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The Road to Testament
By Eva Marie Everson
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2014 Eva Marie Everson
All rights reserved.
Line 4 on my office phone flashed red, letting me know my grandmother, who also happened to be my employer, wanted to speak to me.
"Ashlynne Rothschild," I said, supporting the handset between my ear and shoulder. "Hey, Gram."
"Ashlynne, do you have a minute to come to my office?"
I looked at the piles of work strewed across my desk. For the last hour, my fingers had flown across my computer keyboard in a futile effort to meet a deadline for Parks & Avenues, our family's well-heeled local magazine. "Ah ..."
"I told your father," she said with a tone of confidence, "that we should just wait until this evening over dinner to talk, but he seems to think you need to come to my office now. Come save me, hon."
All right then. Obviously, our meeting was more than a business matter; it was a family business matter. "Sure, Gram. Give me ten minutes and I'll be right there." My mouth lifted in a half-grin. "You know, to save you." Though I knew if anyone needed saving, it would be Dad. Constance Rothschild steered this ship, not the other way around.
"Thank you," she whispered before disconnecting the call. I tossed the handset back to its cradle and returned my attention to the computer's monitor. On my desk, a cup of spice tea grew tepid in my Winter Park Arts Festival mug. I took a slow sip, enjoying the flavors and the scent. Looking over the last line I'd written for the cover article I was nearly behind on, I mumbled under my breath: "... no more than a footpath leading to ..."
Fingers poised over the keys, I flexed then typed the conclusion of the sentence.
I hit Control-Save with dramatic flair, as if playing the final notes of a Sergei Rachmaninoff composition. I stood, took a last sip of tea, and left what often felt like a too-small office, but that was—in reality—plenty big.
Courtney Howard-Smith, my young assistant and research guru, worked at her desk, her customary headset firmly in place. I never knew if she listened to music as a muse, if she was doing some sort of research, or just goofing off. In truth, I never asked and she never volunteered. She got her work done and, as the ink still dried on her Rollins diploma, she did it well. She was, like me, a research hound. If I didn't have time to dig, she not only took the assignment, but she often found things I feared I may have missed.
For me, her attention to the most minute of details trumped the issue that Courtney Howard-Smith lived a life completely devoid of revering anyone older than herself by even so much as ten minutes. Or, in my case, ten years. And counting.
I tapped her desk several times with my index finger. She stopped typing, pulled the headset from her head, and laid it to rest around her neck and throat. "Hey there."
"Hey yourself," I said, doing my best to make some sort of personal connection. I smiled, but got nothing short of unblinking eyes in return. "I've got a meeting with my grandmother and, apparently, my father."
"Okay," she said, clearly not impressed. As usual.
I paused to regroup. Once again, when it came to Courtney, there was no connection. I should be used to it by now. Not just with Courtney but with most people. Even though I knew being used to it wouldn't make the pill any easier to swallow. "Do me a favor. Have you seen the photo layout for the new retirement center article?"
"I haven't. No."
"Can you get that for me? I'm not sure why it hasn't been sent yet, and I'm nearly done with the article."
Courtney picked up a pen, jotted a note on a pad of purple paper, and said, "No problem. I'll get to that as soon as I can." She smiled as if the notion to do so had just hit her, then let the smile go.
I tapped her desk again. My way of saying "good job and goodbye," not that I'm sure it registered. Although I wished it would.
I headed for Gram's office, all the way on the other side of the once one-room warehouse, now sectioned by low cubicle walls. Everything about the room was bright. Cluttered but efficient. Faces of employees focused on computer monitors. Rapidly pecked keys, the musical medley I'd grown up with, echoed around me. This—the desks, the faces, the sound of work—had been a part of my childhood. I'd known, even then, I'd one day be a part of it all. And, all of my life—or so it seemed—I'd dreamed of one day occupying the office with my father's name on the door. And then, one day ... Gram's.
Yet I knew only a few of the employees by name. And most of those were last names. With the exception of Courtney, they all called me "Miss Rothschild," which suited me just fine. I'd learned a long time ago that the more I protected myself from the intimacies of the personal lives of others, the better off my life would be.
My grandmother's office sat beyond the maze of desks and cubes. I walked purposefully to the glass door etched with CONSTANCE L. ROTHSCHILD across the center, the entrance to a sanctuary barred from view by sheets of glass and white blinds. I tapped, then opened the door without waiting for a response.
Gram sat on the far side of the L-shaped room, beyond a retro bookcase—blond wood, long and low—and behind her sprawling desk, whose size made her diminutive frame seem even more petite. At seventy-eight, she remained in excellent health. She wore her silvery-gray hair in soft curls around her face, brushed back from her forehead, and wore very little makeup. She didn't need to. She was and always had been a natural beauty. An earthiness shone in the sparkling of her blue eyes and the God-given blush of her cheeks.
