Philip Whitworth glanced up, his attention drawn by the sound of swift footsteps sinking into the luxurious Oriental carpet that stretched across his presidential office. Lounging back in his maroon leather swivel chair he studied the vice-president who was striding toward him. "Well?" he said impatiently. "Have they announced who the low bidder is?"
The vice-president leaned his clenched fists on the polished surface of Philip's mahogany desk. "Sinclair was the low bidder," he spat out. "National Motors is giving him the contract to provide all the radios for the cars they manufacture, because Nick Sinclair beat our price by a lousy thirty thousand dollars." He drew in a furious breath and expelled it in a hiss. "That bastard won a fifty-million-dollar contract away from us by cutting our price a fraction of one percent!"
Only the slight hardening of Philip Whitworth's aristocratic jawline betrayed the anger rolling inside him as he said, "That's the fourth time in a year that he's won a major contract away from us. Quite a coincidence, isn't it?"
"Coincidence!" the vice-president repeated. "It's no damn coincidence and you know it, Philip! Someone in my division is on Nick Sinclair's payroll. Some bastard must be spying on us, discovering the amount that goes into our sealed bid, then feeding the information to Sinclair so that he can undercut us by a few dollars. Only six men who work for me knew the amount we were going to bid on this job; one of those six men is our spy."
Philip leaned farther into his chair until his silvered hair touched the high leather back. "You've had security investigations made on all six of those men, and all we learned was that three of them are cheating on their wives."
"Then the investigations weren't thorough enough!" Straightening, the vice-president raked his hand through his hair, then let his arm drop. "Look Philip, I realize Sinclair is your stepson, but you're going to have to do something to stop him. He's out to destroy you."
Philip Whitworth's eyes turned icy. "I have never acknowledged him as my 'stepson,' nor does my wife acknowledge him as her son. Now, precisely what do you propose I do to stop him?"
"Put a spy of your own in his company, find out who his contact here is. I don't care what you do, but for God's sake, do something!"
Philip's reply was cut off by the harsh buzzing of the intercom on his desk, and he jabbed his finger at the button. "Yes, what is it, Helen?"
"I'm sorry to interrupt you, sir," his secretary said, "but there's a Miss Lauren Danner here. She says she has an appointment with you to discuss employment."
"She does," he sighed irritably. "I agreed to interview her for a position with us. Tell her I'll see her in a few minutes." He flicked the button off and returned his attention to the vice-president, who, though preoccupied, was regarding him with curiosity.
"Since when are you conducting personnel interviews, Philip?"
"It's a courtesy interview," Philip explained with an impatient sigh. "Her father is a shirttail relative of mine, a fifth or sixth cousin, as I recall. Danner is one of those relatives my mother unearthed years ago when she was researching her book on our family tree. Every time she located a new batch of possible relatives, she invited them up here to our house for a 'nice little weekend visit' so that she could delve into their ancestry, discover if they were actually related and decide if they were worthy of mention in her book.
"Danner was a professor at a Chicago university. He couldn't come, so he sent his wife — a concert pianist — and his daughter in his place. Mrs. Danner was killed in an automobile accident a few years later, and I never heard from him after that, until last week when he called and asked me to interview his daughter, Lauren, for a job. He said there's nothing suitable for her in Fenster, Missouri, where he's living now."
"Rather presumptuous of him to call you, wasn't it?"
Philip's expression filled with bored resignation. "I'll give the girl a few minutes of my time and then send her packing. We don't have a position for anyone with a college degree in music. Even if we did, I wouldn't hire Lauren Danner. I've never met a more irritating, outrageous, ill-mannered, homely child in my life. She was about nine years old, chubby, with freckles and a mop of reddish hair that looked as if it was never properly combed. She wore hideous horn-rimmed eyeglasses, and so help me God, that child looked down her nose at us...."
Philip Whitworth's secretary glanced at the young woman, wearing a crisp navy blue suit and white ascot-style blouse, who was seated across from her. The woman's honey-blond hair was caught up in an elegant chignon, with soft tendrils at her ears framing a face of flawless, vivid beauty. Her cheekbones were slightly high, her nose small, her chin delicately rounded, but her eyes were her most arresting feature. Beneath the arch of her brows, long curly lashes hinged eyes that were a startling, luminous turquoise blue.
"Mr. Whitworth will see you in a few minutes," the secretary said politely, careful not to stare.
Lauren Danner looked up from the magazine she was pretending to read and smiled. "Thank You" she said, then she gazed blindly down again, trying to control her nervous dread of confronting Philip Whitworth face to face.
Fourteen years had not dulled the painful memory of her two days at his magnificent Grosse Pointe mansion, where the entire Whitworth family, and even the servants, had treated Lauren and her mother with insulting scorn....
