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Tired of being the sales rep for his father's firm, Edward finds the home office just as hazardous. Lumbered with finding a replacement for the firm's CFO, Edward suspects the best man for the job is a woman.
Toni Rovere can be easily overlooked—until Edward finds that he could learn a thing or two about business from her.
Jane has been previously published in print by Harlequin, Silhouette and Zebra. Her book Black Tie Affair was the debut book of the Zebra Lucky-in-Love line in 1992. Her books have been translated into eight foreign languages, including Japanese and Russian.
In her spare time, Jane gardens, quilts and spoils her grandchildren. She now makes her home in Tennessee.
Edward McCloud sat at the table in the family breakfast room, sipping a cup of coffee while his father and his older brother Dave talked about a production problem at McCloud Tool and Gauge, the family firm. He was only peripherally interested, because production was Dave's department, and only involved Edward if it increased or decreased the profits. He'd been on the road, off and on, for the last three months and was just glad to be home for Christmas. The road was lonely—a blur of calls on suppliers, tedious tradeshows, and seminars with the developers who helped McCloud stay one step ahead of the competition.
What he really wanted to talk to them about concerned some ideas he had for the company's marketing and promotions—trends that he was afraid they were not addressing effectively. But it looked like it was going to be a long time before he got a word in edgewise.
Dave's four-year-old daughter Nichole ran through the family room where she had been opening Christmas presents, and came to a screeching halt in the space between her father's and grandfather's chairs, brandishing the French doll she had unwrapped under the Christmas tree just minutes ago.
"She only has two dresses, Pappap," she complained, holding the blond-haired doll up so the elder McCloud would have no chance of misunderstanding the problem.
"Nichole, Pappap and Daddy are talking business..." Dave said in an attempt to distract her.
Edward lowered his coffee mug to the table, where it made a slight scraping sound, just enough to draw Nichole's attention, inadvertently but perhaps fatefully.
"Uncle Edward, she only has two dresses." Nichole looked up at him with serious blue eyes, the urgent tone of her voice drawing him into her four-year-old world as only she could."That's not enough! And—and she has just one set of undies. I have lots of dresses and lots of undies. We have to do something!"
Before he could refuse, she had climbed into his lap, exploiting the fact that he had never figured out how to say no to her effectively.
Dave's wife, Janelle, came into the breakfast room, wearing her diplomatic face."Now, Nikki..."
"She's all right," Edward looked up at his strikingly beautiful sister-in-law then back at the copy of Janelle who sat on his knee."Yes, we'll have to do something but this is Christmas and we can't do anything until tomorrow. She's a beautiful doll, Nichole. What's her name?"
"Gramma said her name is Marie, but I'd rather call her Barbie."
"But Barbie is an American name and she's a French doll." Edward realized as he said it that Nichole wouldn't understand."Marie is a French name."
Nichole frowned."If I have to," she conceded with attitude."She still needs lots more clothes."
The looks he fielded from his father and brother were amused but he saw that they were genuinely pleased that he'd relieved them of dealing with Nichole. They went back to talking business, leaving him to entertain and divert the girl.
Nichole never had been easy to dislodge once she had climbed onto his knee and gotten his attention.
"Uncle Edward, do you have any girls?" she asked.
"No," he answered seriously but wary of where the conversation was leading.
Nichole frowned."Then how do you know you can find more doll dresses?"
"I'll just find a way," he said, although he realized he didn't have a clue.
"Nikki, go with Mommy and—and—" Dave tried to divert her, so the men could engage in a serious conversation about tools and gauges and people who worked in the plant—Dave's one topic of discussion at family gatherings.
"She's all right," Edward told him, thinking if they went on with their discussion, she'd get as bored as he was and leave of her own accord.
Nicole was quiet for only a few minutes, playing with her doll. Then she asked Edward,"Do you have a mommy?'
"Yes," he said."Your Gramma Catherine is my mommy. And your Pappap is my daddy."
"But they're my Daddy's mommy and daddy too."
"Yes." He smiled and adjusted her position on his knee.
