Plus One

Plus OneSomething doesn’t add up…

Lydia’s looking for a job not a lover, but after her interview at Saint Joseph’s University, she ends up with both. There’s a need for discretion despite her bright pink hair and Doctor Spencer Flynn’s candy apple red Mustang—after all, she’s an admin assistant now, he’s a lecturer in applied mathematics and they work together. So they conduct their liaisons behind closed doors, which is all right with Lydia—she’s never experienced chemistry like it.

‘Discreet’ soon begins to look a lot like ‘secretive’ and a last-minute cancellation of a date prompts Lydia to rethink her role in the relationship. Braced for a break-up, she’s amazed when Spencer confesses the secret he’s been keeping all along. His loyalties are divided and when Lydia’s attempts to hold on to his attention backfire publicly, she wonders if playing house with a mathematician is a zero-sum game…

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Chapter 1

Pink hair is an attention-grabber and there are certainly times when hair made of snakes and set on fire would be slightly less conspicuous.

And more appropriate.

Like job interviews, for example.

But I’ve got loud hair, and an even louder mouth that gets me into trouble more often than not. That switch most normal people have between brain and mouth, that stops them saying things they ought not? I was born without it.

Every time I make it to the interview stage, someone in the room gives me that look. Usually as soon as I walk in. Eyes widen, eyebrows lift, throats clear, backsides shift in plastic, straight-backed chairs. At some point during the conversation someone – and it’s always fun watching a lone interviewer cope with the realisation shit, I’m on my own so it’s down to me – will skirt the issue with small talk and lead in with something approximating casual. “Uh, and your hair. It’s a very unusual colour, isn’t it?”

Loosely translated? ‘We’re not hiring anyone who stands out as much as you do’.

No one who bleaches their hair and dumps a bottle of candyfloss pink on top of it would be first on the list of people most likely to conform, but when another job interview passes with the echo of “Don’t call us, we’ll call you,” ringing in my ears, it does make me look in the chemist’s window at the boxes of Chocolate Cherry and Mahogany Goddess and wonder.

I’ve often thought it would be a good idea to have more conventional hair. Then I wouldn’t feel that I had anything wacky to live up to, no image of an attention-seeking loudmouth to perpetuate. Ordinary hair equals knowing when to shut up and to bloody well think before I speak. That missing brain-mouth switch again.

Maybe it’s nerves that make me behave the way I do. Certain social situations that make me jittery. Or maybe I should just put ‘Hobbies – self-sabotage and only opening my mouth to change feet’ on my CV.

That might stop me getting any job interviews at all, but yes, I admit it. Job interviews make me nervous. Anyone who claims different is a liar.

“So. The interviewer, who’d earlier introduced herself as Bridget, looked down at the application form I’d filled in with as much precision as an OCD patient, to double check my name. “Lydia. What do you think you could bring to Saint Joseph’s?”

I tried not to sigh and failed. With any luck it made me appear contemplative rather than fed up.

“I…” Experience? I’d worked in a library before so that meant I was organised. Knew the system. Also in a wholesaler’s with deliveries coming in and out all day at set times, hence, good at working to a deadline. And I’d processed invoices, which was boring work but it showed I could be trusted with other people’s money. Ergo, integrity.

Come on, Lydia. You can do this. I swallowed my nerves, wondering why I let it get to me when people gave me that look. The ‘impress me. That’s an order’ look.

This being a university, I assumed the administration would be a touch more liberal than, say, the staff of a solicitor’s office. My interview at Hallam, Hallam and Chamberlain’s had ended as soon as I’d walked in the door.

After all, on the way through the campus I’d seen a white guy with dreadlocks sporting not a ring but a bolt through his nose. But of course, he was a student and I was a candidate for ‘administrative assistant’. In other words, general dogsbody, photocopier girl and desk jockey when computer work needed to be done.

Nothing else for it, Waverley. Sell yourself. Sell yourself like you are a whore for this job.

And I was. My friend Cameron had called me that morning to remind me of the saying ‘work like you don’t need the money’. He meant well, bless him, but had forgotten two important things – I wasn’t yet working anywhere, hence my round of applications and interviews that had gone on for months now. And I did need the money.

Okay. Saint Joseph’s University, I am your bitch.

“I have experience working in an administrative setting and because I’m–”

Someone knocked at the door and without waiting for a reply, entered. I only just managed to suppress a groan.

“Sorry, Bridget, I-” The interloper stopped when he saw me. “Oh, I didn’t realise you had company.”

That’s because you didn’t stop to wait for an answer, idiot.

I congratulated myself for not saying that out loud. Maybe I did have some degree of self-control after all.

He looked me up and down and if he’d been a student I would have thought he was checking me out, but he was older. Late thirties, I guessed, likely a member of staff here, given the wad of papers in his hand and harassed look on his face. Students often carried papers around with them but looked first of all younger than this guy, and more mellow, due to their tendency to be stoned a lot. Or hung over. Or both.

As it was, I put his eye-widening and raised eyebrows down to my pink hair.

