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Most Eligible Billionaire: Chapter 11


Henry


SHE’S LATE for the board meeting. Almost ten minutes late. I’m surprised. I keep watching the elevators across the vast empty space that, since this is Manhattan, costs more per square foot than a Bentley.

Brett rocks back in his chair and says, “Somebody didn’t read the bylaws as well as she should’ve.”

The bylaws stipulate that if you’re fifteen minutes late without alerting anyone, the board votes your percentage. It’s a rule that was originally created so meetings wouldn’t get held up if our grandfather decided to grab a dozen glazed bear claws from Jolly’s on the way in from Long Island.

“Let’s do this.” I pull up the motion to strip her of her votes and enter it into the agenda with a sense of disappointment.

I was looking forward to today. Perverse, I know. But I’m curious to see what’s next in the pretty little scammer’s playbook. Does she cram on the bylaws? Bide her time until she attains expertise in all things Locke, and then go in for the kill?

Or does she play bull in the china shop, making us suffer and squirm until we make her a better offer?

Does she cut in a lawyer? Somebody to read everything that comes up for vote? I definitely wouldn’t blame her if she did that, considering what we pulled in that last meeting.

Mandy seconds the additional agenda item and moves that we consider it first.

Kaleb seconds the emotion.

At thirteen after, right as we’re about to vote her off the island, the elevator doors open.

I sit up, heart pounding. Saved by the bell, I think, folding my hands in front of me, ready to give her the amused smile that seems to annoy the stuffing out of her. Ready for another one of her prim-but-strangely-hot librarian outfits.

But it’s not her.

It’s a pair of mimes, and they’re carrying something large between them—a piece of wooden furniture with shiny detailing, like some kind of fancy high chair. They start across the floor with the thing hoisted between them.

Vicky steps out of the elevator after them with Smuckers on a leash.

Her hair is tauntingly confined in that polished ponytail. Her simple brown dress has a slim, shiny belt that matches the dark brown of her glasses. But it’s not her outfit that gets me—it’s her bright gaze, her flushed cheeks, just the energy of her.

It charges the air around her. It sends shivers across my skin.

I have the feeling that medieval warriors must’ve had, seeing the enemy pour over the hill, flags flying, armor glinting.

I go to my feet.

“What the hell?” Brett mutters. We’re all standing now.

The mimes proceed toward us with whatever it is they carry, followed by Vicky and April. Smuckers trots along on the end of a leash. Wearing a blue bow tie.

A Locke-blue bow tie.

My pulse races.

Vicky cuts ahead of the mimes and opens the door for them. They’re your classic mimes’ mimes: white painted faces, striped socks, berets, black suspenders, the whole dorky deal. They enter bearing the strange piece of furniture, acting surprised and delighted to discover us.

What. The. Hell.

I watch in shock as they set the thing—some sort of a cross between a high chair and a throne—down at the end of the table. They make a huge production out of shifting chairs around to make room. They measure the space with an invisible measuring tape, gesturing dramatically to each other.

They’re not really very good mimes; this adds to the insult of it.

Vicky seems engrossed with the operation. Smuckers pants excitedly in her arms.

“What is this?” I ask hoarsely.

Vicky turns to me, adjusting her glasses in her tantalizing I’m-looking-at-you way.

“Provisions and accommodations shall be made for board members attending meetings,” she says.

Damn bylaws.

My pulse thunders, and it’s not just annoyance.

Kaleb clears his throat. “This is irregular.”

“It’s ridiculous,” Brett bites out. “Mimes aren’t accommodations.”

As if the mimes are the problem.

The mimes are beckoning Vicky and Smuckers over now. Vicky goes and hands Smuckers to the shorter of the two. Smuckers licks a bit of white paint off the one mime’s face in the process of being installed on what I see now is some sort of custom throne, like a high chair with a blue satin cushion. The back of it has some sort of circle picture of Smuckers wearing a Locke-blue bow tie, like a royal portrait.

I swallow.

Smuckers wags his tiny tail as the mimes hook him to the chair via a velvet ribbon, also Locke blue, salute him, and exit.

Kaleb grumbles from the other end. Brett comes to stand next to me. “The hell? Tell me that’s not a throne for the dog.”

