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Had her guard been up, Milan Walden would have sensed something was amiss. She would have noticed while gliding into her reserved space that there were more cars than usual in the company parking lot. But, seduced by the unseasonably springlike weather and still basking in the afterglow of a succession of mini orgasms and one major, body-quaking orgasm the night before, Milan felt lighthearted and carefree. It was February, but her mind was already on a new summer wardrobe, a new hairstyle with bronze highlights, and perhaps a new car. Something sleek and elegant - a Jag or a Ferrari. And breast implants.
Smart, competent, and accomplished, Milan damn well deserved a bigger set of boobs. But with her low tolerance for pain, she doubted she could suffer through surgery or the agonizing healing process afterward. So, on second thought, she decided to forgo breast augmentation altogether. She'd start wearing bras with more padding to give the illusion of a bigger bustline. Her extra dollars would be spent on something totally unrelated to pain-like the pricy anchor pendant, with its brilliant round diamonds that swung from a delicate platinum chain, that she'd been coveting at Tiffany.
After a successful nine-month stint as the executive director of Pure Paradise Renewal Center and Day Salon, twenty-six-year-old Milan Walden was earning a six-figure salary and would soon be eligible for a substantial salary increase. The board of directors was decidedly pleased with Milan's inventive ideas and vigorous campaigns to promote the spa's beauty and wellness services. They were particularly impressed with the quarterly profits.
Under Milan's helm, profits at Pure Paradise had tripled in nine short months. Business was booming! Though the wealthy elite were the target market, Milan had innovatively devised beauty renewal and well-being programs to fit the budgets of women from all economic brackets.
Of course, Milan had the good sense not to integrate the well-to-do with the hopeless bottom feeders. No, no, no. The streamlined programs for those of modest income were scheduled on specific days and time slots, and upon arrival, the less fortunate were herded down to the lower level - unseen by discriminating eyes.
Milan looked forward to her performance review. Certain that her salary would more than double, she smiled wistfully as she envisioned indulging herself with all the fabulous material things money could buy.
Not bad for a gangly black kid from the Raymond Rosen housing projects, she thought with smug satisfaction as she breezed through the automatic sliding glass doors. She caught a glimpse of her reflection as she passed the mirror that hung above the security station and had to admit that she looked damn good.
Impeccably swathed in a textured well-cut pantsuit and a pair of beaded mules, carrying a colorful trendy leather briefcase, and sporting an expensively coiffed hairstyle, Milan had used her fashion and beauty sense to change her ugly duckling status to that of a beautiful swan.
She was brimming with pride and absolutely pleased with her life as well as the glorious sunny day, which she perceived as a divine design to complement her charmed existence. She failed to notice the serious expression of the usually smiling and solicitous security guard as she whisked past him.
When she approached the company's reception area, the woman who sat behind the desk greeted Milan with a strained smile and a weak "Good morning." The woman was Milan's exact age. She had a nice figure and appealing facial features, however, being a lowly receptionist was probably as far as she aspired. The poor envious creature would never come close to reaching Milan's level of success. Feeling superior, Milan smirked at the receptionist as she briskly walked past. Don't hate!
A few moments later, as she floated toward her secretary's desk, Milan couldn't imagine why, though she could smell the overpowering and sickeningly sweet fragrance of potpourri that always wafted throughout Pure Paradise, she was unable to detect even a hint of the wonderful aroma of her morning cappuccino.
Her secretary, Sumi, who also served as the center's tour guide for prospective clients, was completely incompetent, but being a young and flawless Eurasian beauty, Sumi was excellent advertising for Pure Paradise. Desperate women in their forties seeking to stave off the destruction of time flocked to Pure Paradise, where they were promised youth and rejuvenation with massage therapy, aromatherapy, yoga, Pilates, facials, seaweed wraps, colonics, and even journaling sessions, for pity's sake! What a crock!
Thankfully, a sucker had been born every minute during the wild sixties. Bless those grungy, down-with-the-establishment hippies for prolific breeding and for producing such materialistic and narcissistic offspring.
