“You better hurry,” one of the associates at the tech firm said the moment I stepped off the elevator.
“I’m not late,” I replied.
“Like she cares,” he said.
“She, as in my mother?” I asked. There was only one she at the firm that could get people hustling like this. My mama. The woman that could be fierce, loving, demanding, and sweet in the span of three minutes.
The response was him walking away. I looked at my watch to make sure I wasn’t late. The way I saw it, me being in the office was kind of a big deal. I usually worked from home. I felt a vibe, an energy humming through the office. I recognized it very well. It usually happened when Mom was on a tear. One would think me being her son would protect me from the wrath, but I was convinced the familial connection just made me a bigger target.
“Meeting in the conference room in three minutes,” Gerrit said. “She’s not playing.”
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said and rushed away. “Get in there!”
I could honestly say it wasn’t me. Whoever did whatever was causing this disruption, I was sure it wasn’t me. I hadn’t even been in the office in a week.
My work was done on time. Someone was in trouble, but it not me. This was a lot like growing up at home with my brothers. Mom raised me and my five brothers. She knew a little something about cracking the whip.
I dropped my messenger bag on the desk in my office. I didn’t bother grabbing my laptop, pen, or paper. We’d had meetings like this in the past. No one needed to document getting their ass chewed. If Mom was fired up, she would likely be presenting the receipts to prove why she was pissed, disappointed, or frustrated.
The conference room was buzzing. Everyone was questioning each other about who did what. I confidently strolled to the back of the room and took a seat at the long table. All I could keep telling myself was it wasn’t me. I didn’t need to be up front because I was innocent.
The room fell quiet as my mother walked in. She closed the door and scanned the room before taking her seat at the head of the table. “Thank you, everyone, for getting here on such short notice,” she started.
I knew my mother very well. I had seen her angry more than once. This was not her angry face. This was the look of a woman who was about to kick ass without taking names.
“We’ve got an emergency,” she said.
“What kind of emergency?” I asked.
She had to lean to the side to see me. “Northside Oil and Gas is a client we’ve worked with in the past. They’ve called us with a problem they believe only we can handle. They want the best.”
“The Texas company?” I asked. I vaguely remembered working on their IT a few years back. Then they fired us. Or according to them, they “went with someone local.”
“Yes,” Mom, AKA Anne while we were at work, answered. “They are in the middle of a merger and there was a hack. It’s threatening the merger, which for those with knowledge about that kind of thing, can be devastating. A lot of time and money went into preparing for this merge. Now, they are on the verge of losing it.”
“What do they need from us?” someone at the table asked.
“They need us there,” she said.
There were some groans around the table. People suddenly tried to look smaller. If they had invisibility cloaks, they would have put them on. Houston in September would be no joke. Not that I had personal experience, but I was a New Yorker.
Hell, my last name was Manhattan.
I loved the Big Apple. I had never owned, nor would I ever own a pair of cowboy boots. My coworkers likely felt the same way. Our idea of country was going to the Hamptons.
“I’ve put together a team I want going,” she said without paying attention to the complaints. “We are going to hit the ground running first thing tomorrow morning. I’ve booked flights. We aren’t going private, so keep that in mind when packing. You can expect to be there for about three weeks.”
You could have heard a pin drop. Everyone was waiting to hear if their name would be called. I noticed I was seeing a lot more faces. Everyone was trying to look away from her. I knew she had already picked the team. She wasn’t going to leave it up to us to volunteer.
I inwardly cringed but knew better than to make that face in front of her. My soul died a little. It was dirt, blistering heat, and drunk cowboys for me.
My brother Markos, who worked in the mergers and acquisitions side of the accounting firm turned and grinned. He gave me that stupid look that only a big brother could give. It was basically a “ha ha, fuck you” look.
I didn’t even know why he was here. This was a tech meeting.
“Markos,” Mom said loud and clear.
I didn’t dare smirk with her looking in my direction, but inside, I was laughing maniacally. Fucker thought I was going to be going down there on my own. His ass was going to be sucking in dust for the next three weeks right beside me.
“Benjamin, you’ll be on the team as well. I’m bringing Case from the accounting firm to go through the accounts to make sure the hack didn’t change anything there. Apparently, that is a concern. Depending on what he finds, we might have to bring in another accountant.”
“Don’t they have their own accounting department?” I asked.
“Yes, but somewhere, somehow, something was breached,” she replied. “They don’t know if it’s internal.”
The intrigue of internal sabotage piqued my interest. It might actually make this excursion to the Lone Star state exciting. I glanced across the table and noticed Gerrit smiling, like he had just dodged a bullet. We made eye contact and he made it pretty clear he was laughing at me.
“What about Gerrit?” I asked when I noticed the smug expression on my cousin and ex-roommate’s face.
