"You look happy.”
Eva’s gaze darted to the tabloid vendor standing by her side. Despite the numerous times her best friend, Izzy, made her and her other best friend, Allie, visit the book stand outside of the subway station in the past two months, this was the first time the vendor had spoken to Eva. Maybe because she hadn’t been his ideal customer—tabloid obsession was Izzy’s thing.
"He’s one lucky guy.” The vendor smiled.
Her eyes widened. Was it that evident she’d been thinking about Daniel? She wasn’t sure how to respond to his remark. And to her relief, the vendor reverted his attention back to Izzy.
Daniel Neeson. The six foot two, blond, blue-eyed, investment banker she’d recently met at a birthday party for a common friend. Daniel seemed witty, charming and confident. She liked confidence. It would be their first date tonight. It would also be her first date in more than a year, since saying goodbye to her ex, Jake, the cheater.
Although she’d looked forward to meeting Daniel again, emotional scars from her past relationship still haunted her heart. Her palms turned clammy, she’d never felt this nervous about a date before.
She’d set an alarm on her phone to leave from work on time; she’d laid out a little black dress along with other accessories on her bed; she’d also brushed up on her list of things she liked to do so she’d have something to talk about. Maybe she should rehearse that list one more time? She ran through it silently. And as she did, she realized the general theme of the things she liked to do all somehow concluded in loathing Jake.
One: running, as in away from Jake.
Two: hanging out with her friends, as in to forget Jake.
Three: cooking, as in to poison Jake.
She cringed. How did her thoughts get so morbid? Moreover, where had her insecurities around dating stemmed from? Had Jake’s betrayal been entirely to blame or was it also because she could never forgive her father for cheating on her mother?
"This one just came in, and it’s selling out fast.” The vendor’s voice brought her back to the present.
"And that’s the one she wants, right Izzy?” Allie hurried Izzy with an impatient glare.
"Yes, this is the one I want,” Izzy said. Without letting her eyes wander off the cover, she handed over a few bills and thanked the vendor.
"I can’t believe you get paid to read this junk,” Eva said as they walked into their office building.
"I’m with Eva on that. Is this weekly ritual of yours really necessary to be a good fashion editor?”
"This one’s not for work ladies, it’s for pleasure.” Izzy pointed to the magazine cover.
"Holy smokes…he’s hot!” Allie ogled at the picture of a drop dead gorgeous man, sun bathing on a beach. In the nude.
The picture showed everything, from his unruly hair, to his strong chiseled jaw, to the toned muscles in his arms; his broad chest dusted with just the right amount of hair, his six-pack abs and his long legs. And that line of fuzz that tapered from his navel down to his—blurry round circle?
"Who’s that?” Based on his looks, the guy was a model, or an actor, or maybe even an athlete.
"Seriously?” Izzy glared at her. "He’s the owner of Stanford Enterprises.”
"No way. That’s Clive Stanford? The Clive Stanford?”
"Yes. The Clive Stanford. They have an office here, top floor. And he owns this building and the one next to it. How can you not know Clive Stanford?”
"Well, I know the name. We’ve worked with the Stanfords for years. I met Clive’s father once, but…” Eva glanced back to the magazine cover. "I’ve never actually met Clive.” She should look him up on the Internet later. Because it was good to know all about one’s clients. She had no other intention whatsoever.
"Shouldn’t he be in Time Magazine or Forbes and not some junky magazine?” Allie asked.
She had a good point. Stanford Enterprises owned several businesses, from spas to night clubs, restaurants to charities and much more. It was unusual to see a man of his standing making an appearance in a weekly gossip journal.
"Well, that’s because he’s with Silvia. She’s the Sports Illustrated cover this season.” Izzy referred to the beautiful woman lying next to Clive in the picture. "He’s been linked with several elite models in the past. He’s quite the mix, you know, billionaire, philanthropist, and playboy.”
Eva trusted Izzy’s knowledge on these matters. As the editor of In Trend magazine, Izzy always had all the dirt on the celebrity circles.
The way Izzy said that word, playboy, churned Eva’s insides. She didn’t like playboys just as much as she didn’t like cheaters. And now, she didn’t like Clive. Yet, she glanced back at the magazine cover, and imagined herself next to him on the beach in place of the super-hot blonde. She’d never get tired of looking at this man. The sex would be mind-blowing. No harm in fantasizing, right?
"Isn’t he delicious?” Izzy sighed as the elevator doors opened.
They stilled. And they stared.
There he was, the tabloid hottie, clothed in a dark gray suit, a crisp, white shirt with the top few buttons undone, hair ruffled, and looking straight at them from inside the elevator car.
He glanced at the magazine in Izzy’s hand and a slow, sexy grin appeared on his handsome face. Eva grew weak in her knees.
