I stared out the window from my office into the dense, gray fog. I could barely see the cars crawling along Interstate 25, twenty stories below. My beloved mountains were somewhere behind the thick curtain of clouds and rain. I sighed. Rainy days and Mondays.
No time for pity parties, I had a business to launch. Turning, I walked to my desk and sat down behind it. I couldn't help but smile as I pictured myself lying naked across it, inbox and daily schedule tossed to the floor, collateral damage as Sam plundered and pillaged my ass the night before. I was actually a little sore today. He was really good at plundering. I hoped nobody looked at the carpet very closely this morning.
"Good to see the boss smiling on a rainy Monday morning," said Margie, coming through my office door, carrying a small stack of files, a notepad and pen. She looked around, taking mental stock of the room and of me. "You excited about opening day? Or did you and Sam have a little pre-event celebration last night?" I raised my eyebrows.
"I see the nice leather paper tray I bought you has some scuff marks on the side already," she said. "And this desk looks like it's been moved since yesterday afternoon."
I blushed, a habit when Margie was around. The woman had no filter, but truthfully, I didn't mind. I liked her in-your-face, take-no-prisoners repartee. I envied her confidence.
"I plead the fifth," I replied with a grin.
She laughed. "You can plead anything you want, but the evidence and that shit-eating grin would convict you in a heartbeat."
"Fine, guilty as charged. Can we move on?" I said.
She smiled. "Sure thing, boss. You have the executive staff meeting at ten. Lunch is being catered today. Todd thought you might want to say a few words to the full staff before they eat. This afternoon it's one-on-one's with Todd and the team. Oh...and Sam asked for a few minutes before your ten o'clock."
"Margie, Sam doesn't need to ask to see me. He can just come in."
"I told him that, but he insisted on following proper protocols."
I snorted. "What protocols? Whenever he wants me, just send him in."
She smiled. "You got it."
"What are you working on today?" I asked.
"Payroll setup. I'll need your signature on a pile of forms later today for the payroll service. I have everyone's I-9 and W-4. I'll have everything in files by the end of the day."
"I thought Todd and Danny were signing paychecks."
"They are, but you have to sign off on their authority to do so."
"Got it. Will the changes we talked about happen this week?"
"Yes. You're going to make several people very happy this morning," she said.
"It's our secret for now. Not a peep to Todd, okay?" She nodded.
I looked at her, seeing the shadows of dark circles under her eyes. She was tired. "How are you feeling? You up to this? I threw a lot at you this morning."
"Jack...I wouldn't be here if I couldn't do the job. I feel fine. Doesn't mean I won't have my head in a toilet by lunchtime, but it goes with the territory, I guess."
"Any more info from the doctors?"
"About the baby?"
"Just that there's one in here, cooking away," she said, rubbing her belly.
"You're due in January?"
"Yeah. It's gonna be a long winter."
"You need to tell me at any point this job becomes too much, or we need to redefine what you're doing for us - and for me."
"I can pull my weight, Jack."
"I'm sure you can."
"Damn right. I'm a woman, Jack. Women work hard, women have babies. Get over it. I think I can handle this. Todd's the one you need to watch."
"He tries to be everything to everybody. He's good at his job, and he's a great husband. But he'll need to make room to be a father, too. He might need a little help pulling it off."
"Being a father? I think he'll be a great dad," I said.
Margie grinned. "Me, too. He's already wanting to decorate the nursery, and we don't even know the sex of the baby yet. He gave me a teddy bear yesterday. It was sweet."
"Good. He's getting there. His heart's in the right place, anyway."
Her reference to decorating the nursery triggered a memory. My birth father had wanted to decorate the nursery early on, but Amanda made him wait. He died before he could get the job done.
"Margie...maybe you should let Todd go ahead and decorate. What could it hurt?"
"We haven't picked out colors or furniture or anything. There's plenty of time."
Not always, I thought, but I didn't say it out loud. "Might be something fun to do together now, since his head's in the game. Keep him focused on what's important."
She smiled. "I'll think about it. Thanks, Jack. Now you said you had something you wanted to run by me before the meeting?"
I sighed. "When Sam's in law school, I need something to do."
"Won't you be running the company from a distance?"
"Sort of. Let's face it - Todd will be running the day-to-day. I'll add my two cents in when he needs me. I'm actually thinking about going to school myself."
"Really. To do what?"
"Finance, I guess. I mean, that's what we do here, right? Do you have any idea how hard it is to sit in these meetings and not really know what they're talking about?"
"Do you really need to?"
I shrugged. "Maybe not, but I'd still feel more comfortable if I knew what in the world they were discussing, at least on a conceptual level. I can mostly follow along, but I want to know more."
She looked at me, eyes squinting. "I hear you...but I'm not buying it. You say you want to study finance, but I don't think it's rockin' your world."
I sighed again. "Is it that obvious? To be honest, no, studying finance doesn't excite me, but it's all I could think of that made sense."
Margie chewed on the end of her pen, lost in thought. Then she said, "You worked in an office before, right?"
"Yeah. I did your job. I was the office manager."
"Oh, really? Guess I know who my backup is on hangover days, then."
I chuckled. "Yeah, right. You're pregnant, remember? You don't drink anymore."
"You ever seen a woman after an all night chocolate binge? It ain't pretty."
