Total pages in book: 1
Estimated words: 89584 (not accurate)
Estimated Reading Time in minutes: 448(@200wpm)___ 358(@250wpm)___ 299(@300wpm)
Estimated words: 89584 (not accurate)
Estimated Reading Time in minutes: 448(@200wpm)___ 358(@250wpm)___ 299(@300wpm)
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More Than Hate You - More Than Words
Author/Writer of Book/Novel:
|ISBN/ ASIN:|| |
1936596857 (ISBN13: 9781936596850)
I seduced her to close the deal. Now I refuse to ever let her go.
I’m Sebastian Shaw—CFO, pragmatist, and dealmaker. The only thing I’ve ever mismanaged is love, but a decade in business has proven I can successfully negotiate with anyone…except the irrationally stubborn O’Neills. After their patriarch’s sudden retirement, I find myself sparring long-distance over a make-or-break merger with his youngest daughter, Sloan. She’s a ball-busting piece of work. Thankfully, I have skills, an hourglass-shaped stranger I recently met to relieve my stress, and a killer plan to take down my rival.
Then I realize the gorgeous distraction in my bed is Sloan. Worse, I’m falling for her.
Suddenly, everything from my objectives to my morals are cloudy. Stay loyal to my best friend and boss to get this critical deal done at any cost…or give my heart another chance? But the more time I spend with Sloan O’Neill, the more I realize she’s sharp, determined, funny, and kind of perfect for me. She has no idea how far I’ll go to mend this rift and make her mine—but she’s about to find out.
Reed Family Reckoning: Friends
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“Well, that was a nice wedding,” my boss and best friend, Evan Cook, says as he rattles the ice cubes in his glass of scotch before knocking back the liquid.
“If by nice you mean quick, yep. Best kind of wedding, in my opinion.”
Evan laughs. “I can always count on you to be even less sentimental than me. Thanks for making me look good by comparison.”
I grin. “What are friends for? Besides, I’m just being honest.”
Evan searches the luxurious rooftop deck for his wife. When he spots Nia, he relaxes, giving her a tip of his chin and a smile. Love is all over his usually detached face. Standing among the bridal party, she responds with a happy wave, her long, dark hair caressing her bare, umber-hued shoulders. She doesn’t look pregnant yet, but she absolutely glows—and not strictly with hormones. She’s happy as hell with my buddy, and I’m thrilled for them. He deserves bliss after the disaster of his first marriage.
Especially since, if things had turned out differently, I could have caused its end.
Evan tosses back the last of his drink. “You didn’t have to come with Nia and me to see her half brother get married, you know.”
He’s right. When I first met Stephen, I thought he was a raving douche. But the groom is important to Nia, who’s important to Evan. And I have a lot to make up for. We both know it.
“It’s no problem.”
“Bullshit. It’s a long flight from Maui, and you have a full plate.”
“But hey, it’s Vegas. Not exactly a hardship.” I take a long pull of my beer and hope he’ll drop the subject.
“I guess I spoke too soon. So much for you being honest.”
I pause, the longneck freezing inches from my lips. “What do you mean?”
“You didn’t come with Nia and me to this wedding because you wanted to visit Sin City. You didn’t do it for any business reason, either, so don’t try that line.” He sighs. “Look, I know you still feel guilty about Becca—”
“Man, I don’t want to talk about this.”
From the minute we met in college, Evan was the best friend I could have asked for. He had a great idea for data storage solutions for businesses of all sizes, along with the technical know-how and the minimal capital required to get started. What he lacked was working knowledge about actually starting and running a company, especially its financials. Allocations, budgets, taxes, and employee compensation all overwhelmed him. So I stepped in. Over the next decade, Evan and I grew Stratus Storage Solutions together, from a vague notion to a firm worth over a billion dollars.
Everything was perfect—except I fell in love with his wife.
“We never talk about it,” Evan points out. “Nia constantly tells me it’s not healthy to hide my feelings. That’s true for you, too.”
Probably so, but… “What do you want me to say? I’ll apologize again. I’m sorry. More fucking sorry than you’ll ever know. I swear I never touched Becca. I had no idea she was planning to divorce you.”
I don’t say that aloud, but we both know she was in love with me, too. We found that out after she died, but Evan doesn’t need salt in whatever wound he might still have.
Or maybe I’m the only one who hurts anymore. After all, Evan is really damn happy these days.
“You don’t have to keep reassuring me. I know you. In fact, I should probably say something this time. Falling for Nia taught me that you can’t control who you love. If you could have changed how you felt about Becca, you would have.”
“I fucking tried.” And the fact I couldn’t, that my brother from another mother nearly lost everything he worked for his whole adult life because I couldn’t resist giving my heart to his late wife, still eats at me.
“I know. I’m not blaming you. I’m trying to absolve you. Hell, I had no business falling for Nia. I’d only lost Becca six months earlier. I felt numb. And don’t get me started on how cliché it was of me to nail my assistant.”
Or how much Evan’s impulsive decision had risked dragging Stratus into a nasty sexual harassment suit, but that’s not the point of this conversation. Everything worked out for him and Nia.
“Look, I appreciate you trying to make me feel better—”
“I’m not. Well, I am, but not for the reason you think. Nia proved to me that the heart wants what it wants, and lying to yourself is pointless. You knew I didn’t love Becca. As the man who did, you wanted what was best for her. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to see her miserable and feel powerless to make her happy.”
Fucking awful. “It wasn’t my place.”
But while she was alive, I wished like hell it had been. At times, I resented my best friend for taking up Becca’s time, for filling her life and her womb when he wasn’t as devoted to her as I was dying to be. Hell, he wasn’t even with her the day rain-slick streets claimed her and their unborn child because he’d been immersed in work.
Evan sighs. “Maybe it was more your place than mine. I just didn’t see it.”
“It’s done. Nothing we say will change that.”
“You’re right, but I still want to thank you. You could have taken Becca from me, royally fucking my business in the process. You didn’t, and I appreciate it.”
This is so like Evan. No matter what, he’s the most true-blue friend I’ve ever had. That I ever will have. He’s right; I had choices. I could have made a play for Becca. When she was alive, I sometimes wondered if she cared about me, too. There were hints. Knowing what I know now, she would have run away with me. It’s possible we would have been happy…at least for a while.
But the truth is, no matter what my feelings were for Becca, I didn’t turn my back on Evan. I couldn’t. I chose him over her. Sure, I also chose my self-respect and my ethics—what few I have—over a woman. But I chose.
If I had to choose all over again, I would make the same choice.
“I wouldn’t do that,” I swear. “You’re my ride-or-die, man.”
He claps me on the shoulder. “Same. And I hate to ask more of you, but I need your help.”
“You got it.” No questions asked. “Tell me what’s up.”
“My talks with Michael Astor at Wynam have stalled. It’s taken me a while to get that stiff Brit to tell me the problem, but—”
“Let me guess. Bruce Rawson’s merry band of assholes has been up in our potential customer’s face, trying to convince them that their on-site solid-state solutions are best for their company’s data storage needs.”
“Exactly. I’ve tried logic. I’ve sweetened the pot. I’ve all but tongue-bathed my contacts at Wynam to close this deal. Landing it would give us a huge leg up in the UK and Europe. I’ve got a lot riding on this financially. I can’t lose the deal. I won’t.”
So Evan needs me to do something. He can manage the aboveboard back-and-forth of dealing with the folks at Wynam, one of the biggest computer resellers to businesses abroad. He can do the schmoozing, the contracts, and the handshakes. But when business gets dirty…he calls me. I’ve always taken care of shit like this. I always will.
“Sure. Leave it to me. Any ideas where to start?”
My best friend frowns. “I wish I had some. Sorry.”
“No worries.” I’ve started with less. “Timeframe? Are you still looking to close this deal by the end of second quarter?”
“Yeah. Nia’s father is still making noise like he’d love to buy me up, supposedly for the right reasons this time. The bad blood between us is over, and I’ll be nice for Nia’s sake.”
But Evan doesn’t want to sell—to anyone. I hardly blame him.
“I’ll figure out how to make Rawson and the rest of Reservoir, Inc. fade into the background pronto so Wynam focuses on Stratus.”
Evan never asks how dirty a job is. He doesn’t want to know. He’s too nice, and he wants plausible deniability. Fine. He has no idea just how underhanded I am when it comes to saving Stratus and his ass, and he wants to keep it that way. Also fine. That’s what he’ll get.
I owe him.
“Don’t mention it. I’ll get back to you once the situation is resolved.”
He smiles. “Even if you weren’t my best friend, there’s no one else I’d rather have watching my back. Thanks, buddy.”
I stifle my guilt and vow I’ll never let him down again. “No thanks necessary.”
I start making phone calls the next day. A question here, calling in a favor there. It takes longer than I want and impatience rides me, but by the following weekend, I have my answer. So Monday, I pick up the phone and dial an old frat brother of mine. It’s a stroke of luck that he’s in the middle of this cluster. Now I just need to find the right lever to pull to get him the hell out of it.
Thankfully, he answers on the second ring. “Holy shit. The great Sebastian Shaw is calling me on a Sunday morning. How the hell have you been?”
“Good, man. And from what I hear, Jeremy McBride is doing fantastic things, too. How’s the consulting gig?”
“Lucrative. I can’t complain. Being my own boss is great, but you know I’m all about making money. Speaking of… You still working for Evan Cook? Or is it my lucky day and you’re calling me for a job?”
I’m not, but he doesn’t need to know that. “What if I was?”
“You could write your own ticket, my friend. A lot more money and a lot fewer hours. It’s pretty sweet.”
“I’m sure. But Evan moved me to Maui. It’s fucking awesome here. Way better than Phoenix.” Where I’d probably have to relocate to consult with his mainland clients face to face. No, thanks.
“Yeah. I can’t compete with that…unless you’re getting island fever?” he asks hopefully.
I snort. “No chance.”
“Hey, a guy can dream, right?” He sighs. “Seriously, I can’t hire you away from Evan? He speaks geek-tech. You and I, man, we speak the universal dirty language of money.”
No arguing that, and that’s exactly how I’m going to bend him to my will. “We do. That’s actually why I’m calling. I hear you picked up a side hustle with Reservoir, Inc.”
“Yeah. Word travels fast. I just inked that deal Friday afternoon. How the hell did you find out?”
“I have a great network.”
“You always have,” he says like he’s in awe.
No idea why. He works his contacts over like a good whore. He touches them thoroughly, leaves them satisfied, and stays easy to find for the next trick.
“Listen, strictly between you and me, I might be interested in jumping ship,” I lie. “Maybe. But I’m going to want an obscene salary to do it.” I toss out a number that borders on ridiculous.
Predictably, McBride chokes. “You can’t be serious.”
“I am. But let me prove it to you.”
“How are you going to do that?”
“Let me take the Reservoir thing off your plate.”
“Yeah. It would save you a shit-ton of research…”
“You got me there. I know squat about the data storage biz.”
“And you’ll need to in order to really help them. After a decade with Evan, that’s my bag. I could solve that shit in my sleep. And hey, I’ll even work this one for free.”
“What’s the catch?”
“No catch.” Except I’m going to fuck your client out of a deal.
I feel vaguely guilty, but that’s business. Besides, I’ve looked into McBride’s situation. It’s goddamn rosy—way better than I thought a guy who vodkaed his way through the last two years of college would ever do. He doesn’t need this gig to go well half as much as Evan needs them to go the fuck away.
“Bullshit,” Jeremy tosses back.
“Let me prove to you I’m worth the exorbitant salary. Give me the client. I’ll do it pro bono. You’ll see.”
“It’s a conflict of interest. You’re competitors.”
“We won’t be if I come work for you.”
Since I can almost hear the indecision rattling in his head, I lean on him a little. “C’mon. Don’t you want to free up some time to spend with that hot blonde you’ve been shacking up with? Sorry. What’s her name? Avery?”
“That’s right. Pretty name for a gorgeous girl. I heard a rumor you two were getting married. When’s the big day?”
“We split up last week.” And he sounds crushed.
Shit. I didn’t hear that from the grapevine. “Oh, man. I’m sorry. What happened?”
I don’t really have time to care, but I actually like Jeremy. Though screwing with this one account won’t mean much to his thriving business, some girl messing with his heart pisses me off on his behalf.
“Apparently, she’s been fucking around on me—with my older brother. Who got her pregnant. It hasn’t been a great week.” He sighs. “So if you want to take this account off my back…”
“And give you time to deal? You got it.”
“If you’re as good as I think you are, I’ll hire you when it’s over. Hell, I’d hire you now, but that salary…”
“Which is why I’m going to prove it to you first.” I BS him again. “We’ll talk about it when I’m done, okay?”
“Fill me in. What does the client want?”
“It’s weird. They say they want help eliminating redundancies and inefficiencies so they can streamline overall. But Bruce Rawson should know this stuff.” Jeremy sounds confused.
True that. Rawson is too savvy to need the basics. After all, he built Reservoir by himself over the last half-dozen years. “But he doesn’t seem to?”
“Hard to say. I’ve only talked to an assistant. Once the deal was done, Rawson had me contact his oldest son, Shane. We’ve traded emails since then. But I haven’t personally spoken to the old man or the kid yet.”
That’s unusual. “And?”
Jeremy hmms like the client is taxing his strained patience. “Confidentially? Shane Rawson is an idiot. If his dad thinks he’s taking over anything more complex than sweeping the floors, I’m not surprised they asked for my help.”
Why doesn’t the old man just teach him? “When do you fly out to see the client?”
“I don’t.” His tone says he finds that even more puzzling. “Rawson senior wants to do everything over the phone, like I’m a dirty little secret.”
“Huh.” That will work in my favor. “No problem. I can handle it.”
By convincing them the Wynam job isn’t right for them…
“Thanks. But listen, you have to pretend to be me. I promised them personalized, white-glove treatment.”
And Jeremy doesn’t want to let the new client down. “You got it.”
“Really? Thank fuck. I appreciate that—and the call. And I appreciate you being a pal.”
The fact I’m not makes me wince with guilt again. We hang up, and I make a few calls so he’ll get a delivery of a very friendly stripper and a few liters of Cîroc to help him forget Aria. And hopefully, he’ll remember my gesture later, when he finds out what I’ve done.
Eight days later, at two o’clock in the afternoon Dallas time, where Reservoir’s offices are located, Shane Rawson returns my calls. Finally, we’re getting down to business.
“Thanks for coming on board. You were really highly recommended, McBride.”
I’ll have to get used to being called by Jeremy’s name with these clients, but it’s a small price to pay to shove them off Evan’s back.
“I appreciate the opportunity. I’ve admired everything your father has accomplished. Over the years, he’s built multiple businesses into successful powerhouses.” Then smartly sold them off and made bank. “Reservoir is just another one of his fantastic achievements.”
“Hmm. Yeah.” His voice dips low. “Amazing.”
Rawson’s eldest son should be enthusiastic about his dad’s achievements. And his words indicate that…but Shane sounds distracted.
I’m hardly shocked, given his history.
Shane Charles Rawson just turned thirty-one. He made decent grades in high school, but nothing to get excited about. He scored a 1095 on his SAT, barely above average. Yet somehow he was accepted into Southern Methodist University, one of the most prestigious private colleges in Texas? There’s a simple five-letter explanation for that: M-O-N-E-Y. Daddy bought Shane’s way onto campus.
In his first semester, he was accused of sexually harassing a faculty member and getting a girl in his dorm pregnant. The following spring, his frat kicked him to the curb for dismal grades. Not long after, a state trooper pulled him over for underage drinking and driving. The cop didn’t show up for the trial to provide testimony—I don’t have to guess who paid him off—so Shane walked free. Then, just before finals, he dropped out because he was failing every class, including Introduction to Campus Life, which should have been an easy A. The guy didn’t even last a year in college.
After that, he tried various occupations, everything from selling real estate to—of all laughable endeavors—being a race-car driver. He bombed. For the past two years, he’s been working for his dad with a puffed-up title that carries zero responsibility. Grumbles around the office are that Shane sucks at his job, partly because he’s not bright. But mostly because he doesn’t give a shit. Because he’s in the middle of a contentious divorce? Or because that’s just who he is?
“Will your father be overseeing this company restructure?” I ask.
“Oh, yeah,” he drawls long and deep, his breathing suddenly harsh.
Is the guy feeling okay?
“Good. That’s good.”
“I mean, no. Dad put me in charge of this while he—” Suddenly, Shane sucks air through his teeth in a hiss, then moans. “Oh…”
What is Shane Rawson doing? Shitting? Gaming? Masturbating?
“Do we need to have this conversation when you’re less busy?”
“Nah, I got this, McBride. It’s fine. It’s so”—he blows out a heavy breath—“good. Fuck.”
No need to guess anymore. He’s masturbating.
Son of a bitch.
I close my eyes and try not to imagine this guy whacking off during our call. In fact, I’ll try to ignore his rough pants and moans altogether. “You were saying your father won’t be available for our streamlining efforts because…”
I’d a hundred times rather be dealing with Bruce Rawson. He’s a wily bastard, and he would be difficult to bluff. But I’d rather have the challenge—and not have to listen to his son heaving and puffing into the phone like he’s working up to a monster orgasm while we discuss things like org charts and balance sheets.
“He’s busy. I got this.” His gasping picks up pace. “That’s right.”
“In order to get started, I’ll need your financial statements for the last five years.” Somewhere in those figures, I’ll find a reason to convince Shane that pursuing Wynam will be bad for the company’s bottom line. The rest of it… If I’m going to figure out how stiff Evan’s competition really is, I’ll need their most recent years’ numbers, especially anything to do with product launches, advertising budget, month-over-month revenue and expenses, along with all the data about employee compensation, so I can assess their profits and losses—and their prospects for the future.
“Got the previous four years. But…oh. Hmm. We haven’t finished last year’s. Been too—oh, fuck—busy.”
I slap my palm over my face. Listening to him jack off isn’t how I wanted to spend my Monday. “Do you have a delivery date for that?”
After all, first quarter is more than half over, and I don’t know how they’re making decisions about the future of the company without assessing their financial health for the previous twelve-month period.
“No. Fuck. Oh, goddamn.” He’s panting like a bellows now.
If I didn’t have to talk to the asshole in order to clear Evan a path to our next big client, I would have already hung up.
“Too busy?” I can’t resist prodding him.
“Yeah. Yeah. That’s fucking it. Oh…yeah!”
At his long, growled groan of satisfaction, I shake my head. He’s rude. This is fucking unprofessional. I like getting off, too. I admit it. But not in the office. I have zero respect for a guy who’s unable to focus on critical business more than his dick.
“So if you can’t do this, who should I be talking to?” Hell yes, I’m confronting him. I have my usual responsibilities around Stratus, plus this gig for Jeremy. I seriously don’t have time for Shane’s self-pleasure.
“Will that be all, Mr. Rawson?” A female suddenly purrs in the background, and I can all but hear her licking her lips.
My jaw gapes wide. Holy fuck, Shane was getting a blow job? That puts him into the lucky column versus the loner one, but either way, he’s a loser. He has a multimillion-dollar company with huge growth potential at his fingertips—and he can’t think past his cock.
Shane clears his throat. “Nothing else for now, Karly. Check in with me before you leave today. I might need more…dictation.”
“Of course,” the woman eagerly agrees.
I hear the faint click of a door opening, then closing.
Does Shane think this shit is cute? Or that I’m an idiot? Whatever. “Rawson? Who should I be talking to?”
“Um, try my brother, Brady.”
The fitness model and Instagram influencer? What the hell does he know about data storage solutions? “When did he join the organization?”
And if he has, will it make a difference?
Brady is twenty-nine. He ran track, swam, and wrestled through high school. He got an athletic scholarship to some little school in Mississippi. He graduated with a physical education degree and no job offers. But he was already posting pics of himself in the gym, drinking protein shakes, posing half-naked in bed, and smiling for his growing legion of adoring fans. Now with a couple million followers, he’s picked up endorsement deals, modeling gigs, and even an acting role or two. As far as I know, he’s never stepped foot in Reservoir’s offices.
This ought to be a shit show.
“He’s volunteered to help out while…” Shane stops himself. “Well, temporarily. Um, he’s getting himself acclimated and isn’t bogged down in other projects yet. I’ll give you his number.” He rattles off the digits. “I’m sure he’ll have a lot more time to give you. Now if you’ll excuse me…”
Then Shane hangs up.
Good riddance. If I never have to hear the guy get sucked off again—which I’m betting is a regular occurrence—I’ll count myself lucky.
Immediately, I dial Brady’s number. My hopes aren’t high.
He doesn’t return my call until Friday. It’s eleven p.m. in New York City, where he’s currently planning a fan meet-and-greet over the weekend. But it’s five o’clock in Hawaii, where I was hoping to get the hell out of my office on time for once this week. When I see his number on my display, I sigh and drop back into my office chair.
“Thanks for returning my call, Mr. Rawson. Your older brother said I could count on you to help me with this reorganization Reservoir, Inc. paid me to oversee. I need some documents Shane couldn’t put his hands on—”
“Fuck. You’re not the Jeremy from Men’s Health?” I hear a shuffling of papers and what sounds like a party in the background, complete with loud music and laughing women.
“No. I’m Jeremy McBride of—”
“Shit. I need Jeremy Collins. He wants to talk to me about a shoot for the mag.”
“Congrats, but I called to discuss your father’s company. I’ve been hired to consult about your structure and practices, make recommendations, and—”
“That’s not my bag. Talk to Shane.”
I grit my teeth. “I did, and he said to talk to you because you’re joining the firm to help out.”
“The hell I am! I told him I’d pitch in when I got back to Dallas, but that’s not happening anytime soon. I’ll be in New York for a few weeks, then I’m jetting to Milan for a fashion show before heading to San Diego for a private photo shoot. I’m fielding a lot of offers this summer. I don’t have time to grow my fitness empire and do his job, too, especially when he’s too lazy to work, too stupid to understand his role, and too absorbed by getting his dick sucked to care.”
Brady might be irritable and crude, but I can’t fault his insight. No, he can’t help my cause, but I have more respect for him than Shane. So I feel compelled to say something. “You realize that, in your brother’s hands, Reservoir—and your inheritance—will be down the toilet?”
He scoffs. “I don’t care. I’m making six figures a month right now with plans to expand. I’m opening an online fitness platform next year.”
It’s clearly a big deal to him. “Awesome. If you’re not interested in—”
“Can I hook you up with a trial membership? It’s really an honor since, right now, the service is by invitation only.”
“Thanks, but you’re into your online fitness platform as much as I’m into my job. You know how it is, owning your own kingdom and all.”
“I get it. You’re cool, man. If you want something, maybe you should talk to Rogan. He’s way smarter than Shane.”
“Isn’t Rogan a bartender?” I remember that from my online research.
“Part-time. For now. But he’s got two fucking degrees. We keep hoping he’ll do something more practical with them than sling drinks.”
“Why doesn’t he?” Not that I care, but I’m curious.
“Because he hates mornings and he loves a different piece of ass every night.”
I can’t say I don’t understand his motivation. “Since he’s still making cosmos for the single ladies of Deep Ellum, maybe you can help me get in touch with your dad?”
Jeremy didn’t expressly say so, but I’m guessing the old man hired him.
“No one told you?”
“What? I’ve only talked to Shane so far.”
He sighs. “What a fucking douche. Dad hired you to help my brother out, so what does he do? Pawn you off on everyone else—without telling you the truth.”
“Dad is in a bad way. He’s getting older, and his doctors recommended he totally unplug for health reasons. Shane promised to handle everything, but I think he just planned to drop it all in your lap.”
That doesn’t shock me. “Any idea how long your father will be away from the office?”
“Until his health improves. Who knows when that will be?”
“Well, I wish him all the best.”
But maybe I can use this to my advantage… After all, if Shane is supposedly helming the organization right now—which he’s clearly not—who’s leading the charge to win Wynam’s business?
I’d love to ask, but I can’t without risking my cover. There’s an answer, though. I’ll find it.
“Thanks. I found Dad a great, out-of-the-way, ultra-private spa in the Catskills. He’s learning yoga and meditation. He needs to rewire his brain to be more in sync with his body. Frankly, I think he needs to sell Receptacle and—”
“Reservoir,” I correct automatically.
“Whatever. It’s a risk to his health, and he’s wealthy enough that he should never worry about money again. Make Shane find his own way in the goddamn world. I found mine. And when Rogan gets his shit together, he will, too. Our oldest brother needs to grow up or fuck off.”
Can’t say I disagree. “Thanks for your time, Mr. Rawson.”
“Just Brady. And hey, if you change your mind about that online fitness platform, let me know. I’ll hook you up with a month’s pass.”
I already have a tough workout regimen, and Evan is a taskmaster in the gym if I ever think about slacking off. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
“And here’s Rogan’s number, just in case. He might be more interested in saving Dad’s effort at data storage domination than me. Worth a try, anyway.”
Then Brady is gone.
I stare at my dimming phone with a sigh. Now that my second hope is gone, what are the odds that I’ll have any luck with Rawson’s youngest?
Slim to none, but I have to try.
Monday morning—Rogan’s time—I call and leave a message. At least he calls me back the same day, though it’s four o’clock in the afternoon.
“Mr. Rawson?” I ask.
“That’s my dad. I’m just Rogan. Brady mentioned you’d be calling me. What’s up?”
If the youngest son isn’t involved, I can shorten this conversation a lot. “I’m the consultant your father hired to help streamline Reservoir. Are you planning to join the organization?”
“Fuck no. They have meetings before ten a.m. Who does that?”
Most of corporate America. “So you’re not planning to pitch in?”
“I’m busy with my life. If it helps, I feel sorry for you, having to deal with Shane. He’s my oldest brother, and I love him…but he’s useless. For real.”
“Yet he’s somehow going to run the organization?” I gently point out how stupid that is in the hopes it will make a difference to this guy. But I’m not holding my breath.
Rogan Rawson has all the potential in the world…and seemingly no drive. He has two degrees, one in physics, the other in chemistry. Unlike Shane, he finished college—with honors. And unlike Brady, he had job offers galore when he graduated. But Rogan was seemingly born with a silver spoon in his mouth and thinks he’s entitled to start at executive-level compensation, choose his work environment, and make his own hours. So like the spoiled heir he is, when he didn’t get his way, Rogan declined all the job offers and decided to extend his childhood until someone gave him a “real” opportunity.
He’s bent. The world doesn’t owe this guy anything. But that’s not my problem.
“Hey, Shane gets paid to do it. I could run circles around him, but Dad thinks I’m ‘irresponsible,’ so I’ll let him and his golden boy figure it the fuck out. Not that my oldest brother is capable of that.”
Rogan took the words right out of my mouth. “Any clue how I’m supposed to help this company if no one wants to even get involved enough to send me a few financial statements?”
The guy hesitates a long time, then sighs. “Look, you didn’t hear this from me, but the person who’s really going to end up running things is the one person my dad won’t acknowledge. He has a daughter.”
Not according to what I read on the internet. “Come again?”
“Jesus, this is so ridiculous. My dad went through… I don’t know what to call it. A mid-thirties crisis? He had an affair with an employee. She was single and twenty and broke. He was older and rich and horny. I didn’t pay attention to the gory details. I just know that, about ten years ago, this girl showed up on our doorstep and claimed she was Dad’s daughter. A blood test proved her right. All hell broke loose. Mom divorced Dad. He tried to pretend his affair never happened and sent the girl away. I don’t know what happened after that, but now she’s running a whole division of Dad’s operation. I hear people are going around Shane to get help from Sloan. That’s her name.”
“Why?” Do they perceive she has some authority because she’s the boss’s illegitimate daughter? And if that’s common knowledge, why couldn’t I find that out when I started digging?
“She’s really fucking smart and not shy about expressing her opinion. She’s a leader. She gets shit done and doesn’t hesitate to make the hard decisions. Of course, no one knows who she really is, and you didn’t hear the truth from me, but I think her fellow employees see the writing on the wall.”
I have my suspicions what he means, but I still ask. “And what’s that?”
“Shane will never be qualified to run Dad’s enterprises. It’s too complicated. Brady doesn’t give two shits, and I care even less. But Sloan? She doesn’t quit and doesn’t allow failure. She’s the son Dad always wanted. If you’re serious about helping Reservoir, start with her.”
I am serious about helping, just not Bruce Rawson. “Got her number?”
“No. We don’t…” He huffs. “It’s not like we’re family.”
I refrain from pointing out they are exactly that. Evan is lucky that his brothers and sisters didn’t cut him off simply because their dad had a wandering dick and loved planting his seed in most of his assistants, including Evan’s mother. Thankfully, the Reed clan welcomed my buddy with open arms.
“Got it. Do you know her last name?” I’ve got to find her if I’m going to make any fucking progress on this case. The clock is already ticking…
“O’Neill. And she looks just as Irish as she sounds.”
What does that mean? I don’t get to ask before Rogan starts talking again.
“Shit. I’ve said too much. Keep this on the down low, huh? Dad would kill me if this news got out.”
“You got it. I won’t tell a soul.” I’ll just use the knowledge against them when the time is right. “Thanks.”
The following morning, I wake up at the ass crack of dawn, Maui time, to continue the illusion that I’m consulting from Phoenix. It’s still early in Dallas, so I plan to leave a message for Sloan O’Neill. Instead, she picks up on the first ring.
“O’Neill here.” Her voice sounds crisply competent.
“Hi, Ms. O’Neill, I’m Jeremy McBride, the—”
“Consultant Bruce Rawson hired to take Reservoir to the next level and prepare us for global expansion, yes. How can I help you?”
In one sentence, she’s already given me more useful information than all three of Rawson’s sons combined. I had no idea their corporate goal was global expansion. That explains their interest in Wynam… “I wondered if I could have a few minutes of your time. I’d like to understand your capacity in the organization and—”
“Have you spoken to Shane Rawson?”
“Yes, along with Brady and Rogan. The last referred me to you.”
She’s quiet for a long time. Is she wondering if I know they’re her brothers?
“What do you need?” she finally asks.
“I’ve been hired to do a job, but so far I’ve been unable to lay my hands on even basic information. I need the last five years of financial statements. Do you have them?”
“I have the previous four. I’ll shoot them over now. Email address?”
Thankfully, Jeremy and I thought of this eventuality, and he lent me one of his company’s little-used addresses, which I’ve already set up in my mail program. I rattle it off to Sloan. Seconds later, the email pops into my inbox with a neat row of four attachments.
“Just got them. Thank you. Do you have any idea when you’ll be able to share the statement for last year?”
Another hesitation. “I’ve been working with the proper internal groups to get that finished. I’ll make some phone calls and update you shortly.”
“Great. So, Ms. O’Neill—”
“Just Sloan. Can I call you Jeremy?”
“Thanks. Let me know if you need anything else.”
I should let Reservoir rot. But it sounds like Shane will see to its demise sooner rather than later, which will make my job for Evan easy as hell. But in five minutes, this woman has already given me the reports I’ve spent too long trying to get my hands on and offered me more help. It feels wrong not to…I don’t know, throw her a bone? Besides, I admire her crisp intelligence. “I also haven’t received anything resembling an org chart yet. Can you shed any light on the firm’s hierarchy and structure?”
In my ear, she lets out a quiet sigh, then stifles it, as if she knows it’s either unprofessional or pointless to show her displeasure with senior management. “While Mr. Rawson—Bruce, not Shane—is out temporarily for a project so super-secret even I don’t know about it…”
Bullshit. She knows her father’s health isn’t good. I’d bet money on that. And in her shoes, I’d also make up something amazing he’s supposedly doing if I didn’t want anyone to know that my fearless leader has a weakness. But it’s notable that she didn’t call him Dad…
“So I’ve heard. No idea when he’ll be back?”
“Oh, I don’t talk to the senior Rawson much. He’s a lot of levels above my pay grade.” Sloan affects a polite chuckle.
I doubt she’s laughing on the inside. I feel somewhat bad for her, pretending—for whatever reason—that the two of them aren’t related. I probably shouldn’t. It’s not my problem. I’m simply here for information about Reservoir, not to dig into their father-daughter dynamic. “So while Bruce is out…”
“Shane has assumed the CEO’s role. He’s in charge of everything related to Reservoir.”
What a fucking shame—and a nightmare for Sloan. Why was she passed over in favor of Rawson’s oldest son? Because he’s male? Because he’s the heir apparent? Because she’s illegitimate? “I’ve spoken to him a bit. He seems very…busy. And Karly sounds like a truly enthusiastic assistant.”
“I’m sorry. Was he getting fucked or blown?”
Her straightforward question takes me aback. “Blown.”
“Of course. Less effort required on his part.” She sighs. “Please excuse that. It’s not typical of executive behavior at Reservoir.”
I’m sure, or nothing would ever get done. And right now, Rawson’s organization is our most serious, on-the-rise competitor. “Your org structure?”
Suddenly, my temporary inbox pings with a new delivery. She’s already sent me an org chart—a temporary one with Shane’s name in the CEO spot. Below that, I see five unfamiliar names, one each in the boxes for VP of Finance, Tech, HR, Marketing, and Management. Below that is a collection of directors in smaller but similar capacities. Under those, I finally spot Sloan’s name. She’s the manager of a technical team that shepherds new products and services to market while liaising with both Finance and Marketing. In other words, she has a ton of responsibility but none of the glory or pay.
“I just received your email. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Things are…shifting frequently, so I can’t promise the organization will look like this tomorrow.”
And that frustrates her. I hear it in her voice. “When did you join Reservoir?”
“Three years ago.”
“Have you been in the same position all that time?”
“No. I started in an entry-level job on the Finance team. But my first boss said I was overqualified, so he—”
“Why?” And if that’s true, why was she hired in the first place?
“I have a double degree in economics and finance, along with an MBA. I was working a job one step up from clerical.”
Holy cow. Maybe the better question is, why did she take that job? I’m all for people earning their promotions and proving their worth before being rewarded, but even then she probably had more practical knowledge about running a business than most of the organization. And Bruce Rawson allowed HR to hire her before shuttling her into a dark corner of his company like a dirty little secret?
Then again, maybe that’s exactly how the man sees her. After all, Shane Rawson being interim CEO proves that not everyone is expected to work their way up in the company.
“That’s impressive,” I praise.
And it is. She has more degrees than me, and since she’s younger than Rogan, she’s probably in her mid-twenties.
“Thank you. When I first joined Reservoir, I spent nine months assisting the assistant manager on one of the Finance teams. Then Smith, the VP over Technical Solutions, hired me. I was in that job for a year before I was promoted again, mostly so the organization could take advantage of my interdisciplinary knowledge. Recently, Smith promoted me again. So here I am.”
“Thanks for the perspective.”
“Well, it’s only enough for you to know I’m not the firm’s mover and shaker. I can introduce you to those who are.”
Either she’s being modest or someone—Shane? Bruce himself?—has convinced her she’s not important. Because they want her contained but not seen? If that’s the case, why does she stay?
Whatever. I need to focus on stopping Reservoir from pursuing Wynam. “That would be fantastic. Should I call one of them to get the most recent annual report once it’s done?”
“Yes. Perez is over Finance, as you can see. He would be best, but he’s had some unfilled positions in key spots for a while. I know HR is working on that, but with the holidays and Bruce Rawson’s absence, I’m afraid positions have been filled more slowly than usual.”
Even if Perez has vacancies on his team, I don’t see why he can’t rally his existing troops to get things done. Should I chalk up the inaction to laziness or rebellion? I doubt Bruce would have suffered slackers, but because Shane doesn’t care, maybe Perez is showing his bureaucratic resistance to their new leader?
“Understood. What kind of new products and services are you working on now?”
“There are more than a few, and I’m afraid I have a meeting in three minutes with Smith. I’ll see about compiling a list of proposed expansion projects, timelines, and associated budgets when I get a few minutes.”
“That would be very helpful. I’ll look over everything you’ve sent, and I’m sure I’ll have more questions.”
“I can direct you to the person best able to answer them. Have a good day, Jeremy.”
Then she’s gone, and I find myself wishing I had a few more minutes with her. I love a good cat-and-mouse game, sure. The chase is in my blood. The kill is one of my greatest thrills in life. It’s a major reason Evan stays glued to me at the hip. But there’s something about this woman. She’s a mystery. Why would she work for her father and give her blisteringly effective best only to be continually undervalued? Advancement opportunities? Does she realize that Shane is an idiot and will be easily overthrown the minute Bruce steps down for good? Or does she have emotional reasons for her seemingly illogical decisions?
Since it’s still zero-dark-thirty in Maui, I set my phone aside and turn off my bedside lamp. I’ll need a few more hours of sleep if I’m going to be productive today.
But my brain won’t shut down. Questions about Sloan keep whirling in my head.
Twenty minutes and a frustrated punch of my pillow later, I grunt and fling myself out of bed, then march to my home office down the hall. Sighing, I sit, wrench open my laptop, and indulge the curiosity I shouldn’t.
It takes a few minutes and a few searches, but I finally find information on Bruce Rawson’s illegitimate daughter. Sloan Meghan O’Neill, twenty-five. She did her undergrad studies at the University of North Texas and got her MBA from UT Arlington. Good schools but not great. She amassed her fair share of student loans—lots of people have—but she’s been diligently paying them down since the minute she graduated. Her mother drowned in a freak scuba-diving incident six weeks before she finished her graduate studies. Tough fucking break. Sloan has no social media accounts, which is both interesting and unusual. No dating profiles, either. Pictures of her are impossible to find.
For the first time in a long time, the internet has created more questions than answers for me. My gut tells me she might be the one hurdle between my success and failure on Evan’s behalf. I’ll need to stay on my toes when I talk to her. Since she’s smart, she’ll most likely look up Jeremy McBride, too. She’ll see a good-looking SOB with a slightly checkered social media presence during his college years. She’ll find some factoids about him, so if she asks me personal questions about family or friends, I’ll have to respond accordingly.
This is going to be an interesting challenge.
Is that the only reason you’re still dwelling on your conversation with her?
Of course. I’m not looking to get laid. I can do that whenever I want.
But how often do you meet a woman you can talk to? Who speaks your language?
Oh, for fuck’s sake. I’m only in Sloan’s life to get a job done, not to start anything personal.
Still, I surf over to Reservoir’s website and click all over the place. Finally, under their Community Outreach tab, I find an interesting assortment of photos they posted following a recent food bank drive. I scroll through all the pictures, scanning the names of those tagged under each.
I’m about to give up when… There. Second from the bottom. I spot a picture marked as David V. Smith, VP of Tech Development, and team—all of whom are men except a woman standing off to one side, in profile, helping a family in need.
Sloan isn’t what I expected. Yes, she’s young. And she’s petite but not delicate. It’s no surprise she’s got a sharp jaw and a determined profile…but her slightly parted lips look unbearably soft. Her hair is tucked professionally at her nape, yet the style isn’t at all severe. Instead, she’s roped her tresses into a thick twist that starts at her forehead and follows her hairline before gently tucking into an artless bun. And despite her cool alabaster skin against a stark gray shirt, she looks almost warm.
I’m struck by the image. I can’t put my finger on the reason, except she’s a handful of subtle contradictions. From talking to her, I know she’s a matter-of-fact ball-buster, but in this shot, I see an unguarded moment of unexpected vulnerability on her face.
I want to know what’s behind that.
At least I know exactly what Rogan meant when he said Sloan looks as Irish as she sounds because her hair is as red as the blood now rushing to my cock.
Down the hall, my cell phone rings. Who the hell would be calling at this hour?
I glance at the time on my computer screen. Holy shit, how have three hours passed?
Running to my home office, I grab my phone and glance at the display, which confirms my suspicions. “Sorry I’m late, Evan.”
I can picture him now, standing in front of the gym, wondering where the hell I am. “Yep. I’ll be there in fifteen.”
“You all right? You sound distracted.”
“Yeah. Absolutely. Just doing some research.”
“Good. You can tell me all about it on the StairMaster. I’ll be off it by the time you get here.” He sounds gleeful about that.
“You evil son of a bitch.”
“In the gym? Always. But if you tell me good things about your progress with Reservoir, I might go easy on you.”
He laughs. “You know me well.”
I do, which is why I know he’s counting on me to do the dirty work. “I’ll come through.”
“I know you will, buddy. Thanks.”
Less than twenty-four hours go by before I have a provisional copy of Reservoir’s previous year’s financial statement in my inbox. Shane couldn’t manage to complete it since the year started more than two months ago. Sloan got it done in a day.
The woman has crossed my mind too much lately. It’s not smart, but my respect for her ticks up another notch.
Unfortunately, I don’t even get to thank her before all hell breaks loose at Stratus. A stomach bug makes its rounds through our offices at the same time one of Wynam’s reps reaches out to request both a product demonstration and a virtual meeting—the first major hurdle in doing business with the UK giant.
And wouldn’t you know it, but Evan is upchucking everything except his toe nails.
I rally the troops, gathering the necessary people. We work nearly round the clock to put together a presentation that’s exactly what Michael Astor, Wynam’s CEO, needs. Nia, bless her, throws herself into the project—half as much to make sure it gets done as to stay away from her puking husband.
“I don’t need this virus to make me toss my cookies,” she says tartly as she strokes her slightly rounding stomach. “The baby does that for me most days anyway.”
Things don’t get any easier when, on Thursday at nine p.m.—eight the following morning in London—Evan is finally well enough to slide into the office. He looks like shit, but he reads what we’ve prepared, jots a few notes, and sips a glass of water while I zip through his changes.
An hour later, he nails the video presentation, answering the prospective client’s questions succinctly and patiently, while Nia and I fist-bump in the background, almost certain Evan snagged the account—or at least he’ll be invited to London for a face-to-face that will seal the deal.
But at the end of it all, Wynam’s folks merely thank us for our time and advise us they have other possible vendors they intend to talk to. They’ll be in touch.
They mean Reservoir.
Evan turns to me as soon as the call is over. “Work faster, buddy.”
To get the competition out of the way. “On it.”
“You’d be my hero if Wynam didn’t even hear Reservoir’s pitch.”
“They won’t. I’ll make sure of it.” Which means I need to get back to my mission.
He claps me on the shoulder, then takes his wife’s hand as they head out the door. “Thanks. And don’t worry about anything Stratus-related tomorrow. I’m better now, so I’ve got this place. Focus on the assignment I gave you.”
After going home, stumbling into bed, and sleeping nearly twelve hours, I tear into the office, order in food, then dig through the statement Sloan sent. Overall, the financial health of the company isn’t bad…but it’s not great. They’re seeing good growth on the consumer side, which has been their lifeblood since inception. Their small-business customer base is building slowly, but I can’t argue that it’s making strides. Yet the company is strangely cash poor. It doesn’t make sense. Granted, I don’t have the detail I’d like, but it’s glaringly clear that whoever compiled this report is skirting the truth, because two and two aren’t adding up.
My conclusion: something’s rotten at Reservoir.
Does Sloan know?
She shouldn’t be my first concern. Instead, I should be figuring out how to use this information to my advantage. But I can’t deny that some stupid-ass part of me hates that people around her are potentially screwing her by fucking with the whole organization.
When I reach that likely conclusion, it’s nearly five p.m. here in Maui. Normally, I wouldn’t think there’s any chance my counterpart five time zones to the east would answer her phone, especially on a Friday night. But Sloan is different. I don’t know her well, but I’m convinced she’ll either have some idea why this report is twenty kinds of fucked-up or she’ll dig straight in and figure it out. I’ll bend her for information. And if I catch her off guard, maybe she’ll spill details I can exploit.
Squashing my misplaced guilt, I swipe my phone from my desk and ring her. It’s ten o’clock there, but I’m not really shocked when she answers. “McBride?”
Though the question is sharp, her voice sounds a little slower, almost mellow. She’s relaxed. Because she’s curled up on her couch with a movie? Or because she’s curled up in bed with a man?
“Sorry to disturb you on a Friday night.”
“But you’re still working?”
The sound she makes isn’t quite a laugh. “I get it. I only quit an hour ago.”
That doesn’t surprise me. “Have you looked at this annual report?”
“That’s on my list to-do this weekend. Did you find something I need to be aware of?”
“Do you want to know now or should I call back later?”
With a sigh, she shifts. I hear a clink, followed by movement. “I wasn’t getting into this TV show anyway. Tell me now.”
“You sure I’m not interrupting something?”
“Unless you mean a quiet night with the squawk-box, I’m positive.”
It’s stupid and perverse, but I’m pleased she’s alone. “All right. The income side of your statement has improved year over year, particularly the last two.”
Is it a coincidence that the upward trend started when Smith promoted her out of the basement and started listening?
“I’m really proud of that. Marketing has found creative ways to increase consumer market penetration with low-cost campaigns, while the Tech folks have really driven down data storage costs.”
“Totally agree. But your expenses, especially last year, have skyrocketed. Fourth quarter was a bloodbath.” Every single department suddenly opened a project that’s guzzling cash—and there are no supporting details in the report. “What’s Marketing’s PPP Fund financing?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never heard of it.”
“How about HR’s H-and-B Reserve?”
I frown. “Tech’s FY Initiative?”
“I’m afraid not.”
And yet they’re eating millions of dollars every year. How is it possible she hasn’t heard anyone talk about them? Or seen those bottom-line balance sheets?
There’s something going on, and it’s sketchy as shit.
“Do you have a few minutes to give me your interpretation?” she asks. “I hate to keep you at the office on a Friday night, but I’d like to grab my laptop and talk through the report.”
“Actually, I appreciate that, if you don’t mind me cutting into the start of your weekend.”
“You’re not. I’ll just take my wine with me.”
Is vino the reason for the hint of mellow in her voice?
“Now I’m jealous. I’d love a beer.”
Her laugh is soft and throaty. It does things to me I wish it didn’t.
Finally, after a little more rearranging, she seemingly plants somewhere with her computer. “Give me a minute. This thing is rebooting.”
“You say that, but I know it’s past office hours in Phoenix, too. Have you even had dinner?”
“Nope. I fell into the rabbit hole with this annual report and…”
“That happens to me all the time. People from every part of the organization come to my office, and they—” She stops herself with a forced laugh. “Well, they realize they’ve found a sucker who wants to figure out what makes Reservoir tick and doesn’t mind putting in the effort to fix whatever’s broken.”
I don’t doubt that. “I was the same in my previous corporate job.”
It’s probably true of Jeremy. He’s a go-getter, and if he didn’t have a broken heart now, he wouldn’t have given me this account.
But if I can relate to Sloan on a personal level, I can build trust between us. She might get comfortable enough to blurt some of Reservoir’s hush-hush plans, particularly about when and how they intend to approach Wynam.
