“I want her.”
James Richardson stared at his friend amazed. “Are you sure?”
It was a silly question. Edmund Davis was always sure of what he wanted and right now what he wanted was a nondescript woman getting a drink from the water cooler.
He nodded and continued to stare at the female figure through James’ large indoor office window. “Yes, I want her.”
“Mary Reyland?” James asked surprised. She wasn’t the type of woman that usually caught anyone’s attention, much less a man’s interest. Definitely not a man like Edmund Davis who had women slipping their phone numbers into his pockets whenever they had a chance. He could have his choice of women, why had Mary caught his eye? Not that there was anything wrong with her, James thought, trying to be kind.
But there wasn’t much right about her either. She had a nice face, but there was nothing remarkable about it. She wasn’t fashionably slim or pleasantly plump, her figure could be described as thick, just like the sensible high heels she wore that looked like they’d been ordered from an orthopedic catalog that only offered them in the colors of brown or black. Mary always kept her hair pulled back in a tight bun and in her ill-fitting gray suit, her brown skin looked chalky instead of warm. She could easily blend in with the office wall panel. No, James couldn’t imagine how Mary had caught Davis’ attention.
James tried to adjust his view. He glanced around the office to see if there was some other woman Davis had been referring to, but he only saw a teenage delivery girl wearing a tight, low-cut, white T-shirt with a large pizza logo on it. “You’re talking about Mary Reyland?” James asked again, just to make sure. At that moment Mary took a sip of her drink, accidentally spilling a little on the front of her blouse. She attempted to brush it away only making the wet stain spread. James shook his head. Davis had to be talking about someone else.
“Yes,” Davis said. “I want her to supervise my project.”
Davis’ tone became impatient. “I mean my investment, The New Day Senior Living Community.”
James stiffened as the reason for Davis’ unexpected visit to his office became clear. His words burst forth in a rush. “I can’t promise—”
“Of course you can,” Davis said with a quiet conviction that left no room for argument. He hadn’t removed his gaze from Mary and for a moment James felt sorry for her. She didn’t stand a chance. If Davis wanted her, he would get her. “There are no problems. You can manage this. I want her.” He removed his steely grayish-brown gaze from Mary and pinned them on James. “Make it happen.”
“But I—” James stammered.
Davis turned from the window and sat. Although he appeared more relaxed seated, James knew it was a ploy. Davis was a large man who never used his height to intimidate others; he let his eyes do that. He could impale someone with just a glance. James felt as though his tie was slowly strangling him. He tugged on it. Davis could be a mean SOB when he wanted to. Especially when someone tried to stand in the way of something he wanted. James didn’t want to be that individual, but he had to think of Mary. “But what?” Davis asked, his tone was meant to be casual, James knew it was not.
“I don’t think I can,” he said in a great rush. When he saw Davis narrow his gaze he quickly added, “But there are others who—”
Davis shook his head. “No.” He spoke the words calmly and coolly. So coolly James wanted to reach for the antacid pills he had in his top desk drawer.
James forced a smile, trying to lighten the mood. “Davis, be reasonable. Your project isn’t that complicated and there are some very talented people who can supervise it.”
Davis didn’t remove his gaze and his voice remained soft. “I don’t want anyone else.”
James inwardly shivered despite the warm spring day. He glanced helplessly at the woman who had caught Davis’ attention. She was now talking to two other woman both more attractive. “Why Mary?”
Davis merely blinked. He didn’t reply, he knew James already knew the answer and he didn’t waste time stating the obvious: Mary was a pushover. She wouldn’t get in his or the in the way of the program manager--Gregory Trent. She was someone Davis could control. He liked to be in control. And James knew there was no way he could convince him to use someone else. Davis didn’t change his mind easily.
“You owe me.”
“Need I remind you about—”
“No,” James interrupted not even wanting to hear her name. The last person he’d assigned to the senior community project had been a disaster. That particular individual, a stately, older middle-aged woman, was over zealous, making the two-year grant Trent had been awarded a personal nightmare. Because Davis had invested a considerable sum of money in the project, he kept a close eye on how things had been progressing and wasn’t happy.
James dropped his shoulders feeling the weight of his defeat. “I’ll see what I can do.”
Davis smiled. The expression didn’t warm his eyes. “I thought so.” He stood. “Gregory’s schedule is free in two weeks. She can see him then.” He opened the door and left.
