Monday morning, Mardi arrived to work thirty minutes early for orientation, and then was shown to her cubicle by the office manager, Mrs. Dupre. A dozen desks, three groups of four and separated by partitions filled the area. Mardi politely nodded to her cellmates before sitting down. There was already a stack of paperwork for her to begin organizing and cataloguing.
The morning drifted by in a haze of numbers as she oriented herself to the filing system. At quarter past eleven she leaned back in her chair to stretch her arms and back. She was a little startled to here her name called out. She peered over the partition to see a deliveryman standing at the front of the room holding an enormous bouquet of flowers. Mrs. Dupre motioned impatiently for her to come forward.
With a sense of dread she walked to the front and greeted the man, signing the delivery order and taking possession of the flowers. She felt a dozen pairs of eyes on her as she returned to the desk with her new acquisition. She took a few moments to admire the flowers after setting the heavy crystal vase down. It was an exquisite arrangement: lilies, orchids, carnations, peonies, daisies. Colorful and very expensive. At the very top was a single purple rose. She wasn’t sure what purple signified, but her relief was overwhelming that it wasn’t red.
“You’re a lucky gal,” a voice came from behind her. She turned to see the entire department had converged on her to gain witness of the present. “Your husband?”
“I’m not married,” she replied absently.
“Boyfriend?” another asked.
She simply shook her head. Whoever had ordered them had put a lot of thought and expense into the gift. How could things get so screwy so fast?
“Well, aren’t you at least going to read the card,” the no-nonsense voice of Mrs. Dupre rose over the heads of the other girls.
With an imperceptible tremor in her hands, she reached over and plucked the small white envelope from the plastic three-pronged holder. She slipped a finger under the flap and removed the card. In contrast to the floral print, firm, distinct handwriting read, “Congratulations on the job. I’m an excellent judge of character.” Mardi felt faint.
“What on earth are you complaining about? A man sends me flowers, I’m grinnin’ ear to ear for a month. What’s the problem?”
Mardi, who had her head stuck in the refrigerator looking for something edible for supper, turned to her roommate. “The problem is this guy’s more than a little creepy.”
“Creepy? He fixed your car, bought you lunch, and made it possible for you to get a job. If that’s creepy I’ll take it any day.”
“Jesse, you’re not looking at the big picture. I don’t even know this guy. He’s rich and he’s older. What does he want with me?”
“I think you’re making mountains out of molehills. So he sent you some flowers. It probably took him all of five minutes to make a phone call and have them delivered. You’re reading too much into it.”
Mardi took some leftover pizza out and sniffed it. Having passed the test she put it into the microwave and pressed a button. “He picked them out himself.” She walked to her purse and pulled out the business card then reached in to pluck the card out of the flowers. She set them side-by-side on the counter. “See. Same handwriting. He went out of his way to pick these out and fill out the damn card.”
The other woman, tall, muscular, and dark-skinned with cropped hair, grinned at her. “Well you got me beat there. So what? C’mon Mardi, have a little fun here. You’ve got an admirer.”
“Have you seen this guy Jess? He’s older than dirt.”
“Some women find older men attractive; distinguished and experienced.”
“Decrepit and senile’s more like it.”
“ ‘Me thinks the lady doth protest too much,’” Jesse teased.
“Get your Harvard-educated ass out of my way before I kick it,” Mardi muttered as she reached around behind the other woman for a plate. Jesse had been born in the inner streets of Gotham, but through a well-earned scholarship sponsored by the Wayne Foundation had been able to attend the Ivy League college, earning a double major in English Literature and education. She had returned to become a teacher in the very neighborhood she’d grown up in, accepting a fraction of the salary she deserved. As a result Mardi had answered an ad to share the two-bedroom apartment and the woman had immediately invited her to move in that same day, saving her from spending the night in her car her first night in town. In the six weeks that they’d lived together, Mardi felt she’d made the best friend of her entire life. It would make it all the more painful when the time came to move on. Although she had hoped to stay in Gotham for a while, perhaps getting lost among the millions of other desperate souls.
Jesse patted her on the shoulder. “Honey, since you’ve been here I haven’t seen you so much as have coffee with a guy. So what if he’s a little long in the tooth. It might be fun. What’s the harm?”
“I’m not looking for fun, and I don’t think he even knows the meaning of the word.”
“Your loss, but you still need to say thank you.” Mardi looked up, having just taken a bite from the slice of pizza. Jesse removed the telephone from its place on the kitchen wall. “I’ve been told some people still write thank you notes, but I think a phone call would be more personal.” Mardi was vigorously shaking her head as the phone was thrust into her hand. “Do it,” Jesse commanded as she walked out of the kitchen and into her own room.
