Twenty-eight-year-old Taylor Reed stepped out of the downtown Seattle office building into the pouring rain, thankful for having forgotten her umbrella. This way, no one would notice the tears streaming down her face.
I’m ruined. Completely ruined, she thought. And it wasn’t an exaggeration. Over the last three months, Taylor had maxed out her credit cards, borrowed every last dime from her 401(k), and depleted her emergency savings account, all to start her own highly specialized executive training company. Fifteen sales pitches and fifteen rejections later, including today’s very polite “Thanks, but no thanks,” she was at the end of her rope.
This is all his fault. That smug, cold-hearted bastard who’d gotten her fired from a nice steady job. Okay, she’d technically quit, but still. There had been no other choice after that humiliating disaster. All because he was “the customer.” All because he had money and thought he could treat people like garbage. All because—
Ugh. Shut up. It’s your fault. You let him get to you.
An image of those unfeeling, icy blue eyes flashed in her mind. She’d never forget them. Just like she’d never forget the glib smirk on his disarmingly handsome face, a face that might have you believing a real human being existed somewhere inside.
Asshole. Hope he chokes on one of his designer ties.
Not having a clue what she would do next, Taylor looked up at the sky, allowing the giant sloppy drops to cool her face. She would have to get another job. Start over. But starting over meant flying back to Phoenix, packing up her apartment, and praying one of her older brothers, who lived near San Francisco, would take her in without giving her thirty lashes—verbal, of course. Then there’d be facing her father. In his mind, people either paid their own way or they were a waste of good clean air.
Oh, God. The humiliation. Taylor buttoned up her black coat and grabbed her extra-large rolling laptop case to go flag down a taxi. With this rain, it would probably be a while, which meant she’d probably miss her flight. The perfect ending to a perfect shit day.
Taylor stopped on the corner just in time to see two empty cabs sail by. “Oh, come on!”
She dug her phone from her pocket, deciding it might be better to call a taxi directly, when the device buzzed in her hand. It was a San Francisco number. Maybe one of the companies who’d rejected her had changed their minds?
“Hello?” she said, trying not to sound too hopeful.
“Is this Miss Reed?” said a perky, sweet voice.
“Yes. This is Ms. Reed.”
“One moment please, I have a call for you.”
Just then a large white and blue bus with a loud rumbling engine pulled up. For crying out loud.
“Could you hold on, please? I can’t quite hear you.” She stepped into the doorway of a small café with a cheerful red awning and a sign in the window that read “Happy Pants. Now Available Here!”
“Sorry about that. Go ahead,” she said, covering her exposed ear and noting her sad reflection in the glass. Her long wet brown hair and the mascara streaming down her pale face made her look like a cast member from the Walking Dead.
Rarrr . . . fabulous.
“Miss Reed, Bennett Wade here.” His deep, silky, unhurried voice instantly made her entire body tense up and her adrenaline kick in. “I’d like to speak to you. In person if you can make the time.”
How the hell did he get my cell number?
“What do you want?” she growled.
He made a sound that was half-chuckle, half-throat-clearing. “To speak. Didn’t I just say that?”
SOB thinks he can just call me? After what he did? “There isn’t anything you could possibly say, Mr. Wade, that I—”
“I want to hire you.”
Ha! Funny. “What? It wasn’t enough to ruin my—”
“Miss Reed.” She could hear the impatience in his voice now. “I’m a busy man, so—”
“Ms. It’s Ms. Reed,” she corrected sharply.
“Fine. Ms. Reed, I’d like to discuss an offer, but not over the phone. I prefer doing business in person.”
Business with me? Maybe his brain has been polluted with too many supplements. She seemed to remember he looked like one of those guys who obsessed over his body as much as he did the cut of his suits to show it all off. Although, it was hard to tell with all that pious condescension oozing from his general direction.
“Sorry,” she said in the bitchiest tone possible, “but my schedule is booked, and I’m on my way to a meeting. I’ll have to call you back next lifetime. . . .” As she spoke, Taylor turned toward the street, noticing the long, gleaming black limo now parked against the curb. She couldn’t see past the tinted windows, but . . .
