Madison Renault lost her sunny disposition two hours ago; this was turning into the commute from hell. When she left her home early this morning, it was a bright sunny day, and now, through the train window it looked like she was traveling through Siberia instead of New Jersey. True, snow at the end of March was not unheard of, but it had been so mild the previous weekend, thoughts had turned to Spring and warmer weather.
Her flight was canceled due to the blizzard, so she was forced to take the train, a train which was late getting to the station and then quit running all together. The engine stopped working and, in spite of the crew’s best efforts, they were unable to get it running again. The passengers were forced to endure two and a half hours with no heat and no power before they were made to disembark in the middle of the tracks and re-board another commuter train. That in itself was a feat, for the last step from the train was a good six feet above the track and there was just no graceful way to accomplish the task in the pencil skirt Madison had chosen to wear for the trip.
Madison’s teeth set at the indignity of it all. When she had taken the promotion, she was assured there would be very little, if any, traveling involved. Now she was on her fourth trip this year, and it was only March. She would not care so much if it was only her, but it wasn’t. She needed to worry about her son Scott. Although at fourteen he hardly needed to be coddled, she was still uncomfortable leaving him for any length of time. It was not like he was being left to fend for himself while she was away either, their housemate Dawn was there to supervise.
Dawn and Madison had been friends since the third grade, and since that time they had done just about everything together. They shared memories of everything from first crush to first date to first heartbreak. They learned to drive together, went to college together, even got married and had babies all within months of each other. It was something to cherish being able to go through so many phases of your life with someone, and being able to grow with her instead of apart. A friendship so true was worth its weight in gold.
Madison did not realize the magnitude of that fact until her good-for-nothing, lying, louse of a husband Brian took off, leaving her unemployed and with a three-year-old to care for. Dawn was there to pick up the pieces. She knew first hand how frightening it was to be faced with suddenly becoming a single parent. Dawn’s husband Christopher, was ten years older than her. A year before Brian’s desertion, Christopher died suddenly when an aneurysm on his aorta ruptured, leaving everyone whom knew him devastated. Madison was there holding Dawn’s hand through it all; the funeral arrangements, the attorneys, the insurance company, settling the house, everything. The one thing working in Dawn’s favor was Christopher was a shrewd businessman and he made sure his family was provided for, even after his passing. Madison was not so lucky. Brian left her with barely two hundred dollars to her name and nowhere to turn. That was until Dawn came and rescued her, taking her and Scottie in, without batting an eye. Now eleven years later, Dawn was still rescuing her.
It was Dawn who said not to worry, “It’s not like the boys really need us anymore,” she would drawl sarcastically, referring to the joys of raising teenage boys. Dawn’s son Justin and Scottie were as close as Dawn and Madison were, being raised more like brothers then friends. It was also Dawn who had encouraged Madison to take the promotion; the promotion which now had her stuck on this Godforsaken train.
If it was not for a lovely woman, Karen, who had struck up a conversation with Madison, the ordeal would have been completely unbearable. Karen was heading into New York from Philly to meet her daughter for dinner and a show. She had not seen her daughter for several months because her son-in-law’s business had moved them to Arkansas, and now the couple was in New York for a conference, enabling mother and daughter to reunite. Karen chatted happily with Madison about her family and the recent trip she and her husband, the dentist, took to Europe; completely undaunted by their current inconvenience. The stories she told of the places they visited and the people they met had Madison dreaming wistfully. She had always wanted to travel but her financial situation was never one to afford such a luxury, that is until recently, now finding time became the obstacle, and she told Karen as much.
It was completely out of character for Madison to share something so personal, let alone with a complete stranger, but Karen’s openness and warmth kept Madison an active participant in the conversation. As the train pulled into Penn Station, a full three and a half hours behind schedule, Karen turned to Madison, patted her hand and said, “Life is entirely too short not to go after something you really want. Find the time for the trip. Find the time for you.” With smiling eyes which seemed to see entirely too much, Karen gathered her bag, turned and set off on her adventure.
With a sigh, Madison pulled her laptop out of her briefcase and went over her notes for her morning’s presentation. She was miffed she had to bother with it at all. Emerson Engineering had been a long standing client of Morris Financial Services, the company where Madison worked, and to be put through this exercise, in her opinion, was a complete and utter waste of time. The passing of Emerson’s CEO, Raleigh Emerson St. James III, prompted the current board of directors to reevaluate all of the company’s business relationships, and if word on the street rang true, the credo of the new CEO was “out with the old, and in with the new”.