The phone on the secretary's desk buzzed, sending a jolt through Lauren's nervous system. How, she wondered desperately, had she landed in this impossible predicament? If she'd known in advance that her father was going to call Philip Whitworth, she could have dissuaded him. But by the time she knew anything about it, the call had been made and this interview already arranged. When she'd tried to object, her father had calmly replied that Philip Whitworth owed them a favor, and that unless Lauren could give him some logical arguments against going to Detroit, he expected her to keep the appointment he'd arranged.
Lauren laid the unread magazine in her lap and sighed. Of course, she could have told him how the Whitworths had acted fourteen years ago. But right now money was her father's primary concern, and the lack of it was putting lines of strain into his pallid face. Recently the Missouri taxpayers, caught in the vise grip of an economic recession, had voted down a desperately needed school-tax increase. As a result, thousands of teachers were immediately laid off, including Lauren's father. Three months later he had come home from another fruitless trip in search of a job, this time to Kansas City. He had put his briefcase down on the table and had smiled sadly at Lauren and her stepmother. "I don't think an ex-teacher could get a job as a janitor these days," he had said, looking exhausted and strangely pale. Absently he'd massaged his chest near his left arm as he had added grimly, "Which may be for the best, because I don't feel strong enough to push a broom." Without further warning, he had collapsed, the victim of a massive heart attack.
Even though her father was now recovering, that moment had changed the course of her life.... No, Lauren corrected herself, she had been on the verge of changing the course herself. After years of relentless study and grueling practice at the piano, after obtaining her master's degree in music, she had already decided that she lacked the driving ambition, the total dedication needed to succeed as a concert pianist. She had inherited her mother's musical talent, but not her tireless devotion to her art.
Lauren wanted more from life than her music. In a way, it had cheated her of as much as it had given her. What with going to school, studying, practicing and working to pay for her lessons and tuition, there'd never been time to relax and enjoy herself. By the time she'd turned twenty-three she'd traveled to cities all over the United States to play in competitions, but all she'd seen of the cities themselves were hotel rooms, practice rooms and auditoriums. She'd met countless men, but there was never time for more than a brief acquaintance. She'd won scholarships and prizes and awards, but there was never enough money to pay her expenses without the added burden of a part-time job.
Still, after investing so much of her life in music, it had seemed wrong, wasteful, to throw it away for some other career. Her father's illness and the staggering bills that were accruing had forced her to make the decision she'd been postponing. In April he had lost his job, and with it his medical insurance; in July he had lost his health as well. In past years he had given her a great deal of financial help with school and lessons; now it was her turn to help him.
At the thought of this responsibility, Lauren felt as if the weight of the world was resting on her shoulders. She needed a job, she needed money, and she needed them now. She glanced around at the plush reception area she was seated in, and felt strange and disoriented as she tried to imagine herself working for a huge manufacturing corporation like this one. Not that it mattered — if the pay was high enough, she would take whatever job was offered to her. Good jobs with advancement opportunities were practically nonexistent in Fenster, Missouri, and those that were available paid pitifully low in comparison to similar jobs in huge metropolitan areas like Detroit.
The secretary hung up the phone and stood up. "Mr. Whitworth will see you now, Miss Danner."
Lauren followed her to a richly carved mahogany door. As the secretary opened it, Lauren uttered a brief, impassioned prayer that Philip Whitworth wouldn't remember her from that long-ago visit,then she stepped into his office. Years of performing in front of an audience had taught her how to conceal her turbulent nervousness, and now it enabled her to approach Philip Whitworth with an outward appearance of quiet poise as he got to his feet, an expression of astonishment on his aristocratic features.
"You probably don't remember me, Mr. Whitworth," she said, graciously extending her hand across his desk, "but I'm Lauren Danner."
Philip Whitworth's handclasp was firm, his voice tinged with dry amusement. "As a matter of fact, I remember you very well, Lauren; you were rather an ...unforgettable...child."
Lauren smiled, surprised by his candid humor. "That's very kind of you. You might have said outrageous instead of unforgettable."
With that, a tentative truce was declared, and Philip Whitworth nodded toward a gold velvet chair in front of his desk. "Please sit down."
"I've brought you a résumé" Lauren said, removing an envelope from her shoulder purse as she sat down.
He opened the envelope she handed him and extracted the typewritten sheets, but his brown eyes remained riveted on her face, minutely studying each feature. "The resemblance to your mother is striking," he said after a long moment. "She was Italian, wasn't she?"
"My grandparents were born in Italy," Lauren clarified. "My mother was born here."
Philip nodded. "Your hair is much lighter, but otherwise you look almost exactly like her." His gaze shifted to the résumé she had given him as he added dispassionately, "She was an extraordinarily beautiful woman."
