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"Ms . Chase, if you could join me in my office."
Serena startled at the sound of Mr. Beaumont's voice coming from the old-fashioned intercom on her desk. Blinking, she became aware of her surroundings.
How on earth had she gotten to work? She looked downshe was wearing a suit, though she had no memory of getting dressed. She touched her hair. All appeared to be normal. Everything was fine.
Except she was pregnant. Nothing fine or normal about that.
She was relatively sure it was Monday. She looked at the clock on her computer. Yes, nine in the morningthe normal time for her morning meeting with Chadwick Beaumont, President and CEO of the Beaumont Brewery. She'd been Mr. Beaumont's executive assistant for seven years now, after a yearlong internship and a year working in Human Resources. She could count the number of times they'd missed their 9:00 a.m. Monday meeting on two hands.
No need to let something like a little accidental pregnancy interrupt that.
Okay, so everything had turned upside down this past weekend. She wasn't just a little tired or a tad stressed out. She wasn't fighting off a bug, even. She was, in all likelihood, two months and two or three weeks pregnant. She knew that with certainty because those were the last times she'd slept with Neil.
Neil. She had to tell him she was expecting. He had a right to know. God, she didn't want to see him againto be rejected again. But this went way beyond what she wanted. What a huge mess.
"Ms. Chase? Is there a problem?" Mr. Beaumont's voice was strict but not harsh.
She clicked the intercom on. "No, Mr. Beaumont. Just a slight delay. I'll be right in."
She was at work. She had a job to doa job she needed now more than ever.
Serena sent a short note to Neil informing him that she needed to talk to him, and then she gathered up her tablet and opened the door to Chadwick Beaumont's office. Chadwick was the fourth Beaumont to run the brewery, and it showed in his office. The room looked much as it might have back in the early 1940s, soon after Prohibition had ended, when Chadwick's grandfather John had built it. The walls were mahogany panels that had been oiled until they gleamed. A built-in bar with a huge mirror took up the whole interior wall. The exterior wall was lined with windows hung with heavy gray velvet drapes and crowned with elaborately hand-carved woodwork that told the story of the Beaumont Brewery.
The conference table had been custom-made to fit the roomSerena had read that it was so large and so heavy that John Beaumont had to have the whole thing built in the office because there was no getting it through a doorway. Tucked in the far corner by a large coffee table was a grouping of two leather club chairs and a matching leather loveseat set. The coffee table was supposedly made of one of the original wagon wheels that Phillipe Beaumont had used when he'd crossed the Great Plains with a team of Percheron draft horses back in the 1880s on his way to settle in Denver and make beer.
Serena loved this roomthe opulence, the history. Things she didn't have in her own life. The only changes that reflected the twenty-first century were a large flat-screen television that hung over the sitting area and the electronics on the desk, which had been made to match the conference table. A door on the other side of the desk, nearly hidden between the bar and a bookcase, led to a private bathroom. Serena knew that Chadwick had added a treadmill and a few other exercise machines, as well as a shower, to the bathroom, but only because she'd processed the orders. She'd never gone into Chadwick's personal space. Not once in seven years.
This room had always been a source of comfort to hera counterpoint to the stark poverty that had marked her childhood. It represented everything she wantedsecurity, stability, safety. A goal to strive for. Through hard work, dedication and loyalty, she could have nice things, too. Maybe not this nice, but better than the shelters and rusted-out trailers in which she'd grown up.
Chadwick was sitting behind his desk, his eyes focused on his computer. Serena knew she shouldn't think of him as Chadwickit was far too familiar. Too personal. Mr. Beaumont was her boss. He'd never made a move on her, never suggested that she "stay late" to work on a project that didn't existnever booked them on a weekend conference that didn't exist. She worked hard for him, pulling long hours whenever necessary. She did good work for him and he rewarded her. For a girl who'd lived on free school lunches, getting a ten-thousand-dollar bonus and an eight-percent-a-year raise, like she had at her last performance review, was a gift from heaven.
It wasn't a secret that Serena would go to the ends of the earth for this man. It was a secret that she'd always done just a little more than admire his commitment to the company. Chadwick Beaumont was an incredibly handsome mana solid six-two, with sandy blond hair that was neatly trimmed at all times. He was probably going gray, but it didn't show with his coloring. He would be one of those men who aged like a fine wine, only getting better with each passing year. Some days, Serena would catch herself staring at him as if she were trying to savor him.
