Most Eligible Billionaire: Chapter 12


Vicky


WHAT THE HELL!

I’m supposed to be the owner but somehow, Henry’s in control. Completely unbalancing me. Why did I think I was up to this?

I fold my arms tight over my chest like that’ll push down my confused emotions.

He’s a suit-and-tie guy, the epitome of rich, entitled suit-and-tie guys, a man who has already tried to screw me out of something. A dirty player who thinks he’s the king of the universe.

I tear my gaze from him, put my focus on Smuckers. “What’s that? Okay then.” I sigh. “While Smuckers appreciates your effort, Mr. Locke, you really just didn’t do it for him in the end. Smuckers votes no.”

“You’re voting no?” Mandy says, glaring at me, then she turns to Henry, expecting him to do something. I supposedly run this company, but everybody is always looking at Henry for everything.

“Smuckers votes no,” I say, needing to take some kind of control back. “Smuckers didn’t find the argument compelling. At all.”

Mandy stands. She’s mad. Everybody’s mad—their anger twirls my gut into a pretzel, but I stand there like I don’t care. They tried to push me around and I’m done being pushed around.

Never again.

“Can you articulate an actual reason?” Mandy asks in a barely controlled monotone. “Other than your being a jerk?”

“Let’s dial it back,” Henry says coolly. I don’t know whether he’s talking to me or her. Maybe both. He’s saying something about the software. A phased implementation, something.

I’m not hearing him past the rushing in my ears, the thickness in my throat.

The horrible girl, hated by all.

I’m back walking out of that police station, all the angry questions and cameras.

I’m in my bedroom, hated Vonda O’Neil, venturing onto Twitter and Facebook, wanting desperately to find somebody out there defending me, saying they believe me.

It would’ve meant so much.

The picture they’d always post of me that summer became iconic. It was one my mom took of me just before we’d gone out to dinner at Applebee’s the summer before. I was fifteen, standing against the hickory tree by the rusty fence, grinning like I’d never stop. I’d gotten straight A’s and that was our deal—straight A’s gets an Applebee’s dinner.

That was a good summer. It was just my mom and my sister and me, mostly—no skeevy boyfriends.

Mom was in a program at the time, and she had some kind of prescription that leveled her out. And I felt like, if I just kept being the best daughter ever, things would work out.

Staring out at the camera that night, I could’ve never imagined all of America would’ve ended up staring back at me, hating me just a year later.

Carly had encouraged me to wear her blue sweater today to go with my Smuck U stuff, but I’m glad I didn’t. Why did I think of such a crazy plan?

I straighten. Don’t crumble. Hold your head up high.

I take a deep breath. “I’m sorry,” I say. “I can see why you’d be mad after being bullied and tricked. Or being threatened if you don’t take a payout. Or being unfairly brought to the police station…oh wait—that’s what you guys did to me.”

Mandy rises. “This is impossible. This is not okay.”

Henry simply crosses his legs. “It’s a business problem with a business solution.”

Mandy slams her folder back together and yanks her laptop cord out of the wall. She walks out with all of the stuff hanging in her arms.

Heart pounding, I make a production out of closing my notebook and repacking my bag. I can feel Henry’s gaze on me. “We’ll revisit this thing,” he says.

I feel dizzy. I should give it all back. Hide in my turtle shell. Why did I think I could do this? Zip zip snap.

“Hold on,” Henry says. “We have something else on the table.”

I set my bag down. I sit. I fold my shaking hands in my lap. “What?”

“We do charitable giving through the Locke Foundation,” he says. “I can’t remember the last time we gave to an animal charity. With Smuckers on the board now, I think it might be a nice gesture for the foundation to fund up a needy local rescue or shelter. A substantial gift.”

I sit up. An animal shelter?

Kaleb is instantly on board, suggesting a giant cardboard check.

“Love it,” Brett says. “People are going to hear about Smuckers soon enough. Let’s make it a fun news story.”

“Right?” Henry turns to me. “You wouldn’t be opposed to that, would you? Or, I’m sorry, Smuckers?”

