“And you are, um—” the secretary scanned her appointment book.
“Rachael, 7:10, here,” Rachael pointed to her name, trying hard to look casual while placing her finger over her last name. Behind her, a wall clock chimed the hour.
“Y-es, I see,” Molly Frampton, according to the gold nameplate on her desk, said. “Well, they’ll be with you in a moment, Miss—uh, Rachael.” She looked down at Rachael’s instrusive finger.
“Do the building lights always glint the snow like that?” Rachael smiled and gestured toward the window, leaning away from Ms. Frampton’s desk as unconcernedly as possible.
Her nonchalance worked. Ms. Frampton turned to the full-wall window and sighed. “Yes, it does, but it’s getting worse, and it’s not going to be nice to go out in it.” Still frowning out the window, the secretary absently closed her appointment book. Mission accomplished, and, apparently, Rachael was the final interview of the evening.
“This isn’t quite where you want to be at seven o’clock in Christmas Eve, is it?” Rachael said, trying to continue the easy conversation. It was the best way to relax her nerves. Besides, she could just imagine the poor secretary taking five minutes to pack up for the day but having to sit around, staring out the window and jiggling her crossed leg, for the remaining forty-five minutes until Rachael’s interview was over so she could go home.
Ms. Frampton looked up sharply, and Rachael remembered too late that if she got this job, she would be one of Molly Frampton’s many superiors. So much for harmless chit chat to calm her nerve. She should have realized that this wasn’t an office where joking or light-hearted sarcasm was appreciated or encouraged.
In an attempt to avoid further awkwardness, Rachael stood and pretended to examine the blizzard more closely while trying not to pace.
Although she had been in denial for years, she had always known—ever since choosing her career path as an undergraduate—that she would one day be in this trying predicament. It was a nasty trick of fate that made her occupation the same as his, but there was nothing she could do about it. Her success in getting to this point proved that. When all was said and done, all paths in this field led to Donlan & Associates, the best in the business, so here she was.
But besides unavoidable inherent discomfort of the situation, she was dealing with it much better than she had imagined. Years ago, she could only think of an interview like this ending in a shouting match, but now she didn’t care about confrontation, or blame, or anything anymore. She wanted this job—the best she could get at this point in her career—and she wanted it despite the awkwardness. Still, she couldn’t stop the fleeting thought that everything would have been easier if she was married by now. But, then again, she was still working on trusting males—about personal things—fifteen years later, thanks to him.
At 7:10, on the dot, the door to the conference suite behind Ms. Frampton’s desk opened. A disheveled man emerged from the room, the strained, fake smile melting off his face as he turned himself out of the door. He strode down the hall toward the elevators without a word to Rachael or the secretary, but he was muttering to himself and raking his fingers through his hair.
Rachael’s best defense at a terrifying moment like this was to pretend that she had no fears at all, so she was smiling when Ms. Frampton said, “They’re ready for you, uh, Rachael.” She looked down at her closed appointment book, that little frown lining her forehead once again, but Rachael moved forward immediately, gave her as much of a smile as her terribly dry mouth would allow, and headed toward the foreboding door.
There were five of them, as she had known there would be, although she had only met one of them in person before. These opening formalities were easy. It wasn’t the first time that she was in the room with a handful of very rich and powerful business executives who happened to be all grey-haired and male—quite the opposite of her. She was well practiced at making her round about the room in greeting quickly enough so they could only half rise to shake her hand. She knew that they loved being excused as much as possible from the formality of playing the gentlemen.
Luck was on her side that Mr. James E. Donlan was the last in the circle that she had to greet. That made it easy for her to make the obligatory handshake as brisk as possible and eye contact nonexistent. It also meant that her chair—the closest to the door—was also farthest from him.
“Miss, uh—” the man in the middle—Mr. Jeremy P. Grace—looked down at his papers as if he had forgotten her name, but his uncomfortable glance around at the others, and pointed look at Mr. Donlan, gave him away.
“Rachael, please,” she cut in. Her smile was confident, approachable, yet competent.
“Er, yes,” Mr. Grace looked around at his colleagues, but none of them seemed bothered by her insisted informality—the best way she could think of to deal with the situation. They were all looking at either her or Mr. Donlan, who was apparently reading a portfolio brief and not paying attention at all. That was fine with her—it would be very even easier if he decided not to take an active part.
“Well, then, Ms. Rachael, do you know how many candidates you have been competing with over the past several weeks?” Mr. Grace said.
It was an odd opening question, but Rachael knew that this interview would be full of surprises. “Twelve at this point, I assume, sir, and I’d assume ten times that initially.” It was a quick calculation. At seven o’clock in the evening, they would have been working for twelve hours, with one for lunch, and they would have had applicants from all over the world.
“Yes, you’re quite correct. Quick, even,” Mr. Grace said, frowning and looking around.
