“Noah’s decision to acquire Lone-Star Tech was an unmitigated disaster,” Phillip Whitlow bellowed from his square on the right side of the sixty-five-inch flatscreen where Whitlow Group’s board of directors had convened for their weekly video conference. “And because of it, he’s damaged our company’s reputation, and it’s time we face some hard facts.”
“And what hard facts would those be?” Noah Whitlow III asked, standing behind his mahogany desk on the fiftieth floor of Whitlow Tower, the downtown Houston skyscraper that bore his family’s name.
“That you’re not fit to lead Whitlow Group and never will be,” Uncle Phillip answered.
Balling his hands into fists, Noah drew in a deep breath and held it. Usually, Uncle Phillip’s slights only existed in his head; this time, however, Noah shouldered some of the responsibility for this colossal blunder. He’d identified the company causing Whitlow Group unending legal trouble, sought them out, and initiated the buyout. Everything had gone swimmingly—right up until it hadn’t. And now, the court of public opinion was gathering tinder to burn Whitlow Group at the stake.
“Nonsense,” Noah’s aunt, Cathleen Whitlow-Calhoun, said from her square in the center of the screen. “Noah has done a fantastic job running the Houston division of Whitlow Group.”
Phillip jerked his arms as if trying to swat away a pesky fly. “But the Lone-Star Tech mess is—”
“A mess. No one’s disputing that, Phillip.” From his square on the left of the screen, Noah’s father, Noah Whitlow Jr., ran a hand through ginger hair. “And sometimes messes happen in business. None of us could have predicted that one of Lone-Star Tech’s partners would try to pull out of this deal at the eleventh hour.”
“Ethan would have foreseen it, and in fact he did,” said Phillip.
Beside Noah, his cousin—and Phillip’s only son—Ethan Whitlow, stood taller. Once upon a time, he and Ethan had been fast friends, but these days Ethan was more likely to stab Noah in the back than offer a hand in friendship.
Like father, like son?
Despite Phillips’s grand ambitions for his son, Ethan wasn’t up to running Whitlow Group, either the Houston division or the NYC division—let alone both. Ethan was intelligent, cagey, and dedicated, but he didn’t have the focus and vision to run a company as vast and far-reaching as Whitlow Group. Noah, on the other hand, had been training to run this company since he’d been able to say “takeover.”
“Ethan came to me with his reservations weeks ago,” continued Phillip, “before everything went belly up. If he’d been in charge—”
“He’d have screwed it up just like he did the Green Energy Initiative,” Noah snapped. “If I hadn’t come to his rescue, he’d have landed on his—”
“Hey!” Ethan whirled on Noah. “How dare you accuse me of—”
“What? The truth?” Noah stood toe-to-toe with his cousin. “You screwed up, Ethan. Own it. Your idea was sound and your vision spot-on. You simply fumbled on the way into the end zone. Lucky for you, I recovered the ball and ran it in for the touchdown.”
Ethan’s body stiffened, and Noah would have bet every penny of his vast fortune that his cousin would have decked him without their audience.
“Gentleman!” His father’s voice resonated through the room. “Attacking each other isn’t helping. We’re family, and we need to remember that in trying times like these.” When the room quieted, he continued. “Noah, is everything prepared for court this morning?”
“Yes, Papá. I spoke with David at length yesterday, and he assured me he has everything under control.” David Reynolds, the managing partner of the prestigious Houston law firm Reynolds, Clark & Morgan, had represented Whitlow Group for nearly twenty years.
“Very good,” Cathleen said. “Keep us advised.”
Noah nodded. “Of course.”
Cathleen shuffled papers on her desk. “Next on the agenda, last week’s fundraising gala was—”
“What do you mean next on the agenda?” Phillip interrupted. “We haven’t finished discussing the Lone-Star Tech fiasco. It has damaged Whitlow Group’s standing, and we need something to mitigate this assault on our reputation.”
“I’ve been thinking about that, Father,” Ethan said smoothly and with an aloofness that had Noah’s hackles rising.
“And what idea is that?” Phillip asked.
