Authors: Adrianne Byrd
To Alda Townsend.
Here’s to new friendships.
itting on top of the world—what a joke.
C. J. Cartel’s cold and jaded gaze skittered across downtown Atlanta’s cityscape while bitterness rose and left a vile taste in her mouth. The perfect view was just one of the rewards of being CEO of a Fortune 500 company. She took a deep breath and turned from the wall-length window, unimpressed.
She moved across the office with quick, determined strides—her mind already cluttered with the day’s agenda. For the most part, C. J. Cartel was nothing more than a name scrolled across important documents, but it was a name with power and influence.
Returning to her desk, she buzzed her secretary.
“Liz, do you have my calendar?” Her tone was hard, quick and to the point—as usual.
“Yes, ma’am,” Liz practically sang over the intercom. “I’ll bring it in for you.”
Seconds later, Liz sauntered through the door, wearing a short tailored suit. Her honey-brown complexion seemed luminous beneath the room’s lighting, while each spiral curl crowning her flawless face behaved.
“Here you are,” she said with a smile.
C.J. suppressed a scowl. No one had a right to be that perky. “Thanks,” she said with a dismissive nod.
Liz didn’t move.
Lifting her head, C.J. arched a quizzical brow. “Yes?”
Her secretary’s smile brightened as she pulled out a small box. “I got you something.” She placed the ivory-papered gift, complete with a bright red bow, in the center of her desk. “Happy birthday!”
Instead of being flattered, C.J. was annoyed. “You shouldn’t have.”
“Oh, it was no problem.” Liz waved off the sarcastic reply with a sweep of her hand. “I know you don’t like celebrating your birthday, but when I saw this, I simply couldn’t resist.”
It was the same excuse she’d used for the past four years, but C.J. swallowed the sharp retort that crested her lips and opened the box. At first sight of the snowball, her breath hitched in her throat and an unexpected emotion nearly paralyzed her.
“Well, take it out of the box.”
She obeyed without much thought.
Liz reached over and shook the small orb, and glitter swirled around a beautifully posed ballerina who bore an uncanny resemblance to C.J. “Do you like it?”
She hated it. “I have a lot of work to do, Liz. And so do you.” She caught the flicker of disappointment across the secretary’s face, but ignored it.
“Yes, ma’am.” Liz lowered the gift onto the desk and turned to leave.
C.J. waited until she heard the click of the door before chancing a look, then gave herself a mental kick. She hadn’t handled that well at all. Her gaze returned to the gift.
Her birthdays always had a way of playing like a Shakespearean tragedy—the measles, a broken arm, a broken engagement and her father’s death. She turned away and struggled to hide her emotions behind the steel armor she spent years building.
But no matter what she did, guilt resided permanently with her conscience. To this day, she felt certain that there was something she could have done to save her father.
Her painful memories came to a screeching halt at the sound of an angry male voice outside her door just seconds before it jerked open.
“There you are!” Travis Edwards’s gaze raked her.
She jumped to her feet, more out of anger than surprise.
“I’m sorry, Ms. Cartel. He just barged past me,” Liz said with wide-eyed disbelief.
C.J. tilted her head in understanding and gave her secretary permission to leave.
With an apologetic frown, Liz closed the door.
Taking a deep, calming breath, C.J. reclaimed her seat, then centered her icy gaze on her intruder.
Travis Edwards slammed his fist against her desk. “Do you think I’m going to stand by and just let you destroy everything I’ve worked for without putting up a fight?”
Silently, she prepared for the flare-up of dramatics that usually accompanied men’s bursts of outrage.
“You have some damn nerve. I may be old, but I’m no fool. This isn’t over by a long shot.”
“I’m not in the business of destroying anything, Mr. Edwards,” she answered humbly with outspread palms. It was a small white lie, but those never hurt anybody. “Now, if you’d just relax and take a look at our proposal—”
“I’m not looking at anything.” He wagged his finger as he continued. Steel glittered in his eyes, signaling he was a man accustomed to battles. But unfortunately, he was at war with one of the best in the business.
“I’ve heard how you do business, Cartel. I know firsthand about the legions of companies you’ve destroyed, and I don’t intend to be next.” His gaze swept over the lavish office with growing contempt.
C.J. watched over wire-rimmed glasses and with
cool aloofness at the incensed gentleman. “Well, I’d hoped that we could discuss this like civilized adults. Since we’re one member shy for that, I believe this meeting is over,” she announced.
Utter loathing covered Travis’s face, while a wild look of desperation filled his eyes. “No. I won’t allow you to do this to me.”
She had heard every possible success story businessmen recited whenever they stared down the barrel of a hostile takeover, and they all bored her. “This is all very touching, but like I said, this meeting is over.”
