Gillian Griffiths looked up at the knock on her office door. “Come in.”
She ran her fingers through her sun-streaked brown hair, not looking forward to what she had to say to Shelley.
Little Shelley Kramer. Her newest employee. Youngest, too. Petite, shy and almost never speaking, always looking down. But Shelley was a whiz at the computer and had quickly learned her job maintaining computer files. The other employees loved Shelley and how well she’d fit in. She’d even identified errors in two association bookkeeping reports, errors she’d shared with Gillian. Too bad the boss, Nicholas Talmadge, wasn’t as appreciative when Gillian brought them to his attention.
Shelley must have been beaten down in her previous job. But her employee file now included glowing reports from the condo association officers their property management firm handled. Gillian forced herself to smile as the young woman sidled in, her blond hair shining in the sun streaming through the window behind Gillian’s desk.
“You wanted to see me, Ms. Griffiths?” Shelley’s voice was barely above a whisper.
“Thank you for coming in. You know how pleased we’ve been with your work here, don’t you?”
Shelley nodded, her eyes downcast. “I try hard.”
“Shelley, could you look at me, please?” Gillian said kindly, although she felt like a mother in quiet reprimand mode. How could she fire Shelley without feeling heartless? “The company has made some recent personnel changes. I’m afraid we’re going to have to—”
Shelley’s small gasp interrupted Gillian’s words. Two huge tears slowly slid beneath Shelley’s lashes and wandered down to her chin, elongating there before finally dropping into space. “Fired? Like Georgia and Russ? But I just moved here.”
Gillian stood, walked around her desk and placed her hands on Shelley’s bowed shoulders. “I’m sorry, Shelley. I know how much our decision must hurt. If there was any way I could make things easier, I would. I’ve prepared a letter of recommendation for you. Feel free to make as many copies of it as you like. And I’m more than happy to speak on your behalf to any prospective employer you contact. In glowing terms.”
Shelley sat, quiet as a stone. Only the continued slide of tears down her cheeks acknowledged Gillian’s words.
She placed the letter of recommendation in front of the young woman. “Why don’t you look it over? If you prefer that I say something else, please tell me. I want to make this as easy for you as I can.” She ached for Shelley, who’d been so enthusiastic when she’d joined them only four months earlier.
The blinking light on Gillian’s phone preceded an angry buzz—Nick the buzzing bee.
She chose to ignore it.
After several minutes Shelley cleared her throat. “This … uh … this letter is so nice, Ms. Griffiths. Perfect.”
“Good. Mr. Talmadge would like you to clear out your desk as soon as possible. If you want to go home early today, I understand.”
“At least I wasn’t the first.” Shelley’s expression seemed somehow wistful when Gillian handed the young woman her severance packet.
And you won’t be the last. “You’ve been a wonderful addition to the team. If the economy weren’t so bad, I know you would have had a long-term home with us.”
Shelley nodded, her voice catching. “Can I look at all these papers tomorrow? Maybe I’ll just go home.”
Gillian returned to her desk. “Of course. You can take up any questions with Mr. Talmadge.” Nicks the coward. “Or me.”
The young woman nodded and closed the door softly, but not so quickly that her departing sob didn’t clutch at Gillian’s heart. So like me when I first started. Maybe that’s why having to let Shelley go hurt so much more than the other employees with whom she’d had similar conversations in the past several weeks. Too many times to count.
~ ~ ~
Ten minutes later Nick buzzed her again. Gillian walked down the hall and entered his office. He handed her two employee files. “Time to let them go, Gillian.”
“Why must I do this, Nick? You know I hate it.” Gillian resisted her desire to toss the employee files back in her employer’s face. Instead, she smoothed down her charcoal gray pencil skirt, determined to remain calm.
Her boss smiled when he raised his bald head enough to look her in the eye. “You do it much better than I ever could. Two of them actually thanked you last week. They hate me when I have to tell them.” His crooked little smirk rankled her. “And you’re easier to look at.”
Her son, Quinn, would say, “Told you,” if he were here. For years, he’d been saying that Nick was attracted to Gillian, one reason—the only reason?—he’d hired her. Quinn contended that Nick had a short man complex, liked women taller than he, “so he can rest his head on your boobs, Mom.” Not that she’d given him any reason to think she was attracted to him. She was a shade over five feet six, only an inch or two taller than Nick. She silently harrumphed.
