The Corner Office, Chapter 1

THE PARTY

 

At thirty-six, I had two reasons for spikes in my blood pressure; one of them was my mom sending away yet another live-in nurse and the other was Richard Boyd. On that late summer afternoon, I faced both.

Inside the closed doors of my office, I tried to keep my voice down, “There was nothing wrong with Mrs. Davis, Mom!”

“She stole my gold pendant. It was my wedding gift, your father will be heartbroken.”

My chest squeezed at her mention of Dad. I ignored the ting of Outlook adding one more unread message to the existing three hundred and eighty-four in my inbox and continued, “You probably just misplaced it. Please, Mom. Give me twenty-four hours and I’ll find somebody else, but for now you’ll need to keep Mrs. Davis.”

“I don’t need a babysitter, Tara. I’m fine on my own, just like I’ve always been.”

My eyes caught the subject of one of the emails at the top of my mailbox and my temples began to pound. FWD: Aidan Welcoming Party@Richard’s.

I took a deep breath, then another. “Richard,” I hissed his name, all too late realizing my mistake.

“Oh, my God!” Mom screeched into my ear. “Is he there? How’s he doing? I knew you’d come around and become friends.”

I rubbed the base of my neck, but the pounding in my head doubled in strength. It was quite ironic that Mom couldn’t remember what she ate for breakfast, but those few stories I’d told her about Richard years ago seemed to be ingrained in her dementia-hijacked brain. “He’s not here, Mom, and we aren’t friends. Nothing’s changed. We’ve never been on good terms.” I heard her taking in air like she always did when she was preparing to give me a lecture on why a career-driven woman like me should build alliances with bright young men like Richard. I quickly intercepted. “I’m late for a meeting. Will you please let Mrs. Davis stay for one more night? I’ll look for your jewelry in the morning and take appropriate action if your nurse had anything to do with its disappearance. But for now, just ask her to stay in the kitchen and watch TV.” And keep an eye on you. But I didn’t add that, since it’d start another argument and we’d never get off the phone.

“Okay, Tara. Just remember, Richard is a sweet boy, don’t be so hard on him.”

I rolled my eyes, and even that slight movement sent splitting pain through my skull. The “sweet boy” wouldn’t hesitate to eat me alive and throw my rotting body to the wolves if it helped him advance at work. “Okay, Mom. Goodnight. Please stay calm. You should try to rest before your doctor’s appointment on Wednesday. Don’t drain your energy fighting with nurses.”

There was silence on the line for a few beats and my chest squeezed. I shouldn’t have reminded her about the appointment, not when she was already distressed about Mrs. Davis. “Love you, Mom.”

“Love you, too, Tara. Go show them who’s the boss, girl. I’m so proud of you.”

I hung up, fighting the tears threatening to mess up my make-up. Every month, Mom lost a little bit more of herself, slowly giving up taking pleasure in the simple things she used to enjoy. Yet, she retained the memory of my professional accomplishments and how hard I worked to get to where I was in my career. On the days I felt less than stellar, she was there to remind me where I’d be if I didn’t push through the gruesome hours at work.

Outlook ding-a-linged, again, so I rested my head on the back of the chair, closing my eyes for a few seconds and mentally going through my remaining to-do list for the day. Staff meeting at half past two, presentation to the executive committee at four, conversation with HR regarding my team’s seating moves at five. Finally, at six, my real work started: sifting through seven years of a company’s financials my boss had asked me to research. I needed to focus. The problem was, that “welcoming party” email kept finding its way into my brain whenever I tried to concentrate on anything else.

My assistant, Martha, knocked and I motioned her in. A petite woman in her forties who’d been with me since I got promoted to Executive Director four years ago, she was familiar with much more than my schedule.

“Tara? Maybe I shouldn’t have forwarded you that email.”

I smiled at her even as my insides tightened. “I appreciate that you did. I need to know what I’m going to face tomorrow morning after their party.”

She shook her head and sat down opposite me. “I still can’t believe he did it. Planning that party behind your back and excluding you. For your new joiner. You should organize your own celebration to welcome Aidan and invite your own team. On the same evening.”

