Those Who Have the Gold

by Michelle Lehmann

 

Timeline: This story takes place approximately 6 months before the beginning of the series.

 

Sara Wolff sat in the waiting room, holding the small manila folder close to her chest. She glanced at the clock on the wall: 1:15. Her appointment was at 1:30, but she had made it there early. Partially to make a good impression, but mostly because she was nervous and wanted to get the whole thing over with.

At 1:27, the phone at the reception desk rang. The girl picked it up and nodded twice. “Mrs. Winters will see you now.”

It was a typical government office, with nondescript furniture, gray filing cabinets, and guest chairs that looked five decades old. The woman behind the desk—mid 60s, wearing a high beehive, silver bi-focals, and dark red lipstick—fit right in. Her expression was somber, and Sara noted that in all of the times she had met with the state funding agent, she had never seen her look happy.

Taking a seat, Sara pulled her arms and legs in close. She felt like a grammar school child sitting in the principal’s office.

“Gale Home.” the agent said, opening the thick folder in front of her. “You’re here looking for supplemental funding.”

“Actually, we’re seeking emergency funding. We only have resources to operate another week.”

Glancing over the application, the woman shook her head. “Your numbers aren’t promising. Operating expenses are on the high side... though I admit they’re better than they were six months ago.” She shuffled the papers. “Our real concern is viability. I think you’re aware, your predecessor left quite a mess. On the last audit of your books, your institution was showing a $300,000 deficiency.”

“I understand, but that’s half of what it was when I first came on as administrator. In two years, we’ve managed to cut the shortfall, as well as expand services. I’m confident we’ll be in the black in another 18 months.”

Winters peered over the top of her glasses. “Unfortunately, this office can’t wait that long. Your last distribution was already given on a probationary basis.”

Sara stammered. “Ma’am, we house 37 kids, plus operate a runaway center and low-income clinic. We have over two dozen staff members. If we close, this is going to have a huge impact on the community.”

“I’m aware of that, Miss Wolff. It’s never a pleasant thing when there’s a closure, but we have to look at it from a practical point-of-view. At the moment, we can’t authorize additional funding. If your institution closes, the children will be placed in a more economically stable environment and the staff reassigned. In the long-run, it may be more beneficial to them.”

Sara glanced down. It was always the same. Those in power would make the decisions, without a clue as to how it would affect those who were involved. As a child, she remembered settling-in at an orphanage in London. It was a wonderful place, and one of the few times she had felt at home. That is, until it was discovered that one of the staff-members had fondled several of the children. It was a huge scandal, certainly, but instead of isolating the incident, the board had chosen to close the facility. They claimed it was in the best interest of the children, but instead it had traumatized her and many others. Afterwards, she had never allowed herself to get comfortable anywhere else, fearful the same thing would happen again.

Taking a deep breath, the administrator squared her shoulders. “If we manage to cure the shortfall, will you reconsider our application?”

Winters raised an eyebrow, but gave a small nod. “If you can get your books balanced, we’ll process your request again. I can’t guarantee anything, but there’s a good chance we’ll re-establish your funding.”

Gathering her things, Sara nodded. “Then I guess I know what I have to do.”

For the first time since she had known her, the agent gave Sara a smile. “Good luck, Miss Wolff.”

She grabbed the woman’s hand. “Thank you. I’m going to need it.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

The door to the office opened and Sara glanced up to see Madge Sinclaire enter, her son, Trevor, propped on her hip. The toddler gave a toothless smile and reached out for her. Sara grabbed the boy and pulled him close... she needed a hug about now.

Taking advantage of the momentary freedom, her assistant began to tidy things on the desk. She pointed to the stack of papers. “How’s things going?”

Sara glanced down, counting the telephone numbers on the page. “I’ve called twenty-three places. Every single one told me that they need us to go through an application process, or they’re not currently making donations. I have two more to call, but I’m not holding my breath.”

“What are we going to do?”

“I’m not sure. I tried going to the bank again, but we’re behind on payments. They simply won’t consider another loan.”