I put my hands up in mock horror. "No, and I don't want to. Why did you ask me about my former job?"
"What was your favorite thing to do?"
"Computer stuff," I replied without hesitation. "I liked setting up the accounting system, and figuring out how it all worked. I even put in the computer network. I needed a little help, but I did most of it myself."
"So do that," said Margie.
"Do what? Set up the accounting system here? Didn't Danny just hire like six people to do that?"
She laughed. "No, Jack. Study computers at school, with Sam. I'm sure there's some kind of MBA program with a focus on information systems at his school."
"Would you look into it for me? I don't want Sam to know what I'm thinking until I'm sure it's an option."
"Of course, but can I ask why you don't want him to know?"
"Sam's wonderful, but he's funny about the money sometimes. I don't want to give him the idea I'm only going to school because he is. I mean...yeah...I sort of am, but I actually had the idea of going back to school before I ever met Sam. I just...I don't want him to think I'm spending money on a master's degree for no practical reason, just killing time waiting for him. He wouldn't like it."
"I'll start looking into it later today," she said.
"Thanks," I replied.
"When are you moving to St. Louis?"
"I'm not sure, maybe early August? That reminds me. I need to talk with Simon about finding us a place to live near campus."
"Just the two of you?"
"Uh...yeah. Who else would be living with us?"
"What about security? You've got Ben, two guys out at the house, and three others here at work."
"Ugh! I never thought of that. I'll talk with Ben, see what he thinks."
"Would he move with you guys?"
I shrugged, then looked up to see my handsome lover in the doorway.
"Can I steal the boss for a sec, Margie?" he asked, grinning.
"Yes, but he has a meeting in ten minutes, so don't make him late. And Sam, Todd asked if you would come to the executive staff meeting at ten, too."
"Oh...okay...sure," he said. Margie stepped out and Sam shut the door behind her. He walked over to me, still grinning.
"It's a big day, Jack. People are excited out there. Everything's online and humming, according to Will and Danny. Even Mason's happy today."
"And what about you, big guy? Are you happy today?" I asked, as he pulled me into his arms.
"Happier than I ever dreamed I could be, Jack."
"Mmmm...good," I mumbled into his warm chest. "That makes me happy." He held me wrapped up against his warm body, and my earlier weather-induced melancholy faded away.
Sam leaned back and looked down at me. "You're ready to do this, right?"
I shrugged. He frowned.
"What's wrong? Talk to me, Jack."
"Nothing's wrong...I guess. I don't know. I get...uneasy...when I realize I don't know how anything is done around here."
"Well...like stock trades, or...whatever it is Mason does...mergers and acquisitions. I mean, I get the gist of it, but I can't do any of it. How do I lead a team when I don't know if they're doing it right?"
"Come over here," said Sam, leading me to the black leather couch on the far wall. He held my hand and fixed his deep blue eyes on mine.
"Jack, you need to think like a coach, not a player. Up till now you were a player on the field. Now you're the guy calling the plays. It's your job to decide what the team needs to do. It's their job to know how to do it. You are the `what', they are the `how'. Got it?"
I nodded. "I'm the `what', they're the `how'."
"Good. Don't forget it. Keep it simple, and you'll stay out of your head."
Easy for him to say. "Thanks, Sam." I leaned over and kissed him. We both instantly wanted more, but it couldn't happen, so we broke it off before the fireworks started.
"I told Margie you had full access to me anytime you want," I said, leaning back into the couch.
Sam laughed. "You didn't." I nodded. "You realize what you implied?"
I grinned. "Yes...as a matter of fact, I do."
"You think she knew what you meant?"
"Probably. The woman is obsessed with my sex life," I said. "Thank God I finally have one."
Sam was still laughing as he followed me to the conference room.
We had talked about it at length, and Sam and I agreed to keep our displays of affection to a minimum in the office, so we did not hold hands walking to the conference room. Neither one of us wanted the other employees to feel uncomfortable. It was hard to keep my hands to myself, though, when I knew what was hiding underneath his new dark gray Armani suit. Sam winked at me as he joined Danny on the other side of the conference table.
Todd was standing by the credenza, pouring coffee into a huge red mug. I bent down to read out loud the words on its side. "Dad. A son's first hero. A daughter's first love." I smiled. "Let me guess - a gift from the mother-to-be?"
Todd smiled. "Yeah. We're like the cheesiest new parents ever, right?"
"I think it's awesome, man," I said, patting him on the shoulder. He shrugged and took another long swig. I'm pretty sure if you cut his veins open, they would bleed black coffee.
"You ready?" he said, looking at me over the rim of his cup.
"Alright, guys. Let's get this meeting started," shouted Todd. Conversations died down as everyone took a seat. I stood at the head of the table and looked at my team.
"Good morning," I said.
"Morning, boss," they all said in unison, and we all laughed.
"Okay guys, I don't have a lot to say. I know you're all very busy. First, thank you for the extra effort to make the move a success. And how about a big round of applause for Will and the amazing IT team!" Hands clapped loudly while Will blushed. Everyone at the table knew he had put in the most time during the move.
"Second, I want you all to know I appreciate the big risk you took to join us in this new adventure. We'll have our successes, and maybe a few failures along the way, but whatever we do, we'll do it together, right?" Every head nodded.
