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Heart and Sole
By Miranda Liasson, Alethea Spiridon Hopson
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2015 Miranda Liasson
All rights reserved.
Madison Kingston homed in on the tall, elegantly dressed man on the stage with all the desperation of a running back plunging full-force into the end zone. The weight of everything in her life hung in a dreadful, precarious balance, pressing into her chest, making her fight for breath. Reminding her this was the one ball she simply could not drop.
Yet the gorgeous hunk in front of the crowd flashed a nonchalant smile and tossed a carefree wave, as perfectly executed as if he were running for president. He stirred up the women with his darkly handsome, magazine-cover looks, using all his natural-born charisma and carefully-honed charm to reel everyone in. Qualities Maddie was now immune to.
For the sake of saving Kingston Shoes, her family's company, she had to be. Ignoring the icicles of fear pricking up and down her spine, she weaved her way through the roomful of high-society guests, closer to the front of the room. In the background, voices murmured and silverware clinked. Taking her seat at one of many elegantly appointed tables, Maddie looked around the high-ceilinged ballroom containing chandeliers dripping with crystals, gaudy red and gold carpet, and well-dressed women wearing gowns made to accentuate cleavage and curves. The smells of finely prepared pan-seared salmon and tender sirloin should have made her mouth water, but her stomach churned in rebellion. Groves of goose bumps riffled over her arms, but not from the cranked-up air conditioning.
They were gathered for the annual Bachelors with CHOP event, where ten prominent, unmarried businessmen were auctioned off to benefit the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. It was a festive evening with dinner, dancing, and, for a handful of lucky bidders, the promise of a weekend with the bachelor of their choice.
The emcee, a silver-haired man in a tux, addressed the guests. "Last but not least, our final bachelor needs no introduction. CEO of his own company, on the boards of many of our city's finest charities, he is a true philanthropist. In addition, he skydives, flies his own plane, and is rumored to own a small island in the Caribbean. Ladies and gentlemen — especially ladies, that is — let's give a big hand to the final bachelor of the Children's Hospital Charity Auction, Mr. Nicholas Holter!"
The high-class crowd bordered on rowdy with all the whoops and hollers. Nick flinched a little amid all the praise, and nervously straightened his tie, actually appearing a little uncomfortable with the attention. Maddie couldn't help but grimace. It had to be an act. Everything about Nick Holter was preplanned and scheduled, including the shining image he'd so carefully crafted.
Was this the same boy she'd adored more than Justin Timberlake, who would impulsively pick her bouquets of wildflowers because he couldn't afford anything else? Who had to borrow a beat-up Chevy Blazer to pick her up for prom? Who'd worked three jobs to earn money for college? She'd loved that boy. But she did not recognize the man.
Nick cleared his throat. "Holter Enterprises is looking to do all we can to help raise money for the new children's cancer ward. We're proud to be part of this town and to have such a great hospital serving our kids. I'm honored to be chosen as one of the lucky guys tonight, and I'll do all I can to ensure that the lovely lady who wins me has a great time. I'm sure it will be a big sacrifice on my part."
The crowd laughed, and Nick grinned at the beautiful women waving and fawning over him. Maddie rolled her eyes.
"So come on you all, let's bid high and raise some money for the kids."
You all, he'd said. Not y'all. Just a miniscule twinge of rural North Carolina rolled off his tongue, not noticeable to those who didn't know he'd grown up as far off the beaten track as was possible. Maddie was certain he didn't go around bragging — or even admitting — he'd been raised in their small town of Buckleberry Bend. But the little slipup reminded her of the younger, innocent Nick she'd known so well.
"Who knows, Nick?" the emcee joked. "Tonight maybe you'll even find your soul mate. I know half the women here are hoping it will be them."
Maddie let out a disgruntled tsk. Pu-lease. Auctions like this set women's rights back a full century. Who attended these things, anyway, paying thousands of dollars for the privilege of a weekend in his company like he was some entitled prince?
People like me. Well, at least Maddie didn't want him for herself. It was up to her to step forward and steer Kingston Shoes to success. As soon as she cleared out her office at the graphic design firm she worked for here in Philadelphia, she'd be back home in North Carolina doing exactly that. So what if she had little business experience and a long trail of mistakes that made her entire family's brows arch in skepticism?
She squeezed her eyes closed to shut out her own doubts. She had to leave her past behind. Prove to everyone, including herself, that she could take the reins of this company and make it prosper.
For the hundredth time, Maddie glanced longingly at the bright red exit signs on either side of the stage. It wasn't too late to leave, to cozy-up in her pjs with her DVR'd episodes of The Bachelor instead of watching the show live. But staying was the only way she could save the seventy-year-old family business her dad had lovingly run for the past twenty-five years. She could not disappoint him, not after all he'd been through.