Madge tried to look brave, but her eyes gave her away. Of all of the staff at the Home, Sara was most concerned for her friend. Madge was the one person who literally had no-one in her life. No family, no friends, and nowhere to go. Getting a job wouldn’t be hard for her. Finding the means to care for her baby while she worked would be nearly impossible.

“Don’t worry just yet,” Sara said, trying to keep her voice upbeat. “I still have a few things up my sleeve.”

“Like what...?”

 

It was 10:00 p.m. when Sara opened the closet. Reaching back to the far wall, she pulled out a zippered suit bag and tossed it on the couch.

“You aren’t going out crimefighting again, are you?” Madge asked, bouncing Trevor on her knee.

Grabbing the red and orange wig, she shook out the curls. “Maybe I can find someone who will help us. Maybe someone will hire me to solve a crime and pay money. I don’t know. I just need to get out and think.”

Madge’s brow furrowed. “You know, I’m really getting worried about you and this superhero stuff. I thought it was only going to be a one-time thing.”

“It was. But there are some things I can do in costume that I can’t do otherwise. Besides, I kinda like going out there and helping people.”

Trevor let out a cry and Madge headed for the door. “I’ve got to get him in bed. Be careful, okay? You may want to save the world, but there’s a bunch of people here that need you, too.”

Watching her friend leave, Sara sighed. Nothing like a big dose of guilt to go along with the stress she was already dealing with. Pulling the costume from the bag, she started to get dressed.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Normally, Sara would drive to a remote location to patrol the city. But she hadn’t lied when she’d told Madge she just needed to get out for a walk. On this occasion, she skipped the car and trekked out on foot, heading a few miles from the Home. It was a small business district, with a series of shops and restaurants. She knew most of the owners... average people trying to make a living. However, as she walked past the darkened storefronts, her mind moved to economics. Surely many of the places had registers and lock boxes. Would it be so hard to sneak in and grab some cash? It would be a loss for the patrons, but insurance would cover it, wouldn’t they? If she could get just enough money... perhaps even a few thousand dollars to keep the lights on and buy more time... perhaps she could save the Home.

Sara stopped and pulled her hands to her face. The thoughts were terrible, and she hated herself for having them. She knew she could never bring herself to do something like that, but the fact that the thoughts had even crossed her mind made her feel awful. She then realized how easy it was to fall from grace; desperate people do desperate things. Still, that didn’t make it right... and it certainly wasn’t the type of thing a superhero should be thinking.

I’m not a hero, she thought to herself in shame. I need a hero.

Turning the corner, Sara yelped and jumped back to avoid crashing into a pedestrian. As she looked up, her eyes widened. The man before her was tall... six foot at least. He was dressed in a black form fitting costume, a symbol of a storm cloud and lightning emblazoned across his chest. His head and face were covered with a cowl, and his full cape reached down to the back of his knees.

“Black Torrent,” she stammered.

As a child, she had been enchanted by tales of the Black Torrent. Even though she had been born after his reign had ended, she had still managed to devour everything she could find written about him. When she had moved to Gale City years later, in search of her parents, she had been excited when the hero had made a return, and she had followed his exploits ever since. He was one of the biggest inspirations in her donning a cape herself, but she never considered herself on-par with him. She certainly never dreamed she’d bump into him.

Looking her up and down, his jaw hardened. “Who are you?”

she thought, her fingers trembling.

The man took a step towards her. “Who are you?” he asked again. This time it was clear he wasn’t going to take silence for an answer.

Just as Sara was about to say something, another crimefighter appeared from around the corner. He was dressed in more traditional clothing: a long black trench coat, a mask that covered most of his face, and a fedora on his head.

“Holy crap...” he said as he saw her. “Who the hell are you?”

Gathering herself, she thought for a moment. When she was a girl back in Paraiso, her foster brothers often played “soldier.” Sara never much liked guns, so she had always insisted on being a superhero during their games. Because of her bright red hair, Manuel had given her the name of Flare. When Sara had first created her costume, that’s what she imagined her superhero persona to be. But as she stood before the masked men, she suddenly thought the name stupid. It wasn’t something cool like Black Torrent or Overcast.

