“Sophie.” Adam March doesn’t look up from the rectangle of paper in his hand. His tone is, as always, even, and no louder than it should be to reach across his executive-size office, through the open mahogany door, and to the ears of his latest personal assistant. On the pink rectangle of a “While You Were Out” memo slip, in Sophie’s preferred lilac-colored ink and written in her loopy handwriting, are three simple words that make no sense to Adam March. Your sister called. Not possible. Time and date of call: yesterday afternoon, while he was enduring what he hoped was the last of the meetings he was going to have to hold before today’s main event. A meeting in which he’d given a combination pep talk and take-no-prisoners mandate to his handpicked team.
Adam flips the pink note back and forth against the knuckles of his left hand. This is a mistake. Sophie has made a mistake. Not her first. Lately he’s been noticing these little slips of judgment, of carelessness, of Sophie’s slightly less than deferential attitude. As if she’s not a subordinate, but a peer. Too many late nights when the jacket comes off, the tie is loosened, and the sleeves are rolled up. Too many weary hours leaning over her as she works on her computer, struggling to make every document perfect. She’s made a common mistake: Being in the trenches together doesn’t mean that they are friends, that he will overlook sloppiness.
Adam closes his eyes, takes a deep breath. The most important day of his career and it’s already started out badly.
His alarm hadn’t gone off. Which meant he hadn’t had time for his run around the gravel jogging paths of his gated neighborhood, which meant he had lost that thirty minutes of “me time” he needed so desperately before a day filled with meetings, conference calls, at least one confrontation with middle management, and, at the end of the day, a dinner party his wife, Sterling, had planned in order to befriend the newest neighbors, the Van Arlens, before someone else got them. The Van Arlens, it was believed, had connections to the best people. People who were useful to anyone interested in social advancement and really good schools for their children. Which basically summed up Sterling.
Adam had no objection to a get-to-know-you dinner; he just preferred not to have them on the same day as so much else was going on in his life. But then, if they waited until he had a slow day, they’d still be living in Natick and their daughter wouldn’t be enjoying the connections that would serve her for the rest of her life. It was hard work, laying the groundwork for social/business/education/recreational pathways for a teenage daughter who greeted him with ill-disguised sullenness when he made the effort to show up for one or another of her endless sports in time for the final score.
When Adam thought about having kids, he’d pictured himself the Ward Cleaver of his family—wise, loving, adored. Ariel hadn’t been wryly mischievous like Beaver, or devoted like Wally. Adam hadn’t heard an understandable phrase out of her mouth in years, every mumble directed at the table, or muttered behind her long blond hair. The only time he saw her face was when he attended her horse shows, when her hair was scraped back and under her velvet-covered helmet. But then she blended in with the other girls, all pink cheeks and tight breeches and blue coats. Sometimes he rooted for the wrong girl/horse combination. To say nothing of the fact that all the horses looked alike, too. To Adam, horse shows were a tortuous and endless replication of the same blue coat, black helmet, brown horse racing around the course, and then the girl crying when a rail was knocked or a time fault incurred or because the horse was crazy, lazy, lame, or just plain stupid.
Except for Ariel’s drive to become some kind of horse-jumping champion, a goal at which Adam had thrown great handfuls of money, she was an enigma to him. Yet this is why he worked so hard. This and Sterling’s four-carat dinner ring and her personal fitness gurus, one at each of the three homes they owned—Sylvan Fields, Wellington, Florida, and Martha’s Vineyard—the support of an increasingly large staff and their illegal cousins; and the cadre of financial managers to make sure he didn’t pay more taxes than he should. They, unlike most of the rest of the people he employed, were very, very good.
At age forty-six, Adam March had found himself, on this overcast morning, pressing his forehead against the bathroom mirror and wishing he didn’t have to go to work. Not only had his alarm failed him but the housekeeper had failed—again—to have the made-to-order granola he needed. Nowhere in the giant pantry could he put his hands on the imported cereal he preferred. All he could find was the crap Ariel ate. With a childhood fed on cornflakes, now he could afford the best in breakfast food, so was it too much to ask that he find his granola when he wanted it? The sheer cost of importing it from Norway had to be justified by his eating it every day. But beyond that, without it, his bowels wouldn’t function, and if that system also failed him, Adam knew that he was in danger of really losing his temper, and it might be that this housekeeper would be the biggest loser once he was done with her. Which, of course, he couldn’t even consider until after this dinner party. To fire the stupid bitch today would mean that Sterling’s ire would overshadow his, until his temper and his bowels would shrink to a pipsqueak size.
