Shades of Light

by Melody Carlson

First there are shades of sorrow, then shades of hope. Will Gwen find shades of light?

When her only child leaves home for college, widowed Gwen Sullivan discovers just how lonely an “empty nest” can be. How will she adjust and fill her empty days?

At the urging of friends, Gwen takes a job with an interior designer—whom she soon discovers to be domineering and jealous of Gwen’s creativity. Suddenly she’s stuck doing menial tasks. When a sleazy client starts to harass her, Gwen begins to wonder if she’s cut out for the working world.

She eventually meets Oliver Black, who gives her an opportunity to use her decorating skills, and suddenly Gwen sees herself in a more confident light. But Oliver is a man of many secrets, and Gwen wonders if she can trust her heart to him.

Chapter 1

“Gwen, I think it’s about time you began to have a life,” Candice said breezily as she moved across the patio refilling the glasses of the many guests. Gwen glanced around self-consciously, then forced a laugh. It was so like Candice Mallard to launch a campaign to reinvent Gwen’s life in the company of strangers.

“I have a life, Candice,” Gwen said in an apologetic tone. She stood, picked up an empty appetizer plate, and began to move toward the kitchen. “And if you want to have a dinner, I better go and check on the lamb.” She hoped her exasperation didn’t show in her voice.

Candice laughed. “Yes, my dear, go check on the lovely lamb. One would think that I had invited you here tonight just so you could help out in the kitchen.”

Gwen smiled. “You mean you didn’t?”

Now it was Candice who looked slightly uncomfortable, and for that Gwen was sorry. Sorry for her words, but even more sorry that she was probably right. She went into Candice’s efficient-looking kitchen and checked the oversized convection oven. It was a dream kitchen, but mostly a showplace because Candice rarely cooked. Since she occasionally brought her clients here to discuss elements of kitchen design, she had used her kitchen as a tax write-off.

The lamb was just fine and probably wouldn’t be ready for another thirty minutes. Gwen heard footsteps coming her way and knew it would be Candice. Not quite ready for the rest of their conversation, Gwen slipped into the back bathroom. She turned on the faucet and looked blankly into the mirror.

Was Candice right? Did Gwen really have no life? Gwen’s brown eyes stared back at her, but they seemed unfamiliar—dull and sad. People used to say that she had fire in her eyes. It was probably only due to the flecks of gold around the irises, but she used to believe it was because she had a passion for life—a fire burning inside. But for the last two years that passion had been dormant. And now she wondered if she would ever get it back. She pushed a dark brown curl behind her ear and examined her face more closely. The remnant of a summer tan almost obliterated the sprinkling of freckles across her nose, but at least there were no signs of wrinkles yet.

“Gwen,” Candice called as she knocked at the door. “I know you’re in there. Are you okay? I’m sorry I said that. You know how I am. Gary says words just shoot out my mouth before they ever pass through my brain.”

Gwen blew her nose and opened the door. “It’s okay, Candice. I’m sorry, too. It’s just that this is—you know—a difficult time.”

Candice wrapped her arms around Gwen. “I know, honey. That’s why I asked you over tonight. I figured that with Aubrey just going off to college, you’re probably suffering a case of empty-nest syndrome.”

Gwen bristled at the label. “I wouldn’t call it that, Candice. It’s more than that. I mean, it’s barely been two years since I lost David, and—”

“And, and—” Candice threw her hands in the air. “I don’t want to hear another word, Gwen. I invited you here tonight to have some fun and meet some people. You’re too young to give up on life. Come on back out. You’ve hardly met anyone. You know, Gary has a friend he wants you to meet. He’s an attorney, too. New in town. Recently divorced.”

“Just what I need,” said Gwen.

“Oh, don’t be such a wet blanket.”

Gwen obediently followed Candice back out to the patio and settled into a wrought-iron chair. Already Candice was making her rounds again. She had always been socially adept. Even in grade school, it was Candice who made things happen. As a child, Gwen had been intimidated by Candice’s outspoken confidence. Even when they became better friends in high school, Gwen had always maintained a safe distance. They had never been best friends. Gwen had never trusted Candice that much.

Like the rest of her house, Candice’s patio was perfection. With terracotta tile and massive fern and flower-filled pots, heavy wrought-iron furniture, and a fountain splashing pleasantly in the corner, it could have been Rome. It was lovely, but with the vine-covered patio roof, it was a little on the dark side for Gwen’s taste.

Gwen liked light. She never seemed to get enough of it. Candice on the other hand seemed to thrive on darkness. She said it was cozy. She liked rich colors, heavy ornate drapes, and dark, massive furnishings. Apparently her clients did, too, because her interior design business seemed to be thriving.

“Gwen, come on over here,” called Candice. “I want you to meet Mary and Ray Powers. They just bought the Randall estate last year. Ray’s in investments, and Mary’s a real-estate agent.” She turned to the couple. “And Gwen Sullivan is an old friend of mine. She lives just down the street. As you’ve probably heard, she’s also an excellent cook, and she’s overseeing the main dish for dinner tonight.”

