She settled behind her desk on the forty-seventh floor, stowing her Louis Vuitton bag away in the bottom-right-hand drawer. Aside from her piled in-box, the gleaming surface was almost bare, every file in order, every pen in place. She rubbed absently at a fingerprint. Maybe she had inherited Tess Fletcher's compulsive tidiness, Meg admitted. But image was important. An uncluttered workspace was a sign of an organized mind.
She set her BlackBerry within reach. She'd deliberately kept her schedule free to deal with the long to-do list that had accumulated in her absence.
Her mother made lists, too, stuck on the refrigerator or scrawled by the phone. But while her mother spent her days making beds and baking cookies, readying guest rooms and running errands, Meg oversaw a department of thirty people and an advertising budget of seventy-four million dollars.
She slipped off her Vera Wang snakeskin pumps, surreptitiously wiggling her toes under her desk.
It was good to be back.
She surveyed her domain with satisfaction: the tasteful artwork chosen by a design firm, the waxy green plants watered and replaced as needed by a plant service, the sliver of Manhattan skyline visible through her window. Her private conference room, accessible through glass pocket doors.
Back in charge. Back in control.
As if the past two weeks had all been a horrible dream. She powered up her Keurig and her laptop at the same time, intending to review the latest press release about the acquisition while her coffee brewed. But when she attempted to log on to the company network, an error message popped up on-screen.
She pursed her lips. Her password had worked fine all weekend.
Her fingers danced over the keys again. Same result. Irritation licked like flame along the edges of her satisfaction. It just figured that on her first day back the system would go wonky.
She picked up her phone. Dead. Not the most auspicious start to her day.
Barefoot, she padded across her office and stuck her head out the door. "Kelly, can you please give IS a call? My computer and my phone are all screwed up."
"Will do," her assistant said cheerfully. "And Stan just called. He wants to see you."
Stanley Parks, the chief operating officer. Meg's boss. "What time?" she asked.
"As soon as you're free, he said. He's in the conference room now. He sounded really stressed out."
Adrenaline buzzed through Meg's blood, responding to the challenge. God, she loved her work. Another crisis brewing. Another opportunity to shine. This was what she did, what she lived for.
"On my way," she said coolly.
Full speed ahead. She slipped on her pumps and strode down the hall like a batter approaching the plate, ready to knock one out of the park. It felt good to be back in the game.
Meg stared blindly out the cab window at the gray blur of Manhattan rumbling by, her personal possessions in a cardboard box on the seat beside her. Forced to let you go, Stan had said, not quite meeting her eyes. The familiar, falsely reassuring phrases had thumped into her like stones.
Until an hour ago, when she'd still held the power of hiring and firing, before she'd been escorted to the street and deposited on the curb like so much garbage, she had used the same words herself. Eliminating redundant positions across the board she'd written in press releases. Human Resources will assist you with the transition process, she'd said kindly, passing the tissue box across her desk.
She had always prided herself on handing such situations compassionately and professionally. I understand you feel that way, she had murmured, secure in her job, her record, her stringent standards of performance.
Betrayal seared her throat like bile. She hadn't understood at all. The words didn't matter. The tone didn't change a thing. She'd been dumped. Sacked. Axed.
She wanted to throw up.
Tomorrow she would make a list. Make a plan. But now she wanted to crawl off like a wounded animal, to curl into a fetal ball in the closet and suck her kneecaps. Maybe huddled in the dark beside her untouched golf clubs and unused tennis racket, she could begin to sort through the hot mess of her emotions. The ruins of her career.
She had worked for Franklin Insurance since her graduation from Harvard, earning her MBA from Columbia at night, steadily rising through the ranks, every grade, every performance review, every promotion another rung on her personal ladder of success. Never look down, never look back.
Until she'd walked into that conference room and saw Judi Green from HR sitting with a stone-faced Stan, Meg had never suspected that her own job could be in jeopardy.
That she could be considered replaceable. Dispensable.
This Parnassus acquisition shook things up for all of us. Stan had frowned down at the folder open in front of him. Your absence at such a critical time for the organization was . . . noticed.
The unfairness of it had hit her like a slap. Heat whipped her face. Stan, my mother was in a car accident. I called you every day from the hospital. You told me to go. You told me everything would be fine.
Derek had told her everything would be fine, too.
Derek. The smell of the cab assaulted her nostrils. Her stomach churned.
Derek Chapman, the company's tall, blond, ambitious chief financial officer, wasn't only a member of the transition team. He was the man Meg loved. She believed him when he told her this acquisition was good for the company and good for them. A larger organization meant more responsibilities, more opportunities, and more money.
He must not know. He would have stopped this.
