Tempers were high in the expansive conference room of the upstate New York factory, and Lillian Adams pressed her hand to her forehead to refocus her thoughts away from the unfolding drama. The high level managers could only agree on a single fact: the project was running dangerously late. The complex machine was gathering dust on the manufacturing floor, and the penalties were already in the thousands of dollars.
She wasn’t worried. Cool, calm control had defined her personality since she was a child, and she wasn’t going to get into a power struggle with idiots. The customers were angry and corporate was looking for the blood of an expendable employee, but her careful research had already determined that it wasn’t going to be her.
The manufacturing vice president continued his onerous tirade. His thick body struggled to fit inside his white button-down shirt and bulging blue veins popped dangerously along his forehead. “The part doesn’t fucking work. I’m telling you, it doesn’t matter how we put the thing together, you didn’t measure the specs carefully enough. My inspectors say the inner diameter is off almost ten percent.”
The quality manager responded at a higher decibel than normal while his slightly balding head turned a little redder to accompany his temper. “The shaft made the specs within the variance on the drawings. There’s nothing wrong with the damned part.”
“Well, clearly, you can’t use a micrometer. My floor team says the part doesn’t work.”
As they spoke, four or five lower level engineers rushed from all sides of the room to provide physical evidence, but Lilly intercepted the drawings while her deep brown eyes bored into the mindless couriers. In her role as purchasing and procurement manager, it was only a matter of ten or fifteen minutes before they’d turn on her, but the same well-organized papers had already answered her questions. She folded her hands over the pile and patiently waited for the debate to recede.
The vice president of operations slammed his hand to the table before he bellowed in her direction. “What does your supplier have to say? I told you we shouldn’t have gone to a new company. Why would you risk change with such a big job?”
So much for ten minutes. The entire room had switched their attention to her, but she met their glares with a quiet force. Not a single gray-haired colleague was even close to her age of thirty-five and only one other woman shared the space. She ran her hand calmly over her perfect light brown chignon and paused dramatically to make sure they were done with their ranting.
When the quality manager went so far as to send her a superior smirk, she simply arched her eyebrow and smoothed the papers carefully with the back of her hand. “Don’t start with me, Ed. Everybody was on board when we switched to a lower cost supplier, and you told me these drawings were fine. My engineer tested the parts too, and they meet the specs easily. Obviously, this is another case where your drawings are inadequate. You can’t send bad information to new suppliers, and think they’re going to read your mind.”
The production manager grabbed the papers with a snarl. “What the fuck are you talking about?”
She calmly met his temper with an icy glare. Cursing was a sign of weakness reserved for the hysterical. “Keep your attitude to yourself and try for some element of professionalism, for God’s sake. Get me a drawing that reflects our actual needs, and I’ll rush the parts. It’ll cost a fortune, but I can have them here in three days. My department isn’t taking the blame.”
He opened his mouth to continue, but Lilly snapped, “Go back to your mess and measure, but compare the results to the drawings, not your memory. And close your mouth. It isn’t attractive.”
Without waiting for a response, she left them to sort out the details. On her way out the door, she heard a mumbled, “bitch,” and delivered a second glare that caused three of the men to stare at the table. In her world, women who succeeded were considered bitches, but men were classified as simply successful. She’d earned her no-nonsense reputation with more than one formal complaint against misogynist colleagues, and an accounting supervisor had been fired for his public rampage that had started over a tooling charge she’d refused to sign off on.
When the last of the group looked uncomfortably out the window, she continued to the hallway with a nod of approval. As she turned toward her office, her assistant approached with a tentative frown. Jayden Krause had worked with her for almost two months, but he still struggled to look her in the eye when she was on edge.
“Mike finally got here,” he mumbled. “You said to let you know.”
“Ask him to come to my office.”
She was embarrassed that she’d hired Mike Stover over several other qualified candidates. His excellent recommendations, transcripts, and interview skills were not transforming into the shining light that she’d anticipated, and he devoted far fewer hours than the rest of her large department.
When the errant millennial finally arrived, Lilly came right to the point. “Mike, I can’t keep an employee who’s late to work every day. I’m writing you up, and if it happens again, we’re going to have to let you go.”
