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Printed from https://www.writing.com/main/view_item/item_id/2013774-Secrets
Rated: GC · Short Story · Romance/Love · #2013774
Organisation review reveals a devastating secret and a big romance - with cats!
SECRETS

“A Mr Brian Morphett on line one for you, Mr Banks.”

“Brian? Great, put him through. Brian, how are you, you old devil?”

A familiar chuckle on the other end indicated his long-time friend. “Really good, thanks, Steve. How’s the consulting business?”

“Rolling along, thanks, mate. The financial press tells me Consolidated is going from strength to strength.”

“Mmm, yes, I aim to keep it bubbling along, and I hope you can help.”

Steve felt his curiosity rise. “Oh well, I didn’t suppose you called just for the pleasure of hearing my voice again. So what can I do for you?”

Again the quiet chuckle. “I’d rather not discuss this on the phone, and certainly not at my office. Are you free for lunch next week?”

“If you’re buying, I’d love to join you at the Coq D’Or, say Wednesday midday?”

“I should’ve remembered you have a taste for the best. Okay, my friend, I’ll see you there, then.”

The plush interior of the Coq D’Or was redolent of fine dining, hushed voices, silver service and an aroma of gourmet meals. The maitre d’ guided Steve with smooth, well practised reticence to his friend’s table, and Brian rose to shake his hand.

They were old friends who had been at university together, and although their paths had diverged, each had a healthy respect for the other’s skills. Brian had become CEO of Consolidated Industries, a specialised electronics manufacturing powerhouse. Steve, now an industrial psychologist, had a nationwide and increasingly international reputation for working with organisations to help keep them on an effective and profitable footing.

After a few pleasantries and cocktails, Steve got down to business. “Okay, Brian, if you need my input, something must be going off the rails?”

“The official version is I’d like you to run the rule over the organisation structure and see if it can be tweaked to make it even better than it is. I’ve talked with my senior people about this and while they are somewhat concerned, there’s no real opposition.”

“The official story sounds clear enough, but what’s the hidden agenda? There must be one—my mail is you’re running as smoothly as ball bearings on glass, so what do you really want?”

“Yeah, there is an underlying problem, but it’s very complicated. We have four top level division directors; manufacturing, supply, finance and marketing, and we’ve got some of the best people in each chair. But, and it’s a big but, our marketing director, Shelley Carpenter, seems to be having and creating problems. Don’t get me wrong. Shelley is one of the best marketing execs I’ve ever come across. I’d put her against any other equivalent position in the country.”

The hesitation in Brian’s voice alerted Steve to issues with Shelley Carpenter, which his friend was cautious about revealing.

Brian eventually plunged in. “Shelley’s been with us for about eight years, but over the past couple of years she’s developed perfectionism to a fine art. She works twice as hard as anyone else and her results are stratospheric, but she expects the same level of commitment by all her people. She can’t seem to accept not everyone has her degree of motivation and skills, and this tends to create friction, particularly within her own division. She was divorced a few years ago in a very nasty separation, which appears to be a significant factor.”

“Hmm,” Steve considered, “sounds as if she might be trying to compensate for the emotional pain by pushing herself past reasonable limits, and expecting others to follow her?”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought too,” Brian continued, “but she’s totally closed to any argument on the subject, and I can’t criticise her for getting results way above expectations. As usual in these sorts of things, it’s not so much what she’s doing, but how she’s doing it, and then, why?”

“So you’d like me to step in under cover of an organisational review to see if I can get to the bottom of Shelley’s behaviour and look at some directions for change? Still, she sounds like an interesting woman.”

“Hmm, yes, but be careful, my friend. Fascination with Shelley has led more than one guy into an emotional morass. Still, if I haven’t put you off, when can you start?”

“I ought to say three month’s time,” Steve grinned when he saw his friend’s expression change to one of disappointment. “But seeing as this is for a mate—and I’ve just had a late cancellation, I’ll put off my idea of a trip to the Barrier Reef and start Monday.”

“Thanks Steve—I owe you.”

“You most certainly will,” his friend replied with a grin, and they finished their lunch with anecdotes of their time at university.

The headquarters of Consolidated Industries boasted chrome and glass showcase offices fronting a factory complex. Steve smiled to himself when he arrived the following Monday, reflecting on his friend’s success and the drive and determination resulting in Consolidated, and Brian personally, achieving a pre-eminent place in security electronics.

A small rather “mousy” woman with iron gray hair, old fashioned glasses and a self-deprecating air showed Steve into Brian’s office. He took the time to absorb the clean glass and stainless steel décor as he walked in. ‘Not my style’ he reflected to himself; he much preferred traditional wood panelling and deep leather chairs.

Brian greeted him enthusiastically and Steve noticed that his friend’s thinning hair and thickening waistline were reflecting the passage of time.

“Come on in, mate and let’s get you started on the project.” Brian grinned; he had had noticed Steve’s uncertainty about the woman who had shown him in.

“Whatever you do, don’t underestimate Emily. She’s been my right hand from the start. She’s the ideal PA; sees everything and says nothing, except to me. She is very smart and totally trustworthy.” Brian buzzed on the intercom, “Emily, could you pop in for a minute, please?”

She slipped silently into the office and stood quietly waiting. “Emily, this is Mr Steve Banks who will be conducting the organisational review for us. Will you set him up in the spare office down the corridor, please, and if you will also provide him with whatever assistance he may need while he’s here, it would help us all a great deal.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr Banks. Just let me know if you need anything.”

“It’s Steve, Emily, and I promise not to make a nuisance of myself.”

She smiled and left the room as quietly as she had entered.

“Okay, Steve, give me half an hour, then wander down and I’ll brief you in a bit more detail. I’ve set up a meeting with divisional heads at 11.00 and you can get a feel for the people you’ll be working with.”

Emily showed Steve to a well appointed office and shortly after he returned for Brian to brief him on the main players in the organisation.

“I’ll get you to spend some time with each of the division heads and as many of their people as you think necessary. Staff know about you being here, and I’ve heard no grumbles about witch hunts or such. Nor, I should say, has Emily, and she’s pretty much on the ball about the office grapevine.”

“Okay, just a quick thumbnail sketch of the key players; I won’t tell you too much so you can form your own conclusions. Doug McLaren,” Brian started. “Production chief. Old school Scots engineer, approaching retirement. Knows all there is to be known about the production line; can get a bit touchy, but a very effective engineer and respected by his people.

Dick Senior, supply manager, in charge of purchasing and stores. Young, ambitious, a “thruster”, who gives the impression of wanting to move onwards and upwards, so probably won’t be with us too long but knows his stuff. Occasional run ins with Doug, but they never amount to anything serious.

Maria Dal Santo, finance and a genius with figures. My de facto deputy, she is also one of the best people managers I’ve ever met. She’s developed delegation to a fine art. Do you remember, oh it must be thirty years ago, there was a series of books about ‘The One Minute Manager’?”

“Yes, I’ve read them. Very useful stuff.”

“Quite. Well Maria embodies the ‘One Minute Manager’ philosophy and her staff almost worship her.

Then, last but by no means least, Shelley Carpenter, marketing. As I’ve already mentioned, at the top of her profession, but drives herself almost beyond belief, and does the same to her team. She gets incredible results, but turnover in marketing staff has been greater than all other departments put together. The usual reason is the pressure from Shelley to perform.”

“Hmm, I see. How about HR, IT and Research?”

“Small teams reporting directly to me.

“Okay, Brian, thank you for the information.”

At eleven o’clock, Steve made his way to the board room, and four new sets of eyes fastened on him as he entered. He noted Emily sitting inconspicuously in the corner taking notes. Brian was brief, “This is Steve Banks, a top industrial psychologist and a good friend of mine, and he’ll be here for a few weeks.

If you recall, I advised all staff about asking an outside consultant to conduct an overview of Consolidated’s operations with a view to fine tuning how we work. This is not a ‘witch hunt’, something I want to emphasize again, and I’d like you to co-operate fully with Steve while he’s here.” He then left it to Steve to outline his role during his stay at Consolidated.

“I just want to reinforce what Brian has said about my presence here not being a witch hunt. In my experience, some input from an objective outside source can provide a useful opportunity to look at how the company works. We can then look at whether we can fine tune the organisation to ensure it will run at optimum efficiency.

I know you have a high profile in the security electronics market and provide quality product at competitive prices. So Consolidated’s people are clearly doing a good job, and I suspect all I will need to do is tinker around the edges. I am open to any suggestions which might make Consolidated run more smoothly and effectively, so please don’t hesitate to let me know if you have any ideas. I also keep an open mind about change, so please feel free to have a conversation about any aspect of Consolidated which you may feel to be a matter of concern. It can be on or off the record as you choose.”

