She had a racing stripe up the back of her sheer black nylons. I didn’t know who she was, how long she’d worked for me, or what she did at Thornton Enterprises, but I did know that I wanted to see the end of that stripe.
The woman stood with a leather folder clutched to her chest in one hand and a piping hot cup of black coffee in the other. She listened to the office receptionist, Anita, as she spoke about her two young sons weeping when she dropped them off at preschool this morning.
The woman with the mysterious line up the back of her legs smiled sympathetically. “I know how you feel, Anita. When my oldest started going to daycare, he was a screaming ball of raw feelings, but he had nothing on the breakdowns I had when I got back in my car.”
Anita nodded sympathetically. “The guilt is incredible.”
I moved up beside the woman in the nylons and gave them both my best Thornton smile. “Any boy with a brain in his head would bawl his eyes out to have to part with either of you charming ladies.”
Anita laughed and shook her head, her blonde curls dancing against her flushed cheeks. “Good morning, Mr. Thornton. Have you had a chance to meet our newest addition to the human resources department?” She gestured to the woman in the nylons. “Mr. Thornton, this is Julie. She’s one of our Happiness Champions.”
Julie finally turned to me, revealing full lips, an upturned nose, and wideset cat-shaped eyes. She extended her hand. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Thornton.”
“Nice to meet you as well, Julie. With a smile like yours, I’m confident you’ll be an excellent HC.”
An HC at Thornton Enterprises was responsible for ensuring job satisfaction within every department of the company. When my father ran the business, such things were unimportant to him, but after his passing and my acquisition of all of his assets, including the business, I’d wasted little time making positive changes.
I understood the changing ways of the world in a way my father never could. He couldn’t be bothered to try to get inside the heads of his people. All he cared about was the bottom line. Therefore, the only minds he cared to protect and ensure were healthy were those of the board of directors. I, however, saw the value in ensuring that every member of my team, regardless of their role, had access to everything they needed for job satisfaction.
Three years ago I’d proposed the Happiness Champion role to my board of directors with the help of some of our HR people. They pushed back, but I had expected resistance and refused to back down. After just one year of implementing the program and following through with what our Champions told us we needed to do, our turnover rate was lower than ever and we’d cut costs on new hires.
The board never acknowledged the success of the program.
It didn’t matter. I hadn’t done it for them. I’d done it for the people who busted their asses every day.
Julie pulled her hand back and fidgeted with the zipper on her leather folder. “Everyone warned me you were a bit of a smooth-talker.”
“By everyone do you mean Anita?”
Anita clicked her tongue. “Just looking out for my fellow women, Storm. You can’t fault me for that.”
I shook my hand out and made a hissing sound as if burned by her words. “Ouch.”
Anita rolled her eyes. “Don’t pity him, Julie.”
Julie giggled and tucked her hair behind her ears. “Um, I don’t suppose you could show me to the HR department, Mr. Thornton? This office is bigger than my college.”
With a slight bow of my head, I offered her my arm. “Absolutely. And please, call me Storm.”
Her lashes fluttered as she gazed up at me. “Storm.”
The sharp cough and clearing of a man’s throat made Julie jump and me turn, coming face to face with the chairman of my board of directors.
“Storm.” Garrett’s voice cut deep and scathing. “You’re needed in the board room. Anita, please escort our new Happiness Champion to her department. Storm, walk with me.”
Begrudgingly, I stepped back from Julie, offering her a sincere apology with my hand pressed to my chest. “I’ll come find you later, Julie. I want to make sure you’re having no trouble fitting in.”
I winked and Julie giggled.
Anita rolled her eyes at me for the second time that morning before ushering Julie away.
Garrett folded his thick arms over his chest.
“Lurk much?” I began walking to the board room.
Garrett caught up to my strides. “She’s off limits.”
“Don’t play coy with me, Storm. With your reputation, you can’t go around hooking up with newly hired employees. What if she’s a plant? What if she works for one of those slutty magazines always publishing nonsense about you and the company?”
“So what if she is?”
“It’s my job to look out for this business, and by default, you. What do you think your father would say if he walked up on you flirting shamelessly with a young woman on her first day? A human resources hire, of all people?”
Laughing, I stopped short of the board room by a handful of paces. “Garrett, if my father were still alive, a woman like Julie wouldn’t have a job here in the first place.”
“Not the point.”
“What is the point, then?” Sliding my hands into my pockets, I watched him, daring him to say the words probably burning the tip of his tongue. “Go on. Say it.”
Garrett grumbled something I couldn’t hear, brushed past me, and moved into the board room where the other members waited for us. He might not have given voice to his thoughts, but I knew exactly what he wanted to say to me: your father would be ashamed of you.
Garrett had known my old man better than I did, so he was probably right.
