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The Carrot Chaser
4 Truths for Living Out Your Faith at Home and in the Marketplace
By Todd Hopkins, Ray Hilbert
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2009 Todd Hopkins and Ray Hilbert
All rights reserved.
Balancing one tall, skim latte in each hand, Matthew Swift nimbly swerved across the crowded coffee shop back to where Michelle had found a table by the window. In the soft afternoon light, her silky hair cascaded down her slender back like a sunset on a wide golden beach. Matthew breathed in the aromatic coffee and basked in the warmth of Michelle's smile.
"Thanks, babe," she said in that bubbly voice that made Matthew think that there was no better sound in the world. "I've been meaning to ask you, have you got plans for Friday night?"
"Not really. I'll probably work right through the weekend setting up the new store," Matthew said. "The guys doing the signs are behind. Actually, I was planning on recruiting you to help ... why?"
"Oh, nothing." Michelle shrugged and sipped her coffee. "It's okay if you're busy."
The way Michelle never made a fuss of little things was one of her endearing traits. It always surprised Matthew, ever since Michelle came into his life about seven months ago, that his once self-absorbed life was now centered on making this beautiful creature happy.
"Is there something you wanted to do?" Matthew asked, brushing off a dot of foam from her upper lip.
"My parents are celebrating their thirtieth wedding anniversary," Michelle said. "It's a last-minute thing, very informal."
"Thirty years." Matthew whistled softly. "And they invited me?" This was the "meet the parents" step, one of the many unspoken levels that move a relationship forward. He had hoped Michelle would introduce him, since he didn't want to ask. Having no parents alive, he could not take the initiative by introducing her to his.
"It's not a formal party," Michelle said. "They threw it together last minute for their closest friends and family. Dad's business caused him to be too busy to celebrate their twenty-fifth, so he promised Mom he would do something special for number thirty."
"Sounds like fun," Matthew said, grinning.
"Are you sure?" Michelle flashed her light-filled smile.
"Looking forward to it already." Matthew slapped the table playfully.
"You are a star," Michelle said, blowing a kiss across the table. "My parents are gonna love you."
"You still have to help me with the store," Matthew said. "No getting out of that one, m'lady."
"Maybe," Michelle said, "if you get me a muffin. I'm starving."
"What kind?" Matthew said.
"Coming right up," said Matthew, and he braved the crowd on the way back to the counter.
Michelle reached for a newspaper someone had left folded neatly on the window ledge and idly flipped through the back pages. She stopped at one article in the business section. Michelle started reading the column with increasing interest until she was literally glued to every word. When Matthew returned with her muffin, she didn't lift her head as she read the closing paragraph.
"Have you seen this?" Michelle pointed at the article.
"I never read that paper," Matthew said as his eyes made contact with the Brian Brighton-style article. "It's mostly gossip mongering that passes as business journalism."
"I think you should read it," Michelle said.
"What's it about?" Matthew noticed the slight edge on Michelle's voice.
"Does Swift Sports ring a bell?" Michelle asked. Matthew reached for the newspaper, took a long look at the article, and started reading aloud.
SO WHAT HAS BECOME OF THAT RISING STAR?
by Brian Brighton ... "Yours Truly"
As my faithful readers know, one of Yours Truly's most perverse hobbies is to go back in time and see what became of the fastest-rising stars of the business scene from some time ago. Did they fulfill their promise, or did they fizzle away unremarkably like yesterday's flat warm soda? Here's a case that you'll enjoy. Three years ago Matthew Swift graced the cover of business and trade magazines as one of the youngest and most talented entrepreneurs of our age. He was hailed as having one of the most brilliant young minds in the emerging business world, period. The young man, who had barely turned 28, had just taken his five-year-old venture public and cashed in for a cool $20 million, retaining the top job at the helm of the new corporation. To the naked eye, the man had it all. Matthew Swift had the money, the power, and the toys that came with it — the penthouse, the German convertible, and the giggling debutantes milling around endlessly. Sigh. I'd be jealous if I didn't know how the story developed.
Swift attempted to lead the public corporation with the same cavalier attitude with which he had grown his business from scratch. But leading a multinational sport-merchandising business requires an entirely different set of skills. While Swift was quick on his feet and could charm the feathers off a duck, he lacked other qualities, like strategy, long-term planning, and leadership. A series of greedy, overconfident decisions landed Swift at odds with the board of directors. Suppliers balked, and distributors fled. Swift Sports started to spiral into despair and debt. The rest is history. The company fired its own creator, who in a flashy (and frankly embarrassing) display of bravado, cashed out his stock at the worst possible moment and took himself out of the equation without any opportunity to profit from the eventual recovery of (the now Swiftless) Swift Sports ...