The hatted hero gave her a good look-over, his mouth cocking to one side. “What are you, the Flame or something?”

“Dark Flame,” she blurted. She was proud she had remembered her British accent. “I’m the Dark Flame.”

The two men exchanged glances.

“What are you doing here?” Torrent challenged.

Sara didn’t think it was a good idea to admit she had been out pondering ways to get money. “I was investigating a child-napping,” she said in half-truth. Of course, the child napping had happened a month earlier, but they were none the wiser.

Torrent studied her for a moment longer, then narrowed his eyes. “I don’t think you’re telling us the truth. What are you really doing here?”

“Going for a walk?” she squeaked.

The explanation was enough to confuse the man and he glanced at his partner again.

In a moment of sheer panic, Dark Flame lunged forward, pushing Torrent as hard as she could. Not expecting it, the man fell backwards, crashing into Overcast, and sending them both to the ground.

Then she ran.

Sara had always been one of the fastest on the track team in college. But that was years ago, and she was afraid she wouldn’t be able to get away fast enough now. Fortunately, the encounter had gotten her adrenaline pumping, and she found herself clearing a whole block in a few seconds.

“What the...” Overcast grumbled from behind.

“Get her!” Torrent’s voice screamed.

Turning into an alleyway, Sara slowed her pace. She had a good two-block lead on the men, but that still didn’t give her much time. Pushing over several garbage cans, she then ran backwards, ducking into a nearby doorway. She crouched in the shadows. Thirty seconds later, the men whizzed by, kicking the can lids as they passed. She could see them stop at the end of the block before splitting up, each going in different direction.

Her first instinct was to return to where she had came from, but she knew Black Torrent was smart—he wouldn’t easily be deterred. Cowering in the doorway, she tried to come up a good excuse should he find her.

An hour passed excruciatingly slowly. But as the minutes ticked by, it was clear the men had given up and gone home. Sara knew she should do likewise, but fear gripped her. It was a long walk back and she couldn’t be a hundred percent sure Gale’s Hero wouldn’t be out there, waiting for her.

“Madge is going to kill me,” she said as she reached for her makeshift utility belt. It wasn’t anything fancy, just a canvas strap with small bags sewn onto it. But it held a variety of useful things, including her cellphone.

“Hello? Sara?” Her friend’s voice was panicked. “Where the heck are you?”

“You’ll never believe what happened. Bring the car. I’ll tell you when you get here.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

When Sara managed to take the first sip of her coffee, it was stone cold. Glancing at her watch, she noticed forty-five minutes had passed since she’d poured it. Grabbing the mug, she headed over to the microwave.

After Madge had driven her home, all she had wanted to do was go to bed. But her encounter with the superheroes had put her on edge and she couldn’t sleep. She ended up on the computer, hopeful she could find something, anything, that could help her get funding.

As before, every option she came upon led to a dead end. Sara found herself getting more and more frustrated... and deeply depressed.

It was nearing 6 a.m., and she was just about to quit, when she stumbled upon an article about a crisis center in Alabama. The center’s story was much like that of the Home... an administration struggling with a shortfall and facing a closure. In that case, however, there had been an eleventh-hour salvation. Martin Bling, real estate entrepreneur and founder of Bling City, had come to the rescue, donating $200,000 to keep the doors open.

Scribbling the information on a piece of paper, Sara headed to bed.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

“Here you are. Bling Commercial Center.”

Sara handed the cab driver a twenty and stepped out onto the curb. Shielding her eyes from the sun, she started up at the 40-story building.

Of all the leads she had considered in the past few days, Sara decided Martin Bling was her best bet. Despite being a proponent of what many considered sinful activities, he was also surprisingly generous, donating large amounts of money to various causes. Problem was, she had called his office three dozen times and never made it past his switchboard once. With time running out, she had made a bold move, travelling to Bling City to talk to him, personally. Of course, she knew that getting in to see the man could be a problem, but with no other options, she figured she had to at least try.

