The Replacement Wife (part one - Rebecca - I.)
By Juliet OC
The aroma of his aftershave, spicy yet fresh, hit me as he entered my cubicle. He must have brushed against the Christmas tree on his way around the office with the cardboard tray of cakes, as a string of angel hair quivered on his dark blue jacket lapel. Everyone was pretending to be really busy and productive despite the season. We were all fearful of further redundancies and needed to prove our worth - some more than others.
Moments before, Maggie had laughed at his every word; making an ‘arse licking’ performance out of it. No one knew whether he liked his ego stroked or despised sucking up. God help me if it was the former.
He was holding out the tray of cakes. Danish pastries, scones, doughnuts, iced buns and éclairs. He didn’t look like he ate many cakes. He was chunky not fat. His firm, solid body (I imagined rippled wood) beneath the well-tailored suit made my heart speed up. Maggie trotted over with a report, which I didn’t need.
“Good to see communication between departments,” he said to her.
She glanced at me nodding. Her chin wobbled. “We’re one happy team here.”
Suck up. I smiled back at her and then peered at the remaining selection. He insisted the scone was to die for. I chose and éclair.
“More air than calories,” I said, for something to say.
“Not that you need to worry,” he replied with a soft northern accent, which belied his reputation as a straight talker. He patted his own stomach. “Unlike me.”
“Don’t be silly,” Maggie insisted, “you look fine to me.”
He stroked the side of his face with an amused smile.
Cream escaped the éclair. “Excuse me,” I murmured, reaching into my desk drawer for a tissue and smoothing it out on the desk. Placing the éclair on top, I used a second tissue to wipe my hand, and then looked up at him through my volumised lashes.
There was a moment where his eyes held mine and everything seemed to stop, like we were inside a suspended bubble.
“Do I call you Flynn or Mr Roberts?” I said, breaking the spell.
Around the office everyone was watching me flirt, but I couldn’t help myself. Flynn Roberts ticked all my boxes.
His gaze held mine. “Flynn.”
He had on a pale blue shirt, no tie, which made his eyes look ridiculously blue.
“Rebecca,” I said, falling for him instantly.
“Good to meet you, Rebecca.” He held out his hand. The nails were short, but not bitten. My hand fitted inside his like it was meant to be there. His palm was dry and the shake firm. “I read the report you did for SMT. I agree with your ideas for streamlining the exam process.”
His dark, lightly groomed eyebrows lifted as I came to a stuttering halt. “So if the curriculum staff would just check the entries properly it would save thousands of pounds.” My cheeks heated. I’d just made a complete tit of myself in front of my new (to die for) boss.
He nodded. His expression was intense and personal, like he already knew me. “I hear what you’re saying, but first off there is no ‘them and us’. And secondly, we need to get to the bottom of why they’re not complying. Is the system unwieldy? Is there a lack of training on software?”
“I didn’t mean the teachers are being intentionally difficult,” I said, even though that was exactly what I’d meant. “I just mean… they need to be enabled…” My voice petered out. Stop chatting garbage - Sara would whisper (loudly) if she were here. The flush extended down my neck.
He rubbed the side of his face. A reflex I already found endearing. His brow furrowed. Fine lines turned to dark crevices. “And I didn’t mean to patronise. Sorry. The student is the most important thing. Everything we do must benefit the student.”
“I totally agree.” I sounded a bit gushy, but it was preferable to him having the impression of me as a jobsworth. “That’s why I want to be able to track the exam entries more easily to improve accountability. It is the student who is affected if their entry is wrong.”
He smiled and his eyes crinkled at the corners. His lashes were dark and thick. They would tickle like feathers. “I can tell you see the world in the same way as I do.” His Lancastrian accent turned harsh syllables into soft, warm words. “We’ll meet properly very soon. Once I’ve got my head around how this place works. Who do I need to watch out for? Who’s likely to chew my ear off?”
“You’ve already met Maggie,” I said, dropping my voice a little. It would serve her right if she was ear-wigging. “Avoid going into the kitchen alone. That’s where she stalks her prey.”
His smile was broad and generous and the inward slant of his top teeth ticked another box.
“Thanks for the warning. If you see me going in there and I don’t resurface, come and rescue me.” He flicked his head back. A curly flop of hair lifted and settled on his forehead. There was a smattering of freckles near his hair-line.
“Deal…” I said, and forced myself to break eye contact before my tongue started to hang out. “Now if you don’t mind I would like to be alone with this éclair.” I picked it up and pretended to take a huge bite.
“I understand completely,” he said and broke into another captivating smile.
