Extended

excerpt

Chapter 1

Blair

 

 

 

    I’m at wedding out-of-state when I’m confronted with my worst enemy. I spot him before he spots me; across the crowded reception hall, wearing a suit disdainfully, like he wants to shrug it off and transform into the brute he is inside.

    Enemy might be too tame a word. Nightmare is a much better description. For a people-pleaser like me, he’s a personal affront. I’ve tried to make him my friend for near on a decade and I’ve failed for just as long.

     He takes a sip of his brandy and sweeps a dark gaze over the guests. I’ll be noticed any second now. How had I not known he’d been invited to this wedding?

    “Is that Nicholas Park?” Maddie asks at my side, speaking his name with obvious relish. I wish I could say no. I want to tell her that his reputation isn’t deserved, that he’s not that special when you’ve seen him drunk and disheveled.

    But that would be lying.

    “Yes,” I say, feeling like I’m confirming something far more than just his name. Because even drunk and disheveled, he’s absolutely magnificent.

    “Aren’t you two friends?”

    “He’s my brother’s friend.”

    Maddie’s laughter is a bit too high-pitched. “Well, that’s even better! You have to introduce me, Blair.”

    “I don’t think so.”

    “Why not?” Her voice drops. “Is what they say of him true, then? Is it better to stay away?”

    “I wouldn’t know,” I say, though I do. It’s definitely better to stay away. I’ve been trying to for the better part of a decade, but like a bad rash, he keeps returning, and there are no over-the-counter remedies in sight.

    “I’ve heard that he once burned down a club he owned, just to get the insurance money.” Maddie’s voice is vibrating with obvious delight at the idea of Nick committing fraud. “I had no idea he’d be here today. Did you know he was invited?”

    “No,” I say honestly. “I had absolutely no idea. I can’t imagine he knows either the bride or the groom.”

    I reach up run a hand through my hair and glance casually around the room. Nick is leisurely strolling through the throng of people with his glass in hand. Despite his suit, he looks out of place amongst the mingling guests in brightly colored dresses—like a fox in a hen house. Who’d left the gate unlocked?

    “Introduce me, Blair,” Maddie urges again. “Come on.”

    And before I can protest, her hand is on my arm and I’m pulled forward on my heels. They dip into the grass with every step I take.

    Nick sees us approach, his eyes flitting past Maddie to bore into mine.

    Dark, so dark, and not a hint of amusement or recognition in them. His lips grow thinner, the rough cut of his jawline working once. So he hadn’t expected to see me here, either.

    “Blair,” he says. The gravel in his voice is no surprise to me, but it still makes my stomach tight with nerves.

    “Nick.”

    Beside me, Maddie preens. I clear my throat. “This is Madeleine Bishop. She’s a friend from college. We both know the bride.”

    She extends her hand and Nick gives it a brief shake, face impassive.

    “A pleasure,” she says smoothly. It’s her flirting voice—I recognize it from our partying days.

    Nick doesn’t acknowledge it. He nods to the bar behind us instead. “The groom was on the thirty under thirty list in Forbes, but can’t shell for an open bar?”

    Maddie laughs, like he’s being unbelievably clever. I cross my arms across my chest. “So you know the groom?”

    “That’s not what I said.”

    “So you’re here on the bride’s invitation?”

    His eyes flit back to mine. “Wouldn’t you want to know?” he asks. “But I think I’ll keep you guessing. Ladies, it’s been a pleasure.”

    And then he strides off towards the bar without a second glance. Beside me, Maddie turns to me with incredulous eyes. “Wow,” she breathes. “You weren’t kidding. You two really aren’t friends.”

    “That’s what I said,” I say tersely, running a hand over my hair again. It shouldn’t be a sore subject. It’s been years, after all, since my big brother befriended Nicholas Park. And still, his dislike of me stings like salt in a never-closing wound.

    Maddie takes the hint. “Let’s ignore him all together,” she says. “They’re dividing guests into teams. Come on, let’s join.”

    I take another sip of my champagne and give her a bright smile. We’re at a wedding. We’re here to celebrate love and life and happiness. The sun is shining. It shouldn’t be difficult to put Nicholas Park out of my mind all together.

    “Let’s,” I say.

    But as it turns out, that’s absolutely impossible to do when he refuses to stay out of sight. I’m standing in line for the cornhole toss when a shadow stalks in beside me. Like an electric current sliding over my skin, I know who it is before he speaks.

    “Blair Porter, Seattle’s top socialite, playing outdoor games.”

    I roll my neck and pretend to ignore the jab. I fail. “It’s a time-honored sport. Besides, as a guest of the wedding party, you’re supposed to attend all the wedding festivities.”

    “And I suppose you think I haven’t?”

    I squeeze my lips tight to prevent my words from spilling out. I manage restraint for a proud five seconds.     “I haven’t seen you at any of the pre-ceremony events.”

    “Well, I’ve never been good at following rules.”

    “Why were you invited, anyway? Who do you really know here?”

