Mercuriouser and Curiouser

Nate’s cell phone rang as he was driving home. He glanced at the caller ID and picked up immediately.

“Hey, Leila.”

“Nate,” the woman’s warm, Cajun accent answered him over the car speakers. “Saw the news. Mazel.”

His mouth twisted in a smile as he caught the tail end of a green light. “Thank you. But somehow I don’t think you called to congratulate me on the stock market.”

She sighed heavily. “I just worry you’re not being careful. You don’t think you’re overdoing it?”

He merged smoothly into another lane. “It would raise more eyebrows if I’d done so well after a single year. More than five years doesn’t faze anyone.”

“Maybe. But your string of successes might.”

“I’ve spaced them out.”

“Have you though? I don’t want the feds suddenly beginning to look into the company.”

Nate sighed. “The feds won’t be interested in us, Leila. And even if they were, there’s nothing for them to find.”

“Saw you on Page Six, too.”

“That was an accident.”

“You can’t afford accidents, Nathaniel,” the older woman said, exasperation coming in loud and clear over the car speakers. “That photo plus the stock market…you’re in the news a lot lately.”

“Comes with being who I am,” he said as he pulled up to the valet outside his building.

“Yes, which you know, so you need to be more careful.”

“Hughes is taking care of it,” Nate replied, switching the call to his phone as he stepped out to let the valets take over. “Among other things.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing. Look, you worry too much. Honestly. These things have a way of working themselves out.”

“Don’t jinx it,” she muttered. He imagined her making the gesture to ward off the evil eye.

“I appreciate that you worry,” he said as he entered the building. The front desk attendant greeted him warmly and he raised a hand in response. “Really, I do. But don’t, please. You’ll make your hair gray.”

“That happened a long time ago,” she replied, amused. “It’ll be white next.”

“Then don’t worry so much,” he said, swiping his key card at the elevator to take him to the penthouse. “I’m getting on the elevator. I’ll come see you soon.”

“Better do. Easier to get after you when I’ve got you trapped for dinner.”

“Bye, Leila,” he said, smiling.

“Take care, Nate.”

The elevator doors closed behind him.

                                                                                                    

“I don’t have the wardrobe for this,” Amberley fretted as she stood observing her closet.

“Amb, half your labels are in French, I’m sure you’ll be fine,” Liz said from her seat on the bed, beer in hand.

“Yeah, but so much of this is for court,” Amberley complained. “I don’t have anything more…” she gestured at the rack of clothing in front of her. “I don’t know, office chic.”

Liv burst into laughter. “You worry too much. You were the best dressed attorney at Carter & Franklin.”

“May they rot in hell,” Amberley muttered under her breath.

“Hey, I’m allowed to say that. You’re not anymore.”

Amberley stuck her head out of the closet. “Uh, why?”

Liv snorted. “Because the only reason you got this gig is because of the firm closure and us drinking as a result of it.”

Amberley leaned against the doorframe, looking back into the closet. “Ugh. Yeah, maybe. I guess.”

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“It’s just first day nerves,” Liv reassured her, hopping up from the bed. “Here, hold my beer.”

Amberley snorted. “The last time you said that, you were jumping off a balcony into the hotel pool.”

“Shh. That never happened,” Liv retorted as she rifled through the closet. “Oh my god, yes. This.” She pulled a navy-blue dress out of the assortment of clothes. “It’s perfect.”

“You don’t think it’s too…stiff?” Amberley regarded it warily. The dress had a high neckline and a belt that tied around the waist in the same color.

“Not with an open back like this,” Liv turned it to display the back that split starting at the button at the neck and ended at the belt looped around the waist. “Literally, business in the front, party in the back. But not too much party. Just enough to give you flair.”

Amberley observed it for a moment. “Okay, yeah this will work.”

“With a pair of nude pumps and statement earrings, you’ll be the most glamorous thing in that office.”

“Yeah, except for the guy who wears Armani.”

“Even then,” Liv said, laying the dress on the bed and retrieving her beer from Amber’s hand. “I still can’t believe he offered you the job in the first interview.”

“I thought the HR director’s eyes were going to pop out of her skull,” Amberley admitted, laughing. “But according to his other attorney, this isn’t too unusual.”

