Molly Henderson forced herself to remain still, even though every fiber in her being wanted to scoot to the end of the chair and rattle off at least twenty questions that came to mind. “A challenge?”
Her boss, imposing as he sat in his leather chair behind an enormous mahogany desk, steepled fingers under his chin. Self- satisfaction curved his lips. “Let’s call it a little in-house competition between you and Ben. The winner will be editor-in-chief of my new magazine, American Legend.”
Pushing her glasses higher on her nose, Molly’s gaze darted to Ben Weaver, the man who had just gone from colleague to competitor. His veiled expression showed no emotion. Was he as surprised as she? Of all the topics this meeting could have entailed, informing them of a competition hadn’t been one of them.
She’d been surprised by the impromptu call to the boss’s office. Equally surprised when she found Ben waiting to attend the same meeting. What a way to start her Wednesday morning.
“My plan is unusual, I know. Both of you are qualified for the position and would do an excellent job.” He shrugged. “I decided to put my own spin on the promotion process.”
Putting his own spin on things had made Blake Masterson a very successful publisher. His unorthodox style of management set him apart in the publishing world, but somehow it worked for him. Mid-fifties, self-made and very popular in the Tampa Bay area for his publicity stunts. The stunts captivated the public, but always brought notice to charitable organizations and needs in the community. The man had a savvy mind and knew how to use it to keep his company in the limelight.
“As you know, Master’s Publishing is ready to expand with a new magazine. I need people focused for the long haul to get the magazine up and running and to handle day-to-day operations afterward. You have both proven valuable in your current editorial roles and I want to see where this challenge will take you.”
Molly bit back a sigh. She’d been with Master’s Publishing for eight years now, four as senior editor and writer for Quilter’s Heart Magazine. She loved working for the company, but steered clear of Mr. Masterson’s publicity stunts. She had seniority; her longevity alone should give her first shot at the position. But a competition involving her? Honestly, she’d never been very good at any endeavor outside her comfort zone, which consisted of working behind the scenes or immersing herself in a quilting project. Given the determined look on her boss’s face, his grand plan would definitely be uncomfortable for her.
But not for her soon-to-be rival.
She sneaked another peek at Ben. Tall, built, tan, and extremely masculine. Not to mention the most soulful brown eyes she’d ever seen. Yes, the man was handsome. But his ego? Another story all together.
They’d rubbed each other the wrong way since the first day he stormed into Master’s Publishing six months ago to take over as senior editor and head writer of Outdoor Adventures Magazine. He’d smiled his confident smile and acted like he owned the place. He assured Mr. Masterson his former freelance writing and television experience would increase circulation of his magazine and far outsell all the other magazines published by Master’s, including “the little quilting magazine,” as he referred to Molly’s magazine. He made friends with all the staff, frequently took over meetings, and whenever she tried to make suggestions, he smiled down at her, not taking her seriously. She never let on how much he bugged her, but, boy, did he bug her. And now a competition? Ben would relish any out-of-the-box trial thrown his way. This was so unfair.
“I’ve been very impressed with both of you. Our sales have increased due to both your efforts and we’ve already made a pres- ence with our digital editions.
“Ben, before you took on Outdoor Adventures, I was ready to pull the brand, but the articles are entertaining and well-written. The results have increased the circulation and advertising revenue. Of course, your past foray into the cable television show Extreme Survivors helped ramp up circulation. After watching you on TV, I jumped at the chance to lure you onboard. Nothing like having a mini-celebrity on staff.”
Yes, Molly knew that part, since everyone in the office talked about him.
Mr. Masterson grinned, as if Ben’s fame would benefit him. “I allowed you to fulfill your prior commitments when you first took the job, but since the traveling has wound down, we’re happy to have you in the office full-time.”
Some people, Molly thought.
“I have to give credit to Charlie,” Ben said as he leaned back in his chair. “He kept the magazine going while I finished up my schedule.”
