My breath catches as I step out of the elevator. I can’t get air. All I see is the image before me: red, angry blotches against a white backdrop. My sight blurs, melding this nouveau art into something more incomprehensible than it already is, something I’ve seen before. My limbs stiffen, like they did back then … the blood on the white tile, the brightness of it, the fear and knowing seeping through my veins as I stood outside the bathroom, unsure whether to step past the partially open door or run away.
I blink, and that action frees me to see what’s actually before me—the office doors, the starkly decorated hall, and the painting. It is just a painting—some new, most likely coveted acquisition of Mr. Everdeen’s.
My breath comes easily now that I see the canvas for what it is, though it baffles me that anyone could label this abstract mess art. I could create this. A woman dying could create this.
Turning my gaze from the painting, I draw my focus to the large double doors. Julie, the receptionist, can’t see me yet. Breathing deeply once more, I erase all thoughts that led to my stilted breath. I tuck the memory away—I’m good at this. I adjust my pencil skirt, making sure the belt lines up with the slimmest point of my waist, then tuck in my blouse. Perfection. I scrunch my curls, glad it’s not a humid day. No need to worry about flyaway frizz. I am stunning. Stunning and confident and professional … whatever Everdeen throws at me, I can handle. Closing my eyes, I inhale confidence and exhale any fear that threatens. So what if Carl implied bad news may be coming my way? Bad news is what you make it.
I will not fear this meeting. With a smile on my face, I push open the doors and stride towards Julie.
“Eloise, hello.” The receptionist smiles with her perfectly white teeth and glossy red hair, a shade not found in nature. “Mr. Everdeen will be a few more minutes. May I get you tea or coffee?”
“No. That’s fine. Thank you, Julie.” The plush leather armchair is harder than it looks, but I don’t let this phase me. I cross my legs and lean against the chairback. My body presents the perfect mix of poise and ease. My heart pounds.
Mr. Everdeen never calls people to his office for private meetings. Meetings are held in the boardroom. This invite is unheard of for someone as far down the chain of command as me. What lays behind those doors is a mystery. My colleagues joke about it, coming up with scenarios more and more absurd—He’s hiding a buffalo head, a tight-rope walking midget, a portal to another world.
One part of my mind concentrates on maintaining a serene smile, the rest is on overdrive, trying to determine what I could have done wrong. But I’ve done nothing wrong. I work my ass off, doing everything I’m supposed to do and more. I’ve secured more clients, big clients, than anyone else in my division. I’ve opened new doors. I’ve excelled. Perhaps I let my attitude take over once or twice, mildly, but that’s nothing compared to all I’ve done right. I bite my lip, shift in my seat. Flippant would be a good term for my behaviour … and those men who think the corporate world is an old boys’ club, who think they can say whatever they want whenever they want, never seem to mind. They call me endearing, precocious, fiery.
Julie’s voice draws my attention. “Mr. Everdeen will see you now.” I nod and make a straight line for the office door. It opens before I have a chance to grasp the handle.
Lancelot Everdeen isn’t known for his smiles and he’s not smiling now. He could have been a linebacker in another life. “Please, have a seat.” He points to a chair in the middle of the office, with another chair right across from it. Surprising. I expected him to address me from behind a large desk. Following his direction, I sit, the ever present smile on my face. He makes his way to the office’s floor to ceiling window as if I’m not here.
Everdeen is a taskmaster. He built his empire from the ground up. A modest empire, but impressive nonetheless. Everdeen Enterprises is growing. It has satellite and partner offices in five countries. It has the potential to be one of the country’s top Public Relations firms. It’s already the best in our city, and whether Everdeen recognizes it or not, that’s partly thanks to me.
But Carl’s words plague me, have me stealthily wiping the sweat from my palms. Tipsy from too much complimentary bubbly at a big PR event the other day, Carl slapped his hand on my shoulder. ‘We’ll be sad to see you go.’
‘What?’ I hissed between smiling teeth.
‘Oh.’ His eyes widened. His words caught in his throat. He coughed. ‘You’re going to the UK again next month? Right? The office is never the same without you.’
I have no trips planned, and Carl, who approves all travel, knows this.
Everdeen turns from the window. “You’re probably wondering why I’ve called you here.”
In five brisk steps he’s towering above me, then sits as if he’s never rushed in his life, crossing one ankle over his knee, folding his hands in a controlled manner. “I’ve been following your career, Ms. Grant. Your methods are unconventional.” He’s silent while I wrestle between wanting to defend myself and waiting for permission to speak. At last he continues. “An old friend of mine, Thomas Richardson from the London branch, called you ‘a little spitfire.’ Now that’s a direct quote.”
“Is that so, Sir.” My voice holds no question. I know exactly the situation that prompted those words, but I don’t let my confident smile waver. Richardson, one of the ‘old boys’ who thinks it’s appropriate to comment on a woman’s exoticness and fresh face, got far less ‘spitfire’ than he deserved.
Everdeen leans back in his chair, eyeing me. “He also said you were one of the most engaging reps he’s ever had the pleasure of spending an evening with.”
I nod, confused.
“A respected client of the Tokyo branch said you make the men feel as if you’re one of them, joining in, not judging their thirsty tendencies as so many Western reps do, not seeming bewildered by the many cultural differences, and you always manage to keep your wits about you.”
I stare at him, silent. When he wants me to talk he’ll tell me.
“You’ve climbed faster than all the colleagues you started with. You’ve signed more clients, created more relationships, garnered more campaigns, and convinced James to rework the whole way your team operates, improving everyone’s numbers.”
I nod again.
“Tell me,” says Everdeen, “what are your connections?”
