Sheryl Bayliss, is head of public relations for Hittite Chemicals.
When Hittite’s lawyer, Jim Kirsten, suggests that it is her department’s job to meet and reassure the head of the local environmentalist group of Hittite Chemicals good intentions, Sheryl discovers it is her ex-fiance Jed Hollis she has to meet.
Discovering that someone is deliberately manipulating the Greenies into turning radical, Sheryl and Jed need to work together to find out who is laundering bribes and payouts. But can they get past resurfacing attraction and unresolved relationship issues to get the job done?
Genre: Romance Word Count: 39, 563
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The silence lengthened. Sheryl looked at her elegant gold watch. Fifteen minutes preparation for a meeting was short notice indeed! It was just on dusk. A bottleneck of cars crawled through the security gates to join the flow of traffic on the highway.
Her associate known as J. K. to his colleagues, less printable titles to his underlings, and Jim to Sheryl tried to look sheepish. “The timing for that meeting with Jed Hollis and his faction is inconvenient, but beggars can’t be choosers, my love.”
Sheryl raised an eyebrow. Hittite Chemical Company could hardly be classed as beggars. Even the office juniors drove new cars.
“How come it isn’t your baby?” Sheryl demanded, suspicion rising at the too smooth expression on the too friendly face in front of her. “You handle anything legal that comes up, and this meeting needs a lawyer, not the Head of the Public Relations Department to preside over it.”
“Because it comes under the heading of public relations, my angel and who better than our decorative, charming, and diplomatic Head of the Department to handle it.”
“Why?” Sheryl insisted.
“The decision is that it is your baby.” J. K. met her gaze blandly and waited. Silence was also part of his tactical weaponry.
Sheryl had a suspicion of what was going on. Jed Hollis, the leader of the Greenie faction, with degrees in science and chemistry, and effortless organizational ability, had spearheaded and coordinated the resistance to the Greenie definition of industrial pollutants and built them into a powerful voice. He was much too formidable an opponent for an ambitious lightweight corporation lawyer like Jim Kirsten.
If the Greenie faction could be defused, tomorrow’s opening would go smoothly. This after all, was what she was employed for; to update and improve the Company’s public image. She was aware that with tomorrow’s well publicized unveiling of Hittite’s rebuilt purification plant on the fringe of the rainforest, the meeting with the Greenies tonight could be important, but the suspicion remained. Surely a company lawyer would be in a better position to counter and compromise with any of the faction’s demands?
“Jed Hollis is the media’s golden hero, but Hittite needs him like a hole in the head!” Jim Kirsten had an uncanny way of following her thoughts. He laughed shortly. “Ever met him?”
Sheryl remained silent. He sauntered over to stand behind her by the window. She was sharply aware of his heavy musk cologne. She moved away with the ease of long practice to behind her desk. Sooner or later one of his hapless victims was going to have Jim Kirsten in front of the Tribunal for sexual harassment, but she was neither hapless, nor a victim.
“Didn’t he blame his brother’s death from cancer on chemical pollutants?” he continued, as though unaware of the reason for her deliberate withdrawal.
Sheryl stacked the data supporting the new image of Hittite Chemicals into her briefcase. “He was doing some post graduate work when I was at Uni, and his brother did die of bone cancer.”
She paused, remembering a lifetime back to a younger Jed Hollis whom she had loved so passionately. Why hadn’t he enough faith in her to believe in her innocence? Why wasn’t his love strong enough? What had happened to that caring, loving, compassionate human being?
“I don’t believe I knew him,” she continued in perfect truth.
She remembered the bitterness, the cynicism, the accusations, the heartbreak and despair of that last meeting with him, and then the over-riding contempt that had possessed him. How had those wretched drugs ended up in her handbag anyway? Who had done that to her?
It had been the night of their engagement party and had started off as the happiest night of her life. The overdose of those drugs, whether accidental or on purpose, had cause Jed’s sick brother’s collapse and death. She remembered that she had been crying in shock when the medics had stopped working on him and shook their heads. Jed had opened her bag to grab her handkerchief and… She dragged herself back to the present with an effort.
“Where is the meeting supposed to take place?”
“The venue is secret. They wanted to avoid any publicity for a change.” Jim Kirsten scowled. “Hollis offered to collect our representative from the front of the building in five minutes. If you don’t think you can manage …?”
Sheryl stared at him. Sometimes it was hard for her to make Jim Kirsten, the smooth corporate lawyer of the Company and ex Head of the Public Relations Department, understand that he had to do more than pay lip service to the idea of professional accountability. He accepted the credit for anything accomplished, and blatantly used other staff as scapegoats if things went wrong. Now he was worrying that he might have made the wrong decision!
“You are happy with the progress I’ve made as Head of the Department?” Sheryl gave him a challenging stare.
“Of course I am, Sheryl,” Jim Kirsten agreed heartily. “And I want this meeting to be your baby, win or lose.”
