NO MATTER how hard Nicolas stared at the projected revenue numbers in front of him, they wouldn’t magically improve for this quarter. He barely listened as the special project team he’d assembled last month went over his best hope to stave off the third straight quarter of lost revenue for his family business. The weight pressing down on his chest had never been so great, but he usually performed best under such pressure. So why couldn’t he focus this time?
“Mr. Price?” A little nudge and deep voice at his shoulder brought his attention to Percy, his assistant, who crouched beside his chair, trying to be unobtrusive. Impossible. Percy looked nothing like a CEO’s executive assistant—more like the star of a superspy thriller featuring special warfare soldiers or mercenaries. There was no helping that because, aside from their friendship, security qualifications were the primary reasons he’d chosen Percy.
At the interruption, his VP had paused, so Nicolas motioned for her to continue the presentation while he stepped outside the conference room to speak to Percy. There weren’t any details about the proposed Italian deal Nic hadn’t already examined extensively anyway.
“It’s okay. Not missing much in there.” He waved carelessly toward the conference room door, and then his gut tightened at the sober expression on Percy’s square-jawed face. The guy always looked like he’d missed a shave and spent all night awake, but now it was more a sense of his inner tension bleeding out. “What happened?”
“The school called. The truancy officer caught Benedict skipping this afternoon.”
Damn. Not again. The kids would be the death of him. It’d been four years since he’d become sole guardian of his niece and nephew after their parents died in a fatal car crash. At first, he’d been understanding of their unruly behavior. They’d been quite young, Benedict only eight and Lucille slightly older at age twelve. Nic’s sister, their mother, had mostly grown up in his aunt’s household, leaving Nicolas feeling much like an only child, which made him ill-equipped to raise Josephine’s children in her absence. His beloved sister was, no doubt, looking down on him in disgust from the afterlife.
“Perfect.” Nicolas drew his hands over his face and sighed. “Have the governess—”
“Resigned this morning.”
That’s all Percy needed to say. The kids had gone through at least two caretakers per year since he’d taken custody of them. It had become nearly a matter of routine to contact the service for a new nanny or governess.
Nicolas presented his friend with his best pleading look. He wouldn’t dream of this with any other employee, but Percy was more than just another employee to him since they’d gone to college together. Of course Percy didn’t need words to interpret his meaning.
“Really?” Percy’s left eyebrow arched. “Are you kidding me?”
He grasped Percy’s shoulder. “Just this time. I have to get ready for Italy to finalize the purchase. This deal will drop expenditures drastically and put an end to our vanishing profits. I have to make this the priority right now.”
When resignation settled on Percy’s face, some of the tension released from Nic’s muscles. Percy would deal with the school and watch the kids today until Nicolas returned home.
“Oh, and please contact the service for a new governess. We need someone right away. I’m leaving for Italy tomorrow.”
“So soon?” Surprise widened Percy’s gray eyes right before they grew reproachful. “I thought you’d wait until after Thanksgiving. Do the kids know?”
Nicolas dropped his arm to his side. “No, but they’re fine. They keep to themselves and have their friends when they aren’t in school or doing homework. They don’t even like Thanksgiving. It won’t matter.”
Percy grumbled something under his breath as he headed down the hallway toward the elevators. “All right,” he called over his shoulder. “I’m taking care of this.”
“Thank you. You’re a saint.”
With an exasperated groan, Percy stopped and turned. “I can’t believe I’m telling you this again, Nic, but you don’t have enough balance in your life. All this?” He waved at the walls. “It’s a thing that only consumes. It won’t make you happy. Or anyone else around you, for that matter.”
Nicolas tried not to bristle at his friend’s old argument. “I only need to get the numbers up for a few quarters. It takes time and attention, and it does make me happy to make money and be successful. It gets my parents off my back, and that couldn’t make me happier.”
“Well, it’s always going to need time and attention. That’s what employees are for. Lean on them once in a while so you can put that money you earn to good use. You know, have some fun or something. Get a hobby. Christ, Nic, you’re missing Thanksgiving at home, and it’s almost Christmas. Spend time with your niece and nephew.”
Percy didn’t wait for a response but jogged over to catch the elevator while it was open. The bastard didn’t hesitate to send Nic a smug smile that said it was a pleasure to get in the last word.
Nicolas waited for the doors to close before he headed back to finish the meeting. It was the longest half hour of his life and shed no new inspiration on how to fix this fiscal year’s first quarter revenue before the end of December. Even if things went as Nic planned, it would take time to see the impact of increased sales and lowered costs.