“I can picture that. And since a leopard doesn’t change its spots, that’s probably why you’re still in the office at nine o’clock.”
I’m actually not, but I’ve done it often enough to confess. “Guilty.”
“It takes one to know one.”
She gives me that soft, husky laugh again. “Touché. So…you had the pleasure of talking to all three Rawson boys. How was that?”
“A thrill and a half.” I don’t even try to disguise my sarcasm.
“I’m sure it was. After all, you got a blow job vicariously through Shane.”
“It was incredibly cringy.”
“For me, too. I’m very careful when I call him now.”
“He’s done that same thing to you?” I don’t know why I’m surprised. Maybe because it’s even weirder that he’d be getting off with his sister on the phone.
“When he first started, I called to introduce myself and advise him that I’d be working on some critical projects under his purview. During our conversation, I’m pretty sure he was having sex with his previous assistant. She wasn’t quiet.”
I grimace. “And no one calls him on that behavior?”
“Who’s going to tell the boss’s son to clean up his act?”
She’s got a point, but Bruce Rawson should have taken care of that long ago. Maybe he tried, and Shane just doesn’t care. Or maybe his health is failing more than Brady led me to believe.
“Wow… It’s almost too bad Brady and Rogan aren’t involved in the organization. At least Brady has drive, and Rogan is smart.”
“Right?” She sighs. “Did Rogan say why he thought you needed to call me?”
Is she wondering if the guy let the cat out of the bag about the fact they’re siblings? “After I explained my fiasco with his oldest brother, he assured me you could help. He was right.”
“I try.” She pauses, then grunts in frustration. “I think this computer is taking a freaking update. Seriously? Now?”
“Never happens at a convenient time, does it?” I empathize with her, but I don’t mind. Our conversation is going somewhere. I want her to feel comfortable with me. No, she’s not being honest yet…but I’ll get her there.
“I can call you another time if you want to leave the office, grab your dinner, and enjoy your evening,” she offers.
“I’m good. I had a late lunch, and I’m not in a hurry to head home and choke down something frozen to the sounds of the nightly news. This is way more entertaining.”
She laughs. “I like a good mystery, too.”
Sloan is a lot more laid-back, even friendlier, than she was during our first conversation. It’s progress. I wonder how she’ll take to some light flirting. “That’s part of it. But I also like talking to you.”
Besides hearing a smile in her voice, I also detect the merest hint of something soft and Southern that makes me hard. And it’s mighty interesting that she didn’t revert to professional mode or shut me down.
Yeah, it’s fucking stupid, but Sloan intrigues me. I wish I could see her whole face, not just a profile in her picture.
“My computer is almost done,” she remarks into the momentary quiet. “Sorry for the delay.”
“No problem. Word of warning: I hate awkward silences, so I’m going to fill it with something ridiculous.”
“Perfect. I don’t like them, either. But I’m not convinced you can be ridiculous, so lay it on me.”
“Favorite pizza topping?”
“Oh, we’re getting to the important stuff right away. Okay, it’s a toss-up between spicy sausage and mushrooms, so when I order pizza, I get both. You? I mean, I told you something deeply personal, so…”
“I have to return the favor, is that it?”
I like this Sloan as much as I liked the sharply professional one—for different reasons. The first one came across as smart, reliable, and capable of handling whatever anyone tossed her way. This one? She’s witty and unexpectedly fun.
Smiling, I settle back in my chair to enjoy the conversation. “Spicy sausage, absolutely. I like a good mushroom, too. Onions, bell peppers, and olives. I love fresh basil, garlic, oregano…”
“Yes! Some of the pizza in New York—”
“With the fresh basil, right?”
She groans. “The best. I haven’t been to the city in so long.”
Since I used to live a mere train ride away, I probably feel its loss more keenly. But that’s not Jeremy’s past; it’s mine. I need to keep that in mind.
“I’d like to go more.” That’s not a lie.
“What’s the food like in Phoenix?”
I remember an argument Jeremy used to have with a frat brother from San Antonio. “Spicy. Nothing beats Sonoran-style Mexican food. That Tex-Mex stuff is crap.”
She laughs. “You’ll never convince me fajitas aren’t good.”
“And you’ve never lived until you’ve had a real cheese crisp.”
“What the devil is that?”
Something Jeremy waxed poetic about anytime the Mexican food discussion came up. “My words can’t do it justice, and a picture is worth a thousand of them. Look it up.”
“I would, but my computer is still doing its thing. Fourteen minutes left. You sure you don’t mind waiting?”
“Why should I? This is the most fun I’ve had all day.” That’s actually true.
“Sorry. I can’t say the same. Wine still beats you out. But if it makes you feel better, you’re running a close second.”
I laugh. “I’ll take that and accept the challenge of topping your wine.”
“You can try, but it will be tough.”
“I’m crafty. I’ll figure it out.”
“I’ll bet you are. What made you decide to leave your corporate job to consult?”
“Better flexibility. Better pay.”
“More hours. More risk.”
“I’m okay with that. Are those the reasons you’re not self-employed?”
She hesitates. “I needed the experience after finishing my MBA. Education is great and all, but nothing replaces real-world knowledge.”
Not necessarily true, but I wonder who convinced her of that.
“So why Reservoir? You must have had other offers.” Tons of them, based on what I read about her academic career.
“Well, I wanted to stay local.”
“Because of friends? Family?” I’m curious how she’ll answer.
“A lot of things. My mom passed away a couple of years ago.”
I knew that, but when I hear the catch in her voice, I feel her sense of loss. “I’m sorry.”
“Thanks. It was sudden and unexpected. I wasn’t at all prepared… But I grew up in Dallas. I wasn’t ready to leave.”
“Makes sense.” Plus, she gave me a great opening to ask what I really want to know. “What about your dad?”
“He was never in the picture when I was growing up.”
The man is now, at least by virtue of being her boss’s boss’s boss. Are their estrangement and her mother’s death the reasons Rawson suddenly gave her a job? “Do you know where to find him? Have you talked?”
“There’s my computer. It came back up. Finally.” She sounds relieved, probably way more about the subject change than the PC restarting properly.
But I let it slide—for now. We’ll come back to this subject. There’s a reason neither she nor Rawson wants anyone to know they’re father and daughter. And if I can figure out why, maybe I can use that information to prevent anyone in the organization from pitching to Wynam.
“Always a relief, right? Shall we log in and get down to it?”
“Yep.” I hear a hollow-sounding clink. “I’m working on it now.”
“Is your wineglass empty?”
“It is.” She sighs. “But that’s okay. I should stop there. I’ve already had two.”
“It’s Friday. You don’t have to get up early. You deserve one more.”
“I shouldn’t. Really. I need a clear head.”
“C’mon, have one for me. If we have to work, at least one of us will be unwinding properly on a Friday night.”
“But I’ll wake up with a headache if I go for number three.”
“Do you have water and ibuprofen there?”
“Of course,” she answers like it’s obvious because everyone does.
“Then you’ll be fine.”
Sloan sighs long and loud. “Fine. Number three it is. What are you drinking?”
“Office-tested H-two-oh, but I’ll tell you what. When I get home, I’ll have a beer in your honor.”
“Oh, all right. I’ll be back.”
When she sets down her phone and picks up her glass, I refill my water from the cooler in the hall, truly wishing I had a beer.
“Hey, man.” Evan approaches from the opposite end of the passage and claps me on the shoulder. “Nia and I are out of here. We’re heading to Noah and Harlow’s for a barbecue free-for-all. Want to come?”
Evan is in a way better place since he found the Reed clan and they accepted him wholeheartedly. He had a lot of doubts they would. Of course, Nia has a lot to do with his newfound happiness, too. And I get it. Evan was a foster kid growing up since his mother died when he was five, so reconnecting with the other kids his biological dad fathered has given him the kind of family he’s never had. He loves it. He and Nia have dived in with both feet. And good for them.
But seeing my best buddy with all his siblings only reminds me that I have a mother and four sisters back in the Philly suburbs I don’t talk to much. Mom is enjoying retirement, playing bridge, tennis, and golf. All of my sisters are married. The older two together have enough kids to form their own baseball team. One of my younger sisters is expecting her first late this summer, according to social media. I really should call… The youngest got married last spring and, that same fall, started teaching in the school we attended growing up. None of them have ever wanted to leave the quiet green commuter belt. None of them ever felt compelled to look up the deadbeat who ran out on us when my youngest sister was just six months old.
“Bas?” Evan prompts.
Jesus, where is my head? “It sounds like a blast, but I’m double time on my side project.”
“Yep. Just came to grab some water.”
Evan looks excited. “Anything to report?”
“Not yet, but I’m just getting started on Reservoir’s financials. I found some things that don’t add up. Like I told you earlier, Rawson’s secret illegitimate daughter is a middle manager there. Sloan wants to help. She’s going to dig into their records for me.”
“Awesome.” He claps me on the shoulder again. “Can I just tell you how brilliant this plan is? Under the guise of helping her company, you get her to give you all the information that will doom her daddy’s and employer’s chances for UK market domination. It’s genius.”
I wince. When he puts it like that, it sounds asshole-ish. I kind of wish I’d never brought Sloan into this. Unfortunately, I like her. I respect her, too. I don’t agree with her decision to work for her dad for a few pennies and zero recognition, but maybe she has a reason I just don’t know. That’s her business, and I can’t afford to feel sorry for her. Besides, the woman is too smart and too resilient not to land on her feet. She’ll be fine.
“Thanks. I should get back to it.” Normally, I would tell my boss she’s dipping into her third glass of wine and that getting her to give me company secrets should be a cakewalk. But I don’t. After all, I can’t guarantee that Sloan will find anything now that her computer is back, so I shouldn’t get Evan’s hopes up. Still, I’m uncomfortably aware that spilling my situation with Sloan feels a bit like throwing her under the bus…which I’m oddly reluctant to do. “Enjoy your Friday night.”
“You, too. If you change your mind, you know where to find us. If not, I’ll see you at the gym at five a.m.”
I sigh, wishing my boss and best friend slept more. “See you then.”
“You can update me on the StairMaster.”
I swear he’s part sadist. “Be nice to me or I’ll withhold information.”
Evan laughs like he’s sure I’d never do that, then heads off with a mock salute.
If I feel like a jerk for being less than honest with Sloan, I feel downright shitty for holding out on Evan.
I stifle my emotions. No denying I like the woman, but my allegiance is strictly to Evan. Our wagons are hitched. He dragged us both out of poverty with his brilliance. Sure, I helped. But we have a massive financial stake in the future of Stratus. I can’t afford this guilt. And it’s not like I’ll be shutting Reservoir’s doors, just preventing them from overseas expansion. They’ll survive.
With a sigh, I push my way back into my office and grab the phone. “I’m back.”
“Good. I’m here with another glass of Cab, which is still more exciting than almost everything in my life.”
“Definitely. So tell me the names of those funds again, by department. I have access to a lot of the information on their shared drives. I might be able to find something…”
After two hours and her third glass of wine, Sloan finds only the barest of information about the projects’ creation and initial budgets, which seemingly coincides with the size of the previous year’s overages. So each of the organization’s VPs are taking the profits they reported and funneling them back into a secret project? For what? Every single one of these funds were green-lighted by Shane Rawson. The budgets for this year are even bigger, but she still can’t find much detail.
Since I know he’s no business brainiac, it smells bad.
I’m not here to help Sloan; I need to remember that. If I leave this alone, somehow convince her this is not as fucking odd as I think it is, maybe Shane will destabilize the company so much Reservoir won’t be able to pursue Wynam’s business at all. But before I can stop myself, I ask the obvious question. “Any chance Bruce Rawson’s oldest son is embezzling through the use of these manufactured projects?”
Sloan is quiet for a really long time. “I would hope he has too much oversight for that.”
Is she kidding? Who the hell does she think is overseeing him? Bruce is checked out for health reasons. Brady is too busy building a fitter America one IG post at a time, and Rogan is sampling all of DFW’s finest tail after tending bar at a super-swanky hotspot five nights a week. Shane has the keys to the kingdom, and no one—not even the VPs—has the authority to withhold funding.
“Are you sure?”
She’s quiet for even longer. “I should go. I’ll think about this over the weekend. I’m hoping that once the wine wears off, I’ll figure out something obvious and logical I’ve overlooked and be able to call you Monday with an oops-I-screwed-up message.”
It’s not going to happen, and something in her voice tells me she knows that, too. “If it doesn’t?”
“I’ll figure it out. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.”
She’s about to hang up when I find myself blurting, “They don’t deserve you.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know exactly what I mean. You work circles around almost everyone. Those problems you solve? They aren’t just Tech’s. They aren’t just Finance’s, either. You help everyone.”
“Not HR. I don’t understand half their rules, and I’m not about to step into it with my ignorance.”
She’s diminishing her contribution. I wonder why. “You do more than Shane Rawson. Way, way more.”
Sloan swallows. “I don’t know what he does all day. But I appreciate the vote of confidence. I always do my best to make sure the organization succeeds. Everyone does.”
“Granted, people haven’t been as accountable as they were when Bruce occupied the corner office, but overall, yeah. Why do you ask?”
“I want to make sure the organization is taking care of you, too. You’re smart, dedicated, not afraid of a challenge—”
“Thanks. It’s really flattering to be noticed. But why do you keep bringing it up?”
She asks a great question. I don’t have a great answer—not even one to give myself to explain my own behavior. “You must not realize how many people in corporate management I see every year or the fact that you stand out so head-and-shoulders above them you could write your own ticket, so I’m curious why you don’t.”
“Who says I’m not, Mr. McBride? Good night.”
Sloan stays on my mind as the weekend rolls in.
It’s not smart.
By Saturday night, I’m thinking about her way more than enjoying my downtime. What is she doing? Who is she with? What would she do if I called? Any chance she’s thinking of me?
My head is fucked up. I need to shut that down.
I hit some of the hotel bars, convinced that if I don’t wake up alone on Sunday, I’ll be able to approach Sloan on Monday with a fresh, less fixated head. Despite three tourist traps and a couple of flirty conversations, I can’t get interested enough to leave with a warm body. The women I meet are pretty, yes. Sexy, totally. Ready to go to bed with me after a few minutes of meaningless talk, apparently. But none of them are clever, compelling, or driven. They’re self-absorbed. Finding their happiness seems like their only purpose in life. Sloan, like me, thinks bigger. We have goals.
Or hell, maybe I’m overanalyzing. I didn’t meet anyone who flipped my switch. It happens. I was in the mood for a redhead and I didn’t find one, so I left. End of story.
Why is a redhead suddenly at the top of your must-do list?
I’m not analyzing that.
Monday I stare at my phone, willing it to ring. It doesn’t. As the hours slip by, my thoughts slide off the rails. Is Sloan still working on her organizational mystery? Or is she avoiding me for some other reason?
As I’m leaving Evan’s office around three p.m., following an advertising-strategy and budget meeting, my phone vibrates in my pocket.
I pull it free. Sloan. She’s calling me at eight o’clock in her evening.
“Hey,” I greet. “I wondered if I’d hear from you. How was your Monday?”
“Thank god you answered. It was horrible. I waited to talk to you until I got home. I know it’s late in Phoenix, but…do you have a minute?”
“For you? Of course. Make any progress on our mystery?”
“Yes and no. I’m not sure how to interpret everything that happened today. Granted, I haven’t worked here forever, so I don’t know everything about this place, but I’ve never seen behavior like this.”
“This morning, I called my boss. I thought it made sense to question him first. I know him best, and he’s usually easy to talk to. He should be able to tell me what he knows about the FY Initiative on his books, right?”
“He didn’t want to talk about it. At all. He insisted it’s a secret project he’s undertaken at Shane’s behest and that he’s not at liberty to say more. When I pointed out that we’re hemorrhaging money and this initiative should really have been given more scrutiny before being green-lighted, he snapped at me. I’ve worked for him for nearly two years. He’s never, ever been short with anyone.”
“So…what are you thinking?”
“The same thing you are. It’s sketchy.”
“But you can’t prove it.”
“No. And even if I could, who could I tell with enough organizational power to do something?”
Her father. But maybe she doesn’t because they’re not close. Or because he’s got health problems. Whatever the reason, it’s obvious she’s frustrated and isn’t sure where to turn. “What did you do next?”
“Probably something I shouldn’t have. I called Mario Perez, the head of Finance, and asked him about his fund. He hemmed and hawed about its purpose, underscoring a need for secrecy because—get this—it supposedly has something to do with a new product we’re bringing to market. Then he seemingly remembered he was talking to the woman responsible for the day-to-day administration of said products, and suddenly he was way too busy to answer my questions. So he hung up.”
“What the hell? Smith and Perez sound as if they have something to hide.”
“My thoughts, too. I called Brenda Keller, VP of the Management team, next. She had surgery at the end of December and was out recovering until three weeks ago, so she said she knows nothing. And maybe she doesn’t. The guy who filled her chair while she was out quit the day she returned. Or got fired, depending on who you ask. But either way, he’s not around for me to question.”
“Clearly. Do you think there’s any way the VP of Management hasn’t figured out what’s up with her budget in the last few weeks?”
“No. After that, I gave in and called Meredith Roop, who heads HR.”
“Gave in, huh? You two don’t get along?”
“No. She’s been part roadblock and part bitch since the day I hired on.” Sloan sighs. “That’s why I wanted to talk to you away from the office. I know you’re trying to improve the organization, but I can’t help you do that if I can’t be honest.”
“No. Absolutely. I appreciate that. What did she say?”
“Oh, she wouldn’t even take my call. I wasn’t totally shocked when she didn’t answer right away because she’s told me point-blank in the past that my work ethic is daunting to some who feel the unrealistic expectation to perform at my level. She says my effort to go the extra mile isn’t appreciated.”
“What? She wants you to work less hard so you don’t make the employees around you feel bad?”
I roll my eyes. That’s not the mentality at Stratus, and if we had an HR VP like that, she’d be fired. “That’s insane.”
“Right? So Meredith has her assistant call me to tell me she knows what I want and isn’t at liberty to speak about it, so I should stop calling.”
“I can’t make this stuff up…” Sloan sighs even harder. “Screw it. I’m pouring a glass of wine.”
“Sounds like you could use it.”
After some rustling, I hear the soft pop of a cork, followed by the clink of a glass. Liquid splashing follows. Then she sips and swallows.
“Better?” I ask.
“I wish. I don’t usually open wine on a Monday, but I want to shake all these VPs. After you and I talked on Friday night, I spent the weekend scouring that annual report. We should be in a far more liquid position. Mr. Rawson wouldn’t be happy that Shane is financing these secret projects and potentially jeopardizing the organization’s cash position. Frankly, more than one department is relying on improved funding next year. The R and D people alone need a boatload of money to keep up with those cutthroats over at Stratus.”
Cutthroats? We’re simply smart businessmen, damn it. “They’re competitors, right?”
“They’re more than that. For years, we’ve had this unspoken line in the sand. They typically handle the large-business market, so it made sense for them to have all these redundant, off-site servers for storing data. We catered to the home office and very small-business audience. So our on-site solutions, especially with the advances in solid-state technology, made sense for those customers. We only serviced a sizable business if they approached us first. But what did Satan—I mean, Evan Cook—and that swaggering asshole of a sidekick—” She snaps her fingers. “I can’t think of his name.”
She means me. “Asshole?”
“Yeah. He’s their CFO, technically. But he’s pretty much their corporate mouthpiece. Cook doesn’t like to make speeches, attend tech conferences, or give interviews for industry press, so this guy does it for him. He gave a presentation at an event I attended a few years back, I’m sure because he likes to hear himself talk. Thank god I was at the back of the room. I left as soon as it began. But you know what the asshole did?”
Came after the home and small-business market—like any good businessperson with two brain cells to rub together would. Evan and Stratus didn’t need Rawson’s or Sloan’s permission to do that. “What?”
“Jumped into our arena without warning. Full product suite, competitive pricing, ads everywhere…”
“And you weren’t happy about it?”
She scoffs. “Why come after our customers before improving the market penetration with their own first? It’s a threat to our bottom line, frankly at the worst possible time. And now Reservoir’s disappearing funds threaten to undo us altogether. And I’m the only one warning management that the sky is falling. I don’t understand.”
“First of all, don’t sweat Stratus. Competition happens, and all you can do is your best to compete. Reservoir is doing a good job,” I have to admit. “From the conversations I had with Bruce Rawson before he hired me”—well, from my own research, but whatever—“they’re holding their own in their original market segment while making inroads in the large-business market.”
“Modest inroads,” she corrects.
“It hasn’t been that long, and an on-site storage solution isn’t right for a lot of bigger companies, especially those with multiple branches or offices.”
“How would you know that?”
I wince. I’ve got to be fucking careful not to say things that would give my identity—and my whole scheme—away. “You’re not the only one who’s been doing their homework lately. Part of my effort to help you is to understand your industry.”
“Of course. I’m not thinking.”
“Still mad at Satan’s swaggering asshole of a sidekick?”
“I’d love to crush him. It’s on my to-do list.” She swallows back more wine. “But right now, I’m focused on all the VPs and their terrible stewardship of our corporate funds.”
Seriously, why doesn’t she just call her father and tell him what’s going on, maybe get his advice? I’m not sure, and that’s not my problem. Maybe my swagger and I can step in to fill the void.
“The org charts don’t indicate there’s anyone else you can take this to. Well, unless you think the comptroller has balls.”
“Our comptroller is a woman, so she doesn’t.”
“I don’t mean that literally. You’re a woman, and you have balls.”
“You think so?” She sounds touched by my opinion.
“Hell yeah.” In fact, I’m hard-pressed to think of many women with as much moxie as Sloan. Nia comes to mind. Evan’s sisters, Harlow and Bethany, for sure. I admire them all.
On Sloan, drive and guts are sexy in a way that has nothing to do with physical beauty. I barely know what she looks like, but I’d absolutely take her to bed with a smile on my face.
“Thanks. That means a lot to me. Unfortunately, Anna doesn’t have metaphorical balls, either. So I don’t know what to do. Besides, she reports to Brenda Keller.”
Who would probably tell her not to talk. Sloan is in a bad spot, and I need to help her so she can help me. The key to understanding how to keep Reservoir from pitching to Wynam is to understand what the fuck is going on with the company financially.
Then inspiration strikes, mostly because I’ve used this tactic a time or two. “Have you tried approaching the VPs’ assistants? Not the directors or managers who report to them but their admins?”
“No, but that’s brilliant. I know Perez’s assistant, Carissa, is getting married, but her girl squad is out east in Kilgore, so she’s feeling alone and stressed in the big city. I could invite her for a girls’ night and see what she knows.”
“Exactly. The worst that can happen is you find out she’s clueless, but at least you’ll have had a good time and maybe made a connection.” At least that was always my philosophy when I used to schmooze girls in college for help with tests and term papers. We’d study together while hooking up, so they were happy to help me. When the project or class was over, we would be, too. None of them ever seemed butt-hurt, and I always did my best to leave them with a smile.
“I like it. If I strike out there, I’ll try someone else. Smith’s admin is his sister, so I don’t think I’ll get anywhere with her, but Roop’s is this guy named Ryan, who just moved to town.”
Instantly, I picture her with some handsy player, and I scowl. “You don’t have to compromise your ethics.”
“By doing what, sleeping with him?” She laughs. “First, I wouldn’t. Second, I’m pretty sure he’s gay. He keeps a Henry Cavill calendar in his office, tucked discreetly where no one walking by can see it, but it’s there.”
That makes me breathe a sigh of relief. Then I tell myself to stop being ridiculous. I shouldn’t care if this woman I’ve never even met spends her downtime getting horizontal with some guy.
But I do.
If Sloan didn’t work for Reservoir, and if I wasn’t the swaggering asshole-ish sidekick of Satan gainfully employed by their competitor…and deceiving her for purely business reasons, I think we’d get along. Hell, we have chemistry. I bet we’d have amazing sex.
Down that mental path leads nowhere helpful.
“You’re probably right about Ryan,” I tell her.
“Sadly, but at least he has good taste in men.”
“Does he?” I can’t resist poking fun. “You think Henry Cavill is hot?”
“Um…yeah. If you don’t, you’re blind.”
I snort. “I don’t think at all about whether a guy is hot.”
Sloan pauses. “But you think about whether a guy isn’t hot?”
“I have to. All those guys are my competition.”
“They are not. When I mentioned to Smith this morning that you and I had talked Friday night about the report, he told me that if I was flirting, I was barking up the wrong tree because you have a girlfriend. So you don’t have to worry about other guys anymore.”
Shit. I’d almost forgotten that I’m Jeremy.
“But I do. Aria and I split up.” I’m purposely vague because I don’t have the details, and I’m pretty sure Jeremy only told me the ugly truth because we’re buddies. So I change the subject. “But even if we hadn’t, every guy is potential competition. Our egos need to be fed, after all.”
“Oh, right. Of course…” She sighs. “And people wonder why I’m not attached. I always thought it was because I found beings with a penis to be needy, self-absorbed wastes of my time. But maybe I just don’t understand them as well as I should.”
I have to laugh. “Clearly, you don’t. I’ll school you after we solve your organizational problems.”
“Sure. Okay,” she says with heavy sarcasm. “Let’s get back to business.”
“Any other admins you can hit up?”
“Brenda Keller has a new one. I think she’s been with the organization for all of three weeks, so I’m not expecting anything from her. Our Marketing VP, Jim Steinhoff, is a real jerk. So is his admin. But now that I’m thinking below the VP level, I’ve got some ideas about directors and managers… I doubt any of them have the whole puzzle, but I’d bet they each have pieces. If I talk to enough of them, maybe I can grasp what’s going on.”
“That’s a great idea.” Truly. Sloan is so dedicated. She could have simply decided that if the organization wanted to fuck itself, she would draw a paycheck as long as possible and not worry until the ride ended. But no, she’s trying to toss Reservoir a life raft. I admire that. “Let me know what you find out.”
“I will. Thanks. I needed help thinking outside the box.”
I doubt that. This strategy would have occurred to her eventually; I just speeded up the process. “You’re welcome. What will you do if you get the information you need and it’s not good? What can you do?” Go to Daddy? Would Bruce Rawson listen?
“I have ideas. Give me a little time, and I’ll figure it out.”
I don’t doubt that. It’s not helpful, but my respect for Sloan goes up again. It’s really beginning to suck that we’ll never be on the same team.
Four days later, I’m feeling more than a little antsy that I haven’t heard a word from Sloan. On the one hand, I’ve been busy trying to find out exactly what Reservoir is planning with regard to overseas expansion—and thus pitching to our prospective client. But everyone I contacted, under the guise of consulting, is businesslike and tight-lipped on the subject.
I could email Sloan and ask. She’s a professional; she would reply promptly with what she knows.
But I’d rather hear her voice.
If I’m being honest, I’m dying to talk to her.
At three o’clock in Maui, I break down and dial her number. Either she’s been quiet because she’s still at the office and up to her eyeballs or something is up. I need to find out which. After all, I have to keep my source of information talking, right?
Thankfully, Sloan answers on the second ring. “Hey, McBride.”
I would object to being called by a last name, except it’s no better if she calls me Jeremy. Admittedly, I’ve fantasized about her crying out in ecstasy while I’m deep inside her, and never once in my head was she screaming any name except mine.
“O’Neill. You’ve been awfully quiet lately.”
“Schmoozing secrets is hard work.”
“Is it?” I play dumb. Honestly, it can be fucking brutal.
“In a nutshell, no. Your sixth sense must be working, because a few minutes ago, I emailed you some documents I managed to sweet-talk from counterparts in other areas of the organization. I doubt any of it is helpful, but you take a peek.”
Since I’ve spent most of my day in Evan’s office, I haven’t been near my computer. When I open her email and scan the attachment, I can’t disagree. “None of this tells us anything we didn’t already know.”
“Exactly. I’m touching up my makeup now to go out with Carissa, Perez’s assistant, for girls’ night. She was thrilled when I invited her. Poor thing is really lonely. I didn’t know her mother passed recently. She’s been trying to shop for a wedding dress alone, but every time she realizes she’ll never have her mother’s opinion, she breaks down. She has a handful of weeks left to pick a gown before it will be too late. I’m going to try to help her through.”
Sloan can be hard-nosed, but she’s also compassionate. “I’m sure she’ll appreciate it.”
“Well, I’ll be gently prying, too. We’ll see if she’s willing to say anything about her department’s mystery fund.”
“All you can do is your best.”
Like I’ve been doing to find out when Reservoir plans to sell themselves to Wynam.
“Yep. Oh, um…turns out Meredith Roop’s admin, Ryan, isn’t gay after all. He hung a Henry Cavill calendar in his office because he lost a bet.”
“Did he think you’d asked him to lunch for personal reasons?”
“Hoped more than assumed, I think. I kept things light and full of talk about the office, but I’m almost positive he doesn’t know anything. He’s the kind of person who would insist on reporting anything sketchy. And if he thought someone was embezzling, he would say so.”
In other words, a dead end. “At least you know. So…you interested in him now that you know he doesn’t play for the other team?”
“No. He’s a nice guy but not my type.”
Don’t ask. Don’t you fucking ask. “Why?”
Sloan sighs like she’s really loath to answer. “He just doesn’t have any balls. Metaphorical ones. I know he’s got literal ones but…around guys like him, I end up feeling as delicate as a steamroller. It’s not something I enjoy.”
That makes sense. A woman with a strong sense of self and an implacable drive would want a strong partner in life. Is Sloan single because she hasn’t found her equal?
Maybe. And maybe you’re it.
And maybe I’m crazy, too. “Any other options?”
“No. I wish you were here to help. I get the feeling you’re a lot more practiced at sweet-talk-with-a-point than I am.”
I don’t dare tell her that she’s right, so I force a laugh. “But I’m not there, so you got any other ideas?”
“Unfortunately, unless Carissa is full of information, I’ll still be in the dark by tomorrow. And all of this will have to wait because Shane Rawson called me into his office this morning.” She doesn’t sound pleased.
Then again, why should she be? It must be shitty to stand in the same room with a man she’s related to—whom she can work absolute circles around—and know that, not only will he refuse to recognize her as family, he’ll probably be openly hostile if she squashes his undocumented projects.
It would suck to be in her shoes.
“And?” I prompt.
“I got ‘voluntold’ to travel to Cleveland for the next two weeks. Shane claims he needs me to see how a tech company belonging to a buddy of his recently pitched to an overseas giant and secured the contract—”
“Wait.” My heart stops. “So that’s something Reservoir will definitely be doing soon?”
“Yeah. There’s a UK company expanding their footprint in London, so their storage needs are increasing. Little birdies have told me that Stratus already pitched and that Satan—I mean, Evan Cook—and his swaggering asshole of a sidekick have spoken to this company. Apparently, it went well, so the bar is high, but I think our product is better for them. They don’t have many offices to service, and the CEO of this company likes the idea of being able to see where his data is backing up.”
Holy shit. I had to infiltrate her organization to get the scoop on my competition, but she has spies somewhere who have already told her about our meeting with Wynam? Fuck. I need to stop mooning over Sloan and step up my game.
“Do you have new products to pitch to this potential customer?”
“Yep. They’re almost ready to roll. That’s what we’ve been waiting for. I’ve done the heavy lifting. As soon as testing and documentation are complete, I’ll be helping the organization roll out this new server technology, and we’ll be in a great position to grab this big customer. Frankly, I think we have a leg up on Stratus.”
“That’s great,” I manage to choke out. “Would you like me to roll through the product specs? The pitch? I can help you refine everything.”
And I’ll know exactly what you’re doing.
“It’s top secret for now, but I’ll be back week after next. We can talk in-depth then. And now I’ve got to go. Carissa is waiting.”
Damn. Damn. Damn. “Have fun tonight.”
“I will. Thanks. I’ll probably be up to my eyeballs while I’m gone, so I’ll talk to you once I’m back home.”
“Hang on.” I can’t just let her end this call and leave her free to perfect her pitch. Evan tasked me with stopping this. I promised him. I owe him for my stupid heart tripping all over Becca. But my heart is only proving it’s dumber than ever, because I’m weirdly panicked at the thought of not talking to Sloan two whole weeks. “If you need me for anything at all—even an ear while you unwind and drink vino after hours—I’m here.”
“Thanks.” Her voice is softer than I’ve ever heard it. “There are days around here where I feel like I could sure use a friend. Maybe it makes no sense, but you feel like you could be one. Talk to you soon.” She sounds reluctant to hang up, but she does.
After that, days drag by—fourteen of them. I try not to think about Sloan. God knows I have enough work that I should be too busy to think about anything else. But nope. Despite pushing myself hard in the gym, going full throttle at the office, then working well past dinner, the minute my head hits the pillow, she’s there.
Why? What does it mean? What the fuck is wrong with me?
The most likely culprit? I need to get laid. It’s been too long. But I’m unmoved to change it.
When my phone rings a couple of Sunday mornings later, it’s unexpected. But seeing Sloan’s number on my display is welcome as hell. “Hey! You finally back from Cleveland?”
“Do you have a minute?” She sounds near tears.
I walk away from the weights I’d been ready to deadlift and make my way to a quiet hallway of the gym. “Sure. What happened, baby?”
The endearment slips out. I only meant to make her feel better, but I brace for her to bite my head off. She doesn’t. Because she doesn’t mind pet names…or because she’s too distraught to care?
Sloan simply dissolves into a loud, heaving sob. “Everything is horrible, and I don’t know what to do. This will sound crazy, but you’re the only other person who seems to care whether Reservoir succeeds.”
“Who did what to you?” When I find out, I’ll rip their heart out and their balls clear from their body.
I don’t stop to ask myself why I’m so pissed on her behalf and feeling protective. I know it’s not smart. Just like I know she’s a strong, capable person. But I can’t seem to shove down the haze of red in my vision.
Someone fucked with my woman.
Whoa. Dial that back by a thousand, Romeo.
I try. I really, really do. Until Sloan starts crying again.
“You signed an NDA, right?” she sobs.
Of all the questions to ask… I can only assume she’s going to tell me something juicy and potentially useful that’s ripping her heart out.
“Yeah.” Well, I’m sure Jeremy did.
“Are you sitting down?”
No, but she doesn’t need to worry about me. I’m convinced, however, that I have every reason to worry about her. “Sure.”
“You’re a terrible liar,” she sobs.
Oh, fuck. Does she know I’m Satan’s swaggering asshole sidekick, after all?
“I’m so stupid. I flew back home on Friday afternoon. Carissa called and asked if we could get together this weekend. She said she had something for me that she ran across on Perez’s desk. She wasn’t supposed to see it. Tech’s FY Initiative? Apparently, that means Fuck Yeah.”
“I don’t understand.” What is she saying?
“Oh, it gets better. The PPP Fund Marketing set up? That means Party, Party, Party. That’s what Shane is using all the cash in those funds to do. Millions of dollars devoted to having a good time. Want to know specifically what he’s spending that money on? Look no further than HR’s very prestigious H-and-B Reserve.”
Suddenly, I know exactly what that stands for. “Hookers and Blow?”
“Yep. See, you’re a smart guy. You should be here, untangling this mess and saving this company. Our profits are literally going to sex workers and up our executives’ noses. I’m told that as soon as he was given the CEO’s seat, Shane invited all of the VPs out for a weekend of ‘team building.’ And apparently, he has video of every one of them doing something blackmail-worthy. That’s why they’re all toeing the line. They don’t want to lose their families or get arrested.”
I do my best to close my gaping mouth and support her. “This is fucking crazy. You know that, right?”
“Absolutely. Our CEO intentionally put the most powerful people in our organization in a position to be blackmailed so he could bleed the profits from the company his father is unable to oversee. All so he can have a grand time at everyone else’s expense. It won’t be long before we’re bankrupt.”
She’s right. I wanted Reservoir out of the way for Stratus’s sake. But not like this.
“How can I help you?” I’m hard-pressed to see a way without betraying my boss and best friend, but I’ll try.
“I don’t know.” Her voice hitches. “I don’t— The weight of this company is on my shoulders. Carissa gave me the information, but she didn’t really understand it. She thought she was just looking at some horribly compromising material. She doesn’t have the bigger picture of the financials. I guarantee no one else has dug into it. I can’t confront my boss about the fact I’ve seen footage of him balls deep in a stripper while his wife was home with their newborn.”
“That’s knowledge he’d probably fight to keep secret. He’d discredit you in a heartbeat.”
“I know. I’ve been up all night trying to decide what to do…”
“Have you thought about calling Bruce Rawson?”
Except for her shuddering breaths, she’s quiet for a really long time. “I can’t.”
“I don’t see another choice.”
“It’s complicated. It’s…” She lets out a frustrated huff. “Shit, I’ve come this far. You might as well know everything.”
My heart stutters, and suddenly I know she’s going to confess. It’s bittersweet. I wanted Sloan to open up to me. Craved her trusting me enough to give me her truths. And what the fuck does that say about my feelings?
But now that we’re here, I’m worried it’s too much, too soon for her. And once this genie is out of the bottle, she can never put it back in. Will she stop talking to me so she doesn’t have to confront the fact I know her dirty secrets? “Sloan… Baby, you don’t have to—”
“Bruce Rawson is my biological father. When I met him as a teenager, he blew me off. After I got my master’s, I approached him strictly for advice. He assumed I was there to blackmail him, so he hired me to shut me up. He’s never paid me a moment of attention after that.”
And suddenly I get what drives Sloan. “You’ve given most of your adult life and your ambition to win your father’s approval?”
The ugly cry starts again. “I’m just a poor little girl with stupid Daddy issues. Pathetic.”
Clearly, she isn’t ready to face him—and risk his rejection again. She’s upset about that, too.
I can’t afford to feel so sorry for Sloan that I fail to do my job, but that doesn’t stop me from wanting to cut all the bastards in her life who are making her miserable. “You are not pathetic. You’re in a shitty position. Of course you’re upset.”
“I’m not upset,” she sobs. “I’m angry.”
Denial. I get that. She doesn’t want to admit that she feels crushed because she’ll also have to admit weakness.
“Baby, you have every right to be pissed as hell. None of this is your fault.” Yet I can tell she somehow feels responsible.
“I didn’t push harder for that report sooner. I didn’t ask more questions when I noticed all the VPs acting oddly after Shane took Bruce’s position.”
“You mean after your brother usurped your father. They’ve all made choices; none of that is your doing. If you had known and done nothing, I’d understand your regret. But you and I have been digging for weeks to get this much information. It was sheer luck that Carissa ran across something that would finally help this nightmare make sense.”
“What good does it do me to realize the company I’ve dedicated my career to is a house of cards I can’t stop from falling?”
The heartbreak in her voice is painful. “There are other employers. You’re no slave to Reservoir, and if the worst happens, you can soothe yourself with the knowledge that you were the only person who tried to stop its demise. If you’re worried that Daddy won’t ever love you because you didn’t save his company, that’s on him. He’ll have to live with the knowledge that he both allowed his worthless son to piss away his hard work and ignored the daughter who did her best to rescue it. But you can’t make him choose differently. All you can do is decide how to move forward for your best possible outcome.”
She doesn’t speak for protracted moments, but her breaths turn less choppy and audible. I know she hears me, and I’m sure she’s thinking. “If you were in my place, what would you do next?”
“Great question.” It’s really the only logical one, and I’m not surprised Sloan is already trying to think past her emotions and devise something both helpful and workable. “How much of the blackmail material do you have your hands on?”
“Just Smith’s. Carissa only showed me the footage because she was shocked to see my boss with this woman who clearly isn’t his wife, especially given the date stamp on the video.”
That’s not optimal, but even if she can get her boss on board, it’s a start. “Blackmail him.”
“Shane already is, and I—”
“Hear me out. Tell him that you’ll tell his wife about his indiscretion with the stripper if he doesn’t get you the dirt on all the other VPs and convince them to stand up to Shane collectively. If all the VPs rally to oust him, it might work.”
“I don’t know… Someone would still have to assume the leadership position, and after this fiasco, I don’t think any of them are qualified.”
“No.” If I ran that company for even five minutes, I would fire them all—not for their moral choices outside the office but for letting the whole ship go down so they could save their own asses. No one will convince me they didn’t drag out the release of that financial statement. They knew it wouldn’t survive scrutiny.
Vaguely, I wonder why Bruce Rawson hired Jeremy. Did he instinctively know that he couldn’t trust Shane and wanted to implement some oversight? Did he have some inkling that the company he’d spent his life building was quickly sinking? There’s a reason he hired McBride to consult…
“So who would run Reservoir? I love this place. You know I’ve given it my all, but…I’m not qualified.”
Sloan is underselling herself again, but I understand why she feels that way. Being CEO would be challenging as hell for her; she doesn’t have executive experience. But if anyone could put in the mental energy and elbow grease to make it happen, it’s her.
“I don’t know who would run Reservoir, but that’s farther down the road. The most important thing now is for you to stop the bleeding.”
“Before it dies. Right.” She’s clearly getting a hold of her emotions now, because she sounds more determined than crushed.
“Exactly. I hate that I’m sitting here in M—” I barely stop myself from admitting that I’m in Maui. “Maricopa County, Arizona. But whatever I can do from here, just tell me. I’ll do my best, baby. I just don’t want to hear you cry anymore.”
“It’s not the first time; it won’t be the last. I just appreciate you listening and trying to help.”
“I can’t remember the last time anyone was willing to go to the mat for me. I usually do that for people, and it almost always blows up in my face. But thank you for being protective and…thoughtful.”
If she only knew, and guilt suddenly plunges into my chest, stabbing at my heart like a blade. I can’t be totally honest with Sloan. I’ve made this fucking torture rack of a bed that I have to lie in. But I can tell her a few truths. “It’s been a long time since I really felt a connection to someone I understood. I usually gravitate to women who are…”
“Softer? Sweeter? Less pushy?” she supplies for me. “My mom used to call me plucky and tell me that some people would like me for it. Those who didn’t just didn’t have enough spine, she’d say. But I have yet to find a man who really wants to be challenged. It’s understandable if you don’t, either. That makes you normal.”
“No, it made me blind.” And it’s true. I always wanted to help Becca. She seemed sad and lonely, so fragile—everything Sloan isn’t. Suddenly, I can’t remember why I was drawn to a woman so unsure of herself, one with no aspirations and no grasp of the fact every person has one life, so what they make of it is up to them. Becca waited for everyone to make her life for her. Evan tried. I would have tried, too, if I wouldn’t have been betraying my best friend.
Suddenly, I wonder…would Becca and I have made each other miserable? Or do I only wonder that because I have a woman so opposite, so vibrant, to compare her to?
“McBride…” She sighs. “Jeremy, you don’t have to—”
“Be nice?” I snap, mostly because I hate her calling me by a name that isn’t mine. It’s not her fault; I did this to myself. But that only makes me hate it more. “Say things I don’t mean? I don’t bother with that shit. And look, I know this is a professional relationship, and I have no business making it personal, but the truth is I’ve never met a woman more fascinating than you. If we didn’t work together and we didn’t live in different states…”
“No, you wouldn’t.”
I laugh, mostly at my own eagerness. “Oh, I fucking would. In a heartbeat. Baby, I’m in your corner. I’m on your side.” Well, except when it comes to the Wynam project. “You’re going to succeed, and I’ll help you any way I can.”
She exhales. The sound is choppy and full of emotion again. “That might be the kindest thing any man has ever said to me. For the record, if we didn’t work together and we didn’t live in different states, I fucking would, too. In a heartbeat. Thanks.”
“Bas?” Evan snaps his fingers in my face. “Projections for European growth if Wynam doesn’t choose us? I’m leaving for London on Friday for this face-to-face, but that hardly means we’re a shoo-in for this account. We need to know our cash position in a worst-case scenario.”
“Yeah. Sure.” I rifle through the papers in front of me, mostly to stall for time while I yank my thoughts back in line. The prospective client invited Evan across the pond, which is great. But that makes everything critical now…and I can’t seem to focus.
Usually, I would know the answer to his question off the top of my head. If I could stop thinking about Sloan for two seconds put together, I’d be able to answer my boss and best friend, no problem. But on a Monday following a sleepless Sunday night? It’s not happening.
“What’s up with you? You’ve been distracted all day.”
I haven’t told Evan anything about my last call with Sloan, and it’s eating at me. Normally, I would have spilled the juicy details about Reservoir’s uncertain future. I would have coughed up every morsel of information about what might be their impending financial collapse if no one steps in. Their loss is our gain.
So why are you withholding?
I already know the answer. Evan is a good guy, sure. But he’s a damn smart man. He would never want me to create a competitor’s misfortune so he could benefit…but he’d be pissed if I ignored trouble already brewing because I’d suddenly grown a conscience—or a heart.
I’m in a fucking quandary, and I shouldn’t be. In a competition of who I most owe my allegiance to, the guy I’ve been friends with for a dozen years definitely wins out over my ball-busting phone-a-friend. Sloan is the target I’m supposed to hustle. She’s the ticket to Evan’s expansion dreams. I’m not supposed to care about her.
I need to stop hesitating and finish this job.
“Bas?” Evan prompts.
“There’s something going on with Sloan.”
He narrows his eyes. “You want to roll that past me again?”
He’s pissed. I can’t figure it out until I replay what I said in my head. Shit, it sounds like I’m having a fling with the competition. Technically, I’m not—no matter how much I wish otherwise.
“That didn’t come out right. I mean that Sloan is acting oddly, and I’m trying to figure out what’s up.”
“And how best to use it to our advantage? Gotcha.”
Is there a way to do that without throwing Sloan to the wolves?
I don’t even question why I’m desperate to make such a thing possible. It’s not because I’m worried about karma or ethics. Right or wrong, everything screams at me to protect her. Sloan can’t go down with the ship she’s trying so hard to right. It isn’t fair. Yeah, I know life isn’t…but if I can give her some equity and justice this one time while giving Evan the European expansion I owe him? What’s the harm in that?
“More or less,” I manage.
“When you figure it out, let me know. Until then…those projections?”
I pull my head out of my ass long enough to give Evan the information he needs and finish the rest of our meeting. When he tells me I look like shit and I’m acting even worse so I should go home, I don’t argue.
Except when I get there, I have nothing to do but stare mindlessly at the TV, wonder how Sloan’s day went, and hate that she didn’t call. I can’t appear too pushy. I can’t insist that she give me more insider information. She’ll be suspicious. But I can just picture her singlehandedly trying to slay metaphorical dragons and save the dying company from perdition.
I just hope she doesn’t die on her sword.
And instead of figuring out what the fuck to tell Evan, I spend the evening thinking of ways to save her.
But I don’t come up with any grand solutions by Tuesday. Or Wednesday.
Nor have I heard from Sloan. It worries me.
