So, Was He Jealous?‘A mind as brilliant as his should be able to come up with a better way to get into his residence,’ Mickey thought crossly as she struggled to enter the five-digit door code to the warehouse while avoiding setting a precarious load of file folders down on wet gravel. It was an unfortunate merging of events, an assignment from the Serendip brass to relocate Austin James’ project archives and the dramatic beginning of the Arizona rainy season.
She managed to poke each digit accurately, despite her compromised ability to see what she was poking, and the door unlatched with a solid clank. “Austin!” she hollered into the cavernous workshop of her employer. “Come give me a hand, will you?” She heard no reply. She was not terribly surprised.
The inside of the warehouse was alive with sound, with irregular beeping from a panel of circuit boards not far from the front entrance, hydraulic whirring from opposite the central living area, and the hissing of water vapor venting from pipes at the nether reaches of the expansive room. Overarching the laboratory racket, there played a classical ensemble of some sort, odds better than not it was Beethoven.
In the midst of it all, Austin sat cross-legged on the floor between the circuits and the hydraulics, with a bulky set of headphones covering his ears and all his attention tuned to the shoebox-sized electronic device in his lap into which wires from the headphones were plugged.
Mickey’s mouth drew into a straight line of displeasure as she staggered in front of him with her cumbersome load and dropped it unceremoniously onto his desk. He finally noticed her presence and looked up from his work.
“Anything new I should know about?” he asked, pulling off the headphones and seriously mussing his hair in the process. Mickey resisted an impulse to repair the misplaced tendrils flopping over his forehead with her fingers. It was such a maternal thing to do. She wondered when she had developed such a motherly inclination toward her boss.
She dropped the more tender thought and returned to being perturbed. “Yes, there is,” she replied, launching into a gripe. “When you send someone to represent you at the weekly board of trustees meeting and the board decides they like having your representative there, you risk getting your secretary assigned projects and being invited to come back again next week.” With that, she held up one of the folders from her load. “These are the projects you commissioned that have been piling up in the office you don’t use at Serendip. McKinley says it’s time to find them a new home, and now he wants me to transfer them to microfilm.”
Austin’s attention had returned to his electronic device while she was speaking, but as she finished her complaint, he switched off the machine and addressed her mildly, “That will keep you busy for a while.”
“Thanks a lot!” she exclaimed. She could have continued in this vein, but decided it wasn’t worth the effort to elicit Austin’s sympathy. It would be a lot of work for an unlikely reward. “What are you doing?”
“Non-invasive, acoustic microelectode assay,” he replied, and added smugly, “But don’t worry. I won’t commit anything to writing.” He promptly returned to tinkering with his equipment.
Mickey sat at Austin’s desk, pulled out a handful of folders from the stack, and began skimming through them. “A lot of these look like they were never completed,” she observed, crossing one leg over the other.
“They weren’t,” Austin agreed. “Those are projects the board either wouldn’t fund or chose to abandon. Seems like a waste of time to archive them.”
Mickey issued a long-suffering groan. “I’ll be occupied with this for the rest of the week. I hope you didn’t have anything else planned.” She selected one particular file and began reading it in earnest.
As she settled into her work, Austin held his gaze on her, and he studied her pensively. “What are you doing Saturday?” he asked, after a lengthy deliberation over whether to extend the question.
“Well, I sure don’t plan to be doing this,” she responded, without looking up. Then she added lightly, “Actually, I have a date.”
Just a flash of displeasure crossed Austin’s face, but it was gone as quickly as it had come. “A date?”
Mickey looked up and smiled teasingly. “Yeah, you know? Those social get-togethers, usually with someone of the opposite sex, where you dress up and hit the town, have stimulating conversation, stay out too late.” She smiled to herself. “Well, maybe stay out late. That depends on the conversation.”
“How’d you meet this guy?”
“I haven’t,” she replied. “Not yet. My friend, Terri, set me up on a blind date with someone she works with.” She wrinkled her nose. “She says I spend too much time working and need to get a life. All I know is she promised he’s good-looking and not dull.” Then she giggled. “I haven’t been on a date in ages.”
Austin set a hard stare on her. “What’s his name?”
