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The Wrong Girl - Chapter 5, Part 2

Jake

I had some success getting a list of appointments and regularly scheduled events from JJ’s executive assistant, but getting a list of expectations out of JJ for Ellie was much harder.

I thought we’d talk it out over lunch and I’d be able to discuss it with Ellie this afternoon, but it was soon clear that even JJ didn’t know what he wanted.

“She just needs to be more… authoritative,” he threw out, leaning back in his chair. “She’s too wishy-washy.”

“How would you like her to show you more authority?” I probed. “She took it upon herself to create this employee satisfaction program, right? I’d say that shows a fair amount of authority.”

“It’s hard to explain,” he sighed, scrubbing at his beard. “She’s so intent on making the employees like her, she’s not spending any time running the actual business.”

“Well, if you have a list of duties you’d like her to take over, I’m happy to bring that to her so we can get started.”

“It’s not as simple as a list of tasks,” he huffed. “It’s more about how she acts. She doesn’t act like a CEO.”

It was only my second day working with Ellie, and the lack of clear expectations was even frustrating to me. How was I supposed to help Ellie meet JJ’s criteria for taking over as CEO when he didn’t even know what he wanted? How was I supposed to be successful at this job, and earn my place, if I couldn’t glean what he wanted, either?

I need this job, I reminded myself with a slow breath. “And how should she act as a CEO?”
“Authoritative. Confident. Dutiful.” JJ listed these attributes without hesitation… or further explanation.

I copied them down, then probed further. “Can you give me an example of a time when you thought she should have acted more authoritative? It’ll help me illustrate it to her.”

JJ was looking seriously annoyed at my continued questioning. His brows furrowed, and he ran a hand over his short beard thoughtfully. “I don’t have a specific example. It’s just a feeling. She doesn’t feel ready to take over.”

The more I talked with JJ, the more I squirmed with the realization that I may have taken an impossible job. It seemed to me as if the real problem was that he wasn’t ready to let his daughter take over… but obviously, I couldn’t tell him that.

Instead, I tried another tack. “JJ, can I be straight with you?” My heart rate sped up, heat rising under my collar. This could go one of two ways, and I didn’t know JJ well enough to guess.
“Of course, always.”

“I’ve developed a lot of leaders, both the enlisted and officers. And one thing I know—it’s imperative to have a clear set of goals for them to meet. I can’t tell someone they need to be more confident, because it’s impossible to measure. What if they believe they are confident? What exactly is ‘confident enough’? Where do we draw that line? I think Ellie has a lot of great attributes, and I’m not capable of declaring her ‘suitably confident’ because it’s not a measurable metric. Without measurable goals, we’d just be setting ourselves up for frustration all around.”

JJ’s mouth formed a hard line while he mulled over my words. It was a risk, calling him out for being vague versus placating him, but we needed to agree if we were ever going to reach a solution where everyone was happy. My heart pounded, wondering if I’d just shot myself in the foot.

Finally, he nodded. “I see what you’re saying. But how do we come up with these goals? What do you propose?”

My racing pulse slowed, and I laid out my thoughts on how we could find some middle ground.

Finally, we had a plan, and hopefully one that Ellie would agree to as well.

I’d scarcely made it back into the office, the plan in place, when Ellie shot it straight to hell.

“Jake, you ready?” She stuck her head through my open doorway. “We’ve gotta get a move on.”
“Sure thing. More rounds?” I stood and slipped my suit jacket back on.

“Something like that,” she replied with a dark smile.

I couldn’t be sure, but there was something alarming about the way she said it that set my teeth on edge. It felt like a challenge, somehow, even though I couldn’t quite explain why.

However, I had been the one arguing that I needed to observe how she spent her day to help me could find the disconnect between her and her father, so I swallowed down my trepidation and followed her to the elevator and downstairs. I should have been curious about the wide sun hat she had materialized during the morning, or noticed the unmistakable fragrance of coconut sunscreen.

However, I didn’t know what I was in for until she led me outside. It was a surprisingly hot day for the mountains—apparently that thinner atmosphere made up for the high elevation—and the sun beat down mercilessly on the stone courtyard between towering buildings.

