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The beginning of another week stretched in front of Austin Gardner.
She looked forward to it much like she would a trip across the Mohave on foot. With no shoes. Or water.
She knew it would be long and painful. Not only did she have to complete work on the Morris account for her supervisor, Henry Wyatt, but she faced umpteen meetings and, she had no doubt, at least a couple of run ins with Henry along the way.
She poured a steaming cup of coffee, lightened it with cream and stirred in two teaspoons of sugar before carrying it to her mother's bedroom.
Sarah Gardner, dazzling in a frilly, shocking pink bed jacket, was propped up with several pillows against the headboard. Her head was topped with the pink satin hair cover that she used every night. She was busy arranging her many bottles of pills on the nightstand within easy reach.
Austin set the cup down on the only free space on the bedside table she could find.
"Mother, I'll probably be home late tonight, but I'll bring dinner in, okay?"
"Well, I guess I don't have any choice, do I? What are you going to bring? How late will you be? You know I can't eat too late."
Her petulant tone grated on Austin's nerves but she kept control as she watched her mother finish aligning the bottles.
"I know. I should be home by eight, at the latest and I'll pick up something from The Mandarin. I have a project that has to be finished by Friday, and then next week should be easier on both of us. Is there anything you need before I go? Ruthie should be here shortly."
Ruthie Myers was the housekeeper/sitter Austin had hired to stay with her mother so that she wouldn't be alone all day. She was a pleasant woman with thepatience of a saint, and she and Sarah enjoyed watching the soaps and gossiping all day about what was going on in town, in the building, and in Ruthie's large family.
"No." Her mother sighed, and then said in a peevish tone, "Just try not to be too late. I can't eat late, you know."
With some effort Austin kept her tone light. "I know. If I can get away sooner I will. I love you, Mother. Have a good day."
"I imagine it will be like every other day," she said, with a sniff. Then she found the remote to the television and turned on the local morning news show.
Austin paused in the living room and took a long look at the morning view of the San Francisco Bay. The sun-dappled water was already broken by sailboats skimming across it, and the hills of Tiburon and Sausalito caught the morning sunlight and shone like gold. She sighed as she reflected how her life had changed over the last two years.
The death of her Uncle Dan had been a terrible shock. Her mother had the heart problem, but her uncle, who had been as sweet and easygoing as her mother was difficult, had been the one to die of a heart attack.
Austin had loved him greatly, and his death, leaving her the sole caregiver for her mother, had taken her a long time to adjust to. He left Austin a large sum of money and investments which allowed her to buy the beautiful apartment she and her mother now shared, but it didn't make up for the loss of the man she'd loved with all her heart.
Then, just after his death she was assigned the Sampson account.
Handling the intricate website design for a company like Sampson Financials had been a challenge, but her concepts had been lauded by the client and won her three technology awards.
Before the Sampson account, she worked on her own with little interference from higher ups. She was given an account and would happily settle in to develop what the client needed. In fact, reading between the lines to determine what was needed and then incorporating features the client wanted, but hadn't quite known how to express, was what had been apparent in the Sampson Financials web site, and had been her hallmark ever since.
In two years she'd gone from a happy backbench employee to one in the spotlight and up for promotion to supervisor. It was not something Austin had planned on, and not something she was sure she wanted. As the supervisor's position loomed larger, her stress level, and, not coincidentally, her brushes with Henry, increased. He not only disliked her presence on his team, he obviously didn't want her as a competitor for higher positions.
With a resigned sigh, Austin picked up her backpack, slung her pocketbook over her shoulder and went out the door. Ruthie was just letting herself in.
"Hi, Ruthie. I hope you have a good day. I'll be late getting home, but I'll bring something in, so don't bother making dinner."
"Oh, okay, but you know how she likes to have her dinner early."
"I know, and she'll live. Thanks! Call if you need anything during the day." Austin waved and made her way to the elevators.
Austin caught the Number Thirty bus at the stop directly across the street from her building. As she settled into a seat, she mentally ticked off what she had left to do for the Morris site.
