Spring brought the workers out of offices and cubicles into the courtyard, circling the fountain that splashed water into a tiled pool. Nearby palm trees swayed in the mild breeze. It could be a park, but it was far from that. Faces were sculpted into hard lines of determination, mirrored on her own. Minds whirled behind foreheads filled with technical problems, market strategy, customer demands, and never far behind — career goals.
Men wore flat walking shoes, khakis or blue jeans, dress shirts, and jackets. Some engineers favored jeans and athletic shoes, or long shorts and sandals on a day like this. The women were like women everywhere — highly engaged with their appearance. Laura went further, as she did with most things — she was obsessed with her appearance, with all appearances, but not in the way the other women were.
Two thousand-fourteen and still most women dressed as if they were going out to lunch or a nightclub. Hair styled, dark lines and colored shadows made eyes pop, cheeks retract, and lips pout more than they would on their own. All her life she’d wanted to be counted as serious, her interests as significant as her brother’s, as all guys. But she was not. Horseback riding was a good activity for a girl, running was not, because you didn’t want to be faster than your brother. It would make him feel bad.
A level playing field was a joke. It made her want to trip a co-worker and watch him fall into the fountain. Of course, she dressed nicely. It was required for executive management, which was exactly where she belonged. Her career was behind schedule and she was desperate to make the next move up. Clothing should be the last thing on her mind. She was headed to meet with the sales director for the East Bay. She needed to be thinking about her strategy for getting him to focus on giving her product line the attention he gave to the latest and greatest. When revenue increased, management would be impressed with her initiative.
She neared the circular area around the fountain, the hub of four pathways leading to the main building, the company gym, the cafeteria, and the product development buildings. Approaching from the direction of the lobby was her boss’s boss. Hank wore a white shirt and suit without a tie. Walking next to him was a woman whose high heels made her almost as tall as Hank. She had long, wild red hair and was dressed in a somewhat flimsy navy blue blouse partially covered by a jacket of the same color, paired with a matching skirt that whipped around her bare legs in the breeze. She did nothing to try to keep it in place.
Hank stopped near the edge of the fountain. “Laura, let me introduce you to my new admin — Vanessa Hillman.”
Laura extended her hand. “Good to meet you.”
Vanessa glanced at Laura’s outstretched hand. She pushed her hair off her face, then slowly extended her own hand. Laura grasped the woman’s hand. It was soft, but her grip surprisingly firm . . . for a moment. Vanessa relaxed her fingers and let them settle into Laura’s palm until they felt like over-cooked asparagus. Laura started to pull away, but despite the limp form of the girl’s bones, her grip remained solid. Laura twisted her hand and managed to extract herself. The girl smiled and said hello in a soft voice. Laura glanced at Hank. His face was serene, oblivious to the chilling handshake.
“I’m walking her around to meet everyone. Monday she’ll be at orientation and then hit the ground running on Tuesday.”
“Welcome to Avalon,” Laura said. “Where did you work before this?”
Vanessa lowered her eyes, dark with make-up that would be appropriate for a date, but somehow managed to avoid looking cheap and overdone. “Nordstrom.”
Hank smiled. He glanced past Laura’s shoulder and nodded at a cluster of software engineers headed toward the volleyball pit. The breeze shifted as they passed by and Laura smelled sunscreen and a hint of coffee before the breeze died. The moment it stopped, the fountain settled down and the girl’s flyaway skirt drifted into place over her legs.
“Wow, that breeze was nice,” Vanessa said. “It’s hot when it goes away.” She shrugged her jacket off one shoulder. It pulled the blouse with it, so the wide neckline hung over her upper arm, exposing her bra strap. She wriggled. Hank turned and lifted the jacket on the opposite side, sliding if off her other arm. He handed it to her. “Thanks.” She smiled and looped the jacket over her forearm. The neckline of her blouse was still out of place. Laura waited for her to fix it.
“I’m looking forward to working with you,” Vanessa said. She turned to Hank as if waiting for him to lead her away.
He took the cue and they stepped around Laura and continued to the building where his office was located. When they reached the doors, Hank held his badge near the electric eye and Vanessa shifted her blouse back where it belonged.
Laura sat down on the edge of the fountain. The breeze returned, gusting through the courtyard. The water from the fountain sprayed at her back. She stood quickly. Continuing toward the main building, all she could think about were too-short skirts and cosmetics — tools for gaining a competitive advantage.
Love her or hate her, you can read more about Laura’s fanatical dedication to her career and her next step up the corporate ladder in the novel, GETTING AHEAD, where an administrative assistant who behaves like a femme fatale and a sinister jogger at the track where she runs threaten to derail her.
Office politics, unconsummated desire, and murder send Laura and Vanessa down unexpected paths that dramatically alter their lives.