The sky was a cold, steel color and an aggressive breeze seemed to want to force light, drizzling rain through Rainey Wilson's jacket.
"I've been in Seattle for six months; you'd think I'd learn that a sunny morning isn't a daylong guarantee," she muttered to herself.
A freshman Creative Writing major, Rainey was, well, average. Just that morning, half an hour after her alarm clock cut off a very nice dream about warm, dry beaches, she'd stood in front of the tiny, smudged mirror in the women's bathroom on her floor and stared at her reflection.
Taking in her green eyes, red-brown hair and the spattering of freckles darkening her full cheeks, she grimaced at herself. "No one's ever going to mistake you for a model," she said aloud, absentmindedly running a hand over the slight swell of her belly.
You're not fat you're just…voluptuous, her mother always used to tell her after one depressing shopping trip or another where Rainey had inevitably spent long minutes in the dressing room, ashamed of the way her breasts seemed to overflow tank tops and her thighs—oh God, her thighs—rubbed together beneath skirts she never had the courage to buy.
"Right, mom," Rainey would reply. "So voluptuous that I've never even been on a date."
The standard, "Boys aren't everything," always came after that so Rainey usually dropped the issue altogether. Being fat was who she was; she'd always been fat and, as she neared the end of high school, she decided that she always would be fat.
So, after a depressing morning of deciding what not to wear, Rainey was sprinting her way to work through the rain. It was nice that her university was so close to Seattle's downtown, business district but it was a convenience that also lulled Rainey into a feeling of tranquility—she'd convinced herself that she didn't need a bus pass because the walk was pretty much all downhill. But, by the time she hurried up the steps to the Xavier Building, an old 12-story brick apartment building that had long ago been converted into prime office space, she was soaked and panting for breath.
Rainey's worked on the 12th floor as an intern with RhapsodySwept magazine, an up-and-coming travel guide focusing on Northwest retreats. It was a dream job for her, mostly because she'd never expected to find a job related to her English major while she was just a freshman, with barely two years of work on her high school's newspaper to recommend her. But, she'd dropped off a resume a week after moving to Seattle and, to her surprise; the receptionist called her back the next morning to schedule an interview. Two weeks later, she had the job.
That was almost five months ago, and she could hardly believe how much she'd learned in so short a time; college educated her in the liberal arts while the magazine fed her passion.
She smiled at the philosophical bent of her thoughts as she rushed through the doors of the Xavier Building and headed for the elevator. Punching in the button for the 12th floor, she tried, in vain, to set her hair to rights. Normally wavy and frustratingly thick, the rain had turned it into a mass of auburn ringlets and Rainey was sure she looked like a sopping wet poodle.
The elevator doors swished open and she stepped out, one hand still trying to smooth her hair.
"Rainey," a woman's low, raspy voice called out. "If it's not my favorite intern of all interns."
Rainey turned to see her boss, Lynette Viglio approaching her from the draft table in the corner. Various layouts for the magazine were spread across the smooth, dark surface and Rainey knew she had a long few days of meticulous editing ahead of her.
"Hi, Lyn," she said, smiling cheerfully at the petite woman. With coal black hair cut in a severe bob, elegant silver earrings, milk-pale skin and bright red lips—contrasting a fashionable black pantsuit—Lyn, could have passed for a former haute couture model.
Well, if she were six inches taller, Rainey thought to herself, then grinned when Lyn stopped in front of her and the older woman's head barely reached Rainey's shoulder.
"What're you smiling about," Lyn asked, then raised an eyebrow as she took in Rainey's drenched hair and clothes. "Raining out," she queried, tongue-in-cheek.
"Oh, you know; the usual drizzle," Rainey replied, just as flippantly. "Little bit of thunder and lightning. I thought I saw a couple animals heading in-land two-by-two…so you know, it's not that bad out there."
Lyn chuckled. "Ha! A sense of humor even when you're cold and wet. That's why I hired you. Most certainly wasn't for your… neat appearance."
