© 2016, 2017 Mia Caldwell
All Rights Reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
This book is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, or places, events or locations is purely coincidental. The characters are all productions of the author’s imagination.
Julio Torres sat back in the soft leather seat and stared out the window. There was little to see but clouds and the pleasant soft colors of the central Italian countryside. Down there somewhere flowed the Po River, and soon he’d be landing in Milan. He liked Italy, and often wound up visiting Milan on business of one form or another.
He knew his mind was wandering and he let it. He needed to let it rest before the meeting this afternoon.
“Your drink, sir,” said a soft voice at his ear. He turned and smiled at Elaine, the flight attendant. The pretty brunette usually had a smile for him, and she was certainly pleasant to look at. She was a well-educated Frenchwoman in her twenties, and he found her slight accent sexy. “We will be in Milan within the hour.”
“Thank you, Elaine.”
As she moved away, he sipped the single-malt Scotch and wondered why he wasn’t more pleased with himself, his life. It seemed rather petty to be sulky when you were whisked around Europe on your own jet with a handpicked crew who dedicated themselves to your comfort. Business was good, he was thirty-eight and, according to both his doctor and personal trainer, in excellent shape. In a few hours he’d be in his room at one of Milan’s five-star hotels, the Baglioni, where he’d get ready for a business meeting that he had every reason to believe would result in another lucrative contract.
He watched Elaine for a moment and sighed. Her lithe body and accommodating nature were a serious temptation, and he was certain that if he suggested it, she’d be happy to come to his room that evening. Of course, if she did, he was sure it would be because of the allure of the chance at becoming the wife—of the rich and powerful Torres. She might be attracted to him, or she might simply be acting pleasant to her employer—she didn’t really know him, and he knew little about her. Although they’d spent quite a few hours together, it was always in this employee/employer relationship, and he liked what that provided too much to take it further. Better to keep some ideas, some women, in the realm of fantasy.
It amused him to think how she would react if she realized that by being so good at her job, she had ruined her chance to become his lover. He wondered if knowing that would shock or please her. Of course, he might be flattering himself. For all he knew, she was deeply in love with some young man, or woman, for that matter. Nonetheless, despite the lust she aroused and knowing he’d do nothing about it, she made the endless business flight more charming.
“The latest version of the proposal just came in.”
This time it was Willa, his assistant, approaching him. She was waving a sheaf of documents. He sighed. The continual small, almost insignificant changes that were made in proposals for a bid meant rereading the entire document. Often they meant nothing important or relevant, but he had to be thorough and not risk making a mistake. And interminable changes or not, Julio wanted to win this project. A consortium wanted to put up an innovative business complex here in Milan—it would be a huge undertaking, and a great thing for the city. Unfortunately, that meant all manner of petty bureaucrats would insist on putting their mark on the project whether their contributions were meaningful or not. Some would be included precisely because they were insignificant, and adding them to the mix smoothed the project’s path to completion. Regardless, he had to read them all, then respond to them. His responses would then initiate yet another revision that included the changes and compromises.
That was the tedious part of his work, and he wished he could delegate it, but that wasn’t possible. He’d made his billions by trusting his instincts and himself, and developing a sharp eye for contract details and their implications. This particular deal was not one to slack off on.
Overcoming his reluctance, he waved Willa into the seat beside him and watched her spread the papers over the table in front of him.
“I scanned them quickly. Whatever changes they’ve made are small.”
“Those are the worst, the land mines,” he laughed.
“What do you mean?”
“They are the ones that are dangerous because you don’t notice their consequences until you step on them.”
Willa nodded, and Julio reflected on his good fortune in having her as his personal assistant. She’d worked beside him without complaint for three years now, and it was a demanding job. She never mentioned her personal life, never took any time off. That seemed odd to him, for she was an attractive German woman of twenty-four, with short-cropped white-blonde hair and piercing blue eyes. He’d seen men take a second look at her, but never saw her respond. She didn’t pay attention to women either, so it wasn’t that she was gay. From the first day on the job she’d simply thrown herself entirely into her work. He’d been happy to shut up and let her do it, but after three years, he wondered what motivated her. She showed a great deal of personal loyalty, but if that translated into affection, she never showed it.
Willa had a top degree in business administration from Germany’s prestigious University of Mannheim and was fluent in English, German, and Italian—all of that made her invaluable in running a global operation. Efficient and organized, she could be stern with her subordinates when they didn’t meet her exacting standards. That made Julio uncomfortable at times, but he admired her competence. As a rule, Julio found he was attracted to competent women. There was something exciting about a powerful woman.
Especially… He let out a sigh. His mind had gone back to Lissa. It was hard to think of Lissa Edwards without a sigh. His brief time with her had been magnificent. What a woman she was. A lovely African-American from New York City, she was five foot eight, and elegant, and wore her hair in twists, which gave her a sassy spin that suited her. She was a consulting economist. He’d known of her, and finally met her at a conference in Switzerland where she was presenting a paper on some complex analysis-of-site evaluation. That was one of her specialties, and she was in demand for large-scale projects. A fan of her work, he’d introduced himself at the reception. The instant he touched her hand and looked into her eyes, he felt they’d been drawn together almost mystically. Something of that magic seemed to be reflected in her eyes, and he asked her to dinner. She accepted, and they were swept into a wild and incredibly passionate fling. They meshed together in every way possible.
Even when a business emergency called him away, forcing him to leave sooner than he’d hoped and wanted to, he couldn’t bring himself to feel tragic about it. It was sad, and leaving her was painful, but they parted as lovers, with intoxicating kisses and promises to continue the relationship. For two frequent global travelers, managing to meet to make love and learn if they could mean more to each other seemed simple enough. And exciting. It would simply be a new phase of their relationship.
That was the last time he heard from her. That same day he sent her flowers from Prague, and then later, candy from Amsterdam, and an open invitation to dinner at her choice of any restaurant in the world—and heard nothing back. He heard she was on a project in New Orleans and had Willa send a basket of fruit to her hotel. Still nothing.
It hurt him more than he wanted to admit. He was supposed be such a great catch, a billionaire and considered good-looking too. But after two days and nights with him, Lissa refused all contact. He ached to know what he’d done to offend her, and what he might do to get a second chance.
Or was she just a hard-hearted bitch? That was hard to believe. He’d sensed an incredible warmth in her. He wondered if the intensity of their lovemaking had scared her, if she worried about feeling too strongly about him—essentially his one concern about her. If she was afraid of getting entangled with him and losing her independence…well, he could understand that.
What he couldn’t understand was the complete and utter lack of communication. How could a reasonable woman, a brilliant woman, cut him off with no discussion, leave him without a clue to what had changed her mind? Wouldn’t a person like that move heaven and earth to find a solution to whatever the problem was?
Beyond the emotional aspects, he’d been looking forward to working with her. She had a fantastic mind that, happily, harmonized with the way he approached things. Her paper made so much sense to him. And now, he wanted her input on this bid, he wanted her to disassemble the confusion of the requirements from the consortium and help him make suggestions, develop a viable, brilliant, and stunning solution.
Even if she’d suddenly had second thoughts about him, decided somehow that he was a totally reprehensible beast, he couldn’t imagine her passing on the opportunity to consult on this job. Personal feelings aside—and he had no doubt she could put her personal feelings aside—that made no sense. The project would be of global interest. They’d be breaking new ground while meeting or exceeding every known environmental requirement. That was the mandate. Whoever was associated with him on this project would be able to name their price on future jobs. Even if she disliked him for some reason, even if she hated him, she knew that he was the best at what he did. She would want to work with him.
Not knowing what he might have said or done hurt more than anything he could imagine she might say to his face.
Now he turned his attention to the section of the document on the site location and shook his head. He was slogging through it. If Lissa were there, she’d read this section the way other people read paperbacks. “Still no word from Lissa Edwards’s company?”
Willa snorted. “No. Did you expect one this time?”
“I hoped. There are some aspects to this bid that I’d love to have her input on. I’m concerned about the location.”
“Isn’t that already decided?”
Julio smiled. “Sure, they’ve picked out the place they want, but until construction starts, nothing is absolutely fixed, and I have some logistical questions.”
“Why not just bid on what they ask for?”
“Because I’m not a robot and because this is a chance to show the world what’s possible with the existing technology. I want to do this so that it will be successful, but not just in terms of meeting the project goals, either. I want people coming to me in a few years because they know I build successful projects and bow out of the ones doomed by petty political struggles.”
She laughed. “There will always be politics.”
“Yes, but if I establish myself the way I intend to, I’ll be able to insist on doing things right. We’ve been successful, Willa, but my goal, my dream, is to move the bar higher and higher.”
She put her hand on his. “Julio, you already live a dream. We are a glorious team and making money.”
“I suppose I do.” He smiled at her. “And I’m lucky to have you.”
The words put a thin smile on her face.
Willa settled into her suite at Milan’s elegant Baglioni Hotel, which adjoined the one reserved for Julio. She had her own work to do while he was at the meeting with the consortium that had assembled to build the business center. Some of her work involved taking care of things Julio wanted done before they returned to their home office in Barcelona. Some of the work was for herself, and some of it… Well, it was work he wanted done, but that she was having done to her own satisfaction. She had a goal, a dream of her own, that she wouldn’t share with Julio.
Because it took her closer to her own goal, she decided to take the last task first. She had received a report from a private investigator in the United States—an update to an ongoing investigation. At her direction, it was written in vague language that would make it impossible for anyone but her to truly understand. She’d learned that the target was currently in a hospital in New York, details as to the cause to be provided as soon as known. There was also a summary of information about a patient from a rehab center.
“The records available are sketchy, but a female patient with the last name Edwards was recently released. The home address given matches that of the target. The patient spent sixty days undergoing treatment for addiction to drugs and alcohol.”
Willa smiled. Sixty days was about the right timing. Perhaps she had less to worry about than she had thought. Julio had made a bad call, that was all. Still, a threat was a threat, and nailing the coffin lid down could be little more than a reasonable precaution. She went to her laptop and composed an email of instructions to a colleague in New York. It amazed her how much havoc a small amount of vague and ambiguous information could wreak if you presented it well.
She sipped the wine that she’d had room service bring up and turned her attention to the Milan project. She’d make certain Julio got that bid. He was a brilliant man, an inspiring man, and with her help, he’d be the most successful businessman ever. They’d write books about his achievements, that much was certain. Willa was too thorough and careful to let chance fuck that up, however. She always came to the table prepared. She had investigators working in Europe, looking into the backgrounds of the consortium members for anything she might use. Information was leverage. Willa liked pulling levers, especially when they allowed a tiny woman like her to bring a big, powerful man down to his knees. That was where big, powerful men belonged.
Most men had failings that she could use against them. All she had to do was find them, then apply herself to the task. Julio, for all his qualities and strengths, had a blind spot for women. He was drawn to them, and few wanted to resist him. In the main, that was fine with her. Most of them were leeches who wanted to cling to him. They wanted to be seen with him; they wanted him to pay lavish attention to them. And they were happy to sleep with him if that was all it took. Those women weren’t a threat to Willa or her plans. If he fucked them in his office, she would smile and ask him to sign the documents that needed signing. Let him have his fun.
Willa was attracted to him, but more to his strength and power. She’d sleep with him if he asked her to, but she didn’t need to do that to be a critical part of his team.
This new woman had threatened that, this Lissa Edwards. He’d returned enamored of her, wanting her to work side by side with him. She offered a combination of sexual attraction and business acumen that turned the man’s head. Willa had cut off the communications, but now she had to change her strategy. She needed to fill the void herself. That meant making him see her as a woman. He had to learn how much he needed her, and if that meant taking him to bed so that he forgot Lissa Edwards, that would be fine. It took her along a different path than had been necessary before, but it would work. She would make him desire her; she would get him to seduce her and then she would get him to marry her. As his wife, she’d have more influence and be able to direct him, keep him focused.
She allowed herself time to enjoy fantasies of seducing him, and they were delicious. And it would be a fair exchange. She would give herself to him, let him use her body for his pleasure, and then she would take her place in the world as far more than some man’s personal assistant. She’d put a sharp edge on the dealings they did then. Of course she’d need to indulge him from time to time even after they married, but she had no desire to keep up the pretense that she cared that much about sex. She would arrange for him to have affairs. Perhaps that flight attendant Elaine would seduce him. She looked like the type who would be interested in doing all the things women did to keep a man excited about her. That would keep his hunger for her at bay and, as a bonus, he’d probably feel guilty about cheating on her. That was a lovely bourgeois attitude that would keep him in line for important things.
After all, sex was a tool, an important tool, but little more. Sex was messy, and it could be tedious. He was a good-looking Latino, a hot-blooded man, and when they were married and she turned away from him, she would expect him to take a mistress. That was how things were done, and it would mean she’d have no fear of her losing him. That would be good, if the woman was acceptable. With women she approved of, she’d tolerate affairs whenever he wanted them. She didn’t mind that. Not once she was in control, directing his incredible business sense, and his empire.
With that thought in mind, she composed an email to her investigator in Barcelona, telling him to collect information about Elaine. The more Willa thought about her, the better she seemed. She might even want to have an affair with the woman herself, just to assert her authority. Besides, to cuckold him with his own mistress sounded divine.
For now she just needed to keep him away from that terrible Lissa Edwards. Fortunately, she had Tina Peters to help with that. The woman was treacherous, but predictable, and her avaricious nature made her useful. For a time.
After the first few weeks in that damn bed, Lissa knew with a sickening certainty that there was no way a hospital would ever be a comfortable place. She’d tried and tried, but no matter what you did, within the strict guidelines set by the hospital, it remained bleak and nerve-wracking. Part of her desperately wanted to hire someone to paint the walls bright red or something else outrageous. Not that she particularly cared for red walls, but it would shake off the monotony of the place.
Of course the room was meant for sick people. It was a place for taking care of those who needed care.
Lissa needed care, but she wasn’t sick. Even her doctor admitted she was healthy as a horse, assuming the horse was unable to get up off its back, had to lie with its feet in the air, was forced to eat hospital food, and was pregnant with triplets.
Yeah, that kind of horse. Huge-bellied with more kids than she thought possible. Just not sick, except for being sick of the damn hospital.
Her care was all precautionary stuff. She could’ve gotten a bed at home that would be just as uncomfortable and hired a cook and avoided the abysmal hospital food, but the doctor insisted that she needed to be monitored, in case she went into labor. And being in bed all the time, she needed nurses to make sure she didn’t get bedsores or blood clots. So everything that was being done was to keep bad things from happening.
And the doctor insisted she had to be in the hospital. Hell, if she went home she’d miss out on having her blood pressure and heart rate on permanent display. Who’d want to miss out on all that? Besides her.
She was doing it for the babies. Once she’d decided that she could see herself as a mother, everything became about the babies, especially since there were three of the little tykes. The doctor suggested “reducing” the pregnancy, but that was basically aborting one to let her body take better care of the survivors. That didn’t sit well with her. No, it was all or nothing, and she wouldn’t consider nothing.
They were six months along and she didn’t know their sex. She didn’t want to know. A large sign pasted on the door served as a reminder: “Mention the sex of the patient’s children and die!” it said. Even so, twice now she’d had candy-stripers almost blurt it out. She managed to stop them before she had to order their execution, but she had no serious hope that the babies would come to term, or however close they got, before some overeager do-gooder would decide that she HAD to know.
Lissa liked surprises. She also liked that refusing to learn the sex annoyed people who made other people’s business their own. She was getting her fair share of surprises. First her lover had disappeared, more or less. At any rate he’d become unreachable. The triplets were the next surprise—they counted as two, in fact. First, there had been finding out that she was pregnant, and then learning that happiness came in threes, at least in her case.
“I always thought I might have several children,” she told her sister, Joan. “I just didn’t expect they’d all come the same day.”
“You never do things the way other people do,” Joan said. “It’s endearing.”
The discomfort didn’t bother her as much as she expected. Having her hands ripped from the day-to-day events in her life, being unable to take part in her business, bothered her more. She didn’t care that much about doing the routine things, but that was how you monitored your business. Now she had to run it by remote. She couldn’t grow it that way, but at least she needed to keep it afloat until she could get back to it.
So it was boredom that made her smile when she saw Tina Peters opening her door. She was delighted to see her…and she didn’t even like Tina all that much.
“Tina! Come in, sit down, bring me up to date.”
Tina was an elegant blonde, carefully coiffed, well dressed in a business suit that was very feminine and all business, and a face that was all smiles, most of which Lissa thought were fake. They looked phony as a three-dollar bill.
Tina took a chair. “You relax, Lissa. Things are under control.”
The smiles and assurances made Lissa uneasy. You didn’t hire people because you wanted friends, but to grow the business, to make it run smoothly. She knew Tina to be a hard but capable woman. She was efficient. Being honestly friendly wasn’t her thing. She hadn’t paid it much attention before, but now she was seeing Tina the way her clients did. Tina was trying to impress her, and the smiley show was unsettling. Serious clients weren’t fooled by smiles any more than she was.
“Great, good news. But what things are under control?”
“That’s not an answer, Tina. I need specifics. What are you controlling? Which accounts are you working on? I don’t want assurances, I want—I need—details: tedious, picky, nagging, and niggling details.”
“Tomorrow I have a meeting with Tom Acker about a project in Europe.”
“Tina, that is a generalization… What project? Where in Europe? Where are you meeting him? What’s our role?”
Tina scowled. “You are supposed to be taking it easy.”
“And how can I do that when I have no information? How do I relax when I don’t know what’s going on?”
“You’re impossible to please, Lissa. I’m running things in your place and they are going smoothly. Do you want me to do that or prepare reports and make presentations to you? I can’t realistically do both. If you insist on running things from a hospital bed…” she cocked her head, “with your head below your womb, apparently, then you need someone else.”
“Look, Tina, I’m not trying to micromanage you. I do appreciate what you are doing. You’ve stepped up and are keeping the business going. It’s just that I can’t put my mind on pause for three months. I don’t know how. I’m stuck here all day with no connection to the world but the visits you and my sister make. I need juicy business problems to tackle. It’s my body that’s confined to bed, not my brain.”
Tina sighed. “Okay. I’ll tell you what, I’ll give you something to work on. Acker’s proposal needs work. I’ll messenger over what he’s given me and my notes, and I’d appreciate any ideas you have. Tomorrow we are just meeting to discuss a general association—the mechanics of how we will work together, and it would be nice to be able to tell him he will have a full-blown Lissa Edwards proposal once we move along.”
“Yes! Okay, Tina, that would be wonderful.”
“Then I can deal with the rest as I see fit?”
“Yes. I suppose you’ll have to.”
The woman stood up. “Then I better get back. The staff is running some background checks on Acker and his past work. All I know about him is what’s been in the press. I’d better know more than that before I meet him, or I won’t know what buttons to push. If I screw up, my boss will chew my ass out. She’s tough.”
“You bet she will. So get that document over here first thing. And send the laptop from my office too. It has some things on it I want to check.”
Tina looked uncomfortable. “I suppose so.”
“I’m going to need my laptop to write out my feedback, that feedback of mine that you’d be so delighted to have.”
“Okay.” A question appeared on the woman’s face, hanging there, waiting for gravity or something to dislodge it. Finally it came off. “What about after the birth? Will you come right back to work? Work from home? What will you do then?”
“When I decide, I’ll let you know.” Lissa smiled to herself. She wasn’t being gruff, she simply hadn’t thought about it. Being pregnant had seemed unreal. Being her was unreal. Having the babies was unreal. Things would get real soon enough, though. And she hadn’t begun to think about it.
When she left, Lissa watched after her. It took a moment to realize she was trying to analyze the unsettled feeling she got after each of Tina’s visits. It was vague, a hunch, but she was certain the woman was up to something. Of course, there wasn’t much she could do about it, no matter what it was, and knowing the specifics probably wouldn’t put a brighter face on things. She was stuck. That didn’t keep her from trying to pin it down.
Under normal circumstances, Lissa wasn’t the greatest businessperson in the world; she had a great reputation for her skills with analysis, but running a business involved more than that. If she were more of a businessperson, someone who promoted themselves, her consultancy would be far bigger. Still, she made good money and was well known, and she’d been involved in enough high-powered negotiations to smell a rat when a dead one was under the table. Like now.
“Your lunch.” She looked up to see a sickeningly cheery candy-striper bringing in a plastic tray.
“I was just thinking of dead rats,” she said. The cheery face improved with a look of puzzlement. As she brought the tray to the bed, Lissa’s quick look at the array of tiny plastic containers told her she wasn’t in for Indian cuisine today.
“That’s my lunch?”
“The pudding is lovely today,” the woman said, sounding like she almost believed it.
“If you say so, although in civilized countries that sort of offering would be considered an affront to all that’s holy.”
“You are so clever,” the woman said.
“Not clever enough to find a way to get a real meal in here,” she said, sighing. She let her thoughts slip away from the noxious tray and to the manner of skullduggery Tina Peters might be engaging in. The topic was no less irritating, but she could at least fantasize chasing Tina through the streets of New York with a bullwhip if her suspicions were correct.
There wasn’t a damn thing she could do about the lunch.
Lissa lay back, thinking about her business and Tina’s question. It was a good one, and important. How would she deal with things after the babies were born? One baby was trouble enough, and three… She’d need help. Of course, if she applied herself to the work, she could afford to get good help. She’d need to travel, so she would need someone who could travel with her—she wouldn’t leave the children behind.
A nurse came in with a clipboard and a roll-around cart to give her some pills and record her temperature and destroy her train of thought. Hospitals were supposed to be care places, but they were nerve-wracking, with the random interruptions, odd smells, and immutable routines that seemed organized to prevent a patient from having more than ten minutes to think at a stretch.
After the nurse came a phone call. Lissa answered impatiently, but it was Tyler Walker, and her bad mood disappeared. Tyler was always cheerful and supportive. “How is my favorite economist?” he asked.
“That tends to be a stable situation for a period of time, I understand. It’s fairly classic. The mature female begins production, which is stable, followed by a brief period of unsustainable productivity, followed by a fallow phase.”
“With most things you can substitute capital or labor for time.”
“Ah yes, the irrefutable logic of the indifference curve analysis you love so much.”
“Babies don’t seem to get the logic of production models, unfortunately.”
“It’s a fixed and closed system. Something like betting at a race track. I’m afraid all the multivariate optimization in the world won’t save you.”
“Have you heard about the big project in Milan?” Tyler asked.
“Tina mentioned something about a project Tom Acker wants some help with in Europe. She said it was big.”
There was a pause as Tyler seemed to choose his words. “It isn’t exactly the kind of thing Tom does that well.”
Lissa tried to sit up straighter in the bed. “What do you mean?”
“Tom doesn’t like Europe or the way they do things. If he gets it, he’ll make it American.”
“Is that bad?”
“Not always. Don’t get me wrong, Tom is a fine businessman and well organized. This is for a business complex that is intended to attract major high-tech companies across the EU. He’d bring it in on time and it won’t collapse the next week or anything, and he’ll probably have the lowest bid, but it will either be a clone of Silicon Valley or some variation on a strip-mall theme. It will fail aesthetically. I hope you get involved with the project, but if it’s with Tom, well, you’d be tarred with the same brush. I wouldn’t like to see that.”
Tyler stopped talking. Lissa heard the hum of the monitors.
“I appreciate your concern,” she said at last.
Tyler spoke, his voice almost sad and accusing. “You know how I feel about you, Lissa.”
“The presents you’ve sent, the flowers, the kids’ toys… I get the message, Tyler.” Lissa was suddenly very tired.
“I’m here for you,” Tyler said. It was almost an accusation.
Lissa sighed. “Right now I’m stuck here for my babies. Then I need to rebuild my business.”
“Is it falling down?” Tyler meant to be funny, but Lissa could her the concern in his voice. She suddenly didn’t want to keep things to herself anymore. She didn’t love Tyler, but she trusted him. “I don’t know, Tyler. Maybe not falling down, but there’s a crack in the foundation. I feel like there’s something Tina isn’t telling me. Something stinks.”
Tyler laughed. “You’re in the hospital. Everything stinks. Do you want me to poke my nose into things that are none of my business? Would you like me to pay attention to the industry gossip and see what lies and prevarications are floating about that might concern you?”
“I’d be delighted to. I have a meeting with Tom next week myself. He loves to talk about his deals, who is using whom, and so on, and usually which ones he’s screwing. Just let me know how much salacious details appeal to you. I have other friends in low places I can count on to pass along any manner of unreliable rumors and innuendo.”
“That’s perfect, Tyler. I’ll owe you.”
“You owe me nothing at all, Lissa. Not one damn thing.”
The serious sound of his voice, its flatness, reminded her of the one uncomfortable part of dealing with Tyler Walker. The man was lovely, charming, and successful. He was also madly in love with her, and yet he didn’t stir anything even vaguely romantic in her. She’d told him. It wouldn’t have been fair to lead him on, and he had decided that it was all right for him to love her unilaterally. “I can live with unrequited love,” he told her. “Please just allow me to express it once in a while as a form of self-pity, and we can keep our glorious friendship.”
So far they had. Every so often, however, such as now, it made her feel guilty. She took advantage of him. He wanted her to, and would be hurt if she didn’t, but the one-sidedness of it bothered her.
Tina Peters met Tom Acker for lunch at a new French restaurant downtown. It was a perfect spot for her purposes. The place itself was elegant, and well regarded. Best of all, it was high profile. She would be seen having a meal with Acker. That would raise her stock. With a little luck, the society blogs might take note, but that would be icing on the cake.
The timing was perfect. “This Milan deal is in its early stages and it is huge,” he told her. “There is money to be made. If you are ready and willing.”
Tina was more than ready and willing. She’d worked under Lissa’s yoke far too long. Until she went in the hospital, Tina had never gotten the chance to show what she could do. Lissa came up as an analyst. She knew econometrics and detailed analysis—data collection and crunching and interpretation. That was all well and good, but Tina knew how to deal with the players, how to run a company and make it glamorous. A consultancy was supposed to hear what the client said and help them do whatever they wanted. If they wanted analysis, well, economists came cheap. She could hire all she needed to provide those detailed reports clients loved so much.
Lissa never saw the upside potential of getting into more of a partnership with her clients. She liked her independence and working on a variety of jobs. Tina wanted to become integral to a development team and rake in the bucks. Lissa was happy to consult, do her analysis, show the clients better solutions and move on. Sure, she’d be panting to get in on the Milan deal, but then what? For Tina, that wasn’t the way to become high profile and make big money, the kind of money someone like Tom Acker had. He was a billionaire on his own with access to even more money.
She’d arrived late and found him waiting for her, dressed in an elegant suit. He was a dashing sixty years old, incredibly fit, with silver hair. When she came to the table he stood to greet her, kissing her cheek and complimenting her on her dress. It was a sexy dress. The nice thing about business meetings in a fancy place like this was that overdressing was acceptable, even encouraged. It was business, but…
She accepted a drink and let him waft their conversation through a few conversational niceties, before getting to the subject at hand. “I doubt you’ve had a chance to read the prospectus closely,” he said, “but I thought some initial talks might be helpful.”
“Other than the amount of money involved, I don’t understand what is special about this project,” she said. “It’s a business center. You’ve done several of those.”
“I’ve talked to a couple of the directors, and besides spending their money wisely to get an infrastructure that will serve them for a number of years, there are political issues. The EU is stumbling and they see this center as a way to attract EU businesses and companies who want a presence in the EU. Architecturally and operationally, they want to combine the efficiency of an American high-tech campus with a very European aesthetic. So Lissa’s analysis techniques will be important in putting together a coherent bid.”
“I can get you any analysis you want, Tom.”
“Will Lissa be coming back to work in time?”
“If not, we can get…”
“I really need Lissa. If nothing else, I want to make certain she isn’t working for anyone else.”
Suddenly the opportunity was there for the taking. She smiled. Willa would like this. “Tom, Lissa has been having a tough time. I wouldn’t tell you this if you weren’t looking for a fast answer from me, but I don’t know if she’ll be up to it.”
“What happened? I know she suddenly had to take some time off, but that’s all.”
“She has a problem. Drugs. She’s been fighting it, and is out of rehab, but she’s in the hospital now.”
“I heard she was pregnant.”
“That’s why she put herself in rehab.”
“Oh my God. I didn’t know.”
“She doesn’t want anyone to know. I’m sure you can understand that.”
“Yes, of course.”
“I’m running our show and I have some fine analysts working under my supervision. If she is up to it, of course she’d run the show.”
Tom rubbed his chin. “You know, I’m surprised the press didn’t get wind of this. They check the admission records constantly, just hoping some well-known person will check themselves in. It feeds their fires.”
Tina shrugged. “Lissa is smart. She used her sister’s name—Joan Edwards. That didn’t set off any alarms. She’s in the hospital under her own name.”
“I should send her some flowers.”
Tina smiled and reached over to put her hand on his. “I’m sure she’d love that, Tom. Just don’t let her know you know about the rehab. She’s a fighter, and we need to rally around her to make sure she feels our love right now. She wouldn’t want you to know.”
As they ate and talked, Tina felt a glow of satisfaction. She’d accomplished what she set out to do. Once the major clients all heard of Lissa’s downfall, that would clear the field for her. She was nowhere near close to getting Tom to propose that she work with him directly on this project, but she would nudge it in that direction. She would endear herself to him. He was a good-looking man, and at thirty-five, her relative youth would be enough to appeal to his male vanity. She could see herself associated with him. The man had big coattails, and that was worth a lot. She’d monitor things, see how he played it.
She already knew that if he came on to her, she’d take him up on it. He might be good in bed, and if not, well, he was rich enough for an affair to be quite the adventure of its own. Half the joy of sex was the negotiations—the flirting and courting, deciding when to be cautious and when to spread your legs for the man. Maybe that was even more than half. And the rest was reaping the rewards.
“You aren’t looking very cheerful,” Joan said.
Lissa opened her eyes and stared at her sister. “Is there something to cheer about? I’ll gladly join a cheer if you can provide the reason.”
“Well, how about the fact that I’m six months clean and sober? At the meeting this morning they gave me this token and everyone clapped.”
