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Authors: Hart, Alana, Dark, Marlena

Never forgotten: second chances

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NEVER FORGOTTEN

 

Second Chances

 

By

 

Alana Hart & Marlena Dark

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright © 2015 Alana Hart & Marlena Dark

All rights reserved worldwide. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the author.

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locals or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. Please note that this work is intended only for adults over the age of 18 and all characters represented as 18 or over.

 

Published by Hartfelt Books

 

 

 

 

Sneak Peek!

 

"You seem distressed." These were Riley's first concerned words, uttered the moment he opened the door to his apartment for her and saw her face, telling her that the turmoil of feelings churning through her showed far too clearly for comfort. Looking at Riley made the morass of emotion worse. Seeing Sal again had pushed Riley right out of her head.

She kissed him, but it was perfunctory. Knowing he wouldn't miss that made her feel bad. She swept into the living room. "I'm not sure distressed is the right word. Confused seems better. Maybe even troubled."

"Can I help? Does it have to do with your meeting?"

"Riley, the new investor is someone I know. Or knew."

Her voice trembled, and he seemed to catch the importance of that statement. "So you know this Carla Finelli?"

"No." She tried to think how to tell the man she was sleeping with, the man who had asked her to marry him that he'd just hooked her up with an old lover. The lover. The one she'd never forgotten. There was no good way to do it. "You were right that she isn't the principle. He was there too. And the man behind the company is my old boyfriend, Sal."

 

 

 

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CHAPTER ONE

 

 

Megan Cross drew in a breath and then let it out slowly as she looked around the room, taking in the sober and confused looks on the faces of the three people sitting around the conference table. The expressions she saw told her that none of them entirely understood, and they expected her explain it. Fundamentally, the situation was simple enough. As always in business, it was the whys and wherefores, the scope of the problem and what it meant that made it hard to lay out in a way they could all understand. In short, Diamond Software had run into a problem that needed a solution—and soon.

She considered each person in turn. Craig Lester, the handsome geek who was the company's main software designer, was her ex-husband and a major shareholder. She recognized the disbelief contorting his rather handsome face; it came from shock in hearing that she hadn't resolved the problem before it became a crisis. Even though they'd fallen apart as a couple, he'd always trusted her business acumen, and now he couldn't believe she'd failed him. He'd see it as her failure regardless of the facts. His disconnect from the real world, her world, had been one reason the marriage had failed. Early on, his admiration of her strength, her competence flattered her, and it took time before she came to see that he wanted someone to shield him from the routine, the difficult and obligatory things in life. By her standards, he'd never grown up, and the novelty of his counterculture attitudes wore off quickly. Now when she saw him at business meetings dressed in jeans and tee shirts, with his manner as casual as his clothes, it just annoyed her. She knew he thought any sort of conformity was playing games—selling out.

By contrast, Thom Gooden, who sat next to him, was the ultimate business insider and a consummate game player. He understood the financial situation perfectly. What he found difficult to understand was her passion for the company. "You struggle with keeping this company going when there are better, more interesting, ways to make money," he'd told her. He lived for business without caring what the business actually was. Megan had met him at a conference when they were looking for money to expand. He'd agreed to invest, but insisted on having a seat on the board to protect his money. Now he waited for an explanation of her plan, a detailed analysis of where they'd go from here. He'd expect her to present every option, even if it meant breaking up the company and selling its assets.

Lenora Joyce was the third person at the table. As they'd expanded, Megan had hired the willowy blonde away from another company where she'd run the marketing department. She'd been with them six months and normally Lenora wouldn't have been at a board meeting, but they had met to discuss a new product launch, including the marketing plan she'd developed. She'd presented it competently, and now she was reeling from hearing the news that there was no funding available to implement it.

Megan thought they were an odd group to be running a software company. Although she'd never warmed up to Lenora, found her personality somewhat abrasive, the woman was good at what she did. That was the common glue. They were all good at what they did, and if she could harness that, get them to work together, they had a good chance to turn things around and make a lot of money. In many ways, they were on a cusp, within reach of the brass ring but also on the edge of a dangerous precipice, with a chance of going in either direction. They all saw the prize was there to be taken, and she could feel their frustration at her news. Each person had quite different reasons for wanting to think she was wrong. She wasn't.

