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The watch was exquisite.
The early-spring day outside was cloudy and threatening to rain, but as Eve Klein lifted the timepiece from its gray box lined in indigo velvet, the little sunlight in her office caught each of the diamonds circling the face and sent rainbows dancing across her desk. The stainless steel band was so intricately woven that it undulated almost seamlessly as she draped it over her wrist, more like a rippling ocean surface than links of metal. The diamond-adorned Roman numerals shone against a mother-of-pearl background, and the second hand swept as smoothly as clouds easing across a summer sky.
“Is that a Keller watch?”
Savannah, one of Zeisler Ventures’s hotshot analysts, stood in the doorway of Eve’s office, her mouth hanging half-open.
Eve motioned her over to the chair on the other side of her desk, then passed over the watch for her inspection. Savannah draped it across her palm, humming approvingly.
“Is this a good luck charm? Or are you trying to show Keller and Sons how much you love their merchandise?”
“Neither—well, not exactly. It’s for my mom. Her birthday is next week, and I wanted to get her something extra special since she’s been so supportive of my search for my birth mother. I was technically browsing the Keller website for research and it somehow ended up in my shopping cart.”
“I hate when that happens.”
“Tell me about it. I even got it engraved. Turn it over.”
Savannah did, and then put her hand over her heart. “To the mom who chose me, loved me, and made me who I am. I love you. Oh my God, Eve, I think I’m going to cry.”
“Please don’t, because then I’ll start and we’ll never get this prep done.”
“She’s going to love this.” Savannah handed back the watch, which Eve replaced in its box.
“Maybe I should’ve waited to see if I could get an equity-holder’s discount.” She smiled mischievously at Savannah, tucked the box away in a drawer and pulled over her laptop.
“Guess you’ll just have to use that discount on a little something for yourself.” Savannah’s posture straightened as she tapped her tablet to life, ready for the focus of their discussion—final preparation for Eve’s meeting with the senior management team at Keller and Sons to discuss Zeisler’s potential buyout.
“Keller and Sons, luxury watchmakers since 1948. Founded by Jakob Keller, who immigrated to the US from Austria after World War II. Handed down to his son, David, who passed away a couple of years after handing down to his son and current chief executive officer, Noam Keller. Headquartered and manufactured in Orchard Hill, a western suburb of St. Louis, Keller and Sons is privately held, with estimated revenue of two billion dollars last year. That’s a lot of watches.”
“Sure is,” Eve murmured, perusing the financials for what had to be the hundredth time.
Ever since business school Keller and Sons had been on her list of wildest-dreams acquisitions, but never one she imagined would come to fruition, not even when she joined Zeisler Ventures and moved within miles of Keller’s headquarters. The luxury watch company was a dark horse in the world of retail. Family-owned, secretive, tucked away in St. Louis, yet globally revered. When one of her industry sources said they were considering seeking investment, she was sure it was just a rumor—until the Zeisler receptionist got a call from Keller’s finance department.
From that moment on, her every waking moment—well, all of the ones she dedicated to her job, which was a fair percentage—was spent strategizing the best way to position Zeisler Ventures to be the new owner of Keller and Sons. She was extremely proud to work for the women-owned, ethics-led private equity firm, which specialized in long-term, strategic growth rather than loading companies up with debt, but so little was known about Keller’s management team, it was almost impossible to determine the best angle for her pitch. Sometimes Zeisler’s commitment to small-company survival proved unattractive to certain owners, for whom achieving a maximum payout from the sale proved more important than saving their employees’ livelihoods. Over time she’d learned to tailor her pitches, but with Keller she was completely in the dark.
“Any more insight on the senior execs? I feel like I’ve reached the end of the internet trying to google these guys.”
Savannah grinned. “No offense, but my online stalking—I mean sleuthing—has no equal. Turns out the chief financial officer is no longer the chief financial officer—at least not for the last year. Check out page three.”
Eve clicked through the slide deck Savannah had compiled and sent earlier that morning. To date all communication—a generous description of the one-way missives fired off to select members of the private equity world—about the potential transaction had come from the office of the chief executive, Noam Keller. For years they’d had an older man leading their finance function, but as far as she knew he was primarily an accountant. She assumed they’d hire a consultant to help them sell the company, but as she clicked to the next slide she saw—
“Saul Keller? There’s another brother?”
“Apparently so. Looks like he left town early and never came back. Princeton undergrad, Columbia MBA, seemed to be climbing the ladder in global private equity in New York City until a year ago, when he suddenly—and quietly—joined the family business.”
Eve whistled through her teeth as she took stock of the gold-plated private-equity firms on his résumé. Saul Keller was a game changer. He’d be a sophisticated, ruthless negotiator, bringing skills honed through years of cutthroat transactions and marquee deals.
Damn, that was sexy.
