Her Favorite Rival
IT WAS STILL dark when Audrey Mathews used her swipe card to enter Makers Hardware Cooperative’s headquarters on the southern outskirts of Melbourne. Her new shoes pinched her feet as she made her way to her office, but she figured the pain was worth it. The new CEO, Henry Whitman, started today, and she wanted to look sleek and professional and sharp when she met him. She wanted him to take one look at her and know she was up for anything he might throw at her—including a promotion.
Hence her best suit and new shoes and sleek updo.
Her stomach did a slow roll as she remembered the profile on Whitman she’d read over the weekend. She was a big believer in being prepared, and she’d dug up a bunch of old Business Review Weekly articles on her new boss. To an article, they described him as ruthless, hard-nosed and utterly unsentimental; a man who habitually cut companies to the bone to produce results. One article had even reported that his employees referred to him as the Executioner.
Formidable stuff. But she figured if he was so focused on results, he would appreciate someone who was goal-oriented and hardworking and ambitious.
And nervous. Don’t forget nervous.
Because even though she was prepared to do her damnedest to prove herself—including waking up at the crack of dawn to make a positive first impression—if Whitman ran true to form, there were going to be a lot of retrenchments in the next weeks and months, and there was a chance she might be one of them. Which was why she’d updated her résumé this weekend, too.
She might be an optimist, but she wasn’t stupid.
She checked her watch. One of the articles she’d read claimed Henry Whitman started work at six thirty every day, without fail. Which meant he should be arriving any second now.
She gathered an armful of papers and strode toward reception. No matter where he entered, Whitman had to pass through the foyer to get to the executive offices, and she planned on being very visible when he did so.
She felt more than a little foolish as she took up a position to the rear of the foyer. For all she knew, Henry Whitman might not even register her when he arrived. Or maybe he’d see right through her ploy and mark her down as a horrible little suck-up.
She glanced over her shoulder, wondering if she should give up on this crazy idea, go back to her desk and use her early start to put a dent in her workload instead of trying to manipulate events.
She wavered for a moment, but something inside wouldn’t let her back away from her plan to be noticed. Probably it was the same something that kept her at her desk many nights when most of her colleagues had gone home. If she had to try to distill it down to its component parts, she guessed it would be one part making up for lost time and two parts sheer grit and determination to carve out a useful, productive niche for herself in the world.
She might not be a doctor or a lawyer, but she was damned good at what she did, and that counted for something. Well, it did with her, anyway.
The sound of the door from the underground parking garage opening and closing echoed up the corridor. Lifting her chin, Audrey tightened her grip on her papers and stepped briskly into the foyer, trying to look as though she was on her way somewhere vital and important and urgent.
She pulled up short when she caught sight of the tall, broad-shouldered man striding toward her.
Not Henry Whitman, but Zach Black, fellow buyer and all-around thorn in her side. Why was she not surprised he was here ready to grease up to the new head honcho? The man practically oozed ambition; it was a miracle he hadn’t set up camp outside Whitman’s office in order to get a jump on everyone else.
She ignored the little voice that pointed out she was here to do exactly the same thing and cocked an eyebrow. There was the smallest of hitches in Zach’s stride as he saw her, then his mouth settled into the familiar, amused curve he always wore around her. As usual, he looked ridiculously, almost offensively handsome in a charcoal pinstriped suit, his pink-and-white checked shirt and pale gray tie managing to somehow straddle the fine line between professional and stylish.
“Mathews. You pulling an all-nighter or something?” he asked as he joined her.
“You read the Business Review Weekly article, didn’t you?” she guessed.
“Of course.” His dark blue eyes scanned her body. “New shoes. Nice touch.”
She fought the urge to squirm. So what if she’d put her best foot forward—literally—today of all days? It wasn’t a crime to be keen to impress your new boss.
“You had your hair cut,” she pointed out.
“It was due.”
She arched an eyebrow again. Who was he kidding? Like her, he’d clearly come prepared to smooch maximum butt this morning.
“Is he here yet?” he asked, glancing over her shoulder in the direction of the CEO’s office.
“Hmm.” He frowned and checked his watch. “Maybe he’s taking meetings off-site today.”
“Talking to some of the key suppliers.”
A lock of almost-black hair flopped over his forehead, lending his good looks a more approachable, boyish appeal. An illusion, of course. Zach Black was a shark in a suit. He’d been recruited to Makers six months ago, bringing with him a reputation as a wunderkind who’d gone to all the right schools and rocketed his way up the corporate ladder at light speed. She’d recognized him as her only real competition for the next category manager’s job that came up the moment she laid eyes on him, and time had done nothing to prove her instincts wrong.
Zach checked his watch again. “Might as well get some work done, I guess.”
She watched as he walked away, her gaze gravitating against her will to the firm muscles of his backside. She had a running bet with her friend Megan that he had his suits specially tailored to flatter his rear. That was the only explanation for how good his butt looked and why he was universally known as the Man With the Golden Ass among the women in the building.
Good thing she was more of a leg woman.
She returned to her own office, frustrated that her grand plan had gone astray—and that she wasn’t the only one who’d had the genius idea of ambushing the new CEO.
Bloody Zach Black.
It took her a moment to get past the prickliness he always seemed to inspire in her to see the humor in the situation: the two of them getting up before sunrise to race into work to impress each other. If it was anyone else, she’d be laughing with them in the staff room over a cup of terrible instant coffee.
