Excerpt for The Tycoon's Triplet Baby Surprise by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

THE TYCOON’S TRIPLET BABY SURPRISE




By Holly Rayner


Copyright 2016 by Holly Rayner


All rights reserved. Except for use in any review, the reproduction or utilization of this work in whole or in part by any means, now known or hereafter invented, including xerography, photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, is forbidden without the explicit written permission of the author.


All characters depicted in this fictional work are consenting adults, of at least eighteen years of age. Any resemblance to persons living or deceased, particular businesses, events, or exact locations are entirely coincidental.












Table Of Contents:


ONE

TWO

THREE

FOUR

FIVE

SIX

SEVEN

EIGHT

NINE

TEN

ELEVEN

TWELVE

THIRTEEN

FOURTEEN

FIFTEEN

SIXTEEN

SEVENTEEN

EIGHTEEN

NINETEEN

TWENTY











ONE

Prologue



Eighteen-year-old Charlotte stood in her mother’s coat on the chilly Yale campus, her blond hair whizzing around her. It was an early fall day, late September, and her mother and father had dropped her at the campus with nonchalant kisses, telling her she’d “be just fine on her own.”


And she was. She always was.


She brought her coat closer around her, her eyes tracing the backs of her fellow seniors, each of whom was preparing to apply to go to Yale the following year. They were hopeful, working toward success with bright eyes and a constant air of panic and urgency. It was the way of the elitist academic. Charlotte knew this.


A girl she’d befriended earlier in the day leaned toward her. “I think we have just one more speaker,” she said, her voice coming harshly through the fall wind. “And then we should go grab a hot chocolate somewhere. I’m freezing! Can you imagine living here? So far north? It’s not anything like my home in Texas.” She gave a grimace.


“I think I can withstand the cold,” Charlotte said, laughing. “I just want to get accepted.”


“Oh, you will. You have that look about you,” the girl said, giving her a once-over.


Charlotte shivered, oddly nervous. She knew she was rather pretty, with long blond hair and a slender build, but she so often forgot this about herself—transplanting this image with one of her in the future, parading through the many entrapments of pre-law and then law school, on the road to success.


The crowd around her began to break out in applause, and Charlotte lifted herself on her toes, aching to see the final speaker. She could just barely catch the top of a dark head, tilted down as he marched across the stage and toward the podium. Surprised at herself, Charlotte snuck her elbow, then her shoulder, then her entire upper body between the snuggled high school seniors in front of her, finally catching full view of the dark-headed, confident, and alarmingly handsome man at the podium. He pushed his finger up the bridge of his nose, forcing his sunglasses back to his eyes.


He cleared his throat into the microphone, clearly unaccustomed to addressing large groups of people. As she looked at him, something within Charlotte sparked. Her ears strained at attention, her feet wobbled as she remained on her tiptoes, keeping her tall to maintain her view.


“Good afternoon,” the man began. He searched over the sea of heads, as if he were looking for something. It almost seemed that he made intimate, highlighted eye contact with Charlotte, but as he swiftly moved on, she sensed she was only daydreaming.


“Let me introduce myself, for those of you who don’t already know my name. Don’t be alarmed; most people at Yale don’t know my name, either… Anyway. Yes. Introduction.” He fluffed his hands through his dark, curly hair. “I’m Sean Lawson, and I’m from a small town in the Midwest. Growing up, I had almost nothing, just a skateboard and an affinity for computers. Which, naturally, led me to the tech world. Like many of you, I saw my future at Yale. And when I got my dream… well. I knew I wanted to do anything in my power to succeed.


“I’ve been chosen to speak to you this afternoon because I have a plan for a startup company, called InvestMe.”


Sean allowed the words to hang in the air. InvestMe. Some of the students began to pass the word around, eyeing each other. Was this a part of the Yale rhetoric? Should they be taking notes? Was someone going to send them a PowerPoint?


“InvestMe is something I’ve been working on for nearly two and a half years, first out of my dorm room, then the tiny college apartment I rented with my now ex-girlfriend and our cat. It’s just me and the cat, now.”


The audience began to laugh again. Charlotte found it curious the way he spoke about his life—so self-deprecating, despite how handsome he was. She wondered if he’d looked into a mirror recently; perhaps his mind was spinning too fast to get a true sense for how others perceived him. If this was the case, she could certainly relate. She’d lost herself in textbooks for days at a time, only coming up for air when her stomach ached.


“Anyway. InvestMe is a venture that necessarily involves you—or your potential, that is. It is a venture capital site that allows young entrepreneurs to receive backing from investors. I know that sounds complicated and perhaps you’re asking yourself ‘Who in the world would want to invest in me?’ But I’m telling you. Fresh ideas are what make this world spin. And investors want your ideas. They want fresh blood. They want you.”


Several of the high school seniors began to roar with approval at his words. Charlotte’s eyes grew large. Sean’s passion for his work was radiating from him, giving him an incredibly alluring aura. She felt lust grasp her heart—she’d never been truly attracted to anyone before, and yet this man, who’d given up the typical college experience in order to fight for success, really captivated her. She had to close her mouth, noting that it was hanging open, her mind absorbing and memorizing his every syllable.


Sean continued, speaking about the mechanics of the program, about the long hours he’d put into it, and about how it was to be completed before his graduation in the spring. At that time, the moneymaking would probably begin.


He snapped his fingers, his face falling into faux-panic. “I mean, that’s the plan. Wish me luck. And if not, invite me to your parties, okay? Because I’m going to need something to do if it’s not this.” He laughed with ease, his eyes darting out across the crowd.


He finished the speech, and the presentation for the potential students ended. Charlotte’s temporary companion reached forward and grasped her shoulder, yanking it back lightly. “Hey! Are you ready for that hot chocolate?”


But Charlotte pushed forward in the crowd, giving the girl a quick goodbye. “Sorry!” she cried out, her heart jolting in her chest. An invisible force was leading her far from the crowd of high school students and toward the stage, where Sean Lawson stood chatting with several professors and other Yale hopefuls. She strung her fingers through her hair, noting the chilly wind had caused it to fluff out—she probably looked like a mess.


As she crept closer, Charlotte realized that several of the Yale hopefuls were gushing about Sean, just as she’d been, privately.


