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The meeting had been going so well. Generally speaking, as a financial analyst with Kirkland Young and Sloane, one of the nation’s biggest wealth management firms, Rachel Bai’s days consisted of collecting data and researching, making recommendations, and presenting her findings at meetings. However, most of her time was spent working alone, which was her preference. And frankly it was probably better for all involved. Today was not her lucky day.
“Well, thanks for meeting with me,” Tricia Watkins said with a grateful smile. The new liaison from the New York City Fire Pension fund, one of her major clients, Tricia had suggested they grab a quick lunch to get to know each other. So now they were seated at Townsend Bistro where she was eating a delicious Cajun salmon salad at Trish’s recommendation and drinking mineral water. Expensive brand-name mineral water. Rachel had agreed reluctantly because she was always afraid she’d do or say something socially awkward to make it all go to hell. Today was no exception.
“I should be the one thanking you. You’re the one who paid, after all,” Rachel pointed out reasonably. Then she paused. “So, thank you.”
“My pleasure,” Tricia assured her. Tricia was exactly the type of person who intimidated her and made her nervous. Her lunch companion carried herself like she was born to wear her tailored blazer, blouse, pencil skirt, and high pumps, while Rachel was wearing flats and an off-the-rack generic suit from Ann Taylor. Tricia was the epitome of calm, polished, and poised. Someone who was confident and wouldn’t be thrown by a simple conversation over lunch because of course she’d know what to do and what to say. Unlike Rachel.
“I’m looking forward to getting to know you better as we continue working together. Here’s hoping for a long and productive relationship,” the other woman continued.
Rachel frowned as a boulder settled in the pit of her stomach. More lunches? More interactions? More opportunities to show how inept she was at this sort of thing? “Hopefully we’ll both be too busy for all that.” Seeing the look on Tricia’s face, Rachel scrambled to backtrack. “I mean, assuming the projections and investments work out, more work and more money for all of us. The important thing is the firefighters are happy. Win-win, right?” she added desperately.
“Definitely.” Tricia got up from the table though her smile had cooled several degrees and was wary now.
Rachel groaned inwardly. She had screwed up again. Even though she hadn’t meant to. “Anyway, I will get this paperwork to you as soon as possible.” She was much more comfortable when things were on a business footing. At least she knew what to do. Most of the time.
“That sounds great. But you’re right about the increased workload if all this takes off. I barely see my husband and kids these days. What work-life balance, right?” Tricia said with a laugh.
“I wouldn’t know,” Rachel said with a shrug. “I spend most of my days at the office. No husband or kids, so I don’t have that problem. Though there are times I wonder why I bother renting an apartment when I’m hardly ever there. Maybe I could consider giving it up,” she mused. “It would save money, and there may be some tax benefits. What do you think?” she asked Tricia. “Though it would be awkward to find a place to store my clothes and shower and wash up if I did just live at the office full-time. Maybe I can find a nearby gym?”
The look in Tricia’s eyes told her she had way overshot the mark in trying to relate. Crap.
“Anyway, it’s time I got back to work. Thanks again for lunch.” Rachel pushed up her glasses and stuck out her hand. Then saw Tricia hesitate. Surely she hadn’t gotten this part of it wrong. To her relief, Tricia returned the handshake. After a brief goodbye, the two went their separate ways.
With a sigh, Rachel shook her head and started the ten-block trek back to her office. She should be used to it by now, this inability to carry on a decent conversation over a simple meal. Somehow, from birth she seemed to be missing that particular gene that everyone else had inherited. While most people seemed to have an intuitive sense of how to act in these situations, she had the uncanny ability to never know the right thing to say, and whatever she did say always ended up making things a thousand times worse and more awkward.
Despite her best efforts, she’d never possessed the easy ability to connect with people and it always made her feel like the odd man out. She wished she could be like everyone else. Someone who could make friends easily, act normal. Be normal.
But, as a person who dealt with numbers and reality, Rachel knew that such wishes were useless. For better or worse, she was who she was. And the fact that she was a weirdo didn’t prevent her from being good at her job. She always believed in focusing and maximizing on her strengths. Maybe someday she could work on making new friends and find someone who didn’t mind her weird and awkward ways. She thought back to New Year’s. She and Cecily Chang had made headway into a friendship of sorts. So perhaps she wasn’t a total lost cause after all.
But for now, work called. In that arena she excelled. Rachel clung on to that thread of hope all the way back to the office.
Later that afternoon, Rachel knocked on her manager’s door with no small amount of trepidation. Out of the blue, she’d gotten an email to drop by her manager Jake’s office at four thirty—a demand not a request. That was all the two-line message said, so Rachel had no idea what to expect. She could be getting a promotion, fired, or asked to head up the recruitment/hiring committee. There was no way to know.
She hoped she wasn’t getting fired. Had Trish called and lodged some sort of complaint?
Jake Clyburn gestured for her to enter and take a seat. But he kept her hanging by taking another five minutes to finish writing his email or whatever it was he was doing.
“Hey, Rachel, thanks for coming by.”
“Sure.” It wasn’t like she really had a choice in the matter.