Herself flustered by having been caught up by circumstances, she stood up and made herself look more formidable than she felt. "The problem is serious, and I won't pretend it isn't, but we can resolve it. This is part of our evolution—small companies face this sort of obstacle from time to time and, in a way, it helps them grow. The new product represents our change in focus and its launch will finally put us on a solid footing." After a long cleansing breath, she decided to start with the easiest of their unstated objections first. "Craig, I know you don't like financial statements, but the numbers are simple and right there in front of you. Some of it is good news. The company is solvent and making money."

He took a sip from his soft drink can. He drank them constantly. "Then we don't have a problem?"

She laughed. "We do. A cash flow problem. Doing business means having the money you need at the right time. The way things are we won't have the cash to finance a big launch for the new program." She held up a manila folder that held her copy of Lenora's plan, giving the woman a brief smile. "You heard Lenora's presentation. It's thorough and would do the job, but we don't have the money to implement it." She nodded at Thom. "I've done projections, and it appears that the closer we get to the launch date, the worse the situation will be." Craig started to speak, and she raised a hand, stopping him. "I know the product is important, and the timing is too. I understand that you think this new program will bury the competition and put us on the map in the consumer world. Everything you've said and everything I've seen for myself says you are absolutely right. You and your team did a brilliant job." She slid the folder across the mahogany table to him. "If we are going to make this happen, we have to find a way to get a rather large chunk of cash together in time for the launch. That is the challenge." She let the words hang in the room as she sat down and watched Craig reluctantly open the folder. After he scanned it, he turned to the blonde sitting next to him. "Why does it cost so much, Lenora?"

Lenora gave a startled laugh. "That's like me asking you why it takes so long to write the program, Craig. It's that much because there are specific things you have to do to get a product to market in a way that catches the attention of buyers. I plug in the ones that make the most sense, add them up, and that's what it costs. We can do some work with social media, but even that costs us money and time. To be honest, I kept the program a bit conservative. I really think we ought to be spending twice that much." She paused and scowled. "And in case you think I'm too fond of my own plan, this isn't just my opinion." She looked over at Megan, who nodded. "Before the meeting I asked Megan to look over the proposal and point out anything she thought we could slice off, but she didn't see a thing."

Megan suppressed a smile knowing that Craig would be surprised that they had cooperated. But it was true. Lenora had swallowed her pride and asked Megan for her ideas for cost cutting, and she hadn't had any.

Thom caught her eye. "Megan, what I don't understand is how we got to this point? You've been planning to release this new program for some time. You said before that this was critical, and you knew you'd need money for the launch. None of this can have caught you by surprise. Why wasn't the money budgeted for a good launch from the beginning?"

Megan knew the smile she gave him was thin. Thom Gooden was a dignified man of around fifty who dressed in elegant suits and sedate silk ties which made him looked a bit out of place, even uncomfortable when dealing with people like Craig. His specialty was money—making it, protecting it, growing his pile. "We did plan for it, Thom. We had a set aside program to build up cash, but two things happened. First, Striker Industries bought our main competitor and immediately launched a new program that goes head to head with our best seller. It's not any better, but it looks more glamorous, and it's newer. We had to discount our product to keep from losing the market entirely. The cash went to pay bills and do some marketing pushback instead of into the fund."

Craig sat up straight. "Striker's people copied our best features and made a snappier interface, but their algorithms are either total crap or a rip-off of ours."

Megan liked seeing Craig in his element. Then he came alive as the confident, assertive man she'd once thought she loved. When it came to software, Craig was almost never wrong and within his field she trusted his judgment. She turned her attention to Thom. "Even before Striker came into the market, our older products were gradually losing profitability. The market is maturing and shrinking—so increasingly we were getting a smaller piece of a smaller pie. We saw the trend, and there was no reason for it to change and that's why, when Craig had an idea to do something different, we put our efforts into the new direction rather than updating the existing software. If you'll recall, we made that choice together." The look on Thom's face told her that it had been a rare occasion when he hadn't quite understood the ramifications. "Striker just made that situation worse, and it screwed up our projections. Now we face the reality of revenues declining further and faster than we imagined. On top of Striker timing things perfectly, we had our suppliers hit us with price increases."

