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"It'd be real nice of you to have this all wrapped up by the time I get back."
"Now, you know I'm good, boss. But even I won't boast that I could make that happen in a couple of days."
Gage Vincent kept his eyes fixed on the open folder, which had been hoarding his attention for the past ten minutes. The response from his assistant commanded a smile that accentuated his words with imminent laughter when he finally spoke.
"Jay wants ten days, I'm giving him ten days," Gage told the young man who occupied the paper-littered sofa on the other side of the office suite.
Webb Reese's chuckle was a touch muffled behind the papers he held close to his attractive, heavily bearded face. "You taking a ten-day break? That'll be a first."
Gage's face held a stony yet sly expression.
In a show of defense, Webb raised his hands, sending the papers sprinkling down onto the black suede of the sofa. "Just sayin'," he sang.
Gage returned his focus to the folder, shut it and gave it a wave in Webb's direction. "Time to start earning that insane salary I'm paying you."
Webb's nod was brief. His earlier playfulness had now adopted a more solemn element. "You're really leaving it all up to me?"
Gage's lone dimple made a quick appearance when he smiled that time. "You've earned it." He watched Webb come forward to claim the file.
"This is a big deal, boss." Webb emphasized the reminder by giving the folder a deliberate shake.
"Sure is." A thick glossy brow rose with challenging intent and Gage studied his assistant of five years with a look of mock suspicion. "Have you learned nothing from your vast experience in my presence?"
Webb attempted to laugh over the tease but seemed too nervous to do so.
Taking pity, Gage pushed aside the other files that required his attention. He reared back in his desk chair while leveling a deep chocolaty-brown stare at Webb.
"I'm leaving this to you because I trust you to handle it right." Gage inclined his head slightly when he noticed Webb's eyes widen. "I have a building full of people who'd be happy to chime in with their two cents, argue against your points of view and suggest I fire you upon my return."
Webb laughed then.
The "building full of people" Gage had referred to- more specifically, the senior executive staff-were all employed by Vincent Industries and Development, or VID, as it was more affectionately known locally- in and around Charlotte, NC-nationally and internationally.
"I need someone to have my back on this, Webb." Gage was serious, which was made evident by the intermittent flash of the lighter hues in his rich gaze. "You're the only one who knows my tastes. You know what offers I think have merit and which ones I think are bullshit. In short, you won't just accept a bid based on the amount of zeroes it brings with it. You'll look at the people the bid is attached to, their backgrounds, the people attached to them and their backgrounds."
Webb's emerging toothy smile hinted at his appreciation of Gage's words.
"Are you saying you don't think your top circle of people will care about those things?" he asked.
"My top circle cares about the money they make me." Gage reared back again in the desk chair, which coordinated with the sofa and other office furnishings. "That's one reason they belong to my top circle- because I care about the money they make me.
"But I also care about the pockets that money comes from before it comes to mine," Gage shared once the round of low laughter between him and Webb subsided. "That care involves certain hands-on work that I won't be able to be a part of, as I'll be off somewhere wasting my time."
Webb's laughter then sounded abrupt. "Dang, sir, you make it sound like a hassle."
"A hassle." Gage focused on a point across his expansive office and appeared to be turning the word over in his mind as he reflected upon the observation. "It's not exactly a hassle. I just don't see the positive in bringing together the bridal party before the wedding." He shrugged, sending a ripple through the crisp fabric of the olive-green shirt he wore.
"You've known me and my gang long enough, Webb. My boys and I can find drama where none should ever exist. Mix in the bride and her gang
you get the picture I'm trying to create here
"It could still make for less drama," Webb said, evidently adopting the role of devil's advocate. "Think of it as a chance to meet and get to know each other on a less stressful level before all the real pre-wedding festivities get under way."
"Less stressful." Sighing, Gage massaged his eyes while considering the upcoming bachelor-and-bachelor-ette getaway that had been suggested by the bride-to-be.
"It's also a time to get to know the bride better," Webb added while moving to collect the papers that had been strewn around the office during the course of the morning's meeting.
Resting his head back on the chair, Gage bridged his fingers and factored that element into his thinking. His oldest friend, Jayson Muns, had recently stunned his close group of friends with news of his engagement to Orchid Benjamin. The woman's background boasted old money. Old as in antebellum old, rare for an African-American family of the South, but it was what it was.
Unfortunately, Jay's black society princess had a reputation that had been earned on the wilder side. It was a reputation that Jayson seemed totally oblivious to.
"Ten days in the Caribbean
" Webb reminded him. "And I'm betting it won't be any hardship on the eyes at all to be around Ms. Benjamin and her crew. You can learn a lot about people by the friends they keep."
Webb continued his tidying-and missed Gage smiling miserably in agreement.
Myrna Fisher used her free hand to pile her shoulder-length bobbed hair into a loose dark ball atop her head. With that done, she reinserted the outfit just below her chin. She'd folded down the hanger to improve her observation in the full-length mirror.
"If I didn't know you better, I'd swear your ambition was the only thing motivating you to take this trip." Myrna barely turned her head to throw her voice across her shoulder.
Alythia Duffy snuggled deeper into the tousle of thick pillows along the head of the high-canopied bed. Her bright eyes never left the snow globe as she shifted it upside down, right-side up and back again.
"I don't know any better," Alythia conceded, the bulk of her attention on the rush of white confetti drifting down around a miniature replica of the Charlotte skyline.
In playful retaliation, Myrna tossed the outfit she'd been debating over. The garment landed across Aly's bare feet, which were only partially visible given all the other articles of clothing Myrna had tossed there during her rushed packing job.
