I wrote Liberty’s Secret thirteen years ago when I thought I was going to be a romance writer (before I got bored by the formula). But when I decided that wasn’t the kind of writing I wanted to do, my completed genre novel was essentially abandoned and forgotten. But sometimes I get nostalgic about the path I’ve taken as a writer (and that includes the path not taken). So over the next two months, I’ll be posting it here a chapter at a time.
This is Chapter One.
Quinn O’Connell had never known anyone like Libby Freeman. She was pacing back and forth at the head of the conference room while chairing the weekly ideas meeting. As the editor of Society Magazine, she had become known as a gladiator of sorts. She had come, she had seen, and she had conquered. Which effectively meant that she had been headhunted by the magazine group’s publisher from a cubicle at a large literary agency that promoted glass ceilings, she had surveyed the operation placed in her hands, she had cleared out a number of the staff who had thought their cushy careers safe, and she had turned the appalling circulation figures into a financial success.
No small or easy task, but one she had achieved without the merest reference to numbers. She had no head for figures. Everyone knew that. And no-one cared. Her creativity alone was responsible for the turnaround in the magazine’s popularity. New focus, new writers, new advertisers, new daring. It had been as simple as that. She had dared to take the magazine beyond what anyone had thought it could be.
And it had worked. No-one was sure why exactly but it had everything to do with Libby.
Quinn supposed he should feel some sort of chagrin that she had been able to do what he hadn’t but after all he was just a numbers man. Fraser Graham, the publisher, had brought him in to troubleshoot the financial difficulties the magazine had got itself into. But it had been clear, even to a numbers man, that the problems were with the magazine’s content. It had been his suggestion to replace the previous editor. And the success of his suggestion now placed him squarely at Libby’s side, metaphorically speaking.
But literally, Quinn had never been at Libby’s side, or near any other part of her. Despite their being paired together as the reason for the magazine’s boosted sales figures, they had never met. There had never been any reason for them to meet. He could only remember being in the same room as her once before, on the day she had joined the magazine, but there had been a hundred other people in the room as well, all welcoming her as part of the goodwill and group enthusiasm Fraser Graham had been intent on fostering.
Since then she had worked innumerable miracles, and he had counted them as part of his continuing work as the head of the magazine’s finance department.
And today he was sitting in on a weekly ideas meeting at the request of Fraser Graham. It had been a revelation to watch Libby at work. She was quite obviously brilliant. Her creativity was inspiring to watch, not just for him. He could see the way the staff writers responded to her, driving themselves harder to please her, to try to match her enthusiasm. Studying business at university hadn’t left much time for psychology classes, but the few he had taken as part of his degree helped him to see that her leadership embraced encouragement. She drew everyone into the discussion.
In fact, so far he was the only person in the room who had not said a word. He wasn’t quite sure why his presence had been requested but he had no doubt Fraser would deal with him in his own time. Fraser had always done things his way with little regard for how others perceived him. No doubt it was why he was rich and successful.
Quinn’s gaze left Fraser and returned to the intriguing sight of Libby. Her long brown hair was pinned up tidily but its confining nature could not obscure the lustrous colour. Her thin tortoise shell frames perched in place under the bridge of her nose, and despite being comparatively small, they seemed to hide her face. He wondered what she looked like without them. Quite probably identical, the accountant in him returned waspishly. But he wasn’t just an accountant. He was also a man. And for some reason the desire to walk to the front of the room to remove her spectacles overwhelmed him.
It was a strange feeling to be overcome by because despite being intriguing, she was also a rather alien creature. From a distance, she was like any other woman in the magazine’s headquarters. Short skirts, tight shirts, jewellery glittering on her hands. But on closer inspection, she was nothing like the other women in the office at all.
She was habitually tugging on the hem of her mini skirts, as if she hadn’t tried them on before buying them, and had worn them to work only to discover her discomfort over their length. She never wore high heels with her skirts, but an endearing pair of Mary Janes that made Quinn wonder if she had stolen them from a little sister. The only jewellery that ever glinted from her hands was the gold watch on her left wrist. And he had never seen her with her hair free from its confining clasp or her face enhanced with make-up.
And he had never seen her take more than a platonic interest in anyone of the male sex. Or the female sex. She dealt with everyone in the same pleasant but professional manner and kept everything on a business footing.
Quinn mentally checked himself as the accountant reasserted some dominance. How exactly did he know so much about Libby? He was a naturally observant man, of course. He had to be, dealing with the sort of numbers with which he frequently dealt. But all the details he had noticed about Libby had nothing to do with the accountant in him, and everything to do with the man. So he was interested – he could admit it to himself. It mattered very little, however. Libby wasn’t interested in return. He wasn’t sure there was anything that interested her beyond her work. She always seemed to be at the magazine’s offices. She was here when he arrived in the mornings and she was still here when he left for the night.
