Chris walked out of the room, and Harper was convinced it would be the last time she would see him. She had tried to apologize for what had happened earlier, but she figured it came off as insincere. Chris was right, she had up walls, and she wasn’t ready to knock them down. If she was honest with herself, she was touched that he defended her. It was sweet because he felt she deserved it not because she asked him to do it.
The problem was she was intensely private in the office. She had been the subject of gossip already and if people knew about Aiden, well then she would be pitied, and that was just as bad as being the subject of gossip. She didn’t know how to make him see that. Although she never gave any consideration to him having an understanding of what it was like to be the subject of gossip and rumor and that he just might be able to relate to her reasons for wanting to remain private.
It had been several days since Aiden had recovered from the coma. Harper had talked to the doctors, and they had expressed that they did not anticipate any long-term effects from his allergic reaction. The new treatments had been working, and his cancer was reacting positively, and he had been moved back to his old room. As promised, Lisa Evans had called to check on Aiden’s progress. Harper only wished Chris would have done the same. To be fair, she had his number and had never made a move to call him; it was hard to cast a stone when she was just as guilty.
Lisa offered to come and sit with Aiden, allowing Harper to have a break. She had been applying for jobs, sending out resumes with no luck. She was getting frustrated, and it was starting to show. Harper was ready to take an opportunity to meet with temporary agencies and take odd jobs, just to get money coming in. She took Lisa up on her offer and made arrangements to see her the next day.
She settled in on the couch, once again doing some online career searches when her phone rang, it was Max. She didn’t want to answer it, but she knew if she didn’t, he would just keep calling. “Hello, this is Harper,” trying to sound upbeat and positive, not wanting to let him know she was still over everything that had transpired.
He was caught off guard that she actually answered, “Um, hi, it’s Max, I hope I’m not interrupting anything, but do you have a moment to chat?”
She bit her tongue, she wanted to be sarcastic or rude but knew that it was not the right thing to do, “No, Max, you’re not interrupting. I’ve got a minute or two, what can I do for you?” She tried to maintain a level of professionalism when every bone in her body wanted to rebel at the notion.
“I, well, you see,” he was fumbling over his words, not something that Max did on a regular basis, “I was hoping we could have a discussion about what happened the other day in the office. I want to talk about your situation, specifically and maybe clear a few things up because I don’t like the way things ended.”
Suddenly, it was is if a lightbulb went off; Max wanted to attempt to smooth things over to keep her from suing him for wrongful termination. “I don’t think it would be a good idea, Max. I think my attorney should just handle discussions going forward,” she had not hired an attorney, really had no intention of hiring one either. However, Max did not know that; she just prayed that her bluff would work.
“Look, Harper, I understand the hesitancy in meeting with me after what happened the other day. That coupled with the fact that your boyfriend and I did not get off on the right foot. Please, let me just buy you lunch and we can have a conversation. I just want an opportunity to talk to you; you can still have your attorney contact me, I’m not trying to avoid that.” He paused for a moment to see if that would elicit any response from her, it didn’t. “I’m willing to come downtown if it’ll be more convenient for you.”
She was ready to admit that Max seemed sincere; if she closed her eyes she could imagine him standing there, hat in hand, asking for this opportunity. She should correct him regarding the status of her relationship with Chris, but decided against it for the moment because it could work to her advantage. “Okay, I’ve got plans to be away from the hospital tomorrow anyway, I was going to swing by my apartment, so I’ll be in the neighborhood. If you want to meet for lunch, I can be available.”
“Fantastic! How about meeting me at Mangia Mangia at 11:30 am? I seem to recall that you liked eating there.”
“Yes, I do like eating there, so it is a good choice. I’ll see you then.”
“Great, thank you, Harper, I’ll see you tomorrow.”
She had arranged for Lisa to be at the hospital at 9 am, so she would have plenty of time to visit and still get to Billerica in plenty of time to get ready for lunch. She hoped she would have enough nerve to ask about Chris; this was one time, however, that she hoped Lisa didn’t bring him with her. She didn’t want to have to explain to him why she was going to lunch with Max.
Dinner time at the Evans compound was always interesting; dinner was prepared and fed to the kids first, and the adults would always gather later to eat. The kids could never wait for all of the adults to get home, their scheduled never did sync up, and there was no sense in making them wait. Carly would usually want to feed the kids and get their baths out of the way and get them to bed before the adults ever sat down. This also allowed the wine and conversation to flow without the fear of little ears being around to hear something they shouldn’t.
