The Ex Upstairs by Maureen Child
Henry Porter smiled.
“She’s here, boss. And she doesn’t look happy.”
His assistant’s news made his smile widen into a damn grin. “That’s fine by me, Donna. I’m not in business to make the Carey family happy.”
“Right.” The older woman lowered her voice. “Well, mission accomplished. Do you want me to send her in? She doesn’t have an appointment,” she added unnecessarily.
“Make her wait five minutes,” he said, pushing up from his chair. “Then send her in.”
He disconnected from the call, then slowly walked to the bank of windows affording him an impressive view of Los Angeles and the suburbs that stretched out beyond it. He’d miss the view when he moved the company headquarters to Orange County, but he’d have an ocean view then and that would take the sting out of the move.
But for now, he took those five minutes to settle by staring out at the bustling city beneath him. He needed to prepare to face the woman he still thought about far too often.
He’d known that either Amanda Carey or her older brother, Bennett, would show up at his office soon. Hell, he’d done everything he could to ensure it. He considered it his lucky day that it was Amanda currently cooling her heels in the outer office with Donna.
Over the years, Henry had had a few opportunities to throw the proverbial monkey wrench into Carey plans. Convincing people to cancel mergers. Underbidding the Careys on different contracts. And on those occasions, he’d kept his name out of it, so he could anonymously stand by and enjoy their frustrations.
Well, Bennett’s frustrations. That’s what this was all about. Showing his one-time friend that times had changed. Henry had changed and he hadn’t forgotten.
This time though, Henry was taking a damn bow. He’d let word get out that it was Porter Enterprises that’d bought the piece of property right out from under the Careys. He’d known they wanted it—then he’d made sure they didn’t get it.
And, since Amanda Carey had come to see him personally, he knew he’d made an impact. Henry hadn’t spoken directly to the woman since a charity fundraiser in San Diego a year ago. At the memory, his mind instantly filled with the image of her that night. Her long, dark blond hair twisted up into a knot at the top of her head, she had worn a one-shoulder, white, floor-length gown that made her look both ethereal and like a sex goddess at the same time.
She’d simply taken his breath away—though he hadn’t let her see it. They’d literally bumped into each other at the bar and the look in her eyes should have killed him on the spot. Instead, she’d set him on fire in a way that no other woman ever had.
Henry didn’t much care for the fact that Amanda could still hold so much power over him. But there was no point lying to himself—though he’d deny the truth to anyone else.
The two of them had spoken briefly, keeping it all business because there were too many prying eyes and perked ears surrounding them for anything else. But she hadn’t been able to hide the knives in her eyes as she looked at him. Was it perverse of him to enjoy that side of her? To know that as much as she tried to pretend that he had no effect on her, her temper spiked just being close to him?
And damned if that temper didn’t tug at him in a way a simpering smile never would have. He wondered what that said about him, but didn’t really think too much about it. After all, since the moment he’d met her, back when he was in college and Bennett Carey was still a friend, Henry had been drawn to her, Bennett’s younger sister. He’d met her when she was eighteen and by the time she was twenty, Henry had fallen hard. She was pretty and smart and funny and everything he’d wanted.
He’d never met anyone like her. The more time he’d spent with her, the more he’d felt that hard, irresistible draw. And finally, over the course of a two-week Italian vacation he’d spent with the Careys, he’d only wanted her more. Just before that vacation ended, he’d had her. Finally. In the boathouse at the Carey lakeside mansion, Henry and Amanda had had sex and he’d discovered she was a virgin, when it was far too late to stop. She hadn’t wanted to stop anyway, he remembered. They’d been wild for each other and when that passion finally exploded, neither one of them had known what to do with the aftermath.
As it turned out, though, they hadn’t had to worry about it.
Scowling to himself, he pushed those memories aside, leaned back against his desk, folded his arms across his chest and waited. When his office door opened, a stray slash of sunlight spotlighted her on the threshold as if she were a Broadway star claiming the stage and only awaiting a round of applause to continue.
He damn near gave it to her.
She wore a vivid scarlet jacket with a white shirt and black skirt that ended a couple of inches above her knees. The red stilettos added an extra three inches to her height and did amazing things for a pair of already great legs. Her long blond hair fell loose around her shoulders in a tumble of waves that made him want to bury his hands in them.
She took a breath, quietly closed the door behind her, then whirled on him with those oh-so-familiar knives in her eyes again. Only this time, they were aflame, as well.
“You did it on purpose.”