Sara had spent most of her time on the plane doing research. Martin Bling had started off life as the son of a race horse breeder in Tennessee. With gambling in his blood, he had travelled to Las Vegas after graduation, hoping of breaking into the casino business. No one took him seriously, and two years later he returned home empty-handed. Still determined to make it somehow, he convinced his father to invest in a block of worthless real estate on the Tennessee-Kentucky border. Aligning with key politicians, he managed to find loopholes in the state law and, at the age of 22, opened his first casino. A roaring success, he started to buy more property, and in just a few years, his single gambling house had grown into dozens of stores, hotels, and entertainment venues. Petitioning the state, he moved to form a new, municipality and Bling City was born. Only in his mid 30s, he had then spent the next 20 years expanding his holdings, focusing mainly on real estate. His current empire rivaled many other companies with a much longer history.

Bling’s story intrigued her. Though her research hadn’t merely been for entertainment purposes. She knew that if she wanted to get in to see the reality show star, she would have to fabricate a story. Not just any story, but something believable enough to get past his notoriously tight security. After reading his bio, she boned up on anything and everything that was current events in the world of the famous real estate developer.

Bling Commercial Center was a large glass building sporting a huge lobby with a department store annexed. The front desk was nearly twenty feet long, and several clerks sat behind the marble slab, processing visitors. There was a small line and Sara was thankful for the extra time to psyche herself up.

“May I help you?” the woman asked when she finally approached.

“I have a 2:00 appointment with Mr. Bling. I’m here from Morris Mack’s office to discuss the Continental Resort merger.” Sara tried her best to look flustered. “I just got a call asking where I am. I got delayed at the airport, so I really need to get up there soon.”

The woman behind the desk looked perplexed. “Mack’s office?”

Sara glanced at her watch. “Yes. You do know Mr. Mack, don’t you? This is a very big deal, and I need to get up there soon. Mr.Bling told me if there was any problem getting into the building, he’d come down personally.”

That caused the woman to get nervous. With a nod, she generated a visitor’s pass. “No worries, miss. We’ll get you up there. Show this card to the elevator attendant and he’ll tell you where to go.”

“Thank you.”

Taking the elevator to the 42nd floor, Sara clenched her fists as she moved to the reception desk. She only hoped she could continue to pull off the charade.

“I’m here from Morris Mack’s office to see Mr. Bling.”

“Of course,” the woman said with a nod. “I’ll take you right back.”

Sara smiled to herself. She hadn’t expected the second leg to be so easy, and she started to get excited that she might actually pull it off.

As she was guided through the back hallway, Sara smile wilted. Bling’s office had its own waiting area. The plaque on the desk read “Administrative Assistant,” but the woman looked more like a prison warden. Her lip curled up in a snarl.

“Who are you?”

“She’s from Mack’s office,” the receptionist informed.

“No, she’s not.”

Sara swallowed. She had hoped to continue her bluff, but it was clear the woman was too savvy. “You’re right. I’m not. My name is Sara Wolff and I’m from the Gale Home for Children. I came here to see Mr. Bling.”

The woman’s face puckered and her eyes narrowed. “How dare you lie to get in here!”

“I’m very sorry, it’s just that there wasn’t any other way. I tried calling, but I couldn’t get through. I really need to see Mr. Bling. I promise, I’ll only take a couple of minutes of his time.”

The woman picked up the phone. “Security, we have an intruder. Notify the police, as I would like to have her arrested for trespassing.”

Sara thought she could never be as scared as she was the night she had run into Black Torrent. She was wrong. Unfortunately, this time there was no option to run away.

“Please,” she begged. “I meant no harm. I’m here to save an orphanage. I need Mr. Bling’s help.”

It couldn’t have been thirty seconds later when two guards entered, one with his gun drawn.

“Miss, you need to come with us.”

“Please,” she shouted. “Just tell Mr. Bling I’m here and I’ll...”

The other guard pulled out a pair of handcuffs. “Ma’am, you have to come with us now!”

“What’s the problem?”

A man appeared from a small hallway behind the desk and approached the group.