And possibly the way I raised my eyebrows right back at him.

An awkward moment passed before those present came back to life.

“Um, I’m sorry. I’m not interrupting anything am I?”

“No, you’re-”

“Yes,” I said at the same time as Bridget spoke. I wasn’t going to get the job anyway – who cared?

“It’s a bit late in the academic year for a new student to join us, isn’t it?” he asked, the hint of an amused smile on his lips.

Not that I was looking at his lips.

“I’m not a new student.”

“Oh?”

“No, I’m just interviewing Lydia for-” Bridget said.

“Right, of course. The vacancy.” Whatever-his-name-was frowned, confusion evident. “You’re an interviewee?

“I am.” Silently I dared him to make something of it.

“With pink hair?”

“I’m hardly likely to leave it at home, am I?”

He jerked back, looking stunned for a moment then announced his return to alertness with a reserved, “Quite.”

“Spencer, what can I do for you?” Bridget asked.

Interview obviously suspended while Really Important Guy said what he had to say.

He ran a hand through his hair – short but thick, nearly as dark as my natural colour, not that I was paying any attention – and puffed out a breath. “The photocopier in the maths faculty’s packed up again and I need some test papers collated by tomorrow. Susan’s off sick with some bloody flu virus, whatever the hell that means, oh and she’s decided the only notes she’s left me for the lecture next week are in fucking shorthand. Oh, shit. Sorry.” He glanced at me, biting his lip.

“‘S’all right. I’m not too offended at being interrupted.”

“No, I meant the fact I swore-”

“I know what you meant.” Okay, Lydia. Now it’s official. You’re an idiot with a penchant for self-sabotage.

“You can use the photocopier next door if you like as long as-”

“Ah.” He sucked in a breath through gritted teeth. “I was kinda hoping…” A sheepish grin. “I’ve got that lecture to prepare and I’ll probably have to rewrite it from scratch unless I can find someone who can translate these bloody scribbles.” He waved the papers at Bridget to illustrate his point.

“We’re short-staffed here, too, Spencer. We-”

“You can’t read shorthand?” I blurted out, barely restrained laughter in my voice.

Spencer scowled. “Um, no. That’s why I’m

“Screwed?”

Bridget coughed. At least, that’s what I assumed the noise she made was. It was a half-choke, half-squeal from the back of her throat.

“Are you trying to talk yourself out of this job?” Spencer asked, frowning, but the furrows in his brow didn’t stop his eyes from twinkling.

“I think I did that without speaking as soon as I walked in here with pink hair, to be honest.” I sighed. Shrugged.

“We’re not quite finished with the interview yet,” Bridget said quietly.

“Point taken. I won’t take up much more of your time.” Spencer’s attention leapt from Bridget to me. “Were you just taking the piss earlier or can you read shorthand?”

“Can’t everyone?” I splayed my fingernails in my lap, wondering if polishing them on my lapels would be too much.

“No, that’s why I’m asking you.”

“Greig’s or Pitman’s?”

“Huh?” Spencer stared blankly and Bridget looked on, lips parted, probably wondering if she should jump in and save Spencer. Or else leave the room while she had the chance.

“Come on, give it here.” I clicked my fingers and held my hand out. “I’m assuming some of those papers have, now, what did you call it? ‘Fucking shorthand’ written on them?”

“Yes. Yes, they do.” He stepped forward and handed over some crumpled sheets of A4, lined of course, covered on both sides in scribbles meaningless to the untrained eyes of the two other people in this room and, judging by the panic on Spencer’s face, everyone else on campus. Everyone else except me.

“Hmm.”

“Well?” Bridget asked. Even she was interested now.

“Good grief, this is… What the hell does this mean?”

“Shit, I knew it – you can’t read it,” Spencer began. “Give it-”

“No, no, I can.” I snatched the papers out of his reach and looked up at him, doing my best to glare. My breath jarred in my throat as he towered over me. His eyes were so changeable – earlier they’d hinted at amusement and now they raged with frustration and probably more than a little annoyance.

Cheeks burning, I turned back to the papers in my hand. “I can read it. It just makes no sense. I mean, here –  ‘The axiomatic identities thus having been clarified, it becomes necessary for the unique supremum’ What the shite is that all about?”

“Bloody. Hell.”

“What?” I looked up at him again, cleared my throat and decided meeting Bridget’s gaze was a safer bet. “What?” It’s the swearing, isn’t it? I swore and talked myself out of another job. I wonder if I could pull the ‘he started it’ defence. He did swear first, didn’t he? Or was that me?

“You didn’t put your talent for reading shorthand on your application form,” she said.

“No, I…” Two pairs of eyes staring at me in amazement meant my façade of confidence began to weaken. “Should I have?”

“Not that there’s any need for it in the admin department, but obviously in the mathematics faculty…”

“There usually isn’t,” Spencer put in. “It’s just that Susan made her notes on paper and got ill before typing them up, though why she couldn’t have written them in English I don’t know-”

“Because it’s a lot quicker, that’s why,” I pointed out.

