“She’s saying what?!”
“That you made several sexual advances toward her – and when she rejected them, you made the working environment difficult enough that she was forced out of the job.” My lawyer repeats, in a matter-of-fact tone that’s completely at odds with what he just said.
How dare she?!
If anything, Danielle Martin sexually harassed me, with the suggestive comments and not-so-subtle invitations for after-work drinks whenever we were working away. It got to the point that I finally had to tell her outright that I wasn’t interested - and after that, working together was just awkward. I was actually relieved when she finally announced that she’d been head-hunted by another firm, despite the prominent gap it left in my sales team.
I’d known she was disappointed when I didn’t counter their offer - and then again when I rejected her suggestion to get dinner ‘now that we don’t work together anymore’ - but I never thought her capable of this. Even after that pointed comment about how I’d regret losing her.
“That’s the most ridiculous claim—”
“Yes, I know - but we still need to deal with it. The lawsuit says she’s suing for several million and—”
“I’ll be damned if that woman gets a cent from me, Patrick.”
“Well, that’s why you’ve got me.” He says, still perfectly calm, as if he deals with this sort of thing every day.
Which I’m pretty sure he hasn’t, as my company lawyer these last few years, but then Patrick has always been totally unflappable.
“We’ll sort it, Kenneth - I just wanted to give you a heads up, and some warning about the calls I’ll be putting into your diary. I’ve sent over the documentation for you to look at, and we can discuss it in more detail tomorrow, once I’ve found out a little more.”
I try not to groan. The last thing I need are more calls or another urgent-top-priority item on my list.
“Okay, thanks Patrick. I’ll take a look at that today.”
I’m impressed that only some of the anger pulsing through me at this accusation is obvious in my voice.
“You should give Kelly a call as well.” He adds. “We’re going to need her help with this.”
I close my eyes briefly, not wanting to think about what my company’s head of PR will think about this little incident, before nodding, despite knowing he can’t see me.
“Talk tomorrow then - and for what it’s worth, I’m sorry to be bringing this to you. It’s a cheap trick, something like this.”
I grunt in acknowledgment, but don’t say anything more. If I think about it too much, I’m not sure I’ll be able to control the fury boiling my blood right now.
To be accused of that.
Just…I have no words. Nothing at all.
I put the phone down at least a minute after Patrick ended the call and raise a hand to massage my temples. The flight earlier left me with a headache and hearing this definitely isn’t helping.
It takes me a moment to get myself back under control, indulging in a few minutes of cursing Danielle under my breath, and the butter-wouldn’t-melt attitude that obviously hid something far more calculating.
Thank god you were never actually was interested in dating her. It would have been Andrea all over again.
Maybe one gold-digger was enough to finally make me wary. That, or my dick has just dried up completely.
It seems like sex is the last thing on my mind these days.
I finally get myself back on an even keel again and reach for the phone to call Kelly - when my computer pings with a fifteen-minute calendar reminder.
I glance over, frowning.
The name strikes me, something about it seeming oddly familiar, but the appointment definitely isn’t. I didn’t have anything in my calendar for this afternoon - I made sure of it.
I drop the phone back into the receiver and click on the email with the calendar invite.
‘Found you a new secretary - she’s new, but good. Try not to scare her off on the first day.
I pause. I’d forgotten that Tyler had promised to fill Marcie’s role by the time I got back from New York, even though the empty desk outside my office should have reminded me. I sigh, remembering the way she stormed out a couple of weeks into the job, claiming I demanded too much, worked too hard and wanted everyone else around me to do the same while offering no support whatsoever.
So, basically, the same complaints every woman I’ve ever known has had about me.
I like to think that I tried to support her, but it didn’t help that the woman was obviously lazy and struggled to pick up the simplest of tasks. It doesn’t seem too much to ask to work with people who actually know how to do their jobs. Of course, since none of the last four secretaries have lasted longer than a couple of months, maybe she was right about working for me.
Or maybe Angela spoiled me, with her brisk efficiency and perfect understanding of everything I needed. I’m pretty sure the whole company has suffered from her career break - and I’m starting to despair at finding anyone who can possibly fill the shoes she left.
