Monday, February 13, 2006
EXCERPT - A Moment On The Lips
Phyllis Bourne Williams
“It’s an offer you can’t refuse,” he said into the speakerphone.
Grant Price leaned back in the leather office chair and locked his hands behind his head. His persistence was about to pay off.
It had taken him weeks to track down elusive, Wall Street legend Melody Mason to a nowhere town in Tennessee. Then he’d pulled together the ultimate compensation package to lure her to his family’s Boston-based investment firm, including a signing bonus, penthouse condo, and company jet privileges.
Grant grinned as he propped his Bally-clad feet upon his polished oak desk. She’d go for it all right. He and Melody were two of a kind. Although he hadn’t seen her since college, he knew when it came to business she was like him – competitive and downright ruthless.
“So what do you say?”
Grant jerked ramrod straight in his chair and planted his feet firmly on the plush carpeting. He took the phone off speaker and snatched up the receiver.
“I said no.”
Blindsided by her casual dismissal, Grant scrambled to recover. “If there’s something about the package that’s lacking, I’m sure we can negotiate and come to terms.”
“That won’t be necessary.”
“Is this about what happened between us in college? Because if it is…”
She interrupted before he could finish. “I assure you it isn’t.”
Grant didn’t think so. Melody was too shrewd to allow personal feelings to interfere with good business. Still he had to be certain she wasn’t nursing an old grudge.
“Offers like this don’t come along everyday. Perhaps you should take a few days to mull it over.”
“There’s nothing to think about. My answer is no.”
A click sounded in Grant’s ear and he glared at the phone in disbelief. “What the?” She’d actually turned him down. In fact, she’d barely heard him out.
He was still staring dumbfounded at the telephone when his father knocked on his slightly opened office door. The older man smiled broadly.
“Is it time to uncork the champagne?”
Grant looked up at the patriarch, who led their family as well as the country’s largest African-American owned mutual fund firm. Like his son, John Price stood over six feet tall. At sixty-nine years old, deep lines etched his brown skin and gray battled to overtake the black in his hair.
Still his father’s business acumen was as keen as it had been thirty years ago when Price Investments began operations. Through hard work and sheer determination his father had turned the firm into an industry leader. Now millions of small investors entrusted everything from their children’s college funds to their retirement to Price Funds.
John Price had dedicated his life to the company. Grant knew his father expected nothing less than the same devotion from him.
“Well?” The elder Price asked in the booming voice known to make grown men cower.
“She rejected our offer.” The knots in Grant’s stomach constricted as he watched displeasure replace his father’s victorious grin. He hated disappointing the old man.
John Price seated himself in a chair on the other side of Grant’s desk and sighed heavily. “What happened?”
“I wish I knew.” Grant reached into his top desk drawer and pulled out a bottle of aspirin. Shaking the last two out of a bottle, he gulped them down dry.
“Maybe her hands are tied by a noncompete clause in her old contract.”
Grant shook his head. “It expired six months ago.”
“She knows she’s a hot property. Maybe she’s holding out for a better deal?”
“No doubt she’s had plenty to sift through,” Grant said, tapping the eraser end of his pencil against his desk. The tempo kept time with the pounding in his skull. “There was something about the way she sounded on the phone. I can’t put my finger on it.”
He reviewed the situation aloud, to see if his father could detect anything he might have overlooked. “Okay, so we know she abruptly resigned from her job last year and dropped out of sight. But, why?”
John Price propped his elbows on Grant’s desk, tenting his fingertips. “Nobody knows, but according to the grapevine, she took a leave of absence and a few weeks later turned in her resignation. I heard her former company tried everything in their power to keep her.”
“It doesn’t make sense. She’s at the top of her game, and she turns her back on a tremendously successful career. For what?”
“You were friends in college. What do you think?”
“Well, we weren’t exactly friends?”
His father eyed him sternly. “Don’t tell me this deal got screwed up over some juvenile love affair?”
“Nothing like that.” Grant couldn’t help chuckling. He could call what went on between Melody and him a lot of things, but a romance wasn’t one of them. The idea of him and the serious bookworm he remembered was ridiculous. “The only thing between us was a rivalry.”
The expectant look on his father’s face indicated he required more of an explanation.
