Chapter 4: A Sense of Belonging
|It takes some serious convincing on my part, but Sam’s mom finally agrees to let me drive us “safely” to our internship. She’s been so overprotective since the car accident with Ayden and rightfully so. We almost lost her. Thankfully, we don’t have to go far to reach our destination.
As Sam and I leave school and set off on our slightly daunting venture, I address a concern of mine.
“Where are we going to change?” I ask, yielding to the stoplight.
“Bryce mentioned we could use his office,” she says, opening her pink makeup bag.
I glance her way in haste, shocked and a little disturbed. But Sam’s already too busy applying lipstick in the pull-down mirror to notice my scowl.
“Please tell me that was a joke,” I say, serious in my delivery.
Her confused expression is paired with a sincere response. “His office doesn’t have any windows and there’s a lock on the door. It’ll be more convenient than a bathroom stall.”
“Samantha,” I say in a slow build up, hoping to make a point. “Think for a moment. That would be so inappropriate. He’s our boss.”
“He wouldn’t be in there. Relax. It’s not a big deal.“
At the next intersection, I take a moment to gather myself, rubbing my temple in the process. It’s hard for me to contain the alarming thoughts going off in my brain, or fathom my best friends lack of decorum and respectability. I thought I was the naive one in this friendship.
“I get that he’s your boyfriend...” I start off, pressing the gas peddle harder than expected. “So it’s different for you. But I honestly don’t feel comfortable changing in his office. In anyone’s office.”
“I understand. I’m sorry,” she concedes. “There’s a bathroom next to the elevators we can use.”
I sigh in relief. But the fact that Bryce even offered his office for a dressing room leaves me feeling a little apprehensive.
“When are you going to tell your parents about him,” I ask, making a slow turn to the right.
“Not for awhile,” she admits, adding some blush to the apple of her cheek. “I saw the look on your face when I told you his age. I can only imagine what my parents would say.”
“Yeah, no doubt. But speaking from experience—keeping a relationship a secret is a disaster waiting to happen. I’m sure you remember how bad Jason reacted when he first learned about Christian and then again with Ryan. Hiding those relationships only created more drama.”
“I know, but this is different. Jason already knew them and he liked them both. My parents aren’t ready to here I’m dating a twenty-eight year old. Trust me.”
“I don’t think they’ll ever be ready. That’s why I’m worried for you Sam. I know Bryce is sweet, successful and really attractive, but what if he’s not as wonderful as you think he is?”
“Is this about Christian pulling him over? Because Bryce already told me he could’ve been nicer about the whole thing.”
“Christian is concerned—yes, but so is Ryan.”
“Ryan has never even met Bryce. Christian met him once. Why can’t you just support me?” she asks, desperate. “I supported you with Christian, and I’m supporting you with Ryan, even though—“ Her voice cuts off and heat washes her cheeks.
“Even though what?” I ask, pulling into the parking lot.
”Never mind. Forget it.”
I park the car by a large oak tree, undo my seat belt and shift my body towards Sam.
“Tell me, please,” I beg. “What were you going to say?”
A look of regret accompanies her heavy sigh. “Fine. But don’t get mad. It’s just my opinion.”
“I’m listening,” I encourage, bringing up my knees to my seat.
“I don’t doubt your love for Ryan or his love for you. But I think the only reason you’re with him is because you’re afraid of losing him. You think you need him to survive, but you don’t. Being with Ryan should make you stronger and happier, and I don’t see it. I think he will always have a place in your heart that no one else can replace because you have a special bond. I mean, you’ve been through hell and back together. But I can almost guarantee, if you were to break up right now, he’d still be there for you. AND me. Because that’s who he is. Once you realize you don’t need to depend on him for strength, you won’t be so afraid or torn. I just know it.”
My heart is racing. Sam’s speech is hard to swallow. It scares me to think there could be some truth behind her words.
But I’m still quick to argue, “You’re wrong, that’s not why I—“
“Let me finish,” she interrupts, raising her hand. “After you met Christian, I watched you transform. You stopped running to Ryan with every little problem. Sure, you didn’t always make the best decisions, but you still faced them on your own. You took risks, went after things I thought were impossible and bravely followed your heart. I admired that. That’s who you are meant to be. Strong, brave and independent.”
Bombarded with feelings of uncertainty, my response is short and sorrowful. “I didn’t realize you felt that way.”
“It’s just my opinion. But it doesn’t mean I don’t love or support you.”
“I support you, too. One hundred percent.” I reach for her and pull her in. “And it doesn’t matter who you choose to be with, I will always love you.”