"And to show my appreciation, I'm giving you all a twenty-five percent raise over what your salaries were at the bank, retroactive to a month ago. You'll also see a significant bonus in your paychecks on Friday. It's my way of saying thank you in a tangible way. It won't ever be enough to pay you all back."
Shocked faces stared up at me. Only Sam knew what I had planned. Todd looked at me, stunned at first, then he nodded just once. I nodded back to him.
Danny broke the silence. "Are you fucking kidding? Jack...for real?"
"Yes, for real. This is our company, guys. We all have greater responsibilities now, and we don't have the bank as our shield. It's just us. We share in the victories, we share in the defeats. Only there won't be many of those, right?"
"Damn right," said Danny.
"We've got your back, Jack," said Will. Simon and Mason nodded.
"Does everyone have what they need?" I asked. "Do you have enough staff support? Anything critical we missed?"
"I'm good," said Mason, smiling. Sam was right, he did seem happier today. He had two research assistants on his team now. He had declined a personal assistant.
"Simon?" I asked.
"Margie's helping me move the current building management staff onto our payroll. My assistants are all set. I'm good for now." I nodded. Simon was the emotional anchor of the group. Throughout the purchase and renovation of the building, he had remained calm and steady. He was a guy you could lean on in a storm.
"Danny? You good?" I asked.
"I think so. I'll know more once the accounting staff gets settled in."
"Maybe you should hire a dozen more," said Mason, smiling.
"Bite me," said Danny with a grin. Mason chuckled. Danny had the biggest staff under his leadership of anyone on the team, but he needed them.
"Will, do you have enough IT support?" I asked.
"For now, yeah."
"Todd?" He looked up at me from behind his two stacks of folders, computer, and IPad.
"Made any progress on hiring an assistant?"
"I don't need an assistant, Jack," he said.
"Yes, you do!" came a chorus around the table. Todd sighed, giving the other guys a dirty look.
"Fine. I'll look for one this week."
"Good," I said, turning to face the team. "Unless there's anything else, let's go do some real work."
I may have imagined it, but to a man, they each looked at me a little differently as they filed out of the conference room. It was a look of approval, of appreciation. It felt good.
Sam lingered at the credenza, pouring another cup of coffee. Todd pushed back from the table and stood up.
"You surprised me, Jack, with the salary bumps."
"Are you mad?" I asked. He didn't look happy.
"No...not mad. It's a smart move, and they deserve it, though don't tell `em I said so. We talked about the bonuses, I just didn't realize you were thinking of salary increases, too. Now I have to refactor my budgets, that's all."
"Well...when you refactor your budget, be sure you add a fifty percent bump to your own salary."
"What the...! Jack, you can't be serious," said Todd.
"I am. And it's not a negotiation, Todd. You are running this company, and I did my own research. Presidents of financial management firms earn a substantially higher salary than you were being paid at the bank. It's time we rectify that."
"Jack...I don't know what to say."
"You're welcome. And Todd?" I said, putting my hand on his shoulder.
"If you don't have an assistant by Friday, you're fired."
Todd grinned. "Whatever you say, boss."
I spent the next hour reviewing payroll documents with Margie. It brought back memories of doing the weekly payroll for the little company I had once called home back in Chicago. With the new hires, more people now worked at Schaeffer & Associates than my former employer. And on a good day, I was willing to bet we could generate more income than that company did in a year. I told Margie the story of how we had to watch cash flow like a hawk, making sure we had three weeks payroll in the bank at all times.
"I don't know all the numbers, but something tells me you won't have trouble making payroll for quite a while, Jack," she said.
"That depends on just how good your husband is at keeping this place afloat," and we both laughed, knowing we were in no danger of sinking. Todd was very good at his job, and we were in more than capable hands.
When Sam and I walked into the kitchen area around noon, the staff was gathered around a long table piled with scrumptious foods. Todd was chatting with Will and the new IT guys - I still didn't know their names, but they had the look of computer jockeys. Todd saw us, and excused himself to join Sam and me.
"Good, you guys are here. We're all hungry."
"Why didn't you just eat?" I asked.
"We were waiting for the boss."
"Because, Jack, that's how it's done. You've really never been the head guy before, have you?" I shook my head, feeling like I had failed at something I had no idea even mattered. Sam's hand found the small of my back. His light touch calmed me down immediately.
"I'm sorry, Todd, I didn't realize. I hope you all haven't been waiting long."
"Not really. You want to say a few words to everyone before we get started?"
I nodded. He turned and asked for everyone's attention, then nodded to me. Sam touched my back once more and stepped away to my right, leaving me the center of attention. I took just a second or two to look at my expanded team. Twenty-something pairs of eager eyes looked back at me, waiting for me to say something. Do it afraid, Jack.
"Hi," I said. "For those I haven't had the opportunity to meet yet, I'm Jack. Welcome to Schaeffer & Associates. We're a young company...well, I guess you could call us an infant company, really." That got a few chuckles, and I relaxed a little.
"I want to thank you all for joining our team. We may be small, but we're gonna do big things together. You're learning your roles, and it will take a while to get settled in, I know. We all are, at this point, me included. The good news is we have a strong, experienced leadership team in place, and I'm confident we'll be changing the world together in no time. Now...who's famished besides me? Let's eat."