If I win, you get the credit, and if I lose it will be my baby, Sheryl reminded herself grimly.
Sometimes it was hard for her to make him understand that he had to do more than pay lip service to the idea of professional accountability. He accepted the credit for anything accomplished, and blatantly used other staff as scapegoats if things went wrong. Now he was worrying that he might have made the wrong decision.
“Of course I can manage if it comes under the heading of P. R,” Sheryl said. She closed and locked her brief case. “I’ll let you know the outcome of the meeting in the morning.”
She straightened her shoulders as the lift door opened and nodded to the two security guards in the front foyer. They grinned back cheerfully. She tried to make her returning smile as equally cheerful, but it was an effort. Her job was stimulating and challenging, but having to work closely with J. K. all the time was the sort of challenge she could do without.
A tall figure lounged with casual grace by the FWD parked, Sheryl noticed wryly, in the Managing Director’s own parking bay. Jed Hollis still lived by his own rules. Still, she was a big girl now, not a lovesick, uncritical, little student and she could cope with anything. She strolled across to where he waited.
Jed raised his eyebrows. There was immediate recognition and contempt on his face. In all the long-anguished years she had thought about him, she had never expected that his contempt would have lasted unchanged from their last bitter confrontation.
“Evening, Mr. Hollis.” If that was the way he wanted to play it, Sheryl thought to herself with an odd pang, it is perfectly all right with me. “I’m S. Bayliss. Where’s the meeting?”
“S. for Sheryl I presume? Still selling out to the strength, are we?”
“I am the Public Relations Manager of Hittite.” There was an edge to Sheryl’s voice. “Where are we supposed to be meeting your committee?”
The tall man stared down at her. It was an insulting stare that took in her flat-heeled shoes, well cut skirt and jacket, and the bulging briefcase she carried. It was a stare that lingered with a curious intentness on her mouth, before it returned to her steady brown eyes.
“The understanding was that I meet with a senior and male member of Hittite Chemicals,” he explained. His arched dark brows knotted into a bar over cool blue eyes. “I didn’t expect to be fobbed off to the Hittite call girl.”
“There is no one more senior in this position than me,” Sheryl drawled. This was a situation that arose over and over again. She no longer wasted energy by becoming annoyed. “I am empowered to negotiate on behalf of the Company, and the fact I am female is irrelevant.”
“It isn’t irrelevant to me,” he said. With that he got back into his car, started it up and swiftly drove off.
Sheryl fought down her fury. How dare he let his personal and chauvinistic attitudes interfere with his professional position? So Jed Hollis wanted to push women back into the dark ages? He had certainly changed since she knew him! She raised her hand in a signal to the guard in the small office. He nodded, and closed the gate. The car stopped.
Sheryl sauntered towards the gate. It took several minutes; giving her time to get her temper under control, and the cold night air cooled the hot flush from her cheeks. Jed Hollis was not going to ignore her, either because she was a female or because they had parted with so many unresolved issues between them all those years ago.
Jed sat relaxed in the four-wheel drive and waited for her to approach. Only his fingers tapped their impatience against the open window. He ignored the uniformed man leaning across the window of the small office and his broad grin.
“We hadn’t finished our conversation,” Sheryl reproved, looking up at the motionless driver. Now she was so close she could see his mouth was compressed and two red spots of temper darkened the tan of his cheeks. “I can’t see that your group will consider you are acting in their best interests with all this sexist rubbish, Jed Hollis.”
That got a reaction. His lips curled into a sardonic smile, and his eyes raked her slight figure. “You want to join the big league, lady, so be it! Your crass little demonstration has convinced me.”
Sheryl decided she had received more courteously worded invitations, but for the benefit of the watching gate officer, she gave a smile. After she had settled herself beside him on the high seat, she gave the gatekeeper a gracious nod. He pressed a button, and the big gates opened. The four-wheel drive accelerated out to thunder along the highway through the darkness.
Aware of the seething temper of her driver, Sheryl was content to remain silent. She had won the first round. The meeting, scheduled at six, looked as if it was still on schedule. She examined the man beside her more openly. She had seen him often on television, giving interviews, leading demonstrations, and speaking at public meetings. Close up, he still projected the same heady vitality and magnetism.
These days he wore dark brown moustache and a neatly trimmed beard that contrasted oddly with his lighter colored hair. Closer inspection showed a bitter twist to the grim mouth and fine lines radiating from the piercingly blue eyes. He looked older and not at all as blazingly idealistic as his media appearances showed. He was now everything she disliked in a man, and yet something primal and unthinking still stirred deep inside her at his presence.
Six years ago at university, he had been known as a talented young man with a future, then after his brother’s death, and their dreadful misunderstanding, he had taken an obscure position as a forestry ranger. He had never contacted her since, although Sheryl had spent those first few dreadful weeks hoping against hope that he would. A few years ago, he had come into public notice as the articulate and powerful leader of the environmental and conservation movement.