Lissa stared at the cheap plastic chip, and the way Joan was looking at it, as if it were made of gold. Lissa’s heart swelled with hope at the sight of her sister’s pride in her sobriety. Maybe this time it would stick; maybe the dark days would be a thing of the past. “Oh, Joan, that’s fantastic. I wish I could hug you.”
“All four of you at once?”
“That’s right. All four of us want to hug you tight and tell you how wonderful that is and how proud we are.” She poked her belly. “Especially whoever is over here. I can feel the applause.”
“Seeing as I have you trapped here, tell your sister who the father is. You don’t need to keep it a secret, do you?”
“It isn’t a secret, Joan. It isn’t anyone you know, though. I met him at a conference in Switzerland.”
“Even though I don’t know him, he does have a name, right?”
“Is he Mexican?”
“Spanish. He’s a businessman from Barcelona.”
“Does he ever plan to drop by and see you or his kids?”
Lissa snorted. “I have no idea.”
“Wait! Have you even told him you are pregnant?”
“No. I have no idea how to do that.”
“You aren’t in touch with him?”
“No, but not because I haven’t tried.”
“What do you mean?”
Looking at her sister, she decided to unburden herself. Joan deserved the entire story. “It’s the weirdest thing, Joan. The relationship took off like a skyrocket and fizzled about as fast. I was in Switzerland for a conference. I’d met him before, but this time something wild and wonderful happened. Lights went on and we wound up spending much of our time in bed. It was glorious. I honestly believed that we both thought we had a good thing going and we would see each other again. He’d even talked about doing some work together as well. To be honest, that was almost as exciting to me as the hot sex. Well, no, it wasn’t, but anyway, it didn’t matter. None of it ever happened. I never heard from him again. I sent him emails and letters… And then I didn’t even know I was pregnant. I was curious—well, I was tearing-out-my-hair crazy— wondering why he wasn’t answering. I read a story about him at some event, so I knew he was alive and well. I sent messages to hotels I knew he was staying at. I never got his personal cell-phone number, but I used every business address to try and contact him, and never got any reply at all.”
“Strange. You’d think a man would at least have the balls to say ‘fuck off.’”
“It was insanely disappointing, for sure. I guess I misjudged him completely, not to mention how he felt about me.”
“I guess things like that can happen.” She didn’t look convinced.
“Short of tracking him down and beating on his door, I can’t think of anything to do, and I don’t seem to be in a position to do that, even if it were a good idea. So here I am.”
“Still doing everything you can to get the kids to term.”
“Which seems to be pretty much a matter of doing almost nothing, with the logical result that three incredibly healthy babies will have a mother covered in bed sores who has gone off her nut.”
“All mothers are crazy. It’s a hazard of the job.”
“I suppose it might be.”
“I take it that you are looking forward to getting back to work almost as much as having the babies.”
She sighed. “Almost. That is, if Tina Peters doesn’t manage to put me out of business before I get the chance.”
“No way that is going to happen. You have a good name. Your clients like you and need you. She might skim or wreck a few things you had going, but she can’t destroy it.”
“Good names have a limited shelf life, sis. And goodwill goes just so far. If you aren’t available when you’re needed, those sweet memories fade.”
Joan shrugged. “Well, you have to take one step at a time, just like us addicts and drunks, I guess.”
“Hey, life is always gonna be sequential.”
“I bet that’s one of the cool things they taught you at the London School of Economics.”
“Actually, I think I saw it written on a bathroom wall in a pub.”
During the taxi ride back to Lissa’s lovely apartment where she was staying, Joan let herself think about what she would do with her own life. Her counselor had suggested she start making a list of goals for herself. “Then you can start seeing which ones are reasonable.”
That was all well and good, but Joan knew she was in an odd place in her life. She’d fallen off a cliff. She’d made incredible money as a model and it was all gone. She’d blown every penny on clothes, drugs, booze, and flying to parties in Europe for more drugs and booze. She didn’t want that life back—being out of that scene was actually a relief—but finding another way to earn a living was tricky. The reality was that, other than modeling, she didn’t have many skills. What she knew was how to look good and appear elegant. She’d cut her education short to make it as a model. While Lissa had gone to school, she’d been the breadwinner in the family. Now she was living off her sister. Even though Lissa seemed to think it was just fair payback, she felt guilty. And aimless.
She’d never minded helping Lissa through school at all. Now it seemed that supporting the family was the only money she’d earned that wasn’t wasted—it kept them a family of sorts. She’d made sure that there was always a home for them to gather at for Christmas or Thanksgiving and flew Lissa there from London.
When she was drying out, going through the horrors of detoxing and then trying to regain control of her life, it had been hard to find positives in her life to hang on to. Doing nothing more significant than staying clean and sober for another day could seem like eternal damnation, and yet that was what she had to do.
She and Lissa hadn’t been close as kids. Even when they were young, Joan wanted to party and Lissa studied. In a way, discovering modeling and the money it brought had been a problem; it allowed her to justify her lifestyle. Being seen was important. And when you paid everyone’s way, you could ignore their concerns.
It amazed her that when she fell apart, Lissa had been there for her. When their mom had died, it was Lissa who bailed her out of jail and got her into rehab. Lissa came to visit. Lissa had taken care of sorting out the details of her life—the unpaid credit card bills, subletting her expensive apartment for her, and generally making sure that when she got her head straight, she had a clear spot to stand.
They’d fought, screamed at each other, and grown closer than they’d ever been.
Slowly, agonizingly, Joan came through her ordeal, her stupidity, and got her health back. Now all she needed was work.
She was drinking a glass of water and reading a book her counselor had recommended on careers. “You could get a real estate license,” she’d said. “Attractive women sell more houses than other people.” That struck her as a possibility, so she investigated it, even chatting with several realtors. The book outlined a number of careers but none of them excited her. Maybe nothing excited her anymore. Maybe excitement was exactly the wrong thing for her. She’d chased it long enough.
A knock at the door surprised her. She was even more surprised to see that it was Anita, the woman who’d been her agent when she was modeling. “Welcome,” she said. “When I wrote, I didn’t expect more than a note saying ‘yes’ or ‘no.’”
They sat, and Anita looked her over. “I wanted to see you. You sounded good, but I thought I should see how you are.”
“And now that you’ve seen?”
“You look good.”
“Should I let that excite me?”
She shook her head. “From a professional standpoint, no.”
“Because I’m damaged goods? I was a junkie so I won’t get work? I was hoping that using my real name would keep people from finding out I was in rehab.”
Anita laughed. “The press are a tenacious and malicious lot, but that wouldn’t be a serious problem for you, anyway. If people who were damaged goods didn’t work, no one would. You know damn well that half the population of catwalks are junkies—not the top ones, but a lot. No. You were out of circulation for almost a year.”
“Between the time it took to hit bottom and drag my ass back up, a bit more.”
“The jobs you messed up before you went into rehab hurt you more, but we could deal with that too. I’d get you some small jobs and you’d prove yourself. That’s no harder than rebuilding your credit when you’ve fucked up. The real problem is that things have changed in the business.”
“So I need to retrain?”
“With the Internet, things are moving at hyperspeed. As far as our current clients are concerned, you don’t have the right look.”
Anita held her hands out, showing her they were empty. “That’s about right.”
“I can do a makeover. I was thinking I needed to do that anyway so I could start fresh.”
“It’s more than that. You are too old.”
“Too old? I’m twenty-four.”
“In this market, you might as well be forty-two. The truth is that even if you hadn’t dropped off the radar, you’d be having a tough time getting shoots now.”
“So I’m history?”
“Things can change again, though. Make sure I have your number, and if something comes up I’ll call, but honestly, you know it’s a cyclical business. The cycles are going faster too. What’s in goes out quickly.”
“Are you still handling Judy?”
“Judy Wilson? Yes.”
“She and I did a lot of the same kind of work.”
“And she hasn’t had a shoot since the Toyota ads three months ago. She’s lucky that was a big one. The ad agency wants the new look for the next round. Judy told me she expected this. She saved some money and she’s thinking of starting a PR agency.”
“So the baton is handed to a new generation?”
Anita smiled. “You understand.”
She did. Beyond being an ex-junkie, she was last year’s flavor in an industry where a year was an eternity. Even if Anita got her work, it wouldn’t be a career. Maybe it had never been a career. Maybe she’d had a long run of good fortune. After all, she’d never paid attention to what happened with her peers. She’d been much too self-centered for that. Too focused on having a good time.
She couldn’t let herself go down that road again. Maybe being kicked to the curb was a good thing.
“Thanks for the brutal honesty, Anita.”
“Nothing else makes sense, Joan. It doesn’t do either of us any good to get your hopes up. That doesn’t pay bills.”
She felt lighter suddenly. “I was probably foolish to even consider modeling again—it would put me back in the center of all the things I didn’t deal well with last time.”
Anita stood up, grinning. “I always liked you, Joan. Now I’m proud of you.”
When she left, Joan let herself recall the life she’d led. Even when it had been good, and at times it was wonderful, the life was too hectic, demanding. She didn’t need that kind of pressure now.
But she needed something. A direction. A focus.
That meant analysis—the kind of thing that Lissa was good at. Now that they were close, she felt comfortable talking to her about it. She would see it from the outside.
Lissa considered the question, wondering if any insights she might have would be right for her sister. They were quite different people, and when you were setting goals, they had to be right for you. “I’m willing to help, but I need you to promise me you won’t get offended if any of my ideas seem silly.”
“If what I come up with is off base, tell me why, honestly, and it will give our model a useful feedback loop.”
“A feedback loop?”
“A way for me to reevaluate my assumptions. I listen to your reaction and make adjustments.”
“For instance, and this is just an offhand idea, not something thought out, it would help us both if you were interested in working for me, with me.”
“Doing what? I have no business skills, and I have almost no idea what you really do.”
“I’m thinking of a more personal service. You know I’m eager to get back to work. Interviewing and evaluating people to take care of the kids and keep house is going to be a nightmare. If you had the least interest in doing it, that would be fantastic. I can trust you with the kids, and with my stuff, obviously, which would be a huge plus.”
“I don’t know that much about child care.”
“Getting pregnant doesn’t seem to have instilled a lot of knowledge and wisdom on that score in me. A person who was still mobile, on the other hand, could start attending classes on child care and home economics—on my dime.”
A smile crossed Joan’s face. “I guess so.”
“That was just a wild idea out of the blue, although now that I’ve said it out loud… That sure would be nice for me. Still, we are looking at what’s right for you. To do that, you need to think about the crazy-assed suggestions I come up with and get back to me with why you think it would be a bad idea or what aspects you might like. I take that in and then the next one will be more on target.”
Joan looked at her sister and Lissa saw that something had caught her imagination. “That one is weird enough to think about,” she said. “From model to nanny.”
“You don’t need to take it seriously.”
“Assuming I said yes, that would help you, right?”
“This analysis, what we are trying to do, is aimed at figuring out what’s right for you.”
“It would let me see my nieces, nephews, whatever you’ve got stuffed in there, growing up.”
“And it would pay a salary.”
“And free you to go back to work.”
“Where are we taking this, Joan? Are you actually considering it?”
“I need to think about it, but it would involve me in your life, which might be nice for a time.”
“Make certain you think of everything that might suck about working for me…”
“Like the fact that you are such a hard-nosed bitch.”
“I might be at times. And think about working a lot of weird hours—you know my schedule. And sometimes we’d travel at a moment’s notice.”
“Forced to see the world? Damn.”
“But you’d be taking care of the kids, not sightseeing.”
“Kids need to see museums too. If we did this, you’d need a bigger apartment. You need a bigger one, anyway. No matter what, you’ll need something with a bedroom for me near to a pretty big nursery.”
“Oh my God, yes. Do you know I haven’t even looked into that?”
“While I’m thinking, I could start researching that for you.”
“Sure. It might give me some insight into doing that kind of thing for an ungrateful employer, and I can I think about what it might be like to be an overpaid super-nanny for a hard-nosed businesswoman.”
Joan put her hands on her hips. “What would mom think if you took advantage of family?”
Lissa reached for her water. “And here I thought hiring you might make all this easier.”
“Hah! I can consider serfdom, but I don’t come cheap.”
“Fair enough. So think about it. I like the idea, but that’s selfish me talking. Wishing. You need to think about what’s right for you. You’ve overcome a lot, and I don’t want you taking on too much.”
“You think your junkie model sister can’t handle the pressure?”
“I think she can do anything she wants to. I just need you to make sure you really want to do it.”
Joan held out a hand. “Well, Ms. Edwards, I think I’ll go and see if my previous employer will give me a good reference.” She laughed. “Whether or not we do this, I’ll call a realtor and look at some places. I’m curious about what’s available.”
“If you find a good realtor, see what I’d get for my place.”
Joan left looking happier than when she’d arrived, and that made Lissa feel good. And this strange idea of hiring her to take care of the kids seemed to have legs. Joan clearly was considering the idea. If she kept things in the family, even if just for a while, until Joan figured out something else for herself and she got her own life sorted out, that could be a great help to them both.
Despite the hassles of being immobile to bring all three babies to term, she was excited about her life. If Joan helped, she might get things working well. The only sadness was wondering what had gone wrong with Julio Torres. Why wouldn’t he care enough to even answer? Even if she was wrong about the way he felt about her, even if something in his life was upsetting it, why didn’t he let her know?
She had to accept that she might not ever find out. That would require communication.
The apartment was incredible. She looked at her sister in amazement. “This is amazing. The city view, the spaciousness…and you’ve made it look homey.”
“All part of the nanny, real estate, home shopping, cooking, and housekeeping service we agreed to.”
“Money will be tight for a bit.” Her mind was racing. “I’ll get my apartment on the market…”
“She has a buyer for your place already.”
Joan laughed. “I met her when I was thinking of becoming a realtor, which lasted thirty seconds. She was impressive, though. And now she has two buyers for your dump, so the bid is higher than the asking price. She’s sending the papers to your office today.”
“Then I’ll sign them today.” She hugged her sister. “Hiring you was the smartest thing I ever did, sis, or I’d be sitting in my cramped place with three screaming kids, trying to figure out what to do first.”
Joan grinned and poured them each an iced tea. “Then I’m pretty damn happy. The real job has been organizing things. That, and now learning to tell the kids apart. Hey, who would’ve known I enjoy organizing things? Mom must be rolling over in her grave.”
Lissa was still stunned. She’d seen the pictures Joan sent of the place, and signed the papers for it on her say-so, but it was so much nicer than she’d imagined. “You did everything.”
Joan giggled. “I used your money to buy good help. I was the project manager.”
“And a brilliant one.” She peeked into the nursery. Joan had arranged it for the three boys, and it was beautiful. Each had his own crib and changing station. For once, all three of them were sound asleep. They were beautiful boys, small as triplets were, but each one had been pronounced healthy after spending a few days in intensive care. The hospital stay had been a tedious and painful bore, but the delivery went well, and she had brought her children to their new home.
She let out a sigh of relief. “Idyllic.”
Joan was beaming. “It’s quite an operation. I’ve got nurses on call for emergencies and a service that can provide extra care if I get sick or just overwhelmed—just people who can come in so we can get a decent night’s sleep. That’s an advantage a lot of women don’t have, or don’t take advantage of, but I know you, Lissa. You are going to hit the ground running, and I want the time you have with the babies to be fun.”
“I better hit the ground running. All this service doesn’t come cheap…but I’m not complaining, Joan. It’s all perfect. You’ve made me feel I have a chance.”
And Joan was rising to the occasion, which was delightful to see.
“We are going to be happy here,” Joan said confidently.
“Where is Abby?” Lissa asked. “I can’t find anything.”
“I had to let her go,” Tina said. “She was insolent and wouldn’t do what she was told.”
Lissa bit back the sharp comment she wanted to make. Abigail had been with her since she’d started the business. She hadn’t liked Tina, and sometimes Abby seemed to be more help than Tina, and Tina earned a lot more as an account executive. “I wish you’d at least told me.” She glanced at the woman. Tina seemed to be waiting for something, a rebuke perhaps, but Lissa kept her waiting. “I can’t find any of the files.”
“I’ve done the best I can. Things were in terrible shape when you had to go into the hospital. I was picking up the threads of a dozen different projects.”
And rolling them into one big ball, it looks like.
“So who keeps track of where things are?”
“I’ve had to do it myself.”
“Let’s get a temp in here from one of the top places and have someone reorganize things.”
“I’m sure if I’d done that you’d bitch about the cost.”
“Maybe I would. And as a consultant, your job is to persuade the client to pony up for necessary expenses, Tina. Your boss is always your client.” She found it odd that a woman who prided herself on her ability to get along with clients didn’t make any effort to be pleasant in the office she spent most of her time in.
“I need to get to a meeting,” Tina said. “Make a list of the files you’re looking for and I’ll find them when I get back.”
“If it’s not too much trouble,” she said, wondering if Tina would catch the sarcasm.
“No, that’s fine,” she said.
Clearly it had gone over her head.
The room seemed lighter with Tina gone. Lissa knew she was going to have to get rid of her. This wasn’t working. Her attitude was resentful and poisonous. She couldn’t work with the woman.
She went to her desk and smiled. Despite the chaos, despite everything, she was back at her desk, the lovely walnut desk with a green leather top she’d bought from an antique shop with the money from her first consulting job.
Now it was lunchtime. She was meeting Tyler Walker. Maybe she’d learn something.
Tyler Walker had arranged lunch for them at a rooftop restaurant that he knew she adored. “How is it that you remember the places and things I like better than I do, Tyler?” she asked when she arrived. “You remember my birthday and know exactly what I’ll like.”
“Oh, you know I’m obsessed with you. Simple, really.”
He honestly was, and they’d both known it for a long time. It had started as a joke, on her part at least. She’d liked him from the first and flirted with him. He’d become totally enamored of her. As much as he delighted her, as much as she loved his company and his friendship, Tyler didn’t attract her as a lover. She’d had to tell him. Tyler took that news as he did everything—with dignity and acceptance. “Then I’m afraid you’re stuck with a lifelong friend and admirer,” he said. “That job is now filled.”
Tyler was a nice man, slightly overweight but not fat, dignified, although addicted to and delighted by gossip. He made his living connecting people who had money to invest with those who had projects worth investing in. He acted as a sounding board for individuals and major corporations, and at times, even governments. To say he was connected was an understatement. Without seeming to work at it, he was the epitome of networking. People trusted him. They liked him. They did things for him. If you were starting a project, you wanted his opinion—even if he wouldn’t offer his blessing, and most people would kill for his blessing. “Tyler Walker likes it,” was a giant step towards getting financing.
He wasn’t loved by all and sundry, however. Completely honest people are threatening, even dangerous, if you are trying to pull something.
“So the mother and children are home and all are well?”
“We are. And the new place is outrageously perfect. Joan outdid herself. I want you to come by and see the children and the apartment.”
“I’d love to.” Tyler ordered a bottle of wine. “I’m glad that arrangement is working out well. Do you think Joan will be happy doing that work for you for long?” He had gotten to know Joan and liked her.
“I have no idea. How can she even know something like that? It’s all new and exciting now, but kids wear a person down. And if she meets a great guy or gets an exciting offer to do something else, all bets are off—I’ll lose her to something better for her. I asked the lawyers to make her indentured, but I’m informed that has gone out of style. In the meantime, I intend to exploit her ruthlessly.”
“I heard Abby left you.”
“I heard Tina had to fire her.”
“You heard that from Tina, right?” When she nodded, Tyler took a piece of paper from his shirt pocket, put it flat on the table, and slid it across. “She walked out. Here is her number.”
“She wants to come back?”
He smiled. “Once Tina leaves or you give her permission to slay the bitch.”
She watched the waiter pour the wine and let her mind worry about the subject of Tina. “I’m just getting up to speed. Tina is a problem, but I don’t see how I can do without Tina now. And I owe her something for stepping in on short notice and holding things together.”
“Oh. Is that what she was doing?”
“What do you mean?”
“It seems to me that the woman has been feathering her own nest. She’s been spreading rumors that won’t help you get new work.”
“What kind of rumors?”
“That Lissa Edwards hasn’t been the same since she got out of rehab.”
“It’s a sad story, of a brilliant but unstable woman who got all strung out on drugs. When she found out she was pregnant, she assumed her kid sister’s identity and went into rehab. After that, you went into the hospital.” The look on his face told her that she was showing her shock.
“That’s the Cliff Notes version. The full story is probably in ebook format on the Zon.”
Lissa felt more sad than shocked. “She pieced together a few true things, added some twists, and put it out as an alternative to the party line. People believe this?”
“Some. The ones that are switching their consulting work to a brand new player—Tina.”
“But the dates…”
“No one will check, and she isn’t trying to fool anyone who will bother. She used the opportunity to plant seeds of doubt while letting them realize that she was able to carry the load. So when she starts her own business…”
“So it’s all about poaching clients?”
“And dragging you through the mud to give her time to set up a powerful competition—mostly on your dime, my dear.” He sighed. “It’s a truly nasty business, poisoning the waters that way. The people who know their asses from a hole in the ground won’t fall for it, but you do need to know what the odd looks you are going to get in some quarters are about.”
“Is there anything else she’s done that I should know about?”
Tyler grinned. “I have no real idea, but I would go over your books carefully and review any deals she’s working on. Tom Acker seems to like her. She’s making sure of that.”
“How catty,” she teased.
“And obvious. It’s hard to fault him. At his age, having Tina play up to him makes doing business more pleasant. And he isn’t in it for the money anymore. He likes the challenge, and the challenge of bedding a lovely woman adds zest even if he understands the attached strings.”
“She’s taking it that far?”
“So the gossips have it.”
The conversation drifted to more pleasant things, but the idea of Tina taking advantage of her ran like a continuous tape loop behind it all.
When Tyler called for the bill, he put his elbows on the table and stared at her. “What’s that about?” she asked.
“I’ve spilled my guts to you and now I’m dying to know what you’ll do about Tina.”
“I need to take your advice and have the books audited right away. Then I need to either find a reason to fire her, or get her to quit.”
“No matter why you fire her, she’ll spin it as revenge for not keeping your dirty secret.”
Lissa put her elbows on the table and stared back. “I know. So what do I do?”
“Short of throwing her out the window? Hope the accountants find something that the police will consider white-collar crime. Then it will be public record.”
“Or buy a lottery ticket, win big, and never work again?”
“That might work. But then you’d just be a wealthy stay-at-home mom, and I don’t see that working long term. And you might get fat. Never get fat, Lissa.”
“The window, then. First opportunity, out she goes.”
“That’s probably the best.”
“So what exactly do you want, Tina?”
The question made her smile. Tom was no fool, and even though it didn’t seem that way to outsiders, the business world had its rules of conduct. One of the basic rules was the old adage “You don’t get something for nothing.” He knew she expected their new relationship to give her something. It was only reasonable. Especially under the circumstances.
They were naked in his bed. She’d encouraged him when he flirted with her. When he suggested coming back to his place, it was a victory. Men were easy that way. They were barely inside the door before he had his hands all over her. She didn’t have to put up with his attentions because she actually found him sexy. A sexy older man, who was a good lover. That made it easy to let him undress her, and she did everything she could to arouse him, wanting to spend the night in his bed. Slowing him only enough to put a condom on his hard cock before he moved over her on his big bed, moving between her thighs and taking her, she responded to him, making sure he knew she thought he was a hot lover.
After he spent in her, they rested and talked, and when her naked body began to excite him again, she stroked him hard, then took him in her mouth and gave him pleasure that way too. She wanted him to feel that she held nothing back from him. That was the key.
And now, in the morning, knowing that nothing was free, he wanted to know what she expected. This taste of her was to set the trap. If he wanted more, he needed to settle things.
What did she want?
That was easy.
“I want to be in on the Milan deal—on my own, not as Lissa’s flunky.”
He sighed. “You think you can compete with Lissa Edwards? She’s coming back into the game.”
“I don’t need to compete with her, not one on one. She provides analysis and insights that you use to put together a proposal. I can hire people to do it.”
He shrugged. “I could hire those people myself.”
“Then you’d have to ride herd on them, give them direction. And you’d bear the entire cost of their salaries and the overhead. If I have those costs spread over several clients, that will make things most cost effective.”
“You realize that walking into the meeting with Lissa gives a person an advantage, don’t you? She has the information at her fingertips. The people in the consortium know her and will listen to her. You are an unknown.”
“They’ll get to know me, and if our bid is good, then we will be on our way.”
Tom pulled the covers off her and ran a hand over her breasts, and then down her belly. He was touching her differently now, and that pleased her. He was touching her possessively, as if they had a deal. “I can work with you, but having Lissa out there, working for someone else, worries me. If you can solve that problem for me…”
Tina gave him a wicked smile. “I know a way to do exactly that. I can make sure she doesn’t help Julio Torres steal the contract.”
The scowl on Tom’s face told her she’d hit a nerve.
“That bastard. He’s the only one who worries me, and he got close to Edwards.”
“But on his own…”
“You are sure your idea will work?”
She took his hand and slid it down so that his fingers were warm on her pussy. “Let me tell you what we can do to keep them from working together,” she said.
He toyed with her, slipping his fingers into her as she talked, and when she’d explained her idea, he laughed. “You’re a sneaky bitch.”
“Your sneaky bitch.” She reached for his cock and found it hard. “Now fuck me, you bastard.”
For the first time since Lissa had come back to work, Tina felt herself in control of her career. Lissa had smothered her, making her work on some small accounts, subcontracting analysis to economists at the universities, and admin work. Her vision of her place in all this was sitting in boardrooms with wealthy men and women, planning grand projects.
Like the one in Milan.
She’d never do more in Lissa’s employ, never get more responsibility, because she was weak when it came to econometric modeling. Lissa didn’t understand that modeling, number stuff, was just grunt work.
Not long after she started with Lissa, she decided that once she had some experience and saved some money, she’d start her own company, a different kind of company. She would play to her strengths and emphasize her creative side, pay more attention to the vision. She wanted to provide inspiration to the planning phase, then her backroom monkeys would crunch the numbers to support her ideas and she’d present their data. High-profile jobs should be glamorous, not about tedious economic studies. In her heart she knew clients would find her approach irresistible.
But launching a company was difficult, expensive, and a huge risk. She wasn’t about to quit a high-paying job—that did make her visible, at least—for a gamble. No, before she quit she needed money and clients of her own, clients that saw her role as she did. Unfortunately, Tina found saving money hard. Representing a vision required keeping up appearances, and her apartment, her car, her clothes, her lifestyle, were all expensive.
She’d been frustrated.
Then Willa Gruber contacted her to ask for a simple favor. She suggested they could work together and might have some mutual interests. The woman wanted some simple things. It involved cutting off communication between Lissa and her employer, Julio Torres. She was certain it was a turf thing. Without knowing any details, she assumed that somehow Lissa was interfering with Willa’s plans. So one woman helped another get around her employer. In return for her services, Willa made some calls and got Tina a few clients. They were small and didn’t pay much, but they liked her style. The jobs were low profile enough that Lissa wouldn’t hear about them.
When it was clear that Lissa was pregnant, bells went off. Willa’s desire to keep the two apart made sense. When Lissa had to go into the hospital, Tina felt she’d been handed her chance. For two months or so, until the babies were born, she’d be the face the clients saw. They’d hear her ideas, and if they were receptive, she’d have the opportunity to drop careful hints and find out if they’d be willing to switch their business over to her.
Poaching clients was harder than she expected. It came as a shock that most of Lissa’s bread-and-butter clients were too fucking loyal. They had no interest in her ideas. What they wanted was for her to go into meetings and discuss how to weight variables and do other analysis. There was no vision there at all. Tina’s degree in economics wasn’t hardcore, more social science than econometrics, and she’d skated through at that. Even when she let the rumors slip out that Lissa might have a drug problem, they didn’t seem to hear a word. All they wanted was more of what they’d been getting all along. A few hinted that she could get their business, but they expected to get more of the same at a lower price.
Tom Acker was the exception.
When she mentioned to Willa that she was negotiating with Acker to work on the Milan deal, Willa surprised her. “I’d be grateful if you can get that contract signed soon,” she said.
“Tom’s not in a rush.”
“But I am. I’d like to see her under contract before she knows much about the Milan deal.”
That made sense, given that Julio Torres was the other major candidate to do the work, and the woman’s agenda was to keep those two far apart. She enjoyed the clandestine work she was doing with Willa, but getting Lissa a contract with Acker didn’t suit Tina’s plans. He was a big, juicy client, and from the moment she’d had the first meeting with him, she’d cultivated the idea that she was the right person to work with him. In meetings, and then in his bed, she’d insinuated herself.
Now, by a quirk of fate, things looked really good. Tom was interested, and her plan might even make Willa happy. If Acker got moving on things, she’d work with him and Lissa wouldn’t be able to work with Torres. Things might not go the way Willa expected, but the result was the one she wanted.
Everything had been poised to happen right. She’d ensure she was a player in the Milan project, working closely with Tom. She’d quit her job and ditch all the small clients. She wouldn’t have time for them. And then suddenly things were thrown into chaos. Lissa was back in the office. Her damn sister had come out of nowhere to provide child care, and urged Lissa to get back to work. The woman came in, changing everything back to how it had been, and the deal with Tom wasn’t done yet. His lawyers were still going over details.
Damn lawyers. Things would have to move fast now. She needed things in place. With Lissa back, the situation was different. What would have been easy was still possible, but riskier.
She was having dinner with Acker that night and she’d let him know, get him to poke the lawyers with a cattle prod. Of course, he’d extract a price. He’d hinted at it that morning. “That was good,” he said. “You’re hot. But the thing is there are lots of hot women who don’t even want as much as you.”
“Anyone in particular?”
His smiled suggested there might be. “If you want to keep my interest, be prepared to play a few games.”
“Games? Kinky games?”
“Any games I want.”
Tina didn’t mind a few games. Not when the stakes were so high. Sure, if he wanted kinky, she’d be kinky. At least kinky enough to make certain she was on the team in Milan.
It was morning. A brilliant sun rose over the palm trees that dotted the waterfront of the Mediterranean Sea brightening the office. Julio sat at his desk in his Barcelona office building. When he’d first built this building, he’d been proud and delighted to be able to sit at his desk with his coffee and watch the sunrise. This complex had made his name as someone who could design and manage international-scale projects. Now the newness and excitement were gone, and it was just his office, but he still appreciated the mornings in it.
