With two more weeks still to go before Thanksgiving, New York City was unseasonably cold, a slushy rain falling from the iron-gray skies. Inside the back of the yellow cab, Tobias Eaton pulled his trench coat a little closer around himself. He’d asked the cabbie to turn the heat up twice, but it was clear that the aging taxi had given all it could give. Tobias decided it didn’t matter as they were already nearing the corporate headquarters of Prior-Eaton International Travel.
Less than ten minutes later, the cab pulled up to the front of the midtown high-rise that housed his family’s company. Glancing at his watch, Tobias smiled to himself. He was going to be precisely on time for the meeting with his father. Marcus Eaton did not take kindly to being kept waiting. Upon arriving at Marcus’ office, Tobias frowned when he didn’t see his father’s secretary at her desk. He stood, debating what to do for a moment. Marcus didn’t tolerate lateness and Tobias needed his father’s approval on the additional funding for their charity, Helping Hands. However, Marcus also didn’t appreciate anyone—family included—barging into his office unannounced either. Deciding to risk it, Tobias strode toward the office door; he did have an appointment after all.
As he approached, he couldn’t help but notice the door was ajar and sighed at what he saw within. The secretary—Amelia, Allison, something like that—was just straightening up to her full height while smoothing her too-tight pencil skirt over her hips. She’d clearly been on her knees just a few moments before. Tobias silently scoffed; he wasn’t terribly surprised at the scenario. Marcus was notorious for sleeping with his staff, but considering it had taken a million dollars to keep the last secretary quiet just a year ago, Tobias had thought his father would exercise better judgment. No such luck, he thought as he entered the room.
“Son!” Marcus boomed, glancing at the clock on the bookshelf opposite him. “You’re right on time.” Flicking a glance at the young redhead, he said, “Thank you, Allison. That’ll be all for now.”
Allison smiled a completely unprofessional smile. “Of course, Mr. Eaton,” she purred. “It was my pleasure.” Her eyes flicked smugly over to Tobias.
Tobias suppressed the urge to roll his eyes. It wasn’t enough that the little bimbo was “servicing” her boss; she had to try and rub his father’s infidelity in his face, too. Of course, some of that smugness may have come from her perceived triumph in getting one Eaton man into bed. Tobias had turned her down flat when she’d propositioned him a few months before, so she’d turned her eyes firmly towards Marcus—a move which obviously worked. Allison smirked at Tobias, aware that he didn’t think much of her. She clearly assumed her position as Marcus’ latest lover would give her some sort of advantage now. As she sashayed past him, Tobias glanced down at her mouth. “You missed some,” he said, his gravelly voice serious.
The woman flushed, either with anger or embarrassment—maybe both—and quickened her step out of the office, shutting the door firmly behind her. Tobias shook his head and strode to the chair across from his father's desk and dropped into it.
"That wasn't very nice, Tobias," Marcus chided none too seriously.
Tobias tried hard not to be annoyed at his father's casual amusement. "So what? She left the door partially opened. She needs to be more discreet, Dad. What if I had been an employee?"
Marcus' eyes narrowed. He didn’t appreciate being called on the carpet by anyone, least of all his own son. “I would think my employees would be smart enough to keep what they see to themselves.” His voice carried a tone of warning.
The tone set Tobias' teeth on edge, but he couldn’t afford to alienate his father, not if he wanted to seal this deal for Helping Hands. “Our employees are absolutely loyal,” Tobias said carefully, “but that reporter, Nita Vargas, was heavily sniffing around Ellen before we negotiated her…um…separation agreement.” In all honesty, Tobias was still pissed it cost the family a million dollars just because Marcus couldn’t keep his pants zipped. Tobias knew paying off the former secretary was a sore spot with Marcus too and mentioning it had the desired effect.
Marcus' expression turned serious and his deep-blue eyes, which were the same color as his son’s, locked on the closed door. "Hmm," he murmured, "you have a point, son. I'll have a word with her."
Pushing aside the unpleasant topic of his dad’s infidelities, Tobias pulled out a folder of spreadsheets from his briefcase. “I assume you’ve had a chance to review the projections I sent you yesterday?”
Reaching for a similar looking folder lying on the side of his desk, Marcus flipped it open lazily. “Yes, quite a thorough job, son, I must admit.”