Henry would need a day to go over her work before he showed it to the clients, and she knew that he would pick it apart looking for flaws. At least his pickiness kept her on her toes, but she could have done without the additional pressure this week. In fact, part of the strain she felt didn't come from work, but from personal stress.
On Saturday she turned thirty-five, and she was having a mini life-crisis. Pressure at work, her mother's increasing difficulty, not having many friends to share things with, and the lack of a family of her own were making her begin to wonder what was wrong with her.
As the bus made its starts and stops on the way to Union Square, Austin stopped thinking about her project at work and took mental stock of herself.
Many people had told her how intelligent she was, and that she had a good personality with a sharp sense of humor. Or at least I used to, she thought ruefully, wondering when she had last exhibited it.
She couldn't remember the last time she had gone out just to have fun and a few laughs. Maybe that was something she should work on. She had a sense of adventure, but again, it was not something she'd exercised in awhile. Really, since before her Uncle Dan died.
She sighed and concentrated on her physical attributes. She was no raving beauty, but she was fairly tall and slender. What people described as "willowy." I have good posture, good teeth, and nice hair with no dandruff, she thought with a smile. My hair is just ash blonde, but at least it's natural. "I'm not ugly."
At a startled glance from the man sitting beside her, she realized she had spoken out loud. "Sorry," she murmured.
So, what was the problem? She sighed again. She'd had this conversation with herself several times in the past few months, and hadn't come to any conclusion as to what to do. She knew she wasn't Jennifer Aniston, but she didn't have any illusions about finding Brad Pitt, either. She just wanted a good man to hold her and love her, and introduce her to those delicious mysteries of sex she'd been yearning for lately.
With the thought of her birthday looming ahead of her, Austin realized just how lonely she was. But she had no idea what to do about it.
The morning crowds poured onto the bus as it pulled into North Beach, and Austin knew that soon she would have to jockey for a position toward the door if she was going to squeeze off at her stop at Sutter and Stockton. Crowding was the worst thing about riding this particular bus, but in San Francisco owning a car was definitely a problem.
She felt a tingle run along her spine. One like a person gets when a disaster is about to strike. One she associated with the company president, Tyler Birch. Usually it meant that he was nearby, but she assumed it was just because she was ready to get off the bus near the office. One thing was certain, Tyler Birch was a good man to stay away from, and her early warning system normally allowed her to avoid him.
A few minutes later she stood and wedged herself between two men standing with their briefcases. One of them immediately took her seat, brushing against her as he did so. The other tried to allow her room to get to the door, but she still pressed hard against him.
"Sorry," she said without looking up.
"That's okay," he replied. At the next stop Austin exited the bus and walked to Post Street, and into the building that housed Bay Web Computer Consulting in eight office spaces on its sixteenth floor.
She crowded into the elevator and was pushed back against the wall as it made stops at almost every floor. By the seventh floor that tingly feeling was still bothering her. She felt eyes on her and looked around. Tyler Birch, president of her firm and son of the founder, was against the side wall, watching her. When their eyes made contact, he half smiled and nodded good morning to her. She caught her breath, frowned, and made a quick nod in response then looked away. What a way to start the day, she thought, wondering how she was to avoid him when they got off of the elevator. She needn't have worried about keeping her distance. He exited the elevator ahead of her and was in the suite and on his way to his corner office by the time she got to the lobby.
"Good morning, Sharon. How was your weekend?" Sharon Sanders was receptionist and pool secretary for the designers who were below supervisory level. She was also one of the few people Austin called 'friend.'
"Good. I got the pictures back from our trip to Yosemite and I'll show them to you at lunch."
"If I get lunch. The Morris work has to be done by Wednesday so Henry has time to see it, and I'll be putting in the hours until then. But we'll get together sometime. Do I have any messages or things I need to take care of first thing this morning?"
"No, you're all clear."
"Good! I'll see you later. Stick your head in my cube for lunch and I'll see how time looks."
