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Chapter 1 Roni

I can still remember the feeling of the wind catching my hand as I held it out of the car window. For a brief moment, I could keep my hand steady, but then the force of the speeding air would carry it up and away from my intended position. It was as if I was riding an invisible wave not knowing when the wind would carry me away.

As a child, the feeling was thrilling. Now an adult, I understand that the unexpected carries with it danger, heartache, and regret. All lessons I wish I’d never learned. But as my mother used to say, “If wishes were horses beggars would ride.”

As I stand to appraise my outfit, the image in the mirror reflected back at me is a far cry from the girl I used to be. Today, I’m strong and independent. I’m happy in my own skin. Or so my reflection tells me.

The reality, well that’s a bit deeper, darker even. But the only people that see that scared broken girl are me and Shelby, my BFF. I have to be brazen and bold. If not, the world will eat me up and spit me out. I must be “Roni”. Long gone is the fearful and broken Veronica. I can’t—no—I refuse to live in what ifs and should have beens. Instead, I will pull up my big girl panties and move on. Just move the fuck on!

With my veneer back in place and my memories where they belong—in the past—I finish getting ready for my day. This morning I’m meeting an important new client and I cannot allow him to see me lacking in confidence. These buyers are like sharks; they smell fear and attack. I will walk into that meeting with my head held high knowing that I’m the best at my job and they would do well to buy what I’m selling.

I continue my morning routine and my mind can’t help but wander to Shelby. She is the one person in my world that can always make me smile. So, as I do every day, I grab my phone and rush out a text so I can get my morning happy fix.

Me: Good morning, BFF.

My phone barely has time to show the sent message and she’s already replying.

Shelby: Hey, Babe. How was your night?

Me: Good. I was able to finish my presentation, but I miss you. When are you coming home?

Shelby: I’ll be home tomorrow. You’re picking me up, right?

Me: Yes of course. I miss you. Shelby: You’ll make it, promise! Me: If you say so :/

Shelby: Go hang out with Kyle, he’ll surely help you pass the time until I get back 😉

Me: Yeah Yeah, maybe. Ok GTG, love you babe

Shelby: Love you too sweets. XO

With a smile on my face, I grab my attaché and head out the door. Ready to face the day. My drive to the La Luxure North American Headquarters is the only peace I will have all day. I relish my morning drive time. Just me, my radio, and the rhythm of the highway.

As I make the walk to my office, I can see Jerome standing in the glass–enclosed conference room. He’s speaking with a rather tall gent whose back is to me, but I can see–even through his stylish Italian suit–that he is a well–built sort and immediately my curiosity is piqued. Evelyn, my highly efficient and often motherly assistant, sees me walking in her direction and rushes over to greet me with my coffee in hand.

“Good morning, Roni. Jerome and Mr. Brannak are waiting for you in the conference room.” She nods in their direction and takes my purse from my arm while handing me the filled–to–the–brim––piping–hot cup of coffee.

“Thanks, Evelyn. I’m not sure what I did to deserve you, but I thank the heavens every day.” I turn and kiss her cheek before turning my attention back to Jerome and the mystery client.

Only having taken a few steps away, a realization hits. I turn back to my assistant and query, “Evelyn, did you just say Brannak?”

“Yes, Brad Brannak. He’s the buyer for Lotus Boutiques.” Evelyn rifles through the folders on her desk, finding the company dossier for Lotus. She pauses for a moment and continues, “They are a relatively new brand in the industry but apparently, they are quickly making a name for themselves on the West Coast.”

Hearing the name Brannak has me shaken. It’s been so many years since I’ve heard that name. A name I’ll never forget. I suddenly need a moment to compose myself.

Instead of heading to the conference room, I turn back to my office and ask Evelyn to let Jerome know that I must make a call to one of our New York reps and I’ll join them in a moment. Ever the dutiful assistant, Evelyn doesn’t ask any questions, she just turns on her heel to relay my message to the men awaiting me.

Once in my office, I close the door and my body shivers with the release of the tension so quickly built after hearing that name. How can HE be in my office? Will he even remember my name? Did he know it was me he’d be meeting with? FUCK!!!!!

Oh, my God, Shelby. She is going to lose her shit when she hears he’s back in town. I want to call her, but I can’t—not yet. I need to find out what the fuck he is doing here. If she finds out he’s here, she’ll cut her trip short and come running home. I can’t put her in that position. Not again.

Standing in the middle of my office, amidst the sleek leather and wood appointments, the memories of that day rise from the abyss and I drop to my knees. My eyes begin to well with tears, but I hold them back. I can’t let him win. Not this time. I’m not the same girl I was back then.

Still, on my knees, my head bowed into my chest, I allow myself a brief respite to get my shit together. Finally, the panic subsides, and I rise from the stylish shag area rug and right my clothes. Before I join my boss and potential new client to make my presentation, I step into my private bath and freshen my makeup. Nary a lash can be out of place when I’m once again facing this demon from my past.

This snake in Armani.

The walk to the conference room feels like the walk to face a tribunal. Not in a million years would I ever have thought that this bastard would be back in my life, especially not in a business capacity. God, damn it all! I can handle this, I have to. Jerome and La Luxure need his account and I refuse to be the reason we don’t get it. By the time I reach for the door to step inside, I’ve slipped my confident business woman mask back on. Jerome and Brad stop their conversation when I step in and Jerome stands in greeting.

