Thunder boomed. The skies opened and rain poured down. Paul Jones barely noticed. His eyes were focused on the casket in front of him. The minister was speaking, but Paul wasn’t listening. He’d been in a daze for the last few days. One minute, he was sitting in a restaurant waiting for his fiancé to arrive and the next, he was here. The time that had passed in between was nothing more than a blur. Flashes of the events that had taken place over the last few days flew threw his mind. A deep sorrow settled in his soul. His heart felt like it had been ripped apart.
A hand gripped his shoulder. He turned to see Mitch Holt and his wife, Catherine, standing beside him. Mitch held an umbrella over his wife’s head. She clutched his arm, tears streaming down her face.
“We’re so sorry, Paul,” Mitch said. “If there is anything you need, please let us know, and we’d be glad to help.”
Catherine stepped forward and grabbed Paul in a fierce embrace. “Stacy will always live in my heart,” she whispered, her voice choked with pain. Stacy and Catherine had been best friends.
Paul nodded, but didn’t speak. He couldn’t. His mind was too numb to form any words.
Several more people stepped up to him offering their condolences. Paul continued to stand in silence as each one of them passed by him. Finally, he was the only one left. He stayed as the casket was slowly lowered into the ground.
“We’ll drive you back to the funeral home now, sir,” the funeral attendant said softly.
Paul hesitated, then turned and followed the man to the waiting limo. As they drove toward the funeral home, his mind drifted back three days.
Paul sat at a table at Papa Georgio’s. He was meeting his fiancé, Stacy Shields, for dinner. She’d spent the day shopping for a wedding dress. She’d sounded so excited when she’d called to tell him she was on her way to the restaurant. He’d laughed as she’d enthusiastically described the “perfect dress.” He glanced at his watch, 7:15 p.m. She’d told him to meet her at 7:00 p.m. He wasn’t too worried. She often ran late. However, as the minutes passed, he started to feel concerned. He tried calling her, but she didn’t answer her phone.
His phone rang. He quickly answered, not bothering to check the caller ID. “Where are you?” he asked, feeling relieved that she’d finally called.
“Paul, this is Mitch.” Mitch was a detective for the Spring Valley police department, and a friend of Paul’s.
“Sorry, Mitch. I’m meeting Stacy for dinner, and she’s running late. I thought you were her.”
“That’s why I’m calling, Paul,” Mitch replied, his voice serious.
Paul felt a tickle of dread run up his spine. “Has something happened?” he asked, holding his breath as he waited for the answer.
“Yes,” Mitch answered solemnly. “Stacy was in an accident.”
“How badly is she hurt?” Paul asked. He knew if Mitch was calling, the accident must have been serious. There was a pause on the other end of the call. “Tell me, Mitch,” Paul said, his voice filled with intensity.
“I’m sorry, Paul. She didn’t survive the crash,” Mitch finally answered.
Paul felt the air rush from his lungs. Bile rose in the back of his throat. He doubled over in pain.
“Paul,” Mitch said. “Where are you? I’m coming to get you.”
“Papa Georgio’s,” Paul replied, barely above a whisper.
“I’ll be there in ten minutes,” Mitch replied.
Paul ended the call. He stood and rushed to the men’s room. He stood leaning over the sink. He splashed water on his face fighting the rush of nausea. His breathing was labored. He glanced in the mirror and barely recognized the face staring back at him. His skin was ashen, his eyes wide and dazed. He was unaware of the passage of time as he stood staring at his reflection. His mind screamed that this was just a terrible nightmare.
He felt something touch his arm. He turned. Mitch stood beside him, his face full of sadness. Paul was surprised he’d been standing there for so long.
“Come on,” Mitch said softly. “Let’s get out of here.”
Paul nodded and followed Mitch out of the restaurant. They rode in silence for several minutes. Finally, Paul whispered, “What happened?”
Mitch glanced over at him. “It looks like she dropped her cell phone and when she bent to retrieve it, she swerved into oncoming traffic and had a head-on collision. She was dead by the time emergency personnel arrived on the scene.” He paused, allowing Paul time to process the information. “She was transported to the hospital. That’s where I’m taking you.”
Paul and Stacy met a little over a year ago. Stacy worked for the Department of Social Services, Children’s Division. She’d placed one of the foster children under her care into the home of her best friend, Catherine James. The boy, Ethan, got into trouble with the law and was sentenced to community service. Paul was refurbishing an old elementary school to be used as a recreational center in an underprivileged neighborhood. Ethan’s community service was to help Paul work on the center. Stacy would bring Ethan to and from the rec center. Paul liked Stacy right away. She was filled with energy and vitality. However, it wasn’t until Ethan and his foster mom, Catherine, had trouble with Ethan’s biological father, and both ended up in the hospital that Paul started developing romantic feelings toward Stacy.