Surprised that Marcus hadn’t outright rejected his idea, Tobias continued, “I wanted to make sure you had as much of the data as possible. As you can see, the cost of overhauling the Temperance isn’t financially feasible for Prior-Eaton. Buying a new ship to replace her makes much more sense in the long-term. Instead, doing some slight modifications on the Temperance and donating her for exclusive use by Helping Hands provides not only a sound write-off for charitable purposes, but also reduces a great deal of the overhead for Helping Hands itself. With our own method of transportation and housing, we reduce the need for the charity to outsource those expenses. And, donating her provides a tax write-off that you wouldn’t get if you simply junked her for parts.”
Marcus nodded idly, flipping through the financial projections Tobias had provided. “I can see some benefit to it, but I need to consider all the options. Have the accountants rerun the projections—give it to George and Jack.”
Tobias tried not to clench his teeth, knowing Marcus would notice the tightening of his jaw. “I did have both accounting and legal take a look at the proposal. Their memos are also contained in the file.” As he damn well knows, Tobias thought. Then again, it wouldn’t be his father if Marcus didn’t make him run the gauntlet before agreeing to the proposal. For all Marcus’ bluster about wanting his son to join the company, Tobias knew Marcus would keep testing him.
“It’s always best to double check these things,” Marcus answered and was pleased when he didn’t draw a reaction from his son. The boy was certainly honing his business skills.
Realizing he wasn’t going to get any further with Marcus today, Tobias began rearranging the papers he’d pulled from his briefcase. “Well, I should let you get back to work—”
“Just a moment, son.” Marcus straightened in his chair and leaned across the table to look Tobias in the eye. “There’s one other thing I wanted to talk to you about?”
“The Thanksgiving banquet.”
This time Tobias could not contain his sigh. Every year for the past decade, Prior-Eaton had rewarded their top employees with a getaway trip to “The Big Apple” the weekend before Thanksgiving that culminated in an elegant banquet hosted in their honor. Marcus had consistently used it to push the agenda of Prior-Eaton as a family company—even if the Eaton-portion of that family was a sham.
“Yes, Dad, I’ll be there.”
“Of course, you will. Which is why I’ve arranged for you to escort Beatrice Prior.”
Tobias stared at his father in shock. “What?”
Marcus sighed impatiently. “Beatrice…Andrew’s daughter. She’ll be alone this year since her brother will be escorting his fiancée. Beatrice isn’t seeing anyone and neither are you, so Andrew and I thought this would be a perfect solution to ensure no one inappropriate makes an appearance.”
Tempering down the anger rising inside him, Tobias forced himself to take a deep breath. His parents had never been the type of people to hold back their feelings about the women he’d dated even though his reputation as somewhat of a playboy was greatly exaggerated. “I’m perfectly capable of finding a date myself, Dad.”
Marcus smirked a little. “I don’t think any of your models would be an appropriate choice for a family function.”
Tobias held his tongue at the irony of Marcus’ statement given that Tobias had just walked in on Marcus and his secretary. Besides that, Tobias had never told his parents that the few models he’d escorted to various parties weren’t anything more than friends, two of them even had relationships of their own they preferred not to publicize. He admitted it was petty of him to allow his parents to think all he wanted was some pretty face, but it amused him nonetheless. “Dad, I haven’t been around Beatrice in years. I think the last time I even saw her was before we moved to England.” Tobias was only sixteen when his grandfather had died and the Board of Directors unanimously voted Marcus as CEO of Prior-Eaton. Marcus then moved the family back to his childhood home in London where their European offices were located and felt it only right to name Andrew Prior as partner and CFO of the company both of their grandfathers had started.
“Then it is time you renewed your association with my partner’s daughter.”
Tobias couldn’t suppress another sigh. When he’d last seen Beatrice Prior, she’d been a skinny, gawky kid with braces who preferred to have her face in a book rather than talk to actual people. “Dad, really; I don’t want to spend the evening with a stranger.”
“She may be a bit boring, but she’s a lovely, young lady. Besides, it’s only a few hours.” Marcus idly tapped his fingers on top of the folder containing the financial projections for Helping Hands.
