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“Afternoon, Erica. Is Miss Chase in?” Dominic interrupted the receptionist in the middle of a generous bite of her Jersey Mike’s footlong. “I’ll just head on back.” Her jaws rapidly worked through the mouthful as he started off toward the executive suite.
His patience in short supply, he paid no regard to the heads bobbing up from those stationed within the bullpen of Chase Investments’s twenty or so low-wall office cubicles on his march forward.
Beyond the glass-wall partition, he passed the empty executive assistant’s desk, crossed glossy maple-wood finishes, and entered Kennedi Chase’s office. There, she and his brother, Trenton, sat hemmed together upon the mahogany leather couch, chopsticks working, the smell of spicy beef permeating the moderate-sized corner office. Practically inseparable from the moment they got engaged several months ago, it came as no surprise to find the happy couple together. The timing couldn’t be better.
The entire ride over, Dominic had told himself to keep his cool, not to blow his stack, but his frustration must have managed to resurface upon his face. The lovestruck pair’s jovial chatter hit a brick wall of silence as they stared back at him, like deer facing fast-approaching high beams.
“Dom, what’s wrong?” Trenton stuck the wooden utensils into his takeout and set the carton on the center oak table. He came to the edge of his seat with legs spread and palms braced on his knees. His steel-blue eyes alert, he appeared prepared to take on whatever the battle put before him. “Bro, have a seat.”
Related by marriage since the age of five and Trenton age six, Dominic had remained close with his brother even after their parents—his mother and Trenton’s father—decided to end their ten-year nuptials.
“Yes, Dom, have some lunch. The bulgogi’s really good.”
Meeting amber-brown, kind eyes set in features the shade of warm toffee, Dominic took a breath to try to draw on a measure of calm. “Kennedi, you need to talk to your friend, Tabitha. I just left a very pissed off supervisor at the casino construction site. Valerie said Tabitha’s been over there again making—”
He paused. Across the room, the bone of his contention stepped out of the adjoining bathroom. An instant heat of anger slid up his spine, wrapped around his neck, and squeezed like a boa. His glare narrowed on the woman who drove his frustration.
“You.” He pointed a stiff index finger squarely between her cool, hazel eyes. “I know what you did. You don’t have any authority to be giving orders to the construction crew. I’ve told you not to visit the site without my approval.”
“And I’ve told you, Mr. Balaska, last I checked, you’re not my father.” The infuriating woman delivered him a slow roll of her eyes—a mannerism he’d ordinarily find fucking sexy had it been any other woman. It was a clear dismissal as she strode to the leather armchair.
She drew that inky, waist-length braid back over her shoulder with a she-devil flair and pinched a snow pea between slender, tawny-tan fingers, munching away before grabbing the carton of soy-glazed brussels sprouts. “I go where I damn well please.” She didn’t give so much as a glance his way.
Dominic’s temper crackled at her blatant disregard. “Not anymore, you don’t. I’ve placed security at the site. If you show up again without prior approval from me, you’ll be escorted off the grounds.”
Her head snapped up from the smorgasbord of Korean takeout, eyes wide, her pink, pouty lips thinned. “You can’t do that!”
“Can and did. Now tell me again what I can’t do.”
“How about I show you?” A swift flush of color flooding her already naturally blushed cheeks, she jumped to her feet and started to charge at him. Kennedi flung herself up from the couch and blocked her pursuit, holding her back by the shoulders. Shrugging off her friend’s grasp, Tabitha sidestepped Kennedi and faced him in full challenge. “Who do you think you are? I have a right to keep track of the construction progress of Chase Confections. It’s my store.”
Dominic dared her objection with his own. “Progress? Is that what you call changing the blueprints? It’s Kennedi’s store, too, but you don’t see her pressing Valerie with unauthorized and plain old thoughtless changes.”