“Too late for that. It’s fine. It’s just boys going out.” I bit the inside of my lip, tasting blood. If I knew about the party a bit earlier, I could’ve planned something, maybe even confronted Richard about it. But, Mom was going through tough times with Mrs. Davis and I had forgotten about Aidan. Now the best course of action was to ignore Richard’s latest stab at me and stay above it all. Then I saw the image of his piercing green eyes smirking at me during tomorrow morning’s meeting, asking me in that condescending tone what I did the previous night. Right in front of everyone on my team who’d have spent the evening with him.

I couldn’t allow it if I wanted to keep the respect of my team.

I sat up straighter in my chair and opened the email. My heart thumped as I clicked on reply to the original sender. My fingers paused on the keyboard, then I began typing.

“What are you thinking of doing, Tara? Maybe you should just forget about the whole thing—”

I looked up at Martha, nervous excitement building in my chest and hit send before I changed my mind. “Please move my meeting with HR to later this week. I’m going to Richard’s party.”

 

***

The next five hours passed in a blur. I was giving a presentation to my staff and then to the executive committee, sparing me the torment of second-guessing my decision to crash Richard’s party. When I was done with meetings, all I had time for was a quick trip to the restroom to freshen up.

Alone in front of the mirror, I tried to calm my rushed breathing.

I couldn’t get Richard’s reply out of my mind. “You’re going to make it that much more special, Tara.”

My cheeks burned while I took my time redoing my make-up and combing my hair. I plastered a “work” smile on my face and took the elevator to the executive floor. The doors opened and blood pounded in my ears. I was really doing it.

I kept my posture straight and walked toward a group of men gathered by a conference hall. My eyes scanned the crowd, then I heard someone’s footsteps behind me.

I knew those footsteps. My heart raced. I ignored the tightening in my chest and moved toward the window.

In any other circumstance, I might’ve admired the view. We were on the top floor of our glass-and-steel skyscraper, one of the most expensive real estate office spaces in Manhattan, and if you looked down, you could see miles of traffic lights stretching up Park Avenue North. But, I felt Richard behind me. I felt his smirk. I felt him standing just so, to give him the full view of whatever was visible of my legs in patterned stockings. I wore a gray business suit, but there was a slit in the back of my skirt, not indecent by any means, but his gaze always made me wonder if my clothes were much more revealing and I should replace my entire wardrobe with pantsuits instead. But I never would, especially if it affected him in any way. Plus, my power suits made me look like I actually belonged in the boys’ club without trying too hard to fit in.

“Tara,” he spoke, and his thick voice sent goose bumps down my spine. I fought with myself to continue smiling at our colleagues, to not let it show that his proximity made all of my insides stand up in protest. “We thought you changed your mind about coming.”

I added venom to my expression and swung around to confront him.

What a huge mistake.

He was closer than I realized, and now I was only inches away from him. A whiff of his minty breath reached my nostrils. His lips spread in an all-knowing sneer in my direct trajectory. The scruff on his face and his messy hairstyle made him seem like he just rolled out of bed. And, the worst, his piercing green eyes drilled into me. Taunting me like they always did.

“You know I wouldn’t miss an opportunity to attend one of your parties. Especially since it’s such an important occasion,” I replied.

His eyebrows shot up. “Are you sure? You know that my parties are usually—”

“What, Richard? You wouldn’t exclude me on purpose, would you?”

“No, I was going to say you might feel uncomfortable.” He had the nerve to give me that smug look again, but at least his eyes remained locked on my face, not trying to sneak a peek at the opening of my blouse. Men still talking on the other side of the room stopped in mid-sentence and I became acutely aware that a dozen pairs of eyes had turned themselves on me.

“Me, uncomfortable? Never. Let’s go, guys!” I took off toward the elevator and heard a few men separate from Richard’s group and follow me. Thank God. My heart slowed down a notch. The hardest part was done. Now all I needed to do was smile, make a few quick chit chat rounds, and get through the following two hours without strangling Richard. Easy.

I sauntered to the elevator with my well-practiced “confident” walk, stretched my arm to push the button—

And my high-heeled sandal slipped.