Tonight, the family was gathering and wanting to see how Chris was holding up. He had been quiet all week, and for the most part had kept to himself or had gone out with some of his friends. They were pretty sure it had something to do with his lady friend, but no one was brave enough to ask. His mom had even stayed away from the topic all week, but tonight, she was going to bring it up.
As everyone was quietly eating, Lisa kicked off the conversation, “I’m going downtown tomorrow; does anyone need anything?”
“Downtown? Why, downtown?” Carly inquired.
Lisa watched Chris; he was playing with his dinner. “I have a few errands to run, and I’m going to see Aiden. Harper says he is doing well, and I thought I go see for myself,” she noticed that Chris’ demeanor had not changed, and he had not even looked up.
“That’s great news,” Carly offered, realizing that Harper was the reason Chris was quiet, even if he didn’t admit it. She could tell that their mom was trying to get a rise out of him, so she figured she would help the cause, “So, are you going to get with him so she can have a break?”
“Yeah, I told her I wanted to see him and give her a break if she needed it. I know she’s been trying to set up interviews, not sure if she’s had any luck, though.”
“I’ve got a friend who just told me he is hiring, so if you can get her resume, I’ll pass it along,” Ryan offered, “It couldn’t hurt, you know.”
“Thanks, I’ll ask her for a copy tomorrow. I’m sure she’s probably starting to get antsy.”
“Hey, Chris?” Carly snapped her fingers in front of his face, trying to get his attention, “You doing alright? You’re awfully quiet tonight.”
“Huh? Oh yeah, I am fine. I just have a few things on my mind.”
“Have you talked to Harper lately?”
“No, and I don’t expect to, either. We had a fight the other day, so this where you rub it in, Carly. Where you tell me how crazy I was to be interested and where you say, I told you so,” Chris threw his napkin on the table and got up and went outside.
“Okay, it is a sore subject evidently,” Carly commented as she watched Chris out on the back patio.
“Well I think he really liked her, and they had a disagreement the other day, and both of them seem a little too stubborn to fix it. I think Harper isn’t used to having someone, her husband has been gone six years, and she just hasn’t had a man paying attention to her. I think she is scared to let down her walls, and I think Chris isn’t used to someone pushing back.”
“Sounds like she is a challenge for him and that is what he needs,” Ryan commented, “I think he’s had it too easy in that department, and he doesn’t know how to handle this.”
Harper looked at her watch, it was 9 am, and right on time, Lisa Evans walked into the room. She brought in coffee for Harper and a frozen concoction of some sort for Aiden; walking over the chair, she presented the coffee to Harper, “I thought you might like this better than what they serve around here.” She handed Aiden his drink and the grin on his face lit up the room, “And for my little buddy, I hope you like this! But don’t tell your doctor where you got it.”
“Thank you, Ms. Lisa.”
“So are you ready for me to beat you in a game of chutes and ladders? I’ve come ready to play!”
Aiden laughed, it was a sweet sound that filled the room. “Oh, I’m ready, but I’m gonna beat you, Ms. Lisa. I’ve got skills.”
Lisa laughed and patted his arm, she loved that the life and light were in his eyes. She turned to look at his mother, “How are you, Harper? Are you sleeping any better? You seem a little better rested than the last time I saw you.”
“Thank you, yes, I am sleeping much better. I will sleep even better once he is out of here for good and I have a job. How is your family?” She was most interested in Chris but she was not going to ask, she didn’t want to be so obvious.
“Everyone is doing well. As a matter of fact, my son-in-law, Ryan, has a friend who owns a business that is doing some hiring. I’ll be honest, I know nothing about the company, the position, or the pay, but if you want to give me a resume, Ryan said he will pass it along, and he can answer any questions you might have.”
“That is awfully generous of him. When I come back this afternoon, I’ll bring a copy for you to take to him.” She began to pace around the room, “My former boss, Max, well he invited me to lunch today. I think he is afraid I am going to sue him, so he wants to try and smooth things over.”
“Are you? Going to sue him, I mean? I think you might have a relatively strong case for wrongful termination.”
“I would love to sue him, but I can’t afford an attorney, and I’m not even confident that I could win. My luck, there would be some loophole that I fall through that would prevent me from getting a settlement. Or, if I did win, the winnings would all go to the attorney. I’ll take my chances with unemployment and pray that it will help hold me over for a while. I’m even willing to get a temporary job or a job flipping burgers if I can’t find something very soon.”
“You let me know how I can help, I mean it.”
“You are sitting with Aiden so he isn’t alone, and that is wonderful and certainly helps. But, I do have a question that you can give me a hand with, and I am nervous to ask.”
