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"YOU'D HAVE TO CASTRATE me before I'd spend the week on board a snobby cruise ship with a bunch of prissy perfume lovers," Adam Burns barked into the cell phone he thought he'd turned off the night before.
Sun pierced the blinds of his luxury hotel room even though the hands on his old-fashioned alarm clock showed the time to be six-fifteen in the morning. Since moving their corporate headquarters to New York from Los Angeles two years ago, his family had rented half the penthouse floor of a midtown hotel for living quarters. His younger brother—Adam's co-vice president at Burns Inc.—had a suite three doors down. Despite their physical proximity, Joe had woken him with a phone call demanding Adam take his place on a cruise halfway around the world.
"Castration is going to be a real possibility if you don't haul your ass out of bed and get on that plane. I can't go and Prestige Scents damn well needs a representative on Alexandra's Dream." Joe, the smoothtalking one in the family, had been scheduled to fly to Athens this morning for a fragrance conference on board a luxury Mediterranean cruise liner. "I spent last night in the ER by myself nursing broken ribs after a Jet Ski accident. Neither you nor dad picked up your freaking phones."
Ah, Adam thought. Maybe his cell phone had been turned off last night. He must have switched it back on when he plugged it in to charge. Guilt pricked his conscience straight through his hangover as he pried his eyes the rest of the way open.
A half-eaten room-service tray lingered by the couch while a handful of coffee cups remained on the cocktail table around an overhead projector he'd brought in yesterday afternoon for an impromptu meeting. He had to quit this breakneck pace. He didn't mind the business, but his personal life was such a disaster he'd been ducking all his cell calls for the past month.
"How many ribs did you say were broken?" Head still swimming from a friend's bachelor party the night before, Adam regretted staying out so late. What right did he have to toast the guy's upcoming nuptials when he wasn't even sure he believed in marriage? Long-term romantic commitments were too fragile to withstand real life in his opinion, which was why he limited himself to women who were looking for the same no-strings relationships.
Or at least, that's what he used to do when he had time. Lately he'd been working fifteen hours a day to keep his father's vast network of business interests afloat. On the rare chances he had for some R and R, he pursued fun with as much ambition as he pursued a fat bottom line.
He'd been in relative hiding for the past couple of months to duck a persistent female, so he'd jumped at the chance for the all-male company of the bachelor party. Hell, he'd gone to school on a football scholarship. Darts and pool were his idea of a good time.
"Three ribs," Joe repeated for emphasis, clearly annoyed at his brother's slow mental processing.
"But the busted leg and the painkillers are the more pressing reasons why I'm not getting on that plane today and you are. Your Jet Ski female admirer is a maniac on the water, bro. I'm not standing in for you with her ever again, no matter how important she is to the company."
Adam didn't argue the point. He'd been trying to duck the up-and-coming actress for months after she'd gotten the wrong idea about their relationship, but the situation was sticky, since she was the face of Prestige's newest perfume.
"You still there, Adam? I'm faxing you over my notes on our goals for this cruise. There's a major Dubai-based retail account up for grabs that you need to secure before Dad retires and sends all the Burns Inc. companies into a tailspin."
It had been a running theme for the past six months: get their businesses in order before their father retired. Jack Burns might overcommit himself in every area of his life—sometimes to the detriment of the company—but he was a dynamic businessman with a charismatic personality, and people trusted him to get the job done. There was sure to be a lot of upheaval when he vacated the president's seat.
A position Adam wanted no part of. "Can't we do the deal directly? I could fly to Dubai tomorrow instead of tying up a whole week on a—"
"Not everyone wants to conduct business like a competitive sport, bro." Joe had used the same analogy a hundred times since they were kids.
"Leave the New York attitude at home and seal the deal, okay? You owe me for yesterday."
Adam couldn't argue.
Crap. He let his head fall back onto the pillows with a groan, realizing he was screwed. There was no point asking their father to go. The old man would lose his mind on a cruise ship—he hated feeling hemmed in. That was one of the reasons Burns Inc. held such diverse business interests. And the strategy had paid off, allowing the company to weather down turns in certain sectors of the economy. Fortunately, all the Burns men were very dedicated to increasing their earnings since a portion of the firm's profits went directly to breast cancer research. The cause had been the deathbed dictate of Adam's mother, a mission all the Burns men worked their butts off to fulfill. "Fine. But I'm not spending ten days in a tuxedo." His brother and the perfume industry could just deal with it. "I can't believe you're making me go to a fragrance conference."
Of all the b.s. events. Their ambitious dad had dragged the family all over the world on business, and Adam had had more than his share of faking a good time at schmoozefests by the age of twelve. After his mother died, Adam had agreed to go into the family business only with the understanding he would never have to navigate corporate intrigue, make small talk with people he didn't like or—most important—perform for audiences in a penguin suit. He had the feeling this cruise was going to bust that deal on every front.
"Hey, at least you'll be safe from being stalked by Jessica Winslow and her publicity machine." Some of Joe's good humor returned to his voice at the thought. "And don't forget Prestige is Burns Inc."s top-grossing company." Joe filled Adam in with a few details of his strategy, then signed off with a hurried, "Bon voyage, bro."
Clicking off his phone, Adam closed his eyes. Joe was right about escaping Jessica Winslow. The young actress believed her endorsement deal with Prestige included using Adam as arm candy. How ironic that after making millions of dollars for his family's company over the years, he'd gotten the most press from squiring around a spoiled starlet.
Hauling his butt out of bed, he slogged through last night's dirty clothes on the way to the shower. Maybe some time away from the soap-opera drama his life had become would serve him well. Ten days on the Mediterranean wouldn't kill him. He needed to check in with the family's pilot once he drummed some of the hangover out of his head with hot water.
And then, by God, he'd do his best to pretend to care about perfume, and not just the dollars the Dubai account would bring to Prestige Scents and the higher cause those funds would finance. He shook his head at the thought of sailing around Europe with a bunch of fragrance enthusiasts.
It was going to be a hell of a day.