Authors: Sherryl Woods
He blinked and a dull red flush crept up his neck. “The artist,” he said.
“Though I probably should slink away without admitting it, I’m William Harcourt,” he said, giving her an abashed look even as he took her hand and held it long enough for her blood to stir as heatedly as her temper had moments before. “And I’m dreadfully sorry. I usually don’t set out to jam my foot in my mouth so quickly.”
Destiny hid her hurt pride. He had taken only a tiny nip, after all. “Why be sorry? You were being honest. And art is subjective, isn’t it? There are very few, I imagine, who fall in love with both Monet
Jackson Pollock.” She surveyed him. “I would guess Pollock is more to your taste.”
When he realized that she hadn’t taken serious offense, that she could talk calmly and reasonably about the pros and cons of various works of art—including her own—he gave her a considering look that made her pulse hum.
“Perhaps Violetta wasn’t so far off the mark when she said she wanted to introduce us,” he said with a quiet intensity that shook her. “Would you care for coffee after this affair is over? I imagine we can find any number of topics to pursue without me tripping all over myself to offend you.”
Destiny gazed into his fathomless, sea-green eyes
and found herself intrigued, too fascinated to write off the encounter and head immediately home as she’d planned. There was more than a simmering attraction she didn’t want to ignore. She liked his directness, even when it came at her expense, and the promise of challenging, witty conversation. He would fit quite nicely into the assortment of friends she’d found since settling in France.
“Coffee would be lovely,” she said, impulse overruling whatever qualms she might have had. Violetta would never have invited this man here tonight to meet her if she hadn’t believed him to be respectable. And Destiny trusted her own judgment, too. Even as she voiced the mundane words, she knew that the end of the evening was going to be so much better than its start. It was going to be the beginning of something extraordinary.
Anxious to begin, she smiled up at him. “Why wait?”
William’s eyes lit up. “No coy games?”
“I don’t believe in them,” she told him. “Neither, it seems, do you.”
“No,” he agreed. “When I see something I want, I go after it. Let that be a warning to you.”
She smiled. “Well taken,” she said. “But just so you know, I’m no amateur at getting what I want, as well.”
William laughed. “Then it seems we’re a perfect match. We’ll have to thank Violetta one day,”
“Perhaps we will,” Destiny said. “When we’re much older and spending a holiday in Paris.”
She was only partially joking. Somewhere deep in
her soul she already knew that William was going to be an important part of her life, perhaps the best part.
Twenty-five years later as Destiny walked off the plane in London ready for battle, she looked back on the young, naive woman she had been when she’d first met William with something akin to pity. Back then she had been so certain that William was the man of her dreams, an equal with nothing to prove, nothing to gain from a liaison with a Carlton. She’d thought their love was not only inevitable, but invincible.
As she waited at Heathrow for her luggage, she recalled that, to her shock and dismay, William had been damn quick to let her go after her brother’s and sister-in-law’s tragic deaths. He’d sent her back to the States with a kiss and a promise to be waiting for her when she returned. She should have seen the handwriting on the wall when he’d refused to come with her.
“It’s a private time for your family,” he’d said, his tone perfectly reasonable, even considerate. “I don’t belong there. I’d only be an unwelcome distraction.”
Destiny hadn’t begged. She’d been too grief stricken and too proud to waste the energy. If there was one thing she knew with certainty by then, it was that William rarely changed his mind once it was set. It certainly hadn’t changed once he’d set his sights on her that night at Violetta’s gallery. His attention had been unwavering despite the very significant price he’d had to pay for choosing her over his own family.
At first, back home in Virginia and facing the unbearable grief of her nephews and their need for all of her attention, it had been easy for Destiny to accept that William had been right to stay behind, that he
was sincerely trying to be thoughtful, even if she felt the attempt was misguided. Their phone calls were brief and hurried and lacked the kind of detailed, intimate conversation they had shared for the three years they had been inseparable.
But as time passed, even those contacts had dwindled and fury had set in to fill the void. She had needed him so desperately and he hadn’t been there for her. She’d lost respect for him—or told herself she had—because it was the only way to bear that loss on top of everything else. Changes were flying at her too fast for her to absorb them all.
As yet more time passed and she realized the enormity of what was being expected of her, she’d had little time to waste on a man who didn’t seem the least bit interested in pursuing their relationship now that it was no longer uncomplicated.