“I’ve been thinking about doing another Whitlow Group charity event as a way of rehabing our reputation, maybe something to benefit homeless veterans or wounded police officers.”
Noah crossed his arms, counted to ten, and willed his anger into submission. Given how easily Ethan’s response came off the heels of Phillip’s comment, Noah had no doubt the pair were staging this interplay for Aunt Cathy’s benefit. She’d acted as peacemaker between the eldest and youngest Whitlow boys for longer than Noah had been alive.
“That’s a great idea,” Noah said, the little devil on his shoulder goading him into action. “But I think we should tweak Ethan’s plan a bit.”
“Tweak it how?” his father asked.
Noah opened his arms in an inviting gesture. “With so many families recently separated on our southern border, Whitlow Group could host a charity event to raise funds for their legal fees as they fight for family reunification and citizenship. And, if we preface the event with Abuelo and Abuela’s harrowing escape from the Mexican cartels as they immigrated to the US, the event wouldn’t appear to be a mere publicity stunt. We’d be showing the heart of Whitlow Group and everything we stand for. Heck, we could even showcase yours and Mamá’s incredible love story: the heir to a vast global empire who falls in love with the stable hand’s daughter. It’s practically a romance novel and people will eat it up.”
“Oh, Noah,” his aunt said, her lips curling into a sweet smile. “That’s a beautiful idea. Don’t you all think?”
Noah’s father beamed.
Uncle Phillip’s right eye twitched.
Phillip had never approved of his brother marrying someone of a “lower social class” as he no doubt thought of it. Combine that with the fact the woman was the penniless daughter of two Mexican immigrants, and well, that just didn’t do for a man of his family’s standing. Fast-forward thirty-some-odd years later, Noah had become one of Phillip’s favorite targets. To his uncle’s way of thinking, Noah’s “dirty blood” made him unworthy to helm Whitlow Group.
“So it’s settled,” said Cathy. “Ethan and Noah, you two work together on this and have a proposal together for our next meeting.”
“Of course. We’d love to.” Noah layered cheer into his voice, just to irritate his uncle. It was petty, but so was his uncle.
After twenty minutes of hashing out plans for the week, the meeting dismissed. Ethan stormed out like a petulant child. Cathy winked away next, followed by Phillip, until only Noah and his father remained.
“Your mother sends her love,” Papá said. “She also wanted me to remind you about Abuela’s birthday on Friday.”
“Already have it marked on my calendar,” Noah assured him.
Papá offered the same amiable smile he had all Noah’s life, even when he’d made his parents’ life pure hell.
“Te amo, Mijo,” Papá said, speaking easily in a language not of his birth but one he’d learned out of love for the woman he’d married.
“Y tú tambien, Papá.” And Noah did love his father right back.
* * *
“United Flight 1037 to Cancún is now boarding.”
Emma Morgan didn’t quite spring from her seat in the George Bush Intercontinental Airport, but she made a close facsimile. In less than four hours, she’d be on the beach, and dang it, she’d earned this vacation. For the next two weeks, she was getting away from work, stress, the never-ending drama of office politics, but mostly, from the tragedies that followed her like stalkers.
She secured her eReader and cell phone in the front pouch of her messenger bag before stepping from the carpeted lounge to the hard tiles of the central breezeway. Her skirt danced around her ankles with every step. She tightened her fingers around her shoulder strap to keep from fidgeting with the hem of her off-the-shoulder white top and tugging it down.
“It’s supposed to show your midriff,” she mumbled, parroting her best friend. They’d spent the previous weekend shopping, and as much as Emma had hated every minute, she’d needed some new threads. Even she’d had to admit that suits, yoga pants, gardening shorts, and oversized T-shirts wouldn’t fly at the beach.
Her feet rooted to the spot. On a monitor mounted above the walkway—between Jack in the Box and the Houston! Store—Channel 11’s mid-day news broadcast arrested her attention. Turmoil and Tragedy in Court for Whitlow Group, the chyron read. Emma latched on to a single word—tragedy. Whitlow Group was her law firm’s oldest and largest client, and one of her firm’s partners was supposed to be in court with them right now.
