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"Julie, get in my office. Now!"
The minute Julie Foster heard her name, her stomach sank to the bottom of her toes. She squeezed her eyes tight with dread pushing the frames of her designer eyeglasses against her cheeks. Forcing her tall, willowy frame to stand under the weight of what she knew was coming, she gathered her pen and legal pad like this was gonna be a normal meeting. But Julie knew these tools of her trade wouldn't be necessary today because this wasn't gonna be that kind of meeting.
"I'll be right there," she replied in her brightest voice wondering just how far she’d fallen from grace.
She hurried to Mr. Howe's expansive office across the hall, ignoring the curious stares peeking out at her from behind desks through open doorways. A dozen steps later, Julie crossed the domain of Joneva Franklin, Mr. Howe's efficient executive director with the sub-zero attitude. In most corporate settings, someone in her position was referred to as an executive assistant or an executive secretary, but Miss “toe the line or else” Franklin insisted on a far more superior moniker. Once, one of the junior partners made the unfortunate mistake of referring to Miss Franklin as Mr. Howe's secretary. That was not a mistake he, or anyone else in the firm, would make again.
Without slowing her steps, she nodded to Miss Franklin and hurried inside. "You called for me, Mr. Howe?"
The senior law partner of one of the most prestigious law firms in the country raised his dark gray eyes and pinned her with an accusatory stare. "Close the door," he replied, his tone cold and clipped. There was no doubt about it. The man was supremely pissed.
"Yes, sir." Julie turned to close the door to her boss's office and was shocked to see the sympathetic look on Miss Franklin's face. This must be even worse than she expected.
"Now, sit," he growled.
"Yes, sir." She tried not to show her apprehension, keeping a death grip on her legal pad so her shaking fingers would not betray her. Seeking what little protection the expensive wingback leather chair could provide, she took her seat, crossing her long, lean legs and did her best not to squirm under his cold stare.
Several minutes passed before he finally seemed to have enough control of his temper to speak. "Would you care to tell me why you haven't got those contracts for Mr. Carter signed yet? I put you on this case because you have always been my star performer. I was hoping this case would be enough to convince my partners that you deserve a seat at the table, even with your lack of tenure. But after my phone call just now with our very angry client, I'm having second thoughts. Care to explain yourself?"
"I have done my best to get that contract signed. Nearly at the detriment of my other cases, Mr. Howe. I've called Mr. Cahill a couple of dozen times and each time he hears my voice, he tells me the same thing. "The Cahill's cattle ranch is not for sale and then he hangs up on me. It's really hard to talk to a dial tone, and I'm not being disrespectful when I say that. Sir." Julie knew Mr. Howe normally respected honest feedback. Would he feel that way considering the mood he was in today?
Julie met the senior partner's direct glare and forced herself to hold it. She had nothing to be ashamed of. Granted she was used to getting her clients what they wanted. And this was a first for her. Frustrated as anyone, she could honestly say she had done her best. There was nothing she could do to force Mr. Cahill to sell his land if he didn’t want to. As far as she knew, that was still against the law.
The silence dragged by while she counted the ticks of the large grandfather clock in the corner. Finally, 158 ticks later, Mr. Howe broke the silence. "Alright, Julie, since your Plan A isn’t working, perhaps you'll be open to listening to my Plan B."
"Your Plan B?"
"Yes, my Plan B."
"If you're suggesting that I fly down to Texas and talk with Mr. Cahill in person, I'm certainly happy to try anything at this point, but I can almost guarantee what the outcome is going to be. Besides, he hasn’t been out of the hospital that long since he suffered severe injuries in a recent car accident. I'm not sure now is the time—”
"Now is exactly the time. You know my motto, Julie. Maybe you need a refresher course."
"No, sir. I don't. But I don’t believe your motto of hit them while they’re down going to work in this situation. He may be down, but he's not out. And he has a dozen or more offspring to rally around the old gentleman while he's recuperating from his injuries." Julie had used every persuasion she could think of to talk Mr. Cahill into selling that piece of property to Mr. Carter. The elderly gentleman was having none of it.
"So, does that mean you're not open to suggestions?"
"Of course I'm open. My ego isn't as big as...some of my co-workers in this firm." She was talking about one co-worker in particular who wanted to unseat her as star performer and get that recommendation for partner, but more than that he wanted her in his bed. She wasn't about to let Reggie Blackstock get his foot in the door of her office or his…anything else in her panties. "What did you have in mind that I haven't already tried?"
"Well, I suggest you go down to Texas and meet Mr. Cahill in person. It's much harder to say no when you’re face-to-face with someone like you."
"Someone like me? I'm not sure I understand . . .”
