Matthew's Choice(7)

By: Patricia Bradley

“Coming,” Jessica answered.

“Oh, and by the way,” Matt called, “Phillip Bradford wants to meet with me tomorrow morning at nine. Shouldn’t take long. What do you say I pick you up at eleven?”

“You hadn’t planned anything earlier, had you? I won’t be up until ten at the earliest.”

Check mark. That problem solved itself. A minute later she hurried back into the room. He examined her face, but it didn’t give him a single clue as to how she felt about the rings.

“I forgot to tell you...Daddy wants us there early.” She tapped her watch. “Like five minutes ago.”

“And you’re just now telling me?” He shook his head. “Let me put my cuff links in, and we’ll go.”

In the bedroom, he glanced at the ring box and smiled. Jessica wasn’t giving anything away. The box was closed, and exactly where he’d left it. Now if he could just corner Mr. Winthrop before his nerves got the best of him.

What if Winthrop thought Matt was crazy, asking for Jessica’s hand? Or he thought it was too old-fashioned. Matt hadn’t considered that. He fumbled with the cuff link as the stud hung in the material. Winthrop seemed to like him, but what if he’d misread her father? No, Winthrop liked him. Matt manhandled the stud through the buttonholes and straightened the cuffs.

Tonight he’d ask the father, tomorrow the daughter.

* * *

WHEN THEY ARRIVED, the party in the Savannah Room rocked the walls. Glittering gold letters proclaimed Happy New Year from the ceiling as music flowed from the string ensemble, providing the backdrop for dancing or mingling. Already the party was a success. Before Matt had even had time to mix with the crowd, Mr. Winthrop pulled him aside.

“Matthew. I’d like to speak privately with you. This way.”

Matt followed the older man to a side room, feeling much like he did as a kid when his dad led him to the woodshed. Only expensive walnut paneling lined this woodshed, along with carpet deep enough to sink his feet into.

“Cigar?” Winthrop picked one then offered Matt the box

An Ashton Cabinet. He hesitated. What if Winthrop expected him to light up? The thought almost made him green. But offending the man would be worse, and he took one from the middle.

“The Ashton Cabinet is a mild but subtly complex cigar,” Winthrop said as he clipped the end off and handed Matt the cutter. “I think you will enjoy it.”

Matt swallowed and copied the older man’s actions, then waited as Winthrop lit his cigar. Oh, cool. A lighter with a double flame.

Winthrop rotated the cigar under the fire. “The secret, Matt, is to toast the end, not burn it.” He puffed on the fat roll of tobacco then blew on the end.

Once again, Matt copied Winthrop. On his third puff, queasiness rolled in his stomach, and he clamped his mouth shut. It was awfully hot in the room, and he adjusted his collar. What did Winthrop just say? “Sir? I didn’t quite catch that.”

Winthrop pointed to a pair of wingback chairs and a small table in the corner. “I asked if you’d like to sit.”

Thank goodness. After they were seated, a heavy silence surrounded them. Winthrop puffed his cigar while Matt rolled his in his fingers. “I guess you can tell I’m not much of a cigar connoisseur.”

“So I see.”

Matt cleared his throat. “Actually, sir, I’d like to talk with you about your daughter.”

Winthrop puffed his stogie once more. He blew the smoke toward the ceiling, and a series of small O’s floated above his head. “That’s why I brought you in here. How long have you been with the Winthrop Corporation, Matt?”

He blinked. “Seven years, sir. Right out of college.”

“If I remember correctly, you started on the front desk, and now you’re director of food and beverages. I understand you’ve gone after the J. Phillip Bradford account. You’re ambitious. I like that.” He fixed a hard stare on Matt. “I want that contract, even if we have to lose money on the Valentine’s Day banquet.”

Lose money? Matt adjusted his collar. “I don’t understand.”

“Do you know how many years I’ve tried to get Bradford’s accounts? Did you know he doesn’t always take the lowest bid? I know. I’ve had the lowest bid.” Winthrop rubbed his jaw with his thumb. “No, he weighs the services offered against the cost. Whoever comes up with what he’s looking for, wins. I’ve never been able to figure out exactly what he wants. I hope you’re up to the challenge.”

Great. Nothing like more pressure. “You can quit worrying, sir. I will get Bradford’s business, starting with the Valentine’s Day banquet.” He spoke the words with more conviction than he felt.