It was a daunting prospect knowing a nearly billion dollars in assets hinged on Madison’s knowledge and powers of persuasion. She was not looking forward to meeting the new CEO either. Mr. St. James was a wonderfully kind man who she had had the pleasure of dealing with on prior trips and was completely enchanted by his warmth and graciousness. For a man of such staggering wealth, he was refreshingly down to earth, quick with a smile and an encouraging word. His son, the new CEO, on the other hand, had the reputation of being ruthless and cutthroat, and it was he Madison was meeting in the morning. If there was one thing Madison abhorred more than anything else was a spoiled little rich kid, someone who had everything handed to him, one who never needed to make their own way. Madison was not usually so judgmental, but in her line of work, she had been subjected to far too many rich kids who had been handed Daddy’s company. She’d been forced to sit back idly and watch them make a shambles of what they’d been given, running the business and countless livelihoods into the ground because they had no business being put into a position of power. Madison was predisposed to hate Raleigh Emerson St. James IV, a fault she prayed she would be able to keep well hidden.
At ten thirty the train finally lumbered into the New London station. The snow was coming down heavy and the wind was whipping at a sustained rate of twenty-five miles per hour with gusts reaching near forty. All in all, it was a wicked night and Madison was cold, hungry and tired. All she wanted to do was get something to eat and crawl into bed.
Due to some very poor design, the northbound side of the train station was how she had to disembark, and then had to wait for the train to pull away before she was able to cross the street to the stationhouse. “It must have been a sunny day in June when they came up with this layout,” Madison grumbled to herself as she trudged her way to the shelter of the station. She was hardly surprised when none of the sparse line of cabs bore the name of the company she had called to pick her up. With great effort she hoisted the door open, fighting against the fury of the wind, she made her way inside. She was fumbling with her cell phone when she heard her name being called.
She turned toward the voice, “Josh? I thought you were flying up yesterday?”
“The meeting was postponed until tomorrow; I just came in on this last train. Weren’t you supposed to be on the one o’clock?”
“Don’t even go there,” she grumbled. “Right now all I care about is where the damn car is.”
“Mine didn’t show either. Hold on a sec and I’ll call again. We can ride together. You are staying at the casino right?” On Madi’s nod, Josh went to find a quiet corner to make his call. Madison had known Josh for three years or so. They didn’t work in the same department but their paths often crossed at client visits like these. Josh was a sweet, likable, funny, sexy man, ten years her senior who was head over heels in love with his wife of twenty-two years, and Madi envied him, but she couldn’t begrudge him. They had grown rather friendly over the years and she enjoyed working with him immensely, even though at the moment she was scowling at him ferociously.
He was heading back toward her when he noticed her mutinous expression, “What?”
“I hate you!”
Bewildered he asked defensively, “What did I do?”
“We’ve both just had the commute from hell. I look like something the cat dragged in after the dog had buried it, and you look like you just stepped off the friggin’ cover of G.Q. You always look fresh as a freaking daisy, and I hate you!”
Josh broke out in one of his devastating smiles, “Well, you’re going to hate me even more when I tell you this. I’ve exhausted the entire list of cab companies and I’ve either gotten busy signals or no answer at all. The one place I did get through to said, ‘You’re crazy if you think I’m coming out in this shit’ and hung up on me. Can you believe it? Anyway, the man at the desk said there was one last shuttle bus to the hotel tonight and it should be arriving in a few minutes.”
“At this point, I don’t care if we get there by rickshaw!”
“Haven’t eaten all day, have you?” Josh continued when Madi narrowed her eyes at him, “You get very cranky when you haven’t eaten.” She grunted at him and he laughed, “If it makes you feel any better, I’m starving too. What do you say we check in, drop our bags, you meet back down in the lobby and we get a bite to eat? I hear some oysters calling our name…”
The corners of Madi’s mouth twitched and her eyes twinkled. On their first trip together they found they both liked oysters, a decadent indulgence each only gave into sparingly, so now the few times a year their paths crossed and they had the opportunity to share a meal, they splurged on this little treat. “No fair being nice to me; I wasn’t through feeling disgruntled yet.”
“Let’s go kiddo, the bus is here.” They gathered their bags and headed out into the storm. To add insult to injury, on their way to the bus, a particularly strong gust of wind came along and slid Madison a few feet across the frozen parking lot into Josh’s back, nearly toppling the two of them. “What’s up?” He asked as she barreled into him.
