Rory sighed as she took a moment to glance around the empty room surrounding her. Paintings and pictures had left their mark on the matte white wall paint like dirty halos. Packed boxes of different sizes lined the far wall, waiting to be moved to the shipping container. Most of her old things wouldn't fit in the tiny apartment she had rented, but taking so little with her suited the purposes of leaving Atlanta behind. These boxes and the three accompanying bookshelves were the last and only bits of her life that she planned to take with her to Chicago. It was not as clean a break as she had wanted, but these were the things she could not live without. Everything but the essentials had already been sold or moved to the U-Move Storage Center near her parents' home.
She collapsed onto the tiny two-seater couch and closed her eyes, going through a mental list of the tasks she needed to complete before locking the door and handing the keys back to the landlord. A quiet meow sounded by her ear and a furry head nudged her temple. With a small smile, she reached up and scratched behind the feline's ears, garnering a long, rumbling purr. The feline hopped down onto the couch and settled into a fuzzy ball in her lap.
"Are you ready to go, Chester?" She laughed as the cat flipped over on his back and batted at her hand. He clearly didn't care where he ended up so long as he had a stash of nip and a can of tuna. If only life were as simple as being a cat. She certainly would not have minded.
The sudden knock at the front door startled her, but didn't faze Chester. She glanced at the clock. Five minutes before 3:00 and not a moment sooner, but she knew they would arrive on time. Her father, the General, ran his life with military precision even in retirement. She shoved Chester off her lap. The gray and white cat gave her a murderous stare that portended some belonging of hers would meet a gory end at the mercy of his claws. Rory rolled her eyes and went to the door to answer it.
"Hi," she said to the group standing on the other side.
"Ready?" her younger brother, Bobby, asked as he stepped into the front room.
She shrugged and leaned against the door as her father and other brother, Charlie, filled up the room and looked at sad, empty space. Bobby bent down to pet Chester, but the cat hissed and clawed at him.
"Damn cat," Bobby said. "He's known us for eight years. You'd think he'd like us by now."
Rory chuckled. "Because that time you accidentally sprayed him with a hose wasn't enough to damage his fragile psyche for the rest of his life."
Bobby grinned and shook his head.
Her father cleared his throat. "Let's get moving here. Your brothers and I have a long drive back and your mama is making fried chicken for dinner."
I love being supplanted by fried chicken, she mused to herself with a smile. Though he was gruff, he was her Daddy, and she knew that the man was only attempting to ignore the fact that she was moving away from him. She caught her father's censuring gaze and pressed her lips together to remove the grin.
He wasn't happy. But he hadn't been happy since she announced her plans to move away, and she didn't foresee any time in the near future when his opinion might change. At least he allowed her the courtesy of making her own decisions even if he did not like them, unlike her mother who had repeatedly made it known to anyone who would listen that she believed her daughter had made a rash, stupid decision to run away from her problems. However, Rory felt there was no other option but to start again in some other place with a clean slate.
She resented her mother for not even trying to understand her need to leave almost everything behind. To her small town, Southern Mama, this decision was tantamount to the rejection of their family and their way of life. Rory saw it as a way to grow and add to the firm foundation she had already received growing up in such a close-knit community with such a rich family history.
The only way she would ever stand on her own two feet as a strong, independent woman would be to leave the South and the stifling backward way of thinking. Despite Atlanta's modern population offering some personal growth, the state of Georgia as a whole languished in 1860. Here, the Civil War wasn't over. It remained the land of Scarlett O'Hara and sweet tea on the rocking chair front porch. Life was slow, always steeped in hundreds of years of tradition. It was a place where time stood still. Nothing would ever change as long as she stayed.
She knew she had to get out from under the thumb of an entirely well-meaning, but sometimes oppressive family. There was an entire world waiting for her and it had taken that final straw a few months ago to convince her to take such a drastic step toward her own freedom. At twenty-eight, she figured it was time to get out from hiding in their shadow and the personal rut she had fallen into a long time ago. She wanted to see and do, not sit and wait.
Yet, she'd had to admit that setting foot in Chicago—a city firmly planted in the now, not the then—had been a little daunting last month when she had gone to search for apartments. Growing up in a small town where everyone knew each other paled in comparison to being one of millions packed into one of the largest cities in America. In Chicago, no one knew her. No one seemed to care to know her. It gave her the opportunity to make her own mark and not live forever trapped in the pre-determined mold her parents had created in South Georgia history.
"What are you thinking?"
Rory looked up, meeting Bobby's green eyes. "Nothing. I'm just preparing."
"Mama told me to give this to you." Bobby held out a small envelope with the gold embossed monogram on the sealed flap.
She frowned, but took it anyway. Her mother only used this stationary for very formal situations. Knowing her passive aggressiveness, the envelope would contain a long-winded diatribe regarding her choice to leave, as though it would actually make her want to stay. At this point, Rory could barely wait to make it over the state line. She folded the envelope up and stuck it in her pocket to read and digest later.
Her father came back in from moving a bookshelf outside and looked pointedly at both of them. "You two need to help."
"Sorry, Daddy," she said. "Come on, Bobby, help me with this couch."
