Authors: Sherryl Woods
“Take a look at this,” she said, handing it to Richard. “Tell me what you think. I want your honest opinion. Don’t sugarcoat anything.”
Richard’s eyes widened as he glanced through the detailed research. “You’ve spent a lot of time on this,” he said eventually in a cautious tone that could only be construed as less-than-a-ringing endorsement.
“I wanted to be sure I could answer any questions you might have.”
“The numbers make sense,” he admitted.
He gave her a perplexed look. “Why on earth would you want to acquire some nothing little bookstore? I don’t get it. It’s not the kind of business that’s a good fit for us. It’s too small. There’s no real growth potential.”
She smiled at his logic. It was exactly what she’d expected. Richard was very much a bottom-line kind of man.
“But it is the kind of business that fits quite nicely with Harcourt & Sons,” she explained. “It’s the only major antiquarian bookseller in London that’s on a par with H&S Books. The owner is old. He wants to retire, but he doesn’t want to sell to just anyone. He’s been annoyed at Harcourt & Sons for some time now for the aggressive way they’ve gone after rare books. He finds it a bit unseemly. He’s from an era that considered the pursuit of rare editions to be a gentleman’s sport.”
“So we help him to get his revenge,” Richard said
slowly. “And in the process, we annoy the daylights out of William Harcourt.”
Destiny beamed at him. “Precisely. It’s the last thing he’ll be expecting. Right now all of his attention is on the Fortnum Travel deal.”
“But will he really care? This is nothing to a man like Harcourt.”
“In dollars and cents, yes,” she agreed. “But not in importance. H&S Books is the cornerstone of the company, their prestige division. It was William’s great-grandmother’s creation. It has huge sentimental value, if not financial significance. William won’t be happy if he thinks we’re about to invest major money in his competition and target it for expansion. And it will send a clear message that if he continues to go after us, we’ll go after him, business by business, first books, then tea, then clothing, until we have competition not just in England, but all over Europe.”
Richard regarded her with evident surprise. “You really do have a knack for this, don’t you? And a rather bloodthirsty eagerness to go for the jugular.”
“Well, of course I do,” Destiny said impatiently. “Nobody messes with my family and gets away with it. Making William sit up and take notice will be my pleasure.”
“It’s not all about getting even with Harcourt,” Richard warned. “We do have a company to run over there. Some of our existing businesses are not performing to our expectations. Those need to be addressed, too.”
“I know that and I have plans for each and every one of them. This,” she said, gesturing toward the folder, “is just for the fun of it.”
Richard laughed. “Let me go over these figures again tonight.”
“Don’t take too long. I want to arrive in London with guns blazing.”
“This is only a BB shot,” Richard reminded her.
“Even a BB shot hurts when you’re not expecting it and it hits you where you live,” Destiny retorted.
“Remind me never to get on your bad side,” Richard said, regarding her with evident approval for the first time since they’d set off down this road.
“Darling, you could never get on my bad side,” she assured him. “You’re family, and no matter how annoying you might become, family always forgives and forgets.”
“Good to know.”
Even as she left her nephew to ponder her suggested strategy, she couldn’t help wondering if William was going to be shocked that she could come after him the way she intended to, given the feelings they’d once shared. Probably. He seemed to have missed the fact that nothing was more important to her than family. He hadn’t gotten it twenty years ago, and it was plain he didn’t get it now.
That was just one reason she wanted to arrive in London with an unmistakable message. Apparently William wasn’t too smart about subtleties and nuances. She was going to have to deliver a direct hit, then see to it that she kept them coming until he abandoned the fight and went crawling back to whatever country estate he was living on these days.
Richard had an odd feeling in the pit of his stomach as he reread Destiny’s proposal for taking over the
small but prestigious London bookseller she’d targeted. On the one hand, it didn’t make a lick of sense to acquire Jameson’s Booksellers. It would be a nuisance purchase, requiring them to track down or train someone with the necessary expertise to make a success of it, to make it a worthy rival for H&S Books. On the other hand, he could see precisely why Destiny thought it would be a nice opening salvo against Harcourt.
He tried to put his finger on what was really bothering him. It wasn’t the cash outlay. That was peanuts to a corporation the size of Carlton Industries. It wasn’t the energy likely to be expended on making and then following through with such an acquisition. So what was it?
Melanie came into his den after putting their daughter down for the night, took one look at him and murmured, “Uh-oh.”
He met her gaze. “What?”
“I know that expression.” She came and sat on his lap and traced the crease in his brow. “You’re worrying about something. And since I recognize Destiny’s handwriting on that file, I assume it has something to do with her.”