“Your speech was just incredible,” one boy said, sniffing, his glasses dwarfing his face. “I couldn’t get enough of it. You truly demonstrate your passion for technology. It’s inspiring for those of us who’ve never thrown a football.”


Sean laughed, clutching his stomach and leaning back. But as he took another step from the professors and youthful students, he was suddenly bombarded. A massive group of reporters and what seemed to be potential investors, all of them in smart suits, their noses high, swept toward him.


Microphones were lifted into Sean’s face. He looked like a deer caught in headlights—his face went pale and he stuttered, hearing 20 different questions thrown at him all at once. The tiny high-school senior who’d made the ‘nerds stick together’ joke looked dejected and began to walk away, his hope of becoming friends with Sean drowned out by reality.


Charlotte realized it, all at once: this man was going to be famous. He was going to be something special—a very important, very rich man. She swallowed at the prospect of it, thinking that she was viewing the sun on its trajectory through the sky. This was just the beginning of morning’s first light.


And she’d been foolish to think, even for a second, that he would speak with her. She remembered, her eyes darting around the scene, that she’d even wanted to ask him to grab a coffee. She’d imagined them seated in a cozy, Yale café, eyeing each other. He would be nervous, because she was pretty and young and vibrant; she would be nervous, because he was everything she yearned to be, on the precipice of something great.


Perhaps they would ease themselves into conversation. Perhaps they wouldn’t feel so lost in each other’s presence, as Charlotte so often did with her peers.


But naturally, her daydreams were fading as more and more cameramen pushed lenses close to Sean’s attractive face, and more and more suits surrounded him, pushing business cards. Sean looked taken aback—celebrity status was clearly not his aim. As he peered to the right, outside of the sea of ravenous men and women, his eyes stumbled upon Charlotte, who was unabashedly staring at him.


Their eyes connected, and Sean gave her a sudden, self-conscious smile. Charlotte returned it, lost in the moment, unsure if it was truly happening or not. It was almost as if the world had stopped for them—no longer could she hear the scrambling newscasters, waving their microphones. No longer could she sense that she was surrounded by hundreds of her high school senior peers, each of them humming and hawing about what to major in.


Soon, the growling press pack grew even more ravenous, even hungrier. One of the journalists reached forth and grasped Sean’s sleeve, causing his and Charlotte’s smiles to falter. Sean’s eyes were then focused solely on this journalist. He was angry, yelling “What do you think you’re doing?”


Sean reclaimed his sleeve, and Charlotte watched as one gleaming cufflink, once attached, popped off and dropped to the ground, bouncing toward her. In the hubbub, nobody else noticed.


She paused, gazing at it, without breath. And then, as she looked upwards once more, she noted that one of the speaker handlers had dived into the chaos and grabbed Sean, scurrying him away from the questions, from hungry people willing to grab and yell until he gave them what they wanted.


“I’m sorry,” Sean said curtly, sneaking through a side door. “I’m sure I’ll be able to answer your questions shortly, but it seems I must go now.”


Charlotte grinned inwardly at his apology, his awareness that he needed to be nice to everyone to keep his opportunities open, even the most wretched of the press.


As the sea of journalists began to disperse, Charlotte knelt to the sidewalk, removing her glove. She grasped the freezing cold cufflink, sitting naked on the pavement, and she brought it to her heart, remembering the warmth of Sean’s smile and the impossible energy with which he’d spoken to the Yale hopefuls.


If I can retain even an ounce of that kind of hope and drive for my future, Charlotte thought, I’ll be fine.


She whirled herself back toward the exit, marching through the historic campus, keeping her head down in the rushing wind. Her parents were waiting in their humming vehicle at the end of an old driveway, near a sorority house. Her father had his face buried in a newspaper, and her mother was sleeping, her eyelids twitching. Charlotte had half a mind to move them to the backseat, so she could drive them home, like children. But she simply grinned, tapping the window.


“Hello, darling,” her father said as she jumped into the back, swiping her gloves from her hands. “How was your first day at Yale?”


“Not my first day, Dad,” Charlotte said, her voice sarcastic. She felt playful, energetic. “But, to answer your question, my first day on Yale’s campus—and maybe my last, to be fair—was absolutely a dream. It’s so gorgeous. It’s filled with impossibly brilliant minds.”


“None as brilliant as yours, my dear,” her father said, cranking up the heat. “Anything good to report?”


Charlotte eased her head back on the backseat headrest, her mind dancing. She reached into her pocket and found the cufflink, certain she’d keep it with her as a token, a memento of the day and the brilliant, rousing speech. “You should have seen this speaker,” she said, her voice whimsical. “He had this remarkable idea. An online platform, to help people invest in entrepreneurs. And the way he talked about it—”


“Online platform?” her father said, his voice gruff. He was an insurance salesman from the suburbs of Hartford, and he thought even the prospect of college was quite silly. But he had driven to Yale for his daughter; he loved her more than the world. “Sounds kind of dumb to me. People don’t actually want to invest in entrepreneurs, do they?”


“I think they do,” Charlotte countered.


“Well. I guess that’s something you’ll learn about at Yale,” her father said, teasing her. “But until you prove me wrong, agree to disagree.”


In the backseat, Charlotte rolled her eyes, her mind centered on another life, another world. Her mother snored on.


“Do you want to stop halfway home to get some dinner?” she finally asked, feeling her stomach rumble now that the excitement and adrenaline had died down a little. It was only a 40-minute drive home, but she felt like a celebratory slice of apple pie from her favorite diner was in order to top off the amazing day she’d had.


“Sure, pumpkin,” her dad said.


And with that, the vehicle zoomed out onto the streets outside of Yale University, a place Charlotte had now set her heart on attending.


She would be the precise kind of nerd Sean Lawson had spoken about in his speech, keeping her head down and maintaining her focus at all costs. And she would be proud of this fact, even as her eyes grew to need glasses, even as she watched other peers pair up and have hope for safe and beautiful—if not cookie-cutter—futures.


