Castle of Sorrows

by

Diana Lee Johnson


One

Washington, D.C., 1989


       

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Iíve been sold! Dierdre sat in her car thinking. Is this how slaves felt? Jennings has sold me to his old chum! He never talked to me. He never asked me how I felt about it. He just told me I could be replaced by my staff. After all my hard work in this damn company! I should quit.

Her thoughts turned from the anger she felt at her employer to the person to whom sheíd been "sold."

Donald MacBaine is pleasant enough, I suppose. Maybe I should just take them up on this offer and let Jennings see how much Iím missedÖBut what if Iím not missed? What if they get along fine without me?

"Youíd better think long and hard about this, girl," she said aloud. Dierdre started her car and pulled out into traffic.

With all that was whirling around in her head this evening, she never even noticed another car on the road. She drove her usual route, paused during the usual back-ups and arrived home wondering how she had gotten there.

She wandered from room to room in her apartment as she mulled everything over in her head, replaying the day in her mind.

~ * ~

It had started like any other work day with the possible exception of awakening with a particularly good feeling, a feeling as though something wonderful or exciting was about to happen. She often had vague premonitions of events which came to pass in the very near future, or which sometimes were at that moment happening somewhere out of her realm of knowledge.

She also had an uncanny gift for knowing, without realizing it, that she was either being thought of, or needed by any one of several people who were very close to her. Often, without any idea why, she would pick up the phone and call a particular friend, thinking the idea entirely her own and of no particular origin, only to find her friend was thinking about her, or about to call her, or just needed someone to listen. Consequently, this morningís feeling of impending good fortune was not something to be ignored. Neither, though, was it something in which Dierdre put too much stock, never wishing to be disappointed.

"DeeDee," her father used to say, "what does that little angel on your shoulder whisper in your ear? Whatever it is, do it."

Papa always encouraged me to be my own person, to try my wings. Mama was always afraid I would fall. Now sheís afraid sheíll never have grandchildren. To her, Iím an old maid.

She checked every detail in the mirror at the insistence of a gnawing premonition her father called her "angel." A modest amount of make-up, and the ensemble was completed with an antique brooch and earrings passed down in her family for many years. A spritz of her favorite cologne in the air to fall about her in light freshness and she was off.

Somehow, this morning, everything looked and felt just right. It was the first time her accomplishments felt real. Sheíd started at the bottom, a secretary with a college degree, and two majors, business and political science. Sheíd worked so hard, used so much force of will and tenacity to become the Director of Training and Customer Relations. Sheíd sacrificed any kind of private life to make it in her company. Never asked anyone to do any job she hadnít done herself. Never used her femininity, even ignored it a great deal of the time.

Iíve earned my place, and today, Iím going to enjoy it, but Iíll never become complacent, Someday, Iíll own my own company, or be the president of someone elseís at a big fat salary. And Iíll hire and promote women. They wonít have to fight for scraps like I did. Theyíll make enough money to support themselves. If they want to marry and leave, fine, but if they want to marry, have babies, and stay, thatís fine, too!

Too bad for Mama thatís all passed me by. I know she longs for grandchildren. I guess Iím a lost cause. Perhaps Iíll meet Prince Charming today, Mama. She rolled her eyes. But then, I wouldnít know what to do with him. This thought brought a mischievous smile to her face as she bounced out the door of her apartment.

She jumped into her little car, remembering how it shortened her day to drive instead of being jostled to and from work on the bus and then the Metro. As a new executive, she had her own company-paid parking space, an achievement in Washington. It read "Ms. Bryant." Computrex, the company for which she had worked for the last eleven years, owned one of few remaining open parking lots in the city.

Dierdre worked with the clients to determine what tasks could be automated, then with her companyís programming department to develop specialized computer programs for the clients. Then she trained the clientsí staff in the use of the software and hardware so that they, in turn, could train their own personnel.

Dierdre was beginning to see her hard work paying off. The future was bright. Sheíd graduated from high school at sixteen and from college at twenty. She worked hard for her promotions, but tried not to be too fanatical about her ambition. Her pursuit of success stemmed from the fact that she had to keep proving herself over and over again, first in school, and then in the business world because of her age and her gender.