"The old squeeze play."

"I think Striker played a role there as well. It seems too much like a happy coincidence for him. But I haven't the time, resources, or interest to try and prove it. The point is that the launch is rapidly approaching, and we don't have the promotion budget we need. So we need to take action."

Craig looked over at Thom. "I don't understand why it's problem, Thom? Can't you invest a bit more? You said you thought the program sounded great."

Thom tilted his head. "And I still do…" he paused and measured his words "…think it sounds great. But until it's launched it isn't real."

"If you put in the cash, it will be real in six months."

Thom folded his hands on the table. "Craig, what you told me about the product and how the customers perceive it sounds wonderful. But I'm a financial person. To me, it's still just a promise. Even you admit it's a complex program that might not work the way you think it should, the way the customer wants. Even wonderful things when they aren't in hand are high-risk investments. This is a gamble, and honestly I'm not in a situation right now where I'm comfortable gambling more money. Even if I was, how do you propose to structure the addition of capital? I own twenty percent of the company. In some firms, each principle would agree to put up more money. You and Megan own 80 percent, and we'd add cash according to that formula—you and she each putting up forty percent of what's needed. But I know neither of you have that kind of money, so that's out. I could buy treasury stock, but I don't want a larger share of the company, as that would obligate me to involve myself in the day to day management and make me the majority shareholder. So what are you suggesting? A loan?"

Craig slapped the table in frustration. "I don't know. I have no idea how those things work. I thought that's what you did."

Megan caught Thom's eye and saw a twinkle probably sparked by Craig's innocence in financial matters. Craig suddenly looked up. "You don't want to buy the stock, but we could we sell treasury stock to someone couldn't we?"

Thom laughed. "Of course, that's possible, but it would dilute the value of the shares we own and reduce our share of the ownership. Why would I vote to reduce my share of the company?"

Megan tapped on the table, and Thom looked at her. "It sounds like you have another thought."

He smiled. "Okay, I can offer a couple of suggestions for you to consider. Since the company still looks good on paper, the most logical and easiest thing would be to sell the company. Another software company that needs a good product might buy us out at a good price."

Craig shook his head. "We started this company to be in the business. We want to make programs and sell them."

Thom smiled. "And I invested in it to make money. If you are more interested in this particular product, seeing your child born, than profiting from your labors, then what you need is someone who is willing to buy me out and buy some of your treasury stock as well. That way we both get what we want—you keep your company, at least part of it, and I have my money with a small profit."

Craig placed his hands flat on the table, palms down. The rigidity in his body told Megan there was an explosion building inside him. He was frustrated and with the problem lying in an arena he didn't understand he was having trouble controlling himself. Craig was a brilliant coder and a decent manager of software teams, but his personal skills weren't even average, and now Megan had no interest in seeing Craig alienate Thom. They needed him. "We do have options, Craig." She kept her voice soft, offering no promises. Lenora gave him a look that held a stern warning too, and Craig caught it. He took a bit to digest Megan's words, looking for hidden meanings the way he did. "What sort of options?"

She looked around and saw Thom's grin. Clearly he wanted to hear her answer too. "Thom hasn't said that the product isn't worth investing in, just that he isn't interested, given his situation. Other people might be." She looked at him. "And you mentioned the possibility of a loan?"

Now they all looked at Thom. He sat back down and calmly folded his hands on the table, his eyes looking upward. Finally he nodded. "A loan? Yes, it's possible you could get a line of credit, but I can't see a bank providing the amount you need, and you can't point to some windfall that would encourage them to give you a bridge loan. More to the point, a loan would create overhead you can't afford and reduce the cash flow more. You can't know how long it will take for you to earn back the research and development costs on this, much less the promotion money. Even if the program takes off you might not see a positive return for years, if at all. Hell, for all you know another company is working on a program just like it and will kill your sales right out of the gate. The market is fickle. You don't want to even think about walking in that jungle while carrying a load of debt."

