Taming McGruff(3)

By: Laurie LeClair


Destroy King’s Department Store. Destroy Mrs. Agnes King, widow of the late Charles King. Just as she destroyed his father years ago.

Quiet greeted him as he stepped into the subdued waiting area at the end of the hallway. He glimpsed the open door to the inner office. A lone, dark-haired woman at a desk drew his attention, the phone receiver tucked between her chin and shoulder.

“I promise,” she said. “This will all be over soon.” She listened, and then said, “Can you believe it, Alex? I never imagined this.”

Something in Griff tugged at the smile that crossed her face. He must have made a noise or given himself away somehow; she jerked her head up and noticed him. She waved him in.

“Gotta go, my love. My appointment is here. Be home soon.” Hanging up, she shook her head. “Sorry. My husband is getting overprotective, I’m afraid.” She stood up and came around the desk. In stocking feet, she padded to him. “Charlotte King Royale. Please, call me Charlie.”

He shook her offered hand. “Griffin James. Griff will do.”

“Thank you for coming in at the last minute.” She directed him to one of the chairs across from the big oak desk as she took her seat again.

From the photos of her in the newspapers these last few months, he never imagined she’d seem so vulnerable in person. By all accounts, she looked thin and tired. Why did that thought nudge at his conscience? She beamed, though. Was that because of her husband?

“The reason I asked you to change your interview from Monday to tonight is I received news from the doctor late this afternoon that…well, it makes finding a permanent replacement to take over the running of King’s all the more urgent.”

He frowned. What could have changed? “Good news?”

Her smile widened. “I’m going to have twins.”

Griff let that surprise sink in. It threw him off for half a second. “That does speed things up.”

“I wanted to give you a chance before I made my final decision this weekend.”

His gut tightened. “I was under the impression you would need several interviews from the remaining candidates. You have someone in mind already?”

A stab of guilt chased across her features. Picking up the paper in front of her, she said, “Griff.” She tried out his name. “Your resume is impeccable. Military service. Four years. You don’t go into detail here.” She glanced up then. “Thank you for your service.”

Unable to speak, he nodded. How could she know serving his country meant a great deal to him? If it were up to him, he’d still be there, shoulder to shoulder with the men in his unit. But fate had intervened. He played the cards he’d been dealt in life.

“So,” she returned to reading the document, “you worked your way up from the mail room to the boardroom in just a few short years at your first store, you bought it, and then later sold it for a mighty sum, I may add, if my memory serves me. You went on to head three more major retail giants to astronomical sales. You’ve just left the last one to come to Dallas and, I’m assuming, looking to get back into the retail business. Everything checks out, even your references. Oh, I might add, my husband did say he’s worked with you before and has nothing but praise for you.”

“Alexander Royale.” From Royale Enterprises. He wondered at the irony of unknowingly working in the past with the man who married into the King family, the family that haunted Griff for ages. “He’s good at building upscale shopping malls on time and under budget without cutting corners.”

At the mention of her husband, her smile lit up her face again. Ah, so it wasn’t a marriage of convenience as first reported in the press. She was definitely in love with her spouse. “I’ll tell him you said that.”

Somehow, even though her words were kind, he sensed an underlying resistance. “Tell me what the problem is? You’ve just met me and you say Alex is pleased with my work, so I can only deduce it’s the resume or, as you hinted at, you’ve already chosen your replacement.” He found himself holding his breath. This was his dream, to infiltrate King’s, play on its weakness, and then ruin it all.

Her sigh echoed in the quiet room. Placing the resume on the desk and clasping her hands together, she said, “Frankly, you’re too good. You’re overqualified for the position.”

“That concerns you? As opposed to being under-qualified?”

“Ah, under-qualified would either turn to overwhelmed or rise to the occasion. And eager to learn, from my past experiences with people. But overqualified may overlook the smaller market vision, step on our loyal employees’ ideas and input, and rush the changes before this store can find its niche again and grow. Too much, too soon.”

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