But that secret admiration was buried deep. She had an excellent job with benefits and she would never risk it by doing something as unprofessional as falling in love with her boss. She'd been with Neil for almost ten years. Chadwick had been married as well. They worked together. Their relationship was nothing but business-professional.
She had no idea how being pregnant was going to change things. If she'd needed this joband health ben-efitsbefore, she needed them so much more now.
Serena took her normal seat in one of the two chairs set before Chadwick's desk and powered up her tablet. "Good morning, Mr. Beaumont." Oh, heavensshe'd forgotten to see if she'd put on make-up this morning in her panic-induced haze. At this point, she could only pray she didn't have raccoon eyes.
"Ms. Chase," Chadwick said by way of greeting, his gaze flicking over her face. He looked back at his monitor, then paused. Serena barely had time to hold her breath before she had Chadwick Beaumont's undivided attention. "Are you okay?"
No. She'd never been less okay in her adult life. The only thing that was keeping her together was the realization that she'd been less okay as a kid and survived. She'd survive this.
So she squared her shoulders and tried to pull off her most pleasant smile. "I'm fine. Monday mornings, you know."
Chadwick's brow creased as he weighed this statement. "Are you sure?"
She didn't like to lie to him. She didn't like to lie to anyone. She had recently had her fill of lying, thanks to Neil. "It'll be fine."
She had to believe that. She'd pulled herself out of sheer poverty by dint of hard work. A bump in the roada baby bumpwouldn't ruin everything. She hoped.
His hazel eyes refused to let her go for a long moment. But then he silently agreed to let it pass. "Very well, then. What's on tap this week, beyond the regular meetings?"
As always, she smiled at his joke. What was on tap was beerliterally and figuratively. As far as she knew, it was the only joke he ever told.
Chadwick had set appointments with his vice presidents, usually lunch meetings and the like. He was deeply involved in his companya truly hands-on boss. Serena's job was making sure his irregular appointments didn't mess up his standing ones. "You have an appointment at ten with your lawyers on Tuesday to try and reach a settlement. I've moved your meeting with Matthew to later in the afternoon."
She carefully left out the facts that the lawyers were divorce attorneys and that the settlement was with his soon-to-be-ex-wife, Helen. The divorce had been dragging on for months nowover thirteen, by her count. She did not know the details. Who was to say what went on behind closed doors in any family? All she knew was that the whole process was wearing Chadwick down like waves eroding a beachslowly but surely.
Chadwick's shoulders slumped a little and he exhaled with more force. "As if this meeting will go any differently than the last five did." But then he added, "What else?" in a forcefully bright tone.
Serena cleared her throat. That was, in a nutshell, the extent of the personal information they shared. "Wednesday at one is the meeting with the Board of Directors at the Hotel Monaco downtown." She cleared her throat. "To discuss the offer from AllBev. Your afternoon meeting with the production managers was cancelled. They're all going to send status reports instead."
Then she realizedshe wasn't so much terrified about having a baby. It was the fact that because she was suddenly going to have a baby, there was a very good chance she could lose her job.
AllBev was an international conglomerate that specialized in beer manufacturers. They'd bought companies in England, South Africa and Australia, and now they had their sights set on Beaumont. They were well-known for dismantling the leadership, installing their own skeleton crew of managers, and wringing every last cent of profit out of the remaining workers.
Chadwick groaned and slumped back in his chair.
"That's this week?"
"Yes, sir." He shot her a wounded look at the sir, so she corrected herself. "Yes, Mr. Beaumont. It got moved up to accommodate Mr. Harper's schedule." In addition to owning one of the largest banks in Colorado, Leon Harper was also one of the board members pushing to accept AllBev's offer.
What if Chadwick agreed or the board overrode his wishes? What if Beaumont Brewery was sold? She'd be out of a job. There was no way AllBev's management would want to keep the former CEO's personal assistant. She'd be shown the door with nothing more than a salvaged copier-paper box of her belongings to symbolize her nine years there.
Maybe that wouldn't be the end of the worldshe'd lived as frugally as she could, tucking almost half of each paycheck away in ultra-safe savings accounts and CDs. She couldn't go back on welfare. She wouldn't.