The kid looked shocked. “But… but… my car wouldn’t start. It wasn’t my fault.”
She moved her attention to a pile of phone messages. “And Monday, your cat was sick and last Thursday your alarm clock didn’t go off. You didn’t even offer excuses for the four days before that. You were absent or late more days last month than Patricia, and she battled cancer, for God’s sake. Get here on time or find another job. This isn’t the first time we’ve had this conversation.”
Faced with the irrefutable fact that he wasn’t holding up his commitment, Mike should have backed down with a quiver, but his arguments remained untenable. “Be reasonable, Lillian. I told you that my wife’s been sick. I don’t even own a cat. No matter what time I get in, I give you a hell of a lot more than forty hours a week. I stay late, take projects home with me, and I work through lunch. I travel for days, including weekends, without complaining. Have some respect for me as a professional.”
“I hired you to be in this office… on time. Not in front of your television in a pair of pajamas. Fix it or find another job.”
She dismissed him with a nod toward the hallway, but he slammed the door with a bang, and Lilly knew that her name would be dragged through his social media accounts before lunch. It was one of the reasons she didn’t have any herself. Both college and high school friends had long since been eliminated to prevent complications in her well-planned life, and her busy career filled the gap just fine. Everybody she needed to communicate with either worked with her or participated in regular dinners with her extended family.
Before she could pick up the phone messages, Patricia slipped into the room and pointed toward Mike’s office. “He’s mad,” she stated without emotion.
Lilly tried to be polite, but her afternoon was fully booked. She snapped, “Yes. What do you need?”
Patricia’s gaze met hers with an unfamiliar determination. “I’m giving you my notice. I’m leaving the company.”
The papers fell to the desk, and her jaw dropped. “You’re what?”
“I’m quitting. This isn’t the place for me, and I’m not happy here.”
She stood quickly and tried to avoid wringing her hands. Patricia was the backbone of her staff, and the loss would not be easy to absorb. “Is the cancer back? Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, but working here is just too tough. I need a change. I haven’t found anything yet, but I will. Joe just got a raise, and we can swing things until I find another position.”
Lilly was a skilled negotiator, and she quickly searched for conversation-changing terms. “Think about this. What can I do to make it easier for you to stay? Do you need more sick time? I’m sure I can arrange something.”
Patricia’s gentle eyes closed for a moment and a small sigh followed the reflective pause. “It’s not the job. Honestly, it’s you. You… you’re just too hard to work for, Lilly. You’re a micromanager. I need to grow in my career and that isn’t going to happen until I start working for somebody who has some trust in me.”
The familiar accusation threatened her stoic confidence. Control was an easy asset, but communication, cooperation, and compromise were not. She could easily recall instances where she’d forced the submission of an arrogant colleague, but it was much more difficult to dwell on her own defensive stands with her supervisor. Her last yearly evaluation included a detailed interpersonal skills improvement plan, and she’d been told her career would likely stall until she could maintain a happier department. The corporate office had never complained about her results, but her insistence that management style and productivity were interrelated had consistently fallen on deaf ears.
To combat the unwelcome feeling, her muscles tensed into hardened knots and the acid in her stomach ground under the displeasure. “We’ve had this discussion before,” she said with more confidence than she felt. “I said I would start giving you more responsibility. You’re the perfect fit to take over my job once I negotiate a move to a vice presidency. You’ll set your career back years if you leave the company now.”
A lift of Patricia’s chin showed a resolve that hadn’t existed before her illness, but she spoke calmly. “You’ve been talking about more responsibility since I started, and it’s just not happening. I’m done.”
“But what about a raise? I’m sure I can get you more money.”
As she spoke, Lilly was moving budget items in her head, and it took a moment to process the awkward response. “Lilly… I’m going to try to be as professional as I can because I think this is something that you need to hear from a friend. I don’t like working for you, and after the last year, I’ve realized that life’s too short to be unhappy.