Finally, on Thursday morning, my phone rings and her number pops up on my display. I hold up a finger to signal Evan to pause the strategy meeting we’re in to finalize our follow-up to Wynam and answer. “Sloan?”
“Yeah.” Her voice sounds shaky. She swallows.
As I let myself out the door, I’m aware of Evan’s gaze following me. Nia looks on with concern, too. I can’t meet their stares now. I’ll deal with them—and the guilt killing me—but that’s a problem for later.
“Talk to me.”
“Am I interrupting you?”
Yes, but I don’t care. “It’s fine. What’s going on?”
“A lot. It’s gotten ugly fast. I-I tried doing what you suggested and blackmailing Smith. I just don’t…” She lowers her voice. “I don’t dare say any more here. There are ears everywhere.”
She sounds scared. I need to do something—fast. “How can I help?”
The uncharacteristic trembling of her voice worries me. “For your job?”
“Yes. But that’s not all. I’m actually afraid for my safety.”
“Someone threatened you?”
“Shane. Not in so many words. It was veiled, but it was there. I hate to ask this of you, and if you can’t, I understand but… I really want you here.”
Oh, fuck. I can’t go there without her knowing I’m not Jeremy McBride.
Or can I?
She doesn’t actually know Jeremy. They’ve never met. Hell, she’s never heard his voice. Even if she’s seen a picture, well…Jeremy and I are the same age. He’s got darker hair and he’s a little heavier, but maybe I suddenly decided to drop a few and visit a salon. I can make anything work. That BS isn’t nearly as important as saving her.
“I can be there tomorrow.” I don’t know what I’m going to say to Evan; I’ll think of something.
She sounds both relieved and on the verge of tears. “Thank you.”
“Where should I meet you? And do you have someplace you can lie low until I make it there?”
“I don’t know. Um…a hotel, maybe.”
“Good call. I don’t think it’s wise for me to come to the offices.” For so many reasons…
“You’re right. We have to be careful…”
With a shaking voice, she rattles off the name of a boutique hotel north of the city, according to an internet search. It looks upscale without being pretentious. There are a couple of restaurants attached, one casual, one swanky, along with what appears to be a happening nightclub.
It looks like a place where she might plausibly go in her home city and where I might, as a traveler, conceivably run into her—if she gets tailed and we’re caught. Maybe I’m being paranoid, but it’s hard not to think about worst-case scenarios.
I’ll never forget the awful day Becca died. Her loss seemed so surreal. One day she was there. The next… Of course I knew about the car accident. It shocked me. Logically, I knew she was gone. But her funeral didn’t give me a sense of closure. For too long, my life, my feelings have been on pause.
If something happened to Sloan, it would be worse. Becca was driving too fast on slick streets and slid head-first into an embankment. There was nothing anyone—even Evan—could have done. But if Shane or one of the VPs decides to do whatever it takes to stop Sloan from exposing them, I’ll feel totally responsible. After all, she might never have found herself in danger if I hadn’t started this ruse and pushed her for information until she found herself ass deep in this mess.
“I’ll be there, probably tomorrow afternoon.” I curse the multiple time zones between us, the ones she doesn’t know about.
“Call me when you get in, okay? I-I’ll come there as soon as I can.”
I hate the catch of fear in her voice and wish like fuck I could reach her sooner. But I’ll be hard-pressed to keep this promise as it is. It’s not merely the long flight. I’ll have to tell Evan something about why I’m going to Dallas, and I fucking don’t want to lie. But I can’t leave Sloan to fend for herself, especially now. I also have to figure out how not to tip her off that I’m not Jeremy.
What a goddamn tangled web.
“I’ll be waiting,” I swear. “Don’t be afraid, baby. We’ll figure this out.”
Before I can reply, she’s gone. I hope that’s not a foreshadowing of things to come.
Twenty-four hours later, I finally cross the threshold of the hotel where I made a reservation. While Sloan and I were talking, it didn’t cross my mind to ask how long I should plan on staying. I tried to call back, but she didn’t answer. Anxiety clouded my thoughts as I booked a room for this weekend. If I need to stay longer, I’ll deal with it later.
My gut is in knots as I head for the check-in desk, glancing around in case I see her. I don’t know what she looks like, not really. Just red hair and a hint of vulnerability with that strong, determined jaw.
As the hotel clerk finishes up with another incoming guest, I try Sloan’s number once more. Voice mail. Again. I leave another message telling her to call me.
I need to slip into problem-solving mode and find her.
“Welcome, sir. How may I help you? Checking in?”
“Yes,” I tell the friendly, forty-something clerk as I hand over my driver’s license and credit card.
My phone buzzes in my pocket as the woman takes the plastic from my grasp. I rip the device from my pocket, disappointed that it’s Evan’s name on my screen.
“I have to take this,” I tell the clerk.
“No problem,” she assures.
“What’s up, buddy?”
“You there? Make contact yet?”
“Wine her. Dine her. Recline her—whatever it takes to find out who her spies are. If someone under our roof is providing our competitors information about our Wynam campaign, we need to deal with them ASAP.”
That’s the cover story I gave Evan to explain my impromptu trip to Dallas. Sloan has information about our pitch that she shouldn’t, and I have no idea how she got it…but she might be willing to tell me face to face. Evan was all for getting to the bottom of the guilty party’s identity, which made talking him into this trip simple. But we really do need to know, so in one ten-minute conversation, I doubled my number of mission objectives.
It’s fine. I’ll handle it.
Once I find Sloan.
“On it. Hey, I’m checking in. I’ve got to go.”
“If you get something soon, call me. I’ve got another six hours before I head to London.”
“Will do,” I say, hoping that’s a promise I can keep.
Minutes later, the clerk directs me to sign an electronic pen pad, then hands me a key. “Your room is on the eighth floor. You have a great view of the city. Enjoy your stay.”
Normally, I would. I’ve been to Dallas. Good food, decent people, and the weather isn’t horrible unless it’s summer. Now I’m too ratcheted up to care. “Thanks.”
I glance at my room number, grip my luggage, and make my way toward the bank of elevators. In my hand, my phone rings. It’s Sloan. Finally.
“There you are. Talk to me,” I growl into the device.
“I can’t,” she whispers. “I got your messages. Shane is suspicious. He’s suddenly assigned me to a task force that meets tonight. He says we’re auditing some internal processes, and it’s an emergency because it’s extending random outages. I don’t know what to think…”
The fact it’s so last minute seems fishy. “Who else will be there?”
“He didn’t say. He just told me to report to the conference room near his office at five o’clock on the dot and to expect to be here until midnight.”
Jesus. Maybe I should risk breaking cover to go there and make sure she’s safe. “Sloan, I’m worried about you.”
“Honestly, I’m worried, too. But I have to believe he’s too squeamish and too lazy to be truly violent.”
I hope she’s right…but what if she isn’t?
“I’ll call you tomorrow,” she murmurs into my thoughts.
“No.” She can’t leave me worrying all night. “I know it will be late. I know it’s asking a lot, but I need to see for myself that you’re safe.”
Sloan sighs. “Okay. I’ll do my best to be in the hotel bar as close to midnight as I can.”
I let out a breath. “I’ll wait as long as it takes. How will I know it’s you?”
“Oh, right. You’ve never seen me.” I hear the self-deprecation in her voice. “Well, I looked at your picture on your website, so I’ll find you. Gotta go.”
She’s gone before I can object.
Shit. Normally, I love dirty corporate games, but this is twenty kinds of clusterfuck. I need to start preparing excuses and lies now.
The rest of the evening crawls by. I text Sloan a few times. It takes her a while, but she eventually answers that she’s fine. Late in the evening, I pick at my dinner in the restaurant downstairs. About eleven, I head to the bar and order a scotch. I spot a brunette staring at me. She’s pretty. Really pretty, in fact. Normally, I’d be tempted to chat her up, buy her a drink, and persuade her to come to my room.
But all I can think about is Sloan.
At quarter before midnight, my phone buzzes. Shane and the team still can’t fix the situation. They’re pulling an all-nighter. I’m so sorry. Tomorrow?
I curse and down my scotch, slamming it on the bar before I tap back. As soon as you’re awake. You sure you’re safe?
Totally. There’s a small crowd. Shane is just being a jackass.
That’s nothing new, and hopefully he doesn’t turn into something more.
Ignoring the brunette still eyeing me, I walk away and head to my room. Her expression made it clear she’d welcome a drink and a laugh, maybe more, but Sloan seemingly ripped off my blinders. I don’t know if the brunette has a spine to go with those pretty wide eyes. And if she doesn’t, she won’t be interesting enough to hold my attention for more than an hour or two.
Or maybe it’s time to be honest with myself. I don’t want that woman because I not only came to Dallas to help Sloan stay safe and untangle her problems but to be with her—in every way she’ll let me.
I want her—like I’ve rarely wanted a woman.
More than Becca?
After calling the elevator, I disappear inside the car and let out a breath. For the first time, I’m going to willfully and gleefully cross the sacred line between business and pleasure. There’s something about Sloan—about the way I feel when I talk to her… I need to understand why I’m so hooked.
When I wake after a restless night, I grab my phone. My last text from Sloan came around three a.m., joking about being on her second gallon of coffee. I don’t dare text and wake her up now.
Hours drag by, and even though it’s a gorgeous day in Dallas and exploring the city is pleasant, the waiting chafes.
It’s after noon when my phone finally rings and her name crosses my display. “Sloan?”
“Hi. I’m awake and mostly okay. Last night was weird, but I ran across something when Shane sent me to his office to fetch his laptop cord. Well, I searched his office since I was there alone. I didn’t dare take the document last night, and Carissa tells me he and another group have been in the office since noon. She’s pissed she had to come in on a weekend, and they’re running her ragged doing their menial shit. Anyway, once they’re all gone, I’ll tiptoe into the office, grab this smoking gun, and come right to you.”
“No.” At the moment, I’m inclined to tell her to fuck the smoking gun. “Come now. We’ll talk about your find and figure out next steps—”
“This is really important. I swear. If I don’t grab it… I’m already worried when I go back it will be gone.”
“What is it?”
“You have to see it to believe it. I’ll be there about ten. Meet me in the bar?”
“Let me come with you. I don’t want you running into Shane alone in case he’s still there.”
“Jeremy, I can’t. It’s sweet, but…if we run into Shane, he’ll be doubly angry.”
“Tell him I’m your date, and you left something in the office you just stopped in to grab.”
She sighs. “Even if I did, there’s a security guard, and you’re not on the approved visitor list. Please. I know what I’m doing. I have a plan. Trust me.”
Sloan hasn’t left me much choice. “All right. I’ll see you at ten. If you don’t make it, I’ll come looking for you.”
“I appreciate your concern. It’s sweet. But I’ll be there.”
She ends the call, and I mutter a curse, then settle in to watch the Cubs play the Brewers while I do a little of the work I missed during yesterday’s travel.
At nine thirty, I head downstairs. People are coming in. It’s not congested yet, but it’s definitely more crowded than last night. I resist the urge—barely—to text Sloan and ask if she’s all right. Hopefully, the guy who fucks and sucks his way through most workdays is too far in his orgasm coma to suspect that she knows anything. Or too wrapped up in his “process emergency” to care about her now.
I find a table in a quiet corner and sit to wait. And wait. Ten comes and goes. So does ten thirty. Texts go unanswered. I start to panic.
Then the door from the street opens, bringing a gust of strong wind with it. In walks a redhead in a silky champagne dress that dips off the shoulders, nips in with her tiny waist, then clings to the lush curves of her hips before ending above her knee. She’s wearing a pair of sparkly platforms that wrap around her ankles, lending her petite figure a good four inches of height and making her legs look miles long.
She stops in the middle of the dimly lit bar and scans the room, looking for someone.
On autopilot, I make my way to her, every hair on my body standing up and every inch of my skin tingling. “Sloan?”
I drag my gaze up from her pert ass in time to see her whirl around to me, rosy lips slightly parted and a blazing curl cupping the side of one softly rounded breast. I swallow.
One look at her…and I’m in deep trouble.
“Yeah.” I hate lying, and before I leave town, I’m going to tell her my name. Now isn’t the time. “You okay?”
She nods. “I thought about what you said, about seeming like I have plans in case someone in the office caught me there, so I dressed up. I’m glad I did. I ran into Perez. He scowled and grilled me a little, but he let me go.”
Close call. “Thankfully. I’m glad you’re here. You look…”
“Tired. I know. I’m definitely feeling the effects of last night.”
Is she kidding? “I was going to say gorgeous.” I can’t stop staring at her. “It’s really a pleasure to meet you.”
“You, too.” She sticks out her hand, then retracts it with a laugh. “A handshake feels weird since I know you so much better than that.”
True, but I don’t want to make Sloan uncomfortable by assuming she wants more. “It does.”
“I’m a hugger.” She bites her lip, looking my way with eyes like a hazy blue day and a pouty mouth I’m dying to taste. “Is that all right?”
“That’s great.” I try not to sound lecherously enthusiastic as I open my arms.
She sends me a soft smile and walks right in. Then I’m holding her tighter than is strictly polite, but she doesn’t complain. In fact, she wraps her arms around my neck, puts her head on my chest, and sighs into me. “This will probably sound crazy, but I needed this. I feel safer already.”
“Not crazy. I feel better, too.”
A few moments pass, and neither of us speaks. I grip her. She clings. Together, we breathe. I inhale her hint-of-strawberry scent. It makes me hard. I exhale lust, watching with excitement as she closes her eyes, nestling her cheek against my chest, and breathes it in.
Fuck. We’re fully dressed and standing in the middle of a crowded public space, and I’m already more aroused—and invested—in Sloan than the last half-dozen women I took to bed.
Never mind being in trouble. I’m toast.
Finally, she steps back and breaks the connection. A laughing group of frat boys stumbling into the bar and 5 Seconds to Summer’s “Teeth” filling the bar ensure it’s too loud for me to hear her.
“What?” I mouth.
Sloan presses close again, lifting up on her tiptoes to murmur in my ear. And damn, her pert breasts rake against my chest. My blood boils in my veins. “I said that it’s kind of loud in here and asked if there was someplace else we could go.”
“My room is on the eighth floor, but if you’re not comfortable—”
“That’s fine.” She wraps her hand around my arm and smiles up at me. “Let’s go.”
Every time she touches me, my brain stops working. Worse, I feel my heart falling with an irrevocable thud at her feet.
I’m fucked. Absolutely, utterly fucked. She’s supposed to be a job. At the very least, I need to figure out who her spy is. All I can think about right now is getting her out of that dress, into my bed, and never letting her go.
Sliding my palm possessively onto the small of her back, I escort her out of the bar, abandoning my half-full scotch and leading her to the elevator.
In the bright lights and relative silence of the lobby, she turns to me with a frown. “I’m sorry I didn’t recognize you. You don’t look much like the picture on your website.”
Shit. “Oh, you know. I hate having my picture taken, and I just…” I shrug off the rest of my reply, hoping she’ll fill in the blanks with whatever excuse makes the most sense to her.
“I get it.” Her frown deepens as she scans my face. “But from the photo on your site, I would have sworn your eyes were brown. But they look hazel green.”
I never noticed the fucking color of Jeremy’s eyes. “I get that a lot. It just depends on the lighting.”
I’m relieved when the elevator arrives. We step inside, and we’re blessedly alone. It takes every ounce of my willpower not to pull her closer. Part of me wants to settle Sloan against my body and has no problem seducing her for information. But the part of me that isn’t engorged and is still thinking rationally knows that if I do, once I tell her the truth, she’ll hate me.
Suddenly, making sure she doesn’t is really, really important. Examining why is terrifying.
Sloan merely sends me a nod and a little smile. “Thank you for coming. I know it was a lot, asking you to fly here. But I feel bolstered, like I can accomplish anything now.”
“You can. I’ll help you however you need,” I promise.
But with my hand still pressed to the small of her back and her taut ass mere inches below my fingers, I can’t deny how much I’m aching to help her out of her clothes and onto her back.
I clear my throat. “Were you able to get everything you need from the office tonight?”
She nods. “It wasn’t easy. I’m worried that if Perez mentions the fact he spotted me, Shane will be suspicious.”
“Depending on what you found, maybe you can take Monday off. Say you’re sick. We can strategize—”
“Once you see what I’ve brought, we’ll decide.” But she looks torn. “Maybe I read it all wrong. I keep hoping…”
Of course. Who wants to think that someone they work with is selling everyone out for their own gain? “Sure.”
After seeming to move as slow as molasses, the elevator doors open and I guide Sloan down the hall, to my room. As I approach the lock with the card key, I forcibly steady my hand to keep it from shaking.
Moments later, the door opens with a squeak. Inside, my room is dark, except for the moonlight shining through my floor-to-ceiling window, filling the room with shadows.
I usher her in. The faux wood slams, locking behind us. We’re alone. My heart pounds.
“I’ll, um…find a light.” I turn for the switch on the wall.
“Wait.” She wraps her slender fingers around my forearm. Her touch sends shards of lust through my body.
I turn back. “Is something wrong? Are you okay?”
“Yes.” Then she shakes her head. “Actually…no. I’m worried that once you turn on the lights, I won’t have the courage to do this anymore.”
In the shadows, Sloan searches my eyes. She’s looking for something. No, she wants something.
My heart revs harder as she drops her purse. Then she throws herself against me and wraps her arms around my neck. Shock assails me when she presses her pretty, pouty lips over mine and kisses me like she’s thought of nothing else all day. Or maybe that’s me. I’ve been concerned about her. But under all that? I’ve been dying to know what she looks like. What she sounds like. What she feels like in my arms. What she tastes like against my tongue.
This nibble isn’t enough. I need more.
I wrap my arms around her and haul her against my body. Desire burns, scorching my veins, singeing my skin. The press of her breasts sears me. I groan, grabbing a fistful of her dress. My other hand snakes into her hair, wrapping her silky tresses around my fingers.
I take control of the kiss, recklessly shoving her lips apart and delving into her mouth, driving deep with zero fucks given about anything practical like professionalism or caution.
Against me, her breath catches. She moans and grips my shoulders as if I’m the only reason she hasn’t melted to the floor. As far as I’m concerned, that’s an invitation to hold her tighter. No way I’m passing on that.
But once again, Sloan proves she’s not passive.
She pushes me against a wall and slants her bow of a mouth over my lips, not merely inviting me deeper but daring me to try and take back command of our kiss.
She doesn’t know yet that I never back down from a challenge…but she will.
As I plunge past her lips, I swallow her gasp and flare even hotter. She’s with me, gripping my shirt, biting at my bottom lip before luring me inside with her sweet taste again. I tighten my fingers in her hair, pulling at her scalp, and devour her.
Fuck, I can’t remember the last time I wanted a woman this much. Have I ever? There’s something about Sloan…
Her lips are a plush cushion for mine as I eat at her like I’m starved. She doesn’t simply yield but takes from me in return, greedy and demanding.
Until she pulls her mouth from mine with gasping, audible pants. “Take off your shirt.”
It’s an order, not a request. Not usually my speed, but my whole body is on fire for her, so refusing isn’t an option. One by one, I flick open the buttons down the front of my shirt and shrug it off, then toss it carelessly, never taking my stare from her.
Sloan looks me up and down. Her eyes flare with heat. Her breaths pick up pace. Through her dress, her nipples bead.
But she doesn’t waste time gawking. Nope. She lays her palms on my chest. Then one wanders down my abs.
With seeming reluctance, her stare climbs up my body to meet my gaze again. “You’re like a hot slab of stone.”
Thanks to the push Evan and I give each other in the gym. Speaking of…I can’t lose sight of my best friend and why I’m here with Sloan in the first place.
But when her hand wanders farther down, past the waistband of my khakis to settle over my cock, and she sucks in a sharp, shocked breath, I flash hot.
“You figure out I’m hard all over?” I challenge.
Sloan bites her lip. I’d think she’s suddenly gone shy…except she’s stroking me through my pants. “I suspected. I wanted that confirmed.”
A kittenish smile curls the corners of her mouth as she squeezes me. “Not yet, but you feel well equipped to do the job.”
“Oh, baby. You have no idea…”
She hesitates. “This will complicate everything.”
No doubt she’s right. But she doesn’t seem to care any more than I do. The pull between us is too strong.
“Probably, but I can separate business from pleasure.”
“Same,” she whispers.
“Good.” Time for me to take over. “Turn around.”
She hesitates. “What are you going to do?”
“Undress you and make you damn glad you kissed me.”
Slowly, she turns, glancing back over her shoulder at me as if she can’t stop staring. “I already am.”
Fuck, yes. I can’t get her naked fast enough.
With impatient fingers, I grab the tab of the zipper and yank down, exposing her smooth, delicate back one pale inch at a time. Then I slide the fabric off her shoulders and down her arms, unwrapping her like a present. The dress falls from her torso, exposing her neck, her narrow shoulders, the elegant line of her spine blessedly uninterrupted by a bra strap, before dropping to cling to her thighs, giving me the full visual feast of the curved indent of her waist and the flare of her hips.
I swallow. Jesus, she’s like a work of art. I can’t wait to get my hands all over her, my mouth on every inch of her.
With a shimmy and a push, she drops the dress to the floor, taking her shoes with it, leaving her shielded only by a pair of sheer pink, lace-trimmed panties that don’t quite cover the high, pert cheeks of her ass and do very little to make her look less naked.
Holy fuck. I want that—want her—so badly I can barely breathe.
I slide the red curtain of her hair over one shoulder, totally baring her back, before I wrap my fingers around her throat. I grip just hard enough to let her know the touch isn’t incidental. Her harsh breathing fills the silence, growing more audible as I feel my way down the velvety skin of her back, then trail my palm lower to caress her ass.
The air turns electric. I’m going to lose my mind if I don’t get inside Sloan soon.
“You’re beautiful,” I murmur.
She braces her hands against the wall and lets her head fall back in surrender. “Touch me.”
I am, but she wants more. She wants my hands not simply on her but all over her. I’m down for that.
When I press my chest to her bare back, the heat between us makes me hiss in need. She groans, sending another spark straight to my cock.
Then I skate my hand across her flat stomach and feel my way up her torso until I’m cupping her breasts in my hands. Like the rest of her, they feel hot to the touch. They’re heavy as they fall into my palms. And when I graze my thumbs over the tips, she melts back into me.
“Do you like that, baby?” I strum her engorged buds again.
“Yes.” Her breath catches.
I nuzzle her neck, breathing on the sensitive flesh behind her ear, wringing a moan from her. But I don’t stop there, just continue on, dragging my lips down to the soft skin where her neck meets her shoulder, dragging my lips so gently she shudders and arches, panting ever harder.
“I want you naked.”
She answers by sliding her panties down her hips and kicking them free.
I would have done that for her—happily—but I love her enthusiasm. “That was efficient.”
“Why waste time when I know what I want? You could get naked, too, you know.”
Does she think there’s any way I’m not going to? That this doesn’t end with her spending the night with me? “Believe me, I intend to.”
“Maybe we could get to the bed?”
Since we haven’t even made it past the foyer, the crisply made bed looks a million miles away. “We can try.”
Later, when I’m deep inside her—if we make it—I’ll be glad for the effort.
Turning Sloan to face me, I intend to lift her against my body, take possession of her mouth again, and—hopefully—reach the elusive mattress. Instead, her nakedness stuns me silent and still. Her curves in all the right places have me gaping. God, she’s fucking beautiful.
“You’re staring,” she points out.
“You might be the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.”
Sloan chuckles. “You sound so convincingly sincere. I’m guessing that line works. If I were less naive, I’d fall for it.”
Line? I take hold of her chin and force her gaze to mine. “It’s not a line, baby. You fascinated me from the moment we started talking, and I wanted you before I ever set eyes on you. But now…” I look her up and down again, lingering on the generous swell of her tits and the fiery dusting of hair between her legs. “You blow me away.”
“Not yet, but the night isn’t over.” She winks.
Normally, I’d love that answer. It’s fun and flirty—and sexy as fuck. But coming from Sloan, it bothers me. It’s flippant, almost dismissive. I told her something raw and honest, and she wants to be cute?
“I’m not asking you to blow me. I’m asking you to be real with me.”
Something I can’t decipher crosses her face. Confusion? Wariness? Then she sighs. “All right. You fascinated me from the moment we started talking, too. I told myself it wasn’t smart to think about you as anything more than a consultant. But I couldn’t stop. You’ve listened to me like few people in my life have. I don’t know how the hell you’re single or why you and Aria broke up…”
But Sloan wants to know.
“She got pregnant”—since I hate lying even more to Sloan, I refuse to finish that sentence with a truth that’s not my own—“by someone else.”
Sloan looks stunned, but thankfully she doesn’t feel sorry for me. I couldn’t handle her wasting pity on a wound that isn’t mine. Guilt doesn’t belong on the dirty side of business, and feeling it now would be the death of me.
“That’s horrible,” she says finally.
I’m sure it sucked for Jeremy and will leave a gaping wound in his family. “Yes, but none of this is about her, just how I feel when I’m with you.”
My feelings go deeper than friendship, deeper than lust. I’m not sure how to categorize it, but it’s something I’ve never felt before. It ties me up and makes me anxious, mostly when I think about this weekend ending and letting Sloan go.
Well, and telling her who I really am.
Later. Now might be my only opportunity to convince her the feelings between us are real so that when I confess the truth, she won’t turn her back on me forever. That’s important…but so is winning enough of her trust to divulge how she knew about Stratus’s presentation to Wynam.
I’m in a fucking tough position. It would be easy to blame Evan, but I blame myself. I don’t get emotional in business—ever.
Sloan changed that.
“Good to know. So are we going to make it to the bed?”
Her impatience makes me smile, but her instincts are right. I should be in the moment. Thinking now only gives me—and her—too much time to second-guess everything.
Because right or wrong, I can’t resist Sloan. I need her closer to me. I need to know what she feels like when she’s under me, around me, and crying out for me when she comes. And I need to give her a reason to still want me once the shit hits the fan.
I nod. “Put your arms around me.”
She grips my biceps, then strokes her palms over my shoulders. Her fingertips skate along the backs of my arms, making me shudder. She sways closer, brushing her body against mine as she lifts her lashes and looks straight into my eyes, like there’s nowhere in the world she’d rather be. Finally, she stands on her tiptoes to clasp her hands around my neck as she slants her lips over mine for another kiss.
If I let her tempt me again, we won’t make it to the bed.
Instead, I trail my lips across her jaw and up her neck. When I reach her ear, I cup her ass in my hands and lift her. “Wrap your legs around me.”
Sloan does, but she isn’t merely along for the ride. Instead, she kisses the top of my shoulder, then nips at my neck. “I want this.”
“I want this, too.”
“Way more than I should.”
What does she mean by that? But as we reach the bed and I yank down the duvet to lay her across the sheets, she opens her arms to me, her legs to me…and I lose the will to puzzle out whatever she’s trying to say.
Especially when she reaches for me. “Please.”
Normally, I love a woman begging me. But from her…it feels wrong. Sloan has had to scrape for acceptance and affection from most of the people in her life. I might be lying to her about a lot of things. I might have started flirting with her for the wrong reasons. But I’m not about to make her beg me for something I want to give her freely.
“Anything you want, baby. You just tell me.”
“I’m aching.” She arches and squirms, thighs parting even more for me.
Sloan wants to come. God knows I’d love to make her.
I don’t hesitate to climb onto the bed, onto her body, and take her mouth in a demanding kiss. She meets me halfway. With every press of our lips and each stroke of our tongues, she’s totally with me.
When we’re both panting and rocking together, when she’s lifting her hips to my stiff cock and whimpering as I grind into her through my pants, it’s time to give her what we both crave. I’ll work my way inside her, spend all night doing my fucking best to addict her to being with me, and let the chips fall in the morning.
Tearing my lips from hers, I drag my open mouth down her neck, fueled by her harsh breaths and mewls, until I reach her hard nipples and suck one between my lips. The other I manipulate—pinch, turn, scrape—over and over. Then I switch breasts, loving the way she smells of strawberries and woman, especially under the heavy weight of her breasts. I lave her gossamer-soft skin, tease her tips with my tongue, then suck them in until her tender buds scrape the roof of my mouth.
She gasps. “Oh, my god.”
I release her nipple from my mouth with a lingering suck. “I haven’t even gotten to the part where I make you feel really good. Yet.”
Sloan closes her eyes with the softest groan. “Then hurry.”
I won’t rush this. I want to savor every inch of her, explore until I’ve mapped her body—where she’s soft, where she’s hot, where she likes to be touched, and where stimulation rockets her into pleasure. But her scent has my head spinning. The farther I roam down her body, the more the sweetness of strawberry gives way to the tang of her pussy. She’s undeniably aroused. Suspecting that was one thing, but knowing it torques me up.
Fuck, I need to get closer. To feel her. To taste her.
As I kiss my way down her stomach and nip at her navel, I wedge my shoulders between her legs, grab her firm, slender thighs, and position them over my shoulders.
Her breath catches. “Jeremy…”
I don’t want her to call me that, but I can’t tell her to stop. So I silence her by settling my mouth over her pussy and going straight for her hard clit.
But the instant her flavor hits my taste buds, I lose my head.
I mean to work her to a frenzy with my tongue, balance her on the razor’s edge of pleasure until she’s scratching and desperate, then finally let her orgasm. But no. Some switch flips in my head. Primal instinct takes over, and I get insatiable, prying her delicate folds apart with my thumbs to lap every inch of her sensitive flesh and drink her in.
Beneath me, Sloan tenses and hisses, pressing her heels into the mattress like her body is in sensual distress. Like she doesn’t know how to stop needing me. She can’t hide the fact that I get to her, and it’s fucking awesome that I’m not the only one drowning in this fascination.
I grip her hips, thinking vaguely that my fingertips may leave bruises on her tender skin, while I eat her ravenously. Sloan lifts, thrusting her pussy in my mouth with a desperation that feeds mine. She grips the sheet, her body thrashing. She tosses her head, breathing hard and fast like she can’t catch her breath.
I know a woman’s body. I know when she’s close, and Sloan is on the precipice. My usual tactic of dangling her over the edge and proving who’s in charge? I don’t have that control or cool with her. And she proves she’s not about to let me when she grips a fistful of my hair and presses me closer to her flesh.
“Oh, my god. Yes… Yes. Yes!” she screams as she falls into pleasure, wracking and bucking under me with a groaned wail that fills my ears—and my pride—before tapering into a soft, replete sigh.
When I look up with a smile, she’s melting into the mattress. “What have you done to me?”
“Made you feel good, I hope.”
“More than I was ready for.”
She had to brace for orgasm? “We’re just getting started.”
“As great as that was, I’d rather feel good with you,” she whispers. “Finish undressing. I brought condoms. They’re in my purse.”
I’m surprised. “You planned to have sex with me?”
Sloan looks sheepish. “I hoped. But I wasn’t presuming too much after all.”
“No.” I grin. “I bought condoms, too.”
“Good. We’re prepared.” She sits up and bounces to the edge of the mattress.
I lean in to kiss her. The view is so arousing, I can’t resist. But it’s not just that. There’s something about her. I feel compelled to touch her.
But she turns her head and wags a finger at me. “None of that. Or we’ll never get you naked and gloved up.”
Hell, she’s probably right.
“Hurry.” I cup her luscious ass as she heads for her purse.
Sloan tosses a grin over her shoulder, then bends for her big bag. Eagerly, I drop every stitch I’m wearing.
“Lie back, okay?” She comes closer, clutching what I suppose is a box in her hand. “I love to be on top.”
I have no objections. The view will be spectacular.
“Anything to make you happy, baby.” I get supine and watch her sway closer.
Without a hint of shyness, she straddles me, then takes my hands in hers, lacing our fingers together. Then she rubs herself along every inch of my hard cock until a guttural groan falls from my chest and I have to close my eyes against a detonation of tingles that leave me uncomfortably close to exploding.
Holy fuck, this is going to be amazing.
Suddenly, something snaps around my wrist. Frowning, I open my eyes in time to see her attach my now-cuffed hand to the pull of the nightstand drawer.
“Sloan?” What the fuck is she doing? I don’t mind bondage, but I prefer to do the binding.
Her face turns hard as she pushes away from the bed and starts wriggling into her dress.
“What the hell is going on?” I snarl.
She steps into her shoes, picks up her purse, then flips on the overhead light, flooding the room with brightness and leaving me totally exposed. “Did you really think I was that stupid? That gullible?” Her silent laugh is cynical. “You thought you were going to fuck me. You know what, Sebastian Shaw? Fuck you.”
My heart stops. Oh, shit. She knows who I am?
I scramble for a convincing cover story or any plausible way to deny the truth. But her face warns me. She knows beyond a doubt. “When did you figure it out?”
“Ironically enough on April Fool’s Day. Imagine my shock when I faxed some shit I found in Shane’s office to Jeremy to get your take on a document, and he called me immediately to ask who I was and what the hell the document was about.”
I can picture that…and it’s not good. I fucked up by not keeping Jeremy in the loop. Sure, I wanted Sloan to know the truth, but not like this. “Baby…”
“Oh, don’t ‘baby’ me. That ship sailed, asshole, the minute Jeremy fessed up. At first, I thought you were pranking me. But he didn’t sound like you. And he didn’t seem like you. I mean, he actually came across as a good guy.”
Ouch. “Sloan, listen—”
“No. You listen. You asked me a question; I’m answering with the truth—which is way more than you gave me,” she points out sharply.
“I wasn’t trying to hurt you.”
“Oh, please. You don’t give a shit about anyone except yourself and that doppelgänger of Satan you work for. If I needed any more proof of that, Jeremy gave it to me. When I threatened to expose the fact that he deceived his client and sold us to the enemy, he panicked and confessed. I blackmailed him into staying quiet so you and I could have this touching moment together.” Her gaze rakes me up and down.
I’m hardly modest, but her glare has me reaching for the sheet to cover myself.
“Until then, I believed you. You said all the right things.” She scoffs. “I really believed you cared what happened to Reservoir.”
I won’t lie to her and say that I do. “No, but I care about you.”
“Stop. That tripe won’t work on me anymore. What I want to know is how you convinced Jeremy to betray us. Did you coerce him, despite the fact you’re supposedly his friend? Or did you just pay him off?” She tosses me a disdainful glare. “You’re underhanded enough for either.”
Oh, she’s pissed. And if I don’t do some damage control, she’s going to hate me. “He and Aria really did break up recently. She got pregnant by his older brother, and he found out. They were engaged at the time, and it crushed him. I caught him in a vulnerable moment.”
“And you took advantage of him. That sounds like you.”
I sit up and try to cross the room to her—but I’m stopped short by the cuff. I huff in frustration. “I’m not out to hurt anyone. I’m just doing my fucking job.”
“To get dirty so that Evan Cook doesn’t have to?”
Affirming that opinion won’t help my cause. “Let’s get to the bottom of this. You want me to be honest, fine. I’m not trying to fuck you out of anything but the Wynam deal. In every other way, I was sincerely trying to help you because you’re a skipper captaining a sinking ship. Bless you for trying. I admire your grit. I mean that. I don’t know many people with your backbone. But you dissected that annual report for yourself. You saw where the money is going and what that will lead to. You wouldn’t even have known if I hadn’t pointed that out.”
“Don’t pat yourself on the back. I had been pushing to get that report for weeks. You called me to give me a supposed heads-up a day before I would have dived into it myself. I still would have seen what Shane’s doing and gotten to the bottom of it without you.”
She has a point, but… “Shane is on to you and the VPs are all complicit. If you’re in danger—”
“No. But apparently my high school drama skills aren’t as rusty as I feared.”
It was all an act?
I lunge for her—only to be stopped short again by the damn cuff tethering me. “You fucking lied to me?”
Sloan huffs. “You can ask me that so righteously with a straight face? I lured you here so I could expose and humiliate you.” She looks me up and down, lingering on my cock, which isn’t standing quite so tall and proud anymore. “I’d say mission accomplished.”
When she turns for the door, I lose my mind…and my temper.
“You fucking better not leave me.” I rattle my cuff against the metal pull impatiently. “Not like this.”
“Hmm.” She turns back, finger pressed to her pursed lips that still have the power to snag my attention. “You’re right. Let’s trade. I’ll give you this”—she snaps the handcuff key on the desk beside her, way across the room—“and in exchange, I’ll take that.” I’m not sure what she means until she walks to the luggage rack and snatches up my rolling suitcase. “Thanks. When you get back to Satan, tell him I said he can fuck off, too, because Reservoir is here to compete.”
When she strolls for the door, I gape at her. “Wait! You can’t just leave.”
Once she walks out of my room, I’m afraid I’ll never get to explain. And I’m terrified I’ll never see her again.
“The hell I can’t. We both know your seduction was bullshit.”
It wasn’t, but I won’t convince her of that now, so I grasp at the first excuse to keep her here. “You can’t take most of my clothes and leave me butt-naked.”
Sloan turns back to me, her hand pressed to her chest, lashes batting, as if she wonders how she could have possibly been so thoughtless. Bullshit. Sarcasm must be her middle name because it perfectly fits her now. “You’re right. I can’t take most of your clothes.” She plucks my pants up from the floor, leaving my wallet there when it tumbles out. “I’m taking all of them. Enjoy the rest of your evening. Buh-bye.”
I should have known that 5 Seconds of Summer song playing in the bar last night was an omen. Sloan’s touch was so sweet, but she clearly fights dirty, and her heart has teeth.
At least that’s what I’m thinking when I rip the drawer from the nightstand so I can reach the cuff key, then don the hotel’s provided bathrobe to find my suitcase and pants sitting next to the fucking elevator.
Things go from back to worse when the next day dawns with an angry call from Evan.
“’Ello,” I manage to rasp out, rubbing my sleep-deprived eyes.
“What the hell happened? Sloan O’Neill left me a furious voice mail at the office, letting me know she has every intention of winning Wynam’s business. She also called me a cocksucker, then she told me I need a leash for you because you’re a lying dog.”
I refrain from pointing out that it’s five a.m. in Dallas—and the middle of the night back home—and sigh. “She figured me out. I tried to do damage control, but…there’s no reasoning with that woman now.”
“Seriously? I thought you were going to wine, dine, and recline her.”
“I did my best, but she knew before I even reached the city that I work for the enemy. After that, nothing I said was going to matter.”
“Well, fuck. The great Sebastian Shaw struck out? This is a first.”
He’s not totally wrong. I’m not used to hearing no. It blows. “I wish I had better news, boss.”
“We’re going to have to double-down to secure this Wynam deal because whatever you did lit a fire under her. She hates you.”
“Oh, she made that abundantly clear.”
“She’s already called Michael Astor and told him we’re black hats playing dirty pool. I don’t like this attached to our reputation.”
In other words, he’s not happy, and I need to fix it. “I’ll do my best. You do damage control there and—”
“Believe me, I am. After Wynam’s executive team here in London heard my presentation, they’d decided not to even hear Reservoir’s—until Sloan called. After she tattled to Astor, they invited her in on Tuesday.”
No wonder he’s pissed. My feet haven’t even hit the floor, and my day has already turned to shit. “Sorry. I underestimated her. I won’t make that mistake again.”
And I must be a sick fuck because my respect for Sloan has only grown. Her savviness, her moxie… I really can’t think of her equal. So I can’t stop wanting her. And I’ll be damned if I give up before I have her.
“Good. Unfortunately, there’s shit going on at home. Someone broke into our house—”
“A killer. He tried to off Amanda,” he says of Nia’s half sister. “And her son. But—”
I sit straight up. “Why? She’s sweet as pie, and that kid is just a baby.”
“Yep. But Amanda’s ex has powerful enemies. Nia has the situation under control, and Amanda is with a bodyguard now. Until I get home, my wife will stay with Maxon and Keeley, who had a last-minute cancelation at their bed-and-breakfast, thank God. Maxon said that’s what family is for, and I’m grateful. My brother’s help allows me to stay here until late Wednesday, so I’ll do my best to mitigate whatever inroads Sloan makes in her upcoming pitch.”
Unless I get to her before she flies out. But I won’t make promises to Evan that I can’t keep. “Sounds good.”
“Be back in the office on Monday. And when you get there, you explain to my wife how this deal got fucked up. I’m not touching that…”
Because Evan doesn’t like to get his hands dirty. Right.
I sigh tiredly. “I’ll take care of it.”
We ring off. After I call Jeremy to apologize and do damage control, I arrange both a car and a flight back, which doesn’t leave for twelve hours. That leaves me a lot of time to find Sloan. It might be a long shot, but I need to talk to her and undo whatever damage I can.
I’m not sure where to find her on a Sunday. A phone call, if she even answered, would only piss her off more.
This is going to require face time.
After I hit the gym downstairs, I clean up and check out. Thankfully, the hotel will hold my luggage until I’m ready to head to the airport. But locating Sloan’s home address proves impossible. It probably doesn’t matter, anyway. With a presentation of this magnitude coming up, I bet she’s in the office.
After grabbing a quick coffee and a protein bowl from a to-go restaurant downtown, I hail a taxi and take it the few miles to Reservoir’s offices. The building is older but pristine and clearly built when construction was short on chrome and long on charm with towering Doric columns, a sturdy portico, and dark edifices around the big windows. Despite the fact the sun has barely been up for twenty minutes, there’s a sedan in the lot. Just one, and I’m sure it’s Sloan’s.
When I test the front door, it’s locked. But that won’t stop me.
I trek around the building, testing a door here, a window there. All secure. Damn it, I know she’s in there…
Just before I come full circle to the front again, I see a computer glare through a big picture window—and fiery hair twisted into a fat bun on top of her head.
Pulling my phone free, I type out a quick text to her: Look behind you.
On her desk, her cell lights up. Absently, she glances at it. Then she stiffens and whirls. When she catches sight of me, her face tightens. Her lips purse. She opens the window between us with a glower. “Leave. Or I’ll call the police. You’re trespassing.”
On my way here, I thought of a thousand things to say to Sloan, ways to massage the situation. But the sight of her is a gut punch. She’s furious. That, I expected. But she looks tired. And it’s obvious she’s been crying.
Suddenly, I can’t remember what I planned to say.
Something thick and terrible gluts my stomach, turning over and over until I feel close to puking. I think it’s guilt.
First, I failed Evan, which I’ll fix. But it’s clear I hurt Sloan. She’s trying to save her father’s company so she can win his love. The old bastard doesn’t deserve her. Sloan has so much drive, my boss and bestie would hire her in a heartbeat. But she sees Evan as the devil and me as his minion. We’re the enemy. And I’ve done more than stand in her way.
I hurt her.
That nearly activates my gag reflex again.
Guilt is a bitch.
“I’m sorry. I sincerely mean that.”
“I don’t care. Go.”
“Not until we’ve talked.”
She cocks her head. “What exactly are you sorry for? Lying to me? Trying to undermine me?”
No, all that was part of my job, and my motto has always been that if you don’t want to lose, you need to play the game better. “I never meant to hurt you.”
“Wait.” She frowns, puzzling out my words. “You’re not sorry for anything you did, just that you got caught. You didn’t mean to make me feel bad, but…oh well.”
When she puts it like that… I wince. “Sloan, I—”
“Stop. There’s nothing you can say. I don’t even know why you’re trying. We’re not allies. We’re not friends. We’ll definitely never be lovers. I have a mountain of work to finish before I leave for London tomorrow, so I’m not giving you a minute more of my time.”
“Listen, not everything between us was a lie.” Why am I making myself vulnerable to her instead of going for the jugular?
“Only the important parts. I hope you enjoyed fucking me over last night, Sebastian. Because I’m not even close to done fucking you.”
With that, she shuts the window, flips me a middle finger before donning the headphones dangling around her neck, and lowers the shade.
I knock. I text.
Clearly, she needs more time to cool off.
But she’s out of her mind if she thinks I’m giving up on her. Maybe it’s the competitor in me. Or maybe it’s the man. Even though I’m returning to Maui tonight, Sloan will soon find out we’re nowhere near over.
The flight back to Maui seems to take forever. Despite taking off around dusk, we fly toward the sun and I arrive back home to another sunny day in paradise. But I’m exhausted—mostly because I can’t think of a way out of this clusterfuck yet.
When I walk in the door, my condo feels empty. My one houseplant is near death’s door, and I don’t have any mail that isn’t junk. Even the messages I received in-flight are all business related.
I spend a rare evening alone, pacing in front of my TV while clips from the Masters tournament flash in the background before I catch the tail end of the A’s playing the Angels. But I’m so knotted up over my fucking debacle, I have no idea who won.
The following morning is worse because now I have to face the music. Evan isn’t the sort to bite my head off or issue threats when I screw up. Nia is—and she won’t hold back.
An early-morning text from my boss’s outspoken wife telling me to meet her at Maxon and Keeley’s place ASAP lets me know she’s not in the forgiving mood.
I buckle up for a day of hell.
The drive seems to take forever, and Fall Out Boy’s “Irresistible” blaring through my speakers sums up exactly where I’m at. Like second-hand smoke, I breathed Sloan in when we were together, but I don’t know what the hell she’s doing to me. I’m twisted in knots.
By the time I arrive at the charming inn on the coast, guests are taking coffee on the lanai overlooking the ocean. Keeley leads others through a morning yoga session. Maxon kisses her as he heads for the office he shares with his brother, Griff. But his raised brow and his WTF expression tell me to brace myself.
I’ve barely gotten out of the car when Nia slams out the front door and marches straight for me, rounding belly and all. “Are you out of your damn mind?”
What’s the right answer here? It would cool her down if I admitted fault, but I hate to show weakness. Besides, look how well that worked out when I tried to talk to Sloan yesterday.
Nope. I need another strategy—and a genius one occurs to me a split second later. I can disarm Nia and get some intel at once. “Probably, but I could use your help. I thought I spoke female pretty well, thanks to my sisters, but I misread this one.”
Nia rolls her dark eyes, and the flush staining her umber cheeks tells me she’s pissed as hell. “We’re all still on the same team. Right?”
Is she questioning my loyalty to Evan and Stratus? “Of course.”
“Just checking. After your trip to Dallas, I wasn’t sure,” she jabs again, then softens. “I didn’t sleep much last night. I’m cranky. Follow me.”
She leads me around the main house to the ohana, set back in a private garden with a secluded bench swing. When she climbs the stairs and opens the door, I look past the rumpled bed with the robe draped across the corner to the spectacular ocean views that fill every window.
“This is our war room for the next three days,” Nia says, gesturing me to a bistro chair in the corner. The accompanying table has been moved to the lanai outside. In its place sits a card table, where her laptop is already humming.
