Authors: Mariah Stewart
Tags: #Retail Industry, #Smitten, #Racing, #Sports Industry, #TV Industry
* * *
he old man leaned back in the soft leather chair and stretched his stiff right leg into the void under the long walnut conference table that ran along one side of his spacious office on the twenty-fifth floor of the building that bore his name. Outside the window a scaffold swung unsteadily as the window washers prepared to do their job. The old man turned his head, not wanting to watch. Delaney O’Connor, CEO of Connor International, had a thing about heights, and watching someone walk around on a narrow platform—that platform being suspended from who knew where, or what—was not his idea of entertainment. Turning his attention to the financial advisers who sat in the third, fourth, and fifth chairs on his left, he frowned.
“Mr. O’Connor,” a young man in a gray suit addressed him, “i
f I could just say one thing…”
“Go right ahead, son.” Delaney sank further back into his chair.
“Televised shopping is the wave of the future—”
O’Connor held up a hand to stop him at that first thought and asked, “Now, stop right there and explain to me why someone would buy things they can’t actually see in person, when they can go into a store and look things over—touch them, pick them up—before they make a purchase.”
“Because there are a lot of people who can’t get out to the store, sir. There are people who are ill or who have no transportation, people who work during the hours when most stores are open, and young mothers who can’t get out of the house w
ithout a trail of little ones…”
“What do you say, Paul?” O’Connor asked his senior adviser. “Is this a passing thing?”
“Not from all indications.” He shrugged with the air of one who had done his homework on the subject. It could be a highly lucrative venture, but since it hadn’t been his idea, he wasn’t inclined to offer up too strong an endorsement.
“Humph.” O’Connor pondered this, then gestured for the young man to continue.
“There are already several shop-at-home networks, all successful. It’s a good investment, sir. The word on the street is that Valentine, who purchased the Home Marketplace last year, is in trouble.”
“How could they have gotten the financing to purchase a multimillion-dollar business a year ago if they are in trouble?”
“I’m sure that you have heard, sir, that Edward Valentine had a stroke two weeks ago.”
“I was sorry to hear that, much as I can’t stand the son of a bitch, but what makes you think his board is thinking about selling any of his holdings?”
“With Valentine incapacitated, the ‘board’ is controlled by his wife.”
Delaney O’Connor “hmmph”ed once again, this time at the thought of Edward Valentine’s wife of little more than two years. Dolly Valentine was likely to become a young widow. A very wealthy young widow. Some women just seemed to have the timing for that sort of thing.
“And you think she might be interested in selling off a company here, a company there, while waiting to see whether or not old Eddie makes it through?”
“I received a call yesterday morning, sir. There are several companies going up for sale.” The young man slid several pages of data across the expanse of the wooden table and watched as Delaney O’Connor skimmed the numbers.
“Hmm. Interesting.” Delaney swiveled his chair slightly.
“More than interesting, sir. If approached properly, this could be built into a multibillion-dollar business.”
“You think so, do you, James?” Delaney looked at this latest hire on his advisory team, and swore to himself that they got younger every year.
“Well, then, perhaps
I should give it some thought.”
Delaney stood and stretched his legs, a clear sign that the meeting was over. “Now, if you’d be kind enough to stop by at Mrs. Gilbert’
s desk and ask her to come in…”
“Yes, sir.” Having been dismissed, the young man folded his notes and filed behind the others as they left the office, young James not knowing whether or not O’Connor had really heard a damned thing he’d said.
“Would you like your lunch now?” Pauline Gilbert stole a sideward glance at her boss as she entered the room and began to straighten up the conference table with practiced, efficient hands.
“In a few minutes.” He lumbered over behind his desk and leaned his left hip against the edge to take the weight off his leg, which was throbbing unmercifully at that moment, an old horseback riding injury having been aggravated these past few years by arthritis. Anyone else might have opted for knee and hip replacement, as had been suggested by his physician. But not Delaney. Totally terrified of any medical procedure that involved cutting into his flesh, he had preferred to work around the pain, which he had, over the past few years, come to look upon as an inconvenience more than anything else.
Delaney O’Connor, at seventy-something, was still a large and impressive-looking man. From his thick white hair to his polished wing tips, he wore an unmistakable air of certainty, of power. Success. Clearly, he displayed the sure figure of a man who had the world by the tail.
