Butt-dialing the Billionaire: Chapter 19


Jaxon

The design office window looks out onto West Thirty-seventh, and every day, starting around three in the afternoon, people start checking to see if Bert’s green car is gone. Apparently he leaves early to beat the traffic, much to the relief of everybody in the design department. And the shipping department. And judging from the attitudes when I pick up and drop deliveries around the building, the photography, social media, merchandising, production, and styling departments, too.

I finish helping in shipping, and I’m back up at my cubicle just after Dave looks out there and sees Bert leaving, and the whole office seems to relax.

I hate business and have precisely zero interest in ever running a business, but even I can see that this is bad management. It’s ridiculous.

“Party time!” Dave calls out.

Shondrella tosses a wadded-up piece of paper at him, then Lacey follows suit. “Get back to work!”

Dave, of course being the dude he is, beans Lacey and Shondrella right back.

Lacey’s laughing, having a good day, and this stupidly makes me feel relieved, because, even though I’m still not a hundred percent convinced she’s not playing everyone, it seems I’ve been infected by the Lacey drama, or the mass hypnosis she has us all under, that allows her to nap during the day.

“You guys,” Jada scolds. “If anybody has free time, I could use more hands on unpacking the Mankomi hardware. And by the looks of it…”

“Keith has more green!” Dave says from the corner by the dead cactus. “You guys!”

“No way!” Renata says, rushing over.

Everybody’s gathering around Keith except for me; I’ve opted to stay at my cubicle.

“I have a photograph from three days ago,” Varsha says. She holds her phone up next to Keith’s spindly middle section. People are discussing and comparing.

“He’s way healthier,” Dave assures everybody. “Way better.”

Naturally, everybody agrees, because there’s no mass hypnosis this gang doesn’t go in for.

Jada’s positively sparkling with happiness, as though a little green on Keith is the second coming, which is not a great advertisement for modern office life.

Somebody sticks a red bow on the side of Keith’s pot. Pictures are taken—to post on Keith’s famous Instagram, no doubt.

I groan, and Jada gazes over at me with her Barbie-perfect eyes, lids half-smudged with green sparkle eyeliner, because she’d find a million more important things to do than fix her makeup.

I fix my attention back on the screen where I’m reading the comment section on the Doha Grand Prix report.

Jada starts up the song-chant: “Go Keeeeeeith! Go Keeeeeeith!”

I look up to find her snapping her fingers, hands raised level with her ears, and she’s gazing over at me, happily chanting, “Go Keeeeeeeeeith! Go Keeeeeeeith!”

It comes to me with some surprise that she thinks she’s cracked the code of how to cause me maximum possible annoyance. And she’s going for it.

Renata claps her hands. “Come on, Jack!”

I keep eyeing Jada. “I draw the line at singing songs to dead plants.”

“Don’t you listen to him, Keith!” Shondrella squeaks.

Jada keeps on. She’s clearly enjoying herself.

I turn my attention to my screen, but it’s impossible to concentrate. The cactus is dead, but the life thrumming through this office is quite stupidly alive.

“Dude,” Dave calls out. “You have to at least look at him!”

“Don’t have to look at a dead cactus to see the mass delusion happening here.”

Jada laughs like I’m being a fun and entertaining member of the team. I am a lot of things, but “fun and entertaining” isn’t one of them.

Jada has added a shimmy to the song. “Go Keeeeeeeeeith! Go Keeeeeith!”

Jada calls me arrogant but she’s the arrogant one. She’s arrogant if she thinks they can bring a dead cactus to life. She’s arrogant if she thinks she can force everybody into this misguided family that she’s styled through sheer force of will. Most of all, she’s arrogant if she thinks she can keep me from obtaining the information I’ve set my sights on.

She wanders over, still singing and snapping her fingers. “Jack, come on!”

“For somebody who’s so rabid about saving the company, you’re spending a whole lot of time on a dead thing,” I say.

She fixes me with her pretty smile. “The pleasure of seeing Keith come back to life will be almost as great as the pleasure of seeing your face when you realize we saved him. When you realize there is nothing this group can’t do together.”

“Uh-huh.”

“And you’ll be like, ‘If only I hadn’t been so standoffish and negative about Keith!’ And one day when you find yourself all alone here in the office, you’re going to go up to Keith and say, ‘Keith, I’m so sorry I doubted you.’ And you’ll fall to your knees and say, ‘Keith, please forgive me.’ And I think a tear might just roll down your cheek.”

