Not Necessarily In That Order . . . . . .
“Why is my life so damn complicated?” Victoria asked herself as she steered her car past her circular driveway, toward the car pad in the back. She turned off the engine and sat for a few minutes, reflecting on the last twelve hours of her day. Work and men, not necessarily in that order, had thoroughly wrecked her nerves.
She grabbed her handbag, leather attachÃ©, and umbrella from the passenger seat, took a deep breath, and readied herself for the cold Atlanta rain that had been falling all day. Looking overhead at the evening sky, Victoria could see that it was just as unsettled as her mood. She stuck out one leg, planting her size-nine, black Ferragamo onto the cold, wet pavement.
“Damnit, it's days like this that I wish I'd never turned the garage into a home gym,”
she cursed, quickly pushing her umbrella open as she made a mad dash for the door. She fumbled with her key until it slid into the lock.
“Home sweet home,” she said out loud. Each time Victoria walked through her door she felt an immediate sense of comfort. After patiently saving money, buying high-end furniture, scouring antique stores, and then garnering her treasured finds in a storage unit she'd rented, Victoria had finally found her dream home. This month made one year since Sherry Smith, Realtor extraordinaire, had led her to 1701 Summerset Lane.
“Sherry, this house is beautiful!” Victoria had marveled, pulling her long black hair behind her ear as she and Sherry approached the large Tudor-style house.
“I came by first thing this morning to check it out for myself,” Sherry smiled, flashing her perfect, cosmetically whitened teeth. “This home is a lovely split level with three large bedrooms including a master suite. There's even an extra bonus room that'll be great for a home office. Victoria, I know you'll just adore the large living and dining room; they're perfect for entertaining. And wait 'til you see the hardwood floors, high ceilings and crown moldings throughout. Believe me, this house is
dear,” Sherry gushed, already calculating her sizeable commission.
Things had been very different twelve months ago when Victoria walked into her dream homeâout of a recent nightmare. And as she replayed today's events in her mind, she had a funny feeling that her life was about to take an unpredictable turn. Her day began with an interesting twist when Ted Thornton knocked on her office door.
Warm Cinnamon Sugar...
“Hi Ted, how are you?” Victoria smiled, startled to see him as she looked up from the stack of papers on her desk.
“I'm well, thank you,” he smiled back, allowing his eyes to quickly dart over both Victoria and her office.
Ted Thornton had been hired at ViaTech seven months ago. Lamar Williams, the Founder and CEO of the company, had successfully wooed him from Asco Systems, one of their toughest competitors. Lamar was retiring next spring, and had handpicked Ted as his successor to run the company he'd built from a small storefront into a telecommunications powerhouse. Ted was well known and highly regarded throughout the telecom industry, which made Lamar confident in his choice of the man he both admired professionally and respected personally. It was even rumored that Ted had negotiated a deal with Lamar to become part owner of the privately held company once he assumed the permanent CEO position next spring.
For a man of forty-five, Ted looked younger than his years. He was very handsome . . . one could even say outrageously so. His ocean blue eyes, tall, lean body and confident allure attracted all the women at ViaTech, many of whom boldly flaunted themselves at him. He could have his pick of women, but he was careful, never giving them so much as a second glance. His nonchalance served to make him even more intriguing to his many admirers, particularly since it was no secret that his marriage of over twenty years was about as sunny as London in the fall.
“Victoria, do you have a minute?” Ted asked.
“Sure, have a seat,” she said, motioning to the chair in front of her desk. Victoria had only seen Ted twice in the seven months he'd been with ViaTech. Their first encounter had been during her department's senior management meeting. He'd only been with the company for less than a week, and no one had expected him to attend department meetings so soon, or without warning. He had come in, stayed for a few minutes, then left as suddenly as he'd entered.
The second time was two months later when he'd requested individual meetings with senior staff in the Atlanta headquarters office. Their meeting had gone well. They'd started out discussing business strategies and ViaTech's future, then shifted to a more casual conversation: his adjustment from L.A. to Atlanta and her preference of Atlanta over her hometown of Raleigh, North Carolina. They even touched on their personal lives. Nothing too deep. Just nice get-to-know-you questionsâWhere did you grow up? What are your hobbies and interests? Their meeting ran well over the scheduled thirty minutes, and even Jen, Ted's personal assistant, had said that was a good sign because Ted Thornton wasn't a man prone to wasting time on idle chatter. But up to this moment, Victoria hadn't heard from him since that day many months ago.