If you dressed like an owner instead of someone who’d just hauled himself out of bed, she mused. The man had no style sense—no sense at all, as far as she could tell when it came to running a business. Maybe the reason they’d had so little success securing new homeowners association customers recently. For the last two years, she’d sensed that expenses were edging out income. Not like when she’d joined the company after her divorce, slightly more than twenty years before. She’d walked into the office in response to an ad her neighbor had mentioned. A secretarial spot. Now she was second-in-command. “Executive Vice President,” a fancy title Nick had bestowed on her last year in lieu of a raise, a grudging acknowledgement that she was running most day-to-day operations so Nick could while away his time on the golf course.
She glanced down at the employee files he had handed her. “Was there anything else?”
Nick leaned back in his chair and propped one down-at-the-heel loafer on the edge of the desk. “Why did you ask Taylor about the two condo associations near the lake—The Shores, and Sunrise Rays?”
“He was off the day Shelley showed me the discrepancy between their reserve funds and what I saw on the bank statements. When I checked the special assessment account, after Shelley pointed out to me that the numbers looked wrong, I—”
“You can stop worrying about that. I’m taking care of those accounts now.” His feet reconnected with the floor with a one-two thump.
“That girl probably entered things wrong. Misplaced a column or something. Don’t worry about it. As comptroller, Taylor’s in charge of the books. I’ll have him double-check the numbers.” Nick swiveled his chair in her direction, dots of perspiration gleaming above his bushy eyebrows.
“But firing good employees is so difficult. Why can’t you do it? You own the company. You should take this responsibility, explain things to them.” She left the files on his desk and prepared to leave.
“Explanations aren’t necessary.” He leaned forward and handed the files to her. “Just get rid of them.” He stood up. “I’m late for my tee time.” His expression turned icy as he edged past her. “We have to cut out the deadwood. Unless you want to be among them.”
He stalked out of the office, his words as chilling as his sidelong glance.
She picked up the files, returned to her office and shut the door. Her hanging plants formed a green background along the side wall, enabling her to soak up the sun from the window, providing the illusion that she was working in a garden whenever she entered the small space she’d made her own.
What to do now? Hiring and managing the employees was something she’d always enjoyed. But she hated having to fire someone without good reason.
Gillian picked up her blinking phone and listened to voice mail. The first message was from Lauren asking about dinner on the weekend, something she and her neighbor shared once a month. The second, from Quinn, told her that Bianca had finally agreed to move to Seattle. What was that about? Maybe her son was telling her he and Bianca had set a wedding date.
Gillian needed a break before firing the next two employees. She chose not to make eye contact as she passed by their cubicles on her way out the main door.
Across the street from her office was a pocket park tucked between the downtown Seattle high-rises. She spotted an empty bench near the bobbing daffodils, barely hearing the children’s squeals as they played on the swings. She settled herself on the bench, not caring that her skirt slid above her knees. She closed her eyes and leaned her head back, the better to feel the sun on her face, the light breeze against her cheeks. She sighed and tried to focus on the beauty of the unseasonably warm spring day, not the unpleasantness that awaited her in the office.
Several minutes later, something left a path of cool moisture across her ankle. Gillian opened her eyes and glanced down. A small dog with curly white fur gave her ankle another kiss before turning its face upward, its pink tongue lolling in a friendly canine smile.
“Adelaide!” A man’s deep voice sounded from several feet away. “There you are.”
Gillian turned slightly in her seat. A tall man. His dark hair, with streaks of silver at his temples, was tousled by the light breeze as he trotted in her direction. He reached down to retrieve the leash attached to the small dog’s collar before the animal could dash away.
“I hope she didn’t bother you,” he said after catching his breath.
“Not at all. She’s cute.” Gillian reached down to pet the dog, whose coat shone in the sun. “What is she?”
“I’m not sure. She’s my niece’s dog. I’m taking care of her while Heather is out of town. Assuming I can control her. Not lose her on walks.”
“I guess that makes Adelaide your grand dog.” Gillian stood up. “Feel free to take my spot. I was just taking a breather.” She clamped a hand over the buzzing in her jacket pocket. “Duty calls. Again.”
