by Dyna Dee
Fingers flying across the keys of a laptop produce a constant tapping sound that is familiar yet unobtrusive beneath the voices conversing in the long, narrow room. Charise DuFrame stands at the head of the table, confident, decisive and dominating the conversation as she assigns her talented staff a variety of tasks to be completed during the next business quarter. A top designer, savvy business woman and fashion mogul, Charise is respected and admired in both the fashion and business worlds. Her designs are worn by celebrities, politicians and their spouses as well as any person willing to part with large sums of money to purchase her clothing, eye wear, jewelry, hosiery and shoes, all of which she's created and proudly fixed her first name to.
Pausing to adjust his glasses from where they'd slipped, her assistant missed only a beat before he continued to catch as much of the conversation as humanly possible. To his relief, Charise paused for a breath and then another as she straightened the papers in front of her before looking up at the assemblage.
"All right, I think that's it for today. To reiterate, Duo, would you please read everyone's assignment back to us, beginning from Lisa's press release for the next show."
He nodded, scrolled his notes up the page and began to read off each name and the task their esteemed boss had entrusted to them. Coming to the end of the list, he looked back to Charise and paused for further instructions. Today the middle aged woman had dressed down from her normal office attire, wearing a pale pink knit jersey workout suit that contrasted nicely with her white hair. Beneath the jacket, zipped halfway down, she wore a matching pink, soft green and white paisley T-shirt. Casual dress for a casual work week, or that's what Charise called this out-of-the-office adventure at her western-style ranch nestled in the Sierras between Reno and Tahoe. Though the mode of dress was definitely more casual than usual, the workload during their four days at the ranch had been nearly as intense as it was in the city. The selected staff members happily complied with Charise's dress-down order, happy enough to be out of their daily business apparel. Duo wondered if the others had to do what he had, scrambling around at the last minute to find some outrageously priced casual clothing that looked classy yet comfortable and, hopefully, earning a nod of approval from their employer if each smart outfit worn during the week had been designed by Charise.
Giving her aide a please smile, Charise said, "Thank you, Duo." Then to the rest of the group seated at the table she asked, "Any questions?" As the designer sat down in her chair, she fielded the few questions her staffed, clarifying their tasks. Taking a moment, Duo considered his boss for a moment. Charise was slight of build, almost too thin, with pure white hair that was always lightly curled and heavily hair sprayed into place. She scanned the room with shrewd blue eyes that were used to eking out the slightest details, always looking for flaws or improvements. A smile tipped the corners of her pink lipstick coated lips when it appeared there were no more questions and the meeting was over.
Rising from her chair again commanded the attention from everyone in the room. Then taking a deep breath she began to bring the morning meeting to an end. "All right then, I guess that's all we need to cover today. I expect each of you to take some time this afternoon to outline a course of what course of action you plan on taking for completion your project. I want to have a rough draft of that on my desk when we meet tomorrow at ten.
"On another note," she said, her eyes sweeping across the table to take everyone in, "let me remind you that we only have two days left here at the ranch and I would like each of you to go home sporting a bit of a healthy tan, proof that you've gotten out of doors at least a couple of times during our stay here. Those back at the main office won't be jealous of our little working vacation unless there's at least a bit of proof that there was some fun involved." A trickle of obligatory laughter followed, though any lack of enthusiasm could be attributed to each individual in the room contemplating their new assignment. Charise meant well, Duo knew, but he doubted any one of her executive staff would go out for a swim or play horseshoes until they came up with an outlined strategy to present to her the next morning. "Now go and have lunch," she ordered with a grin. "Don't forget the barbeque tonight, I expect to see everyone in attendance as I've arranged a little entertainment for after dinner that I'm sure you'll enjoy."
Duo continued typing for only a moment or two after the designer resumed her chair. Several of the others in the room came to the front of the table to speak with her, confirming one thing or another, so Duo spent that time checking over his notes, searching for any glaring mistakes.