Destiny moved on to Customs and another wait. It have her more time to think about how she had continued to mourn his loss as she had her beloved brother’s. She’d missed what she and William had had together—the meeting of minds, the exuberant passion, the teamwork, the idle hours spent wandering the beach or flower-strewn fields, stormy nights in front of a cozy fire, the sudden spark of lust while sipping wine at a sidewalk café. She’d been desperately and completely besotted by him, then wildly disappointed to discover how flawed he was.
Obviously he hadn’t shared that same depth of feeling. She’d had to accept that eventually and move on. There were too many crises in the present to squander time on memories or old emotions.
Even now, all these lonely years later, she didn’t
hate him for fooling her or for letting her go, she realized as she sat in the taxi that would take her from the airport to her new home. She merely wanted a chance to show him what he’d given up. She’d taken to heart an old Dorothy Parker adage. Living well was, indeed, the best revenge. And she intended to show William that she had lived an extraordinarily rich and challenging life without him. She intended to take on London in a way that would dazzle him and make him rue the day he’d crossed her or her family.
That alone wouldn’t be enough, of course. She also intended to use this time in London to teach him a lesson or two about business. She might be newer at it than he, but she was confident that she was as quick a study as he’d ever been. The Jameson’s acquisition was merely a beginning. She had quite a few tricks left up her sleeve. She doubted William would be expecting any of them, much less be ready to counter them effectively. Ever the gentleman, William might not be prepared for the kind of down-and-dirty warfare she had in mind.
He’d surprised her by ignoring her opening salvo. There was no way that he hadn’t gotten wind of it by now. For several years, it seemed, he’d known what Carlton Industries intended to do even before the ink was dry on their plans. Whether he had a source inside the company or a clever outsider, Destiny intended to find that person and deal with him or her, as well.
She caught a glimpse of her reflection in the taxi’s rearview mirror as they drove through the London mist toward the flat that had been rented for her. She couldn’t seem to stop smiling. Nor could she prevent
the rush of anticipation that filled her now that she was finally here.
It was going to be a magnificent battle, and it would all begin tomorrow.
estiny was at her desk just after dawn, eager to put things into motion for her debut as the new chairman of the Carlton Industries European division. She’d dressed carefully for the occasion, knowing that first impressions were important if she expected to be taken seriously. Just being here so early would put to rest any notion that she was merely a figurehead, who would be seldom seen and whose imprint on the operation would be minimal.
She’d chosen a dark brown suit, severely tailored, and added a gold silk blouse and discreet gold jewelry. She’d spent a lot of time on her hair and makeup, going for a look that was understated and businesslike. Not that her hair was happy with the attempt to tame it. Several strands had sprung free on the brisk walk to the office in the misty morning air. In retrospect, she probably should have taken a taxi, but she enjoyed walking and liked the natural color it put into her cheeks. And at her age, she’d take any chance she could to catch a few minutes of exercise. Since she loved good food and absolutely hated going to a gym, walking was her primary way to battle the effects of a slowing metabolism.
She’d arrived at the Carlton Industries headquarters feeling invigorated and maybe just a little noble for
having gotten her day off to such a healthy start. Now for the real challenge—making this office and this assignment into her own.
She’d already spent an entire evening planning changes to her rented flat so that it would be more of a reflection of her personality and taste. At the moment it was elegant and entirely too dull, but she would have to wait until after the holidays when the decorations came down to start a complete makeover. For now, she would devote her attention to the office and work.
In the middle of the great mahogany desk, which was far too masculine for her taste, she had placed her agenda for the day, along with personnel reports on all of the company’s key executives. She intended to meet with every one of them to establish the new goals they were going to accomplish together, beginning the first of the year. Richard had looked over and approved her strategy, but cautioned her against moving too quickly.
“This isn’t the States. London moves at a slower, more resolute pace,” he’d warned.
She’d regarded him evenly. “Not anymore, it doesn’t. Not at Carlton Industries, at any rate.”
“If you try to shake things up too quickly, you’ll meet resistance,” he’d insisted.
“Not for long,” she’d assured him, her voice filled with determination.
Richard had regarded her with dismay. “Destiny, you can’t steamroll over everyone there, the way you do over Ben, Mack and me. It simply isn’t done. You’ll offend the very people you need as allies.”
She’d laughed at him. “I do know other tactics,
darling. Surely you don’t think all those women who’ve served with me on various charity boards take kindly to steamrolling.”
“No, I imagine not, but sugarcoating it is not the same as using a different tactic altogether. Are you even familiar with the term consensus-building? Or a win-win strategy?”
