"It's All About Me" Mya
"Missing You" Mary J. Blige
"Beauty" Dru Hill
"So Tired of Being Alone" Al Green
"Come Inside" Intro
"I Don't Know Why" Stevie Wonder
"It's All About Me" Mya
"Missing You" Mary J. Blige
"Beauty" Dru Hill
"So Tired of Being Alone" Al Green
"Come Inside" Intro
"I Don't Know Why" Stevie Wonder
A/N: Warning. Eye candy overload.
Work was wonderful; blessedly time-consuming. I had to fly back to Atlanta to take care of that same needy client, then to California with Ty to recruit some second-year summer internships and potential new blood for RF&L, and then to Chicago to meet with a brand-new client. While I was out, I received notification from Kelton that the merger was starting to get problematic. The more powerful of the two corporations, M.J. Stanford, Inc., no longer wanted to merge with the other, Fox Hollow Technology, Inc. Instead, MJS wanted to acquire Fox Hollow outright, and Fox Hollow wasn’t trying to hear it.
Kelton was convinced that the merger would go through, as there had been no problems since the decision to merge took place. MJS’ decision was sudden. Kelton was scrambling because there was a deadline looming. It, along with my travel schedule, put a damper on our relationship. We’d had exactly one more date after I showed up at his house; an afternoon picnic at one of the beautiful parks on the other side of town. He massaged my feet and we talked about movies, books, television shows…and he acknowledged his sci-fi fanboy status. When his schedule allowed it, he attended conferences cosplaying as Loki from the Thor/Avengers movies. I thought that it was extremely interesting and highly amusing; especially the convention stories. He asked me if I would ever cosplay and I looked at him like he was from another galaxy. I didn’t even know what it meant to cosplay, much less who I could do it as.
“Come now,” he said, smiling at me. “I bet you’d make a wicked Misty Knight. Especially with your hair.”
I didn’t dare acknowledge that I didn’t know who she was, but he must have sensed it, for I soon learned. The next day, a gift box was on my desk. In it was a copy of Daughters of the Dragon and I spent my lunch hour reading it instead of some correspondence. Talk about a gift? Misty and her bf Colleen were the shit! But then our lives got swamped and I was glad about it. Because he was concerned about the merger failing, I was concerned. He couldn’t control last minute mind changes, as the CEO of MJS was demonstrating.
I found myself texting him before my jet took off from O’Hare. We exchanged numbers after our third date. I was comfortable with that now.
Can I help?
I can handle it, but would you mind stopping by when you return? I’ve arranged a sit-down with both parties, and it would really help my cred if the estimable Iolanthe J. Rothschild, Esq. decided to offer her legal opinion.
If you need me to boost your cred, then clearly you can’t handle it. Why do I employ you again?
You mean you’re finally going to fire me? This means we can be seen together in public, then?
Very funny. When is the sit-down? And how did you manage that? These are international companies; rarely would something like a simple merger require an actual physical presence.
This merger is anything but simple. It just so happens that representatives from both corporations will be here on other business, so it was a spot of good luck on my part. The meeting will take place in a week, at nine a.m. sharp.
I’ll be home by then. And yes, I’ll take a look, offer my opinion.
And when these papers are signed, or not signed, then I would dearly love to see you. I need another date, Iolanthe. I miss you.
I didn’t reply. Not on purpose; my plane was going wheels up and I needed to power off. It would be good to see Kelton again; he was so much damn fun. Then my mind turned to him, and how long it had been since I’d seen him. Since we were last together, four weeks had passed. We’ve never been apart that long since our affair began. He was gone and then I was gone, and that’s just the life if you have a job like mine. I really wanted to see him, more than I wanted to see Kelton. I almost let Kelton kiss me at the end of our last date, but pulled back at the last minute. Considering how long it took for me to kiss my ridiculously hot-in-a-different-way neighbor, I didn’t think it was fair for Kelton to get to first base so quickly.
