“IT WASN’T a request, Crawford. Helena has booked you on a plane to Vancouver next week, and I expect you to be on it.”
Crawford kept his features carefully blank, his gaze focused just over his boss’s shoulder on the Warhol that hung behind him. It had been hideously expensive, especially given it was gracing the wall of a man who didn’t even like art. Crawford had been the one sent to the auction to bid on it. George had claimed it was exactly the type of statement piece that belonged in the office of the chairman of a highly successful international boutique hotel chain.
Not that attending art auctions was technically part of his job. But lately, George had been expanding Crawford’s job description more and more to justify sending him on ridiculous errands like flying across the country to attend an auction with the company’s interior designer.
Crawford focused on the garish painting and prayed for patience. His pulse had been racing ever since George had announced, in front of the entire board, that Crawford would be heading up the audit of the company’s flagship Canadian hotel. The announcement itself wasn’t a surprise. The Vancouver property had been in a downward spiral for the past few quarters, the numbers not quite adding up and certainly not keeping pace with the gains in the company’s other North American locations—nowhere close to the projections Crawford himself had been part of setting. And since Crawford was the company’s top auditor and management consultant, he’d been expecting the assignment.
Given the size of the undertaking, it also wasn’t that much of a surprise to hear that he’d be part of a team of auditors instead of going solo like he often did.
And if it had been one of the half-dozen North American consultants he’d worked with before, he would have been at his desk even now, poring over the reports to ready himself for the trip. But the CEO was bringing in Crawford’s counterpart from the European office to collaborate, and that was a deal breaker. George knew exactly what he was asking by sending Crawford there. Hell, everyone at Chatham-Thompson knew why Crawford gave the European headquarters and all communication with his counterpart there a wide berth. It wasn’t like Crawford and Davis had hidden their relationship. They’d been together three years. Half of the company’s executives had come to their wedding, for Christ’s sake.
Crawford grimaced, rubbing a hand over his jaw. One of the last civil things Davis had said to him was that he hoped there were no hard feelings about him taking the promotion that would move him halfway across the world. As if their marriage had meant nothing. As if their time together had just been Davis biding his time before climbing the next rung on the corporate ladder.
Needless to say, Crawford hadn’t been quite so cordial about it. Following several disastrous conference calls, the other execs realized the importance of scheduling meetings with Crawford and Davis separately and had been careful to do so.
“George, Edward has offered to oversee the audit,” Crawford said. “And, respectfully, you really don’t need both Davis and me on this. It makes much more sense to have a more junior auditor who’s familiar with the property there to help Davis run the numbers and talk to the staff. He and I together would be overkill.”
Crawford was proud of the way his voice didn’t shake. His hands were the only part of him to break rank and tremble, but they were tightened into fists in his lap, hidden from view by George’s enormous oak desk.
“Edward is perfectly capable,” George agreed with a deceptive calm that always preceded his most unpopular edicts. Crawford’s mentor was eerily good at reading people and pushing them past their comfort zones in the name of professional growth. His stomach sank. This smacked of George’s special brand of meddling. “I’ll be frank with you, Crawford. This is definitely something one of the junior members on your team could handle. The interviews and on-site data gathering, at least. But I thought this would be a chance for you to prove to the board that you are serious about your future here at Chatham-Thompson.”
Crawford ground his teeth together. He’d been working for this company for more than half his life, starting as a desk clerk with all the other college grunts, graduating to the concierge desk at the biggest hotel in the chain within two years. Before long, he’d been promoted to the corporate offices, working grueling eighty-hour weeks while simultaneously getting his MBA. It had paid off too. He’d earned himself a vice presidency by the time he was thirty-four.
“I am serious about Chatham-Thompson. Don’t be ridiculous,” Crawford snapped.
Crawford had given his entire life to the company. Horrendously long workweeks, years where he’d let his vacation time slide by unclaimed because he was too busy building the company to take it—ironic, since he worked for the largest resort hotel chain in the world. He was the most dedicated employee in the executive offices after George. He just didn’t see the need to force himself to work with his ex-husband to prove it.
“It’s a done deal, Crawford,” George said. “I know it’s hard, but it’s been three years. You need to get past it. I’ve indulged your feud for too long, and now it’s starting to affect the bottom line. I can’t let that happen.” George stood to signify the end of the conversation. “Your flight has been scheduled. I’m assuming you’ll stay on-property like you usually do?”
