Intimate Business – A Prologue (original prologue)


Location: Downtown Los Angeles (The Streetside Café) (Morning)

The Biggest Day of My Career could have started out better.

My brand new coffee maker – well, new since last Christmas anyway – picked this morning to throw in the microchip.

(I’m buying a French press, that’s all there is to it!)

It’s not like being picked to join a new team in a new department isn’t enough stress, but now I have to face it without enough time for the caffeine to kick in.

(Oh! And look at this line!)

Heroine “Wow . . . five varieties . . . Guatemalan Free Trade, Blue Mountain Organic, Yirga. . . okay, I can’t pronounce that . . . “

??? (Hunter) “Do you usually get a light, medium, or dark . . . ?”

Heroine “I usually make my own at home and bring it in a travel mug. And I buy whatever’s on sale, so . . . “

??? (Hunter) “So, not high maintenance. Do you care about the environment or social justice?”

Heroine “I . . . I do . . . but . . . “

??? (Hunter) “But you don’t buy your coffee with your conscience. All right, don’t get too fancy, then. If you’re going to lard it up with cream and sugar, just get a dark roast.”

(Hmmm. Nice looking, good dresser. Wonder if he works for M. Housler too?)

Heroine “And if I prefer a bolder taste, without all the sweetness and cow goop?”

??? “Light and Medium roasts usually use the higher quality beans. I like the Yirgacheffe here. It’s not bold, technically, but most people don’t know from bold anyway.”

???? (Hunter) “The lighter roast brings out the delicate flavors of the beans, gives you richer experience. That’s what most coffee drinkers want.”

Heroine “And how do you pronounce that again?”

???? (Hunter) “Year-ga-che-FAY. It’s an Ethiopian variety.”

Heroine “Year-ga-CHEF-ay.”

??? (Hunter) “Year-ga-che-FAY. Accent on the last syllable. And it’s ‘che’ like in ‘checkers’, not ‘chef’, like in cooks-overpriced-food.”

Heroine “Year-ga-che-FAY. Is that it?”

??? (Hunter) “You’ve got it. Now, order it. You’re up.”

I did. And then it was his turn. I pulled up Tallyfaire’s new issue on my phone and lingered just close enough to hear the barista call him “Hunter” . . .

. . . but not long enough to make it obvious that I was hoping to catch his name.

(He’s ordering two. Who’s the other one for?)

??? (Noah) “Is one of those for me? Aren’t you sweet!”

(Oh! Are they gay?)

Hunter “If you want sweet, Noah, the sugar’s over there. I was just trying to save us time.”

(Well, Hunter seems annoyed with Mr. Flirty, so he’s probably not.)

Noah “Who was the hottie you were talking too in line?”

(. . . and now I’m completely confused. Confused, but “hot,” I guess.)

I could have heard Noah from the street, but pretended fascination with the Valois fall line.

Hunter replied in a forceful whisper . . . which I could still have heard from the door.

Hunter “I don’t know her name. And hold it down, she’s just ten feet away!”

They were about to leave. I wanted to be ahead of them, so I didn’t look like I was eavesdropping. Staring blankly at my phone, I spun to head for the door. . .

. . . and promptly collided with yet another good-looking guy.

Heroine “Oh!”

???? (Francis) “Merde! Je suis si maladroit!

Heroine “I’m so sorry! Did I get any on you?”

??? (Francis) “Completely my fault . . . and I think it only splashed my shoes. How about you?”

Heroine “Well . . . looks like it mostly hit the floor.”

??? (Francis) “Let me get you another.”

Noah “Already had your coffee today, Francis? You seem a little wired.”

Francis “Vissez-vous, Noah.”

(The contempt of familiarity. Seems like they know each other.)

Hunter and Noah cruised past us as Francis grabbed some napkins and bent to wipe off my shoes, then his own.

Noah “In your dreams, Francis.”

Noah then slapped Francis on the butt as he moved by. Francis, still a little flustered by the coffee spill, muttered under his breath . . .

Francis “Dans mes cauchemars, vous voulez dire.”

(Okay, definitely frenemies.)

Heroine “I hope you’re kidding about the nightmares. He’s not worth it.”

He looked up at me in surprise then, rose to his full height . . .which wasn’t all that tall.