“Oh, I’ll do better than that. If by some unholy miracle that stalk of crust comes to life, I’ll be like, ‘Maybe this planet is more than a rolling ball of misery full of people whose destiny is pain and death.’”

She regards me unblinkingly for a few moments, and then she laughs, bell-like. “Oh, Jack! You actually are pretty damn funny sometimes!”

I narrow my eyes at her, heart pounding. “It’s as if you’ve gleaned nothing at all from me.”

She continues to beam at me, undeterred, and an incomprehensible sense of lightness flows through my chest. Like we’re having fun or something. I don’t know how to feel about it.

“Anyway, I’m busy with another project,” I say. “And I think you know what that is.”

She leans in here, lowering her voice. “You think anybody here is gonna betray this group?”

I can’t help but smile now. “I’m counting on it.”

She leans in—near enough that I can smell her coconut lilac shampoo—and forms two words with those lips. “Sauced maws.” With that, she returns to the group, singing more tauntingly this time.

And I’m imagining hauling her little body right up to mine, taking those tempting lips in mine. The intensity of the urge is unlike me. I’m always in complete control. And god, this is Jada. We’re oil and water, Jada and me. Still I’m thinking it. I’m so awash in the thoughts of it that I don’t notice the hush that comes over the office in the next moment.

People are frozen, gaping at the door.

I follow their gazes to where Bert is standing.

“What’s going on?” Bert barks.

“Stretch break,” Shondrella tries. “It helps productivity.”

Bert looks unconvinced. “Who’s Keith?”

Renata smiles. “An Instagram personality.”

I feel this tension well up in me, like what if Bert figures out how important Keith is to everybody and does something? Not that I care, but the wailing and gnashing of teeth would be unbearable.

People have drifted away, getting back to work. The sound of clicks and keyboards once again fills the air.

Bert heads to the large cutting table and sets down a package. “This came.”

Jada drifts back there. “Ravaldi? We didn’t order anything from Ravaldi.”

“I had my assistant get a set of zipper samples couriered over,” he says. “For the bag you’re working on? I saw that a zipper sample order went out, and I think these would be better.”

The clatter of keyboards quiets.

Jada looks pale. “Ravaldi zippers?”

It’s clear that Bert’s talking about Unicorn Wonderbag, the project Jada desperately wanted him not to know about.

“You sent out for a range of ten-inch zippers, but you overlooked the Ravaldi, and I’ve decided that any bag coming out of here should feature Ravaldi zippers.”

“But…that’s a luxury zipper. It’ll increase the price by…fifty-fold.”

“Sustainability is one of the initiatives of SportyGoCo, and Ravaldi uses reclaimed metals, which is better than plastic or non-reclaimed metals.”

“But there are regular plastic and metal zippers in all of our stuff,” Shondrella protests.

“Is that a no?”

Jada says, “The bag design we’re playing with has tons of sustainability features that make up for all that.”

Bert’s attention turns to Jada with the harshness of a searchlight, and a growl rises in my throat unbidden.

“Well, I wouldn’t know about those features since I didn’t see a one-sheet about it cross my desk, did I?” Bert pushes the zipper package to the middle of the table. “You’ll produce that one-sheet straightaway, and this is the zipper brand I’m having you use. You’ll price any bag you produce with the Ravaldi zipper.”

Jada looks distraught.

Does that zipper truly raise the price by that much? Is it possible she was right all this time, and he really does want to throw a monkey wrench in things? It seems outrageous to put a luxury zipper into a bag destined for Target and Walmart—even I can figure that one out.

Bert ambles down the row of cubicles. The keyboards start up once again—furiously. He heads up the next row, and then ambles toward the window where Keith is.

And stops.

Maybe it’s the bow on Keith’s pot that draws his attention or maybe, like most bullies, he has a radar for vulnerabilities. He stares at Keith, with a frown that seems carved into the lower half of his face.

The computers, which have become like canaries in the Bert coal mine, have quieted once again.

“What the hell is this?” Bert barks. “There is to be nothing blocking this window.”

Dave’s right there. “Want me to move it?” He goes to stand by Keith.

My pulse pounds. I don’t give a shit about Keith or this faux family, but bullies like Bert who live to torment the powerless? Those types of men are my weakness, let’s just say.