She forced her feet to carry her forward. When she reached the monitor, the anchor’s voice barely rose over the shuffle of feet and the ping-ponging voices bouncing around the terminal. “Minutes into the hearing, Whitlow Group’s attorney collapsed. It’s unknown what happened, but they transported the attorney in question to the hospital via ambulance.”
The screen split into a side-by-side view. The left side stayed on the anchor while the right switched to an exterior shot of the courthouse as paramedics pushed a gurney into an ambulance. Emma could just make out the face of the man being loaded.
Emma pressed a palm to her breaking heart. David Reynolds was her firm’s founding partner. She’d learned so much from him since he’d hired her. He’d taken the time to shape her, mold her, teach her, especially in the past year. If he didn’t pull through—
No, she wouldn’t go there. David would be okay. He had to be. She’d already lost too many people close to her. She couldn’t lose him, too.
On the overhead intercom, a final boarding call for United Flight 1037 to Cancún urged Emma to get a move on.
“Crud, crud, crud!” She dug her phone from her messenger bag and dialed her office. Two rings later, a cheerful female voice sounded over the line.
“Emma Morgan’s office. How may I help you?”
“Gwen, it’s me. I just caught a news report about David collapsing in court. What’s going on?”
“No, ma’am. Ms. Morgan is not in the office today. Is there something I can help you with?”
Gwen’s chipper voice had Emma’s instincts jumping to full alert. Gwen Gregory had been Emma’s legal secretary for four years. The young woman might be her own wonderful brand of crazy, but she was amazing at her job. If this was her response, something was up.
A lightbulb went off. “Did someone order you not to call me and tell me what’s going on?” Emma asked.
“Yes, ma’am. That’s correct. Unfortunately, Mary Clark is also out of the office, but I could refer you to another of our partners for help if you’d like. I’m sure Brad Ackerman would love to assist you.”
Sure, he would.
Brad didn’t like the fact that David passed him over for equity partner, even though he’d worked at the firm three years longer than Emma.
“Is Brad watching you right now, Gwen, so that you don’t call me?”
“Yes, ma’am. If you’d like, I could check Ms. Morgan’s schedule and see what she has available once her flight takes off—I mean, once she returns.”
Brad was watching Gwen until Emma’s plane took off, and it’d be too late to call her back. She could only think of one reason he’d do that: he wanted to sabotage her career while proving he was worthy of being an equity partner, too.
Visions of the Gulf of Mexico, mojitos, and moonlit nights on the beach vanishing like a mirage, Emma settled into what her Army brother would have called a “range walk,” moving as briskly as possible without breaking into a run.
“Okay, Gwen, listen closely. I’m on my way to the office. Call the airport and the resort and cancel my trip. I’ve already checked my luggage, so please take care of that, too.”
“I can certainly do that, ma’am. Is there anything else I can do for you?”
“Watch for me. I’ll text you when I’m in the building. Oh, and don’t tell Brad I’m on my way. I want to surprise him.” Emma disconnected and immediately dialed Mary Clark, the other equity partner—and David’s wife of nearly fifteen years—but the call went straight to voicemail. “Hey, Mary. It’s Emma. I just caught a news report about David and wanted to let you know I’m on my way to the office. Please call me back. I’m worried about David.”
Forty-five minutes later, Emma stepped off the elevator and onto the thirty-ninth floor of Whitlow Tower and into the opulent foyer of Reynolds & Clark—no, Reynolds, Clark & Morgan, she reminded herself. How long would it take her to get used to seeing her name etched into the opaque glass behind the reception counter?
Walking into her law office felt like walking into a luxury hotel. Hardwood floors reached out in all directions. Transparent walls and partitions gave the space definition and privacy while maintaining the open feel. The rock-work accents throughout brought a sense of sophistication and warmth. Artwork—painted, sketched, and chiseled by local artisans—beckoned new arrivals to the round desk in the center of the room, where the firm’s receptionist, Rebecca Perkins, sat shell-shocked and unseeing.
