The punch had been spiked. My first sip burned my tongue and warmed my throat as I sputtered ungracefully and swiped a paper napkin off the snacks table. I dabbed at my lips and eyed the remnants of my cup. So much for a taste of childhood. This stuff tasted like teenagers had gotten their hands on it on prom night. Looking around the office, I wondered who’d been bold enough to pour what must have been a gal of vodka into the fruity drink.
Ellis, a man I was fond of, was smiling and shaking the hands of the rest of the employees. He’d turned sixty-three last week, and today, he was officially retiring. We were just coming out of the busiest seasons of the year and Ellis was starting off the new year as a retired man. Richard Williams, my boss and the CEO of Elite Occasions, entered the room. His radiant if not wrinkly smile passed from person to person as he clasped hands and said his hello’s. As he approached, I fought the urge to dump the rest of my punch back into the bowl.
Richard sidled up to me.
“You’re late,” I said.
“You’re in charge of my schedule.” He waggled his fingers at a few people from the accounting department who came out of the break room, where there were trays upon trays laid out of sweet treats. They waved back and Richard picked up a plastic cup from beside the punch. I watched as he poured two full ladle scoops. “Not that I’m passing blame.”
Grinning, I held my tongue. I could have warned him about the punch. Key word could. “Your schedule had you leaving your meeting with the client over an hour ago. You had plenty of time to get here. Let me guess. They’re convinced their corporate party isn’t going to be lavish enough?”
He gave me a curious look out of the corner of his eye. “How’d you know?”
“Because I’m the best, and I know everything.”
He chuckled, pursed his lips to the cup, and tilted his head back.
I waited with bated breath.
Richard handled the punch better than me. He drained half of it in three easy gulps, smacked his lips, and held the cup up as if admiring the shine of the plastic under the office lighting.
I arched an eyebrow. “You knew it had been spiked.”
He winked at me. “Of course I did. I told Mikey to make sure this was a good night for Ellis. Shouldn’t you have known that, miss I’m the best and I know everything?”
I laughed. “I should have known.”
“This old dog still has a few tricks.” He finished his punch and dropped his cup in the nearest recycling bin. “Speaking of old dogs, I should go talk to Ellis. I sure do hate to lose him, but I envy him as well.”
“What do you mean?”
“Retirement, my dear.” He smoothed out his suit. “Which reminds me, after I have some cake, we need to talk.”
I had the sudden impulse to drink more punch. Retirement? Talk?
He drifted into the crowd gathered in the banquet room of the building Mr. Williams owned in St. George, Utah. On the horizon, we had a beautiful view of the gorgeous red rocks that made this place so unique. It was early January, and the weather was perfectly mild. The sun was shining with clear blue skies making the red rocks look even redder against the azure backdrop. Some people said it looked otherworldly. I said it looked like home. This town, this office, and these people were my life, and I liked it that way.
After Richard started his event company fresh out of college, it evolved and grew and became one of the most successful event management companies in the country. Some might even say the world. The building we ran our headquarters out of also included a gorgeous outdoor event area and a reception area. Renting it out was more like icing on an already towering cake. It wasn't where the bread and butter was. The people in this room were the bread and butter. They handled the events right down to the last-minute detail, ensuring everything was spectacular and exceeded expectations. Elite Occasions had the reputation of never failing to deliver on its promises.
As Richard made his way toward Ellis, I noticed the latter seemed genuinely touched by all the attention. His normally stern face melted into a soft smile as he received each handshake, pat on the back, and congratulatory words with grace. His retiring marked the end of an era. Ellis was one of the first people Richard had hired when he moved south. He was Elite Occasions’ backbone, a powerhouse who poured his heart into every event his hands touched.
Richard and Ellis embraced briefly, lightly pounding each other’s back in a gesture of enduring friendship.
Ellis had been the first person in the office to help me wrap my head around the planning elements of working here. Without him, I’d have lost my head years ago. Now, I itched to get the chance to plan my own event.
I loved working for the company. I had applied to be one of the planners, but Richard said he liked me and wanted me as his executive assistant. Me, a young twenty-two-year-old with no experience or education managed to get a very, very good job. I felt like I won the lottery.
