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Julia Conrad wasn't a patient woman at the best of times. She paced her office, repeatedly circling her high-gloss black-lacquer-and-brass desk. She felt so helpless. She should've gone to Citizenship and Immigration Services with Jerry rather than wait for their decision.
Rubbing her palms together, she retracted the thought. She was a wreck and the Immigration people would have instantly picked up on that and it could hurt their case. She couldn't help being anxious. The future of the company rested on the outcome of today's hearing. Ultimately she was the one responsible for the welfare of Conrad Industries, the business her grandfather had started thirty years earlier.
In an effort to calm herself she stared out the window. The weather seemed to echo her mood. There was a ceiling of black clouds, thunder roared and a flash of lightning briefly brightened the room. The lights flickered.
Julia's reflection was mirrored in the window and she frowned, mesmerized by the unexpected sight of herself.
Her dark hair was swept back from her face and secured with a gold clasp. She wore a dark suit with a pale gray blouse, whichin her view, anywayconveyed tasteful refinement. She looked cool, calm and collected, but inside she was a mass of tension and nerves. At thirty she had a pleasant face when she smiled, but she hadn't been doing much of that lately. Not in the past three years. Her cheekbones were high, her jaw strong, but it was her eyes that told the story. Her eyes revealed vulnerability and pain.
The image of herself distressed Julia and she hurriedly glanced away. Sighing, she circled her desk once more, silently praying for patience. She was determined to get the company back on its feet, to overcome the odds they faced. Jerry, her brother, had worked with her, sacrificing his personal life the way she had hers. They'd met with a handful of small successes. And now this.
Both Julia and Jerry were determined to revive Conrad Industries. Julia owed her father that much. Jerry had shown such faith in her by volunteering his services. If their situations were reversed, she wasn't sure she would've been so forgiving. But her brother had stuck by her through all the turmoil.
Slowly she lowered her gaze, disturbed by that revelation. However, she didn't have the time or the inclination to worry about it. If she ever needed a cool head and a cooler heart, it was now. Two years' worth of innovative research was about to be lost because they'd allowed the fate of the company to hinge on the experiments and ideas of one man. Aleksandr Berinski was a brilliant Russian biochemist. Jerry had met him some years earlier while traveling in Europe and convinced Julia he was the answer to their problems. Her brother was right; Alek's ideas would revolutionize the paint industry. Bringing him to the United States had been a bold move on their part, but she hadn't been sorry. Not once.
Hiring Aleksandr Berinski from Russia and moving him to Seattleit was the biggest risk Conrad Industries had ever taken. Now the fate of the company rested in the hands of a hard-nosed official.
Julia wondered again if she should've attended the hearing at the district office of Citizenship and Immigration. She'd done everything within her power to make sure Aleksandr's visa would be extended. She'd written a letter explaining his importance to the company and included documentation to prove that Aleksandr Berinski was a man of distinct merit and exceptional ability.
Jerry, who was a very good corporate attorney, had spent weeks building their case. Professional certifications, affidavits, a copy of Aleksandr's diploma and letters of reference filled Jerry's briefcase.
Her brother had told her there could be problems. It was often difficult to renew an H-2 visa, the type Aleksandr had been granted when he'd entered the United States. The H-2 is one of temporary employment. He'd warned her that if it looked as though employment might become permanent, then Immigration and the Labor Department would be reluctant to extend the visa.
On top of all that, the case had been assigned to a particularly difficult bureaucrat. Jerry had warned her that the agent hearing their case might decide Alek had applied for the temporary visa knowing the job was really permanent and refuse to grant an extension on principle.
She checked her watch again and exhaled with impatience. Only a few minutes had passed. Annoyed with herself for the uncharacteristic display of anxiety, she sat down on her white leather chair. Everything was neatly arranged on the polished black desk. A small marble pen stand was next to the phone. The address and appointment books were perfectly aligned with everything else. Behind the desk stood her computer table, the company website pulled up, its logo prominent. Julia liked to keep her office and her world under control.
When her phone rang, the sound caught her off guard. She grabbed the receiver. "Jerry?"
