DANE MCCORMICK stood at the freight elevator on the loading dock with his clipboard in hand, checking off load after load of office and conference room furniture, boxes of computer and communications equipment, mirrors and artwork, and seemingly unending cases of decorative accessories.
It was mid-December and almost four months since the build-out had started. Dane happily hummed along to Blake Shelton singing “Jingle Bell Rock” and even bounced to the beat a little. Holidays or not, he always seemed to be humming these days because he was, well, happy. Happier than he’d ever been. He and his boyfriend, Carter Baldridge, had been almost inseparable since their first date, and he was sure this was heading in a very good direction. They fit together like a hand and a glove. He was sure life couldn’t get much better.
Although it was cold and drafty on the dock, Dane was warm to his core and giddy with excitement. The anticipation of the approaching festivities put an endless smile on his face, and he was so looking forward to spending Christmas and New Year’s with Carter. To Dane, this time of year had always represented family, but he and Carter had selfishly decided this was their time, and neither was going home. They would spend the holidays alone together. Their families were none too happy about it, but understood.
In preparation, he and Carter had decorated two trees, one at each of their places, and shopped together for their families, even though neither had met the other’s. They knew it would happen eventually, so there was no rush.
And if Carter and Christmas weren’t enough to almost make Dane pee his pants, New Year’s Eve was not far behind. Finally, he could start the new year with someone he loved. Someone to kiss at midnight. Midnight. The signal of new beginnings.
The past four months had been so filled with joyous hope and endless possibilities that Dane could hardly stand it. But if all that personal happiness wasn’t enough, professionally this was always his favorite day of the entire build-out process. Today he got to start turning sixty empty, uninteresting offices into beautifully furnished office suites of various sizes, complete with ten conference rooms, a dozen secretarial stations, and a half-dozen kitchenettes. He would personally choose furnishings for each office, the common areas, and the conference rooms, hang all the artwork and mirrors, and place all the decorative accessories to finally bring his vision and plan to fruition.
Blake Shelton’s voice drifted off, and Dane’s phone rang. He looked at the screen and smiled when a familiar face popped up.
“Hey, Bill,” he said. “It’s awfully early to be hearing from you. It can’t be more than—” Dane looked at his watch. “—six fifteen on the West Coast?”
Bill Crocker was Dane’s best friend, his boss, and the sole owner of Omni Office Suites. Bill worked out of their San Francisco office and rarely called him this early.
“More importantly, how’s it going there?” Bill asked.
“It’s going well. I should have this place shining like a diamond in a goat’s ass by the end of next week. Why?”
“There’s been a change of plans,” Bill said.
Dane felt a wave of dread. “What kind of change?”
“For starters, the building that houses the Alexandria office was just sold, and the group who bought it is going to demolish it and the one next door to build fucking twin towers. We have six months to vacate. Got the official notice yesterday, and legal is working out all the lease issues. Trust me, we have an ironclad lease, and they will pay big for breaking it. But now we have to find new space, build it out, and get everyone moved in six months. Doable but a very tight schedule.”
The waves of dread Dane had experienced at Bill’s earlier comment about “change of plans” turned into multiple tsunamis. “But Bill. We had a deal. I was gonna stay here and manage the Greenville facility for the next year and a half. I bought a condo and everything.”
“I know. I know, Dane, and I’m sorry,” Bill said, sounding sympathetic. “But I wasn’t expecting this. Our lease in that building doesn’t expire for another four years.”
“Shit,” Dane said under his breath. He knew it wasn’t Bill’s fault. This was his job, and there was no one else in the company who could do it except him or Bill. How could he go from ecstatic to devastated in less than a minute?
“This might be a stupid question, but could you not take this one?” Dane asked. “I’ve been on the road and living out of extended-stay hotels for the last six years. I could use a break.”
“Ordinarily yes,” Bill said. “But that leads me to the next part of my dilemma.”
“Oh great. There’s more?”
Bill continued. “Unfortunately there is. I was just offered an opportunity to acquire a small three-facility operation called Seattle Suites.”
“Let me guess, they’re in Seattle?” Dane asked.
“See. That’s why you’re my number one man. Anyway, it’s small but very profitable. The financials look great, but unfortunately all three buildings need a complete overhaul.”
Dane rubbed the back of his neck. “Imagine that. Just my luck.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Never mind. Just me being dramatic. Go on.”
“So I figured I would get Seattle started while you handle Alexandria, and then as soon as you’re finished in Virginia, you can head to Seattle to take over for me.”
Dane felt weak in the knees, and he desperately needed to sit down.
I’m gonna have to leave Carter for at least a year.
“Is there any other way?” Dane asked looking around for any place to sit.
“I’m afraid not,” Bill said. “You don’t sound like yourself, Dane. What’s up? Does this have anything to do with Carter?”
Dane sat on an unopened box of telephone equipment, dread and anger building within him. “It sure the fuck does. You gave me at least a year and a half here, and Carter could be the one for me, Bill. But four months is just not long enough to ask him to close his practice and move across the country with me. So I guess you know what that means.”
Dead silence on the other end of the line.
“In case you don’t, it means I lose again.”
Silence for a few more seconds. “I’m sorry, Dane,” Bill said at last. “If there was any other way. And don’t go thinking you’re gonna quit on me. I can’t do this without you, Dane.”
Dane huffed. “Now you’re gonna guilt me into staying?”
“I’ll do whatever the fuck I have to,” Bill said. “You’re my second-in-command, and besides that, you’re my best friend.”
“Then why don’t you want me to be happy?”
“Of course I want you to be happy. But all this just came up.” Bill sighed. “Okay. What if I pass on the Seattle Suites deal? Can you at least handle Alexandria?”
Dane didn’t respond.
“I can’t do it on my own, Dane, and I’m trying to meet you halfway. Please don’t leave me hanging.”
Dane realized he was sounding like a toddler throwing a temper tantrum. This was his job. It was what he’d signed on for, knowing the drawbacks and advantages. And besides, he owed Bill—a lot. Bill had literally saved his life. A life that even Dane himself, at the time, didn’t think was worth saving. You have to do this.
Dane sighed. “I won’t leave you hanging,” he assured Bill. “And you don’t have to pass on the Seattle deal. We’ll get both done somehow.”
“But what about Carter?” Bill asked.
“I’ll do the best I can to explain it to him, and hopefully we can make it work.”
“I know,” Dane said. “It’s okay.”
“Look at the bright side,” Bill said.
“What bright side?” Dane asked.
“Alexandria is a half day’s drive from Greenville and an even shorter flight. You guys could go back and forth. I’ll even pay for the travel.”
“Probably not gonna work,” Dane said. “And even if it did, that’s no way to grow a relationship. And what happens when I have to go to Seattle?”
“That presents a bit of a bigger problem and will make things more difficult. I know that. But the company’s gonna buy your condo. Name your price. So that’s one less thing you have to worry about.”
Ignoring the comment, Dane asked, “When do I have to be in Alexandria?”
“The day after Christmas at the latest.”
“Who’s gonna manage the Greenville office now?” Dane asked.
“I’m promoting and moving an assistant manager out of the Atlanta office to Houston and relocating the Houston manager to Greenville.”
“I’m really sorry, Dane—”
Dane disconnected the call abruptly and cursed out loud this time. He looked at his phone and literally felt like slamming the damn thing to the ground and stomping on it. He’d finally found someone he wanted to be with, but fate had intervened. Dane rested his head in his hands. How am I gonna break the news to Carter?