Slade Hamilton stood in front of the large window of his office looking out over the business district in Downtown Austin, Texas. The ever-expanding skyline was one of the things that drew him to this branch of his family’s business. From his high-rise on Congress Avenue, Slade could look and see the busy city on one side and the calm of Lady Bird Lake on the other.
As Bull Hamilton’s one and only son, Slade could’ve chosen any of Logan Industries’ locations. California, New York, Asia, Europe, or even the coveted headquarters in Houston, where the great man himself ran the company founded by Slade’s maternal grandfather. All of those locations were in his reach. But Austin and its freshness, its eclectic mix of the traditional and the new, called to him. It also didn’t hurt that the near three-hour trip between Austin and Houston kept visits from his stepmother and father to a minimum.
Slade pulled the knotted tie from his neck and opened the button holding his throat hostage. He pulled in a harsh breath, held it, and let it seep from his lips slowly. Today had gone to hell with gasoline drawers on, and he was more grateful than usual that his father’s office was three hours away.
Slade picked up the half-empty tumbler of Scotch and downed his liquid lunch in one gulp. The burn nearly brought tears to his eyes, but the discomfort was nothing compared to what he’d be experiencing once Bull discovered Slade’s colossal loss of the StarTech deal.
Six months’ worth of work gone like a puff of smoke. Slade was pissed at the waste of his time, but after discovering some of the dirty things Bull expected him to do to close the deal, there was no way Slade could go through with it.
A shrill buzz from the intercom cracked the air. Slade settled the now-empty glass on his desk and pushed the speakerphone button. “Yes, Donna.”
“Slade, your father’s on line one. Shall I tell him you’re unavailable for calls right now?”
For a brief second Slade contemplated Donna’s gift of avoidance before he shook his head and capitulated. “No, Donna, might as well get this ass-chewing over with.” He picked up the phone receiver and waited for a beat before he spoke. “Bull, what can I do for you?”
“Boy, you know exactly what the hell you can do for me!” His father’s voice boomed through the line, making the ache in Slade’s head throb more.
“I guess you’ve heard about the StarTech deal?”
“I gave you explicit directions on how to handle that deal, Slade. If you’d just done what I told you to do, we’d have that damn company in our grip.”
Slade rolled his eyes as he listened to Bull’s assessment of the situation. Yeah, if Slade had listened to Bull they probably would have owned StarTech. The problem was, Bull’s plan included a whole lot of illegal shit that Slade wasn’t really inclined to get involved in.
“Bull, it was insider trading. If we’d gone ahead with the purchase of the stock, both of us would end up in handcuffs once the SEC found out.”
“If they found out,” Bull added.
Slade shook his head. There it was—Bull logic. Something was only wrong if you got caught doing it. Even then, if you could weasel your way out of your predicament by denying it or resting the blame at someone else’s feet, then you still weren’t technically in the wrong.
Slade had spent years attempting to resign himself to Bull’s way of thinking and living. There was only one problem, he had this pesky thing called a conscience that wouldn’t let him screw people over or do illegal shit just to get ahead.
Tired of Bull’s tirade, he placed the receiver down on his desk and let the man rattle on. By the sound of it, Bull had only muddled through the first movement of this familiar symphony. Slade figured he had another twenty minutes before Bull spewed his consistent, “You hear me when I’m talking to you, boy?” and Slade would be expected to answer.
Slade returned to the window and smiled at his beloved city. Its distance from his father’s brimstone being its most endearing quality at the moment.
He saw his smile reflected in the window and could almost see his inner child sticking out his tongue and singing, “Na, na, na, na, na, you can’t get me,” to his angry father. He reveled in that feeling of his petty win until he heard a disturbance from the other side of his office door. A panicked, “You can’t just barge in there,” coming from Donna made Slade pull up to his full six-foot-four-inch height and step toward the door.
“Donna, who in the hell—”
“Who in the hell indeed, son.”
There, big and bold as day, Bull Hamilton stood in the middle of Slade’s office. As if this day hadn’t already pissed Slade off, it had taken a decidedly sharp turn onto shit’s highway.
“I can’t believe you fucked this up, Slade! I gave you all the tools you needed to win this damn thing, and you still managed to screw me and my company.”