The underlying meaning behind Marcus’ tapping fingers was not lost on Tobias. He was well aware that Marcus would be more than willing to use Helping Hands against him if it came down to it. “Come now, son,” Marcus cajoled. “It won’t be that bad. Beatrice may not be a model, but she is pretty. You can put up with her for a few hours, can’t you?”
Tobias’ jaw tightened as he considered his father’s unspoken message. If he refused to escort Beatrice, Marcus would turn down his proposal to use one of Prior-Eaton’s old ships as the cornerstone of Helping Hands’ charitable enterprise. It was blackmail, pure and simple. After a moment, Tobias’ shoulders sagged. “Yes, Dad, I can do it.”
Marcus grinned broadly—he’d been confident Tobias would capitulate. “Excellent! I’ll tell Andrew. I’m sure you two will hit it right off.”
Tobias slunk down in his chair. “Yes, Dad. I’m sure you’re right,” he said, dully. The thought of the banquet had just gone from annoying to unbearable.
“Your dad’s a fucking prick, dude,” Zeke Pedrad proclaimed, taking a sip of his decaffeinated iced tea. A tight end for the New York Giants, he and Tobias had been best friends since they were nine years old, having bonded at the all-boys private school they’d both attended. During the season, Zeke religiously avoided alcohol, not wanting anything to potentially mess up his game. In solidarity, his friends usually tee-totaled with him.
Tobias snorted. “Tell me something I don’t know, man.” He took a deep drink of his own tea and sighed. He’d come over not long after leaving his father’s office, needing to vent out his frustration and anger. For the last several minutes, he’d been brooding into his glass.
Zeke’s younger brother, Uriah, shrugged. “It won’t be so bad,” he argued. “Tris is cool.”
“‘Tris’?” Tobias asked with a raised eyebrow.
“Yeah. She hates Beatrice—says it’s too old fashioned.”
Tobias shrugged. “That’s something, at least.” He sighed again. “I should have figured he’d do something, but to use the charity to force me into spending the evening with this woman just pisses me off. Now I’m going to be stuck with her all evening.”
Uriah rolled his eyes. “Trust me, Tobias, she’s probably no happier about this than you.”
“Still,” Zeke cut in, “you’ve got to admit, Uri, it’s pretty fucked up.”
“I’m not saying it’s not. I’m just saying there’s no reason to get all upset about it.”
“Come on, would you want to spend all night with some chick you don’t even know just because mom and dad forced you to?” Zeke argued then turned to Tobias. “When was the last time you even saw her?”
Tobias thought for a moment. “It was before we moved to England. I was about sixteen, so she must have been, what…twelve or thirteen?”
“She’s my age,” Uriah pointed out. “Don’t forget, we went to Princeton together.”
“Okay, fine, then she was fourteen.”
Uriah leaned forward. “That’s my point. It’s been almost fifteen years since you spent any time with her. She’s not a kid anymore. She’s an interesting, vivacious, intelligent, beautiful woman.”
“You’re her friend,” Tobias pointed out.
Before Uriah could retort, Zeke butted in. “Well, he’s not wrong,” Zeke conceded. “Tris is a lot of fun once you get her to relax. And…” he wiggled his eyebrows, “she’s pretty hot. Isn’t she, Uri?” Zeke had needled his brother for years about his tendency to have more friends who were women than men, especially beautiful women.
Uriah shot a frown at his brother. “Don’t be a jerk.”
“I’m not! Look—if he has to have a woman foisted on him, she should at least be hot.”
Uriah turned to Tobias. “Like I said, Tris is an amazing woman and I’m positive you’ll like her. Just—just be regular you, not asshole you.”
Tobias raised an eyebrow. “Are you saying I’m an asshole?” he asked, his voice deepening as he glared at Uriah.
“See, that right there. That’s what I’m talking about. You go all military and act like people are enemy combatants or something. Believe me, her parents probably pressured her too, so she’ll be just as pissed. You guys are on the same side, so don’t take your shit out on her.” Uriah took a deep drink from his glass. Tobias could be intimating as hell when he wanted to be and Uriah usually didn’t push it, but Tris was too important to him to let it go. Zeke and Tobias exchanged glances. The humor had faded from Zeke’s face and now he was looking at Uriah with a bit more interest.
