Chapter One

 

 

I HAD failed.

Epically.

But the upshot was, I was now free to go. I was never meant to sit behind a desk in an office and look at spreadsheets anyway. My dreams included sun and wind and hopefully still high-stakes sales or even number crunching––because that was the part I loved––but without the glass-walled office. It was time to take a chance on my real dreams instead of dealing with the fallout of my last career decision. I hated facing the judgmental looks every day, hearing the snickering, and knowing that every person there, even colleagues who had become friends, thought I was a screwup.

As I sat in the large conference room along with the entire firm, waiting to have an emergency meeting on a cold, dreary Monday morning in January, I contemplated my future.

We had all been sent an urgent e-mail the night before that informed us to report to work at seven sharp to hear about the “new direction” the company would be taking—and we all knew some kind of shakeup was coming—so we convened and waited to learn the future of Sakura Limited, the real estate development company we all worked for. I had stopped on the way to get coffee for the two people from my old team who were still talking to me, Shawn Ferris and Liza Cho. I was still being thanked for the caffeine when Mr. Conner Troy, CEO, came through a side door and walked directly to the podium.

“Good morning, everyone, thank you all for coming on such short notice.” He glanced around the room. “The reason I called you here is to announce the immediate resignation of Managing Director Everett Connelly from the staff of Sakura Limited.”

The gasp from all corners was audible, but I was not surprised. The company hadn’t lost any money in the last two quarters, but neither had it made any. We were absolutely at a standstill, had been for the past year. But that couldn’t have been the problem; the important thing was keeping the clients we had, not looking for new prospects. That was what had been drilled into me when my deal fell through, that I was overreaching.

“I wonder who they got,” Shawn asked, turning to look at me.

“You know I don’t know.” I sighed. “I’m just lucky to have a job, right?”

“Don’t be bitter, Dwyer,” he told me. “You tried, you failed huge, but at least you gave it your best shot.”

“Mr. Connelly felt,” Mr. Troy continued, “that the direction he wanted for his career and the direction that Sakura would be taking would not be complementary paths.”

“Which means what, exactly?” Liza asked under her breath from my right as she nudged me in the ribs.

“Just because I was inner circle once doesn’t mean I am anymore,” I whispered back.

Mr. Troy cleared his throat. “With that being said, we must also say good-bye to Ava Palmer and wish her the very best as she takes on her new challenges with Myer Coffman.”

“Oh ouch.” Liza groaned softly. “I mean, I hated her, but I would jump into Lake Michigan before I went there and died of shame.”

Everyone knew if you couldn’t make it in Chicago with one of the big three—Sakura, Sutter, or Ryerson & Wolf—you went to work at Myer Coffman.

It was painful to even hear she went there. I had told myself when I was almost fired that if I was let go, I would fall back on my minor from college and go teach art in junior college or something. No way I went from Sakura to Myer Coffman. I had too much pride.

Maybe that was bad, though. It hadn’t served me all that well.

“I wonder if—” Shawn began.

“Furthermore, several members of Ava’s team have also been released from their contracts.”

“Oh shit.” Shawn’s voice edged high and Liza grabbed my hand, clutching tight.

Lots of layoffs this morning was why the conference room looked a little light. But again, it made sense—Everett had been the managing director, Ava was his right hand, and she had led a less-than-ambitious pack of development reps. They had been more interested in keeping what they had than in going after something new, because it was safe. Safe was good. Safe kept you in business. But safe didn’t get you any infusion of creativity, or funds, or excitement. Safe did not show investors you were the company to watch. We showed no growth without new projects, at least in my opinion.

But after my flop of faith, I had been educated about how important it was to not rock the boat.

“Holy shit,” Liza whispered.

“We could contemplate our losses, but instead we look to our future. As a result of these changes, Mr. Kurofuji Ryouta from our corporate office in Tokyo will be taking over the position of managing director, effective immediately. He has brought with him several key members of his team, and we could not be happier. Let’s give them all a round of applause to welcome them aboard.”

We all clapped and Mr. Kurofuji took the podium, the six other people he had brought lining up next to him. There were three women and three men all in suits, all looking polished and professional and perfect.

“Good morning,” he greeted us. “This, of course, is only a portion of my team; the others are already at work and have been for hours.”

Of course they were. His people were at the top of their game.

“I’m so fired,” I groaned.

I got hit in the ribs with elbows from both sides.

