A New Partnership
Taiwo awoke, blurry visioned to an antiseptic smelling room. The smell of alcohol crawled under her nose, biting at her senses. She heard the door open and tried to sit up but was quickly rebuked for doing so.
“Ms. Yona, I knew I’d be seeing you again.”
“Do rest yourself. Your friend who brought you here plans to join us shortly. He says he witnessed you being physically abused.”
“You’re fine? Is that so? The tests I ran says otherwise. You didn’t have a heart attack or stroke, although you could have!”
“No, you listen young lady. You don’t realize how serious stress is do you? It can kill you.” Before he could continue his lecture, Connor walked through the door and began to study Taiwo.”
“I was just reminding my stubborn patient that stress can kill.”
“Yes it can, which is why she’ll be working beside me from now on.”
“I never agreed to that.”
“But you will.”
‘Ahem,” the doctor interjected. “it’s not safe for Ms. Yona to be working. Furthermore, I’m extending her say here by two weeks.”
“What!? You can’t do that!”
“I can and I’ll add an additional two weeks if you keep up a fuss.”
“You can’t take away my choices like this.”
“I’m making the best choice for my patient since she won’t do it for herself. I told you the last time how far I was willing to go to keep you alive.”
“I understand things got out of hand, but-”
“No buts. You’re staying here to rest and that’s my final answer.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll talk some sense into her.” He looked between Connor and Taiwo sternly then nodded them adieu. Pulling up a chair beside her bed, he crossed his leg over his knee wondering why this woman was so bent on having things her way. “Tai, I want you to listen to me very closely. I want you to know, understand and accept that you are no longer an employee and Cooling Designs. I want you to work beside me. You won’t be losing anything. You’ll be making the exact amount of money and then some. You won’t have to worry about the added stress of taking on everything by yourself. Be my partner. Work beside me.”
“I make my own way. I don’t need a handout.”
“I’m not offering you a handout. I’m offering you a life you’ve never known. You don’t have to be strong all of the time.”
“You don’t understand.”
“You’re right, I don’t understand. I don’t understand why an intelligent woman is willing to lose her life over people who couldn’t care if she lived or died.” Resting her head against the pillow, she shut her eyes and swallowed.
“If and I mean if, I choose to work with you, I don’t want special treatment. I want to do my job just like everyone else.”
“I’m willing to comply with that. So, you’ll come to me then?”
“I don’t know yet.”
“Well, there’s no rush seeing you’ll be here for the next two weeks taking a much needed siesta.”
“Do you think this is funny?” she probed.
“No, I don’t. There’s nothing funny about your life being put in jeopardy.”
For the first time, she held his gaze. She hadn’t noticed his slate grey eyes or roasted chestnut brown hair. Peeling her eyes from his, she felt her pulse drum faster than she would have liked. He rose from the plush chair to stand in front of the window. Evening was setting, painting the sky violet and magenta. She beheld his height and slender figure. It had been a long time since she saw a man look this good in a crisp white button down and black pants. His clothes had to have been tailored for his body. Feeling her piercing gaze upon his back, he turned and walked to her bed standing over her.
“I wanted to ask you the same question.”
“What do you mean?”
He looked at her knowingly. It had been ages since he had dated, particularly because majority of the women who flocked around him had only been interested in his money and power. It hadn’t taken him but a moment to test their beliefs. Finding them severely lacking, he left them where he’d found them.
“I’d be the happiest man alive to have you by my side. I can see your worth and I’m excited to see what you can do.”
“Like I said, I haven’t decided yet.”
“Okay. As it stands, I will be in touch. Take care of yourself.”
In the week that followed, Connor made many frustrating visits, constantly checking on her, asking if there was anything he could get to make her more comfortable. She wasn’t the invalid he made her to be. She detested being pushed into a spot of weakness, or being indebted someone. Knowing all too well that it could leave her paralyzed, she depended on no one but herself for her own happiness and well being. She didn’t need taking care of, as if she were a child.
Yet each time he came to visit her, she couldn’t help feel a twinge of joy at his presence. He just would not leave her alone until he earned a yes from her lips. He’d often made his place next to her in her bed, taking full advantage, dominating her space, her air, her thoughts that he seemed to easily twist. Every time she wanted to say no, he had worked something close to a yes from her mouth. Connor was the most determined man she’d ever met and apart of her admired his strength and relentless pursuit. He reminded her so much of herself.
