“SO WHAT’S different?” Jack Lawson asked, not trying too hard to keep the impatience out of his tone. “What do you guys have that’s unique?” He’d been listening to pitches from various advertising agencies all morning, and he was tired of wasting time.
The leader of the team looked at his colleagues, then back at Jack. “At Bauerly-Brown, we focus on the relationship. We work hard to get to know you and your company, and we design a campaign that’s personalized—”
“No, I think you misheard,” Jack interrupted. “I asked what’s different, not what’s exactly the same crap every other agency has been spouting.” He was met with a blank, almost panicked look. Not a good sign, but Jack wanted to be fair. Well, maybe not fair, but thorough. He wanted to be thorough. “Guy in the back—hey, guy in the weird-colored suit. What is that, green? Blue? Damn, when you move, it’s almost brown.” Jack liked to do this; he’d pick the one person who clearly wasn’t supposed to speak, and see what he or she had to say. It was a good way to see what was going on at all levels of the company, and test how deep the bullshit was layered. But this time, there was something other than the man’s reticence that caught Jack’s attention.
“Hey. I know you, right? You went to Cartwright.” Jack searched through his memory; high school hadn’t been a good time for him, but he didn’t think he had any negative associations with this guy. “Noah, right? Noah… Noah Mercier!”
“Uh, yeah, hi.” Noah didn’t look too interested in reliving old times. “It’s good to see you, Jack.” He shuffled a little, looking almost comically awkward.
Jack wondered what the hell the guy was doing as part of a presentation team; if he was the best the agency had, Jack was not at all interested in doing business with them. Still, he was kind of cute. Actually, Noah was hot, in a shy, nerdy sort of way. Jack could remember having noticed him in high school, and he’d grown up pretty nicely. Tragic fashion sense, but tall and lean, with an appealing if somewhat unremarkable face.
Usually, once he’d found his victim, Jack would pepper the person with questions, trying to rattle the cage a little and watch the reactions. But he didn’t really feel like doing that to Noah. “Do you want to get a drink?” Jack hadn’t actually known he was going to ask that. The vast majority of his business decisions were the result of painstaking planning and rigorously following strategies that had taken months to develop. But every now and then, he liked to wing it. Apparently this was one of those times. “I think I’ve heard enough from your team, and you guys are the last presenters of the day. So if you have time, we could get a drink, catch up.”
Noah looked like Jack had suggested that they slit their throats together, but the man who’d been running the presentation spoke up. “That sounds excellent. We’d love to continue this in a more casual—”
“I don’t think you’d be all that interested in getting caught up on gossip from Cartwright High,” Jack interrupted. He wasn’t all that interested in getting caught up on gossip, either, but that wasn’t the point. “If I have any questions about your firm, I’ll definitely give you a call. But I think Noah and I can handle the drinking on our own.” He stood up and let his height work the way it always did. It was hard enough to contradict the owner and CEO of an international corporation, but practically impossible when the owner was six foot two and built like Tarzan. Jack worked out as a stress reliever, but he couldn’t deny that the muscles had other benefits, as well. “Noah, you good to go?”
Noah looked like he was trying hard to keep from throwing up. “I, uh—I just came to help run the computer. I don’t really know about the campaign as a whole….” He trailed off and looked desperately toward the group’s spokesman.
But as Jack had expected, that guy had gotten Jack’s message, and he was no help to Noah. “But you know lots about Cartwright High, right? Noah, buddy, you didn’t mention that you knew Jack Lawson!”
“I didn’t really think he’d remember,” Noah started to say, and then he turned toward Jack. “We only had one class together, I think. Business, with Ms. Thompson….”
“Yeah, that’s right!” Jack smiled, trying to work his charm on Noah. He wasn’t sure why he was bothering, but it never hurt to give himself a little exercise. “Kind of appropriate, I guess, considering where we are now. With Ms. Thompson—damn, I’d forgotten about her. She was hot, huh? With those low-cut sweaters?”
“I didn’t….” Noah stumbled, then brought his face up to look Jack in the eye for the first time. “I don’t really notice women, that way.”
Jack laughed. He’d never seen any need to limit himself by being attracted to only one sex, but he appreciated Noah’s honesty. “You’re missing out, then, man.” He strode around the conference table and headed for the door. “I’ve got to get my jacket—then we can go down the street, get a drink, and talk about Mr. Armstrong and his tight gym shorts.”