Ten years ago, Rachael would have fretted that she had come off too smart, but she had learned that it was confidence and equal competency that men wanted from female colleagues in the business world, not weak submission. Even though she was young and female, there was no reason to hold back her skills or her intelligence. Using everything she had was what had made her so successful so far.
“You will understand then, Ms. Rachael,” Mr. Grace continued, “that this position is of utmost importance to our company. We take our director hires very seriously and we require a unanimous decision from this board before we can move forward.” His eyes scanned the table briefly and rested longest on old Mr. Donlan.
Ah, so they definitely knew. All the better, Rachael thought. They knew, but she was still here. That meant that—to them—it didn’t matter.
“Yes, of course,” Rachael replied.
And so it began. The rest of the hour was the grueling, strenuous, and taxing ordeal that she had anticipated—the hardest interview she had experienced yet, of course. But Donlan’s insistent apathy to the rest of the room simplified things immensely.
But after forty arduous minutes of picking out her professional weaknesses, regurgitating a full history of Donlan & Associates products and profits for the past five years, and speculating advantageous directions for their future, the pummeled questions slowed and then stopped altogether. Rachael wanted to whip her head back and forth to follow all the silent messages—raised eyebrows, tactful shrugs, discreet nods—whizzing around the room, but instead she kept her face open and relaxed as she pretended to ignore the silent meeting—about her—that she wasn’t invited to.
After a brief but excruciating pause, Mr. Grace cleared his throat—which must have been a signal to end the mute conversations—and addressed Rachael once again.
“We appreciate your time, Ms. Rachael.” She almost looked down and slumped, that preamble sounded so much like an apology before a flat-out rejection, but held her emotions back as Mr. Grace continued. “You are the last of a long, tiring day.” He looked around at the gaunt faces around him, Mr. Donlan’s still immersed in what must have been the most interesting report ever submitted. Rachael was sure she had failed.
“Yes, a long, tiring day,” Mr. Grace repeated, “and a great attempt to find anyone who would outshine you.” Rachael clamped her mouth close to keep herself from gaping in shock. “To be completely frank with you, Ms. Rachael, you are our top candidate for this position.” Now she had to keep from beaming. “Your qualifications are outstanding,” he looked down at the resume and portfolio that she could easily recognize from half a table away, “and your experience valuable. We would be happy to snatch you away from your current employer as soon as possible,” Rachael was ready to burst her acceptance, “but there is just one more question that we wish to ask.”
So there was a catch. Maybe everything was too good to be true.
“We want to know why, if you really want to work at Donlan & Associates, you haven’t applied here sooner?” As Mr. Grace spoke, all eyes were focused on Rachael, except Mr. Donlan’s, but she had noticed that he hadn’t turned a page for a long time now. “We could have used your professionalism and skill set much earlier in your career,” Mr. Grace said. “Most of the other division directors have been trained up within our own company. So if you didn’t want to work with Donlan & Associates before, when we certainly would have considered you as at least a manager several years ago, why do you feel we are a good fit now?”
There was no doubt that the eight eyes fixed on her were all avoiding looking a Mr. Donlan. But it was the type of question that Rachael had expected, and she had her honest answer ready.
“Well, to be honest, I knew that Donlan & Associates was the best in the business the day I started training for my career. But while most of my peers shot for Donlan & Associates right away, I knew there was wisdom in waiting—waiting for Donlan & Associates to be ready for me and for me to be ready for you.”
She stopped talking, hoping that her brief, honest answer would be adequate. At first it seemed that the room accepted what she had said—and what she had meant—positively, but it only brought on another agonizing pause. She kept looking at Mr. Grace expectantly, but Mr. Grace wouldn’t catch her eye. They were all looking—peripherally, of course—in the direction of Mr. Donlan. It was such a marked and awkward silence that the corner of Rachael’s eye was drawn involuntarily in that direction as well. Only the hum of the ventilation system made a noise in the quiet conference room, despite the vicious—yet silent—blizzard lashing at the full-wall glass window that was certainly the best city view this side of town when unobstructed by snow.
“Well, come in Monday morning,” broke in the gruff, hoarse voice at the end of the table that she hadn’t heard in fifteen years. “Ms. Frampton will take care of the necessary paperwork,” Mr. Donlan said as he dropped the ever-enthralling report in front of him. He looked up briefly and saw her looking at him, but he didn’t smile and she flicked her eyes away as instantly as possible.
The whole room relaxed into a relieved sigh, and the faces before her—excepting Mr. Donlan’s—now wore tired, assuaged smiles instead of stern blankness. She was given hearty handshakes all around, but when she got to Mr. Donlan’s end of the table, she just saw the edge of his briefcase striding from the room with Mr. Grace jogging behind in close wake. Only then did Rachael let herself relax. In spite of everything, she had done it.
