(I first wrote this piece as a short story in April 2019. I am reopening and expanding it in order to make it our first July novella).
Elizabeth sits back and relaxes. This is incredible. Sixty employees. Sixty! Twelve executives and supervisors. The Farm is thriving again. Today is a staff meeting day, one of the monthly meetings that Richard insists on holding with his employees.
Elizabeth is hardly listening because she is distracted. And the distraction is none other than the speaker himself. Richard. She is secretly in love with him, and it is difficult to concentrate when he is speaking. His rich voice is giving her goosebumps. His cologne is intoxicating her senses. His eyes dance mischievously when he laughs, and his dimples put emphasis on his handsome face. His fitting suit looks good on his athletic body, although some would argue that any clothing item looks good on Richard. At fifty-seven, Richard looks better than many men in their forties and late thirties.
It is late evening, so everyone goes home when Richard concludes the meeting. Elizabeth heads to her office, trying to push Richard away from her thoughts. She has a report to finalize before she heads home.
She knows that nothing can happen between her and Richard. He is twenty-seven years her senior and probably sees her as his daughter. Elizabeth is thirty, while Richard’s first-born daughter is twenty-eight. Besides, it is common knowledge that Richard loved his ex-wife. Probably still does. This confuses Elizabeth. Silvia’s extravagance contributed to the Collapse. And when Richard was broke and miserable, she dumped him for a younger tycoon. The divorce was finalized in months, largely because Richard did not contest it. By the time the divorce was finalized, she was already living with Timothy, the owner of the local chain of supermarkets, Rascals Ltd.
Richard still has Silvia’s photos in his office, alongside those of his three children. That, however, doesn’t stop Elizabeth’s mind from wandering when she is in his presence.
Richard took over the Farm seven years ago when his father died of a heart attack. He left his corporate job to manage the family enterprise since he is an only child. For four years he built upon his father’s foundation. Then the Collapse occurred.
The Collapse happened three years ago. The Farm tottered on the brink of bankruptcy. Drought followed by floods in the same year caused the Farm to make heavy losses that year. During the Collapse, the Farm could not afford to pay its employees and many of them fled. If Richard’s finances had been better managed, he would have survived unscathed. But his ex-wife Silvia used to burn the money almost as soon as it came in. On paper, she was the Chief Operating Officer (COO) of the Farm. She hardly did anything on the farm besides earning an exorbitant salary which she squandered alongside the rest of the profits of the Farm.
Richard adored her and usually allowed her to spend as much as she wanted. As long as the farm was producing, he was not worried.
Silvia’s spending worried Leonard, who was the Head of Finance and Elizabeth’s former boss. Leonard was the first to go when the Collapse began. As the drought began, Leonard attempted to tighten the screws. Sylvia would have none of it and continued spending heavily on her personal grooming and foreign vacations. Leonard resigned. Two months later, as the cash flow dried up, Sylvia left Richard for a younger, more flamboyant businessman. Without saying, that broke Richard as a man. His wife of twenty-eight years left when he needed her the most.
What followed was a mass exodus of employees, in what Elizabeth has christened The Collapse. The Farm went on its knees. Richard as a man was wrecked. He despaired and almost gave up on the Farm. It is at that point that Elizabeth took charge. She came to work every day, even though the Farm Office was now deserted.
Elizabeth is very frugal and had therefore saved a tidy sum in the years that she had worked. She could afford to go without pay for a while. When the drought ended and the floods subsided, she invested her personal finances to get the Farm started again. She pulled Richard back to work. She hired several casual workers who helped Richard and herself plant and irrigate. She worked side by side with Richard for a whole season, tilling, irrigating and harvesting just like the casuals. Somewhere along the way, she fell in love with him.
The Farm made a decent profit that season. Richard wanted to pay her back but she refused, shrewdly insisting on acquiring shares on the Farm and being made the COO. Now the Farm is back to its old self with Elizabeth as a shareholder and COO.
