You trail down the hallway leading to your apartment, feeling simultaneously uneasy and relieved—the latter only a result of finally being in your own private space where you don’t have to deal with unwelcome surprises and talkative co-workers who won’t shut up about said surprises.

 

You fish for your keys like a sloth, your motions sluggish even though you’re not physically tired.

 

But mentally? Heh. All the way out of it.

 

You step inside, ready to do nothing other than collapse in your bed…and walk right into exactly what you were escaping.

 

“Surprise!” Michaela and Peyton yell in unison, Peyton blowing into the longest party horn you’ve ever seen while Michaela throws confetti in your face.

 

Their smiles and festive energy quickly disappear when they instantly note the scowl on it, telling of the state of mind you’re still in from the sudden change of plans at work.

 

“Connie…hey, what’s wrong?” Pey says, concern quickly etching itself into her cheery, doe eyes as you walk inside. Without a word, you grab the glass of champagne in Michaela’s hand, downing it in one go. Your lack of practice with alcohol shows itself, your face contorting as you cough around it a few times until the bubbly burn dissipates.

 

“Well, someone’s in a spiffy mood,” Michaela drolls, eyeing the empty glass. “Pretty-girl Pey and I figured we’d put together a lil’ somethin’-somethin’ to celebrate your new internship. And here I was thinking I’d have to get on my knees to convince you to take just a sip.”

 

You set the glass down before the urge to break it overwhelms you. “Screw the internship.”

 

Michaela exchanges puzzled looks with Pey. “Okaaay, who peed in your cereal?”

 

“I just got placed in a completely different department than the one I applied for,” you grumble bitterly, voicing the bad news out loud for the very first time. And hearing yourself say it to the closest people in your life somehow solidifies it. Your eyes dart to Michaela. “And I have to be in San Francisco the entire time.”

 

That part stuns them both.

 

“What the heck?” Peyton frowns, her stare disbelieving. “Which department?”

 

You shrug off your blazer, sinking into the edge of the couch where Nyxon gingerly joins you, seeming to sense your distress. “Energy. Oil and Gas unit.”

 

What?!” she exclaims, her expression turning even more incredulous.

 

“Yeah. That’s exactly what I said,” you sigh, too tired to get riled up all over again even though you’re still one hundred percent angry.

 

“How did that even happen? Is it…possible you accidentally selected more than one specialty?”

 

“You know I didn’t,” you counter, a bit annoyed that she’d insinuate you might have been careless in your application. “And, even if I had, it sure as hell wouldn’t be this!”

 

“I know, I know,” she waves her hands, apologetic, coming to sit next to you. “I’m sorry. I hate that I even asked. I know how hard you’ve worked for this. Believe me, I do. I’ve just never heard of anything like this happening before. Did you talk to your supervisor?”

 

You nod, defeated. “CEO’s already signed off on it so he has no say.”

 

Pey’s naturally-bounteous eyes go even wider. “CEO, as in, Sam Covington?”

 

“Yeah,” you nod sadly. “For some company called ‘Zanergy’.”

 

For a moment, the room goes completely silent. If you thought Peyton was bug-eyed before, you clearly didn’t know the meaning of the phrase.

 

And, unexpectedly, so is Michaela.

 

You look between them, perplexed by their sudden muteness…

 

And then, all hell breaks loose.

 

“Are. You. Serious?!”

 

“Holy shit!”

 

They yell at the same time, their words and voices clashing, singeing your ears. Their shouting startles you, and you look at both of them like they’ve gone mad.

 

Your forehead creases as a sense of loss suddenly overwhelms you. “What?”

 

“Connie…honey…” Peyton says, her voice lowering like a doting mother trying to explain ‘grown-up stuff’ to her curiously naïve child, “Zanergy is Richard Zane’s company.”

 

You can’t stop your brow from arching itself, as if her “educative” tone will help you automatically understand what the hell that even means.

 

You huff, rolling your eyes. “Am I supposed to know who that is? And what the hell kind of name is Zanergy?”

 

Now it’s Peyton and Michaela’s turn to look at you like you’re the one who’s lost your mind.

 

“You’re joking,” Michaela blurts incredulously, side-eyeing you like you’ve just spectacularly failed at life.

 

She shakes her head, coming to sit next to you as Peyton furiously types on her phone, presumably Googling this Zane fellow.

 

“Didn’t you at least look up the company when they told you about it?” your best friend asks without looking at you.

 

“I know it might be hard to tell, what, with my happy-go-lucky face and all,” you glower, “but I wasn’t exactly foaming at the mouth to find out more about the motherfuckers who just ruined my internship.”

 

“Oooh, language,” Michaela teases, handing you a large platter of chips and guacamole.

