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Authors: Gemma Townley

Tags: #General, #Fiction, #Consulting, #Contemporary Women, #Parent and adult child, #Humorous, #Children of divorced parents, #Business intelligence, #Humorous Fiction, #Business consultants, #Business & Economics

Learning curves

BOOK: Learning curves
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To Abigail, who makes a little black suit look cool: May your holiday allowance cup runneth over

Praise for
Learning
Curves

“A quirky, fast-paced and fun romp . . .
Learning Curves
is a fun ride and you’ll chuckle all the while you’re on it.”

—Armchair Interviews

“A fascinating boardroom romance. Gemma Townley writes a strong tale.”


Affaire de Coeur
magazine

“Bouncy . . . Jennifer Bell navigates corporate and family intrigue with a mix of pluck and naïveté. . . . Charming.”


Publishers Weekly

“This potboiler with a comic edge has an interesting central conflict so realistic that it could have been ripped directly from last year’s headlines. . . . Jen is an appealing character who is sure to please readers.”


Romantic Times

“Townley shines at creating characters who are engaging and realistic. . . . Readers will be charmed . . . and intrigued by the family drama.”


Booklist

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

There are a lot of people who deserve a big thank-you for their help in getting this book started and finished. Mark, for hours (and hours) spent listening as I ummed and ahhed over the plot; my agent Dorie Simmonds for wise counsel, patience, and essential motivational pep talks; Allison Dickens, my editor, for patience (again . . . !), enthusiasm, and advice; and Maddy, for pointing out the obvious (and not so obvious) when I couldn’t see the wood for the trees. But finally, big thanks and heartfelt congratulations to the Zone 2 team—Roger, Yvonne, Robin, Ross, and Charl. Who’d have thought that going back to school could be so much fun.

PROLOGUE

My God, Jen, what the hell are you getting yourself into this time?
Jennifer Bell thought to herself as she put down the phone and looked around her kitchen, trying desperately to make sense of what she’d just agreed to, trying to make it seem less ridiculous, less terrifying.
I’m doing an MBA,
she thought, rolling her eyes in incomprehension.
I hate business. I hate Bell Consulting even more. And yet I’ve just agreed to do an MBA at Bell Consulting.
She was already queasy at the thought.

How did it happen?
she thought to herself.
Why on earth did I say yes?

Only a few minutes before, she had been watching the news. Just sitting there, minding her own business, with no thoughts of any major changes to her life. But, as she’d learned over the years, a lot could change in a few minutes. Particularly when her mother was involved.

She frowned, trying to work out if she’d been totally suckered in to this little venture or whether she’d actually been involved in the decision.
Probably the former,
she thought with a sigh, as she turned the events of the past ten minutes over in her head. . . .

“And we’ve got more news of the latest earthquake in Indonesia. More than five hundred families have lost their homes in this latest tragedy. Susan Mills reports.”

“Thanks, Sandra. Well, scientists said it would happen, but none of us expected it quite so soon after the Boxing Day Tsunami. And what is really worrying people here is that some of the houses that were built after the tsunami, specifically to withstand that sort of disturbance, have crumpled to the ground, increasing speculation that building standards were not met by some of the contractors here. There’s been talk of corruption and bribes being paid to secure contracts, but so far none of these allegations have stuck. Axiom, one of the big construction firms, is denying any involvement in shady dealings, and has issued writs against two newspapers . . .”

Okay, so she’d been watching television, getting depressed by the news, as usual. Wondering what kind of world she lived in, when tidal waves killed thousands of people one month, and a few months later they all lost their homes again? It was just too horrible.

“And we’ve got more news of the latest . . .”

She turned off the television impotently and made her way to the kitchen to pour herself a glass of wine. Not exactly helping, she’d acknowledged, but required nonetheless. She’d wanted to go to Sri Lanka when the tsunami hit, had wanted to physically help out by building houses or doing something to help the people there to rebuild their lives. Not that she knew anything about building houses—if anything, she’d probably just get in the way. But it would make her feel better. Anyway, she had a proper job now, she reminded herself, in a proper office, and while she was enjoying the security, it did mean that commuting was in and that ditching everything to fly to Sri Lanka was pretty much out. Fat lot it would have done anyway.

And that’s when the phone rang, interrupting Jen’s thoughts. She’d looked at her watch and realized that she should be ready to go out by now. She was meant to be going out with her friend Angel, and this would no doubt be her asking where she was.