“Until Evan boards his flight home, we’ll be here supporting him in every way we can—facts, reports, charts, and whatever else Wynam wants—so we get them to sign on the dotted line. Don’t count on a social life until then.”
“Wasn’t planning on it.” Especially since I haven’t been able to shake off my fascination with Sloan.
“Don’t plan on sleeping much, either. We have tons of work to do, starting with a damage-control strategy.”
I’m sure work piled on my desk during my absence, but nothing is more important to Stratus’s future than securing the Wynam deal. “I’m all yours.”
She settles into the chair across from me. “Good. Before we start figuring out how to untangle this mess, tell me how we got here in the first place. Evan was vague, except to say that you got played. I never thought I’d see the day a woman pulled one over on you.”
Yeah. Me, either.
I fill Nia in, minus the juicy details. Not that I want to vomit up this crap, but she’ll keep after me until I do. Besides, whatever I don’t tell her, Evan will. Explaining just speeds up the process so we can root-cause this bad boy and figure out how to untangle my disaster. And I’m hoping Nia can help with my Sloan problem. After all, she’s savvy. She’ll be able to interpret the fiery redhead.
When I get to the end of my story, she simply shakes her head. “I’d ask if your balls are bigger than your brains, Shaw, but I already know the answer. No wonder she’s gone scorched earth.”
The reason seems obvious to Nia…but I didn’t foresee this much anger. “I should have expected it?”
“Of course. God, men can be so dumb. She’s coming for you and she’ll destroy whatever’s in her path.” Nia sighs and makes her way into the kitchenette. “I haven’t been drinking coffee during my pregnancy, but I’m going to need some for this day.”
“Is Sloan doing it because she’s vindictive?” I can’t picture that. She’s got a good heart.
Nia shoves a pod in the single-cup brewer and presses the button. “Are you really that lost?”
Isn’t it obvious? “Spell it out.”
“She’s angry, right?”
“Furious. I’m pretty sure she hates me.”
“Why do you think that is?”
“I tried to mess with her business.”
Nia shakes her head. “No. Well, you did. But Stratus has been doing that simply by competing for a while now. She didn’t come after you—or any of us—guns blazing, then.”
Nia has a point. “So you’re saying she’s coming after me now because I made it personal.”
“Exactly. If she’s anything like me—”
“A lot like you.”
“Then she resents that you got to her,” Evan’s wife says as if that explains everything while she reaches for the powdered creamer.
“I’m still lost.”
Nia huffs. “Do you get mad at someone if they don’t mean anything to you?”
“No.” And finally I grasp what this brilliant woman is telling me. “I doubt she does, either. That would explain why she’d been crying.”
“Crying, too? Oh, then you’re in a heap of shit. How did you not figure that out?”
“I thought she was angry that I played her. Or panicked that I might have ruined her opportunity to win her dad’s affection. Or…” But as I’m explaining, I realize that, while Sloan cares about that stuff, she’s never had her father’s affection. She’s too pragmatic not to know she might never.
That means she cried about me. Because I bruised her heart. Because she doesn’t show her vulnerable side easily, and I conned her into doing just that.
That thought disturbs and thrills me at once. I hate that I hurt her, but I love that she cares enough to let me past her defenses. Or at least she did.
But now that I really think about it, I know she cares. Otherwise, she would never have kissed me, gotten naked with me, or begged me for an orgasm. Yeah, maybe she did that to torment me because she had to know I was hard as hell for her. But it’s likely she did that because, deep down, she wanted me, too.
Hot damn. I can work with that.
The rest of the day is a blur of statistics, analysis, and reports. Evan calls to say he’s secured a meeting with Michael Astor directly after Sloan’s, and we all breathe a sigh of relief—before we start creating a follow-up presentation for him to give, finally emailing it at close to midnight, which is eleven a.m. the following day in London. He reads it over quickly and requests a few changes. Poor Nia climbed into bed a couple of hours ago, after losing a bout with nausea and most of her dinner.
At nearly two a.m., I send Evan the final draft, then head back to my condo.
After a quick shower, I crawl into bed, exhausted. But sleep won’t come.
It might be stupid or perverse, but I can’t resist texting Sloan, where her morning is just starting. I’m thinking about you.
And the more I do, the harder I get.
Immediately, she writes back. Fuck off.
That makes me laugh. Clearly, Sloan is still angry. That means she still cares. I’m absolutely going to capitalize on that. I just need to figure out how.
By Wednesday, Evan jets home after what he termed successful meetings…but Wynam refused to say whether we actually won the account. The good news is, Michael Astor listened carefully to every word Evan said. The bad news is, Wynam’s CEO is apparently a difficult bastard to read.
Come Thursday, I return to the office, glad to find Nia and Evan there, too. The day starts with meetings and quickly turns into a shit show. Sloan stays on my mind.
As I grab a quick lunch at my desk, I can’t resist reaching out to her again. You enjoy London? Make it home safely?
Fuck off, she replies right away.
Well, she’s consistent in her responses. They all sound like she wants to spit nails at me. But I’m still counting that as a win since she’s not ignoring me. In fact, she’s responding with the very reply guaranteed to keep me trying to mend our fences. I wonder if she needles me because she wants me to make things right between us.
Maybe that’s a stretch, but I’m rolling with it.
Friday comes and goes with no word from Wynam. Evan is visibly disappointed but doing his best to calm down a pacing Nia. They’re both concerned that Sloan managed to sway Astor and close the account. They might be right…but I know how to find out for sure.
With a grin, I pull my phone from my pocket and text her. Did you have a great Friday? You at home with a bottle of wine?
Sloan won’t be able to resist gloating if she beat Evan out of this account.
Her reply comes swiftly. Fuck off.
My grin turns into a laugh. “Sloan hasn’t heard anything from Wynam, either.”
Evan’s head pops up. “She told you that?”
Nia frowns. “No. She wouldn’t tell anyone that, especially him.”
But when I flash Nia the message string, she smiles, too. “Shaw is right. She doesn’t know anything.”
“Thank God,” Evan groans.
“She’s still speaking to you?” Nia remarks. “I’m shocked. And I know you; you’re plotting something.”
“Yep.” The right plan hasn’t occurred to me yet, and impatience scratches at my composure. I need to solve this ASAP.
Nia, Evan, and I wrap up the last of the week’s activities at the office an hour later, and I head home to an empty weekend. Sure, tourist bars always have hot girls in bikinis, trolling for a vacation fling. But I’m way more fixated on Sloan, on persuading her to come around.
After all, we may be rivals in business, but I stand by my certainty that we’ll be damn good together in bed.
After I finish a stir-fry dinner, my phone unexpectedly rings. I’m assuming it’s Evan. He’s the only person who calls, especially after business hours. But a glance at my display surprises me.
I lunge at the device. “Hey, baby. You calling to tell me to fuck off in that sweet voice of yours? I feel so special…”
She sighs deeply, not like she’s irritated with me but like she’s upset. “I’d like to, asshole. Believe me.”
“Oh, I do.”
“But I’m calling for an entirely different reason.”
Only something dire would make her reach out to me. I sober. “I’m listening.”
“I just digested our first-quarter financials. Shane is either insane, an addict with no impulse control, or intentionally trying to end the company his father spent his whole life building. He’s withdrawing every bit of profit, along with nearly half of our end-of-year budgets and capital funding for his personal use. He bought a yacht. He fired Karly and replaced her with a stripper named Destiny—I can’t believe I have to admit that—and doubled her salary.”
Holy shit. From an impartial perspective, Shane is so dumb it’s almost comical. But I hear the crack in Sloan’s voice, and I want to soothe her.
On the other hand, she divulged the fragility of their business to me. I’m surprised. She must know I could virtually destroy them with this information. And normally, I wouldn’t hesitate, but… “I’m sorry he’s such an irresponsible douche. You’ve worked your ass off and you deserve better.”
“I don’t care what you think, Sebastian. I just want you to fix it.”
“Me?” Is she kidding?
“Yeah. I reached out to Bruce Rawson—”
“You mean your father?”
“As a matter of biology, yes. But until he sees fit to acknowledge that fact, he’s merely the founder and CEO of the company I work for. So I sent him a list of the expenses Shane has approved and the ways in which he’s spending the funds.”
“Is he firing Shane?”
“No.” And she’s not happy. “Instead, he authorized me to oversee Jeremy so he can ‘take control of the company’s finances and set them right again.’”
The Jeremy she’s talking about isn’t my buddy, McBride, but me incognito. “You think I’m going to save Reservoir?”
“Yes. Let’s be honest; the real Jeremy McBride isn’t equipped for a job this in-depth.”
He’s not. He’s great at what he does. He’s got a reputation for analysis, redundant cost-cutting, efficient automation, and organizational restructuring for maximum savings. He doesn’t have experience in financially raising an organization from the dead. Sloan doesn’t, either.
Since she would rather gnaw her hand off than call me, I now know two things. First, Reservoir is likely a quarter or less away from folding. Second, winning her Daddy’s affection is more important to her than protecting her heart from me.
Good to know.
But what she’s suggesting… “You know I can’t do that. I have a job.”
“It’s your problem that you work for Satan.”
She only calls Evan that because she thinks he’s setting the course for the new trails Stratus is blazing. If she knew most of the expansion ideas were mine, I would likely graduate from minion to the dark prince himself. “Who happens to be my best friend and a great guy.”
Sloan is quiet for a long moment. “I saw him in London. He was very polite. He even apologized for your subterfuge.”
Evan didn’t tell me that. Then again, he wasn’t focused on meeting the woman, merely making sure she didn’t trash Stratus’s reputation.
“Why do you think I would save my competition?” Evan’s life—hell, my life—would be so much easier without Reservoir nipping at our heels. Shane might be a colossal fuckup, but underneath him and all those compromised VPs, they have a dedicated, talented staff.
“I can prevent something your boss wants to avoid.”
She’s fucking blackmailing me?
“What?” But I already know.
“I’m friends with lots of people who run important industry blogs and trade publications. So unless your boss wants the world to know you fraudulently posed as a respected consultant and that he condoned it, that you even went so far as seducing the competition to subvert them…”
Damn, she’s playing dirty. Perversely, I admire that. She’s tackling a problem head on and finding creative solutions.
I’ve always been hopelessly attracted to Sloan. I have mad respect for her. But this? After Becca, this may be as close to love as I’ll ever fall again.
“You’re playing a dangerous game, baby.”
“If that’s some lame intimidation tactic, you can shove it right now. I’m perfectly capable of playing your ‘big-boy’ games. Unless you want me to drag your reputation through the mud, I expect you in Dallas on Monday at eight a.m. sharp. I’ve rented a conference suite for us a few miles from Reservoir’s offices. We’ll work from there. If you need anything physically retrieved from my office, I’ll do it since we can’t let anyone see you.”
She’s thinking ahead. She’s smart. Some of her colleagues are bound to recognize me.
“I’ll also text you the address of the suite and a downtown loft Mr. Rawson keeps for corporate guests. You’ll stay there. Send me your flight information, and I’ll have a car pick you up from the airport. Any questions?”
“What makes you think I won’t simply tank your organization?”
“Because you hate to fail. And because if you do, I’ll make sure everyone knows the mess was yours.”
“I have to call Evan and clear this with him.” And he’s going to be pissed.
“You can’t give him details about our financial situation. Tell him I threatened his reputation. That should be enough. Oh, and plan to be here for a while.”
She ends the call then. And I smile.
Sloan might think she’s strong-arming me into doing her bidding…but she’s naive if she thinks I won’t be telling Evan everything. And she’s out of her mind if she doesn’t realize I’ll use my time with her to work my way back into her good graces—and finally into her bed.
At exactly eight a.m. on Monday, I push into an unfamiliar office building. Behind the front desk is a chipper twentysomething receptionist dressed impeccably.
“Welcome. How may I direct you?”
Less than thirty seconds later, I’m climbing the stairs to the suite at the end of the hall, toward imposing double doors. The floor-to-ceiling glass reveals Sloan already sitting at a gray, faux-wood-grain conference table, tapping away at her computer with blinding speed. Her pouty lips are slightly parted and her brows furrowed in concentration. The morning sun slants in, lighting up her fiery hair and revealing the faint smattering of freckles across her nose.
Seeing her again is a sucker punch—and worth every moment of my negotiation with Evan to get here. It only worked because I persuaded him that Sloan is letting the fox into the henhouse, so to speak. We’ll know where Reservoir is vulnerable, where we’re better equipped to compete, where their bottom line is, and precisely how long they’re likely to be underwater.
It’s a lot of juicy information to have about your toughest competitor.
Despite that, all I’ve thought about since hanging up with my boss on Friday night is what I’ll do to thaw out Sloan until I have her in my bed.
“Happy Monday, baby.” I stroll in. “Miss me?”
She glances up, and her face tightens, like she’s girding her loins against me and reminding herself that our attraction is irrelevant.
Good luck with that…
“No, and don’t call me baby.” She gestures to the chair at the opposite end of the table. “Sit, and I’ll cover some ground rules.”
Does she think banishing me across the room will keep me—and temptation—far away enough to resist?
With a smile, I drop into the chair beside her. “You twisted my arm into being here, but I never promised to behave.”
Her blue eyes turn positively icy. “Clearly, this is a game to you. Everything seems to be. But this is life-or-death for me. I can’t fail, so I won’t tolerate your BS. I dragged you here to help me because I hear you’re a financial whiz and I need one. If it weren’t for that fact, I’d be happy never to set eyes on you again.”
Nice speech…but I don’t believe half of it, not with the way her pulse races at her neck and she licks her lips nervously. She might think that. She clearly wants to believe it. But somewhere deep down, she knows we have unfinished business.
“It’s nice to see you, too.” I wink. “Baby.”
Sloan scoffs. “Stop it. This isn’t a personal interaction.”
The hell it isn’t. “It’s not strictly business, either. That ship sailed.”
“Then cruise it back to the shore and anchor it at the dock. That’s rule number one. We will have zero conversation that isn’t related to Reservoir or the industry.”
“So I can’t ask you how you’ve been?”
“No. And I don’t care how you’ve been. We’re colleagues on a joint project now, period.”
Bullshit. I don’t know the feel of any colleague’s tits in my hands or the taste of her pussy on my tongue. But I’m guessing Sloan won’t be able to focus on that until I’ve addressed Reservoir’s financial woes. Then…
I lean across the table. “I’m here to help you. I’ll do exactly what I promised. But let’s be clear: you aren’t simply a colleague to me, and you can’t tell me how to think or feel.”
“Then keep it to yourself. Rule number two, everything I give you is proprietary information. You can’t share it with anyone unless I agree.”
Sloan sounds either insane or naive, and I know she’s neither. I’m sure she hopes I won’t spill Reservoir’s tea to Evan, but she must know better.
I don’t agree, merely cross my arms over my chest. “What else?”
“You’re here when I tell you. You stay as late as I want. You do what I say.”
“Trust me. You have my full attention.” But I won’t have hers until I switch gears and get down to business. “Let me see your first-quarter financials. To start, I need year-to-date revenue figures, expenses broken down by both department and initiative, and second-quarter projections. Once I have the big picture, we’ll touch base and compare notes.”
“I already compiled that information into a zip file. I’ll email it to you.”
I reach for the laptop in my briefcase. “Send it to—”
“Your Stratus email address? No. You’ll use the laptop I brought you. The one that’s not going home with you. It’s loaded with all the software you should need, but if you find anything missing, let me know. I’ll take care of it.”
I shouldn’t be surprised she’s thinking ahead.
With a tight smile, I settle my machine back into the case as she slides a shiny new laptop across the table at me. “I assume I’m allowed to drink coffee?”
She sends me a withering stare. “Make yourself a cup. Out the door, alcove on the right.”
“Want any?” I ask as I get to my feet.
“That stuff is like tar mixed with battery acid. I’ll stick with water.”
I shrug and head out of the room in search of java. The little coffee bar built into the side of the hallway is a welcome sight, equipped with sugar, sweeteners, flavorings, along with both powder and liquid creamers. This should make most java drinkers happy. Maybe Sloan is picky.
Since I drink my brew black, I simply pour some into an eco-friendly coffee cup and slide the cardboard sleeve up from the bottom, then head back to the suite. When I return, Sloan has me set on “ignore.” While I stepped out, she opened the email program on my temporary computer, and her message with its zipped attachment has already been delivered. The address she created for me is one with a Reservoir domain name, which is predictable. But the user name she assigned me?
“Satan’s asshole?” I glare her way. “Really?”
“If the sphincter fits…”
“Aren’t you clever?”
She doesn’t reply, and that’s fine. She’s trying to needle me. She’s still pissed off; I get it. But that means she cares.
Nothing else matters to me.
I get down to brass tacks, opening the files and scanning their multiple parts. As I decide where to begin, I reach for my still-steaming java and take an absent sip.
I almost spew the sludge all over my new computer screen. “What the hell is that?”
Sloan not only smiles, she laughs. “Like I said, tar and battery acid.”
“That’s a compliment,” I choke out. “This stuff…”
It’s truly the worst crap I’ve ever tasted.
She rises and crosses the room to a little refrigerator humming under a counter along the back wall, then pulls out a bottle of water and sets it on the table beside me. “Don’t say I’m not nice.”
Gratefully, I twist the cap off and gulp down half the cold liquid. “I would never say that. I think you’re amazing. And this is way better. Thanks.”
“Buttering me up won’t work.”
“I’m simply being honest.”
She levels me with a chiding glare, pointing at the computer. “Get to analyzing. And I don’t need you to tell me it’s a cluster because I already know. I need you to tell me if there’s a way out of this mess and what I need to do to salvage our bottom line.”
“All right. But you understand I’ll work more slowly when I’m not properly caffeinated, especially since my body thinks it’s just after three a.m.”
With a long-suffering sigh, she focuses on her phone, scrolling and tapping. Two minutes later, she sets it aside. “You’re welcome.”
I have no idea what she thinks I should be thanking her for until a crunchy granola dude with a beard and a man bun struts into the room ten minutes later, carrying a cardboard case and a bored expression he turns on Sloan. “Order for Princess?”
“That’s him.” She points my way.
“Cool, dude. Whatever.” He sets the box on the table beside me, along with a handful of cups and a bag of creamers and sugar. “Thanks for using Coffee and Company.”
The minute the door closes behind him, I turn to her. “Princess? Really?”
She grins. “I was convinced you were big and bad enough to be Satan’s asshole…until you whined about having no coffee. So I had to downgrade you.”
She’s not just yanking my chain. She’s tugging and pulling, digging in her heels and wrenching until I want to gnash my teeth. But it all means she still cares. “Fine. Keep coming at me. But eventually, I’ll come back at you.”
“Is that a threat?”
“Just a fact.”
Sloan doesn’t answer, merely focuses again on her work, so I do the same.
Hours pass by while I study spreadsheets that seem like something more suited to a high-fantasy novel than a financial report. Technically, the formulas all work and the numbers add up…but none of it makes sense.
“Who prepared this shit?” I ask, certain there are permanent troughs in my hair from plowing my fingers through it.
“Perez saw to it personally.”
I snort. “So that no one with half a brain could question it, obviously.”
“Yep. As soon as he finished it, Shane blessed it. And here we are.”
“You have a degree in finance and an MBA. You know this is”—I shake my head—“I hate to say catastrophic, but—”
“That’s why, despite all the shit you pulled, I called you. You don’t know how bitter it was to realize I couldn’t save Reservoir myself.”
Sloan, like me, doesn’t handle inefficiency or incompetence well. But this is different. “Baby—”
“I told you not to call me that. I’m not your baby.”
We’ll see about that… “You lack the experience to save this company on your own. Evan and I started Stratus just out of college on a shoestring budget, with nothing but cockiness and a prayer. We made some tough decisions and hard sacrifices to grow Stratus into the business it is. But you’ve never worked with a company gasping for survival. You can’t be sure what cuts will help and which will just twist the knife deeper and leave it to bleed out.”
“I figured that out.”
She doesn’t say she was afraid of making the wrong decisions, but I see it on her face. I soften. Damn it, she’s the competition. She’s vowed to hate me. She’s definitely trying to. I should want to bury Reservoir alive—and her with it.
“I’ll help you, like I promised. But nothing will truly improve until Bruce Rawson kicks Shane out of the CEO’s chair.”
“He’s not prepared to do that.”
Is the old man losing his mind along with his health? “Then I don’t know what to say. If we manage to salvage the situation today, what’s to keep Shane from coming behind us and undoing everything?”
Sloan presses her lips together and glances out the window. My guess? That question already occurred to her, and she doesn’t have an answer.
“Just fix it. I’ll worry about the rest later.”
“I said don’t call me that.”
I would worry I’ve genuinely offended her, except her eyes sheen with tears she quickly blinks back. “You don’t like terms of endearment?”
“I love them, just not from men who stab me in the back.”
“This arrangement is only going to work if we deal in the truth. I didn’t come after you; I came after Reservoir. I came after the competition. Separate the two, baby. Second, if you can’t stop Shane from seizing control of the funds and spending them in whatever irresponsible way he wants, there won’t be a next time, not judging from what I see. And third, maybe you should stop giving all your mental energy to someone who doesn’t value you, either personally or professionally, and start giving it to someone who does.”
“Mr. Rawson values me.” She sounds defensive, like she knows she’s lying to me.
Does she realize she’s lying to herself, too?
“Bullshit. He values your silence about the fact he’s your father. Anyone who treats you like their dirty little secret doesn’t deserve you.”
“You’re trying to shake my loyalty. It won’t work.”
Damn, she’s stubborn. “No, baby. I’m trying to save you from heartache.”
Sloan gapes at me. “You can say that after the way you lied to me?”
“About professional shit, yeah, I did. I admit it. But everything I said to you personally? The concern I felt when I thought you were in danger? The fact I flew from Hawaii to help you when you asked me to? The way I kissed and touched you? That was all real. That was all me.”
She stares me down, lips set in a stubborn line. “Save your charm for someone who doesn’t know better. My feelings about Bruce Rawson are none of your business and out of bounds for a professional conversation. Right now, he’s aware that Shane made some unwise decisions with company funds, and he has authorized me to hold the purse strings until you can analyze the damage and make recommendations to fix the situation. That’s all you need to know.”
“You know the minute Shane realizes that he has to come through you for his party funds he’s going to attack you, right?”
“I’ve got that handled.” But her expression says she hasn’t considered that possibility before now.
“How long do I have to complete the analysis?”
I blow out a breath. Surely, Sloan knows that dissecting an entire corporation, down to every last expenditure, employee, and income stream, will take more than five days. “If I can’t?”
“Then Jeremy will be fired. And his reputation will be toast—Mr. Rawson’s words, not mine. So if you don’t want your pal’s professional demise hanging over your head…”
I need to save this sinking ship—and Sloan with it. Otherwise, she’s going down, too, and taking responsibility for this Titanic as if she were its captain.
Since I’m afraid to analyze why my urge is so strong, I focus on the next most important question: how the fuck am I going to accomplish that?
Time slides by quickly. The rest of Monday is a blur that doesn’t end until the lights automatically shut off in the rented office suite at ten p.m. Tuesday is a repeat of the previous day, minus any personal conversation. Knowing I have until Friday to save Jeremy’s professional reputation and Sloan from devastation, I work like a maniac. She’s right beside me, giving me a lot more help and a lot less snark. When I have questions, she finds answers. When I’m missing information, she retrieves it. When I need new formulas embedded in the spreadsheet, she writes them.
Thank fuck she also brought a coffeemaker to the suite. And good coffee with it. She has tasty lunches catered in, blessedly with only an occasional mocking nickname for me when she orders.
Honestly, I’m loving this work—in-depth problem-solving that requires creative, out-of-the-box solutions. But by Tuesday night, I have two glaring problems.
First, Sloan is a distraction. She doesn’t have to wear a short skirt or flash cleavage for me to notice her. Sitting beside her is enough to turn my head. When I’m close, I smell strawberries…and I remember the scent in her hair as I kissed her. Leaning in to look at something she’s typed, I brush her arm…and I remember the softness of her skin against mine when I undressed her. The longer I’m with her, the more I’m haunted by that night—her lips brushing mine, her legs spread and welcoming, her head thrown back in pleasure as the taste of her coated my tongue. My craving to touch her again grows every minute. I picture Sloan on her knees with her lips wrapped around my aching cock or her pussy taking every inch of me as I give us both the hard ride we need until she screams out in ecstasy. And I sweat.
Sleep is difficult. Concentration is impossible. My frustration climbs.
Second, since Reservoir has failed on several clients’ maintenance schedules lately due to supposed budget shortfalls, their equipment is experiencing more outages than normal. That’s translated to more customers than projected exiting their contracts and deactivating their service. So not only has Shane been stealing the profits for his own pleasure, Reservoir is collecting fewer dollars than Perez and his bean counters planned on.
The ship is sinking even faster than I suspected.
“You’ve looked at that same column and checked the formula three times. I checked it, too. It’s right. What’s wrong?” Sloan asks.
It’s nearly eight o’clock. Neither of us has had dinner. She looks tired and anxious. I hate to tell her that, even with the most stringent cost-cutting methods, even if Bruce Rawson fired his son tomorrow, it’s probably too late. But I think on some level she knows. In fact, I suspect she knew before she even called me, and she hoped I could find a miracle.
Unfortunately, I’m no one’s fairy godmother.
But tomorrow is soon enough for her to hear my assessment. She’s too stressed for me to heap more on her now, and waiting to deliver the death knell won’t change the outcome.
Instead, I shake my head. “I couldn’t remember if I’d checked. I’ve been looking at this so long I think I’m cross-eyed.”
She glances at her computer screen, then out the window. Only the last glimmer of dusk remains. “It’s later than I thought. Maybe I should order us dinner in.”
So she can grill me while we eat? “I need sleep.”
Sloan looks frustrated that I want to call it quits for the evening, but in the next breath, she yawns. “I guess I do, too. If I drink any more coffee, even the good stuff, my stomach will corrode.”
I hear that. “We’ll pick this back up tomorrow.”
“Yeah.” She closes her computer, shoves it in her bag, and stands. “Eight a.m.?”
“Sure. Unless…I’d love to take you to dinner, if you promise not to talk business.” It’s a long shot, but why not try?
Sloan snorts as she picks up her purse and computer. “So you can pretend to flirt with me, work whatever angle I know you’re sharpening in that crafty brain, and try your best to play me again? No, thanks.”
Before I get a word in, she pushes her way out the door and disappears down the hall.
“Fuck.” I’m annoyed that she left, but it’s probably better. I have precious little time to decide what to do.
Thankfully, the corporate apartment Reservoir keeps is a mere two blocks away, and I have to pass one of the best Indian restaurants on my way there. I’ll grab dinner to go.
And while I wait, I’ll return Evan’s four voice mails asking for updates. That is, once I’ve decided what to say.
If I tell Evan the unvarnished truth, he’ll insist we scoop up Reservoir, probably for a fraction of what it was once worth. Evan is too smart not to grab it for a steal. But the minute that happens, Sloan will never forgive me. Hell, she’ll never speak to me again.
Sighing, I shut down my borrowed laptop, lock it in the cabinet where Sloan told me to leave it each night, and drift out of the suite, deep in thought.
At the front of the building, an evening receptionist sits, looking significantly less polished than her daytime counterpart. “You done for the evening?”
I nod. “Back in the morning.”
“Suite number?” When I rattle it off, she grabs a walkie-talkie and pages the maintenance guy. “We’ll lock it up.”
“Have a good evening.”
Fat chance with this decision I have to make, probably in the next fifteen minutes. “You, too.”
Outside, it’s balmy and slightly humid but not unpleasant. Sloan’s car is gone from the lot. The foot traffic downtown is thinning out. The suits walking to their destinations look as haggard as I do after a long fucking day. Are they also having to choose between their best friend after committing the sin of falling for his wife and the first woman to make them feel alive since her death? Yeah, probably not. And good for them. But right now, I am.
This shouldn’t be hard at all. I owe Evan. But this decision is fucking brutal. I’m not ready to burn any bridges with Sloan.
Where does that leave me?
In my pocket, my phone rings. I pull it free, already knowing whose name I’ll see on the display. “Hey, buddy.”
“Hey,” Evan barks. “Two days, and no word. What’s going on there?”
Of course he doesn’t waste any time getting down to business.
“I’m great. Thanks for asking. You?”
“Sorry. We’re good. The baby is kicking now. It makes Nia’s pregnancy feel more…real.”
Evan didn’t ask me to comment about their coming child, but I know he’s worried. “You won’t lose this one. Not the woman or the baby.”
He blows out a breath. “Logically, I know the odds of that happening again are astronomical. I’m probably more likely to win the lottery twice. But with the anniversary of Becca’s death in nine days, I won’t say it hasn’t crossed my mind lately—a lot.”
“It’s crossed mine, too.” But not the way I expected. Instead of grieving a lover I never had, my thoughts are filled with Sloan and the million possibilities for how things might play out between us, including the glimmer of a possibility that we could share a future—something I never had with Becca.
“What’s the appropriate way to remember your wife and unborn child a year after they’re gone? I don’t know. If you’d asked me the day I buried Becca whether I’d ever be married again and expecting another child, I would have said never, especially not less than a year later.”
“When was the last time you visited her grave?”
“The day before we moved to Maui. I said goodbye for good then.”
After he realized what their marriage was…and wasn’t. But it’s only been a few months since I learned that Becca had loved me in life enough to leave Evan for me. I pressed that knowledge into my heart. Sure, I felt guilty as fuck about it, but knowing she felt the same about me was a strange comfort.
She’s gone for good, though…and I’m still here.
Even a few weeks ago, I told myself to move on, but I couldn’t seem to since no one would ever be Becca. Sloan definitely isn’t. In fact, the only thing they have in common is blue eyes. In every other way, Sloan is her polar opposite.
And she fascinates me in a way Becca never did.
“I wanted to protect her, you know?” I confess.
Evan laughs. “Every man did. Becca had a little-girl lost quality that constantly drew men of all ages to her.”
I frown as I realize something I haven’t considered until now. “You fell for a woman totally unlike her.”
“Yeah. That shocked me, too.”
I’m in the same boat. “Why?”
My buddy lets out a long breath. “I eventually realized a damsel in distress who needed my shoulder, my guidance, my understanding, and my direction to get through even the simplest day wasn’t fulfilling me. I need a woman who challenges me, who matches me in drive and intellect, who…completes me, as corny as that sounds. I don’t have to take care of Nia. We work together to take care of us. Jesus, this is getting deep. Is something going on?”
And here comes the unavoidable decision. I owe Evan too much to shut him out, especially after he’s been painfully honest. “I’m falling for Sloan, for all the reasons you just mentioned.”
“It’s incredibly inconvenient,” I admit.
“You’ve got to rein it in, buddy. You haven’t stopped Reservoir from coming after Wynam yet. And we still don’t know the identity of the spy reporting our business to Sloan.”
“But I have kept her from dragging our names and Stratus’s through the mud.”
“So far. But she seems to be one step ahead of you.”
That’s less important to me than what happens next. “Professionally, she needs me more than I need her. So I’ve got the upper hand.”
“For the moment. But later?” he asks rhetorically. “Where is Reservoir financially?”
“It’s still inconclusive,” I hedge. “But it doesn’t look good.”
“Great! Maybe the solution is to buy them out and take over.”
And crush them. That’s what he means.
“Fire everyone, absorb the parts you want, and junk the rest?”
“That makes the most fiscal sense. Why would I run parallel organizations?”
Without a compelling reason, he wouldn’t. And I wouldn’t expect him to, especially since he’d lose money doing it. “What about the parts and people worth saving?”
“If there are any, you’ll help me figure out how to maximize them.”
And if I do that, it will crush Sloan. “I have another idea…”
“Well, I’m not done assessing Reservoir’s financials yet…” Technically, it’s true, though I already know they’re in the toilet. “But it’s clear they need an infusion of cash.”
“Why would we give the competition money?”
“Two reasons. First, the loan will come with strings. Tight ones. They’ll have to agree to certain terms before we deliver the funds, which means the organization is already loosely under our control. You’ll appoint an interim CEO—”
“That’s easy. You. What’s the other thing?”
“Why not Sloan? She knows more about the business.”
“Because her first loyalty will always be to Reservoir and her father. Yours will be to Stratus and me.”
His logic is sound. I can’t fault it, but I’m torn. “And second, no matter who Wynam gives their business to, we win.”
Evan turns quiet, and I know my brilliant, methodical pal is studying my proposal from every angle. I just hope he agrees. As far as I can tell, it’s the best way to give both Evan and Sloan what they want. While I get what I want.
“I see one problem,” he says.
Probably the same one I see. “I know. A mere loan isn’t enough to tie up the organization. We have to do more than inject cash and take temporary control. We have to prevent them from using our investment to improve their position, then ousting us the minute they don’t need us anymore.”
“I’ve thought ahead and I’ve got a solution. Leave it to me.”
By the time I reach the corporate apartment, my head is buzzing with ideas.
The last thing I expect to walk in and find is Shane Rawson naked and being pleasured by a trio of women with fake tits and high heels while wearing a small fortune in cocaine on the tip of his nose.
Does his father have any idea this is where his company’s funds are going?
I stop in the doorway, and Reservoir’s current CEO scowls, clutching a fifth of whiskey. “Who the fuck are you? You look familiar.”
Shit. “I’m the consultant.”
He grabs the hair of the woman between his legs, sucking his cock with gusto, and lifts her off. “The one that meddling cunt talked my father into hiring?”
“She’s your sister.”
“The hell she is,” he growls. “How was my dad sloppy enough to knock up some stupid new hire? Birth control existed twenty-five years ago. He should have fucking used it. Reservoir doesn’t need Sloan.”
An insult burns the tip of my tongue. I’m itching to plow my fist into his face. But that won’t do anything except get me fired and arrested.
Swallowing my rage, I set my food on the hall table and casually withdraw my phone, pretending to look at it while I start rolling video—just in time to capture him shoving the kneeling woman back onto his cock while another licks his nipples, and the third hoists her long leg onto the arm of the chair and grinds against his face.
“Don’t blame Sloan. Your father approved hiring me,” I point out.
“Ah, fuck.” He shuttles the woman on her knees deeper onto his dick, hissing, lips pursed as if he’s concentrating on his pleasure…and like he’s watched enough porn clips to convince him his O face is cool. “My father needs to stop sticking his nose in my company. He gave it to me. Oh, yeah…” he groans. “But you’re giving it to me better, aren’t you, slut?”
“Always. Anytime you want,” she purrs as she licks her way up his cock. “I can do him, too, for extra.”
“Fuck that.” He shoves her back on his cock. “Your mouth is mine tonight.”
The one licking his nipples straightens up with a smile. “Where’s the bedroom? I brought the restraints. I’ll hook them up.”
“Down the hall,” Shane supplies as he absently sucks on the pussy in front of him.
In the bedroom I’m sleeping in? “But I’m staying here.”
“Not anymore. Get your shit and leave. I’m firing you myself.”
“You don’t have that authority. Your father still owns the company.”
He scoffs, then moans when his fluffer takes a long draw on his cock. “Not for long. I’m going to put the old man out to pasture and handle this shit my way.”
Fuck, Shane is a raving asshole. “The way you’re handling it now? You’re on the brink of bankrupting the company.”
“No. There’s still money in the bank.”
“It’s less than the amount needed to make payroll next Friday.”
“Shut up,” he snarls. “I’m here to have a good time, and you’re harshing my buzz. Get the fuck out.”
“At this pace, you’ll be selling Reservoir for pennies on the dollar in a handful of weeks.”
“So? I’ll still have a lot of money, and I won’t have to hear another word about boring-as-fuck data storage or listen to blowhards like you anymore. Get your shit and go.”
I stop rolling the video and shove my phone back in my pocket. Shane is too busy pouring booze on the pussy in his face and getting sucked off to notice.
Shaking my head, I stroll into the bedroom, gather my things, and pack quietly, ignoring the brunette with the pigtails and the see-through tank fastening restraints to the bedposts.
Rolling my suitcase behind me, I grab the Indian food off the hall table and open the front door, just in time to see Shane toss back his head dramatically for his big finish.
And there goes my appetite.
As I exit the building, I trash my untouched dinner, walk away from the complex, and dial Sloan. Maybe I can make this shit work to my advantage…
“Sebastian? Whatever it is, couldn’t it wait until morning?”
“I walked into the apartment to the unwelcome sight of Shane with three hookers, whiskey, and cocaine. They’re planning to spend the night in my bed.”
“Ugh. That son of a bitch.”
“You’re being polite. I’m walking around downtown with a suitcase and a scowl. That’s not earning me any sideways glances at all.”
Sloan heaves a long sigh. “I’ll find you a hotel.”
“They won’t feed me.”
“And you think I will?”
“If you want me to work, yes. And I’m a princess, remember? I won’t survive if you leave me to starve.”
She groans. “Fine. You can stay with me until Friday. But if you’re the kind of royalty who can feel a pea under ten mattresses, I don’t want to hear about it.”
“I’ll keep my whining to a minimum.”
She hesitates, then she sighs in surrender. “I’ll be there in ten. Where exactly are you now?”
I give her the closest cross streets, eyeing some people loitering a few blocks down who look less than lawful.
“How did you get there?”
“I must have wandered farther from the building than I thought.”
“In that case, I’ll be there in five. Don’t make any new friends.”
She hangs up, and I pocket my phone. Waiting even a few seconds gives me time to think about my options and the choice I shouldn’t make…but I already have. I’m forming a plan even now. Shane inadvertently helped me out tonight with his BS, and Evan should appreciate my innovative approach to this crisis…eventually. Sloan? She’ll be furious. And since I know she gives as good as she gets, I’ll have to stay one step ahead.
But she’ll be worth it.
All I need to do is wait for the right time.
I’d ask if your balls are bigger than your brains, Shaw, but I already know the answer, Nia drawls in my head.
This may be the ballsiest thing I’ve ever done—and that’s saying something. If I play my hand right, though, I’ll win big.
Sloan pulls up a few minutes later and stops at the curb, ignoring the honking people behind her long enough for me to climb in. The second I shut the passenger door, she floors it and sends me an unblinking stare. “Three hookers at once?”
I shrug. “I don’t know what Shane’s plans were precisely, but apparently me hearing his oral pleasure over the phone wasn’t enough. He thought I needed to see it, too.”
Sloan wrinkles her nose. “I won’t ask if you’re serious.”
“He’s such a peach, you should know better. Have you already eaten?”
She shook her head. “I was too tired to cook and too tired to go out.”
“If you’ve got food in your fridge, I’ll cook as a thank you for rescuing me. See, princesses really do need their knights in shining armor.”
“Ha ha. I’m taking you up on that.” She turns my way with a frown. “Wait. Can you cook?”
“Frozen dinners don’t count.”
“I don’t eat that trash. Trust me, what I make will be good and healthy.”
“I’ll settle for edible. Listen, my apartment isn’t huge. You’ll have to sleep on the sofa.”
Not my first choice, but… “It’s better than bunking down with Shane and his three hookers.”
She flips me a saucy stare. “Just so we’re clear, you’ll be getting zero action from me.”
That sucks, but I didn’t expect anything different.
After a few minutes of traffic, Sloan pulls into an assigned parking spot in a new, upscale apartment complex. Her unit upstairs is small but tidy, decorated in tans, earthy oranges, and dark woods. It’s warm and cheerful. “This is nice.”
“Thanks. Help yourself to whatever you need in the kitchen. Poke around the fridge. The pantry is in that corner.” She points across the room. “Pots and pans are under the stove. I hate anything with bell peppers, not that I have any in the house. Just about everything else, I’ll eat. Call me when it’s ready.”
Three minutes later, I hear the shower running, and my focus on cooking something edible evaporates. All I think about is Sloan naked, about peeling off my clothes and joining her under the spray before sliding our bodies together and sinking deep inside her.
I wish like hell I’d turned on a damn light the night she got naked in my hotel room. At least I’d know what I’m missing. But I was too cocky, assuming I had control of the situation. I underestimated her.
That can’t happen again.
While I toss together a quick pan-seared chicken with a light wine-reduction sauce and steamed broccoli, I ponder the plan I’ve been forming the past few hours. I have to be cautious. I can’t leave Sloan any wiggle room. She’ll fight back, and we’ll have a battle of wills. But she’ll give in…eventually. I hope.
When Sloan emerges from her bedroom, her face is naked and her wet hair freshly washed and braided. She’s wearing black yoga pants that do great things for her legs and a matching T-shirt that clings to her breasts. I’m not totally convinced she’s wearing a bra…just like I’m not convinced she wouldn’t leave one off to rattle me.
“Dinner’s almost ready.” Somehow, I manage not to sound like I’m imagining her naked.
“It smells good.” She sets the table and opens a bottle of vino, then plops into her chair with a tired sigh.
Now that her makeup is off, I see the sleepless bruising under her eyes. She looks exhausted.
Frowning, I dish up two steaming plates and set them on the table, then sit beside her. “Eat up.”
She doesn’t need any additional prompting to dig in. After the first bite, she moans. “This is so good. It pains me to admit that you’re better than me at anything, but you’re a far superior cook.”
“I’ve been doing it a lot longer.”
“Did you learn in college?”
“As a kid, actually. I was raised by a single mom who worked two jobs. My two older sisters were responsible for laundry, cleaning, and bedtime baths. Plus, they had school activities and sports. Cooking fell to me. We all pitched in to get everything else around the house done. Even my younger sisters picked up before bed and helped with yard work on weekends.”
“Wow. I was raised by a single mom, too, but it was just the two of us. We did everything together. She turned it into a game sometimes. Who could make the mirrors the most streak-free. Who could make the kitchen floor shine the most. I lost every cooking challenge.” She laughs. “It’s never been my strong suit. I just can’t seem to get everything ready at the same time.”
“Ah, that’s an art. And that’s exactly why the cooking fell to me. I just seem to have that knack.” I shrug. “It’s part guesswork, part patience, and a lot of instinct.”
“Yeah, it’s the patience part I’m not so good at. Speaking of…now that I have you in my evil lair, want to tell me your thoughts so far on Reservoir’s situation?”
Not until the time is right. “No conclusion yet, other than it’s not good, which you already know, and that Shane needs to go.”
“Why won’t your father get rid of him? He must know his prodigal son is a fucking disaster.”
“Mr. Rawson,” she corrects me. “He’s not my father until he deigns to acknowledge me. So I’ve decided I won’t acknowledge him, either. But he keeps insisting that Shane just needs to feel the full weight of the responsibility for Reservoir to grasp how important his contribution is. Then, of course, he’ll rise to the challenge.” Sloan rolls her eyes.
“He’s fooling himself.”
“Absolutely. He so badly wants Shane to be a good man that he’s trying to talk himself into it. No amount of me saying otherwise makes a damn bit of difference. I think he’s convinced I’m trying to usurp Shane to gain power by talking trash.”
“The hell you are.” And I’ll prove it soon.
“Or that I’m jealous and trying to tear him down to get ahead.” She shrugs. “Whatever.”
She acts like this doesn’t matter to her, but I’m not buying it. Sloan can be tough as nails, but she has feelings, and they run deep. I know it hurts her every day to work for the man who fathered her but refuses to even notice her, no matter what a stellar job she’s done.
I set down my fork and take her hand. “You’re amazing, and he doesn’t know what he’s missing.”
“Yeah? Then again, you’re comparing me to Shane. That bar isn’t very high,” she quips and tries to pull free.
I hold her tighter. “Don’t push me away with snark. I mean what I said. You’re head-and-shoulders better than ninety-nine percent of people I’ve worked with. Your dedication and drive are admirable. I really respect that.” Then I sigh. “And you’re better offspring than I am. I can’t even tell you the last time I called my mother. Christmas, maybe? You try your best every day to earn your father’s notice. I’ve been so absent as a son, I think my mother finally gave up on me. My sisters, too.”
It’s been well over two years since I went back home, and the only reason anyone in my family knows I’ve moved to Maui is because I included them in a mass email with friends and acquaintances, advising everyone of my new address.
“I’d give anything to have family like yours. No one else has my back.”
She’s right, and I’m vaguely ashamed that I’ve allowed myself to drift so far from the people who should matter most to me. “Do you want your own family someday?”
Sloan swallows and washes her chicken down with a sip of Cab. “You mean have kids?”
“And a husband, yeah.”
“Eventually. I haven’t thought about it too much.”
I frown. “Because you want to be more established in your career first?”
“No. I can juggle. I just haven’t dated anyone I thought was worth marrying.”
“Fair enough.” I know from experience the dating pool can be really shallow.
“What about you? Why isn’t there a Mrs. Shaw already?”
“It’s complicated. Let’s just say I fell for someone once and it didn’t end well.”
I snap my gaze from my plate to her face, but there’s no snark. She means that. “Thanks. It sucked.”
“Where is she now?”
“Dead. Car accident.” I toss back half my wine.
Empathy softens her shocked expression. “That must have been rough.”
“One of the worst days of my life.”
Finally, she squeezes my hand back. “We didn’t meet under the best circumstances. We’re rivals. But I’m sorry you went through something so tragic.”
“I appreciate that, but it’s in the past. I’ve come to terms with it.”
“Do you want to do the whole wife-and-kids thing someday?”
“Absolutely. Soon.” I smooth my thumb across her knuckles.
With an uncomfortable clearing of her throat, she pulls away and stands. “Well, good luck. I’m going to be a horrible hostess and leave you with the dishes so I can go to bed. Pillows and blankets are in the hall closet. Help yourself. Good night.”
I jump to my feet and curl my fingers around her arm, inching closer. “I want you. You know that, right? I can’t forget that night in my hotel room.” I fuse my stare with hers. “You think about it, too, don’t you?”
Color creeps up her face, blooming across her cheeks, as she clears her plate. “This is dangerous territory.”
“Because we’re rivals?”
“Because I don’t trust you. You lied to me. I don’t care why you did it. A lie is a lie.”
“I never wanted to do it.”
“But you did.”
I follow her to the sink. She sets down her plate, and I brace my hands on the counter, one on either side of her hips, then press my lips to her ear. “Not because I don’t want you. Or don’t care about you. I do. One has nothing to do with the other.”
She stiffens. “It sure feels like it does.”
“Ultimately, we’re both working to save Reservoir. And we’re doing shockingly well together in the office.” The heat of her body lures me closer. The sweet scent of strawberries fills my nose. The desire I feel for her is something I can’t ignore. “We’d be damn good together in the bedroom, too.”
Sloan doesn’t answer. Nor does she protest when I slide the curtain of her fiery hair over her shoulder.
The silky skin I expose and the graceful curve of her neck tempt me. I can’t stand not touching her anymore.
“Baby…” I breathe against her just before I lay my mouth on her nape.
