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

 

I fish for my keys like a sloth, my motions sluggish even though I’m not physically tired.

 

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

 

I step inside, ready to do nothing other than collapse in my bed…and walk right into exactly what I was escaping.

 

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

 

Their smiles and festive energy quickly disappear when they instantly note the scowl on it, telling of the state of mind I’m 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 I walk inside. Without a word, I grab the glass of champagne in Michaela’s hand, downing it in one go. My lack of practice with alcohol shows itself, my face contorting as I 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.”

 

I set the glass down before the urge to break it overwhelms me. “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,” I grumble bitterly, voicing the bad news out loud for the very first time. And hearing myself say it to the closest people in my life somehow solidifies it. My 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?”

 

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

 

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

 

“Yeah. That’s exactly what I said,” I sigh, too tired to get riled up all over again even though I’m 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,” I counter, a bit annoyed that she’d insinuate I might have been careless in my 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 me. “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?”

 

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

 

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

 

And, unexpectedly, so is Michaela.

 

I 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 my ears. Their shouting startles me, and I look at both of them like they’ve gone mad.

 

My forehead creases as a sense of loss suddenly overwhelms me. “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.”

 

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

 

I huff, rolling my 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 me like I’m the one who’s lost my mind.

 

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

 

She shakes her head, coming to sit next to us 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?” my best friend asks without looking at me.

 

“I know it might be hard to tell, what, with my happy-go-lucky face and all,” I 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 me a large platter of chips and guacamole.

 

I happily stuff my face with it, trying to pacify my 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 me her phone, a clear picture of the man in question blown up on the screen.

 

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

 

Oh.

 

My.

 

God…

 

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

 

But I don’t look at her.

 

I can’t.

 

Not with my gaze held hostage by the one in front of me.

 

Wolf Eyes.

 

“I…I ran into this guy yesterday,” I 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,” I wince, bringing the phone closer, as if I’m not sure of what I’m 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 me; Peyton practically jumping up and down on the couch while Michaela talks my ear off about not taking advantage of fortuned opportunities, already playing out the most ridiculous scenarios in her head.

 

All the while, I continue to stare at the image in front of me, effortlessly mesmerized by those haunting, golden eyes even though I’m 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 me, almost as hard and palpable as the physical collision that led to my discovery of them, and I have to shake it off, realizing how crazy that is.

 

Still, I can’t deny that there’s a part of me that’s somewhat excited and more than a little curious about the prospect of an encore—minus the collision and stumbling—even though I’ve tried countless times—very unsuccessfully—to get him out of my mind. But another part of me is still in utter shock by this turn of events. I honestly didn’t think I’d ever get to know his real name when I 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 my own carelessne—

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

In spite of my renewed anger, as soon as that thought forms, I 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, I realize that that was my own ego going ahead of me, making up an answer to quell my anger and confusion, all the while stroking itself to make me feel better about my current predicament.

 

I 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 my 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 me otherwise.

 

“…so technically, there are actually two of them,” I hear Peyton say, her voice bringing me 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.”

 

My eyebrows furrow as I 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 me 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.”

 

I hand it back to her, getting up and walking toward the kitchen. I 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.”

 

I roll my 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 me by the arm, tugging me 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.”

 

I sigh heavily. As much as I 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 my life would take the time out to do this type of thing for me.

 

No one else, actually.

 

So, choosing to temper my bad mood, instead, I relent, making a genuine effort to enjoy my little, intimate bash despite my 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 me 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 I can’t even begin to describe.

 

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

 

I’ve got to hand it to them. They have a knack for cheering me up, both individually and as a pair, but certainly the latter. I love that the three of us always have such a good time together, and the realization makes me silently lament the fact that we 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 I groan audibly, rolling our 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 our expressions—which should be easy enough of a task considering we’re not trying to hide them in the slightest.

 

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

 

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

 

I take it from her, my brow arching when I flip it over.

 

21 QUESTIONS

THE X-RATED EDITION

 

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

 

I wish I could say I’m surprised, but it’s Michaela were talking about here.

 

I glance down the page…and my eyeballs bloat like pumpkins.

 

Palpable fire smites my cheeks, incinerating my skin.

 

“Jesus Christ, Michaela!” I blurt, my 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 I’m 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?” I huff as I continue to regard the sheet of paper, somehow unable to look away in spite of myself, even as heat continues to ripple all over my face.

 

Just as I’m about to open my mouth to comment again, a knock on the door interrupts us.

 

***

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THIS MAKES ME FEEL...
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