He looked at them one by one, first at Izzy, then at Allie and then his gaze met hers and lingered. The unexpected attention from the man she had only moments ago been fantasizing about made her tense. A thrill of attraction zinged all over her as his gaze traveled her length. She almost forgot to breathe, as the same way she almost forgot he was a playboy. And she most definitely forgot Daniel.
Her brain commanded her to get into the car, but the rest of her body stayed still. She worried her lower lip with her teeth, hoping the pain would shake her awake. Could he possibly know what she had been thinking right then? His lips curled into an alluring smile. Evidently he did. She swallowed hard, but managed to smile back.
"Ahem.” A harsh wake-up-call came from one of the many others waiting to get past them and into the elevator.
Izzy shoved the magazine into her leather tote as they hurried in. Eva turned her back to Clive as soon as possible, but as the crowd shuffled in, she had no choice except to move toward him. She took a step backward, then another…and by the time the car was full, she stood pressed close to him. His breath fanned her hair and he smelled of something fresh and divinely male.
Allie shot Eva a sideways glance. Her expression was one of contained amusement, and brought Eva back to the hilarity of the moment. After what felt like eternity, the doors opened and Eva, Izzy, and Allie rushed out. And as soon as the doors closed they burst out into laughter.
"Oh. My. God. What were the chances of that happening?” Izzy pressed her hand to her chest, clearly flustered by the unlikely encounter.
"Right? And Eva, he was totally checking you out,” Allie said.
"He so was,” Izzy chimed in.
A quick shiver zipped up Eva’s spine as she was still energized from Clive’s silent attention. But remembering Izzy’s opinion of him raised an immediate red flag she wouldn’t ignore. Moreover, this had been the first time she’d seen him in the two months she’d worked in the building. A fluke. She doubted she would see him again anytime soon.
"Whatever, not interested.”
"Not interested?” Izzy looked shocked. "Do you know how many women want him to look at them the way he did at you?”
"Uh-huh. And how many women has he already looked at, the way he did at me?”
"Well…there’s that,” Izzy said.
"So yes, not interested. But, for the record, he is…wow.” They giggled.
After a moment of composure they said their goodbyes, and they each walked to their respective offices.
"Morning, Tina,” Eva greeted.
"Miss Avery, good morning,” Eva’s secretary greeted back, her voice chirpy and upbeat. The young woman followed her into Eva’s spacious office.
"Any messages for me yet?” Eva shed her coat, hung it on the rack, and walked to her desk.
"Yes, Mr. Avery stopped by. He wants to see you as soon as possible.”
It had been two months since Eva had taken over her late-father’s business. If not forced by his will, never in a million years would she have agreed to be the sole owner of S. F. Designs. After all, she was trained to be a Chef, not a CEO, and had no experience leading a company. None especially in leading one of the top Interior Design firms in the nation.
After graduating from culinary school, Eva had spent several years committed to grueling hours of work as she climbed up the chef ladder. And then finally, about a year ago, she’d been made the Executive Chef at a starred restaurant— a title she had worked hard to achieve and that made her, and her father too, quite proud. She’d been so close to making her long-aspired dream a reality. A vision to own a restaurant, one that would gain critical acclaim by delighting with food set precisely in place, like artwork.
Yet here she was at S. F. Designs, following a path she had never wanted to pursue, in a field in which she had no experience, shelving her creativity for a future day that may or may not come her way. Why? Because of that last, unforgettable conversation she’d had with her father.
Only after his death had those few moments she’d spent with him come to mean so much to her. The ambience of the coffee shop, the aroma, what her father had worn that day, his every gesture, every grimace, every word…all now ingrained in her mind forever.
"I’ve put you down in my will as the next owner of the company.”
She laughed. He didn’t. Was he serious? "You’re not kidding.”
"Dave will train you in no time.”
She laughed again. This had to be a joke. "Why? Are you going somewhere?”
"So you’re willing to take over then?”
"I’m neither willing, nor ready, nor even remotely capable of working in any other business that isn’t in the food-industry. I’m a chef, Dad. I want to own a restaurant some day. That’s what I want to do. Not run an interior design firm.”
"Why? Is it because I was a bad father? Because I was never around?”
"Oh, c’mon. This is emotional blackmail.”
"Is it? Did you not choose a career path completely different from mine because you imagine that means you won’t have to live the life I’ve lived? Yes, I was consumed by work. But I did it all for you, damn it. For your brother. For your mother."
"I know that. We know that. You’re wonderful, you always were.”
"Then don’t refuse this, Evie. You’re perfect for this role. No one else can lead this company like you can. In only a matter of months you’ll be as good, maybe even better at this job than I ever was. This company needs a fighter, this company needs you.”
