Soulless. The CEO’s office of LeBlanc Jewelers in Chicago’s Diamond District hadn’t changed since the last time Val had darkened the door. Despite sharing a last name with the man behind the desk, this was the last place he’d choose to be. Which was too bad considering it was going to be Val’s office for the next six months.
Val’s brother Xavier sat back in his chair and eyed him. “Ready to take over?”
“Not by my choice.” Val flopped into one of the seats ringing the desk, more than happy to let Xavier keep the chair on the other side. That was where his brother belonged. Val didn’t. “But yeah. The sooner we get this nightmare over with, the better.”
There were few things Val disliked more than the chain of jewelry stores that bore his name. His old man came in a close second, or would if he hadn’t died two months ago.
If there was any justice in the world—a concept Val lost faith in the moment he’d heard the terms of the will—the LeBlanc patriarch even now was being roasted over an open flame. Which wouldn’t be nearly punishment enough for forcing him to switch places with his twin brother.
LeBlanc peddled diamonds for God’s sake—the most useless of all possessions on the planet—hawking propaganda that coerced men into spending thousands of dollars on a rock for their lady that would eventually be worth a quarter of what they’d paid for the piece. Not that it would matter overmuch in the divorce settlement.
“The nightmare is all mine,” Xavier corrected.
“Please. You got the easy task.” Val ran a hand through his longish hair, as he willed a brewing headache into submission. “I have to increase the profits of a company I’ve scarcely set foot in. If pushing LeBlanc over the billion-dollar mark in revenue for the calendar year was simple, you’d have done it already.”
His brother’s near-identical features mirrored none of the indignation that Val felt. Of course not. Xavier had never met an emotion he could tolerate, showing the same arrogant, coldhearted behavior as their father. No mystery why Xavier had been the favorite.
“Definitely not simple.” Xavier steepled his fingers, every inch the corporate stooge he’d been groomed to be. “But doable. If I were the one doing it. Instead of being given that chance, I’ve been banished into the bowels of LBC.”
LBC was Val’s, which automatically gave it less importance in his brother’s eyes. LeBlanc Charities had a noble purpose, and Val had poured his heart and soul into it since the age of fourteen. That was when he’d followed his mother through the doors of the nonprofit organization she’d founded.
Val snorted and didn’t bother to cover the flash of annoyance. “You act like your test is a punishment. LBC is an amazing place, full of dedicated people who work as a team to change the world. You’ll emerge a better person from your stint there.”
Val, on the other hand, was being set up to fail. Deliberately.
The hot spurt of injustice wouldn’t ease. Death had only been another step in Edward LeBlanc’s diabolical need to ensure Val understood that he was not the favored son. If he and Xavier weren’t twins, he’d wonder if he had even a drop of LeBlanc blood running through his veins.
But he’d counted on his inheritance to bolster the flagging donations at LBC. People were starving on the streets of Chicago, and Val was doing his part to feed them, one meal at a time.
Having a basic need met allowed people to feel more secure in their future. Val would never abandon those he helped.
He needed that money. The people he served needed that money. The things he could do with half a billion dollars—it was mind-boggling. Val had already poured a lot of his own personal fortune into the coffers, but LBC was a large organization that required a dizzying amount of overhead. More than seemed appropriate most days, given that it took away from money being funneled into food supplies.
And Xavier was going to be the conquering hero as he did Val’s job.
“At least you have a shot at passing your test.” Xavier sneered. “Raising profits over the billion mark at LeBlanc within six months was already in my plan. I have those dominoes set up. All you have to do is push them over. But I have to become a fundraiser.”
He said the word with distaste. Likely because he had no clue what it meant to be selfless, to spend time in pursuit of something honorable as you sacrificed your time, day in and day out, to better someone else’s life.
“Should be a piece of cake for someone with your connections.” Val flicked his fingers. “Ten million in six months is essential. So it’s not a lark that you can do or not do if you don’t feel like it. The organization will collapse if you fail. It hardly matters if I pour more money into LeBlanc’s coffers, but people depend on LBC for survival.”
Val gave his money gladly. LBC didn’t depend on it to stay afloat, but he believed in his cause and in setting an example.
Glowering at Val’s casual dismissal of his responsibilities, Xavier tapped an expensive pen against his laptop. “If LBC is in such dire straits, Dad should have allowed me to write a check. But no. He specified in the will that I have to raise the money through donations as some kind of character building exercise. It’s ludicrous.”
