The fountain pen swished across the parchment-like paper in smooth, deliberate moves. Words curled and connected into one and then the other until they formed a sentence. There were only a few—sentences. When it was complete, the paper was rolled up like a miniature scroll and secured with a gold satin ribbon.
* * *
Alice knew she had cake on her face. It didn’t bother her at all. She was sure that was proof it being the best day of her life so far and it was only three o’clock. The glass-domed trolleys of cake were circling round in her direction again and there was a bit of room left in her stomach for at least one more slice. Saturday afternoon in the gardens at Waldorf was lovely and so different from how the wedding weekend started.
The festivities began the night before with a masquerade ball. Anabelle had always wanted to attend a masked ball, so Brayden saw to it their wedding weekend began as such. The orchestra claimed a small section of the ballroom to allow plenty of room for all the ladies in their big dresses to be twirled during the dancing. Drinks were served adjacent, in the music room, and the doors separating it from the sitting room on the other side of the manor were opened so people could promenade in one very large oval on the ground floor. The back patio was lit with hundreds of candles in hurricane vases and candelabras that were allowed to drip with wax in the evening breeze for dramatic effect. Long satin gloves in every colour were on the hand of every lady. Some held masks up to their faces with a handle, whilst others wore them.
Alice went as a bunny. Her father didn’t want her going as anything too ostentatious. After all, she was only twelve. She’d worn a mid-calf length white gown with pink ruffles along the hem and short, puffed sleeves. The white glitter bunny-like mask had elastic to ensure it stayed in place over the curls falling down her back. A petite set of pink and white ears attached to a band sat atop her head, whilst white tights and pink patent leather Mary Janes made the bunnyness quite convincing. Everyone else was in more Phantom of the Opera grown-up wear whilst Alice was quite happy to carelessly bounce about the ballroom in her own joyous world. Her father was getting married, and she would have a mother by Saturday at noon when the ceremony finished. The weekend had been highly anticipated by many people, but especially the newly forming James family unit.
Each day of the wedding weekend had a different guest list and dress code appropriate for the festivities. Some people had been invited to and were attending the whole weekend, whilst others were invited to one day or a combination of Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Alice had several dresses in order to be appropriately outfitted for everything and, since Waldorf was hosting every part of the celebrations except the ceremony, it meant people were coming and going, inside and out, up and down the staircase. Alice had gone up and down the grand staircase countless times, to show off her bedroom, and remind overnight guests the way to the second-floor staircase and their rooms. Also, to be tugged along by Celia when she required tidying up or to have her outfit changed. There were several outfit changes. At least one per day, if not two.
For those unfamiliar with consistent fine dining, meals at Waldorf were like visiting a Michelin-star restaurant or a flawless country hotel. It was normal to Alice, now. On Saturday morning, the guests who had stayed overnight were seated in the dining room for a two-course breakfast… everyone except Anabelle, because she didn’t live there yet and hadn’t stayed the night before the wedding. Ana and her parents were put up in a private manor house down the lane until after the wedding. The fairy-tale of Brayden and Ana’s abstinence of anything except kissing (and disciplinary spanking) throughout their courtship continued right through to Saturday evening, when she finally joined her husband and newly acquired daughter at Waldorf.
Alice knew her father wouldn’t get married in the suit he wore for breakfast—that one was charcoal grey with a waistcoat, burgundy and white striped shirt with a burgundy tie. Hand in hand and practically matching, Alice walked beside him in a burgundy velvet pinafore with a long-sleeved Peter Pan collared grey blouse. A floppy burgundy bow at the collar hung down the front of the pinafore with grey knee highs that matched her father’s own socks. Brayden had squeezed her hand just before the double doors open as if to silently say, we’ve come a long way, just you and me. They entered the grand dining room to adoring smiles and polite clapping. It was only hours until the wedding but the anticipation was uninhibited. Some of the guests had been present at Alice’s birthday party when she turned “twelve.” Others had only ever heard of Alice being adopted and were meeting her for the first time at the wedding. In the various ways people had come to know the late Kathryn and Oliver James over the years before their passing, it couldn’t be mistaken that there was great joy surrounding the renewing of their family line on the incredibly joyous occasion with Brayden, their surviving son, marrying.
