EXCERPT: Tailored For Trouble

Happy Pants Café

Attn: Ms. Luci Leon-Parker

St. Helena, CA 94574

Dear Ms. Luci,

I am writing on behalf of my son who is in desperate need of a kick in the pants. Bennett, who has been a serious soul since the day he was born, is now thirty-one years old and has dedicated one third of his life to running our family company. And though he has done extremely well for himself and has taken good care of me since his father passed over a decade ago, I fear his focus on building our company into an empire has robbed him of something far more important. Bennett, despite all of the brains inside that thick skull of his, is still single, and believes that the women who pursue him are “gold diggers looking for a handout.” Yes, he’s had his bumps in the road, but it’s still a bunch of hogwash!

Luci, I know that one cannot believe everything they read in the paper, but the recent article in the San Francisco Tribune, hailing you to be a real live Cupid, must have some truth to it. This is why I hope you will help my mule-headed Bennett. I know if he could find the right woman, it would open his eyes before it is too late.

As I am now sick and have a few months to live, I hope you’ll be able to turn him around before I kick the bucket. Bennett could do so much for the world if he would stop being such a cold-hearted ass.

God Bless,

Linda Johnson Wade

*******

Dearest Linda,

First, I would like to offer my deepest sympathies for your tragic news. As a widow myself and a mother of three, I know the need to see Bennett settled before you move on must weigh heavily on your soul. Ay, Dios. Our children are all we really have in the end, ?

I am, however, so deeply sorry to tell you that my gifts have been greatly exaggerated by the press. I am simply an old woman from Mexico who runs a bakery. Now, is it true that some have eaten my sugar cookies and found their soul mate in seven days? Sí. Is it because of my cookies? Heavens, no. A cookie is just a cookie. However, I have been known to play matchmaker from time to time. In fact, at this very moment, I am preparing to help a very special woman catch her Mr. Right—a project that has consumed much of my time these past months. But by no means am I a foolproof lucky charm as some suggest.

All that said, my dear Linda, I want to help you any way I can. I will invite your Bennett to my annual fiesta in July and ensure he receives not only the kick in the pantalones you’ve requested, but that he is introduced to several potential matches. The party will not occur for another four months, but if any­thing should happen to you—God forbid—you may rest as­sured that I will make every effort to see to his mule-headedness.

In the meantime, I’ve included a delicious cookie for Ben­nett. Can’t hurt.

With All My Love,

Ms. Luci Leon-Parker

Proprietor, The Happy Pants Café

CHAPTER 1

Twenty-eight-year-old Taylor Reed stepped out of the down­town Seattle office building into the pouring rain, thankful for having forgotten her umbrella. This way, no one would notice the tears streaming down her face.

I’m ruined. Completely ruined, she thought. And it wasn’t an exaggeration. Over the last three months, Taylor had maxed out her credit cards, borrowed every last dime from her 401(k), and depleted her emergency savings account, all to start her own highly specialized executive training company. Fifteen sales pitches and fifteen rejections later, including today’s very polite “Thanks, but no thanks,” she was at the end of her rope.

This is all his fault. That smug, cold-hearted bastard who’d gotten her fired from a nice steady job. Okay, she’d technically quit, but still. There had been no other choice after that hu­miliating disaster. All because he was “the customer.” All be­cause he had money and thought he could treat people like garbage. All because—

Ugh. Shut up. It’s your fault. You let him get to you.

An image of those unfeeling, icy blue eyes flashed in her mind. She’d never forget them. Just like she’d never forget the glib smirk on his disarmingly handsome face, a face that might have you believing a real human being existed somewhere in­side.

Asshole. Hope he chokes on one of his designer ties.

Not having a clue what she would do next, Taylor looked up at the sky, allowing the giant sloppy drops to cool her face. She would have to get another job. Start over. But starting over meant flying back to Phoenix, packing up her apartment, and praying one of her older brothers, who lived near San Fran­cisco, would take her in without giving her thirty lashes—verbal, of course. Then there’d be facing her father. In his mind, people either paid their own way or they were a waste of good clean air.