“Becca?” Emma said softly when she reached the desk.
Becca seemed to jolt back to reality and leaped to her feet. “I’m sorry, Ms. Morgan. I didn’t see you there.” Becca’s voice held none of its bubbly charm.
“It’s okay, Becca.” Emma tried for warmth in her voice, but she wasn’t sure if she managed. Seeing Becca’s expression incited the locusts in her stomach to swarm. Emma didn’t want to ask her next question, but she had to. “Have there been any updates on David’s condition?”
Becca leaned closer. “Heart attack,” she whispered. “They’re not sure he’s gonna make it.”
Emma absorbed the gut-punch, but she didn’t let the pain show. She’d learned at a young age to guard her emotions. Never show weakness to the monster; that was always when he attacked.
The click of heels on the hardwood floor drew Emma’s attention, and Gwen stepped into the foyer. Emma had long-ago dubbed Gwen’s fashion sense as “nerdy fashionista,” but by Gwen’s standards, today’s outfit was utterly tame. She wore a white, fitted top and a black miniskirt that would be unacceptable for work if not for the no-see-through black tights.
“Emma,” said Gwen, tousling her fingers through blonde hair tipped in purple this week. “I didn’t expect you in today. I guess you heard about David?”
“I did.” Playing off Gwen’s terrific acting, Emma adopted the no-nonsense tone she often used in court. “Follow me. We need to strategize.”
“Of course.” As she fell into step beside Emma, Gwen untucked her iPad, plucked its Apple Pencil from its spot, and readied herself to take notes.
“First,” Emma began, heading toward hers and Brad’s hallway, “we need to put together a care package for Mary, something like casseroles or gift cards so that she doesn’t have to even think about food.”
“Got it,” Gwen said. “I can head that up. Or would you rather I enlist Tracy? Last I saw, she was nervous and pacing. It might do her good to have somewhere to focus her energy.”
“Excellent idea.” Tracy was David’s legal secretary. “Yes, Gwen, do that. If she feels up to it, and then that’ll free you up to help me.”
They passed the long glass front of Brad’s office, and Emma noted him on the phone. His ordinarily neat desk looked as if a paper mill had experienced a critical failure.
Emma rapped her knuckles on his door and stepped inside. “When you’re free, we need to talk.” Without waiting for a response, she walked right back out. She wanted this conversation to be in her office, where she had home-field advantage.
As Emma stepped through her office door, the motion-activated lights flickered on. She hadn’t wanted a traditional lawyer’s office, so she’d stayed away from oversized leather chairs and rich mahogany furniture. Instead, she’d opted for a more modern space, something that said she was elegant but without trying too hard.
“I’ll reach out to Whitlow Group,” Emma said as she sat at her desk, “and see what I can do to reassure them we are still on their side and on their case.” David might be their attorney of record, but he’d had her doing some of the legal leg work for nearly a year.
“Speaking of Whitlow Group, Mr. Whitlow stopped by the firm on his way back from court, just to see if he could do anything for us. He looked shaken.”
“Which Mr. Whitlow stopped by?” Emma asked, as the question was important. Whitlow Group was a family-run company, so four Mr. Whitlows worked there, as well as a Mrs. and a Ms. Whitlow.
Gwen closed the distance between them and lowered her voice to a purr. “The extremely tall, deliciously dark, and oh-so-handsome one.”
Oh. That one.
The younger Noah Whitlow, a delectable captain of industry, was the reason the “tall, dark, and handsome” cliché existed. He was a philanthropist, too. The man hosted a charity event just about every other weekend. At David’s prompting, she’d attended the last one. He’d planned to introduce her to the billionaire playboy, but he’d disappeared halfway through the event. He’d probably flitted off to find some place private to be with his date, Bridget Freaking Montague.
Bridget had graced the last cover of Vogue. Or was it Cosmopolitan? Emma couldn’t remember which magazine exactly, but she vividly remembered Bridget’s black and red bikini. What little there was of it. Emma didn’t quite have the body for that kind of, well, anything. Hell, the left cup of her bra had more material than Bridget’s entire bikini!