He didn’t leave any time for Noah to object. A variety of people approached Jack as he headed down the hall; they all had their pet projects, their questions that only he could answer, and their political agendas. Normally, Jack craved the energy and loved being in the middle of it all, but sometimes, he just needed a damn break. “If it’s not on fire, see me tomorrow,” he said to everyone at once. “And if it’s on fire—put it out, for fuck’s sake. Then see me tomorrow with a plan for repairing it.”
He reached the luxurious waiting area outside his own corner office, and the crowd that had been following in his wake melted away. They had learned from past experience that his office was too well guarded for them to even bother trying to get in. Jack grinned at the woman sitting behind the desk in the outer office, the woman who protected him so well. As always, she looked impeccable: conservative but stylish clothes, tasteful makeup, her smoothly styled hair carefully dyed to hide what he was sure must be considerable gray. He was the majority shareholder and CEO of a multinational company; he made more money than he could ever think of spending; he was mentioned in every list of top entrepreneurs, and got ample attention on the business pages. But as far as he was concerned, this woman, with her understated elegance and casual severity—she was the proof that he had finally arrived. Her willingness to work for him was evidence that he was now a “have,” not a “have-not.”
But just because he cherished her, that didn’t mean he couldn’t have a little fun. “I’m leaving early, Claire. Don’t even try to stop me. You’ll have to run the place without your fearless leader, at least for a couple hours.”
His assistant raised one thin eyebrow. “I’m sure we’ll manage, Jack.”
“Good girl—put a brave face on. I know it’ll be hard, and, well, maybe you won’t all make it. But the troops will need a leader, and you’re their best hope.”
She just nodded, her face molded into its familiar expression of false disapproval. At least, he hoped it was false.
“I’m serious, Claire—maybe you should call home and say goodbye to Cliff and the kids.”
“I think Clive will be fine, Jack. Would you like me to get your coat for you?”
“Well, that does sound fun, having you wait on me like that. But I’ve got to tell you, Claire, I think you’ll need all your strength for the coming ordeal. I’d better get it myself.”
“Whatever you think is best, Jack. Your first appointment tomorrow is at eight thirty; will you need anything special prepared for it?”
“I don’t think—oh, wait! Can you get some of those tiny little muffins? The ones they had last time? The cranberry ones?”
“I’ve already requested those.” He saw the first crack in her professional veneer as she smirked and added, “You weren’t exactly subtle in your appreciation.”
He was tempted to stay and keep working on her; if he tried hard enough, he could usually get her to relax completely and just talk to him, like they were friends, and it was fun. He knew it was a bit ironic that he took so much pride in her smooth professionalism, and then took equal pride in his ability to make her lose it, but he was fairly accepting of his less-than-rational moments. However, he had another person to torture into happiness, so Claire would have to wait.
“Well, if there are cranberry mini muffins, then I can’t imagine needing anything else.” He popped into his office just long enough to grab his jacket and to take a quick goodbye look through the wall-to-wall windows. The view over downtown Vancouver all the way out to the islands was one more symbol of his success, and he tried to remember to enjoy it. Or at least notice it.
“Okay, then, I’m off. I’ll see you tomorrow, Claire. Thanks.” She nodded easily, and he braced himself for a fresh onslaught from his employees, then headed out into the hall. He made it back to the foyer with only a few interruptions, and found the entire team of presenters still there; they had obviously been coaching Noah fairly intensely, and the poor man looked even more dazed than he had earlier. It was kind of sexy, really; Jack could easily imagine other ways to make the guy look unfocused and disoriented. “You ready to go, Noah?”
Noah managed a feeble nod and didn’t wince too much when Jack swung an enthusiastic arm over his shoulders.
“Excellent.” Jack started for the elevator, dragging Noah along with him and speaking to the other presenters. “Nice to meet you guys. I’m sure somebody will be in touch with you—I don’t really know when—a couple days, probably. Thanks for your time.” He let the elevator doors shut, and then turned to Noah. “Okay, we made it—we’re free.” Noah still looked apprehensive to the point of nausea, and Jack’s conscience finally kicked in. “You can bail, if you want to. No hard feelings. I just thought, you know….” He let his gaze run down Noah’s lean body, then brought his eyes back up to meet Noah’s. “I thought it would be fun to get caught up. Get to know each other.” He gave his best sly, seductive smile, and he could feel Noah thawing a little. He waited, holding Noah’s gaze, and then asked quietly, “Is that okay with you?”