Matthew stopped reading halfway through the article. He folded the newspaper with a slap and took a long gulp from his coffee.
"I can't believe it," he finally said. "I mean, this reporter was constantly on my case, and now, after all these years, he has to dig up all this crap? Don't they have anything else to write about?"
"Why didn't you tell me about this?" Michelle asked.
"I told you I owned a business before," Matthew said, confused.
"But you didn't say it was called Swift Sports!" Michelle said.
"Well, it's not a particularly pleasant subject," Matthew said. "Not exactly a good pick-up line. 'Hey, gorgeous, I just got fired from my own company, making me the most resounding business failure in the whole world. Wanna go out on a date with me?'"
"But we've known each other for over six months now," Michelle said, "and it never came up."
"We did talk about how my previous business had failed," he said, "and how I was making a new beginning with Easy Mattress."
Matthew couldn't peel his eyes away from the article.
"I can't believe this guy," he repeated. "Plus, he got it all wrong."
"Matthew ... was it that bad?"
Matthew bit his upper lip. "It wasn't easy."
Michelle looked at Matthew's hands wrapped tightly around his empty cup.
"You look really upset," she said softly. "Even after such a long time, it still bothers you so much?"
"It's just ..." he said, "something I would really like to put behind me. This guy makes a career out of digging up dirt. He feeds off other people's misery. If he knows so much about business, how come he's working as a small-fry writer? Maybe if he tried to start a business he'd discover a thing or two. It's not as easy as it looks." He paused. "Enough of that. He can boil his own head. Let's talk about something fun. Do you have to go back to the bookshop?"
"No, I'm done for today," she said. "Yannik is going to close the shop today."
"That's nice of him," Matthew said with a smirk.
"Yes, it is," she said. "He's helping me out a lot."
"I wonder why?" he said. "It's not the pay, for sure ... Let's see ... what could possibly interest an educated, successful PhD candidate to work in a Christian bookshop for charity-level pay? Let's see ... what could interest him? I know ... you!"
"Matthew, don't be silly," Michelle laughed. "There's nothing to be jealous of. He's just helping me get the bookstore going, and the job gives him plenty of time to study. Yannik's come up with a brilliant idea to hold small seminars with a local author who's a professor he knows from his university and specializes in life-coaching."
"I don't get that," Matthew interrupted. "What is a life coach, anyway?"
"You know ..." she coaxed, "a professional that helps you realize your full potential."
"Sounds like a snake-oil salesman to me," he said.
"A lot of executives embrace coaching. It gives them somebody to measure their progress against, someone neutral — you know how everybody lives such a rushed life today. Yannik said that it will bring people to the store. He says that once people see what a great job we do at the bookshop they'll keep coming back. Isn't that brilliant?"
"Fantastic," Matthew grumbled. "Yannik is a genius."
"Oh, come on," Michelle said, "you know there's only one place in my heart, and that's all filled up with you."
Matthew looked up at her eagerly. She had said what he needed most to hear.
"I love you," she said.
"I love you more."
Easy warmth flowed between them, a familiar rhythm of smiles and caring gestures that had become their life together and for the first time had given Matthew a glimpse into a future he had never dared hope for himself.
"But Matthew?" she said with a cloud in her eyes.
"Yes?" Matthew had never seen her look this foreboding before.
"I think there's something I better tell you," Michelle said. "It's about the article. Since you are going to meet my parents on Friday, I think I better tell you."
Matthew waited for her to continue.
Michelle shook her head. "You're not going to believe this. Maybe you should read the rest of the article first."CHAPTER 2
Every time he pulled into his driveway in a peaceful state of mind, which lately was most of the time for Charles White, he gave thanks for his charmed life. He parked his late-model car in the garage and walked across the tidy front lawn to the generous entrance of his ample two-story home. He could go in the back door through the covered patio, but he would much rather enjoy the welcome that the neat rows of flowers and trimmed bushes offered, book-ended by two magnificent willow trees. The afternoon dew on the late-summer blooms gave off the fragrant promise of a relaxing evening. Charles White knew very well that he lived a life of infinite blessings. As he entered, the faint aroma of baking greeted him from the kitchen, where Anna was getting dinner ready.
"How is the prettiest gal in the world?" He greeted her with a kiss and a soft squeeze around her shoulders.
"Hi, honey," Anna said, meeting his kiss. "Dinner's ready if you want to wash up. Could you tell Ben to come down?"
"I'll be back in two minutes," Charles said, and slapped a folded newspaper on the table. "I brought this to show you. Read that article; you'll get a good giggle."