Not that she felt much like partying. The news had stirred up feelings she’d been trying to ignore. Of wondering what the
point
was. Of her. Of everything. Until a year or so ago, everything had seemed pretty straightforward. She’d had a boyfriend and a purpose; she was an eco-warrior. She stood up for the little guy, for nature, for . . . for anything, really, and that had been the problem. The charity she’d worked for was full of people who were sure about what they were against—big business, most governments, consumers—but didn’t seem to know what they were for. She’d started to think that she was doing it more to prove a point than to actually achieve anything. Of course, she’d jacked it all because she suspected her boyfriend Gavin of cheating on her, but that wasn’t the real reason. The real reason was that she didn’t know why she was doing it anymore.

Although the prospect of spending a week stuck up a tree with Gavin protesting about a new road scheme was also a pretty good reason to leave, too. Maybe she was just growing up, she thought to herself sadly.

“Hi!” she said distractedly. “Look, I’m running a bit late . . .”

“Aren’t we all, darling. Aren’t we all?”

Jen started. It wasn’t Angel.

“Sorry, Mum. I thought you were someone else.”

“Sometimes I wish I was someone else,” Harriet said with a sigh.

“Are you okay?” Jen ventured, pulling up a chair and checking the clock again. Conversations with her mother were not known for their brevity.

“Oh, I’ll be all right. I assume you’ve been watching the news? All those houses destroyed. Livelihoods wrecked. It’s just too awful.”

“Yeah, I know. I just turned it off, actually.” Jen and her mother didn’t have a huge amount in common, but there was nothing like a natural disaster or perceived political lethargy to get them talking. Or rather, to get Harriet talking. Jen didn’t usually get to say much more than “I know. You’re so right.”

“Oh, darling, it’s just so terrible. And to think of all that money going to waste. All those donations sent in by those kind people, and all for nothing.”

“Not for nothing,” Jen interjected. “The houses might have been flattened, but a lot of it went on aid . . .”

“Yes, well, we’ll see about that.”

Jen rolled her eyes and thought, “Here we go.” Harriet loved nothing more than making insinuations, giving people knowing looks as if she were omnipotent, as if she knew more than what she’d heard on the radio or read in the papers. Once, when Jen had been working on a project for Greenpeace challenging an oil company in the North Sea that was dumping crude oil and killing a whole load of marine life, her mother had called her up to give her a lecture on environmental planning, based on a call-in she’d heard on Radio 5 Live. No doubt she had a theory on the Tsunami aid, too. There were plenty of stories doing the rounds about customs problems and corruption and it was exactly the sort of conspiracy theory that Harriet thrived on.

“Why,” Jen said now, after a little pause, “are you suggesting that it didn’t go on aid?”

“It might very well have gone on aid. But it’s what’s meant by
aid
that I’m worried about. Who might have got their hands into the pot before it was spent where it was needed. That’s what concerns
me.

Jen bit her lip, trying to suppress her irritation. Harriet always assumed that she was the only one who saw the seriousness of any given situation. It infuriated Jen the way her mother turned a crisis into her own little melodrama in which Harriet herself always seemed to play the leading role. But she wasn’t going to let it show, she told herself. Now was not the time to snipe.

“I’m sure it does, Mum, but I’m actually on my way out,” she said diplomatically. “Let’s just hope that some money gets through to the right people, shall we?”

“Hope?” Harriet retorted immediately, then her voice lowered. “We need more than hope,” she said darkly. “This is a very serious business, Jennifer. Very serious indeed.”

Jen sighed. It looked like she was going to be late for Angel . . . again. “Do you have any facts to go on here,” she asked carefully, “or are you just talking in general terms?”

She heard her mother give a little satisfied sigh.

“Well,” Harriet said conspiratorially, her voice betraying her excitement at finally getting to the theory she’d obviously been desperately hoping Jen would “prise” out of her. “I’m not sure I should be telling you this, but I have it on very good information that some of the construction work out there is being run by a company who secured its contracts with bribes. And as soon as the government started looking into the situation, papers started to go missing and they drew a blank. It’s completely corrupt. And I wouldn’t be surprised if it doesn’t come out soon that some companies rather close to home were involved.
Are
involved.”

Jen felt her hackles rise at this injustice, and her irritation at her mother subside. “Are you serious? That’s . . . well, it’s outrageous.”


Outrageous
doesn’t come close,” Harriet continued. “It’s a travesty. It just shouldn’t happen in this day and age . . .”

“But someone should do something.” As soon as the words left her lips, she regretted it. This is Mum, she reminded herself quickly. It might not even be true. But, then again, Harriet did have good sources. It was rare for her to get things entirely wrong; she usually just exaggerated here and there to add a bit more spice.

“Of course they should, darling, but that’s just it, isn’t it. No one has the courage to. No one who can get access to the right information is willing to get involved.”

“How do you know all this?” Jen asked suddenly, a little voice inside her reminding her that her mother could get carried away sometimes, could turn a hypothesis into fact with the mere turn of her head.