Heroine “ You speak French without a trace of an accent. La mine ressemble toujours à de la Française d’écolière.”

Francis “Well, I wouldn’t mistake you for a native speaker, but it doesn’t sound like school-girl French at all! Where did you learn?”

Heroine “It is schoolgirl French, technically. I spent a semester in Europe during college, then toured the following summer. My host family was in Toulon.”

Francis “The Côte d’Azur! It’s been too long since I’ve been there.”

We stopped so we could order.

(He didn’t correct my pronunciation, so I must’ve gotten it right.)

Heroine “A little early in the day for decaf, isn’t it?”

Francis “Not for me. I don’t handle caffeine very well. Makes me very hyper. I babble.”

Herone “In two languages?”

Francis “More than that, actually. But I don’t like to brag. I’m Francis, by the way.”

Heroine “[USER_FIRST_NAME] . . . “

I was about to ask him how many languages he spoke when his phone rang. He glanced at the screen, grimaced, then gave me an apologetic smile and stepped away as he took the call . . .

Francis “Olá, Henri, o que posso fazer por você hoje?

(Portuguese. So that’s at least three languages.)

I checked the clock. Ten minutes to my big meeting. I didn’t want to be late, so I wiggled my fingers at Francis and mouthed “nice to meet you” as I left the café.

Location: Sidewalk outside the café/office building. (Exterior) (Morning)

I stopped once I was outside, just to take in another beautiful California day. I needed to breath for a minute and just relax. . .

. . . because this was the day things really were going to start to happen for me, I could feel it.

When Wilma Turner told me I was getting promoted out of her department to join this team, I hardly believed it . . .

She said I’d been “hand-picked,” whatever that means, since she couldn’t even tell me by whom. But when she told me this was Robert Stierman’s project, I knew it was big.

(Ummmm. Hunter was right. This coffee is incredible! Just what I needed.)

What success the company has had in the last decade has been because of Mr. Stierman. We may have slipped to number two in market share, but without him, we’d be third . . . or worse.

Rumor has it, this new department is a big part of his plan to get us back on top, and he’s pulling up-and-comers from every other department in the firm to make it happen.

Location: Building lobby, elevators (Interior) (Day)

I was looking forward to working with people who would be as passionate and driven as I am. Wilma ran a tight ship in Production, but her budget didn’t always win the best recruits.

It was an honor to work for M. Housler, but it wasn’t the honor it used to be.

Fashion moved forward, always. Like a shark. But companies sometimes didn’t move forward fast enough to keep up . . .

. . . and our competitors had been better at capturing the heat and attention in the last few years. M. Housler was still a shark, but we went hungry more than we’d like.

Heroine “Could you hold the elevator for me, please?”

I hope this new department and whatever project Mr. Stierman is launching today will change that.

Heroine “Thank you.”

???? (Alistair) “You’re very welcome . . . but are you quite all right?”

Heroine “Yes, I’m . . . oh, am I making my Deep Thinking face?”

??? (Alistair) “If you are, indeed, thinking deeply and that . . . odd expression is the result, then I suppose the answer is yes.”

Heroine “I’ve done it since I was little. Sometimes, I stick my tongue out too . . .was I . . .?“

??? (Alistair) “No.”

(He looks . . . very familiar . . . and he’s just staring at me.)

??? (Alistair) “I suppose I should tell you something revealing about myself to put you at ease, but I’m afraid I can’t think of a thing . . .”

(I will have to call you Mr. Perfect, then, unless you introduce yourself . . .)

???? (Alistair) “I’m Alistair. Alistair Stewart. And you are [USER_ FIRST_NAME] [USER_LAST_NAME].”

Heroine “Why, yes, I am! How did you – “

Alistair “I could pretend I’m psychic, but that’s not really my style. Your company profile is on the website, along with a photo. I make it a habit of scouting out the talent I work with . . . “

Alistair “. . . and you are the Production Department’s contribution to our new endeavor.”

Heroine “You’re part of the new team, then?”

Alistair “I’m your team leader, in fact.”

There was no way I could have done my homework on him, since everything about the new department was so hush-hush . . .

. . . but I was relieved when the elevator delivered us at that moment to our destination. Embarrassment shelved for the moment.