They began dating, and it didn’t take long for Paul to realize that Stacy was the woman he wanted to spend the rest of his life with. It had taken Stacy a while to accept that Paul loved her. Although she had a very outgoing, confident personality, she’d not believed that someone with Paul’s good looks would be interested in her. He finally convinced her that he was madly in love, and she agreed to marry him. That had been six months ago.
Mitch pulled to a stop. Paul glanced out the window and saw that they were at the hospital. He slowly exited the car. His legs felt heavy as he walked toward the emergency-room entrance. As soon as they entered, Dr. Derrick Peterson stepped forward to meet them. He and his wife were friends with Paul and Stacy. His eyes shone with sympathy.
“This way,” Dr. Peterson said. Paul followed him to the far corner of the room. Dr. Peterson pulled back the curtain and waited for Paul to step past him.
Paul pulled up short. He stared at Stacy’s still form in the hospital bed. Her face was swollen. Several lacerations marred her delicate skin. A loud sob escaped Paul’s throat as he gazed at her.
Derrick squeezed his shoulder. “Take all the time you need,” he said, then left Paul alone.
Paul stumbled to the bed. He reached out and grasped Stacy’s hand. It felt cold, lifeless. “I will always love you,” he vowed. Then he collapsed onto the chair beside the bed, lowered his head to rest his forehead against her arm, and wept bitterly.
Elizabeth Fischer sang along to the radio as she weaved her sleek black BMW through traffic on her way to work. She was the head of public relations for a large pharmaceutical company. The company was constantly being bombarded with bad press. Her job was to spin the negative statements into positive results. The job was stressful and often times chaotic, but she loved it. She fed off the adrenaline rush she received each time a “PR nightmare” popped up, and she was called on to put out the fire.
She pulled her car into her reserved spot in the parking garage under the high-rise building that housed the corporate headquarters for Stropmeyer Pharmaceuticals. Her high heels clicked against the concrete as she made her way to the elevator. Her office was on the 20th floor. The elevator made numerous stops on the way up. As men got on and off the elevator, she received several appreciative smiles. Elizabeth politely returned the smiles. Her platinum-blonde hair framed an oval face with large blue eyes and a full mouth. It had taken her some time to adjust to the fact that men found her attractive, after being the brunt of so much teasing in high school. She’d grown from a gangly teenager with braces and thick glasses into a beautiful woman.
She exited the elevator and moved toward her office. Several co-workers called out greetings as she passed. “Good morning, Samantha,” she greeted her secretary.
“I’m not so sure it is a good morning, Ms. Fischer,” Samantha returned, a worried expression on her face.
“Why? What catastrophe are we facing today?” Elizabeth asked, a slight smile on her face. She wasn’t too worried about Samantha’s statement. Each time the company received bad publicity, Samantha took a defeatist attitude. She called each incident the worst situation they’d ever faced, and acted as if she was sure the company was going to be put out of business. Elizabeth found it highly amusing.
“Mr. Stropmeyer is in your office,” Samantha whispered dramatically.
Elizabeth’s smile vanished. Mr. Stropmeyer, the head of the company, was the son of the original founder. Very few people liked him. He was known to fire people without any warning. He rarely made an appearance, except when he intended to let someone go. He could have other people do it for him, but he seemed to take pleasure in doing it himself.
“Do you know what he wants?” Elizabeth asked.
Samantha shook her head.
“How long has he been in there?”
“About 15 minutes,” Samantha answered.
Elizabeth took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. Planting a smile on her face, she stepped into her office. “Mr. Stropmeyer, what a pleasant surprise. Sorry to have kept you waiting.”
The man was seated in her leather office chair. He frowned at her, his sagging cheeks jiggling as he shook his head in displeasure. Mr. Stropmeyer was in his late sixties. He was short and extremely overweight. His mottled complexion and red-rimmed eyes indicated that he drank to excess.
“Has something happened, Mr. Stropmeyer?” Elizabeth asked, standing awkwardly in front of her desk.
“Is this the time you always arrive, Ms. Fischer,” he asked, his tone aggravated.
Elizabeth glanced at the wall clock. It was just a little after 7:30 a.m. Her day didn’t officially start until 8:00 a.m. “Yes, sir,” she answered.
Mr. Stropmeyer snorted with derision. “I guess, I should just get this over with. Ms. Fischer, you’re fired.”