Brian invited each of the managers to say a few words about their areas of expertise and responsibility. Steve tuned in with total concentration to the interplay of expressions and exchange of quiet comments between the executives. This was mainly good humoured, and Steve found it particularly valuable. But one thing stood out with crystal clarity.

Shelley Carpenter had almost nothing to say apart from some basic facts and figures, but more interestingly she seemed to have no interaction with the rest of the team. She radiated an aura of almost unnatural calm. Totally controlled, she held herself aloof, as if trying to hide from everybody else, not wanting to reveal anything of who she was or how she felt.

Steve found himself fascinated by this unusual woman, and not just on a professional level. Tall, slim, graceful and perfectly groomed, she wore clothes with the elegance of a professional model. But her eyes captured his interest most of all. They were the grey of a winter sea—and with no more warmth, but with an underlying melancholy she tried, sometimes unsuccessfully, to conceal.

Steve was momentarily disconcerted when he saw Shelley’s eyes lock on his for an instant, seeming to probe into him and maybe even seek his help. He knew better than to read too much into a fleeting glance, but the glance was unmistakeable, and had stirred his imagination in not totally professional ways. He recognised a need to peel back the layers of her psyche to discover the real Shelley Carpenter underneath, what drove her and what caused her to feel sad and despondent.

At the same time, Steve also recognised the danger of allowing any personal feelings to develop. He had never considered himself to be a so-called “ladies man”; two failed relationships had left him emotionally sensitised and cautious about further involvements. Even so, he saw a stunning woman, almost a damsel in distress, and his “knight in shining armour” started to kick in.

He felt, almost intuitively, the other executives didn’t actively dislike Shelley, it was more she had built a wall around herself and didn’t want to let anyone in. ‘Why?’ he thought; this was a riddle he was determined to solve.

“Thank you for your time and your patience,” Steve concluded. “I’ll be in touch with your secretaries to set up individual meetings in the next few days. I’d also like to be able to talk to your staff informally, and to get some factual information from you as the need arises.”

With that, the meeting ended and Steve started his project when one of Doug McLaren’s senior people guided him around the premises and manufacturing unit, full of enthusiasm about the quality and effectiveness of the products. If this was anything to go by, Steve thought, Consolidated was in pretty good hands. The young engineer exuded a passion for the products and the manufacturing processes, which he suggested were among the best in the country and able to compete with any in the world.

The initial interviews went well. People were positive and provided Steve with a mine of information. His meeting with the rather dour Doug McLaren was informative but concentrated on technical issues. It was clear Doug knew everything there was to know about the production processes, but at the same time Steve gained the impression Doug was looking forward to retirement.

“Brian has given me pretty much a free hand when it comes to production,” he said. “I respect his ideas and his drive, which is why I’ve stayed on here as long as I have. We’re a good team, although I don’t always see eye-to-eye with Dick Senior, and Shelley keeps herself very much to herself. But our results keep on improving. Still, I won’t mind getting away and putting my feet up when the time is right.”

Steve could appreciate Doug’s commitment to the Consolidated brand, and to Brian personally. He had also discovered that wastage and down time were at an all-time low, industrial accidents were almost non-existent, the plant was spotless and morale appeared to be very high.

Steve thanked Doug for his input and, deciding to leave Shelley to last, but had a particularly interesting meeting with Maria Dal Santo. She was small, dark and round with a seemingly perpetual smile, but he realised within the first five minutes she had a vice-like grip on all financial aspects of Consolidated.

“I’ve been here for ten years; Brian rescued me from a disastrous marriage and a boring dead end job. He trusted me, and I’ve tried to give him back complete trust and professionalism.”

Lowering her voice and giving Steve a conspiratorial smile, Maria said, “Off the record, I’m not sure why Consolidated needs any serious overhaul. We all work well together as a team. But …,” and here the smile became even more secretive, “I suspect Brian is worried about Shelley and wants some independent input. Don’t get me wrong, Shelley and I have always been friends, although she seems determined not to let anyone get too close to her.”

“Steve, I think she’s scared; her divorce was messy, bitter and drawn out, added to which her ex persuaded their daughter, Rebecca, to stay with him. At sixteen, Becca was quite vulnerable and I can’t help feeling Shelley was unable to counter the line of bullshit he fed to their daughter.”

“Hmm, what you’re telling me seems similar to some other things I’ve heard. Are you still on good terms with Shelley or has she shut you out too?”

“I’m afraid she’s closing herself off from everyone who cares. I suspect there’s a trust thing happening because she can’t or won’t trust anyone other than herself. She seems to feel it’s a safer option, you see—so she won’t get hurt.”

“I’ve never been convinced about not trusting people on principle. If you don’t take a risk and trust, then you’ll end up with no-one you can turn to.”

“Right,” Maria agreed, “and unfortunately Shelley is going right there just now. Still, I’m not about to abandon her, but I won’t try to rescue her against her wishes. Oh, and by the way, a year or so ago, Dick Senior tried to persuade her on a few dates, but he was rebuffed, quite abruptly, I understand. Neither Dick nor Shelley will talk about it in any detail.”

“Thank you, Maria, I appreciate your candour, and I shall remain tight lipped about what you’ve said.”

“Good luck, Steve,” she said with her usual wide smile as he left her office.

His interview with Dick Senior was slightly less revealing, and as Maria had suggested, he was unwilling to discuss his attempted relationship with Shelley. Reading between the lines, however, Steve formed the opinion that Dick may well have felt Shelley’s rejection as a personal insult to his masculinity.

Steve was also in no doubt about Dick’s thoroughly professional approach to his role, but Steve was equally sure he would keep an open mind towards any opportunities for advancement, either within or outside Consolidated.

One further interview remained, with the enigmatic Shelley Carpenter, scheduled for 9.00 the following morning. Steve was on time, with Shelley looking her usual smart executive self with barely a hair out of place and welcomed him with cool efficiency. He felt almost intimidated by her wholly professional demeanour and her seemingly icy self-control.

They settled down to what Steve hoped would be a productive conversation when the door burst open and Jerry Marsh, Shelley’s sales manager, stormed into the room.

“You can stuff your job, Shelley; I’ve had enough of your totally unreasonable demands. I bust my balls to get the results you demand, and I reckon I do a reasonable job. But it’s never quite good enough, you always expect more. The Allied Security account has been the last straw. My results were impressive, even if I do say so myself, but no, you demanded more. Well, find someone else to meet your demands ‘cos I’m out of here.” And so saying he slammed back through the door.

Steve watched Shelley closely, expecting some sort of outburst. She turned pale, almost white and the set of her jaw and tensed muscles showed she was consciously holding herself under control, but was having difficulty doing so. She turned to Steve and in a tight voice suggested, “Do you mind if we finish this conversation another time? I’ve got a small problem to resolve.”

Steve quickly agreed, but headed immediately for Brian’s office. Emily ushered him in but Brian went first. “I’ve just heard about Jerry Marsh. It’s a damned shame—he’s a fine sales manager, and this doesn’t reflect too well on Shelley. Jerry’s had some first class results, and I’d hate to see him go.”

“Do you reckon you could stall him for a while, Brian? If I can get to the bottom of this Shelley issue and find some workable solutions, maybe you could persuade him to change his mind.”

“Hmm. Well, Jerry is due for three weeks leave; I could probably get him to bring his leave forward and delay his resignation until he’s due back in the office.”

“Good, although I now have a time limit on my investigation. Still, I reckon I might be able to pry something out of Shelley in three weeks.”

After consolidating his notes, Steve invited himself back into Shelley’s office. “Hi, Shelley, sorry to just barge in, but I wondered if we might finish our chat?”

Shelley stared at him, almost as if she had never seen him before, but then jerked out of her rumination and agreed in a rather flat voice suggesting she was far from enthusiastic about the interview, but just wanted to get it out of the way.

Steve imagined Jerry’s resignation had shaken her and she was still trying to come to terms with it. He recognised the truth of Brian’s comment about the sales manager’s resignation not reflecting too well on Shelley. He suspected she also realised the truth of this situation

“Look, Shelley, I’m not here to make your life difficult; I’ve got an idea—how about we go out for a coffee and perhaps a snack so we can talk away from the coalface? No strings, but it might be a bit less intimidating if we’re out of the work environment. And I’d like to think it might take your mind off Jerry’s resignation for a while.”

She looked uncomfortable and quite miserable. Shelley then said, simply, “You don’t intimidate me. Still, it might be easier to talk away from this place. Walls do have ears.” So saying, she gathered her jacket and they left the building together.

They settled in a quiet corner of a local coffee shop, and Shelley opened the conversation sounding very defensive. “Okay, Steve, what do you need to know?”