“Thoughtless!” Her aggressive, wide step forward matched his, meeting him essentially toe to toe. Though his six-foot-two frame topped her by about a quarter of a foot given those khaki-colored canvas TOMS on her feet, she held steady, head angled back, her glare precision-sharp with his. “Damn right I changed it,” she sneered as that tiny diamond stud glinted like ice fire at the side of her nose. “You’re just pissed because I upset your little girlfriend, Valerie.”
“Girlfriend?” Eyes closed, grappling for a modicum of patience, he shook his head. “Woman, what are you talking about? Valerie is the construction site supervisor for both Shaw Hotel and Casino, and Chase Confections. You’re not to direct what she does. Get that through your—”
“Let’s all calm down.” Trenton came to his feet and wedged himself between them. His head swung toward Tabitha, then settled on Dominic. “What sort of changes are we talking about?”
Dominic let go another quiet breath to level out and slacken his clenched jaw to avoid cracking a molar. “She marked up the design specs, took out an entire wall, and drew a big, red X on a metal beam to have it removed. We’re ten months into construction. Any and all changes must be reviewed and approved by me.” His temper roiling just below a simmer, he aimed his glower over his brother’s shoulder at the insufferable woman. “It’s a support beam; it can’t be removed. Valerie tried to tell her that, but she wouldn’t listen.”
“That ugly pole will get in the way of the refrigerated glass display counter that will sit in its very spot.” Stepping around Trenton, she confronted Dominic once more. “I didn’t remove the beam. You’re making a big deal out of nothing.” She looked at Kennedi and Trenton. “I shifted it a measly three feet to the right, is all.”
“You. Don’t. Get. To. Make. Changes. Without. My. Say.” Dominic glared down on her slender build, and damn if he didn’t get a swift kick of strawberry-scented shampoo when she whipped that ridiculously long braid back over her shoulder in that way she did, her stark defiance holding firm. Her crinkled brow contorted excruciatingly attractive features that looked ready to slice through a major artery. “The beam stays where it is.”
“You don’t get to tell me—” she started.
“You heard me, Miss Seils.” He pivoted and headed to the door but stopped short when it opened. “Afternoon, Evie.” She pushed red-wire frames up the subtle brush of freckles sprinkled across the bridge of her nose, her gaze probing. An easy grin surfaced past his irritation, but not before he saw his anger register in her quizzical stare.
“Dom…uh, hey. You okay?”
Very few times he’d come upon Evie, the third partner in Chase Confections, without her expression carrying a warm smile. Unlike her friend Tabitha. “Good seeing you, Evie. Enjoy your day.”
Evie nodded. “Dom, you try to do the same.”
He gave a glimpse over his shoulder at Tabitha and met the chill in those hazel eyes that still bored into him like sharp daggers.
“Yeah, I’ll try.”
“Argh!” Tabitha shrilled and dropped down into the twin armchair opposite Evie. Snatching her sprouts, munching through her fury, she slouched back and gave a look up at Kennedi, with Trenton at her side. “Kenni, who is he to tell us what we can and can’t do with our bakery?”
“I see you and Dom went at it again.” Evie tore the protective paper off a set of chopsticks and dug into the now-tepid veggie fried rice she’d called ahead for more than a half hour ago. “That explains why he looked ready to explode.” Sounding not at all interested, she pointed toward the opposite end of the table. “Someone please pass me a napkin.”
Trenton assisted Evie before scooping his suit coat from the couch’s armrest and slipping into it. “Tabitha, I believe you’ve hit a new record with Dom. Rarely have I witnessed my brother at this level of pissed.” His head angled to the side, brow lifted. “Quite honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him this enraged…toward a woman, that is. I’ll go to the site tomorrow and speak with Valerie to see what can be done about the beam.”
Tabitha came to her feet. “Trent, you have a whole team of engineers on site. Why does your brother get to play dictator?”
“He’s my COO. I value his input, and I trust he’ll see that things get done the way I want them.”