‘Reid, let’s hear your ideas.’ Libby was all business as she resumed her seat at the head of the table.
‘I’m running low this month, Libby,’ Reid Solomon, the business writer, confessed, flicking through some notes in front of him.
‘Any reason why?’ There was no condemnation in her voice, merely a desire to know.
‘Something’s going down, something big, and it’s made everyone else more cautious. They’re all waiting to find out what it is. I just know it. None of my sources are even willing to say anything but I can feel it anyway.’
‘I want you to follow it. But I think I can point you in the right direction. I’ve heard whispers about one of the Big Four banks and a hostile takeover of a small but influential Asian bank. I don’t know which Big Four and I don’t know which Asian bank, but I’ve heard whispers.’
‘Thanks, Lib. I knew something was going down.’ Reid began scribbling furiously on the paper in front of him.
‘You’ll need a backup story, though,’ Libby reminded him and the reporter nodded. ‘Collaborate with Lucy on business lobby groups. If your story works out we can put it in the politics section or just hold it over until next issue.’ Lucy Stewart, the politics writer, immediately noted Libby’s instructions.
Quinn watched Libby shuffling some papers before she moved on. No-one else seemed surprised that she had access to obviously sensitive business information. But Quinn just stared at her in amazement for the longest time while she flicked through her notes. He immediately began reassessing his professional impressions of her. And instinctively he opened his mouth.
‘Fortuna Bank of Taiwan.’
Suddenly everyone was looking at him with expressions he imagined similar to the one he had just been gaping at Libby with. Except for Libby. She was looking at him, and at the same time, straight through him.
‘Thank you, um – I’m sorry, who are you?’ She was looking at him as if seeing him for the first time, despite the fact he had been sitting in the room along with everybody else for the past hour.
‘Quinn O’Connell,’ he informed her, without elaborating. There was no reason for her to know who he was, but it didn’t do his ego any good.
‘He’s with me, Libby,’ Fraser interjected from his discreet position at the back of the room.
‘Oh. Thank you, Mr O’Connell,’ she said absently, her mind already moving on. His ego was being deflated on a second by second basis.
‘Quinn,’ he said, determined for some reason to hear her say his name. But she merely smiled blankly and continued onto a new subject.
He frowned, knowing he shouldn’t take it personally but doing precisely that. Women were usually good for his ego. Why, he asked himself, should one rather strange, admittedly intriguing, but ultimately obscure woman be doing so much damage to his self-esteem?
Quinn stayed quiet for the rest of the meeting, but continued his scrutiny of Libby, her long smooth legs, her elegant fingers, her small waist and her large breasts, inadequately disguised beneath a loose white shirt. He studied her figure with narrowed eyes, hoping to appear intensely interested in what she was saying, but suspecting he simply appeared intensely interested. And he couldn’t deny it. He was. He shifted uncomfortably as his body responded to hers, willing the return of his self-control. He managed it just in time to hear Libby calling an end to the meeting.
‘Thanks, guys,’ she called out belatedly to the staff who streamed out of the conference room. She was still busy making notes of her own as Fraser Graham approached her. Quinn remained seated at the end of the table.
‘Libby?’ She looked up vacantly, and it seemed to take her several seconds to focus on her boss.
‘Fraser, hello. Why are you here?’ she asked without tact, although there was no malice in her tone.
‘I’ve been working on a little project for you and Quinn. But I don’t want to elaborate any further just yet. I’ve booked a table for us at Reginald’s. Let’s go.’ Fraser started for the door but Libby’s voice stopped him.
‘I can’t leave the office, Fraser. It’s the middle of the day,’ she admonished him.
‘Precisely. I knew you’d try to make excuses to get out of this. But I’m treating you to lunch.’ Libby looked at her watch, and Quinn could tell she was hoping for it to tell her it was either too early or too late to adjourn. Time was not on her side today.
‘So come on.’ Libby reluctantly stuffed her voluminous notes into a folder and collected her jacket and bag. Quinn got out of his chair at the other end of the room and followed silently.
At the front entrance of the building, Libby demurred about getting into Fraser’s limousine, murmuring something about her own car, but eventually sliding in anyway. Quinn slid in after Fraser, remaining quiet while their boss chattered away about Libby’s success, and Quinn’s role in it, and how it was in everyone’s interest to let as many people as possible know about what had been achieved. It was well known within publishing circles, but the broader community would want to know about it as well. The broader community was always interested in the triumphs of young people, traditionally deemed too young to be truly successful, especially in the long term. Fraser went on and on until they reached Reginald’s, only stopping to greet the maître d’ and to allow him to seat the party.
They were seated at Fraser’s usual table, and Quinn was studying the menu when Libby obviously decided she had had enough.