“Why you b—”
“Watch it, Mr. Edwards. If I were you, I wouldn’t say something I’d regret.” Her icy tone silenced him without raising a decibel. “Now, the proposal I’m offering doesn’t exactly leave you destitute. You’ll still be considered a rich man. Isn’t that all that really matters?”
“Hell no!” He brushed a hand along his handsomely groomed salt-and-pepper hair. “You think I don’t know that Colin Hunter is behind all of this?”
“That’s not true.” She lied again, but shrugged the guilt off as being a nuisance. What difference did it make if her new vice president initiated the deal?
“I wasn’t born yesterday.”
Leaning back, she studied the emotionally distraught businessman with developing interest. She knew his kind. He thought he could storm into her office and intimidate her, but she had long ago learned the rules of hardball, and she considered herself a champion.
“No, Mr. Edwards, I think you’re cornered. I think you have very little choice but to accept my offer.” She glanced at her watch. “And unfortunately, you’re wasting my time.”
Edwards’s handsome features darkened. “This is nothing more than a game to you, isn’t it? Well, this is my
.” He thought he saw a twinge of guilt cross Cartel’s delicate features, but it quickly vanished. He should have known better. Behind her dark eyes and warm brown complexion lay an armor of pure ice.
His face reddened, yet this time when he opened his mouth, there was no sound.
C.J.’s bored gaze lifted and cautiously turned concerned.
Edwards grasped at his shoulder and seemed to struggle with the mere task of supplying air to his lungs. His eyes darkened with pain.
She sprang from her chair and jabbed a button connecting her to her secretary. “Call an ambulance,” she ordered before Liz could answer.
“Right away, Ms. Cartel.”
When she raced around the desk, he grabbed her arm in a painful grip. She winced but didn’t bother to protest. “Help is on the way, Mr. Edwards. Try to relax.”
His grasp tightened as he struggled to talk. “Y-you did this to me.”
athan Edwards knelt for a better angle of his nude model. Her glorious ink-black curls cascaded past her caramel-colored shoulders while her seductive liquid brown eyes flirted through the camera lens.
Racy Latin music and the merriment of the growing crowd below the studio drifted through the open windows, while two ceiling fans added little to cool the studio’s sweltering heat. Nathan stood and removed his shirt, frustrated by the way it clung to his moist skin. Without skipping a beat, he resumed working.
“I can’t tell you how happy I was when you called.” Aria jump-started the conversation.
“My schedule has been crazy lately.” He stood to adjust the lighting on a nearby lamp. “But I’ve been meaning to call.”
“Well, that’s good to hear.”
Nathan shook his head, flattered by the way her gaze roamed his exposed chest. “I meant that in the most professional manner possible,” he added.
Her directness never failed to bring a smile to his lips.
“Besides…” she said as she struck a different pose while he resumed working “…hasn’t anyone ever told you that all work and no play isn’t good for you?”
“I believe you did the last time we worked together.”
“You should listen to me.” Her fingers circled an erect nipple. “I have just the thing in mind to help you relax.”
Nathan frowned. “Aria,” he said with a note of warning.
“Yes?” Her gaze feigned innocence and met his bold one.
“I’d rather not.”
“That much is obvious.” He stopped. “I’d really like to get these done in one session.”
She dropped her hands to her hips. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you were gay.”
A low rumble of laughter shook his chest. “Just because I won’t give into your…charms?”
“No man has ever refused me before,” she stated matter-of-factly. “I mean, you’re not even tempted.”
Nathan caught the hint, then nodded with a growing smile. Her pride was at stake. “Who said I wasn’t tempted?”
Her chin lifted and the damage had been repaired. In truth, Aria was one of his favorite models. His camera loved her, just like any eye that followed the leggy temptress.
As they continued with the shoot, he imagined being lost in the folds of her luscious curves and threading his fingers through her hair. He watched as she ran her tongue across her parted lips, and he struggled to quell his growing desire when her eyes darkened with something akin to passion.
How long had it been since his split with India—nine months? Hell, it seemed like a lifetime.
Aria swayed her hips to the beat of the upbeat music. Her lashes lowered and just like that the mood shifted.
Never mixing business with pleasure had always been a hard and fast rule, and now he was in danger of breaking it.
“Why don’t we have a little party of our own?” she offered, closing the sparse distance between them. “One of these days,” she whispered, “you’re going to realize that you need people.”
She struck a nerve, and his smile faded and the mood vanished. “I wouldn’t bet on it.”
Aria’s expression turned serious. “I would bet my life on it.” She regarded him. “I’ve often wondered what caused that pain in those beautiful eyes of yours.”
“You’re imagining things.” He returned his concentration to his work, his earlier temptations forgotten.
“I hate to think that an old flame or something has turned you against love,” she persisted, undaunted by his mood swings.
