“When are you coming back?” Mary-Knight whined.
Laney sighed heavily. She was seconds away from wringing her manager’s neck. “I’ll be back on the twentieth. I put a reminder on your calendar last week.”
“The least you could have done was taken a four-day cruise. How am I supposed to get anything done while you’re on vacation?”
Laney didn’t have to tell the snooty bitch if she didn’t use her well-earned vacation she would lose it. Mary-Knight already knew this but she insisted on muttering about it. It was pointless for Laney to mention she’d only used two days of vacation last year. She would have used more if it weren’t for Mary-Knight calling her at all hours of the night, barking for her to complete projects, projects she would present to the “big wigs” as her own. It was only by sheer grace that she and Laney hadn’t had an all-out catfight by now. Lord knows it had been building up for years.
Mary-Knight Tyler had been Laney’s manager every since she’d transferred into the art department two years earlier. Their relationship had been toxic from day one. Mary-Knight had a bad habit of delegating her entire workload to her subordinates, namely Laney. This was unfortunate because, when pressed, Mary-Knight was very talented. But instead of actually working, Mary-Knight filled her days sucking up to members of upper management, circulating office gossip and, of course, lusting after the company’s young (and very single) CEO, Mr. Sinclair. Laney could think of a dozen more productive things Mary-Knight could be doing with her time.
“You do realize,” Mary-Knight continued, “you’ll have to do some serious overtime when you get back, right?”
“I know.” Laney sighed under her breath. “You’ve mentioned that twice already.”
“I just want to make sure you understand how much we have to do.” Mary-Knight smoothed back a stray hair. “We have clients, after all. They expect us to complete their projects.”
Correction, Laney thought, I’ve completed all my projects. Mary-Knight was referring to her own workload, a stack of incomplete files that would no doubt find themselves into Laney’s inbox by the time she returned from vacation.
“Make a list,” Laney said in a flat monotone, “and we’ll work on it when I get back.”
She wouldn’t dare tell Mary-Knight her cruise didn’t leave until next Saturday. Laney needed the next few days off to relax and completely forget about work. If things went according to plan, she would be engaged next week. There was no way she was going to let Mary-Knight ruin it by stressing her out about her workload.
There was a beep from Mary-Knight’s desk phone, and a smooth, rich voice flowed through. “Mary-Knight.”
Laney watched Mary-Knight’s eyes widen as she leaped closer to the phone. “Yes, Mr. Sinclair?” she said in a breathless voice.
“We’re having a quick meeting about the prospect of the Zelman account,” the voice informed. “Can you join us?”
“Yes, Mr. Sinclair,” she chirped happily. “I’ll be happy to help in any way I can. I’m on my way.”
Apparently satisfied with her response, the speaker emitted a loud beep, signaling the call had just been terminated. There could be no mistaking the seductive note in Mary-Knight’s voice. When it came to Mr. Sinclair, Mary-Knight was ravenous. This wasn’t necessarily a crime, considering every woman at Sinclair Corp nursed an infatuation for the CEO. Mr. Sinclair’s effect on his female employees often mystified Laney. Since being handed the position from his father, Nicolas Sinclair was little more than a ghost to everyone but his executive team. He was rarely in the office for an entire day. During the few occasions when he did grace the building with his presence, he locked himself away in his office, only emerging long enough to greet important clients and sit in on meetings. The end result was very few people ever saw him.
Mary-Knight continued the gaze at the phone a few minutes longer. Her eyes had gone slightly dreamy, and whether she was aware of it or not, she licked her lower lip nervously. For a minute, Laney thought she looked years younger, which was saying a lot; Mary-Knight was only thirty-five.
Laney fought back the urge to roll her eyes heavenward when Mary-Knight began prepping herself for her meeting with Mr. Sinclair. Watching her reapply her makeup and spray body splash along her neck and arms, Laney concluded Mary-Knight’s feelings for Mr. Sinclair surpassed any ordinary crush, they veered more toward obsession.
Seeming to have awakened from her love-struck stupor, Mary-Knight gave a small cough and pulled herself up taller. Her eyes, now flashing with alert clarity, fixed Laney with a predatory smile. “I’ll work on our list this evening,” she sang. “Are you working late today?”