“Nice to meet you, Gwen,” said the pretty blond woman. “Candice is redecorating our home. And doing a fantastic job, I might add.”

“And for what she charges, it had better be spectacular,” said the man with a lopsided grin that looked as if he was partly serious.

Candice playfully punched him in the arm. “From what I hear, you can afford it, Ray. Mary told me you just made a killing last week.”

Ray grimaced. “A killing one day, killed the next. Don’t let one good week give you any grandiose ideas, Candice. I don’t want to come home to find a Picasso hanging in my bathroom.”

Candice tilted her head to one side. “No, Ray, I was thinking more along the lines of Renoir. You know how Mary goes for the more romantic style.” Candice smiled slyly and began to move to the other end of the patio, chatting and joking as she went.

Mary laughed and then quickly changed the subject. “And what do you do, Gwen?”

Gwen took in a deep breath. What did she do? “Well, I’ve mostly been a homemaker.” She paused. “Of course, I’ve always been involved in community things and whatnot. The garden club and school functions. But now with my daughter going off to college—”

“No way,” interrupted Ray. “You can’t possibly have a daughter old enough for college.”

Gwen nodded. “It’s true. We started our family earlier than people do nowadays.”

“You must have been in preschool.” Ray chuckled.

“Thanks,” said Gwen. “Actually it’s nice having a grown daughter. She’s been a very good friend.”

“And what does your husband do?” asked Ray. His wife elbowed him. “I’m sorry, Gwen. I get in trouble for that all the time. I know I shouldn’t presume that you are married.” Ray reminded her of a five-year-old repeating an apology that he’d been forced to give more than once.

“Actually, my husband was killed in a car wreck almost two years ago.”

“I’m so sorry,” Mary said with true empathy. She gently squeezed Gwen’s arm.

“It was hard at first, but at least Aubrey and I had each other. She is a lot like her dad. In fact, she even got a basketball scholarship at the same college my husband played for more than twenty years ago.”

“She must be pretty good,” said Ray. “I didn’t think they gave out too many basketball scholarships to women.”

Gwen smiled. “She led her high-school team to state three years in a row.”

“Impressive,” said Ray. “Come to think of it, I remember reading about it in the paper.”

“So, now that your daughter is off to college,” said Mary, “do you have any career interests that you plan to pursue?”

Gwen thought for a moment. “Oh, I suppose I have some old dreams. But they’re probably not very realistic.” She glanced over at Candice. “I don’t have any formal training like Candice, but I’ve always enjoyed interior decor. I used to work in my husband’s furniture store—for customers, you know. But I really enjoyed it, and some people thought I had a knack for decorating. It was fun.”

“No kidding?” said Mary. “You should be working with Candice.”

“Oh, I don’t think so—” began Gwen.

“Seriously,” said Mary. “Candice told me just last week that she was shorthanded and needed to hire someone. With your daughter going off to college and all, it would be a nice change of pace for you.”

“Oh, I don’t think that Candice—” But once again Gwen was cut off.

“It would be perfect!” exclaimed Mary triumphantly. Ray was nodding, too.

“Candice,” called Ray. “Come back here. We have just come up with a splendid idea for you.”

Gwen looked on in horror as Ray and Mary proceeded to tell Candice that they had found the answer to all her problems. “And now you have no excuse for not finishing up our house in time for Thanksgiving,” proclaimed Ray.

“And may I inquire as to who this wonder woman might be?” Candice asked with an audible edge to her voice. Gwen couldn’t bear to look up. For the second time she wished she hadn’t come tonight.

“Why she’s been sitting right under your nose,” Mary said as she patted Gwen’s knee. “Your friend Gwen has an interest in interior decorating. And with her daughter going off to college, I’d say the timing is just perfect.”

“And,” Ray said in an almost accusatory tone, “haven’t you been saying that you were shorthanded?”

Candice looked at Gwen with raised brows. “I seriously doubt that Gwen would want to work for me.”

Mary looked at Gwen. “I don’t know why not. What do you think, Gwen?”

Gwen forced a laugh. “I don’t think that Candice would really be interested in hiring me,” she said uncomfortably. If only this conversation could end. “I wonder if I should go check on the lamb, Candice?”

“That sounds like a good idea,” said Candice stiffly.

Gwen could still hear Mary and Ray continue to prod Candice about their new idea as she went into the house. The pair of them reminded her of overzealous matchmakers—good intentions but slightly obsessed.

She checked the lamb again and gave it a final basting. It looked like it would be done soon. Perhaps it would be safer to wait in the kitchen until Candice forgot about the Powers’s suggestion. She sat down at the little desk that Candice had neatly designed into a corner of the kitchen and absently began to flip through the interior design magazine lying there. She used to study these magazines with real interest. But she hadn’t picked one up since David’s death. Shortly after his funeral she had been cashed out of David’s portion of the family furniture business and politely told that her skills were no longer needed in the store. It had hurt at the time, but there had been so much other pain that she hadn’t really noticed until it was too late. By then David’s brother’s wife had taken over that part of the business. But it wasn’t long before several former customers crossed Gwen’s path and hinted that the new decorator was not nearly as talented as Gwen. It seemed all Shawna wanted to do was sweet pastels with flowers and frills. And while it was reassuring to Gwen to know that her skills were missed, it was too late to do anything about it as far as the furniture store went.

