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Authors: Sherryl Woods

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Still, the decision seemed so impulsive, so out of character, he had to be sure it wasn’t a whim. Carlton Industries wasn’t some playground for a woman who was simply bored with her life.

“Destiny, have you really thought this through?” he asked. “There are downsides. Serious downsides, in fact. Tackling such a huge job will mean long days in an office. There will be a lot of stress involved.”

Her gaze narrowed. “Are you suggesting I’m not physically or mentally up to it?” she asked, her tone suddenly icy.

Richard knew better than to say any such thing. “Of course not.”

“Well then, why are you hesitating?”

“Because this is so unlike you. In fact, every time I’ve brought up the European division and the problems it was having, you’ve told me to deal with it myself.”

She regarded him blandly. “But you haven’t, have you?”

Richard sighed. She had him there. William Harcourt was still insinuating himself into every single negotiation Carlton Industries was involved in. Richard had managed to thwart most of Harcourt’s attempts to steal business, but he hadn’t really dealt the man a final, knockout blow that would end the nonsense.

He couldn’t help wondering yet again if there was a link between Harcourt and Destiny he didn’t know about. He’d asked Destiny before if she had known the man years ago, but she’d avoided giving him a
direct answer. Ben had managed to finagle an admission that she’d known Harcourt, but had gotten nothing more. That rather incomplete acknowledgment had raised Richard’s suspicions that there was more going on with Harcourt than business, but without proof he hadn’t been able to call her on it. He needed to try again.

“Does this have something to do with Harcourt?” he asked her.

“No, it has to do with me,” she insisted, regarding him with an unblinking gaze that gave away nothing. “It’s time to find out what I’m made of.”

“You’re an incredible woman!” Richard said impatiently. “Why are you questioning that now? Don’t start spouting some nonsense about low self-esteem to me. I’ll laugh you right out of here.”

“Darling, it’s not that I don’t think I did a good job raising you and your brothers or that I haven’t made a contribution to the community, but I don’t know who I am, not really. I don’t paint anymore. I’m not your surrogate mother. I’m bored by running events. Somewhere along the way I’ve lost myself.”

Richard was completely bewildered by her claim. “That’s crazy.”

“Is it? I was very young when I first went to Europe. I had plenty of money and virtually no responsibilities. I painted because I enjoyed it, not because I was passionate about it. I was surrounded by people who were as irresponsible as I was.”

“Including William Harcourt?” he asked again, wondering if she would finally give him an honest answer.

She gave him a sour look. “Yes, if you must know, including William.”

When Richard began to press her on that, she held up her hand. “The point I’m trying to make is that when your parents died, I came back here and had the responsibility of a family thrust on me. I think I lived up to that responsibility reasonably well—”

“Of course you did.”

“But,” she added with a trace of impatience, “those years were a gift, something unexpected, that shaped my life for a time, but now I’m ready to move on. I need to find out who Destiny Carlton really is.”

“And you think you could be a successful businesswoman?”

“Why not?” she asked. “It is in my genes, after all.” She gave him a hard look. “I honestly don’t know why you’re making such a fuss or why you’re so surprised by this. I’ve been talking about it for months now, ever since Ben’s wedding. I’ve been waiting for you to come up with this idea on your own, but you’ve ignored every hint I’ve dropped.”

“I honestly didn’t think you were serious.”

“In other words, you were certain it was just another one of Destiny’s flighty whims,” she scoffed. “And that says it all, doesn’t it? Is it any wonder I want my family to start to take me seriously?”

He could see that he’d hurt her, but he didn’t know how else he could have reacted to this crazy idea. He couldn’t just turn over an entire division to her because it was what she wanted. He had as much responsibility to the company as he did to her.

“Destiny, why don’t you think it over for another day or two? Or take a vacation, go to France and see
if that fits you the way it once did,” he suggested finally, hoping to buy himself enough time to formulate a plan to steer all this energy in a different direction. Surely there was some other satisfying pursuit she could take up that would keep her right here at home. Maybe they could encourage her to accept one of the marriage proposals constantly being tossed her way by high-profile men in the region. The prospect of a little turnabout meddling struck him as a fine idea.

Meantime, though, he gave her a placating smile. “Think about it for a few days or even a few weeks and we’ll talk again.”

“Meaning you want to check with your brothers to make sure I haven’t gone round the bend,” she said dryly. “Okay, fine. I’ll compromise, but I won’t put this off for weeks. For one thing, William is nipping at our heels on another deal, and this time there’s a good chance we can lose if we don’t act quickly. I can wait twenty-four hours while you hold a family powwow, as long as it gets me what I want. Trust me, Richard, I won’t change my mind.”

