©2013, Allison Morse
John Adair didn’t believe in losing. And definitely not today when everything he wanted was in reach. He’d beaten the odds before. At twenty-one, he’d already defied every label the world had thrust on him.
Still, never had winning mattered so much. This time it was about Ellen.
He tucked the forms the city clerk had given to him into his breast pocket. Before stepping out of Salinas City Hall, he straightened his olive drab tie. Even though his tour of duty was over, he liked wearing his army dress uniform on important days, with its gold buttons and the hard-won sergeant’s patches at its shoulders. The uniform represented the best that was in him. Incredibly, it seemed like how Ellen saw him, too.
He watched her jump out of her father’s old 1938 Chrysler Imperial sedan.
The Chrysler? Damn!
How could she think they’d not be noticed in her dad’s grandiose automobile? The old fiend undoubtedly loved the extravagant styling and owning the longest car in the county.
Before John could wave her off, she ran to him and wrapped her arms around his waist.
“What did they say?” she asked. “When can we get married?”
Forgetting for the moment they were out in the open, he took in her round shaped face, the chestnut hair that never stayed in place no matter how many pins she used, and the thing that would forever knock any other woman out of his head, her smile both enticing and formidable.
He’d bet even the army brass would think twice before challenging her.
Perched on her toes, she leaned up to kiss him.
“Ellie, not now. Your father has spies, even in Salinas.”
“I’m not going until you tell me.”
“Three weeks at most to get the blood test, and then we can come back here and get married.”
She jumped up and kissed him. “Wow!” She kissed him again.
He laughed. “Hey, I said not now.”
“I don’t care who sees us, not when we’re this close. You’re finally home safe and we’re together” Her hands slid up his back. Her lips, sweet and hot, caressed his.
He had to stop this. He pulled her hands off him. “Let’s get out of here.”
“No. I don’t want my wedding to be a secret. I’m an adult now. There’s nothing anyone can do. Not even my dad.”
Was she really that naïve about her own father? Sam Hamilton controlled his factory workers. Hard to believe he wouldn’t do the same with his daughter. “We agreed. Not until it’s done.” He peered once more around the street, relieved that he didn’t see anyone he recognized. “I don’t want to lose you.”
“You won’t.” She darted toward the car, shouting, “But I’m driving.”
She beat him to the car.
“So drive,” he said, climbing into the passenger seat. “This thing has no maneuverability anyway. Not like the 1935 model.”
Ellen gulped, coughed and sputtered, which was typical of her wonderful, crazy laughter. “The 1935 model didn’t sell.”
“A crime,” John said. “It was far superior to anything else on the market. The simplicity of its design was fantastic!”
“I know, I know. But you’ve got to make a profit. It can’t just be about design. It’s about making something people want.” She shot him a sly look. “Or at least convincing people they want it.”
“You sound like your dad.”
Her eyes widened in what looked like surprise. “I guess I do.”
“Hey!” he said. “You missed the road back to Pitney.”
Her only reply was a smile. She turned down a small street that led to a one-lane road through lettuce fields.
This was definitely not the way to Pitney.
“I know you don’t like my dad.” Her voice held a trace of hurt. “But he’s a genius at business, the same way George is with design.”
“I have nothing against business.”
“No, just my dad. He isn’t that bad. We should tell him.”
John’s shoulders tensed. “They’ll say I’m only after your money. Are you ready for that?”
“Who cares what they say. It’s not true.”
“You’re sure about that?”
“You wouldn’t be so aggravating, annoying, and argumentative if you were just after my money.”
He laughed. “What can I say? You bring out the best in me.”
Tilting his head toward the open window, he let the warm summer air glide across his face. It was all working out, soon he’d have the girl of his dreams and fulfill the promise he made to himself when the man from the bank took his family’s farm away.
He’d been only fifteen then, but he’d looked older. It wasn’t from the sun exposure, although he’d gotten plenty of that on the farm, but from the black winds that chased him and his family from Oklahoma.
In three more weeks, married to Ellen, he’d be fortressed in the ruling class where he wouldn’t have to fear that everything he knew and loved could be taken away from him. Better yet, he’d earned a place working with George doing what he loved, design. And all because of Ellen, who had turned out to be the greatest surprise of all, loving him no matter his place in the world. The wasteland of conversation that had met him every day in his home back on the farm or when he worked on the factory floor was now past. He had Ellen. He had George. He wasn’t alone anymore.
He lifted his arm out the window and held it firmly against the stiff wind created by the rushing car. When he brought his arm back inside, it felt as if the power of the wind remained within, filling him with a surge of adrenaline and confidence.
He turned to Ellen. “You really want to tell them?”
“God, don’t you. Not just tell. Shout it!”
The lettuce fields were replaced by an apricot orchard, and the sweet, tangy aroma of the blossoms engulfed him as they drove through the shade under the trees.