Nick chuckled, his handsome face slacking easily into a smile that could break hearts at a single glance. One charming quirk of his gorgeous lips surely got him any woman he wanted.
It had worked on her not so very long ago.
He definitely wasn't looking for his soul mate. That would require having a soul to share, and he'd sold his off, along with his conscience.
Maddie knew better than to take all that male testosterone at face value. She knew what lay beneath the chiseled, determined jaw, the precisely cut head of thick dark hair and that rigid, perfect nose — a ruthless, cunning businessman set on taking over the world at any price.
Starting with her family's company.
Kingston Shoes. Well-engineered, comfortable shoes beloved by generations and fully made in America. Floundering sales brought on by a cheaper foreign market and management problems caused by her dad's recent stroke had sent the company plummeting into a tailspin. And Nick Holter was about to capitalize on it.
The auctioneer began his chatter, starting at a thousand dollars. The previous bachelors had sold for between five and ten thousand, but one had gone as high as twelve. Judging by the crowd's response, Nick would surely go for over ten.
Ten thousand dollars was all she had.
Maddie took a sip of champagne, every muscle tense. This was her last chance, a big, bold gesture of desperation. He'd refused to see her, wouldn't return her calls. His secretary had kicked her to the curb. She needed this time with him, a whole weekend in which he was obligated to hear her out. But maybe even that wouldn't be enough.
She wanted to bring Nick home to his long-forgotten roots. Show him everyone — up close and personal — who would be affected by the company's closing. And pray he still had a small piece of heart left.
All she wanted was a chance to turn the company around — one chance. Al Watson, the CFO, had confessed he'd had to sell off a significant amount of shares for cash flow. Sales were down, very far down. Their brand was suffering. Something needed to be done and fast — before Maddie's father got out of the rehab hospital and learned the company he'd worked for his whole life was going the way of the Twinkie.
But hey, if the Twinkie could come back, so could Kingston Shoes.
Holter Enterprises had bought the stock, giving themselves a forty-two percent stake. At first, Maddie had been in a state of shock. She could not believe Nick had done such a vile thing. To her family, to her. Soon he would cajole more stock out of their hands until he controlled the majority. Then he could do a clean sweep of the management, or worse, dissolve Kingston Shoes into a mere pile of dust, another company crumbled in the hands of a venture capitalist giant.
Maddie balled her hands into fists. No, he would not. She would not permit him to take away their rightful ownership.
She sucked in a deep breath and raised her hand.
"Three thousand dollars."
The auctioneer thrust an arm of acknowledgement in her direction before he scanned the room full of Philly society glitterati and continued his chant. "Three thousand, three thousand five hundred. Do I hear four?"
A few seconds later, the bidding had already soared past four thousand dollars. Dammit. Nick Holter was clearly the prime specimen, the man everyone awaited with bated breath, the Brad Pitt of Philadelphia social circles.
A tall blond woman in a slinky floral dress ran the bid up to five thousand. Madison knew her — Gayle Sommers, her sister's boss at the Philadelphia Inquirer, a senior editor known for her scathing exposés of political impropriety. And her gorgeous, model-thin body and come-hither eyes promised that her bid for Nick would involve far more than an impulse toward charitable giving. She'd had her sights set on him for quite some time, from what Maddie's sister had told her. Just the type of woman Nick Holter would want — smart, successful, and beautiful.
Maddie lacked the wealth and the cleavage to compete. But she liked to think she made up for that with a determined, animal-like ferocity, honed from years of being The Middle Child.
She's not going to win him. I am.
The only thing that would stand in her way was her drained pocketbook, which was nearing its last dregs. She uncoiled her tightly fisted hand, squeezed it a few times to ensure blood flow. Without hesitation, she raised it high in the air again.
An elegant woman with thick auburn hair in a perfectly-coiffed chignon raised a well-manicured hand. Maddie winced. Christie Croft, an heiress and head of a national charity for childhood abuse survivors. Both these women had the potential to outbid her in a heartbeat. Even if by some freak chance she won, she'd be eating a steady diet of macaroni and cheese and ramen noodles for months to come.
The auctioneer's voice droned on. "Six thousand. Do I hear six thousand five hundred ..."
Maddie swallowed. This was a bad, bad idea. She struggled, even at this last hour, to think of another plan, but no magical solution appeared. An arm grazed her elbow. Her younger sister, Catherine, sat down next to her. Maddie had stayed in Philadelphia after college, and Cat had followed her here to be closer. "Sorry I'm late. The rain was awful, and I had a hard time getting a cab."