As always, Alice sat to her father’s left and he claimed his chair at the head of the gorgeously laid table. Meals at Waldorf were always formal but the staff had pulled out all the stops for the pre-wedding breakfast for their overnight guests. There was a short speech thanking everyone for their attendance by Brayden and then the guests were spoiled by his talented in-house private chefs.
When she saw Anabelle Greyson for the first and last time that morning, she thought she’d seen an angel. Alice was delivered to the manor house where Ana, her bridesmaids and her parents were staying just down the lane from Waldorf. She walked into the parlour with Celia and there, turning to face her from the full-length mirror and Harriet’s dutiful dress-fluffing, was her new mother. The bridesmaids stopped chatting and turned, mimosas still in hand, to observe the girl who would make Ana an instant mother. Alice stared, realising it was the last time she would be Anabelle Greyson, the woman courting Brayden James. In less than an hour she would be Anabelle Sophia James. Mummy. And Alice would never forget how Ana looked at her—that tender adoration her brown eyes seemed to hold in never-ending quantities.
Ana’s dress was hand-stitched by Harriet’s team and it was indescribably perfect. The base was a lace applique bodice made of ivory satin gazar with a full underskirt trim, featuring a slim-line train until it reached the floor and blossomed out. There was a semi-bustle at her lower back with twenty glittering Swarovski crystal buttons fastened by rouleau loops up to the neck.
“Do you like my dress, darling?” Ana asked quietly after kissing her cheek.
“You’re the most beautiful princess I ever saw. Father is going to cry.”
And he did. As with English weddings, Brayden and the groomsmen stood at the front of the church whilst Wilbur Greyson escorted his only daughter down the aisle. The three bridesmaids, including Alice, walked behind the bride and her father. When they reached the front, she saw her father’s face when he looked at Anabelle. Wilbur placed his daughter’s hand in Brayden’s before leaving her with a kiss on the cheek. The bride and groom looked at each other for what was only seconds, although it seemed much longer. Brayden had changed into a morning suit with coattails. It was black with white pinstripes. He wore a satin gold cravat and the top hat remained with the Fowlers for the service.
Alice kissed them each on the cheek and didn’t miss the tears in Brayden’s eyes when he returned to full height. They had come a long way just the two of them. He took Ana on his arm to face the minister and for the hour, Alice felt like she was in a dream. The service could have been in slow motion. She enjoyed every frame of the ceremony whereby Anabelle Greyson morphed into Mrs. Anabelle Sophia James. Applause startled her out of that dream-like state, and in what felt like an instant, they were family. Just like that, they became a family.
The parish church in Laitham held 368 people, all of whom either returned to or first arrived at Waldorf Manor for the gala reception: an opulent garden tea party. The extensive lawns were filled with tables dressed in white tablecloths featuring tiered china platters of scones, sandwiches and pastries. There was proper Devonshire clotted cream direct from Devonshire. Alice had insisted. Lemon curd and strawberry preserves lived in husky glass pots with gold demitasse spoons for dispersing, and white-gloved waiters were attentive in keeping silver-plated teapots at each table filled with hot water. The orchestra sat on Clairette wood traditional French accent chairs with graceful oval backs in neutral beige linen as they regaled the guests. Chittering and chattering accompanied clinkering of champagne flutes and teacups returning to their saucers.
Alice had cake on her face. Vanilla bean ( with speckles, Father as she’d requested months in advance) three-layer cake with gold frosting to match the sash on my dress and your cravat had been served and subsequently consumed in vast quantities. Brayden and Ana sat at the largest round table in the gardens with Alice and all five of the Fowlers, although the newlyweds remained seated for only half an hour. Brayden and Ana were adamant about visiting with their guests, half of whom were there for one day. Some people would return for brunch the next morning whilst others had been at the gala the night before, or were staying at the manor. Therefore, Alice took full advantage of her parents’ good hosting manners and their busyness by consuming slice after slice, after slice, after slice of cake whenever the uniformed waiters rolled the glass-domed trolleys by. One circled round in her direction again and knowing she had room for at least one more, she put her finger up to catch the waiter’s attention.