    He raises a dark eyebrow. “Such skepticism, Blair. Don’t you think I have friends?” The mocking tone in his voice makes it clear that the question is rhetorical. I answer it regardless.

    “Other than my brother? No.”

    He steps up beside me. Somewhere from the corner of my eye, I see Maddie slink back in line, abandoning me to my new partner. Damn.

    Nick doesn’t answer my question. “This is a wedding to be seen at,” he says smoothly. “Have you seen how many photographers they’ve hired? Why do you think you were invited?”

    My stomach churns at the question. Becca and I had been friends in college… Sure, we hadn’t spoken much since, but I hadn’t thought twice about accepting the invitation to her wedding.

    “You’re saying I’m a trophy guest.” I speak the words harshly, like they don’t offend me.

    Nick raises an eyebrow. The sharp sunlight throws his rough features into relief. “Tell me Cole wasn’t invited as well.”

    Bending down to pick up a corn-bag, I weigh it in my hand, refusing to answer his taunt.

    Nick’s voice is satisfied. “He was, then. But he didn’t come.”

    “He couldn’t,” I say, hating how defensive the words sound. At the time, it didn’t seem odd that Becca had invited my billionaire big brother. I’d thought it a kindness. How had I been so stupid?

    If Nick sees my realization, he doesn’t acknowledge it. He unbuttons the clasp of his gray suit jacket instead, a smirk on his lips. He must be aware of the way the other contestants are watching him. Watching us.

    “Is that why you were invited too? For the press and prestige?”

    Nick’s chuckle isn’t amused. He understands the words as I’d meant them—having him attend an event made it noteworthy, but not always in a particularly good way. If my brother is seen as a powerful businessman, Nick is the unscrupulous one.

    “We’re up,” he says instead, voice like crushed glass. “Don’t miss.”

    And of course I do. Despite my aim, there’s no scoring after his words. The opposing teams cheers, high-fiving.

    When I turn to Nick, his lip is curled. “I told you not to.”

    “I didn’t know I needed advice.”

    “It couldn’t hurt.”

    I grit my teeth against the annoyance that rises up inside me. I’m a happy person. I like to smile and converse and make people happy. It’s what I’m good at, damn it. And somehow Nicholas Park always makes me forget that.

    No longer. I give him a blinding smile. Judging by the faint widening of his eyes, it wasn’t what he’d been expecting.

    “Here, why don’t you throw the next one.”

    He accepts the bag I hand him with suspicious eyes. “I see,” he says. And that’s all he says, even as he lines himself up, focusing on the cornhole. Tall and muscular, with wide shoulders, he’s an imposing figure.                 Always has been.

    He throws. It flies in an arc through the air and lands solidly in the hole. I don’t look him in the eyes—I turn away instead, but I don’t head to the back of the line.

    Nick follows me.

    “What are you doing?”

    “I’m participating in the wedding activities. I was recently told that I wasn’t being a good guest.”

    “Why are you really here?”

    His gaze fastens on something in the distance. I’m left staring up at the column of his throat, the rough-hewn features that have held me captive for ages.

    “Nick, I—”

    “Shh.”

    “Did you just shush me?”

    He looks down at me, speculation in his gaze. His words come quickly. “Pretend you like me for fifteen minutes.”

    I blink at him. “Fifteen minutes?”

    “I know it’s a rather long time frame,” he grinds out, “but yes, fifteen minutes.”

   "No one’s that good an actress,” I mutter. He rolls his eyes at my words.

    And then Nick does the most amazing thing. He puts a hand on my low back, like it belongs there, as if he touches me all the time—as if this isn’t the first time we’ve touched since we shook hands eight years ago.

    He bends down. “Look up at me,” he instructs. “Laugh as if you enjoy talking to me.”

“Why?” I hiss back.

    Brief hesitation. “I’ll owe you one.”

“Whatever I want?”

            Longer hesitation this time. “Within reason, yes.”

     I turn on my biggest smile, then. The one that stretches wide and reaches my eyes. It’s my killer mingling smile, the one I only pull out when I really need to pack a punch. “Fifteen minutes,” I say, batting my eyelashes. “Start the timer.”

    Nick blinks once. Twice. Then he gives a subtle nod to a few men standing not too far from us, drinks in hand.

    “See the one with glasses?”

    “Yes.”

    His hand drifts higher, flattening against my back. The touch is warm even through the fabric of my dress. “I’m going to talk to him, and I want you by my side as I do.”

    “Pretending to like you.”

    “Yes.”

    “Why?”

    “Need to know basis, honey,” he says sweetly. The endearment sounds mocking from him.

    “All right, sugar muffin,” I respond just as tartly. “Fourteen minutes left.”

    He grits his teeth audibly at that.

    The men look up as we approach, their conversation abruptly dying.

    “Mr. Park,” the man in glasses says. His tone is cold. “I didn’t know you’d be here.”