Noticing the room had suddenly become quiet, and the young man who served as the powerful woman's assistant looked up from the screen of his laptop to see everyone had emptied out of the room and that Charise was staring at him with a look of contemplation.
"Really, Duo, what am I going to do with you? You're pale as a ghost and I swear you've lost weight again."
"I'm just a little tired," he answered, pushing his long, cinnamon-colored plait of hair over his shoulder. "I'll be fine after a rest."
She continued to study him, trying to determine if the young man who'd become her right hand was truly all right. "Are you still seeing that son-of-a-bitch therapist?"
"You mean Quatre?" he asked, frowning at his boss's favorite name for his shrink.
"I'm talking about the man stealer."
Rather than get into the old argument that began moments after he'd tearfully blurted out that his last boyfriend had left him for his therapist, he simply answered, "Yeah, I'm still seeing him."
The older woman's expression let him know just how much she disapproved of his decision to continue seeing Quatre Winner, two months after Trowa announced his reason for breaking up with him. Duo really couldn't blame Charise, though; he'd been a mess for several weeks after his boyfriend had dumped him in a very civilized, polite and apologetic manner. He had honestly thought Trowa, a kind, patient and compassionate man with looks to kill and a body to drool over, was going to be the one to help him overcome his insecurities. His defection, understandable really, led Duo to truly believe that he was doomed to spend the rest of his life alone, an emotional eunuch. He had been making notable progress with Quatre before that unfortunate night when Trowa had announced his defection. The reason Trowa had left him? Love. His boyfriend had fallen in love with Quatre Winner and had been seeing him on the sly. Oh, nothing torrid, just casual lunches and an occasional drink after work, time enough to get to know each other and fall head over heels in love.
The two had been waiting for him at his apartment that Friday night after work. He'd come home hoping to spend some quality time with Trowa only to find his lover was not alone. He stood in the living room with his arm draped possessively over the therapist's shoulders. "We have something to tell you," Trowa announced gravely, looking nervous but determined as he delivered the blow. Then with shamed eyes cast down, the man Duo had pinned so many hopes on stated softly that he never meant to hurt him, but there had been so many issues in their relationship, so many hurdles to cross that he no longer believed he could wait until Duo was better. Both Trowa and Quatre briefly expressed terrible remorse that their happiness was hurting someone they both cared about, but they felt it was right to tell him, not wanting to be dishonest with him about their feelings for each other or their relationship. In shock, Duo muttered that he understood and even thanked them for their honesty, but inwardly he knew it was his own fault his boyfriend had turned to another.
He tried to take it like a man, so he sucked it up and wished them well, but inside he bawled like a lost and lonely child, abandoned yet again because of his inability to be intimate with a man.
The door shut behind the two men not ten minutes after Duo had walked into his apartment, and the braided man crumbled to the floor and wept his broken heart out, desperately afraid of never being able to love or trust anyone again.
It had taken two months of grieving and suffering from the terrible ache in his heart caused by betrayal and loss before he could go to work dry eyed. Working so closely with Charise, it didn't take more than five minutes for her to figure out that something was terribly wrong, and two minutes after that she'd managed to weasel the whole pitiful story out of him. Fearful for his mental state, she urged him to see another therapist. He finally agreed, but managed to put it off for another couple of months, allowing himself time to overcome his despondency on his own, but the extra time hadn't improved his mental state.
Seeking out another therapist while being depressed seemed too arduous a task to undertake, so he went the easiest route by calling Quatre. The man, after all, was familiar with him, aware of his past and hangups. Those were some of the reasons he'd used in talking the reluctant therapist into working with him again. With Quatre's agreement to see him again as his patient, Duo buried his hurt and resentment as much as possible and concentrated on getting over his depression and fear of being intimate with another man.
Charise's disapproving voice brought him quickly out of his reverie. "It's not healthy or sane for you to seek help from someone who stole your boyfriend out from under your nose."