She twisted one of her Spaniel-ear pigtails contemplatively."How can they be daddy's mommy and daddy and yours too?"
"Just like your mommy and daddy are your baby brother's mommy and daddy too," he explained, congratulating himself for handling what could have been a tough question.
She let go of her pigtail and crossed her arms on the front of her green velvet Christmas dress."Don't you have anybody else?" she asked sympathetically.
"Well, no..." Edward was stunned by the question.
"Aren't you lonesome?"
Edward's father and brother had stopped talking and turned their attention in his direction, and Edward remembered hearing the new baby cry and that Janelle had hurried away to look after him.
"Yes, I am," he said.
"Well—if you had someone else like—like a mommy"
"A wife—" Edward supplied.
Nichole continued to look at him seriously."You wouldn't be lonesome then, would you?"
"Probably not," he conceded.
"Then why don't you have one?"
"Nichole!" Dave said, obviously trying to shame her into going away.
Edward waved him off."Nichole, I have to be out of town a lot, and I don't meet many nice ladies to—to decide if I want to marry them."
Oh-oh, he thought, I've just slid down a slippery slope!
"How do you decide if you want to marry someone?" Nichole asked.
"Well, she has to be nice, and kind and—and—"
"Pretty?" Nichole asked.
"She doesn't have to be pretty..."
Dave said something that Edward did not honor with a response.
"She has to be someone who will be the most special good friend," Edward said.
Nichole turned to her father and asked,"Daddy, is Mommy your most special good friend?"
"Well, yeah..." he said.
Nichole slid of Edward's knee."I see. We have to find Uncle Edward one!"
"No, Nichole," Dave said."Uncle Edward has to find his own."
"But he's not finding one! He needs help!"
Edward knew he had to rescue the situation, because the girl had a mind like a steel trap and would embarrass them all if he didn't settle the matter.
"Honey, I can find a most special friend on my own, and I will," he said."I promise you."
She looked up at him dubiously, but finally nodded, took her doll from the table and went back to the family room.
Edward was so flustered, he forgot what he wanted to talk to his father and brother about. But it could wait.
Toni Rovere was in the middle of proofing a ledger when Mr. McCloud's personal assistant strolled into Accounting and came to stand squarely in front of her desk, instead of going to Floyd Butcher's office.
"Did you have a nice Christmas, Toni?" Dianne Smithers was, as always, tastefully dressed in a gray wool suit, her dyed blonde hair perfectly coifed.
"Very nice, even though my brother Luke wasn't able to get home this year." Toni marked her place in the ledger with a sticky note.
"The women over in the front office are still talking about the placemats you made for Georgia," Dianne said."They all want you to draw their name next Christmas."
Toni grinned."I knew she'd like that fabric."
Dianne turned more serious."Mr. McCloud would like to know if you can make doll dresses."
Toni giggled at the seemingly absurd request."I've never been asked too, but I suppose I could."
"I'll tell Mr. McCloud that you're willing to take on the project,"
"I—I—ah," Toni stammered, wanting more information before she committed herself, but just then the phone on her desk rang and as she reached for it, Mrs. Smithers smiled as though the matter was settled and left the office.
By the time Toni had unraveled the mix-up in some paperwork from Pay Roll, she'd forgotten that Dianne Smithers had even been there that morning.
When Edward was in town, he generally hung out in his father's office. The rarely-used conference table in the corner was big enough for him to use as a desk with space left over. For the most part, his briefcase and laptop computer were all he needed. His briefcase served as a file cabinet, and with a cell phone he could set up shop anywhere.
"How is your French?" Gower McCloud asked, as he settled behind his bulky dark mahogany desk and looked across the room at Edward's office.
"I generally ask anyone if they can speak English first," Edward said, looking up from his email."Why?"
"About Nichole's doll. I found the receipt for it. I bought it in Paris last summer at the shop where it was made. I thought you could call and ask if they have more dresses. See," he waved the receipt in the air,"phone number, address, item number..."
"I'll give it a try before—what time are they on? Five hours ahead of us. I'd better get right on it." Edward crossed the floor, took the receipt from his father and puzzled his way through it.
