Wednesday, April 8
LUCAS THOMPSON rose from a long table, pressing the tips of his fingers on top of the smooth glass. Sunlight beamed around his body from the floor-to-ceiling windows behind him. He pinched the bottom seam of his tailored navy blue suit jacket and tugged once, surveying the row of older men staring up at him. Their expressions ranged from furious to terrified. They were a study in scrunched eyebrows, huffed breaths, and flushed cheeks.
“Anyone need a stretch?” Lucas flattened his hand on his lower back and pushed his hips forward. “Long negotiations make my legs cramp.” His query was met with steely silence, save for the quiet hiss of air being circulated into the conference room. The corners of Lucas’s mouth quirked. “Would anyone else care for more water, perhaps?” He ran his fingers over the trinity knot of his black tie and laid his other hand flat on the silky material. “I’m feeling parched.”
“No,” Acker said, the word snapping out of his mouth before Lucas finished speaking. “No, we don’t want any of your sodding water. Just as we don’t want anything to do with your scam of a deal.”
Beside Acker, another older gentleman, called Jones, bounced in his seat. His bushy white eyebrows twitched.
“You’re stalling, Thompson. It’s a load of rubbish.” Jones’s words sounded like burps being propelled out of his cracked lips while his pudgy arms crossed over his chest. “Pure rubbish. Wasting all of our time.”
Lucas turned away from the group while lifting his curled fingers near his face in a gesture of casual surrender. “As you wish.”
He walked ten paces to the sleek bar resting against the wall. A sweating glass pitcher sat on top of the bar. Delicate slices of cucumber mingled with the perfectly square ice cubes. He gripped a tall glass and began to fill it. Cucumbers vibrated against the ice cubes in an effort to escape out the mouth of the pitcher.
He took a slow sip, letting the cool water slide down his throat. He stared out the window, and his heart pounded in his ears as he watched cars speed by on the street below. There was something hypnotizing about watching others go about their day without a care in the world as to what was happening above them. From forty floors up, central London resembled a Seurat painting, people and cars blending into colorful, moving dots.
If he stared long enough, he would see his own reflection in the polished glass. He could already see the people sitting at the table behind him and feel their eyes burning holes in the back of his head.
On one side of the table sat his boss, and CEO of Covington Associates, Peter Covington II. Covington sat comfortably in his high-back leather chair. A small smile curled his lips, and his dark blond hair was combed into a stylish, but responsible, swoop.
Their client, Maxwell Schilling, relaxed in the seat beside Lucas’s. Schilling was a collector of small businesses that posed any sort of threat to his own construction firm, Schilling Builders, the Walmart of corporate construction. He appeared to be even more comfortable as he lounged in his chair with his crossed legs propped on the corner of the table and a constant glass of scotch in his hand.
On the other side of the table was a group of men who looked out of place in every way possible. The owners of Acker-Jones Construction were built for work sites, for spending long days in the sun, elbow-deep in cement and dirt. They were better suited for inhaling sawdust than for breathing filtered air and sipping cucumber water.
Lucas’s side of the table wore custom-tailored suits, fine silk ties, Italian leather shoes cobbled to fit the specific shapes of their feet, and had standing appointments with barbers to ensure not even a single hair was ever out of place.
Acker-Jones wore suits made of cheap fabrics bought off the rack. Their trousers were a touch too short, their jacket sleeves an inch too long, their hair matted into permanent helmet shapes from hours spent on work sites. Their dress shoes were still squeaky and not yet broken in, even though their wives probably purchased the shoes for them to attend a wedding years ago. Even Acker-Jones’s duo of lawyers seemed out of place and fidgety. Their budget for legal advice was a fraction of Schilling’s monthly food budget for one of his dogs.
Lucas refilled his glass to an inch from the rim. “I know this has not been an easy process for you, Mr. Acker.” He pitched his voice low and his tone gentle. “Nor you, Mr. Jones.”
“You don’t know shit, Thompson,” Jones barked. “You’re nothing more than a vulture!” He coughed, punching himself in the center of his chest. “A leech on society!”
“Gentlemen,” Covington chuckled. His leather chair creaked as he reclined farther back. “Such language.”
