His Competent Woman
April 18 2017
Complete & Standalone
In desperate need for money, Emma applies for a job with handsome billionaire Curtis West. She's not really qualified for the job and to make matters worse, she loses her temper during the interview and fudges her credentials. Can she pull it off or will this end in tears?
Chapter One Emma: Bad News And Billionaires
“Ben's a lovely boy,” Miss Maddy said brightly. “We're so happy to have him.”“Thank you so much!”
Oh, tell her to quit the chitchat and cut to the chase!
That’s my inner devil. I’m patient and cool on the outside, but inside me there’s this little voice that pipes up and says it how it is. She’s blunt, difficult, and honestly, a bit of a slut. Maybe it’s the real me, I don’t know. But whoever that little voice really belongs to, she’s certainly impatient.
While my devil was right, I resisted an impulse to hurry Miss Maddy along. Ben's schoolteacher was dedicated and likeable, although somewhat longwinded. Being a teacher is a tough job, and Miss Maddy prefaced every conversation with endless compliments, as if parents weren’t capable of tackling reality without a spoonful of sugar.
“Ben’s kind, generous, and very popular.”
“But Ben isn't doing well,” I prompted her. “Is he naughty in class? Not listening, maybe?”
“He's in my bad books for being too chatty at least twice a week!” Miss Maddy laughed indulgently. “But that's normal for a seven-year-old, isn't it?”
“You asked me to come and see you,” I reminded her. “You said it was important?”
When she’d called me, I’d immediately envisioned broken bones or at the very least gushing blood. Once assured on both counts, my mind had flown to some hideous disciplinary problem. Thankfully, Ben didn't seem to be in any trouble.
“Ben's not doing well on his reading.” Miss Maddy was finally getting to the point. “His writing is poor, too.”
Okay, so my stomach plummeted at that. “He's young. I thought boys are slower to develop than girls?”
“I think he may be dyslexic,” Miss Maddy confided. “I'm not a psychologist, Mrs Reed, but he does seem confused about certain words and letters. I think we should have him tested.”
Now I could barely breathe, either. “Dyslexic? But that's serious, isn't it?”
“Well, it makes school a bit more of a challenge, but with support most children cope very well.”
“I’ll make an appointment with the doctor.”
“I’m afraid that won’t work,” Miss Maddy said carefully. “Dyslexia isn’t covered.”
Hell, hell, hell!
If it wasn’t covered by the National Health Service, it meant private doctors. That meant money, and I didn’t have a bean. “Can you test him?” My voice was totally Minnie Mouse, squeakily hoping against hope.
“I’m afraid not.” Miss Maddy handed over a leaflet. “It takes a qualified psychologist. There’s a list here to help you out.”
“They’re going to be expensive, and I'm broke!”
“I'm so sorry.” Miss Maddy looked away, knowing it was bad news. “You're a widow, isn't that so?”
“Yes.” Dear Graham. Gone seven years now.
“He died in Iraq?” Miss Maddy asked delicately. “Erm, during the war?”
“Actually, he was run over.” It still made me sad just thinking of it. “It was an accident.”
A stupid, stupid accident. A young man, a car thief, had made off with an army jeep parked at the Baghdad market. He'd jumped in, taken off and rocketed into Graham just twenty feet later. Killed instantly, Graham’s friends assured me afterwards. Graham hadn’t suffered at all, thank heaven.
The driver had joined him shortly after. The mob had beaten him so badly that he'd died on the spot. It was no consolation. I didn't find it a comfort that two families had grieved instead of one. Still don’t, actually.
“Very tragic,” Miss Maddy said sympathetically. “Look, there are some charities that help out. It’s all in the leaflet.”
“Oh, thank god!”
“But it can take months to make an appointment,” Miss Maddy cautioned me. “And it may not be in Oxford, so you may want to save for the trip.”
Oh lord, it’s going to take us months, my inner devil moaned.
Miss Maddy cleared her throat, piling on bad news, “I'm afraid that if Ben is dyslexic, he will need some support.”
