Rylee Kincaid floated in a sea of happy, joyous emotion. She’d managed to save her small interior decorating business, Interior Dreams. A short while ago, she’d been jumping with excitement. And why shouldn’t she? She’d found an investor willing to inject her company with desperately needed cash, and today, they were signing papers.
Dressed in a blood-red power suit with killer heels, she led Glorie Amadori to the conference room. Rylee wore her serious, business demeanor like most women wore their accessories, even though she wanted to dance and hug the woman behind her. But her salvation was a fierce and scary woman who never smiled or laughed.
Rylee wrinkled her nose as she passed Henry, one of her brilliant and very talented graphic artists. She swallowed her chuckle. Henry had dubbed their savior, the dark haired, dark-eyed Italian woman as “The Dragon.” He swore the woman scared the crap out of him.
Glorie, during her visits to check the company books, had talked with employees and toured the offices. There’d been no warmth or friendliness. She was a hard and, yeah, cold businesswoman. But did Rylee care? Nope. Someone was willing to invest and save her business, along with the jobs of her employees, and that was all that mattered.
She poured two cups of fresh coffee. Glorie took hers black and strong while Rylee liked hers sweet and light. Joining the woman at the table, she smoothed her skirt and sat, then picked up the contract to give it a final read-through. They’d agreed on terms and conditions, and later this afternoon, Rylee would take the papers to her lawyer. She barely managed to contain her happiness as she skimmed over much of the legal mumbo-jumbo until she reached the details that would put the funds in her bank account.
The company investing in her business read as F.A. Investments Group, and underneath—CEO Hunter Finnegan?
Her bright, happy mood popped like a balloon that had flown too high into the atmosphere. “Hunter Finnegan? He owns F.A.?”
Her heart jumped as an image of a tall, impossibly handsome man flooded her mind—golden brown hair, tawny eyes, and skin kissed by the sun, along with full, sensuous lips made for kissing. Once upon a time, he’d been the man of her dreams.
“Yes.” Glorie sorted a pile of papers across from her.
Rylee frowned. When Glorie first approached her with the idea of F.A. Investment’s interest in her company, she’d been so happy and relieved. Bottom line for her had been how much they were willing to invest, and what they wanted in return. The terms were tough, but fair. They’d hammered out the details, and today, she’d prepared to celebrate. But learning Hunter was behind the offer dimmed her relief and happiness. Why was he interested in her business? Her gaze tracked over the contract details.
Sale of business…
owner will step down…
Reality stepped in with a one-two. Flaming arrows thudded into her stomach. The burning in her gut slid upward and flared painfully in her throat. Her eyes blurred as she stared at the contract, the words swimming before her shocked gaze.
Sell? What the hell? She wasn’t selling what she and her beloved Jerry had started ten years ago. She’d poured her heart and soul into her business, and if she sold it, her employees, who were her only family, would be at the mercy of strangers. No way was she giving up control. Sweat trickled down her spine while anxiety chilled her skin.
She gripped her hands beneath the table. “Ms. Amadori, this is unacceptable. Selling the company wasn’t part of our deal. These are not the terms you and I discussed and agreed upon.”
Glorie didn’t bother to glance up from the papers she sorted. “Those are the terms available to you, Ms. Kincaid. Your company, as it stands, will not survive, not even with a healthy dose of cash. Mr. Finnegan decided the best way to save your business is to buy it outright in order to gain control. This will allow him to do whatever is necessary to protect his investment.” Glorie lifted her head, her gray eyes hard flecks of steel. “We will have to make major changes to turn things around. First on the list, we’ll have to appoint a new CEO.”
“What about me?” Oh god, what about her people? They needed her, as much as she needed them. Her business was her life, especially since losing Jerry.
“You will remain on as an adviser for three months.”
“And after?” Her mouth felt so dry it was difficult to speak, but she was afraid she’d choke if she tried to swallow. The acid in her stomach churned, and her heart pounded behind her ribs. Tremors of fear settled deep in her core.
“Your role here will be fulfilled. Mr. Finnegan is willing to pay you a fair price for the business, and he’s agreed to include a generous bonus if you remain to oversee the change of ownership.”
Then you’re gone.
Rylee stood, strode across the room, and stared out the window as she struggled to keep her tears at bay. This was a crushing blow, but she’d be damned if she showed any weakness to the woman who’d suddenly morphed into an evil, fire-breathing dragon ready to devour its prey. She loved her company, loved each and every employee. She and her husband had cultivated a family atmosphere, and even though Jerry had died, she prided herself in taking care of those who’d given so much to her, especially during Jerry’s fight with cancer.
