Olivia— Chapter One
Olivia’s heels struck the marble floor echoing off the empty hallway. The copy room was her last stop before she could finally head home. She ignored a moment of apprehension when she discovered the key in the lock instead of hidden away in the top drawer of the file cabinet. The executive staff of Mercer Advertising persistently warned the team about the danger of corporate espionage almost to the point of paranoia. A memo issued from office security required everyone to lock the copy room door after use.
She flung open the door and stopped short. She hadn’t expected to find anyone inside the dimly lit copy room, especially her fiancé, Brian Mercer.
“Olivia, what the hell are you doing here? I thought you’d left for the day.” Brian growled.
“What’s going…oh.” Olivia grasped her throat as she recognized the flashy blonde from the secretarial pool. Often the topic of office gossip, the woman smirked and fumbled for Brian’s shirt to drape around her nude body. Brian made no effort to cover himself, but defiantly focused his stare on Olivia.
“How could you?” Olivia scanned the windowless room. Shoes danced across the floor, followed by a long string of rumpled clothing. An empty champagne bottle lay on its side at the edge of the copy machine with two paper cups bearing witness to the crude scene.
Olivia’s emotions spiraled from shock to disbelief. Raw anger took over as Brian groped around the floor for his pants. She snatched up one of his shoes intending to hurl at him but the image of two nude people fanatically searching for their clothes was almost comical…almost. She turned, slammed the door shut, and locked Brian and his playmate inside.
Fighting hysterics, she fled down the hallway to her office, the image of Brian with his brassy bimbo seared into her brain. The aroma of the woman’s cheap perfume mixed with Brian’s expensive aftershave singed her nostrils. A sour taste of nausea bubbled in the back of her throat. She wanted to cry and at the same time, laugh. How could she be so stupid? She gathered the personal items from her desk and stuffed everything into a canvas tote bag. Grabbing her coat, she spitefully snapped off the main overhead light switch, which darkened the rest of the offices including the copy room. Her hands trembled as she locked the main door and bolted toward the elevator, never looking back.
She jabbed the down button, paced the hall, and waited. The elevator took forever to reach the fourteenth floor. She let out a huge breath when the doors opened to an empty car. Better not to have an audience present to witness her rage as she unleashed her anger, calling Brian every name that came to mind during the ride down to street level. Olivia seldom swore, dismissing it as a sign of ignorance or lack of command of the English language, but now, the oaths spewed from her mouth.
Her frantic pace toward the subway turned into a run as her fury increased.
She left the offices of Mercer Advertising, lost to her surroundings until she stood at the subway turnstile, searching the tote bag for her Metro-card. Her fingers touched the soft leather of Brian’s custom-made, imported Italian loafer. Instead of hurling the shoe at him, she had inadvertently dumped it in the bag along with the rest of her belongings. She fished it out, held it shoulder high, as if it were the remains of a dead skunk, and dropped it in a garbage bin, relieved to get the reminder of Brian out of her sight. She pushed through the turnstile and boarded the train.
Edging her way down the crowded aisle, she found an open seat and plopped down, mentally exhausted. She squeezed her eyes closed in an attempt to control her emotions. What a fool she’d been not to pay attention to the rampant office rumors. She’d chosen to ignore whispers about Brian’s skirt chasing.
“Silly gossip,” he explained when she mentioned the gossip. “Those days are completely in the past. Every man sows his wild oats but once I met you, I became a changed man. Don’t ever doubt my love.”
She believed him. They made plans for the future, but he obviously had another agenda. How could she have been so gullible?
Rage gave way to disappointment as the scene in the copy room flashed through her mind. Ignoring the other passengers, she began an internal conversation, unaware she was speaking aloud.
“I should have grabbed his damn pants instead of his shoe before locking the two of them in the copy room. Imagine screwing that tramp. He’s engaged to me, for God’s sake. She twisted the caret solitaire on her finger. If he thinks I’m going to return this ring, he’s in for a big surprise. I hope he can’t find his cell phone to call for help and the two of them have to spend the night cooped up before security discovers them in the morning.”
She jerked back to reality when she heard snickers from some of the passengers. A man sitting across the aisle from her grinned.
“You go Red, but you better keep that ring in a safe place until you hear from your fiancé.” He handed her his business card. “I’m a lawyer, in case you need my service.”
She brushed her auburn hair back from her face, burning from embarrassment. The woman next to her leaned over and whispered, “Any man who cheats isn’t worth your time. Young lady, you’re better off discovering his bad habits now.”
Olivia mumbled thanks, and shrunk back in her seat wishing this had all been a bad dream.