She gasps, her whole body tightening. But she doesn’t push me away.
I take a gamble and drag my lips up her neck, then finger the sensitive patch of skin I just worshipped before licking my way to nip at her lobe.
She exhales roughly and shudders, gripping the counter in front of her as if it alone will keep her from melting into my arms.
I’m getting to her.
“I would be so good to you,” I vow as I cup her hips and fit myself against her back, rocking forward to let her feel just how hard I am for her. “I would give you nonstop pleasure, devote myself to making your body hum. I would be here for you, day and night.”
“You’re flying home in less than three days,” she points out, half panting.
“I could stay the weekend, too.” I lick the shell of her ear, then kiss the spot just behind it. “We could commit every spare moment to your ecstasy. Let me show you how good it would be.”
She turns in my arms, her blue eyes searching mine. “Why? So you can scratch an itch? Because you’re horny, and I’m the only female within easy reach tonight?”
“No. I told you, from our first conversation I was fascinated by you. That’s not a lie or a come-on. At first, I was pissed when you blackmailed me. I admit it. But I was thrilled as hell when I realized I’d be spending a week with you. I’ve respected your wishes and kept the office about business. You should know, though, even when you needle me, I want you. When you’re prickly, I want you. When you push me away…it doesn’t matter. I still want you.”
“Pfft. Desire is easy.”
“That’s not all this is. I feel things for you I never thought I’d feel again.”
“How do I know you’re not lying?”
Talk is frustrating me, but I have to dial back my impatience. She has every reason to distrust me…and only one reason to give in. “The business is the only dirty thing between us. Everything else is right. I think you feel it, too. Don’t you, baby?”
She doesn’t agree…but she doesn’t refute me, either.
Fuck, I can’t resist her anymore. Her mouth is right there, plump and rosy and pouty.
I lower my head, giving her plenty of time to object or pull away. Instead, she tilts to me, her eyes slide shut, and she welcomes my invasion, parting her lips and sliding her tongue against mine with a soft moan.
The instant we connect, I know my plan is the right one. I have to make this woman mine.
Groaning, I surge deeper into her mouth, cupping her nape and plastering my body against hers. Sloan rises on to her tiptoes, throwing her arms around me and gripping my shoulders, giving herself over to the kiss—to me—entirely. She’s heady, addictive. I feel drunk, my head swimming. Kissing her is like diving into honeyed quicksand, sweet and inexorable. My fall into something more than desire for her is shockingly easy, sugar-spun, and totally unavoidable.
I want to believe she’s in the same place I am—tempted when she shouldn’t be. Hooked despite the fact it’s not smart. Willing to make a deal with even the devil to stay together a bit longer.
Sliding my free hand down her torso, I cup her hip and pull her into me, grinding against her again and swallowing her delicious gasp.
Fuck, this is getting hot fast. I’ve had sex with nameless women who don’t turn me on half as much as merely kissing Sloan. Our chemistry is insane, torquing up every nerve in my body until I’m aware of only her.
I need more.
“Baby,” I murmur, fitting my hand under her top and gliding my fingertip up her abdomen, over her ribs, up, up, until I’m reaching for her breast. “Let me make you feel so good.”
Sloan wraps firm fingers around my wrist and stops me before I cup the full weight of her in my hand. “Even if I let you tonight, where would that leave us tomorrow? I won’t surrender anything to you, not my drive, not my will, not my body. And definitely not my heart,” she vows, eyes burning. “And don’t call me baby, especially not when it’s obvious your allegiance will always be to Evan Cook.”
After a long, restless night on Sloan’s sofa, I wake to a warm spring day, turned suddenly chillier by the fact she’s barely speaking to me.
Is she mad that I kissed her last night? The way she’s avoiding my gaze, no. If I had to guess, she’s mad at herself for liking it. For almost giving in to me.
By the time we reach the office, I’m even more convinced my plan is the right one. I’m impatient as hell to finish putting it in place. So close…
As soon as we’re settled in the rented suite with coffee brewed and laptops on, she turns to me. “What’s left to analyze before you can give me your assessment? We have to start making positive changes now.”
She needs something to do. She wants to be an active part of what she hopes will be Reservoir’s recovery. But I think she also wants to make the heroic moves so that her father might finally acknowledge her contribution—and maybe even her.
I’m not ready to tell her that saving Reservoir is almost hopeless without a cash influx.
“Well, my first recommendation is to—”
Her phone rings, interrupting me. She picks it up, then visibly stiffens. “Shane is calling me.”
Her expression tells me that’s not a normal occurrence.
“I told you he’s coming for you.”
She looks tense as she rises, crosses the room, and answers. “Sloan O’Neill.”
I can’t hear the other end of the conversation, but the whole thing lasts under thirty seconds. She’s visibly pale when she finally murmurs, “Of course.”
“What did he want?” I ask once she hangs up.
“To see me in his office in ten minutes.”
My gut tightens. I have a bad feeling about this. “I’ll go with you.”
“You can’t; someone might recognize you. Besides, you don’t have any power at Reservoir.” She shakes her head, grabbing her purse and fishing out her car keys. “I need to handle this alone. I don’t know when I’ll be back.”
“Baby…” I stand and approach her. “You’re strong. And you’re better than him.”
A worried furrow appears between her brows. Anxiousness pours off her. “With Shane, that actually works against me.”
Then she’s gone. I swear under my breath, mostly because she’s right, and watch through the window overlooking the parking lot as she climbs into her car and drives off.
Now I’m alone. I can finally call Evan and privately work out the financial details to finalize my plan.
But I hesitate. Once I do this, I won’t simply be putting everything into motion, I’ll most likely be putting the final nail in Reservoir’s coffin.
And Sloan might genuinely hate me.
It’s obvious your allegiance will always be to Evan Cook.
Her accusation spools through my head, a refrain on repeat. She’s right. And that won’t change.
So why am I hesitating?
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there’s another way to work this situation to everyone’s advantage. Maybe…
But there’s not. I’ve known for a while that I could prevent the competition from winning Wynam’s business or woo the girl. I can’t have both. I’m always going to have to choose. And no matter my feelings for Sloan or the fact they’re growing every day, I have to choose my boss. He’s my best friend. And I owe him.
Still, I drag my feet, brewing another coffee while grabbing a bite of my protein bar, all while trying to analyze why I’m not simply picking up the phone to gleefully finish this thing off.
Then I realize why. Not only will Sloan hate me…but I don’t know what will happen to her professionally.
That’s not your responsibility.
I wrestle with that, turning it over in my head, before finally snarling out a curse and reaching for my phone. Evan answers on the first ring, breathing heavily. Given the hour, he’s likely spending quality time with the StairMaster. “Bas, missing me kicking your ass in the gym?”
“You wish.” I snort. “Hey, I’m about ready to pull the trigger on our backdoor takeover of Reservoir. But I need something first.”
I take a deep breath. Here goes nothing… “Protection for Sloan. She can’t be out of her job.”
In fact, I think she deserves a giant-ass promotion…but I’ll let Evan digest the rest of my plan before I bring that up.
“What? Buddy, this girl is the enemy. You’re falling for her, and I get that you want to protect her. It’s natural. But business and pleasure don’t mix.”
“That didn’t stop you from claiming Nia.” The words are out before I can think twice.
“She was always on our team.” I hear the warning in Evan’s voice.
“I can get Sloan on ours.” At least I hope I can.
She’s stubborn. She knows her own mind. She won’t be easily swayed. And deep down, she has that little-girl need for her daddy’s love she never got as a kid. That’s going to be tough to break through. Tougher still to switch her allegiance.
But not impossible.
Evan sighs. “I’m listening. What are you thinking?”
“If I take Shane’s place, that will make reorganizing in whatever way we want easier. All the VPs are compromised and must be replaced immediately.”
“Are you sure? Shane can’t influence them if he’s no longer CEO.”
“Sure, he can. All he has to do is threaten their reputations and families. Sloan’s VP would seemingly do anything to prevent his wife from finding out that he fucked a stripper while she was home with their newborn.”
“He sounds like a douche, too. I get your point. Trashing him can only help our cause.”
“Sloan could do his job. Easily. In her sleep. With one hand tied behind her back, metaphorically speaking.”
Evan hesitates. “She has no executive experience.”
“Not on paper, but she’s been running most of that organization—without the power or the pay—for nearly two years.”
“I’m concerned you’re confusing her business acumen with her skills in bed.”
“We’re not sleeping together.” Yet.
I intend to rectify that. I’ve got a plan for that, too.
“Seriously? I assumed—”
“Nope. Since I’ve been here, we’ve been all business.” Well, until last night.
“So she’s not sleeping her way up the ladder. That’s hardly a glowing recommendation.”
I understand his skepticism, but it’s making me grit my teeth. “Give her a month. If her job performance doesn’t blow you away, then you can let her go with the rest of the Reservoir staff you shit-can. But if you’re half as impressed as I think you’re going to be, let her stay. Or better yet, make her an offer to work for Stratus.” One I hope she won’t refuse.
But I’m not ready to divulge how I’m going to make all this come together. Evan will think I’ve gone crazy.
“All right. One month. She better be amazing.”
“Are we ready to propose terms, then? How much money do you need? What are the parameters?”
I cover the basics. We negotiate most everything in less than three minutes.
“Sounds good,” he says finally. “Get it done before close of business on Friday.”
“It might take another week.” It will probably take me at least that long to convince Sloan to agree to my plan.
“By your own admission, they don’t have more time. Apply whatever pressure you need to get this done by the end of the week. Then—” He pauses. “Hey, I gotta go. Nia is calling.”
“Sure. Talk to you soon.”
Then he’s gone. I set my phone aside with a sigh.
I should be happy. I got everything I asked for. The timetable is aggressive, but I can make that work…except Sloan. She’s going to fight me tooth and nail.
Maybe if I sit her down and explain the situation. She’s been wanting that. I’ll finally give it to her, show her in black and white that her illustrious half brother has nearly destroyed her father’s legacy in a short handful of months. Now, only she can save it…with my help.
It sounds reasonable—in my head. But I doubt she’ll see it the same way.
Less than ten minutes later, I hear tires screech in the parking lot and glance out to see Sloan sling her car into an available parking spot, then stomp out of the vehicle, slamming the door behind her.
Even from here, I can tell she’s furious.
I think through my interaction with Shane last night. Did I say or do something I forgot to tell her about? Something that would make her this fucking angry?
When Sloan says something clipped in response to the receptionist’s greeting, I stand, watching through the glass double doors as she thunders up the stairs, her face a flushed glower.
She shoves the door open, sending it banging against the opposite wall. “Pack up and call a taxi.”
Oh, shit. Did she somehow guess my plan already? “Where am I going?”
“To see Shane.” She marches away, then bangs her laptop shut, sticking her computer, her notes, and everything she brought here—down to the last pencil—into her briefcase.
“And where are you going?”
Finally, I see a crack in her facade. Pain settles into a crease between her brows. Her chin trembles like she’s using every ounce of her will not to cry. “Home. I’ve been fired.”
“What?” I knew Shane would punch back, but I didn’t think he’d KO her in one swipe.
“Somehow, someway, Shane discovered your identity, and it’s now apparently my fault that I hired the enemy.”
Son of a bitch. “I’ll set him straight.”
“How? Not that it matters. I’ve had all the contact with you. I brought you in to look at our financials. According to him, if I didn’t know you were Sebastian Shaw, I should have and I should be fired for dereliction of duty.”
Which means he’s going to call me in for the pleasure of shit-canning me, too, simultaneously getting rid of the only two people actively working to save Reservoir.
I will not give that fucking asswipe the satisfaction.
“You better go.” She sniffles. “He’s not patient today.”
“Fuck Shane. I don’t care if he wants to see me. I don’t owe him a goddamn thing. Come here, baby.” As I approach, she looks up at me with wary, wounded eyes and backs away.
Her expression stabs me in the heart. No, I didn’t put it on her face, but everything inside me compels me to wipe it away and replace it with a smile. Something real. Something filled with joy.
“It doesn’t work that way.”
“It does if I want it to. I don’t give a shit about Shane. I care about you.”
Sloan closes her eyes and looks away, lips pressed together like she’s holding on to her composure by a thread.
God, it fucking hurts me to see her so close to falling apart.
When she looks my way again, she laughs bitterly. “This is so fucked up. The people who should care about me most—my own flesh and blood—would be a lot happier if I fucked right off. Or if I never even existed. But you, the person who has every reason to stomp me into the ground and crush me with your very expensive loafers? You’re the one who claims to care.”
“I do.” I risk stepping closer.
This time she doesn’t back away. And when I enfold her in my arms, she comes willingly, throwing herself against me with a sob.
“Shh.” I soothe a gentle hand down her back, relieved she lets me comfort her. “Baby…”
“Why do I let that asshole get to me?”
Because with her mother gone, she’s alone in the world. No wonder she keeps trying to win even scraps of affection from the people with whom she shares blood. She’s desperate for family and acceptance. I can give her that…if she’ll let me. It may not be perfect. It may not be what she hoped for. But she will have people always in her corner.
What about love?
I don’t know. Am I in love with Sloan?
I can’t say unequivocally that I’m not…
When another trio of businesspeople trek down the hall and gawk at us across the atrium, I glare through the floor-to-ceiling glass until they have the good grace to look away before disappearing into their suite.
Then I kiss the top of Sloan’s head and lift her face from my chest. She resists. I know she doesn’t want me to see her cry. But I don’t take no for an answer. “You’re upset. I know. But this isn’t the place to unload.”
She sniffles and wipes her eyes dry, putting on a brave face. “You’re right.”
“Let’s get out of here so I can take care of you.”
“No. I’m fine. I need to stop bawling, get my résumé together, and start applying for a new job. My apartment may be small, but it’s expensive enough that I’ll be living under a freeway overpass by the start of summer if I don’t keep income rolling in. You should probably call the airline and see if you can move up your return flight to Maui and—”
“You don’t want to give up this fight, and I’m not going to let you. You blackmailed me into helping you save Reservoir. Let me do it.”
Sloan looks at me like I’m crazy. “How?”
“Tell me how to get in touch with Bruce Rawson.”
Her eyes go even wider. “I’m not letting you fight my battles for me.”
“Do you want Shane to succeed in destroying this company?”
She sighs. “Fine. I’ll talk to Mr. Rawson. Maybe I haven’t tried hard enough to make him understand that Shane—”
“If he hasn’t pulled his head out of his ass for you yet, he’s not going to.” In fact, my guess is that his oldest son has already called and poisoned the well against Sloan. I’m not sure anything she says will change the old man’s mind.
But I have a video that might. And right now, it’s a bargaining chip burning a hole in my pocket.
“I need to try.”
“By all means…” I gesture her way.
Sloan reaches for her phone, then eyes the people in the suite across the floor. “It would be better if I did this from home.”
In case her deadbeat father says something to upset her.
“Good call. Let’s go.”
We pack up and leave the suite as bare as the day Sloan rented it. I won’t be sad to leave this place. The desk is a bit too low for my tall frame, so between hunching over to see my computer and the shitty, unsupportive chair, my back is killing me. But the truth is, we can’t rule the throne from exile. We need to storm the castle first.
After we shove everything in the back of her car, she’s still visibly upset, so I take her shoulders in hand. “Why don’t you let me drive, baby?”
“I can do it.”
I swipe my thumb across her tear-stained cheek. “I know you can, but I’m trying to lighten your load. Why don’t you let me?”
“I can’t rely on you.”
Damn this stubborn woman. “Because you still think I’m the enemy?”
She takes so long to answer, I’m almost convinced she’s not going to. “No. Because I have to stand on my own two feet.”
“You won’t be here soon, and this will be my battle to fight alone.”
“It doesn’t have to be.”
Her face hardens. “Get in the car.”
The ride back to her apartment is silent and tense. Wordlessly, we unload everything, then she disappears into her bedroom, slamming the door behind her.
Fuck this day. And fuck Shane. He isn’t smart…but he’s not as stupid as I thought.
I need to see Bruce Rawson. If I can’t, my plan is going nowhere, and Reservoir will be defunct in less than two weeks. The good news is, that means less competition for Wynam’s business. The bad news? Their demise will give more legs to some of the up-and-coming players in the data storage game. If Stratus can stay on top and either absorb or control Reservoir, all the Davids out there will find it damn near impossible to catch up to our Goliath. But the biggest reason to make this work is Sloan herself.
Suddenly, the phone in my pocket buzzes. The number on my display isn’t one I recognize. “Sebastian Shaw.”
“You meddling motherfucker,” says an unfamiliar voice that cracks and sounds slightly wizened with age.
“Mr. Rawson?” How did Bruce get my number?
“You think you’re pretty clever, don’t you?”
The old man wants to chew me a new asshole, and I’m not going to make it easier by admitting anything. “Excuse me?”
“Pretending to be the contractor I hired so you could have an open-book view of Reservoir’s financials. You must be quite the player, too. Sloan seems too smart to fall for your BS. Unless you fucked all the sense out of her.”
“That’s your daughter you’re talking about.”
“Shut your mouth.”
“I won’t. I’m not sleeping with Sloan—and not for lack of trying. She’s a smart, tough businesswoman, and you’ve undervalued her—to your own detriment. I can prove that. Just like I can prove Reservoir is about to go under.”
“Bullshit,” he growls.
“It’s not. Give me ten minutes of your time. I’ll prove it.”
He rattles off an address. “Be there at five o’clock sharp. If you can’t prove what you’re saying, I’ll trash Jeremy McBride’s reputation, call the police to have you arrested for fraud, and make sure Sloan never finds another job in Texas.”
Three beeps tell me he’s gone.
Son of a bitch. I glance at my watch. It’s a quarter past noon. I have a few hours to get my head together and make sure my argument is persuasive. But honestly, I shouldn’t need anything more than last night’s clandestinely snapped video and a balance sheet.
As I pocket my phone, Sloan emerges from her bedroom, then stops short when she sees me. “You’re still here?”
“Of course. I’m not leaving this unresolved.” And I’m not leaving you.
“You’re free. I won’t say a word to anyone about you posing as your consultant friend. Go back to Maui and Stratus and…”
Forget her. That’s what she’s saying.
“What are you going to do?”
She shrugs. “Once you’re not here to gawk at me, I’ll have a long and pointlessly self-indulgent crying jag. Then? I don’t know. I just can’t fight the world right now.”
“You don’t have to. You have me, and I’m not going anywhere. So what if Shane thinks he fired you? This isn’t over.”
“What the hell are you going to do?”
“If I can take Shane down and get you back in a position of power at Reservoir, are you in?”
She scowls at me like I’ve lost my mind. “You can’t do that.”
“What if I can?”
“If I can work that out, promise me you’re with me.”
“All right. But I think you’re being way too optimistic. To Mr. Rawson, you’re connected to me, and I spoke to him a few minutes ago. He seems really comfortable with the fact Shane fired me, and he told me never to darken his door again for any reason.”
That son of a bitch. I’m going to crush him.
“Baby…” I cross the room to take her in my arms.
She shakes her head, clearly trying to control her tears. It’s painfully obvious she’s going to lose that battle. “I’m over it. Just go.”
My heart twists painfully for her. “Not when you’re hurting.”
“I don’t need you.”
“I think you do.”
Her mouth thins into a mutinous line. “Not everyone needs the great Sebastian Shaw.”
Sloan is lashing out in pain, but I’ll help her as soon as she lets me. “I don’t care about everyone, baby. Just you.”
She doesn’t really want me to answer that question. I don’t think I want to know the answer, either. It’s not logical. No one falls in love with someone they’ve known a handful of days and never had sex with, right?
“Because you’re amazing. And because some things just are.”
“I don’t understand. What’s your angle?”
I frown. “What does that mean?”
“I have no more power at Reservoir. Not that I had much to begin with. Whatever you and your boss, Satan, wanted to con out of me? I don’t have it to give anymore.”
I pull her closer, trying to stifle my frustration. “You know what? Fuck that little speech of yours, right along with your attitude. And fuck your father, too. I. Am. Here. For. You. Got it? I’m going to spend the afternoon taking care of you. You’re going to let me. And by tonight, we’ll have a new plan.”
Sloan looks up at me, her blue eyes misty like a rain-soaked sky. “You’re crazy.”
I brush the hair from her face and cup her chin. “I never said I wasn’t. Now let me hold you, goddamn it.”
She throws herself against me and buries her face in my suit coat, sniffling again. “I hate to cry.”
“Today, it’s good for you. Get it all out.”
To my shock, Sloan does. She stops arguing, holding back, and giving me excuses. She simply gives in and lets me comfort her.
I feel like I’ve won a fucking gold medal and the lottery at once. And, wrapping my arms tighter around her, I pull her closer, absorb her pain, and swear I’ll do everything I can to turn this around for her.
Serendipitously, Sloan falls asleep at four o’clock—after I order a pizza with her favorite toppings, find a bottle of her go-to Cab, and encourage her to take a relaxing bath. It’s sweet when she drifts off in my arms afterward, bitter when I have to leave her in bed alone, call an Uber, and prepare to do battle with Bruce Rawson.
The time to enact my plan is now.
I arrive at his palatial place in the most prestigious part of Dallas, one full of old homes and generational wealth. The old man, despite being visibly ill, is still salty and tough. He’s been around decades longer than me and tries a hundred ways to get the upper hand. But once I show him the video of Shane, he falters. The balance sheet makes him crumble altogether.
The whole confrontation is over in twenty minutes.
“What do you want?”
His voice cracks in defeat. The triumph I expected to feel isn’t there.
I lay out my list of demands. He mulls them over with a frown.
“A loan? You’re not going to simply wait for Reservoir to go belly up and scoop it up like a vulture?”
Normally, I would. And Evan would back me up. Logically, that would make the most sense. But where Sloan is involved, I’m not remotely logical.
“No. If you agree to everything I’ve outlined—in writing—we won’t. Renege on any part of this and—”
“I understand. But surely, you can’t mean…” He sighs. “Your plans for Sloan—”
Now he acts like the concerned father? “Are not up for negotiation. That’s the deal. Take it or leave it.”
Of course he takes it. I’ve backed him into a corner.
I leave victorious, but I’m hardly satisfied.
In the Uber back to Sloan’s place, I call Evan.
“Bas, what’s going on there?”
I let out a long breath and hope like fuck I’m doing the right thing. “It’s done.”
“You got Reservoir to agree to our terms for the loan?”
“Verbally, yeah. The deal will be final a week from tomorrow. We’ll need to fund them then.”
“Despite Shane Rawson calling me at oh-dark-thirty this morning to tell me he’s going to smear Stratus’s name everywhere because you’re a fraud, you still managed to pull it off? Good job!”
“Tomorrow morning, I’ll announce that I’m replacing Shane as CEO.” And if I have my way, Sloan will be my VP of Finance.
There’s just one catch…
“You have balls, buddy. I knew that, but…damn. That’s great work, going to the mat for Stratus. Remind your asshole of a boss to give you an obscene raise.”
“I plan to.” I manage to laugh along. What else can I do when I’m painfully aware I didn’t do this for Evan or the company we built together? Sure, it benefits us—a lot.
But I’m uncomfortably aware I did this for Sloan.
“I’ve had our attorneys working on the contract verbiage since we talked last. It should be ready by tonight. I’m sure we’ll have a little negotiating to do…”
“We will. The old man insists on paying us off in a year.” And getting us the hell out of his business.
It will be too late by then, at least for his vision of Reservoir.
It’s Sloan I’m worried about. What if I can’t win her over?
Evan scoffs. “With the balance sheet you showed me? Good luck with that. What else can we do on this end to support you?”
I’m more than vaguely aware that I haven’t been honest with Evan yet about what I’m getting out of the deal. Truth is, I don’t know what my best friend and boss would say. But I’m going to make sure he can’t undo my scheming before he finds out.
Yeah, that sounds shitty, but I’ve earned something for me, right? Don’t I get a reward for all my effort?
Just in case Evan disagrees, I have some spin ready to go. After all, the structure of this deal will definitely serve his best interests at the end of the day. Evan will get richer. Even Bruce Rawson is likely to wind up happy…eventually.
That’s great, but I’m focused on my prize.
After one momentous stop along the way, I emerge from the hired car in front of her building, take a deep breath, and strap in for one hell of a bumpy ride.
I let myself into Sloan’s place with the key I swiped from her ring and find her in the kitchen, heating a can of soup. At my entrance, she looks up, startled and a little wary.
“You came back?”
The surprise in her voice chafes me. Does she think that because her biological family has blown her off, no one cares enough to stay? Or is she really saying that, despite all my assurances earlier, she doesn’t believe me because she still doesn’t trust me?
And what I’m about to say won’t make anything better.
“Yes. I just met with Bruce Rawson.” And after getting a firsthand look at his attitude, I won’t be encouraging her connection with Daddy ever again.
She pales. “You what?”
“He called me and demanded a face-to-face.”
Her wariness turns to tension. “Why?”
“Let’s sit.” I take her elbow to guide her to the nearby table.
Sloan jerks away. “I’m capable of finding a chair if I’m in the mood to take a load off. But you telling me to sit, like I need to brace myself, worries me. What happened? Don’t sugarcoat.”
“I wasn’t going to.” I eye her steaming soup. “Is that really what you want for dinner? Why don’t you let me take you out? Isn’t there a good steakhouse around the corner?”
And maybe if we have this conversation in public, she won’t bite my head off, at least not right away.
“I don’t have time for that. I need to work on my résumé, so tell me what you have to say now.”
I hesitate, looking for another way to soften her, but that stubborn chin tells me it’s a losing battle.
“All right. Do you still want to save Reservoir?”
“It’s not my concern anymore. I was fired, remember?” She tries to look unmoved.
I’m not buying it. In her attempt to get her father’s attention, I think she came to care deeply about the organization itself. “Hypothetically, what if you weren’t?”
“Why? Is Mr. Rawson considering hiring me back?” The hopeful note in her voice is unmistakable.
“We’ll get to that. For now, think of this as a general question. If it was within your power to save Reservoir, would you?”
“In this hypothetical scenario, would Mr. Rawson be returning to run things right?”
“No.” He looks too sick for the day-to-day rigors of running a growing tech company, and I wonder if she knows just how unwell her biological father is. But now isn’t the time to disclose that. “Let’s say saving Reservoir falls to you—and you alone. Would you do it?”
“Sure, but this is all mental masturbation, right?”
I shake my head. “As of next Thursday, Reservoir will be under new management and in a healthy financial position again, thanks to a cash infusion in the form of a loan.”
She gapes at me, looking furious and betrayed. “One Stratus is providing, I assume. How convenient.”
Her verbal swipe proves she still cares about her former employer. “But it will save Reservoir. All you have to do is agree to one simple term.”
Sloan looks taken aback. “Me?”
“I told you that you alone dictated the organization’s fate.”
“What does that mean? And what if I don’t agree?”
“The company will be insolvent and forced to declare bankruptcy in the next seven days.”
Sloan’s blue eyes widen with shock. “No. We should be able to file chapter eleven and reorganize, rather than sell out. We don’t need Stratus taking over. You and Satan pack up your carpetbag and get the hell out of Reservoir.”
Yep. She definitely cares.
“Like you said earlier, you were fired. You don’t have the power to lead a reorganization,” I remind her before I unload another secret on her. “And their collateral is already tied up in existing loans. Mr. Rawson still owns the company, and he’s agreed to these terms. All you have to do to save it is say yes.”
She eyes me warily. “To what?”
I pull a velvet box from my pocket and set it on the kitchen island between us. “Marry me.”
Sloan backs away from the box like it’s a snake. “What?”
“If you agree to marry me for one year, I’ll step in as Reservoir’s new CEO. Shane will be fired, as will all the VPs he compromised. The company will receive a much-needed cash infusion, and you’ll be reinstated.”
I don’t tell her about the promotion yet. Some stupid part of me wants her to say yes because she wants me, not a job, though I know that’s stupid, wishful thinking. Sloan only tolerates me. She sure as hell doesn’t trust me. She might not hate kissing me…but that’s not enough to sway her into marrying me.
“Are you out of your mind?”
“Does it matter?” I open the box to reveal three carats of princess-cut diamond in rose gold with another carat decorating the diamond-encrusted band. “Say yes.”
She stares at the ring, then back up at me, gaping. “Why?”
The truth will freak her out, so I settle for the logical response. “We need collateral to ensure that Mr. Rawson won’t call his cronies to circle the financial wagons, sell his personal assets, or launch any other eleventh-hour charge to save Reservoir and oust us. You’re it.”
She scoffs at me. “He doesn’t care what happens to me.”
He doesn’t, and I think he’s an asshole. “He cares about keeping you a secret.”
Sloan looks away, but not before I see the hurt in her expression. “That doesn’t mean you have to marry me. So why do it?”
“Because I want to.” I lean closer, palms braced on the island. “And let me be clear, Sloan. This will not be a chaste business arrangement.”
Shock flashes across her face. “You’re going to force me to spread my legs for you? So you can fuck me whenever you feel like it?”
She’s doing her best to goad me, trying to position this in the ugliest way possible. I refuse to rise to her bait. “Given our chemistry, I don’t think I’ll have to force you to do anything.”
“You cocky asshole. That night in your hotel room, I was acting.”
I smile. “No actress is so good that she can make her pussy spasm on cue when her leading man puts his mouth on it.”
She flushes red. “It’s a physiological response. Any man could have done that to me with enough stimulation.”
Oh, she’s daring me to prove her wrong. And I will—in my time. In my way. I can’t get sidetracked now. “Yes or no, baby? It’s a simple question.”
“To a ridiculous proposal. Insisting we get married… It’s draconian. It’s antiquated. It’s—”
“Inevitable if you want to save Reservoir.”
My gut tightens. “Is that a no?”
Sloan looks like she’d rather spit out her teeth than answer me. “I need time to decide.”
“You have until morning. If it’s a yes, I expect to see you tomorrow at eight a.m. in Reservoir’s lobby wearing your engagement ring. If you’re not there by then, I’ll proceed as if the company will wend its way to an inevitable demise next week—when Evan and I will buy it outright for a fraction of its worth. Your choice.”
I grab my stuff and head for the door. There’s nothing left to say, and staying will only infuriate her more. I’m hoping that if she has some time to herself to reflect, she’ll see I’m the lesser evil. If not… Fuck, I don’t want to think about that.
As I turn the knob, she calls after me. “I’ll bet you’re gloating on the inside about how you used your rival’s ambitious, gullible, woe-is-me bastard daughter to your advantage. You’re probably enjoying it, too. But while you’re relishing your underhanded victory, think about the fact I fucking hate you.”
By seven fifty the following morning, I’m pacing. Admittedly, I reached the office early, but Sloan is usually here. The fact she isn’t yet makes me antsy.
What do you mean yet? She may not show up at all.
That’s a possibility I’d rather not consider.
You’re being stupid. She fucking hates you, but you can’t wait to marry her?
Love has never been easy for me. The mess with Becca was complicated as hell, but if Sloan and I say I do, I suspect our relationship will be a whole other level of difficult. Good thing I relish challenge.
In my pocket, my phone buzzes. Why is Evan calling me at two o’clock in the morning, Hawaii time? “Hey, what’s going on? Why aren’t you in bed?”
“Can’t sleep. Too keyed up. I knew you’d be in the office. Things happening there yet?”
Either my boss or my best friend could reasonably ask that question and expect an answer. The fact that Evan is both, and I haven’t leveled with him… There will be consequences down the road. I’m trying not to think about them now. One catastrophe at a time.
“No, but it’s about to go down. I should be able to give you specifics in the next”—I glance at my watch—“half hour.”
“I’d like to be asleep by then.”
“Sure.” But I doubt he will be. “Good luck.”
He sighs. “You’ve seen the most recent draft of the Reservoir contract? It’s in your inbox.”
“Seen it. Read it. Made a few notes. Overall, it looks good. Rawson insists we insert a clause that gives them an out if they manage to come up with alternate funding before next Thursday. If anything else comes up this morning”—like Sloan agreeing to marry me—“I’ll make adjustments as necessary.”
“But Reservoir is too played out to manage any last-minute tricks, right?”
“That’s my read.”
“Good. Word on the street is that Bruce Rawson made some desperate phone calls last night, looking for emergency funding.”
I figured he’d try. “No lending institution in their right mind will give him a dime. He definitely won’t find enough to save Reservoir before we take over. He’s too underwater. Hell, I expect lots of suits will question our sanity for bailing him out.”
“I’m sure.” He pauses. “You have to get him to sign. Today.”
So he can tell Wynam we’re going to be one happy company. I get it. “Rawson doesn’t have a choice. I’ve got a few aces up my sleeve and a loose end to tie up. Then it’ll be a done deal.” I can’t be more specific than that, and I have to hope Evan will understand when I finally tell him everything. “Why don’t you go to bed? When you wake up, all this should be done.”
Over the phone, he yawns. “Yeah. I’m fucking beat.”
“Talk to you later, buddy.”
“Absolutely. Keep doing amazing things. We’re a great team.”
His encouragement and rah-rah spirit make me feel guilty as hell as I murmur my goodbye and hang up. The day has barely started, and I already want it behind me. Where the hell is Sloan with her answer?
Since I didn’t sleep much last night myself, I worked—on the contract Stratus’s attorney put together, on a statement to all of Reservoir’s employees outlining the upcoming management changes, and on figuring out how to make Sloan my wife ASAP. I’m as prepared for today as I can be, but my nerves are raw. I can’t find my goddamn cool.
Cursing under my breath, I pocket my phone and resume pacing Reservoir’s lobby. I glare impatiently at my watch again. Eight o’clock straight up. For Sloan, this is late. She’s never late. Is this her silent way of not just refusing my proposal but telling me to fuck off for good?
Across the cavernous space, the sound of a woman’s heels clicking smartly over the tile sends me turning in her direction. My jaw drops.
Sloan approaches, hair wound in an elegant twist, revealing her high cheekbones and graceful neck. She’s wearing a black business suit—figuring-hugging jacket buttoned just under her exposed cleavage, along with a sleek pencil skirt that reveals most of her thighs—and a pair of killer black stilettos with gold accents. The coordinating hoops dangling from her ears and the bangles encircling her wrists give her a perfectly polished vibe. She looks amazing. Powerful. Sexy as hell.
But the choker encircling her neck with a dangling ball and chain—and her engagement ring attached to it—pisses me off.
“What the hell is that?” I gesture to the three carats scraping the plastic gag gift hanging as a silent fuck you.
She stops in front of me, brow raised. “What do you mean? I’m wearing the ring.”
“Not on your finger,” I growl.
“You said I had to wear it. You didn’t say where.”
Sloan is trying to get a rise out of me. I won’t give her the satisfaction of showing my temper. “Are you marrying me?”
“It’s not as if I have much choice.”
From behind the desk in the far corner, the security guard watches us. A few employees running late dash to their desks, giving us sideways glances before they disappear into nearby offices or the gaping elevator.
Gossip is going to spread like a cancer if I don’t quash this fast. But I’m aware that isn’t my only reason for stepping into her personal space, teeth gritted. “Take the ring off that ridiculous statement around your neck.”
“How is it ridiculous? I’m about to be shackled for the next year, so I dressed accordingly.”
I have never been so tempted in my life to put a woman over my knee. “We have paperwork to finish and an announcement to make. Put that ring on your finger right now.”
“No. I’m fine with where it is.”
I go from gritting my teeth to grinding them. This woman has always been great at raising my blood pressure, but I swear today she’s shoving me closer to an aneurysm.
I’m calling her bluff. “All right. First stop, we’re visiting your father.”
“Mr. Rawson”—she corrects me—“should understand how I feel about the fact he sold me to you without compunction.”
She’s not wrong. During our brief meeting, Rawson fought for everything but her, which makes no sense. He took all of Sloan’s hard work and loyalty for granted, as if it was his due for the simple favor of providing half her DNA. But he was willing to go to the mat for the worthless son who cost him a fortune.
“Then we’ll address all the employees and let them know about the pending change in management. If you’d like them all to know that you were named VP of Finance because you married your way into it…” I shrug. “I don’t think it’s smart or good for your image, but that’s your call.”
Her eyes widen for a moment before she smothers her shock. “What’s happening to Perez?”
“The same thing that will happen to Shane and all the other VPs. They’ll go quietly if they want their very lux severance packages. If they resist…let’s just say we both know how to keep them quiet.”
I’m betting Shane kept the blackmail material he’d cultivated against each of them somewhere in his office. He’s been banned from the building, and I’m about to have the keys to his kingdom. I’ll find whatever he stashed, and all the outgoing VPs will learn quickly that I have no hesitation in using their momentary lapses of judgment against them.
“You’re a bastard.”
“That should be no surprise.” But if she’s resorting to name-calling, it means she has no better defense, and I’ve won. “Last chance. Are you going to let me put the ring on your finger, or are you going to flaunt for all your fellow employees and new subordinates that you’re in bed—literally—with the enemy?”
Sloan does her best to blank her expression, but there’s a mutinous line to her mouth and a fire in her eyes as she jerks the bachelorette party favor from her neck and works the fifty-thousand-dollar ring off the plastic chain. When I hold out my hand, she jabs the sharp edge of the diamond into my palm. When it gouges me, I refuse to wince.
Show no weakness.
I give her a saccharine smile instead and seize her left hand in a firm grip. “You’re mine from this moment until 365 days after we say I do.” I ease the ring onto her finger, gratified to see it there. It fits perfectly, as if it were made for her. “Now we’re engaged. Congratulations.”
I tsk at her. “That’s no way to talk to your fiancé.”
She scoffs. “That’s the only way I’ll talk to a bastard like you.”
Sloan might be angry now…but that fire will burn out. And she’ll soon realize the torch I’m carrying for her isn’t one she can snuff out.
I lean closer. “Fair warning: I’m going to make you fall in love with me.”
Sloan laughs at me like I’m delusional. “I’ll fall in love with my vibrator way before I fall for you.”
“Baby, I’m going to make you feel way better than your vibrator ever could. I’ll have you panting, pleading, and crying out for me.”
“Wow, your ego is bigger than your inner bastard. I didn’t think that was possible.” She shakes her head. “Bless your heart.”
I know that’s Southern-woman speak for fuck you.
“Bless yours.” I twist the ring on her finger and look right into her eyes. “Because once I get you naked and under me, you’re going to need it.”
The rest of Thursday and Friday—up until noon—are a blur of activity.
After Bruce Rawson signed on the dotted line without additional strong-arming required, the email outlining the change in management, effective next Thursday, went out to all employees. The accompanying meeting to answer employees’ questions is a zoo. After quickly conferring with Sloan and HR, I name acting VPs for every department in the company, issue a press release, and generally keep the troops calm.
A couple of hours into our Friday, I turn to Sloan, already knowing I’m going to start a fight. “Pack a bag for the weekend.”
She gives me a wary stare. “Where are we going?”
“Maui. We’re getting married tomorrow, so if there’s anyone you want to invite…”
“What?” She twists her engagement ring on her finger like she’s itching to take it off.
I nod. “When we return to Dallas, we’ll be man and wife.”
“Don’t you mean bastard and hostage?”
I continue on as if she didn’t insult me. “If you have a bridesmaid in mind, call her now.”
“So we’re just going to a justice of the peace? We can do that here.”
I shake my head. “We’re having a ceremony with my friends and family.”
In fact, I called my mom to let her know this morning and sent her a first-class ticket to arrive on the island tonight. She seems elated…if confused. My sisters are sad they couldn’t come—too many responsibilities to travel last minute—but they seem to understand I can’t wait.
Honestly, they don’t know the half of it.
“I-I thought we would get married after the loan was funded.”
And give her time to worm out of this? “Until you say I do, there’s no loan.”
“How do I know you’ll fund the loan once you’ve got what you want?” She’s grasping at straws.
“We’ve signed a mountain of paperwork to that effect. Stratus’s ‘escape clause’ can only be enacted if I pull the trigger. That’s something I’ll only do if you force me.”
The mulish set to her mouth tells me she’s not ready to give up the fight. “I don’t have a wedding dress.”
I hadn’t considered that, but in Maui I’m surrounded by resourceful women. “We’ll work it out. Our plane leaves in less than three hours.”
“If I refuse to go?”
Sloan blows out a breath, clearly looking for calm. She doesn’t have to tell me she hates me; I see it all over her face.
Not for the first time, I question my sanity. Now that I’ve backed her into a corner, how the hell am I going to make her fall for me? There’s got to be a way…but right now I’m not seeing it. Panic won’t help. Once we speak vows, I’ll have a whole year to make her love me. I’ll keep trying until I succeed.
“You think you’re smart, that you’ve got me boxed in, that I’m going to give up the fight and surrender my everything to you.” She glares at me as she grabs her purse. “Think again.”
I already know nothing about this weekend—hell, the next year—will be easy. My last-minute text to Evan, informing him that I’m coming home and bringing Sloan with me just before I switch the device to airplane mode is going to cause a stir.
The eight hours of cold shoulder she gives me during the trip feels damn icy.
It’s no shock that, by the time we land, my text and voice mail have been inundated with messages from my boss and best friend. Of course he wants to know what the hell is going on. It’s also no shock that he’s waiting at the bag claim when we land just before five o’clock Hawaii time.
“Hi, Evan.” I’m a nervous fucking wreck as I grab Sloan’s hand and drag her closer.
“Bas.” He nods, then casts his stare Sloan’s way, hand outstretched. “Good to see you, Ms. O’Neill.”
Cautiously, she takes it. “For the moment, yes. I would say it’s a pleasure, but I’m not in the habit of lying.”
Though she doesn’t know I haven’t told Evan my plans to marry her, she’s dangerously close to letting the cat out of the bag—and pissing him off in the same breath. “You didn’t have to come pick us up, buddy.”
“After that text you sent before takeoff, you knew I would.”
Pretty much. “We need to talk.”
Evan’s face tightens, and I see the exact moment he catches sight of the ring on Sloan’s finger. “Clearly. Nia is cooking. You’re coming over for dinner to explain. It’s not a request.”
I didn’t think it was. “Sure.”
“Unless you want to tell me what the fuck is going on now?”
“You’ll want to sit for this.”
Evan scrubs a hand down his face, as if my reply stresses him out even more. “Then get your bags. Let’s go.”
With that terse demand, he stalks to the door, withdrawing his phone from his pocket to make an angry call.
Sloan turns to me as we wait for the baggage carousel to start. “So he really is Satan.”
“He’s not.” I feel compelled to defend Evan, despite the fact I know he’s going to chew me a new asshole before the night is over. “I’m putting him in an awkward position. He’s not happy.”
“Well, we have that in common.”
“Did it ever occur to you for one fucking minute that I might have valid reasons for marrying you?”
“Like taking the company I’ve dedicated my adult life to and getting your jollies off making me miserable for a year? Sure.”
“Why do you do that?” I growl quietly, aware that a few people gathered around the unmoving baggage carousel are watching. “Why do you push and shove everyone away who just wants to be close to you?”
Sloan answers with a silent glare, then wanders away when the bags start to roll down the conveyer.
But she doesn’t have to reply for me to know the answer. Everyone in her life has hurt her. She’s protecting herself because she’s expecting me to be as selfish as all the others.
By marrying her against her will, aren’t you proving her right?
I try to shove the thought aside, but it lingers like the smell of skunk.
The fact I want to be with her, beside her, there for her, encouraging her, pleasuring her, giving my all to her… That counts for something, right?
Not if she doesn’t want you.
She will. I’m not giving up.
It’s not long before our suitcases come down the ramp. Sloan reaches for hers, but I grab it first, then take hold of my own. She doesn’t acknowledge me but follows me to Evan’s side. My buddy sends me a scowl that lets me know he’s expecting an explanation ASAP, then we hop into his SUV.
The ride is uncomfortably silent. I try to fill the empty cabin with small talk. But Evan won’t answer questions about the office, and Sloan is apparently not in the mood to talk about our plane ride.
It’s going to be a long evening.
When we reach Evan’s place, Nia emerges, hand stroking her rounding belly, wedding ring glinting in the last of the day’s rays. Will that ever be Sloan? Will she ever open the door to welcome me back to our home, silently protecting and loving our unborn baby?
Probably not. When I impulsively decided to marry her, I didn’t think that far ahead. I barely thought beyond my irrational need to make her mine. I didn’t even dwell much on the repercussions or likely outcomes. Will I be going through a nasty divorce this time next year?
“Y’all made good time.” Nia welcomes us inside with a hint of her Georgia upbringing in her voice. “Food should be ready soon.”
“Thanks, honey.” Evan pauses in the door to brush a kiss on her cheek and cup her belly. “You two okay?”
“Doing better today. I think I’ll even be able to keep dinner down.”
His smile is full of warm affection, and I realize my best friend never adored his late wife this way. He looked after her. He cared for her. He guided her. He removed obstacles in her life. He held her hand when her dreams turned to nightmares. He shielded her from the outside world. The fact he wasn’t in love with Becca seems so obvious now.
I look at Sloan way differently than I saw Becca. What does that say about me? About my feelings?
“Hi, Shaw. I won’t ask if you’re staying out of trouble. I know better.”
With a faint smile, I squeeze her hand. “Hi, Nia. Glad you’re feeling better.” I turn to wrap my arm around my fiancée’s waist. “This is Sloan O’Neill.”
Though Nia knows Sloan is the competition, she gives my girl a smile. “Welcome. Come on in.”
Sloan rarely behaves less than her ballsy, brash best, but Nia’s warm welcome takes her off guard. “Thank you.”
Nia’s smile brightens. “The guys will drink beer, I’m sure. I can’t imbibe obviously, but I have some great wines if you’d like a glass. What am I saying? You sat next to Bas for eight hours today. You deserve the whole bottle.”
Her quip coaxes a smile from Sloan. “I’d love a glass. Anything red would be great.”
“You got it,” Nia promises as they step into the foyer.
Sloan takes in the house with a sweeping gaze, lingering on the full oceanfront access out the back. “Your place is beautiful. Your view…”
“Thanks. We love it. Why don’t you follow me to the kitchen? I can tell from my husband’s face that he’s itching to grill Bas about what went down in Dallas.”
“Thanks for throwing me to the wolves, Nia,” I quip. “Nice to know you’re on my side.”
“Whatever you did this time, I’m sure the punishment will fit the crime.” She winks, then shoves a beer in both our hands. “Now out to the lanai with you. I need to check on dinner, and you have to leave so we can shamelessly gossip about you.”
Nia isn’t kidding, but I expected it. “Go easy on her, please. She’s barely been here five minutes.”
