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But not until He sends the right man along, and not just so she can advance her career at Bradshaw International, where an unwritten rule prevents single employees from being promoted into senior positions. But could the right man be closer than Jodie thinks? And can he finally show her how to follow her heart, and make all her dreams come true? Chapter One Time was running out for Jodie Gallagher. The employee recognition gala was in less than a week and she'd yet to secure a date for the evening. Bradshaw International Ltd. may have been one of the region's leading manufacturing enterprises, always on the cutting edge of technology and experimentation, but its leadership was solidly traditional. The founder firmly believed in family values. To his way of thinking, that meant every member of the management team should have a family — an adoring spouse, a kid or two or three and a cocker spaniel or Labrador retriever to round out the photo on the holiday cards. Old Man Bradshaw always said plenty of room existed at the top for talented employees. The only problem was the road to the top of his particular mountain was paved with One Way and No U-Turn signs. Jodie wanted a husband and a family — eventually. And not because having such would improve her career. She had a lot of love to share, but love that needed to be put on hold while she pursued a career. Apparently, since He hadn't sent the perfect guy her way anyway, the Lord had a similar plan. Once upon a time, Jodie had a list. Her ideal mate would be no taller than six foot two and no shorter than six foot. He'd have blond hair and deep blue eyes. He'd always wear undershirts under his dress shirts, and cuff links in his French sleeves. He would drive a certain type of car, make an income that was large enough to support a family of up to five — in case she decided not to work after their children were born. He'd have a sense of humour, would smile a lot and would always surprise her with sweet little nothings to keep the romance alive in their relationship. As a couple, they would be active members of their church, volunteer together in the community and, of course, live happily ever after. It was old-fashioned and wonderful…and apparently unattainable. Jodie sighed at her desk. She'd been keeping an eye out for her fantasy man for a while now and more than biological clocks were starting to tick. She'd be twenty-eight on her next birthday. The truth of it was — she reluctantly had to admit — she hadn't allowed herself much time to date. Work was her constant companion. The routine, she grudgingly conceded, had gotten old. "Gallagher, you coming to the meeting or not?" Jerked out of her reverie, Jodie snatched up her notes. The irritated voice belonged to her boss, Ethan Lamb. "On the way," she told him. "Ethan, I really don't think…" He cut her off. "We've been over it before, Gallagher. Leave the talking to me." Jodie frowned. That sort of condescension is what made her think it was time to end her tenure at Bradshaw International. She did want something more. She thought she could get it here. At one time, Ethan had been the perfect mentor, showing her the ropes and guiding her along. But lately, he‘d been short-tempered. She suspected something had happened to him in the past six months. He'd definitely changed — and for the worst. She wasn't at all comfortable with the presentation Ethan was about to make in this meeting. His conclusions weren't valid. And in addition to patronizing her, he'd pooh-poohed her objections and concerns. If this were her company, she'd do things differently. Vowing to send out a round of résumé packets before the week ended, Jodie took her seat in the boardroom at Bradshaw International. All of the VPs sat at the large oval table, while the junior execs occupied swivel chairs ringing what Jodie had come to think of as the Grown-Ups' Table. She wanted to sit at the Grown-Ups' Table. She had a stake in this company, a stake that she'd claimed the moment she'd accepted the offer to be a marketing assistant. A quick learner with plenty of ambition, she'd moved up the ranks in the department. Three promotions later, she'd found herself hitting a ceiling — one that had little to do with glass or gender but marital status. No one specifically said anything, but the message was nonetheless clear.
Jodie bit back a sigh. Before she found a husband, she needed to find a date. A millisecond later Mark Bradshaw strode into the room. Jodie's tummy did that odd little flip she'd come to recognize whenever she saw him. C. B. Bradshaw, commonly called The Old Man by just about everyone, may have been chairman of the board, but the operational reins were fully in the hands of his utterly gorgeous grandson. Tall, with a slightly rakish appearance, as if he'd just flown in from Monte Carlo or Rio or the south of France, Mark Bradshaw turned heads everywhere he went. Including in his own boardroom. His blond hair always seemed a little too long, but without a doubt he was the most eligible bachelor within a one hundred-mile radius of Portland, Oregon. At just over thirty, Mark was everything Jodie wanted in a man — even though at six foot four, he was too tall for her tastes, and way too rich. Forget that whole business about not being too rich or too thin. Just thinking about all those zeroes in the kind of money the Bradshaw family commanded made her dizzy. Jodie wanted to be comfortable, not burdened. And at five foot six in heels, she didn't want to have to strain her neck to see her guy. In Mark Bradshaw's case, though, she could make an exception — on both points. Jodie, like all the others, watched him take command of the room. "What a man," her friend Nikki said in a conspiratorial whisper as she leaned over toward Jodie. Jodie agreed with a nod but kept her expression neutral. Boy, did he ever fit her image of the ideal man. Too bad he didn't even know she existed. *** All talking came to a halt the instant he walked into the boardroom. Mark Bradshaw heard the whispers behind his back. They'd never bothered him. Not until now — when he saw her doing it as well. For a moment, he wondered about her loyalty. He'd well vetted all of the key players in the company. Had he missed something important about her? More important than that — was the announcement he planned to drop on them all today the right move at the right time? His course already set, Mark gritted his teeth. Belatedly he remembered he was trying not to do that anymore. "Good morning," he said, his tone as terse as his mood. He strode to the seat of power, one he'd always felt uncomfortable filling. But with Gramps remaining in one of his stubborn moods, there was little help for it. Somebody had to run the company. "Let's get…" he almost said, Let's get this over with, but caught himself at the last moment "…the day's business on the table." He nodded for the vice president of production to begin his presentation. The meeting droned on for the better part of an hour. Thinking he might collapse from boredom, Mark swivelled his chair a bit to see Jodie Gallagher better. The only thing that kept him focused was her. When the marketing vice president got up to highlight a series of charts on a multimedia presentation, she glanced over at him. Mark smiled at her. Instead of smiling back — like any other woman might — her eyes widened and she blinked several times before darting her gaze back to Ethan Lamb. Mark sighed. So much for that. He put his attention back on the report being given. The more he listened, though, the more his brow furrowed. He glanced over at Jodie Gallagher, who sat perched on the edge of her seat, biting her lower lip, worrying at the cap of her pen. He frowned, looked back at the screen that dropped from the ceiling for just this sort of meeting. He didn't want the CEO mantle, but he knew how to wear it and he knew when someone was trying to pull something over on him.
