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Carlton Fulton stormed down the long, plush-carpeted corridor leading to the office of the chief financial officer of Fulton Foods. It was midafternoon on an unusually hot May day and the roll of documents twisted in his tight, knuckled fist was moist with the sweat of his hand. His full lips were stretched taut against his somber brown face. Seeing the vein throbbing at his temple, his employees hurried in every direction away from him.
Without knocking he threw open the double doors to the executive suite that matched his in size and comfort. The startled secretary inside bounded to her feet.
"Good morning, Mr. Fulton." She forced a smile, but he could see the fear in her eyes.
"Is he in there?" he practically growled, nodding toward the closed oak-paneled door behind her desk.
"Um, yes, sir. Should I let him know"
Before she could finish, Carl stormed by her desk and slammed open the door. He walked to the edge of the desk, behind which a young man sat, distracted by a phone call.
The young man on the phone was his nephew, Eliot Wright. Eliot bore such a striking resemblance to a younger version of Carl that many people assumed he was Carl's son and not that of his only sister.
The younger man glanced up with a puzzled expression. In answer to his unspoken question Carl held up the crumpled papers in his hand. Eliot slightly lifted an arched black eyebrow, his expressive brown eyes showing nothing more than mild curiosity.
Even in his fury, Carl found he was impressed by his nephew's unflappability. Eliot had changed a great deal over the years, Carl thought with pride. He was a strong, forceful man who got the job done no matter what it took, no longer the timid little boy who almost wet himself when asked his name. Carl took full credit for the transformation.
"Look, Steve," Eliot said into the receiver. "Something has come up. Just let me know when you get the meeting set up."
Carl tapped his foot rapidly, depleting what little patience he had as he waited for the call to end.
"All right, try to make it sometime this week. Talk to you later." Eliot returned the phone to the cradle and sat back in his high-back leather chair. "Morning, Uncle Carl. I would say good morning, but it's obviously not."
"It certainly is not!" Carl tossed the balled-up papers on the desk. "This is the third major account we've lost to that little hole in the wall. The third, Eliot! What are you doing about this?!"
Eliot picked up the papers and attempted to unmangle them as much as possible.
His eyes glanced over the pages and a low "Hmm" was his only answer as he read through the discharge letter from one of their major accounts. "When did you receive this?"
"This morningby e-mail, no less! They didn't even have the decency to call and tell us they were canceling the contract." He leaned across the desk to point out something in the e-mail. "See that?"
Eliot's brows crinkled in confusion. "That can't be right."
"You better believe it is! Morningside, those smug bastards, wanted us to know just how much they were sticking it to us."
"No wonder Mayfield Bakery got the contract. That's an excellent bid." Eliot muttered, more to himself than anyone else.
Carl only glared at him in response.
Realizing his mistake, Eliot flipped through the few pages. "I mean, Morningside is a four-hundred-bed nursing home."
"I think you're missing the point," Carl hissed through his teeth, trying not to reach across the desk and strangle his nephew.
Eliot continued to read, seeming to have forgotten Carl's presence, but Carl knew despite his nonchalance his nephew didn't miss anything. And he had the uncanny ability to comprehend a complicated situation in a matter of minutes.
"This is the third large contract we've lost to this bakery. What are you doing about them?"
"I've got Steve looking into our options." He shook his head in confusion. "I just don't understand how they can afford to run their operation when they're offering up bids like this."
Carl's eyes narrowed on his nephew. "Hell if I know. That's what I pay you for."
He turned and headed back out of the office but paused at the door and looked back. "Eliot, I do not want to get another e-mail like that one."
Eliot tossed the papers down on the desk and sat back in his chair. "Don't worry, Uncle Carl, everything's under control."
"It better be. Do whatever you have to do, but I will not be undercut by some rinky-dink operation. Do we understand each other?"
Eliot nodded slowly, and Carl knew they were in complete agreement. For all his surface calm, Carl knew that his nephew was a win-at-all-costs individual. Eliot would be as ruthless as necessary to achieve his goals. He knew this, because that was how he'd raised him.
Eliot waited until his uncle left the office before picking up the crumpled letter and rereading the rejection of their bid and contract cancellation by one of their oldest and most reliable clients.
