THE ENTREPRENEUR’S WIDOW
Because You Love Me, Book 3
By Adrienne D’nelle Ruvalcaba
Copyright © 2016 by Adrienne D’nelle Ruvalcaba
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in and manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, contact The Indigo Plume Publishing Company at [email protected]
Cover design by Heather Smith
*Trigger warning: This book contains detailed portrayals of the emotional aftermath survivors of sexual assault and physical abuse experience as they strive toward healing. There are no graphic descriptions of sexual assault.
“I’m sorry, ma’am, but we just can’t help you. I can give you the names and addresses of some good homeless shelters in the area. This one is a secure facility for abuse victims. We usually fill up on the weekends; otherwise, I’d try to squeeze you in. I’m really sorry,” the woman behind the desk said to Mariah. According to the nameplate, the woman’s name was Helen. Mariah felt the absolute defeat wash over her, and she sank down into one of the chairs across from Helen’s desk.
Helen offered her a box of tissues and a card with an address scrawled on the back. “This shelter is not far from here, and if you hurry they may still have beds available for the night.”
Mariah accepted the card with shaking hands as she stood up to leave.
“I’m really sorry, ma’am,” Helen said again.
Mariah didn’t try to appeal to her again. She rushed straight to the exit, so she could make her way to the other homeless shelter as soon as possible. She recognized the address on the card because she had just come from there. It was a long walk back, and the cold October wind had been howling outside all day. Her vision was momentarily blurred by unshed tears, and she was in such a hurry she accidentally stomped on someone’s foot on her way out the door.
“Sorry,” she sniffed as she wiped her eyes. When she looked down and saw a very small, well-dressed woman with no apparent bruises, she said, “You’re wasting your time here. If you’re not running from some guy who just hit you, they won’t let you in.”
The woman looked up at Mariah in surprise and dismay.
“I’m on my way to another shelter if you want to tag along,” Mariah offered with a tearful and hopefully friendly smile. “It’s the least I can do for trampling you.”
The woman didn’t answer right away, instead, she looked from Mariah to Helen and back again before she said, “Could you hold on for just a moment?”
Mariah almost said no and continued out the door. Time was of the essence in her situation. If she didn’t get going soon, she may very well be sleeping in the street tonight. She looked down at the woman to tell her she didn’t have time to stick around, but something in the woman’s demeanor convinced Mariah to stay. Mariah made eye contact and then nodded. The woman then surprised her by grasping her hand and giving it a gentle squeeze.
“My name is Rebecca. And you are?”
“Mariah,” Mariah sniffed.
“It’s nice to meet you, Mariah. Just have a seat and give me a few minutes.”
“Okay.” Mariah sat down in the chair farthest from Helen’s desk and stared at the crumpled business card in her hands. The Cece Graves Foundation was for survivors of abuse and sexual assault, and she’d survived neither of those things. All she’d survived was the sudden loss of everything she’d loved and worked for over the past decade—her business, her home, and most painful of all, her husband.
Rebecca’s voice carried over to Mariah in the nearly empty office. Mariah listened as Rebecca said, “Hi Helen, I just ran into this nice woman in the doorway. What can you tell me about her situation?”
Helen frowned up at Rebecca and said, “I’m not authorized to tell you anything about the women who apply for admittance.”
There was a short pause as Rebecca took in a breath and Helen continued frowning in consternation. Mariah glanced up at the two of them just as Rebecca straightened her posture and said, “Oh? I apologize; I forgot to introduce myself. My name is Rebecca Gregory, and I’m here with my accountant to start the financial audit of this facility. I could have sworn I made it clear that I was coming today. My flight from Nashville was delayed, but someone should have warned you to expect a visit of an official nature.”
At the end of Rebecca’s speech, Helen jumped out of her chair and cried, “I’m so sorry, Mrs. Gregory! Yes, we were expecting you, but after it got late we assumed you’d be here sometime tomorrow, and my boss went home.”
Rebecca smiled at Helen and said, “I understand. It’s been a long day. Call Mrs. Granger, and let her know that I’ve arrived and I’ll be waiting in her office.”
“Yes, ma’am. Right away, ma’am. Let me show you to her office.” Helen scrambled around her desk toward the door to the rear of the facility, but Rebecca’s words stopped her.
“Before you show me to the office, I’ll need to have a look at Mariah’s paperwork. It’s foundation policy that she fills out all the intake forms before she’s told whether or not she can stay. I’ll review them while I wait for your boss.”
“Yes, Mrs. Gregory,” Helen said as she attacked the file cabinet to get the intake forms she’d placed inside only moments before referring Mariah to the other shelter. She handed the file to Rebecca and opened the door to the back with her electronic key card.
“Thank you, Helen,” Rebecca said quietly as she walked through the door. Just before the door closed, Rebecca added, “And Helen, one more thing.”
“Yes, Mrs. Gregory?”
“My accountant’s name is Miguel Lara. When he gets here, show him to the conference room, and please calm down. You are not in trouble,” Rebecca said as she smiled and placed a hand on Helen’s arm.
“Yes, Mrs. Gregory,” Helen said with a relieved look. After Rebecca passed through the door, Helen sat back down with a deep sigh. Her face was red, and she looked winded. Mariah almost felt sorry for her. Obviously, this Rebecca woman had some sort of authority at this shelter. Mariah’s spirits rose as she sat there. Maybe Rebecca could get her in, at least for the night.
6 months later
“Miss Jones, I’d like you to meet Natasha Washington. She’s going to be your sponsor when you move out of the shelter,” Helen said as she escorted a slender and timid young woman into the small office.
Mariah quietly took in Natasha’s appearance as she sat down. Natasha’s straightened hair hung halfway down her back, and her skin was a light, golden brown that held just a hint of a pink flush. She had exactly the kind of coloring that had seemed most preferred when Mariah was younger. Mariah looked down at her own very dark skin and felt grateful that confidence and maturity had helped her to stop questioning her physical beauty years ago. Though it had often seemed like society didn’t want her to, Mariah loved her dark complexion, and it didn’t matter who she was standing next to—her late husband, who had been a medium toned Northern Indian, or the gorgeous, young woman who was now looking at her with trepidation in her hazel eyes.
Mariah met Natasha’s shy gaze with a friendly smile. She wasn’t sure what she should say, if anything.
After a moment of thought, Mariah settled on saying, “Thank you for agreeing to sponsor me and little Ty here.”
“It’s no problem. Your case isn’t nearly as bad as some I’ve seen,” Natasha said as she smoothed down her hair and dropped her gaze to the floor.
“Have you sponsored a lot of other women in the past?” Mariah asked. Ty made a small sound of protest from her lap, and she rubbed his back to calm him.
“Only two, and neither of them had children. One woman had to live in the locked facility for months before the situation with her husband cooled down enough for her to move out,” Natasha answered.
“Well, that’s one thing you don’t have to worry about with me,” Mariah said with an ironic twist to her lips. Not only had her husband never laid a violent hand on her during their ten-year marriage, but he was also dead. No, there would be no potential husband drama with her—only baby drama.
Helen cleared her throat into the silence, and then she opened Mariah’s file folder on top of the desk for the three of them to see. “It’s the same deal as before, Miss Natasha. The foundation guarantees a monthly stipend and counseling support in exchange for your agreement to let Miss Jones live in your house and for you to be her sponsor and an active partner in her recovery process. I daresay this won’t be at all like the other two cases. Now that you’re running a home daycare, we can’t really ask you to sponsor any more of the hard cases. During our matching process, we thought the two of you would be a good fit because you have a home daycare, and Miss Jones has a new baby and a new full-time job,” Helen explained as she flipped though Mariah’s file and handed the necessary papers to Natasha.
Natasha looked over the forms, and signed in all the highlighted blanks labeled “Sponsor.” Mariah experienced a slight tugging in her chest as she watched a young woman, whom she knew very little about, signing the papers that cemented her status as a charity case. Charity was something that, until recently, she’d thought she would never need. She looked down at her two-month-old son, Ty, and thought again about her late husband, Tiberius. Anger welled up inside her, and Ty grew fussy on her lap. She tried to stuff her negative feelings down as she cuddled her baby. Ty was now the only thing in this world she had left, and Mariah looked down at him and wondered if things would have ended differently if her husband Tiberius had known she was pregnant before his untimely death. Would she now be in her own house? A regular grieving widow who didn’t have to depend on government assistance and a charitable foundation to make ends meet?
Once Mariah and Natasha finished signing all of the paperwork, Helen gave them a bright smile as she said, “It’s been a pleasure knowing you, Miss Jones. I’m sorry I had to turn you away that first night… I guess it was really good timing that Mrs. Gregory and the accountant were late for that audit.”
“No hard feelings,” Mariah assured Helen as she stood up and grabbed Ty’s diaper bag. He fell asleep in her arms as she tiptoed out of the building behind Natasha.
“I know exactly what you’re thinking,” Natasha said as they settled into her small Hyundai.
“What am I thinking?” Mariah asked as she struggled to keep the amusement she felt out of her voice.
“You’re probably thinking that you’re going to be a burden on me or that I’m only doing this for the monthly check, but the truth is that I genuinely want to help. The only thing better than when the ladies at the foundation helped me get back on my feet, was the first time I got to sponsor someone else. You are not a burden, and this is a good network to be a part of,” Natasha said in a quiet, serious voice that instantly dissipated the fog of Mariah’s jaded, satirical view of the whole situation.
“You needed help from this place?” Mariah asked in surprise. “You look so professional and healthy.”
“Thanks,” Natasha chuckled as she put her little car in gear and pulled out of the parking lot. “Two years ago, I wasn’t nearly this fortunate. Let’s just say that ‘this place’ has helped me a lot since then.”
Mariah glanced back at Ty in his car seat; his little fingers grasped at the air in front of him, and he stared at nothing in particular with a very intense look on his little face. Mariah knew almost nothing about babies, and other than the occasional gurgle, burp, or bowel movement, her son seemed like an unnaturally quiet baby boy. Weren’t babies supposed to cry?
She turned back around and stared out the window as Natasha piloted her minuscule car through the horrendous rush hour traffic. She willed herself to stop thinking about her late husband and start concentrating on her son. She would have one day to settle into Natasha’s place before her first day on her new job as a personal assistant. She was grateful to have a job at all, especially a job that paid so well, but the position of personal assistant really rankled. She used to employ a personal assistant, and now she was one.
Later that night, she tried to relax as she watched Ty sleep in the bassinette beside her bed. Natasha’s house was comfortable, and a little bigger than she’d expected. She and Ty would have to share a room because Natasha used the other spare bedroom as her home daycare space. Eventually, Ty’s soft breathing and gentle baby sighs lulled her to sleep. Life wasn’t so bad, at least today was better than the day after Tiberius’s funeral had been.
For the past eleven months, she’d measured her days against that one day, the worst day of her life. She’d thought that seeing her young, virile husband in a casket had been the worst day of her life, until the next day. That was the day she’d found out that she hadn’t only lost him; she’d lost her share of his business, her beautiful home, and all of their investments. That was the day she’d found out about his recent changes to his will, cutting her out and leaving her suddenly destitute, and giving everything they’d built together to his mistress.
Mariah took the stairs all the way to the tenth floor, and from there, she rode the elevator the rest of the way to the top. By the time she arrived, she was winded, a little sweaty, and somewhat disheveled. She ducked into the first ladies’ room she saw and checked her appearance. She didn’t know what to expect on her first day, but she was sure she could handle it. If she could handle building a global company from nothing and then losing her husband, she could handle anything… at least that’s what she told herself as she fixed her hair in the brightly lit mirror. She splashed cold water on her overheated face and then blotted her skin dry with a paper towel. After smearing on a dab of lipstick and mascara, she smiled at her reflection. She looked professional, and she also looked a heck of a lot less nervous than she felt.
She walked up to the main reception desk and smiled, “Good morning, I’m Mariah Jones. I’m Mr. Donovan’s new personal assistant.”
“He isn’t in his office yet, but I can buzz you through to his secretary,” the receptionist said with a bright smile.
“Thanks,” Mariah replied as the receptionist picked up her phone.
A moment later, a sleek looking older woman with severe makeup and intense, arched eyebrows approached her. “Mariah, if you’ll follow me, I’ll show you to your desk,” the woman said.
“I get a desk right here in the headquarters office?” Mariah asked in mild surprise.
“Of course, you get a desk,” the secretary said with a haughty look as she escorted Mariah to a small desk near hers. Mariah noted that the nameplate on the secretary’s desk read Janice, but Janice definitely did not look like the kind of woman who went by her first name only. She reminded Mariah of a teacher she’d had back in boarding school as a teenager.
As Janice showed her around the office and explained her duties, Mariah made quick mental notes of the myriad tedious things she was now responsible for. His coffee was to be delivered promptly at 8:00 a.m. every day, his dry cleaning was to be picked up every Saturday and Wednesday and delivered to his office, and meeting times, both business and social, were to be maintained on his personal calendar. She was also responsible for scheduling the weekly massage therapy appointments that took place in his office. The list seemed to go on forever. As Janice droned on and on, Mariah wondered when she would meet her new boss. From her list of duties, it seemed as if he thought he was the most important man in the country.
At 7:50 Janice wrapped up her long speech and looked at Mariah. “Any questions?” she asked.
“No,” Mariah smiled. She sat down at her desk and stared at the calendar. She glanced once at each event on the calendar and quickly committed the entire month to memory. Tiberius had often touted her great memorization skills because she been a valuable asset in many of his business deals. The innumerable, tedious details that slipped away from most people stayed with her indefinitely, enabling her to recall astonishing amounts of information when she needed to.
In her younger years, she used to recite pages from the dictionary to impress her fellow students in junior high and high school, but by the time she reached college she’d learned to stop showing off so much. Her exceptional memory had been instrumental in helping her earn a law degree in record time, but many of her peers had seen it as an unfair advantage. Mariah looked around the sleek suite of offices and wondered what her new coworkers would think of her abilities. Would they resent her for it, or would they see her as an asset?
Janice continued to stare at Mariah, and she even cleared her throat several times, prompting Mariah to ask, “Is there a problem?”
“Mr. Donovan will be here in five minutes,” Janice said with a pointed look at the clock. “He really needs his coffee in the morning.”
“Is there any particular place he likes his coffee from?” the moon perhaps? She added silently to herself.
“His last personal assistant always got it from the Starbucks three blocks east of here,” Janice answered as she glanced at the clock again and raised one scary arched eyebrow at Mariah.
“Okay, I’m on it,” Mariah said as she sprang up and collected her purse. She’d never make it to the Starbucks and back in five minutes, especially not this time of day. Starbucks was sure to be packed, so she made the hasty decision to get her new boss’s coffee from a closer coffee shop. She knew of one that was on the same block because she and Tiberius had often stopped there on their way to work during the year they’d lived together in Chicago. She took the elevator down and called in her order ahead of time. By the time she rushed back into the office, it was 8:05 and the boss was in his office.
“Get in there! He’s waiting,” Janice hissed as Mariah paused beside her desk.
Mariah tapped politely on the door and then entered. Her new boss was seated at his desk with the phone pressed to his ear. As he talked, one of his hands tapped impatiently at a stack of papers on his desk. When he looked up and saw her, he pointed to an empty spot and raised his eyebrow. Mariah set the coffee down and turned to leave his office. Her hand was on the doorknob when his voice stopped her.
“Miss Jones, I need you to stay here,” he said in a cold, impassive tone with just a touch of irritation.
Mariah let go of the door and turned back around. She took a seat in one of the chairs across from his desk and waited for him to finish his phone call. She avoided looking at his face, but she couldn’t help noticing his fidgety hands. His nails were kept short and neat and his hands reminded her of a hand model. They were the hands of a man who had never known a day of manual labor in his life. She wouldn’t be surprised if her list of duties included scheduling regular manicures and pedicures to go along with his weekly massage sessions. He wore an elegant suit and tie that looked like it had been hand selected by a personal stylist and expertly tailored to fit his carefully sculpted body. Everything about her new boss screamed upper-crust, wealthy elitist… just the sort of person she’d always secretly loathed. She kept a pleasant look on her face as she sat through the remainder of his lengthy phone call.
Eventually, he ended the call and looked directly at her. “Miss Jones,” he said as their eyes met. “I assume Janice has given you the rundown of your responsibilities.” His lips were a thin line across the plane of his face.
“Yes, she did that when I came in this morning,” she answered with a smile.
“Good. I’ll assume my coffee will be on my desk on time tomorrow morning. That’s all.” His eyes then returned to the stack of papers on his desk, and his jaw clenched almost imperceptibly.
At his curt dismissal, Mariah stood up to leave. She was surprised he hadn’t complained about where the coffee came from. “So, you don’t mind coffee from Ernie’s?” she asked as she turned to face him again.
“As long as it’s caffeinated and on my desk at seven fifty-five, I don’t care where it comes from,” he said with a dismissive hand motion.
As she exited his office, Mariah barely suppressed a sudden case of jitters. She wished she had done a little research before coming to work today. At least then she would not have been thrown off by her new boss’s youth and vitality. She had expected a much older man.
She sat down at her desk and reviewed Mr. Donovan’s schedule for today. There were no items on his social calendar, but his business calendar was jam-packed with short meetings—the first of which was in half an hour. Since she was unfamiliar with the names on his list, she executed a series of quick Google searches for each one. She had just finished skimming through the last of the information on the screen when she looked up to see her boss hovering over her desk. He wore the same expression he’d had earlier—imperious with traces of disdain as he looked down at her.
He had symmetrical features, a square jaw, and dark hair. If his manner had contained even the tiniest amount of friendliness, she might have been able to describe him as attractive, handsome even. As he stood before her, he was more like the mirage of handsome that one could find on just about any magazine cover. She would sum him up as a good-looking face without substance.
“Miss Jones,” he said, breaking into her thoughts.
“Yes?” she asked as she stood up.
“You’ll be with me today. Bring your portfolio and your tablet so you can post updates to the company cloud as the day progresses,” he instructed.
“Yes, Mr. Donovan,” she replied.
Only after she stepped around her desk and followed him from the office did she notice how tall he was. She guessed he had to be around 6’3”, and he had a long stride that matched his impatient manner. Tomorrow, she’d definitely need to wear a more sensible pair of shoes.
That first ten minutes of sitting in Mr. Donovan’s office was the only quiet time Mariah had all day. After an entire day of following him around, taking notes, and giving him reminders of all his scheduled meetings, Mariah was exhausted. The man strutted around like he owned the whole world, and everyone else fell all over themselves to do his bidding. At the end of the day, Mariah was busy gathering her things when Mr. Donovan called her into his office one final time.
“Miss Jones, I’ve left a list of everything that must be taken care of by tomorrow morning.” He loosened his tie as he spoke.
Mariah picked up the list and skimmed over it in surprise. There was no way she could accomplish every task without working late. She’d been at work since 7:15 that morning, eleven hours straight, and she still wasn’t off the hook for the day. According to the list, she’d have to deliver some of his used clothes to his dry cleaner, pick up a fresh batch of suits and shirts, and organize said items in the large walk-in closet in his office. Apparently, he couldn’t get through the day without having to change his shirts, and she was now responsible for keeping his office closet organized and stocked properly.
“Of course, you will be getting overtime pay. At E² we calculate overtime pay on a daily basis, so anytime you stay past five-thirty counts as overtime,” his cool voice cut into her thoughts.
Mariah took the list back to her desk and tried not to glare at her boss’s back as he left the office. As soon as he was out of earshot, she called Natasha to warn her that she was working late for the night. Natasha told her not to worry about the late fee, and Mariah felt bad about having to take her up on her kindness. Until she saved some money, she wasn’t in a position to refuse even the smallest kindness or the smallest request from her boss.
By the time she got home that night it was past eight pm.
By Friday Mariah had spent a total of six waking hours with her son. All week, she had arrived home just before his established bedtime. She made small talk with Natasha as she held Ty in her arms and wished Tiberius had lived to see his son. She always half listened as Natasha gave her the rundown of everything Ty did that day.
Mariah woke him up at 6:30 so she could give him his first feeding for the day before she left for work. After that first twenty minutes, Ty then spent the next ten to eleven hours with Natasha and the four other small children whom she cared for during the day. With the amount of time Natasha spent with him, she might as well have been his mother. This is only temporary, Mariah told herself over and over again as she stared down at Ty’s innocent, little face.
