Natasha was standing before the mirror trying on her fourth dress for the dinner with the business associates this evening. She wanted to look her best. She had already rejected a dark red evening gown, a blue-gray business suit, a salmon pink evening dress. She currently wore a deep purple dress and this looked both elegant and interesting for a business dinner.
‘This is better!’ she thought, brushing her hair in place. She was ready, or as ready as she felt she could be for this evening, when there was a knock on her door.
In response the door was knocked again. Natasha smiled. There was only one person who responded to ‘Who’s that’ with another knock – her best friend, her confidant, her Dad. “Come in!”
Her father, Mr. Harwood, stepped inside. Natasha knew that he’d have been ready and waiting for her for at least a good 45 minutes before he had landed at her door.
“Much as I love that you have taken after your mother’s beauty and sensibilities,” he began, looking at the three rejected dresses lying on the bed, “- between me and her, she was a better option – Did you really have to take after her in terms of being indecisive about choosing clothes for dinner? C’mon! Between her and me, I was a better option!”
Natasha laughed. “Oh, come on! Four is not so bad. I remember Mum used to empty out her endless wardrobe. And yet, you bought her more.” She accused him.
“Bah!” he brushed it aside, “It’s just an old ploy to keep the old wife happy.”
“Bah!” she countered, “It’s just an old ploy to cover up all the mush you really are!”
“Let’s not get beside the point.” he said, coming back to the point of Natasha’s dressing up, “I know you normally go through a couple of dresses to decide. But you’re generally well-decided for business dinners. What’s up with you tonight? Come, on! This is a corporate retreat.”
“Well, it’s the last business dinner on this retreat and one likes to be dressed well. All the important people will be there. One wants to make a good impression.” Natasha explained, putting on her silvery pearl drops earrings.
“All the important people, one very important someone too…” trailed Mr. Harwood.
“Of course not!” Natasha snapped, but then half-smiled and blushed, “There is no such thing!”
“No, of course not!” said Mr. Harwood, correcting his tone, “We are absolutely not looking forward to any specific person. That’d be so incorrectly put. We were not at all upset when a certain gentleman went missing from the lunch yesterday after the meeting. We were not at all irritated when the particular person went missing after the golf game on the weekend, and missed the corporate lunch.”
Natasha picked up the delicate silver chain with a small pearl drop pendant and fastened it around her slender neck. She ignored, and Mr. Harwood continued his dialogue.
“We were not missing anyone in particular from all the social get-togethers arranged after the business meetings. After all, who cares if they attend the social get-togethers as long as they were present for the meeting! In fact, we really do not care at all that this missing someone eventually confirmed his presence at this evening’s dinner. No, not at all! How utterly preposterous!”
Natasha had by now crossed her arms and was staring at her Dad with a small smile on her face. She could never hide anything from her Dad, not that she wanted to. He was her best buddy.
Natasha had decided way back in kindergarten that she would join her Dad in his business. The father daughter duo had been inseparable friends. After her mother died, Natasha and her Dad became supporters for each other, seeing each other through everything in life. As she had decided, Natasha joined her father’s business right after she finished her business school.
Mr. Harwood looked at her and raised an eyebrow, gently challenging her to challenge him. Natasha dropped her gaze and sat on the edge of the bed, staring at nothing in particular. Her father walked to her and sat beside her.
“You look beautiful!” Mr. Harwood said.
Natasha laughed under her breath, and thought of the man her father was referring to. She would take efforts to look good so that he’d notice, but usually he didn’t. Not that he didn’t appreciate or compliment her, but she never saw in his eyes the admiration she looked for.
“What’s the matter?” her father asked quietly.
“Nothing, really! It’s just that …” she started, and then paused.
“You feel some disappointment…” he offered.
Natasha smiled and sighed. Was there anything about her that father didn’t know?
“Just a bit!” she said. Then shifted towards her father just a bit and poured out the misery, “Through the past two months, though we worked together, there has been near zero instances when we talked anything apart from work. The moment the official list of To Dos for the Day was done, it would take him just 15 minutes to pack up and leave. Funny, I’ve never felt he was trying to run away. It was always as though to him the work was done and then it was time to go home; as though it never occurred to him that he could stay back for some time for coffee or drinks or just talking!”
“Hmm… and?” her father, encouraged her to go on.
“When the idea of this retreat came up, I was happy. I thought finally there was a time when apart from the ‘official’ work there would be planned recreation. We’d finally, probably, have some time apart from work.”
“And?” Mr. Harwood spurred her on.
“And he’s been as rare as ever!” she nearly protested.
“Did you, perchance, tell him that you were looking forward to see him in the party or games?” he asked, helpfully.
“Huh!? Tell him..?” Natasha turned to see her Dad.