Now, he was standing in her office and her mind raced to figure out why the hell he was there. She knew it wasn't every day that the acting CEO just happened to pop in for a visit. Victoria watched as he pulled out one of the leather chairs in front of her desk, unbuttoned the jacket of his gray, custom-made suit and took a seat. Even though most telecom companies practiced a relaxed dress code, ViaTech employees, save for the engineers, dressed like Wall Street investment bankers.
He's very handsome,
Victoria thought to herself, watching him settle comfortably into the chair.
“You have an incredible office,” Ted observed, surveying the room. “The way you've decorated with art on the walls and plants all around . . . it feels more like a room in your home than an office at work. And it smells good too.”
Victoria smiled. “It's my job to make our employees feel comfortable when they come to me with problems or concerns, and I believe a welcoming environment helps to foster that.” Although she appreciated his discerning eye and obvious good taste, she thought it was an unusual observation to make, given that most of the men at ViaTech could care less about her office's dÃ©cor and had never commented on the fragrant smell that filled the room. But she noticed that Ted had taken in every detail.
“I like your style, Victoria,” Ted smiled.
“Warm cinnamon sugar,” she spoke up.
“I beg your pardon?”
“That's what you smell, it's warm cinnamon sugarâscented potpourri.”
“Ahh . . . very nice.” Ted paused, giving himself a moment before proceeding with the speech he'd been rehearsing for days. “Victoria, as you know, ViaTech is the number two telecom company in the region. But our goal, and my plan, is to make us number one. The only way to hit that target is through the strength of our human capital. Only the best and the brightest can lead this company forward.”
Victoria nodded in agreement, but wondered where he was going with the conversation.
“Five years ago the executive management team developed a highly selective year-long mentoring program to identify individuals who show great leadership potential. You're familiar with the program, are you not?” he asked.
“Yes, I'm very familiar with the Executive Mentoring Program. Our department handles the announcements.”
Who doesn't know about EMP?
Victoria thought, letting out a frustrated sighâbut only in her head.
The EMP nominations for the upcoming year were due to be announced next week. Victoria was sure that Patricia Clark, the senior director of compliance, would be nominated from their department for the prestigious honor. But she couldn't figure out why Ted had come down to her office to share that information.
“Then all that's left to say is congratulations, Victoria. I'd like to personally nominate you for the program,” Ted smiled.
Victoria sat in stunned silence. At thirty-three, she was one of the youngest senior directors in the company. She'd started in the marketing department when she came to ViaTech six years ago after leaving Queens Bank. But after working for a short time in the all-white, male-dominated department, the only upward mobility she saw available required a willing libido, which for her was out of the question. So when the HR department posted an internal search to replace the director of employee relations, Victoria seized the position. A few years later she was promoted to senior director. She excelled in her job, which was a piece of cake compared to the rigors of having worked for Queens Bank. In return for her hard work, ViaTech rewarded her with a handsome salary, bonuses, and perks.
But despite her corporate success, Victoria longed for something else entirely. Her plan was to leave ViaTech next summer and do what her heart had been calling her to do for as long as she could rememberâopen her own event-planning and catering business. She'd started Divine Occasions a year ago, shortly after she bought her house. Slowly, she'd begun to build a client roster and was putting plans into motion to run her business full-time. Being nominated for EMP was the last thing she'd expected, or wanted for that matter.
“Ted, I'm . . . um . . . honored. I really don't know what to say,” Victoria stammered. She came from behind her desk as Ted rose to his feet on her approach. She sat down in the chair beside him, crossed her long legs, and quickly tried to organize her thoughts.
Ted carefully inspected her from the top of her head to the tip of her pointed toe shoes, all done so smoothly she didn't even notice. Her silk blouse, slim fitted skirt, and double strand pearls and matching earrings gave her a decidedly feminine look he loved. “Just say you'll accept my nomination,” he encouraged.
“Well, it's just that I'm really shocked by this . . . I wasn't expecting it at all.” Victoria's mind raced. All she could think about were her plans to leave ViaTech.
