His knock was distinct.

“Come in, Albert.”

“I can’t get in, Lucille. The new system’s jamming the knob again.” Repeatedly, her lawyer tried to turn the door handle. It wouldn’t budge.

“There’s nothing wrong with it.” Lucille sprang up from her steel gray, ostrich leather executive chair and huffed across the eighteen-foot Persian rug to wiggle the handle. At her touch, it opened immediately, and three quick beeps sounded overhead. “Can’t you get the damn alarm company back out here? I swear someone tried to get in and jammed the lock.”

“You might be overreacting,” said Albert. “Annie already placed two calls to them.” Beneath Lucille’s angry stare, Albert winced. He hated to disappoint Lucille in any way, as he knew he did with his size. Even if she hadn’t been wearing four-inch heels, Lucille still would have been a solid two inches taller than Albert. “I’ll get on it myself.”

“Fire Annie. She smiles too much and she keeps screwing up.”

“Annie’s doing great.” Albert defended the new receptionist. “She’s learning fast. She reminds me of you…”

“Are you sleeping with her?”

“No. I wasn’t sleeping with the last three you fired, either. Maybe if you spent some time with her, you’d notice she has a lot of your same qualities.”

Never having been married, Albert poured himself into his work. Little else gave him pleasure besides existing in Lucille’s strobe of disgruntled perfectionism. No one would ever accuse Albert of indulging in hobbies normal people took up during off-hours. He hated golf and never drank. But Albert did spend an inordinate amount of time mentoring Annie about Finedale’s every nuance, possibly because he himself, like Annie, was adopted. Albert had been dumped off on the steps of the Child Protective Agency in Birmingham, Alabama, at the young and influential age of three. Yet he hadn’t quite resigned himself to the fact that Lucille might never love him the way he loved her, so Annie had become his hobby. Without his project of tutoring such an eager, young learner, Albert was otherwise a very isolated fellow obsessed with advancing Finedale, and thereby Lucille.

Albert followed Lucille to the two mauve B&B Italia couches that faced the glass wall overlooking the vast acreage of grapevines of the Carneros appellation that straddled the southern Napa and Sonoma counties.

“The report, Albert?” Lucille grabbed her reading glasses off her desk. Setting a folder down on the coffee table between them, he brushed long threads of hair from one side of his head over to the other. “How are we doing with this section?”

“Two short of 100 percent.”

“Thank you. You never fail me.” Lucille’s words sent a thrill of hope through Albert as he watched her thumb through the pages he had crafted with such care for her. His heart melted as Lucille’s eyes alighted gleefully upon the staggering dollar amounts for which Albert had been primarily responsible. Oh, how he loved the way she gave occasional nods of approval at his ink, pursing her lips as she studied his numbers, and Albert imagined them pressed against his own. “Who’s missing, Albert?”

“Grace Meadowcroft and Debbie Smith.”

“What’s their prognosis?”

“Grace, good. Debbie, I can’t get a read.” Albert cherished the opportunity to stare at his beloved Lucille a bit longer while she read on. He accepted that this was most likely the plateau of their intimacy, but Albert La Pedis, Esq. could love no other.

“Grace was another Brett referral?”

“Yes.”

“Let’s pick up the pace, then,” she said.

“I’m on it.” Albert sprang up to leave. Leaping efficiently to the door, he tried the handle, but again there came the beeps—but not the short ones. BEEP BEEP BEEP … BEEP BEEP BEEP.

“Honestly, we’ve got to get that fixed before someone really does break in.”

 

READ CHAPTER 13