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Most Eligible Billionaire: Chapter 3


Henry


PERFECT. Just perfect.

Every part of her is perfect. The whole sexy librarian look she has going, all big brown eyes behind smart-girl glasses. Glossy hair caught up in a pretty ponytail. Determined frown, clutching the dog in her arms, angry about Mom being alone.

Hollywood’s top casting professionals couldn’t have done better if they tried. So innocent and lovely, with a fun dash of wit.

The clever candlestick comment?

Slow clap.

And she’s right about one thing—it’s Mom I should be angry at.

I close my eyes, trying to shake the image of her, frail in that hospital bed, so diminished from the woman I knew. Managing to depart this earth without uttering a word to me. Her last words were to a scam artist. And a dog.

When I open my eyes, my cousin Brett is looking at me, waiting to see what I say. Everyone is always waiting to see what I say.

“Grifter,” Brett says when I don’t speak.

I gaze over his shoulder at her with all of her innocent allure. “We got this,” I say.

He wants me to say more. He’s waiting. He knows I’ll do anything to protect this company, to protect the people whose livelihoods depend on us. He’s nervous.

I give him my smile. I really turn it on for him. “Don’t worry. She’ll be crawling on her knees before this is over. Gratefully,” I add.

Kaleb comes up, balancing on his cane. He, too, wants to see what I’ll do. He’s seventy. He gets that this isn’t his fight. “Girl could do a lot of damage,” he warns. “Especially if she has people.”

“We got this,” I say again. “The little scammer has no idea what she’s stepped into.”

“You can’t contest the will,” he points out unhelpfully.

“Doesn’t matter.” So like Bernadette to put a self-destruct provision into her will. Preventing challenge of any kind. It’s how she was in life. If you argued with her, even about something as objective as the air temperature, she’d shut down the whole discussion. That’s enough, Henry!

Until she finally ghosted on me and the rest of the clan nearly ten years ago. Over a missed dinner, as it happened. A calendar screw-up. On her part.

With a simple command I can cause skyscrapers to rise up from brownfield lots or send buildings crashing to the ground, but I couldn’t get a frail old woman to answer the phone. Or the door. Go out to brunch at the Gramercy.

I’m done thinking about her, though. She doesn’t matter anymore.

I turn to the window and try to collect my thoughts. My next moves will have lasting implications for the people in this room as well as the legions of employees and vendors of Locke Worldwide who trust me. They need me strong and smart.

Early on, Brett and I bribed a doorman to let us in to see Bernadette—she preferred the name Bernadette over Mom. We even engaged a therapist to help us bring her back into the family fold. No go.

From our descriptions, the therapist speculated that she might have mild dementia, possibly paranoia; he couldn’t say for sure, and you can’t force somebody to accept help or be treated.

One of the little known facts about extreme wealth is how stunningly long you can go with untreated mental illness if that’s what you want.

You can believe in bizarre things and rave and go out to restaurants and order foods not on the menu, and they’ll call you eccentric and smile and thank you for the huge tips.

And obsequious lawyers on your payroll won’t push back when you decide to leave everything to your dog, in care of a woman who claims to sense that dog’s thoughts or whatever it is, because the checks you write are good.

The checks you write are so very good.

We had no clue she was dying, of course.

I shove my hands in my pockets.

I glare over at Malcomb, sitting there with his colleagues, hiding behind confidentiality. I get it about the confidentiality. Still. He could’ve found a way to alert me.

Years ago, back when Dad died, Bernadette assigned Dad’s share of the voting rights to Kaleb, Dad’s second-in-command. It made sense at the time—I was in high school, too young to run things.

But then I graduated with my architectural degree and took over as CEO. I started to build and acquire other companies, turbocharging our growth.

Still my mother kept Kaleb holding ultimate veto power. She and I would argue about it, back when she was still talking to me.

Kaleb didn’t use his veto power a lot. He was happy to let me make Locke into the powerhouse it is, happy for my excellent ideas, but he’d veto the shit out of the things I cared most about.

