Jeff insisted on dropping Gracie off at Eli Walker’s luncheon that Saturday. Gracie had told him it was unnecessary, and it probably was. Still, Walker made her uncomfortable, and it was nice to know she had an ally nearby if things got weird.
“I won’t go far,” Jeff assured her. “Just give me a call if you need anything, and I’ll be here to pick you up when things end.”
Gracie thanked him for his concern. She was fairly confident that the only reason he wasn’t coming in the building with her was because he wasn’t allowed. This was an invite only event, and Jeff’s name hadn’t been on the list. If it had been, it seemed safe to say he would have been by Gracie’s side all afternoon.
Gracie got out of the car and closed the door behind her. The restaurant Walker had chosen for this event was one of her favorites. She wondered if that was purely coincidence and decided it had to be. If she allowed herself to believe it was anything else, she might lose her courage to go in. She already felt there was something odd about Walker. The idea he had chosen this place because of her just sent shivers down her spine. So instead of letting herself think about it, she took a deep breath and headed inside.
For a moment, Gracie was surprised to see that it looked like the entire restaurant had been rented out for their interview today. She quickly realized she shouldn’t have been surprised though. This was an exclusive event, after all. Walker couldn’t afford eavesdroppers.
She wasn’t the first to arrive. There were four other reporters present, all of them standing around chitchatting. Gracie could tell they were all only playing at being friendly. When it came right down to it, these people were competitive; none of them would want to give another an edge. Everybody’s pleasantries were just a formality. The media was a cut throat business.
The others turned to look at her as she walked in, and Gracie immediately felt out of place among them. They were all established journalists, people whose work she had read and admired. Knowing that fact made Gracie uneasy. As they stared at her, they were probably all thinking the same thing she was: Why was she even here?
Gracie could feel her nerves fleeing. She was just about ready to hang up this whole thing and bolt when the door opened behind her and Eli Walker strolled in, a smile plastered on his face.
“Glad to see you could all make it,” he said by way of greeting. “Please, take a seat.” He gestured to a table in the middle of the dining room, and his guests shuffled to their places. Only Gracie hesitated. She knew her chance to leave had passed, but she still couldn’t bring herself to move toward the small crowd of people gathering in the middle of the room. She wondered if it was still too late to call Jeff to bail her out of here.
“Ms. Parker?” Gracie looked up as Eli said her name. He was holding out a chair for her. Gracie tentatively moved forward and took the seat. Eli sat in the chair directly to her right. “Now, how about we get started?” he asked.
There was a rustling of recorders and notepads as everyone prepared for whatever information Eli Walker was going to give them. Gracie couldn’t help but wonder if any of them felt as awkward being there as she did. If they did, their faces sure didn’t show it.
And then Eli began to talk. About what, Gracie was unsure. She let herself zone out while her recorder did its work. She might not be able to physically remove herself from this room without being rude, but that didn’t mean she had to be active in this conversation. While the other reporters asked questions and Eli responded with smiles and friendly gestures, Gracie was content to just sit back and let the conversation take place around her. She would be able to listen to it in full once she was in the comfort of her own home.
At least, that was what she hoped to do.
“What about you, Ms. Parker? Anything you would like to know?”
Gracie blinked back to the present to see everybody around the table staring at her. Walker had asked her a question. She would be expected to come up with something. After all, she was a journalist. Asking questions was her job. And surrounded by so many seniors in her field, she needed to make it a good one.
“What are you so determined to accomplish?” The question slipped out before she could stop it. She knew from Walker’s reaction that the question sounded judgmental and that it had thrown him completely off guard. She was attacking him and questioning his motives regarding her in front of so many people. This wasn’t the place for that kind of question, and they both knew it.
But Walker was pretty good at playing on his toes. “Good question,” he said. “To begin with, I started this business to show those who didn’t believe in me that I could succeed. Granted, I didn’t expect to accomplish so much in such a short time. But there were some who thought I would never be able to accomplish anything on my own. I have never been one to take no for an answer, so I wanted to prove them wrong. I am determined to show everyone that with the right motivation anyone can accomplish what they set out to do, whether others believe in them or not.”
Though Gracie didn’t doubt the authenticity of his response in relation to his business venture, she couldn’t help but feel there was some message within the undertones of his statement that was meant specifically for her.
Fortunately, Gracie was able to make it through the rest of the afternoon without bringing herself to the center of attention again. When the interview concluded and everyone was packing up to head back to their offices, Gracie couldn’t get out soon enough.
She pushed through the front door of the restaurant and thought she was free. But she wasn’t so lucky.
“Ms. Parker! Please wait a moment. I would like a word with you.”
Had Eli seriously just left all his other guests behind to run after her? She spun around to face him, a forced smile plastered to her face. “What can I do for you?” she asked.
But Eli was no longer looking at her. He was looking past her, and he didn’t look to happy. Gracie turned to see Jeff only a few steps behind her.
“Are you ready to go?” Jeff asked Gracie. He never took his eyes off of Walker as he spoke. Gracie simply nodded in response. Jeff put his arm around her shoulder and steered her away from Walker and the restaurant and to the safety of his car.
Gracie could feel a chill creeping down her spine. What was it about that guy that got her so riled? It wasn’t like she had never met weird people before. But Eli Walker affected her nerves in a way no one ever had before. She was fairly confident he had been trying to get on her good side today to make up for what she had written about him last time. But instead of making her feel better about him, he had just managed to make things so much worse.