Lucas took another sip of water. He could practically smell the blood bubbling in their veins, could feel the stress sweat seeping into their scratchy, overstarched collars. His body replied in kind—his blood raced faster, and a pleasant, burning heat settled beneath his skin as he turned back with one hand tucked in his trouser pocket. Victory sizzled in his bones as he brought his eyes from left to right. Acker-Jones was so on edge, their bodies so tight, that a tiny tap of an archaeologist’s hammer to their shoulders would cause the room to fill with dust.
“We’re here to help you.” Lucas licked his bottom lip. “This entire time, I’ve tried my best to help you. To ensure you’re taken care of.”
Jones’s face reddened like a tomato. “You’re a liar and a cheat. Why should we believe a damn word that comes out of your mouth? You work for”—his eyes darted to Schilling, his voice dropping to a rasp—“him.” Jones coughed violently and Acker held his hand out toward his partner. Their lawyers shuffled papers on the table.
Lucas took two steps forward. “I know how you feel. Both of you.” He pointed the top of his glass at both men, swaying it side to side. “I understand more than you know.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Acker asked with his lips in a snarl.
Lucas blinked at him, then tilted his head. “May I tell you a story?” he asked softly.
Covington’s eyes crinkled at the edges, but he remained facing forward. His gaze was trained on Acker and Jones, who remained silent and stony. Schilling refilled his glass; scotch glugged in the silent room.
Lucas offered Jones and Acker a small smile. He locked eyes with Acker, and Lucas’s brows arched. A beat passed, and Acker shrugged one noncommittal shoulder. Jones glared at him with a hand bunched in the center of his wrinkled white button-down.
“When I was a little boy, my father and his brother went into business together,” Lucas said as he walked closer to the table. He glanced at Jones’s tie, forest green with small blue fish stitched into the material. “They opened a shop that sold fishing supplies.” He looked back to Acker. “Bait, tackle boxes, poles, those little floaty things. Uh…” He snapped his fingers near his face. “Floaty things. What are they called?”
“Bobbers,” Jones grunted.
“Bobbers!” Lucas held his hand out toward Jones. “Yes! Thank you. How silly of me to forget. Bobbers, hooks, the whole bit. If you needed it to fish, they sold it.”
Acker shifted in his seat and asked, “What’s your point?”
“It was a very, very small shop,” Lucas said, staring out the glass wall of the conference room. His shoulders rose. “That was all my family could afford.” He sipped his water and swallowed quickly, furrowing his brow and shaking his head. “Nothing like the size or importance of your company, by a long shot. But they loved it.” He flattened his hand on his chest. “I loved it, and I knew I wanted to run it when I grew up.”
Lucas studied a spot above Acker and Jones’s heads. A far-off warmth softened his features. “I spent hours in the shop hiding under the counter. Spent my summers staring at my father’s shins as he rang people up and told them what pole was best. I listened to him give the pros and cons of which bait would catch which fish. He even let me pretend the worms were my pets. I was heartbroken when I found out where my pets were going each day.” He chuckled. “I wasn’t the brightest kid, I suppose.”
A flicker of amusement ran through Acker’s eyes as Jones’s serious expression wavered ever so slightly. Lucas brought himself within touching distance of the table and took a long sip of water. Even with his face directed at the ceiling, he could feel every eye in the room on him.
“And then my father passed away.” He paused to let his voice linger. “Heart attack.”
Acker-Jones’s side of the table was motionless. Lucas nodded his head forward for three long beats.
“And my uncle,” Lucas continued, “who had expressed no desire to sell our family’s shop, was swooped up in a moment of tragedy by someone who convinced him to sell. To let another larger, more established business management company take over, under the guise of allowing my uncle to maintain ownership and a portion of the earnings. I don’t think I have to tell you the entire end of the story. As you can see—” Lucas held his hands out. “—I’m not behind the register of a tackle shop. There is no tackle shop. The deal was bad for everyone besides the broker, and my family was left with nothing. My father was dead, his business was gone, and we had nothing.”
Lucas took the last sip of water out of his glass and placed it on the table. He leaned over the tabletop, tilting his head toward Schilling.
“This is not that. This is not a bad deal for you and your company. On the contrary.” He spun their contract back toward them. “This is a good deal, one that rewards you for your years and years of hard work.”
He watched Jones and Acker study the contract they had been hemming and hawing over for weeks.
