Authors: Synithia Williams
Tags: #contemporary romance
I’m not family.
“What happened after I left?”
Renee scrunched her nose. “They…stayed together.”
Mikayla’s jaw dropped. “What?”
“Apparently, Angelica is the mystery woman Ryan fell in love with in France. Even though everyone hated what happened, Ryan is viewing this as a second chance.” Mikayla sank onto the bed. She had some familiarity with Ryan’s broken heart after falling in love with a mystery woman in Paris. He didn’t say much other than he’d met, and lost, the woman of his dreams. Knowing he had been in love before once tugged at Mikayla’s compassion. Now that same fact sickened her.
Renee held up a hand. “Don’t be rash. Just talk to my dad tomorrow. We’ll make sure you never work on a project with Ryan. Give you a raise, whatever it’ll take to keep you.”
“My pride isn’t for sale,” she said.
Renee’s flawless features froze with that steely Caldwell family determination. “Here’s the deal. You don’t have a new job, so there’s no need to quit until you find one. And, you know it would kill you to walk out before at least settling the low country deal. To hell with Ryan. Don’t let him ruin your career.”
Renee made a valid point; quitting without a plan would mean she’d have her pride, but no money to pay the bills.
Renee gave a curt nod, but her shoulders sagged. “Good.”
Mikayla dropped her head into her hands.
What the hell am I doing?
Tension vibrated throughout Andre’s body as he walked into the corporate headquarters of Caldwell Environmental Solutions on Monday morning. Known as C.E.S, the company headquarters rested in a high rise in Greenville’s Central Business District. He gave tight nods to those he recognized as he made his way to the elevator. The freedom and relaxation of the weekend with Mikayla faded with each beep of the elevator; replaced with anticipation of what lay ahead. What deals would need negotiations, and if they failed, who would be paid off to get what C.E.S. wanted. That’s how his father ran the business. The way Andre and his brother Isaac learned to run the business.
Andre couldn’t deny his dad’s influence made C.E.S. successful. What started out as his dad with a truck was now a multi-million dollar enterprise with fleets in ten states and over 100,000 employees. He took pride in what his father built. Not so much in the lengths his family took to get there, but it was the way of the business world.
He walked off the elevator on the top floor of the building. Thick beige carpet cushioned his footsteps. Kimberly Griffin, the administrative assistant, sat at her desk in front of large pane windows overlooking downtown Greenville.
“Good morning, Mr. Caldwell,” Kimberly said crisply. Thick brown hair pulled into a tight French braid. She wore her standard conservative pantsuit in an equally bland color, navy. The unadventurous clothing didn’t hide her full curves beneath. His brother’s hire. Isaac loved eye candy. Luckily, Kimberly ignored Isaac’s flirtations. Unlike the four previous administrative assistants.
“Everyone is waiting in the conference room. Your dad has already called twice to see if you were here.” Her phone rang, and she pressed her lips together after checking the caller ID
Andre waved a hand to stop her from answering. “I’ll announce myself.”
A rare expression of relief reflected in her hazel eyes before they deadpanned. Behind the square rimmed glasses, the usual no no-nonsense expression returned. “Have a good morning, sir.”
He strode down the hall and entered the door on the right. The top C.E.S. executives sat around a long cherry wood conference table. A 60 inch flat screen television showed the various faces of executives from the other states.
Curtis Caldwell’s dark eyes pierced Andre. Curtis despised delays and interruptions. Isaac checked his watch. Andre ignored both men and sat in the empty leather chair to the right of the senior Caldwell.
“I apologize for the delay, everyone,” Andre said with a tight smile. “We can get started.”
Kimberly slipped in quietly behind him and sat in her chair in the corner where she took minutes.
His dad sat back in the high back Italian leather chair. A dark grey three piece suit stretched over his brawny arms and he braced his hands on the table, still calloused from the early days of hard labor despite the latter years of manicures. “We start at eight every Monday. Nothing’s changed.”
Andre tilted his head to the side and leveled a cool stare at his dad. “Then there’s no need for further delay.”
Curtis’s coal black eyes hardened, and for a second Andre expected a challenge, but his dad swiveled to the rest of the people at the table. “Let’s begin.”
Andre leaned back in the chair and reached for a pen and pad. Kimberly stepped forward and slid his iPad in front of him. He nodded his thanks.