“Well, the games were organized by your company, not his. He is just the Financial Advisor helping you with putting your financial interest in place for your merger with the bigger fish. Did you happen to invite him?”
“We invited him to the retreat, didn’t we?”
“Oh yes, I remember the invitation. It was beautiful; a most interesting list of meetings scheduled between 10:00 A.M. to 1:00 P.M. daily for 2 weeks.”
Natasha narrowed down her gaze. “What are you hitting at?”
“You, or rather your company, invited him for the meetings!” Mr. Harwood explained.
“Yes, but on a retreat. We invited him on a retreat, for crying out loud!” she protested.
“And… he came!” Mr. Harwood said.
“Only for the half of it!” she countered.
“Exactly! The half for which you sent him the invitation.” Mr. Harwood sounded so amused that it got on Natasha’s nerves now.
“What do you mean? If one is invited to a retreat, then one is expected to be on the retreat.”
“Well if one receives an agenda of meetings on the invitation for a retreat, then, one – ethically – attends the meetings on the agenda of the invitation.”
“What?” Natasha could hardly believe her father now, “Are you defending him?”
“All I’m saying is that if you wanted someone not from your company to attend your company’s retreat in meetings and in fun, then your invitation needs to say so. If it doesn’t say so, then you need to make it clear that you’re expecting to see him after the meeting too.”
“I was going to. On the airplane. But he didn’t come with us. He came a day late for the retreat. In fact, he came the second day when the official meetings were to start and stayed only for the meetings. And then because he’s a day late, he puts up in the hotel across the street. And if that’s not all, he intends to leave tonight after dinner when the final meeting was done today. He’s not even staying till tomorrow which is the last day of the retreat. In fact, I’m certain that if I hadn’t told him to come along for dinner tonight he wouldn’t have, and… what are you smiling at?” Natasha caught the smug smirk on her father’s face as he nodded to each of her accusations.
“Me? I would merely … rest my case.” Mr. Harwood laughed quietly.
Natasha realized that throughout her defense she was saying exactly what Mr. Harwood had been pointing out. When she did, however, she looked pretty much stumped.
“Oh! We don’t look so sad!” Mr. Harwood tried to cheer her up.
Natasha knew Mr. Harwood was right, and he was trying to make her feel better.
“Well, what should I do now?” she asked.
“Hmm… because you both have only had business association and unlike most girls, you may have an issue asking him – maybe I’ll ask him over for coffee with me post-dinner.” he offered.
“Daddy!” Natasha sounded pretty outraged. “You can’t ask him out for a coffee!?”
“Can’t I?” he asked, almost as though he was offended at the possibility of him not being able to do something. “Watch me!” Mr. Harwood stood up with a jump and began to dip his hand in his coat pocket to bring out his phone.
“No!” she protested.
“Then, my dear,” He stopped, “You ask him.”
“You can’t blackmail me!” she told him bluntly.
“Is that a challenge?” he retorted.
“Well…” she began, but trailed. She knew she’d probably never pick up the courage to ask him.
“If you don’t do it now, you’ll never get around to doing it.” Mr. Harwood said softly.
“Okay. I’ll try to … after dinner.”
“See, tomorrow’s the last day of the retreat and I know you have many plans for the day. If you ask him to coffee and convince him to stay, I can get his tickets moved to a day later. What say!” he asked.
“Sounds good!” Natasha agreed, but her insides churned.
The last official dinner of the retreat was ongoing. Everyone was having fun and now that the business meetings had all wrapped up, everyone had let their hair down. There was very loud music, a lot of people dancing and the grand festivity.
Natasha stood talking with a few of her colleagues when she caught the eye of her father, Mr. Harwood who was standing some distance away. Natasha saw that he was lightly tapping at his wrist watch. She checked the time; it was getting late. She turned around to see where the financial advisor was, and spotted him walking towards Mr. Harwood.
Natasha was a bit startled that the man was walking up to her father, and she had to try to ask him for coffee. She excused herself and went walking quickly, attempting to catch hold of him on the way. Her attempt was cut short by a colleague who insisted on thanking her for the retreat and telling her how good it was. By the time she managed to get herself away, she saw her father in conversation with the man she wanted to talk to.
Natasha sighed and traipsed to her father, looking visibly dejected – for right before her eyes her father and the man she was supposed to ask out for coffee were beginning to walk towards the door. She picked up her pace but kept distance to avoid any awkwardness. Mr. Harwood waited by the door and she saw him move aside to pick up his coat, and she quickly walked to her father.
“You did not!” Natasha said to Mr. Harwood, “Please tell me you didn’t!”
Mr. Harwood looked mildly disappointed, “Well, you didn’t!”
Natasha shut her eyes in remorse.
