Authors: Hannah Ford
“What about you?” Nicole said. “That’s what I’m really worried about.”
“I can take care of myself.”
But Nicole wasn’t so sure.
of the day was spent in preparation for Red’s mother’s visit. He had his cleaning crew come for an emergency visit to the house, and they went through everything from top to bottom.
Nicole tried to help out around the house as well, and the cleaners seemed to find that rather odd. They watched her curiously as she cleaned smudges off the windows and got down on her hands and knees and scrubbed the bathroom tiles.
Often she would be in different rooms from the workers, but when they walked by and saw her sweating and working, a strange look would cross their faces. Nicole didn’t understand just what the issue was.
One of the housekeepers was a young girl that had to be around Nicole’s age. Dark haired and dark skinned, she had a beautiful oval face with almond eyes. She was thin and petite, but something about her was instantly charming, Nicole thought.
When the dark haired girl was passing by Nicole with some linen from one of the many guest rooms, Nicole waved. “Hey,” she said. “I’m Nicole.”
“Hello,” the girl said. She didn’t have much of an accent, although most of her co-workers seemed to be from Brazil. “I’m Juliana.”
“Have you been working here long?”
The girl shook her head. “About a month. My mother and father work here, and they decided it was time for me to start coming along to help.”
“Are you a student?”
“I just graduated high school.” Juliana smiled shyly and shrugged. “I’m not sure what to do next.”
“Is there anything else you need help with around the house?” Nicole asked. “I finished with the master bathroom.”
The girl’s hesitant smile turned into a slight frown. “It’s not my business to say.”
“No, I’m asking you. Feel free to tell me what you think. Is there something wrong with my helping?”
“It’s just—this is my family’s work. When they see you doing so much cleaning, they get scared you’re going to take it away from them. They need this job.”
“Me? Take care of this entire house?” she laughed. “I was just trying to chip in.”
Juliana’s eyes were still somber. “I know it seems silly to you. But a job like this, with such good pay—it’s very, very rare. And Mister Jameson treats my family well. They’re afraid of change.”
“Of course,” Nicole said, feeling horrible that she’d offended them while trying to help. “I’m just not used to standing around while other people work.”
Juliana smiled, but it wasn’t an altogether pleasant smile. “This is how it is,” she told her. “You’re rich.”
Nicole smiled sadly in return and walked downstairs, where she found Red on the veranda, on his cell phone. He had his back to her and didn’t notice she’d come out, so he continued talking without interruption.
“How could this happen? How?” Pause. “I don’t fucking believe it. You’re killing me, John. You told me that buying AK was a golden opportunity. You showed me the due diligence, so how did this fucking happen?”
Nicole stood at the entrance to the veranda, her hands twisting against each other as she nervously eavesdropped on his call. She knew this Germany thing was a much bigger deal than he’d let on, and this was the proof.
Red nodded, listening to whomever he was speaking to. She assumed it was John Peterson, the CFO of Jameson International.
“Well, now I need to fly to Germany and clean up your goddamn mess, John. Okay? Is that okay with you? Is that what you’re asking me to do?” He listened for just a moment later before exploding. “You’re fired, John. Fired. Understand? Get on a plane and come back to the U.S. I’m going to fly out first thing Monday morning and try and fix the absolute mess you’ve made of my company.”
Red hung up his cell phone and made as if to throw it across the room, but didn’t. Nicole had a quick, horrifying flashback to her first night at the house, when Red had gone nuts and started throwing plates and dishes, shattering them all over the dining room.
He finally turned and saw Nicole standing there.
His lips came together and tightened, his eyes narrowed. “Were you just spying on me?”
“Don’t talk to me like that,” she replied.
“Don’t spy on me.”
“I wasn’t spying on you,” she said. “I came out to talk with you, and when I heard you so upset, of course I wanted to stay and make sure you were okay.”
He looked down at his phone again, as if in disbelief. “Well I’m fine.”
“No you’re not.”
“I’m not in the mood to play games with you, Nicole. I’ve got real problems to deal with, the last thing I need is to try and manage your feelings about me raising my voice on a business call.”