It wasn’t the delay he’d hoped for, but he could see she wasn’t prepared to bend any further. “Fine. We’ll get together at the end of the day tomorrow.”

She gave him an innocent look. “I really do hope you’ll see this my way.”

“I promise to give it serious consideration,” he told her.

“I know you will,” she said cheerfully. “I’m sure you’re aware that I’d hate to have to pull rank on you.”

His gaze narrowed. “Meaning what, exactly?”

“Meaning that I’d prefer not to go straight to the
board to explain that the European operation has been in a shambles for some time and that you haven’t taken any definitive action to shore it up and turn it into the gold mine it could be.”

As her words sank in, Richard stared at her. If he had ever doubted Destiny’s business acumen or her ability to be a tough negotiator, he didn’t any longer. She’d obviously done her homework rather thoroughly before coming to him. And she’d delivered that threat without so much as a blink of her steady gaze.

“You would do that?” he asked, stunned by her audacity.

She beamed at him. “I don’t think it will be necessary, do you?”

With that, Destiny swept out of his office, looking as regal and smug as a queen.

Richard watched her exit and sighed. Heaven help the European division! There was little doubt that Destiny was taking over. He considered himself to be a tough-minded businessman and a seasoned negotiator, but she’d put him in his place in no time flat. He’d just have to find some way to keep her on a tight rein.

But even as he reached that conclusion, Richard had to laugh. Keeping his aunt under control was going to be a little like trying to contain a hurricane. It simply couldn’t be done.

 

Destiny thought her meeting with Richard had gone rather well. There was little doubt that he would come around to her way of thinking, eventually, at any rate. It might take a bit more persuasion, but she thought
that subtle threat at the end of their conversation had probably done the trick. He definitely hadn’t been anticipating that. She had a feeling he’d been as impressed as he’d been shocked. Hard truths and uncompromising stands were something her nephew understood.

She poured herself a cup of tea and settled into a chair in front of the fire, her feet tucked under her, and thought about what she would do first when she got to London, where Carlton Industries was headquartered.

She’d been studying the reports for months now. Goodness knows, there was a lot to do and not all of it had to do with William. There were some very stuffy people in charge and the entire operation needed a good shake-up.

She was still happily contemplating all that when the front door burst open and Mack and Ben called out to her.

“In here,” she responded, not the least bit surprised by their arrival. “Having tea by the fire. If you want some, get cups before you come in.”

They came in a few minutes later, not only with cups, but with another pot of tea and a plate of the housekeeper’s chocolate chip cookies, which were always on hand, especially for Ben. Not that there was any shortage of sweets in his life since he’d married Kathleen, who baked like a fine pastry chef, but he still loved Mrs. Darlington’s cookies.

“I imagine you’ve been talking to your brother,” she said when they were seated. “If you’ve come to change my mind, you can forget it.”

“Not to change your mind,” Ben said gently. “Just
to see if we’ve done something to make you feel that you’re not needed here.”

“Don’t be silly,” she said at once. “Why can’t any of you see that this isn’t about you? It’s about me and what I need to do.”

“You really want to move halfway around the world?” Mack asked doubtfully.

“Yes. And it’s not as if we don’t own a corporate jet that can bring me home anytime I’m needed here.” She reached for Ben’s hand and gave it a squeeze. He was the real worrier, and she could see the concern in his eyes. “Darlings, this really is what I want to do. I’m looking forward to having a brand-new challenge in my life. Think how exciting that will be for me. If we don’t take on new things once in a while, we stagnate.”

“Is this really about a new challenge or an old love?” Ben asked directly.

“Perhaps both,” she admitted. “But I’m not hoping to reignite an old flame, in case that’s what’s worrying you. If anything, quite the opposite. William has made a nuisance of himself in our company’s business for far too long now. The fact that he has dared to become an increasingly serious threat to my family cannot be tolerated. I intend to see that he realizes that.”

Mack regarded her intently, then slowly nodded. “You really are excited about this, aren’t you? You’re looking forward to busting some serious butt over there?”

“Excited, stimulated, determined,” she said. “In fact, I haven’t felt like this in years. I feel young again, as if there are endless possibilities spread out before me.”

Her nephews exchanged a resigned look.