He’d barely made it back to his office and poured himself a glass of chilled water with lemon and mint before his secretary buzzed him.
“Summer, I thought I told you to hold my calls.”
“Sorry, sir. It’s your father.” Summer’s voice was soft and genuinely apologetic, so it was hard to be upset with her. Also, his father wasn’t the kind of man to take a brush-off well. Nicolas Leighton Price II wasn’t one to take anything but strict obedience well.
“It’s all right. Put him through.”
Nic pulled at his neatly tailored charcoal suit jacket and straightened his tie until he noticed what he was doing. It was only a damned phone call. He sipped his water and cleared his throat before hitting the button to take the line.
“Good afternoon, Father.”
“Son.” A series of loud thwacking sounds in the background told Nicolas his father was at the driving range. “Your mother and I have been talking about the health of Leighton Price.”
Nausea speared its claws into Nic’s stomach. He’d been expecting something like this, a lecture about how he’d let the company slip, but he’d hoped it would wait at least one more quarter.
“Well, it’s good you brought it up. With the nationwide recession, business has been a little slow to pick up, but we already have a solid plan of action to get the numbers up by next quarter.” Nicolas hoped to cut his father off at the pass and get this conversation postponed until he could get his plans more decisively confirmed.
“It’s late in the game for that. A solid plan should have been acted on in the first quarter the revenue dropped. Wouldn’t you agree?”
It wasn’t the words his father used but the thick derision they soaked in that sank ice into Nic’s blood. His father didn’t care why profits had declined over the last few quarters. He didn’t care that businesses in the US across the board were experiencing such losses. He only cared that Nicolas was a disappointment, a failure. He wanted to grind in the knowledge that he found Nicolas lacking, and he wanted to make Nicolas admit to being inadequate.
“I would agree we gained new clients that quarter at a record rate and cut expenditures by over 20 percent. We made changes that ensured we’d have a profit that quarter instead of a deficit.”
His father voiced a sound close to a growl, something Nicolas had rarely heard since he was a child. “I don’t want to hear excuses. We’ve waited long enough, and as the majority shareholders, your mother and I have decided to make some changes of our own.”
Nicolas gripped his armrest hard enough to crease the leather. “What changes?”
“We’re replacing you as the CEO of Leighton Price if you don’t increase revenue by the end of the quarter. As I have no intention of coming out of retirement to run the company again, you need to have a plan for an heir. Benedict had better be on track to take over when he’s old enough, or you need to produce your own suitable heir. If this isn’t done, we’re considering going public with the company.”
“Father, it’s going to take more than one quar—”
“I didn’t call to ask your opinion or have a discussion. This is what the family has decided. Your mother and I can’t keep letting you slack off, and frankly, we’re tired of being disappointed in you. I think you’ve let us down long enough. It’s time to be a man, make good decisions, and get the company back on track. If you don’t, we’re replacing you.”
Nicolas didn’t bother saying more. The phone line was already dead before he’d said a word. He dropped his forehead onto his desk, struggling to draw each breath, but even the air felt oppressive. This company was everything, his life. He had nothing else. He’d worked so hard and invested endless hours to make it the best it could be—nights, holidays, weekends, all spent at the altar of his family legacy.
Nicolas sat back in his seat and shook his head. Fuck this. He’d worked too hard for everything to be handed over to some interloper. He still had the Italian deal, so he’d fly to Italy in the morning, purchase the Italian leather company there, and pick up a few new clients before the holidays. This plan would be enough to lower costs, increase revenue, and give him just enough profit to beat last quarter’s stats and save his seat as CEO.
Dammit, it had to be enough. He was nothing without this company.
SASHA TOOK a last look around the middle-school classroom that had been his domain for the past year. Of all the jobs he’d bounced around to and from, this was the toughest to leave. Damn, he missed these kids already, and he hadn’t even walked out the door yet with his pitiful box of personal belongings. If ever he was the kind of guy to cry, now would be the time, but as always, he wouldn’t allow it. He hadn’t allowed it when his parents had routinely abandoned him as a child. He hadn’t allowed it even when he’d caught his boyfriend, Drew, getting it on with another man in their shared apartment.
In the latter case, though, maybe it was his anger toward Drew that kept his sharpest emotions at bay. If Drew weren’t a tenured teacher at the middle school, Sasha could have happily fought to keep his job here. But Drew and his boy toy were in the same math department as Sasha. It also didn’t help that their apartment was in Drew’s name, even though Sasha paid most of the rent. This all left him without a job, without a home, and utterly alone. Always alone in the end. And this time right before the holidays.