"Sumi," Milan hissed, banging her chic, lime-colored Italian leather briefcase on Sumi's desk. "Where's my cappuccino grande? You know I can't begin my day without my caffeine fix."
A look of extreme discomfort crossed Sumi's pretty face. "Someone snatched it," Sumi explained, her voice an apologetic whisper.
"Someone snatched it?" Milan echoed. "Who?" she screeched. In search of a cappuccino thief, she whirled around and assessed her secretary's work area in anger and disbelief.
Sumi pointed toward the executive office "Milan's office. Just as Milan cut her eyes in that direction, the door flew open. A stern-faced board member emerged from Milan's office and beckoned her.
Utterly surprised, Milan's jaw dropped. "Good morning, Mr. Billings," she said, quickly composing herself. "What a wonderful surprise," she continued in an unnaturally high-pitched voice.
"Yes, good morning, Milan." He gave her a tight smile and then with a pompous lift of his chin, he said, "We'd like to have a word with you."
We? Milan mouthed the word as she turned her head to meet the wide, doe-shaped eyes of Sumi. She grasped the handle of her briefcase and glared at her secretary, willing the frazzled girl to enlighten her.
"The board," Sumi finally responded. "They're all in there."
"All of them?"
Sumi nodded gravely.
What the hell? With panic mounting, Milan cleared her throat, donned a twitchy smile, and walked woodenly toward Mr. Billings. Wheels turned quickly inside her head and then it dawned on her - the board wanted to reward her for her amazing accomplishments. They probably wanted to present her with a monetary bonus a few months before her scheduled performance review. A genuine smile now replaced the painful spastic grin. With a feeling of great relief, Milan traipsed inside her spacious office and offered a cheery "Hellooo," animatedly waved.
Six entirely caucasian Pure Paradise board members were convened. They all sat stiffly on the sofa, settee, and two chairs. The board's chairperson, Dr. Kayla Pauley, an attractive and fashionable, forty-something dermatologist, sat behind Milan's desk, wearing a classy Norma Kamali jacket and sipping the stolen cappuccino. Milan was reminded of how much she disliked the sickeningly self-assured Dr. Pauley. Still, she gave a delighted smile that welcomed the insufferable woman to her desk-and to her badly-needed morning java.
Milan cast a hopeful glance at a male board member who sat in one of the cushy chairs. Not only did he refrain from offering her a seat, the man had the gall to give Milan a look of contempt and then fixed a pleasant gaze on Dr. Pauley.
Irritation coursed through her body and threatened to make an appearance on her face, but she shook off the feeling and graced the board members with another forced smile. She supposed their solemn expressions and the stifling doom and gloom atmosphere was merely a facade, a necessary preface to glad tidings.
Dr. Pauley set the container of cappuccino upon the desk. "Good morning, Milan. I guess you're wondering why we're here." Dr. Pauley leaned forward in Milan's executive chair and began shuffling papers.
Milan nodded absently as she glanced disapprovingly at the bloodred lip prints left on the cup. Her cup! Despite the monetary compensation she was about to receive, Milan couldn't help feeling violated. Why did Dr. Pauley have to ruin the moment by brazenly guzzling her cappuccino and sitting at her desk?
"It's been brought to our attention," Dr. Pauley began slowly, "that you haven't been...how should I put it?" She paused briefly and then exclaimed with an extravagant wave of her hand, "Milan, we've discovered you haven't been forthcoming."
Say what? Milan kept her bright smile frozen in place, for surely she had mistaken the word forthcoming for rewarded. Of course the board was gathered to show how much they appreciated her. Her performance at Pure Paradise was stellar. They couldn't possibly have convened to accuse her of - what? Theft? Embezzlement? Why did white people always think blacks were prone to steal? How dare they even suggest that an intelligent, attractive, polished, and educated woman such as she would take something from Pure Paradise?
