The young, blond woman stepped off the elevator, rushed past the receptionist, and quickly headed down the hallway.
“Jennifer, Mr. Lynch is looking for you,” Doris called after her.
Jennifer didn’t stop to acknowledge the message. She didn’t have time. She could hear the warning in Doris’ tone. Mr. Lynch was looking for her, knowing she was late returning from lunch. This could very well be her last day at Weissler and Schuler.
She glanced at her watch as she threaded her way through the multitude of workstations. She moved as quickly as she could, even though she knew her efforts were probably for nothing—after all, late was late. He would assume she had done it on purpose and would make good on his threat from the previous week. Lynch had given her two weeks to change her attitude or she would be fired.
She hurried past his office door, hoping against hope that she would be able to slip by without being noticed. A sideways glance told her otherwise. She continued towards her own office, knowing he would be quick on her heels. She had struggled all morning, trying to do her work, trying to keep it together, but with the way she was feeling, her resolve was beginning to crumble. She’d only had enough time to slip off her jacket before she heard his booming voice in the hallway.
“Ms. Patterson, you of all people should not be abusing time restrictions. A one-hour lunch is a one-hour lunch, not an hour and 25 minutes,” he scolded her loud enough so everyone could hear him as he made his way down the hall toward her office.
Jennifer hung up her coat and purse on the rack behind her door and slumped in the overstuffed sofa that filled her office. She braced herself for the inevitable.
“You knew we needed to get started on the Yomahama account first thing after lunch,” he said as he entered her office and firmly shut the door. “Obviously you don’t care about this account as much as you say you do.” He was poised for her counterattack but was surprised instead to hear her soft apology.
“I’m sorry. I thought I could make it home and back again. But with the snow, and the traffic, and the way I’m . . .”
What’s the use explaining, she thought to herself. He doesn’t care. She had just given him the excuse he was looking for. She figured she would be packing up her personal items in less than an hour. She took a deep breath, her eyes focused downward. “I’m sorry. It wasn’t intentional.”
Harrison was taken aback. In the short time he’d known Jennifer, she had never apologized for her actions. Everything she did was intentionally antagonistic toward him. But somehow he sensed a difference in her mood.
“What’s wrong?” he bristled, not really wanting to hear her excuse.
She glanced up at his imposing figure but lowered her eyes to the floor as she spoke. “I tried to kick something all weekend. I guess I’m just not feeling up to par.”
He said nothing, waiting for her to make eye contact with him. She stiffened her back, sighed and said, “It won’t happen again.”
Had she brushed a tear from her cheek? Not possible, he thought to himself. Jennifer Patterson was tough as nails. She would never lower herself to tears in the workplace . . . that was unless she really was ill.
He waited again for her to look up at him, and when she did, he was met with vacant eyes, pallid skin, and beads of sweat that were starting to form on her brow. Just then, the intercom system went off. “Mr. Lynch, Mr. Yomahama is on the line. Shall I put him through to Miss Patterson’s office or your own?”
Obviously Doris knew where to find him because of the scene he had just made. He walked around to the front of Jennifer’s desk and cleared his voice before pushing the intercom button. “I’ll take it in my office, Doris. Give me a minute to get there.”
Lynch gave Jennifer one last stern look and then marched from her office, shutting her door with a little more force than necessary.
She collapsed against the cushions, her strong exterior completely dissolving. She had done everything she could to hold back her tears in his presence, but his quick exit allowed her to unleash the torrent she had been suppressing.
She had never felt this horrible before in her life. She would’ve called in sick if it weren’t for the fact that she knew her job was in jeopardy. It isn’t fair, she thought to herself. I should have Lynch’s job. For the hundredth time Jennifer went over in her mind the scenario that had taken her completely by surprise.
She had been groomed for the director’s position by Meg, long before Meg left to start a family. Jennifer had put in countless hours on different accounts to make sure her and Meg’s statistics had been well researched and presented in a polished manner. She had done the bulk of Meg’s work, along with her own, as Meg progressed into her third trimester. It simply wasn’t fair!
The day corporate brought in Harrison Lynch and announced he would be the new director, instead of her, she was livid. She felt demeaned and unappreciated. Everyone in the office knew she had worked hard for the job and had deserved it. But corporate behaved in their typical chauvinistic manner and took the opportunity to replace Meg with a man instead of another woman. Testosterone was the only asset that Harrison Lynch had that she did not.
