Anniversary Post: A Christmas potluck and dire consequences

Celebrating the 4th anniversary of the print release of my first publication, in which a woman takes brownies to a potluck and ends up the winner in love...

SETUP: A co-worker has died at the company potluck, and Jessie's brownies were initially suspected. But now she's discovered that Gus Colcannon, a new employee, has been hired to 'look into things at the company'.

Oh -- and Jessie has a habit of doing wycinanki (paper cutting) – when she's nervous.

* * * * *

He put his hands over mine, stilling their motion. "Jessie." His voice was very soft and gentle, almost caressing.

"What happened to Charlie? What's going on? Why are you worried about that hunter? Did my brownies kill him? What--" I suddenly realized he was holding my hands. My eyes jerked upward, to his. He was smiling, his hazel eyes alight with humor and… "What?" My breath hitched.

"Can't a guy be interested in a pretty woman?" He stared at me, his face close to mine. The soft hair of his beard around his mouth was tempting. I knew it would be smooth and silky to the touch.

"Hmm?" I was very, very close to kissing him.

He smiled, crinkle lines appearing like unfolded fans at the side of his eyes. "Jessie?"

I pulled back and regarded him. "Why?"

Now it was his turn to pull back. He released my hands. "What?"

"Why are you interested in me?"

"Well, because--uh--because--" A dark flush started edging up his cheeks.

Disappointment surged through me but I didn't let it show. "What's going on, Gus? You're not the kind of guy to flirt with a woman like me."

"Really?" I saw something in his eyes, a hint of anger or maybe disappointment. "I suppose it would be futile to argue with you."

I brandished my scissors at him. "You bet it would be. Confess."

"Sorry. I'm interested because John asked me to keep an eye on things here. And because Charlie--" I was sure I saw anger flash in his eyes. "I blew that. He shouldn't have been hurt."

"You're not very reassuring about your competence. Are you a cop or something?"

"Keep your voice down, would you?" He looked over his shoulder.

"Well, are you?"

"Sort of. I'm helping the police, let's just leave it at that."

I snipped, tiny bits of paper dropping onto the towel on my lap, my concession to the cleaning crew. I kept my voice low. "I'm not stupid. And I'm not brave. I'm scared. So answer my questions. You think somebody in my company killed Charlie. I want to know what I have to do to make sure I'm not next." I began to sniffle. "Charlie was a nice guy. Do you know how I'm feeling right now?" I wiped at my tears. "Do you? Damn it, say something, Colcannon. Tell me why I should trust you? Tell me--"

He put a hand on the side of my face and wiped away a tear with his thumb. "It's okay. They're not going to hurt you."

I wanted to believe him. I wanted to abdicate responsibility and let somebody else do the worrying for a change, just for a little while. It had been so long since I'd had anyone to share with. I longed for that sense of belonging, that feeling of security.

I sniffled and it woke me back to reality. This wasn't a fairy story. I swallowed hard. "I'm not going to trust you unless I see some kind of badge or ID."

He jerked his hand away as if I'd bitten him. Anger flared in his eyes. "I can't do that."

"Fine." I focused my attention on the paper in my hands.


I refused to meet his eyes. The chair squeaked as he stood up. There was a long pause. I know he was staring down at me.

"I'm sorry, Jessie." He touched my shoulder then left.

I raised my head, the Yellow Submarine forgotten in my hands. I stared out the atrium window, swamped by anger and a twisting sense of failure. I had no right to be so upset but I was. I had thought Gus and I were friends of a sort, united by Charlie's death if nothing else. This refusal to trust me hurt, even though it shouldn't.

A flash of light on the other side of the atrium broke my trance. Brian was sitting at his desk, his back to me. Sunlight was bouncing off the small mirror he had positioned on the top of his monitor. I wondered if he'd seen Gus and me talking.

I didn't hear Gus in his cube. He'd either gone to another meeting or left. I stared at my computer screen for a few minutes then wandered into the mailroom and grabbed magazines and some envelopes from my slot. I came back and stared some more, then gave up. I decided to pack it in and work from home that night.

I bundled up and made for the elevator. Maybe a swim at the gym on the way home would help put me in the right frame of mind.

An hour later, I'd done my obligatory half-hour in the pool. It was as I was lying in the sauna that it struck me. Charlie had said he would give me a copy of his presentation for the conference.

Where was it?

I showered and dressed in record time, emerging from the building with my hair still wet. I pawed through my briefcase in the back seat of the car, pulling out the stack of mail I'd gotten from the office. A 5x7 envelope was inside with my name printed on it in block letters. I opened it with shaking hands and pulled out a CD.

"Holy shit," I whispered.

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