He gave her a smile that he knew would only irritate her further. “Good to see you, too.”
“Oh,” she warned, “don’t try for charm, Henry.”
“You think I’m charming? Good to know.”
“No, I don’t,” she said, but he didn’t believe her.
She crossed the room to him in several long, quick steps. Her heels were muffled against the thick, muted jewel-tone rug, but nothing had quieted the temper bristling around her.
“What I want to know is why you did it.”
“You want to be more specific?” He knew exactly what she was talking about, but why not hear it from her?
“The old hall. Near the Carey Center. You bought it.”
He gave a chuckle he wasn’t feeling. “That’s illegal, now?”
“No, just despicable.” She dropped her black leather bag onto one of his guest chairs, set both hands on those lusciously curved hips and said, “You knew we wanted that building.”
Yes, he had. “Now, how would I know that?”
Throwing both hands up, she said, “Spies?”
He laughed, genuinely enjoying himself. Seeing Amanda in a temper was even better than he remembered. In the ten years since their one and only night together, she’d only gotten more beautiful. More intriguing. And more desirable.
“Seriously, Amanda? You think I hired spies?”
“Why not? Wouldn’t that be in line with your long-term game plan of making the Careys pay?”
His easy tone dropped away. “Pay for what?” They both knew what she was talking about, but damn it, he wanted to hear her admit it.
Rather than that, though, all she said was, “It was ten years ago, Henry.”
“Time flies and all that.”
“And you’re still looking for what? Revenge?”
He forced a laugh he didn’t feel. “Revenge? A little melodramatic, don’t you think?”
She swung her hair back over her shoulders. “What else should I call it?”
“Karma?” he offered. Of course this went back ten years. To one particular night. The night with Amanda and the aftermath that had defined Henry’s ambitions and plans and set him on the path he’d been traveling ever since.
Her mouth briefly went tight, then she turned around and took two fast steps away before turning and marching right back. “Is it really so important to you to submarine us that you deliberately bought that building out from under us?”
“Yeah. I guess it is. You want to hear me admit it?” He locked his gaze with hers. “Fine. I admit it. I found out you wanted the building, so I made a better offer.”
She inhaled sharply. “Just like that.”
Her expression tightened and her eyes narrowed on him. “And what are you going to do with the building?”
“How is that your business?” Damn, she looked good. Everything in him wanted to touch her, but with her temper flashing white hot, that seemed like a dangerous move. Still, no one said he couldn’t enjoy the view.
“Damn it, Henry.” Now that temper was fading into frustration.
“Why are you so worked up over one of Bennett’s ideas getting shot to hell?”
She shot him a hard look. “What makes you think it was Bennett’s plan?” she demanded and he had to admit he hadn’t thought about that. Hadn’t considered much of anything beyond outscoring Bennett.
“Damn it, Henry,” she muttered darkly, “you screwed it all up.”
If she’d just sounded angry, he could have fired back. But she also sounded...defeated and he didn’t like it. He might not have seen much of Amanda over the last decade, but he’d kept up. He knew she’d gotten a degree in business, that she’d been promoted to vice president of the Carey Corporation and that she was as driven as he himself was. So hearing that tinge of disappointment in her voice bothered him. “What are you talking about?”
As if she suddenly realized that she’d said too much, Amanda closed up. He watched shutters drop over her eyes and her expression smooth out into one of blank indifference. “Nothing. Doesn’t matter. I shouldn’t have come here.”
“I’m glad you did,” he said.
“I’ll bet you are.” She reached down and grabbed her bag.
“Amanda,” he said abruptly, “believe it or not, this wasn’t about you.”
Slinging her bag over her shoulder, Amanda looked at him for a long minute, then said, “I don’t believe that, Henry. I wish I could, but I just don’t.” She looked at him. “I don’t know what else you’re up to, but stay away, Henry.”
“Is that coming from you? Or from the Carey family?”
“Same thing,” she said tightly.
Years ago, he might have argued with her. But somewhere along the line, she’d fallen into step with her powerful family and now she was right. It was the same thing. So he’d stop worrying about why Amanda was taking this so personally. He was going to make the Careys pay and if that included Amanda, then...
He watched her leave and enjoyed the view. She always did have a great butt. Those legs of hers were long and tanned and made him want to take a longer, lazier look. But that wasn’t going to happen anytime soon. So Henry told himself he’d just have to indulge himself with his memories of their long-ago night together. Of Amanda beneath him, rising up over him, of the taste of her mouth and the feel of her heat drawing him in.