“I think you have had enough cake, Alice,” was great uncle Jonathan’s reply when he noticed the girl’s index finger raised for the eighth time. She and Jonathan Fowler were the only ones seated at their table because everyone else had wandered off to chat and explore the gardens.
“But uncle Jonathan, it’s afternoon tea. The bite-sized portions guarantee a most ladylike experience no matter how many I have.”
He signalled for her to approach and Alice did. She walked round the back of the chairs of the four place settings that separated them.
“You have some around your mouth, which I can only guess you’re saving for later.”
“No, sir,” she replied, and licked the corners of her mouth.
“Alice, run along and wash up properly,” Bennett intervened when he and Elisabeth returned to the table holding hands.
Elisabeth chuckled whilst looking between the girl and her father-in-law. “How much cake have you eaten?”
“I shan’t answer that, but I think she’s had enough.”
“Off you go. Wash your hands and face before you get it on your dress,” Bennett added to the previous instruction. He was far more used to the girl’s antics (and less amused by them) than great uncle Jon.
Alice was rather glad someone had stopped her. Surely, after another few pieces, she would have required carrying about the back gardens in her distended state. She almost wiped her frosting fingers on her white and gold satin-sashed frock when she saw aunty Evelyn, and subsequently ducked behind some topiary with twinkly lights. Whilst Evelyn Fowler was a reformed woman (somehow), she had not changed in one area: the fussing of her face pinching. It still occurred. The last thing the girl wanted was to be seen in need of assistance washing up because aunty Evelyn would be far too delighted with the opportunity. Up the grand staircase she ran with the gold satin bow flopping at her back. A look over her shoulder proved aunty Evelyn hadn’t seen her.
One right turn at the top of the staircase and Alice’s door on the right was already open. Her bedroom was on display all weekend, although she hadn’t seen anyone take advantage of it. Guests accessing the second-floor staircase had to pass her room, so people were constantly coming and going. The high traffic felt like Waldorf had come back to life; as if the manor breathed in a sigh of thanksgiving for filling it once again with the buzz of conversation and fellowship. It was a house that ought to be filled with people and laughter. With 368 guests in attendance that day alone, the house certainly had its share of things to see and hear. Alice carelessly skipped across the beautiful, formal bedroom and into her en-suite at the far end. Her ivory patent leather Mary Janes clacked sweetly against the marble flooring until she stopped at the first sink. She hummed to herself as the water ran, and watched the frosting melt away under the sudsy motion as she scrubbed. The skirt of the knee-length dress was crisp, white tulle, and easily gave away the stain of gold frosting, which Alice cleaned as best she could. It mostly came out. She skipped out of the en-suite, through the massive bedroom with a careless glance at the window seats and her wardrobe to the left, the glass house on the right-hand bedside table, and out the open door.
“Oh, sorry. I’m sorry, sir,” she apologised, after skipping right into the side of a man as he walked down the corridor. She hadn’t been two metres out of her bedroom when the guest was passing at the same time.
“That’s quite all right, Alice.”
The thunderous shadow clutching her gut must have manifested across her face because she felt her entire demeanour darken.
“What are you doing here?”
His hands did up the tie as if they didn’t require concentration at all. They didn’t, really. He’d worn a suit almost every day of his life. Mentally, he was already there—not standing in front of the full-length mirror in the formal wood-panelled bedroom at such an early hour of the morning.
This interview could change everything. It was certain to, if it went the way he thought it might. It wasn’t what he’d planned but when the email came, he knew he needed to take it seriously. This was the first thing that felt right in a long time.
The butler was waiting in the foyer with car keys and an innocuous expression.
“The best of luck to you, sir.”
Luck. He didn’t need luck. Although, he sincerely hoped his background wouldn’t go against him. Privilege sometimes had the opposite effect of what one might think it would provide, which was benefit. Utilisation of one’s resources was what separated the successful and happy from the rest of the world. It finally felt like it was his turn. All he ever wanted was to be happy.