It would definitely be nice to be home again. I needed a spa visit and I needed to get my hair done. I’d make sure to do it before Kelton’s meeting, because if he really wanted my advice, then this thing was a lot more serious than he let on. Which meant I had to be absolutely ferocious when I entered that room full of suits. Mama always said to use what you got to get whatever. Besides, it was fun watching a bunch of men—especially white ones—get bent when they realized who and what I was.
I sat in my office at 9:00 a.m., a week later. Kelton’s meeting was going down on the other end of the top floor, in the executive conference room. I’d asked for a report of the merger, and while I’d read it a dozen times, discussed it with Ty and Cornelius, and committed necessary details to memory, it never hurt to refresh it.
And because I’m a boss and can do whatever the hell I please, I was going to be professionally—yet fashionably—late to the proceedings. This was Kelton’s ball; he was the quarterback, leading the team down the field. I didn’t plan to stay more than ten minutes; the advice I would give wouldn’t take any longer than five. I understood perfectly why MJS wanted to turn it into an acquisition instead of a flat-out merger. Fox Hollow’s latest quarterly report deviated wildly from previous quarters, dipping all the way into the red. In the past ten years, MJS did more far more acquiring than merging, and the conglomerate’s net profits could fund several third-world countries. I didn't see MJS willingly taking on a company with the kind of issue Fox Hollow was demonstrating.
Word had it that the CEO, one M.J. Stanford, was a powerful, merciless businessman with a rumored IQ of 130 and no soul. The man had a near-mythic reputation for having absolutely no fucks to give when it came to ensuring MJS stayed on top. Fox Hollow was able to hold its own against MJS, and the CEO, Jacob Christian Stansler, Jr., had plenty of credibility and good will built up in the industry enough to instigate a merger instead of an acquisition. That he’d allowed Fox Hollow to dip so precariously after years of solid performance was suspect, and M.J. Stanford clearly thought so. It had all happened so fast.
I checked my reflection in the glass, freshened my lipstick, smoothed my hair and my red power suit. Just for emphasis, I adjusted my boobs and checked the real estate once more. Flawless. It was important to be the baddest, most untouchable chick in the game, both in looks and skill.
At 9:30, I entered the conference room full of men and every single one of them jumped to their feet; some looking at me in surprise, others in amazement. Kelton came over to greet me, pleased at my entrance. He looked incredible as always; the man’s name should have been Armani Versace Trahan.
“Miss Rothschild, glad that you’re able to join us.” Then he whispered. "You look absolutely astonishing."
“I will not be able to stay long,” I said, giving him a small smile. “I have a meeting.”
“I understand.” Then Kelton said to me, “You’re not going to believe it, but the CEO of MJS is here in person.”
I looked at Kelton as if he were sharing juicy gossip. “Is that right?” Absolutely unheard-of. No way someone like that would condescend to show up at a meeting, even if it was taking place at RF&L. He should be on a golf course or something, not here.
“Yes. He’s over here.” Kelton waved his hand in the man’s direction. I turned to greet him; a smile on my face, manicured hand extended, and nearly pissed myself. I’m disciplined enough to keep the tightest poker face imaginable; you don’t get to be where I am by showing your hand. But I couldn’t believe who stood before me, resplendent once again in Tom Ford. It was him. He stared at me and his eyes lit up like blue fire. He took my hand and kissed it in greeting. His accent was pure British, no trace of his SWATs upbringing. And damn if his lips didn’t feel good on my hand.
“It is a pleasure to meet you, Miss Rothschild. Maximilian Jackson Stanford the fourth, at your command.”
I sat on my couch, drinking champagne and eating strawberries I'd purchased on the way home. I couldn’t get over what happened this morning; so much so that I went home for lunch and didn’t return. I was on my A-game in spite of the pressure in my chest, but it was not a façade I could hold for very long. The mere presence of him, of Maximilian Jackson Stanford IV, sitting in my fucking conference room, was enough to give me a heart attack, or an aneurysm at least. The last time I saw him was in my apartment, naked as sin, tatted muscled glory coming for me as if he was starving and I was his only sustenance. My sexy-ass neighbor was a fucking British billionaire…who grew up in Southwest Atlanta. He was more than just the CEO; he owned the corporation that was named after him…or rather, his great-grandfather, and he was the genius, ruthless, mercenary Great White shark that swallowed corporations whole. I didn’t know him at all. Not at all. I was intimately involved with a man who could buy and sell Rothschild, Fairfield & Littleton a hundred times over, and I didn’t know how to feel about that. So I was drinking.
