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The Real Thing
By Barbara Delinsky
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 1986 Barbara Delinsky
All rights reserved.
It wasn't earth-shattering in the overall scheme of things. Nor was it unexpected. Yet coming as it did topping six weeks' worth of unpleasantness, it was the final straw.
Neil Hersey glared out the window of his office. He saw neither Constitution Plaza below him, nor anything else of downtown Hartford. The anger that blinded him would have spilled into his voice had not frustration already staked its claim there.
"Okay, Bob. Let me have it. We've been friends for too long to beat around the bush." He kept his fists anchored in the pockets of his tailored slacks. "It's not just a question of preferring someone else. We both know I'm as qualified for the job as any man. And we both know that Ryoden's been courting me for the past year. For some reason there's been an eleventh-hour reversal." Very slowly he turned. "I have my suspicions. Confirm them."
Robert Balkan, executive vice president of the Ryoden Manufacturing conglomerate, eyed the ramrod-straight figure across from him. He and Neil Hersey went back a long way. Their friendship was based on mutual admiration and genuine affection, and Bob respected Neil far too much to lie.
"Word came directly from Wittnauer-Douglass," he stated defeatedly. "Your release as corporate counsel there was a compassionate move. It was either let you go or bring you to trial."
Neil swore softly and bowed his head. "Go on."
"They alleged you were responsible for some transactions that were unethical, some that were downright illegal. For your own protection, the details remain private. The corporation is taking internal measures to counter the damage."
"What can I say, Neil? The charge was totally unsubstantiated, but it was enough to get the chairman of our board up in arms. One word in the old coot's ear and it became a crusade with him. Someone at Wittnauer-Douglass knew exactly what he was doing when he made that call. Then Ned Fallenworth got in on the act and that was that."
Fallenworth was the president of Ryoden. Bob had had reason to regret that fact in the past, but never as vehemently as he did now. "I've been spitting bullets since Ned gave me his decision. Ned's always been a coward, and what he's doing is a sad reflection on Ryoden. I gave it all I had, but his mind was closed. Narrow minds, Neil. That's what we're dealing with. Narrow minds."
Neil deliberately unclenched his jaw. "Narrow minds with a hell of a lot of power" was his own bleak assessment of the situation.
Leaving the window, he prowled the room, moving from parquet floor to Oriental rug and back, continuing the circle until he reached his gleaming mahogany desk. He leaned against the edge, his long legs extended and crossed at the ankles. His arms were folded over his chest. The pose might have been one of casual confidence under other circumstances. "Six weeks, Bob," he gritted. "This hell's being going on for six weeks. I'm being blackballed and it's touched every blessed aspect of my life. Something's got to give!"
"Do you need money? If it's a question of finances, I'd be glad to —"
"No, no." Neil waved aside the suggestion, then gentled his expression into a half smile of thanks. "Money's no problem. Not for now, at least." With the measured breath he took, the remnants of his half smile vanished. "The way things stand, though," he resumed, unable to stem his irritation, "my future as a lawyer in this town is just about nil, which is exactly what Wittnauer-Douglass intended."
"I think you should sue."
"Are you kidding?" Straightening his arms, he gripped the edge of the desk on either side of his lean hips. "Listen, I appreciate your vote of confidence, but you don't know that company as I do. A, they'd cover everything up. B, they'd drag the proceedings on so long that I would run out of money. C, regardless of the outcome, they'd make such a public issue of a suit that what little is left of my reputation would be shot to hell in the process. We're talking piranhas here, Bob."
"So why did you represent them?"
"Because I didn't know, damn it!" His shoulders slumped. "And that's the worst of it, I think. I just ... didn't ... know." His gaze skittered to the floor, dark brows lowered to hide his expression of deep self-dismay.
"You're human. Like the rest of us."
"Not much by way of encouragement."
Bob rose. "I wish I could do more."
"But you've done what you came to do and it's time to leave." Neil heard the bitterness in his voice, and while he detested it, he couldn't bring himself to apologize.
"I have an appointment at three." Bob's tone verged on apologetic, and Neil was quickly wary. He'd witnessed six weeks of defections, of so-called friends falling by the way-side.
Testing the waters, he extended his hand. "I haven't seen Julie in months. Let's meet for dinner sometime soon?"
"Sure thing," Bob said, smiling a little too broadly as the two shook hands.
Bob was relieved, Neil mused. The dirty work was done. And a "sure thing" for dinner was as noncommittal as Neil had feared it might be.
Moments later he was alone with an anger that approached explosive levels. Slumping into the mate of the chair Bob had just left, he pressed a finger to the crease in the center of his forehead and rubbed up and down. His head was splitting; he had to keep it together somehow. But how to remain sane when everything else was falling apart ... Where was justice? Where in the hell was the justice in life?