This morning, all mornings for a time now, a feeling of helplessness, of having missed something important, had pervaded his thoughts and made him sad. That sadness had nothing to do with his office or the sunrise, or success or failure. For a man who prided himself on taking on challenges that others wouldn’t attempt, of succeeding by doing things his own way regardless of what others thought, it was a strange, miserable sensation.
It wasn’t failing that bothered him. You didn’t reach for the brass ring as often as he did and not experience failure. If he didn’t fail at things now and then, it would be a sign that he’d stopped setting his sights high, an indication that he’d lost his edge. Maybe that would happen someday. It was reasonable to assume that eventually he’d do like so many people and begin to settle for equaling his previous performance, essentially repeating himself by sticking to things that had worked in the past.
That day hadn’t come. Far from it. The sadness he felt wasn’t failure, or at least nothing he could view as a failure. The truth was that he had no idea what had happened, what had gone wrong, and that was the tragedy. He’d met a kindred spirit, a soul mate who shared his spirit. She was so much his complement. People spoke often of their other half or better half, and while he didn’t think of her as better or half of anything, he’d immediately felt she was the female that corresponded perfectly to his maleness. They fit together perfectly yet came from different backgrounds, different cultures. When they met, when they were together, it was as if his horizons had suddenly expanded. His life was joyous before he met her, and she showed him that there were things he’d never dreamed of, and it had seemed she felt the same about his world.
It was a brief interlude that was supposed to become more. That time in Switzerland had been a taste, a sample of what lay in store for them. He’d even said so, and she’d agreed. They’d talked about working together on fantastic new projects, of living in new places, of intertwining their lives. He’d dreamed that intertwining would go on forever. After meeting her, after touching her soft skin, staring into those deep brown eyes, making insanely passionate love to her, feeling her supple brown body entangled in his, having her passion mingling with his, he’d thought she meant forever too. But after he’d left, with both of them joyfully promising they’d be together soon, he never heard from her again. He only even heard about her briefly.
He’d scoured the business pages for word of her doings. He knew she’d consulted on a restoration project in Prague and never contacted him. Finally she had disappeared, or seemed to.
Any number of things could make a person do that. Once or twice Julio had thought of doing that himself. The idea of closing his apartment and office and going off to a tropical island, leaving no forwarding address, no contact information, sounded like the height of self-indulgence. A time like that could be restorative, give your brain the time and opportunity to get out of the routines and rituals it was prone to fall into; he could let new and dramatically different surroundings reshape his thinking. It could let him set new goals and find exciting new pathways towards them.
Willa’s private investigators reported that she’d turned over the reins of her business to her number two and dropped out of sight. She wasn’t attending conferences or consulting on major projects, yet that was her life, who she was. The New York public records didn’t list her death, so it was as if she’d retired and gone into seclusion.
But why hadn’t she contacted him? Even to say there were problems and ask for his help and support? Even if it was just to say that the moments they had together in Switzerland had left her angry, or fearful of losing herself? That knowledge would be a balm on his spirit. Whatever had kept her from wanting to move ahead with him, with what had seemed so powerful, magical, and beautiful… he could respect her choice. He just wanted to know what it was, that a decision was reached. The vacuum of silence bothered him. It didn’t seem like the woman he had known and loved so intensely.
As a practical man, Julio didn’t expect anyone to live in dreams, but throwing a dream away without any discussion horrified him, made no sense. He couldn’t see Lissa as a hysterical or fanciful person. He’d thought she was the same kind of dreamer he was—a person who enjoyed a dream and then set out to find out how much of the dream could be attained, could be made real if you were willing to struggle for it. Dreams were to be considered, not abandoned without a thought.
That was the way he understood things, the way he did them.
He had to consider the possibility that he’d been wrong about her. Totally and completely. That made him sad. For once he thought he’d found someone special—he’d never met anyone like her before. If she wasn’t the person he thought she was, then perhaps he was foolish to think he’d ever meet a woman who would or could be his perfect love.
That thought pained him. It meant settling for sex and companionship and forgoing the hope of actual love as he understood it. He could accept that, not be happy about it, but accept that as a possibility. Unfortunately, most people settled for what came easily, and someone who understood the difference between his ambition and greed, someone who celebrated life the way he did, was a rare find. What truly troubled him was the idea that he had been so wrong about her. Where had he gone wrong? A great part of his success came from assessing people, judging their strengths and weaknesses. The woman he’d known so briefly hadn’t seem at all like the kind to cut and run without a word. If he’d been so wrong, it was his failure, not hers. That was on him, and he didn’t like doubting his own judgment.
The door opened and Willa came in. He gave her an appreciative glance. She was an interesting contrast to the ideal he’d allowed himself to build Lissa up to in his mind. Willa was more what he considered the high end of the rest of womankind—the best of the rest.
The slender, petite German had good instincts. She’d accepted his morning ritual easily, seeming to understand that he was happy for her to come in at this time, but she wasn’t to speak until he greeted her, letting her know he was ready to put his brain into the business gear, and that for the moment he was in his own space and time. He’d mentioned that to her only once and from then on, she came in with her own coffee and her inevitable paperwork, to sit on his leather couch, crossing her lovely legs and waiting quietly. Her predictability was a comfort, and at the moment made him think more affectionately towards her than he felt towards Lissa.
Willa had made herself an important part of his life, his business world. Her disciplined and competent mind let her organize and facilitate his daily work. She knew how to ask questions and then could add her own insights to whatever task was at hand. She was an attractive blonde who hadn’t pushed herself at him the way some assistants had. He was drawn to her, and acutely aware that the attraction was both sexual and because of their shared experience. She was someone he had let get close. She was a dedicated worker who never complained about overtime—even seemed to enjoy it—and was ready to travel for business at a moment’s notice. As far as he could tell, she had no personal life. She’d never mentioned a boyfriend or even family to him. They were joined together by work.
He sensed that she was more ambitious than she liked to show. Every so often she appeared to be frustrated that she was executing his orders and not giving them herself. He wasn’t afraid of employees being ambitious. It often meant they were better workers, but one day it could become an issue. If she wanted more than he thought she was ready to take on, problems could arise. She was great at what she did, but he wondered if she would be a good leader.
With these thoughts forcing his self-pitying concerns to the back burner, he was ready to face the day.
“Good morning,” he said, swiveling his chair to face her and letting the sun warm his back. She sipped her coffee and nodded, an intelligent, alert, but enigmatic smile forming on her face. It wasn’t an unusual look for her, and it always made him think she was operating with some master plan that one day would be clear to him. For now he allowed himself to enjoy the mystery. His work had taught him that he could never understand or control everything in his world, so he learned to enjoy the pleasure of discovery. That made it possible to find excitement even in setbacks—something unknown or uncertain finally was revealed, another piece of life’s puzzle was known. The unknown quantity was to be appreciated.
“You asked to be told if I was able to learn anything about Lissa Edwards.”
His heart raced, irritating him. He didn’t want the mention of her name to excite him, but he couldn’t deny he still craved her. “And?”
“She is in a hospital in New York.”
It struck him like a blow. “Really? What happened?”
“I don’t know the truth of things—the investigator confirmed just that much. Are you interested in the gossip?”
He didn’t want to be, but a knotting of his stomach let him know that he couldn’t ignore it. “Tell me,” he said.
“The story going around New York is that she was in rehab for a drug problem and recently released. She was checked into a private room in the hospital, but of course the doctors aren’t talking.”
“I don’t know. It’s just gossip. The detective in New York did confirm that someone named Joan Edwards was recently released. He discovered she has a sister by that name.”
“Of course, if she wanted privacy…”
“Personally, I wouldn’t use the name of a relative.”
“Who knows what people do or why they do it? But did she register at the hospital under her own name?”
Willa put down her coffee cup. “Indeed.”
“I instructed him to find out why she’s in the hospital and to see if he can learn anything more about the rumor. If she had a drug problem, it could be anything from having damaged her body with them to an attempted suicide. If she didn’t have a drug problem…it could be anything at all.”
She tapped the stack of folders. “And this morning, we have a lot of information to go through if you intend to meet with all the people you are considering for the project.”
He sighed. “I see the paperless office is a ways off yet.”
“So far off that I think you might want to consider investing in an office-supply company.”
He got up from his desk and came over to where she sat. He looked down at her, at those lovely legs. Yes, he found her a damned attractive woman. Given the chaos of his life, that was getting to be a problem. He was finding it harder to ignore her attraction, and with no word from Lissa, he couldn’t even justify trying.
“I’ll get another cup of coffee and we can start on that mind-numbing pile of data.”
“I’ve asked the secretary to make a pot and bring it in.”
“You certainly do organize things amazingly, and you always manage to anticipate me.”
She smiled up at him, tilting her head and letting her eyes run over his body and up to his face, then locking eyes with him. It was a surprisingly sensual look for the office. “I hope I always please you,” she said. “Anything I can do to make you happy.”
It sounded like an invitation, he was sure it was. It was the kind that doesn’t cross the line but says “I’m willing to go farther if you are.” It was also very tempting.
Then she turned her attention back to her stack of folders. “Why don’t we get started?”
He sat next to her, picking up a folder and forcing himself to concentrate.
Willa watched Julio closely when they flew to Milan the next day. She noted that Elaine didn’t hold his attention as she should. She noted he was distracted, and decided he was thinking about the American woman.
She needed him alert and focused. The project was critical. She would take steps to get him on track.
The meetings were, as usual, long, tedious sessions, filled with attention to mind-numbing details. She had the meetings recorded and would have them transcribed later, but she took copious notes herself to ensure she had the main points in hand to follow up on.
They ate dinner with the last contractor, a tiresome plumbing contractor who was more interested in profit margins and convenience—his—than trying to understand the vision of the project. Willa knew that the man was out of the running even before he submitted a bid, even before Julio told her essentially the same thing as they rode in a taxi back to the hotel.
She went to her room and showered and changed. Her room was on the same floor as his suite, and she picked up her new leather briefcase and carried it with her to his suite.
Milan had wonderful, elegant, expensive leather goods. That day at lunch, without any prompting, Julio had bought it for her as a gift—a token of thanks for three years of devoted service, he’d said. That was nice. Willa wanted more than nice from him, but she had him moving in the right direction. She had momentum, and the timing was good. He needed her now more than he ever had, and she intended to make sure he acknowledged that in a tangible way.
She knew he’d meant the gift sincerely and was making sure he saw that it was getting good use, and brought it to all their meetings. He was sitting on the couch, his coat off, his sleeves rolled up, with a drink in his hand. They’d already put in a long day meeting with people who might play a role in building the business center if Julio got the contract. She’d badgered others to submit written reports, and now she had those in her briefcase. She’d dressed carefully in a silk blouse that flattered her breasts, a short skirt, and heels.
Julio looked up, seeing her and showing her a sad face that betrayed just a hint of curiosity.
Seeing him that way made her heart skip a beat. She knew he was still mooning about that bitch of an economist. Even after all this time he wouldn’t let go of the stupid idea that somehow they’d be together again. She set her jaw. It was time to kill that once and for all.
“What’s going on?” he asked. “You look awfully businesslike for so late in what has been a long day.”
He grinned. “Sexy, but still businesslike.”
She savored the flattery. Looking sexy had been her intention. Julio always acted the gentleman with women he worked with. Willa assumed that was why he hadn’t bedded Elaine. She often worked long hours with him herself, and while he might flirt, he generally maintained a professional relationship. The after-hours nature of her visit caught him off guard. Normally if they worked late it was because he was engrossed in some project.
“I know we are supposed to be done for the day… All those damn meetings take their toll. We still have a lot of work that needs doing. I got some more proposals from potential subcontractors. I’ve tossed out the ones that didn’t offer any new ideas, and just sent their standard rate sheets and other garbage, but that left a few that made an effort, and I thought we might go over them.”
“It’s odd that they are the minority,” he said. “You’d think there wasn’t a recession and there was plenty of work to go around. This is a juicy project.”
“At any rate, I saw the look on your face at the end of the last meeting, and rather than letting you sit around feeling sad, I thought we might as well go through some of them.” She sat beside him, letting her leg brush against his and putting the briefcase on the coffee table.
As she opened the case, Julio glanced at the folders and sighed, then held up his glass. “You get things started while I finish my drink.”
“Of course.” She brought out a folder and opened it on the coffee table. “These are from the usual vendors, your preferred list, for their ideas on the landscaping, some exterior touches… most important, though, is the hybrid power-cogeneration system. The European Union should give you big environmental points for that.”
Julio sipped his drink and picked up some of the pages. “You’d think so,” he said. He finished the drink and let himself become absorbed in the proposed power system, reading the textual analysis but referring to the tables and graphs. “Yes, yes.” Then he began going back and forth through the pages. He pointed at several tables with a pen he took from his pocket, circling some numbers. “Paper,” he said, and she tore a page from her notebook and handed it to him.
He scribbled furiously, doing math, writing in the margins of the pages of the report. This was the Julio she wanted to see, the dynamic man who had the insights and energy to steamroller any other proposals. He had an amazing way of making a comprehensive analysis, and his instincts for choosing the right combination of things seemed unerring. The committee in Milan wanted something exceptional for their business center, and that required an exceptional man. A man like Julio Torres.
Willa watched him work, pleased that she could harness his genius, and delighted that she’d managed to sidetrack that American harpy. Now Willa was ready to step up her game. Being Julio’s good right hand gave her a great deal of power, but she wanted more.
Julio shook his head and tossed the folder down. “This won’t do.”
She looked at the folder. “No?”
“It’s crap. They are selling the right buzzwords, but it isn’t promising or even new technology. We can do better.” She watched him juggling possibilities in his head. “Remember that Finnish company we worked with last year?”
“On the military project?”
“Right. Contact them and ask them for their proposal. No, never mind. See that the contact information is on my desk in the morning and I’ll call them myself. I’ll be able to explain some of the engineering details so there are no missteps. They were working on something new that might be applicable. If it is, we can offer Milan something that will be cutting edge for a few years to come. We can’t avoid obsolescence, but we can extend the lifespan of the center out there until they can recoup the investment.”
The light had come back into his eyes. He picked up another folder, and she heard the excitement that crept into his voice as he reviewed, amended, and discarded the various proposals while Willa sat taking notes. He was in his element.
“Excellent,” she said when he’d finished with the last folder. She leaned forward and began collecting them, putting them in the briefcase along with her notepad. “That’s plenty for this evening.”
He glanced at his watch. “It’s still early. And now I’m wound up. Would you have a drink with me, Willa?”
Before she answered, she carefully closed up her briefcase, taking a moment. It never paid to seem too eager. Then she sat back on the couch, putting the briefcase on the floor, then crossing her legs and letting her short skirt ride up her thighs. She watched his eyes, saw that he was looking at her legs with interest. “I’d love one.”
She watched him go to the wet bar, and his manner, the atmosphere in the room, told her she had an opportunity that might not come again soon. She sensed a vulnerability in him, a need to unburden himself. He came back with two drinks and sat beside her. When he handed her the drink, she put her hand around his and looked into his eyes. She had trouble reading the thoughts behind those eyes, so she did the next best thing—she willed him to see her thoughts. She let herself imagine him making love to her, and let her eyes cloud over with desire as she wetted her lips with her tongue, making it seem casual, unconscious, and sexy.
After a brief moment he put both drinks on the coffee table, then turned towards her. His eyes didn’t betray him, but she saw the welcome signs of lust in his face, a slight flush of his cheeks. Those subtle signs were her cue. She’d waited and planned for this since the day she started to work for him. Years of earning his trust, making him comfortable with her, and now she was ready to do whatever it took to cement their relationship.
And she told him that, clearly, with her eyes.
Julio was a careful man, but Willa had seen him being passionate. Now she needed to unleash that passion and direct it at her. She reached her hand up to his face and touched his cheek lovingly while she read his face. She could be as careful and patient as necessary. It was important not to overplay her hand; she couldn’t risk him rejecting her. That was the only danger in her strategy.
What she saw in his face now told her that he was vulnerable; she had aroused him almost to the point where there was no turning back, not for Julio, not for any man. Desire took men to a tipping point where reason stopped working. To coax him past it, she held still, watching his eyes, keeping hers soft, compliant, hungry. She wanted him to make the next move, to make a commitment.
He did, and when he touched her, putting his hands on her shoulders, she opened her mouth, inviting his kiss. When he bent down and kissed her, more with desire than passion, she was elated. That was exactly what she wanted. Getting a man to love you could be useful; making him desire you was far better. Love could be unpredictable; desire was far more reliable. Now she was directing the thwarted desire he felt for Lissa towards her, to accomplish her ends.
To ensure that he was unable to stop, she let her hand trail over his leg and touched the bulge of his cock, moving deliberately so that he’d know it was no accident. His breathing told her how badly he needed her, needed a warm woman at least, right then. And she was happy to let him have her; she wanted to be the woman he turned to.
He showered her neck with warm, wet kisses as his fingers undid her silk blouse. She seldom wore a bra, and fortunately hadn’t this time, and his fingers caressed the soft skin of her breasts, teased her nipples hard. She arched her back and ran her fingers through his hair, encouraging him.
When he slipped the blouse off her and turned his attention to removing her skirt and panties, she writhed and gasped at his touch, happy that he was taking the initiative of undressing her. This kind of man would want to strip his woman naked, be in charge.
For her part, she focused on him, responding to his every touch with sounds and starts of her body. The slightest caress or brush of his hand deserved acknowledgement. When she was naked on his couch, his hands continued casually mapping her body, tracing the soft mounds of her breasts and teasing her nipples erect, then ran down over her belly. They covered the curve of her hips and ass and then her thighs. She gave a slight jump when he pressed his strong fingers into her moist cunt.
She moaned and spread her legs wide for him, wanting to welcome his exploration. She lay on her back on the couch with him sitting beside her. She writhed as he explored her, then showed him her hungry eyes again as she rose and moved to undo his pants, wetting her lips with her tongue. She rubbed her breasts against his leg as she brought out his hard cock and ran her own fingers over it, enjoying knowing that it was hard from wanting her. Then she moved more into his lap and took him in her mouth, wanting to set him on fire, to let him know that her desire was physical and powerful.
She sucked him and rolled her eyes up so that she could watch his face, measure his passion. It wasn’t enough to excite him. She wanted to overwhelm him, to make him equate her with physical desire. For now that was important. He was big and hard, more than she could accommodate in her mouth. He pushed her back and she released him.
He needed her.
He lifted her and carried her to the bed, chuckling darkly as she fell back against the pillows, her eyes flashing with lust, trained on his face. Her fingers met behind her head as she lifted her neck and opened her legs to him. Calling to him, a silent, sexy song, it was the most god damn incredible thing he’d ever seen. Julio’s cock bounced in anticipation, but he couldn’t go in yet, if he did he wouldn’t be able to stop fucking her until he came.
As he stroked himself, making her weight, the sweet torture of anticipation sending a wave of electricity between them, his lids narrowed as he savored the look in her eyes, as she waited.
“Julio, fuck me.”
So, he did.
Afterward, as they lay together on the bed, Willa planned her next moves. Sex with Julio had been better than she’d expected, not that it mattered. She found sex an enjoyable exercise and a useful tool. Emotionally, beyond the passion of the moment, it meant little to her. It mystified her that other people attached so much significance to the act. It was incomprehensible that after fucking one particular person they expected to find the world had changed.
Julio was obviously that way. She’d seen the change in him when he’d returned from Switzerland. That had been the warning sign, the cautionary note that had her reach out to Tina and ensure that she nipped this relationship in the bud. But that left a void, and now she had filled it. She would be there for him, satisfying his sexual hungers. She’d begun the shift in their relationship, but as long as his thoughts turned to Lissa, the woman was a danger that needed to be dealt with.
She had to be careful about how Julio found out about Lissa’s pregnancy. For now, she’d held that back from him. There was no risk to her. If he found out, she’d already established that she hadn’t known why Lissa was in the hospital.
The news of the children had given her a moment of concern. Julio was a conventionally honorable man. If Lissa was carrying his child, he might feel an urge to be noble, to run to her side and claim his heir. There was, however, another way to play those same cards. Willa might use the information as a way of creating a wedge that she could drive between them and permanently sever the tenuous connection, the memory of love, between them, at least from Julio’s point of view, and that was all she cared about. That would require perfect timing, and she’d been waiting for… She hadn’t been sure what she was waiting for, but this morning, lying naked in Julio’s bed, she felt that she now had the lever she’d needed to make sure that when the avalanche of emotions happened, she could direct its flow.
It all came back to sex. They’d made love, and that cemented the relationship. She intended to play that cool, not be clingy or act like she was a schoolgirl. Willa Gruber was not a romantic heroine, but a strong woman, and she would let him know that she was there for him, that he could have her when he wanted her, make him feel that he satisfied her sexually, but that nothing else had changed.
That was a lie, of course. Much had changed. She was a step closer to her goal. She had aroused his passion, let him come inside her. No matter how you looked at relationships, those things altered the way people saw each other—she’d staked a claim on him that was real despite her never uttering adoring phrases or saying “I love you.”
As she lay beside him, running her hands over his muscular chest, she sensed a bit of remorse in him. Perhaps he regretted that he’d have to acknowledge her personal claim, but that would pass. It might even be him recalling that other woman. She’d do whatever it took to supplant those memories. It angered her that after fucking her, he could still feel something for the American woman, that he’d recall her after their night together. It was time to drag out the biggest guns in her arsenal, but she needed to pace herself, not make it seem like she’d been holding things back from him.
She thought about seducing him, distracting him, making him think she needed him, but he sat up and looked at her. “We better get moving. We have a full day ahead of us,” he said.
“Yes, of course,” she said. It would be a mistake to let her professionalism slip now. She needed to reassure him that having Willa as his lover didn’t mean losing Willa as his assistant. Keeping him focused on her while worming her way further into his business and personal lives was the challenge.
She called room service and ordered a large breakfast of eggs Benedict, juice, and coffee. When they finished, he went to shower. Willa slipped on one of his tee shirts and went to the couch. Her briefcase was still on the coffee table, and she got out her laptop and flipped it on. She found the email from the investigator and copied it into a new email, editing out the parts about the rehab rumor. The investigator had been thorough and mentioned that Tina Peters was the source of it. Julio didn’t need to know that, just as he didn’t need to know that the information about Lissa’s pregnancy came in the same email. She created a new one with just the information the man had gotten from the hospital and sent it down to the hotel’s business office. Then she picked up the house phone and called the concierge.
“This is Mr. Torres’s assistant. I just sent a file to your server. Please print it out and bring it to his suite immediately.”
When Julio came out of the shower, she went into the bathroom to take hers, enjoying the steamy warmth and his smells enveloping her. Things were moving along well, and she stood under the hot water and let herself speculate over the way he’d take the news. His reaction would determine her course of action. Letting him know meant she was walking a bit of a tightrope, and that made her feel more aroused than the night with Julio.
Seeing the smile on Tina’s face was a big tip-off. It was a smug, superior, self-satisfied look that broadcast all manner of sinister intentions. The fact that she made no attempt to hide the look told Lissa that something nasty was afoot.
Lissa had already made up her mind to confront her, to sit her down and talk through what she suspected and what she knew. Then Tina’s reaction would tell her what she needed to do. She’d just discovered that Tina had broken off with several of her small clients. Keeping her on, where she interacted with clients and had access to privileged information, was certainly a bad idea. Rather than letting things fester and giving Tina a chance to do more damage, she wanted to take matters in hand.
“Can you come into my office?” she asked.
Tina grinned at her. “Sure. As a matter of fact, I wanted to have a talk myself.”
When she’d shut the door and they were sitting, facing each other, Tina was the first to speak. “I’m giving notice.”
That wasn’t the start to the conversation Lissa had expected. “Really?”
She nodded. “It’s really getting impossible to continue the way we are. You and I have different ways of working, perhaps even different goals.”
“But it’s my company.”
“Yes it is. The thing is that while you were in the hospital, I got a taste of what’s possible when I get to do things my own way. Going back to being your number two isn’t going to work for me.”
“I noticed that. You certainly didn’t even attempt to do things the way I asked you to do them.”
She waved her hand. “I kept the business going. Okay, I dumped some of the smaller clients without telling you. But we never should have taken them on in the first place—they aren’t doing anything that will be noticed, and the cash flow they generate means they are hardly worth the effort.”
“That might be a reasonable analysis if it were your company and not mine. I asked you to work along with those clients because I believe in them. It’s a matter of growing the company. As they get big, the returns will be worth what we’ve invested.”
Tina waved her hand in dismissal. “That assumes they keep us on and don’t go over to a competitor. Hell, Lissa, they weren’t even interesting people. But our disagreement is exactly the problem—just the tip of the iceberg. You run a stodgy, functional business, with no élan, no class. You emphasize the grunt work and not the creative aspect.”
“If you understood the core of what we really do, you might not see it that way.”
“I understand the core of what I want to do, and it isn’t this. So I’m starting my own firm.”
“I see. And you have clients?”
Lissa chuckled. “My guess is that I might recognize a few of their names.”
“Some of your clients might want to go with me if they appreciate what I offer.”
“And they must admire your sense of loyalty too.”
“They can see the conditions; the restrictions I’ve been working under. They are intrigued by how things might be and want to give it a try.”
“Well then, since you have used your time on my payroll to ingratiate yourself to them, I don’t suppose you’ll need my good wishes.”
“Don’t be snarky. There’s no reason we can’t part amicably.”
“There isn’t? You’ve lied to me about how you were looking out for my business. I’ve heard about the rumors you spread in an attempt to ruin my reputation. I assume that was part of the effort to steal my clients to fund your own business. And now you think I should be a good sport?”
“Your reputation? You are a great number cruncher and are known to crusty academics as brilliant. Nothing more.”
“Then why was it necessary to start rumors that I was a drug addict?”
Tina scowled. “I didn’t—”
“Tina, despite your low opinion of me, there are people in the business world that like me—enough to tell me how you ran to them with those lies and insinuations. If you didn’t think they’d be more than happy to repeat the rumors along with the information that it came from you, then you aren’t very clever.”
Tina scowled. “It’s business to run down the competition.”
“It might be your way of doing business, which suggests you leaving to start your own company is a very good idea. I suggest you start now. I had your computer locked and I’ll change all the passwords and key locks. Take whatever is in your desk that’s yours. I have to assume you’ve already stolen anything of value to you before showing your true colors, but even with the horse gone the barn door should probably be locked. I might have another horse one day, after all.”
“What barn?” Tina asked.
“It’s a metaphor. Now get your ass out of my building.”
Tina stood stiffly and walked out of the inner office and straight to the front door. As she’d guessed, Tina had already cleaned out her desk. Telling Lissa had been nothing but a formality and a chance to gloat. Angry with herself for not seeing Tina’s greed sooner, she picked up the phone.
“Hello Abby, it’s Lissa. Yes, I’m back. How would you like to work for me again?”
“I won’t work for Tina.”
“She’s gone. You’d work for me.”
“I don’t know about being a secretary again. It’s a thankless job.”
“No, I’ll need you to hire a secretary. I want to give you Tina’s job. That’s even more thankless, but it pays better.”
She could hear the woman breathing. “I can hire our secretary?”
“Right. When can you start?”
“It’s Friday. I can start Monday.”
Lissa smiled to herself. “Monday would be great. See you at nine.”
When she hung up after talking to Abby, hearing her cheerful voice, she felt that she’d turned a corner, shed some baggage. It was time to hit the street and let the world know she was back and fighting. She looked at her watch. The day was kind of a bust, and she didn’t have much heart for putting on a superhero costume and spending Friday afternoon righting the wrongs of the business world. She picked up the phone again.
“I didn’t expect you to call,” Joan said.
“How is it going?”
“It’s quite a learning experience. For instance, I’ve learned that with three boys, I’m going to need a larger diaper allowance. And I’ve learned that providing the three with proper care requires perpetual motion, but we are all doing fine and I’m getting back in shape.”
“Would it be interfering in your new career path and turf if I wanted to come home and spoil my children for the rest of the day?”
Joan laughed. “Since they don’t have grandparents to do that, someone needs to pick up the slack. If you were to bring lunch from a deli, you could consider me appeased.”
“Now there is something I can do.”
Thinking of the children made her feel deliciously happy, although as always, her happiness was tinged with thoughts of the elusive Julio. What the hell had happened? It still hurt to think of him, and it launched her on an emotional roller coaster that took her brain traveling along an endless loop of angst, disbelief, and self-pity—the last was the most unpleasant of all of those feelings. None of them were profitable. As she always did, she allowed herself a moment of self-indulgence and then shrugged it off. She had the boys and she had Joan. On Monday, Abby would be back and fitting into her new role. In the glow of hindsight, she knew that getting rid of Tina and promoting Abby was a change she should have made long ago. With her in place, she had a team good enough to take on any opposition, and she’d find out more about what Tina had been up to while she was in the hospital.
Julio wasn’t in the best of moods. He’d been tense and jumpy during the flight and all the way from the airport. Willa let him be grumpy. She sat back in the limo, letting herself feel a little thrill. Getting him here had been a challenge, but important for her plan. Of course, getting Julio to come to New York City had been a matter of making him think it was necessary and he could do some things to help him win the Milan project.
Unfortunately, the reason that Julio was so unsettled was that this was Lissa Edwards’s city, and that meant a danger of them meeting. Out there somewhere in this vast forest of skyscrapers the woman was working, trying to find an angle that would involve her with the Milan project too. Everyone wanted that plum job.
Her presence was a risk she had to take. She couldn’t very well keep him away from her forever. Sooner or later they’d meet, and she just needed to postpone it until she had cemented her position.
Willa knew that being so close to Lissa had put him on edge and kept him there. She was so close, and yet he had no idea how to contact her. Well, Willa didn’t intend to let him dwell on that woman for long. She had some important things to accomplish here. First, however, she needed to remind him of their purpose in New York. If he focused on that, things would be okay.
“I don’t like this city,” he said. She knew that was true. Julio wasn’t a big fan of America, and New York City represented most of what he disliked.
“Since you can’t clone yourself, we needed to prioritize.”