But it wasn’t anyone else; it was Zach. It didn’t help that he was three years younger than her with many years less experience in the industry, yet thanks to a roll-call of impressive academic qualifications and a short but stellar CV, had walked into a job on the same level and was probably getting paid more than her. She knew that was the way the world worked—that women, on average, earned seventy-eight percent of what their male colleagues did in equivalent roles, and that the business community tended to value academic qualifications over working-your-way-up-the-ladder, hands-on experience—but it didn’t make it any easier to swallow.
Nor did his fancy suits and sleek European car and general air of swanky-well-groomed-well-bred-ness. The way he spoke, the way he dressed, even the car he drove seemed designed to let the world know he was that little bit better than everyone else.
Even if it was true, she didn’t need her face rubbed in it.
She also didn’t need to sit at her desk brooding over him. A few hours from now, the office would be buzzing with people who all wanted a piece of her busy schedule. In the meantime, she had a full in-tray to work her way through.
More than enough to keep her mind off her pesky colleague.
ZACH TRIED TO concentrate on the spreadsheet on his computer screen. He was developing a new store-brand power-tool range with one of Makers’s big suppliers, and the information in front of him was important. Unfortunately, all he could think about was Audrey Mathews in her navy suit and new shoes.
She’d beaten him in. If he’d taken the time to think about it, he might have guessed she would do her homework on Whitman, that she’d note the man’s six thirty start time, and that she’d be here early to impress the man, the same as him. As a general rule, though, he tried not to think about Audrey too much. Not only because he preferred to run his own race. There was something disturbingly distracting about her shiny brown hair and warm golden brown eyes.
Then there was the way she looked in her neat little suits. He shook his head and renewed his focus on his computer screen. There were too many offerings in the cordless battery range at the budget end of the market. It was crazy to waste shelf space on what was essentially the same product with some minor tweaks.…
Maybe he was being paranoid, but he got the distinct impression that he wasn’t Audrey’s favorite person in the whole wide world. Which was fine by him. He’d allocated himself two years at Makers to win a promotion to category manager. He didn’t have time for distractions.
There were ten buyers in the merchandising department, but he’d worked out early on that Audrey was the only one he needed to worry about. She was one of only a handful of female executives in the company, but she never played the gender card to get what she wanted. She was thorough, smart, calm in a crisis and determined. She also had a long history with the company and was well respected. In short, a serious contender for the next category manager opening.
Pity he was going to be the one who got it.
Registering that he was once again thinking about Audrey, he swung away from his computer. Coffee was clearly needed to jump-start his brain. He’d had to forgo his usual morning run to get in so early, so caffeine would have to act as a substitute for fresh air and endorphins.
As luck would have it, he had to pass Audrey’s office on the way to the small staff room situated between the marketing and merchandising departments. Her dark head was bent over her desk as she wrote something on a notepad. He wasn’t sure he approved of her new hairstyle. It was too severe for her round face. Made her look like a repressed librarian or school principal.
Still, there was something to be said for repressed librarians. All that pent-up passion…
As if she’d sensed his errant thoughts, Audrey glanced up from her work. She was wearing a pair of dark-framed, rectangular reading glasses, and her gaze met his briefly over the top of the frames, accentuating the schoolmarmish vibe.
She wasn’t schoolmarmish, though. He’d seen her with her friends at the office Christmas party, laughing and dancing and enjoying herself. She was fun, when she let her hair down. Fun and more than a little sexy.
Okay, definitely time for coffee.
He made a point of keeping his gaze dead ahead on the return journey and lost himself in his work once he was back at his desk. Over the next two hours, the office slowly came to life as the rest of the staff trickled in. He looked up a couple of times as people called out greetings to him, but otherwise he was undisturbed, and he managed to finalize his notes to the supplier.
As nine drew closer, a familiar tension settled into the back of his neck. He waited until nine thirty before picking up the phone. It was a Monday, after all, and he always checked in with Vera on Mondays.
“Hi, Zach,” she said when she picked up.
“Vera. How are things? Did your daughter have her baby yet?”
“She’s due next week. Although from the size of her I’m beginning to think she’s having twins.” Vera laughed, years of smoking giving the sound a husky roughness.
“This’ll be your third grandchild, right?”
“You’ve got a sharp memory.”
He did. For lots of things, good and bad.
“How’s Mum doing?” he finally asked. Might as well cut to the chase, since neither Vera nor he was under the illusion that he was calling to talk about the imminent arrival of her grandchild.
“All quiet on the western front at the moment. There might be a new boyfriend on the scene. It’s hard to tell sometimes.”
He pinched the bridge of his nose. A new boyfriend. Great. His mother had always had disastrous taste in men. “But otherwise everything is good?”
“As far as I can tell.”
“Thanks, Vera. I appreciate it.” Next time he visited his mother, he’d drop by next door, too, and give Vera a box of the Scottish shortbreads she loved and some passes for the movies. She refused to take anything more from him, even though he’d done his best to convince her otherwise over the years.
“You look after yourself, sweetheart,” she said warmly, then he was listening to the dial tone.
He couldn’t stop his mind from racing ahead to what the future would almost inevitably hold if what Vera had said was true. None of it was good. If his mother had a new boyfriend and he ran true to type, there would be hospital visits in the near future. Police visits, too. Then the inevitable binge as his mother drowned her sorrows post-breakup.
Acid burned in his belly. He’d been looking out for his mother one way or another for more than twenty years, and the cycle of ups and downs was always the same. Never-ending. Relentless. And it was always going to be that way, until the day she died.
Suddenly he felt infinitely weary. As though gravity had doubled, dragging him down. He stared at his desk blotter, lost in a world of worry.
The ping of an email arriving cut through his thoughts. He straightened, his gaze shifting to the screen.
There was work to do—there was always work to do. Reaching for his keyboard, he pushed his troubles aside and concentrated on the matter at hand.