Authors: Lara Hunter
As I navigated my compact car in the direction of Oliver’s townhouse, I pondered just briefly the life of the man who—in all likelihood—had just left our lives.
It was Harry Clark that had originally interviewed me for my personal assistant position at Clark Industries. Immediately I’d been endlessly impressed by his polished, professional demeanor. This distinguished grey-haired man may have been in his early 50s, but he respected and acknowledged my status as an intelligent, hard working woman that had a lot to offer to his corporation. From the beginning, Harry endlessly praised and spotlighted my every achievement even when Oliver didn’t and he always made a special point to make me feel like a valued member of his team at Clark Industries.
Harry Clark quickly assumed the role of my dad away from home; a kindly, if professionally demanding, older man that I could always trust. He saw my personal and professional worth far before Oliver did and, if one thought about it, he was the one who first pressed Oliver to date me in the first place. To put it simply and basically; if it hadn’t been for Harry’s intervention, there wouldn’t be a Lily and Oliver today.
I cringed a bit when I considered the fact that I had repaid these tremendous kindnesses by royally deceiving their source; by joining with Oliver to trick his father into thinking that Oliver and I were in a relationship. And even when Harry discovered the truth, he blamed Oliver, not me; even offering me a new job in Trisha Vance’s office. Yet in reality, I was partially to blame.
“I’m sorry, Harry,” I said beneath my breath, a single telltale tear descending my cheek as I turned into the cobblestone driveway that fronted Oliver’s townhome.
Of course, I could seek infinite comfort in the fact that our faux mance had, over the past five months, become so real in scope and emotion. Harry knew this and in that time he had come to embrace me, not only as an employee but as the daughter he never had. He often told me that I reminded him of his own dear wife, the late Irene and I was endlessly amazed by the intense devotion that Harry showed his beloved mate.
Perhaps he has gone to join her now,
I mused, tears now flying free down my cheeks as I made my way to Oliver’s front door.
I just can’t believe I never got a chance to say goodbye—to tell him that I loved him like a father—and so very much.
I was heartened at least to peer through the window of Oliver’s garage and see his car parked within its walls and when I arrived finally on his front door step, I rang his doorbell and waited with expectance for him to finally and fully let me in, in more ways than one.
I tensed seconds later as my summons went unanswered yet as I stared through the crystal-planed door that fronted my lover’s house, I could see plainly that he was indeed home, although he did look a bit dazed and disheveled sitting at the center of his comfy plush couch.
I could see that my usually immaculately groomed lover hadn’t showered or washed his hair that day, or—for that matter—even dressed. He crouched and slumped in the confines of his favorite blue terry cloth robe; sitting as still as stone and staring ahead of him with blank, vacant eyes. He wore no visible facial expression, his body seemed as still as stone.
With a hefty sigh I rang the doorbell again, waiting a most respectable few seconds before banging outright on the door before me.
“Go away!” he barked finally, not even bothering to raise his head and assess the identity of his persistent visitor.
“Oliver, it’s Lily!” I cried through the door. “I’m not going away. I know what happened to Harry and I have to talk to you. You can’t go through this alone.”
I watched with arms folded as Oliver rose, slowly and painfully, from the surface of the couch, making his way with trudging steps toward the door.
The moment that he opened the door, I opened my arms; seconds later I cradled a weeping man tight in a very loving embrace.
“He’s gone, Lily,” he released through a sheen of choking, suffocating tears. “My father is dead.”
“Oh Olli,” I breathed, gathering his body in a protective clutch as I moved us into his living room.
Sitting his trembling body on the edge of his beloved comfy couch, I sat still a moment and gathered his trembling body in a warm, maternal embrace; rocking him like a baby as he sobbed in my arms.
“Just relax, Olli,” I cooed, pulling him closer still as I ran soothing hands through his messy, disheveled hair, “I’m here, now. We’ll get through this.”
Oliver shook his head.
“There is no getting through this,” he countered in a growl. “This is the worst. Who am I without this man?”
Shushing my man with a tender squeeze, I resolutely continued to hold and rock him until he fell into a light nap.
Leaving him just briefly as he slept on the couch, I retreated momentarily to his kitchen and threw together a quick lunch of coffee, bologna and cheese, and two chocolate chip cookies; returning with a full plate moments later as he shook himself awake. Sleep, it seemed, had brought no peace to my troubled lover and I insisted that he eat something while I observed with watchful eyes.
“It was awful, Lily,” he sniffed between bites. “I’ve never seen my father look that weak, that helpless. And then he died, right there in front of me! How could this happen?”
I shook my head.
“I’m so sorry, my baby,” I offered on a whisper, adding as I graced his arm with an empathetic touch, “The last few days have been awful for me as well. I’m so glad to see you…”
I cringed as, suddenly and abruptly, Oliver broke away from me, fixing me with a cold, hard look as he barked, “Oh, have they now? Been having a rough time of it, baby, while I was losing my father? The person who gave me life, one of my few remaining family members? So what happened to you, Lily, that was every bit as traumatic and God awful? Please tell me—I’m dying to know, if you’ll excuse the pun.”