She moistened her lips, sick at heart, frightened for him. If Derek wasn't in the loop . . . What if he had been blindsided, too?
For the past six years, their corporate fortunes had been hitched together. We make a good team, he'd said the first time he'd asked her out at a company retreat in Arizona.
She'd been flattered. Derek was perfect for her new life, intelligent, ambitious, career-focused.
After they returned to the city, it had become routine for them to spend Wednesday and Saturday nights together. With Derek, she never had to make excuses for working late or explain why she was too tired for sex. Soon she had a toothbrush at his place, closet space, a drawer. She had measured the progress of their relationship the same way she'd tracked the rise of her career. In steady, upward increments.
Two years after Derek had been named chief financial officer, three months after Meg's promotion to vice president of and public relations, Derek had suggested they buy the condo together.
What would they do now, if they both lost their jobs?
She needed to know that he was all right. That they were all right. Instinctively, she reached for her BlackBerry.
It was gone.
She stared at the empty pocket, a pit opening in the center of her chest. Her electronic lifeline had been stripped from her along with her company laptop and corporate credit card, her ID badge and office key. She clenched her empty hand into a fist.
"Fifteen dollars and seventy cents," the taxi driver said.
She looked up. The cab was double-parked outside the discreet limestone façade of her Central Park West address.
She fumbled for a bill - a twenty - and thrust it through the divider. Almost a thirty percent tip. Now that she was unemployed, she ought to curtail her expenses, she thought with the part of her brain that continued to function. Set a budget. Live within her means.
She climbed out of the cab, dragging the box across the seat. All the years of working, of scraping, of getting by, rose like a bad smell from the gutter to haunt her.
She took a deep breath, willing her stomach to settle.
She was hardly destitute. Her severance package included six months' salary and health insurance. But the down payment on the condo - an investment in her future with Derek, she'd told herself at the time - had taken most of her savings. In this economy and at her level, she could be job searching for a year.
The doorman sprang forward to take the cardboard carton from her arms.
Meg clutched the box tighter, all she had left of twelve years with the company: two framed diplomas and a photograph of her family, her makeup bag, an extra pair of shoes. No pictures of Derek. Their relationship didn't violate company protocol. She reported to Stan, not Derek. But even though they were generally acknowledged as a couple, Derek didn't feel it was appropriate to advertise their liaison at the office.
"I've got it, thanks, Luis."
The doorman frowned, a solid, graying man in his sixties, round in the middle like a whiskey barrel. Luis had been at the building longer than she had. He might have to put up with rain and rude residents, but at least he had job security. "Let me give you a hand to your apartment."
She forced her numb lips to curve into a smile. "No, no, I'm okay."
His warm brown eyes narrowed in concern. "You sure? No offense, but you don't look so good."
A remark like that to another tenant could have gotten him in trouble. But Luis knew Meg had worked her way through college waiting tables and scrubbing toilets.
You don't need to share all the details of your personal life with the doorman, darling, Derek had chided.
But Luis had a grandson, Meg had a brother, in Afghanistan. It made a bond.
She opened her mouth and felt, to her horror, tears clog her throat.
"You sick?" Luis asked. "That why you came home early?"
"Yes." Shame flushed her face like a fever. But what else could she say? Oh, God, what would she tell her family? "Yes, I had to . . . leave work."
"I'll get the elevator for you," Luis said.
She was too exhausted to argue. She followed him down the hall to the elevators.
The third-floor, two-bedroom apartment she shared with Derek didn't provide the Central Park view he had wanted. But the space had still cost more than Meg could comfortably afford. Despite Derek's larger salary, she had insisted on their splitting expenses right down the middle. Her parents had not approved of the condo or, she sometimes thought, of Derek. They could not understand why, after six years together, she and Derek didn't simply get married. Meg had dismissed her family's concerns. She didn't need a ring to establish her worth or validate her relationship. The joint investment in the condo was another step, another sign that her life and career were proceeding according to plan.
She swallowed hard. Or they had been until an hour ago.
She let herself into the empty apartment. Leaning back against the her eyes. The living room had the chilled hush of a funeral parlor. The surrounding units were quiet, everyone at work. No scraping furniture penetrated into the apartment, no footsteps, no chattering TVs, only the muted sounds of traffic drifting from the street.
What was she supposed to do with herself in the middle of the day? What was she going to do?
She took off her shoes, her jacket, her earrings, divesting herself of her corporate armor piece by piece. Without it she felt naked. Vulnerable.
She wandered through the apartment like a sleepwalker, her limbs weighted by lethargy, her body infected by an odd, internal restlessness.
She couldn't eat. Couldn't text or call or go on-line. They'd never bothered to pay for a land line or personal computer. Why should they? The company provided everything. Now, even if she'd had her BlackBerry, her phone and e-mail contacts, all her personal network, were wiped out when IS had disabled her account.
