On a cold day in February
Seven years later
Meredith Spencer reflected that a woman of fifty-seven years shouldn't have to wear panty hose, support her three grandchildren, or return to the workforce as a temporary secretary. Yet here she was, standing back against the wall in the penthouse office of Zachariah Givens, president and CEO of Givens Enterprises, listening to Gerald Sabrinski rant and rave.
"You are a heartless bastard, and someday I hope to have the pleasure of seeing you get what you deserve." Bald and red-faced, Mr. Sabrinski leaned across Mr. Givens's desk and glared with all the wrath of a powerful opponent.
A powerful, defeated opponent.
Mr. Givens spoke in an aristocratic Boston accent, but without inflection of any kind. "Sabrinski Electronics was weakened by the recession, and that loan you gave to your son was the last straw."
Mr. Sabrinski's red face turned even redder. "My son needed the money."
"No doubt." Mr. Givens's lip curled in a most scornful manner.
Meredith's old friend, Constance Farrell, stood with her and instructed her in a low voice. "Mr. Givens knows Mr. Sabrinski's son, and has for years. Ronnie has a habit of hitting on his father for money."
"I see." Meredith clutched her notebook and her pen to her chest, her gaze fixed to the escalating scene before her.
Still in an undertone, Constance advised Meredith, "Mr. Givens is getting impatient. We'll be expected to escort Sabrinski out of the office in a few minutes."
Meredith stared at Mr. Givens, seated in his black leather executive chair, and wondered how Constance could tell he was impatient, when in fact Meredith could scarcely believe that man had ever suffered an emotion of any kind.
"Mr. Urbano will assist us," Constance murmured. "Mr. Urbano used to be a hockey player, and no one gives him any trouble."
Meredith flicked a glance at Jason Urbano, the legal counsel for Givens Enterprises. Mr. Urbano was burly, attractive, and probably in his early thirties, as was Mr. Givens. In most circumstances, the former hockey player would turn any woman's head, but seated next to Mr. Givens, he was all but invisible.
Mr. Givens irresistibly drew the eye. He was easily the handsomest man Meredith had ever seen in person. His black hair was straight and crisp. His eyes were so dark they looked black, too. His tanned skin stretched over bones that jutted into definitive lines: stubborn jaw, aristocratic nose, high cheekbones, broad forehead. And his body...well, just because Meredith was fifty-seven and a widow didn't mean she was dead or blind, and that man had the height and the kind of body that transfixed a woman's attention every moment he was in the room.
All of those devastating good looks made a great first impression. Then Meredith looked into his eyes and saw...nothing. He was not interested in her or, as far as she could tell, in anyone. He moved like a shark through the water, gracefully, smoothly, and with a threat that was palpable and repellent. He was cold, dispassionate, detached.
All morning and into the afternoon, Meredith had been observing office procedures, taking notes, preparing to take Constance's place while she was away on vacation, and during that time Mr. Givens had performed a lightning-fast takeover of Mr. Sabrinski's company, and was now listening as Mr. Sabrinski reviled him. At no point had Meredith seen Mr. Givens smile, frown, or show a sign of joy or curiosity or displeasure.
With his dark eyes fixed on Mr. Sabrinski, Mr. Givens said, "If you could have recovered some of the cash from your son, that would have helped, but your loan weakened the company and made it ripe for takeover."
Sabrinski's color faded, leaving him washed out and blue around the lips.
Relentlessly, Mr. Givens continued, "You cannot complain about your treatment at my hands. When news of the takeover breaks, your share will go up in value, and you can retire and live very well."
Sabrinski's color rose again, as did his voice. "I don't want to retire. I want to run my company."
"You can't," Mr. Givens replied, pausing between words for maximum impact. "You don't have control of it anymore."
Meredith whispered, "Couldn't he let Mr. Sabrinski manage it?"
Constance shot her an incredulous glance. "Absolutely not. Mr. Givens won't retain the man who lost the company through carelessness. What kind of example would that set?"