Grant pushed away from his desk and began pacing around his office as he continued. “From freshman year until the day we graduated, Melody and I were locked in a fierce battle of one-upmanship. We competed against each other for awards, honors. Everything.”
“Wait a minute. Is she the same girl who beat you out for student government president and a space on your school’s brain bowl team?”
Grant stopped mid-pace and frowned at his father’s selective recollection of events. “I did happen to best her once in a while, you know. I snagged the internship with the Federal Reserve Bank and graduated with a higher GPA too.”
“No need to get defensive, son. All I’m asking is are sure she isn’t holding the past against you?”
“She says she isn’t.”
Grant glanced down at the half dozen financial magazines scattered across his desk. Melody stared back at him from the covers. The photos were nearly identical. In each one she wore a stiff designer suit and a crisp, white shirt. Her black, bone-straight hair was smoothed back from her heart-shaped face into a knot at the nape of her neck. Everything from her humorless amber eyes to the slash of red on her unsmiling lips was all business.
Though she’d apparently given up the thick spectacles, she looked as uptight now as she did back when they were students at Howard University.
For a fleeting moment, he wondered if she ever threw her head back and really laughed, allowing her raven mane to tumble down onto her honey-brown shoulders. He imagined those serious golden eyes of hers sparkling with passion, then quickly banished the thought. It didn’t matter. He needed her in his boardroom, not his bedroom.
Grant picked up an old issue of Black Enterprise and examined her image closely. “What’s your deal, Melody?”
His father cleared his throat. “More importantly, what are you going to do to rectify the situation? I don’t have to remind you that your Miss Mason would have brought countless new investors and millions of dollars to the firm on her name alone.”
Grant’s first instinct was to tell his father Melody was not his Miss Mason, but he knew his father well enough to know once he had an idea stuck in his mind there was no changing it. “I’m well aware of it.”
Melody’s track record wasn’t something of which he needed to be reminded. In their business, it was legend. Despite the ups and downs of the stock market, the mutual fund Melody had managed for her former firm continuously beat the S&P 500. A savvy investor who had stashed ten thousand dollars in it a decade ago would now be a millionaire.
“Well, then you’re also aware that I was counting on you to come through. I don’t want to turn on The Bloomberg Report and hear about her going to Vanguard or Fidelity.”
The elder Price rose from his chair. “In a few months, I’ll be seventy.”
Grant nodded. According the company by-laws, his father’s retirement was mandatory the day he turned seventy-years-old.
“I have to know the son I choose to succeed me can handle the job.” John Price leveled a stare at Grant. “Your failure in this matter will definitely factor into my decision.”
Subtlety certainly wasn’t his old man’s forte, Grant thought. The presidency of Price Investments was a carrot his father had dangled in front of his boys since they were youngsters. And like a horse with blinders on he’d always chased it.
Grant had given up his own dreams for the promise of running Price Investments. It was too late to turn back now. Like it or not, the company was both his destiny and his duty.
He held up his hand. “Wait, Dad,” he said. “I’m not ready to give up just yet.”
“What’s your next move?”
“Put the champagne on ice, and order the nameplate for her office door. She doesn’t know it yet, but Melody Mason is coming to Boston and Price Investments.”
Melody Mason rolled her eyes heavenward and sighed.
“Another job offer?”
Hanging up the phone, she nodded at her best friend, Joyce. Ever since she’d retreated to the childhood home left to her the grandmother who had raised her, there had been a steady stream of employment opportunities. When was corporate America going to get the message? She wasn’t interested in returning to her old life.
Not now. Not ever.
Melody plopped down in the kitchen chair across the table from Joyce, and then remembered what she’d stood to do before the phone rang. “Oh, I was going to make tea.”
Her friend stopped her before she could get up. “I’ll do it. You’ve got puppets to knit.”
Melody sat while Joyce pulled a box of tea bags from the pantry and turned on the burner beneath the kettle. The usually soothing click of her bamboo knitting needles did little to quell Melody’s excitement over the blast from the past she’d just received. Grant Price. She hadn’t seen him since her undergrad graduation.
“What are you grinning about?”
“I’m not grinning.” Melody glanced up from the yellow yarn to the scrutiny of Joyce’s curious glare.