There was no reason to keep mulling it over. She had made the decision, official paperwork had been signed and her flight out of Atlanta departed in a matter of hours. Instead of looking back, she had to look forward. Though she wanted to run back into the safety net of her family, she knew she was ready for this challenge. For the first time since she had made the decision, nervousness had been replaced by a thrill of excitement fluttering in her stomach. Such excitement had to be set free. And in only a few more hours, she would let it loose.
Rory frowned as she fidgeted uncomfortably in the bathroom mirror. She looked like an idiot trussed up in a business suit, and she felt even more out of place wearing it. It would just have to do, though. Her potential boss would have to hire her on merit alone, not on how she looked in a synthetic-blend blazer and trousers. Since the interview would be for one of the largest corporations in the world, not every employee would or could look like a model. They wouldn't care how she looked as long as she had dressed professionally and carried herself with grace and confidence.
Of course, Rory thought, feeling good in clothing also played a big part in grace and confidence. She knew that first hand from watching all the well-dressed women at her mother's Junior League meetings or at the military balls with other officers' wives. They all carried themselves like queens with such poise when they knew they looked amazing. Rory could only pray for even a smidgen of that confidence. But, as always, Plain Jane Rory was as good as it was going to get.
With a grumbling sigh, she flicked off the vanity light and gathered her things. Chester poked his head out of the coat closet when she grabbed her portfolio and headed out the front door. His large jade eyes were the last things she saw as she shut and locked the door. As soon as the deadbolt slid into place, he let out a loud, pitiful wail. He'd become much too accustomed to her being around him for the last few months with nothing to do but to look after him. Apparently, he was worried she wouldn't be back in time to open a can of food for him.
Rory chuckled and shook her head, catching an elevator at the end of the hall and riding it down to the lobby. She stepped out onto the busy street and turned right, falling into step with the group of businessmen and women who were also walking toward their offices. The only positive to come out of going two months without anything so much as a call from a prospective employer was that she had been given ample time to explore the city. It made finding the office building a mile away much easier for the directionally challenged.
Swarms of people from all walks of life entered and exited through glass front doors in front of the building with the marble marquee that read "Ahlström Tower" in large brushed steel letters. Both men and women wore crisp, expensive-looking suits that probably cost more than her rent. She turned her eyes up and had to crane her neck all the way back to glimpse the top of the imposing skyscraper. It was only then that she wondered what she'd gotten herself into scheduling an interview with a huge corporation like this one.
Rory sucked in a deep breath and gritted her teeth. She needed this job more than anything else at the moment. Her savings had been depleted from the expensive move, but she refused to have to pack it all in only a few months after arriving because she had been unable to find employment. She refused to prove her parents right and let her mother win. After the scathing letter she had received the day of her departure, the last thing she wanted to do would be to give her the satisfaction of saying "I told you so."
She jockeyed her way through the mass of people into an elevator for floors two through sixteen. A man with sandy hair and gray at his temples stepped into the elevator behind her and gave her a small smile. "Floor?"
"Ten, please," she said as she watched him hit the circular button along with floor thirteen.
"Oh, human resources," said the man with a smirk as he took a step back and glanced at her. He seemed pleasant enough and had friendly eyes that crinkled at the corner. A far cry from a few of the other people she had run into in this city. "What a thrilling morning for you. What are you in for?"
"I'm interviewing today," she said. "For an assistant job, I think."
"I love your accent. Where are you from?" he asked.
Rory blushed. She had always been conscious of her drawl, now more than ever in a place where other people didn't sound like her. "Georgia."
"Ah, a Georgia peach," he said.
"My mother wishes," Rory said as the doors peeled back on her floor.
"Well, good luck, Peach," he said. "You'll need it. They're heartless in that office."
Rory couldn't keep a chuckle from escaping her lips. It helped calm her nerves, but what he'd said also worried her. She needed this job and if they offered it to her, she would have to take it even if she didn't like the company. It was a sacrifice she was prepared to make, but not one she wanted to make. If a corporate drone was what her cards had dealt her, then she would take the experience and learn from it until she could find something better.
"I'm sure I'll be fine," Rory said and stepped out into the reception area.
The receptionist looked up at her. "Yes?"
"I'm here for an interview with… Margaret Franklin," she said, looking at her notes.
"Rory Fisher," she said.
After checking a list and marking her name off, she pulled out a clipboard. A wave of panic gripped Rory as she looked at the long list of names on the paper in front of the woman. There was no way she was going to get this job.
The receptionist smiled at her. "Go fill this out. We'll call you when we're ready, then bring the clipboard back with you."
The lobby was full of both men and women, some young, some older. She took in a deep breath and wedged herself between two severe looking women who did nothing to move their briefcases from in front of the empty chair without her explicitly asking first. After shifting about and attempting to fold herself into a comfortable position, she set to filling out the application and waiting for someone to come get her.
An hour later, someone finally came in, calling her name. "Ms. Fisher?"
She stood up and smiled at the tired woman, offering her hand. The woman sighed. "Your application?"
Rory handed it to the woman who flipped through the pages, too quickly to have actually read anything. But Rory didn't suspect the woman really cared at this point, after having dealt with at least fifty interviews already.