Ahead, smack in the middle, a stand was erected with a sign bearing the words ‘Employee Appreciation Day’ draped across the top. Several coolers were arranged behind the stand, and large jugs of yellow liquid, surrounded by stacks of paper cups, filled the surface. Already a small line had formed, people wearing Aspen Ridge Lodging polos chatting while they waited. A small cheer rose from the crowd when they spotted Ellie, who waved and beamed back at them.
I followed Ellie to the stand, taking it all in. “A lemonade stand?”

“You’re a quick one,” she teased, pouring a cup and handing it to the first person in line. “What are you waiting for? Get to work.” She gestured to the jug and cups before me.

We got busy drawing cups of lemonade and handing them out. Ellie greeted most of the employees by name, mentioning some personal detail about them to show she knew who they were. She had light-hearted conversations with each employee while I waited dutifully to hand her the next cup.

The sun roasted me from behind, sweat sticking my dress shirt to my back under my suit coat.

Eventually I slipped it off and rolled my sleeves up—taking off the layer helped, but it was too late to wish I’d put on sunblock. The skin on the back of my neck was painfully hot, but more people kept joining the line and so we kept serving, pausing only to refill the pitchers from gallon jugs in the coolers.

Eventually, the flood of employees slowed, and I could slake my thirst with a cup of lemonade.

My shirt was thoroughly damp, and my socks were squishy with sweat inside my highly polished dress shoes. My feet ached from standing on the hard brick for so long, and I desperately needed a shower.

The lemonade was light and refreshing, not too sweet or sour. I put away three cups before I glanced up to see Ellie watching me with a self-satisfied smirk on her perfect lips.

I couldn’t help but smile back. “Did we become enemies at some point in the past 24 hours?” I asked. “I feel like I was just punished, but I have no idea why.” I gestured to my over-heated body.

“I mean, punishing you is not why I had a lemonade stand, but I’d definitely say it’s a perk,” she replied.

Despite my elevated temperature, I couldn’t help but grin. Something about Ellie just disarmed my defenses. “Did you put this together this morning?”

“No, of course not. We have something every Tuesday. I send out the email Tuesday morning letting them know what it will be, but the employees already know to expect some kind of treat.”

“Doesn’t that take away from their attention to their work?”

She shrugged. “They’re entitled to a break, and this way I can give them a little something to look forward to. Sometimes I deliver baskets of treats from a local bakery to each building.

Maybe in the winter it’s hot cocoa and coffee set out in the individual break rooms when we’re too busy, so people don’t have to step away from their work centers.”
“And this is all part of your employee appreciation campaign.” I swiped a hand across my sweaty forehead and downed another cup.

“Of course. There are companies in silicon valley that have free food, video games, fancy gyms and spas for their employees as perks. Car washes, for chrissakes. We can’t do all of that, but we can do something small like this. It’s not much, but it makes a difference.”

Her passion for caring for her employees brought a smile to my lips. It was admirable how much she truly cared about their happiness… so much so that she was out here in the baking heat of the midday sun to provide them some refreshment.

“Well, I think it’s a great idea,” I commented. “The employees definitely seem to appreciate it.”

Her answering smile was brilliant, and my heart thudded in response. “Thank you. I guess not all visits from the good idea fairy are bad.”

“Hey, I never said that,” I protested. “Just that sometimes people try to act on them before thoroughly working out all the kinks. But I’d say that this one seems to be pretty smooth.”

“I’ll take that compliment.” The smile she graced me with in that moment was all warmth and happiness, and my heart lurched. 

This gorgeous woman was the picture of summer freedom with sun-kissed skin and long shapely legs that I had to actively restrain myself from stroking. They were too well-featured in a sundress that ended several inches above her knees. The dress perfectly accented her curves, and my gaze roved over her body for a few moments too long before I drew my gaze back to her face. To her credit, she pretended as if she hadn’t just caught me leering.

“Um, you’re welcome,” I replied awkwardly, acutely aware that I was drenched from head to toe in sweat and probably looked like a half-drowned, sunburned rat next to the elegant creature beside me. 

