Hopelessly Devoted

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Chapter Eleven: Are you kidding me?

Well I did it. I actually let down a little bit of the wall I kept around my heart. Just a little bit though. Don’t worry, I’m not stupid. Misguided, naïve, and often non-confrontational but not stupid. At least, I’d like to think so anyway.

I’ve now had several dates with Ryan and am thrilled to say they have all been wonderful. He hasn’t strayed from being the good guy I’d met. My job has been amazing as well. I’ve written several pieces for the Syndicate but if you’d picked it up you wouldn’t know it. I prefer to use a pen name. This keeps me from having to answer the questions of the public when I am out and about. If we lived in the city, it would be one thing, but Saint Caine is no city.

Around six months after the start of my job my boss, Mr. Darnell, decided it was time to see what I was made of. He informed me that the little fluff pieces I’d been writing were good, but he could see the potential for some serious informative writing there. So, as of that moment, I was to interview the man behind the means. In other words, money was coming in for a brand new Saint Caine High School football field and stadium renovations. Some old big wig from down south had roots in our school and wanted to give back.

He’s opening a large plant out on the industrial and is using his good fortune to contribute to our community and gain support. Truth be told, this corporation is a steel plant, and that meant lots of jobs for Saint Caine and the surrounding area.

“You are to be at this address at one o’clock sharp.”

I leaned forward and took the paper from Mr. Darnell. “Who am I interviewing?”

“Don’t know yet.” Answered Darnell gruffly, slinging up his pants by the belt. I thought he would soon need a bigger belt, but thoughts like that you keep to yourself. Especially…if you want to remain employed. I cleared my throat and frowned at him.

“I have to know who I am there to see, or should I just go in and ask every random person a question and type my article off their responses?”

“Nice biting wit Ayers.” He ground out. His voice sounded like an old record player. Gravelly and scratching. He coughed and sniffed while leaning on his desk and folding his hands together. “Save the smart retorts for the article. When you go in, you just tell reception you are the reporter from the Syndicate there to give an interview about the football field donation. When I was last on the phone with them, they couldn’t decide whether we would be interviewing the man in charge or one of his lackeys. So, as I said before…I don’t know yet. I’ll find out when you do. Now get to it gypsy. You’ve got over half of an hour’s drive and it’s already noon.”

“Guess I’ll grab a bite on the way then.” I huffed, standing up and snatching my things from the chair.

“No no. Don’t do that. Chew gum now and eat after. Don’t want dragon breath ruining a good interview.”

I turned back to him at the door. “Nice biting wit Darnell.” I quipped, slinging the door open.

Mr. Darnell just snorted and waved me away. That was as good as dismissal as any.

The building I pulled up to wasn’t anything fancy at all. This was probably due to the fact that it was a rented facility while the plant and offices were being built further down the road. I stepped into the square brick monstrosity and pushed the elevator for the fourth floor.

When the doors opened, I walked out onto a carpeted hall floor with a reception desk directly in front of the elevator. A fit brunette with a strong jaw smiled at me as I approached the desk. I smiled back.

“Hello. Welcome to Generations Steel, how may I help you?” she asked. She was very pleasant.

“I’m from the Syndicate.” I told her, “I’m supposed to be conducting an interview with one of your department heads I believe…”

“Oh yes. We’ve been expecting you…” she started, then frowned as she clicked on her keyboard. “I’m sorry,” she apologized, “I don’t have you here; I have a Mr. Sel Mayer.”

I laughed a little. “That is me. I use a pen name when I write. It’s just Sel Mayer, not a mister.”

“Oh, okay. So that is you.” She said relieved. “I thought I was losing it there, for a second.” She clicked the keyboard again, and then came around the desk to lead me down the hall. “I’m not sure which one of our heads you’ll be interviewing.” She told me as we walked, “They still haven’t let me know, which makes it seem as though we aren’t very organized, but I assure you we are on top of things. They just can’t decide who would make

the best representation for our business.” She stopped at a door with a plaque that read V.P. and opened it. I thanked her as I walked past and headed into the room.

“Can I get you anything? Water, soda…it could be a few minutes before anyone arrives.”

I looked back at her, taking a seat across from the desk and rummaging through my bag for my pen and pad. “No thank you.” I told her, chewing the last dreads of my gum before tossing it in the trash. ’My boss is a dink’, I thought to myself.

She gave me another smile and closed the door. I looked around the office, making notes as I did. The desk was beautiful mahogany wood. There was another nameplate on it, once again only displaying V.P. Along with the plate was a pen holder, and a wooden box containing what looked like important papers. A sleek black computer monitor and keyboard. One large desk calendar, which I sneakily read a few appointments and notes from. Turns out the V.P. would be attending our Christmas festivities at the Syndicate this year. I made a note. I was just sweeping the pictures on the walls when I heard a deep voice and the voice of the receptionists in the hall.