Although he'd hid it well, Eliot shared his uncle's concern. The amount of the bid they'd submitted to Morningside Nursing Home to service their kitchen and vending machines had been extremely low. They'd wanted to be sure to secure the contract, and yet once again they'd been underbid by the smaller bakery. It was the third time in three months they'd been outplayed by this particular bakery.
The first loss he'd chalked up as a fluke that could not be repeated. But after losing the contract for a private school, it had become clear they had a growing competitor they needed to take seriously. After learning everything he could, Eliot had put together a buyout offer for the competitora ploy that had been successful in dealing with previous upstarts.
That was almost two weeks ago. This morning when his uncle had barged into his office, Eliot had been on the phone with their attorney, Steve Ingerman. According to Steve, Mayfield Bakery had rejected the offer.
Eliot toyed with the crumpled papers, frowning thoughtfully. He'd hoped they would accept the offer, but of course he had a contingency plan.
Mayfield Bakery was a small proprietorship. Thanks to some recent upgrades in their equipment and the streamlining of their operation, they were now producing and packaging a unique line of cupcakes, cookies and assorted pastries on a much larger scale than previously possible.
The company was owned by a woman named Mae Anne Mayfield. She also ran the day-to-day operations of the bakery with the help of a small staff. And apparently the little bakery was doing so well they were now negotiating with one of the leading bakers in the industryAlberto Montagna.
Mayfield Bakery was renowned for an exceptional line of pastries that both looked and tasted like they came out of some loving grandmother's kitchen and were made with the finest ingredients. But the operation had one major weaknessthe small upgraded bakery could never produce the massive quantity of goods that Fulton Foods's industrial-sized bakery and packaging plant produced on a daily basis. The small staff Mayfield employed could never compete for the larger contracts, the hospitals, corporate businesses and larger school districts that Fulton Foods, which averaged a payroll of two hundred employees, serviced regularly. Not to mention the obvious drawback of such a "boutique" operation. The expensive ingredients, the manpower to process the homemade-like pastries had to cost a fortune, Eliot surmised.
Despite Mae Anne Mayfield's shrewd business sense and cunning, Eliot understood that no business had unlimited resources, and eventually the laws of economic nature would take their course.
But instead of simply waiting for them to go under, Eliot had asked Steve to set up a meeting with Mae Anne Mayfield. He planned to make an even more generous offer to buy the small operation and absorb their unique line of products and services into Fulton Foods. He would even offer positions within Fulton's corporate hierarchy to Mayfield and her staff for three distinct reasons.
The first and most obvious was that he could not afford to wait. The second reason was that what he'd seen of the Mayfield product was exceptional. If he could get the recipes and find more practical ingredients to produce pastries with the same taste and texture at a lower cost, the revenue potential would be unlimited.
Finally, Eliot would sell his soul to prevent future visits from his uncle, like the one he'd just received. Even after twenty years, seeing his uncle approach him with the look on his face could still send a shiver of terror up Eliot's spine.
He had to remind himself that he was not that same terrified ten-year-old boy. He was a man now, more than his uncle match in both size and strength. But the habits of a lifetime were hard to break.
For those reasons, he would make every attempt to absorb Mayfield Bakery, rather than destroy it. One way or another, through cooperation or brute force, Mayfield would yield to the greater strength of the largest baked-goods supplier in the Memphis area and learn what their predecessors already had: that Fulton Foods had an in-house enforcer willing to do pretty much anything to win.
Meanwhile in Selmer, TN
Sophie! Look ou"
The loud crashing sound reverberated through the building and brought people running from every direction.
"What happened?" Lonnie, Sophie Mayfield's cousin, was the first to arrive. "Sophie, did you fall?"
Sophie bit her tongue to keep from lashing out at the younger woman as she stated the obvious. She knew Lonnie couldn't help her simplistic thinking. But with her leg throbbing painfully, Sophie was finding it hard to be sympathetic.
Wayne was immediately at her side, struggling to help her to her feet. "Sorry, I tried to warn you."
Trying to stand on her left leg proved impossible, as the sharp shooting pain raced up her spine. "Ouch-oww." She shook her head frantically. In too much pain for words, she tried to signal to Wayne that standing was not an option.
