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You want me to do what?'"
Cole Benton didn't shout, but he didn't have to. His voice carried enough icicles to let the woman sitting in his black guest chair know he was beyond not pleased. It was the same tone he used with employees both on and below the executive floor when they were dangerously close to getting fired.
But his grandmother, Nora Benton, or as she liked to refer to herself, "the best damn showgirl this town has ever seen," just crossed her long legs. She liked to show them offto the point that she ordered her Chanel suits with a higher hemline than was normally deemed appropriate for her age set.
"You heard me, luv," she answered, her Irish accent reinforcing her words with steely determination. "I'm telling you, it's for your own good."
"And I'm telling you, you need an MRI if you think I'm going to marry some showgirl
"Sunny's not just some showgirl," Nora said, patting her mane of wavy hair, which thanks to her twice monthly hair appointments, was still as glossy and vibrant red as it had been when she and his grandfather met. "She's the granddaughter of Berta Johnson, my best friend in the entire world."
Cole gave her a skeptical look. "Your best friend whom I've never met."
"Only because she died quite a few years ago, when you were still in business school. If you'd have come to any of my last few Christmas events, you would have seen the show Sunny choreographs for herself and a few of the other Benton Girls every year. Then I would have been able to properly introduce you to Berta's lovely granddaughter."
Cole tented his hands on his desk. "Her lovely granddaughter, the showgirl."
"What's wrong with showgirls? Your grandda God rest his soulalways said meeting me was the best thing that ever happened to him."
A shimmer of affection for the original Coleridge Benton, a stodgy businessman who'd somehow ended up married to an Irish showgirl from The Benton Hotel's revue show, made a brief pass through Cole. If not for his grandfather, he wouldn't be where he was today, the Chief Executive Officer of The Benton Group, one of the youngest CEOs of any hotel chain in Vegas history. But irritation at his grandmother soon overtook Cole's fond memory of his grandfather. Naming her chairman of The Benton Group's board before his death, so that Cole was forced to take her seriously, despite the fact that she had nothing to do with the company's day to day operations, was one of the worst business decisions his grandfather had ever made.
"With all due respect to my grandfather, he was the head of one hotel when he met you. One. I oversee a nationwide collection of The Benton Group's hotel and casino interests."
Nora's gave him a withering look. "I see, you think being a billionaire makes you too good for a showgirl then? That's what you're trying to tell the best damn showgirl this town has ever seen?"
"No, growing The Benton Group into a force to be reckoned with means I don't have time to date this girl you're trying to set me up with or for this inane meetingwhich by the way is not remotely urgent. You told my assistant this was important."
"It is important, luv," his grandmother insisted. "I'm not getting any younger, and I'm ready for grandchildren. And with that playboy brother of yours flitting about all over Europe
"You should just be grateful your other grandson is running the company so well and leave it at that," he finished for her.
"Well, I've decided to take matters into my own hands," Nora said. "All you do is work, work, work." She let out an exasperated sound, as though his work was a character flaw, as opposed to what kept her in luxury cruises and Botox treatments. "Quite frankly you need to get laid well and regularly, dearie. It would do you a world of good, just like it did your grandda. It's time for you to have some funbut only for three months, then you can settle down and give me some grandchildren."
"You want me to marry a girl I've never even met after three months of dating?" Cole asked, both his face and tone incredulous.
"Three months is generous," Nora informed him. "It only took your grandda three weeks to propose to me!"
Cole stared at his grandmother for a few long, disbelieving seconds before saying, "I have a two o'clock, so I'm calling this 'urgent meeting' to an end. Thanks for stopping by, Nora. Let's never do this again."
Nora let out a dramatic sigh. "I was afraid you might say that. I swear, the worst decision I ever made was letting your grandda take you under his wing after you got kicked out of boarding school. You've got too much of him in you and your brother has too much of me."
Cole had already turned back to his computer and started typing in notes for his two o'clock with The Benton Group's L.A. office. He was fully prepared to ignore Nora out of his office.