I opened my mouth, ready to tell him about the break in, snapping it shut seconds later, as I considered his state of mind.
“You’re right, baby,” I told him, nodding in empathy. “Nothing can trump what you’re experiencing. I can only imagine what you’re going through right now…”
Holding a shaky hand up to still my words, Oliver also cut me off with a loud, resounding snort.
“Damn right you can only imagine it!” he exclaimed, tossing his sandwich against the surface of his plate as he added, “You still have both of your parents. You won’t have to live the rest of your life just wishing you had a few more moments with them. I tell you, this just isn’t right. It isn’t fair. He was supposed to live another 30, maybe 40 years…”
Making no verbal response, I instead leaned forward to wrap my arms tight around Oliver’s trembling shoulders, only to jump in spite of myself as he wrenched away from me—fixing me with a long, cold stare as he motioned toward the door.
“Just leave me alone, Lily,” he hissed through his tears. “No one and nothing can comfort me right now.”
In the wake of Lily’s departure yesterday—one I precipitated by acting like a complete and total asshole, if you’ll so kindly pardon my French, Dad taught me that a gentleman never talks that way—I immediately felt awful about the way I had treated my sweet, precious lady. She was, after all, only trying to help me; to ease my pain, to provide the comfort and nurturance I’d never gotten from my parents. How could I have been so cruel to her—thereby trumping my act of abandoning her in Miami without the slightest explanation or excuse. Go ahead then, just give me my Boyfriend of the Year Trophy, right now and without further hesitation.
Really, though, I felt awful about life in general and, from the looks of things, this situation was not likely to improve anytime soon.
After spending the better part of yesterday making seemingly endless phone calls in an effort to contact family members and plan my father’s funeral, I managed to get just a few hours of sleep before being jarred back to reality by the ringing of my bedside telephone.
Surely it was Lily, or at least I sincerely hoped as much, as I so sorely wanted to apologize to her for yesterday’s behavior—to invite her to come back to me, to stay by my side for the rest of this nightmare. I needed to tell her that I really did need her, and I truly did appreciate her kindness and love—that she, quite simply, was everything to me. The only person left in my life who truly mattered to me.
Yet when I picked up my phone receiver I immediately was greeted by a low, gruff, masculine voice that could not possibly belong to my beautiful, ever graceful girlfriend.
“Oliver?” I immediately recognized the brisk, rough tones of Victor Belmont, chief financial officer of Clark Industries. “Vic Belmont here. I am so sorry to hear about the death of Mr. Clark. He was such a fine man and I still can’t believe that he’s been taken from us so young, and in such an abrupt, awful manner. On behalf of everyone here at Clark Industries, please allow me to extend my deepest sympathies.”
“Thanks, Vic. Dad always respected you very much and I’m sure your words would mean a great deal to him,” I acknowledged his words in a listless tone. “Look, I’ll be back to work in just a few days, I just need some time to…”
“Actually, Oliver,” Vic interrupted me, adding in a slow, halting tone, “The board here at Clark Industries would like you to attend a meeting here at the office this afternoon. I know this is terrible timing and I do hope that you will forgive our lack of tact. The fact remains, however, that we have an urgent matter we need to discuss with you.”
“Sorry to say this, Vic, but your timing isn’t just bad. It’s downright terrible,” I told him, adding with a shrug, “Short of our office building catching fire, which I’m assuming hasn’t happened, what on earth would necessitate a meeting today? Couldn’t we at least wait until tomorrow, when I could get my head together and give you my full attention?”
“Although the office building isn’t on fire, the company that it houses might be in danger,” he revealed, adding in a low, sincere tone, “We need you here, Oliver. Now.”
I thought a moment, then nodded.
“OK, Vic,” I said finally. “I’ll be there.”
After dragging myself into the shower and throwing on my only clean suit, I headed into the office; offering everyone I passed a forced smile and the reassurance that I was, “Just fine, thanks.”
Yet when I stepped into the crisp board room that adjoined my father’s office, I immediately missed the expressions of sympathy that had greeted me upon my arrival.
Indeed, the people seated at the long meeting table at the center of the room all wore unsmiling, even stern expressions and in lieu of looking directly in my eyes, most of them instead pinned CFO Vic Belmont—a chunky, balding man in his early sixties—with an expectant gaze.
Not about to let them down, Vic offered me a seat at the table with the smooth wave of his chubby little hand; then leaned forward to greet me with eyes that were anything but kind.
“How are you doing, Olli?” He made a downright feeble attempt at a faint, paternal grin. “We’ve all been very worried about you, and we can’t say enough to express…”
“Thanks Vic,” I interrupted him, sitting straight up in my seat and folding my hands before me. “Now please tell me why you dragged me in here today. What was so important that it couldn’t wait?”
