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One Wrong Word



“Hey Warren, how’s your Friday going?” Arden stood as her boss entered her harbor-front office. She smoothed the sleek wool of her cashmere pants, adjusted the double strand of her trademark vintage pearls, then gestured to the video of the courthouse shown on the wide-screen TV mounted in her bookshelves. “Better than Ned Bannister’s, I bet. Time’s running out for him. Verdicts always come on Friday. Jurors want to go home.”

Warren, tie loosened and bespoke cuffs rolled, carried a crystal rocks glass filled with some dark liquid. Likely bourbon, Arden knew. Fridays at the Vision Group, the drinking started early. Solving other people’s problems was thirsty work, Warren always said. Whatever tired cliché he chose, he always spoke as if he had originated it.

“They should have called us before the trial, you know?” Now he toasted the television screen, watching the muted video of an earnest reporter stationed outside the gray marble exterior of Boston’s Suffolk County Courthouse, the building blending into the November sky.

He took a sip, contemptuous. “Coverage of this debacle’s been a total shit show. The Parking Garage Killer.” He shook his head. “Pitiful. We’d have nipped that phrase in the bud.”

“Agreed.” Arden nodded. Of course she agreed with her boss, she understood the balance of power. She’d even stopped what she’d been doing to watch with him. The banner crawling across the bottom of the screen spelled it out: Jury still deliberating in Bannister drunk drive trial. “You’d think a guy as connected as Ned Bannister would realize he needed crisis management help.”

She paused at Warren’s silence. He hadn’t arrived in her office to chat about this latest gossip fodder—Boston’s elite and powerful partying high above Boston Harbor, the deadly crash, then business exec Bannister publicly branded a careless boozy criminal. It wasn’t entirely surprising, she had to admit, Warren often made end-of-the-week visits, the benevolent dictator, to check on Arden’s clients, her progress. Her billings.

And sometimes to celebrate. The last time Warren showed up unannounced, he’d bestowed her with a bouquet of white English roses, a wildly extravagant bunch studded with shiny green foliage. The Vision Group had Patterson’s Florist as a client, Arden knew, so the pricey flowers had not come from Warren’s pocket. Still, she’d buried her face in them, deeply inhaling.

“These are spectacular,” she’d said. “And you know I love flowers. But what’s the occasion?”

“The occasion is your—our—big score. Arthur Swanson is a done deal. And you get the Miss Congeniality bouquet.”

Arden had rolled her eyes, hidden her derision behind the fragrant roses. She’d done all the hard work, getting the pretentious and privileged Arthur Swanson onto the board of Caldecott Hospital. But Vision Group CEO Warren Carmichael was the boss, and he was her lifeline, and he’d taken a chance on hiring her after she’d fled her old life in Allentown.

Not that there was anything left of it; back home the taint of being Governor Porter Ward’s daughter wrapped her with a permanent shroud of embarrassment. But in Boston, the name “Ward” was just a name, not a label, and she’d done well here. Maybe bad things sometimes happened for a reason. To allow the good things.

“Arthur Swanson’s perfect for the role.” Arden had been authentically enthusiastic. “All that money. All that influence. The hospital ate it up. And his wife totally believes it was the result of his merit and her social standing. Patience Swanson seems to live in her own glittery world.” Arden, daring, could not resist the possibly inappropriate dig. She shook her head. “People.”

Now Warren took a sip of his probably-bourbon. Arden could smell it, sweet and smoky.

He’d focused on the television again. “No verdict yet, huh?”

“There’s still time,” Arden said. “Though Fridays they recess early.”

Warren took another sip.

“You okay?” she asked. Might be a little personal, but she thought the Arthur Swanson deal had brought them closer. Warren had been the face of it, and she the supposed “associate.” But Warren had no idea that throughout the negotiations Arden had endured—and ignored, or pretended to—Arthur Swanson’s advances; the unnecessary touch on her shoulder, the gratuitous hand on her back ostensibly guiding her through a door, the too-personal jokes about her “single-girl” apartment or her weekend plans. The sideways looks, as if they shared some secret, which, indeed, they did not. The dinner à deux invitations she always refused.

In this day and age, she thought. But for men like him, there was only his day and age, meaning now and today. For Warren, too, she had to admit. Who always did whatever was in his own best interest.

“So Arden,” Warren began. “About Patience.”

“Sit,” Arden said. She had a flash of dismay. “Is everything still on? With the deal? Do not tell me she’s—”

Warren settled into the butterscotch tweed club chair. “We should talk.”

“Sure.” Arden calculated the possibilities, speed of light. She hated surprises, hated them. We don’t like surprises, she taught her assistants. Our job is to stay ahead of the surprises. Now, surprise, Warren wanted to talk.

“So Patience herself barges in last week, like, loaded for bear.”

“And?” Arden heard the bourbon in Warren’s voice. Saw his posture wilt. Alcohol always hit him hard, and he’d powered this drink down.

“And she was—pissed.”

“What? About what?”

Warren looked at the ice in his glass, the bourbon gone. “So you remember Capital Grille?”

“Sure.…” Arden couldn’t help but frown.

The week before, the Swansons had invited the two of them, along with Warren’s hoity-toity jet-setting peripatetic wife and a group of their friends, to a closed-door celebration of Swanson’s not-yet-public new position. Dinner at Capital Grille, in a mahogany-paneled private room with flowing wine and hovering waitstaff. Asparagus, hollandaise, filet, caviar. Food and setting as rich and overstuffed as some of the guests themselves.