“Just get on the damn bus, will you!” She barked. Luckily Josh was able to turn quickly enough Madison didn’t catch his smirk. He knew when not to poke at a tiger.
The bus ride on the snow slicked winding country road had Madison grasping the seat in front of her, white knuckled. They were going to slide off the road, she knew it. Noting her distress, Josh started babbling about whatever came to mind. A Rascal Flats concert he brought his family to the week before, his son’s lacrosse team starting practice, his daughter’s swim meet, anything and everything to get Madi’s focus off the road and on to him. The bus made one particularly harrowing turn, causing Madison to catch her breath, then, materializing like Emerald City through the storm, the hotel came into view. It was an awesome sight with its illuminated spires and grandiose flare.
Josh and Madison made their way through the labyrinth of twisting turning corridors to check-in. That task settled, they agreed on a meeting place where they would return in fifteen minutes. Madison’s room was on the seventeenth floor, at the end of yet another maze of hallways. She dropped her bags in the sitting room and looked at her watch and debating whether or not she should call home. She knew if she didn’t, Dawn would worry all night. So ignoring the fact it was nearly eleven fifteen, she phoned while she unpacked her clothes.
Dawn answered on the second ring with, “You can’t tell me you just got to your room.”
“I can and I did. I’ll tell you about it tomorrow, right now all I want is food.”
“Lord, you haven’t eaten yet? Glad I’m a few hundred miles away!” Dawn teased.
“Very funny. I ran into Josh at the train station and I’m meeting him in … seven minutes to get something.”
“So scoot. And Madi, don’t bite anyone’s head off along the way,” Dawn laughed.
“Brat. I’ll call you tomorrow. Give Scottie a kiss for me. Night.”
“OK, night.” Dawn was still chuckling when Madison clicked her phone shut. Maybe I should start carrying snacks in my briefcase.
Josh was already waiting at the top of the escalators as promised and they headed off to the restaurant. When they got there the Maître d' told them they needed to sit at the bar, the restaurant was closed but they would hold the kitchen open for them. Madison gave the man a grateful smile. They took their seats, ordered drinks, oysters, burgers and then settled in with a sigh.
“OK, ten hours from New Jersey to Connecticut. I think I’ve set a record.” Madison said sleepily as she sipped her drink.
Josh agreed, “Got me beat, mine was only seven and a half. Oh good, here’s the oysters.” It was fifteen minutes until midnight as the first morsels of food went into Madison’s mouth and she groaned at the sheer enjoyment. “You crack me up. Deb just wrinkles her nose whenever I tell her we had oysters. She said to say ‘Hi’, by the way.”
“Right back at her. I realize it’s still two months away, but you guys are coming to our Memorial Day picnic, right?” Madison loved Josh’s family and their oldest son was the same age as Scottie and Jason, so it was nice to get them together.
“Wouldn’t miss it, but I can’t help but think I’m just a means to an end. You just want Deb to bring one of her desserts and could care less if me or the kids came.” He teased.
“That’s not true and you know it. I love your kids.” She feigned outrage but burst into giggles when Josh raised his eyebrow at her blatant omission of him. “Is your regular team meeting you?”
“Yes, Rachel and Devin will be here in the morning and Chad and Corey are driving up tonight.” Josh said.
“Tonight? In this mess? Have you heard from them?” Madison’s maternal instincts kick into high gear before she could get them in check.
“I called them from the room. They’re about an hour out and taking it slow. Relax mom.”
“Don’t pick on me, there’d be no challenge. I’m way too tired.” She said pleasantly even though it irked her Josh knew her so well.
When they finished their meal, Josh said, “Come on kiddo, let’s get out of here. You have a big day tomorrow and we can’t have you falling asleep in the boardroom. What time’s your meeting?”
“Eight,” she said looking none too pleased.
“You’ll do fine. How could anyone refuse those big blue eyes?” He smiled trying to lighten her mood.
“It’s going to take more than my blue eyes to sway Mr. St. James I’m afraid.”
“You could convince an Eskimo he needed an ice maker! Madi you don’t have anything to worry about. You know this stuff like the back of you hand. You’ll be fine, really.” Josh gave her a brotherly hug for encouragement then said, “Now go. Get some sleep.”
The whole way back to her room, Madison kept wishing she had Josh’s confidence. He was right. She knew her job backwards and forwards, but she just could not shake the edgy feeling she had in her gut. When she got to her room she kicked off her shoes, pealed off her clothes, made arrangements for a five-thirty wake up call then passed out from sheer exhaustion.