Tobias studied Uriah for a moment too, trying to figure out what to say next. Finally, he said hesitantly, “Look, Uri, is there something you’ve got going with her? If so, I’ll push back, tell my dad that she’s seeing someone. I can try to get her out of this.” Tobias knew Uri had a friends-with-benefits arrangement with Tris’ best friend, Christina, who he hung out with even when they weren’t sleeping together. Tobias knew he was also close to Tris, maybe more so than with Christina. That combined with his passionate defense, made Tobias wonder if there was more to Tris and Uriah’s friendship than met the eye.
Uriah looked startled. “No, it’s not like that,” he insisted. “We’re just friends. She’s like…a sister,” he finished lamely. It wasn’t entirely true; Uriah had had a mild crush on her in college, but Tris hadn’t been interested. He’d thought about making a play for her after she broke up with her boyfriend, Robert Black, and he’d broken up with his girlfriend, Marlene, but by that time, they’d been seniors and there was entirely too much history between them. Still, Tris held a special place in Uriah’s heart and he would hate to see Tobias screw with her.
Tobias stared at Uriah for a moment longer, not sure he believed him, but he decided to let it go. If Tris was important to Uriah, then Tobias resolved to be on his best behavior. “Okay, I’ll be good,” he promised. He reached for his glass again. “Hell, you’re probably right and we could be allies in this. It’d be nice to have somebody on my side against my parents at one of these things for once.”
Zeke toasted Tobias with his glass. “That’s the spirit!” He then turned his gaze to Uriah. “Happy now?”
“Kiss ass, Zeke.” Uriah was beginning to regret being so outspoken. He knew Zeke was not going to let it go.
“Hey, I’m not the one going all knight-in-shining-armor here.”
“I’m just looking out for a friend.”
“Uh-huh, a friend you’d like to fuck?” Zeke taunted. He’d harbored the same suspicion as Tobias about Uriah’s feelings toward Tris.
“You know, Zeke, you’re a real asshole.” Uriah shot back. “Just because I know how to be a gentleman—”
Tobias settled back into the armchair, letting the bickering brothers soothe his nerves. The Pedrads had always been so damn normal; their family dynamic had been a ray of hope for Tobias. His own parents’ caustic relationship had made him deeply skeptical of marriage and relationships, but the Pedrads—Hana and Jonathan—were the best example of a normal, loving relationship Tobias had ever seen. The delight they took in their sons had spilled over to Tobias, making him an honorary Pedrad. Their home was where he went when his own family was too much. As he smiled fondly at the brothers, who were now outright arguing over which was the more chivalrous man, Tobias felt himself settle. He could get through one dinner. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad, after all.
“Come on, Tris. Please!”
Tris sighed deeply and glared at her twin brother. “Caleb, I have no desire to stay here until the end! It’s bad enough that I had to agree to have Tobias Eaton escort me,” Tris sneered the word escort. “But now you expect me to take your place handing out the parting gifts and listening to speeches so you can go off with your fiancée? Nope, no way.”
Caleb pulled Tris closer, so he wouldn’t be overheard. People were beginning to enter the ballroom and find their way to their tables. “Cara is here!” he hissed.
“Of course, she’s here! She’s just been named Assistant Director of Online Operations.” Tris rolled her eyes at her brother.
“I know, I know, but I don’t want her to have to watch me and Susan doing the whole welcome/goodbye thing.” Caleb’s green eyes, their mother’s eyes, were pleading. “Come on, Tris. If not for me, then do it for her. Cara’s your friend. I don’t want to hurt her any more than I already have.”
Tris heaved a huge sigh. “It’s been nearly a year, Caleb. She’s over it.” But still, Tris’ gaze wandered over to the blonde currently chatting with Gus, the Director of Online Operations for Prior-Eaton. “But you’re right, I don’t want to see her hurt.” Tris glared at her brother. “I’m still mad at you for what you did to her.”
Caleb hunched his shoulders a little. “Yeah, I know.” He might not admit it often, but his twin’s disapproval did bother him.