After working with the woman for years, it still amazed Laney how Mary-Knight managed to disguise her demands as harmless questions. It gave Laney great satisfaction to match Mary-Knight’s false smile with one of her own. “No, I’m leaving at noon, remember?”
Mary-Knight’s smile vanished. “But Laney, I need your help on the Moore project!” There was a definite note of desperation in her voice.
“Can it wait until I get back?” Laney asked.
Mary-Knight tossed a lock of auburn hair over her shoulder and fixed her assistant with a cold look. “No, it can’t.”
* * * *
Laney didn’t get home until seven that night. Damn Mary-Knight! Not only had she waited until an hour before she was scheduled to leave the office before surprising her with the Moore account; the idiot hadn’t worked on it at all. Once again, Mary-Knight was tossing her work at Laney. There was no justice.
Calm down, girl, she soothed herself. Yes, Mary-Knight was a bitch, but if Laney could just hang in there for another year or so, her supervisor would eventually be promoted and out of Laney’s hair. Shaking her head, Laney forced herself to think of better things. No more Mary-Knight. No more Sinclair Corp. She was officially on vacation. The only thing she needed to concern herself with was what to pack.
Laney had just laid out several potential outfits when Danny sailed through her front door. She wasn’t concerned with his comfort in her home. Like clockwork, Danny had arrived on her doorstep at exactly eight p.m. every weekday for the last year. It had become quite pointless to lock her door around that time, so Laney had gotten into the habit of leaving her front door unlocked when she got home in the evenings, knowing Danny would lock it when he arrived.
“Hey, babe!” he called out. “How was work today?” He floated into the room and kissed her on the cheek as he made his way to the kitchen.
She groaned loudly. “I’m trying to forget about that place, Danny.”
“Mary-Knight is a bitch,” he said automatically.
“Always,” she agreed.
She knew he’d only said that to excuse himself from having to listen to her complain for an hour about how incompetent the woman was. Ordinarily, his ploy wouldn’t have deterred her, but today Laney decided to break from tradition. She was tired of wasting energy thinking about the office.
Daniel Rushmore was both Laney’s neighbor and close friend. The two had met soon after she’d moved into her small but stylish flat over a year ago. Danny ran his own interior design company. Although she’d never tell him, for fear he might become even more vain than usual, Laney thought he was a darn good designer. Apparently, she wasn’t the only person who thought so. He worked for prestigious San Francisco residents and had built a reputable name as the leading designer for high-rises and condominiums. Normally very private people, strangely Danny and Laney hit it off early in their friendship. Lately, Danny’s presence had become a staple in her life. Since his breakup with Bruce, a club bouncer he fancied himself in love with after four weeks of dating, Danny had become a permanent fixture at her place. Laney didn’t mind, though. Danny was always entertaining.
“Here you go, sweetie.” Danny handed her a glass of red wine. “We deserve it!”
She smiled. “I couldn’t agree with you more.” She took a small sip of her wine and returned her concentration to the clothes spread across her bed. “How was work?”
“Murder. If I drop dead right now, blame it on Ivy Vanderbilt. Beautiful girl but I swear she’ll be the death of me. Thank God she pays me well. At least it will be a nice funeral. Mother would be proud. Take the black dress, Laney. You should never travel without one.”
She wrinkled her nose. “You don’t think it’s a little plain?”
“Simplicity is always in style,” he insisted. “Besides, it has a low neckline. It’s sexy without being suggestive. Trust me.”
She nodded. “I think you’re right. I’ll pack it.” She lifted the dress up and carefully slipped it into a garment bag.
“I have a bone to pick with you,” Danny announced.
“This should be interesting,” she said teasingly. “What did I do?”
“I read an article today on your boss, Nicolas Sinclair. They did this big editorial on him in Traditional Living. Wade Dobber redesigned his dining room. It looks amazing.”
She shrugged. “I wasn’t aware dining rooms were national news.”
“They’re not.” He grinned. “But I’m pissed you never told me how cute he is.”
She shot him an appalled look.
“That Sinclair fellow is hot, Laney!”
She rolled her eyes. “I guess.”
“I’ve never noticed, Danny. I’m usually too busy working.”
He puckered his lips. “You mean you’ve never noticed because he’s white.”
“I mean I’ve never noticed because he’s not Rob. Can you hand me that satchel?”