“Yes. Do you have children? A husband?”
“And do you want these things?”
I think of Moses. “One day. A husband, at least.”
“I see.” He leans forward. “And what are your goals? Do you want to take my role one day?”
“If you could, would you weasel your way in deep enough that when I kick the bucket or simply get too old and senile to think straight, you’d be ready to step in?”
Everdeen’s brows raise before he laughs—a deep belly laugh. “Oh, really?”
“Well,” I swallow. My confident facade wavers for a moment, but I call it back. “I love my job. I love scripting. I love securing clients and creating visions they never even knew they had. I love helping companies and clients flourish, and flourishing myself in the process. At the same time, I imagine a day will come when I’ll want more than this. And,” my face is all business, “with all due respect, Sir, no one lives forever.”
“No, my dear.” A grin replaces the gruff expression Everdeen’s known for. “No. They don’t.” He rests his head in his hand and rubs his chin. “I don’t know if I want someone like you in my office eagerly waiting for me to take my last garbled breath.”
I suck in, as if I’ve received a punch to the gut, then spew the words out. “Oh, but I didn’t—”
He raises his hand. “I think it would be better to put you in the position to run your own little empire. You would thrive under a bigger challenge. It’s time for your days here to come to an end.”
I stare at him, my lips parted. This can not be happening. Failure is not in my vocabulary. I’ve done everything I’m supposed to do. More. I’ve worked like a madwoman, never complaining once. This is my life. “Mr. Everdeen—”
He cuts me off again and as he speaks his other words register in my mind—a bigger challenge. My own empire.
“I’ve been looking for someone to turn things around at the Tokyo branch. It’s a mess there. A real mess. I’m sure you’ve seen that.” He shakes his head. “We could be doing so much better—expanding. The market is huge and we’re barely skimming the surface.” He stands, paces, swings his arms as if he’s conducting an orchestra. “I need someone with drive. I need someone who’s not afraid to push past cultural barriers while remaining charming and savvy.” He turns back to me. “I’ve considered some of my senior people but they all have ties here—children, spouses, grandchildren.” He drops these words, as if they’re needless trinkets. “I know some of them would leave but they wouldn’t be happy. I need someone who is young, energetic, smart and, most important, open enough to be groomed by me while pigheaded enough to disregard my advice when they know I’m wrong.”
I stand, surprising myself. He brings his face close to mine. “Can you be that person for me, Ms. Grant?”
“Yes.” I squeak, trying to believe this is real. I smile broadly, bringing an even tone back to my voice. “Yes. Absolutely. Yes.”
“Well,” he steps back, ”don’t answer so quickly. Take some time to think on it. This is a big commitment, Ms. Grant. You would relocate to Tokyo. Not immediately, of course. You’d have a good six months before you took on the role full time, maybe longer, but during those months you’d travel more than usual, to Tokyo as well as some of our other sites. See what works, what doesn’t.” His smile is large, his shoulders back, his chest thrust out. “You’d be made privy to the inner workings of this branch.” He spreads his arms. “You’d be my protégé.”
I nod, unsure whether to smile, to shake his hand, to speak.
“The job includes a substantial pay raise, so it wouldn’t be too difficult for you to come visit on your vacations. And, of course, we would fly you in for all necessary companywide events.”
“That sounds wonderful.”
He waves his arm, conducting again. “Take the rest of today off, but I won’t take your answer until this time next week.”
“Yes, Sir.” Tokyo. Head of the branch. Me.
Everdeen walks to the door. “Ms. Grant, do think long and hard. This is no small thing I’m asking. This is the type of job that becomes a life.”
He shakes my hand. “I’ll be disappointed if you turn it down. It won’t destroy your position in the company, you’ll just have to work your way up like everyone else, knowing you may hit a ceiling. This offer is the equivalent of a rocket, shooting you to the top. Well,” he laughs his gruff laugh, which seems friendly now, “almost.”
Back in the reception area I smile the same confident smile at Julie as I wore a short time ago, not letting my excitement show. Once I’ve stepped through those big glass doors, however, the strength of my smile stretches my face. I run down the hallway, open the door to the roof, and take the steps two at a time. The sun lights the glass buildings around me, making my whole world sparkle. I grab my phone and dial Moses, who answers on the third ring. “Hey, dar—”
“I just had the best news of my life! You won’t believe it.”
He laughs. “Won’t believe what?”
“Well, what am I saying? Of course you’ll believe it. You know more than anyone how hard I’ve worked.”
“Let me guess. You finally convinced that client to sign on—what was it, the speed reader?”
“Better than that.”
“I got a promotion. More than a promotion! Mr. Everdeen, the Lancelot Everdeen, invited me into his office to offer the Tokyo division to me. He’s going to groom me and—”
“What? What does that mean?”
“It means I’m going to be the top. I’m going to—”
“You didn’t take it, did you?”
I pause. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, Tokyo. You’d be working in Tokyo? Full time?”
“Eventually, yes.” The wind whips around the building, a horn sounds in the distant street below, but I hear no response. “Moses?”
“That’s really amazing, El, that he thinks so highly of you, that he recognizes your talent and how hard you’ve worked. I’m proud of you.”
“Well, I should hope so.” I brush my curls out of my face, trying not to read anything into his tone.
“It’s an honour.”
“Yes, it is.”
“But,” his pause is long, “you haven’t taken it, have you?”
“Well, no. Not yet.” I tell him Everdeen’s stipulations. “But I can’t turn something like that down.” He’s silent again. “Mo—”
“We’ll talk about it tonight, okay? La Cresida, seven o’clock”
“I don’t see what—”