The man’s eyes seemed to sparkle at her from under his dark brows. “No need to go just because I’m here. You work nearby?”
Gillian pointed in the general direction of the buildings lining the street. “Talmadge Property Management.”
“What do you do?”
“Office manager. We oversee homeowners associations, mostly condos.” Sort of a glorified girl Friday, it seemed, now that Nick was asking her to do so much more than general supervision.
“It must feel good to have a job. So many people don’t these days.”
She nodded and sighed as she resumed her seat. These days, her job felt like a chore. “I suppose.” The man fumbled in his shirt pocket for sunglasses as he squinted into the sun. She detected a hint of gray stubble on his cheeks. Well-worn jeans hugged his long legs. “What about you? You’re retired?”
Tiny smile lines radiated out from the corners near his gilt-flecked gray eyes. Eyes that reflected a quiet sadness in the afternoon light. “Not really. I took the afternoon off to walk Adelaide.” He chuckled and settled the sunglasses on his nose.
She nodded. “It must be nice to have a day off in the middle of the week.”
His grin broadened. “Not something I do very often.” He reached down and brushed his hand down the dog’s back. The little creature rewarded him with a quick swipe of her tongue and a wiggling of her hindquarters. “Do you have a dog? Maybe that’s why Addie here made a beeline for you.”
The man settled onto the bench, seemingly content to remain silent. When Gillian remained where she was, he finally added, “You don’t seem all that eager to get back to work.”
I’ll never see him again, so why not share? “I have to let some people go. A chore I detest. I left the office to clear my head. But sitting here is putting off the inevitable.” She sighed heavily. “I should get it over with.”
His long fingers stroked the top of Adelaide’s head when the dog placed her front paws on the edge of the seat and rested her chin on the man’s knee. “You do have a choice, you know.”
Gillian’s gaze slid back from the little dog to the man’s angular face.
“You could tell your boss to do it. I’m Matt Gordon.”
A chortle escaped her lips. “Gillian Griffiths, and I already tried. But my sense of loyalty requires that I follow orders.” She stood up and offered her hand. “But thanks for the suggestion.”
“Pleasure.” The man rose from his place on the bench, the warmth of his hand a soothing counterpoint of heat against her inward shivers at the thought of having to fire two more people before she went home.
“Good luck with those firings.”
She bent down and gave Adelaide’s head a quick pat. “Have a nice day, you two.”
She took her time walking back to the office. Still mulling over the man’s comments, she nodded at the receptionist. A choice. If only she felt she had one.
~ ~ ~
Gillian passed the employee cubicles. Shelley was dumping items into a box on her desk. She gave Gillian a wan smile as she passed. “I changed my mind. I don’t want to wait to the end of the week, even though my severance papers say I get paid through Friday.”
“I understand.” Gillian shut her door against the small thuds sounding from Shelley’s desk and scanned the employee files.
Another buzz from her phone sounded. Speak of the devil. She picked it up. “Yes?”
“Will you come in here, Gillian?”
She entered his office. He was staring at another employee file. Her pulse thudded in her neck. Adding to the two she hadn’t yet let go?
“I thought you went to the golf course.”
“Changed my mind. You don’t need to take care of those files.”
They’re people, for heaven’s sake, not files. “Oh?”
“I’ll fire them.”
Relief flooded her. Maybe a little bird had passed on what that nice man at the park had said. “Oh, thank you, Nick. I so appreciate you doing it.”
But he didn’t meet her eyes when he replied, “Along with this one.” The name on the file was her own. “Haven’t liked your attitude lately. Always questioning my decisions …” His mouth was a thin downward leaning line. “You’re fired, too. As of now. Leave your keys on your desk on your way out.”
Shock ricocheted through her. After twenty years? She stared at Nick, but he had turned away from her, as if she no longer existed. She must be numb. She was so cold she couldn’t feel the tips of her fingers. Was her heart still beating? There it was, a kind of slow thudding sensation in her chest.
The man in the park had said she had a choice. Too bad Nick hadn’t given her one, or that she hadn’t offered to quit before he could fire her.
