Authors: Jacqui Moreau
Tags: #General Fiction
Reed took a sip of wine and smiled. “All right, enough spin. How would you handle the Hammond collection?”
Eva wanted to be annoyed at the way he cut through her carefully worded speech but couldn’t. He was treating her like a business equal. It was exactly what she wanted. “I thought we’d start with a full-color catalog. It would have the complete collection and would be released three months before the auction in order to whet the public’s interest,” she said, pushing the mockup she’d drawn up toward him.
Reed picked it up and started flipping through the pages. “What else?”
“We’d display the collection in our New York gallery as well as tour the highlights. I envision a four-city tour: London, Tokyo, Los Angeles, Nashville.”
“Why only highlights?” he asked. “Davidge’s and Brooks’s want to tour the entire collection.”
Of course they do, she thought. That’s the kind of money they have. But even if Wyndham’s could afford it, Eva would be reluctant to. Showing only part of the collection was a more effective way of piquing the public’s interest. “I think a collection should be mysterious and aloof, a little seductive, like…like a woman doing a veil dance,” she said, cursing herself for coming up with such a trite metaphor. “We show them a few excellent pieces to get their attention. Then we tell them there’s even more if they follow us to New York. You don’t remove all the veils at once. And getting bidders from far-flung paces is key. In my experience, the farther a bidder travels, the more he or she wants to buy something. It’s like going on vacation. Nobody wants to return from New York City without a souvenir. For some people that means a commemorative spoon with the Statue of Liberty on it and for others that means a Monet.”
Reed nodded. “Why Nashville? Nobody else has mentioned Nashville.”
At this observation, Eva smiled and felt a keen satisfaction in herself and her ability to dig up arcane information. It hadn’t been easy to identify an enclave of art collectors in Tennessee, and only the obsessive tracking of auction sales of Impressionist paintings for the last twenty years had revealed the pattern.
“I’m not surprised,” she said. “Obviously, Nashville is a hotbed of country music, not art collecting, but it’s a city with a surprising amount of money, and rising executives who are trying to establish themselves are always on the lookout for new ways to show off their wealth. Moreover, the city is home to a small community called Belle Meade, which topped
’ list of the best places in the U.S. to retire rich. Its median household income is $250,000, and homes average $915,000. Al Gore lives there, as does billionaire Thomas Frist, who cofounded the Hospital Corporation of America. There’s a lot of money centered in a small area, and many of the residents are avid collectors of Impressionism. I want to get them involved, and bringing the collection to them is an opportunity to do that. It will go a long way to earning their goodwill as well as flattering their egos and ensuring that they don’t feel like some sort of Southern backwater.” She paused and took a sip of wine before continuing. “As peddlers with wares to hock, I think it behooves us to stroke as many egos as possible.”
Reed considered her as the waiter brought their meals to the table. He waited for him to leave before saying, “You’re an astute businesswoman, Ms. Butler.”
Eva cocked her head as she accepted the compliment. “Thank you.”
“I’m familiar with Belle Meade and have even had dinner at Al Gore’s home.”
Knowing how few people could make that statement and with such nonchalance, Eva narrowed her eyes and wondered, not for the first time, who he was. “What exactly do you do, Reed?”
Reed shrugged. “Mostly, I plug holes when things start to leak.”
As far as job descriptions went, she thought this one was thoroughly inadequate. “And you plug holes for Hammond Communications?”
“What’s your title?”
“CHP. Chief Hole Plugger.”
Eva couldn’t decide if she should be amused or annoyed. She settled on the former. “Don’t you ever give a straight answer?”
“If the question is right.”
Eva knew this was just another diversionary tactic and gave up. “For a man who may or not be an employee of Hammond Communications, you seem to know a lot about what goes on there.” Deciding she was too hungry to wait any longer, she dug right in. The soup burned her tongue but tasted so good, she didn’t mind. She took another spoonful.
“I hear things.”
“What things?” She sampled some of the cheese that had melted over the side of the bowl. “This soup is fantastic.”
He smiled warmly, revealing the dimple. “Told you so. What do you want to know?”