While Charles went upstairs to freshen up and call their son, Ben, for dinner, Anna tossed the salad and set the asparagus quiche on the table. It was so nice to have Ben home from college; he was so joyfully annoying. Their eldest daughter was already independent, with her own store and rented studio apartment. They still saw each other regularly, but the feeling of having Ben sleeping upstairs in his bedroom reminded her of the days when their house was full of wonderful noise. She leaned against the kitchen counter and picked up the article.
As the three sat at the table, Anna marveled at her son's wholesome looks. He wasn't handsome in a conventional way, but more in the way that his confidence and kindness complemented his tall, slender looks. He had the same cheerful manner as his father, but while Charles sometimes felt the weight of the world on his shoulders, Ben had a way of taking things in stride and making even his excellent grades look natural, as if he had put no effort into any of his achievements.
"Did you read the article?" Charles asked Anna. "You remember the guy, don't you?"
"What's it about?" Ben asked, heaping salad on his plate.
"It happened a few years ago, a man your dad knew," Anna started.
"'Collided with' is more like it. It's about a young man who got too big for his britches," Charles said, "and caused me a lot of grief in the process. I guess you were still in high school, Ben. Do you remember all that trouble?"
"Vaguely," Ben replied with a wink to his mother. "I remember you being grumpy all the time."
"That boy was so young," said Anna, "and success came almost too quickly, don't you think? I hope he has had the opportunity to get back on his feet."
"Well," Charles said, "he had it coming, I tell you. I hope he learned his lesson that there's some things money can't buy ... like integrity and dignity."
"Don't get upset, honey." Anna smiled. "It'll give you indigestion."
"You're right," Charles said. "This quiche is delicious, by the way."
"Can I help you with anything for the party, Mom?" Ben asked.
The conversation turned to logistics, and Anna handed out each of their responsibilities. The family entertained frequently and had evolved into a well-rehearsed team. Ben would take care of the music, pick up the grandparents, and arrange the fairy lights and folding tables on the patio. Anna would coordinate the catering and flowers. Charles would be in charge of the beverages and greeting guests at the door. Ben had also secretly conspired to coordinate the entrance of Charles's surprise for Anna. Since the party had been planned around the theme of their honeymoon in Mexico, with food and decorations to match, Charles had asked Ben to secretly arrange for a Mariachi band to serenade her with their favorite songs from that time. Since their honeymoon had been brief and on a strict budget, Charles was determined to make this party special. Ben was also conspiring with his sister for a surprise of their own. They had both sat for a portrait with a local artist, something their parents had expressed a wish for but had never gotten around to. The wedding anniversary was the perfect opportunity, and the artist was setting the portrait in a beautiful frame and had even included in the background of the painting a collage of signs and reminders of many of their favorite activities they did as a family while growing up.
"Are you bringing a lady friend?" Charles asked Ben playfully.
"Yes, Dad, I might bring a friend from school," Ben said, "so you can embarrass me with anecdotes from my childhood."
"Just a friend, huh?" Charles prodded.
"When have I ever embarrassed you?" Charles pouted.
"Never!" Anna said, giggling as Ben rolled his eyes.
"Never? Then there's always a first time!" Charles chuckled out loud. "I'll think of something."
"I think Michelle might bring her boyfriend," Anna said casually.
"Oh?" Charles looked up, surprised.
"I think it's getting serious this time." Anna nodded and smiled to herself. "I think he might be the one."
"Well, there's no rush," Charles said. "She's so young."
"I was already married at her age," Anna said.
"That was different in those days."
"Sure," Anna smiled. "Promise you won't give this young man a hard time?"
Charles looked toward Ben and narrowed his eyes. "You've met him?" "Briefly," Ben replied. "They drove me to the airport once."
Ben got up and started clearing the table.
"And?" Charles asked as Ben started loading the dishwasher.
"He's cool," Ben said with one firm nod of his head.
"You can see for yourself on Friday," Anna said. "If Michelle picked him, then he must be a lovely man. It's the first time for her to bring a boyfriend home."
"What does he do for a living?" Charles asked.
"He owns a mattress store," Ben said. "It's doing well and is starting to expand. They're opening a second store soon on Southport Road."
"He's a young entrepreneur then," Charles said.
Ben nodded. "You could say that, yes."
"As long as he didn't learn his trade from Matthew Swift," Charles huffed.
"Oh, Charles, don't start again," Anna said.
"What do you mean?" Ben asked.
"Matthew Swift." Charles nodded toward the paper lying on the counter. "The little snot I was telling you about. The one in the article."
Ben picked up the newspaper. As he read the article, his face turned from a placid neutrality to a frown of concentration, particularly during the second half, where his father had been quoted.
Excerpted from The Carrot Chaser by Todd Hopkins, Ray Hilbert. Copyright © 2009 Todd Hopkins and Ray Hilbert. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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