My knee gave in, and I grabbed onto the first thing I could reach to prevent me from the total embarrassment of ending up on the floor in front of everyone. I turned to thank the helpful soul…and came face-to-face with Richard and a lazy twist of his lips settled in the corner of his mouth. I continued to squeeze his arm and my chest brushed his side. But it was more than that; he placed his other arm on my lower back to support me, and I felt a slight tug. The bastard pulled me closer to him in front of everyone watching and my space was suddenly invaded by the scent of his cologne. By Richard.

My insides tightened, and my lips pained as I was still trying to keep them in a semblance of a smile in front of everyone.

“You okay there?” he asked, his expression no less mocking than it was earlier. “You seem flustered. I understand. You finally get to see my place.”

The following moment was the testament to the long road that got me to that point in my career. All the brutal hours I’d slaved in the office, the hard work, missing friends’ events because of last-minute urgent assignments, working through my own birthdays—it all came down to that. My self-control to not kill Richard when every inch of my body believed spending the next twenty years in prison would be well worth it.

I smiled into his snake-green eyes, pushed his arm away and stepped into the elevator. Just as the doors closed separating us, as he thankfully decided to stay with the next group, I managed to think of an appropriate response. But it was too late.

 

***

Since taxis were a challenge to hail at that hour in the heart of Manhattan, I shared a cramped cab ride with four men. We arrived in front of a remodeled SoHo building and got into a private elevator that took us straight to the place of the festivities.

The living room of the posh loft apartment featured a state-of-the-art wet bar station, the collection of liquors which would make any bartender jealous, a set of black leather couches on its perimeter, a poster of a swimsuit model in a tiny strip of fabric covering her private parts, and a low, sturdy, circular coffee table in the middle. My head spun as I remembered many tales I’ve overheard about the action that transpired on that coffee table. But I needed to focus on what was important. 

And that was my new joiner, Aidan Smith. I’d placed a lot of hope on the guy. After learning from a friend that Aidan was looking for a job, I spent countless meetings convincing my boss that we could carve out a budget for this newly created position. I also had to work my magic on Aidan to make him believe my group was the most amazing opportunity ever presented to him, which wasn’t an easy task, considering he’d received a counter offer from another group in my own company. The group headed by Richard Boyd. Coincidence? Not even close. And what did Richard do as soon as he learned I’d beaten him to hiring Aidan? He arranged a welcoming party at his apartment and attempted to exclude me.

Unfortunately for Richard and his infuriating smirk, I was just as good at playing games as he was.

There were already plenty of guests—all male—who instantly stopped talking and turned to watch me. I stood up straighter and met their eyes. It was time to begin networking, but my insides were still twisted in knots. I was in Richard’s cave. Enemy territory.

I needed a glass of wine to help me relax a bit. I smiled, making my way to the wet bar, trying to get rid of the image of Richard drinking and gossiping about me with Aidan by this very station. It was good that I showed up. I was making a point.

My hand shook as I poured Pinot Grigio, and I finally took a long sip, starting to feel better.

“Like my place?” came a low whisper in my ear.

I gasped, almost dropping the glass, which would’ve happened if he didn’t place his hand on my arm to support me. Ordering my heart to stop hammering, I took a moment before facing him. The last thing I wanted was to have him think he flustered me. I took a deep breath. “You should talk to a shrink about your creepy tendency to sneak up on people, Richard.”

He laughed and released me, stepping back a bit. “It’s only you, Tara. I don’t sneak up on anyone else.”

I rolled my eyes, watching him pour himself Chivas Regal. Twenty-five-year-old Chivas Regal. It was probably true regarding him sneaking up on others, though. I couldn’t imagine he hated anyone close to how much he hated me.

“How’s Project Carbon going?” Richard helped himself to a green olive and licked his fingers.

I jerked my eyes to the others, who were thankfully out of earshot. “You can’t talk about this,” I hissed, even though I knew asking Richard anything was likely to provoke him to do just the opposite. “You know about the sensitive nature of the project.”

He shrugged. “No one’s here. So, still trying to figure out their finances? Need any help? The other day I saw lights in your office after ten. You should get a life, Tara.”

I glared at him. Despite the fact that working late had nothing to do with my personal life, his comment hurt more than it should have. I chose to let everything but work and Mom take a back seat. Project Carbon was going to make it or break it for me that year. And there was no doubt who would pick up where I left off if I failed—Richard.

