Read chapter 3 of Wanda M. Morris' All Her Little Secrets in this exclusive excerpt
This month, EW is offering an exclusive look inside the fall's buzziest legal thriller. Check out the third chapter below, and learn about debut author Wanda M. Morris' inspiration for the story here.
A few hours later, I stepped off the elevator onto the twentieth floor, again, this time tightly gripping a notepad and pen. I had been summoned to Nate Ashe's executive suite. I'd never been to the CEO's office—until now. Michael had made a string of broken promises to give me executive exposure, opportunities to "stretch my wings" and get me promoted into a business role in the company. Lately, whenever I complained of not attending meetings with the executives or getting on the agenda for executive presentations, he told me he was protecting me, and I should thank him.
Our little "friends with benefits" situation had run its course and still had left me empty-handed.
It was here, on the twentieth floor, that Houghton's executives decided the career fates of director-level employees like me, hungry for the next rung of the corporate ladder. Here, we were relegated to HR folders of résumés and performance reviews that were scrutinized and picked apart by the Executive Committee. And when things didn't work out, this was where decisions were made about who got fired. Had they found out about me and Michael? Would this be a repeat of what happened at the law firm?
Whatever the reason for my being here, it couldn't be good.
After my tight gray quarters, a couple floors below, I stepped inside Nate's office like Dorothy wandering into the Technicolor sparkle of Oz. The CEO sat behind a massive custom-leather- wrapped desk without a scrap of paper on it. His plush high-back wing chairs gave the stiff guest chairs in my office a run for their money. Two entire walls of floor-to-ceiling windows offered a mesmerizing view of Ansley and Piedmont Parks, with the skyscrapers of Buckhead's financial district off in the distance. Modern art with whip splashes of bright color adorned the remaining walls, giving the entire room an air of New York's Museum of Modern Art.
"Hi. You wanted to see me?" I asked.
"Hey, Ellice! C'mon in. You want a water, a Coke-Cola?" Nate asked in his easy southern drawl.
"No, thank you."
"Let's sit over there where we'll be more comfortable." Nate pointed toward the vintage Egg chair and leather sofa on the other side of the room. Everything about him was warm and friendly. His soothing southern tone, the froth of silver-white hair and neatly trimmed mustache, the Armani suit, and the slightest hint of a paunch made him very statesmanlike. He could have easily been groomed to be a senator from the great state of Georgia, kindly yielding the floor to his congressional colleagues. Instead, he reigned as the CEO, a wise paternal figure, guiding his family-owned company.
I stood for a moment admiring a picture hanging over the sofa. The painting, a striking depiction of an African elephant charging through trees and foliage, stood out from the other art in his office.
"You like that painting, huh?" Nate said.
"It was a gift from a friend. He had it commissioned by an artist in Mexico. Did you know that Indians, Persians, and Carthaginians used elephants as tanks in ancient war battles?"
Nate walked around his desk and stood beside me. "Elephants are some of the most intelligent creatures on Earth." He cocked his head and folded his arms across his chest, admiring the picture as if he had painted it himself. "They're powerful, too, not just because of their size, but because they have a commitment to family, the ability to stick together that is unlike any other animal species aside from humans. They even grieve the loss of their kin just like humans. Reminds me of us here at Houghton . . . charging forward, sticking together, taking care of our own. There's power in that."
The family thing again.
"Have you ever been on safari?" I asked, trying to edge him off the topic of family.
"Not unless you call huntin' deer and wild rabbit up in the Blue Ridge Mountains a safari." Nate laughed.
I gave a half smile. So Nate was another crusty old white guy, living out his colonial fantasies by shooting up some poor animals out in the wilderness for sport.
"C'mon, Ellice," he said, dropping onto the sofa beneath the painting. "Let's take a load off."
I sat in the chair across from him. Nate was pleasant enough. Even so, I was cautious. Before this conversation, I would have bet my mortgage payment that Nate couldn't pick me out of a precinct lineup.