Crawford was too numb to do anything but nod in agreement. He’d been railroaded, and his chest felt like it had met the train head-on.
“Excellent. Helena will send all the details to your administrative assistant. We’ll schedule a conference call once you’ve set up shop and done your preliminary survey.”
George dropped his gaze to the tablet in front of him, an obvious dismissal. He’d said his piece, and even while Crawford’s world was crumbling around him, George remained coolly unaware.
Crawford wanted to argue, to put his foot down and refuse, but he was afraid he’d lose that particular game of chicken. Would George really fire him over this? Was avoiding Davis really worth flushing his entire career down the toilet?
Not for the first time, Crawford wondered what his life would have been like if he’d never taken the first promotion that launched him into corporate. He’d been happy as a concierge, daydreaming about running his own hotel someday. Even now his favorite part of his job was getting out into the hotels and working with guests. He didn’t get to do it too often anymore, and when he did, it was usually dealing with disgruntled customers who were staying at failing properties. But it was still miles better than sitting in a stuffy office looking at budget line items.
George looked up, his brow raised like he was surprised to see Crawford still in his office. “Are we clear?”
Crawford didn’t even try for a smile as he stood to leave. “Crystal.”
“MAT, NOT that I don’t love having you here, but are you sure? This is a big gamble. Maybe you should just keep your flight home and plan to come back in a few months when Duarte and I have the orchard up and running.”
Mateus kissed his sister-in-law’s cheek and ran a hand over the slight swell of her belly. “You don’t have a few months, irmãzinha,” he teased.
She swatted at him. “Four months along and you and Duarte treat me like I’m made of glass. I’m perfectly capable of working in the orchard, thank you.”
Mateus pursed his lips and tried to choose his words carefully. He was on dangerous ground here, and though his English was fluent, it could be a little abrupt at times. He had to be careful of the cultural divide between them too. The machismo gallantry that had been bred hard into him by his parents back in Portugal was thought of negatively here. Bree had called it patriarchal fuckery in a screaming argument a few weeks ago when he’d said he wasn’t sure if she should be driving in her condition. The memory still made him smile.
He’d been referring to her badly stubbed toe and the broken flip-flops (another fabulous word he’d learned) she’d just tripped over, but after the scolding he’d gotten, he’d been too cowed to point that out.
He decided to go with the truth because Bree had an excellent bullshit meter. “I don’t like the thought of you bending and stooping to trim trees in a few months is all. Besides, which of us is the botanist, eh?”
She wrinkled her nose but didn’t argue. They both knew her strength was bookkeeping. Even Duarte was in over his head with the orchard itself. It’s why Mateus had come over from Portugal three months ago.
He hadn’t expected to fall utterly in love with the Pacific Northwest. He knew he could make the small orchard flourish if given enough time, but his visa would run out next week.
“I don’t want you to get in trouble,” Bree said finally. “What if you cash in your return ticket and this scheme of yours doesn’t work? What then? A one-way ticket to Lisbon will be twice what you’re getting back.”
That was true, but Mateus had scoured the Internet looking for ways to stay in the country. A work visa was his best bet, but the orchard had to be financially solvent to make that an option. And it would be in a few months. So all he had to do was cross the border into Canada and have his passport stamped, and his automatic American visa would re-up for another three months as soon as he landed back in Washington. It was foolproof.
The only problem was he needed the money from his return ticket to Lisbon to pay for his round-trip fare to Vancouver.
“You worry too much,” he said, waving off her concern. “The tourist visa is a formality. A lot of people have done this. It will be fine.”
He hoped it would be. The only other option was for him to go back to his tiny apartment and the boring, dead-end job he’d taken a sabbatical from to come here. That was the last thing he wanted now that Duarte had married Bree and the two of them had settled in the States. He’d hoped maybe Bree would want to come to Portugal, and Duarte would decide to run the olive grove their parents had left them, but Bree had a large family she couldn’t imagine leaving. And all Duarte had in Portugal was Mateus and a tiny stand of olive trees that barely made enough money each year to pay the taxes on the land.