I could have walked away with my wine right then; not take his bait at that “get a life” crack. But I had my own arsenal of tricks against Richard. I happened to be just as familiar with Richard’s projects because our boss John preferred to not keep any secrets between us, his direct reports. He liked “healthy competition,” even though the only thing actually healthy about our rivalry was the fact that it gave me indigestion and kept my weight in check. So, as a “good” teammate, I was about to ask Richard about his undercover mission to come up with budget cuts across our teams—a terrible job, considering it might entail laying off employees, but it didn’t seem to bother Richard—when the doors opened and the next group of guests walked in.

“Aidan!” Richard seemed to have lost interest in our verbal duel and made his way to the door.

Taking a swig of wine, I watched the men exchange one of those complicated handshakes, twisting their thumbs together and bumping their knuckles. Richard leaned over and whispered something into Aidan’s ear, and Aidan laughed.

I turned away to make small talk with several guys from my floor. I nodded and smiled at appropriate moments when the topic invariably turned to their dream teams and golf, but my eyes kept wandering to Richard and Aidan. Both in their mid-thirties, tall, well dressed and good looking, I could imagine them bar hopping after work, picking up women together. I sighed. As long as Aidan delivered as much as I expected, I couldn’t care less whom he hung out with.

Another hour later, alcohol was flowing; a group of guys from accounting started playing a drinking game on the kitchen counter. Richard briefly joined them and then moved on to another group of guests, playing a perfect host and making sure nobody got left out from conversation or avoided getting drunk.

Before I was done with my glass, someone handed me another one. Then one more. I wasn’t going to get hammered, though, no matter how amazing the wine tasted or how much more relaxed each sip made me feel. Nobody had ever seen me drunk in all of the fifteen years of me working at FortunateStart. I hadn’t come that far because of pure luck, and there was nothing—certainly not a bottle of good pinot—that’d make me jeopardize my position in the company.

Checking that nobody was looking, I said my silent apologies to the amazing craftsmanship that produced the pinot masterpiece and dumped my untouched drink into a tall Bamboo plant.

I turned, about to walk over to the other side of the room, when a set of striking blue eyes appeared in front of me. Twinkling blue eyes, indicating that their owner had seen me disposing of my beverage. 

My new financial accountant, Aidan Smith.

He leaned closer, and his dimples warmed up his face. “It’ll be our little secret, Tara.”

I shrugged. “I don’t keep secrets. Secrets become gossip overnight. Enjoy. You’ve just earned yourself a brownie point with your co-workers.”

I walked away to the sound of his soft chuckle.

The doorbell rang and all eyes turned to the entrance. The guys hooted, clapped their hands, and banged their glasses on the counters. The coffee table in the middle of the room was instantly cleared, and the men stood back to let the newcomer come through. My heart hammered. Was I ready to experience one of Richard’s talked-about parties?

The girl was dressed in a two-inch long pleated schoolgirl skirt that revealed the half moons of her buttocks, a transparent white blouse without anything underneath and strategically placed suspenders that stretched over her breasts.

The men, who were cautiously glancing in my direction only several minutes earlier and watching their behavior, seemed to forget that I was there and started giving “lessons” to the girl, “teaching” her how to not be a naughty student.

Heat invaded my cheeks. I took one last look around the room and checked that I had my shawl with me. It was time to make my exit, pronto.

A daring whisper in my ear sent my intentions to leave to hell. “You should’ve told me long ago you were into this kind of thing. Wanna get a front row seat?”

I swung around, my heart already pumping way too much blood to even entertain the possibility that it was probably not the best idea to raise my voice in the company of so many FortunateStart men. The rational voices in my head lost to the brewing fury that clouded my thinking and gathered my palms into fists. “No, Richard! You’re into this kind of thing. And you’re the reason half of the men in my group believe going to strip clubs is a team bonding experience.”

“It’s not a big deal.” He tsked, and a smile lit up his face. “Enjoy it, will you? I’ll arrange a lap dance in my bedroom later on. You, me and Wendy. How does that sound?” He leered and walked away before I could form a comeback, leaving me hanging for the second time that evening.

