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Chapter One

“What the fu..?  Shit!”  Jack rifled through the binder holding the presentation he was about to make and noticed mistake after mistake.  Some were glaringly obvious, pie charts that didn’t have any explanations; others were more subtle, long columns of numbers that weren’t added correctly.  He didn’t have to check the math; he knew what the correct answer was.  He threw down the binder and picked up another to check.  It, too, contained the same mistakes, although the word ‘mistake’ was too forgiving.  This was out and out sabotage.  He quickly pulled up the power point presentation on his laptop, not even realizing that he was holding his breath until it rushed out in relief as he confirmed that his material was untouched.  What on earth had Stella been thinking?  It had taken a lot of work to create this degree of subversion.  Surely this wasn’t because he had refused to let her have the afternoon off, was it?  Thank God he had checked over the binders before handing them out to his clients!  He shook his head and pressed the auto dial on his phone.

“Jackson Rubins’ office, Stella Grant speaking.  How can I help you?”

“Well at least you had the courage to remain at your desk!”

“Jack, I’m..”

“We’ll talk later when I’m back.  Right now I want you to hustle and get the proper presentation in binders and overnighted here.  Can I at least trust you to do that much for me?”

“Yes, Jack, I’ve got them right here, all ready to go.  I’ll send them out now.  I’m, I’m sorry…”

“Not now, I’ve got some fancy footwork to do to make up for this misjudgment you’ve made.”  He snapped off his phone, quickly gathered up the offending binders he had placed around the conference table and shoved them back into his briefcase just as the business-suited clients began entering the room.  Plastering a broad smile on his face, he strode forward, hand outstretched, “Good morning gentlemen!  Mr. Hodgkins, it’s good to see you again…”

Several hours later as he sat in the cab on the way back to the airport for his flight home, still fuming with anger, his phone rang.  After checking caller ID and seeing that it was the president of the company his design division was part of, he answered, “Hey, Brad.”

“So how did it go?  Did you complete the deal?  What time frame are we looking at?  Do I need to move some other jobs around?”

“Unfortunately I wasn’t able to make a complete presentation today.  My materials were inadequate for them to make a considered decision.”

“What the hell does that mean?  You’re always over prepared.  What could you have possibly missed?”

“They were expecting all the information in hard copy so they could study it.”

“Yeah, so?  Who makes a deal without seeing the details in black and white?  Of course they were looking for hard copies!”

“I didn’t have any I could hand out.  The ones Stella made up were unacceptable.”

“How can that be?  What was wrong, some kind of typo?  Couldn’t you have just explained it?  You are too much of a perfectionist!  I can’t believe that you let a little thing like some typos endanger the whole deal!”

Jack sighed, “Stella is even more of a perfectionist than I am.  These weren’t a couple of typos, these were deliberate changes to the material.”

“Nah!  How can that be?  That girl worships the ground you walk on!  I wish my assistant were half as dedicated as yours.  And efficient!  Your division is always the first to submit the quarterly reports with everything presented perfectly with extra computer formatting to simplify the compilation with the rest of the company.  I’ve often fantasized about stealing her from you to work for me!  There’s got to be some mistake.”

“Brad, every single page had deliberate erroneous changes made.  She sabotaged the whole presentation.  The only thing that saved us was that I discovered what she had done before the clients saw them.  I had to tell them that I had forgotten to pick up the binders on my way out of the office yesterday.  When I called Stella right before the meeting, she as much as admitted what she had done and promised to overnight the correct information.  But since it’s Friday, they won’t have the weekend to study and discuss our proposal and we, or rather I, look like an incompetent boob!”

“You’re trusting that she’s going to send the correct information directly to the clients after she sent you off to make the presentation with bad information?  Is that wise?”

“I didn’t have much of a choice.  Since my story was that I had forgotten to pick them up as I left the office, I had to demonstrate that the material was prepared and waiting.  Stella said she had it ready and was sorry, so I’m trusting that her remorse will keep her from causing any more damage.”

“But Jack, you’re going to have to fire her.  How can we have someone working for us who deliberately sabotages our interactions with clients?”

“Of course I’m firing her!  I can’t ever trust her again.   She’s the last person to see every single document that leaves my office.  I’m going to meet with her tonight when I get back and send her packing.”

“I thought you weren’t landing until six thirty.”

“Yeah, so?”

“The offices will be closed.”

“I told her that we’d talk when I got back.  She’ll wait.”

“I’m sure she will, that’s one of the things I’ve always admired about her work ethic; she stays late without a complaint.  But you can’t meet with her to fire her when there is no one else around.  It’s a safety issue.”

“Safety?  I may be angry but I’m not going to hit her!”