"I have a question." All eyes shifted to Mark. He noted that a couple of people looked as if he'd disturbed their naps. No wonder Bradshaw International's growth had stagnated. Not only was he bored, so, too, were the people who were supposed to be jazzed about what they did. Mark suspected that many, if not most, of the folks sitting at the oval table were there merely collecting a paycheck and executive bonuses, marking time until retirement or a better offer with a competitor came along. The marketing vice president, not used to being interrupted, stammered, lost his place, coughed and then blinked. "Yes, sir?" "I'd like to know what Miss Gallagher thinks." Jodie's eyes widened. She clutched her portfolio pad, dropping her pen. "Excuse me?" From his position at the oval table, Ethan glared at her. Assistants, they all knew, were to be seen, not heard, in these monthly meetings. Such was the business culture of the company. Mark rose, picked up the fountain pen and handed it to her. For a moment, their hands touched. He heard the quick intake of breath she tried to mask. "I'm going to do something a little different today." "But I'm not finished," Ethan said. The quelling look Mark sent his way all but said, You are if you don't sit down. Ethan sat. Nervous glances were exchanged all around. "VPs to the outer ring," Mark said. "I want all of the assistants right here." He returned to his seat, tapped the cherry table for emphasis. "Quickly, people. We've already been in here too long." "But Mark, Mr. Bradshaw…" Mark held up a hand. "That includes you, too, Stanley," he told the sales division chief, who‘d been with the company longer than Mark had been alive. "Time is money, people. Let's move." With unsure glances cast in every direction, the nine assistants, one to each vice president, exchanged places with their bosses. After everyone was settled, Mark smiled. He took his seat, leaned back in it. "Now, Miss Gallagher, you've been working here for what, two years now?" She nodded. "Yes, sir." "And you've listened to all of these reports, right? You know how we've fared in the marketplace." "Y-yes." It was clear Jodie had no idea where he was going, and that was just fine with Mark. He wanted to see how she operated under pressure. "Tell me, Jodie," Mark said. She lifted a brow at the use of the first name. The boardroom was as formal as it got. Another one of the company's problems. "What would you like me to tell you, Mr. Bradshaw?" He pointed toward the screen that still bore the last image from Ethan‘s presentation. "Why don't you point out all the flaws in your boss's report." Chapter Two Suddenly, the prospect of not having a date for the gala didn't loom quite so ominous for Jodie. She wouldn't need an escort because if she truthfully answered Mark's question about her supervisor's report, she wouldn't have a job. Ethan, said boss, would fire her on the spot. If she lied, she wouldn't be able to live with herself.