    “Last minute invite,” Nick says, an odd tone in his voice. Is that… gentleness? He must be trying to win points here somehow. “This is Blair Porter.”

    I extend a hand, still smiling widely. “A pleasure to meet you all.”

    They introduce themselves. “I’ve met your brother a few times,” the man in glasses—Mr. Adams—says.     “Lovely guy.”

    I resist the urge to glance at Nick. So that’s why I’m here, smiling at him. He’s using me in all of my trophy invitedness. “Yes, he is,” I say, leaning into Nick’s side. “Despite being friends with this one.”

    They laugh at my joke and Nick is forced to join in. The pressure of his hand on my back increases in a not so subtle warning to behave. Idiot, I think. I just made you look more likeable.

    “That’s right,” Nick says. “We’ve known each other for what, eight years now, Blair?”

    “Something like that,” I say.

    The shorter of the three men smiles at me. “I hope you’ll stay long enough to meet my wife. She’s around here somewhere, and she reads every style interview you give.”

    “That’s lovely,” I say warmly. “I’d love to meet her.”

    Nick clears his throat and I tear my gaze away to look up at him expectantly, forcing friendliness into my gaze.

    “Enjoying the time away from Seattle?” Nick’s question is open-ended, but his entire body language is focused on Mr. Adams. Subtle, I think, wondering how Nick would react to my hand on his back in warning.

    “I am, yes,” Mr. Adams says. “Some time away can be good. Clears the head.”

    Nick nods gravely. “Lends itself to making excellent decisions.”

    “This is not the place to discuss business,” Mr. Adams retorts. The two men at his side both look away, clearly uncomfortable with the turn of conversation. Nick is tense beside me.

    This won’t do.

    I put a hand on his arm affectionately, looking over at Mr. Adams with a smile. “Even at a wedding,” I say, making my voice light. “Can you believe it? It’s impossible to get this guy to relax!”

    Nick sighs. “About as impossible as you walking past a store without purchasing anything.”

    “Well, we all have our vices,” I tease, my wide smile still in place. “I’m sorry we bothered you.”

    “Not at all,” Mr. Adams says. “It was a pleasure to meet you, Miss Porter.”

    “Likewise.”

    The three men leave—I promise to find one of them at the reception to talk to his wife—and then it’s just Nick and me.

    I hit his arm. “Damn it,” he says. “What was that for?”

    “You call me a trophy guest, someone invited here for appearances sake, and then you use me in just the same way?”

    There’s no remorse or denial in Nick’s eyes. Just sly calculation. “You did well.”

    “I was coerced.”

    “No, you weren’t. Now I owe you one.” He speaks the words with obvious distaste.

    I put my hands on my hips. “So you’re what? Trying to take over his company? Buy out his board? Tank his stocks?”

    Nick narrows his eyes at me. “You don’t need to know,” he says, articulating every word.

    I flick my hair over my shoulder and feel a faint sense of triumph as his eyes track the movement. “Well, that was the first and last time you use my name to boost your reputation.”

    “Trust me, it’s definitely the last time.” He takes a sip of his drink and mutters something that sounds an awful lot like not worth it.

    I shake my head at him and start to head back to the festivities, to people who actually enjoy having me around.

    “Running back to your sycophant friends?” he throws after me.

    “Don’t you have a hostile takeover to plan?”

    His crooked grin is wolfish. “Good idea,” he says. “I heard a few of the bridesmaids are single…”

    “Oh, screw you.”

    “Are you offering? I don’t think your fifteen minutes are entirely up yet.”

    “You wish,” I hiss, retreating back across the lawn before he has a chance to answer. How much easier my life would be if my brother hadn’t decided to befriend the least friendly man on the planet. Infuriating, maddening, and absolutely impossible to ignore.

 

 

***

 

    I remember the first time I’d seen him. It had been nearly a decade ago, when he’d stalked into the restaurant together with my brother for dinner. I’d had no advance warning that my brother’s friend would be joining us. That was Cole’s way, sometimes, especially in those days—he did what pleased him, like a bulldozer or a rocket. You could either stand in his way and get crushed, or adapt to his speed. Over the years,     I’ve gotten very good at adapting.

    Nick had worn their college jersey, ironically, like it was beneath him. I’d never seen a man that moved like he did—he walked like a street fighter.

    He’d joined our table with a perfunctory nod to me.

    “This is Nicholas Park,” my brother had said, flipping open the menu. “We’re seniors together.”

    “A pleasure to meet you,” I said, extending a hand. He’d looked at it once before he shook it. I remember that clearly—his brief hesitation.

    That’s when I’d felt the scars on the inside of his palm. Faint, but raised, and unmistakable. The surprise in my gaze must have been easy for him to read. He’d withdrawn his hand and opened his menu.

    And that had been that. I’d been too intimidated—too impressed, to be honest—to speak much during that dinner. The next time Cole and I were alone, I’d peppered him with questions about Nick. I’d done it with an air of impetuousness, and he’d rolled his eyes at his annoying little sister and all her questions. He’d never realized that my questions came from a place of burning curiosity and genuine interest.