No wonder her password had failed that morning.
She stopped at the window, staring down at people flowing by like twigs caught in a current: envoys from office buildings moving purposefully along the sidewalks, mothers pushing strollers on their way to the park, tourists wandering arm in arm, stopping to point or to kiss. Everyone had somewhere to go, someone to be with, while she stood alone, apart, removed from all of them.
Where was Derek?
He didn't come at lunchtime. She was relieved. As long as he was at the office, he still had a job. But he wasn't home at five o'clock.
Or at six.
Or at seven.
Of course he couldn't call, she told herself as the minutes and hours ticked by. She didn't have a phone. And she couldn't call him. She couldn't leave the apartment, even if she planned to buy a phone, even if she knew where to find a pay phone. What if Derek showed up while she was out? She didn't know any of their neighbors well enough to go knocking on doors. What could she say? Hi, I've lost my job and I can't reach my boyfriend, may I use your phone? She shuddered. That would be a hell of an introduction.
She paced the thick, mushroom-colored carpet. Her inactivity, her isolation, her helplessness drove her crazy. How could Derek do this to her? He must know she was waiting. He must have heard that she'd been . . . Her mind recoiled from the word fired. She'd been let go.
She didn't get it.
She'd worked hard to get to a place where she was indispensable, on top, in control. Vice president of marketing and for a Fortune 500 company. No vacationing rich kid on the island for the summer, no legacy student from Harvard, no cigar-sucking, golf club-swinging member of the Old Boys' Network was ever going to look down on her again. She flung herself onto the couch.
By eight o'clock, she was shaking with fear and a hot, defensive anger. Derek still wasn't home. What if something had happened to him? Her mother, after all, had recently been the victim of a drunk driver. Didn't he care about her feelings at all?
At nine o'clock, a key scraped in the lock.
She jumped to her feet, bubbling over with worry, relief, and resentment. "Where have you been?"
Derek stopped inside the door, his blond hair shining in the yellow light of the hall, his face shadowed. "Putting out fires."
He sounded tired.
She crossed her arms against her chest. "With what? Scotch?"
"I had to go out with the team after work. You know how it is." He stretched his neck, rolled his shoulders. "Christ, what a day."
She did know. He was under stress, too, she reminded herself. "Are you all right?"
He slid out of his jacket. Shot her a look. "What do you think?"
She didn't know what to think. He hadn't told her anything yet. "I was worried about you."
He nodded as he crossed to the dry bar, accepting her concern as his due.
She waited for him to reciprocate with questions. Sympathy. She didn't expect him to coddle her. That wasn't their way. But surely he would say something. When he didn't, she prompted, "I suppose you heard about my day."
He poured himself two fingers of Laphroaig. A calculated amount, suggesting restraint and appreciation at the same time. He would have had the same at the bar. Derek never did anything - even drink - without calculating its effect. "Hell, yes. That's all anybody wanted to talk about. I had a bitch of a time getting them to focus on the significant aspects of the acquisition."
Ice trickled down her spine. Frosted her voice. "You don't consider my firing significant?"
The bottle cracked against the rim of his glass. "Of course it's significant. I just meant I had a lot on my plate this afternoon." He set the bottle down and crossed the room, cupping her jaw in his smooth, capable hands. "It was hell for me, not being able to talk to you."
His breath was warm against her face. Meg closed her eyes. It was hell for her, too.
Derek's familiar scent enveloped her, his starched shirt, the smokiness of Scotch, the cool, expensive tang of his cologne. "I wish you had come home," she said, hating the admission, detesting the needy, uncertain tone of her voice.
"I wanted to," he said. "I thought you'd appreciate some time to yourself."
She opened her eyes. "Twelve hours?"
He released her face. "It wasn't that long."
She wasn't going to argue over minutes. "You said we were partners, Derek. We're a team. I needed you to have my back today, and you weren't here."
His brows twitched together in annoyance. I have your back."
"I just got fired!" With an effort, she modulated her voice. She was going to be reasonable if it killed her. "You're on the transition team. You could have fought for me. You at least could have warned me."
"You know I couldn't do that. I can't show any favoritism. I have to act in the best interests of the company."
Ouch. As if keeping her around wasn't good for the company.
"What about my interests?" she asked. "Or don't they matter anymore?"
"Of course you matter. Have you considered that this Parnassus acquisition could be the best thing that could happen to you? To us."
Meg gritted her teeth. "What the hell are you talking about?"
"Look, there was always going to be a certain awkwardness as long as we were with the same company. Now there’s nothing holding us back. Personally or professionally." He smiled at her, unusually charming for a finance guy, and unease moved in her bones.
