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THE WAY YOU AREN'T
By KAREN WHITE-OWENS
DAFINA BOOKSCopyright © 2007 Karen White-Owens
All right reserved.
Chapter One"I hate company functions," Krista muttered, glancing at the green and white exit sign for Kensington Metropark. A low moan escaped her lips as a wave of anxiety and nausea swept through her. Swallowing hard, she focused on the drive, ignoring the little voice in her head that was urging her to make this year different.
Krista hit the turn signal and merged into the I-96 exit lane. She turned right at the stop sign and followed the brown wooden signs with white lettering and a gold, triangular Metropark symbol to the park's entrance.
Dexter Kee's annual picnic was the highlight of the summer. After the employees had returned from the Fourth of July holiday, plans for the picnic had shifted into high gear. Flyers had circulated, announcing the date for the outing, and potluck sign-up forms had appeared on the lunchroom refrigerator. Krista's supervisor had made it clear to her staff that all employees were expected to attend the event because it would occur during work hours.
Honestly, if the picnic had occurred at any other time, Krista would have never attended it. She had plenty of other projects to occupy her time. The big, rambling house she shared with her aunt Helen in the Boston-Edison area of Detroit alwaysneeded something. Since Uncle Nick had died, his chores had fallen to her.
There never seemed to be enough hours in the day to complete all her household tasks and finish the projects she brought home from the job. The September 1 completion date for beta testing the Joining Networks advertising software belonged at the top of her list.
Driving up to the gate, she slowed and then stopped the car at the guard's shack. Waiting, she hummed along to Najee's "Joy" as a man dressed in a mud-colored uniform poked his head out of the structure, stepped out of the entrance, and stood next to the vehicle.
"Three dollars, please," he announced, with an authoritarian tone and an outstretched hand.
Nodding, Krista dug in her purse and flashed her Dexter Kee employee badge. The red-haired man gave the plastic card a cursory glance before waving her through the gate. Smiling, Krista returned her badge to her purse. The agency's managing directors had prepaid the entrance fee for the staff and their families. For access, the employees needed to show their badges.
"Have a nice day," Krista called, inching the car forward and following the blue, red, and yellow balloons leading the way to the picnic site. She slowly cruised along the tree-lined road until she came upon a white banner with the company's logo strung high around the upper branches of two large ash trees.
The engine idled as she searched the sea of cars. A familiar sage green Cadillac Escalade, owned by the agency's president, sat among them. This is the place, she thought as her hands fluttered nervously around the steering wheel. Her stomach knotted with apprehension.
Krista eased Uncle Nick's silver '98 Chevrolet Caprice into an empty space and switched off the engine. The car sputtered and shook for a few seconds before going silent. Ashamed, Krista glanced around the park area, hoping her coworkers hadn't noticed how terrible her old junker sounded. Not for the first time, she wished she could get rid of this boat and buy a car that would save on gas and was built in the 2000s. Her aunt refused to consider a smaller vehicle. So Krista was stuck with the Chevy.
She made a mental note to change the radio station back to the one Aunt Helen loved before she got home. The old girl would have a stroke if she heard music other than her church music when she turned on the radio.
Three large pavilions filled with people, wooden tables and benches, and barbecue grills sat in the center of the area. Decked out in helmets and arm and knee pads, several Rollerbladers dodged in and out of the people lining the black, tarred bike trail. Squealing children crept to the lake's edge, dipping their toes in the water and tossing rocks into it.
A growl rose from the pit of Krista's belly when she focused on Erin Saunders standing among a few of her cohorts. The day they were introduced, Erin had turned her cold gaze upon Krista and had flashed her dislike for the new IT specialist. From that day on, Erin had made it one of her career goals to terrorize Krista on a daily basis. Although they were peers, Erin persisted in ordering Krista around and treating her like her employee. Krista knew she should say something, but it took so much effort to fight those battles. She found it far easier to go with the flow and do the work.
Krista gazed at the group of people gathered together, taking note of their clothing. Most wore comfortable tops, shorts, and sneakers or sandals. She looked down at the calf-length denim skirt and white oxford shirt her aunt had insisted she wear. A pair of white canvas shoes and socks completed her outfit. Sighing softly, Krista shook her head. As usual, she was inappropriately dressed. Although she'd tried to get out of the house with a pair of pants and a short-sleeved top, her aunt had vetoed the idea, telling her how a proper young woman never appeared in public in pants. Sometimes Auntie made her feel more like a high school teenager than a twenty-five-year-old woman.
There wasn't much she could do to change her appearance. All she could do was make the best of the situation.