London at eleven o’clock in the morning was just as much a nightmare to drive through as it was during rush-hour. It seemed the congestion charge did very little except provide a way for the government to make money off people who needed to get to the poshest buildings in the city. They certainly hadn’t put the profits to use widening roads—not that they could. London was pretty set in stone with regards to the traffic system. One couldn’t push the buildings a little to the left or right to create another lane, although that was an entirely different issue.
Damian could have had their chauffeur drive, but he wanted to be in his own space before the interview. Sitting in the back of the family limo wasn’t quite his idea of getting in the correct frame of mind. He was hopeful, although feeling entirely ill-prepared. This wasn’t his idea to begin with.
“You’ve been on my mind ever since I acquired the company,” Brayden James had said at his wedding reception. “Just think about it. I’ll have the job description sent. Interviews will be scheduled after we return from honeymoon.”
As if those words had been programmed to stay at the forefront of his every thought, Damian heard them every day. When he woke in the morning the conversation was fresh, as if he and Brayden had it only moments before. Having returned from Berlin just as dissatisfied as when he’d left, Damian didn’t expect to take Brayden seriously. The last two years felt like he’d been sitting in a tiny wooden boat on unpleasant waters as he waited and watched to see if it would sink. It felt like every decision he made was right at the time, until it proved to be wrong. Booking a year-long cruise on Cunard turned into one month at sea only to return to the same cold and depressing England from which he’d escaped, having gained nothing but further dissatisfaction. Feeling unworthy of his very large trust fund was of no comfort. Thus, the formality of his childhood home, Greystone Hall, had become a burden when most people would have found it to be a blessing. The difference was familiarity. Familiarity breeds contempt. Apparently, it was true. It had been true for Damian. Being too close to money made him apathetic and insecure.
Damian had been back and forth several times from Berlin, having stayed with an old friend from boarding school who moved there for business. He kept being drawn back home even whilst resenting it. He watched the situation whereby Brayden adopted Alice and started a new life as her father. His elder brother Bennett managed to find a girl to love him in all his glory of being stern and particular and just… Bennett. They married quickly. His parents’ marriage went from a strangely proud disdain to fascinatingly intimate in a matter of weeks. Anabelle Greyson went from the preferred Fowler and James’ family events coordinator through Tweed to Brayden’s wife.
Whilst Damian had been in that little boat watching the world around him, he’d also been trying to figure out what his should look like. There were familial expectations—some of which were wrongly assumed on his part. Uncertainty. Jealousy, and a lot of other active words ending in ‘y’ that were unhealthy (see?). Damian had done absolutely nothing about his resentment except run away and, admittedly, the tactic was a terrible pacifier. Resentment followed him. The morning he woke and read the email from Tweed was when he decided the conversation with Brayden would be properly considered. A shift of the heaviness he carried most of his life was felt.
“My right of way,” Damian said with a shake of his head as a BMW wedged its bonnet between his Bentley and the adjacent Peugeot. “And this is a new car.”
The sound of beeping from behind caused him to glance in the rear-view mirror with the kind of raised eyebrow that made him closely resemble his elder brother. Was this the commute he could expect if he was persuaded by the interview? Perhaps using the family chauffeur made sense if his Bentley was in danger of being tapped, scratched or breathed-on wrong. He’d traded in his previous new car for the new XJ and the cycle would most likely continue, meaning his desire to squash opportunities for tapping, scratching and breathing-on-wrong would be ever present with increased use.
Tweed Events had a valet service for clients and guests. Impressive. Damian handed his keys to a uniformed man dutifully standing outside the gorgeous Victorian building. Identical potted topiary trees on either side of the door caused the place to look more like a hotel than a bespoke events company. It was charming.
Damian was greeted the moment he stepped foot onto the black and white chequered flooring of the elegant bijou entryway. There was a chandelier overhead which accentuated the beautiful moulding, and a French armoire where clients hung their coats. Damian wasn’t wearing one over his suit that morning.
