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"What did you do to my granddaughter?" Mort Sanderson stormed into Nick Jordan's office, indignation pouring from him like lava.
Nick took his time placing his pen beside the documents he'd been perusing and struggled to remain calm. Mort's behavior was becoming more erratic with age. Sure, Nick could handle it, but Mort's eccentricities didn't belong in the office.
He also wished Mort would keep Nick's private life out of here, too. He worked hard to separate the two.
Mort was Nick's boss. He was also his father-in-law. Ex-father-in-law.
Too late, Nick had learned the danger of mixing his personal life with business.
He pointed toward the office door. "Would you mind closing that so this conversation can remain private?"
Mort stepped into the room and slammed the door.
That should impress the two clients in the waiting room, Nick thought. Thank you, Mort.
"What's wrong with Emily?" Nick asked.
"She called me last night in tears."
"What?" Nick shot out of his chair. "Why? What's wrong?"
"She's not happy with you."
Not happy with him? Why not? Old, familiar acid churned in his gut. His stomach troubles had started with his ex-wife's defection to another man. Was he about to lose his daughter, too?
Emily hadn't said a word to him about being unhappy. He reached for the phone and dialed his home number before realizing Emily would still be at school.
His daughter had called Mort in tears.
You should have been there for her. She shouldn't have to go to her grandfather.
"What did she say?" he asked.
"That you ignore her and never have time for her."
"I work hard." Nick owned a beautiful home in a good neighborhood. Emily attended a private school. Every Christmas, he sent her to visit her mother. "That's what a man does to support his family."
"My granddaughter deserves to be happy," Mort shouted, leaning his fists onto Nick's desk. If he were a tall man, he would loom over Nick, but at five-five, Mort had learned to use the force of his personality to intimidate. At the moment, he leaned close enough for Nick to count the red spider veins on his cheeks—and to smell alcohol on his breath. Damn. It wasn't yet noon, too early for Mort to be drinking.
After Mort left the office, Nick would get his assistant to find out where he would have to do damage control.
What was happening to Mort? When had he started this slide into what? Self-indulgence? Self-pity? Where was the astute businessman Nick used to admire, used to emulate? Nick was the one making all of the big decisions in the company these days.
If that involved putting out too many fires that Mort started and not enough time on creativity and problem-solving—the things Nick loved—so be it. That was the cost of running a large corporation—and a small price to pay for the money he raked in.
His stomach roiling, he stared at Mort, eerily afraid that he might be peering into the crystal ball of his future. No way did he want his life reduced to a string of wives and endless days of drinking, of depending on others to fix his mistakes.
How could Nick stop that future for himself? He didn't know when Mort's slide had started, or how.
"You couldn't make Marsha happy." Mort interrupted his thoughts. "Now you can't keep Emily happy."
"Enough," Nick shouted, anger spurred on by fear that this might be a problem even he didn't know how to fix. What then? What would happen to Emily? "How is this any different from you? You're on your fifth wife. Marsha complained about how little attention you gave her as a child. Keep your damn hypocrisy to yourself and stay the hell out of my relationship with my daughter."
"It's different because Marsha is my daughter and Emily my granddaughter."
"Each of your wives was someone's daughter and granddaughter."
"That's beside the point. I want Emily to be happy. That's your job."
Nick mimicked Mort, leaning his fists on his desk and pushing forward into Mort's face. "That hasn't been my only job, has it? You've never once complained when I worked nights and weekends on end to bring in new clients or to complete your projects, have you?" The unfairness of the man's criticism burned.
"You've been my mentor," Nick continued. "You taught me how to deal in business. I'm following your example. You 're the reason I am the way I am." He silenced a voice that nagged, that's not completely true. You wanted so much. You were an ambitious SOB. Mort fit into your plan. "I ignored Marsha and Emily because I was here making money for you and this company. How else do you think I did it? By twiddling my thumbs? By taking vacations with my wife and child? I made you a fortune." Nick struggled for control. Where was his precious cool head?
"As far as Marsha goes, we divorced as friends," Nick said, forcing a reasonable tone. "She knew who I was when we married, but wanted someone who could give her more attention. She wanted the money and the big house and me home evenings and weekends."
