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Ashley Roberson, a seven-year-old child, had been missing for over a week now. Thus far, not one clue had turned up. Byron Gates, the lead detective, had told Laylah he'd rarely worked on a case where there wasn't at least something to go on. "Nothing about this story makes any sense to me," he'd said at the end of the interview.
Ashley allegedly had been abducted from her own bedroom in the wee hours of the morning. The timing was just speculation on Renee Matthews's part, since the single mother hadn't discovered the child missing until 7:00 a.m., when she'd gone to the child's bedroom to get her ready for the summer day-care program. Then Renee had dialed 911.
This sad and interesting story had intrigued her from the onset. Laylah always took great pride in her job at L.A. Press— she was known for writing her features in painstaking detail and with loads of passion. Once she was given an assignment, she went right to work on it, lending it her undivided attention until it was in actual print. Numerous awards had already been bestowed upon her for excellence in journalism and for her strong commitment to community service.
Laylah also penned various articles for several nationwidemagazines; she positively lived and breathed her craft. The "All Around Town" column she wrote was a favorite to many.
"Laylah," Joe Angleton called out from across the room, "March needs to see you in his office right away." Joe chuckled lowly, knowing how their personalities clashed. Sparks flew whenever they were in the same room.
March Riverton was the boss, yet he wasn't nearly as knowledgeable about running the newspaper office as Laylah. Not only did she know her job inside and out, she was able to execute everyone else's duties with relative ease, including March's.
"Ugh!" Laylah had no desire to butt heads with her boss yet again, especially not when she had more important things to take care of. March always seemed to know when she was a bit behind on her assignments, never failing to call her into his office at the most crucial, inopportune times. Most of what he'd call her in for was pure nonsense.
If anyone would ask Laylah why March was so hard on her, she'd be inclined to tell them she believed he had a romantic interest in her. While he was a very attractive man—tall, slim and velvety dark—she wasn't the least bit attracted to him. In her opinion, no chemistry whatsoever existed between them. His sense of humor was about as dry as a bale of hay—and his cockiness was anything but a turn-on for her.
March had once been employed as a senior editor for a San Francisco–based newspaper. Shortly after he'd landed the heralded position of editor in chief with L.A. Press, he'd made his intentions toward Laylah known. When his initial flirtatious hints had gone totally ignored by her, it seemed to her that he'd made a conscious decision to annoy her instead of continuing to try to charm his way into her heart.
The entire staff thought he was a serious pain in the rear. Well, she thought, there is one exception. Amelia Markham thought March was the cat's meow, the light in lightning. She was often horrible to Laylah because she also knew March had a romantic jones for Laylah.
The intercom line on Laylah's desk phone suddenly buzzed, signaling an internal call. "Yes, March." Intuitively, she had known it was him calling to personally make his demands known. He loved to rub her the wrong way, as often as possible.
"Did Joe not give you my message?" March inquired in a sarcastic tone.
"You know he did. Can you give me a few more minutes to wrap things up?"
"Right now works best for me, Miss Versailles. Step on it." He had spoken in a tone that wouldn't have brooked an argument from anyone other than her.
Laylah all but slammed down the receiver. Before closing the software program she was working in, she saved her last entries. Since she hoped to get right back to the job at hand, she didn't bother to turn off her computer.
She looked youthful and fresh, dressed in white denim jeans and a cute red and white polka-dot sleeveless blouse that fit her slightly curvaceous figure to a T. After getting to her feet, she smoothed her hands down the thighs of her jeans, as if she thought the gesture would press out the slight wrinkles caused by sitting.
As she passed by Joe's desk, she rolled her eyes to the back of her head to show him just how annoyed she was with March's untimely disruption. Her co-worker was a great guy, sweet as he could be, and they had a great relationship.
Thirty-seven-year-old Joe stood just shy of six feet tall, possessing one of those hard bodies most men worked doubly hard to achieve. Fair complected, with bourbon-colored eyes, he was a dazzling light that brightened up everyone's day. He wasn't without a mischievous streak, but Joe was as harmless as a newborn baby.
As Joe was a very spiritual man, numerous staff members sought him out when they were down on their luck. He was always good for an uplifting word of prayer and also a guiding hand. He was the type of man who'd help anyone in need, the type who never met any strangers.