“Good morning. My name is Lucy. Do come in.”
Lucy was cute. She led him down the main corridor, bypassing a set of white stairs with a curling bannister to a glass door framed in wood to the first room on the left. It was the original parlour from when the building had operated as a family home. Now, it was the sophisticated setting for Tweed Events, an equally sophisticated company for the most discerning of clients and their celebrations.
“Would you like a coffee or tea, Mr. Fowler?” Lucy asked once she led him into the elegantly furnished room.
“I’ve been told this office has an espresso machine.”
She smiled warmly. “Yes, sir.”
“A doubleshot would be lovely, then. Thank you, Lucy.”
She smiled and a subtle blush coloured just beneath her eyes. “I shall let the staff know. Mr. James won’t be a moment.”
He watched her close the wood-framed glass door and then continued watching until she disappeared. She reminded him of Elisabeth.
A look around the room was all he had time for because, as expected, Brayden was always prompt.
“Damian. Good morning.”
He turned to find his elder brother’s best friend standing in the doorway. Brayden looked just as he always did; handsomely tailored suit, obediently sweeping brown hair over his forehead, and striking cheekbones that produced a serious appearance. He was, too.
They shook hands and then Damian followed his friend down the corridor past Anabelle’s office. The door was open and he noticed she was on the phone. The corner of his mouth moved into a small smile. Damian didn’t have any biological sisters, but since his brother married, he acquired Elisabeth as a sister-in-law, and with Brayden considered part of the Fowler family, Anabelle became another.
Brayden’s office was situated behind a beautiful wooden door which was closed on arrival to keep conversation private. There were tremendous views of the private courtyard and city garden out of the picture window beyond Brayden’s desk. The space was small by the standards both men lived by, but it was a pleasant office. The office butler, Simon, appeared with a small tray from which he offered Damian an espresso.
“Will there be anything else, Mr. James?”
“No. Thank you, Simon.”
Tweed was a pleasant environment that gave more the impression of a well-run household than an office. It was a lot like the home Damian grew up in. Formal, quiet atmosphere, and butler. Very familiar indeed.
“You have an office butler.”
Brayden was not a working man, he just owned the company. He didn’t need to work, and especially now, being married, with Alice at home, it was purposeless to continue the routine of running Tweed when his new family dynamic was at its most tender. This was a season for passing the gauntlet.
“I’m pleased you gave our conversation further consideration and responded to Lucy’s email.”
Damian took the chair on the opposite side of the desk and folded his hands. “So am I. There is quite an affable atmosphere here.”
“Yes, there is now.”
He looked at Brayden pointedly and dared to get right to the point. “And you thought I might be the one to carry it forward.”
Brayden sat in a traditional brown leather tufted chair with nail head trim behind the desk, and perhaps that image made his next words more solemn. After all, atmosphere stirred emotions.
“I bought this company for one specific reason; rather, to get the attention of one particular woman. I have since won and married her, and now I want to spend my time at home with her and Alice. Waldorf can finally return to its proper identity as a home built to watch a family grow instead of what it has been doing, and that is to watch us leave every morning. It isn’t ideal that, as owner and CEO, I am here only a few days after my honeymoon whilst your brother and sister-in-law watch our daughter, and my new wife is down the corridor in her office.”
He understood perfectly where Brayden was coming from.
“Ana has been gradually transitioning seven years’ worth of her career to Lucy, and I wish to make my own transference in good timing so that we may leave together. I have fewer doors to close because upon acquisition, I hired intermediaries to provide day-to-day management. Prior to the wedding I took meetings via phone and video chat, and visited bi-monthly. However, now that I’m fully transitioning out of active CEO to simply owner, I need to ensure it is put in the hands of someone I can trust.”
Damian swallowed the small lump that formed in his throat. Having known Brayden James nearly his entire life didn’t make the conversation any less nervy. There had always been an unspoken hierarchy in the bounds of their relationship because of how Damian and Bennett, and even Brayden, were raised. What was more, Bennett and Brayden met at boarding school at the age of eight, when Damian was six. Damian often still felt like a prep-schooler tagging along to his elder brother and Brayden’s friendship. The adoption of Alice two years earlier hadn’t done much to shift that feeling. Now, Brayden needed someone to trust, and was Damian to understand that someone was him?