While the other women in the office were quick to overlook the injustice of the situation because of Harrison’s availability, good looks, and charismatic personality, she only saw him as a thorn in her side.
She would only be fooling herself if she said she didn’t see his appeal. He was older than she was—the classic tall, dark, and handsome type. His sparkling brown eyes and wavy brown hair gave him a boyish charm, but his stature and muscular body proved him to be anything but boyish. His enigmatic character made him the kind of man that breezed through life with ease, putting the Midas touch on everything he encountered. But the way he clashed with her, rubbing her the wrong way and always trying to put her in her place, made his good looks less appealing.
Jennifer had butt heads with Harrison ever since he had shown up. She was not afraid to speak out against his proposals or the way in which he supplied information to a client. She had caused him more than one embarrassing moment in important meetings with prospective accounts. She upstaged him with what she called “a more efficient way to gather and record information.” She didn’t think it beneath her to use her feminine mystique with a client in order to work on a case that Lynch would’ve preferred to handle by himself. Lynch had put her on the spot on more than one occasion, but somehow she always came out looking professional in front of the clients.
When she had worked with Meg, Jennifer’s desk was out front with everyone else’s. She liked it that way. She enjoyed working in an environment that buzzed with activity. But Lynch changed all that. He made it very clear that Jennifer was his assistant, and he needed her at his personal disposal. And so he had her move her things into the smaller of the two conference rooms.
Giving Jennifer her own office was not a reward but a sentence. She felt he had isolated her on purpose to break her spirit. It had taken the wind out of her sails for a short period, but she decided two could play at that game. She promptly ordered custom office furniture and personalized the space. What he had intended on being a lonely, sterile environment, she had turned into a showplace of warmth and femininity.
She had one-upped him again and gloated in the fact that he could do nothing about it. After all, he was the one that gave her her own office and the freedom to decorate it the way she wanted. The fact that she did it with pastels in a style she knew he disliked (even though she disliked it too) was icing on the cake. Harrison had declared that an office should reflect professionalism not personality and initially insisted she get rid of everything. His request was denied when Mrs. Weissler came in and admired what she had done with the old conference room. With Mrs. Weissler on her side, Jennifer had once again thwarted Lynch’s authority.
Lynch had finally had enough. He called her into his office a week earlier and lowered the boom. “I’m giving you two weeks notice.”
“You’re firing me?” Jennifer was floored. Though she knew that he disliked her as much as she disliked him, he would have to explain to corporate why he was letting such a valuable employee go.
“No, I’m not firing you . . . yet.” He was cool and calm as he sat behind his solid oak desk. “I’m giving you two weeks to change your attitude. I’m tired of the mind games, the flirting with clients, and the way you insist on making proposals before discussing them with me. Weissler and Schuler should present a united front to all our clients, not a sense of division and indecisiveness. You have two weeks to get on board, assume your position as my assistant, and change your ‘I can top that’ attitude. If you choose not to, you will give me no alternative than to let you go.”
Now, it was just a week later, and Jennifer had given Lynch the perfect opportunity to show corporate that she was not the team player that they had assumed her to be. Corporate was breathing down everyone’s neck about the Yomahama account. It meant millions to them if they could seal the deal. If they felt she hadn’t given it her all, they would allow Lynch to have his way, no questions asked.
Jennifer sobbed into the arm of the floral couch that she despised. She thought about all the ways she had tried to make work uncomfortable for Harrison Lynch but knew she had failed. On occasion, he had tried joking with her and having innocuous conversations, but she would have none of it. She wouldn’t accept the olive branch that he tried to extend to her. Now he would have the last laugh, and it would be her own fault.
The door swung open once again. Harrison was poised and ready to battle with her, only to find her hunched over, her head in her hands and tears falling onto her charcoal colored slacks.
He felt uncomfortable finding her in such a vulnerable position. The all-business exterior he had resolved to use with her now took a back seat to the compassionate Harrison that others had seen. He stood for a moment before taking a seat on the couch alongside her and waited for her to gather her composure. It took several minutes before she could speak.
“I know what you’re going to say, so I’ll save you the energy.” She rubbed at her aching brows and sniffled. “You’ll have the files for the Yomahama account on your desk by the end of the day, and I’ll clean out my things. You can do what you want with the furniture. I don’t want it.” She held her head like she was afraid it was going to snap off her neck.