“How about your safety?”  Brad heard Jack’s snort of denial and spoke over his objections, “Suppose she accuses you of something; says that you fired her when she didn’t welcome your sexual advances?  Suppose you lose your temper and you do hit her?  We don’t want to have to worry about being sued!  You can’t fire her in an empty office, it's just asking for trouble.  Do you want me to fire her?  I can’t stay late tonight to wait for you, but I can have her gone before you even land.  It'd just take me a minute to walk over to your office and send her packing."

"She's mine!"  Jack roared, causing the taxi driver to swerve briefly into oncoming traffic, before wrestling the car back to the proper side of the road.  Jack didn't even notice how close his outburst had come to causing an accident.  "Leave her alone, Brad!  Hands off!"

"Okay, okay, I was just trying to help you out, that's all."

Jack tiredly scrubbed his face with his free hand and sighed.  “Yeah, I know.  Sorry.  I just want to talk with her first; try to understand why she did this and make sure she hasn’t done something else that I haven’t discovered yet.”

“Well then, you need to wait until Monday during regular office hours.”  Brad said firmly.

“No!  I don’t want this hanging over my head for the whole weekend and I want to be able to correct anything else she’s done before business starts on Monday.”

Brad laughed harshly, “Jack, old friend, I’m pulling rank.  There’s a reason I’m president of this company and you’re looking at it.  You wanted to be left alone to design.  You didn’t want to be bothered with management and so you put me in charge.  Remember why you trusted me with the whole shebang in the first place and listen to me!  You can’t meet with her in an empty office and fire her.  Find another way, wait until Monday or let me do it.”

“I’m the one who is going to deal with her.  I don’t want to wait until Monday; I want it resolved now.  If your only objection is my meeting with her in an empty office, I will meet with her in public and fire her with lots of witnesses around.  Will that work for you?”  He growled.

Brad sighed, “Yeah, it’s unprofessional, but it works.  Where are you going to do it?”

“I was planning to grab dinner when I land, before heading home, so I guess I’ll have her meet me at a restaurant.”

“Well pick one you aren’t too fond of in case she makes a scene and you’re asked to never return.”

Jack groaned at the thought of a public scene.  “That’s just great.  I hadn’t thought about that; but you’re right.  I guess I’ll do it at Dempsey’s.  I’ve always felt that their cooking is too greasy, so it’s no loss if I never go back.  And it’s near the office; I can stop in after dinner and check things over to make sure everything is okay.”

“Sounds like a plan.  I’m sorry you’ve had the day from hell; do you want me to call you later?  Susie’s ballet recital is tonight so it’ll have to be late; the family is going out for ice cream afterwards.  But I can call once everyone is settled in bed.”

“Nah, it’s okay.  Enjoy your family evening.  I’ll either be up to my elbows fixing things at work or making my way through a bottle of bourbon.  I’ve never even noticed a hint of Stella being unhappy; I don’t know what went wrong.  I’ll talk to you on Monday.”

Stella bit her lower lip to keep it from trembling.  She was on the verge of tears.  How could she have been so stupid?  What had come over her to do what she had done?  Working for Jack Rubins was the best thing that had happened to her in her life and she had gone and destroyed it.  Her mother used to warn her about giving in to her temper when she was in a snit, and her mother had been right.  Oh god, her mother!  How was she going to pay for her mother’s care when she got fired?  Why hadn’t she thought before she acted?  Oh, she had thought all right, she thought about how cleverly she was doctoring the material, she had gloated as she imagined Jack’s face as he tried to explain why the numbers were wrong or what each colored sliver meant in the pie chart with no key beside it, she had even laughed when she made one pie chart all shades of grey.  She had been very satisfied when she looked at the stack of red binders she had created and then placed on the table next to the stack of blue binders that held the correct information.  All afternoon she had smirked at the thought of Jack standing in that boardroom with a very red face, red to match the color of the binders in the clients’ hands.

Of course, she hadn’t actually planned for her act of rebellion to really happen!  When she had asked Jack if she could take the afternoon off, the blue binders were already complete and waiting for him.  All her work was up to date and there was nothing but busy work for her to do while she sat at her desk in case the phone rang.  She was exhausted from staying up all night finishing her project for her other job and she really just wanted to go home, fall into bed and sleep.  Shocked that Jack had refused her simple request for no good reason, other than covering the phone that never rang, she had sought revenge.  It was surprisingly quick and easy to make the changes, print out the new pages and put together eight red binders of retribution.  All afternoon the stack of red binders had given her a little twinge of pleasure each time she glimpsed them sitting on the table next to the stack of blue binders.  Her plan was to take them apart after Jack left, recycle the papers and put the red binders back into the storeroom she shared with Marketing.  Her division used blue binders; they used red; there was no danger of anyone getting confused.