Pauline Gilbert knew better.
Pouring a cup of hot water for her boss’s tea gave Pauline a few seconds to observe him. Delaney was stressed, she could see that much. You didn’t work for a man for sixteen years and not know when something was wrong. He was, she knew, deeply shaken by the fax he had received late yesterday from London notifying him of his grandson’s latest car accident, in which he’d not only wrecked another of those ridiculously expensive race cars, but had managed to break one of his legs as well.
“The third car in as many years.” Pauline had shared
this bit of inside information with her widowed sister, Josephine, who lived with her. “Delaney is sponsoring him, but of course, his grandson doesn’t know it. Thinks his backer is a company that makes tires. Which it is. What he doesn’t know is that one of his grandfather’s subsidiaries bought the tire company a few years ago.”
And Pauline had shaken her head, pondering the mental faculties of anyone who would risk life and limb—not to mention a small fortune—for the pleasure and privilege of getting behind the wheel of one of those whiny little contraptions that she had seen on ESPN. Those race cars looked about as substantial as the matchbox variety, and just about as safe.
“Pauline, pour a cup for yourself and sit down.” Delaney gestured to the seating area of the office, where a sofa and two comfortable chairs were arranged in one co
He turned the television on by the remote and began to flip almost absently from one channel to the next.
Having fixed both cups, Pauline took a seat. It wasn’t unusual for her boss to invite her to sit and chat for a few minutes, or to have a cup of tea and watch the noontime news with him. She knew that despite his wealth, and his aura of assurance, he was a lonely man.
“What kind is it today?” He looked into the cup and sighed.
“Pauline, how ’bout just one cup of coffee?” He winked and gave her his biggest smile.
“The doctor said it’s bad for your heart.”
“Half a cup?” he asked hopefully.
“I’m afraid not. I’m sorry.” She looked up from her seat on the gray leather chair. They went through this same routine several times every week. “Dr. Bryson said—”
“What does he know?” Delaney grumbled.
“He knew enough to keep you alive after that last heart attack,” she reminded him.
Delaney grunted an acknowledgment and turned to another station.
“You know what they said, Delaney,” she reminded him gently.
“Right. No excitement. No stress. No cigars. No coffee. Now, what the hell kind of life is that?” He banged his teacup down on the wooden tabletop and sat himself down right in the middle of the sofa. “Cigars and coffee I can control. But what is life without a little excitement every now and then? And how the hell do you eliminate stress?”
Having had the same conversation with her boss on countless occasions, Pauline merely sipped at her tea and watched the channels change on the big-screen television on the opposite side of the room. He went right past CNN.
Amazingly, he stopped right at Pauline’s favorite shopping channel, where at that moment a young dark-haired woman was displaying a wide gold bracelet.
“Pretty girl,” he said absently.
“Zoey Enright.” Pauline nodded, then added, “My sister and I watch at night sometimes.”
force of that one word seemed to punch the air.
“I said, Josephine and I watch at—”
“No, the girl.” He pointed to the screen. “The
Delaney sat mesmerized, staring at the monitor.
could there be in this world?
“Delia Enright, the writer, is her mother,” Pauline added.
Yup. That’s the one, all right.
He leaned forward and rested his arms on his knees, watching the pretty young face on the TV screen, trying to sort out this new information and how best to use it.
Delia Enright’s girl. After all these years. Imagine that.
Deep thoughts began to swirl around inside his head,
thoughts of Delia Enright, and her family, and the slender thread that had bound them together for so many years. Finally, a small smile began to play across his lips as he could see things falling into place. He hadn’t become one of the country’s most successful businessmen by no
t recognizing when a once-in-a-
lifetime opportunity had presented itself. Delaney had never been afraid to follow his instincts.
“I’m going to buy it,” he said aloud.
“The bracelet?” Pauline frowned. Could Delaney possibly have a lady friend that she didn’t know about?
“No. The station.” He pointed to the television. “Shop From Your Chair or whatever it’s called.”
“It’s called the Home Marketplace.” She glanced over her shoulder, wondering if perhaps he’d gone a bit daft.
One look at Delaney’s face confirmed it. He was grinning from ear to ear. He began to whistle.
may not be quite the right word.
“Pauline, get Phillip on the phone for me.”