“What?!” Elizabeth asked in shock.
“You heard me. I expect you to pack up your things and be gone by the end of the day.” The man struggled to his feet and lumbered out the door.
Elizabeth stood in stunned silence. What just happened? she wondered as shock waves rolled through her. She stood there for a full two minutes. Then she started to shake as anger set in. How dare he? I’ve worked my butt off for this company for five years, never even took a sick day, and this is the way I get treated? She spun on her heel and marched out of the office. Samantha’s jaw dropped when she saw the murderous rage on Elizabeth’s face.
The executive offices were on the 21st floor. Elizabeth tapped her foot impatiently as she waited for the elevator doors to open. As soon as they did, she jumped inside and viciously punched the button. Anger continued to build inside of her as the elevator glided up to the next floor. The doors opened and she rushed out, slamming into someone entering the elevator. The person mumbled an apology, but Elizabeth didn’t respond. Her focus was centered entirely on the rage boiling in her guts.
Mr. Stropmeyer’s secretary jumped to her feet and moved to block Elizabeth’s path. “Ms. Fischer, please stop,” she pleaded, holding her hands out in front of her.
“I need to see Mr. Stropmeyer, now!” Elizabeth roared at the woman.
“He’s in a meeting. You can’t go in there,” the secretary replied.
Elizabeth shoved past the woman and burst into the office. Mr. Stropmeyer was seated at a long table with five other men. Their eyes swung to Elizabeth as she rushed into the room.
“I tried to stop her, Mr. Stropmeyer,” the secretary said, a note of fear in her voice.
“Ms. Fischer, I’ve said all I intend to say to you. You have ten seconds to turn around and exit my office, or I’m going to call security,” Mr. Stropmeyer said, his voice shaking with anger.
Elizabeth glared at the man. “You have no right to fire me without giving me an explanation,” she spat out angrily. “I’ve done a good job. In fact, I’ve saved your company’s ass on more than one occasion. I deserve to know why you are firing me.”
“I don’t have to explain myself to you,” the man replied.
Elizabeth took a step toward him. She felt a spurt of satisfaction when he flinched slightly. “You are a miserable human being.”
Mr. Stropmeyer jumped to his feet. “GET OUT!” he roared.
Ignoring the man’s outburst, Elizabeth scanned the faces of the men seated around the conference table. Her eyes widened in surprise when the face of Preston Collins came into view. He was the most powerful PR man in the business.
“You stole my job, didn’t you?” Elizabeth asked, narrowing her eyes on the man.
He flashed her an easy grin and shrugged his shoulders.
Elizabeth knew there was nothing left to say. If Preston Collins wanted her job, he was going to get it. There was no way she could compete with someone with his reputation. She spun on her heel and marched from the room. She hurried the short distance to the elevator and punched the button.
“Excuse me, Ms. Fischer,” a voice spoke beside her.
Elizabeth turned. A small, wiry man with grey hair stood smiling at her. His blues eyes were soft and kind. “I’m Phillip Grogan. I’m on the board of directors here. I’m sorry about the way you were treated. I think you’ve done an excellent job. I wanted to give you my card. I have a job I think you’d be perfect for. Give me a call in the next few days and we can talk.” He held a business card out to her.
Elizabeth took the card. “What kind of job?” she asked.
“We can talk about it in a few days. You need some time to cool off,” he turned and hurried back to Mr. Stropmeyer’s office.
Elizabeth glanced down. The man’s name and phone number were the only things printed on the card. It gave no indication as to what kind of business the man was in. She shrugged. She didn’t have time to think about the strange little man. Her mind was still reeling over the events of the last few minutes.
All of her energy left her as the elevator carried her back down to her floor. She had to use all of her concentration to place one foot in front of the other and walk to her office.
“He fired you, didn’t he?” Samantha asked as she walked by.
“Does that mean I’m fired, too?” Samantha asked. She’d only been Elizabeth’s secretary for a few months. Her previous secretary left after she met “Mr. Right” through an online dating service. He lived in another state, so her secretary had moved to join him.
“I have no idea,” Elizabeth answered, her voice sounding hollow to her ears. “I guess that’s up to my replacement. Could you please find me a couple of boxes?”
“Um, sure,” Samantha answered, getting to her feet.
Elizabeth walked into her office and went to look through her window. She gazed out over the city. She usually found the sight of all the cars buzzing along the city streets below her soothing, but she felt dizzy looking down at them. She pressed her head against the glass and closed her eyes.
A few moments later, she heard a slight cough. She opened her eyes and glanced over her shoulder.