Apparently he understood, because he gently lowered her back to the floor. "That bad, huh?" His big brown eyes were filled with concern.
"What happened?" Mae pushed her way through the small group to find Sophie bracing herself against the walk-in refrigerator.
She gestured over her shoulder "I fell off that stupid step stool."
Mae pushed her flour-covered apron aside and knelt beside her granddaughter. "Let me see." As soon as she touched the injured leg Sophie howled in pain.
"Dante, call for an ambulance," Mae called to the last person who'd joined the group.
With a quick nod, the slender teen loped off to make the call.
"I'm sure it's just a sprain. Give me a minute. I'll be fine." Sophie smiled up at the huddle of worried faces. "Really."
To prove her point, she attempted to stand again, but the pain returned with three times the intensity, and a muttered curse slipped from her lips.
"Just sit your ass down," Wayne muttered in his gruff way. "You're not going anywhere anytime soon." He crossed the room to examine the step stool.
"I told you we should've got rid of that thing a long time ago," Mae said, shaking her head, her eyes focused on the rapidly swelling leg.
"You want some water or something?" Lonnie asked, wringing her hands in distress.
Sophie did not like the looks of that hand-ringing. "Lonnie, look at me." She used her stern voice to gain the girl's full attention. "I'm fine. Understand? I'm fine."
Lonnie nodded, but her eyes were still filling with tears.
Just then, much to Sophie's relief, Dante returned. "Paramedics are on the way."
"Dante, can you take Lonnie out front with you to wait on the paramedics?" Sophie jerked her head in the direction of the front door. Dante frowned down at her for a second, before understanding hit.
"Oh, right, right." He took the girl's hand. "Come on, Lon, let's go look for the ambulance."
"But, what if Sophie needs something?"
"I'm fine, Lonnie. Go with Dante." Sophie forced her most confident smile despite the pain coursing through her leg, and she breathed a sigh of relief as the two left the room together. The last thing she needed right now was a Lonnie meltdown.
Wayne grunted behind her. After five years of working together, Sophie recognized the sound. "What did you find?"
"The bottom bolt came out. Damn thing's rusted." Wayne gathered up the pieces. "I'll take it out back and dump it."
Mae watched him leave and shook her head once more. "Told you we should've got rid of that thing."
"I know, Grandma, I know." Sophie shifted, trying to find a more comfortable position, but nothing worked to lessen the pain.
"What were you doing up there, anyway?"
"Trying to reach those boxes." She pointed over her head. "Have Wayne get them down while I'm gone. We have to get that order for Centerfield Academy ready by Tuesday."
Seeing her grandmother's distant expression, Sophie frowned in worry. There was so much to do, and only Sophie knew that Mae Anne was no longer up to the task of running a busy bakery. A fact she'd tried hard to keep from the rest of the family.
She knew Wayne could easily manage the day-to-day stuff, but she needed to be there to help with the new clients. And then there was the new baker she'd hired.
The baker no one but she knew about. The baker they could not really afford but needed desperately. Sophie had thought it best not to say anything to the others until he arrived. Mae would not take well to being edged out of what she considered her kitchen. And she knew Wayne, Lonnie and Dante would probably be less than eager to accept an outsider, especially given his sophisticated background. Sophie knew she would probably have to referee for a while. Which was why she needed to be at the top of her game over the next few days, not hobbling around with a bum ankle.
What a lousy time for this to happen. "Grandma?"
Mae blinked rapidly, as if startled. "Yes, I heard you. Have Wayne get the boxes down."
Sophie nodded, satisfied that the task would be completed.
Mae's wrinkled face took on a troubled expression. "What if it's more than a sprained ankle?"
"It's not. I'll go to the emergency room, get a bandage and some painkillers, and be back here by nightfall." She reached out and touched the older woman's arm. "Don't worry."
Mae nodded in agreement, but it did nothing to allay the concern in her eyes. Just then Wayne walked back in from the alley.
"Wayne, I need you to get the Centerfield order ready to go." Sophie looked up at him, grateful to have such a competent assistant.
"No problem," Wayne answered, watching as the paramedics maneuvered the stretcher through the narrow hall that lead to the back kitchens.