Thirty-one, heart locked away--maybe I donít have one. She mused, scanning her rear-view mirror. Maybe Anne is right, maybe I can stop and smell the roses a little, maybe Mr. Right will fall into my lifeÖhmmmÖis that what I want, or what Anne wants? And what Mama wantsÖ Anneís been chasing that rainbow with every Tom, Dick, and Harry and where has it gotten her? Two crumby roommates, and a lot of brief romances. Nope! Not for this girl!

With my new salary, Iíll have some financial independence and professional recognition. Men donít want girls like that, and I donít know how to be otherwise. If a guy ever comes along whoíll love me for all of myself, including my mind and business acumenÖfat chance. Iíd like to be happily married, and maybe even have a child, but Iím not about to push the panic button just because Iím single at thirty-one.

Today, Dierdre decided, was not the day for such thoughts. Today was a day for sunshine and living, not dreaming. She played the radio louder than usual as she fought the daily rush-hour traffic toward downtown, tapping the steering wheel and rocking her shoulders to the music. She proudly parked in her "reserved" space, opening the car door before even turning off the ignition. As she rounded the corner of the building, she noticed a new street vendor selling flowers.

She paused long enough to buy herself a deep-red rose for her desk and then bounded into the building sporting a broad smile. She nodded her usual morning greetings to the receptionist in the lobby, and punched the up button on the elevator. This morning "up" was definitely her direction.

As usual, Dierdre was in before her secretary, and before her boss, the Executive Vice-President of Marketing. She got a vase out of her desk and put the rose in water, then placed it deliberately upon her desk, pleased with the attractive accent it added to her new office.

"Just right," she whispered as she nodded. She went about her usual pre-office-hours routine, watering her plants and straightening her desk, when her intercom buzzed unexpectedly.

"Yes?" she inquired as she pressed the button.

"Oh, good, Dee, youíre in. This is Al." The voice was unusually chipper.

Al? Dierdre thought, Mr. Jennings never refers to himself as Al to me.

"I have a new client Iíd like you to meet."

"Certainly, Mr.--uh--Al," she choked on the familiarity. "Shall I come in?"

"No, weíll be right there."

"Yes, sir," she replied numbly.

How lucky, she thought, that I dressed so well this morning. Dierdre straightened the skirt of her expensive new gray tweed business suit as she whipped open her closet door to look in the mirror. The white Victorian-style blouse with a high lace collar was just the right touch to add a little femininity. She smoothed the French twist in her dark auburn hair and fluffed the fine new hair, too short to be caught up in the twist as it curled naturally about the nape of her neck and in front of her ears.

In a moment her door opened and standing there with "Al" was a tall, well-built, blue-eyed man with light-brown hair and an impish grin. She inhaled the fragrance of a subtle, masculine cologne about him, glad it was not the overwhelming scent so many men applied these days.

"Dierdre Bryant, may I present Lord Donald MacBaine, one of our newest clients. Heís come all the way from England to look us over."

"How do you do, L-Lord MacBaine." Dierdre extended her hand to shake his.

He reached out his hand almost timidly. It was obvious he was not used to shaking hands with women. "Iím very pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Bryant. I only just arrived last night, but Iíve already heard a great many good things about you."

"Thank you, Mr., uh, Lord MacBaine. Mr. Jennings says youíve come from England, but do I detect a Ďwee bit of a burrí in your speech?"

"Thatís terribly perceptive of you. I was sure after my years living in London and my schooling at Oxford, mí accent had disappeared."

"Oh, well, I have a sort of fetish for accents from the U.K."

"I compliment you on your good taste." He chuckled.

"I see you two are going to get along just fine," Mr. Jennings said, patting MacBaine on the shoulder, "so Iíll leave you to explain our idea to Dee."

Dierdre and Lord MacBaine nodded toward Mr. Jennings and she gestured toward a chair.

"Wonít you sit down, my Lord?"

"Yes, but please, call me Donald, and may I call you Dee?"

"You may, but my name is Dierdre. You see, Mr. Jennings just canít seem to remember it, so he calls me Dee."

"Oh, Iím frightfully sorry, well, Dierdre it is, with your permission." He nodded.

"By all means."

"Dierdre is a much prettier name anyway. Gaelic, isnít it?"

"Yes, Irish Gaelic," Dierdre replied with a smile. "Now, what is it I can do for you Lord MacBaine?"

He grimaced and sighed. "I have great hopes we can do something for each other," Donald began a tentatively. "You see, I have a sort of problem, and Al assures me you are by far the person best equipped to solve it."