“With all due respect,” Damian mused, “surely there is someone who went to university for business management. Someone who has proper experience in the working world. I have never even had a job before. Aside from briefly sitting on Father’s board, my resume consists of my name and telephone number.”
“Mr. Seagram, Tweed’s former Operations Manager, had the highest honours in his education, which consisted of two degrees relating to business. He had his own company at your age, served on a non-profit board, was former President of a top five publishing house prior to coming to Tweed, and now he is out of a job. Mr. Seagram knew nothing of people or running a business that was customer service oriented, nor did he care about either. The last thing I’m about to do is put my employees in the hands of someone who is impressive on paper and completely empty on the inside.”
“May I ask?”
“Why you? Because there are characteristics you’ve developed since birth due to your upbringing. Very few people are raised the way you and I were, Damian. It’s a gift to have attributes like integrity, self-control and humility. They are not easily taught at your age; they develop with age. I cannot hire someone and hope for those characteristics to appear. I need someone who already has them.”
That was validation if he’d ever heard it. Brayden was good at that, though; bringing people to the point at which they realised their worth. Even when the three of them boarded at school, Brayden had always been the one to put an arm around Damian when he was homesick. Now that they were all grown up, Brayden was still the one to metaphorically embrace and uplift people, more through conversation than anything else. Although he wasn’t too proud to offer a man-cuddle to his close friends once in a while.
“Without wanting to get entirely personal, I am curious about what your father thinks.”
“It’s unavoidable. We’ve known each other since we were lads. Your daughter is my niece, and my parents are like your parents. We shouldn’t mind entirely personal being mentioned in this conversation.”
“That is a fair point.”
Damian crossed one leg over the other the way his elder brother often did. “As you know, since I’ve come back from Berlin I’ve been living at home. To say the atmosphere is cumbersome would be polite.”
“My father and I had one conversation regarding my desire for a career, and that was months ago. We are civil, and I make a point to be away from Greystone often.”
“You realise that if we don’t consider him in all of this, it will cause unpleasantness. He is your father and my father fill-in.”
“I’m willing to consider him. I’m just not willing to alter the path of my life for him.”
Brayden nodded whilst straightening a leather notebook on the desk before him. “With any other candidate, I would not ask such a question, but I have no other candidates in mind.”
Damian felt his eyebrows furrow. He’d waited years to figure out what to do with his trust fund and his life, only to feel every door slam in his face. There was a golden opportunity on a platter served directly to him and rather out of the blue. Why were things suddenly lining up?
“I need someone to be here three days during the work week; someone who will respect and champion the changes I’ve put in place since Mr. Seagram’s departure. My employees need to be able to transfer the trust and loyalty I’ve earned from them to the new boss, and it must be someone who isn’t just looking for a healthy wage packet.”
“I can safely say that I do not require the wage.”
“I know.” Brayden opened a folder and slid it toward him. “Nevertheless, we have a healthy wage packet, which is inclusive of a manner of working to ensure this office is successful, but not overworked. The salary is listed there.”
Damian readjusted his posture, as if getting comfortable with the six figures Brayden pointed to. He had several times more than that in his trust fund, but this was different. It would be independently earned money with no strings attached.
“Forty-hour work weeks do nothing for the company or employees. Everyone has been more motivated since I changed the culture, which includes reduced working hours and increased benefits.”
“Really?” Hypothetical question.
“Not only did Mr. Seagram run this office on overload with an added touch of dictatorship, but no one could move up in rank, employee ideas were dismissed, and interns weren’t paid or offered permanent roles. There certainly was no such thing as a raise.”
“Anabelle has been here since university?”
“She has, but she is very loyal. It took me buying the company and removing Hamish Seagram before she realised that the level of obstruction this team worked under was not only appalling, but quite illegal.”
“What sort of path have you taken?” Damian asked.