“Don’t look so… I didn’t. He did.” Mr. Harwood clarified.
“He did? He asked me for coffee? Asked you?” Natasha could not understand.
“No, he asked me for coffee. “ he clarified. Natasha looked confused. “Oh, it’s not so bad! Ask him the next time.” He said.
“Next time!” she snapped, feeling rather disgruntled, “What next time?”
“There’s always a next time.” Mr. Harwood brushed off her annoyance. “Besides, I’m only trying to help. Trust me, you’ll thank me for this.”
“Oh, yes? Why?” she asked.
“There’s a happy twist to the coffee invite.” Mr. Harwood said.
Natasha looked suspicious, “What! I’m uninvited?”
“Don’t be silly! If I be found having coffee with a young man in his suite past bed time … Quite dangerous for my reputation among the ladies!” Mr. Harwood remarked.
Natasha couldn’t help but smile. “In his suite?” she asked.
“He simply wanted to thank us for inviting him, and has invited me over for coffee to his suite.”
“So I am uninvited.” Natasha sighed.
“Well, that could change.” Mr. Harwood smirked.
“Dad, I don’t like it this way.” Natasha complained. “Has he invited both of us?” She asked.
“No, but he’s about to. He’s coming back.” Mr. Harwood warned Natasha.
“I don’t like it like this!” She muttered and heard her father shushing her.
“Ah!” Mr. Harwood exclaimed, “I was just telling Natasha of our coffee date.”
“Isn’t that nice?” Natasha exclaimed, “Well, enjoy yourself both of you. I’ll just walk up to the room now. See you!” and she attempted a genuine escape from the situation.
“Why don’t you join us for coffee? In my suite … just across the road.”
Natasha heard the man speak. She turned and looked at him. He asked her? She could barely believe. “Yes, I’d love to.” Natasha had spoken before the words had fully formed in her head.
“Wonderful!” Mr. Harwood exclaimed. “Shall we move then?”
Natasha realized that she’d agreed and felt a bit out of place. She saw that he had started to walk out with her father, still involved in some conversation about the merger with him. She smiled at her Dad and followed them. ‘Just across the street’, he had been putting up in a suite for two weeks, and now on the last day she was finally walking to it.
Mr. Harwood smiled at Natasha as they waited in the hotel lobby awaiting the elevator. Natasha was quietly listening to the casual conversation between them. A mild excitement was building inside her. In the next few minutes, they had seen themselves into his suite and he’d ordered coffee for them. The conversation was still a casual chit chat about the meetings, the merger, the retreat and the new city.
Natasha could still feel the butterflies in her stomach. She knew as the coffee came to a close, her father might be planning to leave any time now. Her hands were cold and she slowly pressed her fingers together uneasily. She was wondering if they could not sit down to chat some more. But wondered again how that might be possible after he Dad went – she couldn’t ask him for a walk, could she? How would she convince him to stay for the next day? She was still wondering over this when he Dad stood up.
“I think I’m ready to call it a night.” Mr. Harwood declared.
Almost automatically, Natasha stood up too. Mr. Harwood looked surprised that she got up too. This wasn’t the deal. She couldn’t help it; she was a bundle of nerves.
However, before Mr. Harwood or Natasha could say another thing, it seemed their host had accepted that they were leaving. “It was so nice to have you here. I’m sorry it’s a bit late but…” and just then, there was a small noise of a something falling to the floor from the bedroom. “Excuse me…” he said, and walked quickly into the room.
Natasha and Mr. Harwood looked at each other and then at the bedroom door, which was only partially closed.
“He has company?” Mr. Harwood asked quietly.
“I’ve no idea, Dad.” Natasha whispered back.
They could hear muffled voices from inside.
“How are you feeling now?” Natasha heard him was asking someone very gently.
“I’m okay. You shouldn’t worry so much!”
Natasha heard a woman answer back. She couldn’t help herself and walked a few steps towards the door, just enough to see inside. He was bending over a woman who was in bed, and apparently not well.
“Why didn’t you call for me if you needed something?” he asked. He stood aside and was pouring out water in a glass for her.
“I didn’t know you were back. After I got back to the room, I was too tired to stay up. When did you get back?” she asked him.
He helped her sit and gave her the glass of water. “About a half hour back. Mr. Harwood and Ms. Harwood are here. I invited them over for coffee.”
She had been drinking from the glass but immediately put it down when she heard that they had guests. “Oh! I must go to meet them.” She said, and looked around and pulled up a light pink shawl to cover herself in the night dress.
“No. Stay put.” He held her by the shoulders and gently pushed her back in bed, “I’ll tell them. Don’t worry, I’ll take care.” He covered her in the blankets again and lightly kissed her forehead. “You need rest. They are about to leave, anyway. I’ll just see them off and be back in a few minutes.” Natasha saw there was so much love and care in his manner.