 

You happily stuff your face with it, trying to pacify your irritation with pre-packaged party food as they continue to talk.

 

“Richard Zane is one of the wealthiest and most successful businessmen in this hemisphere,” Peyton elaborates.

 

“Not to mention, one of the hottest,” Michaela adds adamantly.

 

Pey hands you her phone, a clear picture of the man in question blown up on the screen.

 

Now, it’s your eyes that go wide as saucers, your heart flipping as you instantly recognize the pair staring back at you.

 

Oh.

 

My.

 

God…

 

“What’s wrong? You look like you just saw a ghost,” Peyton mutters, her voice overlapping your suspended thoughts.

 

But you don’t look at her.

 

You can’t.

 

Not with your gaze held hostage by the one in front of you.

 

Wolf Eyes.

 

“I…I ran into this guy yesterday,” you breathe, the statement one more of disbelief than an attempt to offer information.

 

Peyton and Michaela literally go as still as statues—save for their own eyeballs that go ballooning, as well.

 

But that pause doesn’t last long.

 

“You met him?!!!” they exclaim in unison, even louder than before.

 

“Not exactly,” you wince, bringing the phone closer, as if you’re not sure of what you’re seeing. “More like, bizarrely crashed into him and then awkwardly apologized before running away with my tail between my legs.”

 

Pey offers a sly grin, double-arching her brows. “You sure that was the only thing between your legs?”

 

Michaela promptly high-fives her, blatantly amused. “Bottoms up, Pey. Connie just had her first hit and run. Literally!”

 

After explosive bouts of laughter, both women proceed to simultaneously squeal and scold you; Peyton practically jumping up and down on the couch while Michaela talks your ear off about not taking advantage of fortuned opportunities, already playing out the most ridiculous scenarios in her head.

 

All the while, you continue to stare at the image in front of you, effortlessly mesmerized by those haunting, golden eyes even though you’re only looking at them from a still photo.

 

But it can’t compare to seeing the real things up close and in person.

 

Out of nowhere, this strange impulse to see them again smites you, almost as hard and palpable as the physical collision that led to your discovery of them, and you have to shake it off, realizing how crazy that is.

 

Still, you can’t deny that there’s a part of you that’s somewhat excited and more than a little curious about the prospect of an encore—minus the collision and stumbling—even though you’ve tried countless times—very unsuccessfully—to get him out of your mind. But another part of you is still in utter shock by this turn of events. You honestly didn’t think you’d ever get to know his real name when you bumped into him yesterday, let alone the opportunity to potentially see him again. That was a complete chance meeting; an occurrence of sheer happenstance caused by nothing other than your own carelessne—

 

A peculiar thought suddenly occurs to you like a belated epiphany, smashing into the current mesh of astonishment, awe and superficial elation you feel.

 

The memory of Wolf Eyes fills your mind—along with that of the way he looked at you.

 

Realization quickly pieces together a discombobulated puzzle, evoking irritation in you all over again. You struggle to swallow, feeling your emotions quickly morph as you stare at his picture in silence, realizing with absolute dread that the only reason you could’ve been chosen for this account is because…he might’ve been attracted to you.

 

In spite of your renewed anger, as soon as that thought forms, you feel absolutely ridiculous.

 

That makes no sense, whatsoever, either.

 

Why would he be? He could clearly have the most gorgeous of women he wants with looks like his—not to mention, money. And, even in the slight, off chance that he was, there’d be absolutely no reason for him to pull a stunt like this based on something as simple—and often fleeting with men in power—as physical attraction to a stranger.

 

Even the biggest of womanizers generally wouldn’t gamble with their money and reputation in such a capricious way.

 

At least…he didn’t seem like the type to.

 

And if he’s anywhere near as prosperous a businessman as Pey claims he is, that makes it even more unlikely.

 

With rising shame, you realize that that was your own ego going ahead of you, making up an answer to quell your anger and confusion, all the while stroking itself to make you feel better about your current predicament.

 

You revert to being baffled all over again, even more than before.

 

But, whatever the case is with Wolf Eyes’ unexpected resurfacing, it doesn’t change your disappointment about the sudden switch.

 

Just when I thought things were finally going according to plan.

 

Life seems to have a funny way of reminding you otherwise.

 

“…so technically, there are actually two of them,” you hear Peyton say, her voice bringing you back to the present. “Richard Zane Senior headed the company up until a few years ago when he stepped down to pursue a political career, officially transferring the company over to his son, Richard Junior—a.k.a. Richie Rich—who’d been working as his right-hand man.”

 

Your eyebrows furrow as you regard her curiously. “I know he’s supposed to be a hot-shot and all but why do you know so much about this?”

