“I think cupid threw up on this place.”
Maeve Kent smothered a laugh with her linen napkin. She was at a board member’s wedding reception, seated at a small candlelit table near the fireplace.
“Oh, come on, it’s not that bad.”
Jim O’Neal merely raised a disgusted brow in response.
“Well, maybe you have a point.”
Maeve had never been accused of being a romantic, but even Romeo and Juliet would find the reception hall over the top.
The tables were swathed in white linen and littered with little crystal bowls filled with red rose petals and floating candles. Papier Mâché heart boxes, emblazoned with the couple’s names had been filled with red jelly beans. Even the chairs had been draped in white and tied with huge red bows. Ice sculptures of cupid dotted the room, along with entwined hearts and other romantic images.
With the red dresses, ties, and cummerbunds, the wedding party resembled a gaggle of preening birds with scarlet plumage. Even the bride’s dress had a huge crimson crinoline beneath her skirts and a matching satin bow around her waist.
The food was romantic, too.
The first course was tomato soup with a crème fraiche heart floating in the center of the bowls. And the cake was red velvet, cut into the shape of a heart.
“It’s like a love shrine or something,” Jim whispered against Maeve’s ear, sending a prickle of awareness down her spine.
“Perry is just a loving husband, catering to his new wife’s every desire.” She deliberately scooted her chair away.
Their board member, Perry Jackson, had just married a young woman a quarter of his age. Like her dearly departed father, Reggie, Perry had a thing for younger women. Then again, who didn’t? A younger woman might as well be number one on the mid-life crisis checklist.
Jim made a face. “And apparently her tastes are tacky.”
Since she’d taken over the company a year ago, following her father’s death, Jim had been her right-hand man. He was the chief financial officer, while she had assumed the role of chief executive officer.
These last few months he’d been invaluable, pitching in to help wherever he could. They’d spent a lot of late nights at the office together, getting things done.
And an attraction had reared its ugly head.
Jim was thirty-four years old, single, educated, and wealthy. At six-foot-four with an athletic frame, he was a good-looking man. Jim had a tumble of dark brown hair and warm hazel eyes. His body was sculpted, too. He had broad shoulders, lean hips, and a killer butt.
And, yes, she noticed.
To make matters worse, he wore a black tuxedo which hugged his body in all the right places.
She’d seen more than one woman give him the eye at the reception. And, he’d definitely noticed their interest. Jim screwed a new woman every week. He was a genuine catch, who had absolutely no intention of being caught.
Although, this wasn’t a date.
Maeve had been crystal clear about her intentions. She didn’t mix business and pleasure. This was simply a show of support for their board member, nothing more. Perry had controlling interest in Kent Bourbon, and she wanted to keep him happy, which meant coming to his wedding and making nice.
“Well, at least it isn’t going to last much longer. Perry and Kiki have a flight to Hawaii to catch.”
“I can’t believe her name’s Kiki.”
“I know. Why not Candy? Or Lolita? It’s like her parents wanted her to be a stripper or a—”
“Shh. Lower your voice.”
Maeve scrolled through her text messages. Her sister, Amy, said she’d be attending the event but she hadn’t shown up yet.
I don’t know why I’m surprised. Amy’s the kind of girl who’d arrive late to her own funeral.
Maeve took a sip of her special “sweetheart” drink, a pink concoction made with bourbon, strawberry puree, and peach schnapps. It tasted like a fancy pants version of a wine cooler, and it was borderline disgusting. She took a bite of the gummy heart candy garnish, which had been lanced with a swizzle stick.
Unfortunately, she didn’t have much choice.
The only drinks served at the bar were romantic love-themed cocktails. Maeve had donated several cases of liquor to this event. And frankly, the mixed drinks were a crime against humanity.
The drinks weren’t the only things she found nauseating. Across the room, Perry fed Kiki a choice piece of lobster and then she gave him a buttery kiss.
Maeve cringed. Ugh. Kiki was only a year or two older than Amy and Perry was sixty-eight. It was like watching a grandfather get handsy with his own granddaughter.
And yet, they seemed to be in their own little world—touching, talking and sharing food. Maeve couldn’t help but be a bit envious, of their happiness, at least. It’s not like she wanted her own geriatric sugar daddy.
She glanced out the window and silently willed this night to end.
Outside, rain danced in the wind. With the fire snapping and popping behind them, she felt like they were in a cozy little den, even though the reception was being held in a gilt ballroom.
“I wonder how much this little shindig is costing him,” Jim said.