“So, here is my little kitchen slave,” said Candice.

“It seemed like a safe haven.” Gwen stood and faced Candice. “I’m really sorry about the Powers. Believe me, I had no idea they were going to pull something like that. Please, don’t give it another thought, Candice.”

“Now, don’t be so hasty, Gwen. I must admit that it took me by surprise. It’s true, I had been thinking about hiring someone. But I did want someone with more experience.”

“What kind of experience?” asked Gwen, with an unexpected feeling of hopefulness. “You do remember that I used to run the interior design department at Sullivan’s.”

Candice frowned. “No offense intended, Gwen, but Sullivan’s Fine Furnishings is pretty small potatoes compared to the clientele I deal with. Besides, I need someone with more office skills.”

“Maybe I could learn those things, Candice. At least I have a pretty good understanding of decor. I know how to measure for window coverings, flooring, and whatever, and I have excellent furniture knowledge—”

“This isn’t an interview, Gwen.”

“I’m sorry.” Gwen went over to check on the lamb again, keeping her back to Candice. She knew that the idea of working for Candice was probably insane. The smartest thing would be to drop the idea right now.

“It’s not that I wouldn’t like to give you a job, Gwen.”

Gwen carefully removed the steaming lamb from the oven. It looked perfect. “I better check the mint sauce,” she said as she put the pot holders away.

“Oh, what the heck,” said Candice. “Why don’t you give it a try?”

“What?” Gwen asked, turning to look at Candice.

“Why don’t you come in on Monday? We can give it a shot. And if it doesn’t work out after a few weeks, we’ll still be friends, okay?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I mean this is so unexpected. It could be a big mistake, Candice. And I haven’t even had time to give it any serious thought.”

“What’s there to think about? It’s a job. And you probably need something to keep you busy. And I don’t know how good David’s insurance was, but you have a kid in college, and that can’t be cheap.”

Gwen thought about that. Finances were not a problem, but she knew that wouldn’t always be the case. “Well, if you really think you’d want me, I could give it a try. I am a hard worker.”

Candice nodded. “I know you are, honey. I just hope this is the right thing for both of us. Now, let’s let Tammy finish up in here. Besides you still haven’t met Willis Newman.”

“The divorced lawyer?”

“Let’s just think of him as a single attorney, dear,” Candice said with a smirk. “It sounds more flattering, don’t you think?”

“Whatever you say, boss.” Gwen wiped off her hands and followed Candice back out to where the guests were beginning to drift into the spacious house.

“I can feel autumn in the air,” said Candice brightly. “Don’t you just love this time of year?”

“I like the fall foliage, but I don’t like the way the days get shorter. I miss the sunshine.”

“Oh, that’s right.” Candice laughed. “You’re one of those light deprivation people, aren’t you? Isn’t that called SADS? What does that mean anyway? That you’re sad all the time?”

Before Gwen could answer, Candice was introducing her to a slightly bald man who looked to be at least fifteen years older than Gwen. “Willis is with Hadley and Gunderson but Gary has been trying to get him to join forces with him. You know Samuel Green is getting ready to retire.”

“So, I take it that means you specialize in criminal law?” said Gwen politely.

“Not exactly. But before I came here I worked for the DA in Brandon. And criminal law has always fascinated me.”

“I’m always curious about that,” Gwen said as she studied his slightly puffy face. “It’s hard to understand why someone wants to defend criminals.”

“Oh, no,” Candice said with mock horror. “Don’t get her going on that subject, Willis. I completely forgot about her crusade against criminal lawyers. I won’t even let her and Gary discuss this anymore.”

Willis grinned. “I’m not worried, Candice. I’m a lawyer. Arguing is what I do for a living.”

 “I suppose you can hold your own then.” Candice laughed and began to mingle again.

“So, I take it you are not fond of attorneys who defend criminals?”

Gwen shook her head. “That’s not exactly true. I completely agree that everyone has the right to a fair trial. And I think there are cases, especially when innocent people are accused of criminal acts, when the sharpest lawyers are needed. But I’ve seen some lawyers who skew or even obscure truth and justice just to keep their clients out of jail. Innocence or guilt don’t seem to come into play a lot of the time. Take O. J. Simpson—”

“So you think the Juice is guilty?”

“Doesn’t everyone?”

“The jury didn’t seem to.” Willis smiled. He reminded Gwen of a lion licking his chops just before he devoured his prey.

Just as they were thoroughly embroiled, it was time to sit down to dinner. Thankfully, Candice had not arranged the seating, and Gwen managed to politely slip away from Willis and sit by Mary Powers.

“So, did you get the job?” Mary asked as she passed the rolls.

“We’re going to give it a try,” said Gwen. “We’ve agreed that if it doesn’t work out, we will remain friends.”