“It was definitely an ‘or something.’” He laughed. “Women. Who fills your heads with such wild illusions of love, anyway?”
“It’s not who—it’s what. And the answer is our hearts. You’d be a lot better off if you’d listen to yours every once in a while, instead of trying to convince yourself that you don’t have one.”
Silence trailed her final comment.
Nathan weighed her words and even felt there may have been a little truth to them, but he couldn’t help how he felt. Love and commitment may be what the rest of the world searched for, but it wasn’t for him.
She retrieved her silk robe, her face flushed with anger as she stormed off.
“Where are you going?”
“I’m taking a break,” she said over her shoulder.
“What the hell did I do now?”
The slam of the bathroom door was her only answer. He mumbled a curse and struggled not to throw something. “Women. You never know what’s
going to set them off.” And this time he was at a complete loss.
At times like these, he preferred assignments with animals. He glanced at his watch and weighed his options. There were no windows in the bathroom, and he suspected it was simply a matter of time before the humidity forced her out. Or he could just call it a wrap.
He’d given her until the count of ten, and had only reached five before the door opened.
“I’m not angry at you,” she said, leaning against the door frame. “Just men like you.”
“Well, that clears it up for me.”
She shrugged off his sarcasm and tightened her robe’s belt. “I mean it. You live the life of a Bohemian, never staying in one place or with one woman for long.”
Nathan’s brows furrowed at the direction of the conversation.
“It’s almost as if you were afraid of committing to anything.”
“Or anyone?” he added for her. Her nod completed his puzzle.
A high-pitched voice startled them. He turned toward the studio door to see his assistant, Gina, rushing toward them.
“I need to talk to you.” The older woman’s tone held a note of urgency.
His situation with Aria needed to be handled with delicacy. “Can you give me a few minutes?” he asked Gina.
“This can’t wait. It’s about your father.”
Red and white flashing lights blinded fourteen-year-old Carissa. Within seconds, the paramedics brushed her aside in order to tend to her fallen father.
He’s not going to make it.
Her heart didn’t want to believe her mind’s prediction, but the thought held a ring of certainty. Numb, she watched the flurry of activity. He wouldn’t leave her. He’d promised.
When they lifted him onto the gurney, she didn’t recognize him. His skin was so pale—almost lifeless. Carissa lifted her chin and refused to say goodbye.
He was going to be fine. The words were hollow. Her lungs burned as she slowly became aware that she was holding her breath. She drew in the night’s cool air and cleared her head. The doors to the ambulance closed and reality settled and shattered her heart. She would never see him again…
Carissa shook away the memory, but still felt like that scared fourteen-year-old as guilt seeped through her every pore. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t block the image of Travis Edwards’s accusing gaze or words. In her mind, his dark eyes resembled her father’s.
Standing alone in a crowded E.R., she’d finally come full circle. Her stomach twisted into knots. This was the last place she thought she’d ever end up.
A nurse appeared and asked a stream of unanswerable questions. Seconds later, the E.R.’s whirlwind of activity had dulled to a slower pace, but not the thoughts inside her head.
A sudden wave of nausea caught her off guard and sent her rushing to find the nearest restroom. Her entire body trembled as fear blended with tears.
“It’s not my fault,” she recited in a low whisper when she finally came up for air. But no matter how many times she said the words, she couldn’t bring herself to believe them.
She didn’t know how long she sat there hugging the cold porcelain. If she could have her way, she would have remained huddled against it forever.
Stop your whimpering and get up
. She recognized the harsh voice inside her head as her father’s. He hated weakness, and he always seemed to find that flaw in her. The command echoed in her head again, and she stood.
Shakily, she wiped the tears from her eyes, then managed to straighten her clothes. She stepped from behind the stall door with her chin forced high. At the sink, she splashed cold water on her face.
“Ms. Cartel?” Liz poked her head inside the restroom.
Her solitude invaded, C.J. stole another glance at herself, disgusted with the image that stared back. Her long wavy curls lay haphazardly to one side, what little makeup she wore was all but gone, and her clothes were rumpled despite the earlier straightening.
“Are you all right?” Liz moved in farther, her eyes wide with shock.
“Of course. I just came in here to get away from that madhouse out there.” She cringed at the lie.
Liz’s expression told her she didn’t believe her, but she wisely chose to change the subject. “It took some time, but I was finally able to locate a relative. Seems Mr. Edwards doesn’t have much family.”
“Why didn’t you let someone at his company do all that?” C.J. worked to pull her thick hair back into a tight bun at the nape of her neck.
“Would you believe that they were as much at a loss as I was on who to contact? Finally, someone remembered that Edwards has a son. But after all that digging, I have a feeling he didn’t want to be found.”
“Is he on his way?”
the million-dollar question. Let’s just say Nathan Edwards didn’t seem too choked up over the news.”