Support. Crap, crap, crap. That meant specialist training, extra classes, and that meant more bills. My stomach pitched and rolled with fright. As if I weren’t already struggling to make ends meet.
Parenting Ben on my own made working a regular job extremely challenging. Few businesses tolerate staff starting at nine a.m. and dashing off at three p.m.—never mind sick days and school holidays.
I hadn’t been able to find a decent job, full time or part time, either. After applying to hundreds of companies, I’d turned to the gig economy. To my horror, I discovered that meant forking out for massively expensive babysitters at unreasonable hours. A zero-hours contract at Tesco had actually cost me money at the end of the month, with all my salary and some of my last remaining savings going to sitters.
Now I was just shattered at the thought of the months ahead. A psychologist would cost a bomb, but there was nothing left to sell. The car had gone first, then the antique clock that had been my grandmother's, and finally the 78s, the vintage records that had been Graham's treasures from his grandfather.
All I had left of value was my wedding ring, an antique Cartier that I’d taken off and shoved into my pants drawer because two of the diamond chips had fallen out.
Oh god, do we have to part with it? It’s all we have left of him!
Just the thought made me feel like weeping, but I had to pull myself together. Ben’s future was more important.
“What will testing cost?” I asked Miss Maddy fearfully.
“Well, there's the assessment. Last year we had little Siti Menon tested, and I think her mum said it set her back—” Miss Maddy mentioned a figure that made me reel.
“If he is, will he need special lessons?” I was praying she’d say not. “Or a special school?”
“We can help,” Miss Maddy assured me.
For a second I breathed again. If the school could pitch in, maybe we’d be okay. I was uncomfortably aware of being a burden, a scrounger on state benefits. Maybe I could help, volunteer for something.
My spirits rose a little, but then Miss Maddy whacked me right back down. “But if Ben’s diagnosed, there may be extras like a laptop and special software. Tutoring in coping techniques can sometimes help, too.”
She rummaged in her desk. “Let me see about prices. I had a list here from a chat group the other day. I think tutoring classes are charged by the half hour and that they tend to charge about—”
By the time she was done, I felt sick. Even selling my ring wouldn’t raise enough cash.
“But it's all worth it,” Miss Maddy finished. “It really does work.” Then she put the boot in. “Without intervention, he'll fall more and more behind.”
“Can the school help with a grant for testing?” I would crawl through broken glass if they’d help. Sackcloth, ashes, the lot.
Miss Maddy just shrugged helplessly. “I’m so sorry.”
“Or maybe if he needs it, with tutoring?”
That got me another helpless shrug.
I sat in my chair, shell-shocked. I knew that Ben would not get any more attention. It wasn't Miss Maddy’s fault. She simply had too many kids to cope with. The school was already under tremendous strain, with classrooms holding thirty children and sometimes more. Frankly, it was a miracle she'd not just dismissed Ben as lazy.
“I'll see to it,” I tried to sound totally cool. “Thank you, Miss Maddy. It's very kind of you to alert me.”
Miss Maddy blushed. “It's a pleasure. We all love Ben. He's such a pleasant boy.”
She’s a pain in the bum sometimes, Miss Maddy, but her heart is in the right place.
Walking out onto the sunny street, I prayed for a miracle. Maybe the job centre had something new.
“Oh, Mrs Reed…” The counter staff knew me by name, I'd been in so often. “There's an opening in Tesco, but it's shift work. Mostly nights and weekends.”
“They pay so little that it won't cover the babysitting,” I couldn’t help but moan. “Is there anything that isn't zero-hour contract or minimum wage?”
“Nothing that matches your qualifications,” the woman said sympathetically.
“A degree in English literature and a year as a glorified intern in a publishing house have prepared me for nothing but benefits.” Yes, I was on a total self-pitying grumble fest. “Why didn't I study something lucrative like accounting?”
“Accounting?” One of the office staff popped up, holding a newly printed vacancy notice. “There's a job in Weston Enterprises. It says office manager, but they said to give priority to people with bookkeeping or financial management experience.”