“That sounds like a wise plan. And if it works out, you can thank me by taking me out to lunch.”

“It’s a deal,” agreed Gwen. She liked Mary. It would be fun to get better acquainted with her.

For the rest of the evening, Gwen managed to avoid Willis. She was tired of arguing with him. And he reminded her of the defense lawyer who had defended the drunken driver who had killed David. That had been just over a year ago, but it was during the trial that she had begun to question the ethics and morals of criminal lawyers. Although the defendant had been driving with a suspended license, due to other drunk-driving convictions, he had only been charged with manslaughter. But even so, his attorney had managed to get him off with what seemed a mere slap on the hand.

Finally, the crowd began to thin a little, and Gwen told Candice and Gary thank you and good night.

“I hope my friend Willis didn’t get your dander up,” teased Gary as he walked Gwen to the front porch.

“No, I probably irritated him more than he did me.”

“Say, Candice told me you’re coming to work for her. Are you sure you can stand working in the same building as a criminal law firm?” Gary was smiling, but Gwen could hear the seriousness in his voice.

Gwen answered lightly. “We’ll just have to set some ground rules, Gary. I won’t bug you if you don’t bug me.”

Gary laughed. “Shall I write up an official agreement?”

“No, I think a handshake will do. Thanks again, Gary. It was a fun evening. Even sparring with Willis was sort of interesting in a weird way.”

Gwen walked home alone. She knew almost every neighbor on the street, and her house was only a block away. She and David had purchased their home just before Aubrey started first grade. Several years later, Candice and Gary Mallard moved in down the street. At first Gwen had been delighted to have an old friend so nearby. But before long, she realized that Gary and David could hardly tolerate one another. So up until the last two years, Gwen had rarely socialized with the Mallards or their friends. David had always called them yuppie social climbers. And David was too down-to-earth to go in for such things. Not that Gwen had been overly eager to befriend the Mallards. But Candice, with all her faults, was rather fun and outgoing. And after several hot confrontations with Gary, Gwen had learned to avoid conversations like the one she had shared with Willis tonight.

Gwen unlocked the door and let herself into her house. She had been careful to leave on the porch light as well as several interior lights. As she closed the door behind her, she sighed. Ah, so good to be home. Her house felt light and airy, especially after being in the Mallard’s dark home. Gwen kicked off her shoes and sank into the soft, white chenille sofa. It wasn’t until Aubrey had started high school that they had gotten white furniture. Up until then, Gwen had wanted a child-friendly home. Not that it was unfriendly now. There were plenty of vibrant splotches of color on pillows and throws and other accent pieces. And Aubrey had always enjoyed their home. But now Aubrey was gone.

Gwen picked up the phone and dialed the number that she already knew by heart.

“Hi, Aubrey. How’s it going?”

“Fine, Mom. What’s up?”

“Oh, I just wanted to hear your voice.”

“Uh-huh,” said Aubrey. She sounded different, slightly distant.

“Is everything okay, honey?”

“Yes, Mom.” Gwen could hear the trace of irritation in her daughter’s voice. “You’ve called me every single day this week. Is this going to go on all year?”

“No, sweetheart. I’m sorry. It’s just that I miss you so much. And this was your first week at school.”

“I know. And I miss you too. But it’s not like I moved out of the state. I’m only a twenty-minute drive away. I’m just hoping that you’re not going to call me every night.”

“I won’t. After this week, I’ll be better. I promise.” Gwen’s voiced brightened. “But I did have a piece of news for you, unless you’re too busy to listen.” She carefully placed her words before Aubrey like a tasty piece of bait.

“No, I’m not busy. What is it?”

“Well, I’m going to go to work.”

“Good for you!” Aubrey sounded sincerely glad. “What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to work for Candice Mallard.”

“Interior design?”

“Yes, she’s needing help. And we’re going to try it out and see how it goes.”

“Oh, Mom, that’s the best news. I’m so happy for you. You’re a great interior decorator. Everyone says so. You are going to be so happy!”

Aubrey’s happy words were like a tonic to her heart. “I’m excited about it, too. A little nervous though.”

“Well, don’t be. I think you’re way more talented than Candice.”

Gwen laughed. “Well, you’re my daughter, so you’d have to say that. Just don’t say it to anyone else.”

“No, really, Mom. Her house is so gloomy and dark. Everything seems old and way too traditional. But the things you do with interiors are always exciting and full of life. Like my room, Mom. All my friends thought it was way cool. In fact, I miss it a little.”

“You do?” Gwen smiled. “Thanks, Aubrey. I think I needed to hear that.”

“When do you go to work?”

“Monday. And I’m already getting the first-day jitters.”

“Well, call me Monday night and tell me how it goes.”

“You don’t mind if I call you then?”

“Well, as long as you can hold yourself back a little and not call me every night. I don’t want the girls in the dorm to think I’m a mommy’s girl.”

Gwen laughed. “Don’t worry, Aubrey. I don’t think anyone would ever think that of you.” Gwen imagined her beautiful, almost six-foot-tall daughter.

“Well, the girls are getting ready to make an ice cream run. I don’t want them to leave without me.”