“It’s a hellaciously complex bid as it is, Willa. You’ve seen the documents. I still haven’t resolved some of my misgivings about the plans as they are. And yes, I could use help. I think some of the assumptions the consortium has made need investigating before we get too far in our plans. That means I should be with experts in Milan doing that, not sightseeing in goddamn New York City. What an ugly place it is. How do people do any creative work here?”
Willa held her breath. For the past few days, his uncertainties about the project had been making Julio uneasy. Now he was getting closer to understanding what was wrong—but not quite there. Going back to a consortium and telling them there were problems with their basic idea was risky, but that’s how he operated. She worried that they weren’t looking for feedback, just someone to do what they asked. It took balls to take the gamble of asking them to make fundamental changes in the plan, or telling them they needed to change their thinking, but that was Julio. If they refused, he wouldn’t even bother to submit a proposal. He didn’t want to be part of a project he thought was fundamentally flawed. He only involved himself with projects that he was certain would be successful.
“You need to put together your team for the bid, Julio. You know the top people for some of those things are here. Even if you don’t put them on your team, you can get their input.”
Willa wasn’t sure if that was vanity or an assurance that you seldom encountered, but whatever it was, it was part of Julio’s makeup. It was a strength, but for a clever opponent, an exploitable weakness. She filed that thought for reference. If he did ask them for changes, that could put her plan in jeopardy. Fortunately, she had contingency plans. She would ride Julio’s coattails to the top, but she had no intention of going down with him if he failed.
She smiled. “To do that, you need to talk to the best people.”
“Fine. I just don’t see why we had to come to New York for that.”
“I want you to meet with Tina Peters.”
“Why do I know that name?”
“She worked for Lissa Edwards on a lot of projects. When Ms. Edwards dropped out of sight, Tina ran the business for her, but they had a falling-out. Now she’s gone out on her own. Since you can’t get Ms. Edwards to respond, I thought that getting Ms. Peters on the team might be the next best thing.”
“If she’s interested, she could have come to Barcelona. I don’t care much for New York, and this is using up valuable time.”
Willa touched his arm, calming him. “We’ve used the flight time productively. And she couldn’t come to Europe right now. She is being courted by Tom Acker. He sees her value and has proposed they work together. It would set off alarms if she suddenly flew to Spain to see you. She isn’t willing to throw away an offer from him on the chance you might be interested. Besides, I’ve arranged a number of meetings with American firms who want to talk about roles they might play in the project.”
“And this Peters woman has agreed to meet?”
“The three of us will have dinner together tonight.”
“So I don’t have to face this woman alone?”
She put her hand on his arm. “Julio, I wouldn’t put you in that situation.”
He laughed. “She must be pretty, because I get the feeling you don’t trust me.”
Willa gave him a smile. “I don’t trust women around you.” That was close enough to the truth for her to sound sincere. “So just grit your teeth and tolerate New York for a few days. We have the meetings, you’ll make your decisions, and we’ll fly back to Spain. Simple.”
“Nothing is ever that simple,” he said. “People are far more complicated than I’d like. If they were more like projects, definable, consistent…”
She snuggled up against him, thinking that he was right about people. Tina was a perfect example of how people could complicate things. Initially the woman had been useful; it had been easy to convince her to work for their mutual benefit. But she’d gotten greedy. Rather than get Lissa safely under contract for the Milan project, she’d gone after it herself—and after Tom Acker himself, if the rumors were true. Even with Acker stalling on signing a contract, it had taken some work to get her to consider the option of working with Julio. It was important that Lissa work for Acker—once it was signed, Julio wouldn’t even consider talking to Lissa—it would squash any lingering ideas Julio might have that he could still manage to get in touch with her and convince her to work with him.
Despite the rumors, the news of her having his children without letting him know, despite everything, he still thought she was the best at what she did. Unbelievably, she knew he’d be willing to put all of that aside to have her on his team.
Tina’s leaving, going after Acker’s business for herself. Tina muddied the waters. The only way Willa could see to keep her plan on track now was if she managed to get Julio to hire Tina, even if it weakened his team.
“I want to be involved in the Milan project,” Tina told Willa. “It’s huge and would give me the chance to show what I can do.”
Without letting Julio know, Willa had arranged for them to meet in the bar of the hotel she and Julio were staying in ahead of the dinner. Willa had only met Tina once before, and that was brief. With there being several ways that the evening could go, she wanted this opportunity to size her up.
“So you’ve gone off on your own. Wouldn’t it have been easier to be involved in the Milan project if you were still working for Lissa Edwards? She’s considered quite an expert.”
She saw that the comment struck a nerve. “That’s part of the problem with staying on. I need to be out from under the shadow of that bitch. In the years I’ve worked for her, no one has seen that I’m the one that makes things happen. I convince clients, do presentations, run the business, and she gets all the credit just because she spouts all that analytical claptrap.”
Willa sighed. It seemed laughable that Tina couldn’t see that the “analytical claptrap” she hated was exactly what people like Julio and Tom Acker were looking for. That was the work that formed the basis for putting together their proposals, not visionary handholding. While the work could be farmed out the way Tina thought, they really wanted someone who understood that stuff intimately and could brainstorm with them. “I think that her analysis is why she gets so much work.”
Tina obviously saw things differently. “You don’t hire a mechanic to design a race car,” she said. “I have vision. I understand the ideas and dreams that clients have, and I know how to hire and deal with the number crunchers. My idea is to make our consultancy more visible, give the work we do a bit of flash.”
“You might keep in mind that even if you’re right, Julio wants to hear insights that come from that kind of analysis. He wants a team that can evaluate all the variables.”
“My people are the best.”
Willa admired her self-confidence, but it seemed to border on arrogance. “What has Tom Acker said about working for him?”
“He hasn’t finished putting his internal project together yet. He is trying to decide whether to set up a separate team or put it under one of his companies. Once he decides that…”
That sounded like bullshit to Willa. A man like Tom Acker didn’t sit around wondering how to structure a team or worry about what division of his company would carry the torch. He was like Julio in that respect. He’d delegate only up to a point, but he would head the team himself and farm out a few specific tasks. The question now was only whether Acker was bullshitting Tina or if she was just trying to sound more plugged into Acker’s decision-making than she actually was.
Tina wasn’t impressing her as the right person to work with Julio. As convenient as the idea had seemed, it was important that Julio have a top team, especially if Acker hired Edwards as she wanted. More than anything, Willa wanted Julio to win the bid, to get the Milan job, and make it spectacular. She’d do whatever it took for that to happen. She’d guide him through putting together his proposal and be at his side every step of the way until it was done.
When the project was done, and a spectacular success, she could ask for almost anything and be fairly sure he’d give it to her. What she would ask for would depend to an extent on how things played out. For now, she like the nature of their sexual relationship. It was casual and she was happy to sleep with him when he wanted. That was better than having to worry about someone undermining her position with pillow talk. Over time that bond would fade, however. Being lovers was a transitory thing. Perhaps she’d get him to put her in charge of one of his companies. That could be good. It would give her a chance to show her stuff, to make her mark.
When the personal relationship faded, she’d be independent and still necessary and important in her own right. Alternatively she might get him to marry her. That was more difficult, but would let her run his universe—she’d control both home and business. Eventually he’d have mistresses for sex, of course. She’d prefer he did.
But first they had to win the bid to build the business center and make it happen.
Tina was still trying to explain her situation. “Anyway, since Acker and I don’t have a contract, I can’t see myself sitting around waiting for him to decide. If Julio Torres wants to make me an offer, I’m ready to deal.”
“Does Tom Acker know that you’re considering other offers?”
Tina smiled. “I hope not. He has a tendency to get jealous.”
Willa allowed herself a satisfied grin. It was as she’d hoped—Tina was sleeping with Acker, but she’d put her position at risk. She’d be having dinner with Julio, and her vanity kept her from seeing the trap she’d set for herself. She wanted to have dinner in a restaurant where people went to do business and be seen. Being seen with Julio would raise her profile, but it also meant that in a matter of hours the word would get back to Acker. Naturally he’d draw the conclusion that she was lobbying to be on Julio’s team. When he did, it was likely that he might decide she couldn’t be trusted. Even if Julio didn’t like Tina, and now that she’d met her, Willa realized there was no chance in hell he’d hire her, Acker might hire Lissa Edwards after all.
She sipped her wine, pleased with the course of events. There was a lot of uncertainty to deal with, but if the dinner had the proper result, she’d see Edwards under contract to Acker, and Tina out of the running and wondering what had hit her. That suited Willa nicely. If somehow Tina did wind up working with Julio, she’d have to keep her eye on her every second. Tina was older than Willa, but still younger than Julio, and Willa didn’t doubt for a second that she would make a play for him. His money and position were too big a temptation.
Now it didn’t seem likely that Tina would get a chance.
Willa tried not to look too satisfied. She ordered another round of drinks. “Julio will be down shortly, and we can eat then.”
“What a waste of time that was.” Julio’s dissatisfied look spoke volumes.
“I’m sorry about that. That’s what you always have to watch for when you don’t know a person. I seriously thought that given she had done all that work for Lissa Edwards and was being considered by Acker, she must have something on the ball.”
Julio shook his head. “I don’t even understand what she thinks she’s offering. She seems to think she can charm her way onto my business team. She doesn’t show much real interest in the project or any aptitude for the serious work that needs doing. Maybe there was some sort of a miscommunication, because she sounded like she was looking for a job doing public relations. I’m not sure how she thinks she’d be an asset in analyzing the site properties or logistics.”
“She thinks you can tell her what you want and have her hire people to do it.”
“I suppose she does. People think all manner of crazy things. Well, at least the food was good.”
“The wine was excellent.” Although the entire episode had taken a different turn than she’d expected, Willa was pleased with her evening. And with Tina effectively out of the way, it was time to wrap up some other loose ends. “Before we call it a night, there is one other thing I should mention. When we checked in, I got a report from the investigator. Apparently Lissa Edwards recently delivered triplets.”
He seemed to take the information calmly. “I see.”
Willa took out the document and handed it to him. “It seems she didn’t list the father’s name on the birth certificates. I wonder if she even knows who the father is?” As she said it, she realized she had an opening. “I understand you think they’re yours, but we don’t know that. That could be why she never answered your messages. If she had another affair and got pregnant, she could have been ashamed of what she did.”
Julio gave her a sour look. “Then maybe I should demand a paternity test. I suppose I could ask for a court order.”
“So I’ll know. If they are mine… Well, I was thinking about what you’ve learned about her. Her drug problem. I’m still amazed about that. It’s hard to believe, but if it’s true and the children are mine… I was thinking about fighting her for custody of the children.”
“On what basis?”
He raised his eyebrows. “I don’t think a drug addict can be a fit mother. And if they are mine…”
Willa needed to cut that short. “She’d just argue that she’s gone through treatment and that taking the children from her would be cruel. She’d find doctors who supported her argument.”
“A woman who never contacts the father, never even lets him know he is one, is being irresponsible.”
“I doubt that would be enough to make a case, either.”
Although Willa didn’t mind him having custody of the children, she had to derail this idea. On a day-to-day basis, nannies and housekeepers would bear the brunt of that, although it would make things messier. The problem would be if Lissa made him take her to court. A legal action would bring out some facts that Willa would rather kept quiet and expose the source of the rehab story as being planted by Tina. A pending case would give Tina a dangerous lever for extracting something for herself. Willa needed to make sure that Julio didn’t get himself worked up so that he started a crusade. Not now, anyway. Once the Milan project was finished, none of that would matter any longer. Right now she couldn’t afford the chance that he might find out how much she’d manipulated him and his life. He’d never forgive her. “Have you talked to a lawyer?”
He laughed. “You run my schedule with an iron hand. I barely have time for a pee break, much less talking to a lawyer.”
“Why don’t you give it a little time and see what she does? Don’t let go of the idea, exactly, but let the investigator keep tabs on things, collect more information before you do anything. I’ll see if he can find a way to see how the children are doing, see that they are being treated well. If they aren’t, we would have the ammunition needed to make a case for you having custody.” Then she added, as a poignant reminder, “Assuming they are yours.”
“Fair enough.” It was easy to see that he wasn’t thrilled about doing nothing, but she had managed to convince him not to be precipitous. She needed time. Fortunately, Julio was telling her what was on his mind before acting. That kept her in the driver’s seat. Right where she wanted to be.
“I really want to focus on this big project coming up in Milan,” Lissa told Abby. “I want us in on it. It’s a chance to do something truly exciting.”
“As consultants? Who are the big players we need to pitch?” Abbey asked.
“While I was in the hospital, Tina started talking to Tom Acker about it. She said he called her. She sent me some of the information, and I wanted to see how far the talks had gotten, but now I can’t find her files. I’ll need to call Tom and put the cards on the table and see what he can tell me. I need to let him know that Tina isn’t with us any more, although if she’s hustling his work, he’ll know that.”
“Do you want to work with him?”
It was a fair question. “Not really. I don’t like a lot of the things he does… He wouldn’t be my first choice, but I’d work with the devil himself to get involved.”
Abby looked up. “All of Tina’s paper files are gone. Fortunately for us, she didn’t know how to delete the files from the server completely. I’ll search on Milan and see… Well, look here.” She pointed to the screen. “Here is the file that has their specifications, and it looks like that project is covered with dollar signs and big numbers followed by lots of zeros. I don’t see anything that has to do with Acker, but I’ll get everything printed out for you.”
“Look for any surprises. I mean, beyond the fact that Tina was trying to get the job for herself.”
“There is a cover letter that went out, and it looks like Tom Acker and Julio Torres are the big fish going after the job. Given the scale of the project, that makes sense. There wouldn’t be that many folks who could handle it.”
Julio. The sound of his name cut through her like a knife. Well, if she was going to play with the big kids, it was a given that she’d run up against him time and time again. She would have to get over it.
Of course, that was easier said than done. At least her reaction had ebbed some, and she no longer felt the urge to cry. All that was left was the pain of him severing the relationship without a word, and her confusion from not having a clue why he’d done that. It embarrassed her that she wasn’t over the pain, and it galled her to think that she might still care for him. Carrying a torch for the man at this point was the stuff school girls did, and she was supposed to be an independent woman.
“There really aren’t any others that I can think of, although they’ll get hundreds of bids.”
Abby frowned. “Why would either of them consider Tina? She’s weak on the technical aspects.” She laughed. “Oh well, once they start working with her, they’ll learn their mistake soon enough.”
“Abby, since Tina tried to delete her own files, would you poke around and see what else she tried to get rid of? She was negotiating with Tom, and I’d like to see any correspondence between them on the subject, or between Tina and anyone about that project.”
“No worries. I have our IT guy coming in this afternoon to put everything right in the system. A lot of what Tina screwed up was out of ignorance, but we can see what she might be trying to hide while we are in there.”
“In the meantime, I think I’ll give Tom Acker a call. He might be willing to tell me exactly what’s going on.” The more she thought about that, the better the idea seemed. She’d meet Tom, tell him the situation, and see what he said. If he did want to work with her, he’d probably tell her the truth. She wouldn’t play games and pretend that she didn’t know Tina had been sneaking around behind her back anyway. No one would believe she hadn’t figured it out—especially a sharp businessman like Tom Acker.
“Look at this,” Abby said, coming over with a printout. “I think Tina was playing both ends against the middle.”
“What do you mean?”
“This email. It’s from Willa Gruber.”
“Right. It’s confirming a dinner meeting for last night. She was supposed to meet privately with this woman at the hotel bar and the two of them were going to have dinner with Mr. Torres to talk about Milan.”
“Tina went to Spain?”
Abby squinted at the page. “No. Apparently he’s in town. At the Park Plaza.” Abby handed Lissa the page. She watched Lissa stare at it for a moment. “Now you do what you think best—as of course you will, anyway, but if it were me, I’d be picking up the phone and calling the Park Plaza. I’d want to catch Mr. Torres before I bothered with Tom Acker.”
“Well, in addition to the fact that he’s the more innovative person, and the fact that your style would blend well with his approach to projects, so that you’d reinforce each other—it would be brilliant. If that isn’t enough of a reason, I can think of three other reasons to talk to him.” She pointed to the picture of the triplets that sat on her desk.
“Point taken, but I think you know that I’ve tried to contact him many times.”
“Well, that was then. Now he’s in your city and close enough to reach out to. Who knows what gremlins might have been lurking out there and keeping you two from communicating?”
Who knew indeed?
Abby smiled and pointed to the printout. “Why, look here, you just happen to have the phone number for his suite. Even if he blocked your calls on his cell phone, you can call his room directly.”
“So I can.” She held the page, not sure if she should crumple it up or make the call.
“Another thing to consider,” Abby said. “This email came from his office. Tina has been hiding things from you. It isn’t totally impossible that the fact that there hasn’t been any communication from him might not actually be a fact at all.”
“Why would Tina care about that?”
“I can’t honestly say why Tina does much of anything she does. I’m just saying you can’t let your pride keep you from making the call. If you want to know what’s going on, I mean. And if you are interested in being on a hot team for the Milan job.” She walked to the door. “I need to meet the IT guy, so I’ll leave you alone with your angst.”
Lissa took a long, slow breath, and when she exhaled, her body trembled. Fear? The angst Abby talked about? Whatever it was, if she intended to get involved in the Milan deal, she had to make the call. And if she could find out anything on a personal level…
Don’t get your hopes up, kid.
Julio was in the middle of rereading a report on logistical issues related to the project when the phone rang. He answered with his head filled with information on duty-free zones and customs regulations. When he heard her voice, it all went out of his head. It was her voice. Lissa.
“I heard you were in town,” she said simply, but he heard a tremble in her voice. “I thought we should meet.”
“Meet? You are going to talk to me finally? Now?” He bounced between eagerness and anger, wanting to see her, to talk to her, and outrage that she dared act so calmly, so matter-of-factly. She sounded as if they’d just had a meeting and she wanted to follow up.
“We have a lot to discuss, but I can’t even begin to address even the basics over the phone.”
“A lot? Like children?” Julio said.
“No thanks to you.”
“Now you’ve decided you’re ready to tell me about them?” He hated sounding so petty and indignant. It wouldn’t help anything. And it shocked him that on hearing that musical voice again he instantly burned, absolutely ached, to talk to her. What a fool! He should refuse. He should wait for her to apologize, beg his forgiveness. The telephone shook in his hand. He stood in his room, terrified that this abrupt and tenuous connection might slip away. Again.
“I want to sit down with you, just the two of us,” She said.
“We need to talk about the boys, and about business as well.”
“Milan?” Now he understood the timing of her call. “You called me because of Milan?”
“Partly. Mostly I called because I could.”
“What do you mean? You could call me any time you wanted.”
“I understand you met with Tina Peters.”
That surprised him. Tina Peters wasn’t important at all. She certainly had nothing to do with them. “Your disgruntled ex-employee? Yes, I did. I assume all of New York knows that by now.”
“She’s trying to position herself as a player in the Milan deal.”
“I know. She’s courting everyone, it seems. I don’t know if she’s more interested in getting the gig or cutting me out of it.”
Despite himself, Julio laughed. “I’d rate that impossible on either score. She’s a second-hander, as Ayn Rand called them. Her idea of innovation is to hire good people and create a genius sweatshop.”
“Well put and accurate.” Her voice was mellowing.
“Tomorrow? The dinner, I mean?”
“Can we do it tonight?” she asked. He heard a quiver creep back into her voice. Uncertainty. That didn’t seem possible, but then this entire conversation was impossible.
“I suppose. Is it that urgent?”
“No. It took all the courage I could summon to make this call, and I’m afraid that if we don’t talk right away, I’ll lose my nerve and not be able to face you.”
The absolute honesty of the words almost floored him. “Me too.”
“You?” She sounded surprised.
Somehow he felt the need to be honest. “Yes. I’m terrified of being a coward. So how about dinner at my hotel tonight? The food is good.”
“No. You have minions there. This should be private.”
He remembered a restaurant she’d mentioned when they were in Switzerland. She compared it to a place they ate there, saying she thought the New York place was even better. “In Switzerland at dinner, when I raved about the food, you mentioned a place in New York that was better,” he said.
“Yes. I know the place.”
“Do you care to prove your claim?”
The door opened and Willa came in. He held up a hand to keep her from talking.
“I’ll make reservations for seven,” Lissa said.
“I’ll see you there.”
When he hung up, Willa looked at him curiously. “Hot date?”
“I made a dinner engagement.”
“Without consulting me?”
He scowled at her. Since they’d slept together, Willa had grown more proprietary. He didn’t care for that change. “Obviously.”
“Who are you meeting?”
He enjoyed her look of astonishment. “She found out I was in town and called. It was amazingly amicable.”
“You can’t meet with her.”
“I can’t? I intend to, Willa.”
“But after all she’s done…”
Willa’s intense look of distress was totally out of character, and from what he could see, out of proportion to him meeting the woman. “She wants to tell me some things. I assume we will talk about the children. If she’s willing to talk to me, maybe we can avoid any kind of legal wrangling. You know I hate how readily Americans turn to those bastards. It’s a waste of money, and drags things out in public.”
“I have to object to you meeting her.”
“No you don’t. And I can’t see that any harm can come from talking to her.”
“After she cut you off, broke your heart, the first time she crooks her finger to beckon you to approach, you go to her like a lovesick schoolboy.”
“Perhaps. But it isn’t like I’ve never acted foolishly before. I’m willing to embarrass myself if it clears the air.” It was more than that. Having heard her voice, he ached to see her.
“And then there is our relationship. Doesn’t that give me some right to object?”
Julio stared at her. She spoke calmly, but he saw her anger. She seethed, holding it in. It surprised him, seeing this side of her. He couldn’t imagine what had her in such a fury. It couldn’t simply be jealousy, or she’d want him to resolve things with Lissa. Then he’d be free. No, he’d missed something. It had probably been going on for some time. Whatever she was after was threatened by Lissa.
He wondered if she consciously knew what it was herself.
“Emotional blackmail doesn’t become you, Willa. And although you have the look of a jealous woman, I don’t think that’s why you are upset. As for our relationship, we’ve been a good business team, and we let that become intimate. I think that might have been a mistake.”
“She is trying to ruin things.”
“Ruin things? What things? Unless you mean I’m suddenly aware of how possessive you feel about me, your concerns sound hysterical.”
“Hysterical? Because I’ve been at your side through all this and now feel betrayed?”
“You were well paid to be by my side. And what is it I’ve betrayed? Clearly you have some expectations about our relationship that you’ve never mentioned.”
“Please don’t go see her.”
“I am going, Willa. Tonight.”
Suddenly her face changed. The anger left her eyes. “I apologize,” she said calmly. “Because of what that woman has done to you, I’ve grown to hate her.” She drew herself up. “I’m sorry that I seem to be acting irrationally. I think I’d better retire to my room. I’ll have a long soak in the tub and get room service.”
And she left.
Willa wanted to scream.
This turn of events was disastrous. It was unbelievable that things had gone bad so suddenly. She had been surprised and messed things up, made them worse. She should never have tried to insist he not go to the dinner. Now he was suspicious of her. He was right. She had no good reason she could tell him so that he shouldn’t meet with Lissa. Everything she said had made her sound like a jealous madwoman. Worse, it had pissed him off. Showing her anger and frustration did nothing but tip her hand. Now he even suspected her motives for fucking him. That wasn’t good.
At the end she’d caught herself. If she couldn’t stop him, she had to carry on, act as if it wasn’t as important as she’d first thought, and give him space.
But it did make her want to scream. She’d cultivated him for years, gaining his confidence and carefully nudging things along in the right direction, in her direction. And now this! She’d known the risk in coming to New York—that Lissa Edwards would discover Julio was in the city. She’d even considered the possibility that she’d want to contact him.
Even knowing all that, she’d screwed it up.
The truth was that she had been too fucking clever for her own good. She’d made sure that the concierge at the hotel knew that every message that came in for him came to her first. Then she’d gotten her hands on every phone number that Lissa used and blocked them on Julio’s cell phone so that if she called him, he’d never know. If she called any other number, Willa would know. Then she’d be warned and could take steps.
But she’d totally spaced out about the phone in the room. Who called the phone in the room? That was for room service, and calling the concierge to arrange a taxi. No one called a person’s hotel-room phone anymore. You called their cell phone, so it didn’t matter where they were.
What a string of goddamn coincidences: Lissa had called the damn hotel room; the call had been put through; he was there and answered; and instead of screaming at him, like an ordinary woman, she invited him to dinner.
Her heart pounded. If they dropped the barriers she’d help build between them, if they actually talked, Willa would be out on her ass. They’d never find hard evidence of anything, but they didn’t need any. If they started cataloging all their attempts to reach the other person, a pattern would emerge. A pattern that would show them both that she and Tina had conspired to drive them apart.
It was so damn stupid, so bloody careless. She could easily have asked the switchboard to route Julio’s calls to her room. She could have, but she never thought about it. Not even once.
She sat down and forced herself to be calm. It was safe to assume they’d talk, or at least start talking. They might not work out her part in things immediately, but they would. Julio wasn’t an idiot, and he would find out what she did sooner or later. There was no way she was going to wait for him to confront her, or give him a chance to fire her. No, survivors were proactive.
It was time to backtrack, get back the things that mattered. When things were going wrong, the first thing to do was to examine your goals. It was foolish to be attached to a strategy. If it stopped working, then you tossed that approach away and started fresh. That’s something she’d learned from working for Julio. It was why he was so successful. His competitors couldn’t be certain of what he’d do next.
So back to the goals. Working for Julio wasn’t important—the job was a stepping-stone to power. She certainly didn’t care about the romantic part. That was just to cement her position. What mattered was moving into a position of power. She’d started working for Julio because she had the opportunity, and with him gained experience in running large projects, which meant controlling vast sums of money. That gave you power. It gave you chances to make money, either directly or through back channels.
She was known now, not the unknown face she’d been when she started. She had contacts. Unlike Tina, she had no interest in starting a company. Startups were a gamble, an unnecessary throw of the dice. What mattered was the power you wielded, not the name on the door. Now she needed a new position, a more powerful one. The beautiful thing about companies that did the sort of work Julio did was that most of the key jobs were defined by the person filling the slot. She’d taken a secretarial job, turned it into a personal-assistant slot, and had been making it even more. Perhaps it was time to move anyway. If she stepped across to another company, she had a lot to offer: experience, contacts, and insights into how Julio did things. It was a powerful combination. Add to that her own presence, her sex appeal, and her ability to work parties, and she could offer a decent package—one that should be worth a substantial salary.
She went to the bar and poured herself a whiskey and carried it out to her balcony where she stared out over New York as she sipped it. She could live here—the US, New York City. It would be a change, and she’d miss a lot about Europe, but she’d get to Europe often enough. If she played her cards right, she’d be needing an apartment in Milan soon. She pictured having an apartment in New York City and one in Milan, and decided it made her feel good.
The work, the intrigue, none of that would change, except that she’d be a bigger fish in an elite pond. That felt good as well. Better than sex. She sipped the drink and ran scenarios through her head, not discarding any that might have promise, even if they seemed unlikely. Lissa was in the game, but Tina had overplayed her hand. She was dead meat, and that spelled an opening.
When she finished her drink, she went back into the room and got out her laptop. A quick search got her the number she needed out of her contact list. She took out her phone and dialed.
When he answered, she felt a rush. “This is Willa Gruber,” she said. “I’d like to meet with you, at your convenience.”
“To discuss what?”
“The possibility of us working together, me working for you.”
He paused. Finally, she heard pages turning. “My dinner engagement for tonight is nothing important. Would you like to meet at eight at Bouley? Their calamari is superb.”
“I’ve heard that. What an excellent idea.”
“Actually, I have an errand to run. I think you are staying at the Park Plaza, right?”
“Yes. For the moment.” She wondered how long she’d be there. Now that she had set her mind on the idea that things were going to change, that change couldn’t happen fast enough.
She heard him chuckle. “I see. Well, I can come by and pick you up in my limo if you like. Taxis can be unpleasant. Unless, of course, this meeting needs to be covert. I don’t imagine Julio knows you are calling me.”
“He doesn’t know yet, but I see no advantage in keeping this a secret. I’d love for you to pick me up, Mr. Acker.”
“Please. If we are going to have dinner together, you have to call me ‘Tom.’”
She smiled to herself. He was already flirting with her. This would be better than she had hoped. “Thank you, Tom. I’ll be in the lobby at eight.”
When she hung up, she glanced at the clock. She didn’t have long, but she had time to get to an upmarket clothing store and get a dress that would be elegant and sexy. Acker was known to enjoy women, and Willa was certain that Tina had slept with him already in the hope of getting him to sign that contract. Well, it wasn’t signed, and she intended to make Tom Acker a better offer, even if that had to include sleeping with him.
First impressions were so important, and she wanted to make a good one—one that would get him hard with wanting her. After that, she’d be on her way. To Milan and beyond.
The tall, elegant man was sitting in a booth in the back of the hotel bar. She went over to him, and he slid out of the seat and took her hand. “I’m delighted to finally meet you,” he said, offering her a seat. He looked her over as the waiter came to the table, and it continued when they’d ordered drinks. She sat back, rather enjoying his open stare, the way he drank in her body.
“Thank you for meeting with me,” she said.
He shook his head. “I’m delighted to finally see you in person. So you are the power behind the throne.”
Willa liked that characterization. “That sounds grand, but I’m not aware of having much power or even knowing anyone with a throne.”
“Oh, I’m sure you are very aware of the power you wield, but I find modesty becoming in a woman—even false modesty. It lets us men get away with thinking we are actually important for a bit longer. The illusion of this being a man’s world is preserved, if only for an instant.”
“That’s very suave, but rather obvious, too.”
“Such self-effacing humor is a standard tool men use to preserve their fiefdom.”
The man let his eyes sparkle. “Touché.” He sipped his drink. “I must admit that while I’m enjoying exchanging pleasantries and the company of a lovely woman, my heart beats to know the reason for our meeting. As the strong right hand of my only real competitor, I have to wonder whether I should be flattered or in fear for my life.”
She liked his humorous approach. “When in doubt, always choose being flattered. If you are wrong, at least your final moments will be pleasant, and you can die with a smile on your face.”
“You have a good attitude,” he said.