I tried not to stare as he walked towards IT support. His pace was purposeful, yet somehow languid. Eric was standing in the doorway of the IT office, his tie flipped over his shoulder and his shirt, that looked one size too big, creased around the waist. Our eyes met and he smiled and gave a little salute. I held up the éclair in response and then picked up my Blackberry.
#My type. I like.# I texted Sara in HR while licking the chocolate icing on top of the éclair.
She replied instantly and didn’t ask who I’d meant; ‘friendapthy’ she called it. #Thought he might be, but… 1. He’s your boss. 2. He’s married. #
Damnation. Too mesmerised by his blue eyes to notice a wedding ring, I reminded myself I was off men anyhow. They were all the same underneath; bored little boys with nothing but sex, football and in my most recent ex-boyfriend’s case, cocaine on the brain. Yet there was something different about Flynn. Something I couldn’t put my finger on. It felt like something exciting might happen now he’d arrived.
I bit down on the éclair. Cream squished out of both sides as my phone vibrated again.
#Although... you only live once, hon.#
I shook my head and tapped in a reply, #I’m not a marriage wrecker!# as I chased the escaping cream with my tongue. A blob landed on the report Maggie had handed me. I glanced over to the IT office, guiltily, but Flynn and Eric were leaning over a PC with their backs to me.
My phone buzzed again. #How do you know it isn’t already wrecked?#
Sara was the type of friend every girl needed, but sometimes wished she didn’t have. She made me more than I could be on my own. I was braver when I was with her and more willing to take a risk, but she never knew when enough was enough. The amount of outrageous situations she’d got me into since I’d joined the college four years ago didn’t bear thinking about. Although since she’d met Rob at the masked Halloween Ball for HSBC, which she’d somehow got tickets for, a different side of her was surfacing.
“Methinks Miss party girl has fallen in love,” I said to her in Nico’s after work on the last Friday before Christmas.
In just a week Flynn had made visible changes by shifting out some filing cabinets, with the help of Eric and Raj from IT, to create a meeting space in his office. He also made it clear his door was always open. I just wished I could stop getting tongue tied whenever he spoke to me. It was so embarrassing. At nearly twenty-six, I thought my days of silly crushes were over. It seemed not. Just thinking about him brought out a red rash across my chest. I put it down to his unavailability. I always wanted what I couldn’t have.
Sara nudged my shoulder with hers. “He’s taking me to meet his parents at New Year. They live in Buckinghamshire. Proper posh. Now all we’ve got to do is get you fixed up with one of his lawyer friends.”
“Trainee lawyers,” I clarified.
“Will be lawyers - with fat pay packets to match.” She finished her gin and tonic and slammed the glass down. Nico looked over from his position at the other end of the bar. He wiped his brow with the white tea-towel permanently slung over his shoulder, before waddling over, his belly moving in its own rhythm. The place was starting to fill up with those high on the promise of Christmas holidays.
“I’m not interested in another relationship right now,” I said, nodding to Nico.
“Don’t let that knob-head put you off. They’re not all coke heads.”
Someone moved in close to my right side. It was Eric. I groaned inwardly.
“Hello Rebecca. Would you like a drink?”
His green shirt was done up to the top and the orange tie did nothing to help the overall effect. “I’m fine - but thanks for asking Eric.”
I rolled my eyes at Sara.
Nico leant forward towards me. “The young man would like to buy you a drink.” He winked. “But it really is code for love.”
“Lucky I didn’t accept then,” I said, conspiratorially.
Nico shrugged exaggeratedly at Eric. “I try to help young man. She is beautiful girl.”
“Oi, what about me?” Sara said. “I am here as well.”
“It goes without saying,” Nico said, opening his arms towards her.
“Sorry, Sara,” Eric stuttered. “I didn’t mean... Please… what would you like to drink?”
“Does that mean you love me too Eric?” Sara winked at me.
Eric shifted back on his heels and looked to the ground. Nico roared with laughter. It set off a coughing fit, which left him red-faced and gasping for breath.
“You need to take care of yourself,” I told him.
Nico waved his pudgy hand at me and, still struggling to catch his breath, said, “God will decide my time.”
Eric retreated back to the nerds and rejects table and mumbled something about having a good Christmas. I felt a bit mean. I knew he was besotted with me, but he was so not my type. It was probably for the best that I didn’t encourage him, despite what Sara thought.
I lay my head down on the bar and looked up at her. She was all loved up and I was alone for the second Christmas in a row.
“Another Christmas to look forward to with my depressed mother, pissed up father and psychotic brother. Lucky old me.”
“Leave it with me,” she said, patting my head like I was a dog. “Rob’s got some tasty friends.”