“I won’t keep you then, Aubrey. Have fun.” Gwen was about to hang up. Getting ready, once again, to cut the umbilical cord.

“Hey, I’ve got an idea,” said Aubrey suddenly. “Want to go shopping this weekend? I could help you pick out some work clothes.”

“I’d love it, Aubrey. Do you really want to?”

“Sure, it’d be fun. I’ll meet you at the campus Starbuck’s at ten on Saturday. Then we can head into Seattle. Okay?”

“Sounds great! Thanks, Aubrey.”

Gwen hung up the phone and leaned back into the couch. This was exciting! For the first time in ages, she felt that old creative flame within her beginning to flicker. It felt almost as if she might at last be emerging from a long, dark tunnel of winter. She closed her eyes and whispered a heartfelt thanks to God. She had tried to rest in the assurance that He had been holding her in His hand all this time, but often she had felt isolated and forgotten. Now it seemed a new door was opening for her.

Chapter 2

Gwen spent Sunday evening reorganizing her closet. Jeans and casual clothes were relegated to one side, the side that used to be David’s, and business clothing was hung on the other. She was going to be a working woman now, and she needed to look like one. Aubrey had been great on their shopping expedition; her instincts for fashion were amazing. If Aubrey ever wanted to give up sports she could probably enter the fashion industry fairly easily. And Gwen knew it wasn’t just a mother’s bias. Others noticed Aubrey’s height, good looks, and strong sense of style, and she had been asked about runway modeling more than once in the last couple years.

Gwen sighed. Life was funny. It seemed like only yesterday Gwen had been teaching Aubrey about these things. Now here she was hanging up the new designer suit that Aubrey had insisted was a must. At first, Gwen had pleaded that she never wore brown, but once she tried it on she knew that Aubrey was right. Aubrey hadn’t been too impressed with the dark red wool blazer that Gwen had picked out, but Gwen had convinced her that she needed something perky, too. Finally, Aubrey conceded that people actually wore brown and red together these days, and it might be interesting with the brown skirt. Gwen had also purchased an oatmeal-colored tweed suit that was cut in a very youthful style. She had been slightly concerned that the skirt was a bit on the short side, but Aubrey had insisted that with colored hose and Gwen’s great legs it would be perfect. Gwen chuckled as she remembered that. To think that Aubrey thought her old mom had “great legs” was rather amusing. They had also picked out some accessories and shoes, and finally Aubrey had talked Gwen into getting her hair cut. Gwen had never worn her hair shorter than her shoulders, but once again Aubrey had been right. The short style framed her face perfectly and made her delicate features seem more prominent and dramatic.

Gwen closed her closet door with satisfaction and turned to the stack of interior design magazines that she had piled on her bed. After church, she had stopped by the bookstore and picked up all the latest fall issues, everything from Modern Accent to Country Home. She planned to cram tonight. She wanted to be up on the very latest. Fortunately, as she flipped through the big glossy pages, it didn’t seem that much was new or even surprising. David used to always say that there was nothing new under the sun, and she supposed he was right. But she knew that a creative person could take the ordinary things and turn them into something delightful and unexpected. And that’s what she wanted to do. She drifted to sleep studying a great room that had been redesigned to accommodate Arts and Crafts-style furnishings. And when she awoke it was morning.

She dressed carefully in the oatmeal-colored suit with a fine gauge silk sweater under the neatly fitted jacket. She fastened a thin brown leather belt around her slim waist and slipped her feet into a pair of shoes the same color, then looked in the mirror. Very nice. Candice wouldn’t need to be ashamed of her. She left her house twenty minutes earlier than necessary in order to pick up fresh bagels to share at work. Food was always such a warm way to make new friends.

She had never been to Candice’s office before. She had driven by it often enough on the street, but for some reason she had always felt too intimidated to actually drop in and say hello. It was an impressive building from the outside. Originally built in the thirties, it had been refaced during the sixties, but when Candice and Gary purchased it several years back, they had spent a fortune having the exterior restored back to its original Art Deco style. They had even won an award for it. Gwen assumed that the interior would also be Art Deco. She wasn’t terribly fond of that style, but at least it was usually somewhat clean and light with smooth marble and sleek surfaces.

She parked in the back of the building just as Candice had told her to do. She didn’t see Candice’s navy Jaguar in the lot and was relieved that she might be able to look around a little before Candice arrived.

“Can I help you?” said a young woman in the hallway as Gwen entered through the back door. She looked at Gwen curiously, obviously wondering why she had entered through the back instead of the front. “Are you here to see someone in the law firm?”

Gwen laughed. “No. I suppose that would be the natural assumption when someone comes sneaking in the back door this early in the morning.”

The woman didn’t laugh. “Are you here to see Candice then?”

“No, I’m sorry. Let me explain. I’m a friend of Candice’s. She probably hasn’t had a chance to tell anyone since we only decided this on Friday night. I am to be an employee. Candice has hired me. My name is Gwen Sullivan.”