Delaney stood in the center of the room, his hands folded across his chest, for just a brief moment not leaning on the cane to hold him up, staring at the photograph of his grandson that stood on the credenza behind his desk.
Well, now, buddy, looks like I may have finally found a way to bring you back for a while. God knows it’s time, son, I’m afraid you’ll never be whole until you’ve faced your old demons. I’ve done everything I could for you over the years, but that’s one thing you’ll have to do for yourself. And the only way to do that is for you to go back to where it all began. Forgive me, son, but I really think this is for the best.
Delaney studied the face of the young man he loved so fiercely, and indulged himself for a second, long enough to think that, with any real luck, he might even be able to keep him here, to someday take over the business that Delaney had spent a lifetime building. But of course, that was Delaney’s dream, not his grandson’s.
“Phillip is out of the office, Delaney.”
“Find him, Pauline. Tell him I said I want him to buy that”—He waved his hand in the general direction of the television—“shopping thing. Lock, stock, and personnel contracts. Tell him I want it to be quick and clean and to use one of the smaller comp
anies as a front. I don’t want
anyone to know that I’m the buyer until the sale goes through and I am sitting behind the CEO’s desk. Tell him that, Pauline. Quick and clean and quiet. And tell him I said ASAP. I want to take it over ASAP.”
He grabbed his cane and headed toward the door, with as close to a bounce in his step as Pauline had seen since before his arthritis had started plaguing him about seven years ago.
“Call Jackson and tell him I’m on my way over. Tell him I need a little legal advice today.”
“Oh. And one other thing.” He poked his head back into the room. “Call Walker in London and tell him we may be looking to sell Corona Tires.”
Pauline, caught in mid-stride, stopped dead in her tracks. No—she shook her head as if to clear it
didn’t even come close.
ooking out the window of his second-floor London flat, Ben watched the cars amble slowly past, their headlights like so many flashlights just being turned on, as the dinner hour rolled near and the workday came to an end. It was cold, even for early January, and the heating system in the old building left plenty to be desired. He turned his back on the dying day, thinking how a nice fire would warm the room, and how pleasant it might be to sit in front of such warmth with a tray of dinner and a good book. Unfortunately, with both his right leg and arm in casts, laying a fire could prove to be difficult, if not impossible.
With his good left hand, he grabbed his crutch and hobbled over to the sofa, where he flopped down awkwardly and managed to maneuver his right leg onto the big dark green hassock. He shifted in his seat to find the spot most comfortable, and picked up the book that had been delivered that morning from the bookshop two blocks away.
Only Footsteps Away,
by Delia Enright.
For the third time that day, Ben flipped to the back of
the dust jacket to the color print of the author’s face. Well into her fifties by now, he guessed, Delia Enright was still one hell of a pretty lady. She had been his salvation, his and his mother’s, and he had never forgotten her. Deep inside, he had never stopped missing her and the home she had given them. But at fourteen, the trauma of losing both his mother and the only truly happy home he had ever known, had been unbearable. It had eaten a hole inside him that was so wide and so deep that he had never found a way to fill it, and so he had locked it all away, finding it much easier to push it all into the furthest co
ers of his adolescent mind and leave it all there, neatly wrapped and labeled. The night his grandfather had driven to Westboro to bring him back to Connecticut had been the last time he had seen Delia or her children or the house he had loved. Sometimes, when he had let his guard down, he longed to go back, ached to see Delia and Nick—even the faces of Nick’s sisters would have been like balm to a bu
wound. But over the years, it had seemed that the pain of his loss had become greater than the sum total of his memories, and so he had chosen simply to close the door.
The only thread to that time in his life that Ben permitted himself to hold on to was Delia’s books. Each new book, each photo on the cover, would bring back the day that Delia had first entered their lives, and just for a moment, before the memories began to throb, he would allow himself a fleeting look back.
Ben’s mother, Maureen, had been working as a private secretary for a wealthy horse breeder outside of West Chester, Pennsylvania, when her employer’s son decided he’d like to extend her private duties to include something more than dictation. Maureen had been waiting with the car packed and ready to go when Ben got home from school that day. Assuring him that his baseball glove and cards were safely tucked into the back of the old station wagon, Maureen had driven off toward parts unknown, looking for a new place to live and a new job,
with no references, no savings, nothing but an old car, a few dollars, a ten-year-old son who would have to go to school the next morning regardless of where they spent the night—and a sense of humor.