If we kept this up, I’d probably die of humiliation long before JJ fired me for lusting after his daughter.

My clothes had mostly dried when I brought the kids over to my parents’ for dinner. My mom offered and I could hardly pass up the opportunity to enjoy a home-cooked meal I didn’t have to prepare—that was truly a rare occasion these days.

However, I didn’t take into account how Ethan and Olivia would feel about it.

As soon as they clambered into my truck and buckled up, I told them.

“Guess what guys? We’re going to Gramma and Grandpa’s for dinner!” I assumed they’d be excited, given that they’d been asking to go back since I picked them up Sunday night.

I one-hundred percent did not expect the shit storm that I stirred up.

Olivia stared out the window, complete disengaged. Ethan, however, lost his mind.

“No! I don’t want to go to Grandpa’s. You said we were going to have grilled cheese for dinner.

I want grilled cheese!” His face was already tomato-red when I glanced in my rear-view mirror.

“What’s wrong, buddy? I thought you wanted to go back? You love Gramma’s cooking, and I bet she still has some cookies.” The ones we had taken home were already long-gone.
“I don’t WANT cookies, I want GRILLED CHEESE.” The shriek was ear-splitting, and I had no idea how he managed to make that sound.

I took a deep breath to control the tide of anger rising in my chest. I was the adult here. I needed to practice patience. “Well, I’m sorry bud, I already told Gramma we’re coming. So she’s cooking dinner for us. We can do grilled cheese tomorrow?”

“You PROMISED we’d have grilled cheese TONIGHT. You promised me FIRST!” Tears were streaming down his little cheeks, already leaving damp spots on his shirt.

My patience dwindled. Instead of appeasing, I went for the firm ‘dad-voice shut it down’ approach. “I’m the parent here, okay? I say we’re going to Gramma and Grandpa’s and that’s it. We’ll have grilled cheese another night.”

“I WANT-”

“I DON’T CARE what you want!” I shouted back, slamming my hand on the steering wheel. “I’m your dad. You listen to me. End of story. Screaming about it doesn’t get your way. It’s about time you learned that.”

Ethan devolved into hysterical crying, kicking the back of the seat in an all-out tantrum. Olivia ducked her head, covering her ears.

Shit. So much for dad of the year.

We were only a few blocks from my parents’ house, but I pulled over and got out of the truck, closing the door and taking a moment to breathe.

He was only seven. I knew he didn’t handle change well. I was supposed to be the adult here. I should know better.

Drawing in a deep, fortifying breath, I walked around to the passenger side and opened Ethan’s door. He was still wailing.

I put my hand on his shoulder. “Ethan, I’m really sorry. I shouldn’t have yelled at you. Can we talk for a minute?”

His eyes grew wide, and he gulped down air, wiping his cheeks with the back of his hand. His sobs quieted somewhat, but his little face was still angry.

Progress.

“I’m sorry, I should have remembered that I promised you grilled cheese tonight. I know you don’t like it when we change plans, and that’s my fault, okay?”

He nodded, although his expression remained resentful.

“I just thought you’d be excited to go see Grandpa again, so when Gramma called to invite us over, I didn’t even think about it. I bet you know how that happens, sometimes? When you just say yes to something that sounds good without thinking too hard about it? I’m a grown-up but I still make mistakes. I know I’m not perfect, but I’m trying my best.”

“I know, Daddy,” he hiccuped. “It’s okay.”

“Thank you, Ethan. Do you think, just for tonight, we could go to Gramma’s and be happy to be there? I already promised we were coming and I know she and Grandpa would be sad if we didn’t go now.”

He thought about this seriously for a moment. “Okay, but can we still have grilled cheese another time?”

The tension in my chest loosened. “You got it, buddy. And I promise I won’t change plans on you like that again. Can I have a hug?”

He threw his arms wide, and I leaned into the truck to embrace him, still in his booster seat. I felt his little hand patting my back, like he was comforting me, and tears pricked at the back of my eyes.

When I pulled back he smiled, his face already returning to a normal color.

“Thanks buddy. Now let’s go see what kind of goodies Gramma made for us!”