Arden had noticed Patience seated her as far away from Arthur as possible, but she’d been grateful for that. She had tolerated enough uncomfortable and insulting moments of removing his hand from her leg. She would never tell Warren, of course. The deal needed to go through, and some things, by necessity, women handled on their own.

“And then she says the weirdest thing,” Warren went on.

Warren rarely gossiped with her. She was curious about his new tone, but embraced it. It felt like progress. “What’d she say?”

“‘She smells of joy.’” Warren was actually imitating Patience Swanson, that imperious but impossible-to-identify accent that some of her ilk adopted. “I had no idea what she was talking about, you know?”

Arden remembered, in the weird snippets of moments we remember, having sensed a kinship with Warren that night at the Swanson dinner. Feeling she had finally made it as his equal. She’d perceived, with a glimmer of hope and even confidence, that they were a team.

“Joy the perfume?” Arden guessed now. “What ‘she’? And why did that matter?”

Warren’s face changed. Hardened. He carefully placed his crystal glass, contents diminished to ice, on her side table. Centered it on a copy of Boston magazine.

“Yes. Perfume.” Warren nodded, once. “And the ‘she’ is you.”



Arden took a moment to unpack Warren’s words. She stood, uncomfortable in her own office. Then sat in her swivel chair, kept the desk between them.

“I? Me? I smelled of Joy? That’s kinda random. Well, I guess so. I wear it, sometimes. My mother did, too. It’s…” She shrugged. “O-G, maybe, but classic. Ask your wife.”

“Well, seems that’s something you and Mrs. Swanson share. Joy. She uses it, too. And she says she recognized it on you at the Capital Grille. That night.”

Arden tried to decipher Warren’s expression, his growing discomposure. One polished loafer tapped against the steely pile of her office carpeting.

“Okay.” Arden took a plastic bottle of water from her bottom desk drawer, twisted off the top. The TV flickered above them. The lower-third crawl repeated the lack of news: No verdict yet in Bannister case. “Joy. And?”

“And she is not happy about it.”

“About what?”

“More than not happy. Extremely unhappy. Because her husband has a habit of … Shit, Arden, she thinks he gave you the perfume. Apparently, this is what he does. Hits on women. Gives them Joy. The perfume I mean. It’s like, a pattern.”

“What? And—so what?” She stopped. “Oh. Is there some woman thing? That we didn’t know of? Is the board appointment in jeopardy?” Arden’s mind raced with the possibility that their hard work would blow up because of some idiot man’s inability to appreciate what he had and stop greedily wanting more. Perfume?

Arden stood, came to the front of her desk, team player. “We warned him. Told him he needed to tell us everything. That we can’t fix what we don’t know. We told him we hate surprises. Right?”

Warren actually gulped. She’d never seen his face so ashen.

“Listen, Arden. I don’t like this any more than you will. But understand. The Swansons are major clients. Lucrative clients. Company-supporting clients.”

“Well, I know. I brought them to you. When we met at my Saving Calico childhood leukemia fundraiser. Remember?”

“Oh. Right.” Warren picked up his glass, rattled the ice. “I didn’t think anything could make this more difficult.”

“Make what?”

“So Patience Swanson thinks you and her husband have a … thing. That he gave you the Joy.”

Arden clapped a palm to her chest. “She’s insane.”

“Possibly. Probably. But that doesn’t change anything. She demands that we let you go.”

“She? Demands? You let me go?” Every nerve cell in Arden’s brain burst into flames.

“I have no choice.”

“Choice? Of course you do.” Arden took a step toward him, arms spread in exasperation and disbelief. “Who does she think put her husband where he is today?”

“I’m sorry, Arden. It’s a situation. I don’t know what to say.”

“You don’t? Well, I do.” She jabbed toward him with a forefinger. “You can say ‘she’s lost her freaking mind.’ You can tell that woman I’m a valuable employee who brings in big bucks, and new clients, and will continue to do so. And who, it goes without saying, is not having some sort of sordid affair with her vile entitled husband who clearly she has problems with. But the ‘problems’ are not me. A situation? It’s my life!”

“I’m sorry, Arden. Unless you can prove he didn’t give you perfume. Unless you can prove he didn’t—”

She rolled her eyes to the heavens, then harnessed her outrage. “I’m not going to prove one thing on this planet. Ask him, right? First of all, I can’t prove something that didn’t happen, that’s through the looking glass, and I cannot believe you’re even asking me that. Is that what you think of me? Let me ask you that. That this is true?”

“No, of course not, no.” Warren lurched to his feet, turned away, not looking at her, looking at every place else but her. “He’ll deny it. So I can’t force him to—”

“Ah. I see. Warren. Look at me. So you believe her, not me? Is that what you’re saying? Because if that is what you’re saying, Warren, I could file so many lawsuits it’d make your head spin. Hey. You’re a pro. Imagine the headlines. Blame the victim? Or wait, would you paint me the vixen, the temptress? Oh, yeah, do it. Please do that. I’d love that. Bring it.”

Warren had to know this was bull. “Are you hearing me?” she persisted. “Are you ignoring me? Look at me. I know the rules. I know the deal. You cannot do this. I’ll go to HR so fast it’ll—”

“Be careful, Arden.” Warren interrupted her. “Take a beat. If you sue me, well, that’s not gonna help you, is it? Suddenly you’re … a problem employee. A liability. On the defensive. It’s not a good look. You know that.”

“What I know—and what you know—is that it’s not true.”

Copyright © 2024 by Hank Phillippi Ryan

One Wrong Word
by by Hank Phillippi Ryan