“I brought the boxes,” Samantha said, pointing at two boxes sitting on the floor in the center of the room. “I’m really sorry, Ms. Fischer,” she said as she backed out of the room and closed the door.
Elizabeth sighed heavily and moved to pick up one of the boxes. It only took her a few minutes to gather up her things. She was surprised to see that they all fit into one box. She hadn’t realize how few personal items she’d brought to her office. As she walked to the elevator, the room was filled with silence. No one looked up as she walked past them. It was such a stark contrast to the friendly greetings she’d received only a short time ago.
She drove toward her apartment, and for the first time since buying the car six months previously, she regretted the impulsive purchase. The car was more expensive than anything she’d ever bought before. It had been her 28th birthday present to herself. She’d felt confident in her career and was making really good money. She’d convinced herself that she deserved to spoil herself a little. What was she going to do now? If she didn’t find another good job soon, there was no way she’d be able to keep up the payments. When she arrived at her apartment, she set the box on the coffee table in front of her sofa, went to the kitchen, and poured herself a glass of red wine. Grabbing the bottle, she returned to her living room. She turned on her stereo and sank down onto the sofa. She leaned back against the cushions and closed her eyes. I wish I could call you, Mom, she thought, a tear slipping out of the corner of her eye. Her parents had been killed in a car accident the previous year. She’d been close to both of them, but especially her mother. She didn’t have any siblings. Her mom had been her best friend. She wasn’t sure how much time had passed when she finally stood and padded to her bedroom. She kicked off her shoes and fell onto the bed fully clothed.
The next morning, Elizabeth awoke with a sense of determination. “I’m not going to let the old bastard defeat me,” she told herself as she made a pot of coffee. “This is a big city. There are plenty of other good jobs out there.”
She spent the morning updating her resume. Then she started scouring the Internet for job postings. As the morning wore on, she lost some of her confidence. She was worried about the low number of public relations jobs she’d found. Weren’t companies worried about their image these days? she thought. She made a list of the openings she found and put them in order of preference. Then she spent several hours doing research on each of the companies, so she’d be prepared in the event she could secure an interview. She decided that she’d visit the companies the next day. By the end of the night, she felt satisfied with the progress she’d made. She’d never been a procrastinator. When something needed to be done, she jumped right in and got to it. She didn’t understand people who continually put things off. It drove her crazy to have an unfinished task hanging over her head.
The next morning, she dressed in her black business suit, packed her resume and reference list into a leather briefcase, and set out to get a new job. She had four companies on her list. Her first stop was the law firm of Packer and Smith. She’d heard of them, and the research she’d done the night before revealed that they were some of the big boys.
“Can I help you?” the receptionist asked.
“Yes, I am here to apply for the public relations position,” Elizabeth answered.
The woman shook her head sadly. “I’m sorry, but that position has already been filled.”
Elizabeth felt a wave of disappointment pour through her. This was by far the best job opening she’d found. The other three jobs on her list were for much smaller, less influential companies. She nodded and said, “Thank you for your time.”
When she got to her car, she sat staring out the windshield for several moments, giving herself a pep talk. “This is only a minor setback,” she said. “There are three more options on the list, and something else could open up any day.” She drew a deep breath, started her car, and pulled onto the street.
She received similar statements at her next two stops. The jobs had already been filled. The last place on her list told her that they’d decided not to fill the position. Elizabeth felt completely deflated by the time she returned to her apartment. She dropped her briefcase inside the door, kicked off her heels, and padded to the sofa. She collapsed onto it and stared up at the ceiling. She had enough money in her bank account to cover this month’s bills, but if she didn’t have a job by the time the next month rolled around, she’d be in big trouble.
Her stomach growled. She stood and started walking toward the kitchen. “Ouch!” she cried as her shin banged into the corner of the coffee table. The box filled with her office supplies crashed to the floor. Elizabeth moaned and bent to pick it up. The business card the old man handed her when she’d left Stropmeyer’s lay beside the box. She’d forgotten all about it. She picked it up and studied it for a moment. The man had said that he had a job he thought she’d be great for. Maybe, she should give him a call and find out more about it tomorrow. She placed the card on the table and continued to the kitchen to fix herself something to eat.
The next morning, she picked up the business card and called the number.
“Hello,” a gravelly voice answered.
Elizabeth was surprised to hear such an informal greeting. She’d expected a secretary to answer her call. “Yes, I’m calling to speak with Mr. Grogan,” Elizabeth replied.
“This is Phillip,” the voice answered.
“Mr. Grogan, this is Elizabeth Fischer. You gave me your card the other day and mentioned you might have a job for me.”