A few seconds later, Willow Somerville strolled into Nate's office without a knock or an announcement. "Good afternoon, Ellice," she said in a sugar-and-syrup southern accent that reminded me of mint juleps and ladies catching the vapors on plantation porches. She wore a bloodred St. John knit sheath and looked the quintessential modern-day southern belle—blond and bone-thin. The rumor mill went into overdrive right after Nate plucked her, a relatively new and unknown middle manager, and appointed her head of HR for the entire organization. She took a seat beside Nate on the sofa, sitting on the edge, feet tucked together like a beauty pageant contestant waiting her turn to give her speech for solving world peace. The two of them were giving me what Vera used to call "a shit-eating grin." A smile of the insincere.
Something was up. My guess: HR was here to act as a witness to my termination. Somehow, they found out about me and Michael. Now Michael was dead, and I would be fired. Fear slinked down my spine.
Nate was the first to speak. "I thought it might be a good idea to have Willow join us." Willow nodded, the same uncomfortable grin still planted across her face. All I could think was, Where will I go now? I'd followed Michael here to Houghton three years ago after the fiasco at the law firm.
Nate stared out the window for a beat, then turned back to me. "I don't have to tell you how hard Michael's death has hit us. Something awful like this doesn't leave anybody unscathed, least of all the folks who worked with him. It's been a bear up here, too." I could feel my left eye twitch. I gazed down at my notepad.
Nate continued, "Board members are calling and asking for details I can't give 'em. Sayles was family, but they're more concerned about how it all looks. It's irksome. The worst thing in the world is a board member with too much time on his hands, huh?" I looked back at him and smiled at his joke.
Nate smoothed his mustache, his brows pinched together in confusion. The room went silent. If he was going to fire me, I wished he would just get on with it already. I glanced at Willow. For the first time since entering the office, her expression changed. She gave a side-eyeof concern at Nate.
"Now, where was I?" Nate said.
Willow glanced at me, then back at Nate. "I believe you were just about to discuss the changes in the Legal Department," she said.
"Yes . . . oh yes!" Nate piped up. "That's right. Ellice, I want you to head up the Legal Department. I'd like you to replace Michael as Houghton's executive vice president and general counsel."
My jaw went slack with surprise.
"You'll be an easy approval for the board of directors," Nate continued, "And don't worry. I'll make sure we maintain Michael's precedent for paying you handsomely. We'll give you a thirty-five percent pay raise. You'll get bonus, car allowance, club memberships. All the perks that go along with the job. Isn't that right, Willow?"
"Absolutely!" she replied.
I couldn't breathe. My quick and dirty math meant this raise would put me in a stratospheric pay range for attorneys and executives at Houghton. Here was the promotion I'd been craving, along with a huge salary to boot.
I just didn't expect it to come about this way.
"But why . . . I mean . . . why me?" I could hear my voice quivering slightly. "I just assumed Walter Graves or one of the other attorneys who've been here longer would be—"
Nate beamed. "Why not? You're certainly qualified. I know you would have been Michael's first pick. Did he ever tell you the story behind his hiring you?"
"Uh, I'm not sure I know what story you're referring to." I couldn't imagine Michael sharing the details of our relationship or how I came to work for him here at the company. Michael was pretty private. We both were.
"Michael was convinced you were the right person to work under him in the Legal Department. He said you were smart, and you didn't mind a lil' hard work. Hell, Michael all but told me he'd quit if I didn't give him authorization for a salary variance to hire you."
"I didn't know that." Michael had never told me that story and it made me feel even guiltier now.
"He was right, too. You're a smart lawyer and those are the best kind!" Nate grinned and winked.
"And people respect you too. I like that. It takes a lot to navigate your way around an organization like Houghton." Nate eyed me for a moment. "So tell me a lil' bit 'bout yourself."
I looked at Willow. She snapped to, as if she had finally found something of real interest in this meeting. "Oh . . . well, I imagine the things you'd want to know about me you already know," I said. "Georgetown undergrad, Yale Law. Worked at Dillon & Beck before coming to Houghton and—"
Nate brushed his hands through the air. "You're right. I already know that stuff. That's the stuff you've done. I want to know who you are."
"I guess I'm just one of the many hardworking souls you have in the Legal Department." I softly chuckled. I knew this was the part of the conversation where I was supposed to relax and toss about polite banter. Share a story about the kids I didn't have and the tennis I didn't play. Instead, I sat across from him, my brain on a two-minute delay trying to figure out why I was being offered a spot in the executive suite.