Jodie opened her mouth. Shut it. Opened it again, then glanced down at her notepad. "The report was prepared with the best figures available to our division." Not only pretty, Mark thought, diplomatic as well. He could admire that in a woman. He straightened, folded his arms across his chest and met the gazes of each of the vice presidents now shifting uncomfortably in their chairs. "Folks," he started. "I've been at the helm of Bradshaw International for almost a year. I've spent that time assessing our strengths and our weaknesses. The conclusion hasn't been comforting since I've found a lot of the latter and not nearly enough of the former." Jodie figured she'd have to get her résumé together sooner rather than later. If she had a company, she sure wouldn't run it the way Mark Bradshaw ran his — like a dictator state. *** Hitting his stride now, Mark paced the area behind his chair, pausing every now and then to meet the unswerving and worried gaze of one of his direct reports. For their part, some of the assistants sitting at the table looked intrigued, while the others, like their bosses, had that panicked deer-in-the-headlights expression that didn't bode well for the long term. Jodie Gallagher looked the proverbial cool, calm and collected. Her dark hair gleamed and her gaze followed him as he moved. "When my grandfather started this company he did it with a vision, a plan that was before his time," Mark said. "Lots of people called him crazy. No one, not even the two reluctant investors he scrounged up to assist him financially, believed that what he wanted to do could ever be successful." He walked to the large window and looked out at the courtyard. In chilly February, no flowers bloomed there. But in a few months, a fountain spraying water would enhance the riot of colour surrounding the garden statuary. "It's a new day," Mark said as much to himself as to the people in the room. Facing his directors, Mark launched what had been in his heart for a while now. "Starting now, there's a new game in town." "What, exactly, is this new game?" one of the vice presidents ventured. The words were on the tip of his tongue. He wanted to fire every one of them. Their has-been ideas and stale approaches had nearly run the company into the ground. The future, Mark knew, lay with a management team willing to go to the edge and beyond. And it wasn't about age, but vision. Stanley Grace, who'd been with Bradshaw International for nearly four decades, was a prime example. Stanley had one of the sharpest and creative minds in the industry. He kept his division on the cutting edge, consistently showing strong results despite divisions like Ethan Lamb's. What would someone like Stanley do with the right support from all around? It was time to see who was up to a new challenge. "It's a new way of doing business." Mark opened his portfolio and pulled out a sheaf of clipped papers. He'd given this a lot of thought. "I've created six teams. Each team has two weeks to create a new approach toward increasing not only our market share, but changing the way we do business." "This is highly irregular," Ethan said. "My division has been…" "As of today," Mark said, "all divisions and departments are up for review. I'm going to reorganize the company. And I want to name as my new personal assistant in that endeavour Jodie Gallagher." *** Jodie's mouth dropped open.
Nikki nudged her and mouthed, "You go, girl." With two bombshells dropped on her in less than thirty minutes, Jodie wasn't so sure getting up and dressed this morning had been a good idea. In a matter of moments she'd gone from having her job on the line to being offered the job of a lifetime. Sort of. Working closely with the CEO of Bradshaw International was the type of career boost junior execs dreamed of. The best part about being Ethan's deputy was that she got to see Mark Bradshaw in these meetings. She had ideas about how to make Bradshaw International better, some of which she'd broached with Ethan — to no avail. Working closely with Mark Bradshaw ranked way up there in the Bad Idea department. Make that the Really Bad Idea department. How could she work for someone she'd had a crush on from the moment she'd seen him? She'd wanted to advance in the company. But this? She practically fell to pieces when he looked at her. How was she going to do her best work if she worked for him? Better that she stay right where she was. Mark met her stunned gaze, then winked as he started distributing the sheets with the new team assignments. "When you say change the way we do business, what do you mean?" someone asked. "Just that," Mark said as people started glancing at the sheets. A few gasps sounded when the groupings were noted. Jodie accepted one of the sheets from Nikki and tried to make heads or tails of it. Her mind still reeled from Mark's announcement. "Breathe, girl," Nikki whispered. Jodie glanced at her friend, nodded and took a deep breath. The words on the paper focused and she realized why the team assignments were causing such a stir in the room. He'd deliberately mixed old thinkers with new, combatants with in-house competitors, to see what sort of creative options they might come up with. The muttering, mostly from the outer ring grew louder. "This is highly irregular," she heard someone sputter. "Listen up, folks," Mark said as he shrugged out of his suit jacket. The suit looked as if it had been tailored for him so it fit well. Somehow it didn't fit his personality. He tossed the jacket on the chair behind him and rolled up his sleeves. "Everything, and I mean everything, is up for grabs. Each of you has a flowchart with the current structure of the organization. Change it. Make it fit the twenty-first century. Make it relevant to today's consumers." "If C.B. were still running the company…" Mark's arctic blue eyes zeroed in on the detractor. "My grandfather isn't running the company. I am." "Anyone who wants out," he added as he pulled another sheaf of papers from the portfolio, "can walk right now. I'll offer a month's severance for every year of service. The deal is good for anyone in this room. Takers can pick up one of the packets here with all the forms. Fill them out and have them on my desk by the end of business today. Everyone else, we'll meet here in two weeks to review the plans you've come up with. Then I'll share some of my ideas with you." He looked at the table of assistants and the outer ring of what Jodie suspected were mostly soon-to-beformer VPs. "Any questions?" No one said a word. "Excellent." Mark smiled, but it didn't come across as a particularly friendly or welcoming gesture.
