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Olivia Hollingsworth hadn’t realized how badly her hands were shaking until her drink began to resemble the cup of water in Jurassic Park, quivering as the T. rex approached the unsuspecting tourists. She hurriedly put the glass down on the conference table and glanced around the boardroom to see if anyone had noticed. But since all assembled had been sitting there for the better part of an hour, waiting for her father to grace them with his presence, everyone had entered their own little worlds of reading the paper or discussing stock options while staring at their phones.
Her older cousin Peter didn’t seem bothered at all. He sat in his leather seat opposite of hers, playing Candy Crush on his cell with the sound on. She wished she could turn off her mind like that and just tap away at her phone to pass the time. But even though the man in charge was her father, and not Peter’s, Olivia actually had to work for a living, not just live off the Hollingsworth name and the residual trust fund checks that came every month.
She didn’t know why she was so nervous about the meeting. She had no reason to be. She was positive her father was going to name her the new vice president of the conglomerate. Besides the fact she was his firstborn child and supposed heir to Hollingsworth Publishing, she was a hard worker, and everyone knew it. No one could accuse her father of nepotism.
No one got results like Olivia. She oversaw the quarterly budget reports. She went to every conference and seminar. She had been the one to suggest the creation of the Hollingsworth e-reader that brought them into the modern age. Plus, she planned the annual holiday parties and bonuses. The meeting that afternoon was nothing more than a formality. It had to be. There wasn’t any other option.
But she couldn’t bear dwelling on it anymore and flipped open the file she had brought with her to go over her notes for after the meeting. In it was her plan to save one of the lesser publications the company owned, H. Homes Magazine, their home and garden piece. She had been begging her father for more than a year to let her take the lead on helping the low subscriber numbers get the boost they needed to keep the magazine alive. He said she needed to focus on publications that actually made money, but she wasn’t ready to give up on H. Homes.
Her grandmother had loved that magazine and worked on it until she was no longer able to focus on picking which house to feature or which flower seeds to plant. With it gone, another piece of her legacy would drift away too, and Olivia couldn’t let that happen. Rationally, she knew it wasn’t her fault, but the emotional side of her was ready to take on all the blame.
As VP, she could take the lead and push for the magazine to succeed. She could put more man-hours into making it work. The ad team could cast a wider net. She could make something work that she actually cared about for once, and when she was second in command, no one could tell her she couldn’t.
Daniel Hollingsworth IV entered forty-five minutes after the original meeting time, not that he would say he was anything but early. Olivia had never really called him Daddy or even Dad. It seemed too informal for the man taking his place at the head of the table. His dark hair was graying at the temples and the lines around his mouth were more pronounced than they had once been, but he had always had that special brand of coldness to him that matched the firm handshakes she got at her graduation from Stanford and every birthday.
He nodded to each of the twelve men and women assembled before leaning back in his seat. “Good morning, everyone. I could make some small talk, but we all know you’re only here for one reason—to hear who’s going to be VP.”
Olivia bit the inside of her cheek. She thought his eyes might have flickered in her direction for a millisecond. That was all the confirmation she needed to know the hours spent before the mirror the night before, reciting a carefully crafted speech to the rest of the board, wouldn’t be a waste of time.
“So,” he continued. “When her great-great-great-grandfather founded Hollingsworth Publishing, he vowed to keep it in the family, but to never let that loyalty get in the way of the company values. He never wanted favoritism or a last name to bring down the empire he was building.”
The next moments happened in slow motion, the sort of stunted frames normally seen in the movies. Choppy and muffled, he seemed to be speaking from far away or underwater. Then everyone around Olivia clapped politely, but not her. Her hands were icy and leaden, heavy on her lap. She just stared on as the board all congratulated Peter for becoming the new vice president.
Olivia managed to keep it together on the long walk back to her office. Her heels clicked on the tile floor of the sterile hall, just as rapid as her impossibly loud heartbeat. Click click click. The sound usually made her feel powerful, but now seemed to announce her arrival to failure. It didn’t help when she passed the rows of cubicles that housed the junior reporters for the Hollingsworth Times. She felt their gazes on her and could practically hear them tittering about how the Hollingsworth Ice Princess had finally cracked.
Olivia slid past her secretary, Gayle—who was thankfully on a phone call and tucked behind her large computer monitor—and closed her office door behind me. She dropped the H. Homes Magazine file onto the desk and fell into her pale blue leather chair, unsure if she wanted to cry, scream, quit, or throw her father out the thirty-seven-story window. She’d be happy with anyone else in the entire company getting the job—except Peter.