Lisa wondered what it could be; she was thinking that Harper might be asking for financial help. Carly had said she felt that there was an ulterior motive, and maybe this was it. “Okay, just ask and we will take it from there.”
“Ok, um, well you see, I haven’t talked to Chris since the other day, and I think he’s still mad at me. I was just wondering how he’s doing, that’s all?”
“You mean since you two had your fight?”
“Oh, so, you know about that?” She hung her head, embarrassed now for even bringing it up.
“Harper, he didn’t give me all of the details but Chris, well, we are close. It was bothering him the entire drive home the other night. I asked him what was going on; he told me the two of you had a disagreement, and that was the extent of it.”
Harper solemnly nodded her head, she couldn’t look up when she responded, “We did, and I apologized but not right away. I don’t think he believed me, and I don’t know what I can say to fix it.”
“Honestly, you two need some space at the moment. The two of you are confused, you each have your own reasons for whatever happened and why. Give him another day or so, I’m sure he’ll come around.” Lisa hoped she was giving good advice; she wanted to set it right for the two of them but figured they needed to get there on their own.
~ * ~
Harper had thanked Lisa and then walked out to her car, leaving the parking garage and mulling over everything that had been said. She drove straight to the apartment so she could take a quick shower and get ready for her lunch with Max. While she no longer worked for him, she felt she needed to be dressed professionally. She checked herself in the mirror and left for lunch.
She walked into the restaurant right on time; it was a local favorite, not pretentious or fancy. While Harper was dressed professionally, she fit in with the regular lunch crowd. She quickly scanned the room and found Max, he was seated in a deep booth near the counter. Although it was in a busy spot within the restaurant, the booth provided some privacy since they could scoot in close to the wall.
As Harper approached, Max stood to greet her, extending his hand. He would have offered a hug, but knew that would most likely get him a slap in the face, “Thanks for agreeing to meet with me Harper, I appreciate it. Please have a seat.”
“Thank you for the invite, Max. Your invite came at an opportune time, I had someone already lined up to stay with Aiden while I ran a few errands.”
“Is he doing better?” Max was trying to be careful as he maneuvered through this. Harper nodded softly, and Max smiled back at her, “Good, I’m glad to hear that. Okay, well I’m sure you’re wondering why I asked you here?”
“Honestly, yes. I was more than a little surprised, but I’m going to assume you’re hoping to smooth things over in the hopes I won’t sue you,” she couldn’t help that her inner bitch was being to show.
Max was taken aback by her bold statement; but then again, he had always liked that she was direct with him. He just wondered where he went wrong, when did she suddenly think she couldn’t come to him and just talk? “Um, actually no, that isn’t why. Look you have every right to sue, you’d probably win, too. Those aren’t things I am supposed to say to you, matter of fact, I’m sure if my lawyer knew I was meeting with you, he would kill me.”
“So, are you saying you want me to sue you? I’m confused.”
“No, no, I really don’t want you to sue. However, I would like to attempt to smooth things over because I don’t like how this all ended, it’s eating at me.” He looked down as he absentmindedly spun his glass around, “I didn’t want to have this conversation at the office, too many prying eyes. I just wanted an opportunity for us to have a real, unfiltered conversation, that’s all.”
She was intrigued, raising an eyebrow she looked at him and questioned, “Fine, so what do you want to talk about?”
“You…tell me Harper…tell me about Aiden and what happened. You have worked for me for years, I knew you had a son. Why didn’t you tell me he was sick?”
“Does it matter? I mean in the grand scheme of things, would it have mattered?”
“Yes, because I would have helped you and I would have helped Aiden. You didn’t need to go through this alone…when did he get sick?”
“Several years ago, he went through treatment, and we thought we had it beat. He was in remission and went for checkups every six months; we were so close to getting the cancer free declaration,” she put her head down and dropped her eyes to the table. She began to fidget with the napkin and silverware, anything to keep her from looking up at Max, “The other shoe dropped about five months ago, he started feeling sick, and they ran tests. His numbers were all over the place, and we found out the cancer was back. But this time, well it’s more aggressive, and we’ve had to try alternative therapies and treatments.”
“And you would leave work at five to beat the traffic and get downtown to get to him and see how he had done each day?”
