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"But, I don't want a partner," Emily Tate said through her teeth. "I like working alone." She clenched her fists to pound them on the desk in front of her and then unclenched them and smoothed down the jacket of her business suit, instead. "I don't need a partner, George."
Her boss looked exasperated, and she automatically put her hand to her hair to make sure every strand was in place, that no dark curls had escaped from her tight French twist. Be cool, calm and detached, she told herself. I want to kill him for this.
"Look, Em." George tossed a folder across the table to her. "Those are the cost estimates from your Paradise project and the final costs after you brought the project in."
Emily winced and clasped her hands in front of her. "I know. I went way over. But we still showed a mammoth profit. In fact, Paradise was the biggest money-maker Evadne Inc. has ever had. The bottom line, George, is that we made money for the company." I made money for the company, she thought, but I can't say that. Be modest and cooperative, Emily.
"Yeah, we did." George Bartlett leaned back in his chair, looking up at her.
I hate it when he does that, Emily thought. He's short, fat and balding, and he doesn't have a quarter of my brains, but he's the one leaning back in the chair while I stand at attention. I want to be the one leaning back in the chair. Except I wouldn't. It would be rude. She sighed.
"Listen to me, Emily," George said. "You almost lost your job over this last project."
"You got a promotion because of this last project," Emily said.
"Yeah, because of the profit. If it hadn't made a profit, we'd have both been canned. Henry wasn't happy."
Henry Evadne was never happy, Emily thought. It didn't have anything to do with her.
George leaned forward. "I don't want to lose you, Emily. You're smart, and you have a sixth sense about marketing that I'd kill to have. But you screw up the financial side on this next deal, and no profit is going to save you, no matter how big."
Emily swallowed. "I'll bring it in under budget."
"You're damn right you will, because you'll be working with Richard Parker."
"Who is Richard Parker?"
"He's a whiz kid from the Coast," George said.
"He did an analysis of the Paradise project. It's in the folder, too. You ought to read it. He wasn't too complimentary."
"George, how much have we made on Paradise?" Emily demanded.
George looked smug. "Close to four million as of last month."
"Then why am I getting whiz kids from the Coast and nasty reviews in my project folders? Where's the champagne?"
George shook his head. "You could have flopped."
"I never flop."
"Well, someday you will," George said philosophically. "And when you do, you better flop under budget. Which is exactly what Richard Parker is here to guarantee. You're meeting him at eleven in his office."
"Next floor up," George said with a grin. "Two doors from the president. Nice view from up there, I'm told."
"Why not my office?"
"Is he in charge of this project? Because if so, I quit."
"No, no." George waved his hands at her. "Just the financial end. And you're not the only one he's working with. He's financial adviser for all our projects. It's still your baby, Em. He just watches the spending." He looked at her closely. She'd made her face a blank, but she knew the anger was still in her eyes. "Emily, please cooperate."
"His office at eleven," she said, clamping down on her rage.
"That's it," George said, relieved.
Emily slammed her office door and slumped into her rolling desk chair. Jane, her secretary, followed her in more sedately and sat in the chair across from her. She broke a frozen almond Hershey bar in half and tossed the larger piece to her boss.
"I keep this in the coffee-room freezer for emergencies," she said. "And I've given you the biggest half. Greater love hath no friend."
"How do you keep people from stealing it?" Emily asked, pulling off the foil.
"They know I work for you," Jane said. "They know I could send you after them."
"No, really, how do you do it?"
"I keep it in a freezer container marked 'Asparagus,'" Jane said, sucking on the chocolate.
"And nobody asks what you're doing with asparagus at work?" Emily broke off a small piece of the chocolate and put it on her tongue. The richness spread through her mouth, and she sighed and sat back in her chair.
"They probably figure I keep it for youyou're the type who looks like you only put fruits and vegetables in your body." Jane studied her. "How come you never gain weight? We eat the same stuff, but I'm fighting ten extra pounds while you look like you're losing. And you've got nothing to lose."
"Frustration," Emily said, breaking off another tiny piece. "I'm working for narrow-minded patriarchal creeps."
"In the plural?" Jane finished her half and checked the foil for crumbs. "Did George clone himself?"
"Evidently," Emily said. "I now have a budget adviser to answer to. Some suit named Richard Parker."
"Oooh," Jane said. "Him I've seen. Things are looking up."
"Not a suit?"
"Oh, yeah, but what a suit. Too bad I'm happily married." Jane sighed. "Tall. Dark. Handsome. Cheekbones. Chiseled lips. Blue eyes to die for. Never smiles. The secretaries are lining up to be seduced and so are the female junior execs, but it's not happening."
"No?" Emily broke off another piece of chocolate.
"He's a workhorse. All he thinks about is finance. Karen says he's always still here working when she leaves."
"That tiny little blonde on the twelfth floor. She's his secretary now."