Peter was an overgrown man-child who couldn’t keep a fish alive, let alone a company. It wasn’t like the survival of HP depended solely on the VP. He should have stayed as the head of communications, where he sat in his little office, doing nothing more than pretending to read memos and spending his trust fund. Instead, her father must have had a stroke and decided the man who had once checked himself into the hospital because he swallowed a watermelon seed was better than someone with master’s degrees in business and economics.
There was a firm knock on Olivia’s door and she straightened in her seat, bringing her computer to life so it looked like she was working instead of contemplating patricide.
“Come in,” she called in a firm, steady voice.
To her surprise, her father entered and sat down uninvited in one of the blue velvet armchairs that framed her sleek white desk. His face was completely unreadable, as usual. But she didn’t make the first move to speak. She knew better than to open her mouth. If she did, she might say something she regretted . . . or at least something that would make family dinner on Sunday exceedingly awkward.
“It had to be this way, Olivia,” he said casually, draping one leg over the other.
She folded her hands on her desk and tried to keep her voice even, usually an easy task. “You mean it had to be Peter who took over as VP?”
“And why’s that?”
He studied her, his icy blue gaze steady. “It’s business, Olivia.”
“The family business,” she affirmed.
“And Peter’s family.”
“I know you didn’t promote Peter because of some filial duty, and it certainly isn’t because he gets results. I know his accounts didn’t hold up last quarter.” Her next words pained her to say out loud, but she had to say them. “He doesn’t deserve it.”
“And you think I don’t know that?”
Olivia clamped her mouth shut. Her father had never been a dad in the traditional sense. A nanny had taught her and her sisters how to ride a bike. Dinner every night had featured an empty place at the table where he would usually sit. And when she graduated from Stanford, he had sent her a diamond tennis bracelet with a note written by his secretary. He’d never been an emotional man, but she’d never expected him to be a false one.
“Why didn’t I get the promotion?” she asked.
“Because the board doesn’t respect you.”
His words were so simple, but more biting than she thought possible. She thought everyone respected her—she both demanded and earned it. She never laughed too loud, so no one could say she was silly. She didn’t drink more than one drink at office parties so no one would say she was a lush. Her skirts were tailored to sit exactly two inches above the knee and she never wore red lipstick. She didn’t want anyone, ever, to say she was just the boss’s daughter.
“Why don’t they respect me? What have I done that’s so terrible to them?”
“It’s a man’s world, honey,” he said, leaning back in his seat with a shrug. “Like it or not, things are different when you’re a girl and people expect a certain image in business.”
“And I don’t fit that image?” The bitterness she felt was creeping into her words. “I’m not professional and hardworking?”
“No one says you’re not. You’re just . . . not a man and people don’t like that.”
“People? Or just you?”
“Don’t take it personally.”
“You’re telling me I’m not VP because I don’t have a dick. That is personal.”
His eyes narrowed for just a moment and his jaw tightened. “Don’t be vulgar, Olivia.”
She stared back at him, into the gaze that was so much like her own down to the shade of ice blue. There was no warmth there, no understanding. He wouldn’t admit what he really thought, what he really wanted to say: that she was supposed to be a boy, and only a boy could take over Hollingsworth Publishing.
“I have to get back to work,” she said, turning to the computer again. She didn’t really think she could focus on anything important, but she knew she needed to get her father out of her office before she stabbed him with a letter opener.
“All right, then. I’m working late, so if you see your mother, tell her—”
“Mother’s in Arizona at a wellness retreat,” she said, not looking away from the screen. “She’s been there since Wednesday.”
He rose from his seat and left the office without even a pause.
The door clicked shut and Olivia’s vision blurred with tears. She just kept staring at the door like he was going to come in and say it was all some massive joke and Peter wasn’t the real VP. Anything less than that just seemed too unfair to contemplate. But life wasn’t fair, and no good deed ever went unpunished.
She flipped open the top of her reusable water bottle and took a long drink. While she wanted nothing more than to pack up her files and head home to drown her sorrows in reality television and pizza, she couldn’t. She had not only been working on the branding for Hollingsworth Publishing since leaving school, she had let it become her sole identity. She was unflappable, firm, poised, a business-minded machine that was solely focused on overall success. If that façade cracked, she didn’t know what she’d do.