She returned to her office and sat down, her pulse now racing from the impact of Nick’s words, how easily he’d dismissed her. She debated going back into his office, concluded there was no point telling him he couldn’t fire her because she was quitting, and removed her plants from the hangers. An empty box near her desk, from a recent office supply delivery, came in handy when she emptied the drawers of her personal belongings. After taking the box to her car, she re-entered the building and placed her keys on her desk, as Nick had ordered. She looked around, the number of vacant cubicles seeming to mock her. An empty box in the corner of Shelley’s cubicle caught her eye, and Gillian picked it up.
Stunned at the suddenness of her dismissal, she thought, more than twenty years of work reduced to a couple of boxes. She wondered idly if Nick would miss her even one bit. She tucked her plants into the box. Without a backward glance, she left the office and drove home.
She stopped her car in the driveway and looked around. Her house had always seemed so welcoming. Today she noticed that the front porch was in need of paint. The front flower bed was overrun with weeds, a testament to how much of her time had been taken up with work, even on the weekends when her briefcase was full to overflowing with papers to review. Now she’d have time to pay attention to the house, to her lawn and the back garden. But did she want to devote herself to flowers and home repair? She sighed, hit the garage door opener and parked the car in the garage. A slow burning anger replaced her initial numbness as she brought her office plants into the house.
When her phone rang, she glanced at the name before picking up.
“Lauren, I’m so glad you called,” she said without waiting for a hello. “Want to go for a drink at Vino’s? I’m very much in the mood.”
Her best friend laughed. “It’s only Tuesday. I thought you reserved wine and cheese for Fridays.”
“I’m thinking I’d like a Harvey Wallbanger. Maybe even two or one of those new fancy drinks the bartender introduced last week. How about it?”
“Since you rarely have more than one glass of wine, something’s happened.”
Trying to sound calm, Gillian announced, “Nick Talmadge fired me. Can you believe it?” In spite of herself, her voice quavered ever so slightly.
“I’ll be right over.”
Gillian watched as Lauren pushed open the gate between their two yards and trotted across the lawn to the deck. Within minutes, the pressure she’d been feeling since Nick had fired her was released in a torrent of angry words as she related the man’s behavior and, in between gulps of air, how she’d been feeling the last few weeks when she’d had to let so many people go.
“Get your coat. Drinks with dinner. My treat. And I’ll drive.” Lauren patted Gillian on the back. “Come on. We’re going to celebrate that you’re finally free.”
“Don’t you mean unemployed?” Gillian corrected. She followed her neighbor out the door and into her car.
“You may be unemployed at the moment, but think of it as freedom. I say good riddance to that horrible man. You’ve been saying for months that he’s become really difficult to work with.” Lauren patted Gillian’s hand as they drove down the street. “Time to blow your nose, wipe your eyes and put on a happy face.”
But what was she going to do now? Twenty-plus years down the tube. Since just past her son’s fifth birthday.
When they were seated at the pub, with drinks in front of them, Lauren glanced at Gillian. “What do you want to do now? Get another job? Retire? You’ve never been one to just laze around. I can’t imagine you sitting in front of the television, looking at soaps and eating chocolate bars.”
Gillian appraised Lauren, her blond hair askew, her ample curves only partially hidden in the running sweats and plaid gardening shirt, a torn pocket on one side. It seemed to be her neighbor’s daily uniform.
“I really have no idea. After he uttered the F word, all I could think about was getting out of there, not spending another minute in the office. I’ve fired people when it was for cause, and I was okay with that. But this year? Each one has been more difficult than the last. Nick wanted me to fire three more people today. While I was getting some fresh air, I realized he’s never thought of me as a partner, even after he gave me that fancy title, told me he couldn’t run the place without me. Quinn’s right. I was just one more employee for Nick to push around. I think he took special pleasure in giving me the boot.”
Lauren smiled, sympathy seeming to ooze from every pore. “Then it’s time for you to take stock.” She sipped her wine and stabbed at another piece of calamari. “You’re good-looking, smart. Why don’t you take a vacation before looking for another job? Go someplace exotic, do something you’ve always wanted to do, maybe with a bunch of people you haven’t met yet. You could have one of those unexpected flings Oprah’s guests always mention on her talk show. When you come back, your mind will be clear and you’ll know what you want to do.”
Gillian sipped her margarita. Not a bad idea, but she’d never been much of a joiner. “I’m not sure I’d be comfortable with a group of strangers.”