"Seven thousand," the auctioneer yelled.
"Maddie, are you sure you want to do this? Madison!" Catherine tugged urgently on her arm.
Maddie faced her sister. "Yes." Her voice was strangely calm. "I don't have a choice."
Catherine shook her head, her perfectly-in-place blond hair swaying gently. "What you're doing is not going to matter. It's too late. Let's leave now while we still can."
"He's ignored all my calls. There's nothing else I can do."
"Nick never used to be like that."
"Well, he is now." Cutthroat. Vicious. A hungry pit bull in the world of business, where meat was meat. "Destroying Kingston Shoes is just one small step in his total takeover of the entire American shoe industry."
"Nick would not destroy us."
The old Nick wouldn't have. But the new Nick ... well, that was what he did. Bought up companies and either dismantled them or took them over, depending on their potential for success. Either alternative sucked.
"Maybe you should tell him about Dad."
Madison's stomach lurched. To approach Nick from a position of pity just seemed ... wrong. She honestly didn't know if the new Nick would help her or prey on their weakness. "We said we wouldn't let the word out. It will only make our investors panic and put us in an even more precarious spot."
"Maddie, maybe this is about the feud."
The Feud, that awful, mysterious rift between Kingstons and Holters that had torn apart not just their families, but Nick and her as well.
"That's ancient history. What could it possibly have to do with Nick buying up our company?"
"Maybe he's doing it for his grandfather," Cat said. "You know, like revenge."
"Seven thousand five."
"It doesn't matter why. I have to stop him."
Cat grasped her shoulders and shook, forcing her to make eye contact. "It's too late. For God's sake, at least save your money."
It couldn't be too late. Her father couldn't help what had happened. Hell, he didn't even know what happened because Maddie and her mom hadn't told him. And if it were up to her, he'd never know.
Just the thought of telling her father that his life's work had dispersed into the wind like so much dandelion fluff sent a tidal wave of determination rolling through her. Some things were more important than money. Like family loyalty. Her grandfather's legacy. Finally making her ailing father proud. She would not — could not — allow Nick to take over, no matter what their history.
"You've known each other for years. Can't you figure out a way to connect?"
Maddie made a dismissive gesture with her hand. "I can't even remember when I've seen him last."
A lie. The relentless bids of the auction faded as she remembered with crystal clarity Nick's handsome face hovering above hers, his five-o-clock-stubble scraping deliciously against her cheek, his sinfully full lips lingering in that secret, exquisitely sensitive place between her neck and shoulder. Her breath caught raggedly in her throat as she relived for the ten-thousandth time that night from a year ago when they'd both lost all control.
The one and only time in all the years she'd known him. Fate had always conspired to keep them apart, and always would. But that night had been unforgettable.
From the second he'd pulled her through the door of his swanky condo and pressed his lips to hers, she'd turned to Play Doh in his multitasking hands. Those skilled hands had circled her waist, pulled her flush against his rock hard body. His tongue had plied and probed, and she greedily took it in and gave back all she got, kiss after wet, luscious kiss. She got lost in the rich spicy scent of his cologne, the wine-laced taste of his mouth, the thick, silky layers of his hair, even as her knees threatened to give out and her insides turned to liquid heat.
If he had just completed four tours in Afghanistan, their lovemaking couldn't have been more desperate. Ten years of pent-up desire combusted and exploded in a frantic urgency that left them both sated and completely shocked.
Okay, that's enough. Madison cleared her suddenly dry throat and shook her head so she could think. So what if their one night was fast and furious and out of control and no man before or since had given her that kind of pleasure?
Well, actually, there hadn't been a since. But he would never know that.
The auctioneer's voice became the relentless clackety-clack of a train barreling down the tracks as he headed into the nine thousand range. Ten thousand dollars was not enough, she was sure of it now.
She'd already lost all her money and her pride. Those were nothing compared to the disappointed look in her father's weary eyes when she told him the truth. We lost the company, Dad. I'm sorry.
He'd pat her on the head, tell her she'd done her best and that was all he'd ever asked. But her whole family would all be thinking, flighty Maddie. Her good intentions gone bad, just like so many times before.
She turned to her sister. "Catherine, lend me some money."
"No way." Her sister's normally levelheaded tone of voice held a healthy portion of panic.
"He's too popular. It's the only way."
Catherine lowered her voice and gripped Maddie's arm. "Even if you win, it won't make a difference. Bringing him home is like begging. It's time to let it go."
"Please, Catherine. $5,000. I'll pay you back, I swear."
Excerpted from Heart and Sole by Miranda Liasson, Alethea Spiridon Hopson. Copyright © 2015 Miranda Liasson. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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