I loved that I had the chance to learn from a legend in the event planning industry. He seemed immortal, his passion for the business evident in the lines etched on his face, a testament to the countless events he single-handedly orchestrated before he hired a team of planners. Now, he usually sat back and watched over the business without worrying about whether or not the balloon arches matched the tablecloths.
After cake, an endless number of toasts, and a teary goodbye, Richard and I made our way up to the top floor of the four-story building. We went to his large office and sat down in the comfortable sitting area like we often did. With my iPad in hand, I began rattling off his schedule for tomorrow while he stood in front of the window, gazing at the red rocks that had turned burgundy now that the sun had set.
I chewed on the inside of my cheek, sensing he hadn’t asked me up here to talk about his schedule. "So, retirement, huh? Are you thinking about following in Ellis’ footsteps in a couple of years?”
He turned his gaze to me and smiled. " I've got plans."
I grinned, thinking it was another one of his quips. "Plans? Are you going to spike the coffee now?"
His smile grew slyer, and he leaned in as if sharing a secret. "I'm bringing in someone to take over. Someone I'm going to train personally."
My grip on the iPad loosened and I had to scramble to catch it before it fell off my lap. My palms started to sweat as I looked up at my boss. My friend. "You're not serious, right? You can't leave. This place still needs you.”
I need you.
His eyes held a mixture of amusement and sincerity. "Serious as a heart attack, Waverly. I've got to pass the torch someday, and I believe the time is right."
The weight of his words settled on me like an anchor sinking into the sea.
"But who could possibly replace you?" I stammered.
He moved to sit down across from me, unbuttoning his suit jacket as he lowered himself into the armchair. “My grandson. I'm grooming him to take over. Family legacy, you know?"
Family legacy, I thought, feeling the unease creep in. I kept my smile in place while panic lit up my nerves. I was going to short-circuit the iPad in my hands with my sweaty palms. The idea of someone new taking charge, especially his own flesh and blood, felt like a threat to the stability I'd grown accustomed to.
"I see," I forced the words.
He leaned forward. "Waverly, my dear, you're not going anywhere. You're the backbone of this place. The new blood needs the old wisdom, and you're part of that wisdom. I'm counting on you to help guide him through the transition. He's going to need you."
I tried to swallow my anxiety and smile. "I don't think I've met your grandson."
"He's been in New York for years, but he's always been the one I was going to hand the place off to."
I fidgeted with the stylus. " What if he doesn't see the value in someone like me? I’m not qualified on paper."
Mr. Williams's eyes softened. "Waverly, you are invaluable to this company. I brought you in when you were just a bright-eyed young lady, and now you've become an integral part of our success."
My throat burned and a lump formed. Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry. I forced my shoulders back and looked my boss in the eyes. "But what if the new boss wants someone with more experience, someone more mature?"
He leaned back. "He won't. I chose you not just for your skills, but for your dedication and passion. I see that same fire in you now. The new boss may be family, but I've made it clear that you're not to be touched. Your job is secure."
A surge of relief swept over me, and I managed a weak smile. "Thank you, Mr. Williams. You've been like a grandfather to me these past few years. I'm going to miss seeing that smile every day."
He chuckled. "And you've been like a granddaughter to me, Waverly. This company is your home. You'll be fine. Besides, some fresh blood will keep things exciting around here."
Despite his comforting words, unease lingered. "Thank you."
"I think that's all for today. Tomorrow, I'll need you to make arrangements for me to fly to New York."
"Yes," he grinned and pushed up to his feet. "I've made up my mind about retiring and I want to get my grandson on board sooner rather than later. I feel this sudden need to break free of the confines the business has put on me. I want to take my wife and explore the world. It's time."
I wondered if he'd been given some bad news from his doctor. This all felt very sudden. "Lucky lady," I said.
" She's been a very patient woman, but it's time. I've overstayed my place here as it is. I've loved working here, but it's time to move on. I want to make the most of the years I have left. I know the company will be in good hands with you and my grandson."
I kept smiling, but inside, my heart was breaking. "I will do everything I can to make you proud."
His eyes sparkled as he nodded, resting a comforting hand on my shoulder. "I have no doubt you will, Waverly."