Mac Barlow never met a deal he couldn't make. But this corporate shark just hit a gorgeous roadblock. Mac will do anything to acquire Savannah Hillstrand's struggling solar energy companyeven return to Stone Gap and face down a shattering secret in his family's past. Just one problem: the breathtaking blonde refuses to sell.
Determined to save her father's legacy, Savannah makes Mac an offer he can't refuse. He'll show her how to turn her business around. If she fails, the company is his. Instead, it's Savannah who's changing the way the hunky, buttoned-up CEO sees the bottom line and is in danger of losing her heart. Can she help Mac reconcile with his past and claim a future with the irresistible Barlow bachelor?
About the Author
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Wh en Mac Barlow was born, people claimed they heard his grandpa say, "That boy is gonna be some-thin' when he grows up. I can just see the fire burnin' in his belly." Grandpa Barlow had died twenty years ago, so there was no one to prove or disprove that moment when Earl Ray Barlow held his first grandson. But the rumor had stuck in the family, growing into a legend, embellished by aunts and uncles and siblings, like extra tinsel on a Christmas tree.
Of course, anyone who knew Mac Barlow knew he'd definitely grown up and into those words. His days did indeed revolve around a roaring fire in his gut for more, his life filled to the brim with long lists of things to do, people to call, deals to make. He'd started when he was a freshman in college, starting with a little seed money he'd accumulated working part-time at a car lot while he was in high school. From the day he'd collected his first paycheck, and had grown into one of this year's Thirty Under Thirty touted in Forbes magazine.
So when he roared into Stone Gap, North Carolina, on a Sunday afternoon, it was to kill two birds with one stoneattend his brother Jack's wedding and finalize a business purchase that would add to the Barlow Enterprises coffers.
A purchase that was being thwarted at every possible turn by one singularly stubborn woman. But Mac had never met an obstacle he couldn't beat, a deal he couldn't close, which was what had him here, in person, to get Savannah Hillstrand to see the light, literally, and sell to him. Today.
Mac roared down the streets of Stone Gap, a passing figure on a Harley some might think a ghost, considering he was dressed all in black and driving, as usual, at breakneck speed. He leaned into the curve, nearly kissing the asphalt as he turned on to the street where he'd grown up. These moments on the bike, too few for his liking, were when Mac was finally able to shed the skin of the executive he was during the week. No suit, no tie, no one calling him or emailing him or knocking on his door, wanting a decision. Just him, the bike and the road. It was about as close to a vacation as Mac Barlow got.
He passed through Stone Gap in a moment, like the blip it was. Parts of the town were still frozen in time like some antebellum reenactment of the gentri-fied pre-Civil War days. He barely slowed for the light downtown, hardly glanced at the buildings that hadn't changed in decades. He kept on going, taking the Oak Street shortcut to the highway. Once he hit I-95, the road opened up and he pushed the throttle. The wind whipped past him, fighting the Harley every mile he rode. Ten miles up, he exited the highway and pulled into the parking lot of an office building.
For a meeting that was only going to end one waywith Mac getting what he wanted.
One lone car sat in the parking lot, a pale blue Toyota that had seen better days. Mac flipped out his cell phone and dialed Savannah's cell. While he waited for her to answer, he glanced up at the glass building, which reflected the late-afternoon sun like a prism. Solar panels covered the roof, angled toward the midday light. The Hillstrand sign itself was powered by a quartet of solar panels, and shaped like a rising sun cresting over the horizon. Nice, Mac thought.
Four rings, five, then she finally answered. "Hello?"
She had a pleasant voice. Melodic. All their previous exchanges had been by email. The dulcet tones of her hello surprised him. "Miss Hillstrand, it's Mac Barlow. I'm here for our meeting."
"Of course. I'm glad you made it, and on time at that. I appreciate punctuality." He pictured her on the other end, one of those librarian types with tortoise-shell glasses and her hair in one of those buns. Her emails had always been short and abrupt, all neat and organized the way he imagined she was. "Come on up. I'm in the main offices on the fifth floor."
She gave him the code to the door, and directions for when he entered the building. He keyed in the numbers, then headed up the stairs, bypassing the elevator to climb to the top floor, where the corporate offices were located. Probably one of those overpriced corner spaces that most CEOs inhabited.