Nicole wanted to storm out. The old Nicole would have done just that. But she’d grown a little over these last few weeks—at least, she liked to think she’d grown. And now she realized that Red was just scared. Being vulnerable wasn’t easy for him, and she needed to remind herself that his reaction at a time like this wasn’t really personal. He’d been trained to keep a wall between himself and everyone else.
She sat down on the wooden rocking chair that faced out to the rolling green hills and the pond in the distance. “Come sit next to me,” she said, patting the other chair beside her.
“I’m not in the mood,” he replied, petulantly, like a teenager.
“I’ve got some business to attend to.”
She took a deep breath and exhaled. “I’m being reasonable. And I’m your fiancé, so I have every right to hear what’s going on.”
He nodded, resigned, and sat down in the chair next to her, but his posture was stiff and closed off.
“Hold my hand,” she said.
She could tell he didn’t really want to, but eventually he took her hand in his, and as he did so, Nicole felt the tension drain out of him just a little. His shoulders came down slightly and his face became smoother.
“There’s been a major glitch in Germany,” he said, finally.
“What kind of glitch?”
He sighed. “The kind that brings down empires.”
That sent a small chill up her spine. “Tell me more. What happened?”
Red glanced at her as if trying to figure out just how much he should reveal. “What happened is, I got greedy. There’s a very large and successful agency in Germany and the founder was supposedly looking to cash out. I’ve been trying to enlarge Jameson International’s global footprint, and this seemed the perfect opportunity. But it was a hefty price tag to buy the agency, and with some of our North American operations struggling—“
“Who’s struggling?” she asked, confused now.
Red looked at her again. “Things have slowed down domestically, Nicole. I’ve lost some big clients this past year. Nothing terrible, but it hurt our bottom line. This Germany acquisition was a gamble. A major gamble, given how much I paid for it and some of the cash flow issues we’re having.”
She squeezed his hand. “I’m glad you’re telling me this.”
He looked at her again. “It gets worse.”
“Okay. Tell me more.”
“Our stock is very precarious at the moment. Every company in the world invests some of its capital in the stock market. And Jameson International is unlucky enough to be heavily leveraged in the EU market—we’ve lost boatloads of money the last six months.”
“So what does all of this mean?” she said. She knew it was bad. Her stomach felt like she’d drank curdled milk.
Red looked directly into her eyes. “It means that we’re on the precipice right now. It’s been a perfect storm of bad luck, bad decisions, some overreaching on my part. And it’s brought the company—and me personally—to a place where everything could go down in flames.”
“But you’re rich.”
“It’s like dominoes,” Red told her, smiling sadly. “A silly, cliché analogy, but very accurate in this case. If this new acquisition in Germany goes south, I could lose my company. You and I could lose the company, I should say.”
“I don’t care about the money,” she told him, meeting his gaze and holding it. Her chin lifted in the defiant way that she had when someone doubted her fighting spirit.
“I know,” he said, stroking her cheek. “But I do care about the company I’ve spent my life building. I’m not going to lose it all now.”
“What can I do to help?”
He sighed. “Just be you. And try to understand that I’m under some stress right now, especially with my mother’s unannounced visit. The last thing I need is that woman getting under my skin and having my mind twisted in knots. I need to be at the top of my game.”
“I won’t let her hurt you,” Nicole said. She squeezed his hand again.
“I believe you’d be quite the match for her, actually,” Red grinned. “And she might be just arrogant enough to underestimate you.”
Nicole smiled. “Everyone underestimates me, I’m used to it.”
o lovely to meet you
,” were the first words out of Red’s mother’s mouth as Nicole and Red greeted her at JFK Airport, while Red’s limo driver lugged two large suitcases to the trunk of the car.
Nicole was surprised at how different the woman seemed from how she’d imagined her to look and act. Based on Red’s descriptions, Nicole had thought his mother would look severe, deranged, like someone from a horror movie.
