Read an Excerpt
"Children have a place and it's anywhere I'm not."
Even before the reporter's eyebrows lifted, Alec McAvoy knew the words were going to come back to bite him in a place that would make sitting uncomfortable.
He laughed uneasily. "That's off the record, right?"
"This is an interview, Mr. McAvoy. Nothing is off the record," the woman interviewing him replied blandly, although he got the feeling she would be grinning broadly the first chance she got. She was young, new to her job and looking to make her mark as a journalist. He had just handed her a golden opportunity.
"Right. But you understand that I was just joking when you asked me if I liked kids? Of course I like kids. They're great. Wonderful."
Especially when they were quiet, preferably sleeping or strapped into strollers when out in public. This time he managed to keep the thoughts to himself.
"Joke or not, I find it a telling response coming from the head of a company that specializes in products for infants and children."
To use the vernacular of the little ones to whom Best For Baby, Incorporated catered, Alec was in deep doo-doo.
No amount of backpedaling or flirtingand, yeah, he'd resorted to that before the interview was throughchanged the end result. When the article hit the internet via American CEO magazine's online edition, it contained his flippant remark. The reporter had included his explanation that it was a "joke." Her use of quotation marks around the word only served to make it sound more insincere. But what elevated his statement from gaffe to truly damning was the reporter's inclusion of an interview she'd conducted with Alec's ex-girlfriend, Laurel McCain. No doubt Laurel had relished the chance to tarnish his reputation after their ugly breakup six months earlier. She'd wanted a ring and the title of Mrs. Alec McAvoy. He'd simply wanted out.
"Alec is uncomfortable around children," his ex claimed in the article. "We were together for nearly two years, and I can count on one hand the number of times my children were included in our outings."
No mention of the fact that she'd preferred it that way.
"Was I surprised when he was named the new head of Best For Baby back in January? Yes. Extremely," Laurel went on to say. "Don't get me wrong, Alec is a smart businessman, but as a mother, I always thought Best For Baby was about more than the bottom line."
Within hours of appearing online, the story was picked up by a couple of high-profile bloggers. Mothers everywhere were appalled, outraged. It was shared on Facebook, tweeted about on Twitter and went viral.
Now, one week later, Alec was in the elevator at the Best For Babies headquarters in Chicago, summoned to the top floor of the thirty-story building on the banks of the Chicago River for a special meeting of the board of directors of the publicly traded company.
Deep doo-doo, indeed.
If he hadn't been apprehensive already, he would have been upon entering the conference room. A dozen, dour-faced board members were seated around the large oval of polished cherry wood. They included Herman Geller, the chairman, who steepled his fingers in front of him the way a head schoolmaster might as he waited for Alec to take a seat.
"Thank you for clearing your schedule to accommodate this special meeting today, Alec," Herman began. "We know you're a busy man, especially right now."
Alec nodded, worked up a smiled, and then, since he believed the best defense was a good offense, he launched the first volley.
"And my thanks to all of you for your time. I want to apologize again for my verbal blunder. I understand fully the seriousness of the situation it has caused the company, and I want to assure each of you that it is being dealt with. I have our marketing department working overtime to reach out to our customers and reassure them that Best For Baby is not a hard-hearted company that is solely profit-driven. We're calling the campaign 'One Big Family' and focusing on how the Best For Baby family is with our customers' families every step of the way."
"Yes, I received your memorandum on that a couple of days ago. I especially like the idea of including photographs of our workers' children." But the older man didn't appear satisfied. He tugged at one unruly eyebrow before saying, "At this point, Alec, it's not only the consumer who needs to be reassured. Our investors do, too."
Alec nodded and reached for the glass of ice water that was already poured and waiting on the table in front of him. His throat felt parched. It remained that way even after he took a sip.
"Like all of you, I am very disappointed with the drop in our stock's value." Some media outlets were using words such as tanking and free-fall to describe the double-digit plummet the stock had taken in a matter of days. "I've drafted a letter to shareholders that should allay their concerns." He swiped a finger over the condensation forming on the outside of the glass. Forget parched. His throat felt scorched now as he pushed out the rest of the words. "In addition to my personal apology, I am willing to tender my resignation if our stock has not rebounded within the next three months."