She reached into her coat pocket for a tissue and fingered the office key. When she locked the boss’s son and his lover in the dark copy room, she not only abandoned her fiancé, but also sabotaged any hope of a future in advertising. Brian’s father, CEO of Mercer Advertising and a tyrant in the industry wielded enough influence to blackball her career. Olivia had no doubt he’d buy into any story Brian told him. Her life crumbled into irretrievable pieces.
Humiliated and trapped, she couldn’t wait to escape the prying eyes in the subway car. She held her head high and jumped off the minute the train stopped. The two-block walk to her apartment gave her time to regain composure.
She unlocked the front door, relieved her roommate had not yet arrived home. At least she wouldn’t have to re-cap the entire scenario until she had the opportunity to rein in her emotions. She needed time to sort out what was left of her life.
She mentally calculated her options when her cell phone interrupted. Olivia’s first impulse was to ignore the call. What if it was Brian? Would he dare call? She checked the caller ID and her roommate’s number appeared on the screen.
“Olivia, thank goodness you’re home. I left my apartment key on the kitchen table this morning. I wasn’t sure how I’d get in. See you in a few minutes.”
Marcie dumped her purse and coat on a chair. “If you and Brian had left for the weekend, I’d been locked out. I didn’t know where I’d crash until you returned. Want me to make coffee?”
Marcie glanced at her roommate. “You look a little washed-out. Are you ill?”
Olivia shook her head. If she answered, it would be impossible to hold back the tears.
Marcie placed her hands on her hips. “Okay, something’s up. Maybe I should open the bottle of brandy I won at last year’s Christmas party. I don’t have any plans except laundry. We’ll order in and hash over whatever’s bothering you. I have coupons from that new Thai place that opened down the street.”
Olivia agreed and Marcie placed the order. While Marcie walked the two blocks to pick up the carryout order, Olivia put water on for tea and set the table.
Before the evening ended, Olivia repeated the entire scenario, leaving nothing to the imagination.
“What are you going to do?”
“I can’t continue to work long term at Mercers, but I’ll keep my job until I find another position. I can only imagine what Brian told his father. Mr. Mercer tolerated me as Brian’s fiancée only because of my work ethic. After this fiasco, it’ll be difficult facing either of them. I’ll keep a low profile while I work on my résumé.”
“Good luck in this market. My office is laying off seasoned employees.”
Olivia scrunched her face. “Thanks for the encouragement.”
Monday morning, before she made calls to set up appointments for job interviews, a hand-delivered letter arrived.
Ms. Olivia McDougle.
Due to a reduction in our staff, your position has been
eliminated. The only job available at this time is a file clerk.
Obviously, the pay scale is substantially lower than you now receive.
Contact our Human Resource manager if you are interested in this position.
Please remember the clause in your original contract. You may not work for
any of our competitors for at least one year.
Clayton J. Mercer, CEO
Olivia collapsed on the sofa. The file clerk position paid the lowest salary on the staff. She couldn’t possibly keep up with her expenses on an income that would barely cover her share of the rent. Brian certainly hadn’t wasted any time obtaining revenge. She grabbed her purse and checked the balance on her bankbook. She could last a couple of months, before she had to cash in her investments. Then what?
She called the HR manager to see if any other positions were available. The response was terse.
“Sorry, Miss McDougle, there’s nothing I can do. Mr. Mercer himself put out the word. Your contract has a severance package including your vacation pay, which should arrive by the end of the week. UPS will deliver your personal items.”
Olivia never envisioned this happening to her. She called her closest friend in Mercer’s office and asked if she heard anything.
“I don’t know what you did, but the grapevine is vibrating with gossip and innuendos.
“The latest rumor is, you made copies of a proposed advertising packet to give to our competitor. Olivia, there’s a rumor that you and Brian had a fight and you locked him in the copy room. Is that true?”
“Him along with the tramp who works in the secretary pool.”
“Wow, I didn’t hear that part. Anyway, your name is mud. They cleared your office this morning.”
Olivia whispered, “What about Brian?”
“Word is he went to Los Angeles on an extended business trip, although I don’t know of any business we do on the west coast. I’m sure old man Mercer wanted his son out of the office until the gossip clears.”
Olivia ended the call, fighting the lump in the back of her throat. She couldn’t work for a competing advertising firm. No one would hire her once they perceived she was unreliable or worse, deceitful. Without a good reference from Mercer, she had little chance of finding a position anywhere. Her last resort, submit her résumé to an agency. She contacted one of the larger firms and made an appointment for an interview.
The day clamped down on her. Twenty-five, jobless, played for a fool by Brian Mercer, and about two months away from being homeless.
She spent the next two weeks applying for positions, filling out résumés and setting up interviews. The results were disheartening.
“You’re over qualified.”