Sterling, blond, whippet-thin, and sleeping the peaceful sleep of the person in charge of everything, was a force to be reckoned with, and Adam wasn’t about to unleash that power on a day so patently important to her. Not for her own sake, she so often said, but for his sake. His advancement, their only child’s advancement. It was social warfare out there, and Sterling provided the leadership of a general over her troops. “We have to be seen; we have to support the right charities.” Their name even appeared as supporters on a PBS documentary series. “We need to attend the right concerts. If you intend to succeed, that’s the price you have to pay.” That was but one of Sterling’s cheerleading themes. Some might say that Adam March had already succeeded. What more could he want? Some men might want strings of letters following their names, others the glory that came from leadership in the arts, the sciences, the political arena. Adam lusted after three letters: C E O. Chief Executive Officer. Such an achievement was no longer dependent on moving up in the ranks of promotions and cultivating years in the same company. It was more of a hopscotch of leaps across and over, one foot down, now two, from corporation to corporation, allowing himself to be seduced away from one major executive role to another. Manager, Vice President of Acquisitions or Division. A rise that came with a move to a bigger house in a better—read: more exclusive—neighborhood, another vacation home where he’d spend most of his time on his phone, too afraid to be out of touch for more than the time it took to use the bathroom, more BlackBerrys. More expense. Some days Adam felt like he didn’t have two coins to rub together. All of his salary and bonuses seemed to be absorbed into this machine of ambition. Still, the ripe red cherry of the top post was just out of reach. But not for long. After today, Adam’s elevation to the ultimate spot on the ladder at Dynamic Industries would be secure. President and CEO.
But this morning, all Adam had wanted for himself was a bowl of Norwegian granola and a fucking run through the contrived landscape of his most recent gated neighborhood. He wanted his “me time,” thirty minutes to call his own, leaving the Bluetooth behind, keeping his head down and his eyes only on the path so that he didn’t have to wave at neighbors or their help. His best ideas often came to him during that thirty minutes.
There was only one thing stopping Adam from just taking his run and going into work a bit late. He held himself and his staff to a rigorous standard of punctuality. Adam March entered his office at precisely seven-thirty every day. Not one minute before or after. It was a source of incredible satisfaction to him that people could set their watches by him. Adam believed that timeliness was an art and a science. Despite the ten-mile commute and all the variables of traffic, Adam arrived on time. And woe betide the staffer in his group who wasn’t there to greet him. Adam required simple things of people, the sine qua non of his expectation: Be on time. The groups that wandered into the building here and there, untaxed by punctuality, smacked of a basic sloppiness he would not allow in his.
Adam stared at his reflection in the bathroom mirror, looking at an attractively craggy face, his morning shadow of dark beard firming up a jaw that had only just begun to soften. He stared into his own cold brown eyes, eyes that had earned him the nickname, “Dead Eye.” A nickname he didn’t find offensive, but grudgingly affectionate. A face with gravitas. A face suited to the take-no-prisoners deal maker he had become.
If there was a shadow of an angry, grizzled man in the mirror, Adam swept it away with a brushful of French milled shaving soap.
Adam runs a hand down his silk tie, tucks the strange note into his jacket pocket. Sophie is still AWOL. He stares at her empty chair and, for the first time in many years, wonders about his sister.
Sophie’s armless secretary’s chair is cocked at an angle, as if its occupant weighs more on one side. Her computer screen with the Microsoft logo drifting around speaks of her having been on the computer opening up the e-mails that she will either forward to him or to his underlings or delete as unworthy. It isn’t enough that she’s in the building. Sophie needs to be at her desk when he arrives.
Adam lays the offending piece of memo paper down and opens up his old-fashioned top-loading briefcase. He can’t remember what he’s looking for. There she is, slinking back to her desk with a giant paper coffee cup in one hand, a pastry in the other. Even from deep in his office, Adam can see that she has a flake of icing on her chin. Now Sophie really is testing him. Instead of dropping everything and grabbing her notebook, she leans over her computer keyboard and taps the mouse. She is checking her e-mail. On his time. Outrageous. Sophie knows this is an important day. What can be more important to her than getting her marching orders from him? He’s really getting tired of her insubordination.
Your sister called.
Excerpted from One Good Dog by Susan Wilson.
Copyright 2010 by Susan Wilson.
Published in March 2010 by St. Martin’s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.