New Orleans - Same Day
New York - March
"It's up to eighty-seven." The young man's eyes never left the scrolling numbers on the computer screen and the hangnail he'd ripped off of his thumb with his teeth was now bleeding. "Briar, did you hear me? It's up to eighty-seven fifty-three."
"Timothy, do you know why you won't make it in this business?" While her employee scanned the stock numbers, Briar Kilston studied the New York skyline from her office window seventy stories up.
"For God's sake, it's at ninety, we should sell." He had long since started on his index finger ripping the nail so viciously he had to stop and shake out his hand from the sudden self inflicted pain.
"You have no sense of timing and you have no balls. Both are essential if you're shooting for the big game around here." She stretched her feet out in front of her and put her hands behind her head, the total picture of relaxation. It was almost a comical study in opposites. "My father was fond of saying you should be locked and loaded, and ready to pull the trigger but only when you were sure you were going to make a killing. I don't sense a kill shot just yet."
"It's back to eighty-nine seventeen."
Briar picked up her phone and punched in the number to the floor of the stock exchange. "Tony, pop them for another twenty thousand. Make it quick, we're working against the bell now."
"Twenty thousand more? You're fucking insane," said Timothy.
She stood, took her jacket off and put on a drab gray one and put her credentials around her neck. The minute she walked onto the trading floor from their office building, the fury began. Kilston wouldn't be buying a dead stock so the other buyers didn't let her down and started the run she was counting on. When the bell finally rang she'd sold at ninety-seven and change.
When she made it back to the office Timothy was the first to try and offer his congratulations. Ten minutes later he was standing on the street holding a box of his possessions wondering where his day had gone so wrong. Briar couldn't work with anyone who didn't have the ambition not only to win, but also to completely annihilate everything and everyone who stood in your way to get that victory.
It was another lesson she'd learned early from her father. Because even though he'd founded the brokerage firm she now ran, Briar had started in the mailroom. The corner office had been earned one deal at a time.
Now that the non-believers had been dealt with, she started working the phones and finishing some numbers for the next day's conquests. Her assistant Shelia came in at ten and held up the long discarded jacket. She'd found early on that most times Briar needed a kick in the pants to call it a day.
This had only been Shelia's second job after graduating from junior college, but she doubted she'd run across anyone who was as much a workaholic as Briar. The brokers who finally made it out of the bullpen and into an office were the ones who worked as hard and put in the hours, but none of them topped their boss at the end of every week.
"You have a reservation with Claire in thirty minutes. If you leave now you might get lucky."
"With you or Claire?" asked Briar.
"I'm not the one filling up half your closet with designer clothes so let's go with Claire." She smoothed the shoulders of the jacket after Briar slipped it on, and accepted Briar's arm to the elevators. "And could you do me a favor?" she asked when the leather cigar holder came out.
"Order a salad with dinner. Even if you treat it like a center piece it'll make me feel better."
"Shelia, I'm too much of a bitch for anything to happen to me. Besides, if God had meant for people to eat things that are the color green they'd taste like beef."
"You walk me downstairs every night, buy me flowers every Monday, and never forget my birthday or any other important date. Don't give me some story about how bitchy you are. But fifteen hour days, a steady diet of red meat, cigars, scotch and a woman who could inspire frustration in Christ it shocks me that you're still here giving me a hard time."
Briar's car was waiting for them but Shelia declined a ride and smiled when Briar put her in a cab and paid more than enough for the fare. As long as her days were, it was these consistent kindnesses, that Briar rarely showed others, that kept Shelia loyal. The woman was a hard ass to work for but she was also generous to a fault if she cared about you.
"Remember the salad," she yelled as Briar closed the door for her.
She turned back as the cab pulled away to see Briar light the cigar and wave with a huge relaxed grin on her face. It was that smile on the strikingly attractive face that caught most people off guard at times. Briar in Shelia's opinion was good looking, not because of the shoulder length light brown hair, nor the pale blue eyes and tall build, but because none of those things seemed to matter to her. Her boss was fond of saying it was just genetic luck and nothing more. It was Briar's compassion for others and her passion for life in general that made her attractive.
