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Most Eligible Billionaire: Chapter 5


Vicky


THE FIRST BOARD meeting takes place on a Wednesday at Locke Companies headquarters. I enter the address from the sheet the lawyer gave me into my phone. It’s an easy subway ride.

The headquarters turns out to be one of those grand Financial District buildings, gleaming white stone and glass shooting high up into the sky.

The doorway is actually a bank of doorways that seems designed to illustrate the concept of redundancy. There’s a revolving door, an automatic single door, a single door for people with handicaps, a double door for people with handicaps, an automatic double door, a nonautomatic single door, and one last door, added, perhaps, as an insult to the undecided, next to which a uniformed attendant stands.

Above is a row of blue flags, flapping in the wind. Specifically they are Royal Blue 1—that’s the Locke Worldwide corporate color. This is something I learned from the packet the lawyer put together for me. The flags are emblazoned with the Locke logo, interlocking circles in the shape of a building, or a penis, if you will.

I take a deep breath and walk under the blue awning and enter a five-story-tall lobby with a giant triangular rock five stories high with water cascading down its sides into a Royal Blue 1 fountain.

One of the men behind the security desk rises. He suspects I don’t belong.

I can’t blame him. I’m wearing a black sweater with dusky pearls, a gray skirt, and kitten heels. When I put it on this morning, I felt like it embodied the timeless glamour of black, but now that I’m surrounded by women in chic brights and wow-factor shoes and men in head-to-toe GQ, it seems to embody I’m a sad panda.

Smuckers doesn’t care; he’s riding in his favorite purse today, gray pleather with a comfortable place for him to stick out his head. I can feel him wagging his tail in there, sensing petting opportunities.

“Service animals only,” the guard says.

I tell him that the dog belongs to the Locke family, that he’s expected. He frowns for a second, waiting for me to retract my story, maybe, then makes a call. Moments later, he waves me to the crystal elevator bank.

I ride up to the fifty-fifth floor and get out.

Into another world.

Manhattan at street level can be gloomy, especially around the Financial District with all the tall buildings.

But this place is spacious and dazzlingly sunny, with floor-to-ceiling windows that have a view of the river. But what’s most remarkable is the blue, blue sky, impossibly, soaringly blue with white puffs of clouds.

The floors are an expanse of sparkling white tile sweeping out to a balcony edged with grass and furniture more appropriate to a chic lounge bar. The walls are composed of giant sparkling blue tile with a glow that comes from cracks between the tiles. Yes, that’s the way the place is lit—a glow between tiles!

The flora scheme is tropical, with potted palms and Royal Blue 1 calla lilies as large as dinner plates.

It’s designed to impress, but really it just intimidates the shit out of me.

At the far side of the expanse of loveliness is a glass-enclosed meeting room, a fishbowl for the fancy. Six men and one woman sit around a table in there. I spot Henry at the head of the table.

Did they already start? I pull out my phone. I’m five minutes early.

“Can I help you?”

I turn, startled, not having noticed the two women corralled inside a large circular desk tucked discreetly to the side—so as not to spoil the impact of the room, I suppose. The desk would be the only place you can’t see the view.

Admins, then. Been there, done that.

I took a lot of temp jobs when we first came here. Temping in the day, waitressing at night, paying out half my earnings to sitters, but I made it work, and I was always there with a bowl of oatmeal and a smile when Carly woke up.

Things got better once my Etsy store took off, even better when we got the Upper West Side apartment-and-parrot-sitting gig.

“I’m here to…see the board.” I shift my Smuckers purse. “Did they already start? I meant to get here earlier, but the subway.”

“They’ll be out in a bit for the official start.” The black-haired secretary comes around the desk. She has a Princess Leia hairdo that I definitely approve of, and her name is April according to the sign on her desk. “Who is this little guy?”

“Smuckers,” I say.

I take the wee prince out to receive his rightful petting, snap on a leash, and set him on the floor. “Did the meeting start? I thought it wasn’t starting until two.”

“Looks like some sort of pre-meeting,” she says, scratching Smuckers’s head. “Are you doing a charitable giving pitch? To the board?” she adds when I seem confused.

I suppose it’s natural to think it, being that I’m dressed as a librarian with a flair for dirges and dogs. “No, I’m actually on the board.”

April gives me the side-eye.

“I’m the new member,” I add. “In place of Bernadette. Technically, Smuckers is.”

April glances again between Smuckers and me, still not sure whether to believe me.

Not that I’m a mind reader.

Though my impressions are usually right.

Don’t be jealous. If you spent enough time being hated by everyone with access to Twitter, Facebook, and TMZ, you, too, could end up with the ability to instantly process the tiniest of movements, one of the few perks of going through the hell that I went through, and a talent I seem to share with the common housefly.

I feel Henry coming toward me well before I see him. My housefly-like room monitoring abilities don’t extend to people I can’t see, but apparently Henry is a special case; the sensation of him nearing prickles over my skin.

I turn to find his cobalt blue eyes fixed tightly on me. He saunters toward me like the prince of Wall Street. And the prince of Manhattan. And the prince of sunshine and men’s fashion and the coolly-striding-toward-you club.

My skin heats, and tiny Irishmen start up a jig in my belly.

The rest of them are flanking him on either side, but Henry outshines them, because he’s Henry Freaking Locke.