"Great, follow me," she said. They walked for a while until they reached a large room full of computers. "I'm going to get you set up on our testing software based on what your application says you know. When you're done, go tell the receptionist and have a seat in the lobby."
"Yes, ma'am," Rory said.
The woman, without saying anything else, plugged her information into the computer and created a string of computer application tests to complete. Rory watched the woman disappear and shook her head. How was she ever going to make it in an environment like this? Rory frowned, but turned back to her computer station and began her tests.
Ninety minutes later, she found herself sitting back out in the waiting room. She waited for yet another half hour, giving Rory enough time to worry herself sick that she had messed up on her tests. At 12:30, the woman who had put her in front of the computer came back. The yellow sticky note she handed her had a name scrawled on it in black pen.
"Take this to the 33rd floor," she said. "Ask for Kristina Philips."
"Okay, great," Rory said, confused, but followed the directions she had been given and went down to the first floor to find the elevators for her floor number. By now everyone had presumably disappeared into their offices and the lobby was quiet except for the smooth jazz music piped into the area through invisible speakers. Her ride was peaceful as it swiftly climbed the thirty-three floors to her destination.
She stepped out into a light-filled reception area. It was a bit more sedate than the tenth floor and it didn't look like there were lifeless drones walking about doing their work. As a matter of fact, the reception area looked pretty sparse but for the reception desk and a frosted glass wall behind it with "Ahlström Industries" in white block lettering.
"Hi…" Rory said. "I'm supposed to see Kristina Philips."
"Oh, yes," the girl chirped. "Come with me."
Rory nodded and followed the bubbly blonde girl down a long hallway. They passed doors that led to huge rooms that she only realized were all private offices after the fact. At the end of the hall, she was admitted to an empty conference room.
She had never seen a conference table as large or with as many seats. A projector screen covered one wall and two flat panel televisions flanked it, scrolling through what looked to be the same video she had watched on the website when she had done some research the other night.
"Have a seat," said the receptionist. "Kristina will be in shortly. Help yourself to the refreshments on the sideboard. Sit anywhere you like."
Rory glanced at the far wall where a table of drinks and snacks sat. She grabbed a cup of water and found a seat at the end of the table closest to the entrance, preparing herself for whatever might come through the door. When she sat down with her parents a few months ago and told them of her decision to leave Atlanta for bigger and better things, she hadn't pictured this. She couldn't really have pictured it because it was mind-boggling.
After a little while, the door creaked open, revealing a tall blonde woman in an attractive, snug fitting skirt suit that accentuated her curves. She was utterly gorgeous and Rory couldn't help but stare.
"No, you don't seem to understand," she said harshly.
As she turned, Rory noticed the Bluetooth in her ear.
"Look, tell your boss if you expect any contracts from us in the near future, he had better get ready to grovel because I'm advising Mr. Ahlström to look elsewhere… Great. Have a lovely day," she said, hitting the button on the earpiece in a huff. She dropped her notebook on the table and grumbled to herself, meeting Rory's eyes. "I'm sorry for that. Sometimes these contractors think they can push around a woman because we apparently don't know what we're talking about."
Rory smiled. "I know how that goes." She'd been raised in that mindset her entire life. Army men—well, Army men like her father—were not certain of a woman's place in their playpen. To them, women were to seek feminine jobs or remain housewives. It was an exclusive club.
The woman grinned, offering her hand. "I'm Kristina Philips. You're Aurora, right?"
"Rory," she corrected, shaking Kristina's hand firmly. "I hate my full name. Everyone always goes straight to Sleeping Beauty."
"But did your parents get the name from there? I mean, it's not a name you hear often," Kristina asked.
"No, they got it from the aurora borealis," she said. "My dad was stationed up in Alaska at the time I was conceived."
Kristina opened her notebook and pulled out a stack of papers. "Military?"
"Yes," she said. "But I was born and raised in Georgia, about two hours south of Atlanta. My father was commander of the Army base at Fort Benning until he retired."
"I see," Kristina said. "What brings you to Chicago?"
"Change," Rory said. "I had to leave and experience the world. I was done being a small town girl."
Kristina laughed. "I've been to Atlanta on jobs. It's no small town."
Rory smiled. "Oh, I know. I guess I should rephrase that. I'm here because I wanted to get out of the South."
"Now I can understand that. I grew up on the West Coast, and life in the Southeast is just so different," Kristina said. "But welcome to Chicago, anyway. Margaret from HR sent me all of your things and your test scores were very good. I'm sort of prescreening applicants for my boss. Unfortunately, he was detained in New York this morning. Something happened at one of our jobsites."
"He sounds like a busy guy," Rory said.
"Indeed he is," Kristina said. "I am currently his assistant, but I was promoted to his Director of Philanthropy, so you'd be replacing me. I'm just curious—do you have any assisting experience at all?"
Rory shook her head. "I posted my ad on Craigslist and they called me, so I guess they saw something they liked. I learn fast and work hard, so I feel I would train easily."
Kristina nodded. "The job isn't rocket science. You take calls, forward messages, make sure he makes his meetings and keep his calendar. You also run any errands he needs, help plan events he is hosting, stuff like that. Basically you're his Jill of All Trades. Whatever he needs, you do."