“I still don’t like it, but I suppose we have no right to stand in your way,” Ben said. “We’ll talk to Richard and convince him that you know exactly what you’re doing.”

“Thank you, darling.”

“Don’t thank me,” Ben said, his expression gloomy. “I still wish you weren’t dead-set on doing this.”

“Me, too,” Mack said. “But I think I understand your reasons for wanting to. When that knee injury killed my football career, I was at loose ends for a while, too, until you and Richard convinced me that I could use my love of the game in a whole new way by buying into the team. If I could reinvent myself from a professional athlete into a businessman, then you can surely be anything you set out to be.”

“Oh, Mack, what a sweet thing to say,” she told him, her eyes misting up.

“Just one question, you won’t leave before Beth has the baby, will you? She’ll never forgive you,” Mack said.

“Absolutely not,” Destiny assured him. “And once Richard agrees to this, I’m sure it will take weeks and weeks for him to drill me on all the little odds and ends he thinks I must know to be successful. I would like to be over there before Christmas, though.”

“Christmas?” both men said, clearly appalled.

“You could all fly over,” she reminded them. “I was there for the holidays years ago. There’s nothing quite like a Christmas in London.”

Ben sighed. “I think we’re getting a little ahead of
ourselves here. Let’s take one step at a time. Let’s get Richard on board with this.”

Destiny beamed at him. “Oh, I think once you two speak up, it will be a foregone conclusion.”

“Oh?” Mack said. “He didn’t sound so convinced when I spoke to him.”

“Let’s just say I left him with a little incentive to mull over,” Destiny said coyly. “I’m not surprised he didn’t mention it. I think he was caught off guard.”

“An incentive? He didn’t mention any incentive to me,” Mack said.

“Nor to me,” Ben agreed, giving her a sharp look. “Was it an incentive or a threat, Destiny? What are you up to?”

“Nothing that an outstanding businessman like Richard won’t understand,” she assured them both.

Mack began to chuckle. “Oh, Destiny, something tells me Europe is not ready for you.”

She laughed with him. “Well, darlings, ready or not, here I come.”

2

W
illiam Harcourt was on a golf course in Scotland when he got word that the European office of Carlton Industries was soon to be operating under a new chairman. Sir Lloyd Smedley gave him the news just as William took his shot on the seventh hole tee.

“Is that so?” William asked, distracted. The seventh hole was a tricky one. It had gotten the better of him yesterday, but he’d be damned if it would again.

“Destiny Carlton is taking over,” Lloyd added, his expression totally innocent. “Believe you knew her, didn’t you?”

William’s golf ball dribbled off the tee and died, which was precisely the result his sneaky companion had obviously been hoping for. Lloyd was losing today. He’d clearly intended his little bombshell to ruin William’s concentration, not just on this hole, but for the rest of the round.

William felt a little
zing
in his blood, something that hadn’t happened nearly often enough since Destiny had walked out on their relationship twenty years before.

Back then, he’d stubbornly resisted following her to the States, deluding himself for the longest time that a love like theirs wasn’t something she could possibly forget or abandon forever.

But she had. He’d totally misjudged her sense of family loyalty. The Destiny he’d known in France hadn’t had a maternal bone in her delectable body. She’d been carefree, impetuous and a bit of a Bohemian. But to his shock, she’d thrown over all traces of her carefree ways to settle down and mother her three orphaned nephews.

After a time, when he’d heard barely a word from her, his pride had kicked in. She’d chosen children who were virtual strangers over him, the man she’d claimed to love. It had grated.

It had taken him a long time to catch on to the fact that nothing on earth was worse than a man more devoted to pride than common sense. If she’d abandoned those boys, as he’d anticipated, she wouldn’t have been the kind of woman he wanted in his life.
That
was what he should have realized from the beginning. He was the fool who’d forced her to make an impossible choice, rather than going after her and being supportive when her entire world had been turned upside down. All these years, he could have had her love and the love of three stepsons, plus maybe some children of their own. Any children of Destiny’s would have been astonishingly bright and handsome. Destiny hadn’t cost the two of them a future. He had.

William had found his own shortsightedness to be so incredibly annoying, so completely perplexing, that he had spent the last ten years mucking up every business deal Carlton Industries set out to make in Europe. It wasn’t something he’d done to get rich. Hell, he had more money than he could spend in ten lifetimes. It wasn’t even the satisfaction of winning that had
drawn him into the game. It was an idiotic, half-baked attempt to get Destiny’s attention.

And now he had.