“I don’t want you to break any confidences or anything—this is strictly an above-board operation—but do you happen to know if Mr. Hammond has made up his mind?” she asked, tearing off a piece of bread and dunking it into her delicious soup. “I don’t want to waste my time and get my hopes up if the whole thing is already a done deal.”
He looked at her with his sapphire gaze for several long moments. “I can tell you truthfully and unequivocally and without breaking a single confidence that there are no done deals. Right now, anything’s possible.”
Eva let out a tense breath she hadn’t even realized she was holding. “Great. So, to continue, commission rates.”
“Ah, yes, commission rates,” he said, cutting his fillet.
Reed obviously knew enough about auctions to realize that this was where the real dealing was done. Decisions were often made based on the commission rates charged. Wyndham’s, because of its size, had never been very competitive when it came to commissions. It was standard to charge the buyer fifteen percent; people rarely complained about this. But the seller’s commission—now, that was a hot topic. Wyndham’s had been known to go as low as ten percent but that was all in the past. Ever since the Wyndham heir presumptive had taken over the New York office, seller’s rates had remained fixed at fifteen percent. Ethan had sent out a press release to that effect four months after he’d taken over and nobody in the firm had strayed from it. Until now.
Eva wasn’t sure how she was going to square it with upper management, but she knew she would figure it out. The Hammond collection was too important to be a victim of policy. “Fifteen percent for buyers, ten percent for the seller,” she said, a little nervous. Even if she wanted to go lower, she couldn’t. For a small firm like Wyndham’s, the financials didn’t work out. It was different for Davidge’s and Brooks’s, which had both been known to cut their seller’s commission to zero in order to get the high-profile sales. Those firms had also announced a fixed-rate structure a couple of years ago, but Eva had little faith that they were sticking to it.
Reed considered her carefully. “Ten percent for the seller?”
Although she felt a fissure of alarm, Eva knew it was too late to backtrack now. “Ten percent.”
“Can you guarantee that right now?”
All right, so maybe it wasn’t too late to backtrack. “I can’t guarantee it right here and now,” she said honestly. “I have to talk to a few people first. But I’m reasonably sure that Wyndham’s will stick by that offer. By the time I meet with Mr. Hammond, I will be able to guarantee that figure.”
Holding his wineglass, he nodded slowly. “It sounds good.”
Eva leaned forward. She didn’t want to get too excited. Not yet. “Does that mean you’ll put in a word for me with Mr. Hammond? Nothing lavish, just maybe a suggestion that he should move my meeting up by, say, oh, I don’t know, a month. October sixteenth is simply too far away.”
“I haven’t finished listening to your pitch,” he answered cautiously, “but the way things are going, there’s a very good chance you’ll see him before October sixteen.”
Although it could hardly be termed as professional behavior, Eva reached a hand across the table and touched his arm. “Thank you, Reed.”
He took her hand and raised it to his lips. “My pleasure.”
Eva felt the electricity of his lips even before they made contact with her skin. She schooled her features to show no response, but inside her chest her heart was racing painfully. To hide her discomfort, she cleared her throat and tried to focus on something other than her ridiculous heart. “Right, my pitch. As I was saying, the catalog will be four-color.…” Eva trailed off when she realized he was still holding her hand. “I’m going to need that back if you want me to continue with my presentation.”
“Of course,” he said softly, loosening his grip.
With the contact between them broken, Eva was able to concentrate on catalogs and sales figures and commission percentages. When she had said she was good at her job, she had been speaking nothing less than the truth, but her job had never before consisted of a sales pitch to a client. As a junior associate, Eva had toiled behind the scenes, appraising furniture and working out strategies for showing those pieces to advantage.
But you’re not a junior associate anymore, she reminded herself. All her hard work and determination had paid off with a promotion, a rarity at Wyndham’s, which was stingy with its rewards. Knowing that made her accomplishment all the more sweet.