Lauren leaned back in her chair, a little dazed by the unexpected direction the interview had taken. It was rather disconcerting to discover that, despite his outwardly cold, aloof attitude fourteen years before, Philip Whitworth had apparently thought Gina Danner was beautiful. And now he was telling Lauren that he thought she was, too.
While he read her résumé, Lauren let her gaze drift over the stately splendor of the immense office from which Philip Whitworth ruled his corporate empire. Then she studied him. For a man in his fifties, he was extremely attractive. Though his hair was silvering, his tanned face was relatively unlined, and there was no sign of excess weight on his tall, well-built body. Seated behind his huge, baronial desk in an impeccably tailored dark suit, he seemed surrounded by an aura of wealth and power, which Lauren reluctantly found impressive.
Seen now through the eyes of an adult, he didn't seem the cold, conceited snob she remembered. In fact, he seemed every inch a distinguished, elegant socialite. His attitude toward her was certainly courteous, and he had a sense of humor too. All things considered, Lauren couldn't help feeling that her prejudice against him all these years might have been unfair.
Philip Whitworth turned to the second page of her résumé, and Lauren caught herself up short. Exactly why was she having this sudden change of heart about him, she wondered uncomfortably. True, he was being cordial and kind to her now — but why wouldn't he be? She was no longer a homely little nine-year-old; she was a young woman with a face and figure that made men turn and stare.
Had she really misjudged the Whitworths all those years ago? Or was she now letting herself be influenced by Philip Whitworth's obvious wealth and smooth sophistication?
"Although your university grades are outstanding, I hope you realize that your degree in music is of no value to the business world," he said.
Lauren instantly pulled her attention to the subject at hand. "I know that. I majored in music because I love it, but I realize there's no future in it for me." With quiet dignity she briefly explained her reasons for abandoning her career as a pianist, including her father's health and her family's financial circumstances.
Philip listened attentively, then glanced again at the résumé in his hand. "I noticed that you also took several business courses in college."
When he paused expectantly, Lauren began to believe he might actually be considering her for a job. "Actually, I'm only a few courses short of qualifying for a business degree."
"And while attending college, you worked after school and during the summers as a secretary," he continued thoughtfully. "Your father didn't mention that on the telephone. Are your shorthand and typing skills as excellent as your résumé claims?"
"Yes," Lauren said, but at the mention of her secretarial background her enthusiasm began to fade.
He relaxed in his chair and, after a moment's thought, seemed to come to a decision. "I can offer you a secretarial position, Lauren, one with challenge and responsibility. I can't offer you anything more than that unless you actually get your business degree."
"But I don't want to be a secretary," Lauren sighed.
A wry smile twisted his lips when he saw how discouraged she looked. "You said that your primary concern right now is money — and right now there happens to be a tremendous shortage of qualified, top-notch executive secretaries. Because of this they're in demand and very highly paid. My own secretary, for example, makes almost as much money as my middlemanagement executives."
"But even so..." Lauren started to protest.
Mr. Whitworth held up a hand to silence her. "Let me finish. You've been working for the president of a small manufacturing company. In a small company, everyone knows what everyone else is doing and why they're doing it. Unfortunately, in large corporations such as this one, only high-level executives and their secretaries are aware of the overall picture. May I give you an example of what I'm trying to say?"
Lauren nodded, and he continued. "Let's say you're an accountant in our radio division, and you're asked to prepare an analysis of the cost of each radio we produce. You spend weeks preparing the report without knowing why you're doing it. It could be because we're thinking of closing down our radio division; it could be because we're thinking of expanding our radio division; or it could be because we're planning an advertising campaign to help sell more radios. You don't know what we're planning to do and neither does your supervisor or his supervisor. The only people who are aware of that sort of confidential information are division managers, vice presidents, and," he concluded with smiling emphasis, "their secretaries! If you start out as a secretary with us, you'll get a good overview of the corporation, and you'll be able to make an informed choice about your possible future career goals."
"Is there anything else I could do in a corporation such as yours that would pay as well as being a secretary?" Lauren asked.
"No," he said with quiet firmness. "Not until you get your business degree."
Inwardly Lauren sighed, but she knew she had no choice. She had to make as much money as she possibly could.
"Don't look so glum," he said, "the work won't be boring. Why, my own secretary knows more about our future plans than most of my executives do. Executive secretaries are privy to all sorts of highly confidential information. They're — "
He broke off, staring at Lauren in stunned silence, and when he spoke again there was a triumphant, calculating quality in his voice. "Executive secretaries are privy to highly confidential information," he repeated, an unexplainable smile dawning across his aristocratic features. "A secretary!" he whispered. "They would never suspect a secretary! They wouldn't even run a security check on one. Lauren," he said softly, his brown eyes gleaming like topaz, "I am about to make you a very unusual offer. Please don't argue about it until you bear me out completely. Now, what do you know about corporate or industrial spying?"
