Chapter ONE

BOSTON—December 2014

 

“I’M HAPPY to introduce to you our new acting CEO, Marco Pellegrini.”

Father actually tried to crack a smile as he surveyed the Vallen Industries staff crowded into the conference room. At age fifty-six, he still cut a commanding figure with his height and handsome features, his body kept in reasonable shape by regular exercise. But forcing a face perpetually set on “fuck you” to look pleasant was beyond even his abilities. He managed a weird grimace, after making sure to scowl in Jonathan’s direction to let him know he was still in the doghouse.

Message received, sir, Jonathan thought, pushing his Coke-bottle-thick glasses up his nose and acting politely enthusiastic as Father and Pellegrini pumped fists.

Pellegrini wore a grin that was more supercilious than shit eating, although to land the Vallen Industries CEO spot at the tender age of thirty-two was quite a coup. Never mind that Jonathan had been groomed for the job since he was twenty-four, ever since James’s death in a car accident. A familiar twinge shot through him at the thought of his older brother, so much more fitted to take over the family business. Way more fitted than Jonathan was or ever could be. Father finally seemed willing to acknowledge that truth, after trying and failing to beat business-executive smarts into him over the last four years, with a steady decline in company profits the only result.

“Thank you for the welcome, everyone. I’m certainly not here to replace any of your current leadership. I’ll be working closely with Mr. Vallen and Jonathan in the days to come.”

The mention of his name jerked Jonathan out of his moody thoughts. Marco Pellegrini stood at ease, exuding confidence from every well-toned pore. Jonathan gave him a once-over as he continued his little speech. Okay, he could admit the guy was easy on the eyes. Truthfully? Pellegrini was extremely handsome. Tall, long-limbed, broad shouldered, dressed in an elegant suit. His curly black hair had a sprinkling of premature gray that gave him a sexily distinguished air, and his horn-rimmed glasses made him look smart. Add to that his big brown eyes, chiseled cheekbones, and temptingly full lips—Marco could have had a second job as a cover model for GQ.

He was everything Jonathan was not. Well, Jonathan was tall also, but his body type was most charitably described as “stocky.” He wore glasses too, but Jonathan’s thick lenses made him look like a dork, at least according to his stylish cousin, Anthony, who was forever urging Jonathan to get contacts, complaining that his glasses hid Jonathan’s “dreamy blue eyes.” Jonathan’s straight hair was a nondescript brown, usually too long and hanging in his face because he couldn’t be bothered to get it cut regularly. As for his clothes? Jonathan pulled the hem of his trusty sweater over his gut and stared down at the Hush Puppies that Anthony despaired over. They were comfortable and familiar, so what was the big deal?

“Okay, troops, back to work.” Father’s voice had reverted to its usual impatience, and the staff scattered. “Jonathan.”

While Jonathan had been studying his shoes, Father had crossed the room to him with Marco Pellegrini in tow.

“Yes, Father?”

“How about you and Marco plan to meet after lunch? I’m taking him to the club to introduce him to some of the board members.”

“Sure.”

Marco put out his hand and took Jonathan’s in a firm grip. “Nice to meet you, Jonathan. I look forward to our working together. Three o’clock okay?”

A bit dizzy from the force of Marco’s attractiveness—the man even smelled great—Jonathan nodded. “Uh, yeah, sure. Three o’clock.”

“Excellent. See you then.” After a dazzling grin and an extra squeeze of Jonathan’s hand, Marco took off with Father, who never invited Jonathan to eat at the club. At least not these days.

 

 

“JONNY, WAS that divine creature I saw Uncle Frederick leaving with the new CEO?” Anthony leaned forward, eyes alight. “Marco Pellegrini?”

“You’ve heard of him?”

“Absolutely. He’s—quick, flag down our waiter or we’ll be sitting here for the next hour. My God, this place is the pits!”

Anthony complained about the service every time he met Jonathan for lunch at the sandwich shop, but it was close to the office and about the only place that wasn’t playing Christmas music incessantly. This December was already hard enough for Jonathan, being the first anniversary of Mother’s death, without having to contend with chestnuts roasting in every bad musical arrangement possible.

After giving their lunch order to the sleepy-eyed waiter, Anthony jumped back to the topic of the new CEO like a dog pouncing on a bone. “Marco Pellegrini is one of those rising stars in the industry, doll. And gorgeous? Oh my God!” He fanned his face. “Did you see his suit? I’m sure it was Armani.”

