First Impressions: The Fix Up Part 6

The old man beamed like she'd just praised his d.i.c.k or his car, and Holly knew she'd asked the right question. These business types were all alike, and she hoped Ben was taking mental notes on the inroads to a fellow executive's ego.

"Well, honey," Lyle said, leaning a little closer. "Just between you and me, the secret to success is ball-sack."

Holly blinked. "I beg your pardon?"

"It's an acronym," Ben supplied, not sounding nearly as enthusiastic about it as his father did. "BALSAC. Stands for brains, att.i.tude, luck, skill, aggression, and confidence."

"Served me well my whole life," Lyle said, raising a toast to himself and his BALSAC. "That, and aligning myself with the right sort of people." He gave her another appraising look, this one slightly less lecherous. "Having a sweet, pretty girl by his side can help a man get ahead, too."

Ben edged closer to Holly, which felt like another effort to shield her from his father. "We should probably get going-"

"It's okay," Holly said, giving Ben's a.s.s a rea.s.suring squeeze to let him know she could handle his dad. "You must be very proud of your son following in your footsteps the way he is."

"Absolutely," Lyle said, taking a big gulp from a gla.s.s of amber liquid that made Holly's eyes water from three feet away. It smelled like a forest fire, and she wondered what the h.e.l.l it was. "In a family-run company like Langley, it's all about heritage. Good old-fashioned values and traditions that have made this company great for generations. The good old days were good for a reason, and we like to keep 'em going at Langley Enterprises."

"Sure," Holly said, certain she'd heard a version of this speech coming from her ex-husband's lips not long after they'd returned from their honeymoon.

"There's a reason traditional values are traditional, Holly," Chase had pointed out a few weeks after she and Miriam had opened the doors at First Impressions and he'd realized that having Holly own her own company made her less available to further his career by mingling with the other country club wives. That was right about the time he'd started dropping not-so-subtle hints that she sell her share of the company.

Holly took a slow sip of wine now, conscious of Ben simmering beside her. "Actually, Dad, the good old days weren't always so hot," he said. "Human life expectancy a hundred years ago was only forty-eight, and between poor sanitation and nutrition, it really wasn't-"

"Okay, fine, brainiac," Lyle interrupted. He was smiling at his son, but the smile had a hard edge to it. "You know what I meant."

"So look, Dad-I think Holly and I had better get busy mingling, don't you?"

This time, Holly didn't resist Ben's attempt at a rescue. Luckily, Lyle didn't argue, either.

"Sure thing, my boy," he said. "Holly, it's been a pleasure meeting you."

"Likewise, sir."

"Have a good evening, Dad. You can leave some of the hobn.o.bbing to me."

Lyle chuckled and gave Ben an elbow to the ribs. "Get out there and hob some k.n.o.bs, boy!" he said, tossing back the rest of his drink before ambling off.

Ben shook his head and turned back to Holly. "I'm pretty sure I owe you an apology for at least a dozen aspects of that conversation, but I'm not sure where to start."

She extracted her hand from Ben's back pocket, a little disappointed to break contact with him. "It's okay. I wanted to talk to him."

"Seriously?"

"Well, not for the pleasure of his conversation. More so I could see what you're dealing with. What you're hoping to become."

Ben nodded, looking a little grim. "Right. There's a depressing thought."

"He wasn't that bad," she said, even though she knew d.a.m.n well he was. "What on earth was he drinking?"

"Laphroaig. You could smell it?"

"The people in the next building could smell it. What on earth is it?"

"It's a single-malt whiskey imported from Islay. Very smoky. My grandfather drank it, and his father before him, and-"

"How do you feel about it?"

"Not good." Ben shrugged and held up his gla.s.s. "I'm partial to craft beer."

"Cheers to different tastes, then." She took another sip of wine, feeling her shoulders relax now that Lyle had relocated himself across the room. "So does your mother work in the family business, too?"