I was CEO, but Kaleb was a roadblock to the real change I wanted to see.

Kaleb’s a decent guy, but he’s stuck in the legacy way of building. Cost per square foot.

It was bad enough having my hands tied by Kaleb, unable to fully run the company as I wanted. And now?

Now it’s controlled by a dog and a scammer.

Brett’s talking about Malcomb. “…probably an extensive competency determination he and his estate people put Bernadette through before allowing this…enough not to get disbarred.”

I nod. Malcomb’s good. He would’ve ensured she was of sound mind—sound enough, anyway, for the will to hold up in a court of law.

“So. Not the straight line to control I envisioned.” I say it lightly, like it doesn’t matter. Good old Bernadette, lashing out at me one last time for making her life miserable. My rap sheet for that stretches clear back to infancy.

Again the crafty little scammer asks what things mean. What exactly Mom stipulated. She’s a good actress, I’ll give her that. With her glasses and glossy ponytail and demure dress. A simple string of dark beads.

This is the woman my mother favored over her own son?

“I’ve prepared extracts,” Malcolmb says, leading her to the table. I follow along.

Malcomb hands her a stapled sheet. “Bernadette divided her assets three ways. Henry and Brett have inherited a number of properties and a share of liquid assets save what she distributed to the five second cousins. Smuckers’s inheritance is listed here. He’s in control of the family business, Ms. Nelson.”

She looks at the sheet, stunned. “So all the cranes and…”

All the cranes. I catch Brett’s eye. The cranes? Like she thinks we run a crane company?

“She left Smuckers fifty-one percent of Lockeland Worldwide, Ms. Nelson,” Malcomb says. “It’s a global corporation that includes a dozen distinct entities.”

“What does it mean though?” she asks.

Malcomb shoots me a nervous glance. Yeah, he should be nervous. He’ll never work for this family again, and nobody I know, if I can help it, though he may have a future in drawing up wills for people who want to torment their kids.

He points to the sheet. “These are the companies under Smuckers’s control.” My stomach turns as she reads silently. I know the list by heart. It’s arranged in chronological order. Locke Worldwide Construction comes first—that’s the company my grandfather founded to build homes out on Long Island. The development company comes next, when my father joined in and they started building grocery stores and shopping malls. As soon as I came on as CEO, we exploded the firm out into high-rises, massive public projects, lending, even asset management, because giant buildings are investment vehicles, just like stocks, and so that’s the financial portion.

It was my vision a decade ago to spread over an entire web of related sectors, and we did it. We killed it.

He talks to the grifter like she’s an idiot.

Clearly she’s anything but.

“It means, if Smuckers wants to, he would take his place on the board with your assistance. He would attend meetings and vote on things, and his vote would decide issues, mostly around the overall direction of the company. As CEO, Henry runs the day-to-day stuff. But as a board member and owner, Smuckers would provide the vision and direction, while drawing a monthly stipend.” Malcomb points to her handout.

Brett touches my arm. “If the dog dies under suspicious circumstances, the shares go to the Humane Society. Natural life for that dog is ten more years.”

“What?” I say. “You were thinking about killing the dog?”

“Dude,” he says. “Gotta explore our options here.”

“We’re not killing the dog.”

He puts up his hands like I’m attacking him. “It won’t help anyway,” he says. “We have to pay her off. How much? What do you think? Smuckers can choose to hand over those shares.” Brett makes quote fingers for Smuckers. Brett is a quote fingers abuser.

Kaleb wanders over. He wants to hear what I think.

I fold my arms. “This is just a business problem with a business solution. We’ve had disasters before, right?” Just this year we had to tear down a partially built distribution center because a subcontractor screwed up the rebar. That was a twenty-million-dollar mistake that wasn’t on us to fix, but we fixed it. People need to know that Locke does the right thing.

“Don’t start too low,” Kaleb says.

It galls me to give her anything. “Three million cash,” I say.