"It doesn't sound too difficult," Rory said.
"It's not. Erik is relatively low-maintenance as far as bosses go, but when he needs you, you better be on the top of your game because he doesn't suffer slacking," Kristina said. "He's worked very hard to get to this position. And he's preparing to take over the helm of the company now that his dad is retiring. So it'll be even more insane."
"Oh? It didn't say anything like that on the website," Rory replied.
Kristina shook her head. "It hasn't been announced publicly yet. Do you have a passport?"
"I do, but I've never used it," she said.
"Good," Kristina nodded. "You'd be traveling with him to almost every location he goes on business. A lot of the stuff he does can be handled by conference call, but there's just stuff you have to do at the actual office, so that means a lot of travel… a lot of time away from home."
"I have no trouble with that," she said. "It's just me and my cat. I'd just have to find a good pet sitter."
Kristina laughed and wrote something in her file. She looked through the paperwork again and then back at her. "Rory, are you able to come back around four this afternoon? I like you so far, but he'll need to have an interview with you, too. Erik's—Mr. Ahlström's—flight is supposed to have landed by now, but he had other things to do before heading over here."
"I… yes," Rory said. "Do I just come up here?"
"Yes," Kristina said. "We'll talk more then, but I've got another meeting I'm running off to now."
Rory nodded. "I'll be here."
"Good," Kristina smiled, showing her out the conference room door. "Thanks for coming."
"No, thank you," Rory said, heading down the long hallway and out into the reception area for the elevator. When the doors closed, she glanced at her phone to find that it was only two. It wasn't enough time to walk home and walk back, but the park across the street looked incredibly inviting with the warm oranges, reds and yellows of autumn in the trees. Maybe there she'd be able to work through the enormity of the situation she now faced.
That afternoon, Erik sat on a park bench in front of Buckingham Fountain flipping through emails on his iPad. His intermittent yawns reminded him of the fact that he had not slept much the previous night. A responsible man would have gone home last night after the impromptu management meeting that had lasted until eight instead of partying at some club, but the lure of losing himself in a few drinks and a hot, young New York socialite had won in the end.
The promise of a luscious body writhing against him always won out in the end.
It wasn't until he'd woken up before the sun to tour a location for a potential development that he realized he wasn't twenty-one any more. He felt every single one of his thirty-five years and begrudgingly had to admit he was too old for this sort of life. He had obligations and responsibilities that required his attention. There were things that he would have to do in the coming days, weeks, months and years that wouldn't allow him the freedom he'd had while his father had controlled the family business.
Knowing he'd have this responsibility himself had somehow changed him. Last night's socialite hadn't been nearly as enticing as the last. The drinks were not nearly as palatable. It made him wonder if he had finally reached the point where he could grow out of the predetermined profile people shoved him into simply because he was young, attractive and wealthy. Had he finally grown up?
He had worked hard for the promotion, but the suddenness of the situation still hadn't caught up with him. The growing pains had started to cause troubles between everyone in his life as he tried to reconcile his past with the future. His father made a habit of breathing down his neck and questioning every single one of his decisions. His brother didn't understand how he'd been passed over for the promotion despite the fact that he lived and breathed the job… much more than Erik could ever say he had.
And then, amidst all this professional and personal upheaval, he didn't have his rock. Kristina had been his constant companion for ten years—ever since he'd started working for his father as lead architect. Life always seemed to run smoother when he had some control over one portion of his life and Kristina usually managed that for him perfectly. Sure, she still oversaw his schedule from afar, but her new position had given her too much work to really care about anything else… to care about him. Without Kristina, he felt lost. Finding a new assistant sooner rather than later was a necessity now, not a luxury, but he knew he consciously and unconsciously had tried to stall the inevitable for as long as he could manage. He would miss her.
His plane had landed two hours ago and he'd arrived to the office a half hour later, yet here he sat out in the crisp autumn sun absently looking at his emails. Kristina, bogged down with work, had not given him the usual dressing down about not living up to his responsibilities when he could have used it. Instead, he procrastinated. He knew he should head up to the office and get settled before his interview at four, but he couldn't make himself face the madness. Not yet, at least.
The emails only consisted of more headaches, of which he had no interest in diffusing at the moment, so he clicked out of the screen and closed the cover over the device. He let his eyes wander about the park as he watched the late lunchers trying to extend their lunch hour as long as possible. A few people who had the day off or did not work were jogging or walking along the path near the lake shoreline. His eyes stopped on a woman sitting on the park bench on the opposite side of the massive fountain.
She sat with her head tilted back to face the warm sun. Her eyes were closed and a soft smile graced her full bowed lips. Sometimes he wondered what it would be like to be able to relax in such a way without a care in the world as to the people around him, watching him, waiting for him to make some sort of mistake. It must have been nice to be so uninhibited, he mused ruefully.
An elderly man interrupted the women, motioning to the empty end of the bench. She sat up and shook her head with a large smile that glowed about as much as the sun did off her ivory skin. Even from here he could see the vibrant green of her eyes encased by dark lashes. Sunlight sparked her rich auburn hair in a riot of colors, picking out the coppers and shades of red in the prisms of each strand.
