Marriage Terms(6)

By: Barbara Dunlop



Amanda’s eyes settled into a glow. “Have you seen Misty?

“No, but I saw Cullen earlier today.”

“And everything’s all right with the pregnancy?”

“Everything’s fine.” Not that Daniel had specifically asked. But Cullen would have told him if anything was wrong. Right?

Amanda picked up a pen and tapped an open spot between two file folders and her Rolodex. “So, what can I do for you, Daniel?”

“Have dinner with us.”

“I mean right now.”

“Now?”

“Yes, now. You went to all the trouble to come to Midtown. What do you want?”

Daniel hesitated. He hadn’t planned to plunge right in, right here, right now.

But what the heck, he might as well lay the groundwork. “I was talking to Taylor Hopkins earlier today.”

“Let me guess, he wants my legal advice on a delicate matter.”

“He’s a lawyer, Amanda.”

“I know he’s a lawyer. I was making a joke.”

Daniel shifted. “Oh, right.”

She stood up.

Daniel quickly came to his feet.

She scooped up a stack of files. “Relax, Daniel. I’m just putting these away.

You don’t mind if I organize while you talk?”

Daniel glanced from the overflowing bookshelves to a desktop and credenza piled high with papers. “Of course not. But why doesn’t Miss Gothic—”

“Julie,” said Amanda.

“Fine. Julie. Why doesn’t Julie do your filing?”

“She does.”

Daniel scanned the room again, biting his tongue.

Amanda followed his gaze. “She’s learning,” she clarified.

“You mean it used to be worse?”

After some hesitation, Amanda set the pile down on a wide windowsill behind her.

“Did you come here just to insult my staff?”

From his vantage point, it looked as if Amanda had blocked the air-conditioning.

On a humid August day in the city. “How long has she worked here?”

“Two, two and a half—”

“Weeks?”

“Years.”

“Oh.”

“Don’t ‘oh’ me like that.”

“Like what?”

“Just because Elliott Publication Holdings restricts its administrative staff to Ph.D. candidates—”

Daniel jumped at the opening, narrow as it was. “I wasn’t comparing you to EPH.”

She arched a brow.

“I was comparing you to Regina and Hopkins.”

The brow arched higher. “Who won?”

“Amanda—”

“Seriously, Daniel. How did I stack up to a cold, calculating, profit-obsessed, inhuman firm like Regina and Hopkins?”

Whoa. Where had that come from? Daniel blinked at his ex-wife.

She scooped up another armload of files and glanced around. “Thought so.”

From what he could see, she was randomly rearranging the mess.

Or maybe she was nervous. Now, that wasn’t a bad thing. It could give him an edge. “Why do you always treat efficiency and profit like dirty words?”

She smacked the files down on the one vacant corner of the credenza. “Because ‘efficiency,’ as you so carefully term it, is an excuse to treat people as profit generators.”

Daniel shifted that through his brain for a second. “People are profit generators. You hire good people, you pay them a fair salary and they make money for your company.”

“And who decides who the good people are?”

“Amanda—”

“Who decides, Daniel?”

He paused, trying to determine if it was a trick question. “The Human Resources Department,” he ventured.

Amanda pointed at the office door, the edge to her tone increasing. “Julie is a good person.”

“I believe you.” He nodded, realizing he needed to pull back. Their arguments escalated so quickly, it was difficult to keep the conversation on an even keel.

“She might not be the best typist or filer in the world. And she’d never make it past the screeners at EPH, but she’s a very good person.”

“I said I believe you,” Daniel repeated in a conciliatory tone, gesturing for her to sit back down.

Amanda drew a breath and plunked into her chair. “She deserves a chance.”

Daniel sat, too. “Where did you find her?” He was pretty sure it wasn’t through any of the reputable employment agencies.

“She’s a former client.”

“Is she a criminal?”

“An accused criminal. Jeez, Daniel. Just because they arrest you, it doesn’t mean you’re guilty.”

“What was she accused of?”