"Har har," Rainey said, shrugging out of her drenched jacket and lying it over the back of a wooden chair. "So, boss, any new work for me, today?"
"Oh, my dearest dear," Lyn smiled with a feigned evil glint in her eye and crooked a finger for Rainey to follow her to the draft table where stacks of the "rough" magazine awaited editing. "You'll wish you hadn't asked."
Two hours later, Rainey leaned back in her chair—a very uncomfortable metal chair—and tried to ease the dull ache in the base of her back. She hadn't moved from that spot since Lyn had left her to "take care of business," as she put it. Even though the work was sometimes mundane, Rainey couldn't think of anything else she found such satisfaction doing as when she was working on the magazine. It was a good feeling. She hoped she'd be rehired at Rhapsody for the next year of internships, but the contract she'd signed had clearly stated, "Renewals are rare and unlikely."
Since she was nearly done with the first 1/3 of the magazine, having to go slow to make sure she didn't miss any mistakes in the text, she decided to take a 15-minute break.
Maybe I'll be able to get through the first half of it today, she thought, standing slowly from her chair, stifling a groan as her muscles let her know exactly what they thought of her treatment of them.
It was mid-groan, as her face contorted just a bit from the unexpected twinge in her back that he emerged from the elevator.
Rainey froze. Time seemed to stop and all she could do was stare. It was always like that, the way her heart seemed to beat double-time and her palms began to sweat a little whenever he was around.
Aidan Murphy. She thought his name, her mind caressing each syllable the way she longed to stroke the strong set of his stubbly jaw, his full lips, the strands of his dark hair.
He was a freelancer who did work for the magazine every once in a while and Rainey thanked God for every chance she had to watch him when he came to the building to speak with Lyn or discuss a spread with Jasmine, the head photographer.
Rainey had first seen him during her third week at the magazine. Completely engrossed in a story she was line editing at the time, she hadn't heard him come in. That day, it was his laugh that made her look up, and when she did she watched him casually flirt with Jasmine and the way she, who always seemed a little distant and aloof, smiled up at him with an almost predatory glint in her eye.
My God, he's beautiful, Rainey had thought. She'd waited a week to ask about him, hoping Brenda, their plump little receptionist wouldn't decipher the reason for her interest. To Rainey's relief, Brenda had just smiled and spoke about Aidan as if he were her own son.
He was an Englishman by birth, Rainey found out. He and his single mother moved to the States when he was 11 years old, too young to consider himself a true Englishman, but old enough that he spoke with the same lilting, hypnotic accent of his mother's countrymen.
"Hi, Brenda," Rainey heard him say to the magazine's middle-aged receptionist. "I just want you to know, I haven't given up on trying to steal you away from that lucky husband of yours. But, as it is, I guess I'll just have to see Lyn, if she's in. She knows how to mend a broken heart."
"Oh, you darling," Brenda said, smiling broadly at the handsome man standing before her. "If I'd met you twenty-five years and four kids ago, I might have let you sweet talk me into running away to Vegas. I still might, except I couldn't bear to leave the china I had made for our wedding. Earl, I could give up, but I really do love that china."
Aidan tossed his head back and laughed loudly. The ensuing tingles that ran up and down Rainey's arms snapped her out of her daze-like admiration of the man's beauty. Fighting the urge to shake her head to clear it, she stood for a moment wondering what to do. She'd been planning on heading to the coffee room to have a pop tart or whatever other high-sugar fix she could get at the moment to keep her alert for the last hour of the day, but that plan would take her right past Aidan and she didn't think she could keep from blushing and blathering like an idiot if he favored her with a polite, "Hello," like he usually did when their paths crossed. Randomly, she wondered if he even knew her name but quickly pushed the thought aside as being idiotic. Why would he know her name? They'd never even spoken to each other; whenever he stopped by she was always off in the clouds staring at him like a lovesick high schooler.
She was still standing, rather nervously, in indecision when she heard Brenda tell Aidan that Lyn's phone line was busy but he could take a seat outside of her office and she'd let her know he was waiting.