Todd motioned to a couple of young ladies near the head of the buffet table to start, and soon people were scattered in little groups of three and four, plates piled high with sandwiches, salads, and warm chocolate chip cookies. As hungry as I was, I hadn't moved to eat. I stood still, observing behaviors, memorizing faces, watching interactions. I didn't even realize I was doing it until Sam came up behind me.
"You're amazing, little man," he whispered.
"Why?" I asked softly.
"Because you don't even know their names yet, and you care. You fucking CARE, Jack. About every one of them. Look at you...it's like you're brooding over them, making sure they are fed, watered, have everything they need. You did it earlier in the boardroom with the guys. It's who you are...and it turns me on." His hand slipped down and lightly brushed my ass. I stifled a gasp, my dick swelling. I turned to face him, the rest of the room forgotten.
"I could never do this without you, Sam. You know that, right?" He looked at me, his eyes searching mine. "I'm serious. I would never have the confidence to take on this much responsibility if it wasn't for you being here with me. Thank you for loving me, and...for believing in me."
His deep blue eyes sparkled with his brilliant smile. "I do believe in you, Jack. You really are going to change the world, you know. You already have."
"How, Sam?" I asked softly, looking up at him, oblivious of the room full of eyes now watching us.
"You loved me out of a very dark place. You helped me find my heart again, and you showed me a future that is bright and full of hope and purpose. You let me be me. Hell, you demand it. And you want to be a family together. You've changed me, Jack...not just my world. You did that...just by being you."
I looked deep in his eyes, humbled by the truth in his words. "I love you, Sam."
He put a finger under my chin and leaned down to kiss me softly. "Forever," he whispered. I closed my eyes and sighed. He wrapped his long arms around me and pulled me against his chest, my favorite place in the whole world.
I suddenly realized I couldn't hear voices talking around us. I looked up and came to my senses, pulling away from Sam in a panic. Turning, I stared at a room full of people in rapt attention, totally silent, watching us. My knees nearly buckled. Two women close by dabbed napkins at the corners of their eyes.
Sam grabbed my hand, squeezed it tightly, and took charge. "Hi everyone. I'm Sam. Jack is all mine, so don't any of you get any ideas. He's spoken for," he said with a huge grin across his face. The room erupted in laughter.
"Damn," said one of the ladies standing close to us. "I'd give anything to have a guy say those things to me."
"Me, too," said the woman next to her.
Across the room, I saw Todd grab Margie from behind and squeeze her. They were both smiling at Sam and me. No one was upset. No one glared. No one threw their potato salad at us.
I squeezed Sam's hand back and took a deep breath. "Well...how's that for getting the office gossip mill going?" Titters of laughter echoed around the room. "Yes, Sam and I are partners. We've been together for a short time, but we love each other very much. I can't imagine my life without this big guy next to me. Now...did someone save the boss a chocolate chip cookie?"
People returned to their conversations, no doubt discussing two men being in a relationship together. I tried not to think about the likely fallout of our unintentional big reveal, as I wolfed down two cookies and a small plate of fruit. I didn't trust my stomach to hold that much down for long, let alone a sandwich and fixings. Needless to say, Sam was undeterred in his gastronomic pursuits as he created a triple decker roast beef sandwich, with layers of pepper jack cheese, lettuce, tomatoes and onions. He carried his full plate in one hand and four cookies wrapped in a napkin in the other.
Ben was standing by the windows, very close to Peggy Reece. I thought the cookies tasted familiar. "Peggy!" I said as we approached. "Did you cater this luncheon?" She nodded, beaming.
"Margie called me yesterday and asked if I could put something together for you guys on short notice. I hope you like it," she said.
"Judging by the desecration of the table, I'd say it was a big hit. That was a ton of food. Where did it all go?" I asked.
Ben, my personal protection agent, and resident smart ass, couldn't resist. "People work up quite an appetite watching their favorite soap operas. That was quite a scene you and Sam put on there." I groaned around my last bite of cookie, giving him an evil eye.
"Don't pay any attention to him," said Peggy, patting my shoulder. "He's just jealous no one's said such lovely things to him before." Ben grunted.
Turning to him, Peggy grabbed his hand. "Relax, soldier. The day is young. It could still happen for you." He smiled, then stuck his tongue out at me. I did the same back, and Peggy rolled her eyes, causing Ben, Sam and me to break out in laughter. Now we had her doing it.
"What's so funny?" asked Todd, as he and Margie joined us.
"We were discussing Ben's jealousy of Sam's and my relationship," I said with a straight face. Ben snorted, but smiled and put his arm around Peggy's shoulders.
"I've got something wonderful right here, Schaeffer. But I'll give you this much - I'm with you guys a lot, and I don't think I've ever seen any relationship closer than you two." Sam and I looked at each other.
"Thanks, man," said Sam. "Jack makes it easy." Ben rolled his eyes, and we all cracked up again.
We continued chatting for a few minutes more as people gradually vacated the kitchen for their work areas. Soon it was just the six of us.
"Schaeffer, you think you can keep yourself out of trouble long enough for me to help Peggy clean up?"
"You don't have to do that, Ben," said Peggy. He looked at me.
"I saw Lydia walking around earlier. She'll protect me. I hear she's a better shot than you anyway," I replied. He growled.
