"I know that," she said, trying her best to remember all the details they'd hashed out during the divorce. Her throat was growing tight, and it was getting tough to breathe. "But since the economy did a nosedive just a couple months after I started First Impressions, and then we divorced right after that, there was no way to refinance the loan to remove his name. The loan was underwater, even though I always made the payments on time and in full."
"Yes, that's how it happened for a lot of people."
Which didn't help Holly at all. She looked down at the paperwork again and ordered herself to keep breathing. "My ex-husband and I agreed I'd refinance and get his name off the loan as soon as the real estate market bounced back enough that it wasn't underwater anymore."
"A sound idea, but it appears your ex has changed his mind."
Not the first time.
Panic inched its way up her spine.
"I don't understand why he's doing this," she whispered. "We had an agreement."
She should have known better than to believe he'd hold up his end of the deal. h.e.l.l, she should have known better than to have Chase co-sign the loan in the first place when she decided to start First Impressions. But they'd been married, for crying out loud, and the bank hadn't been willing to loan that much in her name only.
"Maybe someone else could co-sign on a new loan with you," the loan officer suggested. "A parent, maybe, or-"
"No, my parents don't have that kind of money, and my business partner had some previous credit challenges that make it impossible for her to co-sign." She took a sip of her tea, then choked a little as she tried to force it past the lump in her throat. The paper cup felt soggy in her hand, which was also how her brain felt at the moment.
"This makes no sense," she said. "From day one, I was the only one making the payments. Chase realized right after First Impressions opened that it was going to mean more hours of work for me, not fewer, and he started badgering me to give it up and-"
She broke off there, her voice choked with unshed tears. This wasn't the loan officer's business. Holly had to be strong. She had to show she was a competent, professional business owner who could handle the curveb.a.l.l.s her career threw at her.
But the curveb.a.l.l.s from her ex-husband-well, those were something different.
"I'm sorry, Holly, but refinancing or selling might be your only options."
She swallowed back the lump in her throat. "I've tried everything to refinance. You know that. With the real estate market down, the value of the building is less than what I owe, so the bank won't let me refinance even though I've never missed a payment."
And selling isn't an option. At current market prices, I'd lose everything I've sunk into this business, plus First Impressions would be homeless and all my employees would be out of work and- "I'm sorry," the loan officer said again. "If you could come up with a bigger down payment, they might let you refinance."
"How big are we talking?"
The loan officer flipped through her paperwork and frowned. "Remember the retainer you deposited three weeks ago for that new client?"
"At least triple that."
She dropped the empty paper cup. It bounced off the edge of the desk and landed in her lap, dribbling lukewarm droplets of tea on her leg.
At least triple.
Was that even possible?
In response, she heard the echo of Ben's voice.
"I'll pay whatever fee you think is necessary," he'd told her on the phone. "Triple it if you think the a.s.signment is unusual enough to warrant it."
She grabbed the soggy paper cup and gripped it tight in her hand. Ben.
Could she really turn down the chance to save her business based on the fear she couldn't control herself around Ben Langley? All the guy needed was a little help tapping into that alpha male CEO she'd glimpsed lurking inside him. He wanted professional rebranding, not an excuse to roll around naked with her.
Her thoughts veered dangerously with that mental picture-all that heat and muscle and sweat-which was probably a bad sign right off the bat.
But she forced herself to focus. All she had to do was stay professional. To do the job Ben hired her to do, then tell him good-bye once they finished their business. No illicit hookups, no messy relationships, nothing to undo all this hard work she'd put into building First Impressions from the rubble of her divorce. She'd learned her lesson already, hadn't she?
She licked her lips and regarded the loan officer. "How long do I have?"
The woman steepled her hands on the desk. "Thirty days."
Holly nodded, then stood on shaky legs and stuffed the paperwork in her bag. "I'll find a way to do this."
She turned and walked out of the office, hoping like h.e.l.l she wasn't too late to take Ben up on his offer.
"Ben, my boy!"
Ben looked up from his computer to see his father marching into his office wearing a purple polo shirt and plaid pants so hideous they had to be either very trendy or very expensive. Probably both.
Lyle Langley clapped Ben on the shoulder hard enough to knock his gla.s.ses askew, which was no small feat considering Ben was a good six inches taller than his dad.
Probably why he always slugs you when you're sitting down, his subconscious pointed out.