"Oh come now, Julie, you aren't that naive. But first I would suggest you try to appear more...approachable. Perhaps the man would be more agreeable if you were to... spruce up a bit. It helps to look your best when you negotiate in person," Mr. Howe offered.
Julie stiffened and her jaw cramped under the stress of trying to keep from explaining to her boss exactly what she thought of his suggestion and what cavity he could shove it in. She was tempted to do it anyway, but she knew it would be career suicide. Julie had known since well before law school her looks would get her more than her fair share of successes in life, and that is one of the reasons why she dressed down and worked her butt off. She wanted it clear that her success was because of her hard work and not because of her looks or who her father—
"Did you hear what I said?"
"Yes, I heard. You said you want me to appear more approachable. Perhaps, you could elaborate on that statement," she challenged since she already knew what he was getting at and she wasn't having it. “I believe I’ve always dressed in appropriate business attire, sir.”
"Come on, Julie, I've got eyes. I know underneath those less-than-flattering designer clothes and that no-nonsense bun you wad up behind your head every day, there's a woman in there.
She supposed that was an attempt at a compliment, but that is not something she wanted to hear from her boss.
“You've already proven yourself a master at complicated negotiations, but I dare say if you could just use a little bit of what the good Lord gave you, you'd have a lot more success and that's what the partners are looking for to fill that vacant position in the boardroom."
"So, let me be sure I understand, Mr. Howe. You are asking me to use my looks to what? Seduce Mr. Cahill? Because you do realize he is seventy-five years old? I think that ship has sailed."
"I'm not suggesting you seduce Old Man Cahill, Julie." She reigned back her indignation just a bit. Perhaps she had misunderstood his implication. Perhaps she should apolo—
"I'm suggesting you seduce one of Old Man Cahill's grandsons."
"Mr. Howe, I will not use sex to gain my client a contract. That's a highly offensive remark. I don't know whether to sue you for sexual harassment or a hostile work environment." Julie needed this job more than she’d like to admit, but she refused to sell herself out. Either her reputation or her soul.
"Look, I'm not saying you have to sleep with anyone. Just turn their head a little. Pick the one you think has the most influence with the old man and then work your magic."
"Just for clarification, Mr. Howe, exactly what do you propose that I do to work my magic?"
"Look, just turn his head in your direction enough to convince him this deal is a win-win for his family. Get on his good side enough so he might be willing to persuade his grandfather to be reasonable. Mr. Carter is offering a lot of money for that property. According to appraisers, the land is a mixed bag of contradictions. Some of it is rocky and of no use to anyone, not even developers. Some of it is dry as a bone and won't grow a twig. While some of it is sandy and full of grass burrs. You need to convince the Cahills that selling this land will be in their best interests."
Julie's intuition was pricking at her common sense. "So, if it's not that special, why does Mr. Carter want it so bad?"
"That's not our business now is it?" His words clipped and sharp. Mr. Howe left his chair and turned toward the great window behind his desk. It was a grand view. One she had admired many times. She dreamed of having the office down the hall with the same extraordinary view. It was like sitting on top of the world, above all the dirt and drama and disappointment.
The room was quiet, both of them lost in their own thoughts for a few moments. Then, without looking at her, Mr. Howe spoke, "Julie. This is business. I had hoped we could come to an agreement without resorting to arm-twisting, but I can see you are going to be stubborn about this."
Julie frowned. "If you mean refusing seduce a stranger, then yes, I am going to be very stubborn about this," she huffed.
The man chuckled. She found it very irritating.
"Very well. Then let me put this to you another way. Your future at this firm depends on your ability to earn me and the other partners money. To earn that money we must provide our clients what they want so they will be inclined to pay for the services they hired us to perform. As far as Mr. Carter goes, he's paying a lot of money to get that contract for the Cahill ranch. Do I make myself clear?"
Julie fumed underneath her practiced calm exterior. It took her a few moments to contain her anger and control her words. Finally, she unclenched her teeth. "Crystal."
Mr. Howe turned and smiled, but it was a practiced look he used when it suited him. The smile never reached his eyes...or his soul. "Good. Now, I've asked Miss Franklin to book you a flight for this evening. I'll send the company car around to pick you up to take you to the airport."
"No, that's okay. I'll go home now and pack. I'll come back to the office to finish a few things before I leave. You can have the car pick me up here."
"Very well. Have Miss Franklin take care of it."
"Yes, sir." Julie rose from her chair and turned to go when Mr. Howe stopped her.
"Julie?" She didn't turn nor did she answer, but they both knew she hung on his every word. "Don't disappoint me. You've got a lot riding on this. And if you can't get the job done, Reggie Blackstock is just itching to get his hands on this case.”
"Yes, sir," she answered back and started for the door again. Once she was outside and the door between them closed, she whispered to herself. "Damn him."
