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There were days when Evan McCain wished he'd never met the Lassiter family. Today was definitely one of them. Thanks to J. D. Lassiter, at thirty-four years old, Evan was starting his professional life all over again.
He pushed open the door to his empty storefront office building in Santa Monica. By rights, he should have sold the compact building two years ago after moving to Pasadena, but it was only a block from the beach and the investment value was solid. As things turned out, he was very glad he'd kept it.
He had no intention of touching any of the money left to him by J.D. The bequest in his former boss's will felt like a payoff for Evan's unwitting participation in J.D.'s complex scheme to test his daughter Angelica, Evan's ex-fiancée. She'd eventually passed the test, proving she could balance her work and her life, and replaced Evan at the helm of Lassiter Media. But she'd failed Evan in the process, ending both their romantic relationship and his employment at Lassiter Media.
He dropped his suitcase in the reception area, hit the overhead lights and moved to the counter to test the telephone. He got a dial tone and mentally checked off two steps in his implementation plan. He had electricity, and he was connected to the outside world. Those were the basics.
The blinds on the glass door rattled as someone opened it behind him.
"Oh, how the mighty have fallen." It was the voice of his long-time friend Deke Leamon.
Evan turned, blinking against the streaming sunlight, baffled to see Deke silhouetted in his doorway. "What on earth are you doing on the West Coast?"
Deke grinned, dropping a red duffel bag on the vinyl reception seat beside Evan's suitcase. He was dressed in faded jeans, a Mets T-shirt, and a pair of scruffy hikers. "We did it before. We can do it again."
Evan stepped forward to shake his former college roommate's hand. "Do what again? Seriously, why didn't you call? And how did you know I'd be here?"
"Educated guess," said Deke. "I figured there'd be too many memories in Pasadena. This seemed like the logical place. I assume you're going to live upstairs for a while?"
"Good guess," said Evan.
The upstairs apartment was small, but he'd make it work. He needed an immediate and total change of scenery. Luckily, despite its proximity to downtown L.A., Santa Monica had a personality all its own.
"Figured you might be feeling sorry for yourself," Deke continued. "So, I thought I'd wander over and give you a kick in the ass."
"I'm not feeling sorry for myself," said Evan.
Life was what it was, and no amount of complaining or wishing would change it to something else. It was a hard lesson, but he'd learned long ago that he could roll with the punches. On his seventeenth birthday to be exact, he'd realized just how resilient he could be.
"And you don't wander," he finished.
His friend was contemplative and deliberate in every action he undertook. Deke didn't do anything on a whim. Now, he dropped into one of the vinyl chairs and stretched out his legs, crossing them at the ankles.
"Okay, so I flew here on purpose." He glanced around the empty office space. "Thought I could probably lend a hand."
Evan leaned back against the reception countertop, bracing himself and raising a challenging brow. "Lend a hand doing what, exactly?"
"Whatever needs doin'." Deke glanced around the office. "So, what's the plan? What happens first?"
"The phones are up and running." Evan realized that he was still holding the cordless receiver, and he set it down.
"Good start. You got any leads? Got a website?"
Evan was both touched and amused by what he knew Deke was doing. "You don't need to be here."
"I want to be here. I left Colby in charge at Tiger Tech. Told him I'd be back in a month or so."
Colby Payne was a young, innovative genius who'd been Deke's second in command for two years.
"That's ridiculous." Evan wasn't about to let Deke make that kind of sacrifice. "I don't need your pity. Even if I wanted you herewhich I don'tyou've got a business to run."
Deke's massive technological prototyping facility in Chicago was filled with everything from computerized lathes to 3D printers. It helped budding innovators turn their ideas into commercial products. His unique brand of savvy and entrepreneurship had launched dozens of success ventures.
Deke shrugged. "I was getting bored. I haven't taken a vacation in two years."
"Go to Paris or Hawaii."
Deke grinned. "I'd go stir-crazy in Hawaii."
"You've seen the tourism photos, right? The surf, the sand, the girls in bikinis?"
"There are girls in bikinis right here in Santa Monica."
"I can take care of myself, Deke."
Sure, it was a blow, summarily losing his job with Lassiter Media when J.D.'s will codicil kicked in and gave control of the company to Evan's ex-fiancée Angelica. But he was already on the road to recovery.