In their years together on the job, Shelia had never met anyone who loved life as much as her boss. She couldn't cook, but would take chances that people like Timothy thought were crazy. Briar was fond of saying food could be ordered out, but the thrill of winning when everyone bet against you couldn't be bought. She wasn't much for the outdoors, but had a love for sunsets and sunrises that no one would have guessed about her. The one thing that always surprised Shelia was that Briar didn't like the water. The ultimate risk taker had never learned to swim.
"Sweet idiot," was all Shelia could think to say as her ride turned the corner. She was looking forward to tomorrow when she knew she'd learn more about the enigma that was her boss. With each day that came, Briar never disappointed her on that.
New Orleans - Same Day
"You remembered didn't you?"
Vivian Loreio cut the engine to the crew boat she was piloting when they were about five feet from the dock, knowing from experience they would coast in the rest of the way and gently tap rubber covered wood. Her job was shuttling offshore workers up and down the Mississippi River all day, along with supplies, but it was something she loved since it kept her on the water.
She had partnered in business with Alan Beniot and after a couple of years they owned the boat outright and made a fairly good living. The two had grown up together and were more like siblings than business partners and spent most of these trips having conversations just like the one they were engaged in.
"Of course I remembered," she said as she watched the ground crew tie them up.
It had been raining for most of the day and despite the cap she had on, Vivian's blond hair was plastered to the back of her neck. They sat just outside the wheelhouse and watched as the crew unloaded the empty containers they'd picked up that afternoon and put them on the dock. The constant light rain would make for a long ride home on her bicycle if it didn't let up so she was taking a moment to work herself up to mounting up.
"What'd you get her?" Alan put his feet on the railing and brought his cap down lower to keep the water out of his eyes.
"It's unique, so I'm not telling you until tomorrow. I don't want to jinx her not liking it by telling your ugly mug about it."
They had been business partners and friends for most of their life, but the one thing they'd butted heads on was Megan Beniot. The thirty-year-old kindergarten teacher was Alan's sister and Vivian's partner. At least that's how Vivian referred to her as, but Alan was waiting to see the ring and some type of act that would convince him his buddy was in for the long-term.
"It's been more than enough years, Viv, so I hope you put some thought into Megan's birthday present." He hunched over and cupped his hand in front of his mouth trying to light his cigarette. When he did he handed it over to share. "I want her to be happy."
She blew the smoke directly at him and waited to see if he was through with his lecture. "You think she isn't? Isn't happy I mean."
"I'm sure she is, but I know Megan, and she won't push very hard for the things she really wants."
"I wouldn't worry about it. Call me crazy but I think we want the same things out of life and you can always be sure that I'll take good care of her."
She took one last drag from his smoke before going back in to get her bag. The rain had let up a little but was still falling as she unlocked her bike and headed away from the river toward Lake Ponchatrain. There was a section close to the industrial section of town where a lucky few, interested in simple living, had founded a community of houseboats.
While a majority of the owners only came out on the weekends, Vivian and Megan lived on the water in the last slip on the long dock. It was cramped but Megan never had the heart to make her partner leave the serenity of the area.
There was the houseboat that Vivian loved, but her favorite possession was tied in the adjoining slip. A two-man catamaran that she lived to take out alone when the wind was really whipping since Megan was afraid of the neck breaking speed the boat was capable of. It was as close to freedom and flying as she would ever get without leaving the ground.
She waved to the few people sitting outside enjoying the sunset as she slowly pedaled down the dock. She could see Megan was sitting on the upper deck under the awning reading a book, seemingly lost in another adventure or romance.
"Lousy day to be riding a bike, Viv."
Leaning her ride against a piling, Vivian climbed up and dropped into the empty chair. Megan's dachshund Mac was sleeping at her feet and stirred when Vivian's clothes let out a squishing noise and he responded with a lazy bark.