She bit back the sharp retort that popped into her mind at his patronizing tone. “Will you just leave all of this to me?” she’d pleaded. “I promise I won’t uproot the entire staff the first week I’m there. Nor will they leave in droves because I’m such a tyrant.”
He’d finally taken her at her word, but she knew he continued to have his doubts about the wisdom of this entire assignment. Richard was just one more person she intended to prove wrong. It was annoying, but not entirely unexpected.
The door to her office swung open suddenly and a rather bland-looking man, dressed all in gray, appeared. When he saw her, shock registered on his face, immediately followed by alarm.
“Ms. Carlton, I had no idea you would be here so early,” he said. “I apologize for not knocking. You should have let me know when you were coming in. I would have been here to greet you. And I’d planned on having flowers delivered later this morning.”
“No problem,” she said. Flowers were the least of her concern. Better to do something about the dreadful furniture and heavy, dark draperies. “I assume you’re Chester Sandhurst.”
“I am,” he said, coming forward to grasp her hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
Destiny sincerely doubted that. In essence, she’d
taken the man’s job. He would continue to be the chief executive officer, but she had been installed over him as chairman, a newly created position that clearly held all the power and authority he’d once had. Still, she went along with the polite charade. Better to have him as an ally than an enemy.
“I’m sure we’ll work very nicely together,” she said to him. “May I offer you some tea? I brought along a teapot and made some when I got here. Then we can have a little chat and get better acquainted.”
He looked taken aback by the invitation. “Now? You want to meet now?”
“We’re both here. I don’t see why not. Do you have anything more pressing on your calendar?”
He blinked at the subtle hint that there couldn’t possibly be anything more important. “No, of course not.”
Destiny rose and poured him a cup of tea, then retreated behind her desk, keeping the balance of power solidly on her side. Richard wasn’t the only one in the family who understood the subtle dynamics of the business setting. She’d never liked such formality, but it suited this situation. Perhaps one day soon she’d be able to let down her guard and relax with her staff, but not just yet and not with a man who needed reminding that she was in charge.
She met Chester’s gaze, saw the hint of concern he was trying with some difficulty to conceal. “Have you scheduled all the meetings I requested when I faxed you my arrival schedule?”
“Most of them, yes. They’ll begin at ten.”
“So late?” she questioned.
“I wasn’t sure what office hours you planned on keeping.”
“I like to get an early start on the day. I’m sure you’ll take that into account from now on. Why weren’t all the meetings scheduled as I requested?”
“A few people are out this week,” Chester responded, beginning to sound just a little defensive. “Some had previously scheduled vacation times and I hesitated to disrupt their plans. There’s also a nasty flu traveling through the city.”
Letting go of her annoyance, Destiny tapped the folders in front of her. “Then let’s go over the list of those who will be in. I’d like your perceptions before I meet with them.”
Chester seemed to relax at the suggestion that she intended to defer to his opinion. In fact, he became downright chatty, offering glowing reports on the executives he’d assembled during his ten lackluster years at the helm.
“David Perkins is an outstanding chief financial officer. We’re lucky to have him. And Edward Wildemon is considered tops in the marketing field,” he summarized. “You’ll find all the others quite competent, as well, I’m sure. I’m sorry you won’t be meeting Edward today. He’s one of the ones on vacation, but David will be here. If you have any questions at all about the bottom line, he’s your man.”
Destiny refrained from responding. If all these people had been so blasted competent, there would be no need for her to be here. And at least one of them had to be knowingly or unwittingly leaking inside information to William.
“I’ll certainly look forward to speaking to each of
them,” she said. “Now, then, have you ordered the invitations I requested?”
Chester’s pallor returned. “It’s a busy time of year at the printer’s,” he told her evasively. “Christmas card engraving, you know.”
“But they will be on my desk this afternoon?” Destiny persisted. “You explained that this is a rush order and that the printer will be paid handsomely for the accommodation?”
“I’m not sure why you even feel the need to have a party,” Chester said, still not giving her the direct answer she’d requested. “You’ve just arrived. It’s the holiday season. You should be enjoying London.”
“I’m not here to enjoy London,” she informed him coldly. “I’m here to do a job.”
Chester was undaunted. “But a party? When you’ve just arrived? No one expects it, I’m sure.”
