Read an Excerpt
"You need a woman."
Connor MacLaren stopped reading the business agreement he was working on and glanced up. His older brother Ian stood blocking his office doorway.
"What'd you say?" Connor asked. He couldn't have heard him correctly.
"A woman," Ian repeated slowly. "You need one."
"Well, sure," Connor said agreeably. "Who doesn't? But"
"And you're going to have to buy a new suit, maybe two," his brother Jake said as he strolled into his office.
Ian followed Jake across the wide space and they took the two visitors' chairs facing Connor.
Connor's gaze shifted from one brother to the other. "What are you two? The social police?"
Ian shook his head in disgust. "We just got off the phone with Jonas Wellstone's son, Paul. We set up a meeting with us and the old man during the festival."
Connor frowned at the two of them. "And for this you expect me to buy a new suit? You've got to be kidding."
"We're not kidding," Ian said, then stood as if that was the end of the discussion.
"Wait a minute," Connor insisted. "Let's get serious. The festival is all about beer. Drinking beer, making beer, beer-battered everything. This is not a ballet recital we're going to."
"That's not the point," Ian began.
"You're right," Connor persisted. "The point is that I've never worn a suit and tie to a beer festival and I'm not about to start now. Hell, nobody would even recognize me in a suit."
That much was true. Connor was far more identifiable in his signature look of faded jeans, ancient fisherman's sweater and rugged hiking boots than in one of those five-thousand-dollar power suits his two brothers were inclined to wear on a daily basis.
Frankly, this was why he preferred to work at MacLaren Brewery, located in the rugged back hills of Marin County, thirty miles north and a million virtual light years away from MacLaren Corporation in the heart of San Francisco's financial district. The brothers had grown up running wild through those hills. That's where they had built their first home brewery, in the barn behind their mom's house.
Over the past ten years, the company had grown into a multinational corporation with offices in ten countries. But the heart and soul of MacLaren Brewery still thrived in those hills, and Connor was in charge of it all: not just the brewery, but also the surrounding farmland, the dairy, the fishery, the vineyards and the brew pub in town.
And he wasn't about to wear a freaking business suit while he did it.
Meanwhile his older brothers, Jake, the CEO, and Ian, the marketing guru, took care of wheeling and dealing at their corporate headquarters in San Francisco. They both lived in the city and loved the fast pace. Connor, on the other hand, avoided the frantic pace of the city whenever possible. He only ventured into headquarters on days like this one because his brothers demanded his presence at the company's board meetings once a month. Even then, he wore his standard outfit ofjeans, work shirt and boots. He'd be damned if he'd put on a monkey suit just to discuss stock options and expansion deals with his brothers.
Connor glanced at the two men, who were closer to him than any two people on the planet. "What made you think I would ever dress up for the Autumn Brew Festival? I'd be laughed off the convention floor."
True, the festival had become a very important venue for the fast-growing, multibillion-dollar beer production industry. In the past few years it had expanded to become the largest gathering of its type in the world. The powers that be had even changed the name of the event to reflect its importance. It was now called the International Brewery Convention, but Connor and his brothers still called it the festival because more than anything else, people showed up to have a good time.
It was a point of pride that the festival was held annually in their hometown at the Point Cairn Convention Center next to the picturesque marina and harbor. It was one of the biggest draws of the year, and the MacLaren men had done their best to ensure that it continued to be a not-to-be-missed event on the calendars of beer makers and breweries around the world.
But that still didn't mean Connor would dress up for it. What part of "good time" did his brothers not understand? The words did not equate with "suit and tie" in anybody's dictionary.
Jake gazed at him with a look of infinite patience. As the oldest of the three, he had perfected the look. "Well-stone's scheduled a dinner meeting with all of us and his entire family. And the old man likes his people to dress for dinner."
"Oh, come on," Connor said, nudging his chair back from the desk. "We're buying out their company. They're dying to get their hands on our money so the old man can retire to his walnut farm and enjoy his last days in peace and quiet, surrounded by nuts. Why would he care one way or another how we dress for dinner?"
"Because he just does," Jake explained helpfully. "His son, Paul, warned us that if Jonas doesn't get a warm and cozy, old-fashioned family feeling from the three of us at dinner, there's a good chance he could back out of the deal."
"That's a dumb way to do business."
"I agree," Jake said. "But if it means snagging this deal, I'll wear a freaking pink tuxedo."