“…no more than a half hour at most Dawna, oh…and” his voice lowered a bit, “what’s this guy like? Snobbish or overly friendly?”

The receptionists laughed heartily. “Oh…I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.” she said.

I heard the door handle turn, so I placed my things on the chair beside me and turned myself to stand up and greet him. I plastered my one-hundred watt smile on my face and held out my hand. He came through the door, dusting something of his shirt, just before raising his head to greet me. My smile dropped, my eyes widened…and then everything went black.

You know what I hate to be woken from? Not necessarily the dream stage of sleep, but those moments before and after. There is nothing to bother you or take your attention, no hidden demons lurking to rear their ugly heads in the form of some monster that is really a representation of some underlying fear. That’s the peaceful place. You are relaxed and all is well. I hate to be woken from that blissful stage, especially…at this moment in time, where the demons and underlying fears are waiting to face me in reality. I scrunched my face in protest, deliberately doing all I could not to have to open my eyes.

“She’s coming round.” I heard a nice voice say. I knew that voice too…it was the receptionist.

“Thank goodness, it’s about time. Will you bring some water please Dawna?”

“Yes sir.” She answered. I heard footsteps and then the closing of a door.

There was rustling to my right. I was lying down, probably on the expensive leather couch I had seen in the office.

“If you are waiting for me to leave, you are going to be there for a while.” The male voice informed me. “This is my office and I’ve spent the last two nights here.”

I steeled my nerves, swallowed, and then opened my eyes. Texas Conrad the fourth was standing over me, holding a cold pack in his right hand. I glared up at him. His lips went up in a smirk as he placed the pack on my head. We stared at each other for too long a moment before he shoved his hands in his pockets and spoke.

“I have every intention of telling you how wonderful it is to see you Selena, but I’d rather you’d not fainted. I can call a doctor.”

“No need. I’m fine.” I shot, attempting to raise myself upward.

His hands found my shoulders and eased me back down. My head swam a bit so I didn’t object too much.

“You’re not fine. A person doesn’t faint without reason.” He snapped.

“Oh there’s a reason.” I growled. “It has a lot to do with unexpected people appearing before my eyes.”

“You were just as unexpected for me, although I must say I’m thrilled, but still…I’m not the one lying on the couch because of it.”

“Well…that’s, that’s most likely because…because…” I stammered…irritation flowed through my voice, “because you’ve probably eaten today!” I finished the sentence, flinging my hands out to emphasize the point.

“You haven’t eaten anything?” he complained, leaning towards me as he did so. “Honestly, reporters never learn. You all will forsake everything just to get a story. I’ll have Dawna grab you something off the cart…”

“No…Lord no, please.” I had flung myself upward in protest, “please…I’ll get myself something on the way back.”

The dizziness was gone and I was able to get up from the couch and make my way over to the desk and chair where my things still sat.

“You’re leaving?” Tex asked, watching me with interest.

“That’s the plan.” I said, raising an eyebrow as I stuffed my pen and pad back into my satchel.

Tex moved behind his desk. “Your boss won’t be upset if you come back empty handed?”

“My boss,” I started to argue, but then I thought about Darnell and how he was determined I do this piece to prove myself for future and bigger column space. Defeated, I took a huge breath…weighed my options, and finally settled on just doing the interview as quickly as possible and getting out of there.

“Fine!” I snapped. “We’ll do the interview.”

Tex’s eyes lit up and a dazzling smile spread across his face. Dawna came in the door and brought a pitcher of ice water with a tall glass. She poured it full as I got my things back out and settled myself in the chair. I thanked her before she left, then picked up the glass and drained it. Tex watched my every movement. I was determined not to make eye contact.

“So,” I started, “Mr. Conrad…”

“Really Selena?” he asked, tilting his head to the side. This time I stared him straight in the eyes. Just this once, to let him know I was controlling this.

“Mr. Conrad,” I said again.

He held up his hands in surrender, spun a little to the right in his chair, and nodded for me to continue.

“The best way to tell a story is to start at the beginning. As I am telling your story to the people of Saint Caine, it is my desire to let them know what has brought such a benevolent benefactor to our little town and why the display of such staggering generosity. We’ll get the background. Tell me about yourself and how you came to be who you are today.”

“I would think you could answer that yourself.” He said softly.

I closed my eyes and just breathed, pen poised at my pad.