"Don't you remember how much fun we had?" Deke asked. "You, me, Lex, holed up in that crappy apartment in Venice Beach, worrying about student debt while we tried to build a business?"
"It was fun when we were twenty-three."
"It'll be fun again."
"We failed," Evan noted.
Instead of getting rich, the three of them ended up going their separate ways. Deke went into technology, Evan into business management, while Lex Baldwin was rising fast in the ranks of Asanti International, a luxury hotel chain.
"Yeah, but we're way smarter now."
Evan couldn't stop a chopped laugh. "All evidence to the contrary?"
"Okay, I'm smarter now."
"I want to be completely on my own this time," said Evan.
He'd enjoyed working with J. D. Lassiter. The man was a genius. But he'd also turned out to be a manipulative old schemer. Family came first for J.D., always. And since Evan wasn't family, he'd ended up as collateral damage when J.D. had set out to test the loyalty of his daughter.
Not that Evan blamed anyone for supporting their own family. If he'd had a family, he'd have supported them through thick and thin. But he had no brothers or sisters. And his parents had died in a car accident the day he turned seventeen.
He'd planned to have children with Angelica. He wanted a big family, big enough that none of them would ever have to be alone. But that obviously wasn't going to happen now.
"I've got your back," Deke told him, his tone low and sincere as he scrutinized Evan's expression. "I don't need anybody to have my back."
"Everybody needs somebody."
"I thought I had Angie." As soon as the words were out, Evan regretted them. "But you didn't."
Angie had seemed like the woman of Evan's dreams. But she'd bolted at the first sign of trouble. She'd turned her back on him and everybody else, isolating herself, refusing to trust him or her family.
"Better you found out before the wedding."
"Sure," Evan agreed, because it was the easiest thing to do.
Secretly, he couldn't help but wonder what might have happened if J.D. had passed away after the wedding. As his wife, would Angie have tried any harder to trust him?
"She's out of your life, Evan."
"I know that."
"You don't look like a man who knows that."
"I've got my head on straight. It's over. I get that. I'm here in Santa Monica because it's over."
Maybe Evan would find someone else someday. Not that he could imagine when, how or who. If Angie wasn't the real thing, he couldn't fathom who was.
"I'm going to hold you to that," said Deke, coming to his feet, rubbing his hands together. "Okay, first up, we get your business back on its feet. At the very least, your accomplishments at Lassiter Media will impress future clients."
"They will be impressed," Evan agreed. They'd be impressed with what he'd accomplished there. Some might even be impressed that he'd walked away.
* * *
Angelica Lassiter needed a fresh start. If there was a Reset button for life, she'd press it right now.
She'd fought with her family over her father's will for five long months, only to discover J.D. had a master plan all along to test her ability to balance work with life. Although he'd first seemed to hand it to Evan, in the end, her father had given her exactly what she longed for: control of Lassiter Media. But she wasn't proud of the way she'd fought for it. And she wasn't proud of the way she'd treated Evan.
It was bad enough that she'd pushed her ex-fiancé away while she fought for her heritage. But she'd accused him of lying to her, of betraying her and conspiring to steal her inheritance. She'd been wrong on all counts, but there was no way to take it back.
"Ms. Lassiter?" Her administrative assistant appeared in the doorway of the empty boardroom.
"Yes, Becky." Angelica turned from where she was gazing across the heart of downtown L.A.
"The decorators are here."
Angelica squared her shoulders and gave her assistant a determined nod. "Thanks, Becky. Please show them in."
Angelica knew her decision to renovate the top floor of the Lassiter building and relocate the CEO's office was going to cause a lot of talk within the company. But she also knew it was her only option.
Maybe if the power transition had gone smoothly she could have moved directly into her father's office. After all, she'd been at the helm in all but title prior to her father's death. But with the original will leaving control to Evan, the transition had been anything but smooth. And now she needed to put her own stamp on Lassiter Media. She'd decided to convert the top floor boardroom into her own office and turn her father's office into a boardroom.
"Angelica." Suzanne Smith entered the room first, followed by her partner Boswell Cruz. "It's so good to see you again."