Well, then. This meeting is adjourned." Jodie let out a breath she didn't realize she'd been holding. He snatched up his jacket and the leather portfolio. "Miss Gallagher, you've had a few minutes to weigh your options and consider my offer. If you want the new job, come with me. We have work to do. If not, you're assigned to team number four." Jodie swallowed hard. She looked at the paper with the team assignments. Ethan was on that team. She cast an unsure glance at him. Was this the answer to her prayers? To find herself with her back against a wall, forced in a split second to make a decision that could affect the rest of her career? Lord, tell me what to do. "Miss Gallagher?" In just that moment, Jodie realized that she had to choose. Go forward or go back. Uncertain terrain lay in either direction. This, she thought, must be what Moses and the Israelites faced: the Red Sea and certain death in front of them, Pharaoh's army behind. Stuck in the middle, just like those ancient people, Jodie sent up a fervent prayer for assistance. But the entreaties of her earlier prayers echoed in her head. Lord, I need a change at work. Lord, I wish he'd just notice me. At home and at church she'd prayed for a new opportunity to be relevant. And, she had to admit, she'd prayed that Mark Gallagher might notice her. Now that he had, she wasn't at all sure she wanted that particular prayer answered. At least not this way. In the beginning, Ethan had been good to her. He'd taken her under his wing, taught her everything he knew. She owed him loyalty for that if nothing else. She couldn't just walk away, turn her back on the mentor who'd given her the chance to succeed when few others gave someone her age the chance to do so. At the door, Mark waited. "Choose, Miss Gallagher." She looked at Ethan and then at Mark. "I'm sorry," she said, meaning it, hoping he understood. Chapter Three The room fell silent. All eyes were on Jodie as they waited for her answer. She knew they all thought she was trying to make up her mind about being Mark Bradshaw‘s special assistant. In truth, Jodie stood there caught between the promise and the provision of God. She knew what the Lord had promised for her life. She just wasn't sure if this was His way of getting her to that provision. On the face of it, it seemed like a sharp detour. But it felt right, so right. Was that because she had a thing for Mark or because it was the right move? She'd seen the way he looked at her sometimes when he thought she wasn't paying attention. And what was that wink all about? Was she walking into a new professional opportunity or a work situation that might quickly become entangled in drama? There was only one way to find out. Though she felt like she was taking a step off a precipice, Jodie picked up her notepad and copy of the new team assignments. She stepped away from the table and walked toward Mark and an uncertain future. "I'll take the job." "Excellent," Mark said with a smile. He held the door open for her. As they walked out — together — Jodie's heart pounded Behind them, a cacophony of voices erupted in the boardroom. *** "You all right?" Mark asked her a little while later. "To be honest, I'm not sure. I walked out on a boss who has, for the most part, been good to me." triple time. But it also soared.
"It's the ‘for the most part' part that I'm worried about." Jodie turned from the view of the valley. Mark's office was on the top floor of Bradshaw International's building. Though large, the building didn't overwhelm its surroundings. The office wasn't what she'd expected either. Instead of being all contemporary chrome with the look of an interior decorator on a high-tech binge, its comfortable sofas, lush green plants and paintings of both musicians and church choirs made his suite look like a well-appointed family room. "This isn't what I imagined your office would look like." He chuckled. "The stereotype version is next door. I use it for meetings. This is where I get work done." "Wayside, Oregon is an unlikely headquarters for a company like this." Mark grinned. "That's why I wanted you as my assistant." Jodie faced him, curious about just that. But her question and her breath caught at the sight of him. He leaned on his desk, his legs stretched out and crossed, looking for all the world like a model between fashion shoots. He watched her intently. "Wh-what?" "Not many people would have the nerve to tell their new boss that they thought the company's headquarters was the pits." Mortified, Jodie reached a hand out toward him, then dropped it. "That's not what…" "I know." He continued to stare at her. Jodie tried to check for a run in her hose, the edge of her slip peeking from her hem, a hair out of place. Then, consigning herself to the fact that she'd blown this meeting, she flatout asked, "Is something on me out of place?" "No," he said. "You look fine." He cleared his throat, straightened and turned his back to her. "My decision to name you my special assistant didn't happen on a whim. You have an impressive track record here." Not sure what she did to turn the warmth in his voice a bit cool, Jodie pulled on her professional demeanour. "Thank you, sir." He held up a finger. "Mark, please. My grandfather is ‘sir.'" "In the meetings, you make everyone say ‘sir.'" He faced her then, a grin showing off a dimple. Jodie realized working with him was going to be a challenge. "That's one of the company culture things I'd like to change. You have some ideas." She didn't mistake his statement for a question. "I do." He invited her to sit in one of his deep leather chairs. "Has the company ever been reorganized?" Jodie asked. Mark nodded. "Once before. In the seventies. The Old Man was bored so he switched everything and everybody around just for kicks." "Is that what you're doing now with the livelihoods and careers of so many people, changing things just for kicks?" Instead of rising to the bait, he smiled and leaned back in his seat. "As a matter of fact, yes."