“Always good to have a competent assistant, especially one who knows what readers want. Since you’ve shown your dedication, I thought you might want a shot at the new position.”
“Yes sir, I would,” he said, his smile dazzling. “Good. Good.” Mr. Masterson turned to Molly.
“Molly, you’ve been here since you started as an intern. When you came up with the idea for a quilting magazine, I have to say I wasn’t convinced the market could sustain it. But you kept after me and proved me wrong. Who knew crafts were so popular? You’ve built a readership and the numbers keep growing, but you haven’t quite gotten to the place where readers connect you with Master’s Publishing.
“Your monthly Dear Reader column is great but it’s time to take your relationship with your readers to the next level. I know you’re working on a special project to connect with readers, but let’s up the ante. Get them behind you.”
Which Ben, with his high profile in the extreme sports world, had already done in just six months.
“Even though both magazines are regional, as editors, I’m sure you’d like to work on a bigger project like American Legend. You both have a knack for finding in-depth human-interest stories to touch your particular readers. Just the type of content I want for my new magazine. Stories featuring ordinary people doing extraordinary things in their lives—not expecting accolades—just doing what comes naturally. I want stories of daring-do, faith-based stories, tearjerkers whenever possible. You’ll be given a chance to shine as an editor as well as moving up in the company.”
Rumors had infiltrated the office for weeks now that Mr. Masterson had something in the works. Speculation about the new magazine ran the gamut from parenting advice, to the auto industry, even a new comic book division. With Mr. Masterson’s love for giving back to the community, American Legend was a perfect choice for his reputation. And while Molly appreciated the idea, she still had questions.
“Could you be more specific?” she asked, still unsure about her part in this latest development. “About the challenge?”
With pen and paper in hand to jot down notes perhaps affecting her future with the publisher. She waited patiently. She loved being an editor, loved her magazine. But a promotion? Who wouldn’t jump at the chance?
“Out of all our inventory of magazines, both of yours are the most popular. Top sellers, actually. And polar opposites. So I thought, why not have my two top editors switch places? Molly, you belong to a quilting group, right? The one you’ve mentioned in your column?”
Mr. Masterson turned to Ben. “You will join Molly’s quilting group. Let’s find out if those outdoor skills of yours translate into sewing and producing a well-made finished product.”
“Quilting?” Ben raised a questioning eyebrow.
Oh, her friends would love this. Her boss had no idea of the dynamics in an all-female gathering. Ben might be used to his rough and tumble world, where strength and experience with Mother Nature gave him the upper hand in the wilderness. Spending an hour with suburban moms who talked about love, life, kids, what to make for dinner, and what their husbands were in trouble for, might send him screaming into the sunset. She’d seen the caged look on many faces of men forced to spend too much together time in a room with chatty women. Ben didn’t know it yet, but he’d just signed up for an adventure very few men could withstand and survive to tell the tale.
“Right now you’re working on the next issue of Outdoor Adventures which features . . .” Mr. Masterson glanced down at his notes. “Kayaking?”
Please, please, please, not sports. No physical activities. Anything but the outdoors. Her pulse rate elevated and she held her breath while she braced herself.
“—we’ll get you hooked up with a local kayaking event. Since Ben already has some activities lined up for the next issue, here’s a perfect opportunity to show me what you’re made of.”
“Kayaking?” Molly croaked, echoing Ben’s earlier response to his challenge.
“Afterward, we’ll showcase your individual journeys in your magazines.” Mr. Masterson shot them a teasing wink. “I do love publicity. And friendly competition.”
Molly gripped her pen. Friendly? More like a battle of the sexes if you asked her. One she doubted Ben would make easy. He took on a challenge the way an explorer took on the jungle, divide and conquer. No way could she kayak a few feet from shore, let alone with some major activity cooked up by Ben. She doubted she could get in the thing without tipping over.
“You’ll each have four weeks to complete your tasks. At the end of the month, I’ll review your progress and name the new editor-in-chief. Any questions?”