Rainey expelled a sigh of relief and waited for him to sit down. Then she took off like a speed-walker toward the break room, making sure to keep her face turned away and her eyes glued to the floor. At least that way, she was less likely to trip over her own feet as she stared at him—something that had happened once before, though she'd blamed it on a new pair of shoes that she wasn't "used to yet." She cringed as she remembered the curious look he'd given her as she stuttered out her excuse.
The dull blue-and-white tiled floor of the break room had never looked so good to her eyes before. Crossing the small room, she skirted its only table and opened the refrigerator. A bottle of apple juice, half of a crusty-looking chocolate cake from Jasmine's birthday a few days before before, various Tupperware containers with unknown contents and a cup of yogurt she'd forgotten she had, stared back at her.
Yogurt in hand, she turned away from the fridge and was about to rifle through the drawers for a spoon when Aidan walked into the room.
He smiled at her and she stared at him. "I thought you were waiting for Lyn," she blurted.
"Oh, I still am, but from what I can hear through her door—which isn't difficult since she's yelling at the moment--she's very unhappy with an advertiser, so I figured it'd be a while." As he spoke, he started opening and closing cabinets.
Rainey couldn't think of a thing to say. The silence, filled only by the snapping open and shut of wooden doors, seemed to last for hours.
"I'm starving," Aidan said, glancing sheepishly at her over his shoulder. "Guess I shouldn't raid your guys' food though, should I?"
Rainey gulped. "Don't…don't you always eat our food whenever you're here?"
He laughed again and shrugged. "I'm a big guy, what can I say? Food and I are friends." He turned back to the cabinets. "Did you guys go through spring cleaning or something? There's usually something good in here."
As if to refute him totally, he pulled a plastic bag out of the cabinet, it was labeled--to both of their surprise-- lima beans. He grimaced and tossed them back. "I stand corrected."
Rainey couldn't help but laugh. He was like a little kid looking for hidden cookies. Without giving herself time to think about what to say, she asked, "What are you in the mood for? There's usually some popcorn on top of the fridge and—"
"Nope," he said, "I've got a sweet tooth. Drove my mom crazy when I was growing up. She said she spent almost as much money on getting my cavities filled as she did keeping me fed." He grinned at the memory and Rainey smiled along with him, at ease for the first time since he'd walked off the elevator.
"How do you feel about caramel popcorn?"
He raised an eyebrow, his lips quirking to the left. "Very friendly, actually. But, what kind are we talking here? Fiddle Faddle, Cracker Jacks or what?"
"Fiddle Faddle," she replied. "I brought a whole box maybe a month ago, there should be some in the cabinet over the fridge."
"Now we're talking," he said, excitedly, making Rainey grin wistfully as he rummaged in the spot she'd indicated. "Ah, success." He turned toward her and popped the box open. "It's half-full, wanna share the rest?"
She shook her head. "No, thanks, I've got my yogurt and I'm still not even half way through this edit of the magazine, so—"
"How's that going, anyway?" With a fistful of the sweetened popcorn, he leaned against a row of drawers and regarded her expectantly, his green eyes steady and intent.
Rainey swallowed hard. "H-how's what?"
"The magazine. Interning here? Being in college?" He smiled mischievously at his last question and tossed a large puff of golden-colored popcorn into his mouth. "God, I miss college." He swallowed and brought another handful of the snack to his mouth. "Don't get me wrong, Grad school is nice, too," he said after swallowing, "but college…95% was about the fun, and 5% was an education."
Watching his jaw flex slowly as he chewed, and enjoying the slight, endearing crinkles at the corners of his eyes, Rainey could well imagine him being a walking god to many of the girls he'd gone to school with. She didn't think she could have survived him if he was at her university now and she had to see him on a daily basis.
Damn it, she thought to herself as her stomach did a little flip at the thought of constantly seeing Aidan, will you just let this one go, Rainey? The man is in the middle of Grad school. And he's definitely not interested in some fat little college freshman. Besides, she told herself, her fingernail picking at the foil cover on the yogurt that she'd never put down. I'm not the type for relationships.
