Sponsored by the world's largest security organization, for one week every year Security Summit International drew thought leaders and representatives from every major company. The conference encompassed four days of events that wouldn’t be complete without over-the-top entertainment the participants had come to expect. The $100 billion electronic security industry was a cash cow that grew regardless of economic challenges, and if it didn’t, the finance guys would play their paper and shell games to make it look like it did.
The President’s Reception was in full swing as I stood at the center of the Georgia Aquarium. The scene was set with dim lighting while neon bursts of color flitted against the walls and ceiling. The theater-sized screen behind me projected live images from a surveillance camera situated near one of the large aquariums. The fish swam easily, unaware of our ogling from afar. As I stood there, I could relate.
“Madeline Craig, meet Sheldon Bright.” My new boss, Robert Grain, made the introduction as I accepted Sheldon’s fleshy hand to shake.
A look of amusement crossed his face as he studied my dress. He spoke first but had trouble maintaining eye contact; instead, his blue eyes swept up and down my body. “The lady in red. Good evening, Madeline, and may I say, you look beautiful tonight.”
“A pleasure to meet you, Sheldon.” I plastered a salary worthy smile on my face as I greeted the fair-skinned, middle-aged man.
Who was I kidding? At nearly 41, I was also middle-aged but for some reason, I didn’t see myself that way. Maybe it was because I couldn’t identify with many of the men that surrounded me each day, and tonight’s guest list proved no exception. Sheldon had yet to relinquish my hand.
Robert may have sensed his lingering, since he asked, “Do you guys want to get a drink?”
“Yes,” I agreed, and moved toward him, causing Sheldon to release my hand.
As he replied, his eyes bore into mine. “I can think of nothing better than to get to know the newest member of your team, Robert.”
There comes a time when a situation presents itself and you have to find something positive or you’ll be the one to suffer. It wouldn’t kill me to ignore his overtures, even laugh at them a little. It could make the evening easier and who knew, maybe it would bring us some business. As lowering as it was, I must try to look at him as a benefactor. It was sales, after all, and I could do that. “Well, Sheldon, as they say, no good story ever began with a salad, let’s head to the bar.”
He and Robert shared a chuckle as I passed them. I led the way, knowing full well Sheldon was staring at my ass, and Robert would do nothing to discourage it.
Several drinks and a dozen introductions later, we were finally on our way out of the reception. As I shuffled along the sidewalk, humidity weighed heavily, making each step an effort. The three-inch heels I wore didn’t help matters. Sheldon accompanied Robert and me back to the hotel since he was staying there as well. I wondered how he was managing the sweltering heat in that elegant suit and tie. The revolving door spun and we stepped into the lobby. Greeted by a cool rush of air and the glass elevator rising ahead, I could finally breathe. To the left, I noticed the lobby bar was packed. More suits enjoying libations as a kickoff to the event.
“What do you guys think, nightcap?” Robert suggested.
Thanks to the alcohol, I was feeling more congenial. I could see no harm in it. I wasn’t scheduled to work at the booth until the afternoon. Plus, it would be less time tossing and turning. “Sure, why not?” I agreed.
To my surprise, Sheldon declined. “I see some people I want to say hello to. Why don’t I catch you both at the cocktail party tomorrow night?”
“Of course. Sheldon, it was a pleasure to meet you. We’ll see you tomorrow evening.”
Robert took his hand for one last hearty shake and said, “It was great seeing you. Have a good night.” Sheldon made his way toward the bar and was swallowed up by the sea of bodies.
Robert turned to me. “Are you game?”
I studied his face. Until this evening we’d only met a couple of times during my interview process. He was handsome in a masculine way. His wide hands, square jaw, and large brown eyes somehow made up for the lack of hair. I needed to get to know my new boss, and in the security industry, drinks were the chosen path to relationship building. “I’m game. I usually have a hard time sleeping in a hotel on the first night. Let’s go.”
Robert let me pass and I led the way toward the mass of people. My practiced forward focus was intact so as not to embarrass anyone who may be looking a little too intently at me. Ahead, I saw a few people I knew from the previous company. The excessively “close” industry made frenemies a real thing. It was important never to burn a bridge, not knowing how it could affect your opportunities down the line. I willed a smile and straightened my shoulders as we drew near to the table of $2,000 suits.
The very boisterous Abbot Williams stood and took a few steps in my direction. “Well, aren’t you a sight?” His round cheeks smooshed his eyes closed as he smiled.
He pulled me into a hug as if we were old friends who missed each other. I could feel his round stomach against my own. When we released, I looked up at him and said, “So good to see you, Abbot.”
The table was focused on our exchange. A few of the others wanted to say hello but were conflicted. After all, I was the traitor who resigned. How could I consider leaving them? In this world, egos had a way of puffing up expensively clad chests.
“How are you?” I asked. “It’s been a while, almost a year. I see the gang is all here.”
“They are.” He smiled down at me and pointed over my shoulder. “Carly and Kim are here as well.”
I turned and saw the two ladies who were my former colleagues. Before addressing them, I remembered that Robert was standing beside me. “Abbot, let me introduce you to Robert Grain. He’s my new boss so don’t tell him anything too scary,” I joked. They chuckled and shook hands.
“Excuse me a second. I’ll go and say hello to Kim and Carly.”
I turned toward the ladies who looked anything but excited to see me and took the last few paces to their table. Big smiles were met with insincere greetings as we exchanged our hellos. From my peripheral, I could see there was a man at their table. Kim was the first to remember her manners. Gesturing with her hand, she said, “Madeline Craig, meet Travis Baker.”
Time stopped. The world went silent except for the distant crash of the ocean. Muted waves fell all around me, like the sound you hear when you put your ear next to a conch shell. Piercing grey eyes met my blue ones as his large hand took mine, and it felt like home.