She was beautiful.
The old man pulled her into conversation about a subject Erik could not hear from this distance. She spoke with animated body language and hands without ever losing her smile, showing her interest and easiness in conversing with the man. He thought if he moved a little closer he might hear some of the words that held the old man in rapt attention, but his annoying cell phone rang inside his pocket, effectively killing the moment of wonder and bringing him straight back to reality. With a groan, he put it to his ear.
"Are you coming? I have an interview for you at four and I would appreciate it if you weren't late," Kristina said.
"Yeah, I'm coming," he said. "I'm only in the park."
Kristina sighed. "How long have you been there?"
"You know what? I'm going to murder you one of these days. I'm so glad I don't have to deal with your bullshit anymore," she said.
Erik laughed at his outspoken friend. "I love you, too, Kristina. I'm headed up now. I'll be there in five minutes."
"You better," she said and hung up the call.
He glanced back at the bench where the woman had been, but she was gone. He sighed. Well, he'd prolonged the inevitable long enough. He had a job to do, whether he wanted to do it or not.
Erik walked into the main lobby of the building, feeling the eyes of those who were there turn to watch him. People ducked out of his path and avoided his direct gaze, hoping he didn't recognize them and ask them about their jobs. He'd never fully understood why people did it. There was no way he would ever memorize all the faces of the people who worked for him at this, their world headquarters, or those in other countries. Even if he did recognize them, he would not talk about anything negative in the lobby of the building. No, he'd schedule a private meeting for that.
He nodded at the security guards sitting behind the desk helping to direct traffic. The elevator was empty when he stepped into it and stayed that way the whole climb up to the executive floor. Lucy, his receptionist, sat up a little straighter at her desk when he stepped out of the elevator into the quiet lobby. She smiled at him. "Hello, Erik."
"Afternoon," he said. "How has the week been?"
"Quiet," she replied. "Everyone's traveling."
"Bet you like that," he winked at her, heading back into the office. As he passed by the individual offices of his colleagues, he did indeed find that no one seemed to be in the office this afternoon. Even the assistants to each of his VPs were gone. He didn't find any sign of life until he reached the back of the floor, where Kristina sat at her desk in the pod of cubicles she shared with a few others.
She looked up at him. "Thanks for gracing the office with your presence today."
"You know, I still sign your paychecks," he said.
"No, you don't, Johan does," Kristina said.
"Touché," he said.
Kristina got up from her seat and followed him into his office. He set his bag down on the desk and glanced at the stack of paperwork in the wire bin sitting behind his desk labeled "IN". He'd have to sift through those later. Kristina held out a manila folder.
"This is for your interview. She's in the conference room right now."
"Bring her in here," he said. "I don't want to meet in the conference room. Not after sitting in a conference room all afternoon and evening yesterday."
Kristina sighed. "If it makes you feel any better, we didn't leave until around ten last night."
Erik frowned and ran a hand over his face. "Not really. It just reiterates the fact that this transition is one huge logistical nightmare."
"They've done this switchover a few times before, Erik," Kristina reminded. "It's not that bad."
"Yeah," he said. "Last time they did this, the company had a couple thousand employees on one continent. Do you know the cost of the change in stationery alone?"
Kristina gave him a small smile. "Yes, I saw the budget."
"We're going to kill a small forest with the amount of reprinting," he said.
"Don't worry. I've already searched for ways to donate more to environmental groups."
"Great," he said. "How much is that going to cost us?"
"It won't even make a dent into the charity budget for this year," she replied.
Erik nodded and ran a hand over his face. "Would you please bring her back here?"
Kristina smiled. "Sure. Look over her file while I do."
"I will," he said, opening the file and flipping through the pages there. He didn't even know why he looked. No one would effectively replace what Kristina had given him for ten years. The eight people he had interviewed already hadn't even come close to her ability to move heaven and earth for him while still keeping his feet firmly rooted to the ground. But even his protesting wouldn't forestall the inevitable; it would have been selfish of him to deny her request for a promotion after so many years of loyal service.
A voice down the hall, however, made the hair on the back of his neck prickle. The mellifluous Southern drawl floated into his open door and made him sigh. It was a comfortable accent, like the old-timey black and white movies his grandmother made him watch as a child. She'd always had a fascination with American cinema. Scarlett O'Hara popped into his mind unbidden and he chuckled, shaking his head.
"Well, at least he's in a better mood now," Kristin said conspiratorially. Erik blinked his eyes to focus on the two women now in front of him. Thinking his eyes had deceived him, he blinked once more. The woman he had been watching outside on the park bench stood in front of his desk with the same bright smile on her lips. It was infectious and he found himself smiling like an idiot.
"Erik, this is Rory Fisher," Kristina said. "Rory, this is Erik Ahlström."
"Hello, Mr. Ahlström," she said.
He stood up too quickly to greet her and in the process hit his knee on the edge of the desk. It wasn't one of his smoothest moments, but to Ms. Fisher's credit, she didn't laugh. Her grin grew wider as he tried to ignore his gaff by straightening his suit coat with authority.
