eBook, Lucky Me Publisher, November 2021
~ Layla ~
It’s 10:22 on Thursday night and they hadn’t even started on the first agenda item of the interminable meeting, which was Jill’s merchandise updates that would certainly be duller than counting ants.
Thank God I’d come prepared with wine and cheese. The wine was a reject from Mi Maria winery—rejects were definitely one of the many perks of living in wine country.
The cheese came in the form of Cheetos. It counted.
Outside, a cold winter mist frosted the night, adding halos to the Christmas lights strung from street lamp to street lamp. The town of Northern Vines loved to deck the halls and fa la la. Inside my apartment, I have a Christmas candle burning and a ready-made table top Christmas tree. All I had to do was plug it in, ho ho ho.
“Layla?” Jill said sharply in my headset, making me jump like I’d just been busted cramming Cheetos in my mouth with my orange-caked fingers and gulping down wine. Which I sort of was.
I sucked my fingers clean before clicking off mute, wondering what question I just slurped through without hearing.
“Yes, Jill?” I answered, like I wasn’t muttering every curse word I know in my head. I’ve never been a great cusser. My friend Jenna tells me I lack the passion needed to make it meaningful.
Passion. Not even sure I knew what that was anymore.
“I think you forgot to turn on your camera,” Jill said.
Jill’s a coworker, but she acted like she was the boss when the real bosses weren’t looking. Like now.
“Oh sorry,” I said instead of what I’m thinking. Switching back to mute, I wiped the orange I couldn’t get off my fingers with my tongue onto my pants, gulped down the rest of the wine in my glass then shoved it, the bottle, and the Cheetos behind my laptop before clicking on the camera.
I hated having my camera on. I inevitably spent the whole time picking myself apart. But the owner of Gebhardt’s Accoutrements and Sundries—GAS as we called it around the office—liked to think we were cutting edge, which apparently meant virtual meetings with cameras on. Not mandatory, but preferred.
“There you are,” Jill said smugly when my face filled one of the boxes on the screen.
There were twelve of us in this meeting, but less than half had their cameras on. Jill didn’t call anyone else out about it, though. Just me, as usual. She looked twitterpated about this boring meeting in the middle of the night and I had a purplish mustache from the Pinot Noir I’d guzzled.
“Layla, I hope you don’t mind, but I need to shuffle the agenda a bit.”
Jill again. And of course, I minded.
“I need to drop early so you’ll give your update after Bobby.”
I could feel the smoke coming out of my ears. But since I lacked the passion to say F-you, I said nothing. I’d been caught in her manipulative double talk too many times to start something when I had a purple mustache and Cheeto fingers.
Jill gave me a phony smile and launched into her presentation, flashing complicated graphs and droning on until I wished there were ants to count.
Would anyone notice if turned off my camera? Why hadn’t I thought to put my wine in my coffee mug?
I cursed myself (and yes, I managed passion), especially after I realized that on the couch beside me, Buttercup, my mongrel rescue dog, was vigorously licking her butt in full view of everyone. Awesome.
Finally, it was Bobby’s turn. Motor-mouth Bobby, who I really liked when he wasn’t blabbing away in late night meetings.
Just when I thought this meeting couldn’t get any worse, someone on the New York team interrupted, spiraling us into a rat hole of pointless what-if scenarios. Jill, who was still on the line despite her claim that she had to drop early, cut in with an equally stupid question.
“Just a time check,” I said. If they heard me, they didn’t care.
“Excuse me,” a male voice broke in. Deep and filled with the authority my insertion had apparently lacked.
I hadn’t realized he’d be on this call. His last day was tomorrow; he could easily have skipped it.
Shit. I looked like a crazy single woman who drank wine with Cheetos and didn’t care if her ponytail was crooked or her face was washed.
But I did care, especially where Ryan Ramsey was concerned.