Chapter Four Mark considered telling Jodie just a portion of the truth. But he was a man of integrity, and integrity in this
instance required the whole story of why and how he‘d come to be CEO of Bradshaw International. He'd be hard-pressed to explain why, but Jodie Gallagher's opinion mattered to him. A lot. So much so that he found himself opening up in ways to which few people at Bradshaw International had been privy. "I'm an unlikely CEO," he said. "Running this company is not something I wanted to do." If she was surprised by his candour, she gave no indication of it. "How can you not want all of this?" Jodie asked, waving a hand encompassing the luxurious office suite. "A lot of people work their entire lives and never get to this point." Mark ran a hand through his hair, frustrated that she couldn't seem to understand his point of view. "I didn't take you for a person who focused on the trappings of success." She bristled at that. "I don't. But I can appreciate people who have worked hard to get what they have. A lot of people right here in this company would trade places with you in a heartbeat." "You included?" When she didn't deign to answer, he continued. "I'm not everybody or a lot of people," he told her. "I'm not comfortable in this. This," he said, flicking a hand over an extremely valuable vase on the end table next to her, "is not me." Jodie made to catch the vase, but Mark absently steadied it. "To whom much is given much is required," she said. He whirled around. "Exactly. And I'm wasting some of the other talents I've been given running this company." Jodie shook her head. "So you're going to disrupt a lot of lives just so you're not bored anymore. That's not fair." "You're looking at this from your perspective. From my seat, the view isn't all that terrific." He was quiet for a long moment. The silence didn't discomfit Jodie. As a matter of fact, she found herself riveted by their conversation, one she never — not even in her wildest imaginings — thought she'd have with him. He offered her a beverage. When Jodie settled with a glass of fruit juice, Mark went to the window. Though he spoke to her, he faced the view. "The truth is we've been losing money for a while. Not in product sales, which have remained level, but by missing new opportunities for growth. That can be reversed," he said, facing her again. Then, nodding, he conceded her point. "I am bored. But I also have to be a good steward over what's been given to me, entrusted into my care." "You don't want to be like the servant in the Bible who buries his talent. I feel the same way." For a moment, Mark looked surprised. Then a slow smile spread broad on his face. "You speak like a woman of faith." "You say that as if you believe faith and business can't work in hand." "The two can be compatible," he said. "I'm a living witness." Finally finding common ground, they spent the next forty-five minutes talking about what would make
Bradshaw International a better company. Mark was explaining what the rest of Jodie's duties would be when the sound of a jazzy melody drifted from his desk. "Whoops." He jumped up. "My alarm." "You have an alarm clock that sounds like a saxophone?" He nodded as he turned it off. "It's custom-made." Jodie saw him glance at his watch. "Is there anything else you wanted to cover?" "Not now," he told her. "Why don't you call it a day?" "It's barely 3:30. I have some things I shouldn't leave undone in the marketing department." He saw her to the door, formally shook her hand and bid her well. "Don't worry about Ethan. If he gives you any trouble, just let me know." Jodie doubted if that would be the case. ***
As he thought about what he'd done that day, Mark tried his best to come up with a plausible explanation for his behaviour in the meeting and his frankness with Jodie afterward. Try as he might, he couldn't find one. Jodie Gallagher was on the fast track at Bradshaw International. She'd shown this afternoon that she wasn't afraid to speak her mind. And to pull off the organizational plan he had in mind, he needed to tap into the mind-set and creativity of the company's best and brightest. He couldn't be faulted if one of them just happened to have killer legs and a dazzling smile. "But that doesn‘t make you an irresponsible letch," he muttered to himself as he snatched up his briefcase. He'd all but made a public declaration for her. The truth of the matter was that he'd been intrigued by her work ethic, her enthusiasm…and, well, yeah, her smile from the moment he'd seen her photo at Mrs. G's house. Eunice Gallagher served as the church secretary at Community Christian Church where Mark had worshiped since returning to Wayside. The Old Man's fake heart attack had brought him home. Looking for a responsible heir from among his grandchildren, C. B. Bradshaw had had his secretary put out a family alert that The Old Man had had a serious heart attack. Two of the grandchildren called expressing concern, the others didn't return the phone call. But the one who came running lickety-split: Mark, the sucker. The others, his cousins, either didn't care or wouldn't disrupt their lives to check on the man who'd made possible their lives of leisure. He told Jodie he'd been bored and that was true. The teams he'd created looked random, but he'd spent a lot of time poring over the staff lists to create matchings. The reorganization and the potential for taking the company to a new level excited him. For now, though, he had an equally important task. Outside the door of his office suite, he looked both directions along the hallway, then dashed to the service elevator — his secret escape route. Admittedly, his job had a few bright moments. Among them, sneaking out of work early — being boss had to count for something — and seeing Jodie Gallagher.
"Pretty pathetic, Bradshaw," he said to himself. As the elevator descended to the garage, Mark stripped off his expensive necktie and tucked it in his suit jacket pocket. Next, he loosened the collar of his white dress shirt. By the time he reached his beat-up pickup truck — parked next to a veritable fleet of luxury cars owned by his executives — Mark's appearance had been transformed. Since he was running late, there was little he could do about his slacks. He tugged the tails from his shirt and ran a hand through his hair. Tossing his suit jacket and leather briefcase behind the driver's seat, he traded wing tips for a pair of scuffed running shoes that had seen plenty of better days. The shoes, like the truck, bore his personal stamp of approval. In addition to being both functional and practical, Mark loved the truck because it drove The Old Man crazy. A few minutes later, he pulled into a parking spot behind The Latte Lounge. "Yo, Mark. What took you so long, man? We're burning daylight." "Sorry. Got held up at work." Neville Jackson looked him over. "You don't look like you're the rich and powerful head of a conglomerate." Mark grinned at his longtime friend, he of the braided hair and soul patch. "And you don't look like you have Ph.D.s in urban planning and criminology." "Touché, my brother." "Everybody here?" "Waiting on you." Twenty minutes later, with Neville on drums and Mark Bradshaw working his saxophone, The Latte Lounge's house band kicked their rehearsal into high gear. Chapter Five Jodie understood why Mark Bradshaw worked for the family business. What she didn't understand is why he chose to live in tiny Wayside. The town was charming — in a rural sort of way. She didn't mind commuting forty minutes every morning to get to Wayside, she just couldn't imagine living in such a little place. Except for Aunt Eunice and a few others, all the members of her branch of the family tree had long since departed for greener pastures in Portland, Bend and even Seattle. Eunice Gallagher, one of Jodie's favorite aunts, ministered as the pastor's secretary at Community Christian Church. She'd made a comfortable home in the idyllic small town, and ignored opportunities to head to a bigger place. For some reason, it always seemed to take Jodie longer to get home at the end of the day than it did to get to work in the morning. This time, as she drove through the familiar streets, she slowed down a bit contemplating why that was. She focused on what was there, rather than what wasn't. An ice cream shop, several galleries, an interesting little café. A white gazebo stood empty in a public park. That would be the sort of place to have a picnic in the summer. Maybe while a band played in the gazebo. "Yeah, right," Jodie said as she took the turn off Main Street that would lead her to Aunt Eunice's. "As if you have time for picnics."