Throughout many years of university at her dream school, Charlotte would keep that cufflink safe in her grandmother’s jewelry box, stowed away, waiting. She would read about Sean Lawson as he propelled into stardom, almost immediately after that fateful day when she’d seen him speak. He would eventually be listed as one of the richest men in his 20s for five years running—until he hit his 30s. And all the while, Charlotte would feel she had a kind of link to this man, felt that they’d shared a moment in time, immediately before he’d been thrust into becoming a household name. There, in that Yale courtyard, they’d had the same, frightened smiles.


Throughout her college career, Charlotte never spoke of her infatuation with Sean Lawson. She never showed anyone the cufflink; rather, she maintained the memory, calling to it when she felt lonely or unsure of herself.


When she ultimately accepted a job all the way across the country in Seattle, she knew she hadn’t taken the position simply because Sean was a tech scene mover and shaker in the great Pacific city. No, she’d always had an inkling she would end up out west.


And Sean had nothing to do with it.





TWO


Ten Years Later



Ellis and Associates was a downtown law firm, surrounded by modern glass office buildings and flooded with tech gurus, who were constantly bouncing in and out of its doors. Of course, that’s exactly what Charlotte had wanted when she’d started her tech law career, all those years before.


She jumped off her bicycle at the entrance, locking it up with the others that piled too high after many forgotten months. Despite Seattle’s love for the environment, it seemed most people in the tech world were a bit too much talk, and not enough action. But Charlotte was dutiful, as she was with everything.


Charlotte entered the top floor of the law firm, running her fingers through her blond hair, knowing it always looked a bit fluffed, a bit too curly after her bike ride in. She sauntered to the coffee machine, rubbing sleep from her eyes. She’d been up until three a.m. the night before, reading through a recent lawsuit between two startups—neither of which, she knew, would ultimately “make it” in the end.

She watched as the coffee crept begrudgingly into the black mug, her still slightly hazy mind trying to assess the events of the upcoming work day. She had a morning meeting with her boss, Katrina, and her head boss, Lyle, in the next hour, and she often went overly prepared, if only because Katrina didn’t have to be. In addition to being Charlotte’s boss, Katrina was the only daughter of Charles Ellis, the owner of Ellis and Associates. He’d practically bought her acceptance into Harvard Law school, and she’d scraped through the bar exam, just barely passing on her third attempt (at least, this was the rumor around the office. Charlotte didn’t like to gossip).


Charlotte heard the light tapping of high heels, and she spun around to find herself face-to-face with Katrina herself. Katrina’s pretty, dark brown hair wound in coils around her face, and her front tooth had a fleck of bright red lipstick on it.


“Your weekend?” Katrina began with a false brightness. “Did you get up to much?”


Charlotte knew Katrina asked this only to hear her dismal answer. “I worked on that Murphy case,” Charlotte said, her eyebrows high. “And caught up on—”


“Oh, okay. You already want to talk about work,” Katrina said, wagging her finger. “We’ll never loosen you up, will we?”


As Katrina bounded toward the coffee machine, smacking the icon that would deliver a perfect, black brew, Charlotte rolled her eyes. She’d been a consistent ladder climber for the previous two years, since her arrival at Ellis and Associates, and yet, she’d been passed by. She’d been stomped on. And now, she was being made fun of.


Without another word, Charlotte strode toward her office, shoving the door closed and taking quick sips of her latte, gazing out over the water on perfect, gleaming display outside her window.


She sighed. It was all worth it, really, for this early morning Pacific view. Back at Yale, she knew the students were sitting in steaming hot classrooms, memories of terrible northeastern winters forgotten for now. But in Seattle, things were different. The sun seemed further away; the sky was a perfect blue, if only for this time of the year. The rest of it—well. She had enough umbrellas to keep everything under control.


On her desk, Charlotte had positioned a small pewter jewelry box. Not her grandmother’s, but a smaller one she’d found in an antique store near New Haven. She’d placed the cufflink there as a reminder of the past, and a future she could have, so long as she kept her nose to the grindstone.


She tapped her password into her computer, humming a quiet tune, and soon found herself browsing the InvestMe website. The company’s list of previous investors was a sight to behold: Bill Gates, Larry Page, and, before his death, Steve Jobs. Charlotte liked to imagine Sean Lawson meeting with these men, exchanging laughter, kind words between fellow entrepreneurs. She liked to imagine where they would go for such meetings. Where do some of the brightest minds of the earth congregate, and where do they have their “aha” moments?


Charlotte clicked to the page labeled “Founder” and felt immediately breathless at the image of Sean himself, seated casually in his immaculate suit. He had broad shoulders, a perfectly cut jawline dusted with a permanent five-o-clock shadow, and that rough and wild haircut which nearly destroyed her. And that look in his eyes—that look that assured you he had even more ideas up his sleeves—made her shake her head.


“If only I could really know you,” she whispered to the screen. “If only that one moment, out of a hundred billion, could have meant something to you as well.”


Suddenly, Charlotte realized she was nearly tardy to her meeting. She scanned through her emails, jotting notes, feeling anxious. Despite having been at the company for over two years, she was continually stressed, determined to maintain utmost professionalism.


She burst from her office, pacing to the next hallway, joining Katrina and Lyle at the small table in the conference room. They lifted their heads in greeting and held their fingers around the warmth of their coffee cups. Charlotte could have kicked herself for forgetting hers—she would need all the caffeine she could get today.


“Morning!” she said brightly.


“A minute late, I see, Charlotte,” Katrina said, her bright white teeth now devoid of that red lipstick. “You know how it works here; we’re on a minute-to-minute schedule.”


“I’ll just talk extra fast to make up for it,” Charlotte joked, sitting down and crossing her ankles.


“I’m sorry, how would that work?” Katrina said, blinking her great, owl eyes.


Charlotte didn’t answer. Instead, she turned toward their leader, Lyle. He worked closely with Katrina’s father, the owner of Ellis and Associates, and acted almost like an uncle to Charlotte. He scratched at his greying beard.


“Ladies,” he said. “Forget all your other projects for now. I have some incredible news for you.”


Charlotte’s throat tightened. She steadied her pen against her notebook, ready to begin taking notes any second. To her right, Katrina looked on, bored, chewing a nail.


“Over the weekend, we were approached by a big-name tech guru who is currently embroiled in a lawsuit,” Lyle announced.


“Typical,” Katrina said. “Why can’t these nerd boys play nice, eh?”