I couldn’t help but replay our meeting over and over again.
“Before I offer my professional opinion,” I said, standing at the head of the table, my confidence shaken but not broken, “it is important that I have a conversation with MJS’ representatives. There is a question that I need an answer to before I can proceed.”
He stood up and six other men stood up as well. Kelton sat on the other end of the conference table, staring at me with a small smile on his lips. I swallowed and nodded my head just as one of the men nearly tripped over himself trying to open the door for me.
“Miss Rothschild,” he said, smiling nervously.
“Thank you. There is a smaller conference room next door, gentlemen. If you would please follow me?”
He started to follow me but stopped and turned back to his team. “There’s no need for you lot,” he said, looking at the other men. “I can have this little chat on my own.”
Five of the men promptly returned to their seats. One remained, face pinched. “Mr. Stanford, I highly suggest that you do not proceed without adequate counsel—”
“Correct me if I’m wrong, George, but Miss Rothschild is counsel, and I dare say far more adequate than you.” Then he looked at me, those blue eyes twinkling in a way they never did when we were together. “Are you capable counsel, Miss Rothschild? Should I have you on retainer other than ol’ George here? May I call you Iolanthe?”
Damn. I got moist hearing my name on those lips. I kept my expression even, however. “Miss Rothschild is preferable. And yes, I am more than capable…my name’s not first on the stationary because of my pretty face, Mr. Stanford. But I really don’t think you can afford me.” I gave him a small, tight smile, trying to keep my hormones from spilling out of me right there in the conference room. He really could have just picked me up and carried me away to do his bidding; I was in that much turmoil, and I would have done anything he told me to do.
“Is that right?” he said and I imagined that damn toothpick in the corner of his mouth. He nodded curtly and looked at his lawyer. “There, now that bit’s done. Go away, George.” Then he looked at me. “You lead, I follow, Miss Rothschild. Isn’t that what you said?”
Thankfully, the smaller conference room had the blinds shut. I closed the door and turned to face him. He was about six feet from me, looking at me much as he had that night, the night when he’d had enough of my foolishness and took what I was ready to give.
“Iolanthe,” he said.
I got weak. It rolled off his tongue like honey. “Please, don’t say my name like that…Mr. Stanford.”
“It’s Max. Or MJ. Please, don’t you call me Mr. Stanford. I’ve enough problems without all that.”
I stood by the door with my hand on the handle, holding on to it for dear life. I wasn’t in the least bit of danger, for I knew he would never harm me, but I was…my heart was pounding, my body was trembling, and I wasn’t sure how long I’d be able to continue standing. My mind was on overload. His was somewhere else.
“You're Iolanthe Rothschild. I've wanted you to be a part of MJS for years, but word has it that you'll never give up your firm. I'm having a moment here, but you do know I’ll do anything you say, right? You could have me right here, right now. You could do anything you want to me and I have to let you. I thought I was dreaming when you walked into the room. I nearly had a heart attack when I saw what you were wearing. Iolanthe, I want you more than I need my next breath. My heart’s beating so hard.”
He actually wanted me to work for him? Pshhht, never happen. But I couldn’t handle hearing that last bit, for my heart was pounding too. “Mr. Stanford...can we please talk about the merger?”
He stared at me. “Max. Or MJ. And I’d rather talk about us. It’s time, don’t you think?”
My palms were sweaty. I let the door handle go and wiped them on my dress. “There’s not an ‘us.’”
He tilted his head to one side. “Funny. I distinctly remember differently, like when my face was covered by that sweet, sweet wet you have between your legs, or maybe when those juicy lips were all over my dick, sucking the life out of me? Maybe even when I was so deep inside you, we were almost one body and one heartbeat? Or even when you told me to come inside because it was cold outside? Yeah, that happened, girl. I remember losing my fucking mind when you said those words. Do you think I do that sort of thing with every woman I come across? Surely you’re not that carefree with every man you deal with?”