Slade turned halfway from his perch at the office window to give his father a cursory glance. Bull Hamilton wasn’t a man to listen to rational thought. He just yelled a lot until most folks around him crumbled in fear. Slade wasn’t afraid of his father. He knew how dangerous he could be when he settled on something, but in this, Slade knew Bull had no recourse, so he just turned his back and let the old Texan blow off steam.
“I know you hear me, Slade. What do you have to say for yourself?” Bull continued.
“The same thing I’ve been saying all along. It was insider trading. I’m not going to prison for anyone, Bull, not even you.”
“God, you’re some kind of useless,” Bull hollered. “We had that stock in the palm of our hands. It was going to be easy money.”
Slade was more than a little pissed off now. If he hadn’t done his due diligence in his pursuit of the stock, he’d never have stumbled over his father’s backdoor deals. “This is your fault, Bull, not mine. If you’d just let me handle the deal my way, instead of cutting corners behind my back, we wouldn’t be in this mess. I wouldn’t have wasted so much company time and resources on a deal that was doomed from the start.”
“Good Lord in heaven. How the hell did I get such a bitch for a son? You whine more than any woman I know. This is business. You go big, you go hard, or you drag your sorry ass on home.”
Slade was tired at this point. He’d had this same conversation with his father many times. The result was always going to be the same. Slade wasn’t about to engage in dirty shit to appease his father.
He turned around, facing his father, squaring his shoulders. “Listen, I’m tired and really not up for this rant you have planned. How about we just review the previous versions of this conversation and keep pushing? I’ve gotta head back to my ranch.”
“I’m tired of your attitude, boy. Logan Industries is mine,” Bull snarled.
“For now,” Slade countered.
It was the same old argument again, the real reason behind the chasm between Slade and his father. Logan Industries.
His beloved grandmother hadn’t wanted to leave the family business to her wily son-in-law after Slade’s natural mother preceded her in death, but Slade was too young to take control of the company when his grandma Ester passed. She’d left it in a trust, and left his father and two others as the co-executors. Bull would be in power for another five years. On Slade’s fortieth birthday, the entire company would be handed over to him.
“My mama-in-law was a wonderful woman, but she didn’t know shit about business. The fact she left it all to you is proof of that. You botched this up for us, so I’m gonna make you pay.”
“Exactly how, Bull? It’s not like you can fire me.”
“No, I can’t fire you, but I can determine exactly where you work in this company. Those two hens your grandmamma named as co-executors to your trust don’t have shit to say about general business dealings. Those decisions are left to me. Since you want to act like a bitch, I’m gonna send you to a division where I think someone with your displayed sensitivities would flourish. You’re going to Venus.”
Slade did a quick mental query. “The cosmetics division?”
“Yup. Right now it’s dragging. Needs something fresh to keep it alive, or I’m gonna cut it,” Bull answered.
“But Memaw loved that division. She started it up. You can’t cut it, Bull.”
“Oh, yeah, I can. And if it’s not making money, the other executors will have to agree to sell it. I’m turning it over to you and giving you an assignment. There’s a rinky-dink cosmetics operation that’s based in Brooklyn, New York. It’s currently owned by Sadie King. They’re tiny, but they’ve got some impressive sales. I want to buy them, dissolve them into Venus. You’ve got a meeting in two days with the owner. Lori will pick you up from the airport when you land. Your plane leaves in an hour.”
Slade ground his teeth until his jaw began aching. “You made travel arrangements for me? I haven’t agreed to any of this.”
Bull laughed as he watched Slade. “You will. Because you know I’ll sell that son of a bitch for no other reason than to piss you off. This is the only chance you have at saving it. Get me that cosmetics line and the formulas behind all its products or Venus is gone.”
Bull stood up with a slick smile on his face. He tipped his cowboy hat in a mock salute and walked out of Slade’s office.
Slade grabbed the nearest thing his fingers could reach and launched the empty glass tumbler across the room. When the sound of its shattering pieces erupted in the room, Slade could hear a hearty laugh coming from the opposite side of the door. Once again, Bull had Slade just where he wanted him. Right under Bull’s thumb.
* * *
Mandisa Avery pored over the spreadsheets in front of her, her eyes crossing as the digits and lines blurred. It was only four in the afternoon, but she’d been inside the tiny office of her Atlantic Galleria store for twelve hours attempting to perfect her proposal. If she could get this presentation together, she’d be able to lure investors to help her realize her mother’s dream: a national franchise of her mama’s Sweet Sadie’s Beauty Supply stores, and its signature cosmetics and body lotion collections, Sweet Sadie’s Treats, distributed in all the major retail stores throughout the country.
