Today's Reading

This morning, as she’s walking down the hallway to the conference room, a handful of people poke their heads out of cubicles and offices to wish her good luck. Holly nods and smiles, but her focus is on the meeting ahead.

When she reaches the conference room, she takes a deep breath to gather herself, then pushes open the door. A half dozen faces turn to look at her.

“Are we set to go?” she asks, crossing the room to her seat at the head of the table. There’s the faintest hesitation to her steps, as if she’s dragging one leg. It’s the remnant of a car accident she suffered in her twenties, back when she was young and foolish and believed love was enough to protect those she cared about. A naivete that cost her one child and almost another, not to mention a husband. When she’s cold, or tired, or stressed like today, the limp is more pronounced.

“Marketing dropped off the mock-ups,” Barry says, taking her abruptness in stride. Barry’s been with Holly since the beginning. Today he’s wearing his lucky blue suit, a pink silk handkerchief peeking out of his breast pocket. On anyone else, it might have been overkill. On Barry, polished to such an extreme that even his bald head shines, it looks good. 

The team talks strategy for a few moments. They’ve done one or two of these deals before, where the Darling name is loaned out for a special product launch—though never one of this magnitude. Today they’ll combine their brand with the country’s leading cosmetics company to create a highlighter called Pixie Dust. The conference phone rings, and Barry answers it.

“Send them up,” he says. Then, to Holly, “They’re here.” 

A low buzz fills the room as the four staffers turn to one another, aligning marketing materials that are already perfectly straightened, doing a last-minute check on water glasses and chairs. Only Barry seems relaxed. His eyes roam the stark white conference room, the sole hint of color coming from the bouquets of pink peonies dusted with golden glitter that are arranged in the center of the table. He grins widely, teeth gleaming.

“We’re ready for this,” he says. “We’ve got this, people.” 

A few minutes later Holly, Barry, and the rest of the team stand as Holly’s assistant ushers in a woman and two men. The woman reaches out to shake Barry’s hand, then leans in to hug Holly, who proffers her own hand instead.

“Lauren,” Holly says smoothly, covering any awkwardness. “So nice to see you again.”

“It’s wonderful to see you too, Holly. You look amazing, as always. How’s Jack?”

“He’s great, thanks. Still living for lacrosse. His sophomore year is flying by.”

“He must be itching to get his driver’s license,” Lauren Lander says. “I’m telling you, hold him off as long as you can. Once they start driving, you lose all control. Teenagers behind the wheel are an accident waiting to happen.”

“I can imagine,” Holly says with a tight smile. She can tell when realization hits Lauren; she glances involuntarily at Holly’s leg, a horrified expression crossing her face.

“And your two?” Barry says, stepping in to do damage control before Lauren can make it worse. “I heard your son made the golf team at Eckerd. You must be so proud.”

“We wish he was closer, but at least we have a warm place to visit,” Lauren says, clearly grateful for the change in topic. “Ashley’s already planning on heading there for spring break.” 

She turns to Holly. “We should introduce Jack and Ashley sometime. It would be so thrilling for her to meet a Darling.”

“That would be great,” Holly says. Her eyes meet Barry’s.

“She’d be so excited,” Lauren continues, letting out a very unprofessional giggle. “She’s fascinated by your family. Peter Pan was her hero for years. Though it’s always a shame when you realize your literary crushes aren’t real, isn’t it?” 

Holly’s lips thin. “Tragic.” 

There’s no chance in hell she’ll make that introduction. She’s worked too hard, for too long, to keep Jack safe to blithely put him in the path of a party girl like Lauren’s daughter. 

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