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In through the nose and out through the mouth.
Lori Woods clasped her hands in her lap and strove to look composed even as her heart raced and a mini volcano erupted inside her. She told herself again there was no reason to feel so anxious and unsettled. She would get the job.
She had worked hard for the job.
She deserved this job, and surely her father, the president and CEO of Lakeside Industries, knew that.
She glanced around the executive conference room. The assorted vice presidents, directors, and managers employed by the luxury textile firm sat expectantly at the gleaming conference table or stood shoulder to shoulder around the perimeter of the room, awaiting the appearance of Jack Woods. Lori had made sure to arrive early and she sat near the head of the table, nearest to where her father would soon make the long-awaited announcement on the selection of the new commodities manager.
On the opposite side of the room, she caught Seth Bieler’s eye. He gave her a wink, likely meant to be reassuring, but which only annoyed her. He wore a new suit for the occasion and Lori grudgingly acknowledged he looked good. She only wished he didn’t look so confident. He also wanted the coveted position and had done everything in his power to ingratiate himself with her father. Lori gave a soft huff of disgust because she’d unwittingly helped him in that endeavor by dating him for the past six months.
She cast him another surreptitious look. Medium height and lean, he had sandy-brown hair and brown eyes, and a ready smile. Everyone liked him, including her mother and her four older brothers. She had liked him well enough, too, until she’d discovered he was competing against her for the job she’d wanted for so long. She looked quickly away in case he saw the resentment in her eyes. Since returning from a business related trip to Ireland five weeks ago, she’d tried to put some distance between them, but he’d been like a prickly bur, hooking into her and becoming even more tightly attached.
Her thoughts were interrupted as Jack Woods breezed into the conference room and came to stand mere feet away at the head of the table. Her father wasn’t a tall man, but he exuded a warm vitality and keen intelligence that inspired loyalty in those who worked for him.
“Good afternoon,” he said now, his gaze sweeping the room, lingering for just a second on Lori. “Thank you for being here. As you know, we’ve been conducting a search for someone to fill the commodities manager position, and not just someone. Someone perfect. Someone who demonstrates the values and commitment to excellence we hold so dear here at Lakeside Industries. Someone who understands what it means to provide superior products to our customer base, and who can develop those critical relationships to source the very best raw materials that are the hallmark of our luxury textiles.” He paused for a moment, steepling his fingers together. “Our selection committee has not had an easy job. We had some truly outstanding candidates.”
Realizing she had her hands gripped tightly together, Lori forced herself to relax. She took some deep breaths and smoothed her palms over her thighs. It would be her. It had to be her.
“In the end, however,” Jack continued, “there was one candidate who stood out among the others. This person has the winning combination of experience, education, and attitude considered essential for success in this position. This person exemplifies the values that have made us a leader in our industry and, I’m convinced, will make us even more successful in the future.” He paused. “Please join me in congratulating our new commodities manager, Seth Bieler. Seth, come up and join me, please.”
Later, Lori couldn’t have said if she’d clapped or if she’d just sat there, stunned, as Seth made his way through the crowded conference room, accepting the handshakes and backslaps with a boyish grin and appropriate words of thanks. When he reached her father’s side, he tried to make eye contact with her, but Lori averted her gaze. There was a loud buzzing in her head. Her face felt scalded with humiliation and a hard knot had formed in her throat. Only excessive pride kept her in her seat when every fiber of her being wanted to bolt from the room. Her father had not looked at her again, but was instead smiling broadly as he pumped Seth’s hand and congratulated him. Lori stared blindly at her own hands, unwilling to acknowledge the curious or sympathetic looks that must surely be directed at her from the others in the room. Everyone had known how much she’d wanted this job.
Seth turned toward the assembled group. “Wow,” he said, looking sheepish and overwhelmed and pleased. “I’m honored and thankful, and so excited for this opportunity. I look forward to working with each of you in this new capacity and I promise you, I won’t let you down. But there’s one person I especially want to recognize right now, because none of this would mean anything without her.”
