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"Congresswoman Fisher is on line two, Derek Mead is still holding on line three and Owen Winston is on line four."
MacValentine relaxed in his chair. His executive assistant, Claire, stood in the doorway of his modern, chrome-and-leather penthouse office, an expectant look on her grandmotherly face. She had been with him for eight years and she was somewhat of a voyeur when it came to watching him work. She especially enjoyed moments like this when he was about to crush someone. She thought of him as a ruthless, unflinching businessman, and on more than one occasion he'd heard her refer to him as a black-haired, black-eyed demon who held each one of his thirty-five employees to incredibly high standards.
Mac grinned. The woman was right. The only thing she'd left out was that if any one of those employees fell short of his expectations, if they didn't strive for the goal of making MCV Wealth Enhancement Corp. the first choice of not only the Minneapolis area, but also the entire Midwest, they were sent packing.
Behind her black frames, Claire's eyes glistened like a child waiting for dessert to be served. "Mr. Winston says he is returning your call, sir."
Mac palmed his BlackBerry. "Tell both the congresswoman and Mead that I'll return their calls. This won't take long."
"Yes, sir." Claire hovered in the doorway.
"And close the door when you go," Mac said evenly.
"Today is not a school day."
"Of course, sir." Looking thoroughly disappointed, Claire left the room.
Mac pressed the call button and leaned back in his chair. "Owen."
"That's right," came the irritated voice on the other end of the line. "I've been holding for longer than I care to. What can I do for you?"
Satisfaction rolled through Mac at the slight tremor in the older man's voice. He turned his chair toward the wall of windows behind him and stared out at the view of the Minneapolis skyline. "I won't waste my time or yours asking why you did what you did."
"Or force you to admit it," said Mac. "Attempting to ruin the reputation of a competing firm happens quite a bit in our game. Mostly with the older set.You guys get tired, lose your edge and the clients start looking elsewhere."
Mac could practically see Owen's face darkening with rage. "You don't know what you're talking about, Valentine"
"You can't help it," Mac continued coldly. "You see these hotshots coming up the ranks with cooler heads and sharper minds and you start to worry that you're not going to be taken seriously anymore. And when you realize it's only a matter of time before you're forced out of business, you panic." Mac leaned forward and said without emotion, "You panicked, Owen."
"This is ridiculous," Owen sputtered. "You don't know what you're talking about."
Mac continued as if he hadn't heard. "A respectable man would recognize his limitations and retire, maybe play a round of golf in the morning followed by a nice nap in the afternoon."
"A respectable businessman, Valentine." Owen laughed bitterly. "A respectable businessman wouldn't give preferential treatment, key information or tips to certain privileged clients. A respectable man wouldn't give that information based on their client's long legs and large breasts."
It was the accusation of a desperate man, total BS, but the rumor had spread like the flu. "You are this close to a lawsuit, Winston."
"That sharp mind of yours would never allow these observations of mine to go on the record in a court of law. Such a long, drawn-out process. Even worse for your reputation, I would think."
It took a few seconds for Mac to respond, then a deadly calm crept over him like the blackening sky before a thunderstorm. "True enough," he said slowly. "Perhaps legal recourse isn't the right way to deal with you."
"Smart man. Now it's late and I have"
Mac stood and walked across the room. "No, I suppose I'll have to come up with a different way to make you pay for what you've done."
"It's after seven, Valentine," said Owen tightly. "I have dinner plans."
"Yes, of courseget home to your family." Mac opened his office door and gestured for Claire. "Especially that lovely daughter of yours. What's her name again? Allison? Olive?"
Owen didn't answer. "Ah, right " Mac raised a brow at Claire. "Olivia. Beautiful name," Mac said as he watched his assistant go to her computer and begin a search. "Beautiful name for a beautiful woman, I'm told. You know, your daughter has a reputation for being a very good girl. Sweet, loves her father and steers clear of anything scandalous. Might be interesting to see how easy or how enjoyably difficult it would be to change that."
Claire glanced up, her expression a mixed bag of respect, curiosity and horror.
"You stay away from my daughter." The once cocky old man now sounded like an anxious pup.
"I'm not a religious man, Owen, but I believe the phrase 'an eye for an eye' is appropriate here." Mac stalked back into his office. "I may be an arrogant, selfish prick, but I'm no fraud. I give every one of my clients two hundred percent, male and female alike.You went too far."
Mac stabbed at the off button on his BlackBerry and walked to the windows. The bleak, gray light of a hostile rainstorm hovered over the parking lot and street below, making Mac feel as though his threats to Owen Winston might be so powerful they could not only affect the sexual status of an innocent young woman, but the weather, as well.