On that, they agreed. But not much else.
Before Val could blast apart Xavier’s assessment of LBC’s current state—which was not dire—Mrs. Bryce stuck her head into the office, glancing between the two of them with eyebrows raised. “Your one o’clock is here, Mr. LeBlanc.”
“Thank you,” Val said at the same time as Xavier, who stared at him balefully as he processed that he’d already lost his admin to the new CEO.
“You have a one o’clock?” his brother asked and shook his head with bemusement. “Would you like my suit too?”
That straitjacket? Not even if it came with a hot redhead inside it. “That’s okay. I’ll take your chair. I have an interview.”
No time like the present to get this crap-storm of a party started.
Xavier stood and then turned a shade of green that looked horrific. Which meant Sabrina had walked into his office. Excellent. Too bad Val had forgotten his popcorn.
Sabrina Corbin swept into the CEO’s office as if she owned it, her cool smile dropping the temperature faster than an arctic front. Holy hell. Tactical error. She was far more beautiful than Val remembered and far frostier. Xavier needed to go, stat.
“I believe you two know each other?” Val flipped a hand at Xavier’s ex as he skirted the desk to sink into the newly vacated seat. He locked eyes with the woman he’d only met once but desperately needed.
Sabrina had insight into the mind of LeBlanc’s CEO. Who better to assist Val into a checkmark for his task than an executive coach Xavier had dated?
Suddenly, he really wanted to know what had happened between them. And how he could do better than his brother. It was a complication he hadn’t seen coming, but there it was. He wanted Sabrina to choose him over Xavier, especially since Xavier had had her first.
“Sabrina.” Xavier’s expression smoothed out, magically eliminating a good bit of the tension. “Nice to see you. I was just leaving.”
With his brother’s exit, the rest of the tension should have gone with him. It didn’t. Sabrina turned in Val’s direction, and he resisted the urge to check under his seat for icicles.
“Shall I call you Valentino or Mr. LeBlanc?” she inquired as she slid gracefully into the spot Val had just vacated, crossing a mile of leg under the pencil skirt she wore like a second skin.
Even her stilettos looked like she kept them in the freezer. What would it take to warm her up? Instantly, his body got in on that action, every nerve poised to figure that out. Did she like slow and romantic? Fast and blistering hot? Both, spread out over a long weekend?
“You should definitely call me Valentino but not under these circumstances,” he told her with a lazy smile.
Sabrina lifted a brow. “Mr. LeBlanc then.”
Ouch. His grin widened. That had Interesting Challenge written all over it, and he did enjoy besting his brother or he wouldn’t have contacted Sabrina in the first place. “Thanks for coming by on short notice. You up for the job?”
“My last client succeeded in her goals three months before our deadline. If your check clears, I’m up for whatever you throw at me.”
Well, now. That perked Val up considerably. “Like I told you in the email, I have to run this joint for six months. I’m not corporate in the first place, but the terms of my father’s will say I have to move the needle from 921 million to a billion dollars in revenue by the end of the fourth quarter. I need you to be my ace in the hole.”
To her credit, she didn’t blink at the sums of money being thrown around. “You have to raise profits eight percent in six months?”
“You did that math in your head?”
Coolly, she took his measure, clearly amused. “Anyone can do that math in their head. It’s the easiest math problem in the world.”
He could do all sorts of things in his head, but math wasn’t one of them when the majority of his thoughts for the last five minutes had been more of the carnal variety. For example, he could imagine what Sabrina would look like spread out on his desk, cinnamon hair flowing as he pleasured her. And once he’d got that stuck in his head, there was no going back.
She’d be gorgeous as she came. Of course she would. Xavier didn’t do second class.
“You’re hired,” he said.
Smart did it for him in so many more ways than sexy. Combine the two, and he was going to have a very difficult time keeping his hands off Sabrina Corbin for the next six months.
Of course, no one said he had to.
“We haven’t even discussed the contract yet.” Her expression had that not-so-fast feel that raised his hackles. “You should know that I’m very difficult to work with if you don’t take this seriously. I don’t deal well with less than one-hundred-percent focus from my clients.”
As subtle digs went, that one was a doozy. She was essentially saying Don’t flirt with me.
“I can guarantee I will be focused,” he assured her, his smile slipping not at all, and it wasn’t even a lie. He was great at multitasking and, when Sabrina was the subject, focus wasn’t going to be a problem. “I can’t—I won’t—fail at this.”