Lori shifted uncomfortably in her seat as Seth stepped forward to stand directly in front of her chair. What was he doing? Why would he single her out like this, knowing how much his selection had hurt her? Behind Seth, her father stood with his hands clasped loosely in front of him, beaming. A niggling suspicion pricked the back of her thoughts.
“Lori,” Seth began, his expression intent and serious, “I know you wanted this job, and I know how lucky I am to have been selected, considering your own qualifications. But I’m hoping that you’ll support me going forward.”
No, no, a hundred times no.
“I want us to be partners,” he said urgently. “In everything. I knew a long time ago that your family—that you—were special. There’s nothing I want more than to take on this new role with you by my side.”
Lori watched in astonishment as he reached into the pocket of his jacket and withdrew a small velvet box. Dropping to one knee in front of her, he opened the box to reveal a round diamond set in a halo of smaller diamonds. Light caught the facets of the center stone and threw shards of brilliant color across the room. She barely heard the soft gasps from those around her.
“Lori Woods,” he said solemnly, “would you do me the honor of becoming my wife?”
Speechless, Lori lifted her mortified gaze from the ring to Seth’s face. She glanced at her father, who stood looking on with an expression of pride. He gave her a barely perceptible nod. The conference room had gone completely silent as the entire leadership team of Lakeside Industries awaited her response.
She desperately wished a meteor would hit the building or a sinkhole would open beneath it and drag her to the center of the earth. She wished she was anywhere but here. She hadn’t thought there could be anything worse than being passed over for the job, but she’d been wrong. This was much worse. A part of her wanted to snatch the ring from Seth’s hand and hurl it across the room. None of this was fair. He’d taken advantage of the situation—had taken advantage of her—knowing she wouldn’t refuse him in front of so many people.
And he was right.
Seeing the hopeful expression on Seth’s face, she knew she couldn’t humiliate him in front of the entire leadership team any more than she could embarrass her father, who so obviously believed she would welcome the proposal. In that moment, she hated herself almost as much as she despised Seth for deliberately putting her in this position.
“Okay,” she heard herself say, so quietly it was a wonder Seth caught it, but in the next instant he had slid the ring onto her finger and then snatched her out of her chair to pull her into a bone-crushing embrace before planting a hard kiss on her mouth.
“She said yes!” he exclaimed to the room. Lori didn’t have the heart to correct him. There would be time to end it later, when they didn’t have witnesses.
“Thank you,” he said into her ear. “You won’t regret this.”
She already regretted it, but she smiled tightly and endured the hugs and congratulations of her coworkers, until finally, the whole nonsensical farce was over and only the two of them and her father remained in the conference room.
“I know this came as a surprise,” Seth said quickly, “but I’ve been planning to propose for at least a month, since you returned from Ireland.”
In other words, since she’d decided to put the brakes on their relationship and had started making excuses as to why she could no longer spend as much time with him. She told herself again it had nothing to do with who she’d met or what had happened during those brief weeks in Ireland. She and Seth just weren’t as compatible as she’d originally thought.
“Well, I think it’s wonderful,” Jack said. “In fact, why don’t we celebrate with dinner tonight?”
He named a Michelin 2-star restaurant that boasted a typical reservation period of six weeks, promising a table for four at eight o’clock before he hugged Lori and left her alone with her surprise fiancé.
They stood in awkward silence for a moment before they both began to speak at once.
“I know this isn’t what you expected—”
“You know I can’t accept—”
They both broke off, embarrassed.
“Ladies first,” Seth said.
Lori fiddled with the ring on her finger. It was at least a size too large and the heavy stone kept sliding to one side. “I can’t accept this, Seth. You must know that.”
“Oh, I see.” He took her hand in his larger one. “I messed up on the sizing. Your mother said you wore a size seven, but I think you’re closer to a six. No worries, I’ll take it back to the jeweler and have it resized.”
Lori stared at him, bemused. “You talked to my mother about this?”
He raised innocent eyes to hers. “Of course I did. I asked your father for his permission about three weeks ago. You must have guessed my intentions.”
“No,” she spluttered. “Why would I? We’ve had some fun dates, but it’s never been serious between us. If I somehow gave you the impression that I expected this, I’m sorry.”