“Everything, Shelley. Brian thinks you are right at the top of the tree as marketing directors go, but I noticed at the meeting yesterday morning you seemed not to want to engage with the other directors. Are there any personal problems between you?”

“No.”

‘Uh huh,’ Steve thought, ‘this is going to be like pulling teeth.’

“Okay, although I understand there was some small issue between you and Dick Senior a while back.”

Shelley’s face twisted into an unpleasant sneer. “Dick thinks he is God’s gift to women and he didn’t like it when I pointed out the flaws in his reasoning. We get on okay now, I suppose, but there’s still a simmering undercurrent between us.”

“Would you say your experience with Dick has affected your working relationship?”

“No, not at all; I’m thoroughly professional at all times, and I’m not going to allow a personal disagreement to get in the way.”

Steve’s own professional skills recognised Shelley’s defensive stance and he also caught a glimpse of the wall she had built around herself. ‘I need to break through her wall,’ he thought.

“Fair enough, Shelley,” he temporised. “So how do you see Consolidated going? What would you most like to see happen?”

“Off the record?”

“Okay if that’s how you want it.”

“Look, the product range is good and some new ideas are putting us even further ahead. But too many people are happy just to rest on their laurels and not be really committed—Jerry Marsh for one.”

“Really? I understood Jerry to be a class act as a Sales Manager.”

“Maybe in some ways, but in my opinion, he lacks initiative and a willingness to try new directions.”

“What about your other senior staff?”

“Too many of them seem to be infected with the same virus. Where’s the commitment? Where’s the touch of mongrel which makes people want to get out there and fight for what they believe?”

Shelley’s response was almost fanatical, and her eyes shone with a fierce light suggestive of a driven personality who wouldn’t accept less than perfection from her people.

“Shelley, you do realise, don’t you, your standards are stratospheric, and others may have difficulty meeting them?”

“It’s not my problem. I expect results, and if they’re not met, the whole organisation suffers.”

“Can I remind you of an old saying, Shelley, ‘Nobody on their death bed ever said, “I wish I’d spent more time in the office.”’

Shelley’s smile was wintry, not touching her eyes. “Maybe so, but while we’re still alive, I expect budgets to at least be met and exceeded wherever possible.”

They returned to the office, and Steve contemplated their discussion. There were a few clues in what Shelley had said, but he needed to discover what was driving her so hard.

He also realised he was attracted to this woman, which came as something of a shock. It seemed wholly illogical to him at first, but apart from her physical attributes, she also had a fine mind, although the wall she had built around herself wasn’t going to be easy to penetrate.

‘I need to work on this problem at both a professional and a personal level,’ Steve reflected. ‘The professional side is essential for the project; the personal may help there, too, but it will also be a great pleasure for me.’

Next day, Steve poked his head round Shelley’s door, knowing she was alone. “Sorry to interrupt, Shelley; I so enjoyed our little chat yesterday but it left a few questions unanswered. Could I tempt you to dinner one evening—even tonight if you’re free?”

She looked directly at him with hardly any expression on her face. “Why?” she asked.

“I’d like to get to know you better, because I think marketing in general and you in particular are a key to Consolidated’s success. More than that, though, I think you’re a stunningly beautiful and fascinating woman. I can just bring myself to say, and mean it, this offer comes with no strings attached, except it will have to be the Coq D’Or.”

This time, Shelley’s smile just reached her eyes, and the flash of amusement turned her eyes from icy winter grey to something much more tropical. Steve’s fascination deepened.

“Flattery will get you part of the way, and the Coq D’Or the rest. Thank you; I’ll meet you there—will seven thirty be suitable?”

“Admirable—oh, and wear something sexy,” Steve chortled as he left her office.

Steve was a little early for their date, and he occupied himself in people watching, one of his favourite pastimes. And then he saw her, and his mind was immediately empty of everything else. He stood as Shelley glided towards him with a half smile on her face. Her dove grey silk suit moved with her in a rippling delight. A white silk blouse was buttoned up to her neck and she wore her hair up in a complicated arrangement on top of her head.

“Sexy enough for you, Mr Banks?” There was just a hint of mockery in her voice, and it took Steve all his willpower not to turn himself into a gibbering idiot.

“Stunning … gorgeous,” he eventually managed. “You must have been a model at some time—you wear clothes so well.”

“No, I’ve never been a model, but when working with men I do know it doesn’t hurt to play to their weaknesses, which usually includes dressing up to look good.”

Steve laughed. “Okay, now you’ve got me on the back foot, I need to get my act together and make myself appear even half intelligent and not just sit here with my tongue hanging out.”

Shelley’s answering laugh was unexpectedly warm and understanding. Steve felt that, just maybe, Shelley wasn’t totally opposed to his approaches.

“Okay, Steve, if you’re going to give me the third degree, I can tell you I respond much better after a glass of champagne.”

Steve agreed and they talked through a splendid meal. Even so, he was convinced Shelley was hiding things which would make her position and her behaviour much clearer. She repeated her mantra of expectation of quality performance from her staff, with the underlying message, ‘if I can, they ought to do so as well’.

On the personal side she was much less forthcoming, but confirmed much Steve already knew.

“My daughter, Rebecca lives with her father and I rarely see her.” Steve could almost feel the bitterness in her voice. “We came here from Sydney just after Becca was born, and at first everything went well. I had one or two low level marketing jobs and studied part time, driving myself very hard to be successful but also to be a good mother.”

“It all started to come apart after I landed this job. Brian could see something in me in line with his directions for Consolidated and we went from strength to strength. My ex, Jack, had tried a couple of business ventures without much success, and my achievements seemed to make him jealous.”

“Things came to a head about four years ago when we separated in a messy and spiteful divorce. Becca was only sixteen, and he managed to persuade her she would be better off with him than with me. I don’t know what line of garbage he fed her, but it worked. She’s stayed with him since then and initially I only saw her maybe once or twice a year, which hadn’t been too comfortable. I must say, though, we seem to be getting on a little better right now and I see her more often.”

For reasons he was not entirely sure about, Steve felt Shelley was holding something back. Her eyes had lost the sparkle their conversation had created and became bleak and dejected again. He felt sure she knew what particular ‘line of bullshit’ Becca’s father had used, but it was obviously something deep seated and very painful to Shelley.

Steve steered the conversation into calmer waters and he used a strategy which always seemed to work in situations like this; he made Shelley laugh. He told some stories against himself, adding one or two racy anecdotes about his time at university with Brian. Shelley relaxed, her body language became positive and her smile became infectious. She responded with laughter at some of his more outrageous stories, and Steve felt he was making good progress.

They left the restaurant together. “Okay, Steve, you can drive me home, but no nonsense about coming in for a coffee while I change into something more comfortable.”

Steve laughed. “You drive a hard bargain, Shelley, but I’ll behave myself.”

“Good boy,” she patted his hand and giggled, and Steve was convinced he hadn’t heard such an enchanting sound for a long time. He also hoped the evening had managed to create a crack in her defensive wall.

Arriving at Shelley’s apartment, Steve opened the car door for her, then took her hand in his and kissed it in a decidedly continental manner.

“Thank you, Shelley—it’s been a delightful evening.”

He would have sworn there was moisture in her eyes and her voice was heavy with emotion. “Thank you too, Steve—and thank you for being a gentleman. You can’t imagine how much I appreciate that.”

She turned and entered the apartment and Steve drove off, his head in the clouds.

The following day, Steve had an early meeting with Brian who had a broad grin on his face. “I hear you’re fraternising with a senior staff member.”

“News gets around here quickly. But, yes, I’ve seen Shelley a couple of times. I wish I could tell you it’s strictly business, but it’s a real pleasure for me, and I intend to fraternise some more.”

“Good for you, Steve, only please make sure you don’t compromise your objectivity over this project. I’m sure you won’t, but I wanted to put it on the record.”

“So noted, Brian.”

Steve couldn’t help himself—he headed for Shelley’s office, and her secretary announced him with another broad grin.

“Well, hi. Is this business or pleasure?” Broad grins seem to be catching this morning, Steve thought as he watched Shelley’s smiling face.

“A bit of both, I guess,” and he raised a few questions about technical aspects of her division, and Shelley answered smoothly and comprehensively.

Steve took the bull by the horns. “And on the personal side, are you free sometime this weekend?”

She looked at him, at first with uncertainty evident in her expression. But Shelley seemed to come to a resolution, saying, “Yes, but I’d like to take it easy; nothing too exciting. I’d just like to chill out somehow.”

“Okay, tell you what, the weather forecast is good for Sunday. How about we go for a walk on the beach, get an ice-cream and just hang out?”

Shelley laughed. “You read my mind. That’s one of my favourite things to do to relax and take life easy. Pick me up around one thirty and we’ll go enjoy ourselves.”

