Today's Reading

CHAPTER ONE

Natalie Groves eyed the bag of gingerbread M&M's on the other side of the office meeting room and prayed for a divine intervention of Red Sea proportions.

In forty-five minutes, two goons from the head office of Potted Plants 4 Hire would walk through the door and give her fifteen minutes to convince them not to close the Charlottesvillebranch—the last in this half of Virginia. In forty-five seconds, she might topple out of her office chair, curl up in a ball under this wobbly table, and hide.

"Natalie." Frank, one of the salesmen, plugged Natalie's five-year-old laptop into the projector. A muscle jerked in his sandpapery cheek. Was that meant to be a smile? Hard to tell. "Those corporate idiots won't know what hit them."

Natalie manufactured a smile in return. "Thanks, Frank."

He opened the laptop lid. "You look like you're about to throw up. Just get it over and done with before the presentation."

She took a deep breath and ignored the Mexican jumping beans in her stomach. Nothing mattered now except her presentation notes.

Suck it up, buttercup. This isn't about you.

No, it was about eight coworkers' jobs and her ability to pay Dad's medical expenses. The bills kept coming, and between her parents' increasing copay and dwindling savings, money was beyond tight. The past seven years had been a never-ending Monday morning.

Ever since Dad's doctor said, "It's cancer."

By rights, their boss, Maria, should have been giving this presentation— not the girl who answered phones. But Maria had an epic case of food poisoning, and Natalie was the one who'd written a business plan to save their office-plant hire service. It was amazing what she'd been able to piece together with half a business degree and a bucketload of desperation. And in return for all that effort, she was the one condemned to public speaking.

Frank pressed a button on the laptop. Natalie waited for the familiar whir of the fan. Nothing happened.

Uh-oh.

She peered over at him. "Did you press the right button?"

He picked up the computer and shook it. "Three times. Why do you have such an old laptop?"

Because this week's budget was down to whatever coins she could scrounge from the back of the sofa. But he didn't need to know that.

She dropped the notes on the table and walked toward him, smoothing her borrowed business jacket as she went. She'd hoped a power suit would boost her confidence. She'd even donned black pumps and straightened her rebellious hair. Though it'd started to frizz again when she spent her first hour of the morning scrubbing graffiti off their business sign. Kids always found it hilarious to black out the "ted" in their name and draw illustrations of just what kind of plants they'd prefer to hire.

But who needed perfectly straight hair when you had bulldog determination?

Her cell rang, vibrating against the chipped wood veneer of the table. Probably Mom. She paused, tempted to ignore it. Mom knew how important this morning was—someone had better be dying.

Her mind's eye flashed to her father's once strong hand trembling as he'd waved goodbye to her from his patchwork-covered bed yesterday morning. He was technically in remission, but even the Three Blind Mice could see the way he'd deteriorated this year.

Had that been their last farewell?

Fear punched her in the chest as she lunged for the phone, swiped a finger across the cracked screen, and hit the voice-message icon. Unfamiliar number, but that did nothing to soothe the throat-closing sensation that enveloped her. She set the phone to speaker. Her normal speakers had decided to take a vacation this week, but her speakerphone remained loyal.

An unfamiliar male voice glitched in and out, poor reception chopping the message. "Gregory . . . looking for Natalie Groves . . . here, called . . . ambulance . . . corner of Harding and Davis Streets." Beep.

She froze. It had to be about Dad. No one would call her about anybody else. But why had a stranger called? Where was Mom? Had something happened to her as well?
...

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