“That’s the last thing I expected,” I say

“Do you want to spearhead it?” Henry asks.

“Me?” I study Henry’s face. “Is this a trick?”

“Does asking for your help to identify a charity to give a million dollars to seem like a trick to you?”

“A million dollars?”

“For our portion. Partners might want to contribute if there’s enough buzz. We can have a ceremony and introduce Smuckers. Have fun with it. Turn what my mother did into something positive.”

I’m still stuck on a million dollars. “A million dollars?”

“For our portion,” he clarifies, like that’s the unusual part. And not CAPS LOCK! A MILLION DOLLARS! “And you can direct it to a specific organization. You know, if you have opinions. Or we can have a consultant handle it—”

“No, I have opinions. There’s this dog and cat rescue shelter my friend runs—they’re really good. They just started a stray drop-off center and they could do so much.”

“Let’s schedule it up.” Just like that. Schedule it up. He turns to April. “Get the details and coordinate our calendars on the ceremony. Make a list of who to reach out to and all that.” Then he seems to remember she’s my assistant, and he turns to me. “Good with you?”

I nod, feeling stunned. Why are they being so nice? But I don’t forget my manners. “Thank you. They’re going to be excited,” I say. “That is generous.”

“It’s what the Locke Foundation is for.”

April is smiling in the background, because she is all about the Locke Kool-Aid.

“You want to give your friend a call?” Henry asks. “We’ll want to keep it under wraps until we orchestrate the PR angle, but we can float the donation as soon as they need it.”

I get on the phone to Kimmy to deliver the good news. The board members file out while she squees into my ear. I promise her over and over that it’s real, that they’re getting that money.

By the time I pocket my phone, it’s just Henry and me and Smuckers. Henry has Smuckers all leashed up.

“What?” he says.

“It’s just really nice. For the memory of your mother. For animals in need. For my friend’s organization.” I feel drained. Confused.

“I want to make this work,” he says. “There’s no reason we all can’t get what we want, right?” He takes a step toward me, extending a hand. “Truce?”

I’m overwhelmed by his nearness, his unexpected kindness, the intense masculine energy that seems to be concentrated in his hand—so much so that I feel shy to take it.

But it’s there before me.

I pause, mouth dry. Slowly, I place my fingers inside his. His hand is smooth and heavy, and it closes over mine, swallowing it up completely. Heat shivers through me.

“You know what we need to do now?” he asks.

“What?”

“Make one of those ridiculous giant checks,” he says.

“That doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that would be in a CEO job description.”

“It’s in the CEO job description if the CEO says it is. I make the operational rules here.” He lets my hand go.

I stand there reeling, trying to untangle the annoyance from the allure when he takes Smuckers’s leash and heads across the tundra of blue elegance. Smuckers trots after him without so much as a glance back at me.

“Hey…” I start after them. “You can’t just take Smuckers.”

He gets into the elevator and claps a hand over the door, eyes sparkling. Henry can do anything he wants.

“Fine.” I get in and I stab the lobby button a few times. Stab stab stab.

“The doors don’t shut faster when you do that,” he says.

“Shows what you know.” I stab it again. The doors shut. “See?”

He rolls his eyes. And we’re alone.

The air between us is thick and heavy.

He turns to me, gaze serious. “We’ll whip out the check at the fabrication facility. It’ll be good for you to see some of the operations beyond the office.”

I nod.

Just then the doors open and two women come barreling in with a giant cart. “Oh, Mr. Locke!” the older one says. “We can take the next.”

“Come on, there’s room.” He rests his fingers on my elbow and guides me back to the corner in order to make room for the huge cart. It’s just a light pressure, fingertips to elbow, but the sizzle burns clear through me.

His eyes rivet to mine. Did he feel it, too? He removes his hand, and I think he did feel it, but no, he’s helping to adjust the cart.

“Thank you,” the other woman says, with a gaze of enchantment.

Henry nods and grabs the bar at the back of the elevator.

The thing stops again and a woman and two small boys get on.

I set my own hand on the bar back there, right near his. His suit sleeve grazes my bare arm. My body hums with his nearness, with the tickle of fine fabric.