Austin walked down the hall and made a left turn into a large open space that housed ten cubicles. The cubicles were such that they could be made lower or higher, depending on the team configuration, the designer, and the noise level they could handle for their work. Most of the cube walls were decorated with pictures of family and drawings made by children. Austin's cube walls held only her name plate ("Austin D. Gardner, Senior Designer"), flowcharts and schedules. But it was in a coveted spot, near the window that overlooked Post Street and toward Union Square and Macy's. If she got the promotion, she would actually have a small office of her own, probably with no view.
She didn't mind sharing this space with the other designers, trainers and computer specialists. For one thing, they were often onsite and out of the office, and for another thing, they were generally a nice bunch of people. Many of them were just out of college and younger than she, but they had interesting conversations. She didn't socialize outside work with them, but while she was here, they were someone to talk to and have contact with besides her mother.
She blushed at that thought, suddenly ashamed, but it was true nonetheless. Mark Williams had the cube next to hers, and Austin remembered that he was on vacation this week, so her small little area would be pretty quiet. A plus, considering the amount of work she had to do.
She poured her first cup of coffee as her design program loaded, then settled in, the coffee she brought back forgotten as she became absorbed in her latest project, the web site for the Ron Morris Motors, Dodge, Chrysler, Jeep dealerships located around the Bay Area.
The trick wasn't really to incorporate the sales and service features Mr. Morris wanted for customers, but to do it all in a slick, easy-to-use style that was user-friendly but still captured the sophistication he wanted. Austin had toured several of the dealerships and used that time to draw sketches and take photos. She spent hours deciding the color scheme for the site and the page flows before she ever started the more demanding programming aspects.
What she hoped to end up with was a smooth-flowing site that an adult could easily navigate without getting lost, and colors and shapes that fit the audience for the type of car featured. There were no strobing lights or flashing pictures. The finished product would reflect an establishment where customers could sense the years of experience, and trust the deal and the people who made it.
After several hours of working, Austin brought her mind back to the present and realized she had let her coffee get cold. She stretched and glanced at the clock on her computer. One-thirty! She had been so absorbed that she hadn't even heard Sharon when she had come to check on her for lunch.
She was digging in her purse for a few dollars to pick up something to eat when she felt someone behind her and knew immediately who it was.
"Do you need me, Mr. Birch?" She looked up to see Tyler Birch's reflection in the window, standing just at the edge of her cube.
"I came earlier, but you were really lost in your work. Does that happen often?"
"Are you asking me if I work hard?"
"No, I'm just wondering if I need to carry you out if we ever have a fire. I'm not sure you would hear the alarm, as absorbed as you were when I came by before. When I was here twice before." Austin swiveled her chair to face Tyler. He stood at the entrance to her cube, one hand on the top of the wall and the other in his pocket, flipping change, the jingle adding emphasis to his words. His stance was casual, but his tone was not.
"I would like to see you for a few minutes if you're at a good stopping point. Or were you going out to lunch?"
"I was going down to get a quick hotdog, but that can wait."
"No, that's okay. I've got a meeting in an hour. Can you stop by sometime before then and chat for a few minutes?"
"Sure." He nodded at her and walked off. Austin wondered what he would want to talk with her about. Normally, Henry relayed any messages the gods at the top of the organizational chart had for her.
Within twenty minutes she was knocking on the doorframe to Tyler's office, having wolfed down a hotdog and soda from one of the street vendors on the square.
"Hi. Take a seat. If you don't mind, let me just finish this thought and I'll be right with you." Tyler had barely lifted his head to see who it was. His brow was furrowed as he bent his head toward his computer screen.
I guess I'm not the only one who gets lost in a project, Austin thought.
She really did not care for Tyler, but there wasn't a particular reason she could put her finger on.