She blinked, then frowned. Why didn't she have time for picnics? Other people did. Life needed balance. By the time she pulled into her aunt's drive, Jodie came to the realization that she was letting life pass her by. She'd fast-tracked on her career since graduating from college. When was the fun supposed to begin? When would she find time to make time for love? Balance was the secret. Though responsible for a multimillion-dollar company, Mark Bradshaw had learned to strike a balance in his life. A saxophone alarm — not an insistent buzz like her own alarm — reminded him to stop and go do something. She bet he was having fun. "Auntie?" "In the kitchen," Eunice called. "Come on back." Eunice's large country kitchen was a place where many meals had been eaten over the years. Now though, just about every flat surface held cookie sheets. "Whoa!" Eunice said as she tried to balance two trays while shutting the oven door. "I've got it." Jodie handled the oven while Eunice placed the two cookie sheets along the rim of the sink. "It looks like a gingerbread-man factory." Laughing, Eunice pulled off the oven mitts. "That it is. I thought I'd whip up a few for the children's Bible study tonight. Then realized the grown-ups like cookies, too." That was just the segue Jodie needed. "At Community Christian?" "Uh-huh," Eunice said as she inspected a cooled tray of the treats. "Do you know Mark Bradshaw?" Eunice beamed. "Know him? I practically raised him. He's grown up to be a fine young man. His work keeps him busy, but not so busy that he doesn't participate in church activities." Already feeling convicted, the comment came across as a mild rebuke. Jodie knew it wasn't meant as such. "You haven't run into him at work after all this time?" "As a matter of fact, I have," Jodie said. "He offered me the promotion of a lifetime today." Eunice clasped her hands together. "Why, Jodie, that's wonderful news." "You think so?" "Jodie, what's wrong?" She shrugged. "I don't know. I just want something more in life. A promotion is great, but..." She shrugged again. "I feel like I'm missing something. Like this is a crossroads for me. A chance to do something great." "Like start Just Right For You, that business you've been talking about for a while now?" Chapter Six After their practice set, Mark sat with Neville in the coffeehouse. Both men had tall glasses of ice water in front of them. "You're looking awfully glum, Bradshaw. Like you'd rather be playing the blues. What's on your mind?"
Mark ran his finger around the rim of the glass, watching the condensation send patterned rivulets the length of the tumbler. "I've met the woman of my dreams." "And this is bad because?" "She works for me." "Hmm. That bites," Neville said. "So fire her." Mark shook his head. "She's good. Very good." Neville studied his friend for a moment. "I see you've managed to cast yourself as martyr again. You must like that role." The observation stung because it was the truth. That didn't mean Mark had to embrace or accept it. "I'm not playing martyr." "Hmm," is all Neville said as he studied the menu. When a waitress came over to refill their water glasses and leave a basket of assorted biscotti, he ordered a vegetarian wrap then turned to Mark. "Want something?" Mark shook his head. "Bring him his usual," Neville told the waitress. "Your practice sounded great, but you don't look so hot, Mark. You all right, honey?" the waitress asked. Distracted, Mark nodded. When they sat alone again, Mark contemplated his friend. "I wish I could do this all the time. Music is what I love the most." "You can," Neville said, munching around a piece of chocolate-covered biscotto. "If you really want to, that is. You just like the idea of being the long-suffering heir. The only one who could save the day."
Mark gave him a curious look. "What do you mean?" "Do you really think Old Man Bradshaw would turn his beloved company over to just anybody who came knocking on the door? Trust me, he had a backup plan in place if you hadn't done what he'd expected you'd do." Mark chewed on that for a bit. Neville was right — again. He could have ignored the summons from Gramps just like everyone else had. But he'd recognized an opportunity to do something he really wanted to do — make a mark on the business world. All he'd been doing in the months since taking over at Bradshaw International was marking time. Now, with the reorganization underway, he couldn‘t wait to do some really innovative work. Unfortunately, his preoccupation with a certain employee was making things difficult. ***
Jodie arrived at work the next day worried things might be awkward with Mark given some of their discussion the day before. But Mark was all business. After a quick rundown of what he wanted done, he dispatched her to individual department meetings. It was after four when he popped his head into Jodie's new office that was adjacent to his much-larger one. "Got a minute?"