As I hug my best friend, I think about her deep and honest thoughts. She’s given me a lot to digest. Am I really a better version of myself when I’m with Christian?
Even though I disagree with her about my desire to be with Ryan, now is not the time to present my case. We have a job waiting for us, and I’m too nervous to think about anything else.
The downtown area is quickly becoming a hot spot for new restaurants and businesses. Bryce’s company is among them. It resides in Peak Towers and is one of the many buildings that recently received a face lift. I have to admit, interning in such a prestigious place has a certain appealing aspect.
Sam checks her smart watch and urges me to quickly grab our bags for changing. Her awkward blue boot leads the way into the twelve story building. Never having been inside before, I walk slowly, marveling at all the glass windows and white, marble floors. I stop to admire a pewter statue, positioned in the middle of the foyer on a glass table. Sam has to take my hand and pull me from the most impressive dragon statue I’ve ever seen.
After exploring the fancy pink and gold restroom, we quickly undress in a large area most likely meant for nursing mothers.
Sam rests on the pink couch with an anxious twitch, waiting for me to finish tugging at my black dress.
“You look beautiful and professional,” she says, leaning forward on the sofa. “Stop fussing.”
“Are you sure this floral cardigan goes?” I ask, self conscious.
“I’m sure. It’s perfect. Now let’s go. It’s almost two.”
Sam’s black pencil skirt and sparkly white top look stunning in the mirrored elevator. Once she presses the correct button, I hold onto the brass bar, anxious for our stopping point—-the 6th floor. I have no idea what’s waiting for us and that terrifies me. My stomach is in knots. I can tell Sam’s nervous too. The constant hair flips are a dead giveaway.
The elevator opens to a loud ding and the first thing in sight is a perky, blond receptionist sitting at a small, curved desk.
She quickly reaches over to greet us in a high-pitched voice. “Hi there. Welcome to Probe Research.”
After a short introduction from Dana, our triangle is joined by Bryce, eager in his approach and groomed to perfection. I don’t think he has one dark hair out of place on his head. His blue, slim-fit dress shirt is coupled with a black tie and brings his adequate figure to attention. As he turns to ask the receptionist to ring Jenna, I secure a sufficient view of him.
“Physically speaking, I see no problem areas,” I whisper to Sam.
Her giggle helps us both relax and that’s precisely what we need—to calm our nerves.
I’m surprised by the hug and kiss Bryce grants Sam. But then again, being the boss of your own company clearly permits such freedom.
“It’s really good to see you again Ally,” he says, placing his hands in his pockets. “I’m thrilled you decided to join us.”
“Thanks. I’m happy to be here.”
Another blond, much more petite, appears in front of us with a stack of papers. Bryce lifts an arm her direction and speaks in a professional, yet casual tone.
“Jenna is going to take you to one of our meeting rooms and get you started on the hiring process. Once that’s done, I will give you a tour. Sound good?”
“Sounds perfect,” I acknowledge, pleased with the way things are going.
The meeting room Jenna brings us to is mirrored on one side and big enough for a table and ten chairs—all of which are different styles and colors. A whiteboard hangs to the right of the double glass door entrance and a TV screen is on the adjacent wall. Neon post-it notes cover the remaining side.
“Pick a seat,” Jenna suggests, opening a lap top resting on the white table.
I choose the lime-green chair with arm rests and Sam sits next to me in the purple chair. The silence is awkward for a moment as we wait for instructions. I stare at Jenna’s solemn face as she fidgets on the computer, wiggling her petite nose. She tosses a packet to the both of us and then turns the computer our direction. Her monotone voice is kind, but there’s a blank and distant look in her fair complexion.
“After you fill out these forms, I need you to enter your information on this open web page. If you have any questions, I’m across the hall. I’ll be back in a bit to check on you.”
Once Jenna leaves, I comment on her behavior. “I wonder if she ever smiles.”
Sam shrugs her shoulders. “Who knows.”
Near the end of our packet, I stumble upon a paper stating the companies employee mission statement, written by the founder—Bryce Williams. His words are actually pretty inspiring, but what stands out the most are the core values: integrity, respect, inclusiveness, honesty and ethics. Reading how important these things are to him warms my heart a little and makes me want to present him with a stamp of approval.
Sam notices the appraised look lingering on my face and decides to read the statement for herself.
“Told you,” she says, flashing a smile. “He’s pretty wonderful.”
Unwilling to agree just yet, I say, “Actions speak louder than words.”
“I agree. And I bet by the end of the week, you’ll be telling me how right I was about him.”
“I hope so Sam. I really do.”