“Mr. Bling, I’m so sorry.” The secretary sneered in her direction. “This woman just barged in here. I’m having her arrested.”

The billionaire was shorter than he appeared on t.v., but he was also more handsome. He walked up to her. “You don’t look dangerous.”

Sara wasn’t sure how to react, so she gave a weak smile and launched into her speech. “Mr. Bling, I’m from Gale City. I’m sorry to barge in, but I couldn’t get a call through. I really need to talk to you, and I promise it’ll only take a few minutes. If you still want to arrest me afterwards, I’ll go quietly. But please, just give me a couple minutes of your time.”

The man’s mouth drew into a smirk as he looked her over. “Phyllis, call Jack Thompson and tell him I’ll be about 15 minutes late.”

“Seriously, you’re not going to speak with this woman, are you?”

Bling gave his secretary a look that was not to be questioned. He returned his attention to the redhead. “Five minutes, Miss... ?”

“Wolff. Sara Wolff.”

Sara followed the man into his office. It was a spectacular room with a huge window that looked out over the heart of the city. The entrepreneur seated himself at his desk.

“So, what’s this all about?”

Sara had already rehearsed what to say on the plane. She managed to give the full details quickly, recounting the Home’s financial crisis, noting how she’d discovered his charity through the internet, and vocalizing how she hoped he’d be able to help her and the kids. As she was getting to the end, the man glanced at his watch and raised his hand.

“Miss Wolff, this is all very interesting, but as my staff has told you, I’m a very busy man. I’m late for a meeting now and simply don’t have the time to discuss this.” He rose and straightened his tie. “I’m free this evening, however. Perhaps you’d like to discuss this further, over dinner?”

The offer was unexpected and Sara felt herself tense. “Dinner?”

“Unless you’d like to come back in two weeks, when my schedule frees up.”

“Oh, no. That would be much too late.”

“Dinner then?”

Pondering her options, Sara realized she had none. “Dinner is fine.”

“Very good. Leave the details where you’re staying with my secretary and I’ll have my driver pick you up at 7:00. We’ll be dining at the Carlisle.” Flashing a wide smile, he headed for the door. “And wear red.”

As Sara stared at the empty room, a sigh left her lips. “If it means helping the Home, I’ll wear purple polka dots if you want me to.”

 

Sara waited until she was in the lobby before pulling out her cell phone.

“Hello, Madge? I need you to wire me some money. $500 should be enough.”

“What’s going on?”

“I got in to see Bling. He’s taking me to dinner tonight, to discuss a possible donation. I need to get a fancy dress.”

“Oh, Sara. Dinner?”

“It’s just business. He was all booked for today. People like him do dinner meetings all the time.”

Her friend was silent for a moment, and when she spoke again, there was apprehension in her voice. “Just don’t do anything, okay? You know his reputation. It’s not worth it.”

“I’ll be fine,” Sara reassured. She looked down at her feet. “You better send six hundred. I’m going to need a pair of shoes.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

The limousine pulled up to the front door of the hotel at 6:58. Sara had spent the afternoon looking for a dress. Even with the money Madge had sent, it had still been difficult to find one that was both formal and conservative. She wanted to keep the air business-like, so she’d gone with a dark red sheath dress and simple black pumps.

The Carlisle was a hotel, she learned from Bling’s driver, and it hosted a 5-star restaurant manned by a famous chef she’d never heard of. When she arrived, a bellhop was waiting and escorted her inside. Bling was already there. He was still dressed in his business suit from earlier, though he had switched to a more casual tie.

“You look lovely,” he complimented as he pulled out her chair.

“Did your meeting go all right?”

“It went well. But honestly, I’d like to forget about work for now. Do you mind if we talk about some other things for a while? I’d just like to relax and enjoy dinner.”

The couple spent the next two hours chatting. The food was amazing, but Sara found herself more enchanted by the company. Martin Bling was quite charismatic. He was attentive, asking her about her job and interests. He then went on to talk about himself. He spoke of his television shows and the many famous people he knew. He shared stories of business and power, as well as humorous anecdotes about the peculiarities of the rich and famous. He seemed to enjoy making her laugh, and Sara found herself quite taken with him. Though in the back of her mind, she kept reminding herself why she was really there.