He didn’t really need to hear Noah’s answer, but he listened for it anyway, and when he heard the gentle, “Yeah, okay,” he rewarded the man with another smile. Everything was working out just the way Jack had planned. As usual.
“SERIOUSLY? Six kids?” Jack wasn’t sure if he was aghast or impressed. “They must have started the day after graduation.”
“About four months before, actually. You didn’t know she was pregnant?” Noah was sounding more relaxed now that he had a couple beers in him. “I thought the whole school knew.”
Jack shook his head. “I wasn’t too social in high school, I guess. Wasn’t really in on the gossip.”
“Yeah, neither was I… but I still knew that. It was practically in the school paper.” Noah took another swallow of his beer, his blue eyes dancing behind his wire-rimmed glasses.
“I missed it somehow. But, damn… six kids. They weren’t really religious or anything, were they?”
“Nope. They just like kids.”
“Huh.” The Cartwright gossip was actually more interesting than Jack had expected. Noah was more interesting than he’d expected. Beneath the shy exterior, the guy was pretty observant, and pretty funny. And on the exterior, he was pretty pretty. Thinner than Jack usually liked, but with a sweet, boyish face that showed every emotion without artifice. Getting a couple drinks had definitely been a good idea, and Jack was ready to ramp things up a little. “You want to get something to eat? There’s some good restaurants around here.” Jack wasn’t exactly a foodie, but he knew the restaurants he was supposed to like, and he therefore liked them. He’d worked hard to get where he was, and he was damn well going to enjoy the perks, even if he had to force himself.
But Noah was back to looking apprehensive. “I don’t want to overstay my welcome….”
“I invited you.” Jack leaned across the table and waited until Noah lifted his eyes. “Do I strike you as someone who lets himself get bullied into spending time with someone he doesn’t want to?”
Noah’s grin was quick. “Well, not exactly, no.”
“Okay, then. If you’ve got somewhere to be, no problem, but if you don’t, and if you’re hungry, and I’m hungry….” Jack put just enough huskiness in his voice to make it clear that he’d be happy to help Noah with any sort of hunger he might be experiencing. And judging by the way Noah’s smile faltered and then returned, Jack’s message was received.
“Yeah, okay.” Noah nodded way too emphatically; Jack was tempted to reach across the table to be ready to catch Noah’s head when it flopped right off of his neck. Damn, that was a nasty mental image. By the time Jack had managed to banish the thought, Noah was mercifully done with the nodding.
Jack caught the server’s eye and gestured for the bill, then turned his mind to the next task. “What do you feel like eating? There’s a steak house, or a place with good seafood, or….” Jack thought. “There’s a French place, but I’m not crazy about French food, necessarily. Anton’s is just sort of mixed contemporary, I’d say. There’s a sort of Asian-fusion thing going on down the street, or… I don’t know. There’s lots, right?”
“I’m vegetarian,” Noah said tentatively.
Of course he was. “So the steak house doesn’t really work. Are you full on vegan? Is seafood out?”
“Uh, not vegan, but, no, I don’t eat seafood.” He sounded almost apologetic.
“Okay, no worries. I’m easy to please. Where’s good for you?”
The waiter arrived, and Jack saw Noah shifting around, trying to pull his wallet out. Jack handed a credit card to the server without looking at the bill. It was easier to make an executive decision than it was to have a big discussion.
Noah didn’t look totally comfortable, though. “I could pay….”
“I did the inviting, right? So I should do the paying.” That took care of that, hopefully. “So, where next?”
“There’s a café that’s not too far. But it’s not—you know—fancy.”
“Well, I do like things that are fancy. But I guess I can make an exception just this once.” Jack tried to make his smile teasing but gentle, because somehow the whole vegetarian thing seemed to have driven Noah back into his shell. The guy was a bit peculiar, Jack decided, but for some reason it wasn’t annoying. “And it will have a wide array of delicacies that will suit your vegetarian needs?”
“They’re all vegetarian,” Noah said, then he raised an eyebrow. “Will you be able to find something that will suit your carnivorous appetite?”
“I prefer to think of myself as an omnivore,” Jack said, and he smiled while he waited for Noah to draw the parallel. “I can find something to appreciate on almost any menu.”
Noah smiled, and his shoulders started to ease back down away from his ears. Jack wondered how the guy had managed to get anywhere in the business world with such transparent body language. Not that Noah seemed to have climbed very far up the ladder. It was just as well Jack had paid for the drinks, because the place was pretty expensive, and it probably would have blown Noah’s budget for the month.