Surreptitiously, I smoothed my hair but short of a vigorous scrub with soap and water, there wasn’t anything I could do about the mustache except avert my face and hope the camera transformed it into a shadow.
“I’d like to hear Layla’s inventory update before we start projecting outcomes,” Ryan went on.
I stopped breathing. Every time Ryan said my name it had that effect on me.
He did it again and I hadn’t recovered from the first time yet. But everyone was looking at me now. Buttercup chose that moment to fart loudly and sniff her butt some more.
I shooed her down, trying not gag—what had she been eating?—and turned back to the screen. Ryan had his camera off, but I could feel him there, laughing at my mustache, my rat’s nest hair, and my flatulent dog.
“Yes, let me share my screen. This won’t take long.”
As promised, my report was brief and to the point. I’d assumed that between Jill and Bobby, my time would be cut short so I’d planned for it. I’d planned for everything but the damn camera being on.
“My recommendation,” I concluded, “is that we push our existing inventory out to the stores before we bring any new merchandise into the warehouse and we use this time to improve our online experience to further reduce our back stock and increase sales.”
“I don’t see how old merchandise is going to increase sales,” Jill said testily.
“I thought you’d dropped,” I responded coolly. “But to address your question, we give it a virtual window dressing to spruce it up and make it look fresh. I feel we have three options. One, we revive and discount the inventory to move it out. Two, we lease additional storage facilities to store the old merchandise until…what? It’s new again? Or three, we liquidate and take the loss. Of those three, only the first presents a possibility of a positive bottom line.”
“Agreed,” Ryan said.
To my surprise, the rest of the team chimed agreement, too. Jill looked like she wanted to argue. Strike that. She looked like she wanted to detonate some cyber gas that would seep out of my camera lens and render me incapable of making recommendations in the future. Jill had been pushing to expand inventory and add trendier, edgier and completely useless stuff. But we already had a warehouse filled with last season’s “Jill merchandise.” Ask me, she wouldn’t know a trend if it bit her on her ass.
“Well,” she said sweetly. “That was a productive meeting. Layla, will you type up the minutes and send them out?”
“I didn’t take minutes,” I said with equal sweetness. “I assumed you were.”
Jill gave me a glacial stare. I chose not to acknowledge it.
“Okay,” Ryan said, humor in his voice. “Good meeting.”
“Ryan, isn’t your last day tomorrow?” Bobby asked.
Ryan acknowledged that it was and a flurry of well wishes and goodbyes followed. I said nothing, not that he’d notice. I was usually struck mute when it came to Ryan. And now he was riding off into the sunset.
I clicked my camera off as one by one the attendees dropped. With a sigh, I flopped back against the couch. Buttercup snuggled up next to me and gazed at me with her soft brown eyes.
I was so used to being shot down that I couldn’t believe they’d agreed with my strategy for moving the inventory. Wait until I told Yvonne. She’d already mocked up the prototype for our app—she’d been dying to use her creative side and her graphic arts skills. I’d need to pull together a team and—be still my heart—a project plan. Our online presence was about to go on steroids.
I poured the rest of the bottle of wine into my glass, cheersed myself and went to the kitchen to drop the empty into the recycle bin. A calendar hanging on the wall doused my good feels. We were halfway through December already. Christmas was next week and Maggie’s wedding was just over a month away. And I still didn’t have a plus one.
I grabbed a second bottle of wine from my rack and went back to my laptop. At the urging of my bestie, Jenna, I’d been filling out my application for Perfect Matchup4U before the meeting started and I still had the site up—probably not the smartest decision. I’d never have lived it down if I’d accidently flashed the wrong screen while I was sharing my presentation.
The very idea of finding a date from an app felt ridiculous to me and I didn’t have high hopes of success. But I also didn’t have many options. Jefferson, my gorgeous friend who usually played my date, had hooked up with the man of his dreams and fallen in love at a pace I couldn’t even comprehend. He no longer had the time or the desire to escort me to my events.