So was his photo. Probably taken from one of his former employers’ websites, it was professional and serious. He wore a tie and didn’t smile. His blond hair was pushed up and back from a high forehead, and his blue eyes were set wide above a long, regal nose. He looked arrogant and merciless and exactly the cold-blooded corporate type she really needed to stop falling for. Narcissistic power brokers were her kryptonite—which probably explained why she’d still been single on her thirtieth birthday last month.
Not that she was complaining—much. For the most part she’d built her life to be exactly what she wanted. She loved her career, loved her circle of friends, loved her brand-new townhouse in Central West End, and especially loved her parents, who’d unhesitatingly given their blessing for her to finally search for her birth mother. As far as she was concerned, that piece of her personal history was the only thing missing. She was happy on her own, and romance was the furthest thing from her mind.
Except at the office holiday party.
Or when she RSVP’d for yet another wedding.
And literally every time the lady at the dry cleaner’s stared admonishingly at her bare ring finger.
But on an average day the absence of a relationship didn’t feel like a loss at all.
Although today was already turning out to be anything but average.
Belatedly she realized Savannah had spoken. Eve looked up sheepishly.
“Sorry, what was that?”
“I said we might want to rethink our pitch.”
Eve glanced at the time on her laptop—a rather mundane way to ascertain the progress of the day compared to the Keller watch she’d held minutes before—and shook her head.
“If I don’t leave now I’ll be late for my meeting with the mystery brother.”
They stood in unison. Savannah pressed her tablet to her chest as Eve tossed a few essentials into her purse.
“I’m so sorry I didn’t find this out earlier. I could text you some ideas. Maybe I can scrape up some more intel before you go in. I’ll dig further into his deal history and call you with anything I find.”
Eve had to smile at Savannah’s desperation to deliver—and to impress. “Thank you, but I’ll figure it out. You did great work here. Clearly Saul Keller doesn’t want his presence to be known, but you squirreled him out anyway. That’ll definitely put us ahead of the competition.”
Savannah still looked doubtful. “You’re sure you don’t need anything else?”
She looked the analyst squarely in the eye. “I’m walking into one of the most high-stakes meetings of my career, to negotiate a controlling share in a company the whole industry is salivating over, and I’ve just learned that I’ll be across the table from a hardened Wall Street financier.”
Savannah nodded, eyes wide.
Eve grinned. “This will be fun.”
She winked at the slack-jawed analyst, then shouldered her bag and left the office with a spring in her step.
Saul Keller wouldn’t know what hit him.
“Yes?” Saul and Noam Keller replied in unison.
Noam’s assistant, Janet, glanced nervously between the two brothers before settling her gaze on her longtime boss. “Eve Klein is here. I set her up in the boardroom.”
“We’ll be right there,” Noam told her. Janet left and Noam leaned back in his chair.
Their father’s chair.
“So the plan is I’m the good cop; you’re the bad cop. Anything else?”
Saul rubbed the space between his eyes, fighting to keep his temper under control. Zeisler Ventures was his first-choice buyer, and perhaps the only firm that would retain Keller and Sons’s loyal employees while saving the family business from its financial free fall—but of course Eve Klein couldn’t know she had an advantage.
He’d done enough damage when he walked away and left the company in what turned out to be his brother’s wildly incapable hands. Now he’d do whatever it took to make sure his mom had enough to live on and his employees weren’t left out in the cold.
“No cops, Noam. No bait and switch, no banging on the table, no fake-outs, and absolutely no quoting The Wolf of Wall Street. Just be polite and let me do the talking.”
His older brother held up his palms. “I get it. You’re the big-money expert—I’m just the guy who makes the watches. You’re in charge. Let me put on a tie and we’ll go.”
Saul pulled out his gold pocket watch and stared unseeingly at its face, determined not to opine on which tie his brother chose. It truly didn’t matter—they were all awful. Instead he smoothed his thumb along the intricate engraving on the back, the enduring artistry of a teenage boy sent away from Nazi-occupied Austria to stay with a Swiss watchmaker and learn the trade that would take just one generation to vault his family to wealth they’d never even imagined.
And it would take one more generation to lose it all.
Almost lose it all, he corrected, tucking the watch into the pocket of his waistcoat. He looked up at the broad, mahogany desk his brother had just vacated—his father’s desk, his grandfather’s desk—and he made a promise to that boy in Switzerland, the teenager whose father died in the Austrian resistance, whose mother was sent to Auschwitz in a cattle car, who had nothing except a handmade pocket watch and the courage to book passage on a ship to America.
I’ll fix this, Saul told his grandfather. I’ll save our family, just like you did.
Noam stood by the door, wearing a god-awful, clock-patterned green tie with a sloppy Windsor knot.
Saul sighed and rose from his chair. “Ready.”