"I'm sorry, Mr. McCloud," the French woman on the other end of the phone said, when he reached someone who could sort things out."We do not sell dresses for the dolls. They are put together as a suite, you see. And the Marie doll was discontinued this past summer. We have new models now."
"But—but is the body of the new doll the same as the—the Marie doll?" Edward asked, thinking quickly, relying on what he knew of manufacturing.
"Oui. Dresses for the new model fit most of the old models, sir."
"But you sell them only as sets—as suites, as you said."
"Unfortunately, oui. Yes."
"Then can you send me another doll?" He took a chance, even though his father might have handled the matter differently.
"To Mr. Gower McCloud? We have his information right here, his address and credit card number. That would be easiest, eh?"
When she quoted him the price of the doll and the charge for shipping, he looked across the room at Gower with some pain in his expression, but it was for Nichole, after all.
"That much for a doll," he marveled after he had hung up. He quoted the figure to Gower.
Gower nodded and shuffled some papers on his desk."She's the only granddaughter I have so far."
Edward tried not to feel the sting of the remark. His single status was a family issue."It's—it's still only two dresses and one set of undies ahead of where we were before. And an extra doll."
"I've asked Dianne to find someone to make more dresses." Gower reached for another file folder and turned to business."Now, the biggest problem we have at the moment is replacing Floyd Butcher in Accounting. He's said he'll stay on until we close the books on this year, but he's taking a disability and will probably have surgery. He's old enough to retire, so we've advertised the opening. Unfortunately we can't find anyone qualified for what we want to pay. Besides, it would probably take six months to really bring someone up to speed."
"What's the problem?" Edward sat down across the desk from his father.
"I've let Floyd hold back on doing a total shift to digital computing," Gower said."For one thing, I'm not totally convinced that a system can't be hacked. Just being a fuddy-duddy, I guess, but that was the way things were when I took over for my father and..."
"Dad, you're going to have to bite the bullet," Edward warned, just this once sounding stern. Dave did it much better than he did, and got better results.
Gower shrugged."Everything else around here has gone to state-of-the-art," he conceded."At great expense, I might add. I'm not ready for this to change, too. I'll have a revolt in Accounting!"
Edward laughed and reached for the folder of resumes that his father was leafing through."Let me go through that and see what stands out."
"Thank you!" Gower handed the file across the desk."I'm glad to get rid of it. Now, what's at the top of your list?"
Edward tapped the folder against his fingers, then stiffened his spine and dug into his soul to tell his father what was bothering him."I want to get off the road, Dad," he said bluntly."I want to settle down and...and have a normal life. I don't mind going on some trips, but...you and Dave should be doing some of these visits at the suppliers and customers and trade shows. And some of the places I go don't need to be visited as often, now that all the kinks with the upgrades are worked out."
"That thought has some merit." Gower thoughtfully drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair.
"I—I think you—and Dave too—ought to get out of the office more often and see some of the people I've met," Edward ventured."You both have backgrounds in engineering that I don't, and there might be a chance for some—some synergy that would lead to more sales and more products."
Gower didn't seem as opposed to the idea as Edward had anticipated. He leaned back in his chair and crossed one leg over the other."Do you have an ulterior motive here?" he asked."Are you planning to get married or something?"
The breath Edward took almost stung his lungs."I confess, I'd really like to get married, to have what Dave has—a wife and children. There's—there's no one in the picture at the moment, but I have to say, I'm looking."
Gower's eyebrows rose."I'm glad to hear that, son," he said."Let's see what we can work out over the next few months. Look over those files and see what you think about the applicants. And get with Dianne about the doll-dress dilemma. As for wife-material, I'm going to leave you on your own!"
Edward was surprised at the warmth of his father's smile. He felt glued to his seat for a moment, until his father broke eye contact and turned toward another file folder on his desk.
Edward got up from the chair and crossed the room to his make-shift office. Telling his father that he wanted to stay in town and that he wanted to marry and settle down was one thing, actually accomplishing the task was a huge hurdle.
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