I glance back at the screen, the clock telling me that the most recent aspirant will be arriving any minute now. Honestly, I only got back to the office an hour ago and I still haven’t even opened my briefcase. Between Patrick’s urgent message and unexpected calendar invites…why are there always so many things vying for my attention?
Jessica Reynolds being the latest.
I don’t have much hope she’ll be any better than the last few - surely Tyler is running out of people to send my way by now and even he admitted she was new - but there’s something about that name.
Where have I heard it before?
“Why do I recognize you, Jessica?” I murmur to the computer, wondering if I’m imagining the whole thing.
I meet a lot of people. The name probably isn’t that uncommon.
The knock at the door interrupts the reverie and I glance up, calling out in what I hope is a professional-but-friendly voice. I need to do something to kick this reputation for being intimidating.
My new secretary opens the door and strides in with the kind of confidence and self-assurance that I immediately appreciate as I rise to shake her hand.
She steps forward and—
Oh my god.
I finally get a good look at her face, a dozen images flashing in front of my eyes.
Only younger - softer. Those warm brown eyes, looking up at me with the kind of affection I’m not even sure I can remember. Her sun-kissed hair slipping through my fingers.
“Mr. Stark.” She says, in the voice I remember, but different.
This one is cooler - professional.
I shake her hand automatically, barely noticing the firm response as I go through the motions in a daze. I’m still trying to process the woman who’s just stepped out of a distant memory.
Does she remember me?
“Jessica.” I say, a hint of levity in my voice as I marvel at the coincidence. “My god, it’s been years.”
She meets my gaze evenly, then just shrugs. “Yes, I suppose it has.”
“How’ve you been?” I ask instinctively, suddenly curious about everything.
It’s not often that you run into the first woman you ever loved.
“Fine.” She says simply, the dismissal dampening my sudden enthusiasm and forestalling any other attempt to comment on our past, before she continues. “Mr. Adams assigned me as your personal assistant. I’ve had a chance to look at the different responsibilities involved with that and get to know your main schedule and daily routine, but I thought it would be good to run through my understanding of those and for us to discuss any additional expectations you may have.”
I blink as she looks down at the stack of papers she’s carrying, only just noticing those as she starts referring to a list in front of her, doing exactly what she just suggested.
Doesn’t she remember any of our past? Doesn’t she find this bizarre?
Ordinarily, I think I’d be impressed by her pro-active attitude and I’d probably be paying careful attention to everything she’s saying - because despite what Marcie said, I do want to help her out. I want to make sure she’s got the best understanding of this job possible.
But right now, that’s not what I’m thinking about. I’m not sure I absorb the slightest thing she says as she runs down her list while I nod and make approving noises.
I can’t believe she doesn’t seem to care in the slightest.
I mean, it’s been years. I haven’t thought about her for the longest time and I guess she hasn’t either. There’s no reason she would. But still…if she’s suddenly going to appear in my office…doesn’t the past deserve a little more acknowledgment than that?
It was pretty intense at the time, if I remember right.
“Is there anything else you think I should be aware of, or that you’d expect from me on a daily basis, sir?”
“Kenneth.” I say automatically, ignoring her question. She shoots me a quizzical look and I repeat myself, more firmly. “Call me Kenneth. I don’t expect formality.”
Actually, I’m not sure that’s something I’ve ever noticed before. I’m pretty sure my other secretaries have called me ‘sir’ without me blinking an eye about it - but the word sounds strange and unwelcome from Jessica. I’ve known her too long and we’ve been too close for that distance.
“Okay…Kenneth.” She nods, but there’s a hint of wariness there, and all of a sudden I wonder whether that was the wrong decision.
Hearing my name in her voice makes something weird flutter in my stomach. A distant memory, an echo of something.
Damn, I wouldn’t have thought something like that could still affect me. It was so long ago.
“And no.” I add, belatedly answering her question. “I think that covers it all.”
I say, despite having no idea what she just talked about.
“But I’ll let you know if there’s anything else, or if you need to change anything, as we get used to working together.” I add quickly, wanting to cover myself so I’ve got the opportunity to change everything she just suggested. Whatever that was.
“If that’s all then, Kenneth?” She asks, clearly bringing the meeting to a close.
