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By Michèle Phoenix
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.
Copyright © 2012 Michèle Phoenix
All right reserved.
Chapter One JANUARY 2001
Marshall Becker planted both palms on the impossibly shiny surface of his friend and business partner's cherrywood desk and leveled the kind of look at him that made foremen quake and contractors relent.
"Say what?" His voice was low, but it packed all the threat of his glare.
Gary pushed back from the desk, the wheels of his leather chair soundless on the Oriental rug that covered the office's Italian tile floors, and crossed his arms. He glanced out the window at the breathtaking sunset view of Boston's ice-covered Charles River and the waterfront homes that still sported their Christmas lights. Then he looked back at Becker, resolve in his eyes. "It's for your own good."
"You didn't just say that!" Becker snapped, smacking the desktop with his hand.
Gary sat forward in his chair, elbows on the desk. He met Beck's stare with practiced calm. "Will you let me explain?"
"You can explain all you want. The answer is still going to be a resounding no."
"Dude? What are we—twelve?"
"It's a sound business decision. We need this contract."
"The Sag Harbor project is nearly finished. You can't pull me off that now."
"Kevin'll take over for the homestretch."
"And the deal on the Annapolis Inn ..."
"We haven't signed off on it yet. Even if we do, you know there's months of preliminary work before we can start the remodel."
Beck stepped back from the desk and crossed his arms. He could feel a vein pulsing in his forehead and a telltale flush moving up his neck. "We're equal partners."
Gary raised an eyebrow. "Yes."
"We both make the big decisions. We consult."
"So this is an obvious call, and if you were being logical, you'd agree."
Becker sighed. They both knew that neither logic nor rational choices had been a high priority for him in months. Maybe years. He was past caring. "We're pulling out," Beck said. He jutted his chin toward the phone. "Go ahead—pick it up. We're pulling out."
Gary looked him straight in the eye. "I've already signed the contract."
"What?" Beck stared at him in disbelief. "Let me get this straight—you get a call from some guy you met at a convention offering you a job in a country where neither of us has ever stepped foot, and you—without consulting with me—sign on the dotted line? Seriously?"
Gary nodded. "That's the gist of it."
Beck hissed out a lungful of frustration and dragged his fingers through his hair. His eyes settled on the wall to the right of Gary's desk. Stalking around the desk, he grabbed a plaque from the wall. "You see this?" He pointed at the names engraved in the polished copper, his finger spearing at the company logo. "T&B. Gary Tyler and Marshall Becker. Tyler and Becker!" He accentuated his own name. "I'm in this too, dude," he sneered, "and unless you plan on taking the B off this plaque, you don't make any decisions without consulting me. And certainly not if they involve me flying halfway around the globe to do the work!"
He hurled the plaque across the desk. It sailed off the edge, upsetting a pile of Architectural Digests, and fell nearly soundlessly to the silk rug on the floor.
"Get ahold of yourself." Gary's voice was low, his eyes burdened.
Becker glared a moment longer, lips pursed, before moving to retrieve the plaque. He brushed it off and, with great precision, hung it back on the wall. Fingers unsteady, he spent an inordinate amount of time leveling it before stuffing his hands into his pockets and walking over to the panoramic window with its priceless view across the river, his body so rigid that he could feel his muscles spasming. He gazed out from the eighth floor of the Back Bay brownstone that had been the first and finest renovation of their twelve years of collaboration, his mind less on the view than on the dilemma at hand.
"What if I refuse?" he asked quietly. "What if I call your stuffed shirt myself and tell him T&B has changed its mind?"
Gary moved to the front of the desk and leaned back against it, facing his friend with a mixture of concern and determination on his face. "We risk losing his business."
Beck turned on his partner, eyebrows raised, ready to make that sacrifice, but Gary put up his hand in caution. "This is just one contract, Beck. But the guy owns half the historical properties in that part of the world. It might be hundreds of thousands—maybe millions—we're throwing away. Not to mention getting our foot in the door of a European market."
Beck leaned back against the window. "Why'd you do it?"
"Why did I commit?" Gary pursed his lips for a moment. "Because you need to get away from here. And because you're the right guy for the project. And it wasn't going to happen unless I—me, your business partner—took the initiative."
"It's a straightforward renovation gig. Any one of our guys could head it up."
"Number one, castle renovations are never straightforward, and number two, none of our guys have been project managers for jobs this size. None of them are the master craftsman you are, and none of them speak the language."