“You don’t have experience in this field.”
“You have no references.”
The list grew until Olivia couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. Near the end of the second week, she received an offer, paying less than half of the salary at Mercers.
After work on Friday, Marcie plopped down on a chair across from Olivia at the kitchen table.
“No luck?” Marcie asked.
“Nothing. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
“I wish I could help. I’ve asked around and come up with nothing. How’s it going with the agency where you registered?”
“They’ll call if anything comes up. It’s the reference thing. It’s almost as if I were blacklisted.”
Her cell phone rang and interrupted their conversation.
“Am I speaking with Miss Olivia McDougle?” A deep voice boomed over the phone.
“Yes, this is Olivia.”
“This is Dr. James. I’m calling from Rexford, Ohio. Your Aunt Etta has listed you as next of kin. I…”
“Oh, my gosh, is she okay?”
“You’d know if you kept in touch,” Dr. James snapped. “Etta had a spell with her heart. I suggested she go to the hospital, but she declined. There isn’t anyone here to take care of her. I’ll have no choice but to admit her to a nursing home unless you make other arrangements. What do you want me to do?”
Olivia glanced around her apartment while digesting the information. Images of the aunt who raised her after her parents died in an automobile accident crowded her mind.
“Sorry. I’ll take the next flight to Dayton. Will she be okay until tomorrow?”
“One of her neighbors will stay with her tonight. I’ll tell her you’re coming. You might want to let someone know what flight you’re taking.” He abruptly disconnected the call.
Olivia related the conversation to Marcie. “I have to go. I want to take care of Aunt Etta.”
“What about our apartment?”
“I haven’t planned that far ahead, but if Aunt Etta is as ill as that rude doctor said, I have no idea how long I’ll be gone. Do you think you can find another roommate to take over my part of the lease?”
“No problem. I work with a gal who’s eager to move closer to the city. She’ll be delighted to move in and take over your share of the rent. What about your furniture?”
They arranged to make a trade. In exchange for Olivia’s furniture, Marcie agreed to pack and ship the remainder of her possessions to Rexford. Olivia made reservations for a flight leaving early in the morning and called Aunt Etta’s house to let the neighbor know she would arrive at the Dayton airport at noon. She jammed everything that would fit into her four suitcases and snatched a few hours of sleep before she caught the five a.m. shuttle.
Tired, stressed, and almost robotic, Olivia deplaned in Dayton and followed the crowd to the luggage claim area. While waiting for the turnstile to drop her luggage down the chute, a light touch tapped her shoulder.
“Olivia? You’re the image of your mother. I’d recognize you anywhere. Etta sent me to drive you back to Rexford.” Thelma Snyder, Aunt Etta’s next-door neighbor greeted Olivia with a beaming smile.
“How is she?”
“Feisty. She wanted to drive here by herself, but Dr. James would have a fit if he found out she left the house. It’s good to see you. Let’s get you home.”
A myriad of memories piled one on top of the other as they drove the eighty-plus miles to Rexford. The Ohio countryside hadn’t changed, but after living in New York City, the sky seemed bigger and the fields a brighter green.
Thelma avoided the interstate and took the longer route following the less traveled country roads. “I don’t trust driving I-75. The trucks come up behind you and almost push you off the road,” she explained.
Olivia enjoyed the scenery. The two-lane highway took them through farmlands and past a string of small towns. Different names, but similar neighborhoods. Communities where people knew each other. She wondered how she could have ever left this tranquility. College and dreams of becoming a success in advertising had been her goals then.
“Sorry, day-dreaming, I guess.”
“I asked if you wanted something to eat. We could stop at a restaurant.”
“I’m fine. I’m anxious to see Aunt Etta.”
Thelma nodded. Twenty minutes later, she pulled into the driveway and stopped the car at the Anderson house.
“Thanks, Thelma. You can’t imagine how comforting home, sounds.”
Thelma picked up a small bag while Olivia grabbed the rest of her luggage from the car, making two trips to set them at the door. Nothing had changed. The porch followed the contours of the house. Wicker furniture and a swing attached to a beam in the ceiling filled the space along with urns of geraniums placed at the entrance. Fancy trim fringed the eaves and around the windows. A large turret rose from the porch to the original slate roof, complete with octagon shaped stained-glass windows.
“The door is unlocked, Olivia.” Thelma said.
Aunt Etta never locked the house. Small town, simple lifestyle.
A sharp voice coming from the shadow of a hanging fern stopped her before she entered the house “I’m glad you’re finally here. It’s about time someone stepped-up to take care of Etta. I needed to talk to you about her meds before I return to the office.” Olivia jerked her head toward a scowling man clad in a white shirt, tucked into Levis so tight they looked as if he had pasted them on his slim hips. He wore sneakers and a Phillies baseball cap pulled down on his forehead. She was about to tell him to drop-dead when she realized he was Aunt Etta’s doctor.