“I wanted to explore the possibilities with you. I thought if we could meet and talk, we could see if we shared any common interests, if there were any ways we might work together for the common good.”
“Ah, a socialistic approach to capitalism—what a fascinating idea.” She let the idea sit. “I promise to stop belittling everything you say. It’s a nasty defense mechanism that crops up when I think I’m being manipulated.”
“You are being manipulated.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Oh my, that does require elaboration.”
He laughed. “Lovely Tina? Yes, she does go to lengths to get what she wants.” He winked. “I’m not sure she wants what she gets, but then that’s true of us all.”
“So she won’t be a key player on your team? I didn’t imagine she could convince you that she was more than second rate in that capacity.”
“Without tipping my hand, I will say she can be useful at organizing and motivating people who are far more talented than she is.”
“The foreman for her intellectual slaves?”
His roar of laughter was hearty. “Oh, I like that. It’s perfect. You must know Tina well.”
“Well enough. She is clever and treacherous, but not particularly useful to you in the current situation.”
Acker looked steadily at her for a moment, then grinned. “All pretty women can be dangerous. Sometimes I think the prettier they are, the more deadly they can be.” He raised his empty glass to catch the waiter’s eye. “Of course, without danger, where is the real pleasure?”
“You are surprising, Tom Acker.”
“Because I know how the world works? I’ve been in it a lot longer than you.”
“Not because you’ve learned how it works, but because you enjoy it the way it is. So many people crumble when they realize that the reason cost-benefit analysis is so useful is that because both costs and benefits are real, and they are both relative.”
“And when you analyze them, those costs and very real benefits, what, exactly, are you analyzing, my pretty, dangerous Willa Gruber?”
She smiled. “Why, the possibility of getting out from behind a throne without sacrificing power, Tom Acker.”
The drinks came, ` and he held his up. “You aren’t as transparent as this fine Scotch they serve here, but I think you are being truthful.”
“For us, there is only one current event, Tom. It all comes down to the Milan project. There won’t be anything like it for a time, not that you and I would be running. Most things on the horizon of any magnitude are either dull government jobs with more restrictions than possibilities, or self-aggrandizing projects of sheiks who want opulence. These don’t offer chances to innovate, to create a showcase for your abilities.”
“That seems likely.”
“This one does, and I want a seat on the front row.”
“In front of the throne?”
“I’m willing to pay for that seat.”
“In stolen shekels.”
“Simply in information, random ideas, thoughts of what other contenders might have in mind.”
“All valuable things…potentially. And you want my promise that I’ll have you in that front row?”
“Of course not, Tom. How shabby and low rent an idea. I want an iron-clad contract.”
“My, that is serious.”
“You’ll need my help. If I’m right, you’ll be coming up against the combination you fear: my old boss and Lissa Edwards. I can tell you some things that will let you undercut their first move.”
“Even though they haven’t agreed to work together yet?”
“I think they will, and my information will let you preempt them.”
Under the table, she felt the warmth of his hand on her knee. She looked at his face and gave him a smile, letting him know she didn’t mind.
“Actually, I think I have eliminated that possibility entirely,” he said.
“The two of them are having dinner together tonight.”
He smiled. “I’m happy for them. May they find true love and happiness and all that. My little insurance policy has nothing to do with what they might want to do.” His hand moved up her leg.
“If it’s real, then that’s impressive.”
“I’m flattered. I don’t think you are easily impressed. Now, I assume your sudden desire to negotiate with me is related to this dinner you mentioned.”
“Even if she isn’t working with him, your insights into how Julio works might be of real value to me. Also, you know the consortium better than I. That’s always helpful. And then, dangerous women do make the game far more interesting—I think you might prove enjoyable.”
“Then can we strike a deal?”
“No negotiating. Seats in the front row are expensive and scarce.”
“I suspect that Tina’s is available.”
“That was never in the front row. No, I’ve got a different role in mind for you, Willa. I think it would be interesting to see you as the project manager.”
Her heart pounded. That was perfect. “Yes.”
“And it would have the added advantage of rubbing it in Julio’s face. If you want it, then all you need do is show me that you are willing to do what is necessary to make me happy.”
She’d expected they’d get to this point, and she was glad that they had cut to the chase. She stared into his eyes. “Absolutely.”
His smile was slightly twisted. “Then after dinner we will put that promise to the test. But first you mentioned a tidbit of information that I might or might not find useful.”
“It would be useful whether Lissa works with him or not. He intends to submit a fairly substantial request for revisions to the specs.”
Tom Acker laughed. “That sneaky son of a bitch. He shows them problems they hadn’t thought of and offers his solutions, and meanwhile his designs already take them into account.”
“I assume you have a copy?”
“He hasn’t finished preparing it yet. He was hoping to have Tina work with him to complete it. Of course, we learned how hopeless that was. I do have the current draft.” She put her hand on his and moved it up towards her crotch. “I can get it for you in the morning.”
“You have some other activities in mind for this evening?”
She opened her mouth slightly. “I do. You mentioned games that make you happy. I’ll admit to being curious. And I did promise.”
“Would you like another drink?”
“I would love one.” He started to raise his hand to summon the waiter, but she grabbed it. “I thought we might have that drink somewhere private, if it’s all right with you.”
He looked at her. “My thoughts exactly. I was just going to ask him to bring the bill.”
With all the confusion running through him, with all the mixed emotions caused by perceived or real wrongs, when he saw Lissa sitting at the table, the thing that struck Julio was that she was more stunning in real life than in his most erotic memories. And his memories of her were erotic—agonizingly so, since he had touched her skin, kissed her lips, and tasted love, and then lost it all. He pulled himself together, tried to banish remembered feelings so that he could face the real woman, the one who had let him think he was adored and then abruptly disappeared.
The feelings couldn’t stay submerged entirely. Or perhaps at all. He looked into her dark brown eyes and felt his soul being sucked into them, just as it had been a year ago.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Memories. I look at your face and remember you with your hair pulled back,” he said. “The businesslike bun at the back.”
She smiled and ran her hand over the twists she wore her hair in now. “Back in Switzerland? A woman likes to change.”
But so dramatically as to go from lover to phantom?
He sat opposite her. “It’s strange to see you, to suddenly be across the table from you. I thought I’d never see you again, much less share a meal.”
Her smile intrigued him, puzzled him. “I feel that way too, perhaps even more than you.”
She scowled. “Your long silence. You turned your back on me.”
“Because I left Switzerland? It was a business emergency, and you urged me to go.”
“Not to Mars or wherever you disappeared to.”
“Disappeared? I don’t see sending flowers and requests to be together as disappearing.”
“What? No, if you had, things would be quite different.”
He was puzzled more than ever now. “Can we forget the recriminations for a moment? I want to talk about the children.”
“What about them?”
“I’ve assumed they are mine.”
“Of course they are. I told you that.”
“You told me?”
“Well, I told your assistant. Willa said you didn’t want to talk, but she would pass along my message.”
The knot that seemed to form in his stomach every time he thought of Lissa, of the situation, had never been harder, more painful. “You talked to Willa?”
“I had to. You blocked my calls and never answered my messages. Even though I was furious with you, I hoped you’d come for the birth of the triplets.”
“I don’t even know how to block a call. And I got no messages. Willa told me she couldn’t get any response from you at all. I got no response to my messages.”
“Dozens of emails. I didn’t have your cell number. I emailed Tina Peters to get it, and never got a response. I asked Willa to… Well, it seems that anything I sent in that direction went into the abyss. But I sent you emails, some wanting to know where you were, and some about business ideas, and nothing. Dead, cold silence.”
“Why would your assistant work so hard to keep us from communicating?”
“Jealousy? I’m not certain. Somehow you, our relationship, must have made her feel threatened. But why didn’t Tina Peters reply or pass along my proposals?”
“Another kind of jealousy. The bitch was trying to steal my clients and ruin my business reputation. She started a rumor that I had a drug problem.”
Julio nodded. “The big one—that you were in rehab under your sister’s name.”
“My sister did go through rehab, actually.”
“Giving the rumor a veneer of truth if anyone checked,” Julio pointed out.
They both sat there, lost in thoughts, wrapping the whole truth around the piles of beliefs and assumptions that had been driving them for so many months. Finally, Lissa spoke, and looked at Julio in his eyes, watching hard for his reaction. “So you think we’ve both been played, both of us victims?”
He held her gaze. “I’m finding it hard to believe in simultaneous attacks of jealous subordinates, but I don’t know how else to explain things.”
Lissa found her hand moving across the table towards his. Julio’s fingertips grazed hers, and for a moment their fingers spoke quietly to each other. Lissa pulled her hand away and placed it safely on her lap. There was a quiver in her voice when she spoke. “What do we do? Can we move on?”
Julio’s eyes became clouded for a moment and then he closed them. Lissa saw him suck in a deep breath as if was searching in his lungs for what to say. She feared that he’d come up with some way of telling her that he was sorry he knocked her up, that he’d gladly send her some money for child support, but other than that and maybe borrowing her brain power for the Milan project, he hoped she didn’t have any grand expectations about him sticking around or being a part of her and the boys’ lives. Her chest tightened as he continued to think. When he opened his eyes again, they’d gone soft, relieved, as if a great weight had been taken off his chest. “Do you have photos of my boys?”
Lissa couldn’t help the smile that spread across her face. “Of course I do!” she said enthusiastically as she bent down to pull up her purse and hide the tears of unexpected joy. “I’ve got a phone full of them.”
~ ~ ~
Julio tried to tamp down the myriad of feelings coursing through him as she showed him the pictures of his three boys. For the first time, the news that he was a father truly hit him. Pride and love for these creatures that were merely pixels on a cell-phone screen mixed with anger over what they’d lost. He hadn’t been wrong about what they’d meant to each other. He’d been wrong in thinking that she’d lost interest in him. But it wasn’t his fault. He’d been conned. They’d both been conned. Anger grew inside him, even as something hard in his heart melted with each new look at the three lives he’d unwittingly created. He wanted to get to the bottom of the hows and whys, but unraveling what the con was could wait.
He dragged his eyes away from the phone long enough to see Lissa. She was the same woman he’d fallen so hard for in Switzerland, yet even more beautiful. He hadn’t made a mistake. His heart raced. He felt a sudden urge to pull her into his arms and never let her go.
A waiter came over. “Are you ready to order?”
Lissa suddenly sat up straight, her face lit up with an almost childlike glee. “Julio, are you really hungry, or would you rather come to my apartment and meet your sons?”
A flash of happiness rushed through him. He looked at the waiter. “I apologize for the inconvenience, but we’ve lost our appetites.” He handed the man some twenty-dollar bills without counting them. He wanted the waiter to be happy too. “Let’s go.”
Lissa’s sister was at the apartment, glaring at Julio, so his thoughts of a passionate reunion and heart-to-heart with Lissa didn’t occur. Seeing the boys, however, was a moment he wouldn’t forget.
He’d become reticent on the cab drive over, and the two had stopped discussing the situation. He’d left soon after, and had to stop at a hot-dog stand for dinner by himself. He’d promised Lissa to call her in the morning, and had made sure to get her cell-phone number and learn how to unblock her calls.
As he brooded in his hotel room, waiting for his mind to calm down so he could go to bed, he thought about the big picture. None of it made sense. He could tell that Lissa was as perplexed as he was. What should have evolved into a promising relationship, or been allowed to take its natural course, had been artificially stunted, with each of them believing they’d been used and discarded by the other. How could they have even imagined that Willa and Tina would have both played such a game?
After lying on his bed with his eyes open, Julio got dressed and went downstairs to the hotel bar. He wanted to drink, to nurse his wounds. How did you establish the truth of things? Was Lissa telling the truth? It seemed likely. What if she had sent him messages and entreaties? What if they’d been intercepted? He knew he had sent messages and Willa had assured him she’d sent the flowers and gifts. And of course Willa had been responsible for the business messages, the suggestions they work together. And it was Willa who assured him that Lissa had been stubbornly silent.
And it was Willa who had been furious when he took Lissa’s call and accepted a dinner meeting. Of course he’d hurt her feelings, both by letting her know that she didn’t mean anything to him romantically and by defying her and having dinner with Lissa. But she’d seemed apologetic at the end. So what was going on? Had she been panicked that he’d find out what she’d been up to? And now Willa wasn’t answering her phone. That was a first.
But back then, at the start, why would Willa have cared if he had an affair with Lissa? Had she been in love with him? He didn’t think so. He didn’t think she was now, either.
The entire situation was too impossibly convoluted to be an accident. He had to assume that someone had been making a big effort to keep them from communicating. But who?
Tom Acker wouldn’t want him to work with Lissa. He was smart enough to see that they would make a formidable team. But the interference in his romance had started well before the Milan proposal came up. Until then, he wouldn’t have had any interest in what Julio was up to. He’d know about Lissa, he might even know her, but so what? No, the conspiracy, or whatever it was, had to do with him falling in love. He hadn’t had any trouble with getting in contact with anyone else. Only Lissa. Only the woman he’d fallen in love with.
That suggested a personal motive.
Which brought him back to Willa.
Willa had been a fantastic assistant, and supportive. Unless that was a mask, and she had been hiding something from him, or something had changed.
He caught a glimpse of an elegant woman in a black silk sheath dress moving to the bar stool next to him. She was a tall, lithe black woman, and for a moment he thought, hoped, that Lissa had returned. He wanted to talk to her. He wanted more than that, but talking would be a start.
A closer look at his new neighbor let him see his mistake. This woman was also pretty, and in her twenties, but not Lissa. She wore a gold ring through one nostril and an intriguing necklace of large reddish-orange beads. “Amber,” she said, smiling. He realized he’d been staring. “It’s African.”
She turned to give him a better look at the necklace and her slender hips, firm breasts. “I’m glad you like it.”
“Fossilized tree resin,” he said. “Electrum, to the Romans.”
“Yes, the myth says that when the son of the sun God was killed, his mourning sisters became poplar trees and their tears became electrum—amber.”
“That’s sad,” she said.
“And you don’t believe a word of it.”
She shook her head. “You did say it was a myth.”
“But you don’t even believe that.”
“I’ll admit it’s a better conversation opener than asking my sign.”
“And you’d rather think I have a line like that for every type of jewelry a beautiful woman might wear?”
“That would show initiative.”
Her smile was inviting, and part of him wanted to continue this conversation that was clearly nothing more than flirting talk. She aroused him, but at the same time made him ache for Lissa. Lissa’s presence was in the room, and powerful. A mad affair would clear his head. Trying to do that with this woman, however, would complicate his thoughts.
“I’m afraid I have to leave. I have early meetings tomorrow.”
She pouted. “We were getting along so well. I hoped you’d buy me a drink.”
“Do you like irony?”
She smiled. “Another myth?”
“Sometimes something is the opposite of what it seems.”
“It can be. In this case, I just had dinner with a beautiful woman who looks much like you.”
“And you two didn’t hit it off.”
“We hit it off too well.”
“How can that be?”
“Sometimes good things can be too strong. Anyway, it isn’t going well.”
“And here I am.”
“Yes. The irony is…under other circumstances, it might be fun, you and I. At some other time and place. Right now I’d be seeing you, entirely unfairly, as a consolation prize.”
“Fairness might be overrated.”
“And you are a temptress.”
She frowned. “Obviously not a very good one.”
“If you really wanted a drink, I’d be delighted to buy you one before I leave.”
She frowned. “Don’t try to be gallant. It’s not in vogue. And the drink was not what I wanted.”
“Then I’ll leave you.” She started to speak, and suddenly something dawned on him, an insight. This woman looked so much like Lissa, and was here in the hotel bar after he’d had dinner with her. He smiled at the woman. “Tell Willa you tried.”
She started to protest, then as he stood, she stood and faced him, her hands on her hips, her shoulders back. “You sure you want to pass on this?”
He nodded. The woman sat down and rested her elbows on the bar and toyed with her amber around her neck. “That must be one hell of a woman you got.”
Carrying her second cup of coffee, Lissa got to her desk early. She let out a sigh, then switched on her computer. She’d tossed and turned that night. Julio had seemed so delighted to hold the babies. His joy seemed real. Everything she saw in him over dinner and at her apartment fit perfectly with her memories of the man she knew in Switzerland. Joan had been put off at first, and had kept her distance.
But the boys had seemed happy to see him, gurgling with delight when he bounced them gently and lovingly in his arms.
But then he’d announced that he needed to leave.
“What about dinner?”
“Raincheck,” he’d said. Then he added, “I need to confront Willa. I need to know why she made it seem like I didn’t want to communicate with you.”
“I have my IT person checking what went on in my office,” she told him. “We’ll get to the bottom of this.”
When she saw him to the door, letting him leave without even a kiss, it left her in a strange agony.
She hoped they could find out what had happened together. But his abrupt departure left her both hungry and wondering if he was making his side of the story up. Maybe he was just one of those men who told women what they wanted to hear when they were in front of him. Maybe he couldn’t wait to leave her apartment so he could get on a plane and get as far away as he could.
She’d been unable to sleep, and when the babies woke in the night, she was the one who went to feed them, change their diapers. She felt a comfort in being able to do such basic things and see a screaming child, who could cry like the world was about to end, transform into a contented baby, sleeping peacefully. It made her feel like she had some control. Even if the baby wouldn’t settle down quickly, knowing that holding him to her breast and letting her son feel her warmth, hear her beating heart comfort him, was good.
The outside world was more complicated than that, which made it both interesting and frustrating, just like wanting her babies to get to know their father and recognizing that she wasn’t sure who he really was anymore.
Despite being exhausted, Lissa turned on her laptop and with a mug of warm milk checked her email. The outside auditor she’d hired had sent her a report. She was relieved. Whatever else Tina had done, at least she hadn’t screwed with the accounts. She’d stolen clients and dealt her business some heavy damage, but at least she hadn’t embezzled funds. Tina wasn’t that stupid.
~ ~ ~
The next day at the office, Abby walked into Lissa’s office, smiling mischievously as she plopped down on the small couch. She had a few sheets of paper in her hand, and sat there like she expected Lissa to join her in the sitting area of her office.
Lissa hadn’t been able to focus on her work, so she got up from her desk and sat down across from her new project manager and started to lean towards the coffee table, trying to see what was on the papers. “What’s up?”
Abby pulled the papers to her chest, away from Lissa’s prying eyes. “Some very, very interesting stuff.”
“Are you going to tell me?”
“This is the email from the tech guys. Did you know our servers were hit with a virus?”
Alarm shot through Lissa. “We’ve been hacked?”
She paid a lot of money for system security. Getting hacked and having vital confidential client information leaked could ruin her reputation and her business.
“Yes. Well, not exactly. Like I said, our servers were hit with a virus, but not a typical virus—a very unique one, according to this report. Let me read it to you.”
Lissa was starting to get annoyed. What the hell was Abby playing at?
“I’ve never seen a virus like this one. All it did, it appears, was search all systems for evidence of specific words, and when found, intercepted—”
“Intercepted which specific words? I’m confused.”
Abby continued, “In most cases, this involved intercepting all incoming emails and outgoing emails. Once intercepted, these files would be sent immediately to the trash.”
At this point, Abby smiled broadly. “Julio Torres.”
“What? Are you saying any email I sent to him would have been instantly trashed?”
“Exactly, and anything incoming from him—same result.”
“But, who, why, what the hell?” Lissa sank into her chair. She knew now for certain that he’d been telling her the truth. Why would someone bother to block his communications if he hadn’t tried to communicate with her? “But who did this?”
“They linked the initial attack file via access obtained using Tina’s password. My guess is that she probably hired a programmer to write the virus. You want me to set up a meeting with the IT guy? Maybe he can explain it better.”
A lump grew in Lissa’s stomach. She got up from the chair and walked to her bookcase. She faced her books, but she wasn’t seeing any of them. All she could see was the hurt look on Julio’s face when she accused him of cutting her off. Then she remembered the agony she felt when she’d believed it. She felt like a victim of a crime—hell, she had been. Her whole pregnancy, the birth—he’d been left out of it because she’d thought he’d wanted no part of it. But now she knew that he’d never had a chance to make that call.
She suddenly felt very sad. Tears welled in her eyes.
“Honey,” Abby said as she came up from behind her.
Lissa was crying now, her shoulders bouncing up and down as the sobs of both anger and relief poured from her.
“What’s wrong? I thought you’d be delighted.”
“I am,” she said as the wave of crying faded. She pulled herself together. “I’m actually very relieved. Julio didn’t know about the boys. He told me that last night, and I wanted to believe him, but part of me was afraid to believe him, afraid that he might just be telling me what I wanted to hear. Now, I’m crushed with relief, but also with guilt that I hadn’t trusted him.”
“Honey, give yourself a break. I’m sure he’ll understand.” Abby patted Lissa’s back and waited as her boss moved back to her desk, sat down, and idly adjusted papers on her desk as she tried to regain her composure. Finally, Abby spoke. “What do you do now?”
Lissa shook her head, almost imperceptibly. “I’m not sure. Not sure at all.”
“When will you drop your bombshell?” Willa lay on the bed, rubbing her sore wrists. Tom hadn’t been kidding about expecting her to do whatever made him happy. The games he enjoyed took their toll, and her ass burned from the spanking he’d given her. Spanking seemed to turn him on. She wondered what other crap he had in store for her. Well, he’d come through on giving her the job title. It was official. She had given Julio notice and officially started the new job in two weeks. In the meantime, Tom was enjoying himself.
“I’ll have to let her know soon. Very soon. There’s no point in giving her a chance to give him the benefit of any of her ideas. Even a legal action can’t undo any thoughts she shares with him. I just didn’t want to give her too much warning.”
“So, your lawyers will visit her?”
“I do like the idea of breaking the news myself. I want to see her face when she learns she’s…” he held up the rope. “Not as tight as you were, but tight enough.”
“What if Tina decides to tell the truth?”
“She won’t. That would mean she’d forfeit her payout, because that would violate her nondisclosure clause. Even if she were willing to give up all that money, she’d be admitting to fraud. That would be the end of her career, and maybe mean jail time. The worst thing that could come of it would be invalidating the contract, and that would take time. What Lissa Edwards doesn’t have is a lot of time.”
Moving with great deliberation, Tom carefully coiled the rope he’d tied Willa with. The look in his eyes made her wonder what was going on in his mind.
“You played these games with Tina,” she said.
“She’s weak,” he said. “She gives up far too easily. That’s why I don’t think she’ll be any trouble at all. You resist.”
“So does Julio. He’ll be submitting his suggestions soon, and we haven’t even studied the requirements.”
“I’ve read them. There’s nothing special in them. Besides, if they are about to change them, spending any effort in that direction would be a waste. It’s better to conserve your strength for the really tough part.”
The tone of his voice told her he wasn’t finished playing. He tossed the rope on the bed and sat down to put a hand on her warm ass. “How did your little trick with the hooker work out? If you got some photos of him with his pseudo-Lissa, I could drop off photos at the same time?”
“He saw through it.” Telling him a partial truth let her hold a few small cards.
She agreed. Even if Tom had a pretty nice lever to wield over Lissa, it would have been nice to have pictures of Julio getting his rocks off with a woman who looked a lot like her. It would remind her how shallow and insatiable men were. It had been worth the gamble, though.
Tom slapped her ass. “I’ll tell you what. Give that girl a call and tell her to get that cute brown ass over here. I can think of some fun things the three of us can do this afternoon. Then tomorrow I’ll drop by and see Lissa. When she hears the news, I can watch her face and think about fucking the two of you.” He slapped her ass.
She looked at him. He thought that using women made him a big man, but it was his weakness. For the moment she fully intended to play to it. “She is a delicious piece.”
“I’m glad you think so, because I am going to enjoy watching you with her.”
Well, that was okay too. Sex was sex.
And Tom did like his games.
Suddenly, as she picked up the cell phone to call the girl, she saw the look in Tom’s eyes. She licked her lips. “You’re the one who wants the pseudo-Lissa,” she said.
“Actually, I want the real thing. Does that bother you?”
It did, though.
Lissa was sorting the pile of recovered emails from Julio, looking at them with a mixture of disbelief and happiness, when Tom Acker walked in her office and stared at her. “You can’t work for Julio Torres,” he said. “I thought I’d drop by and remind you.”
That he’d come to her office unannounced was a surprise. Tom preferred to make people come to him. It gave him an edge, and Acker was all about gaining and keeping the edge in any situation. She never liked that about him.
In fact, she’d never particularly liked him, and now the dictatorial tone he was taking pissed her off.
She folded her hands on her desk and looked at him, noting the odd way he looked at her, as if he was seeing something else. “Of course I can, Tom. I can work for whoever I want.”
“Not for the Milan project.”
“Maybe especially that one. What makes you think you have anything to say about who I work with?”
“Because we have a contract. Naturally, it includes both nondisclosure and noncompete clauses. If you work with him, or anyone else, on the Milan project, I’ll sue your ass and take everything you’ve got.”
“What makes you think we have a contract?”
“We do.” He picked up his briefcase and put it on the desk. When he opened it, he took out a document and put it on the desk in front of her. “Here is your copy.”
When she looked at it, her heart sank. It was a standard consulting contract. “This is crap, Tom. I’ve never seen this in my life.”
He shrugged. “I suppose that’s because you were in the hospital at the time. It can take a while to catch up with things after you’ve been away.”
Flipping to the back, she saw Tina Peters’s signature, dated before the triplets were born. “I’m sorry to disappoint you, Tom, but this is worthless. Tina has never been authorized to sign contracts.”
“You sent her to my office to negotiate. You called me yourself.”
“I asked her to find out what you might want or need, and to explore the possibility of us working together, but she never had the authority to obligate me or my company to anything.”
Tom smiled. “That’s a shame, because my lawyers tell me that because you allowed her to represent you, to discuss contract terms, makes it totally reasonable for me to assume she was authorized to sign off on the deal. If she exceeded her responsibilities and authority, you would have grounds for action against her. That doesn’t have anything to do with me, though. It doesn’t invalidate my contract.”
“Tom, if that were the case, I could pay one of your staff to sign a document saying that you were giving me your company and it would be legal. It’s totally bogus.”
He smiled. “That’s your opinion, and I’m not a lawyer. For all I know, you’re absolutely right. I mean, it sounds like a stretch to me too, but the lawyers need to earn their pay, so if you start working with anyone else on this bid, then I will get an injunction to stop you while the court decides if the contract is legit. I understand that the docket is quite full, and that could take some time.”
“Blackmail, Tom? I thought that was beneath you.”
“Blackmail? No, this is business, Lissa. I have a contract with you, and it’s in my best interest to enforce its provisions. You say it isn’t valid, but I say it is, and that is a disagreement. And while I can’t force you to work for me, I can take legal action to hold you to the terms otherwise, and withhold payment for nonperformance.”
“This is a pretty elaborate game.” She thought for a moment. “You gave Tina a contract for the same work, didn’t you?”
He smiled. “If I did, that’s between her and me.”
“How is it that you have contracts with two different firms for the same work?”
“I often work with multiple subcontractors as a form of assurance that I’ll get what I want from one or another of them.”
“So, if I decided to do the work for you, you’d have to pay me?”
He smiled. “That would be a perfect outcome. I’d gladly pay you, assuming the work was any good.”
“What if I objected to working with Tina?”
“Who could blame you? The woman is useless for the project. If you say the word, I’ll get rid of her.”
“I thought she had a contract. They cut two ways.”
“That wouldn’t be a problem at all. I can restructure my business and make her role obsolete. I might have to pay a fee, a small penalty.”
“She was the one who gave you this contract?”
He smiled. “She gave me much more than that. But with this restructuring coming up, I’ll have to tell her the bad news. That makes way for you.” He closed his briefcase and stood up. “If you decide to honor your obligations, please let my new project coordinator know. You two should get to know each other.”
“Who is that?”
“Willa Gruber.” She saw him watching her face and she imagined he was hoping for a sign that she was shocked. At the moment, being shocked would have taken more energy than she could summon.
“Julio’s PA is now your project coordinator?”
“Of course, I could be persuaded to make more changes. Perhaps that would be a better role for you. I like the idea of you working directly under me.”
“I’m sure I can find another role for her. I promised I’d give her the job, not that she could necessarily keep it.”
“I’m glad to know how you regard loyalty.”
“Other people’s loyalty to me is quite useful. At any rate, let me know what you decide, if you decide anything at all. At times, inaction is the best course.” She sat still as Acker picked up his briefcase and left her office.
She sat for a moment before getting up and walking into Abby’s office. “It was weird seeing him here,” Abby said.
Lissa held out the contract. “Apparently one of the things Tina did before she left was get us some new business that she never bothered to mention.”
Abby looked at it. “The bitch. And it isn’t even a good deal for us. Talk about salt in a wound.” She looked at Lissa. “So what do we do now?”
“Did you find a copy of anything like this document on the server?”
“No. I might have missed it, though.”
“I don’t think you would have. And it’s probably boilerplate from Acker’s files, not one of ours.”
“I’ll check for it specifically.”
“If you do find it, I need to know the origination date of the first draft.”
“If it’s there, that’s easy.”
“While you do that, I need to talk to Tina.”
“Will she talk to you? I mean, she’s been sleeping with Tom Acker, right?”
“She wouldn’t have before, but it seems that she just got screwed in a less pleasant fashion by Willa Gruber.”
“She’s working with Acker now?”
“For him, and it seems that she got Tina tossed out on her ear.”
Abby grinned. “It’s a bitch-eat-bitch world over at his company. I think if we stand still long enough, we can take the field by forfeit.”
“I’m rather thinking of a nuclear option that takes out the opposition entirely.”
“That does sound like much more fun. As long as all of us are well away from ground zero, that is. What’s the plan?”
“Plan?” Lissa closed her mouth and pressed a finger against her lips as she began to think out loud. “I need to talk to Tina, but she is a mercenary, and if she was bought, maybe I can make a better offer.”
“I hate to think of you dealing with her.”
“Me too. I hate that she might profit from her shady games, but I’d hate losing out even more.”
Abby sighed and looked at her watch. “Isn’t it closing time? I need a drink.”
Lissa smiled. “For the moment, I still own this company, so as far as I’m concerned, it is closing time. Alert the answering service, Abby. Drinks are on me.”