Emma tap, tap, tapped her index finger on her desk. “If Mr. Whitlow came here personally, then I definitely owe him an in-person visit.” After all, going the extra mile for the client was the Reynolds, Clark & Morgan way, but before she made a trip to floor fifty, she needed to change. “I’m sorry to ask this, Gwen, but I need you to swing by my place and grab me a suit.” Emma motioned at her outfit. “This isn’t exactly work-appropriate.”
“But you look great! And I’m sure everyone would understand. Besides, I’ve worn less to work many times, and no one has said anything.”
“You are wearing less, Gwen, right now, in fact.”
“Which only proves my point.”
“I’m gonna let you in on a little secret…” Emma leaned toward her secretary and stage-whispered, “I’m not you.”
“Of course, you’re not. No one is.”
Which was for the best. The world couldn’t withstand two Gwen Gregorys. “I’m simply not comfortable wearing this at the office, so please swing by my house and grab something you would never wear.”
“Fine. I’ll do it.” Gwen crossed her arms. “But I do it under extreme objection because you are boiling.”
“As in seriously hot!”
“Ah. Your protests, while appreciated, are overruled.”
Shaking her head, Emma handed Gwen her house key. “You remember the security code for my alarm?”
“Yup. Got it right here.” Gwen pointed at her temple.
“And while you’re out, grab me all the lattes Starbucks has. I have a feeling I’ll need the fuel.”
Movement across the room drew her attention, and Brad stepped through the door. He wore one of his standard gray suits, this one with a purple tie and pocket square that matched. He’d styled his brown hair with enough product that wind from a Category 5 hurricane wouldn’t budge a single strand.
“You wanted to see me, Emma?” He adopted a smile capable of disarming opposing counsel at fifty paces. Too bad for him she wasn’t the average lawyer.
“Yes, I did. Just give me one more moment.” Without waiting for an answer, Emma turned back to Gwen. “Remember, something you would never wear.”
“Yes, ma’am.” With a wink, Gwen strolled from the room.
Emma motioned Brad to the chair opposite her. “Please close the door and have a seat.” But before he could comply, her cell chimed. Catching the name on the screen, she held her index finger out to him. “Sorry, Brad, but I need to take this.” She slid a finger across the bottom of the screen to answer. “Mary, hi.”
“Emma, thank God you’re still here. I was literally dialing your number as I rushed out of the office earlier, but as I hit the elevator, David’s mother was calling me. By the time I remembered again, I figured you were already in the air, but I should have known you’d stay. Your commitment is just one more sign David was right to promote you.”
The avalanche of words caught Emma off guard. Mary Clark was one of the coolest, most collected women Emma had ever met. If she was rambling, David’s condition must be worse than Emma feared.
“Of course, I’m here, Mary. I caught a news piece just before I boarded.” Emma glanced at Brad for the briefest second before continuing. “How’s David?”
“Too soon to know anything. The doctors are trying to stabilize him. Their words are hopeful, but their expressions say something entirely different.”
“I’m so sorry, Mary. What can I do?”
“Exactly what you’re doing. I don’t know when either of us will be back in the office.”
“Don’t worry about things here. I’ve got everything under control.” And by God, Emma would make sure that wasn’t a lie. “I plan to meet with yours and David’s secretaries soon and reschedule everything I can. What I can’t reschedule, I’ll see too personally.”
“Thank you, Emma. There’s nothing imminent on my schedule for the next few days, but I need you to touch base with Whitlow Group ASAP and officially assume the position as their lead attorney.”
“Me? The new lead attorney for Whitlow Group?” Out of the corner of her eye, she noted Brad bristle.
“Yes, David was planning on offering you their account officially once you got back from vacation. He’s been grooming you for the position for the better part of a year, and we couldn’t have picked a better attorney for the job.”
Shock overwhelming her system, Emma collapsed back in her chair. David wanted her to take over for the firm’s flagship client? Wow. She knew David respected her abilities. Why else would he and Mary offer her partner? But to give her Whitlow Group’s account? Yeah, wow just about covered it.