Ben spoke up first. “Yes, sir. Where will my new office be located?”
“Your office?” Molly sputtered.
He smiled at her. “Yes. My office.”
“Don’t you mean my new office space?” she countered. Mr. Masterson stood. “Both of you follow me.”
He led them down the hallway from his office. All the offices on this floor were for upper management, while one story down housed the other departments, including her office and Ben’s. Once they reached their destination, Masterson stood to the side as he opened the door with a grand flourish. Ben, his eyes bright with success, motioned for Molly to enter ahead of him. The more confident he appeared, the more steamed she became. No way would she let him win.
The vacant office had more square feet than both Molly and Ben’s current offices combined. Wide windows overlooked downtown Tampa, offering a glimpse of the vast city spread out before them. Bright sunlight glinted off Tampa Bay, where boats zig-zagged across clear azure water. From a closer view, eleven stories below, cars moving in a steady stream of traffic alongside a city park dotted with benches located under palm trees and plenty of grassy area before ending at the banks of the Hillsborough River.
Standing before the windows, Molly savored the sunshine and forced herself to calm down. Her inside office had no windows while Ben had managed to procure an outer office with one window. What she wouldn’t give for this spectacular view every day.
Ben might be Mr. Masterson’s bright, shining star, but Molly had grown tired of working her tail off with little reward. As much as she loved Quilter’s Heart, lately she’d been antsy. Ready for a change. A challenge would shake up her life, hopefully in a good way. And the best outcome? To beat out Ben for the job.
She turned just in time to see Ben place his briefcase on the empty desk, remove a clear plastic cube with a baseball inside, and set it on the smooth surface. His gaze met hers, telling her with no words necessary he’d marked the place as his. She bit back a retort because their boss hovered in the doorway, but she vowed to make him eat those unspoken words.
“Before you two plan your individual battle strategies, I suggest you return to your desks and figure out the logistics of the challenge.” Mr. Masterson motioned for them to exit the office. “I’ll stay in the loop to see how you’re both progressing. I may want to tweak things a bit as the competition heats up.”
Bad enough she had to compete, but knowing Mr. Masterson might throw in a game changer somewhere along the line? Great. Just great.
Being dismissed, Molly walked on shaky legs, allowing Ben to precede her. He couldn’t know how her boss’ grand scheme, or Ben’s confidence in assuming he’d won the challenge before it had started, rattled her. Never had she imagined she’d have to prove herself in such an unusual way. She’d been a loyal employee for years. Had doubled the circulation of her magazine in her time as editor. Shouldn’t her work ethic have merit in her boss’s decision?
She joined Ben by the elevator, tugging the lapels of her jacket over her blouse. Her mind ran in so many different directions, she couldn’t focus on any one thought. She glanced up to watch the progress of the elevator as numbers lit up above the door, trying to ignore the hunky man who now worked against her. Ben hadn’t said much after the question in Mr. Masterson’s office and the silence grated on her sensitive nerves. Finally, he turned her way.
“Do you have anything planned right now?” “Just heading back to my office.”
“Mind if I tag along? We can discuss the challenge details.” Details. Right. If only she could ignore him like she wanted to.
Suspicious, she asked, “Why my office?”
He chuckled. “Either will do. I thought you might be more comfortable hammering out the details on your own turf.”
Oh, sure. Now he decides to be accommodating, unlike his confident assumption he’d be moving into the upstairs office. “Fine.”
The elevator doors parted and Ben nodded for her to board first. He entered, pressed the button for their f loor and the doors slid shut, followed by a jerk of movement.
Molly stared at her fuzzy reflection in the metal doors. Why did these things always feel so small? And why did Ben have to stand so close? His shoulder brushed hers, but she held her ground. No way would she shy away from him.
Instead, she tapped her foot to the canned music playing some oldie but goodie.
“Something wrong?” he asked. “No. Just enjoying the music.” “You’re off beat.”
She stopped. Stood stiffly. “Guess we all can’t be good at everything.”