Her smile welcomed me as I stepped in. "Come in, beautiful child. Come in."
I closed the door behind me. To my left, my father sat on the olive-green sofa in the 1960s-inspired sitting area, one ankle resting casually over a knee, foot bobbing up and down. He talked on his iPhone, "Uh-huh, uh-huh ...," then looked over and sent a wink my way.
I smiled at him. He was, like his father—my "Papa"—had been, extraordinarily handsome. "A catch," Gram called him when she teased my mother. "When I gave you my son," she says, "I gave you quite the catch."
And he'd received quite the catch, truth be told, and I considered myself most fortunate to be their only child.
I didn't know whether to sit with him or amble over to my grandmother. Gram made her way to us, so I lowered myself into one of the boxy, gold-colored chairs and crossed my legs in one movement, a process learned from my mother. Not by instruction, but by observation.
"All right then ...," Dad continued. I could tell he was ready to close the conversation. Though I didn't recognize the voice on the other end, the caller clearly wasn't finished speaking.
Gram stood next to me, ran her fingertips along the wide collar of the Kay Unger eyelet suit I wore. "Very pretty," she said.
I smiled at her. In spite of her financial influence and position, Gram rarely wore anything ostentatious. To the office, she typically donned khaki slacks, casual tops, and oversized sweaters. Even in summer. Never at formal gatherings, of course. On those occasions, she slipped into gowns by Veni Infantino or Alberto Makali. Me? I dressed every day as though our mayor might just happen to drop in to say hello. And don't think it hasn't happened. That's just my life.
"Rick," Gram said, "tell Shelton we'll call him again later."
Dad gave his mother a look of appreciation. "Uh ... yeah. Listen, my daughter just walked in, and both she and Mother are staring at me, so ..." The voice from the other end rattled off a few more lines. Dad laughed good-naturedly. "All right then. We'll talk about it later ... thank you again ... no, seriously. Thank you. Good-bye, sir."
He ended the call, dropped both feet to the floor, hung his head between his shoulders, and rested his elbows on his knees as though he had just run a marathon. "My word that man can talk."
"Talk the ears right off a mule," Gram said. One of her famous sayings she'd picked up while, as she puts it, "living Southern in the earlier years of my marriage." She smiled. "But he is a good egg and a better friend."
Gram sat directly across from me in the matching chair. A maple coffee table stretched between us, its surface scattered with issues of the magazine. Dad leaned back, resting an arm along the sleek line of the sofa. The track lights shining overhead brought a twinkle to eyes the color of a robin's egg. "How ya doing, Kitten?" he asked.
"I'm doing just fine, Dad," I said, suspicion now rising inside me. If the looks they were giving each other—not to mention me—were any indication, something was most definitely up. I looked from him to my grandmother and back again. "What's going on here?"
Gram clapped her hands together. "My darling, your beloved grandmother has decided to retire. Officially and fully retire. I see afternoons of nothing but reading and mahjong in my future."
The air rushed out of my lungs. "Gram ..." As much as I'd known it would one day happen, I couldn't imagine Parks & Avenues or my life without her on a daily basis.
Her face glowed, appearing ten years younger simply having made the announcement. I looked to my father. He swallowed hard, his Adam's apple bobbing up and down in his slender neck. "Dad?"
"It's her decision," he said, leaning over and resting his elbows on his knees. "Don't you think she's earned it?"
I looked around the room. The paneled walls Gram had chosen to complement her '60s-themed décor boasted with award plaques. Framed photographs of Gram with celebrities—local, national, and international—showed her growing older with grace. Not a superstar in New York or Hollywood could compare to her. Joining the plaques and photographs were framed covers of her favorite editions of the magazine.
The only thing hanging that wasn't directly work-related was the massive print over my father's head. A color drawing of a glamorous, curvaceous woman from 1960, gloved hand resting under her chin, hair held back by a Holly Golightly scarf, eyes shielded by Jackie O sunglasses. She leaned back, tilting the full width of the print, from lower right to upper left. The Eiffel Tower stood in abstract white contrast behind her.
Few people knew my grandfather had the print of my grandmother made after one of their trips abroad. "I don't like to brag," she said to me the day I realized the identity of the captivating woman. I was all of thirteen at the time. "But I was quite a beauty, wasn't I?" she asked with a giggle.
Yes. And she still was.
"Wow," I finally said, when nothing else came to mind. "So ... what does this mean? Exactly." Because I could guess ... and if I were right, all the work, all the laying of the foundation of my career, would finally allow me to reach the first part of my goal.
Dad cleared his throat. "Well now, that's why you're here."