People who worked for her stayed. Most of her current employees had started with her ten years ago. She could count on their loyalty, but loyalty and a sense of family didn’t pay the bills. The downswing in the economy had hit her business hard, and even though the economy was improving and small jobs were trickling in, her business wasn’t going to recover without a fast influx of cash.
She spun around. “This is my business. These people are my my responsibility. All I need is someone to invest in my company. Not buy it. We have a huge contract in the works that will put us back on our feet. It’s a done deal. I just need a bit of help in the meantime.”
Glorie arched one thin, shapely brow. “Done deals are not money in the bank, Ms. Kincaid. It will take a good six months before you see any significant revenue. Hunter is willing to step in and save your business, now. Once the papers are signed, the company becomes part of Hunter Investments. Your employees, along with everything else, will belong to Mr. Finnegan.”
Rylee had never hated anyone, but at that moment, she was close to hating Glorie. The woman had gotten her hopes up, and in the blink of an eye, she’d dashed them. No, the cold-hearted bitch had ground them beneath her wickedly, stylish heels. Could she swallow her pride, take the hit to her heart if it meant saving jobs? “If I agree to this, what about my employees?”
Glorie removed her glasses and tucked them into black leather case. She snapped it closed. “There will be changes. We’ll be bringing in some of our own people, and during the process, some of the deadwood will be trimmed. That is business, Ms. Kincaid. Interior Dreams needs fresh blood. Now, the contracts are ready. As soon as you sign each set, we’ll get started.”
The woman’s gaze remained expressionless. Rylee’s fingers itched with the urge to take those neatly stacked papers and toss them around the room. Even more satisfying, to bodily throw the cold-hearted bitch out and tell her to stay the hell away, but without an investor, Interior Dreams would be forced to close. Soon. This had been her last hope.
“Ms. Kincaid, I understand this is difficult. You didn’t read the page with the amount Mr. Finnegan is willing to pay. I have to say, his offer is more than fair. You won’t get better from anywhere else.” She named a price.
Rylee’s jaw dropped. “Nine hundred ninety-nine thousand?” She swallowed hard. One buck short of a million? Never in a million—haha—years would she find anyone else willing to pay that much for her mid-sized company. She swallowed hard. But that’s not the point. Her people were more important than money.
Ignoring the hollow sickness in her stomach, she met Glorie’s amused gaze. “Price isn’t the problem here. I won’t sign this. I want the original six-hundred-fifty thousand and the terms you and I agreed upon. Not this bait and switch crap.” Holy cow, she was turning down an offer almost double the original.
Glorie stood. “These are the only terms on the table. You can have your lawyer check the contract, but it’s simple enough. I’ll be in contact. If you have any questions or concerns, you’re free to take them up with Mr. Finnegan.” She gathered her briefcase and, without another word or glance, opened the conference room door and strode out.
Rylee dropped into one of the chairs and stared at the contract. “What am I going to do?”
In the three months she’d been searching for someone to invest in her business, F.A. Investments Group had been the only ones to show interest, and now, to learn that Hunter was behind this made her furious.
Hunter Finnegan was a ghost from her past and, presently, a sharp thorn in her side. Was he doing this because she’d refused to go out with him? They’d met in college at a wild party. He’d been the campus rich kid, and she’d been there on a hard-won scholarship. Somehow, the two of them had ended up in her studio apartment. She didn’t remember how they got there, but there was no forgetting that wondrous weekend of sex.
They’d talked, made love, crawled out of bed to eat, made love in the kitchen, shared her tiny shower, and yeah, more sex. Hunter had claimed her heart, mind, and body for three nights and two days. He’d left early Monday morning to go to his classes with the promise of returning that evening.
Rylee kicked a chair as she recalled how foolish she’d been. She’d waited for him, night after night, but he never came back. Didn’t even call. She’d finally tracked him down on campus. “Big mistake.”
Her dream man had poofed, leaving behind a slimy snake. He’d made it clear their weekend of passion meant nothing to him. He’d betrayed her trust. She’d been a foolish, naive girl playing with fire. Well, she’d gotten burned and learned her lesson. Forget the rich guys. Stick to sweet boys like Jerry. She and Jerry had been in a study group together and gone out for coffee a few times. He hadn’t set her blood on fire like Hunter, but he was nice.