Okay, he could understand why his working relationship with Wittnauer-Douglass would be severed after the abysmal scene six weeks ago. There had been, and was a difference of opinion. A rather drastic difference of opinion. He wouldn't have wanted to continue serving as counsel for the corporation any more than they'd wanted him to. But should he be punished this way?
His entire life was twisted. Damn it, it wasn't right!
Okay, so he'd lost Ryoden. He could have lived with that if it hadn't been for the fact that he'd also lost three other major clients in as many weeks. He was being blackballed within the corporate community. How the hell could he counter it, when the enemy was so much larger, so much more powerful?
He took several slow, measured breaths, opened his eyes and looked around the office. Ceiling-high mahogany bookshelves filled with legal tomes; an impressive collection of diplomas and brass-framed citations; a state-of-the-art telephone system linking him to his secretary and the world beyond; a credenza filled with important forms and personal papers — all worthless. What counted was in his head. But if he couldn't practice law his mind was worthless, too; it was hammering at his skull now, hammering mercilessly.
Neil Hersey had never felt so furious, so bitter — so utterly helpless — in his entire life. He knew that something had to be done, and that he was the one who was going to have to do it. For the life of him, though, he didn't know what action to take. His thoughts were mired in that fury and bitterness. He couldn't think clearly.
Muttering a dark oath, he bolted from his seat. He needed a break, a change of scenery. More than anything at the moment, he needed out.
Rounding the desk, he snatched his personal phone book from the top right-hand drawer and flipped to the Ls. Landry. Lazuk. Lee. Lesser. He set the book down, marking the place with his finger. Lesser. Victoria Lesser. Within seconds he'd punched out the number that would connect him with the stylish Park Avenue co-op high above the hustle of Manhattan.
A very proper maid answered. "Lesser residence."
"This is Neil Hersey. Is Mrs. Lesser in?"
"Please hold the phone."
Neil waited, tapping his foot impatiently. He massaged the throbbing spot on his forehead. He squeezed his eyes shut. Only when he pictured Victoria breezing toward the phone — wending her way through the most elegant of furnishings while, very likely, wearing jeans and an oversized work shirt — did he give a small smile.
Victoria Lesser was a character. Thanks to the husband she'd worshipped until his death six years earlier, she was extremely wealthy and influential. She was also a nonconformist, which was what Neil adored about her. Though never outrageous, she did what she wanted, thumbing her nose at the concept of a staid and proper fifty-two-year-old widow. She traveled. She entertained. She took up ballet dancing. She fantasized herself a painter. She was interesting and refreshing and generous to the core.
It was that generosity Neil was counting on.
"Neil Hersey ... fine friend you are!" A good-natured tirade burst from the other end of the line. "Do you know how long it's been since I've heard from you? It's been months! Months!"
"I know, Victoria. And I'm sorry. How are you?"
"How I am is beside the point," Victoria said more softly. "The question is, how are you?"
Neil hadn't been sure how far word had spread, but he should have realized Victoria would have heard. The mutual friend through which they'd originally met was an executive at Wittnauer-Douglass.
"You're speaking to me," he answered cautiously, "which makes me feel better already."
"Of course I'm speaking to you. I know what happened there, Neil. I know that board of directors. That is, I know how to recognize snakes. I also know what kind of lawyer you are — I haven't forgotten what you did for my niece — and I know the bind you're in right now."
"Then you know I need to get away." He broached the topic quickly. He was in no mood, even with Victoria, to pussyfoot around. "I can't think here. I'm too angry. I need peace and quiet. And seclusion."
"Something like a remote and uninhabited island off the coast of Maine?"
Neil's mouth lifted slightly at the corners. "Something like that."
"No one's there?"
"In October?" She snorted. "People nowadays are sissies. Once Labor Day's passed, you'd think going north to an island was tantamount to exploring the Arctic. It's yours, Neil, for as long as you want it."
"Two weeks should do it. If I can't come up with some solutions by then ..." There wasn't much more he could say.
"You haven't called me before, and knowing you, you'll want to work this out for yourself. But if there's anything I can do, will you let me know?"
Neil found solace in her words. She had the courage that others lacked. Not only was she unswayed by smear tactics, she would root for the underdog any day. "Use of the island is more than enough," he said gratefully.
"When were you thinking of going?"
"As soon as possible. Tomorrow, I guess. But you'll have to tell me how to get there."
Victoria did so. "Once you get to Spruce Head, ask for Thomas Nye. Big fellow. Bushy red beard. He lobsters from there. I'll call ahead and alert him. He'll take you out to the island."
