The funeral was more fun than this, Bev thought, waiting in the lobby of her late grandfather’s fitnesswear company. The young receptionist was on the phone and had been deliberately ignoring her since she came in. Maybe she can tell I got my suit at Ross for fourteen bucks.
Bev glanced around the dim lobby, shifting her weight from one sore foot to the other, surprised Fite Fitness looked more like the waiting room for a used car dealership than an upscale fashion manufacturer. It even smelled stale, like yesterday’s lunch.
“That piece of shit car,” the receptionist said. She wore a lopsided cordless headset over her skinny blond braids but was speaking into a cell phone she had slipped under the earpiece. “I hate San Francisco. I just replaced those brakes like last year, and the prick’s like, ‘Oh it’s your fault for braking too much.’ Like I should just crash into everybody. Stupid hills.”
She doesn’t look old enough to drive, Bev thought, feeling ancient at thirty. She checked her watch again. Only a few hours until her flight home to LAX. “Excuse me,” she said, smiling broadly. “I’m Beverly Lewis.”
The receptionist held up one hand, index finger erect, and kept talking.
“I have an appointment with Richard,” Bev continued. “The CFO. It’s kind of—”
The girl spun her chair around so that Bev was staring at the tangle of braids on the back of her head.
“—important.” Her mother had warned her the fashion business was filled with self-absorbed, emotional people, but Bev was an expert—she worked with demanding four-year-olds every day. She just had to think strategy.
Next to the desk, racks of clothes were lined up like the under-staffed dressing room of a department store. Curious, Bev stepped to the other side, slid the hangers apart, and ran her hands over the smooth Lycra and polyester. Track suits. T-shirts, yoga pants, running shorts. Cropped tanks with built-in bras.
Poor man must have been senile, leaving his company to me. She was a preschool teacher with no muscle tone—which her grandfather would have known, if he’d ever met her. Shaking her head, Bev pulled out her cell phone and scrolled down to the number she’d got from the lawyer.
The desk phone trilled. The receptionist let out a loud sigh, set down her cell, and realigned her headset. “Fite Fitness, this is Carrie.”
“Hi Carrie, this is Beverly Lewis, right next to you. I’m here to see Richard, the CFO.”
Carrie jerked her head around and stared at Bev holding her phone.
Bev smiled, trying not to laugh at the look on her face. “Ed Roche was my grandfather,” she said into the phone, since Carrie seemed to process better through it. “Could you please tell Richard I’m here?”
The woman’s eyes widened. She nodded and swung back to the phone to dial. She mumbled something, dialed, mumbled again, then hung up.
“Thanks,” Bev said, this time without the phone.
“He didn’t pick up, but I left a message. You should have told me who you were.”
“Sorry. Richard didn’t answer?”
“I’m sure he’ll come out and get you. It’s kind of hard to find his office.” Carrie pinched her lips together again, this time with an apologetic look. “I’d get you something to drink, but we don’t have anything like that anymore.”
“That’s okay, I’ve got my water bottle.” Bev pulled it out of her shoulder bag, waved at Carrie, and walked over to a lint-colored chair that may have been white when it was manufactured in the 1980’s. She thought about the word Carrie had used—anymore—and wondered if business was as bad as it looked.
Not her problem. Her aunt Ellen could figure out what to do with it; Bev’s life was hundreds of miles away.
She sat down down next to a dusty ficus, noticing the brown leaves littering the floor beneath it. She lifted her hand and caressed a crispy leaf with her thumb. “Poor thing. When’s the last time you had a drink?”
She got up onto her knees and leaned over the back of the chair, pouring her Calistoga into the pot. Clouds of dust motes rose up around her head, glimmering in the shafts of light coming in from the street. She sneezed.
“Did you lose something?”
The man’s low voice made her flip around in surprise, hand over her mouth, fighting back another sneeze. Right behind her stood a muscular, blond man in a tank top and shorts. She tilted her head up to gaze into his face, suddenly wishing she’d spent a little more on her outfit for the day. With a face that would impress even her Hollywood executive relatives, the man was well over six feet tall, broad at the shoulder, narrow in the middle, and glistening all over—her classic nightmare.
She realized she’d seen him at the funeral, though not dressed like this.
“Thank you.” She maneuvered herself off her knees and onto her feet, trying to look graceful. He must have just had a lovely view of her big butt. Her face burning, she extended a hand. “I’m Beverly Lewis. Are you Richard?”
His cheerfully sun-kissed hair didn’t suit the gloom of the rest of him. His workout clothes were slick and black, his mouth was a hard line, and his penetrating dark eyes made her feel as though he could see through her retinas into the soft, jiggly underbelly of her soul. Not to mention the rest of her.
Why is he staring at me like that?
“I’m Liam Johnson. Executive Vice President,” he said.
He took her hand in his, enveloping it completely. Unlike many men shaking a woman’s hand, he exerted genuine pressure—as though he expected she was strong enough to take it, or didn’t care if she wasn’t. She squeezed back as hard as she could, secretly disappointed he didn’t flinch, then pulled free.
