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The incessant barking from the backyard of his family's palatial estate confirmed Caleb Fairchild's fear. His grandmother had gone to the dogs.
Cursing under his breath, he pressed the doorbell.
A symphony of chimes filled the air, drowning out the irritating barks. Forget Mozart. Forget Bach. Only a commissioned piece from a respected New York composer would do for Gertrude Fairchild, his grandmother who had founded a billion-dollar skin care company with his late grandfather in Boise, Idaho.
Caleb was here to put an end to her frivolous infatuation with man's best friend. It was the only way to keep Fair Face, the family company, successful and profitable.
The front door opened, greeting him with a blast of cold air and a whiff of his grandmother's floral scent perfume.
Short white curls bounced every which way. She looked fifty-seven not seventy-seven, thanks to decades of using her own skin care products.
"Caleb! I saw your car on the security camera so told Mrs. Harrison I would answer the door." The words rushed from Grams's mouth faster than lobster tails disappeared from the buffet table at the country club. "What are you doing here? Your assistant said you didn't have any free time this week. That's why I mailed you the dog care prototypes."
He hadn't expected Grams to be so excited by his visit. He kissed her cheek. "I'm never too busy for you."
Her cornflower blue eyes danced with laughter. "This is such a lovely surprise."
Sweat trickled down his back. Too bad he couldn't blame the perspiration on the warm June day.
He adjusted his yellow tie then smoothed his suit jacket. But no matter how professional he looked, she wasn't going to like what he had to say. "I'm not here as your grandson. I need to speak with you as Fair Face's CEO"
"Oh, sweetheart." The warmth in her voice added to his discomfort. "I raised you. You'll always be my grandson first."
Her words hit him like a sucker-punch. He owed Grams everything.
She opened the door wider. "Come in."
"Nice sari," he said.
Grams struck a pose. "Just something I had in my closet."
He entered the foyer. "Better add Bollywood to your bucket list."
"Already have." She closed the door. "Let's go out on the patio and chat."
Chat, not speak or discuss or talk. Not good.
Caleb glanced around. Something was off.
Museum-worthy works of art hung in the same places. The squeaky dog toys and ravaged stuffed animals on the shiny hardwood floor were new. But the one display he expected to see, what he wanted to see, what he longed to see was missing from its usual spot.
His throat tightened. "Where are the"
"In the living room."
Caleb walked around the corner and saw the three-foot U.S. Navy aircraft carrier replicas showcased on a brand-new wooden display case. He touched the deck of the USS Ronald Reagan.
Familiar. Soothing. Home.
"I've been making some changes around here," Grams said from behind him. "I thought they deserved a nicer place than the foyer."
He faced her. "Gramps would like this."
"That's what I thought, too. Have you eaten lunch?"
"I grabbed something on my way over."
"Then you need dessert. I have cake. Made it myself." She touched Caleb's arm with her thin, vein-covered hand. "Carrot, not chocolate, but still tasty."
Grams always felt the urge to feed him. He knew she wouldn't give up until he agreed to have a bite to eat. "I'll have something before I leave."
A satisfied smile graced her glossed lips.
At least one of them was happy.
Back in the foyer, he kicked a tennis ball with his foot. "It's a miracle you don't break a hip with all these dog toys laying around."
"I might be old, but I'm still spry." His grandmother's gaze softened. She placed her hand over her heart. "Heavens. Every time I see you, you remind me more and more of your father. God rest his soul."
Caleb's stomach churned as if he'd eaten one too many spicy Buffalo wings. He strived hard to be nothing like his feckless father. A man who'd wanted nothing to do with Fair Face. A man who'd blown through money like a hedge fund manager's mistress. A man who'd died in a fiery speedboat crash off the Cote d'Azur with his girlfriend du jour.
Grams' gaze ran the length of Caleb. She clucked her tongue. "But you've got to stop dressing like a high-class mortician."
"Not this again." Caleb raised his chin, undaunted, and followed her out of the foyer. "You'd have me dress like a rugged, action-adventure movie star. A shirtless one, given the pictures you share on Facebook."
They walked by the dining room where two elaborate chandeliers hung above a hand-carved mahogany table that sat twenty.
"You're a handsome man," Grams said. "Show off your assets."
"I'm the CEO. I have a professional image to maintain."
"There's no corporate policy that says your hair can't touch your collar."
"The cut suits my position."