Abby only wanted one drink, then insisted on leaving for home. That was fine with Lissa, since she needed to think. The Tom Acker situation had been a blow, and there wasn’t a damn thing she could think to do about it. It was still early in the day, and she could have gone back to the office, but the idea of staring at the contract and contemplating the legal bills she’d need to pay to get out of it was just depressing. With Joan doing such a great job running things, she was able to enjoy her time with the babies. Right now it seemed that her children, and Joan’s help, were the only things going right in her life. Julio’s role was the only unknown, but at least he wanted to know them; he insisted they know he was their father. He’d even told her that he intended to have his lawyers work on getting their birth certificates amended.
When she let herself into her apartment, she hadn’t expected to see him, sitting on her living-room floor. Her heart swelled as she took him in. He was wearing jeans and a tee shirt, surrounded by the babies. One was lying on a blanket by one leg, another by his other leg, and the third was on his lap. He looked completely relaxed and enthralled.
“What are you doing here?” she blurted.
He looked up. “We’ve been having serious father-son chats. They have lots of questions, and I rotate the boys around so they don’t think I like any one better than the others.” He grinned self-consciously. “I hope it’s okay. I just had this overwhelming urge to spend a little time alone with them.”
“Oh, I gave her a quarter and sent her to the movies. Isn’t that what American men do with kid brothers and sisters?”
“Not since about 1955.”
“I told her to take the rest of the day off, and she seemed pleased to do so.”
“And what did you intend to do when one of your boys messes a diaper? Can you handle that alone?”
He laughed. “My sons are well-bred lads. They wouldn’t do that to me. Even if they did, I grew up caring for younger siblings. I am an expert with diapers.” He held up his cell phone. “I took lots and lots of pictures. I sent a nice set to my Mamacita.”
“Little mother. An affectionate term for the boys’ paternal grandmother. She was so excited when I told her about them. Those pictures will be shown in half the homes in Barcelona by tomorrow.”
“She’s pleased about them, then?”
“She’s excited. She won’t truly be pleased until I bring them to visit so she can pinch their cheeks herself. The only thing she’s not pleased about is that I couldn’t tell her their names.
Lissa laughed. “What, Joan didn’t tell you?”
“Nope, she refused, she said….” He took a moment to scan his memory banks, as a finger rested on his closed lips. “She said, ‘my sister should be the one to give you that bit of news,’ or something to that effect.”
Lissa sat down, hard. Joan was a sneaky one.
She’d named them in the hospital, while she still held out hope that he would give a shit. Later, after it was obvious that he didn’t, she’d regretted that she’d given each of them his name, but not that it seemed more likely that he cared…
“What, did you name them Dipshits One Two and Three or something?”
Lissa laughed and punched his arm, “Of course not, silly.”
“Okay, but don’t laugh.”
He crossed his heart then zipped his lips.
She pointed to her first born, then to her second, and then to her third born son.
“That’s Marco Julio, that’s Ryland Julio, and squirmy one over there is Hunter Julio.”
His smile lit up his face and for the first time, she saw a tiny dimple in the cleft of his chin. Her heart gave a lurch; he was happy she’d done that.
She thought he’d make a big deal out of it, but instead he just turned to the boys.
“Well, hello, Mr. Marco Julio, Mr. Ryland Julio, and Mr. Squirmy Hunter Julio.”
The boys giggled.
“You four look so sweet down there. I think I’ll change clothes and join you,” she said. “Life can seem simpler on the floor.”
As Lissa dressed, she tried to get a handle on her feelings. On the one hand, it was exciting to see Julio in her home, playing with his children. On the other hand, she’d been looking forward all day to being alone with them herself. It was just dawning on her now that she wasn’t the only family they had—it wasn’t Lissa and her three boys, with the assistance of Joan, against the world. They had a father who was delighted with them, and uncles and aunts in Spain, and grandparents. There was a network of people who cared about them.
For so long she and Joan had been family, and this sudden population explosion in her life changed so many things. She needed to rethink her life.
As she went to her room, she realized that she had so much left to learn about Julio, about his family, about his way of living. And they needed to decide so many things, so many important things. Many of them would determine not only how they lived, but who their boys would grow up to be. It was time to throw preconceptions out the window.
When she returned, she sat on the floor, father and mother absorbed in enjoying their three children.
Eventually, Julio spoke about something other than how incredibly handsome and smart their children appeared to be.
“Could we talk a little business, for a moment?
She glanced at him. “Sure, but first I have to tell you. I found out why I never got your messages. I don’t know about the alleged flowers, but all emails to or from you got routed to the trash by a virus program. The IT guy said Tina had it installed.”
Julio’s relaxed face suddenly stiffened, and he looked away. “Lissa, I feel bad that I never just got on a goddamn plane and knocked on your door. I missed so much. I missed seeing you big as a barn with our babies, I missed seeing them born.”
“You probably didn’t for the same reason I didn’t track you down when I found out I was pregnant—hurt, savage pride.”
“Aren’t we a pair? Both of us nursing our grievances.”
She opened her briefcase and showed him a sheaf of papers. “I’m catching up with your emails. Abby found them.”
He raised an eyebrow. “I hope I said nice things.”
“So far, except when you lost your patience.”
He cringed. “Mea culpa.”
Tyler Walker offered her a chair in his plush office. The chair was a comfortable, soft, light-brown leather. A seductive chair. “So Acker found himself a trump card?”
The word was out already. Naturally Acker would make sure it was known far and wide.
“I’m trying to work out a solution. I thought I’d see if you might have any ideas.”
“Advice and ideas are free, gratis, on the house.”
“So no charge?”
“I’d only ask a small token payment—marry me.”
“No, Tyler. You’d hate me after a week.”
“I’ll risk it. And what if I don’t care?”
“The father of my children might still object.”
“There is that. He probably is the reason you don’t want to work with Tom.”
“Ah, here is where it gets interesting. I don’t like being coerced.” She told him about the contract. “On top of that, I want to work with Julio. He and I share ideas and values, or seem to.”
“And three kids.”
“By working with him, I think we could do an amazing job.”
“The idea that it’s backdated is just a theory, right? I mean, it’s a notarized document.”
“By his secretary.”
“What does Tina say?”
She winced. “Probably something along the lines of ‘fuck off.’”
“You haven’t talked to her? But if she’s been cut out, maybe she’d be willing to make a deal.”
“There is a gray area there, making a deal with her to tell the truth.”
“So I’m open to other ideas,” Lissa prodded.
Tyler steepled his fingers and sat back in his chair. “All this wheeling and dealing is rather outside my area of expertise, unfortunately. You need to talk to Julio, and probably to Tina.”
“So that’s your advice?”
“I did tell you to marry me.”
“Yes, you did.”
“I could try and talk to Tom, but I think he is out for blood.”
“To cripple the opposition.”
“I told you to throw Tina out the window. You should be taking my advice more seriously.”
“Throw Tina out the window and marry you.”
“Except that it’s too late for the Tina part.”
She stood up. “I love talking with you, Tyler. It seldom accomplishes much, but it makes me feel better.”
“Another reason to marry me.”
“As if you needed another reason.”
“Maybe I should ask Joan to marry me. You might have gotten all the stubbornness allocated to the family.”
“You’re welcome to try.”
Once again she came home to the strange and wonderful sight of Julio with his children. He beamed as he fed the children dinner, helped bathe them, and then tucked them into bed.
The boys seemed to respond well to him, and settled right down. “You have kid magic,” she told him when they left the children sleeping and returned to the living room.
“I’ve been around babies enough to admit that this was beginner’s luck. Don’t expect a consistent result from me.”
“You love them.”
“You sound surprised. Did you think I was a baby hater?”
“I thought you were a jet-setting billionaire.”
“They aren’t supposed to be mutually exclusive. That’s not the way my contract reads.”
“Speaking of contracts, a problem came up today. It’s a big one.”
“I’m good with problems. And I’m exploring a new strategy where I wrap them in dirty diapers and toss them out.”
“That doesn’t sound environmentally friendly.”
“Perhaps not. Well, great ideas often need refinement.” He put the baby monitor on the table and sat on the couch. “So pour me a drink and tell me the contract woes.”
“Tom Acker showed up in my office waving one in my face that has Tina’s signature on it. It’s dated prior to the birth of the triplets, and supposedly gives him exclusive rights to my services on the Milan bid.” He nodded. She was certain he understood the ramifications, but spelled them out anyway with him listening carefully.
“So it’s one of those ‘if you won’t work for me, you won’t work’ deals?”
“For the Milan project, at least.”
“And you aren’t sure it’s real?”
“I think it might have been back-dated. Tina was reporting to me while I was in the hospital, and something was definitely up. But her angle was to take my business. She knew I’d catch onto her game sooner or later, so she was stringing things out in talking with Acker, wanting to be able to get the business for herself. No way would she want to sign a contract with him, not even one this bad.”
“Unless he insisted on getting both, or had her sign the one with you as insurance to keep you from working with me. He might have been unsure about her. After all, if she was sleeping with him to get the business, she knew that her qualifications were sketchy.”
“I can’t imagine her agreeing to that. First, it would hurt her pride to admit that keeping me out of the game was necessary. She really thinks she is good enough to take me on head-to-head. She has an entirely different concept of the business, so she’d want a chance to prove herself against me. Also, she is a political creature, and she’d see that having two contracts meant Acker was in control. He might persuade me to work for him, and Tina would believe that I’d work for the highest bidder, and then she’d be out on her ass. She’s far too clever in that sense to give him a club like that.”
Julio rubbed his chin. “Then what happened?”
“When Willa came along and forced her out, I imagine that they told Tina they’d cancel her contract based on some excuse that would be close enough to the truth to hold up in court. I’m sure they could find ways to claim it was because of her incompetence or some fraudulent claim she’d made. Then they suggested that if she went along with this, signing a back-dated contract, then Acker would pay her off.”
“So it would be the lesser of the evils? She’s still out of the game, but has the money to move on to other projects and other clients.”
“And she moves on with no black mark to her name. That makes sense.”
Julio picked up his glass and sat back. “What’s your assessment, oh sexy one?”
She pointed a long finger at him. “No flirting until we sort this out.”
“Then we must sort quickly.”
Lissa sucked in a breath. Her body was ready to stop talking business and get down to business, but she forced her tone to remain on topic. “Julio, I can’t risk getting involved in a legal hassle with Acker. He’d tie me up in knots, and the squabble would be public. He’d make it seem like I didn’t keep my word. That would alienate clients.”
“That seems likely. He has expensive legal people who will know all manner of snares and traps that we mere mortals can only imagine and shudder at.”
“So I suppose I need to talk with Tina. If I’m right, I need to persuade her to give me a signed statement.”
“That would mean you’d win the case, but it would still be too late for the project. We need to move now.”
“But, if I’m right, and this contract is fraudulent, which I’m pretty sure it is, even his high-paid lawyers won’t want to be caught using it to browbeat me.”
“And failing that? If Tina won’t be helpful?”
That wasn’t the direction she wanted her thoughts to go in. “I don’t know. I guess I’m shafted.”
“Willa working with Tom Acker… I never thought that would happen, but then I apparently didn’t know her as well as I thought. Well, you see Tina, and I’ll get some people doing research, and we will find a solution.”
Lissa’s head fell, and the next thing she knew, Julio was beside her, pulling her to him. He looked into her eyes.
“We’ll get this sorted, I promise.”
His tone was comforting, but not as comforting as the feel of his mouth on hers.
They kissed for a long moment, and the months of loneliness and the pain from rejection that had never occurred faded away.
She opened her mouth to him, and passions took hold, taking the blood from her brain and erasing all other thoughts.
Without another word, they moved to her bedroom and locked the door.
They made love urgently, quietly, not wanting to wake the babies or alert Joan to their activity. When they’d reached the point of a mutual climax, as he spilled his seed into her even as his fingers swirled frantically over her swollen clit, she couldn’t stop the cry of pleasure that broke from within her. He bent down and swallowed most of her sounds with his kiss as their bodies rocked together.
Breathing heavily, Julio pulled out of her and positioned his body to face her on the bed. “I’ve missed you so much,” he whispered as he placed a soft kiss on her cheek. She closed her eyes and he moved his hot mouth to her eyelids. She groaned as her body seemed to melt from his heat.
“I’ve missed you too, Julio.”
They lay in each other’s arms for a long time after that, listening to the sounds in the apartment: a television program droning on from Joan’s bedroom and the snores of the babies, like rain falling, from the baby monitor. Their babies.
For just a moment in time, Lissa and Julio were both thinking the same thing: All was right with the world.
A baby’s cry woke Lissa from a deep sleep. She glanced at her clock. Three in the morning.
As her head cleared, the night came rushing back. No wonder she was groggy. Her body still tingled from Julio’s lovemaking. Although they’d been fast, and careful not to make any noise, he’d still managed to arouse her to heights she hadn’t thought possible. No man she’d ever been with had been able to get her body to respond the way he could. His tongue, his fingers, how they made her nerve endings tingle, how he could make her nipples erect, how he could make her oh so wet. Even now, as she realized she was alone in the bed. He must have left while she was sleeping, which was probably a good thing, but still, the memories, his smells, and the odors of sex still clinging to her body, to her sheets… She let her fingers slide down her belly towards her slickening heat.
A baby crying in the distance broke her mood. Muffled voices reached her as she put on a robe and headed for the nursery. She opened the door and saw one baby sleeping soundly, undisturbed. The other two beds were empty.
Half-awake still, Lissa staggered towards the voices, into the kitchen. There she found Joan and Julio, each holding a baby, bouncing it and talking. She smelled tea—Joan’s favorite herbal tea.
“Good morning, more or less,” Joan said.
“Some little person or two seem to think it is. We still have one person in the family who wants to lie in.”
“The family.” She’d said it that way without thinking. It had seemed right, and Julio had smiled when she said it. Joan too.
Julio brought the baby over to her. “Ryland, tell Mom you didn’t mean to wake her,” he said.
“But he did mean to wake her,” Joan protested. “That’s how they remind parents who is actually in charge. If they are awake, then they must be attended to.”
“You seem to have an agitator in the nursery,” Julio teased. “Whose side are you on, Joan?”
A new cry came from the nursery. “I guess he finally realized he was being left out,” Lissa said.
As Lissa went to get the Hunter from his crib, she understood part of what was troubling her. It was easy to slip into this idea of a family. It was comforting and reassuring. And it frightened her. If she let herself get used to it and believe in it, then she could lose it one day. The pain would be far worse than the pain she’d felt when she’d lost Julio, after Switzerland. She hadn’t opened her heart to him completely because of that. Wanting and enjoying too quickly became needing, and it was hard enough to manage the things that were in your control.
Lissa found Abby waiting for her when she got to the office.
“We haven’t found a sign of that contract on our server,” she said. “I’m not sure what that means, exactly, but we can’t prove it’s a new document.”
Lissa cupped her hands around her coffee cup. Getting into the rhythm of business after the night—well, the start of the day—came as something of a jolt. The safe, warm feeling of being around her babies and her lover, their father, lingered tantalizingly. “Okay. That was a long shot. I’m sure you’d have found it if it were there.”
“Well, I do have some good—or at least interesting—news. You wanted to talk to Tina. She called this morning asking to meet with you. I made an appointment for this morning. I hope that was okay.”
“Sure. That’s probably good. Odd, though. She’ll be after something. Did you tell her anything?”
“No. She told me she wanted to discuss the contract for the Milan project. I suppose the word is out and she sees some kind of opportunity to make hay.”
“I think you’re right.” Lissa grinned. “I’ll be at my desk, fortifying myself with coffee and grinding my teeth.”
“Is the situation that bad?”
“Frustrating more than anything. Maybe Tina will tell me something I can use to get out of the contract. Then I can work with Julio. For now, I’m marking time, and I’m not good at that.”
“How is it going with Julio? I can’t wait to meet him.”
“He comes over to visit the kids.” Then she grinned. “But yes, he stayed. He was even up at three this morning with the kids.”
“Wow. Then he wants to get to know them?”
“I think he wants a lot more than that.”
“Is he a good dad?”
“I think he thinks so.” So did she. It was easy to see how much he loved them. He acted like he loved her too, but how would that work? They worked well together, and he was an unbelievable lover—Abby got that right, too. It was the family thing that had her brain in turmoil. She still grappled with the idea that she was a mother to three boys—how she would deal with that, much less how she might have the energy for a relationship with Julio, was more than she could deal with.
She would have to deal with all of it sooner or later, though. The future was vague, and although it was exciting, having all these people in her life added more variables, made it easier for things to go wrong. Joan might not want to be a child-care person her entire life. What would she do then? At some point she’d have to think about schools, about all sorts of things for them. It was beginning to look as if her life was going to be constantly adapting to their changing needs.
For the moment she needed to think about getting this project.
Tina seemed a lot more upbeat and cheerful than she’d expected. “I bet you want to know about the contract with Acker,” Tina said.
“The one you signed for my company?”
“Yeah, that was important to him when I was negotiating with him. You came back and I was working my way out the door. I wanted to get in on the Milan project, and he said he’d give me the job if I came up with a way to make sure you couldn’t work with Julio. The idea had him shaking in his boots. So I came up with this idea. We wrote the contract and backdated it. The asshole. Him and his kinky games. I’m glad to be out of it all.”
“You admit it’s a fake? Why?”
“Because I’m pissed. He screwed me—in every imaginable sense. He and that bitch Willa.”
“He paid you off, though.”
“None of what I did was about the money, Lissa. Think about it. I’d have made more working for you than he paid me. I wanted to be in on the project—an international operation, working with a European consortium. That was exciting. And he left me with a little money and no work. He tossed me out in the cold. Willa saw to that, after she made sure Julio wouldn’t hire me. She made me think that she wanted me working with her and Julio, but when we met, she set me up. I didn’t know she was working Acker as well. She surprised me with that.”
“Would you be willing to sign a statement about what happened?”
“I talked to a lawyer.” She opened her briefcase and took out a document. “Read it, but it says you won’t press charges against me for anything I did regarding any of your projects.”
“A get-out-of-jail-free card?”
“And I want ten grand.”
“You’ve been thinking about this a lot.”
She took out another document. “I’ve done a lot more than just thinking. My lawyer wrote out this statement for you. I hope you can fry his ass with it. My lawyer notarized it. Hand over a check and sign my little note and it’s yours.”
Lissa read the waiver of liability, as the document was titled. It was a simple declaration that she wouldn’t press charges against Tina. She didn’t care to anyway. She took out a ballpoint and signed it, pushing it back to Tina. “We can go to the bank and get the money, if you have the time. Neither of us really wants a check involved, do we?”
Tina smiled. “Good thinking.”
“Abby, watch the store for a while. Tina and I need to go to the bank.” As they went out the door, Lissa took Tina’s arm. “When this is over, I never want to see you again.”
“Fine,” Tina said.
When Lissa had taken out the money and it was safely in Tina’s purse, she closed it with a click. “I’ve been offered a job with an ad agency,” Tina said. “It’s a small but up-and-coming company. They understand that with my connections I can get them a few serious industrial accounts.”
“You know what? I think you just might do well in advertising.” She was feeling good. The statement would mean that if she had to go to court, Tom Acker wouldn’t stand a chance. “You know that Tom will try and make things difficult for you now.”
Tina smiled. “I considered that possibility. But Willa and I think that, under the circumstances, he’ll think it’s funny.”
“What circumstances?” The mention of Willa’s name sent off alarms. Somehow she was becoming an unpleasant thorn in Lissa’s side.
“The contract has to do with doing work on the Milan job. Without that, there isn’t any point to any of this.”
“You aren’t making any sense.”
“Everything will be clear soon enough. Now I’m off.”
Lissa watched as Tina caught a cab, wondering why she insisted on being so mysterious. Then Lissa walked back to the office thinking about a more intriguing question. Why were Willa and Tina still working together after what Willa had done to Tina? Something stunk.
After work, Lissa went to meet Julio at an office he had rented. She was looking forward to seeing him, but when she came in and he stood up from his desk, she saw a sadness in his eyes. “What’s wrong?”
He picked up a sheaf of papers. “The project is off. Milan is dead.”
“The consortium discovered a problem. They sent out a memo to all the bidders, but some clerk sent mine to my Barcelona office. I can bitch about Willa, but she never would have let this happen.”
“It got misplaced in the office on Friday and wasn’t found until today. So everyone has known about this but us.”
“I think Willa is still running your Barcelona office.”
“What do you mean?”
She told him about Tina approaching her, about paying the money. “She mentioned that Willa told her to come to me. I think Willa arranged for that notice to be delayed. It’s another way of sticking a knife in me for getting back together with you. But that isn’t important. I still don’t understand how they can cancel the project. It must be serious, as they’ve already invested heavily in the damn thing, and put a year of planning into it.”
“I know. Everyone was eager to get working on it. It’s a huge setback for an ambitious group of people.”
“The initial site-mapping studies missed something significant.” He unrolled a map of the site. “It’s a nice spot for the purpose, almost perfect, except for one problem. Apparently a few hundred years back, the city built an underground aqueduct right under this spot, right here in the center of the proposed building. They think it might have been part of the navigli, the network of artificial waterways that were built around the city. It probably redistributed water to or from the Po River. Anyway, there is no way the ground at that point will support the structure they wanted there.”
“I can’t believe they missed that.”
“The story is that right after it was built, it partially caved in. It was abandoned and forgotten about. It’s narrow, and somehow the surveyors missed it—either there was bad documentation or just some sloppy work, but this is serious enough that it will undoubtedly put this project in the courts for a long time while everyone involved sues everyone else.”
Lissa thought quickly. “If it was just an aqueduct, why can’t it be filled in?”
“That’s possible, but the new information suggests that there might be some sort of fault or sinkhole there. Very localized.” He handed her the report. “You can read the details for yourself, but their conclusion is that the cost of verifying the precise location of whatever is wrong and working out a fix would be enormous and prohibitive, even for a project of this scale.”
“And it can’t be relocated?”
“Possibly. I don’t think the consortium has the heart for starting over on scouting locations, and they’ll have bankers and governments breathing down their necks to make decisions fast.”
“So they aren’t willing to give us time to come up with options.”
“They’ve called a meeting. I need to go to Milan tomorrow. I’ll know more about the options after that.”
“And just in case the project is actually on, I can’t go unless I represent Tom Acker because of that damn contract.”
“I’ve talked to a contact with the consortium. Tom and Willa are arriving tonight.” He sighed. “I need to go to the hotel and pack. It’s an early flight.”
Lissa felt her heart flutter. They were just beginning to get to know each other outside of the bed, and now he was being called away on urgent business. This had happened before and been disastrous. She wanted to cling to him, either get on a plane and go with him or keep him from going.
This was business, and he hadn’t caused this. She didn’t blame him, but somehow he was being taken from her for a second time.
“See if you can stall them while I take a close look at what we know. There has to be some way to make this project happen. I’m willing to bet I can come up with a fix that will make the project even better.”
“That American optimism. Okay, I’ll do my best.”
She knew she sounded desperate, but something inside Lissa made her feel that the fate of the Milan project and her relationship with Julio were entwined, that they would sink or swim together. She didn’t know if that was good or bad or even true, but it felt that way.
Conflicting emotions tore at her. She wanted him to fly to Milan and fight for the project, but having him pulled from her again for business dragged up bitter memories. She wanted to go with him, but that might compromise his bid if nasty legal wrangling came up. Sometimes there didn’t seem to be any entirely good days.
Their parting kiss was disappointing, but then neither of them wanted to say goodbye. At least she didn’t. Sometimes she still wondered how he truly felt. It was one thing to love the children, and to like making love to her, and another to take it to the next level. And she had to wonder about her own feelings for him. She wasn’t used to wanting a man that way, feeling empty when he was gone. It made her feel weak.
The package was unmarked except for being addressed to her. “A courier delivered it,” Joan said.
She opened it and found a memory stick and a note. “Keep your guard up,” it said. It was signed by Willa, with a flourish on the W.
“What the hell?”
“She’s playing games with you.”
“You have to see what it is.”
So, instead of jumping on the site problem, she dug out an old laptop and turned it on. Joan gave her an inquisitive look. She shrugged. “It’s from Willa. This might be an attempt to hack my computer. This one isn’t connected to any network.”
When she scanned the disk, she found a few photos. Some were of Julio and Willa naked in bed together in hotel rooms. Then there were three of him with a tall black woman. She recognized the bar at the Park Plaza. The woman looked a lot like her. Somehow that didn’t seem a coincidence.
Joan looked over her shoulder. “So the German bitch is showing you that she was screwing Julio and suggesting he might be fooling around now? Maybe that he likes black girls in America?”
“Seems something like that. Or maybe she wants me to believe she’s still having an affair with him herself.”
“Either way she’s just trying to get under your skin.”
The problem was that it did unnerve her. It had never occurred to her that Julio might have been sleeping with Willa—that she managed to do more to come between them than interrupt communications. Her brain didn’t think it changed things at all. Her heart lacked that sublime confidence. Maybe Julio didn’t make long-term commitments.
Julio reached her on a video call in the office. Seeing him gave her a rush that combined relief and apprehension. “How are you? How is it going?”
“I’ve managed to buy us a small window of opportunity. We have to move quickly because a number of the consortium are fed up with the project. But at least we have a clear field.”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you have a solution to the basic problem?”
“I think so. I’m still getting some expert opinions to confirm things.”
“Well, Tom Acker took no for an answer. Willa’s hung around to watch things, but they have no interest in the project anymore. I think he’s starting something in Chile next week. So I need you to fly over here right away. We need to make a formal presentation of how we can save the world.”
“Or this small part of Italy. What about the family?”
“Bring everyone. Fly first class.”
“What about my little contract problem? Working with you is still a no-no. Even if Acker doesn’t make a bid, I can’t work on anyone else’s bid.”
He smiled. “Well, first of all, we can argue you aren’t working on the bid. You are working on a proposal that will allow there to be one.”
“I’d still be in a situation where the contract might apply.”
“What if I had an idea? The contract is between your company and Acker, and your company is a corporation.”
“Essentially, you are the major stockholder and an officer, but also an employee of your company—you work for you. So what happens if you take a leave of absence from your company, you and Abby both? What if you went to work for me on a limited-term contract?”
“I have no idea.”
“I have my legal people checking it out, but unless you signed a contract with your own company, I think you can do that. Your company can’t. But there’s no way that anyone can sign away your rights for you as a person. Not without a power of attorney. I’ll get my miserable legal people to earn their extravagant retainers.”
“So my company shuts down for say, one year, with us on leave, and we take jobs with you?”
“Sure. You say that Willa is now being called Acker’s project manager. Well, you could become my project manager. Equality is a beautiful and slippery slope.”
“That just might work.”
“Like I said, I need to have the experts sprinkle my crazed idea with their holy water, but I suspect that’s an option. There might be some ambiguities. We also can battle this with another interesting twist that’s in our favor. My company is a Spanish company. We don’t even have an office in the US. If Acker wants to sue me for employing you, he’d have to file in Spain or Italy. Then the battle is fought where my guys have the home-court advantage.” She smiled. “I see you like my sneaky thinking.”
“I do. We also have Tina’s statement, which can be something of a deterrent.”
“Precisely. So let me know your flights.”
She heard voices in the background. Women’s voices. She tried to laugh at herself. He was around women all the time, and until Willa sent her those photos, she’d never given it a thought. Well, she needed to think, and see. But his idea was sound. She’d go over there and salvage the damn project, then they’d build something magnificent.
She’d decide if she had the strength to try for more than that later. When she could think.
Milan was exciting and busy. They settled Joan and the boys at the hotel suite. Abby, unused to jet travel, went to her room for a nap. “I’ll meet with Julio,” Lissa told her. “Rest, and we can catch up later.”
Julio seemed excited to see her. She let him kiss her, but he caught her lack of enthusiasm. He said nothing about it.
“I’ve got it,” she told him.
“One they’ll love. You know the changes we wanted to make for some of the infrastructure?”
“The access roads?”
Julio sat up and folded his hands. “Okay, I’m listening.”
“They wanted the building to face north to avoid solar gain in summer. That makes sense, but if we face it northwest, that will simplify the access roads from the A4—the main artery. We’d talked about that, and we can create a split-level system that will route the commercial traffic directly to loading docks, and the cars to parking lots.”
“The traffic isn’t really the serious problem here.”
“Actually, there is no problem. They want to see innovation, right?”
“They say that.”
“Then consider this. First, it we relocate things the way I’ve marked them, the building should stand forever. The problem, the structural problem, was that the center of mass was directly over the fault.”
“And moving it a little bit changes that?”
“Entirely. We will ensure that by using some new support structures that are fundamentally iron-reinforced concrete, but with some additives that give them tensile strength bordering on the heroic. Some new anchors let us put them in the collapsed area, and then we fill the voids with a special foam, and before you can say ‘ain’t technology grand,’ the site is more stable than they thought it was before.”
“I think they just might go for this.”
“Especially when they find out that the company that makes the products will provide them at cost, along with technical expertise and safety shock-load testing just for the chance to show what their stuff will do.”
“Now there is a good hook.”
“Abby was putting together a snazzy presentation on the flight over that I think will sell them on the idea. There is some clever animation. Another part that works for you is that this doesn’t require changes to anything you might have come up with for the building itself, unless you were planning an underground swimming pool.”
“I’d entirely forgotten to put one in. How careless of me.” He looked at her. “Your solution is perfect. Well done.”
“When they bless it officially, we can start work on the project—do the work we wanted to do in the first place.”
“Yes, of course. Now, unless there is anything else… What’s wrong?”
“Nothing is wrong.”
“I’m unsure,” Lissa said.
“What’s changed since I left? It’s only been a few days.”
“I’ve learned a few new things. Like about you and Willa.”
Julio became very still. “I see,” he said, finally. “I assume she told you?”
“She sent pictures, actually.”
A muscle worked in Julio’s cheek. “Sneaky woman. I didn’t know about them.”
“I didn’t think that was your style. She picked photos that showed your…enthusiasm.”
“I’ve never said I didn’t find her attractive.”
“And I thought I’d lost you.”
“See. That uncertainty thing.”
“How do we get over that?” Lissa asked.
“How did you get over being uncertain about your analysis techniques?”
