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On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, the rest of America was in stretchy pants savoring their umpteenth slice of pie.
But not Rowan West.
Nor any of the employees of Lakeshore Creative.
They were all gathered in the glass and steel conference room overlooking the shining white edifice of the Wrigley Building. If Rowan went up a floor to the executive level and pressed her face to the window, she could see a tiny sliver of the Chicago River.
Okay, she’d only snuck up there once. After pulling an all-nighter for a super demanding client, just as the sun rose. But she’d never forget how pretty it was. How magical it felt to look down on the city and the boats.
And to pretend, for two whole minutes, that it was her office. That she’d fast-forwarded through ten years of hard work and earned that office for creating the best marketing campaigns in the whole darned city.
An elbow jabbed her upper arm. Rowan jerked, clutching her glue stick to be sure it didn’t fall and clatter. “William’s about to make his big announcement. Pay attention,” her work bestie, Dana Kostka, whispered.
Yikes. Inattention was inexcusable. Hard to believe she’d fallen into that daydream again, especially at the annual corporate retreat. It was a chance to make an impression outside of the daily grind. Like extra credit. And Rowan had always been the one to not only do all the extra credit, but ask for more.
That was why Rowan tried to sit in the front row at company meetings. Not just to pay attention, but so all the account managers above her would notice that she paid attention.
Dana liked the back row, specifically to whisper and zone out. Probably because she just didn’t care as much. Which wasn’t an insult, as she was the first to admit it. Dana was the assistant for their department. She didn’t share Rowan’s dogged determination to move up the ladder. Her strength lay in loyalty to the company, rather than burning motivation.
So, to be fair, they alternated who chose their seat location. But at the next break, she might need to move up a few rows. This was the second time today she’d drifted off.
Rowan blamed the “activity.” And geez, they were a room full of adults. Calling it an “activity” sent the wrong message, made the whole thing sound juvenile. A marketing company should know better. Branding was everything.
They were all making “vision boards” of what they wanted to accomplish in the next year.
Rowan wasn’t a vision board type of woman. It was a waste of time. She could be using her creativity on designing a new plan for a client. Catchy phrases and snazzy art, all coalescing under the umbrella of whip-smart branding.
Gluing cut-out photos onto construction paper felt like William Clark was trying to use up craft projects that his extended family didn’t get around to opening over the long holiday.
Their CEO—his only nod to the holiday weekend being that he’d left off his signature pocket square from his suit—moved behind the microphone at the podium.
Rowan sat up a little straighter. The man was brilliant, both creatively and at business. She tried to soak up every word that he spoke, even when they were just in the breakroom waiting their turn at the Keurig. Rowan wanted to impress him. Wanted to learn from him. And eventually wanted to be him—or at least, in his position.
He shot his cuffs, the monogrammed silver cuff links winking under the pin lights. “I know we’ve got another ten minutes before we move on. I just need to bend your ears for a bit. Sorry to take your focus away from your vision boards. My wife assures me that these will crystallize your emphasis for the coming year.”
Ah. That explained it. William’s wife, Naomi, was as woo-woo as they came. She’d popped into the office dressed as a fortune-teller on Halloween. And then did tarot card readings.
Rowan couldn’t imagine letting her spouse weigh in on anything related to her career. Maybe that’s why her dating life had been in a…lull…for the past—
Yikes. Had it really been almost a year?
She ran a finger inside the suddenly tight turtleneck of her cream sweater. Well, her work was all-consuming. It was important to form alliances throughout the office, which meant staying late, working weekends, and above all else, not flirting with anyone.
As a result, the teams saw her as one of the boys. Somebody easy to work with, always willing to pitch in. Someone that was an asset, rather than a distraction.
But wow, she could sure do with a few nights with a tall, dark distraction right about now…
William gripped the sides of the podium. Leaned forward just a little, in that way he had of establishing a connection. “Thanks to all of you, again, for giving up a piece of your long weekend. Clients tend to kick into overdrive to race to finish things by year end. Not to mention all the rounds that have to be made to their Christmas parties and luncheons. This is our opportunity to come together. Have a huddle and drill down to what makes Lakeshore Creative the best agency to work at, and to represent.”