He grinned as he set his ball back on the tee and slammed it straight down the fairway toward the green, gazing at its trajectory with satisfaction. About damn time she got the message. He’d wasted a lot of years waiting for life to get interesting again.

 

Harcourt & Sons was one of those long-established London companies that dabbled in a wide variety of businesses, assembled over generations less with logic than with the various passions and needs of prior generations. William appreciated that aspect of the company’s history. It made his own acquisition tactics in recent years seem perfectly fitting. His ancestors had acquired whatever companies appealed to them, just as he was intent on acquiring those most likely to annoy Destiny.

Harcourt owned a small chain of exclusive haberdashers, founded due to William’s grandfather’s girth and demand for excellent tailoring. The chain had begun on Saville Row, then spread through the countryside, thanks to his grandfather’s contacts in Parliament who wanted the shops that specialized in personalized service conveniently located in their home districts. It was also a small way to support their local woolen manufacturers.

Another company was renowned throughout the country for its exotic selection of teas, acquired when William’s grandmother had had difficulty obtaining the blends she wanted. Those shops had later been expanded to serve an elegant afternoon tea, when his
mother had wanted a place to take her friends after a day’s shopping.

The whole conglomerate had begun quite unexpectedly with an antiquarian bookshop, opened after his great-grandfather’s bookshelves were filled to overflowing with leather-bound editions of the classics, as well as the lighter novels preferred by William’s great-grandmother. This remarkable woman had not been content to sit idly in the country when her husband came to London. Far ahead of her time, she’d wanted something productive to do. She’d found a location and badgered her husband until he’d helped her to set up the shop. Their friends had been scandalized that Amanda Wellington Harcourt would ignore the family’s noble heritage and go into trade.

To everyone’s surprise, except her husband’s, she’d made an enormous success of it.
She,
not William’s great-grandfather, was the Harcourt of Harcourt & Sons. H&S Books now had stores all over Great Britain, still dealing primarily with rare books and first editions, though a rack of current bestsellers was beginning to appear in some of the stores along with important biographies and books on travel.

Recalling the oft-told tale now, William couldn’t help being reminded of Destiny. She and Great-grandmother Amanda had a lot in common. Both were bold, strong women, who refused to be confined by society’s constraints. They both had vision and the drive to succeed.

He’d been little more than a toddler when his great-grandmother had died, but he could still remember the fire in her eyes and the enthusiasm in her voice as she’d talked about books and read to him from the
classics. She, more than any teacher he’d ever had, had taught him to love learning and to be open to new ideas. She’d been the one who’d made him into the kind of man who’d be drawn to an unconventional woman like Destiny.

Sitting behind the desk in his office, William pulled a signed volume of Charles Dickens’s
A Christmas Carol
from the shelf behind him and rubbed his fingers over the fine, gold-embossed leather. This rare treasure had been a gift from Destiny when she’d discovered his love of old books. Inside, he found the card she’d written in her neat hand. “To my love. May you always know the true meaning of Christmas and feel the joy in my heart when I think of you. You, too, are rare and wonderful. Love, Destiny.”

Carefully, he replaced the book in its place of honor on his shelf, then buzzed for his assistant. Malcolm Dandridge had been with Harcourt & Sons since William’s father’s day. There was little Malcolm didn’t know about what went on inside the company and in corporate London. William counted on Malcolm’s loyalty and his discretion. Over the years both had proved invaluable.

“Yes, sir?” Malcolm said, entering with pad in hand, ready for whatever business William needed him to tend to.

“Sit, Malcolm. Tell me what you’ve heard about Carlton Industries lately.”

To his credit, Malcolm had never asked about William’s seeming obsession with the American conglomerate. Nor had he criticized the sometimes inexplicable decisions William had made to go after companies that were ill suited for Harcourt & Sons. If
he thought William’s behavior was reckless, he was far too polite and loyal to mention it.

“It’s been a bit quiet lately,” Malcolm reported. “It’s my opinion, sir, that the last negotiation rattled them. It proved rather costly, thanks to your clever strategy. I’m sure they’re busy trying to conserve capital in order to offset that particular deal.”

“Anything about the new chairman?” William asked, wondering if Lloyd had gotten it right and Destiny truly was coming to take over. “Has one been appointed?”

“Yes, sir. A Ms. Destiny Carlton, a rather surprising choice according to my sources.”

William’s heart did another little stutter step, even though it was old news to him. Having it confirmed made it seem that much more real.

“When will she be taking over?” he asked, hoping his expression was totally bland.

