Two more of the vice presidents at the conference table were in charge of activities that helped to move the merchandise out of the stores—the vice president of advertising and sales promotion whose group planned the store's sales campaigns and bought the radio, television, and newspaper space to advertise them; and the vice president of visual presentation, for whom Lisa worked, whose staff was responsible for displaying all the merchandise within the stores.

Meredith's position as senior vice president of operations put her in charge of everything else that involved the running of the stores, from security and personnel to expansion and forward planning. It was in this latter area that Meredith had found her niche and made her mark in the retailing community. In addition to the five new stores that had been opened under her direction, the sites for five more stores had been selected, and construction was already under way at two of them.

The only other woman at the conference table was in charge of creative merchandising. It was her responsibility to predict fashion trends in advance, and to make recommendations to the general merchandising managers. Theresa Bishop, who held that position, was seated across the table from Meredith, talking quietly with the controller.

"Good morning." Her father's voice sounded strong and brisk as he strode into the conference room and took his place at the head of the table. His next words jarred everyone into a state of electrified expectation. "If you're wondering if any decision has been reached as to an interim president, the answer is no. When it is, you will all be duly advised. Can we now dispense with that topic and get down to the business of department stores. Ted"—his narrowed gaze swerved to Ted Rothman, the vice president who was in charge of purchasing cosmetics, intimate apparel, shoes, and coats—"according to last night's reports from all our stores, sales of coats are down by eleven percent compared to this same week last year. What's your answer for that?"

"My answer," Rothman replied with a smile, "is that it's unseasonably warm, Philip, and customers aren't concentrating on outer clothing as much as they normally would at this time of the year. It's to be expected." As he spoke, he stood up and walked over to one of the computer screens built into a wall cabinet, and quickly pressed a series of keys on the keyboard. The store's computer systems had long ago been updated at Meredith's urging—and at considerable expense—so that at any given instant, sales figures were available from every department in every one of their stores, along with comparisons based on this time last week, or last month, or last year, "Sales of coats in Boston, where the temperature this weekend dropped to a more normal seasonal level are"—he paused, watching the screen— "up by ten percent over last week."

"I'm not interested in last week! I want to know why our coat sales are down from last year."

Meredith, who'd been on the phone with a friend at Women's Wear Daily last night, looked at her glowering father. "According to WWD," she said, "coat sales are down in all the chains. They're printing a story on it in the next issue."

"I don't want excuses, I want explanations," her father bit out. Inwardly, Meredith winced a little—but not much. From the day she'd forced him to acknowledge her value as a Bancroft executive, her father had gone out of his way to prove to her, and to everyone else, that his daughter got no favoritism from him. Quite the opposite, in fact. "The explanation," she said calmly, "is jackets. Winter jacket sales are up by twelve percent, nationwide. They're taking up the slack in coat sales."

Philip heard her, but he did not give her the small courtesy of acknowledging the worth of her input by so much as a nod. Instead, he turned on Rothman, his voice clipped. "What are we supposed to do with all the coats we'll have left?"

"We cut back on our orders for coats, Philip," Rothman said patiently. "We don't expect to have any surplus." When he didn't add that Theresa Bishop had been the one to advise him to buy jackets heavily and cut back on coats, Gordon Mitchell, the vice president who was responsible for dresses, accessories, and children's wear, was quick to point out Rothman's omission. "As I recall," he sad, "the jackets were purchased instead of coats because Theresa told us the trend toward shorter skirts would cause women to look toward jackets this year rather than coats." Mitchell had spoken up, Meredith knew, not because he gave a damn whether Theresa got credit, but because he didn't want Rothman to get the credit. Mitchell never missed an opportunity to try to make the other merchandising vice presidents look less competent than himself. He was a petty, malicious man who had always repelled Meredith despite his good looks.

"I'm sure we're all well aware and appreciative of Theresa's fashion clairvoyance," Philip said with stinging derision. He did not like women among his vice presidents, and everyone knew it. Theresa rolled her eyes, but she did not look to Meredith for empathy; to do so would have showed a kind of mutual dependency, ergo, weakness, and they both knew better than to show any sign of that to their formidable president. "What about the new perfume that rock star is going to introduce—" Philip demanded, glancing at his notes and then at Ted Rothman.

"Charisma." Rothman provided the name of the perfume and the celebrity. "Her name is Cheryl Aderly— she's a rock star/sex symbol who—"

"I know who she is!" Philip said shortly. "Will Bancroft's get to debut her perfume or not?"

"We don't know yet," Rothman replied uneasily. Perfumes were one of the highest profit items in a department store, and being given the exclusive right in a city to introduce an important new scent was a coup. It meant free advertising from the perfume company, free publicity when the star came to the store to promote it, and a huge influx of women shoppers who flocked to the counters to try it and buy it.

"What do you mean, you don't know?" Philip snapped. "You said it was virtually in the bag."

"Aderly is hedging," he admitted. "As I understand it, she's eager to shed her rock-star image and do some serious acting, but—"

Philip threw down his pen in disgust. "For Christ's sake! I don't give a damn about her career goals! What I want to know is whether Bancroft's is going to snag the debut of her perfume, and if not, why not!"

"I'm trying to answer you, Philip," he said in a cautious, placating voice. "Aderly wanted to debut her perfume at a classy store to lend her a classy new image."

Tags: Judith McNaught Second Opportunities Billionaire Romance