With brief but heartfelt thanks, plus a promise to call her when he returned, Neil hung up the phone. He spent the rest of the afternoon working with his secretary to clear his calendar for the next two weeks. It was a relatively easy feat, given the amount of work he'd recently lost. He met in turn with each of his two young associates, giving them enough direction to keep them marginally occupied during his absence.
For the first time in his memory, when he left the office his briefcase remained behind. He carried nothing more than a handful of Havana cigars.
If he was going to escape it all, he decided belligerently, he'd go all the way.
* * *
Deirdre Joyce glowered at the thick white cast that sheathed her left leg from thigh to toe. It was a diversionary tactic. If she looked into the urgent faces that circled her hospital bed, she was sure she'd explode.
"It was an act of fate, Deirdre," her mother was saying. "A message. I've been trying to get it across for months now, but you've refused to listen, so someone higher up is spelling it out. Your place is in the business with your sister, not teaching aerobics."
"My teaching aerobics had nothing to do with this, Mother," Deirdre declared. "I tripped on the stairs in my own town house. I fell. I broke my leg. I don't see any message there, except that I was careless. I left a magazine where it shouldn't have been and slipped on it. It could as easily have been Forbes as Runner's World."
"The message," Maria Joyce went on, undaunted, "is that physical fitness will only get you so far. For heaven's sake, Deirdre, you'll be sidelined for weeks. You can't teach your precious dance even if you want to. What better time is there to help Sandra out?"
Deirdre looked at her sister then. Once upon a time she'd have felt compassion for her, but that was before six months of nonstop pressure had taken its toll. "I'm sorry, Sandra. I can't."
"Why not, Dee?" Tall and dark-haired, Sandra took after their mother, while Deirdre was more fair and petite. She had been different from the start. "You have the same education I do, the same qualifications," Sandra pressed.
"I don't have the temperament. I never did."
Maria was scowling. "Temperament has nothing to do with it. You decided early on that you preferred to take the easy way out. Well, you have, and look where it's gotten you."
"Mother ..." Deirdre closed her eyes and sank deeper into the pillows. Four days of confinement in a bed had left her weak, and that annoyed her. It had also left her craving a hot shower, but that was out of the question. To say that she was testy was putting it mildly.
Her voice was quiet, but there was clear conviction in her words. "We've been through this a hundred times. You and Dad may have shared the dream of a family corporation, but it's your dream, not mine. I don't want it. I'm not suited for it. It's too structured, too demanding. I gave it a try once and it was a disaster."
"Eight months," Maria argued, "years ago."
"Your mother's right, Deirdre." The deep, slightly gravelly voice belonged to Deirdre's uncle. He had been standing, silent and innocuous up to that point, at the foot of the bed. "You'd only just graduated from college, but even then you showed potential. You're a doer, like your father, but you were young and you let things overwhelm you. You left too soon. You didn't give it a fair shot."
Deirdre shook her head. "I knew myself then," she insisted, scrunching folds of the coarse white sheet between tense fingers, "and I know myself now. I'm not cut out for the business world. Having a technical aptitude for business is one thing. Maybe I do have that. But emotionally — what with board meetings, conferences, three-martini lunches, client dinners, being constantly on — I'd go stark raving mad!"
"You're being melodramatic," her mother scoffed.
"Right. That's the way I am, and there's no place for melodrama in Joyce Enterprises. So please," she begged, "please leave me out of it."
Sandra took a step closer. "We need you, Dee. I need you. Do you think I'm any more suited to heading a corporation than you are?"
"At least you want to do it."
"Whether I do or not is irrelevant. Things have been a mess since Dad died."
Since Dad died. That was the crux of it. Six months before, Allan Joyce had died in his sleep, never knowing that what he'd done so peacefully had created utter havoc.
Deirdre closed her eyes. "I think this conversation's going nowhere," she stated quietly. "The only reason things have been a mess since Dad died is that not one of you — of us — has the overall vision necessary to head a corporation. What Joyce Enterprises needs is outside help. It's as simple as that."
"We're a family-run company —" her mother began, only to stop short when Deirdre's eyes flew open, flashing.
"And we've run out of family. You can't run a business, Mother. Apparently neither can Sandra. Uncle Peter is as helpless as Uncle Max, and I'm the only one who's willing to acknowledge that the time has come for a change." She gave an exasperated sigh. "What astounds me most is that the corporation is still functioning. It's been running itself, coasting along on Dad's momentum. But without direction it's only a matter of time before it grinds to a halt. Sell it, Mother. And if you won't do that, hire a president and several vice presidents and —"
"We have a president and several vice presidents," Maria informed her unnecessarily. "What we lack is someone to coordinate things. You're the organizer. You're what we need. You're the one who's put together all kinds of functions."
Excerpted from The Real Thing by Barbara Delinsky. Copyright © 1986 Barbara Delinsky. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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