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The last thing Alexis Worthington wanted to do was beg for a job. Especially from her own father. She watched the numbers climb on the elevator as she rode to the top floor of the family's downtown Oklahoma City building. Then she went straight to the ladies' room to check that her updo was still tucked in and her conservative blue suit was lint free, and most important to meet with Norma, her father's longtime assistant. She pushed open the door and relaxed for the first time that morning.
"Oh, my goodness, Alexis, look at you." Norma, her auburn hair swept into the same French twist she'd worn since the nineties, shook her head fondly. "You're looking more and more like your mother."
"And you look younger than when I saw you last year. How does that work?" Lexy's laugh broke into a cough when Norma nearly squeezed the breath out of her.
The woman stood barely five feet but she had strong, wiry arms and a steel will to match. She was the perfect assistant for Marshall Worthington and had stuck it out with him for over twenty years. Lexy only wished her own mother was as capable of going toe-to-toe with him.
Norma moved back to hold Lexy at arm's length. "Why are you dressed like a funeral director?"
"Gee, thanks." Lexy quickly smoothed back the tendril of hair Norma had dislodged. "This is an Armani suit and I think I look very professional."
Norma sighed. "You do. You just don't look like you."
"Today isn't about me," she said quietly. This was about getting back in her father's good graces. Eight years and he still hadn't forgiven her for not going to Harvard.
"You have a point. He's awfully stubborn."
Stubborn wasn't the word Lexy would have gone for. Infuriating. Ultraconservative. Controlling. But that wasn't all he was, and she couldn't afford to forget that he'd been a loving father. Until she'd chosen her own path.
God, she hated having to grovel. Hated it.
No, she refused to look at it that way. All she'd ever wanted was to join the family business and she'd prepared herself by learning the workings of the The Worthington Group inside and out. Besides, she was qualified and her father knew it.
She faced herself in the mirror and plucked a tiny piece of lint off the wool blazer. The damn suit had cost her a fortune. She wouldn't have minded the expense if it hadn't pushed her dangerously close to maxing out her last credit card. But she needed to appear confident, successful, even though Marshall Worthington would see right through her. It wouldn't matter. Appearances meant everything to her father.
"We should go," Norma said, squeezing Lexy's hand before leading the way.
Together, they walked past a pretty, fresh-faced blonde manning the reception desk. "Remember the summer I spent sitting right there?" It had been the month between junior and senior year of prep school. She'd gone to the house in St. Thomas for part of her break. But she'd quickly grown bored and thought it would be useful to get to know more about the company.
"Of course I remember. Marshall couldn't have been more pleased."
Back then it seemed Lexy could do no wrong. Full of promise, competitive to a fault, she'd been Daddy's little girl. The golden child. Until everything had gone to hell. "What's with all the art deco?" The lobby had been the very picture of tradition, and now it was gleaming with chrome and lacquer.
"Harrison," Norma said.
"Wow. I'll give it to him. He must have been very convincing to win Dad over." Lexy tried to not feel resentful. Bitterness would only derail her meeting. Besides, she had no right. She sure hadn't given her brother's feelings a thought when the attention and praise were centered on her. She'd been far too selfish, her sense of entitlement off the charts. Easy to see now, so at least she could be grateful for losing the blinders. Besides, she wasn't looking to replace Harrison. She only wanted him to scoot over a little.
They'd reached her father's office, his huge double doors still the same sturdy oak. She paused a moment, wondering if recanting would've been enough for him. Had she backed down and gone to Harvard like he wanted, would her life have turned out differently? Or would he have held it against her for daring to have her own opinion?
Sadly, her decision to go to Stanford had had nothing to do with sound reasoning and everything to do with Hunter Livingston. After dating him for six months they'd agreed to apply to Stanford together. It had never occurred to her that her father would object. And with such vehemence. Before she knew it, her innocent act of independence had escalated to full-blown rebellion.
Ironically, her relationship with Hunter hadn't made it to freshman year. But the war with her father had quietly raged on.
"I assume he's in there."
"Yes. So is Harrison."
"Are they just finishing up?" she asked, hoping she'd be meeting her father alone.
"No, I'm afraid your brother fully intends to stick his nose where it doesn't belong."
Lexy sighed. "So they're waiting for me."
Norma nodded. "It's shameful, their treating this like an interview. You have as much right to help run this company as Harrison does. I haven't spoken to your father for two days." She slipped behind her desk, tugged down the hem of her black blazer and lowered her voice. "I don't even know if the idiot noticed."
That made Lexy smile.
Norma pressed the intercom buzzer with a manicured red nail, announced Lexy's arrival, then released the button before her father could respond. Wonderful. That must've improved his mood.