"Make good friends with Karen. We need a spy in the enemy camp."
"No problem," Jane said, licking her fingers to get the last of her chocolate. "She loooves to talk about the boss."
"Good, good," Emily said. "He could be a real problem for us."
"He's controlling the money."
"And we're not good with money." Jane nodded wisely. "Good thing Paradise took off like it did. It's been fun rising to the top with you, but I wasn't looking forward to hitting the bottom together when we went sailing over the budget."
"You wouldn't have hit bottom," Emily said. "George isn't dumb. He'd steal you as his own secretary."
"I'm not dumb, either," Jane said. "You and I stay together. I knew when I met you in high school that you were going places and taking me with you. President and secretary of the senior class. President and secretary of student council. President and secretary of our sorority in college. I'm hanging around until you make president of this dump." She threw her foil away and smiled smugly. "I've already made secretary."
"You're every bit as smart as I am," Emily said. "Why don't you let me get you into an executive-training program?"
"Because I'm smarter than you are," Jane said. "I'm making more than most executives here right now, and I don't have to kiss up to the boss. Are you going to eat the rest of that chocolate?"
"Yes," Emily said.
"So I gather you slammed the door in honor of Richard Parker?"
"I know how you can handle Richard Parker."
"How?" Emily broke off another piece of chocolate. She wasn't interested in handling Richard Parker. She wanted, in fact, to eliminate him, but she was always interested in Jane. She didn't insist that the company pay Jane a lavish salary just because they were friends; she insisted because Jane had a lot of ideas and none of them were dumb. If Emily did get to be president, it would be due as much to Jane's brains as to Emily's.
"I think you should seduce him," Jane said.
Emily reconsidered her thoughts about Jane not having dumb ideas. This seemed to be one.
"Because you need to get out more. You live in the office. You only stop by your apartment to shower and change. You don't even have a pet, for crying out loud. I'm your only companionship."
"I like it that way."
"Well, it's not natural. And it sounds like Parker is the same way. You could save each other. He'll be grateful and fall in love with you, you'll get married, and I'll get to buy baby gifts, instead of accepting them from you. You're not going to eat that chocolate, are you?"
"Yes," Emily said, breaking off another piece. "How will marrying Richard Parker help me?"
"Sex always helps," Jane said. "It's like chocolate."
"I need help at the office," Emily said. "This guy is going to tie my hands."
"Be nice to Karen," Emily said. "This could get very dirty. Now go get Parker on the phone. I have an eleven-o'clock meeting with him, and I want to hear what he sounds like first."
"A meeting, huh? Why don't you change your look? Let that long dark hair down. Take off your suit jacket. Especially take off your glasses. You look like a bug."
"I want to look like a bug. I have a hard enough time getting respect around here looking like a bug. If I start taking off my clothes, no one will pay attention."
"Want to bet?" Jane looked at her boss. "If I had your body, I'd take off my clothes all the time."
"You do take off your clothes all the time,"
Emily pointed out. "Has Ben ever seen you clothed?"
"Certainly," Jane said. "I was dressed for my wedding. You were there. You slapped the best man at the reception."
"You never forget, do you?"
Jane got up and headed for the door. "I'll get Parker. Don't slap him. I'll make friends with Karen, but we'll get further if you seduce the guy."
"Feel free to sacrifice my body for your ambitions," Emily said as Jane went through the door.
"Our ambitions," Jane said. "And I've seen him. It would be no sacrifice."
"Mr. Parker on line two," Jane said in her secretary voice.
Emily picked up the phone. "Mr. Parker?"
"This is Emily Tate. I understand we have a meeting at eleven."
"Yes, Ms. Tate, we do." He sounded bored but patient. She'd been expecting the high tight tones of a monomaniac; his voice was deep with a little bit of New York rhythm in it.
"Is there anything you'd like me to bring to the meeting?"
"No, Ms. Tate, I have everything I need. Is there anything else?"
Sorry, Emily thought. Taking up your time, am I? "No, Mr. Parker, there's nothing else.''
"Eleven, then," he said, and hung up.
Not good, Emily thought. Efficient and not impressed with her in spite of her terrific track record. Which must mean he was still hung up on the budget overruns.
Jane poked her head in. "Okay, so he's not a charmer. But I still say go for it. Maybe he loosens up in bed."
"Not a chance." Emily hung up the phone. "He probably doesn't go to bed. He probably sleeps standing up in a corner of his office."
"Do you need me in the meeting to take notes?"
"No. Do you want to take notes?"
"Then come along, sweetie, and we'll have lunch at the Celestial afterward. We can discuss the situation."
"And, Jane, try to pretend you're really a secretary in there. He doesn't need to know you're the brains of our outfit."
"I'll stick a pencil through my bun and borrow your glasses," Jane said.
"I'll have one by eleven."
"This I've got to see."