 

 

I WAS sitting in the office I shared with Peter Goodman a couple of hours later when Mr. Kurofuji and two other men walked in. I had never seen the other two Japanese gentlemen, but the man in front was my new big boss. I got up, Peter got up, and remembering what I’d learned in cultural training the year before, I bowed low—since I was low man on the totem pole—and waited for Mr. Kurofuji to return the gesture.

Both he and the others bowed back, and once they did, I straightened. “Ohayo gozaimasu,” I greeted, using the formal good-morning I’d been taught.

Every one of them spoke the words back to me. I couldn’t help but smile.

Peter walked forward, hand out. When he was stopped by one of the minions putting an envelope in his hand, he looked confused.

“The layoffs will proceed throughout the day,” Mr. Kurofuji informed him. “We appreciate your tenure here at Sakura, but your time with us has drawn to a close, Mr. Goodman. Please gather any noncompany possessions and be prepared to be escorted out in half an hour.”

The other assistant handed Peter a banker’s box to put his stuff in, and as he stood there—stunned, mouth open, his last check in hand—all eyes turned to me.

I smiled then and waited for my own envelope.

“Mr. Knolls, would you step out into the hall, please.”

I followed, and once we were out, I realized a lot of people were leaving, trudging toward the elevators, boxes in their arms.

“Mr. Knolls,” Mr. Kurofuji said crisply. “You will report upstairs to the small conference room, where Ms. Shiga Ayumi, who is the new Director of Client Services for Sakura here in Chicago, awaits you. Your new partner, Mr. Hiroyuki Takeo, is there as well.”

I was confused, but I also knew that asking questions was a really bad idea. “Thank you, sir,” I said as I bowed.

When I reached the small area where everyone was waiting to get on the elevators, I was getting looks. I was the only one who pressed the green Up arrow instead of the red Down one. When Liza and Shawn joined me, nothing in their hands, also waiting to go up, I was relieved.

“What the fuck?” Rob Lambert growled as he got on a car to descend. “The fuckups get to stay? How does that make any sense?”

Shawn flipped him off as the doors closed.

“Are you getting a partner?” I asked Liza.

“Yeah,” she told me. “Are you?”

I nodded and looked at Shawn. “You?”

“Yeah, me too.” He shrugged. “I dunno what’s going on, but let’s not question it.”

We rode up in silence, and on the next floor, found ourselves faced with a flurry of activity as furniture and computers and people were being moved. As I walked from the lobby area down the hall, I saw a woman poke her head out of the glass door of the small conference room where we usually held morning status meetings.

“Hi, team!” she greeted us warmly, and I realized I could breathe again.

“God, I feel better already.” Shawn exhaled, and when we got close, she reached for our hands instead of bowing.

Ms. Shiga’s handshake was firm and her grip on my bicep as we shook was nice. Even better was her smile. It was big—huge—and made her dark eyes glint, with the high cheekbones and the way her nose scrunched up, she was like a warm summer breeze.

“Come in, sit down, who needs coffee?”

As I poured a cup from a huge pot, grabbed bagels and cream cheese, and then took a seat, I saw the whole team that used to work under me was there, along with new faces and one… really good… one.

I almost choked on my bagel. He, of course, was not eating. He was sitting up straight, like he had a steel rod for a spine, and he was just perfect.

All my life I had been attracted to Asian men, but holy crap… I thought only models looked like that.

“So you’re all probably wondering why you’re here,” Ms. Shiga said. “Before we begin, let me introduce Mr. Hiroyuki Takeo.”

His glossy black hair fell forward and framed his face with just wisps of it touching his long, thick eyelashes. His brows looked painted on, his nose was short and straight, and the chiseled lips were beautiful and decadent and made to take a bite of. I was seeing flawless porcelain skin, but the real thrill—what made my stomach do the flippy thing it did when I was ready to pounce—were his eyes. Fringed in long feathery lashes, they met mine, caught my stare, and flicked away. It was so fast, barely noticeable but for jet black. I had never seen eyes that color before, and I swallowed when I should have chewed and nearly choked to death. I had to grab Liza’s water without asking or I would have had a coughing attack of biblical proportions.

“Hey,” she groused under her breath.

“Dying,” I gasped.

She huffed but said nothing more as I guzzled.

Ms. Shiga continued. “You’re here because of all the development reps on staff at this office, you seven are the only ones who worked on the Wang Promenade project under Mr. Knolls.”

My head snapped up and I looked over to her, because she was talking about me.