It had only been four days, but already Mariah had worked more than fifty hours that week.
“Pretty soon, it’s going to be you and me again, Little Man,” Mariah whispered as she watched Ty. Even at just ten weeks old, he looked like his father—so much like him, it hurt.
“Don’t you have to be going soon?” Natasha asked as Mariah continued to linger over Ty.
“Yes,” Mariah sighed as she handed her precious bundle into Natasha’s waiting arms. “You sure you don’t want to come with me to that stupid charity event tonight? His Highness told me I was allowed a plus one.”
Natasha released a nervous giggle as she smoothed the blanket over Ty. “I’ve never been to one of those fancy parties before; I didn’t even go to my senior prom,” she said with an apprehensive smile. “Besides, what would I wear?”
“Natasha, I have a few things that I’m sure will be suitable. Before my husband died, we used to go to quite a few of these things,” Mariah said. “I took some of my clothes out of storage yesterday, so there are plenty of dresses to choose from. Go through the closet while I’m at work today, and pick out whatever you like the most.”
“Are you sure about that?” Natasha asked.
“Umm, have you forgotten about Ty?” Natasha asked in a dry tone.
“No. I hired a sitter from the child care facility in the building. She’s been working there for fifteen years, and everyone at work swears she’s the best. For the price she asks, she better be.”
“You’re going through an awful lot of trouble just to have me along,” Natasha sighed. “I’m not so sure—”
“Well I am,” Mariah cut in. “I’d really enjoy your company. Besides, when’s the last time you took a night off to go have some time for yourself? Just relax, and it will be fun.”
“Okay. As long as no one gets picked up late today, I should be ready on time.”
“Great. I’ll see you this evening. Keep your head up,” Mariah told Natasha before she went to work.
If by some miracle she got off at 5:30 tonight, she’d have almost three hours with her son before she was expected to put in an appearance at the ball. Mr. Donovan had told her that he planned to arrive at eight pm. He had assumed she would go earlier so she could have a little fun before his arrival and the official beginning of her duties for the evening, but she would much rather stay home with Ty until the last possible minute.
Surprisingly, Mariah was off by 4:30 that day. His Highness hadn’t been in the office all afternoon, but he’d left a massive list of things for her to do. At tonight’s ball, she wasn’t going to merely trail behind him taking notes as she’d done all week in the office. Tonight she was supposed to keep notes on potential investors he wanted to schmooze and brief him on each of them as they approached. She’d prepared a discreet stack of note cards with code names and personal details about each of them, and she was to cue him with the details at the appropriate times. She was also to act as a liaison in dealing with any potential investors not on the list who approached him tonight. All in all, it was setting up to be a pretty busy evening, but she fully expected to be able to handle whatever was thrown at her tonight. She’d frequently helped Tiberius recall the right tidbits to impress investors at events such as the one she was to attend tonight.
“You’re home, and it’s still light outside,” Natasha quipped with a smile as Mariah walked in the door.
“I guess His Highness wants me to be as fresh as possible for tonight. This thing could go on until one or two o’clock.”
“You need to quit with that highness stuff,” Natasha said. “What if you accidentally refer to him as ‘His Highness’ to his face?”
“Trust me; that won’t happen. I never make mistakes like that,” Mariah assured her as she bent down to pick up Ty.
He was lying in the crib as quiet as ever, but when she picked him up she could swear she detected a smile. She hugged him close to her chest and sniffed his head. He smelled faintly of baby powder and milk. “I’ve missed you so much,” she whispered against his little cheek as she breathed him in. Her tension melted away as she held him.
His calm puzzled her because her entire pregnancy had been fraught with emotional extremes and constant anxiety about the future. For the first four months of her pregnancy, she hadn’t realized she was pregnant. She’d thought her menstruation had stopped due to the stress of losing her husband and then her home and business to his mistress and his partner.
Mariah would never forget the day that woman had taken possession of her house. The police had been present to make sure there was no physical altercation as Mariah gathered up her personal belongings. She’d been physically escorted out of her own house by the local police, and that woman had stood by watching the whole time. It had been humiliating, heart wrenching, and incredibly infuriating.
Ty squirmed in her arms as if he felt the direction of her thoughts. Mariah looked down at the top of his head and smiled again. “I’m going to lie down for a while,” she told Natasha on her way out of the daycare room.
“You look tired. You want me to keep Ty?” Natasha offered with quiet sympathy in her voice.
“No thanks. I need some time with him. I don’t want him to start thinking you’re his mother,” Mariah joked, but the joke fell flat.
When she looked at Natasha again, there was a sad, haunted look in her eyes. As Natasha turned away to care for a toddler on the floor, Mariah opened her mouth to ask her if she was okay, but then she thought better of it and left the room.
An hour after she lay down with Ty, a soft knock sounded at Mariah’s door. “Come in,” she called softly. Ty waved his little fists and then smiled at her and made a quiet, little gurgle.
Natasha poked her head around the cracked door and said, “I just wanted to let you know that I’m taking off now to go get a new pair of shoes to go with this dress. I guess I’ll see you tonight at the thing.”
“Don’t worry about rushing. I don’t have to be there until eight, and the company is sending a car for me. I thought we might as well just ride together. Is that enough time for you to pick out some shoes?” Mariah asked with a teasing edge to her voice.
“I don’t think the shoes will take long. I should be back in time for us to ride together, but feel free to leave me behind if you change your mind,” Natasha said, and then she was gone.
Mariah had no intention of leaving Natasha behind, but she didn’t say so. She briefly watched from the window as Natasha started her car and pulled out of the driveway before turning her attention back to her infant son. She placed her hand over Ty’s heart and marveled at how rapid his little heartbeat was compared to hers. He smiled and waved his arms, and she smiled back at him.
“You look just like your father,” she whispered. An unwelcome tear made an appearance on her cheek, but she brushed it away quickly. Ty was a part of her future. He was her son. She needed to stop dwelling on the past, on what his father, Tiberius, had done.
She picked him up and walked over to the room’s only window. There was an interesting view of the street down below. Natasha’s neighborhood was far less appealing than the gated community she’d lived in just last year, but there was a comforting hominess about this neighborhood that she hadn’t felt in her old neighborhood. Here, she got the sense that people knew each other and cared about what happened in each other’s lives. In her old neighborhood, she had lived in a house that had far more rooms than she and Tiberius could have hoped to use, and she didn’t know any of the names of her former neighbors. Due to the fast pace of her life, she had spent more time out of the country and in luxury hotels around the United States than she ever had at home. She couldn’t even remember the number of bathrooms her house had—or even the name of the last person who had been hired to clean.
She looked down at Ty, and he stared back at her with his quiet, dark brown gaze. “Why are you so quiet?” she asked him. Heaven knew his father was far from a quiet man. Tiberius had always been boisterous almost to a fault. He had been the self-proclaimed life of every party.
Mariah continued to ask her baby silly questions that she knew he could not answer, and he continued smiling and blinking at her until the babysitter arrived. Somehow, in between bouts of playing with Ty, she managed to make herself presentable for tonight’s ball. She put her hair up into a simple twist on top of her head and secured it with several decorative combs. She applied the bare minimum of makeup, and then she slipped into her formal attire for the night. She wore a flattering spaghetti strapped, yellow chiffon dress. The yellow contrasted nicely with her dark brown skin and black hair. She allowed herself a single twirl in front of the full-length mirror before she kissed Ty one final time.
“No need to worry about a thing, Miss Mariah. Little Ty is in good hands tonight,” Deanna, the woman from the daycare assured her.
“I’m not so sure there’s nothing to worry about. Mr. Donovan isn’t exactly the easiest to please boss there ever was,” Mariah said with a wry twist of her lips. She bent down to pick up her simple black clutch as she spoke. She checked once to make sure her notes were inside, and then she and Natasha were on their way to the ball.
Mariah and Natasha arrived almost an hour before Mr. Donovan and his entourage. They walked around the tables along the perimeter of the venue and browsed the silent auction items. The party seemed to have wound down for the most part. The band played the kind of sedate music that Mariah could imagine being played in a retirement home before bedtime. Several dozen couples slow-danced on the dance floor, but there were almost no other signs of life at this ball. In part, Mariah was relieved. The last thing she needed was a long night filled with riled up, inebriated third or fourth generation rich kids.
As she and Natasha quietly browsed and observed, Mariah took note of the general tone of the conversation. Her boss seemed to be a popular subject of discussion. There was a great deal of speculation about the future of the Donovan family name. Mariah’s ears perked up at the mention of a new form of solar cell technology that His Highness’s company was currently in the process of developing. The details of the new technology were cloaked in secrecy, but many speculated that it could be a game changer in the solar power industry. He was rumored to be on the cusp of some kind of breakthrough, which is why he was currently shopping around for the right investors. His company, E², had been a family business for over fifty years, but he was looking for potential investors with liquid assets to help fund his future research endeavors.
Everyone whispered about his future worth, and even about the possibility of his company going public sometime in the next couple of years. Mariah also heard more than a few women whispering about how handsome her boss was. Those comments almost made her laugh outright as she pictured his neatly manicured hands.
Mariah had worked her way to the end of the silent auction tables and was very near the entrance when she noticed a change in the atmosphere. Suddenly, people were pressing closer to the door and craning their necks to get a glimpse of something. The only people who didn’t notice were the older couples still swaying to the elevator music on the dance floor. In spite of herself, Mariah looked up in curiosity along with everyone else. With everyone around her buzzing, Mariah expected to see a celebrity, but she saw her boss instead. Disappointment swiftly replaced curiosity as she turned back to the silent auction tables. It was too much to hope that he would call and tell her he had changed his mind about this event. His arrival meant that she had to begin her duties for the night.
“Why didn’t you mention that your boss was so young?” Natasha asked with a touch of awe in her voice. “The way you talk about him, I thought he’d look more like Newt Gingrich.”
“What does it matter that he’s young? He inherited his company from his father,” Mariah returned. As her boss neared, she plastered a smile on her face and prepared to greet him appropriately.
“Who is that beside him?” Natasha asked in a breathless whisper.
Mariah looked up again. Mr. Donovan was flanked by two people. On his left, there was a tall, slender woman with dark blond hair, and on his right, there was a tall, blond man with an open, friendly smile. Mariah had not seen either of them before. “I’m not sure,” she told Natasha, “Probably friends of his.”
The woman glanced around at everyone watching their arrival and raised her eyebrow in a way that could only be described as supercilious. The blond man on his right seemed to be the only friendly face among His Highness’s little group.
When Mr. Donovan and his entourage reached them, Mariah suppressed the urge to cower before him. Did the man ever look anything other than deathly serious? She silently wondered to herself. His eyes skimmed dispassionately over her appearance and then lit on Natasha with a raised eyebrow. “Miss Jones,” he greeted her with a nod when he looked back at her.
“Mr. Donovan,” she nodded back. “Allow me to introduce my friend, Natasha Washington.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Natasha,” His Highness said in a tone that implied this meeting was anything but a pleasure. He then turned to the man on his right and said, “Ben, I’d like to present Mariah Jones, my new personal assistant. Miss Jones, my best friend, Benjamin Caldwell, and his sister Caroline, the current director of the marketing department at E².”
“I guess it’s not worth mentioning that I’m a lawyer,” Ben cut in with a smile. When everyone glanced at him in surprise, he said with a shrug, “It’s okay, I know lawyers aren’t very popular, but I’m one of the good ones. I promise.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you both,” Mariah said. When she glanced up at Ben again, her smile felt more genuine for the first time in a long while. Ben smiled down at her with real warmth, and when he turned toward Natasha, his smile widened just a bit.
“Miss Jones, I’d like a word with you,” Mr. Donovan said as he distanced himself from Ben, Natasha, and Caroline.
“Yes?” she said as she followed him.
“Have you seen any of the potential investors on my shortlist here tonight?” he asked.
“Yes, Mr. Donovan. Mr. Gonzales was near the front of the silent auction tables about five minutes ago. Leah Donatella was in the powder room last time I saw her, and—”
“That’s enough for now,” he cut in. “We’ll make our way toward Donatella first. Tell your friend you’ll be busy for a bit.”
“Yes, Mr. Donovan,” she replied.
Mariah turned toward Natasha and stopped short. She saw Ben’s sister, Caroline, standing alone where she and Mr. Donovan had left them all together moments before. She approached Caroline and asked, “Did you see where my friend Natasha went?”
“It would seem that my eccentric brother is dragging her out to the dance floor, though why anybody would want to dance to such boring music is beyond me,” Caroline said in a haughty tone.
Mariah let her eyes follow the direction of Caroline’s gaze, and she saw Ben and Natasha approaching the dance floor. Natasha had a very telling little slump to her shoulders; she was obviously nervous. Ben’s hand hovered in the air just shy of touching the small of Natasha’s back as he walked beside her.
“When they get back, will you let Natasha know I had to go with Mr. Donovan?” Mariah asked Caroline. Her eyes stayed riveted to Ben and Natasha as she spoke.
Caroline answered as she studied the polish on her fingernails. “Yes. And please tell John not to keep me waiting too long. I despise tepid affairs like this one.”
“Certainly, Miss Caldwell,” Mariah said, feeling glad to be rid of the woman. Caroline was obviously just as cold and prickly as her boss.
Mariah trailed behind Mr. Donovan as he approached Leah Donatella. Mariah didn’t have to refer to her notes on Donatella because she remembered the one and only time she had seen the woman before. Leah Donatella had been one of the older athletes at the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, and Mariah had been there in the stands watching as her adoptive mother won the bronze medal in a surprising upset. Leah Donatella had announced her plans to retire from the sport of diving, and she’d been a favorite to win the gold that year. Things hadn’t panned out that way, though. After a series of small mistakes, Leah had placed fourth, just a tenth of a point out of winning the bronze medal, in the women’s ten-meter platform diving event. Mariah’s adoptive mother had won the bronze instead; it had been the only Olympic medal of her entire diving career. Mariah knew that Mrs. Donatella likely wouldn’t have any clue who she and her mother were, but that didn’t stop her from feeling a bit of kinship with the woman. She had watched from the stands as Mrs. Donatella’s hopes of finishing on top had diminished into a highly forgettable fourth place finish. Mariah felt like that incident was a metaphor for how her own life had gone over the past year.
Mariah kept herself two steps behind Mr. Donovan as he explained a little bit about his plan to take on business partners. She noticed the look on Mrs. Donatella’s face as she listened to Mr. Donovan’s diatribe with half an ear. She was obviously bored, and she clearly didn’t give a damn about the future of solar technology. Her late husband had invested in many technology start-ups over the years, but most of them had been disappointments. The Donatella fortune had been made and secured only after her husband had invested in real estate. He had died almost five years ago, and since his death, Leah had been making semi-serious inquiries into technology companies. She wanted to be a part of the next big technological breakthrough, but, from the look on her face, she clearly didn’t think E² was the company to develop that breakthrough. Mr. Donovan was midsentence when she turned on her bright pink heel and stalked away.
Mariah suppressed the giggle that bubbled up as she caught the look on her boss’s face. It was a look that more than made up for the late nights and time away from her son since she had started this job.
“I’ll be right back, Sir,” she said as she followed Mrs. Donatella.
“I’m so beyond not interested in your boss’s company,” Mrs. Donatella tossed out over her shoulder as she made a beeline for the powder room.
Mariah didn’t let the woman’s obvious disdain stop her. “Barcelona, 1992 Summer Olympics, you won the Silver medal in the women’s ten-meter platform dive, and you were the favorite to win the Gold in Atlanta in 1996. I was there watching. I was only fourteen at the time, but that was one of the most influential moments of my entire life. I just wanted to tell you, that my mother, Gracie Gonzalez, was the one who earned the Bronze that year. I watched you shake her hand and congratulate her after the ceremony, and, when she died a few years ago, it was a comfort to know that she fulfilled one of her greatest dreams before ovarian cancer took her from me.”
“What dream was that?” Mrs. Donatella asked as she turned to face Mariah.
“She earned the respect of one of her idols. I know for a fact that meeting you was one of the greatest moments of her life,” Mariah said.
Mrs. Donatella’s face softened into a sympathetic look as she scrutinized Mariah. “I remember Gracie. She was in the same age range as me; we were the two old ladies among all the adolescents on the team that year. I didn’t know she died. She was your mother?”
“She wasn’t my birth mother; I was adopted. She lost her battle with cancer almost four years ago.”
“I’m so sorry to hear that,” Mrs. Donatella said quietly. “I remember your mother telling me that you were on your high school diving team. How did you end up working for John Donovan? Your mother was sure you were going to be the next big thing.”
“Well, that just goes to show how much a mother’s love can augment a child’s abilities. I was pretty good, and I did make the team at Harvard while I attended Law School there. That’s as far as it went, though. It’s a long story, but I ended up working as Mr. Donovan’s personal assistant after leaving my last job working for a transportation company in India. I’m still learning the company culture at E², but from what I’ve seen so far, a lot of bright and innovative people are proud to work for him.”
“Including you, I guess,” Mrs. Donatella said with a knowing smile.
Mariah knew when to stop pushing, so she just smiled and nodded as the older woman removed a card from her clutch.
“Give me a call next week, Mariah. We’ll talk. Also, tell your boss I’ll be in touch.”
“I most certainly will, Mrs. Donatella,” Mariah said as she accepted the card.
“Call me Leah.”
Mariah turned back to her boss with a triumphant smile after Leah walked into the powder room. He looked at her as if she had suddenly sprouted two heads when she approached him.
Mariah spent the rest of the night following Mr. Donovan around and watching him stumble his way through talking to the other potential investors on his list. After the first half hour, it became obvious to her that his people skills were lacking. He didn’t actually say anything offensive, but there was a general cold aloofness about him that most people seemed to find off-putting. His manner of speaking seemed to imply that he thought he was better than everyone else around him, and it was difficult to like someone with such a condescending attitude. Everyone with which they conversed asked questions about his new technology, but his single answer to all of their inquiries was that it was still in development and not open for detailed discussion with anyone who wasn’t currently an official partner. Mariah understood his need to be circumspect about his research, but he didn’t have to deliver his answers with such terseness.
By the time they rejoined the rest of his party, Caroline looked like she was ready to slap someone, and Ben and Natasha were chatting like long lost friends.
“How did it go?” Ben asked.
“I think it went well. Better than the solar technology conference I attended in Germany a few months ago,” Mr. Donovan answered.
Caroline walked up to his side and ran her manicured nails down his arm as she purred, “I’m sure you were great tonight. They’ll all be buzzing about you in the morning.”
“Thanks,” he said with an inscrutable look down at her. He then turned to Mariah and said, “Don’t let me keep you any longer, Miss Jones. Feel free to dance or have a few drinks if you like. I won’t need you anymore tonight.”
Mariah kept her posture straight, but on the inside, she sagged in relief. The sooner she could get home to Ty, the better. She would have left immediately if she hadn’t happened to glance over at Natasha and Ben again. Natasha was obviously enjoying herself, and asking her to leave right now would have been cruel in Mariah’s opinion. “Thanks, I think I’ll just take a peek at a couple of the silent auction items I saw earlier. Have a good night, Mr. Donovan.”
She winked at Natasha as she walked away from them.
She pretended to be interested in random items, but all the while she was very conscious of Caroline’s eyes following her every move. Eventually, she found a quiet corner and sat down alone. She’d been sitting for a few minutes when she heard her boss’s voice nearby.
“I’m telling you, Ben, I’m not in the mood to listen to you go on about how much fun I should be having. Caroline is the only woman I know here, and she hates events like this.”
“Well, I’m having the best time I’ve had in a long time. That girl Natasha is a good dancer, and she’s pretty nice. When I first looked at her, I thought ‘Wow, she’s stunning.’ I honestly didn’t expect her to be such a nice person on top of being so beautiful.” Ben replied.
“What has that got to do with me? If you’re having so much fun with her, why don’t you go back to her and let me enjoy some peace?” His Highness grouched.
“You’re making things awkward with all your damn frowning and scowling, man. Maybe if you’d lighten up and ask her friend to dance, it will come off as we’re all just having fun, as opposed to I’m trying to have a one-night stand with her,” Ben said.
“Isn’t that what you’re shooting for? That’s all girls like her are good for anyway,” His Highness returned in a serious tone.
“Come on, you know me better than that. I like her. Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever liked someone this much right off the bat.”