She reached for a notepad and her fountain pen. "You won't need that," he said. Jodie followed him into his office — the contemporary chrome one — and took a seat where he indicated. "I wanted to talk about yesterday," Mark began. He ran a hand through his hair and Jodie was struck by the fact that Mr. Cool and Calm actually seemed nervous. "I wasn't completely honest with you," he told her. "Regarding?" "Regarding my interest in you." Jodie clutched the leather armrests of the chair. Was he about to retract the promotion? "I named you my special assistant because you're very good at what you do," he said. "But there's another reason. One I'm not very proud of." She waited. "I'm attracted to you, Jodie. I have been from the first time I saw you." She opened her mouth to tell him she felt the same way, but he held up a hand stemming her words. "I realize that there are laws…issues that I'm probably violating. I just didn‘t want there to be any awkwardness between us." She'd been worried about the same thing — and for a similar reason. "I know I just offered you the job, but if you'd prefer to work elsewhere, I'll understand. Actually, I‘ve been thinking maybe I should be the one who leaves." "That won't be necessary," she told him. She rose and cautiously approached him. "What would you say if I told you that the feelings you have are reciprocated?"
Chapter Seven Mark clasped Jodie's shoulders and looked her in the eye. "What are you saying?" "Exactly what you think." Mark closed his eyes for a moment, breathing in the scent of her hair. "What's something you've always wanted? More than anything and for as long as you can remember?" Jodie swallowed. Looked away. She couldn't tell him that. Even her closest friend — the only person she'd ever told — thought she was weird. Maybe she'd watched too many classic television sitcoms from the 1950s and '60s. Maybe she was just a throwback to an earlier age. Before she'd morphed into career woman extraordinaire, all she'd ever wanted was to be a wife and mom, to make a comfortable home for her family, to watch her children grow. When teasing her, Jodie's friend and co-worker Nikki called her June Cleaver. Since none of what she wanted appeared as if it might pop up on the horizon, she'd focused on work all these years. "Yes, I've wanted things I couldn't have," she told Mark. "Couldn't have," he challenged, "or were too afraid to go and get?"
That brought her up short. Was she afraid of the very thing she'd wanted, the thing she'd prayed over and over about? "Pray until something happens" went the saying she'd heard during a fellowship at church a while ago. Was he — Mark Bradshaw — the something of that prayer? The likelihood that Mark Bradshaw was the right man for her was astounding. As were the implications. Maybe she hadn't heard him correctly. "Could you repeat the question?" "It wasn't necessarily a question, Jodie, but more of a rhetorical point. Sometimes people are afraid to go after what they really want. The fear stalls them before they get out of the starting gate." Jodie wasn't a reckless person. She was a woman of lists and plans and backup plans to the just-in-case plans. But what she said next surprised even her. "Kiss me, Mark." It was his turn to blink. She saw him swallow, then gape at her. He took a step back. She advanced two. "Kiss me, Mark." "Now look, Jodie. This isn't something…" She put a hand on his arm, leaned forward and pressed her lips to his. A moment later, his arms encircled her waist as he deepened the embrace. Before he — or she — got too involved in the moment, Jodie stepped away. Her heart beat wildly and she looked up at him. He seemed as stunned as she felt. "What'd you do that for?" he asked. "To see if I was afraid to go after what I really wanted." *** All the way home, Jodie castigated herself for her rash behaviour. She'd practically thrown herself at the man. There were workplace rules about that sort of thing. But truth be known, she was glad she'd done it. In those few moments when they'd kissed, she realized that all her dreams could come true. She had to be willing to step out on a limb and do something with what had been offered to her. And what had been offered wasn't a new job at Bradshaw International, but the chance — right now — to go after what she wanted most. The doors had been opened. She just had to walk through and claim her blessing. That night, she reviewed the business plan she'd created. A plan she'd been too afraid to implement. "I can do this," she said. After graduating from college, she'd accepted a six-month internship in a small firm in Portland. She'd parlayed that experience into a full-time position. After her stint there, she'd put in two years at another company before moving to Bradshaw International where she'd honed her skills. Now, all she needed to do was trust her instincts and her own truth and apply those skills to what she really and truly wanted to do: start her own business. The reorganization at Bradshaw International was just the push she needed to start out on her own. So why did it feel like just the wrong thing to do? *** "I'm quitting," she said the next morning. The warm greeting on Mark's lips fell away. "What do you mean, quitting?"
