“I’m not going to sign it like this.” Bev struggled to think fast enough. She fell back on what she knew best. “How about I get us a snack, and we can talk about it—”
“Last chance, Ugly Betty.” Aunt Ellen strode over to her. She’d slung a large bag over her shoulder and held the box in her arms, the peacock feathers curving up behind her left ear like green and purple iridescent antlers.
Bev glanced at the papers in her lap and got to her feet. “I can’t, Ellen. Surely you can wait—”
“Just sign it.” Eyes fixed off into space, Ellen waited, unmoving.
Bev studied her cold, bored profile. She sat back down. “No,” she said softly. “Not like this.”
Alarm flickered across Ellen’s forehead, then vanished. Without meeting Bev’s eyes she bent at the knees, plucked the paper out of Bev’s grasp, and strode out of the room holding her box.
Bev sat in the empty office, the chaos of unfinished designs—bolts of fabric leaning in corners, sketches and photos on presentation boards, samples piled up on racks and conference tables—scattered around the room like abandoned children. The phone rang, and off behind her she heard the PA echo through the hall asking for somebody whose name she didn’t recognize.
“Whoops,” Bev whispered.
* * *
It was time. To everything there was a season, et cetera et cetera. Liam lifted the overflowing box under his desk and hauled it to the door.
You’re a sentimental dork. He was done with this business, thanks to Ed, yet he was carrying home mementos like an eighth-grade girl.
He looked down into the box at the sketches and tear sheets—a Macy’s ad for the first pair of Fite the Man shorts he’d designed on top of the pile—and reassured himself he could hardly leave behind the evidence of his Achilles heel. Ellen would probably move into his office before lunchtime and comb over every inch, mocking and taking and destroying like a ravenous, sarcastic locust.
Better off taking it all home and recycling it at the condo. Nobody knew him there, nobody knew Fite or Ed Roche or his damn descendants, and nobody cared.
With the edge of the box digging into his ribs, Liam paused near the door and turned around to look around the office, where he’d spent most of his adult life. Right after the Olympics, with Dad finally in his grave and nothing more for Liam to do but maintain a pulse for his mother and brother and sister, Ed had offered him the job at Fite and saved him from God knows what. Law school, probably. He wished he had the brains for engineering, but he didn’t. Other jocks went into broadcasting, but he knew he didn’t have the charm or patience for that bullshit, though his old friends did very nicely every four years when another Olympics rolled around.
He might have to consider that after all. His salary at Fite had been good, but hardly enough to retire on. To stay in the Bay Area, which was a given, he’d be taking a pay cut—if he could find a company to take him in. He wasn’t a fashion guy, he was a jock—an asset at Fite Fitness, but not at Levi’s or BeBe or any of the other apparel companies in town. And though it was common knowledge he didn’t have an MBA, only Ed had known the worst of it—that he’d never finished his BA, either.
“Damn.” He dumped the box on the floor where he stood and thought of Rachel, Jennifer, even Darrin. Wayne, George at the back door, Alfred in the grading room. Sure, he was short on options, but any one of the lower staff people would hurt more than him with the sudden loss of a paycheck.
He bent over and rested his forehead against the door, cursing Ed for leaving him without the tools he needed to get the job done. He remembered the gleam in Ed’s eye, telling him about his granddaughter. Well, the tools he was willing to use, anyway.
“Damn.” He couldn’t bring himself to walk away. Maybe he wasn’t the warmest boss in the world, and most of the people at Fite probably thought he was a bastard, but he wasn’t going to screw them over the way Ed had screwed him. He had to stick around as long as he could, if just to write stealth recommendations for Ellen’s casualties.
He banged his head against the door and gazed down at his new Nikes, absently calculating their make and reverse-engineering the midfoot overlay. Just as he was about to bend over and take one off to bring to the shoe merchandiser, he heard a knock.
If he hadn’t been inches from the door, he wouldn’t have heard it at all. Just a tap, then a pause, then another tap. A chill tickled down his spine, and he stood up straight, the midfoot overlay forgotten. “Yes?” he barked out, not as irritated as he sounded. Nobody at Fite would knock on his door. Nobody would dare.
Silence. He thought he heard the sudden exhalation of breath and, impossibly, he imagined the scent of lemon blossoms. Vowing his next job would be for a publicly held corporation with thousands of employees and absolutely no family ties amid staff whatsoever, he flung open the door. “You.”
Her face, with its impossibly clear complexion, so similar to Ellen’s but without the severity of expensive makeup, peered up at him. “You, yourself.”
He turned away, shoving aside his curiosity about the woman, wondering how he—even with his acute senses—could have possibly smelled her through the door. She must have doused herself in Lemon Pledge that morning. Yet he couldn’t resist inhaling the scent deep into his lungs before striding over to his desk, surprised she’d come by to see him in person. Ellen had walked over too, of course, but she liked to gloat, and his impression of Bev Lewis had been that she’d avoid conflict.
Which is why he knew she wouldn’t withstand Ellen’s final offer.
“Stop in to say goodbye?” He lounged back in his chair and propped his feet up on the desk.
She lingered in the doorway, tilted her head, and said nothing. His attention dropped to the cheap suit she wore, the same ugly one from her previous visit with faded black jacket that didn’t match the darker black pants. His professional eye took in the poor, baggy fit at the waist that hid whatever body she had underneath—tall but soft and obviously nonathletic. A before picture. The woman off the street.