Harrison just sat there, not saying a thing. Jennifer wished he would just leave. She felt defeated and humiliated. He’d gotten his way; he’d won. With the experience she’d gained at Weissler and Schuler, she’d have no problem getting a job elsewhere, so she resolved to give up without a fight. Her only desire right then was to get home before her head exploded.
It seemed like an eternity before he spoke again.
“What have you taken for it?”
“What?” She was confused. There was no smugness to his tone. In fact, if she wasn’t mistaken, he actually sounded concerned. She didn’t dare look at him. Just lifting her head would hurt too much.
“Is it a cold or the flu?”
“A cold,” she answered, wondering why he was being so nice. It was a trait she didn’t think he was capable of, at least not with her. He got up and left the room without saying another word.
She glanced at his receding steps, totally confused. She grabbed a tissue from her purse and tried to wipe away the salty tears and runny nose that was moistening her lips. She gently rolled her head back against the couch and sighed heavily, thankful for the solitude. It didn’t last long; within minutes, Harrison was back.
He sat down alongside her, causing her head to sway and a small moan to escape her lips. He handed her a glass that was fizzing, along with several pills. “Here’s something for your headache, a decongestant, and a bi-carbonate. They should do the trick.”
“No thanks,” she said through closed eyes. “I can’t take pills. They knock me out and make my head swim. Besides, I still have too much work to do. I don’t have time to pass out.”
“The way I see it, you’re already wasted. You’re no good to me like this. Take these, and in an hour you’ll feel a lot better. I guarantee it. We’ll work on the Yomahama account then.”
“I should have known you wouldn’t let me die quietly,” Jennifer retorted, looking at the pills he was still holding. “And if I don’t take your concoction?”
“Then I’ll have to assume the Yomahama account isn’t as important to you as I gave you credit for, and I’ll get Jerry to work on it with me instead.”
“Jerry!” She sat up, her head throbbing with disapproval. She slowly lowered herself back to the comfort of the couch, covering her eyes with the palms of her hands. “There’s no way I’m going to let Jerry take all my research and screw it up.”
“Okay, then. I guess you’ll have to do it my way,” he said. “Take these, dim the lights, and allow yourself some sleep. Don’t worry about watching the clock. I’ll come and get you in about an hour.”
Jennifer realized it was no longer a suggestion. Harrison put the pills in her hand and waited for her to drink them down with the bi-carbonate.
She tossed them to the back of her throat and held her breath as she drank the fizzy water. She knew she had to do it in one swig, or it would never stay down. Her shoulders shuddered in protest, and she thought she saw the hint of a smile form on Harrison’s lips. He pressed the button for the automatic shades to cover her office windows and dimmed the lights. “I’ll check on you in an hour.” With that, he closed the door and left her with her thoughts.
What just happened? she thought to herself. He had the perfect opportunity to fire me, and instead he helped me. Jennifer couldn’t concentrate on figuring out the answer to that one. Her head was throbbing so hard, it was making it impossible for her to reason.
She pulled her feet up under her and allowed her head to rest on the padded arm of the couch. An hour’s sleep, then I’ll be able to push through the rest of the day. She drifted off quickly. She was a lightweight when it came to tolerating medicine, and with the mixture she had just taken, she knew that she would finally get some rest.
Harrison walked back to his office and closed the door. He stood before the expansive window and watched the falling snow blanket the Chicago streets. Jumbled emotions crowded his mind. He was afraid that he’d allowed Jennifer’s weakened state to play on his sympathy, but it wasn’t unlike him. He really was a nice guy. It’s just that since he’d arrived at Weissler and Schuler, he and Jennifer had clashed . . . no, more like collided.
He found out soon enough that she had thought she was a lock for his job because of the work she had done with the previous director. He tried to talk to her about it and let her know he understood her disappointment. When he told her he was excited to be working with such a talented analyst, she only stiffened at his attempt at civility. Her spitefulness and malice made her look so unattractive—nothing like the vulnerable woman he had just left in the darkened office. He finally saw in her what some of the men in the office already had seen. She was a lot more appealing when she wasn’t being conniving or manipulative. With her defenses down, he actually found himself drawn to her, but he was wary that would change as soon as she had her strength back.
