Web of Fate Prologue and Chapter 1
Chilled to the bone, Danielle Norman slid back on the mahogany folding chair. The president’s steel-gray eyes seemed to be boring into hers.
“The future of Bentleys Royale is in your hands,” he said.
This closing remark hit her with the force of a tsunami. Danielle had taken a seat in the back row in the hope of slipping out ahead of the other buyers and executives at the conclusion of David Jerome’s annual State of the Business address. Now, dropping her gaze from Mr. Jerome’s, she studied the paisley pattern of the burgundy carpet, picturing his shock and sense of betrayal once he found out what she’d done.
I can’t go through with it, she said to herself. And with sudden clarity, she knew what she must do.
To avoid notice, Danielle silently pushed herself to her feet and crept from the tearoom. She tiptoed across the marble tiles, stopped in front of the third elevator, and ventured a quick glance over her shoulder. If some people noticed her early departure, she hoped they would assume she was leaving for her red-eye flight. And she was—but first she would put an end to the plan that was already in motion.
She pushed the UP button. Her nails bit into her palms as she prayed harder than she’d ever prayed before.
Don’t let it be too late.
The muscular young man, his blond hair pulled back in a ponytail, looked at his watch for the umpteenth time. “What’s keeping her?” he said to a tall, lanky man in a charcoal-gray pin-striped suit, who was in the process of wedging a piece of wood under the door that led from the display storage room to the rooftop.
The lanky man rose to his full six-foot-two height. “Take it easy,” he said, his voice breaking as he suppressed a cough. “Danielle knows this is the only chance she has to save her job. Besides, she and I have a midnight flight to New York. The annual meeting can go on forever. She’ll be here any minute.”
As he spoke, they heard the elevator grind to a stop. The door slid open. Danielle stood stock-still inside the lift. Even in the dim light, the tall man saw that her face appeared drained of color, and yet there was a strong set to her jaw. He reached out, taking her by the elbow to guide her across the three-inch gap between the lift and the less-than-pristine floor of the storage room. He felt
her resistance and paused.
Holy mother of God, he thought. This is no time for her to be having second thoughts.
But that was exactly what appeared to be happening. Danielle refused to take another step forward. Her gaze flashed from the tall man to his unfamiliar ponytailed friend, then back to him. She did not meet his eyes.
“This is all wrong. I can’t go through with it,” she said, her voice a fraction of a decibel above a whisper. Tears filled her eyes as she gripped his arms. “I’ll make it up to you somehow. I swear I will, but you have to help—”
In two long strides, the ponytailed man grabbed Danielle’s arm and yanked her toward the door to the rooftop. Her head collided with the sharp corner of a metal cabinet, and she dropped to the floor like a sack of stones.
The tall man froze, his eyes riveted on the lifeless body of the young buyer, the blood instantly pooling around her head. “Oh my God! You’ve killed her!” he shouted.
The other man knelt down beside her, then shook his head and pulled off his sweatshirt. He quickly wound it around Danielle’s head and wrapped his fingers around her thin wrist. “She’s not dead.”
Sucking in his breath, the tall man did his best to keep the panic out of his voice. “She’s not moving. And … the blood …” It was already soaking through the yellow sweatshirt.
“She’s not dead,” the ponytailed man repeated. “She’s still breathing. It looks a lot worse than it is. She just hit her head, and head wounds bleed like there’s no tomorrow. But you’d better find a way to bring her back to her senses. She could seriously screw up our plan.” He paused before continuing, his voice low with dread. “Hell, she could screw up our whole future.”
At the buzz of the intercom, Ashleigh McDowell’s gaze shot to the clock. It was nearly six. She dropped her pen into its marble holder, pushed her yellow pad aside, then wavered for a split second before tapping the telephone speaker button.
“Betty, I’m running late, would—”
“It’s Mr. Jerome,” her secretary cut in.
Sliding her stockinged feet back into her pumps, Ashleigh hastily gathered the loose pages of last year’s human resources plan and shoved them back into the manila folder while Betty put the president’s call through.
“When did you last see Danielle Norman?” The president’s slow, measured speech pattern funneled through the static of his speakerphone.
Ashleigh’s blood turned icy cold. Why was he asking about Danielle? “Friday afternoon.”
“Did she say anything about canceling her New York trip?”
“No.” Of course not, Mr. Jerome, she wanted to shout. You know how critical this buying trip is for Danielle.
In the space of a few months Danielle’s world had been torn apart. Along with the plummeting profits in her department, her marriage had crumbled. She was no longer considered Bentleys Royale’s most promising young buyer. In fact, her position was now in jeopardy, and with a categorically unsupportive merchandise manager, she was fighting an uphill battle. Without her career, Ashleigh knew, Danielle had nothing—and this buying trip was virtually her last chance to salvage it.
“Come up to my office right away,” came the president’s deliberate voice again.
The line went dead.
Puzzled by David Jerome’s tone as much as by the nature of his question, Ashleigh felt her mouth go dry, and she dropped the receiver back in the cradle.
A vivid picture of Danielle Norman, the vivacious, curly-haired blonde with expressive gray eyes, whom she loved like a sister, flashed through Ashleigh’s mind. Taking a deep breath, she grabbed her Chanel handbag and ubiquitous leather organizer, brushed a loose strand of hair from her cheek, tucking it neatly into her French braid, and headed for the door. Mitchell’s words echoed in her head: Is it too much to ask that you leave your office on time? But she had no choice. Mr. Jerome had been quite clear—and this sounded important.
Getting away from the store before the six forty-five pm security lockup was always difficult. And now, with the future of Bentleys Royale hanging by a thread, there was never enough time. If Mitchell didn’t understand that now, he never would.
As she hurried to the elevators, Ashleigh’s gaze fell to the large diamond on her left hand. Has Mitchell actually changed that much in the few short weeks since he slipped this ring on my finger? Or has the man I’ve grown to trust and thought I could love simply been a figment of my imagination?
But she closed off that chamber of her mind, like a room of an overly large house in the dead of winter. Her thoughts turned back to Danielle Norman. What had happened to her? Had she missed her flight? She would never have just decided not to make the trip, especially without a word. Whatever had happened, it had to be something beyond her control. For Danielle not to have shown up in New York, it had to be something catastrophic.