Carla awoke with a start, at the shrill, piercing sound of her alarm clock. She stuck her arm out of the covers and fumbled for the snooze button, muttering to herself as her dream faded. She had already forgotten what she had been dreaming, but she knew that it had been about Robert.
She drifted away a second time, but the incessant buzz of the alarm caused her eyes to snap open, it seemed before she had even shut them again: ten past six. Wearily, she sat up, then twisted her body and let her feet slide to the floor. After reaching over and switching the alarm off, she stood up and let out a long, lazy yawn, before stumbling down the stairs to the kitchen, where she could hear the soft mewling of her cat, already searching for its breakfast.
The traffic light turned red, and Robert grumbled to himself as he rolled his car to a halt and lit his third cigarette for the day. He hadn't been able to get much sleep the previous night. All he'd been able to think of was the ring. That cheap old ring that Carla always wore had his mind playing tricks on him.
When Lloyd discussed it with him the day before, he felt certain that the kid just had too much time on his hands, and that he was letting his imagination run away with him. The more he thought about it, though, the surer he became. Carla guarded that ring too thoroughly, too preciously. There must be something to it, he decided.
He was snapped out of his thoughts by the deep, hollow honk of the car behind him. Glancing up, he noticed that the traffic light had turned green. Waving his hand apologetically at the other driver, he pulled away from the light, Carla's ring still filling his thoughts.
By the time Robert walked into the large, open-plan office, Lloyd was already seated at his desk typing away furiously. He looked up from his monitor as his friend walked past, waving an enthusiastic hallo. Robert returned the wave with a smile as he walked to his own desk at the other end of the room and sat down.
No sooner had he switched his computer on, an instant message from Lloyd flashed in the lower right corner: "So? Have you thought any more about the ring?"
Robert sighed as he typed his reply, "I couldn't stop thinking about it, actually. I'm going to get my morning coffee. Be right back."
When Robert returned, carrying a steaming cup of coffee, there was already a reply from Lloyd waiting for him. "Me neither. So what are we going to do about it?"
"I tried to speak Carla yesterday afternoon, but she was in with Jones," replied Robert. "I was going to ask her about ordering stock from Arkwright. I'll try that again this morning. She will respond by telling me that our account with them is in arrears, and list all the reasons why we can't pay them. I will sympathise, and be her shoulder to cry on. Then I'll see if I can get a better look at that ring."
"Yes, she can go on a bit, can't she?" asked Lloyd rhetorically. "I sometimes wish she'd just stop complaining and get on with her job! Do you think it'll work, though?"
"I'm not sure," was Robert's reply. "But we need to get a better look at the ring, and it's worth a try. Do you have a better idea?"
"Yes, I do, actually," fired back his friend. He'd had the idea all along. He'd just been waiting for a chance to share it. "Everybody here knows how crazy she is about you. Why don't you ask her out on a date?"
Robert stifled a guffaw. John glanced over from his screen at the opposite desk, his eyebrow arched inquisitively. Waving his colleague's curiosity away with a smile, Robert typed in response, "That's the craziest idea I've ever heard! I couldn't possibly!"
"Why not? The woman's in love with you, man!"
"I know. And I don't feel the same way. If I asked her out, it would be under false pretences, and she'd only get hurt. She's a sweet girl, and I care about her. I'd never want to put her through that!
"Listen, let me try this my way, okay? Let me just talk to her, and see what comes of it.
"Yes, Mr Arkwright," sighed Carla at the sound of the voice on the other side of the phone. "I'm sorry you haven't been paid yet. Mr Jones has approved your payment telephonically," she lied, "but he's out of the country at present. You should receive your payment by the end of the week."
She hung up the phone, and her face lit up as she saw Robert walking into the office. She often thought that if Robert were to tell her that the world was ending, she'd still be happy to hear it! She slipped her ring onto her finger as he approached.
Robert cleared his throat nervously, and began. "Carla, I need your help. I was on the phone to Arkwright earlier, trying to order some parts. They–"
"Let me guess," Carla interrupted, "they won't let you order any more, because our account is in arrears?" With that, she burst into tears. "Oh, Robert!" she sobbed. "Nobody wants to listen to me! I've been to Mr Jones, but all he cares about is giving bonuses. We're haemorrhaging money, and we can't pay any of our creditors. But he doesn't care!"
Robert didn't know what to do. He'd been expecting her to protest about why the company couldn't pay their accounts, but he hadn't been expecting anything like the wreck of a woman he now saw before him. He pulled her visitor's chair around and sat down next to her. Gingerly he put his arm around her shoulder. "There, there. It'll be all right," he said as softly as he could. It occurred to him, in her vulnerable state, that she was actually quite sexy, in her own way. She smelt fresh and innocent, and he detected a faint aroma of talcum powder.
She sniffed, fighting the tears away as she looked into his eyes. This would've been a dream come true for her, if it were under different circumstances. Even so, her stomach leapt into her throat as she struggled to compose herself. She softly stammered, "T-thanks, Robert," as she allowed him to pull her a little closer, to comfort her.
Once she had stopped crying, Robert moved away and turned his chair to face her. He felt a little guilty deceiving her, but nonetheless he nodded towards her right hand, which was now resting on the arm of her chair. "That's a beautiful ring you wear," he said. "Where did you get it?"
Carla glanced down at the ring and blushed. "Thank you," she said shyly. "My mother gave it to me, years ago. She said it was her brother's. I never knew my uncle, so this ring is all I have of him."
"That's really sweet," replied Robert. "Mind if I have a look at it?"
Carla was about to answer, when the telephone on her desk began to ring. She raised her finger at Robert in a waiting gesture, and picked up the phone. "Hallo, Mr Smith. Yes, about your account...." She looked up at Robert and mouthed that the phone call was going to take a while. Robert smiled and nodded his understanding as he stood up and walked away.
For the remainder of that day, Robert was non-committal to Lloyd about his earlier conversation with Carla. He tried to time his cigarette breaks so as not to coincide with those of his friend, he did not respond to Lloyd's instant messages, and kept their correspondence strictly professional. Consequently, Lloyd was aware that the conversation took place, but did not know what had been discussed, or whether Robert had had any success in finding out whether Carla's ring was the ring he read about the previous afternoon.
That afternoon, Robert was beginning to switch off his computer for the day, when an e-mail arrived in his inbox. He would have ignored it until the next morning, except that he noted that it was from Carla. He opened it and read:
Thanks for the shoulder this morning! I don't know what came over me. I guess everything's just beginning to get me down at work. That phone call I took as you left was yet another creditor demanding payment. He said he'd put our account on hold if we didn't pay him by the end of the week. Same old, same old, I guess.
Robert, there's something I've been meaning to ask you. I don't want to sound forward, but I've been thinking about this for a really long time. I guess what you did for me this morning finally gave me the courage to do it.
Robert, would you like to go for dinner with me sometime?
Wow! Now that I've written that I feel like a huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders, but at the same time I'm really nervous! I hope that I didn't get the wrong idea from our chat this morning! I wonder if I should just delete this mail without sending it.
Well, the fact that you're reading this obviously means that I didn't. My mother always told me that you only live once.
P.S. So here goes: SEND!
Robert's hands were shaking as he finished reading. Now the woman was gushing over him, and that was not his intention. He didn't want to have to tell her that he didn't feel the same way, and besides, there was the ring to consider. He did not know what to do.
Finally, he resolved to himself that he would sleep on it and reply to Carla's e-mail in the morning.
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