Applause and cheers bounced off the exposed vent work at the ceiling.
Rowan clapped, of course.
But she also slid her gaze sideways to prevent from rolling her eyes at the hyperbole.
That’s when she saw Jeremy Kincannon, William’s stepson (which everyone knew was the only reason he had a desk in this company). Rowan tried not to look at Jeremy very often. Her reasons were threefold:
1) She had zero respect for someone who used nepotism instead of talent to further their career. Everyone deserved a level playing field.
2) They’d clashed from day one, always fighting to get put on the same accounts. The biggest, most important ones, of course. As much as Dana was her office bestie? Jeremy was her work enemy.
3) The man was…well…gorgeous. Feathered black hair, just a little too long, that always looked like a beach wind had combed it. Eyes the stunning, deep brown of a doppio Americano. Eyebrows with a permanent quirk up in the middle that gave him a mischievous look. A dimple in his left cheek, for crying out loud. And an easy smile that popped it constantly.
Jeremy was rolling his eyes. Not even bothering to hide it. Thanks to the way he’d propped his jaw sideways on his fist, Rowan got the full view.
How could he?
Yes, the Achilles’ heel in her hero worship for William were his over-the-top, rah-rah bonding speeches. He waaaaay overdid them. Constantly. Not every campaign was the best ever created. It actually weakened his praise, because you never fully believed it.
Despite that one flaw, Rowan still thought him brilliant. She just took these speeches with a grain of salt—and counted the seconds until they were over.
But Jeremy shouldn’t. He should have double the respect for the man as both a boss and father figure. Not to mention that he should be bending over backward to toe the line since William gave him this job, this spot in a company that so many other talented creatives competed for and were denied.
“Stop it,” she ordered in a pointed whisper. Rowan even waved her fuzzy white pipe cleaner at him for emphasis. Goodness knows she wasn’t using it for anything else, like the vision board. What were pipe cleaners supposed to symbolize for their coming year?
He leaned back in his chair, eyes wide now and innocent. Stretched out long legs wearing the only pair of blue jeans in the entire room. “Stop what?”
Like he didn’t know? Oh, the man infuriated her. Basically every time he opened his mouth. “Not paying attention. Being disrespectful to our boss.”
“You’re the one who started talking to me. Whose fault is that?”
No. Nope. Jeremy had started all this, not her. “Please. I saw your eye roll. It was as obvious as the neon marquee at the Biograph Theater.”
“You saw it.” Jeremy jerked his chin toward the front of the rom. “He didn’t.”
He had a point. Which set her teeth even more on edge. “You should be more professional.”
“Sure. I’ll do that.” He smirked at her. “Right after you loosen up.”
They weren’t in a frat together. Did he expect her to loll about in yoga pants and offer him a Jell-o shot every time William said they rocked?
They were colleagues. Vision-boarding aside, this company had high standards. Was sought after by clients and dreamed of by creatives. He might be Mr. Laid-Back, but the job demanded more.
Which was why Rowan gave it 110 percent, day in and day out.
There was no loosening up. There was only and always being at the top of her game.
“This isn’t a competition, Jeremy.”
“Everything’s a competition between us. Haven’t you noticed?”
Oh, she’d noticed.
Somehow, they’d leaned toward each other. Her pithy remonstration had turned into a full-blown conversation. Now Rowan’s hand gripped the arm of his chair. Jeremy’s hand was slapped flat across her vision board.
Probably for the best that her attempt at putting her feelings to paper were no longer visible.
This time, Dana didn’t bother with a discreet elbow. She full-on kicked Rowan. “Will you two keep it down? He’s announcing the finalists.”
Rowan jerked her hand back into her lap. Sat up as if a zipper had pulled her spine erect. Fixed her gaze on William.
She’d almost missed it.