“You have to call me after and tell me everything. I’ve got an interview next week but nothing so interesting as this.”

“Oh, you didn’t tell me!” Amberley whirled on her friend.

Liv shrugged. “Didn’t want to take the shine off your success.”

“Hardly,” Amberley scoffed. “I’m just glad you’ve got something lined up.”

“Well, maybe. It’s at Jackson and Jackson. Nothing too fancy.”

Amberley snorted. “They were only Carter & Franklin’s rival for clients.”

“Makes it even sweeter if I go work there, then.”

“I’m not going to sleep a wink,” Amberley muttered as she hung the dress up on the outside of the closet door.

“Take an Ambien. Always helps me before a big hearing.”

“Ah, no. Best not,” Amberley replied. At Liv’s quizzical look, she clarified. “I’ll be groggy tomorrow. Better to be sleep-deprived and clearheaded instead of waiting for it to wear off. I’ll just drink some chamomile.”

Liv shrugged, finishing off her beer. “Suit yourself. I’d better get going anyway. Babysitting again tomorrow, ugh. You have all the luck.”

Amberley laughed as she escorted her friend to the front door of the condo. “I don’t know about that, but here’s hoping.”

Liv hugged her as she turned to leave. “Seriously,” she said. “Good luck tomorrow. I’ll be rooting for you.”

***

Amberley pulled into the underground garage of Ashcroft Tower, rolling down her window to let the security booth know she was new. After checking their logs, they waved her through. She smoothed down her dress as she got out of her car, checking her watch. Traffic had been horrendous—more so than usual, it seemed, but she wasn’t late yet. She took the elevator up to the ground floor and was greeted by the receptionist.

“I’m Amberley Quinn,” she reminded the girl. “I’m…new, today.”

“Oh, right. Good morning, Miss Quinn,” the receptionist replied brightly. “I’ll call up to Marjorie. She’ll have your new badge and things you’ll need, like parking sticker. If you’ll take a seat, I’ll let her know you’re here.”

Amberley nodded and did as she was asked. She pulled out her phone to review the briefs James sent over the weekend. She had a lot to catch up on and didn’t want to be caught off-guard by any references to the included contracts. She faintly heard the receptionist buzzing up to HR, followed by a chipper “Good morning, Mr. Ashcroft!”

Amberley straightened up immediately as the CEO strode into the building, immersed in something on his phone screen. He responded absentmindedly to the receptionist and swiped his badge at the elevator, still typing. Amberley took a moment to observe him when he wasn’t upending rooms. His hair was as unruly as ever—she wasn’t sure it was tamable. But that was where the wildness ended. The sharp cut of his tailored navy suit accented the strong lines of his shoulders and the trim cut of his figure. As he waited for the elevator, he finished up whatever he was doing and pocketed his phone, finally looking up.

Amberley made a point to be immersed in her own phone by the time he recognized her. “Miss Quinn?” he greeted her.

She looked up. “Good morning, Mr. Ashcroft,” she replied evenly.

He smiled. “Good morning. Waiting for Marjorie?”

She nodded in response.

Nate turned to the receptionist. “Let Marjorie know I’ve taken Miss Quinn up, would you? She can bring everything to my office.” The receptionist nodded and immediately picked the phone up again.

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Nate motioned to Amberley as the elevator doors opened. “If you would, Miss Quinn.”

Amberley hurried to join him. He swiped his badge again as the elevator doors closed after them. “How was your weekend?” he asked her.

“Very pleasant, thank you,” she replied politely. “You?”

“A bit less relaxing than I’d hoped, but otherwise fine,” Nate replied cryptically.

They settled into loaded silence as the elevator numbers slowly ticked up to the top floor. The space in the elevator seemed to get smaller with each passing floor. Nate slipped his hands into his pockets as they watched the numbers change.

“It appears we have similar tastes in Monday fashion,” he finally noted wryly. The blue of his suit was a similar shade to Amberley’s dress.

She willed herself not to blush. “I supposed that means you have good taste,” she replied dryly, and he laughed.

“I’m glad you think so.” Mercifully, the doors finally opened, admitting them to the penthouse office. Nate motioned for her to go ahead of him. “After you.”

Amberley didn’t hesitate and he followed her out of the elevator. They were immediately greeted by the same assistant as the day of Amberley’s interview.

