As a single woman, I didn’t cook much, but when I do, it was usually a whole big to-do for friends. Tonight, however, I wanted pasta in a creamy garlic sauce, and I wanted to eat it on my patio with a glass of red wine, watching the sun set. I was wearing already comfy clothes, and considering I’m a bit of a messy cook, I knew I needed to do something about it. I also wanted to keep what I had on relatively clean. The combination of pasta sauce and me wasn’t that. Pushing my chair back, I stood and picked up my pile of work and put it back in my bag in the living room, then trotted off to find a longer T-shirt that I didn’t mind getting gross. It was hot, but I was always most comfortable in sweats.

By the time M stopped her sunbathing and realized I was gone, she panicked, running into the house screaming for me. She found me as I was mid-leg-into-pant-leg and almost knocked me out of my precarious position. Luckily, she’d run past me and circled me a few times, allowing me to fully put my pants on. M pounced onto the bed and head-butted my thigh until I stopped to pet her.

“You’re lucky you’re so cute.” I scratched her chin and ran my hand down her soft back.

She purred her acknowledgment, scowling as I walked away to change my shirt. She sat on the bed, statuesque, her eyes saying, “Bow to me, human.” But as spoiled as I’d made her, I wasn’t about to let her run my life.      

In the kitchen, I shook her food container, and as usual, she came running. I’d already started the water to boil for the pasta, which it did, as I poured M’s food. I caught it just before it boiled over onto my spotless ceramic cooktop—I’m superb at multitasking. I turned the heat down and poured the pasta in, letting it simmer before turning it off and letting the residual heat cook it. The sauce heated up quickly, like soup, so I simmered it before it bubbled too much and burned. I’m pretty particular about my pasta, when I do cook it, so I take the time and care I should.

I take the time and care necessary with a lot of things—my business, Julie when I trained her, nurturing business relationships, Minion…I don’t really have plans or feelings beyond expanding my business to the point I won’t have to be in the office every day. Since growing up, I’d never wanted children. I’d considered maybe eventually getting married, but my career meant too much to me to bother with all the courting. Besides, I don’t have the patience or tolerance for that mess. All of my girlfriends have had their hearts broken this year, and I’m over here comforting them but not giving a shit that I just have a long-distance friend with benefits.

I pulled the lid off the pot of pasta to check the tenderness. Not too hard but not too soft—just the way I liked it. I drained it and poured it onto a plate, followed by the sauce. Then I poured a glass of red and set it on the table. Okay, so it wasn’t exactly a red; it was red Moscato, but whatever. I liked it, and it seemed to go with everything, and it was great for parties.

That reminded me: I was overdue to throw one. I’d have to get Julie on the planning.

Julie, by the way, was my star. Not only was she my assistant at Passing Through, but she often asked for more responsibility. So, I gave her some other things to handle, like part of my social calendar to include business functions. She seemed to enjoy it, and she was pretty good at it, so I gave her a raise. She juggled the two so well, I was plotting to steal her from the office and ask her to be my personal assistant once I got busier, which I could see happening in the near future.

Julie had once told me that she grew up hearing things like she wasn’t good enough, and that she’d never be worthy of anyone’s respect, which explained why she’d been so mousy around me. What she didn’t know was that I’d grown up the same, but I’d chosen a different way to handle the trauma. My heart truly went out to her; Julie was my trauma sister. I’d do whatever I could to show her that she was never that meek little girl.

I enjoyed my pasta and Moscato while M sat at my feet mewing as though asking for some, her pupils huge like the cartoon cats who intentionally looked sad when they wanted to guilt trip you.

Like any feline, Minion was razor sharp, and manipulative. She knew just what to do to make me stop working and spend the day cuddling with her—still another reason I didn’t need a child or significant other.

I laughed. Manipulated by an animal. Man, was I a sucker. But only for M.

Sometimes, I fell for the manipulation from my friends, but they always did it in good fun or to try to surprise me. Which reminds me: I hate surprises. The first time they tried to surprise me, someone got a black eye. If you’re asking if I felt bad about punching the male stripper who showed up at my door on my twenty-fifth birthday, the answer is no. I still don’t feel bad. I know the guy was only doing his job, but well, he rang the wrong doorbell that night.