Hmm. On second thought, she had pocketed dozens of those cute little pastel-colored bottles of Hawaiian hand lotion. Sudden fear made her heart pump a trillion beats per second. Oh hell! she thought with relief and calmed down. The product was included in the gift bags - giveaways for new clients. You can't steal something that's being given away. She had a notion to inform the stuffy board members of that fact, but held her tongue. In Milan's opinion, the real thief was Dr. Kayla Pauley, the coffee-snatching, desk-stealing hussy.
Without a doubt, the board had made a mistake, and Milan was prepared to loudly protest any wrongdoing on her part. "Exactly what are you trying to say?" Milan inquired. Her broad smile morphed into a don't-mess-with-me-before-I've-had-my-coffee scowl.
Taken aback by Milan's sudden intimidating presence, Dr. Pauley drew back and nervously reshuffled the papers.
"Milan," Mr. Billings said, rising from his position on the settee. "It's come to our attention that you falsified your credentials."
Milan's mouth went dry. Her rising panic escalated to full-blown terror. She swallowed and took a peek at the papers on her desk. She squinted at her resume, scrutinized it as if there was some kind of mistake. But her name was right there in bold letters as well as her educational background.
There were other papers on the desk. One was embossed with the University of Pittsburgh logo and another boasted the Temple University logo.
"There is no record of your ever receiving a bachelor's degree from Pitt or an MBA from Temple." Now emboldened, Dr. Pauley leaned forward. "Milan, your position requires a degree from a four-year college at the least. Our records indicate that your education is limited to a high school diploma," Dr. Pauley said, shaking her head and scanning the papers in annoyance. "Unless you can provide the proper documentation, we're going to have to terminate you immediately."
Dr. Pauley's words were chilling. Milan's knees, damn them, knocked together uncontrollably. She hadn't heard what she thought, had she? She definitely needed a moment to process the information. She stammered, "I know I don't actually have a degree, but obviously I'm a strong, dynamic leader. My experience speaks for-"
Before she could utter another word, Royce, the security guard, appeared. He glowered at Milan briefly and then said gruffly, "Come with me, Ms. Walden."
Milan's jaw dropped. "You're kidding!" She twirled on her heels and faced the group of six. "Is this necessary? My accomplishments here have been huge," Milan said, fighting for survival, trying to reason with the board. "I put in thirteen-hour work days and I've made this company a small fortune." She paused to catch her breath. "And now you're treating me like a common thief."
"Please leave the premises, Milan, or security will have to forcibly remove you," Dr. Pauley said, unmoved by Milan's outburst. Slowly and gracefully, she picked up the phone. "Sumi, please pack up all Milan's belongings."
Milan opened her mouth to further defend herself, but she felt faint. The words necessary to halt this travesty of justice escaped her.
Smiling wickedly as she swiveled toward Milan, Dr. Pauley said, "We'll forward your belongings to your current address. Hopefully, that isn't a fabrication as well."
The next three minutes were a blur of embarrassed gasps, chuckles, and outright slurs from subordinates who apparently felt Milan had it coming. A minute or so later, she sat inside her car, stunned and trembling, but very reluctant to leave Pure Paradise. Driving away obliterated her chance of being available should the board come to their senses and reconsider their absurd decision to fire her. As far as Milan was concerned, keeping her around - college degree or not - made good business sense.
Royce had brusquely escorted Milan through the sliding doors and returned to his station. From his vantage point, he could see that she was making no attempt to vacate the company parking lot. The once-friendly security guard stepped outside. With an angry expression, he motioned for Milan to get moving.
Could the day get any worse? Her mind was spinning, her head throbbed, and she felt queasy. She really needed something to calm her down. She imagined Dr. Pauley and realized that what she needed was a goddamn cup of coffee!
Blinking back tears, she pulled herself together, turned on the ignition, and careened out of the lot. The car, seemingly on automatic pilot, was pointed in the direction of the nearest Starbucks. © 2007 by Allison Hobbs