The woman nodded and smiled. “Oh, I get it. Well, I’m Lucinda, and I’m the receptionist here, both for Candice and the law firm upstairs. I usually open the place up at eight, unlock the doors, make coffee, turn on the lights, you know the bit.”

Gwen glanced at Lucinda’s casual-looking pants and baggy sweater. Her hair hung limply down her back. She looked more like a college kid than a receptionist. “Nice to meet you, Lucinda.” She held up her bag of bagels. “I brought some bagels and muffins to share. Maybe I could put them near the coffee.”

“Sure. You want the tour before it gets too busy? I just need to stay close enough to answer the phone. Everyone else doesn’t get here until nine or later, depending on their moods. Except for Sharon, the bookkeeper—she should be here any minute now.”

“I’d love a tour, if you don’t mind.” Gwen looked around with interest. The place was nothing like she had imagined. Instead of Art Deco, it was very traditional with oriental carpets, heavy furnishings, and lots of large plants in front of the windows. It reminded Gwen of Candice’s home. And, like Candice’s home, the office seemed very dark. But perhaps Lucinda hadn’t turned on all the lights yet, and of course, the shades were still closed.

“This is the coffee room. Let me get a pot going. There are cups in that cupboard by the sink. No dishwasher, so you gotta clean up for yourself.”

Gwen watched as Lucinda filled a dark-stained pot without bothering to scrub it out. She was surprised that Candice, a person so consumed with appearances, would hire someone like Lucinda. Not that she didn’t seem nice. Just not very professional. But perhaps she was a first-rate receptionist. That’s what mattered.

“The bathroom is there.” Lucinda pointed to a door at the end of a hallway. “There’s another one upstairs, but the guys mostly use it. I guess this one’s the ladies’ room.” She giggled as she led Gwen down another dark hallway with no windows. “That’s the sample room,” she pointed to a large, messy-looking room with a table in the center surrounded by floor-to-ceiling shelves. Two of the wall shelves were filled with wallpaper books, and the other two were filled with fabric samples, but nothing appeared to be in any order, either with color or style. “It needs a little work in here,” said Lucinda apologetically.

“I’m sure it must be difficult with Candice being so busy.”

“That room has all the furniture books and catalogs. I don’t even know what all of them are for. There sure are a lot though.” This room also seemed disorderly. Gwen wondered how Candice could even begin to find anything in here. She followed Lucinda down another hallway that led to the front of the building. “Now up front is where the clients are allowed. That’s the lobby over there, and, of course, my desk. And this,” Lucinda opened a set of double doors, “is where Candice meets with the clients.”

Gwen stared at the spacious, high-ceilinged room. More oriental carpets, heavy antique tables and chairs, large palms in big brass pots, and original oils on the paneled wall. Leather club chairs were nicely arranged by the shaded windows. Everything was in rich dark tones. It looked very expensive. And impressive. And Gwen was certain that was Candice’s goal—to impress.

Just then the phone rang, and Lucinda dashed off to her desk. Gwen looked around a little more. There was an elevator in the hallway, but also a large staircase near the front door. Lucinda wrote down a message and hung up the phone. “Candice’s office is upstairs, she can show that to you later. Want to see the basement?”

“I guess so. But I don’t want to keep you—”

“Hello there,” called a voice from in back.

“Oh, that’s Sharon. She can show you the basement. Hey, Sharon, come meet our new coworker.”

An older woman was hanging her coat in the closet by the door. “New coworker?” she repeated as she closed the door. “So Candice has finally gotten some help? Well, it’s about time.”

“This is Gwen—uh, I can’t remember your last name.”

“Sullivan. I’m a friend of Candice’s. In fact, we’re not sure how this will go. It’s not always wise to hire a friend.”

“Well, as long as you don’t mind a little hard work, there should be no problem.” Sharon was looking Gwen over carefully. Her brows were raised in what seemed to be an almost skeptical expression. Suddenly Gwen wondered if her fashionable appearance gave the impression that she was one of those useless women who only considered herself to be office trimming with no intention of really working.

“Oh, believe me, I like to work hard. I get bored if I’m not kept busy.”

Sharon laughed. “Well, we can keep you busy enough.”

“Gwen brought treats,” said Lucinda. “I’ve already given her the tour—” The phone rang, and Lucinda dashed off to get it again.

“I’ve had most of the tour,” explained Gwen. “She was going to show me the basement. Although I’m not sure why.”

“Because some of our office equipment is down there. Let me put my purse in my office and I’ll show you. Did you see my office already?”

“No, actually, I didn’t.”

“No wonder. It’s really nothing more than a closet. But at least it has a window. And I keep my shade open.”

Gwen looked at Sharon oddly, and Sharon laughed. “Well, you see, Candice has this thing about not opening the blinds. She’s afraid the sunlight will fade the carpets. And, as you may know, these carpets are worth a small fortune. So don’t be opening any blinds or Candice will have your hide.”

Gwen nodded. “That’s why it’s so dark in here. Are all the lights on?”

“Yes, Lucinda does that first thing in the morning. It is rather dark in here, but you’ll get used to it after a while.”