It was Perry’s sixth marriage, and he was celebrating as though it were his first.
She shrugged. “The man’s a billionaire, he can afford it.”
“Yeah, well I think it’s a waste of money. I grew up poor and throwing a boat load of cash away on a lost cause is disgraceful.”
“I didn’t know that.” Maeve was surprised. Jim didn’t speak about his past much.
“That you were poor.”
Jim sighed. “Yeah, well, I’m not anymore. No point in talking about it. I went to college, and then business school. After I landed a job at your dad’s company, I worked my way up.”
Maeve had a newfound respect for Jim. She came from wealth and privilege, just like Reggie had. Although, he invested his inheritance in Kent Bourbon and Reggie ran the company until the day he died. At least he wasn’t a member of the idle rich.
“I give this three months, tops.”
“Come on. Don’t be cynical. Maybe this marriage will stick.” The odds were slim, but not impossible.
Maeve didn’t begrudge other people their shot at marital bliss. Although, she thought settling down was a one-way ticket to Snoresville.
“Yeah, third time’s a charm. Number six is just insane.” Jim downed his glass of strawberry champagne and set the glass down with a thunk. He’d had a little bit too much to drink, and Jim was bordering on crabby.
Although, she supposed he had a point.
If they didn’t get any business opportunities out of this, it would be a waste of a perfectly good Saturday night. She could be having a drink with the hunky male underwear model she’d met on a business trip last week.
Maeve checked her phone once again. Still no reply from Amy.
Where the hell are you? You’re supposed to be here 3 hours ago.
When she graduated college in the fall, Amy would be joining Maeve at the helm. There were several other board members here this evening, and it would’ve been an excellent opportunity to introduce her in a social setting, where there wouldn’t have been much pressure.
Maeve couldn’t wait for Amy to get started at the company. She was looking forward to dividing the responsibilities evenly. Frankly, she wasn’t sure how Reggie had done it on his own.
Jim scratched his chin. “How long should we stay?”
“It should be over in an hour. In the meantime, let’s represent the company and make a toast.” Maeve tapped her butter knife against the glass, to gain everyone’s attention. The people around her joined in, and she stood as the couple exchanged another kiss.
“To the bride and groom. Perry, I’ve known you for many years, and I’ve never seen you this much in love. Congratulations.” She lifted her glass, and the other guests joined in.
“And to you, Ms. Kent, the new CEO of Kent Bourbon.” Perry raised his own drink in return. “Thanks for the fantastic bourbon you donated to a terrific cause.
The crowd clapped and whistled, before returning to their meals.
Maeve turned to Jim who gave her a bow. And then Maeve headed over to the front table, to shake Perry’s hand. It never hurts to add the personal touch.
Perry grinned. “Thank you for coming.”
“My pleasure. I don’t want to spoil your evening with shop talk,” Maeve said, pausing to glance at Kiki, who was busy photographing her meal, “But I’m working on a new marketing proposal. After you get back from your honeymoon, I’d love to schedule a meeting with you and get your feedback.”
“Sure. Call my assistant, and she’ll set it up.”
“Fantastic.” Maeve was ready to take her seat, when he squeezed her hand.
“And don’t worry.”
“Our profits may be down, but I have every faith in you.” Perry returned his attention to his wife. “You’ll pull us out of this downward spiral.”
Stunned, she could only stand there a few seconds, before remembering where she was. Maeve slunk back to her table and sat down again.
“How’d it go?” Jim asked.
After she explained, he shook his head. “Well, that was awkward. Maybe he had too much to drink.”
“Yeah.” She swallowed. “I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure the board just gave me a warning.”
“Are you okay?”
“Um sure.” Maeve pasted on a fake smile. “Why don’t you go mingle? Maybe ask one of the ladies for a dance?”
She wouldn’t mind a few minutes alone to pull herself together. Maeve had been pushing herself for months, and evidently, she was failing.
Panic was starting to creep in. When she applied herself, Maeve was a Type A personality and success had come to her easily.
“Because weddings are romantic.” He said the word “romantic” as if it should have four letters. “I don’t want to give a girl the wrong idea.”
Jim removed a little piece of paper heart confetti from his hair and flung it to the floor, before wiping his hand on his lapel, as if he’d been contaminated by love.
Translation. He knew Maeve didn’t have any expectations.
Jim never dated any woman longer than a few days, and his exploits were legendary. Some women thought they could somehow change him, coax him into a real relationship, but it never worked. Jim had two categories for women: sexual playmate and friend.