“Pain in the ass is what he is.” Frustrated, Tabitha jabbed her hands into the back pockets of her denims and paced a narrow path. “Valerie has an issue with me because she has a thing for Dominic. That’s what this is really about.” She turned to Trenton and Kennedi. “You should see the way the two of them laugh it up, and that woman croons over him. ‘Oh, Dominic, you’re so funny. That’s a nice suit; it fits your frame so perfectly.’ Blah, blah blah,” she mocked and rolled her eyes. “And he eats that crap up. It’s disgusting. So unprofessional. I think Valerie sees me as competition.” She dusted her hands and brought them up, palms out. “You can tell her not to worry; he’s all hers. Not interested. Self-absorbed pretty boys with an ego chip on their shoulder aren’t my type.”
With a small smile, Trenton nodded. “You dislike my brother. Duly noted, but I don’t think you give him enough credit.”
“And I don’t think Dom gives Tab enough credit,” Kennedi defended her. “She has a right to monitor the construction progress and make decisions that best suit our confectionary.”
Tabitha sent a slight appreciative grin her friend’s way. “The changes were necessary.”
“I’ll go talk to him.” Trenton turned to Kennedi. “Don’t forget to discuss that other matter,” he said quietly, and Kennedi nodded.
Tabitha’s ears perked up, and Kennedi’s gaze brushed Trenton’s when his slid her way for the barest of moments. If the two thought they were being cleverly incognito, they’d failed. She’d also caught Kennedi’s “subtle” glance at Evie that had been about as conspicuous as her fiancé’s a moment ago.
“Thanks for lunch, love.” Trenton’s arms circled Kennedi’s waist and drew her intimately close.
As the couple shared a lingering lip-lock and soft whispers of affection, both Tabitha and Evie directed their concentration to eating their lunch.
Far too much PDA for one o’clock in the afternoon. That said, it was nice to see her friend so happily in love.
“Tabitha, Evie, enjoy your day.” Trenton strode out.
When the door closed, her eyes sparkling like rare gemstones and all smiles, Kennedi took a seat on the couch. “Damn, I love that man.”
“No, really?” Tabitha delivered her a sardonic grin. “I hadn’t noticed.”
“I’d never have guessed.” Evie snickered.
“Now spill it.” With her take-out carton in hand, Tabitha relaxed back in the chair. “I heard what Trenton said. What is it you’re supposed to tell me?” Her friend’s lovestruck, starry-eyed gaze instantly sobered. Kennedi bit her bottom lip; a telltale sign it wouldn’t be anything Tabitha would find pleasant to hear.
“Tab, maybe you should stay away from the construction site for a while.”
And there it is. Tabitha cut Kennedi a hard side-eye. “Not a minute ago you agreed that I should be able to monitor our confectionary’s construction progress.”
“You’re taking Dominic’s side. Figures,” she bristled. “You’re engaged to Trenton; it’s no shock you’ll side with his brother.”
“That’s not the case and you know it. Stop getting it twisted,” Kennedi admonished on a sigh. “Shaw Hotel and Casino is nearly finished. I just don’t think changes at this late stage are a good idea. Construction on our confectionary that butts up against the hotel-casino will be completed ahead of schedule. If we start trying to make changes, it’ll stretch out our grand opening date. Not to mention, Trenton and I have ads running nonstop all over the place, announcing Chase Confections’s grand opening. It’s best we don’t make any major changes.”
“Kenni’s right, Tab. Our lease on the temporary space will terminate right around the time we open in the new location. We don’t want to have to sign on to another term,” Evie added, and both partners supported their appeals with a shared nod. “That said, I’m sure we can figure out a way to work the beam into our décor. I’ll get to work on a mural design with our logo to dress it up. But that’s not what Kennedi and Trenton were whispering about.”
Tabitha looked between her friends, then set her attention on Evie. “That’s to say you know what they were whispering about.”
Evie turned her head to Kennedi. “Go on, tell her.”
Silence. The two stared back at one another, as though trying to will the other to speak.