He shook his head. "It's as much my fault as it is theirs. No sense cutting off my nose to spite my face."
The woman's perfectly reconstructed nose wrinkled slightly with distaste. "I've always hated that expression."
"It fits, unfortunately."
Placing her hand on top of his head, she gently stroked his hair, most of it pulled into a braid at the back of his neck. "But is he really helping you, Duo?"
"I think so, but it's hard to tell. We've examined the reasons why I have my particular problem, namely my aunt, and Quat's given me a couple of exercises designed to help me get over the mental roadblocks I keep putting up whenever anyone tries to get intimate with me." He sighed suddenly. "Let me tell you, it sucks to be a twenty-four-year-old virgin."
"I can't even imagine," the woman said with a roll of her eyes and a guilty smile, which made Duo laugh.
"What does he say about your aunt?"
The mention of the woman, by title and not her name, caused a clouded expression to darken the handsome face. "He wants me to cut all ties with her, thinking she's toxic to my well being, but I just can't. She's the only living relative I have left. How can I not speak to her?"
"Would you keep a viper next to your heart, dear?"
Duo closed his eyes. He'd had this same argument with Quatre at his office, and again with Trowa over dinner one night. His aunt was the main reason for his problems, or at least that had been Quatre's reasoning, too. But for all her faults he still loved her, despite her having ruined him from ever having a normal relationship with another man. Her warnings, spoken gently and with concern at first, had gradually turned into daily lectures and adamant pleading, especially after she divorced her husband. It was as if she were taking her anger at her husband out on him. Her never-ending lectures had done exactly what she had intended; they had come between himself and any man he'd tried to have sex with, even those he'd developed a relationship with, including Trowa and Wufei. Both men, as well as all the others he'd dated, seriously or not, had eventually considered him a lost cause and had left him to move on to more fulfilling relationships, always promising to remain his friend, though no one but Trowa had really made any attempt to do so.
Eight months had passed since Trowa announced that he'd fallen in love with his therapist, and it still hurt knowing he'd lost another good man because he panicked whenever they'd tried becoming more physically intimate. It was more than a little embarrassing that Charise knew so much about his problems and his past. The woman just had a way of getting information out of him.
"You don't want to talk about this any more, do you?" his boss asked.
"No," he confessed quietly
Charise sighed with defeat. "All right, I'll let this go on one condition."
Duo saved the page of notes that he'd been typing and closed his laptop, working on automatic as he asked, "Condition?"
"I want you to have some fun while we're here. We're in the country, for heaven's sake, and you've kept yourself cooped up in the lodge since our arrival.
"I've been out a couple of times," he protested.
Charise shook her head. "No, I mean out for a couple of hours. Today." Duo was about to protest that there were calls to be made, arrangements to set up and invitations to Charise's preview of her Spring line to be sent out when the designer cut him off. "In fact," she continued, "I've made arrangement for you to go horseback riding with Hilde. She lives here year round, one of the property's caretakers, and she knows every inch of the property. A couple of hours straddling a big sweaty horse ought to make you feel like a new man." A naughty grin accompanied that last sentence.
Duo rolled his eyes at her attempt to make a joke. "I don't know how to ride a horse."
"What better time to learn?" she asked with a chuckle. "I want you to go up to your room, change into your pair of Jon DePaul jeans, the ones that hug that gorgeous ass of yours so delightfully, then meet Hilde in the stables. She'll have a lunch prepared for the both of you to share on the trail." While speaking, Charise leaned forward and picked his laptop up from the table, basically telling the young man she wanted him to be on his way. Duo stood, as expected, reclaimed the laptop from her hands and stepped back just before she began to push him towards the conference room door. "Fun, my beautiful, irreplaceable Duo, is just what the doctor ordered. I'll see you tonight."
After receiving her kiss on his cheek, he set off for his room imagining himself falling off a bucking horse and screaming for all he was worth while holding onto the reins for dear life. He was definitely not looking forward to this forced outing.