Acker crossed his arms over his chest. “You’ll chop up our company,” he said. “Take away everything that makes it ours. Choose cheap quantity over good quality, something we never wanted to do.”
“Max has no desire to do that,” Lucas said, shaking his head. Covington shook his head along with Lucas, and steepled his fingers in his lap. “There would likely be some changes in management, which is completely normal for this type of acquisition, but Schilling Builders desires a smooth transition. Who better to ease that transition than the Acker-Jones employees who know your company best?”
“But why do you even care about our company?” Jones asked, his hands turning to fists. “Why us?”
The answer was that a house Acker-Jones built for a celebrity, full of custom carpentry and exquisite detail, had been so well received in design magazines that Acker-Jones became the most sought-after construction group in England. The small company had begun to encroach on Schilling’s bids for clients. Schilling did not enjoy competition, especially from a company with such a spotless reputation, ever-growing fanbase, and potentially enormous yearly profit.
Lucas slid into his leather chair. “Schilling Builders has been searching for a company to bring a personal touch, a family mentality, to their structures. Your work is exquisite. You have both poured yourselves into your work for countless years.” He spread his arms. “Why not let someone else do the heavy lifting?”
“Because it’s our legacy.” Acker gently pushed the contract back across the table. “Because we want our sons and daughters, our families, to have something to inherit. Because this company is us, and to put it in the hands of another would risk throwing away a lifetime of work.”
“I completely understand. You’re very right.” Lucas nodded as he closed the folder holding their contract and pulled it back to his side of the table. He tapped his fingers three times on top of the file. “I apologize for wasting your time with my”—he blew air out of his nose—“silly fishing story.”
“No need to apologize.” Jones cleared his throat. “It… it was a fine story.”
“Thank you, sir. That’s very kind of you to say. You only get one dad, you know?” Lucas let out a small chuckle while shaking his head. “I wish someone would have told me that when I was a kid. Would have spent less time on the pitch and more time with him.”
The stiff files clicked against the glass as Lucas stacked them.
Lucas continued, “If he hadn’t passed away, I probably would have slept in the shop to be near him all the time. To learn from him. I completely understand where you’re coming from. I would have fought tooth and nail to keep the shop for myself, simply so he could retire comfortably and enjoy his time with his kids. With his grandkids. Even if we were just as poor as when he ran the shop.”
He dropped the folder pile in front of himself, prompting a soft whoosh to brush over the table.
“You only have one life—one chance to live the best life you can. I know I’d spend it with my loved ones, if given a choice.”
Lucas glanced at his boss, who had not moved once during his story. The right side of Covington’s lips lifted. Lucas’s eyes fluttered shut for a split second. With his face still toward Covington, Lucas started to say, “Gentlemen, I’ll walk you—”
Jones broke first. He held on to the closed folder. Schilling chuckled into his scotch, and the other side of Covington’s lips rose. Both Covington and Lucas smiled across the table.
Five minutes later, Lucas stacked the same bunch of folders, complete with signed contracts. Acker-Jones and their lawyers were still packing their documents as Covington lined up champagne flutes in the center of the conference table.
Acker-Jones declined their champagne. Both men were green in the face, a vast difference to their formerly tomato-red cheeks. Lucas went in for the required final handshake, but Jones pulled him closer, squeezing both of his shoulders. Jones smelled of sunlight and aftershave.
“Thompson.” Jones’s voice was still a bark, but it sounded less angry and more grandfatherly when compared to his earlier words. “If you ever want to go fishing, you have my card. Give me a ring, son. You’re about the same age as my son, Gregory. We go fishing all the time.” He patted Lucas’s arms. “We’d love to have you on board.”
Lucas forced a smile and nodded. It felt as if his lips were slithering off his face, his cheeks fighting to keep the corners of his mouth up.
“Thank you, sir. That’s very generous of you.”
Acker-Jones and their team left the conference room. The glass door clicked shut. Lucas watched the group walk down the hallway and disappear near the lifts.
A champagne bottle popped.
“Would it be cliché for me to make a hook, line, and sinker remark so soon?”
Schilling howled at Covington’s comment. Lucas stared at his reflection in the glass wall.