Mickey smiled in dismay, eyes widening, and she cried, “Oh, no you don’t! The last time you took it upon yourself to research my date, you totally ruined it for me. Remember Richard?”
“David?” Mickey frowned, trying to remember. “Are you sure?”
Matter-of-factly, Austin reported, “You met him in the park, jogging. He pretended to sprain an ankle.”
Giggling, Mickey replied, “That’s right. I wonder if he knows he’s going bald yet.”
“A blind date sounds a little risky,” Austin said, rising from the floor and heading toward his computer where Mickey sat with her files.
Mickey rolled her eyes. “Any date is risky,” she said wryly. “Just going out to your car at night is risky.” She smiled. “You can’t go through life trying to avoid freak accidents. Besides, how often do things really go that wrong? It’s just tabloid news stuff.”
Austin reached over her, tapped at his keyboard a moment, and said, “Does your friend really know him that well? Maybe there’s a reason he’s single.” He smiled, seeing a shadow of concern cross Mickey’s face. “Or maybe,” he added with a smirk, “he’s not single at all.”
“Studies have shown, attractive men over twenty-five with no obvious social hang-ups who enter the dating pool are more likely than not either collecting partners or trolling for a replacement.”
Mickey scowled in disgust. “Collecting partners? Austin!” Then suddenly her features changed, and she turned a startled smile on him. “Are you jealous?”
“No,” he replied instantly, with perfect impassivity. He didn’t blink.
She narrowed her eyes and studied him a little closer. Then her face broke into a wide grin. “Yes, you are,” she declared. “You’re jealous.”
“I am not!” he cried. He hit enter on the keyboard with striking force, then turned and stalked away to another part of the lab.
Mickey wasn’t going to let him off the hook so easily. She uncrossed her legs, got up, and followed him. “All right, then why did you want to know what I’m doing Saturday? Did you have something else in mind?”
Austin shrugged, taking a sudden profound interest in watering his plants. “I thought maybe you’d finish archiving those files over the weekend.” He glanced up and noted her unconvinced expression. “Well, I don’t want it taking up time you should be using on other things next week. That’s all.”
“That’s all, huh?”
Austin’s lips were pressed together grimly, and by all appearances he was sulking, but he offered no reply.
Mickey watched him go through the motions of spraying the broad leaves of his indoor jungle, then dousing the roots with water from a can. After a minute, she breathed a sigh. “Hold still,” she murmured, reaching up and delicately flipping a wayward lock of his hair back into place. He raised an eyebrow and she shrugged apologetically.
Austin set down his watering can, and just a hint of a smile passed over his lips before he turned back toward his desk. Mickey followed him. She moved part of her stack of file folders off his desk and onto her own and sat down with them. He dropped into his desk chair and leaned back.
Candidly, she asked, “Austin, are you really that concerned about this date, or were you just trying to get a rise out of me?”
To his credit, he took the remark in good humor. He even allowed a genuine smile to surface. He cocked his head at her curiously and sat upright. Then his keen blue eyes regarded her with an intensity that made her want to squirm. With an air of wonder, he said, “What makes you so ready to go out somewhere with a total stranger, sight unseen, on account of someone who thinks you’ve got nothing better to do and no other prospects?”
For a moment, her mouth hung open in astonishment. She withheld her first defensive retort, but before she could formulate a more fitting response, Austin continued.
“And what was so endearing to you about a man who lied to get you to go out with him, and continued to lie to keep your good opinion of him?” he finished with a rueful smile.
Mickey swallowed hard and blinked against the prickling feeling in her eyes. “So,” she said warily, “does that mean you don’t approve of my taste in men?”
He shook his head and turned back to his computer, fingers diligently tapping the keys even before he answered her. “Not really,” he replied. “I just think you could do a whole lot better.”
For a while, she watched him at his desk, his back turned toward her, hunched over his work. The conversation was effectively closed, in part because he made it that way, and in part because she had no answer to the stinging truth of what he had said.
Years later, she would ask him again. “Austin, now tell me the truth. Were you jealous?” Of course he wouldn’t give a straight answer. He’d just smirk in that way of his and say, “I already told you the truth. Watching you date those guys was like watching a Stradivarius at the hands of fifth-graders.”
Happy Birthday, Vesper