Show them your strengths in order to illuminate others’ weaknesses, Dara reminded herself as she got ready for the first day of her apprenticeship. One of her former instructors had been particularly fond of this motto, and it had immediately struck a chord with Dara. She knew some of her classmates had found this a weak, passive strategy, but it wasn’t in Dara’s nature to go for the jugular.
Still, there was no way of knowing if this would be an effective strategy, as she had no idea what she was up against. Though she had tried everything, she hadn’t been able to find out the identities of the other two candidates. Hopefully, they had been equally unsuccessful.
On the bright side, she and Jonathan had both been assigned to the seven to seven day shift, which meant they could spend their free hours together. While she wasn’t thinking seriously of marriage just yet, Dara had known for almost the entire two years that she and Jonathan had been together that they were absolutely perfect for one another. They shared the same values, the same philosophies, and their relationship was smiled upon by everyone whose opinion mattered—most especially that of their seniors at Magnum.
“You’re not still nervous, are you?” Jonathan asked, as they walked to shift.
“A little, maybe,” she admitted.
“You have nothing to worry about. Just wait until you’re in front of those controls, working with your master. You’ll know exactly what to do because you’ll be exactly where you were meant to be.”
“Thanks.” She squeezed his arm gently and he placed his free hand over hers.
“And you look fantastic,” he complimented, shooting her a quick, appreciative gaze.
She blushed. Though he bestowed compliments freely when they were alone, they both usually kept things at a more professional level when they were out in public. After all, they were always representing Magnum.
However, she couldn’t deny that she felt fantastic. From her sleek, dark stockings to her fitted black skirt and blazer, she felt every inch the Contributor. She had carefully tamed and smoothed her thick, golden brown hair into a perfect twist at the nape of her neck. Her deep blue eyes were clear; she had gone to bed early to ensure they would be, and she had applied her makeup with a meticulous hand.
“You’re a very professional representative of Magnum yourself,” Dara complimented. He was an unusually handsome guy, with thick, waving chestnut locks and striking green eyes, chiseled cheekbones and perfect lips. His tall, lean frame was meant for his tailored black suit, which added an air of smooth sophistication to his natural grace. There was no doubt in her mind he’d be a smashing success.
He couldn’t suppress a smile, though he smoothed his features as he said hello to a friend of his father’s. “I want to just savor this moment,” he murmured.
“You should. You’ve worked so hard for it.” For a long, satisfying moment, Dara basked in the golden glow that seemed to envelop them.
As they approached Magnum’s headquarters, Jonathan gave her hand one final squeeze before she removed it, allowing it to hang casually by her side. She took a deep breath, drew herself up to her full five feet five inches, and lifted her chin confidently. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a small smile play across Jonathan’s mouth.
“Good morning, Dara,” Contributor D’Angelo said, as they stepped inside.
“Good morning,” Dara replied. D’Angelo looked rather appraisingly at Jonathan, and Dara decided introductions were in order. “Allow me to introduce you to Jonathan Canterly. Jonathan, this is Contributor D’Angelo.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Jonathan,” D’Angelo said, extending her hand to him. Her face showed approval at the firmness of his handshake. “I’ve been fortunate enough to work with your father in the past. Please give him my regards.”
“I’m very pleased to meet you, Contributor,” Jonathan said with a smile. “I’ll give my father your message. I hope you’ll both excuse me. I don’t want to keep Head of Logistics Gonzales waiting.”
“Have a productive day,” D’Angelo said.
“Thank you. You as well,” Jonathan replied. He turned to Dara, his warm gaze reassuring. “I’ll see you tonight.”
“He has the makings of an excellent Contributor,” D’Angelo commented, as Jonathan walked away. Though her words sounded like a compliment, something in her tone gave Dara pause.
“Thank you, Contributor D’Angelo.” Dara studied her master but could discern nothing.
“Please, call me Letizia. You’re the daughter of Joshua and Leona Morrow?”
“Yes, I am.”
“I understand that your father has been instrumental in streamlining Magnum’s accounting processes, and that your mother is one of the managers of information systems.”
“That’s right.” It surprised Dara that Letizia was so well-informed. Though her parents were both widely respected Contributors, neither of them worked in engineering. It was a little unusual for Letizia to know that much detail about someone with whom she didn’t work closely.
“Head of Engineering Andersen and I are of the opinion that knowledge can be quite valuable,” Letizia said, apparently noticing Dara’s surprise. “Come on. I’ll take you to him. He’ll be pleased that you’re early. ”
Dara wondered if Andersen kept some kind of score, and she tried not to worry. Though Letizia had just offered a certain level of casualness, Dara knew Andersen wouldn’t extend the same courtesy. All of his underlings, no matter how senior, would always be expected to address him by his title, never by his first name.
As Letizia led her through the building, Dara’s mind raced. Her master was so hard to read, and there was something about the woman that Dara found very disconcerting. She was so distracted that, by the time they arrived at the engineers’ floor, she couldn’t have said how they’d made it there. She knew she would be hopelessly lost if she tried to find her way back to the front entrance, and she mentally kicked herself for being so lax.
Andersen appeared before them, seemingly materializing out of nowhere, and Dara nearly jumped.
“Ah, Apprentice Morrow,” Andersen said. “I’m pleased to see you arrived a little early for your shift. I approve of initiative.” The appraising way Andersen studied her made her extremely uncomfortable.
“Thank you, Head of Engineering Andersen,” she said, with as much composure as she could muster.
“Please, there’s no need to be quite so formal. You may call me ‘sir’.”
“Thank you, sir.” Dara’s palms began to sweat. This man intimidated her as no one else ever had.
“Shall we begin?” Andersen asked. “We have a lot to cover, and chances are you’re very ill prepared.”
Alarmed, Dara cast a quick glance at Letizia. The faintest of creases appeared between her master’s eyebrows as Letizia attempted to conceal a frown.
“Then I am eager to defer to your guidance,” Dara responded. To her relief, Andersen nodded at her approvingly.
“Follow me.” He strode off briskly toward a door on the far side of the room.
The bubble of happy anticipation that had been in Dara’s stomach all morning hardened into a lump of icy anxiety.