Nate smiled. "Now, I'm sure there's more behind all that educational pedigree. Where'd you grow up?"
"Here in Atlanta." I told the same lie I'd been telling since I left Chillicothe. It didn't matter anyway. Chillicothe, Georgia, was so small that most people hadn't heard of it or if they did, they usually confused it with the city of the same name in southern Ohio.
Nate leaned forward on the sofa, his ocean-blue eyes anchored on me. "Married? Kids?"
"No." God, just let this be over so I can get out of here. Willow was still planted on the sofa like a well-dressed mannequin, offering nothing to the conversation.
"A beautiful woman like you?" Nate smiled. "Any other family?"
"No. I'm an only child." Better not to mention my family, or what was left of it.
"How about you? Are you from Atlanta?" I already knew the answer but asked anyway just to move things along.
"Yep. Born and bred." Nate leaned back on the sofa. "You know, Ellice, I think you could be exactly what this company needs right now. A strong, smart lawyer who can shake off the cobwebs on some of the folks around here. Isn't that right, Willow?"
"I couldn't agree more, Nate." Willow never looked up as she brushed her hand across the hem of her sheath, as if she were flicking away invisible crumbs from her lap.
Nate winked again. "Look, I won't lie. The fact that you're Black is like brown gravy on a biscuit." He chuckled, amused by his own joke.
The company never did any diversity training and now it was showing. Willow's eyes flitted in my direction before she cleared her throat and cast a raised eyebrow at Nate.
That's what this was all about. This wasn't about recognizing me as a valuable asset to the company. This was about me being a colored asset they could prop up in front of people to keep the protesters off Houghton's doorstep.
Nate either pretended not to notice Willow's signal or missed it altogether because he talked right through it. "Yep, a Black lady like you is just what we need up here," he said.
"W-w-well," I stammered. "I appreciate the vote of confidence but I'm not sure I . . . I mean . . . it's so soon after—"
"Look, I get it. Michael just died and you think it's too soon to talk about replacing him. Trust me, it's not. We have a responsibility to this company, to the Houghton family."
Even though I'd long craved a role in the executive suite, I didn't want this one. Not this way. I opened my mouth to offer a more forceful objection, but Nate raised his hand.
"Hear me out. The board is acting like a bunch of nervous Nellies. All concerned about the optics of this thing. But I'm more concerned with continuing the good work Michael started." Nate leaned forward. "Michael was a good guy. A really good guy. Straight shooter with good moral fiber. I think the best we can do to respect his memory is to keep the company moving forward the way he did. I know he thought very highly of you. I think you'd be the perfect lawyer to replace him. Besides, this is the kind of opportunity that'll do wonders for your career."
I couldn't argue with him on that last point. But Nate was offering me the job full out, not even on an interim basis. It was highly unusual for the company to appoint someone to the executive suite without the usual "dog and pony" show of hiring a search firm, floating names, and interviewing candidates.
But then, it was highly unusual that the general counsel would commit suicide in his office.
Nate stood from the sofa, eased over to the window, and peered out for a beat. He turned back to me. "Listen, I hate the circumstances that brought us to this point. But we need to keep making the right decisions for the right reasons. And I think you're the best person to help us do that. I know this is coming at ya pretty fast and I don't expect an answer right now. Take a little time to think it over."
"Um . . . okay, I will. Thanks." I rose from the chair, finally, grateful to be leaving.
I headed for the elevators with a sense of remorse so strong it made me wince. I shouldn't want this job. Michael died in the very office Nate was now offering me. I tried to mentally grasp the idea of working in the executive suite. As usual, I would be "the only one" on the twentieth floor, just like I'd been in the Legal Department. The lone Black person, expected to speak on behalf of Black folks everywhere, the one expected to represent the success or failure of every Black woman who worked in corporate America. Logically, I knew this wasn't true, but it didn't stop me from feeling that way. It was a burden I'd borne since Coventry Academy Prep.
But becoming an executive was the job I had dreamed of for years. And I had a hard time not smiling to myself whenever I pondered how I might finally be on the right track for a change. As Vera used to say, everything happens for a reason and there just might be a reason that I was tapped for this position.
Excerpted from the book ALL HER LITTLE SECRETS by Wanda M Morris. Copyright © 2021 by Wanda M. Morris. From William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.
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