A nice example? But that was stupid. This was business. Meredith understood that. She just didn't understand why Mr. Givens had to be so unfeeling.
"I built that company from the ground up. I've sweated blood for it. I've lived for it. And you want me to retire?" Sabrinski's voice rose as he spoke, and as he finished, he was shouting.
In direct contrast, Mr. Givens's voice got lower and calmer. "I don't see that you have a choice. I've given the CEO position to Matt Murdoch, one of my executive vice presidents. He'll do a competent job."
"Oh, dear. Mr. Givens is definitely annoyed." Con-stance's gaze never left the scene. "Good. Mr. Urbano's standing up." Hurrying forward, she intervened. "Mr. Sabrinski, while this takeover may seem difficult right now, I'm sure your wife will be pleased to have more time with you." She nodded toward Mr. Urbano, who stepped to Mr. Sabrinski's side.
"My wife is already packing to leave." Sabrinski pointed a shaking finger at Mr. Givens. "As he well knows."
Meredith was shocked at the accusation. But more than that, she noted an actual emotion on Mr. Givens's face.
He looked surprised. "You're not accusing me of having anything to do with that. I barely know your wife -- and have even less interest in her."
"Janelle wanted me for one reason." Mr. Sabrinski's chest heaved as he tried to catch his breath. "For my influence. For my social position. Because of you, Givens, I now have none. What do you think?"
Plainspoken to the point of cruelty, Mr. Givens said, "That you should have kept your first wife. That you're paying quite a price for a midlife crisis."
Sabrinski huffed, "If you had a wife -- "
"But I don't."
Nor had he ever. Meredith knew that much about Mr. Zachariah Givens. Despite being photographed often with a lovely woman on his arm, despite gossip about his sexual liaisons, there had never been rumors that he was seriously involved. Constance didn't gossip about her boss, but she had said he was picky and inclined to be critical.
Mr. Givens stood, signifying it was time to ease Sabrinski out the door. "This discussion has disintegrated. I need to go back to work. Sabrinski, the money has already been transferred to your bank. There's no need for you to return to your office."
"Meaning if I try, I'll be detained in the lobby?" Once again red swept up from under Sabrinski's collar and mottled his cheeks.
Mr. Givens inclined his head. "Your personal belongings have been delivered to your home. I wish you the best of luck in the future, and don't worry, your business is in capable hands."
"Capable hands? You bastard! You worthless -- " Sabrinski lunged.
Mr. Urbano grabbed his arm.
Sabrinski tried futilely to shake him off. "Get away from me, you ape. I'll sue you for putting your dirty hands on me."
Constance tried to take Mr. Sabrinski's other arm. "Please, Mr. Sabrinski, it's all over, and this can do no one any good."
The froth of anger and violence shook Meredith.
But Mr. Givens watched without emotion. "Sabrinski, you're making a fool of yourself."
"A fool!" Mr. Sabrinski's whole head glowed with the red of a furnace. "You dare call me -- " He caught his breath. The color drained from his face, leaving him an odd gray color. "You little pip-squeak, you dare call me -- " Sweat broke out on his forehead and rolled down his cheeks.
"Mr. Sabrinski, are you all right?" Constance touched his shoulder.
Mr. Sabrinski crumpled where he stood. He hit the floor hard.
"Oh, dear Lord." Meredith heard the voice, and she thought it might be her own.
Mr. Givens stepped around his desk and in a long stride reached Mr. Sabrinski's side. "Mrs. Farrell, call the paramedics."
Constance hurried to the desk and snatched up the phone.
Mr. Givens rolled Mr. Sabrinski over.
Meredith pressed her back against the wall. Mr. Sabrinski was pasty white. His eyes were rolled back in his head.
Mr. Givens felt for the pulse, then stripped off his Armani jacket. "Jason, help me administer CPR."
"Son-of-a-bitch!" Mr. Urbano ripped off his jacket and knelt. "Damn you, Zack, this is all your fault!"
