Festive Fireworks – A short story by Tracy Corbett
Jessica Day had always loved the festive time of year. Not that she got to celebrate much these days. But that didn’t stop her imagining a time when she could put up decorations and lounge around her flat on Christmas morning opening presents with an attractive man by her side, who would whisk her off somewhere romantic for New Year. But since landing her dream job in publishing, she spent most of her waking hours at the office. Not that she was complaining. She loved her job. Well, most of it. There were certain irritants – like the man she was forced to share a PA with – but other than that her work life was good, even if her love life wasn’t.
‘Matt is asking whether you’ve had a chance to consider his proposal?’ The sound of her PA’s voice made Jess look up from her computer.
‘Proposal?’ Jess felt her forehead crease into a frown. ‘What proposal?’
Madeline nodded to the picture on the screen. ‘The artwork for the cover.’
‘Oh, right. Yes, of course.’ Not that she’d imagined any other kind of proposal. That would be ludicrous. No one in their right mind would want to be propositioned by Matthew Hudson. The most annoying man ever to walk the face of the earth.
She glanced over to his work station. He was leaning back in his chair as though he owned the place, tapping his lip with a pencil. He spotted her looking over and raised an inquisitive eyebrow.
She dragged her gaze away from his lips, focusing instead on his inappropriate work attire, an open-necked casual shirt with the sleeves rolled up. The other women in the office referred to him as ‘a catch’, but she wasn’t so easily impressed…tanned forearms, aside.
Printing off the artwork, she straightened out the kinks in her grey circle skirt and marched over to her colleague’s desk. Her reflection in the glass window running the length of the open-plan office gave a painful reminder that her normally peroxide-blonde hair had a tinge of green to it today. Why they insisted on putting so much chlorine in the local pool, she didn’t know. Swimming normally relaxed her. But thanks to her daily battles with Matthew Hudson, the feeling rarely lasted.
Jess tapped her foot, waiting until she had his full attention. ‘I’ve had a chance to review your suggestions for Festive Fireworks, Mr Hudson. And whereas your design is certainly eye-catching…’ that was one to describe the scantily-clad model thrusting her assets at the camera, ‘…it’s hardly appropriate for this particular release.’
Her colleague stood up, knowing his height intimidated her. Even in heels she didn’t reach his chin. ‘And why is that, Miss Day?’
‘Well, for a start, this picture is too… sexy.’ She felt herself blush.
‘Sexy?’ He tilted his head to one side. ‘How do you figure that?’
She pointed to the picture. ‘The woman in this photo is pouting. And she’s wearing little more than her underwear.’
He laughed. ‘And that’s a problem because?’
‘Festive Fireworks is a romance, Mr Hudson. Our readers want to be seduced by an air of mystique, the promise of romance, the hint of an affair, not blatant… sex.’
His smile turned mischievous. ‘Sex sells.’
She lifted her chin. ‘Not for this type of publication, it doesn’t.’
He folded his arms across his wide chest. ‘I disagree.’
‘Oh, you disagree, do you?’
His gaze narrowed. ‘I’ve studied the metadata. Results show better sales rankings for books with these type of covers.’
She straightened her shoulders. ‘Mr Hudson, I have worked in women’s commercial fiction for five years. I have overseen numerous successful campaigns, including several best-selling authors. Are you now trying to tell me how to do my job?’
The rest of the office had stopped work and were tuned into the ‘Doris & Rock show’ as her colleagues referred to it, although never to her face.
Madeline touched her arm. ‘Why don’t we all calm down. How about a glass of prosecco? Get the festive party started early, eh?’
Her nemesis smirked. ‘Miss Day would probably prefer a nice cup of English breakfast tea. A match for her twin-set and pearls.’ He winked at Madeline, causing the older woman to giggle.
Jess fiddled with the button on her cherry-patterned blouse. So what if she had a preference for vintage clothes, it didn’t make her old-fashioned… did it? ‘And Mr Hudson would probably prefer a nice glass of Strychnine, a match for his caustic personality.’
One of her colleagues snorted with laughter. ‘Ignore her, Matt. She’s just grumpy because a house landed on her sister.’
The office erupted with laughter.
Outraged, Jess spun around and glared at Matthew Hudson’s editorial assistant. ‘Are you likening me to the Wicked Witch of the West?’
Matthew Hudson intervened. ‘Of course he isn’t.’
Well, that was something.
‘It was the Witch of the East who had green hair.’ He had the audacity to laugh.
Her hand immediately went to her up-do. Infuriating man!
Several people snickered, including Madeline.
‘Traitor,’ she mouthed at her PA, before sitting down at her desk.
Madeline came over. ‘Why do you let him bait you? He’s only teasing. You know he gets a kick out of seeing you flustered.’