"Don't take any guff from them, you hear me?" Nor-ma's warning frown eased. "It's good to have you back."
Switching her purse to her left hand, Lexy murmured, "Let's not get ahead of ourselves."
Norma's expression fell. "That doesn't sound like the girl I know."
That headstrong idealist hadn't been up to her eyeballs in debt. Still, the sadness in Norma's green eyes got to Lexy and she pulled back her shoulders. "You're right. I'm going to totally kill this," she said, and smiled at the alarm in the older woman's face. "It's slang. And it's a good thing."
"Oh. Well, then, go kill it."
Lexy paused, her hand on the doorknob. Maybe Harrison was sticking around to give her moral support. He was actually a pretty good brother most of the time. Okay, some of the time.
She found a smile the second before she opened the door.
"Good morning, Father," she said, not surprised to see him sitting behind his antique mahogany desk.
He nodded. "Good morning, Alexis. You're right on time."
When she didn't immediately see Harrison, she thought Norma might've been mistaken. And then Lexy spotted him, sitting on the couch against the back wall, directly under the Monet. His relaxed posture couldn't hide the frost in his eyes.
"Hello, Harrison, good to see you." She tensed when he didn't respond. So what. .he felt threatened? Too bad. There was plenty of room in the company for both of them.
It would serve Harrison right if she sat with her back to him but they weren't kids anymore. She settled in a chair that mostly faced her father without her position being rude to her brother. "The lobby looks great," she said. "Nice, clean lines but still warm and inviting."
"I'm still getting used to all that chrome," Marshall said with just enough disdain to get his disapproval across. "I've promised to give it another month."
"I'm glad you like it." Harrison moved to sit closer to Lexy. "We're branching out into new arenas. I feel it's appropriate for the company to have a fresh face. Show we're in step with the times, that we're as relevant now as we were three generations back."
"Good taste never goes out of style," her father said, his censoring gaze switching from Harrison to Lexy.
Oh, yeah, this was starting out well. Both of them looking for her to be an ally.
"Tell me about the new directions you're exploring," she said, and saw a hint of a smile lift the corners of her father's mouth. He must have liked the way she'd taken control of the conversation.
Harrison started in, suddenly brimming with enthusiasm. Until he was cut off with a raised hand.
"Let's not get ahead of ourselves." Marshall's frown emphasized the lines creasing his forehead and fanning out at the corners of his blue eyes. "I hope you have your résumé with you. And your transcripts. I'd like to see what kind of education Stanford provided."
Her temper flared. She'd known this wouldn't be easy but she'd hoped he wouldn't be petty. "Really, Dad? You don't know where I've been working or what I've been doing for the past three years?" Her annoyance was met with silence. "Either way, does it matter?"
He studied her for a moment, then hit his intercom button. "Norma, would you please send in coffee?"
Lexy dug into her briefcase as she took a couple of calming breaths. "Here," she said, leaning forward to slide the papers across his desk. "My résumé and transcripts."
She saw the ghost of a smile again and knew he was impressed that she'd stayed a step ahead of him.
At least now, for the most part, she could read him. As a child she'd been incapable of deciphering the peculiar mix of respect and frustration he seemed to feel for her. He admired her independence and strong will right up until she defied something he held sacrosanct.
From as far back as she could remember, relatives, employees-everyone-had commented on how much she was like her father. They were both smart, goaloriented and driven.
But that's where the similarities ended. Her father was dogmatic in the single-mindedness that propelled him through life. While she cared about the company, a lot more than her father or anyone else realized, there was more to her than the Worthington name. Yes, she'd do almost anything to protect their image, but she had her own line in the sand.
"I see you've had only one long-term job since graduate school," he said, scanning the first page. "Why is that?"
"I wondered that myself after I'd interviewed nonstop for several months. I finally figured out it had to do with my last name."
He looked up. "I hope you aren't implying I interfered."
"Not at all." She smiled. "You didn't have to."
He held her gaze for a long disconcerting moment. If he cut the meeting short it would be her fault. Dammit, she'd promised herself she wouldn't bait him. She needed this job more than she needed to be right.
After a brief knock, the door opened. Norma rolled in a coffee service, which she pushed toward the sofas and conference table.
"Not there," Harrison said. "Here will be fine. We shouldn't be much longer."
Norma blinked, then looked to Marshall for confirmation.
Lexy had no idea if he'd responded nonverbally. Her gaze had gone from Norma to her brother. When their eyes met, the contempt that swept his features startled her. Why was he running hot and cold? She hadn't done anything to him. Harrison had always been the yes-sir, no-sir type, waiting to express his scorn behind their father's back. He'd applauded her defiance. Called her his hero.