Anthony sat back and adjusted his lapels, a faraway gleam in his eyes, like visions of Armani suits were dancing in his head. Anthony loved clothes and always looked sharp. The charcoal suit he was wearing today appeared expensive and well cut, and it would have been downright subdued for Anthony had he not paired it with a bright crimson shirt and rainbow-striped bow tie. He’d even added a green streak to his blond hair for the full holiday effect. Father probably would have balked at some of his more outrageous ensembles, but Anthony didn’t work for Vallen Industries, the lucky dog. He was a creative director at an advertising agency where general fabulousness seemed to be a job requirement.

“Yeah, great.” Jonathan took a grumpy sip of hot tea. “I’m meeting with him at three.”

“Lucky you! Hey, you’re not upset about this, are you? Being replaced? I mean, you’re the one who’s about to skip town.”

A frisson of happiness shot through Jonathan at the reminder of his secret plans. “I know. But first I’ve got to pretend to be interested in what this Pellegrini guy has to say. Father said he’s going to ‘coach’ me.”

“God.” Anthony gave a sympathetic shudder. “So Uncle Frederick still believes you’re going to become a business executive one day? Give it up, man!”

“I wish he would.”

“Still, meeting one-on-one with that hunk isn’t the worst thing you could be doing.”

“If you say so.” Jonathan squeezed more honey into his tea, trying to quell his nerves about meeting with Marco Pellegrini “one-on-one.” God.

“I mean, the man’s obviously gay.” Anthony squinted across the room. “Where on earth is our lunch? I hate this place.”

“Relax. You had to order the french dip, which always takes forever.”

Anthony huffed in annoyance.

“And you think everyone’s gay,” Jonathan continued. “I overheard clerical talking about his girlfriend.”

“Oh, honey, of course he has a girlfriend. Some blonde named Ashley Henshaw. Her dad is president of the city council or something. And I heard a rumor he’s joining the board of Vallen Industries.”

“Well, then? And here’s our food, oh ye of little faith.”

“Finally!” Despite his prior annoyance, Anthony batted his eyelashes at the taciturn but rather handsome waiter. “Thanks, doll.”

The waiter nodded, face red, and beat a hasty retreat.

“You’re impossible.” Jonathan sighed at his salad, then stole one of Anthony’s steak fries. “So if he’s got a girlfriend, why are you saying he’s gay?”

“Probably just wishful thinking. But maybe he’s a closet case and Ashley’s his beard. Yes! And when I drop by to visit you and Uncle Frederick one day, Marco’s going to see me across a crowded room and the stars will move! Right?”

“Yeah. Right.”

“Of course, you have first crack at him.” Anthony waggled his eyebrows. “Get it? Crack?”

“You’re such a preteen.” Jonathan felt his cheeks warm, which was ridiculous.

Anthony giggled. “I made you blush! Speaking of closets, my dear, isn’t it about time you came out of yours? You’re going to be out there on the Cape, away from your father the homophobe, and I bet there’ll be some devastatingly bearish fisherman to sweep you off your feet!”

Right. Like that will ever happen. Jonathan ignored his cousin’s prattle and his own dearth of a love life as he stared out the window at the sleet slicking the street. He hated being in Boston this time of year, him and Father rattling around in the big gloomy house. He’d give anything to be at the cottage for Christmas. After James had died and Mother lost the heart for lavish parties, she and Jonathan used to spend the holidays in Cape Cod while Father stayed behind in Boston and worked. Their small cottage a block from the beach had been in Mother’s family, the Rutledges, for over a century. Jonathan would play the antique piano while she trimmed the tree with old-fashioned Rutledge ornaments, and then they’d share a meal cooked by Jonathan, who enjoyed trying out new recipes.

Although Mother had always meant to pass the cottage on to Jonathan, neither of them had any idea she would succumb to cancer at age fifty-four, leaving Jonathan to inherit the cottage much too early. But thanks to her, he could escape his wretched life in Boston. He was so ready to decamp to the Cape he could taste it. He’d surround himself with music and books, spend time in the garden, and take walks on the beach. Anthony couldn’t imagine living that way without going stir crazy, but to Jonathan it sounded like heaven.

“So let’s talk about me moving to Cape Cod. When should I do it? It’ll have to be after Christmas, but I want to be moved in by New Year’s.”

Anthony’s eyes lit up. He loved a good scheme, as Jonathan well knew. Leaning forward, he started in. “Well, here’s what I think you should do….”