“Sooner or later, we all need to figure out how to balance a job and real life. I don’t want to work sixty hours a week. I don’t want to work in an environment where creativity is stifled by authoritarianism. My mental health and happiness are as important to me as my physical health. I hope you reach the same conclusion before you turn around and your life is over before you’ve remembered to live it. I’ll give you two weeks.”
In the wake of her calm exit, Patricia’s painful summary of Lilly’s shortcomings remained unanswered and Mike’s message fell dangerously close to the same vulnerable conclusion. With a deep breath and a glance at the pile of work spread over her office, Lillian opened her desk drawer with a frown. Real life and relationships were for the future, and listening to Patricia would take Lilly down a path that she consistently worked to avoid. A few prescription-strength antacids took care of the burning in her stomach, and she was ready to tackle the monthly expense reports.
By 6:30 that night, she finally pulled into her driveway. A late winter thaw in Poughkeepsie, New York had left the small suburban yard a muddy mess, but she paid little attention to the drab landscape. She had the money to do a lot more with the property, but the time involved in planning and designing a comfortable home was better spent on her career goals. Everything else could wait.
A tiny bundle of fur greeted her at the front door as the single frivolous decision in her adult life demanded her rightful place with a flurry of love. She’d always wanted a dog, but her parents had insisted their busy lifestyle couldn’t support another responsibility. Lilly had accepted the decision without complaint, but three years earlier her grandmother had dragged her to a friend’s house to see the newest litter of purebred Maltese puppies. It was love at first sight and tiny Meri had come to live with her. Neither one of them had ever regretted the decision.
Despite the fact that she paid a pet sitter to stop by the house every day, the long absence was clearly worthy of canine hysteria, so Lilly set her bags down to patiently cuddle and pamper the wiggling, white furry body. Once the dog had calmed, Lilly stood on the back deck watching Meri sniff out imaginary enemies with an amazing self-confidence for a dog who only weighed five pounds. Size clearly had no relevance in the Maltese world.
After a quick microwave dinner and a few evening chores, it was almost eight o’clock before she snuggled into the soft pink afghan that her grandmother had made for her when she was still in preschool. Stationed on the back of the couch, Meri’s fierce barking protected their home from the strange sounds of a slightly blowing windstorm.
Surrounded by nothing except the persistent little dog, she turned the television to a twenty-four-hour news channel just to add a human voice to her quiet evening. All alone on a Friday night, an evaluation of her day was inevitable and the nagging discomfort returned without any distractions to protect her. She was proud of the job she did in a male-dominated field, but the nasty looks, muttered disrespect, and even the conversation with Mike about professionalism had awakened her carefully hidden insecurities.
But Patricia’s betrayal was the most difficult to process. A shared work ethic had held their relationship together, and she hadn’t realized how much she’d relied on the friendship until it had been pulled away with a mortifying dose of unwelcome self-reflection.
Corporate role models were not easily found in her extended family of college professors, high school teachers, and social workers who balanced their respectful careers with long, perfect summers at the family’s home on Martha’s Vineyard. Her mother and father were both experts in their chosen field, but dedication to their daughters’ growth and education had created the self-confident women who’d broken out of a predictable scholarly life.
Her sister Emma was just twenty-three months younger than Lillian and an important part of her carefully orchestrated world. The girls fostered a quiet, competitive relationship, although Emma had always looked to Lilly for guidance and support. But when her younger sister had started dating Lilly’s old boyfriend, it had gotten weird fast. Lilly’s reluctant approval had been given, but mostly just to change the subject as fast as possible. Javier Glover’s chiseled dark looks had enhanced his amazing companionship for the few months they’d been together, but like all old boyfriends, he was a part of her past that was best left behind.
She sat quietly for a few more minutes, but the idle time brought too many unwelcome messages. To escape reality, it only took a few minutes to find the perfect movie on television. In her dizzying world of responsibility and control, she often relied on fiction to fill her long evenings and her flat screen eliminated the need for a theater date. The hot, strong superhero would provide relaxing, late-night companionship.
Completely contradicting her public profile, mindless, superficial entertainment represented a closely guarded secret, but Lilly took the diversion to another level. Placing herself into the plot, she would become the heroine who snuggled against the inevitable granite, muscled chest. With a little time, she could even imagine an altered story line with plots ranging from apocalyptic disaster to Regency-era Britain.