“We’ve got the Prime-Valu people on four,” the one woman says, unaware of the strange combustion in our corner. “That room projector bulb issue, but just to be safe…” She seems to wait for his blessing.

He smiles his dazzling smile, the one Carly showed me in pictures, pleased with his minion. “Excellent call.”

The women rattle off some corporate jargon. It’s clear that they just really want him to see they’re doing a good job. Everybody loves Henry, magical CEO of the world.

I fix on the projector cord, neatly wound up at the side of the cart, trying not to feel him so keenly.

Latrisha, my furniture maker friend, once said that living, growing trees extend beyond the actual physical space they take up. Standing next to Henry, I think that it’s true of people, too.

It’s not just the body heat of him; his shining power seems to take over the little space. Maybe that’s what won him that hot bachelor award, that the space around him seems to crackle with power. Even the elevator is all about Henry.

I should inch away, but the giant cart is taking up ninety percent of the space. And anyway, he’d assume it was because of him. Like I’m overwhelmed with him or something.

It’s in the CEO job description if the CEO says it is. I make the rules.

So arrogant.

Around the twenty-fifth floor I’m wondering if it’s a smell thing—he has this vague masculine scent with manly notes of cinnamon and something musky. I breathe it in, letting it fill my nooks and crannies.

Maybe that’s what’s affecting me. Maybe he’s wearing some pheromone concoction. A zillion dollars an ounce, made from the tears of mighty lions.

He’s watching the numbers, so I turn my head slightly, in service of my scientific inquiry, breathing him in, telling myself he won’t notice. It’s cinnamon and musk and something oceany. Deep mysterious ocean with huge surges of waves.

I catch one of the boys studying me. “Are you smelling him?” the boy asks. “You were smelling him!”

“No, I wasn’t.”

“You turned your face to him and your nostrils went in and out. That means you were smelling him.”

I smile like I think he’s cute and then I give the rest of the women a baffled look.

Everyone gets out. The door slides shut.

Roller coaster belly flip.

Henry pushes off the wall with the lazy grace of a large predator. He shifts so that he’s leaning sideways, eyes like sea glass, gaze glued to my lips. He lowers his voice. “You were smelling me?”

I grip the bar. “Why would I be interested in smelling you?”

“I can think of a lot of reasons you’d be interested in smelling me.” He gets that amused smile I hate so much. He seems to think it’s funny.

My skin heats. “Name one.”

“Hmm.” His eyes drop to my neck. “I’m going to go with lust.”

“Oh my god, you are so full of yourself.”

“That’s not a no.”

“Seriously? Do you automatically assume every woman wants you?”

He watches me, curious.

“Seriously. You think everyone lives to scrape at your feet, scrambling for crumbs of your attention and approval? Trying to smell you? And if a girl is truly lucky, maybe you’ll pick her?”

He tilts his head. Waits a beat.

“Well?” I demand.

“Oh, I’m sorry. Are you waiting for an answer? I thought that was a rhetorical question.”

“Oh my god!”

He beams at me, and right then those lopsided dimples appear. The smile that tugs at my belly.

This is his genuine smile—I recognize it as such instinctively. It’s the smile that cameras never capture, the one that’s not part of the Powerful Prince Henry show. Real. And so human.

Was he teasing me with the smell thing?

The elevator stops. The door opens.

And he’s on, folks. He’s straightened up and giving the million-dollar smiles to the group of senior execs. He places his beautifully masculine hand on the elevator door to keep it open and he turns to me, waiting. Ladies first and all that.

He’s greeting the men by name, joking with them as they file in. They treat him with deference, like he’s a minor deity.

We head out through the fabulous lobby with Henry carrying Smuckers. He’s macho enough to carry a little dog. All eyes are on him. He knows all names.

I may control fifty-one percent of the company, but the world is Henry’s billion-dollar oyster.

And how does he remember so many names?

It’s a crisp, sunny day, cool for September in New York. Magically, a limo is there. The driver opens the door.