He straightened his gla.s.ses, squared his shoulders, and turned to face his father. "What's up, Dad?"
"How about we get out there and play nine holes before the Kleinberger dinner?"
"Nine holes?" Ben repeated, trying not to stare at the pants.
His father frowned. "Golf. In golf you can either play nine holes or-"
"I understand how golf works," Ben said, knowing that was only partly true. He'd done it enough times to keep up on the course, and he'd read several books on the game so he could hold his own in golf chatter with his father's colleagues. But honestly, the thought of playing even one hole right now made Ben want to slug himself in the forehead with a nine-iron.
"The boys from Kleinberger wanted to hit the ball around a little while they're in town," his father continued, picking up Ben's paperweight and tossing it from one hand to the other. "Good opportunity for you to get acquainted, let them see Langley Enterprises is going to be in good hands with you at the helm of domestic relations."
"And you think my golf swing is the key to that?"
His dad frowned and stopped tossing the paperweight. "As opposed to your shining personality?"
"Point taken," Ben said, annoyed the barb stung as much as it did.
"You've gotta step up now, son," Lyle said, his voice turning serious. "It's time to stop s.c.r.e.w.i.n.g around with your face buried in a book and prove you're a real Langley."
"Sure thing, Dad," he said, wishing he sounded more like an authoritative leader and less like a nerdy middle school kid who'd dropped his science project in the parking lot. One more thing Holly could have helped him with.
"Look-I really need to go over these spreadsheets before the end of the day," Ben said. "I think I've pinpointed a couple areas where I might be able to save Langley Enterprises several hundred thousand dollars in translation and localization for our foreign sales."
He watched his father's eyes light up, and he felt a rush of relief at having finally found a common language with the old man.
"A few hundred thousand, eh?" He clapped Ben on the shoulder again and grinned. "Atta boy. You keep at it then. You'll be at the event tonight, right?"
"Right. I'll be there."
"Not alone, I hope. Wouldn't be my son if you don't show up with a woman on your arm."
"Right," Ben said, willing himself not to think of Holly again. "I'll see what I can do."
"Go, Benny Boy!" If his dad looked pleased at the thought of money, he looked like he might be on the brink of wetting himself at the idea of Ben having a date. "Make sure she's a looker. Appearances matter in business, you know. Gotta show the Kleinberger guys you're the sort of man who strolls in with a good-looking female."
"In that case, maybe I could borrow my buddy's c.o.c.ker spaniel," Ben offered. "Daisy could always use a good walk."
"Don't be cute with me. Dating an attractive woman is a smart career move. You think I got where I did by making dumb business decisions?"
The fact that his father regarded the opposite s.e.x as a business commodity was depressing as h.e.l.l to Ben, but now didn't seem like the time to argue.
And yeah, he had to admit he'd noticed those lush curves under Holly's blouse and the way her eyes widened as he'd touched his lips to hers. He remembered the urgent way she'd pressed her whole body against him when he'd kissed her.
Yet another reason to regret that she'd rejected his offer.
"Here's another business tip from your old man," his dad said, and for a startling moment, Ben thought his father planned to offer him kissing pointers. But no, Lyle was still talking business. Of course. "To get a woman like that," his dad said, "you've got to wine her and dine her. Take her out someplace nice, buy her jewelry every now and then."
"I'll take that under advis.e.m.e.nt," Ben said, thinking of his mother. He remembered walking into the living room at fifteen to see her looking sadly down at a diamond tennis bracelet.
"That's nice," Ben had said, hoping to cheer her up.
"Thanks," she'd said, swiping at the corner of her eye. "Your father can't make it for our anniversary dinner, but he sent this."
Ben had nodded, taking a closer look at the bracelet and realizing it was the same d.a.m.n one he'd sent her the year before. And the year before that. And the year before that.
Even then, he'd known his mother would have given all the diamonds in the world for a quiet night on the sofa snuggling with her husband eating popcorn and watching movies.
Truth be told, that was Ben's idea of a perfect evening, too.
"So you're sure I can't get you out on the golf course with the Kleinberger execs?" his father said.
"I'd love nothing more," Ben lied. "But business calls."
His dad frowned and shook his head, but he must have seen there was no changing Ben's mind. "Okay then. See you in the Jefferson Room at seven thirty."
"I wouldn't miss it for the world."