"Your suits are a whole other matter." She pointed at his chest. "Your tie is too understated. Red screams power. We'll go shopping. Girls these days are looking for the whole package. That includes having stylish hair and being a snazzy dresser."
And not taking your grandmother's fashion advice.
They walked into the kitchen. A basket of fruit and a covered cake stand sat on the marble counter. Something simmered on the stove. The scent of basil filled the air. Normal, everyday things, but this visit home felt anything but normal.
"Women only care about the balance in my bank account," he said.
"Some. Not all." She stopped, squeezed his hand, the way she'd done for as long as Caleb remembered. Her tender touch and her warm hugs had seen him through death, heartbreak and everyday life. "You'll find a woman who cares only about you."
Difficult to do when he wasn't looking, but he wasn't telling Grams that today. One piece of bad news a day met her quota. "I like being single."
"You must have one-night stands or friends with benefits."
He flinched. "You're spending too much time on Facebook."
A disturbing realization formed in his mind. Discussing sex might be easier than talking to Grams about her dog skin care products.
She placed her hands on her hips. "I would like great grandchildren one of these years while I can still get on the floor and play with them. Why do you think I created that line of organic baby products?"
"Everyone at the company knows you want great grandchildren."
"What's a woman to do?" She put her palms up. Gold bracelets clinked against each other. "You and your sister are in no rush to give me grandbabies while I'm still breathing."
"Can you imagine Courtney as a mom?"
"She has some growing up to do," Grams admitted, but without any accusation or disappointment. She walked into the family room with its leather couches, huge television and enough books on the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves to start a library. "Though I give you credit for at least proposing to that money-grubbing floozy, Cash-andra."
Unwelcome memories flooded him. His heart cried foul. Cheat. Sucker. "Cassandra."
The woman had introduced herself to him at a benefit dinner. Smart and sexy as hell, Cassandra knew what buttons to push to become the center of his universe. She'd made him feel more like a warrior than a businessman. Marriage hadn't been on his radar screen, but when she gave him an ultimatum, he'd played right into her hand with a romantic proposal and a stunning three-carat engagement ring only to find out everything about her and their relationship had been a scam, a ruse, a lie.
"Cash-andra fits." Grams held up three fingers. "Refusing to sign the agreed-upon prenup. Twotiming you. Hiring a divorce attorney before saying I do. No wonder you're afraid to date."
He squared his shoulders. "I'm not afraid."
Not afraid of Cassandra.
Not afraid of any woman.
But he was cautious.
After Cassandra wouldn't sign the prenup, he'd called off the wedding and broken up with her. She'd begged him for a second chance, and he'd been tempted to reconcile, until a private investigator proved the woman was a gold digger in the same league as his own mother.
Grams waved a hand in the air, as if she could brush aside bad things in the world. Light reflected off her three diamond rings, anniversary presents from his grandfather. "I shouldn't have mentioned the Jezebel."
At least Caleb had gotten away relatively unscathed except for a bruised ego and broken heart. Unlike his father who'd wound up with two kids he'd never wanted.
She exited the house through the family room's French doors.
Caleb followed her outside to see new furniturea large gleaming, teak table surrounded matching wood chairs, a hammock and padded loungers.
The sun beat down. He pulled out a chair for his grandmother, who sat. "It's hot. Let me put up the umbrella."
Grams picked up a black rectangular remote from the table. "I've got it."
She pressed a button.
A cantilevered umbrella opened, covering them in shade.
He joined her at the table.
"What do you think about the dog products?" Gertie asked.
No birds chirped. Even the crickets seemed to be napping. The only thing he heard was an occasional bark and his grandfather's voice.
Do what must be done. For Fair Face. For your grandmother.
Caleb would rather be back in his office dealing with end-of-quarter results. Who was he kidding? He'd rather be anywhere else right now.
"Interesting prototypes," he said. "Appealing fragrance and texture."
Gertie whistled. "Wait until you see them in action."
Dogs ran full speed from around the corner. A blur of gray, brown and black. The three animals stopped at Grams's feet, mouths panting and tails wagging.
"Feel how soft they are." Pride filled her voice as if the dogs were as much a part of her gene pool as Caleb was.
He rested his hands on the table, not about to touch one of her animals. "Most fur is soft if a dog is clean."
"Not Dozer's." She scooped up the little brown dog, whose right eye had been sewn shut. Not one of her expensive show dogs. A rescue or foster. "His hair was bristly and dry with flakes."