"Sis," Jerry's voice greeted her. "I'm on my cell. I thought you'd want to know the decision as soon as possible."
"I'm afraid it didn't go as well as we'd hoped. They've decided not to renew Alek's visa."
His words felt like a kick in the stomach. She closed her eyes and waited until the shock had passed. It wasn't as if she hadn't known the likelihood of this verdict. The fact that Aleksandr had no proof of a permanent residence in Russia didn't help. In the eyes of Immigration Services that was a red light indicating he didn't intend to return. Furthermore, she and Jerry were dealing with a large, complex bureaucracy. In a fit of worry, Julia had tried to contact the agency herself, reason with them. She'd spent nearly an hour on the phone and hadn't spoken to a single person. She was forced to listen to one recording after another. Press a number on the phone, listen, press another one, then another. She quickly became lost in a hopeless tangle of instructions and messages.
"When will he have to leave?"
"By the end of the week, when his current visa expires."
"I'm afraid so."
"Jerry, what are we going to do?"
"I'll talk to you about it as soon as we get back to the office," her brother said in reassuring tones. "Don't worry, I've got a contingency plan."
Nice of him to mention it now, Julia mused. He might've said something this morning and saved her all this grief.
Ten minutes later, her intercom buzzed; her assistant announced that Jerry was in her outer office. Julia asked Virginia to send him in and waited, standing by the window.
Jerry entered and Aleksandr Berinski followed. Although Aleksandr had been working for Conrad Industries for nearly two years, she'd only talked to him a handful of times. Even those conversations had been brief. But she'd read his weekly reports and been excited by the progress he was making. If he was allowed to continue, Julia didn't doubt that his innovations would put Conrad Industries back on a firm financial footing.
Julia and Jerry, but primarily Julia, had taken on the impossible task of resurrecting the family business, literally from the ashes. Three years before, the plant and adjacent warehouse had been severely damaged by fire; fortunately, it hadn't spread to the lab and the offices. Because of the rebuilding they'd had to do, she'd decided the line of paints Aleksandr was developing would be called Phoenix.
To be so close to success and lose it all now was more than she could bear. For three long, frustrating years, she'd hung on to the business by wheeling and dealing, making trades and promises.
Being aggressive and hardworking had come naturally to her. Jerry possessed the same determination and had been a constant help. If she was cold and sometimes ruthless, she credited it to Roger Stanhope. She'd needed to be, but Julia didn't have any more tricks up her sleeve once Aleksandr returned to Russia.
She feared that losing the business would be a fatal blow to her grandmother. No one knew better than Julia how fragile Ruth's health had become these past few months.
"You said you have a contingency plan." She spoke crisply, the sound of her steps muffled by the thick wheat-colored carpet as she stalked back to her desk. She leaned forward and averted her gaze from Aleksandr's.
The man disturbed her in ways she didn't understand. He was tall and lanky with impeccable manners. His face wasn't handsome the way Roger's had been, but rawboned and lean. His eyes were dark, the brows arched slightly, and in him she read strength and character. Unwillingly she found her own eyes drawn to his, and the shadow of a smile crept across Aleksandr's face. She focused her attention on Jerry.
"There is one way," her brother said, with obvious reluctance.
"This isn't the time to play guessing games. Tell me what you're thinking," she snapped, hardly believing he could be holding something back. Jerry knew as well as she did what kind of predicament the company was in.
Her brother set down his briefcase and motioned toward the leather chair. "Perhaps you should take a seat."
"Me?" She noted that his voice was strained, which surprised her almost as much as his request.
"You, too, Alek," Jerry advised as he moved to the opposite end of her office.
Julia turned toward him and tried to read his features in the gloom of late afternoon. The storm had darkened the sky, stationing shadows around the room until it resembled a dungeon, Julia thought.
"Whatever you have to say, please say it, Jerry. You've never worried about phrasing before."
Jerry's eyes traveled from Julia to Aleksandr, and she saw that his cheeks were flushed. He sighed. "There's only one legal way I know to keep Aleksandr in the country." Slowly he leveled his gaze on Julia. "You could marry him."