Harper kept her head down, she wasn’t ready to look up at him just yet, “Yeah, I was fearful every day that something would happen while I was at work; I wanted to get to him as quickly as possible. I went to HR three months ago, Aiden wasn’t responding to any of the treatments, and he was in bad shape, we didn’t think he would survive. I needed to know what my options were, I wanted to spend every possible moment with him. I was told I could use my vacation, which was two weeks, and after that, I had to use FMLA, which is unpaid leave,” she finally raised her head, looking into Max’s gray-green eyes, “Being without a paycheck wasn’t an option for me. Funny how that works out isn’t it?”
“Harper, you should have come to me, you should have told me what was going on,” Max’s words were sincere, or at least she thought he was trying to sound that way.
She scoffed at the notion, despite any sincerity, “And why is that Max? Sure, you own the company, but the HR department works on your guidelines, she told me what you would have said,” she watched as her words stung him, that wasn’t her real intention, but she wasn’t going to apologize for it, either. “What would you have done? Take pity on me? Make some special arrangement to pay me while I was out? You know that you would have had to extend that to every person in the company or face everyone saying you are giving me preferential treatment. We already know about that gossip.”
“No one would have known about any arrangement. You know that compensation is a private matter. If I had been paying you to be at the hospital with Aiden, no one in the company would have known other than you, me and HR.” Max took a sip out of the glass of water that he had been playing with earlier, “I’m just not sure why you didn’t trust me.”
She had taken a deep breath before she answered him, it was going to be difficult to say these words, “Max, are really so oblivious to how your office works? I was not kidding; everyone in that office thinks we’re having an affair,” she watched as her words registered on his face, he might actually be paying attention. “I believe two things might have convinced them otherwise, you firing me and my storming out of the office the other day. Which reminds me, why did you let me come back to get my things? Heather always sends everyone’s belongings to them, you never want a fired employee back in the building. So why am I different?”
Max remained silent and just looked at her. She was fired up; she was passionate, not yelling, and her voice wasn’t raised, but passionate nonetheless, “Was it so bad? I mean everyone thinking we were having an affair?”
She stared at him, blinking several times as if she was trying to get her brain to register what he just said, “What? Are you kidding me? Please tell me that was a joke.”
“No, I’m serious, Harper. Am I such a horrible person that it was so bad to have people think we were involved with one another?”
Harper, who had been leaning up against the edge of the table, sat back, in disbelief, “Dear God, have you been drinking?”
“No, I’ve just had water,” Max said with a chuckle, he had to admit this comical.
“I’ve worked hard to be successful, put all I have into it and never relied on favors to get me anywhere professionally. I’m proud of that, Max. Proud of what I’ve accomplished and that my work stands for itself. I want to be recognized for that, respected for that. The last thing I want is for anyone to think I got my job or my position because I am or did have an affair with my boss. It negates talent and gives the impression I slept my way to every job I’ve ever had.”
“I can respect that and completely understand where you are coming from. But aside from that, am I that bad?”
“I’ll admit that I’m completely out of practice, but are you making a pass at me?”
“You’re talented, you’ve worked hard, and I acknowledge that; you’ve never been given a project, a raise, or a promotion based on anything other than your hard work and abilities. I’m sorry you were attached to me as a rumor, I’m sorry I wasn’t aware of it or even sensitive to how it would look if I spent time with you in the office.”
Max took a drink from his glass and watched Harper very carefully. He had wanted to say some of these things to her for some time, and he figured this was his only opportunity. He let the silence linger for a minute before he took a breath and continued.
“I’m not going to apologize for being attracted to you. I would spend time in your office or have you in my office because I liked you, I do like you,” he began fidgeting with the placemat, “I never made a pass at you or let you know I had feelings because I didn’t want to be accused of sexual harassment. I just never thought that working with you and spending time in each other’s offices would lead to people making assumptions about us.”
“For a business owner, you are a bit naive you know that, right?” Harper could not help but smile, “You aren’t kidding though are you? You had feelings for me?”
“Have feelings, they didn’t go away. You’re smart, have a wonderful sense of humor, you’re beautiful, and I like spending time with you. I’ll admit that I overreacted by firing you – I was so worked up about the investor meeting, things are going on you aren’t aware of. Because of my feelings for you, I value you more than just another employee. I really needed you that day, and my gut reaction was that you let me down. I didn’t realize it was the other way around,” Max hung his head, Harper could tell that he was struggling to get the words out. “I allowed you to come back for your things because I had every intention of asking you to come back.”
“I’m not sure what to say, I’m speechless. I had no idea you felt that way,” she had never expected Max to say something like that. Is that what he had really wanted this lunch to be about? She sat back up against the table, “If your intention was to give me my job back, why didn’t you?”