No matter what genre she focused on, there was a consistent similarity. The sharp tone in his demanding voice would feed the nagging ache between her legs as she moved onto her ultimate fantasy. She mentally ended each story with her firm spanking over a strong knee. She begged and pleaded for leniency, but his control would not be dissuaded. With just a hook of his finger, her pants would be slid down to her knees before his palm met her bottom with a volley of much needed corrections.
She’d never shared her imagination with anybody, certainly not any past boyfriends. Without any real life practice, she couldn’t actually describe how the scene ended, but the calming effect was a perfect diametric to her busy professional life. The game represented wonderful, relaxing fun, but her physical relief came from an expensive vibrator before she fell asleep on the couch.
The next morning, her carefully scheduled five-mile run was completed before she ate her simple breakfast of whole wheat toast and cream cheese, but a phone call from her grandmother halfway through the steamy mug of organic green tea changed her afternoon plans to go to the office.
“Come early for dinner tonight,” Grandma said with her usual bright voice. “Everyone will be here by five, but why don’t you come around three so we can talk. Emma’s bringing Javier so there will be ten of us.”
She counted the names in her head and realized that she’d fulfill a month’s worth of family obligations in one visit. “Sure, Grandma. I’ll be there. I’m glad Uncle Carl and his family can come too. I’d much rather deal with Emma and Javier in large groups. They’re really hard to take sometimes.”
There was a pragmatic pause before her grandmother delicately continued. “Good. I’ll see you then.”
At the appointed time, Joyce Adams greeted her and Meri at the front door of her condo. A combination of antique and contemporary, the riverfront home was a model of eclectic elegance. Joyce was Meri’s regular babysitter when Lilly traveled, and the little dog was very much at home. She ran first to the kitchen to get her treat and even waited patiently while Joyce provided dog food and her favorite water dish. Meri sniffed delicately to make sure she’d been appropriately cared for then walked away with a tiny bit of arrogance at the suggestion she eat dog food.
Lilly was ushered into the living room with a large pour of chilled white wine. “Take your grandfather’s chair, honey,” said Joyce. “We’re going to be a large crowd tonight, and you were rightfully here first.”
The perfect spot next to the fireplace with an expansive view of the Hudson River was generally reserved for honored guests, and Lilly was immediately suspicious. When her grandmother added a small plate of her favorite crackers and expensive cheese, she asked dryly, “What’s wrong, Grandma?”
The older woman sighed with a hint of the quiet resolve her granddaughter had inherited. “There is no easy way to say this. But Emma’s bringing Javier today to announce their engagement. I wanted to give you a heads up.”
She stared while her grandmother continued. “I know you told everybody that you were fine with the breakup, but I saw it. He hurt you, and I wanted to give you a chance to hear the news without an audience.”
Behind her concrete wall, Lilly’s emotions twirled along with the chardonnay that coated the inside of her glass. She sniffed the bouquet before evaluating the golden clarity against the white walls in a carefully crafted routine, but logical conclusions were impossible. Instead, an innate jealousy ignited images of Emma and Javier in a happy future. The professional business demeanor evaporated, and she was left with the frustrated little girl who came to her grandma for cookies against her mother’s wishes.
Once started, the tears came at a frustrating rate. Joyce took her quietly into her arms and gently patted her back while the dog looked on anxiously. “Oh, Lilly,” said Joyce with a sigh. “I was afraid of this. I’m so sorry.”
With a valiant effort, Lilly got a tissue from the bathroom. “I don’t know how you could have figured out I’d be upset. I sure didn’t see it coming. I… I’m really happy for her. Emma and Javi are…” Despite her resolve to be supportive, she couldn’t finish the sentence before a new round of tears overtook her, and the realization that she was acting like a jealous six-year-old chipped further away at the adult strength she very much needed.
The wine provided an alien comfort, and she took another sip. It might have been more like a gulp or two when the tears were pushed back and her quiet discipline returned. Lilly’s decision to postpone marriage and a family was the perfect choice, and Emma’s news shouldn’t change her future at all. She took another drink in an attempt to cement that message.