“I won’t tell Caroline you said that,” His Highness said with a frown evident in his tone.
Caroline suddenly became part of the conversation as she breezed past Mariah with a stare in her direction. “Tell me he said what?” she asked.
Mariah fought the urge to return Caroline’s stare. She looked down at her fingernails and tried to pretend she hadn’t been listening to their little exchange.
“You’re picking them young now,” Caroline said with a snicker.
“What is that supposed to mean?” His Highness demanded.
“That means I guess your days of surrounding yourself with old biddies like Janice are over. You should be a little more careful about who you hire. Your new personal assistant has gold digger written all over her,” Caroline said in a faux whisper.
His Highness snorted and said, “I’m not even halfway tempted. It takes a lot more than a sob story and a charity case to get my attention.”
Mariah heard a high-pitched, feminine trill of laughter, and her ears burned. She knew Caroline had said those things for her benefit, and she didn’t know which comment was more mortifying—Caroline’s or Mr. Donovan’s. Her anger rose so quickly she actually thought about quitting right then. She shouldn’t have to put up with insults from her boss and his associates. She rose halfway out of her chair to go confront them, but then her situation came back to the forefront of her mind. She needed this job, at least until she found something different. She stood up and walked toward Natasha with her best smile armed and ready.
In the car, Mariah relaxed for the first time in hours. She melted into the seat next to Natasha. “What did you think?” she asked with a smile.
“I thought he was one of the nicest men I’ve ever met.”
“I meant about the ball, not about Ben,” Mariah teased.
Natasha giggled. “I think I only had so much fun because of Ben,” she admitted. “He got the musicians to play a waltz and taught me the steps while you were with your boss. It was the best night ever. I feel like Cinderella going home from the ball.”
“Then I guess that means the night was a success. Ben really seemed to like you,” Mariah commented with a knowing look in Natasha’s direction.
Natasha smiled and shook her head. “I know he was just being nice, and I’ll probably never see him again. But that doesn’t matter because I had a great time.”
“What makes you think you’ll never see him again?” Mariah asked.
Natasha gave her a serious look and said, “Please, I may be quiet, but I’m not naïve. If I had flirted a little more, he probably would have offered me a ride home and then suggested we continue the evening at his place. We would have had a lot of the kind of ‘fun’ that gets women like me in trouble. I would have gone home half in love with him, and then he would have forgotten all about me by morning. Men like him don’t care about women like me. His father is a senator, and my father was a pipefitter. He works for a nationally known law firm handling litigation for a huge class action case, and I run an in-home daycare because I couldn’t manage to get a good teaching position after finishing my degree. Ben was nice, but I would have been just another notch on his bedpost.”
Mariah gave Natasha’s words some thought before she replied, “He really didn’t strike me as that type of guy.” She couldn’t bring herself to elaborate on what she’d overheard because she had no idea about Ben’s intentions. She didn’t want to be the one to give Natasha false hope. They rode the rest of the way to Natasha’s house in silence.
As Mariah changed into one of the “house bikinis” she silently cursed her boss and all of the men out there who were just like him. She hadn’t planned to attend any private parties, especially not ones where she’d have to get her hair wet. Mariah wore her hair natural, so the process of making it look perfect for work was laborious, to say the least. It was Saturday, and she should be free to spend the day with Ty; instead, she was working for His Highness.
Over the past few weeks, Mariah had started to develop a better rapport with his potential investors than he could ever hope to have, and her reward for being such a good personal assistant was more work. Leah was willing to make her investment official today, but she had insisted on Mariah’s presence at the party. The woman had actually dangled her willingness to invest money in E² in Mr. Donovan’s face as she invited them to this “little” party at her current boy-toy’s lavish home. Mr. Donovan, of course, had acquiesced to her demands. Ever since he had witnessed Mariah do the impossible by getting on Leah’s good side, he hadn’t talked to the woman once without Mariah right there by his side. Mariah now felt like he was using her as some sort of shield against Leah’s eccentricity.
Mariah had been told that there was no need to bring a bathing suit, but that had changed the moment she arrived to find her boss and everyone else already wearing swimming attire. Leah had been quick to assure her that she would find everything she needed in the pool house, but Mariah would rather have kept her clothes on.
She looked in the mirror and wondered why there were no modest bathing suit choices in the pool house. Because men were pigs, that’s why… she thought as she looked at her reflection. Especially rich, successful men like her boss and her late husband. She tried to block out everything she had ever liked about Tiberius as she stared at her reflection. She had a three-and-a-half-month-old son, and here she was at a stupid pool party, wearing a stupid bikini while her son was in another woman’s arms.
Mariah gathered up as much courage as she could by posing and flexing in the mirror before going out in the open in the little black, sporty top and boy shorts bikini she chose. As she flexed, she thought back to all the times her mother had stood in the mirror with her prior to big diving meets in high school and college. She had always encouraged Mariah to focus on her strengths when preparing to go into competition mode. Mariah knew she had no choice about going out in the open, but she did have a choice on how she presented herself. Sure, she had some stretch marks as a result of being a new mother, but that didn’t mean she had to hang her head in shame when she stepped out onto the pool deck. She still had an excellent figure and great muscle tone. She focused on the good before she left the mirror.
She held her head high as she stepped out of the pool house. Instead of diving into the deep end of the pool as almost everyone else did, she sat down on the edge of the shallow end and hung her feet into the water. After about half an hour of solitude, her boss appeared.
“You know; you’re allowed to have at least a little fun. I won’t need you in any official capacity until a little later in the afternoon,” he said.
Before Mariah could reply, Caroline sashayed up beside him and raised her eyebrows in that supercilious way that Mariah had come to hate over the past few weeks of knowing her. “What’s wrong, Miss Jones?” Caroline snickered. “Don’t you like to swim?”
Caroline’s words alone were innocuous, but when combined with her tone and that smirk, Mariah couldn’t mistake the underlying insinuation. Mariah gritted her teeth as she suppressed the initial retort that sprang to mind. “I just don’t want to get my hair wet,” she admitted instead.
“I don’t see how getting it wet will make much difference,” Caroline laughed as she let her eyes rest briefly on Mariah’s carefully arranged twist-out. The hint of disdain that crossed her expression was enough to make Mariah grit her teeth again. When her second statement failed to get a response, Caroline gave up and walked away.
Mr. Donovan made eye contact with Mariah for an uncomfortable moment before going after Caroline. When he caught up to her, he frowned down at her, said a few words, and then walked away. Mariah didn’t know what to make of his behavior, especially after Caroline’s eyes shot daggers back in her direction. A short time later, Caroline strutted out onto the springboard and posed before executing a very ordinary and amateur looking dive.
Mariah liked to think of herself as someone who didn’t show off too much, but after watching Caroline’s dive, and after enduring that woman’s taunts and almost nonstop snide remarks, there was no way she’d forgo the opportunity to show her up on the diving board. Mariah’s adoptive mother had taught her how to dive early on in their mother-daughter relationship. Mariah hadn’t been as good as her mother was, but she had been one of the strongest members of her college team.
She got out of the shallow end and walked calmly toward the diving boards. No one paid any attention to her until she began the long climb up to the highest diving platform. No one else had dared to use it yet, and when she stepped onto it, she sensed more and more eyes on her. She was vaguely aware of Caroline hissing at her from below, “Jesus! I was kidding! Don’t kill yourself!”
Mariah ignored her as she centered herself, and then prepared to execute the dive that had almost won her a national title back in her college days. She had made a crucial mistake in competition, but in the years since, she had consistently done it right countless times in her pool at home with Tiberius watching. She closed her eyes and repeated the moves to herself as she pictured herself doing them in her head, inward one and a half somersaults in the open pike position, she thought just before she sprang off the dive platform. After she executed the moves, the sudden plunge into the crisp water was so exhilarating she momentarily forgot all about her animosity towards Caroline. Once her face broke the surface of the water, she heard applause coming from everyone around the pool. When she got out, she caught a glimpse of Caroline’s face; her look of complete shock made the wet hair more than worth it. Mariah quietly walked back to the shallow end and resumed her post on the boring side of the pool; she had made her point.
She ignored the fact that His Highness’s eyes had been on her the entire time, at least she tried to. He was probably still trying to get over the shock of coming across a “black girl” who could swim so well, and she didn’t mind at all being the one to dispel the stereotype that all African Americans were terrible swimmers. If he disapproved of her making a spectacle or herself, he could just let her stay home next time he was invited to some ridiculous party on her day off.
“That was the most impressive dive I’ve ever seen, and I’m hard to impress.”
Mariah looked up at the unfamiliar man who spoke and returned his friendly smile. He had flawless white teeth set in a handsome face, and his bright blue eyes gazed into hers with a mixture of charm and good humor. Water glistened on his perfect chest as he sat beside her.
“Thanks,” Mariah smiled.
“Where’d you learn to dive like that?” the man asked.
“My mom was an Olympic medalist, and I was on the diving team back in college,” she admitted with a slight smile.
“No wonder you put us all to shame. I’m Wes, by the way.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Wes. I’m Mariah,” she replied as she tucked a stray coil of wet hair behind her ear. When she looked up again Wes’s eyes were on her chest.
“So,” he began in a flirtatious drawl as he licked his lips, “Have you ever been to Rio?”
Mariah shook her head as she crossed her arms over her chest and silently cursed the revealing swimwear.
Wes winked at her and said, “I’m planning a trip out there, you should come with.”
As flattering and exciting as the prospect of a trip to Rio was, Mariah had to decline. First of all, Wes was a stranger, a mighty hot one, but a stranger none the less. More importantly, she would never even consider leaving Ty to go on some frivolous trip. She felt her boss’s disapproving gaze on her throughout her short conversation with Wes, reminding her of her other reason for being unable to travel. “I don’t think Mr. Donovan can function without me. I’m his personal assistant,” she admitted with a rueful little smile.
“Ah, that explains the cold stare he’s been giving me all this time. John Donovan really is a piece of work,” Wes said.
“What do you mean?” Mariah asked.
“You wouldn’t know it by the way he acts around me, but we go way back. We’re cousins.”
“Why doesn’t he talk to you instead of glaring like that?” Mariah asked.
“Have you ever seen him be friendly?” Wes countered with a laugh.
“I haven’t actually,” Mariah said with a small smile of her own. “If I didn’t absolutely need this job, I would have run for cover long ago.”
Wes let out a loud chuckle before he leaned in and began talking in a conspiring tone. “I could tell you a lot of interesting stories about John Donovan, half of which might make you want to slap him,” he said. “John is such a stick in the mud because he can’t stand the fact that his father wanted to leave the company to both of us. If John Senior hadn’t died suddenly before he changed his will, your boss and I would be equal partners right now. Not only did John keep distracting his father from changing the will, but he refuses to let me have any say in the business. I think his attitude is more damaging to his father’s memory than it is to me, but it’s still not great for me either. I should have a say in the company that his father and my father built together, but instead, I have to work for a company that’s not in the family and get paid a tenth what I’m worth.”
Mariah glanced back at His Highness’s distant face and said, “I knew he wasn’t the most pleasant boss, but I wouldn’t have thought he’d do something like that. That is so wrong.”
“Tell me about it. I’m the one living in a cramped studio apartment while His Highness enjoys the entire family fortune.”
Mariah suppressed a surprised giggle at Wes’s use of the exact same nickname that she had been using in her head for weeks now. “Have you ever tried to gain your share of the company from him?”
“Legally I have no recourse because my father wasn’t listed as a partner when the company started up. It has always been a sole proprietorship owned by his father, on paper anyway. It’s a shame he won’t let me in the door, though; I have so many ideas for the company.”
“I’m so sorry to hear that, Wes,” Mariah said as she thought about how she had been forced out of the company she helped to build with her late husband. She and Tiberius had never had her name listed on any of the paperwork as his business partner. She had always been his “secret weapon.” If she had fought to ensure her place in Tiberius’s company in a more official manner, she would have been better protected when he died. She had given him ten years of her life, dedicated herself body and soul to fulfilling his vision, and he had cut her out of his will and left everything to his mistress and his partner. Her anger grew strong again as she hoped to God that her late husband’s company would crumble to the ground. She knew her boss was an ass the moment she met him, and Wes just confirmed that her early feelings of dislike had been justified.
“So, Rio might not work out, but I’m sure we could find time to do something fun around here,” Wes smiled as he looked into her eyes.
“His Highness keeps me pretty busy.”
“Well, maybe I’ll bump into you somewhere fun one of these days,” Wes said as he put his arm around her.
Before she could come up with a reply, Mr. Donovan walked up and said, “Miss Jones, you should dry off and get dressed. We have a few items to discuss before the four o’clock meeting.”
His manner was as imperious as ever, and his eyes stayed on Wes as he waited for Mariah to stand.
“Yes, Mr. Donovan,” Mariah said in an even tone. She had to concentrate hard to keep her expression from reflecting her feelings toward him at that moment. As she walked away, she noticed that Wes looked uncomfortable, and the expression on Mr. Donovan’s face could only be described as pure hatred. A moment later, Mr. Donovan followed her toward the pool house. Wes was left sitting alone by the shallow end of the pool.
When Mariah got home that night, Ty was in his bassinette, and Natasha was on the phone. Mariah made as little noise as possible as she readied herself for bed. After a long relaxing shower, she changed into a comfy tank top and a pair of cotton shorts. She then spent half an hour braiding her hair. When she finished, Natasha was still on the phone, and the conversation showed no signs of slowing down, so she waved and mouthed “good night” to her friend.
She plucked Ty out of his bassinette and lay down in bed with him. She was still too wound up to fall asleep, so she listened to his even breathing and thought about the future. She had now been working for about two months, and she had saved almost every penny she’d earned. Her current salary and benefits were very good, and all of the overtime she worked had really bulked up her paychecks. If she didn’t dislike her boss so much, she would have thought she was in the perfect working situation.
As she held Ty, the weight of responsibility settled more firmly on her shoulders. She was now responsible for the health and welfare of another human, and innocent human. She tried her best to keep her negative thoughts about Tiberius from affecting how she felt about Ty, but she would be a fool to deny the possibility that they could at some point. A tear seeped out of her eye as she thought about the last thing Tiberius had said to her.
They had just wrapped up a hectic year, filled with traveling and a long stream of one land acquisition deal after another. Tiberius had been trying to fulfill his vision of jumpstarting the high-speed rail industry in both India and the United States, and she had been by his side for ten arduous years. And finally, just last year, it had seemed like they were on the verge of realizing a crucial stage of their dream. They had just closed a deal that included the purchase of some damaged sections of track that Amtrak had no intention of repairing and using. The sections of track in that last purchase deal had been integral to their expansion plan. Their company had already paid for the land surveying and design for stations at two major cities in anticipation of a land deal in their favor, and the purchase of actual tracks had saved the company millions. They would be able to conclude their feasibility report to the government with strong financial indicators that the cost of the proposed project would in no way be prohibitive. Tiberius had credited Mariah with sealing that pivotal land deal for them. She had been able to talk the Amtrak executives into signing off on the deal even after everyone else told her it was a hopeless cause.
That night she and Tiberius had held each other in bed and reminisced about the past. “I wish I could have been in that meeting with you. I’d like to see how you convinced them to sell to us,” Tiberius said as he pressed his nose into her neck.
“Even I’m not completely sure how I managed that one,” Mariah admitted with a smile. “I think it was mostly just dumb luck—kind of like when I met you.”
Suddenly, Tiberius pressed her onto her back and looked down at her with such intensity in his eyes she’d had to catch her breath. He dipped his head low and kissed her until she couldn’t think straight. “There was nothing dumb or lucky about the way we met. Our meeting was incredibly intelligent and meant to be. Did I ever tell you that I knew I was going to do whatever it took to marry you the moment I saw you?” he breathed as he cupped her face in his hands.
“No, you never mentioned that,” Mariah said past the tightness in her throat. Tiberius wasn’t usually so serious. He was more of a charming and gregarious type of person.
“Well, I’m telling you now, Mariah. As soon as I saw you, it hit me like a bolt of lightning. The universe told me, ‘Tiberius go over there and ask that girl out. If you treat her right and win her heart, she’ll be the best thing that ever happened to you.’ And I listened. I missed an important appointment that day, but you know what?”
“What?” Mariah had asked in a breathless whisper.
“I’ve never regretted it. In fact, that Mensa function we danced at that night was the only one I ever attended. I only pretended to like that thing because you were so excited about becoming a new member,” he had confessed.
“What kind of appointment did you miss that day?”
“It was an appointment with a really motivated venture capitalist who wanted to dabble in the transportation industry just long enough to double his money, as he put it. You were the better deal, so I’m glad I went with you instead.”
They had made love long into the wee hours of the morning, and Tiberius had flown out to India the next day to meet up with his new business partner. A week later, he’d been in a fatal accident while touring one of the manufacturing plants where the linear induction engines for his trains were made. Mariah closed her mind against the rest of the memories, but even though she tried not to think about everything that came after that last night with him, she just couldn’t stop the tears from coming. She caressed Ty’s little back as she stared up at a crack in the ceiling. She would have loved to be able to tell him that his father was a great man.
The next morning, Mariah awoke to Ty making his happy baby noises beside her in the bassinette. She opened her eyes and looked at her son with a sigh of relief. Today was Sunday; no work for her today.
“Come here you little noise maker,” she said softly as she reached for Ty.
He waved his arms and continued to coo in a slightly less happy tone as drool ran down his little chin. Mariah guessed that was his way of saying he needed a diaper change and a feeding.
“Do you ever scream?” she asked as she checked his diaper. She didn’t really expect an answer, but Ty surprised her just then with a very loud little squeal. “Well, I guess that answers that question,” she said with raised eyebrows.
Once he was changed, fed and dressed, Mariah put on her clothes and went downstairs to be sociable. She found Natasha in the kitchen, humming to herself as she brewed a pot of coffee.
“You seem to be in a good mood this morning,” Mariah remarked.
Natasha turned in surprise and shot an uncomfortable look at Mariah as she said, “I didn’t hear you come in. I’m sorry if I was too loud. Did I wake you guys up?”
“No,” Mariah was quick to assure her. “How was everything yesterday? I didn’t get the chance to ask last night because you were on the phone.”
Was that another nervous look on Natasha’s face?
“Everything went great. Ty is always the sweetest little thing ever. He’s started this new little hand motion when he needs a diaper change. He waves them around really fast and doesn’t sound quite as happy as he normally does. It’s really cute,” Natasha replied.
“I think he did that this morning,” Mariah giggled. “Is it normal for a baby to be this good-natured? I think he has only cried maybe ten times since he was born.”
“Girl, I wouldn’t complain about a baby that sleeps through the night and hardly ever cries! There’s nothing wrong with that. Maybe the universe knew you needed a break, so it gave you an easy son. It happens,” Natasha said.
Mariah looked down at Ty and smiled. “I only asked because I haven’t been around that many babies. I thought babies were supposed to cry all the time.”
“Some do; some don’t. There’s a whole range of possibilities. Babies are people too, you know,” Natasha said with a little smile.
Mariah smiled back at her. “Was that your mom on the phone last night?” she asked as she took a seat at the kitchen table.
Natasha poured a cup of coffee and joined her at the table. “No,” she said with another cautious look.
Mariah waited a moment for her to elaborate. She fought the urge to pry, she fought it really hard, but eventually, her nosey nature won the battle. “I guess it’s not my business who it was, but you seem to be in a better mood this morning.”
“It was your boss’s friend Ben,” Natasha finally admitted.
“Oh?” Mariah sat forward in surprise. “Now that is interesting.”
“I knew you were going to say something like that,” Natasha said with another self-conscious look.
“What are you so shy about? I knew he liked you the night he met you,” Mariah exclaimed. “There is nothing wrong with being excited about a guy who likes you—assuming you like him too.”
“He called to ask me out. I’m supposed to meet him at The Art Institute this afternoon.”
“That’s wonderful!” Mariah exclaimed with a smile.
“It would be if I had anything nice to wear. I told him I wasn’t sure whether or not I’d need to keep Ty today, and he said to call back and let him know if I was free. I think I’ll just tell him I’m busy,” Natasha said.
“Oh no, you won’t,” Mariah said forcefully. “I have a closet full of nice things you can borrow.”
“Are you sure?” Natasha asked with another of her characteristic uneasy looks.