Henry turns to me, eyes a lighter, brighter shade of blue out in the sunshine. “How do you feel about walking a bit?”

“I’d love a walk.”

He puts Smuckers down, and we set out through the crowds.

I catch people staring at us and I get the old familiar stir of worry that I’ve been recognized in spite of my hair-color change—long curly red hair was one of the more remarkable features of Vonda O’Neil.

Then I realize it’s Henry they’re watching. Even outside! Young starchitect billionaire Henry Locke. Sure, they’re looking at me, but only to see who he’s with.

And then somebody snaps a picture of us.

My heart starts to pound. It’s okay if someone takes my picture, but what if they put it online? I look very different with my glasses and dark hair, but it’s not like I’ve gotten plastic surgery. Discreetly, I slide on my sunglasses. And then he looks over at me and I wonder if he noticed the cause and effect of that.

My thoughts are interrupted by a fight up ahead—two guys have gotten out of their cars. There’s glass on the road. Fender bender. Voices are raised.

Henry grabs my arm and puts me on the other side of him and sweeps Smuckers up in his arms, all this without even breaking stride. He mumbles something about the menace of texting while driving, but I’m stuck on the weird chivalry of him.

The crowds thicken even more near the subway station, but he keeps Smuckers under control. Strangers usually can’t hold Smuckers right. Henry gets Smuckers.

“You’re good with him.”

“We grew up with these dogs,” he says flatly.

Just then I recognize the corner we’re on. “Hey, we have to walk up the next street. Come on.” I lead down the block and turn, and there it is. “Griffin Place.”

“What?”

“Griffin Place, my fave building.” I point at the statue halfway up, the crouched winged lion. “See? My sister, Carly, and I…it’s just one of our favorites.”

“Oh, the Reinhold building,” he says.

“Right,” I say. “You probably know all the names.”

“Being a smirkitect, you know. It goes with the territory.”

“The Reinhold,” I say, trying it out, like finally learning the name of an old friend.

We’re moving closer to it. “In all of Manhattan? You like the Reinhold best?” He sounds incredulous.

“What? It’s great.”

“Hmm.” He seems to view it as an odd choice. Looking at it through an architect CEO’s eyes, I suppose it is. The building isn’t tall, it’s not special in terms of fancy flourishes, it’s not even old—it’s the 1940s kind, all blocky gray stone and deep rectangular windows. But the griffin is cool. Brave protector friend, mouth open in a silent roar.

He slows across the street, in the middle of the block from it. “What about it?” Like he’s trying to see it. He really wants to know.

“It’s the griffin,” I tell him.

“What is it about the griffin? A lot of buildings have them.”

“I don’t know,” I say, but I do know.

“Aesthetically?”

“No.” I feel his gaze on me, and I know I’m going to tell him. I want to. I don’t know why. “Symbolically.”

“What does this one symbolize?”

“A moment in time,” I say. “When my sister and I first got here, we got lost. We took this bus and it was a disaster.” I smile, like it wasn’t any big deal, but it was terrifying. “She was crying, and I pointed this griffin out and made up this stupid story about him being our brave protector friend.”

There’s this silence where I wonder if I’ve said too much.

“Did he help? The griffin?”

“A lot,” I say. “She stopped crying and we took pictures of him. I printed one out and put it in the kitchen. If nothing else, he scared the cockroaches back down into the drain.”

“You came here after your parents died.”

Somebody has been busy investigating my background,” I say.

“Surely you’re not surprised we investigated. Considering.”

I shrug. According to our fake identities, our parents died in a car crash, then I graduated high school at age seventeen and got custody of her.

All lies. Except the custody-at-seventeen part, though it was more like I took custody. Got my baby sister out of a dangerous situation and myself out of the blinding glare of national hatred.

We keep on walking. I take a last look back, remembering myself then. Traumatized, slouching through the crowds in my new brown hair and innocent court clothes, hand-in-hand with Carly, finally away from Mom’s lechy boyfriend with his creepy stare that got creepier every time she passed out.

Away from Mom’s growing desperation for money for the next fix.