He tossed her the item and made a loud snort. “Oh, how could I forget tall, ebony Rob?”
“Don’t be rude,” she chided.
Danny turned up his nose. He’d never cared much for her boyfriend and had never pretended otherwise. Rob returned Danny's dislike with mutual gusto. To Laney’s knowledge, the two had never had any disagreement in the past. They’d always been perfectly cordial to each other during the few times they’d been forced to share company. Although she wouldn’t tell either of them, she suspected they were jealous of her time. They seemed to be engaged in some quiet war with each other to figure out who she liked best. It was silly, but Laney couldn’t help but be amused by their efforts.
Danny had short, jet-black hair which he wore spiked up in the front. He was a good-looking guy, in a conservative uptown way. If Danny didn’t literally tell you he was gay, you wouldn’t know it. He lacked any of the dramatic or feminine characteristics one might associate with homosexuals. She suspected this was the reason Rob didn’t like Danny. According to Rob, Danny wasn’t ‘gay enough.’ Whatever that meant.
“What do you want him to do?” she’d once asked him. “Should he wear tiny shorts and tie his shirt in a knot above his bellybutton? Would that make you feel better?”
“It would help,” he said with a smirk.
“Back to Sinclair,” Danny said, clapping his hands together to regain her attention. “You have to introduce me.”
“Why not? You don’t even like him.”
“No, I don’t,” she agreed.
“Because he’s white,” he accused.
“Danny, you’re white.”
“Oh, you have a point.” Danny’s gray eyes flitted to the side. “Well, I’m your only white friend.”
“You’re my only friend,” she corrected. “I barely know anyone here. If it weren’t for our mailboxes being next to each other, I wouldn’t even know you.”
“I guess you have a point. You’re a hermit.” He stretched out across her bed. “So you’ll think about introducing me?”
“Danny, sweetheart, I don’t even know the guy. He’s a silver-spoon kid. He barely puts in a cameo at work. I’ve only seen the guy a handful of times. Besides, I’m pretty sure he’s straight.”
He mulled over the information. “So you’ll think about it?”
She tossed a pillow at him.
“Okay, I was just joking.” He glanced at her selections. “Take the ice-blue and the peach dresses.”
“You think?” She looked uncertain. “I wasn’t so sure about the peach one.”
Danny snapped his fingers in her face. “Honey, if I weren’t gay, I would be all over you in that dress.”
She laughed. “You’re insane.”
He gave her a rueful smile. “I know.”
* * * *
No one threw a party quite like Richie Benson. His social gatherings were plentiful, seemingly hosted for little, or no, reason at all. They were so numerous, it was not uncommon for the host and his wife to be out of town during said events. Guests rarely took notice of their host’s whereabouts. The liquor was free, the parking valeted, and for many, Benson’s house served as a good place to escape family life for a few precious hours.
These gatherings played an important role within San Francisco’s advertising industry. It was widely said, more networking and negotiations happened on the grounds of the Benson estate than in any downtown conference room. Invites to the Benson home, for yet another one of their cocktail mixers, were hard to come by. Richie Benson only extended the honor to close personal friends and business associates. As a result, attendees to these parties were generally old rich men, who worked too much, drank too much, and were usually on the brink of another divorce.
Nicolas Sinclair loathed these parties, and avoided going whenever possible. He took no pleasure in nursing a tumbler of brandy for two hours, pretending to look entertained, while everyone stood around trading one piece of gossip for another. For Nick, it was quite literally hell on Earth. But tonight, he was willing to put up with this and a lot more. Tonight, he had a plan, and he was determined to see it through.
Nick steered his car down the winding lane, pulling up to a large Mediterranean-styled establishment. Every light in the home was lit. Set against a dark night sky, the house gave the appearance of a bright star, moments before imploding. Even from the street, Nick could hear the buzz of multiple conversations, broken only by sudden, loud, and very recognizable, bursts of drunken laughter.