Heroine “I . . . I’m very happy to meet you, Mr. Stewart.”

Alistair “Just Alistair is fine. I’ve picked up the American habit of informality, at least in some things.”

Heroine “I suppose I should have known who you are. It’s not like I haven’t heard your name, but we’re kind of off in our own world down in Production.”

Location: M. Housler, Third Floor Hall (Interior) (Morning)

As we stepped out of the elevator, the friend of the guy who bought me the coffee was walking by.

Noah “Hello again. Kind of met you in the café earlier, before Francis committed another of his famous faux pas . . . “

He offered his hand and I shook it, trying to give him a firm ‘man-shake,’ like my dad taught me, without seeming like I was trying too hard.

Noah “. . . I’m Noah. You must be [USER_FIRST_NAME]. Welcome to the Third Floor for our version of the Manhattan Project.”

(Does everyone know who’s on this team but me?!)

Alistair “It’s not as secret as the atomic bomb, Noah. Or it soon shan’t be.”

Noah “Don’t you just love his accent? You only get that upper-class drawl at Cambridge, don’tchaknow.”

Heroine “It’s . . . ah . . . “

Alistair “Ignore him, [USER_FIRST_NAME]. Especially when he hits on you, which he will. I really don’t want to send him to Sexual Harassment Training . . . again.”

??? “Unlike his grandfather, Noah is not a great respecter of other’s boundaries, Miss [USER_LAST_NAME], which I’m sure you’ll discover on your own.”

(What does Noah’s grandfather have to do with this?)

Alistair “Since he obviously knows who you are, allow me to introduce James Park, [USER_FIRST_NAME]. Our newest recruit to the company, as well as to the team.”

James gave me a tiny bow, but I’m not sure if what crossed his lips rose to the level of a smile.

JAMES “An honor to be working with you.”

(I’m good with names and faces, but trying to read all the relationships is an extra challenge. Glad the coffee is kicking in, ‘cause this day is starting out with a bang.

Alistair “Now, come along, all of you. We have a meeting beginning promptly in five minutes. In you go . . . “

Location: M. Housler Third Floor Conference Room (Interior) (Morning)

And with that, Alistair shooed Noah and me into the conference room. Several assistants were laying out the usual notepads and pencils, checking the computer and projection system.

The view was good, if unspectacular. Once upon a time, you could probably see the mountains from here, but that was fifty years a few bazillion gallons of fossil fuel ago.

???? “Good morning, [USER_FIRST_NAME].”

Heroine “Damon, good morning! I didn’t know you were part of the team! I didn’t know anything at all until I got in the elevator . . . “

Damon “Yeah, you guys in Production are the outer branches of the company information tree.”

Heroine “I’ve noticed that. If I didn’t have lunch with you a couple of time a week, I would be completely out of the loop.”

As I sat next to him, I gave Damon’s arm a quick ‘so-glad-you’re-here’ squeeze. He smiled, recognizing my nervousness and offering reassurance.

(Definitely one of the good ones.)

James, I noticed, took a seat away from everyone else. Reading my gaze, Damon jotted a note on his pad and showed it to me.

It read: “James Park – Alistair’s new recruit. Poached him from Pax Vicenté.”

(So he used to work for one of our biggest competitors? PV treats its people well. Must’ve been one heck of an offer.)

Hunter, he of the Yirgacheffe recommendation, plopped into the seat on the other side of me.

(So he works here too. Were they staking me out this morning, or was it just coincidence?)

Heroine “Hunter! What a nice surprise! Enjoying the coffee, by the way.”

(Nice to see that look of surprised confusion on someone else’s face this morning.)

Hunter “You’re welcome . . . but I didn’t catch your name earlier . . . “

Damon “This is [USER_FIRST_NAME], Hunter. Wilma Turner’s protégée from Production.”

Hunter “I’ve heard about you . . . even seen you around the building now and then. Never put the name with the face.”

(His eyes scanned the rest of me, suggesting he’d failed to put a name with not only my face, but with my legs and boobs.)

Hunter “Welcome to the Third Floor. This is where the magic happens, y’know.”

Heroine “So I’ve heard.”

(And I’m betting Hunter thinks he’s a big part of that magic.)