Suzanne's expression and tone were professional, but she couldn't quite hide the curiosity lurking in her eyes. The Lassiter family's troubles had been all over the media these past months. Angelica couldn't really blame Suzanne for wondering what would happen next.
"Thanks for coming on such short notice," said Angelica, moving forward to shake both of their hands. "Hello, Boswell."
"Nice to see you again, Angelica," he returned.
"Tell me how we can help you," said Suzanne. Her expression invited confidence.
"I'd like to build new office. For me. Right here."
Suzanne waited for a moment, but Angelica didn't offer anything more.
"Okay," said Suzanne, gazing around at the polished beech wood paneling and the picture windows on two sides of the room. "I have always loved this space."
"It'll give me some extra light in the morning," said Angelica, repeating the rationale she'd decided to use for the move.
"Light is good."
"And J.D.'s old office is closer to the floor's reception area, so it'll make a more convenient boardroom." It was another perfectly plausible excuse that had nothing to do with Angelica's real reasons for making the switch.
Boswell had a tablet in his hand and was already making notes.
"Anything in particular you want to keep from J.D.'s office?" asked Suzanne. "Furniture pieces? Art?"
"Nothing," said Angelica.
The twitch of Suzanne's mouth betrayed her surprise at the answer.
"Maybe keep the historic Big Blue mural," Angelica added, rethinking the sweeping decision. "It can hang in the new boardroom."
The painting of the Lassiter ranch in Wyoming had hung in J.D.'s office for over a decade. Moving it would cause talk and speculation, possibly even more speculation than Angelica's moving her office to the opposite end of the thirtieth floor.
She wasn't turning her back on her roots. And, despite what the tabloids had surmised, she had forgiven her father. Or at least she would forgive her father, eventually, though maybe not all at once. Emotionally, she had to sort some things through first.
"That's it?" asked Suzanne. Her tone was neutral, but it didn't quite mask her surprise. Some of J.D.'s pieces were very valuable antiques.
"We can put the rest in storage."
"Certainly. Did you have any initial thoughts on your office?"
"Lots of natural light," said Angelica. "I like the fresh feel of the atrium, so plants for sure. Not ultra-modern, no chrome or anything. And I don't want bright white. But definitely lighter tones, neutrals, earth tones perhaps." She paused. "Am I making any sense?"
"This is all good," Suzanne assured her. "It gives us a nice starting point. Now, you've got plenty of room in here. You'll want a desk area, a meeting table, and a lounge area. Would you like us to include a wet bar? A private washroom?"
"Only if you can do it discreetly. I want it to look like a business office, not a playboy's downtown loft."
Suzanne's alarm showed on her face. "Oh, no. It won't look anything like that."
"It would be nice to be able to offer refreshments."
"Done," said Suzanne. "And we'll make it discreet, I promise."
The door opened and Becky appeared again. "Ms. Las-siter? Sorry to interrupt. But your three o'clock is here."
"We'll get out of your way," said Suzanne. "Would the end of the week be soon enough for some mock-ups?"
"End of the week is fine," said Angelica.
She'd rather have the mock-ups in the next ten minutes, but patience was one of the characteristics she was practicing at the moment. Patience, composure and a work-life balance.
Before his sudden death, her father had complained that she worked too hard, that she needed balance in her life. When he'd taken away her position at Lassiter through his will, she'd been forced to reevaluate her balance.
She'd made progress, and she'd promised herself to give it a fair shot. She was even thinking about taking up a hobby, and maybe a sport. Yoga, perhaps. People who did yoga seemed very serene.
"We'll be in touch," said Suzanne as she and Boswell left the boardroom.
The door closed behind them, and Angelica took a moment to focus on her composure. Her next meeting was with her close friend Kayla Prince. Kayla was engaged to Lassiter Media account executive Matt Hollis, so she'd been along for the ride on the family discord over the past five months.
Angelica knew that many of the Lassiter Media executives worried she'd put the company at risk by working with corporate raider Jack Reed and attempting to contest the will. And her recent single-minded focus on regaining control of the company meant she hadn't seen much of Kayla or any of her other friends. She could only imagine what Kayla might have heard from Matt at the height of the conflict.
So, when the door opened again, she was ready for anything. But Kayla surprised her, rushing through the door and quickly pulling her into a warm hug.