Except that Jack had apparently not noticed the color when he scooped them up on his way out of the office.  He was running late for his plane, as usual.  She had waited and waited for him to leave so she could hand him his things and see him off, like she always did, but he been delayed on a phone call.  She had been putting off visiting the ladies’ room, waiting for him to leave before she left her desk.  Finally, she couldn’t wait any longer and had decided that after Jack had been so solidly settled at his desk for forty-five minutes on a call he shouldn’t have started, surely she could dash to the ladies’ room and be back before he could possibly get everything together and leave.  But she was wrong.

Mary Stubbing in Marketing had gone into labor when her water broke; and in the confusion as she was rushing to help, Martha White had fallen and sprained her ankle badly.  Chaos had reigned in the office for quite a while.  Early on, as she worked to help the other women, Stella had looked towards Jack’s office and seen that his door was open and the light was out.  She knew that he had left and gave no further thought to the matter.  As things were finally calming down, she had looked at her watch and realized that she was going to have to run to catch her bus.  Since she had taken her purse to the ladies’ room, she hadn’t even needed to return to her desk; she simply sprinted out the door and barely managed to catch the bus as it was starting to roll away from the stop.

It wasn’t until the next morning that Stella noticed the stack of blue binders on the table next to her desk and realized what had happened.  She was agonizing over what to say as she dialed Jack’s number, hoping that she could catch him before he turned off his phone before starting his early morning presentation, when Jack’s call came through.  She had immediately dispatched the correct binders as he had asked and then settled in to wait to hear from him again.  He had said they would talk later.  She knew that he had expected the presentation to take several hours as he went through each point of the project, so she felt comforted as the hours passed.  Everything must have worked out all right.  Jack had prevented the clients from seeing the doctored information.  He hadn’t called again, so presumably the meeting hadn’t been cut short; surely that was a good thing.  However as the time stretched into the late afternoon and she still hadn’t heard from him, she knew he was deeply angry with her and avoiding having a conversation until they were face to face.  This was confirmed when she received a text message from him telling her to meet him for dinner at Dempsey’s.  She’d miss the last bus and had no money for a taxi, so she would have to walk home if Jack didn’t offer her a ride; but not showing up was not an option.  She was hoping to save her job.

Stella was waiting at the table when Jack walked into Dempsey’s, just like he knew she would be.  She was very dependably prompt, even early, for everything.  He held up a hand to forestall her from talking as soon as he sat down.  “I don’t want to hear it right now.  I want a drink and my dinner before we have this conversation.”  He turned to the hovering waiter; “I’ll have a bourbon, neat; the largest steak you have, medium rare and a salad with blue cheese dressing.”  His eyes raked Stella coldly, “What do you want?”  When she stammered about finances, he snapped, “This is the last meal you’re getting out of me, so make it a good one.”  When she shook her head miserably, he turned back to the waiter, “She’ll have the same.”  And waved the man off.  Anger radiated off Jack as he drummed his fingers on the table while they waited in silence for their drinks.  After one look at his eyes, Stella kept her head bowed.

“You’re not drinking.  What’s wrong?  Don’t like this label?”  She shook her head and made no other response.  Jack tossed back the last of his drink, waved for the waiter and reached over to take her glass.  “She’ll have a diet Pepsi.”  He ordered when the man hurried over.

“Thank you.”  She whispered as the new drink was placed in front of her.  The salads followed immediately after and they ate in silence.  Stella had barely eaten a third of the large salad when the steaks arrived.  As the waiter removed her salad plate, she reached out and touched his hand, “Please, I’d like to take the rest of this home, if I may.”

“Of course.”  The man smiled at her.  Something was obviously wrong between the two people at this table and he wanted to ease things as much as possible.

“Why bother?”  Jack shook his head, “It’s going to be wilted from the dressing, and you’ll wind up tossing it anyway.”

Biting back her retort, Stella kept quiet and lowered her eyes again.

When he had finished most of his steak and half of the second bourbon, Jack finally sighed and put his utensils down.  “So, did you sabotage anything else?  Do I need to do any more damage control?”

Stella met his eyes, clearly showing her anguish as she shook her head.  “No, nothing else.  I’m so sorry, Jack.  It wasn’t supposed to happen like it did.  I never meant for anyone to see what I had done.  I was just blowing off some steam and it went horribly wrong.”

“Just blowing off some steam!”  He hissed at her, afraid his anger would cause him to raise his voice.  “That was the biggest project I’ve worked on in my career and you decide to wreak havoc on the final presentation!  I have no idea why you turned on me like that, but I can’t ever trust you near my work again.  You’re fired.  I’ll have someone pack up your personal effects and send them to you.  I don’t want to see you near the office again.”