“The woman who kicked me out of my house was kind enough to have my clothing shipped into storage after I left. It’s funny that the one thing I cared the least about was the only thing she condescended to help me out with. I didn’t even know about the clothes in storage until the manager of the storage facility contacted me the week before I moved in with you. Most of them are still in storage, but I have a few things here that you might like. I think that woman must have wanted to rub it in. What better way to remind me of what she took from me, than to magnanimously give me my own designer wardrobe, knowing that I likely wouldn’t have any opportunities to wear those things again? And what better way to get revenge than to enjoy them and to let you enjoy them, in spite of her petty little scheme?”
“When you put it like that, it would seem crass of me to refuse. Thank you.”
“No problem,” Mariah said as she glanced over Natasha’s slender frame. “It’s great that I’m bigger than you, it means that you won’t have to worry about anything being too short or too tight.” Mariah couldn’t help but feel a little like a mother hen as she looked at Natasha. She had no siblings, but she had always wanted a sister. “I have a few things that are just perfect for a date at the art museum,” she said with a reassuring smile.
Natasha slumped in her chair and said, “The lady at the make-up counter in the department store helped me with my make-up the night of the ball.”
Mariah caught her meaning, and she smiled. “I can help you with that,” she volunteered.
“Are you sure?” Natasha asked.
“After you’ve opened your home to me and cared for my son almost twenty-four seven for the past few months, letting you borrow an outfit and helping out with your makeup is the least I can do. Call Ben and tell him you’ll see him this afternoon.” She felt the urge to reach across the table and grasp Natasha’s hand, but she refrained. Natasha seemed very guarded with her emotions, and Mariah didn’t want to make her uncomfortable.
Three hours later, Mariah stood behind Natasha as she surveyed her appearance in the full-length mirror. “You look great,” Mariah said with a smile. She had to refrain from literally giving herself a pat on the back as she watched Natasha. Her shoulders were back, her posture was straight, and she held her head high for a change. She didn’t have that shy, insecure look that she typically scurried around with.
“Thanks,” Natasha said. “I really like this shirt. You have lots of nice clothes.”
Mariah thought about her huge dressing room and fought back a sigh. As Tiberius’s wife, she had definitely been spoiled. She had spent an incredible amount of money on dressing herself, and she had always rationalized the expenditure by telling herself that she needed to look her best because she represented an international business every time she set foot in public. She had traveled all over the world on Tiberius’s arm, and she had always looked great doing so. “Thanks,” she said to Natasha. “Feel free to borrow something anytime. If you’d like to see what I have in storage, it’s no trouble either.”
“Thanks again for this.”
“No problem. You should get going now unless you were shooting for being fashionably late,” Mariah quipped.
“No, I don’t want to be late. I’ll see you later this afternoon.”
Mariah watched Natasha walk to her car. She’d selected a bright purple tunic and a simple pair of slim black leggings. She’d refused Mariah’s offer to let her borrow heels, and opted for simple black flats instead. Natasha was a lot better looking than she thought she was, and Mariah was glad Ben could see that.
Once Natasha drove away, Mariah flopped down on the couch. Natasha had put Ty down for a nap, and Mariah almost didn’t know what to do with so much time to herself.
“If you don’t have a passport, you’re going to need to get one this week, Miss Jones,” Mr. Donovan said first thing Monday morning. She hadn’t even had the chance to give him his morning briefing yet. He hadn’t even taken a sip of his coffee yet.
“Excuse me?” Mariah asked. It was possible she might have misunderstood; he probably wanted her to have it just in case.
“You’ll be traveling with me to China next week, Guangzhou to be exact. I’ve just been accepted as a late admission into the Canton Fair,” he explained.
“China?” she echoed. What could he possibly need from her? And what was she supposed to do about Ty? He was too young to travel. “I have a passport already,” she said as myriad other thoughts ricocheted in her brain.
“You’ll receive proper compensation in your next paycheck,” he said in a tone that implied she didn’t have a choice about coming on this trip. “I know this is last minute, but I wasn’t notified that I’d been accepted until yesterday. Another company dropped out at the last minute, and E² was an alternate. You have an excellent understanding of how to communicate with people, and there’s the possibility of a lucrative export deal if things go well at the fair. It’s imperative that you come.”
Mariah raised her eyebrows in surprise. Had he just used the word excellent in a sentence about her? That was the closest he’d ever come to giving her a compliment. She guessed her hard work hadn’t gone totally unnoticed.
“Caroline will be there as well,” he added.
Was that supposed to make me feel better? Mariah wondered as she plastered a smile on her face and said, “Yes, Mr. Donovan. I’ll get right on the travel arrangements.”
“Good. That will be all,” he said with that dismissive wave of his.
Mariah’s first call was to Natasha; she had to make arrangements for the coming week away from Ty.
Mariah suppressed a sigh as she looked around the ultra-modern lobby of the Mandarin Oriental hotel in the Tianhe District of Guangzhou. She’d have to spend the next five nights in this hotel without her son. She lugged her overnight bag up to the counter and checked Mr. Donovan into his deluxe suite—yet another thing that he couldn’t do for himself. When she tried to check into her own room, the young girl behind the counter gave her a blank stare.
“I don’t see a reservation under your name,” the girl said.
“Could you check again, please?”
The girl smiled and looked back at the computer. “It’s still not here,” she said after a moment.
“Then can I just book another room now?” Mariah asked as she whipped out her company credit card.
“We don’t have any available rooms.”
Mariah knew that her chances of getting another room easily were slim. To say that the Canton Fair was a big deal would have been the understatement of the year. Hotels across the city were likely filled to capacity. She gritted her teeth and smiled, “That’s fine; I can just stay in another hotel.”
“Don’t be silly, Miss Jones,” Mr. Donovan suddenly said from right beside her.
Mariah looked up at him in surprise and said, “I apologize, Mr. Donovan. I thought I had reserved two rooms, and—”
“These mix-ups happen all the time,” he said with a frown. He plucked her heavy bag out of her hands and said, “You can use the phone in my suite if you’re determined to find another hotel, otherwise you can just use the extra bed in my suite. You’d have your own private room and bathroom with a door that locks. You should know the details since you’re the one who booked the most expensive suite you could find,” he said over his shoulder as he walked toward the elevator. He seemed to take her acquiescence as a given.
She jogged a few steps to catch up to him and said, “Miss Caldwell instructed me to reserve that suite; she said expense was secondary to your comfort. I can carry my own bag, Sir.”
He looked down at her and said, “It’s faster this way,” in a frigid voice.
During the long elevator ride up to the top floor, Mariah didn’t know what to say. Uncomfortable didn’t even begin to describe how she felt. “Thanks for letting me use your phone,” she said into the strained silence.
He didn’t bother to reply. He just looked down at her and raised one of his eyebrows. A fleeting thought that he would probably look much better if he smiled passed through Mariah’s head. “There’s nothing like a nice, silent, twenty-story elevator ride,” she remarked before she could stop herself.
“Was that comment directed at me, Miss Jones?” he asked.
Mariah almost rolled her eyes at him. “Do you see someone else in the elevator with us?” she asked with a little laugh.
“I didn’t know you believed elevator conversation to be an integral part of one’s etiquette,” he said with a look that was pretty close to a frown but not quite.
“It has less to do with the fact that we’re in an elevator, and more to do with the fact that I thanked you for allowing me to use your phone, and you didn’t respond,” Mariah countered as she smiled at him as politely as she could.
His face looked a little red when he next looked down at her, “You’re welcome to use the phone. And, like I said downstairs, you’re welcome to use the spare room in my suite if you choose.” He sounded like he was irritated with the entire exchange.
“Thank you for carrying my bag,” she said as the elevator doors slid open.
“It was no trouble at all,” he replied.
They stepped into the hall, and Mariah released a pent-up breath that she had not realized she was holding. Mr. Donovan opened the door to his suite and stepped aside to let her enter first. As soon as they stepped into the spacious foyer, a man in uniform greeted them.
“Welcome to the Mandarin Oriental, Mr. Donovan. I’m Nigel, and I’ll be your butler during your stay,” the old man said. He kept talking, but Mariah missed the bulk of what he said because she was concentrating on not cracking up right in front of her boss. What were the odds that a luxury hotel in China would employ an English butler and make him available for an American guest? She found the whole situation to be more than a little ridiculous.
“This is Miss Mariah Jones. Will you show her to the second bedroom, and make sure she has a directory of local hotels at her disposal?” Mr. Donovan said after Nigel wrapped up his long winded welcome speech.
“Certainly, Sir,” Nigel said as he took Mariah’s bag from Mr. Donovan. “Right this way, Miss,” he said, and then he turned to lead her down the hall.
The room he led her to had a view of the city and the indoor pool beneath the impressive atrium below. It was so spacious and luxurious that Mariah wondered what the master bedroom looked like. Nigel set her bag on the luggage stand, and then returned a short time later with a directory that was printed in English. She sat down at the desk and began the tedious task of making call after call to book a room for the week. As the daunting task of finding her way to a new hotel and having to commute every day to report to His Highness by six a.m. settled in her brain, staying in this room seemed like the better option. She would just have to put her personal feelings about her boss aside and maintain her professionalism.
At 5:30, a knock sounded at her door. Now resigned to her fate, Mariah got up to answer it.
“Mr. Donovan wishes to inform you that dinner is to be served at 6:00 p.m., Miss,” Nigel said.
“Thank you, Nigel,” Mariah replied with a smile.
“Will you be joining Mr. Donovan for the week then?”
Mariah spent the next half hour showering and changing into something appropriate for dinner. As she dressed, she thought about some of the many business dinners she had attended at Tiberius’s side. She was always present as his wife, and he rarely ever mentioned her substantial contribution as his unofficial business partner. He had been determined to relegate her role to being an ornament, and she had argued with him a number of times on that issue. Their disagreements had always taken place in private, though. In public, and with clients, they had always presented a united and flawlessly professional front.
Tonight, she wore a mustard yellow blouse tucked into a demure, cream colored pencil skirt. She didn’t know what to expect during this first meal with her stodgy boss, so she played it safe by keeping her attire businesslike with just a touch of personal flair. After a quick check in the mirror, she thought she probably looked appropriate for just about any setting. At five minutes to six, Nigel knocked on the door again and showed her to the dining room where Mr. Donovan and Caroline were already seated.
“Miss Jones,” Mr. Donovan greeted her quietly as he stood up and pulled her chair out for her. Caroline remained seated and raised an eyebrow at her.
“Thank you, Mr. Donovan,” Mariah said with a satirical little smile. Caroline looked at her as if she wished her miles away, and Mariah would rather have been miles away—thousands of miles away.
Mr. Donovan didn’t seem to notice the sour look on Caroline’s face as he took his seat. Caroline was no longer dressed in her travel clothes. Her dark blond hair was arranged in an elegant coif, and she wore a sky-blue dress with an abundance of frilly ruffles that just screamed date. She also had on a diamond necklace that accentuated her cleavage. Mr. Donovan, on the other hand, still wore his suit, minus the jacket. Mariah had no idea what to make of the disparity in their outfits.
“I didn’t realize you were going to be joining us for dinner. Is there something on the calendar that we need to know about?” Caroline asked.
“Not at all, Miss Caldwell. There was a mix-up at the front desk, so I’m staying in the guest room for the week. If you want, I can always make other arrangements for dinner. I’d hate to be the third wheel.”
“You’re not a third wheel at all,” Mr. Donovan was quick to assure her in his normal dispassionate manner.
“How polite of you,” Mariah looked at him and said. Next, she turned to Caroline and said, “You look very nice tonight, Caroline. Are you two going out after dinner?”
“I think you mistake Caroline’s reason for being here, Miss Jones. This isn’t a social trip. I actually have a conference call scheduled for tonight. Marv is in full panic mode at the New York office,” Mr. Donovan said.
“Do you need me to sit in on the call?” Caroline was quick to volunteer.
“You can if you want to, but it isn’t necessary. It’s a finance issue that has nothing to do with marketing,” Mr. Donovan replied.
Mariah kept quiet; she didn’t want to get roped into doing anything tonight if she didn’t absolutely have to. If she’d been in her own hotel room, she probably wouldn’t even know about the conference call.
“What time is the call?” Caroline asked.
“About midnight local time,” Mr. Donovan answered.
Caroline glanced once in Mariah’s direction and said, “I’ll stay.” She then dominated the rest of the conversation, leaving Mariah extremely relieved that she didn’t have to talk to either of them too much. Other than answering the occasional question thrown her way, Mariah kept her thoughts to herself.
When Nigel reappeared to offer them dessert, Mariah was prepared to refuse, until she caught a glimpse of the decadent cheesecake on the tray. She hadn’t had cheesecake in forever, and it was her favorite dessert.
“Thanks, Nigel, but I couldn’t eat another bite,” Caroline said, although she’d barely touched her dinner.
“And for you, Miss?” Nigel said as he turned toward Mariah.
“This looks way too good to pass up,” Mariah smiled. When she tore her eyes away from the cheesecake, she saw both Mr. Donovan’s and Caroline’s eyes on her. She smiled at each of them once more before taking her first bite of cheesecake in more than a year; she closed her eyes and delighted in the way it melted in her mouth. The thought crossed her mind that maybe she should eat Caroline’s piece as well. Neither Caroline nor Mr. Donovan liked her very much, so she had nothing to lose by indulging in another slice.
“And for you, Sir?”
“After the look on Miss Jones’s face, there’s no way I can pass. Thank you, Nigel,” Mr. Donovan answered. His grave tone held a hint of mocking in it.
Mariah opened her eyes and fought the urge to glare at her boss. She didn’t care if he and Caroline thought she was gauche for appreciating her dessert. “Enjoy, Sir,” she said with a little smile.
He stared at her in a strange and slightly discomfiting way before taking his first bite. She hated how he could take an excellent moment and turn it into an awkward one, just by turning those cold, hazel eyes on her.
Mariah excused herself right after dinner. She returned to her room and released a huge sigh of relief as soon as she was safely behind her closed door. His Highness and Caroline Caldwell were two of the most difficult people she had ever encountered. Stuck-up didn’t even begin to describe Caroline, and she didn’t know what to make of her boss anymore. He had insisted she come along on this trip, so he must like the way she performed her job. But if she did her job well enough to be included on such an important trip, what could possibly explain the way he often looked at her with such intense dislike in his eyes? His habit of constantly watching her was as uncomfortable as it was mysterious.
Mariah had too much pent up energy to relax. She usually released such energy by swimming laps, but she didn’t know what Mr. Donovan would think of her spending her entire first evening in China in the hotel pool. She pulled out her company laptop and decided to play internet chess instead pacing the floor like a madwoman.
Almost as soon as she started a game, a knock sounded at her door. She did a great deal of cringing on her way to open it.
“John would like a word with you,” Caroline said in a frigid voice before she turned and stalked away.
Mariah gritted her teeth in vexation as she followed Caroline to a small office. He was seated behind the desk, and Caroline took a seat on the couch across the room. Caroline glanced up with an extremely dour look, and then she crossed her legs and raised her eyebrow at Mariah.
Mariah lifted her notepad and stood ready to listen.
“What is that for?” Mr. Donovan demanded.
“So I can take notes. Caroline said you needed me,” Mariah answered with a tight smile.
He glanced at Caroline and said, “I just wanted to invite you to join us in here, unless of course, you prefer to sit in your room alone all evening. Caroline is bored, yet she insists on staying for the conference call. Maybe the two of you can entertain each other while I read through the rest of these financial projections.”
“I don’t see why she can’t just speed read the documents and just give you the bullet points like she does back at the office. After all, she is your assistant, and I haven’t seen her do very much assisting today,” Caroline said as her eyes shot daggers at Mariah.
“It’s actually better if I handle this myself, Caroline. Since you insist on staying for the conference call, I’m going to have to insist that you allow me to prepare. Mariah, I need you to see to it that Miss Caldwell is properly entertained.”
“No problem, Mr. Donovan,” Mariah said as she racked her brain for a way out of this task. Caroline was quickly becoming one of her least favorite people in the world. She glanced over and saw a chess set on a small table next to the window. “Do you play chess?” she asked Caroline. His Highness said she had to entertain Caroline, not that she had to talk to her.
“Of course I play chess,” Caroline snapped as she approached the chess board. She sat down in front of the white pieces and made her first move before Mariah took her seat.
Mariah calmly surveyed the board and decided to counter Caroline’s king pawn opening with the king’s Indian Defense. She could sense Caroline’s hostility towards her throughout the game. Caroline played very aggressively, but her aggressive tactics weren’t backed up by sound chess skills. Mariah knew the game was over after the first half hour, but she tried to prolong it because she didn’t want to receive yet another order for the night. Eventually, it became too difficult to keep dragging it out, and she had no choice but to checkmate Caroline.
“Who won?” Mr. Donovan asked when they started setting up the pieces again.
“Your assistant got lucky this time,” Caroline said as she moved again. Good chess etiquette dictated that she should have offered to switch colors, but she kept the white pieces.
Mariah didn’t bother correcting Caroline’s assessment of why she had lost. Mariah’s victory hadn’t had anything to do with luck, and Caroline was about to find that out the hard way. This time, she didn’t use the king’s Indian Defense. Instead, she emulated Bobby Fischer’s famous tactic of gaining control of d5 to win the game. Sometime during the middle-game, Mr. Donovan abandoned his desk and scooted his chair over to observe their game.
“I think I’d like to play the winner,” he said thoughtfully.
Caroline had a one pawn advantage early on, but Mariah soon gained that point back and managed to secure a very strong position in the process. Caroline seemed to prefer using her queen over all of the other pieces, so Mariah forced a queen trade. The rest of the game happened quickly after that move. This time when Mariah said, “checkmate,” there was no doubt that she hadn’t just gotten lucky.
“My turn,” Mr. Donovan said as he rubbed his palms together.
Caroline moved her chair only inches out of the way so that Mr. Donovan had to squeeze in close to her to play. Once he was situated across the board from Mariah, he turned it so that she had the white pieces. Mariah didn’t try any complex openings with him; instead, she opted for an open game and simply pushed up her queen pawn two squares to start the game. Mr. Donovan wasn’t nearly as easy a conquest as Caroline had been. He tended to think more, so the game took longer to progress. They were still playing, with no clear potential winner, when midnight arrived.
“We’ll have to continue this tomorrow. I have to take care of that conference call,” he said with a note of regret in his voice. “You’re both welcome to stay if you want, but I won’t need anything.”
“I think I’ll turn in then, Mr. Donovan. It’s been a long day,” Mariah said.
Caroline’s face burst with restrained jubilation as Mariah turned and left the room.
Mariah escaped downstairs to the pool at 5:00 the next morning. She wanted to sneak in half an hour of laps before her workday officially began. She dove directly into the deep end and swam hard for the first four laps. She then turned over and practiced her backstroke at a much more sedate pace than the one she’d started with. As her body sliced through the warm water, she felt some of her pent up negative energy dissipate.
Caroline’s antagonistic attitude was increasingly difficult to deal with, especially last night when there had been no escape. From what Mariah could deduce about Caroline based on her behavior, Caroline was as alpha as they come. Mariah was often torn between amusement and vexation at that fact. The woman seemed to be suffering from a massive set of insecurities, but for the most part, she hid them well. On occasion, Mariah had to fight back a laugh when Caroline’s attempts to sabotage her backfired. At this point, their interactions seemed more like a cat and mouse game than a professional working relationship. Caroline was determined to assert her superior status, and Mariah was equally determined to never see herself as less than a peer. She had just as much experience working in a male-dominated field as Caroline did; Mr. Donovan just didn’t know about the bulk of it yet.
When she finished swimming laps, she took in a breath and then swam down to the very bottom of the deep end. She kept one hand on the smooth black tiles and held her breath as she counted. She was able to stay down for more than two minutes before her starved lungs forced her up for air. She kicked hard toward the surface and took in a deep, cleansing breath once she got there. This was probably going to be the only peaceful downtime she had to look forward to, and she didn’t want it to end.
She still had some time before the appointed breakfast meeting with her boss, so she floated on her back for a while. She closed her eyes and concentrated on the soothing water sounds and on the feeling of weightlessness she had loved since childhood. So much had happened over the past year, but she took this time to clear her mind and meditate on a positive future for Ty. She wished she could feel this carefree more often.