Sitting in the car, with the air filled with possibilities, John thought about the ad he had read in the newspaper. Riesel Lang Inc. was hiring. The possibility of working at Riesel Lang had nested deep within him, and the more he thought about it, the more he liked the idea of making it on his own terms.
That way he could prove to Ellen that it wasn’t about the money.
Maybe in the beginning he’d been partly attracted by her wealth, her standing in the world—maybe. But watching her fierce eyes and laughing mouth made him realize that sure wasn’t true anymore. He loved her. And it scared the hell out of him.
Ellen parked the car under the trees and tucked her legs up on the wide, padded seat and regarded him with a loving smile. Her dress rode up her thigh, revealing the black garter clipped to her nylons. “Three weeks, huh?”
Her expression was indescribable. She was radiant, and the most amazing thing of all was that it was because of him. Before he could think, he put his hand on the warm, bare skin above the lace top of her stockings. She leaned back against the seat. He pressed down on her leg, aching to have her—to have everything.
She yelped, and he jerked back.
Ellen sat up, tugging her dress back into place.
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have,” John said, trying to will the heat in his body to dissipate.
“It’s okay. You startled me, that’s all. I mean, I’ve never . . .”
“I’m sorry. We should wait.” He was afraid to look at her. He didn’t know what he’d do if he saw anger or, worse, hurt in her eyes. But finally he raised his eyes. “Are you okay?”
She was looking down. Damn it. For a moment he felt sick. What was she thinking? Then Ellen lifted her gaze and whispered to him, “I don’t want to wait.”
She scooted close and unbuttoned his work shirt, then slid her hands up his chest.
John’s heart raced at her touch. Yet, at the same time, part of him battled to choke off the feelings that surged through him. He grabbed her wrists, meaning to stop her, but her face no longer had any hint of trepidation. Her gaze melted him. Instead of holding her back, he let his hands slide slowly up her arms, across her shoulders, and lightly down over her breasts.
Ellen pulled back and then in one quick motion whisked her dress off over her head.
John gaped at her. Her skin was creamy white. She threw her arms around him, her lace bra massaging his bare chest. Then his body combusted. He bore down on her, and she met him. She whispered, “I love you.”
Her words broke the remaining constriction. As her legs wrapped around him, he felt the tremors inside her flutter through him. When he kissed her again he knew what it was to taste sunlight.
Nine Years Later
In 1953, when all the world was married, Ellen Hamilton was not. Never having been married didn’t bother her, not really. Solitude was a wonderful thing.
After turning the sign of the library to closed, she hurried down the stairs. A couple of her wavy locks escaped the confines of the tight bun at the nape of her neck. With a gloved hand she stuffed them back, only to have them escape again.
Giving up on the battle with her coiffeur, she headed down Main Street toward Hamilton Manufacturing.
She had been summoned by her father. Typical of him to command and, not request, her presence at the company.
How many times had she told him she no longer worked for Hamilton Manufacturing?
On the other hand, as a shareholder, it was only proper that she’d take an interest in the family business. Doing a little work here and there for the company didn’t make her an employee, right?
In her haste, either because of the train track underfoot or the tortured logic in her head, Ellen tripped and fell. She lifted her eyes to the bright blue sky and laughed at herself.
Really, some days that was all she could do.
She stood, dusted off her gray cardigan and navy skirt, and carefully stepped over the steel track. With its turn-of-the-century wood platform, the small train station marked a dividing line of sorts. The factory was on the industrial side. The other side was Main Street, with its small retail shops, town square, and almond grove at one end. Recently a new development of houses had sprawled in a long arc to the north and east of the town. But it was these original blocks that remained the core of Pitney, California. This was home, the place where Ellen had grown up, where she belonged.
When she’d walked into her father’s office, he was at his desk and, as usual, snapping orders at her younger brother, Tim, who appeared to be only half listening.
Sam Hamilton, was a man made of angles, both internal and external. He had a pointy beard and mustache, a rectangular face, and protruding shoulder blades that looked like saber hilts. But Ellen knew it was the angles her father plotted in his head that had rightfully earned him his power and, even if she didn’t like to admit it, her respect.
Then the great Sam Hamilton, also as usual, turned to her and launched into his familiar tirade. “Good God, Ellie, when are you going to stop this nonsense of pretending to be a librarian and come work for me full time?”
“I’m not pretending. I am a librarian.”
Sam swatted her words away just like an annoying fly. “But you enjoyed working here more. Don’t deny it.”
Ellen avoided his stare by examining the paintings of yachts that hung behind his large gold-inlaid mahogany desk. The problem was she couldn’t deny it. Despite her mother and, heck, most of the world looking down on a woman being a manufacturing executive, as a girl Ellen had dreamed of nothing else. She’d loved walking down the office hallway, where even the thick cement walls couldn’t stifle the steady beat of the factory machinery rumbling, cranking, and whooshing all around her. It was thrilling to know she was a part of something that affected so many things, from the creation of new and innovative products to all the people whose jobs depended on the factory’s survival.