Lauren chuckled. “Sort of like my Kirk, before he died. More of a private person. But that’s exactly why you should get out of your comfort zone.” She paused, took another sip of her drink and reached for the veggie tray. “Gilly, you need an adventure!” One hand waved for the waitress.
“I know!” Lauren leaned closer to Gillian and lowered her voice, a conspiratorial gleam in her eye. “You could start with phone sex, something to get your imagination working, your heart pumping. You wouldn’t even have to leave home.” She chortled. “It might give you nice dreams, if nothing else. The next step is to meet a man, a nice man, the kind whose shoes under your bed you wouldn’t mind.”
Matt Gordon’s face flashed through her brain. The only nice man she’d met recently, but she’d probably never see him again.
“Oh, please, Lauren.” Gillian picked up her salad fork. “You’re making me blush.”
“Then join a gym. Take a spin class. Who knows? You might meet someone while you’re both sweatin’ to the oldies.”
Gillian laughed and ran a hand through her shoulder-length hairdo. “A gym class might be more my speed, but they’re expensive. And, now that I’m not working, I’ll need to watch my pennies. Who knows how long it’ll be before I find another job? You know how bad the economy is. No way I’ll ask Nick for a reference, as if he’d give me one.” And did she really want another job?
“Oh, now, Gilly. You’ve got tons of money. Didn’t you say just last month that those stocks and bonds were still growing that you inherited when your granny died? You’ve been working ever since Quinn was small and you’re thrifty. What did he say about you being fired?”
“Haven’t told him yet. You’re the only one who knows.” Her last phone call with her son had been interrupted by Bianca talking in the background.
“Hmm. Well, you’re going to have to spill the beans sooner or later.”
“When I get home.”
“What do you think he’ll say?”
“He’ll probably tell me ‘good riddance.’ He thinks Nick takes advantage, giving me more and more responsibility every year, never matching that with a real promotion. Translation, salary.” Gillian sipped her drink. “I haven’t had a raise in more than three years.”
Lauren nodded. “Good grief! No wonder Quinn’s on your case. So, tell me what’re you going to do tomorrow, now that you’re free as a bird and ready to fly.”
“At the very least, I should work in the yard. I didn’t realize until this afternoon that it’s a mess. The house could use some sprucing, too. I really should concentrate on that for a little while.” She sipped her drink and sighed. “I used to sketch. Maybe I’ll pull out my art supplies and use them again.” But where did I store them? She reached for a napkin to wipe sauce from one corner of her mouth before she grinned back at Lauren. “I could draw Nick’s face in a target and throw spit wads at him.”
Lauren nodded. “If it makes you feel any better, why don’t you tack it up on Quinn’s dart board in the basement? Then you could really skewer him.” Lauren added, “Not a bad idea about sketching. If I recall, you were really good at it. Maybe you could set up a studio. Make money selling your work. Set your own hours, create your own business.” Lauren signaled the waitress for another refill of Gillian’s margarita. “You need to do something for you. Not that scoring a bulls eye or two on Nick Talmadge’s nose won’t feel good.”
Lauren directed her gaze on Gillian. “You’ve focused on everyone else for entirely too long. Especially at the office. Put yourself first for a change.” She reached for a hot breadstick and slathered it with butter. “What about a bucket list? Have you got one?”
“Never thought I’d need one for at least another ten years. Maybe longer, not until I retired.” Gillian looked up with a start. “If someone asks, maybe I could say I’m retired. It sounds so much better than that I was fired.” She speared a baby tomato.
“That’s the spirit.”
Gillian stared at her salad for a long minute. “I guess it couldn’t hurt if I put a bucket list together. It doesn’t mean I would ever do any of the items I come up with.”
“But you could if you wanted. It’ll give you something to focus on besides that creep Talmadge. Be sure to put ‘meet a new man’ on the list.”
~ ~ ~
When Gillian returned home, she spied her laptop, still open on her kitchen counter. What would she do tomorrow, the first day of the rest of her life? She sighed, opened a new file and stared at the screen for several minutes before typing “Bucket List.” When nothing came to mind, she saved the file, and was about to close the laptop lid, ennui weighing on her, when she thought of those sites where men met women and women met men. Did she dare to put up a picture or two? What did she want? She chuckled to herself and went upstairs to bed. I’ll be a latter-day Scarlett O’Hara and worry about that tomorrow.