Miss Franklin turned. "Did you say something?"
"No. I mean yes, Mr. Howe wants you to arrange for the car to pick me up here in time to make my flight to Texas tonight."
"Already done," the woman said in her efficient, no-nonsense voice.
Julie frowned. "Maybe you didn't hear me, Miss Franklin. I don't want them to pick me up at my apartment. I'll be here working until time to go. Have the car pick me up here."
"Yes, I know. It's already handled."
Confused, Julie shook her head and started to explain again, when Miss Franklin lowered her voice and spoke. "Miss Foster, I know about your situation and it was apparent you would not want..." she lowered her voice another notch "...anyone to know."
Shocked at the woman's unexpected kindness and understanding, Julie was speechless.
"Don't worry, I've known ever since you were hired. Surely you don't think there's any stone unturned when vetting our employees, do you?" When she couldn't seem to form a single word, Miss Franklin continued. "I know everything about every single person at this firm. Some things I'd rather not know, but that's another matter."
Finally, Julie found her tongue. "Does Mr. Howe know? What about the other partners? My co-workers?" Panic was close and she was having a hard time breathing.
For the first time...ever, Miss Franklin reached out and gave Julie's hand a sympathetic squeeze. She honestly didn't know the woman had a heart, much less sympathetic feelings toward another human being. "No. No one knows but me, and I keep the background checks and investigative files right here in this drawer." She patted the bottom right drawer of her massive, very expensive desk. "And I have the only key."
Still in shock and processing the news, Julie stumbled over her words. "Then you know what would happen if anyone found out about...you must know what the consequences would be to me...and this firm. If the media ever catches wind of this…”
The woman's cold blue eyes warmed a couple of degrees before she nodded. "I do know and they won't. But have you ever thought maybe they wouldn’t be as bad as you think?"
"Trust me. It’d be even worse. No one can find out about this."
"Like I said I have the only key."
Julie stood frozen in shock, her mind a whirlwind of confusion and questions. "But why would you—”
"Let's just say I understand where you're coming from. I have a somewhat similar story."
"I do." Julie waited for her to explain, but apparently the woman wasn't going to divulge the details.
“Then if you know who I am, or rather who my family is, you know I can’t afford not to succeed at this job.”
“I do.” The woman was infuriatingly stoic in spite of her recent revelations.
"Okay, so, what would you do if you were me? I can't afford to fail." Julie's voice broke.
The woman everyone was afraid to cross handed her a tissue. "Then don't.”
“How am I supposed to get someone to part with something they don’t want to part with? You’re not going to tell me you agree with Mr. Howe’s Plan B, are you?”
Miss Franklin frowned. “I have no idea what Plan B is so I can’t comment on that, but failure has many different faces. Make sure you’re clear about the end goal.”
"I don't understand. The end goal is to get that contract for our client, and if I don't, then I’m screwed."
"Perhaps. That’s gonna depend on your perspective. Either way, you don't have time to feel sorry for yourself." The barely thawed persona now returned to a more recognizable frosty temperature. "I suggest you get moving. You don't want to miss that plane now do you?"
Julie shook her head. "No, I do not."
"Then go home. Get packed." The woman hesitated for a moment. "Make peace with whatever it is you need to resolve, and then get back here...say around seven. I'll have the car pick you up at the side door at seven-fifteen sharp." Without another word, Miss Franklin turned back to her desk as if Julie no longer existed.
Feeling like she should thank the woman for her discretion, she cleared her throat.
"Are you still here? I hope you aren't going to make me sorry we’ve talked. You're not, are you?"
It was obvious the woman abhorred open displays of emotions. Shoulders squared, Julie stiffened her spine and her resolve. "I have no idea what you're talking about, Miss Franklin, and I don't have the time to discuss it. I have to get home and pack because I have a plane to catch and a contract to get signed."
A whisper of a smile eased the sharpness in the woman's face and she nodded in understanding. "I know what it means to find your own path in the midst of, shall we say, iron wills who do what they do beneath a banner of love." The woman hesitated for a few seconds and she looked past Julie as if remembering something unpleasant. A look of what Julie would describe as regret flitted across the woman's carefully made-up face. But when Miss Franklin turned her ice-blue eyes back on Julie, the woman pinned her with a look that brooked no argument. "Enjoy your life, Miss Foster. You only have one and no one else can decide what that life looks like. Except you.”
Just then the phone rang and Miss Franklin turned to answer without another word. It appeared the woman felt no need for polite goodbyes.
Julie was long gone by the time the woman was finished with her phone call. Now, all she had to do was come up with a plan to get that contract for Mr. Carter. If not, well, she didn’t really want to think about that.