As he walked, he ran through the facts in his head. Hillstrand Solar, one of the top solar-power manufacturers in the South, run for years by Willy Jay Hillstrand, a local fixture who had taken the home-remodeling company started by his grandfather and shifted its direction into renewable energy. In the process, Willie Jay had turned the small family business into a behemoth. Mac had seen the notice about Willy Jay dying a few months back and how he'd left the company to his only child, his daughter. Mac had given her a month, then sent one of his managers out to make her an offer she couldn't refuse.
Except she had refused. The first offer, the second and the third.
He'd let her struggle for another month, then sent another inquiry. She'd ignored him. He waited a third month, and she ignored him again.
A saner man would have moved on by now, but Mac needed this particular business. Willy Jay had had his hand in everything a solar panel could juice, from giant commercial factories to small backyard pools. If there was a solar panel anywhere between North Carolina and the southern tip of Florida, chances were it was made by Hillstrand.
And that was an industry Mac needed. He'd begun to shift his business in the past few years from immediately selling off the corporations he bought, to creating a package deal of sorts by combining companies that worked together. He could command a higher price and unload more inventory at once. Hillstrand Solar, with its expertise and command of the alternative energy market, was a gold mine for the right builder, and Mac had several potential buyers already lined up. Paired with the lumber company he had bought last month, a concrete company the month before and the real estate acquisition he'd made this past week, Hillstrand was the perfect bow on an already-strong package.
Savannah Hillstrand, the newly appointed head of the company, was barely treading water, Mac had heard from a number of his connections. She was struggling to hold on to her father's dream. Which meant if she was smart, she'd sell to him.
He had a sense she was beginning to cave when she'd accepted his offer of a meeting today. A Sunday afternoon, the offices quiet, the phones silent, a time when he could make his strongest offer, in person. He could be in and out in an hour, and then on to the next project. At least four other companies were on his list to look at while he was down south.
Okay, and maybe part of him had welcomed the Sunday meeting because it gave him a reason to put off seeing his family while he was in town. He loved his brothers, he really did, but when it came to his parentswell, his father had made disapproval into an art.
Truthfully, his father was the last person Mac wanted to see. He had no idea how to approach himlet alone face himafter the whopper of a surprise he'd run into last week. Dropping a bomb such as, Hey Dad, I met my secret sibling, wasn't likely to make him the favorite son at Sunday dinner.
Pushing thoughts of family out of his mind for the moment, Mac opened the heavy steel stairwell door on the fifth floor and walked into a boring, dull gray space. Faux carpeted cubicles blended so well with the gray carpet that it looked more like a boring ocean than an office. He had seen hundreds of offices like this, each about as exciting as watching paint dry. His own offices in Boston were bright, expansive, open. He'd designed them to encourage creative thinking, for his team to be able to collaborate freely and feel energized. Hillstrand Solar felt a lot like walking into a prison.
"Mr. Barlow. We meet in person finally."
He spun around and saw a tall, beautiful blonde standing behind him. No bun, no granny glasses. In fact, Savannah Hillstrand was the exact opposite of what he had pictured.
She wore a tailored pantsuit in a slate gray with a silky pink shirt beneath the jacket. Her hair was in a loose ponytail with a few escaped tendrils curling along her neck and a pencil sticking upwards out of the elastic like a forgotten ornament. She wore a minimum of makeup, just a little mascara and a glossy pink lipstick that kept his gaze riveted on her mouth for far too long.
"Miss Hillstrand." He strode forward, his hand outstretched, his voice businesslike and unemotional. But inside his chest his pulse was skipping a little. Had to be the meal he'd missed or the long hours on the road. "You aren't quite uh what I had expected." He was stammering. He never stammered. What was up with that?
She shook with him, her grip firm and warm. All business. "Well, you sure aren't what I expected, either. I thought you'd be more corporate."
Corporatetranslation: stiff and dull. He didn't know why it bothered him that she'd thought that was who he was. Of course, he'd thought she was a dour librarian, which probably made them even. "You caught me on a weekend," he said. "Come Monday, it's all suits and ties again. Or my version of a suit and tie, at least."
