Theresa McGovern tried not to feel nervous as she opened the door to the corner office. She had arrived a bit early for her meeting with the company consultant, Mr. Cortez. The corporation relied on him to find potential upper management candidates and turn them into true corporate leaders.

There were rumors that his opinion could make or end a career. She didn’t know why he had scheduled this meeting with her. Arriving early, she fidgeted nervously while his secretary politely ignored her anxiety.

As she entered his office, she was immediately taken by a sense of awe. The wall sized windows displayed the entire city. The space was a glittering masterpiece built around exquisitely rich mahogany walls and leather furniture.

It was an office fit for a king. And it fit with the rumors of Mr. Cortez being a billionaire who was intensely private and unthinkably powerful. He seldom met with people directly, usually watching and listening to meetings via webcams. And when he gave his input it was most often by phone or email.

Standing in the doorway, Theresa paused remembering her department’s presentation on the Carter account. It had happened a week before and as the assistant brand manager, Theresa had been allowed to present three minutes of the three hours. She wasn’t sure how she had done but no one complained, so she assumed it went well.

The rumor going around afterwards was that Mr. Cortez had tapped into one of the room’s video feeds. That had to be how he even knew her name. But surely her three minutes had been lost in everything else, hadn’t it? That presentation must be the reason for this meeting, but she couldn’t understand how anything that she said could have resulted in her standing here. No one had ever said that Mr. Cortez fired anyone, but with his influence, he certainly could.

“You can close that,” a cultured baritone voice called out, interrupting her fretting. “We’ll be over here.”

Theresa stifled a gasp and turned to her right. He was seated at a round table in the corner away from the windows. The bookcases behind him made a luxurious backdrop that reinforced his authority. She nodded, swallowed hard, then closed the door and forced her legs to move toward the empty chair across from him.

All of the whispers about Mr. Cortez had focused on his wealth and his power. She had not expected to see someone so young. She thought he might be only a few years older than herself. Clearly a driven man to have achieved so much so quickly.

He was flipping slowly through pages in a slender binder open on the table before him. Theresa took advantage of the moment to look at this living legend so many spoke of but so few had seen.

His black hair was thick and was just long enough to curl neatly over his head. At the temples were a few strands of silver that may have been added to give him an illusion of maturity to reassure clients that might otherwise doubt his capabilities. Certainly, no sign of similar aging showed in his face or hands, which were smooth and even.

As his dark eyes  moved across the page, one corner of his full, well-formed mouth lifted in what might be a faint smile or a vague smirk. His charcoal-grey suit had obviously been made for him, not simply tailored to fit. The understated elegance of it made her feel a bit shabby in comparison despite the fact that her own attire was of good quality as well.

Finally he glanced up at her as he turned another page, and that brief look had a force of a command. “Miss McGovern,” he said, as he laid his hand lightly upon the page. The soft blue cuff of his shirt that extended a precise inch beyond his jacket sleeve was secured with ornate links rather than buttons. “Do you know why I was brought in to this company?”

She took a moment to gather her thoughts as he dropped his gaze to the binder again. She glanced at it as well and to her surprise, saw it was her own employee review file. What she had been about to say whirled away in a new flurry of anxiety. Was he going to fire her?

As her eyes darted away, she saw more binders off to the side, other employee review files, all of them in thicker binders than hers, and black instead of blue like hers. She frowned a little. She didn’t know for sure because she didn’t work in Human Resources but she was pretty sure that only managers and above had black binders. Hers was the only blue one on the table.

When she didn’t answer, Mr. Cortez looked up again. “Miss McGovern?”

“Yes,” she said quickly, “You were brought in to help with the restructuring, Mr. Cortez.”

“I am here,” he corrected, “to find the next CEO. Mr. Bell is leaving. One of these candidates will be his replacement.” He closed the blue binder and set it with the black ones. Theresa felt her brows draw together in confusion. Certainly this was some sort of mistake, or a cruel joke being played on her.

“Mr. Cortez, I don’t think I understand,” she said, linking her fingers tightly together in an effort to keep her hands from trembling. “I’m not upper management. Sure, I did well in business school and I’ve dreamed about running a company one day, but…”

The consultant regarded her as she spoke. His gaze and expression seemed to imply that every word was of the utmost importance. When she trailed off, he folded his hands in front of him, his expensive cufflinks displayed as if to remind her what a driven life could bring. “But what, Miss McGovern?”

“But,” Theresa echoed, looking down at her own hands. She couldn’t say it out loud, he wouldn’t understand. Her performance had always been praised and she had always been willing to take on extra work, even beyond the scope of her usual duties. But still, promotions had been slow coming her way. Others that had been hired at the same time had long since become full managers or higher, and even people who had come after her had been promoted past her.

She glanced up and saw that Mr. Cortez was still watching her patiently as if he was willing to give her all the time she needed. It was as if she was an important client instead of just a assistant brand manager who wasn’t good enough to manage her own team.

There was something in his gaze that encouraged her. Maybe it didn’t matter if he didn’t really understand. The unspoken promise in his dark eyes  told her he would listen, and not judge her for what she said.

“It’s probably not really the case,” she said softly, forcing her hands to relax somewhat. “It’s just how it feels to me. I’m sure the real reason is there in my reviews. But I hit a plateau in my career, and I’ve been a [pba_custom slug=“Female Pro Occupation” qu ….