“Sure, I may be getting old, but I remember what happened a few days ago,” the man answered, a note of teasing in his voice. “How about we meet for lunch, and I can tell you all about it?”
“All right,” Elizabeth answered, not sure what to think of the man’s teasing tone.
“There’s this delicious little diner over on the corner of Wellington and 3rd. It’s called Sunset Diner. Do you know it?” he asked.
“No, but I’m sure I can find it,” Elizabeth replied.
“Good, I’ll meet you there at noon.”
After she ended the call, Elizabeth sighed and leaned back against the sofa cushions. She didn’t have a lot of hopes that this meeting was going to be fruitful. The old man seemed to be a little off his rocker. She wasn’t even sure there actually was a job. Oh well, she thought. It doesn’t hurt to meet with him and see what he has to say.
Elizabeth felt another moment of hesitation about her decision to meet with Phillip Grogan when she saw the diner he’d recommended. The place was the epitome of the greasy spoon. Her nose wrinkled when she walked in and saw a large man wearing a stained apron frying hamburgers on a long griddle.
“Over here, Ms. Fischer,” a voice called.
Elizabeth turned and spotted Phillip sitting in a booth in the far corner of the little restaurant. The cracked red leather squeaked loudly as he slid out and reached for her hand. His face was lit with a friendly smile. “I’m certainly glad you decided to call me,” he said as they slid into the booth.
As soon as they were seated, a waitress wearing a blouse that was two sizes too small stepped up to their table. Elizabeth worried that the buttons straining against her large breasts would pop off at any moment.
“Hello, Rosie,” Phillip greeted.
“Hello yourself, handsome,” Rosie replied. “What can I get you today?”
“We’ll both have the special,” Phillip replied. He caught Elizabeth’s surprised look and smiled. “Trust me. You’ll love it,” he said.
Rosie met Elizabeth’s gaze. “What would you like to drink, sugar?”
Elizabeth felt as if she’d been transported back in time. Who talked like that anymore? Rosie reminded her of the waitresses she saw in movies from the fifties. “Um, I’ll have a Diet Coke,” Elizabeth answered.
“Food’ll be out in a jiffy,” Rosie replied, turning from the table.
Elizabeth watched her walk away. Then she turned her head and met Phillip’s smiling eyes.
“The way you busted into Harold’s office the other day was priceless,” he chuckled. “I’ve never seen anyone have enough guts to stand up to him before.”
Elizabeth smiled. “Well, in hindsight, it probably wasn’t the smartest thing I’ve ever done.”
“But it felt good, didn’t it?” he asked.
“As a matter of fact, it did,” she replied.
“I’ve been on the board at Stropmeyer since Harold was a boy. His daddy was a good man, but Harold isn’t worth a hill of beans. He’s been trying to get rid of me for years. The only reason I haven’t retired is that it gives me pleasure to be a nuisance to him.”
Elizabeth smiled. She liked Phillip Grogan. He reminded her of her grandfather. “So, can you tell me about the job offer?” she asked.
He nodded and leaned forward enthusiastically. “I am also on the board of directors for the Spring Valley Animal Shelter. We are looking for a new president. I think you’d be perfect.”
Elizabeth stared at him in shocked silence. An animal shelter? She didn’t know the first thing about animals. She’d never even had a pet. What in the world would she know about running an animal shelter, and in Spring Valley? She’d driven through there once. It was a small city about twenty miles away.
“Well?” he prompted eagerly.
“Mr. Grogan, what makes you think I would want to run an animal shelter? I don’t know the first thing about animals.”
Phillip smiled. “You don’t have to. The president’s job is all about fundraising and PR. The shelter isn’t generating enough revenue to house all the animals. We need someone who knows how to build an image and get the word out. We need someone who won’t take no for an answer.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Grogan, but that person isn’t me,” she replied.
Just then, Rosie placed their plates on the table. A giant, juicy hamburger and onion rings filled the plate. Elizabeth hadn’t eaten that much greasy food in years.
“I don’t want you to decide right now. Think about it for a few days, then get back with me. Let’s just enjoy our lunch.”
Elizabeth sighed and picked up the hamburger. She thought it would be impolite not to eat the food. She took a bite, then moaned with pleasure.
“Good, isn’t it?” Phillip chuckled.
Elizabeth nodded. “It’s delicious,” she said around the bite of food. She couldn’t believe it when several minutes later, she popped the last onion ring into her mouth.
“It’s best not to dismiss something, until you try it,” Phillip commented. Elizabeth wasn’t sure he was talking about the food.