Because of Jeremy. Unbelievable.
For a terrifying second, Rowan wondered what else she’d missed. She’d just have to get Dana to fill her in later.
“As you know, it is time to announce the finalists for the account manager position. Every year, we settle this by giving them the same assignment, and seeing who delivers more of the wow factor. We’ve got a fun twist to it this year.”
Rowan bit her lip. Back in school, teachers always called pop quizzes a “fun twist.” Her doctor called the unexpected tetanus booster a “fun twist.” In her experience, those words were a linguistic bait and switch.
Not that it would matter unless she was a finalist. Which was only what she worked so hard, slogged so endlessly toward the last two years. It was time. She was ready.
And if Jeremy beat her out for one of the spots, she was ready—almost—to walk away. Any company that rewarded nepotism over diligence and dedication, well, it wasn’t the right one for her. Besides, he didn’t need the money. He didn’t just have the proverbial silver spoon—he had the entire, eight-piece silver set.
Rowan, however, very much needed the pay bump.
She needed the extra funds to help pay her sister’s way through college. Scholarships didn’t come close to covering everything. And her mom had worked for so many years to give them what she could. Rowan had vowed to help with Aspen’s costs to lift some of the burden.
So Rowan hoped that William and the team of directors had chosen wisely…
“We’ve got a new client. Holiday Land Adventure Park & Resort. Anyone ever been there?” William paused, but there wasn’t even a stir of murmurs.
“Anyone ever heard of it?” Again, nothing but silence and the soft whirr of the forced heat coming out of the ducts. “You see the problem.” This time, when William paused, the whole room chuckled.
Rowan typed the name into the notepad on her phone to look up after the meeting. Even if she wasn’t a finalist, they might need additional team support. Maybe in that supporting role she’d come up with an idea that surpassed theirs, and leapfrog over them into the promotion.
A girl could dream.
And notice that next to her, Jeremy had just written it in block capital letters on the border of his vision board.
After a press of the clicker, the PowerPoint on the screen advanced to reveal a bird’s-eye view of the property. It looked huge. Easy to spot the rides and roller coasters, the neighboring ski runs, and the sprawling hotel.
William turned to indicate the photo with one raised arm. “Believe me, we’re not the only ones who haven’t heard of Holiday Land. Attendance is down. Drastically. There’s a new owner who needs to decide whether to close the park and just continue with the resort, or spend the time and money to spruce it up before next season. Our job is to provide a marketing campaign that will convince her the park will make money, if she follows all our instructions to the letter.”
Sergio, a senior account manager with a portfolio that Rowan drooled over, asked, “Saving a failing adventure park? Why do we want to send her down that road?”
“We may, or we may not. There’s a chance we’ll look at the presentations and decide that our recommendation is for her to cut her losses. But the job of the finalists is to figure out a way to brand it that revitalizes it. Something fresh. That’s the assignment that will decide the promotion.”
Dana shot her hand in the air, waggling two pipe cleaners she’d shaped into a Christmas tree. “What’s the twist?”
Dana’s lack of patience didn’t surprise Rowan. Her friend lived to watch all the reality shows. Twists were her thing.
“We’re sending the finalists on a road trip. They’ll head out to spend a week at the park. Going to all the attractions, doing all the activities, and staying at the resort.”
“I think they’ll need an on-site assistant,” Dana deadpanned. “It sounds fun. I mean, super labor intensive.”
“You’re welcome to accompany them, Dana.” William’s gray eyes twinkled as her friend’s jaw dropped in surprise. “Just not on the company dime. Or time. You choose how you use your PTO, after all.”
Dana looked down at her notepad. “In that case, I guess I’ll be holding down the fort.”
“Don’t worry, it’ll be a light week for you. Because both finalists are from your department. Let’s all congratulate Jeremy Kincannon and Rowan West!”
As the room burst into applause, Rowan swallowed her gasp.
It wouldn’t be a professional reaction. Nor would giving in to the instinct to spring out of her seat and do a roundoff down the aisle.
