Chadwick’s brow creased as he weighed this statement. “Are you sure?”
She didn’t like to lie to him. She didn’t like to lie to anyone. She had recently had her fill of lying, thanks to Neil. “It’ll be fine.”
She had to believe that. She’d pulled herself out of sheer poverty by dint of hard work. A bump in the road—a baby bump—wouldn’t ruin everything. She hoped.
His hazel eyes refused to let her go for a long moment. But then he silently agreed to let it pass. “Very well, then. What’s on tap this week, beyond the regular meetings?”
As always, she smiled at his joke. What was on tap was beer—literally and figuratively. As far as she knew, it was the only joke he ever told.
Chadwick had set appointments with his vice presidents, usually lunch meetings and the like. He was deeply involved in his company—a truly hands-on boss. Serena’s job was making sure his irregular appointments didn’t mess up his standing ones. “You have an appointment at ten with your lawyers on Tuesday to try and reach a settlement. I’ve moved your meeting with Matthew to later in the afternoon.”
She carefully left out the facts that the lawyers were divorce attorneys and that the settlement was with his soon-to-be-ex-wife, Helen. The divorce had been dragging on for months now—over thirteen, by her count. She did not know the details. Who was to say what went on behind closed doors in any family? All she knew was that the whole process was wearing Chadwick down like waves eroding a beach—slowly but surely.
Chadwick’s shoulders slumped a little and he exhaled with more force. “As if this meeting will go any differently than the last five did.” But then he added, “What else?” in a forcefully bright tone.
Serena cleared her throat. That was, in a nutshell, the extent of the personal information they shared. “Wednesday at one is the meeting with the Board of Directors at the Hotel Monaco downtown.” She cleared her throat. “To discuss the offer from AllBev. Your afternoon meeting with the production managers was cancelled. They’re all going to send status reports instead.”
Then she realized—she wasn’t so much terrified about having a baby. It was the fact that because she was suddenly going to have a baby, there was a very good chance she could lose her job.
AllBev was an international conglomerate that specialized in beer manufacturers. They’d bought companies in England, South Africa and Australia, and now they had their sights set on Beaumont. They were well-known for dismantling the leadership, installing their own skeleton crew of managers, and wringing every last cent of profit out of the remaining workers.
Chadwick groaned and slumped back in his chair. “That’s this week?”
“Yes, sir.” He shot her a wounded look at the sir, so she corrected herself. “Yes, Mr. Beaumont. It got moved up to accommodate Mr. Harper’s schedule.” In addition to owning one of the largest banks in Colorado, Leon Harper was also one of the board members pushing to accept AllBev’s offer.
What if Chadwick agreed or the board overrode his wishes? What if Beaumont Brewery was sold? She’d be out of a job. There was no way AllBev’s management would want to keep the former CEO’s personal assistant. She’d be shown the door with nothing more than a salvaged copier-paper box of her belongings to symbolize her nine years there.
Maybe that wouldn’t be the end of the world—she’d lived as frugally as she could, tucking almost half of each paycheck away in ultra-safe savings accounts and CDs. She couldn’t go back on welfare. She wouldn’t.
If she weren’t pregnant, getting another job would be relatively easy. Chadwick would write her a glowing letter of recommendation. She was highly skilled. Even a temp job would be a job until she found another place like Beaumont Brewery.
Except...except for the benefits. She was pregnant. She needed affordable health insurance, and the brewery had some of the most generous health insurance around. She hadn’t paid more than ten dollars to see a doctor in eight years.
But it was more than just keeping her costs low. She couldn’t go back to the way things had been before she’d started working at the Beaumont Brewery. Feeling like her life was out of control again? Having people treat her like she was a lazy, ignorant leech on society again?
Raising a child the way she’d been raised, living on food pantry handouts and whatever Mom could scavenge from her shift at the diner? Of having social workers threaten to take her away from her parents unless they could do better—be better? Of knowing she was always somehow less than the other kids at school but not knowing why—until the day when Missy Gurgin walked up to her in fourth grade and announced to the whole class that Serena was wearing the exact shirt, complete with stain, she’d thrown away because it was ruined?
Serena’s lungs tried to clamp shut. No, she thought, forcing herself to breathe. It wasn’t going to happen like that. She had enough to live on for a couple of years—longer if she moved into a smaller apartment and traded down to a cheaper car. Chadwick wouldn’t allow the family business to be sold. He would protect the company. He would protect her.
“Harper. That old goat,” Chadwick muttered, snapping Serena back to the present. “He’s still grinding that ax about my father. The man never heard of letting bygones be bygones, I swear.”