“You’re too smart for your own good,” he murmured, breathing in the flowery scent she’d dabbed on while she was upstairs. It would be very easy right now to forget all about business and spend the rest of the evening in bed with his wife, working on the expansion plan they had in mind for their family. Maybe the prospect of another baby would cut short Destiny’s European adventure and get her back home again.
“I have to be smart to keep up with you two,” Melanie said. “What’s Destiny done now?”
“Nothing yet,” he admitted. “But she has an idea she wants to pursue the minute she gets to London.”
“A bad idea?”
“An expensive idea?”
“Not at all.”
“Is it dangerous? I mean to her, personally.”
“No,” he admitted.
“Then what’s the problem?”
Richard sighed. “I can’t put my finger on it. Maybe you can.” He described Destiny’s scheme, then asked, “What do you think?”
“I think it’s ingenious,” she said at once. “She’s going to be an invaluable asset, you know. Is that what you’re having trouble admitting?”
“Of course not. I’ve always respected her intelligence. And I’ve always known she was clever. She got the two of us together, didn’t she?”
“Over your vehement objections, in fact,” Melanie concurred. “And my somewhat less strenuous ones.”
“Wise woman,” Richard admitted, grinning.
“Her or me?”
“Both of you, in fact, but not half as smart as I was to go along with the plan in the end.”
Melanie kissed him, which momentarily served as a rather effective distraction.
“Want to know what I think your problem is?” Melanie asked eventually.
“You don’t like the fact that she’s the one who came up with the idea.”
Richard scowled at her implication. “Don’t be ridiculous. I am not jealous of my own aunt. That would be childish and immature.”
“Yes, it would,” she agreed readily. “And I’m not suggesting that, but you can’t deny that it is nagging at you that she apparently has enough insight into what makes William Harcourt tick to come up with a plot like this.”
The explanation resonated with him a little too clearly. “You could be right,” he admitted slowly. “I don’t like anything I don’t understand, and Destiny has never been forthcoming about just what this man meant to her. I’m beginning to get the nasty feeling that he was quite important to her once, more important than any of us have suspected.”
“And if he was?”
“Then he’s a real danger to her and to the company,” he said.
Melanie regarded him with shock. “You can’t honestly think she would ever betray Carlton Industries.”
He heard her scandalized tone and tried quickly to explain that he didn’t doubt Destiny’s honesty or integrity. “I don’t think she would do anything intentionally,” he began carefully. “But people who think they’re in love do all sorts of crazy things they might not do if they were thinking clearly.”
“This is nothing like us,” he protested. “There was never any conflict of interest with the two of us.”
Melanie stood up, her disapproval plain. “I suggest you not repeat your concerns to Destiny,” she told him quietly but emphatically.
He stared at her blankly, not quite getting why she
was suddenly seething. “I have an obligation to the company. Why the hell shouldn’t I say something if I think she’s putting our interests at risk?” he demanded.
“Because your implication is insulting, and frankly, if I were Destiny, I’d slap you silly. I’m very tempted to do it myself on her behalf.”
She stalked off then, obviously every bit as insulted as she insisted Destiny was likely to be.
Richard stared after his wife in consternation. Give him a complex business situation to resolve anytime, because if he lived to be a hundred, he would never understand the women in his life.
alcolm’s usually dour expression was downright grim when he walked into William’s office at the end of the day on the last Friday in November. It was already well past quitting time, but William had lingered, not the least bit anxious to face the raw London night or his lonely flat. He’d been about to pour himself a glass of whisky when Malcolm appeared.
“Care for a drink?” he asked his assistant.
“Yes, sir, I believe I would.”
William poured two fingers of whisky into each heavy crystal glass and handed one to Malcolm. “Why don’t you tell me what has you looking so positively dire?” he suggested, sitting in the chair next to the one Malcolm had taken. Because William had known the older man since he was a boy, their relationship was far more informal than those William had with other employees of the firm. In many ways Malcolm still served as a surrogate father figure.
“You won’t like it, sir,” Malcolm announced gloomily.
“Bad news is usually best spoken quickly, man. What is it? There’s very little you and I haven’t had to deal with over the years. We’ve managed most of it rather well.”
“It’s Jameson’s Booksellers this time, sir,” Malcolm said. “It’s been sold.”
William was obviously missing why this spelled catastrophe. “The old man has to be nearing ninety,” he said. “Where’s the shock in him selling now? In fact, if I’d known he was thinking of retiring, I’d have made an offer myself. It would be a nice fit for us, but it’s no loss if someone else is taking over. Jameson’s is very small potatoes in the world of London bookselling.”
Malcolm took a devilishly long time replying. “That’s the thing, you see. He sold it to Carlton Industries.”
William choked on his whisky. That was the very last thing he’d anticipated. No wonder Malcolm looked so grim. There could be only one reason for Carlton to take an interest in such a small bookstore. The company intended to go after H&S Books.