"Did you have a good day?" asked Vivian. She had intentionally not mentioned Megan's birthday earlier that morning to build the suspense.
"School was good and my kids gave me a collage they've been working on."
"I'm sure that was great, but wait till you see what the rest of the day has in store for you." She unzipped the backpack and pulled out a small box.
"You look as excited as my little ones." Megan accepted the box and just enjoyed holding it for a moment before lifting the lid.
"Happy birthday, babe. I know you think I forgot but I was just waiting to surprise you." Vivian motioned for her to look at her gift.
They had confessed their feelings for each other when they'd turned fourteen and it was the first time any of Vivian's gifts was small enough to be something as personal as jewelry. Not that she needed anything extravagant, it just wasn't Vivian's style, but after years of receiving things like bathmats and really cool kitchen gadgets, it would've been a welcomed change.
Slowly, as if to savor the moment, she lifted the lid and looked inside. Years of practice helped her put a pleasantly surprised expression on her face as she studied the box's contents. The thin piece of rope was tied in an intricate knot, the kind Vivian liked to practice as a way to relax, and it was sitting alone in the box.
"Thanks, honey." She held it up and smiled.
"It's a new knot I made up for you," Vivian took out a new piece of rope and started replicating the one in Megan's hand. "I wanted to give you something that would symbolize how you make me feel."
"I tie you up in knots?"
"Yeah," said Vivian as she handed over the new knot.
"Good to know, Viv." Her tone was light and amused since she realized Vivian meant the comment as a compliment. "You want to go out tonight?"
"Nah, let's just use up the leftovers from last night. The cat needs new sails so we're saving up."
It wasn't a good time to remind Vivian that, while she liked to sail as well, the boats weren't her first priority. But then it wasn't ever a good time. As true a heart as Vivian had, there was something missing from their relationship. Her birthday had made her realize that what was missing was passion.
For once Megan wanted to feel like the center of someone's universe and be swept off her feet. Then she realized how lucky she was that Vivian was so sweet and loyal, but the seed of want had been planted. Maybe today wasn't the day to talk about it, but it was coming, and like the storm that was raging at the center of the lake, it wouldn't be put off.
"Take your coat, Ms. Kilston?"
"Thanks." Briar shed the overcoat and handed it over. The place was still full despite the late hour, but a trip to the bar, as much as she wanted to make one, wasn't possible since her table and her date were waiting.
"You might want to hang on to this," the manager held up a blue box with a white ribbon. He'd felt it before handing the coat over to one of his staff. "It looks important."
"Or like Shelia's been shopping for me again." She gave him a tip in exchange for the gift as she racked her brain for an important enough date to warrant a trip to Tiffany's.
He laughed as he slipped the money into his front pocket and started for her table. "Have a wonderful evening, Ms. Kilston."
Claire already had a drink in front of her but it was still fairly full. She liked the taste of a good Cosmopolitan but hated the calories. There was another drink set out for Briar, but that one was quickly drained.
"Hello, darling. Rough day?"
"Nothing to worry about. Besides, you hate talking about business," said Briar.
The waiter put down a fresh drink, and she used the interruption to study Clair's profile. Thin was always the first word that popped into her mind when she looked at the beautiful face. Not that there was anything wrong with thin, as all the romance novels prove, but there wasn't anything wrong with curves either.
"This is a special day so I thought I'd indulge you."
The comment prompted her to pull the gift out and slide it across the table. "No need to indulge anything but yourself, Claire."
"I knew you'd remember." Ignoring the comment, she reached for the box and immediately opened it.
"Of course I did." Briar figured this wouldn't be the time to pull out her Palm and put in a reminder to give Shelia a raise.
A diamond tennis bracelet came out of the box and sparkled beautifully in the low lighting of the restaurant. "I didn't realize you enjoyed our first date this much, darling." She handed the bracelet over and offered Briar her wrist. The gift was beautiful but Claire had to steel her face into a smile of surprise when she noticed the box was much larger than the one she was waiting for.