“Are you sure there wasn’t more to that call than a job offer?”
“Of course, I’m sure,” Melody replied a bit too quickly hoping Joyce didn’t detect the defensiveness in her voice or notice she’d nearly dropped a stitch.
Besides, the call was only about a job. That’s all. A job she had no intention of taking no matter who was offering it. Neither money nor a silly crush on a guy who used to be hot in college would sway her decision. She’d been blessed with a second chance, and she wouldn’t squander it. This time she’d focus on the truly important things in life.
“What kind of perks did they try to entice you with this time?” Joyce opened the cabinet door, but shut it when she saw it held skeins of red wool yarn instead of mugs. She opened another, which was stuffed with balls of cotton fleece yarn.
“I’m not sure. I wasn’t paying attention.”
Melody dropped the strand of yellow yarn and joined in orange to form the bill of the duck puppet she was making. “Try the bottom cabinet on your right.”
“I don’t get it. Every time I turn around somebody offers you a dream job with a fat salary.” Joyce retrieved two mugs, dropped in the tea bags and filled them with water. “How can you be so blasé?”
Melody broke from her knitting long enough to add a generous squirt of honey to her tea. “Easy. I’m not interested.”
She blew on the hot tea and took a tentative sip. She doubted she could make even her best friend understand why no amount of money enticed her. Some things were more important than money.
Her gaze settled on Joyce. Her extraordinarily pretty features played out on flawless dark skin. She hadn’t changed much since she’d been crowned homecoming queen over twenty years ago. She was still beautiful, and continuing to turn heads everywhere she went.
The two of them had been inseparable from the time they were little girls. Physical opposites Melody was as tall and thick as Joyce was petite and pixyish.
Joyce was the beauty, and Melody was the brain.
While being referred to as pretty or smart may have appealed to some, both had similar reactions to the labels others had thrust upon them: “It ain’t what it’s cracked up to be” they often laughed.
Joyce married immediately after high school and remained in town, while Melody went off to Howard University on a scholarship, then on to Harvard for her MBA. Through the births of Joyce’s four children and Melody’s climb up the career ladder, they had maintained their connection with frequent phone calls and e-mails.
“Aren’t you the least bit tempted?” Joyce asked.
Melody recalled Grant’s deep baritone on the phone and suppressed a shiver. If his authoritative tone was any indication, he hadn’t changed since college. He was still a man accustomed to getting whatever he wanted. Not this time.
Even if he was every bit as handsome as she remembered, not Grant, nor anyone else for that matter, could persuade her to return to the rat race. Her career had already cost her too much.
She’d spent her twenties and most of her thirties crunching numbers behind a desk. Now at thirty-nine, inching closer to forty, her chances of having a husband and family dwindled with each passing year. Her grandmother used to warn her about the consequences of making a hard bed. Now Melody had little choice but to sleep in hers. Alone.
“The only thing tempting me is this homemade coffeecake you brought over here,” she said, putting her knitting aside. “I wish you’d quit fooling around and cut me a piece.”
“Girl, I thought you’d outgrown your sweet tooth.” Joyce chuckled and passed her a plate bearing a hunk of cake, then helped herself to a significantly smaller slice.
Melody’s stomach growled in anticipation. In the year since her health scare, she’d managed to clean up her diet, stop smoking and start exercising.
However, she knew there was no way she could ever resist the temptation of sweets. They were her weakness. There wasn’t a cookie, cake or pie invented she could walk past without sampling, and she carried ten extra pounds on her size twelve frame to prove it.
Cutting into the thick, pecan laden cake with her fork, she caught a whiff of cinnamon as she put it into her mouth. She closed her eyes, taking a moment to savor the rush of sugary sensations assaulting her tongue.
“Delicious,” she declared.
“I was downtown earlier, and I drove past the old toy store building,” Joyce said.
“Don’t keep me in suspense. What did you think?”
“I barely recognized it. I swear it looks like an entirely different place.”
“That’s because it is a different place. My place.” Her place. Pride filled Melody when she thought about her new venture. She’d purchased the building that had housed the long abandoned toy store upon her return. With the help of a contractor, she’d revived the dilapidated eyesore. Now in just a few weeks, her yarn shop, The Knitty Gritty, would open for business.