That was why she'd had an affair with Harry Fuller and why she'd divorced Nick and married him. Harry came from money—had never had to work and scrape for every penny as Nick had—and gave her the attention she craved. Yes, he'd understood, but it had hurt, which was strange considering it hadn't been a love match for either of them. Was he more of a dreamer, a romantic, than he'd thought? Had he been fonder of Marsha than he'd realized?
"Marsha wanted too much, just like her mother." Mort's voice came out as a growl. "I shouldn't have spoiled her."
"You didn't," Nick conceded. "She's a good person and she was right. I never paid her enough attention. I probably never gave Emily enough, either." He knew in his heart he hadn't. Now he was making her cry. He'd never figured out why Emily had opted to stay with him in the home she'd grown up in rather than follow her mother to Europe with her new husband four years ago. Maybe to keep her friends?
Had any of her decision been based on wanting to be near her father? He hoped so. Again, he reached for the phone. He needed to talk to her. Again, he remembered she wasn't home.
"Fix it," Mort said. "Whatever is wrong with her, take care of it now."
He planned to. Tonight. There wasn't a person on earth who mattered more to him than his daughter.
Nick winced. "I honestly never meant to hurt her. I'll talk to her tonight."
"That girl means the world to me."
Nick's anger softened. Mort had always treated Emily like gold. She was a shining light in his life.
"I'm not sure what can change," Nick said, but the fight had left him. Emily was his shining light, too. She kept the darkness at bay. "I have to work as hard now on this project as I ever have."
"Stop it now. Cancel it."
The Accord Ski and Golf Resort? He couldn't, and there was no way to explain to Mort why. Mort had been born with money. He would never in a million years understand how Nick had grown up, how poverty had shaped him, how important it was to build the new resort in his old town.
"Make Emily happy," Mort said, his eyes narrowing. "That's an order. Do it, or I'll pull the plug on the resort."
Nick stilled. Accord Resort was his dream, his baby, part homage to Mom and part revenge against his older brother Gabe—and partly to prove to the town that had barely noticed him when he was growing up that Nick Jordan had become a success and was a force to be reckoned with. His reasons were so confusing and convoluted even he didn't understand fully what drove him. He only knew that he had to annihilate that old house and build something bigger and grander than the Jordan family had ever owned in the past.
Why he worried about his name, and the family, was anybody's guess. He wasn't part of the family anymore, was he? In thirteen years, he'd gone back only twice, four years ago for Mom's funeral and in January to a town meeting concerning the resort. He spoke to Tyler occasionally on the phone. To Gabe? Never.
Mort couldn't possibly pull out now. They were about to break ground. Before Nick had even sent his former assistant, Callie, to Accord to work on getting his brothers to sell, he'd been working behind the scenes to have permits pushed through, greasing more palms than he cared to admit to Mort. Once Gabe and Ty had sold their shares to him, he'd increased his efforts. This resort had already cost him a bundle.
"You can't be serious about pulling the plug," Nick said.
"Look at me." Something in Mort changed, as though a crack opened in that gruff exterior he painted on like shellac. "Take a good look at me. Do you like what you see?"
Nick stared for a long moment at things Mort had never laid bare before—unhappiness, regret and enough loneliness to bury a man. No wonder he drinks. The powerful man Mort had been shrank before Nick's eyes.
With one quick jerk of his head, Nick admitted that he didn't like this version of Mort, that it scared the daylights out of him. That it confirmed Nick's fears that he himself was on a slippery slope barreling toward his own version of Mort's life. And he wanted to stop.
"If you don't make a real effort to change for that little girl—" Mort pointed a finger at himself "—then you're looking at your future. You're going to lose Emily. She told me she's going to France to live with her mother. I want her to stay here. Make it happen."
He walked from the room, closing the door without slamming it this time, leaving Nick stunned.
Emily wanted to live with her mother? She was leaving him? He imagined that big beautiful house empty save for him and a housekeeper who came in to cook and clean.
He heard the silence he would live with every day, every evening, without his daughter near to fill it with joyful sound.