"In spite of my cluelessness, ambition isn't my only reason for going." Alythia defended herself in a tone harboring a fair share of mock indignance.
"But it is a reason?" Myrna challenged. Silence met her query and she did an about-face toward the canopy, shooting a glare in Alythia's direction. "This should be the one time we all put business and all of those other obligations aside, you know?"
Undaunted, Alythia propped herself higher against the pillows. "This coming from the woman who missed her own nephew's high school graduation for a bikini fitting?"
"Oh, please, Aly
how long are y'all gonna give me grief over that?" Myrna began to rifle through the outfits that would make the cut to be packed for the upcoming trip. "The designer was only in town that night and I'd already been paid five large figures for that shoot."
" Alythia took care not to mask any of the sarcasm she was aiming for. "A little business won't hurt anything," she reasoned.
Myrna's mouth fell open and for an instant Alythia thought the woman had gone into shock.
"Are you serious right now, Alythia? One of our group is about to take the vows." Myrna curved a hand between two perky D-cups and put in place her most sincere expression. "Vows, Aly. Do you get how huge this is?"
Oh, I get it, Alythia thought. She got it all too well. No one, from the local media to the woman's closest friends, had been more surprised when bad girl around town Orchid Benjamin had announced not only an engagement but also an actual wedding date with her on-again, off-again flame, Jayson Muns. Yes, it was huge.
Melancholy took root inside Alythia, souring her interest in the snow globe perched in her lap. "I'm gonna be there with bells on for her, Mur," she said, returning the bauble to the white marble night table near the bed. She caught the quick look her friend sliced at her through the mirror.
"I'll be sure to give Orchid all the attention she needs." Aly debated slipping back into the rose-blush canvas shoes that matched the drop-tail hem top she wore with denim capris. Myrna didn't appear impressed or trusting of the promise.
Still, the woman shrugged. "At least you'll be there in body if not entirely in spirit."
Thankful for the reprieve, Aly resituated her head on the pillows and studied her anxious friend with greater interest. There was a noticeable weariness to Myrna, given her usual and almost annoying state of cheerfulness. After more than a few seconds of observation, she pushed herself up to half sit among the litter of clothes and pillows.
"What is it?" Alythia's demand was present in her amethyst eyes. The orbs contrasted beautifully against the dewy caramel of her skin.
"Don't pay me no mind, girl." She gave an airy wave. "This bridey stuff is already taking its zany effect on my mood."
"I don't buy it." Alythia raised her hand when Myrna opened her mouth to argue. "I already saw the expression, so spill it."
"I'm just being stupid."
" Alythia's drawling reply noted that she wasn't about to argue her friend's insight.
Myrna's smile was more genuine despite the slight strain she couldn't quite shadow. She tossed a blouse at Alythia's face.
Myrna moved the clothes to be packed, clearing a spot to sit on the armchair. "What do you think about Orchid's engagement?" she queried in a tiny voice, as though someone might overhear them even though they were completely alone in the monster penthouse apartment Myrna kept in downtown Charlotte.
"Why?" Again, Aly pushed herself up a smidge higher on the bed. When Myrna just watched her, she shrugged. "I mean, I'm happy
." She shook her head, certain that there was more to the question.
"I'm happy, too." Myrna scooted to the edge of the chair. "But don't you think it's all a little too-too soon?"
"You 're asking this?" Alythia's words were half matter-of-fact and half playful.
Myrna Fisher was one of the most sought-after lingerie models in the country. The fact that she was black made the accomplishment even more noteworthy. Still, for all Myrna's savvy allure, her weakness was for relationships. It was well known that the lovely model didn't go long without a man on her arm. The woman so adored relationships that she had a tendency to become suffocating-a thing most men didn't handle well, regardless of the woman's beauty.
Moreover, it did Myrna's reputation no favors to end things with one adoring suitor only to have another one before the close of the following week.
Appearing somewhat offended by Alythia's response, Myrna pushed off the chair and returned to holding outfit possibilities before herself in the mirror. "Unlike our friend, at least I don't pick up random guys to take home."
Alythia kept her eyes downcast, allowing wavy jaw-length tresses to shield her expression from Myrna's sight. Myrna's usual defense was one of many. To her, partners were significant others. No one seemed to have the heart to tell Myrna those "others" were significant only in her mind.
"People can change, Mur."
"Sure they can, but do people change that much in the span of two weeks?"
"What do you know?" Alythia tilted her head in an attempt to spy Myrna's actual face rather than its reflection in the mirror.
Myrna was cagey, pretending to be involved in her outfits. "There's nothing that I can prove." She suddenly whirled around to point a finger in Alythia's direction. "And I'm not jealous."
Aly didn't think it was wise just then to challenge the vehement declaration as a lie in spite of what she saw lurking in Myrna's brown eyes.
Alythia Duffy and her close circle of acquaintances had been friends since middle school. They'd been through tense times but always stuck up for each other and defended each other whether or not that defense was warranted.
Though with age came a certain clarity, Alythia thought to herself. There were times when one had to see another for what he or she really was. By all accounts, Orchid Benjamin's reputation had been tarnished by one sexual disgrace after another since high school.
"I just don't know if getting married is the best idea for her, that's all," Myrna continued.
Alythia, who was now seated in the middle of the bed with her legs folded beneath her, tuned back into Myrna's diatribe. "Are you suggesting that we say something to change her mind about going through with the wedding?"
The question tugged Myrna's rapt attention off the mirror and the gossamer lounge dress she was debating over. Again she looked to Alythia and gave a smug gaze. "I'll reserve judgment till I get a bead on the happy couple during our fun-filled getaway."