A sudden splash nearby interrupted her solitude, and her eyes popped open in surprise. She turned and started swimming toward the edge of the pool, but before she got there, she heard Mr. Donovan’s voice call out to her.
“Miss Jones, I thought that was you,” he said as he came to a stop right in front of her.
“Mr. Donovan,” she said as she tried to keep the disappointment she felt out of her voice. “I was just leaving.”
“Do you swim often?” he asked.
“I usually try to get in a few laps three or more times a week. I try to swim early before anyone else shows up. I came here at five this morning,” she answered.
“I thought you might be a morning person,” he said with an attentive look. “You’re definitely the most alert assistant I’ve ever had. Almost all the others have had trouble with the early start time.”
“I am most definitely a morning person,” she smiled as she grasped the edge of the ladder. “Have a nice swim, Sir. I’ll see you at breakfast,” she said as she left the pool. She felt his disapproving gaze on her as she strode toward her towel, and she fought hard not to let it unnerve her. He was probably thinking of ways to criticize her swimming technique.
By midmorning, Mariah, Mr. Donovan, and Caroline Caldwell were walking into the China Import and Export Fair Complex. This was Mariah’s first time in Guangzhou’s International Pavilion, but for some reason, she felt right at home among the countless faces behind each exhibit. A wave of nostalgia went through her as she remembered some of the many exhibitions she had attended on behalf of her late husband’s company.
“Our booth is set up in the energy resources section of the electronics and household appliances division,” Mr. Donovan informed her when he caught her looking around.
“Are we going straight over there, or do we have time to look around before the exhibits are open to visitors?” Mariah asked.
“We’ll have time to look around after,” he replied, bursting her little bubble of excitement. A moment later, he added, “There’s not really much for you to do other than observe. Caroline handles marketing, so she’s in charge of events like this. She brought her exhibition team along with her.”
“I see,” Mariah answered. If there wasn’t much for her to do, she wondered why he had insisted on bringing her. She remained quiet as the three of them made their way to the E² exhibit. Once they got there, she observed as Caroline took charge and briefed her team on how to speak to people who approached them throughout the day. She informed them that a number of companies usually walked away from this fair with lucrative export deals. Mariah paid close attention to everything she said as she skimmed through the brochures and information packets on the products at their exhibit.
“Do you have any questions?” Mr. Donovan asked when he saw her scanning through the product descriptions.
“How long have these new cell phones been on the market?” she asked.
“They aren’t on the market just yet. These are the upgraded version of the first solar powered smartphones we started offering two years ago,” he answered.
“What’s different about these?” Mariah asked.
Mr. Donovan picked up one of the samples, powered it up, and handed it to her before he responded. “We’ve tinkered with the solar cell arrangement. Energy absorption in these is seven percent more efficient,” he said. “Why don’t you familiarize yourself with the product while I have a word with Caroline?”
Mariah looked down at the phone in her hand after he walked away.
Twenty minutes later, Mariah was standing off to the side of their smartphone exhibit when a large group of Indian men approached.
Caroline stepped forward with a smile and prepared to greet them, but her smile froze in place after the first words out of the largest man’s mouth.
“Kya tum mujhe yahaan phon ke baare mein bata sakate hain?” the man asked with a friendly smile.
“Good morning,” Caroline said as she reached for one of the smartphones. “I’m here on behalf of my company, E². Are you interested in learning more about our solar powered smartphones?” she asked.
The man gave her a blank stare before he said, “Mera naam Praveen Busal. Meree kampanee kee or se, main baaahar adhik graameen sthaanon ke lei nae vyaapaar ke lei kar raha hoon.”
Caroline returned his blank stare before shooting a panicked glance at her exhibition team. “What language is he speaking?” she asked in a frantic whisper.
Mariah felt she had no choice but to step forward just then. She approached the man who had introduced himself as Praveen Busal. She smiled at him and said, “Yah aap shree Busal ko poora karane ke lie achchha hai. Aap ke lie kampanee ke kis tarah ke maalik hain? Maal kee kis tarah aap mein ruchi kakhate hain?”
She then turned to Caroline and said, “Mr. Busal has just informed us that he’s looking for merchandise for his rural company locations. I just told him it was nice to meet him, and I asked what kind of company he has and what type of merchandise he is interested in.”
“A couple of my guys speak Mandarin, but no one knows what he said. What language is he speaking?” Caroline asked.
“Main ilektroniks stor kee shrrnkhala ke maalik hain,” Mr. Busal said with a large smile in Mariah’s direction.
“He speaks Hindi, and he says he owns a chain of electronics stores,” Mariah informed Caroline.
Mr. Busal spoke again, informing Mariah that he was interested in their solar powered phones because the customers in his rural locations frequently had to deal with power outages. He also thought he could effectively market these as a way to save money on electricity. Traditional cell phones required too much charging, so he thought these would sell better than his current merchandise.
Mariah then picked up one of the information packets about their phones and went over each of the product attributes, translating the important parts into Hindi as she spoke to him. By the end of their five-minute conversation, he was ready to make a firm offer to stock his stores with their new cell phones.
“Daam kya hai?” he asked.
Mariah then turned to Caroline and said, “He wants to know the price of the cell phones.”
“That depends entirely on the order. If he orders in bulk, he gets a better price,” Caroline replied with a frown.
Mariah turned back to Mr. Busal to ask him how many units he was thinking about ordering. “Kitane ikaiyon aap aadesh chaahate hain?” she asked him with a smile.
He then informed her that he wished to order enough to stock five hundred stores, and Mariah had to remind herself to close her mouth. She now realized why his name had sounded so familiar. It wasn’t just a common name as she had first thought. Mr. Busal was the owner of one of the largest retail chains in India. He was the man behind the Reliant-Tech chain. She straightened her posture and fixed her best smile on her face as she clicked into sales mode. She was hardly aware of Mr. Donovan’s eyes watching her every move.
The next morning, she went back to the pool at five, and to her astonishment, His Highness was already there swimming laps. Unwillingly, she took notice of the smooth power in his strokes as he sliced through the water. He made it look effortless as he swam multiple lengths without taking a break. She didn’t know why she was surprised; he certainly had the perfect physique for any type of exercise. His broad chest and shoulders had captured her attention on her first day working for him.
She was about to turn and leave when he noticed her. Now she had no choice but to stay unless she wanted to be outright rude. She couldn’t imagine why he would come to the pool at this time when she had explicitly told him yesterday that this was the time she preferred to swim. After gritting her teeth in vexation, she jumped in and swam her laps on the side farthest from Mr. Donovan. She also did her best to ignore his presence and pretend she was swimming in solitude.
After her last lap, she hoisted herself out of the water and sat at the pool’s edge with her feet hanging in the warm water. She waited patiently for him to finish his laps and leave, so she could practice diving for a little while. She’d been sitting there all of one minute when Mr. Donovan got out and walked toward her. He probably wanted to start giving her orders early today, or maybe he was wondering why she hadn’t brought his morning coffee with her. She smiled to herself at that last thought.
“Miss Jones,” he said with a nod.
“Mr. Donovan,” she responded with a polite smile.
He sat down next to her and didn’t say anything else. She glanced at him several times, but he remained steadfastly silent. Why did he bother to sit next to her if he didn’t have anything to say? Was he trying to make her morning awkward?
“Do you swim every day?” she asked.
“Yes. I just got back into it recently,” he answered.
“Have you always gone swimming this early?” she asked when he didn’t say anything else.
“Maybe not quite this early, but for this trip it’s the only time I can spare. It’s probably the only time you can spare as well, Miss Jones.”
He seemed to be hinting that her peaceful morning had come to an end. “I’ll be ready to go over our strategy for today just as soon as I shower and dress. Last night, I took the liberty of making a few adjustments you might like, based on the success we had with that retail chain I talked to yesterday,” she said as she stood up.
Mr. Donovan stood up too. “I’ll see you at breakfast. Nigel is serving at seven. I look forward to hearing your ideas on an updated strategy, but today shouldn’t be as hectic as yesterday. You might have a little time to go sightseeing this afternoon if you want.”
The unexpected extra hour brought a smile to her lips. “Thanks,” she said as she looked up at him. She walked away from him, but she didn’t leave immediately. Instead, she approached the diving board. She wanted to have at least a little fun before going to work for the day. After her fifth dive, she reluctantly left the pool. On her way to the elevator, she noticed Mr. Donovan sitting on one of the benches along the wall. He’d been watching her dive the entire time. It seemed that she was always on the receiving end of his serious, brooding looks. Why couldn’t he direct his angst at someone else for a while?
“What did you think of that last dive? Was it a nine or a ten?” she asked with a gamine smile in his direction. He deserved to be put on the spot for making her morning uncomfortable.
“Definitely a ten,” he said in his usual stuffy manner.
At his words, she squared her shoulders and strode past him. All the while, she was telling herself not to let him unnerve her any more than he already had. He might be her boss, the high and mighty head of a major tech company, but he was still just a man.
Later that evening, she found herself sitting through yet another awkward dinner with Mr. Donovan and Caroline. Her presence was obviously a point of contention with Caroline, but, every time she offered to make other arrangements for dinner, Mr. Donovan indicated that she should stay.
When Nigel finally came in with the dessert tray, Mariah was almost ready to excuse herself for the evening. She was actually on the verge of refusing dessert so she could enjoy some long-awaited solitude when she caught Caroline’s eyes on her for the hundredth time that night. Caroline’s look was a little more malevolent than usual, prompting Mariah to smile at her and ask, “Are you going to try some dessert tonight, Miss Caldwell?”
Caroline turned up her nose at the tray of lemon tarts and said, “I don’t eat anything with gluten. Maybe you should try a gluten-free diet as well. I’ve heard it’s good for that last stubborn five or ten pounds most women struggle with. Personally, I’ve never had a problem with my weight, but I’m not above sharing information that can help someone who needs it.”
That was a direct cut if ever she’d heard one, but Mariah shrugged it off as Caroline simply being true to form. There was no way she could skip dessert and escape now; if she did it would seem as if she’d let Caroline Caldwell’s acid tongue get to her. “I guess I’ll have to swim some extra laps in the morning to make up for my little indulgence tonight,” she said as she accepted a tart from Nigel with a smile.
“Oh?” Caroline said as she sat forward. “You’ve found the time to swim laps while you’ve been here? I would have thought you’d be too busy working, but I guess some people are used to finding ways to cut corners on their responsibilities in order to sneak in some fun when they can.”
“Actually, Miss Caldwell, I’ve found that swimming laps in the morning increases my ability to concentrate and stay upbeat during the long days. You don’t have to worry that I’m shirking my duties on this trip, but I’m sure Mr. Donovan appreciates your concern.” With that final statement, Mariah took a bite of her tart and did her best not engage Caroline in any further conversation.
“I’m sorry, Ma’am, but the flight was overbooked. One of you is going to have to wait for another flight,” the attendant at the gate said to Mariah.
“Thanks,” Mariah said with a smile, but her heart sank on the inside. She knew there was no point in talking to Caroline and Mr. Donovan about who was going to be the one to take the later flight. She was the obvious choice because she was nothing more than a personal assistant. She’d have to wait a little longer to be on her way home to her son.
A look of concern crossed Mr. Donovan’s face as Mariah approached him. “Is there a problem?” he asked.
“Yes,” Mariah nodded with a look in Caroline’s direction. “I’ll have to stay behind and catch another flight. The airline made a mistake and every flight out of here for the next two days is overbooked,” she said. She forced the disappointment out of her voice and said, “They’re going to start boarding in a few minutes. If you’ll excuse me, I need to call my friend Natasha to let her know she’ll be keeping my son a little longer.”
Mariah didn’t miss the look that crossed Caroline’s face as she delivered the news. Clearly, the woman didn’t want to share the same space with her for a minute longer than necessary. Caroline didn’t even attempt to hide her smile at Mariah’s expense. Mariah looked around for a payphone, so she could call Natasha and make arrangements for the next couple of days. She also knew she needed to book another hotel room. Her mind was still occupied with the situation when Mr. Donovan spoke.
“Sit tight, Miss Jones. I’ll be right back,” he said.
Mariah watched as he spoke to the ticketing agent at the gate. The conversation lasted only about a minute, but Mr. Donovan looked satisfied when he walked away. He then approached Caroline. Whatever he said to her must have really angered her, based on the murderous stare she shot in Mariah’s direction as he walked away.
The gate agent announced the boarding call for the flight just as Mr. Donovan reached her again. He stooped down to grab her carry-on bag as he said, “You’re on this flight, Miss Jones. No need to call your friend.” Without another word, he joined the line of passengers boarding the plane.
Mariah glanced back at Caroline’s unhappy face as she hopped up and followed her boss. He handed her a boarding pass and said, “It’s best not to look at Miss Caldwell when she’s this unhappy. I’d avert my eyes if I were you.”
Mariah suppressed an unwilling smile as she asked, “What’s going on?”
“Isn’t it was obvious, Miss Jones? Caroline will stay behind to enjoy an unplanned two-day luxury vacation at the company’s expense, and you will get home to your son on time,” he said.
“Thank you so much,” Mariah said quietly at his back.
He glanced over his shoulder at her, but he didn’t say anything else. His silence continued as they boarded the plane. He barely looked at her as he stowed her bag in the overhead bin on their row. He waited for her to sit before taking his seat next to her. The two of them settled in for the two-hour flight to Beijing without speaking a word to each other. Ordinarily, Mariah would have found so much silence awkward, but over the past week she had started growing accustomed to her boss’s odd silences. He clearly didn’t want to talk, so she didn’t try to make conversation.
Once in Beijing, they shared a quick dinner during their layover. During dinner, Mr. Donovan made an effort at polite conversation. They talked more about how well the Canton Fair had gone, and he hinted that she had earned some new responsibilities around the office. On the thirteen-hour flight across the Pacific, however, they were both too busy sleeping to even attempt conversation. Once in LA, they had to kill time at the airport during another long layover. Their entire return itinerary had been thrown off by the overbooking of their original flight out of Guangzhou, but Mariah was only slightly frustrated during all of the layovers. Although they didn’t get a direct flight, her current situation was still preferable to being stuck in China for an additional three days. The final leg of their trip seemed to take longest. Their flight to Chicago was delayed more than half a day because of some problem with the plane, and they had to wait while the airline brought in mechanics to repair it.
They were nearing the end of their journey, somewhere between California and Illinois when something unexpected happened. Mariah got up to use the restroom and met with turbulence on the way back to her seat. She was on her way up the aisle when the ‘fasten seatbelts’ light came on. As she stepped over Mr. Donovan, the plane suddenly dropped, causing her to lose her footing and slam her shoulder against the overhead bin above her. Several screams rang out in the full cabin as the turbulence got worse. Mariah felt weightless for another instant as the plane dropped again. This time, a scream was ripped from her as her insides lurched along with the plane. She was vaguely aware of Mr. Donovan’s hands grabbing her around her waist and pulling her close to him in an effort to prevent her from slamming into the overhead bins again.
The captain came on the speaker and informed them that they were encountering severe turbulence; as if all the screaming passengers hadn’t already figured it out for themselves. One of the overhead bins had popped open, allowing luggage to fly out and clatter around the cabin. Several passengers called out in pain and alarm as bags crashed into them. Mariah closed her eyes tight against the continuous jerking and lurching of the aircraft. She was sure she was about to be flung around the cabin like a piece of luggage and possibly die, but she was also afraid to let go of Mr. Donovan to try to secure herself in her seat.
“It’s okay. I’ve got you,” Mr. Donovan said in her ear. “Just hang on to me; I promise not to let go until we’re safe.”
Mariah clung to him for the next five minutes as the turbulence continued. After it ended, he helped her back into her seat. “I can’t believe that just happened,” she said as she attempted to secure her seatbelt with shaking hands. “What was the captain saying? I couldn’t hear him over all the screaming.”
Mr. Donovan reached over and helped her with her seat belt with surprisingly steady hands, given everything that had just occurred. Once she was properly fastened, he looked at her and said, “We aren’t quite out of the woods just yet. The captain said he has to do an emergency landing because something happened to the plane. We’ve been diverted to Oskaloosa. We should be on the ground in about ten minutes.”
“What happened to the plane?!” Mariah demanded in alarm.
“I don’t know. It was hard to hear everything with all the screaming that was going on a moment ago. The landing isn’t going to be nice; there are severe thunderstorms in the area right now.”
Mariah decided that she didn’t want to know any more. She hated the thought that her life was so totally out of her own hands right now, and she avoided looking at her boss again as she tried not to overreact. A moment later, she wondered if it was even possible to overreact to the prospect of being in a plane crash.
“Are you okay?” he asked. His voice sounded oddly close, and she opened her eyes to see that his face was mere inches from hers.
“Not really,” she admitted as their eyes met.
“It will all be over in about ten minutes. We’ll land, and then we’ll have to find hotel rooms for the night. By this time tomorrow, all of this will be a memory,” he said with a small reassuring smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes.
Mariah nodded and said, “Thanks for trying to help me feel better, Mr. Donovan.”
“Mariah, if you call me Mr. Donovan again tonight, you’re fired,” he said with another little smile.
She laughed just a bit as they began their final descent. He offered his hand, and she took it. The turbulence came back as the plane passed through the storm clouds. Mariah focused on Mr. Donovan’s hand on hers instead of watching the rain outside the window. There was a lot of shaking and jolting as they made their final approach through the storm. Mariah squeezed her eyes shut through the worst of the turbulence. When she opened them again, she saw the runway lit up down below. A moment later the plane touched down in a very hard landing that caused several people in the cabin to scream again.
They both released a pent-up breath when the plane came to a complete stop. As the other passengers applauded, their eyes met and they smiled at each other. “I told you it would be okay,” he said.
By the time everyone disembarked and made their way to different hotels for the night, it was well past dinner time. Several other planes had been diverted away from Chicago’s international airport due to an unprecedented tornado at the airport and strong storms throughout the region. There was a bit of pandemonium in the small town of Oskaloosa, Iowa. The town had only six small hotels, and they quickly filled up for the night. Mariah and John, as he’d insisted on being called, had barely managed to secure a room at the local Budget Inn for the night.
Mariah stood by and watched him juggle both of their bags as he attempted to unlock the hotel room door. “You know, I could unlock the door,” she offered.
“No. The medic said you need to rest your arm. It’s bruised pretty badly from you hitting the ceiling.”
At his words, Mariah thought about that terrifying moment. If he hadn’t grabbed her and held onto her, she likely would have sustained more serious injuries during the worst of the turbulence. She opened her mouth to thank him when the door suddenly opened.
“Success!” he smiled as he held the door for her.
The first thing Mariah noticed was the lone, king-sized bed in the room. Judging by his silence, Mr. Donovan noticed the exact same thing once he entered. Wind, rain, and thunder were still roaring outside, and they had been lucky to get a room at all in the midst of so many stranded passengers. She suppressed the complaint that bubbled up inside her and sat down on the edge of the bed.
He dropped their bags and sat down beside her. “I’m just going to say what’s written all over your face, Mariah. Between the turbulence, the emergency landing, all these tornado warnings, and now having to share a room, this is officially the worst trip ever,” he chuckled. “It can either be the elephant in the room all night, or we can just get it out of the way right now. We’re both adults. With that hurt shoulder, you can’t sleep on the floor or in the chair. Even if you could, I wouldn’t want you to. I have no desire to sleep on either the floor or the chair. This bed is big enough for both of us, so I think we should just plan on sharing it tonight. I’ll leave it up to you. I’ll go out and find us something to eat. When I get back, you can let me know what you decide.”
John left the room without another word or a backward glance at her. She figured she had about half an hour before he returned, so she quickly jumped in the shower and readied herself for bed. She was wrapping up her phone call to a very worried Natasha when John returned. He was completely soaked, but he had a smile on his face as he held up two bags.
“I hope you like Subway,” he said. “There weren’t very many options, so I picked the one that seemed simplest.”
“Subway is great,” Mariah assured him. Anything would be great right now; neither of them had eaten in the past eight hours.
He placed the bags on the table beside her and removed his wet jacket. His shirt and pants were completely plastered to him, so she averted her eyes. She felt a little tendril of awareness curl through her as she focused on the wall.
“What’s in the other bag?” she asked.
“Alcohol,” he said with a laugh. “I figured we both have a good excuse to take a break from being responsible adults tonight, seeing as how we could have died and all.”
“Good thinking. I’m way too tense to sleep right now,” she admitted.