Kristina chuckled. "Alright, I'll leave you two to it, then."
Like that, she was gone, leaving him to stare at the woman in front of him like some scared little schoolboy. A bright blush formed on her ivory skin when he met her eyes. She quickly diverted her gaze and cleared her throat.
"Please… call me Erik," he said, finally offering his hand to her.
She slipped her small hand into his and gave it a strong shake. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Erik."
The adorable smattering of freckles across her nose highlighted the fact that she wore no makeup but for some mascara. Maybe. He felt a tug on his hand and realized he hadn't let go after shaking hers. He loosened his grasp and, feeling sheepish, told her to sit like some ungracious host.
You're not a host, Ahlström. You're her would-be boss, he reminded himself.
She sat in one of the chairs facing his desk and crossed her legs. The cloth of her pantsuit didn't stretch in that appealing way women's trousers generally did across their thighs. It bunched up unbecomingly, making him notice that fact that the suit she wore did not fit her; the suit was too large for her frame. Only belatedly did he realize he was staring at her thighs, and when he did, he quickly turned away and removed his suit coat. For some inexplicable reason, the temperature had risen monumentally in the last few moments. He had to get a hold of himself. He was a professional.
"So…" he started, "I take it Kristina explained the job to you, Ms. Fisher?"
Brilliant line, Ahlström.
"Rory, please, and yes, she did," Rory nodded.
He rolled the name over his tongue, delighting in the sound. He glanced down at her file, noting that her full name was Aurora. It was appropriate. He was sure he'd seen some auroras up north that were as dazzling green as her eyes and vividly red as her hair. Erik cringed. Sentimental poetics weren't good for anyone, and he desperately needed to take control of the situation.
"Basically, it would be your job to make me look good. PR can only do so much with my public image," he said.
Rory smiled. "I don't think it's difficult to make you look good."
She had clearly not meant to say that aloud; she slapped a hand over her mouth in embarrassment. "Oh my god, I'm so sorry. That's not what I meant…"
Erik grinned. Well, at least it leveled the playing field. He steered well past the bottomless rabbit hole her words had opened. Neither he nor she needed that distraction. He waved his hand and continued. "It would be up to you to make sure I can deliver on a personal level. You know, that I attend all my meetings on time, that I'm prepared for them with any paperwork and research I might need, answering my calls, making travel arrangements. Things like that. There are also other tasks like organizing my personal expenses and keeping some records and ledgers to send to accounting. And the thoroughly exhilarating task of making sure I'm pumped up on caffeine."
Her laugh eased the tension in the room. "I understand… I'm just a little worried that I don't have any experience as a business assistant."
"It's not rocket science," he replied. "I need someone who is in it for the long haul and won't take any crap. Your previous inexperience means I can mold you into what I need as I take over for my father. Kristina had a very defined role, but it will begin to change now that I'm top man on the totem pole. You'll be both a business and a personal assistant."
"I see," she said.
Erik cleared his throat and moved on. "What were you doing before coming here?"
"Well, I-I hold a masters degree in library science," she said. "I specialized in archival management. I worked at the Carter Presidential Library in Atlanta for the past two years."
"And why did you leave?" he asked. "Especially with the job market the way it is—certainly it was a good federal job. Those aren't easy to come by."
"Oh, no, they're not," she replied. "I just… my father's influence got me the job. I'm tired of being defined by my family."
Erik stared at her. It was like she was talking about his life, not hers.
"I had to get out and explore life. I've been in about a 150-mile radius my entire life. It was time to leave."
"So you just picked up and decided to move to Chicago? Why Chicago of all places?" he asked. He could think of at least a hundred different places he'd rather be than in Chicago.
She shrugged. "Honestly?"
"I opened an atlas and pointed," she said.
Silence spread between them as Erik flipped through her paperwork once more and collected his thoughts. While another employer might have taken issue at her methods, he liked her frankness. Other candidates would have lied through their teeth to make it appear they had planned something so drastic. He knew what corporate recruiters and coaches told their clients. Personally, he hated the pretense. She was an honest, open book. It was refreshing.
"Did you know anything about our company before coming to Chicago?" he asked.
"No," she said. "I didn't know until researching the website that Ahlström Industries is one of the largest real estate developers in the world. Do you really have an office on five continents?"
"Yes," he replied. "In some places we have two or three offices. Our main development offices in Asia are located in Hong Kong and Tokyo. In Europe, we have London and Stockholm. Here in North America, we have Chicago, New York and Los Angeles—though our offices in the latter two are smaller satellites. Then there's the Sydney office and the South Africa office. Plus any of the manufacturing plants and steel mills."
She smiled. "Why are world headquarters here? Why not in Stockholm?"
"The money was in America… it still is, really, even with the economy the way it is," he said. "When my father officially took over as CEO from my grandfather in 1981, the first thing he did was move headquarters here. It was his 'new vision' for the company. It wasn't profitable to stay in Stockholm to grow the architectural and development side of the business. Stockholm still handles most oversight of the manufacturing parts of the business—we have a steel mill there—but Chicago is the heart of the company now."
"Ah, I see," she replied and looked at him. "What is your new vision now that you're taking over?"