He steepled his hands on the desk and gave her a direct look. “I’m just going to cut to the chase. How do you feel about California?”
“Yes, the Golden State, home of Hollywood, beaches, palm trees, wine country?”
“I’m familiar. I’m just not sure what you’re asking. I have no particular feelings about California. I visited a friend there recently; it was nice.” At least she knew now this had nothing to do with her disastrous lunch today. Thank God.
“Well you’re about to. We’re sending you to San Francisco.”
“Excuse me?” What the hell?
“There’s an opening in our San Francisco office,” Jake explained. “We want you there to head up a new team.”
“I’m flattered, sir, but there wasn’t anyone who already lives there available for the job?”
“You did hear me say you’d be heading up the team, right?”
“Yes, but I’m still confused.”
“We think you have a lot of potential, so we’re giving you this chance to step up and take on a more managerial role. I know you’ve wanted a chance to move up the ladder for a while now, and this is it. This is a great opportunity.”
Rachel’s palms began to sweat. It was true, she had been hoping for a promotion but didn’t think it would happen this soon. “I’m going to need some time to pack, find a place to live. When would I start?”
Jake smiled. “Don’t worry about that. I’ll have the office manager in the San Francisco office get in touch with you and they can help you organize the logistics from their end. They can help you find a new apartment, et cetera. But we want you there within the next sixty days.”
Well, that wasn’t a lot of time. And she’d probably been picked because she was still single. Transplanting her across the country was a less daunting endeavor than someone who had a family and had to juggle school, daycare, and their spouse’s career as well.
What the hell. She could use a change of pace and California might be interesting. If nothing else, it would give her an excuse to get away from her sister Claudia’s wedding madness for the next two months while she prepared to move. Talk about a silver lining.
“How long will I be there?”
“We anticipate six to nine months, with a possible extension. It all depends on how things go. If the team is successful and becomes permanent, we may relocate you there for good.”
“Will that be a problem?”
“No, sir.” At least she wouldn’t be alone in a city full of strangers. She could reach out to Cecily and let her know she was coming back to San Francisco. She could get insider info on which neighborhoods would be best to live in, and closest to the office, where the best restaurants were. The essential stuff. She and Cecily were friends, right? It wouldn’t be weird for her to reach out and ask. When she visited San Francisco a few months back, Cecily had offered to let her stay at her place. Surely, she wasn’t misreading the signs there.
Just then, Jake cleared his throat. “There is one other thing I wanted to bring up though.”
“Of course, sir.”
“I know you’ve been with Kirkwood Young and Sloane for almost ten years now, and your work has always been exemplary.”
“I assume that’s why you picked me, and why I’m being set up for a promotion.”
“Yes, of course. Your evaluations have always been top-notch. However, there was one thing that stood out.”
“What’s that?” What could she possibly be doing wrong after all these years? Jake was right—her evaluations had always been high, and she’d always taken the constructive criticism to heart and strived to constantly improve.
“It’s just that you tend to work alone, and your new position will involve much more teamwork.”
“I understand, and that shouldn’t be a problem.”
“In addition, you’ll be meeting with potential clients, taking more meetings, and going to events where you’ll be expected to network and develop relationships with local elected officials and business leaders.”
Now this was a problem. Normally, her job consisted of her sitting behind a computer for most of the day and that suited her fine. Having to interact more with co-workers and clients would be putting her out of her comfort zone, to put it mildly. As evidenced by today’s lunch. And the idea of meeting local officials and developing relationships there was enough to give her an ulcer.
Seeing the look in her eyes, Jake nodded, but there was a sympathetic gleam in his eyes. “I know networking and people skills aren’t your strengths, but I’m confident you can work on them and get where you need to be. In fact, you’re going to need to. Because by the end of this trial period, if you don’t perform as expected, we may need to re-evaluate.”
Rachel gave a hard swallow. “Would I be allowed to come back to the New York office?”
Jake gave a slow shake of his head. “Unfortunately, because you’ll be gone so long, we’ll have to find a replacement for you. There should still be a lateral analyst position in San Francisco, but that’s no guarantee. We’d have to find another branch office to send you to.”
Rachel had never been good at subtext, but even she could read between the lines. Either she proved herself and earned the promotion, or she’d be out on her ass. Or relegated to the Omaha office. Neither of which were acceptable options.
Jake then looked at his watch. “I think I’ve taken up enough of your time, and I have another meeting.” Taking that as her cue, Rachel stood. Jake extended his hand, and she shook it, gingerly.
“Congratulations, and good luck.” Though his smile was encouraging, Rachel couldn’t help but detect a note of doubt in Jake’s voice. Meaning he too wasn’t one hundred percent sure if she’d be up to the challenge.
In a slight daze, Rachel nodded, murmured her thanks, and made her way back to her office. Part of her was excited and thrilled at this opportunity. But Rachel also realized she was facing a daunting challenge not unlike climbing Mt. Everest. With no proper equipment or prior training.
No matter what, she was determined to succeed and make this work. She’d figure out a way. Somehow.
End of Excerpt