“Good morning, Mr. Ashcroft,” she said.

“Miss Lane,” Ashcroft acknowledged her, turning to Amberley. “You remember Miss Quinn?”

“Yes of course, welcome to Ashcroft Industries,” the woman said with a smile, shaking Amberley’s hand.

“Thank you. Nice to meet you, Miss Lane.”

“Likewise. Mr. Ashcroft, Chelsea Moretti is holding on line 3. Says she didn’t want to call back.”

Nate sighed. “Very well. Messages?”

“The attorney for the Ventana deal called, wants to know where you are with the contract, and the city planning office called to let you know they’ve got a surveyor out at the Red Mountain property.”

“Very good. Forward Ventana on to Mr. Vance and copy Miss Quinn.” He turned to Amberley. “Mr. Vance can walk you through the finer points of that deal later today. I’ll be in my office.” He looked down at his watch. “I’ll be unavailable most of the day, but I hope your first day here with us isn’t too overwhelming.” He smiled pleasantly at her.

Amberley acknowledged him with a nod. “Thank you, Mr. Ashcroft. I’m sure I’ll be caught up quickly.”

“I have no doubt of it,” he replied.

“Coffee for either of you?” Nate’s assistant asked.

“A cup for me would be lovely,” Nate replied, turning to Amberley. “Miss Quinn?”

Amberley nodded. “I’d love some.”

Nate’s assistant nodded. “I’ll have it for you shortly. I’ll put Miss Moretti through.”

Ashcroft strode into his office and Miss Lane leapt to the phone at her desk. “Miss Moretti? Thank you for waiting, I’m putting you through now.” She hit a blinking red button and hung up the phone, turning back to Amberley. “You can sit at my desk for now—I imagine Marjorie will be up any second and she can take you to your office.”

As if summoned, the elevator doors opened, and a very harried-looking Marjorie Lowe stepped out with a handful of paperwork. “Ah, Miss Quinn. Good to see you again.”

Amberley shook the woman’s free hand. “You too, Marjorie. Please, call me Amberley.”

Marjorie nodded. “Come with me, I’ll take you to your office.” Amberley followed the HR Director through the halls of the top floor. “The chief legal officer position is new,” Marjorie reminded her. “So we’ll be working through a few bumps I imagine, but I hope this will suffice for now.” She opened a door that led into a comfortably sized office with a huge window that looked over the Chicago skyline.

Amberley reminded herself not to gape. “This is…perfect, thank you.”

Marjorie nodded. “Your company issued laptop is here,” she motioned to the desk as Amberley set her things down. “IT will be up shortly to help you get all set up. The other C-levels are down this same hall. CFO is in the corner office, and the CIO and CMO are further down. You’ll meet them later today.” She rummaged through her armful of documents and handed Amberley a badge. “Here. This will give you access to the building and the elevator to this floor and this”—she handed Amberley an innocuous-looking white sticker—“will get you into the garage. Just stick it above your mirror.”

For the next hour, Amberley’s meetings consisted mostly of setup and familiarizing her with her neighbors and the company’s digital filing systems. They were interrupted only by Nate’s assistant bringing Amberley the promised cup of coffee and IT coming in to get Amberley’s computer set up. Per their instructions, she would be able to connect to the office’s network outside of the building, if it was necessary. Marjorie paraded in her C-level counterparts to introduce them and by the middle of the afternoon, Amberley was immensely grateful when James Vance knocked on the door with a thick stack of accordion folders to remind Marjorie that they had business contracts to review.

“If you have questions, Amberley, just shoot me an email,” Marjorie told her. “So pleased to have you with us. I’ll get your benefits paperwork filed and you should have confirmation of that by this evening.”

“Thank you, Marjorie,” Amberley told her. The woman bustled out of the office and James sat down at the chair across from Amberley’s desk.

“Overwhelmed yet?” he asked her genially.

Amberley laughed. “If I was, I don’t think I’d be cut out for this job. I suspect the firehose of information is only just getting started.”

The other attorney smiled. “Yes. I have a stack of contracts here. I assume you looked over the information I sent you over the weekend?”

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Amberley nodded. “Yes, thank you for sending those in advance.”

“Of course. Shall we get started, then?”