Elizabeth remembers all this as she steps into her office-Silvia’s former office. She sits behind the massive desk without bothering to close the door. She turns on her laptop and attempts to work. But concentrating is difficult. Her mind keeps drifting back to Richard. Then she feels his presence. She has long noticed that she can smell him from a distance. And not just his cologne, because she can smell him even out in the farm with his body covered with sweat and cow dung. It is his presence. His powerful, masculine presence.
She looks up.
There he is, not far from her desk. He is looking at her in the strangest way possible. She can feel her intestines churn. It is not just a strange look, but a strangely adoring look. She has fantasized about him before. But those have been just that: fantasies. There have even been moments in the past year when she thought she saw him gazing at her, but she has always dismissed it as the deceptive workings of her brain.
But this look right now is real.
She stares at him but says nothing. She hopes her emotions are in check but internally her bowels are wreaking havoc and her pulse is on the verge of explosion. So when he turns to leave, her heart sinks.
Then, just as he reaches the door, he turns back and faces her.
“You know, Liz, I don’t know how to say this. But I have fallen in love you and would love to be in a relationship with you. Think about it, and let us talk tomorrow. Over dinner.”
She must have looked shocked because he hesitates then comes back in and looks at her softly.
“It is okay if you do not feel the same way. I am sorry for even suggesting it. Forget I asked. We can just be friends and colleagues as always.”
As he turns to leave for the second time, she panics.
“Wait,” she says, rising from her seat. “I love you too. I just never thought you would say that. There is nothing to think about. I have imagined it for almost a yea…”
Suddenly he tugs her to himself and hugs her, then kisses her forehead while they are still locked in an embrace. They do not hear her enter.
“Well, well, well. What do we have here? What a cute site. I knew this girl is a gold digger.”
Richard and Elizabeth instinctively look at the speaker. It is none other than Silvia.
“Listen, young lady. If you think you can just snap my husband like that, you are mistaken,” she says.
“Former husband. You divorced him three years ago, remember?” Elizabeth shoots back.
“He is MINE. I have come back for him. And by the way, I also want my office back.”
Elizabeth looks at Richard, seeking support. But Richard says nothing. He looks shocked and confused.
“Let us go home darling. You still love your wife, don’t you?” Silvia coos, taking Richard’s hand. Richard does not resist but allows her to lead him out of the office. Silvia turns and winks at Elizabeth as they exit.
Elizabeth’s emotions are on a riot. She steadies herself and sits on her desk. What just happened there? What kind of spell does that woman have on Richard? What next now?
Elizabeth leans on her desk. She feels dizzy. After a few minutes, she slowly moves back to her desk, shuts down her computer, packs her things and moves out of the office, closing the door behind her. She walks slowly to the parking lot. Everything has become a blur.
Her white Mazda Demio is parked next to Richard’s silver Toyota Fielder. Next to them is a black Range Rover Vogue she has not seen before. She assumes it belongs to Silvia. The parking lot is otherwise empty. All the employees have already gone home.
Is it time for her to quit?
She enters her car but instead of driving through the main gate, she decides to pass through the farm and use the rear gate. She rolls down the window and smells the fresh soil. She can almost feel it on her fingers. The crops are thriving: Irish potatoes, onions, carrots, beans, sweet potatoes, arrow roots, and cassava. On the far side are the greenhouses where tomatoes are growing, shielded from the elements of weather. After the drought, she set aside one part of the farm for fruit trees and has planted mangoes and avocadoes, which she thinks might survive short term drought and flooding. Next year she intends to diversify and try poultry farming, and later, dairy farming. She has even convinced Richard to purchase the neighboring land for that purpose.
Suddenly she is filled with wrath. She has poured her soul into this farm. She is now a part owner, not just an employee. That means that unlike before, she now has the power to protect her beloved farm from Silvia. Her COO position is not just cosmetic like Silvia’s was: she wields real power. She approves all the routine expenditure of the farm. She is even a joint signatory in all the farm’s accounts.
Richard can overrule her, of course. She only holds 30% stake in the farm. He holds 40% but by practice, he controls his mother’s 30% which gives him an overwhelming 70%. His father held 70% but fully controlled the farm because his wife, Richard’s mother, hardly concerned herself with the farm. It is this 70% that Richard inherited and from which Elizabeth bought her 30%.
