Butt-dialing the Billionaire: Chapter 34


Jaxon

She kneels by the ridiculous dead cactus, rubbing off invisible dust.

“What’s going on?”

“Keith needs to be cleaned.”

“I’m not talking about Keith. Are you angry with me?”

“Not everything is about you, Jack.” She continues with her demonstration.

Is she unhappy that I spent the morning in shipping? I’d wanted to get back up here the whole time. All I could think about was her in the truck—how beautiful she looked in the light from the street. The softness of her sigh when I found the spot that spoke to her. The taste of her skin. The feel of her pulse under my tongue.

“A cactus takes in water and sunshine from every part of it. We’re going to need to maximize that now that he’s so far from the light. You will take care not to be clumsy or assholish.”

“Have you ever known me to be clumsy?” I ask.

She scratches her cheek with her middle finger.

I lower my voice. “Are you going to tell me what’s wrong?”

She glares at me. She wants to tell me, so why won’t she? “I have things to do. Are you going to complete this task, or do I need to recommend you for a demerit?”

I give her a mischievous look. Is this some more of our role-playing thing? I lower my voice. “Is the butt-dialer going to recommend me for a demerit?”

“Oh, is that what we’re doing?” she bites out. “Really?”

It’s official. She’s angry.

I’m usually indifferent if not downright amused by people’s anger, but everything’s different with Jada. Her anger feels threatening, somehow. As though I’m cut off from the source of something warm and good and life-sustaining. “What’s going on?”

“So that’s a yes on the demerit?” she asks.

Would she do that? I don’t think so, but then, I’ve never seen her in this mood.

I take a Q-tip. “If and when I get my last demerit, it will be far more spectacular than this.”

“Like how you’re gonna punch Bert?”

“Is that what it’ll take?”

“Please. Fighting and brawling, that’s for losers. You have twenty minutes.” She storms back to her desk.

I rub the damp cotton end on the dirt, just to humor her. I do the whole cactus, even though the thing is never going to survive. The whole office putting their hopes into this dead cactus feels like a metaphor for something incredibly tragic. And no, I won’t be calling him Keith.

I proceed to clean the dead husk these people call a cactus. The thing is dusty, it’s true, but it’s going to need more than the ridiculously painstaking cleaning I’m giving it. When one swab is fully dirty on both sides, I grab another, moistening it like she demonstrated. This is important to her for whatever reason.

Ten minutes later, I toss the box of swabs onto her desk. “All done.”

She goes over and inspects the cactus. She points to a section. “You didn’t do this part yet,” she says. “There’s still dust to get off.”

“That’s not dust; it’s the dried and mottled surface of a dead cactus.”

“Do better,” she says. “Do it over. Gently. Also, he’s not dead.”

“I’m done with this fake task,” I inform her. “And he is dead.”

“Your performance is sadly lacking, Jack. You’ll do it properly or I’ll recommend you for a demerit.”

“Oh, please,” I say, trying for a humorous expression. “I think we both know that my performance in the area of gentle rubbing is unparalleled.”

“Unparalleled? You are living in a fantasy world!”

Right then, there’s commotion at Varsha’s desk. Some kind of doctor is carrying in some sort of privacy screen. His wavy dark hair is stark against his white coat, and he seems to be giving orders to Varsha.

Jada stiffens. Whatever is happening up there, she doesn’t like it. She beelines over and I follow.

The doctor, who has an Italian accent, is instructing Varsha to set the privacy screen up near the window where there is ample light.

She carries it over to the window. He hands Renata a clipboard. “Names here. People will sign up and I’ll see them one by one.”

“We’re not supposed to have a screening today,” she says. “There must be some mistake.”

“But it is authorized,” the doctor says. “Fully authorized. I’m Dr. Tonio, here on the authority of a man named Bert. That is your boss, no?”

“The screening was canceled,” Jada says to Dr. Tonio. “Therefore, it isn’t authorized.” She calls to Varsha to bring back the privacy screen.

“Bert instructed me to come this afternoon, and I’m to have whatever assistance I require from…” He pauses and looks down at his clipboard. “Jada Herberger? Is there a Jada here? Bert said that Jada Herberger is to assist me.”

A few people drift over, enthusiastic about the idea of a screening.

“I’m sorry,” Jada says in a strangely pointed tone. “But you are misinformed. This will not happen.”

“Bert insisted,” Dr. Tonio says. “My fee is taken care of already. A yearly screening, it’s very important, as you know—”

“As long as he’s here, we should do it.” Renata aims an oddly sharp gaze at Jada. “People here need this for their skin, don’t you agree?”