“Is it?”

“Don’t you know anything? What are you, a teacher or something?”

“A doctor actually.”

“Fine, fine, Doctor Spencer-”

“Flynn. Doctor Flynn. My first name is Spencer.”

Gulp. A doctor. Not that I’m impressed. Shaking my head, I looked down at the papers again. This is a university. Damn place is full of the creatures. “This sheet here easily has a few of hundred words on it. You could write that in a few minutes. Longhand, it’d take you ages.”

He said nothing, merely looked down at me, the frown less severe now. Curious.

“See, Pitman’s is written according to sound. No? Imagine writing the English language phonetically. Each stroke…” Of the pencil, Lydia. Each stroke of the pencil. “…represents a sound, rather than a letter. Oh, I’m not too good at explaining it. Anyway, if you’re any good at shorthand, you can write faster than most people can type. So, Susan? Was that her name?”

“Susan, yes.”

“She was probably saving herself time by doing this. You could write this out faster than most people could type it. Trouble is…” I sucked in a deep breath through pursed lips, holding the papers out to him once more. “Takes a special person to be able to read it and translate it back into English.

“Fine.” Subdued now, he took the papers back.

“If you don’t mind, I have a job interview to scr-  Uh, I mean mess up here.”

“But-”

“Yes?” One lifted eyebrow could say so much and intimidate older men, doctors or not, apparently.

“Lydia, would you?” he began.

“Bridget. Sorry about this.” I clasped my hands in my lap and turned my attention fully to the woman who held my immediate career prospects in the palm of her hand. Or on her clipboard. “Where were we?”

“Just a minute.” Doctor Spencer Bloody Flynn laid a hand on my shoulder and the sudden pressure, hardly there but pressure all the same, made me flinch.

I glanced at him. Immediately he lifted his hand away and murmured a quick “Sorry.”

He wasn’t to know it was surprise and not discomfort that had made me shrug off his touch. While always ready with a hug or a kiss for my friends, that wasn’t so with strangers – even handshakes felt a little too intimate at times, though social protocol often demanded them. Maybe Spencer is more touchy-feely than I am. Lydia Waverley, stop it at once. Job interview. You’re at a job interview. Remain present. Remember where you are.

Not touchy-feely then – too childish a phrase for a man probably in his late thirties, early forties, and comfortable in his own skin.

Stop thinking about his skin. He touched you on the shoulder. Through your blouse.

“Could I borrow you for a while?”

Tactile, that’s the word. “Who, me?” I looked from Bridget up to Spencer and stupidly wondered why he had to be so tall. “You want me to?” I waved a hand at his clutched papers. “But I’m in a-”

Bridget shrugged. “If you’re willing to help it would look pretty good to those who make the decision.”

“Isn’t it you who does that?”

“I have a say in it, yes.”

Hmm. Maybe this could work out in my favour after all. Instead of having to go through an excruciating interview for ten minutes I get to spend an undetermined length of time with Doctor Spencer Flynn. Unless I get bundled off to a hobbit hole somewhere while he goes off and lectures or tutors or whatever it is mathematicians do.

Sighing, I shrugged. “Fair enough. How long will it take?”

“I don’t know. There are pages and pages of this stuff, so it depends on how fast you can read it.”

“Reading? Piece of pi –  I mean, cake.” There had been enough swearing in this room already. Most of it from him, I had to admit, amazed that someone with such a cerebral job would have such a potty mouth. “What do you want me to do with it? Dictate?”

Spencer bit his lip, drawing one cheek taut and I tried not to notice his cheekbone but oh dear, too late. “Can you type?”

“Of course I can – that’s why I applied for this job,” I said, emphasis on ‘this’ to show I didn’t really want to be doing his for him except I totally did. Me and my big mouth.

“Great. You’re on.” His back was half-turned before he’d finished speaking.

“What?” Raising my palms, I looked to Bridget for advice. “Should I?”

“Of course. If you don’t mind, that is. Doctor Flynn needs someone who can translate shorthand and if you can, that’d be most helpful.”

“I guess I could, if you don’t mind me bailing on you like this.”

“Not at all.” Bridget stood and I mirrored her action, tucking my chair under the table at which we’d been seated. “Just let me know when you’re done and we’ll wrap things up, although as I said, helping us out like this will go well for you.”

“Even though transcribing shorthand isn’t part of the job description for the admin department?”

“Adaptability.” Bridget gave a playful wink, clearly relieved to have killed two birds with one stone. She’d avoided another tedious interview asking the same questions, hearing the same answers by rote, and had helped facilitate a lowering of Doctor Flynn’s blood pressure.

Though she’d done nothing to help mine.

“A willingness to help out is far more important than typing speed,” she added.

“Speaking of which?” Spencer – Doctor Flynn, whatever, I had no idea of how to refer to him even in my own mind – turned back with his hand on the door.

“Seventy-five words a minute,” I said without missing a beat.

“Christ, you’re a godsend.”

I tried not to react to that but shivered when he added three little words.

“Come with me.”

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