"Iíll certainly be glad to try." Dierdreís tone was sincere.

"My brother and I own a textile company in Great Britain. Most of our factories are in Scotland, as is our home office. Some of our smaller enterprises, leathers, in particular, are in Wales. Our international offices are in London, thatís basically where I work. We manufacture tartans and tweeds for sale to clothing manufacturers and designers, and small leather goods of high quality."

Dierdre listened with interest as he continued.

"When our father died, eight years ago, I rather got thrown into the business. I was already working in a London office as Manager of International Sales, ever since I left Oxford, but it was rather removed from the rest of the business. My brother and I had to take over very suddenly.

"He puts in an appearance from time to time in the home office in Edinburgh, although I must admit, heís out of the office much more than heís in. He also makes the rounds of our factories there between my visits. Heís not as keen on the business as I. His interests lie elsewhere. I see to the London Office and our interests in England and Wales.

"At any rate, when I took over our regional office in London and combined my international office with it, I was appalled to find many of our orders were either unfilled or undelivered. We were so far behind the rest of the civilized world that not one of our clerks even had an electronic typewriting machine, much less any automated bookkeeping or invoicing, shipping and receiving. It was unbelievable. I didnít know where to begin to modernize.

"Gradually, weíve been able to upgrade to electric and electronic automated systems in one manner or another, but theyíre all independent, and the exchange of information is impossible. I want to put everything into a mainframe computer or whatever you recommend, entering orders and inventory, tracking and billing shipments. I want to introduce word processing for international correspondence, and so forth. The modern world has completely passed us by.

"This is where you come in. You see, we have a unique problem. We have some very old employees and their devotion to the company is very precious to us. Without it, Iím afraid the company would have crumbled long ago when economic conditions fluctuated."

"I can see your predicament. Trying to teach some, if youíll excuse the expression, Ďold dogs, new tricksí without risking alienation or making them feel ignorant." She gnawed at one side of her bottom lip thoughtfully.

"Precisely!" Donald exclaimed with glee. "Al said you would understand and Iím pleased to see he was right."

"Yes, I understand. Iíve run into several clients who needed to teach established personnel new techniques and bring in new staff to operate the computer systems without the old employees feeling threatened. But, I donít see how you think I can help you, unless you want me to give you a crash course on helping employees cope with change and innovation."

"No, thatís not exactly what we had in mind." Donald lowered his head and ran his thumbs underneath his lapels as if he were almost afraid to make his suggestion.

"You see, we were hoping, Al and I, that is, to convince you to come to England for a few months and take charge of this program."

"England? But how could I do that, my job is here?" She fidgeted in her desk chair, upset that her company was willing to let her go, give up her job when she had just been promoted a few months ago.

"I donít see how I could give up my job for a job of only a few months." She shook her head and sighed, attempting to compose herself. "Iíve worked hard to get where I am. Iím not ready to give it all up now."

"Oh, no, my dear girl, you wouldnít have to quit! Al and I have talked about all the arrangements, and your job is not at all in jeopardy. On the contrary, you would be on loan to us as a professional consultant, at, I might add, a substantial increase in salary."

"But my home, my friends..."

"Perhaps I should explain more thoroughly. Is there somewhere we could sit and discuss all the possibilities over a cup of tea, or coffee, or better still, breakfast? I have Alís permission to monopolize your whole day, but heís left it up to me to convince you to take on the job. He will accept your decision either way and your job will in no way be affected regardless of your final decision."

"Well," a shuttering sigh preceded the end of her sentence, "I guess we could go to the little coffee shop on the next corner." Her voice was low, her thoughts far away and racing.

"Splendid!" Donald bowed slightly from the waist and opened her office door with one hand, giving a lordly gesture with the other for Dierdre to precede him.

"By the way," he added, "I believe thatís one of our fabrics youíre wearing today." He smiled as he closed the door behind them.

Dierdre looked down at her jacket. No wonder this suit was so expensive. Why didnít I wear good old American cotton in red, white and blue? I should have known better than to start feeling secure in my job. If I were a man, Mr. Jennings wouldnít have offered to farm me out without talking to me first! Is this his way of getting rid of me? Send me off and let my staff fill in the gaps, and then when I come back, tell me Iím not needed?