Brett winces. It’s not the amount. We won’t even notice three million. He thinks it’s too low, that’s the problem. She really is holding all the cards.

“Three million, and we don’t press charges,” I say. “If she did any kind of research, she’d know—you know.”

She’d know about the deep friendships we have throughout the city. We don’t own judges and cops like a crime family does; we have something more powerful—friendship in high places. Friends in high places tend to see things your way.

“At least offer four point five,” Brett says. “It feels like five. She’ll go to ten, then, and we meet at seven.”

“It’s a good payday for her,” Kaleb says. “Assuming she’s not part of an organized team.”

“I don’t think she is,” I say.

“How do you know?” Kaleb says.

Because there’s an echo of loneliness to her. I hear it in her bravado. I see it in the way she straightens her spine. The cold steel you grow in your spine when nobody else is pulling for you.

I don’t say that, though.

“Because she’d use them to squeeze us. She’d come in like a tiger with some boiler-room financial guy or a shady lawyer. Not like…” I gesture at her. “Please.”

“Right,” Kaleb agrees.

The room has emptied. Some of our cousins still linger in the hall. Some of the younger ones probably nabbed a bottle of booze and went to the second-floor balcony to smoke.

Malcomb’s explaining things to the scammer and the rest of the guys are doing phone things.

She looks up as if she feels my attention. Yeah, you’ve got my attention, I think. I stroll her way. I cross my arms. “Let’s talk.”

She furrows her brows. “Okay.”

“We’ve called the police. They don’t have enough to make anything stick—yet—but they’ll have questions.”

She straightens. “But I didn’t do anything!”

Did she even hear the yet? The yet was the most important part of my sentence. It was the opening of our negotiation. “We’ll let them decide that. I don’t imagine they have enough to make anything stick—yet.”

Meaning once we dig into her background, we’ll find what we need. If she’s a scammer, there’s something.

She looks worried. “I have to pick up my sister.”

I frown. “Maybe you should’ve thought of that before you decided to defraud a vulnerable old woman.”

“I didn’t defraud—”

“It’s just us here, jelly bean, so you can stop with the pretense.” She starts to protest but I roll right over her. “The good news is that I’m prepared to hand over a cashier’s check this afternoon to get clear of all this. Malcolmb and his team will draw up papers and you’ll sign over the ownership. You can probably get more cash out eventually, yeah, but it would take years, and I think we both know the risks.”

She’s peering at me uncertainly.

I grab a pencil off the table and flip over a sheet of paper. You always write the big numbers for people to see. You always add the decimal point and the extra zeroes, too. The zeros have power. I write it out: $4,500,000.00.

She stares at the number, as though stunned. It’s a lowball, yes.

Brett drifts over. “It’s a good deal, and we walk away,” he says. Like he’s offering a helpful reminder. “This is a good deal. Let’s resolve it now.”

She turns to me, clutching my mother’s stupid dog. “Four point five million?” she says incredulously.

The dog licks her chin.

I wait. Where is the counteroffer?

Where?

I tighten my jaw. Is it so low to her she’s not even bothering? Was she thinking in terms of billions? Is this an organized thing after all? Is there a team behind her?

Brett’s gotta be thinking it, too. I don’t look at him. How’d I peg her so wrong?

There might be a team behind her, but she’s alone now.

I step up the pressure. “Here’s the thing, Ms. Nelson,” I say. “It’s the four point five million, plus we don’t use the very considerable resources we have to destroy your life and quite possibly ensure that you end up rotting in a prison cell.”

Her eyes shine. They’re the warm brown of a beer bottle, fringed with dark lashes. I wish I could read her thoughts, her emotions—I can see she’s having them. I tend to be good at reading women.

Why can’t I read her?

“I don’t know if you’re working with people, but if you are, they can’t protect you. And they won’t go down for this. You know who goes down for this? You. You go down, and you go down very hard. Very publicly. Very painfully.” I lean in. “And you will stay down.”