Shondrella’s on the scene, hair in a swept-up style that showcases her silver hair streak. “We should do it! As long as he’s here, I agree!” She widens her eyes at Jada. “I can’t think of any employee who wouldn’t benefit.”

“If Bert says we need a screening,” Dave shrugs, “what’s the harm? We should all have one of these every year.”

These people are really interested in a cancer screening, something I’ll definitely be skipping. I text down to shipping, letting them know I’m coming down. The last thing I need is for a dermatologist to be examining my mole.

Jada shakes her head. “Not gonna happen. You’ll have to leave.” She gestures at the door.

“Screenings save lives,” Dr. Tonio warns. “Do you not wish to save lives?”

“No, not if it’s unauthorized,” Jada says firmly. “And I’m in charge of the department while Bert is offsite.” She points again.

“But we all need our screenings.” Renata’s tone has turned foreboding. “Lives could be saved.”

“This is the last time I’m gonna ask you to leave,” Jada says.

“I cannot,” Dr. Tonio says.

The whole thing seems unprofessional, but then, I don’t know much about the American medical system.

“Please.” Jada looks frustrated—desperate, even.

I don’t like it.

A growl forms in my throat.

Before I can think better of it, I’m in the guy’s face. “You have been informed that your services are not needed,” I bite out. “You have been asked to leave. Now you will leave.”

“But I cannot, I simply—” Dr. Tonio blinks. He’s gaping at my face. He’s obviously noticed my mole here—more than noticed it. A look of abject horror suffuses his features. “Holy mother of Jesus,” he whispers, making the sign of the cross.

Renata gasps. “What is it, Dr. Tonio? What do you see?”

“He doesn’t see anything because there is no screening,” Jada says.

Dr. Tonio is fixated on my mole. “What monstrosity is this?”

“None of your business,” I say, frowning.

“This is very dire! You must let me inspect this…this…” He pauses dramatically, as if at a loss for words.

Renata covers her mouth, looking frightened.

Shondrella clutches Varsha’s arm. “Jack,” she whispers.

“Maybe he should take a closer look at it, Jack,” Lacey says. “In private, maybe. Like behind the screen.”

“The screening is over,” Jada says.

“You heard the lady,” I growl, going nose to nose with Dr. Tonio, pressing a finger to his chest.

Dr. Tonio narrows his eyes, throwing back my menacing energy. He seems almost enraged, as if my mole has whipped him up into an uncontrollable fervor. Have they not heard of bedside manners here?

“There is a nearly carnivorous thing that is consuming you from the face,” Dr. Tonio warns. “Like a grotesque plague upon your face, consuming you from the outside in. I cannot leave here without treating it.”

“Oh my god!” Renata says. “Jack!”

“I will show this depraved blight no mercy,” Dr. Tonio continues. “No mercy.”

“Enough!” Jada grabs his arm and tries to drag him away.

“Jada! What are you doing?” Shondrella says. “Can’t you see Jack needs a screening?”

I take the doctor’s other arm and pull him toward the door.

“An unholy beast is upon your face,” Dr. Tonio says as we get him into the hall.

A frightened Varsha follows us with the screen. Half the office crowds into the hall after us.

Dr. Tonio frees himself from us when we reach the elevator. He takes the screen from Varsha and storms into the elevator with it. He spins around and punches several buttons, or maybe he punches one button several times. “A horrible pox is eating your face! Vile and disgusting—”

The doors shut with a squinch.

I stand there, pulse racing, conscious of the entire design department arrayed behind me.

I’ve heard the American medical system is in trouble, but if this is an example of the care you get here, it’s worse than people think.

I turn to find people looking at me, concerned, giving me sympathetic smiles.

“Um…savage,” Dave says.

Jada purses her lips as if she’s trying not to smile, though I don’t see what’s funny.

“Maybe it’s a sign,” Renata says. “To get that checked out by your doctor.”

“Right!” Shondrella chimes in. “Forewarned is forearmed, don’t you agree, Jack?”

“I’ve got it under control,” I say.

People start filing back into the office.

I look over at Jada, who still looks highly amused.

“What?”

She bites her lip, then she spins around and bolts down the hall to the patio area.

I follow her. “What?”

She bursts out into the late afternoon sunshine.

“What’s going on?” I demand, going out after her. “That doctor—what the hell?”

“Oh my god.” She’s at the rail, covering her face, shoulders shaking.

“What the hell is so funny? You think that was funny?”

“No,” she squeaks, face contorted with the effort to suppress her laughter.