As the maitre d’ cleared their dinner plates, Sara fidgeted with the napkin on her lap. “I’ve really enjoyed chatting with you, Martin. But I was hoping that we could talk about the Gale Home a bit.”

“Oh, yes,” he said. “I’ve already made up my mind and intend to help. I just thought we would discuss numbers over breakfast.”

Sara froze, her heart racing. Perhaps Martin was suggesting they meet again in the morning?

As if in answer, Bling slicked back his brown hair and motioned to the man pushing the dessert cart. “Would you send two slices of chocolate cake up to my suite, for me and my guest?”

“Yes, sir,” the man said with a wink.

Sara felt her stomach turn, and she grasped her fingers to keep from trembling. A part of her thought she should leave. There wasn’t any harm in saying “no,” was there? Certainly, the man couldn’t make her do anything she didn’t want to.

Then her mind turned to the Home. She couldn’t go away empty-handed, not when she had already come this far.

Desperate people do desperate things.

Squaring her shoulders, she forced a smile as the man took her hand and led her to the private elevator at the back of the restaurant.

 

Bling’s suite was on the top floor of the building. It was bigger than most apartments she’d been in, even though it only consisted of a seating area and a connected bedroom. The dessert was already there and Martin gestured to the cart.

“Coffee?”

She glanced at the liquor cabinet. “Vodka?”

An amused smirk cornered his lips as he poured her a drink. “You know you can sit down.”

“I know.” Sara brought the glass to her lips, downing the liquid in one gulp. “Okay, I’m ready.”

The man laughed. “You make this sound so formal.”

“Isn’t it?” she asked.

“It doesn’t have to be.” Taking her hand, he brushed a few strands of hair from her eyes. “You seem so innocent. That excites me. How many men have you been with?”

Sara was too nervous to be put off by the question. She managed a weak smile and whispered, “twice.”

“I thought so,” Bling said with a chuckle. His mouth moved to hers.

Sara expected the kiss to be rough and lustful. Instead, it was gentle and soft.

“Let’s go into the bedroom,” he said, taking her hand.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

The room was mostly dark. Small streams of light filtered in through the slats of the drawn blinds. First blue, then red, then yellow, then blue. The flashing neon signs of Bling City were going strong outside the window, and as Sara lay in the bed, she was thankful they provided a bit of a distraction.

Before that night, she had only been intimate with two men. An awkward girl, she hadn’t dated much until coming to the States. Her first encounter had been with a boy in college. Good looking and popular, she had slept with him in the hopes that he would like her. Instead, he never called her again, and spread word of their one-night stand around the campus. She’d been so humiliated, she didn’t socialize at all again until after graduation.

The second encounter had been with a business associate just a year earlier. The man was in a bad marriage and often came to her for advice and support. One night when working late together, he confessed his feelings. Even though she had never dreamt of sleeping with a married man, her emotions got the better of her. Afterwards, she had been mortified, and told him they couldn’t act on their feelings again. Thankfully, he respected her request, but she had been wracked with guilt about it ever since.

This is going to top all of that, she thought wryly.

Sara expected the lovemaking with Bling to be fast and furious, much like her experiences in the past. But instead, the man had been slow and attentive; he’d done everything he could to make her feel comfortable and enjoy it. And despite herself, she had enjoyed it... which made her feel all the worse.

I’m nothing but a whore, she thought. Having fought the tears all night, they finally came, thundering forward in torrents. She buried her face in the pillow, praying the man next to her wouldn’t hear.

A moment later, a hand fell on her shoulder. “Sara?”

She looked up. She wanted to say something, anything, but only more tears came.

“It’s all right,” he whispered, pulling her close.

It seemed wrong that the man who had caused her such grief should be the one consoling her. But she didn’t care. She buried herself in his arms, crying until sheer exhaustion found her and she trailed off to sleep.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

“Good morning.”