"What about new investment, Thom? You mentioned that possibility."

His face stayed neutral. "There are people who are looking at the long game in the industry and if they think you have a product that will take off you should be able to work something out with them. And, by the way, Craig, I agree with these ladies that the cost of the launch they've proposed is reasonable. Lenora is right that it should be more ambitious. I suggest you find an investor willing to take over my holdings and buy treasury stock at a price that will give you at least that much. Otherwise, it's not worth doing."

Craig looked at Thom, clearly angry. "Where the hell are we going to find someone with that kind of money?"

Thom shrugged. "If it were me, I'd go to a broker."

"A broker?"

Thom laughed. "Craig, if you name something that is needed and wanted, and that will fetch a decent price, you'll find there is someone around who earns a living brokering it. Information, influence, and money, such as for mortgages, are all brokered."

"Where do we find these brokers?"

"I can give you a couple of names—the best ones." He took out his phone. "Bear in mind that 'best' simply means they are good at what they do, not that they have your best interests at heart. They serve their own interests first, so don't give anything away." He looked at each of them, waiting until they nodded in turn then picked up his cell phone and sent a text message. "I asked my personal assistant to send you the names and numbers, Megan. I assume you'll be the one spearheading this effort?"

"As the CEO, I guess I'm elected. Craig will be completely focused on the testing and tweaking needed to stay on schedule for the launch."

"Six months from now," Craig said. "What happens if we finish, and the money isn't there?"

Megan glanced at her phone and saw that Thom's PA had already sent the information. "If we let that happen, if I screw things up that badly, then we slowly go under."

Thom stood again. "Actually, you'll go under rather quickly I think, and disappear without a trace. Once your competitors smell that you are wounded..." He smiled at each of them. "I'll do what I can short of lending money. I do wish you luck." And then he left.

Craig dropped his face into his hands. "So now we are in hot pursuit of the vultures of venture capitalism?"

Megan grinned. "I guess we are."

"When we started this company, you didn't want anything to do with them because they take over and often screw things up. I thought you said we could avoid that."

"You're right, and that might have been a mistake on my part. You and I funded the startup with the minimum we thought we could get away with. That worked okay when we weren't taking salaries and had no overhead, but operating on a shoestring has kept us from really dominating the market. In hindsight, if we'd been well capitalized we probably could have done that. We survived anyway until we tangled with Striker Industries. Bill Striker is well-funded. We have your software, but he has both money and good connections in the industry."

"So do you."

"Not like his. He's a salesman and a good one. Whatever you think of him, Bill Striker can sell things."

Craig folded his arms over his chest. "He doesn't know software."

And so Craig had dragged out his hobby horse. It always surprised her to find he still hadn't taken his blinders off, even after all these years. "He doesn't need to. He knows the customers. He knows how to wheel and deal with the distributors and how things need to be packaged to get the corporate types to sign off on purchase orders. The new program moves us into consumer software, and Striker has divisions that have been marketing consumer products, even though they aren't software, for years."

"So we give up?"

She laughed. "No. I just have to come up with the money."

"Then do it."

As Craig started to get up, Lenore stopped him. "If Craig intends to have the program ready in six months, we can't wait until then to start promotion. These action items I've spelled out have lead times and require that we commit to publication deadlines, and we get people started designing logos and artwork and ad copy. We need the money, or some of it, to start doing production work on the promotions at least three months before the launch. Even that is going to be a tight schedule."

Megan sighed. "I know." She looked at her calendar. "Look you two, things only move so fast. I can't force anyone to make a decision, but raising the money, some way, is going to be my only priority. I'll get funding of some kind and a timetable for its release. Once we have those, we can start moving on your to-do list, Lenora. I have no intention of dropping the ball on this."