“Oh, I will. It’s your ass you should be worried about. After your text this morning, my husband cursed a blue streak like I haven’t heard in months. Of course, he also worked off some of his aggression between the sheets with me, so maybe I should thank you.”
“TMI.” I wince.
She just laughs—and nudges us toward the back door. “Out with you both. Go.”
Evan opens his beer, takes a long pull, then steps onto the lanai with a sigh. I send Sloan a long last look as I pop open my bottle. She still looks nervous, but I think she’s warming to Nia. She’ll be in good hands.
But I can’t worry about her now. I have to focus on the bigger battle in front of me.
Evan marches to the big chair facing the ocean, under a lazily swaying ceiling fan. “Now that we’re alone, what the fuck are you doing?”
I plop down on the outdoor sofa and take a long sip of my brew, then sigh. Might as well be honest. “I don’t know anymore.”
“What the hell?” Evan leans in, looking like he wants to throttle me. “I’m throwing most of Stratus’s liquid cash behind this to make your under-the-table takeover happen, and you don’t know what you’re doing?”
I get it. He trusted me with this operation, and I haven’t been solely focused on business. I haven’t been strictly using logic.
“I can’t think straight since I met that woman.” I sigh. “That sounds shitty, but it’s the truth. Before you get pissed off…I did everything you asked. I analyzed Reservoir, down to its last penny, in less than a week. I shut Bruce Rawson down, put all the pieces in place to take over, ousted everyone compromised, reorganized upper management, and reallocated every department’s budget in a handful of days. It will be running right as soon as they get new funds.”
“Yeah, I know. And that’s great, but… Bas, you’re not running right. You’re letting this woman get under your skin.”
I give him a cynical laugh. “I’m not letting her under my skin. She’s already there.”
“And now you’re going to marry her?”
“Are you insane?” Evan growls as if he’s rethought his prior decision not to choke the shit out of me. “That woman is smart.”
“Oh, yeah. Crafty, clever, and perfectly capable of playing dirty, too.”
“She’s the enemy. Why are you marrying her?”
Isn’t that a great question? “The obvious answer is that I needed Rawson to give me something to prove he won’t fuck up our arrangement. He knows if he does, I’ll go public with the fact Sloan is his biological daughter.”
“Fine, but you don’t have to make her your wife.”
I take another long sip of my beer and drop the truth on him like a bomb. “I don’t think I can stop myself.”
He huffs. “Take her to bed and fuck her out of your system. Don’t tie yourself to her.”
I don’t like where his head is going. “Did fucking Nia once solve your ‘problem’ with her?”
Evan glares right back. “Apples and oranges.”
“Is it? Really? We were both in love with Becca—or thought we were. We both found a woman who challenges us. And we both got caught up, despite the fact falling in love when business is on the line isn’t smart.”
“You’re in love with her?”
“I’m not a hundred-percent sure…but ninety-nine-point-nine? Yeah.”
“I know you’re not thrilled. I’m not, either. It’s unexpected, and I feel blindsided. Wishing I could change how I feel hasn’t made a damn bit of difference. But I’m still here. I’m loyal to you. We’re going to make this happen. I’ve never asked you for anything—not a promotion, not a raise. Nothing. I’m asking you to let me have her.”
Evan thins his lips, pressing them together until they’re nearly white. I know he’s pissed…but I also know he’s thinking. “Are you working up a prenup?”
I should. Logic tells me it would be smart, just in case. But… “No. I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure it’s not an issue. I don’t want to let her go.”
“She can divorce you at any time, for any reason, buddy.”
“Just like Nia can do to you.”
“My wife loves me.”
“She didn’t always,” I remind him. “She turned you down the first time you proposed, remember? She only agreed to marry you because she was pregnant. The love came later.”
Evan chews on that, but he can’t refute what I’m saying.
I try another tactic. “What did I tell you the day you two got married, do you remember?”
“To just go with it.”
“Exactly. Because I knew you were in love with her, and I suspected she was falling, too. Because I thought you two belonged together. And because I knew you’d never be happy until you figured out your life with her.”
My boss turns even quieter. “You’re telling me to put the shoe on the other foot.”
He lets out a reluctant sigh. “Okay. I get it, but Sloan can’t interfere with our plans to take over Reservoir.”
“She knows she can’t.” Besides the fact I’ve backed her into a corner, that’s another reason she’s pissed.
“And your feelings can’t get in the way of our goals.”
I nod. “Once she’s mine, it will all be good.”
At least I hope.
Evan downs the last of his beer. “I think you’re underestimating her. That woman still has lots of fight. I see it in her eyes.”
He’s right. Sloan is reeling right now. I’ve shocked her…for the moment. But she’ll come out swinging again. And unlike Evan, whose bride was pregnant, Sloan doesn’t have a pressing reason to stay a minute longer than we agreed to. Unless…
No. While I’d love to get Sloan pregnant, she’s so fiercely independent she wouldn’t think twice about cutting me out and single parenting my son or daughter. I’ll have to think of something else.
I have no choice but to make her fall in love with me.
I down the last of my beer, trying not to think about the fact that’s a tall fucking order.
“Want another?” Evan asks, sliding forward in his cozy chair to stand.
I beat him to it, grabbing our empty bottles and heading for the house. “I’ll get them.”
It gives me an excuse to check on Sloan. Nia is too kind to eat her alive—at least in the first ten minutes. But they’re both strong and not shy about saying exactly what’s on their minds. They’ll either be at each other’s throats by the end of the night or best friends.
Slowly, I ease the back door open and tiptoe into the kitchen. They’re not sitting at the nook table or at the breakfast bar, thank goodness. But I hear laughter around the corner, coming from the dining room.
“You handcuffed Bas to his nightstand? He didn’t tell me that part.”
“And then I dragged his suitcase out to the elevator and left it, yeah.”
Nia giggles. “That is hysterical. And well deserved. High five!”
The sound of their palms softly slapping fills the air.
“I knew he was playing me, so I beat him at his own game.”
“You totally did—at least temporarily, right? I know Bas really well.”
“Oh, yeah,” Nia assures her. “For years. So I know he didn’t take that lying down.”
“He didn’t. He also didn’t appreciate me blackmailing him to come back to Dallas. So he plotted revenge.”
“What did he do to get back at you? Squash a project? Slash your budget? Take over your department?”
“No. He demanded I marry him.”
“What? I mean, I saw the ring on your finger, but I assumed that somewhere in the last week or two you fell for each other and—”
“No. Sebastian was looking for some way to get me under his thumb. He used my weakness against me until he found it.”
Nia doesn’t respond right away. “Are you sure that’s what’s happening?”
“Of course. From everything I hear, he’s ruthless in business and he enjoys the kill.”
“He does, even more than Evan—and that’s saying something. I’ve seen Bas plow through an organization financially, with all the finesse of a wrecking ball, never caring what or who stands in his path.”
“But you’re different.”
“You don’t have to blow sunshine—”
“I’m not. When he returned from his first trip to Dallas, the only thing he wanted to talk about was you. Not Reservoir, not its financials, not strategy. You. When I pointed out that you wouldn’t have cried over him if you didn’t care, he felt terrible—something he never allows. But he was also relieved that he mattered to you.”
“Sweetie, you can lie to me all you want. You don’t know me, and I don’t blame you for trying to protect yourself since you’re in the enemy’s lair, so to speak. But I hope you’re not peddling that lie to yourself. I saw the way he looked at you. Just like I saw the way you looked back at him.”
“Don’t read too much into that. He’s easy to look at, and I’m human.”
“If you want to pretend you’re not into him, go for it. I just don’t believe you. And Bas is too smart to buy that BS for long. By the way, before you get angry with me—or him—you should know he’s fighting for you right now.”
“What do you mean?”
“That conversation on the lanai out back? That’s not a friendly chat between fellow executives and buddies. That’s my husband reaming Bas out for not telling him the damn truth. Bas assured Evan he had a plan for making the Reservoir thing come together. He didn’t tell my husband—his boss and best friend for a decade—that involved marrying you. Want to know why?”
“Because Evan wouldn’t have cared?”
Nia scoffs. “That’s definitely not the case. No, Bas didn’t tell Evan because he knew my husband would object to him marrying—no offense—the enemy. And because he’s trying to protect you. Evan wanted to walk you out the door with the rest of the movers and shakers in the organization. Marrying you is Bas’s way of shielding you. He’s literally standing between you and my husband, telling Evan that you’ll be dismissed over his dead body.”
Damn it if Nia isn’t right. I both hate and love that she sees right through me. Can she reach Sloan in a way I can’t? Convince her that what I’m feeling isn’t one big corporate game?
“Why?” Sloan breathes.
“You really can’t guess? Bas didn’t have to even buy you an engagement ring, much less a rock you can see from outer space.”
“I figured he wants to show off.”
“Usually I’d agree, but with you… No. He wants everyone—especially you—to understand that you’re his. This isn’t merely a corporate acquisition. He’s staking his claim. He’s making you his in a way that has nothing to do with business.”
“Is he even capable of caring about anyone besides himself?”
“Don’t let his swagger fool you. He’s cocky, I admit. And his balls can be bigger than his brains. But he’s never—not once—blurred the lines between business and pleasure. Until you.”
“I need a minute.” Sloan’s voice shakes. “Can you point me to the restroom?”
“Sure, sweetie. Down the hall, first door on the left. Take your time.”
After a chair scrapes against the tile floor and a door shuts in the distance, I hear Nia rise.
Shit, if she comes into the kitchen, she’ll see me standing here, eavesdropping. But I’m never going to get out the door undetected.
Before I can decide what to do, Nia strolls around the corner. “I thought I heard one of you come in, and Evan wouldn’t have listened this long.”
“Sorry. I came in for beers”—I hold up the empty bottles I’m still clutching—“and I couldn’t help myself.”
She shrugs. “Did I read the situation wrong? Did I misconstrue anything?”
Nia is asking if I’m falling for Sloan. I don’t know why when she seemingly knows the answer. “No. You’re completely right. How did you know?”
Her face softens. “Because you would never have gone behind Evan’s back for power, prestige, or money. Only love could make you do something stupid. I just hope you know what you’re doing.”
“I don’t.” It’s on the tip of my tongue to confess my very real fear that Sloan could chew me up and spit me out emotionally. I’ve opened my heart enough for her to do that. But if I can barely contemplate that, it’s too horrifying to speak the possibility aloud.
“You need to figure it out before the wedding. Do you have a date yet?”
I blow out a breath. “Tomorrow.”
Nia freezes. “I’d ask if you’re insane, but… Have you called Keeley to see if her beach is available? Britta to find what she can throw together last minute? Harlow and Bethany to ask what they might be able to contribute?”
“No. I should get on that after dinner.”
“There’s no time to wait. Let me. When the timer goes off, grab the roast out of the oven. I’ll be back.” She runs halfway down the hall. “Oh, any idea what kind of wedding y’all want?”
I haven’t given it a single thought. “Um…”
“I should have known. I’ll ask Sloan, and we’ll work on this together. It might take all night, but we’ll have a hell of a celebration by tomorrow.”
If anyone can make it happen, it’s Nia. “Thanks. I owe you.”
“You’re welcome, Shaw. If it’s any consolation, I’m rooting for you two.” She grins. “Then again, I’m rooting for anyone who can put you in your place, and my money is on her.”
It’s our wedding day. I’m ready, but Sloan has had less than twenty-four hours to mentally brace for the fact that, today, she’ll become my wife. I have no idea how—or if—this is going to work.
Keeley and Maxon have another wedding scheduled at noon, so the arched trellis draped with flowing white silk and flowers was already in place. So were the rows of guest chairs decorated with pristine white bows. Bisecting them, a flowing white runner leads straight to the trellis—and the killer ocean view beyond.
Sunrise paints the sky pink, orange, and yellow as I stand beside Evan, my best man, in a charcoal suit with a pale gray necktie that suddenly feels too tight.
“You okay?” Evan asks.
He sends me a dubious stare. “If you’re nervous, that should tell you something.”
I lean closer so the handful of last-minute guests don’t see me sweat. “Yeah, that I’m worried Sloan will back out.”
“Nia has her in hand, buddy. In less than thirty minutes, Sloan will be your wife, for better or for worse.”
In the front row, my mother sits, wearing a mint-green dress and a misty smile. It’s great to see her. I missed her more than I realized. We haven’t had much time to talk. Hopefully, we will during the reception…when she’ll finally meet my bride.
Two chairs down, Maxon Reed sits in a navy suit, holding his infant daughter, who’s still wearing her pajamas, rubbing her eyes. His wife and the dynamo behind this suddenly successful bed-and-breakfast, Keeley, has a mic in hand, ready to sing. What, I have no idea. I didn’t pick the music. I’m not sure who did. But once Nia told Keeley and her sisters-in-law that I intended to have a wedding today, they planned everything and made it all happen.
Harlow, Maxon’s younger sister, had a wedding dress for nuptials she apparently ran out on that fit Sloan almost perfectly, so my bride is wearing that. Nia is standing up as Sloan’s matron of honor—and hopefully keeping her nerves calm. Another one of Keeley’s sisters-in-law, Britta, organized the food and baked the cake, with a lot of help from her mother. One of Harlow’s friends, Masey, is a famous makeup artist or something, so she did Sloan’s hair and face. Masey’s fiancé, Harlow’s brother-in-law, seems to know everyone on the island and found a last-minute florist willing to whip together a bouquet and some assorted flowers overnight. I don’t know how much that’s going to cost me. I don’t care, either. Keeley seems to have an officiant on standby, and Harlow’s husband, former pro quarterback and future hall-of-famer, Noah Weston, called in some favors for a top-notch photographer.
Now all I’m waiting on is my bride.
“This thing should have started by now,” I murmur to Evan, fidgeting.
Discreetly, he checks his watch. “She’s only two minutes late. Patience.”
Disquiet gnaws at my gut. If Sloan doesn’t come through, I don’t know what the fuck I’ll do. Yeah, Evan will insist we buy Reservoir for pennies or bury them altogether, and I won’t have a valid reason to stop him…except that, even if my bride doesn’t march down the aisle, I don’t think I can walk away from her.
It’s official. I’m in love.
I’ve had zero time to process that before Nia appears at the back of the big white house, bouquet in hand, wearing a short, lacy dress in a blush color with a big satin bow I recognize from a recent Stratus bash. She’s clutching a bouquet of white and pink flowers as she pastes on a smile and nods at Keeley across the yard.
Music begins then, and Keeley lights up as she waves to her baby daughter and lifts the mic to sing Paramore’s “The Only Exception” in a soft, lilting voice. Nia makes her way across the white runner to stand on the far side of the makeshift altar, smiling all the while at Evan.
The song goes on, and the officiant approaches, Bible in hand that seems out of place, given his braided salt-and-pepper beard and his loud Hawaiian shirt. He leans toward me and whispers in low tones, “I’m Lono.”
“Sebastian.” We shake hands.
“The wedding license has been taken care of. Once you sign after the ceremony, you and Sloan will be official.”
I’m not sure how Lono managed that, but I’m not questioning it. “Thank you.”
The music changes again. Everyone stands. Tension seizes my chest. I hold my breath, my heart pounding so hard I swear it’s going to beat out of my chest.
Then Sloan emerges from the open door at the back of the shimmering house as Keeley strikes up the notes of Adele’s “Make You Feel My Love.” My bride takes my breath away in a beaded ivory dress with a delicate scooped neck and her hair swept away from her face. The sensual Hawaiian breeze tugs at the flowers tucked into her fiery curls.
She. Is. Beautiful.
And she’s almost mine.
It’s obvious she’s nervous. If her death grip on her bouquet of pink roses and tender white plumeria isn’t a giveaway, her trembling definitely is.
I send her an encouraging smile, willing her to believe that, somehow, someway, we’ll work everything out and be happy. But the confidence comes from somewhere deeper inside me because, now that she’s here, I know this is right. I know she’s where I belong. I feel it all the way to my bones.
Convincing her will be the bigger problem.
She’s chosen to walk up the aisle alone, despite the fact Bruce Rawson sits on the bride’s side of the crowd, looking paler than the last time I saw him. What the hell is he doing here?
I turn to Evan, but he merely shakes his head. Yeah, he’s right. Not now. I need to focus on my bride. Her sperm donor of a father isn’t important at the moment.
When Sloan reaches my side, I hold out my hand. She takes it, still shaking. Her fingers are cold, despite the temperate day.
I give her a squeeze. “It’s going to be okay.”
Her eyes, which have never looked bluer, skitter up to mine. “Is it?”
Then Lono clears his throat, so I nod. We’ll table this discussion for later.
When the officiant starts the ceremony, I forget he’s the least formally dressed person here. I forget that he looks like a stereotype. His voice… It’s both reverent and reassuring. And as I caress the back of Sloan’s hand with my thumb, I think it’s calming her, too.
“Do you, Sloan Meghan O’Neill, take Sebastian to be your husband…”
I tune out the rest of Lono’s speech and zero in on my bride, willing her to say that one magical phrase.
She draws in a choppy breath and meets my stare like she’s rattled. But she’s got fire and spine, so she pulls through. “I do.”
“And do you, Sebastian Andrew Shaw, take Sloan to be your wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward? For better or for worse? In sickness and in health? Forsaking all others until death do you part?”
I squeeze her hand again and smile into her eyes. “I do.”
We exchange rings as Lono says something about them being the symbol of unending love because they, like love itself, have no beginning and no end.
“I now pronounce you Sebastian and Sloan Shaw.” He turns to me and winks. “Here’s the part you’ve been waiting for. Kiss your bride.”
He’s right. I don’t hesitate to cup her face, lean in, and lose myself in the moment. Even over the salty tang of the ocean, I smell strawberries. Her breath is warm and sweet as I hover above her lips, savoring this moment as she clings to my arms and lets out a jagged exhalation. Then closes her eyes and gives herself over to me.
Our lips touch, but I feel the kiss all through my body. Sloan must too since she stiffens. But when I brush my mouth over hers in a gentle glide, a press of reassurance, she softens against me.
It’s almost surrender.
Maybe I should back away with a polite smile and look happy for our guests, but nothing is more important than imprinting myself on my wife. So I nudge her lips apart and settle my mouth more firmly over hers. And—yes!—she lets me in with a breathy moan only I can hear, shyly meeting my tongue as I slip inside.
Her sweet acceptance makes me lose my head.
I plunge deeper, sweeping my way past her lips to taste every part of her, reveling when she grips my biceps like I’m the only thing keeping her from melting. She tastes like cinnamon and honey—both spicy and so, so sweet.
God, I’m going to claim this woman as mine. I’m going to convince her to spend her life with me. Make her love me. I don’t know how that’s going to work since she still hates me. I’ll have to break down the barriers she’s built around her heart because everyone who should give a shit about her doesn’t. But as I press into her mouth again, I vow to figure all that out because I’m never letting her go.
Evan clearing his throat beside me brings me back to reality. The wedding. Our guests. My semi-hostile bride.
I ease away to find Sloan with rosy cheeks, kiss-swollen lips, and a gorgeously dazed expression. Unfortunately, I can’t take her to bed for hours. It sucks because I have no idea where her head is or what she’s likely to do once I get her alone.
Reluctantly, I release her, then take her hand and paste on a big smile for everyone attending our nuptials. Keeley sings Ellie Goulding’s “Love Me Like You Do” as we head down the stairs together, taking our first steps as man and wife.
She looks my way, the moment breathless, frozen, and uncertain—but I see a hint of hope in the curl of her lips as she clutches my fingers.
Maybe she doesn’t totally hate me…
Then she scans the crowd—and I know the exact moment she spots Bruce Rawson looking at her. She gasps and nearly trips on her long, flowing dress.
Quickly, I wrap my arm around her to keep her from falling. “Look at me, baby.”
“Why is he here?” she whispers.
I don’t know. Before I can tell her that, Britta, Bethany, and Harlow—along with the snarky brunette’s friends, Amanda and Masey—surround us and take Sloan’s bouquet before leading us to the lanai, which has been transformed from a beachside hangout to a wedding paradise during our short ceremony.
A trio of round tables has been assembled to accommodate our roughly twenty guests. A long banquet table occupies one side of the area, complete with chairs for the bridal party, elegant place settings, and a simple white cake, sprinkled with colorful plumerias. And lots of food perfect for a breakfast reception—platters of fruit, pastries, frittatas, and parfaits.
I sign the wedding license, then Sloan follows suit, hand shaking. It’s done. We’re officially and legally man and wife.
Maxon approaches from behind and slaps me on the back. “Congratulations.”
I turn and take his hand, watching my wife—it’s crazy to say that—out of the corner of my eye. “Thanks. And thanks for letting us get married here last minute.”
“Are you kidding? Keeley was tickled. I think all the ladies had fun last night. It was like a grown-up sleepover. Even Kailani did her best to keep up.” He smiles at his daughter. “Didn’t you, princess?”
Her happy gurgle lights up the big green eyes just like her father’s. “I really appreciate it. Just tell me how much I owe you all for everything.”
Maxon shakes his head. “Keeley and I are happy to give you the venue until ten and your honeymoon suite tonight. The cake was Britta and Griff’s gift to you. Noah took care of the photographer. Trace handled the flowers. Evan paid for the rest. Enjoy it. Be happy. And now someone needs a diaper change.”
As he blows a raspberry on his daughter’s cheek, he heads inside with a laugh that matches her giggle. I want what he has. I want happiness. Belonging. Permanence. Hell, other than Becca, I never thought I wanted anything except corporate climbing and money. I lived for the kill. Now I’d do anything to have my bride look at me the way Nia looks at my best friend—with pure, unshakable love.
When I turn to find Sloan again, Bruce Rawson hovers nearby, and my wife looks pale and shell-shocked. When our eyes meet, it’s obvious she’s not okay.
But when I break away to reassure her, I feel a gentle hand on my arm. “Son?”
It’s not great timing, but I turn to my mother with a smile. I’ll only have a few hours with her before Sloan and I retire together until tomorrow. Mom’s flight arrived hours late, so she barely slept before she had to wake for the ceremony. She must be exhausted and jet-lagged, but she’s here, looking proud and happy.
I hug her close. “It’s great to see you, Mom. Thanks for coming on such short notice.”
“Of course. I wouldn’t miss this for anything.” She smiles, not merely like she’s happy to see me but with pure maternal love.
Why did I forget how much her steady affection means to me? “Do you want to meet Sloan?”
Evan, Nia, and half the Reed clan have clustered around her. Bruce Rawson can’t get near her now, thank goodness, but she’s clearly unnerved by his unexpected presence. In fact, the old man stares holes through Sloan.
I don’t know what he wants, but he better not upset her today.
“Please,” Mom says. “She’s so beautiful.”
“She is.” I lead my mother toward my wife. “She’s incredibly smart, too. That was the first thing I loved about her.”
“How long have you two known each other?”
My mom is traditional. She’ll think we haven’t known each other long enough to get married. Hell, maybe she’s right. But I refuse to believe I’ll ever regret making Sloan mine.
When I reach her side, I wrap an arm around her waist and guide her and my mom to a quiet corner inside the gorgeous bed-and-breakfast before making quick introductions.
Sloan’s smile is nervous but gracious as she offers her hand. “It’s nice to meet you, Mrs. Shaw.”
My mother tsks and holds out her arms. “It’s Daphne. How wonderful to meet you. I hope you don’t mind a hug. We’re family now.”
When Mom scoops Sloan into her embrace, my wife sends me a surprised glance. I can’t explain the big, super-close family I had growing up, but when my mother squeezes Sloan in a maternal embrace, her eyes brimming with happy tears, I hope my wife understands.
Mom looks my way. “I would have liked to meet her sooner, Sebastian.”
“Sorry. The ceremony was really spontaneous, so all the things I would have done if we’d had more time—”
“Did you rush to the altar because she’s pregnant?” my mother asks hopefully.
“Mom…no. We just didn’t want to wait. When you know, you know, right?”
She gives me a worried frown. “Sometimes people change their minds.”
Like my dad, who suddenly decided he didn’t want to be a family man anymore. She doesn’t want me to go through the horrible heartbreak she endured. But I will when Sloan serves me with divorce papers on our first anniversary.
No. I don’t want that. I’ll do whatever I have to so that doesn’t happen. I have a year to change her mind. I need to use it wisely.
Suddenly, my mother gives me a smile. “But I hope things will be different for you. You deserve happiness. Your sisters wanted to be here today.”
“To attend the wedding? Or because it’s warm in Maui all year?” I tease.
“Well…” Mom’s grin turns impish. “They definitely hated not seeing you get married…but they wouldn’t turn down the weather, especially after our hellish winter. And spring hasn’t quite sprung yet back home.” She scans the yard, leading to the beach and the ocean beyond. “It’s absolutely beautiful here. And I enjoyed catching up with Evan. He has a lovely wife.”
“Nia is great. They make a good team both in the office and at home.”
Mom turns to Sloan. “What do you do, dear?”
“My employer recently promoted me to VP of Finance,” she says cautiously, giving me a sideways stare full of questions.
Yeah, I haven’t had a chance to fill my mother in, so bless Sloan for not saying that we’re rivals…or that she married me for business reasons more or less against her will.
“That’s impressive. Sebastian said you’re very smart.” Mom gives my wife the kind of proud smile she would any of her kids. “And obviously ambitious.”
“Very,” I assure her.
“That’s great. My son is, too. In fact, I would have sworn he was too busy to ever get married. Hopefully you two aren’t so wrapped up in your careers that you put off having kids forever.”
“What? You’re over thirty. It’s time to think about the future. Your youngest sister is barely twenty-five, and she’s going to beat you to parenthood.”
“It’s not a race,” I volley back.
Mom turns to Sloan. “What about you? Do you want children?”
“I’d love to have kids,” my wife says. “Probably in a few years.”
After we’re divorced—at least in her mind. And that will be over my dead body.
“It’s not a bad idea to enjoy each other and marriage for a while.” Then Mom’s smile falters. “In retrospect, I wish my ex-husband and I had.”
Suddenly, Keeley approaches, plastic smile in place. “The bride and groom for our noon wedding just informed me that they need to be here a bit early so the bride can be sewn into her dress.”
Sewn? Is that a thing? “How early?”
“In two and a half hours.” Her smile almost looks manic now.
“You need this place picked up by then?”
Keeley nods. “And reset for their wedding.”
In other words, there’s no time for small talk. We need to get this reception started so we can wrap it up. Fine by me since I’m eager to be alone with Sloan. “Got it.”
“Everything okay?” Mom sends a questioning stare my way.
“Yeah. We just need to kick off the festivities,” I tell her, then I take Sloan’s hand. “You ready, wife?”
Sloan doesn’t look ready, but I can’t refute her. Hell, I can’t even spend the time to reassure her. All I can do is stay by her side until she realizes what’s between us is right.
Isn’t that a metaphor for our marriage?
“We’ll finish catching up with you in a bit, Mom.”
With Keeley leading the way, I guide Sloan to the front of the lanai where the bride and groom chairs have been offset from the others. Evan sits on my right, Nia to my wife’s left.
After a rushed breakfast, my best friend’s heartfelt toast, and a whole lot of clinking of glasses demanding that Sloan and I kiss, the deejay starts spinning tunes. We take the middle of the floor for our first dance to Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud.” It’s fitting since I’m pretty sure I’ll love this woman until I’m seventy—and beyond.
But in the back of my head, I hear Hey Violet’s “Like Lovers Do,” warning me that she considers love another four-letter word. It’s very like her to think that life is no fairytale, so it’s time to pay up.
Somehow, I have to change her mind.
“We’re married,” I whisper in my wife’s ear.
“I still think you’re insane.”
I smile as much for everyone watching as I do for my wife. “You went along with it, so what does that make you?”
“Desperate. You and Satan found my weakness and used it ruthlessly.”
Her decades-old craving for her father’s approval. Her ambition. Her steadfast loyalty to Reservoir. “I’m going to make you happy.”
“For the next year, you can try, but I don’t see it.” She presses her lips together. “What happens next?”
“We’re spending the rest of the day and tonight in Maxon and Keeley’s honeymoon suite. Then we’ll fly back to Dallas tomorrow evening.” I resent the fuck out of the fact business can’t wait a week or two so we could have a proper honeymoon.
I’ll make it up to her later.
“I meant for the next year. Where are we living? What will we tell people when we split up?”
Since I have very strong ideas about all that, I just smile and caress my palm up her spine, bared by the backless dress. “That’s for later. Leave it to me. Just be in the present now.”
She sighs. “I’m not good at that.”
Because she’s constantly got her eye on the future. Ambitious people often do. But if she’s already focused on the day we split up and she can be rid of me, how can she ever see me and what we might have together enough to want to stay?
The sex between us is going to have to be really damn good. Luckily, I don’t think that will be a problem. But that won’t be enough. Somehow, I have to work my way into her heart.
That’s a much taller order. Good thing I’m looking forward to the challenge.
All too soon, the song ends. I take advantage of the last few moments Sloan is in my arms to kiss her again before we cut the cake, toss the bouquet, and start saying goodbye to our guests. Briefly, the crowd separates us. I promise my mother we’ll meet her tomorrow morning for breakfast, thank the Reed family for everything they did to make this day possible, then turn to find my bride so we can make our escape.
She’s been cornered by Bruce Rawson, whose fingers grip her arm as he says something low and emphatic right in her face.
The damn bastard waited until my back was turned to get inside her head and twist her up again.
That’s not fucking happening. I charge across the space.
“What are you saying, sir?” she murmurs.
Sir. Not Dad—or even anything familiar—on her wedding day. Asshole. After he let his worthless son fire her, she still shows him deference. She still gives a shit about him.
I get it; when caring is a habit, breaking it is tough. But to see her try so earnestly with Rawson, who doesn’t deserve it, grates on my last nerve.
I fucking hurt for her.
I step between them to disrupt his hold and subtly shift, putting her behind me. “Mr. Rawson, Sloan and I didn’t invite you to our wedding. I’d rather not cause the kind of scene necessary to ask you to leave.”
“Is it a crime now to want to see my daughter get married?”
Suddenly he’s interested in playing parent? “You did. If you have something to say to her, say it now. I’ll wait.”
The old man’s face tightens before he gives my wife a long last look. “I’ve said everything I need to. Good luck, Sloan.” Then he turns to me. “And you, fucking leave my company alone.”
I bend until we’re eye to eye, and I snarl in his face. “You signed the contract, so that ship has sailed. You gave Shane your blind trust to run the company and he did—right into the ground. Even when Sloan tried to tell you he was extracting the organization’s profits and using them as his party fund, you wouldn’t hear of your self-absorbed son being less than perfect. I had to prove it to you in black and white. If you had listened to Sloan sooner—or better yet, promoted her since she gives a shit about Reservoir—you’d be in a better position. Now it’s too late. And it’s past time for you to go.” I grab the old man by the shirt front. “If you care about Sloan at all, make amends after I assume leadership of Reservoir. But if you ever make her cry again, be warned. I know a thousand ways to bury you professionally. I won’t hesitate to use each and every one. Get out.”
Maxon, who’s closest to our group, takes Rawson by the arm and drags him past the gawking, confused wedding guests to the adjacent parking lot. Griff and Noah call him an Uber and stand to wait with him.
When I turn to look at my wife, she’s shaken. “Are you okay? What did he want?”
A frown furrows between her brows. “Nothing you want to hear. I don’t understand why he came.”
I do. Sloan is his last hope of saving Reservoir. But barring a miracle, they can’t possibly come up with enough cash to bail themselves out before Thursday. “We can talk about it—”
“I’d rather not.”
If it’s going to upset her, I’d rather not, either. Today is about us, but… “Sloan, baby…”
Like hell. Her face drawn so tight, she’s almost expressionless. But I see her pain. Rawson’s unexpected appearance on her wedding day was a body blow. Though she’s trying to hold herself together, she looks a half second from falling apart.
But she won’t give in to her emotions in front of everyone, especially Evan—and me.
Taking Sloan’s hand in mine, we cross the lanai, accepting congratulations and well wishes along the way. Evan and Nia catch us just before we ease inside the house—and into the honeymoon suite for the next twenty-four hours.
“I’ve got the office covered until Monday,” my boss assures me. “Turn off your phone and enjoy married life.”
Given how tense Sloan is, that will be easier said than done. But I simply smile. “That’s my plan.”
“We left a few things for you to enjoy in your suite,” Nia confesses, wearing a wide grin. “Y’all should have fun.”
Since I didn’t give Evan any time to throw me a bachelor party, and all the ladies pouted that I’d rushed Sloan to the altar, subverting a bachelorette bash, I’m almost afraid to see what sorts of things they left us in the suite.
“Thank you,” my wife says nervously.
When Nia starts chatting up Sloan, Evan leans in and drops his voice. “I don’t have to tell you that you need to make this work. There’s a new rumor that Michael Astor will make Wynam’s decision in the next two weeks. The moment we’ve officially assumed control of Reservoir, I have an email ready to go, advising him that we’re now one and the same. You just have to keep your bride too busy to work behind your back for the next five days.”
That’s not all I have to accomplish, but Evan is focused on business, so I nod. “I’ll do my best.”
“Your ex-girlfriends usually wore happy smiles, at least before the breakups, so I assume you have skills.” He claps my shoulder. “Use them.”
Believe me, I’m hoping to. “Understood. Let’s go inside, baby.”
“Stay,” Sloan insists. “Enjoy the party. I need a few minutes alone anyway.”
So she can button up her emotions and build more walls around her heart with me on the other side?
“No.” Before she can object, I lift her into my arms and ignore her squeal. “This is our wedding night. It’s time for us to start being man and wife.”
Sloan clutches my shoulders. Not that I would let her fall, but clearly she doesn’t understand that.
“It’s still morning.”
I raise a brow at her. “You know what I mean.”
Before she can reply, our guests turn their attention to us. They cheer and toss flower petals from little pouches I suddenly see in their hands.
I take that as my cue to wave, then slip into the air-conditioned house. Thankfully, Nia shuts the door behind us, leaving the wedding guests outside. Presumably, Keeley and Maxon have other guests staying at the Sunshine Coast Bed-and Breakfast, but they must all be upstairs, still in their rooms. No shock since it’s not even nine o’clock, but that means my wife and I are essentially alone.
I’m taking advantage of it.
And I’m going to do my damnedest to make sure Sloan starts falling for me.
I carry my wife across the great room and round the corner to the honeymoon suite before she turns stiff and begins to wriggle in my grasp. “You can put me down.”
Now that our guests aren’t jubilantly pelting us with rose petals and smiling for our joy, Sloan thinks she’ll retreat into herself? Is she nervous that we’ll be alone for the rest of the day and all night? Or upset that her father crashed our wedding? Probably both.
“I could, but I’m not going to,” I tell her as I make my way to a pale door with a sign that reads male ána. That’s wedding in Hawaiian, which tells me we’re in the right place.
After ducking inside, I kick the door shut behind us, set my wife on her feet, and stare down into her wide, wary eyes. “You look so beautiful. I didn’t get a chance to tell you earlier.”
She looks away. “You don’t have to say things like that. I’m a big girl. I know this is a business arrangement.”
One she probably already regrets. If she tied herself to me purely in the hopes of saving the sinking ship for her father, she has just cause to be bitter.
“This is far more than a convenient arrangement, wife.”
She frowns. “So what are you going to do? Rip off my dress, toss me on the bed, and fuck me to prove it?”
Sloan is itching for a fight. Not only did her father upset her but I think she’s scared of me. Of us. Challenging me is her way of keeping emotional distance.
Too bad for her it’s not going to work. “No.”
She watches me strip off my suit coat and waits for me to declare myself.
I’ve played hundreds of corporate games. I’ve BSed to schmooze clients. I’ve bluffed my way through negotiations. I’ve gone hard and aggressive to close deals.
But Sloan isn’t a game to me. This is my future. She is my forever. Since she’s not ready to hear that, I need to approach her carefully, keep her off guard, leave her guessing.
“Then what?” she challenges me.
I don’t answer, simply meander to the corner where I see a gift basket.
Enjoy your first night as a married couple. We wish you the best. Congratulations!
Evan and Nia
I sift through the goodies they left us. A bottle of very nice champagne—still cold—Godiva chocolates in one wineglass and some lux caramels in its matching stem. A sandalwood and coconut scented candle. Lip balm, mouthwash, and bath beads. Some bougie shower gel, massage oil, a thumb drive in a plastic case marked Sensual Classics, and, of course, a whole bunch of condoms. There’s also an oblong box marked For Sloan, From Nia, which I hand to her, and a door hanger that says Do Not Disturb.
As I saunter to install that helpful piece of hardware on the knob, I catch sight of a box on one of the nightstands. Is this from Evan and Nia, too?
“Maybe you shouldn’t open that,” Sloan blurts as I lift the box.
“Why?” I ask as I untie the red bow, then notice a little card tucked underneath and open it.
Enjoy this perfect gift on our wedding night.
She doesn’t reply, just gnaws her lip like she’s second-guessing whatever she left me to unwrap.
I lift the lid and peel back white tissue paper to find a bottle of hand lotion and a towel, wrapped tightly with a pristine bow.
Despite everything, I laugh. My wife is always full of fight. But she’s about to find out I am, too. And I can be both more subtle and more effective in getting what I want.
I toss the box on the bed. “So, what were you planning to do while I was getting busy with myself? Watch?”
She flushes. “No. It was a prank.”
But I think she meant it at the time. It was another way to pick a fight, and I’m not taking the bait.
“Come here.” I loosen my tie.
She sends me a wary glance. “Why?”
“I want to talk to you.” I crook my finger at her.
“We can talk from across the room.”
“I won’t bite.” Not right away…
Warily, Sloan approaches. “What? I wanted to see what’s in the box from Nia first.”
“Then do it.” Her stalling won’t stop what I have planned.
With a relieved breath, she opens the gift. Inside is a scrap of something ivory, lacy, silky, and small. Sloan gasps, then shoves it back into the box, slamming the lid shut.
“What is it?” I ask, not even trying to wipe the smile from my face.
“Nothing.” Her voice sounds high-pitched, almost panicked.
“Obviously something. Nia wouldn’t have wrapped an empty box.” I reach for it. “Show me.”
She hides it behind her back. “It’s for me, so I don’t have to share it with you.”
“But isn’t that the idea?”
Sloan huffs. “Could you back off? This day has already been a lot, and it’s barely nine in the morning.”
“I just want to talk to you.”
I guide her over to a soft blue chaise under the window, with a view of the lawn—where everyone is cleaning up and resetting for the next wedding—and the ocean. “Sit.”
She resists. “What are you going to do?”
I merely smile as I spot a portable music player with a USB port, power it up, and plug in the thumb drive. Sinatra’s “The Way You Look Tonight” flows softly from the overhead speakers. It’s nice, sets the mood. “I’ll pour us a glass of bubbly.”
Wordlessly, she watches while I do, taking the glass from my hand with trembling fingers.
“To us,” I toast.
“Drink to us, wife.”
She forces out a nervous breath. I see the exact moment she decides to brazen her way through this because she lifts her chin and tosses back the whole glass of champagne in a few healthy swallows. Then she raises a brow at me. “Trying to get me drunk so I’ll have sex with you?”
“I don’t need booze for that.” I empty my glass, then sit beside her.
She scoots away from me. “You’re awfully sure of yourself.”
“When I had you naked in my hotel room, you came on my tongue in thirty seconds.”
“That doesn’t mean anything.”
“Okay. Let’s try it again. You know, to make sure it wasn’t a fluke.”
“This isn’t a game.”
“It’s not, but you keep treating it like one.”
“Yeah. You avoid me, needle me, push back against me… I’m just trying to make love to my wife.”
She stands, pacing nervously. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
I follow her. “Why? Because I get to you?”
Sloan insists she’s not playing games, but she keeps doing it. So turnabout is only fair. “Prove it.”
“What do you mean?”
“Prove I don’t turn you on. Put on that lacy little whatever Nia picked out for you and give me ten minutes to touch you. Just touch. If you’re not aroused enough to beg me for more, I won’t lay a finger on you as long as we’re in this suite.”
“Why should I say yes to that?”
It’s a fair question. She doesn’t owe me anything. We’re married, but I spoke vows knowing that any part of her body or her heart she gives me, I’ll have to earn. Instead, I turn to Sales 101.
Tell her what’s in it for her.
“Because until you do, you’ll always be curious about what you’re missing.”
Sloan raises a fiery brow at me. “You think a lot of yourself.”
“No, I think a lot of our chemistry. It’s insane.” I step closer. “I’ll admit, you do something to me… The pull is ridiculously strong. Always has been, even before I saw your face.”
My wife doesn’t answer right away. “How do I know that’s not flattery and BS?”
“It’s not. But if it was, would it really matter? You’d have your curiosity satisfied, your itch scratched. The way I want you already makes me weak. It’s possible that, once I get you underneath me, I’ll be even weaker.” Maybe it’s not smart to tell her the truth, but I want to be real with her.
She snorts. “Or it’s possible you’ll unravel me with pleasure.”
“You’d have to want me for that to be possible. Do you?” I brush a finger over her exposed collarbone, staring into her blue eyes. “Is there any part of you that doesn’t care we’re supposed to be enemies? Or are you simply too afraid?”
That should hit her hot button.
“I’m not afraid of you,” she shoots back as if that idea is laughable.
“No?” I lean back on the chaise and send her a challenging stare. I’m not trying to manipulate her, just giving her stubborn pride a reason to say yes.
“Fine.” She sighs, then hops to her feet and grabs the box Nia gave her, marching to the attached bath. “Give me a minute.”
“You’re going to prove you don’t want me?
“I’m going to figure out what this is”—she gestures between us—“once and for all.”
Then she disappears into the spa bath. I take the opportunity to pour her another glass of champagne, eagerly tear off my tie, sweep all the decorative pillows off the bed, then toss some of the rose petals lining the bottom of the gift basket across our pristine white sheets.
After that, there’s nothing left to do but take off my shoes and socks, pace, and stare at the door as my stomach twists and my cock throbs.
It seems like half of forever before Sloan finally eases the door open. She sticks her head out first, using the door to block my view of her body. Even so, it’s impossible to miss her long curls tumbling over one slender shoulder and the spaghetti strap playing peekaboo beneath.
I don’t even have to see the rest to know she’s going to be the most beautiful fucking woman I’ve ever had in my bed.
“Baby…” I breathe. “Come here.”
“This getup…it’s too much.”
Which means she thinks it doesn’t cover enough. Perfect.
“If you’re wearing it, it looks beautiful.” I hold out my hand. “Show me.”
Slowly, she turns out the bathroom light and eases through the door, then glares at me.
I nearly drop my jaw on the floor.
Holy shit, I need to thank Nia profusely because my wife is a vision.
The creamy white spaghetti straps over her shoulders give way to tiny triangles of lace that almost cover her breasts…but not quite. Satin cups the swells beneath like a pair of loving hands. An innocent little bow wraps just under, emphasizing how tiny she truly is. It’s easy to forget, given how big her drive and personality are.
The bottom half of the baby doll is almost transparent and ends in nothing more than a wisp of lace that skims her thighs and swishes over her pussy. It’s beautiful but frustrating because I can’t see what’s between her legs. A little scrap of pale silk shields her from my hungry stare, leaving me only one question.
How quickly can I get those off?
“You look stunning. You’re making me weak-kneed already.” And that’s not a lie.
Color blooms across her cheeks. Nervously, she clutches her arms in front of her like she’s trying to hide herself.
Is she uncomfortable being mostly naked in front of me…or is it men in general?
“Pfft. Smooth words won’t make you any luckier.”
And there’s more of her bravado. My wife has no idea that I intend to pleasure her, melt her, and make her crave me.
“Just being honest,” I assure her, approaching with my hand outstretched.
“Sure you are.” She eases past me, refusing my touch. “What do you want exactly?”
“To get deep inside you and find mutual orgasm.”
Sloan fidgets, balancing on one foot, then the other. “If that’s true, why am I the only one standing here, thoroughly underdressed?”
“I have no problem getting more naked.” I tear through the buttons of my dress shirt and shrug it off my shoulders, absently tossing it back to the chaise.
Her eyes flare as she scans her way down my body, from my bulging shoulders and broad chest, down my six-pack, then lower still to my stiff cock, trying to lurch through my zipper impatiently.
She swallows, and I smother a smile. Thank god for Evan and his pristine gym habit. He pushes me most every day, and the look on Sloan’s face says it shows.
“That good for you?”
She gives me a choppy nod. I’m not sure she’s actually breathing.
“Good.” I slide my palm over her waist, to the curve of her hip, and pull her closer. Just for fun, I brush her tender little pussy against the hard length of my cock. Once I do, I barely manage to stifle my groan. “I have ten minutes to make you beg me, right?”
“Um…” Sloan looks so rattled, I’m not sure she remembers my offer.
“Time starts now.” I set an alarm on my phone, then grin her way. “But don’t worry, baby. I don’t think it will take me that long.”
I don’t give her another second to push back. Besides, I don’t have any time to spare.
Wrapping my arm around her waist, I pull her flush against me and lift my hand to her nape. Other than tongue-fucking her mouth at the altar, I’ve been subdued with Sloan all day, sharing a look here, a peck there. All of that has made me searingly aware of how much I want her. Seemingly more every day, every moment.
Dipping my head, I don’t wait for her encouragement or permission. I cover her mouth with mine, sealing her lips in a hot, hungry kiss, and sinking deep inside her honey-sweet recesses. The moment she responds, breath quickening as she rises to meet me, I back away, leaving her wanting me more. I nip at her plump bottom lip with my teeth, gently, playfully, as my palms wend down her body, memorizing the feel of her warm, satiny skin barely covered by the sheer, lacy confection. When I reach her hem, I slide underneath, fix my hand to the small of her back, then reel her against my body as I capture her mouth again.
I bend, lifting her so she straddles my thigh, then I grind against her sweet spot methodically, rhythmically. She gasps into my kiss. Our tongues tangle. I groan and I drop my palm to the pert, plump curve of her ass, guiding her to ride me harder. But she’s not the only one burning up. It’s been sixty seconds since I started the timer, but I’m already wondering how I’ll make it ten minutes without being the one to beg her.
Sloan deepens our kiss, wriggling on my thigh and clutching my shoulders. Suddenly, she tears her lips free and tosses her head back, her nails digging into me.
Fuck, this is hot. I’m not waiting for her to set the pace. I need the rest of our clothes off now.
I graze her neck with my seeking lips, exhaling against her sensitive spots and reveling when she shivers in my arms. My satisfaction spikes. My libido revs. My impatience climbs.
I slide one of the baby doll’s thin straps off Sloan’s shoulder, clearing the way for my tongue to have an unobstructed taste of her cotton-candy skin. God, she’s so sweet. I could eat her up all night.