 

 

“EXPLAIN TO me your thinking on this, Jonathan.”

Marco swiveled in his chair, frowning at one of the charts they’d been studying for the last… Jonathan stole a glance at the conference-room clock. Thirty minutes? No way. It seemed like several long hours since he and Marco had started their meeting.

“Thinking?” Jonathan tried not to cringe at the exasperated look Marco shot him over the top of the chart. Ugh. Encased in his too-warm sweater, sweat dripping down his sides, he wished he hadn’t eaten all of Anthony’s steak fries at lunch. He felt like a stuffed sausage. Marco, of course, appeared cool and crisp in his fancy suit. His fingers were long and tapered holding the cursed chart, and a gold signet ring glinted on his right hand. Elegant. That was the word for—cripes, focus, you fool! “Um, I… can I have it?” He pushed up his glasses, held out a clammy hand, and took the paper, trying to concentrate. “Th-this, let’s see, this was our fiscal year 2014 forecast.” Jonathan began to loosen up as he studied the neat columns of numbers. Numbers, he could do. It was people he had a hard time with.

“I know.” Marco’s impatient voice cut into Jonathan’s perusal. “My question is, how did you come up with that forecast, based on the 2013 fiscal year’s performance? It seems wildly out of whack.”

“I don’t know.” Jonathan knew he sounded sullen, but it was the truth. He didn’t know. Father created the business plans. All Jonathan did was generate the pretty charts. “Father—uh, Mr. Vallen—comes up with the forecasts.”

“I see.” Marco tapped those long fingers of his on the table, and when Jonathan stole a glance at him from under the bangs that fell in his face, the crease between his eyebrows had deepened. He pinned Jonathan with an intense gaze. “Tell me something. Is this—being a Vallen Industries executive—what you want to be doing?”

Hell, no. Are you kidding me? A sense of shame prevented Jonathan from blurting those thoughts out loud. James’s death had about killed his parents, and Jonathan had had no choice but to step in at Vallen Industries. But Jonathan was no James. He’d hated every minute of trying to run Vallen, and it had shown in the company’s downturn. A year and a half ago he’d been poised to quit and put the company out of the misery of his inept leadership, but then Mother had gotten sick, and six months later, she died. He couldn’t desert Father after that, so he’d soldiered on despite his almost crippling grief at Mother’s loss.

He squared his shoulders. “Of course. Vallen Industries is a Boston institution. It’s been our family business for over fifty years. Mr. Vallen isn’t getting any younger, so once my brother d—, um, due to family considerations, I’m being groomed to become CEO.”

“I know that.” Marco appeared skeptical, or was that disdain? “And how long has this grooming been happening?”

“A… a few, uh, years.”

“Okay.” Marco pushed back from the table, his expression unreadable. “How about we stop here? I’ll take the rest of these reports and review them tonight. Then let’s meet again tomorrow. Say, ten o’clock?”

“Um, sure.”

“Thanks. I know it can be difficult when someone new is brought in. I’m here to help you and Vallen Industries reach your goals. I’m sure we can do it.”

That makes one of us.

Marco flashed him a practiced smile and reached his hand across the table. Jonathan wished he’d had time to wipe off his damp palm before putting it into Marco’s strong grip.

 

 

MARCO’S JOURNAL

END OF day one at Vallen Industries. Interesting. The company has good bones, as they say about creaky old houses, but it’s been mismanaged almost into the ground. I don’t blame Jonathan either. It’s clear Frederick is the one still holding the reins, while Jonathan dances to his tune. Vallen Jr. obviously doesn’t have a clue about business and doesn’t seem interested in learning, no matter what dutiful rot he spouted to me today. One note: the data sheets and reports are pristine, unusually so. If those are Jonathan’s doing, he might have promise as a numbers guy. Maybe the CFO? Numbers don’t seem to intimidate him as much as people do. Okay. Enough about the Vallens. Can I make a difference? Absolutely. Give me a year and I’ll have that place singing.

For tomorrow: cardio, pick up dry cleaning, cat food, flowers for Ashley, visit Mama’s grave—sixth anniversary of her death. RIP Mama. I hope I make you proud.

Gratitude: business opportunities keep coming, my health, being warm and well-fed and having Bunny the magical cat to keep me company. (Ironic that no one in Boston would suspect I’m grateful for being warm and well-fed. They all think I was born with that silver spoon in my mouth—like Jonathan Vallen. If I’d had the opportunities he had, no way I’d be such a schlump.)