The air was still tense as Craig and Lenora walked out leaving Megan feeling quite alone. Somehow, she'd never gotten used to being left alone. Sal had left her alone, and she'd never recovered from his absence. Divorcing Craig was different. She'd left him. She'd been the strong one, the one to realize the marriage was profitless for them both. Being alone because you chose it wasn't the same thing at all.

* * * *

After the meeting, Megan went back to her office intending to start making calls, but she sank into her chair feeling tired and overwhelmed and in no mood to make an upbeat sales pitch. She was drained. Empty. Business calls, especially begging calls, needed energy that she couldn't summon. Besides, it was the end of the day and catching people who wanted to be headed home wasn't the best strategy. She closed up her desk and drove home on autopilot, looking forward to arriving.

Megan loved her apartment. She bought it when the company she and Craig worked for was assimilated entirely by a larger one and their division eliminated. They got lovely severance packages; it was the first time in her life she'd ever had a windfall of any kind, and it seemed unreasonable to think such good lightning would strike twice. Their personal relationship had ruptured completely too, so Megan used some of her money to secure some part of her life. She found this apartment, felt the way it called to her and welcomed her, and paid cash for it. She'd taken pains to decorate it with things that made her feel good, with areas to suit her moods, and so that it suited her way of living. She was living alone and created a space that she loved, spacious and airy and open to draw in the north light.

At the time they lost their jobs, Craig had been working out an idea for a new program. Neither he nor the program was of any interest to the new owners, so he and Megan pooled a small amount of money and started Diamond Software. Their intention was to create a company so that he could develop his program, and she could market it. Despite their personal differences, they trusted each other professionally. As businesses go, it wasn't a match made in heaven, but it served in the high-paced streets of high tech. Craig's program was good and well received. When they decided to expand, hiring employees and taking the next step, Megan convinced Thom to invest.

Over time Megan learned that businesses didn't grow like trees and instead took a path that was more like a journey up a flight of stairs, moving smoothly over each step but needing a significant boost to manage the rise to the next one. And this rise proved the greatest challenge so far.

With her mind preoccupied, she ignored the delights of her home and headed straight for the shower, clutching the hope that she could wash away the stress that seemed to cling to her like sweat on a stifling summer day. Standing under the flowing water did refresh her and improved her mood to the point that she began to feel human again. When she dried off, she slipped into a sheer silvery silk robe that made her feel sexy and went into the living room, heading straight to the bar. She dug out a bottle of her current favorite wine, a Calcu 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile's Colchagua Valley. It wasn't an expensive wine, and she'd discovered it by accident, finding she liked its medium body and dry taste. Setting the cork aside, she got out two glasses and took them to the coffee table, putting the wine on the table to breathe and sitting down to stair through the doors to the balcony at the softening evening light as it faded. Her couch gave her a good place to sit and think. With the doors to the balcony open, the air was as fresh and clean as her body. Tucking her feet under her, feeling the caress of the silk robe on her bare skin, she let her mind deal with the events of the day. Now that she was calm it was safe to think about it again. And it was important to do it, to come to grips with what was going on. If you didn't deal with events you would inevitably be overtaken by them. A memory of Sal floated by, with him asking what she preferred? If thinking about something was unpleasant, wouldn't dealing with the consequences of being overwhelmed by it be far worse? That was Sal.

Sal had been her first serious love... no, her only serious love. A few years older than she, he'd been her teacher as well. She trusted his teachings for he'd shown her that she had the ability to be a predator in the jungle when others tried to insist she learn to be prey. She'd seen the fascinating and wonderful things they could do together. In graduate school, under his watchful eye, she'd started a small service business that prospered, and she was able to sell for a nice profit.

Now she was putting the current situation into context, gaining perspective. It was, after all, only a logistical matter, a question of shuffling future cash flow into a current project. That was what financial types were for. Her task was to find the right financial type. Dealing with financing was her weakest area... she'd damn well have to learn. It seemed to be a recurring need and a job she couldn't delegate.

As that thought resonated the doorbell rang, and she went to answer it, opening the door and seeing Thom standing there. "So you came."

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