Weston Enterprises, a top-of-the-line green architecture construction company. I took the posting and read through it quickly. It looked like simple enough work, a girl Friday job that covered office record-keeping. It was nine to five, a proper contract, and the salary was decent. It was a miracle.
Run! My inner devil screamed. Get there right now! We’ll snaffle this job before some other desperate cow even gets wind of it!
“I'll go straight away!” Then I ran out the door before anyone could stop me.
It wasn't difficult to find Weston Enterprises. Not only are they one of the richest construction companies in the country, but their headquarters consists of a silvered glass tower. Soaring straight up from a small park, the locals had nicknamed it Minas Ithil after the moon-inspired spire from Lord of the Rings.
I managed to catch a bus that took me straight to the front gate. I blasted through the little park and arrived at reception pink-faced and panting. “I've come about the office manager job,” I announced.
The receptionist, a pretty little bubble blonde in a blue-flowered summer dress, glanced over the job vacancy sheet. “That will be Sam,” she chirped brightly. “Top floor. Speak to Caitie. Her desk is in Reception.”
The executive lift was opulent and made entirely out of glass. As it whisked me into the air, I was treated to a dazzling view of Oxford. The doors opened on an equally stunning vision: Caitie, who was working the executive floor reception desk, looked more like a fashion model than an office worker.
She was perfect for Minas Ithil. Arwen Evenstar to the life, the girl could be an Elven Ring-bearer, no problem.
Caitie was tall, slender, and dressed in a silky, emerald shift that looked straight off a Tokyo catwalk. Her glossy black hair fell down her back. It was so long that it almost reached her waist. Everything about the woman screamed style. Even her nails were perfect, a classic French manicure with white glitter tips.
I took in all the gloss, feeling my toes curl in shame. I would never, ever get a job here. It was amazing they’d even let me in the door.
Her eyes are too close together, and she’s probably got hammertoes. Inner me can be a bitch.
“You’re here to see Sam?” The model was abrupt, and her voice was rough. She was emptying out her desk, clearly intent on leaving. But she smiled nicely enough and waved me to a plush leather sofa. “Do take a seat.”
“Erm, can you point me to the ladies’?”
I bolted into the loo, took one look at my reflection and squealed with horror. I’d wanted to look smart for Miss Maddy, so I’d worn plain black trousers and a navy blue blouse. It was suitably severe, corporate, and nobody would guess that my black court shoes were so worn that the left one had a hole in the sole. But compared to Miss Evenstar out in reception, it looked hideously dull.
As for my hair! It’s naturally curly and a dark chestnut that goes well with any strong colour from turquoise to wine. But with me raking my hands through it all morning, it was standing up on end. Sadly, it wasn’t a romantic, wild cloud, either.
I’d say porcupine, but it has a flavour of pufferfish, too—you know, that super poisonous one. Devil me can be mercilessly self-critical, too.
To add a final, horrible touch, my face was scarlet from running. As well as my looking like a freak, it had made my eyeliner run. Instead of sultry, I was looking at racoon eyes.
“You look like Cher—after she’s put her fingers in a socket,” I grumbled at mirror-me. “And without the sexy vulpine glamour.”
Repairing the damage, I hastily combed my hair, pulling it back into a well-tamed bun. Running my hands under the cold tap and pressing them against my face, I toned down some of the hideous flush.
Waiting for the last of the red to cool away, I stared my reflection. My hair was okay, but I’ve got very ordinary brown eyes, too boring for beauty, a nice straight nose, but it’s too big for my taste, and my mouth is too thin. Still, with the black-and-navy look, I was presentable. I reminded myself that this was a job interview, not a beauty competition.
Just as well, really, because my blouse looked as if I’d been poured into it, and my trousers were disgustingly tight. I'd eaten been eating too much cheap stodge recently and had failed to lose my winter pounds.
Real women have curves!
It was not a comfort. “Well,” I smiled at mirror-me, “at least giving up chocolate means no spots.”