"I…” She shook her head, "I’m sorry…I-I can’t…I just can’t. Why won’t you let Uncle Dave take over?”
"He’s excellent, no doubt. But he’s not you, he can never be what you can to this company.”
His explanation and insistence made no sense to her then; it made no sense to her now. Whatever the reason behind him choosing her to lead the company after him, she might never know. But she loved her father and missed him terribly. S. F. Designs had been a huge part of his life and was all that was left of him. She couldn’t forgo his last wishes, she couldn’t let him down.
Eva sighed, set her bag on her desk, and walked over to find out why Uncle Dave wanted to see her so urgently.
"Hey,” she greeted her uncle as she walked into his attractive corner office. Uncle Dave sat behind a large, mahogany desk. The silver in his hair shined in the morning sun that gleamed through the huge windows. A familiar expression of affection lit up his face, but quickly reverted back to contagious worry. Her stomach tightened. "Is everything OK?”
"I’m not sure.” He handed her a paper marked with the Stanford Enterprises logo.
She scanned through the document, rushing to find the words that might explain his discomfort.
…We cherish our unwavering partnership…blah, blah, blah…we regret to inform you that we are terminating our contract with S. F Designs… Thank you for your exceptional service…
"But why?” Confused, she looked at her uncle.
"They don’t say.”
She brought her gaze back to the paper she held in her now shaky hand. Her father had launched S. F. Designs the same year she was born. Through the years, the company had progressed from a meager garage start-up into a high-end corporation. She thought back to the day the company set up shop on this thirty-seventh floor. She’d only been five years old then; cars and people had looked like moving toys from the windows of her father’s office.
Several years later, her dad had met Clive’s father, then owner of Stanford Enterprises. Sharing similar stories of struggles in the initial years of their businesses, they took an immediate liking to each other. Their companies had been in partnership ever since.
Her father had a contract to design all of Stanford’s spas. The tone of the contract was informal, allowing each company the freedom to terminate at any time without any legally binding implications.
Stanford Enterprises had benefitted hugely from this partnership. Their Spa interiors, designed by her father’s firm, provided unparalleled tranquility and privacy, and had become hot spots for celebrities.
The partnership had positively propelled her father’s firm into the public eye. Within a year of designing their first spa, his team had been featured in several magazines for their superior and innovative renderings. Soon his was the number one firm in the state for designing luxurious living.
She’d imagined this streak of good luck would go on forever. Although there had been recent rumors of aggressive changes to Stanford’s business strategy, that they would end their partnership with S. F. Designs had never crossed her mind.
It wasn’t even nine in the morning. How could things have gone so wrong already?
Stanford Enterprises was the fifth company pushing to sever ties with them this month. Her firm had committed to providing services to Stanford and only a few other firms for the rest of this year. Unless they were able to find another viable customer, losing this contract would plummet her firm’s projected yearly profits.
Eva called Tina on the intercom and asked to set up an immediate meeting with Bryan Austin, the Director of Design at Stanford.
Her first impression of Bryan Austin had been that of a man who was trying too hard. He was a tall, athletic man with dark hair, each and every strand painstakingly set to perfection. He was relatively young-looking for a corporate executive, and could almost second as an owner of a swanky night club. With that came a moody attitude, his face mostly expressionless and a pre-meditated response of rejection toward any offerings her firm made to Stanford.
Except on one occasion last week, when Eva’s team had suggested Stanford should switch to environmentally friendly options while staying along the lines of their signature designs.
Eva liked the proposal from her team; to her, any concept that benefitted the planet had a nice ring to it. The thought that her firm could be a part of a green world made her feel at peace, as if she were in an organic garden, picking fragrant herbs for her next entrée invention.
To her surprise, at first Bryan was on board with the idea. However, his enthusiasm seemed to have waned within the last two days. His team had returned with a strong no, we’re sticking to tried and tested methods for now response. Eva had further questioned Bryan, but he’d responded with minimal substance and candor, leaving her baffled about this matter more than before. Worry about your own company, Miss Avery. Leave the worrying about Stanford to me.
As she stared at the notice she held, she began to suspect he had known about the contract termination all along. Whatever the reasoning behind his decision to send them the termination letter, convincing him to reverse his decision would be quite a feat. Burdened by a heavy, sinking feeling, she slumped down into the empty chair across from her uncle.
Silence ensued for several long moments as Eva contemplated the repercussions this change would bring upon her firm. And then she heard a slight knock on the door. It was Tina.
"Miss Avery, the earliest the Stanford team can meet is at two o’clock tomorrow.”
Eva sighed. And so it begins, the countdown toward impending war. She took one last look at the letter in her hand. She had a day and a half to prepare for the brunt of the discussions that would follow when she met with Stanford. And she’d be ready. Bring it on.
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