Krista flipped down the visor, checking her image in the mirror. She smoothed the wild tresses of hair with her hand. Milk chocolate skin, almond-shaped brown eyes, and thick dark hair pulled into a brush of a ponytail at the back of her head reflected back at her.
She ran damp palms across the soft denim of her skirt before getting out of the car and strolled across the grassy area, hating the way her belly twisted into knots. She took a second to admire the crystal blue lake, while pulling herself together. Smoke smelling of a hint of hickory, charcoal, and lighter fluid billowed from a line of grills loaded with hot dogs, chicken, and ribs.
This year I'll have fun, Krista chanted silently. I'll have fun. No more mishaps. Yeah, right. You wear the crown for screwup. For the past three years, you have shown up, and something stupid has happened to you. Don't think about it, she decided, trying to ignore those thoughts.
Finding a deserted spot under one of the pavilions, Krista searched the picnic grounds for members of her department. She spotted her supervisor and several of her coworkers gathered around a tub filled with ice and brown bottles. Everyone held Miller, Michelob, or Samuel Adams beers in their hands.
Rachel Ulrich glanced her way. Krista tentatively raised a hand to wave but immediately dropped it when her supervisor's gaze skated past Krista and focused on someone or something beyond her. Embarrassed, Krista cupped her hands in her lap and studied the grass.
Krista wished she felt more comfortable among her peers. The only places she felt confident and safe were at her desk and at home. But she couldn't hide from the world. She had to work. Her job required interaction with her coworkers.
She spotted Connor Dexter strolling toward Brennan Thomas. For a second, Krista wondered what that was about. She'd heard rumors of some possible changes in the company. Did some of those changes involve Brennan?
She hoped so. He was a good guy. Grounded. He never acted like he was too good to share a word with anyone at the agency.
Plus, he was drop-dead gorgeous and tall, with smooth dark chocolate skin and soft brown eyes that sparkled with a hint of gold. Business casual or suits, Brennan always dressed with an elegant flair. Today he wore a pair of charcoal cargo shorts and a cream short-sleeved T-shirt.
Erin talked about Brennan all the time. She told her friends how she wanted to get with him. As far as Krista knew, Brennan hadn't shown the slightest interest in Erin.
Brennan stood near the lake, with a bottle of Sam Adams, watching the kids play in the water. He smiled as a little blond tyke rushed to the water's edge and tossed in a pebble. As the ripples spread, the kid stamped his feet and giggled in delight. The boy's mother scooped him up in a big bear hug and kissed his sun-baked red cheeks before carrying him away.
Krista Hamilton slowly inched toward the water. Fascinated, Brennan watched the young woman. As she got closer to the water, she spoke with several children frolicking at it's edge. Waving, she smiled as one little girl waded through the water.
Brennan's heart nearly stopped in his chest. Krista's face was transformed from the closed, weary expression that always greeted him. For a moment, he stood transfixed. Despite the bushy eyebrows, unflattering clothes, and hair going in every direction, Krista looked almost pretty. Shaking off this thought, he dismissed the woman and all the baggage that came with her.
Swallowing the last of his beer, Brennan headed to the bin labeled EMPTIES. Connor Dexter appeared at his side and slapped him on the back. "Brennan, how are things going? Are you enjoying yourself?"
Shrugging, Brennan answered, "Yeah. I am. Thanks."
With an arm around his shoulders, Dexter Kee's president steered Brennan away from the crowd and along the bike trail. "Got a minute?"
Obviously so, Brennan thought, glancing into his boss's face. Pale blue eyes gazed back at him. He never turned the boss down. "Sure."
Mr. Dexter pointed a finger at the bike path. "Let's walk."
The pair strolled along the trail. Connor Dexter was a striking man, tall, with a commanding presence and a full head of white hair. At approximately six foot three, he towered over many of his employees, although Brennan and he stood eye to eye.
Connor Dexter had arrived in the United States via Montreal, Canada. After graduating from the University of Windsor, he accepted a position in the advertising department of the Ford Motor Company. Once he mastered the intricate details of the business, Connor took those skills and started Dexter Kee.
Over the past thirty years, the company had grown, developing a great reputation for unique and innovative advertising, which kept it at the forefront of the advertising market. Recently, Dexter Kee had been named one of the top one hundred businesses by Fortune magazine. Brennan admired Connor Dexter's ability to carve out a name for himself from nothing.
"What can I do for you?" Brennan asked after waiting several minutes for Mr. Dexter to speak.
"What do you know about Gautier International Motors?"
Halting in the center of the path, Brennan shut his eyes, seeing a newspaper story about the French automaker on his computer monitor. "I read an article a few weeks ago. They're making a stab at the U.S. market."