"Allergies. Animals have sensitivities like humans. That's why companies need to use natural and organic ingredients. No nasty chemicals or additives. Look at Dozer now." She stared at the dog with the same love and acceptance she'd always given Courtney and him. Even before their father had dumped them here after their mother ran off with her personal trainer. "That's why I developed Fair Face's new line of animal products."
Ignoring the gray dog brushing against his leg, Caleb held up his hands to stop her. "Fair Face doesn't manufacture animal products."
Grams's grin didn't falter. "Not yet, but you will. I've tested the formulas on my consultant and myself. We've used them on my dogs."
"I didn't know you hired a consultant."
"Her name is Becca. You'll love her."
Caleb doubted that. Most consultants were only looking for a big payday. He'd have to check this Becca's qualifications. "You realize Fair Face is a skin care company. Human skin."
"Skin or fur. Two legs or four. Change expansion is important if a company wants to remain relevant."
"Not in this case." He needed to be careful not to hurt Grams's feelings. "Our resources are tied up with the launch of the organic baby care line. This isn't the time to expose ourselves to more risk."
Lines tightened around her mouth. "Your grandfather built Fair Face by taking risks. Sometimes you have to put yourself out on a limb."
"Limbs break. I have one thousand one hundred thirty-three employees who count on me to make sure they receive paychecks."
"What I'm asking you to do is not risky. The formulas are ready to go into production. Put together a pilot sales program and we're all set."
"It's not that simple, Grams. Fair Face is a multinational company. We have extra product testing and research to ensure ourselves against liability issues." The words came out slowly, full of intent and purpose and zero emotion. His grandmother was the smartest woman he knew, used to getting her way. If he wasn't careful, he would find himself not only manufacturing her products, but also taking one of her damn dogs home. Likely the one-eyed mutt with soft fur. "I won't expose Fair Face to the additional expense of trying to break into an unknown market."
Grams sighed, a long drawn out sigh he hadn't heard since Courtney lost her passport in Prague when she was supposed to be in Milan.
"Sometimes I wish you had a little more of your father in you instead of being so buttoned-down and by-the-book."
The aggravation in her voice matched the tension cording in Caleb's neck. The tightness seeped to his shoulders, spilled down his spine. "This isn't personal. I can't afford to make a mistake, and you should be enjoying your retirement, not working in your lab."
"I'm a chemist. That's what I do. You didn't have this problem with the organic baby line." Frustration tinged each of her words, matching the I-wish-you'ddrop-it look in her eyes. "I see what's going on. You don't like the dog care products."
"I never said that."
"But it's the truth." She studied him as if she were trying to prove a hypothesis. "You've got that look. The one you got when you said it didn't matter if your father came home for Christmas."
"I never needed him here. I had you and Gramps." Caleb would try a new tactic. He scooted his chair closer. "Remember Gramps's marketing tagline."
"The fairest face of all "
"His words still define the company today. Fifty years later." Caleb leaned toward her, as if his nearness would soften the blow. "I'm sorry to say it, but dog products, no matter how natural or organic or aromatherapeutic, have no place at Fair Face."
"It's still my company." She enunciated each word with a firm voice punctuated by her ramrod posture.
Disappointing his grandmother was something his father did, not Caleb. He felt like a jerk. One with a silk noose around his neck choking him.
"I know that, but it's not just my decision." A plane flew overhead. A dog barked. The silence at the table deepened. He prepared himself to say what he'd come here to say. "I met with the department heads before coming over here. Showed them your prototypes. Ran the numbers. Calculated margins."
"Everyone has high expectations for your baby skin care line," he said. "But they agreemoving into animal products will affect Fair Face's reputation, not enhance our brand and lead to loss of revenue, anywhere from 2.3 to 5.7 percent."
Caleb expected to see a reaction, hear a retort. But Grams remained silent, her face still, nuzzling the dog against her neck. "Everyone thinks this?"
He nodded once.
Disbelief flickered across her face. She'd looked the same way when she learned his grandfather had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's. But then something sparked. A spark of resignation. No, a spark of resolve.
"Well, that settles it. I trust you know what's best for Fair Face." She sounded doting and grandmotherly, not disappointed and hurt. "Becca and I will figure out another way."
"Another way for what?"
Grams's eyes darkened to a steely blue. "To manufacture the products. You and those suits at Fair Face are wrong. There's a market for my dog skin care line. A big one."