He turned to walk out of the room and Natasha quickly retraced her steps to her father. She could feel her insides shiver. Her father seemed to know it and he pulled his arm around her shoulder. She was sure her face was rather set, and she tried to smile as he appeared around the door.
“Mr. Harwood,” he said, “I’m sorry for going off like that. It’s my wife inside. She came here with me, and we thought that after the business meetings we’d probably enjoy a bit of a vacation. However, she’s been a bit off-color from two days after we’ve arrived. I’m sorry she couldn’t come out to meet you.”
“Ah!” Mr. Harwood began. Natasha thought, he was trying to clear up his mind and appear courteous. “That’s no problem at all. We didn’t know your wife was unwell. We may have arranged some help. I hope she is better now. Is there anything we can do?”
He smiled wide and answered, “Thank you so much, Mr. Harwood. She and I rarely get such a wonderful time for vacation, and because you invited me over for a retreat of your company, I got a chance to bring her away from daily life. Unfortunately, she took ill. She is better, and I hope she’ll pick up when we’re home. We leave in an early morning flight.”
“Well, do let us know if you need anything.” Mr. Harwood answered, “I think we should let them rest, eh Nat?”
“Yes, Dad! Goodnight and goodbye.” Natasha managed to answer him in a very controlled voice and an understanding smile, and began to step towards the door.
“Good night. Mr. Harwood, Ms. Harwood. It was a pleasure coming to this retreat.” He answered, and started to follow them to the door.
Mr. Harwood said good bye and refused to let him see them off any further, but insisted that he be by his wife’s side.
Natasha and Mr. Harwood walked back to their hotel quietly. She could barely think much, part of her felt embarrassed, and part angry. She didn’t know what to make out of it, and didn’t say anything.
In corridor where they finally had to go to their rooms, her father held her hand. “It’s okay.” He said, and held her in a warm hug. Natasha held her father tight. He pulled away, looked at her and smiled. “We have to leave tomorrow morning, I think. You should rest. It’s late enough.” He patted her cheek lightly.
Natasha attempted a smile, but she knew she couldn’t manage very well.
“Oh, that’s all right. Come on! We’ll put you in bed.” Mr. Harwood said, and gently pulled her into her room.
“Dad…” she began.
“Yes!” he asked.
“I’m okay. I think I’ll sleep now.” Natasha had meant to talk to him, but somehow this was all she could say.
“Exactly. Sleep now.” Mr. Harwood kissed her hair, “Goodnight, my bud.”
The next morning, Natasha and Mr. Harwood shared a quick breakfast and decided to leave before the rest of the office colleagues appeared. Mr. Harwood had left a small message for them, and they both moved out in the car.
Natasha sat quietly. Mr. Harwood wasn’t exactly quiet. He kept humming some songs and making small remarks on various things. She knew he was trying to keep it light for her and helping her relax.
Natasha didn’t want to but the events of the previous night replayed in her mind. All of a sudden she remembered that her Dad said – Trust me. You’ll thank me for this. She turned to her father. He was looking out at the yellow fields on the countryside, and humming ‘Country Roads’.
“Did you know he was married?” Natasha suddenly asked her father.
Mr. Harwood’s face became taut for a minor second before he responded, “I understand sometimes I’m a joker, but you must trust me mostly.”
Natasha took away her gaze and looked outside. It was a wrong question. She knew if her father had known he’d tell her.
“I’m sorry… you’re not a joker.” She said, quietly.
Mr. Harwood smiled, “You’re sorry I’m not a joker!?”
“Dad!” Natasha smiled.
“Well, I try so hard to be one for you. Be thankful at least!” Mr. Harwood said. Could he ever snap out of his jokes?
“C’mon!!” she snapped.
“You, c’mon!” he said, “It’s not the end of the world!”
“Yeah!” Natasha nodded. “It’s a strange feeling. He didn’t cheat me. But I feel cheated.”
Mr. Harwood extended his arm and pulled her close, “Hmm…” he sighed, “I know the feeling?”
“You do?” Natasha looked surprised.
He nodded. “When your mother left us …” he sighed, “Oh well, life goes on. Just consider this a bad trial and take the lesson!”
“Lesson!” Natasha looked incredulous. Did he really think she needed one of his lectures he gave so often when she was a teenager?
“Next time, state your heart. Don’t think it’s obvious. Take the initiative.”
Natasha smiled, “Next time!”
“Sure, next time! There’s always a next time. Look!” he suddenly pointed to a young man cycling on the pavement, “That looks like a promising next time!”
Natasha laughed, “Oh Dad, thanks for the offer! I think I’ll choose my own next time.”