“You are a genius, my boy,” Schilling said, slapping Lucas between the shoulder blades. “A fucking genius! Worth every penny. You’ve won yourself a client for life.” He pulled Lucas sideways into his muscled chest and walked them back to the table as he laughed a hot breath of scotch over Lucas’s face. “Pete wasn’t kidding when he said you were the best, though I must remind you, keeping their employees or policies is not in my plan for their company, which is now my company.”
“I’m well aware.” Lucas swallowed dryly. He wondered how long it would take for their current employees to receive news about the future of their jobs. “They’ll be rich, though,” he said, almost as an afterthought. “Very, very rich.”
“Not nearly as rich as me, once I give their company a bit of a remodel. Shit, they gave up a goldmine and they don’t even realize it.” Schilling downed his scotch and slammed the glass on the table. He blew air through his clenched teeth. “I love it when that happens.”
Covington came up to them with two flutes of champagne. He held one out toward Lucas. “Fisherman father, hm?” He did a quick scan of Lucas’s face, smirking. “Must have missed that on your CV.”
Lucas accepted his glass. “I wouldn’t recognize my father if I ran into him on the street tomorrow.” He sipped once, then traced his tingling bottom lip with his tongue. “Never been fishing, either. Watched a documentary on a flight last week about fly fishing.” He buffed his fingernails over his jacket. “Felt inspired.”
Schilling sprayed champagne out of his mouth. “Fucking wunderkind!” he cried. “You deserve an Oscar for that performance. I’d say you should go to acting school if I didn’t want to keep you in the boardroom all for myself.”
“He’s good. Very, very good,” Covington said slowly. He pinched Lucas’s cheek. “It’s that sweet face and those baby blues. No one can resist.” His eyes narrowed in thought as his fingers loosened their hold. He gave his cheek a gentle slap. “No wonder I pay you so well.”
Lucas clinked their glasses together.
“Cheers to that.”
The cheerful ping did not match the resigned fog that settled over Lucas’s body. He set his mouth in a straight line.
Once he wrapped up with Schilling and Covington, Lucas excused himself to return to work. Employees scurried around the office in tailored suits, the highest of high heels, and chic pencil skirts. All of their clothing was hued from black to white. There was no visible color besides the red accent flowers perched on the receptionist’s glass desk.
The lift doors slid shut and Lucas exhaled a long breath, letting his head drop forward. He adjusted the knot of his tie and moved his head side to side as he pulled his mobile out of his pocket. A number of texts, e-mails, and voice mails waited for him, some personal and some professional. He flicked through the notifications while a stress headache built at the base of his neck, then pressed the bottom button and held the phone up.
“Phone Mum within next three days,” he said into the speaker.
His phone beeped, and a calendar alert popped up on the screen. He approved it as a new call came in. Zamir, his best friend, was calling. Lucas’s jawline tightened, his thumb swaying over the screen before sending the call straight to voice mail.
His assistant, Albert Green, had called a number of times during his meeting, along with leaving even more text messages and e-mails. It was normal behavior for Albert, who panicked if he was unsure about whether Lucas had watered the fern in his office sitting area. The answer was always a resounding no. Lucas never remembered to water the fern Albert had insisted on purchasing to increase brain circulation or oxygen flow, or some other thing related to brains and oxygen that he lectured him about.
While his excessive calling would be annoying to some, Lucas didn’t mind. Albert served as the perfect, polite filter to keep unwanted calls and people away while also managing his insane schedule and putting up with excessive client demands. Albert did all of that with a smile on his face and a hop in his step.
Since Albert became his assistant, Lucas had not missed any meetings, flights, or required work events. He often received compliments about his lovely assistant’s e-mail etiquette, and his family had practically adopted Albert, despite Lucas’s wishes to keep his work and personal life separate. Albert had yet to master Lucas’s preferred method of how he took his tea, but he was only human. His strength was in the office, not the kitchen.
Lucas walked out of the lift on the main level, where the polished marble floor caused his shiny black shoes to click. He dialed Albert and brought his phone to his ear.
Albert picked up halfway through the first ring. “Hello, sir! How is your day?”
“Hi. Fine, thanks.” Lucas dodged a crowd of businessmen in all black, marching forward with their heads down and their eyes glued to their phones. “What’s up?”
“All went well with Acker-Jones?”