“What’s going on with the landfill in the low country?” Curtis’s authoritative tone commanded the room.
“We’re having trouble with the closing,” Scott Morrison, VP of Operations spoke up. He sat beside Isaac and leaned forward resting his hands on the table.
“What type of trouble?” Curtis asked in a low voice.
Scott shifted and pulled on his tie. “There are rumblings, small ones, of possible contamination from the landfill to the well water system of residences nearby. The state health department is quietly reviewing the claims. I’ve held up closing until I learn more.”
“Fuck,” Curtis said.
Isaac tossed his iPad on the table. “I warned you there would be risks with this deal. The health department shut down the landfill in the seventies and, since then the owners never complied with the regulations.”
Andre leaned forward. “This deal is still good. We’ve got to wait until the department completes the testing before we make our next move.”
Isaac tented his fingers beneath his chin. “Good deal or not, we need to figure out our next step.”
“I’ll tell you what the next step is,” Curtis made eye contact with Andre. “We’re abandoning the landfill project.”
“What?” Andre slapped a hand on the table. He’d decided to purchase the landfill so C.E.S. could expand into methane gas recovery that they could sell to nearby manufacturers. Not only was the landfill in Hartsville County an inexpensive investment, but the word was Dalmtrix, Inc., a manufacturer of car engine parts, considered moving nearby. Dalmtrix ensured each of their facilities implemented sustainable energy methods.
“Are you questioning my decision?” Curtis glared.
Andre slowly inhaled then exhaled tamping down his frustration. “No. But I don’t want to abandon this opportunity at the first sign of trouble.”
“If there are rumors of contamination, no one will welcome us taking over the landfill no matter how useful the project,” Curtis said.
Scott raised his hand like a school kid. “We can bury these rumors.”
“Easier to abandon the project,” Curtis countered.
Andre clenched his fist. Typical. His dad would quickly abandon a project that wasn’t his idea.
Scott’s hand popped up again. “We’ve already begun a soft leak of our plans to get into the landfill gas market. Dalmtrix is issuing a press release next week with their intentions to locate in that county.”
Isaac cursed. “Why did we do even a soft leak of our intentions?”
“I ordered it,” Andre cut in, rubbing the bridge of his nose.
“I’m pulling the plug on this project,” Curtis said.
Andre pulled on his tie. “You can’t.”
Curtis made a swift cutting motion with his hand. “It’s too risky.”
Andre refused to let the deal die. Not when there was an opportunity to take C.E.S. into new territory. “They can move their facility to another part of the state. You know enough people to pull strings and get Dalmtrix to move near another landfill that we can use.”
Curtis’s eyes lit up with the possibility. “What are you thinking?”
Thoughts of ways to save the deal swirled in Andre’s head, and he drummed his hands on the table. “We’re going to Columbia for the legislative session next week.”
Curtis shrugged. “And?”
“Senator Leventis supported Dalmtrix locating in his county. We can make sure he changes his mind.”
Narrowing his eyes and rubbing his hands, Curtis eyed Andre. “You’re willing to do whatever it takes to make this project happen?”
“I am. Dalmtrix is a multi-million dollar corporation. Wherever it goes will generate nationwide buzz. By tying C.E.S. to their press and providing energy through methane recovery, we’ll be a household name. If they’re coming to South Carolina, we’re getting the business.”
Isaac slid forward. “If we’re going to push Dalmtrix to another location we need to leak the story about the contamination to the local press.”
Andre’s last bit of good guy contentment drifted away. “Then circulate rumors that the addition of Dalmtrix will exacerbate the situation,” he said. “That’ll help convince Senator Leventis to push against the deal and provide a reason for the change of plans.”
Curtis nodded and smiled. “Great idea. Kimberly, strike that conversation from the minutes. Now, on to more important things.”
They dragged through the updates from each area of the business. As the meeting progressed, Andre thought of Mikayla. The way her face lit up, like he was a hero after he’d agreed to take her off the mountain. The memory brought an uneasy churn in his stomach. He wasn’t that guy. He was this guy; the guy who did what it took to get a job done including starting rumors for professional gain.
Andre had to get his head out of the mountains and back in the game. The weekend with her was nice, but hiking in the snow and lounging on the sofa watching movies wasn’t reality.