“Come inside, baby. It’s cold outside. Come inside of me…” and he did, nearly roaring with the effort…
I winced at his words, realizing I drew first blood with my remark. My knees began to wobble as I remembered too, and I was seriously in danger of losing my footing. “I’m sorry, Max. I didn’t mean it like that; it’s just that…oh shit…” And down to the floor I slid, no longer able to stand.
He was by my side in a second. “Io,” he said, his voice thick with concern. “Are you all right?”
I looked at him. “I’m just…shocked…to see you here. I can’t…handle it.”
“Can you stand?” he asked, anxiety all over his face. “Should I call for a doctor?”
“No, I’m okay; I just need a moment...”
Without missing a beat, he lifted me, carried me to one of the chairs, and then sat me in it. Then he brought me some water from the carafe on the sideboard. “Io, what’s wrong?”
“I didn’t expect you! Of all the people I expected to see this morning in my office, you weren’t one of them. This is like a dream! And not only that, but you’re fucking M.J. Stanford…you own like, everybody, and you’re…here…”
“What was I to you before this morning, Iolanthe?”
I closed my eyes and took several deep breaths. We never lied to each other. “You were my clandestine lover, my private, perfect passion, my sweet, sexy secret, the man I gave my body to, the man I gave my soul to, the man I yearn for, the man I burn for…” I could have continued in that vein for several minutes.
The look in his eyes was telling. “And now?”
“I don’t know.”
“What’s changed? Other than you now knowing my name, how does that negate any of what you just said? I’m still that man.” His eyes said more.
“It doesn’t. It’s just…” How do I explain it? Kelton was in the other room! My other man was in…the…other…room! THIS SHOULD NOT BE HAPPENING TO ME!
He caressed my face, my lips, circling round and round with his thumb, smearing my lipstick. “Your worlds just collided, is that right? And you, being so controlling, so disciplined…you can’t have that, can you, girl?”
“I’m not controlling!”
He looked at me like I’d grown another head. I imagined that toothpick swirling around and around in silent snark. “Come again?”
I was losing that particular battle and I hated losing. So I jumped to where I knew I had surer footing. “Can I please just know why you’re reneging on the merger? Please? Can we talk about that?”
He sat across from me. “You tell me, Iolanthe.”
I still didn’t trust my legs. “Fox Hollow’s last quarterly report. When did you receive it?”
“Couple of weeks ago. That’s why I had to leave you, or I wouldn’t have. I was pissed off about that. Trust me when I say that motherfuckers got fired for that stunt.”
“Are you scared that a merger will sink a solid portion of your profits, especially if Fox Hollow’s deciding to tank just to bank on your good name?”
“I’m not scared of anything, gorgeous. I’d rather own them outright,” he said, coolly. “Then I can do what I want. What do you think?”
There was an icy cold-bloodedness that lay just below the surface of his voice. In that second, I felt the whole of Maximilian Jackson Stanford, IV; the power, the wealth, the authority, the influence…and it was sexy as hell. My panties were starting to stick and I needed to change them.
He sniffed. "You're wet, aren't you?"
I swallowed and refused to acknowledge. “I should make my statement in front of all interested parties.” Then I was going to try and not run from the room.
"We really could do it right here, right now. It would be superb to lift that sexy dress and make you come right here on this table. Do you know how bad I want to get on my knees and taste you, Io? I don't give a shit about that merger; this thing between us is far more important."
I closed my eyes, imagining him kneeling before me in that bad-ass Tom Ford and licking me into oblivion. But I forced myself to handle business. "I'll make my statement in the conference room, Mr. Stanford."
“That would be the right thing for you to do, as counsel,” he said, staring me down. Then he leaned forward. “Do you really have a meeting, Iolanthe?”
I lowered my gaze, knowing he could read me. “No.”
His tone changed. “Then you could meet me at home?”
I looked at him. “I could.”
And so I sat, swigging Cristal and gorging on chocolate-dipped strawberries, waiting for him—for Max.