By her final week and warning from her doctor to take it easy, Connor had gotten what he wanted and even drove her home. For a man who’d gotten his golden answer, she thought he’d be squawking about it the whole way to her doorstep. She was grateful she didn’t have to hear it though, she had enough to deal with. Leaning against the door jamb, he watched her fiddle with her key trying to match it to the lock.
“Am I making you nervous?” he goaded.
“I’m not nervous at all. You’re just in my space.”
“Does that make you uncomfortable?”
“What if it does?” she eyed him.
“We’re going to be spending a lot of time around each other and I’d like it if you were at ease around me.”
“I would be if you’d give me some space. You’re suffocating me.”
“I’ve never had a woman tell me to get lost before.” he mused cheekily.
“That’s not what I said. Why are you picking a fight with me?”
“Picking a fight? I’m not doing that at all. You’re just high strung.”
“I said you’re high strung. It doesn’t hurt to accept sincerity or concern from me. I really am sincere and honest when I’m speaking to you.” Breaking his gaze, she continued clumsily fooling around with her key and lock until he closed a hand over hers, helping to steady her hand. “Here let me help you.” Taking the keyring from her fingers, he slid the key in, turned the knob and pushed open her entrance.
“I can take care of myself you know.”
“I’m sure you can. I hope to see you Monday morning, if not, let me know if you need more time to rest.”
“I don’t need more time.” she ground out. Why couldn’t he understand that all she wanted to do was work? She was her best when she was on the go, being productive. “Thank you for your help. You can leave now.” He chuckled and gingerly walked down the path to his car. Closing herself inside, she scurried to the window and pulled back the curtains to watch him inch to his car. Connor looked all too at ease with his hands nestled into his pants pockets, and slow but smooth gait. His appearance was nothing short of spectacular, not a lock of hair was out of place or wrinkles present on his white button down. The smile he sported caused her heart to trip and her lips to twitch and his eyes held questions she didn’t want to answer. But here she was mentally scoring him, weighing the pros and cons of getting entangled with this man. Once he was out of sight, she let the curtains fall then ambled to the kitchen for a much needed meal.
The weekend came and went with the blink of an eye as Monday morning greeted her. Just like she did every morning, she tackled through her stacks of fitness DVD’s and settled on Shred-It with Weights. She owned a kettle bell and was much obliged to throw it around. After swinging, pulling and pushing her way through the surprisingly easy session, she undressed and stepped into the shower to cleanse herself. The sweat and mental anguish was washed away with the hope of something better that was waiting for her at Shaw and Fletcher Architecture.
Making herself ready with each garment of clothing, she was beginning to feel more whole again. What she couldn’t wear at Cooling Designs, she’d make priority at S&F. Wearing who she was wasn’t a fashion statement, it was the pride of her people that she wanted people to see. There was beauty in African wear. Ditching the scarf, she let her onyx curls run wild, coiling down her back. She had never felt more at home with herself than she did at this moment. If Connor didn’t accept her for who she was, she’d find another place to work. She was finished compromising her identity. Settling her feet in black pumps, she clacked through the living room into the kitchen and began picking off fresh blueberries, strawberries and grapes she had stored in her refrigerator. She also pulled out and plopped a healthy dollop of plain yogurt into a container and mixed in the fruit.
She also pulled peppered chicken and Jallof rice for her lunch. There was nothing like the taste of home rolling over her taste buds. She missed Benin and the family she’d left behind. Anytime she planned a trip home, Amanda dashed her plans with overloading her with more work. A whimsical smile formed over her lips as she closed the refrigerator door, she’d definitely go back home to see her family soon. Packing up her remaining contents, she grabbed her purse that was resting on the sofa and greeted the world once again.
Entering the garage, she expected Shaw and Fletcher Architecture to dominate the area, but no, it was a simple medium sized white commercial building with bronze trim wrapping it’s width. There were many windows, sleek and elegant, not overdone like the monstrosities at Cooling. Walking into Shaw and Fletcher excited her senses, it even smelled rich. There were various flowers and plants nestled in either corners of the first floor. Creme colored furniture adorned the sitting area and a glass table shined to a sparkle not even she’d ever seen. The atmosphere was calm and peaceful, warm and inviting. There was only one other place she’d felt this kind of warm embrace, it was back in Benin. This building felt too much like home to her.