She was tiring of his attitude. “Then won’t it be lovely when I surprise them?” she responded. “I’ll expect the invitations this afternoon, along with the list of addresses I requested. I’d like everything addressed and sent out by courier first thing tomorrow. My secretary will be able to handle that.”
His obvious discomfort deepened. “I’m afraid we haven’t assigned you a secretary just yet. We thought you’d like to interview the candidates for the position, perhaps after the holidays.”
“Then isn’t it lucky I’ve brought my own from home,” she said cheerfully, relieved that she’d had the foresight to do just that. Miriam was as eager as she to get started. Thrilled to have an opportunity to live in London for a few months or longer if Destiny
required it, she would do her part to whip the office into shape in no time.
“Thank you, Chester.” She handed him a paper. “Can you please see that these people come to see me at the times I’ve indicated. Hopefully my changes haven’t disrupted your schedule too much. Those who aren’t here today can be scheduled with Miriam as soon as they’ve returned to the office.”
“You don’t wish me to sit in on the meetings?” he asked, clearly dismayed.
“I’m sure you have far more important things to attend to, such as getting those invitations printed. I wouldn’t dream of tying up your entire day like that,” she told him. “It was good meeting you, Chester. I’m sure I’ll have a million and one questions once I’m finished interviewing everyone. Why don’t we plan on meeting at this time every morning for the foreseeable future?”
He paled at that, but nodded. “As you wish.”
He left then, closing the door behind him. Destiny could almost hear him uttering a sigh of relief on the other side. She’d shaken him up, no question about it. In fact, she found that a bit promising. If Chester was intelligent enough to see that she was quite clearly in charge now, then perhaps they could find some way to work together, after all. She hadn’t relished the idea of firing him before her first day on the job was an hour old.
“She’s doing what?” Richard asked, not entirely certain what the fuss was about, but there was no mistaking the alarm in the voice of his CEO for European operations.
“Barely here and she’s throwing a party, sir. A few hours from now, in fact,” Chester Sandhurst informed him in a hushed tone, as though he were terrified of being caught betraying the new chairman of his division. “I tried to steer her away from the idea, but she was adamant. Had to rush the invitations to satisfy her. It’s costing a bloody fortune to do all of this in such a hurry.”
“Is this party for the staff?” Richard asked, thinking that wasn’t so bad. A nice holiday celebration might be just the thing to get Destiny off on the right foot with everyone in the London office. She’d always been a fabulous hostess. It would also explain why she’d been so hell-bent on getting to London before Christmas despite his pleas that she wait until the New Year to tackle her new assignment.
“The executives,” Chester told him. “And the heads of most of the companies with which we do business. It’s an impressive guest list and most have accepted, despite the last-minute invitation. It’s evident they all want a look at her.”
Two birds with one stone, Richard concluded, ignoring the surprise in Chester’s voice. That seemed perfectly sensible to him. “Why are you so worried about this?” he asked Chester.
“I didn’t see the complete guest list until after the fact, otherwise I could have prevented this, I’m sure,” Chester said.
“Prevented what?” Richard asked, impatient with all the dancing around.
“The inclusion of this one particular guest,” he said, then added in that same dire undertone, “William Harcourt.”
Richard’s blood froze at the mention of Harcourt. Why would Destiny invite the man who had been a thorn in Richard’s side, a man who’d been pecking away at their business like a particularly pesky pigeon? What the hell was Destiny thinking by giving him an opportunity to mingle, not only with Carlton executives, but their key business associates? He knew she had something up her sleeve, but this was a dangerous game she was playing, no question about it. Add a little alcohol into the mix and who knew what corporate secrets were likely to be spilled? He’d obviously been right when he’d expressed concern to Melanie about just this sort of thing a few weeks back. Her outrage over his concerns had lulled him into ignoring them.
“I’ll talk to her,” he reassured Chester. “Thanks for the heads-up, but a word of advice, Chester. Don’t come running to me behind my aunt’s back again. She’ll have every justification she needs for firing you and I’ll applaud her for it.”
Chester’s gasp was audible. “Of course, sir. I realize that she’s a bit inexperienced at this sort of thing, and, well, I just thought you should know that she might be getting in over her head.”
Richard bit back a sigh. If he’d ever doubted that sending Destiny to take over the helm of the European division was wise, listening to Chester just now confirmed it. He might not understand what his aunt was up to with this party, but whatever it was had to be better than relying on a man who jumped at shadows. Sandhurst’s overly cautious attitude was precisely the reason Carlton Industries was underperforming in Europe.