“Anyway,” Lyle continued, ignoring her. “The client in question is none other than the billionaire CEO of Lawson Technologies, Sean Lawson, who is being sued by a college friend, Evan Greene.”


“A friend from Yale?” Charlotte asked, her eyebrows raised. She thought back to that first speech, all those years ago. “I remember when he first started InvestMe. He was doing it all on his own—”


But Lyle cut her off. “I’m not sure what is true and what isn’t, but Evan Greene is alleging that part of Sean Lawson’s enormous fortune somehow belongs to him. And because Lawson is having some sort of disagreement with his personal lawyer, he’s decided to come to us. Now. If that isn’t a huge payday waiting to happen, I don’t know what is.”


But Charlotte didn’t care about the money. Her heart was beating too fast, bumping toward her ribcage.


She cleared her throat. “Evan Greene. That name sounds familiar, actually.”


Beside her, Katrina scoffed. “Of course, dummy. Evan might not be a billionaire, but he’s a success in his own right.” Her eyes flashed. “He created that app where you can find potential… ‘dates’ based on your location. Brilliant, I’d say.”


But Charlotte wasn’t listening. She was tracing through the history she knew about Sean. “Actually, wasn’t Evan Sean’s roommate at Yale?” she asked, “They were formerly best friends. I’m sure he was at that speech he gave. I think he was up near the front, when the journalists chased Sean away…”


“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Katrina laughed, “But it seems like you have some sort of weird robot memory. Which won’t prove anything in this case. Sorry love.”


Charlotte leaned back, her brain buzzing and a grin spreading over her face. She’d followed Sean Lawson’s career closely since the beginning. She recalled that, in one interview not long after his graduation from Yale, Sean had stated he was living with his old college roommate in a flat in Seattle. Several years later, all mention of Evan had disappeared from Sean’s interviews.


Meaning, of course, that the friendship had gone rotten. Why, exactly, Charlotte couldn’t say. Perhaps it was jealousy. Perhaps it involved a woman. What she did know, beyond anything, was that Evan had never displayed the passion and zeal that Sean had. The fact that Sean was willing to fight Evan on this—that he was biting back at his former best friend—meant this was serious.


Because Sean wasn’t obsessed with celebrity. He wasn’t obsessed with legacy. He was simply concerned with pursuing his dream.


Charlotte’s heart slowed down and she blinked several times, trying to bring herself back to reality. Katrina hadn’t asked a single question, and Lyle was diving into the facts and next steps, all of which had already been compiled in Charlotte’s mind. She imagined calling her father when she returned to her office, announcing that she’d finally taken on a high-profile case, that they hadn’t overlooked her this time. She’d be on top in just a few months. By the age of 29, she’d be a sought-after tech lawyer in one of the most respected firms in the United States.


Inwardly, behind her thoughts of grandeur and success and fulfillment, Charlotte knew she had one more reason she wanted to represent Sean Lawson. Her admiration for him had only solidified and grown since she’d first seen him speak, ten years previously. And that cufflink had traveled with her all the way across the continent, awaiting their first formal meeting.


Once she gave him the cufflink, she didn’t know exactly how he would react, but if she had as good of a sense of him as she thought she did, she knew he’d take it as the ultimate compliment. He’d see the beauty in it, just as he understood why staying in on a Friday night in college was perfectly all right. Because it meant something. It furthered you to something better.


Charlotte lifted her hand, then, interrupting the facts about Lawson Technologies that were pouring from Lyle’s mouth.


“I have something to say,” she began, her voice almost hesitant. Beside her, Katrina scoffed once more, then turned her eyes toward her phone, scrolling through her Facebook feed. Because she was Charles Ellis’ daughter and she could get away with anything, her brain went dead by nine in the morning.


“I’ve been following Sean’s career since I was eighteen years old,” Charlotte continued. “I saw him speak at Yale, like I said, and he seemed so…confident. So special. I just knew he was going to do great things. He became an inspiration for me. I would put my heart and soul into this case, should it be given to me. I would make it my top priority. This case would change the future of Ellis and Associates; it is the kind of case we’ve been waiting for.” Charlotte looked toward Lyle, allowing her words to resonate, maintaining eye contact. Surely, she sounded confident. Surely, her tone matched that of the young Sean Lawson, sure of propelling himself into brightness.


But Lyle looked at her bleakly, already beginning to shake his head. He opened his mouth then closed it again, drumming his fingers on the table.


Beside Charlotte, Katrina made a quiet snorting noise. “He can’t speak because he doesn’t want to tell you no,” she said, setting her phone back on the table. She turned to face Charlotte, assessing her with dark brown eyes. “You know I was recently given the position above you, correct?”


Charlotte didn’t move. She sensed that she’d just been thrown off the cliff, even after climbing for years. She could feel the metaphorical wind rushing past her ears.


“Isn’t that right, Lyle?” Katrina asked, her tone smug.


Lyle tugged at his shirt collar, looking down at the table once more. The moments ticked on, leaving Charlotte in their wake.


“It’s true, what she’s saying,” Lyle finally said, his voice weak, quivering as it slunk from him.


“But Katrina has only just been promoted,” Charlotte argued, feeling passion rile up within her. “She’s been my senior for just two weeks, and she’s arguably less prepared than I am. In nearly every aspect.” Charlotte blinked back tears, her face turning red. Suddenly, she felt like a child in a playground who’d been knocked to the pavement, bleeding from a knee.


Lyle turned his gaze back toward Katrina. His posture was rigid, strained. It was clear his mind was whirring. He didn’t want to upset Charles—his boss, and Katrina’s father. Not in a million years. It was the reason he’d supported her promotion; it was the reason he gave her the better cases. Charlotte had often seen him staying after-hours, typing on Katrina’s computer to help her with her work, as she sat slumped over in the side chair.


It appalled Charlotte. It made her stomach flip over. As a young, bright-eyed eighteen-year-old, she hadn’t thought the world could be so unfair. But she was ten years older, now.


Lyle glimpsed the sadness in Charlotte’s eyes. He looked away from her, clearly trying to come up with a solution. “Tell you what, ladies. Let’s try a compromise, shall we?” He scratched at his neck, uneasy. “It’s clear that Charlotte has some base-level knowledge regarding the client which may be advantageous as we develop the case. I don’t think we can refute that, can we, Katrina?”