HARRISON HAD BEEN WORKING TIRELESSLY at his computer when he glanced at his watch. He realized it had been more than an hour since he had left Jennifer in her office. He quietly opened her door and leaned in to see how she was doing. She was curled up on the couch, her face flushed and moist. He moved to her side, leaned down, and carefully placed the back of his hand to her forehead. She was feverish. She stirred under his touch, but her eyes had a difficult time focusing. She looked at Harrison and tried to figure out why she was lying down and why he was hovering over her. She closed her eyes and vaguely remembered being late to work and taking a handful of medicine.
“What time is it?” Her voice was barely above a whisper.
“Almost 3:00 p.m.”
“Oh, my gosh.” She tried sitting up as her head spun out of control. “I’ve got to get working. We have the Yomahama meeting tomorrow. We can’t waste any more time.”
Harrison pressed his hands against her shoulders and gently pushed her back against the couch cushions. “You need to rest. Your body is obviously trying to fight something. You have a fever.”
“We don’t have time for this, Mr. Lynch.”
She again moved to a sitting position. She wiped at the perspiration on her forehead and scooped her long blonde hair up into a handful on top of her head. She started pulling at the pink cashmere sweater she was wearing, bellowing it to get some cool air up against her skin. “I feel like I’m suffocating.”
“That’s the fever.”
Before Harrison realized what she was doing, Jennifer reached for the hem of her sweater and began to pull it over her head.
He turned away and sputtered, “What are you doing?”
“If you have a fever, you’re supposed to keep at least one foot and one shoulder exposed to cool air.”
“Where did you hear that?”
“I’m not sure, but it’s worked before.”
She continued to remove her sweater. Harrison was relieved to see that she was wearing a silky, pink shell underneath the soft sweater. She pulled her black, high heeled boots from her feet and curled up into a fetal position once again.
“You look miserable; you need to go home. This is ridiculous. There’s no way you’re going to be able to get any work done under these conditions,” Harrison added as she tried to get comfortable.
“I’d be fine if my head would just stop pounding, and I wasn’t so hot.”
“Let me call you a cab. You need to go home.”
“No! I can beat this. Let me just rest a little bit longer. If I could just get rid of this headache, I know I could finish our proposal. Please give me another hour.” She was determined to finish what she had started, especially since it could quite possibly be her last account. Harrison was being uncharacteristically nice to her at the moment, but if the Yomahama meeting didn’t go well, she knew she would be the proverbial scapegoat.
Harrison stood with his arms firmly crossed against his chest and doubt in his eyes. He knew from past experience there was no sense arguing with her. Of course, there was nothing that said he was obligated to wake her up either.
“Fine, I’ll see you in about an hour.” He left her office with no intention of disturbing her again. If she had the strength to wake up, she would have to do it on her own.
Although Harrison knew he needed to spend every minute on the Yomahama proposal, he found himself thinking about Jennifer. Why hadn’t he noticed her crystal blue eyes or the delicate curve of her jaw before? Maybe because whenever he talked to her, her eyes were glaring and her jaw was set.
He wandered back into Jennifer’s office around 4:30 p.m. He watched her as she slept. Her breathing was even and her complexion no longer looked flush. His eyes followed the tip of her chin to where it rested near her exposed shoulder. He felt his thoughts wandering in a direction that was far from work related. He had always been cautious to keep his professional life separate from his personal life, but somehow seeing Jennifer in such a vulnerable state also exposed a side of her that was quite beautiful.
He left her office and drifted down the hall. People were beginning to shut down their computers and straighten up their workstations. The talk was all about the snow that had continued to fall throughout the day. The weather report was predicting another foot before morning. Harrison waved goodnight to them as they left and headed back to his office.
Doris followed him down the hall, worry etched on her kind face.
“Mr. Lynch, I’m concerned about Miss Patterson. I know she was awfully sick this morning when she came in, and she didn’t look any better when she returned from lunch. I haven’t seen her since you . . . well, since you spoke with her this afternoon.”
Harrison knew what Doris was alluding to. The way he had barked at Jennifer when she returned from lunch had obviously been heard throughout the office.
“I gave her some medicine earlier today, and it made her pretty sleepy. That’s why you haven’t seen her.”
“Will she be okay to drive herself home? The road conditions have gotten pretty bad.”
“Don’t worry, Doris, I’ll make sure she’s okay before she leaves.”
“Okay, I was just concerned. She really is a sweet girl; she just comes off a bit harsh sometimes.”
“Harsh? That’s an understatement!”
Doris just smiled. “Well, good night, Mr. Lynch.”
“Good night, Doris, and thank you for your concern.”