Ten years and it was like yesterday in his mind. Not just the magic of being with Amanda, but the way it had ended. And then facing off with Bennett.
All of it.
That night and the aftermath had been driving him forward. Pushing him to take chances, risks, to build a company that could rival the Careys’ in every way. And now that he was nearing the completion of his plans, he wasn’t about to pull back—or “stay away” as Amanda said.
Henry Porter wasn’t finished.
Amanda made it past his assistant, out of the luxuriously appointed office of Porter Enterprises and into the elevator before she slumped against the wall and took a deep breath in an effort to calm her racing heartbeat. But it would take more than breathing to calm her.
Her anger had driven her here, but it wasn’t fury she’d felt facing Henry again. As crazy as it sounded, even to her, desire had pulsed inside her with one look into his dark, forest green eyes. His black hair was a little longer than he used to wear it—curling over his collar—and at six foot two, he was tall enough that even in heels, she’d been forced to tip her head back to meet his eyes. And that’s when she’d had trouble. It had always been his eyes that had drawn her in, though God knew he was the whole package. Tall, lanky, dressed in an excellent black suit, he’d looked good enough that any sane woman would have drooled a little.
Amanda wasn’t immune to it, even knowing what she did.
Why it had to be Henry Porter who affected her on every level, Amanda had no idea. But it had been that way between them from the moment they first met, when she was eighteen and Bennett had first brought his college roommate home over a long weekend. Then a year and a half later, Henry had gone with them on the annual family trip to Italy and it was there that she’d taken that long, luscious tumble into love.
Of course, that tumble had ended with a spectacular crash, she reminded herself, and straightened up as the elevator hit the ground floor of the chrome-and-glass office building. She walked through the lobby, across the polished, white granite floor and out the doors that opened onto a busy LA street. The rush of traffic and the people hurrying up and down the sidewalks were all enough to push thoughts of Henry out of her mind.
However temporarily. She had a long drive back to Orange County and she knew that her brain was going to replay that scene with Henry over and over.
Muted sunlight poured into the boardroom through the wide windows that displayed a view of Irvine, California. Tall, mostly glass-and-chrome office buildings rose up from green belts that looked like spools of green velvet ribbon set free to wind past the buildings like gift wrap. On the 405 freeway, cars were stacked up in the inevitable traffic jam, and in the far distance, Amanda picked out the smudge of blue that was the Pacific Ocean.
The Careys had settled their corporate offices in the same city where the Carey Center spread across several acres of former ranchland. The center hosted their Summer Sensations every year, with performances—everything from ballet to symphonies to musical theater—scheduled every weekend throughout the summer.
After the day she’d had, the last thing Amanda wanted to do was sit through a family meeting. But there was just no way out of it. If Henry hadn’t interfered, she would have been able to announce her plans for the hall located just a quarter mile from the Carey Center. That building had been there forever and the Careys had pretty much ignored its presence. But oh, once it went up for sale, Amanda had had so many ideas for how they could use it and expand and improve the center at the same time.
It would have been the chance to prove to her family just how much she could bring to the Carey Corporation. Amanda was in charge of the schedule for the performances and she’d hoped to build on that.
“Now that’s shot to hell,” she muttered.
“What?” Her older sister, Serena, leaned in closer. “Something you want to talk about?”
Amanda looked at her. At thirty-two, Serena was two years older than Amanda. Her hair was two shades lighter than Amanda’s dark blond and her blue eyes were somehow softer. But then, Serena had always pretty much lived up to her name. Serene. Divorced now, she had a three-year-old daughter, Alli, and was finding her way back into the family business.
With a quick glance around at the conference table, where most of her family was gathered, Amanda saw that no one was paying attention to her and her sister at the moment, so she lowered her voice to keep it that way. “I drove into LA this morning.”
“Well,” Serena said with a muffled laugh, “that explains it. The traffic would put anyone in a bad mood.”
She could take that excuse and run with it, but she didn’t. “Yeah, it wasn’t the traffic. It was Henry Porter.”
“Seriously?” Serena’s expression displayed her surprise. “You went to see Henry?”
Shooting a quick look to the end of the table, Amanda turned back to Serena. “Shh. Yes, I did. I had to.” Well, no she hadn’t and probably shouldn’t have, but the deed was done now and she could only kick herself for giving in to the urge to face him down in person.
“How is he?”
