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Sydney, New South Wales
It was an ambush. Plain and simple.
Jake Donner knew it. Every one of the board members who currently watched him with matching unreadable expressions knew it, too.
How long had this been planned? Hours? Days? weeks? 'No.'
Jake figured that was pretty much all that needed to be said.
'There's no other option, Jake.' This came from Cynthia George, a silver-haired, retired chief executive of one of Australia's major banks who now spent her spare time on a handful of corporate boards across Sydney. As she studied him with what could only be described as a steely expression, Jake was reminded why he was so keen to appoint her to this board.
Intimidating just began to cover it. Pretty damn scary was closer.
But still, he shrugged. 'Find another one.'
Jake forced his body to fall back into the soft leather of his high-backed chair, attempting a fair facsimile of casual nonchalance. But his muscles were tense, and he found himself fighting the instinct to leap up and pace around the edge of the Armada Software boardroom.
This was not representative of his usual board meeting experience. Usually, the time was spent paying careful attention during the topics that interested him, zoning out during those that didn't, and occasionally congratulating himself on his decision a few years back to extract himself from this excruciatingly boring world of the business he'd founded. Now he had a twenty-eight per cent share of the company, an up-and-coming CEOalso currently studying him across the streaky marri surface of the boardroom tableand a board made up of Sydney's corporate elitenearly all financially invested in Armada. All this added up to the perfect excuse to pay as minimal attention as possible to the day-to-day operations of the company and instead let the experts worry about it while he did what he was actually good at: coding software.
Up until about a minute ago, this arrangement had been operating flawlessly.
Across the table, the chief financial officer pushed a paper-clipped sheaf of papers in his direction, the pages fanning out slightly as they slowed to a stop.
'Here's an option, Jake. We reduce our FTE by twenty per cent.'
Full-time employees. In an organisation of over two thousand in this skyscraper alone, that was a heck of a lot of people. 'Cutting staff is a last resort.'
The CFO nodded. 'Agreed.' He gestured at the LCD screen at the head of the table and the final presentation slide it still displayed. 'Hence the board's proposal.'
Jake didn't even bother to look at the figures and multicoloured graphs before him. He was familiar with them all. He might slouch about in his chair and say very little at these meetings, but he read every single board document in detail.
Sales were down. Costs were up. Australia might have weathered the Global Financial Crisis better than most of the world, but Armada had not emerged unscathed.
The facts were inarguable.
But the proposed solution?
Definitely worth arguing about.
'I'm confident that the release of Armada's first smart phone will significantly increase revenue,' Jake said, and he was. Just not as confident as he'd been last night when he'd absorbed the surprising financial report. He'd expected the board to have a typically brilliant solution to what he'd been sure was a temporary problem. But their unease was unsettling. Their solution impossible.
Jake Donneras the new face of Armada? Nope. Wasn't going to happen.
'There's no need for something so drastic,' he said.
Cynthia smiled without humour. 'A few TV and radio appearances, a conference keynote address and a couple of interviews is hardly drastic, Jake. Armada needs a public face, and you're it.'
He shook his head. 'For a decade the quality of our products has spoken for itself. I seriously doubt wheeling out some computer geek is going to help anything.'
She snorted, an incongruous sound in the perfectly silent room. 'Computer geek? Try infamous multimillionaire recluse. Number two in Headline magazine's list of Australia's most intriguing people. Number one in Lipstick's most eligible bachelors. The increased publicity for the new phone will be immeasurable should you be the face of the product.'
Jake sank even further into his chair, stretching his long jean-clad legs out beneath the table. He didn't ask to be featured in those stupid glossy magazines. Didn't ask to forever be annoying his long-suffering local constabulary in order to despatch the more than occasional misguided journalist or photographer who trespassed onto his Blue Mountains acreage home.
It was all nonsense. Absolute rubbish. There was no story to be found. No scoop.
Was it really that unusual to despise Sydney's concrete jungle? To equate wearing a suit, unending meetings and patently false schmoozing to something only a few degrees south of selling his soul?
Who cared that he'd rather work remotely from the comfy couch in his lounge room? Who cared that he'd rather stick pins in his eyes than attend some society function chockfull of Sydney's self-satisfied, Botoxed elite? Who cared that he truly believed his private life was private and that a flat no-interview policy made his life significantly easier?