“Hmm?” Katrina murmured, peering down at her nails.


“That’s right,” Lyle continued, as if nothing had happened. “In light of this, I am assigning Katrina the position of lead attorney on the Lawson case, while you, Charlotte, will work closely with Katrina, offering your support. In addition, you’ll take on a few of Katrina’s smaller cases, in order to assist with her workload. How does that sound?”


Lyle seemed pleased with himself. He sat back in his chair and smiled awkwardly, waiting for their assured excitement. But the words were still running through Charlotte’s head, and Katrina was already halfway down her Instagram feed, quietly awaiting the end of the meeting.


It was Charlotte’s turn to speak. Frustration brimmed within her, but she felt her mouth give in to deference. “Yes. Absolutely. That’s fine.”


“Great,” Lyle said, leaping on the affirmation far too quickly. He clicked the mouse on his laptop, assessing his calendar. “How does a first meeting sound for…tomorrow? Nine thirty?”


“No can do, boss,” Katrina said. “I have a hair appointment tomorrow morning.”


“Right,” Lyle deadpanned. “Perhaps Wednesday, then?”


But Katrina just shook her head. “See if he can do Thursday at ten. That work for you, Charlotte?” she asked, her voice playful, false. “I’ll throw some of my more basic cases your way in the meantime, and I’ll get started on prep work for your dear old friend Sean. Sound good?”


Charlotte gritted her teeth and bowed her head, agreeing without words. She listened half-heartedly as Lyle closed the meeting, sending them both off to their separate offices. When she reached hers, she tasted her now-cold coffee and nearly spit it out again. She marched to the kitchen sink and emptied the mug out before returning to the coffee maker. She stabbed the start button, tapping an angry foot against the tile floor. Around her, printers whirred and interns marched.


One particular intern, belonging to Katrina, was leaning against the refrigerator in the kitchen, cackling with her peer; the two looked like a scene out of Mean Girls. They looked young—no older than 22, Charlotte thought—and full of unwarranted arrogance. Charlotte had encountered and dealt with plenty of big egos in the law world, but she wasn’t in the mood to feed any this morning.


Katrina snapped her fingers toward her intern. “I need some coffee. Not this hell water. Go to the nearest Starbucks. And grab me…a scone, as well. The orange flavor. You know the one.”


Making no effort to conceal the rolling of her eyes, the girl swept lazy legs out of the kitchen and toward the elevator, her friend looking at her with longing. Anyone who was allowed to leave the building outside of lunchbreak had a coveted position. And generally speaking, Katrina’s intern was always off on runs to nab her new lotions or purses, her groceries, her gluten free snacks, and anything else that sprang to mind.


“Well,” Katrina said, tossing her brown curls. “That was pretty rough in there. You begging for my job.” She squinted her eyes toward Charlotte, her gaze almost threatening. “Really, it’s pathetic. And I’m not going to call it anything else.”


“Then don’t,” Charlotte said, her eyes narrowing, too.


“What was that?” Katrina whispered.


Charlotte shook her head, dropping the topic. She was firm in her belief that if she followed her anger down the rabbit hole, she would eventually come up without a job at Ellis and Associates. She had to keep herself in line.


“I’m going to get a head start on those other projects you sent me,” Charlotte said, starting toward her office, her mug shaking in her angrily trembling hands. “Let me know if you need anything for the Lawson case. Like I said, I have that one cracked.”


Katrina let out a brief, ominous cackle before Charlotte closed the door, shutting herself in her haven of silence, of her work—which she usually loved, except for times like these. Outside, the July sun had grown higher in the sky, signaling the beginning of a perfect summer’s day. She longed to be out in it, stretching in the bright light.


Charlotte collapsed in her chair, putting the terrible meeting out of her mind, and focusing instead on the fact that she’d be meeting Sean Lawson himself in just a few days’ time. His image still grinned at her from her computer screen, where daydreams of this upcoming reality had flitted through her mind just that morning.


Beside her, her cellphone lit up, buzzing slightly on the wood of the desk. She lifted it, noting the message from her best friend, which she read in her head in Chelsea’s bubbly voice:


So, what has Katrina done today?


Charlotte stifled a giggle, brimming with relief that somebody out there was thinking about her. Chelsea had been her roommate for her first few years in Seattle, and the girl knew everything about her: about her relationship with her parents (sometimes complicated), her obsession with Sean Lawson (generally fantastical), and her love of her job (with the exception of Katrina Ellis).


Despite having recently moved to separate apartments in Capitol Hill, Charlotte and Chelsea still spent long nights at each other’s homes, wistful for the times when they’d been broke, drowning in student debt, and blissfully happy.


Charlotte hummed, her fingers tapping excitedly on the screen.


You’ll never guess who I’m meeting on Thursday…


Britney Spears. Beyoncé. The Queen??? Chelsea replied, using a plethora of emoticons.


Charlotte chortled, covering her mouth. Somehow, she sensed that Katrina could tell when she was goofing off in her office, as if she had spies lurking.


Close. *pause for dramatic effect* SEAN. LAWSON, she replied.


Chelsea’s immediate responses were dominated by exclamation and question marks, sizzling with expectation. Girl. You have to look gooooood, were the closing words before they agreed to meet for lunch in several hours to dig into the details—and the great new burrito bowls from the place on the corner. Chelsea worked downtown as an architect, and the pair often found themselves at lunch in tall heels and power-women business suits, flipping their styled hair, all the while knowing they’d seen the other through heartbreak in old pajamas, holding a tub of ice cream in one hand and a bottle of red wine in the other.


Charlotte sat back in her chair, skimming through an email from Katrina that delivered each individual detail about her “lesser” accounts. She could barely focus on these other cases. It seemed the cufflink that she’d carried across the country would finally make it home, and she could hardly wait.




THREE



Charlotte woke early on Thursday morning, stretching her toes to the edge of the bed and popping them out from under the covers into the cool morning air. She swung her legs over the bed, her heart pounding in her chest. She knew, somewhere in the city, Sean Lawson was waking, brushing his teeth, sipping his coffee. Little did he know, he was about to meet his biggest fan.