Gwen nodded. She was already feeling uncomfortable with the gloomy atmosphere. She wasn’t so sure she would get used to it. But she would do her best to try. She followed Sharon down a narrow stairway in the back of the building.

“There’s an elevator that goes to the basement, but Candice doesn’t want us to use it because it’s right where clients come in. Watch yourself on these stairs, they’re steep, but you’ll get used to them after a while.”

The basement smelled damp and moldy. “It seems a little inconvenient to have the office machines down here,” said Gwen, trying not to breathe too deeply of the foul-smelling air. “Do you have to come down here much?”

“I try to keep my trips to once or twice a day. It’s mostly the copier. It’s such a huge monster—this was the only place with enough room for it. It’s pretty handy though. It can even copy large floor plans.”

“Whose desk is that?” Gwen asked when she spotted a desk in a dark corner.

“No one’s right now. Well, I guess that completes your tour. Candice will probably get here in the next hour or so, depending on her appointment schedule. And I am in need of a cup of coffee.”

“That sounds good,” said Gwen. “And I picked up some pumpkin muffins with the bagels.”

“Well, Gwen, it looks as if you’re off to a good start,” said Sharon with a smile. “If there’s anything I can do to help you get better adjusted, just feel free to ask. I’ve been with Candice since she opened her doors, and I know a lot about this place.”

“Thanks, Sharon. I appreciate that. How long has Lucinda been here? She doesn’t seem very old.”

“She’s been here a little over a year. She has a toddler who’s in child care. She’s a single mom. Gary hired her. She was involved with one of his clients, if you know what I mean, and I think Gary felt sorry for her and wanted to give her a chance at a better life. So far so good.”

“That’s nice,” said Gwen. “Really nice.”

Gwen poked around for a while until Candice finally came in. But when Candice arrived she barely spoke to Gwen. She just breezed right through and began shouting commands to Sharon and Lucinda and then headed up to her office. Gwen blinked in surprise as she watched the back of Candice’s long coat flap behind her as she dashed up the stairs. Candice didn’t even offer to show Gwen her office.

Gwen turned to Sharon. “Is something wrong?”

Sharon chuckled. “No. This is typical. We sometimes call her Hurricane Candice. She whips through here and leaves all sorts of devastation in her wake. But we usually have it cleaned up by the time she comes back down. She is a wonderful person but not the best communicator and not the best organizer. That’s why she needs a good team. Welcome to the team, Gwen.”

“But what am I supposed to do?”

“Well, there’s plenty to be done. How about if I make a list for starters? Then when Candice has time, she can get you going on her projects. You said you don’t mind hard work, right?”

By midafternoon, Gwen was almost sorry she had said she didn’t mind hard work. It seemed that Sharon was determined to turn her into a moving man. But Gwen was equally determined not to disappoint anyone. Sharon told Gwen that Candice wanted to move her office downstairs and needed the sample room cleared out so she could set up in there. So Gwen went out and got boxes and spent most of the day packing and toting heavy boxes down to the basement where new shelves had already been constructed for the samples. It seemed she had barely made a dent on the job, but she was dog-tired and had blisters on her heels from carefully navigating up and down those steep stairs. She must have made a hundred trips and considered it no small miracle that she had not fallen and seriously injured herself.

Gwen had no hopes of talking to her new boss since Candice had left for a job two hours away without even saying a word to her. Gwen’s only hope was to survive the day, and perhaps tomorrow would be better.

“You are doing great,” Sharon said when she came down to the basement to make some copies. “Those shelves look so neat. Much better than when they were upstairs. Now maybe Candice will be able to find things more easily.”

“I hope so,” said Gwen, trying to sound cheerful. “But at this rate, I think it will take all week to complete this task.”

“Well, that’s not so bad. I had told Candice that I thought it would take at least a week and a half. You’re already ahead of schedule.”

Gwen smiled weakly and sighed. The truth was she didn’t know if she could last a whole week at this rate. This was hard manual labor. But still she was determined not to fail. Not yet. This was her chance. She would give it her all.

That night, after a hot soak in the tub and a microwave dinner, Gwen called Aubrey. “Hi, honey. I don’t want to bother you, but you did tell me to call.”

“How did it go today, Mom?” Aubrey sounded sincerely interested. “Did you impress Candice with your stylish new image?”

Gwen laughed. “Candice didn’t even give me the time of day.”

“What? Why not?” Aubrey was indignant.

“Oh, she was busy. And I had a job to do.” Gwen didn’t want to go into all the dreary details. She felt humiliated by the day and didn’t want Aubrey to know.

“But do you like it?”

“Like it?” Gwen’s voice sounded too high. “Well, I think it’s too soon to know for sure, honey. But I plan on giving it my all. It certainly wasn’t glamorous. It was just plain, hard work, and I’m literally exhausted right now.”

“That’s too bad, Mom. Do you think that Candice is just testing you? Sort of like freshman initiation?”

Gwen thought about that for a long moment. “Maybe so. Well, like I said, I’ll give it my all. That’s all I can do.”

“That’s the spirit. Hang in there, old girl.”