Instead, she found his mother to look and act a lot like any normal mom. In fact, she hugged Nicole warmly right away. Nicole could smell her flowery perfume as the two of them embraced. “So nice to meet you,” Nicole said.
“Please call me Erica,” his mother replied brightly.
She didn’t even look old enough to be Red’s mother, Nicole thought. She was dark haired but fairer skinned than Red, and although her hips were wide, Erica Jameson seemed to be in very decent shape for a woman in her late fifties.
The biggest telltale sign of her age was the slight sagging of the skin around her cheeks and chin, and the wrinkles in her neck. But they were small details, and the fact was, Erica looked fantastic for any woman at any age. She was wearing a black pantsuit with a ruffled white blouse, and a black Gucci purse was slung over one shoulder.
Red gave his mother a quick hug and kiss on the cheek. Nicole could sense his discomfort from the way his shoulders were hunched and the stiffness of his jaw. He’d been very quiet and closed off on the ride to the airport, but Nicole didn’t blame him.
She’d seen him ignoring his buzzing phone as texts and phone calls came in—he made a comment to her about waiting for Monday to deal with business. But Nicole knew it was killing him to have to worry about both his mother’s visit and the troubles with his company at the same time.
Nicole just kept smiling and put on a brave face, even though deep down the fear and anxieties were still there for her. She didn’t like seeing Red in so much distress.
“I’m so excited to spend time with both of you,” Erica said, as the driver opened the door for them to climb inside.
“Great,” Red said, his voice displaying little enthusiasm. “We’ll get you back to the house, you can take some time to recover from traveling and then I’ve got a wonderful restaurant booked for an afternoon bite to eat.”
“Actually, I’ve made us other plans,” Erica said, giving Nicole a wry grin and a wink.
Red’s face turned grave. “Other plans?”
The driver turned around in his seat. “Where to, Mister Jameson?”
Erica answered for him, leaning forward in her seat. “West 45
The driver glanced at Red, who merely gave a slight nod and sat back, his lips pressed together tightly. Nicole tried to take his hand but he moved it to his knee instead.
“Is it a surprise or can I ask where you’re taking us?” Nicole said, trying to sound chipper.
Erica began rummaging in her purse. “I hope I didn’t lose them…” she muttered, as the limousine started moving slowly forward into traffic.
“Lose what?” Red asked.
Erica looked up at him with a little grin. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”
“Yes, I would.”
Just then his phone began buzzing in his pocket, but Red ignored it.
“Aren’t you going to answer that?” his mother asked.
“No, I wasn’t planning to.”
“Because I’m trying to give me attention to you, and to my fiancé.”
“That’s nice, honey. But still, I think you should answer. It could be an important business call.”
He folded his arms. “What were you looking for in your purse?” he asked.
Erica smiled, once again giving Erica what felt like a secret look, as if they were already the best of friends. “I’m just going to wait a little longer before I ruin the surprise. I think you’ll both enjoy it, though.”
Red turned and stared out the window of the limousine. The way he looked now reminded Nicole of that horrible first night they’d spent together in the mansion, when he’d suddenly become strange and distant from her. She’d seen him sitting in his chair in the study, staring out the window and drinking as if he’d just heard a friend had died. That was the same night he’d been so cruel to her, and later, he’d thrown plates and glasses all over the dining room.
Nicole broke herself from her morbid reverie. “Miss Jameson—I mean Erica—what do you do for work?” she asked, trying to fill the uncomfortable silence that had descended over the car.
“I’m a nurse,” Red’s mother said.
“Oh, wow, that’s amazing.” Nicole meant it, too—she deeply admired caregivers and teachers, people who spent their lives dedicated to helping others first.
“I’ve been a nurse since I was twenty-six years old and haven’t stopped yet, even with a son who’s made sure I never have to work another day in my life if I don’t want to.” Erica smiled at Red.
“She’s a very hard working lady,” Red said, his gaze landing everywhere but his mother. “Taught me a lot about having a great work ethic.”
Erica waved his comments off. “I’m nothing special, really,” she said to Nicole. “I’m just a mother and a nurse. A simple person, really—always have been.”