    Because handsome was far too tame a word for Nicholas Park. There was a slight crook to his nose that gave his face character; his black hair was cut too short to be fashionable. And yet, the olive tone to his skin, the dark of his eyes, the wildness in his jaw…

    I’d been struck.

    And then he’d struck me.

    Oh, not like that, of course. But his verbal spear had found its mark just the same. That damn party and that damn poker game. Even recalling it eight years later, it makes my cheeks burn with indignity. Anger. The way he’d turned me down with a tone of voice that was so cold it burned.

    He’d been playing poker. The room was smoke-filled, the air heady, the tension around the table high. I’d walked straight in. It had been foolish—I can admit that much in retrospect. I barely knew anyone at the table; Walker was the older brother of one of my childhood friends, and our father’s worked together. But the rest were strangers.

    Apart from Nick.

    He’d seen me when I’d walked in. His eyes had met mine for a few seconds and then he’d refocused on his cards like I was nothing at all. There hadn’t even been a hint of recognition in his eyes.

    That should have been a sign, really. But I’d had two and a half glasses of wine and I was heady with nerves and excitement. Nick was here at this party, without my brother in tow. We’d already been introduced. I was his best friend’s little sister.

    It was time he saw me as something other than that.

    So I planned on joining the game with a couple of hundred bucks to my name. It was a lot, and I was reluctant to spend it, but my reluctance was worn thin by the memory of Nick’s sharp-edged jaw.

    I was brave-verging-on-stupid.

    I'd stopped next to Nick, almost leaning on his chair. He didn’t acknowledge me.

    “Good game?” I asked.  

    “Can’t tell until it’s over,” he’d responded. A few of the guys around the table had smiled at that, like the answer was obvious, like I’d been a fool for asking.

    That didn’t dissuade twenty-one-year-old me. “Deal me in? I have the cash.”

    At that, Nick had actually put down his cards. The other guys were looking at me then. Some with interest in their eyes—one of them ran his gaze up my form in a way that was nothing short of lewd.

    Nick met my gaze. The eyes gave me no quarter, offered no mercy. They were dark like coal and just as fiery.

    “This isn’t a game for little girls,” he said. “Run back to your friends now.”

    Maybe it would have been okay if he’d said it as a joke. If there had been a teasing note to his voice, a bit of irony. Perhaps even anger—I’d know what to do with that. But the cold civility in his tone shocked me to my core. It was a dismissal. I wasn’t used to being dismissed.

    That was the first time I’d reached out to Nick in the hopes of being friends, and it was the first time he dismissed me out of hand.

    But it wouldn’t be the last.

 

 

 

Chapter 2

Nick

“Thank you, gentlemen,” I say, shaking their hands in turn, my grip firm. Three generations of Adams’s look back at me with varying levels of hostility. I don’t add any more words. I don’t tell them that this was an affair well-done or that they’ll be pleased. I’m fairly certain they won’t be by the time my ownership of the company is finished.

    Old Mr. Adams gives me a nod. “You take care of our business now, young man.”

    I want to grit my teeth at the epitaph, but nod. If by taking care you mean tearing it apart and selling the pieces to the highest bidder, then yes. Sure.

    They filter out of my office, having just agreed to sell their family business and life’s work. Gina is waiting by the door with a practiced smile. She’ll escort them out and go over the final paperwork, far away from the man who essentially gave them no choice in the matter.

    Me.

    Leaning back in the chair, I put my hands at my temples. Victory. This was victory, and it still didn’t taste sweet enough.

    It had become a drug, this. Playing the long game. Taking over companies. Buying them for a pittance.

Selling them for parts.

    I flip my pen over in my grip and pull up the company’s website again. B.C. Adams. An old respectable chain of clothing, as all-American as apple pie and flapjacks and square picnic table cloths. Just sold to me by one Pierce Adams, Pierce Adams Jr, and Bryce Adams.

    This deal had been months in the making. My company had circled them since last years quarter reports left investors reeling. The company was floundering. At it’s current state, it’s only a matter of months before bankruptcy is a given.

    One after one, other potential buyers were scared off by the abysmal financial results. One I had taken care of myself by spreading a false rumor about an up-coming merger and acquisition. They’d dropped out of the race right before I’d swooped in with my final offer.

    The board had been all for accepting. Like rats deserting a sinking ship, they saw me for the piece of flotsam I was.

    The three Adams’s? Not so much.

    That’s why I’d gone to that god-forsaken wedding in Oregon in the first place. Pierce Adams Jr would be there, attending as a friend of the groom, so I needed to be there too. Show that I was a man to be trusted. That     I could kiss babies and hug women. Could you grab a beer with him?

    I wasn’t running for president, but it felt damn near close when I needed to have all three of the Adams’s votes. Using Blair Porter’s heavenly smile to help with that had been a stroke of brilliance.