She smiled at the remaining three executives’ friendliness as they chattered about how “they knew it had to be her, from the start,” “She’d be reporting to Charlie”—that is Charles J. Bennett, Sr.—“anyway,” and, “It’s not like there was ever any legal obstruction, after all.” Amidst all these relieved comments, Rachael kept thinking to herself in half disbelief that it was over with and things were going to be fine. She was going to be reporting to Charlie. The contact she had with Donlan tonight was all that would be necessary for a long time. They would continue living separate lives just as they had for fifteen years. Sixty floors was going to be enough space for two members of a severed family to not have to interact more than necessary.
As if confirming the easy solution, the executives’ conversation walking out of the tortuous interview room rapidly turned to a burst of holiday spirit as the three partners began bantering about their grandchildren and Santa Claus plans. They gave Rachael friendly waves on their way to the elevator while Rachael stayed behind to make her appointment with Ms. Frampton.
“Whew, it’s over.” Rachael exhaled herself into the leather armchair she had barely touched an hour before.
Ms. Frampton looked surprised again but this time more curious than shocked or incredulous.
“I suppose you’ll need an appointment to complete the hiring papers on Monday, then, ma’am?” Ms. Frampton clipped.
“Oh, no, Molly,” Rachael smiled, purposely retaining her collapsed slouch.
“You don’t want—” Ms. Frampton began. She didn’t know that the poor secretary’s eyebrows could lift even higher.
“No, no,” Rachael laughed, a real, friendly laugh that she truly felt. “Not ‘ma’am,’ please, Molly. Just Rachael.”
Molly Frampton looked shocked for a second more, but gradually her face hesitantly relaxed. “Monday morning then—Rachael?”
“Yes,” Rachael smiled again. “When do you come in?”
“Uh, six-thirty, but the bosses won’t be here until seven. But exactly seven,” she emphasized.
Rachael laughed again. “Oh, I know enough about Donlan & Associates to thoroughly understand the mandate for punctuality.”
“Well,” Molly’s mouth slid into a faint smile, “I guess knew that already. You don’t want to know what a raking eleven o’clock got this morning.”
“You’re right. I don’t,” Rachael said in full honestly. “Well, let’s get out of here, huh?”
She grabbed her bag and waited for Molly to pull on her coat so they could head to the elevator together. Molly looked just briefly puzzled at this consideration, but she brushed her skepticism away almost immediately.
“You know,” Molly said conversationally as the elevator descended, leaving her secretary façade up on the sixtieth floor, “I never knew that ‘Donlan’ was such a common last name.”
Rachael finished pulling on her gloves with forced calm before looking up. The question would have come sometime anyway, easier to just get it out now. And there was no sense lying. “Well, it’s not really,” she said.
Molly’s brow furrowed. “So are you—”
“Yes,” Rachael said, a little too soon. She smiled again to make up for the brief sharpness. “Well, I used to be, I mean. His daughter.”
“Used to be—” Molly looked more puzzled than ever, but Rachael didn’t mind. She had thought about this question often, but she had never pictured her “interrogator,” as she called them in her mind, as kindred of a spirit as Molly. But despite the difference, the moment proved that it didn’t matter who the asker was. Her answer would have to be the same.
Maybe someday she would let it all out, all of it. She’d tell about being adopted and not knowing about it until she was fifteen when her dad walked out on Mom right in the middle of her first chemo treatment, how it was easy to cut her tie to that failed father as part of the divorce proceedings when there was never any biology involved anyway, and how she had made her successful way in the world alone, after Mom’s passing, despite an ex-father living in the same city for all these years. She could tell how she had always known that their common industry would one day lead her to his doors, but she had wanted to make it there on her own merits. It had seemed a hideous possibility to work for him when she started her career, but now it had been long enough that she’d cried and hurt as much as she could over him. Now it was time to rise above. He was going to stop ruining her life because she was not James E. Donlan’s daughter anymore.
“Yes,” Rachael said firmly, “used to be.”
Molly looked puzzled for another moment, but then she busied herself with tying her scarf. The elevator opened into the abandoned lobby, and they finished their bundling and buttoning on their way to the street doors.
“Well, see you, Rachael,” Molly said brightly but so naturally that Rachael really believed that she didn’t mind her lack of explanation. Maybe moving on was going to work.
“Yeah, see you,” Rachael said, trying to smile a thank-you for Molly’s kind acceptance and genuine tact. “Oh, and Merry Christmas.”
“You too,” Molly said warmly. She pulled her collar up, took a deep breath, and plunged into the street.
Rachael took one last look at the empty lobby, “Donlan & Associates” in bold brass letters high on the wall, grateful that, despite the possibilities, it hadn’t been another worst day of her life after all. Instead her Christmas wish for a fresh, new beginning was coming true.