Instead, she grabs at the back of my hair and slants her lips over mine again, plunging her tongue into my mouth with a desperation that kicks my libido into another realm of hell, yes.
I need more.
Everything about her gets to me in a way I’ve never felt.
As I tug on the wispy fabric fluttering around her waist, the lone strap still clinging to her shoulder pulls taut, but her other breast pops free, along with the pink tip of her hard, irresistible nipple.
“Fuck, baby…” I breathe, bending to capture the pert bud in my mouth with a long, low, probably too loud moan.
And I don’t care who hears me. This. Is. Everything.
For two torturous weeks, I’ve been haunted by the memory of Sloan’s body against me, her breaths hot between us, her nipple hard against my tongue as she got wet for me. Since then, I’ve thought a million times about coaxing her back to my bed.
This time, I have ample light to see every detail of my wife. Sunlight shimmers on her small, taut nipple before my tongue teases it. Between licks, I drink in the sight of the delicate blue veining under her almost translucent skin. The supple curves of her tits on top of her small, small waist. Her slender thighs. Her adorable toes.
I need more.
Conscious of the ticking clock and all the hidden parts of her body I still need to unwrap, I suck her wet nipple back into my mouth, gently scraping it with my teeth, while shoving the other strap down her shoulder and pulling the lingerie beneath both breasts.
I cup the mound I’ve sucked and laved, noting with satisfaction that the tip is a deeper, rosier pink. Then I turn my attention to the other, giving it the same teasing treatment—a lick, followed by a flick of my thumb, then a nip before I back away.
Motherfucking hell, this is hot. I inhale her strawberry scent, suctioning her until her tender bud scrapes the roof of my mouth. Sloan clutches me tighter, her breaths shallow and panting. Her knees give out, and she melts against me, her lips skimming up my neck as if she can’t contain her need to touch me in return.
Standing isn’t working anymore. I’m not sure how much time I have left since I shoved my phone back in my pocket, but I’m not wasting a second.
I lift Sloan against me. “I’m taking you to the bed. I have to see what else is under this sexy baby doll.”
She doesn’t protest, simply wraps her legs around me as I make my way to the soft-as-a-cloud mattress and lay her across the red rose petals. Once she’s on her back, it doesn’t take much to lift her hips and wriggle the top half of her baby doll down her body. The second it clears her feet, I toss it across the room.
She won’t be needing that anymore.
But the view of her lying down, bathed in golden sunlight, takes my breath away.
So does the wet spot at the front of her tiny thong that clings to her hips by the thinnest of strings.
I want my mouth on her again.
“You look so beautiful, baby,” I murmur, then I drop my finger to the damp fabric between her legs, brushing the spot with my knuckle. “And I love that you’re wet for me.”
“I don’t want to be.”
Because I’m the enemy. Because she knows that giving in to the pull between us and taking pleasure from me will weaken her resolve, make her more vulnerable to me.
Those are even more reasons for me to press ahead.
“Baby, it’s going to be so good between us, not like anything you’ve ever felt.” At least that’s my hunch.
“What are you doing to me?” Sloan wriggles, lifting her hips to my taunting finger, silently begging for more.
“Persuading you to tell me what you want. Whisper it in my ear, baby. It’s only a few harmless words…”
“Nothing with you is harmless.”
Her breathy comeback makes me smile. “Right now is just about us. Nothing outside these four walls exists. Tell me what your body aches for. My mouth on your nipples again?” I suck one taut tip between my lips, pull hard, then swipe it with my tongue.
“For me to stroke your clit harder?” I press my thumb over the little nub, straining against her barely there underwear.
She gasps, gripping me tighter.
I settle above her and work my hips between her soft, slender thighs. “Or for me to sink deep inside you, baby?”
When I punctuate the question with a nudge of my cock against her damp, softening pussy, she rewards me with a broken moan.
Getting inside her it is. All I have to do is make her ask—no, beg—me for it.
“You want that?” I rock against her again.
Her legs part wider. She lifts her hips up to me as she offers me her mouth.
I kiss her again, mercilessly seizing her lips before sinking deep like a man starved, shoving my way inside her wherever and however she’ll let me. Sloan opens wider, giving me even more of herself as she writhes and pants underneath me.
I love her responsiveness…but she’s not answering my question.
I pull free and stop everything—kissing her, rubbing her, reassuring her. It’s one of the fucking hardest things I’ve ever done, but I need her surrender. We can’t move forward until she takes down her barriers and gives me a chance to show her we’ll be so good together.
Suddenly, her whine rings in my ear, her heels dig into the mattress, and her nails penetrate my skin. “Don’t stop.”
“I’ll do whatever you want, baby. As much as you want. However you want. All you have to do is tell me what that is.”
“Make the ache go away. Please.”
And there it is, her sweet little plea. She sounds like she doesn’t have the will to fight the pull between us anymore. I’m thrilled—not that I conquered her but that I got through to her.
“Baby, I want to. You don’t even know how much.” I kiss her again, working my cock—still strangled by my zipper—against her pussy, which feels wetter than ever.
I grin as I lave my way up her neck. I love that she’s already greedy. “Tell me how you want it.”
Suddenly, she pulls away, her lashes fluttering open to reveal dark irises and dilated pupils, emphasized by her red cheeks. “Fast…”
That’s her impatience talking.
“What feels good to you? What do you like in bed?”
“I don’t know.” Sloan bites her lip, then moans, seemingly torn between the worries on her mind and the demands of her body. “I haven’t had sex since the tenth grade.”
Of all the things my wife has ever said to me, that shocks me most. “It’s been nearly a decade?”
“Yeah.” The flush on her face deepens, and she squirms beneath me. “That probably sounds ridiculous. Since I know almost nothing about sex, it’s okay if you don’t want me anymore.”
I swallow back disbelief, along with something dangerously close to thrill, and cup her face. “I will never not want you, baby. Ever. You can add that to my list of vows today.”
“The ones we’re going to break when we get divorced?”
I shake my head. “The ones I’m going to live by unless you decide to end us.”
She frowns. “Come on. We both know you’ll be gone as soon as you’ve got Reservoir in Stratus’s back pocket.”
“You’re wrong.” I kiss my way from her neck to her shoulder and start drifting down because I can’t keep my mouth off her. “And I don’t know how it’s possible that no one has touched you in so long. Was every guy you knew blind?”
She shakes her head. “Cock-blocked. I said no to everyone.”
There’s a story there, but now isn’t the time. Her body is aching, and I’ve softened the beach, so to speak. I need to open her to me in every way, especially her heart.
“Don’t say no us, baby. Not now.” I kiss her, my press of lips slow and lingering.
“I don’t think I can,” she admits with a whisper.
My wife feels something for me besides hatred. More than desire? I don’t know. But as far as I’m concerned, she’s all mine until death do us part.
Then I fall on her ravenously, working my mouth over the beads of her nipples again before descending the flat of her abdomen, then hooking my fingers into the strings over her hips and staring at the wet spot between her thighs.
“Sebastian…” Her breath sounds choppy and desperate again. I hear the whine in her voice.
“I’m going to take these off.” I tug on her underwear, peeling them down until they’re barely covering her mound. “I want to see your pussy. I want to pet it and get my tongue on it before I make you mine.”
She bites her lip. I see the struggle on her face. Then finally, she nods and lifts her hips. “I want you inside me. Please.”
I’m not giving her a chance to second-guess herself. Instead, I tear the panties down her legs, toss them away, and stare at her puffy pink pussy shielded by a sparse shock of bright red hair.
No fucking way I can stay away from her now. I remember how she tasted that dark night when I could hardly see more than the outline of her curves. But visually feasting on every part of Sloan… It’s a turn-on beyond anything I could have imagined.
“Spread your legs for me, wife,” I manage to growl out as I pounce between her thighs, in one movement parting her folds with my fingers and plowing her with my tongue.
With a shocked gasp, she cries out and grabs hold of my hair, her thighs tensing on either side of my head. When I circle her little bud once, twice, her hips buck. Her clit swells. Her head falls back to the pillow. And she cries out like she’s dying for more.
That makes two of us.
Taking her thighs in my grip, I lift them over my shoulders and grasp Sloan’s hips, opening my whole mouth over her, sucking in as much of her as I can.
She jolts and twists, mewling as she fists the sheets.
“Had anyone ever eaten this pussy before I did in that hotel room?”
“No,” she pants out.
Maybe it makes me a caveman, but that’s what I wanted to hear. “You’re mine. Scream for me.”
Sloan tries to pull my hair again and instead scratches at my scalp. “I don’t think I can stop myself.”
Jubilation spikes and pride swells as I fit my mouth over her slick nub again and prod at her opening with my fingers. One slides in easily. Two is a damn tight fit. But the way she clamps down on my digits, her body frantically gripping me as if she’s desperate for relief… If I don’t get these fucking pants off and work my way inside her soon, I’ll lose my mind.
But right now is about getting my wife ready to take me deep in what I hope will be the first time for the rest of our lives, so I twist my fingers and curl them up to find the soft tissue directly behind her clit. I rub in urgent strokes that match the lashes of my tongue on her hard bud.
Head to toe, her body goes tense. She holds her breath. Her legs straighten. Her back bows. Her clit turns to stone. And she lets loose a feminine howl from deep in her chest as she screams my name. Her body jolts and her pussy clenches as I take her through the long climax, keeping at her until she sags back to the mattress with a long, spent breath. “Oh, my god.”
I work my way up her body, kissing all the places I missed before, like the undersides of her breasts and the valley in between. I lick her nipples and suck at her neck, tasting the salty tang of her perspiration. The scent of strawberries is impossibly stronger now that she’s come. Just the smell makes me harder than I’ve ever been.
The alarm on my phone peals. I yank it from my pocket and turn off the annoyingly insistent chime. “It’s been ten minutes.” And I’ve wrung one orgasm out of her. With another five minutes, I could make it two. But it’s her call. “Sloan?”
She sighs. “You win. I want you.”
I try not to be deterred that she didn’t ask me to make love to her. I have to look on the bright side; she didn’t demand that I fuck her. She wants me, and for now that has to be enough.
On the nightstand, I grope for the gift basket Nia and Evan left us and pull a condom free. “I’m clean. I just had a physical last month, and I haven’t had sex with anyone since I met you. Are you on the pill?”
She shakes her head. “I never had a reason.”
If I can get her to admit that she loves me, too, we’ll talk about kids and when to have them. Right now, I don’t want to push her and I don’t want to risk her conceiving if she’s only going to leave me.
I wriggle out of my pants and slide on the condom, pressing her back into the mattress with my body and rocking my stiff cock between her legs. Beneath me, she stiffens and gasps, then raises to meet me with something between an exhalation and a cry.
“Ready, baby?” I can’t help noticing how blue her eyes are when she’s aroused. She’s so beautiful, my heart is already chugging double time—and I haven’t even worked my way inside her.
“Please…” Her eyes slide shut as she tosses back her head, unconsciously giving me the vulnerable curve of her throat.
“I’m going to make you feel so good, baby.” I align my crest at her opening and sink into her hot, gripping depths one agonizing inch at a time. Finally, I press my hips all the way forward and bottom out inside her.
“Bas!” she wails as I prod a spot so deep I can feel how full I’ve packed her.
God, she’s perfect. I haven’t even started a rhythm yet, but my eyes are already rolling in the back of my head as I absorb just how fucking good she feels. My impatient body wants to sink into her over and over before drowning us both in ecstasy.
When I take Sloan’s hips in my hands and pull back, she surprises me by lifting in a silent demand for more. And when I shove my cock deep again, she sinks her teeth into my shoulder with a ragged moan.
Fire treks through every vein and nerve. She lets loose another throaty cry, nails digging into me, as she moves with me. I do my fucking best to keep the rhythm slow and even, let the friction build into something urgent. Then once she’s close, I’ll bang my way into her—deep and unrelenting—until I send her hurtling over the edge.
But my body has other ideas.
Under me, she’s panting as if she’s run miles and moaning desperately in my ear. Around me, I feel her tightening, clenching and milking me like nothing I’ve ever felt.
This woman is my wife, the one I get to make love to every night for the rest of my life—if I play my cards right. That turns me on even more.
I grip the perky cheeks of her ass in my greedy palms and slam my way inside her again, again, again. I lose my head. It goes the way of my heart, which already belongs to her. Next thing I know, the headboard slams the wall in time with her feminine moans. She digs her heels into my thighs and strains to get closer to me as I feel the pleasure rushing up to swallow me whole.
Fuck, this orgasm is going to ruin me, and I don’t care. Nothing is more important than melding with Sloan.
Sucking in jagged breaths, I grip the top of the headboard and use it for leverage, fucking her deeper, harder, relentlessly. She bows and twists frantically, kissing every part of my skin she can reach.
“Baby…baby. Oh, fuck. I need you. Come. For me. Now.”
“Oh, my…god. Yes. Yes!” Her voice rises to something between a wail and a scream. Her whole body tenses up. Then she lets loose a gravelly keening that seems to go on and on as she grips me with her tight pussy, clamping down until there’s no way I can hold out.
With tingles at the base of my spine and fire brewing in my balls, I shout out at the ecstasy that flattens me in the next heartbeat, leaving me shuddering, sated, and shaken.
“What the hell was that?” I pant once I finally start to catch my breath. “And when can we do it again?”
I don’t know what reaction I expected, but it wasn’t her bursting into tears.
“Sloan? Baby?” I brush the fiery strands of her hair clinging to her sweat-damp face, then wipe away her tears. “What’s wrong?”
“You’re trying to ruin me. And I’m so stupid for letting you.”
My heart, which was chugging from orgasm, suddenly stops. Is that her way of admitting that the sex got to her and stripped her emotions raw? Or is it possible she’s saying she loves me, too? “It’s okay, baby. It’s okay.”
“It’s not.” She tries to push me off.
I’m not budging. “Why isn’t it okay? Give me one reason.”
“We don’t have to be.”
“You’re taking over my company.”
“Shane had run it into the ground. It would have ceased to exist in less than a week anyway. We’re giving it new life.”
“You chained yourself to me for a business deal.”
I press kisses across her face before settling softly on her mouth. “Do I look like I’m complaining? Tell me what’s really bothering you.”
She squeezes her eyes shut. “This day has been too much.”
“What do you mean?”
She huffs. “You want me to humiliate myself? Fine. The last time I had sex—the only time—my boyfriend of two months dumped me afterward. He said I just wasn’t that attractive after all.”
Is she worried I’ll say the same? I wish I knew the name of the punk who took her V-card, then hurt her so I could beat the absolute hell out of him. “He was either a player or an idiot, baby. You’re everything, and that was the best sex of my life. And if you can’t guess how I feel about you after that, I’ll be happy to show you again.”
Her lashes flutter open, and her watery blue eyes nearly swallow my soul whole. “What do you mean?”
“I love you.” It feels both dangerous and exhilarating to say that.
She shakes her head, disbelief all over her face. “You don’t.”
Not the response I wanted, but after what she admitted, I understand. “So now you’re going to tell me how I feel?”
She sniffles. “No, but it seems obvious.”
Really? “In what way?”
She shifts beneath me, as if I’m too heavy—or if this conversation is too intimate. “Aren’t you going to roll over and snore or whatever guys do after sex?”
As long as I’ve waited for her, if she thinks I’m ready to call it a night, she’s out of her mind. “No. I’m good right here.” To make my point, I press into her again. “Why do you think it’s obvious that I’m lying?”
“Can you give me some space?”
So she can put mental distance between us? Like hell.
“What made you emotional?” There’s something here, and I’m going to dig until she tells me.
She looks away like she’s going to shut me out and refuse to answer. Finally, she sighs. “The day I found out Bruce Rawson was my father and he slammed the door in my face, I went to my boyfriend. Darren held me while I cried and told me I was special. He said he wanted to prove how much to me. So I let him and…”
“He broke up with you after you had sex and you’d already suffered a huge blow.”
“Exactly. I found out the next week that he had another girlfriend at our rival school. They’d been going out for two years, and I was just a girl he’d wanted to nail.”
“Darren was an asshole, and I’m not him. I’m not your father either. I’m here for you. Start believing that.”
“I don’t know if I can.”
It would be easy to be frustrated by her answer, but earning her trust in the snap of a finger after a few words and a hot romp isn’t going to happen. I don’t like it, but I get it. “I’ll teach you, baby. Let me try.” I kiss her again and reach for another condom. “Let me prove I’m here for you. Only you. Ever…”
After taking Sloan over and over, I’m sated and smiling from ear to ear when the sun comes up. She looks relaxed and rosy, and over breakfast with my mother, she can’t seem to stop smiling, either.
The conversation is light, the mood jovial, until we hug my mother goodbye and put her in a taxi to the airport. Afterward, I have just enough time to stop at my condo, pick up a few more clothes, park my car, and make love to my wife in my bed before Evan and Nia swing by to take us to the airport for our evening flight. On our way, I receive notification that our departure is delayed, so the four of us stop at a little beachside bistro for an early dinner.
Sloan looks uncomfortable beside Evan. She still hasn’t figured out that he isn’t Satan, but she will. I just need to give her time.
While the ladies grab a table on the deck with a stunning ocean view, my best friend and I order drinks from the bar. When the bartender starts pouring, Evan looks my way. “So…marriage to Sloan. How’s that going so far?”
“Good.” I smile. “Great, actually.”
He doesn’t grin, but I see a hint lurking at the corners of his mouth. “Glad to hear it. Just don’t give me details.”
“You’re not getting them.”
I know by the way Evan doesn’t banter back that he has something heavier on his mind. “Is she going to give us any problems between now and Thursday?”
The way things are going right now? “I don’t think so. Give the worrying a rest, buddy.”
“Easy for you to say when you don’t have to cough up nearly a hundred million dollars.”
True but if once it’s done, we’ll have control of our closest competitor and be a shoo-in to get Wynam’s business, which is ultimately worth way more than a hundred million dollars. It’s a win-win. “After last night, I don’t think we have anything to worry about. And in case you’re wondering, she’s amazing, and I’m happier than I thought I’d ever be.”
Especially after the Becca debacle.
“I want that for you. I really do.” Evan claps me on the shoulder with a sigh. “I promise I’ll be less of an asshole when Thursday rolls around and we’ve taken control of Reservoir.”
“I get it. But what happens if Michael Astor announces Wynam’s decision before then, and he hasn’t chosen us?” It’s something that’s been swirling in the back of my head. It’s a worst-case scenario since Reservoir landing that account would give them both the cash and the clout to fend off our somewhat hostile takeover. If that happened, Stratus’s market position would be weakened, not to mention we’d have lots of egg on our face.
“Already thought of that, and I’m ahead of you. I’ve got a voice mail into Michael Astor, offering to answer any questions or address whatever reservations he might have. Since he’s in London, he should be in the office in a few hours. I’m hoping I get a call back then, giving us the account.”
“Let’s cross our fingers, man.” But I’m aware that Astor has a reputation as a maverick. He’s not swayed by pressure, and he always does things in his time, in his way.
Finally, the bartender slides two beers, a soda, and a glass of white wine across the bar. After we settle up, Evan and I head back to the women. They’ve grabbed a great table, and the warm ocean breeze tugs at Sloan’s long, loose curls. She looks even more beautiful than ever.
But I can tell right away something is wrong.
Nia gives me a guilty grimace. My wife won’t look at me at all. When I take her hand, she quickly pulls away to grip her wine.
My gut twists. What the fuck happened?
“Baby?” I prompt.
The smile she gives me is as fake as the tits of the tourist sitting at the table next to us in a too-small bikini top. Our meal is served with a steaming side dish of stilted conversation. I’m relieved when it’s over and we arrive at the airport. Thankfully, Evan seems oblivious to it all. Not shocking since he hates socializing.
Nia gives me another apologetic grimace, but there’s no opportunity for her to tell me why she’s sorry. So with a last wave, I lead my wife into the airport just in time to board the plane and take off.
Once we’re in the air, she inserts a pair of earbuds, puts on a sleep mask, and tunes me out. I want to insist we have this out now, but a plane is no place for what I’m sure will be a verbal battle. Instead, I try to sleep since it’s an overnight flight. But that’s not happening, and I spend the long, dark hours tweaking potential new budgets for each of Reservoir’s departments so I’ll be ready for my meeting in the morning.
But in the back of my mind, I can’t stop wondering what the hell Nia said to upset Sloan.
I buy the Wi-Fi package and connect my phone. Instantly, I see a message from Nia. I’m so sorry if I messed things up for you. I was trying to be friendly.
Instantly, I text my best friend’s wife back to find out exactly what she said, but pregnancy often wears her out. I’m not shocked Nia doesn’t answer me since it’s after nine p.m.
By the time we land in Dallas—two hours past schedule—I’m pissed and exhausted. I’m also going to be late for the first of my meetings with Reservoir’s new hand-selected executive team.
I have to talk to Sloan now, despite the fact she’s gathering her carry-ons and getting ready to walk off the plane. “Baby? Tell me what’s wrong. What did Nia say that upset you?”
The stare my wife gives me is so blank and empty it freezes me. The hate is back.
“She let me in on some interesting things about you. Stuff I wish I’d known sooner. But better late than never.” With an acidic smile, she shoves the buds back in her ears and makes a beeline off the plane.
I scramble to pick up my gear and haul ass after her, grabbing her arm when I reach her side at bag claim. “Like what?”
Sloan glares in silence until she sees her suitcase come down the ramp of the carousel. “It really doesn’t matter anymore. Nothing between us does.”
After those ominous words, she heads straight out the door.
“Wait!” I chase after her and pull her close again. “What the hell is going on? Where are you going?” My bag hasn’t even come off the plane yet.
“To finish the job I should have been doing all along.” She jerks away. “I’m going to bury you, Mr. Shaw.”
“What the fuck does that mean, Mrs. Shaw?”
“You’re supposed to be a brilliant hotshot. Figure it out.”
Then she’s gone, and I’m left gaping after her.
What. The fuck. Happened?
I glance at my phone, but it’s still the middle of the night in Maui. There’s no chance Nia will answer my text for hours. And I can’t wait that long to get to the bottom of this shit and fix it.
Finally, my suitcase arrives. I grab it and hail the next taxi, heading straight to the office. I’ve got a suit in my bag. I’ll change there. And if I hurry, I might be able to track Sloan down before I have to start this fucking meeting with all the executives.
Instead, traffic is a snarl, and I arrive at the conference room even later than expected to find all the newly appointed VPs hostile, my wife most of all.
“Sorry I’m late. If you’ll all sit down, let’s get started. We need to make some financial decisions to review each of your departments’ funding needs. Let’s start with Tech. Mister”—I glance at the org chart I grabbed from my briefcase—“Barnes. Let’s review your organization’s top five initiatives this year and their associated costs.”
“With all due respect, I’d rather not share that information with the competition.”
Is he serious? “Come Thursday, I’ll be your boss.”
“It’s not Thursday yet.”
I don’t have to ask who’s behind this; I know. I turn to Sloan. “What the hell is happening?”
“It’s called an insurrection.” She smiles tightly.
The other newly minted executives all nod and agree.
My blood boils. “Is that right…wife?”
Everyone in the room gasps, clearly shocked by this news—not surprising since she’s not wearing her wedding ring anymore—but she merely narrows her eyes at me. “Our ridiculous marriage is irrelevant.”
“The hell it is.” There’s no way I’m going to have this out with Sloan in front of everyone. “This meeting is adjourned. We’ll reschedule tomorrow. Everyone leave the room.” The executives gather their things and begin to file out of the door, grumbling amongst themselves. Before Sloan can join them, I grab her arm. “Everyone except you.”
Barnes is last to file through the door. He glances back at Sloan like he’s not sure he should leave her alone with me. With a raised brow and a dismissive gesture, I urge him out.
The second the door shuts behind him, I march across the room and lock it, then lower the shades on either side.
Now we’re alone.
“What the fuck is going on?”
Sloan shrugs. “This is just business, and I’ve decided that I’m not your corporate whore.”
“What? I never called you that. And I never treated you like that.”
“Is that supposed to make you marrying me under false pretenses okay?”
“What the hell are you talking about? I never lied to you.”
“Not strictly, no. You just conveniently neglected to tell me a few things. But I got my facts now, so I have everything I need. That doesn’t include you.”
I have no idea what she thinks she knows, but she’s not leaving this room until I set her straight. “That’s not what you said last night when your pussy was gripping my cock and your nails were digging into my back while you screamed for me as you came.”
She flushes, the fire in her eyes flaring hotter. “That was before you manipulated me.”
“Manipulated? Why would you think that? I love you. I—”
“Save your speech for someone naive enough to believe it. I might not be the most experienced woman, but I can still smell bullshit a mile away.” Sloan tightens her grip on her notebook. “And now I have another meeting—one far more productive to Reservoir’s future.”
She storms toward the door. I give chase. I’m not letting her leave before we’ve hashed this out.
By the time she’s unlocked the door and reached for the handle, I’m on her, holding it shut with one hand and locking it again with the other. I sling my arm around her waist and press myself against her, eyes closed, willing her to listen. “Don’t do this, baby. Tell me what’s wrong. Why do you think I manipulated you?”
She elbows me in the gut. When I release her with a grunt, she takes the opportunity to wrench the door open. “So you can twist me up again? No. You’re smooth; I’ll give you that. You told me everything I wanted to hear on our wedding day. You thought with a few well-placed lies that you could keep me docile and stop fighting Stratus’s takeover. But you’re sadly mistaken. One thing I had wrong? Evan isn’t actually Satan. Now that I’ve met him, he seems like a semi-decent guy. Cutthroat in business, but I respect that. He knows when something crosses the line into unethical territory. You, apparently, never got that memo. Now fuck off.”
Sloan gives me a shove and heads out the door. By the time I grab my things off the table and chase after her, she’s gone.
At the elevator, I curse and stab the button impatiently, fending off hostile stares from the Accounts Payable folks. Finally, the car arrives, and I step in, heading to the ground floor to begin a thorough search of the building. But my wife has seemingly disappeared. She’s not in her office or in my temporary digs. She isn’t anywhere in the executive wing. She’s not with the Finance team. Hell, I’m wondering if she left the building.
Suddenly, my phone vibrates in my pocket. It’s a text from Evan.
Call me. We have problems.
As I trek into the nearest empty office with a door I can close, I dial my boss. “What’s wrong?”
Evan hesitates—something he rarely does. “Hey, I need to apologize first. Last night before dinner, Nia was making conversation with Sloan, commenting that you looked so happy, which thrilled Nia, especially after you shocked us by insisting on marrying Sloan, despite how hard you’d fallen for Becca. Nia assumed you’d told Sloan the marriage was your idea and that you once had feelings for my first wife. I’m guessing the conversation backfired?”
Utterly. I close my eyes. Everything makes sense now. Sloan thinks I was lying to her about my feelings and my intentions, just like Darren. She convinced herself that I told her what she wanted to hear the day we got married so I could fuck her and fuck her over all at once.
Nothing could be more untrue. “Son of a bitch.”
“Nia didn’t know.” And she wouldn’t have fucked this up for me on purpose.
“She didn’t. She was trying to help.”
I’m just not sure how to make things better with my wife. But I know two things: First, Sloan wouldn’t have been so livid unless she felt something more than hate for me. Second, I can’t stand around jawing with Evan while she’s clearly up to something.
“Thanks for filling me in, buddy. I need to run. There’s mutiny afoot here. One of the newly appointed VPs just told me in the politest way possible to go fuck myself. I need to find out what that’s about.”
“I can tell you, since that’s our other problem. I just got a message from Michael Astor. He got an earful from your wife about our professional practices. He wanted me to explain why the hell we’re in the business of taking companies and corporate wives by force.”
“You know he’s a family man, apparently devout. He sounded displeased. When I tried to call back just before I rang you, his assistant let me know he’s on the phone with Sloan and insisted that he not be disturbed.”
That’s bad news. Really fucking bad. “We need to do something to assure Astor that we’re ethical. He’s only getting one side of the story and—”
“You need to do something. Not only do you have all of Reservoir’s financials at your fingertips—which he needs to see—you’re in the middle of this mess. You have to be the one to explain.”
Explain what? Tell a fucking stranger that I started out with some fairly harmless—but admittedly not principled—corporate spying, until I fell for my rival, so I married her? Yeah. That story is going to go over well. My better bet is to smooth things over with Sloan so she explains that she misunderstood the situation.
“Evan, buddy, I don’t think that’s going to work. The truth is—”
“Sorry. This is the one time I’m overruling you. Usually I listen, and we compromise. I can’t afford that today. I told Michael Astor’s assistant that you’d be calling him at the top of the hour, when he’s scheduled to finish talking to your wife. He’ll be expecting your call. Do whatever you need to make this right.”
Three beeps tell me Evan hung up.
I check my watch and curse. I’m so screwed. I have to find Sloan in twenty-seven minutes. Damn it.
After circling the building again and wasting ten minutes, I try the obvious but stupid solution and call her. Naturally, I get voice mail.
Cursing again, I hang up and start pacing. I don’t want to call Michael Astor. I don’t want to spill my guts. But worse, I don’t want to throw my wife under the bus and basically label her a hysterical female to a potential client. Granted, that’s not what Evan told me to do, but what else can I say to the man in order to explain the situation? What are the odds Astor will believe it’s all a misunderstanding?
But I owe Evan. I was the horrible friend who fell in love with his wife—or at least what felt like love at the time. Now…I don’t know. My feelings for Sloan are so much different, so much stronger. I want to be mad at her for going nuclear without talking to me, but if she thinks I lied to her about where my heart is after telling her that I love her, why should I have any hope that she’ll trust my explanation?
Worry torques me, twisting my guts in knots, as I make my way back to my makeshift office. Shane’s former assistant, Destiny the stripper, has left a resignation letter on my desk. There are a handful of others there as well. Things are going from bad to worse.
A glance at my phone tells me Astor is expecting my call in two minutes. I have no fucking idea what to say.
One last time, I try Sloan. Not only doesn’t she answer but the call won’t connect at all. Has she blocked my number?
Shit. I can’t lose her. I fucking can’t. But I can’t not bring this deal home for Evan, either. Once I have, I’ll do whatever it takes to make Sloan understand that I wasn’t lying to her on our wedding day. I’ll convince her that I love her. Something will work, right?
But as I make the dreaded call to Michael Astor to explain how and why Sloan doesn’t have all the facts in this situation right, I’m terrifyingly worried I’ll never win her back.
After my humiliating call to Michael Astor, everything rolls down hill and straight into a pile of shit.
The rest of my Monday is a scramble to do damage control around Reservoir’s office, but I’m too late. Sloan has already found her army and circled the wagons. I can’t find a single person in that company who isn’t one-hundred-percent committed to following their rebellion’s new leader.
On the one hand, it’s frustrating as hell. Whatever she’s said and done to rally her troops, it worked. On the other hand, her ability to turn a situation around, inspire others’ confidence about her leadership, and get shit done is epic. Yes, she has the advantage because this is her home turf, but she outmaneuvered me. I admit it.
I just can’t let that stand.
That evening, I drive to Sloan’s place, Fleetwood Mac’s haunting relationship Hail Mary song, “The Chain,” surging over the radio. Lindsey Buckingham wails that if his woman doesn’t love him now, she’ll never love him again…
Those words hit me square in the chest.
I saw the way Sloan looked at me on our wedding day. I felt the way she responded to my lovemaking on our wedding night. Somewhere in that stubborn, bruised heart of hers, I think Sloan cares about me, maybe even a lot. I just need her to admit it.
Trying to shake off my nerves, I reach her townhouse well after dark, park, and knock on her door.
I know she’s in there. Before I left my car, I watched until I saw lights flip on and off inside her unit.
Sighing, I knock again. “Baby, we need to talk. Silence isn’t solving anything. I know you’re angry and upset. Probably confused, too. If you’ll open up and talk to me, I can explain Becca.”
Still nothing, not even an acknowledgment that I’m outside her door.
Dread twists me up. I need to salvage the Wynam situation for Evan…but I need my wife back for me. “Baby, don’t do this.”
Still no response. I sigh. Pleading is generally useless and puts me in a position of weakness. Sloan isn’t a woman who respects sniveling. Oh, she’d have all appropriate empathy for someone truly in need, but she doesn’t see me that way. She expects me to have more game.
If I’m going to make any headway, I have to get crafty.
With a quick phone call, I order her favorite pizza. My guess? She’ll answer the door for the delivery guy bringing her a free dinner. Or she’ll at least be curious enough to find out what’s going on.
Forty long minutes later, a teenager in a collared shirt screeches up to her curb, whistling as he balances a squatty oblong box in his palm and rings the bell. I trail him silently, tucking myself behind a tall juniper bush planted on one side of her door.
It’s not long before Sloan answers. “I didn’t order a pizza.”
“Are you Sloan Shaw?”
“This is your favorite pie. It’s from your husband—all paid for.” The kid thrusts the box into her hands. “Have a good night.”
Sighing, Sloan shakes her head and moves to close the door. I seize the moment and lunge forward, squeezing my way inside and shutting the door behind me. Despite the fact she’s changed into a pink sweater that hangs over one bare shoulder and faded gray yoga pants, she looks fucking gorgeous.
Glowering, she tosses the pizza on the nearby table. “What are you doing? I didn’t invite you in. Get out.”
“We need to talk. I—”
“So you can lie to me some more? No thanks.” She yanks the door open and raises an expectant brow.
I kick the door shut, refusing to budge. “I didn’t lie.”
“Well, you sure as hell didn’t tell me the whole truth. But I don’t care anymore. I don’t want to hear whatever explanation you’ve concocted. I just want you gone.”
“This is too important for you to stubbornly refuse to listen—”
“Important to you and your scheme to take over Reservoir, not to me.”
“You are the most stubborn woman!”
“Because I won’t fall for your BS? So sorry…” Her voice drips sarcasm.
I love Sloan’s backbone. But right now, it’s frustrating the hell out of me. “We need to talk about this for us.”
“Us? You married me for a business deal. You fooled me, I admit. For a whole night, I really believed you might not be like every other man in my life, twisting me up and sweet-talking until you got what you wanted, then inevitably proving that I never meant a damn thing to you.”
I wince. “I’m nothing like Darren your ex or Bruce Rawson. And I wasn’t lying. Corporate games aside, I love you.”
“We can’t put the corporate games aside. You schemed and plotted, telling me exactly what you thought I wanted to hear. You married me to get your hands on Reservoir for your boy, Evan. And you had sex with me to keep my brains scrambled. You’re good; I’ll give you that. It almost worked.”
“That isn’t the only reason I married you. And it damn sure isn’t why I took you to bed.”
Sloan rolls her eyes. “Stop. You don’t have to pretend anymore.”
“Baby, I can’t fake this.” I take a huge fucking gamble and wrap my fingers around her wrist, tugging her closer and settling her palm over the steely erection that sprang to life as she opened the door.
She gasps, her fingers slowly curling around my length, almost as if she can’t bring herself to let me go. Her startled gaze bounces up to me. Electricity arcs between us.
Now is my moment.
Tangling my free hand in her fiery hair, I tilt her head exactly where I want her. “And I sure as fuck can’t fake this, either.”
A heartbeat later, I cover her lips with mine, licking at her pouty bottom curve before nudging them apart. She opens to me, and the instant her honey-cinnamon flavor hits my senses, something feral unfurls inside me.
Groaning, I tug on her hair and release her wrist to palm her ass in the skintight yoga pants, then press myself against her, greedily grabbing a handful of her backside while consuming every delectable inch of her mouth. But my wife is stiff, not moving, not breathing, not touching me in return.
Fuck. I need to downshift. She’s saying no without saying anything. Even if it kills me to let go now, I need to respect her boundaries. Then I need to find another way to prove how I feel.
Why the fuck didn’t I anticipate the Becca question causing a problem between us?
I wrench away from Sloan, breathing hard, my heart like a battering ram inside my chest. I stare into her eyes, which have gone a dark, seductive blue.
My hope sparks. “Baby?”
She scowls. “Don’t tell me you love me. Just take off your fucking clothes.”
Her words have barely registered when she fuses her lips to mine and attacks the buttons of my dress shirt.
I should insist we talk first…but thrill spikes through my bloodstream, searing my veins. I grab the pert curves of her ass with both hands again and haul her against my cock with a groan, grinding into my wife with an insistence that soon has her tossing back her head with a throaty curse of need.
I drop my lips to her exposed shoulder—undisturbed by a bra strap—nipping and tonguing it before working my way up her neck to bite at her lobe. She may not want to hear that I love her, but she didn’t say anything about desire. “For days, I’ve thought of nothing but how good you feel when I’m inside you. Give me your nipples, baby. I want my mouth on them.”
She whimpers, finally freeing the last buttons of my shirt, then dropping her hands to my fly. “Shut up and get naked faster.”
“You, too.” I tear the sweater over her head.
Sloan grunts in frustration that I force her hands to leave my zipper as she starts to work it down, but the second her sweater hits the floor, she reaches for me again, yanking my fly wide open as I lift one of her breasts to my waiting mouth.
With a groan, I take my first pull on the bullet-hard nipple. My groan deepens when she wraps her hot hand around my erection and squeezes. We both shudder, breaths hard and melding in the scant space between us.
If I don’t get inside her in the next two minutes, I’m going to lose my mind.
A voice in the back of my head screams that we need to talk more than we need to fuck…but with Sloan stroking me and the scent of both strawberries and her feminine arousal filling my head, I can’t remember why.
Instead, I push her pants down her hips at the same time she shoves my shirt off my shoulders. I press my bare chest to hers, hissing at the sizzle of skin on skin. She gives me a throaty little whine at the contact before sinking her teeth into my shoulder and brushing her thumb across the head of my cock.
Holy shit. “I need to be inside you.”
“Then shut up.” She licks her way across my skin. “And do it.”
Where the hell should I take her? The bedroom, across the unit, seems miles too far away.
Sofa it is.
Lifting Sloan against my body, I meld our mouths together. Automatically, she wraps her legs around me, wriggling dangerously as I walk the ten agonizing feet to her couch.
Once I’m there, I settle in the middle of the beige sectional. My wife braces her knees on either side of my hips. I’m thrilled as fuck the gesture spreads her legs because I’m dying to touch her.
Sucking her other nipple into my mouth, I drag my thumb across her clit a few times in swipes that demand her response. She doesn’t disappoint, both gasping and stiffening at the sensation.
“Are you wet, baby?” I can already tell the answer. But I’m dying to hear her admit that she’s soaking for me.
“Yes,” she pants out. “Damn you.”
I laugh. Sloan doesn’t cede anything easily, but knowing I get her hot makes me both fucking euphoric and frenzied.
She cuts me off with a kiss, rubbing herself against me and making me lose what little is left of my mind. With the two brain cells I can still rub together, I circle my thumb over her hard nub once more and insert a pair of fingers. She sucks in a startled breath, her pussy clamping around my digits. When I scrape that sensitive spot high inside her with my fingertips, she lets loose a low, ragged moan.
“Hurry up and get inside me.”
“I want you to come for me first.” I need her surrender. “Fuck my fingers, baby.”
“Don’t do this,” she all but cries like she’s trying to resist the pleasure…and can’t. Because she might be protesting, but that’s not stopping her from gyrating on my hand.
“Do what? Make you feel good?” I kiss my way up her neck and whisper in her ear. “It turns me on to get you off.”
“You just like wielding power over me.”
She’s right; I do. Not because I’m looking to squash her but because I know she’d never respond to me if she didn’t truly want me, too. The fact she hadn’t had sex with anyone in a decade tells me she’s a woman who doesn’t climb into just anyone’s bed to scratch an itch. Her heart has to be invested. So for the sway of her hips to be picking up speed as her cheeks get rosier while the spice of her arousal hangs more pungent in the air…yeah. I know that, as much as my wife wants to hate me, she can’t.
“Bas…” she breathes my name as her hips pick up speed. “Bas!”
“Here, baby. Always here for you,” I murmur against her neck. “You going to come?”
I ask the question, but I know the answer. I feel it in the way she struggles for each breath, her pulse pounds at her neck, and her pussy swelters as she grips my fingers.
Then her nails are in my shoulders, and she tosses her head back with a throaty groan, her pussy spasming as if trying to milk maximum pleasure from my touch.
Watching her come… Fuck, she’s the hottest, most amazing woman I’ve ever had. Sloan doesn’t merely flip my switch; she lights up everything inside me.
Because she’s the only one I’ve ever actually loved?
That’s my guess, but I’m not unpacking that while my wife is letting out a long, sated exhalation, her eyes a heavy-lidded, stunningly sexual blue.
“It’s your turn.”
Her husky voice zips straight to my weeping cock. She’s alluring. Tempting. Determined to see me lose myself to her.
Somehow, she hasn’t realized I already have.
It’s no surprise Sloan doesn’t wait for my reply, just shoves my clothing aside, takes me in hand, and raises herself over my cock, aligning my crest with her slick opening. Then she slams down my length, taking me completely inside her in one savage thrust.
Electricity lights up my body. My spine melts.
I’m in deep trouble.
Automatically, my hands find her hips, but I don’t need to guide her or urge her on. Sloan sets a blistering pace. The friction of each thrust and withdrawal has my eyes crossing. Her grip on me has my balls broiling.
Jesus, I’m not going to last.
“Sloan…baby. Slow down.”
“Why? So you can catch your breath and try to take back control?” She gives me a throaty laugh. “No.”
Impossibly, she picks up the pace again. Her nails dig into me, leaving a delicious sting in their wake. Her breathing turns almost as erratic as mine. Her cheeks flush hotter. A damp sheen of perspiration clings to her forehead and the tendrils curling at her temples and neck. It matches the coat of sweat springing up across my chest as I finally give in and grab her hips in a grip sure to leave bruises on her so-pale skin, plowing my way up inside her with a harsh bellowing exhalation as I shove her down deeper, teeth bared.
The way we fuck is fierce, unrestrained, and primal. It’s not like anything I’ve ever felt. It’s devastating to my senses. It’s catastrophic for my restraint.
I don’t want this to end—I want to stay inside her forever—but there’s no fucking way I can hold out. Need gathers low in my belly, searing, churning. I’m dizzy. Dying. Inside me, she’s brewing up the kind of orgasm that will flatten me and—I worry—change me forever. It’s seconds away, and I can’t do a damn thing to stop it.
I don’t want to.
With a snarl, I use all my will to topple Sloan onto her back without breaking rhythm or stroke. Then she’s satisfyingly beneath me, legs spread for me, clawing at me, ready to give in to me as I bang my way into her again and again and again. This doesn’t feel remotely sweet or romantic, but there’s no denying that with every crash inside her, I fall in love a little bit more.
“Come with me,” I demand.
Her breaths are choppy and frantic as she nods, hips rising to meet my every thrust. “Make me.”
“Do it. Now!” I growl out, balancing on the edge of ecstasy I know fucking well will shatter me.
“Yes!” she screams as she shudders and pulses around me.
That’s it. I’m gone.
I grip the arm of the sofa and surge into her over and over like a man possessed, reveling in the feel of her spasming around me as I unload—body, heart, and soul—deep inside her with a shout that doesn’t even sound human.
Pleasure pulls me under. My vision turns black, but I keep thrusting, only aware of her, the molten hot ecstasy coursing through my body, and the fact I feel transformed.
Long, unsteady moments later, I drag in an uneven breath. My head clears. My vision returns and focuses. Judging from Sloan’s dazed expression, she’s reeling, too.
Every time I think what’s between us can’t get better, it does. I don’t think that’s strictly because we’re learning one another’s bodies better. I’m convinced it’s because we’re falling deeper in love.
“Baby…” I nuzzle her neck. “That was so fucking beyond. We’re amazing together. You see that, right? Let’s talk this out. We have to—”
“No.” She shoves at me wildly until I pull free and sit back, then she jumps to her feet. “We don’t have anything to talk about. Sex doesn’t change the fact we’re on opposite—” She stops and looks down at the mix of our fluids running down her leg. “Shit.”
Immediately, I understand. I didn’t glove up, and she’s not on the pill. It was irresponsible and stupid. I would never try to get her pregnant on purpose…but if she conceived, would it be the worst thing?
“It’s okay, baby.” I hop up to grab her a paper towel from the kitchen counter. “We’re married. I’m here for you.”
“Bullshit.” She takes the scrap from my grasp and frantically wipes herself clean. “You’re here to close a deal. You’re here to stop me from persuading Michael Astor to say yes to Reservoir. You’re here to hoodwink me into being docile. And you’re in love with someone else. I’m just the idiot who didn’t stop you from using me again. Get out.”
“Don’t do this. I’m not in love with her anymore.”
“Isn’t that’s super convenient?”
Damn, Sloan’s sarcasm game is strong.
“No, it’s a fucking relief, actually. I love you. I didn’t see it coming, but I’m damn thrilled that I finally realize what I need and who makes me happy. You.”
“Bas, you’re a player. Guys like you never give up and concede defeat; they just step up their A game. I’m done. It’s over. You don’t put me first.” She grabs her clothes, now littered around the room, then shakes her head at me. But I see the tears gleaming in her eyes. “You’re incapable of putting me first. That will never change.”
The crack in her voice is breaking my heart. “No. Baby—”
“You say you love me. If that’s true at all, stop hurting me. Let me go.”
She doesn’t wait around for my reply, just unsuccessfully tries to hold back a sob as she hauls ass to her bedroom door and slams it.
The turn of the lock sounds horribly final. And the truth sinks in.
If I don’t do something really fucking drastic, it’s over—for good.
After the sleepless overnight flight I had back to Dallas, my shithole of a day, the life-altering orgasm with Sloan, followed by the crushing pain of her dismissal, I’m toast. I head for the nearest hotel, grab a room, and pray that tomorrow will be better.
But it’s not. Tuesday is simply another level of awful.
Sloan is still nowhere to be found. And instead of Reservoir’s employees telling me they don’t know where to find my wife or claiming they can’t spare a moment to talk to me about my plans for their department, as they did yesterday, now when they see me coming, they simply turn their backs.
It’s fucking infuriating and humiliating at once.
Tuesday evening I return to Sloan’s place to try to talk to her. She refuses to answer the door. Nothing I say or do cracks her resolve or changes her mind.
It hits me that she may actually never speak to me again.
Not only that, neither Evan nor I have heard from Michael Astor in nearly forty-eight hours. To say my boss is unhappy is a gross understatement.
Things go from bad to worse when I arrive at Reservoir’s office on Wednesday morning to find all the employees in the lobby, wearing ear-to-ear smiles and staring at someone in the middle of the crowd. The mood in the air is jubilant.