She was dressed in a soft pastel blue blouse with big buttons down the front, cream coloured linen slacks and open work sandals, plus sunglasses and a big floppy hat. She looked cool and sophisticated, as if she’d just stepped out of the pages of a fashion magazine.

“Sexy enough for you, Mr Banks?” Shelley laughed.

“Oh god, I’ll never be allowed to prize my foot out of my mouth, will I?”

Her laughter continued, a rich, warm sound which Steve found intensely exciting.

“I thought we might go to Middle Beach and then walk down to the kiosk at the southern end.”

“Sounds good to me,” Shelley said. “I like to go there too, although I’m usually by myself.” She sounded a little dejected, and Steve wondered why.

They reached their destination and strolled along the beach; Shelly took off her sandals and paddled in the gently lapping wavelets.

“Shelley, could I ask you a very personal question?”

She flicked an eyebrow but said nothing.

“You’re a beautiful woman, smart, funny and with a great personality, although you do your best to hide it. Why, and how come you haven’t got a string of guys knocking at your door with their tongues hanging out?”

“Steve, take a good long look at me. What do you see?”

“A stunningly beautiful woman, but …”

“Yes, that’s just the problem, you see. This is the equipment I was given when I was born. I didn’t choose it, nor did I choose to be smart or naturally efficient. I can’t help what I am.”

“I’m sorry, but I can’t see a problem here.”

“Steve, the problem comes in two parts. I seem unable to inspire real affection in other people, and people seem to be reluctant to accept the whole package. Guys in particular—sure, they like what they see, but that’s all superficial. When it comes out I might be intelligent as well, they seem to run a mile. I know I scare people—although I don’t seem to have done a very good job on you.”

Steve smiled. “Shelley, don’t ever try to be something you’re not. You have so much going for you so the superficial doesn’t matter. I think it was Dr Seuss, believe it or not, who said, ‘those who matter don’t mind and those who mind, don’t matter’.”

“Easy for you to say, mister psychologist, but I’ve got to live with it.”

“Yes, you do, Shelley, but I also think you’re far too hard on yourself. Look, when did you last take a stroll along the beach, alone or with someone else? I’d be willing to be it would be several months, at least. Learn to let go, smell the roses and chill out occasionally.”

“You make it sound so easy.”

“It is.”

As they walked, Shelley stumbled and grabbed hold of Steve’s arm.

“You okay?” he asked.

“Yeah; I was just daydreaming for a minute.”

“About what?”

“About this,” she laughed and bending, splashed water up over his jeans.

“Oho, so what’s all this in aid of?”

“I was just showing you I can relax and let go occasionally.”

“Do you always prove your point with a dash of sea water?”

Shelley laughed in response and then screamed as Steve picked her up under her shoulders and legs and made to wade into the sea.

“No, Steve … please don’t,” she squealed. “I’ll get all wet and cold and …”

“Okay, but you’re going to have to pay for the splash. Tell you what, you buy the ice creams.”

Shelley continued to hold onto his arm until they reached the kiosk.

“I’ll have a de luxe chocolate block, and this guy here can have whatever he likes,” Shelley smirked at the assistant and then at Steve, laughing when he raised his eyebrows in mock astonishment.

They left, returning along the beach, chatting happily. Steve could sense a distinct change in Shelley; her cheerful voice and relaxed manner suggested she had really “let go and was smelling the roses.” Conviction on this point came to Steve when Shelley turned to him and smeared a dab of ice cream on his nose as they finished eating.

“I see, so you’re still in a playful mood?”

“Mmm Hmm.”

“Then you’ll have to pay for that, too.”

But the price was different this time. Steve turned Shelley to face him, and taking her face between his hands, kissed her gently on the mouth. Shelley seemed startled and started to move away, but to Steve’s surprise she changed, throwing her arms around him and murmuring “Yes,” kissing him fiercely.

The tears in Shelley’s eyes surprised him. “Do you know how long it is since a guy’s kissed me? Do you know how long it is since a guy’s kissed me and I wanted him to?”

“No, to both those questions, but we mustn’t let too much time pass before it happens again.” And he repeated her “punishment”, soft and gentle this time.

Shelley hummed her pleasure and wrapped an arm around his waist as they returned to Steve’s car, locked together.

He drove her home; as Shelley got out of the car she said, “Steve, I’d love to invite you in, but Becca’s agreed to see me this evening, and I can’t put her off.”

“No, of course not,” Steve agreed with enough self-discipline not to let his disappointment show. “If you’re free next Friday evening, perhaps we can go out for a meal. Maybe not the Coq D’Or this time, but I know a little Italian place where we can get a decent meal, and it’s quiet enough for us to have a good chat. I think we should do that, don’t you?”

“Mmm, I agree, but we’ll see each other during the week and we can sort out the details then.”

“Fine. Oh, and Shelley,” and as she turned to him, he kissed her again, and this time she responded without any hesitation.

The week passed without any significant incident, save for an in-depth discussion between Steve and Shelley about issues around the marketing department and her expectations of its staff.

“Shelley, I desperately don’t want to jeopardise the relationship that’s growing between us, but I do have a commitment to Brian and to Consolidated to look at beneficial change.”

“Okay,” from under raised eyebrows.

“I guess I need to jump in at the deep end. Shelley, I recognise how much Consolidated’s success owes to your dedication and drive. Even so, I believe, based on years of experience, it might be even more effective if you were to relax just a little and bring your people into the planning process rather more.

You and Brian set overall marketing targets, but then you have a tendency to impose sales, advertising, merchandising etc targets on the functional teams. Why not let them set their own targets within the framework of the overall organisation budget?”

“Why don’t I? Because I’m afraid they’ll settle for second best.”

“Maybe, but that’s where you come in as guide and mentor. You know the overall goal, and you can then challenge your people to review their goals into line with the central objectives.”

“You always make these things sound so simple, but they’re not. My reputation depends on …”

“Shelley, your reputation depends on getting the best out of your people, which can only happen if they know you trust them. Certainly, if they abuse your trust, you come down hard, but give them a break, and I think you’ll find their goals are the same as yours.”

“You know, Steve, if you’d made this speech a couple of weeks ago, I’d’ve dismissed it as just more hot air from some outsider who didn’t know what they were talking about. Now you’ve seduced me,” Shelley grinned at her deliberate dare, “seduced me into believing it might be possible. I’ll talk to Brian; there’s a lot in what you say.”

“That’s great, Shelley. You’ve got more than your share of smarts as well as being drop-dead gorgeous.”

Steve was also getting close to finalising his report for Brian, and caught up with his friend late one afternoon.

“The investigation is almost complete, Brian and you’ll have my formal report in a few days. Just briefly, I’m suggesting you formally appoint Maria as your deputy, change her title to Director, Finance and Administration and give her responsibility for Human Resources. Then you might want to think about appointing a new director for a combination of IT and research, so you will be free to do your CEO act.”

Brian grinned.

“And one other thing. It will be useful to engage in some formal succession planning; Doug is close to retiring, so it’s important in Production, but all senior positions need a succession plan as a form of insurance if people decide to leave or whatever. You’ve mentioned Dick Senior, and it would be useful to have a contingency plan in place in case he does decide to up and leave. Anyway, it will all be in the report.”

“Great, sounds good, mate. Now, what about the issue with Shelley?”

“Hmm. I think there is progress there, but I don’t think it’s appropriate in a formal report. And before you say anything, yes, I know, I’ve fallen for her in a big way. Maybe our personal relationship in itself may help and I do think she’s starting to loosen up.

But I must make it clear; any personal feelings I have for her—and I’ve got a lot—aren’t going to influence any recommendations I may make. I still think she’ll be very driven, but I also think she may be prepared to let her people do their job without riding them to destruction. Anyway, she told me she wants to talk to you about some changes of direction, and I think they’ll be positive.”

“Okay, Steve, it all sounds very encouraging, and I trust your judgement.”

Shelley looked fresh and radiant when Steve collected her on the Friday evening. She kissed him lightly and laughed. “Control yourself, Mr Banks. I don’t want my makeup smeared all over my face.”

Steve’s laugh in response set the tone for the evening. The food was good, the restaurant cosy and intimate and they talked with a light-hearted lack of inhibition causing Steve to fall even harder for his companion.

In turn, Shelley seemed more relaxed than Steve had ever seen her. She was both sophisticated and funny and flirted openly with him.

The meal over, Steve drove Shelley back to her place and as he opened the car door for her, she laid her hand on his arm.

“This time, Steve, it would be nice if you came in for a coffee and … and … and a chat,” she finished unconvincingly.

“I’d love to Shelley—and I won’t even expect you to change into something more comfortable.”