~*~

Dierdre listened attentively to every word Donald spoke, trying to absorb as much as possible, trying not to let her mind drift to ulterior motives, while pondering all the ramifications, hoping to collect enough information to find a way to get to the bottom of this mess. She tried to look interested, as though she was gathering information to make an objective and intelligent decision. Actually, she was just trying to find out why Jennings wanted to get rid of her. She let MacBaine do nearly all the talking, injecting an acknowledgment here and there to show she was listening.

"My brother and I are as different as Ďchalk and cheese,í you see, both in looks, and ideas." He noticed some amusement on Dierdreís face at his expression "chalk and cheese." "Perhaps I should have said Ďnight and day.í"

"Oh, no, please, I think itís delightful." And truthfully, she did. She kept getting lost in his accent and stilted manner, that only slipped when his enthusiasm bubbled to the surface. Maybe I should give him the benefit of the doubt for now. Maybe heís an unwitting partner in this crime.

"If you say anything I donít understand, Iíll ask you to explain." You just keep talking while I figure this thing out. Though Dierdre kept her face turned toward him, her mind was a million miles away, like a radio playing in the background when she did her homework as a child.

His voice droned on as her mind raced.

"You see, Douglas is like Father. He sees no reason to change anything, but he has no objection to me trying, probably hoping Iíll fall flat on my--uh--anyway, heís much more absorbed in his renovations of the castle and grounds than in the business." Donaldís tone was not one of bitterness or disgust. He seemed to acknowledge his brotherís right to different interests and priorities.

Dierdreís attention snapped back and her gaze flew to his face, all the while she tried to disguise her excitement at the one magic word that had cut through her thought-fog.

"Castle? What castle?"

"Oh, our family castle. Itís been somewhat neglected over the last hundred or so years. Itís a nice place to visit, dream a little, but I shouldnít like to live there. I help Douglas from time to time find period pieces and other furnishings as I travel. He lives at the castle most of the time since his apartments are finished, and I visit when I can to see his progress and the rest of the family. Heís made me my own little flat there. He has the title of Earl of Ettrick, whilst I am but a viscount, but the castle and grounds were left to us both in Fatherís will.

"Iíd be glad to give you a personally guided tour, if you decide in favor of returning with me." He noticed a light beginning to dance in Dierdreís eyes with the discussion of the castle, and seeing his opportunity to interest her, he continued.

"Of course, Douglas knows more about the castle than do I, and Iím sure heíd adore having a lovely lass show some interest in it. There are many, many such interesting places-- castles, palaces, great manors--which I would be more than happy to show you."

He suddenly recalled a glance around her office at some prints of castles.

"That is, if you are so inclined." He tried to hide his smile. Iíve found her vulnerable point.

Dierdre couldnít conceal her intrigue at the prospect of seeing such marvelous sights. Sheíd always had certain uncontrollable yearnings to see such wonders, especially castles, though she had never actually seen even one in person. She had books and brochures friends brought her, even posters and pictures.

"Iíve always daydreamed about castles, about the histories the old walls have seen." She swallowed and inhaled a deep breath, licking her lips as she squelched the longing.

"Then why not bring your dreams and come home with me? Youíll have every weekend free to explore the countryside, and, if you agree to come over for the duration of this transition, Iíll throw in a fortnight, all expenses paid, for good measure, with your own personal guide--me! We can scour the countryside. You can get to know the land, the people and the castles." He made no attempt to stifle his emphasis on the word "castles."

"I have to admit itís a very attractive offer, but itís a difficult decision, and not one to be made unadvisedly. Iíd like to talk more about it after Iíve had a chance to digest all youíve told me." Nope, I donít think this guy knows what Jennings is up to, or heís a great actor. She tried in vain to unclench her teeth as she continued. "Iíd also like to talk to Mr. Jennings and see just what he has in mind about my job."

A suspicious look crept across her face as she explained, and Donald realized she was not one given to flights of fancy where important decisions were concerned.

"I understand completely, but might I just add a couple of other details before you begin deliberating?" Donald offered.

"Certainly," Dierdre nodded.

"First, the rent on your flat here will be paid for as long as you are gone, as well as the storage charges for your belongings should you wish to make a little extra money by subletting. Iíve taken the liberty of making a small deposit on a nice flat in the Hyde Park area for you should you decide to come. I will, that is, my company will, pay the rent on that also, freeing your salary almost entirely for your own useÖsightseeing, and such. Housing is scarce and dear in London, as I would think it is here, and itís a legitimate business expense." He cleared his throat, stretching his neck a bit.