"Have they contacted us?" Brennan opened his eyes and examined his boss. "I haven't heard anything."
"They've approached us."
Brennan digested this info before speaking. "Interesting. Where do I come in?"
Connor Dexter stiffened next to him. Surprised, Brennan watched his boss.
"I don't like this part, but I don't have a choice," replied Mr. Dexter, embarrassed. His neck grew red. "The senior management and the board of directors voted to handle things this way. I'm assuming you've heard the rumor that we're planning to increase the management team. Am I right?"
The lightning switch in topics caught Brennan off guard. Frowning, he hesitated, giving himself a minute to travel down the twist in the road Connor Dexter intended to take him. "I've heard a word or two."
Chuckling, the older man said, "Our rumor mill knows their business. Two out of three times they have things correct."
Why had Connor Dexter brought this up? What did he want from Brennan? Was he in the running for this position? Of course, he wanted it, but he didn't want to appear too eager.
"You've been with us for a little over five years. In that time you've done a superb job," said Mr. Dexter.
Acknowledging the compliment with a bow of his head, Brennan said, "Thank you."
"It's not about thanks. I've always believed in rewarding excellence." Connor Dexter stopped on the bike trail. Empty of picnickers, this stretch of the area was quiet. "We've narrowed the field of candidates to two. You."
Maintaining his calm exterior, Brennan silently yelled; Yes!
"And Flynn Parr," added Mr. Dexter.
Flynn and Brennan didn't always see eye to eye. But he had to admit the other man was a great choice. Flynn worked hard, and his team brought a lot of business into the agency. Brennan understood how and why senior management had come to the decision to select Flynn.
Connor Dexter cleared his throat. "Let's get back to Gautier International Motors. Senior management has decided the person who bags a contract with the auto company will be the front-runner for the partner position."
"So Flynn and I are in competition?"
"Actually, yes and no. You'll both be working on the same campaign. We decided to give Gautier an opportunity to choose between more than one approach to selling cars. Whatever your team comes up with will be presented to the automaker on the same day as Parr's material."
"Hmm," Brennan grunted, working out the situation in his head. "I see."
"I'm sorry about this. I would prefer it if one person had a clear shot at winning the account. Unfortunately, Gautier is too important. We want our best men to dazzle their people." "I can understand that."
Connor Dexter turned to Brennan and placed a hand on the younger man's shoulder. "Anything you need, I want to know about it. I'm counting on one of you guys to get us that contract."
"Thanks for this opportunity. I won't let you down."
"I know you won't. That's why you're my candidate." Connor Dexter snapped his fingers and then pointed at Brennan. "Make it happen." The older man held out his hand, and Brennan took it. The two men shook hands before Mr. Dexter walked away.
Brennan moved back down the trail to the water. He stood at the shore as he reviewed what he'd just heard.
Smiling, he folded his arms across his chest. A chance to make partner was huge. All the energy he had put into building his career was finally paying off.
The tip of his tongue settled in the corner of his mouth as he plotted out a program. First thing tomorrow morning, he'd have the agency's librarian pull every scrap of information she could find about Gautier. Maybe add in some data on the owner and board.
Until the deal was wrapped up, he'd put all of his efforts into securing this contract. Brennan's hand balled into a fist as he sensed victory within his grasp. Winning this contract would put him one step closer to making partner. And nothing would get in his way.
Chapter Two"Doggone it!" Krista exclaimed as a dollop of mustard hit the front of her white blouse. She crammed the last bite of her hot dog into her mouth while rubbing ineffectively at the yellow condiment with a white napkin. Instead of cleaning the spot, the napkin left tiny flakes of paper above her breast.
Uneasiness spread through her veins. I don't want to walk around with a mustard stain on the front of my clothes. The staff laughs at me enough without adding this. Maybe a little soap and water will do the trick. Krista rose from the bench, left the pavilion, and started across the grassy area to the restroom.
Five minutes later, Krista emerged with a huge, damp circle on her chest and glanced around the picnic area, searching for members of her group. Old fears and uncertainties surfaced. She didn't want anyone to see her this way. Embarrassed, she laid a hand across the wetness.
Krista headed to the lake, hoping to stay away from the prying eyes of her coworkers until her blouse dried. Her gaze focused on the lake, which was luring her to its blue crystal waves. The water always calmed and soothed her. She found a quiet spot at the water's edge, sank onto the warm sand, removed her shoes and socks, and dipped her toes into the cool blue wetness.
Excerpted from THE WAY YOU AREN'T by KAREN WHITE-OWENS Copyright © 2007 by Karen White-Owens. Excerpted by permission.
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