Oh, God. The humiliation. Taylor buttoned up her black coat and grabbed her extra-large rolling laptop case to go flag down a taxi. With this rain, it would probably be a while, which meant she’d probably miss her flight. The perfect ending to a perfect shit day.

Taylor stopped on the corner just in time to see two empty cabs sail by. “Oh, come on!”

She dug her phone from her pocket, deciding it might be bet­ter to call a taxi directly, when the device buzzed in her hand. It was a San Francisco number. Maybe one of the companies who’d rejected her had changed their minds?

“Hello?” she said, trying not to sound too hopeful.

“Is this Miss Reed?” said a perky, sweet voice.

“Yes. This is Ms. Reed.”

“One moment please, I have a call for you.”

Just then a large white and blue bus with a loud rumbling engine pulled up. For crying out loud.

“Could you hold on, please? I can’t quite hear you.” She stepped into the doorway of a small café with a cheerful red awning and a sign in the window that read “Happy Pants. Now Available Here!”

Weird.

“Sorry about that. Go ahead,” she said, covering her ex­posed ear and noting her sad reflection in the glass. Her long wet brown hair and the mascara streaming down her pale face made her look like a cast member from The Walking Dead.

Rarrr . . . fabulous.

“Miss Reed, Bennett Wade here.” His deep, silky, unhurried voice instantly made her entire body tense up and her adrena­line kick in. “I’d like to speak to you. In person if you can make the time.”

How the hell did he get my cell number?

“What do you want?” she growled.

He made a sound that was half-chuckle, half-throat-clearing. “To speak. Didn’t I just say that?”

SOB thinks he can just call me? After what he did? “There isn’t anything you could possibly say, Mr. Wade, that I—”

“I want to hire you.”

Ha! Funny. “What? It wasn’t enough to ruin my—”

“Miss Reed.” She could hear the impatience in his voice now. “I’m a busy man, so—”

“Ms. It’s Ms. Reed,” she corrected sharply.

“Fine. Ms. Reed, I’d like to discuss an offer, but not over the phone. I prefer doing business in person.”

Business with me? Maybe his brain has been polluted with too many supplements. She seemed to remember he looked like one of those guys who obsessed over his body as much as he did the cut of his suits to show it all off. Although, it was hard to tell with all that pious condescension oozing from his general direction.

“Sorry,” she said in the bitchiest tone possible, “but my schedule is booked, and I’m on my way to a meeting. I’ll have to call you back next lifetime. . . .” As she spoke, Taylor turned toward the street, noticing the long, gleaming black limo now parked against the curb. She couldn’t see past the tinted win-dows, but . . .

“You’re sitting right there, aren’t you?” she said into the phone.

The back window lowered and those pale blue eyes, edged with annoyingly thick dark brown lashes, stared back, just as void of warmth as she remembered. But this time, his hand-some face— with its chiseled cheekbones, cleft chin, and a strong jaw covered in a charcoal black five o’clock shadow— was miss-ing that patronizing smirk. The man actually looked pissed.

Four Months Earlier

 

Taylor pulled into the crowded parking lot of HRTech Solutions, sweating bullets and cursing like a sailor— a habit she’d sworn off for New Year’s but had just decided was completely impractical. This can’t fucking be happening. She was now thirty— Nope. Make that thirty- one—  minutes late for her big presentation to the CEO of Wade Enterprises— the man who had a reputation for lacking a soul and for having an unfailing ability to see the world as his personal mound of dirt meant for bulldozing. The man who had announced, last minute, that he’d be flying in from his San Francisco headquarters to hear about their managerial recruiting services. The request was strange to say the least, considering she and her team usually went to the client, not the other way around. In any case, Taylor had been trying to snag a meeting with Mr. Wade ever since she’d landed contracts with several of his golf­ing buddies, who were all CEOs of various companies themselves.

The Prius in front of her suddenly spotted an open space. Shit. Dammit. No! She hit her brakes and watched the driver take his sweet time pulling in as she dug her nails into her steer­ing wheel. Then, almost out of the way, the Prius driver began backing out, deciding he wasn’t positioned just right.