I had thought as much.
"With Mother leaving the magazine, I'll move up to Editorial Director ..."
My heart hammered in my chest. Oh. My. Goodness. Finally.
The promotion I'd worked my little fingers to the bone and my stiletto heels to nubs for. I would take Dad's position as Editor-in-Chief of one of the most prestigious local-color magazines in the entire state of Florida. Perhaps even in the United States.
I sat straight, ready to hear the rest of what my father had to say. But when he said nothing, I looked first at Gram, then back to him. "I assume you are about to tell me I'll take your position?" I tried not to gloat.
Dad's elbows continued to rest on his knees. He cracked his knuckles, an irritating habit both Mother and I typically chastised him for. For now, I chose to stay silent on the subject. "That depends," he said.
Gram shifted in her seat. "On how you do."
"Not do what, dear. Do where."
"So glad you asked. Testament."
"North Carolina, darling. You'll love it. Start packing."CHAPTER 2
My eyes widened. "What ... in the world ... are you talking about?"
Dad looked to his mother.
"I suppose," she said, "I should explain some things to you."
I didn't respond. One thing I'd learned from Gram was the importance and power of listening.
"When Richard and I started in the business, we worked in the most charming little town up in North Carolina."
"Testament ...," I supplied, guessing, but I knew I couldn't be wrong.
"That's right. Shelton Decker and your grandfather served in the army together. They became fast friends. Both wanted to go into journalism when their time in the armed forces was done.
They went from Basic to the end of their four years together. All the way. And, when they were done, they married their sweethearts ..."
"You being one of them."
"Yes. And Barbara—we called her Bobbie—Shelton's wife, being the other." Gram's gaze seemed to drift far away to another time and place. "We went to Testament, North Carolina. It had been Shel's birthplace, you know."
No. I didn't know. The only thing I really knew about the early years of Gram's life with my grandfather was that they'd started a small magazine together with friends in North Carolina. And that eventually, the Deckers had wanted to start a newspaper, which came on the heels of my grandfather wanting to return to where his and Gram's parents lived. Here. In Winter Park. Florida. My home.
"Oh it was a lovely, lovely place, Ashlynne. All the charm the South has to offer. Simple people. Good people. God-fearing, hardworking."
"Simple people ..."
Gram slid back in her chair, crossed her legs. "You know what I mean. I'm not saying they aren't educated. They are. What I mean is ... well, you won't find them dashing off to some of the affairs we have around here." She ran a finger along the jawline of her heart-shaped face. "Although they certainly have their social circles."
"Gram," I said, inhaling before I continued. "What does this have to do with me?"
Gram looked at Dad, who cracked his knuckles again.
"Dad, please," I said, giving him my best don't-I-look-like-Mom look.
"Sorry, Kitten. I know it bothers you, but it's a nervous habit."
"Gram, he's your son. Can't you stop him from doing that?" And, furthermore, why was he so nervous?
"Why should I?" she asked with a raised brow. "Your grandfather did the same thing. It's like having him in the room with me again." She smiled at her son, who sighed in relief.
"Let's get back to the subject, shall we, Mother?"
"Yes. Well ..." Gram looked at me with wide eyes. "My darling, you are the heartbeat of my life. You know that."
"I do. And you are mine. You know that."
Gram's expression turned poignant. "You see? That, sweet Ashlynne, is the saddest thing you could have said to me. At thirty-two, you seem determined to make the magazine your life, but you never connect with any of your coworkers. You have only one close friend. You have acquaintances but not friends. You hardly date. By now I'd hoped to be a great-grandmother." She closed her eyes slowly before reopening them. "I suppose I cannot control that. Your rise to position here, however, I can." She folded her fingers together in a "here's the church, here's the steeple" fashion. "What you have in business sense you never seemed to have gained in people sense."
I felt my brow furrow. "What does that mean? You think I don't know people? Believe me, Gram. I know people." And what I knew typically wasn't all that wonderful.
"It means that you need some time away from all that Winter Park has afforded you. You are a recognized fish in the Winter Park pond. But I—and your father—feel it's time you know what it's like to be, as the old saying goes, a little fish in a little pond." She looked at Dad. Sighed. "You will one day—the good Lord willing—sit behind the very desk that is in this office. I want you to have the same marvelous beginning I had."
Oh. Dear. Lord.
"Dad?" I cast him what I hoped was a pleading gaze.
"Ashlynne," his voice confirmed, "if you want my current position and—as Gram says—hers one day, you'll spend six months in Testament. You'll live with Shelton and Barbara—Bobbie—in their guest cottage. And work for his newspaper."
Excerpted from The Road to Testament by Eva Marie Everson. Copyright © 2014 Eva Marie Everson. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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