For the second time in mere minutes, Mr. Givens revealed an emotion. Again, he looked surprised.
Then the two men went to work, one on the chest, one breathing into his lungs, trading off as if they regularly saved the men who collapsed in Mr. Givens's office in a froth of fury.
By the time the paramedics arrived, Mr. Sabrinski was breathing on his own, and they plainly told Mr. Givens that his swift action had saved Mr. Sabrinski's life.
Their praise left Mr. Givens unmoved. As the gurney left his office, he wiped his hands on his snowy handkerchief. "Are we done with the dramatics for the day?"
"I hope so." Mr. Urbano also wiped his hands, but Meredith noted that his fingers shook. "I swear to God, Zack, you've grown to like this part of the job too damned much. You gave old man Sabrinski a heart attack!"
Mr. Givens lifted his eyebrows with just the same amount of emotion Mr. Spock showed for one of
Dr. McCoy's outbursts. "Sabrinski gave himself a heart attack. He was shouting."
"Of course he was shouting! He loves his company, and he lost it to a man who doesn't give a damn about it one way or another. He would have felt better if you'd been drooling over it, instead of doing your iceman routine."
Mr. Givens watched Mr. Urbano rather oddly as he shrugged into his jacket. "I don't know what you mean."
Rubbing his palm over his stiff face, Mr. Urbano spelled it out. "I mean, he was right. You have become a heartless bastard. I bet you couldn't go for a week without making somebody cry, or firing someone, or just generally being an ass to every damned person you meet."
Meredith heard Constance faintly say, "Yipe," but Meredith couldn't take her gaze off the scene before her long enough to look at her friend.
Mr. Givens's expression grew more aloof. "I'm pleasant -- to people who deserve it."
"Everybody deserves a little common courtesy. You weigh your kind words as if they were gold, and dispense them with great stinginess. To your relatives. To your friends -- who, by the way, invite you to come watch the hockey game a week from next Sunday on the new big screen TV -- "
"Thanks, but I can't. I'm working."
"Maybe that's why you're such a jerk. You're working all the time." Mr. Urbano put his hands on his hips. "Fine, you call my wife and tell her you're skipping out -- again. Make her cry, just like you do everyone else."
"She wouldn't cry if I didn't show up," Mr. Givens scoffed.
"She's pregnant! She cries about Kodak commercials!"
With a profound sense of relief, Meredith realized Mr. Urbano and Mr. Givens were friends, close friends.
Mr. Givens seated himself behind his desk. "If I'm that unpleasant, I don't know why you want me at your house."
"Because I'm your friend, although right now, I can't remember why."
Meredith sneaked a glance at Constance. Constance watched the conversation with open curiosity. Then Meredith glanced at Mr. Givens, and realized why. Mr. Givens didn't care whether the two older women listened. At this moment, the secretaries weren't necessary, and as far as he was concerned, they might not have been in the room. Meredith folded her lips tightly together. Mr. Givens truly was insufferable.
He said, "I don't understand why I should care whether someone cries, or why I should care if someone is incompetent and loses their job."
"Of course you don't! That's the point. You don't even understand why you should care if someone dies on your floor of a heart attack."
"He's alive. I helped him," Mr. Givens pointed out.
"Okay, so I was exaggerating." Mr. Urbano paced toward the desk. "You care if they die -- but probably because you don't want a mess on your rug."
Mr. Givens blinked at Mr. Urbano's vehemence. "It's an expensive rug."
It was. His whole office was expensive, with floor-to-ceiling windows, a seating area with black leather furniture, art on the wall that up close looked like splotches of red and blue and from a distance looked like flowers, and a mahogany desk so large and beautifully carved it should have graced a museum.
"You know what your problem is?" Mr. Urbano asked. "You always get your way."
"Why is that a problem?" At Mr. Urbano's snort, Mr. Givens almost...almost!...smiled. "Jason, I have the perfect life, one untainted by deceptive hopes or false friendships."
"You're going to die a miserable, lonely, unhappy man."