Digging in my bag, I realised I was out of eyeliner. My mascara was almost dead, but a drop of water from the tap eked it out. I was almost out of lipstick, too, but by digging in the bottom of the tube, I made do.
“There,” I talked myself up for courage. “Understated, serious, and dependable. Totally employable.”
There was no way I could compare to the gorgeous PA, but seeing this was an admin job, I hoped looks wouldn’t matter.
“You’ll be behind closed doors. Probably in the basement,” I assured myself.
I looked at the job description again.
Must have good organisational skills, communicate well, and handle many details and challenging situations at once.
Well, I could handle that. Having once invited Ben’s kindergarten group over to the house for his birthday, there was nothing a company could throw at me that would scare me. Twenty screaming kids had made me immune to chaos and yelling, and it was unlikely the executives would mimic little Kevin and vomit into my handbag or hang onto me so hard that my knickers slid down to my knees like they had with that minx, Seema.
Must be conversant with Microsoft Office packages including Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.
Proofing manuscripts had made me an ace at editing, and I’d taken a course in PowerPoint at the Job Centre, just to improve my CV. My Excel skills were basic, but I’d be fine after a bit of quick extra tutoring. All jobs have a learning curve. I could get up to speed in the evenings in the first week or so.
Includes responsibility for liaisons with vendors to ensure that orders are fulfilled as requested, invoices are paid, and refunds or exchanges are processed.
That sounded like it took common sense. Also, fighting with the plumber, the electrician and three roof contractors had made me an expert in negotiation. And with the plumber being a foul-mouthed Geordie, I’d not be knocked sideways by construction worker swearing either.
Must hold a degree in business administration and have at least two years’ relevant corporate experience.
Ouch. Now that was a stumbling block. I knew full well that a degree in English Lit would not be an acceptable substitute. But perhaps they were flexible on that.
Human Resources were always trying to filter applicants by box ticking, I told myself firmly. And anyway, figuring out our finances and living on the edge for seven years had to count for something.
I took one last look in the mirror, straightened my shoulders and walked out, straight into a firestorm.
“Caitie, my own bloody PA, is cleaning out her desk right now! No notice!” The roar blasted out of the carpeted executive offices, ringing around the building. I flattened myself against the wall instinctively. “Family issues, she says! Her bloody sister had a kid, and Caitie feels she has to run off and play nanny!”
“Can we offer some leave instead?” a much more reasonable voice asked. “Negotiate?”
“Seeing she’s been late every morning this week, and skiving off early, I told her to get out and not come back!” the angry voice fumed.
“Oh, dear. And I came to tell you that Suze has given notice, too.”
“Whaaaaaat?” The loud angry voice echoed down the corridor, practically shattering the delicately tinted windows.
“She has a baby, Curtis. She decided being a mum was more important than a career.”
“She told us when she applied for the job that she was a career woman!”
“Yes, but she changed her mind. It’s not a total disaster, we can replace her.”
“Can we? We're still looking for a press relations exec, too!” The voice was fuming. “One who won't give zero notice after falling in love with a bloody tourist and emigrating to Australia!”
“Right. Anya,” the unfortunate Sam said. “Well, it was unusual, and rather romantic, I thought.”
“Romantic? It's disruptive, and it costs a fortune to interview and recruit!” The anger was running freely, his voice ringing around the hall. “Babies, family issues, and bloody husband-hunting! They preach bloody equality, but it’s all take and no give!”
“Oh, come on. We’re just hitting a bad patch.”
“I've had it, Sam! From now on, no more women!”
“Curtis, I appreciate that you're angry, but you know you can't do that. Discrimination is illegal.”
“Illegal? What about quitting with no notice? Three of them in one week!”
“It’s unprincipled, but we can’t exactly chain them to their desks.”
“Unprincipled? It’s bloody robbery! Look at Suze! At the interview, she went on and on about how she wanted a career, yet she married some banker a month later.”
“Well, it’s not a crime.”