“Olivia, call me if you need me. Remember, I’m right next door.” Thelma waved and walked across the lawn to her house.
Dr. James grabbed two of Olivia’s bags and followed her into the house.
“Check on Etta, I’ll wait in the hallway.”
Olivia hurried to the master bedroom where her aunt lay in bed, looking smaller then Olivia remembered. He face held no color, but Etta’s eyes brightened when she looked up at her niece.
“You’re home. It’s so good to see you, but you didn’t have to rush back here to visit me.”
“Of course I did.” Olivia sat on the side of the bed. “I’ve missed you. What’s with your doctor?” she whispered. “He’s a little, ah, overbearing.”
“Don’t mind him, Livvie. Mitch thinks he can control my life.”
“Someone should be in control,” Mitch shot back from the doorway. “You certainly don’t take care of yourself.”
“Here’s Etta’s medicine. The directions are on each bottle. Make sure she takes them on schedule every day.”
Before Olivia questioned him further, he abruptly stomped out of the room. Seconds later, the front door slammed.
Olivia arched an eyebrow, looking to her aunt for an explanation.
“Mitch James, the new doctor in town.”
“Aunt Etta, what’s going on?”
“A few dizzy spells, dear. Nothing for you to worry about.”
“Your doctor seemed concerned. Rude, but concerned. He certainly doesn’t act like any doctor I’ve seen before.”
“Don’t mind him. He’s new generation, and a very intense young man. He runs a clinic for the migrant workers in Worthville on Saturdays, and usually stops on his way back to check on me. He’s upset because I won’t go to the hospital for tests.”
“If that’s a sample of his bedside manner, I don’t know how he keeps his practice. Meanwhile, I’ll take charge. What would you like for lunch?”
“Thelma fixed my lunch before she left for the airport, but I’m sure she left plenty for you. I’m so glad to see you. I’m going to rest for a few minutes. We’ll discuss Mitch James later.”
Olivia pulled the comforter up around her aunt’s neck.
“I’m glad you’re here, Livvie.” Etta closed her eyes.
Over a steaming bowl of homemade soup and a glass of iced tea, Olivia’s stress subsided. Sitting in Aunt Etta’s spotless and well-organized kitchen brought back so many memories. The first time she baked cookies or her attempt to make pie dough. What a mess it turned out to be. She had managed to spread flour all over the counter and the floor. She’d made an anniversary dinner for Aunt Etta and Uncle Fritz. The roast was tough and the mashed potatoes lumpy, but she’d been so proud of her attempt at cooking. They both ate the meal without complaint.
Olivia cleaned up the lunch dishes, and then toted her luggage into her bedroom. The room looked the same as when she left it years ago. Before she could unpack, Etta joined her.
“Aunt Etta, should be out of bed?”
“I can’t spend the rest of my life on the flat of my back. I need to walk around a bit to keep the circulation working. Is the room okay?”
“Everything is fine.” Olivia fingered her high school cheerleading trophy.
“This will always be your room, Livvie. Welcome home.”
Olivia sucked in her lower lip. The last time she’d been back to Rexford was two years ago, and then it was only for a long weekend. In the past, she and Aunt Etta took annual trips together, but they always met in New York and left from there. Lately, phone calls were their only means of communication.
Olivia opened her suitcases and placed folded clothes in the same dresser she had used as a child. Etta hung blouses and slacks in the closet. As Etta turned to reach for an empty hanger, she staggered and grabbed onto the door for support.
Olivia looked up. Her aunt’s face drained of color. “What’s wrong?”
“I’m a little light-headed. I believe I need to lie down a bit.”
“Wait, I’ll move my luggage.”
“Please, I’ll feel better in my own bed.” Etta’s speech slurred.
Olivia helped her aunt to her room.
“Lie still and I’ll bring a damp cloth.”
Etta didn’t protest.
Olivia returned and put a cool compress on her aunt’s forehead. “What is your doctor’s name?”
“Mitch James. His number’s next to the phone in the kitchen.”
“I’ll call him.” She rushed to the kitchen where she found Dr. Mitchell James, written on a card along with his office and home telephone number. Late afternoon, she’d try his home phone first.
“Doc James,” he answered on the first ring.
Not bothering to identify herself, Olivia simply stated, “Etta Anderson fainted. Can you…”
“I’m on my way.”
She clinched her lips and stared at the phone as the sound of disconnect clicked in her ear. Rude didn’t begin to describe Dr. James. At least, he cared enough for Aunt Etta to make another house call.