By the time Elizabeth gets home, she has forgotten about her broken heart. Instead, a steely determination is growing in that heart. Richard can destroy himself with that woman if he wants. But she will not allow them to destroy the farm.
Silvia is a beautiful woman. Her body is beautifully curved, crafted at the Master’s finest hour. And she has been a good steward: she is fussy about what she eats and goes to the gym on a daily basis. Her face is captivating: pretty in a soft, innocent way. Her large eyes look on mournfully even as her full lips part in a smile, revealing a perfect set of teeth. Once she looks at a man, she is certain to disarm him.
At 52, she is giving 20-year-old girls a run for their money. And not just because her body is as good as theirs, even though it is. But unlike most smitten 20-year-olds, Silvia is a highly intelligent and effective manipulator. And she has decades of experience behind her.
She is wealthy. And she has expensive tastes. Some men fund her lifestyle, others have been responsible for building her impressive wealth portfolio. Some do both. For the years she was married to Richard, he paid for her vacations and expensive habits. But she had affairs with a string of other men who bought her real estate and made huge deposits in her accounts.
When Richard went broke, she had been having an affair with Timothy, the flamboyant owner of a chain of restaurants and supermarkets. He had been pestering her to leave Richard for months, but she had been reluctant. In spite of all her affairs, she had realized that she actually loved Richard. In a twisted way.
But there were complications. First, Richard was broke. Timothy could afford to continue funding her lifestyle, but if she allowed him to it would arouse Richard’s suspicions. She has had affairs with at least ten men in their thirty years of marriage, and poor Richard did not have the slightest idea. She preferred it that way. She could play the dutiful wife while drawing benefits on the side.
But now she had three options: persevere the poverty, risk getting caught cheating by allowing Timothy to pay for her trips or walk out of the marriage. She opted to leave even though in a twisted way it broke her heart. It helped that they do not have children. Silvia refused to have children because childbirth would destroy her figure. Richard has a son and a daughter from a previous relationship so he did not press her.
Unlike Richard, though, Timothy proved to be a very controlling man. True, he lavished her with money. But he closely monitored her movements. She could not go on vacations alone. She was chauffeured everywhere. He almost had that chauffer-spy follow her to the toilet. It was suffocating.
And it also meant that she could not have an affair.
So when she heard that Richard was back on his feet, she knew that was her cue to leave. She was smart enough not to have formally married Timothy. She had simply moved in with him. So she simply rented an apartment one day and moved out of Timothy’s house. From that apartment, she could plot her come back to Richard’s life.
When Elizabeth steps into her office in the morning, the first thing she sees on her desk is a memo from Richard.
Kindly but urgently organize for the refurbishment and furnishing of an office on the second floor for Silvia. I have appointed her as the Chief Financial Officer effective immediately. That means that Leonard and the finance people will be reporting to her from now henceforth. Your other duties remain as before. More details in a meeting I will convene later in the week.
Of course. Silvia would only be interested in the Finance docket. But what does that mean? Will she now be approving expenditure or will that still be Elizabeth’s role? Elizabeth doesn’t want to find out.
She quickly types another memo:
Request denied. The CFO is a senior executive and can only be appointed by the Board. No board meeting has been convened and therefore the appointment of a CFO is invalid.
She prints and signs it and tells her secretary to deliver it to Richard’s office. The battle lines have been drawn. She knows she has a very small fighting chance: Richard’s mother Margaret. The eighty-year-old woman is still as sharp as ever and still runs the school that she founded many years ago. She loves her son to bits and will do anything for him. But she hates Silvia, and only tolerated her for the simple reason that her son loved her. Elizabeth knows that her only chance of winning Margaret to her corner is by convincing her that it is for the good of Richard and for the legacy of her late husband.
Elizabeth needs to make her move before Richard and Silvia make theirs, so she steps out of the office without a word to her secretary and drives off to Margaret’s School.
Will she be able to convince the old woman that keeping the farm away from the grasp of Silvia is to Richard’s advantage or will she be blinded by her love for her son and side with him? Besides, Margaret has not involved herself with the affairs of the farm since her late husband established it fifty years ago. Will she be interested in stepping in now?
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