“Isn’t it? She had a worthless bloody degree that qualified her for nothing when she started. I spent six months training her up, then she fell pregnant. She took her sick leave and her holiday, both of which I paid for. Then she vanished for the best part of a year on maternity leave, which I also paid for, and now she goddamn quits!”
The roar reverberated through the hall. I shivered, frozen by the rage.
“Yes, it's unfortunate—”
“Unfortunate? It bloody well cost me a fortune!”
“Yes, I know.”
“Two years and I’ve not had an ounce of work out of her!”
“You said I can’t fire her, but now she can just leave?”
“Can I sue her for compensation?”
“No. It doesn’t work that way.”
“Can I sue Caitie for walking out with no notice?”
“Fine. In that case, no more women.”
I snuck down the hall, back into the waiting room, now empty, and then sat trembling. Curtis, the voice had said. That roar had been Curtis Weston, CEO of Weston Enterprises. I’d read about him often.
Curtis was one of our local lions. An inspirational architect, the creator of the glass Minas Ithil tower and winner of several awards, including a coveted RIBA for innovation in architecture. He was a local boy who had built up a billion-pound fortune, and everyone in Oxford was proud of him.
In interviews, he'd seemed pleasant if rather driven. Now I was changing my mind. Curtis Weston cared only about his business. He didn't have a clue that life, love, and family can change lives and priorities.
It was unfortunate that he was losing three of his staff at the same time, but being stinking rich, he could just replace them. Curtis Weston’s reaction was completely over the top.
“Mrs Reed?” A tall, friendly-looking man with sandy hair and a slightly rumpled brown suit stood before me. “I'm Sam Jefferson, Human Resources Director.” He had a warm smile and a firm handshake. “You're awfully quick! I only sent the job spec an hour ago.”
I smiled, “I like to be efficient.” Game on, right?
“Right,” Sam was looking me over. With a sinking heart, I could see he was noting the lack of jewellery, well-worn shoes, and probably my worried eyes, too. Oh crap. The Job Centre probably sent him my CV.
“Penguin Publishing! Well, that’s impressive!” Yes, Sam was checking out my past. My heart was plummeting into my gut again.
Smile and flash our boobs; my horrible self is shameless. Think of Ben! If it helps get us the job, it’s worth it!
God, to be reduced to this! I did have a promising start in Penguin, but then there was a telltale, year-long gap, and then the dratted thing was littered with zero-hour jobs. The whole thing reeked of loser.
“Cashier at Tesco, driving for Uber, and part-time cleaner for the Royal Bank,” Sam said warmly. “You're versatile and not afraid of hard work. You’ve been taking short courses, too. Excellent!”
He was going to turn me down. The despair just blasted through me. He wanted a competent professional with years of experience, not a rundown single parent. Especially with Curtis Weston ripping into him just minutes before.
I’m a lame-duck mum, I thought.
The money I needed was receding before my eyes. In a flash, I could see Ben being left further and further behind, with me standing uselessly on the sidelines, unable to help him.
Fight, you stupid cow!
“I'm organised and used to coping with problems,” I said quickly. “I enjoy challenges, and I'm a fast learner.”
“Yes, I can see that,” Sam said gently. I could tell he hated this part of his work, telling desperate job seekers they were out of luck. Sam seemed a kind man, one of the best. He was probably thinking that Curtis Weston would kill him if he hired me. I wasn't even remotely a fit for the job, either, or any job they had, probably.
“Mrs Reed, I'm very sorry but—”
“The Royal Bank were very pleased with me,” I interjected desperately. It wasn't a lie. The manager had complimented me on my sparkling clean corners and floor waxing.
“Sam, can I borrow Jenny?” Curtis put his head around the door. “I've got a pile of correspondence, and I’m busy with that presentation for Fitzsimmons—” he stopped abruptly and stared at me. “Oh,” he said crisply. “Hello.”
