SERIAL Winner Takes All by Jan Snook
Tyler wondered if he ought to share with Ellen the information he had about her boss . . .
AFTER his brief and none too welcoming greeting, Tyler disappeared into his room and Ellen didn’t see him again until the following morning.
Which hadn’t stopped his face from floating around in her head all night, she acknowledged crossly. His mother had been right – he
was very good-looking. But good looks weren’t everything, and he’d made it clear – to his mother, if not to her – how unwelcome she was as a house guest. It was only the end of June, and he was a professor. He might be staying with his mother all summer.
With a heavy heart Ellen showered, dressed and made her way downstairs.
Barbara was in the kitchen.
“Hi, there!” she said cheerily as Ellen walked in. “Waffles! I thought they’d be a treat for Tyler.”
Tyler was at the kitchen table, invisible behind a newspaper.
“Mother, I’ve told you – I’m happy with just a cup of coffee for breakfast.”
“C’mon,” Barbara argued. “A cup of coffee isn’t going to keep you going till lunchtime. Anyhow, you say you don’t want any waffles, but you still seem to eat them! Where else will you get proper, home-made waffles? Who even has a waffle iron these days?”
Barbara carefully poured more batter into the smoking, heart-shaped waffle iron on the hob.
“I’ve never even seen one,” Ellen said, interested. She went over to watch Barbara enclosing the batter within the hinged waffle iron, then turning it
over on the heat. The result was nothing like any waffle Ellen had tasted, and even Tyler couldn’t help smiling as he watched her take her first buttery, fluffy mouthful.
“They’re hard to resist.” He looked at his watch. “I said I’d meet Steve at the campaign office. See what he wants me to do.”
“Tyler’s come home to help with the campaign,” Barbara said, giving Ellen a meaningful look, “so you’ll be seeing a lot of each other, I imagine.” She turned her gaze on to her son. “Won’t that be nice?”
“Great,” Tyler said from behind his paper again.
“Tyler?” his mother persisted, and he put the newspaper down. “Ellen is Cindy’s assistant, the Assistant Campaign Manager. She’s got a degree in Marketing and Politics, so she really knows what she’s talking about.”
A small flicker of interest shot across Tyler’s face.
“I was under the impression that British politics were rather different from ours,” he said with a touch of contempt. “Don’t you still have hereditary lords making decisions?”
“I specialised in the American electoral system,” Ellen said coolly, thinking that she probably knew a lot more about it than he did. “I seem to be managing to keep up, thanks.”
Not that there’d been much to keep up with. Cindy was still reluctant to let her do more than put leaflets in envelopes or answer the telephone.
Tyler seemed to be able to read her mind.
“You mean Cindy lets you take the reins from time to time? That doesn’t sound like her.” He grimaced. His mother glared at him. “Whatever you may think, Tyler, Steve trusts Cindy, so don’t go shooting your mouth off, do you hear me?” Barbara was looking at Tyler as though he was ten years old.
“Mom, Steve’s a really nice guy. He’ll make a great congressman. He cares about people. Of course he trusts her – he trusts everybody. Which means someone else has got to watch out for him. So I’m going in today.”
“On a Saturday? I was hoping you’d take Ellen to the game. You can teach her the rules of baseball!” “Mom!”
Tyler was looking furious. Ellen hurried to finish her mouthful of waffle.
“Barbara, I’m here to work. You’ve been so kind, but you don’t need to treat me like a guest. In any case, I’m going in to work today as well. Cindy said there were a couple of things she wanted me to do.”
Ellen had trouble not blushing. Cindy had actually told her not to come in – so firmly, in fact, that Ellen wondered whether she was up to something.
If Tyler was going to be there, she didn’t want to have two people ganging up on her and not letting her do anything. She’d better go and fight her corner. Tyler gave a slight shrug. “There you are, Mom. Problem solved.”
But Barbara didn’t give up that easily.
“Ellen walks to work, Tyler, so I’m sure you’ll be offering her a ride.”
Tyler pursed his lips and spoke evenly.
“Of course. Ellen, would you like a ride to work? I’m leaving in fifteen minutes.” And he left the room. Ellen let out the breath she hadn’t realised she’d been holding.
“I am so sorry about my son,” Barbara said sadly. “He’s usually so friendly.”
She lowered her voice to almost a whisper.
“I asked him last night whether he’d be going back up to Maine next week
– you know, for the Independence Day celebrations. The fourth of July is a really big thing here. It’s a holiday.”
Ellen nodded, and Barbara carried on.
“I thought he might be going up to see his girl, but apparently that’s all over.” She looked up to check that Tyler hadn’t returned. “I guess that’s what’s making him so grumpy.”