Just like that, my blood began to boil again—or maybe it had never stopped. That point I was trying to prove by being here? It shattered into nonexistence the moment he mentioned that lap dance. My chest was heaving, my head spun, my fists tightened, ready to punch somebody—preferably the organizer of this party. I pushed several men standing in front of me aside and made my way to the girl, who was already dancing on top of the coffee table, using someone’s umbrella as her pole. Richard was on the other side of it, directly in my view, his eyebrows raised and lips spread in another smile.

Then he sent me an air kiss.

Our eyes locked across the table, and he nodded, pointing in the direction of his bedroom. Blood rushed madly though my veins, from my head all the way down to my toes, until it felt like all of it was weighing on my lower body.

“Please go!” I shouted to the girl over the noise around us.

A few men protested, Mark Brown from Richard’s team and his buddy whose name I couldn’t remember clapped their hands. My temples pounded while I considered that the fact they were applauding me was even worse than their more likely motive to encourage us to have a catfight. A camera flash blinded my eyes as someone in the back of the crowd—to prevent me from seeing his face, I had no doubt—snapped the photo of me standing in front of the stripper. Vile alcohol taste seared in my throat. Wendy gasped and started to hurriedly button her blouse.

I grabbed her animal print coat from the couch and yanked her hand, pulling her off her “stage.” Her eyes widened but she didn’t resist as I threw the coat around her.

Men gave us way while I maneuvered with her across the living room and into the elevator.

The doors began closing, but not quickly enough. Richard’s overjoyed sneer was right in front of me, challenging me to another battle. “That’s too bad you’re leaving so early. I had high hopes for this evening, Tara.”

His glistening eyes disappeared, and the car began its descent.

I let out the air I was holding and reached for my wallet in my bag. “I’m so sorry.” I handed Wendy a stack of twenties—way more than she would’ve gotten for tonight. “It wasn’t about you, do you understand?”

She grabbed the money and moved away from the crazy lady. Me.

As soon as the elevator opened in the lobby, she wrapped herself tighter into her coat and dashed out.

I sighed. Richard was always able to make me act crazy. And now I’d be facing the photos of Tara Johnson, an Executive Director on the track to becoming a CFO at FortunateStart, dragging a stripper across the floor. I gritted my teeth at the thought that Richard had obviously been getting away with stripper parties without any impact on his career.

I should’ve just strangled Richard.

Because Fifth Avenue was a better location for hailing a cab, I set off toward the busier street.

“Tara, wait!”

I turned and saw Aidan running out of the building toward me. His polished shoes thump-thump-thumped on the pavement with that confidence and style I didn’t think was possible for someone who had a few too many drinks. He panted a little as he reached me and smiled.

“It’s late. Let me take you home,” he said.

“You shouldn’t have left. You’re the guest of honor.”

“It was getting too stuffy in there.” He shrugged. “Where’re you going?”

He began walking alongside me and we soon discovered that his one-bedroom apartment was on the Upper East Side, only ten blocks away from where I lived, and it was only logical that we share a cab.

“That was some party.” Aidan grinned.

“I won’t blame you if you decide to go back to your old company after this,” I said, only partially joking.

“Are you kidding me? That was incredible! The men in there respect you for what you’ve done.”

I shook my head. Aidan was just humoring me. Of course they didn’t. I didn’t belong in their boys club. But that wasn’t the topic I wanted to get into with my new joiner.

“It was a night they’ll never forget.”

Yeah, although not for the reason I wanted. I sighed again, and the inappropriate images of Wendy giving me a lap dance on top of Richard’s bed with him watching flashed in front of my eyes. And then the murder. Although, I was no longer sure whether I wanted to kill the dirty douche or die from embarrassment myself.

Aidan grinned, and I forced myself to stop thinking about Richard. I made myself forget about Aidan’s handshake with the organizer of the party and their intimate chat—not mentioning his name was the first step in the right direction of forgetting—and focused on Aidan. With his intelligent blue eyes and genuine smile, he looked every bit like a future executive. His move to leave in the middle of Richard’s party was just the crème on top of an already well-made package.

But what struck me the most was that he was probably the only other person from Richard’s party who was sober. He either had his own dump-liquor-into-bamboo trick, or special ways to brush off alcohol offers. Whatever it was, if there was one good thing that came out of tonight, it was my confirmation that I hadn’t made a mistake in hiring Aidan.