It was a week before the summons came. Susan called into Michelle's office to inform her that she'd been instructed to present herself in Stefan Gardner's office in 45 minutes. Reflexively, Michelle checked the time. It was currently 10:15 which meant the meeting would take place at 11:00. Michelle bristled slightly at the authoritarian manner in which the summons had been sent, then made a conscious effort to remind herself that Stefan Gardner was her boss and she truly liked her job and wanted to keep it. So rule number 1 - don't take it personal.
Michelle gathered her report together and at 10 minutes before the appointed time, she took the elevator to the 37th floor where the executive offices were located. As she rode upwards, she tried to ignore the flutter of anticipation she was experiencing at the thought of seeing Stefan Gardner again. Reaching the 37th floor, Michelle stepped out of the elevator and approached the receptionist's desk. After identifying herself, she took a seat in the waiting area.
She didn't have long to wait before she was approached by a tall elegant woman of indeterminate age and heritage. This woman had been a part of the trio who had been the last to arrive at the staff meeting. She introduced herself as Deborah Patton, executive administrative assistant, and asked Michelle to follow her. Ms. Patton led her down a carpeted corridor, entering a door at the end of the hall. Because of her tour of the building at time of hire, Michelle knew that Malachi Gardner's office lay in the opposite direction down an identical hallway.
Ms. Patton walked to a closed door, opened it, and ushered Michelle inside. Michelle's attention was immediately drawn to the massive desk in the center of the enormous office. Stefan Gardner was on the phone and indicated that Michelle take a seat in one of the chairs situated near the desk. Michelle was vaguely aware when Deborah Patton silently left the office, quietly closing the door behind her.
For the few minutes it took Stefan Gardner to end his telephone conversation, Michelle took the opportunity to study him. From what she'd seen before, she surmised he stood approximately 6'1 or 6'2. He was well built but not overly muscular. Today, he wore a dark grey suit, light grey shirt and a maroon and grey tie. His milk chocolate complexion was smooth and blemish-free, accentuated by his neatly cropped hair, mustache and short beard. His eyes were hidden as he consulted notes in front of him, but Michelle could not help but remember the impact his dark gaze had had on her.
Conversation finisihed, Stefan Gardner replaced the receiver and raised his gaze to meet the wary one of the woman seated in front of him. His first thought was of a doe who has scented a possible predator. Not a sense of immediate danger, but of the wariness of potential risk. He took a moment to study her much in the same way she had been studying him as he was concluding his phone call. Her dark hair was attractively styled and she was dressed in what was commonly referred to as a power suit. The rust color brought out the golden tones of her skin and the conservative cut of the suit was broken only by the ivory lace camisole worn underneath.
Before the silence could intensify into something uncomfortable, Stefan stood and came around the desk, taking the chair opposite the one Michelle occupied. Loosening his suit jacket, he smiled in greeting. "From what I've read in your personnel file and from what I've heard since my return, you are truly an asset to this company", he siad by way of introduction. Michelle remained silent, unsure of how to respond to these complimentary remarks.
Stefan continued. "The Financial Analysis Department seems to be doing quite well since you came on board. Be honest with me and give me your appraisal of our fiscal status."
Michelle indicated the folder she held. "Here is a summary of where we currently stand fiscally. It will give you a bird's eye view of the last two quarters and the expected growth for the next two."
Stefan took the folder from Michelle and tossed it carelessly on his desk. He turned back to Michelle and said, "Now tell me what you think."
Michelle studied him for a minute, then said, "There are one or two potentially troubled areas you might want to take a look at, but you stand a good chance of enjoying even a larger profit margin than you currently are if you maintain the present trend."
Stefan considered this thoughtfully then replied, "It's odd that you used the pronoun you rather than we. You are a part of this team."
Michelle flushed slightly then said, "I am a team player. However I receive a generous salary for what I do. This firm does not belong to me."
Stefan appeared to get annoyed at that. His next words were clipped. "Neither does it belong to me." He seemed to pull himself together and then continued. “Contrary to popular belief, I too am a paid employee and I earn every penny I get."
Without out thinking, Michelle responded, "But you're next in line, second only to Malachi Gardner, Sr." Instantly appalled at what had just come out of her mouth and fearing that it might sound a little patronizing, Michelle was surprised to find Stefan smiling a little.
So appalled was she that she almost missed his next statement, so softly he spoke. "Not by choice." Before she could question that statement, Stefan continued, "Tell me about those troubled areas."