“Mr. Knolls.” She smiled. “Had you been given the additional funding that was required for that venture, we calculated that Sakura, instead of Sutter, would have been looking at the development of the new waterfront property that has already leased out all of its available retail space.”

I was stunned. “Sutter got the contract, I hadn’t heard.”

She nodded. “Yes, they got it a month ago, and because the property looks to be very hot, everyone jumped at the chance to be there.”

“I thought—” I began, and then included everyone at the table, “We all thought that it was a good investment for Sakura.”

“And it was,” she told me. “Your instincts were correct even though you, and your team, did not foresee the additional costs to the company.”

We were all quiet as she glanced around the room.

“The failure was not in the idea, but in the execution.” She took a breath. “Now, it is unfortunate that even though Mr. Knolls missed the additional costs that were needed to fund the project, he was not given the go-ahead to complete the acquisition. The project was shut down instead. But the two hundred and fifty thousand dollar payout looks to be small in comparison to what Sutter stands to make on the deal that this office passed on.”

Justified.

But after six months of hanging my head in shame, hearing people whisper, seeing them point, knowing they were talking behind my back—being told my gut had been correct was hard to hear.

“So, Mr. Knolls, you are to be reinstated as Project Manager here at Sakura with Masai Makoto as your partner and Chloe Kingman as your cost analyst. The three of you will manage the acquisitions department and report to me. Congratulations.”

But hadn’t Mr. Kurofuji said I was getting Mr. Hiroyuki? Wasn’t he mine?

“Originally I had planned differently, but I like this approach better.”

And suddenly everyone was on their feet and clapping, and I thought I was dreaming except for one small thing. The most beautiful man I had ever seen in my life was not my new partner. He was Eric Bryson’s partner. There would now be two teams in Acquisitions: I was heading one group and Eric the other.

As I stood there overwhelmed, vindicated, and furious—all at the same time—I realized that not having the distraction, not nearly choking to death on coffee every morning, was probably a very good thing. I needed to focus on me, on my career and nothing else. It was for the best.

 

 

I’D THOUGHT that when I met my new partner, he would be like Takeo, so I was stunned when I walked into my new office later that morning and found a man sitting in a chair with his feet up, head back, snoring. Maybe I wasn’t in the right place.

“Masai Makoto?” I asked gently.

He lifted his head and opened one eye. “Mak. Call me Mak.”

“Oh, yeah, okay.”

The smile he flashed me was brilliant. “You’re Dwyer?”

“I am.” I bristled. Who the hell was this guy, just all casual, making himself at home in the office we were going to share. We needed to be professional and––

“That’s a lot to say.”

I was surprised. “What?”

“Dwyer. That’s a lot to say.”

“It is?”

“Yeah,” he said, nodding, obviously thinking about something.

“Okay,” I said, chuckling, unable not to.

“So I’m going with D.”

“Just D.”

“Yep.”

“And if I don’t like that? Won’t respond to it?”

He seemed to consider that. “That seems kind of a jackass way to be.”

It did actually.

“Don’t you think?”

“Yes,” I said, already warming to the man. “So whatever you must do, g’head.”

“Excellent,” he teased.

“Sorry,” I said, taking a breath, reminding myself that this was my new partner and I had to trust him, just as he had to trust me. “I’ve been so close to being out of here for so long, it’s hard to suddenly have a voice again, yanno?”

He nodded slowly. “I do, actually. You wanna eat?”

“I know a really good deli.”

“Lead on.”

Once we were sitting across from each other at a booth, I noticed him checking out the girls at the next table.

“We could double-date, man. I just got to Chicago; you gotta show me the sights.”

I needed to get this out of the way first. “Okay, so here’s the deal,” I said, looking directly into his dark brown eyes. They were nice eyes, kind eyes, and I was ready to try if he was. “I’m gay.”

He squinted after a long moment.

“Mak?”

“I’m confused.”

What was confusing? “About?”

“What does you being gay have to do with anything?”

We would be friends. “I just wanted you to know… I mean I can’t very well be your wingman if I’m not into—”

“Not true,” he argued. “My friend Souta’s been my wingman lots of times, and he’s gay, and it actually works out great because he sort of ditches out and I get lucky once the girls realize they’re not gonna get him. You’d think they’d get it when he starts talking about the yaoi they all read, but they miss it every time.”

I smiled wide. “I’ll be your wingman.”

“That’s good,” he said, grinning back, tipping his head toward the two women smiling over at him. “Because this relationship is all about me.”