Nick. Alone. Truly, truly alone. The thought raised old—positively ancient—feelings in him that he couldn't name or place, and which made no sense. He'd never been alone. Had never been abandoned.
So why did Emily's desire to move to Europe leave him feeling so panicked?
How could he imagine coming home from work and Emily not being there to greet him, to share her gossip from school, to relieve the unending emptiness he felt here in his office?
He couldn't pinpoint when the emptiness had started, but the thought of what he felt at work spreading to his home terrified him.
For long minutes, Nick stood still, the man of action paralyzed, the man who took control in every situation momentarily lost. His heart rate kicked up and a shaky hollowness filled his stomach, as though he'd drunk too much coffee.
You're looking at your future.
It was true. Old before his time, Nick was plagued with headaches and stomach problems. At only thirty-two, he was already too far along on Mort's road. He'd skipped his youth, had lost it too early.
He paced to the window. He'd worked his butt off to become CEO of Sanderson Developments. He'd earned his beautifully appointed corner office with the floor-to-ceiling windows in the heart of the business district. He pressed one hand against the window as though he could touch Seattle where it lay far below him. At this height, he had a stunning view of Elliott Bay.
He'd given Marsha and Emily a gorgeous home and all of the best that money could buy. It hadn't been enough for Marsha. Good Lord, it seemed it wasn't enough for Emily.
He stared around his office, bewildered. He was known as a brilliant strategist, a problem-solver without peer, but how did he fix what was broken in his personal life?
He stepped away from the window, noting as he did so that he had left his palm and fingerprints.
I am here. This is real.
Then why did so much of his life seem unreal, hollow, ephemeral?
Why did the business no longer fill him with fire? Why did he feel there should be more? That this life of shuffling papers and moving money couldn't possibly be the endall and beall, the sum total of life? When had he become two-dimensional, like those drawings on ancient Greek vases before mankind had figured out how to draw the third dimension? Why did Nick lack depth? Because he'd only ever focused on his job.
Thirteen years ago, when he'd started with Mort, it had meant everything to him, and had been enough. It no longer was.
Now, he didn't have a clue what was wrong with him except that he wasn't happy.
And now he knew that Emily wasn't, either. His happiness didn't matter. Hers, though? Oh, yes, it mattered immensely.
He would do anything for Emily, but he couldn't run around half-cocked. What did she need?
He scrubbed his hands over his face. Damned if he knew. He opened the liquor cabinet built into the bookshelf unit that covered one wall and poured himself a Scotch. He emptied it in two gulps then stared at the empty glass, horrified at what he'd just done.
Was this how it started? He'd already spent thirteen years of his life emulating Mort. Was he about to spend the next thirty continuing to emulate him? To become the man in all of his self-destructive manifestations?
It started as easily as this? His daughter threatened to leave him and he started drinking in the office alone? Not socially with clients or to celebrate a deal, but to obliterate the hol-lowness, the loneliness?
He was turning into Mort. His wife had left him for another man and now his daughter wanted to leave him, too. It hadn't been so bad when Marsha had left. After all, how much had they loved each other, really? Not enough to sustain a lifelong commitment.
But Emily? He loved her to distraction. Mort had said she'd complained that Nick didn't spend enough time with her; therefore, the solution was simple. He would spend more time with her.
She wasn't happy.
She deserved to be happy.
Starting tonight, she would be. He dropped the bottle of Laphroaig into the trash then called Emily to tell her he loved her and planned to spend more time with her, starting tonight, leaving a message on the machine for when she got home from school. He would let her go to France to visit, but to live? No.
He'd leave the office as soon as he finished with the clients in the waiting room.
He straightened his tie, made sure his hair was in place and asked Rachel to send them in.
He couldn't get away until after six and didn't reach home until six-thirty.
He rubbed the back of his neck, took his overcoat and briefcase from the backseat, closed the door and locked the car. He turned to walk up his driveway
and got a snowball full in his face.
He swiped his hand across his eyes to clear them of wet snow. Emily stood in front of the house with a dare in her eye, and what might be construed as hope.
She's not happy with you.
So. She'd received his phone message and wondered how sincere he was.
Did he intend to follow through on his promise to spend time with her? You bet!