I’d love to march over there and demand to know what’s going on. Well, first I’d insist on seeing Sloan so we can clear up the steaming pile of crap between us. Since that’s not possible right now, I settle at the back of the lobby, tuck myself in the shadows, and try to figure out why the staff is in the mood to party.
“Speech. Speech. Speech!” the crowd begins to chant.
Finally, I see a crown of fiery hair appear above the others as Sloan accepts a hand up to stand on the receptionist’s desk and someone whistles at everyone to settle down.
My stomach takes a nosedive. I have a bad feeling about this.
Sloan turns in a circle, trying to address the employees surrounding her. Her triumphant smile is a sucker punch to the gut.
I held her less than two days ago, but since then I’ve missed her so fucking much I’m half insane. If I can’t figure out how to assure Sloan that my feelings for Becca are nothing compared to the love bleeding from my heart for her and I can’t convince my wife that I’ll always put her first, what the fuck am I going to do?
“Okay, everyone. Quiet down! My voice may be big for someone short, but I want to make sure everyone can hear.” Silence falls to an excited hush in the room as my wife stands in front of everyone, on the pedestal she deserves. “Thank you all. I’ve been doing a lot of talking and negotiating with Michael Astor over these past two days. There’s lots more to go still, but…I’ve also spoken to Bruce Rawson. He’s agreed to invoke the escape clause in our agreement with Stratus. This is my roundabout way of saying the rumors are true. We’ve officially landed the Wynam account for the next five years!”
My eyes clamp shut. Dread slides to my belly. Defeat sludges through my veins.
One realization slams through me: Sloan doesn’t need me for anything anymore.
Son of a bitch.
“That means we’ll all be staying together as one big, happy family without any external influence—or cash. So we’re charting our own destiny from here on out. I can’t tell you there won’t be significant challenges, because there will. The previous management committed some serious ethics violations and brought us perilously close to bankruptcy. We’ll all have to postpone receiving a couple of paychecks until cash starts flowing again. But with this new client, careful planning, and diligent stewardship of our corporate funds, we should be able to survive the next few years—and hopefully thrive after that. And since several of you have asked, yes, the other rumors are true, too. Mr. Rawson has appointed me the new CEO of Reservoir, effective immediately.”
Another round of cheers echo off the tile floors and deafen me.
In my heart, I’m happy that Sloan now has everything she’s ever wanted—her father’s tacit approval, control of the company that means so much to her, and getting to heave-ho her nemesis and husband.
There’s no one more deserving of happiness.
Unfortunately, I’m left with nothing. I’ve failed my best friend, the company I’ve dedicated a decade to, and myself. Worst of all, I went at Sloan full throttle. She was my competition, sure. But when I realized she was so much more to me, why didn’t I do something different?
No, I need to ask that question with more honesty. Instead of assuming I would eventually win her over and she would accept my status quo, why didn’t I do the one thing she needed most from me? Why didn’t I put her first?
Because I was a stupid, selfish asshole. I’d give anything to go back to our wedding day, explain my once-forbidden feelings for Becca, and tell Evan that I’m stepping aside in his quest to take over Reservoir. Maybe I still would have lost Sloan in the end, but at least I would have had the comfort of knowing I did everything I could, rather than kicking myself for doing all the things I regret.
With a heavy sigh, I ease out of the corner and slink out the door, reaching for my car keys with one hand and my phone with the other, then dial Evan. It’s barely four a.m. in Maui. I’ll probably wake him up, but he deserves to know sooner rather than later that I utterly fucking failed.
“Bas?” he sounds groggy. “What’s up?”
“Hey, buddy. I’m sorry.” I shut my eyes and lean against my car. “I’ve got bad news…”
After Sloan delivers her triumphant news to Reservoir’s employees, I book a miserable flight back to Maui. As soon as I walk through my front door, I drop my suitcase, turn off my phone, and open a bottle.
The first of many.
Evan comes over. I think it’s Friday night. He tries prying me off the sofa to go somewhere with him. No clue why, and I’m way too drunk to care. Finally, he gives up and parks himself next to me. We watch a baseball game. I don’t remember who played, much less the outcome.
Saturday is another Cîroc-induced blur.
Nia pops by Sunday morning to check on me. But by the time she arrives, I’m deep in the midst of discovering that vodka does, in fact, mix with diet cola to make the breakfast of losers. Yeah, that visit is a hazy memory, except the part where she makes me breakfast and apologizes for putting her foot in her mouth with Sloan. At least I have the presence of mind to assure her it’s not her fault.
Despite all the vodka, I’m aware that it’s totally mine.
By Sunday evening, I stop drinking and sober up. My head pounds and my stomach rumbles, but those are minor problems. Without anything to dull the pain of losing Sloan, I think about every dirty, underhanded thing I’ve done since promising Evan I’d stop Reservoir from winning Wynam’s business. I think about everything Sloan has been through. Everything she said. What’s important to me. What I want out of life.
I end up with a shit-pile of regret but no obvious answers about how to make things right with my wife. One thing I realize I need to do? Be a better person.
I can start by being a better son.
After I grab a bottle of water and pop a couple of ibuprofen, I power my phone up. Messages from Evan, checking in on me. Messages from Nia, asking if I’m okay.
Nothing from Sloan. Damn it.
Digging my thumb and forefinger into the aching sockets of my eyes and shoving down grief, I dial my mom.
As soon as I hear her groggy voice, I remember the time difference. It’s midnight back home.
“Sorry, Mom. I forgot how late it is there. Go back to sleep.”
“No, that’s okay. Tell me what’s going on.”
Of course she thinks I’m calling for a reason. My wedding to Sloan aside, I haven’t spoken to her in months, and now I’m reaching out a mere week later. “Just…checking in. How are you?”
“A lot better than you sound. Talk to me.”
“I’m fine. Just hung over.” I force a laugh to lighten the mood.
But just like when I was a teenager sneaking out on Saturday night to drink beer and play video games with my buddies, she sees right through me. “It sounds like more than that. What’s wrong? Where’s Sloan?”
I slam my eyes shut. Her questions force me to face what I’ve been trying to avoid with the vodka. “I…screwed up with her.”
My mother pauses for a long moment. “Is it too late to fix things?”
Maybe. Probably. “I don’t know how.”
She sighs. “Women are communicators. If you replay your last conversation or two, I’m sure she told you something useful.”
That I need to put her first. That I need to let her go.
I don’t know if I can.
“She did,” I admit.
“There you go. All you have to do is be man enough to compromise.”
If I want Sloan to even talk to me again, I’ll have to do way more than that. I’ve never willingly conceded anything to anyone in my life. I’ve never even tried to put someone else first. I don’t have a fucking clue where to begin. But I can’t expect my mom to draw a road map for me. I need to figure it out myself.
“Mom, what happened with Dad? Why did he leave? I know you loved him.”
“I did. Or I wouldn’t have given him twelve years and five children. But we married too young, right out of high school. He hit thirty…and realized he’d never pursued any of his dreams.”
My knee-jerk reaction is that he sounds like a selfish prick. But that’s my anger talking. Besides, haven’t I spent all the years he was getting married and having kids pursuing my own life?
Yeah. And I’m not any better for it. I’m a selfish prick, too.
“How did you cope after he left?” Because when I realized he was gone for good, I fucking hated him. To this day, I can’t wrap my head around the fact he simply walked away. We’d been close. He’d been involved in my Little League team, my Scouts. I’d idolized him.
And he just disappeared.
“Because he needed me to,” my mother says softly. “And I was strong enough to bear it.”
Her answer bowls me over. She’s spent a decade and a half single parenting, never having a partner to help or support her, simply because he couldn’t and she could? “I don’t understand. It’s so unfair to you.”
“You kids were my dream, not his. Besides”—she gives me a wistful sigh—“if you love something, set it free.”
If it comes back, it’s yours. If not, it was never meant to be.
Then something else occurs to me. “Is that what you did with me, too?”
“When you left home for college, I knew there was a good chance I’d lose you. Your sisters were all happy to settle down and teach school, be stay-at-home moms, or work for the local florist. But I always knew you had bigger and brighter ambitions than a town of twelve thousand people allowed.”
So, like Dad, she let me go. That must have killed her.
I never once thought about that—until now.
The difference between me and my father? I might have been a selfish prick, but I refuse to remain one. “That doesn’t mean we aren’t still family.”
I can almost hear the smile in my mother’s voice, despite the fact she’s obviously choked up. “It doesn’t, son. If I haven’t told you, it’s so good to hear from you.”
Hell if that doesn’t choke me up, too. “It’s good to talk to you, Mom. What are your plans this week?”
She takes my change of subject and tells me about some volunteer work she’s doing at the local animal shelter, a ladies’ luncheon she’ll be attending with two of my sisters, and my niece’s upcoming dance recital. Honestly, I used to think all that shit was boring. Now, it sounds nice.
We hang up a few minutes later, after I promise to keep in touch and visit home when my youngest sister gives birth this summer.
After I set my phone aside, I sink back against the sofa and stare at the wall, thoughts pelting my brain.
By the time the Monday morning sun blares in my face, I know what I need to do to make things right with Sloan.
Not going to lie. I’m dreading today. It’s necessary; I know that.
But it will blow up my entire life.
The drive to Stratus’s office is over too quickly. I park in my reserved spot, then swipe my badge across the reader. At the clicking of the door, I push my way inside. Some fellow employees wave and ask where I’ve been. I hold up my hand, smile, and keep walking—straight for Evan’s office.
I’m a man on a mission.
The rest of the executive management team is already assembled when I enter. Of course, they’re doing damage control, now that the knowledge that Wynam chose Reservoir has undoubtedly gone public. Evan and the other suits are looking for their next opportunity and deciding how to spin this turn of events. As CFO, I would normally be involved in determining how much of our resources we can throw at each opportunity and budget for everything from tech upgrades to ad spend. I’ll bet Evan sent me emails over the weekend to keep me up to speed while I was in my drunken stupor. It’s wholly unlike me…but I haven’t read a single one.
Evan looks up as I approach the conference table. Something on my face must signal that I’ve got heavy things on my mind, because he turns to address the rest of the executives. “Take ten, everyone. Shaw and I need to confer before we continue.”
Several nod and send me sideways glances full of curiosity before they leave. Not shocking. After the weekend I’ve had, I’m sure I look like hell. Some of the others I’ve played sports or shared a gym with clap me on the back with expressions closer to concern before they head out the door. They know I got married eight short days ago. They probably wouldn’t be shocked to know it’s already over.
I’ve had days of dealing with the heartache hollowing out my chest, but I didn’t anticipate the humiliation of my co-workers’ pity. It sucks.
But I’ve earned it.
“Hey, Bas,” Evan says cautiously. “I’d ask if you’re feeling better, but…”
“No.” I feel like shit. I’ve barely slept in days. Passing out doesn’t count. “But I need to talk to you.”
“Are you all right? I’ve been worried. So has Nia. I guessed when I came to see you on Friday that things with Sloan had gone sideways.”
Gross understatement. “Yeah.”
“I’m sorry. I figured you’d be upset, between that and this weekend being the first anniversary of Becca’s death. But I didn’t expect to find you already shit-faced.”
Holy shit, Becca died a year ago. That fact never crossed my mind all weekend.
Any worries I’ve had about lingering feelings for Evan’s first wife… I can put them to rest now. I’m relieved that, not only doesn’t Becca have a death grip on any corner of my heart, I’m not sure she ever did.
But I’m not the only one who lost her that day.
“Are you okay?” I ask Evan.
Slowly, he nods. “It was a lot to take in, the fact it had been a year since my life imploded. But I’m in a much better place now, a lot happier than I’ve ever been. The notion that things happen for a reason? I’m starting to think that’s true.”
Maybe Evan is right, and the reason Sloan left me was so I could finally learn how to love without putting myself first. “If that’s true, then why did Wynam fall through our hands?”
He shrugs. “I don’t know. But we’ll recover, and we’ll figure that out. We’re already strategizing alternate ways to grow, so I’d love your input. And I get to keep my hundred million dollars, so that’s a bonus. You can tell me how better to direct the funds now that they’re liquid. Might as well put them to good use, right?”
That’s the perfect opening to say what I came to.
My gut tightens as I withdraw the typed note from my suit pocket, then put it in my best friend’s hand. “This is my resignation, effective immediately.”
“What?” Evan rips the note open and scans it before tossing it onto the table and gaping at me. “Why?”
How do I explain this in a way my best friend and former boss will understand? “I need to do this for Sloan.”
“I don’t understand.”
After everything Evan and I have been through together, I owe him an explanation. “She thinks I only married her to seal Stratus’s position with Reservoir. But I’m in love with her.”
“I suspected as much on your wedding day. So did Nia. That’s why she tried to talk to Sloan when we stopped on the way to the airport, to gauge her feelings—”
Sighing, I hold up a hand. “I’m not blaming Nia. And I’m not quitting because I’m pissed at either of you. I’m not even resigning because I fucked everything up…though I did.”
“Bas, you gave this assignment your all—and then some.”
Since Evan knows that, maybe he’ll understand what I have to say next. “But I gave my all to the wrong cause.”
Evan frowns. “Meaning?”
“Sloan has one dream: to be the heart of Reservoir. I tried to take that from her. All her life, she’s been someone’s plan B. Their second choice. A pawn. Her father used her brilliance, ambition, and loyalty to improve Reservoir without giving her anything in return but a paycheck. Even her first boyfriend used her for a good time, despite having another girlfriend all along. Over and over, she’s given herself to people who haven’t given a shit about her feelings. I have to put her first, and I need to respect her dream. I can’t do that if I’m her competitor.”
“Okay, but…you’re putting me in a bind. You know that, right? Your shoes are impossible to fill.”
They’re not. “Give Wendy Grisham a chance. She’s really smart, great with numbers. Solid. Logical. She’d be a good choice to replace me.”
“Yeah, okay. I’ll look at her. But can’t you and Sloan can work something out without you giving up your job?”
“Not if she’s ever going to believe that I’ll put her above everything and everyone in my life. That’s especially true of you. No offense, buddy, but this mess started because I followed the directives you gave me.”
“And I kept coming at her like a hard-core competitor, trying to bend Reservoir—and her—to my will, even when I realized how deep my feelings were. I was an asshole.”
A little smile skitters across Evan’s face. “If it’s any consolation, I think most guys go through the asshole phase. I did.”
I remember. “And you had to show Nia that you were one-hundred-percent willing to give up everything for her.”
His grimace tells me he finally understands. “Yeah. Son of a bitch, I’m going to miss you around the office, buddy.”
That chokes me up. I’m not just giving up a lucrative job; I’m giving up working side by side with my best friend of a decade. Sure, I can find another position elsewhere. I ignore headhunters and turn down other opportunities all the time.
Not working with Evan anymore will leave a hole in my professional and personal life. But the last week has proven that doing without Sloan will crush me.
“I know. I’ll miss you, too.”
“But I understand why you need to do this.”
I’m grateful. “I owe you so much. I—”
“You don’t,” Evan insists.
“You’re my best friend, and everything we’ve done professionally, we’ve done together. You believed in me when I was barely more than a snot-nosed undergrad. You trusted me with every cent you had in the world.”
“And I was right to. You’re brilliant. You made all the right moves, and you made me a very rich man. If I’ve never said thank you—”
“You don’t need to. I know. Just like I hope you know I always tried to do the right thing by you, even when I thought I’d fallen for Becca. I was loyal.”
“We’ve talked about this, man. You couldn’t help who you loved, but you always acted with honor and integrity and—”
“I tried to do what was right.” But I sacrificed anything I could have had with Becca for my best friend and my ambitions. I’m not willing to do that with Sloan. “You’re important to me, Evan. I really mean that.”
He frowns. “You’re important to me, too. I’ve never said this…but I’m sorry I expected you to do all my dirty work. It wasn’t right. I let you do it because it was easy.”
“And let’s be honest. I liked it. I just can’t do it anymore. I have to show Sloan that she’s my first priority and always will be.”
“I get it.”
“I hope this doesn’t end our friendship.”
“Nothing will.” He sighs. “Are you leaving Maui?”
“Probably. My future—my wife, if I can win her back—is in Dallas.” Then I grin. “Fair warning: she’s a hell of a competitor. I’ll try to persuade her to go easy on you, but no promises.”
“I never expected any.”
“Take care, buddy.” I stick out my hand.
Evan scowls. “Fuck that.”
Then he brings me in for a hard, back-slapping bro-hug. Damn it, neither of us is emotional by nature, but knowing he’ll always be my friend, even if I am leaving? I’m on the verge of breaking down.
Instead, I drag in a big draft of air and pull back. “Thanks for everything.”
He shakes his head. “Thank you. If you, um…change your mind, your job is always open.”
“I appreciate that.” But I can’t take Evan up on it. Instead, I give him a little salute as I exit his office, passing Nia along the way with a hug and a smile. “I’m leaving. Evan will explain. Give him a little extra TLC tonight. You’ve got a good one.”
“The best,” Nia says automatically, still searching my face for answers.
“Take care of each other. Goodbye.”
After my meeting with Evan, I return to my condo, sit on my sofa, and look around. The living room is decorated in shades of gray, just like my bedroom. And my bathroom. Hell, even my car is gray.
I’d give anything right now to be in Sloan’s apartment warmed by earthy tones and her big personality, rather than nearly four thousand miles away, fending off the need to shed unmanly tears.
But I can’t sit here and feel sorry for myself. I’m finally pulling up my bootstraps and charting a new future. Leaving Stratus—and Evan—was fucking difficult. Unfortunately, that was the easy part.
My next steps are much harder.
I make two phone calls. The first takes roughly ten minutes. The professional on the other end says she’ll get working and for me to let her know when I’m ready to take the appropriate next step.
Swallowing, I end that call, then place another, this one using a burner phone I picked up on my way here. I don’t really expect much, but I have to try.
I’m shocked when I get an answer on the second ring, though her voice sounds cautious. “Sloan O’Neill.”
It’s Sloan Shaw, damn it. But I can’t insist she take my name when I’m sure she doesn’t want to stay married to me.
“It’s Bas. Please don’t hang up,” I rush to say. “I just called to tell you three things. Then, if you want, I’ll go away—for good.”
She hesitates a long time before she lets out a resolute breath. “What?”
“Last time we were together, we had unprotected sex. I’m clean. I know you are, too. But if you’re pregnant, I’d like to know. I want to be an involved father—the kind neither of us had growing up. You might hate me, and I get it, but our son or daughter shouldn’t suffer.”
Another long pause. “Agreed. If I’m pregnant, you’ll be the first to know.”
“Thank you.” I’m relieved she’s willing to give me that concession. “I appreciate that.”
Everything else I’m about to say is for her happiness—and hers alone.
“That same night, you told me that if I truly love you, I’ll let you go. I do, so I am. I spoke with an attorney earlier.” I give Sloan the woman’s name and number. “When you’re ready, let me know and have your attorney contact her to negotiate a settlement. I’m more than willing to give you half—”
“I don’t want a dime of your money.”
Of course she doesn’t. That’s so Sloan. I’d take her refusal to mean that she doesn’t want a damn thing from me ever again…except she sounds on the verge of tears.
“Baby…” But what can I say? She’s asked me to let her go, not fight her harder for us. How can I say I’m putting her first if I’m trying to hang on to her in an effort to make myself happier? “I’m so sorry about everything. It may not matter to you anymore, but what we had… It wasn’t all business for me. And if you’ll let me, I’ll explain the situation with Becca.”
I’m worried she’s going to tell me that she doesn’t care. Instead, she surprises me again.
That’s a good sign, but I can’t get my hopes up. Maybe she only wants to hear what I have to say so she can get some closure. And that’s fine. If it will help her move forward alone—even if that’s the last thing I want—I’ll give that to her.
“Evan married Becca right out of high school. They were both foster kids, and Becca came out of a rough home. She had this…vulnerable quality, like she wasn’t quite capable of protecting herself from the pitfalls and cruelties of the world. I, like a lot of men who met her, wanted to protect her. Don’t get me wrong. I’m no altruist, as you know. She was beautiful. And I knew Evan wasn’t in love with her.”
“Why did he marry her?”
“He felt responsible for her. He’d done his best through high school to shield her from an abusive foster father. The moment she turned eighteen, he yanked her out of that house and gave her the protection of his name and his roof. Sure, she was my best friend’s wife…one with big eyes, a soft smile, and so much unfulfilled need. Somehow, my heart convinced me that I could give her what she needed.” I scoff. “I never touched her—not once. My loyalty to Evan came first and foremost. And in some ways that was perfect for me. I could tell myself I couldn’t commit to anyone else because I’d already given my heart to Becca—the most unattainable woman I knew.” God, I was an idiot. “But the truth was, she wasn’t what I needed. I didn’t know what that was until I met you.”
Right. I’m not calling to win her back. That would be great, but not the reason I reached out. That’s also why I’m not telling her I’ve left Stratus and Evan. I didn’t leave my best friend and the job I loved to win brownie points, simply to make things right. “Becca died in a car accident, on her way to a doctor’s appointment. She was three months pregnant.”
“That’s the woman you told me about, the one you once loved?”
“I thought so, yes. I didn’t mention her by name or explain more, but…that’s her.”
“I’m sorry for your loss.”
“It was rough at first. After she’d been gone a few months, Evan was cleaning out Becca’s desk at home and found her journal. Apparently, she was in love with me. I never knew.”
“Hearing that must have been horrible.”
At the time, yes. Now I know it was for the best. “I’m convinced that, knowing what I know now about love, knowing what you’ve taught me about the kind of woman I need in my life, Becca and I would have made each other miserable. I’m not in love with her. For months now, I’ve suspected that I never was. And whatever feelings for her I worried might still be lingering? They’re gone, thanks to you. I might have been terrible at showing you that I love you, but I do. And I always will.”
Wondering if that’s the last time I’ll ever hear my wife’s voice, I force myself to man up, end the call…and let her go for good.
After Sebastian’s call, I can’t sleep that night. Did I make the right choice in walking away?
The next morning, I still don’t know.
When he and I first bonded over the phone, he was sharp and interesting. Intriguing. When I figured out he wasn’t my consultant but my competitor who was intentionally pulling on my heartstrings to play me, there’s no other way to put it. I. Was. Pissed.
So I decided to get even.
I planned every detail of that night in his hotel room—the sexy dress, the come-on, the seduction—and the epic way I put him in his place.
One thing I didn’t count on? Being so attracted to him that I ached for him to undress me. Touch me. Make me feel alive. And I certainly didn’t plan on wanting him beyond that night.
But I did.
That’s the real reason I blackmailed him into coming back to Dallas. True, Reservoir was in a dire financial situation, and Bruce Rawson temporarily authorized me to “fix” it after a candid and heated confrontation. Once I had Sebastian in the rented conference room, I thought I had him where I wanted him, squirming in his seat and under my nose. I was convinced he would lose his luster then, and I’d stop feeling the sparks.
That never happened.
Worse, I knew Sebastian would fight back—but I never saw his proposal coming.
Oh, I felt furious and threatened…at first. But Evan, Nia, and the rest of his friends in Maui were all so welcoming and kind. For the girl who’d never had much family, I enjoyed the people Sebastian had chosen to occupy his inner circle. When we were with them, I saw a different side of the man who I suddenly called husband—a happier, less calculating side. A warm, giving side. One I was irresistibly drawn to.
But after the ceremony, shit got real.
First, Bas rescued me from my father, who had crashed the wedding to make ridiculous demands that I save Reservoir from falling into Stratus’s hands. Next, he spent all day and night making me feel not just sexy but adored. Important. Worshipped.
The minute he told me he loved me, I realized my heart was in danger. I was falling in love, too.
It fucking terrified me.
Nia telling me that Sebastian’s heart belonged to another woman the day we flew back to Dallas? Just the jolt I needed to start thinking with my head again. And I was perfectly happy with my decision to break things off with Bas and plot my future solo…until he called and explained Becca.
Despite all his charisma and crafty acumen, I’m not surprised he wanted to help a woman who had been hurt and abused. I admire him for it, just like I commend his decision to stay friends with the very man who separated him from Becca. I respect the hell out of him for having the scruples never to touch her, either. His unflagging loyalty to Evan—no matter what it cost him—endears me.
But it’s also one of the things keeping us apart now.
The thought of never seeing Sebastian Shaw again nearly crushes me.
Some foolish part of me hopes I conceived that wild night on my sofa last week. That would make my decision about how to handle my husband easier. I’d have to see Bas every so often for the sake of our child, right?
But that’s the coward’s way out. I need to be deliberate. I need to make a fucking conscious choice. Am I going to call an attorney to continue divorce proceedings? Or am I just going to reach out to Sebastian and ask him if we can start over?
Unfortunately, as much as I hate it, I already know the answer. I can’t stay with a man who might be faithful to me but never loyal. A man who will never put me first, especially when I feel so perilously close to giving him my heart.
“Sloan?” Rina, my new assistant, says over the phone’s intercom. “You have a visitor.”
“Who is it?” I’m not expecting anyone, and I really need to focus, especially since we’re implementing the first phases of our launch strategy for the Wynam account. After the state Shane left the company in, it’s far more problematic than I expected. I have a mountain of work.
Suddenly, the door to my office opens and shuts. “It’s your father.”
I look up to find Bruce Rawson standing a few feet away. He’s lost more weight since I last saw him, and his skin tone is an unhealthy shade of gray. But today he’s got an unexpected sparkle in his eyes, and he’s smiling big.
Why the hell is he here?
“Hello, Mr. Rawson. What can I do for you?”
Technically, I have to listen. He still owns the company, and I’m merely interim CEO. I hope that since I landed the Wynam account and I’m reviving the company financially, he’ll promote me permanently…someday.
“I can’t come visit my favorite daughter?”
I frown. I’m his only daughter, and he’s never been remotely interested in recognizing me until now. What is he up to? “I think while we’re in the office, we should leave the secret that I’m your illegitimate daughter between us.”
“Why? I’m so proud of the job you’re doing. I want to tell the whole world!”
Once, that would have thrilled me. I wanted his attention and acceptance so badly. I was sure that if he got to know me, he would love me. But I realize everything is about him, and I’m beyond annoyed. “I appreciate your vote of confidence in me as a CEO. I’m doing what I’ve always done—helping this organization thrive to the best of my ability. But if you tell the world now that we’re related, everyone will assume you promoted me merely because we’re related. All that will do is undermine me and hamper my ability to do my job.”
Rawson frowns. “Baby girl…”
He’s never called me that before, and I think I’m going to puke. He only wants to acknowledge me now because I saved his ass? “With all due respect, sir, I would prefer you to call me Sloan.”
“Absolutely. Whatever you want.” He winks. “But you’re still my baby girl. Smart like your dad.”
No, I’m smart because I’ve had to be, but contradicting him serves no purpose. And I don’t have the energy today. “Thank you.”
“It’s obvious, really. Only someone with my genes could have fended off Stratus’s hostile takeover so masterfully.”
I fended them off because I was so horrified that Sebastian had nearly duped me into falling for him and so hurt that, despite telling me he loved me, his heart belonged to another woman. So I made something happen. It had nothing to do with my father crashing my wedding and demanding I act. I did it purely because the thought of merging with Stratus and staying with Bas if he would never truly be mine hurt too much.
But since last night, I’m having second thoughts.
“And”—he adds with a swaggering grin—“now I know you’re brilliant enough to be my daughter.”
Is he saying that super-scientific DNA test we took when I was a teenager didn’t convince him, but my recent moves with his business did? And how does he explain Shane?
I fight not to roll my eyes. “I see.”
“So you’ve heard the news?”
News? All morning, I’ve been chugging coffee, trying to lose myself in work, and fighting the urge to cry over Sebastian. “No, I’ve been busy.”
His grin turns more dazzling. “You’ll love this. Whatever you did to that cocky bastard you married worked.” He opens his phone, and my heart starts thudding. “This is from today’s business news. ‘Following the unsuccessful merger of Stratus Storage Solutions and Reservoir, Inc., Sebastian Shaw has resigned his position as CFO, effective immediately. No word on his replacement. Sources close to billionaire CEO Evan Cook report that the split was abrupt but amicable.’” Rawson darkens the phone. “Ha ha! You chased the bastard off!”
Shock rolls through me. But I know instantly that Mr. Rawson is wrong. Sebastian isn’t afraid of me, so I certainly didn’t cause him to tuck his tail between his legs and run because he’s afraid. He loved his job. I know he would—literally—do anything for Evan. They’re tight. They’ve been together for years.
Why would Sebastian suddenly walk away from all that?
Did he do it to prove a point to me? My foolish heart trips over itself with hope.
“That is truly interesting,” I say in my most neutral voice. “Is there anything else you needed?”
He wags a finger at me, that grin still big. “Playing it close to the vest. Smart girl…”
I merely smile and wonder how much longer before he leaves.
“Of course you’ll be divorcing Shaw now that you don’t need him anymore, I hope.”
“That is my current plan,” I say carefully. I don’t owe my biological father answers about my personal life, and I’m not about to say anything that will provoke an argument. Not only is it pointless, but I give zero fucks what he thinks.
He claps his hands together, then devolves into a coughing fit. It’s deep and hacking, and I wonder if his two-pack-a-day habit has caught up with him.
Finally, he clears his throat, pounding on his chest. “Sorry about that.”
“Are you all right?” Even if I’m not interested in a father-daughter rapport, I don’t wish ill on him.
“I guess you don’t know.” He sighs. “I’m dying. Cancer sucks.”
The news isn’t a total surprise but still somehow a shocking blow.
I rise from behind my desk and approach him. “I’m truly sorry to hear that.”
He takes my hand. “Thank you. And I’m sorry, too. For everything.”
What can I do except nod and accept his apology? Holding a grudge serves no purpose. “I appreciate that, sir.”
“Sloan, I pushed Shane, then you, so hard lately because of it. Now it’s clear what I need to do, so I rewrote my will in the last week.”
My heart jumps to my throat. What is he saying? “Mr. Rawson?”
His expression turns sad. “Could you call me Dad, just this once?”
He hasn’t earned it, but refusing to forgive him does neither of us a lick of good.
I sigh. “Dad.”
A bittersweet smile creases his tired face as he takes my hand. “Thank you. I’m leaving the company to you. Of all my children, I trust you most to keep Reservoir successful.”
Suddenly, I’m choked up by a horrible mixture of pride, shock, and sorrow. Maybe it’s the fact I’ve barely slept or that I started the day in turmoil.
Whatever the reason, I burst into tears.
He surprises me all over again when he folds me in his arms and pulls me against his too-thin body. “Don’t cry, baby girl. You’ve earned this.”
Damn right I have. And I swore that his opinion didn’t mean anything to me anymore…but apparently it does.
“Thank you. How long do you have?”
He grimaces. “A week? A month? If I’m lucky, maybe a year. I just don’t know. None of the treatments seem to be working.”
I squeeze his hands. “I’ll pray for you.”
“I’d appreciate that. You could have told me to fuck off. But once again, you’ve proven that you’re a bigger, better person than me. I really am proud of you, and I’m sorry my shame for cheating on my wife kept me from building a relationship with you.”
Raw emotion twists my stomach. My heart aches. I hate that it’s taken something dangerously close to a corporate takeover and a terminal illness to bring us together, but at least I have some closure. And I have the approval I’ve wanted all my life…even if I don’t need it anymore. “I’ll take good care of Reservoir.”
“I know you will.” He kisses my forehead. “I can rest easy now.”
With that, he’s gone.
I pace the hotel suite with the killer view of the Pacific and grip my phone.
Breathe in, breathe out.
The exercise keeps me from focusing on the very real possibility that this day will end in disaster. Even the possibility shreds my composure and moves me close to tears.
No. Stop. Keep it together. This is your last hope.
The past seventeen days have been tumultuous, to say the least.
The evening following Bruce Rawson’s visit, it hit me that I finally had everything I’d wanted most of my adult life: my father’s approval and control of the company I loved. And I was miserable because I didn’t have what I needed.
His actions after our split—leaving his job and letting me go—more than prove he loves me. They tell me that if I let him, he’ll put me first. That’s why, despite finding an excellent divorce attorney who’s licensed to practice in more than a dozen states, including Texas and Hawaii, I haven’t called.
I can’t bring myself to.
Plus, I haven’t had much time.
A week and a half after Mr. Rawson visited my office, he passed quietly in his sleep with his sons—and me—at his side. Shane, Brady, and Rogan all seemed relieved to know that our father signed the company over to me nearly a week prior. They all have trust funds, and running a company would have been a drain on their time and energy. I suspect my oldest half brother will blow through his money quickly, but that’s not my problem.
A handful of days after assuming the company, a few things became terribly clear, chief among them that demand for our services—thanks to Wynam selecting us—far outweighs our capacity to provide them. After Shane’s disastrous reign, our cash position is shaky. And since we had to fire every single person who participated in or condoned his mismanagement of corporate funds, Reservoir is terribly understaffed.
The company wasn’t going to make it long if I didn’t take significant action.
So I did.
As of this morning, it’s final. I’ve ensured Reservoir for the foreseeable future. And I hope that my father is looking down on me and that’s he’s still proud.
I also hope that, after this one last scheme, I’ll be well and truly happy.
It’s seemingly taken forever to reach this place, but a glance at my phone tells me it’s time.
Right on cue, there’s a knock on the door.
Breathe in, breathe out.
With that mantra rolling through my head, I open the door with a hopeful smile.
Sebastian stands there, looking incredibly gorgeous in a dark charcoal suit, a pale gray shirt, a red tie—and his wedding ring. God, just seeing him is enough to send my heart soaring.
When he catches sight of me, he rears back in shock. His expression turns guarded. “Sloan? I must be in the wrong place. A headhunter contacted me about a job interview. I’m supposed to meet the CEO here—”
“You’re exactly where you should be.”
He scowls. “You want to interview me for a job?”
“Yes. I heard you left Stratus, and there’s no one better suited to this position than you. In fact, I think you’re the only one for the job. Come in and sit. I’ll explain.”
Sebastian doesn’t move. “That’s not a good idea.”
“Because?” Please don’t say that you’ve fallen out of love with me…
“You have to ask?”
“Of course you’re going to make me say it…”
“I am.” Mostly because I can’t tell what’s running through his head.
He scans me up and down, taking in my figure-hugging, forest-green dress, black blazer, and matching wraparound heels. Then he lets out a ragged breath. “Because if we work together, I can’t guarantee how much work I’ll actually get done. And from everything I understand, Reservoir desperately needs all hands on deck. Congratulations on assuming the CEO role, by the way. I have no doubt it suits you.”
So he’s been paying attention. And he still wants me. Both good signs. “Thank you.”
He nods and glances around awkwardly, flashing a stilted smile at a passing maid with her cart. “And, um…thank you for the text last week.”
“It seemed only fair to let you know I’m not pregnant.”
“I appreciate that.” But his eyes dim before he drops his gaze, and I can tell he’s disappointed. “I’m sorry to hear about Mr. Rawson’s passing, too.”
“Thanks. The flowers you sent were lovely.” I take a chance and touch his arm. “Come in. Please. For a few minutes?”
His reluctance squeezes my heart like a fist, but he finally sighs and steps inside the suite. I shut the door with relief.
“This is a great view,” he says, his voice carefully neutral. “Are you here for business?”
“Something like that.” I gesture to the suite’s living room, situated next to the floor-to-ceiling accordion doors that lead to a massive lanai and the unobstructed vistas of the shimmering water. “Have a seat.”
He slides into the first chair he comes to. I ease onto one that’s catty-corner and lean forward. “Sebastian—”
“I don’t think I can do this.” He stands again, fidgeting and clenching his fists. “I can’t work for you. I’m guessing you need a CFO, but—”
I jump to my feet. “I do, but I have another job I think you’re even more qualified for.”
“What is it?”
He sounds cautious, and I don’t blame him. He’s told me he loves me so many times. I didn’t trust him. Hell, I didn’t trust my own heart. But he’s given up everything to prove he loves me. Now I have to find the courage to show him how I feel in return.
“The role of husband.” Swallowing against my raging heartbeat, I reach for his hand. “I love you.”
He leans into my personal space, shock twisting his expression as he abandons my hand to cup my face. “What did you say?”
“I love you, and I want you to be my husband—and not just in name. I want to live with you, have children with you, grow old with you…” Tears spring to my eyes. “I want to spend my life with you.”
I see all those things so clearly, and I want them more than I’ve ever wanted anything—even Reservoir and my father’s love. But it means nothing if he doesn’t want that, too.
Fingers tightening on me, he scans my face. “You’re serious?”
“Yes. Completely.” I take my wedding ring from the pocket of my blazer and present it to him, palm up. “Interested in the job?”
Finally, a big smile breaks across his face. He plucks the ring up and curls it in his fist. “Maybe. What are the benefits?”
I grin in return. “I’m glad you asked. Tell me what you’re seeking? I’m sure we can come to some agreement…” I stand on my tiptoes and press kisses along the line of his jaw before stopping at the corner of his mouth.
He pulls back with a shuddering breath. “I expect to be well paid, but there’s only one currency I’m interested in.” He slides his lips across my neck, making me shiver before he whispers in my ear. “Your body.”
“That’s definitely part of the compensation package.”
“Good to know. I expect you to sleep beside me every night.”
“I expect you to love me.”
“That needs to be a reciprocal agreement, Mr. Shaw.”
“It definitely is, Mrs. Shaw.”
Joy blooms, and my smile mirrors the happiness in my soul. “Anything else?”
He turns serious. “I need you to believe in me. In us.”
“I do. You giving up your job at Stratus and letting me go proved I could. If I wasn’t convinced, I would never have gone to the trouble of tracking down that headhunter friend of yours to have him call you about my ‘open position.’”
“Well played.” He nods, his expression somewhere between satisfied and smug.
“Thank you.” My heart lurches to my throat. “Does that mean you accept?”
He lifts my hand and settles my wedding ring back on my finger, where it belongs. “I do.”
I’m sure my cheeks will be sore later from all this smiling, but right now I don’t care. I’m with the man I want by my side. “I do, too. Forever. That’s a promise.”
He cradles my face again and smooths his thumbs across my skin in the softest caress before brushing a lingering kiss on my mouth. “I promise you forever, too. But you could have just called and told me how you feel, rather than flying all the way here and setting up this elaborate scheme.”
“I could have,” I concede. “But that isn’t our style. Besides, you’ve never not had game. I couldn’t come to you a slacker.”
“Good point.” Then he grimaces. “But I’m afraid I’m the one coming to you a slacker, baby. I’m still unemployed.”
I gathered as much, and I’m seriously stunned. “I thought someone else would scoop you up quickly and—”
“Oh, I have six job offers on the table, including one from Jeremy McBride. But I’d have to move to Phoenix to work for him. So that’s a no. Two other opportunities would require me to move to New York. When I left my hometown, I left that winter shit behind. So those are both a hard pass, too. One position was based in Florida, another in Tennessee. Neither were where I wanted to be. Same with the offer in Houston. Close, but…”
What is he saying? “Where are you trying to land?”
“Dallas, baby. To be near you. Did you really think I was going to give up entirely?”
Yes, and I should have known better.
I laugh. “Did you have a scheme, too?”
“You know I did.” He rubs at the back of his neck. “There’s an up-and-coming power tools company about a block from Reservoir’s office.”
“Driving Force? The little place around the corner?”
“That’s the one. They offered me a job yesterday. It’s a downgrade to a finance manager—their only open position. The salary offer was shit, and we’re still negotiating. But I was planning to take it to be near you.”
For this deeply ambitious man to accept a job he could do in his sleep for pennies compared to his worth, simply so he could be near me… I’m touched all over again. “You should turn it down.”
“I disagree.” He raises a brow at me. “Unless you’re going to support me in the lifestyle I’ve become accustomed to.”
I roll my eyes. “Please. You can barely stop working for a whole day, much less for the rest of your life.”
“You’re right. I’ve been climbing the walls these past few weeks. I could only keep doing so much for Evan under the guise of tying up my loose ends. I think he finally caught on. He cut off access to my email and our shared drive a few days ago.” Sebastian is obviously glum about it.
I take his hand. “He didn’t have a choice.”
“I know.” He sighs. “So are you asking me to work for Reservoir for real?”
“Not exactly. Sit.” When he does, I follow suit. “I need to tell you something.”
“Long story short, Reservoir, as is, isn’t equipped to handle Wynam’s business. I weighed the time needed to gear up talent and tech while stabilizing our cash flow and still serving my new client’s robust—and immediate—needs. It was impossible.”
“Do you want me to take a look at the situation? Maybe I can find a solution that—”
“Actually, I had someone else look at it. Someone really bright. Someone we both know and trust. Someone I’m coming to consider a good friend.”
Sebastian looks genuinely confused. “You don’t mean Jeremy, do you?”
“God, no. I’ve still never met the guy. He’s probably nice enough…but this analysis was even above his pay grade.” I let out a nervous breath. “I called Evan.”
Bas looks shocked. “You did? I’ve talked to him nearly every day at the gym. He never said anything.”
“Because we were confidentially negotiating.”
“A merger. A real one. Effective Monday, Stratus and Reservoir will fall under the umbrella of our newly formed corporation, Integrated Data Solutions. He brought cash to the table. I brought clients and resources he couldn’t otherwise obtain, and we worked it out. He’ll remain CEO of Stratus. I’m still CEO of Reservoir. Together, we’ll co-chair the new corporation and offer a whole new range of custom storage solutions neither of us could alone.”
A smile breaks across Sebastian’s face. “That’s fantastic! You two will dominate the market.”
“Stratus came into this with an insane market penetration rate for big-business clients.”
“Yeah.” He nods. “And Reservoir was growing the home and small-business markets at a crazy rate.”
“Exactly. But together, we can be anyone’s and everyone’s one-stop shop.”
He sends me a proud smile. “Congratulations.”
“Thank you. It was my idea.”
“I’m not surprised. You’re brilliant.” He leans in to kiss me. “That was the first thing that impressed me about you. Did you know that? Even before I saw your picture. I loved how damn bright you were.” Then he skims his lips down my neck, making his way to my shoulder and shoving my blazer down my arms in the process. “Then I discovered how damn sexy you are, too. Speaking of which, I take my job as husband seriously, so I should take you to bed right now.”
“There’s nothing I’d like more.” I swipe a buss across his mouth.
“Good.” He scans me up and down. “As fucking hot as you look in that dress—you’re killing me with your cleavage and the way it clings to your hips—it would look so much better on the floor.”
I giggle. “You might be right.”
“Of course I am. Let’s test out my theory.” He reaches for my zipper.
I grab his arms to stay him. “But there’s one more job you should consider first.”
“If you’re talking about father… Baby, I’m down for getting you pregnant right now.”
His husky words and wandering hands make me shiver. “We’ll definitely talk about that because I’m down for it, too. But—”
Sebastian doesn’t let me get the rest out. Instead, he covers my lips with his and thrusts inside my mouth, giving me his fire and asserting his will, showing me how much he wants me. It’s all I can do not to melt against him.
But I can’t. Not yet.
Somehow, I find the will to break our kiss. “Wait!”
He’s panting. His hazel eyes look so green with desire. “Baby, we’ve been apart for damn near a month. Let’s not wait anymore.”
“There really is one more job I want to pitch to you.”
Sebastian sighs. “I’m listening. But make it quick. I’m really feeling this husband and possible daddy role right now.”
He presses himself against me, and it’s impossible not to tell just how enthusiastic he is.
I swallow back my raging desire and promise myself that, as soon as we’ve concluded business, we’ll devote all weekend simply to each other…and doing our best to make him a father.
For now, I smooth down my dress, shrug back into my blazer, then whistle.
The bedroom door opens, and Evan walks in. “Hey, buddy.”
“Hey!” He’s clearly thrilled to see his best friend. “Congrats on your merger.”
“Thanks.” He pats my back with brotherly affection. “We’re planning on doing great things. We could do them even better if you were on our team.”
“We’d love for you to be our CFO,” I spell it out. “There’s no one we trust more.”
“Exactly,” Evan puts in.
Sebastian looks floored. “You’re sure?”
“One hundred percent,” Evan assures. “It will be like your old job but with more responsibility. It will definitely be more intense. So, of course, you’ll be better compensated.
“If I’m being honest, I was already pretty overpaid,” Sebastian admits.
Evan shakes his head. “You were worth every penny and more. What do you say?”
“We need you,” I add softly.
He shakes Evan’s hand as he pulls me in for a hug. “As long as I get some of those husband benefits in the office every so often, it’s a deal.”
Evan holds up his hands. “Dude, I got nothing to do with that, and I don’t want to know.”
“Since that’s my department, it’s a rousing hell yes from me.” I smile wide and throw my arms around my husband.
“Then absolutely yes! I’d love to be your CFO. There’s no job I want more. I’ll be in the office on Monday.” Then Sebastian frowns. “Wait, where will this new company be headquartered?”
“Here,” I tell him. “With a significant presence in Dallas. Easier and cheaper for supporting mainland customers. Plus, most of our employees don’t want to leave their homes and extended families.”
“Makes sense.” Sebastian nods. “But where are we living?”
“Where do you want to live?”
“Wherever you want, baby. I just want to be with you.”
I smile in sublime happiness. “Same here. We’ll figure it out.”
“I like it.” He turns to Evan. “I’m happy to be back with you, man.”
“Happy to have you back. You have no idea…”
“I’ve missed you, too. But what are the chances you’ll fuck off and let me be alone with my wife for the weekend?”
Evan laughs and pulls his keys from his pocket. “No need to ask me twice. Welcome back, man.”
Sebastian pulls him in for a bro-hug. “Thanks. It’s great to be back.”
With that, Evan leaves, and I’m alone again with Sebastian.
“So about that job as husband with the daddy upgrade…” he begins.
Grinning, I lean in to kiss him. “I think we should get started right now.”
“I couldn’t agree more.” He hooks his arm under my knees, lifting me against his chest, and heads straight for the bedroom. “Hey, since I’m on the payroll again and we’re on the same team, who inside Stratus was leaking information to you? I never found out.”
Mischief widens my grin. “No one. It was a lucky guess you unwittingly confirmed.”
He laughs, shaking his head as he strides to the bedroom. “You are something, baby. The first time I talked to you on the phone, I knew you’d keep me on my toes. I love you.”
“I love you, too.” As he stops beside the big, gauze-draped four-poster bed, I sigh. “What do you think our children will be like?”
He sets me on my feet and brushes a stray tendril from my face. “Half you and half me? Holy terrors.”
I can’t help but laugh. “I’m afraid you’re right.”
“Good thing I like a challenge.”
“Me, too. Now shut up and kiss me.”
“It will be my pleasure, wife.”