Instead, she warmed a curve into her lips. Gave a nod that was half I’m so thankful and half I’m sure Jeremy is deserving too.
Had she practiced it in front of the mirror for the past three nights in a row? You betcha.
Because Rowan planned for every eventuality. It didn’t do to be caught off-guard. So she’d practiced this face, as well as one for if she didn’t make the cut.
But she still couldn’t look at Jeremy. Couldn’t tell if he was being cocky or gracious or modest…
Who was she kidding? Undoubtedly, he was deep into a trio of fist pumps by now.
“You kids leave bright and early Tuesday morning. No time to waste. So you might want to make some tweaks to your vision boards now. Your future might be very different in a few weeks.”
The vision board.
To Rowan, it was simply an impediment to her list-making, packing, and prepping for the incredibly soon trip.
The one she’d have to take with Jeremy. No other team members along to act as buffers.
How was that supposed to work?
How was she supposed to get anything done with the annoying—and annoyingly handsome—six feet of distraction as her shadow all week?
With him right there as a reminder that they were in a competition for a single spot?
“Congrats!” Dana gushed as she gave her a side-hug. “We definitely need to upgrade what you’ve done on your vision board.”
“Right. Because that’s my biggest problem.”
“It is right now. William’s going to have me hang these up around the office, to ‘keep the inspiration from today going.’ Do you really want to disappear for a week and leave this as everyone’s reminder of your stellar work?” Dana used the tip of her pen to disparagingly poke at the construction paper.
Rowan shuddered. “No. I 100 percent do not want this to be my legacy. Or even my placeholder.”
“I’m shocked you didn’t spend yesterday planning how you’d lay out your board.”
“I spent all day volunteering at the women’s shelter, remember?” Holidays were hard for them to get shifts covered, so Rowan made it a point of going for most of them, in addition to her regular monthly shifts.
Aspen had been too young to remember, but Rowan would never forget the months the three of them had spent in a shelter. How it had literally saved them. No matter how crazed and buried she was with work, she always carved out time to give back now.
“Oh, right. Then let me help.” Dana scooted closer. She rolled up the cuffs of her silky brown blouse that matched the deep sable of her hair. Then she started rooting through the pile of magazine cutouts and stickers.
Rowan was equal parts relieved and delighted to have her take charge. Except for one glaring problem. “Uh, you don’t know what I’m visioning?”
“Doesn’t matter. I know what you need.”
“Yes, the promotion. But I don’t know how we’d represent that on here. Plus, we’re supposed to have ‘life stuff’ goals too.” Rowan was flying high enough on the news of being a finalist that she let down her guard enough to both wince and use air quotes.
It was a ridiculous notion.
Working at Lakeshore Creative consumed her entire life. That’s how she’d gotten the attention of the leadership, earned her finalist spot. That was the culture. It was expected.
And Rowan preferred to always exceed expectations.
Dana methodically made an X inside a square with the glue stick. Then she pressed hard on a sticker.
When she finally lifted her hand, Rowan was shocked. “That’s a heart.”
“Not just a heart. The best one of the lot.” She traced the puffy purple glitter that bordered the red velvet heart. “I was saving it for myself, but I’m a supportive friend, and you need it more.”
“I’m not looking for love. I don’t have time for love. More to the point, I don’t want my colleagues thinking that I’m only here on a husband hunt. This just turned into an anti-vision board.”
Rowan began to pick at the corner to remove it. But Dana snatched the paper out from under her.
“Stop that. Leave it alone. The heart represents happiness. It’s where everyone feels it the most. You want to be happy, right?”
Oh. Okay. For such a woo-woo project, that explanation fit.
“The promotion will make me happy,” she assured her friend, tucking her long blond hair behind one ear. “If I get it. If somebody else doesn’t.”
“Then you know what you have to do this week, don’t you?”
“My very best.” Just like every other day.
But would it be enough to guard against Jeremy’s best asset—his family connection?
End of Excerpt