Nick tossed his car keys to the valet attendant and entered the home with the ease of someone who’d passed through these doors hundreds of times before—which was, in fact, the truth. Nick had known the Bensons practically all his life. Richie Benson was more like a neglectful uncle, someone who only remembered you existed when he happened to run into you. He’d visited the Sinclair home when it suited him but never stayed long enough for Nick to say he knew him well
Stepping into the foyer, Nick spotted their host almost immediately. Richie Benson was a tall, white-haired man with heavily creased laugh lines around his mouth. His watery eyes gave the briefest flash of recognition when he saw Nick. He moved forward, clapped Nick hard across the shoulder blades and said in a voice louder than necessary, “How are you, boy?”
“Fine, sir.” Nick said with a nod, trying not to cringe at the ‘boy’ remark. “Is he here?”
“Not yet,” Richie said, in his signature booming decibel. “But he will be.” He nudged his head in the direction of the home’s crowded public areas. “Excellent turnout tonight, wouldn’t you say? No one can resist good gossip.” He squeezed Nick’s shoulder. “The vultures are circling. You’d best get in there before they start the attack without you.”
Nick straightened his tie. “They won’t attack until the carcass arrives.”
Richie gave a loud bark of laughter, causing several nearby guests to jump and clumsily try to regain control of the drinks clutched in their hands.
Nick excused himself, preferring to scan the rooms alone, mentally making a list of all present. Richie had been right; tonight’s attendance level was nearly double its normal size. The mood in the home was one of eager anticipation. The stage had been set, and they were now waiting for the star performer to arrive.
Nick weaved his way through the crowd, speaking briefly with business associates and several competitors. He’d been there for nearly an hour before he heard Richie’s thunderous voice welcome a newcomer. Nick looked up just in time to see their host walking beside the very man whose rumored appearance at tonight’s soirée was the reason for such an enthusiastic crowd.
The carcass had just entered the lions’ den.
Nick hung back for a while, observing the man at Richie’s side. His expression was guarded but certainly not intimidated. Nick watched as the man acknowledged a select few and expertly sidestepped others. He managed to free himself of Richie’s company and joined a small group of men clustered near the back of the living area. When Nick was certain the man had committed himself to this spot, he decided now was the time to make his move.
He made a large loop along the perimeter of the room, not wanting to appear as if he were making a direct path toward the group. As it turned out, he had little fear of being observed. Everyone was too busy casting furtive looks at their special guest. The cluster of men were doing such an excellent job of ignoring the room at large, neither of them noticed Nick until he was upon them.
“Gentlemen,” he said, nodding to each before turning to the man at his left. “Mr. Zelman, it’s a pleasure to see you again.” Nick gave the elder man a firm handshake. “Nice of you to join us.” Nick had come to tonight’s gathering for the sole purpose of talking to the man. He was determined to make a positive impression.
William Zelman gave him a cool look. He was a power player and he knew it. He also knew every marketing firm on the West Coast would kill to take over his account, allowing him to be reserved in all dealings.
“Sinclair, isn’t it?” Zelman asked, clearly uninterested. “What a surprise. I didn’t know you would be here tonight.”
“This is a bit of a last-minute stop for me,” Nick said, working hard to hold on to his smile.
“Interesting,” Zelman said in a bored voice. “I wasn’t aware you were affiliated with Ritchie Benson.”
“We socialize from time to time,” Nick said. “He’s good friends with my father.”
“Right, how is Sheldon?” Zelman looked down at his watch, not long enough to actually check the time but just long enough to let Nick know his time was just about up.
“He’s well, thank you.” Nick could feel himself losing steam. “I’ll be sure to tell him you asked.”
Zelman nodded. “Glad you could make it.”
Properly dismissing Nick, William Zelman turned to the man at his right and began a conversation. Despite his obvious indifference, Nick was surprised Zelman remembered his name. They had been to many of the same events, but Zelman never had much to say to him. There were times when he outright ignored him. Zelman was the type of man who rarely spoke, and when he did, it was with cautious forethought. Never one to give too much away, he was always watching his surroundings, careful to note even the smallest and most insignificant of actions. He’d created quite a reputation for walking away from business ventures for the oddest reasons. One rumor claimed Zelman backed out of a huge sale because the guy smacked his food during the celebratory dinner the night before signing.
Everyone was talking about the shakedown between Zelman and Proctor, Sinclair Corp’s competitor. The buzz was Zelman’s soup campaign had recently bombed due to an ill-timed marketing strategy launched by Proctor, Inc. Zelman counted this as the final straw of failed marketing plans and was actively accepting bids for a new advertising firm. Nick knew Sinclair Corp could stand to gain millions from the acquisition of the Zelman account, but the trick was to persuade Zelman to see the light. It was near to impossible.