‘Yes, and why is that?’ She swivelled to look at Madeline. ‘He’s perfectly polite to everyone else.’
Madeline raised an eyebrow. ‘You really don’t know?’
She shook her head. ‘Not a clue.’
‘Well for one, you insist on calling him Mr Hudson.’
‘So? He calls me Miss Day.’
‘Only in retaliation. I think you intimidate the man.’
Jess almost laughed. ‘Are you kidding me? The man is as arrogant as they come.’
Madeline sighed. ‘Have you ever thought that might be a front? Underneath the bluster he has insecurities same as the rest of us?’
Jess did laugh this time. ‘Nonsense. The man is devoid of sensitivity. You heard what he said about my hair.’ She patted the side of her green-tinged chignon. ‘And may I remind you he just called me a witch?’
Madeline squeezed Jess’s shoulder. ‘Clueless, the pair of you.’ She flicked off her computer. ‘Right, I’m off to the party. You coming?’
Jess shook her head. ‘I need to re-work this design. It’s not as if we can use the photo he chose,’ she said, trying to make a point. But her colleague wasn’t listening, he was typing away on his keyboard, as work-focused as she was. Possibly his only attribute.
Madeline headed for the lift. ‘Oh, well, I tried. Don’t work too late. It’s Christmas Eve, remember?’ She pressed the button. ‘And if you change your mind, the party’s on the third floor. Come and have some fun.’
Jess waved an acknowledgement, even though she had no intention of joining the party. Not that she wouldn’t like to, she just had too much work on.
For the next two hours, she worked on an alternative cover design, accompanied only by the faint sound of festive music drifting over from her colleague’s desk. Occasionally, he hummed along to whatever song was playing on his iPod, his voice surprisingly tuneful. She tried glaring at him, but he never looked over.
Why did he have such a problem with her? Come to think of it, why did she have such a problem with him? He was very good-looking – in a Liam Hemsworth kind of way, and he was popular with everyone else at the publishing house. So why did the sight of him each morning make her skin itch?
It was gone 8pm by the time she switched off her computer and collected her things. She only realised her colleague had done the same when they both pressed the button for the lift at the same time and their hands touched. She jerked away.
When the lift doors pinged open, he gestured for her to go ahead. ‘After you, Miss Day.’
She ignored his sarcasm. ‘Thank you, Mr Hudson.’
He pressed the button for the ground floor.
She stepped away from him, refusing to dwell on the warmth of his hand, or the smooth quality of his skin when he’d touched her. Instead, she focused on the lift descending, each floor lighting up as they travelled past.
Matthew Hudson began to whistle ‘Lonely this Christmas.’ Apt really, seeing as she was spending the festive season alone with her cat. Goodness, she was a cliché.
‘Anything nice planned over Christmas,’ he said, his tone surprisingly polite.
Was he trying to be… friendly? It was probably a trap.
‘Yes, thank you. A diary full of events,’ she lied. ‘Parties, functions, you name it, I’m going to it.’ What on earth was she on about? Apart from stopping off to buy a ready meal for one, she wasn’t going anywhere. Still, he didn’t need to know that. He already thought she was an uptight loser. ‘You?’
He smiled. ‘Same. You know me, party-party-party.’
She didn’t doubt it.
The lift suddenly jolted to a stop.
The lights flickered and then dimmed.
For a moment, neither of them moved.
She reached over and pressed the button for the ground floor, but nothing happened. She jabbed again. No movement, no lights, no doors hissing open. She glanced at her colleague. ‘We appear to have stopped moving.’
She was expecting a sarcastic retort, something along the lines of, ‘Oh, you think?’ but instead her colleague’s expression was bordering on panic.
She touched his arm. ‘Are you okay?’
He nodded. ‘Fine.’
‘You don’t look fine. Are you ill?’
He shook his head. ‘Not a fan of enclosed spaces, that’s all.’
So, the perfect cock-sure Mr Hudson was fallible, after all? Somehow this didn’t cheer her as much as she would have imagined.
‘I’m sure it’s just a glitch. We’ll be moving again soon.’ She lifted the emergency handset only to find it dead. Something told her this wouldn’t ease her colleague’s stress levels. She pretended to converse with an engineer, implying help was on its way. ‘That’s great, thank you so much.’ She hung up.
Matthew Hudson rubbed the back of his neck. ‘Are they coming? How long?’
‘It’ll be fixed in no time.’ She hoped rather than believed this to be the case, but as the minutes ticked by and no one came, she was starting to worry.
Her colleague had paled and his breathing was shallow. He clung to the lift wall. ‘Where are they? Why aren’t they here?’