A long silence settled over the office. An antique grandfather clock ticked sullenly in the corner, a gift from one of their most prestigious clients.
Beck finally spoke, weariness in his voice. "So you think I need to get away from here."
"And the sooner the better." Gary pushed off the desk and moved to stand by his friend at the window, staring out as night fell over the stately homes of Arlington Street. "Seriously, Beck. You're the one who can pull this off. He doesn't want industrial efficiency. He wants traditional workmanship. You're the best guy for that."
"Not by myself—not this big of a job."
"He's got crews there who can do the bigger stuff. You'll oversee the project and personally take care of the more tricky renovations."
Beck nodded and pressed his lips into a hard line.
"It's what you do best," Gary repeated. "It's what your passion was at Dartmouth—before you became the tyrannical moron you are now."
The men stared at each other for long moments.
"I want lodging on-site."
"So you can avoid sleeping by working all night?"
Beck raised an eyebrow.
"Done," Gary conceded. "I'll talk to the owner myself."
"I'm sure that can be arranged."
Gary winced. "You can't drive here, so why should you drive there?"
"Because my DUI doesn't count over there?"
"They have taxis. Use them. We're not in any shape to deal with a lawsuit if you tangle with French policemen."
"Fine, but T&B foots the bills."
The two men stared each other down, Gary's blue gaze holding Becker's amber glare without the slightest trace of capitulation.
"You're talking about a pretty big step here," Beck finally mumbled.
"It'll do you good."
"And you know that because ...?"
"Trish told me it will," Gary said. Trish was the sweetest woman Beck had ever met, and he wondered how she'd put up with Gary for nearly ten years.
"You bypassed me completely on this one."
"For your own good, Beck. Come on—give it a shot."
Beck shook his head and stared up at the ceiling.
"What do you have to lose?" his friend added.
That was just it. He had nothing to lose. Except frustrating jobs, tedious social engagements, and endless nights staring at his TV or computer screen. "What do you gain from this?" he finally asked.
Gary shrugged. "Not sure. But this is about you, man. And the welfare of the contractors you've been terrorizing." He shrugged when Beck cut him a disparaging look. "I can't afford to lose another one to emotional distress. Not good for business."
"You're full of it," Beck mumbled.
"Besides—Trish's been planning an intervention for months now. So that's your option. Either you go off to France like a good little boy and bring in some dough for our retirement funds, or you stay here and have a horde of do-gooders descend on you to commit you to a Doofus Anonymous center."
Beck rolled his eyes. "Nobody says doofus."
"I'm an innovator."
"You're full of it."
"So you've said."
Beck leveled a laser-sharp stare at his friend and held it for a moment. They squared off like wrestlers in a ring, both above six feet and built like quarterbacks. If things had ever come to blows, it was anybody's guess who would have come out on top. "Don't ever overstep me again," Beck said with unmistakable gravity. "Not for my own good. Not for T&B's good. We're equal partners. Just be happy I'm in the mood for a change of scenery this time."
"Agreed." Gary went around the desk and retrieved a manila folder from one of the drawers, then slid it across to Beck. "Here's what you need to know. Ticket's in there too. You leave February 2, two weeks from tomorrow."
"Are you kiddin' me?"
"First class. To Paris. Stop your whining."
Beck leafed through the documents in the file and took a closer look at several photos. "This is big," he said without looking up.
"But you love it, right? Do I know you or do I know you?"
Beck pointed at his friend with the folder. "If this thing goes bust, the blame's on you."
Beck moved toward the door, grabbing his jacket off a leather chair and casting a disparaging glance at Gary's shoes. "And buy some real shoes, will you?" he said. "Those shiny Italian things are for sissies."
"You know what, Beck? Go to—"
"France? Why, I believe I will." He gave his partner the you-owe-me-one look that had gotten them through the worst hurdles of their collaboration and opened the door.
* * *
The two weeks before Beck's departure passed in a frenzy of work-related pressures—tying up loose ends on nearly finished projects, handing others off to collaborators, and postponing those that didn't require immediate attention. Beck and Gary pored over what few blueprints they had of the castle in France, comparing visions and arriving at creative compromises that were both pragmatic and artistic. There was little they could truly predict from a continent away, but what could be anticipated was meticulously planned out. Turning a castle into a high-class hotel and restaurant, of course, was primarily a business proposition, but the hotel needed to be true to its origins if it was going to attract the clientele its owner hoped for.
