“It’s time,” Kris said. Again. How many times had they had this conversation in the past month?
Nathan breathed in, savoring the scent of gourmet coffee, freshly baked cookies, something distinctly seasonal in the air. “Look, Kris, I know you mean well, but—”
“But nothing, Nathan. Look at you!”
Nathan stood up and made a show of checking himself out, right down to running a hand over his butt and humming in approval. Two teen girls at the next table over giggled, and he bowed dramatically. The one with the Santa earrings nearly fell off her chair laughing while her friend—was she wearing a reindeer sweater?—shook silently, tears welling up in her eyes.
“Honestly!” Kris grabbed his wrist and pulled him back to his seat. “Can I not take you anywhere?” she whispered. The girls continued to giggle.
Nathan loved to get Kris going, especially when she was on one of her missions. Truth be told, he enjoyed playing along with her most of the time. Just not when he was the mission in question. During those times the gloves came off and anything went. And the easiest way to get to Kris was to draw unnecessary public attention—the more odd the behavior, the better. Today wasn’t his best effort by far, but needs must, and what else was to be done at the corner coffee shop? He chuckled. Kris’s favorite café.
“Stop being such a shit,” she said.
“Stop meddling,” he retorted.
She snorted. “Hello? Shall I stop breathing too?”
He considered for a moment before responding. “If it stops the meddling, perhaps.”
She stuck her tongue out.
Nathan sighed and turned his attention out the window. The snow-covered streets teemed with life, the normally tasteful storefronts crammed with trees and toys and tinsel, and holiday shoppers weighed down with purchases they wouldn’t make any other time of year. “This really is getting old.”
“And so are you, darling.”
He looked back at his friend. The same age as he, Kris had barely a wrinkle, the fine lines around her dark brown eyes only visible when she smiled. “Very funny.”
She tapped her nails gently on the worn table—a habit she knew drove Nathan to distraction. “As a matter of fact, it’s not funny. You are well past your prime—”
“I’m not even thirty!” he interrupted.
She waved aside his comment. “Be that as it may, you are not getting any younger.”
“Nor are you,” he snapped.
“Yes, well, I happen to have myself a man.” She reached instinctively for the chain around her neck—a birthday gift from her boyfriend. “And you do not.”
“I don’t need a man.”
She looked down her nose at him. “Oh, really?”
“Switched teams now, have you?” She tapped her nails some more and pouted. “I really wish you had said something sooner, darling. Before I got all tangled up with Michael. You know the two of us would make the most striking couple.”
“Admit it. You think I’m hot.”
He rolled his eyes. “You know I do.” She smirked. “But I’m happy with my team.”
“Apparently not,” she said. “You’re the most attractive man I know, Nathan. Tall, dark, and handsome.” She reached over and ran a finger along his jawline. “Such strong features.” Her finger lifted his chin, and she stared into his eyes. “And such a warm heart. I hate to see you spending your youth all alone. It’s a crime.”
He pulled away from her touch. Flattery would get her nowhere. “Again. Not even thirty.”
“Eligible, gorgeous, smart,” she listed, checking each attribute on her fingers. “You have a great job, money in the bank, a fabulous condo in the heart of the city, and—” She winked. “—the best friend a gay man could ever ask for.”
“Don’t forget my wardrobe,” he added, brushing an imaginary piece of lint from his shoulder.
Hand to her heart, she gasped. “Heavens no!” She reached a hand out to caress his silk shirtsleeve. She’d been with him when he’d purchased it, insisting the shade matched the blue of his eyes. “It’s almost as extensive—and expensive—as mine.”
“Precisely.” He banged his palm on the table. “What more do I need?”
Her face grew solemn, and she reached for his hand. She held it between her two as if in prayer. She looked imploringly into his eyes. “Someone to make you laugh,” she said. “Someone to take care of you. Someone you can take care of. Someone to love who loves you back.”
He lifted his free hand to grip hers and flashed a grin. “You are all that and more to me, Kris.”
“Ah.” She pried her hands away from his and pointed a burgundy nail at his chest. “Perhaps I won’t be anymore,” she whispered. If he didn’t know better, he’d think she were about to cry. “If that’s what it will take to get you back out there.”
“No, Nathan.” She stood up, purse in one hand, the other gripping the back of her chair. “I know Anthony hurt you, and I hate him for what he did.”
“It is, whether you’ll admit it or not. Anthony cut you to the quick and now you’re afraid to get close to anyone. It’s been nearly a year. It’s long past time to move on.”
“I have moved on.”
“No, you haven’t. You’ve thrown yourself into your work and have barely come up for air. That’s not moving on. That’s burying your head in the sand.”
“I like my job.” He cringed at the defensive tone in his voice. “It makes me happy. And—” He waved his hands over his top-of-the-line designer outfit. “—it pays for this fabulous wardrobe and my condo and my car and—”
“And you’re not happy. Not really. You’re only playing at being happy.” She tucked some stray hair behind his ear and cupped his chin. “I can’t remember the last time a smile reached those gorgeous baby blues of yours, honey. I want to see them sparkle again. I want to see the life return to them.”