Shelley laughed and they went into her apartment, warm and redolent of her perfume, tidy but distinctly feminine in its furnishings and decoration.

Steve looked around the lounge room, doing what he always did in new circumstances, summing up his environment and getting an even better feel for its occupant.

“Doing your psychologist act, are you, Steve?” Shelley emerged from the bathroom having freshened her makeup and spritzed a little more perfume. “So what does my humble abode tell you about me?”

“Warm, essentially feminine, maybe a little cautious or unadventurous; your selection of books and DVDs are pretty mainstream, but I suspect it’s a question of someone who knows what she likes and stays in her comfort zone. It intrigues me because it’s totally unlike your professional character.”

“You’re dangerously perceptive, Mr Banks. I’ve always managed to separate my professional from my personal life. Here, I like to be able to relax and keep the real world at bay; indulge my need for the safe, the known and the non-threatening if you like.”

“I do like.”

Shelley shimmied closer to Steve, her presence warm and inviting. She ran a hand down his arm. “Coffee or something a bit stronger, Steve? I’ve got some very drinkable single malt whisky, if you like it.”

“I do like.”

Shelley tossed her head in amusement, her thick, dark hair swirling around her face.

She handed him a glass, saying, “Here, see what you think.” She sat on the lounge next to Steve, and kicked off her shoes, curling her legs underneath her.

“Oh god, why do women wear heels? My feet are killing me.”

Steve grinned. “C’mere, give me a foot,” and looking surprised, Shelley put one foot into Steve’s lap. For the next few minutes, he rubbed, stroked and massaged her foot to the accompaniment of sighs and groans of absolute bliss. And then he lifted her leg and kissed her foot gently before laying it back down.

The expression on Shelley’s face was to die for. She had obviously never experienced anything like this before and it was quite special to her. Before she could speak, Steve demanded, “Okay, now the other one.” The same treatment, the same blissful expression, the same kiss.

“Steve, what … no-one has ever done anything like this for me before … why …?”

“You have lovely feet—I don’t have a foot fetish or anything really creepy; I just think you have lovely feet, and,” here he leaned forward and whispered in her ear, “I’d love to see them naked.”

Shelley giggled. “Oh would you? And is this desire limited to my feet or are there other parts of me you’d like to see naked as well?”

“Now that would be telling, wouldn’t it? But if those ‘other parts’ are as enchanting as your feet, then I couldn’t say ‘no’.”

Shelley’s eyes became smoky and challenging as she stared at Steve. She stood and slowly unbuttoned her blouse, letting it fall to the floor, then her skirt followed. “See anything you like?” she enquired, her voice low and dangerous.

“Dunno, still too many coverings,” he replied.

Shelley growled deep in her throat and slipped the lacy, lilac bra to the floor. Sitting, she slid the thigh-high stockings to the ground, then lifted a leg and wiggled her toes. “Well, there you go. Do they still look as good?”

“Even better,” he whispered and in a flash was on his knees and, taking her foot in his hands, kissed and nibbled her toes to the accompaniment of Shelley’s laughter.

“Anywhere else you’d like to kiss while you’re at it?”

Steve swept her almost naked body into his arms and kissed her mouth fiercely with Shelley responding in kind. He kissed behind her ears and down her neck to the accompaniment of murmured encouragement. In the meantime, his hands worked their way upwards, sweeping over her breasts with her breathing becoming ragged and aroused.

Steve’s excitement rose as his tongue slid over her breast and she shuddered, gasping at the sensations exploding in her head. Her warmth, her softness, her shimmering desire drove him into an eruption of hunger for this lovely creature who had once seemed so distant, so far beyond his reach.

Steve picked her up and laid her on the spacious lounge and quickly removed his own clothes while Shelley watched. He returned to her and kissed down her body, concentrating on her delicious breasts while she gasped and moaned. He then slid her silken panties off, and kissed down her body, her arousal becoming impatient and demanding.

“Please, Steve, please—I need you so much.”

Moving over her, Steve gentled himself into her welcoming body and she gasped as he entered, digging her nails into his back.

They moved together, the intensity building as Shelley whimpered jumbled words and meaningless sounds of desire. The intensity grew in both of them until with a harsh scream from Shelley and a deep moan from Steve, they plunged over the precipice together, shaking with their shared passion and with hearts beating furiously.

Steve recovered first and, leaning on one elbow, looked deeply into Shelley’s eyes. “God, Shelley, you are so beautiful. I don’t know how any guy in his right mind could resist you.”

She laughed, a warm sensuous sound and linked her arms around Steve’s neck, kissing him soft and sweet.

“Steve, this is really special, and so are you. I knew this was going to happen the first time I saw you, but I had to let you make the running; I didn’t want to scare you away. You’re not scared now, are you?” The question slipped through her laughter.

“No, you don’t scare me, wench, but I see I am going to have to prove it to you,” and he reached out for her. To his amazement, Steve could see tears start in Shelley’s eyes.

“What is it, Shelley?”

“Oh Steve, I’m so sorry—I can think of nothing better than for you to stay with me tonight and love me again. But … oh damn it, I promised Becca I’d go shopping with her in the morning. Our relationship is growing but it’s still rather fragile and I don’t want to let her down and …”

Steve leaned over and stopped her protests with a kiss. “Shelley, my love, I completely understand. There will be other opportunities now we have broken the barrier, and I’m a patient sort of guy. So just tell me where my pants are and I’ll let you get your beauty sleep—even though you don’t need it,” he added in a rush.

Shelley giggled and threw his pants at him. “There you go, you gorgeous man, now give me a kiss to last me until we’re together again.” They clung together in a wild, wet, hot embrace, loaded to the brim with passion, then tore themselves apart and Steve left, walking on air.

As Steve approached his car, his head still in the clouds, he was brought sharply back to earth when a voice from the nearby bushes snarled at him, “If you know what’s good for you, stay away from Shelley Carpenter. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.”

Staggered at this wholly unexpected demand, it would have been a gross understatement to say he was shocked. He called out to whoever was there in a pointless hope of a response, but there was no reply. The street lighting was limited and he was unable to see which way the voice had gone. Steve gave up any hope of discovering who it might have been, but at the same time, his logic circuits kicked in.

‘Who would want me to stay away from Shelley?’ he wondered. ‘I suppose it could have been Dick Senior, but I’m sure it wasn’t his voice, and anyway, it’s not his style. I guess it might have been her ex—likely he’s upset about Shelley and Becca getting closer, but why warn me off? And he must have been following me, otherwise how did he know about me being here? Curiouser and curiouser.’

Steve gave up the unequal struggle and returned home, although sleep deserted him in favour of tossing and turning his way through a series of disturbing half-dreams. Knowing Shelley was spending the day with Becca, he didn’t try to contact her, but on the Sunday there was no answer from her mobile phone; it appeared to have been turned off. So he sent her an SMS and determined to talk to her at the office next day.

That Monday, Steve arrived bright and early, looking forward to seeing Shelley again. But no sooner had he sat down than Brian rang, sounding more tense and upset than Steve had ever heard from his friend.

“Steve, can you get in here quick smart, please. We have a crisis.”

Steve moved quickly; Emily, too, looked stressed and told Steve to go straight in.

“Okay, Brian, what’s the crisis?”

“She’s resigned.”

Steve sat down, stunned. “We are talking about Shelley, aren’t we? How the hell did it happen?”

“That makes it worse. She won’t say, just marched in here looking like a corpse and dropped this note on my desk:”

This is my resignation to take effect from today, 17 March 2014. And signed Shelley Carpenter.

“Doesn’t tell us much, Brian; when does she want to finish?”

“Today, now, this minute. She wasn’t interested in serving out notice and she’ll sacrifice the money for the time. She just said she wants out and refused to give any explanation. Steve, I know this is none of my business but have you … is there any problem between you?”

“None, Brian. We had a really enjoyable time on Friday evening, although,” and he told Brian about the mysterious warning. “Makes no sense, but it has to be connected to her resignation. How, though, is another matter.”

“Yes, and she didn’t want to give me any reason for leaving, Steve. Her face was set like it was concrete; she had screwed herself to the sticking point and wasn’t about to let anything out.”

“Hmm,” Steve pondered. “And I guess our relationship will be over too. But I’m not about to roll over without a fight. What’s her next move, do you know?”

“I sent her off to clear her office and tell anyone who needed to know she was going, and I said I would arrange for a cheque for her accumulated salary, leave and so on. She’ll probably be back in half an hour or so.”

“Okay, Brian, softly softly isn’t going to work. So, are you prepared to break the law, although if this all goes wrong, we may both wind up in the slammer for some years? Still, we might be able to cobble together a story we can get away with, without having to spend too much time locked up!”