“You’re sure of that?” he asked Malcolm, though he already knew that Malcolm’s information was always reliable.
“No question about it, sir.” Malcolm handed over an item clipped from a London newspaper, one William had obviously missed. “It’s all right here in black and white. I couldn’t believe my eyes, frankly, so I called and checked it out myself.”
“You didn’t let on that you were calling on my behalf, did you?” William asked, frowning. He’d hate it getting around that this acquisition worried him in any way. It was never good business to show any hint of weakness.
Malcolm regarded him with a chiding expression. “Of course not. Just said I’d read about it in the news
and wanted to offer congratulations. Told Jameson I was a long-time customer and hoped things wouldn’t change too much.” He shook his head sadly. “You should have heard the gloating in the old man’s voice. Sounded like a boy again, he was so eager to tell me the details. He says they’re planning a huge expansion, a catalog business as well as stores all over Great Britain. For a man once so set in his ways, he’s embracing all the changes with astonishing enthusiasm.”
William mulled that over. “I can see why he’s glad to be rid of it, and probably at a tidy profit, but why the dickens would Carlton Industries be interested in books?” he muttered. But the answer dawned on him almost immediately. “This is Destiny’s work, no question about it. She’s the only one who would know how I’d feel about an attack on H&S Books, which is obviously what she intends to do.”
For the first time since his game had begun, William started to wonder if he hadn’t carried it too far. It was one thing to try to grab Destiny’s attention. It was quite another to make an enemy of her.
Malcolm nodded. “I would say that has to be the case, sir, though her name never came up. It was all handled through a Carlton solicitor.”
“And the papers are signed?”
“The deal is airtight, sir. Jameson was happy to tell me the money is in his bank and that he’d be leaving for his little stone cottage in Cornwall, once he’s spent a few weeks consulting with the new company.”
William sighed. So that was the way Destiny intended to play the game. This was meant as his wakeup call, a little greeting to let him know that she was on her way and that she didn’t intend to sit idly by
while he wreaked havoc on her family’s business. He glanced at his assistant and saw that, if anything, Malcolm was taking the news even harder than he was.
“It’s nothing to worry about,” William reassured him. “Jameson’s has always been more like a gnat than any real threat.”
“Because he didn’t have Carlton capital behind him, sir. I know that you can handle whatever they’re up to, but I also know how much H&S Books means to you. I’d have to say this particular strategy was personal, wouldn’t you?”
“Definitely,” William agreed. In fact, it was the one bright aspect of the entire mess. It proved that Destiny’s coming to London wasn’t just about business. She was coming not just to shake up her own company, but him.
And in that regard at least, Malcolm’s news couldn’t have been better.
Destiny would have given anything to have been a fly on the wall when the news about Jameson’s Booksellers was given to William. Ah, well, she supposed she’d have a reaction from him soon enough.
In fact, he might not even wait for her to arrive in London, where she was due in a few days. William was not the sort of man to waste time when he had something on his mind. That was one of the things she’d most admired about him when they’d first met so many long years ago. He’d been forthright and candid from the outset.
He was also a man who knew his own mind. Though he’d paid precious little attention to the family business back then, and had, in fact, renounced it to
be with her, she saw now that her belief that he had no head for it had been foolish. Once William had turned his attention to the family business, he’d obviously been quite capable of running Harcourt & Sons with cutthroat intensity and skill. Just as he’d startled her, she intended to surprise him with her own level of expertise and dedication.
All of that meant that she could expect some sort of reaction, and perhaps retribution, for her daring purchase of the rival bookstore.
When the phone rang, she jumped, her nerves jittery with anticipation. It was a letdown to hear Ben’s voice on the other end of the line.
“You don’t sound especially thrilled to hear from me,” her youngest nephew teased. “Should I be insulted or were you hoping to hear from someone else?”
“I am always thrilled to hear from you,” she said, avoiding the trickier question. “What’s going on in your life? How’s Kathleen?”
“You could see for yourself, if you’ll join us for dinner.”
“Not tonight, darling. It’s been a long day.”
“The first of many, I imagine. Are you sure this new adventure isn’t going to be too much for you?” he asked worriedly.
“Absolutely not,” she said emphatically.
“Then it must be that you really want to sit by the phone in case it rings,” he said knowingly. “Expecting to hear from William, now that you’ve fired the first shot?”
“You heard about that?” she asked, surprised.
“Richard filled me in. He seemed quite proud of
you, actually. Have you heard anything from the enemy camp?”
“Not even a moan,” she told him. “And it’s far too late now in London for William to be calling, so don’t think I’m sitting around here hoping to hear from him so I can gloat a bit. I’d just like a good night’s rest so I’ll be ready for anything in the morning.”
“Okay, then,” he said, giving up. “But we’re all having dinner at the farm on Sunday, so we can wish you bon voyage. No excuses, okay?”