He glared at me. It was the glare of a man newly in love and living in unwedded bliss.
“Gerrit is needed here,” Mom replied. “My assistant will be sending over the flight information by this afternoon. I’ll expect everyone to clear their own schedules. This is the only job that matters right now. That means the rest of you will be picking up the slack.”
“Gerrit will happily take my workload,” I said.
“Figure it out,” Mom said. “I’ve got a conference call with the CEO in ten minutes. I’ll be flying down with you all tomorrow morning.”
That was code for “don’t be late or you’re fired.” It was like getting sat in the front of the bus with the teacher. I loved my mother, but she could be very strict at times. I supposed being a single mom to six boys, she had to be. If she was lenient just a little with one of us, it would spin into chaos.
The meeting ended and people were filing out of the room. I was walking past Mom when she gently grabbed my arm. “Stay for a second.”
I nodded and waited for everyone to clear the room.
“I know you aren’t thrilled about this, but I need you on this project.”
“Texas, Mom?” I pouted just a little.
“Houston isn’t exactly podunk,” she said. “It’s a city with all the amenities you enjoy here. This job is important. I need you focused.”
“I’m always focused,” I said.
She gave me that look that only moms could give. It was a simple look that said “bullshit.” “Able, I love you, but when a pretty woman is within a five-mile radius, your focus is elsewhere. You’re going to be in Houston for three weeks. The job is the only thing you need to be worrying about. You don’t need to be out chasing women.”
“I don’t think the women in Houston are my usual flavor, Mom,” I said dryly.
She raised an eyebrow. “And why is that?”
I curled my lip. “I’m a Manhattan. Through and through. I like New Yorkers.”
“Are you honestly telling me you have only ever been interested in women from New York?” she asked incredulously.
“Maybe not originally from New York, but they are here now,” I said. “It’s not that I don’t think women from other places are beautiful. I do. Boy, do I. I’m saying I would have nothing in common with them. What are we going to talk about? Horses? Pickup trucks? It’s not that I don’t like them. I just know we would only have one thing in common.”
She shook her head. “I had no idea I raised such an ignorant child.”
“Son, you need to pull your head out of your ass,” she said with disgust. “You’re never going to find a woman at this rate. Broaden your horizons.”
“Can’t have it both ways, Mom,” I teased. “Are you encouraging me to find a lady in Houston?”
“No,” she said. “I’m telling you not to limit yourself. A good country girl might be exactly what you need.”
“Got it. Go out while in Houston,” I said with a grin.
“You’re incorrigible,” she said and shook her head. “Just be nice. Don’t be a snob.”
“I hear you,” I said.
I went to my office and got right to work. At the end of the day, I headed home to pack and get ready for the long weeks away. I unlocked the front door, pushed it open, and waited several seconds. Then I whistled. The snort followed by a thud told me exactly what I suspected.
“Baxter, you were on the couch again,” I said and walked into the house. I closed the door behind me just as the snorting, heavy-breathing beast waddled toward me.
The English bulldog wagged his short little docked tail so hard his entire ass was shaking. Drool dripped to the floor as he put on what I could only describe as a smile. More snorting and coughing when he finally reached me.
I dropped to my knees in front of him to accept his very enthusiastic kisses. He was probably about the ugliest beast I had ever met with his massive underbite and slightly aromatic nature. He tried to crawl into my lap with little success.
“Alright, I won’t be mad, but the doctor said you’re not supposed to get up there,” I warned him. “You’re going to break a hip or something.”
His pink tongue swiped up my face. “Alright, alright, I’m going to change. We’ll go out back and play with the ball.”
He followed behind me, but I stopped him at the stairs. “Stay,” I said sternly. “I’ll be back in a minute. Go get your ball.”
He didn’t look pleased, but he waddled away. I jogged upstairs, threw on a pair of shorts and my tennis shoes, and headed out back to play with him. He managed to squeeze his fat ass through the doggy door that had been installed last week.
“Baxter, where’s your ball?” I asked.
He was lying on the grass under the shade of a tree. His ball wasn’t actually a ball. It was a Kong toy that he absolutely loved. With reluctance, he slowly got to his feet and meandered toward me with the red rubber toy hanging out of his mouth.
“I’m sorry to do this, but the vet said you need exercise,” I told him as I took the toy. “You’ve got to lose at least six pounds. Don’t you want to be a handsome, healthy dude?”
I tossed the toy, not far, but just enough to get him moving. After playing for a bit, I took mercy on him and let him go inside for a much needed nap. Despite me telling him not to get on the couch, he climbed up and lay on the blanket I had finally conceded in giving him. The dude had a rough two years behind him. I got him from a rescue and was determined to make the rest of his life the best he could have.