Jenna had told me to quit stressing over finding my own date and use Perfect Matchup4U to do the work. “Let the powers that be find you one,” she’d said. It made sense and Jenna worked for the company so it had to be good. Right?’
The Perfect Matchup4U site greeted me with a pithy pitch about finding my Mr. or Miss right.
Was I ready to begin my journey to my perfect match?
With a sigh, I clicked yes.
Congratulations, let’s get started. What name do you prefer to go by?
I took a swig of wine, typed “Princess Layla,” and let the site guide me through to the next questions.
~ Ryan ~
Ryan hated late meetings as much as the next person and he’d been optional on this one, what with his last day coming tomorrow, but he’d known that Layla was on the agenda and a meeting with Layla in it was guaranteed to be interesting. He’d only met her in person a handful of times, but she’d left an impression on him.
He’d started at Gerhardt’s Accoutrements and Sundries—GAS as they all called it, generally not in a good way—straight out of college, but for most of that time, he’d been overseas, tasked with managing their supply chain, ensuring that the merchandise GAS imported was not coming from companies with questionable business ethics, human rights violations, or detrimental environmental processes. He’d only been called back to the NorCal office to fill in for the operations manager who’d left unexpectedly and under shady circumstances that hadn’t been shared with Ryan.
He’d agreed to step in, but only temporarily. He’d been ready to leave GAS for months now and this latest stint only solidified the sense that it was time to go. He’d had opportunities of a lifetime to travel and learn about business and the world, but now he wanted to do something different. He wanted to work some place where he could make a difference to more than the bottom line.
But he was glad he’d made the effort to call into the meeting. In his final hours at GAS, he’d had the chance to back up Layla and that felt good. He grinned, picturing that wild mess of glorious hair and the red-purple mustache. Had to be wine.
She’d been spot-on in her assessment of their current inventory situation and he was glad she’d put Jill in her place. Jill was a buyer—a mediocre one in his opinion—and she had to understand that the surplus “old” merchandise was still in the warehouse instead of in consumer’s homes largely due to her questionable acquisitions.
In addition to filling in for the mysteriously departed operations manager, Ryan had been asked to identify efficiencies that could help the business be more successful. Efficiency recommendation number one had been to put Layla in charge of the buyers. They needed someone like her to keep the balance.
He grabbed a beer out of the fridge and a bag of chips off the counter and went back to his computer to finish up the last few things that needed to be done before he turned his badge and laptop in tomorrow morning.
Something moved on his screen and he realized he’d never clicked the leave button on the meeting. At the same time, he realized it was still showing Layla’s screen. She’d forgotten to quit sharing.
He sat down, intending to send her a message to let her know, but it was just the two of them left online and when he saw what she was typing, he hesitated.
She was filling out a profile for a dating app.
A good, conscientious man would look away. But…
She’d already done the basics apparently, and now the app addressed her as Princess Layla. He didn’t know if that was app humor or Layla humor. Could be either.
A fill-in-the-blank question appeared on her screen.
Princess Layla, what is your age?
The number twenty-six appeared in the space. The six disappeared and a seven took its place. That disappeared and a belligerent eight filled in. She clicked next and the screen refreshed.
Princess Layla, what is your occupation?
A pause, then “Public Nuisance.”
He’d barely read it before she backspaced and replaced it with Sea Horse tamer, then Bee Keeper.
Next. The screen refreshed.
Princess Layla, on average, how many hours a day do you work?
No pause before her answer. “TOO MANY.”
Princess Layla, other than English, what languages do you speak?
Layla typed, “Dog. A smattering of parseltongue. Sometimes dolphin, but not fluently.”
A smile spread across his face. He opened the bag of chips and started munching.
~ * * * ~
If you enjoyed this excerpt, you can find the entire book here.
Copyright © 2021 by Erin Quinn
Cover Art Copyright © 2021 by CFEN~
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