She raised her eyebrows at Ellen, and Ellen managed a weak smile back.
“At least it means he’ll spend the summer here helping Steve with the campaign, so that’ll be something. We can always use extra hands!”
“Right.” Ellen took a deep breath. “Barbara, now that Tyler’s here, you really could do without having to look after a lodger as well. I thought maybe I should find somewhere else to live?”
Barbara’s eyes flashed with indignation.
“Absolutely not. I’m loving having you here.” Then her face fell. “Unless you’d rather not be staying with a woman my age who insists that you learn to quilt and make waffles and know the rules of baseball, I mean. I guess I’ve been a bit too pushy.”
“You haven’t at all!” Ellen began. “It’s just, well . . .” She took another deep breath. “I heard you tell Tyler yesterday about only taking me in very reluctantly, and –”
“Oh, honey!” Barbara’s face was a picture of mortification. “That’s awful! What must you think of me? I mean, yes, I was reluctant before I met you, I admit. And I don’t like being railroaded into doing things by Cindy-aren’t-iWonderful-ward.
“But as soon as I met you, well, I love having you here!”
She gave Ellen a big hug. Over Barbara’s shoulder Ellen saw Tyler in the doorway. He was shaking his head in disbelief.
“If you’re ready?” he drawled. “It’s time to go.”
Tyler slid a sideways glance at Ellen, who was sitting beside him in his sports car. She had been looking out at the roadside as they drove the short distance to the campaign headquarters.
She answered his couple of perfunctory questions with monosyllabic replies which, he reflected, he probably deserved. None of this was her fault.
But he really didn’t need this complication in his life at the moment. He’d had it with women, even if they were rather petite and very pretty. What was that expression he’d heard? She was an English rose. She even blushed charmingly.
But that was hardly the point. There had been enough bossy women in his life recently. And if the jury was still out on the question of whether Ellen was bossy or not, well, you could bet she was. They all were. Starting with his meddling mother!
He’d forgotten how persistent she could be. She hadn’t rested till she’d got every detail about his break-up with Lisa.
Not that there was that much to tell. Lisa’s father was a senator, and Lisa seemed to want to be the wife of a senator as well. Which was fine, as long as Tyler didn’t have to be the senator in question!
However, it seemed that was exactly what she had planned. He told her he didn’t want to be a carbon copy of her father, and she said that wasn’t likely, he was too much of a loser.
Then Tyler did the really adult thing of jumping into his car and driving away into the night. He drove home to his mother, vowing that he’d have nothing more to do with women for a very long time.
Yet now he was doing his mother’s bidding, driving yet another woman around! A woman who looked at his sports car – his pride and joy, a silver Corvette – with thinly disguised disdain, suggesting in her brittle English accent that it “surely wasn’t very practical”. Well, she could walk next time!
“Seems everyone’s here,” Tyler said as he drew into the parking lot outside the shabby campaign headquarters. He nodded towards the other cars already parked.
He jumped out of the
Cindy clearly didn’t want Ellen in the office today. Why?
car and went up the rusty fire-escape that led to the campaign headquarters two at a time, not looking to see whether Ellen was behind him.
“Great! You’ve brought Ellen,” Steve said, greeting his brother-in-law. “Cindy said she was staying home with Mom today.”
Tyler barely had time to register that Ellen wasn’t expected to be there when Cindy walked up.
“Tyler! It’s great to see you,” she said, but her smile, he noticed, didn’t go anywhere near her eyes. She turned to Ellen. “I thought I told you to stay home today. I can’t get on with my work if you’re constantly asking me questions.” She was barely able to keep her voice level.
“It’s not a help to come in when I don’t need you, Ellen. Anyway, it’s Saturday. You should be having a day off.”
Tyler looked at Ellen. Hadn’t she said that Cindy had told her to come in today? But she didn’t meet his eyes.
Steve was looking at Cindy, clearly surprised at her rudeness, and seemed about to speak.
Ellen opened her mouth to reply as well, but Tyler got there first.
“Sorry, Cindy, I dragged her along. I thought maybe Ellen could give me a few jobs to do, seeing as how she’s your assistant. I didn’t want to get in your way when I knew how busy you must be, what with fundraisers and all.”
“Good thinking!” Steve said happily, never a man for confrontation.
Cindy narrowed her eyes, but couldn’t very well argue. Ellen was smiling serenely, as though this was exactly what they’d planned. You had to hand it to her, she had composure.
Which was all very well, Tyler thought, but now he was stuck with her for the day, which was not what he’d planned at all.
Tyler followed Ellen to her desk and pulled up a chair.
“What fund-raisers are there? I gather there was a barbecue last Saturday. Did that raise much?”