She knew that start-up costs for her business would be high, so she'd decided to work until next June so she could stash extra money under her belt before fleeing the corporate dungeon. Victoria knew that her father would gladly give her as much financial backing as she needed, even without presenting the business plan she'd been working on for months. His guilt, if for nothing else, would dictate that. But this was something she wanted to do on her own. So instead of accepting his money, she planned to apply for a low-interest loan just like any other bank customer. Besides, she knew that her cousin, Jeremy, who was now helping to run Queens Bank, which her father owned, would probably demand a perusal of her business plan. In Victoria's opinion, Jeremy was a first-class asshole.
She knew she had to ease out of the EMP nomination without giving away her plans. Her father had taught her the golden rule of corporate Americaânever let them know all your business!
Ted sensed her trepidation. “Victoria, you seem a little hesitant?” He was trying to figure out why a go-getter like her wasn't jumping at the golden opportunity he'd just laid before her.
“Actually, I am. The truth is, I have a lot on my plate right now.” She could see the surprise on Ted's face, but she continued. “It's just bad timing. I believe in giving one-hundred percent, and if I don't see that it's possible for me to do my best, I don't commit. That's why as much as I'm flattered by the nomination . . . ”
“Victoria,” Ted interrupted, “I understand your concerns. And yes, committing yourself to this program will require extra hours and projects, in addition to your normal workload. But I'll see to it that you have the support and resources you'll need.”
Ted hadn't planned on Victoria turning him down, and now he was scrambling to convince her to accept his nomination. He'd been looking for a way to spend time with her since the first day they met. But without a legitimate work-related project, the acting CEO couldn't spend leisure office time with one of his many employees unless there was a damn good reason.
Initially, Ted questioned his decision for choosing Victoria. Was it because he was attracted to her, or was it because she deserved to be in the program? In the end he realized it was both. Her outstanding reviews, high praise from the executive team, and her record of achievement made her a prime candidate. And an added bonus was that he would finally be able to spend time with the woman he'd been thinking about and desiring from afar.
“Ted . . . again, I appreciate the consideration and vote of confidence. But as I said, it's bad timing.”
“I must say, I'm disappointed.” Ted leaned back in his chair, quickly plotting his next move. “The nominations won't be finalized until next Friday. I'd like you to take a week and think it over,” he asked, masking his desperation. He stood and buttoned his suit jacket, signaling that he was about to leave.
Victoria rose on cue. “All right, I'll think about it,” she said, even though she knew her answer wouldn't change.
As she watched him walk out of her office, she could feel there was something arrestingly different about him. He wasn't like most executive types she knew. He seemed familiar, almost like she knew him, even though this was only their third encounter.
Just as she returned to her desk to finish her paperwork, Denise, her administrative assistant, walked through the door. She stood there, arms crossed and staring. “Girlfriend, what kind of excuse are you gonna come up with for not accepting that man's EMP nomination? Telling him you can't dedicate one-hundred percent is some bullshit that ain't gonna fly.”
“Have you been out there listening?”
“Absolutely. You know I gotta get the 411,” she grinned.
Victoria pictured Denise standing outside her door with a glass cupped to her ear like a detective in a 1960's spy movie. Denise called Victoria by her given name in the presence of their colleagues, but when they were alone she affectionately referred to her as “Girlfriend.”
Denise was impeccably dressed, well-organized, and knew her job inside-out. She was an unabashed woman who could read you like last week's news, yet be gentle as a lamb when the occasion warranted. There were three things about Denise that were constant: She always smelled of Chanel No. 5, her pretty, apple-shaped face always boasted a smile, and she always shot straight from the hip, never sugar coating anything. She had an Associate's degree in Administrative Office Technology and a PhD in common sense. She was sharper than a J.A. Henckels carving knife, and Victoria relied heavily upon her insight.
“Denise, why didn't you tell me that Ted Thornton was coming to my office? I was completely caught off-guard.”
“Sorry. He must've come by my desk while I was in the copy room,” Denise said, handing Victoria a thick stack of papers. “When I came back your door was half-closed. I was going to come in and see what was going on, but then I heard you two talking, and well . . . I listened because Mr. Thornton never comes down to anyone's office,” she said, placing her hands on her ample hips.
“I'm shocked. I just knew that Patricia had the nomination in the bag, at least that's what she's been telling everyone. Can you imagine how embarrassing it's going to be for her when she finds out that she's not one of the ten nominees?”
problem. This is one time she can't throw her legs open to get what she wants. That woman is so shady, I wouldn't trust her with the keys to the shit house.”
“Damn!” Victoria laughed. “You're right about that. But seriously, Ted Thornton can give me a week or even a month, I'm not going to change my mind.”