The tour Bryce gives is surprisingly entertaining. Each office we enter is decorated to each persons unique taste. Some have funky, bright colored furniture. Others are filled with things that inspire or help prompt creativity. For example, Hannah’s office is like a treasure box, with so many odd little trinkets you can pick up and play with. She even has a blue, plastic chair in the shape of a puppy, balloon animal.
As we finish making our way around to each office, I notice every single one is inhabited by a female. Not one boy. I’m anxious to hear Sam’s thoughts on that obvious observation later.
The spacious break room also functions as the supply room. Tables and chairs occupy the middle and near the back are open shelves full of paper and office supplies. A copy machine isn’t too far from the refrigerator. It reminds me of the teacher’s lounge at school. One stop shop for all you’re clerical and lounging needs.
A more simple and plain meeting room is our next stop. It’s the largest and holds at least thirty people around a massive oval table. Front and center is a large projection screen. But best part is the long window that stretches across the room. I admire the breathtaking view of the rolling hills for a moment. On my way out, I grab a cup of water from the jug dispenser.
We enter Bryce’s office last. It’s the smallest room on our brief excursion. No windows like Sam mentioned, but the walls hold several inspirational posters and a large piece of art work. The colorful abstract painting is an instant reminder of Christian, and I don’t mind one bit.
“What do you think so far?” He asks, leaning his backside on the edge of the L-shaped desk.
I’m quick to respond, excited from the tour. “I loved how each office was unique. I can tell everyone here is very creative.”
“Yes, we love to encourage creativity and opinions here. That’s how great ideas are nurtured.”
“You already know what I think,” Sam says, rubbing the forearm of her happy, good-looking man.
Bryce presents her with a sweet peck on the lips. “Thanks, gorgeous. I was going to have you enter some data for me since you mentioned you felt comfortable typing.”
“I’d be happy to.”
“Ally, would you mind making some copies and putting together some packets?”
“I can definitely do that.”
With a pleased grin, Bryce hands me a folder with a post-it note on top. I leave his office, smiling, thrilled to have such a simple task.
The break room is empty, but a lingering smell of burnt popcorn permeates my nose. I find a can of air freshener and spray a lilac scent around me. Then I get straight to work, quickly reading Bryce’s instructions: 20 copies each. Staple into packets.
About halfway through my progress, the copy machine starts making a loud grinding sound until it jams. I try everything I can to fix it, opening up every compartment, but nothing works. Eventually, I get so frustrated I give it a kick or two. My ever-present pout is boarding a trickle of tears.
“Would you like some assistance?”
I flip around at the sound of a masculine voice and see a blond haired guy in khakis and a green button up shirt.
“You’re a guy,” I state, noting my confused thought aloud. Shame and regret immediately floods my face.
Humoring me, he looks down at himself, pats his legs and says. “Last I checked.”
My giggle is followed by an apology. “Sorry I just meant that—well, you’re the first guy I’ve seen here, besides Bryce. I’m just surprised that’s all.”
”Yeah, well, Bryce prides himself on being an advocate for women in the workforce. Women empowerment is sort of his thing. My name is Garret by the way.”
I shake his hand and enjoy his relaxed smile. “I’m Ally.”
Garret’s cute—like puppy in a commercial kind of cute. His light eyes and face are youthful. I imagine he’s in his early to mid twenties.
“So you had the right idea with this unstable piece of junk, but your aim is a little off. You have to kick it in just the right spot.”
I step out of the way and let Garrett do his thing. His hard kick to the left corner jump-starts the machine and it’s rhythmic humming returns.
As the papers start flying out, I fall over in a quick ejection. “Thank you so much. I was about to take it a part and perform surgery.”
He chuckles. “Don’t feel bad. It’s old and ready to retire. You’re one of the new interns, right?”
“Yep. It’s my first day.”
“Welcome to the team.“
Garrets sweet gesture brings out a smile and sense of belonging. My time here has been short, but he’s already making me feel included.
“I’m curious, how did you manage to get a job here if Bryce is all about empowering women.”
“Bryce is my half brother. He didn’t really have much of a choice. I mean he did, but then our mother would give him a hard time and he has no desire to upset her.”
“I see. So what’s it like here? Everyone seems really friendly and happy. Well, except for Jenna— she seemed rather aloof.”
Garret tucks a foot around his ankle and leans against the copy machine. “Morale is good most days, as long as Bryce is in a good mood...Jenna is going through some things right now. Don’t ask.“
I wrap my hair to one side and tuck the remaining strands behind my ear. “So are you a Research Analyst?”
“Yep. I’m responsible for developing presentations and reviewing a lot of the survey questionnaires.”