“Darling, you will have to trust me on this one,” her mother said darkly. “I know things that I simply couldn’t tell you. It wouldn’t be fair.”

“Wouldn’t be fair? To whom?”

“To you.”

Jen’s face twisted in annoyance. Why couldn’t her mother ever just come out with whatever it was she wanted to say?

“What do you mean? How would it not be fair to me?” She tried to keep the irritation out of her voice, but it wasn’t easy. This was what happened when you spent too much time with a parent, she realized. Until six months ago, she’d got on brilliantly with her mother. They’d spoken on the phone about once a fortnight or thereabouts, and had seen each other about once every two months when Jen would pop round for tea. She and Harriet had always had plenty to talk about, and just when they were beginning to irritate each other, just when their conversations were beginning to turn into arguments, it would be time for Jen to go, time for her to go up to Scotland or down to Dorset, railing against a new supermarket development or fighting for the protection of dolphins. Jen had worked for Fighting for Survival, a group known for its advocacy on behalf of lost causes, and Harriet used to love hearing Jen’s tales— and, more to the point, also used to love regaling her own colleagues with tales about her brave, committed daughter, exaggerating a bit here and embellishing a bit there.

And then everything had changed. Jen had split up with her boyfriend, Gavin, and since he was the reason she’d got involved in Fighting for Survival and was also the group’s leader, Jen had decided that perhaps she should rethink her options. Harriet had stepped in right away with an invitation to come and work for her for a bit at her consultancy firm, Green Futures.

Jen had refused at first, naturally—working for a consultancy firm hadn’t exactly been on her list of dream jobs; nor had working for her mother. But Harriet was a determined woman and she had approached Jen’s dubiousness with her usual tactics of persuasion: bombarding her with facts, making her feel guilty, and creating a situation in which, if Jen turned the job down, she would be letting down not just Harriet, but the entire planet. Green Futures, she’d pointed out, helped companies to find socially and environmentally responsible solutions, and without Jen to help them find those solutions, the companies would go back to their bad habits. Jen had known deep down that her joining Green Futures would make no difference whatsoever, since they’d gotten along fine without her for nearly fifteen years, and she had been secretly worried that her mother’s high hopes would be cruelly dashed when she discovered just how little Jen really knew about corporate behavior. She’d met Gavin at a rally she’d gone to with Angel, protesting against an oil company that just happened to be a client of her father’s. That fact alone (apart from the incidental fact that she had just been fired from her job in marketing for arguing with a prospective client during a pitch) had made joining his charity seem like the best idea in the world, particularly when it turned out he was also a great kisser. And while she’d learned a lot (her main role had been “research” because no one else in the charity seemed interested in going to a library) what she really knew about organizing protests or business ethics could pretty much be written on the back of a matchbox.

Still, it would do for the time being, she’d decided. She didn’t have any other job offers on the table, or any money in the bank, and while she may not be camping out in trees anymore, at least Green Futures had a worthwhile purpose.

Once there, she’d actually rather enjoyed settling into one spot and the luxury of having her own flat, complete with on-demand hot water. It was like “campaigninglite”—she could feel good about doing good in the world without having to wear the same pair of combat trousers every day for a week. She was wearing lipstick again and buying shoes that weren’t designed for walking through muddy fields. And the routine of going to the office and seeing the same people, developing relationships, had become quite soothing. It was a slippery slope toward complacency, but it felt quite nice slithering down it. Somehow, although she longed for something a bit more exciting, she wasn’t sure she could give up her power shower or cable television now that she’d grown so fond of them. A little bit of complacency actually felt pretty good sometimes.

“So why wouldn’t it be fair?” she demanded patiently. “Why would I care either way?”

Harriet sighed dramatically. “Darling, it’s easier for me. I’ve known your father for years. I know who he really is, but I don’t want to sully his name further for you. I know how hard it was when he deserted you.”

“Dad?” Jen asked incredulously. “Now you’ve really lost it. Oh, and by the way, he deserted
us,
not
me.
And I don’t give a shit about him. You know that.” She paused, then frowned when she was met by silence from her mother. Silence only meant one thing—Harriet was serious. Jen looked at her watch, then asked cautiously, “So you think he’s involved in this? I don’t understand. He runs a management consultancy firm.” She gave a half laugh as she said it, disguising her unease. She hated talking about her father. She generally convinced herself that she didn’t have one. Talking about him just reinforced the fact that he was alive and well and utterly uninterested in her. But suggesting that he was involved in something like this was a whole new ball game. He stood for everything she hated—big business, huge profits, slick suits and fat wallets; he had also displayed next to no interest in his only daughter. She hated him, and had no interest in him at all. But he was still her father.

BOOK: Learning curves
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