Ben's face clouded ever so slightly. "My mother pa.s.sed away when I was sixteen."

"Oh, Ben-I'm so sorry." She touched his arm, embarra.s.sed to have brought up such a tender subject when he was working hard to play it cool at the event.

But he just nodded, his gaze drifting across the room toward his father. "Thank you. She was an amazing woman. She's one of the reasons I spent a year of grad school researching new developments in chemotherapy."

"She died of cancer?"

He nodded. "Breast cancer. She found a lump, but my dad convinced her it was nothing."

"That's horrible!"

"It wasn't like that, exactly. I mean, he wasn't trying to be a jerk. I think he was in denial. He didn't want anything to shake up this perfect little world he'd built, and my mom didn't want to believe anything could be wrong, either. By the time she finally went to the doctor-" He stopped there and tore his gaze off his father. "Anyway, the chemo was terrible for her. I went with her to all her appointments, and I always thought there had to be a better way."

"That must have been awful for you and your father."

"My father," he repeated, his voice brittle and clipped. She waited for him to say more, but the bitter look he was aiming at his dad told her more than any words could convey. He seemed to catch himself, and he turned back to her. "Anyway, I graduated early from high school right after that and started college at sixteen. I thought I might like to be a doctor, but engineering is where I ended up."

"It seems like it suited you."

"It did. Does." He shrugged. "Mom always wished Dad would do more to expand the philanthropic arm of Langley Enterprises. As CEO, maybe I can make that happen."

A light went on in the back of Holly's mind. So that's what was driving him to mold himself into CEO material. The chance to do good things with a company that clearly had money to burn. It made sense. "I'm sure your mother would be very proud of you."

"I hope so. How about your parents? Are they supportive of your career?"

"Very. My mom especially. She always stressed how important it was to get an education and be able to support myself without relying on a man."

"Seems like you've been able to do that," he said. "From what I read online about First Impressions, you've been very successful."

"My career has really taken off in the last few years," she agreed, not wanting to dwell on her financial woes with the bank, or on the other aspects of her life where she still wished for more. A relationship, maybe a family- She cleared her throat. "I feel confident we'll be able to push your career into the next realm with just a few tweaks. Being here tonight is already giving me plenty of ideas for your personal rebrand. I'll get to work on writing up a plan first thing in the morning."

"I can't wait to hear about it."

She nodded, glad to be back on safer ground discussing business instead of personal details. Keeping things efficient and detached was going to be key to staying professional with Ben.

"Okay, so I Facebook-stalked some of the Kleinberger execs when I ran to the bathroom earlier," she said.

He raised an eyebrow at her. "Are you ever not working?"

"Not really. Anyway, you should go strike up a conversation with the CEO about his daughter's recent admission to Princeton. He lives for his kids, so he'll appreciate you showing an interest."

"I can't decide if that's creepy or brilliant," he answered, glancing across the room to where Harold was chatting with several other Kleinberger execs.

"How about we go with brilliant?" she suggested.

"Good idea. What did you find out about any of the other execs?"

"Well, Gerald Weisner's wife has been posting a lot of Facebook quotes from narcotics anonymous, so I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest you not ask about her fondness for Percocet. Also, it's possible their VP just got a hair transplant."

"You found that online?"

"No, just from comparing his 2014 Facebook photos to what he looks like standing over there with that noticeable scar on the back of his head. Also not something you want to mention, by the way."

"Should I be offended that you think I might use drug addiction and plastic surgery as entrees to conversation? I'm socially awkward, but not that socially awkward."

"Earlier you called their COO ma'am. His name is Bill."

"An honest mistake. You've gotta admit, the pink shirt is a little effeminate."

"Go," she insisted, nudging him toward the Kleinberger execs.

He grinned, clearly not ready to move just yet. "You don't want to come with me and play the doting arm candy role again?"

She felt a dark bubble well up in her chest, and she forced herself not to react. Playing the role of subservient arm candy wasn't the same as being asked to fill that role full time.