"It's a wonder I can think of anything else." As she closed the clasp a sudden feeling of sadness came over Briar.
Claire had just moved in one day and she hadn't thought to object, but there wasn't a burning passion to be with this woman. It was nice to have someone to talk to at the end of the day when the mood hit her, or to have someone sitting across the table from you at dinner, but the overwhelming sense of love everyone talked about was absent.
Luckily Shelia kept Briar from being a disappointment to the women who'd come and gone in her life by shopping for gifts to fit the things she kept notes on just in case, but she was disappointed in herself for not ever taking the initiative to go out and do it. There had never been anyone she felt compelled to roam the counters at someplace like Tiffany's for. Stopping to pick out something that would make their eyes light up like the diamonds of Claire's gift just didn't enter her mind. She was sure it would do the same thing to those places in her heart that had been closed off for way to long if she took the time to care.
"Are you all right?" asked Claire. She had placed her order and it looked like Briar didn't even know the man was standing there much less talking to her.
"What? I'm sorry, I'm fine." She opened the menu and scanned down to the steak section. "A filet medium, garlic mashed potatoes and a house salad."
"A salad? That's new." Claire handed over her menu and turned to Briar like she had grown horns. "You're usually so boring when it comes to food."
"Then it's a good thing to order something out of the norm. I wouldn't want to be too predictable." She smiled and didn't care that it wasn't completely sincere.
The night had been enlightening in so many ways, and while she cared for Claire, the seed of want had been planted. It was time for someone to share a life with who would eclipse everything and everyone else, especially work. Because for now, it was the only thing that made her blood rush and made her look forward to her days.
"Did she like it?" asked Shelia.
It was early, but the office was already full, and people were working the phones going over information from the foreign markets before they headed to the trading floor. Shelia met her at the elevator as usual and held up a cup of coffee and a cheese Danish. How Briar was able to keep such a trim waist was beyond her but it was her favorite way to start the day and she was there to make sure Briar was taken care of.
"Mighty generous of you, Shelia. Makes me wonder if you're not stepping out with my girl when I'm at work."
"Yes I have so much time on my hands and your money at my disposal to make Claire realize I'm alive much less happy."
Briar stopped walking and just stared at her as if Shelia had just spoken some deep truth no one had ever been brave enough to voice. "Do you really think she's only with me because of the money?"
"I can't answer that for you, boss." Placing her hand over Briar's chest she continued, "For decisions that important, that have to do with your life, you have to look deep in here. I know you don't like to have those types of sensitive chats but sometimes they're necessary."
The change happened so fast it was hard for Briar to realize what was happening. From the time she'd gotten up that morning she'd had a nagging case of heartburn and pain in her arm and neck, but she had blamed it on the late night meal. When Shelia placed her hand over her heart it was like she had started a radiating pain that was making it hard for her to breath.
"Briar?" Shelia took the cup of coffee out of her hand and put it on the nearest desk. "Briar, are you alright?"
"I can't…" The pain cut off anything else she was going to say and for one brief second she was overcome with a choking fear when her vision started to dim. "Shelia," she pinned her with those blue eyes that always reminded Shelia of the first blue of dawn, "please."
As frantic as the office usually was, it kicked into overdrive when Briar slumped against Shelia and ended up on the floor. While Shelia started to assess what the problem was, the guy behind her was on the phone to 911. The lasting image they all had was of Briar's shirt open and the EMS workers running enough current through her body to lift her off the stretcher.
"Clear," said the emergency worker when the first shot didn't work and they still had no pulse. The others stepped away but had equipment in their hands ready to continue their jobs knowing time was precious now. "Move, and call ahead and have the cardiac unit waiting for us."
Shelia ran after them to the elevator, tears making it hard for her to see, but she couldn't leave Briar alone to face this. Seeing her appearing so weak and vulnerable seemed so surreal. It was a run to the ambulance as they continued to pump in medication and strap on more monitors that showed a very weak pulse.