Michelle launched into a detailed account of the current status of a hotel chain and a computer software company that she believed were in potential danger of not meeting their budgets and possibly seeing a loss at the end of their respective fiscal years. Stefan listened silently throughout her discourse without response.
When she was done, he remarked, "You have certainly done your homework. Do you have any ideas about what could be causing these problems or what the possible solutions might be?"
Michelle shook her head. "You would need to take a look at the books and see exactly what's going on for yourself. It would be difficult to pinpoint any specific problem area from the balance sheets or income statements these companies submit. It could be any number of things. Economic instability, high interest rates, or poor management. It could any one thing or a combination of things."
Stefan regarded her thoughtfully then stood, signalling the end of the meeting. Quietly he said, "Thank you very much for your insight, Ms. Taylor. It will indeed be a pleasure working with you." He held out his hand as she stood. Michelle took his hand, marveling at his firm handshake and the tingle that traveled up her arm at the contact.
He walked around the desk then asked if he should summon Deborah Patton to show her the way out. Michelle declined his offer, stating it was unnecessary. She could find her way out. Thanking him, she turned to leave.
As she reached the door, Stefan called her name. "Ms. Taylor?" She turned around enquiringly. Very softly he asked, "Why did you leave Washington, DC? You see, your personnel file couldn't tell me this."
Taken aback at his question, Michelle could not answer for a moment. Finally, she replied simply, "I had my reasons. Is there anything else?"
Stefan looked at her searchingly for a minute but rather than pursue that line of questioning, he smiled and said, "No. That is all."
Releasing the breath she had been holding, which she seemed to be doing a lot of lately, Michelle turned and went out the door, closing it quietly behind her. As she passed Deborah Patton who was seated behind her desk, Michelle nodded, thanked the other woman and walked into the corridor which would lead to the reception area and the elevators.
It seemed to Michelle that the Patton woman had a sour look on her elegant features. However, Michelle could not think of a reason why this woman might be displeased with her. Continuing down the corridor she entered the receptionist's area and nodding to the receptionist, headed for the elevators. Punching the down button, she considered the meeting she'd just taken part in. There seemed to be undercurrents flowing all around, but for the life of her she could not figure out the cause. So engrossed was she in her own thoughts, she was not paying attention when the elevator doors opened. Without looking where she was going she walked right into the elderly man who happened to be stepping out of elevator.
Apologizing, she looked up into the bemused face of Malachi Gardner, Sr., President and CEO. He smiled at her, "No harm done, young lady. It's not often I get a chance to lay these bleary eyes on such an attractive one as you." He considered her for a moment, then said, "You're Michelle Taylor from Finance, aren't you?"
Michelle was impressed. In this building alone, Gardner and Associates employed over 400 people. That he would remember her was a feat unimaginable for a man his age. "Yes, Mr. Gardner. I've just come from meeting with your grandson and was returning to my office. It's really good to see you again, sir."
"My pleasure," the old man smiled. Belatedly Michelle realized she had missed the elevator. As she reached out to press the button again, she was conscious that the receptionist was unashamedly listening to their conversation. Malachi Gardner put a hand out to stop her.
“Walk me to my office, please," he requested. Michelle could not think of a good reason not to, and was warmed by his old-fashioned charm when he tucked her hand in the crook of his arm.
Malachi moved her down the corridor towards his office. "You've been here about a month, right?" he queried.
Michelle responded, "Five weeks sir." Malachi stopped in his tracks.
Smiling down at her, he said, "Drop the sir. I'll put up with being called Mr. Gardner. However, as my drill sergeant told me in basic training, don't call me sir. I work for a living." He started moving again and Michelle found herself liking him for his straightforward manner. They reached his office where his secretary, Anna Lewis, greeted them with a welcoming smile. After asking Michelle if she wanted anything, Malachi instructed Anna to bring in coffee then ushered Michelle into his office.
His office was furnished in much the same manner as his grandson's. Malachi seated Michelle in one of the plush armchairs grouped near his desk. Anna came in with a tray of coffee and pastries which she placed on the table near Malachi's chair. She poured him a cup of black coffee then enquired how Michelle wanted her coffee. Michelle requested cream and sugar. Once that was accomplished, Anna discreetly left them alone.
Malachi took a sip of his coffee then looked at Michelle over the rim of his cup. "At the risk of sounding corny," he said, "what's a nice girl like you doing in a joint like this?"
Michelle smiled and said, "Because you invited me, sir."
