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Pleasing Mr. Parker: Chapter 9

Griffin

yanks the door to her room open, and I’m met with a fiery gaze.

“Ready to go?”

“Absolutely.” She gives me a tight smile, which might as well be a ‘fuck you’, for all the warmth it lacks.

I stall at the door as my eyes rake over her.

“You look… very nice.” I admire her blouse and suit shorts, which she’s wearing with heels that make her legs look like a long list of reasons as to why I should have stayed in New York.

“Thank you.” The corners of her eyes twitch, and she purses her lips, taking in my tie-free, open-neck shirt and rolled-up sleeves. “I should say the same. I’m not used to seeing you out of your full suit.”

“Not many people do.”

I rub my hand across my jaw, taking in her serious expression. I don’t know how we have gotten off to such an awkward start in our working relationship. I swear she dislikes me more each time she sees me. It’s like I offend her by existing.

“The suit fits in New York. But here… turning up to a business meeting on a plantation, in full suit and tie, when it’s almost one hundred degrees? I’d look like a pompous jerk. Don’t you think?”

Maria smirks and raises an eyebrow. “You said it.”

My lips twitch as her face softens, and she takes another look over me, her eyes lingering on my forearms.

“Shall we?”

“Hmm?” She rolls her lips, her head tilted to one side as her attention stays glued to my arms.

“Get going?” I ask, canting my wrist and pretending to look at my watch.

Her eyes follow and then snap away.

“Yes! Of course.” She steps out of her door and pulls it shut. “Let’s go.”

We collect the car I’ve organized from the hotel valet and drive most of the journey in silence. The local radio station plays island tunes, and Maria sits in the passenger seat, gazing out of the window. Each time I cast my eyes her way, she’s wearing a serene expression—a small smile on her lips as she stares off over the water.

“You seem relaxed?”

She looks at me for a brief second before she turns back to the window and sighs.

“I am. It’s the coast… the water. I used to be able to see it from my house in California.”

“Nothing can match being by the water. New York’s concrete jungle isn’t quite the same. I get it.” I smile as I keep my eyes on the road.

“Do you?”

I glance at her apprehensive expression. “I do. Believe me, Maria. I do.”

She’s still studying me as I turn off the main road and into the small driveway. I’ve been to this grower’s house once before, when I set up the initial contract with Todd’s company. It’s been a few years, but the place looks the same. A few goats are running about freely in the driveway, and coconut palms stretch as far as the eye can see behind the modest house.

“There’s Ken.”

Maria waves at a man approaching the car and climbs out. Ken has already got her hand between both of his and is shaking enthusiastically by the time I walk around to them.

“It’s wonderful to see you, Maria. You look even more beautiful than you were all those years ago when we met.” Maria laughs in response, and he grins. “Trust me. You get to my age; you never forget a beautiful soul.”

He looks over, as if just noticing me.

“Mr. Parker.” He grabs my hand and gives it the same attention as Maria’s, his cloudy eyes crinkling at the corners as he smiles at me. “Maria called to say Todd wasn’t coming. I didn’t expect you to accompany her instead. This is a truly wonderful surprise,” he says with complete sincerity. “Come, come. I will show you the palms you asked about in our emails, and then we can have some tea.”

We follow him up the path and around the back of the house. He walks with a limp, which he didn’t have when I first met him. Maria looks at it and then raises her eyes to meet mine. I shake my head at her. She may feel bad that we are here to ask uncomfortable questions and potentially sever our contract. But this is business. Not a place for personal feelings.

“Here.” Ken turns with his arms out wide, a proud grin plastered over his face. “The beautiful coconut palms.” He laughs and leans over to kiss a trunk, patting it beneath his hand. “Come closer. Look, look.” He takes Maria’s fingers and places them against the tree. “You feel that? Pure island magic.”

“They’re magnificent. Aren’t they, Griffin?” She turns to me, her cheeks glowing.

I stare at rows upon rows of coconut palms. I expected to see the remnants of a fire, or the aftermath of a pest infestation. Some explanation why Ken has been ripping us off to the tune of two point three times the price for his coconut sugar. But this?

They’re fucking thriving.

I see red as I glare at him.

”Is this a joke? We come all the way out here and discover your plantation is perfectly healthy?” I jab a finger at the offending trees.

“I… I… don’t know what you mean?” Ken looks at Maria and then back at me.

“I wasn’t born yesterday. You’re taking me for an idiot. My hotel is paying Todd’s company through the nose for something you’re practically drowning in here. Tell me, is he in on it, too? Are you cutting him in?” I wipe some sweat off my brow and ignore Maria’s widened eyes as she stares at me. “Is that what this is? Screw The Songbird and the guy who owns it? God…”

I shake my head, raging internally at myself. How could I have been so stupid to have missed this? It’s so obvious now. Maria spotted the price discrepancy on day one, for fuck’s sake. How did Todd not pick it up? Or Gwen when she was spa manager? How did I not pick it up?