Sonofabitch! Come on! She sighed and then focused her frustration on the A/C button of her red Audi TTS, poking it ten times. But all the poking in the world wouldn’t magically make that Prius go any faster, just like it wouldn’t make the temperature go any lower.

It was nine-thirty on this fine February morning and already five-hundred-hell-in-a-hand-basket degrees outside. Not even the devil would let his nuts live in this inferno.

She checked her makeup in the mirror to ensure it hadn’t melted down her face and noticed the incredibly attractive ring of red encircling her brown eyes. The result of having had two and a half hours of sleep.

Wonderful. I look like I’m stoned. Her phone buzzed on the passenger seat. It was her VP texting again.

VERA: Where are you now?

TAYLOR: Pulling into the lot. Is he there yet?

VERA: No. Hurry!

Taylor couldn’t believe her luck. This day might be saved after all.

“Take your sweet fucking time, buddy!” She pounded on the steering wheel as the Prius driver once again took his time edg­ing back into the parking space. “Come on!” She honked the horn.

The driver slammed on the brakes and flashed her the mid­dle finger.

“Great. Just great.” I’m about to lose my job, so fuck you back.

Why oh why had she taken this position to begin with? She wasn’t a pitchman, but her old college friend Rina, who also worked at HRTech, had talked her into it five years ago when Taylor had been fresh out of grad school and in desperate need of a paycheck. “You were born to work with people, Taylor,” she’d said. “You just smile and the room lights up.”

What a joke.

Yes, she enjoyed working with people and had a master’s in human resource management, but so many of the executives in these big companies, the ones who used HRTech’s recruitment services, didn’t have a clue about how to treat the people they spent thousands to find and hire. It was always about the bot­tom line and shareholder value—never about creating a work­place that employees genuinely looked forward to coming to each day. Didn’t they get that happy employees were more pro­ductive employees? It drove her crazy. But unfortunately, Rina had been right. Soon after starting at HRTech, Taylor had begun landing big clients and making good money—something she couldn’t easily walk away from given her student loans.

Yeah. Well, those are all paid off now. As soon as she was able, she’d start looking for a new job, something more mean­ingful, back in the Bay Area. Kissing up to men like Bennett Wade, who she’d never met but couldn’t stand because she knew his type, was not her calling.

The Prius finally got out of the way, and she zoomed past, taking the little road that led to the back of the building where luckily she found an empty spot.

Now thirty-five—Nope. Make that thirty-six—minutes late, Taylor ran in her black heels, clutching her laptop case in one hand and oversized brown leather purse in the other. Once in­side the twenty-story glass-and-steel rectangle, Taylor made it to the elevator just in time to watch the doors slide shut in her face.

“Sonofabitch!” She jabbed at the elevator button and looked down at her watch, suddenly noticing several strange spots on the lapel of her black blazer. Oh, no. She must’ve missed a few drops of bleach when she’d spritzed the kitchen counters last night before bed. Cleaning helped her unwind and feel in con­trol, especially when her crazy job made her head spin from the constant juggling. She had laid her blazer on the counter this morning while she’d been looking for her keys.

As she waited for the elevator, she freed her hair from its ponytail and finger combed the length of it over her lapel to cover the spots. The elevator chimed, and she jumped in. Mo­ments later, Taylor arrived at the top floor and sprinted for the executive conference room where Vera waited, along with six senior managers, all of whom reported to Taylor.

“Hi, everyone. Sorry I’m late,” she threw her bag down on the long gray table that stretched the length of the room, “but I was stuck in traffic and then some jerk in a Prius was blocking the—”

“I assure you,” said a deep, cold voice, “that my poor driving was a direct result of a man my height trying to maneuver a vehicle meant for one of those emaciated, tree-hugging vegetar­ians.”

Oh no. Taylor gazed across the room at the scowling man in his early thirties wearing a black suit and seated at the head of the table. His thick, wavy brown hair was neatly combed back, and his eyes were a shocking pastel blue, almost too light to even be called blue.

