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By Avery Flynn, Liz Pelletier
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2017 Avery Flynn
All rights reserved.
"I'm going to kill you, Hudson. Slowly. With a spoon."
Sawyer Carlyle paced the five feet between his desk and the seating area in his office at the top floor of Carlyle Tower. Usually his office was his sanctuary with its cool, crisp, modern furniture and floor-to- ceiling windows that overlooked Harbor City, but today it was his hiding place.
When his executive secretary Amara Grant had buzzed him about the first mystery job candidate, he'd been confused. By the time the tenth had arrived, he knew his brother had set him up.
"You can't kill me. And you'd better stop quoting shit movies or I'll tell the world you enjoy chick flicks," Hudson said, his laughter coming through loud and clear on the speaker phone. "Anyway, you need me. I'm the only person who can distract Mom from her mission."
Oh yes. Operation Marry Sawyer Off. Helene Carlyle had come out of a three-year mourning period for their father with one thing — and only one thing — on her mind: finding the perfect wife for her eldest son. How Hudson had managed to miss out on all the fun was beyond Sawyer, but Mom had doubled down on her firstborn. So far all of the candidates had been slightly different versions of the same person. Old money. No personality. Always said the right things and played the Harbor City high society game. Plus, each of them had that strained, slightly pained look of someone forever holding in a fart. It was all the fake shit that Sawyer really didn't have time for if he was going to keep Carlyle Enterprises growing while the international construction boom imploded.
He stopped in front of his desk, the ridiculous ad Hudson had sent out everywhere was open on his computer screen.
WANTED: PERSONAL BUFFER
Often snarly, workaholic, demanding executive seeks short-term "buffer" from annoying outside distractions AKA people. Free spirits with personal boundary issues, excessive quirks, or general squeamishness need not apply. 24/7 avail req'd. Salary negotiable. Confidentiality required.
Snarly. Workaholic. Demanding. So what? He was who he was and he wasn't about to apologize for it.
Sawyer drummed his fingers on the top of his desk, empty of a single item except his computer monitor, wireless mouse, and the phone. "This damn ad is a joke."
"Still, you have an entire anteroom full of candidates I've already pre-screened to not cry at your first snarl, so stop your bitching."
Sawyer wasn't "grumpy." He was busy. Did no one understand the difference?
He pivoted and stared out the windows at the expansive view. He could point out the Carlyle Enterprises' high-rises with barely a glance. It was the same in cities all over the globe. Their father, Michael, had made his mark, and now it was up to Sawyer not to tarnish the old man's memory. In today's market that was no easy feat, and it hadn't been one he'd expected to take on quite so soon.
At thirty-two, he was the youngest Carlyle to ever head the family business founded four generations before. He'd trade that distinction for having his dad back in a heartbeat. "I never asked for this."
"Actually, you did," Hudson said, misunderstanding Sawyer's declaration. "I believe it was after Mom cornered you with three potential wives at the museum fundraiser. And as all good little brothers should do in such a situation, I helped you escape, got you drunk, and then let you pour out your soul to me. You're the one who told me you needed a buffer from Mom."
The joke about a personal buffer had been funnier when Sawyer had been holding a half-empty bottle of Scotch.
"So after years of ignoring everything your big brother has ever told you in your entire life, you picked this as the one thing to pay attention to?" Sawyer shoved his fingers through his thick hair and turned back to face the phone as if Hudson could see his scowl. "All I wanted was for you to run interference and steer some of the candidates away from me and into your bed."
"Since ninety-nine percent of everything that comes out of your mouth is all about the company, the fact that I ignore most of what you say shouldn't be a shock. Anyway, I thought the ad was pretty damn funny."
"You would." His brother, the comedian.
"So what are you going to do?"
Sawyer glanced up at the closed double doors, beyond which lay Amara's domain of the outer office. "Send them home."
"Without even considering the idea of having your own buffer?" Hudson asked. "Come on. You and I both know what you'd really like is to not have to do anything but focus on the love of your life: Carlyle Enterprises."
A buffer. It was idiotic. He scared off most people just fine on his own. Well, everyone but their mother. She wasn't about to get mowed over by him or thrown off her game by his surly attitude. Helene Carlyle was every bit as used to getting her way as he was. It made for some interesting Thanksgiving dinners.
"I should make you be the one to tell the people out there that there's no job. It would serve you right."
"No such luck, big brother. I'm at the cabin."
Sawyer should have known. Hudson preferred his private cabin — which no one had ever been invited to visit — over everything. He may have an office in Carlyle Towers, but that didn't mean he used it any more than he had to. "It's a Thursday."
"Unlike you," Hudson said with a lazy drawl, "I know when to take a break and enjoy all the beauty the world has to offer."
"What's her name this time?"