“No, Mr. Parker. I’m sorry. It’s not like that. I’m an honest man. I’ve a family.” Ken’s eyes bulge in his head as I wave a hand at him.

I’ve heard enough.

“Forget our contract. We’ll find another grower.” I spin on my heels back in the direction of the car.

“No! Please. Mr. Parker, I’m a good man. I promise you,” Ken sputters.

I mutter under my breath. I’m not in the mood for his excuses or sob story. No one crosses me and gets away with it. He can kiss any future deals with The Songbird away.

I will not be anyone’s fool.

“Just a minute, Ken,” Maria says in a calm voice.

She catches up with me and grabs my arm.

“What are you doing?”

Irritation swirls in my gut and pricks at my skin like a thousand tiny needles as I spit, “We’re leaving. Get in the car.”

“No!” She glares at me, her fingers still curled around my forearm.

Why can’t she ever do as she’s told?

My voice comes out deep and throaty as I fix my eyes on hers, staring deeply into them as I suck a breath in through my nose.

“Get in the car, Maria. I’m not asking.”

“I. Will. Not.”

Liquid fire bubbles in my chest as she holds my gaze, her eyes burning into mine.

“Get. In. The. Car.”

She yanks her hand away from my arm and screws her nose up, lowering her voice. “You want to leave? Then go. I came here to find out why we’re being overcharged. And I’m not leaving until I understand the real reason.”

I tip my chin over her shoulder toward Ken, who is standing watching us from the trees, wringing his hands in front of his stomach.

“There’s your reason. Someone who saw a chance to rip me off and took it,” I hiss through gritted teeth.

“Are you even going to ask him?” Maria raises her brows. “Or are you going to be the judge, jury and executioner all in one?”

“What can he possibly say to explain the fact he has a complete load of fucking trees with coconuts on, yet he’s charging us as though they’re harder to find than the holy fucking grail? Damn it.”

Rage tears through me without mercy, and I kick a stone off the path with force. Maria looks at me like I’m a toddler having a tantrum.

“Well, I’m going to ask Ken about it.” She turns to walk back. “Are you going to at least let him have his say?” she says over her shoulder to me.

I don’t reply.

She rolls her eyes and clicks her tongue in a tut. “Suit yourself.”

Oh, for God’s sake.

“Fine! I’ll listen to whatever bullshit he’s no doubt rehearsed,” I mutter as I fall into step beside her, and we walk back over to Ken. “And then we leave.”

Ken darts his eyes between the two of us as we reach him.

“Mr. Parker, Maria. I’m so sorry. I’ve not meant to deceive you. I only do what is best for them.” He extends a hand toward the treetops.

“For who?” Maria asks gently.

I side eye her. This is the woman who built an award-winning spa in California single-handedly, from nothing. Now I’m asking myself how she managed if this is the approach she has. It’s not kindergarten. She may as well be patting Ken on the back and saying ‘there-there’ and offering to put a band-aid on his boo-boo.

Fuck me, maybe hiring her was a mistake.

Ken’s face breaks into a grin and his eyes shine as he points up. I follow his and Maria’s gaze, shielding my eyes from the sun.

“The birds,” he whispers.

A flash of black and yellow rustles the leaves at the top of the tree and a bird appears, whistling a tune.

“They’re special.” Ken beams. “So very special.”

I snort. This is fucking great. Not only is he ripping me off, he’s also stark-raving mad. Probably thinks the feathered little shits talk to him.

“He’s cheerful,” Maria says, watching the bird. “But Ken, the reason we came all this way was to talk about the prices you’re charging. The coconut sugar has more than doubled… Why?”

My adrenaline from earlier subsides as my interest in Maria’s approach grows. Within a matter of minutes, she has made Ken’s expression morph from looking like his worst nightmare is coming true, to pure delight.

“It’s the birds,” Ken says again as another yellow and black one flies over to join the first. “They are Bahama Oriole.”

“They’re what?” I cut in as I stare up at the pair of them.

“They are very special. Critically endangered. I can’t disturb them.” Ken smiles up fondly at them like a proud father.

“What about the other trees? You’ve so many?” Maria asks.

“Ah! But there are more of them.” Ken turns and points from tree to tree. “I see some here, and over the far side of the plantation. They’re breeding! There are only a few places I can get the coconuts for your sugar from without disturbing them.”

“That’s why you put up the price?” Maria asks.

Ken nods in confirmation.

I shake my head and blow out a long breath as Maria looks at me.

I would have preferred Ken to be a raving lunatic over this.

Fucking birds.

“You have to be kidding me. It’s like the pigeons in New York. This is just…” I drag my hands through my hair and let out a deep, frustrated groan before jabbing a hand at the treetop, my jaw tightening. “Just move them. They can find somewhere else to go.”

“Mr. Parker.” Ken’s mouth drops open. “I can’t disturb them. They are endangered! It’s a miracle that they chose my home.” He looks back at the tree in awe.