I hear the paper tray lift, indicating the copies are complete. “Sounds time-consuming,” I say, picking up the stack of papers.
“Yeah, my girlfriend thinks I live here.“
I spread out my pile on one of the tables, ready to make packets. Garret kindly grabs me a stapler.
“How does she feel about you being surrounded by all these beautiful blond women?“ I ask, doing my best to multitask.
“Ah, so you noticed my brothers type. Well—with the exception of you of course.”
“Be honest.” My voice lowers with suspicion. “Would you consider your brother a decent guy?”
“Depends on your definition of decent.” He admits, with a smirk. “Why? are you interested in him?”“
“No not at all, but my best friend is dating him. I’m just trying to look out for her. She’s the other new intern.”
“Oh, I didn’t realize...But to answer your question—my brother has an incredible work ethic. He cares about his clients and will do anything for them. But as far as his love life—he’s always kept that pretty private. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him with a steady girlfriend. His career and company have always been his highest priority. So if he’s dating your best friend out in public, he must really like her.“
Jenna walks in, straight-faced and silent. She’s quick to grab a box of highlighters from the supply shelf. On her way out, she addresses Garrett quietly, but with intentional significance. “Bryce wants to see you.”
“Of course he does. I’m on my way.”
Garret strolls to the door, and I go back to my tedious task, anxious to finish it quickly. Impressing Bryce on my first day is on the forefront of my mind.
While bunching my sleeves to my elbows, a loud tap on the door frame startles my focus.
“Hey—my office is just down the hall from Bryce. If you need anything, come find me.“
My bright smile comes easily to Garret. “Thanks. I definitely will.”
I have to admit, knowing there’s another guy on our floor, eases my mind for some reason. And Garret seems like someone I can count on.
It doesn’t take long to put together twenty packets of about thirty pages each. Once I’m finished, I meander back to Bryce’s office. His door is shut, but I can hear voices. I knock and wait for his approval before entering.
I find Bryce fidgeting with his cell phone and Sam at his desk typing away, unable to look up. Her serious demeanor can’t hide her blush. I have a hunch she was doing something else entirely before I came in. I don’t know if I should be excited for her or concerned.
“That was fast,” Bryce says, peering up from his phone. Taking a step closer to Sam, he lightly squeezes the back of her neck. “Hey, beautiful. Would you mind taking the stack of papers from Ally and bringing them to Jenna for me?”
Sam quickly stands from her chair. “Sure, no problem.”
“Did the copy machine give you any problems?” He asks.
“Actually, yes. You should think about replacing that clunker as soon as possible. It’s a dinosaur.”
I hear Sam giggle as she exits the room.
“Garret has been on my case about it for months. I’ll look into it.”
Noticing a few photo frames on Bryce’s desk, I nonchalantly bring myself within reach of them.
“Why wasn’t your brothers office a part of our tour?” I ask, picking up a silver frame.
“I guess I forgot.”
My half smirk, half grimace suggests deceit. “Not you,” I say, with obvious sarcasm.
Surprised by my condescending tone, Bryce asks, “What are you suggesting?”
“You’re way too efficient at your job to forget. I’m calling bull crap.”
He laughs in amusement, dropping his head to his chest. Then walks around his desk, bringing himself closer to me. “Well, if you must know, Garret and I don’t always see eye to eye.”
“Oh,” I say flatly. “I’m sorry to hear that.” I feel bad that I called Bryce out. Even though I barely know him, it’s so easy for me to give him a hard time.
I peer down at the picture and see him and Garret in ski gear. The backdrop is a beautiful snow covered mountain, with a cluster of pine trees to the left of them.
“That was last winter,” Bryce informs me. “We usually make a trip to Big Bear every year.”
“It’s a great picture. I especially like the cheesy grin on Garrets face.”
Bryce scratches his chin. “He’s certainly a character.”
“I only talked to him for a few minutes, but I already know I like him.“
“He has that effect on people.” The tone in his voice suggests a hint of jealousy. But in my eyes, I see no reason to be jealous. Both brothers have appealing qualities.
“There is one thing we agreed on today,” he admits.
I set the picture down. “Oh, yeah— what?”
I cross my arms, suddenly uncomfortable with his thought. “What about me?”
“Have a seat,” Bryce suggests, pointing to the metal chair in front of his desk.
I’m slow to comply and wait for him sit next to me, all serious and down-to-business like
“Garret mentioned you impressed him earlier.”
“He said you were very observant and have a unique way of expressing yourself.”
I suck in my lower lip as I feel a rush of gratification. Garret is scoring a great deal of admiration in my mind.
