The hot spray of the shower jet beat down on her upturned face and stretched neck as she stood with her hands on the blue tile wall in front of her. Steam billowed up around her, the water massaging her into wakefulness. Four-thirty came early, but Jacqui Karston had been waking that early for the past two years, losing herself in the projects of The Karston Foundation ever since her family died in a plane crash without her. She was up late every night, as well. She had to be. There was still so much to do to rebuild Biloxi after Katrina devastated the coast ten years ago. Much had already been done, of course, but it was not enough. It would never be enough in Jacqui’s eyes, not as long as there were vacant lots and partially demolished buildings scattered everywhere, and, if she was honest with herself, she needed the distraction.
After blow drying her hair, she brushed it into long, blond walls, framing her narrow face, keeping her closed off and uninviting. It also added the illusion of height to her already five-ten frame, which only made her look that much taller in her three-inch heels. Height meant power. People took you seriously if they had to look up to you, and Jacqui demanded to be taken seriously.
With her travel mug full of black coffee and an everything bagel wrapped and ready to be devoured, she locked the door to her silent house, leaving her father, whom she had forced to move in with her a year ago, and their housekeeper sleeping soundly, as she headed to the offices of The Karston Foundation. The morning traffic was a mere trickle in the pre-dawn hours and by 6:15 she walked through the dimly lit foyer of the building bearing her family name. There was only one other person there that early, Karl Henry, the building’s custodian. Since the Karstons had pulled Karl’s life out of the rubble of Katrina’s aftermath, he always made sure that Jacqui never unlocked her own office door. Once he realized her coming in early after the death of her family was a permanent thing and not just a one-time occurrence, he had adjusted his hours to match hers. Even though Jacqui hated that he had to leave his family that early every day, she appreciated the fact that he threw himself into his job. Biloxi needed more people like Karl. If more people were as driven as he was, then the Gulf Coast would have been restored to its former glory already with empty lots filled and damaged buildings renewed with fresh purpose. The casinos had been quick to rebuild after Katrina, but that didn’t help the smaller businesses who needed it. Some had lost everything and moved to other areas. The Karstons didn’t want to see any more people leave their city. They needed a reason to stay and Marc, her late husband, had been determined to give it to them. She had joined his crusade and devoted the last decade of her life to doing just that. However, over the last two years it had consumed her every waking moment, making her cut out anything that failed to help her fulfill Marc’s mission.
Her office light was on and her personal coffee pot already had fresh coffee waiting on her, another of Karl’s services. She had tried to tell him it wasn’t necessary, but the quiet man had refused to listen. “You gave my family hope to keep going after the storm hit,” he had said. “You gave me a job and helped us get back on our feet. What’s a pot of coffee compared to that?”
Jacqui stood behind her desk and picked up a silver picture frame that held the last portrait ever taken of her family. Her husband, Marc, had his arms around her shoulders while their nine-year-old daughter, Maggie, sat on Jacqui’s lap, Marc’s hand on his daughter’s right shoulder. Jacqui had her arms around her daughter. She smiled as she stared at the picture, her family staring back at her. Helping the Henrys was Marc’s vision for his city. He wanted to save people, save their homes, their businesses. She joined in that vision, believing in it, in Marc. Yet, when her family needed her the most, she was not around to save them. It was her job as wife and mother, a job she had failed at doing. She didn’t deserve hot coffee being made for her. She deserved nothing, because she still owed so much.
By eight that morning, she was so absorbed in the plans for her new project, the Maggie Karston Community Center, that she hadn’t noticed her personal assistant, Lily Anderson, until the young woman came in to dump out Jacqui’s cold coffee and replace it with fresh. Realizing that she had basically been in the same position for the last hour and a half, Jacqui tried to stretch her cramped muscles. Everything was tight and she heard her joints pop as she stretched her arms high over her head. Her father would scold her for not being more active. “Muscles need to be worked.” Yet, when did she have the time? There was so much to do and so few people to do it.
Lily handed her a manila folder as she set a cup of steaming coffee on Jacqui’s desk, the travel mug replaced with a ceramic one with a skyline of Biloxi wrapped around it. “This is the information you wanted on Rutherford Construction,” the small brunette said. Lily was another one that was pulled from the wreckage of Katrina. She had been attending the local college when the hurricane barreled through and her apartment was reduced to rubble. Marc had found her sitting on the curb, just staring at what was once her home. The college would keep going, but even at nineteen, Lily was ready to call it quits. He put the young woman in his car and took her home where they were already housing several refugees. Marc wasn’t giving anyone a chance to give up and Jacqui loved him all the more for his compassion and generosity. She was determined to carry on his legacy.
“Anything in the file I should be warned about?” Opening the folder, Jacqui leaned back in her chair. “Any reason I should go with these guys instead of someone here?” Jacqui wanted to help solidify Biloxi and the surrounding area, and therefore, always hired locally, another tradition Marc had started. The only reason she had agreed to even meet with Neal Rutherford was because her financial adviser, Brent Wellington, forced her into taking the meeting. Brent had been with Marc and her since the beginning and she felt loyal to him. Still, while she agreed to the meeting, she hadn’t agreed to hire them. She was counting on her personal assistant to help her find the way out she needed.
Lily, now twenty-nine and filled out into a beautiful woman as opposed to a skinny teenager, clasped her hands in front of her and shook her head. “Actually, from everything I could find on the company, they do amazing work. They’re always on time and usually come in under budget. They have offices throughout Florida and into Georgia, all with excellent reviews. To be honest, I can’t see a reason not to hire them. Sorry.”
Jacqui smiled up at the girl, all five-feet seven-inches of her. “Brent didn’t bribe you to say that, did he?”
Lily laughed as she gave Jacqui a playful wink. “He can’t afford me.” She then turned and began walking out of Jacqui’s office. “I’ll leave you to your dilemma. I’ll be at my desk if you need anything, Mrs. Karston.” Jacqui watched her walk away, her navy blue skirt hugging her ass and her four inch heels stretching her athletic legs. She didn’t know how her assistant managed to stay in such tight shape. She was almost always at the office with Jacqui, working the same insane hours. When the younger woman found time to exercise was a mystery to Jacqui, as well as something she envied.
She stared at the manila folder Lily had handed her. Jacqui was really hoping her assistant would have found some reason for her to cancel her lunch appointment with Neal Rutherford. She wanted to keep the money in the Biloxi area, not send it off to line a CEO’s pockets, who has nothing invested in her city. Everything Jacqui did, she did to improve the local economy. She bought from local vendors, she ate at locally owned restaurants, and she hired from local contractors. Brent knew this. So why did he seem hell bent on her working with Rutherford Construction, Incorporated? Of course, a better question would be why she didn’t just refuse.
A heavy sigh escaped her lips as she closed the folder. Because I owe Brent for helping me get this far. Brent had been the one who had made Marc’s vision possible and she owed him for that. Of course, that didn’t mean she had to like it.
She slipped the folder into her briefcase, ensuring she wouldn’t forget it. As she leaned back in her chair, she picked up the silver picture frame again, this time focusing on her daughter’s thin face. The project, the Maggie Karston Community Center, was to honor her daughter. Neal Rutherford would have to guarantee that his company could make it perfect before she even came close to considering his company for her project. While Rutherford Construction may look good on paper, they also had to feel good in her heart where the community center had been born. So far, her feelings were terribly mixed about it.
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Until next time, keep chasing your fantasies!