She had two days before her first meeting with a rep from Venus Cosmetics. Of the three companies courting her, Venus was her favorite among them. They were already in all the chains she wanted to break into, and their brand was known for quality and affordability, two things she insisted upon with her own products.
“Hey, Mandisa, a few of us are heading over to Syn tonight after we close. You down?”
Mandisa wiped her blurry eyes and focused on her friend, Kandi’s, face. Kandi may be Mandisa’s store manager now, but she’d been looking out for Mandisa’s interests far longer than the handful of years she’d worked at Sweet Sadie’s. They’d been friends since Mandisa moved onto Osborn Street in Brownsville, Brooklyn, when she was eight. Kandi was queen of the block. Fortunately, they’d clicked from the first time Mandisa had proven herself as an asset on Kandi’s double Dutch team.
Back in the day, if you were a little black girl in the ’hood, you either jumped double Dutch or you didn’t exist socially. Between Mandisa’s mama and all her aunties’ instruction, she literally had the double Dutch game on lock. Hell, at thirty-three years old she still had a pristine double Dutch rope made of plastic clothesline—because everyone who jumped double Dutch knew plastic clothesline was the best material for a rope in the ’hood—tied up neatly, resting in the back of her trunk just in case a spontaneous game of Numbers broke out.
“I’d love to, Kandi.” Mandisa yawned. “But this presentation is kicking my ass. I’ve got to get it perfected. I’m meeting with the rep from Venus Cosmetics. Lori Harris arrives in two days. I’ve gotta have everything in place by then.”
Kandi stepped farther into the office, closing the door behind her. She shook her head and crossed her arms over her chest, not even attempting to disguise her disappointment with Mandisa’s excuse.
“Girl, you’ve been working on that proposal since you and Mama Sadie first cooked up this idea all those years ago. I know every detail this rep could need or want is already included in your ridiculously organized slides. What you need to do now is relax, so you don’t seem like a desperate beggar when you arrive at the presentation.”
Mandisa took her hand off the wireless mouse and sat up straight in her chair, rubbing her temples. Desperate wasn’t that far off from the way she felt. Mandisa knew her products were quality. She’d seen to that herself in the lab when she created each item in both lines. Her sales were concrete evidence that consumers loved what she created. If she wanted to continue meeting the demand, she needed to grow her business. Growth equaled the need for capital. She wasn’t financially hurting by any means; her stores remained in the black with a sizably impressive profit each year.
Her current success notwithstanding, if she wanted to expand, she’d need to impress an outside investor with not just numbers, but charm. Kandi was right. Mandisa’s data was flawless. What she needed to do now was work on her lure.
“Sure, count me in.” Mandisa started to return to her work but noticed Kandi still standing there. “You needed something else?”
“No, I’m just surprised,” Kandi muttered softly with her head slightly tilted to the side. “I didn’t think convincing you to hang would be that easy.”
“Damn, Kandi. I know I’m not the most social person in the world, but even I go out and hang on occasion. It shouldn’t be that shocking.”
Kandi stepped closer to her desk, watching Mandisa carefully. “Not much in the last year and a half. Not since Ms. Sadie passed.”
Kandi’s statement hung heavy in the air, making it difficult for Mandisa to breathe comfortably. Eighteen months still wasn’t enough time to erase the sting of loss Mandisa could never seem to outrun.
“I’m sorry, Mandisa, I didn’t mean…”
Mandisa closed her eyes and swallowed hard in an attempt to push her latent grief down. Once she was certain she had it under control, she allowed a small smile to grow slowly on her lips. “It’s fine. You don’t have to be scared to mention Mama. And you’re right. I haven’t done anything but work and sleep since she passed. Tonight changes all that. Tonight, Dr. Avery takes a reprieve, and Mandisa gets to come out and play.”
“Hey, hey, hey,” Kandi sang. “That’s what I’m talkin’ ’bout.”
Mandisa laughed at her friend. If there was anyone in this world who could make Mandisa enjoy herself even when she didn’t really want to, it was Kandi.
“All right, slacker, Dr. Avery has to finish up work today if Mandisa is going to party tonight.”