“Ally, I think you’re really bright and have the potential to do more than just clerical duties for this company. You’re not afraid to voice your opinion, and I appreciate that...”
I swallow the lump in my throat, remembering my conversation with him yesterday. I told him exactly what Sam needed, holding nothing back. Apparently that impressed him.
“I believe strongly in the power of mentoring and the best way for me to do that is by offering you a spot at our table. So if you’re open to it, I’d like you to join our team meeting tomorrow. You don’t have to participate at first. You can choose to listen and observe our crazy brainstorming process.”
Overwhelmed with Bryce’s offer, my mind scrambles for a proper response. But all I can think about is one person.
“What about Sam?”
“She won’t be here tomorrow. She has a counseling session with her parents...”
I’m assuming Sam’s nerves about today got in the way because this is new information to me.
“Of course the offer applies to her as well,” he explains. “But I think we both know what her answer will be. You can let me know tomorrow what you decide. No pressure.”
“OK. I’ll think about it.”
Sam returns with an excited grin on her face, most likely do to the fluffy, black kitten in her arms. It takes me a moment to realize it’s a real-live green-eyed cat.
“Look what Jenna and I found,” she says, petting the purring creature with adoring affection.
“Where in the world did it come from?” Bryce asks, unamused.
“I have no idea, but Jenna thinks it came through an air duct or something.”
Bryce points to the door in irritation. “It can go back outside where it belongs. Just toss it out the window if you have to.”
The jaw drop from Sam, followed by her look of disgust is priceless. Bryce clearly isn’t aware of Sam’s love for animals, especially her love for cats. The wrath that he’s about to receive makes me laugh internally.
“How could you suggest such a horrendous act,” she speaks, sharply. “That’s so cruel. What’s wrong with you?”
“It’s just a cat.”
“And you’re just a man. A heartless man. Should we toss you out too?”
Bryce quickly back peddles, finally realizing the fury he triggered. “Baby, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it.”
“I bet you were one of those kids that tortured cats,” She suggests, fuming.
After glancing to me with a look of panic, he carefully responds. “Of course not. I’m just not a cat person.”
“Just look how sweet he is,” Sam says, bringing it over to him. “I want to keep him.”
“In this building?” He asks, distress growing on his face.
Feeling comfortable enough to give my input, I move closer and stroke the tiny nugget. “Well I vote he be our new company pet. We can call him Probester.”
Bryce glares at me, unable to find the amusement in my suggestion.
“I agree with Ally.” Sam says, kissing the top of the kittens head.
“Absolutely not.” He replies, adamant. “We can’t keep a cat in this building.”
“Why not?” Sam asks.
“Because then he’ll have to compete for your attention.” I tease. “This little guy is adorable.”
“This place wouldn’t make a good home.” He argues, ignoring my playful insinuation. “Not to mention it’s probably illegal to keep him here.”
“No one will know,” Sam implies.
“Oh come on, Bryce. Just give your princess what she wants.” I say, bravely.
He quickly presents me with a “you keep talking and you’re gonna regret it” look. It makes me blush, hard. But I can tell he’s reached his limit of teasing, so I forfeit any more suggestions.
“Seriously though,” Sam says, soft and sweet. “Can we keep him?”
The innocence of my best friend melts my heart and makes me want to buy her all the kittens in the world. It’s too bad her mom is allergic to cats.
Sam drops another plea. “I’ll take care of him. You won’t even know he’s here.”
I patiently wait for him to answer, so sure of his immovable stance, but he surprises me and caves to his persistent girlfriend.
“Alright. Fine. He can stay. But if one client complains, you have to find it a new home.”
The way Bryce is quick to soften his demeanor and perspective for Sam pleases me greatly. I’m starting to think she has him wrapped around her finger.
“Deal,” Sam squeals.
She hands me the startled cat, eager to hug and kiss her appeased guy. I try not to grimace as the little fur ball scratches my arm. Kitten claws are surprisingly painful. After nuzzling him under my chin, he immediately starts purring, and I feel better about siding with Sam.
I find it hysterical that Bryce is quick to shake his head at me in disapproval—like it’s somehow my fault we ended up keeping the cat. But I’m OK with taking the blame. If Sam’s happy, I’m happy.
I smile at the annoyed guy next to me in gratitude, and in time, he too breaks into a smile. And with that smile, all my doubts about his character fade. Sam was wrong. I didn’t need a week to see how wonderful he is. I only needed a day.
The last hour of our shift, Bryce and I watch Sam play with her new kitten on the floor. But mostly, I watch Bryce and the admiration he has in his eyes for my elated best friend.