“The changes I implemented are influenced by a combination of Sweden’s controlled trials of reducing work week hours, as well as my own values for what I believe creates an ideal work setting. When people are offered the choice to work hard versus being bullied into doing so, they usually make the choice themselves.”
“As someone who has never worked a day in his life, I still feel I could agree to that ideal.”
“There is a distinct difference between a company that operates for profit and one where the owner is not desperate for its bottom line to increase at an alarming rate. With that in mind, I’ve implemented several boundaries here and drastically altered the office culture. It took a few weeks to break off the old mindset they were accustomed to. What of the changes?”
Brayden turned the page and sat back in the chair as if waiting for Damian to answer for him, which he did.
“Your profits rose thirty percent in four months.”
Damian’s eyes returned to the charts. The office was quiet for a few moments until he seemed to drink in enough information to continue the conversation.
“So, what is that distinct difference between companies that operate for profit and ones where the owner isn’t desperate for the bottom line to increase at an alarming rate?”
“The difference is when I wasn’t desperate for the bottom line, my team made it happen of their own desire,” Brayden reported.
Damian turned the page and devoured more information. “How is that possible?”
“I felt it was common sense to reduce working hours, create incentives, encourage team trips and implement their creative ideas. The board challenged me until they saw the numbers and then half of them quit out of embarrassment. When people are given permission and the resources to do their best, they will. Don’t forget that.”
It was quiet again between the childhood friends as Damian turned back a page and analysed the chart again.
“Does this office operate normal business hours?”
“It does, on a modified schedule. Phones aren’t answered and clients are never scheduled from 11:45 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday because we eat lunch together in the newly renovated dining room. We have a chef who cooks the meal, and Simon serves.”
Damian raised his eyebrows. He couldn’t expect much less from Brayden James, though.
“I know Ana and many of the others used to skip lunch, or at best, eat as they worked. So, I put a boundary around lunch time and the only way to ensure they took eyes away from their screens and left their desks was to provide the opportunity. There is also a courtyard and garden out through the back doors, which many of them enjoy briefly in the day. We have an espresso machine run by Simon, who delivers it upon request. Now, with all these lovely benefits come high expectations in their work, as well as displaying integrity and honour. I expect younger employees to show proper respect to elder ones, transparency in all manner of work and targets to be hit on time. This company is also now supportive of growing employees to their full potential. Anyone who wishes to develop professionally need only ask and we will sponsor courses or conferences to support them. Fridays will eventually become half-days and working at home is always an option, although no one seems interested. They all want to be here.”
Damian knew his face communicated the intrigue and pleasant surprise he felt at Brayden’s interpretation of changing office culture. “I hardly know what to say. These results are practically unheard of. It’s quite remarkable.”
“It is treating people with respect and creating a culture of honour. It costs nothing and yields these sorts of results.” Brayden nodded toward the book compiled of evidence that backed up his claim.
“I would say so.” Damian breathed in as he closed the book and put it on the desk.
“But, what if I can’t maintain the glory of all you’ve implemented? What if I took the position and you never saw anything like that thirty percent profit again?”
“It isn’t your job to get the clients and maintain them. My team knows what they are doing,” Brayden said with a nod toward the door. “Should you accept, you would be here to look after them. Champion them. Be the accountability and stability this office needs. You lead from the quiet place; from behind, where hardly anyone sees you. True leadership is quiet and confident. Not loud and boastful.”
Damian took in everything Brayden said. It wasn’t a complicated job; it was just a job that required selflessness. He wouldn’t be there to shine—he would position the team so that they could. Brayden’s was a perspective Damian had never heard in all his exposure to business (through his father), but one he trusted simply because of who it came from. There was no motivation on Brayden’s part to make more money for himself, and there was enough capital in Tweed to retire everyone into incredible comfort right there and then. Everything Brayden had done was for the benefit of those who worked there. Damian wasn’t sure he was good enough to do any of it.
“Since coming back from honeymoon, Anabelle and I have been here during the week. This isn’t exactly what I had in mind as a start to our new family dynamic. We should be at home with Alice. Instead, your brother and Elisabeth are looking after her until we can phase out.”