Ellen opened her laptop and provided all the figures. “What else is planned?” He listened with mounting horror as Ellen, her face impassive, explained about Cindy’s heavy borrowing from the bank and her plans to recoup the money at the September fund-raiser.
“Have you got all the caterers and suppliers in place? How are ticket sales going?” he asked when she’d finished.
“Cindy’s dealing with the suppliers, and wants to keep that very much in her own hands,” Ellen said. “I only got authorisation to make payments yesterday, and then only if they’re very small amounts,” she added with a small smile.
“My job is to sell the tickets and get people to donate raffle prizes, that sort of thing.”
Tyler looked at her. Poor girl. Cindy had really given her a raw deal.
“You mean to tell me that she gets to spend all the money, and you have to make sure you raise it? So it’s your fault if the dinner doesn’t make a profit?”
“That’s about the size of it, yes,” Ellen said, in her precise English accent that was beginning to grow on him. “And, of course, Cindy keeps telling me how expensive and unnecessary I am to the campaign.
“Yet I’m told it was she who insisted on hiring me! She’s suggested a couple of times that I might like to cut my stay short, and I’m sure she’s looking for an excuse to fire me.”
“But you’re not going?” Tyler asked more gently.
“No!” she said spiritedly. “Why should I go back home with my tail between my legs? And in case you’re wondering, I’m being paid peanuts even by UK salary standards, which are a lot lower than here.”
There was something about the way she spoke that made him think he wasn’t the only one who’d come to his mother’s house to escape.
Ellen and Tyler spent the morning on the phone, selling tickets to the dinner. The ticket prices seemed astronomical to Ellen, and she’d had trouble not apologising to prospective buyers about the cost, but listening to Tyler nonchalantly rattling off the figures to the party supporters he was ringing gave her new confidence, and by lunchtime they had sold almost 100 tickets between them.
“Can I have another look at the overall budget?” Tyler asked as he ticked another name off on the list of party members.
“Of course,” Ellen said. “I’ll just – where’s my laptop gone?” She looked around distractedly.
Tyler stood up and looked round the room.
“That’s not what’s Cindy’s using, is it?”
How dare the woman, Ellen thought as she saw Cindy concentrating on the screen. Her screen!
“Excuse me, Cindy? Have you got my laptop?”
“I’ll be with you in a minute,” the other woman said impatiently.
Then she looked up. “You made me lose my place. I was scrolling down a column of figures.”
“My laptop,” Ellen said, keeping her voice even.
“Yeah. I’m having trouble with my computer and you weren’t using yours. Is there a problem?”
“Well, I wish you had asked,” Ellen said bravely. “Anyway, how did you know my password?”
“I didn’t need it. You hadn’t logged off. I’ve finished with it, anyhow. You can have it back. Steve and I have to go out.”
She picked up her bag and headed for the door.
Ellen frowned after her, then turned back to Tyler.
“Right. You wanted to see the budget.”
She retrieved her laptop and opened the relevant file, then turned the screen towards him so that he could study the figures.
He spent a long time examining the accounts, then stood up.
“Do you want to go out and get some lunch? There’s a deli just down the street. I was going to buy a coffee and a sandwich to eat in the park. It’s too nice a day to be cooped up in here.” Ellen hid her surprise. “Good idea.”
Was the great Tyler Cady softening?
By the time they reached the park, armed with smoked salmon bagels and coffee, Tyler was looking grim again.
“There were some things I wanted to say – outside the office,” he said, sitting down under a tree.
“OK,” Ellen said. “I mustn’t be too long, though. I don’t want Cindy to think I’m slacking.”
“For what they’re paying you you’re practically a volunteer,” he said, “so I don’t think you need to worry about ‘slacking’. And, yes, I saw your salary. It’s all there in the budget.” He gave a small smile. “Besides, I thought Cindy had told you not to come in today?”
Ellen felt herself blush. “What was it you wanted to discuss?”
“A few things, really. Firstly, I think you ought to change the password on your laptop.”
Ellen looked up at him. “You hadn’t left it on, had you? Cindy must know your password.”
“I don’t know how she’d know it – I’m pretty careful. But I’m equally sure I’d logged off.”
“So she must have been watching you pretty closely to find out what it was. Which confirms what I’ve been thinking. I’m not happy about Cindy being Steve’s campaign manager, as you’ve probably gathered.
“I mean, to me it just doesn’t make sense to hire someone who used to work for your opponent.
“I really don’t buy all this stuff about her changing her political views, seeing the light, all of that.
“Cindy’s not like that. I just don’t trust her. Something fishy’s going on. And then there’s the fact she’s hired you . . .”
“What does hiring me have to do with it?”