Gwen groaned. “I sure do feel like an old girl tonight.”

“The first day has got to be the toughest. It’ll get better.”

Before Gwen fell asleep, she prayed for strength to make it through the next day. She had often prayed for emotional strength, but now she prayed for both emotional and physical strength. She also prayed that she would work for Candice just as if she were working for the Lord. That had always been her goal when she had managed the design department at Sullivan’s Furniture. And it had always seemed to work.

The next morning, Gwen arrived at work at eight o’clock sharp, just as Lucinda was unlocking the doors. Today Gwen had dressed in neat khaki pants with a chambray shirt, utilizing her red blazer and a designer scarf to give her a more professional appearance. But her goal today was to be able to remove her jacket, roll up her sleeves, and really work. And she had a plan to speed things up. Yesterday, she had noticed a large laundry cart in the basement. She hoped to load the cart with lots of samples and make several trips in the elevator before anyone else arrived to notice or be bothered.

Thankfully Lucinda thought it was a fine idea. Gwen went right to work and managed to unload an entire wall of fabric samples before anyone else came to work. In order to be quick about her work she had simply dumped the samples all over the basement floor by the shelves. It looked pretty chaotic, but no one used that part of the basement and the fabric all needed to be sorted and refolded anyway. Gwen was sitting in the midst of the mess when Candice came down to the basement.

“What in the world are you doing?” Candice cried when she saw Gwen knee deep in fabric samples.

Gwen looked up and laughed. “I know it looks dreadful right now, but don’t worry, everything’s under control.”

Candice didn’t look convinced. “Well, I certainly hope so.” She handed Gwen a stack of floor-plan drawings. “Make me two sets of copies of these and bring them up to my office right away.”

“Sure,” said Gwen, standing and brushing lint from her pants.

Candice frowned at her and Gwen wished she hadn’t taken off her blazer. She knew her appearance didn’t look very professional right now.

“I just hope this wasn’t a big mistake,” Candice muttered as she turned and went up the stairs.

Gwen echoed the sentiment as she went over to the big copy machine. She knew how to make regular-sized copies, but she wasn’t sure about these oversized pieces. She had always depended on the office girls at the furniture store to do these types of things for her. But how hard could it possibly be? After several failed attempts, Gwen decided that either this machine didn’t like her, or she was just plain stupid. She ran upstairs to see if perhaps Sharon could help.

“You don’t know how to use a copier?” Sharon said in a slightly exasperated tone.

“Well, not for these larger-sized pieces. I thought I was doing it right, but the copier just isn’t cooperating.”

“Well, let me finish up and save this.” Sharon turned to her computer and worked for several more minutes. Gwen wished she would hurry since Candice had said “right away,” but she didn’t want to push Sharon.

Finally Sharon went down to the basement and launched into what turned out to be a lengthy lecture on how to use the copy machine. Gwen tried to sound patient as she jotted down notes, knowing that this was probably her only chance to get this lesson. At last, she had the sets of copies in hand, but before she went up to Candice’s office, she slipped on her jacket and adjusted her scarf. Hopefully she might make a better impression this time.

“Good grief,” exclaimed Candice. “What took you so long?”

“I had to get Sharon to give me a lesson on the copier—”

Candice scowled. “You mean you don’t know how to use a copy machine?”

“Well, yes and no. But I do now.” Gwen tried to smile.

“I wonder what else you don’t know how to do,” Candice mumbled as she took the copies.

“I think you’ll find I’m a fast learner,” said Gwen, afraid that she sounded defensive. “And there’s a whole lot I know that you won’t have to teach me.”

Candice waved her hand as if dismissing her. “Yeah, I’m sure there is. But right now I’m expecting a client, and I need to get some things together. Just when do you expect to have that sample room empty anyway?”

Gwen felt like screaming, but instead she calmly said, “It’s coming along as fast as it can. Perhaps you’d like me to hire some extra help to get things moving quicker.”

“That’s why I hired you,” Candice said, not bothering to mask her exasperation.

“Well, I hope to be done in the next couple days. I’ll let you get back to your work now.” Gwen turned and walked away. Hot tears of humiliation burned in her eyes, but she would not cry. Instead she returned to the basement and began systematically sorting and folding fabric samples with a vengeance. By noon she had the fabric all neatly put away. She stepped back and admired her work.

“That looks real nice, Gwen,” said Sharon from the stairs. “After you take your lunch I have some errands for you to run.”

Gwen spent the afternoon being a gofer. She picked up some custom drapes, dropped off a print to be framed, stopped by the warehouse to locate a floor lamp, and finally picked up Candice’s dry cleaning. She had never liked driving in town, but she decided that moving through traffic and looking for parking places was less exhausting than carrying loads of heavy wallpaper books down to the basement.

As Gwen drove back to the office, she thought about how this job was not turning out to be anything like she had expected. Perhaps it was all a big mistake after all. But as dismal as it seemed, there was still something inside her that didn’t want to give up. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to prove something to Candice or to herself. But no matter how difficult it was, Gwen was determined to give it everything she had.

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