Jesus Christ.

Maria catches my eye and I swear she finds this funny, judging from the way her eyes are glittering, and she’s twisting her lips together, as if holding back a smile.

“You think it’ s acceptable to charge over double because you can’t disturb a bunch of birds?” I tip my head back to the sky with a humorless laugh, my hands going to my hips.

“I’m sorry. I must protect them. The Bahamas, we need them.” Ken looks at me like one of those charity adverts—with big, pleading eyes—the ones I switch channels to avoid.

“And you expect me and my company to pay the price?” I stare at him.

His face falls as he meets my eye. “You don’t understand. My wife… she loves them. I want to keep her happy. When you meet a good woman, you would do anything for her heart to remain sweet for you.”

I roll my eyes. “I think we’re done here. Maria?”

I look at her, but she’s not paying any attention. Instead, she’s wandered over to a basket on the floor and is holding up a yellowy-orange thing that resembles an oversized ugly lemon.

“Ah, my cacao pods.” Ken walks over to her. “I had a great year with it. It grows big and strong.”

“Really?” Maria furrows her brow as she peers in the basket at the pile of similar pods. She turns to look at me. “I need more cocoa butter for some formula ideas I have.”

I walk over and stand next to her, frowning at the unfortunate looking fruit.

“You need these?”

Her eyes are buzzing with energy as she nods at me, and I can just tell she’s imagining her new creations in her head right this second. She has this brightness about her, this glow that she had the first time I met her in California. The passion flowed from her then. And captivated me.

Just as it is doing now.

God help me.

I was an idiot for thinking we could work together, and it would go away if I simply ignored it.

“Maybe we can work something out?” She smiles at me, sending blood pounding in my ears.

I breathe in. Once. Twice. Holding her gaze as she stares into my eyes, her dark eyelashes framing each blink against the tropical sun.

“Ken?” I turn to him. “Let’s have that tea you mentioned and talk.”


“This is incredible. I can’t believe you got such a good price!” Maria flashes me a bright smile as she holds up the cacao pod.

I pause as we approach the door to her hut.

“It’s the least he could offer us, after we’ve been paying all that extra for months,” I mutter, biting back a smile as she smirks at me.

“Oh, come on. It was the way you negotiated with him. You won him over in the end.”

“In the end?” I raise a brow, and she laughs.

“After the steam stopped coming out of your ears.” Her laugh dies down and she looks up at me, her brow furrowing as she takes in a slow breath. “Harley told me about the signature spa formulations going missing. I understand why you felt angry. It makes sense that you hate the idea of someone abusing your trust.”

She gives me a gentle smile, her pink lips plump and inviting.

“Someone stole them and leaked them to a competitor, Maria.”

Her eyes widen as her fingers reach up to her parted lips. “You think it was on purpose?”

“I don’t think. I know.”

My jaw stiffens as I recall the day I found out someone had done it. Larry Vincent couldn’t help calling from his office at The Manton to gloat about being offered them in exchange for a fee. He took delight in telling me how one of my staff was likely responsible, and that I ought to tighten up my ship. Our hotels have been rivals since our grandfathers ran them. Both men moved in similar social circles, where they met my grandmother. She was smitten with my grandfather from the get-go. Larry’s grandfather took a while to accept that fact.

“Griffin. That’s awful. I’m so sorry.” Maria reaches out and lays her hand on my arm.

“It was one of my staff,” I say through gritted teeth. “That’s what cuts deepest. It was someone I placed my trust in.”

I shake my head as I look into her eyes. To this day, I still don’t know who is responsible if it wasn’t Gwen. I swear whoever it is will regret it for every second of their worthless lives when I find out.

She holds my gaze, her hand still on my arm. “I get it.”

Something about her voice makes my eyes narrow so I can study her. Faint lines crease the corners of her eyes, pain flashing through them momentarily.

“Sounds like a story there?”

She drops her eyes to the pod in her hands and removes her hand from my arm, stroking the pod as a sad smile settles on her face. Apart from her spa in LA, I barely know a thing about her—about her history before that, where she came from, what drove her into starting her own business.

Now the realization is hitting me.

It’s all I want to know about.

She tucks a long dark strand of hair behind her ear. “Yes.” She winces, exposing a vulnerability to her I’ve never noticed before. She’s always in control, always professional, always…

“Maria?”

She lifts her gaze to meet mine and I’m caught in her stunning hazel eyes.

“Have dinner with me?” I say before thinking, knowing I’m probably her last choice for a dinner companion. “I’ve stayed here before, and the food is outstanding—”

“Yes,” she breathes, looking at me, two lines forming suddenly between hers as though she regrets her answer already.

“Okay.” I nod, clearing my throat.

“I’ll meet you at the pool bar in an hour.” She hands me the cacao pod and disappears inside her room.

I look down at the knobbly yellow fruit in my hand.

“See you in an hour,” I murmur.


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