"Uh oh. Come on, Jack, before he decides to use you for target practice after that crack," said Sam, grabbing my hand. "Peggy, great lunch. And great to see you again. Don't be a stranger. Come out to the house any time."
"Thanks, Sam. Bye, Jack."
"Bye, Peggy." Sam and I walked back toward my office, hand in hand. I guess it didn't matter too much anymore. As we walked through several work areas, a couple of people looked up and smiled. I thought one guy in Accounting seemed a little put off, but I couldn't be sure.
One-on-one's were actually two-on-one's. Todd and I planned on a weekly conversation with each department leader, and then we'd let them loose to do their thing. We met in Todd's office, since he had a table and chairs in one corner, which made for easier conversations.
First up was Mason. He arrived with a smile and a laptop computer. "Hey, guys," he said, taking a seat. He was practically manic for Mason. Something had him very happy.
"What's going on, Mason?" asked Todd. "I haven't seen you this jazzed in a while."
"Huh? Oh...well...um...I guess I've been a little worried, is all."
"About joining us?" I asked.
"What? Oh, no...not that. No, this is great. No...it's my dad," he said with a deep sigh. "He's been under a ton of pressure with his company, and he started having chest pains a few weeks ago. With everything that happened to Larry, I've been riding him pretty hard to see the doctor. My mom finally got him to see a cardiologist. We're still waiting for the test results, but he says he's feeling better. He told me over the weekend his expansion plans are on hold for now, which is a huge relief."
"What does your dad do?" I asked, sitting down across from him.
"He runs a company in Chicago specializing in M & A."
"Mergers and acquisitions," said Todd. I nodded. I knew the term, if not exactly what was involved.
"That's what you're doing for us, right?" I asked.
"Yes. I look for businesses and opportunities where acquiring a controlling interest in a company is a better option in the long term, rather than a partial investment in the short."
"I take it your father's company is successful?"
"Very. He's the top firm in the Chicago market, and now he wants to expand to New York. I told him it was too much to run both offices, and that he needs to hire someone else to do it. But he won't. He doesn't trust anyone else."
"I can understand that," I said. "Trust is a big deal."
"Of course, but he can't be in two places at the same time, so until he finds someone he does trust, he'll have to settle for just Chicago. I know it grates on him though, because there are opportunities on the east coast he's missing out on."
"He can't do deals in New York from his office in Chicago?" asked Todd.
"A few...maybe. But most of the work comes by referrals and working relationships with lawyers and accounting firms. When it comes to due diligence and deep analysis for a merger or acquisition, those guys want local partners, people they can talk business with over lunch or dinner."
"Your father needs to focus on getting healthy, otherwise he won't be around to run Chicago, let alone New York," said Todd with a somber face. Mason blanched. We were silent for a moment. We both knew Todd was thinking of Larry and his conspicuous absence from our team.
"So," said Todd, breaking the somber mood. "Back to S&A. What have you got in the pipeline so far? How are the research analysts working out?"
"It's only been half a day, Todd, so I don't know for sure, but I can tell you I gave them a job this morning, and by lunch I had more information than I could have found myself in two days at the bank. Will put in some great new search tools and databases, so we have a ton more data than before."
"What are they working on?" I asked.
"Hotels. Specifically, high-end boutique hotels that cater to the mega wealthy."
"What's the upside?" asked Todd.
"A recession proof market and very high profit margins, depending on location. Over the last few years several collections of these hotels and mini-resorts have been cobbled together into boutique chains under a central ownership. Two of these chains are now floating buyout feelers. One in particular looks very promising. I have my assistants running financials and researching management, as well as best practices."
"And the down side?" asked Todd.
"High initial capital investment and ineffective branding. Nothing we can't handle."
"If it's so lucrative, why are they selling?" I asked.
"Great question, Jack" said Todd, turning to Mason for the answer.
"One group is on the market because the controlling organization needs cash for other interests, and the second was run by a man who recently passed away. Without his leadership, his heirs don't think they can make a go of it, so they are selling to divide the estate."
"If we acquire one of these chains, do we have to build a staff to run it?" I asked.
"No. Not if we're satisfied with the ROI as is. My guess is there will be one or two properties underperforming. Those might need a management rehaul, but otherwise, it's mostly a transfer of assets."
"Why do I suddenly feel like I'm playing a game of Monopoly?" I said.
Todd smiled. "It's a little more complicated than that, Jack."
"I'm sure. What if we need to do the management rehaul, what expertise do we have for that? I don't know anything about running a hotel. Do you, Todd?"
He smiled. "Nope, but I know someone who does. And he works for you."
"What are you talking about?" I asked.
"Calloway Island?" Mason directed his question to Todd, who nodded.
"Colin Napier," said Todd.
"Who's that?" I asked.
"Colin runs Calloway Island."
"Still not clear," I said. Todd just sat there grinning at me, like a cat playing with a mouse before pouncing.
"Calloway Island is a resort in the Caribbean," said Mason. "It was one of Phillip Franklin's favorite hideaways. He hired Colin away from an exclusive hotel in England and installed him at Calloway Island. Speaking of which, Calloway Island has generated a profit nine of the last ten quarters." That last part was directed to Todd. I was still lost.
"Wait. What do you mean, Phillip installed Colin at Calloway Island? How could he do that?"
"He bought the island. Then he hired Colin to upgrade and manage the resort there. And he's done an amazing job turning it around."