"You've been talking to my Aunt Cecily."
Mr. Givens picked his words with great care. "If sometimes I wake up lonely -- well, I have married friends who say they wake up lonely, too, and surely it's better to be alone and lonely rather than tethered to a wife and lonely."
Mr. Givens's insight startled Meredith; but then, he was a very intelligent man.
"I'm not lonely." Mr. Urbano got a goofy grin on his face. "Not with Selena."
"She's taken, and I can't have her," Mr. Givens mocked.
"She wouldn't have you. She's said so." Mr. Urbano leaned across the desk toward Mr. Givens. "I'll bet you a hundred dollars -- no, a dollar! -- you can't be pleasant, and that means no one crying and no one getting fired, until you come to the house to watch the game."
"A dollar or a hundred dollars?"
"Doesn't matter. They're both the same to you, but you'll do anything to win a bet."
"A hundred dollars, then. Done." Mr. Givens's eyes gleamed briefly. "As long you don't include Baxter on the list of people I have to be nice to."
"Yeah, I can exempt him."
"Good. Colin Baxter's company is next up for a take-over, but the arrangements will take a few more weeks." Mr. Givens displayed his first true, deep emotion --
Meredith felt a vast sympathy for the unknown Colin Baxter, and for every corporation Mr. Givens set his sights on.
His gaze flicked toward Constance. "We'll bring Baxter down before you get back, Mrs. Farrell."
Constance shocked Meredith by saying, "I almost hate to miss it, sir."
He turned his cold eyes on Meredith. "It will be good experience for you, Mrs. Spencer."
Meredith didn't think it would be a good experience. Not if it were like this experience. But she said, "Yes, Mr. Givens, I'll take care of everything as you require." She had been quite a successful administrative assistant in her day, and she might not like him, but she could handle him. She had to.
Mr. Urbano rubbed his hands together. "This is going to be the easiest hundred dollars I ever earned."
"I don't know why you say that," Mr. Givens said. "I've never wanted anything except to be treated the way everyone else is treated."
Mr. Urbano laughed, then sobered. "Be careful what you ask for. You might get it."
Mr. Givens appeared vaguely puzzled. "I don't know what you mean."
"No, you don't. That's the sad part." With a return to his amusement, Mr. Urbano said, "So! You'll be there a week from next Sunday."
Lifting his head, Mr. Givens glared.
Constance tugged on Meredith's sleeve, and they discreetly left. In the reception area, Constance had her desk, her computer, and her files, all in a fabulous environment of thick carpets, green plants, and tasteful design. The secretaries fit well into their environment, Meredith thought: two older women in sensible heels and subdued wool suits with hems cut at the knee.
"I can't think of anything else to tell you." Constance peered over the top of her glasses at Meredith. "Except that Mr. Urbano and Mr. Givens have been friends since college. Mr. Urbano played hockey professionally until he finished law school. His calls are always to be put through."
Flipping her pad open, Meredith made a note, but she wouldn't forget.
Constance sported a bit of dark stain on the skin around her hairline; she'd colored her gray roots in preparation for her trip to Hawaii, and Meredith found herself profoundly envying her friend for the security of her position. Then she glanced toward Mr. Givens's office. But what a price Constance paid for her security! Working for that man, day in and day out.
"As for Colin Baxter..." Constance hesitated. "Baxter is a special case. Baxter screwed Mr. Givens, and Mr. Givens has a bit of a thing about that."
Meredith laughed uneasily. "Who doesn't?"
"Yes, but Baxter was supposed to be a friend. You see, Mr. Givens's wealth makes him a target for con games. He values loyalty above all things."
"More than efficiency?" Meredith asked with a bit of acid in her tone.
Constance frowned. "Yes. I know you don't like Mr. Givens, but you're going to have to develop a little more of a poker face. He's sharp, he notices everything, and he saw how appalled you were at the events in there."
"He gave that man a heart attack!"
"We can acquit Mr. Givens of doing so deliberately."
"He was too blunt."