He pulled a bottle out of the bag and said, “I got a beer for me and the nicest bottle of wine I could find for you. Something tells me you’re not a beer drinker. You strike me as a champagne and pearls kind of woman, but wine was all I could find.”
In spite of herself, Mariah laughed. “Wow; it’s almost as if you know me,” she joked.
“I notice way more than people think I do,” he said with a wink. “In Guangzhou, I noticed that you eat like one of those women who teach finishing school. From your posture all the way down to the way you hold your fork; you definitely don’t strike me as a beer drinker.”
“You don’t exactly strike me as a beer drinker either,” Mariah countered.
“I know,” he said with a mysterious, little smile. “I’m going to jump in the shower while you eat; I’ve had mine already. My father would be ashamed at the way I stuffed my sandwich in my face before I left the Subway.”
Was that a blush creeping up his neck? Mariah wasn’t quite sure what to make of her boss’s behavior tonight. There seemed to be a complete role reversal between them at the moment. “It’s okay, Mr. Donovan. I don’t mind eating alone,” she said quietly.
He released a sigh as he looked down at her. “Yesterday, we were Miss Jones and Mr. Donovan. Tonight, after everything that’s happened, let’s just lose the titles and statuses and be Mariah and John. Don’t think of me as Mr. Donovan, the owner of E². Just let me be John, the man who was on the plane with you, thinking that maybe we were going to die tonight. Can we do that? Please?”
She nodded, and he disappeared into the bathroom.
Mariah considered his words as she ate her sandwich and brushed her teeth afterward. They had just been through a harrowing experience together. If she were completely honest with herself, the thought of sharing a hotel room with her prickly boss disturbed her. But the thought of sharing the room with the man who had held her on the plane, and then gone out in a storm to get her a sandwich and a bottle of wine, wasn’t disturbing at all. They could be John and Mariah, a pair of weary stranded travelers, sharing a room—just for tonight.
“So, what’s the verdict?” he asked when he came out of the bathroom. “Am I sleeping on the floor tonight?”
“Not if you can figure out a way to open this bottle without a corkscrew,” she said with a smile. She was joking of course, but his face lit up at the challenge.
He smiled at her once before opening his bag. Mariah watched as he removed two paperclips and straightened all but one of the bends in them. He then took the bottle and carefully jimmied the two clips past the cork, one on each side. After carefully turning the clips so that bent ends pierced the bottom of the cork, he twisted the free ends at the top together and pulled on them to loosen the cork. It took a few minutes, but the cork came free, and he looked at her with a triumphant smile.
“Okay, you’ve obviously done that before,” Mariah said. “I’m impressed, but I’d be even more impressed if you could make a wineglass appear out of thin air.”
John laughed outright at that comment. “Sorry, Princess. You’re going to have to be unladylike and undignified and drink from the bottle,” he said as he took a swig from his beer.
Mariah smiled at him as she brought the wine bottle to her lips and took a sip. “There’s no way you suffered from a lack of servants to open your wine bottles for you, so where did you learn to improvise like that?” she asked.
“My college girlfriend showed me that little trick,” he admitted. He took another sip from his beer and then offered it to her. When she shook her head, he asked, “Have you ever had a beer?”
“No,” she admitted.
“I didn’t think so,” he replied.
“Why?” she asked.
“Lucky guess,” he said with another one of those mysterious, little smiles.
“Who are you right now?” The question popped out before she could stop it. She quickly took a long gulp of wine to cover her embarrassment.
“I’m John,” he answered softly. “I was born in Chicago, and I attended boarding school at Collegiate in New York. On breaks from school, I spent time at the headquarters of E², learning how to be the boss before I even knew what it was to be a man. I finished boarding school at 16 and went immediately to Cornell University where I spent the next five years of my life earning a Bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and a Master’s degree in business administration. I’m John, a guy whose entire life was dictated for him until he did the one crazy thing that his father wasn’t expecting.”
“What crazy thing was that?” she asked.
“I stood up to him for the first time in my life and told him I wasn’t going to work for his company right out of college. I became a commissioned officer in the army instead, and I stayed in for more than four years. My army years were when I figured out that I’m a beer guy,” he said quietly. He then met her eyes and asked, “Who are you right now?”
Mariah considered her answer carefully before she spoke. “I’m Mariah. I was born in Chicago, and I was homeschooled until 17. I got a full academic scholarship to Harvard University, where I was on the dive team because that’s what my mother wanted for me. After earning my law degree, I disappointed my mother by doing the last thing she expected. I sacrificed my dreams for ten years to live my life for someone else. Who am I right now? I honestly don’t know. I’ve been trying to figure it out for the past year,” she said.
“I think we’re both still trying to figure out who we are,” John said.
On impulse, Mariah reached out and took the beer bottle out of his hands. She looked him in the eye as she slowly raised the bottle to her lips. She took a small sip and then gave it back to him. “I think I could learn to like beer,” she said. He smiled at her, and she offered him a sip of her wine.
He maintained eye contact as he took a drink. “I’ve had a thing for wine since early in the summer,” he said in a near whisper.
“Good,” Mariah replied. “Because I wouldn’t be in any condition to travel tomorrow if I drank this entire bottle on my own.” She took another drink and handed the bottle back to him.
They passed the bottle back and forth in silence for a while. Gusts of wind blew rain against the window as the storm raged on outside. Mariah felt a warm glow spread throughout her body as the wine started to affect her. She and John sat on the edge of the bed, facing the window and watching all of the lightning strikes outside. For some reason, Mariah didn’t feel an ounce of fear as she sat next to him. She hadn’t felt afraid since that moment on the plane when he had told her everything would be okay.
In an attempt to get more comfortable, Mariah tried to scoot back to recline on the bed. She lost her balance and swayed against John as the room spun just a little. “Whoa,” he said as he reached out to steady her. “Maybe you’ve had enough.”
He attempted to take the bottle from her, but she held it away from him with a giggle. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she was aware that she would likely be embarrassed about this tomorrow, but she was too relaxed to care right now. “I’m not drunk, John,” she giggled.
“I think you’re a bit tipsier than you realize, Mariah,” he said calmly. “You did drink almost half a bottle of wine in less than an hour,” he pointed out when she continued to eye him.
“I’m not drunk, and I can prove it,” she insisted.
“Prove it then,” he said.
Mariah looked around for a book, but the only two available were the local phone book and the Holy Bible on the nightstand next to her. She picked up the phone book and flipped to a random page. She felt John’s eyes on her as her eyes scanned over every name and number on the first two pages of the H section.
“Okay, you’ve definitely had enough,” he chuckled.
“Sh,” she hissed at him. “I’m concentrating. I have to show you that I’m not drunk. I’ve never been drunk in my life.”
He chuckled again and remained quiet. When she finished scanning the names, she handed him the book and said, “Say any name on that page, and I’ll give you the number.”
“Mariah, this is silly,” he said.
“Just do it,” she replied as she flopped back on the bed and closed her eyes.
There was a long pause before he finally said, “Hooper, Robert.”
“555-0126,” Mariah said.
“Hughes, Mary and John,” he said more quietly this time.
He spoke more than twenty names before he gave up trying to stump her. “Okay, I’m impressed, damned impressed, but that doesn’t mean you’re not a little drunk right now.”
“Take a look at the next page,” she told him. Once he got there, she started reciting the names, addresses, and numbers in the order they appeared in the book.
When she finished, she opened her eyes to find him staring down at her in astonishment. “I always thought photographic memories were some sort of urban legend,” he said.
“They are,” she chuckled. “What most people think of as a photographic memory is actually a phenomenon known as an eidetic memory. That’s when someone can look at a picture or object and then recall it exactly. Kind of like those people who can recreate an entire skyline by drawing it from memory after seeing it only once. I think eidetic memories are fascinating, but that’s not what I have,” she said.
“What do you have then?” John asked.
“I have a form of exceptional memory that allows me to retain astonishing amounts of information, but it must be in written form. I’m more of a document scanner with an excellent filing system for quick and accurate recall of things stored in my mind. I have to close my eyes when recalling big chunks, though, and that makes me feel self-conscious about it. My memory really came in handy when I was in law school. Some of my peers thought it was an unfair advantage, so I kind of learned to keep it to myself while I was there.”
“I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that it also comes in handy around the office,” John replied.
“All the time,” she admitted with a laugh. “It’s most fun when I’m playing chess, though.”
“How so?” John asked with quiet thoughtfulness in his voice.
She peeked over at him and giggled again. “Sometimes when I play, it can be a lot like playing one of those chess computers. My opponent makes a move, and then I calculate my move based on the percentages of winning with each subsequent combination of moves. I get those percentages from statistical analysis of common moves in the beginning of games. It works best during the first ten moves, but I have fun doing it as far into the game as I can because it usually gives me something to do while my opponent is thinking. Also, I’ve memorized almost every opening and all of the common chess tactics and advantageous positions for both black and white. It really isn’t fair for me to play a game against someone who has an average skillset, so I try to play like a normal person when I play a game for fun.”
After a long silence, John asked, “Is that what you did the first night in China when we played? Were you calculating statistical advantages with me?”
“Only a little,” she said with a hiccup. “Next time we play, I’ll do it for real if you think you can handle the challenge.”
John smiled down at her and took the bottle of wine out of her hand. He set it on the table along with his unfinished beer and lay down beside her. “I’d suggest a game tonight so you could explain the process, but we don’t have a chess set, and you’re not exactly in any shape to be thinking too hard right now. I’d love to see what you can do when you haven’t been drinking,” he said.
Mariah sat up to assert that she wasn’t drunk, but the room spun again, and she flopped back down with an ungraceful little squeak. “You’ll see,” she said as she closed her eyes again. “Would a drunk person be able to do this?” she asked as the words to Alexander Hamilton’s essay titled The Consequences of Hostilities Between the States filled her mind. She had memorized her favorite essays from The Federalist Papers back in college, but it had been years since she’d recited them. Usually, she didn’t like to seem like a sideshow act, but tonight she got the feeling John was having genuine fun with her. For some reason, a warm glow spread through her body as she began a quiet recitation of the essay.
“To the People of the State of New York: Assuming it therefore as an established truth that the several States, in case of disunion, or such combinations of them as might happen to be formed out of the wreck of the general Confederacy, would be subject to those vicissitudes of peace and war, of friendship and enmity, with each other, which have fallen to the lot of all neighboring nations not united under one government, let us enter into a concise detail of some of the consequences that would attend such a situation. War between the States, in the first period of their separate existence, would be accompanied with much greater distresses than it commonly is in those countries where regular military establishments have long obtained…” she trailed off as the long day and the wine caught up to her. She was aware of John’s quiet presence on the bed beside her as silence fell over the room. She would have opened her eyes again to say goodnight, but she was far too relaxed. Hopefully, she wouldn’t be too embarrassed about showing off when the sun came up tomorrow.
The next morning, John woke up to the gentle tapping of Mariah’s heartbeat against his ear. She had somehow managed to curl her torso around his head and drape one thigh over his chest during the night. He quickly realized that his hand was splayed across her ass. Just as he was about to remove it, she stirred against him. He went completely still and scarcely dared to breathe. She moved again, and her soft breasts pressed against his head. His cock sprang to attention as she moved her leg again and snuggled closer.
He knew he should remove his hand and untangle himself from his current position, but for some reason, he couldn’t. The peaceful stillness in the room settled around him like a warm blanket, and he wanted to stay exactly as he was and enjoy it. He tried to conquer the other thoughts that clouded his mind, but having her breasts so close to his face was costing him the battle with his body. In that moment, the office seemed like some place from a distant galaxy—a place he wanted to pretend didn’t exist.
She moved again, and her leg brushed against his lips, branding him with fire and the scent of her lotion. His body reacted fiercely, and he had to fight the urge to start kissing her smooth skin. As soon as he thought about kissing her thigh, an entire array of urges crossed his mind. He closed his eyes and breathed her in again as he imagined her running her soft hands down his bare chest. With a groan, he imagined her lips following the trail blazed by her hands. It took every ounce of his self-control to gently push her leg away and slide out of bed. He cleared his head with a long, cold shower before daring to venture back into the room.
He returned to find her awake and sitting on the edge of the bed with a vulnerable and slightly confused expression on her face.
“Good morning, Mr. Donovan,” she said quietly as she looked up at him.
He tried not to feel the disappointment that flooded him at her use of the title Mr. Donovan when just last night he had been John and they had shared so much of themselves.
He once again donned the mantle of Mr. Donovan, CEO of E², as he looked into her eyes and said, “I trust you slept well, Miss Jones.”
A look of relief crossed her face as she said, “I did, thank you,” in a politely professional tone that echoed his.
“Well, well—fancy meeting you here,” a familiar male voice said at Mariah’s back.
She turned to see Wes looking down at her with a smile. “Wes, how have you been?” she asked.
“I could complain, but I won’t. How has your boss been treating you lately?”
“He pays me well, but he keeps me busy. I earn every penny and then some,” Mariah answered. “I’m actually supposed to be making arrangements for the gala he’s hosting next month, but I decided to sneak in a quick lunch away from the office.”
“A gala? What’s the occasion?” Wes asked.
“Some sort of unveiling of this new solar technology that he’s been being so secretive about. It’s a really big deal.”
“Does that mean you won’t have time for fun this month?” Wes licked his lips as he looked at her and waited for an answer.
Mariah’s heart picked up speed. “What did you have in mind?” she asked.
“How about you have lunch with me tomorrow? I’m sure you can sneak away from His Highness for half an hour or so.”
“I don’t know,” Mariah hedged.
“I’ll be here tomorrow at noon. That seems to be the time you’ve been coming here for lunch on the days you take lunch.”
“How did you know I come here for lunch?” Mariah asked.
“I noticed you here a couple of times, so I asked the seating hostess. She said you usually come around noon on the days you do come,” Wes answered with an unabashed grin. “I’ve been having lunch here every day since last time I saw you here, and today my persistence paid off.”
“You expect me to believe that you’ve been coming here every day, waiting for me to show up?” she asked with a laugh. Wes was obviously an outrageous flirt.
“How could I forget the girl with the killer dive?” he said with a wink. “I’ll be here tomorrow, so don’t stand me up.”
“We’ll see,” Mariah said on her way out the door. She had to get back to the office for the afternoon meeting with Mr. Donovan and Caroline. As she rode back to her building, she thought about the possibility of lunch with Wes. He was incredibly good looking, and he seemed like a fun person. She didn’t doubt for a moment that he had only been joking about waiting for her every day. She knew he’d simply capitalized on a chance encounter by flirting shamelessly. It had been a long time since anyone had flirted with her, and she had to admit it felt good. After Mr. Donovan’s derogatory comments about her the night of that first ball, she felt vindicated that a man as gorgeous as Wes would show such strong interest in her.
“It would help if you gave me more details on this mysterious new technology you expect me to be able to market for you,” Mariah heard Caroline’s voice before she got to Mr. Donovan’s office. “How do you expect me to be an effective marketing director if you keep the details from me?”
“Miss Caldwell, we’ve been over this enough times. There can be no leaks about this. You are in charge of marketing products that are currently in existence, not projects in development,” Mr. Donovan replied to her tirade. “When I’m sure that this new thing is going into production, you will be the first one to have all the details. Until then you’ll just have to be patient.”
“As far back as we go, and you won’t trust me.”
“No, Miss Caldwell, you and I don’t go back far. Ben, I’ve known since we attended boarding school together, but you, I’ve only known for a few years. We do not go way back,” he said coldly.
Mariah stood near his door in indecision. She didn’t want to walk in on such a tense and obviously personal meeting, but she didn’t want him to think she was late getting back from lunch either. The decision was taken out of her hands when Caroline exited his office and breezed past her. Mr. Donovan then came to the door and motioned for her to join him.
“Miss Jones,” he said as he shut the door behind her. “What we are about to discuss is completely confidential.”
“Yes, Mr. Donovan,” Mariah answered. He seemed agitated today, but she didn’t dare ask him why.
“I know I told you that I didn’t want to discuss the new technology with anyone other than the scientists who are currently working on the development, but I find myself in a quandary.”
“I’m not sure I follow,” Mariah said uneasily.
“If I’m more open, I may be able to land more investment deals to help me make the final push; I’m just not sure exactly how much more open I should be. You have that certain something when it comes to talking people into making important financial decisions. Basically, what I’m getting at is that I need your advice. I will lay out everything for you, and then you help me determine who needs to know what when we make initial contact with potential investors.”
Mariah was almost too shocked to speak right away. This was the most confidence her boss had ever shown in her.
“I was really impressed with your work during the Canton Fair, and based on your background working as an executive assistant with your last company and your stellar performance here; I’m offering you a promotion to executive assistant. You wouldn’t have to bother with social calendars, scheduling, or things like bringing my coffee and dry cleaning anymore. Instead, you’d be working directly with me and the current head of the research and development department. His name is Solomon Grant, and he’s planning to retire in a few years, just long enough for us to train his replacement. From what I’ve seen so far, I have a strong feeling that you have what it takes to replace Solomon, but your formal training would have to start now.”
“Mr. Donovan, I’m extremely grateful for this opportunity, but I need to be completely honest with you about my former job. Yes, I was an executive assistant, but most of my assisting was in the capacity of legal counsel for my boss. I worked in a transportation company. Over ten years, the company built a network of high-speed rail stations and tracks across Northern India. The majority of the tracks were financed with government contracts, but some sections were owned by private companies. Most of my experience was in land acquisition deals, and in ensuring the legality of everything from purchasing land, to the manufacture and patenting of the trains we owned. If you want to know anything about railway engineering, I’m your girl. I could tell you about spiral transitions and the importance of grade through mountainous regions, but I don’t know nearly as much about solar cell technology.”
“But you will, Miss Jones,” Mr. Donovan said with a smile. “I’m going to take you on a tour of our research facility, and, by the end of the week, you’ll know all of the basics.”
Mariah sat back in the chair and considered her options. If she refused, there was the chance that he would resent her and make her job even more unbearable than it had been in the beginning. If she accepted, then she would likely be committed to working for his company for years to come. It would be a secure job, but something about the prospect of working with John Donovan indefinitely caused her pulse to flutter just a bit.
“Did I mention that the pay increase would be substantial?” he said as he continued to stare at her. “You’re way more brilliant than I gave you credit for in the beginning, and for the past few weeks I’ve been increasing your workload and observing your performance very closely. You’ve already been doing half the work of an executive assistant on the pay of a personal assistant. After everything you did at the Canton Fair, I’d hate to see your talent continue to be wasted.”
“I accept, Mr. Donovan,” she finally said with a smile.
“Great,” he said as the thunderclouds cleared his face and he smiled at her. “And now we get to the interesting part.” He removed a small box from his desk drawer and placed it on the desktop. “Come closer, so you can get a good look,” he said with another smile.
“What is it?” Mariah asked as she leaned in closer.
“This, Miss Jones, is the future of solar technology. This is a prototype of a material that has been in development for the past few years. It’s a new type of solar panel. It’s both flexible and transparent. This one has the capability to absorb more than one kind of radiation on the electromagnetic spectrum. It absorbs everything from radio waves to ultraviolet waves. What makes this exact solar panel so special, so cutting edge, is the fact that it can absorb significantly more waves using less surface area because we’ve arranged the solar cells into a patented fractal pattern that increases the absorption by more than fifteen percent. We’ve tested it on the entire range of small electronics that this company manufactures, everything from cell phones to laptops. All of the product testing results have been phenomenal. I already know we have a hit when it comes to small electronics, but the next step is figuring out a way to effectively store and more efficiently use the incredible amount of solar energy this material can absorb. We’ve been working on new storage options that might translate into use in the auto industry. Imagine a viable car that runs on solar power, even at night. Miss Jones, we are incredibly close to a breakthrough that could be worth billions if we sell the technology to those in the auto industry. That’s the big secret.”
“How would you apply these solar panels to cars without damaging them?” Mariah asked.
“This one is an early prototype. When we tour the research lab, I’ll show you the panels for cell phones. Those are set to go into production at the beginning of next quarter. I’ll also show you the prototypes for the car panels. They are more rugged to be able to withstand the wind drag while driving and constant exposure to the elements.”
Mariah reached out a hand toward the panel, “Can I touch it?” she asked.
“Of course,” he chuckled. “Just remember; it’s confidential.”