“Not a one,” she promised. “I’m looking forward to it.”
After they’d said goodbye, she sat back and closed her eyes, her thoughts drifting to when it had all begun with William. Fate had definitely had a hand in things that night.
It had taken the considerable wiles of Madame Grégorie to convince Destiny that her paintings were worthy of a showing, even in such a small gallery on the Left Bank. Now that the doors were about to open, Destiny’s stomach was filled with butterflies. She grabbed a glass of champagne from a passing waiter and drank it down.
“Such a terrible waste of fine champagne,” Violetta Grégorie scolded, giving Destiny’s hand a squeeze. “You do not need it,
The critics will love you.”
Destiny appreciated the attempt to reassure her, but she knew better. She understood the art world almost
as well as Violetta did, knew that critics were ready to pounce with savage cruelty on a newcomer, especially a young American woman with little formal training and only modest talent.
Violetta disagreed, of course. The gallery owner said Destiny’s work was fresh and innovative, while being extraordinarily commercial. That, of course, was precisely what the critics would find most offensive—that her paintings would sell like crazy to tourists because they were pretty, not to serious collectors because they were exceptional. Her work wasn’t pretentious, nor was she, but having a formal showing in a well-respected French gallery certainly was.
She’d held out as long as she could, but from the moment Violetta had discovered her art in a small shop near Destiny’s home in Provence, she’d been relentless. The dark-haired, dark-eyed whirlwind of energy had barraged Destiny with persuasive arguments. All of Destiny’s protests had fallen on deaf ears. Finally she had been forced to give in, if she was ever to have any peace again. And, truthfully, she’d been flattered that Violetta was so passionate about her work.
Destiny told herself that if she could get through tonight, the worst would be over. She could be back at home before the dreaded reviews even appeared. Violetta wouldn’t be insensitive enough to send the worst ones to her, and few of Destiny’s friends in Provence paid attention to such things.
What Destiny feared most about this night wasn’t the embarrassment and humiliation of a bad show. Rather, she was terrified that any criticism that
reach her would destroy her pleasure in painting, that
the critics would undercut the passion she felt every time she put brush to canvas. She should never have agreed to the showing. She could have gone on for years, quietly selling her paintings, living in her studio in the south of France surrounded by the people and things she loved.
But this…She heaved a sigh. This was asking to be flogged in public.
Assaulted by another wave of butterflies, she went in search of more champagne and a secluded nook to hide in until she could gather her composure to face the invited guests, who were just now starting to arrive, a glittering assortment of French society and the Left Bank’s art and literary crowd.
Standing in the shadows, she assumed a cool, bored expression, a haughty look she’d perfected at social events back home in Virginia to cover for her innate shyness. Few people had any idea just how self-conscious and uncertain she was, because she masked it so well. This particular look kept people away, which was something she devoutly hoped to do tonight.
She spotted the man coming toward her only an instant before he arrived in her secluded corner. He was her own age—close to thirty, most likely—with the athletic build of a polo player and the tanned complexion of a man who spent much of his time outdoors. The tan made his blue eyes the same brilliant shade as the turquoise sea. Sun had streaked gold through his light brown hair. His clothes fit in a way that screamed expert tailoring, rather than off the rack.
Not a critic, she concluded with relief. More likely, one of the many rich, available men Violetta tried to
lure to these events to make the occasions that much more attractive to the women most inclined to come and spend money on the art. Champagne and flirting tended to loosen their purse strings.
The stranger slid into the shadows beside her and whispered, “Mind if I try to be unobtrusive with you?”
She found his conspiratorial tone amusing and the glint of mischief in his eye alluring. One on one like this, she could handle almost anyone. It was crowds she found daunting.
“Who are you hiding from?” she asked, matching his confiding tone.
“Violetta, of course. She’s dead set on me meeting the woman of the hour. She says I’ll be fascinated. What she really means, of course, is that she hopes I’ll become so infatuated I’ll spend a bloody fortune buying these paintings.”
“Do you have a bloody fortune?” Destiny inquired, only mildly curious since she had more than her own share of inherited wealth. It was his casual mention of money that spoke volumes. Only the very rich had that careless air.
He shrugged. “And then some, I suppose.”
“Then why not spend a bit of it on art?” she challenged. “Would it cut into the funds available for polo ponies?”
“I have enough for both, but this art?” he asked with a shudder. “Too saccharine. There’s talent there, of course, but it’s being wasted.”
Destiny’s temper stirred. “Is that so?”
He gave her a sharp look. “You like it, I imagine.
I suppose it does suit a woman’s romantic sensibilities.”
“It certainly suits mine,” she said. She gave him her most chillingly polite smile and held out her hand. “Destiny Carlton.”