Sneak peek – a Place to Call Home

So, what had happened was:

A couple years ago, I started writing a straight-up romance. Then work got wild and crazy. One of those good deals where I was in way over my head and had to learn a lot of complicated stuff really fast. Exhausting – but absolutely the best way to make work interesting.

Then, things evened out and I decided to write Unchosen. 100,000 words later and I’m finally back to this romance story I was working on.

And boy, is it a mess. Lots of good scenes surrounded by not-so-good scenes that I have to sort out. But that’s writing.

Here is an early scene where we meet our heroine’s love interest and the Big Bad’s main henchman – or, henchwoman in this case.

Nathan Haley sat in a high-backed leather chair behind the solid beech wood desk his father had bought for him when he had appointed Nathan as Vice President of Haley National Bank. In those days, they had smiled self-consciously at the name when they said it at gatherings while toasting their latest investment in some housing development over a glass of champagne. It was really just a savings and loan, but his father had changed the name after the S&L scandal in the eighties – something which Nathan was sure nobody would remember these days.

He felt his office was overly ostentatious, but, as his father had explained, it needed to lend a certain atmosphere so that people felt they weren’t entering an office as much as they were entering a realm. To that end, one had to walk several steps once they opened the door to get to his desk. On the way, they passed a solid oak round table with modern – and gaudy – chairs that were nevertheless expensive. After that, they passed a solid cherry credenza along the side wall that held an assortment of knick-knacks made from porcelain and crystal that Nathan felt were out of place, but still comforting. They provided the only sense of cozy elegance in the entire office – something he needed to keep his sanity owing to the endless days and hours he spent there.

All of that had been fine when his father was running the bank. Plans and strategy passed through his office. People gathered around the round table drinking coffee and eating pizza as they worked into the night hammering out the details of a new neighborhood where the community would move in to hone careers and raise families. His father would come in often, seeking counsel or just an opinion, even if it was just to play devil’s advocate to test every corner of an idea and make sure everything was in order. His father had been an appropriately fastidious banker, who insisted on the assets he loaned money for being of a certain quality.

Patrons needed to be of like quality, as well. Good folks who were responsible and took their debt to the bank seriously enough to ensure their payments arrived like clockwork. His father had no notion of class, just so long as somebody worked hard and paid their bills. Armed with this simple philosophy and true joy in watching good people make a better life for their families, his father had turned Haley National into a driving engine behind the steady growth of their bedroom community until it had become a near metropolis. Streets stacked out over the years. Boulevards wound wider circles. Avenues marched proudly in expanding ranks. And along them all, apartments, duplexes and single-family homes bought with loans from Haley National lined the sidewalks.

So it was, but not anymore. The reverie of everything his father had built was interrupted just then by the one person who reminded him of everything that had changed at Haley National – Devorah Harlow. She knocked with five quick pecks, sounding like a bird chipping at his door. He let out a sigh and his shoulders sagged. He let his eyes fall to a disinterested half-mast.

“Come in, Dev,” he said.

The door clicked open and a woman somewhere in her thirties, with a trim nose that reminded Nathan of a beak, poked her head inside. Her face was long and elegant, with a chin that came to a triangle point. Her eyes flared at an angle with eyebrows that swooped over them in a high arch. Her mouth was succulent, but narrow, as if she were always a moment away from a kiss. Jet black hair flowed down the front of her shoulder in thick straight and glistening strands. All-in-all, she looked like one of those women you see on the side of a box of hair dye.

She smiled a bit too broadly as she called out to him, “Good morning, Nate.” He hated that. Nobody called him Nate, and she knew it. She would explain that she was just teasing him, but he knew better. Behind her facade of girlish mischievousness, a scorpion waited with a sting that no man would ever see coming. Somewhere behind the harmless and all-too-often fetching antics of a woman who knew the power of her allure while denying it outright, lay a woman who had lain waste to many a career when a man didn’t see things quite the way she did. Somehow, Nathan had found some immunity to her lethal brand of office politics. Whether it was because he was the Vice President and the founder’s son or because he simply refused to acknowledge her tactics, he didn’t know. More importantly, he didn’t care, which was probably the real answer to his survival.

He steepled his fingers and watched with practiced boredom while she sauntered over to the credenza and ran her fingertips along the surface as she made her way to his desk. She stopped just in front of it, back far enough for him to see her entire slender figure, but close enough that he couldn’t help but see it.

“What do you have for me this morning?” he asked.

She stepped around his desk to stand next to him and leaned down, placing a hand on his shoulder and kneading the muscle with her fingertips. She did this with a practiced touch that was so light that it was easy to forget she was doing it, except for the gentle warmth that flowed from any woman’s touch. It was easy to miss if you weren’t paying attention.

“Just that you shouldn’t worry about it too much.”

He glanced up at her, doing his best to ignore her impromptu massage of his shoulder. “Worry about what?”

“Haven’t you heard?”

Of course he hadn’t heard. Nobody told him anything until she had come in and worked him over. After that, whatever had been a secret from him seemed to flood through the office like a wave. That she knew these things before he did still annoyed him, but he knew it was just Gavin’s way of telling him that he wasn’t as important as he used to be.

“No, Dev, I haven’t heard.” He shrugged away from her and pushed her hand away. “And, you know, we don’t have to play this game every time you have news. Just tell me.”

“Oh my, aren’t we grumpy this morning.” She sighed, the girlish expression on her face melting away to be replaced with a stern look that he guessed was as close to the real Devorah Harlow as he would ever see.