‘Fraser, why are we here? I have a job I should be doing right now. And I’m sure Mr, um…O’Connell has something else to be doing as well.’ Quinn was momentarily mollified that she remembered his name.
‘Just to set your heart at ease, Libby, I think I should tell you this is work. I’ve brought you and Quinn here together because I want you to get to know each other a little better.’
‘How is that work?’ Libby asked, as Quinn stared at Fraser, wondering if fate was on his side.
‘Because it’s all about publicity. I’ve organised for you and Quinn to be the subject of a young achievers special that one of my other magazines is putting together. And the more awareness we can raise, the more magazines we can sell. Like I said, this is work.’ Fraser sat back to allow a waiter to place a plate of oysters in front of him.
Libby remained rigidly in her place. Her next words confirmed Quinn’s suspicion of her discomfort at the prospect of what had just been announced.
‘I don’t think this comes within my job description,’ she informed Fraser with some dignity. Fraser let an oyster slide down his throat before responding.
‘Your job is to do whatever I tell you.’
For the first time, Quinn saw a hint of the Libby that was not part of the professional woman. No longer was she the vague, work-obsessed robot; she was incensed, although he could see she was containing it.
‘There is nothing within my contract that obliges me to engage in any publicity for the magazine. You and I both know my directives were merely to update the format and content of the magazine and ensure increased circulation figures. I have done so and I will continue to fulfil that role. But I do not do publicity.’ She beckoned the waiter and handed over her menu, thanking him for his attention but not ordering anything.
Quinn passed his menu over as well, but asked for iced water. He thought he might need it to douse the fire that was being lit by Fraser. Besides there was only one thing at this table he was hungry for.
And he remained quiet. He was too fascinated by this glimpse into the unknown, private side of Libby to interrupt the flow. He could also sense he was inconsequential to what was unfolding. Fraser knew he would do whatever was asked of him within reason. And a small amount of publicity work was within reason, no matter what Libby thought of the request. After all, it was due to their efforts that the magazine was enjoying such new found popularity. And not least of all, beyond simply being good publicity for the magazine, it would be good publicity for his career. Quinn’s time at the Society magazine had always been in danger once the publication was back on its feet. He was, after all, a troubleshooter. And there was not too much trouble to be shot now that Libby was working her magic month after month.
‘Libby.’ Fraser’s tone was calculatedly wheedling. The publisher could usually read people but Quinn wondered if this time he had landed a punch way short of the mark. As little as he knew of her, Quinn doubted Libby could be turned with pleading. In fact, he doubted if she could be turned at all.
‘Fraser.’ Her tone was firm and unbending, and Quinn could see the expression on Fraser’s face change from pleading into autocratic power.
‘I don’t want to take the position of boss with you, Libby. You and I both know our working relationship has never been of that sort. But if you force me into it, then I will wield my power gladly.’ Libby glanced over at Quinn to see him watching her and looked away in discomfort, obviously hating having a witness to her weakness, although Quinn did not look upon the confrontation in that way. It was merely a battle of wills, and he wasn’t sure that Libby wasn’t winning, despite Fraser’s threats.
‘This isn’t about me or you; it’s about an office full of workers who love their jobs and will not let you or anyone destroy what they have contributed to making a success once more.’ Quinn thought maybe Fraser was softening with that reference to Libby’s workmates, and he could see Libby’s response to the mention of them. She obviously cared about them and did not want to upset anyone, but even so, her own feelings in such a situation were the foremost consideration.
‘And I don’t want to have to remind you about the terms of your contract.’ Libby’s mouth opened slightly, but she clamped it shut only moments later to disguise her shock. What were the terms of her contract? Quinn wondered.
‘I know the terms well, thank you, Fraser. And I think you would well remember my terms. I was quite specific. It was the only reason I agreed to the contract you set out for me in the first place. But if you think you can hold the terms over my head in an effort to intimidate me into submitting meekly to your whims, then you are sadly mistaken.
‘I’ve greatly enjoyed being a part of the team who helped make Society a success again. But I think this episode has demonstrated that my part in it has come to an end. My resignation will be on your desk by the end of the day, effective immediately.’
Libby stood, grabbing her bag and jacket. ‘Goodbye, Fraser. Quinn.’
Well, he had his wish. He had heard his name from her lips. But the circumstances severely lessened his pleasure. He watched her stalk across the dining room towards the front door, and through the plate glass windows he could see her talking to the doorman. He lifted his whistle to hail a taxi.
Quinn turned to look at Fraser, who was finishing his oysters, seemingly unconcerned.
‘Give someone a little power and it goes straight to their head.’ Quinn didn’t respond to his boss’s poorly timed attempt at humour, but his eyes continued to ask the question.