And with that, his throat tightened, and he did not like the wave of vulnerability that washed over him. But this was so far out of the realm of what he’d expected from his father’s will. Prove you have what it takes, Val, his mother had insisted when he’d railed at her for accepting this insanity.
But why did he have to prove anything? Val had always spun gold out of straw when it came to feeding hungry people. Corporate politics bored him to tears, and Edward LeBlanc had never fully appreciated that Val had taken after his mother instead of him, which was at least half the problem.
“Oh, you will not fail. Not on my watch,” Sabrina promised, her hazel eyes glittering with something mesmerizing. A heat that Val would never have associated with her, if he hadn’t seen it personally. “I thrive when others give up. You might even say it becomes personal.”
A jab at Xavier? Now he had to know. “Because you have a score to settle with my brother?”
She didn’t so much as blink, but recrossed her legs, which was as telling a gesture as anything else she could have done. “Xavier is irrelevant to this discussion. I take my work seriously. I don’t have anyone else to rely on, and I like it that way. I’m a consulting firm of one, and that’s served me well.”
Oh, so she was one of those. Ms. Independent, with no need for a man. “So you dumped him.”
“Are you going to constantly read between the lines when I speak?”
“Only when you force me to.”
They stared at each other until she nodded once. “I can appreciate the need to clear this up prior to working together. For your information, I broke up with Xavier, if you can call it that. We didn’t date that long and were never serious.”
Long enough for Xavier to introduce her to his brother. Of course, thinking over it, Val had run into them at Harlow House, while he’d been on a date of his own, earlier in the summer. Or it might have been May-ish. He’d been seeing Miranda then, who had some wicked moves between the sheets, so Val could be forgiven for failing to precisely recall the circumstances of his first meeting with Sabrina.
“So, you’re in the market for a real man this go around, are you?”
That fell so flat he started looking for a spatula to scrape himself off the carpet.
“If you’re flirting with me, you can stop,” she informed him, and that did not help the temperature.
She didn’t like having to spell it out, that much was clear from her expression. What, she didn’t look in the mirror in the morning? Sabrina was a beautiful woman, dressed to the nines in mouthwatering nylons that begged to be peeled from her body by a man’s teeth. Val could no more stop being turned on by the challenges she threw down than he could stop the sun.
“If there’s a question about that, I’m doing something wrong,” he muttered. “But okay. I’ll reel back the charm. For now.”
She hiked an eyebrow nearly to her cinnamon-colored hairline. “This was charming?”
There was no way to hold back the laugh, so he didn’t bother. Sabrina was a piece of work all right, and he was starting to see why things hadn’t gone so well with Xavier. But Val wasn’t his brother, who bled dollar signs and slept with his bottom line. “Touché. I’ll work on my delivery.”
“You should work on your CEO costume first. You can try on your Romeo act on your own time. After we get you that inheritance.”
Ms. Corbin had a touch of pit bull, which Val appreciated in someone paid to help him succeed. And maybe in a woman he was planning to get naked eventually too. Jury was still out on that one.
All at once, a fair bit of curiosity surfaced about her goal for this gig. “Are you hoping I’ll share?”
“Not on my radar. Winning is.”
And that told him enough to know that he liked her on his side, not his brother’s. If winning was what turned her on, then he was game. He had something to prove to everyone, even if one of the people who most deserved to eat crow was dead. “Great. Where do we start?”
The look she slid over the length of his torso put a little fire in his belly, a total paradox given the chill still weighing down the air. Even that was more of a turn-on than it should have been, and he was sorry the desk was in the way of her line of sight. He’d be happy to let her stare at him if she wanted to.
“For one, you need a makeover,” she announced with zero fanfare.
Speaking of things not being on the radar... He glanced at his untucked button-down, sleeves rolled up the forearms. Which was comfortable and necessary attire when transferring boxes of macaroni and cheese from the stock room to the kitchen. “What’s wrong with the current me?”
“Dress the part,” she advised, “and you’re halfway there. Act the part and you’re at ninety.”
That sounded suspiciously like business-school rhetoric, something he could do without. Val had never faked anything in his life. “What’s the other ten percent?”
“Got that locked. I work hard.” He sat back in his chair—Xavier’s chair. LeBlanc Jewelers would never feel like home, and he didn’t intend for it to. “But I play harder. Have dinner with me tonight and find out which one I’m better at showing up for.”