I nod, unable to think of anything else to say - until she’s almost at the door.
“Jessica.” I say, stopping her, and I can’t help the slight way her name softens in my mouth. “We should get coffee sometime - catch up.”
She looks back over her shoulder, and just gives one of those small shrugs again. “I’m not sure there’s much to catch up on.”
Then she’s out of the door before I can say anything else and I’m left wondering what on earth just happened.
Leaning back in my chair and tapping one finger on the desk, I’m forced to come to the obvious conclusion.
She doesn’t like me very much.
She’s being professional about it - but that’s definitely where she wants to keep things. Professional.
Not that there should be any problem with that, unless it starts interfering with the way we work together. Which I doubt, if that initial meeting is anything to go by. I might not have been paying much attention, but the efficient practicality of it made an impression anyway.
Does it matter if she doesn’t really like me, so long as I have an efficient, effective secretary?
Does it matter that being around her seems to give me weird flashbacks to when I was in high school?
I don’t know.
I shake my head. I guess that will probably pass, as I adjust to the shock of seeing her again.
Even after all these years, I can still remember the way it ended - the last thing she said to me.
“You told me this would be forever, Kenneth. You said you’d be there for me! But it was all lies…the moment this comes along you’re abandoning me. Us. Everything. I can’t believe I trusted you…but you’re the one that’s wrong, Kenneth. You’ll regret this - you might think the world is about money and power and success, but it’s not. You’ll never be happy chasing that.”
Fiery and determined, even then, with tears running down her face and fists clenched at her side.
I sigh softly, the guilt I felt for months afterward suddenly coming back to me all over again, twisting in my stomach the way it used to do. I spent a long time wondering whether I’d made a mistake - wondering whether she was right, whether I’d regret my choices - but…I’m not sure I can say I do, exactly.
Not taking the once-in-a-lifetime scholarship to MIT’s business school. Not the friends I made out there, the experiences I had or the chance to start a business that I’ve grown into a billion-dollar enterprise.
I never could have done any of that without leaving Springfield, all those years ago.
Leaving Jessica behind.
For the first time in years, I wonder whether it really had to be about leaving Jessica too. She would have come with me. She said that in an instant, celebrating my success and future with giddiness and laughter as we drank the cheap champagne my older sister had bought me.
But I wanted to start over - I wanted to be someone new, someone different, and I didn’t want anything tying me down, holding me back. Not even Jessica. Not even the girl I loved.
Yeah, I was a selfish dick about it.
But it was years ago - and we were just kids back then. A few heartbreaks are just part of growing up, surely?
That’s what I told myself when I left, and it worked back then. The guilt faded away quickly enough when I was surrounded by new people and exciting opportunities. It seemed worth it.
Now, though…well, maybe that’s part of the reason for her cool attitude. I’m not sure I can blame her. We might be long past the teenage drama and any of that raw emotion, but she has every reason not to think too highly of me.
I let out a long sigh and for one crazy moment, I consider apologizing. I wanted to a dozen times back then, but somehow never quite built up the guts for it.
And now…yeah, the moment has definitely passed.
She’d probably laugh me out of the office if I tried. She’s definitely way past caring about the asshole teenage boy who thought he could do better in his shiny new life.
Pity. Now that I’ve seen her again, the idea of finding out everything that she’s been up to over the last ten years is strangely appealing.
After another few minutes staring into the distance and thinking about the past, I finally shrug it off.
Jessica Reynolds might be intriguing in more ways than one but all that really matters is whether she can do her job or not. I certainly have far too much to do to be distracted by the past, anyway.
I reach for the phone again, thinking about how I’m going to explain this newest mess to Kelly and preparing myself to read the damning lawsuit waiting in my in-tray.
Despite that and any other ‘emergencies’ that might come up today, I’m determined to get out of here early. It’s been three days since I’ve seen my little girl and all I really care about right now is getting back home. She needs more of me than I ever seem able to give her and after a trip away I need to remind myself of the way she seems to love and adore me despite all my failings.
The brief memory of the guilt I had when I left Jessica can’t compare to the one that gnaws at me now, every time my job takes me away from the little girl that deserves all of my time and attention.