Smoothing the lapel of my suit jacket, I followed the chairman into the board room. Every seat was occupied by a member. They turned expectant gazes my way as I fell into my seat at the head of the table. Garrett sat to my right, impatiently clicking his pen while he waited for me to settle in and pour myself a cup of coffee from the insulated carafe on the table.
I leaned back in my chair and sipped my fresh cup. “What’s this all about, then? I didn’t have a meeting in my calendar for this afternoon.”
Garrett looked around at the other faces before twisting his chair around to face me directly. He knitted his hands together. “We want to discuss your latest business endeavor.”
I pumped my eyebrows. “Julie?”
Garrett prickled, shifting in his seat. The leather creaked beneath him. He wasn’t a small man by any means. For a guy in his fifties, he was built like a tree with a solid frame and broad shoulders. Rumor around the office had it that he had to let out every suit jacket he’d ever purchased. In another life he’d have made an excellent fireman.
He had the temperament for neither.
“Be serious for five minutes, Storm.” Garrett gestured around the table. “We all have places to be right now, but we’re here. We want to talk about your purchase of the lingerie company and modeling agency, Cupid’s Arrows.”
Ah. Of course.
The other nine people in the room waited for me to say something, but the hot coffee in my hand won my favor, and I couldn’t talk while I drank.
Garrett sighed. “We have all discussed some concerns we have about Thornton Enterprises taking business in that direction.”
“What direction?” I set my coffee down.
Garrett stared evenly back at me. “Toward women, to be plain. We all know your favorite pastime is verbally motorboating every woman in your general radius, and we can’t help but worry that buying a company bursting at the seams with gorgeous women of every shape, size, and color is going to be too much temptation for you.”
There it was. The truth.
I savored another sip of coffee. “You’re all worried I can’t separate work from pleasure, is that it?”
Laughing might not have won me any more favor with the Board, but I couldn’t help it. “Seriously? My vice is beautiful women and you all have a problem with that? None of you batted an eye when my old man poured four ounces of vodka in his coffee every morning. Do you seriously think my playboy reputation is more off-putting than my father’s alcoholism?”
“We’re not talking about your father right now, Storm. We’re talking about you.” Garrett nodded down the table to Alissa Monta, the Board Secretary. When it came to matters of enforcing company bylaws and policies, she was the woman. “Alissa, will you talk some sense into him?”
Alissa gave me an almost sad smile with her already downturned lips. She wore her short black hair the same today as she had a decade ago—spiked at the top and shaved at the back. Her glasses were also black with little Gucci designer labels on the sides. “Storm, Cupid’s Arrows is a conscientious brand. It’s all about inclusivity and stamping out toxic standards and embracing healthy ones.”
“None of this is news to me.” I grabbed a pen off the table for something to fidget with and clicked the end repeatedly while Garrett glowered at me. “Besides, you don’t need to preach inclusivity to me. I know all bodies are beautiful bodies. Believe me, I know.”
Alissa’s smile warmed some. “We all know you’re not anti-inclusivity, Storm. This isn’t about that. It’s about your love of women in general and how it could get you into trouble here. With a purchase of this size that totally steps out of your father’s business model, all eyes are going to be on us. We can’t afford any bad PR. Stocks already went down in the past four years since we lost your father. If the public loses even more trust in us? In you?” She let her questions hang in the air, the answers unspoken but still loud.
We’d be totally fucked.
I frowned at the pen in my hand, ceaselessly clicking under my thumb. It bothered me how she said “since we lost your father,” like he’d been something of a patriarch to them all. I was his blood, and yet they all seemed to miss him more than I did. Perhaps because I knew him better.
I knew the man behind the business mogul.
Alissa sat up straighter. “We all agree that the plan to purchase was a wise move in the ever-changing economic climate right now, but we have concerns about how things are going to look moving forward. We must keep our focus on public perception and favor. Naturally, that means you’re going to have to keep yourself in check. Your social media accounts have gained hundreds of thousands of followers per day for the last two weeks. People are paying attention. With the Valentine’s Day Cupid Fashion Show around the corner?” She made an uneasy sound in the back of her throat. The other members all nodded, sharing their sentiments of concern. “The stakes are very high right now, Storm. We just wanted to have this meeting to make sure we were all on the same page.”
I chuckled. “Bullshit. You all wanted to have this meeting to make sure I’ll keep it in my pants.”
Alissa shrugged one shoulder. “You said it, not me. As the new owners of Cupid’s Arrows, we must accept the responsibility the business has to women all around the world. We must keep it untainted.”
Finally, I stopped clicking the pen. So be it. “I’ll do whatever must be done to win your trust. Just tell me what you all want. I assume you have a strategy in mind?”
Alissa leaned back in her chair, grinning. “I was hoping you’d say that.”