James watched him go then returned his gaze to Mary. Poor Mary. She wasn’t going to like this. Today she was supposed to be promoted. In her new position she wouldn’t be overseeing any projects. But James didn’t want to get on Davis’ bad side. He was a powerful man with key contacts, and could make James’ life miserable if he wanted to.
Perhaps Mary wouldn’t be too disappointed, James thought trying to justify his actions. She didn’t appear to be that ambitious and she was good at what she did. Besides she might be flattered that someone specifically requested her. She could always get promoted next year. James shoved his hands in his pockets feeling somewhat better. He lifted the phone and dialed his secretary, “Tell Mary I want to see her.”
“Edmund Davis,” James repeated.
Mary sat with a blank look. This conversation was all wrong. She’d been imagining what was supposed to happen all day. And this wasn’t it. She’d imagined that James had asked her into his office and said ‘Mary you’ve been a wonderful employee and that’s why I’m giving you the Program Director’s position.’ Instead he was talking about some project dealing with the elderly, the man who ran it, and the primary investor who wanted her to work on it. After many years and numerous hints, the Program Director position should be hers. That’s what they were supposed to be discussing.
Five years. She’d been passed over for five years. Five long years of exemplary work, but James wasn’t talking about that. There was no mention of her excellent record, her devotion, or her years of service. Mary’s heart fell. She should have known better, the moment she’d stepped into the office and James started smiling at her. He always delivered bad news with a smile and he was very good at delivering it. She was certain he got his job because he did it so well. He had a handsome baby face that one couldn’t reproach and a nice soothing voice. But for once in her life Mary felt like slapping him across the face with her handbag. Instead she wrapped her hands around the strap until her palms burned.
“He wants you to work on this project,” James continued in a voice that was supposed to lessen her disappointment. It didn’t. “And I think it will be a great opportunity for you.”
James hesitated. Obviously he wasn’t prepared for that question. That surprised her. He was usually very prepared. He cleared his throat then tugged on the cuffs of his jacket as though his sleeves were suddenly shrinking. “Because…” He tugged some more. “Because you’ll be able to use all your skills. Davis has a very exciting project.”
Mary lifted a brow. “I thought you said he’s invested in a nursing home.”
James wagged his finger. “A senior community.”
“And that’s supposed to be exciting?”
“He’s on the cutting edge of a revolutionary concept. No longer will seniors be shuttled away to die. The community he’s created is like a new world.”
“I don’t believe this,” Mary muttered, shaking her head.
But James didn’t hear her or didn’t care to hear any more of her complaints and continued to talk about what a wonderful opportunity it would be for her career. Mary blocked him out. The words didn’t matter. It was just more of the same. Another reason why she would stay in the same position, in the same office, doing the same thing. Another reason why someone else would get a job that should have been hers. And every time James passed her over he talked to her as though he were doing her a favor. And every time she wanted to tell him where he and his favor could go, but never did.
Mary thought of the bottle of champagne she’d bought. It sat chilling in her refrigerator at home. She had planned to celebrate. She’d been certain this was going to be her year. Her year to finally have an office with a view and more administrative power. She’d have money to fix her car and afford to pay for special services for her elderly friend Mrs. McQueeth. One of the services she’d hope to get started right away was to have food delivered to her friend and someone to check on her once, or possibly twice, a week. But this wasn’t her year. Instead she was going to supervise yet another community-based project. To make matters worse, this one catered to seniors rich enough to spend their golden years in a swanky community with lots of luxurious amenities and frivolous services.
She blinked. James’s concerned face came into focus. “Yes?”
“You’ll meet with Mr. Gregory Trent in two weeks. His schedule is booked until then.”
“Did Mr. Davis say why he chose me specifically?”
“He’s heard good things about you and wanted the best to work with Mr. Trent.”
“He said that?”
Not only was James spineless he was a terrible liar. He had a telling habit of rubbing his thumb and forefinger together when he lied—he could have caused a fire from the friction he was generating now. “I see,” she said.
He smiled. “I’m so glad we had this chat. He’s an important person.”
“That you wouldn’t want to make unhappy,” she mumbled.
“And I’m glad you’ll be on this project to make us both look good.”