“You seem very enthralled with the first floor.”
Spinning on her heels, she saw him wearing a wide smile enticing her to follow suit.
“I do like it.”
“There’s more. Promise me you won’t hit the floor when we visit the second and third floor.”
“I’m perfectly capable of controlling my balance Mr. Fletcher.”
“Excuse me. Connor.” she cleared up her gaffe.
“Follow me.” Boarding the elevator, she felt awkward standing so close to him. The very essence of his maleness enveloped her highjacking her senses. “You should know I dug a little deeper into your previous work history.”
“What were you looking for?”
“I wanted to know your specs. What’s interesting is you have a hobby in fashion.”
“Oh, yes. My mother is a seamstress and she owns a fabric store. It was only right for me to learn what my mother knows.”
“I see. Interesting.”
Stepping off on the second floor, Connor introduced her to their employees and various departments and repeated the process on the third floor.
“So, I’ll be working here on the third floor?”
“No, you’ll be with Tolbert and I on the fifth floor.”
Taiwo’s eyes widened in schock.
“Are you serious?”
“I am. There are only a handful of employees that inhabit the fifth. They are highly qualified.”
“Then what am I doing there?”
“Are you saying you’re not qualified?”
“Whatever the fifth floor entails, I highly doubt I have the skills necessary to add any real value.”
“When I stated these employees were highly qualified, I didn’t limit it to book knowledge.”
Both stood gazing into each others eyes. Taiwo swore she spotted a glint of desire streak across his vision but quickly dismissed it as a figment of her imagination. Resting at the fifth floor, she walked into pristine work desks, employees buzzed over to help whenever asked for their opinion. They were working together as a unit, something that never took place at Cooling. Tolbert appeared sporting a warm smile, and welcomed her into the fold.
“Please call me Tolbert. We’re a family here.”
“Yes sir. I mean Tolbert.”
“I suppose I’ll be working closely with you as well since you’re the CEO.”
“Of course you won’t. You’ll be with me.” Tolbert suppressed a laugh and thanked Taiwo for deciding to come work with them, then dismissed himself. “Your office is connected to mine. I think you’ll like it.”
“Connected? What of my privacy?”
“You’ll have your privacy. Follow me.”
Walking into his office revealed nothing about this man. There were no pictures or other mementos in sight. Everything was clean and in order. As he stated, her office was connected to his. He opened the door and motioned for her to step inside. The space was three times the size as her former box at Cooling! A cherrywood desk sat at the center of the room, a tall plant rested in the far corner next to her spacious window. Two cushioned chairs rested on either side of the room and between them sat a black Ave Six Pacific Sofa.
“You did this?”
“It’s just to get you started. I can’t have my partner feeling foreign to what’s surrounding her.”
“I really, really like what you’ve done. I’ll make sure to reimburse you.”
“There’s no need.”
“I don’t like the feeling of being indebted to someone.”
“You don’t own me anything. Take it.” Ready to object, her protest clogged in her throat at the stern look Connor was giving her.
“What’s my first assignment?”
“To get comfortable here.”
“I don’t understand.”
“It’s simple. Get to know your co-workers. I know you can do this.”
“Are you toying with me right now?”
“Not at all. Don’t you know there’s strength in numbers?”
She bit back a retort. He had a point. It was better to know who she’ll be working with so everything will flow smoothly.
“I do have some paperwork for you to fill out so you’ll be paid on time.” She followed him to his desk to scoop up the stack of documents and stood planted.
“Should I get you a cup of coffee?”
“No.” He sat in his chair, linking his fingers together watching her intently. She didn’t actually think he’d work her on the first day? What was with her? “I will say, however, your outfit-”
“I won’t change who I am to fit some corporate image.” she injected.
“Before you cut me off, I was going to say I like it.” Leaving his chair, he perched himself at the corner of his desk inches away from where Taiwo stood. “We’re partners, which means I need to know as much about you as possible. I need you to show me who you are. Never hold back and never lie to me. Do you promise to keep these three commandments?”