"That's commendable, Alec," Herman replied. "Let's hope it won't come to that. We would hate to lose someone of your caliber over a publicity debacle such as this."
Reading between the lines, Alec knew they would, though. They would shake him off even sooner if need be. Still, it appeared that his employment wasn't on the agenda of today's meeting. Alec was just starting to relax when the older man said, "That's why, in a special meeting of the board yesterday, it was decided that we would bring in a consultant to help us with damage control."
The board had convened two special meetings in as many days? And the first one had been conducted without his knowledge. That didn't bode well.
"A consultant?" he asked, embarrassed to hear his voice crack.
"Yes. She comes highly recommended and is eager to get started."
Alec blinked at that. "You've already been in contact with her?"
Which meant today's special meeting wasn't to ask his opinion, but to render the board's verdict. He didn't like being left out of the loop.
"Under the circumstances, we thought it best to act quickly. Our stockholders are demanding action."
Dexter Roth from marketing was going to be irked, Alec thought. Same for Franklin Kirby, their advertising representative. Alec had asked the two men to head up the multipronged media blitz set to be unveiled this coming weekend. They were not going to be happy that an outside consultant was being brought in as the point person. Alec said as much now.
"Julia Stillwell will be part of the One Big Family campaign, an integral part," Herman said. "She's an image consultant."
Alec's brows hiked up. "An image."
"Consultant," Herman finished for him. His gaze was unflinching, although no one else around the table would meet Alec's eye. "For better or worse, you are the face of this company. The public needs to get to know you better. They need to like you, trust you. They need to know that even though you are a bachelor with no children of your own, you aren't antifam-ily or antichild."
Just because he wasn't interested in having a wife and kids didn't mean he had anything against either marriage or parenthood. Some men were hardwired for the roles of husband and father. Alecthe product of a pair of freewheeling, free-spending parents, who had packed him off to boarding school so they could continue their jet-setting, hard-partying waysfigured he wasn't. No way would he put another kid through the emotionally sterile childhood he'd endured, spending holidays and summers with nannies and other adults who'd been paid to watch over him.
"Excellent." Herman glanced at his watch. "Your first meeting with her will be in less than an hour. She has a full schedule today, but has graciously agreed to fit you in."
"How lucky for me," he managed to say and forced a smile in case his sarcasm came through.
"You'll need to go to her office, though. I've given your secretary the address. Ms. Stillwell asked that you be on time. She has a pressing appointment immediately after yours."
"I'd better head out now, then."
Alec pushed back his chair and rose. Irritation had replaced the apprehension he'd experienced upon entering the room. An image consultant! The idea was galling.
Herman's parting words of "good luck" did little to improve his mood.
Julia Stillwell checked her watch against the clock on the wall. Alec McAvoy had one minute and forty-eight seconds to be at her door for their thirty-minute appointment. Punctuality was rule number one in her book. When people were late it said they didn't think other people's time was as valuable as their own. It also wreaked havoc on her ridiculously tight personal timetable.
As a single mother with two young children, she knew only too well the importance of staying on schedule. If she was late leaving the office, it meant she would be late picking up her kids from school, which in turn meant Danielle would be late for dance class or Colin for T-ball, or whatever else was on tap for that day. As it was, being a parent made life unpredictable, an adventure. She tried to see that as a plus, but on days such as this, she wasn't always successful.
She'd been up since 4:00 a.m., jolted from sleep by a put-out Danielle. The nine-year-old had been none too happy to have to share her bed with her six-year-old brother, Colin, who'd climbed in with her after having a bad dream. Julia had checked under his bed and in his closet for the green-goo-oozing monster of his nightmare. Even after giving him the all clear, he'd been unable to fall back to sleep in his own room. So, all three of them had wound up in her full-sized bed, where none had managed another wink.
Julia fought back a yawn now as she glanced at the clock again. Alec McAvoy was officially late. When he arrived, assuming he did before she had to leave, she would offer him a cup of coffee so she could have some herself. One thing she wouldn't be doing, however, was adding any time onto the end of the appointment to accommodate him. It might be his money, or more accurately Best For Baby's, but it was her time. And she had better things to do with itsuch as ensure Colin got to his T-ball game on time.