"Mr. Givens doesn't believe in sugarcoating anything." Constance emphasized the anything. "I worked for his father for twenty years, and Zack Givens for nine. The elder Mr. Givens was from the old school, ruthless and harsh, but the son's likely to surpass him. Don't make Mr. Givens mad. You need the job, and....recommended you."
Appalled, Meredith asked, "If I fail, will he fire you?"
"No, of course not." But Constance arranged the files on her desk, and didn't look Meredith in the eye. "But you have that temper."
"You can go off and feel secure," Meredith assured her. "Since their mother took off, I've got the grandchildren to support, and that's an incentive to keep my temper."
Mr. Urbano cruised out of Mr. Givens's office. "Have a good time in Hawaii, Farrell," he sang out. "When're you going to be back?"
Constance smiled at him. "In three weeks."
"Nice." In a lower tone, he said, "Mrs. Spencer, if Zack gives you trouble, you let me know. We've got a bet." He gave her the thumbs up, then disappeared out the door.
"Come on." Constance led Meredith back toward Mr. Givens's office. "Mr. Givens hates technology, so you'll be doing all the faxing, all the copying, all the work on the computer."
Meredith made a note. "I thought I would anyway."
"Of course. But he won't touch a computer, so any e-mail should be printed out and taken to him." Constance rapped on the door. "Mr. Givens, is this a good time?"
He looked up from his work, that gaze the same still, dark pool which sent a chill down Meredith's spine. "Of course, Mrs. Farrell. You'll be wanting to leave."
"Yes, sir, but Mrs. Spencer will be here to take over."
"Yes." He considered Meredith, and it seemed he knew what she'd said about him, what she thought about him.
parMrs. Farrell went to his desk, Meredith at her heels. "I know you hate answering machines, so I found you an answering service."
"An answering service?" His eyebrows rose. "You're joking."
"Madam Nainci's answering service, the only answering service left in Boston. They've been in business for forty years."
"An answering service." Mr. Givens frowned. "How interesting. How have they stayed in business?"
"They cater to people who want to talk to another human being, to tiny businesses who want to present the appearance of having a secretary, and to techno-phobes like you." Constance touched the basic, two-line phone on his desk. "The only technology you'll be dealing with is this. I've programmed in the number of the answering service before your parents and after emergency. All you have to do is press number two and hold." Constance did so.
On the speaker phone, they heard the dial tone, the clicking as the number was dialed, and a woman answered. "Answering service," she said, and she had the kind of voice that made Meredith like her immediately.
"Hello, Hope, it's Mrs. Farrell."
"Mrs. Farrell, haven't you left yet?" Meredith heard a hint of the South in Hope's accent, or maybe it was the fact that she spoke slowly, as if she relished their conversation.
"I'm showing Mr. Givens how to access his messages," Constance said.
"That's fine." Hope's voice became brisk and efficient. "There have been no messages yet. Is there anything else I can do for you or Mr. Givens?"
"I've got Mrs. Spencer here, too," Constance said. "She's Mr. Givens's temporary administrative assistant. You'll be dealing with her, too."
"Hello, Mrs. Spencer." Hope's warm, welcoming tone was back. "I'm looking forward to our talks."
Meredith found herself smiling at the phone. "That will be lovely."
"That should do it." Constance said.
"You have a good trip, Mrs. Farrell, and you bring back some of that warm weather," Hope said. "Promise."
"I promise." Constance disconnected, and she was smiling, too.
Mr. Givens was not. He stared at the phone with that enigmatic calm which gave Meredith such a chill.
"There, Mr. Givens. It's easy," Constance said. "I had Griswald program the same button on your phone at home."
"She's curt," Mr. Givens said. "She made up her mind to dislike me before she even talked to me."
"Usually they do wait a little longer," Constance said dryly. "Hope is charming and very personable." She caught herself. "She's efficient. You'll be happy with her. Call her as soon as you get home tonight."
"I will." He nodded. "Hope."
Copyright © 2003 by Christina Dodd