I sighed as I checked my watch. It wouldn’t be long until I would have to get out of this suite I shared with my twin brother, Max, and head down to the conference—even if I wished I could be anywhere else in the world right then.
I knew there were hundreds of people who would have done anything to be in my position right then. I should have been grateful, but it was hard to feel that way when I had pulled the short straw and had to come out as a representative for our brand this year. We’d visited a few times before, but I had never been the one sent out to show my face at this thing, and I was annoyed to be giving up my spare time to be in a sterile hotel for the weekend.
“Come on, game face on,” Max told me as he adjusted his tie in the mirror situated in the living area of our suite. My twin brother was a lot more enthusiastic about this kind of stuff, and I had hoped it would rub off on me, but, judging by the way he was talking, it didn’t seem like I had managed to convince him.
“It is on,” I protested.
He cocked an eyebrow at me. “Oh, your game face just so happens to look like you would pay money to get out of doing this?”
I rolled my eyes skyward. “You know this isn’t my thing,” I replied. The conference was a chance for us to sniff out the best new collaborations for the next year, find out who looked like they were going to blow up, and step in as their marketing firm before anyone else did. But it meant a whole lot of schmoozing, a whole lot of putting up a façade, and I wasn’t sure if I was up for it.
“I know, but you’re going to have to make it your thing for the next few hours at least,” he replied. “It’s not that bad. I did it last year. It can be kind of fun, if you know what you’re doing.”
“Sure,” I replied. I wasn’t sure if I believed him, but I would go along with it for now. Not like I had much of a choice. The guys were relying on me to make sure I found us some solid new clients for the upcoming year, and I would get some serious bonus points if I managed to score some contracts while I was here. Not that we were ever struggling to find people to work with us, of course, but getting our foot in the door of promising new brands was always a win.
The two of us headed downstairs, into the elevator, which opened up onto a large, glossy conference room that was already bustling with people. The hotel this exclusive gathering was being held at was the height of luxury, everything buffed and polished to perfection, but to me, it just seemed lifeless. I sighed, ran a hand through my hair, and scanned the room to see what—or who—jumped out at me.
Brands had booths set up around the sides of the room, and various other marketing execs were making their way around, inspecting each one, and offering cards and comments to those who caught their eye. Every brand here had been vetted before they’d gotten a spot in this place, and each and every one had been deigned to have shown enough growth and potential to earn the attention of high-level execs like us.
I might as well make the most of it while I was here. Rolling my shoulders back, I switched into game mode. I guessed it was the baseball player still in me, the guy who wanted to win no matter what. It helped in places like this, where the competition was so intense and demanding, but I knew I would get whatever I wanted and walk out with the signatures of any business I planned for us to work with.
Glancing around the room, a logo caught my attention—KICKS. The letters were written in a sleek font across the top of a line drawing of a sports shoe. Whoever had put together the logo knew what they were doing, and I could already see a woman enthusiastically pitching to them. Someone clearly thought they were worth the effort, at least.
I made my way over to them as the woman gesticulated at something. She was passionate, that was for sure, but I wasn’t about to sit back politely and let her take the lead. If I had learned anything in this business, it was that playing by the rules of social niceties rarely got you anywhere. Before she could say another word, I drew a card from my pocket and leaned over her.
“Excuse me,” I cut in as I held out my card to the guy sitting in the middle of the booth. There were three of them in total, two men and a woman, and they all glanced over to look up at me as I demanded their attention.
The man took my card, and I could already feel the woman who had been pitching to them glowering up at me. I didn’t bother to look at her until I had made sure to offer a smile to everyone behind the desk, but I couldn’t help but catch her eye when I pulled back. As soon as our gazes locked, I felt something twist in my stomach.
It was her.
I didn’t recognize her from behind because she looked so different now. The once-long black hair she’d worn down to her waist in a tight braid had been chopped off to a blunt jaw-length bob, and her smart clothes and crisp presentation were a far cry from the often hectic girl I’d known back then. But those eyes? I would have known those eyes anywhere in the world. I stared at her, my heart twisting up into a ball inside my chest.