“I got them.” Lucas pushed through a revolving door. “It’s done.”
“Well done, sir!”
Lucas could hear genuine excitement ringing in Albert’s voice. When Lucas did well, Albert’s salary usually followed.
“What do you need?” Lucas stepped outside, and chilly air slapped him in the face. He tightened his charcoal-gray scarf. “Lay off the sirs, mate. You’re starting to sound like Jarvis from Iron Man.”
“Are you nearly at Branson’s?”
Lucas’s heart dropped to his stomach. He stopped walking. People flooded around him on the sidewalk. “What?”
“Ray Branson? You have a lunch meeting with him today?” Albert’s voice pitched half a tone higher. “I know I put it in your schedule.” Frantic typing carried through the phone. “Hold one moment, please. I’ll straighten this out.”
“Shit,” Lucas said, drawing out the word and rubbing his wrinkled forehead. “Yes, you did. I got the alert this morning and completely lost track of time. This is all my fault. The meeting took longer than I thought and….” He checked his watch, then walked quickly to the end of the street. “I’ll have to get a cab. I’ll never make it in time if I take the train.”
“I could reschedule for you, sir.”
“No, no way.” Lucas shook his head, eyes darting over the cabs flying by. “I’ve been trying for months to wrangle a lunch with him. He’s sitting on the biggest tech merger in this city’s history, and I’ll be damned if I lose him to Yarnwood Corp.”
“Mr. Branson is quite busy.”
“Shall I tell him you’re running late?”
“No, no, he’s cranky and old. Traditional. He won’t like that.” Lucas rubbed his palm in a circle over his nose, squeezing the cartilage out of shape. “Ugh, and the day was going moderately well.”
More keyboard clicks sounded through the phone as Albert spoke, brisk and professional.
“Based on current traffic reported approximately three minutes ago, I’d say you could make it to Quo Vadis in eight minutes if you catch a cab within the next thirty seconds, bringing you there with one and a half minutes to spare.”
“Yeah, working on the whole cab thing.” Lucas lifted his arm and his tan wool trench coat stretched open. His eyes lit up. A black car slowed and pulled over to the curb. “Got one. I’ll touch base when I’m at lunch.”
“Enjoy, sir. Try the lamb tongue. I’ve heard it’s lovely.”
Lucas snorted and hung up. His phone started to vibrate in his palm. He swiped his thumb to silence the call without checking who was calling. Then his phone buzzed again, indicating yet another call. He opened the cab door and slid across the seat. His arse collided in the center of the backseat with someone sliding in from the other side.
“Excuse me.” Lucas shoved himself against the person’s firm body. His phone started to ring in the closed space. “I believe I was here first,” he said, his tone more pointed.
Both doors slammed shut and both men settled in their seats.
“Excuse me,” a deep voice replied beside him. The man drew out each word. “I believe I was inside first.” Lucas could see only his back covered in expensive black material and his wavy chestnut hair cascading to his shoulders as he leaned forward to say to the driver, “Old Compton and Wardour, please.”
“I’m not really in the mood for this,” Lucas huffed and wiggled his arse into his seat, “but we’re both heading to Soho. We might as well share.” He pushed his way in front of the man, who dropped back to the seat, and made eye contact with the driver in his mirror. “Quo Vadis, please. It’s a restaurant on Dean Street. Dean and Bateman should be fine. I need to be dropped first.”
“Awfully bossy, aren’t we?”
Lucas looked over his shoulder at the deep drawl. His eyes traced over the lounging stranger.
The man’s long legs were crossed at the knee. His voice and posture both reflected his boredom as his thumb flicked over his iPhone screen. Large black sunglasses shielded his eyes. A small cross earring swayed from his left ear. His black trench coat wilted open over his muscled torso in the most couture way. He wore all black, from his leather trousers to his half-open, sheer button-up. His nipples were visible beneath the draped shirt.
Lucas flexed his jaw. “I’m late for a very important meeting and need to be first.”
The man snorted. “Like I care.”
Lucas studied the top of the man’s head. Rings glimmered on each of his long fingers as he scrolled through his phone—tiny reflections of light bounced around the cab’s interior. Lucas’s eyes dropped, then rose back to the man’s face. High cheekbones and a noble nose were visible amid his hair, which was held back by a long, tasseled headscarf.