Well, according to the ten sets of eyes focused on him right this second, and the substantial business acumen behind thema lot of people cared. A hell of a lot of people.
Jake gave up pretending to be all casual and dispassionate. He flattened his sneakers to the parquet floor and shoved his chair backwards, leaping to his feet in a sharp movement. The chair continued its journey until it thumped gently against the wall, but by then Jake had already completed half a lap of the room's wall of windows.
'In a saturated marketplace, Jake, just having a great product isn't enough.' This came from the Vice President, Marketing & Communications, an elegant, spindly woman with jet-black hair. 'Unfortunately, early indications from our market research are that the Armada phone is generating little interest from consumers. Our US and Japanese competitors have the market corneredpeople want the familiar brand, regardless of our superior phone.'
Jake paused. 'And what, exactly, do you think I could do about that? How is my mug on a magazine cover going to sell phones?'
The VP smiled. 'The results of our copy-testing focus groups are compelling. An advertisement including your name and photo scored significantly higher in brand linkage and consumer motivation. We're talking quadrupling of interest in the product.'
Jake didn't even bother being surprised that focus groups had been run. Of course they had. He was the only one late to this party.
He rubbed his forehead, a futile effort to erase the newly created furrows. His jaw was clamped shut and his teeth ground together.
'The board's recommendation is that we proceed with the Jake Donner campaign.' It was Cynthia again.
'If you decline, we'll be forced to reconvene to begin implementation of the company restructure,' added the CFO. Restructure, of course, being code for mass redundancies.
Now the VP chimed in. 'We're planning a short campaign, Jake. One month of inconvenience to you for tens of millions in potential increased revenue.'
The whole board murmured in enthusiastic agreement. Yes, this was definitely an ambush. He half expected them all to start lobbing their pens at him nextin a perfectly coordinated fashion, of course.
One month of inconvenience.
Could he do it? One month of shoehorning himself into whatever shiny package Marketing chose to squish him into? One month of posing and saying all the right things in aid of dragging Armada out of this financial hole?
One month for thousands of saved jobs and millions of dollars?
It didn't sound like much of a sacrifice when put like that. He might be far from the sole owner any more, but deep down inside he still considered Armada his. His responsibility. His employees.
Really, the decision was a no brainer.
Reluctantly, Jake grunted something that Cynthia correctly interpreted as acquiescence.
Well, he wasn't about to jump up and down in excitement, was he?
Something totally random occurred to him: Lord. He'dbetter not have to wear a suit.
Ella Cartwright waited patiently outside the boardroom's double doors, seated neatly on a low leather couch. Her black patent heels did not click nervously on the floorboards. Her fingers did not twist and tie themselves in knots on her lap. And she certainly didn't ask the CEO's personal assistant, who'd escorted her all the way to the twenty-sixth floor, any of the myriad questions about Jake Donner that sat on the tip of her tongue.
Not doing all those things was possible, of course, because those things she could control.
The butterflies currently tap-dancing in her tummy? Well, not so much.
But that was okay.
No one needed to know about them.
Finally, the doors were pushed open, and a parade of exquisitely suited executives slowly made their way out. Ella was on her feet well before she caught a flash of Cynthia George's distinctive red blazer amongst the mass of wintry black, grey and navy.
Ella allowed herself a fleeting moment of pride as she recognised the jacket she'd personally selected for Cynthia's revamped wardrobe. With her sharp haircut, flawlessly applied make-up and flattering outfit, Cynthia was a walking advertisement for Picture Perfect, Ella's five-year-old image consultancy firm.
But, while Cynthia's 'look' had needed a review, her communicationand negotiationskills definitely hadn't. This had been demonstrated most effectively to Ella when she'd attempted to say no when she'd received Cynthia's most unexpected request.
Take on Jake Donner as a client?
Not in a million years.
Excepthow to say no to your number one client with no reasonable excuse? Or rather, without a reason she had any intention of disclosing?
It turned out it wasn't possible. Even worse, Cynthia had made it clear that she considered this job a personal favour. And when half your clientele was a direct result of Cynthia's word of mouth, a favour was definitely not too much to ask.
And besides, if she was objectiveeven though the concept of objectivity was laughable where Jake was concernedwith Jake Donner she'd have a success story that would far eclipse Cynthia's. Her business was doing well, but with Jake on her client list the impact on her bottom line could be stratospheric.