When she’d first taken over the company, he’d asked her out several times, until she’d sat him down and laid down the law. She had a feeling not many women turned him down.
Maeve snickered. “What are you…? Scrooge?”
“Scrooge is about being stingy at Christmas.”
“Fine. You’re the Love Scrooge then.”
“I proudly wear the mantle.” He smirked. “Of course, if a woman was only looking for fun, it would be another story.”
“Did you try the dessert? It’s sugary, but not bad.” Maeve took a bite so she wouldn’t have to comment on his not-so-subtle invitation.
“And she oh-so-carefully changed the subject.” His lips curled into a smile.
Even his freaking teeth were perfect. And I bet the rest of him is too. How is that fair?
She sighed. “We’ve had this talk before, Jim, and my opinion hasn’t changed.”
Jim was more valuable to her in the office than her bed. She literally couldn’t do this job without him.
There’d been a steep learning curve when she took over, and she wouldn’t know what to do without Jim’s help. At the moment, Kent Bourbon consumed all of her free time. She assumed it would get easier, once she got a handle on things.
Unfortunately, her dedication meant she didn’t have much of a social life. Work had become her number one priority.
So, Jim’s offer of free and easy sex was a bit too tempting.
“Well, it’s a damn shame. You and I could have a fling. It might be just what the doctor ordered. It could ease our stress, help us focus on the job.”
Damn, he almost made fooling around with him sound reasonable.
“No, thank you.”
“Okay, but you’re missing out.” Jim waggled his brows.
And then she noticed Frank Deville eyeing her across the room.
The Kents and Devilles had a complicated history, to say the least.
And he’s on his way over here. Perfect.
“Incoming,” Jim muttered.
“Yeah, this night is just getting better and better.”
Maeve stood to face him.
“You’ve got a lot of nerve showing up here.” Frank towered over her. He was a distinguished older gentleman in his late sixties with a shock of silver hair and snapping blue eyes.
“I just came to support my board member. It isn’t about you, or me, or our family drama. I don’t want any trouble.” Deville and Perry were old friends, going back decades.
“That makes one of us. Your father was a real bastard.”
“My father is dead, and in case you haven’t noticed, I’m not him.”
“People are starting to gawk,” Jim said, his voice low, but intense. “This is neither the time nor the place for a confrontation, Mr. Deville.”
“Why shouldn’t I make a scene?” He glared at her. “Your father broke up my marriage, screwed my wife and then discarded her, and then he stole my business.”
“Bought. Not stole.”
“Yes, at far below market price.”
This was an old argument. And as far as Maeve was concerned, Deville’s beef was with Reggie. Not her. She didn’t feel like hashing it out.
“He’s not to blame for your poor management style.” She was sick to death of defending her father. Yes, he was a flawed man in many ways, but she loved Reggie, and always would.
“My poor management…” Deville broke off, his face going red. “I was running a company when you were in diapers.”
“I take it back.” She tossed back the rest of her sugary drink, needing some liquid courage.
“Take what back?”
“I never want to have this discussion with you. I’m sorry you lost the business. However, you built a new one in a matter of a few years and seem to be doing fine.” She nodded across the room, at an elegant older woman. “And you married someone else. Congratulations. Now, get the hell over it.”
“Yes, I pulled myself out of the ashes.” His eyes narrowed. “But will you be so lucky?”
Unease curled in the pit of her stomach. “What do you mean?”
“Rumor is, your board members aren’t happy with the way you’re running the company.”
Had he somehow heard Perry’s comment? Or was he trying to rattle her cage? She glanced at Jim, who looked away.
“Leave,” Jim said to Deville. “Now.”
With a parting sneer, Deville walked away, but Maeve doubted she’d heard the last of him.
“Okay, now I’m getting worried. What was he talking about?”
Jim glanced around them uneasily. “We’ll talk about it later.”
“No, we’ll discuss it now.”
“Look, I know things have been hard lately, and I hate to add to your troubles, but I heard a rumor. I didn’t think twice about it until tonight.”
“What kind of rumor?”
“Deville is buying up shares.”
She felt sick all of a sudden. The sugary liquid in her stomach sloshed around, and she held back a wave of nausea.
“You think he’s planning to take over the company?”
“If this is true? Yeah, he might be planning a hostile takeover. What if he’s hellbent on destroying your father’s legacy?”
“This is insane. Reggie’s dead and buried.”
“Yeah, but he publicly humiliated Deville. He lost everything, including his reputation.”