Another lie so bad it almost hurt his tongue to spit the words out. G.o.d, this was going to be harder than he thought. The words coming out of his mouth sounded nothing like his own, but they seemed to be a requirement of the job. How could he convince people he was this powerful CEO if he didn't believe it himself?
He waited until his dad strode from the room before slouching back into his chair. He turned back to his laptop and pulled up a spreadsheet on Langley's international manufacturing operations.
But he didn't find the usual focus that came to him when he immersed himself in data and spreadsheets. Maybe it had been wrong to take this CEO gig. Maybe he was trying to be someone he couldn't be even if he wanted.
His dad's words echoed in his head. You've gotta step up now.
Ben knew exactly what he meant by that. He'd seen Lyle demonstrate it at the country club countless times, a gla.s.s of scotch in one hand, the other hand greeting strangers with an anaconda death grip as his dad flashed his most charming smile.
G.o.d, there weren't enough Crest Whitening Strips in the world for Ben to pull off that smile, much less the handshake. Or any of it, for that matter. What the h.e.l.l was he doing here?
You're seizing the chance to run this company your way. You've just gotta hone your leadership skills first.
Ben had no intention of following the Langley tradition of being an all-around grade-A a.s.shole when it came to human relationships, especially with women. That seemed to be par for the course among Langley CEOs, and Ben had spent years watching his dad break his mother's heart again and again with short-skirted secretaries and questionable business trips and long work hours that left no time for them to spend any quality time together.
If that was part of the job, Ben would just as soon light his desk on fire and crawl under it right now.
But he could do it his way, he was almost sure of it. He just needed charm and people skills to pull it off. Holly had seemed like the perfect person to help him out with that, but she'd turned him down. He'd gotten off the phone with her hours ago, but he still couldn't shake her final words to him.
"I'll need a h.e.l.luva lot more than luck if I have to do this on my own," he said aloud, then grimaced. Talking to himself was probably one of those habits he'd need to break in his new position. It was one thing to sit at your home office all day muttering about non-oxide ceramics. It was another to do it with a secretary sitting fifteen feet away and a whole building full of people occupying the nine floors below him at the Langley headquarters.
The phone rang, and it took him a few beats to realize it was his personal line and not his desk phone. He fumbled the iPhone out of his pocket, knocking a clump of nachos into his lap in the process.
"Parker," he said, reading his buddy's name off the screen as he lifted the phone to his ear. "I was just talking about you. Well, your dog."
There was a long pause, and Ben thought he heard his best friend give a snort of dismay. "If Daisy is your idea of a good topic of workday conversation with business executives, I shudder to think what you'll come up with for c.o.c.ktail party banter. Squeaky toys? Root ca.n.a.ls? The mating habits of woodland beetles?"
Ben sighed. Normally, Parker's ribbing wouldn't bother him. h.e.l.l, he'd probably dish some right back at him. But this day was turning out to be anything but normal. He looked at his watch, and it dawned on him he'd missed his regular workout date. "Sorry I couldn't make it at lunch," he said. "My gym time is going to be a bit limited for the foreseeable future."
On the other end of the line, his best pal snorted. "It's your first day as CEO and you're already turning into your dad?"
Ben grimaced, wishing the words didn't make him want to stab himself in the eye with his letter opener. "That's kind of the point, isn't it?"
"Then it's my job to balance you out. I just signed us up to volunteer with that charity group that teaches boxing to underprivileged kids. You're welcome. And you're sparring with me and Mike and Justin at noon tomorrow, so don't bail again."
"Fine," Ben said, glancing at his calendar. He should probably protest, but beating the h.e.l.l out of a punching bag or one of his sparring partners was the only thing that kept him sane sometimes. He kinda liked having a hobby that kept him in shape and kept him from descending into total pocket-protector geekdom.
"So are you wearing ugly golf pants and barking orders at strangers yet, or have you not fully transitioned into becoming your dad?"
"I'm working on it," Ben grumbled.
"You don't sound so sure of yourself."
"Oh I'm sure of myself. One hundred percent." Words said as much to convince himself as Parker. "I'm actually looking into hiring someone to help me out a little."
"You mean like a life coach or something?"
"Or something," Ben agreed, trying not to feel too glum that Holly had turned him down. Hopefully he could find someone else.
I don't want anyone else.
Ben cleared his throat. "Look, I've gotta go. I have to get ready for this big event with the Kleinberger execs. But I'll do my best to make it tomorrow."
"Twelve thirty," Parker said. "Be there."
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