“I can do that.” Though she didn’t show it, she was blown away. He disarmed any planned remonstration over her dress. He’d left her speechless and feeling aloof. No other employer had been so welcoming of her culture that she was forced to lower her sword and shield when Connor approved of her. It’d been a long time since she felt helpless, and didn’t like the feeling of it now. Taiwo had never fancied herself a runner, Nigerian women stood up to anything and always emerged victorious. However, she found herself retreating to her office, closing the door behind her.
For two weeks she’d shown up for work only to go stir crazy. Connor purposely hadn’t assigned her anything. If she couldn’t deal with the pressure of sitting still she definitely wouldn’t be ready for what he had planned for her. Not one to be outdone, he watched her measure and install blinds on her glass door and window. She adorned her desk with a few frames, she’d brought in a rectangular glass table and set it in front of her Pacific sofa. By the end of the week she’d rearranged her chairs and sofa. She’d tucked them next to the window which was where he found her, gazing out watching the evening sky pull in. She’d finally stamped down her impatience and lost herself in watching nature below and above her.
“Hi.” Ripping her gaze from the merriments outside, she quickly shot up from the sofa and smoothed out her clothes.
“Sorry, I just lost myself for a moment.”
“No need to apologize.”
“There is something I want to discuss with you.”
“It’s about my paycheck.” He didn’t think his actions would go unnoticed and he was well prepared for this conversation. “I noticed that I have one.”
“You came to work.”
“But I didn’t do anything to earn this paycheck. Furthermore, I was told by HR that I wasn’t on the company payroll. What exactly is going on?”
“I told you that you’re going to be working beside me.”
“I understand that, but I don’t understand where the money came from.”
“The money came from my personal account.”
“What are you up to?”
“I’m not up to anything.”
“Well I can’t accept this payment.”
“You can and will. I’ve watched you for two weeks. I can see that you’re constantly antsy.”
“I didn’t come to work not to work.”
“At any rate, I do have an assignment for you.” Her eyes widened in anticipation.
“What is it?” she urged.
“Normally I have my employees sign a confidentiality agreement but I don’t think I’ll have to worry about you giving away information.”
“Of course not. I’m trustworthy!”
“This stays between you and I.”
“Okay.” she leaned in closer. He stood hands hidden in his pockets. Looking down into her eyes brought a slight grin to his lips. He couldn’t help but feel a spark of excitement when he looked at her. He couldn’t wait to peel back the layers that held this woman together. “Have you ever heard of Brontë Clothing?” She looked thoughtfully and lamented she had. “That is my company.”
“No way!” she giggled in pure unbelief.
“No one has ever seen the owners face.”
“Ever wondered why?”
“I have, actually. How can a fashion designer not show his or her face when the line is so extraordinary? I even own some pieces, but only where them on special occasions.”
This new piece of information surprised him yet brought the lingered feeling of giddiness to his throat.
“Well I’m glad that you like my clothing line.”
“What proof do you have that Brontë Clothing is your company? Even if you are the CEO of Brontë, it doesn’t make sense for you to work here.”
“Proof you say, well here it is.” He rounded his desk and pulled out an oversized binder and slid it in front of her. Rubbing the solid cover, she opened the binder and eyed a previous Fall line that she’d bought with her hard earned money!
“You…” she looked back at him flabbergasted.
“If I wanted my face plastered over every media outlet for the sake of my line, I would have done it already. I’d like to live in as much anonymity as I possible can. That’s why I work here. I can move freely whenever I want and with whom I want. I’m only known as an architect and that’s how I like it.”
Taiwo’s mouth remained in an o and it took her quite some time to find her voice. Never in a million years did she think she’d be standing in front of the man of Brontë Clothing!
“I can’t believe this.”
“I can understand you being very shocked.” Folding his arms, he watched her like a hawk, every subtle expression he took note of. “I want a woman’s touch on our upcoming Spring line. Lend me your eyes and experience.”
“You want me to help you with your line? Oh no, I can’t! There is nothing I can make any better. Your line is perfect!”
He watched her slowly back away and at that moment he knew he had made the right choice. Putting her in a vulnerable spot would force her to depend on him. There also was the fact that if he’d asked any other woman for her expertise, she’d jump at the chance to take over and worm her way into his personal life. Yes, he’d definitely made the right choice.
*The next chapter can be found here, By Design (5)