She gave him a grin. “I was never uncertain about them.”
“Okay, that’s a bad example.”
“When I’m with you, I don’t feel the uncertainty. But when you are away from me…” Lissa tried to explain.
“Then maybe we have to resort to extreme measures and have me never leave your sight.”
“Or something close that’s slightly more practical?”
He raised his eyebrow. “If I might suggest a starter course?”
They’d been sitting in the grouping of chairs by the window in his room, looking out at the beautiful lights of the city. Julio rose and pulled the curtains closed. He reached for Lissa’s hand and pulled her out of her chair. He put his large hands on her shoulders, then slowly moved his fingers to the buttons of her blouse. “I think it would be a good and positive step forward for us both if I were to tear your clothes off you and make wild love to you.”
Lissa’s body shook as he traced his knuckle across her breast, then circled it over one nipple. She felt it stiffen immediately and felt her body responding, getting wet, craving him. Her words were breathless, a rasp. “You do?”
“I do. I propose I rip off your clothes, then make you put them back on later, after I have my way with you, so you can take me to my children so that I can play with them.”
He placed his hands on either side of her blouse, as if asking for permission to tear her blouse off her.
“No, don’t,” she said, pulling away. “I didn’t have time to pack, you can’t rip this.”
“Then hurry up,” he said, moving towards her like a leopard stalking its prey.
She giggled and moved away from him, then ran away. But his eagerness, his desire for her, was too much for her to resist, so she let all her reservations fade and allowed herself to succumb to her need for him. When they came together again, this time, he insisted on feasting on her pussy first. She lay back on the bed as his mouth sucked and toyed her swollen, aching clit. When her orgasm came, she couldn’t hold back her cries of pleasure. She was still writhing in the afterglow when she entered her, filling her completely on the first thrust.
“Ah, ah,” she cried out as he forced her body against his. She wrapped her arms around his neck and fisted her hands in his hair.
“Lissa,” he groaned into her ear as his hips thrust into her even as he yanked her against him.
When she came this time, her cries of pleasure mingled with his, and she felt his fertile seed once again, spilling without barrier into her womb, and a part of her sex-lubricated mind hoped that she’d get pregnant again, as if three children wouldn’t be enough to keep him in her life.
Julio was gone before she’d woken up, and when they spoke, there was no mention of the previous night, or anything else regarding their relationship. They talked about the boys, and how Joan was getting on with them, then went straight into planning and prepping for the critical presentation later that day with the backers for the project.
Lissa had a million things to still prepare, but she couldn’t concentrate. Her nerves were shot. All her thoughts kept circling back to the same inescapable conclusion, one she didn’t want to accept, that she was falling hard for Julio Torres. She was afraid to let that happen. It was obvious he was attracted to her, and he’d be around for the kids, but she was kidding herself if she expected him to stay around for her for much longer. She needed to protect her heart from being shattered in two. She couldn’t risk falling in love with him.
“Well?” Julio asked conspiratorially a short while later, as Lissa pulled beside him in front of the food and drinks table.
Lissa picked up a small plate and placed a strawberry dipped in white chocolate on it, even though her stomach was twisted in tight knots and she knew she couldn’t eat a bite. She and Julio had both been circulating around the foyer outside the small conference room where they’d be making their pitch. They’d split the duty, and had been chatting up key players, hoping to gauge their positions prior to making the final case. Her mind hadn’t been one hundred percent on her task. She’d been thinking about Julio, her future, her babies’ future, and those darn pictures from Willa, and her admonition. Keep your guard up. It was starting to sound, more and more like a good idea.
“Are you all right?” Julio asked. “You seem off.”
Now wasn’t the time, she had to get her head straight. In a few minutes she’d be making the presentation of her life. “Nothing’s wrong, it’s just that no one I spoke to was in a particularly good mood.”
Julio nodded in agreement. “There is a lot of money on the table. The fate of their consortium and their reputations are on the line. Keep them focused on the idea that you are here to give them a solution to their own fuck-up, not to sell them something.”
As lights dimmed and the projector came on, a hush fell in the room as Lissa took her spot in at the front. The crowd of mostly European men seemed to focus on her, expectantly, appreciatively. Lissa was glad she’d worn the sexiest of her blouses, the shortest of her business skirts, and the highest of her heels. Hands down, she was about to give the most important presentation of her career, and she wasn’t going to ignore a single advantage. Lissa knew that Julio was off to her left, watching her, his hopes riding on her ability to persuade. She couldn’t—wouldn’t let him down. Like a defense attorney about to give her final argument, she waited for every person in the room to give her their full attention.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, you have no reason to abandon this project. In the next few minutes I will show you exactly how you can achieve your original dream, on time and on budget with the application of just a few critical and necessary modifications.”
For the next fifteen minutes, Lissa was on her game, dazzling the consortium members with her brilliant analysis, and explaining the importance and utter necessity of her creative workarounds. She’d brought them around, softened their skepticism, and when she finished her presentation she was met with loud applause. Julio joined her at the front and they fielded questions, together. Lissa felt flush with the success of their efforts together, and very happy working by Julio’s side.
The head of the consortium came up to shake first Lissa and then Julio’s hand. “Ms. Edwards. I warn you that you promised a great deal today.”
“I’m aware of that.”
“All this is, of course, theoretical,” he continued. “But, you seem to believe it will work. So we will throw down a challenge. We will give you one month to prepare a full proposal. You won’t be competing with anyone, but we will hear it and give you a yes or no when we see your vision, and the details of implementation.”
“We’d be gambling a great deal,” Julio said.
“Your colleague seems confident. We rather enjoyed her American optimism. I assume you meant what you said?”
“Well then. We will see you here in one month.” He patted Julio on the back and walked away.
“You were incredible,” Lissa started at the sound of Julio’s voice close to her ear. She hadn’t realized he’d come back in the room, or that he’d managed to stand directly behind her without her knowing. Two of the consortium sat in the back row having a private conversation. Abby had already left with the projector and most of the other materials on a cart, but Lissa was putting together her notes and making sure nothing confidential was left behind.
Julio stepped in closer to her, and kissed that sensitive spot at the back of her neck. The men in the back didn’t notice. Instinctively, Lissa adjusted her neck, giving him better access. The men at the back row, started to stand up. Lissa pulled away from Julio.
“Not here,” she whispered.
She wanted to get him back to her room, or his, it didn’t matter. She wanted the victory fuck, she deserved it, they both deserved it.
But then the damn images of those pictures crossed her mind.
He was a player, Willa, those other women.
She had to think of her children, of getting a life, of not being some billionaire’s booty call. With those images taking over her brain, elation from the success of the meeting evaporated, and the fiery need that had only moments before tugged at her soul, became replaced by a dull, aching pain.
Without warning, Lissa rose from the table, and hurried out of the room, straight to the bathroom. She stood in front of the mirror, her hands gripping the marble counter. She felt hot, there was sweat running down her neck, and slicking her chest and forehead. A wave of nausea doubled her over the sink. She channeled her breath, quick shallow gasps, as she waited for the sick feeling to pass. After she could lift her head without the fear of passing out, she splashed cold water on her face and then looked at herself. “What’s your problem, girl?”
At first there was no answer, but as she waited, understanding dawned. Now that the project was more or less in the bag, he wouldn’t be needing her anymore. He’d expect her to go back to the states and take the boys with her, go back to the way things were before. Sure, he might call on her expertise from time to time, but it was nothing that required her presence. There was nothing that couldn’t be done remotely from here out.
Except, of course, when he was in the mood to play father. He could just pop by for a hour or two off poppa time. He’d probably want her to open her legs for him then, as well. Kill two birds with one stone on each visit, baby time and booty call.
A weight seemed to settle behind her chest.
She didn’t want to be just a booty call, just a girl in one of his ports, waiting for her turn at some mind-blowing sex. Her logical mind had the answer. Tell him how you feel.
But, the part of her that had been hurt before, the part that didn’t want him feeling pressured into marriage or anything serious just because of the accident of the three births, that part of her couldn’t bear playing a part in forcing something that he didn’t really want.
If he didn’t feel the same way, if he wasn’t falling for her the way she was falling for him – then it was just great sex and nothing more…. And if that’s all it was, then he was right. They should celebrate with a fuck. A simple, no-strings attached pussy-convulsing fuck.
“There you are,” Julio said excitedly the moment she stepped into the hallway. “I wasn’t sure if you’d gone back to the room. I was about to go up and check, in case you were laying on your bed, naked, waiting for me. Did I tell you how incredible you were in there? You had them eating out of your hand. Now, I want to take you back to my room and eat out your…” He finished the last word with a meaningful grunt, punctuated with a pinch of her ass.
“Why wait?” she said to him, and to herself, she said. If you’re going to be a slut for your career, then you should do it right.
At the entrance to a hallway, Lissa saw a hotel maid pushing a bathroom cleaning cart. She stopped front of the bathrooms near the entrance to the conference area, about twenty yards away. She looked around and realized that they were all alone in that part of the hotel. It was late, and there were no other meetings going on. This would be perfect.
She grabbed his hand and placed it on her right tit, and said, “Now.”
Julio’s eye brow lifted with surprise, and then he pulled her against him so fast and so hard, it knocked her breath away. He the kiss came, it was possessing, demanding, and knee weakening. Her doubts and concerns collapsed and she became caught up in the moment.
“You are the most beautiful, incredible woman in the world, Lissa, you make me insane.”
His mouth claimed her words. Time, place, work, children, everything disappeared except for his body, his touch, his incredible lips and tongue. He gripped her buttocks, and forced her hips against his need. She ground against him, the sensation annihilating all other thoughts. And then he stopped. “I want you now,” he groaned, his breath hot against her ear.
She gasped as he pulled her skirt up high on her hips, then slid his fingers behind her panties and into the wet heat of her sex. As his fingers spread her wetness, she groaned as her breathing quickened. High pitched laughter and the sounds of voices, carried from the main part of the hotel, just thirty feet away. But, that didn’t stop him. He changed his position, and added another finger, pushing it deeper inside her, as he tried to suck her nipples through her blouse.
A slutty fantasy filled her mind, and she wanted to turn around and bend over and have him take her right there in the hall. She wanted to feel him inside her, filling her, possessing her. But, then three innocent perfect baby faces popped into her head, and she knew she couldn’t do anything that bold, that risky. Who would take care of her baby boys if both parents got nipped on indecency? “Not here, please,” Lissa’s breath came in ragged gasps. “Let’s go to our room.”
“No, you’re going to come right here, right now,” he growled.
The maids cart wheels echoed in the hall and Julio flattened them against the wall. But then the wheels stopped. He peeked around the palm and said. “She’s doing the next bathroom, we have time.”
And then his hand was back up her legs, fingers probing, exploring within her wet folds.
He kissed her hard, almost bruising her mouth, as he worked her clit with his circling thumb.
“There, there, come for me beautiful.”
Before she could protest, the pleasure erupted inside her, as she convulsed around his fingers. He swallowed her cries with his lips, breathing in her pleasure. Her knees went weak.
He caught her, and helped her skirt back down her thighs.
Shhhhh,” he said, as the maid pushed the cart past them, paying them no mind whatsoever. Lissa placed her hand on his erection, gasped at how hard and big he felt behind the fabric of his Italian suit. The maid put her cone outside the lady’s room, and Julio tugged on Lissa’s arm, pointing to an empty set of conference rooms at the far end of the hall. “If I can’t put my cock into your perfect pussy right now, I’m going to fucking die.”
Lissa felt the same way.
Once inside the unlit conference room, Julio dropped his pants in an instant, not bothering to remove his expensive Italian shoes. In the middle of the room, with not even a table for support, he lifted her body off the ground and positioned himself between her legs.
She was so wet with desire and recently coming that his cock went all the way in until she was speared onto his dick. He had one strong arm under her ass and the other at the small of her back. He began to fuck her, relentlessly, without reservation.
Hanging on for the ride of her life, Lissa tried to lock her ankles behind his back as she held on, grasping her fingers around his collar for support.
He fucked her, his body moving backwards a little with each thrust.
“Yes, fucking, yes!” He grunted, as he picked up speed.
Lissa felt his body tense, the calm before the storm. And then she was lost at sea, as the powerful gale of his cock batted against her hull, splintering to bits the last of her reservations, flooding her decks with waves of crashing pleasure, sinking her forever into a sea of bliss.
Time stood still, as Lissa blacked out a little, drunk on what his body could do to her, what his cock could do to her, what he could do to her.
A short time later, as they ventured back into the hallway, the cleaning cart was gone. Their clothes were back in place, but they couldn’t hide the sweat, the messy hair, the flushes on their faces, or the smell of sex and cum on their bodies.
They walked in silence, separated by a few feet, wanting to appear like two professionals wrapping up after a long day, and not the people who’d just fucked like rabbits where anyone could have walked in on them.
Julio’s thoughts seemed distant, for the first time things felt awkward, wrong. Lissa suddenly wondered if she’d repulsed him, with her bold and slutty behavior. She needed time to think, time to be alone.
“Uh, listen, I need to get back and relieve Joan, she’s been alone with the babies all day.”
“Yeah, I’ve got some things I need to do as well, see you tomorrow?”
As Julio headed out the front of the lobby, to go do whatever he needed to go do, Lissa, didn’t get off on her sister’s floor. She’d totally lied about Joan needing a break.
They’d arranged for hotel nannies to help out, and she was sure Joan was just fine. They’d expected Lissa to be busy all day, maybe even all night. Joan had told her not to even think about coming back until morning.
So, she showered, and washed her hair, and went to bed naked.
She tried not to cry, she tried not to regret anything, but even still, it took many hours before she finally fell into a restless sleep.
She woke to the sounds of banging on her door. “Lissa, are you in there?”
The urgent tone in Julio’s voice made her instantly awake. She jumped out of the bed and grabbed a towel out of the bathroom, covering her nakedness as she opened the door.
It was dark outside, she glanced at the digital clock. It was three in the morning. Her heart flew into her throat. “Oh, God, what’s wrong?” she shouted as Julio pushed into her room.
“I’ve been trying to call you. Joan’s been trying to call you, get dressed. We need to go to the hospital.”
Lissa’s heart felt like it was going to rip out of her chest.
“Oh, my God, one of the boys. Which one? What happened?”
“I don’t know, Joan just called me and said to get to the hospital right away. One of the boys fell ill or something and all of them were taken to the hospital, Joan’s been trying to reach you. I’ve been trying to reach you.”
Guilt tore at Lissa, as she remembered that she’d taken her phone off the hook and had turned off her cell phone, while she felt sorry for herself, wallowing in her post dirty sex doubts. She hadn’t thought to call Joan and check on the boys. What kind of mother does that make me?
“Come on, hurry,” Julio said.
Lissa struggled to find clothes, and couldn’t seem to remember how to put on her pants, as fear and panic gripped her, shutting down all cognitive power.
“Here, let me help you,” Julio said. He opened a drawer and found a t-shirt and helped her into it, neither of them caring that she wasn’t wearing a bra. He picked up her purse and room key off the dresser and walked her out of the room.
In the taxi on the way to the hotel, Lissa lost it, breaking into uncontrollable sobs.
“There, there,” Julio said, pulling her into his arms. “It’s going to be fine, I’m sure, everything’s going to be fine.”
When they got to the hospital, Julio grabbed the first nurse he saw.
“My sons, my babies, can you tell me where they are?”
The nurse just looked at him, and shook his head, then pointed to a reception desk in the corner.
Julio was stomping towards it, Lissa right behind when they heard a familiar voice behind them.
Abby. “Julio, Lissa, thank god you’re hear. Joan’s about to go mental on me.”
“Abby, what’s happened, are the boys alright?” It was Julio, asking, the fear in his voice matching the fear in her heart. If anything happened to her boys while she was feeling sorry for herself, she’d never forgive herself. She already felt bad enough every time she left her babies as she worked to become the best consultant in the business.
She felt Julio’s fingers entwining in hers, supporting her, and being supported as they awaited the dreaded news. Please God, please God.
“Joan called me after she couldn’t reach either of you. She said that Marco was real sick, I got the hotel doctor to meet me up in their room, and Marco was a limp as a rag, feverish, barely able to open his eyes. The doctor took one look at him and called an ambulance, and while we were waiting he examined the other boys and said they were showing signs of getting sick as well. He made them take all three to the hospital.”
“Oh, my God, what’s wrong with them?” Lissa’s eyes were swimming with tears. “Where are they, I want to see my babies.”
“Follow me. Joan will be glad to see you.”
Julio’s fingers entwined Lissa’s and he held onto her hand tight as they followed Abby through the maze of hallways, before finally arriving at the infants and children’s ward.
Joan rose from her seat, as she saw them come in, and came running over to her sister.
The two women hugged.
“What’s going on, Joan?” Lissa asked.
“I don’t know, they won’t tell me anything,” Joan said, and then she collapsed back in to her seat and buried her head in her hands.
Abby spoke. “There’s the doctor.”
They all looked up as a diminutive woman with striking grey hair and even more striking grey eyes walked towards them, in her white doctor’s coat and stethoscope wrapped around her neck. She walked up to Julio and began speaking to him in rapid Spanish.
Julio nodded, and then his face broke into a relieved semi-smile.
“Gracias, doctor,” he said, as the doctor scurried away.
“What? What’s going on? Are my babies alright?”
Julio guided everyone to the seats. “Sit down, and yes. It’s good news but I’m not going to tell it to you standing up.”
Lissa felt relief flood through her, and almost burst into tears of happiness. Her worst fears weren’t materializing. Her boys were going to be okay.
“What is it? Julio, tell us!” demanded Joan.
“Apparently, the boys have contracted some kind of infection. Marco had it the worst, and he’s going to need the most time to recover, but the other boys were treated in time, so they’re already coming around. Either way, they want the three of them to remain here for a few days.”
“When can I see them?”
“He said that a room was being prepared and that the two less sick boys would be in there within the hour, but that Marco would need to remain on the intensive care unit until further notice. He said, that we could come back and see him in about thirty minutes, but just two people at a time.”
Thirty minutes later, Joan and Abby insisted that Julio and Lissa go back first. They followed a nurse into the back of the ward and were taken to a viewing room.
“Can’t we go in?” Lissa asked, as she realized that they were to only look at their sick baby through a window.
Julio spoke to the nurse in Spanish, then translated. “No one is allowed in the intensive care nursery except doctors and nurses.”
Lissa sucked in her breath, her eyes filling with tears at the sight of her first born, her largest baby, looking weak and small in his glass enclosed crib, flanked by medical devices mounted to movable stands. Her baby lay there naked, save for a diaper, and all the tubes and monitor tags stuck to his skin.
“Isn’t he cold?” she asked.
Julio spoke to the nurse.
“No, she says the room is quite comfortable.”
Her baby’s eyes were closed, as if sleeping. She could see a tiny flutter of the eyelids and hoped his dreams were sweet and pain free. “I love you, Marco Julio,” she said through the window.
“Come on,” Julio said with a catch in his voice. “There’s nothing we can do for him now, let’s go see our other boys.”
It wasn’t until two days later that their three babies were released from the hospital. While they’d been waiting for the children to recover, work had come to a grinding halt, and Julio’s mother had insisted that they bring the children to her home in Barcelona, so they could recover fully.
Lissa didn’t argue, she had only one thought on her mind, bringing her boys back to health.
When they arrived at the home in Barcelona, Julio’s mother showed them to the living room which had been converted into a makeshift nursery, complete with a day bed and three cribs. Japanese Shoji screens for privacy. Lissa and Joan settled in with the babies, as Julio went upstairs to his room.
Julio’s mother, Gracile Torres was a tall, athletically built Spanish woman, with olive toned skin and dark, piercing eyes. When she moved, she had a grace about her, belying her age. Several of her female relatives, a sister, a sister-in-law, Lissa couldn’t keep track, had moved into to one of the guest rooms. They helped with the cooking, the cleaning, and the tending to the three babies. But, no one was more constant than Lissa. She never left their side except to go to the bathroom. She prayed and spoke and tried to make up for all the time she’d not been near them, her heart still reeling from what could have been an unspeakable loss.
She barely slept, and in the morning, the sun rose in Barcelona, and the fragrance of homemade bread and coffee filled Julio’s family home.
Marco, the sickest of the boys, the one she could have lost, was sitting on one of the Aunt’s lap, laughing, and looking like his old self-again.
“Marco Julio,” Lissa said, as she gently reclaimed her son from the older woman’s arms. She kissed her boy softly on the head. “Do you feel better? Momma’s so happy, you feel better.”
Her other boys heard her voice and were trying to stand up in their cribs. Ryland reached out his arms to her. He looked much better as well.
“I think these boys have seen enough of those cribs.”
Julio stood in the doorway, a huge smile on his lips. His mother walked into the room. “Bring them into the kitchen, Lissa, I had Julio set up a big area where they can play while we have breakfast.”
While they ate, Lissa began to relax for the first time in days. The boys were back to their normal, healthy selves and they were having a blast playing with in the makeshift play pen in the middle of the large kitchen.
Lissa was starved and the food was delicious. She reached for another hot rosemary biscuit, slathering it with butter and washing it down with the delicious coffee and fresh cream.
“Mamacita,” Julio said, “What do you think of my new family?”
Lissa felt his hands rest gently on her shoulders, he was standing right behind her. The touch of thumb as it grazed against the exposed skin of her neck felt like fire. She stiffened. What did he mean? Exactly.
Julio’s mother didn’t say anything, she just waved a wooden spoon at his head and glared at him. Julio laughed, and Lissa wondered what that was all about.
He went over to the play pen and let himself in. A moment later, he and the boys were laughing and playing together. Lissa’s heart swelled. If only, he wanted more than just a drive by family. If only this would be permanent.
Her appetite, suddenly fled. He’d joked before about his mom wanting a wedding, but there would be no wedding if he didn’t ask her to marry him. That was obviously not in the cards. He liked having sex with her and having his kids around, but clearly that was as far as he wanted to take things.
Over the next few days, Julio was gone, back in work mode, leaving Lissa and Joan and the boys as continuing house guests in his family home. Lissa had offered to help out with the work, but Julio refused. Telling her to take a break, to relax and enjoy all his relatives. He insisted that he had everything under control.
The days were full, as everyone of Julio’s numerous relatives stopped by to visit and meet the new additions to the family. They went on outings into the city, spent hours in the kitchen learning how to cook, and went shopping. Julio’s mother, had a big surprise. One afternoon at Senora Torres’s insistence, Lissa and the two aunts helped her push the three strollers through the business district of the old city. It was stunning, and it was also nice for each of her boys to have a stroller of their own.
To date in their young lives, the triplets had gone on their outings in chariots of a different nature. With only Auntie Joan and momma Lissa to take them for the rare stroll’s around Central Park in New York, they’d determined from the get-go, that with only two sets of hands – three strollers would be impossible. Lissa had no interest in putting the lives of three baby boys at risk by stuffing them into one of those ungainly triplet’s stroller contraptions.
As they strolled up the ancient cobbled streets of the Plaza Dominica, attracting curious looks and smiles from everyone they passed, Ryland began to fuss. She wondered if that was because he’d never once had a stroller all to himself. Ryland, was in no hurry to get anywhere. He had the most laid back personality of any of her boys. But, he didn’t like being alone, ever.
When they’d first stated going on outings in the double and single strollers, Joan thought it would be a good plan to mix up, who got to ride shotgun and who got to be in front, and also who got a stroller all their own. But, it became quickly apparent, that Ryland was only happy in one spot, the spot in the back of the double stroller. Marco didn’t care which stroller he was in, provided he was in the front. He was the most eager of her baby boys, the most competitive, the most likely to walk first. But, since Hunter was a squirmer and his fussing eventually got on Marco’s last nerve, they’d adopted a consistent pattern. Marco in the lead in the double stroller with Rlyand in back, and Hunter in the single stroller, where he could squirm to his hearts delight.
But, here on the Plaza Dominica, Ryland was fussy because he was facing the world without one of his brothers close at hand.
“Let’s go in here,” Senora Torres said, and she pointed to a tiny tailor’s shop with beautiful men’s and women’s suits in the window.
Lissa had learned already that there was no point in arguing with the boy’s mamacita, and as the noon day sun was beginning to give her heat stroke, she happily consented and the caravan of women and babies let themselves inside the small shop.
A short, but handsome older man came up to Senora Torres, and smiled broadly and began speaking in rapid Spanish.
Then he looked at me.
“You are the mama?” he asked. His English wasn’t half bad.
“Si,” I answered, practicing my Spanish language skills.
He called loudly into the back room, and a scrunched up older woman about five feet tall came hobbling out. She had measuring tapes draped around her neck.
“We measure the boys. Okie dokie?” asked the owner of the shop, looking to me for permission
“What’s all this?” I asked, Senora Torres. She had a devilish grin on her face. Clearly, this had all been previously arranged.
“My treat. I thought the babies could use some new clothes. You understand, my dear, that in Spain, how a man dresses is very important.”
“But, these are babies, not men,” Lissa pointed out.
Lissa gave her consent, having been raised to believe that it was ungracious and selfish to decline a heart-felt gift. So, they set about it. One by one, they lifted one of her boys into the air, while the tiny tailor stretched her measure tape expertly at all the important locations, while she yelled out numbers and the owner took notes.
After a sharp exchange of angry words, the owner’s face looked delighted, then he walked up to the wizened old woman and pinched her loving on the behind. She blushed, the most beautiful thing Lissa had ever seen. And then she looked at him, her tired old eyes sparkling with love.
He smiled back at her, the same look of complete happiness glowing on his face. Then he bent down and kissed her on the lips, and she went back to work.
Her heart tightened. Here were two people who were obviously a couple, obviously still in love. Lissa wondered if she would ever know that kind of love with another man. It made her think of Julio. More and more she believed that Julio might be the man for her. She could see herself falling in love with him, wanting to be with him for the rest of her life. But, did he have any of the same feelings towards her? And if he expressed such sentiment would it be sincere, or something he was doing to please his mother.
Lissa had certainly gotten the impression that Julio’s mother might have ideas about pressuring her son to marry her, but as wonderful as she imagined life might be with Julio around for the long haul, the last thing she wanted was to be in a loveless marriage. She also couldn’t stand the idea of Julio growing to resent her, for making him sacrifice his true path in life, so he could quote unquote do the right thing by her and the boys.
After the tailors, they had lunch in an outdoor café, which was shaded by the tall ancient buildings on either side. Her three identical baby boys were the talk of everyone in the restaurant.
Everyone seemed to know Senora Torres, and even though Lissa didn’t understand much of what was said, it was clear that many of them asked after the father, Julio.
Thinking about Julio made her sad. He’d been away now, and hadn’t called for almost two days. She understood that he was probably throwing himself at the task, or prepping the office and the staff required to work on the deadline for the consortium project, but his total absence in her life after so much closeness, left her feeling like one of her body parts was missing.
She also felt left out, set aside, not kept in the loop. It was as if he wanted her to stop thinking about work, to stop believing that she had say at all about what went on in his life.
As she sipped her coffee, Lissa wondered if Julio hadn’t called in at night, because he was lying in bed with some other woman.
The images of he and Willa having sex, or perhaps with another black woman, like the one from the photograph, made her gut clench.
“Are you alright, girl? You look a little green.”
“Oh, nothing’s wrong, I’m just a little tired,” Lissa lied.
“Then we’ll go home,” Senora Torres declared, and so they did.
Back at the Torres house, all Lissa wanted to do was put the boys down for a nap and take one herself. She got the boys settled, and looked reluctantly at the little cot. She needed a shower and a long nap, but it was impossible to rest comfortably in the living room. The Torres house was a constant beehive of activity. She didn’t feel comfortable putting on a night shirt even with the privacy curtain, and she didn’t want to lie down in her day clothes.
“You want me to watch them?” asked one of the aunts in her stilted English.
“Yes, please, just while I take a shower,” Lissa said.
She went upstairs, hoping to find Joan. After moving the whole gang to the Torres household, Joan’s need to be the constant nanny was diminished, and she’d started taking time off to go on outings throughout the city. There wasn’t a moment in the house where there weren’t at least two or three willing female Torres’s, aunts, or great aunts or cousins, eager to take over the baby watching duties.
Lissa and Joan had a guest room upstairs with a bath and a queen sized bed. They took shifts, one of them taking the cot downstairs while the other got a decent night sleep, and used the room to dress and bathe.
The previous night, it was Lissa’s turn to sleep on the cot next to the baby’s downstairs, and in the morning when she went up for her ablutions, she expected to find Joan, and her usually unmade bed. But, the bed looked as neat as when Lissa had made it the day before, and it was obvious Joan hadn’t slept there.
She remembered that Joan had said something about going out for drinks with one of Julio’s friends.
Worried, she found her cell phone and called her sister.
Joan answered on the first ring.
“Joan, are you okay? Where are you?”
“I’m downstairs in the kitchen having breakfast, where are you?”
Relieved, Lissa didn’t give it another thought. “I’m going to shower and take a nap, will you watch the boys?”
“Sure thing, sis.”
After showering for a long time and washing her hair, Lissa, walked around her room, her hair and body wrapped in soft towels.
She thought of Julio, of the last time they’d made love, and she missed him.
He’d been gone for three days now, and when he called, it was all about the babies, and how she was getting along. He made little effort to bring her into the work conversation, nor did he mention their relationship, or when he’d be back. It was as if he was getting her used to how it would be, she had her world, and he had his. Separate.
As her hair was dry enough for her to crawl under the covers, Lissa’s thoughts went back to the last time they’d made love. Just thinking about him being inside her, made her wet with need for him. Her fingers slipped between her folds and after she’d made herself come gently, she fell into a deep sleep.
“Lissa, wake up.”
Lissa came out of her dream and saw her sister standing over her, shaking her arm.
“It’s almost time for dinner. I need a shower -- its your turn to watch the boys. I’m going out again with Fernando.”
“What? What time is it? Who’s Fernando? Who’s watching the boys.”
“Julio’s watching them, don’t worry. Get dressed and get down there. He’s been asking for you.”
Lissa’s heart skipped a beat. Part of her had wondered if she’d be sent back to the states without another chance to see him. She pulled herself out of bed, and Joan’s eye brow went up at the sight of her nakedness.