    Just the memory of her conjures up familiar feelings of frustration and anger. Blonde hair the color of wheat, curling around a heart-shaped face. Honey-brown eyes that I most often saw narrowed in annoyance.

    She’d been angry to see me, a spitting kitten with her hackles raised. That was true to form. For as long as I’d known her, she’d been angry with me for one reason or another. Good.

    Anger I could handle—anger I liked.

    And the scolding she’d given me at the end… I can’t believe you used me for your business deal!

It almost brought a smile to my face, just remembering it. Basking in her anger felt a bit like basking in the sunlight. Both equally hot and all-consuming.

    And then she’d been gone in a flurry of silky fabric and flowing hair, back to her harem of low-tier socialites and fans.

    I shake my head at my own thoughts. Blair Porter has already occupied too much of my time today. It’s time to focus on the far easier task at hand—and that’s turning a failing clothing giant around enough so that I can butcher it profitably.

 

***

 

    When I arrive at one of Cole’s properties in the evening, he’s already waiting for me by the tennis courts. In his white shorts and t-shirt, he looks pristine, every inch the golden-boy billionaire he is. He hates it when I call him a blue-blood, but that’s exactly what he looks like. The Porters were rich long before he began building his empire.

    “Hey,” he says, lobbying a tennis ball hard at my chest. I catch it before it makes contact. “I heard you ran into Blair at the wedding last weekend.”

    Had she tattled to her brother? A pang of disappointment. She usually kept our banter private.

    “I did.”

    I take my place at the baseline and Cole is forced to raise his voice. “And you both made it out alive?”

    “Evidently.” I call back, tossing the ball high and serving, ignoring the fact that he’s not in the right spot. He handles it deftly and for the coming minutes there’s nothing but the sound of tennis balls against racquets and the thrill of the game. I lose myself in the fight, as I so often did when I was young, surrendering to the pumping of blood and adrenaline.

    Cole might come from different stock—he has a background of athletic competitions and trophies—but the thrill of the hunt is the same.

    We’re well-matched, have been after playing so many times together over the years. By the time we’re done, we’re panting, chugging from our water bottles.

    “Damn,” he says finally. “Have you been practicing with an Olympian while I was away? Your slices are     deadly.”

    I grin at him. “I had a good morning.”

    He braces himself against the edge of the net. Sweat glistens on his skin; I’m sure I look much the same. “Did you close the deal, then?”

    “I just did, yeah.”

    His face lights up into a smile, and for a moment it’s uncomfortably similar to Blair’s—not that she’s ever smiled at me like that. “Hell yes. Well done, man!”

    “Took me long enough.”

    “Can you finally tell me which company it is? I need to know where to shop one last time.”

    “B. C. Adams.”

    His smile fades. “Shit. Really?”

    “Yeah.”

    “That chain is massive. And failing. People have been placing bets on how long it’ll stay afloat.”

    “Well, a little bit longer at least. I need to squeeze out a profit from it first.”

    Cole runs a hand through his hair. “Fuck,” he says again. “A clothing chain. They must have massive stores of inventory.”

    “I’m betting on that, yeah.”

    “And you need to flip it fast to pay the overhead. Do you know anything about retail?”

    Uncomfortable though it is to admit, I answer him truthfully. “No. But I’ll hire people who do.”

    He bends down to tie his shoelaces. The wedding band on his left hand shines golden in the sunlight. The man had become near insufferable with happiness after his wedding to Skye. “Hire Blair,” he suggests. “She knows fashion.”

    I stare down at him. “What?”

    “She studied business and fashion. She had that fashion brand a few years back, remember?”

    Yes, I do, and the memory isn’t a good one. She’d launched a collection at twenty-three that had crashed and burned not two years later. Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

    But even if that wasn’t the case—even if she was the most qualified person on the planet—there’s no way she’d work with me.

    “I remember,” I say. “But…”

    “But what?” Cole meets my gaze baldly. I know he won’t accept a bad word about Blair. I’m on thin ice, and for the first time in a long while, I can feel the danger. Cole gives me a lot of leeway, sure, but absolutely none when it comes to his family.

    But then it hits me.

    There’s no way she’d agree.

    “It’s a good idea,” I say. “You’re right, she knows the industry. I could hire her as a consultant.”

    Cole’s shoulders relax. “It would be good for her. For you both, I’m sure. Who knows, maybe you can both finally learn how to get along?”

    I nod, though my agreement is an absolute lie.

    It sounds like a nightmare.

    “I’ll ask her,” Cole continues. “I’m seeing her later.”

    “Good.” I swing my bag up on my shoulder and make my face impassive. She’s going to say no—what excuse she’ll use to Cole, I don’t know. But if there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that Blair Porter has never hated anyone more than she hates me.