“Vicky,” he says. “And Smuckers. Right on time.”

“Looks like you already started.”

“Would we start without you?” He asks this in a friendly tone that makes the Irishmen jig even faster.

“Um…yes?” I say.

“That wasn’t a meeting,” Brett, aka the less glorious and way meaner copy of Henry, says.

“We’ll be back in ten.” Henry heads for the elevator, followed by his cufflinks and click-shoe entourage. Yeah, the board meeting definitely already started. First item on the agenda: exclude me.

“You’re an owner.”

I turn to find April looking at me anew.

“Well, technically it’s Smuckers,” I say.

She nods thoughtfully, seems to weigh her words. “You might ask for a full description of board privileges. Did you know we send cars to pick up all members?”

“No.”

“There’s a credit card attached to board membership that you can spend on meeting-related stuff. A projector, for example. Or a new case for the dog. Anything utilized in a board meeting would be reimbursed. You really don’t know any of this?”

I shake my head.

“Have you sat on a board?”

“No,” I confess.

“You’ll like it here. Locke Worldwide is like family. Doing the right thing really is the right thing around here.”

That’s the Locke motto, and I find it sweet yet eerie that she acts like it’s true.

Ten minutes later I’m in the glass boardroom with its floor-to-ceiling windows looming over all the world. Henry introduces me around. He doesn’t bother to introduce me to April, who sits in the corner with a laptop at the ready.

People sit down. I settle Smuckers onto my lap. Henry saunters around the table handing out sheets of paper—the agenda.

My belly tightens as he takes his seat across from me, beautiful and sleek in his gray suit.

“I’ve never sat on a board before,” I say. “So I’m wondering, before we start, if there are things I should know. The lay of the land. Maybe, you know, some sort of greetings wagon thingy?”

Henry doesn’t try to hide his annoyance. It lights up his face in a way that maybe pleases me too much. “A greetings wagon thingy?”

“You know, that bag neighbors hang on the doorknob to welcome somebody who just moved in to the neighborhood, and it explains things they should know about neighborhood amenities, like playgrounds, and there are pizza coupons and—”

“I know what greetings wagon means.”

“Smuckers is a bit new at all of this.”

He flicks his gaze to April, who nods quickly. “I’ll set up a courier,” she says.

I nod at April. It took guts to help me. It occurs to me that I could give her a raise. Or can I? I own fifty-one percent of the company so it seems like I should be able to. Yet not. Because while I steer fifty-one percent of this company according to my title as majority shareholder of the steering board, it doesn’t feel like I’m in charge of it at all, any more than riding a bucking bull results in any kind of steering of it.

They go over financials first, and there are a series of motions on pension funds—switching up investment vehicles or something like that. At first I try to keep up, asking for things to be explained, a task that Henry always takes on with his icy blue gaze at me that sends shivers skittering over my skin.

“…the balance sheet is figure two in your packet. We’re unhappy with an underperforming pension fund investment. Are you going to vote with us to make it right?”

“Smuckers concurs,” I say. Like I even get any of it.

I was always good at school, but this must be how somebody who doesn’t speak English feels when they’re plopped down into an English-speaking school. All these new terms. Now and then April, who is apparently the type to pull for the underdog, brightens from over in her corner, like when she thinks I asked a good question.

Ninety minutes tick by. Two hours. I question what I’m doing here, but I remind myself how I don’t let rich people push me around. How Henry had me detained, tried to bully me and pay me off.

Never again.

So I sit up. I get mentally tired of asking questions, but I ask them, then I vote however Henry votes.

Henry did, after all, make the company bigger and stronger, according to the reports I crammed on the way over. He’s fiercely protective of it, too, which I suppose is admirable. As CEO, he handles day-to-day operations, but I get to have the final say on those operations as Kaleb once did.

So, in a way, I’m in charge. I’m steering the ship and he’s my galley slave. The idea of him sweaty and shirtless, straining at the oars, comes to me unbidden. He works out. Maybe weights. No, he’s too cool for that. Henry would go for something sporty, like soccer. Or probably a sport where you hit something. Maybe boxing. Or rugby, all rough and tumble.

“Vicky?” Henry’s staring imperiously at me. “Does Smuckers have a vote?”

“Smuckers is with you,” I say. “On this one, anyway.” I say it like Smuckers might not always vote with him. Smuckers is an independent thinker.

Henry turns to the next page of the agenda, calm and suave, a Gucci menswear god without a care in the world.

They drone on to the next item. I make us take a break, blaming it on Smuckers having to go out, but it’s really me. Ten minutes later, we’re back at it.

The one woman in the meeting, Mandy, seems to be a financial person. Brett is all about business relationships. Henry is the vision and strategy guy, and Kaleb is the corporate bottom line and super-argumentative guy. Other people are heads of various business divisions.

They discuss questions at length, look at all the sides of things. They respect and admire and protect each other. They trust each other.

It makes me feel lonely.

Another hour claws by. I’m hungry. Tired. Starting to feel like I did in the police station, and not at all like I’m taking my power back. I look down at my nails, which I painted special for today, just wanting to do a good job. Just wanting to show I’m not this piece-of-shit scammer.

I brush a bit of Smuckers’s fur off my dark dress. Really, I’m so tired of fighting.


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