Hunter “Well, clearly you know Damon here, our negotiator and deal maker. Surprisingly bad at basketball for his . . . height.”

Damon “Man, you better watch it or this brother is going to have to school you again.”

(Oh! This is the Hunter Damon plays basketball with on the weekends! Now I get it.)

Hunter “I saw Alistair introduce you to the mysterious James Park on your way in.”

Hunter “Rumor has it Park was responsible for PV’s fall line last year, which as you recall was a big flop, so maybe he’s not the hot property our Fearless Leader thinks he is . . .”

Hunter “And speaking of Fearless, the only reason everyone around here doesn’t consider me insufferably arrogant is they have Alistair to compare me to.”

(Not sure that comparison works the way Hunter thinks it does, but okay.)

Heroine “While you’re dishing the dirt, what about Noah?”

Hunter “Like what you see, eh? You’d better get in line, then – the grandson of our company founder can always be counted on for outside-the-box ideas . . . “

Hunter “ . . . in the office or the bedroom, or so I hear.”

(Noah is Mr. Housler’s grandson! That explains James’s remark in the hall. . . )

Francis, my partner in clumsiness from the café, walked in and scanned the room. He was still on the phone.

Finally, it looked like everyone was here. There were six of us, Damon, Hunter, James, Francis, Alistair and me, plus the assistants.

Hunter saw me looking at Francis and couldn’t resist putting in his two cents.

Hunter “Francis. We call him the Polyglot Prince. He speaks, like, seven languages . . . “

Damon “Eight. He added Dutch last week.”

Both Hunter and I shot Damon an incredulous look, but Damon’s expression told me he wasn’t joking. He was prone to that, but not this time.

Damon “Seriously. Eight.”

Hunter “Well, whatever. I guess [USER_FIRST_NAME] can testify that he can’t close the deal with a woman in any of them.”

At that moment, Mr. Stierman and Timothy Newell, whom I knew slightly from his visits to Production, came into the room.

There’d been a low buzz of conversation from everyone, but when Mr. S came in, all the assistants finished what they were doing and cleared out.

I glanced quizzically at Hunter, expecting him to give me his snarky rundown on our bosses. He just arched his eyebrows and pulled his fingers across his lips.

Tim “Gentlemen . . . and lady. Welcome to what Robert and I have been calling Team Alpha. Although, actually, there are two teams here . . .”

Tim “We’ll tell you who is assigned to which team, what the purpose of this new department is, and set you all to your new tasks in a while, but first, Mr. Stierman would like a word.”

In reaction to Mr. Newell’s comment, I looked around the room, realizing I hadn’t been paying full attention before.

(I am the only woman here! Production was at least half female! This is . . . weird.)

I set the thought aside as Robert Stierman stepped to the head of the conference table.

He was distinguished, expensively dressed, but not as put together as the other guys in the room. I just took that as a sign that he knew what his priorities were.

He clicked a button on the computer and the windows darkened as the projection screen came up. It showed a slide containing the logos of our major competitors . . .

Robert “These are the top five firms, nationally and internationally, that control 90% of the American market and 65% of world-wide sales.”

Robert “As you know, about 15 years ago, M. Housler was the apex of that food chain. We ate smaller firms for breakfast, lunch, and dinner . . . sometimes literally . . . “

There was a small rumble of laughter from the room.

Before my time here, M. Housler was known for a very aggressive acquisitions program, buying out and merging with smaller firms was a big part of its business.

Robert “. . . but, if you eat the same way at forty that you did at twenty and you get fat. When I arrived here ten years ago, we were fat, dumb, and unhappy . . . number three and slipping . . . “

Robert “I’m tired of the eating metaphor now, so: I’m proud to say that we have kicked, punched, clawed and occasionally seduced our way back to number two.”

He smiled and a larger laugh followed. Hunter leaned in to whisper in my ear.

Hunter “Most of the credit for the success of that last tactic goes to Noah.”

I glanced across the table and saw Noah, smiling at me.

(Or is he smiling at Hunter?)

Robert “But number two is not good enough for Mr. Housler, nor is it good enough for M. Housler. He built this company to live at the peak. . . “

Robert “ . . . and he brought me in to make sure that we return to that peak. M. Housler will not only be on top, it will stay on top.”