Taylor actually stopped breathing for a moment as their eyes met and a chill swept over her entire body. Something about the way he looked at her made the room feel unsafe. Not in a “he’s psycho and going to murder me” sort of way; the man literally filled the entire space with his daunting presence. You weren’t sure if you wanted to bow down to him or run.

Yes, he was that intimidating.

“I’m s-so sorry about that,” Taylor said, taking her seat as gracefully as she could, “but as you can see, I was in a hurry to get here—”

“To meet you obviously,” said Vera, who sat closest to Mr. Wade. “And I know I’ve already said this, but I assure you that this is not how we treat our custo . . .”

Mr. Wade held up his palm, offering no sign of human warmth or civility. “I’ve already wasted enough of my morning on incompetent idiots. I don’t need to hear a list of excuses from some bottle blonde who calls herself a vice president yet can’t figure out how to ensure her clients have proper limo ser­vice from the airport.”

Taylor’s mouth fell open as she witnessed poor Vera’s face turn red. Had this man actually called Vera an idiot and then ridiculed her appearance?

“Yes, well,” Vera cleared her throat. “My sincerest apolo­gies, Mr. Wade. I promise I’ll speak to our Travel Services Man­ager immediately. It won’t happen again.”

Taylor couldn’t believe that Vera had let Mr. Wade’s com­ments slide. She was about to say something when Vera turned her head in Taylor’s direction. “Taylor, whenever you’re ready.” Something in her tone made Taylor bite back her words.

“Of course. Just one second while I pull up the presenta­tion.” She popped open her laptop and the home screen came up, but the presentation shortcut was missing.

What? But how? She looked up at the anxious faces around the table. Okay, hurrying, hurrying . . . She clicked on the doc­uments tab and found the file, but when she tried to open it, the little circle on the screen kept spinning, like an evil doughnut taunting her sanity. “Um . . .” She looked at Mr. Wade. “My computer is a little slow; big file. Probably too big because I stayed up late making sure—”

“So, Bennett,” Vera chimed in, “while Taylor is taking her sweet time loading the presentation, why don’t you tell the team here—”

“Did we fuck last night?” Bennett interrupted, his cold gaze locked on Vera’s face.

Taylor froze and looked across the table, unsure if she’d heard him correctly.

“Sorry?” Vera’s face went from red to a mortified shade of white.

Bennett Wade leaned forward in his chair toward Vera. “Did. We. Fuck. Last night?”

The room filled with a ghastly, awkward vibe, and Taylor was pretty damned sure everyone was pinching themselves un­derneath the table. Had he really said that?

Vera shook her head. “I—I don’t understand.”

Pinning Vera with his eyes, Mr. Wade slowly eased back in his chair, his black suit stretching across his shoulders. “Only my mother and women I fuck get to call me Bennett. So unless I got stinking drunk last night, which would have to be the case for me to ever touch a woman like you, then you’ll refer to me as Mr. Wade.”

Whatthehell? Taylor felt a fire of outrage ignite in the pit of her stomach. “You know what?” She slapped the table, stood, and then pointed to the door. “Get out.”

Mr. Wade blinked his blue eyes at her as if he wasn’t quite sure what she’d just said.

“In fact,” she added, “get the hell off my planet. People like you are what make this world a shitty place for the rest of us who are just trying to be happy and make a living.”

Vera popped up from her seat. “Taylor, don’t.”

“Oh, no,” Mr. Wade said, with a superficial smile, “by all means, please go on, Miss . . .”

“Reed. And that’s Ms. Reed to you. You . . . pig in a suit.”

“Taylor! Outside. Now!” barked Vera.