I closed his door and climbed back into the driver's seat, then finished the trip to my parents.

Ethan raced up the walkway and into the house, and I climbed out, surprised to find Olivia still in the truck.

“You okay, honey?” I opened the door for her. “I’m sorry for yelling. That wasn’t very good daddy behavior.”

She unbuckled her seat and gave me a half smile. “No, it wasn’t. But you did good after.”

“I did?” I asked, surprised at her speaking up at all.

“Yeah, it’s what mommy would have done.”

My throat clenched. “It is, huh?” I hoped this would not be a conversation that led to more tears.

“Yeah. Mommy wasn’t always nice, you know. She lost her temper sometimes. But she always apologized. She said she wasn’t perfect, but she tried to be better.”

“Well, that sounds pretty smart. Maybe I should try that.”

Olivia smiled. “You should.”

“When did you get so smart and grown up, Livvie?” I teased, pulling her in for a hug and lifting her from the truck.

She clung to me until I set her feet on the ground. “I’ve always been smart, Daddy.”

“That’s true,” I agreed, straightening up.

“Daddy?”

“Yeah, honey?” I reached for her hand and we started up the walkway.

“You need a shower.”

“Hey!” I laughed. “That’s not nice.”

“But it’s true, Daddy.”

“Fair enough.”

After dinner, mom was watching a movie with the kids while Dad and I cleaned up. 
“So… hows work going?” He was scraping mashed potatoes into a clean Country Crock container. It made me smile and shake my head; I’d bought my parents a full set of fancy tupperware so they didn’t have to use old food containers, and it was still sitting in a box in the pantry. Apparently, it was more about habits than necessity.

“Work is good,” I replied, carrying dishes from the table.

My dad and I were not brilliant conversationalists together. We worked in silence for a few moments before he spoke again.

“How are the kids adjusting?”

“They’re doing alright, I think.”

“You think?” He set the serving dish in the sink and reached for another.

I continued transferring dishes to the island. “Olivia doesn’t tell me much of anything, and Ethan is just as likely to scream at me as he is to talk. So, I don’t actually know.”

“Well, perhaps you need to talk to them more.”

I snorted and grabbed the dishrag to wipe the table. That was pretty rich, coming from him.
Apparently, Dad didn’t need to hear my inner monologue to pick up on my reaction. “I know I wasn’t around as much as I should have been when you were a kid, Jake. Trust me, your mother and I had plenty of discussions about it.”

Dad never used the word ‘fought’. It was always discussions or talks.

“But I’m telling you now not to use me as an example for how to father.”

That pulled me up short, and I turned to face him. “Dad, I don’t resent you. I know you were busy with your career. You were still a great dad.” It was uncomfortable talking to him about this. He never discussed anything emotional when I was growing up, or in the long years since I left the house.

His tone grew gruff. “I could have been a lot better, I know that now. And I regret it. I can’t get that time back, and I’d much rather have spent it playing baseball and building bird houses than at the club, carrying on with a group of guys I don’t even talk to anymore.”

“Dad…” my voice was soft. I had no idea he’d been harboring these feelings.

“No, don’t look at me like that,” he waved me off. “I’ve made peace with it. Just take my advice and be better than I was. Your kids need you, and I bet if you open up to them, they’ll do the same for you.”

“I dunno. I think they need a mother.”

“Well, Cheryl certainly isn’t coming back, so I wouldn’t start barking up that tree,” he snorted, pressing the lid on a sour cream container filled with corn and stowing it in the fridge.

“I don’t mean Cheryl, Dad. But I’m a poor substitute for the complete family they deserve. I’m not in a hurry, but I hope to meet someone who genuinely wants to be their mother and take care of our home.”

“Bah, that’s a load, and you know it. This is your chance to really have a relationship with Ethan and Olivia, Jacob. Don’t blow it waiting for another woman to make your home complete. There are millions of people in the world who raise children on their own, a lot of them much less capable than you.”

“I’m not sure if that’s a compliment or an insult.”

“Maybe it’s both. Focus on being their father, Jake. That’s all they need right now.”




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