"Phillip bought an island? An entire island?"
"Yes," said Todd. "It's not a big island. You have to get to it by boat from St. John or St. Kitt or one of those bigger islands. I forget which one. Ron would know. He flew Phillip and Amanda there all the time. Calloway is too small for a runway, otherwise believe me, Phillip would have built one."
I sat back in my chair, stunned. "And who owns this...this Calloway Island now?"
Todd grinned. "You do." I just stared at him.
"Are you...you can't be serious. I own an island? You've got to be kidding me. What else?" I sat there stunned, feeling sick to my stomach.
Todd looked confused. "What do you mean, Jack?"
"I mean what else haven't you told me, Todd?"
Todd swallowed. "Well...you have the house here in Littleton, another house in Florida, and Calloway Island. The house in Florida was actually for sale when Amanda died, but we pulled it when the market tanked. We didn't want to give it away. It's closed up right now, until we decide what to do with it. You can keep it, of course, if you want to. It's yours. The only other major assets are the cars and the plane. And this building, of course."
I jumped up and walked over to the windows. There was nothing to see but dense gray fog wrapping the building in a dark cocoon. The dreary weather outside matched my sudden downward mood swing.
"I don't want it. I don't want any of it," I said to my reflection in the window.
"What don't you want, Jack?" asked Todd.
"All of it." I flashed to when Larry first opened his big binder and shoved that astronomical number at me. The blood in my head swooshed from one side to the other, making me dizzy.
I heard Todd tell Mason to give us a few minutes. When the door clicked closed again, Todd approached and put a tentative hand on my shoulder. "Come sit down, Jack. Let's talk." I slowly turned to face him, desperate not to vomit, to not cave to my overwhelming emotions.
Todd took one look at my face. "I'll get Sam."
"Don't you dare!" I hissed. "He's the last person that needs to know about this."
"Then sit down...before you fall down, and I have no choice."
I walked to the table and fell into a chair, staring into space, anywhere to not look at Todd. I was angry at him for dumping this latest surprise on me, but the tiny remaining rational part of my brain kept repeating it wasn't his fault.
"Talk to me, Jack. What's wrong?"
"I can't keep doing this, Todd. And I can't keep doing this to Sam. It's not fair."
"Doing what?" said Todd, taking a seat next to me at the table.
"I can't...look, you don't understand. Sam loves me, but to love me means he has to deal with all my money. And it's hard on him. It makes him feel...I don't know...inadequate or unworthy or something. It threatens his self-respect. He's doing better. I thought we were finally getting past all this. And now...holy crap! An island? A fucking island? He's gonna bail, I know it. No way he stays with me. It's too much. It's too damn much." I was losing it, and I was not going to cry in front of Todd.
"Sam's not leaving you, Jack. There's no way."
Todd's door flew open and Sam ran in, coming straight for me, his eyes locked on mine. I stood up, moving toward the windows to avoid his gaze. I wasn't ready to face him. He came up behind me and put his arms around my chest so I couldn't run. I saw my tears start to fall in the window's reflection. I never heard Todd leave.
Sam said nothing, just held me, occasionally kissing the top of my head. After a few moments, I turned in his arms and looked up at him, unable to stop the tears. I didn't want to lose Sam. I loved him so much. I looked into his eyes, hoping against hope I could make him understand it wasn't my fault. I didn't ask for any of it.
I started to speak, but he put a finger to my lips. "Shhhhh...it's okay," he said. "It's alright. Everything's gonna be alright, Jack. I promise. I'm right here, little man." I shook my head. Not this time.
The emotional dam burst, all my fears cascading over the edge. Between sobs I pleaded with him. "Sam...I...please don't leave me. I didn't know, I swear...they never told me..."
"Leave you? Slow down, Jack. What didn't they tell you?"
"About the island. And the other house." I closed my eyes, expecting him to release me and walk out of my life.
But he didn't. If anything, he hugged me even tighter. I buried my face against his chest.
"We'll get rid of them, okay. I'm so sorry, Sam. You've been so good about this, and I just...it keeps piling up...and...it's just stuff...they keep telling me it's mine, but I don't want it, I never asked for it. I just want you, you have to believe me, Sam. I just want you. Please don't leave."
I looked up at his face, trying to read his expression. Sam leaned down and kissed me tenderly, then pulled back and looked at me, his deep blue eyes boring into my soul. "Jack...you have me. I'm not going anywhere. I promise."
I took a deep breath. He was still here. He said he was staying. I looked up at him through watery eyes, grateful beyond words. As the physical tension drained away, Sam relaxed his grip around me, and raised a hand to wipe away the remaining tears from my cheeks. I wiped at the wet spots I'd left on his dress shirt.
"I made a mess on your shirt."
He smiled. "Don't worry about it. It'll dry."
"I didn't mean to fall apart on you again. I got so angry, and then I got scared you would leave, and I...just love me, okay?" I grabbed him hard around the waist, plastering my cheek against his chest again.
He put his muscular arms around my shoulders. "I do love you, Jack. Didn't I just tell everybody in this place that very thing, not an hour ago. Nothing's changed."
"Are you sure?"
"So you own an island. Big deal. And another house. Hey...it's not in St. Louis, is it?"