"Who says there's only one?"
Sawyer laughed despite himself. His brother was set in his ways just as much as Sawyer was. "You're hopeless."
"No, I just know how to take time to smell the roses."
"That's a bad habit you'll have to give up one of these days."
"Spoken like a man who can't see the trees for the forest."
"That's supposed to go the other way around."
"Not in your case."
So what if he was a big-picture man? That big picture wasn't just the best view, it was the only view that mattered. "Hudson, you're a pain in my ass."
"Right back at you. Good luck tonight."
An itchy dread about something he almost remembered scratched the back of his neck. He swiped right on his monitor and his calendar popped up. Below the notes about the Singapore deal he was in negotiation about was a notation that the Harbor City General Gala was at eight. They were naming the hospital's new heart center after his dad. The cardiologists and surgeons had done everything they could to help save Michael Carlyle, but they hadn't been able to. They were amazing physicians and nurses, and they deserved the state-of-the-art equipment and space.
"Damn," he said, ignoring the tightness that squeezed his chest whenever he thought about his dad. "I'd blocked it out of my mind."
"Don't worry about bringing a date," Hudson teased. "I'm sure Mom will have two or three all lined up for you there."
With that final dig, his brother hung up and the sound of the dial tone filled Sawyer's office, bouncing off the unadorned metal and glass surfaces. He hit the end call button and took another look out at the city at his feet before crossing over to the door to do what needed to be done — tell everyone to go home because there was no job.
* * *
Clover Lee was in the wrong place. She had to be.
The office at the top of Carlyle Tower was filled with the kind of huge guys in dark suits who either protected you from the bad guy's muscle men or actually were the bad guy's muscle men. Their gazes had slid toward her as soon as she'd stepped off the elevator, completed a quick up and down threat assessment, and then turned away, letting identical blank looks slide into place.
Remember why you're here, girl.
Because every day was an adventure and most poor suckers were stuck on the couch with a bag of plain chips — but not her. Adventure. Romance. New places. Interesting people. Fun. Thrills. Chills. Beauty. Agony. Ecstasy. Lust. Love ... Well, not that last one — because who wants to settle down? — but give her a big old double order of the rest with extra-large fries on the side. So when she'd spotted that weird ad for a personal buffer, it was just the thing to catch her attention — and fund her next adventure.
Yes. That was exactly why she was here. Lifting her chin, she pressed forward into the sea of testosterone and intimidation to an African-American woman in a conservative black suit sitting at the only desk in the room. She didn't even bother to look up when Clover stopped in front of her desk. The nameplate on the desk read Amara Grant, Executive Assistant.
"Good morning, Ms. Grant. I'm here for the buffer interview."
"Another one?" The woman sighed, but her long fingers never missed a beat as they flew across her keyboard. "Okay, take a seat if you can find one." She motioned with her chin toward the general area of the crowded office.
Someone must have brought in extra chairs to accommodate all the warm bodies. It was the best explanation Clover could come up with for the mishmash of sturdy leather club seats and ordinary rolling office chairs lining the walls. The only available option for Clover was a chair with a purple seat squeezed between two men who each looked like they could bench press a bus.
In for a penny, in for a squashed seat.
She crossed over to the empty chair. "Excuse me," she said to the two men.
The men made noncommittal grunts but shifted over.
Quickly sitting down, she clutched her purse to her lap and took in a deep breath, while she scoped out the competition. The suits and hair color may vary from man to man, but there was a sense of sameness radiating from them — a uniform toughness. If she was trying to sneak her way past any of them to annoy Sawyer Carlyle, they'd beat her back like a fly.
While that was an awesome talent to have, it wasn't in Clover's arsenal. The initial interview with Hudson Carlyle had assured her the position was not one requiring brawn. In fact, he'd suggested a clever mind was best suited for this job. Keeping that in mind, she tried to come up with something that would make her stand out for more than just being a five-foot-five chick with a Hello Kitty tattoo on her ass. God knew her resume wasn't going to do it.
She'd done time as a snake milker — don't ask; smiled for pictures as a paid bridesmaid — bridezillas, she'd known a few; bellied up to the table as a dog food taster — think stale crackers with a funky aftertaste; learned the true benefit of good arch support as a professional line stander — always in the rain or the cold or the blazing heat; and distilled the mysteries of the universe as a fortune cookie writer. Clover had done it all to pay the bills, have some excellent adventures, and stay as far away from the small town of Sparksville as possible. However, up until a few days ago, she'd never even heard of a personal buffer.
Ideas swarmed to the forefront. She could play up her adventures as being international experiences in non-familiar surroundings. She worked well with others. She was loyal, determined and — she took a look around at the men in black, the executive secretary who looked like she pitied the fool who'd even try to fuck up her day, and the huge double doors opposite the elevator that were shut tight — totally out of her depth.