She stared at him, for the first time realizing how much she disliked him, then forced a smile that mirrored his. “That’s my job.” And at this rate it didn’t look like that would ever change.
As she exited James’ office, his secretary, Jean Franks, a middle aged woman with a cloud of red curls and a face full of freckles, looked up from her computer. “Well?”
“I’m taking an early lunch,” Mary said in a flat voice.
Jean frowned. “You didn’t get the promotion?”
She glanced at James’ office door confused. “But—”
“I’ll see you later,” Mary said then quickly left before Jean could say more. She didn’t want to talk about it. She didn’t want a repeat of the last several years, and have to endure the pitying glances, and the ‘But it should have been you’ statements. She was tired of it all. Tired of being the sensible one when she wanted to grab James by the collar and say, “Give me the promotion you bastard or I quit.” But she couldn’t quit. She’d worked hard just to get as far as she had and she couldn’t let one moment of anger throw that all away.
Right now all she could think of was leaving the building as fast as possible and driving somewhere to be alone. She reached the elevator but not before Dianne Sallis cornered her. She was the last person Mary wanted to see. Not that there was anything wrong with her. She was Mary’s complete opposite: Perfect in every way. A very attractive woman with skin that reminded one of an espresso, flowing dark hair, impeccably groomed and on speaking terms with Lady Luck.
Mary had trained Dianne two years ago and watched her use her abundant energy, youthful enthusiasm and cunning to rise to a position that had taken Mary twice as long to reach. But Dianne had a gift of pleasing the right people and being a chameleon. She knew the appropriate way to behave in any situation. Right now she wore an expression of sadness. It didn’t seem genuine, but nothing about Dianne did. “I am so sorry. I just heard.”
How could she have just heard? Was she listening by the door? Did Jean send everyone a blast email?
“That promotion should have been yours. Everybody knows that.”
“Anyone who takes that promotion should be ashamed of themselves. They should consider themselves a thief.”
“You’re very kind.” Now go away.
“I don’t know how you can be so calm.” She rested a hand on her chest. “I would be devastated. Absolutely devastated. Not to mention humiliated. I mean to be passed over five times.”
Mary moved around Dianne and pushed the Down button.
“You know James is a jerk. This is so unfair. You should do something about it. I know I would.”
Mary pushed the button again trying to will the elevator to arrive. I wish you’d just go away.
“Where are you going now?”
I don’t know. “Run errands.”
“Do you need any company?”
Definitely not. “I’ll be fine, thank you.”
At last the elevator arrived and Mary hurried inside hoping Dianne wouldn’t change her mind and decide to follow. “I’ll call you later,” Dianne said waving as the doors closed.
Mary forced a smile that made her cheeks ache. Please don’t. “Okay.” When the doors closed, Mary shut her eyes and sagged against the wall. Not only did she feel humiliated she felt old.
“You don’t like her, do you?” a deep voice said.
Mary jumped startled and gaped at the man who had spoken. He was the only other person in the elevator. She’d been so busy paying attention to escaping Dianne she hadn’t noticed him. Looking at him now, she wasn’t sure how she could have. The sheer size of him was hard to miss. He looked like he could kick a boulder with little effort. But then again he didn’t look like the outdoor type. His handsome face seemed more suited for winking at a woman across an elegant ballroom and making her blush.
He certainly dressed the part of a sophisticated stranger. His classically cut maroon jacket added warmth to his brown skin, although Mary doubted anything could warm his eyes. They were more gray than brown and reminded her of a snowy winter she’d spent in Colorado. He looked like the type of man who would ask for a number and never call.
When he continued to look at her, Mary realized she was staring and tried frantically to remember what it was he’d asked her. Dianne, he’d asked her about Dianne. “Oh, no it’s not that. I’m just tired.”
The man nodded, but it was clear he didn’t believe her. She didn’t blame him. She was as bad a liar as James. She glanced down at her shoes so she wouldn’t start staring at him again. It was likely that he was used to it, but she didn’t want to be one of many. Right now she had other things to consider. At least he was someone she didn’t know. Someone who wouldn’t take the time to rub her face in her humiliation. She bet he never got passed over for a promotion.