“Nooo!”  She wailed.  She moved her plate to the side so she could lean forward and keep her voice low.  “Jack, please!  I am so, so sorry!  It was a big, huge mistake!  I need this job.  I’ll never be able to find another in this economy, especially with no reference.  I’ll be out on the street.”

“Shall I wrap this for you, Miss?”  The waiter had swooped in when she set her plate aside.

“What?”  She asked distractedly, “Oh, yes, please.  Thank you.”  She reached out and tried to put her hands on Jack’s, but he moved them away.  “Please, Jack, I’ll do anything.  Please don’t fire me, please let me make it up to you.  It was all a giant mistake.  Please, please don’t fire me!”

He raised his eyebrow, “You don’t think you deserve to be punished for such calculatedly deleterious behavior?”

“Yes, I deserve to be punished!  Please!  Punish me, but don’t fire me!  I’ll work extra hours, I’ll work weekends, I’ll wash your car, do your laundry, do anything, just don’t fire me.  I won’t be able to find another job and I have no savings.  Please Jack, forgive me!”

“Forgive you?  I can’t ever trust you again with any of my work!”

“You’re right, I’ve destroyed your trust, but please let me work to earn it again!  I’ve been such a good employee up until now, and it was such a stupid mistake that went terribly wrong.  Please give me another chance!  Please!”

He shook his head.  “You were a good employee, probably the best I’ve ever had; but that doesn’t change the fact that you deserve to be punished and I will see that you are!”

“Can’t you please punish me some other way?  I’ll do anything to keep this job!  Please don’t fire me.”

“There is no other way!  This isn’t the last century when naughty secretaries were turned over the boss’ desk and spanked for their misdeeds!”

“I’d agree to that!”  She said quickly as he shook his head.  “Please!  I’ll sign any paper you want saying that I deserve it, that I asked for it.  Oh god, that would be the perfect solution, wouldn’t it?  I deserve to be punished; you could beat me until you aren’t angry anymore.  It would fix everything!  Please!  I promise I’ll be so good from now on, better than you can imagine.  Please, Jack, I can’t lose this job!”

“You already have.”  He answered coldly.  The waiter had returned with her bag of leftovers.  “Take your food and get out of my sight.”

Her face was white as she stood, “Jack, please.”  She whispered, “I have no other options, I’ll be out on the street if you fire me.”

He fixed her with a hard look, “Goodbye, Stella.”

She closed her eyes, gathered herself, and then with steady eyes, nodded to him and said, “Goodbye, Jack.  I am so sorry for what I have done.  Working for you has been the happiest time of my life; I never intended to do anything that would cause harm.  I hope that you will forgive me some day.”  She turned, and with her back held straight, walked out of the restaurant.

Jack watched her walk away and scrubbed his face tiredly.  What had Brad called it?  Oh yeah, his day from Hell.  Well, at least she hadn’t cried or caused a scene.  He started to take another bite of his steak and then pushed it away, his stomach rebelling against more food.  Instead he reached for his glass, bourbon was the answer.

“I will not cry, I will not cry, I will not cry.”  Stella chanted to herself as she marched along the sidewalk.  When the sidewalk ran out and she had to walk along the edge of the street she clutched her keys tightly; arranging them to protrude between her knuckles, something she had learned from a tv show about self-defense.  Stella lived in what was termed an ‘adventurous’ neighborhood.  The rent was low and she could walk to work when she needed to save on bus fare.  She had always been careful to avoid having to walk home in the dark before, but tonight hadn’t turned out the way she had hoped.

“Hey, Baby.  Whacha doin’ in this neighborhood?  You lookin’ for a good time?”

Darn!  She was still three blocks from her apartment, too far to run.  She kept her head down and continued to walk steadily without indicating she had heard the man’s overture.

“Bitch!  I’m talkin' to you!”  A hand grabbed her arm and her momentum swung her around to face the speaker.  “That’s better.  I like to see the pretty face of a bitch when I’m talkin' to her.  And you are a pretty one.  I asked you what you’re doin’ here.  You workin’?”

Stella kept her eyes lowered, trying not to increase his hostility. “No, nothing like that.  I’m just walking home.”

“You better not be tryin’ to pick up anyone.  This is my territory and I take care of my hos.”

“No, really.”  She shook her head desperately, “I’m not trying to cause any trouble.  I’m just on my way home.”

He continued to hold her arm as he stared at her, attempting to gauge whether she was a threat or not.  Stella stood passively, knowing that if she showed fear or attempted to fight off his hand she would trigger his aggression and lose this confrontation.

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