I sighed. "No. Somewhere in Florida. They tried to sell it before I came along, and now it's sitting vacant." I looked up at him. "We can put it back on the market and unload it. Same with the island."
"Shouldn't we go see it first?"
"See what? The island?"
"Yeah. And the house. What if we want to keep `em?"
"But we already have a house here. And we're talking about renting or buying a place in St. Louis. We certainly don't need a third house. And what are we going to do with an island, Sam?"
"I don't know. Play around. Take vacations. Have some fun. Get naked on the beach and make love in the moonlight." He was grinning from ear to ear.
"You're serious, aren't you?" I said.
"Yeah. Why not? Amanda gave all this to you for a purpose. So let's use it as long as it serves a purpose. If it doesn't, then we unload it."
I looked at him, and he returned my gaze, his blue eyes smiling back at me. I wanted to believe him, that we'd turned a corner, that the money issues were forever behind us.
"Jack, listen to me. I know I've struggled with the money. You know why. But we've talked it through. I know where I stand with you, and I know the money has nothing to do with us. It's a tool we can use, but it's not us. It's not why we're together. You don't have to be afraid I'll leave, certainly not over the money. I'm here for the long haul, Jack, if you'll have me."
"Of course I'll have you, big guy," I said, unable to comprehend the euphoric feelings replacing my earlier fears. His love for me, his stability, his certainty in our future together - they instilled in me a limitless hope. He said I'd changed him. He'd literally saved me.
Sam's eyes danced happily. "You gonna be okay?"
I nodded, my thoughts lifting even higher with his huge smile. Sam pulled me close for several minutes, his heart thudding confidently in my ear, infusing me with peace as he gently stroked my back, pushing away the last traces of tension. To be in Sam's strong arms was worth more than all the islands in the world.
I leaned back finally, looking up into his handsome face. "How did you know to come find me?" I asked.
"Mason grabbed me and said you were upset. I didn't hear anything else," said Sam. "I just came running."
"Thank you," I said, my voice cracking.
"You're welcome." I laid my head on Sam's chest again as he continued rubbing my back.
"Speaking of Mason," said Sam. "We should find him, and let him know you're okay."
I gasped. "And Todd. He probably thinks I'm a basket case."
"No, he doesn't."
"Please...I didn't make it through the first day without waterworks."
There was knock on the door, and Todd peeked his head in. "Everybody okay in here?"
I looked up at Sam and he nodded. I stepped back from his embrace and turned to Todd. "Yeah, we're fine," I said. "Sorry for the freak out, Todd. I got a little overwhelmed again."
"No, it's my fault," he said, stepping into the office. "I apologize, Jack. I totally dropped the ball. We've been running so fast these past few weeks, we've never reviewed the entire trust together. We should do it soon."
"Are there going to be any more surprises? You're not gonna tell me I own some small country, are you?"
He smiled. "No. But come to think of it, Simon probably has his eye on one or two." Sam laughed.
"Not funny," I said, giving Sam a look. "I really own an island?"
"Yep," said Todd.
"You ever been there?"
I sighed, resigned to my fate. "Well...Sam says we should keep it, at least until we've had a chance to see it. And I guess I should meet this Colin person, if we're serious about buying hotels. Holy crap! Would you listen to me? How did I become this person?" Sam chuckled. Todd smiled. I managed not to puke. It's the little things.
After a bathroom break and bottle of water, Sam joined me back in Todd's office. Will was going over network diagrams and organization charts, making little notations on them.
"Let's get to it," said Todd. "How's the network running?"
"Full speed ahead," said Will, looking up. "Security's locked down tight. The guys are putting the finishing touches on a disaster recovery plan. Phones are all configured. Backups are in place and operational. I think we're good."
"Great job, Will," I said. "Mason was telling us some of the new software you installed is already paying off." He smiled with pride.
"Cool. I thought it might. Listen, I haven't had a chance to say I'm sorry I bailed on you guys on Friday. My friend Valerie was in that car accident and I didn't know what else to do. She has no family here in Denver."
"It's fine. She's okay now?" asked Sam.
"She had a few scrapes and bruises, nothing serious. But she had the baby a month too early." I noticed he said "the" baby and not "her" baby.
"Is everything okay?"
"With the baby? Yeah, he's fine I think. Everything else is a mess."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
He exhaled. "Valerie was a surrogate." He said it like it explained everything. I was totally confused.
"She was carrying the baby for someone else?" asked Sam.
"Yeah. It's the craziest thing. She hooked up with an outfit in California, some family planning organization. They specialize in linking couples wanting to have children and can't, with surrogates. Valerie was a good fit, she's healthy, and she needed the money. So she went for it."
"You sound like something's gone wrong," said Todd.
Will sighed. "The baby was conceived in-vitro with donor sperm and egg. The prospective parents are both infertile, but they wanted to start a family. Valerie met them twice, said they were a really nice husband and wife from Sacramento. Professional, well-to-do, established in their community. They liked Valerie, took her shopping, bought her some clothes, shoes. The wife even took her to a doctor visit. Everything was going smoothly."
"Then a couple of months ago, Valerie noticed a change. The last time she was with them, Valerie said the wife was cold toward her husband in their conversations. It upset Valerie, since she was carrying their child and hated the idea the baby might end up in an unhappy home. She spoke to her rep at the agency , but he told her it was normal stress, and not to worry about it. Valerie called me and asked if she could hang out here in Denver for a while. I told her I was hardly ever home, but she could crash in my extra bedroom."