 

“I’ve been following Richard Senior’s political career more recently,” she explains. “He’s the only traditional oil mogul in the state running for office this year. He’s consistently received a lot of backlash from environmentalist groups and organizations since he transitioned into politics. It’s one of the reasons why Earth Cap’s willingness to consult for Zanergy has always been controversial. And now that it’s actually official…”

 

Her eyes flick between you and her phone. “I’m surprised they actually went through with it,” she mutters, briefly going silent, as if in deep thought. “Anyways, I’ve been trying to secure an in-person interview with him for my capstone project on global warming legislation.”

 

You hand it back to her, getting up and walking toward the kitchen. You reach for the open champagne bottle on the counter, making the executive decision to have another drink. “Okay, can we please change the subject? I don’t want to think about Zanergy or rich businessmen or political hopefuls or my internship anymore. I just want to drown my sorrows away in booze right now.”

 

Michaela shrugs. “Whatever gets you drinking is fine by me, as long as you’re drinking.”

 

You roll your eyes at that but take a swig straight from the bottle, anyway.

 

“Look,” Peyton urges, “the whole reason we’re celebrating is because of the internship. And we know you’re bummed out about what happened today but you can’t let that stop you from cherishing this win in your life. You of all people know it doesn’t happen every day so you need to commemorate your achievement with people who love and support you.” She takes you by the arm, tugging you back to the couch and gesturing toward the makeshift coffee table overrun with festivities. “Now, come on! Michaela and I spent way too much time putting this together to let it go to waste.”

 

You sigh heavily. As much as you just want to drain the rest of the bottle and go straight to bed, she’s right. And it’s obvious how much effort they both put into this, knowing just how busy they both are, and not a lot of people in your life would take the time out to do this type of thing for you.

 

No one else, actually.

 

So, choosing to temper your bad mood, instead, you relent, making a genuine effort to enjoy your little, intimate bash despite your low spirits.

 

“I know what will get your mind off your sowwows,” Michaela proclaims, getting comfortable on the other side of the coffee table as Pey ushers you to sit.

 

A string of board games and a deck of nifty-looking cards are splayed amid party décor and snacks, along with some sort of contraption you can’t even begin to describe.

 

After a couple of turns of faux-poker and a hysterical round of Monopoly-gone-wrong, you double over as Pey and Michaela co-pilot a non-stop sequence of sidesplitting banter, practically rolling on the floor with tears in your eyes, slightly tipsy and in a much, much better disposition.

 

You’ve got to hand it to them. They have a knack for cheering you up, both individually and as a pair, but certainly the latter. You love that the three of you always have such a good time together, and the realization makes you silently lament the fact that you can’t do this more often, even without the booze or a specific cause to celebrate.

 

“Okay, okay, let’s play this one next,” Michaela points to a sheet of paper, taking a generous gulp of bubbly before continuing. “Be grateful, Connie,” she grins. “I’m letting you get first dibs on this. One of my regulars custom-made this for me and even I haven’t played it yet.”

 

Both Peyton and you groan audibly, rolling your eyes at the implication of that statement, wondering why she keeps accepting “gifts”—seemingly questionable ones at that—from men she clearly doesn’t intend to date.

 

Hey, it’s rude to refuse kind and generous gestures,” Michaela rebuts, clearly reading your expressions—which should be easy enough of a task considering you’re not trying to hide them in the slightest.

 

“Uh-huh,” Pey and you droll in unison, side-eyeing her knowingly.

 

“Whatever,” Michaela waves you off. “Let’s just play the damn game.” She grabs the sheet, leaning over to hand it to you. “Like I said, you go first since you’re the guest of honor.”

 

You take it from her, your brow arching when you flip it over.

 

21 QUESTIONS

 

THE X-RATED EDITION

 

Your eyes flit between it and Michaela’s. “X-Rated, huh?”

 

You wish you could say you’re surprised, but it’s Michaela were talking about here.

 

You glance down the page…and your eyeballs bloat like pumpkins.

 

Palpable fire smites your cheeks, incinerating your skin.

 

“Jesus Christ, Michaela!” you blurt, your incredulous gaze darting back to her. “Where the hell did you get this?”

 

“Were you not paying attention at all?” Michaela sighs, shaking her head like you’re a lost cause. “One of my regulars—”

 

“Yeah, yeah, I heard that part. I just…I mean…who the hell even comes up with these kinds of questions?” you huff as you continue to regard the sheet of paper, somehow unable to look away in spite of yourself, even as heat continues to ripple all over your face.

 

Just as you’re about to open your mouth to comment again, a knock on the door interrupts you.

 

***

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