Mateus hadn’t begrudged Duarte his chance at happiness in the States. He wanted the best for his brother, and Bree was exactly that. And when that little family expanded to include one more in five months, Mateus wanted to be there. He didn’t want to be an uncle in name only—he wanted to be involved, just like he wanted to be involved in the orchard. This was his life now, and all he needed was a green card to solidify it.
Bree reached out and tucked her arm around his waist. “You’ve already done so much for us. Are you sure you want to stay? Really want to? That you’re not just doing this for us?”
He wrapped an arm around her shoulders as they started walking toward the house. The whitewashed clapboard seemed to glow in the light of the setting sun, and between that and the faint reflection of the pink-streaked sky in the windows, the sight was breathtaking. The house was the only part of the orchard that hadn’t fallen into disrepair under the old owners. It might take a few years to bring the trees back to their former glory, but he’d get them there. But neither he nor Duarte had an ounce of home-repair talent, so it was a mercy that the house had been so well-kept.
“I’m maybe doing it a little bit for you,” he admitted. “But a lot for myself. I want a life like the one you and Duarte are building here.”
She snorted. “A wife and a baby? Now I know you’re lying.”
He laughed and bumped his hip against hers. “Well, not exactly what you have here. But a charming home? Soil I can sink my hands into and land I can make something of? Yes.”
“And maybe someday a husband and a baby?” she asked, her tone probing.
It wasn’t like they hadn’t talked about this before. He was ready to settle down. He wanted to—he’d just never found the right man. His parents had been far from perfect, but they’d had a wonderful marriage. And Duarte had forged the same strong bond with Bree. How could he settle for anything less than true love after seeing how happy it had made them?
“Maybe someday, if it’s meant to be. You can’t rush fate.”
Bree shook her head. “Duarte says the same thing.”
“Our avó Margarida used to tell us that. Mostly when we complained about things we wanted that we couldn’t afford.”
“Ah, your infamous grandmother. Is she also the one who I can thank for that stinker Duarte likes to pull out about the man being the breadwinner and the woman being the bread baker?”
Mateus huffed out a laugh. He doubted that. Their avó hadn’t been the kind of obedient wife who would wait at home by the hearth, so Duarte had taken a lot of artistic license if he’d attributed that to her.
“I think she’d have clocked Duarte over the head with the nearest bread pan she could get her hands on if he’d used that line on her.” He shot her a sidelong glance. “And apologies, but you’d be a terrible baker.”
Bree burned just about anything she touched, so the kitchen was firmly Duarte’s domain. But Mateus understood what his brother had meant. They were both worried about Bree overexerting herself. She seemed hell-bent on proving that pregnancy wasn’t a debilitating condition, and Mateus knew she was right. But he also knew that she tired much easier than she used to. He shifted so she could lean against him as they meandered, and she sighed but didn’t fight the extra help. She must be exhausted if she wasn’t brushing him off.
“I’d have hit him, but I don’t want to teach the baby that violence is the answer,” she said mournfully. “And I think he was talking about metaphorical bread anyway.” She nodded toward her stomach. “You know, a different kind of oven.”
“I’ve never understood that analogy,” Mateus said, following her gaze to the bump she now rested a hand on.
“Most analogies don’t make much sense. I mean, who decided to call biceps guns?” They’d reached the porch, and she stepped away from his light embrace and sank down onto the swing he and Duarte had repainted a cheery yellow last month. “Guns are weapons. They’re used to intimidate and influence people, and they can kill. If any body part should be called a gun, shouldn’t it be breasts?”
Mateus might not be sexually attracted to women, but he could appreciate a nice set of breasts. And Bree’s definitely were that. Pregnancy had made them a little fuller, though he’d only noticed that after she’d complained about it.
“Do you intimidate many people with your guns, then?” he asked, amused.
She gave them a little shake, then winced and folded her arms across her chest protectively. “Ouch. It’s like having a perpetual case of PMS,” she muttered.
He laughed and flexed his bicep. He’d always been a runner and he enjoyed playing sports, but these last few months of manual labor around the orchard had packed on more muscle than he’d ever had before. “Your guns are prettier,” he conceded.
She giggled herself into a fit of hiccups that left her holding her belly, which was how Duarte found them.
“Are you harassing my wife again, maninho?”
Mateus grinned at him. With Bree and Duarte there, the orchard already felt more like home than Portugal. Now he just had to find a way to stay. “Always.”