She supposed it made sense. Deville wanted to burn what remained of Reggie’s life down to the ground.
She sat there in silence for several minutes, trying to come up with a plan.
“What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know yet. Our profits have been down, but not by much.” She’d figured it was a hiccup, and their stock would go up. “And I thought the board was going to give me the time and space I needed to get up to speed and formulate new initiatives.”
Maeve had to flesh out some ideas and sit down with them at the next meeting. With any luck, she could gather their opinions, and create some buy-in.
But would it be enough to save her job?
As if she didn’t have enough to worry about.
What if she lost Reggie’s company? Maeve would never forgive herself. At this rate, Maeve was going to drive herself insane, contemplating all the “what ifs” if she didn’t stop.
“Hey, we’ll get through this.” Jim grasped her hand, and for once, she didn’t pull away.
“You think so?” Because she wasn’t very hopeful. This had all the makings of a disaster.
“Yeah, I do.” He stood, tugging on her arm. “We’ll work on the problem tomorrow. But for now, let’s try to enjoy ourselves, anyway. Care to dance?”
Dinner was nearly over. The band played “Isn’t She Lovely?” and a few couples had moved onto the dance floor, including Kiki and Perry.
“I don’t know…”
“Come on, it’s only a trip around the floor, and I promise to behave myself.” This would be an exercise in torture, but she found herself nodding and going along with it.
Jim pulled her close, and Maeve tensed.
Maeve hated to admit it, but the man could move. And she fit easily, comfortably into his arms.
Dear God, he smells so good. The scent of pine and musk and man all wrapped up into one heady mixture.
If I don’t have sex soon, I’m gonna lose my mind.
Before her father’s death, she’d had minor responsibilities at the company and a lot of free time she’d frittered away. She’d been wined and dined by handsome, accomplished men. Her nights were spent having fun. Lately, she curled up with expense reports and human resources files.
Maybe Amy and I aren’t so different.
He tugged her closer, and she hissed out a breath.
He chuckled knowingly.
“I’m not sleeping with you.”
“I didn’t ask.” Jim pulled back so he could look down into her eyes, and his hands rested on her sides.
“Not this time, no, but you already have. Repeatedly.”
“Come with me.”
And then he pulled her down the hallway into a secluded corner. Maeve was about to protest when he pressed her against the wall.
“God, you look beautiful,” Jim murmured against her neck. He nuzzled her, kissed the space just below her ear.
And, just like that, her willpower crumbled.
She leaned into him, closing her eyes and let herself go. He wound his arms around her waist.
“This waiting game we’re doing drives me mad.”
“We’re not waiting,” she muttered. “This is going nowhere.”
“Oh really? This certainly feels like somewhere to me.” He pressed in against her, settling Maeve more firmly against his body. She could feel his warmth, his strength.
It would be so easy to tumble into bed with Jim. And she could forget her troubles for an hour or two. Despite her best intentions, Maeve was curious. Or maybe she was just sad and needed a pick me up. Sex always relieved her tension and served as a break from her troubles.
Maeve leaned into his embrace and let him fondle her, touch her breasts through the fabric of her dress.
And what about the fallout?
This would be really messy.
“Jim, come on, cut it out.” Maeve pushed him away, but he didn’t let go.
“I want you so badly. You’re driving me wild,” he muttered, lost in his own persuasions. “Come home with me.”
Jim kissed her neck, tempting her with the promise of an easy orgasm. She closed her eyes and leaned into him, letting it take her over. He pushed her bodice down, and more of her breasts were revealed to his avid gaze.
“I want to fuck you, Maeve.” He stared down at her, his eyes glittering in the darkness.
“Jim, we shouldn’t—”
To silence her, he brushed the pad of his thumb over her mouth, once, twice.
“Come on.” And then he started dragging her to the back exit.
A ripple of unease swept through her. Why was he so intense about this all of a sudden?
She shook her head. “No. Stop.” Maeve slapped at his hand, pushing him back.
He gripped it tight. “Are you some kind of tease?”
Stunned, she could only stare at him. And then down the hall, Deville loomed, watching their every move, like a hungry hawk watching tasty mice.
“Let. Go.” Maeve added a little steel to her voice.
Jim did, instantly.
“We’ve got company,” she hissed.
He whirled to see Deville, who walked off, but he’d seen them in a compromising position.
Maeve clasped a hand over her own mouth. A tawdry office romance between the CEO and CFO looked bad. Really bad. Maeve had a morality clause in her contract. Basically, she could be fired for bringing unwanted publicity or shame to the company.