Mardi set the phone down on the counter and stared at it suspiciously as she finished her meal. Chewing on the last bite of crust she reached across the counter and slid the business card over. If anything could be said about her, it was not that she was impolite.
Dialing the unlisted number, she held the phone to her ear and listened to the distant ringing, praying he had business elsewhere. He answered on the fifth ring with a gruff, “Wayne Manor.”
“Mr. Wayne? Uh, this is Mardi Purcell. We met last week. Had lunch?”
“Yes, I remember you.” Mardi closed her eyes. Why did his voice have to sound so damn sexy?
“Right. Well, anyway, I just wanted to call and say thank you. For the flowers. I got them today. At work.” Silently she bashed her head against the wall.
“The flowers? Did you like them?”
“They’re beautiful, but way too extravagant. You really didn’t have to.”
“No I didn’t. But I wanted to.” Mardi felt her blood pressure rise.
“Mr. Wayne, are you trying to pursue me?”
“Should I be?”
“This isn’t a joke! I’m serious.”
“I assure you, I never joke.”
“Well in that case consider this a polite, but firm…”
“I don’t think we should discuss this over the phone. I have to attend a benefit gathering at the Botanical Society this Saturday evening to view the blooming of a very rare flower. I expect it to be incredibly boring, and could use some company.”
“This is exactly what I’m talking about. I don’t really think it would be a good idea.” She drummed her fingers on the counter. “And I imagine you would have plenty of high-society types that would be more your style.”
“True, but I was hoping for some intelligent conversation for a change.”
“Well that shows what you know. I’m really a high-school dropout who can barely write her own name. You’ll have to look elsewhere.”
“Dropout?” The question hung in the air. “I have it on good authority that you not only graduated high school, but with honors, missing valedictorian by less than half a point. You did drop out of college a semester shy of earning your bachelors in business management, which happened around the time you placed your father in the group home.”
Mardi barely choked out a reply. “How did you…? You are some kind of psycho stalker, aren’t you?”
“I simply like to be kept informed of the people around me. Don’t worry, I mean you no harm.”
“Sure that’s what they all say. Right before they scalp you.” She could almost hear him smiling, not because of what she said was particularly funny, but because he knew she wasn’t really that angry. Mardi reached up and rubbed her temple.
What’s the matter, dear? He seems nice enough. Mardi’s head shot up. The voice of her grandmother sounded so real she involuntarily looked over her shoulder. Assured she had not been visited by a ghost, she responded to the mental query.
He’s like 100 years old.
Oh, stop being so melodramatic. Besides age isn’t anything but a number. You’re only as old as you feel. Mardi mentally rolled her eyes at her grandmother’s perky optimism. Even after all these years it had left an indelible mark on her psyche.
He’s just not my type, she attempted again.
Then why are you so frightened? Is it you think he may be the one to make you finally forgive yourself? You can lie to yourself, Mardi Grace, but you’ll never be able to fool me.
Mardi frowned. Idly she glanced at her bedroom. Mentally she estimated how long it would take her to pack a few essentials and hit the road, waving goodbye to Gotham City and her eccentric billionaires for good.
She was so engrossed in the inner debate, when the real live voice at the other end of the phone line asked, “Are you still there?” she jumped and almost cried out.
“Of course I’m still here,” she said testily, embarrassed at being caught daydreaming. “Where else would I be?”
“That’s a relief,” he said in smooth deep tones. “I was afraid something had happened to you.” She could almost imagine a genuine concern in his voice.
Something has. “I was just thinking. This Saturday, huh? Well, as fate would have it, I happen to be free. And I guess I owe you one, or several, I don’t know.”
“Good. Shall I pick you up around six? We could have dinner before hand.”
“No! You don’t need to pick me up. I’ll just meet you there.”
“It really is no trouble…”
“I said I’ll meet you,” she replied firmly.
“Very well. We’ll meet at six in front of the Gotham Botanical Society. You can choose where we eat this time if you’d like.”
“Super.” She felt like crawling out of her skin. This was like skydiving without a parachute.
“One last thing. This will be a formal event. Men in black tie, women in evening dress. Will you have any trouble…?”
“What do you think I am, some bag lady? I’ve got it covered.”
“Till Saturday then.”
The line went dead in her hand and Mardi fervently wished she could do the last ten minutes over. There was a shriek to her left and she saw Jesse come out of her room, where she’d apparently been eavesdropping. “Alright! I knew you could do it!” She came over and gave Mardi’s shoulder a big squeeze.
Mardi nodded, feeling slightly nauseous. “There’s just one problem.” Jesse cocked her head in question. “I’ve got to find a formal evening dress.”
“I think I’ve got just the thing.”