They had stopped at a country store where Maureen had bought sandwiches and drinks for their dinner, and they sat outside at a small picnic table and ate, the cool November dusk settling around them. When they finished eating, Maureen had gone back inside to buy a local paper and some ice cream for Ben. She had peered intensely over the newspaper, squinting to read the small print of the want ads in the last light of the day, trying to appear nonchalant so as to not upset him, but the tension had been alive in her face and in her eyes. Ben had peeled the paper from the Popsicle in quiet little strips, hoping not to disturb her.
A long dark green car pulled up and parked a few feet away, and a handsome woman stepped out from the driver’s side and smiled easily at him as she walked past. Her eyes had hesitated as she had glanced back a second time at Maureen, who in the fading light hunched closer to the newspaper. Ten minutes later, the woman came back out of the store, a bag of groceries under each arm. Instead of walking to the car, however, she had walked directly to their table.
“Excuse me,” she had said. “It seems you’ve bought the last of today’s paper. I was wondering if I could perhaps buy it from you when you’ve finished with it.”
Maureen had looked up into the face of the woman, who stood not five feet away, and it seemed as if in that second the two women had sized each other up.
“Actually”—Delia set one of her bags on the end of the picnic table—“the only section I really need is the want ads.”
“I’ve already finished with this page”—Maureen handed her a page from the paper—“so if what you’re looking for falls between Advertising and Bookkeeping, you just might get lucky.”
“Thank you, but I already have more
than I can
handle these days. I’m looking to hire someone to help me out, and thought perhaps I might find someone who is looking for something that would fit in with what I need.” Her mouth had turned up slightly on one side and she added, “Though someone with a little advertising as well as a little bookkeeping in their background might do quite nicely.”
“Could I ask what the job is that you’re looking to fill?” Maureen asked tentatively.
“I need a wife.” Delia smiled.
“I’m looking for someone to run my house—to run errands, drive my kids around, do the shopping, cook, pick up the dry cleaning—all those things that wives do for their hardworking husbands—so that I can work.”
“May I ask what you do?”
“I’m a writer. But I’m also a single mother with three children, and I’m finding that running a house and running with my children and trying to work seems to be a juggling act that I don’t do very well. I’m afraid I’ve put the cart before the horse, if you follow. I’ve just bought a big house that needs tons of work—don’t ask, it was exactly the house I always dreamed of owning, and it was, all things considered, a steal—and now I have to write the books that will pay for it. So I thought if perhaps I hired someone to do all those things that need to be done while I’m writing, that my home would run more smoothly, and I’d write better—not to mention faster—if I didn’t have to worry about my family and my home being neglected. My children would be happier. I’d be happier.
My editor would be happier. Th
e mortgage company will be happier.”
“How old are your children?”
“My daughters are four and seven, and I have a son who is ten.” She turned to Ben then, and said, “Probably about as old as you are, am I right?”
“I was ten last month,” Ben had told her.
“What a coincidence. So was Nicky. On the eighteenth.”
Ben had grinned. “Mine’s the seventeenth.”
“Ha! Older than Nicky by a day!”
Delia had set her second bag down on the table next to the first and turned back to Maureen. “What type of work are you looking for?”
“Actually,” Maureen had cleared her throat, “probably the same type of job you’re looking to fill.”
“Really? What a happy coincidence! Give me your number and I’ll give you a call in the morning. I’m afraid
I can’t offer you much of a salary to start. That is, if you think you’d be interested
“Yes! Yes, of course I’m interested. It’s just that, well, it would be better if I call you. I don’t have a number. I mean, I don’t know where we’ll be
could not recall ever having seen his mother so flustered.
“Are you new in the area?” Delia looked concerned, then asked gently, “Do you have a place to st
Maureen had sighed deeply, and looked up into the face of the older woman, and proceeded to tell her everything that had led them to that small picnic table near the parking lot outside Grover’s General Store in Westboro, Pennsylvania.
“Is this your car?” Delia had asked when Maureen had concluded.
Maureen, clearly fighting tears but staunchly refusing to let them fall, had nodded.