Chapter 3

Blair

 

 

 

    “Do you never lock the front door?”
    “Not when you have a front gate.” My brother leans against the kitchen island, still in his dirty gym clothes, a protein shake in hand. 
    “Have you abandoned showering?”
    He shoots me a don’t-start look. “I just got back from playing with Nick.”
    I ignore that. “Is Skye around?”
    “No, she’s out with Timmy and her sister tonight.”
    “Oh.”
    “Try not to look so unhappy about that, will you?” Cole rolls his eyes. “I’m the one who’s technically flesh and blood.”
    I aim a kick at his shins as I walk past. We might be older now, but he’ll always have it coming. “I’m unfortunately aware of that, yes.”
    I hop up on one of the bar stools and reach for a muffin from the center basket. Ever since Cole married Skye, there’s always good food in the house. It’s one of the many, many positive changes she’s wrought on my brother. 
    “Skye texted me about the skiing weekend,” I say, “three weeks from now. I’m guessing you closed on the place in Whistler?”
    Cole reaches for a muffin of his own. “Yes. It was the third link I sent you.”
    “You know,” I say good-naturedly, “a lot of billionaires will buy their own islands in the Caribbean. You couldn’t be that kind of billionaire, could you?” 
    My brother gives me an amused glare. “No. That’s for egomaniacs and James Bond villains.”
    “But an eight-room chalet nestled deep in the snowy mountains isn’t?”
    He flicks his muffin liner over to my side. “One more word and you’re uninvited.”
    “You wouldn’t dare. Skye would have your head.”
    “Unfortunately very true.” He reaches for yet another muffin. “How’s work going?”
    “Good,” I say. “I’m cautiously optimistic.” 
    The glare he shoots me this time is tired. “You have to stop being cautious at some point, Blair. You’re never cautious in any other area of your life.”
    There’s truth to his words but I ignore them, spinning around on the bar stool instead. Ever since my fashion brand spectacularly crashed and burned—so spectacularly that it was still used as an example in the media of what not to do—talking about my career dreams hurt. Better to work in silence than let people see me fail a second time. 
    “You’re probably right,” I admit.
    “Probably?”
    “It’s the best I can give you,” I tell him. “Remember, I’m programmed to oppose you at every turn. That’s what a little sister does.”
    “Yes, and don’t I know it,” Cole says. “But put that on hold for just five minutes, okay? I’ve had an idea.” There’s a warning in his voice. “And before you bite my head off, let me just say that I genuinely think this might be good.”
    “What did you do now?”
    “I didn’t do anything, but I… well, I suggested something to Nick and he agreed.”
    I look up at him. “To Nick?”
    “Yes. He’s just bought a clothing giant. It’s a pretty massive deal, actually. He needs to hire a consultant to advise with the retail and fashion side. You could be that consultant. You know the industry.”
    I put my purse down on the kitchen island with a bang. “Work for Nick?”
    “For Nick’s company, yes.” Cole glances over at me. “Unless you find it too distasteful. He’s probably slashing jobs right this moment to ensure they’re profitable enough for as long as he needs them to be.”
    My fingers dance over the hem of my skirt. “You said Nick agreed?”
    “Yes, he did. It was practically his idea.”
    My raised eyebrow must have been question enough, because my big brother rolls his eyes. “All right, so it wasn’t. But I know you’d be great at this, Blair. What do you have to lose?”
    Ah. 
    What he really means is what do I have left to lose. After my failed attempt at a fashion line, of course I’d jump at this chance. 
    “And you’re certain Nick agreed,” I say slowly. It makes no sense to me. Why would he entertain the idea for more than a second? The man has zero belief in my abilities. 
    “Yes, he did.”
    That’s when it dawns on me—Nick doesn’t think I can do it. He agreed because he bet on me being the one to turn it down.
    I put on the brightest smile possible. If nothing else, accepting will annoy the hell out of him. “Of course I’ll do it. I’ll give him a call right away.”
    Cole’s smile is wide. “Perfect. And who knows, perhaps the two of you will finally get to know one another better?”
    My smile doesn’t even falter. “Yes, who knows?”

 

***

 

    Nick doesn’t pick up the phone himself. I speak to his assistant instead, a no-nonsense man in his early twenties. He pauses briefly when I introduce myself. 
    “Porter?” he says in clarification. “Blair Porter?”
    “Yes.” 
    “All right. I’ll run it by Mr. Park immediately and get back to you within the hour.” 
    He calls me back within ten minutes, and this time, his voice is nothing short of glacial. Whatever Nick’s reaction was, it certainly hasn’t warmed his assistant towards me. 
    I wish I could have seen it. Did he dramatically sweep all his things off his desk in a fit of anger? Or perhaps brood coldly, his hands white-knuckled around the edge of his desk?
    “Mr. Park is glad you accepted,” his assistant lies cooly. “You’re welcome to come into the office tomorrow morning. We’ll send you more detailed instructions by email within the hour.”
    My head spins as I hang up the phone. The decision to agree had been impulsive—driven by the desire to tell Nick off, to show him up. To beat back against his belief that I’m nothing but a socialite and a failed fashion designer. 
    I push back from the desk in my home office and look around at my mood boards, at the rack of samples in the corner. Above my desk is a framed quote. Work in silence, let success be your noise. The next time I launch a brand, it will be quietly. It won’t have my name on it. And it will be a success.
    I run a hand over the smooth silk of a slip skirt. Solutions for everyday women, that’s my concept. Making the clothes you already own look good—no need to buy more. Extensions for bra straps. No-line panties.         Beautiful t-shirt bras and shape-wear and sneaker socks. Everything for the modern woman’s closet, available to order online, in beautiful packaging. Well, it will be available, once it’s launched. 
    But it’ll have to wait a little while longer—long enough that I can show both my brother and Nick that I still have it.