“I believe Ms. Carlton is expected in early December, sir.”

“Not until then?” William asked, both surprised and more than a little disappointed. It was only the beginning of October now. “Any explanation for the delay?”

“None, sir, though it is my opinion that she’s probably being groomed for the position. My sources tell me that she’s had virtually no hands-on experience at the company. I believe that we will be able to make some solid inroads against them once she’s on the scene.”

“Don’t sell her short,” William warned.

Malcolm looked startled by his sharp tone. “You know her, sir?”

“Quite well, as a matter of fact. She might not have spent much time working with the company, but it would be naive to assume she can’t handle the job. She’s a Carlton, after all. I suspect we’ll have our work cut out for us, if we intend to get the better of her.” He was not about to admit how much the prospect excited him. There was a deal on the table right now for a group of faltering travel agencies. The notion of battling wits with Destiny to acquire it right out from under her was stimulating. This was one fight he intended to win at any cost, a metaphor of sorts for his intentions toward Destiny.

“As you say, sir. But as brilliant as she may be, she’ll be no match for you. The nephew certainly hasn’t been.”

“Because his mind hasn’t been on it,” William guessed. “And the stakes haven’t been high enough.” He paused thoughtfully. “I imagine Destiny’s going to come in and do something dramatic, if only to get our attention. She won’t be satisfied to win this skirmish for Fortnum Travel. I wonder what her first target for acquisition will be?”

“Shall I see what I can find out?” Malcolm asked. “Perhaps there are rumors inside the company.”

William nodded. “Yes, definitely, see what you can learn, Malcolm. A preemptive strike might be just the thing. We’ll want to keep her on her toes.”

In fact, he thought cheerfully, a preemptive strike might bring Destiny roaring straight into his office, eyes blazing and temper high. Now, there was a sight he’d been longing to see for far too long now.

 

Destiny was growing weary of all the admonitions and instructions and piles and piles of detailed reports, most of which she’d read long before she’d put her plan into play. She knew perfectly well that Richard was merely trying to overwhelm her with so much information, to make the task seem so daunting and formidable that she’d give up in frustration and declare herself no longer interested in taking over the European division. He still wasn’t entirely reconciled to this whole idea of her as an integral part of the company.

She frowned as Richard went over ground he’d covered just last week…and the week before that.

“Do you truly believe that I am so forgetful that I don’t know we’ve been over this twice before?” she asked finally, her voice filled with undisguised frustration.

He seemed startled by her question. “Have we?”

She rolled her eyes. “Either you’re the forgetful one or you’ve gotten your strategy completely muddled.”

“Strategy? What strategy?”

“To make me forget what you still believe is a crazy idea,” she said mildly. “Mack and Beth’s baby is due any day now. I’m leaving in two weeks, Richard. Get used to it.”

“I just want you to be fully prepared to pull off this Fortnum Travel acquisition. We can’t afford any missteps,” he retorted defensively. “This deal will set the tone for everything you do from now on. After all, you’re not just someone new coming in. You’re a Carlton. How would it look if you’re not on top of things?”

“I’m sure the earth would keep spinning,” she responded.

“But you need to have everyone’s respect from the moment you set foot into the building,” he said. “You only have one chance to make a first impression. How many times did you drill that little maxim into my head?”

“A first impression is one thing,” she responded. “Respect is something else entirely. No one gains respect just because they show up, I don’t care what their name is. Respect is earned. I expect to pay my dues in that regard, which is why we will acquire Fortnum Travel. I won’t let it slip away. I promise.”

“I’m just trying to make it a bit easier,” he grumbled.

“I know,” she soothed. “And I do appreciate it, but this is getting old, Richard. It’s not as if there aren’t phones and faxes over there. I’ll be able to reach you at a moment’s notice if something comes up that I can’t handle. I’m neither proud nor foolish. I’ll ask for any help I need.”

“Yes, of course,” he said finally, his expression resigned. “Is there anything I can help with now?”

Destiny had been waiting for just this moment. She’d been toying with an idea for a few weeks now, something guaranteed to get William’s attention and show him that she was about to make his life the same sort of hell he’d been trying to create for Carlton Industries. It would be solid proof that she was just as capable as he of capitalizing on the intimate secrets they’d shared all those years ago. She reached into her briefcase and pulled out a thick folder. She’d left absolutely no stone unturned in accumulating her re
search to make her case to Richard. The cover sheet was concise, but there were pages of backup material for every premise she’d stated.

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