“You’d better come clean, Steve—what is your twisted mind cooking up?”

“Kidnapping. When Shelley comes back, we keep her here until she tells us the whole story. I reckon her slime of an ex has some sort of hold over her. If we know what it is, maybe we can do something about it. So, what do you reckon?”

“Boy, you don’t go in for half measures, do you?” Then Brian grinned. “Hell, why not. I don’t want to lose Shelley any more than you do, although our motives are different. But there’s a complication. Emily. If Shelley starts screaming the odds, Emily will hear and then the game’s up.” He thought for a moment, then buzzed Emily to come in.

Brian explained the tactics they were about to engage in, and suggested if Emily was uncomfortable with this, she might want to take the rest of the day off. But Emily drew herself up to her rather limited height and looked Brian in the eye.

“Mr Morphett, you’ve stuck with me through thick and thin, and gave me back my self-respect. I will certainly not walk out on you over this. I like Shelley and I think she is under some sort of duress. So I will do everything I can to help.”

“Emily, you’re a treasure,” Steve joined in. “We need you to ignore any cries, screams or pleas from Shelley, and to block off any calls or visitors for as long as it takes. We may also want you to get some lunch for three. Do you reckon you can cope with such a plan?”

“Mr Banks, in your parlance, I think it will be ‘a piece of cake’.”

“Okay – and please send Shelley straight in as soon as she gets here.”

Ten minutes later the door was flung open as Shelley marched in. Steve closed the door and turned the snib, locking them all in.

Shelley turned and looked at him, her face grey and set in hard lines. Her voice was harsh as she asked Steve, “What the hell are you doing here?”

“Good morning, Shelley, my sweet. Lovely day, isn’t it.”

“The ‘my sweet’ stuff is all over and done. I don’t want to see you again, or have anything more to do with Consolidated Industries. Please give me my cheque and I’m gone.”

“I don’t quite think so, Shelley. The door doesn’t open until you tell us what this is all about. I think we’ve both got a right to know why you’re running away.”

“You can both go to hell. I don’t owe either of you an explanation. I’m a free agent and I can do whatever I like with or without your approval. Now, pay me my money and let me go.”

“No.”

“What do you mean ‘no’, Steve? You can’t keep me here against my will. Last I heard, kidnapping is illegal.”

“Nice try, Shelley, but you’re missing one crucial point. We are physically able to keep you here against your will and we’re going to do so until you tell us the whole story, no matter how long it takes; hours, days, weeks; whatever.”

“You bastards,” Shelley screamed and grabbing for her handbag, took out her mobile phone. This was just what Steve had been waiting for, and he grabbed her wrist, manoeuvring the phone out of her hand.

“Naughty, naughty. We don’t need the cops involved right now, so I’ll take your phone and look after it until you tell us your story.”

“Give it back to me, damn you,” she screamed and lashed out at Steve with a clenched fist. He was fast enough to avoid the blow but moved to the other side of the room.

A sly look passed across Shelley’s face as she said, “Look, I need to use the ladies room. You can’t refuse me such a basic need.”

“Certainly not,” Brian replied with a straight face. “Fortunately, I’m sufficiently conceited to have arranged private facilities attached to this office. Through the door there,” Brian indicated. “But the windows are locked and it’s a long drop to the ground, so the window isn’t a way out.”

Shelley snarled and headed for the rest room, returning a few minutes later with the snarl still in place.

“Well,” Brian commented almost jokingly, “looks like we’ve got a stalemate going here. Anyone fancy a game of cards?”

“Damn you to hell, you freaks.” Shelley was shrill, and Steve suspected she was nearing a breaking point so he changed tactics.

“Look, Shelley, I reckon we’ve got three quarters of the story anyway. Someone, and I suspect it’s your ex, has some sort of hold on you, a big enough hold for you to be prepared to sacrifice yourself to his demands. You may be interested to hear when I left you on Friday, a voice coming from the bushes near my car said, ‘If you know what’s good for you, stay away from Shelley Carpenter. Don’t say you haven’t been warned’. If I was a gambling man, I’d have five dollars on it being your ex—Jack Pocock, wasn’t it?”

Shelley said nothing, but her eyes were glued to Steve, almost as if she was hypnotised, and she merely nodded her head.

“Okay, Shelley, now just what is it Pocock has over you?”

Shelley looked for a moment as if she was about to say something, but with a physical effort, she squared her shoulders and simply said, “No. No, I won’t tell you and you can’t make me.”

Steve’s reply was almost lazy. “Maybe, maybe not, Shelley, but what we can do is speculate. I’m going to run through a few scenarios and watch you carefully for clues about how close we’re getting.”

“God, I loathe you, you bastard. Why won’t you just leave me alone?”

Steve ignored the insult. “So, let’s say it is to do with some illegal activity in the past Jack has been holding over your head. Er, drugs? Fraud? Illegal gambling? Sex?”

Steve detected a noticeable twitch. “Aha; prostitution in one of its many forms. Getting closer, am I, Shelley?”

She stared at him, her face going even more pale and then turning a dirty green shade as she raced for the rest room. Brian and Steve could hear her retching violently, and tears were streaming down her face as she stumbled out.

“Water, please, water.”

The men were quiet as Shelley recovered herself enough to speak. “Okay, you win, but you’ve put me in real danger, and probably Becca, too. If anything bad happens to us, it’ll be on your heads.

Brian, I lied to you about my past experience in marketing when I came here. I’d had the one job in this state, but all the previous stuff in Sydney was simply a pack of lies. The truth is, I was … I was … “ And then Shelley screamed at the top of her voice, “I WAS A WHORE. All right, so now you know. I was a prostitute, starting on the streets and moving through the brothels to become a call girl. So now you won’t want anything more to do with me, Steve, and you’ll accept my resignation with enthusiasm, Brian.”

Steve turned to look at his friend. “I didn’t realise it was possible to be so clear about the opposite of the truth. Did you, Brian?”

“Absolutely. I have to say you got it wrong on both counts, Shelley,” Brian was emphatic. “I can’t really speak for Steve, of course, but so far as I’m concerned, what really matters is what you have done for Consolidated over the past eight years. Whatever happened previously can be consigned to the dustbin of the past, so far as I’m concerned.”

Steve was right behind Brian. “Everything I’ve seen and heard about your work with Consolidated tells me you are one hell of a fine marketing director, and Brian would be crazy to let you go. But, for me, the professional stuff hardly matters. For me, you are a smart, beautiful, funny, sassy woman with a magic personality. And, god are you sexy. I don’t give a rat’s hat what you were or did in the past. That’s dead and gone so far as I’m concerned. What matters to me is the here and now, and I desperately want you to be part of it.”

Shelley sat stunned, emotions flooding across her face.

“Steve, Brian, surely you can’t let it go as if nothing had happened. Didn’t you hear what I said; I prostituted myself; I sold my body for money. But there’s a lot more to it,” Shelley gasped.

“So tell us. Neither of us is going to judge you for your past or think any the less of you for anything you may have done. Promise.”

“Jack knew about my past before he married me; I’d given up the game when I realised I was pregnant with Becca. He married me, knowing about my past, and at first it all went really well. But we started drifting apart; I wanted stability and a decent career and was prepared to work hard at it. He was forever coming up with stupid, semi-legal money making ideas and they never got off the ground.”

“We divorced four years ago, and he fed Becca a line of lurid bullshit about my past and persuaded her I wasn’t a fit mother for a teenage girl. I couldn’t deny it, but over the past six months or so, Becca has become a lot more accepting and we’ve started to form a close bond.”

“Worse was yet to come, though. During my previous career, a series of photos was taken of me in some highly provocative poses, some of which were downright crude. And to cap it off, I appeared in two movies which only just scraped in under the “X” classification. Those were really gross, and could have served as a manual for a gynaecology course.”

“I thought all this stuff had disappeared, but someone from my past in Sydney exhumed this crap and passed it on to Jack. He came round to see me last night and told me unless I broke from you, Steve and resigned my job here, Brian, he’d distribute all this stuff, naming names, so I’d never work in this town again, and lose all contact with Becca.”

“To add to the horror, he had plans for me to be in charge of marketing and promotion for a new ‘adult’ web site and movie distribution network. It sounded so sleazy, but I couldn’t take the risk of refusing, so I did what I thought was for the best. And now the secret is out, and he’ll make me suffer,” with which Shelley again burst into tears.

Steve moved beside her and put his arm round her shoulders. “Shelley, Brian and I are in your corner, we’re going to be fighting for you. We’re going to do our damnedest to make sure your ex doesn’t harm you or Becca in any way. You’re not on your own any more, and we’re going to find ways to make him pay. I won’t say ‘don’t worry’ ‘cos I know you will, but you can unload onto either of us if or when you need to.”