“Same as ever,” she said, thinking again of how he’d looked, posed against his desk as he waited for her to enter his office. A short, sharp jab of heat whipped through her before she could squash it. How she could still feel anything for a man who had practically declared himself the enemy of the Carey family was the mystery of the ages, but there it was.
“Did you know he’s moving?”
Amanda straightened up and looked at her sister. “Moving? Where?”
Serena started to say something but was interrupted when Bennett spoke up loudly. Forced to pay attention, Amanda promised herself to get Serena alone as soon as she could. How did her sister know anything about Henry’s plans?
“Okay, everyone,” Bennett announced, “let’s get this rolling. I’ve got an appointment with the head of Merchandising in—” he checked the gold Rolex on his wrist “—forty minutes.” Then he looked at Amanda. “How’s the lineup for the Summer Sensations coming?”
She smiled in spite of the turmoil in her mind. “Pretty great. We’ve got the Chinese Ballet back this year and tickets are already moving well. They’re scheduled to perform in July,” she said, opening her tablet and scrolling through the performers already listed. “Before then, we’ve got a production of Sweeney Todd, and a chorale made up of three local high schools.”
Bennett groaned, and Amanda ignored it.
“They’re really excellent and it’s good for us because it showcases local talent—and I’ve got more on that in a minute.” She looked back at her tablet. “We also have the Los Angeles Philharmonic set down for three shows sprinkled through the summer and several other options to explore.” Looking at Bennett, she added, “It’s only April so we have plenty of time and most of the performers from last year’s pageant are eager to come back.”
“Still not sure about the chorale, but otherwise, good news.” Bennett nodded, then looked at Serena. “How’s marketing coming?”
“Slow,” Serena admitted, her voice clear, but soft. “I’m finding my way. I’ll have a full report for you at the end of the month.”
Amanda hated seeing her sister doubting her abilities. Serena had never been as invested in the family corporation as the rest of them. All she’d ever wanted was a family of her own. She’d once planned to have six kids. When she fell in love it seemed everything would go as she wanted, then he walked out because he just wasn’t ready. Which left Serena heartbroken and all too vulnerable when Robert had come around. She’d been swept into a marriage that made her miserable, had a daughter she adored, then got a divorce that left her free and happy again.
Now she was back at the company, leaving three-year-old Alli at the company day care downstairs and finding her way back into the Carey Corporation.
“Okay, Serena’s being modest,” Amanda said abruptly and had Bennett’s gaze focusing on her again. “She’s handling setting up the auditions for the Summer Stars program and getting the website up and ready. Her team’s ready to calibrate the voting when it starts and she’s working with our ad company to get a couple of commercials ready to run on local channels.”
Serena spoke up quickly. “Nothing’s ready to go yet—”
Bennett held up one hand. “Sounds like you’re on it, though, so good news, Serena. I think the Summer Stars idea is going to be big.”
“It’s exciting, isn’t it?” Their mother, Candace Carey, caught their attention. “Giving people the chance to audition live for a spot in the Summer Sensations performance schedule? Wonderful. I’m glad I don’t have to understand how the online voting will be tallied, but I’m looking forward to the contest itself.”
“It was a good idea,” their father, Martin, agreed and smiled at his wife, but Candace gave him a cool look. At sixty-four, Martin’s dark blond hair was liberally sprinkled with gray, but his blue eyes were as sharp as ever. He’d given his tall, muscular build to both of his sons, and even now the older man was a presence.
Which was, Amanda admitted silently, sort of the problem. He’d been “retiring” for the last year, insisting his children could now take over the day-to-day of running the company his own father had built. But retiring meant actually staying away and doing other things. That, Martin was having trouble with, and his wife was at the end of her rope.
“Serena,” Martin said, “if the Summer Stars website is ready to go, why isn’t it live yet?”
Bennett, oldest son and CEO, shoved both hands into his slacks pockets as their father took over the meeting. He gritted his teeth hard to keep from speaking; Amanda could see the muscles in his jaw twitch. His dark blond hair was cut stylishly short, and his sea-blue eyes were now focused on the window across the room. Amanda thought her older brother looked as if he’d been born in a well-tailored suit. At thirty-four, he was the designated head of the family business—but Martin simply couldn’t let go.
Serena cleared her throat, looked from Bennett to their father and said, “The website is almost ready. We’re tweaking some of the information and I want the team to be able to update the vote tallies and the pictures almost instantly, so Chad Davis is working on making the site easier for everyone to navigate. We should go live in a week or two.”