Amanda’s lips pursed for a split second. “Embezzlement.”

Daniel stared at her in stunned amazement. “Embezzlement?”

“You heard me.”

He stood up, taking a few steps across the small room, trying desperately to keep his composure. “You hired an embezzler to run your law office?”

“I said she was accused.”

“Was she innocent?”

“There were extenuating circumstances—”

“Amanda!”

Her eyes hardened defensively. “This is really none of your business, Daniel.”

Daniel clamped his jaw. He could see how she might have that perspective. They’d gotten off on the wrong foot again. It was his fault. He should have orchestrated the conversation more carefully.

He sat down. Then he leaned forward. “You have a soft spot, Amanda. You always have.”

She leaned over the desk, looking directly into his eyes. “If by a ‘soft spot’ you mean I look at people as more than drones, you’re right.”

He clamped his jaw, resisting the urge to respond.

She linked her fingers together and stretched them out as if warming up for a fight. “You want to critique my hiring practices? Let’s take a quick look at yours.”

“My people are the best,” he said.

“Yeah? Tell me about some of your people.”

“My secretary, Nancy, has a college degree in business administration, and she’s an expert with computerized office tools.”

Amanda lifted her pen again, tapping it rhythmically on the desk. “Does she have any kids?”

“I don’t know.”

“Is she married?”

Daniel thought about that. “I don’t think so.” Nancy never had a problem working late. If she had a husband and a family, it might bother her more.

“Here’s a pop quiz for you, Daniel. Give me the name of an employee’s spouse.

Any employee’s spouse.”

“Misty.”

“That’s cheating.”

Daniel grinned. “You did say any of them.”

“You know what your problem is?”

“I’m smarter than you are?”

She tossed the pen at him.

He ducked.

“You have no soul,” she said.

For some reason, her words hit harder than they should have. “I guess that is a problem,” he said softly.

She flinched at his expression, but then quickly recovered. “I mean you are so myopically focused on business and productivity and profit, you forget the world is full of people. Your employees have their own lives. They’re not just extras in yours.”

“I know they have their own lives.”

“In the abstract, yes. But you know nothing about those lives.”

“I know everything I need to know.”

“Yeah?” she asked with skepticism.

“Yeah.”

“Let’s contrast, shall we? Ask me something about Julie.”

“Julie?”

Amanda rolled her eyes. “The Goth receptionist.”

“Oh, Julie.”

Amanda waited.

Daniel searched his mind for a relevant question. “Does she have any previous convictions for embezzlement?”

Amanda sat back in her chair. “No. She has an apartment in the East Village. She has an on-again, off-again boyfriend named Scott. I think she’s too good for him. She’s taking night school courses in spreadsheet applications. Her mother is battling arthritis, and she has two nephews, from her sister Robin, that she takes to the zoo on Saturday afternoons.”

“Yet, she can’t file.”

“Daniel!”

“I don’t see your point, Amanda. She’s your employee, not your best friend.”

Amanda shook her head and pulled open a desk drawer, turning her attention to the jumbled contents. “Of course you wouldn’t see my point,” she muttered. “You hired Sharon.”

“Whoa.” Daniel’s shoulders tensed. His ex-wife had nothing to do with this.

“That was out of line.”

“How is it out of line?”

“I didn’t hire Sharon.”

Amanda glanced back up. “Be honest, Daniel. Did you marry Sharon because you loved her sense of humor, her opinions on literature and her outlook on global events?” Her voice rose. “Or did you marry her because she could make small talk in three languages, whip up canapés in under an hour and she looked great in anything by Dior?”

“I divorced Sharon.”

“What happened? The canapés get soggy?”

Daniel stood. “I shouldn’t have come.” He hadn’t meant to upset Amanda. And he sure hadn’t meant to talk about Sharon. Sharon was out of his life for good.

“Why did you come, Daniel?”

“It wasn’t to talk about Sharon.”

Amanda nodded. “Of course not.” Her eyes softened to that mocha color he loved.

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