He would now be about thirty-three years old, Sheryl mused. She decided to save her energy and arguments for the committee. She had worked hard to assemble the data of the chemical analysis, breakdown of pollutants with the diagrams of how the redesigned plant operated. The well-publicized media opening of the plant on the edge of the rain forest tomorrow morning would upgrade the Company’s image after their last ecological disaster, and of course silence all the Greenie protesters, including the infamous Jed Hollis.
“Just where is the meeting?” she asked at last, glancing at her watch. She hadn’t realized she had been immersed in her own thoughts for such a long interval. The car roared along the darkened country highway.
“You’ve had it!”
“Sorry?” Sheryl asked, keeping her voice steady.
“Consider it a one man decision,” he explained. “You’re being abducted!”
Sheryl stared at him. He looked determined and unpleasant, but not unstable or deranged.
“You will notice that the door handle on your side has been removed. You are my prisoner.”
Sheryl took a deep breath, hoping he didn’t sense her dismay. This was not a situation that had been covered by any of her classes in business psychology, and none of her business psychology was designed to cover the thought processes of a Jed Hollis. The Jed Hollis she had known had been a peacemaker, and certainly never had been into taking the law into his own hands. This bitter, cynical, driven man was a stranger.
“What do you think you will achieve by abducting me, except to end up in prison?” she pointed out. “The security guard saw us leave together, so the police will home in on you anyway.”
“I’ll have you returned to the bosom of your beloved company within twenty-four hours,” he glanced at his watch. “Eighteen hours in fact, so you will be back before you’re even missed.” Sheryl relaxed a fraction, but his next words had her stiffen in rage. “I intend to make use of the full media coverage on the opening by throwing the Hittite Chemicals Public Relations Manager into the controversial holding pond.”
Sheryl realized she now knew the reason Jim Kirsten was so uneasy and wanted her to take over the meeting and on such short notice. Something was going on that he hadn’t bothered to explain to her!
“How do you expect that to help?” Sheryl asked, when she decided her voice was sufficiently under control.
“You are responsible for the release put out by your Department claiming the water from the holding pond is pure enough to drink?”
“Well, it is!” Sheryl gestured towards her brief case. “The latest analysis and reports show that Hittite is environmentally aware and sincere about keeping pollution levels as low as possible.”
“Admittedly, I wasn’t expecting the hard-nosed cynical Public Relations Manager of Hittite to be a female and you of all people, but you do represent the Company policy, so wear it!”
“I should congratulate you on swinging the Greenie faction over to the radical, ragbag side,” Sheryl mused. “I would have thought that the more logical minds would have stopped short of such a drastic step? I don’t really suppose me drowning with full media coverage will help your cause?”
“I seem to remember that you can swim like a fish, but I’ll rescue you under full media coverage if you want to ham it up,” he said calmly.
Sheryl remained silent. The memories slid back into her mind. The long golden days of their surfing, scuba diving, and the long golden evenings, cooking fish over the open fire on the beach, and then … She shut the memories off with a determined effort. That was then. This was now.
“How could I resist the opportunity to abduct the author of that very dishonest statement about the purity of the holding pond,” he mocked. “Of course, if you hadn’t doubtless clawed or slept your unqualified way into such an exalted position, it could have been Jim Kirsten, that slick conniving lawyer of yours, readying himself for his dip into the pristine waters of the holding pond tomorrow. So look what he’s missed!”
For a few seconds, Sheryl fantasized about the smooth and urbane Jim Kirsten being thrown, over and over again into the smelliest, muckiest holding pond Hittite Chemicals could produce, and then dismissed the pleasant daydream with regret. She was the one trapped in this predicament.
It was unexpected, but Jim Kirsten must have known something. Until now the Greenie faction had gained their publicity by staying within legal limits. What had happened to make them change direction and veer on to the radical side? Whatever was going to happen, she was going to lose. Hittite Chemicals would not appreciate their event being a media circus. They would not appreciate their P. R. being used as an object lesson. They would not appreciate her inability to handle and control this situation.
She was going to end up jobless, she fumed. Being a world-wide media figure of fun was going to prejudice her chances of getting another well paid professional job. Probably all because Jim Kirsten had kept to himself whatever knowledge he had that had caused the Greenies to go radical. Was this what Jim Kirsten had planned all along? Yet apart from their personal dislike, it was not a situation that would benefit him at all. She represented no threat to his current job.
She sneaked a look at Jed. Could she appeal to his better nature? She dismissed the thought immediately. This was not a man with a better nature to appeal to. Jed Hollis was sufficiently ruthless to carry through whatever course of action he had decided on. Her continuing silence seemed to amuse him. He glanced at her still face.
“So you can consider yourself an opening gambit in the publicity campaign to stop Hittite Chemicals stuffing up our environment, Ms Bayliss,” he said mockingly.
She stared at him in disbelief. Was this the man she had once loved so passionately? She recalled her words to Jim Kirsten and shivered. This man was certainly someone she had never known.