Without bothering to knock on the door, Laylah entered March's office. Seeing his feet propped up on the desk only annoyed her more, causing a bit of red to infuse her rich, honey-brown complexion. He is such an arrogant, macho-male animal. Nodding in his direction, Laylah took the chair in front of the large desk.
"Good morning to you, too," he snapped in a gruff tone. "How are the plans coming for Patricia Blakeley's retirement dinner?"
No, he didn't call me in here for that! Laylah seethed inwardly. As mad as she was with March, her expression belied how truly upset she was over his insensitivity toward her situation. She was only behind on her deadline because of all the other assignments he'd piled up on her. Many of them were his own. "Everything to do with the retirement party I turned over to Constance Waller, so you'll have to ask her."
"Excuse me? When I give you an assignment, it's inappropriate for you to delegate it. Therefore, you need to get the information I'm after. STAT."
As Laylah got to her feet, she held her temper in check. "As you wish, sir." Knowing March hated it whenever she went formal on him, she celebrated inwardly at the frustrated look on his face.
March snorted. "I expect you to report back to me within the next half hour."
Tired of constantly going toe-to-toe with March, Laylah had begun to seriously consider the generous job offer she'd recently received from L.A. Press's top rivaling newspaper, the California Herald. The salary they'd offered her was off the chain. The only major drawback was the commute. She lived only a short distance away from where she currently worked and the California Herald was much farther.
Besides the long commute, Laylah had her eye trained on March's job. As sure as she was breathing, she didn't expect him to make it much longer in his current position at L.A. Press. He just didn't have what it took to run a newspaper this size. There were too many serious complaints about his lack of ability. Several had reached corporate level.
She immediately went to Constance's office, hoping she had the information March needed so she could get back to work. Since when did a retirement party become more important than a feature story, especially when it involved a missing seven-year-old child? If Laylah dared to ask March that very question, he would declare war on her.
Constance welcomed Laylah into her office with a toothpaste-white smile and a slight nod of her head. "What can I do you for, sweet girl?"
Laylah laughed at the backward way Constance had posed the question. "The retirement party for Patricia. Can you give me an update?"
"I'd be happy to. Have a seat while I get everything together." Constance opened the file drawer connected to her desk and instantly came up with the correct folder.
Laylah took a moment to peruse the file. Instead of taking it with her, she wrote down all the pertinent information. When she was finished, she looked up at Constance and smiled. "You're a woman after my own heart. You keep very detailed records." Laylah got to her feet. "I hate to run, but the boss wants this STAT. It's his time of the month again."
Constance laughed. "Either that or he hasn't been laid in a while."
"That's probably more like it," Laylah said, chuckling softly.
"All he has to do to remedy the situation is take Amelia up on her obvious body language. She'd be only too happy to turn out the brother. The girl is on fire for him."
"You're too bad. I'm out." Laylah wasn't going to touch that comment.
Laylah set the manila folder on the right-hand corner of March's desk. "All the information you're after is inside here, sir," she said, pointing at the file. She then turned and walked away, gritting her teeth out of sheer frustration.
"Not so fast, young lady," he said. "I need you to go over with me what's in this folder. You seem to be in an awful hurry."
Laylah turned sharply on her heel and looked dead into March's eyes. "I don't know about you, but I have very important work to do. All you have to do is open the folder and read what's inside. You can read, can't you?"
March's eyes narrowed to tiny slits, hoping Laylah read the danger sign there. It would serve her well to check her tongue. "I can read, but I'd rather you read it to me."
Exasperated was an understatement for what Laylah felt. She had two choices: she could stay and read the contents of the file to him or she could go back to her desk and finish her feature story. Selecting the last option would more than likely get her fired.
Taking the least controversial way out, Laylah opted to sit back down, praying for an abundance of patience. Slowly, almost methodically, she picked up the folder and opened it. She then read to March the date, time and location of Patricia Blakeley's retirement dinner, the projected number of guests who had already RSVP'd, the regrets and the numbers of those who hadn't responded one way or the other.
The meal choices and prices per person were run down for March, as well as the company information on the DJ and his fees. Last but not least, Laylah gave March the list of gifts suggested for the retiree. "No final decision on a gift has been made."
"What's the total projected budget for all this?" March queried Laylah.
After turning the folder around so March could see the top sheet, she pointed at the last set of numbers. "Those are the bottom-line figures."