“It used to be the ugliest building on the town square. Now it makes the renovated town hall look shabby.”
“I can hardly wait to open.”
“Is everything still on schedule for the grand opening?” Joyce sipped her tea and grimaced.
“I went over my checklist earlier, and so far it looks good.” Melody chewed on her bottom lip. “And you can make all the faces you want, I don’t have any coffee. Green tea is better for you anyway.”
Joyce took another sip of tea. Apparently giving up on acquiring a taste for the brew, she slid the offending cup to the center of the table. “You’re going to be a smashing success.”
Melody signed. “I want The Knitty Gritty to be more than just a yarn store. I’m hoping to create an environment for knitters to steal some time for themselves to unwind or maybe just work on their latest project.”
“Well, the word is already out. You’ve got half the women in town digging out their mother and grandmother’s old knitting needles.”
Already down to her last bite of coffeecake, she motioned for Joyce to divvy her up another slice. “So what’s going on with you? Any word on your college application?”
Melody watched her friend’s eyes cast downward and feared the worse. Devoting the past two decades to raising four children and boosting her husband’s career, Joyce had delayed pursuing her own educational goals.
“Not yet,” she replied unenthusiastically.
“Then why so glum?”
Joyce blew out a tired breath. “I don’t know. It’s been years since high school. I can’t even remember the last time I studied. Maybe I should forget the whole thing.”
Reaching across the old, but well cared for table, Melody clasped her friend’s hand. “That’s just nerves talking.”
“I hope so. Plus, to say Kevin isn’t wild about the idea is an understatement.”
Melody nodded, but kept her lips buttoned. She and Joyce were tight, but it wasn’t her place to offer marital advice. “Everything will work out,” she finally said, giving Joyce’s hand a squeeze.
“I know this sounds selfish, but I’m glad you aren’t taking those jobs. I like having you around.”
“Don’t worry. I’m not going anywhere.”
The Red Sox had dug themselves a hole not even a grand slam home run could help. Grant shut off the satellite radio in his rented Camry and hoped he’d have better luck.
Not that he’d had a choice. He couldn’t strike out with Melody again.
A year ago the woman had the financial world at her feet. What on earth made her come to this place? The town, located about a half hour from Nashville, was barely a blip on the radar.
Though she sounded firm on the phone, he was sure he could change her mind. Everyone had their price. And there wasn’t anything he wasn’t willing to pay to bring her into the firm and make his old man happy.
Grant rubbed his lower back and squirmed in the driver’s seat. The nagging ache had started up again this morning on the company jet during the flight to Nashville and hadn’t let up. His doctor had warned him repeatedly to change his lifestyle in order to reduce his stress level. No chance of that happening anytime soon.
He’d read about executives who sat around swank country clubs in tennis whites making deals over three martini lunches, but he wasn’t one of them. He reported to the office every morning at seven and rarely left before midnight. A jammed-packed schedule and fast-food meals wolfed down at his desk were all part of his business. He hadn’t taken as much as a day off in years.
Like his father and brother, Grant worked his butt off.
Besides, his stress level would drop dramatically after he convinced Melody to come to work for the firm. The sooner he returned to Boston with her, the better.
Melody felt the knitting needle slip from her hand and caught it before it hit the floor. She pushed the pig finger puppet she was knitting aside.
She gently massaged her weakened left hand with the right. Sometimes her left side seemed to have a mind of its own. She wasn’t surprised when it went out on her, however she would never get used to feeling not quite in control.
“At least your reaction time is getting better,” she muttered to herself.
A knock sounded at the front door, startling her. Although she been home for months now, she was still surprised when someone dropped by out of the blue to say hello. The friendly, small-town practice was only one of the things that had drawn her back to her hometown. She’d lived in her New York apartment for years and had never even met her neighbors.
Knowing how she loved sweets, folks often brought a homemade treat along. Her mouth watered at the possibility it was her grandmother’s best friend, Ruth, and one of her blue-ribbon winning peach cobblers.
“Coming,” she yelled in the direction of the door, which she’d left open to allow the summer breeze to drift through the screen door.
Melody took once look at the man darkening her front entrance and froze.
“What are you doing here?”
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