Blinking at my abrupt tone, Victor cleared his throat loudly as his expression hardened and set.
“As I said on the phone, Oliver, we are all very sorry to hear about your father’s untimely passing. He was a great man indeed, and truly one of a kind,” he paused here, adding as he ducked his head, “And unfortunately, that’s the main reason we have to speak with you today. In setting up this company, your father Harry also established a legacy; a strong corporate entity with a structure, an operational process and a stellar reputation that we as his board members—and his friends—must rush to protect and preserve at this time.”
“Understood,” I allowed, adding with my hands extended, “And I promise you, Vic, that as I assume leadership of this company I will need the board’s help. I promise to ask and follow your advice, on each and every decision you make.”
Vic looked at me a moment; still and silent as he considered words that were meant to reassure him.
“As much as we like you as a person, Oliver, I’m afraid that your reassurance and your fresh commitment to us simply aren’t enough,” he told me, adding with a hard sigh, “When you were a baby, Olli, I used to bounce you on my knee. This is why this is so hard to say.”
“Say it!” I prompted him, fists clenching at my sides. “Just say it, Victor.”
Vic shook his head.
“After some careful consideration, Oliver, we have decided as a board that you lack the skills, experience and qualifications to fill your father’s position as chief executive officer of this company,” he informed me, tone low and official. “And with that in mind, we would like to ask you to step down from any and all positions of leadership here at Clark Industries.”
I sat back hard in my chair, saying nothing at first as the room seemed to whirl around me. My mind did little to grasp or accept the words I’d just heard and when I finally sat forward all I could say was, “Yeah, right. You have got to be kiddin’ me.”
“I assure you, Son,” he told me, folding his hands before him. “We would never joke with you about something like this…”
I had heard enough.
“I’m not your son!” I thundered, bringing my fist down hard on the table before me. “I’m the son of Harry Clark, the man who founded this company. How would he feel if he knew that you were trying to cast his only son out of his job at the corporation he worked so hard to build—and, for that matter, within days of his death?”
“Your father worked hard, it’s true,” he allowed, adding as he looked me straight in the eyes, “Yet he himself said, and on several occasions, that you did not follow his lead. He himself told me in confidence that he was not pleased with your job performance—and, furthermore, that he feared for the future of his company. To put it bluntly, he said that if you weren’t his son, he would have fired you several times over—and that he might still have to do so, to protect the future success of Clark Industries.”
I gulped hard; shutting my eyes tight for just a moment as I considered these cutting words.
“May I ask when you had these conversations?” I inquired finally, my eyes fluttering open to meet Vic’s gaze, hard and in full. “I mean, I know that I had a pretty rough start as vice CEO—but I was so young when I took the job. And for the last few months, my father has done nothing but praise the improvement in my performance.”
“In the last year or so, you have indeed improved. And we are proud of you in that respect,” he affirmed, adding quickly, “Yet in the years beforehand—the time that you should have spent working hard, taking classes and learning your craft and the particulars of the business world—you went partying and idling about instead, depending on your father and your executive assistant to do the bulk of your work for you. What you’ve been doing in the past year, my good man, is trying to catch up—and while your performance has advanced from poor to satisfactory in quality, we expect more and better from the executive groomed to replace Harry Clark—who, I’m sure you will agree, was the best.”
I shook my head.
“Idling about. Satisfactory performance. My good man. I didn’t think folks actually talked that way in real life. You’ve been watching altogether too many episodes of Downton Abbey,” I sneered, rolling my eyes heavenward. “Could it be,
my good man
, that you want this job yourself?”
Victor shook his head.
“I, Mr. Clark, am set to retire next month—so perhaps I can catch even more episodes of Downton Abbey,” he smiled, but only briefly. “And we as a board would like you to enjoy an early retirement as well—which we’re sure you could more than afford, if you sell your father’s company.” He paused here, adding as he pinned me with an assessing gaze, “You might hate me right now, Oliver. You may think I’m awful, even cruel. But ask yourself one question. Am I right?”
I looked at him a long moment, then did little more than shrug.
“At this point,” I admitted. “I’m sure of nothing. Perhaps you are right—perhaps I don’t have the skill or the experience to take my father’s reins at this company. I thought I’d have more time to catch up, as you put it. What I do have, though, is a strong desire to make my father proud of me. And I think I have the drive and the determination now to do so.”
Vic shook his head.
“We’d love to believe you, Oliver,” he reassured me, adding as he cast his gaze downward, “But with a company of this size and scope of responsibility, we just can’t take a chance on you.”
“Well, Vic, you’ve always known your stuff around here—maybe you are spot on with this one,” I admitted. “Yet if there’s one thing my dad always refused to do, it was give up. I might not have what it takes to run Clark Industries—but I’m still not sure, though, that I shouldn’t try.”