Kennedi’s pencil-stiff posture caused Tabitha to tense tightly herself. “One of you had better start talking before—”
“Okay, okay.” Kennedi came to the edge of her seat, her spine as erect as a two-by-four. “Shaw-Vegas’s fifth anniversary kicks off next week. The celebration will go on the entire month. There will be celebrity guest appearances, concerts…all sorts of events. Trent thought it would be a good idea to introduce Chase Confections on the West Coast by offering our custom pastries at Shaw’s signature restaurant, Pearl Fine Dining.”
Evie pinned her frizzy, unruly, dark toffee ringlets behind her ears. “With our bakery reopening soon, we have the East Coast covered. Pearl would be a great promo opportunity to market us out west.”
Still bouncing her head back and forth between them, Tabitha laughed. “Why would you think I’d have a problem with that? You two can be so dramatic. West Coast publicity sounds good to me.”
“Trent liked the cake design you created for the D.C. casino groundbreaking ceremony last year—so much so, he was hoping you’d do something similar for his Vegas anniversary celebration. Nothing as elaborate as the six-foot Triton,” Kennedi clarified. “Trent wants to add a specialty dessert to Pearl’s menu, signature crafted like only we can.”
Tabitha nodded. “No biggie. We’ll bake and ship frozen overnight like we always do.”
Kennedi looked at Evie, then back at Tabitha. “We can overnight ship our custom pastries. Baked fresh is what we’re known for. But given that it’s Shaw’s anniversary, we felt you should go to Vegas to put a face to Chase Confections, put us on the West Coast map, so to speak.”
“I suggested you should go.” Evie removed her glasses and buffed the lenses on the end of her T-shirt as she met Tabitha’s stare. “Think about it,” she said while setting the frames back in place. “When celebrity chefs like Emeril Lagasse, Joël Robuchon, or Wolfgang Puck make an appearance at their restaurants, people crowd in just to get a glimpse at them.”
“Evie, I’m not a renowned culinary personality.”
“Doesn’t matter. Pearl is already booked solid for the entire month, and that’s after only three days of running the Chase Confections promo.”
Tabitha blinked. “What promo?” Evie’s baby-leaf-green eyes met Kennedi’s amber-brown ones, both ladies looking as though they’d been caught with hands in the cookie jar. Tabitha narrowed her own eyes as hard as black ice. “What the hell is going on? What promo?” She directed her glare at Kennedi since she handled their marketing.
“Remember those photos we took of the three of us to promote the bakery relocating to its new home next to Shaw Hotel and Casino? Well, Trent—er, Dominic has it on display at Shaw-Vegas.”
“I know you weren’t thrilled about how your pics turned out, but it’s just a small poster ad, I’m told,” Evie hurriedly explained. Squinting, she pinched her fingers close together. “Tiny ad.”
Not having to be concerned with the marketing aspect of the business was fine by Tabitha. She trusted Kennedi would see things were done appropriately. Still… “A little heads-up would’ve been nice.”
“Sorry. With running my father’s real estate investment firm here on top of managing Chase Confections, I’ve been crazy busy. As Evie said, the ad has been up only three days. It’s getting a lot of buzz. It’s actually pretty popular. Even our website has picked up double the traffic.”
“All the more reason you should go to Vegas,” Evie added.
As Tabitha sipped her bottled water, she caught their shared side-eye glances woven within a silent exchange, reading the undercurrent of their agenda. “How about you just say what this is really about. You’re trying to keep me from the Wharf construction site, get me as far away from D.C. as possible. I see you two have it all worked out. Kennedi, I guess you were just pretending to have my back earlier. So much for partnership. Sistahood. You two plotting behind my—”
“Tab, it’s not like that at all.” Evie quickly sat forward. “Kennedi was hesitant to bring up Vegas because when we tell you Dominic will be there as well, we felt you’d say—”
“I’d say oh hell no!” Tabitha scowled and shook her head in stark protest. “Damn right. Count me out if he’s involved.”
End of Excerpt