Malachi grimaced. "I don't mean here and now. I mean, how did this company capture a jewel like you? With your background, you could be your own boss." Michelle wondered how much she should tell him. He might be a kindly old gentleman, but he was owner of the company for whom she worked.
Michelle decided to play it safe and give her practiced version of the reasons she had come back to Miami, leaving what appeared to be, on the outside, a very glamorous life.
Malachi mumbled a noncommittal response then surprised Michelle by asking, "Now do you want to tell me the real story?" Michelle was saved from answering by the intercom buzzing on Malachi's desk. Anna announced that Stefan was outside waiting to see Malachi.
At that Michelle set her cup of coffee down and stood, preparing to leave. "Sit!" Malachi ordered gruffly. "You won't get off the hook that easily." Then to Anna, Malachi said, "Send him in."
Michelle sat as instructed but became immediately nervous. Stefan entered the office, taking in the scene before him in one glance. "I'm sorry for interrupting but I needed to speak with you, grandfather." There was a palpable tension in the air and Michelle was unsure as to where it was orginating from.
Because it seemed the appropriate thing to do, she stood, saying, "Well, I'll leave you two alone."
Malachi stopped her by saying, "Michelle, you still owe me the real story. Don't think that I'll let it go that easily." Hazarding a glance in Stefan's direction, Michelle noticed the curous expression on his face, experiencing again those undercurrents she'd been sensing since coming to work at Gardner and Associates. Bidding both men goodbye, she left the office and made her way back to the elevators
He was onstage. She was seated in the fourth row from the front. She actually felt as if he was singing to her. She remembered a time, more than twenty-five years before, when he did sing to her. Different city. Different people. WOW!!!
The year was 1974. Marilyn had not been in Washington DC very long. Just long enough to find people just like her. People whose entire existence was about having fun. This particular night, she and two of her friends, Joan and Charlene, had big plans. They were headed downtown to the Mark IV, a supper club known for quality entertainment. And appearing tonight would be the Regals, one of the hottest groups going.
The girls got dressed up and caught the bus downtown. Because the Regals were so popular, there was a line at the door. It was a mild November evening. By the time the girls got to the door, the first show was sold out, as seating was limited. However, if they would wait through the first show, they would be the first to enter for the late show. Having discussed it among themselves, they decided to stand in line for the two-hour duration of the first show.
It turned out to be a night neither girl would ever forget. Because they were the first to enter, they were able to get seats next to the stage. They ordered food and drinks and prepared themselves to be entertained. The Regals came on and it was all that Marilyn had hoped for, hearing songs from her high school days being performed by the original artists.
About three-quarters of the way through the set, during one of the more upbeat numbers, the Regals issued an invitation for five young ladies to come on stage and dance with the guys. Of course, Marilyn and Joan were the first to hit the stage. They coaxed the shy Charlene to join them and with two other young ladies, they boogied. As a prize, each young lady got a copy of the Regals' latest album autographed by each one of the guys. And an invitation to the after party which took place at the hotel where the group was staying during their week-long engagement at the club.
Once at the hotel, the party was on. Marilyn thought she'd died and gone to heaven. Food, drink, drugs. You name it. It was there. Sometime the next morning, the girls caught a cab home. It was the most amazing experience, a first hand look at what actually goes on after hours in the entertainment industry. She never saw him again. Until tonight.
Michelle Taylor walked up the steps of the Boulevard Tower building, a portfolio containing copies of her resume in hand. She checked her watch for what seemed like the tenth time. Her interview was scheduled for eleven am and she did not want to be late. Pushing open the swinging doors, she stepped inside the cool interior. At the information desk, she inquired on how to reach the Human Resources department of Malachi Gardner and Associates, the consulting firm with whom she was applying for the position of Senior Accountant.
As the elevator rode up to the eighteenth floor, she studied her reflection in the mirrored ceiling, checking to make sure her appearance was acceptable. Michelle was confident, despite the slight flutter of anxiety she felt in the pit of her stomach. She had her MBA and years of experience working in Civil Service positions in the nation's capital. She knew within herself that she was more than qualified for the position she was applying for. Her credentials were outstanding and her references were impeccable. The last eighteen months had been difficult but she had survived.
As the elevator silently climbed upward, she relaxed enough for the memories to creep in. For one moment, she allowed herself to remember how the life she had built for herself had slowly but surely unraveled. All the promises Anthony had made had been worthless in the end. Michelle mentally and emotionally shook herself. Now was not the time to get morose. She needed to retain her composure for the upcoming interview. Besides, it had been eighteen months.