It was her. I was sure of it. Those sharp blue eyes cutting into mine and then widening when she realized who she was looking at. How long had it been since we had last seen one another? I didn’t even want to think. Years.
Years since she’d dumped me after we’d been together in college so she could focus on her priorities—her career, her valedictorian role, her extracurriculars, her classes. We’d dated for a couple of years, but she’d broken things off, telling me she didn’t want to waste my time when she was more interested in getting her feet under her professionally than she was in starting a family or settling down.
I could still remember how it had felt, the stab to my chest when she had ended things. How hurt I had been, how shocked—how I had tried to convince her I would support her through whatever she needed support through. We were both going into the same industry, and I saw us as some kind of power couple, taking on the world together. But she didn’t.
And now, she was here.
There was no doubt in my mind it was her. The way her lips curled up into a smile as soon as she saw me, that cocky little smirk I’d seen a hundred times before, it couldn’t have been anyone else. I should have known I’d run into her sooner or later, but the shock of it caught me off guard for a moment. I quickly wiped any expression from my face, not wanting her to see that she had gotten to me, not wanting her to see the lingering emotions that rose up when I looked into her eyes.
“Well, if it isn’t Jaxson Holloway,” she greeted me, the polite smile on her lips clearly just a show she was putting on for the KICKS representatives. She didn’t want them to get a sense of our past. It would have shot down her professional credibility. But at the same time, I could tell she wanted to come out on top, wanted to show me how far she’d come.
“Good to see you too,” I replied, keeping my tone cool. No way was I going to give her an inch, not in front of these representatives. I knew how important it was to keep your head, even when you were faced with the last thing you expected, and she was about the very bottom of the list of shit I had expected to encounter that day.
“Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to finish my presentation,” she continued, her tone clipped and sharp. She was telling me to back the hell off, but if she thought she was going to get rid of me that quickly, she had another thing coming.
I liked the look of this brand, and, if she had decided she liked it, I knew there had to be something to them. She’d always had a good eye for the up-and-comers, having been one herself, and her seal of approval was something I would take as a promise of their potential.
“You two know each other?” The woman piped up.
Morgan nodded, looking over at her and smiling. “Yes, we’ve run into each other before.”
I bristled. Run into each other? Was that how she described it to people? After everything we’d been through, everything we’d shared, she put it like that?
“I think we know each other a little better than that, Morgan,” I replied.
She fired a look at me, silently telling me to keep my mouth shut so I didn’t blow her chances. I was more worried about mine, of course, but I knew she wouldn’t hesitate to come for me if she thought I was a risk to her success. She had never been the kind of girl who had bothered to hold back when it came to saying what was on her mind, and I doubted that had changed at all.
“Maybe we can catch up later,” she replied, her jaw tense. “But I’d like to finish my pitch.”
I paused for a moment, lingering longer than I had to. I knew it had to be driving her crazy to not be able to just tell me to get out of here and leave her the hell alone so she could do her job, but she had to keep up the game face in front of these potential clients.
“Maybe we can,” I replied, and I turned and made like I was leaving her to it. They had my card now. I had done all I needed to do, but if she thought I was going to just back off like that, she could think again.
Maybe this weekend wasn’t going to be so bad after all. If it meant I could win a contract right out from under her, snatch away something she wanted the same way she had done to me, it might be worth it. I took a step back and let her pick up where she had left off with KICKS, standing aside so she could get back into the flow of things before I jumped in once more.
She had a confidence to her, a collectedness, as though she knew exactly what she had to get out there and exactly how to do it. I eyed her as she worked, watching that crop of black hair swing back and forth as she spoke to them. My eyes trailed down her body—I couldn’t help it—and I wondered if she looked just as good as I remembered underneath all those clothes. I could still recall the curves of her body beneath my hands, the way she felt, the way she moved…
I pushed those thoughts to the back of my mind. Right now, right here, in this conference, there was only one thing that mattered.And it was winning.