Her desk intercom buzzed. “Ms. Morgan, I’m sorry to intrude,” Gwen said, “but Noah Whitlow just called and requested a meeting with you ASAP.”
* * *
Noah paced his office. His company was in the middle of a firestorm of bad press. His attorney was in the hospital. His public affairs office was fielding more calls than a baseball team at spring training, and his uncle was looking for any excuse to take him down.
This week was turning into a mess, and it wasn’t even Tuesday.
While Ethan’s fundraiser idea was good, it wouldn’t help Whitlow Group—or Noah—now. He needed to do something immediately, which was why he’d asked for an emergency meeting with Reynolds, Clark & Morgan. David had been planning to pass their account over to his newest partner, but Noah had yet to meet the attorney. David had assured Noah that she was more than capable of handling anything thrown her way, but Noah wanted to see for himself. If she was half as good as David had bragged, that would be one stress off Noah’s plate.
David had wanted to introduce them at last week’s gala—the one Noah had hosted on suicide prevention and awareness—but the night had gone sideways when a mysterious stranger, in a gown the color of the sky at midnight, had sucker-punched him. Not as in physically struck him, but the jolt in his chest—and below the belt—when he’d glimpsed her from across the room had felt damn physical enough to rattle him.
The reaction reminded him too viscerally of the story Papá used to tell about the first time he’d glimpsed Mamá. “I felt as if I’d been bucked from my horse, and I knew I’d found the love of my life.”
So, standing next to Giselle, Noah’s chest a war zone, he’d done the only thing he could think to do: retreat as quickly as humanly possible. He didn’t have time for complications in his life, and he knew she—whoever she was—would be one sexy complication.
Not that she’d left him alone after his retreat. She’d followed him into his dreams, but she wasn’t content to stop there. Even during the waking hours, her auburn curls and delectable curves tormented him, teased him. He oscillated back and forth between wanting to scour the party attendees list to learn her identity and burning said list to remove the temptation once and for all.
“You just had to muck up my fundraiser idea with your own twist, didn’t you?” Ethan burst into Noah’s office without even a cursory knock. Rage shown in his eyes, and anger vibrated in the index finger he pointed at Noah. “You screwed me over in front of the board, not that I should be surprised. You excel at that.”
Noah sucked in a deep, cleansing breath and let it out slowly. Fighting with his cousin was one more thing he didn’t have time for. “Ethan, not now. Did you hear about what happened in court?”
“You were jealous the board was listening to me for a change, so you jumped in and took my spotlight.”
A thousand profanities filtered through Noah’s head. This so wasn’t the time. They had too much going on to be at each other’s throats.
Holding back his anger, Noah offered his cousin an olive branch. “Look, Ethan, you had a great idea. I simply built on it, trying to make the event feel more authentic. We can’t afford to be seen as pandering at the—”
“I know that! I’m not an idiot, Noah, no matter how much you think I am.”
Noah pinched the bridge of his nose. “I don’t think you’re an idiot.” Just unprepared because of your father, but Noah didn’t dare speak the latter aloud. No sense making things worse. “Look, Ethan, I have a meeting with our new attorney any second. Can we get together later today or tomorrow to hash out this fundraiser idea?”
Ethan advanced, closing the distance between them to inches. “Or maybe I’ll work alone on my proposal to present to the board, and you can work on yours. Then we’ll see who they choose.”
Ethan’s challenge was unmistakable. Whoever won the board’s approval would win control of Whitlow Group. The notion was ridiculous. The board would never stand for it, despite what Phillip was likely telling his son. Noah’s father held a controlling interest in Whitlow Group. The other two could only override Papá’s decisions if Cathy sided with Phillip against Papá, and that had never happened.
Noah didn’t flinch; he didn’t retreat either. “I don’t want to be your enemy, and you don’t want to be mine.”
“Too late for that.” Ethan leaned ever-so-closer to Noah? “Do you even remember Sara?”
The rage in Ethan’s eyes turned to murder, but before he could respond—or possibly deck Noah—a knock snatched their attention. Noah turned to the new arrival.
It was her.