I’m not sorry I took Carly out of there. She was so young and vulnerable. I saved her—I know that to my bones. But she saved me, too. She was a reason for me to keep fighting.

We stop at a Starbucks. I get a java chip Frappuccino and he gets a latte. We take a cab the rest of the way.

The fabrication facility is a giant warehouse on Front Street—the old kind with arched-top windows.

We enter a massive, well-lit, state-of-the-art space full of state-of-the-art machinery in bright, primary colors. The place hums with activity and guys in Locke-blue jumpers making giant things out of metal and wood.

“We make doors and windows, refurbish heating plants, that sort of thing,” he says over the din. “Locke owns so much property, it stopped making sense to sub this stuff out.”

I keep expecting Smuckers to react to the loud sounds, but Henry holds him tight and scratches his snout in a vigorous way, lulling him with an overload of attention.

Is it possible that’s what Henry is doing with me? Is it working?

He knows people’s names here, too. A few come up and pet Smuckers. We head to an elevator bank at the center of it all and take it up to the drafting floor. We cross a tundra of desks and people doing things on huge computer screens to get to a place with lots of long tables.

He hands Smuckers over and pulls out a piece of foamcore the size of a door. “I’ll cut this down a little for the check.” He takes it to a table that has lots of measure markings and slices off two hunks with a large box cutter. “I don’t actually do this, typically, but I don’t want to pull people off jobs that have been waiting in a queue.” He pulls his phone out of his pocket and taps. Soon he’s the proud parent of a giant printout of a check front. He spray glues the back of the check and we roll it onto the foamcore, working together to avoid bubbles and wrinkles.

Just like that, we have a giant blank check from Locke Worldwide. It’s signed, but there’s no dollar amount or recipient.

“Maybe we should get an armored car for this.”

He doesn’t reply; he’s setting the check aside to dry. He’s careful, even a bit of a nerdy perfectionist. “Come here,” he says.

I straighten. Was it a little sexy, how he said that?

He leads the way to a wide-open space full of architectural models; desks and cubicles line the perimeter. “We have a few exciting projects you should be in on,” he says.

We end up at a table displaying a five-by-five block area covered with tiny buildings and roads and cards and tiny green trees and people.

He puts Smuckers down.

“I thought architects only made these on TV. I mean, don’t you have computers for this nowadays?”

Henry kneels down, getting eye level with the thing. “Building is one of the most tactile things you can do. We’re creating physical environments. Making them tiny first, holding them and situating them, it reveals new things about the buildings and the spatial relationships. You see what feels right on the ground.”

He touches the tallest building.

“Where is this?”

“Nowhere yet. It’s going to be along the Queens waterfront. The Ten—that’s what we call it.”

I figure out the blue is the East River. “Dude, I hate to tell you, but Queens is all built up along the river.”

“There’s a swath of factories there that are moving to a less expensive area. We’ll knock them down and replace it with residential and green space.”

“It looks nice.”

He twists his lips.

“You don’t think it looks nice?” I ask.

“It could be better, but it’s good for what it is.”

“If it could be better, why not make it better?”

“Too deep in the pipeline.”

Smuckers takes this very inopportune opportunity to jump up and grab at a bit of fabric that’s dangling off the side. The entire model jerks, and a soda bottle at one end dumps all over a corner of it.

Henry’s on it instantly, sopping it up.

Another guy rushes over to help.

They both look alarmed that the tiny buildings and tinier trees got wrecked. It’s all very strange, because this is just a model. It’s a train set village, people!

Then I realize Henry’s really upset.

Henry and this guy talk about who’s available to fix it up, and I get the feeling they want to quick-fix it, like there’s an ogre who lives in the closet who will come out and wreck the place if the model is messed up. Honestly, the whole thing is weird. Is Henry not the CEO?

Everybody is on an RFI deadline, whatever that is.

He scowls in his surly way at the wrecked side of town. I’m glad I’m not the person who put the soda bottle there.

“Right. Okay.” Henry’s tone is that kind of fake calm where you know anger is just under the surface.

He gets this cool intensity sometimes. It’s a disturbingly winning combination.

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