the conference, Barney had filled her inbox with work. They also had two important meetings in the afternoon, which wasn’t going to make it easy. Nor did she have any idea what Ken’s next move would be.

The sense of dread intensified the following morning, when she spotted Ken speaking with Barney in his office while she chatted with Lynn, the voluptuous, though less than efficient, paralegal assigned to Barney’s team. Ken and Barney often met before the Monday morning meeting, but what was unusual was that after Ken left Barney’s office, he’d simply nodded at her without smiling before striding down the hallway. Part of her was relieved by the brevity of the encounter, but at the same time, the sudden frosty professionalism left a bad feeling in her stomach, because it no doubt meant he was angry at her.

A few minutes later, Jill poked her head in to apologize for the blind date, clearly mortified. They talked for a few minutes – Jill was heading out of town for the rest of the week for depositions – and Maria repeated to Jill the story she’d told Serena about her flat tire and the stranger who had rescued her, which only made Jill feel even worse.

As soon as Jill left, Maria started calling garages, trying to find someplace close where she could get her tire changed after work, but soon discovered that all of them would be closed by the time she arrived. Her only option was to try to get it done over her lunch hour. It took six attempts before she was finally able to snag an appointment at half past noon – cutting it close for the initial client meeting at one thirty. She warned Barney that she might be a few minutes late getting back. He frowned but told her to do her best, emphasizing that her presence was important. She left the office at a quarter to twelve, hoping that the mechanics would be able to start early.

But they didn’t start early. Nor did they even start on time. In the end, she spent the next hour waiting, alternating between panic and slowly mounting fury, making calls to Barney’s secretary and the paralegal, as well as to Barney’s cell phone. It wasn’t until after two that she was finally able to reclaim her car and speed back to the office. By the time she reached the conference room, the meeting had been in progress for nearly forty-five minutes. An icy stare from Barney signaled his displeasure, belying his slow, easy drawl as he welcomed her into the conference room.

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