Having dressed quickly, Charlotte shoved her feet into her tennis shoes and rushed out the door for her usual three-mile run. Her muscles sizzled with strength and her arms swung quickly, propelling her forward. She’d grown into a fine runner during college, when she’d discovered that studying gave her a kind of anxiety she couldn’t shake without a bit of sweat. With endorphins revving in her blood stream, she’d been able to ace her exams, pass the bar in Washington state, and maintain her slim figure into year 28.


She gasped over her knees upon her return, searching for regular breath—no more from the run than the nerves. She took a cool shower, scrubbing at her scalp and reciting the milestones of Sean Lawson’s career in her mind. She chose her favorite business suit, a matching black pinstripe blazer and skirt that was perfectly tailored to her curves, paired with a crisp, sky-blue blouse to bring out her eyes. She donned a bit of extra makeup, smoothing that pesky eyebrow hair that never grew in the right direction, and grinned at her reflection. She felt great. She was ready to meet her hero.


Of course, true to herself and her morals, Charlotte booked it to the office on her bike, finding herself hitting every green light, and her hair staying mostly tame. She clicked the lock into place and darted up to the top floor. Life, during these moments, seemed blissful, like a dream.


But the moment she entered the office, panic smacked her in the face.


“Charlotte. Can I speak with you my office?” Lyle said, his voice stern. He gestured toward his door, and Charlotte followed him, frowning, still carrying her bicycle helmet.


Entering Lyle’s office, she sat in the cushy leather armchair and leaned slightly forward. Lyle was clearly panicking—sweat was gathering on his brow, and he swiped a Kleenex over his rosy cheekbones, staring wide-eyed at his computer. “Listen, Charlotte. This Sean Lawson case, as you know, is our most important. One of the most important we’ve ever taken on, actually. And this morning—well.” He gulped. “Katrina called in sick.”


Charlotte’s jaw dropped. “She’s sick? How can she be sick at a time like this?” Her mind began to race. “I mean, she knows how important this is. Doesn’t she?”


Lyle shrugged helplessly. “She has food poisoning, apparently. She went to that new Indian place in Capitol Hill and—bam.” He shook his head, as if discussing a death. “Anyway. I need you to take the meeting by yourself.”


Charlotte’s heart leaped. She felt vibrant, electric, for all of a moment before the true weight of this problem smacked her: she was woefully underprepared for this kind of meeting.


“I was given all those other cases…” she began, shaking her head. She felt herself slump in her chair. “I can’t lead a meeting like this. Did Katrina send her notes, maybe?”


But Lyle just shook his head. “She said she hadn’t prepared anything, that she was planning on doing it last night.”


“But we got this assignment days ago,” Charlotte whispered, her voice strained. She watched as Lyle shook his head, as they dove into slimy, stinking reality. Charlotte would go into this meeting without ready preparation, sure to embarrass herself in front of the man she’d admired since she was eighteen.


“Whatever,” Charlotte said, brushing it off. She fished her notepad out of her purse, beginning to write furious notes. “I’m assuming we can’t postpone this meeting, due to his schedule.”


“That’s correct,” Lyle said, trying to peer at the notes she was writing. “And I have a meeting with one of our stalwart clients, across town, so I cannot join you. I’m truly sorry, Charlotte. I’m sorry to put so much of the future of the company on your shoulders.”


Charlotte shook her head, giving him a bright smile. She forced the clouds to part in her mind. This was just another glass ceiling, another wall she’d have to break through on her path to success. One time, in college, she’d studied the wrong chapter for a test, and only learned about it five hours prior. She’d hustled through every single chapter, reading the words out loud to herself. And she’d nailed it.


“Don’t worry, Lyle. You hired me for a reason,” she said, casually addressing that Katrina had been hired for no reason other than her father’s name.


With that, Charlotte hurried from Lyle’s office to her own. She perched on her chair, her eyes boring into the computer screen, and began to type furiously, zipping through the facts of the case and watching as the minutes ticked to an hour. She was due to meet with Sean Lawson at 10 a.m. in the Lawson Technologies building, which was thankfully just a ten-minute walk away. Through her office window, she saw one of the secretaries preparing a coffee and cookie tray for the staff, for the morning mini-break; for her part, Charlotte couldn’t imagine that she’d ever be hungry again.


Just before she left, she opened the antique pewter box, lifting the cufflink out and putting it in her pocket. Maybe it would bring her good luck. And maybe, if she had enough confidence, she would return it to its rightful owner, thus admitting the strength of her memory of him.


Charlotte marched toward the Lawson Technologies building on Jell-O legs, trying to clear her head. She entered the office building, feeling like she was on display, with the floor-to-ceiling windows lining each of the walls, forcing sunlight into her face. The air felt warm, covering her like a blanket.


She reached the front desk and gave the secretary a warm smile. “Charlotte Waters,” she said. “With Ellis and Associates. I have a meeting with Sean Lawson at 10 a.m.”


The secretary seemed to look Charlotte up and down with a bit of humor, peering at her beneath cat-eye glasses. Charlotte knew this woman had delivered the likes of Mark Zuckerburg, founder of Facebook, to Sean Lawson’s offices, and this nervous-looking blonde lawyer from out East didn’t exactly fit the bill.


Finally, the secretary spoke. “Yes. I’ll show you to the boardroom. If you’ll just follow me.”


She lifted herself from her spinning chair, her wide hips swaying as she sauntered towards the elevator. She cleared her throat and pressed the button, and the pair of them stood, side-by-side, without speaking. Charlotte longed to find something—anything—to say, to make her memorable to this woman who interacted with Sean each and every day.


The secretary showed Charlotte to the boardroom and abandoned her quickly, dropping her off like a scared kid at their first summer camp. Charlotte stood in the bright, natural light and gazed around her, taking a seat first at the head of the table, then at the side. The secretary had told her that Sean would be with her shortly, and not to be concerned if he was tardy. “He has important work to do,” she had said, meaning, “more important than meeting with you.”


The door handle began to spin, and Charlotte leaned forward as time gave way to a beautiful image.