"You will be provided a company car and a petrol account, though you may well prefer the underground for daily use.

"I should consider it a privilege to personally give you driving lessons, so that you master the art of keeping to the proper side of the road--the left, that is." He chuckled and gave a mischievous smile.

"I, myself, find driving on the wrong side a bit Ďdicey,í particularly shifting gears with my right, instead of naturally with my left. So, when Iím in the States, I resort to an automatic car."

Dierdre placed her hands on either side of her face and shook her head. Her brain had reached itís absorption point. Only the surety of knowing there was much more to this situation than she was hearing kept her from being swept away in Donaldís enthusiasm. She wondered just how long he and Mr. Jennings had been plotting this. I donít like people making my decisions, plotting out my life, picking out where Iím going to live. This is not going to work!

Papa would tell me to keep my wits about me. Mama would say, "is he single, this viscount?" Geeze, do you have to be so damn good-looking? She glared at him.

She couldnít believe this fairy tale. She had always promised herself two things when she became "rich and famous." One was a trip to Great Britain, the other a fully equipped car, ordered to her specifications, not "off-the-lot." No, she would not even entertain the possibility that this offer was serious.

"Thereís just so much to consider, and I keep Ďwaiting for the other shoe to fall.í"

Donaldís puzzled expression made Dierdre realize he wasnít familiar with her phraseology, so she tried again. "I mean Iím waiting for the Ďcatch.í"

"Sorry, pardon? The catch?" Donald repeated.

"Yes, you know, you can have all this, but..."

"Oh, quite, well, the only qualification I make is that you agree to stay for the duration of the transition, up to a maximum of six months, that is. If it should require any longer than that, you would have the right to refuse and return to America. Youíre very young, could six months or less out of your life really outweigh the merits of such an adventure?" He raised his pale eyebrows in anticipation as he awaited her reply.

My mother would not agree with the "very young-thing." Sheís sure she will die without any grandchildren.

"I hate to say too much at this point. I need a little time to turn this all over in my mind. Off hand, I canít say I have any major areas of concern." Dierdreís head was swimming. Perhaps if she sounded as if she were considering it, he would report that back to Jennings, and she would be able to catch him off guard.

"I say, how about having dinner with me and weíll discuss any other questions that might come to mind between now and then?" Not waiting for her answer, Donald continued. "In the interim, I shall exercise the privilege Al afforded me and give you the balance of the day off. He said I could monopolize you."

"To be perfectly honest, I donít think I could concentrate on much at work right now anyway. I need to set it all aside in my mind for a short while and then go back to it piece by piece in order to give myself a chance to weigh all the pros and cons." Her eyes were wide with the racing of her thoughts.

"I feel I need to know what Mr. Jennings has in mind first, though, before I can concentrate on any decision."

"Iíve an idea." Donald injected. "Why donít we both return to your office, have a little chat with Al, and then you could show me a few sights around Washington this afternoon in order to divorce yourself from the subject for a time."

Having no better suggestion, and thinking Donaldís gentle manner wouldnít lend itself to much subterfuge, if he did know anything, Dierdre agreed.

They returned to the office and Mr. Jennings divulged his plan to let the three supervisors under Dierdre report directly to him during her absence, maintaining her position with the company, her office, and even her treasured parking space. She didnít believe him.

Perched on the corner of his desk, he addressed her with a mock smile. "I realize it could mean a few more hours of work for me, but Iím anxious to help an old friend, besides the attractive prospect of selling both hardware and software abroad. I figure after you meet with all parties, see the parts of MacBaineís industry and whatís needed, you can draw up a detailed business plan. Once Iíve gone over it, Iíll send you two programmers to work on nothing else. And you can choose the programmers.

"Dee," Jennings leaned forward from his perch toward her, placing one hand on the arm of the chair she was sitting in, "youíre the best I have to offer, and this old Scot is my best friend. Could I send him any less?"

Dierdre relaxed somewhat. He now appeared sincere, but whether or not she believed Jennings, she still wasnít comfortable with the idea of leaving the job sheíd fought so hard to win. She hadnít even taken a vacation for the last five years, just an occasional long weekend to visit her parents.

Putting it out of her mind, as best she could, might be the best way to let it all sink in.

 

 


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