“Not sure what you’re late for, besides perhaps a Rolling Stones role-play convention, but my actual meeting takes precedence.” Lucas turned back to the driver to quickly say, “Please start driving and drop me first. I cannot be late.”
“Don’t be rude,” the deep voice purred. His pointed-toe black boot swayed as he bobbed his leg. “It’s not his fault you have poor time management.”
Lucas sat back with his mouth agape. The man lifted his face, staring at Lucas for a long beat, from eyes shielded by black sunglasses.
Lucas rolled his eyes, crossing his leg and pulling out his phone. He saw three more missed calls from his mother, plus a voice mail from Zamir. He gritted his teeth behind his closed lips and angled himself away from the stranger, lowering his phone’s volume. He clicked on the voice mail and pressed his phone to his ear.
“Mate—Luke—Lucas,” Zamir’s voice, raspy and quiet, said through the phone. He sounded out of breath. “I—Luke—Cillian proposed!” There was a booming cheer over Zamir’s words. “We’re getting married!”
Cillian’s voice sang, “We’re getting married!” through the phone in his cheerful, Irish lilt, and sunshine practically beamed out of the tiny speaker holes. Lucas watched the street rush by out the window, forcing his face to remain still in the reflection.
“Call me when you can, man,” Zamir said, quiet but sounding even more excited. “I can’t wait to tell you all about it. We’re gonna get married soon. Really soon. Within a month. Within weeks! A destination wedding. Cillian had this whole thing planned, he’s gonna pay for everything, and it’s just—B-babe—”
Zamir was interrupted by sucking sounds. His raspy chuckles mixed in with Cillian’s ecstatic donkey laugh, and their words became so garbled that it sounded like two babies babbling into the phone. Lucas gritted his teeth tighter and squeezed his fist against the outside of his thigh.
“It’s going to be amazing,” Zamir insisted. “Call me when you can. We can talk about everything. I’ll e-mail you some details we’ve got figured out already. Can’t wait to see you in paradise, bro. Have missed you so much.”
Cillian’s voice popped into the voice mail to sing, “And now you’ll be my bro too! Yay!” Their loud chatter caused the speaker to overload and crackle before the voice mail cut off.
Lucas swallowed. His fist clenched tighter for a moment before he released it, wiggling his fingers against his outer thigh. He turned away from the window and thumbed a reminder to himself to call Zamir within the next twenty-four hours. An e-mail from Zamir popped up on his screen before Lucas could save the alert. His phone rang yet again. He sighed and accepted the call from his mother.
“Not a good time,” he murmured into the phone. “Can I call you—”
“Oh, Lukeybear! Have you heard the wonderful news?”
Lucas closed his eyes, pressing the pads of his fingers to his temple. He could hear the man beside him cracking his gum; his black boot bobbed in Lucas’s peripheral vision.
“Yes,” he said, keeping his voice low. “I’m in a car on the way to a meeting. I’ll call you later.”
His mother continued to babble. “Can you believe it? We’re all over the moon. What a sweet boy that Cillian is. Tracy is beyond words! The whole family is! And the Bahamas, how lovely! We’ll have a proper family holiday and then the wedding. I’m sure it’ll be lovely, just lovely!”
“I really do have to go,” Lucas said, tension twingeing the back of his neck. He squeezed the tight muscles. “I’ll phone you later, all right?”
“Oh, fine, fine.” She exhaled a loud sigh and muttered, “Christ, could you forget work for one bloody minute to be excited for your best friend getting married? The Matins are like family! Zamir is like your brother!”
Lucas’s mouth went dry as he stared straight ahead at the back of the driver’s seat.
“I’ve very happy for him. And Cillian.” His voice sounded as robotic in his ears as it felt coming out of his throat. “I’ll phone you later, I promise. Love you, bye.”
He ended the call before her reply and pocketed his mobile. He exhaled slowly, focusing on the dull buzz of the driver’s radio.
“Well? What’s the good news?”
Lucas gasped and startled at the slow, held-out words while jumping sideways into his door, remaining only half on the seat. The stranger smirked at him with little mirth. His leg continued to bob and his gum kept on cracking.
“Nothing.” Lucas removed his hand from the center of his chest and straightened his posture, adjusting his cufflinks. &ldqu