The older man slouched slightly, his crinkled eyes showing his regret.
‘Go bring her back.’
Quinn rose immediately, tracing the path Libby had taken to the other side of the room. She was climbing into the back of a yellow taxi, her face rigid. He made it out the door and to the open back window of the cab just in time.
‘Libby!’ She looked up at the sound of her name, and despite the timing, Quinn relished the way it sounded on his tongue.
‘Libby, come back inside.’
‘Why? You obviously don’t know Fraser very well if you think he would give up on this publicity idea. And you obviously don’t know me very well if you think I would give in.’ She sat back in the leather seat and looked at the driver in a silent communication to drive on. But Quinn would not let him move.
‘Would you mind removing your hands from the vehicle, Mr O’Connell? I’m leaving,’ she said pointedly.
‘Libby! Dammit, Libby!’ he muttered in frustration, then did the only thing he could think of doing. He ran to the other side of the taxi and jumped in, much to Libby’s obvious surprise. But she made no protestations of ‘how dare he’. She simply looked straight ahead, determined to ignore him, and told the driver to go.
Quinn turned to look at the front of the restaurant as he clipped his seat belt in place, and could see Fraser’s face watching the retreating taxi. Surprisingly, his expression was not the one Quinn expected. If Libby hadn’t gone as far as resigning, Quinn would have suspected Fraser had planned the whole thing.
‘What are you doing?’
‘I’m merely asserting my rights. My contract does not stipulate any involvement in publicising the magazine. It does, however, allow me to resign my position at any time now that I have fulfilled the requirements expected of me.’ Libby was looking over Quinn’s shoulder and out the window the whole time she was speaking.
‘Would you stop doing that?’ he asked, rubbing his forehead in frustration.
‘Doing what?’ She seemed truly oblivious.
‘Talking at me. Looking through me. Speaking as if you are a contract, instead of merely being party to one.’
‘I’m not going to apologise for the nature of my speaking patterns. What would you prefer I said? That I’m not putting up with any bull from egotistical publishers or sucking up just to keep a job?’ He had to admit that the casual speech seemed to come from a more natural place within her, but he didn’t think she wanted to hear that right now.
‘Well, that’s not who I am. Not professionally, anyway. It’s inappropriate and disrespectful.’ Libby stopped when she finally focused on Quinn’s face and saw his irritation. ‘What are you doing?’ She returned his question, but he looked down at his hands and lifted them as if to say ‘what?’ ‘Why are you here?’
‘I’m bringing you back,’ he said weakly, unable to stop the smile that rose on his lips. And for the first time he could remember, Libby smiled too. It was a real smile, and it warmed him, despite her amusement being at his expense.
‘Fraser obviously doesn’t know me very well either if he thinks I’ll respond to any sort of male force, regardless of the package it comes in.’
Quinn was about to say he doubted anyone knew her well enough if she was this prickly with everyone, but the last portion of her sentence caught his words and refused to let them out of his throat.
‘Exactly what sort of package do I come in?’ he asked, trying hard not to sound arrogant.
‘You’re typically good looking and you know it. I’m not going to flatter you because truthfully I don’t find you attractive.’ Libby had begun to whisper and her furtive glances at the taxi driver indicated her embarrassment at the idea of this conversation being overheard.
‘Why not?’ Quinn asked loudly, not minding her discomfort if it meant he could get her to open up a little.
‘Well, you’re not my type. Besides, I don’t even know you.’
‘Attraction is not about knowing people. It’s about pheromones and instinct and instantaneous chemical reactions.’
‘Goodness, I thought you were just working in the finance department. I didn’t know you freelanced with night time lonely hearts radio spots,’ Libby mocked, her professional façade seeming to weaken by the minute.
‘Funny, I would have thought lonely hearts was your speciality.’ When Libby started at his words, Quinn knew his instinct had been right.
The taxi pulled over in a residential neighbourhood and Libby fumbled in her shoulder bag for some notes. She threw them at the driver, muttering, ‘Keep the change,’ then dived out of the car, not looking back. She hurried up the driveway of a property shrouded in trees and bushes and out of Quinn’s sight.
‘Hey, buddy, where to?’ the driver asked, twisting in his seat.
‘I’m not sure,’ Quinn responded, looking at the floor of the taxi and wondering whether his biting comments had been too harsh. She had no doubt thought so.
‘I think you should follow her, man. She was definitely weakening. A little bit more, perhaps a direction change, some persuasion, and she’ll be putty in your hands.’
‘I’m a taxi driver, mister. I know more about the human heart than a psychologist. I just get paid a lot less.’ He turned to press buttons on the dashboard of the car. ‘Besides, if you don’t get out now I’m turning the meter back on.’
Quinn grinned as he got out of the car, calling a goodbye and hurrying up the driveway.