The elevator stopped and the doors slid open into a reception area. Michelle gave her name to the girl seated at the desk. She was handed an employment application and instructed to have a seat. Glancing again at her watch, Michelle noticed she was ten minutes early which gave her ample enough time to complete the application.
Promptly at eleven am, the receptionist showed Michelle into an office which was furnished simply in muted pastels. The woman seated at the desk rose and came around the desk with a hand outstretched and a smile on her face. She introduced herself as Diana Howard, Director of Human Resources. Ms. Howard took Michelle's application, invited Michelle to take a seat, and resumed her place behind the desk.
The interview lasted forty-five minutes. During the interview, Charles Weston, Senior Comptroller and Vice President of Finance and Accounting, joined them. He outlined for Michelle some of the more significant responsibilities of the position for which she was applying. Ms. Howard also briefly outlined salary and benefits information. At the end of the interview, Michelle released a breath she didn't even know she was holding. She left the building and proceeded to the parking garage where she'd left her car. She recalled Ms. Howard's and Ms. Weston's parting remarks. They were impressed and they would be in touch.
They met purely by accident, this soft-spoken handsome brother and this wary, weary sister. It was a chance encounter. One she could not have orchestrated, even if she had tried. It was a beautiful late summer evening and she was feeling restless. She had been cooped up in her house all weekend, trying valiantly to meet her deadline. Which had, in truth, passed the week before. That was the most amazing thing. It seemed the more she worked, the farther behind she got.
This particular evening, she decided to walk down to the corner to treat herself to an ice cream cone at the ice cream shop. She took a moment to inhale the sights and sounds of the city around her. It had been such a long while since she'd enjoyed the simple pleasure of merely stopping to smell the roses that grew profusely up and down her block.
On her way back home, she stopped to sit on a vacant bus bench. Thoroughly enjoying her ice cream cone, she paid little attention to the man who took a seat beside her. She was so engrossed that she got careless and the ice cream toppled off the cone, falling to rest at her feet. As she looked down at the slowly melting ice cream, it seemed that all of the frustration and stress of the past few weeks came rushing up from her feet to take root in the center of her chest. And without warning she began to cry. Huge, gut wrenching sobs that she had no ability or desire to control. She cried as if her heart was breaking. And indeed, it was.
She never saw him move, but almost magically, a handkerchief appeared in front of her face. She grabbed it as if she was drowning and this square of linen was a life raft. As her sobs abated, and she struggled to catch her breath, she slowly became aware of the man beside her. And as her awareness grew, so did her trepidation. She became increasingly appalled at her loss of control. Her hard earned and fine tuned composure that she was so proud of was non-existent. It took something really simple, like dropping her ice cream, to unleash the storm that had burst free from the very depths of her now ragged soul.
As she dried her tears, she bravely slanted a glance in the direction of her still silent companion. He was easy on the eye and his silent support was a balm to her wounded heart. When she had composed herself, he cleared his throat and then asked if she wanted to talk about it. Ashamed at her public loss of control, she mutely shook her head. Appearing to weigh that for a moment, he then gently picked up her hand and asked if she lived nearby and would she mind if he walked her home. He merely wanted to make sure she got home all right.
Immediately she became suspicious. Frantically, she looked around for the nearest possible escape route. He chuckled and she realized she must look pretty stupid. He was still holding her hand. She ventured to slant another glance in his direction and her wary gaze collided with his slumberous one. His eyes reminded her of warm cognac. And some instinct told her it would be all right for him to accompany her the couple of blocks up the street to her house. It was not as if she intended to invite him in.
They were both silent as they left the bus bench and started to walk up the sidewalk. Neither of them seemed to be in a hurry and there was a strange calm serenity between them. He had a million questions about this woman, who, at the moment, seemed so fragile. Which is exactly why the questions would remain unasked. For now. He did not consider himself to be anyone's knight in shining armor and he wasn't sure this woman wanted or needed to be rescued. Everything in him said that she might be trouble, and because his life was presently unencumbered, and he had worked really, really hard to get it to that state, he wasn't certain that he wanted to get involved in whatever drama she had going on. Because he knew without a doubt that she had cried over something. Or someone.
After walking a full block in silence, he spoke. "My name is Everett McCloud. Most people call me Mac. Only my mother is brave enough to call me Everett." Inwardly she almost shuddered as his voice slid through her. It was as rich and as smooth as the cognac his eyes reminded her of. She had to clear a throat that was clogged with still unshed tears before she could reply.
"I'm Sharlene Thomas. Thank you. For everything."
