“Time to get ready, sir,” Fredo urged as he struggled to rouse me from my bed.
I slowly opened one eye, then the other, just so I could glare at him. “Do you like working for me, Alfredo?”
His brows rose, then the older, white-haired man swallowed hard and took a step back. “My family has served yours for centuries, sir. I think we’re too deep into the contract to change things now, don’t you?”
“That doesn’t answer my question,” I grumbled as I struggled to sit up from under the sheet. As usual, I’d pushed all the rest of the bedding off me during the night. I kicked my legs around and slowly stood on the heirloom rug. Like most everything in the room, it had been in our family forever.
“Sir, I do enjoy working here. It’s never dull, and you’re kind to my family.” His eyes widened. Then he frowned. “And as I recall, we had a similar conversation last month. You always get pissy before a full moon.”
“Yes, well, you would too, if the moon meant curtailing your favorite pastime.” I huffed as I stalked over to him and slid my arms into the robe Fredo held out to me.
“I’m sure I would, sir, but one would think by now you’d be used to it.” My back might be to him, but I was certain the man had rolled his eyes at me. I secured my robe around my waist before turning to meet his gaze.
“You know, you could’ve gone with Mishal. I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself,” I reminded him.
“Yes, I can see that, sir,” Fredo murmured as he bent down to pick up the clothes I’d carelessly tossed on the floor in my haste to escape last night. His brow arched. “Now, I’ll go downstairs to prepare your breakfast.”
I knew I was being a dick and I could see the irony of the situation, but at the moment, I didn’t care. With a sigh, I turned away and stared longingly through the open balcony doors. The ocean was slapping so loudly against the shore, I could hear it even atop the cliffs, and the breeze made me yearn to soar through the sky once more. It had become my haven while the world weighed down on me. “Only six eggs today, Fredo.” I called out as he’d already exited the room.
He strolled through the door again, his brows peaked. “The usual amount of toast, sir?”
“Nah. I’m not hungry.” I shrugged and trudged toward the bathroom.
“But, Mr. Blaise, you burned a lot of calories last night. You don’t want to grow weak…” His voice trailed off and I knew he was thinking of my father, who had wasted away after losing my mother.
“I’m not dying of heartsickness, Fredo,” I grumbled. “I don’t have a mate.”
“That may be why you’re suffering,” he murmured on his way out of my bedroom for the second time. Before I could think of a response, he had closed the door behind him, and I had accepted he might just be right.
I stood gripping the edge of the vanity, wondering if my sorrow showed. My skin still appeared to be the same perma-bronze shade as always, my eyes were a brilliant blue, and my hair was black as night. Thanks to my nightly excursions, I had plenty of exercise despite spending much of my day seated behind a computer. What I didn’t have much of was sleep…or patience. I’d only been in bed for a little more than two hours when Fredo woke me. No wonder I’d been so miserable.
Taking a few steps, I moved to the shower and turned on the water as cold as I could stand it; given how hot I felt right now, I’d probably turn it into a steam shower, which wouldn’t be so bad. I took my time, thoroughly massaging my aching muscles. Almost every inch of my body hurt this morning. I’d flown most of the length of the California coast before returning.
By the time I’d dressed in my business casual attire and seated myself in the breakfast room, Fredo had the table set for me, my carafe of coffee to my right, and the paper to my left. Seconds after I’d poured my first mug, he’d arrived with my meal. I pursed my lips as I studied my plate.
“Sir, before you complain, yes, this is more than six eggs. And, naturally, you already told me you weren’t hungry, but sometimes you start eating and realize you were hungrier than you thought.” Fredo sighed. The man had known me for a good fifty years and it obviously pained him to see me like this.
In an effort to keep the peace this morning, I decided a quick change of subject would help. “What’s on my schedule today?” Then I began to pick at my meal to make him happy.
“You have the SV Expo. It begins at ten this morning and runs until six this evening.” He held the day planner away from his face and peered at it through his bifocals. “And you asked me to leave the rest of your day free unless you needed to woo some startups so you could acquire their tech.” Fredo snapped the planner closed and stood stiffly to my left.
“That will be all.” I glanced at my watch. “Looks like I’ll need to leave in about half an hour. Could you pack me a coffee to go?”
“I’m on it, sir.” My butler disappeared into the kitchen.
Reaching for my mug, I quickly brought it to my lips. At least I could take comfort in being able to ingest some incredible coffee this morning. Setting it back on the table, I opened the paper and frowned. Ever since Ira Gunther had taken over Sterling Girard’s gubernatorial campaign, his face appeared everywhere. We’d run into each other over the last ten years more than once, since we ran in many of the same social circles. No amount of press would change my opinion of him. The guy was a world-class asshole. In frustration, I folded the Times, set it on the table and pushed it away from me with one finger.