Sara’s eyes fluttered open. Martin Bling was dressed and standing over her.

“I have a meeting at nine. I assume you still wanted to do breakfast.”

Grabbing her shirt, she nodded. “Yes, I do. Just give me a minute.”

The two headed down to the small cafe just off of the lobby. Martin ordered a full breakfast, but Sara decided on a simple bran muffin and coffee. Through most of the meal, he chatted about his business and the deal he was working on. Sara wasn’t sure what to say, so she simply nodded and tried to look interested.

Once the plates were cleared, the billionaire pulled out his checkbook. “I think I owe you something.”

When Sara had talked to Martin about the situation the night before, he had seemed less than enthused. In fact, he had seemed so disinterested, she’d wondered if he’d heard a thing she’d said.

However, as he began to write the bank draft, she realized he’d taken note of every single word.

“You’re three hundred thousand in the hole. Your monthly operating expenses are around a hundred thousand. New funding will take about three to four months.” He paused a second, counting to himself. “Seven hundred thousand. Is that about right?”

“Um... I think.”

“Let’s make it seven-fifty, just to be safe.” Signing his name, he handed the check to her as if he were giving a dollar to a bellhop.

Sara stared at the piece of paper, her lips trembling.

“Now that we got that out of the way...” He touched her hand, “...I’d like to see you again.”

“You would?”

He nodded. “I much enjoyed our time last night, and I mean dinner.”

Sara blushed.

“I have to admit, I admire the guts it took for you to come here to talk to me. Not a lot of people would have done that. You’re also sweet and sincere, I like that.” His voiced lowered. “And I’d like to get to know you better.”

Sara felt her heart start to race. It seemed almost impossible that a man like Martin Bling would be interested in her.

“Are you sure?”

“Of course, I am.” He squeezed her fingers. “I have a meeting in Gale next Thursday. Shall we plan on dinner and a play afterwards?”

“All right.”

Brushing some crumbs off of his sleeve, the billionaire rose. “I really hate to leave you like this, but I’m late. I’ve instructed my driver to make sure you get off okay.” He placed a kiss on her head. “I’ll see you next week.”

Sara watched the man leave, not sure how to feel.

“Anything else?” the waitress asked as she refilled her coffee cup.

“You wouldn’t happen to have a valium, would you?”

“A what?”

Tucking the check into her purse, Sara shook her head. “Nevermind.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

The front of the Gale Home for Children was bright and sunny. Three of the residence’s boys were on the lawn, throwing a football back and forth. The groundskeeper was trimming the front hedges, and one of the staff was greeting an overnight delivery man. Sara slung the dufflebag over her shoulder and headed to the rear of the building.

When she entered her apartment, Madge poked her head out of the kitchen.

“I was just finishing your dishes. Hold on.” The woman walked out, drying her hands on a towel. “How’d it go?”

Sara pulled the check from her bag and handed it to her friend.

“Oh... my... God... Is this for real?” Madge placed her hand on her chest. “This is amazing. This is incredible. This is...” Her voice trailed off. “You had to sleep with him, didn’t you?”

Sara dropped her bag and began sifting through the contents. “You should see the dress I got. It’s gorgeous. It’ll be great for the fundraiser in May.”

“Sara?” Madge pressed.

“Does it matter?”

The secretary threw the towel down. “Dammit. You shouldn’t have had to do that. Why is there always strings attached? Why can’t people just be kind and charitable without expecting... demanding... something in return.” She stared at the check again. “What a jerk.”

“It wasn’t like that,” Sara said defensively. “And you shouldn’t be saying those things about him. I’m going to be seeing him again next week; he asked me out on a date.”

“And you’re going?” Madge studied her friend for a moment. “I know what you’re doing, Sara. Dating him now won’t change the fact that he took advantage of you beforehand.”

“That’s not why I’m doing it.” Turning her back to her, she squared her shoulders. “Why don’t you go tell everyone that they’re not going to lose their jobs.”

Madge was silent for a moment. “All right.”

As the door closed behind her, Sara sank onto the floor and began to cry.