“Make it a week,” Martin said, tapping his fingertips against the wide, mahogany table.
“Two is fine,” Bennett interrupted and shot his father a quelling glance. “We’ll have it up and running in plenty of time, Dad.”
Candace sighed heavily and Martin winced. Nodding, he said, “Fine. You’re in charge, Bennett.”
Bennett went on, determined to finish everything before their father jumped in again. “Has anyone heard from Justin?”
“No,” Serena said with a quick look at Amanda to see if she had spoken to their youngest brother. At a shake of her head, Serena looked down the table at their parents. “I tried to call him last week, but only got his voice mail. I’m sure he’s fine, Mom. You know Justin.”
Candace Carey was nearly sixty and, thanks to excellent genes and the most intricate moisturizing routine in the world, looked fifty. Her short hair had recently been dyed a rich chestnut, with red highlights that made her blue eyes shine. The few wrinkles she did have were all from smiling and Amanda thought that was the mark of a life well lived.
“I do and you’re right, Serena. He’s fine. I spoke to him yesterday and he’s in Santa Monica.”
“He should be here,” Martin grumbled. “He’s a Carey. His place is in this meeting.”
Candace shifted in her seat and narrowed her eyes on her husband. “He’s working on something that’s important to him and—”
“What’s more important than the Carey Corporation?” Martin demanded.
Amanda’s turn to wince when her father blurted out exactly the wrong thing. She could actually see her mother’s temper spike and wondered silently why the woman’s husband completely missed it.
“That’s a very telling question coming from you, Martin,” Candace said and Amanda winced again. When everything was fine, Candace called her husband “Marty.” Things were not fine.
Martin caught on finally and obviously realized—too late—that he’d stepped in it. “Now, Candy, that’s not what I meant.”
“It’s exactly what you meant,” Candace said, giving her husband the hard glare all her kids would recognize. “Honestly, Martin, we’ve been over this a hundred times. You said you were retiring. We made plans.”
“I know we did, sweetie,” Martin said. “And we’re going to do everything we planned.”
“When?” She tipped her head to one side, tapped her manicured nails on the table and waited.
“Well,” Martin hedged, “we’ve got the Summer Sensations coming up and—”
“And Amanda’s in charge of that and doing a wonderful job.” She smiled and nodded her way and Amanda’s lips curved slightly. “What else?”
“There’s the new merger with the Macintosh hotel line—”
“Bennett is on top of it all,” she assured him.
“What about Justin?” Martin asked, obviously playing what he thought of as a trump card.
“Justin will be fine without your supervision, Martin,” Candace said, leaning toward him. “We’ve raised our kids.” She swept out a hand to include three of them. “Honestly, Martin, I’m starting to think you don’t want to spend time with me.”
Amanda winced and shared a worried look with her sister.
“You know that’s not true, honey,” Martin said, reaching for her hand.
Candace pulled away, though, and shook her head. “Oh,” she said, rising and grabbing up her black leather bag, “I think it is. You’ve been very clear where your loyalties lie.”
“Mom...” Bennett’s voice cut into the tension mounting in the room.
She held up one finger and instantly got the silence she was signaling for. “I’m going to meet your aunt Viv for lunch—”
“I thought we were going to lunch,” Martin said.
“And I thought we would be in Palm Springs for the week, so we’re both disappointed,” Candace retorted.
Amanda glanced at Serena again and her sister winced in sympathy with their mom. They both knew that Candace Carey had been looking forward to her and her husband seeing some of the world, spending time together during his retirement, and now it looked as though Martin was trying to avoid just that. This was not good.
“Now, honey, I wanted to make sure everything here was going fine before we left for a week is all...”
Candace’s eyebrows lifted. “No, that’s not all. The problem is, you can’t let go. You trained Bennett. You turned the company over to him and promised me you would retire and we’d start traveling.”
“And we’re going to,” he argued.
“How are we going to Europe if you can’t even go to Palm Springs?” Shaking her head, Candace tucked her bag under her arm, lifted her chin and said, “No. You don’t want to travel beyond company headquarters. That’s clear.” She looked at Bennett briefly. “Good luck to you, sweetie.”
“Now, just hold on a minute,” Martin said, rising to meet his wife’s irate gaze.
“I’ve been holding on, Martin. Now I’m done.” She looked at each of her children. “You all have a lovely day. Not you, Martin.”
Candace didn’t even glance at her husband as she swept out of the room, and Amanda could only think how odd it was that she and her mother were both having man trouble.