When Seth called for the third time in as many minutes, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to ignore my brother today. And that made my stomach hurt as I considered my ever-growing list of things I had to do. He was never this persistent—he knew I rarely answered my phone during work hours—which meant whatever he was calling to talk to me about, it was something important. And Seth Hastings didn’t take importance lightly.
Could he have picked a worse time, though?
Sighing, I picked up my phone and hovered over the answer button for a moment before I connected the call and held the phone to my ear.
“So you are alive,” he said before I even took a breath to greet him.
I winced. He was literally on the other side of the country, and he still managed to put me on edge with his growl. If I didn’t know he was one of the kindest, sweetest men on the planet, I might have believed his anger. But it was really just a mask, and he was using it on me for the first time in a long time. I didn’t like that. “Nice to talk to you too,” I muttered, and my eyes returned to my computer screen.
I still had a presentation to prepare, and if my assistant, Travis, didn’t come back soon with the report I’d sent him for, I was going to have a whole lot of nothing to show the firm’s board. It didn’t matter how good of a financial analyst I was; I had to prove I was worth the consideration for the promotion. Someone had to lead the team, and I wasn’t going to let Cal Mikaelson pass me over yet again. This was my year.
“Would you stop working for two minutes, Lissa?” Seth grumbled into the phone. Either he was a better super soldier than I thought and had somehow managed to set up surveillance in my office, or my half-brother knew me a little too well for a guy I’d only met a few years ago.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said and pulled up my projection sheet for Sonya Yun’s portfolio. This info was a start, but I needed Travis to come back with that report. Without it, this was just a bunch of numbers. “Was there something you needed, Seth?”
“Yeah,” he replied. “I need you to stop working for two minutes so I can know you’re actually paying attention and not just tuning me out while you browse stock markets.”
I rolled my eyes, even if he couldn’t see me. I figured he could probably sense my annoyance, since he was pretty much superhuman. It was a pity he had given up his Special Forces days to be a private body-guard; his skills were a bit wasted on the quiet life he lived now. “You clearly have no idea what I do for my job,” I said. “Which is rich, coming from a guy who has a degree in Economics.”
“Not the point,” he replied.
I quickly sent yet another message to my assistant, asking him where he was and why it was taking him over an hour to go two floors down and grab a folder. “But seriously, Seth,” I said, “I have to get back to work. What is this about?”
“I’m getting married on Saturday, Liss.”
I nearly dropped my phone. This Saturday? But his wedding wasn’t until December. I had a whole… I stared at the calendar on my wall, realizing with a twist in my stomach that it was December.
“That’s what I thought,” Seth said, apparently reading into my silence. “You forgot about Thanksgiving—again—so I figured I would give you a reminder for this one. I’m only getting married once.”
If you’re lucky, I thought to myself. I had no reason to doubt his marriage would be a lasting one, since his fiancée, Catherine, was quite possibly the most perfect woman in the world, but I had seen love fall apart—especially in my own life—way too many times to not be a bit cynical.
“I didn’t forget your wedding,” I lied.
“So you’ll be here?”
If I got this promotion, which was the plan and had been for years, I was going to have to dive right in and completely overhaul the whole department to get it running smoothly. And that wasn’t something I could do overnight. I couldn’t just drop everything and leave Boston for a whole weekend.
“Seth,” I said and braced myself for his disappointment. There was nothing about my brother that was small—physically or emotionally—and he wouldn’t bother hiding his feelings from me just because he was all the way in California. He would probably even exaggerate them to make me feel worse than I already did.
But he surprised me, hitting me with a long stretch of silence instead of a complaint or reproach, and when he did speak, he did it quietly, keeping his deep voice as soft as he could make it. “Look,” he said. “I know you don’t know what it was like growing up with Dad.”
I wasn’t even going to grace that statement with a comment. Seth could call the man “Dad” all he wanted, but Gordon Hastings was no father to me. Even if our shared DNA said otherwise. The man had been pretty clear about how he felt about our familial ties to each other. As in there weren’t any.
“But I know you know how important family is,” Seth continued. “And this new family of mine—Catherine’s family—is the best there is. I couldn’t share my dad with you, so please let me share the Davenports. I don’t want you to be alone for the rest of your life.”
It was a sweet gesture, but that didn’t change the fact that my life plans hinged on this meeting today. The meeting I was already late for. “Seth,” I said again and wished I could give him better news. “Work is crazy right now. I wish I could leave, but I…”
He sighed. “Fine,” he said. “But I bought you a plane ticket anyway. Just in case.” He hung up before I could say anything, and my chest grew tight.
What a terrible sister I was.
Before I could work up the nerve to call him back and try to explain, Travis finally pushed through my office door, out of breath and looking like he had just run straight into a lion’s den and wanted to be anywhere but here. The expression wasn’t surprising, but his empty hands were.
“Travis,” I said, catching the way he flinched when I said his name. “Where’s my report?”