It certainly wasn't because of his looks. He was a gorgeous hunk of man, older than she by a few years, she guessed. Taller than Austin's five foot ten by four or five inches, he had broad shoulders that tapered to narrow hips. His legs were strong and long, kept in shape by daily swims at the Aquatic Park. In fact, she had watched him many times from her balcony. And he does have fine form, she thought, with a smile. Fortunately, you don't have to like a man to appreciate a good body. His hair was black as night, with no hint of grey, and his eyes were deep blue. His nose looked like it had been broken once. Instead of looking ugly, it gave him a kind of rough, sexy look, breaking the otherwise perfect symmetry of his face. He had a mouth full of white, straight teeth, and dimples when he smiled. Which was not something Austin saw much of. And neither did many other people at the office, she knew. When he was at work he was serious and all business.
She guessed her negative feelings toward him had to do with his being the son of the founder of the company. And isn't that fair, she asked herself, that he can just waltz in to a good job without having to work his way up? Well, he can't pick who his family is, but he should have gone to work somewhere else, not taken advantage of a connection. And, she continued, he seems arrogant and uppity around the designers, which he wouldn't if he had had to work his way up from that position himself.
In the years Austin had worked for Bay Web, her contact with Tyler had been limited, just the way she liked it. She glanced at him and found he was looking at her.
"You look as though you're having a conversation with yourself. Want to tell me what about?" The look he gave Austin was open, friendly.
He grimaced at her terse response. "Fair enough." Tyler got up and closed the door, which worried Austin. She had never been alone in a closed room with any of the staff there. Even Henry, when he was arguing with her over designs, left the door open. What was this about?
"Ms. Gardner, or Austin, if I may call you that?" She nodded, and he gave a half smile. "Austin, you've been working on the Ron Morris project haven't you? How do you think it's coming?"
"I'll have it ready for Henry to look at by end of day Wednesday. That should give him plenty of time to familiarize himself before Friday's presentation. Is there a problem?"
"No. How do you feel the work is going? I guess what I mean is, how do you feel about what you've done?"
"Good. I think I've captured what Mr. Morris wants, and I think he'll be happy with the results. Why? What's going on? I've given Henry the preliminary drafts."
"Yes, and he showed them to us at the executive meeting this morning." He stopped and regarded her with a frank expression. "I'll get right to the point. Austin, I want you to handle the presentation on Friday. Can you do it?" Tyler leaned back in his chair, crossed his legs and tapped his fingertips together, forming a steeple with his hands.
Austin was stunned. Presenting her own work to the client was not something she had ever done. In fact, not being able to do so had irritated her more than once, because she felt Henry might not have given her work the pitch he should have. She knew that part of being a backbench employee was being behind the camera, so to speak, not up where the client action was. However, this account was really important to her, and she had hated the thought of turning it over to Henry, especially since he hadn't shown much enthusiasm for her ideas. He wanted flash and lots of action on the screen instead of her more unadventurous, calm design. She quickly made up her mind. She looked up to see Tyler staring at her, quietly waiting for her response. "Yes, I can do it."
"Good. I hoped you would say that. I liked your prelims and I think you can best explain them to Morris."
"My only concern is Henry. This won't go over too well with him."
"Let me worry about that. Now," he said as he uncrossed his legs and leaned forward. He rested his elbows on the desk and looked at her intently. "I hope you won't take this the wrong way. I know we're a very casual company-this is California, after all, and what's California if not casual? But for this level of client dealing, I like the staff to be a bit more formal. No offense, but you look like the college kids out there." He waved vaguely toward the cubicle area. "I'd like you to represent the adult side of the firm on Friday. Will you come in to work dressed a little more formally and with a different hair style?" Austin bristled, and Tyler could obviously tell. "Now, don't go getting all huffy. This isn't anything I wouldn't ask of a man if he normally came in every day dressed for the beach." Austin opened her mouth and he held up his hand. "Which you don't. That's not what I meant."
"If you don't mind my asking, what exactly is wrong with how I look?"
Tyler stood and walked around his desk. He took her hands in his and forced her to stand. Austin was struck speechless as he casually appraised her, front and back, then motioned for her to sit again and went back to his chair. He leaned back and looked at her, still saying nothing.