“Okay,” I breathe. “How about an elevated, highly decorated dog bed?”

“Not funny.”

No, it’s not funny. It’s scrappy. It’s…I don’t know what. I don’t know how I feel about any of it. It’s been a long time since I didn’t know how to feel about something.

Vicky goes over to inspect.

“Seriously?” I say.

She turns to me.

I shove my hands in my pants pockets. “You want to explain this?”

“Isn’t it self-explanatory?” she says. “Smuckers needs a place to sit, too. I mean, does it seem fair to you that every board member here has their own seat except Smuckers? Who ever heard of an individual who sits on the board of a major corporation having to sit on another person’s lap?”

I go over and inspect the image of Smuckers’s face in the chair-back portrait. “A bit redundant,” I observe. “His portrait, when he’s right here.”

“Smuckers likes people to know who’s in charge. Especially since there was some confusion about it at the last meeting,” she adds.

My gaze drops to her lips. Dimly I’m aware of Kaleb suggesting we call this meeting to order. She’s wearing some sort of a necklace—circles the size of quarters between bright pink metal beads. Smuckers’s face is on some of the circles. Others have cats and foxes, and some have words, like Meow and mofo.

Of all the things she could’ve done with her time over the past week, she’s spent her time making custom jewelry to match the Smuckers throne. This is a move and a half, what she’s doing here.

So outrageous.

“Do you like it?” Her voice is husky. She lifts it a few inches off her chest for me to see better.

My knuckle brushes her throat as I take hold of one of the colorful disks, and I can’t focus for a moment, because the sense of her is overwhelming. My skin feels too tight for my body.

I turn a disk in my fingers. It’s cool and heavy and exquisitely made. On one side is the face of Smuckers. On the other it says Smuck U.

I keep hold of it. I don’t know what it is. I don’t know what she is. My knuckles hover just above her chest, my fingers just under her chin.

“Pretty nice, huh?” she says.

My heart punches in my rib cage. It comes to me here that battling a person can be as intimate as fucking them.

“It’s as good a thing as any to wear while I take you down,” I whisper.

“You think you can take me and Smuckers down?” Those plump, kissable lips form into a smile. “’Cause in that badass throne? Look at him!”

I bite my tongue. I don’t give a crap about Smuckers.

Mandy clears her throat. “Should we get to it?”

I let go of the necklace. I turn and pull out her chair for her.

“Thank you.” She sits.

April has taken up her post as board secretary.

Kaleb clears his throat. “I didn’t dedicate my life to Locke Worldwide for a dog on a throne to preside in the boardroom,” he says unhelpfully.

I take my seat opposite Vicky. I meet her sparkling gaze. “Is Smuckers ready to proceed with the week’s business?”

“Very much so,” she says.

I shift in my chair and introduce today’s central agenda item, the authorization of funds for a software switchover. Mandy has been pushing for that, and she has a presentation.

Mandy puts the PowerPoint on the screen. I should be watching that, but I can’t stop staring at Vicky.

“Wait,” Vicky says. She moves Smuckers’s throne so that Smuckers can see the screen.

I exchange glances with Brett. From the way his phone is tilted, I can tell he’s filming for the competency hearing.

Good.

No mediator in their right mind will think this is anything but harmful to the company.

Mandy goes on about deeper integration of our construction, development, and architectural businesses.

I watch Vicky follow along. She asks a few questions—rookie ones, but she’s interested. I was right about the construction stuff. Numbers bore her, but timelines and construction methods don’t. It makes sense, I suppose. She has that Etsy store. She’s made this jewelry and some of this throne. She does on a small scale what we do on a large one.

It’s too bad she’s the enemy.

When Mandy’s done, Vicky turns to Smuckers. “What do you think?”

“Smuckers’s share of the company will increase with this,” I say. “This makes Smuckers richer while delivering better service.”

She winces.

“What?” I ask.

“Smuckers doesn’t like the idea of new software. The learning curve—he’s not into it.”

I frown. “If we wanted to stay away from learning curves we’d still be adding and subtracting on abacuses.”