***

    There’s something about confronting a man you know dislikes you. It’s reckless power and churning nerves and fire in my stomach. It’s made worse still, somehow, when it’s a man you once harbored a stupid crush on.     That crush is long gone by now—driven away by his consistent harshness and dismissal. Whittled away by comments about my status as a trophy invite and inveterate shopaholic. 
    But I’ve never been one to back down, and when it comes to Nicholas Park, it’s not even an option. That would mean surrender, and surrender means defeat, because that’s the only language a man like him understands. 
    So I show up bright and early the next day at his office. Located in a mid-rise in downtown Seattle, it’s nothing like the shiny skyscrapers my brother prefers.
    A simple sign by the front door, so small you’d miss it if you didn’t know you were looking for it. 
Park Incorporated. 

    I’ve dressed for the part, clothing my armor. My hair is glossy and blonde down my back and the belt of my trench-coat is double-knotted around my waist. One fashion consultant at your service, Nick. 
 
    I’m greeted instead by a no-bullshit woman in her mid-forties. A faint frown mars her features. 
    “You’re Blair Porter,” she points out.
    It’s not a question, but I nod regardless. “Yes, that’s me.”
    “I’m Gina Davies, hello. Mr. Park told me to expect you. Let’s get you set up and briefed. I’m told you have a background in fashion and business?”
    “I do, yes. A bachelor on the subject and two internships, not to mention personal business experience.” I met her unflinching gaze. If she’s aware of the fiasco of my former fashion brand, I can’t tell. 
    “Excellent. Here’s your desk. I expect you’ll be visiting different stores or working while traveling, but while you’re here, this is yours.” She pushes a thick file over to me and a laptop bag. “Here is all the information you’ll need on B.C. Adams. Mr. Park will brief you himself this afternoon, but for now, get acquainted with the firm.”
    “I’m already fairly acquainted,” I say, sinking down in the seat. “I used to be a regular customer.”
    It’s meant as a light-hearted comment, but Gina seems to take it seriously. “Then maybe you can see why they’ve been failing to attract customers for the last decade. We need to turn that around if we’re to get rid of the inventory and assess their production value.”
    I give a nod and open the binder carefully. “And Nick will see me this afternoon?”
    “Mr. Park will, yes.” She pushes away from the desk. “I’ll let you get settled in. Tomorrow we visit the closest store.”
    And that’s all the introduction I get. 
    But as I dive deeper into the documents I’ve been given, it’s not hard to see the structural flaws of the business. Their retail model is dated; no online store, no shipping. The clothes they’re selling are of good quality, and they’re preppy, but they’re plain. There’s no clear branding. There’s no logo. 
    No wonder they’re struggling. 
    I’m so deep into research that I barely hear the knock on the door. It’s Miles, Nick’s assistant—I recognize the glacial voice immediately. 
    “Mr. Park will see you now.” 
    I push away from the desk and deliberate for a moment whether or not to bring the binder. Miles sees me considering and gives a faint sigh. 
    “Bring it,” he says, turning on his heel and striding down the corridor without checking if I’m following. 
    Okay then. Nick’s company probably doesn’t score highly on the “employee satisfaction” index, but then again, I hadn’t expected it to with him as the founder. 
    His office is on the other side of the complex. For a moment, I amuse myself by imagining him instructing     Gina in the placement of my desk. I don’t care where she is, but make sure she is as many feet away from me as possible. Yes, I want you to measure it. 
    Miles stops outside a closed door and presses down on the button of an intercom. “Miss Porter is here for you.” 
    “Send her in.” 
    I grin at Miles, hoping to draw out some form of response from him. All the employees here can’t be ice-men. “Thanks for escorting me here,” I say brightly. 
    He gives me a narrowed glance, as if he can’t quite figure out my game, and pushes the door open. Oh well.     I’m sure I’ll wear him down eventually.
    Nick is standing by a window, his back to me. The only one I’ve never managed to wear down with my charm. The door closes behind me. Locked in with the beast. 
    “Lovely office you have here,” I say. “The mood seems to be somewhere between a slaughterhouse and a prison. I can’t decide which I’m leaning towards more.”
    Nick doesn’t turn. Dressed in black suit pants and a dark shirt, sans jacket, he looks… impressive. I know he’s trying to rattle me by not speaking—by not looking at me.
    I hate that it’s working. 
    “Cole told me it was your idea to hire me. I’m guessing that was somewhat of a white lie, but I’ll go along with it if it’ll make your life easier.” 
    Nick shrugs, his wide shoulders rising and falling once. “Believe what you like,” he says, “as long as you’ll do the job I’ve hired you for.”
    At that, my hackles rise. Have I ever suggested otherwise? 