To say I lack empathy was inaccurate. I do feel things for others, though only for those I’m close to: my girlfriends, my father, Minion, and maybe my long-distance friend with benefits. I’ve been told I should go to therapy or a psychiatrist, but I disagree. I see nothing wrong with caring about only those in my immediate circle. If that made me a narcissist—check the definition; it didn’t—then so be it. Simply put, it made me more of an asshole than anything else, I supposed. It’s not that I chose not to care about the whole world; it’s that I chose and valued my sanity over the stress caring about every little thing would cause.

I’ve been there, and it was awful. Gratefully, I pulled myself out of that emotional cesspool and traded it for the cool, calm, and collected “heartless” person everyone sees. Some people even liked that about me; others were jealous.

I savored the last forkful of my dinner and swished the remaining wine in the glass, lost in thought. Did I have any more work that needed to be done, or could I relax outside and read a book, purring cat on my lap? Finishing the wine, I washed everything I’d used to make dinner and put it in the dish rack to dry. I took a glass from the cabinet and poured some water from the filter pitcher, grabbed a book, and went to lie in the hammock I had in the corner of my screened-in patio. It was one of those you could get online with the metal stand so you didn’t need trees to tie it to. It was the best I could do in my townhouse, and I was more than okay with that. Minion jumped up on my stomach as I opened the book, something about monsters and the people who hunt them. It had taught me a lot about guns in a fun way—much more fun than going to the range and asking one of the men (there were no women on the sales floor) who always were kind—though some looked at me as though I was just a dumb blonde—to teach me about this gun or that.

I did have friends who were knowledgeable about all sorts of weapons, but I preferred reading and solitude. I did have one girlfriend I went to the range with, and she was always honest with me about “if I’m going to buy one, I need to practice with it first,” and I appreciate that. She was the only friend who didn’t freak out I mentioned I have a few guns in the house. She agreed that I needed self-protection. That was the point in time I stopped telling the girls about my interest in weapons. Hours went by, and I closed the book, finished and satisfied. I woke Minion up, making her glare at me, and went to put the book on its shelf with the rest of the series, plucking another from my to-read pile and setting the bookmark just inside the cover. Glancing at the clock on the wall, I saw it was midnight, my favorite time of day. Some people were out and about, but not many, and it was cool enough to get a good jog in along Bayshore Avenue, one of the main drags here in town. I changed into dark gray running gear and locked up the house. Tonight, though, I wasn’t planning to jog Bayshore.


I jogged lightly, slowly building sweat as it was a bit on the chilly side. I may have lived in Central Florida, but anything below eighty, and I was cold. Yet I slept with the thermostat at sixty-five. It was weird, I know. Somehow, I made it the five or so miles in about fifteen minutes. Damn, I should slow down. And damn, he lives close. I turned onto South Lorenzo and started walking, music down low enough to hear if anyone came up behind me, watching the apartments from the other side of the street, looking for which one was Alex’s. I’d forgotten to look at his file before I left, but I found him rather easily, mope-walking down his side of the street. I ducked behind a large palm tree.

Alex walked up to a gorgeous, Spanish-inspired building that looked like something from a movie. I’d decided to research the building later. Not because I was interested, which I was, but because I needed the layout. That would also require a trip to the city offices downtown. No worries, I had contacts there from sending them temps.

He used a key to open the front door, and it closed behind him. I sat there watching, hoping his apartment wasn’t on the back side of the building, when a light came on in a window on the second floor. Alex walked to that window and closed the shades.

Who leaves their shades open?

His shadow lingered. Maybe he felt he was being watched, or maybe he’d turned his back. I didn’t know, and I didn’t care. If he knew he was being watched, waiting a few more minutes was taking a big chance because the cops would come rolling up if Alex called them. But no, no cops. No cars at all, in fact. I waited until he turned the light out before I jogged back home.

Minion was on the stairs inside the door, not surprisingly glaring at me as she yawned. Then she yelled at me. I usually jogged in the morning, which she was used to, though she didn’t like it any better than now. She hated when I left the house or even the room she was in. Like a human child, I supposed.