Connor frowned. "Do you honestly think Jonas would back out of the deal over something so minor?"
Ian leaned forward and lowered his voice. "It happened to Terry Schmidt."
"Schmidt tried to buy Wellstone?" Connor peered at Jake. "Why didn't we know that?"
"Because Wellstone insists on complete confidentiality among his people," Jake said.
"I can appreciate that."
"And Paul wants it to stay that way," Jake continued, "so keep that news under your hat. He only brought up the Schmidt situation because he doesn't want another deal to fail. He wants our offer to go through, but it all depends on us putting on a good show for Jonas. Apparently the old man's a stickler."
Ian added, "Terry blew the deal by wearing khakis and a sweater to dinner with the old man."
"Khakis?" Shocked, Connor fell back in his chair. "Why, that sociopath. No wonder they kicked him to the curb."
Ian snickered, but just as quickly turned sober. "Jonas Wellstone is definitely old school. He's very conservative and very anxious that the people who take over his company have the same family values that he has always stood for."
"He should've gone into the milk shake business," Connor muttered.
"Yeah, maybe," Jake said. "But look, he's not about to change, so let's play the game his way and get the old man firmly on our side. I want this deal to go through."
Connor's eyes narrowed in reflection. "Believe me, I want that, too." Wellstone Corporation was a perfect fit for MacLaren, he mused. Jonas Wellstone had started his brewery fifty years ago, decades before the MacLarens came along. He had been at the front of the line when lucrative markets in Asia and Micronesia first began to open up. Yes, the MacLarens had done incredibly well for themselves, but they had to admit they were still playing catchup to the older, more established companies. Last year, the brothers had set a goal of acquiring a strong foothold in those emerging territories. And here they were, less than a year later, being presented with the opportunity to purchase Wellstone.
So if all it took to attain their objective were some spiffy new clothes, the decision was an easy one. Connor would go shopping this afternoon.
"Okay, you guys win." He held up his hands in mock surrender. "I'll buy a damn suit."
"I'll go with you," Jake said, adjusting the cuffs on his tailor-made shirt. "I don't trust your taste."
The hand gesture Connor flipped his brother was crude but to the point. "This is the reason I hate coming into the big city. I get nothing but grief from you two wheeler-dealers."
Ian stood to leave. "Spare us the country bumpkin act. You're more of a cutthroat than we are."
Connor laughed and stretched his legs out. "My rustic charm conceals my rapier-sharp business skills."
Ian snorted. "Good one."
Jake ignored them both as he checked his wristwatch. "I'll have Lucinda clear my schedule for this afternoon."
"Fine," Connor said. "Let's get this over with." Jake nodded. "I'll swing by here around three and we'll head over to Union Square. We've only got a week to buy you a suit and get it tailored. You'll need shoes, too. And a couple of dress shirts."
"Cuff links, too," Ian added. "And a new belt. And a haircut. You look like one of Angus Campbell's goats."
"Get outta here," Connor said, fed up with the whole conversation. But as his brothers headed for the door, Connor suddenly remembered something. "Wait. What was that you said about needing a woman?"
Ian turned back around but didn't make eye contact. "You need to bring a date to dinner. Jonas likes to see his partners in happy relationships."
"And you didn't tell him that's a deal breaker?"
Ian scowled and walked out as Jake and Connor exchanged glances.
"Just find a date," Jake said finally. "And don't piss her off."
Definitely a deal breaker, Connor thought.
Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.
There should've been a sign announcing that sentiment, Maggie Jameson thought as she stared at the massive double doors that led to the offices of MacLaren International Corporation. But Maggie wasn't about to give up hope. She was on a mission, so rather than whimper and crawl away, she summoned every last bit of courage she could muster and pushed through the doors to announce herself to the pleasant, well-dressed receptionist named Susan at the front desk.
"He's expecting you, Ms. James," Susan said with a genuine smile. "Please follow me."
James? You had to give them a fake name to even get near him, the voice inside her head said, jeering. Walk away before they toss you out on your ear.
"Shush," Maggie whispered to herself.
But the sarcastic little voice in her head wouldn't stay silent as Maggie followed the charming receptionist down the wide, plushly carpeted halls. And as if to amplify the mental taunts, everywhere she looked there were signs that the MacLaren brothers had succeeded beyond anyone's wildest dreams. Huge posters of the latest MacLaren products hung on the corridor walls as she passed. Lush plants grew in profusion. Glassed-in office spaces boasted state-of-the-art furnishings and technology.