"Briar, don't you dare give up," said Shelia as she got into the back with her. On the way to the hospital she tried to call Claire to have her meet them at the hospital but her phone was off and she wasn't answering at the penthouse.
Hours later Shelia stood when a doctor came through the doors and waved her back to her seat. He sat next to her and exhaled like he was exhausted. "The nurse said you came in with Ms. Kilston."
"Is she alright now?"
He put his hand on her knee and tried to think of the most compassionate way of telling her Briar's prognosis. "She's being monitored, but Ms. Kilston's diagnosis is serious. This morning she suffered a significant heart attack that has left her heart muscle severely damaged."
"But with time or maybe an operation she'll be fine right?"
"I'm sorry, but the damage is irreversible. She seemed healthy but this episode came on because of severe blockages."
Shelia shook her head and tried not to cry but couldn't help the tears that started to fall. "What do you mean irreversible? Is she going to die?"
"We're helping her breathe and we're monitoring her heart, but we need to pray for a miracle now. A transplant is her only hope for recovery and with AB negative blood, it's going to take a miracle."
"Can I see her?"
He took her hand and walked her into the room in Cardiac ICU unit, and didn't let go when Shelia saw Briar for the first time. The vital and animated woman she knew was now lying there fighting for her life. Her fingers felt cold to Shelia as she held her hand, the doctor going back to the desk to give her some privacy.
"I should've asked you to start ordering a salad long before last night. Oh, Briar, you can't do this to me. Please promise me you're going to hang on and not give up."
There was no answer but Shelia sat there with her until the staff asked her to leave. On the way back to the office she called Claire again hoping to find her. She didn't want to just leave a message as to what had happened. If Briar were awake, the fact Claire was missing would have been the answer to the question she'd asked before her heart gave out.
"Morning, babe," said Vivian when she heard Megan behind her.
She had gotten up before the sun had risen and made coffee to take to the upper deck and watch the first colors of the day paint the sky. The rain from the day before had stopped only an hour before but had left a multitude of clouds and a heaviness to the air.
"Morning." She'd taken Mac for his morning walk and was feeling as sluggish as the weather. As she always did, Megan had tried to put aside the feelings that had occupied her mind the day before.
Putting her cup down Vivian walked over and kissed her and held her close for a long time. "You feeling okay?"
"I'm fine, just a little tired. You ready to go?" Because of their job, Vivian and Alan were on the road before six every morning.
"We don't have to go until a little later today so I thought I'd make you breakfast before you have to get to school." The offer garnered Vivian another kiss.
Her first job out of high school had been as a cook offshore and Vivian had discovered something about herself she would've never guessed existed. She found the domesticity of preparing a good meal very relaxing and enjoyed showing off her skills for Megan.
After enjoying vegetable omelets together, Vivian went out and unlocked her bike. Before she got on, she turned back and lifted her hand to wave. "Do me a favor," she called up to Megan.
"Sure. You want a ride?"
"Nah, I just want you to remember something for me."
She smiled and lowered her hand. "Just remember that I love you." It was as romantic a notion as Vivian ever displayed and it made Megan's face break out into a beautiful smile.
"That'll be easy to remember, honey. Be careful and I'll see you tonight."
When her principal came to the door of her classroom and asked to speak to her, it seemed like the words she told Vivian had just left her lips. Her boss started talking and it was all she could do to not tell her to shut up.
"They brought her to the emergency room at Big Charity." The principal held on to Megan and just kept telling her what she needed to know, no matter how painful it was. "Your brother just called so we have to go, honey."
"That can't be right," said Megan not even realizing she was being led out to the parking lot and into her friend's car. "She was fine this morning when she left for work."
She kept repeating that line as they drove up to the emergency entrance of the mammoth medical complex. Alan ran up to her and took over caring for Megan, putting his arms around his sister. They stepped into a small waiting room where a doctor was sitting patiently waiting for them. This was the part of the job there was no adequate class for. In his opinion, there had been no easy way devised to break such life altering news.