“Very well,” he said, righting his chair and leaning forward. “I am Texas Conrad the fourth. My father and the generations before him are also Texas Conrads. My great grandfather struck oil while digging for a well on his plantation. He used his great fortune to start a business empire. We started out with little gas stations here and there and, over the course of time, grew into a great corporation. Texacon stations are erected all over the United States. Each male heir in the family is part of the business and takes their rightful place in keeping things running smoothly.”

“No matter the cost.” I murmured.

“What was that?” he asked.

“Oh nothing.” I replied sweetly, keeping my eyes closed in his direction but faking a smile.

“Did you say…” he started, but I interrupted him.

“Mr. Conrad, you mentioned your great fortune in the gas industry…but this current venture is a steel mill. How did that come about… exactly?”

There was silence. I was very much aware that he was staring at me, practically willing me to look at him. I refused. My ears were burning and no doubt red to the sight, I was sweating and making sure I took deliberate breaths to keep myself calm.

He finally cleared his throat to answer. “Yes well, we have gone as far as we hoped with the oil and gas industry. It is a thriving business and we’re pleased, but it is our goal to be valuable to communities, even to the very nation. There are many places we can achieve that, not just in oil and gas. So the idea came to me one evening when I was watching a tribute to the fallen warriors of the 9/11 attacks in New York. What if we could create steel that could withstand the hardest blasts and the most intense heat and…” he emphasized, holding up a finger, “what if we could do it here, in the U.S. using our own materials, our own people? We want the United States to profit above all else in our industry. Every business deal, every merger…is on our own soil with our own citizens.”

I jerked my head up and gave him a vicious look. “Mergers are very important in big business, aren’t they?” I asked.

Tex’s brows furrowed and he licked his lips. When they parted again, I didn’t give him time to come out with an answer. Next question.

“You are donating quite a lot of money to Saint Caine and its school system, in particular, the football program. Why us? Why that program?”

He didn’t smile anymore, nor did he prostrate himself in different ways to seem more important. Instead he just watched me as he answered.

“Saint Caine is my alma mater. I graduated as the quarter back of our football team. We were the championship team, but it was no secret the gear and field were extremely outdated. I always told my team mates that if I ever get to where I could make a difference for the future soldiers of Saint Caine, I would start with the football program.”

“I see…is it fair to say…” I began, but this time it was I who was interrupted.

“You see Ms. Ayers,” he said, capturing my eyes for the first time. I couldn’t look away. I wanted to, Lord knows I wanted to…but I just couldn’t. “Saint Caine,” he told me, “means so much more to me than just a school where I once played ball. I have roots here, memories that are more precious to me than just ‘the good ole’ days. Saint Caine is the embodiment of my very happiness. She’s where I began to truly live. Unfortunately, I made my mistakes with her. Knowing that, I pushed myself to make this happen. Because if I couldn’t make right what I had done with her, than I could at least do right by her. Make sure her memory never fades…”

My mouth was parted open with unsaid words. In the quiet moment, just a slight pull of a smile tugged up the right corner of Tex’s mouth. My heart hallowed…as a writer, I knew a metaphor when I heard one.

The sound of the door opening broke the spell. Another gruff voice was calling back to Dawna telling her he’d like some coffee please. Tex looked up at the man entering his office.

“Are you too busy guy?” he asked, “I can come back if needed.”

“Actually I’m in the mid…”

“That’s alright,” I quickly piped up. I rose as fast as possible, grabbing my bag and fishing out my keys as I spoke. “I’m sure I’ve got plenty to work with.” I moved to the door, pulling it back as I left. “Thank you for your time Mr. Conrad.”

I left the both of them there, staring after me as I shut the door and shuffled back down the hall.

“I’m sorry Tex, didn’t mean to frighten the lady off.” the newcomer told him.

“You didn’t Mr. Ewing. She had mentioned needing to leave not too much earlier than when you arrived. What can I do for you?” Tex asked him, moving around the desk to pick up a pencil that had fallen when I had bumped the desk accidentally, hurrying to leave.

He bent down and paused, noticing not only the pencil, but my writing pad that had fallen as well. He smiled to himself, picked them both up and straightened.

While he and Mr. Ewing talked, Tex placed the pad on his desk before leaning against it. Mr. Ewing went into a big spill about the groundbreaking. Tex was attentive and listened, but as he did so he let his mind wander back to my face. I hadn’t changed a bit to him. Sure I was older, but still so very beautiful.

He had so much he wanted to say but I had been so difficult and forceful, and honestly he was afraid the wrong word or approach would send me bolting for the door. I had practically done that hadn’t I? He reached over and pulled the pad back up from the desk and slid it into his shirt pocket. He would see me again. Now that he knew I was back home, he would make sure of it.