Shelley’s tears stopped. Her face opened with a flush of hope and her watery smile told Steve and Brian all they needed to know.

“You guys are the best. I’m so very sorry for everything I’ve put you through. I don’t know what would have happened without you; I know I should have trusted you earlier, but it all seemed so overwhelming and I couldn’t …”

Steve’s glowing face radiated positive energy. “Okay, Shelley. There’s a lot of water passed under the bridge recently, some of it pretty slimy. But it has passed, now we’re into clean-up mode. How do you feel about getting Mr slime-ball to admit to his plans on tape, or whatever these tech gurus use these days?”

“Brian, if Shelley is willing, what say we fit her with a wire as a way to get a confession from him? I’m sure you have some sophisticated bugging devices around here.”

Brian smiled. “My bread and butter, my friend, and a sizeable helping of jam, too.” So saying, he picked up the phone to his chief of research, and after talking some incomprehensible jargon, he told Steve, “Our latest bug will be here momentarily. Wireless operated, good range and will be hidden in a bracelet. Shelley may not care greatly for the style, but it will do a good job.”

“Excellent. Now, may I use the phone? I want to talk to a police contact about entrapment. It may not apply, but I don’t want to foul this all up on a technicality.”

Steve rang his contact, Detective Sergeant Paul Baxter, and explained the situation to him. Paul clarified the law concerning entrapment, which raised Steve’s expectations. But he also said any material obtained electronically when the suspect wasn’t aware of the recording would probably not be accepted as evidence, no matter how incriminating.

“What the hell, Paul. This guy is arrogant, but if we can get his blackmail attempts on record, he may be persuaded to roll over. It’s worth a try, anyway.”

“Okay, Steve, but I don’t want you going alone on this. I’ll be there with a colleague to make sure you don’t blow it in your enthusiasm to get this guy out of your friend’s life.”

“Okay, Paul, would you hang on for a minute, please?”

“Shelley,” he said, “when is dickhead supposed to contact you again?”

“He told me he would come by my place this evening at eight o’clock to confirm my acceptance so he can start his sordid little business.”

“Paul,” Steve returned to the phone, “it’s all supposed to happen at eight o’clock this evening,” and he provided Shelley’s address.

“Right, I’ll be there and I don’t want you getting all macho and doing anything dangerous or stupid. Leave it to the professionals, although using Consolidated’s high tech recording gear would be a distinct advantage.”

“Okay, Paul, see you then.”

“This is the plan, Shelley; please tell us if you don’t feel comfortable about it or if you think it’s too risky. We’ll fit you with the recording device and check it fully before you leave. I guess you’re going to want in on this little escapade, Brian?”

“Try keeping me away!”

“Okay. Shelley, you’ll need to be ready at your place by, say seven thirty, and your team will be concealed nearby. I noticed there are one or two places around your unit ideally suited for concealment. We’ll wait for him to arrive and monitor you both very carefully. Shouldn’t be a problem, but we’re only a heartbeat away.”

Shelley smiled and then grabbed Steve and Brian in a big hug. “I’ll be alright, and I’ll be happy to do anything I can to put a stop to his sordid little scheme.”

“Right, that’s sorted,” said Brian. “I don’t know about you two, but I could use something to eat.”

“I might have known it,” Steve grinned at Shelley. “Always thinking about his stomach.”

“Pots and kettles,” Brian responded and called Emily in.

“Is everything alright, Mr Morphett?”

“Just fine, thank you, Emily, and thank you, too for your help. Would you please be kind enough to arrange lunch for three in here; make it four if you’d care to join us?”

“Thank you for the invitation, Mr Morphett, but I don’t think it would be appropriate,” and she left with a beaming smile threatening to split her face in two.

After a relaxed lunch, Brian commented, “Shelley, I don’t think we’ll broadcast your return until after we’ve fixed the problem with your ex. I’d also like you to think about whether you could make peace with Jerry Marsh. He doesn’t need to know the details, but if you could hold out an olive branch it would be to everyone’s advantage.”

“Sure, Brian. I’m quite prepared to apologize to him, and to some of my other people and let them know I’ve stopped being an ogre. Steve persuaded me I don’t need to set impossible targets to achieve great results. I’m sure we can find positive outcomes for all of us and for Consolidated.”

“Great. Looks like you’ve fulfilled your brief, Steve.”

“I hope so, but wait until you see my bill.”

Brian gave a theatrical groan and the others laughed. He then made a highly unconvincing excuse of needing to visit a supplier, saying, “I hope you two don’t mind if I leave you for an hour or two. I’m sure you can find something to amuse yourselves while I’m gone.”

After he left, Shelley moved into Steve’s arms, holding him close and kissing him deeply and passionately. “’Thank you’ seems so little to say for what you and Brian have done for me. I’m rather stressed at the moment, but when this nightmare is finally over, I plan to show you exactly how grateful I am.” And she kissed him again, leaving no doubt whatsoever in Steve’s mind exactly what she meant.

“I can’t really do the same for Brian, but I can go all out to justify his faith in me and drive Consolidated farther and faster even than in the past.”

“Mmm, I’m sure he will be delighted.”

Brian returned and later in the afternoon Shelley was fitted with the recording bracelet and the “bug” was tested under a variety of conditions and sound levels. It was obviously very sensitive and worked well. Just what was needed.

Shelley left for home without raising any comment from other staff and Steve and Brian grabbed a burger and coffee before heading for Shelley’s place.

They were in position well concealed before Paul Baxter arrived with a female colleague.

“Okay, guys, let’s see what we’ve got. Can we test the recorder?”

Steve rang Shelley on her mobile. “The gang’s all here, Shelley; can you just say a few words please to test the recorder?”

To Steve’s astonishment and to the amusement of the others, ‘I love you, Steve’ came across loud and clear.

“And I love you too, Shelley, but I’ll be able to be more convincing when we’re alone.” The answering chuckle also recorded well.

Time seemed to drag, but just before eight o’clock two figures walked up the path to Shelley’s door. “Two of them,” Paul whispered, and Steve, seeing one was small and apparently female, whispered back, “Looks like he’s brought their daughter.”

“Then he’s either very confident or very stupid.”

A loud, impatient banging on the door announced Jack and Becca’s arrival with Shelley letting them in so quickly she had almost certainly been waiting at the door.

The internal conversation started almost immediately, and the recorder picked up everything.

“Did you have to bring Becca, Jack? What’s she got to do with this deal?”

“Oh, don’t get all stressed, honey, we’re going to be one big happy family again. Aren’t we?” he asked in a tone of unmistakeable menace.

“Don’t ‘honey’ me, Jack; I’m doing this because I have to, not because I want to.”

“You want to take the risk of annoying me, Shelley, just keep on with the attitude.”

“All right, Jack, have it your way. Just exactly what do you want from me?”

“I thought I’d made it perfectly clear. Sever your relationship with Banks and quit your job at Consolidated or stories about your past will be released for public consumption. Stories about your loose morals and how you prostituted yourself and abandoned your daughter.”

“I did no such thing, Jack and you know it. Becca, honey, yes, I’ve done some stuff I’m not really proud of, but it’s all behind me now, and …”

“Just shut up and listen to me for once. I’ve got this red hot business opportunity and I need someone to promote it, and you’re just the person to do it. So you’ll join with me, or else your life will get very ugly.”

Meanwhile, outside, Brian expressed his concern about the quality of the reception. “The voices keep getting distorted. Nothing critical, but I suspect Shelley is fiddling with the bracelet. Nerves, probably, but we may not get the clarity we need.”

“Not much we can do about that,” Paul commented, “although we’ve got some pretty incriminating stuff already.”

Shelley continued to fiddle with the unaccustomed bracelet, which drew it to Becca’s attention.

“Hey, cool bracelet, mum—can I have a look?” and she moved to Shelley to take it from her wrist.

“No, Becca, leave it alone. It’s a present from a friend.”

“Stop being a bitch, Shelley and let the kid see it. In any case, if it’s from Banks, I’d sooner you didn’t keep it, so, be a good girl and give it to Becca.”

“No, I can’t …”

“Don’t argue with me, Shelley, now give me the damn bracelet,” and so saying, he wrenched it from her wrist.

In doing this, the bracelet twisted and revealed its purpose.

“You fuckin’ bitch,” Pocock screamed. “You’re wearing a wire. All of this is going out to your filthy mates. I’ll kill you for this. I’ll fuckin’ kill you.” His screams were punctuated by a thump and a scream as he lashed out at Shelley.

Becca screamed. “No, dad, stop it, stop it—don’t hurt mum.”

“And you can shut up too, you little turncoat,” and swung his hand backwards, catching Becca across the face.