Lissa felt herself blush.
“What? I was tired, alright?”
“Sure,” Joan said.
Joan was in the shower when Lissa let herself out, locking the door behind her to make sure her sister had privacy from whoever this Fernando person was. She wasn’t too happy to learn that Joan was being wined and dined by another sexy Spaniard who thought that a woman was only there to serve at his command, his pleasure.
Her happiness at hearing he was back had quickly grown into resentment.
He had a lot of nerve, just taking off like that, shutting her out of the work that her efforts had made possible, acting as if there was nothing between them.
Her anger vanished when she saw him playing with her boys.
“Do you love your papa? Do you love your papa?” he asked, poking a finger into each of the boys stomach as they cooed and baby laughed at his attention. “Because, your papa, loves you, yes he does, papa loves his baby boys.”
Lissa sighed deeply, wistfully. He could say the love word so easily, with his children but he’d never said it to her. But, the bond between child and father would be like that. The bond between lover-you-happened-to-knock up-with-triplets offered no such mandatory bond.
“Hi, Julio,” Lissa said as she walked in, trying to sound casual.
All four of the most important men in her life looked up at the sound of her voice.
Ryland and Hunter both raised their hands towards her, while Marco took the opportunity to climb onto his father’s lap, keeping him pinned to the floor.
“Lissa,” Julio said, “I’d get up to hug you…”
He indicated the baby on his lap, and smiled as Lissa sat down next to him as the two other boys crawled into her waiting arms.
They held their babies and looked at each other, waiting to see who would speak first.
“So, how’s the project coming?”
“It’s going well.”
“How have the boys been?”
“And you? Are my mama and all her relatives driving you crazy yet?”
Despite herself, Lissa let out a chuckle. “No, but, if they don’t stop feeding me, I’ll have to send home for my maternity clothes.”
“I think you look absolutely perfect,” Julio said, as he rose to take Marco to his crib. “Mamacita,” he shouted, over his shoulder towards the kitchen door, “Mamacita, can you come in here?”
A moment later, his mother bustled into the living room, eyes shining. “Julio, when did you get home?”
“A few minutes ago,” he said, greeting his mama with an affectionate kiss on both cheeks.
“What a surprise, will you be staying long?”
“Mama, can you watch the boys for a bit, I need to talk to Lissa in private.”
His voice had become suddenly serious, and Lissa wondered if he was going to tell her it was time for her to go. She’d outstayed her welcome, and he needed her to return to her life so he could return to his. Or, maybe he just had issues with the job, some problems he couldn’t resolve on his own, and he was finally prepared to bring her back into the work.
“But, of course,” Senora Torres said. There was a mischievous look in her dark eyes, and a knowing smirk on her face. As Lissa got to her feet, Senora Torres shouted towards the kitchen. “Sophia!”
Through the kitchen doors, Julio’s Aunt Sophia lumbered out. She was tall, like Senora Torres, but twice her girth. Senora Torres said something in Spanish to her sister-in-law and then they both laughed.
A moment later, she gave Lissa a meaningful link, then ran one index finger over the other, cackling gaily as she made the universal gesture, of naughty, naughty.
Lissa felt her face go flush with embarrassment.
“They go for naughty, naughty time?” she asked in her broken English than cackled at her own joke.
“Come on, Lissa,” Julio said, chuckling darkly. She started to follow him, wordlessly. He wouldn’t seriously be taking her somewhere to have his way with her, would he? Not while people were downstairs thinking that’s what he had in mind. Her nipples hardened at the thought.
“Where are we going?”
“To my room.”
When he unlocked his door, and motioned Lissa inside, she didn’t have time to admire the view of the city from his window, or the warm masculine touches of his interior space, because his hands were all over her, expertly pulling off her clothes.
“What are you doing?” Lissa said, trying to stop him.
“What I’ve been thinking about non-stop, getting you naked, so I can ravish you.”
She gasped as his choice of words, but a part of her held back.
“No, no,” she said.
He reared back, confusion on his face.
“What do you mean?”
“You can’t, we can’t do—this. I mean, not until you tell me what the hell has been going on?”
He shook his head, a smirk twitching at his mouth, and moved close to her, close enough that she could feel his heat, his desire for her.
She started to say something, but he pressed his index finger against his lips.
“We’ll talk after you’ve come, not before.”
Lissa gasped at his words, her body responding to him.
They kissed and while she tried to resist him at first, soon she was as eager as he was for contact.
“It’s locked, don’t worry.”
He moved her backwards towards the bed, bending her knees as she plopped onto the bed. She lifted her arms and he pulled off her blouse, then pushed her gently backwards so he could remove her pants.
“I haven’t stopped thinking about your tight, sweet, pussy,” he said as he pulled down her underwear and tossed it onto the floor.
She lay on the bed, panting, the bra still holding her breasts, the lace being strained by her expanding pebbling nipples. She threw her head back and groaned as he spread her legs, going down on her, the way she liked.
It didn’t take long, for his tongue and fingers to send her over the edge. She had to bite the lips hard to stop from crying out in pleasure as her back arched and she pushed her pelvis up, into him.
He climbed on top of her, his belt buckle digging into her skin. He kissed her hard and as he ground his erection against her through his pants. She squeezed her hands between them, groping for the clasp of his pants, trying to free his cock of its bounds. “I need you inside me, please…” she begged.
Julio pushed off her, trailing fire down her neck, to her collar bone, before sucking on one breast through the lace of her bra. She reached for his pants again, but he pulled away, getting off the bed.
Lissa lifted her head as her heart raced and she watched him pull off his tshirt and step out of his pants. He stood there before her, naked, incredibly perfect, all muscles and angles, and dark thick hair on his chest trailing down to his incredible cock, erect and proud in his stroking hand.
“Is this what you want?” he asked, his voice like gravel.
“What do you want me to do with it, say it. Tell me.”
“I want you to fuck me. Fuck me. Please. Julio, Fuck me, now.”
Lissa’s eyes burned with need for him and he climbed back on to the bed. She spread her legs and he crawled on his knees between them. She thought he’d fall forward and enter her in the missionary way, but instead, he lifted her legs, until they rested against his chest. He reached down and pulled her up by the hips and entered her in a way he’d never entered her before. Then he leaned forward, almost pressing her knees into her chest and he began to fuck her. The angle was incredible, and he was able to go in deep then come out and go in deeper the next time. A new part of her inner sanctum was activated and she felt the spiral of pleasure begin to unwind deep inside her. As he came, her body exploded in time with his release.
“Fuck,” he said, when it was over. He plopped down beside her, panting.
Twenty minutes later, they’d taken a shower together, speaking only in kisses and touches.
Back in the room, after Lissa and Julio had fully dressed, Julio’s cell phone rang, and his face showed a moment of alarm when he spotted the caller I.D. He grabbed it and answered. “Can I call you right back?”
“Who’s that? Something about the job?”
“Lissa, why don’t you see yourself out, I’ll see you at dinner. I need to take this.”
Feeling dismissed, Lissa walked back to her room. She fixed her makeup and hair, and went back downstairs, returning to baby duty.
As she walked, she made up her mind.
This had gone far enough.
To her relief Joan had arrived, and had already relieved the two cooks of their baby watching tasks. Her three sons weren’t much trouble. They were fast asleep in their cribs.
“You look like you got some,” Joan said as she sat next to her on the couch.
“Joan, I want to go back home, as soon as possible. Can you go book us our flights? I’ll stay here.”
“Home? Why? I thought you had work to do here, for a month or something?”
“We’ve been here long enough. I don’t need to be here to help with the job, I have to get back home. Please, just do it. As soon as possible, tomorrow if you can swing it. I’ll gladly pay first class.”
“Okay, whatever, you say…”
Joan seemed crushed at the news, but also seemed to grasp Lissa’s pain. Joan was a good sister.
Dinner that night was a boisterous affair. Twenty Torres family members, the three babies and Julio’s friend Fernando all spoke loudly and happily as first one course and then another was served by Sophia and Senora Torres.
Joan was quiet and so was Lissa as they ate.
“Are you two okay?” Senora Torres asked.
Lissa noticed that Joan was avoiding the eye-contact of Fernando. Lissa wondered if they’d had a falling out, or if she just couldn’t tell him that they would be leaving first thing the next day.
She’d not spoken to Julio in any meaningful way since the phone call, and to her mind, he’d been distant, avoiding her.
After the desert was served, Julio stood up and praised the cooks for the best meal ever.
“Unfortunately, I need to go, I have an appointment in Milan at ten. Fernando’s taking me to the airport.”
“I’ll see you soon,” he said to Lissa, then he gave each of his babies a kiss and left the room.
Lissa couldn’t decide if she was relieved or upset that he’d left so quickly. She was worried that if he came to her room in the night, she wouldn’t be able to take his family away in the morning. But, now it would be easier to go.
She decided not to say anything to anyone until the last minute.
Joan was in a sad mood as she helped Lissa secretly pack.
“Does Julio know you’re going?”
“Don’t you think he deserves to know?”
“He doesn’t tell me what he’s doing and I thought we were partners.”
“Yeah, I see what you mean.”
“Besides, I’m the parent with full rights, he’s just the biological father, I’m just his booty call. And I’m tired of being here. I want to go home.”
“So, you had the room last night, so it’s your turn to sleep on the cot again,” Lissa reminded her sister.
“Actually, I was wondering if you could cover me one more time. I kind of have a date tonight.”
“Yeah, since we’re leaving, I was hoping…”
“Go, ahead, but promise me you won’t say anything. I don’t want Julio to know that we’re leaving until we’re already gone.”
That night, Lissa slept fitfully, and so did the babies. It was if they knew that life as they’d begun to know it would change very soon.
Joan roused Lissa out of a deep dream.
“You better get up. The taxi will be here in thirty minutes.”
Lissa hurried upstairs to shower and dress in her travel clothes, and noted that everything except the babies was packed and ready to go. And once again, there was no sign that the guest bed had been slept in. Lissa assumed that Joan had spent the night with Fernando again.
When she came downstairs, the babies were starting to fuss.
“Help me,” Joan said, a little distractedly as she pointed to the diaper bag and to a red faced, Hunter.
“Come here,” Lissa cooed as she lifted Hunter onto the makeshift changing table and got to work.
The other two babies were already in their carriers.
“Did you already feed them?” Lissa asked.
“Fed and burped and changed.”
“What about Hunter?”
“Still needs a feeding. Let me get the bottle.”
While, Joan went to the kitchen to make the last bottle, Lissa carried Hunter on her hip and bounced him up and down lightly as she walked around the room. “We’re going to go on a big airplane in a little while, remember the last time?”
Her son just looked at her, like he knew she was putting a spin on things. Like he knew she was taking him away from his papa.
She swallowed her guilt as Joan came in with the bottle.
The doorbell rang.
“That will be the taxi.”
Lissa put Hunter into his car seat and gave him the bottle. He was old enough now to hold it himself and he forgot about accusing her of anything as he focused on breakfast.
Senora Torres came downstairs wrapped in a worn floral bathrobe. Her hair was a wild mess and her eyes were filled with alarm.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Torres, I – there’s a family emergency. I’m sorry, I didn’t tell you last night, but we’re going back to America.”
“An emergency, I’m so sorry, what is it? Is there anything I can do?”
“I’m afraid there isn’t, just tell Julio, I’m sorry we didn’t get a chance to say goodbye.”
“You mean he doesn’t know?”
“Not, yet.” Lissa said. “Everything happened so fast, there wasn’t time.”
“I see,” she said.
Aunt Sophia joined her sister-in-law and they all helped Joan and Lissa, as the two women and three babies were loaded into the cabbie’s passenger van, then wouldn’t close the door and let them leave until each baby was given a last kiss.
“An emergency at home? Is that the best you could come up with?” Joan asked as the cab finally drove away.
“Yeah, that was the best I could come up with.”
The babies were silent and sleeping, until the cab arrived at the airport and they had to switch from car seats to the double stroller and the single stroller. They checked the car seats and the rest of the bags and an airport attendant was called to help shuttle them to their gate.
The flight wasn’t going to leave for another two hours, but Lissa had known that if she waited around at the Torres house, she might not have the nerve to get away – plus someone would surely alert Julio. She thought about Julio, who she was certain had been alerted the moment they drove away. She wondered how he would react to the news that his baby mama had skipped town with his babies. She wondered if he was secretly relieved.
She wondered how long it would be before he paid his boys a visit.
After they made it through security and settled in for the long wait at their gate, Joan got up to buy them each coffees. Lissa did her best to keep the boys from crying. They were starting to get fussy. She didn’t blame them, they’d been stuck first in a car seat and now in a stroller. These babies were starting to crawl and they needed to move their little muscles.
But, the floor was too dirty and people were moving around so fast, talking on cell phones, paying no heed to where they were going. Someone could drop a suitcase on one of her boys, or smash one of the precious fingers or toes as they wheeled over a curious finger. No, they would just have to deal with being trapped in their stroller. Safety first.
Lissa looked up, from the diaper bag she’d been rummaging through and turned around to see an official looking man staring at her as she held Hunter’s pacifier in one hand, and Marco’s drool rag in the other.
“Are these your children, ma’am?”
Lissa couldn’t understand why this person was asking. Sure, Hunter had started to cry in the last few minutes, which was the reason she’d dug out his pacifier. But that was not reason to send security.
“Yes, of course, these are my children, is there some kind of problem?”
“I’m afraid there is, ma’am, I need you to bring your children and come with me.”
Lissa blinked. Notwithstanding the logistics of pushing two full baby strollers, carrying the world’s most over-stuffed diaper bag and her purse, she was missing her sister.
“I don’t understand.”
“Ma’am,” he said. A stern looking woman dressed in the similar uniform appeared and picked up the diaper bag. Then she got behind the stroller, holding two of her sons and started to wheel them away.
“Wait a minute, what are you doing?”
“Ma’am you need to come with us,” the man said again.
Marco and Ryland who were in the double stroller, sensed their mother’s alarm. They started to ball, loud and enthusiastically. Lissa hurriedly grabbed her purse and the other stroller with Hunter in it and pushed it quickly to catch up to her other babies. As she ran, she swung her head around widely, screaming out, “Joan, Joan!”
Joan appeared, her hand filled with two cups of coffee, which she dropped at the sight of her sister’s family being whisked away. “Hey, where are you taking them?” She yelled.
“Are you traveling with this woman?” asked the man.
“I’m her sister, what the hell is going on?”
“You can come with us as well then,” he said. And without another word, he led the caravan of screaming babies and the two Edwards women to an unmarked door.
Inside the door, there was a small ten by ten-foot room. It had a window to the tarmac, and metal benches along the wall. There was nothing else.
“Stay here,” said the man.
Then he got out and before Joan or Lissa could say a thing, or get an explanation, they heard the door lock.
“What the actual fuck?” Joan asked, as the two women tried desperately to comfort the screaming babies.
“I don’t know.”
After ten minutes, Joan needed to pee. She went to the door and tried it for the umpteenth time. It was still locked.
“Hey, someone out there, I need to use a bathroom,” she yelled as she pounded on the wall.
It made the babies start to cry again, but Lissa didn’t care, because she also needed release. Besides, she had a plane to catch and they were being held without explanation, this couldn’t be legal.
When the door latch moved, Joan shouted out in relief.
“It’s about fucking time!”
They stood back, expecting some rent-a-cop to open the door, but to Lissa’s shock, Julio came in, his face red with anger.
“Julio, what are you doing here?”
“What am I doing here? What the hell are you doing here, taking my family away without even telling me?”
“You have no right to talk to me like that. You haven’t told me anything about what’s going on? With work? With our project. It’s like I don’t even work for you anymore.”
“I don’t care about the job. Don’t you understand? How can you leave me like this?”
The babies were screaming again, joining their parents.
“Uh, guys,” Joan said, as she stood in the doorway. “I don’t care what you have to talk about, but I’ve got to pee.”
“Huh,” they both said noticing her as if for the first time.
The door was opened, and Lissa and Julio became aware of their children and the people in the lounge staring at them with irritated glances. One screaming baby was annoying enough, but three, that was too much in anyone’s book.
Setting their argument aside for the moment, Julio and Lissa began to soothe the boys. Pulling them out of their strollers, Lissa handed Julio first, Marco, and then Ryland, and let them bounce them on his knee. The boys soon stopped crying, while Lissa took Hunter out of his stroller and carried him around the room.
“I’m sorry baby, mommy and daddy didn’t mean to fight,”
“Lissa,” Julio said as she plopped into the seat next to him, when Hunter finally settled down.
“What?” she snapped, still furious at him for whatever strings he needed to pull to treat her and her sister like common criminals.
“You can’t go,” he said, trying to sound reasonable.
“I can and I will,” she fired back.
“But, why, I thought… I thought… I thought things were going well between us.”
“Well, I’m glad you were enjoying your little booty call, but I have a life to get back to and a family to raise.”
“You’re not some booty call. You, you’re more than that.”
“Yeah, I get it, I’m the booty call that happens to be the mother to your three sons.”
Julio raked his hand though his hair, and managed not to drop Marco who was trying to squirm out of his grasp. Ryland, who had been doing his best to put drool on his shirt, was now reaching up, trying to grab at his chin. Lissa saw that his stubble on the usually immaculate face, and realized that Julio must have been in a hurry, because it was clear that he hadn’t shaved. That thought softened her anger, for a moment, but she didn’t let on. Instead, she asked with suspicion.
“How did you get here so fast, I thought you were in Milan?”
He shook his head, ignoring her question. “It doesn’t matter where I was. As soon as I heard about your crazy plan, I came as fast as I could. I’m sorry about the airport security, thing. I didn’t have time to explain anything. I didn’t know what else to do. I just told them that they had to detain the American woman travelling with three babies. I might have led them to believe that you were trying to kidnap my children…” he said trailing off.
“So, is that why you’re here? Do you intend to file some sort of custody claim? Do you plan to turn this into an international incident?”
“Lissa, you’re killing me. Will you listen. Just listen.” Lissa folded her arms as best as she could with Hunter still in her lap. Hunter didn’t like that, so she unfolded her arms, and turned her back to Julio.
“I came here to stop you from leaving.”
“And why is it so important that I – I mean we don’t leave? It’s not like you expected us to stay forever, what’s the difference with us leaving now or in a few weeks.”
“Will you stop?”
“I don’t know what you mean,” Lissa said.
“For Christs sake, Lissa, don’t you understand? Look at me.”
Lissa turned and saw that his face was more serious than she’d ever seen it.
“Lissa you are my forever. Don’t you know that? I couldn’t let you leave, because I was going to propose, this weekend. I had this whole big event planned, romantic as fuck. Everyone but you and your sister was in on it. I was supposed to sweep you on your feet.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Jesus, woman, I’m in love with you, I’ve always been in love with you. You’re the most important person in the world to me, not counting these three precious babies. I don’t want you to leave, because you belong to me, I want you to marry me, Lissa Edwards.”
Lissa’s eyes filled with tears.
“Here, hold Ryland,” he said.
Tears ran down her face as she took Ryland with her free hand and settled him onto her free hip. She watched Julio switch Marco to his other hip, and saw him reach into his pocket for something. When he pulled out a small black box, her heart skipped a beat.
Taking care to keep Marco firmly in his arms, he knelt carefully before.
“Lissa Marie Edwards, will you make me the happiest man in the world and marry me?”
Lissa then noticed that the room outside in the busy terminal seemed to have quieted as people leaned forward holding their breath. Joan stood in the doorway and when Lissa caught her sisters eye, she didn’t miss the approving nod.
She turned toward Julio, and as the two babies in her arms reached out for his face, she said, “Yes, I’ll marry you -- you crazy bastard.”
Relief flooded his face, and somehow he managed to rise to his feet and kiss her without allowing the babies to bonk heads.
Applause and cheers broke out in the lounge, which frightened the babies. They started to cry so Joan rushed up as did one of the rude airport security people. They took the babies out of the arms of the newly engaged couple, so Julio and Lissa could kiss their consent.
They kissed for a long time, hard and deep, with the passion that comes from pure joy.
When the kiss finally ended, Lissa was reminded of the pressure on her bladder.
“Oh, excuse me,” she said.
She hurried away and Julio’s face showed alarm.
Joan shouted over to him. “Don’t worry, she just really needed to pee.”
When Lissa returned, the show was over, and the people in the airport went back to their lives. Joan had taken the liberty of cancelling their flights, and Lissa expected them to all leave, and go back to the house in Barcelona. But as they moved out the family, Julio pointed Lissa and Joan towards another set of gates.
“I’ve booked us all on another flight,” Julio explained. “It’s a few days, earlier than I’d planned, but since I’ve already proposed, there someplace I want you to see.
Julio refused to give Lissa any more details. A few hours later, the private jet landed. An SUV was already set up with the baby’s car seats, and Fernando was waiting with a second car to follow them to wherever he was taking them.
When the caravan drove through the gorgeous countryside, Lissa couldn’t help but admire the beauty around her. Finally, the car, headed off the two-lane highway that ran through the rolling hills and headed down a much narrower road, complete with bumps and dips, heading towards a clutch of woods in the distance. As they came out the other end, Lissa gasped at the sight of the most beautiful country farm house she’d ever seen.
“This is our new home,” he said.
As they got closer, Lissa could see that workmen were erecting a massive tent structure at the side of the house.
“What’s happening here?”
“Well, if things had gone to plan, our wedding was supposed to happen here. That’s why I’d been cagey about work, because I hadn’t been doing the normal work. I’d been working on this surprise, instead.”
“But, what about the project?” Lissa said with alarm. “They only gave us a month to do everything, are you telling me you’ve not done a thing on the other project. Julio, how could you?”
“Relax, my love. It’s all good. As soon as they heard about our babies going to the hospital, they granted us a two-month extension. So, there’s nothing to worry about, you and I will have plenty of time to get that squared away.”
Lissa felt a fresh jolt of joy, so he still wanted her to work with him, they were a team.
“Okay,” she said.
Fernando and Joan were in good spirits as they eagerly helped put the boys in the two strollers. Once everyone was good to go, they left the luggage in the two cars and Julio gave them a brief tour of part of their new house.
Workmen were still getting things squared away inside the house. “I have just the bare bones of furniture and things, but I figured you’d want to have a say in the interior design, put your mark on it. Whatever you want, I’d be happy to let you have. The only rooms I decided to completely finish, were the kitchen, so we could eat, the nursery, so the boys could sleep and play and our bedroom so we could….”
He left the final word off that sentence, but Lissa knew exactly what he meant.
She felt a rush of desire, and wondered when they’d have the house to themselves.
As if she’d read her mind, Joan suddenly spoke up.
“Listen, me and Fernando were thinking we should take the boys back to Barcelona, let you two have some time alone in your new house.”
“You don’t have to do that,” Lissa said.
“Oh, yes they do,” Senora Torres said.
Lissa wheeled around, shocked but pleased to see Julio’s mother standing near the dining room. She’d come out of nowhere. But, when Lissa caught a whiff of delicious food in the air and saw that Senora Torres was wearing an apron, she knew she’d come from the kitchen.
“Senora Torres,” Lissa said. “How did you get here so fast?”
“What do you mean, where do you think you are. This ranch house is only an hour away from Barcelona.”
“Of course, dear, I wouldn’t want to isolate you from the rest of the family.”
Just then, more people came into the hall, their voices booming in the still relatively vacant front room.
“Did she say yes?” Asked a cousin, whose name Lissa couldn’t’ recall.
“She did, indeed,” Julio said with pride as he pulled Lissa too him.
She was overwhelmed.
Fernando spoke up.
“Listen everyone. After lunch, I want everyone to leave. I’ve already told the workers to get lost and take a few days off. If you want to continue the party, then stop by Senora Torres’ house and help us take care of these three perfect babies. I think that this couple deserves to have some time alone to get acquainted with their new home.”
Most of the relatives, present, who didn’t speak a word of English looked at Fernando with confusion. So he translated, then everyone laughed and clapped with agreement, and gave Lissa meaningful looks and winks. Lissa felt herself blush, but Julio just smiled, that goofy happy grin, that made her heart melt at the sight of him. He really did love her, she no longer had any doubts about that.
The meal was delicious, paella and papas, dried figs, cheeses and a tray of fresh fruit, and toasted the newly engaged. They all out outside at several rustic picnic tables. A playpen area had been set up close to the table where Julio and Lissa sat, and the boys were in heaven, exploring their new digs.
The covered back porch overlooked acres of grapes, acres which all belonged to the Julio Torres and his new family.
“Is there a vineyard somewhere on this property?” Lissa asked.
“Only if you want there to be one,” he replied.
By the time everyone left and the children were safely on their way for a night back at Mamacita’s house, the workers were all long gone, having each been given a bonus payment for agreeing to take the next two days off. Lissa and Julio were finally alone.
They held hands and kissed as the sun set.
Are you up for our pre-wedding honeymoon, Mrs. Soon-to-Be Lissa Edwards Torres?”
“You know I am,” Lissa said as she gazed up into his loving, deep brown eyes.
“Then follow me, my love,” he said.
She took his hand and without another word, he guided her to their new bedroom.
Don’t miss the next book in this series, The Billionaire’s Triplets – Matchmakers – enjoy a short excerpt.
In the first book in The Billionaire’s Triplets saga, the love story of Lissa and Julio comes to a happy conclusion. But the story of the Billionaire’s Triplets isn’t over yet.
In the second story, Auntie Joan gets a chance at true love.
While Lissa and Julio prepare to tie the knot and then head off for a two-week honeymoon leaving sister Joan and the other relatives in Barcelona to look after the triplets, Joan announces that she’s going back to New York as soon as Mr. and Mrs. Julio Torres return.
As much as she loves her nephews, Joan knows she must move on and take a stab at having a life of her own. She’s not sure what type of career she’ll pursue back in New York, but she knows it won’t involve changing dirty diapers. In her former life, Joan Edwards was once a top fashion model, but that was before the partying lifestyle led her down the path of drug and alcohol addiction, and ended her modelling career.
But, after almost a year of being clean and sober, and being responsible for three precious lives, Joan is ready to launch out on her own again.
But, even before Julio and Lissa tie the knot, unexpected events throw monkey wrenches in Joan’s plans. First, she runs into an Antonio Ferraro, an old flame. Despite his obvious interest in her, Joan is afraid to give him another chance, because as a celebrity soccer star, and midfielder for AC Milan, he’s still living the lifestyle of the partying rich and famous – and she can’t risk going down that path again.
But, when Joan spots old business enemies of her sister and brother-in-law skulking around Barcelona, Joan knows they are up to no good. She’d always thought that Lissa and Julio were too easy on their former employees Tina and Willa. Joan wants to get close enough to find out what they were up to, and while she’s at it, give them each the bitch-slaps they deserve for trying to screw with her sister. She reluctantly calls on the help of Antonio Ferraro. With his celebrity status, and his connections, she knows he can help her get close to whatever those two are up to.
Antonio Ferraro can’t believe he’s found her again. In Barcelona for the wedding of his Godfather Julio Torres and to get his advice on a difficult problem he must face, he never expected to have his heart reactivated by running into Joan Edwards again. This time, he has no intentions of letting her go, and will change everything about himself to keep her at his side. But Joan isn’t interested in rekindling their old flames. She wants nothing to do with his lifestyle or his partying friends.
But, when she comes to him asking for help to spy on some enemies of Julio Torres, he agrees to help her – even if she’s keeping things between them strictly business. At least she’s speaking to him.
Auntie Joan is a stubborn woman, and the triplets Marco, Ryland and Hunter have no choice but to take matters into their own hands. If two people were ever meant for each other it’s Auntie Joan and the soccer star Antonio Ferraro.
And even though Auntie Joan refuses to see what’s right in front of her face, the boys recognize true love when they see it, so they become the billionaire triplet matchmakers so that – just like their Mama and Papa, Auntie Joan can have her happily ever after too!
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Thanks for reading!
Mia Caldwell has been fantasizing about stories of “Happily-Ever-After” since she was a little girl, and now that she’s all grown up her “Happily-Ever-After” stories have taken a steamier turn! After graduating from college Mia still wasn’t quite sure what she wanted to do with her life. Bored with her day job as an Administrative Assistant for a non-profit, she started writing stories on the side and sharing them with her friends. They gave her the push she needed to share them with you!
She lives in New York with two rascally cats named Link and Zelda, eats too much chocolate and Chinese take-out, and goes on way too many blind dates. She’s still waiting for Mr. Right, but in the meantime she’ll keep dreaming up the perfect man!
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[+ The Billionaire’s Snow Date+]
Billionaire’s Baby Surprise
Billionaire’s Baby Deception
Kidnapping the Billionaire’s Baby
Up in Flames
Be sure to get Book 2 in the series…
THE BILLIONAIRE TRIPLETS MATCHMAKERS
Also, if you enjoy audiobooks, you can listen to the Billionaire’s Triplets Book One now as it is available at the normal audiobook retailers. The Billionaire’s Triplets Matchmakers Audiobook is scheduled for release late July 2017.
Was he Mr. Right, or was it just the best fling of her life? A passionate fling with a billionaire at a conference in Switzerland left serious business analyst, Lissa Edwards, breathless and grinning from ear to ear, wondering if she’d finally found Mr. Right, because their affair had been so intense. And not just from her point of view. Julio Torres seemed equally eager to take things to the next level... she had no doubt that he'd keep his promise see her again very soon - so they could give their cross-continental relationship a chance to see where things might lead. Lissa returned to her consulting firm in New York and Julio Torres returned to his business empire headquarters in Barcelona, Spain. And he didn't call her. Days passed and then weeks passed and despite some subtle attempts to reach out, Julio didn’t reply. Saddened and disappointed, Lissa had too much pride, and was too practical by nature to allow herself to moan and groan, or go out of her way to press him for an explanation. She didn't need to. She understood. Men say things they don’t mean to get you in bed – and that’s all it was. She’s wasn’t about to chase after some man, no matter how amazing she felt in his arms…no matter how much her heart kept telling her that ,he was the one. Obviously, her heart wasn't thinking very clearly! But, Lissa's determination to forget about Julio Torres is blown out of the water the moment she finds out that she's pregnant with the billionaire’s triplets! The Billionaire's Triplets - Book 1