She watches me with growing disbelief. The wronged and totally innocent woman, shocked at this entire thing.

I smile. “What, did they get you from central casting? Don’t bother staying in character on my account.”

The dewy skin on her throat goes pink as she straightens her spine. “I’m not acting.” It’s a good delivery. Vulnerable and fierce at the same time. Raw, even.

“Of course you’re not. My advice is you take the money I’m offering in the next ten minutes. Because ten minutes is about how long you have, given rush hour traffic for our good friends on the police force to get here.”

She frowns back down at the number but she doesn’t come back with another. Why not?

I watch her, curious. Her neck pinkens more, as if heat and emotion roil right below the surface.

I don’t need her to make sense; I need her away from the company I love. The company I’d sell my soul to protect.

“Everyone has a price,” I say. “Especially you.”

Her face flares full red—her tell for high emotions, I’m thinking. “I told you I’m not a scammer.”

I step in closer, full-on intimidation mode. My skin tightens with the nearness of her. “Take the money,” I growl, “or I will fucking bury you.”

Something new comes over her face. It’s as if a switch flipped deep in her soul. She glows with energy. No—it’s more than that—it’s pure, white-hot loathing. She’s incandescent.

And so alive.

The sense of her prickles over my skin.

“That a no?” Brett growls, bringing me back to myself.

“The offer goes poof in two minutes,” I say. “Now or never.”

Brett shoots me a glance. He doesn’t like the idea of an ultimatum, and usually I don’t, either, but I have this sudden perverse need to push her.

“You don’t want to feel our power turned against you.”

She swallows. “Well here’s the thing, Henry Locke.” Her voice shakes, but she holds her ground, stands right up to me. “It’s not up to me.”

My blood goes cold. So she’s working with a team, after all.

I try not to react, but this is very, very bad. A good team could hack apart the company and extract billions in the process. I’m suddenly imagining a man in the wings, running her, directing her. Maybe even a boyfriend or husband. I bristle at the thought.

I exchange glances with Brett. He furrows his brow just slightly. Desperation. Why not bring them in? Unless they have a long game. Dismantle the firm. Sell off the pieces before we can stop them.

I swallow.

I turn back to her. “Who’s it up to, then?” I ask, cringing inwardly. For the first time I’m thinking about the mob.

“Who do you think?” She glows at me again, bright with loathing.

I brace myself for the bad news.

She smiles, widening her eyes. “It’s up to Smuckers, of course! Have you not been paying attention?”

I watch incredulously as she repositions the dog in her arms so that he faces us, eyes and nose like three raisins in a white cotton-candy cloud.

“What do you prefer, Smuckers? Would you like Henry Locke to write us a check for four point five million dollars? Or would you prefer to take your place alongside him as a visionary member and major shareholder on the board of Locke Worldwide?”

I swallow, mystified. Is she messing with us?

“Smuckers, concentrate,” she says, with a sly glimpse my way. “Do you want some money now? Or to vote on pressing issues while drawing a monthly stipend of seventy-five thousand?”

My blood races. I don’t know what to think—not about any of it. All I know is that she’s on fire. Fierce as an electrical storm, dark clouds flashing bright.

“You have to decide, you just have to. Do it for Jelly Bean,” she adds with a glance at me.

Smuckers wags his little poof of a tail.

“That’s right, boy! That’s right! You decide!”

“Oh, come off it,” I say.

Her lip quivers. Is she scared? Or enjoying this way too much? She turns to me. “You mind?” She turns back to Smuckers. “What do you think, Smuckers? Think hard, because they won’t offer again. It’s an ultimatum. Do you know what that is?”

I fold my arms.

She tilts her head, as if she’s listening with intense curiosity to a communication from Smuckers that she’s not altogether sure about. “Really? That’s your answer? Are you sure? I know, he’s a bit of a bastard.”

She turns to us.

“Smuckers has decided he would prefer to take his seat on the board. As a voting shareholder, with me as his assistant, to interpret his wishes regarding Locke Worldwide.”


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