Joyce spoke first. “Did he cheat on you? I think we need to be honest with what kind of man he is if he’s planning to marry Emma.”
If only their breakup had been that simple. She tried to conjure her best professional demeanor, but Joyce scowled past the façade. Lilly had to look out the window before she could speak. “He didn’t cheat. We only dated about six months and that was a long time ago. They’ve been together for three years… and… it’s all fine. I’m past him…”
Her grandmother’s continued frown would have served her well in a tough negotiation. “Lillian, I was with your mother the day you were born. You’ve always been a stubborn little thing but not once have you ever managed to pull the wool over my eyes, and I’m not letting you push this aside to eat away at you later. Talk.”
The accurate summary was more than a little discerning. Joyce was one of the few people who understood the whole Lilly and not just the persona put forward to achieve her goals. When Joyce sat in a chair opposite her and prepared to wait out any silence, Lilly was forced to speak. “Fine. It was a tough breakup because… because he left me. I didn’t leave him like I told everybody else. I’m sure Emma knows by now, but it was easier to tell everybody that I dumped him than it was to admit the truth.”
She took another deep breath and picked aimlessly at the engraver’s stamp on the base of her grandmother’s fine wineglass. “He said I lacked the commitment he needed in a long-term relationship. He couldn’t see a future with me, and he wished me the best of luck in my career. He apologized profusely… many, many times. I… I really am over him. It… I just hate being reminded that I’m a control freak, and it has happened one too many times in the last few days.”
The rest of her wine was consumed with a smooth motion. Used to soothe tight nerves, alcohol was a powerful weapon, but it also took away a person’s control and stoicism. Both were characteristics that she desperately wanted to hang onto, but the evening did look a little better after she’d finished the glass.
Instead of soothing comments about her merits and personality, her grandmother continued to take the conversation down a dangerous path. “Honey, I know you’ve relied on Emma’s companionship for a long time. You’ve been pretty transparent in your efforts to keep them apart, but if there’s no good reason, you need to be ready to accept him.”
“That’s not true…” she started to stammer, but Joyce’s expression stopped her. For over thirty years, she’d had her little sister all to herself, but since Emma had started dating Javier, they’d grown apart. She couldn’t remember the last time Emma had asked for advice or offered a confidence, but she could remember telling Emma to skip Javi’s parents’ anniversary two weeks earlier to join her for dinner. Emma had refused, and Lilly hadn’t called her back.
Desperate for a chore, Lilly busied herself with straightening some magazines on the coffee table. “Really, I’m happy for her, Grandma. I… it’s just a big adjustment. Emma and I have been on the same path for a long time. It’s going to be weird to work toward two different goals, but I’m perfectly happy in my job. I expect I’ll be promoted to vice president before the end of the year. It’s what I’ve been working for since high school.”
Her grandmother’s arched eyebrow made it apparent that she wasn’t buying it, and Lilly moved to the kitchen to pour herself another glass of wine. She was well into the second glass when her parents arrived with Emma and Javier. Settled with the rest of her extended family in the living room, the impending nuptials were announced with all the fanfare of a royal revelation.
Lilly had to withhold rolling her eyes since the news was clearly not a surprise to a single person there. She successfully managed to keep her mouth shut and smiled politely in all the right places while her sister hung on her handsome boyfriend’s arm and flashed her ring with an easy abandon.
Dinner was a dismal affair. Vegetarian options were always available for both Lilly and her sister, but when Emma took a piece of the juicy red roast, she was floored. They had made the joint decision to forgo meat when they were still in high school, but her sister just blushed under Lilly’s scowl.
“I never made a very good vegetarian. Javi finally convinced me that I should go back to what I enjoy.”
Javi’s thin smile made her cringe. “We have more news,” he added. “I just got an offer for a partnership in Chicago, and they want me to relocate right away. Emma will come with me as soon as she gives her notice, and she’ll look for a job in the city.”
“Wait, you’re moving?” said Lillian incredulously. “But your career is here. Your family is here. Why would you give it all away for him?”