Not their customer.
“You should drop by some of the SOMA showrooms while you’re here,” he said. “Pick up some new pieces for your apartment. Your new apartment. Or house, perhaps?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Furniture. Home furnishings. That kind of thing. San Francisco has some cutting-edge designers.”
She was still frowning. “You think I’m here to go shopping?”
“Let’s not waste each other’s time.” He turned to his computer, where he’d been copying over his personal files to a thumb drive. When they’d accidentally loaded Illustrator on his PC, nobody thought he’d actually use it. Nobody but Ed knew he had, or that he’d loaded the custom sketching software too, and flown to Denver for a private tutorial to learn it as well as anyone. Better. “Ellen’s new offer was probably a fair one. You obviously needed the money.” He realized now that was what Ed must have intended all along; Ellen learns her lesson, and his lazy but wholesome granddaughter gets the windfall.
“What the fuck are you talking about?” the wholesome granddaughter asked. Her blue eyes flashed down at him over the desk, and he lost his train of thought. Up close, under the fluorescents, they were turquoise. A best-selling color for the summer line, the last delivery before the big fall assortments when the colors went dark and muted and natural again. A bright, happy, energetic color that stood out starkly against her pale cheeks and thick, black lashes.
Perhaps she wore colored contacts. Nobody really had eyes like that.
She blinked, growing visibly uneasy with his gaze, but still angry. “You seem to think you know something. But I don’t think you know what you think you know.”
He broke the spell by looking down at her ugly suit. A less flattering garment could not have been designed for her, but he realized why she’d chosen something so baggy around her waist when he looked at her chest, now at eye-level. She had to be a D cup, at least. Nothing off the rack would fit her well, with breasts like that—
“Hello.” She waved and sat down. “You can stop making snide comments about me going shopping. I didn’t sell the company.”
He leaned back and the chair creaked. “Not yet.”
“I’m not going to.”
“You just haven’t seen Ellen yet,” he said. “She’s waiting for you.”
“Yes, I did, and no she’s not, and I wish you would believe me. I’ve refused Ellen’s final offer, and she’s decided to—” She stopped and glanced away. “To wait for me to change my mind.” Then she took a deep breath, nodded, and looked back at him. “We’ll call it a leave of absence.”
Hope began flopping around in his heart like a Golden Retriever puppy. With years of practice he threw a thick, suffocating blanket over it. “Leave of absence?”
“She said she quit, but I can’t believe she would do that. I’ll call her tonight. The last thing I wanted was more bad blood.”
He looked at her. “What exactly did she say?”
“I’m sure she’ll cool down. She packed up a box and left when I refused to sign, saying she was just going to wait for me to drive Fite into the ground so she can pick up the pieces.”
The puppy stuck his nose out from under the blanket. Without glancing at his own pile of belongings behind her, he asked, “She packed up a box?”
“I’m sure she’s waiting for me to call her any second. She expects me to break under the pressure.”
So did he. He tried not to smile. Reminded himself he’d have to be very, very careful negotiating between the two disasters Ed had dumped on him. Just enough of the granddaughter would keep the aunt away, but not so much that he went insane or the company went under with her clumsy oversight. He reached for his coffee, sipped, met her eyes. Now he understood the hysterical edge lingering there. “Ellen had an exaggerated view of her own importance. Fite is better off without her.”
“She says the same about you.”
“Sadly for you, that is not true. This place revolves around me.”
She raised an eyebrow. “You have a high opinion of yourself.”
“I’m the executive vice president. I have a high opinion of the job.”
“My aunt was a vice president—”
“Of shopping.” He forced a tight smile. The expense reports for that woman had dwarfed her salary.
Bev shook her head, but her eyes grew wary. “You said ‘sadly.’ Why ‘sadly?’”
Biting his lip as though he was trying to hide something, he let his eyes drift away from her and over to the box near the door. Then he inhaled deeply and didn’t meet her gaze.
She took the bait. Twisting around to look behind her, she asked, “What?”
He shrugged, pushed himself slowly to his feet. In a panic now, Bev took it all in at once—the stripped shelves, the bare wall racks, the empty desk. She gaped at him with her mouth in an O.
“I know when I’m not wanted.” He was proud of himself for sounding sincere.
“You’re leaving?” She shot to her feet. “You, too? Oh, Christ. No. You can’t. You just can’t.”
He opened his eyes wider and said nothing.
Gripping her head with two soft-looking hands, she made a pitiful moaning sound in the back of her throat that was disturbingly erotic. “Oh, God,” she said, and he tried not to think of what she would sound like in bed. Because he was pretty sure he’d just heard it.
He strode over to the door. “You’ve made it clear you don’t want me. As did Ellen. No sense delaying the inevitable.”
He was slow to turn around, careful to look unhappy about it. “Sorry, Beverly. It’s really for the best.”
“Please.” She was holding a hand out to him, palm up, eyes wide.
Slowly, very slowly, shaking his head and sighing, he took a few steps back towards his desk and crossed his arms, enjoying the way her gaze raked over his body. He knew he was tall and built and imposing, and maybe this time it was all right to use it to his advantage.
She was definitely eyeing him in a daze, taking a step back and licking her lips.
“All right,” she said. “What do you want?”