She shook her head. "I'll watch from here. It's important to make sure you can handle these kinds of social situations without a woman hanging on your arm."

"I suppose you're right."

They both watched as Lyle Langley walked up to one of the Kleinberger execs and did some sort of obnoxious shoulder-punch routine with a guy in a dark suit.

"So does your dad expect you to handle the company exactly like he does?" she asked.

"I imagine so," Ben muttered. He took a sip of his drink, then turned away and began a slow trudge toward the shark tank. "If I'm not back in ten minutes, send out a search party."

"Will do."

He strode away, and she watched him go, admiring the broadness of his shoulders and the confidence in his handshake as he greeted the execs one by one. After a few minutes of conversation, he glanced back at her and smiled.

The real smile.

She felt a warm little shimmy in her belly, and it occurred to her that he might not be completely clueless when it came to professional charm.

"Are you sure about this?" Holly asked, glancing at her watch as the elevator crawled slowly toward the top floor. "Don't you have to get up early and run the universe or something?"

Ben laughed and leaned against the metal handrail, his posture relaxed and comfortable now that they'd escaped the event. He tugged off his tie and undid the top b.u.t.ton of his shirt, giving Holly a welcome glimpse of skin.

"It's only nine fifteen," he said. "I don't have to run the universe for at least a few more hours. Besides, remember what you promised?"

"Right," she agreed, glancing out at the city lights whizzing by outside the gla.s.s wall of the elevator. It seemed safer than staring at Ben to see if he'd undo another b.u.t.ton. "I know what I promised, but I wasn't thinking you'd take me up on it tonight. It's Tuesday."

He quirked an eyebrow at her. "Is there a reason we can't watch a bad sci-fi movie on a Tuesday?"

"No, I guess not. I just figured we both have to work tomorrow."

He grinned and stuffed his tie in his pants pocket, then tugged at his shirt collar. Grimacing, he undid another b.u.t.ton, and she did her d.a.m.nedest not to stare. "I promise not to keep you out too late," he said. "I'm showing you one of my favorite flicks, not ravaging you on my living room floor."

Holly felt the heat creep into her cheeks and ordered herself to keep a straight face. Okay, fine, the ravaging thing had crossed her mind. Was it that obvious?

She cleared her throat. "I suppose if we start the movie soon-"

"Will you turn into a pumpkin if you're not home before midnight?"

"No, but I might turn into the wicked witch if I don't get out of these shoes soon." She gave an exaggerated grimace, then bent down and rubbed the back of her heel. She hadn't planned on staying out this late when she'd gotten dressed in the morning. She hadn't planned on any of this, really.

She straightened up, shoving her foot back into the shoe. "I thought movie night was going to involve pajamas and popcorn."

"Relax. I've got both of those things waiting for you in my penthouse."

She blinked, not sure she'd heard him right. "You have pajamas?"

"Yep."

"For me?"

"Uh-huh."

"You've got to be at least six-two, Ben. I don't think I'm going to fit in a pair of your old sweatpants."

"I'm six-three, and that's not the plan. You'll have your own pajamas, I promise."

"I can't decide if this is really cool or really creepy."

"Let's go with creepy cool." He nodded down at her feet. "You can take those off if you want. We're almost there, and shoes aren't required in my apartment."

"And you have pajamas waiting for me."

"Yep."

She toed off her shoes and bent down to pick them up. The elevator came to a stop and she straightened as the doors swished open.

"Ladies first," Ben said, gesturing to the opening.

Holly stepped through, feeling Ben close behind her and enjoying it a lot more than she ought to. The floors were white marble and felt cool under her bare feet. The walls were a lush gold brocade that she kinda wanted to reach out and touch. There was an elaborate fountain in one corner, and a front door that looked like it cost more than her whole house.

It was all very beautiful, but none of it looked like Ben.

"Gaudy, isn't it?"

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