The question caught him off guard. No one had actually asked him that question yet. He knew it would soon be asked of him repeatedly. The press would be relentless with this sort of question after they received word of the change. But that wouldn't be until the official announcement went out to the world in a week.
"Does surviving the change from COO to CEO with the company intact count as a vision?" he asked.
Rory chuckled. "I'm not sure. I think it's probably a good place to start, though."
Erik grinned at her and sat forward in his seat. "If I survive it, then I plan to continue pushing forward the Green campaign I've implemented as COO. We already do a lot, but there's so much more that my father won't do because it's costly."
"Do you think you can make it work without ruining the company?" she asked point blank.
"I do," he said. "It's the way of the future. We either have to get on the train and ride it or regret we didn't."
"I think you have a great vision." He felt the tension in his body nearly evaporate with her vote of confidence. He didn't know why it meant so much to him, but it did.
Rory nodded her head and sighed. "Kristina mentioned there was a lot of travel involved."
"There is. I can do a lot via video conferencing, but I like visually inspecting and touring our development projects wherever they are across the globe. I was just in New York at a new refurbishment project. You'd be an extension of me as needed and travel with me to keep me on schedule. Of course, all travel is covered by the company, and you have a modest expense account for business-related purchases like meals while traveling. Part of the package also includes a clothing allowance for business clothes and, say, if you have to accompany me to a black tie function."
"Okay," she smiled.
"I usually keep an 8-5 business day when I'm in the office. Other circumstances do apply, obviously, if we're traveling or if there's a party or something. Sometimes it's very early morning, sometimes late into the night," he said.
"I'm flexible," she replied.
"Do you have any other questions of me?" he asked.
Rory shook her head. "No, I don't think so. You've answered most of them."
Judging from her glazed look, Erik knew she had reached maximum information level. A job like this was difficult to comprehend; it was a glamorous job, but it was also very difficult. It did not lend itself to being conducive to having a personal life. He had no illusions about that. He just needed the right person who would be able to understand the positives and negatives and still enjoy it at the end of the day.
As he looked her over again, he knew she was the right fit. She was intelligent, friendly, and—above all else—she had appropriately stroked his ego without being fake or excessive. Of course, if he hired her it would also be like playing with fire. His attraction to her was not going to go away if she was with him most of the time. But he was a strong man. He could withstand the temptation if it meant having a bright, able bodied assistant.
"Well, then, thank you for coming in," he said, reaching for his card. "And I apologize for the delay this morning."
"No problem," she grinned. "I understand completely."
"Here's my card," he said. "That number is my business line. Kristina will pick up if you have any other questions."
Rory nodded and took it from him. "It was wonderful to meet you."
"Same here." He came around the desk and offered his hand again. She took it and met his eyes. The action almost made him forget his grasp, but he let go of her hand and smiled. "Either Kristina or I will be in touch no later than five tomorrow. I have a few more interviews."
"Great, I'll wait to hear from you," she said with a smile. "Thank you for meeting with me, Erik."
His name, spoken in her sweet drawl, did strange things to him. He wanted to hear it again. He had to hear it again.
She was halfway down the hall by the time he regained his focus. Erik watched as she disappeared around the corner, particularly interested in the swing of her hips. He squeezed his eyes shut and turned away. He was not that man. Not that boss who had the constant threat of a sexual harassment lawsuit hanging over his head. That just wasn't him. His parents had taught him better than that.
As he turned, he realized Kristina was standing beside him with a hand on her hip and pursed lips. She shook her head and rolled her eyes. "Men."
"What do you mean by that?" he asked.
"You know exactly what I mean," Kristina said.
He followed her back to her desk where she sat down. "You know I hold myself to a high ethical code, but that doesn't mean I'm not a red-blooded male."
"High ethical code?" Kristina asked. "That's why you go from chick to chick like they're going out of style?"
Erik sighed. "I didn't sleep with you at all in all these years."
Kristina gave him a withering warning glance. "I wouldn't have let you persuade me into it, even if you were my type."
"Believe it or not, I do have a healthy dose of self preservation," Erik remarked. "I wouldn't have tried anything with you because I would have ended up castrated."
"Probably worse," Kristina said with a laugh. She sighed and shook her head. "So what did you really think of her? I mean as an assistant?"
"She's great," he said. "The best I've interviewed yet."
"Do you want me to have Sam look for more?" she asked.
He shook his head. "I think she's it."
"She's pretty rough around the edges," Kristina said.
"I'm sure with your expert tutelage, she'll be amazing," he said.
"Aw, thanks, Boss," Kristina said. "Now, go back to work."
"Yes, ma'am," he replied and stopped at his door, leaning back out. "Make sure you get her in here tomorrow to get her processed through HR. I want her starting on Monday with the other recruits in the orientation seminar."
Kristina saluted him. "Sure thing. How long am I going to be doing double duty?"
"You're only going to be doing one-and-a-half duty when she's done with the orientation," he said. "And I think she'll learn fast. Maybe a few weeks at the most. I'll have her travel with me so you don't have to."
"Thanks," Kristina said.
"No, that's all." Kristina waved him off.