Jodie deposited her bag and her coffee mug on the table. "As in resignation. Adios." From her portfolio she pulled an envelope and handed it to him. "The official letter. I wasn't sure if I should give it to you or to Ethan. Since you're officially the boss of record," she shrugged. Panic shot though Mark. She couldn't leave him now. Not when he'd finally acknowledged that she was the one he'd been searching for. Not before he'd had a chance to tell her how he felt about her. That was it, he realized. "What happened between us last night frightened you." She glanced up and shook her head. "I might be naive about some things, Mark. But I have been kissed before." "Then why are you quitting?" "It's time," she said simply. "Sometimes you just have to take that leap into the unknown and follow the direction of your heart." "And your heart's leading you where?" She smiled, a dazzling smile that nearly knocked Mark to his knees. He groped for the back of a chair, hoping he could make it look natural, not as if he needed the chair's support to keep him standing. "This isn't about you," she told him. "And it isn't about what happened yesterday. I'm resigning for me. There's something I've wanted to do for a while now." "And that is?" "Launch Just Right For You, a marketing firm." He lifted a brow. "You're going to compete with Bradshaw?" Jodie chuckled at his almost imperial tone. "I hardly think a one-woman start-up focusing on small business is going to be any threat to a sixty-year-old company." Contemplating her, he stroked his chin. A sudden glint in his eye gave her pause. "What?" she asked. "Since you've resigned — a resignation I accept," he added, tucking the envelope in his inside jacket pocket, "we don't have that awkward employer–employee thing going on anymore. I'm free to ask you to go out with me."
Chapter Eight It was funny the difference a few days could make. At the start of the week, Jodie had been stressing over not having a date for the employee recognition gala. A few short days later, she'd been promoted at the company and then resigned to head up her own enterprise. For now though, thoughts of business plans and price-to-earnings ratios were far from her mind. Resplendent in a white tuxedo, Mark returned from the punch bowl bearing refreshments. It still took Jodie's breath away to realize that they were actually an item. "You know, I was just talking to someone from the finance division over there. He said he was really stressed about coming here tonight because he didn't have a wife or a date who looked like a wife. Isn't that the weirdest thing?" Accepting the small glass from him, Jodie shook her head. "I was stressing over the same thing earlier this week." Mark looked stunned. "Why?"
"Because of company policy." "What company policy?" "That the only way to advance is to have a family." Mark's expression grew even more bewildered. "What are you talking about?" "Mark, C. B. Bradshaw made it clear that the only way to advance in his company was to have a spouse and children. That's one of the reasons many people haven't applied for some of the top positions when they've come open. At least that's what I saw in my time at Bradshaw." He rubbed his temple then pinched the bridge of his nose. "I cannot believe this. Would you excuse me for a moment?" Jodie watched him disappear in the crowd. A moment later, he stood at the bandstand, a cordless microphone in his hand. "Ladies, gents." It took a minute or two, but the room quieted and all eyes turned toward Mark. "It's just come to my attention that some employees here were under the erroneous assumption that there couldn't be any advancement into management without meeting some sort of marriage rule." Mark saw heads nod and knew that the belief was widespread. "C.B.? Are you here?" "Stop your yelling. I'm old, not deaf," C. B. Bradshaw said as he was assisted up the short staircase. He made his way to where Mark stood and took the microphone from his grandson. "When I started this company a lot of years ago, it was tough getting people to live out here in the country. Wayside wasn't built up like it is today. Everybody wanted to be in Portland, in the city. To encourage folks to stay, the ones who got promoted were family people — folks who'd establish some roots here in town. "You people must have missed the memo when we did away with that foolishness about twenty-five years ago." Chuckles sounded throughout the audience. Mark leaned over and spoke into the microphone. "So everybody can just relax, enjoy the party and stop worrying about having to get to the altar to advance." C.B. snatched the mike back and jerked his thumb toward his grandson. "Yeah, look at him. He's running the place and he's single. Hasn't had the decency to offer me a great-grandchild." Mark's gaze met Jodie's. "Hopefully not single for too much longer." *** After considerable mingling, Mark and Jodie slipped away. "I have an appointment," he told her. "Will you join me?" Admiring his dedication, Jodie said "yes." "Did you mean what you said up there? I mean about us?" she added, in case he wasn't sure just what she referred to. He took her hand in his as he drove. "I always say what I mean." He kissed her hand and Jodie smiled. A few minutes later, she had reservations when he parked in the back of The Latte Lounge. "You have an appointment in a bar?" He nodded. "Remember I told you I had other talents?" "Yes," she answered, drawing out the single word on a hesitant note.
"Well, one of them is music. I'm in a band. Well, really a combo. We play here twice a week. Come on," he said, taking her hand. "Our set starts in about ten minutes." As Jodie listened to Mark and his friends play, she was reminded of what Aunt Eunice told her about following her heart. When the band took a break, she pulled out her cell phone and called her aunt. "You know that terrific promotion I was telling you about?" "Indeed. Just this morning, I was bragging about you to Reverend Baines at the Church. Where are you? It sounds like a party." "I'm at the Latte Lounge off Main Street. I didn't take the job, Aunt Eunice. As a matter of fact, I quit. I'm going to start my own business." Instead of expressing dismay, Eunice laughed. "Well, that's even better news." Jodie shook her head. "Did you hear what I said, Aunt Eunice? I quit my job. My well-paying, security blanket." "I've been praying that you might have both the faith and the courage to follow your heart. It looks like you're finally there." Aunt Eunice was right, Jodie thought. She was following her heart in all aspects of her life. When Mark and his friends returned for their next set, Jodie listened to the sweet refrains knowing that no matter what happened next, life would always be a sweet adventure.
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