They walked down a few blocks and found Noah’s café. It was cafeteria style, with diners taking a tray and filling it as they walked along the counter, and Jack shook his head in mock disgust. “I feel like I’m back in high school.”
“I don’t remember you spending a lot of time in the cafeteria in high school.” Noah shook his head. “You were too busy off being cool with your friends.”
Jack had experienced this before, with other acquaintances from the good old days. It seemed like teenagers were all so self-absorbed, so wrapped up in their own issues, that they saw the whole world as a distorted version of their own insecurities. Noah had apparently felt like a nerd, so he’d assumed Jack was cool. And Jack… Jack had felt like everyone else was rich. Usually, he let the misunderstandings pass, but with Noah, it seemed worth it to clear things up. “I spent lots of time in the caf. You just didn’t see me.”
Noah frowned in confusion.
“Because I was in the kitchen, doing the dishes.” Jack looked down at the innocuous plastic rectangle in his hands and felt a quick surge of the old resentment. “Washing the damn trays so you guys could all have a pleasant dining experience.” But none of this was Noah’s fault, and it was hardly a tragedy, anyway. “Not that there was much chance of any actual enjoyment—it’s not like they’d let me wash the food, and until that happened….”
“The fries were good,” Noah said. “And I liked the grilled cheese.”
“The fries—yeah. But you don’t want to know about that grilled cheese.” Jack grinned at the doubtful expression on Noah’s face.
“It’s grilled cheese,” he said, his voice small and full of doubt. “What could they do to grilled cheese?”
“I told you, man. You don’t want to know.” Jack let himself enjoy Noah’s expression for a moment, then turned his attention to selecting his dinner.
The food was pretty good, he found, and the conversation continued to be pleasant even after they’d exhausted all of their shared stores of knowledge about old classmates. When the talk turned to hockey, Jack decided to take a chance.
“Not this Thursday, but the one after that, I’m going to the game—the company has a suite. You want to come? It’s the Leafs, so, you know—the hockey may not be great, but it’ll be a good crowd.”
It was a little out of the blue, maybe, but not enough to justify Noah’s surprised look. “Uh….” He frowned. “Actually, I shouldn’t. My sister’s coming to town, and it’s her first time back in quite a while. I should be there.”
“Your sister? I didn’t know you had one.” Jack tried to think back. “Did she go to Cartwright? What’s she look like?”
“Half-sister. She went to Cartwright.” Noah’s expression was still strained. “And she looks like Hayley Meredith.”
“Nice,” Jack said, smiling in appreciation of the reference. Hayley Meredith was an up-and-coming movie star, and she was hot. “But that’s kind of a creepy way to describe your sister.”
Noah looked like he was trying to judge Jack’s sincerity, then smiled. “I said she looked like Hayley Meredith because she is Hayley Meredith. I thought maybe you knew that.” He glanced down at his plate, then back up to Jack. “I thought maybe that’s why you invited me out.”
“Wait. Your sister… your half-sister… is Hayley Meredith? Seriously?” Jack frowned. “I knew she was from Vancouver, but I didn’t know she went to Cartwright. I didn’t know she was your sister.” He took a moment to digest the information. “It’s kinda lucky you’re gay, really. I mean, otherwise—I know the incest taboo is ingrained, man, but Hayley Meredith? That’d be a challenge to your social programming, I bet.”
Noah wrinkled his nose. “That’s gross, Jack. And there are plenty of straight guys with attractive sisters who don’t seem to have a problem avoiding incest.”
“Okay, ‘attractive’ is not the word you’re looking for, here. Hayley Meredith is not ‘attractive’, she’s… I don’t even know. Smoking hot, gorgeous, stunning… something like that.”
“Well, you’ve only seen her with a lot of makeup on. And all styled up. She’s… I don’t know, I guess she’s pretty in person too. But, no, I don’t think it’s only my sexual orientation saving me from incest.”
Jack decided to let that go. “She’s a couple years younger than us, right? Was she at Cartwright the same time we were?”
“She was in ninth grade in our final year. But she was just a skinny kid with braces.”
“She grew up nicely,” Jack said with an appreciative nod. Damn. Hayley Meredith. The wheels started turning in his mind, and he didn’t notice that the conversation with Noah had lost some of its earlier sparkle.