Her gaze raked over him, taking in the leather jacket, the riding boots, the dark jeans, the white button-down peeking out from under the jacket, the only concession Mac made to conventional dress on the weekends. "And what is your version of a suit and tie? Leather chaps?"
He chuckled. "Not at all. Usually dark jeans, a button down and a tie. And a jacket if I'm forced to meet with a lawyer."
She laughed, a nice, rich sound that sent a ribbon of heat through his veins. The leather chaps comment told him Miss Hillstrand had spunk, that was for sure, and that was something Mac found intriguing. "So, shall we have a seat and talk about my offer?" he said.
"I'm happy to talk to you, but first I want to reiterate what I told you on the phone. Even though I was amenable to an in-person meeting, I'm not interested in any offer you have. I'm not selling." Now the friendliness dropped from her face and she went all cold. "I made it clear that coming here would be a waste of time, but you insisted and I thought maybe face-to-face you would see how serious I am about not selling you Hillstrand Solar. Not now. Not ever."
Mac had rarely met a mountain he couldn't climb or a challenge he couldn't win. Savannah was just one more mountainwell, maybe a few curvy hillsand one who simply needed to see that she wasn't going to be able to keep this company running much longer. Profits had slipped as her longer-standing customers began to question the younger generation's leadership abilities. "I am sure I can provide you with an equitable offer. You'll be wealthy enough"
"I don't care about money."
He scoffed. "I've never met anyone who didn't care about money. Everyone has a price, Miss Hillstrand."
"I don't." She crossed her arms over her chest and raised her chin, as if daring him to disagree. "So you can come in here and try to charm the pants off me with this offer and that offer all you want, but I'm not selling."
"I have no intentions of charming the pants off you." His gaze flicked to said garment. The gabardine curved over her thighs like a second skin, dark and soft and tempting. For a second, he imagined those pants off, nothing but white lacey panties underneath, and her long, long creamy legs.
Holy hell. Where had that come from? Mac shook his head to clear the unbidden image, then directed his attention back to Savannah's face. This was business, not personal, and he had no intention of mixing the two. Nothing good could ever come of that.
He cleared his throat. "I merely want to make you see the wisdom of selling while you can still fetch an equitable price for the company."
"I am not selling. Period. End of sentence."
"Then why bother to meet with me? That's something you have made abundantly clear already in all your emails."
"Because you refused to give up. I told you. If we met in person, then maybe you would finally see that I am dead serious about this. And I am. Dead serious." She eyed him, her green eyes flashing, then took a step back. "Now that I've made my position clear, I have to get back to work. Good day, Mr. Barlow."
She sat down at her deskif he could call it a desk. It was really just a hoarder's home away from home, one of those gray spaces in the sea of gray spaces, topped with a computer and a thousand pieces of paper scattered around the surface like crumbs. Chaos, that was what he'd call it. Definitely not the neat and tidy librarian he had imagined.
His own desk was usually close to spotless, the offices of Barlow Enterprises filled with little to no clutter, because it seemed the best thinking and ideas came in spaces that weren't overstuffed. He almost wanted to suggest Savannah do a little tidying as a first step to helping her father's company, but that would be helping her save the business, and his intention was to buy it.
Savannah pulled her chair into the desk, then turned away from him.
Well. Seemed Miss Hillstrand was going to be a tougher nut to crack then he'd expected. Mac leaned a hip on the desk across from hers. "You're over your head here. You know it. I know it."
"Are you saying you don't think I'm smart enough to run this company?"
"I'm saying you don't have the experience. You worked here summers during high school, then went off to college for a degree in history. Should we want to execute a repeat of the Napoleonic Wars, you'd be the first one I'd put in charge. But this is business, Miss Hillstrand, not a textbook, and that requires a certain level of skills."
"Skills you assume I don't have." She raised her chin.
"Skills I know you don't have." He'd researched herwell, his people hadand issued him a report. A report he could quote almost verbatim. Savannah Hillstrand had worked part-time in the factory throughout high school and college, filling nearly every role in production at one time or another. In between, she'd started a small remodeling business, restoring local homes to their former glory. She'd had a modicum of success at that business, but still returned to Hillstrand Solar in between projects.