But instead of being angry, Seth gave her a reassuring smile and drew the ring from her finger. She watched as he tucked it back into its velvet lining and returned the tiny box to his jacket pocket. “You have nothing to apologize for. I did this all wrong. I see that now.” He gave a self-deprecating laugh. “What was I thinking of, proposing to you in front of the whole office? I just thought it would make you feel special, the way some guys use the Jumbotron at Soldier Field to pop the question.”
“No, no,” Lori protested, growing exasperated. “It’s not that. I can’t marry you, Seth. You’re a sweet guy and I really like you, but marriage was never on my radar.”
“Well, it’s been on my radar since we first danced at the company Christmas party last year,” he declared. “I admire everything about you, Lori. Your parents are great, and your dad has treated me like his own son. Your mother is beautiful and classy, and I can see you becoming more like her as you get older. And you know how I feel about your brothers—we like the same sports teams and have similar tastes and standards. I actually enjoy hanging out with them.”
Lori looked at him quizzically. Did he even realize the things he professed to admire pertained to her family and not to her? Or that his so-called proposal had lacked any mention of love? She’d always suspected he was more attracted to her family than he was to her, and now she knew it was the truth.
“Seth,” she said gently, “I’m glad you like my family. They like you, too, but that’s not a reason to marry someone. Honestly, you don’t even know me. Not really.”
Seth laughed, but it sounded slightly less confident. “Sure I do. I know we haven’t taken our relationship to the next level, but that’s something I actually admire and respect about you—that it means something to you. I never thought I’d say this, but I don’t mind waiting until we’re married.” Catching her hand, he carried it to his mouth. “I know it’s going to be great.”
Pulling her hand free, Lori couldn’t hide her growing annoyance. “We’re not getting married, okay? The whole idea is insane. I’m sorry, but you need to return the ring. I’ll tell my parents it was a misunderstanding, that we’re better off as friends. They’ll understand.”
“Is it because I got the job?” he asked.
“No!” That hadn’t helped his cause, but she would have refused him regardless.
“Okay, good. I was worried that might influence your decision, but I want to assure you that whenever I need to travel for work, you’ll come with me. We’ll see the world together.”
“And what about my job? Do you think I’d be able to just pick up and take off anytime you need to travel?” She knew she was being unfair, since she had no intention of taking off anywhere with Seth Bieler. Ever. But he seemed not to notice her indignation.
“Well, that’s another thing. You wouldn’t actually need to work,” he replied, looking a little smug. “I would always take care of you.”
Lori’s eyes widened, and for a moment, she just stared at him, speechless, realizing he had no idea how old-fashioned and misogynistic he sounded. “Oh, golly,” she said, clasping her hands together and giving him a wide-eyed look of adoration. “How can I resist an offer like that?”
“Is that a yes?” he asked hopefully.
“No, that was sarcasm. And we’re done with this conversation,” she said, losing her patience. “I am not going to marry you. I only said I would because I didn’t want to embarrass you in front of all those people. You can tell them whatever you want about why we broke things off, but I need you to be clear about this—we are not engaged.”
To her surprise, he took her by the shoulders and tipped his head so that he could look into her eyes. “Don’t make any decisions yet. It’s been a stressful day, and you’re probably still upset about the job, but I have an idea. I’ll get the ring resized and when I propose again, I’ll do it right—flowers and candlelight and all the romance a girl could want. Okay?”
Shrugging free, Lori stepped out of reach. “No, it’s not okay. None of that matters, Seth, because I’m not in love with you.”
“But we’d make such a great team, Lori. Maybe you don’t understand—this company is like a family to me. I have so much respect and admiration for your father, and nothing would make me happier than to become part of the Woods family.”
It was too much. His persistence, coupled with the fact her father apparently did prefer him over her, snapped what remained of her fragile temper. “Fine, then marry one of them! But not me, Seth.”
Turning on her heel, she all but ran from the conference room.
The restaurant where Lori waited for her mother to arrive a scant hour later was only moderately busy since it was past the lunch hour but not quite late enough for the dinner crowd. She hadn’t been able to remain at work but hadn’t wanted to go home to an empty apartment, and Rachel hadn’t answered when she made the long-distance call to Ireland. But she needed to talk to someone. So she’d called her mother, who had promised to meet her at the chic downtown bistro right away.