He smiled down at her. "Not a problem," was his reply. "It is a pleasure to meet you Sharlene. It's not every day I get to meet the proverbial damsel in distress. Even if I really did nothing but just sit there." She glanced up at him, realizing for the first time that he was at least 6-8 inches taller than she was.
Quietly she responded, "Sometimes that's all it takes." Looking around she noticed they were nearing her house. "I live here", she said, indicating the single story dwelling with the wraparound porch. It was in an older neighborhood and it had a shingled roof with a profusion of ivy climbing the walls. It had been her grandmother's house and she had spent many summers during her childhood here. When her grandmother had died, ownership had passed to Sharlene's mother, and then to Sharlene at the time of her mom's death five years before.
Mac looked around and said, "I know this house. When I was growing up there was a lady who lived here who used to put people to work. I remember she would find them jobs and she had a taxi service so they would have a way to get back and forth to work. I was a little intimidated by her as a boy. I didn't see much of her after I went away to school and I wasn't here when she died. But I always remember her kindness to me and my family on one occasion when my father lost his job and we had a hard time trying to make ends meet." He ventured a glance at her and noticed she had a wistful kind of expression on her face. He wanted to know what had put it there.
They'd come to stop in front of the wrought iron gate. He took her hand, causing her to look up at him. His eyes traveled over her face before he asked, "What is it? Why are you looking like that?" Sharlene smiled and the transformation took his breath away. She was really a beautiful woman when she smiled.
"That woman was Sylvia Lawton. She was my grandmother. This house was passed on to my mom and then to me." Outwardly she was much calmer. But inwardly she was a bundle of nerves. This fine brother, and she was not so upset that she did not notice how attractive he was, had known her beloved grandmother. He could not be all bad. She still had no intention of inviting him inside.
She turned to him. "Thank you again Mac. You are a nice man, which is unusual in these days and times. Because he was still holding her hand, he pulled her until she was in his arms. Immediately, she stiffened, but he simply held her in a loose embrace until she began to relax.
"You're welcome Sharlene. Glad I could help." He released her and stepped back. "Enjoy your evening." She stood at the gate and watched him as he walked back the way they had come. Ooooh.....the brother had a walk on him. Shaking her head, she went into the house.
She will forever remember the day her life changed irrevocably. She was driving home after a meeting when she saw him poised at the rail of the bridge. At first, her attention swept past him but there was something in the way his body was tensed in anticipation that brought her attention skittering back to focus on the solitary figure. Pulling over as he climbed atop the rail, she hastily reached for her cell phone and instinctively keyed in 911 without ever taking her eyes off him.
Surprisingly calm, she gave the emergency dispatcher her location and was assured that a unit would be sent immediately. The dispatcher asked her if she could try and talk to the man and keep him occupied until rescue arrived. Hanging up, she put her car in park, unfastened her seat belt and stepped out of her car.
As she approached him, now perched on top of the rail, she was vaguely aware of passersby as they slowed down. She was also aware that no one actually stopped. She struggled to find the appropriate words. All she could come up with was "Hey Mister." He seemed oblivious to any and everything and even as she drew closer, she realized that she was poorly equipped to deal with the situation.
She stopped about six feet away from him and tried again to get his attention. "Hey Mister!" she called, at which he turned and pinned her with a stare that was so full of raw anguish that she couldn't breathe for a long moment. In her peripheral vision, she noted the arrival of emergency vehicles and she prayed their arrival would not precipitate a rash move on the stranger's part. She spoke the next thing that came to mind. "Can I help?" He turned back to study the drop before him that would take him to the concrete highway below.
Initially, she thought he might ignore her then she barely heard him say, "No one can." Moments later to her horrified dismay, he plunged headfirst off the bridge.
Unable to look away, she followed his descent most of the 300 feet but closed her eyes seconds before he made impact. She felt her stomach protest, the bile rising in her throat and the tears filling her eyes. Without opening her eyes, she turned her back on the scene, her ears filled with the sounds of motorists screeching to a halt below her. She sat down abruptly on the side of the road and laid her head on her knees. Through a veil, she heard emergency personnel scrambling, sirens marking the arrival of more vehicles.
She survived the questioning by police and was able to dodge being interviewed by the news station. An hour later, she arrived home, thoroughly sickened by all that had transpired. She took a shower and made herself a cup of tea, hoping it would settle her stomach. Finally she went to bed. It was not until the following morning that she even learned the identity of the stranger with whom she'd had a brief life-shattering encounter.