"She owns No Ring Required."
Mac didn't turn around to address Claire's statement.
"How do I know that name?"
"Minneapolis Magazine did a cover story on the business last month. Three womena chef, an interior designer and a party plannerall top-notch business-women who have banded together to create"
"A service for men who need the help and expertise of a wife," he continued. "But either don't have one or don't want one."
He turned around and nodded to his assistant. "Perfect. Set up an appointment with Olivia Winston for this week. It would seem that I'm in need of her services."
"Did you read the article, sir?"
"I don't remember I probably skimmed it."
"These are hardcore, upstanding women who are well-respected in the business community. They are adamantly against any and all fraternization."
Mac grinned to himself. "Get that appointment for tomorrow morning. First thing."
Lip pulled under her teeth, Claire nodded and left the room.
Mac returned to his desk and thumbed through the files of the clients that had gone AWOL since Owen Winston's lies had surfaced two days ago. Who knew if they were ever going to return to his company or if their relationship with his firm was dead in the water.
Mac wanted to throttle that bastardbut violence was too quickly given and gotten over. No, it would have to be a rep for a rep. Owen had taken Mac's and Mac would take his daughter's.
Well-respected or not, Owen's little girl was going to have to payfor the loss of revenue to MCV and its employees, and for her father's stupidity.
Olivia closed her eyes and inhaled. "I'm such a genius ."
"How long are you going to make us wait, Liv?" Tess asked, her stomach rumbling loudly. "I skipped breakfast."
Seated at the table, Mary Kelley stared at the tall redhead's trim belly, her brows drawn together. "Sounds like a train's derailing in there. Very ladylike."
Tess gave Mary a teasing glare. "Give me a break, I'm starving." She pointed to the massive yellow diamond engagement ring on her pretty blond partner's finger. "Not all of us have beautiful men bringing us poached eggs and bacon in the morning."
Smiling, Mary touched her growing belly, her blue eyes soft and happy. "Ethan's very concerned about feeding his child. If I don't have something to eat every few hours he freaks."
Tess snorted. "That's just a little too sweet for me." Mary laughed. "Oh, c'mon. You'll change your mind about that someday. Guaranteed."
"Doubtful. I'm too much of a lonerand I like it."
"Well, then we have to get you to go out and socialize more." Mary's eyes lit up. "Maybe you'll meet someone at Ethan's and my holiday engagement party at the end of the month. He has some cute friends."
"You might meet up with the right guy."
Tess shook her head and laughed. "I don't believe in the right guy, Mare. Now, a truckful of not-so-right guysthat's something I believe in."
Mary poured herself another glass of milk. "You're not old enough to be so cynical. How many men have you dated at twenty-five?"
"Enough to know better," Tess said seriously, then turned to Olivia. "You and I are lucky to have escaped the noose for so long, right, Liv?"
"Oh, so lucky," Olivia drawled as she cut squares of brownie. Olivia tried to ignore the wave of envy that moved over her heart as she recalled the tenderness in Ethan Curtis's eyes that morning when he gave Mary a goodbye kiss at the reception desk before leaving for his office. He had looked so in love, so happy, so over-the-moon excited about their baby.
Olivia didn't begrudge her friend the beautiful man and solid relationship, but she did wonder if it was possible for someone like her to have half of that kind of happiness. In her heart of hearts, she wanted a mansomeone to cook for and love and make babies with, but odds of that kind of life coming her way weren't great. Even though she had grown up in years, she was still very much stuck to the past. In many ways, she was still that depressed sixteen-year-old who had just lost her mother to cancer, couldn't get her father to notice her and had escaped from her pain in the most foolish ways possibleparties and boys and sex.
The shame of what she'd done and how many boys she'd allowed herself to be used by hadn't diminished in the ten years since, but in that time she had grown extraordinarily tough. She had also become cautious and resolutely celibate. Today, her reputation was lily-whiteshe was a hard-nosed businesswoman who kept the secrets of her past to herself.
"All right," Olivia said brightly, setting two extra large squares of chocolate brownie before Tess and Mary. "These will keep your mouths occupied."
"I believe she just told us to shut up," Tess said with a grin.
Mary picked up her brownie and sighed. "But it was in the very nicest way possible."
"True," Tess said, her pale gray eyes raking the gooey chocolate square. "And for another one of these I will not only give up on the guy and marriage talk, but if asked, I will gladly roll over and pant."
"Before you do," said a husky male voice behind them, "just be aware that you have an audience."