“Follow me home.” Delia lifted a bag. “It’s getting cold and dark, and I have a feeling that we have lots to talk about.” To Ben she had said, “How ’bout giving me a hand with these bags, son?”
“My name is Ben,” He told her.
“And my name is Delia. Delia Enright.”
“I’ve read four of your books,” Maureen said.
“Really.” Delia had paused, and turned back to Maureen. “Which was your favorite?”
“I liked them all, but I especially enjoyed the ones about Harvey Shellcroft, the detective.”
“My very favorite guy.” Delia had beamed.
Maureen gathered up the paper trash and discarded it
all in a large trash can at the side of the building. “Will you be doing any more books about Harvey?”
“Absolutely. I’m hoping he’ll make me famous. As a matter of fact, I’m counting on it.” Delia opened the driver’s side door of the dark green car and slung her purse across the front seat.
“By the way, Mrs. Enright,
Maureen had called over her shoulder, “my name is Maureen Pierce.”
“I’m pleased to meet you, Maureen Pierce. I have a very good feeling about you. I think we just might be able to work something out, you and I.”
“I think I might like that.”
“Then let’s go home and figure out how we might help each other.”
Over the next few years, it would have been difficult to assess who had actually been of greater service to the other. Delia had provided Maureen with a job she had loved and was perfectly suited to doing, that of running the handsome stone home Delia had recently purchased before she had become aware of just how much time and money it took to run so large a property. Maureen had tended to all those day-to-day tasks that, had Delia had to deal with them, would have distracted her from the business of writing. And in return, Delia had brought them into her home, and given them a family. It had been Ben’s first real home, and the only roots, the only sense of
that he had ever known.
For a time, Ben and Maureen had stayed in the main house, though later, as Delia’s career took off, plans were made for renovations to the old carriage house to serve as their own separate living quarters. Ben and Nick had taken an instant liking to each other, and by the end of that first week, had become close as brothers. Even Nick’s little sisters weren’t so bad. Georgia had been a somewhat shy little girl with long straight white-blond hair and a dreamy look who kept to herself a lot. Zoey, on the other hand, had been a bit of a tomboy, always struggling to keep up with her big brother and with Ben. Even now, years later, the thought of little Zoey tagging
along valiantly, no matter what the game, could bring a smile to Ben’s face. She had been such an earnest little girl, so determined to master it all. Anything the boys could do, Zoey wanted to do just as well.
Every once in a while, Ben would wonder what had become of her, and Nick, and their little sister. But then he would shake it off and force himself to concentrate on today, reminding himself that
part of his life was gone, along with his mother and the wonderful life they had had in Westboro. It had hurt too terribly to try to hold on to any piece of it, no matter how small. As a young boy, the first real security he had ever known had begun the night Delia Enright had found them, homeless and scared, in the parking lot of Grover’s General Store, and had ended when his mother found the lump in her breast that so unexpectedly changed everything forever.
It seemed that the unexpected had a way of pulling his life off course every time he had started to feel comfortable, Ben though wryly, looking down at his casted right leg. Another symbol of things taking an unexpected turn just when you thought the breaks
—no pun intended,
he winced—were going your way.
His driving had been good, those last six months. Good enough to have qualified for some big races, though maybe not good enough to have won. Still, he had done well enough to have drawn some inquiries from the big boys at Ferrari and Benetton, Arrows and McLaren. He was just beginning to think that perhaps, after all the years of test driving, of waiting his turn, he just might have a shot at joining one of the big teams.
And then he had had the misfortune to slam sideways into a wall at eighty-two miles per hour on that second hairpin turn on the forty-third lap of the Portuguese Grand Prix—the last race of the season, and maybe the last race of his career.
Ben had awakened in a hospital, weights suspended from the leg that seemed to float before him through a dense haze of medication. Fractured in three places, his right leg had been pinned and casted, as had been his
Lucky to be alive,
he recalled hearing through the fog that day, though at the time, he hadn’t been certain that he agreed. It would be at least a year, at the very minimum, before he could even attempt to race again. And that was assuming that he would find a new sponsor, after missing an entire season. Recently, he’d heard rumors that the tire company that had been his biggest sponsor was considering the sale of its British operations to a Canadian company that expressed no interest in spending money on race cars. Ben wondered just how much worse his luck could get.