He must have skipped the gathering at Ellen’s house, just as Bev and her mother had. To go running, apparently, from the looks of him—unlike Bev, who’d been eating a cheeseburger.
“So, you’re the granddaughter,” he said. “Our new owner. What a pleasure to finally meet you.”
The sarcasm in his voice made her stand up to her full five-foot-ten. She hadn’t expected a warm welcome, but the depth of hostility was a surprise. He was probably one her aunt’s allies. “I didn’t know about his will until the day before yesterday.”
“But you knew you had a grandfather. Funny I never saw you before now.”
Her lips were tight over her teeth, holding up the smile she didn’t feel. “Perhaps you could help me find Richard so I can get on my way. I have a flight in a few hours.”
That surprised him. He frowned. “Today? Where are you going?”
“Orange County. I need to get home.”
For a long moment he just stared. Then a corner of his wide mouth twisted. “Of course. Death can be such an inconvenience.”
A chill settled over her. She studied him closer, trying to remember more of what she’d heard from her aunt that morning about the staff at the company. He must be the guy who grew up next door to her grandfather in Oakland. The protégé. Her grandfather’s death must have been a shock to him. “You’re the swimmer, aren’t you? He hired you right after the Olympics.”
“I’m surprised you would know anything about what he did.”
Ah. That was it. “It’s true we weren’t close,” she said. “But you were, weren’t you?”
His jaw hardened. He shrugged.
“I’d love to hear anything about him you might like to share,” she said. “Our branch of the family has been kind of estranged for a while.”
“Oh?” A lot of unforgiving ice packed into one word.
“Since before I was born,” she added. So lay off, dude.
Bev looked past him to one of the doors along the far wall, nodding in agreement. She’d done her best to chat with her infamous aunt Ellen over the past couple days, but her mother still wasn’t talking to her—her only sibling—after thirty years. Not even at the funeral. It wasn’t right.
“Perhaps we could continue this inside.” She looked down at his exercise clothes with a raised eyebrow. “Unless you’re too busy.”
Smoothing the tank top over his chest, the thin fabric clinging to sweat and muscle like synthetic skin, he began to walk towards a doorway. “The administrative offices are back here.”
“Great. Thank you.” She waved at the receptionist, but the young woman sat petrified and stared at Liam without blinking. No doubt the sporty ice cube was a difficult boss.
He led her down a narrow, carpeted passageway with offices on one side, most of them empty. The shabby carpeting was brown with tan stripes worn down the middle from the tread of human feet. Pausing in a doorway, he looked over his shoulder at her. “I mistook you for Ellen at first. I thought she might have dropped her phone behind the chair.”
Bev walked faster to catch up. “Some people say I look like her, but I think it’s just the black hair.” Aunt Ellen had the same pale skin too, but their features were nothing alike. Ellen had a cold beauty Bev was happy to live without. It put people on edge, demanded attention, caused trouble.
He ushered her into a dark room, slapping the wall to turn on the lights. She was trapped inside with him. His gaze fell down her body. “You’re right. I don’t know what I was thinking.”
She was annoyed with herself for feeling insulted. She lifted her chin and looked past him into the windowless office, noting floor-to-ceiling metal grids bolted to the walls holding up clothes and white foam presentation boards, sketches, magazines. “This isn’t Richard’s office, is it?”
“It’s mine.” He crossed his arms over his chest, the sheen of perspiration still visible on his skin.
“I need to talk to Richard.”
“He’s not nearly as important around here as I am.” He walked over to his desk and sat behind it. “Talk to me.”
She snorted. “I’m sure you are very important, Liam. Nevertheless—”
“You don’t understand. Richard is just an accountant.”
“And you don’t understand. He has papers for me to sign.”
Liam froze. His eyes flickered with an emotion she couldn’t read. “Papers.” His voice dropped. “What papers?”
Uncomfortable with the visible clenching of his classic jaw, she considered fleeing back to the lobby, but as a top executive he probably deserved to hear it from her. She sank down to the edge of a chair and crossed her arms over her chest. “Ellen had them prepare some legal stuff to cut me loose. Right now you guys need my permission for everything.”
“Cut loose? You can’t possibly sign anything so soon.”
“Don’t worry, I’m not making any changes. I’m handing it over to Ellen. They just need my signature.”
“Not Ellen. You don’t understand. You can’t.”
“Everyone knew she would inherit the business. She should.” Though her mother had liked the idea of Ellen being disappointed for once, after years of being the favorite daughter, the one who got all of Daddy’s love, attention, and money.
“Your grandfather left it to you.” He leaned forward. “You have to keep it.”
She smiled. Another four-year-old. “You’ll be just fine. Sometimes we take things a little too seriously, don’t you think?”
He tilted his head and regarded her, silent for so long Bev was afraid she’d offended him. Suddenly he leaned back in his chair, propped his elbows on the arms and regarded her over his steepled fingers. “You’re perfect.”
Today and tomorrow I’ll be polishing the last edits and sending it off for a final proofread. Then I’ll format the Kindle and Nook versions and upload to Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
It should be available for purchase by April 21–just after American tax forms are due. Some of us will need the escape.