"Rainey?" He was watching her and she blushed, realizing that he'd caught her thinking about him—right in front of him.
"Oh, um…" she smoothed a hand over her hair anxiously and realized with a wave of mortification, that her hair had frizzed out to twice its normal volume. "Uh…the internship is great. Lot's of experience for, you know…stuff. And, college, I mean, that's great, too. I'm making new friends…and, yeah, it's just…you know…great."
Great? She repeated to herself in disgust. Really, Rainey? Oh God…
He was watching her again, his lips gave the slightest hint of a twitch and she realized that she couldn't take him laughing at her. With a single purpose in mind, she took a few quick steps forward, determined to find a spoon for her yogurt and leave him to his popcorn before she made an even bigger ass of herself.
It would have worked out fine. She could have grabbed a spoon from the drawer he was leaning next to, muttered a goodbye without meeting his eyes and scuttled away to silently berate herself for the next…oh, three or four weeks.
It would have been that way…if the drawer hadn't stuck. She pulled that first time and it didn't budge. A panicky sweat coated her palms; she could feel him there, right next to her, the box of caramel popcorn on the counter at his elbow. For a long second, she thought about just walking away, but that made no sense, she'd already embarrassed herself once today—besides, she needed a spoon, damn it.
"Uh…do you need help," he asked. His voice sounded choked, like he was holding back his mirth.
Rainey gritted her teeth, pulled harder and grunted a noise she hoped he would interpret as an emphatic "No."
Suddenly, his lightly furred left forearm, visible beneath the pushed-up sleeve of his blue button-up shirt, was reaching around her waist and his other arm was on her right side so that he was encircling her.
Rainey could feel her heartbeat in her temples. "What're you doing," she asked, cursing the breathless sound of her voice.
"You don't want me to do it for you, so we'll do it together," he said, wrapping his hands around her straining wrists.
She could feel the heat of his body so close behind her, smell the scent of his cologne and the sweetness of caramel on his breath.
Rainey's only coherent thought was: God hates me…
Then Aidan was telling her to "Pull!" and she did; for a minute they made no progress, but finally a popping noise filled the room as the drawer gave up its end of the battle.
With all of the effort she'd put into pulling, Rainey nearly lost her balance when the drawer came free. She stumbled backward and would have fallen if Aidan hadn't caught her, and himself, on the edge of the table.
There was a good five seconds when he had to hold her full weight up before she was able to stand on her own, which Rainey was mortified to realize considering she wasn't the most…waif-like person in the world.
This day just keeps getting better and better.
"Thanks," she muttered, pushing a bush of frizzy hair out of her face as she reached for her yogurt then grabbed a spoon out of the now-despised drawer.
"No problem," Aidan said, crossing to pick up the box of Fiddle Faddle. "I owed you one. But now, you owe me."
"I owe you…" she asked slowly.
"Yep," he said. "If it weren't for me, you'd have ended up all crumpled and bruised on the floor."
"Which means I owe you," she said, her confusion clear in her voice.
"That's right. And don't think I'll cancel out my favors cheap. I drive a hard bargain and I never forget when someone owes me."
She had just opened her mouth to respond, though she had no idea what she was going to say, when Brenda's plump form appeared in the doorway. "Here you are, Aidan, I thought you'd left. Lyn can see you now."
"Brenda, m'dear, you know I could never leave you," he said, walking toward the door, the box of popcorn tucked beneath his arm. "I'll see you later, Rainey," he called over his shoulder.
"Bye," she said quietly, knowing he wouldn't hear her. "He
does know my name,"
she whispered to herself then realized she'd just uttered the clichéd line of "unpopular" girls everywhere.
You owe me, he'd said.
"He's just messing around," Rainey decided aloud as she made her way back out to the draft table and her uncomfortable chair. But before she sat down, she glanced at Lyn's door and was immensely relieved that it was closed and Aidan was on the other side.