She shrugs. “You’re preaching to the choir, dude. I’m not the one to be convinced here.” She widens her eyes and tips her head toward Smuckers.

“Smuckers can hear me just fine,” I say.

She holds up a finger and turns to the dog as if listening intently.

Mandy sighs loudly. Brett keeps filming.

Vicky says, “Smuckers doesn’t like how you’re talking to me when he’s the one making the decisions. He feels alienated.”

“Does he,” I say.

“You should make your arguments directly to Smuckers,” she says. “If you want him on your side you need to work a little harder.”

“We’re not going to do that, Vicky.”

She frowns, eyes dark and dazzling. “Smuckers isn’t feeling favorable to the funding, that’s the problem here.”

“We need this funding,” Kaleb says. “We could lose millions of dollars of business here.”

She shrugs. “Then I’d suggest you tell Smuckers directly why he should cast a yes vote. Really talk to him. Make him feel included. Because, between you all and me and the Locke Worldwide flagpoles, you’re not treating him with the respect he feels is his due. You tried to defraud him in the last meeting, and now you’re ignoring him. Can you blame him for being unhappy?”

Smuckers is standing on his dog bed, wagging his tail, sensing the energy in the room.

I’ve done battle many times in the corporate world. I know the language of battle, the feel and sound of it. I know the moves, the signals, the rules.

She tried to play our game last time and nearly lost. We played dirty. She’s asserting her power now, being unreasonable. Forcing us to orbit around her. And something else.

It’s as if she’s operating out of some kind of disdain, and most of it seems pointed at me.

She disdains me. It’s…electrifying.

“Dreoger starts on the fifteenth,” Mandy says to me, jolting me out of my haze.

I nod. “Right.” We need the software. We needed it yesterday.

“That right there,” Vicky says. “When you talk like that without giving Smuckers any kind of background, he feels unhappy.”

I fix her with a hard gaze and get to my feet. I’ll take the bullet for my people any day of the week.

I go to Smuckers. Smuckers’s tongue is a little bit out of his mouth, and the hair around his face is puffier than last week. This, too, is by design—it just makes the optics all the more hosed up. The grifter. Toying with us.

“Smuckers,” I say, “if we were to convert over to this new software, it’ll result in a tighter integration of our core services. And honestly, nobody is worried about the learning curve.”

“Project teams have been researching it…Smuckers,” Kaleb adds.

“That’s not very persuasive,” she says.

“Look, Smuckers,” I say, going for it now. “We really need your vote on this. I know what you’re thinking, that a services integration will result in higher initial bid costs, so yeah, our bids might not look competitive, but this up-front integration will cut out surprises. Construction and design would work together, instead of a design being handed over to construction to interpret.”

I look over at her.

“Can you imagine how much time that wastes?” I add.

She plays with her ponytail, which is just long enough to hang over the front of her shoulder. It’s curled on the end, and I’m thinking about what her hair might look like down.

I get up and unclip Smuckers, take him out, begin to pet him vigorously, holding Vicky’s gaze all the while. I know what little dogs like this like. I grew up with dogs like this.

Dogs were the only companions my mother really ever chose for herself.

Until Vicky.

Why her? Did they take walks together? Did Vicky take Bernadette out for lunch at her precious Gramercy?

Smuckers is licking me, practically trying to burrow into me.

“When everyone collaborates at the front, Smuckers, projects run shorter, with fewer surprises. That’s more valuable than lower up-front costs, don’t you agree?” I scratch his ears.

My gaze meets hers. Everyone in the room is watching the dog, but she’s watching me, lips plumped together in a slight frown, gaze hot. Laser-beam hot.

I say, “The tighter integration of business units will be incredible.”

Smuckers’s little legs pump happily.

“Is that a yes?” I ask him.

Her lips part in shock. Annoyance. Her throat turns a compelling shade of pink. I wonder idly if it ever goes red.

Still holding her gaze, I put my mouth to the side of his head. I give her my amused smile that seems to annoy her. “Who’s your daddy?”

“Uh!” Vicky arrows up and stalks over to me. “Not you!”

I feel her breath on my cheek as she takes him from my arms. She puts Smuckers back into his bed and clips him back up. Smuckers yips in protest.


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