He, like Dianne, was probably close friends with Lady Luck. Looking at his expensive suit, there was no doubt he was likely in bed with Ms. Luck and keeping her very happy. He and Dianne would make a perfect pair. Mary repressed a sigh. She’d never been lucky. A knot built up in her throat and she could feel the burning of tears behind her eyes. She took a deep breath and kept them at bay. ‘These things happen,’ her mother used to say when she lost the lead in the school play, when she wasn’t invited to a party, or when no one asked her out. ‘It’s just your luck,’ her mother always reminded her. She wouldn’t feel sorry for herself, she’d deal with the disappointment the way she always had, with resignation.
Mary wondered what her new project manager looked like. Did he wear a bowtie and whine a lot? She hated working with project managers that whined. And why on earth did his investor have to request her specifically? What was his name again? Davis? No, that was his last name. Edward? Eric? Elliot? No, something that sounded old and boring. Edmund? Yes, that’s right.
“Edmund,” she muttered in disgust.
“What?” the man asked.
She jumped. Although his voice was soft, his resonant deep tone startled her. “I just said Edmund.”
Because I sometimes talk to myself. She shrugged. “I was just thinking about names.” He nodded and continued to look at her in a way that encouraged her to talk. “I thought my name, Mary, was a boring name, but Edmund is worse.”
He frowned. “I don’t think so. Actually, I—”
“Have you ever read of a hero named Edmund?”
“The Count of Monte Cristo.”
“Oh yes him. Except his name was spelled with an ‘o’ not a ‘u’.”
“And he was an anti-hero.”
“A hero,” the man corrected.
“He was consumed with revenge.”
He tilted his head to the side and flashed a slow smile. “Do you have something against vengeance?”
Mary stopped, feeling her mouth go dry. This man was dangerous. He made vengeance sound tempting and could probably make other bad things sound tempting too. And his smile could convince a fish to live on dry land. Mary folded her arms as though it could offer a shield against his charms. “I think it’s barbaric.”
His gaze dipped to her folded arms then back to her face. “That depends on how it’s done,” he said softly.
She couldn’t breath. She’d never been claustrophobic, but suddenly the elevator felt too small. Who was this man? He’d seemed so ordinary before, but not now. Especially when he talked about vengeance. He had the eyes for it. She pitied anyone who crossed him. He seemed a man of his word. Not wishy-washy like her boss or her boyfriend, Curtis, who’d been promising to marry her for the last eight years. No, he was no ordinary man and she’d somehow caught his full attention and couldn’t redirect it. She glanced to see what floor they were on and sighed with relief. The ground floor would arrive soon.
“Well?” the man said.
She shifted awkwardly, uncomfortable by his gaze. Men rarely looked at her with such intensity. Even in high school and college she’d only catch a boy’s interest so that he could copy her notes from class. “I don’t think vengeance helps anyone.”
He leaned towards her in disbelief. “Really?”
She could only nod, scared that if she moved she’d touch him and like it.
“So you’ve never wanted revenge?”
“The thought has crossed my mind,” she admitted. “But I’d never do it,” she added when he began to smile. She didn’t trust his smile. It was too knowing. She shook her head. “But we’re not talking about vengeance we’re talking about Edmund.”
“And why are we talking about Edmund?”
Why indeed? “This is a ridiculous conversation.”
“I’m enjoying myself.”
And the odd thing was he looked like he meant it. Was his life that boring? “I don’t know why.”
He measured her with a quick glance then looked away. “That’s a shame.”
The elevator stopped and the doors opened, a young man started to come in then someone called his name. He held the doors open while he chatted with a young woman.
“I don’t usually find conversations with strangers amusing,” Mary said.
“Then how do you make friends?”
Mary opened her mouth to reply, but the tall stranger held up a hand then said in an ominous tone, “Are you coming in or not?”
The young man spun around so quickly he lost his balance and stumbled out of the elevator. The stranger smiled and pushed the door closed. “Good decision.”
Mary covered her mouth to hide a giggle, remembering the young man’s face. “You frightened him.” She quickly adjusted her features determined to sound scolding. “That wasn’t very nice.”
“No,” he said, but didn’t appear sorry. The elevator stopped on another floor. A young woman entered and smiled giving the stranger an inviting glance. He smiled back. Mary stared down at her shoes ready to disappear.
“Now about Edmund,” he said.
Mary glanced up surprised. “We’re back to him?”
“Why?” she asked, flattered that he still wished to talk to her, but also confused. Mary caught the look of the other woman that said ‘you lucky girl’. She felt her pulse quicken.