When Fredo rounded the corner from the kitchen, he must’ve seen my face. “Something wrong with your meal?” As usual, his brow furrowed when I seemed unhappy, making his big, bushy eyebrows come together like one giant silver caterpillar.
“The meal was great. It’s the world that’s wrong.” I picked up a piece of toast to appease him. “Lots of butter,” I commented, “just how I like it, Fredo.”
Immediately, he relaxed. “You’re welcome, Mr. Blaise. Would you like me to pack some of this for the road?”
I licked my lips. There was no way I could eat right now, but at least if I took it with me, I could make it look good. “Sure.” Then I pushed my chair back from my plate. “I’ll be back shortly. I need to prepare for the expo.” Then I stood and exited the room.
In my pocket, I felt my phone vibrate. It was too early for the office to be reaching out. This left pretty much one possibility. I glanced at the screen. As I’d surmised, my brother was making his daily check-in call. “Good morning, Mishal, how are you?” I tried to sound cheerful because it meant fewer questions, but naturally my sibling could read me like no one else could.
“Better than you, apparently,” he joked.
“I don’t know about that. This morning I woke up in my gorgeous ocean front estate…”
“Alone,” he reminded me.
“Has something in your mated status changed? I hadn’t heard.” My eyes narrowed as I awaited his typical response.
“Not at all, but you’re the older brother. You should be mated first.” He chuckled. “Listen, I can tell the moon has you down.”
“I’m not down,” I objected weakly.
“Right. So, I’m coming to town for a few days next week for a meeting. I thought I’d stay with you, rather than in a hotel.” He didn’t even give me enough time to respond before adding, “I’m going to take your silence as acceptance. I’ll see you then.” Mishal ended the call before I had a chance to reply in any manner. I stomped my foot and Fredo came tearing down the hall.
“Sir, your temper,” he warned as he passed me a glass of ice water.
I ripped it from his grasp and gulped it down. Squeezing my eyes shut, I thought about all the things that made me happy like…shit! Does nothing make me happy? Quick. Something. Soaring. Yes, there it was. Flying soothed me. I took a few deep breaths before speaking. “Fredo,” I murmured, “looks like you saved the day.”
“I don’t know about the day, but definitely the rug.” He glanced around the hall. “Those paintings.” He pointed. “And that decorative basket.”
I had no reply. He wasn’t wrong. And hearing my little brother was coming into town meant soon, nothing would go right.
* * *
“Let’s go!” I hated running late and this time we really had to be on time.
“I’m coming. I just need to finish one thing…” My father’s voice grew more distant and I suspected he’d settled in behind his computer. Again.
Stomping up the steps, with my hands fisted by my sides, I stormed over to his desk and peered over the monitor. “I’m going to count to three and if you’re not in the car by the time I’m done, I’m staying home and you’re on your own.” I tapped my foot a few times in warning and watched as his eyes widened.
He hopped to his feet, but didn’t move from the keyboard. “I’m coming. I’m coming! I just need to save this so I can demonstrate the…”
“One,” I growled as I waved my forefinger in the air.
“I’m hitting save!” He danced a little and I truly thought I might have managed to get through to him this time.
“Two!” I roared as my middle finger joined the count.
“You’re such a slave driver,” my father grumbled as he bolted past me and stumbled down the stairs.
“Tell me all about it on the drive.” My heart rate began to slow. While he rushed to the car, I walked around the other side of the desk to double check and ensure he’d shut down the computer. When I realized he hadn’t, I sighed and did it for him. I bounced down the stairs, feeling calmer than I had for hours, and paused briefly in front of our family portrait hanging on the wall. “Don’t worry, Mom. I’m taking care of him.” Then, like I did nearly daily, I kissed my fingers, and pressed them to the glass.
Once I slid into the driver’s seat, I grinned at him. “Do you want to practice your pitch?”
“Sure, now you want to be nice to me.” He stared out the window at the passing landscape for a moment, his arms crossed over his chest, chin down, in his standard pouting pose.
I laid a hand on his shoulder. “Come on, Daddy. You know sometimes you need an extra little push to get out the door.”
“I know,” he muttered. “You can’t imagine the pressure I’m under right now.” He gave me a pleading look.
Inhaling deeply, I focused on the road before answering. “Actually, I know all about the pressure you’re under. I see the mail, Dad. I know the bank is threatening to foreclose.”
His eyes watered and he sank deeper into the seat. “I can’t lose the house, Maggie. This was the home your mother and I shared for all of our married life. I didn’t mean for any of this to happen.”