“Honestly? My pride got in the way. When your boyfriend let me know he wasn’t happy that I fired you, I understood it, I did. But the look in his eyes told me he wanted to hit me, and with those arms, that punch would have hurt. So, knowing you had a man in your life, my pride was wounded, and I didn’t go through with my plan. I’m ashamed to admit it if that helps.”
Harper shook her head, she could not believe this, “Chris isn’t my boyfriend, far from it. He was visiting kids at the hospital, I met him because of Aiden, and we became friends. It’s a long story, but there is nothing romantic between us.”
“Oh,” Max could not hide a smile when he realized that she wasn’t dating the brute, “He defended you as if you two were involved. I guess I made an assumption.”
“Why did you actually invite me to lunch? I’m sorry, I’m not trying to be rude, but my head is spinning, and I’m not quite sure what to make of everything you have thrown at me today.”
“I invited you to lunch because I have a job prospect for you. A friend of mine owns a development firm, similar to mine and she’s in need of a Project Developer. I’ve told her all about you, and she wants to set up an interview. No guarantee she’ll hire you, but I think there’s a better chance than not that the job will be yours,” Max sat back in his seat, not letting his eyes break contact with Harper’s. “I wanted to tell you about it, help get it set up, and I didn’t want to do it over the phone. If you don’t get this offer, frankly, I’ll be shocked. But just in case, I have another opportunity lined up.”
“Why? I mean, this is very generous of you, and I appreciate it. But, why are you doing it?”
“That’s not your real question. Your real question is why am I just not hiring you back since I know that the guy isn’t your boyfriend,” he watched her face for any sort of reaction, something that would give away that he was wrong. “I told you, I’m attracted to you, I’d like to act on that and if you work for me, well, that’s out of the question. Several of my friends know what transpired and that I regret it; they have open positions, you would be a good fit, so I’m helping them and you at the same time. And yes, they know about Aiden and that they would need to be flexible with time. They’re willing to do for you what I didn’t,” Max was embarrassed admitting that to her.
“Thank you, I know that could not have been easy. However, I do appreciate what you’ve said.”
Max chuckled, “No, it wasn’t easy, but you deserved the truth.”
The two finally ordered lunch but Harper mainly picked at her food, she didn’t have much of an appetite. She was still in a tailspin over everything Max had admitted. She tried playing it off and acting as if it was nothing, but his admission of feelings for her and the regrets over her firing were significant. The biggest thing for her, though, was the fact that he had secured two job leads for her; this couldn’t be real, those things only happen in sappy Hallmark movies.
During the remainder of lunch, they tried to engage in small talk, anything that was not work related. Max inquired about Aiden and asked about Harper’s life before moving to Boston. She had to admit, once the awkwardness was out of the way, she had a pleasant time talking to him. She wouldn’t mind getting to know him a little more, but if she were honest with herself, she couldn’t get Chris out of her head, either. She wondered if he would have been on her mind if Max had not brought up the fact that he thought she was dating Chris.
As they finished their meal, Max paid for lunch and then escorted her out to her car. He was nervous, shoving his hands in his pockets and staring down at the ground, “Um, could I see you again? I’d love to take you out to dinner, maybe go to a movie; nothing fancy, it can be casual. I’d just like to see you outside of a work environment, you know when I don’t have to apologize to you for doing something stupid.”
She could not suppress a smile, even letting out a faint laugh, “That would be nice, I think I’d like that.”
“Would tomorrow evening work? I mean, I have a business meeting in downtown tomorrow afternoon. We could grab dinner near the hospital, you wouldn’t have to be away for long.”
He was considerate, she definitely took notice, “Okay, would 7 work? I know that is probably later than you were looking for, but Aiden is usually asleep by 6:30 thanks to his medication knocking him out.”
“That would work out just fine. I’ll give you a call tomorrow to finalize our plans,” Max turned and began to walk toward his car, then looked over his shoulder at her, “Have a great afternoon, I’ll let my friends know to call you about the interview.”
“Thank you, Max, have a great afternoon as well,” she got into her car and watched as Max slid behind the wheel of his vehicle and drove off. She knew that she should have been firm, stood her ground, but she actually felt sorry for him. What sort of twisted crap was that?
She drove the short distance back to her apartment so she could change back into comfortable clothes. She sat on the edge of her bed and pulled up Chris’ contact information, her thumb hovered over the call button. She couldn’t bring herself to do it, she wanted to talk to him, but Lisa’s words kept echoing in her mind, she needed to give him space to see if it would help. She tossed her phone down in mild disgust then packed a small bag for her date with Max before heading back to the hospital.