"Nothing except I'm out of a job."
His lips tightened. "There's no need to raise your voice, Meg. People are losing their jobs all over. It's this economy."
"The economy didn't fire me."
"My point is, you can find another job. This could be the opportunity we need to figure out what we really want. Where we're going."
"We know where we're going. Or I thought I did." One rung, one step at a time. Never look down, never look back. "I thought we were getting there together."
"We are together. All the time. All we ever talk about is work. This is our chance to expand our horizons. Examine our priorities."
Easy for him to say. He had a job.
"Forgive me if I don't feel very high on your list of priorities at the moment." She sounded bitter. Well, she felt bitter. Twelve hours.
He examined her face. Set down his drink. "I know this is hard for you, Meg. This transition has been a strain on both of us. But I'm up to my ears right now. I can't afford to get caught up in some personal drama. I have to keep my head in the game."
She drew back, stung. "I'm not asking you to stick around and hold my hand all day. I'm just saying I could use a little emotional support."
He drew in his breath, the way he did when she was being difficult. "I understand. But you can't disappear for two weeks and then complain because I'm a little late coming home from the office."
"My mother was hit by a fucking drunk driver. She was in the hospital. I had to be there."
"Well, maybe you should think about going back to see her, then. Going home."
She stared at him in disbelief. She was home. "I just left North Carolina three days ago. I need to stay in New York." I need to fight. "I need to look for another job."
"Sure," Derek said. "But it wouldn't hurt for you to step back and get a little perspective first."
Her face felt stiff. She had to work to keep her voice even. "Are you saying you don't want me around?"
"Of course not." His breath escaped in a long-suffering sigh. "Don't you think I could use your support right now? My job's on the line, too, you know. You can't get upset because I don't have the luxury of giving you the attention you deserve."
Her jaw ached. Probably because she was clenching her teeth so hard. "Fine." She would not cling. She refused to whine. Even at sixteen, she'd had too much pride to beg. She squared her shoulders. "My mother gets out of rehab in another week. Maybe I'll go down there for a little while to help out. That would certainly provide us with perspective," Meg added, unable to keep the bitterness from creeping back into her voice.
She waited, her blood drumming in her ears, for him to ask her to reconsider. To plead with her to stay.
He smiled, obviously relieved. "That's a great idea. It will do you good to get away. I know how close you are to your family."
It went against her nature to bite her tongue. But she was no longer the impulsive, deluded adolescent she'd been in high school. She didn't need Derek to fix her problems. She didn't want his pity. She wanted him to . . . What?
Hold her. Want her, she supposed. Fight for her.
Which was ridiculous. Of course he wanted her. They'd just bought a condo together.
So she forced herself to nod and listen as he told her about his day. As if a recitation of his schedule could somehow fill the void inside her chest.
First thing in the morning she was buying a computer to check airfares to North Carolina.
The baggage carousel clacked in time to the headache pulsing behind Meg's eyeballs.
Her flight from LaGuardia had been delayed forty-seven minutes, making her miss her connection, stranding her in Charlotte for almost two hours.
She stood in the Jacksonville baggage claim, watching the same damn six suitcases sidle through the rubber curtain and circle the conveyor belt. Clack, clack, clack.
None of them was hers.
She adjusted her stance, arches aching in her three-inch heels, and dug for her new phone. With one eye on the moving belt, she checked the display screen.
Her stomach dropped. Maybe Matt was on his way. And maybe her brother hadn't gotten her text explaining she was late. But then wouldn't he be here, waiting for her? Wouldn't he have called?
Unless he hadn't registered the change in her phone number. Her coveted 917 number, the original cell phone code for Manhattan, was gone forever. She hadn't confided her firing to her family yet. It was too recent. Too raw. Maybe her brother was still leaving messages on her defunct office voice mail.
She winced. If Matt didn't turn up, if he didn't call back soon, she'd have to rent a car to drive the hour and a half from the airport to Dare Island.
The carousel wheezed. Bags and machinery thumped. The passengers around her pressed forward as the first bags rattled into sight and toppled onto the belt. A young mother in jeans and flip-flops retrieved an infant seat. A Marine hoisted his duffel bag. A sleek red Tumi suitcase slid through the curtain, looking as out of place in this one-runway town as Meg felt.
Meg stooped for her bag. Only to be shouldered easily aside by a large, warm, male someone at her back.
A long arm reached around her. A strong hand - tanned, long fingered - grasped the handle of her suitcase.
She recognized his hand before she saw his face.
Knew his voice in the pit of her stomach, in the tell-tale leap of her stupid heart, before she registered his words.
"I've got this," Sam Grady said and plucked her bag from the belt.