Lauren had the queasy feeling that she was hanging over the edge of a dangerous precipice. "Enough to know that people have been sent to prison for it, and that I want absolutely nothing to do with it, Mr. Whitworth."
"Of course you don't," Philip said smoothly. "And please call me Philip; after all, we are related, and I've been calling you Lauren."
Uneasily, Lauren nodded.
"I'm not asking you to spy on another corporation, I'm asking you to spy on mine. Let me explain. In recent years, a company called Sinco has become our biggest competitor. Every time we bid on a contract, Sinco seems to know how much we're going to bid, and they bid just a fraction of a percent less. Somehow, they're finding out what we're putting into our sealed bids, then they cut the price of their bid so that it's slightly lower than ours and steal the contract from us.
"It just happened again today. There are only six men here who could have told Sinco the amount of our bid, and one of them must be a spy. I don't want to dismiss five loyal business executives just to rid myself of one greedy, treacherous man. But if Sinco continues to steal business from us this way, I'm going to have to begin laying people off," he continued. "I employ twelve thousand people, Lauren. Twelve thousand people depend on Whitworth Enterprises for their livelihoods. Twelve thousand families depend on this corporation so that they can have roofs over their heads and food on their tables. There's a chance you could help them keep their jobs and their homes. All I'm asking you to do is to apply for a secretarial position at Sinco today. God knows they'll need to increase their staff to handle the work they just stole from us. With your skills and experience, they'd probably consider you for a secretarial position with some high-level executive."
Against her better judgment, Lauren asked, "If I get the job, then what?"
"Then I'll give you the names of the six men who might possibly be the spy, and all you have to do is listen for mention of their names by anyone at Sinco."
He leaned forward in his chair and folded his hands on his desk. "It's a long shot, Lauren, but frankly, I'm desperate enough to try anything. Now, here's my part of the bargain: I was planning to offer you a secretarial position with us at a very attractive salary...."
The figure he named amazed Lauren, and it showed. It was considerably more than her father had been making as a teacher. Why, if she lived frugally she could support her family and herself.
"I can see that you're pleased," Philip chuckled. "Wages in big cities like Detroit are very high compared to smaller places. Now, if you apply at Sinco this afternoon and they offer you a secretarial position, I want you to take it. If the salary there is lower than the one I just offered you, my company will write you a monthly check to make up the difference. If you are able to learn the name of our spy, or anything else of real value to me, I will pay you a bonus of $10,000. Six months from now, if you haven't been able to learn anything important, then you can resign from your job at Sinco and come to work as a secretary for us. As soon as you complete the courses for your business degree, I'll give you any other position here you want, providing of course that you can handle it." His brown eyes moved over her face, searching her troubled features. "Something is bothering you," he observed quietly. "What is it?"
"It all bothers me," Lauren admitted. "I don't like intrigue, Mr. Whitworth."
"Please call me Philip. At least do that much for me." With a fired sigh, he leaned back in his chair. "Lauren, I know I have absolutely no right to ask you to apply at Sinco. It may surprise you to learn that I'm aware of how unpleasant your visit with us fourteen years ago was. My son, Carter, was at a difficult age. My mother was obsessed with researching our family tree, and my wife and I... well, I'm sorry we weren't more cordial."
Under normal circumstances, Lauren would have turned him down. But her fife was in a state of complete upheaval, and her financial responsibilities were staggering. She felt dazed, uncertain and incredibly burdened. "All right," she said slowly. "I'll do it."
"Good," Philip said promptly. Picking up his telephone he called Sinco's number, asked for the personnel manager, then handed Lauren the phone to make an appointment. Lauren's secret hope that Sinco might refuse to see her was instantly dashed. According to the man she spoke to, Sinco, had just been awarded a large contract and was in immediate need of experienced secretaries. Since he was planning to work late that night, he instructed Lauren to come at once.
Afterward Philip stood up and put out his hand, clasping hers. "Thank you," he said simply. After a moment's thought, he added, "When you fill out their application form, give your home address in Missouri, but give them this phone number so that they can reach you at our house." He wrote a number on a note pad and tore off the sheet. "The servants answer it with a simple hello," he explained.
"No," Lauren said quickly. "I wouldn't want to impose. I...I'd much rather stay in a motel."
"I don't blame you for feeling that way," he replied, making Lauren feel rude and ungracious, "but I would like to make up for that other visit."
Lauren succumbed to defeat. "Are you absolutely certain that Mrs. Whitworth won't object?"
"Carol will be delighted."
When the door closed behind Lauren, Philip Whitworth picked up his telephone and dialed a number that rang in his son's private office, just across the hall. "Carter," he said. "I think we're about to drive a spike into Nick Sinclair's armor. Do you remember Lauren Danner...?"
Copyright ©1984 by Judith McNaught