Glaring at the stacks of papers, hating those precise edges, she smacked each taunting pile. “Hunter Finnegan, you can go straight to hell!”
She’d seen the man once in ten years. Six months ago, he’d had the nerve to show up and ask her to have coffee with him. Said he was sorry for her loss and wanted to talk to her. Her first impression of him had left her in in awe. The college boy had morphed into a man to be reckoned with. His body was harder, shoulders wider, and in his expensive suit, he commanded attention from everyone around him. His handsome face was edged with a toughness that only made his sex appeal stronger.
A bark of laughter escaped. One glance into his eyes, and all the desire she’d once felt returned, slamming into her with the force of a rogue wave on the beach. But she wasn’t going to let him drag her out to sea again. She’d told him where he could take that charming grin, hunky body, and those very kissable lips. He’d trounced on her heart once, and she’d be damned if she gave him the opportunity to break it again. He’d left, and she hadn’t heard from him again.
She was that cliché nerd on the beach who got sand kicked into his face by the bully, and Hunter Finnegan was that bully. He played fast and loose, doing whatever it took to get what he wanted, and then went on his merry way without a thought to anyone else.
Like romancing a young girl’s tender heart or a grown woman’s desperate need to save her business.
There was no doubt in Rylee’s mind that he’d roped her in with Glorie’s original offer and was now getting even with her for dismissing him by trying to take her business.
“Bloodsucking, vermin. That was Hunter. Enough of this,” she muttered. “That bastard’s not doing this to me. He’s not taking away my choices.” If she signed the contract, that was exactly what he was doing because it wasn’t her decision. It was manipulation, and she’d had enough of others controlling her life.
She left home to get away from domineering parents and married a man who was a master of manipulation. She was not going to be tricked or forced into giving up her company. She snatched up the contracts, shoved them into her briefcase, and stormed from the conference room, her mood dark and angry as she left the building and merged into the noise and traffic of San Francisco.
Seated behind his massive desk, Hunter Finnegan studied his business partner. “She take the bait?”
Glorie Amadori sent him a quelling glare. “The woman looked as though I’d kicked her in the teeth.” The look she shot him would have turned any other mere mortal into a pillar of stone.
He lifted a brow. “You don’t approve? What happened to the shark?”
“This wasn’t a normal takeover and you know it. I did this as a favor.” She stood and stared down her perfectly straight nose at him. “You owe me, Hunter.”
He sighed and spun the pen he held around his fingers. “Yeah, I do. Think she’ll come?”
She laughed low in her throat. “Rylee Kincaid is going to charge in here, and frankly, you deserve whatever hell she gives you.” She grinned. “I should go into acting. Played a most convincing bitch.”
Hunter rolled his eyes and tossed the pen back onto his desk. “Got news for you, Glorie. It comes naturally, and you don’t need your whips or your Domme leathers.” She was a scary woman, especiallywhen she was in Domme mode.
“You’d best hope I don’t turn it on you. You might be my friend and partner, but this…” Shaking her head, she gathered her briefcase and purse. “Not like you to take a woman’s rejection to heart, Hunter. What’s so special about Rylee Kincaid?”
He stood and wandered to the corner window. Fog obscured the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance. “It’s complicated.” He remembered that one, perfect weekend in collage. He’d found heaven with Rylee Kincaid and taking his pleasure with her had sent him straight to hell.
“Heard that before. I hope—”
The buzz of his intercom interrupted Glorie. He stabbed the button. “Yes?”
“Sorry to disturb you, Mr. Finnegan, but there’s a Rylee Kincaid here. She’s insisting on seeing you.”
Hunter grinned. The bait had been taken, and the trap sprung. “Wait ten minutes, and then send her in.”
“You’re a bastard, Hunter.”
A smile tugged at his lips. “Yeah, we’re two peas in a pod.”
She rolled her eyes, then narrowed them. “You really believe you can talk her into what you want?”
He rubbed his hands together in anticipation. “She’ll do anything to save her company.” And he’d do anything to make her listen to what he had to say. Memories of spanking her sweet ass ten years ago sent blood humming through him. For three nights and two sex-filled days, she’d been his.
His dick stirred. For ten years, he’d ached for her. Now, she was free, and he planned to claim her. By fair means or foul.
Glorie chuckled. “It will be entertaining and a pleasure to see the mighty Hunter Finnegan fall on his hands and knees for a woman.”
“I won’t be the one on my hands and knees.” But he had fallen. Ten, long, hellish years ago.