“I know how it feels to lose popularity with Alice.”
Brayden sat back in his chair whilst maintaining upright posture. “Despite that, I’m more concerned about you losing popularity with your father.”
“We are hardly speaking, so I wouldn’t be concerned about that detail.”
“Do you feel this would aggravate the situation?”
“He thinks of you as a son, Brayden. You may be the only one of us boys who can escape his wrath.”
“Thinking of me as a son is not quite the same as you really being his son.”
Damian considered the point, although he knew his parents would adamantly reject Brayden’s biological assignment as something to sway their esteem.
“For your benefit, I should like you to not only consider my offer, but also tell your father about it. I know you two haven’t always agreed on the position of your future and I don’t wish to come between you.”
“For what it’s worth, I don’t plan to hold any further interviews.”
* * *
It was worth a lot, and far more than Damian would ever say. Directness wasn’t a British trait, culturally or personally. Although his time in Berlin had slightly challenged that. German people were quite direct. They often said exactly what it was they were feeling. The distinct difference between England and mainland Europe could be summed up in this example of a conversation:
Brit: Hello there. All right?
German: Nein. Mir geht’s schlecht. No. I feel bad.
Brit: Oh dear. I’ll put the kettle on and we’ll discuss the weather.
German: You just asked how I was feeling. Don’t you want to know more?
Brit: No, I was just being polite. I’m not actually bothered about how you’re feeling. *Clicks tongue* It’s going to rain soon.
That was precisely how Damian had experienced culture on the continent during his time away. There was the directness of acknowledging, commenting and thanking people for their words whether they were easily received or not. However, he slipped back into the familiarity of geographical enlightenment upon reacquainting himself with British soil. Even now, as he felt undeservedly flattered by Brayden’s belief and encouragement, it would have been strange to say so. Damian buried the words of affirmation deep inside as he sat in the driver’s seat and turned the key.
Only a short while ago this was what he had wanted: a career, independence from familial expectations, money to live on that wasn’t supplied by his trust fund. There in front of him lay the opportunity for a career and independently earned funds (that he didn’t even need if he took his trust). The second concern was familial expectations. Whilst they were a lot less complicated than previously understood, his father had vaguely backtracked since addressing the subject. Not long ago, Jonathan Fowler had called each member of the family into his study and apologised for his failings in whatever way was relevant to them. In that discussion, Damian touched on the entrapment he felt at being a Fowler, and inadvertently exploded. The whole living off of his trust fund with no real purpose in life annoyed him. That conversation had occurred right around the time his parents’ marriage changed and since then, Damian had a few shallow conversations over brandies that led him to believe his father’s humble high had deflated.
That one poignant exchange with his father left Damian wishing he hadn’t returned to Greystone Hall after what was his final trip to Berlin. At one time, he vowed not to return to Greystone. However, having failed (unable to bring himself) to extract the full trust fund and organise a replacement residency due to the never-ending conflict between familiarity and principle, it meant he did nothing. Back to familiarity he went. It wasn’t as if they were living on top of one another. Greystone Hall had fifteen bedrooms and more than 40,000 square feet of living space, not to mention the nine acres of Italian gardens and surrounding wild berry bushes for distraction.
In hindsight, Damian realised that poignant exchange with his father had brushed over some significant points that had long been plaguing him. None had been brought to completion because he was far too cross and antagonistic to address them properly. In fact, Damian’s last words were, “you just used to ignore her when she cried,” in reference to his father’s passive regard to his mother prior to their miraculous marriage improvement.
That was the last serious discussion they had, because every further exchange was as brief and polite as possible. Short bouts of interaction with his father was the only way Damian felt in control of the volcano of resentment rumbling beneath the surface of his emotionally short-changed childhood. Since then, Damian dined out with friends and accepted regular meal-time invitations to Barton-Court or Waldorf. There was, of course, the wedding of Brayden and Anabelle, but being a groomsman meant there hadn’t been time to disagree with his father even if they had spent the entire weekend in proximity.
The opportunity Brayden offered with Tweed might just change everything for him.