"Love you, too." He walked into his office to attempt some work, but his mind wasn't on it. It was on everything else but work, especially after that interview. But he knew he had to get something done. With a resigned sigh, he dropped heavily into his desk chair and pulled out his laptop.
Rory collapsed onto her bed, letting out a sigh of relief. Today had been an emotional roller coaster from start to finish and her nerves were just now returning to normal. At least she officially had a new job to show for all the torment. A pretty fucking great one, if she were being honest with herself. She'd have the opportunity to travel the globe on someone else's dime, meet new people and do everything she wanted. It took some restraint not to call her mother and wave it in her face that she had succeeded in what she had planned on despite her naysaying.
She did have one huge problem, though. His name was Erik Ahlström.
When she had accepted the interview at Ahlström Industries, she had not expected the interview to be for the president of the company or anyone close to that level. She had expected it to be with some middle management lackey where she would be a desk jockey shuffling papers in a tiny soul-sucking cubicle. Not acting as the new CEO's sidekick.
Then, of course, it was her poor luck that her now new boss was quite possibly the most attractive man on the planet, and she'd seen plenty of attractive men through the years. No one in their right mind would call the man homely or ugly. He was the very definition of beautiful in that thoroughly cultured, Scandinavian way with pale blue eyes and sandy blond hair. A woman would have to be dead not to feel her pulse quicken when he gave that sexy, masculine half smirk, and even then, he might be able to bring someone back to the living. His gaze turned her into a bumbling idiot. Working for him and not constantly falling over herself would be a triumph in its own right.
She knew he wouldn't be looking at her like that, so it did make it easier to have to face him again, if only somewhat. After she'd returned home and booted up the computer, her Google search had brought up picture after picture of him with different women, all of which were infinitely more glamorous and, well, prettier than her. Even if they had met under different circumstances, there would have never been a second glance, much less more.
And yet… oh, and yet… there were a few times during the interview she could not keep the blush from her face. Just the way he'd gazed at her had set her blood thrumming in her veins. It was all just wishful thinking, though. Nothing more.
With a heavy sigh, she lifted the cell phone in her hand and looked at the screen. Did she really want to call home? She wanted to gloat. More than anything else did she, but she wasn't sure she could bear the possibility that her mother wouldn't say something else only to make her feel worse. However, she knew if she didn't call, she would receive a harassing call tomorrow morning from the very same woman for not letting her know how the interview had gone.
Rory hit the speed dial for her mother and father's house. It rang twice before the receiver picked up and she was greeted with a swift, "Lo?"
She didn't miss a beat. "What are you doing at home during the week?"
"Yeah, nice to hear from you, too, sis," said the male voice on the other line.
"Sorry," Rory said. "Hi, Bobby Ray. Now why are you there?"
"I left some stuff down here that I meant to take to school with me, so I came down," he said.
She could hear the lie in his voice and the commotion in the background. "Bobby, who is that?" said her mother close to the phone.
"Rory," he said.
"Give me the phone," she said.
"Stop it, Mama. I'm talkin' to her. I'll give it to you in a minute."
He seemed to walk away and shut out some of the sound. "You there?"
"Yeah, I'm here," she said. "Now why are you really there?"
"Walker's here," he replied. "He requested an audience with Dad, Charlie and me."
The sound of Walker's name still sent a metaphorical fist to her stomach. "Yeah? About?"
"I could tell ya, but I think you know what about," Bobby said.
Rory closed her eyes. Yep, it still hurt as much as it had when Walker had broken it off with her. At least this wasn't as bad as when he first showed up to a family gathering with her sister. That had prompted the meltdown that had convinced her moving to Chicago was a good plan.
"Lovely." She tried to keep it together, but her voice wavered.
"Now don't you get all weepy on me," Bobby said. "You couldn't have changed anything that happened. You weren't meant to stay here and get pegged into the Army lifestyle. You were meant to move away and do amazing things. And I'm damn proud of you for getting out when you had the chance."
"Thanks, Bobby." She brushed away her tears. "I guess Mama really is going to be in a twitter then?"
"She is," Bobby said. "She's got this whole thing planned already and Walker hasn't even asked Whit yet."
Rory cleared her throat and sat up. "Then just tell everyone I love them—except Walker… tell him he's the biggest ass I've ever met."
Her brother laughed. "Now that's the Rory I like to hear."
"I'll call later, after the initial craziness has died down," she said.
Bobby sighed. "Are you sure? What's up?"
"Nothing important," Rory said. "It doesn't matter anyway. I'll call them later."
"Alright. Later, Rory," he replied.
She sighed. "Bye."
Rory hung up the call and stared up at the ceiling for a long time, nothing particular going through her head but the fury slowly building to a peak. All she wanted to do was strangle something while bawling her eyes out. She was so livid, yet the ever present misery fought with her anger for precedence.
The worst part about it all was that she had probably just scored one of the biggest opportunities of her life, and it wouldn't matter to anyone. It wouldn't matter because precious, perfect debutante Whitney once again found a way to make her life miserable.
"I need to find liquor," she said aloud. She would have a drink to celebrate, and then she could drink to wallow in her depression, alone once again.
Well, alone except for the cat.