He took Megan's hand and turned his eyes to Alan trying to convey that he shouldn't let go of her. "I have a few things to discuss with you, Ms. Beniot, and your brother tells me you have Ms. Loreio's medical power of attorney."
"I have the paperwork at home if you need it, but I really need to see her. I'm sure this meeting is important but I just need to see Viv."
"No, ma'am, I trust we'll get to the paperwork eventually, if it's necessary. I just want to discuss what happened with you and tell you what to expect before we go in." He took a deep breath like he was about to jump into the deep end of a very cold pool and just started. "This morning because of the slick roads it's my understanding a driver skidded out of control and hit Ms. Loreio while she was on her bicycle."
"But she is always so careful," said Megan, as she gripped onto his hand like a lifeline.
"It wasn't her fault, sis. The guy just went through a stop sign and tried to avoid her but the wet road made him lose control," provided Alan.
"What we have to face now," the doctor paused and took another deep breath, and tried to smile as a way of comforting her. "What we have to face now is that Ms. Loreio has no brain activity so you have to make some decisions for her now that she can't make for herself."
"I know Vivian, and she can pull out of this. She's a hard worker and in great shape. She can beat this if we give her the time."
"Megan, the doc got about four opinions already while we were waiting for you to get here. It's the machines that are keeping her alive. I know Viv almost as well as you do. She wouldn't want this kind of existence. We had that talk once and I know for sure she wouldn't want that." Alan pulled her close to his chest and let the tears come. There were more than a few that fell down his own face for the friend he'd lost in one senseless accident.
"I can't do that to her, Al. I don't have the right to take her life away."
"Then let her words and her wishes do it for her," said the doctor. "Did she have a living will?"
"It's with all her papers. We drew them up a couple of years ago when we met with an attorney."
"Then your brother is right, Ms. Beniot. Let Vivian have what she wanted and ease your heart in that it's her wishes we'll be carrying out."
Megan moved away from Alan a little bit and grabbed on to the doctor's hand again before he could stand and move away. "Are you sure there isn't anything we can do?"
"My oath is always to preserve life were I can, ma'am. Especially when I see what the person has to lose if we don't do everything we can to make them whole again. The people they love and will be leaving behind if I don't do my job to the best of my ability is always a major factor in everything I do. I swear to you on all that I believe that Vivian is beyond my reach and for that I'm sorry."
"Thank you then. I just needed to ask."
He stopped at the door and looked back at them. "I realize this may sound harsh, but was it also her intent to be an organ donor."
"That's something I really don't know," said Megan.
"I wouldn't want to push you but with her rare blood type she could make such a difference to so many people if that was her wish. Look at it as a way of letting Vivian's spirit live on and changing someone's life for the better."
Megan sat with Vivian alone for over an hour, whispering things she'd wished she said that morning before she had ridden off. She kissed her goodbye with a little guilt for the thoughts she'd had the night before when she'd opened the box to find a knot inside. Their relationship might not have been perfect, but not having Vivian there at the end of her days and in the mornings was going to be incredibly lonely.
She rested her head on Vivian's chest and listened to the beating heart inside one last time. It was something she took for granted every night as they went to sleep and Vivian held her. The sound was reassuring and just one of the things she would be losing as soon as they rolled Vivian into surgery.
"I want you to promise me that you'll move on knowing that you are the best thing in my life. I love you, Vivian, and I want to thank you for sharing your life with me. You gave your best always and I'm going to miss you more than I'll ever be ever to say. Take care, love, and you'll be in my heart."
She kissed her one more time and nodded to the medical personal outside. They came in and started to move Vivian as well as all the equipment, and she started crying when Alan stopped them for a moment and kissed Vivian's forehead and whispered his own goodbye in her ear.
"It's going to be all right, Megan. I promise it will be," said Alan.
"Thank you again for doing this," said the doctor as he joined them. "I hope that your kindness will be rewarded."