Out on the road I was lead footing my Honda. I didn’t want a speeding ticket, but I also wanted as far away as I could get as quickly as I could get there. My throat was tightening and my eyes were burning. What had just happened? Did that really just happen? I actually sat across from Texas Conrad, the very man who caused me to skip town, finish my education online, and take years to bring myself to come back to town. AND, on top of that, I actually just interviewed him…

I was hyperventilating again. Knowing I would need to gather myself I turned the car into the first parking lot I saw. It turned out to be an outlet mall, so there was plenty of parking and space far away from onlookers. I put the car in park, leaned my head against the steering wheel and took long, slow deep breaths. ’Just calm down’ I thought to myself, ’Breath girl. You are going to be fine.’ After a few minutes my heart quit hammering against my chest. Fresh tears rolled down my face and I began sobbing. It was a strange and, I suspect, eerie sight to anyone who might have seen me. I was sitting alone in a car, sobbing uncontrollably and laughing at the same time. I was really losing my chiz here.

If it hadn’t been for my phone ringing, I might have let myself spill the rest of the way over into complete hysterics…but as it was, the phone rang and Ryan’s handsome face filled my screen. I had no choice but to really get it together this time. It reached the third ring before I gathered my wits about me and answered in my fakest ‘everything is perfect’ voice.

“Hey you.” I said, forcing more enthusiasm than necessary.

“Well hi beautiful. It seems someone is having a good day.”

“Not too bad. Darnell sent me on my first big assignment, so there’s that.”

“Really!,” he said happily, “that’s great. We both know you deserve it.”

“Sure.” I said, “We can celebrate tonight if you want.”

“Awe babe, that’s one of the reasons why I was calling. I’m going to have to ask for a rain check.”

“Ok. Is everything alright?”

“Yes. Everything is fine, it’s just that we acquired some new clients today and Harmon wants us to all have a dinner and discuss the finer points of our representation… basically he wants to schmooze his new piggy bank.”

I laughed. “I understand, we’ll do it another night. You said that was just one of the reasons though, what else was there?”

“I just wanted to hear your beautiful voice.”

I smiled genuinely this time, and after hearing his voice…I actually was feeling a lot better. “It’s good to hear your voice too.” I told him.

We talked a little longer, but eventually I told him I had to go and start getting busy on this piece.

“Alright, I’ll call you tonight if it’s not too late.” He said.

“Bye.” I told him, pushing the phone to hang up the call.

That was just what I needed to get my head back on straight. So I saw Texas Conrad today, big deal. I mean, it’s a small town and honestly I figured at some point

might see him roaming around somewhere. Cassey and Amber had already informed me that his parents still live in the same big house I had visited all those years ago. I knew it would probably happen eventually…I just wasn’t prepared for it to be today. Still, it happened and I survived.

I gave my head a mental nod. Time for me to get focused, write the piece to the best of my ability, and move forward. The worst was now behind me. I pulled my satchel apart and reached in for my pad to peruse my notes. My bag was a lot like Hermione Granger’s from those Harry Potter books. I could stick my hand in it and pull out anything from a piece of gum to a full size hairdryer. After coming up empty one too many times, I went all out and upended the bag to let the contents spill onto the seat. Before I finished rummaging through the mess, I admitted what I knew to be true all along. I left my flipping note pad back in Tex’s office. This day sucked. I hated it; in fact…I turned the car on, pushed the gas and headed off the interstate to the back road I knew would bring me around to my house.

Truthfully, it was my parent’s ‘other’ house. They bought it about a couple of months ago when the previous owners decided Florida was calling their name.

Since the house was directly behind my parents and a cute little two bedroom perfect for an early twenties girl just starting out in life, they bought it and I pay all the bills. It works for me. At one point I accused them of being afraid I might run away again, but they just told me they had no idea what I was talking about as they shrugged their shoulders and went back to playing cards. I love them, but they are horrible liars and need to learn how to not grin at each other when they are trying to get one over on me.

“Whatever…I’ll live in the house.” I agreed, “But I’m still eating here whenever I want.”

“Deal.” They both said.

I pulled into my driveway and called Darnell’s office to let him know I was home and wouldn’t be back in until the morning.

“Excellent Ayers. Good idea, get home where you can really concentrate and hammer out that article. I want first notes on my desk by nine.” He demanded.

“But I…”

Of course I didn’t get to finish. Mr. Darnell was like the dude from Spiderman, no nonsense…get to the point…make it happen, captain.

I rolled my eyes heavenward before dragging myself up the two steps onto my porch. As I walked through the door, I let everything lay where it fell. Shoes off in the entryway, bag dropped by the end of the chair, jacket slung over the chair and shirt pulled out of skirt before I landed on the couch.

“Today sucked.” I said to no one.

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