There, in the crack of the door, emerged Sean Lawson. He was carrying a briefcase and wearing a beautiful suit, something that had clearly been picked out by someone who knew more about fashion than Sean Lawson himself. His jawline was cut perfectly, his hair was rugged, rough, as if he’d just been hiking in the woods (and Charlotte knew this was something he enjoyed; she’d read it in a magazine).


And then, he flashed her that familiar, secretive smile—the same one she’d enjoyed all those years before, at Yale. She felt her stomach drop, like she was on the descent of the highest rollercoaster in the world.





FOUR




Charlotte soon recovered from her shock, walking forward and grasping his hand. “Sean. I’m Charlotte Waters from Ellis and Associates. It’s wonderful to meet you.”


Sean smiled warmly, confidently, and squeezed her hand. “Charlotte. It’s wonderful to have you here.”


This was office speak, Charlotte knew, but because she’d been daydreaming about meeting this man for years, she couldn’t help but feel that each word was loaded with meaning. She gestured toward the table, inviting him to sit—as if this wasn’t an office in which he sat every single day. She felt her heart humming.


“How was your journey?” he asked her.


“Oh, just fine. I wanted to take my bike over, but I didn’t want to mess up my hair for such an important meeting.”


Charlotte balked. Had she actually said that? God, she was a dignified, Yale-educated lawyer—what was coming over her?


“I’m a biker too, actually” Sean said, his eyes bright. “I love the energy it gives me. It seems that several of my advisors think I’m a bit too ‘important’ to the company to be biking around. But the view of the city on your way in? You can’t beat it,” he said. “After spending so much time on the East Coast, I really appreciate this kind of environment.”


Charlotte nodded, wanting to tell him that she’d gone to Yale as well, that she’d seen him speak. But she yanked herself back, conscious of maintaining her professional distance. “Well. I suppose we should get started, yeah?”


“Absolutely,” Sean said, tapping a pen against his cheek. It still held that classic five o’clock shadow. He still spoke with the air of a man who didn’t quite know how attractive he was.


“All right. Well, let me see. I’d like to get a bit of background regarding your friendship with Evan Greene.”


“Sure.”


Charlotte attempted to make her voice articulate; she worked to seem presentable and confident. She rolled her pen over her notepad, jotting down notes. “When did you first meet Evan?”


“It was junior year,” Sean said. “Not long after I broke up with my girlfriend. Evan was smart, if a bit cocky, and we spent a lot of evenings and late nights talking. Not really about work or money; more about girls. About our personal philosophies. Things like that. When my ex moved out of our apartment, he moved in.”


Charlotte already knew much of this, but she treasured learning about it directly from him. She longed for his voice to weave into her ears long into the afternoon, perhaps into the night.


She looked at him intently. “And at any of these times, did you talk to him about InvestMe or your plans to launch Lawson Technologies?”


Sean shrugged. “Of course I did. I was speaking about it all the time. I stayed up late just fantasizing about what it could become. Not in the ‘I want to be famous’ way. No, I longed to be an innovator, to make a lasting impact on the tech world and to help fellow entrepreneurs. Evan was into that scene, sure, but his ideas were lackluster. I would toy around with them, telling him that he had good concepts, but only because I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.” He smiled slightly, shaking his head. “He had this girlfriend—the woman who eventually became his wife. He spent a lot more time making out with her than coding with me.”


“And you worked a great deal on InvestMe in that apartment?” she asked.


“Pretty much exclusively, yeah.”


“Did Evan ever lean over your computer, pointing things out, suggesting changes—things of that nature?”


At this moment, Sean’s expression changed. He frowned, his dark eyebrows making slight creases in his otherwise flawless skin. “No. And—I have to ask, Charlotte. Did you happen to read over the rather detailed document I sent last week, regarding all of these questions?”


Charlotte’s face turned bright red. She felt like she’d driven directly into a nightmare of her own creation, that every moment of expectation she’d ever had throughout her life had led her here—to this timely death. She opened her mouth, then closed it again, her brain racing to find an answer.


Finally, she fumbled into her explanation. “I’m—I’m so sorry, Mr. Lawson. To be honest, I wasn’t meant to be here alone. I’m essentially the intern on this project, while my colleague—er—boss, Katrina Ellis, is meant to be in charge of your case. She’s read the documents.” Charlotte knew this was a lie, that Katrina was even less prepared than she. But still she yearned to make Ellis and Associates look as good as possible; if she went down, they all did.


Sean nodded, still looking at her with confused interest. “I see.”


“Anyway. Katrina called in with food poisoning this morning. I guess the new Indian place in Capitol Hill is a no-go.” She was breathless now, scrambling. “And so, my boss told me I was to do this alone. Unprepared. And wholly wasting your time. My sincerest apologies.”


The silence that followed this confession nearly destroyed her. She looked down at her hands, realizing that everything she’d ever worked for, everything she’d ever dreamed of, was crashing down around her. She’d been given the chance to meet the man she’d lusted after; she’d made a fool of herself, and there was a chance she would lose her job over it. Charlotte was mortified, biting at her tongue, watching the ticking clock on the wall. Outside, a siren wailed through the city center, and she had the fleeting wish of it being an ambulance, come to pick her up before she had a heart attack.


Sean finally spoke, breaking the silence. “Well. I suppose this meeting can’t go on a moment longer, then. I wanted to have an early lunch, anyway.” He began to gather his supplies, stacking his papers. “I hope Katrina gets well soon. And I’m sorry that you were put in this position, Charlotte. Truly, you know more about this case than most people, without educating yourself.”


Charlotte exhaled, realizing she’d been holding her breath, unsure if she was about to laugh or cry. “All right. Thank you for your time.”


She began to lift herself from her seat, ready to make the walk of shame out of his office, then something in her pocket shifted, and she remembered—with a mixture of hope and fear—that she still held the single link between them. The cufflink.


She slipped her slim fingers into the pocket, feeling the smooth chill of the metal.


“Before I go,” she began, her voice barely louder than a whisper, “I wanted to give you something. It’s something that belongs to you, and I’m sorry it took me so long to return it.” She lifted the cufflink into the air and watched as the sun glinted off of it. In the back of her mind, she said goodbye to it, this treasured token from her past.


Sean’s face changed instantly. He opened his palm and allowed her to drop the cufflink onto it. Charlotte couldn’t bring herself to lift her head to catch what his expression was.