Crossing her arms across her chest, Tris regarded her brother. It wasn’t an ideal place—there were people milling about the ballroom, so it was possible they would be overheard—but this was the first time Tris felt like she could actually get straight answers out of her brother. She pulled him to a relatively quiet corner of the ballroom and lowered her voice. “So, why’d you do it? Why’d you just take off like that? Cara was confused…Mom and Dad were hurt. It was a damn mess and you just left.”
“I just…I just didn’t know how to tell everyone I wanted to go back into research.” Caleb hunched his shoulders. “When I graduated from medical school, Mom and Dad were so excited about me joining the staff of ship’s doctors; I just went along with it. When I met Cara, I thought everything would be okay.” Gesturing helplessly, Caleb shrugged. “Then I got that call from Harold and I just couldn’t say no.” Harold was a former professor of Caleb’s, now at the University of Toronto. He’d had a breakthrough in cancer treatment based on research Caleb had helped him with as a student. Without any warning, Caleb accepted a position on Harold’s medical research team and moved to Toronto. He’d not only told his parents that he was quitting Prior-Eaton, but also broke up with Cara…over the telephone.
“Yeah, but you didn’t have to dump Cara that way!” Tris said, narrowing her eyes. “I have been friends with her since college. Do you know how awkward it has been with her? With Will?” Tris had a tight-knit group of friends and having one of them date her brother had made it better than she’d dreamed. Will, Cara’s brother, was not only Tris’ friend too, but also her best friend’s sometimes-boyfriend.
“I didn’t know how to tell her what I wanted. I knew it would be awkward, so I thought it would be easier for all of us if I severed as many ties to Prior-Eaton as I could.” Caleb looked his sister straight in the eye, something he hadn’t done in months. “I’m not proud of myself. It was a chicken-shit move.”
“Yeah, it was. Then to just move on with Susan Black like nothing happened,” Tris shook her head. “It just made it all the worse.”
Caleb pushed a hand through his sandy blond hair. “I knew I had screwed up. But you know how Dad can be. Every time I tried to talk to him, to help him understand, he’d just perseverate on how much extra work they’d had to do to fill my position. I just…I felt so guilty. So when Mom asked, I felt obligated to go out with Susan that first time. I didn’t expect things to happen the way they did.”
Tris was quiet, considering her twin’s words. She looked up at him, a lifetime of shared experiences passing between them. They’d both tried their best to be the perfect children they thought their parents deserved, but there always seemed to be a disconnect between what they wanted and what their parents wanted for them. Caleb hated confrontation and having to tell their parents he was walking away from their dream for him was tantamount to torture. Looking back, Tris could see why her brother had done things the way he did. “I guess I can understand why you went out with Susan,” she said grudgingly.
A surge of hope shot through Caleb. He’d hated the distance he’d created with Tris and if this were to be his only chance to bridge that, then he would gladly bare his soul. “They were so happy when we kept dating, making it clear they wanted me and Susan together. She’s so sweet and amenable, and the Blacks wanted it too, especially since you and Robert didn’t work out. It just seemed easier for us to go along with it.”
She sighed and turned a hard gaze on her brother. She already knew she was going to agree to help him, not just because Cara was her friend, but also because she could understand how Caleb felt. “If I do this, I’m doing this for Cara, not you. Even though I understand, I’m still mad at you and I’m going to be for a while.”
“I love you, Tris. And I hope you will eventually forgive me.”
“I know,” she murmured, “And, Dad can be—forceful—when he wants something.”
Feeling a thousand pounds lighter, Caleb threw an arm around Tris and gave her a side hug. “I’m not as strong as you, little sister,” he teased. Tris was five minutes younger than him and he never let her forget it. “How have you been able to hold Dad at bay? You haven’t had to officially join the company.”
“Don’t think it’s been easy,” she warned. Tris had managed to keep her participation in Prior-Eaton limited to part-time work in their advertising department so she could concentrate on her writing, something her family still didn’t realize she was taking seriously. “But look at me now. I let them badger me into coming tonight and having Tobias as my escort, no less.” Tris had missed the last several of these employee Thanksgiving events: first because she was in college, then finishing her Master’s degree, and last year because she was sick.
“He’s actually a good guy,” Caleb defended. “I know you guys haven’t spent a lot of time together in the last several years, but I have and I think you’ll like him.”