She needed to put aside their disagreements and reassure him. Dealing with a full-blown panic attack wasn’t something she relished. What was it the instructor had said on the first aid course? Distract the casualty by talking to them.
‘So, Mr Hudson…’ She forced a smile. ‘Matthew. Tell me about your plans for Christmas.’
The sound of his name momentarily distracted him. He looked conflicted, but then his head flopped against the wall. ‘I don’t have any.’
He closed his eyes. ‘I lied, okay? I’m spending the day alone with my dog.’
‘You have a dog?’ Somehow this was more surprising than finding out he was claustrophobic.
He nodded. ‘Pathetic, huh?’
‘Not at all.’ His expression was so tortured she could hardly use this information to her advantage. Before she could rationalise her actions, she said, ‘I don’t have any plans either.’
He opened his eyes. ‘You don’t?’
‘None. Just me and Lucifer.’
‘Lucifer?’ He rubbed his chest. ‘Boyfriend?’
She shook her head. ‘Cat.’
Maybe it was wishful thinking, but she was sure he looked relieved. ‘There’s no help coming, is there?’
She debated whether to continue with the ruse. ‘Sorry, no.’
He nodded. ‘It’s okay, I guessed as much. Thanks for pretending. It was nice of you.’
Beads of sweat had appeared on his forehead. She needed to take action. ‘The way I see it, we have two choices. Wait for help, or take matters into our own hands.’
He raised an eyebrow. ‘Meaning?’
She kicked off her shoes. ‘There’s a hatch in the ceiling. If you could lift me up, I’ll climb out and alert someone.’
He shook his head. ‘You’ll fall and break your neck.’
‘Excuse me? I’ll have you know I swim five miles a week. I may not look fit –’
‘Actually, you do.’
She stilled. ‘I’m sorry?’
‘Fit.’ Was he… blushing?
Come to think of it, so was she.
Ignoring the flutter in her belly, she positioned herself next to him. ‘Come on, lift me up.’
He looked as though he wanted to refuse, but didn’t want to be stuck in the lift all night. He placed his hands on her waist. ‘Don’t climb out until you’re sure it’s safe.’
She nodded. ‘Deal.’
It was an odd situation to find yourself in, pressed against another human being. Not unpleasant, but surreal, nonetheless. They were work colleagues. They didn’t even like each other… did they?
He lifted her as though she weighed nothing more than a bag of sugar. His hands slid around her waist, gripping hold of her bum for support. Goodness! Not something she’d anticipated.
She reached above. ‘Left a bit.’
He shuffled over.
‘Stop.’ She placed her hands on the hatch and pushed. Nothing happened. She pushed harder.
The lift suddenly jolted back into life, dropping a few feet.
He staggered and lost his grip, his arms tightening around her. Unable to keep hold of her, they toppled to the floor.
She found herself lying on top of Matthew Hudson, her face inches from his, gripping hold of his chest. The warmth radiating off him was both alarming and enticing.
Inappropriate as the situation was, she was struck by the realisation that she might be about to die. She was single. No man in her life. Just a cat.
It was this stream of unconscious thought – coupled with the desire to continue distracting her colleague from his anxiety – that led to her kissing him. It was totally out of character and completely inappropriate, but if they were going to die, what did it matter? Who would know? And boy, could Mr Hudson kiss. It wasn’t her imagination, he was definitely joining in. Enthusiastically. Passionately. Almost as if the earth were moving beneath them…which she realised it was.
The lift dropped with an almighty shudder.
And then the doors pinged open.
The first thing to hit was the noise of the party. ‘All I Want for Christmas’ blared out, accompanied by singing, laughter, and party poppers exploding.
There was a momentary lull in the festivities when someone shouted, ‘Blow me, Rock and Doris are finally getting it on!’
The entire publishing house turned to look at them.
Oh, heavens. She figured there was little point offering an explanation as to why she was lying prostrate on her work colleague with her lipstick smeared and her green hair dishevelled. She shrugged and looked down at the man beneath her. ‘We appear to be caught in a rather compromising position, Mr Hudson.’
He grinned up at her. ‘We do indeed, Miss Day.’ His arms tightened around her. Strangely, she was in no rush to move. ‘You know, the turkey I bought is big enough for two?’
She raised an eyebrow. ‘Are you inviting me to spend Christmas Day with you, Mr Hudson?’
He smiled. ‘It looks like I am, Miss Day. We could work on the cover for Festive Fireworks. Maybe come up with a new photo?’ There was a mischievous glint in his eye.
She found herself smiling. ‘That would be most acceptable, Mr Hudson.’
The room erupted with whistles and shouts of, ‘About time too!’
Jess watched Madeline wipe a tear from her eye.
Find out more about Tracy Corbett and her books on http://tracycorbettauthor.co.uk/