Some of this was captured through the distorted bracelet, and Steve yelled, “I’m going in!” charging towards the door.

Paul tried to stop him. “Let me handle this, Steve—I don’t want you doing anything foolish.”

Before Steve could get through the door it was flung open by Becca, whose astonishment at seeing people there was overtaken when she screamed at the top of her voice, “Help us … please help us … he’s hurting my mum.”

Steve hurtled through the door to see Shelley cowering on the floor on the opposite side of the room with her ex-husband towering over her about to deliver another smashing blow.

In an almost surreal moment of recall, Steve remembered the words of his rugby coach from years back, “If you’re going to crash tackle, hit him fast, hit him low—and hit him hard.”

Steve took three long, fast strides across the room and flung himself horizontally at Pocock. His arms encircled Pocock’s chest, crushing him over a coffee table which collapsed with the force of the collision. In addition, Steve turned his opponent slightly, allowing his elbow to land heavily in the other man’s gut.

Steve was on his feet, ready to hand Pocock a flogging when Paul stopped him. “You’ve done what was needed, Steve, and you’ve saved your friend a savage beating. But we can take it from here.”

Detective Sergeant Paul Baxter dragged Pocock to his feet and administered the official caution. Then went on, “Jack Pocock, I am arresting you for aggravated inflicting actual bodily harm and for blackmail. Do you have anything to say?”

Having recovered his breath but not his sense, Pocock spat out, “I’ll kill you, Banks, and I’ll hunt down and kill my bitch of an ex-wife.”

“Dear me,” commented Paul, “looks like we can add threats to kill to our charge sheet.”

“Do your worst, pig,” Pocock sneered. “None of the charges will stick. Any court will throw out the recordings, and I might get a slap over the wrist for the assault, but that’s as bad as it gets.”

“No, dad,” Becca’s voice was so quiet it was difficult to hear. “I heard everything, and I’ll testify against you. I thought you loved me, but all your violence just showed me what a pig you are.”

“Becca, no, you can’t, I’ve devoted myself to you, you’ve got to stick by me, please …”

Becca didn’t answer in words, but her next actions were visibly eloquent, making a reply to her father unnecessary. She crossed the room to Shelley, now sitting on the lounge, put her arms round her mother’s shoulders and said, in a loud, clear voice, “I love you, mum.”

“I love you too, honey. When I’m fixed up, we’ll have a lot of catching up to do. Oh, and the wonderful man who saved my life is my friend, Steve Banks. Steve, in case you hadn’t guessed, this is my daughter, Becca.”

“Hi, Becca, good to meet you.”

“Hi Steve—I can call you Steve, can’t I—I owe you for how you saved my mum.”

“Yes, of course you can—and your mum is a very special lady, and I wasn’t going to let her be hurt any more.”

In the meantime, Paul had arranged for Jack Pocock to be taken to the local police station, and for the police doctor to look at Shelley and Becca. He recommended Shelley be taken to hospital as a precautionary measure in case of concussion and to check for any fracture of the cheekbone.

She agreed reluctantly, but then said, “What’s going to happen to Becca? She can’t stay here by herself.”

“Okay, here’s the deal,” Brian’s first contribution to the conversation. “I’ll take Shelley to hospital and stay with her until she is admitted.” Steve was about to jump in before Brian silenced him.

“I know you have a vested interest in Shelley’s wellbeing, but so do I. I want to protect my investment in a key member of my staff. Why don’t you take Becca home and give her a bed for the night?”

“I’d be delighted, my dear,” Steve’s theatrical leer had Shelley laughing when Becca looked just a little uncertain. “I haven’t sacrificed a virgin for, oh, I don’t remember the last time.”

Becca decided to counter this piece of nonsense; “Oh, that’s alright then, I’m not a …”

The laughter spread throughout the room and Becca blushed a deep red.

“You rat. You set me up.”

“Guilty as charged, Becca. Don’t worry, I’m just a big pussy cat. Ask your mum.”

Shelley smiled. “You’ll be perfectly safe with Steve, honey, and I should be out tomorrow, so I’ll see you then. Love you, sweetie.”

Brian collected Shelley and they locked up the unit as Steve took Becca back to his place, stopping off at her father’s house on the way.

“I want to get as much of my stuff out of this snake pit as I can before he gets back, and I don’t want to see him again.”

“I agree, Becca, so let’s get loaded up.”

When they arrived at Steve’s place, he commented in an offhand manner, “I’d better introduce you to my two live-in girlfriends.”

Becca looked stunned. “You live with two women?” she demanded in an offended tone.

“Not quite,” and as he opened the door, two large ragdoll cats ambled towards them, purring loudly.

“Sheba and Delilah, my girlfriends.”

“Ohmygod, they’re awesome,” and Becca knelt down, scratching both furry heads behind the ears as their motors started running even more noisily.

“Does mum know about these two beautiful animals? She adores cats.”

“No, they’ve never met, but if she comes back here tomorrow, I’ll make the introductions. Oh, and by the way, you’d better shut your door if you don’t want a furry companion purring in your ear all night. I’m used to it, but you might find it a bit distracting.”

“Don’t worry, Steve, it might be fun.”

“Okay, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

Steve was up early the following morning, with Delilah demanding to be fed. Before Steve had time to wonder about Sheba, Becca strolled into the kitchen, rubbing her eyes and followed by Sheba.

“Sleep well, princess?” Steve asked with just an edge of “I told you so” in his voice.

“Yes thank you,” Becca was very proper. “Sheba kept me company and scared away the monsters from under the bed.”

“Mmm, she’s good at that.” Steve looked closely at Becca, who looked relaxed and refreshed. Maybe there was something in feline therapy after all.

“Steve, may I ask you a very personal question, please?”

“Sure, Becca, go ahead.”

“Do you love mum?”

“Yes, I do, very much.”

“Oh good. So you’re going to marry her, then?”

Steve spluttered over his coffee. “Well, marriage might be a bit of a stretch, and I haven’t asked her, even though I’ve thought long and hard about it. But … well, if she agrees, it sounds like a really good idea.”

Becca crowed with delight, startling the cats before Steve looked at her severely.

“Don’t you dare say a word to your mother about this. I rang the hospital earlier, and we’ll pick her up at eleven o’clock. So make yourself presentable before we get going. And not a word, understand?”

“Yes, sir,” she giggled.

Shelley was waiting at the hospital, still looking rather pale and with a large bruise on her cheekbone. Being nearly knocked over by Becca’s enthusiastic embrace seemed to put some colour back into her complexion, and she gave her daughter a big hug.

Shelley turned to Steve, and the love, boosted by gratitude shone from her like a warm cloud.

“Hi Steve.”

“Hi yourself, gorgeous.”

“Not so gorgeous at the moment, I’m afraid. But it’s nice to hear,” and she moved close and kissed him gently.

Becca burst out in applause, and they both looked at her and simultaneously raised their eyebrows, causing Becca to giggle even more.

“Back to my place, I think, Shelley, then we can decide where to from there.”

“Ooh yes, mum—you must meet Steve’s two live-in girlfriends. They’re real nice, and I think I’ve fallen in love with them.”

“Okay, Steve, what’s all this about?” Shelley was clearly puzzled and just a little concerned.

“Just wait and see.”

It was almost a replay of the previous evening. Shelley walked through the door of Steve’s place to be greeted by the two cats, purring enthusiastically.

“Cats,” Shelley shouted. “Oh my, they are so beautiful,” and she knelt down and embraced them both, to their obvious enjoyment.

Steve showed no sign of any concern. “So my dire secret is now exposed; Becca tells me you love cats—so do I. Sounds like a good omen to me.”

“A good omen for who, Steve?”

“For us, Shelley. Look, I know this is sudden, but I can’t keep it bottled up any longer. When I saw you hurt and suffering with what Pocock did to you, I just wanted to make sure it never happened again. But it’s more than just that, much more. I love you, Shelley, and I think I did from the moment I first met you. I can’t imagine my life without you in it. Shelley Carpenter, will you please make my happiness complete by agreeing to marry me?”

“Hmm, I don’t know about this,” Shelley struggled to keep the laughter out of her voice.

“Oh mum, don’t be mean. I want Steve to be my stepfather, and …”

“You see, Becca … he’s not doing it properly. I expect a proposal of marriage to be presented on one knee with an expression of adoration and pleading in his eyes.”

“I reckon I can just about manage that.”

As Steve started to drop to one knee, Shelley interrupted.

“Yes, of course I’ll marry you, you lovely man,” and as Steve rose to his feet, Shelley swamped him in a long loving embrace with accompanying soft, sweet kisses.

Becca provided the background music of cheers and applause to an accompaniment of loud purrs.


(14,318 Words)
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