As fate would have it, a colleague who happened to know Nick drew Zelman into conversation. The discussion ranged from sports to home life. Nick had little to say on the latter, as he was a confirmed bachelor. Instead, he stood by and listened intently, but he wasn’t alone. Cooper Wright, a competitor, had managed to dance his way into the group. Cooper’s arrival only intensified Nick’s determination. Sinclair Corp and The Wright Agency had been in heavy competition for years. They were skilled at spying on each other and had no qualms about stealing clients. Their fathers had started the feud and now their sons were respectfully continuing the tradition. There was no love lost between the two families. For the moment, Nick and Cooper stood silently aside, letting the other men exchange light banter, all the while giving each other ‘go to hell’ looks. Each was waiting for the perfect opportunity to lure Zelman into discussion, but that moment was long in coming. Half an hour had passed, and the group was still focused on domestic issues. Nick was bored with it all. How much longer could this torture go on? Didn’t social protocol only allow a maximum of two personal stories to be shared when in the presence of strangers? Who cared how smart someone’s grandson was? Or that little Suzie had just been accepted into some fancy prep school? Nick was growing anxious. One quick glance at Cooper and he could tell the feeling was mutual. Nick’s first plan had been to wait Cooper out. Surely one of them would have to refill their drink or go to the bathroom. But Cooper hadn’t faltered. In fact, he was easing himself closer to Zelman. Nick considered his options. There was no graceful way to turn the conversation toward a topic Nick was more comfortable with, but he had to think of something fast. Cooper was moving in for the kill. Nick glanced at Zelman, desperately racking his brain to think of something clever to say. Nothing came. And then, a thought slowly began to take shape in his head. He fixed his gaze on the older man, not just watching him but actually listening to him. To Nick’s amazement, Zelman (who was normally quiet and reserved) had become quite vocal when the conversation focused on family life. Nick saw this as his opportunity.
“A man’s family is the most valuable treasure he can obtain during his lifetime,” Zelman said with fervor. “I’ve had many successes over the years, but none of that matters when I see the look on my wife’s face when I come home.”
“I couldn’t agree with you more.” Nick was just as surprised as Zelman by the sound of his own voice.
William Zelman’s bushy eyebrow perked. “You’re married, Sinclair?”
“Yes, sir,” Nick answered before he could catch himself.
Zelman looked at him with new awareness. “I had no idea.”
“Neither did I.” Cooper Wright picked this opportunity to join the conversation. “Please tell us, Sinclair, how long have you been wed?”
There was a knowing smile that tickled the tips of Cooper’s lips. He was clearly on the verge of laughing out loud but curiosity made him refrain. He obviously wanted to see how far Nick would go.
“We’ve been married for a year now,” Nick lied.
“That’s strange,” Cooper said, stepping forward so he could be better seen. “As many times as we’ve run into each other, I’ve never seen Mrs. Sinclair.” He had thrown down the gauntlet, sending a clear warning to Nick that if he wasn’t careful, his big mouth was going to bury him alive.
“Well, that shouldn’t be a surprise,” Nick said. “I’ll keep her hidden for as long as I can. I wouldn’t let my wife come within ten feet of you guys.” He laughed off an unusual shiver of nervousness. “I wouldn’t want her to realize how good I made out in the deal. It’ll give her a reason to leave me.” He winked at Zelman, unsure if that answer was even believable.
William Zelman eyed him suspiciously for a torturous minute before joining him in his jest. “Good for you, Sinclair. I thought I was the only one. I hate going to these industry parties, but I’d hate it even more if Vivian were with me. I may be old, but I’m just as possessive today as I was the day I first met her.”
Nick released a sigh of relief. With any luck, he could maneuver his way into Zelman’s good graces and land his account. Screw Cooper. He was going to ride this for all it was worth.
As if reading his mind, Cooper Wright did not wish to be forgotten. “Perhaps our wives could get together sometime, Sinclair.” His eyes threw a daring message at Nick. “You know, like a homemade dinner at my place. Perhaps you would like to join us, Mr. Zelman.”