Even so, she was better off at the library. There she had nothing more to worry about than the occasional late fee and not being hurt again by people who cared only about winning—or worse, becoming one of them.
“Come on, girl. I need you here,” he said.
Ellen could almost feel herself soften toward him until he spoke again.
“Good God, someone’s got to help your brother if he’s ever going to run this company.”
Ellen’s jaws clenched almost as quickly as her brother winced.
Until recently, Tim, the heir apparent, had never had much interest in the business. Ellen knew that Sam’s gruff ways were meant to spur her younger brother into action. But what it really did was hurt his feelings. Why couldn’t her dad see that?
“You underestimate Tim,” she said. “He’s creative. He just—”
“I’m right here you know,” Tim said under his breath as he retreated to the large window. The light from outside made his ash-brown hair appear almost blonde. With his turned up pug nose and wide-set eyes, he looked like a young boy instead of almost twenty-eight years old.
“Just my luck,” said Sam Hamilton. “Two children, neither man enough to run a company.”
Ellen flinched at the remark. At the same time, Tim, standing behind their father, pantomimed a sad clown face.
She smiled. Tim’s expression was so funny yet suffused with humanity that it would put the comedian Red Skelton to shame.
“Ellie, are you listening to me?” Sam asked.
No . . . , but she said, “Yes.”
“A representative from Riesel Lang will be arriving tomorrow, and I want you to be nice.”
Ellen shrugged. “I’m always nice. But why would a giant military contractor like Riesel Lang send someone to look at our factory? We make tractors.”
“Not for long.” Sam rifled through a pile of papers and pulled out a portfolio. He handed it to Ellen.
“Here. Look at this and tell me you’re still not interested.”
She took the file and sat opposite her father.
“It’s a tank,” Tim said. “The Feds are back to pouring money into the military. We’re going to be filthy rich.”
“A tank?” She frowned. “We stopped making those as soon as World War II ended. What’s the point of retooling our tractor plant now?”
“Not retooling. Expanding.” Sam’s Cheshire cat smile widened.
“Expanding?” Despite herself, he had piqued her interest.
“That’s why I called you down here,” Sam said. “I want your vote when the time comes to convince the rest of the board. Go ahead, Ellie. Look inside the file.”
She opened the portfolio and carefully pulled out a wrinkled sheet of paper from a sketchpad. “This looks like one of George’s designs.”
“Yup, another George Morales masterpiece. I can’t keep him away, thank God.” Sam leaned back in his leather chair and laced his fingers behind his head. “It’s a good thing retirement didn’t suit him. Look at this beauty. It’s not only faster than the other tanks out there, it’s more stable.”
Examining the sketches, she could almost smell the dizzying combination of glue and ink that were always present in the company’s research and development department where George worked. She had to admit that the prospect was exciting. An innovative invention coupled with government connections and the financial resources of Riesel Lang could launch Hamilton Manufacturing into the big leagues. And Tim was right, it would mean a ton of money.
“Aren’t you worried about bringing Riesel Lang in on this?” Ellen asked her father. “That company’s a behemoth. It could eat us alive.”
“I don’t think so,” Sam said.
“Guess who Riesel is sending?” Tim said. “An Okie, who––”
She scowled at him. “Don’t use that slur.”
“Sorry. Anyway, the guy used to work for us, and now he’s an engineer. You sure you don’t want to guess?”
Something in her brother’s smirk made her hesitate. “I don’t care who. I told you, I’m not interested in the company.”
Sam leaned forward and looked at her with a smug little smile. “Oh, I think you’ll be interested. Riesel’s representative is John Adair.”
“Who?” Ellen’s head jerked up as if she’d bitten into a chili pepper.
Sam nodded. “I’ve told your mother to invite John to be our guest at her annual gala this weekend.
“Jeez, Sis. You look pale. Everything all right?”
This was stupid. Stupid. She hadn’t thought about John in years—and she liked it that way. Yet, for some annoying reason, her skin tingled with the memory of his warm, callused hands on the small of her back.
She shook herself and glared at her father. How could he, of all people, allow John to come back?
As if Sam could read her mind, he shrugged, “Riesel thinks he’s being smart sending John—a man who he thinks knows the territory. Huh!”
Ellen clasped her hands so tightly they turned white.
“What Riesel doesn’t realize is we know John a lot better than he ever will.” Sam’s stare was so intense it felt almost physical.
“What do you mean?” Tim asked.
“He’s a thief,” Ellen whispered.
“He’ll be here as our guest. So be pleasant. Let us overwhelm Mr. Adair with charm and hospitality.” Sam settled back into his chair as if it were a throne. “But be sure to keep all the valuables under lock and key, right Ellie?”
Ellen lifted her chin and met her father’s gaze. “Don’t worry. I will.”