"How long has she been staying with you?" asked Sam.
"Just a couple of weeks. It's worked out okay, I guess. I've known Valerie since high school. She just needed a break from her mom, and the baby's prospective parents. Apparently Valerie's mom went ballistic when she found out Valerie was pregnant. Valerie had to show her the contracts with the agency before she'd calm down. And since the baby wasn't going to be her grandchild, she's been less than supportive."
"How long was Valerie planning on staying with you?" asked Todd.
"She was supposed to return to California for the birth. I get the feeling she never told the agency she was leaving the state. After the baby was born on Saturday, Valerie called her rep to let him know. He hit the roof. I could hear him yelling through the phone from across the room. Valerie was in tears."
"Is having the baby in Colorado a problem?" asked Sam.
"I don't know. Surrogacy laws are all over the map. Each state makes their own. But that's not the biggest issue. The prospective parents? They're getting a divorce. They hired a lawyer and petitioned to end their contract with the agency. A judge granted their request. So now there's a kid sitting in the hospital here in Denver, with no parents."
"Surely the agency can find parents for this kid," I said.
"After the guy calmed down enough to explain everything to Valerie, he said they have been trying for a month to find another set of parents, with no success."
"I don't understand," said Todd. "People are wanting to adopt kids all the time, especially newborns. How hard can it be?"
"You'd think it would be easy. But this is a mixed race child, and I guess that's a problem," said Will.
"Seriously?" I said. "Does that really matter in this day and age?"
"Oh yeah," said Sam. He looked angry. "Think about it. This agency obviously caters to successful people with serious money. They come with excellent social recommendations and very deep pockets. The kind of people who are very particular about getting what they pay for. They approach all of life like a financial transaction. They have exacting demands and even higher expectations. A kid who is less than perfect right out of the womb doesn't stand a chance."
Todd and Will were surprised by Sam's bitterness, but I knew he was speaking from first hand experience. Growing up around obnoxious, self-absorbed wealthy neighbors had jaded him.
"You can't be serious, Sam," said Todd. "Babies aren't a commodity you buy at the store. You don't pick option packages, like buying a car. You get what you get, and you love them and care for them and hopefully raise them to be productive members of society."
Sam nodded. "Spoken like a normal, well-adjusted father-to-be. You're absolutely right - that's how it should be. But for some, like these cretins who were going to buy Valerie's baby, they would never settle for unmet expectations, especially if they are paying a high price for it. Look how easily they walked away from this kid. They weren't prepared to love this little boy. They only love themselves."
"Wow. Maybe the kid dodged a real bullet," said Will.
"What's Valerie going to do?" I asked.
Will shrugged. "I don't know. She's super depressed now. The hospital is telling her the baby is legally hers, absent any other paperwork or agreements, so she's on the hook for the medical bills. The agency is in limbo. Without paying clients, they don't want to pay out for medical expenses. Most of all, Valerie does not want to be a parent."
"When does she get out of the hospital?" asked Todd.
"Tonight, I think. She's supposed to call me to come get her when she's discharged."
"And the baby?"
"He has to stay until he reaches a certain weight and can eat better, from what the nurse said. I guess he's kind of small, being a preemie."
"Have you seen him?" asked Sam.
"Once...for about five minutes. I didn't get to hold him. He looks perfect to me. He may be small, but he's got a good set of lungs on him, I'll tell you that," said Will, smiling.
"What? Not looking forward to your kid waking you up in the middle of the night, crying?" said Sam.
Todd leaned back in his chair, rubbing his temples. "I'm so not ready for a baby."
"Said every father before his first kid. You'll be fine. You'll adjust," said Sam.
"How do you know, Pool Boy?" asked Todd. "When have you ever dealt with two a.m. feedings and diapers?"
"Lots of times. I've babysat my nephews since they were a month old. At first, their crying drove me nuts. Then you sort of get used to it. You learn to tell the difference between an "I'm hungry" cry and an "I'm scared, please hold me" cry. You just...love them. Somehow the love drowns out all the mess."
For the second time in as many days, I thought Sam should really be a father. He was a natural. And he loved kids. Me...not so much. They terrified me. I couldn't remember a time I'd ever held an infant, let alone fed one or changed a diaper. I shuddered at the thought.
"Well, Sam, since you're such an expert, I'll put you on speed dial under babysitting," said Todd, grinning.
Sam smiled. "Fine by me, bean counter."
"Alright. Enough about babies. What else you got cooking, Will?" asked Todd.
For the next twenty minutes Sam and I listened to Todd and Will go through all the organizational changes and subsidiaries we had created over the past few weeks. Sam had been closely involved, so he tracked their conversation closely.
I tuned them out, my thoughts consumed by a tiny little boy all alone in a hospital bed, abandoned by the ones who had pledged to love him. Who could be so heartless to just walk away from him, when he was so helpless?
In a way, my own life had begun in a similar fashion. Born of a woman who would not be my mother, father already deceased. Fortunately for me, I was adopted, though my family turned out to be a mixed bag. Some good, plenty not so good. But I survived, and now I was finally beginning to thrive, with the love and support of new friends and family. Most of all, I had Sam.
That little boy had no one. Something had to be done, but what?