“How far has the storage research progressed?” she asked as she lifted the flimsy panel and examined it.
His answer was to pull out a thick packet of papers. “I thought that might be your first question. I have all the most recent lab reports on everything we just discussed. You can spend the rest of the week going through them and familiarizing yourself with everything. I’ve flagged everything that is currently confidential. Once you’ve reviewed everything, we can discuss what should remain confidential and what info should be made available for potential investors. You can work with me on the presentation for the gala next month. That’s when we’ll do the big reveal.”
That evening, Mariah returned to Natasha’s house with a triumphant smile on her face.
“You’re home early,” Natasha remarked when Mariah walked in.
Mariah didn’t waste any time with small talk. “I got a promotion!” she said as she stooped down to pick up Ty.
“Wow, that’s great. You’ve been there less than six months, and already your first promotion,” Natasha said with a kind smile.
“And it was a big promotion,” Mariah said with a huge smile. “You are now looking at Mr. Donovan’s new executive assistant. I got a twenty-thousand-dollar bonus for signing on today, and my new salary kicks in first thing tomorrow.”
“Twenty thousand?” Natasha asked in disbelief.
“Yes, but I’m contracted to work for him for the next three years, and I’m officially in training for the position as head of his research and development department.”
“Wow, Mariah! That is really great. You are so lucky.”
Mariah looked at Natasha and felt it important to say, “Luck had nothing to do with it. I am qualified, I displayed confidence, I made good decisions, and I worked my ass off for the past three months.”
“Well, I’m happy for you,” Natasha said.
“How are things going with Ben?” Mariah asked, changing the subject.
“I’m not entirely sure,” Natasha said with a shrug. “He invited me to go to dinner on Friday, but I told him you usually work late on Fridays.”
“Natasha, you can make plans. Don’t schedule your life around me. I’ll hire a sitter. I can certainly afford it now.”
“But I like watching Ty. He’s such a sweet baby,” Natasha said as she gazed at Ty.
Mariah sat down with a sigh. This wasn’t the first time she’d sensed some sadness in Natasha’s expression when she looked at Ty. “Do you want to have kids someday?” she asked on impulse.
“I can’t,” Natasha said in a very matter-of-fact tone as she sat down. Her eyes stayed on Ty. “I guess the closest I’ll ever come to having my own kids is taking care of the ones I keep during the day, and Ty.”
“I had no idea,” Mariah said as she observed her friend. “Do you want to talk about it?” she asked.
“I don’t even know what I should say about it. The simple truth is that I picked the wrong man the first time I got married. I was pregnant with our first baby, and he was drunk. I forgot what I did to set him off that time, but he dragged me down the stairs. I was seven months along. I lost the baby and had to have emergency surgery to stop the bleeding and save my life. And I actually went back to him after that. I thought no one else could ever love me.”
Mariah kept quiet as she waited for Natasha to continue. She’d never had anyone lay a hand on her in anger, not even when she was a child. Her mother hadn’t believed in spanking. “How long were you with him?” Mariah asked quietly.
“Six years. We got married the year I graduated from high school,” Natasha said with a sad and far off look in her eyes. “When I finally did get the nerve to leave, he didn’t want to let me go. He followed me to my mother’s house and tried to drag me back home. He harassed my family so much; I finally just had to go to the women’s shelter until things cooled down.”
“Is that how you ended up getting help from the same foundation that helped me?” Mariah asked.
“Yes. They changed my life,” Natasha said with a forced little smile. “I’ve come so much further than I ever thought I would. I have a good job; I own my own home. Everything is great,” she said in a tone that implied she didn’t really believe things were great.
“And you’re dating a great guy,” Mariah added with a smile.
“I haven’t told him about what my first husband did to me. I don’t want to ruin things. We’ve been spending so much time together, and he’s told me that he feels like he’s getting to the stage in his life where he’d like to settle down,” Natasha said as a single tear escaped her eye.
Mariah didn’t know what to say. She walked over to Natasha and placed an arm around her slender shoulders. “I wish I could assure you that he will understand—I really wish I could—but I can’t. I can tell you that if he doesn’t understand, then he wasn’t the right man for you. The right one will accept you as you are, and love you no matter what.”
“That sounds like something my mother would say,” Natasha sniffed as she wiped away a tear.
“How do you feel about him?” Mariah asked.
“I’m not sure yet… I feel like he might end up being the best thing that ever happened to me, but I’m afraid to trust him too much. It’s still too soon to tell.”
“I think you should go out with him on Friday. Let his actions speak for him. If and when you feel it’s the right time, then you should tell him about your past,” Mariah said.
After her talk with Natasha, Mariah spent the rest of the evening studying the lab reports and dealing with Ty. He didn’t cry and he hardly made any noises, but he was still a big distraction. She wondered how other single parents managed to put themselves through school or work full time while raising children.
The next morning, Mariah arrived to work early. Mr. Donovan had told her that she no longer had to worry about bringing his coffee, but habit had prevailed this morning. She set the thermos of coffee she’d made earlier on his desk and went in search of his coffee cup. When she returned to his office, coffee mug in hand, she found him already seated at his desk.
“You’re early,” she said in surprise.
His response was a withering look and a raised eyebrow. For the hundredth time in the past few months, she wondered what had happened to the considerate man who had held her on the plane and shared the hotel room with her.
“What is this?” he asked with a pointed look at the thermos.
“Oh, I apologize for that, Sir. I usually have time to pour your coffee into this mug before you get here. I know you said I didn’t have to bother with the coffee anymore, but here it is,” she replied.
“You bring my coffee here in a thermos? Where do you get it?” he demanded.
“I’ve been making it myself in a French press every morning,” she confessed. “It saves money and time, and the beans are ground fresh every day, Sir.” She set his mug on the desk in front of him and poured the coffee out of the thermos for him. She then took her seat across from him and gave him a friendly smile as her mind dared him to complain about the coffee that he had been happily drinking for more than three months.
He eyed her as he took a sip of his coffee. “Did you manage to get through a good portion of the lab reports?” he asked. His look was reminiscent of the cold looks he’d given her on her first day.
“I did, Sir,” she answered.
“Good. I talked to Solomon Grant and Dr. Blake; we’re taking you on a tour of the research lab first thing this morning. Do you have any questions for me? If you ask the scientists, they might answer in language that’s completely over your head.”
“I don’t have any questions, but I am eager to see how it all comes together.”
He gave her a look that bordered on disappointment before he picked up his phone and told Janice to inform the tenth floor that they were on the way down. He then stood and opened his door. “After you,” he said.
When she walked past him, she caught a whiff of his shampoo. She looked up to see his eyes on her, and then she quickly looked away. He didn’t say anything at all while they rode the elevator to the tenth floor, but Mariah was acutely aware of his eyes on her almost the entire time. His neatly manicured fingers drummed against the portfolio he held and Mariah did her best to ignore him. As she tried not to let her discomfort show, she wondered how stressful the next three years of her life would be. The only thing worse would be working closely with Caroline Caldwell.
When the elevator doors opened, Mariah rocketed out of the cramped quarters and left Mr. Donovan to trail behind her. “Hi, I’m Mariah Jones. Mr. Donovan and I are here to take a tour with Dr. Blake,” she said with a smile as she approached the young security guard at the lab entrance.
“I’ll just need to see your security pass, Miss Jones,” the guard said.
Mariah presented it just as Mr. Donovan rounded the corner. The guard didn’t bother asking him for his pass. He pushed a button, and the glass door beside him slid open. Mr. Donovan stood aside and let her enter first.
John tried his best not to stare at Mariah as she marched toward the security guard on the research floor. So what if she had a nice figure? Plenty of women had great bodies, and he could easily turn a blind eye to those things in the workplace. So what if she had been personally making his coffee for him? That didn’t necessarily mean she fantasized about him the way he often did about her. He admonished himself about being more professional as he followed her down the hall.
After they entered the lab, he took a step back and watched as her eyes scanned over the lab equipment. He noticed that she didn’t bother to ask him what anything was called. Once she’d given everything a glance, she turned to him in expectant silence. The intelligence in her eyes reached out to him and made him want to smile at her.
He tamped down the urge to smile and said, “Dr. Blake should be right out.” A moment later, Solomon Grant and Dr. Blake joined them.
“So, I finally get to meet my replacement,” Solomon joked as he stuck out his hand in Mariah’s direction.
“Nothing is set in stone yet,” she responded with a good-natured little chuckle as she shook Solomon’s hand. She then turned to Dr. Blake and said, “It’s good to see you again, Dr. Blake.”
John watched as Dr. Blake’s weathered face lit up with a smile. Dr. Blake had been with the company since John Senior had started it. John had always seen Dr. Blake as more of a father figure than his real father had been. He still remembered his first official day of training to work for his father’s company. He had been just thirteen at the time, but Dr. Blake’s easy manner had helped settle his jitters. In the years since their initial meeting, Dr. Blake had cemented his status as one of John’s favorite people. His respect for Dr. Blake went way beyond his value for the company. Just now, John found it interesting to watch Dr. Blake’s interaction with Mariah.
“Don’t mind me,” John said as the three of them looked back at him. “I’m going to participate as little as possible. I’ll follow along in the capacity of silent observer.”
“So, you want to see what Miss Jones is made of?” Solomon laughed.
“Something like that,” John admitted as he met Mariah’s inquisitive gaze. She smiled at him, and he had to resist the urge to smile back. He loved her smile, because it always held a little challenge in it, accompanied by an ‘I’ll show you what I’m capable of’ look in her eyes. She raised her chin as she turned back to Dr. Blake.
“Do you have any questions before we get started?” Dr. Blake asked her.
“Actually, I have a few questions about some of the lab equipment. The lab report I read didn’t specify which version of the DC Load Bank was used in the Capacity test on the prototypes discussed in section six A of the report. To the best of my knowledge, don’t the SBS-8400 and the SBS-111oS produce significantly different test results, depending on the materials used in the battery being tested? The equipment list at the beginning of the reports indicates that you had both load banks on hand. If I knew which one was used, it would clear up some of the confusion I had when I got to the end of the report. I also had a few questions on the non-linear analysis of the differentials on your outputs. There was no convergence criteria listed in the discussion of your analysis program, so I’m in the dark as to how you calculated the rate of change.”
“You’ve finished reading through the entire report?” Dr. Blake asked with an incredulous look.
“Yes,” Mariah answered.
John stepped forward and demanded, “Do you mean you skimmed over it? Did you memorize? Or did you actually study it and understand it?”
She cast him one of those looks that made him nervous sometimes. She then reached into her portfolio and pulled out the report. “I understood most of it, and I made notations of all the things I had questions about. I studied the report carefully, Sir,” she said as she handed the papers to him.
He took a moment to flip through the pages and skim over the multitude of neat little notes that she’d written in the margins. He found questions and observations that were very detailed and highly technical and scientific in nature. Several equations for electromagnetic flux density stared back at him from the margins, harkening back to his college days when everything he’d studied had been highly theoretical and difficult to grasp. He was astonished to find that she’d already written in several suggestions for interesting new directions to explore. Her notes clearly showed what an innovative mind she had.
“Could you excuse us for a moment?” John said to her as he took Solomon and Dr. Blake off to the side. As soon as they were out of earshot, he said, “You need to see this. I think we can skip most of the basic introductory part of the tour.” He showed them her notes and watched as they had reactions that were nearly identical to his.
“Are you sure she’s not some high-level corporate spy?” Dr. Blake asked with a laugh. “This is pretty advanced stuff. Didn’t you say she has a law degree?”
John sneaked a glance at Mariah and said, “She’s definitely not a spy. If she was, she’d never expose her knowledge this soon. It feels more like she’s showing off right now. Ask her every tough question you can think of, and I’ll pay attention to how she responds.”
After his initial interruption, John spent the rest of his morning observing Mariah. When he wasn’t watching her, he was glancing back over her handwritten notes and thinking about the future of his company. She might be just what he needed to get his new material fully developed. That fact made it imperative that he keep his distance as much as possible. He couldn’t afford another mistake like the one that had occurred on the way home from China. The last thing either of them needed was an emotional entanglement that interfered with work, so he stuffed his feelings for her down into the very bottom of his heart.
That night after Mariah went home, John met Dr. Blake in his office for a long overdue talk about her.
“So, what did you think?” John asked as soon as he sat down.
“How much are you paying her?” Dr. Blake asked.
“Come on; you know I don’t discuss salaries,” John replied.
Dr. Blake cleared his throat and said, “I only asked because I was going to suggest that you double it. Whatever her salary is, it’s not enough.”
“What makes you say that?” John sat forward and demanded.
“After you left us for the afternoon, she relaxed and we got to know her a little better. Trust me, John, you do not want that young woman leaving you to work for one of your competitors. Did you know that she’s a certified genius? She has been a member of Mensa for almost a decade now. Did you know that?”
“I had no idea,” John said quietly. “She hasn’t volunteered a lot of information about herself, and I can’t ask.”
“Why can’t you?”
“Because, I gave her this job as a favor to a good friend of mine. Rebecca Gregory, an old friend from my time at Fort Campbell, runs a foundation for battered women now, and she’s the one who twisted my arm to hire Mariah. She swore up and down that I wouldn’t regret hiring her, and she was right. All Rebecca would tell me when I asked was that Mariah worked in some non-traditional capacity on the executive team of a rail company over in India for the past decade. I’m the one who had a feeling that she might fit well in the research department once it became apparent that she has a pretty analytical and scientific way of thinking,” John answered.
“I can’t believe she never told you the things she told me and Solomon today. It makes sense that she’d want to impress you the most since you’re the one signing her paycheck,” Dr. Blake said thoughtfully.
John just shrugged and said, “She doesn’t talk about herself very much. In fact, when I ask, she tends to look uncomfortable. I usually don’t pry. Like I said before, she came in under special circumstances.”
“Well, that friend of yours hit the nail on the head when she twisted your arm. I haven’t been this excited about a new face since I started working here. Turns out Miss Jones has a degree in mechanical engineering. She wanted to be a patent attorney, but she ended up getting sucked into a transportation company that had subsidiaries in railroad engineering and high-speed train design. When she was with her last company, her legal responsibilities were pretty mundane. It doesn’t take much brainpower to look over land purchase documents and make sure they’re legit. She said she spent the majority of her days working with the civil engineers on various design projects to keep from being bored. She’s read all kinds of textbooks on various engineering disciplines, and the guys at her company would have fun coming up with problems for her to solve. I told her I’d see if we could set up a time for her to take the PE licensing exam for electrical next month, but you’ll need to submit some paperwork to make it happen—”
“Wait just a minute,” John interrupted. “You honestly think she could take the PE next month and pass it?” he demanded.
“Of course! She spent the last ten years of her life in a very challenging environment, staying current with every professional development course her company sent its engineers to, and she found it fun! She wants to take it.”
“I’m not sure if it’s a good idea so soon. Do you think she has what it takes to take over Research and Development in three years?”
Dr. Blake laughed and shook his head. “John, I’m telling you that even your father would agree with me, and we both know how demanding he was. I’m telling you that she could be ready in one year, not three. The research we’re doing is challenging, and it’s hard to find people who can grasp it, let alone enjoy it. All of those young engineers working with me are smart, and they are finally learning to hum along with a very complex tune. Miss Jones came down there today and showed that she’s not just ready to hum along, she’s ready to help me finish writing the song.”
After his conversation with Dr. Blake, John went home and thought about Mariah all evening. Never before had he experienced such a conflict of emotions. On one hand, he was excited about Mariah’s future at E². He recognized that she was an asset that could only appreciate in value as she grew accustomed to working with Dr. Blake. On the other hand, there was the pesky matter of his massive crush on her. He couldn’t look at her lately without feeling irritation and resentment about the fact that she was strictly off limits—unless she approached him.
John glanced across his office at Mariah’s head. She stared at her laptop with a frown of concentration on her lovely face. She seemed blissfully unaware of all the turmoil she was causing just by being there. Occasionally, his thoughts almost betrayed him, but he always managed to force himself back to reality before they escaped his mouth. She was his employee, nothing more.
“Mr. Donovan would you like to look over the final presentation?” she looked up at him and asked, interrupting his thoughts.
“Have you finished already?” he asked.
“Yes. I thought I could just introduce the new laptops and cellphones, and then you and Caroline could handle the automotive panels in development,” she said.
“That won’t work,” he said more sharply than he’d intended. Caroline didn’t know as much about the automotive panels as Mariah did, and he didn’t want to go through the tedious task of explaining everything to her at this late hour. “I think it’s best if you handle the research and development part of the presentation. You are the one who works closely with Dr. Blake’s team, and I like your style best when it comes to explaining about our research endeavors. Caroline doesn’t know nearly as much as you do. Plus, you have a knack for making everything sound more exciting.”
“I do?” she looked up and asked him with surprise in her dark brown eyes. God, her eyes were gorgeous.
He stood up and crossed the room to be closer to her as he said, “I’ve never seen anything like what you did that first day at the Canton Fair. You had everyone eating out of the palm of your hand. I went into it with moderate expectations of an export deal, but you clinched it. You handed me an export deal with the largest electronics store chain in India while everyone else was busy trying to figure out what was going on. You’re worth your weight in gold, Miss Jones, and during the gala presentation you are going to be my secret weapon.”
She pushed away from the computer and looked up at him. “Okay then, I’ll handle whatever part of the presentation you want,” she said with a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes. She was giving him that distant look that sometimes appeared when they worked late nights together, and for the thousandth time he wanted to ask her what was on her mind.
Normally he was able to restrain himself, but tonight he felt something inside him reaching out to the hint of sadness he detected in her eyes. “What is it?” he asked with a frown.
“It’s nothing,” she said as she turned slightly away from him. “I was just thinking of someone, that’s all.”
He felt himself straying into dangerous and uncharted territory as he got even closer and asked, “Who?”
“My husband,” she whispered as a single tear escaped.
“You’re married?” he asked in shock. She’d never once worn a wedding band to work, and he didn’t miss details like that, especially when it came to her.
“Not anymore. He left me for another woman,” she said in a barely audible voice that shook with emotions. He itched to wrap his arms around her and soothe the hurt in her expression, but he kept his distance.
“Are you crying because you’re hoping he’ll come back to you?” John asked with a sinking feeling. His voice came out sounding oddly sharp and demanding to his own ears.
She wiped her eyes and looked up at him with a sad, mocking little smile, “That’s not even remotely possible. I have no legal ties to him anymore. I apologize for that little slip. I’m normally better at keeping my emotions out of the workplace. It’s just that he used to call me his secret weapon all the time. I think I should go home now. Good night, Mr. Donovan.”
John stood rooted to his spot as he watched her walk out of the office. He probably shouldn’t have been so forward with his questions just then; he’d very nearly told her exactly how he felt about her. What would have happened had he given in to the crazy impulse to hold her and tell her that he would treat her far better than her first husband had? If he had said that, or anything even remotely close to that, she would have instantly rejoiced at having snagged a man like him. The demands probably would have started first thing tomorrow. No, confessing his feelings would be a disastrous turn of events that he must avoid at all cost. He reminded himself again that she was employed by his company, and the last thing he needed was trouble at work. He resolved not to think of her as he clicked through the presentation, but he couldn’t clear his mind of the uncommonly intelligent and beautiful expression in her dark brown eyes. It was mortifying to think that she had been gone only a few minutes, yet he already missed her.
As Mariah dressed for the gala, she rehearsed her presentation in her mind several times. Mr. Donovan was expecting her to pull off the performance of a lifetime, but she wasn’t entirely sure she had it in her this time. Ever since the night he’d called her his secret weapon, Mariah had been feeling out of sorts. Every other thought for the past week had been filled with memories of her late husband. She still had a difficult time getting her mind around the fact that he had been planning to divorce her and force her out of the company that she had helped build.
Mr. Donovan’s harsh, autocratic voice echoed in her head as she looked at her reflection. “Are you crying because you’re hoping he’ll come back to you?” he had said to her. The scorn in his expression had washed over her like a painful wave. Of course, Mr. Donovan probably thought it was a wonder that any man had married her in the first place, but he had not needed to make his personal feelings about her so obvious. On the other hand, Mariah could not figure out why his opinion mattered at all. As long as he thought she did her job correctly, she shouldn’t give a damn what he thought of her personal life. She had managed to make herself indispensable to him and she knew her job was secure, so why did it matter what he thought of her as a woman?