“You’re sitting right there, aren’t you?” she said into the phone.
The back window lowered and those pale blue eyes, edged with annoyingly thick dark brown lashes, were just as void of warmth as she remembered. But this time, his handsome face—with its chiseled cheekbones, cleft chin, and a strong jaw covered in a charcoal black five o’clock shadow—was missing that patronizing smirk. The man actually looked pissed.
Four Months Earlier
Taylor pulled into the crowded parking lot of HRTech Solutions, sweating bullets and cursing like a sailor—a habit she’d sworn off for New Year’s but had just decided was completely impractical.
This can’t fucking be happening. She was now thirty—Nope. Make that thirty-one—minutes late for her big presentation to the CEO of Wade Enterprises—the man who had a reputation for lacking a soul and for having an unfailing ability to see the world as his personal mound of dirt meant for bulldozing. The man who had announced, last minute, that he’d be flying in from his San Francisco headquarters to hear about their managerial recruiting services.
The request was strange to say the least, considering she and her team usually went to the client, not the other way around. In any case, Taylor had been trying to snag a meeting with Mr. Wade ever since she’d landed contracts with several of his golfing buddies, who were all CEOs of various companies themselves.
The Prius in front of her suddenly spotted an open space. Shit. Dammit. No! She hit her brakes and watched the driver take his sweet time pulling in as she dug her nails into her steering wheel. Then, almost out of the way, the Prius driver began backing out, deciding he wasn’t positioned just right.
Sonofabitch! Come on! She sighed and then focused her frustration on the A/C button of her red Audi TTS, poking it ten times. But all the poking in the world wouldn’t magically make that Prius go any faster, just like it wouldn’t make the temperature go any lower.
It was nine-thirty on this fine February morning and already five-hundred-hell-in-a-hand-basket degrees outside. Not even the devil would let his nuts live in this inferno.
She checked her makeup in the mirror to ensure it hadn’t melted down her face and noticed the incredibly attractive ring of red encircling her brown eyes. The result of having had two and a half hours of sleep.
Wonderful. I look like I’m stoned. Her phone buzzed on the passenger seat. It was her VP texting again.
VERA: Where are you now?
TAYLOR: Pulling into the lot. Is he there yet?
VERA: No. Hurry!
Taylor couldn’t believe her luck. This day might be saved after all.
“Take your sweet fucking time, buddy!” She pounded on the steering wheel as the Prius driver once again took his time edging back into the parking space. “Come on!” She honked the horn.
The driver slammed on the brakes and flashed her the middle finger.
“Great. Just great.” I’m about to lose my job, so fuck you back.
Why oh why had she taken this position to begin with? She wasn’t a pitchman, but her old college friend Rina, who also worked at HRTech, had talked her into it five years ago when Taylor had been fresh out of grad school and in desperate need of a paycheck. “You were born to work with people, Taylor,” she’d said. “You just smile and the room lights up.”
What a joke.
Yes, she enjoyed working with people and had a masters in human resource management, but so many of the executives in these big companies, the ones who used HRTech’s recruitment services, didn’t have a clue about how to treat the people they spent thousands to find and hire. It was always about the bottom line and shareholder value—never about creating a workplace that employees genuinely looked forward to coming to each day. Didn’t they get that happy employees were more productive employees? It drove her crazy. But unfortunately, Rina had been right. Soon after starting at HRTech, Taylor had begun landing big clients and making good money—something she couldn’t easily walk away from given her student loans.
Yeah. Well, those are all paid off now. As soon as she was able, she’d start looking for a new job, something more meaningful, back in the Bay Area. Kissing up to men like Bennett Wade, who she’d never met but couldn’t stand because she knew his type, was not her calling.
The Prius finally got out of the way, and she zoomed past, taking the little road that led to the back of the building where luckily she found an empty spot.
Now thirty-five—Nope. Make that thirty-six—minutes late, Taylor ran in her black heels, clutching her laptop case in one hand and oversized brown leather purse in the other. Once inside the twenty-story glass-and-steel rectangle, Taylor made it to the elevator just in time to watch the doors slide shut in her face.