Amberley learned two things in the meeting with James Vance: one, Nathaniel Ashcroft’s real estate deals extended all the way to New York, which subsequently pleased the older attorney when he learned her family lived there and thus travel to the area wouldn’t put her out as much. And two, not everyone was thrilled with Nathaniel’s success.

“We’re particularly wary of the Morettis,” James said as he went over a contract that had just closed. “They’re well-known here, a family-run empire. Working with them is…generally unpleasant.”

“I heard that name mentioned this morning,” Amberley told him.

“Unsurprising,” James muttered. “Things have gotten so tense between AI and their company, MT Holdings, Mr. Ashcroft insists on managing the relationship himself. Which, I might add, they like to take advantage of. The only halfway-reasonable member of that family is Chelsea, the daughter.”

“That’s who was on the phone,” Amberley told him.

James’ expression brightened. “Oh, good. Maybe she was able to talk her father down. He nearly walked away from a deal we’ve been working on for nearly a year—Mr. Ashcroft was…not happy. I suspect the stock market numbers had something to do with the change of heart. Working with Chelsea tends to help cool tempers—she has a gift for diplomacy.”

“So, aim to work with Chelsea on Moretti deals, then,” Amberley replied.

“Don’t misunderstand, she’s a shark, like her father,” James warned. “She drives deals arguably harder than he does. She’s just more polite.”

“Noted,” Amberley replied.

“We just wrapped up a deal with them a few days ago,” James said. “So I’m hoping we won’t have another scuffle with them anytime soon. Ashcroft is hosting a charity gala in a month or so and I fully expect them to attend, so maybe you can meet them then.”

“Charity gala?” Amberley asked.

“Yes, end of January, I think. Ashcroft likes to funnel charity donations back into the community. The foundation funded a whole year of school lunches, cleaned up parks, donated new computers to underfunded schools, sponsored a women’s health initiative for low-income women…”

“Sounds like quite a guy,” Amberley replied dryly.

“He is,” James replied. “I know he’s unconventional, but he means well. He just…has a lot of intensity.”

Wasn’t that the truth.

“Anyway, I think that’s enough to burden you with for now,” James said. “Ashcroft is considering a bid on a new property and I think there’s a meeting scheduled to go over the details next week. It’ll be helpful for you to see how he does things start to finish, rather than being thrown into the middle.”

“I’ll be alright, I’m a quick study,” Amberley reassured him. “Thank you for taking the time to explain all of this.”

“Happy to do it,” James said. “I’ll be honest with you—this has been one of the most interesting, lucrative jobs of my career but I am very, very happy to be going back to my little three-attorney firm in Ohio.”

“Ohio?”

“Yes, his parents live outside Columbus and I have a much-neglected firm in the city.”

“But you live here in Chicago?” Amberley asked.

James laughed. “No, I fly in when I’m needed. I have a flight back home later this evening.”

“Christ, no wonder you’re ready to hand over the reins,” Amberley said, aghast. “That much travel?”

“He pays me excellent money to do so,” the older attorney replied, shrugging. “And I’ve taken on a few other clients here and there in Chicago—I’m licensed to practice in both states, so it hasn’t been too hard.” He stood and Amberley followed suit. “Looking forward to working with you.”

Amberley shook his hand. “Likewise.”

After the other attorney left, Amberley checked her brand-new email on her newly issued laptop. Her calendar was already flooded with meeting invites and conference calls, and she’d been CC’d on multiple discussion between parties engaged in the numerous deals Nate was juggling. She ran a hand through her hair and exhaled. Well, none of the work would do itself. She settled back into her chair and got busy reading through the various correspondence and familiarizing herself with the new stack of contracts on her desk.

                                                                                                    

Nate’s cell phone buzzed on his desk. He glanced down. “Something has come up,” he said into the receiver of his office phone. “I’ll send you an email with the revised terms as soon as I have them. Sure. Thanks.” He hung up the office phone and accepted the cell phone call.

“Ashcroft.”

“Mr. Ashcroft, I’ve managed to get access to the sealed records you requested.”

“And?”

“It’s worse than I would have expected.”

Nate leaned back in his chair. “Define ‘worse’.”

“I thought it would be a possession charge at worst, maybe with intent to distribute.”

“Spit it out, Hughes.”

“Homicide, sir. The charges were for manslaughter.”