* * *
Mandisa climbed the circular staircase carefully as she made her way to the bar in the upper-level lounge. Syn was a bi-level club. Downstairs was for dancing and partying. Upstairs was for conversations and cocktails. Her friends were downstairs grinding with the other patrons on the dance floor. Mandisa had done her last two-step when her pretty pumps began pinching her toes. That’s what she got for trying to just jump back into the club scene without stretching first.
She pushed through the heavy doors that protected the quiet from the loud bass currently banging on the lower level. As soon as the doors closed, there was an instant drop in volume. It wasn’t silent, just a measured groove where people could listen to slow jams as a soundtrack to their conversations, or thoughts.
She sat at the end of the bar and waved to catch the bartender’s attention. He was currently serving another customer at the end, but acknowledged her with a slight nod.
“Evening, what can I get you?”
“A whiskey sour.”
With impressive speed, he slid her drink in front of her. A quick, “Here you go,” and he was turning away.
“How much do I owe you,” she asked as she reached into her pocket to pull out a bill.
“Nothing. The guy at the end of the bar says he’s picking up your tab for the rest of the night.”
Mandisa turned her head to glance at the stranger. Dark hair tapered neatly at the sides and a clean-shaven face. He offered her a wide smile that seemed to reach his sparkling blue eyes.
Her gaze traveled down his square jaw until she took in the size and build of him. Damn, he’s a big one. The long-sleeved white button-down shirt and the simple black slacks did little to mask the distinct silhouette of his carved muscles.
She continued to move her gaze down the length of his body, appreciating every inch as she continued her perusal. She stopped dead at a large pair of black cowboy boots that made her remember one of her mother’s colorful pearls of wisdom regarding men. Baby, if you really want to know what a man is packing, just look at the size of his feet. If he ain’t working with double digits, he ain’t worth your time.
She closed her eyes against the shiver of lust that spilled down her spine. If those boots weren’t well into the double digits she’d sell her right arm.
The deep rumble of a nearby male voice forced her eyes open. The stranger was sitting beside her. She was so busy daydreaming about how hung he might be she hadn’t seen him move closer to her.
“Excuse me?” she managed.
“My boots. I saw you looking at them, figured you were probably amazed at the size of these boats. I promise I won’t step on you.”
Size thirteens, good gawd!
“I’m Slade, by the way.” He offered her his hand and another helping of his bright smile.
“Mandisa,” she countered, accepting his hand with a nod.
“Mandisa. What a beautiful name? What does it mean?”
“Sweet,” she answered.
“Fitting. It’s lovely to meet you tonight, Ms. Mandisa.”
“Thank you for the drink, Slade. It was very kind of you. But I can’t accept your offer to purchase all my drinks tonight. It’s too generous.”
He motioned for the bartender to freshen his drink and returned those beautiful blue eyes of his to her face. “Mandisa, please, it’s my honor to do so. And besides, it’s all I have to offer in exchange for…”
Mandisa raised an eyebrow in expectation. The smart-assed retort was waiting to fly off the tip of her tongue.
Mandisa’s would-be scowl turned into a full-on smile. This man was smart, charming, and fine as hell. A rare combination in her world as of late.
“I’d be happy to sit and talk to you, Slade. You don’t have to bribe me with drinks to do so.”
“Not a bribe, darlin’, just a way to show my appreciation for your time.”
He held out a hand and led them in the direction of one of the empty booths. They sat in the quiet little booth, enjoying the easy conversation and pleasant company. Their waitress brought them another round of drinks, interrupting their conversation for a few moments. When she left, Mandisa returned her attention to Slade.
“Where are you from, Slade?”
The twang in his voice told her he was from somewhere South of the Mason Dixon. It had been there, just below the surface, but when he spoke the word “darlin’” like it was dipped in honey, his accent flourished.
“Austin, Texas.” He took a quick swig of the beer and settled the bottle quietly on the table. “Did the yee-haw in my voice give me away? Doesn’t usually come out unless I’m comfortable in my surroundings.”
“Does that mean you’re comfortable with me?”
“Yes, it does.” He tipped the long neck of his beer bottle in her direction. “But the more important question is, are you comfortable with me, Mandisa?”
Mandisa couldn’t help the smile blooming on her face. It didn’t really make sense, but his easy personality made him so inviting. “Strangely enough, I am.”
“Why is that so strange?”
She pulled her eyes away from his and focused on the finger she was running along the perimeter of her glass. “I’m a born and bred New Yorker. We’re distrustful from birth. You don’t survive in a city like this by letting your guard down.”