Anxiety unleashed an invisible hand that squeezed her lungs and made it hard to take in a full breath. Shit. Nothing good ever happened when she got nervous. That's when her mouth went into verbal vomit mode. She closed her eyes and took in another deep breath.
If anyone is out there listening, please let me just get through this interview. I really need this job. The clock is ticking on Australia.
The click of a door opening snapped Clover out of her mini-panic attack, and she opened her eyes.
Sawyer Carlyle stood in the middle of the open doorway to his office. Her Google image search hadn't done the man justice.
The whole package was ... wow. He was over six feet tall and muscular, enough so that the other men in the room didn't look quite as intimidating. Or maybe it was the way he held himself — so sure and borderline cocky — that made everyone else fade a little bit into the background. The sexy package was completed by a dark pair of designer glasses, slightly overly long brown hair that he brushed to the side, and a dimple right in the middle of his chin. He looked over the room, his gaze went past her and then jerked to a stop before rewinding and dropping down the necessary foot from the mountains sitting on either side to her face. One of his dark eyebrows went up over the black frame of his glasses. The corner of his full mouth curled up for a fraction of a second before melting back into a firm, straight line. His focus moved on to the man on her left and kept going.
The heat coiling in her stomach lingered long enough to practically shout: you're in danger girl! before cooling off once the intensity of his gaze had passed her by.
"Gentlemen." Sawyer paused, his attention zipping back to her. "And lady. It seems there's been some confusion —"
The elevator whooshed open at that moment, and a tall woman in her late fifties walked out as regal as any queen flanked by two women perfect enough to be on the cover of a fashion magazine. Suddenly, the elastic hair tie looped around the button of Clover's borrowed interview pants, giving them an extra inch of breathing room, became even more pathetic. One of the tall, lithe model-types stood inside the open doors, blocking them from closing. The other sashayed out into the office with the older woman.
"Sawyer, you're not putting me off again," the obvious ring leader said, her cultured tone sounding of exclusive clubs and vacations in the Hamptons. "We have lunch scheduled at Filipe's. I'm sure whatever you have planned can wait. You can't take over the world on an empty stomach, after all."
He sighed. "Lunch is not in my schedule."
The woman didn't give an inch. "I won't take no for an answer."
Sawyer tapped his middle finger against his thumb as he dipped his chin and rolled his head from one shoulder to the other. It was obvious he didn't want to go but for whatever reason couldn't come right out and say it.
No one moved. The other buffer candidates didn't do anything.
This was it.
If Clover was going to stand out in a good way, she needed to do it now. She stood and took several steps toward the trio of women and pasted on her best don't-fuck-with-me-and-I-won't-fuck-with-you smile.
"Excuse me, ma'am, but it's obvious Mr. Carlyle is too much of a gentleman to say outright he's not interested in a foursome with you guys and" — she dropped her voice to a stage whisper — "to be totally honest, you seem a little too old for him."
The man in question let out something that sounded like an elephant snorting while giving birth. Not that she knew what that sound was like, but it was the best her brain came up with for translating the half-pained, half-surprised noise with a little bit of laughter mixed in. Pushing back the thought, she kept her attention on the older woman who'd turned her ice-cold glare toward Clover.
"So please let me be clear," Clover continued. "You don't build a company of Carlyle Enterprise's prestige by spending your days dallying with women more likely to cry over the loss of a nail than flooding in the Yangtze River, so shoo before I call security. Mr. Carlyle's schedule is jam-packed today, but do call ahead next time you want to 'do lunch.'" "And who exactly do you think you are?" the other woman asked, each word enunciated with crisp, clinical disapproval.
"Just exactly who I am." She smiled with as much warmth as the other woman's voice. "Clover Lee."
The woman blinked, looked at Sawyer, and then turned her focus back to Clover. "Are you saying," the woman started, each word coming out slow and distinct as if she was pissed as hell but too classy to yell, "that my son would rather work than go have lunch with his mother?" Son? Son? SON?!?
This was why Clover shouldn't get anxious. Only bad things happened when she let her nerves get the best of her. She needed to say something. She needed to apologize. She needed to find a hole big enough to swallow her completely.
She couldn't get a single word out.
The woman's mouth — Sawyer Carlyle's mother's mouth — twisted up and her eyes narrowed, but her freezer-burn level stare moved away from Clover and onto her son. "Sawyer, this is not over."
Without another word, one of the most powerful women in Harbor City high society whirled around and joined the woman still holding open the elevator doors.
"Analisa, let's leave Sawyer and his ... person to their 'jam-packed' schedule," she said.
Excerpted from The Negotiator by Avery Flynn, Liz Pelletier. Copyright © 2017 Avery Flynn. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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