“It’s Pine Crest,” she said, her voice flat and more professional-sounding than he had ever heard. He leaned back in his chair as she walked back around to the front of his desk. She had his attention now as he felt a twinge of alarm at the unfamiliar tone in her voice.

“What’s going on?” he asked.

“The portfolio is weakening across the board.”

Nathan furrowed his brow. This should not have been news. If there was problem with a debt portfolio, he should have heard about it already. And not from her. He leaned over and spun the combination lock on the gray steel filing cabinet embedded in the wall behind his desk. He pulled open a drawer and pulled out a small stack of files.

As he set the stack on his desk and opened the first file, he noticed a flash of surprise flutter across Devorah’s face.

He thumbed through the file, nodding as he looked over the application, the credit report, the assets listings, the income sources – things he knew had all been verified and confirmed. The applications were sterling. 700 and above, solid holdings of stocks, bonds, retirement checks and Social Security checks backing up every single one of them.

“Across the board?” he asked without looking up.

“Mmm hmm.”

He stopped in the middle of the file and looked up at her. “What’s going on?”

“We don’t know – but payments have been slowing down. We’re going to have to do something about it.”

“And you’re just now telling me this because -?”

Devorah smiled and sat down on his desk, allowing him to see the opening of her blouse just enough for the lace of her bra to peek out at him. “I’m on your side, Nate. I didn’t want you to be caught off guard. I think Gavin’s going to need you to front this thing once it gets loose.”

Nathan closed the file with a hard snap, annoyed that once again, he was left out of the loop until the man that had taken over Haley National saw fit to send his harpee to tell Nathan what he should have known from the beginning.

“How did it get this far?” He stood up, leaned on his desk with his fists and glared at her. “It shouldn’t have come to this.” He jabbed the stack of files with his finger. “It doesn’t make any sense. This is good debt.”

Devorah looked over his shoulder at the open filing cabinet drawer. “Do you have all the applications for Pine Crest in there?”

Nathan kept his gaze on her, waiting for her to hear the silence of his response. While he waited, he absently wondered when it had become her place to question what he kept in his personal files. It was another step in an ever-increasing encroachment on his autonomy. What bothered him most was that Gavin always let her do his dirty work instead of boxing him in himself. What had once been a world of men had somehow changed into a world of proxies, where nobody admitted to doing anything.

“Yes, I do. Is that a problem?”

She blinked and shifted her gaze away from the filing cabinet, back to him. She looked annoyed for a second and then flashed a smile, as if she were embarrassed at asking the question. “Of course not. You’re the Vice President.”

“Thanks for the reminder.”

Her expression softened, closing the topic. “You know, I wish I knew how to make you relax a little. I have a feeling you’d be a lot of fun if I could get you out of this office. Why don’t you take me out for a drink tonight?”

He had lost count of how many times she had asked that exact question. He normally dismissed it without giving it much thought, but this time he saw it for what it was. She was trying to distract him, but her timing was off. She had noticed the filing cabinet and he now understood it was something she would report back to Gavin. She wouldn’t be able to take his mind off that. Or the files still sitting on his desk, shouting out to the world that something was terribly out of line with the foreclosures he knew would be coming soon. If they hadn’t already – something else he would have to look into because Gavin simply didn’t tell him these things anymore.

For once, he smiled back and said, “Maybe some other time. Right now, I need to figure out what’s going on with Pine Crest.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that. I’ll put it all together. I just wanted to give you a heads up so you wouldn’t be caught off guard.”

“I see.” He picked up the stack of files and turned around to put them back in the cabinet. He gently closed the drawer and spun the combination wheel before sitting back down and folding his hands on his desk.

“I appreciate that, Dev. I really do.”

He watched her eyes shudder slightly as she tried to think of a next step, another angle, another point to probe. But even she had to know there was nothing left to say. She had delivered her message and discovered something that shouldn’t have been a surprise, let alone some secret that had to be reported.

She stood up and smoothed over her skirt. “Alright, then.” She watched him a moment longer and added, “I’m going to take you up on that drink. Now that you’ve accepted.”

Nathan nodded once, looking bored now, through half-closed eyes.

“See you later, then,” she said, turning to saunter back across his office and out the door.

After he heard the door close, Nathan slammed his fist on his desk. Pine Crest had been the second development funded by Haley National since Gavin had taken over. It had also been the second portfolio of debt instruments to collapse in shambles. The name his father had spent a lifetime building was crumbling to dust under the mismanagement of Gavin Neilsen and his lackeys. Nathan wanted to know why. And he wanted to stop it while Haley National still had something left of its reputation – if it wasn’t already too late.

He stabbed at a few buttons on his phone.

A tinny voice crackled from the speakerphone. “Yes, Mr. Haley.”

“Maggie, if anybody calls about Pine Crest, please send it directly to me.”

“Ms. Harlow already asked me to send the calls to her office. If you would prefer.”

Nathan squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head. Maggie had been his personal secretary since the old days and he knew her loyalty to him was unwavering. She was simply telling him what she knew. Once again, people who had no business running his father’s bank were cutting him off.

“Send them to me, Maggie. Understood?”

“Yes, Mr. Haley. I’ll take care of it.”

“That’s my girl. Thanks, Maggie.”

“I’m far too old to be your girl, Mr. Harlow.” He could hear the quaint smile in her voice, steady, prim and sympathetic. He didn’t have many friends left inside the walls of Haley National. He smiled just then, grateful that she was still one of them.

“Says you.”

© 2020 Michael J Lawrence

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