Tris snorted. “Hardly. The man traipses around the world, doing who knows what, then shows up every now and then in a magazine with some slinky model. Yeah, that’s my kind of guy.”
“He was in the military,” Caleb pointed out. “And then he went to the London School of Economics.”
Rolling her eyes, Tris retorted, “And has spent the last couple of years partying with models.”
Caleb paused. He knew that Tobias wasn’t what Tris thought he was. Before he’d left Prior-Eaton for medical school, Tobias had asked Caleb if he knew anyone at Doctors Without Borders. Tobias had wanted to create a connection with them and the company’s then fledgling charity. Caleb had brokered the introduction and had been amazed at how detailed Tobias’ plans were when they’d met for lunch with one of Caleb’s medical school classmates. It was then that Caleb realized that Tobias was the real driving force behind Helping Hands; there was a lot more to Tobias than what people saw. “It was only a couple of models, Tris. He and Lauren Seagram dated for, like, two years before she got married.”
Tris shrugged her brother’s arm off her shoulders and tucked a lock of hair back into the twisted chignon at the nape of her neck. “Whatever. It’s only a few hours,” she reasoned. “It shouldn’t be that bad.” Straightening her shoulders, she pasted on her professional smile. “Okay, let’s do this.” She wound her arm through her brother’s and led him around the ballroom.
The employees of the catering company were bustling around, putting the finishing touches on the tables. Various Prior-Eaton executives were already sprinkled around the room, talking to each other and waiting for the honored employees to arrive. Caleb led Tris to the back of the ballroom where a man and woman stood, apparently in deep discussion about something. Tris recognized Johanna Reyes, the Vice President of Charitable Giving at Prior-Eaton. The man’s back was turned to them, but Tris could see that he was tall and broad-shouldered with wavy, dark hair. As they got closer, Caleb called out, “Hey, Tobias!” and the man immediately turned around.
It was all Tris could do to keep her jaw from dropping. It had been nearly fifteen years since she’d seen Tobias Eaton in person and she was floored. The man was absolutely gorgeous. He was sporting a neatly trimmed beard, something Tris never realized could look so damn good on a man. The matching black shirt and thin tie beneath his black suit jacket was just fitted enough for Tris to make out the muscles hidden beneath the fine fabric. She’d known he was attractive, but she hadn’t realized how strong of a punch he could pack. Everything about this man exuded male beauty and strength. His nearly navy-blue eyes caught hers and Tris felt a jolt of electricity spark throughout her body. Those eyes were captivating—magnetic even—and Tris found herself unable to look away. They stayed locked on hers as she and Caleb approached, and Tris had to wonder if he felt the same pull towards her as she was feeling towards him.
He finally smiled, those full lips curving seductively. He politely turned to Caleb first. "Hi, Caleb." The timbre of his voice seemed to caress Tris' skin so fully that she wondered if Caleb felt her tremble. Tobias' deep gaze turned back to Tris, "Beatrice. It's been a while. You look lovely."
"Hello, Tobias. It has been a long time. And it’s just Tris," she practically purred. Tris ordered herself to get her shit together. She was going to be spending the next few hours with this man and she would not appear a blithering idiot.
“Tris,” he repeated and Tris felt her knees weaken at the sound of her name in that deep baritone voice. He turned slightly to Johanna. "I believe you both know Johanna."
“Yes, hello.” Caleb reached out to shake Johanna’s hand. “It’s good to see you again.” Johanna smiled and returned the greeting, then began chatting amiably with Caleb. Their voices began fading into the background as Tris and Tobias stared at each other.
“So, I’m to escort you tonight,” Tobias said, a small smile hovering over his lips.
Tris chuckled a little, hoping she didn’t sound as nervous as she felt. “Yes, I’m sorry you got roped into this. My parents and yours thought putting us together would be a good idea.”
“I’m beginning to think they were right,” he murmured. Tris bit down on her bottom lip a little, desperately trying to think of something witty to say. Behind her, she realized that people were beginning to file into the room. She glanced over her shoulder then turned back to find his hand held out to her. “Shall we?” he asked.
Tris placed her hand into his and once again felt that familiar electric shock. Her eyes flew up to his and this time, she could see that spark reflected in his dark blues, too. “Yes, I suppose we shall,” she whispered back.