He laughed a little. The sound small enough not to draw the attention of the other patrons in the lounge, yet powerful enough to shake something loose inside. She felt it. It was a physical sensation of something releasing within the lonely walls of her soul.
I must be hard up if a man’s laugh is doing it for me now. When did laughing become so goddamn sexy?
“That’s no way to live. You need to come on down to Texas. We’re some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet. You’ll get to let down your guard and experience life as it was meant to be experienced.”
“And how’s that?”
He moved in closer. His lean was measured but steady. She didn’t even pretend to hesitate. She met him halfway and welcomed the moment his lips touched hers. The firm, determined mutual press of their mouths sparked need inside her. Just as quickly as the kiss had happened, it ended. He pulled away, running a slow finger down the apple of her cheek as he offered a welcoming smile.
“Life was meant to be just like that kiss. Fun, sexy, open, and with the intent of creating happiness and satisfying desire.”
He was leaning in again. Their lips met in a rush. She felt the light swipe of his tongue against her bottom lip and decided chasing it was the best idea she’d had all week. Just when she’d found his tongue again, coaxed him into giving her more of it, she heard her name in the distance.
“Mandisa, there you are.”
Mandisa pulled away from Slade’s kiss when she recognized Kandi’s voice. The blessing and curse of having such a unique name was when someone shouted it across a room, you were reasonably certain they were addressing you. She was confident no other Mandisas were sitting in this room tonight.
“Oh, I’m sorry.” Kandi stopped short when she reached the booth. “Am I interrupting?”
“No, Kandi,” Mandisa lied. “Kandi, this is Slade. Slade, my best friend Kandi. Kandi looked Slade up and down, much the same way Mandisa did when she first laid eyes on him. He was a pretty specimen of big man meat. Mandisa would wager most women would find it difficult not to take a long hard look at the man. “What’s up?”
“Anna drank too many martinis, and now she’s sick. We’re heading out.”
Great, I haven’t met an interesting man in nearly two years, and one of my girlfriends chooses this moment to get pissy drunk.
Mandisa wanted to groan and kick her feet while she screamed, “I don’t wanna.” But the girlfriend code of clubbing said we came together, we leave together, so…
“Slade, it was really lovely to meet you, but we’ve got to get our friend home. I hope you enjoy the rest of your stay in New York.”
“I’m sure I will, if you agree to spend some time with me while I’m here. Dinner tomorrow?”
Before she could answer, he pulled a card from his blazer and handed it to her. She opened her small clutch and popped the card inside. Needing both hands to slide out of the booth, she set the purse on the table as she exited quickly. When she looked at him again, she slammed into his powerful stare. He may have phrased it as a question, but between the kiss and the way his gaze locked with hers, they both knew it was a statement of fact she’d be having dinner with him the next evening.
“I’ll call you—”
“Mandisa, we really need to get this girl out of here. Sarah just texted me Anna’s throwing up at the coat check.”
Mandisa huffed and followed Kandi out of the lounge. She stopped when she reached the door and took one more glance backward. Slade was still watching her. His sexy smile still lingering dangerously across his lips as he tipped his hat to her.
You are trouble, Slade from Austin, Texas. Hopefully the best kind.
* * *
Slade felt his lips bend into a gratifying smile as he enjoyed watching the round curve of Mandisa’s ass sashay across the room. She was sexy, intelligent, and obviously as attracted to him as he was to her. Slade could watch her all night long.
When she turned around and met his hungry gaze with a matching one of her own, he gave her a quick wink and tipped his beer to his lips. He might have been forced to come to New York because of his hateful father, but he was certain he’d be enjoying his destination for one simple reason—Mandisa.
Once she’d gone, he sat in the booth for a few moments remembering what her lips tasted like. They’d shared a brief few kisses before her friend interrupted them, but they were enough to make him want more.
He kept himself amused with thoughts of tomorrow and signaled the waitress to bring his check. Once he’d settled the bill, he was about to leave when the server touched his arm.
“Sir, I think your friend left her purse.”
Slade looked down at the small bag Mandisa had held in her hand and cringed. He’d given her his card and basked in satisfaction when she’d placed it securely in her purse. So certain she would call, he’d made no request for Mandisa’s telephone number in return.
Not one to belabor regrets, he set about opening the purse to look for a piece of contact information for her.
“All right, Ms. Mandisa. Let’s hope you left me a clue.”