But Taylor had really had it with guys like this who thought that they could behave any way they liked simply because they had money. She thought of the countless times she’d had to fend off unwanted solicitations by half her male clientele over the past few years. They always made it a point to want to talk business over dinner. Just last week, in fact, one of Mr. Wade’s golfing buddies, a rich asshat named Chip who worked for his mommy’s big perfume company had actually proposed a “weekend dinner meeting” in Vegas. Who did that in this day and age? But of course, these pompous billionaires didn’t seem to care that she found their advances offensive. The more blunt she became with no, the more they seemed to enjoy pursuing her. And what had Vera said about it? “Taylor, these are profes­sional, successful businessmen who know better, especially considering the damage one lawsuit could do to their compa­nies. I’m sure they’re just trying to be friendly—that’s all.” Vera clearly didn’t understand that while women and minorities had come a long, long way, the boys’ club was alive and well in cor­porate America. Just take a look at the annual report of any large company. Female faces were scarce and there was gener­ally only one shade of the rainbow.

Begrudgingly, Taylor had listened to Vera and let it go. Again and again and again.

Well, no more.

Mr. Wade let out a deep chuckle. “Pig in a suit? This is good.”

“You think it’s funny?” Taylor snapped. “You come in here and insult this woman because you think you’re some god, some all-powerful being who has been granted the right to trample over those you perceive as lesser. But strip away your money, that suit,” she flipped her wrist through the air, “and that handsome face—you’re no different from the rest of us, buddy. You’re going to die someday! Yep. That’s right. Die. Just like the rest of us.”

Vera had now moved to her side and was tugging on Taylor’s arm, trying to usher her out the door.

“You’re right, Ms. Reed,” Bennett said in a slow, overly pompous tone. “I will die. And so will you. But when I go, I’ll have something to show for my hard work. People like you, on the other hand, will find that you’ve plowed your way through life, complaining and pointing fingers at others for what you perceive are their shortcomings. But in the end you’ll realize that is all you’ve done. Because people like you are all bark and no bite. Don’t like what you see in this world, Ms. Reed? Try getting off your pedestal, woman, and do something about it.” Mr. Wade rose from his seat, staring at her with an expression of blatant amusement on his gorgeous, smug face. “Now, folks, if you’ll excuse me; I have some golf to play. I only stopped by for the tax write-off, anyway. My business is firing people and replacing them with machines, not hiring them. So I’m afraid I have no need for your recruiting skills.”

Oh. My. God! What a horrible, disgusting man! Taylor watched Mr. Wade disappear out the door and debated whether to follow him to the elevator so she could punch him right in his pearly whites.

“My office, Taylor. Now,” Vera hissed.

Taylor didn’t make eye contact with anyone as Vera left the room. She already knew what her boss was going to say: “The customer is always right, even if they’re not.” To Vera, that meant allowing people like Bennett Wade to humiliate her in public. It just wasn’t right. Of course, Vera was a divorcée with two kids to put through college. She saw things a little differ­ently than Taylor did.

Taylor’s team silently left the room while she remained standing, hands planted on the table and head hung low. Ben­nett Wade’s jarring, blunt words began circulating through her mind. Crap. Crap! He’s right. It’s not good enough to complain. She thumped her fist on the table. That smug SOB had given her a dose of the truth, and while it hurt like hell, she couldn’t look away simply because the person who’d delivered the mes­sage was an insensitive prick.

Instead of going to Vera’s office, Taylor headed for the eleva­tor, down to her tenth floor office. She grabbed her gym bag from the bottom drawer of her desk. Inside the bag, she placed a picture of her with her best friends, Holly and Sarah, sipping hurricanes in Vegas. They were going to flip when they heard about this a-hole client. They would definitely agree that she had done the right thing.

Taylor then picked up her other photo—the one of her three brothers standing with her father at the Grand Canyon—and cringed. They were going to give her hell for leaving behind a steady, well-paying job. It would be just like the time she left the college volleyball team because it was cutting into her study time. They saw it as quitting. She saw it as doing the right thing. But they subscribed to the school of “suck it up” and “no pain, no gain,” which meant they’d always been extra-tough on her—the youngest, weakest “brother.” Only she was a girl, which meant her head wasn’t up her ass half the time and her view of the world was a teensy bit different.

Well, it’s my life, not theirs, and you only live once.

She shoved the frame into her bag, took one last look at her big office, and shut the door behind her.

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