He struggled to find words to counter what she said, but he couldn’t.
“You deserve to be loved, to be in love, Nathan. But Mr. Right isn’t going to just drop into your lap.” She pecked him on the cheek. “Promise me you’ll at least think about coming to our party next week.”
“I promise,” he said. As she reached the door, he clarified, “I’ll think about it!”
With a sad smile and a wave she was gone.
Nathan’s head ached by the time he entered his condo. He tossed his keys and mail on the antique mahogany table by the door. He could face the correspondence after a good night’s sleep. For now he had a relaxing night planned in front of his 63-inch plasma television. He eyed the DVDs he’d bought recently and opted for a no-brainer action movie, sure to be full of explosions, hand-to-hand combat, and buff men with their shirts off. God bless testosterone.
He poured three fingers of single malt, put the movie in, and settled himself on the couch. As the credits began, he closed his eyes, tilted his head back, and let the surround sound wash over him. “See?” he said to the Kris inside his head. “No work, and I’m relaxing. Take that!” He toasted the room, ignoring Kris’s alone retort, and savored the burn of the whiskey as it trickled down his throat.
“Nathan,” Harvey, his boss, greeted him the next morning. His casual demeanor and relaxed personality hid well the shrewd entrepreneur Nathan knew lay beneath the surface. “We need you in Chicago for a few days.”
“Problem with the Llewellyn account?”
“Yes. Stubborn old fools.” Harvey ran a hand over his weathered face. He didn’t get annoyed easily or often, but his frustration was clear today. “Our project manager, Paul Madigan, is out there. Has been for nearly six months.”
“On one account?”
Harvey chuckled. “Well, not exactly. But Llewellyn is his primary account. Anyway, my point is that he knows the execs, and he’s asked for you.”
Nathan had seen Paul’s name on correspondence, but had never dealt directly with the man. His reputation as an astute businessman suggested he was tough but fair. Nathan, being a freelance consultant, primarily submitted his reports and feedback directly to Harvey. Distance from the stakeholders often yielded more objective results in his experience. He’d work with the teams during implementation to ensure needs were met and details weren’t missed, but rarely beforehand. “Does that mean the proposal is a go?”
“Well, not exactly. Your marketing strategy is what Paul is struggling with, and he felt it would be best to meet you in person and have you present it to their board directly.” It wasn’t unheard of, but Harvey didn’t usually operate that way. Nathan’s face must have reflected his confusion. “I trust Paul,” Harvey said. “He knows these guys. They’re a bunch of dinosaurs, if you ask me. Stuck in the Dark Ages.” Nathan didn’t bother correcting him on his timeline for dinosaurs. “If he says he needs you out there for a few days, then we do.”
“A few days?” He’d never been to Chicago. It might be fun.
“Well….” Harvey hesitated. “I’ve booked you on a return flight on the twenty-third. If you’re done early, you can take in the sights or change the flight.”
Five days away. That would mean missing Kris’s party on the twenty-second. And the plethora of single men she would no doubt direct his way. “The twenty-third sounds fine.” He tried to contain his glee. No, he would not be changing his flight. “When do I leave?”
“Ten o’clock tomorrow. Paul said he’d leave details for you at the hotel’s front desk.”
“I have the draft report you requested here.” He handed over his latest project. “If that’s all, I guess I should get working on a presentation.”
Harvey took the report and tossed it onto a pile on his credenza. “I’ll look this over while you’re away, and we can discuss it after the holidays.”
“Fair enough. I’ll see you then.”
“Oh no you don’t,” Harvey said. “You know I expect you to drop in on Christmas Eve for a cup of cheer.”
Oh, right. “But that’s just for employees.”
“You may be a consultant,” Harvey said, “but you’ve become as much a part of this company as any other employee.” He smiled. “We’re a family, Nathan. Being a distant cousin doesn’t make you an outsider.”
Nathan’s eyes searched the office for any hint the old guy had been partaking of the Christmas cheer early.
Harvey chuckled. “It’s just… well, this time of year brings out the sentimental side in me.” Nathan nodded. His mother had been the same. “Now I hope you don’t mind me saying, but I don’t like to see good people alone over the holidays.” He held up a hand even though Nathan hadn’t attempted to say anything. “Relax, son. I am no matchmaker. I leave that to my wife.” He leaned in conspiratorially. “Don’t mention you’re single unless she asks, for God’s sake. The woman is relentless.”
“Duly noted.” Nathan laughed. “I already have one determined woman trying to change my status, and she’s more than enough, thanks.”
“Just come to the office. We close up shop at noon, bring in lunch, and drink a toast to the season before heading home. You’re part of the team, and you should share in our successes with the rest of us.”
“Will do,” Nathan promised.
“Good man. Now get out of here so you can prepare to dazzle those dinosaurs in Chicago.”
Nathan managed to pull together a rough presentation and a set of hand-outs by two o’clock and fired them off to Paul before heading out. He picked up his charcoal suit from the drycleaners en route home, called Kris from the car and left his regrets on her voice mail (something he’d pay for later), had dinner, packed, and made it to bed by eleven.