“Sonofabitch!” She jabbed at the elevator button and looked down at her watch, suddenly noticing several strange spots on the lapel of her black blazer. Oh, no. She must’ve missed a few drops of bleach when she’d spritzed the kitchen counters last night before bed. Cleaning helped her unwind and feel in control, especially when her crazy job made her head spin from the constant juggling. She had laid her blazer on the counter this morning while she’d been looking for her keys.
As she waited for the elevator, she freed her hair from its ponytail and finger combed the length of it over her lapel to cover the spots. The elevator chimed, and she jumped in. Moments later, Taylor arrived at the top floor and sprinted for the executive conference room where Vera waited, along with six senior managers, all of whom reported to Taylor.
“Hi, everyone. Sorry I’m late,” she threw her bag down on the long gray table that stretched the length of the room, “but I was stuck in traffic and then some jerk in a Prius was blocking the—”
“I assure you,” said a deep, cold voice, “that my poor driving was a direct result of a man my height trying to maneuver a vehicle meant for one of those emaciated, tree-hugging vegetarians.”
Oh no. Taylor gazed across the room at the scowling man in his early thirties wearing a black suit and seated at the head of the table. His thick, wavy brown hair was neatly combed back, and his eyes were a shocking pastel blue, almost too light to even be called blue.
Taylor actually stopped breathing for a moment as their eyes met and a chill swept over her entire body. Something about the way he looked at her made the room feel unsafe. Not in a “he’s psycho and going to murder me” sort of way; the man literally filled the entire space with his daunting presence. You weren’t sure if you wanted to bow down to him or run.
Yes, he was that intimidating.
“I’m s-so sorry about that,” Taylor said, taking her seat as gracefully as she could, “but as you can see, I was in a hurry to get here—”
“To meet you obviously,” said Vera, who sat closest to Mr. Wade. “And I know I’ve already said this, but I assure you that this is not how we treat our custo . . .”
Mr. Wade held up his palm, offering no sign of human warmth or civility. “I’ve already wasted enough of my morning on incompetent idiots. I don’t need to hear a list of excuses from some bottle blonde who calls herself a vice president yet can’t figure out how to ensure her clients have proper limo service from the airport.”
Taylor’s mouth fell open as she witnessed poor Vera’s face turn red. Had this man actually called Vera an idiot and then ridiculed her appearance?
“Yes, well,” Vera cleared her throat. “My sincerest apologies, Mr. Wade. I promise I’ll speak to our Travel Services Manager immediately. It won’t happen again.”
Taylor couldn’t believe that Vera had let Mr. Wade’s comments slide. She was about to say something when Vera turned her head in Taylor’s direction. “Taylor, whenever you’re ready.” Something in her tone made Taylor bite back her words.
“Of course. Just one second while I pull up the presentation.” She popped open her laptop and the home screen came up, but the presentation shortcut was missing.
What? But how? She looked up at the anxious faces around the table. Okay, hurrying, hurrying . . . She clicked on the documents tab and found the file, but when she tried to open it, the little circle on the screen kept spinning, like an evil doughnut taunting her sanity. “Um . . .” She looked at Mr. Wade. “My computer is a little slow; big file. Probably too big because I stayed up late making sure—”
“So, Bennett,” Vera chimed in, “while Taylor is taking her sweet time loading the presentation, why don’t you tell the team here—”
“Did we fuck last night?” Bennett interrupted, his cold gaze locked on Vera’s face.
Taylor froze and looked across the table, unsure if she’d heard him correctly.
“Sorry?” Vera’s face went from red to a mortified shade of white.
Bennett Wade leaned forward in his chair toward Vera. “Did. We. Fuck. Last night?”
The room filled with a ghastly, awkward vibe, and Taylor was pretty damned sure everyone was pinching themselves underneath the table. Had he really said that?
Vera shook her head. “I—I don’t understand.”
Pinning Vera with his eyes, Mr. Wade slowly eased back in his chair, his black suit stretching across his shoulders. “Only my mother and women I fuck get to call me Bennett. So unless I got stinking drunk last night, which would have to be the case for me to ever touch a woman like you, then you’ll refer to me as Mr. Wade.”
From the Trade Paperback edition.