Lori had nabbed a table beneath a bank of massive industrial windows where she had a clear view of the Chicago River and the surrounding skyscrapers. The cherry blossoms were in bloom along the riverfront despite the fact there was still ice on the lake and a biting wind that whistled through the city streets.
“Hello, darling. I came as soon as I could, but traffic was a nightmare.”
Lori looked up to see her mother pulling off her gloves and coat, her face a study in sympathy. Still attractive at sixty-four, Kathleen Woods looked effortlessly elegant in a black turtleneck paired with a herringbone skirt and boots. Now she unwound her scarf and fluffed her dark hair before sitting down and signaling to the waitstaff.
“What are you drinking?” she asked, eyeing Lori’s cocktail.
“A vodka tonic with a splash of cranberry.” Lifting her glass, she took another long swallow as a waiter approached their table. “I’ll have another, please.”
“And a chardonnay for me,” her mother said.
After the waiter left, she leaned forward and laid a hand over Lori’s fingers, squeezing gently. “I heard what happened. Your father said you initially accepted Seth’s proposal, but then changed your mind?”
“Mom, he ambushed me in front of everyone! What was I supposed to do?” Realizing she’d raised her voice to the point where people were glancing in her direction, she leaned forward and hissed, “It was so humiliating!”
“What, the proposal or the fact you didn’t get the job?”
Lori blew out a frustrated breath. “All of it. I was so sure that job was mine. And to have Dad stand up there and hand it to Seth, and then for Seth to do that—in front of everyone—” She gave a light shudder. “It was awful.”
“I thought you liked him.” Her mother’s voice was gently probing. “You’ve been seeing him since before the holidays.”
“Why can’t I date someone without everyone thinking I want to marry the guy?” She waited as their drinks arrived before continuing. “I know you like him, but he’s not for me.”
“Your father thinks he has a real future with the company. You’d be well taken care of.”
Lori knew her mother meant well, so she resisted the urge to say something snarky. Her mother wouldn’t understand, having always been happy in her role as wife and mother. She enjoyed playing hostess to her father’s many clients and seemed to derive a sense of purpose from her various charities and fundraisers. But Lori knew that lifestyle wasn’t for her. She needed a man who would challenge her. A man who would see her as a true equal and not be afraid to let her make mistakes. A man who understood her need for independence. A man like—she shut the thought down before it could fully form.
“I’m not like you, Mom,” she finally said, choosing her words carefully. “I don’t want to be taken care of. I want to make my own way. I want to travel, to have a career I can be proud of. The commodities manager position would have given me all that. Now what am I supposed to do?”
“You still have a job working for your father,” Kathleen reminded her gently. “But the commodities manager position would have had you traveling alone to countries that aren’t always safe, especially for a young woman.”
And just like that, Lori understood why she hadn’t been selected for the job. She would always be, first and foremost, her father’s little girl. He would never see her as an adult, capable of making her own decisions. He wanted to keep her safe and he wanted to keep her close.
She thought of her cousin, Rachel, who was the same age as herself and had been raised almost as a sister to Lori. Rachel’s father had been Jack Woods’s younger brother, but had died unexpectedly when Rachel was just fourteen. Jack had stepped in as more than an uncle—he’d been like a surrogate father to Rachel. But he hadn’t objected when Rachel’s graduate research had taken her to India and Pakistan, or when she’d accepted her current internship in Ireland. In fact, the only solo travel Lori had ever done was when she’d visited her cousin in Ireland the previous month. She realized now that she’d only been permitted to go because Rachel—the responsible one—had been there to keep an eye on her.
“I understand Dad’s concerns,” she said now, “but he needs to understand I’m a grown woman. I’m more than capable of managing on my own. He can’t control my life forever.”
Kathleen gave her a sympathetic smile. “Try telling him that. He only wants what’s best for you, darling.”
“What’s best for me right now is to get away for a while,” Lori said slowly. “What would you say if I told you I want to go back to Ireland?”
To her surprise, her mother reached across the table and took her hand. “I’d say that decision is long overdue.”
End of Excerpt