She snagged her papers and her briefcase and swept herself into the hallway, feeling tears roll down her face, ruining her so carefully and hopefully applied makeup.


The secretary saw her when she exited the elevator, and Charlotte could have sworn she saw a small smirk creep across her face. The tears and the red cheeks had given Charlotte away, betraying her as someone who couldn’t handle the intensity of this industry, somebody who should probably just get into a different law field. Something easy, like divorce.


Charlotte found herself on the sidewalk in front of the Lawson Technologies building. She peered up toward the highest room, where she’d met with the CEO himself. She shoved her hand into her purse and called her best friend, already feeling tearful words bubbling to the surface.


“How did it go?” Chelsea asked. She’d answered after only a half ring.


“Can you meet me outside your office?” Charlotte asked, feeling choked. “I shouldn’t go back to the office right away; that meeting was meant to go for two hours.”


Chelsea’s tone changed immediately. “Okay. It’s okay. Let’s meet at that bagel place. You haven’t eaten, have you?”


“This is why I love you,” Charlotte said.


She raced down the street, grateful she’d found a lifeline. Her entire career might be over. She’d ruined her chances of working with the most important tech mogul of her generation. And, worst of all, she’d given him a token that revealed how much he meant to her, and how much she’d actually messed up.


***


Chelsea was already waiting for her outside of the bagel place. Her face broke into a sympathetic smile, and she wrapped her arms around her friend, holding Charlotte close. Charlotte allowed a single sob to escape from her mouth.


The girls ordered bagels with cream cheese and smoked salmon, voiding their minds of the worries of carbohydrates and diving into a nearby booth, bringing their faces close together and whispering.


“Okay so. What happened? Did he remember you?” Chelsea asked, her eyes large.


“Of course not,” Charlotte scoffed, swallowing a bite of her bagel. She blotted under her eyes with a napkin, trying to remedy the mascara streaks. “Remember how I told you I had to take on all those other projects to help Katrina? Meaning, I couldn’t read over all the paperwork he’d sent over?”


Chelsea nodded. “Sure. Not that Katrina would ever prepare for anything.”


“Right. Exactly. And then, she calls in sick. And just like that, I’m forced into this meeting that I’m not prepared for, with the man of my dreams.” Charlotte sighed, and realized she’d lost her appetite. She shoved her bagel to the side, placing her cheeks in her hands. “And worst of all, I gave him the cufflink, and I bailed before I got to see his reaction.”


Chelsea tilted her head. “You brought it all the way there?”


“I’d already brought it with me across the States, Chelsea. I might as well have brought it along today. And now he knows how weirdly fascinated with him I am. Obsessed with someone who doesn’t even know I exist.”


Chelsea bit her lip. “I think it’s sweet. And if you explained the reason for being unprepared, I’m sure he understands. He’s probably been unprepared before, too; you have to remember he’s only human.”


“But I’ve never been unprepared,” Charlotte said. “I passed the bar with flying colors. I know he and I are so alike, but I didn’t prove myself or show him that. And now it’s over.”


The two friends sat like that for a while, Chelsea playing the role of therapist, helping to guide her friend from the depths of her sadness and self-doubt. She knew not to ask questions. She knew to keep her head above water. And she knew to box up Charlotte’s bagel for her, because she was definitely going to want it at 3 p.m.


“Listen. Don’t destroy yourself over this,” Chelsea told her as she walked her back to Ellis and Associates. “Things happen for a reason. And I wouldn’t drop all hope on this. Not yet.”


Charlotte kissed her friend on the cheek and snuck back into her office building, highly conscious of the people who passed her on their way out for lunch. She slipped into the elevator, thankful she hadn’t yet had to speak to anyone, and hoped she could get through the day without a single conversation, without a single explanation. Perhaps Sean had already called Ellis and Associates, explaining that he was going to go with a different firm. Perhaps it was already over, and she would return to her normal, ladder-climbing life.


Perhaps it didn’t matter any longer.




FIVE



Charlotte locked herself in her office for the afternoon, her mind spinning. Outside, she sensed that the usual schedule continued without her. She watched interns scan documents and play on their phones; she watched Lyle come back into the building and waddle into his personal office, holding a bag of fast food. She’d told him countless times to cut back on the sodium and saturated fat, but his continuous stress led him to drive-thru lunches, eaten on the hoof, and she understood his motives in that moment—carbs equaled comfort.


Her attention outside of her room didn’t last long. Today, Charlotte was hiding, diving into her massive workload and feeling her eyes dry out as she stared at the screen. She didn’t dare peek into the Sean Lawson file labelled “priority” in her email, even knowing that the casework she’d been given was important and wasn’t to be ignored. Her mind was a million miles away.


Of course, she knew she’d have to tell Lyle about what had occurred with Sean at some point. Throughout the afternoon, people came to her door, knocking and waiting for her to unlock it, peering through the one small gap in her blinds. Each time, Charlotte swept her phone to her ear, pretending to be on an important call, while mouthing “sorry” and shrugging apologetically. And each time, the intern, or whoever yearned to inquire about her meeting, nodded in understanding and mouthed that they’d come back later.


She couldn’t keep this up forever, she knew. But it would work until she cultivated some kind of plan of attack.


Around three-thirty, Charlotte was typing notes for one of her other cases, nibbling on the leftovers of her bagel. She turned her eyes to her office window and noted that Lyle was coming toward her, his walk determined. She lurched, shoving her phone to her ear in yet another fake phone call.


As Lyle reached her door, he peeked in through the gap in the blinds and gave her a steady, even wave.


“On the phone?” he mouthed.


She nodded, her eyes wide. “Sorry,” she mouthed. She felt moments away from vomiting.


As Lyle began to turn away from her, she leaned back in her chair, aching for the end of the day. Maybe she could leave, say she was sick. Maybe she could pull the food poisoning card, à la Katrina.


But as she leaned back, the phone actually began to ring, blaring in her ear. She jumped, and almost dropped it, nervous. Perhaps this was Lyle, catching her mid-lie. She took a sharp, fast inhale, pushed her shoulders back, and answered the call, her voice shaky. She couldn’t handle this lack of confidence.


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