He was much taller than I’d imagined. Curtis Weston was easily six feet, with narrow hips and long legs contributing to an overall impression of lean grace. He moved swiftly, every move economical and purposeful. It was sexy as hell; panthers had nothing on this man.
The strong, regular features were good, too. Short brown hair, brown eyes, and a light tan from working outside set off sparkling white teeth, small nose, and slanting cheekbones.
Oh, sweet mother of god, YUM! He’s stunning. Want! Want! Want!
I ignored my suddenly thumping heart. Okay, what am I lying for? The thumping was way lower down in my body.
Good looks and ohmilord, just look at the window dressing!
The expensive suit was definitely more than an off-the-rack at some high-end fashion house like Armani or Cardin. No, this was pure Savile Row. It was hand made and beautifully tailored to highlight the sinewy physique, and the expensive black material screamed money. So did the crisp blue shirt and the navy and red tie.
My knees were going liquid just looking at him. He was damn gorgeous.
Lean, dark, and sexy, just like we like them, inner me moaned. And seeing he built this business up from nothing, he's also bright and hard-working.
I had to agree. If we’d met at a party, I'd have made the most horrendous pass.
The thing about all that beauty and grace is that I suddenly became aware of less-than-glorious me. I was horribly aware of my clothes, too worn to impress and definitely straining at the seams. I sucked in my tummy. I really had to lose some weight.
Like chop off three inches all the way round. Or industrial liposuction.
I was also cursing myself for my haste. Instead of rushing over, hoping that being first would snag me the job, I should have made an appointment, done my hair properly, dressed better, and looked the part.
Investing in some new shoes might have been a good move, too. I could feel the unseen hole in the sole burning into my foot.
“You're applying?” Curtis spoke swiftly, with a light, clipped tone.
But I was tongue-tied, suddenly shy of all that gorgeousness right in front of me.
“This is Emma Reed,” Sam said quickly. “She’s here for the office manager job.”
Curtis stepped forward, and I caught a whiff of his aftershave: leather and orange. It promised warmth and excitement. I could feel myself flush.
He’ll have a lean body with long, ropey muscles. Those arms will curl around us, sexy and hard. Totally delicious.
I mentally shook myself and told myself to focus. Curtis Weston was clearly out of my league, just like the job, but oh my god, if only I could take him home as a consolation prize!
You still haven’t spoken, moron!
“Hello!” It was supposed to come out cool and competent but I sounded like Minnie Mouse. I cleared my throat, adding, “Nice to meet you.” Hell! Now I was Billy Goat Gruff.
Curtis Weston nodded briefly. “How do you do.” His voice was cool to the point of cold.
He was looking me over. I suddenly had the impression that I was standing under a searchlight. Every inch of me felt hot and exposed. The hazel eyes ran over me swiftly. This was a man who was quick in everything, from mood to decisions. And by the pursed mouth I could feel him judging my worn shoes and lack of gloss.
The image of Caitie, the supermodel in the emerald sheath, rushed back into mind. Yes, the slightly contemptuous gaze told me Curtis Weston thought I wasn't up to par.
He wasn't gorgeous; he was a judgmental arse.
Suddenly furious, I turned to Sam. “As I was saying, Mr Jefferson, the Royal Bank was pleased with my work. They did say they might have another opening, so if you've other candidates—”
“The Royal Bank?” Curtis interjected. “You worked there?”
“Yes, and for Tesco, and Penguin Publishing.” I decided I'd lay it on thick. I'd never get the job—Sam Jefferson would know I was misrepresenting myself—but at least I could walk out with my pride intact.
“Are you married?” Curtis asked abruptly. “Or intending to get pregnant soon?”
“Curtis!” Sam was red with annoyance. “For god's sake!”
“Oh, I don't mind,” I said sweet as honey. “Let me tell you, Mr Weston, that I am not married and do not intend to marry. Frankly, I have no interest in men.”
“Excellent!” Curtis said promptly. “You're hired.”
I live in Malaysia with Tom, my best friend for 25 years and married for almost as long. Aside from writing fiction, I write columns and features for newspapers and magazines.
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