After the updates from each executive and the new account progress reports the meeting ended.
“Andre, Isaac, give me an hour then meet me in my office,” Curtis said while the attendees filed out of the conference room.
Andre met his brother’s eyes and Isaac raised an eyebrow. He didn’t need ten guesses to figure out what his dad wanted to talk about. Curtis wanted to know what happened between him and Mikayla. Andre had no way to explain something he couldn’t figure out himself.
“Tell me why the hell you ran from your sister’s wedding?” Curtis asked. He sat behind a large polished mahogany desk in his corner office decorated with classical paintings. Paintings he cared more about revealing how much he paid for than their artistic value.
“Stepsister,” Andre said sitting in the leather seat across from his dad.
Isaac plopped down in the seat next to him. “Family is family.”
Andre snorted. “For normal people, not Caldwell’s.”
“I’m not in the mood for that crap,” Curtis cut in. “You should have stayed and snatched Angelica back from your cousin? Instead, you run off like a scared rabbit. Your behavior was embarrassing and your absence devastated your sister.”
Andre crossed one leg over the other. “My
was only devastated because something outshined her grand event. And I didn’t run. Angelica wasn’t worth the fight. If she had sex with Ryan in a closet after just meeting him, she damn sure wasn’t worth trying to get back.”
Isaac turned to him. “They knew each other.”
Andre waited for anger or indignation to show up. Nothing happened. Not surprising since he hadn’t loved her.
Don’t you want someone to love?
A vision of Mikayla, soft and delicious in his arms after they kissed flashed in his head.
He shifted in the chair. He sucked at love. “I guess that means she won’t fall in bed with a stranger.”
Curtis grunted and leaned back in his chair. “It’s a good thing we found out before you married her.”
Isaac dropped his hand and glared at Andre. “Hold up? You were going to marry her?”
Andre nodded. “She’s beautiful and understood the demands of my career. Why not?”
“Sometimes you’re too much like him.” Isaac motioned to Curtis with his head.
Curtis slapped a hand on his desk. “You’re both just like me. No need pretending any different. The fact is, marriage is a business arrangement. People trust a man that has a wife and kids behind him. If either of you are to take this seat,” he rubbed his chair, “you’ll need to remember that.”
Andre cut his eyes at Curtis. “We’ll run the company together.”
Curtis gave a curt laugh. “That’s the same bull my brother spat, but you see where that landed us.”
Taking a deep breath, Andre slid a glance at his brother, who shook his head. Curtis couldn’t fathom, despite all his warnings about how the people closest to you would stab you in the back, Andre and Isaac had formed a bond. In a mixed up world of rivalry and dysfunctional parents, their only sanity came from their brotherly connection.
Curtis pointed a finger at Andre. “It was cowardly to leave instead of making some sort of stand. I don’t blame you for not wanting Angelica anymore, but you could have at least done something to prove you were still the winner. Get caught sleeping with her one last time during the reception. Let Ryan see you can still make that girl go on her knees for you. It wouldn’t have taken but a few dollars.”
“That’s about all the fatherly advice I can stomach,” Andre stood.
“Where were you all weekend?” Isaac asked. “I called your house and stopped by yesterday.”
Curtis glared through narrowed eyes. “Don’t tell me you were hiding out?”
Andre crossed his arms and glared at Curtis. “I didn’t hide out. The roadblock meant I had to spend the weekend with Mikayla.”
“Who in the hell is Mikayla?”
Isaac turned in his seat and gaped at him. “Ryan’s girlfriend?”
Curtis’s sharp gaze bounced between the two. Comprehension flashed in his eyes and he let out a hearty laugh. “That’s a good one, boy. Not as good as what I recommended, but good. I hope you wrapped it up. I want legitimate grandchildren.”
“Too bad you didn’t do it at the wedding.” Curtis wiped a tear from his eye and leaned back in the chair. “But that’s neither here nor there. Philip was upset Ryan hurt that girl. She’s worked her way into their good graces. My brother always was a pansy ass. It’ll be worth the look on his face when he learns she’s just as no good as Angelica. Hell, he was singing her praises to anyone who would listen after you two left. I can’t wait to burst his bubble and let him know she ran straight into your bed.”