The crowded room fell into an awkward silence, and Javier looked to the floor with a stern scowl. Emma was annoyingly sympathetic. “I know it’s a big change, but Javier and I’ve talked it all through. Chicago has more opportunities, and it’s the right move for us as a couple. Besides, Dad’s been talking about retiring in North Carolina for years. Nobody stays still, Lilly. We all have to move on.”
“But this is all so sudden…” she stammered.
Emma patted her hand with a frustrating touch of superiority. “You just haven’t been listening. Javier and I’ve been talking openly about this for months.”
She pulled her hand away with a snap. “You’ve been talking to Javier, not me.”
Javier took Emma into his arms with a protective embrace. “Yes, she has.”
His simple response earned another round of silence, and Lilly had to look away from the distaste on her mother and father’s face.
Joyce moved in with a smooth conversation stopper. “There’s chocolate cake for dessert, everyone. I made it myself this morning when I heard we had a celebration tonight.”
The group shifted their focus to lighter topics, but Lilly filled a third glass of wine in quiet anger and growing regret. She was thirty-five years old and the only thing she had was a staff that considered her authoritarian and supervisors who seriously questioned her management style. The family she’d long since taken for granted was disappearing in front of her very eyes. Her only friend in the world was moving down a different path with a new life that included a tall, dark, and handsome male while her vaginal relief remained in the control of a battery-charged vibrator. Her carefully planned career suddenly seemed inadequate, and the lonely truth stood right in front of her.
In a clumsy reach for her glass, she knocked the edge and spilled the rest of her wine onto her grandmother’s carefully maintained oriental carpet, and Lilly cursed softly. The dual effect brought the room to a standstill, and she blushed shamefully.
Her father frowned as he helped her mother mop up the mess. “Lillian, what’s wrong with you tonight? How much have you had to drink? I don’t think you can even drive home.”
When Emma shot her a look of pity, Lilly had to resist the drunken urge to slap her. Confusing, angry tears threatened to return when Joyce came to her rescue a second time.
“It’s fine, James. We had it all worked out. She wanted to spend the night with me, so she doesn’t have to drive.”
Grandma slipped her empty wineglass to the sink and subtly replaced it with a cup of coffee while mumbling under her breath, “Pull it together, Lillian. You don’t want to say anything to anybody that you’ll regret tomorrow.”
The bitter taste of coffee was far from her favorite, but she nursed the hot beverage just to focus on a task. The evening progressed slowly and all attention remained on Emma and Javier as her mother and aunt gushed about dresses and venues while Lilly worked hard to look enthused.
“I need you to be my maid of honor, Lilly,” Emma bubbled. “Please say yes.”
Holding back another curse, she managed to find the expected, professional response. “Of course, Emma. I’d love to.”
Javier’s stupid look grew stupider as the alcohol continued to take over, but her inherent personality was stronger than three glasses of wine. She managed to finish the evening without embarrassing herself and said goodbye to all of them with a perfect smile while the room spun in dangerously confusing circles.
Grateful to avoid her lonely house, Lilly walked into the kitchen carrying a few dinner dishes. In that early drunken stage where good choices weren’t readily available, she eyed the wine bottle until Joyce spoke dryly. “Drink some more coffee. You’re done with the wine.”
Recognizing the beginnings of remorse, she said, “Grandma… do you have any pain relievers?”
“Up in my bathroom. Next to the shower in the top drawer.”
The stairs swayed gently under her growing buzz, and she grabbed the banister for a little extra support. Under the circumstances, a random search of her grandmother’s master bath was easier than following instructions. Sorting aside makeup and shampoo bottles, she picked up a purple plastic handle that she dismissed as a toothbrush until the image caught up with the rest of her brain and her heart stopped.
It was a vibrator. Behind it was a paddle, a set of silk ropes, and something that looked suspiciously like clamps. It didn’t take a huge power of deduction to classify them as nipple clamps.
The very real possibility that they belonged to her grandmother overwhelmed her muddled thoughts, and for a few long minutes she couldn’t process anything in her entire bizarre, slightly drunken day before it finally hit her. Even her grandmother had a better sex life than she did.