If she weren't pregnant, getting another job would be relatively easy. Chadwick would write her a glowing letter of recommendation. She was highly skilled. Even a temp job would be a job until she found another place like Beaumont Brewery.
except for the benefits. She was pregnant. She needed affordable health insurance, and the brewery had some of the most generous health insurance around. She hadn't paid more than ten dollars to see a doctor in eight years.
But it was more than just keeping her costs low. She couldn't go back to the way things had been before she'd started working at the Beaumont Brewery. Feeling like her life was out of control again? Having people treat her like she was a lazy, ignorant leech on society again?
Raising a child the way she'd been raised, living on food pantry handouts and whatever Mom could scavenge from her shift at the diner? Of having social workers threaten to take her away from her parents unless they could do betterbe better? Of knowing she was always somehow less than the other kids at school but not knowing whyuntil the day when Missy Gurgin walked up to her in fourth grade and announced to the whole class that Serena was wearing the exact shirt, complete with stain, she'd thrown away because it was ruined?
Serena's lungs tried to clamp shut. No, she thought, forcing herself to breathe. It wasn't going to happen like that. She had enough to live on for a couple of yearslonger if she moved into a smaller apartment and traded down to a cheaper car. Chadwick wouldn't allow the family business to be sold. He would protect the company. He would protect her.
"Harper. That old goat," Chadwick muttered, snapping Serena back to the present. "He's still grinding that ax about my father. The man never heard of letting bygones be bygones, I swear."
This was the first that Serena had heard about this. "Mr. Harper's out to get you?"
Chadwick waved his hand, dismissing the thought. "He's still trying to get even with Hardwick for sleeping with his wife, as the story goes, two days after Harper and his bride got back from their honeymoon." He looked at her again. "Are you sure you're all right? You look pale."
Pale was probably the best she could hope for today. "I
." She grasped at straws and came up with one. "I hadn't heard that story."
"Hardwick Beaumont was a cheating, lying, philandering, sexist bigot on his best day." Chadwick repeated all of this by rote, as if he'd had it beaten into his skull with a dull spoon. "I have no doubt that he did exactly thator something very close to it. But it was forty years ago. Hardwick's been dead for almost ten years.
." He sighed, looking out the windows. In the distance, the Rocky Mountains gleamed in the spring sunlight. Snow capped off the mountains, but it hadn't made it down as far as Denver. "I just wish Harper would realize that I'm not Hardwick."
"I know you're not like that."
His eyes met hers. There was something different in them, something she didn't recognize. "Do you? Do you, really?"
this felt like dangerous territory.
She didn't know, actually. She had no idea if he was getting a divorce because he'd slept around on his wife. All she knew was that he'd never hit on her, not once. He treated her as an equal. He respected her.
"Yes," she replied, feeling certain. "I do."
The barest hint of a smile curved up one side of his lips. "Ah, that's what I've always admired about you, Serena. You see the very best in people. You make everyone around you better, just by being yourself."
Oh. Oh. Her cheeks warmed, although she wasn't sure if it was from the compliment or the way he said her name. He usually stuck to Ms. Chase.
Dangerous territory, indeed.
She needed to change the subject. Now. "Saturday night at nine you have the charity ball at the Denver Art Museum."
That didn't erase the half-cocked smile from his face, but it did earn her a raised eyebrow. Suddenly, Chadwick Beaumont looked anything but tired or worn-down. Suddenly, he looked hot. Well, he was always hotbut right now? It wasn't buried beneath layers of responsibility or worry.
Heat flushed Serena's face, but she wasn't entirely sure why one sincere compliment would have been enough to set her all aflutter. Oh, that's rightshe was pregnant. Maybe she was just having a hormonal moment.
"What's that for, again? A food bank?"
"Yes, the Rocky Mountain Food Bank. They were this year's chosen charity."
Every year, the Beaumont Brewery made a big splash by investing heavily in a local charity. One of Serena's job responsibilities was personally handling the small mountain of applications that came in every year. A Beaumont Brewery sponsorship was worth about $35 million in related funds and donationsthat's why they chose a new charity every year. Most of the non-profits could operate for five to ten years with that kind of money.