Because her saleswoman skills were still being developed, she welcomed the opportunity to practice her pitch on someone as quick and perceptive as Reed. He was a good listener who gave the impression that he was paying attention to every word she said. Eva found this refreshing. In her experience, the opposite sex listened to a woman only with a distracted ear. Men like her father were always thinking about things they deemed more important, and the men she met socially were always concentrating on a clever comeback to impress her. Reed was different. He interrupted only to ask thoughtful, intelligent questions, some of which caught her off guard. Eva had thought that she was completely prepared for this meeting. She’d believed that she had covered every possible angle, but Reed made her see differently. Halfway through the meeting, she took out her phone and started taking notes.
“As I said, we can offer the seller ten percent commission, but I regret we can’t go any lower than that,” Eva explained, as the waiter cleared the table. “However, I urge you to consider other things in making the decisions, such as buyer turnout. I assure you, Wyndham’s knows how to publicize an auction and target the right collectors. Ninety percent of one hundred million dollars is more than one hundred percent of eighty million.”
Reed nodded. “A valid argument and certainly one worth thinking about.” He paused for a moment. “I’ll tell you what, why don’t you draw up a proposal outlining all the points we discussed today, including answers to those questions I had and guaranteeing that ten percent, and send it to Cole’s office. I’ll let him know it’s coming.”
The offer was fair, and it was, Eva knew, more than she had a right to expect. Still, she was disappointed. At thirty, she was too old for fairly tales, but a foolish part of her had hoped regardless that he would be so completely wowed by her presentation that he’d insist on introducing her to Coleman Hammond that very minute.
“Sounds good,” she said, with an overly cheerful tone to hide her ridiculous disappointment. “I’ll get to work on that right away.” She looked around for the waiter, suddenly eager to be gone.
The waiter turned up a few seconds later but with dessert menus in hand instead of a check.
“Nothing for me, thanks,” she said, waving off temptation. “The soup was delicious but extremely filling. I can’t imagine how I’ll have room for dinner tonight.”
“Very well, I’ll forgo the pleasure as well. Just bring me an espresso.” He raised on eyebrow at Eva. “Coffee?”
Although she didn’t want to linger, she knew that with business taken care of she’d need something to distract her for the rest of the meal. She ordered a cup of decaf.
“Decaf?” asked Reed. “It’s only three-thirty.”
The lateness of the hour surprised her, and she looked at her watch to confirm the time. “Three-thirty already? I’ve been out of the office for hours.” She laughed nervously. “I’m going to get some pretty suspicious looks when I come sauntering back in at four.”
“Would a note help?” he asked.
“I can get a note from Mrs. Hemingway excusing your lateness,” he explained. “They work like magic with second-grade teachers.”
“Although the amount of bickering that sometimes goes on in my department might lead you to conclude we’re a bunch of schoolchildren,” she said, thinking of the stiff, competitive disposition of most of her colleagues, “I’m going to have to pass on your gracious offer. I don’t think Ben would welcome the comparison.”
“Is there a lot of bickering?”
She considered the question carefully. “I suppose
isn’t exactly the right word. Wyndham’s is a family-held company so the space at the top is rather limited, which means there’s a lot of competition. Sometimes it gets fierce. Nothing awful,” she hastened to add, “just a lot of jockeying for position. Everyone wants to show himself in the best light and often this means being overly solicitous to the bosses. It’s hard sometimes to maintain your dignity in such circumstances.”
Reed smiled. “You work with a bunch of suck-ups.”
Eva blushed. She hadn’t meant to convey quite that impression. “No, they’re just—”
“It’s all right. I work with a bunch of suck-ups, too.” He shrugged philosophically. “It’s part and parcel of the business world.”
Eva had a hard time picturing this man flattering a few egos to get ahead. “Yeah, but I imagine you’re seeing it from a different perspective. It’s not quite the same when people are sucking up to you.”
“What makes you so sure of that?”
“That it’s not that same?”
“No, that I’m seeing it from a different perspective.”
“Only men who are at the top of their game are as skilled at evading questions as you are,” she explained. “Bottom feeders have to give detailed answers.”
“Funny, I don’t remember that from my bottom-feeder days.”
“Did you have bottom-feeder days?”
“I started out in the mailroom.”
Eva laughed. She couldn’t imagine him sorting through letters and packages. “Really?”