The fact that Jake was the star of her number one most humiliating experienceand from a girl with quite a list, that was saying somethingwas completely irrelevant.
So here she was. Notoutwardlynervous at all, just moments away from seeing Jake Donner for the first time in thirteen years.
To say she felt ill would be a monumental understatement.
'Ella!' Cynthia called, meeting Ella's gaze with typical directness. 'Come in. I've asked Jake to stay back a few minutes.'
Behind Ella, a ding announced the arrival of the elevator, and within seconds the two women were alone in the hallway as the rest of the board were whisked away.
'How did the meeting go?' Ella asked.
But Cynthia only responded with matching raised eyebrows.
Seriously, what did Ella expect? Jake was Sydney's most famous recluse. He was about to be splashed across Australian and international media. He was not going to be in a good mood.
And when he saw her, it was only going to get worse. She had no doubt Jake wanted his past to stay as buried as hers.
With a deep breath, Ella straightened her shoulders, and mentally yanked herself into line as Cynthia reopened the heavy boardroom doors.
She could do this. She was Ella Cartwright.
Confident. Polished. Successful.
Jake Donner was just another client.
Another deep breath.
You're not that girl any more.
Confident. Polished. Successful.
He probably barely remembered her.
Just another client.
Ella repeated the phrase over and over as she entered the room, scarcely acknowledging the expansive table that dominated the room or the drizzling rain that blurred the city vista. She was too busy focusing on the rear view of a dark head of slightly-too-long hairall that was visible of Jake with his chair swivelled away from the doorway.
He didn't move as they approached.
'Well played, Cynthia,' he said, his tone quiet but not soft.
Ella blinked, taking a moment to absorb a voice both familiar and yet completely foreign. He'd been seventeen last time she'd seen him, his voice already deep and mature. But now it was different. In a way that she couldn't quite explain. Richer, somehow.
For no reason she could fathom, she shivered.
'Not played, Jacob,' Cynthia said. 'That would imply I was the winner and you the loser. Unless, of course, you've cast Armada in the winner's role?'
Jake laughed, but still didn't turn. 'There's no guarantee this is going to work, Cynthia. I think everyone is hugely overestimating my appeal to the average Australian.'
Ella swallowed a surprised laugh. Surely Jake couldn't truly believe that? Despite her best effortsher very bestavoiding Jake Donner entirely when she'd moved to Sydney almost a decade earlier had proved impossible. This might have been the first time they'd been in the same room, but Jake had permeated her world at all sorts of inopportune moments.
He was hard to miss, what with his success being the freakish type that attracted the mainstream mediawith his name splashed across everything from articles of terribly serious business analysis to the trashiest of gossip magazines. And he was always linked to impressive phrases: Internet Visionary for one. Or Web Evangelist. Even The Bill Gates of His Generation.
She remembered thinking Jake would've got a kick out of that last one.
Belatedly, Ella registered that Cynthia was speaking. Introducing her.
As the chair began to turn Ella swallowed, then shut her eyes briefly, so by the time Jake Donner's ice-blue eyes locked with hers, she was ready.
'Good morning,' she said. 'I'm Ella Cartwright, owner of Picture Perfect. I'll be your personal rebranding and image consultant for the duration of the campaign.'
Good. She sounded every bit as professionaland together as normal.
She could do this.
Ella stepped towards Jake, her hand extended, just as she would if he were any other brand-new client. Which he was.
A moment passed. Nothing happened.
Had she made a tactical error, pretending she didn't know him? It was a risk. One she'd decided worth taking after her weekend of preparing forread: stressing aboutthis meeting.
Her plan was simple: brazen it out, and hope for the best.
The alternative could not possibly be considered.
Jake's gaze was unreadable as the silence stretched. Stubbornly, Ella kept her hand right where it was, and her stare did not waver.
Not that it didn't want to. Her eyes wanted to drop to the floordesperately. Her shoulders wanted to slouch. Her arms wanted to cross and form a useless shield.
And most of all, her body wanted to sprint as fast as her spiky heels would carry herout of this room and infinitely far, far away.
But she'd never do any of those things. Not any more. The girl Jake had known would have. Definitely.
With no other option but to look at him, she did, her gaze travelling across a facedespite all the photos she'd seen of him over the yearsthat was still a surprise. He was just so different from the boy she remembered.