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Double Standardsby Judith Mcnaught
Philip Whitworth glanced up, his attention drawn by the sound of swift footsteps sinking into the luxurious Oriental carpet that stretched across his presidential office. Lounging back in his maroon leather swivel chair he studied the vice-president who was striding toward him. "Well?" he said impatiently. "Have they announced who the low bidder is?"
The vice-president leaned his clenched fists on the polished surface of Philip's mahogany desk. "Sinclair was the low bidder," he spat out. "National Motors is giving him the contract to provide all the radios for the cars they manufacture, because Nick Sinclair beat our price by a lousy thirty thousand dollars." He drew in a furious breath and expelled it in a hiss. "That bastard won a fifty-million-dollar contract away from us by cutting our price a fraction of one percent!"
Only the slight hardening of Philip Whitworth's aristocratic jawline betrayed the anger rolling inside him as he said, "That's the fourth time in a year that he's won a major contract away from us. Quite a coincidence, isn't it?"
"Coincidence!" the vice-president repeated. "It's no damn coincidence and you know it, Philip! Someone in my division is on Nick Sinclair's payroll. Some bastard must be spying on us, discovering the amount that goes into our sealed bid, then feeding the information to Sinclair so that he can undercut us by a few dollars. Only six men who work for me knew the amount we were going to bid on this job; one of those six men is our spy."
Philip leaned farther into his chair until his silvered hair touched the high leather back. "You've had security investigations made on all six of those men, and all we learned was that three of them are cheating on their wives."
"Then the investigations weren't thorough enough!" Straightening, the vice-president raked his hand through his hair, then let his arm drop. "Look Philip, I realize Sinclair is your stepson, but you're going to have to do something to stop him. He's out to destroy you."
Philip Whitworth's eyes turned icy. "I have never acknowledged him as my 'stepson,' nor does my wife acknowledge him as her son. Now, precisely what do you propose I do to stop him?"
"Put a spy of your own in his company, find out who his contact here is. I don't care what you do, but for God's sake, do something!"
Philip's reply was cut off by the harsh buzzing of the intercom on his desk, and he jabbed his finger at the button. "Yes, what is it, Helen?"
"I'm sorry to interrupt you, sir," his secretary said, "but there's a Miss Lauren Danner here. She says she has an appointment with you to discuss employment."
"She does," he sighed irritably. "I agreed to interview her for a position with us. Tell her I'll see her in a few minutes." He flicked the button off and returned his attention to the vice-president, who, though preoccupied, was regarding him with curiosity.
"Since when are you conducting personnel interviews, Philip?"
"It's a courtesy interview," Philip explained with an impatient sigh. "Her father is a shirttail relative of mine, a fifth or sixth cousin, as I recall. Danner is one of those relatives my mother unearthed years ago when she was researching her book on our family tree. Every time she located a new batch of possible relatives, she invited them up here to our house for a 'nice little weekend visit' so that she could delve into their ancestry, discover if they were actually related and decide if they were worthy of mention in her book.
"Danner was a professor at a Chicago university. He couldn't come, so he sent his wife — a concert pianist — and his daughter in his place. Mrs. Danner was killed in an automobile accident a few years later, and I never heard from him after that, until last week when he called and asked me to interview his daughter, Lauren, for a job. He said there's nothing suitable for her in Fenster, Missouri, where he's living now."
"Rather presumptuous of him to call you, wasn't it?"
Philip's expression filled with bored resignation. "I'll give the girl a few minutes of my time and then send her packing. We don't have a position for anyone with a college degree in music. Even if we did, I wouldn't hire Lauren Danner. I've never met a more irritating, outrageous, ill-mannered, homely child in my life. She was about nine years old, chubby, with freckles and a mop of reddish hair that looked as if it was never properly combed. She wore hideous horn-rimmed eyeglasses, and so help me God, that child looked down her nose at us...."
Philip Whitworth's secretary glanced at the young woman, wearing a crisp navy blue suit and white ascot-style blouse, who was seated across from her. The woman's honey-blond hair was caught up in an elegant chignon, with soft tendrils at her ears framing a face of flawless, vivid beauty. Her cheekbones were slightly high, her nose small, her chin delicately rounded, but her eyes were her most arresting feature. Beneath the arch of her brows, long curly lashes hinged eyes that were a startling, luminous turquoise blue.
"Mr. Whitworth will see you in a few minutes," the secretary said politely, careful not to stare.
Lauren Danner looked up from the magazine she was pretending to read and smiled. "Thank You" she said, then she gazed blindly down again, trying to control her nervous dread of confronting Philip Whitworth face to face.
Fourteen years had not dulled the painful memory of her two days at his magnificent Grosse Pointe mansion, where the entire Whitworth family, and even the servants, had treated Lauren and her mother with insulting scorn....
The phone on the secretary's desk buzzed, sending a jolt through Lauren's nervous system. How, she wondered desperately, had she landed in this impossible predicament? If she'd known in advance that her father was going to call Philip Whitworth, she could have dissuaded him. But by the time she knew anything about it, the call had been made and this interview already arranged. When she'd tried to object, her father had calmly replied that Philip Whitworth owed them a favor, and that unless Lauren could give him some logical arguments against going to Detroit, he expected her to keep the appointment he'd arranged.
Lauren laid the unread magazine in her lap and sighed. Of course, she could have told him how the Whitworths had acted fourteen years ago. But right now money was her father's primary concern, and the lack of it was putting lines of strain into his pallid face. Recently the Missouri taxpayers, caught in the vise grip of an economic recession, had voted down a desperately needed school-tax increase. As a result, thousands of teachers were immediately laid off, including Lauren's father. Three months later he had come home from another fruitless trip in search of a job, this time to Kansas City. He had put his briefcase down on the table and had smiled sadly at Lauren and her stepmother. "I don't think an ex-teacher could get a job as a janitor these days," he had said, looking exhausted and strangely pale. Absently he'd massaged his chest near his left arm as he had added grimly, "Which may be for the best, because I don't feel strong enough to push a broom." Without further warning, he had collapsed, the victim of a massive heart attack.
Even though her father was now recovering, that moment had changed the course of her life.... No, Lauren corrected herself, she had been on the verge of changing the course herself. After years of relentless study and grueling practice at the piano, after obtaining her master's degree in music, she had already decided that she lacked the driving ambition, the total dedication needed to succeed as a concert pianist. She had inherited her mother's musical talent, but not her tireless devotion to her art.
Lauren wanted more from life than her music. In a way, it had cheat
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