But then his grandmother said, ".and that's why I'll be handing over my shares in the company to your brother. I plan to make my announcement at the end of summer board meeting."
Cole's head shot up from the computer screen. His brother, Max, was the "brand ambassador" for The Benton Group. This basically meant he received a steady paycheck, which he spent on partying all over Europe. Which in turn meant his picture was regularly spread across the tabloids. It put The Benton Group in a negative light and the only reason Cole hadn't cut him off was because he had enough shares in the company to make it difficult if he decided to sell them to an outside interest. However, if Nora gave her shares to Max, then.
"That would give Max controlling interest in The Benton Group. Why would you do that?" he asked his grandmother.
Nora shrugged prettily. "Well, unlike you, luv, he came to my Christmas charity dinner and he gave Sunny and her girls some very nice compliments on their show."
"I bet," Cole said with a derisive snort. His brother wasn't the sort to miss an opportunity to flirt with scantily clad showgirls.
Nora went on, anyway. "He and I had a nice long talk the last time he was in town, and he explained to me that he'd be more than happy to stay on in Vegas and work at The Benton Groupif you weren't in charge."
Cole turned all the way around to face his grandmother. "That's never going to happen. I'm the one who built this company into a nationwide outfit. I'll be in charge of it until the day I die."
"Yes, well." Nora played with the short hemline of her skirt. "I do miss Max, and he's promised that if I give him my shares, he'll not only marry Sunny, but give me as many grandchildren as I want."
Cole found himself once again staring at his grandmother in disbelief. "Do you have any idea of how crazy that sounds, Nora?"
Nora threw a dramatic hand across her forehead. "I do! I know it sounds crazy, luv. And of course, I'd rather Sunny marry you. You're more the settling down typeunlike Max. But I'm just so desperate for grandchildren!"
Cole would never let a business rival see him blink, and he kept his face blank as he informed Nora, "You have grandchildren. Max and I are your grandchildren."
"Hardly. Max, came out of the womb, a full blown flirt, and your derelict parents forced me to raise you, andwell, you know how difficult that was. I want a real baby, one who coos and giggles and calls me 'Gran'not 'Nora,' like I'm one of his employees."
If Cole had a sense of humor, he might have found his grandmother's antics funny, but he didn't, especially when it came to money. "Nora, selling a controlling interest in the company I've been spent my entire career growing is not the way to get what you want."
"Don't you try to lecture me, Cole Benton. I'm not one of your underlings," his grandmother responded. "Now you either do as I say and propose to Sunny Johnson by the end of summer, or I'm selling my shares to Max!"
Nora punctuated her threat with a slap of her hand on his desk. But then her face softened. "I know what I'm threatening sounds crazy and a bit harsh, Cole. But this
" She gestured around his highrise office. "All this work and no play. It's not good for you, luv. It's made you hard. Too hard. You need something other than this business in your life."
What Nora didn't seem to understand was that this business was his life, the only thing that made his heart beat faster, the only thing that had ever given him a true return on his investment.
And he wouldn't abide anyoneeven his own grandmotherthreatening to compromise all the work he'd put into it.
"I've got to prepare for my two o'clock now. I'll take your request under advisement."
Nora jutted her chin into the air. "Max is coming in for the Businessman of the Year dinner on Sunday. Should I let him know he should stick around this time, and prepare to take his place as chairman of our board?"
Cole resumed typing. His grandmother may have had his grandfather wrapped around her thin finger, but Cole refused to take her bait.
And Nora seemed to understand that she was being dismissed.
She went to the door and put her hand on its chrome latch. "Understand, I'm not doing to this to hurt you or The Benton Group. I'm doing this because I care about you more than I care about this company."
Whatever it takes for her to sleep at night, Cole thought with bitter resentment. But he refused to let Nora see that she'd actually upset him. He did as he always did, focused on his work.