And then there was the magazine, the last legacy Gran had left behind. Until half an hour earlier, Olivia had it all planned out and ready to pitch. She had wanted to revive the magazine with a massive home makeover spread. Gran had left a house behind, a charming manse on a big plot of land in the heart of Montana. Olivia had wanted to fix the place up, and with it, to bring H. Homes into the forefront of home improvement. She thought she’d have the power to do it with a team behind her. But now she wasn’t any closer to that goal than when she’d had her morning coffee.
Her vision blurred again, and she swiped the file off her desk and into the wire trashcan. She couldn’t even look at it.
Olivia turned back to her computer to sign off on a marketing proposal for something she couldn’t bring herself to care about, when she caught sight of her email signature. Olivia Hollingsworth, Marketing Head. That’s all she was after everything she’d done, while Peter’s signature would now say Vice President, a title she more than deserved. And the more she thought about it, the angrier she became.
Her father didn’t appreciate her or her work. He thought she was just another one of his little cogs and didn’t deserve what she’d worked so hard for. If he didn’t put any faith in her and her abilities, then she’d have to have enough for the both of them.
It was as if a timer had begun, an invisible clock ticking toward the end, but the end of what, she wasn’t sure. It begged her to race it and do something, anything, to win. And she believed with one farmhouse in the heart of Montana, she had that winning ticket.
She scooped up her personal and work cell phones and tossed them into her pale blue Strathberry tote. The pit in her stomach had been filled with a new lightness. Having a plan, or a bit of one anyway, always helped to settle her nerves. She fished the file on her H. Homes proposal from the trash and gave it a silent apology before slipping it into her bag.
“Leaving?” Gayle asked when Olivia shut her office door behind her.
She smiled and set her purse in the crook of her arm. “I have an appointment.”
Gayle’s gaze fell to the open date book on her desk and she frowned. “I don’t have—”
“It’s personal. I’ll be out of the office for the foreseeable future. If anything completely vital comes up, I’ll have my work phone and will check my email regularly.”
“Let’s say . . . three weeks?” She leaned over her desk a bit and lowered her voice. Who was she kidding? Gayle was the one who scheduled her gynecology appointments and regularly read through her personal emails to see if there was anything actually important. She needed someone on her side. “Okay, here’s the deal. I’m leaving, not forever, but until I sort out a few things in Montana.”
“Shh. It’s a secret, okay?”
Gayle nodded, her brows knit. “Sounds good. But, um . . .” She pursed her lips for a moment, then whispered, “I read the email about the new VP.”
Olivia’s shoulders tensed. In her excitement to leave, she had completely forgotten all about how everyone must had heard she had been passed over. “It was sent out already?”
“About twenty minutes ago.”
“Was it an office-wide memo?”
“Company wide,” she said. “Are you okay?”
Olivia’s smile was beginning to slip. She hadn’t imagined the stares from the junior reporters; they had been watching her after all. They had all known her idiot cousin got the promotion and were probably still giggling behind her back. The ice princess had lost her crown at last.
“I’m fine,” she managed. “It’s just business.” Then she dug through her bag with shaking fingers and pulled out her work phone. She dropped it on Gayle’s desk. “On second thought, I won’t be taking my work phone or be checking my emails regularly. If someone dies, call me on my personal number, but since Peter’s the big man on campus, he can sort out anything else.”
Gayle slid the phone off her desk and into an open drawer. “You got it. Anything I can help with?”
Olivia paused. She supposed having a bit of a coconspirator would be helpful. “Actually, yeah, you can. I’ll send you an email later on with some instructions, and if my father or Peter really mess up, please tell me every last detail.”
“Of course, Miss Hollingsworth,” she said a bit louder with a wink. “I’ll get right on that project for you.”
With that, she turned on her heel and walked to the elevators. The elevators were blissfully empty, and she made it down thirty-seven floors without having to break her small bubble of silence. She had lost control of her expressions fully and she knew it. If anyone saw her then, she knew they’d probably be able to read her humiliation clear as day.
She waved at the front desk’s security guard and slipped out to the parking garage. The leather seats in her silver BMW were cold.
A news station turned on as soon as she started the car, and the droning voices slipped in and out as she wove through the streets of Hartford, Connecticut. She never saw the city in the daylight; she was always coming in early and leaving late. One day she would slow down a bit and really see the world around her. But for now, she still had work to do.
End of Excerpt