    “So far, all I know is that it involves evaluating B. C. Adams as a business.” I take a seat opposite his desk, ignoring the fact that he’s also ignoring me. “I’ve been given a file about their financial information. That’s all     I know. Care to fill me in?”
    Nick turns to look at me. There’s still nothing in those dark eyes of his—he’s capable of looking so cold, so still, like someone carved him from marble with too rough a hand. I sit still under the hawk-like gaze. 
    “And?” he says. “Do you think you can do it?”
    “Yes.” I pour more confidence into the word than I feel. “But I want you to tell me the truth about last weekend.”
    Impossibly, he grows even more still. “Last weekend?”
    “Mr. Adams? B. C. Adams? I’m not an idiot. That was why you were there. You used my presence and my name for this deal.”  
    Nick strides to his desk, pulling out his chair with one smooth motion. “And?”
    “And that means I helped you close this deal.”
    He snorts. He actually snorts. “Not in the least. It was basically signed and sealed before.”
    “So you’re saying you played cornholes with me voluntarily?”
    His eyes narrow. “Fine. You’re right on both counts. They had doubts, and seeing me as a person with friends, especially famous and well-liked friends, helped. Does that change the current situation in any way?”
    “Not in the least,” I say brightly, “but I very much wanted to hear you say it.” I look away from the fire in his eyes to the binder in front of me. “Now, will you brief me on this job?”
    Complete silence again. Nick is staring at me with clear frustration on his features. It’s like he can’t believe     I’m really here.
    That makes two of us.
    “I didn’t expect you to say yes,” he mutters. 
    “Yes, well, I surprised myself as well. Now come on. Explain this process to me. What exactly have I been hired to do?”
    Nick leans back in his chair. In this office, in his suit, everything about him speaks of boardrooms and spreadsheets and ruthless endurance. I’ve only ever heard of this side of him before. but I’ve never seen it in action.   
    “They’re deep in the black,” he says. “Bleeding cash. Without our added liquidity, B. C. Adams would have gone bankrupt within the month.”
    My mind reels at the words.
    And he bought companies on the brink like this regularly? “Sounds like you should get your money back,” I say. “Did you keep the receipt?”
    He doesn’t smile, but I didn’t really expect him to. “We’re sitting on a hell of a lot of inventory,” he says.         “They have two-hundred-and-fifty stores across the country.”
    “Two-hundred-and-fifty-three,” I say. 
    He narrows his eyes at me again. “Two-hundred-and-fifty-three,” he concedes. “Gina has been calling store managers all morning. We’re closing fifty of the least profitable locations immediately. They’re setting up out-of-business-sales as we speak.”
    My stomach drops. Fifty stores closed in a day, and all because he made the decision. How many employees had just been notified that they were redundant? How many families devastated?
    Perhaps he sees these thoughts on my face, because Nick leans forward, a sudden flare of dark relish in his eyes. “It’s only the beginning, Blair. Who knows how many stores we’ll have to close before this is all said and done? I bought it to profit, not to save. Either I’ll right the ship or I’ll sell it off, piece by piece.”
    He wants to shock me. 
    He wants me to say that I can’t do it and walk out of this office with my tail between my legs. It’s there in his eyes, the challenge. 
    “Set up an online store,” I say. “Immediately. The fact that they don’t already have online shopping is beyond me.”
    A shadow of annoyance crosses his face. “We’re trying to. Their stock is spread out between twenty different warehouses across the country.”
    “Inefficient,” I say.
    “Very,” he says, looking more sullen about the fact that we’re agreeing than the actual fact itself. “You’ll work with Gina. She’s running point on this. You can advice her on the retail side of the business. What inventory is sellable? What is unusable? Any ideas you have, she’ll want to hear.”
    Despite the frown on his face—despite the fact that we’re like vultures picking at a dying hundred-year old American business—excitement unfurls inside me. My hands itch to sort through their inventory and their products. 
    “We’re not selling to women like you.” Nick holds up a warning finger. “This shop sells to the average woman. To… to housewives and teenagers.”
    “B. C. Adams does not sell to teenagers,” I say tartly. “Which is why they’re going out of business. And as for the target demographic, I’m perfectly capable of separating my own preferences from the market in general.” 
    “See that you do.” Nick’s eyes gleam in the dim lighting of his office. I meet the challenge in his gaze squarely, ignoring the sudden racing of my heart. Perhaps my old crush isn’t quite so dead and buried as I’d thought, sputtering to life. 
    His next words are reluctant. “Welcome to the team, then.”

 

 

 

 

 

Thanks for reading!

More to come on the 30th of October 🔥


Olivia

 

 

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