A high-powered executive such as Mr. McAvoy probably wouldn't or couldn't appreciate that. Julia didn't stop to wonder if she might be judging him too harshly. After all, she'd been hired to rescue him from the deep hole he'd dug for himself, one that was costing his company and its investors millions of dollars, all because of an inflammatory statement. Slip of the tongue? Perhaps. But she didn't buy for a minute that he'd intended the comment as a joke.
Professionally and in her personal life, Julia had met a lot of men like Alec. Men who viewed family obligations, children in particular, as an inconvenience, a burden. It was why, in the four years since her husband's death, she'd only gone on a handful of dates. Men were interested in getting to know her until they learned that she came with a side order of kids. Then Julia found herself off the menu. It was their loss.
It was Alec McAvoy's loss, too, she thought, glancing at the folder marked with his name.
She propped a hip on the edge of her desk, picked up the file and leafed through it again as she waited with growing impatience for him to arrive. The photograph was the one that had accompanied the story. It showed a handsome man in his mid-thirties clad in an expertly tailored charcoal suit, dark blue shirt and conservative-print silk tie. A handkerchief of the same print and fabric as the tie peeked from his breast pocket.
"I bet you've never wiped a runny nose with that," she mused aloud.
Julia exhaled slowly. She had to convince mothers the country over that this bachelor CEO of a company that catered to children wasn't antikid. The task wouldn't be easy, especially if she didn't put her heart into it. She didn't have to like him, she reminded herself. But she had to make sure everyone else did. Still, it would help if she liked him. If she found his personality as appealing as his dark eyes and sexy smile. She frowned and glanced at her watch again. Unfortunately, there wasn't much to like about a man who kept her waiting when she'd gone to the trouble of rescheduling another appointment to fit him in.
Fifteen minutes later, her foot was tapping in agitation when a knock sounded at the door. Sandy, her assistant, poked her head into the room, her expression apprehensive. The young woman knew Julia's feelings about tardiness, having been on the receiving end of a lecture more than once when she'd first started.
"Mr. McAvoy is here. Shall I show him in or do you want me to reschedule his appointment for another day?"
As tempting as it was to go with the latter, Julia had made a commitment to the Best For Baby board, so she said, "I'll see him now, thanks. I have a few minutes to spare before I have to leave."
She ordered herself to be welcoming and enthusiastic. If the image makeover she planned to give him failed to turn around public opinion, she didn't want it to be because of anything she hadn't done. It would be all his doing, she decided, when Alec strode into her office with an obvious chip weighting his shoulder. He didn't want to be here. More than that, he resented being forced to come. The grim set of his jaw made that much clear.
She pegged him as the take-charge sort. That type didn't like being told what to do, regardless of the reason. Still, Julia hoped she wasn't going to have to waste precious time trying to convince him they were playing on the same team.
In person, he was taller than she'd expected him to be, surpassing the six-foot mark by at least a couple of inches. His shoulders were broader than she'd guessed from the photo, and she could see now that it was the result of actual muscle rather than a tailor's creative needlework. As she studied him, an inappropriate amount of awareness stirred in her, the likes of which she hadn't experienced in a very long time. At her sharp intake of breath, the dark brows over his glass-bottle-green eyes rose fractionally.
He appeared caught off guard as well. For the briefest of moments, feminine vanity had her hoping it was for the same reason she'd been taken aback: attractionboth potent and instantaneous. She dismissed the thought. She was being ridiculous, foolish, which wasn't like her. More likely, he was surprised by her appearance. A lot of people were when they met her. Julia looked harmless rather than high-powered, as if she should be teaching Sunday school or volunteering for the PTOboth of which she didrather than single-handedly manipulating the media and realigning the public's mindset. A client once told her that was her advantage. She certainly used it as one. Sure enough, he said, "You're Miss Stillwell?"
"Actually, I go by Ms."
"Ms." He nodded, and she thought she heard a hint of derision in his tone when he added, "Of course."