Tyler sat quietly because, truth be told, he couldn't speak quite yet. He thought Austin was beautiful. Had thought so since she started working there, but had been very careful never to reveal his thoughts. She had gorgeous blonde hair that she kept in a horrid braid. If it was loose, falling over him... He cleared his throat and forced his mind off of that track.
"With how you look? Nothing. With how you dress? Plenty. Bagginess is fine for sitting in a cubicle in front of a computer screen, but not for client presentations." Tyler saw Austin tense and a flush spread up her neck and across her face, but he continued. "You have very nice hair, but this is a San Francisco business, not Little House on the Prairie. Something a little more suitable to your age and responsibility would be good."
Austin caught her breath, and Tyler saw her eyes sparkle with tears. Fortunately, they didn't fall, but he immediately softened his tone. Leaning forward, he said a little more gently, "You have beautiful skin and you're one of the few women I know who doesn't need makeup. Your eyes are amazing, even behind those gosh awful glasses you wear to see the computer screen. But tennis shoes don't go with the image I have of the corporation, Austin."
He looked at her steadily, and saw that she had control of her emotions. No tears for her, he thought. She's pretty brave to sit through this and not lose it. He tempered his criticism with the next statements. "You're a valuable employee. Your work is excellent and has brought the company recognition. I take you seriously, and I want others to take you seriously too." He could see that his last words had an effect on her.
He lowered his head slightly and regarded her through his lashes. "I don't mean to be harsh. For here at the office your regular dress is okay. If it's a problem making a few changes for Friday, I understand. But I really wanted you to handle the presentation."
There it was. The challenge. Would she give in to his request or give up control of her work? "I'll do it," she said in a low voice. "Is that all?"
"Yes, Austin, that's all. Thanks." He didn't get up, but watched her as she pushed herself out of the chair and left the office. He knew she was upset over his requests, but it was time for her to step up to the plate and accept responsibility for her work and her experience, her age. In order to be a leader for those young kids in the office, she needed to look the part. And he had plans for Ms. Austin D. Gardner that she wasn't aware of yet.
He sighed and turned his chair toward the window and the St. Francis Hotel. He was vaguely aware of the traffic on the street below him but he was really thinking about Austin and the first time he saw her.
She had applied for a job as a web designer five years ago. He had been there only a few years longer than that, coming in to learn the ropes before his father retired. As soon as he saw her, standing in the lobby with her portfolio, he'd felt a kick in his gut. She didn't have a ravishing model type of beauty, and the classic beauty she did have was hidden, as it was even now, under baggy trousers and a loose fitting tee shirt. Her hair was a little shorter then, but still braided. She had stood straight, whereas so many tall women slouched. When she turned and saw him just as he entered the lobby, she had smiled openly at him, and he had immediately gotten hard. Embarrassing! He was a man, not a boy, but his reaction to her had been no different than if he had been sixteen again. When he only nodded, rather coldly, at her, she had blinked those sparkling green eyes and stared at him frankly. Her eyes were the most amazing color, and for a moment he had sunk into their emerald depths. Then he had simply turned and walked down the hall. He stayed away from her after that, afraid that he would give himself away.
He knew quite a bit about her, but it was inferred from what he saw or heard in the office, what he had read in her personnel file and what he had discerned from his own innate sense of people. Her full name was Austin Duncinea Gardner. The Dulcinea, a romantic whim he guessed her mother had had, but to him it fit her perfectly. She was his ideal of what a woman should be-smart, beautiful, generous and kind, and a good listener who could carry on a full and interesting conversation. Or at least, that's what he had gleaned from listening to her in the office. He remembered that her uncle had died a couple of years back, and he had made sure that the firm had sent flowers. He had even sent an anonymous bouquet to her personally when he saw she was having a hard time afterwards. And he had tried as unobtrusively as possible to guide her work in the office. It was he who had assigned her the Sampson Financials account, and the Morris account, and several other large accounts in between. Now it was time for her to take the next step in her business life. Frankly, he was planning to take the next step too, on a personal level. He wasn't worried about Austin. She would do just fine. It was himself he was worried about.