After Nora left, Cole finished putting in his notes for his two o'clock meeting. But as soon as he hit the last keystroke, he picked up the phone to talk to his assistant, Agnes.
"Yes, Mr. Benton," Agnes said when he buzzed her office line.
"Put in a call to Taylor Stratherford."
"Junior or Senior, sir?" she asked. Taylor Stratherford Jr. was Cole's personal lawyer, just as Stratherford Sr. had served as his grandfather's personal lawyer. However, it was Taylor Sr., who also now served as the Non-Executive Director of The Benton Group's board.
"Senior. Set up an in-person at his office as soon as possible. Actually I want to set up one-on-ones with every member of the board except my grandmother and brother."
"Right away, Mr. Benton," Agnes answered. She was too professional to outright ask why he was asking for these meetings, but he could hear the curiosity in her voice when she asked, "Anything else?"
Cole thought about it. "Yes, get the manager of The Benton Girls Revue on the line, and inform him of the following."
Sunny came rushing into the backstage area of The Nora Benton Theater, still dressed in the yoga pants and tank top she'd worn to bed. And still chilled by what had happened less than thirty minutes ago back at her apartment.
She'd been so exhausted when she got home from her cocktail waitress shift on The Benton's casino floor that she'd fallen asleep on the couch while eating a meal replacement bar. She lived aloneor so she thought. That morning, she'd discovered she had a roommate, when she woke up to the sound of the alarm on her phone going off and the feel of something pulling on her hand. She'd opened her eyes to find a rat staring back at her, its beady black eyes filled with determination as its mouth tugged on the bar in her hand.
Sunny let him have it, letting the bar go with a scream. And an hour later, she could still see the ridges on its long tail as it ran away with its treasure. She'd never be able to unsee it, and she had no idea how she was going to manage to get to sleep when she returned to her apartment after today's rehearsal, knowing that it was still there, probably lurking somewhere inside one of her walls.
With a shudder, Sunny brought her thoughts back to her present situation. How to get to the backstage dressing room without being seen by Rick.
It was exactly eleven a.m., which was their call time for their monthly rehearsal in full makeup and costumes. But Rick Rizzo was old school. Being exactly on time was the equivalent of being late in his book. He wanted all his dancers backstage at least fifteen minutes early, and if he saw her skulking through the shadows, she'd likely hear about it.
She also didn't want him to see the dark circles under her eyes. She'd never quite gotten around to telling the Benton Girls manager that she'd taken a second job as a cocktail waitress in the main casino. Technically, it was none of his business, but Rick was half stage dad, half control freak, and the show paid pretty well by Vegas standards with a salary, 401(K) and vacation benefits. If he saw how tired she looked without tons of concealer slathered underneath her eyes, he'd badger her until she confessed that she was planning to leave the show in late August in order to attend graduate school at New York Arts University.
They'd given her a generous scholarship, but it wasn't enough to cover any of the extras, like food and books, or rent, which was no joke. The school was located in Manhattan and didn't provide housing for grad students, but even a place in the outer boroughs of New York would set her back. So her plan was to work two jobs and save as much money as she could over the next three months.
But there was no need to tell Rick any of that yet. She knew how he'd respond: What! You're leaving us? I gave you your first job. Bobby and I had you over for Thanksgiving Dinner every year after your grandma died, and this is how you repay me?
Sunny knew Rick had come to count on her, not only as one of his best dancers, but also as his "work wife"a combination of gossip buddy, friend and backstage administrator whenever Rick went on vacation. And she knew he deserved better than her just handing him a two-week notice out of the blue, but she hadn't worked up the courage to tell him.
Luckily, he was on the phone as she snuck past him backstage, telling whoever was on the other side of the line off good.
"How could you do this to me? Do you know who I am? Rick Rizzo! I made The Benton Girls Revue. And you think you can screw me over like this? I don't think so!"
Sunny rushed toward the dressing room, happy she'd escaped Rick's notice, but sorry for whoever was on the other side of that phone.