Not my problem, I tell myself. I’ll fire him in the end, I tell myself.

“Things like this should be in the break room,” Bert says.

Dave says, “But there are no windows, um…though…”

“You don’t want to put it in the break room?” Bert barks.

“No, of course I want to. I just…” Dave pushes the dead plant across the floor, careful not to let it tip. At six feet tall, Keith is too tall to pick up and carry—the thing would crunch into the ceiling.

I grit my teeth.

Bert follows Dave. It seems like he’s going to do something more to Keith. I look over and see that Jada thinks so, too. The look of terror on her face hits something deep down inside me, and in a movement as natural as a flower turning to the sun, I stand up from my cubicle chair, rising up to my full height.

This is enough. It’s just enough.

I can feel my vision change, zeroing in on Bert.

Bert stops and turns. “Something to add, Mr. Smith?”

The room seems to shrink. It’s just him and me.

I have a lot to add, a hell of a lot, and none of it is in the English language. I step out of my cubicle. I want to get in his face. It’ll be delicious. And if he wants to go, I will thank all the gods in the sky.

And I so hope he wants to go. I ball my fists. Energy seems to animate my arms. He needs to be hit—he just does.

But then I look down to find Jada watching me, horrified. She’s shaking her head frantically, mouthing no.

That’s when I come back to my senses.

The rest of the room starts filling in again. What am I doing? This isn’t a racetrack or a paparazzi-filled sidewalk.

I remind myself that this is an office. With cubicles. And a dead plant.

I give Bert a smile through the heat I still feel in my face. “Nothing to add at the moment,” I say casually. I pull a pencil from my breast pocket and walk the few feet to the pencil sharpener that’s bolted to the edge of a nearby table and I start sharpening.

I’m coming down.

I sharpen and sharpen. What am I doing, playing savior like that?

I nearly got fired just now, not to mention a massive potential lawsuit with a massive payout to this jackass. What’s more, anybody who needs me as a savior is clearly beyond saving.

Not my people; not my family.

I know I need to stop sharpening the pencil—any more sharpening will be a threat. I go a little more. Just a small amount more of a threat. Then I stop.

When I look back up, he’s still watching me. I make a show out of blowing the shavings off the pencil, and then I saunter back to my desk.

Bert needs to be fired. He’s a shit CEO and a fucking annoyance.

I can’t fire him on the spot—not only would it blow my cover, but I know enough to know that there’s probably a protocol around it. Plus, if the people here realized it was me who fired him, they’d be so grateful, I’d probably end up needing to punch my own face to get right again.

“Let’s get to work, folks,” Bert barks, storming out.

“He really is a jackass,” I say.

Jada comes up to me. “Were you just going to go up and say something to him?” she asks. “You can’t say anything to him about Keith—you know that, right?”

“Oh don’t worry, I was just going to get in his face,” I say. “No words required.”

“Wait, what? Get in his face?”

“Put my face in his. Followed by my fist, ideally. I find a good fist in the face does wonders.”

She studies my eyes, unsure if I’m joking.

“It would be worth that last demerit, don’t you think?”

Jada frowns. “So you don’t give a shit about the company until there’s an opportunity to punch someone?”

I shrug. “I’m a man of simple pleasures.”

“And what about us?”

“What do you mean?” My gaze falls to her lips where I thumbed off the chocolate spot. Her lips are fucking gorgeous, and suddenly all I can think about is tasting them. I’d haul her hot little body against mine and kiss those perfectly shaped Barbie lips into slack-jawed pleasure. “Are you back to the storage closet?”

“Us. Our family. If you’re fired?” she says. “We need you. We’ve never had somebody as fast at deliveries. You got up to speed on spreadsheets so fast. And people like having you around. You’re an important part of the family.”

“You really are screwed, then,” I say.

She looks so sad suddenly.

Lacey walks up. “Keith can’t survive in there,” she says. “He needs light.”

“Can’t somebody just bring him home if you’re all so worried?” I say.

“He’s six feet tall,” Jada says. “We had to bring him up diagonally in the freight elevator and almost broke him. Also, it’s freezing out there! You can’t bring a cactus outside in the cold!”

“It would shock him,” Lacey says.

Jada slants a glare at me. I’d better not say anything about Keith being dead, that’s what her glare says.

I smile.

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