Considering his admittedly abundant list of friends, none of them were the kind to turn to in times of trouble. They were the ones to call to party or go drinking with. Wouldn’t getting drunk be peachy? In his drunken stupor, he’d end up trying to go to a home he no longer had. Nope. His new to-do list involved cramming what few possessions he owned into his beloved truck, heading for a hotel, and hoping it didn’t rain. The way his life was going, there’d probably be a downpour before he’d gone ten miles.
As he reached for his box of belongings, his phone rang. Ah, what the hell. There wouldn’t be a class coming in until next period, and he didn’t work here anymore. He pulled it from his pocket and glanced at it, a Seattle number. He answered before it went to voicemail.
“Hello. I’m calling for Ms. Sasha Lindsey.”
Sasha chuckled. It never got old how everyone assumed he was a female. “That’s Mr. Sasha Lindsey, and you’ve got him.”
There was an awkward pause. “Oh, uh, I’m so sorry. I called to schedule your interview for the nanny position you applied for. Was there a mistake? Perhaps you didn’t apply for the job?”
More like she was hoping he hadn’t applied for the job. He wasn’t about to let her off the hook, and he had nowhere else to be anyway. May as well make the drive from California to Washington to have the interview. Seattle was as good a place as any to make a fresh start.
“I did apply, and I’d love to interview in person. You’ll find I’m highly qualified and have exceptional references. As I’m a school teacher, you’ll also find I pass rigorous background checks.”
The woman stuttered a few times, but eventually they worked out a time and date that would allow him to make the drive and have time to find a hotel before he had to be there. After he hung up, he grabbed his box and headed out to his truck. After sliding behind the wheel, he pulled his phone out again. To be honest, he didn’t remember which job he’d blindly agreed to interview for. Not that it mattered. He’d sent out about thirty applications trying to get anywhere but here, where his guts wanted to spill on the pavement to match the pain in his chest.
Blowing out a hard breath, he tried to let the negativity go while he looked up the job in his email. Ah, this was a good one, though it wasn’t exactly in Seattle like he’d assumed. He’d be working in Vashon, an island in the Puget Sound across from Seattle and accessible by ferry. The posting was for a live-in nanny with room and board provided, a driver, and a discretionary fund on top of a salary.
Living on an island would be different, but otherwise, the job was perfect. He’d have a place to live and food to eat so he wouldn’t have to worry about stretching his money or living in his truck until his first payday. Yes, his beast of a Silverado was his life, the only extravagant thing he’d allowed himself, but he wasn’t ready to make it his home address.
If only he hadn’t paid the rent on Drew’s apartment this month already. Come to think of it, he’d always been the one to pay for Drew, and even their friends, when they went out. While Drew had been saving his money. Or spending it on his side guy. Fuck.
A knock on his window startled him from his thoughts. He looked up from his phone and rolled the window down when he saw one of his students—former students.
“Mr. Lindsey? Are you really leaving?”
“Yeah. I’m sorry, Mark. I wish I’d had enough time to say goodbye to all my classes.”
The kid’s shoulders slumped. “There’s no way they could replace you.”
Sasha gave him a broad smile, trying to keep his real feelings from showing. “Oh, don’t worry. I’m sure the new teacher will know his stuff.”
“Maybe,” the kid said, “but he won’t make it fun. I don’t think anyone can make math fun like you do.”
“You don’t know that. Even if he’s not fun, remember all those websites I gave you if you get to stuff you don’t understand. They’ll make it easier for you. They make games out of it. You can make anything fun if you get creative and put your mind to it.”
Mark stared at the ground as he spoke. “You never treated us like we didn’t matter.”
“Because you do matter. You all do. Look, you’re fourteen. Only a few more years and you’ll be a young adult. If people want to treat you like a little kid, it’s their problem. It’s not because you aren’t capable of being more mature, and it doesn’t mean you have to act the way they treat you.”
“We’ll miss you.” Mark did look up then, and it drove the pain through Sasha’s practiced numbness. His smile fell away.
“I’ll miss all of you too. Very much. I’m honored to have met you, Mark.”
The conversation echoed in his head on repeat as Sasha packed his belongings that afternoon. So many times, he’d had to leave jobs like this over failed relationships. He should have learned not to make attachments at work that would compromise his job. This was a dose of the consequences, and he wasn’t throwing this lesson away.
If he got this job in Vashon, it wasn’t only for financial security and a place to live. It was a chance to make a difference in kids’ lives, the entire reason he’d become a teacher. He’d be taking care of a twelve-year-old boy and a sixteen-year-old girl, and for once, he had every intention of staying until they didn’t need him anymore.