"I was hoping you'd stop by and see me." Julia's grandmother, Ruth Conrad, spoke softly, stretching out one hand. She was sitting up in bed, her thin white hair arranged in a chignon of sorts. Ruth was pale, her skin a silky shade of alabaster, her eyes sunken now with age, revealing only a hint of the depth and beauty that had been hers in years past. She was frail and growing more so daily.
The cool facade Julia wore in her role with Conrad Industries quickly melted whenever she saw her grandmother. She sank gratefully into the chair next to the brass four-poster bed and slipped off her shoes, tucking her feet beneath her.
Visiting Ruth at the family home was an escape for her. She left her worries and troubles outside. Her world was often filled with chaos, but with Ruth she found calm; the day's tension was replaced by peace and solace.
The storm outside seemed far removed from this bedroom haven.
"The thunder woke me," Ruth said in a low voice, smiling weakly. "I lay back and I could hear huge kettledrums in the sky. Oh, how they rumbled. Then I had Charles open the drapes so I could look outside. The clouds billowed past like giant puffs of smoke. It was a marvelous show."
Julia took her grandmother's hand and released a slow, uneven breath. She glanced around the room, studying the treasures Ruth had chosen to keep nearby. A row of silver-framed pictures rested on the nightstand, next to several prescription bottles. There was one of her sonJulia's fatheranother of the family together, plus Ruth's own wedding portrait and a candid photo of her beloved husband, Louis. A chintz-covered Victorian chair sat in front of the fireplace, a wool afghan draped over the back for when Ruth felt well enough to venture from the bed. The round table beside the chair was covered with a dark velvet cloth. Julia's picture, one taken shortly after she'd graduated from college, was propped up beside the lamp. Julia looked away, unable to bear the naivete and innocence she saw in that younger version of herself.
"I'm so pleased you stopped by," Ruth said again.
Julia came almost every day, knowing the time left with her grandmother was shrinking. Neither spoke of her death, although it was imminent. Julia was determined to do whatever she could to make these last days as comfortable and happy for her as possible. That was what kept Julia going day after day. She spent hours talking to her grandmother, telling her about Alek's ideas, the innovations he was currently working on, her own hopes for the company. They discussed the future and how the entire industry was about to change because of Alek's vision. Her grandmother had been as impressed with Alek as Julia was. Ruth had wanted to meet him, and Julia had asked Jerry to bring Alek over. From what she heard later, the two had been quite charmed by each other.
"I've been meaning to talk to you," Ruth whispered.
She sounded so weak. "Rest," Julia said urgently. "We'll talk later."
Ruth responded with a fragile smile. "I don't have much longer, Julia. A few weeks at the most ."
"Nonsense." The truth was too painful to face, yet much too persistent to ignore. "You're just tired, that's all. It'll pass."
Ruth's eyes drifted shut, but determination opened them a moment later. "We need to talk about Roger," her grandmother said insistently.
A muscle in Julia's neck tensed, and a cold shiver went down her backbone. "Not now. Some other time. Later."
"Might not have later. Best to do it now."
"Grandma, please "
"He betrayed you, child, and you've held on to that grief all these years. Your pain is killing you just as surely as this heart of mine is draining away my life."
"I don't even think of him anymore." Julia tried to reassure her, although it was a lie. She struggled to push every thought of Roger from her mind, but that wouldn't happen until she'd completely rebuilt what he'd destroyed.
"Regret and anger are poisoning you like like venom . I've watched it happen and been too weak to help you the way I wanted."
"Grandma, please, Roger is out of my life. I haven't seen him in over a year. What's the point of talking about him now?"
"He's gone but you haven't forgotten him. He failed you."
Julia clenched her teeth. That was one way of putting it. Roger had failed her. He'd also betrayed, tricked and abandoned her. When she thought of how much she'd loved him, how much she'd trusted him, it made her physically ill. Never again would she allow a man into her heart. Never again would she give a man the power to manipulate her.
"The time's come to forgive him."
Julia closed her eyes and shook her head. Her grandmother was asking the impossible. A woman didn't forgive the things Roger had done.