This was the first that Serena had heard about this. “Mr. Harper’s out to get you?”
Chadwick waved his hand, dismissing the thought. “He’s still trying to get even with Hardwick for sleeping with his wife, as the story goes, two days after Harper and his bride got back from their honeymoon.” He looked at her again. “Are you sure you’re all right? You look pale.”
Pale was probably the best she could hope for today. “I....” She grasped at straws and came up with one. “I hadn’t heard that story.”
“Hardwick Beaumont was a cheating, lying, philandering, sexist bigot on his best day.” Chadwick repeated all of this by rote, as if he’d had it beaten into his skull with a dull spoon. “I have no doubt that he did exactly that—or something very close to it. But it was forty years ago. Hardwick’s been dead for almost ten years. Harper....” He sighed, looking out the windows. In the distance, the Rocky Mountains gleamed in the spring sunlight. Snow capped off the mountains, but it hadn’t made it down as far as Denver. “I just wish Harper would realize that I’m not Hardwick.”
“I know you’re not like that.”
His eyes met hers. There was something different in them, something she didn’t recognize. “Do you? Do you, really?”
This...this felt like dangerous territory.
She didn’t know, actually. She had no idea if he was getting a divorce because he’d slept around on his wife. All she knew was that he’d never hit on her, not once. He treated her as an equal. He respected her.
“Yes,” she replied, feeling certain. “I do.”
The barest hint of a smile curved up one side of his lips. “Ah, that’s what I’ve always admired about you, Serena. You see the very best in people. You make everyone around you better, just by being yourself.”
Oh. Oh. Her cheeks warmed, although she wasn’t sure if it was from the compliment or the way he said her name. He usually stuck to Ms. Chase.
Dangerous territory, indeed.
She needed to change the subject. Now. “Saturday night at nine you have the charity ball at the Denver Art Museum.”
That didn’t erase the half-cocked smile from his face, but it did earn her a raised eyebrow. Suddenly, Chadwick Beaumont looked anything but tired or worn-down. Suddenly, he looked hot. Well, he was always hot—but right now? It wasn’t buried beneath layers of responsibility or worry.
Heat flushed Serena’s face, but she wasn’t entirely sure why one sincere compliment would have been enough to set her all aflutter. Oh, that’s right—she was pregnant. Maybe she was just having a hormonal moment.
“What’s that for, again? A food bank?”
“Yes, the Rocky Mountain Food Bank. They were this year’s chosen charity.”
Every year, the Beaumont Brewery made a big splash by investing heavily in a local charity. One of Serena’s job responsibilities was personally handling the small mountain of applications that came in every year. A Beaumont Brewery sponsorship was worth about $35 million in related funds and donations—that’s why they chose a new charity every year. Most of the non-profits could operate for five to ten years with that kind of money.
Serena went on. “Your brother Matthew planned this event. It’s the centerpiece of our fundraising efforts for the food bank. Your attendance will be greatly appreciated.” She usually phrased it as a request, but Chadwick had never missed a gala. He understood that this was as much about promoting the Beaumont Brewery name as it was about promoting a charity.
Chadwick still had her in his sights. “You chose this one, didn’t you?”
She swallowed. It was almost as if he had realized that the food bank had been an important part of her family’s survival—that they would have starved if they hadn’t gotten groceries and hot meals on a weekly basis. “Technically, I choose all the charities. It’s my job.”
“You do it well.” But before the second compliment could register, he continued, “Will Neil be accompanying you?”
“Um....” She usually attended these events with Neil. He mostly went to hobnob with movers and shakers, but Serena loved getting all dressed up and drinking champagne. Things she’d never thought possible back when she was a girl.
Things were different now. So, so different. Suddenly, Serena’s throat closed up on her. God, what a mess.
“No. He...” Try not to cry, try not to cry. “We mutually decided to end our relationship several months ago.”
Chadwick’s eyebrows jumped up so high they almost cleared his forehead. “Several months ago? Why didn’t you tell me?”
Breathe in, breathe out. Don’t forget to repeat.
“Mr. Beaumont, we usually do not discuss our personal lives at the office.” It came out pretty well—fairly strong, her voice only cracking slightly over the word personal. “I didn’t want you to think I couldn’t handle myself.”
She was his competent, reliable, loyal employee. If she’d told him that Neil had walked out after she’d confronted him about the text messages on his phone and demanded that he recommit to the relationship—by having a baby and finally getting married—well, she’d have been anything but competent. She might be able to manage Chadwick’s office, but not her love life.