A hollow laugh escaped my lips. “Oh, I know. I blame the insurance company, and the hospital, and even the banks.” My jaw twitched as I slammed my mouth shut and struggled to control my anger. Something about having long black hair coupled with these green eyes made everyone imagine I was some kind of witch. Sometimes it was nice, the way others would avoid angering me. Sometimes it was annoying, like now, when we were about to be surrounded by strangers and I had to practice being on my best behavior. “You did the only thing you could. I was in college. I had no idea what was going on.” I sighed. “I only wish you’d have trusted me enough to tell me.”
“Your mother wanted you to finish your degree,” he explained for the millionth time.
“Well, we know we can’t change the past, but today is a great opportunity to fix our future.” I elbowed him playfully, hoping to improve his mood. The last thing we needed as we drove to the high-pressure Silicon Valley Expo was for him to be in the wrong mindset. Experience had proven those investors smelled fear and my father currently reeked of need.
“Yes.” He patted my leg for a moment. “Today could be our big day.” Then he frowned. “I wish your mother was here to see it.”
Apparently getting him out of his funk was going to be harder than I thought. “Come on. Let’s go make her proud.” I turned into the convention center parking lot. We presented our parking pass, and were directed toward the loading area.
As soon as I pulled up, I put the car in park and hopped out. “You can either stand here with the cart and bags until I return, or you can go to the booth and begin setting up while you wait for me.”
My father took one look at everything we hauled out of the trunk and murmured, “I’ll just wait here.”
I chuckled. “I thought so. Be back in a minute.” Then I drove off to find the closest parking space in the exhibitor lot. I scurried back to my father and found him already looking incredibly uncomfortable as a man tried to engage him in conversation.
“I’m Ira,” the man announced, holding out his hand.
“Malcolm.” My father tentatively shook.
Alarms sounded in my head. The really cutthroat investors would hang out in the exhibitor lot and try to get a leg up on the competition. Obviously one had already found my father.
“Okay, Dad, I’m ready. Let’s go.” I grabbed the cart and loaded his shoulder with one bag while I put the last two on mine. “Get the door and we’ll be on our way.”
“I was just speaking to your father,” the man began tentatively. He seemed far less confident dealing with me. Of course, I was fuming.
I turned to face him and tried not to laugh when he jumped back. “Ira, right?” He nodded. “Good. We’ll see you in there, Ira, after the expo opens and once our booth is ready. I look forward to speaking with you then.”
“But…” Ira took a baby step toward me, but stopped when I arched my brow.
“No buts. See you inside.” My jaw had started to ache already and we were only minutes into the day. I would have a phenomenal case of TMJ one day, without a doubt. “Dad, let’s go,” I snapped.
My father scampered over to the door and hauled it open for us, letting me pass through first. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know what to say. I’m better with the technology. You’re better with the people.” He followed me as I strode toward the back of the center.
“Right. I’m great with people,” I muttered as I traipsed through the crowed conference hall. Then I tried to ignore him, hyper-focused on the task at hand. “I get it. We don’t have much time to set up. We’re in the back row.”
“Why so far?” he complained.
“Because you wouldn’t commit until a couple of weeks ago,” I reminded him. “We’re lucky we managed to get in at all.”
“Oh. Right.” His shoulders drooped.
We wandered around until we found the sign on our table. “Ninja Marketing.” I laughed. “Here we are.”
“I can’t believe you named it Ninja Marketing. Doesn’t that seem…unprofessional? Look.” He gestured to all the tables in the area. “Cybertechnics. Technomarketing. Smart Home Plus. Now those are computer names.”
I shrugged. “Agreed, but in a sea of cyber this, techno that, and smart yada yada, Ninja Marketing will stand out.”
“I hope you’re right.” He stood and rubbed his hands together while the creases in his brow deepened.
“We don’t have much time. The doors open in ten minutes. Let’s get this done.” I watched him turning this way and that, as he tried to feel out the competition. “I’ve heard some investors and reps start in the back and work their way forward.”
“What are we doing standing around talking?” He scrambled over to the cart. “We need to get this booth together. Ten minutes!”
With a giggle, I started covering the table with our tablecloth and runner. This wasn’t the first one of these we’d gone to. Unfortunately, the last one was too close to the funeral and my father couldn’t handle it. Everything reminded him of his wife and he spent the majority of the expo in the bathroom crying. Two years later and twice as poor, we were at it again.
Soon Father had the computer set up and I worked on setting out the information brochures and assembling our two banners. “Bam. And done.” I grinned. “We did it.”
“Not yet,” he reminded me. “We haven’t sold anything.”
I walked over and wrapped my arms around him. “True, but we’re ready, and that’s half the battle.”
“Am I asking too much?” He studied the pricing and spec sheet he’d created. “I don’t want to seem greedy.
“You’re not greedy. You deserve to be paid for what you’ve developed.” I smiled and patted him on the back as we surveyed the convention center. The doors had opened and people were piling in. I scanned the room and watched for the first person to come our way. The games had begun.