Leave it to Jamie to understand all my neuroses. My mom is bad enough as a role model, but my sister killed herself when things got so bad she couldn’t cope. And, of course, my dad just disappeared, letting my mom have everything in the divorce and leaving his kids behind.
“I know. But it’s not just them. It’s me, too. You know damn well I have issues of my own.”
“Had,” Jamie says firmly, because I haven’t cut in years despite coming close several times.
“Have,” I say firmly. “It’s still in me. I still fight it. You know that.”
“Yeah, but you have Damien now.”
“I’m not ready for kids, Jamie,” I say flatly. “But I do want them. So if all of this is about you being an aunt, there’s hope, I promise.” I take a sip of my sparkling water and lean back. “For that matter, when are you going to have a little one?”
“Excuse me? Not even married yet.”
I make a dismissive noise. “Like you ever bothered with all those cultural niceties. Seriously, have you and Ryan talked about it?”
The blush that rises on her cheeks lets me know that they have. “Don’t you have someone coming to your office pretty soon?”
With a laugh, I point my finger at her. “Turnabout is fair play. Remember that the next time you bug me about babies.”
“Fine, yeah, whatever.” She motions to the salad. “Hurry up and eat so you can go meet your client. Lunch is on me. My new job comes with a new salary.”
“I’m so proud of you,” I say, which makes her start beaming again.
“It’s cool, I know. And I’m proud of me, too.”
Despite staying and talking for another ten minutes, I still manage to get back to my office with five minutes to spare. I give a quick wave to Marge, the new receptionist for the office suites on my floor, then hurry inside to clean off my nightmare of a desk before Mr. Frank Dunlop arrives.
My timing is perfect, actually. I’m shoving the last of the clutter on my desktop into a file drawer when Marge’s voice wafts over the intercom announcing the man.
“Send him in,” I say, then walk around to greet him at the door. He’s older, probably in his sixties, with an attractive but weathered face and hair that’s gone gray at the temples. He looks to be in good shape, though, and I guess that this is a man who spends a lot of time outside, probably doing something physical. I have absolutely no idea what type of app he wants, but already I’m curious.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” I say, extending my hand.
He hesitates before taking it, but when he does, his grip is firm and he holds on to me for what feels like a second too long, then smiles and shakes his head, as if he’s a little befuddled.
He must realize, because he laughs awkwardly, then heads to one of the guest chairs on the other side of my desk to take a seat. “Sorry. My mind’s already on how I’m going to explain my project to you. I actually drew up some notes, but this, ah, app is so important to me that I still don’t feel prepared.”
I take a seat behind my desk and offer him what I hope is an indulgent smile. I’ve never had such a nervous client, and I have to admit I find it oddly endearing. He cares, obviously, and he’s handing me the reins to a project that means the world to him, and I make up my mind right then to prove to him that I’m worthy of the job.
“Why don’t you show me the notes?” I suggest. “You don’t need to worry about a formal presentation. We’ll figure it out together.”
He nods with approval. “You have a good bedside manner, Mrs. Stark. And from what I’ve read about you, you know your stuff.”
His chair swivels as he looks around, taking in the whole room. “Nice office.”
“Thanks. I could work from home, but I like getting up and going to an office. Keeps the workday separated from my home life better.”
“That must be difficult, what with a husband like Damien Stark. I imagine a man like that works almost twenty-four/seven.”
I cock my head, considering. “He works a lot, and all hours. But I’ve never felt slighted. Just the opposite,” I admit, though I don’t go so far as to tell this virtual stranger that I know without a shadow of a doubt that I will always come before work for Damien.
“I’m very glad to hear that,” he says, and I’m surprised by the genuine sincerity in his voice.
He must see that on my face, because he chuckles. “So many young couples now put work first and don’t make time for themselves. It’s an epidemic, I think. And a shame. Family matters.” He sighs. “It’s a lesson I learned too late in life.”
“I’m sorry.” I’m not exactly sure what to say, and I shift in my seat a bit. The truth is, I like Mr. Frank Dunlop. But I’m not entirely sure why he’s telling me these things.
He must be having similar thoughts, because he waves his hand over his head, as if brushing the conversation aside. “Anyway, my notes.” He reaches into a battered leather messenger bag and pulls out a yellow pad, which he puts on my desk. He scoots his chair forward and starts to flip through the pages, showing me the sketches he’s made of various sample pages for his app.
“I’m a travel photographer, you see. I’ve traveled the world for years—seen a lot of things—but I’m ready to settle down in one place.”
“Exactly. I’m looking for a studio space. Someplace I can work out of—use it as a gallery and retail front to sell my landscape and travel prints, and also as a studio for portraiture. I haven’t found the place yet, but even when I do, I know it’s going to be a slow start. And that’s where the app comes in. At least, I hope so. Here, let me show you.”