“Ah, Roni, just in time. I was just telling Mr. Brannak here about the new spring line,” Jerome says as he begins the customary introductions.

Brad stands and turns to face me with his hand extended. “Brad Brannak, Mr… ah, I’m sorry Ms. Monroe. I didn’t realize, I mean your name is Roni. I shouldn’t have assumed.”

Fucking misogynist pig!

Reining in my tongue and returning the handshake, I reply, “It’s fine, Mr. Brannak. I’m sure it throws a lot of people. I suppose that’s good though, as the saying goes, always keep them guessing, am I right?” My forced laugh at the end just added to the awkward energy in the room. I decided that Brad’s foible was to my advantage. Now if the deal falls through I can always put the onus on his chauvinism and not my discomfort with our sordid past.

Evelyn steps in after me with the presentation packets for both Brad and Jerome and offers coffee to all. She busies herself at the coffee bar, serving our guest. God how I would love to see her spill the hot liquid in his lap, but I know she would never. Evelyn is a consummate professional.

Taking a page from her book, I call the meeting to a start, “Please gents, sit. As you can see in your packets, I have given a brief overview of the lines we currently offer to a variety of our retail partners, along with suggestions for a Lotus exclusive line.”

Brad barely takes his attention away from the information in his folder. “Lotus exclusive, can you elaborate, Ms. Monroe?”

“Certainly.” I pick up a remote from the table, and after pressing a couple of buttons, the glass walls darken, the lights dim, and a video screen drops from the ceiling. “Mr. Brannak, this short video explains the process of designing and producing a line of lingerie that would carry both the La Luxure brand as well as Lotus. Your firm will have right of refusal of any of the designs, but we will maintain creative control of the line and set a suggested price point.” I set the remote down and allow the video to play.

Brad and Jerome are watching the video intently, but my eyes are on Brad. I promised myself that I would not allow him to get into my head, but I can’t help but feel uneasy with him being so near. I must push back the memories of so long ago and power through this meeting. It’s business and my personal feelings have no place in business. The video ends and for a moment the room remains in silence until my brain catches up and the sound of Jerome rustling in his seat brings me back to the present.

“Ms. Monroe, while that was an interesting video, I think it’s time to talk about the numbers. I’m not the primary creative member of the Lotus family. I appreciate the exclusivity of the line, but I deal mainly with the numbers.” He inclines his head in my direction and continues, “The risks and benefits of this partnership.”

His candor is expected; all the new clients come in with the same attitude. However, with him, it gets under my skin.

Gah, rein it in, Roni.

“Of course, Mr. Brannak. Please turn to page three in the proposal. You will see, we have broken down the cost per standard unit according to style and give a minimum purchase amount to maintain that cost. On the following page, we have outlined the costs for creating the Lotus exclusive line and the options that would be available only to your firm.” The next several minutes are spent discussing distribution and manufacturing costs. Every so often Jerome and Brad speak about this or that, and I remain quiet. Only speaking when spoken to. For me this is odd; I never sit back and allow another to run my negotiations. This is my strong suit. The sell—that’s where I excel. What is wrong with me?

Brad turns to me and says, “Ms. Monroe, I appreciate all of the hard work that has gone into this presentation. I’m very impressed with your package, but I’m not the final say in the process. Let me take the information back to my board and I will get back with you in a week’s time if that is acceptable of course.”

“Yes, of course, Mr. Brannak. Please understand that if you want to get the spring line into your stores, we should get moving quickly to meet the timeline.” I start to push my chair back and move to stand, but Brad is at my back, holding the chair for me. A shiver of remembrance runs through me and I’m momentarily stunned. Does he realize who I am?

After we adjourn the meeting, Jerome and I return to his office to discuss and interpret the events, as we do after every new client presentation. Jerome takes his seat behind his desk, and I sit at the small table to his left with my folders laid before me. “Roni, you seem a little off today. Is something bothering you?” Shit, he noticed.

“I’m fine, Jerome, what do you mean?”

“I’m not really sure, but you just, I don’t know… you were more subdued than usual. It’s usually me that sits in silence while you charm the client. But today, you were, well quiet.”

They say honesty is the best policy, so I’ll go with the truth. Well, not quite the truth but enough of it to satisfy his curiosity. “Honestly, there was something about Mr. Brannak that just didn’t sit well with me. I suppose I felt he was expecting to deal with a man and so I gave him what he wanted.”

Jerome shakes his head, I suppose in disbelief, “Roni, I’m sorry if we made you feel that way. I’m certain that was not Mr. Brannak’s intention. It certainly was not the impression I got anyway.”

My eyes flutter closed as I stop myself from rolling them at my boss. “Jerome, you know I don’t like to use the woman card, but sometimes I have to. For a woman in the business world, we must use our instincts on a more visceral level. Part of being a good business woman is being able to read your audience. And the audience today was giving off a patronizing, misogynistic vibe.”

Leaving it at that, we turn our attention back to our meeting notes and hammer out a plan to ensure we get this account. The rest of the day goes by rather quickly between the conference calls and marketing meetings. It’s almost as if I’ve blinked and the clock has moved ahead 5 hours.

© 2017 Brooke Lee

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