March whistled. "That's a lot of money to spend on someone unworthy. Well, I guess it's a small price to pay to finally be rid of her. Patricia is a constant thorn in my side. The woman has too much darn mouth. I hope I never hear her speak again."
Laylah understood all too well why March had made such ignorant statements. Patricia was one of the employees who had made several complaints against him. She made no secret regarding the way she felt about him, telling anyone who'd listen that March was an inadequate administrator, one that shouldve never been hired.
Laylah agreed with Patricia wholeheartedly.
"Now that you have everything you've requested, may I please return to work?"
arch looked down his wide nose at Laylah. "By all means. Thank you."
The polite way in which March had last spoken had Laylah wondering if she'd heard him correctly. Even when he tried to be nice he still annoyed her, just as his condescending look had done. "You're welcome." Hoping she could get out of March's office without any further communication with him, Laylah rushed to the exit.
March cleared his throat. "Hope you meet your deadline. Being late won't look good for your record, especially on your next evaluation."
If I have my way, you'll never do another evaluation at this newspaper.
After Laylah returned to her desk, she sat down and began pounding away at the computer keys. Staying focused was a must if she was to meet her deadline. There had been enough disruptions alread—and now she had to put her nose to the grindstone.
Less than an hour later, Laylah skidded into the printing area, where she handed over her feature story to Sean Lackland, the senior copy editor.
As Laylah cleaned off the vacant tables inside the shelter, Second Chances, she smiled beautifully at several other volunteers who had just sat down to eat. Her lovely gray eyes dazzled in the same way her effervescent personality did. She was always sweet and polite to everyone who came into the shelter. Folks loved her because she was so genuine. Though small in stature, she had a huge heart overflowing with love.
As a volunteer at the homeless shelter, her second gig, her duties pretty much ran the gamut. If she wasn't serving meals, she could be found cleaning various areas of the shelter, stocking shelves with food and other items, or passing out new or used clean clothing. From time to time she helped Pastor Ross Grinage with the bookkeeping and any other duties he needed her to perform. She also wrote the shelter's monthly newsletter. The patrons actually enjoyed reading her writings.
Laylah had very little personal time and she liked it that way. Keeping busy kept her from being too lonely. Since she hadn't been involved in a serious relationship in quite some time, she was actually fearful of getting into another romantic saga.
Benjamin Irvine, the shelter's founder and CEO, walked up to Laylah and gave her a warm hug. "How's my favorite girl?"
She smiled wearily. "A little tired, but still blessed."
She noticed that Benjamin had just gotten his wavy white hair cut and neatly edged. In her opinion, he was a nice-looking man, a very personable one. Standing around six feet, he towered over Laylah's frame. The man was sort of an exercise freak, working out six days a week. He was single and was currently looking for the right woman to enhance his life.
"How long will you be working this evening?"
Laylah hunched her shoulders. "As long as I'm needed. Is it my imagination or are the numbers of the homeless increasing? I've seen so many new faces this month."
Benjamin sighed hard. "Unfortunately, this particular population is growing by leaps and bounds. What's really frightening is that many of the newer ones who've wandered in here lately were once high-salaried professionals. It makes me wonder."
"I know." Laylah nodded. "Just the other day I talked to a guy who's an engineer. The company he worked for folded unexpectedly, leaving him without a job. When he could no longer pay his house note, he began living on the streets. People don't realize we're all just a paycheck away from homelessness. I try to stay very mindful of that."
"I know what you mean. Putting a little money aside for emergency situations is something many of us fail to do." Benjamin scratched his head. "Well, I guess we'd better get back to work. It's close to the dinner hour and the outside lines for meals and a bed are already forming."
Benjamin went on his way and Laylah resumed her duties.
Laylah still had a lot to do before the doors were open for meal service and bed assignments. Those seeking shelter were only allowed to stay on one night at a time. The patrons had to line up and then sign up each day. The hardest part of the process for Laylah was when someone was turned away once they ran out of beds. There were referral places they could send folks to, but other agencies had the same procedures in place. No matter how she viewed things, it was still rough emotionally for everyone.
Once Laylah put away the cleaning products, she slipped into the bathroom, where she thoroughly washed and dried off her hands. After changing into a clean smock that covered the upper portion of her body, she headed for the kitchen. Meal service would begin in about five or ten minutes. Once the doors were open, the place could get busy as a beehive until everyone was served and later assigned a bed for the night.
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