“I’m curious why you don’t like him.”
She sighed feeling foolish. “I shouldn’t really. It’s not his fault that he ruined things for me.”
The man looked alarmed. “Ruined what things?”
She waved a dismissive hand. “Doesn’t matter. The damage is done. I dislike the man and I haven’t even met him which isn’t fair. He’s probably an overworked, under funded project manager with a bald spot and a lisp.”
“Why a lisp?”
“I think lisps are endearing.” She shook her head. “Wait. That would be Gregory. I’m not working with Edmund directly. Edmund is probably a chain-smoking, workaholic who develops ulcers.”
“Oh.” The stranger’s expression changed. He looked so distraught—-as though he were a child told that his birthday would never come—-she liked him even more. Someone was genuinely on her side. “It really doesn’t matter.”
“Perhaps if you told him what he’s done he could—”
“No, he’s not the type to care about anyone but himself.”
“How do you know that?”
“Men who make demands like that rarely care who gets in their way. He’s probably extraordinarily rich and extraordinarily busy. What’s going on in my life won’t mean anything to him. Fortunately, I don’t have to meet him. I’ll handle it.” The stranger looked ready to argue, but thankfully they reached the ground floor and Mary dashed out. He followed her.
“How are you going to handle it?” he asked, trying to sound casual, but the words came out as a demand.
“I don’t know. Somehow.” Mary walked outside and squinted at the bright sunlight. The stranger put on his sunglasses. “I’m not really worried about me, it’s Mrs. McQueeth.”
“My neighbor. She needs quality care and I was going to—” She stopped. “It’s eerie.”
“How easy you are to talk to. I don’t know how you do it, but I find myself telling you things I should keep to myself.”
“Why should you keep it to yourself?”
“Because I don’t know you. I shouldn’t be telling you all this.”
“Why not? You looked like someone who needed to vent. Don’t you feel better?”
Mary thought for a moment. Oddly yes. She felt like she could dance, sing and float all at the same time. He hadn’t pitied or patronized her. He felt her pain but didn’t blow it out of proportion or ignore it. He was a nice man no matter how cold his eyes looked. She smiled at him. “Yes, I do. See? I didn’t even need revenge.”
“Hmm. Let’s hope you remember that.”
Mary held out her hand because she knew she had to say goodbye, but didn’t want to. She noticed he wasn’t wearing a wedding ring, but it didn’t matter because she had Curtis and she was happy with him. And even if she had been single, just because he was nice to her didn’t mean he’d ever think of her as a romantic possibility. When he clasped her hand in his she nearly melted, but managed to keep her voice steady when she spoke. “Thank you for listening. I hope you have a lucky day.”
“Thanks.” She took a step back and her heel got caught in a grate and snapped off. “Oh damn.”
He rushed to her side. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine.” She bent to retrieve the broken heel desperate to create distance between them. “I suppose I have no right to offer people luck when I have none of my own.”
He took the heel from her. “Give me your shoe,” he said as he opened his briefcase.
Curious, Mary handed him her heel and watched in amazement as he super glued her heel back on. “You’ve done this before,” she said.
He tugged on the heel to make sure it was solid then knelt down and slipped the shoe on her foot. For a moment his hand cradled her ankle and the soft caress of his fingers made her skin tingle then he stood and snapped his briefcase closed. “I can promise you one thing Mary. Your luck is about to change.”
Mary began to reply to his odd statement, but he suddenly turned and walked away.
Mary started to call out to him then stopped disappointed she hadn’t discovered his name. It didn’t matter. She’d never see him again.
Surprisingly, the stranger in the elevator had made her feel better. He said her luck would change and for some unknown reason she believed him. She could believe anything he said. He seemed like an honest man. Now in good spirits Mary treated herself to a long lunch and walked around an open air farmer’s market. She returned to her office renewed.
But the feeling didn’t last long. The moment she entered the office the wave of pity that met her nearly drowned her. ‘I’m so sorry’ people said when they saw her. Good ole Mary, they whispered. Such a good sport, so understanding. By five o’clock, she nearly broke into a sprint when the day ended. She just wanted to lock herself in her apartment. Curtis would be there and together they would talk about how much she deserved the promotion, just as they had every year. Except, when she returned to her apartment that evening, Curtis and most of her things were gone.