Nick knew damn well Cooper wasn’t married. He was moving in on his territory by trying to destroy his edge. “I’m afraid that’s not possible, Coop.”
“Why not? We would love to have you over.” Cooper winked at Nick. “Both of you.”
Nick flashed him a strained grin, his mind viciously working to come up with a reason why he couldn’t bring his imaginary wife to dinner. “We have plans…” he said slowly, “…that will make us quite unavailable for the next few weeks.”
“Is that so?” Cooper’s eyes sparkled.
Nick would have dropped the conversation with that response, but Cooper and Zelman were staring at him expectantly, waiting for an explanation. Shit. What could possibly be so important that he’d have to postpone a simple dinner date? He was just about to panic when a bulb of brilliance lit above his head. Nick relaxed. “Our anniversary is coming up.”
Cooper laughed, unamused.
“Is that right?” Zelman gave what could vaguely be called a smile. “So is mine. This month?”
“Uh…” Nick was speechless.
Zelman didn’t wait for an answer. “Vivian and I are celebrating our thirteenth anniversary this month.”
“So—so are we. I mean our anniversary is this month as well.” Nick was struggling to keep up with the turn of events.
“Congratulations to you both,” Cooper acknowledged. “Mine is this summer,” he lied.
Zelman nodded. “Any special plans, Wright?”
Nick smiled. It was nice to see Cooper pale a little under Zelman’s piercing gaze.
“Well. . .I hadn’t really decided on anything in particular.” Cooper blushed a deep red. “I let the little lady plan things like that.”
“Oh.” Zelman nodded, unimpressed. “And what about you, Sinclair?”
Nick searched his mind frantically. Suddenly, this morning’s conversation with Mary-Knight popped into his head. I have the reports ready, but I’m waiting for my assistant, Laney, to type them up. She’s going on a cruise to the Caribbean with her boyfriend. I’ll make sure she handles this as soon as she returns. A wave of confidence settled over Nick. Finally, he had control over this absurd conversation. He now knew how to gain Zelman’s respect and shut Cooper up.
“A Caribbean cruise.” He smiled. “My wife and I are going to relax and fall in love all over again.”
Cooper’s mouth dropped.
“I’ve been thinking about this for months,” Nick boldly fabricated. “I wanted to do something extra special for my girl and I think this will work.”
Zelman patted him on the back. “Great minds must think alike. I’m taking my wife on a cruise to the Caribbean for our anniversary, too. Out of Florida?”
Nick nodded, not trusting himself to speak any longer.
Zelman laughed. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re booked for the same vessel.”
* * * *
Nick sat in his car thunderstruck. His conversation with Zelman and Cooper had really veered into left field. How was it that he’d claimed himself to be married for a year and celebrating his anniversary next week? How had he managed to keep a straight face when he lied to Zelman about all the wonderful attributes of his bride? Even more important was how could he make this situation work to his benefit?
Thinking with a clear head for the first time that night, he flipped open his cell phone and punched in a number.
“Hello?” a sleepy voice whispered.
“Linda, this is Sinclair. Did I wake you?” It was eleven p.m., and Linda was a mother of two; of course he’d woken her.
“No, Mr. Sinclair.” She muffled a yawn. “I was up. How can I help you?”
“William and Vivian Zelman are scheduled to go on a cruise sometime this month. The ship departs from Florida and is destined for the Caribbean. I need you to book passage for Mr. and Mrs. Sinclair on the same liner, preferably assigned to a room near the Zelmans’ suite.”
“Okay…” she said, clearly confused but making notes as he spoke.
“Make sure my room is very romantic. Whatever a couple would choose for their first anniversary. It has to be perfect, Linda.”
“Do you know which liner Mr. Zelman is booked for?” she asked.
“No, but it’s scheduled to leave next week.” The sound of Linda’s scribbling came to an abrupt stop. She paused, and he could almost see her squeeze her eyes shut in prayer.
After a long pause, she said, “I’ll work on this first thing in the morning.”
“Be a dear, Linda, and work on it tonight. This is top priority. Brief me in the morning.”
“Okay,” she responded in a clipped voice. “Is there anything else I can assist you with?”
“Yes, call Roger Eaton and tell him to find out everything he can about Vivian Zelman.”