They had not spoken a word about anything personal since that night. In fact, Mr. Donovan had stopped commenting on her performance at work and had reverted back to giving her multiple, contemptuous stares throughout the day as they worked side by side. Usually, by the time she left the office, Mariah’s nerves were overwrought, and she had to play with Ty for almost an hour before she felt like her normal, happy self again. Or maybe she was just kidding herself about ever feeling normal or happy again. Since Tiberius died, she had been on a desperate search for her new normal. Now it seemed that only time with her son and her new friend mattered anymore.
For tonight’s gala, she’d selected a stunning royal blue gown with a sheer overlay that floated around her as she walked. Blue was a color that inspired people to trust and let their guards down; it was the only color she had ever worn to job interviews after she completed her law degree. Tonight, she needed to present herself as someone the potential investors could trust with their money.
A quiet knock at the door got her attention. “Come in,” she called out.
Natasha opened the door and peeked around the frame at her. “Wow, you look gorgeous,” she said.
“Thanks. Let me look at you,” Mariah replied with a smile.
Natasha stepped into the room and gave an elegant little twirl. “Ben insisted on buying a gown for me. What do you think?”
“I think you’re going to be the belle of the ball,” Mariah smiled. Natasha wore a shimmering white, cowl neck gown that clung to her every curve. “I think I should stay far away from you all night, so people don’t compare us. That gown looks amazing on you.”
“Thanks,” Natasha said with one of her shy smiles. “I actually came in to tell you that the car just arrived for us. The lady from the daycare is here to watch Ty.”
“I guess it’s show time,” Mariah sighed as she grabbed her little, silver clutch and followed Natasha downstairs.
The ride to the gala seemed too short, and before she knew it, Mariah was walking inside one of the historic mansions owned by the Caldwell family. She didn’t bother looking around in appreciation as Natasha did; instead, she set her sights on her boss and strode toward him. It was easy to spot him, because wherever he stood, Caroline was not far away. Caroline’s bright red dress had caught Mariah’s eye the moment she walked through the door. To say that Caroline’s gown was risqué would have been the understatement of the year. It seemed more suited to an edgy Hollywood party than a tech company gala. The neckline was so plunging it was nearly nonexistent. If she bent more than a few degrees forward her large breasts would probably spill out and cause a scene, but maybe it was the sort of scene she wanted to cause. Despite the animosity between the two of them, Mariah had to admire the woman’s audacity.
When Caroline noticed Mariah and Natasha, her hand went immediately to Mr. Donovan’s arm and she whispered something in his ear. Ben was standing near them, and when he turned to see Natasha walking toward him, his face lit up with a friendly smile. Mariah carefully observed him, all the while thinking how odd it was that one sibling could be so nice while the other one was such an outrageous jerk.
“Natasha!” Ben was the first to speak. “I didn’t think it was possible for you to look any more beautiful than you did the night I met you, but apparently I was wrong,” he said as he took both of her hands and brought them to his lips.
Caroline all but rolled her eyes as she acknowledged Mariah’s presence with a coldly uttered, “Miss Jones.”
“Miss Caldwell. You look beautiful, as always,” Mariah said as politely as she could while wanting to gag.
“Since you three have such pressing business to attend to, I think I’ll steal this lovely lady away so she isn’t bored to tears,” Ben said with a wide smile in Mr. Donovan’s direction. With a jaunty little wave, Ben and Natasha disappeared into the throng of people near the entrance to the courtyard where the presentations were to take place.
As soon as they were out of sight, Mariah felt herself deflate a little on the inside. Mr. Donovan wore his usual austere expression, and Caroline was the very definition of dour. Mariah checked her watch; there was only half an hour until her scheduled presentation. By then, everyone would be seated at their tables for dinner. Lucky her, she would be seated with His Highness and Caroline.
“I still don’t see why you and I can’t handle our part of the presentation together,” Caroline said in a faux whisper.
“We’ve already been over this several times, Miss Caldwell. It’s not going to change at this late hour,” Mr. Donovan replied.
And then they were silent.
A few minutes later, the tone of conversations around the entrance abruptly shifted. People buzzed and craned their necks to catch a glimpse of someone who had just arrived. Mariah looked down the stone steps in curiosity and saw a couple stepping out of a car. The man looked familiar, and so did the woman, but she couldn’t place them right away.
“Who is that couple everyone’s staring at?” Mariah asked Mr. Donovan.
He turned and muttered, “Holy sh—”
“What?” Mariah asked.
“Shane Gregory and his wife, Cecilia,” Mr. Donovan snapped.
“They didn’t RSVP, so they aren’t on the official guest list,” Mariah told him.
He gave her a look that spoke volumes about the urgency of the situation as he said, “Fix it.”
Mariah was off instantly. She hastened over to the doorman first and had the Gregory couple added to the list before they made it to the top of the steps. She then whisked herself directly to the girl she had put in charge of seating people and gave her the instructions to seat them at Mr. Donovan’s table. Her next stop was to the kitchen to ensure that two extra place settings were added immediately. In the middle of all of her mad dashing, she considered it very fortunate that she had originally kept the seating at Mr. Donovan’s table more spacious; she had wanted to sit as far away from him and Caroline as possible.
When she got back to Mr. Donovan’s side, she was winded, but she smiled as if she had not a care in the world. Mr. Donovan looked down at her with one of his rare almost-smiles as he introduced her as his ‘brilliant executive assistant and future head of the research department.’
“Pleased to meet you, Miss Jones,” Shane Gregory said as he stuck out his hand and grasped hers.
As she looked up into his face, it suddenly dawned on her where she had seen him before. He had been on the covers of several magazines, including Time and Newsweek, after he had taken over his late grandfather’s oil company and investment bank. Once she was able to match his face with the text of the articles she had read, the information about him came flooding to the surface of her mind. She was standing in front of one of the wealthiest men in the world.
“Likewise, Sir,” she smiled.
“I was just telling your boss here that we realize how rude it was to just show up like this, especially after you guys invited us and we didn’t respond,” he said with a smile. His apology seemed sincere, so it was impossible for her to feel irritated.
“It’s no problem at all,” Mariah assured him as she turned toward his wife.
Another little shock went through her as she looked into Cecilia Gregory’s eyes. The woman looked at her in a way that was intimidating, exciting, and oddly empowering all at once. Her silver gaze reminded Mariah of raw influence. This woman obviously had a place in the world and a strong identity that had nothing to do with her husband. That was a concept that contrasted strongly against Mariah’s sense of self during her marriage to Tiberius. Everything about her had been an extension of him.
“Mariah, just call me Cece,” Cecilia said as she grasped Mariah’s hand in her own. “Thanks for accommodating us at the last minute. When Shane heard about these revolutionary new solar panels, he had to see them for himself. The problem was that we didn’t see your invitation until just before we came. You have no idea how many of these things we get invited to on a weekly basis.”
“I think I could venture a guess,” Mariah smiled as the two of them walked away.
When Shane and Cece were out of earshot, Caroline, Mr. Donovan, and Mariah all released a pent-up breath.
“They’re going to be seated at table 1 with you, Sir,” Mariah said into the lengthy silence that followed.
“I can’t imagine why they came tonight. He owns the fastest growing oil company in the world, and tonight is all about developing more sustainable sources of power. The prospect of a viable solar powered automobile is the very antithesis of everything his oil company stands for,” Mr. Donovan said as he raked a hand through his hair.
Mariah checked her watch and said, “It’s almost go-time for you, Caroline.”
“I still don’t see why I have to go first,” Caroline said as she stalked off toward the podium.
The two of them silently watched most of Caroline’s speech. Mariah sensed Mr. Donovan’s eyes repeatedly returning to the table where the power couple was seated.
“What do you think, Miss Jones?” Mr. Donovan asked eventually.
She understood his question perfectly. “I think we should treat him as a potential investor. He may own an oil company, but he’s also a senior partner in H&M Financial Group, so he has the capital and influence to do pretty much whatever he wants,” she said. An idea of how to approach him was quickly and quietly formulating in her brain, but she said nothing of her plan to Mr. Donovan.
“Talk about a long shot, though,” Mr. Donovan said as he raked his hand through his hair again, causing it to stick up.
Caroline was wrapping up her part of the presentation, and Mr. Donovan started walking forward almost before Mariah could stop him. “Wait,” she whispered frantically as she grasped his arm and yanked him back.
He glanced down at her with a surprised frown.
“Your hair is sticking straight up, Sir,” she explained as she fished a small comb out of her clutch. “You don’t have time to find a mirror, bend down.”
He complied with a harassed look, and when she finished, he quietly said, “Thank you, Miss Jones.” He reached out a hand as the emcee introduced him, and she automatically laid her hand in his without giving it a moment’s thought. They walked hand in hand up to the podium.
At the end of their presentation, the uniformed servers distributed samples of their new cell phones to each table. There were a lot of oohs and ahs as everyone examined the new material coating the phones. Shane and Cecilia Gregory were discussing the flexible panels when Mariah and Mr. Donovan took their seats at the table.
“How can a solar panel continue to absorb solar energy even at night?” Cece asked Mariah as soon as she settled in her chair.
Mariah leaned forward with a smile and explained, “At night they absorb thermal infrared light, so ambient heat, even your body heat, can give it a little charge.”
“That is so fascinating,” Cece said with a smile in her husband’s direction.
“One of the interesting things our electrical engineers did was embed automatic power use settings that change according to the light patterns in the area where the phone is located. We use a combination of global positioning techniques and a simple little sensor that detects the amount of light in the area. So you can travel all over the world with this phone and the ‘ambient mode,’ which is what we call it when the phone switches to infrared power, kicks in at different intervals depending on the time of the local sunset and the level of light the phone detects. When it’s in ambient mode, the display isn’t as bright, and all of the sounds are forty percent more quiet.”
“What’s the price point on these?” Shane asked.
“Comparable to the price point of other smartphones currently on the market. Plus, one of our marketing strategies is to offer an extra discount to anyone who wants to trade in their old smartphone for one of these. We are the only electronic company with a complete built-in recycling program, not only for our products but for any old electronic that our customers turn in. Our manufacture, sale, and recovery process is on the verge of being a completely sustainable, one hundred percent closed loop. No other electronics company in the world even comes close to our level of sustainability. Also, one of our exclusive guarantees is that none of our labor is outsourced; even our recycling program operates within the U.S.,” Mariah said.
Mr. Donovan and Caroline looked on as Shane and Cece examined the cell phones at length. They concentrated most of their attention on the solar panels.
“I’m really curious to see how these panels would translate in the auto industry. The phones are great,” Shane said thoughtfully.
Mariah sensed Mr. Donovan stirring beside her as if he had a great deal to say, but didn’t know quite where to begin. She went with her instinct and addressed the elephant at the table before things got awkward. “So, how did an oilman like you suddenly become interested in solar technology? This isn’t exactly something we were expecting,” she said with a little laugh to dispel the tension.
Shane looked at her in surprise and said, “I wouldn’t exactly call myself an oilman; my grandfather was the oilman. I’m just the one in charge of his little oil empire at the moment.”
“You sound like you’re not entirely sure you want to stay in charge of it,” Mariah challenged him. She sensed her boss grow rigid beside her, and his foot nudged hers under the table. She pressed on anyway. “I remember reading the article Forbes printed about you when you first took over Howard Oil. The interviewer asked you how you would respond to the environmentalists who protest big oil, and I believe you said you admired those who were trying to usher in a cleaner era of energy consumption even in the face of record oil company profits. Well, Mr. Gregory, you are looking right at one of the very people whom you admired back then. You’re also looking at the unique opportunity to join him as the face of the future.”
Shane Gregory looked at her as if he wasn’t quite sure what to make of her impassioned little speech, and before he could open his mouth, she went on, “There has been a great deal printed about you lately, but I’ll never forget reading about some of your political donations in the past. Before you inherited Howard Oil and H&M Financial, you gave quite a bit of money to politicians who supported the type of research and development that E² is doing right now. And for whatever reason, you chose to show up here tonight, on the very night that Mr. Donovan has revealed his research into these new automotive panels. Call me crazy, but I think you want to be a part of this revolution. You’re smart enough to know that it will come eventually, with or without financial backing from you, but you want to be a part of it. Don’t you?”
There was a tense moment while everyone stared at Mariah. She kept her gaze locked directly on Shane Gregory and didn’t flinch or shrink down at all as the older man looked at her. His midnight blue eyes had a startling clarity and depth of character, and for an instant, she thought she might have said the wrong thing. Just when it seemed that their stare-down was about to reach epic proportions, he smiled and grasped his wife’s hand.
He raised it to his lips as he said, “This revolution, as you call it, will happen so much faster with the full financial backing of the H&M Financial Group. I’ve known it was time for a change for years now, and I’m more than happy to be on your team. There aren’t many who have the guts to go against status quo like your boss’s company is doing, and there aren’t many who have to guts to call me an ‘oilman’ to my face,” he said with a laugh.
Mariah looked down in slight embarrassment; when she looked up again, she caught Cece’s eye. To her astonishment, Cece actually winked at her. That moment alone made the weeks of hectic preparation for tonight’s gala worth it. “Mariah, can I have a moment with you while your boss and my husband discuss business? I’m sure he can spare you for just a few minutes.”
“Of course,” Mariah said in surprise. She got up and followed Cece to a private corner of the courtyard.
“My daughter has told me a great deal about you,” Cece said.
“The young woman you stepped on when you were leaving the shelter that night. Rebecca Gregory. She doesn’t typically act like it, but she’s the one who started the foundation and runs it. She named it after me, so I’m the official spokesperson, but all of the daily grind type functions, that’s all her.”
“You’re Cece Graves!” Mariah couldn’t help exclaiming.
“Officially, my name is now Cecilia Gregory, but, yes, I am Cece Graves. Rebecca told me you confided in her about your husband’s business; you really made an impression on her. I just wanted to say that you’ve done a hell of a job picking yourself up. I just didn’t want to mention it in front of your boss. Rebecca said that you didn’t want anyone to know about your background.”
Mariah felt unwanted tears behind her eyes as she thought about why she didn’t want anyone to know. The ultimate humiliation would be everyone knowing that she had been used and discarded after ten years of faithful marriage and working her soul out for Tiberius. “Does your husband know?” she asked in a whisper.
“No, only me and my daughter know. I read a little about your late husband’s company; there’s hardly any mention of a Mariah Jones. Why did you change your name?”
“I didn’t. I just went back to using my maiden name and my first name after I moved back to the states. When I was with Tiberius, I always went by my middle name because I didn’t like the sound of Mariah Vijaya. Most everyone called me by my middle name, Sarai, when I was in India. Sarai Vijaya sounds a lot less like a cartoon character than Mariah Vijaya,” Mariah explained.
“Your secret is safe with me, Sarai. Rebecca sends her regards, and she’s glad it’s working out well with your new job,” Cece said with a warm smile. “I think I’ve pried enough, and I can see your boss looking for you.”
Mariah took a moment to dab the corners of her eyes before she followed Cece back to the table. To think that Cece Graves had wanted to talk to her! She didn’t know what to make of it. She felt ten times more powerful just then than she had ever felt as Tiberius’s assistant. When she got back to the table, she beamed at everyone, even Caroline.
Throughout dinner, Mr. Donovan and Shane Gregory talked at length about the patented fractal pattern in the new solar cells. He was able to discuss all of the technical and engineering aspects of the material in greater detail than Mariah had earlier because he’d been familiar with the development for years. Mr. Donovan was in such command of the rest of the evening Mariah was able to relax for a while. After dessert, she excused herself from the table and sneaked away to a quiet corner on the balcony above the courtyard. She hid in the shadow of a massive flower arrangement and observed the couples on the dance floor below.
She’d stopped wondering where Ben and Natasha had disappeared to long ago, but as she watched from her bird’s eye view, she spotted them in a secluded little area of the courtyard. They held each other and barely made any pretense at dancing as the music played. Mariah knew she should probably look away, but there was something indescribably sweet about the way they held each other. Natasha’s slender frame relaxed into Ben’s more protective and masculine posture. Mariah wondered if that was how she had looked while she was in Tiberius’s arms. She had trusted him completely, just as Natasha appeared to trust Ben. When Ben and Natasha’s faux dancing gave way to passionate kissing, Mariah turned away from their corner of the courtyard and found someone else to watch.
Shortly after the slow song ended, the Gregory couple took the dance floor. Mariah smiled as the 1944 pop song, You’re Nobody till Somebody Loves You, began to play. Her smile grew wider as she watched Shane and Cecilia dance a very commanding and elegant foxtrot. Watching them made her feel like she was spying on a couple of movie stars in a private moment, but she didn’t feel the least inclination to look away. They floated across the floor as if they had both been born to perform for others. The only way to honor such a performance was to watch it and appreciated it, so that’s exactly what Mariah did. They had obviously had some formal training because their short dance put all the other couples to shame. When the dance ended, there was a surprising burst of enthusiastic applause. Mariah’s smile widened as she looked on. She wiped at the few tears that had slipped out and tried not to care too much that her makeup was damaged.
She turned to find the nearest ladies’ room and ran smack into a hard, male chest. She jumped back so fast her heel caught on her long, gauzy dress, and she stumbled. Mr. Donovan steady hands saved her from going down hard. His arms went around her, and she regained her balance. She raised her chin up a few notches as he stared down at her.
“Are you okay?” he asked after a long silence. His arms stayed around her as he waited for her answer.
She tried hard to think of some plausible explanation for having been found crying at such a triumphant event, but the truth escaped her lips before she had the chance to censor herself. Horrifyingly, she found herself leaning into his embrace, taking comfort where she knew she shouldn’t, as she spoke.
“Have you ever had someone break your heart?” she asked in a tearful, husky tone. “Someone who you gave everything to, only to find out the hard way that it was all for nothing?”
“So you escaped the highlight of the night to come up here and cry about your cheating ex-husband?” he asked as his hazel eyes bored into hers. His gentle tone didn’t match the surly expression on his face just then.
At his words, her emotional fog cleared. She wanted to smack him as she held his contemptuous gaze, but more tears escaped instead. She wasn’t crying just because Tiberius had cheated on her. The cheating part she could deal with. She was also crying because he had planned to leave her, and he had changed his will so that her ten years of slaving away on behalf of his dream had been diminished to nothing. She was crying because he’d left her destitute and pregnant, but most of all she was crying because he had died. “You wouldn’t understand,” she whispered.
He reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a handkerchief. “Actually, Miss Jones, I do understand. I understand that you have a job to do tonight, and that job isn’t yet complete. You need to pull yourself together, so we can go down there and end this gala as a cohesive team. There’s going to be a lot of smiling, more of those amazingly convincing little speeches that you are so adept at, and maybe even a little dancing…but there are to be no more tears. Especially not over some idiot who pushed away the best thing that ever happened to him.” He gave her arms a little squeeze as she accepted the handkerchief, and a moment later he was gone.
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While working to define herself as something other than the surviving spouse of a great man, Mariah Jones receives a life-changing offer. Which will she choose? Love, or her career? Mariah Jones has lived a charmed life--a life of distinction and luxury. As the wife of an entrepreneur, she has enjoyed the kind of things most others only dream of. But everything screeches to a halt with her husband's untimely death. Now destitute, pregnant, and alone, Mariah must pick up the pieces and make her own way in the world for the first time. After giving birth, she lands a job working as a personal assistant for the CEO of an electronics company. In no time, she proves her worth, and her boss, John Donovan Jr., offers her an advancement opportunity most women would kill for. The only problem? She absolutely hates him. To make matters worse, Mariah's workplace rival burns with animosity and unfounded jealousy. At least, Mariah thinks it's unfounded--until her boss does the unthinkable. John Donovan Jr. Has had every aspect of his life mapped out since birth. A stint in boarding school, an Ivy League degree, and years of private tutoring culminated in him inheriting the company built by his father. As the CEO of electronics giant E², his life is about one thing--keeping his late father's company competitive. Only after Mariah Jones walks into his life does he realize everything he's been missing. Working with her breathes new life into both his ambitions for his company and his yearnings for love. With conflicting needs warring inside him, John faces a serious problem. He is in love with a woman who is off limits. A woman who works for his company. An epic internal battle culminates in John doing the one thing he knows he shouldn't, and the fallout shakes the very foundation of his business and his life. All seems lost until an unexpected second chance at love gives him a reason to hope.