“Oh, hush,” I said, bending slightly to scratch her chin and pet her. “Come on, let’s get you some treats. Then I’m showering and going to bed.”

M happily followed, scarfing down the three treats I gave her. I took my sneakers off and put them on the rack by the front door, double-checked to make sure I locked it, and turned out the lights downstairs as I headed up. The water always took a minute or two to heat up, so I’d started it before laying out my pajamas and clothes for the office tomorrow, then undressed and threw my towels over the glass wall.

Afterward, I hit Play on a movie and fell asleep, Minion in my hair, cuddling me.

***

The alarm went off all too early. It was my own fault for staying out so late, but I’d be fine. Coffee would be my savior today, and if it wasn’t, there were always energy drinks. I didn’t care to know what they did to the inside of my body, though I did know the carbonation helped to clean things, and people blew how bad they were for you severely out of proportion. Whatever. I had a workday to get through, and nothing was going to hinder my getting out on time. Dinner with the girls at the British pub was tonight’s plans, and there was nothing and no one to stop me.

The phones rang off the hook today, and Julie was on top of it like cat fur on black clothes. I truly was grateful for her abilities. By lunch, she’d answered all the morning calls, sorted the incoming mail, and responded to every email that went to her.

After a hellish morning, she popped her head into my office to ask if I wanted her to grab me anything for lunch. I handed her a fifty and told her that her lunch was on me. She stopped saying no a while ago, so she nodded and smiled. I just wanted a chicken Caesar salad, my go-to most days, whether Julie went out for it or I had lunch delivered. Julie even locked the door and set the phones to voice mail when she left. Yeah, I definitely need her as a personal assistant when I move out of here and have someone take over. Unless she wants to take over…

I unconsciously tapped my pen against my pursed lips. I only stopped when I noticed red on the top. Julie would be a good fit for my position. I’d noted to talk to her about it, without a date or time. The truth was I didn’t know when I planned to leave and let someone else run the place for me. I’d have to think about that.

The door chime rang, signaling Julie was back.

“I’m back and headed to the kitchen. Meet you there!” she cheerfully called.

I smiled and looked at the mountain of paperwork I still had to finish before day’s end. Sighing, I stood, straightened my skirt, and went to have lunch with Julie. Maybe I’d ask her what her life plans were beyond working for me; did she want more of a career or was she happy where she was?

By the time I got to the kitchen, Julie had silverware, napkins, and drinks all set out for us. I loved this girl so much.

“You kicked ass this morning,” I said as I pulled out my chair and sat down.

She blushed. “Thanks.” Julie didn’t take compliments very well, and neither did I. I’d have to work on that with her.

“You remind me a lot of me. I still have a hard time taking compliments.” I dug my fork into my salad.

“Really? You make it look so easy, so effortless.” She bit into her burger.

“Precisely.” I winked. “I make it look easy. I’ll teach you if you want.”

“ Could you please?” She blushed a little at asking for help. Also a lot like me.

“I’m not CPR certified anymore, so please do us both a favor and don’t choke on your burger,” I poked at her.

We both laughed. Our conversation led to what our plans for the night were and if we really wanted to attend our set gatherings.

I did; hell yeah. I hadn’t seen the girls in almost a month from being bogged down by professional events and other “hobbies.” No one knew about those though. Hell, I’d just figured out I had a new fun-time activity. This was going to take away from my weekend trips to my benefits, but I could live with it provided no one suspected anything and my benefit buddy was cool with it. He was usually cool with anything, but I didn’t exactly want to give him the impression I was dating. I shuddered at the thought.

Julie and I finished our lunches, cleaned up, and were back at our desks by one o’clock on the dot. Damn, we made a great team. Maybe I would talk to Julie sooner than later about her career path. She already knew most of the clients from tagging along as my plus-one to events.

As she left for the day, I teased her one last time. “Don’t party too hard,” I giggled.

“Oh yes. A bottle of wine and Netflix with my cat,” she laughed and waved on her way out.

I pressed the power button on my monitor as I stood, gathering my things to go home, change, and meet the girls, when my cell phone rang.

“Hello?”

“Ms. Cage? It’s Alex.”

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