Francis, sitting beside Noah, flushed slightly as Noah whispered something in his ear. Noah caught me looking and raised an eyebrow at me, combining it with a wicked smile.

(He’s a naughty little boy, isn’t he?)

Robert “You are all here because you are the best of the best at M. Housler, or you were the best of the best somewhere else until very recently.”

Mr. Stierman glanced at James Park as he said this, who betrayed not a flicker of reaction.

Robert “Let’s see if we were right. I’m going to go around the room. I’d like one or two sentences from each of you on what you think M. Housler’s major challenges are . . . “

He gestured to Damon, sitting just to my left.

Robert “. . . we’ll start with you, Urban.”

Damon was prepared, as always. I, on the other hand, went into panic mode.

(What am I going to say?!)

I didn’t hear Damon’s response at all, only felt Mr. Stierman’s eyes burning into mine.

Robert “Ms. [USER_LAST_NAME]? What’s your analysis?”

I have a good poker face, so I don’t think it showed that I had no idea what was going to come out of my mouth.

Heroine “You only have to look around the room to see one of the major challenges facing the company, sir.”

Everyone looked around the room. Some got it immediately, others took a while and many still looked puzzled when Mr. S ended the longest seven seconds I ever lived through.

Robert “You are right, Ms. [USER_LAST_NAME]. You are the only woman in the new department. And that does say something about us.”

He was clearly going to move on to Hunter, but my mouth just kept running.

Heroine “Yes, sir. This is a fashion firm. Most of the customers, whether they buy for themselves or for the men in their lives, are women . . .”

Robert “And as you quite rightly point out, that gender is under-represented in this room. I believe we all understood your point, Ms. [USER_FIRST_NAME].”

He passed on to Hunter Stark and around the room. I was too preoccupied with what it meant to have called the boss a sexist in front of the whole boy’s club to hear much of what transpired . . .

. . . but my whirling brain registered Noah Housler saying something about haute couture weddings, Francis Constanza suggested celebrity endorsements . . .

. . . and the laconic James Park just offered two words, “corporate security.”

Mr. Stierman thanked us for our thoughts and stepped out. Tim Newell took his place, an excited smile on his face.

Tim “We have lots more to cover today, but we wanted you all to get a look at your new workspace. You’ll see there are no cubicles . . .”

I had noticed that on my way in, but it hadn’t really registered.

Tim “It’s on open-plan office. The idea is to facilitate cross-pollination of ideas and keep the territorial impulse to a minimum . . . “

He glanced at me, still smiling. And not in a mocking way at all.

Tim “. . . which, as you know, is one of the sins to which men often fall prey.”

Tim “Your nameplate designates your desk. Take some time to get acquainted and we’ll meet again just before lunch for the big reveal.”

The meeting broke up with some hesitation on our part, since Mr. Newell didn’t leave or even move from the head of the table. He just stopped talking.

I was still a bit stunned by my own amazing display of . . .

(. . . of what? Boldness? Brilliance? Suicidal ideation?)

I suddenly realized I was the last one in the room, except for Mr. Newell. I rose to go, returning his fixed smile. As I reached the door, I encountered Mr. Stierman coming in.

Robert “Newell still in there?”

Heroine “Um . . . yes sir. He . . . he seems kind of . . . frozen.”

Robert “Just his way of showing support for the troops. I don’t get it either, but he’s a good man.”

Heroine “Yes, sir.”

I started to go. Slinking is difficult in four-inch heels.

Robert “Oh, and [USER_FIRST_NAME]?”

I was the one who looked frozen in that moment.

Robert “My people call what you just did in there chutzpah, which means ‘audacity.’ Courage. Passion. Not so nice to say about someone in social situations, but in business . . . “

He smiled at me . . . not warmly, exactly, but it wasn’t cold or dismissive either.

Robert “. . . it’s a good thing to have as a woman when you’re trying to get ahead in what is, for better or worse, a man’s world.”

(For better or worse, but not forever, Mr. Stierman).

Location: New Department Office (Open plan) (Interior) (Morning)

I thanked him and moved into the open plan office, searching for my desk. After a few minutes moving through the high-fives and the sports talk, I found it.

That unspectacular view was to my back and I had a wall on one side, which was nice.

(At least I’ll have a place for a few personal photos.)