The poor kid swallowed, apparently terrified. That didn’t help alleviate the uneasiness building inside me. “Well…”
“You said Jennings got it done.”
“So where is it?”
Glancing around the office seemed to give him some strength and straighten his stature, though his courage waned again when he looked at me. He hunched his shoulders back to where they’d been before, and he took a backward step toward the door. Ready to run. “Because he gave it to Hamada,” he whispered.
I jumped to my feet fast enough that Travis leapt for the door and was halfway out by the time I said, “He did what? Hamada’s been here for two months. He shouldn’t be authorized to even see that report.”
Glancing down at the phone in his hand, Travis looked very much like a little rodent stuck in a trap and trying to free himself from the glue. “Did I not send you the memo?” he asked so quietly I barely heard him. “Hamada was promoted.”
Which meant I had yet another rung to climb on the ladder. This meeting, this presentation, was supposed to give me an extra boost to the top, and some freshly made college grad had—yet again—pulled the rug out from under me right before I made the jump. How was I supposed to go anywhere if all of my plans kept getting derailed by imbeciles?
I was so glad I chose to wear heels today. I needed to be tall.
The instant I was outside my office, the whole floor went silent, and I could feel every man’s eyes on me as I went, though I tried to ignore them. It wasn’t like I wanted to scare the file clerk every time I stormed past his desk on my way to Mikaelson’s office, which happened far more often than it should have. I kept waiting for the day he didn’t see me in time to hide and couldn’t avoid the full brunt of my glare, therefore keeling over dead right where he sat. The others beyond him were never any less intimidated than the clerk, and poor Travis would likely only last a few more weeks before I put him under enough stress that he quit. I didn’t want to do it, but I had to.
In a world full of men, a woman like me could show no weakness.
“You promoted Hamada to team leader?” I asked, pushing past Mikaelson’s assistant into his office. “Have you gone insane?”
Cal Mikaelson was the sort of man who had all the power he could possibly need and still craved more, and he was the one person at this stupid company I hadn’t yet been able to intimidate. He just sat there in his thousand-dollar ergonomic chair and played with the signed baseball he held in his hands, a smug grin on his ridiculous face.
“Lissa,” he greeted, almost laughing my name. “Hamada is smart.”
“As smart as a twelve-year-old, maybe,” I argued. “That was supposed to be my job. My team.”
“Don’t get your pencil skirt in a twist, sweetheart.”
“Don’t even start,” I snarled, my stomach clenching and unnecessarily reminding me why I hated this man in front of me. He did that often enough on his own.
“Hamada has the same fancy degree you have,” Mikaelson continued, completely ignoring my anger. “But he has a more innovative mind. He’s more in the know about what’s going on with the new adult generation, so he understands that millennial sense of mind that you just can’t grasp. It’s not your fault.”
My fingers curled into fists, and I wondered if I could shove that baseball down his throat or if using it as a murder weapon would only increase its value. “I’m only twenty-eight,” I said. “And I have years of experience over Hamada.”
Rising, he set his baseball on its special little stand then gave me an examining look like he always did as he headed for the door. “You’re just not cut out for that extra level of stress, sweetheart,” he said. “Go cry into a pillow and get over it.”
That was it.
“I quit,” I replied.
He froze in the doorway. “What did you just say?”
This was a terrible mistake, but it was too late now. The words came rushing out of my mouth as if they’d been teetering at the edge for a long time. They probably had. “You heard me,” I said. “Good luck getting that mess of children to do their jobs without me breathing down their necks, as they like to say behind my back.”
I’d never seen the man’s face so red, and I had to fight a smile when I realized I had actually ruffled the guy’s feathers for the first time in four years. “I’ll consider this your two weeks’,” he growled.
I kept my head high, though it suddenly felt like the roof was collapsing over me. It had taken me two years to get this job. Another year to get myself to this level, where I’d been fighting ever since to climb higher. If I left now, I would have to start all over in another office full of men who would be convinced no woman had any business being a financial analyst. Maybe if I… No. I needed to leave. Staying wasn’t worth it.
Besides, I had a wedding to attend. Had Seth known something like this would happen, or was he just painfully optimistic? It was probably a mixture of both. But whatever reasons he had for buying me that plane ticket, I was just glad I didn’t have to pay for it myself.
Without a job, my life—and in turn my bank account—was about to spiral out of control.
But there was more to life than fighting for a place at a table no one wanted me at, right? It was time to find something new, even if that meant throwing all of my plans and goals down the drain. “I’ll be using my paid time off for the next two weeks,” I said. “I wish I could say it has been a pleasure, but…” I strode past him as he flexed his fist, the threat of lawsuit the only thing keeping him from grabbing my arm in anger like I knew he wanted to.
“You can’t do that,” he snarled.
I didn’t even look back, knowing that if I did, my threadbare confidence would snap. “Try to stop me.”