Beck entered the Lucky Leprechaun two days before his departure and took a stool at the end of the bar.
"Hey there, Beck," Jimmy said from the other side of the count er. "The usual?"
"Knockin' off early?" Jimmy asked, cutting a glance at the Miller Lite clock on the wall above the door.
"Just pour the beer."
The bartender saluted. "Aye, aye, sir."
There was some pleasure in watching the foam pour over the top of the tall glass and edge down its side, eventually soaking into the coaster's smiling leprechaun.
"Just past three and boozin' it up? What are we celebrating?" Leslie asked, sliding onto the stool next to his.
"My partner's insanity."
"Well, here's to the productively insane! If you two get any more successful, you're going to have to develop big-shot attitudes." Beck raised an eyebrow at her. "Never mind. That ship has sailed." She lifted a hand to get Jimmy's attention and pointed at Beck's beer. "One more."
Becker's eyes were on a recap of a Celtics game on the TV screen in the far corner of the room, but his mind was on the chore at hand. He hated this kind of thing. The artificial sincerity of cutting ties with the unimportant. He glanced at Leslie. Her eyes were on the game, her manicured fingers idly turning the glass of beer in front of her. Quarter turn, quarter turn, quarter turn. Her platinum hair was overteased and sprayed hard. Her makeup was garish—too bold and somehow geometric to actually flatter. Her business suit was expensive and sleek, cut to enhance her toned and trim physique. If he kept his eyes on that and away from her calculating gaze, he was okay. But if he met her dollar-sign stare for more than a few seconds at a time, the beer soured in his stomach.
"So talk fast—I'm between meetings. What's Gary's harebrained scheme this time?" she asked, swiveling toward him on her stool, legs crossed, the tip of her foot sliding around his calf. "Turning another dilapidated factory into a schooner museum?"
Beck turned to dislodge her foot. He dispensed with subtlety—wasn't in the mood for it anyway. "I'm heading to France. For a few months. Big project for one of Gary's contacts."
Leslie raised a perfectly arched eyebrow. "Nice. Can I come along?"
On the television screen, Paul Pierce took a shot from the top of the key and failed to make a basket. "I leave in two days. Thought you should know."
There was a pause while Leslie absorbed the information. Then she leaned in, her mouth close to his neck, and whispered, "Guess we'd better make the most of the time we have left, huh, slugger?"
The beer on her breath repulsed him. The way she touched his thigh did too. Then again, he'd never been more than mildly intrigued by her. Theirs was a cynical arrangement of convenience and distraction. He got the distraction and she got the ... He wasn't sure what she got, actually. It wasn't predictability and it certainly wasn't entertainment. More often than not, they used more words ordering their drinks than they did having a conversation. That's where the convenience came into play. Hours of company and no need for small talk. Didn't get any better than that.
"Actually," he said, taking a long swallow from his glass, "I'm going to be swamped, so ..."
"There are a lot of hours in a couple of days," she insisted, her voice dropping a notch or two as she traced the veins on the top of his hand with a fingertip. Whoever said a person couldn't live on hope alone had never met Leslie. She'd known him for several months and still lived with the delusion that she'd get him into bed. "What are you—a monk?" she'd asked one night, when he'd driven her home in the wee hours after a protracted cocktail party and dropped her at the curb. He'd driven off without answering, watching in his rearview mirror as she stomped her foot on the wet sidewalk. But she'd recovered fast enough and somehow made peace with the situation. As long as they played with fire on a regular basis, she seemed happy to be his drinking partner and social accessory. Suited him just fine.
Beck downed the last of his beer and dropped a twenty-dollar bill on the polished surface of the bar. He stood, grabbed his jacket off the stool next to him and moved toward the door.
"What—no 'See ya later'? No 'Nice knowin' you'?" Leslie swiveled on her stool, hands out in amazement, a flush of red high on her cheeks.
Beck gave her a long look, racking his mind for something meaningful to say. But he could no more validate their relationship with declarations than he could end it with regret. He shrugged, averted his eyes, and turned to go.
It hadn't taken long for Beck to say the rest of his good-byes. Most of them had required no more than a few words of instruction and a casual wave. Such was the nature of his friendships. They were about work or about distraction. Period. They didn't keep him warm at night, but they sure made transcontinental moves less complicated.
Excerpted from Tangled Ashes by Michèle Phoenix Copyright © 2012 by Michèle Phoenix. Excerpted by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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