“Was that even for real?” I demand.

She spins around. “Was that even for real? I don’t know. Are you even for real?”

“Excuse me?”

“Don’t answer that. Don’t bother, Jaxon Harcourt Eadsburg von Henningsly. Has this been entertaining for you? You found out who your butt-dialer was—congratulations. But that wasn’t enough, was it? You had to completely mess with me.”

I straighten. She knows.

She comes to me, expression grim. “Is that what you do when life on the yacht or the racetrack gets too boring? You screw with people who displease Your Highness? Make fools of them?”

“That’s not what this is,” I say.

“Playing sick games with the nobodies who work at your zillion companies?”

“You have this wrong. And you’re not a nobody—far from it.”

“Oh wow, I’m not a nobody. Far from it. I’m somebody—somebody you wanted to get back at. Have you been having a good laugh, Jack? Amusing yourself? Was it hard to keep a straight face when you acted like you wanted me?”

“That was no act.” I go to her. “God, Jada, you have no idea—”

“No way.” She shoves me off. “Excuse me if I don’t believe you. You were pretending to be somebody else, and this whole time I’m being real with you. More real than I am with most other people. You know how that feels? And you’re like, ‘Look at me, playing a joke on the butt-dialer!’”

“That’s not how it was.”

“Well, you weren’t coming to give me an award. You’re a billionaire, Jack. Why bother with somebody like me? I know your parents died a few months back, and I’m sorry, but that doesn’t explain this—”

“It wasn’t about them. I hadn’t seen them in years.”

“Why, then?”

She deserves the truth. We deserve it—the two of us. This new thing between us deserves it. This relationship I screwed up before it got off the ground. This thing that I need to rescue.

I stare at the sky and try to get back to that day. Sitting at the microphone. The company. People all around. Everybody congratulating me on saving the company with that awful speech that felt like chewing glass.

“My parents were monsters that the whole world thought were saints,” I say. “Ask anybody and they’ll tell you I’m the one who should’ve gone down in that plane instead of them.”

“I’m sorry—”

“No—don’t be. Being seen as a saint like them is the last thing I’d want. My point is, they did terrible things under the banner of a bright and shiny family, and I went the other way. I did what I could to drag our name through the mud. The great Von Henningslys. It wasn’t something I thought through, and not even the most effective form of rebellion. But then, I was raised by wolves, so what are you going to do? I went with it, and never stopped—”

“So I’m part of your rebellion? Nice.” She goes to the railing and looks out over the noisy street.

“No, you are so much more. I need you to understand—it’s important to me. You’re important.” I go to her side. “When they died, all I wanted to do was jettison their precious legacy—especially Wycliff. But people were begging me not to do that. I was warned it would crash the markets, etcetera. So I gave in and did the one thing that I never wanted to do: I stepped into my father’s shoes with that ridiculous company-wide call you heard, reading a script written for him to read. I sounded as full of shit as he ever did, and I hated myself for it. I felt like I’d sold my soul.”

“I can see how you’d hate that,” she says. “Still.”

I look out over the buildings, remembering that day. “All of these people congratulating me, thinking I was taking up the Von Henningsly mantle. I felt like I was becoming part of their whole lie, becoming them. Like I was the same as them. I wanted to destroy something. I couldn’t wreck Wycliff, being that I’d agreed to save it. And then your voice came crackling through. Your speech about mustard and ascots and whatever else. Everybody was so worried about my reaction. Terrified.”

She turns to me. Her attention feels different. Jada appreciates honesty, and I love that about her.

“I decided that you’d be the thing I destroy,” I confess. “It was the worst activity I could think up in the moment—mean-spirited and despicable.”

Her eyes sparkle, diamond-bright. “You came to destroy me.”

“I came to destroy the butt-dialer. I followed your voice. But when I discovered it was you, everything changed. Being with you has changed something in me. Whenever I think about you, the world feels new in a way I can’t describe. You amaze me all the time, and I want to be near you. I came to destroy you, but instead I found everything I needed.”

“But Jack, you blackmailed me.”

“I know. I’ve never been in a situation where I give a shit. I didn’t know what to do, so I reverted to what I know best because, like I said, I’m…not a good person who does the right thing.”

“Oh my god, that’s such a shitty excuse!”

“All I have are shitty excuses.”

“I don’t like shitty excuses. I don’t want them,” she says.

“I’m shitty at introspection. I’m shitty at change and all that.”

“Jack,” she says. “That’s not good enough. Do better.”

My heart pounds in my ears, and all I know is that I’m falling for her, and I always was falling for her.

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