And while her father had wild affairs, he’d never screwed around at the office. Not to mention, Reggie was a man, and he was considered a “stud” while the board would think she was a “slut” instead.
Could this night get any worse? Scratch that. Maeve didn’t want to know.
“He didn’t see anything.”
“Because I stopped you. And by the way, no means no.” Jim had gotten overly presumptuous.
He pushed a hand through his hair. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to come on so strong.”
“Yeah, well, you did.”
“Again, I apologize.”
“We can’t do this. Ever. Understand?” she snapped. Maeve felt like slapping him, but it would be a step too far. She still had to work with the man.
“Yes, I do.”
Maeve blew out a breath, calming down.
He lifted a shoulder. “Although I’m disappointed. I figured if we kept it discreet and casual, it wouldn’t be an issue.” He wore a little boy pout on his mouth. “I’m not such a terrible guy.”
Her anger evaporated like so much smoke.
It was hard to stay mad at Jim. They’d both had a lot to drink, and they’d been pushing themselves for months. They were on edge, and out of sorts.
“I never said you were.”
He beamed. “Wanna kiss and make up?”
“Do you ever stop?”
Maeve would be willing to bet a hundred bucks he was hard and ready for her.
Don’t think about his dick. He’s your employee, for pity’s sake.
“Sorry, but I made myself clear. Let’s never talk about it again.” Maeve pushed a hand through her hair. “I’m gonna go to the restroom. I’ll meet you back at the table.” And she got the crap out of there before she made another mistake.
Maeve headed to the ladies’ room. Once inside, she splashed some cool water on her face and glanced in the mirror. Her normally pale skin was flushed a hectic red.
She glared at her reflection. You’re doing a shitty job of keeping this professional.
And Maeve knew who was to blame for her scandalous behavior. Amy. If Amy had been here, this evening wouldn’t have been so awkward. They would’ve had a third wheel to cool the sexual tension.
She checked her phone again. Still no message.
Wait until I get my hands on her.
“Is everything all right?” Jim asked, as she joined him at the table once more.
“Yes, it’s just fine.”
“And we’re okay…?”
“Of course.” She glanced out the window. “Looks like everyone’s gathering outside to see the newlyweds off.” Once Perry and Kiki left, she planned on going home, taking a hot shower, and crawling into bed.
“Then we’d better join them.” They both ambled out the door onto the patio. The wedding planner handed them two mesh nets full of birdseed. And then they waited awkwardly for the couple to appear.
Jim frowned. “Hey, I thought Amy was coming.”
“I know. I’ve been messaging her, but she hasn’t responded.”
“Hmm. When’s the last time you talked to her?”
“Last Sunday.” They typically checked in once a week.
“I’m sure she just forgot about it.”
At one time, Maeve had been a free spirit as well. She’d gotten kicked out of three boarding schools, nearly flunked her freshman year of college, and got fired from a series of summer jobs. By the time her sophomore year rolled around, Maeve had come around.
She’d buckled down, gotten better grades, and managed to graduate with a decent if not stellar GPA. And Amy would, too. Eventually. Although, she’d better hurry up. Amy was in her senior year of college. It was time to get serious and make school a priority.
Maeve frowned. “Maybe I should check on her?”
“She’s probably at a party or a friend’s house.”
“Yeah, she’s somewhere having fun.” Amy had an impressive social life, and she Instagrammed every second of it.
Hmmm, speaking of…
Maeve scrolled through the app on her phone, searching for pictures of Amy, but her sister hadn’t posted any new images since Sunday. That, too, was unusual.
And now I’m worried.
Their father was gone, and their mothers had never been in the picture, which left Maeve as the only parental figure Amy had. At 21, Amy was technically an adult, but since Amy was still in school, Maeve felt responsible for her.
“You’re anxious, aren’t you?” Jim watched her carefully.
“Yeah, but it would be rude to leave before the bride and groom.”
“Nonsense. I’m sure Perry will understand. Don’t worry about a thing, Maeve, I’ll make your apologies. Go track down your sister.”
“Thank you.” Spontaneously, she looped an arm around his neck and kissed Jim’s cheek.
When she pulled away, his eyes were hooded, and a muscle worked in his jaw.
“If you need anything, I’m here for you. Let’s get together for dinner this week.”
“Sure.” I’m gonna regret that.
But she’d worry about it later.
Maeve had a terrible feeling she had much bigger problems.
What if something happened to Amy?
Black as Night will be out June 25th.