Maggie was even treated to the occasional stunning view, through wide windows, of the gleaming San Francisco Bay in the distance. Just in case she forgot that this was the penthouse suite of the office building owned by the MacLaren Brothers of Point Cairn, California. As if she could.
Despite her best efforts, Maggie felt a tingle of pleasure that Connor MacLaren had done so well for himself.
Yeah, maybe he 'll give you a nice, shiny medal for doing him such a big favor.
Maggie sighed and glanced around. The receptionist was many yards ahead of her down the hall, and Maggie had to double her speed to keep up. How long was this darn hallway anyway? Where was Connor's office? In the next county? She should've left a trail of bread crumbs. If she had to leave in a hurry, she'd never find her way out. Heck, she could wander these corridors for years. It was starting to feel as if she was stuck on some kind of neverending death march.
Stop whining. Just turn around and walk away before it's too late.
If she had a choice, she would take her own subliminal advice and hightail it out of there. She'd taken a big risk coming here and now she was regretting it with every step she took. Hadn't she spent half of her life avoiding risks? So why in the world was she here?
Because she didn't have a choice. She was desperate. Truly, completely desperate. Connor MacLaren was her last hope.
But he hates you, and for good reason. Walk away. Walk away.
"Oh, shut up!"
Susan stopped and turned. "Is something wrong, Ms. James?"
Yes, something's wrong! That's not my real name! Maggie wanted to shout, but instead she flashed a bright smile. "No, absolutely nothing."
As soon as the woman continued walking, Maggie rolled her eyes. Not only was she talking to herself, but now she was arguing with herself, too. Out loud. This couldn't be a good sign.
Her life truly had descended to the lowest rung of the pits of hell, not to be overly dramatic about it.
Even the cheery receptionist had caught on to the desperation vibe that hung on Maggie like a bad suit. She had taken one look at Maggie's faded blue jeans and ancient suede jacket, and smiled at her with so much sympathy in her eyes that Maggie wouldn't be surprised to have the woman slip her a ten-dollar bill on her way out.
Treat yourself to a hot meal, sweetie, Maggie imagined the woman whispering kindly.
Unquestionably, Maggie had been hiding out in the remote hills of Marin for way too long. Glancing down at her serviceable old jacket and jeans, she realized that she'd lost the ability to dress for success. Her boots were ancient. She hadn't been to a beauty spa in more than three years. True, she hadn't exactly turned into a cave dweller, but she certainly wasn't on top of her fashion game, either. And while that wasn't a bad thing as far as Maggie was concerned, it was probably a mistake not to have factored it in when she was about to go face-to-face with one of Northern California's top power brokers.
The man whose heart everyone believed she'd broken ten years ago.
Someday she would find out why Connor had allowed everyone in town to believe it was her fault they'd broken up all those years ago. It wasn't true, of course. They'd had what could charitably be called a mutual parting of the ways. She could remember their last conversation as if had happened yesterday because Maggie was the one who'd ended up with a broken heart. Her life had changed drastically after that, and not in a good way.
Why had her old friends turned their backs on her and blamed her for hurting Connor so badly? Had he lied about it after she left town? It didn't seem like something Connor would have done, but she had been away such a long time. Maybe he had changed.
Maggie shook her head. She would never understand men and she wasn't even sure she wanted to. But someday she would ask him why he did it. Not today, though, when she had so many bigger problems to deal with. She didn't dare take the risk.
Turn around. Walk away.
"Here we are," Susan the receptionist said cheerfully as she came to a stop in front of another set of intimidating double doors. "Please go right in, Ms. James. He's expecting you."
No, he isn't! He's not expecting a liar!
Maggie smiled stiffly. "Thank you, Susan."
The woman walked away and Maggie faced the closed doors. She could feel her heart pounding against her ribs. The urge to walkno, runaway was visceral. But she'd come this far on sheer nerves, so there was no way she would walk away now. Besides, even if she did try to leave, she'd never find her way out of this office maze.
"Just get it over with," she muttered, and praying for strength, she pushed on the door. It opened silently, gliding across the thick carpeting.
At her first glimpse of Connor, Maggie's throat tightened. She tried to swallow, but it was no use. She would just have to live with this tender, emotional lump in her throat forever.