"You still take your coffee black, honey?" Norma laid a hand on her shoulder.
Lexy looked up and smiled. "I wouldn't turn down a squirt of agave if you have it."
"Just so happens we do."
Harrison gave Norma a stern look, which she ignored by pouring from the sterling-silver coffeepot that had been in the family for years.
"Since when do we have agave?" he asked, emphasizing the word as if it were a curse.
"Since I bought it, dear," Norma said sweetly.
Lexy stifled a laugh. Harrison was clearly trying to make some sort of point, probably that Norma had gone out of her way for Lexy. But he was no match for the stalwart Norma, and he should've learned that lesson by now.
She passed out the filled china cups, and only then did Lexy dare to look up. And saw that her father also was holding back a smile. Their gazes met, briefly, and warmth filled Lexy's chest. For one crazy moment she was Daddy's little girl again, the two of them sharing a private joke.
"So you were telling us why you haven't been able to hold down a job," Harrison said.
Lexy shot him an I'll-be-damned-if-I'll-answer-to-you look, which promptly shut him up. It had never mattered that he was older. She'd been stronger, more outspoken, and he'd rarely challenged her. Maybe that was the reason he felt threatened by her return. "Thank you, Norma," she said, taking her first sip. "This is perfect."
"Let me know if you need anything else." She addressed Lexy, ignoring the two men, then pushed the cart to the side and left the office.
Her father's attention returned to the résumé, his eyes giving nothing away when he finally glanced up. "An account exec? You must've been bored."
"Yes, as a matter of fact." Her own fault. That's what he was thinking, and he wasn't wrong.
"So what brings you back now?" He leaned back in his black leather chair and regarded her over steepled fingers.
"I've always wanted to work for the company. But you already know that."
He smiled a little. "I thought perhaps you'd decided otherwise. After all, your call came out of the blue."
"I was let go from Mattheson and Myers." She leaned forward to set down her coffee. Knowing better than to risk marking the mahogany, she thought it fitting to leave the cup and saucer on her Stanford transcripts. It still rankled that he'd asked for them. "The company signed a new client who they believed would consider my employment a conflict of interest."
"Ah. A former customer of ours, I presume?"
"I don't know. They kept the name confidential."
Harrison snorted. "So we're the consolation prize?"
Lexy swiveled around to look him directly in the eye. "Is that what you think?"
"Don't turn this back on me." His face reddened. "I worked here every summer during college and grad school, then started full-time the day after I got my Harvard degree. And I've busted my ass for this company every day since."
She knew he'd throw in Harvard. "You can work hard or you can work smart. I didn't make that choice for you." They'd engaged in a mild rivalry at prep school. She'd had the better grades, while he'd always studied much harder. She pressed her lips together before taking a deep breath. "Look, Harrison, I know you've earned your place here. I'm simply looking for the chance to earn mine."
He blinked, then looked away.
Lexy knew her father was watching them. He'd encouraged their competitiveness as children. She hoped he didn't still consider it a good idea. Ignoring him, she addressed her brother. "You mentioned branching out in other areas. Tell me about it."
Harrison sipped his coffee, his brow furrowed, clearly torn over whether to trust her or not. The realization made her sad.
Finally, he cleared his throat, made eye contact again. "Sports. Equipment, outdoor gear, that sort of thing, but also team ownership. The consumer's consciousness has been raised to return to American products. I'm sure you're aware that we took several hits from the media over sending jobs abroad." He shrugged as if his solution was a no-brainer. "What's more American than baseball or football?"
She wasn't sure what to say. This was quite a departure from their grassroots business of brand foods and paper products, and eventually, real estate. Not just that, but she didn't understand how owning a sports team made the company more patriotic.
"Alexis, you look surprised."
She turned to her father while she searched for the right words. The last thing she wanted to do was second-guess Harrison. "Frankly, I am. But it's an interesting concept. I'd like to hear more."
Her father's laugh was brief and without humor. "You want to earn a place at The Worthington Group, then speak your mind. God knows you've never had any trouble before."
He was right, and while she could grovel a bit, she wasn't about to change who she was. "The public isn't wrong. We should be keeping more jobs at home. Providing American jobs was part of the foundation this company was built on. That being said, I'm not clear yet as to how sports will complement the company's brand."
She didn't bother to look at her brother. Tension radiated from him and she didn't doubt he placed the blame for this farce at her feet. Then again, she could've blindly endorsed his plans in a show of solidarity. But that wasn't in her nature. She liked to know the facts. Explore every angle. Make sure she was in control before facing off with Marshall Worthington.