He followed his brother down the short hallway to the boardroom, past decades of photos of the Keller and Sons workshop mounted on both walls. The images started out grainy, black-and-white, gradually attaining color and clarity until he passed the one taken just last year. Crisp and bright, the employees smiling above scattered watch components had no idea the company was teetering on the brink of financial ruin—or that the only way to pull it back would be to sell the family’s controlling share.
But he couldn’t worry about that now. He had to execute this deal the same way he would any other in his career, without emotion, motivated only by the hunger to win. He wouldn’t think about his grandfather, or his dad, or the hundreds of jobs riding on this meeting, or his own future—his chance to finally return to New York, to restart his career, to stand palms-out on Sandrine’s doorstep and see whether it was possible to fix what had broken between them.
Noam rapped lightly on the boardroom door, then eased it open. Saul exhaled, straightened his shoulders, and followed his brother inside.
He schooled his features into a practiced combination of disinterest and impatience as he crossed the threshold—and nearly slammed into his brother’s back, unable to take his eyes off the woman easing to her feet on the far side of the table.
Eve Klein’s overexposed headshot on the Zeisler Ventures’s website was criminally inaccurate. She was stunning—dark-chocolate eyes in a heart-shaped face framed by long, thick black hair draped over one shoulder. Taller than he’d imagined, she wore an impeccably professional wrap dress with a faint pinstripe. His fingers twitched at his sides as he imagined tugging loose the bow at her hip and setting that luscious, curvy body free.
“Ms. Klein, thanks for coming.” Noam shook her hand.
“Thanks for having me, and please, it’s Eve. And you must be Saul.”
She turned to him, her smile flawless and completely unreadable as she offered her outstretched hand. He shook it firmly, at once dismayed and delighted by the answering power in her grip.
“I wasn’t aware that Alan had moved on,” she said as they took their seats, referring to the man who’d served as the company’s chief financial officer until just over a year ago, when he’d phoned Saul at work. The call had come through the main switchboard—he’d been gone so long that Alan didn’t even have his cell number anymore—and turned what had been an ordinary Wednesday morning into a day that changed Saul’s life. He’d stared out of the floor-to-ceiling windows in his office, watching the early-spring sunlight glint on the skyscrapers of Midtown Manhattan as Alan apologized and pleaded and apologized again, each word intensifying the chill spreading over his body. When they hung up fifteen minutes later Saul knew he had no choice. There was no clever solution, no self-preserving alternative.
He had to go home.
“Alan retired last year,” Noam supplied.
Her gaze stayed fixed on him. “And you came back from New York to step in?”
“Yes,” he said coldly.
Saul didn’t want to talk about his career with her, didn’t want to think about the long road that brought him to this point, absolutely didn’t want to hear the subtle, gentle note of compassion in her tone. She’d seen the books; she knew he hadn’t traded Wall Street for suburban St. Louis out of the goodness of his heart. No way would she use that faux sympathy against him.
She smiled pleasantly, unmoved by his curt response. “And did you both grow up here in Orchard Hill?”
“We sure did. Our mom and dad, too. How about yourself?” Noam asked.
“Funnily enough, I was born in St. Louis, but we moved to Philadelphia when I was two. I hadn’t been back until I moved here to join Zeisler Ventures.”
“Now that is a coincidence,” Noam remarked, leaning back in his chair. “If you’d stayed here, you and Saul probably would’ve been in the same grade at school. Why did your—”
“As much as I’d love to hear about the childhood you didn’t spend in St. Louis, we have several other meetings this afternoon,” Saul interjected sharply.
His traitorous brother had the gall to shoot Eve an apologetic glance. Saul kicked him under the table, careful never to take his eyes off Eve.
“Of course,” Eve replied graciously. “I’d love to start by offering a little background on Zeisler Ventures, and how our approach might differ from the other firms you’re considering. We’re not about stripping assets and making a quick exit—our objective is to play a meaningful role in each company’s development over the long term. We have the highest employee retention rate among private equity firms nationwide, and over the course of—”
“How much?” Saul asked, deliberately threading his tone with weary impatience.
She blinked, momentarily thrown, but she recovered with unnerving ease.
“Keller and Sons turned over two billion last year, but the business is losing money. Your burn rate is escalating, your margins are shrinking, and if you don’t bring some fresh ideas to market, you’ll lose your retail space to your competitors. There’s been a heroic cost-cutting exercise over the last nine months but this company is in a tailspin, and without strategic intervention, lots of hard work, and a whole load of cash, you’re weeks away from closing the doors.”
Saul simply waited, unmoved by her brutal but on-the-nose assessment. She could see how close to the fire they dangled—any investor worth their salt could flip through the books and glean the same. This deal hinged on the way forward, and not just the valuation. Losing ownership of the family business was bad enough. No way would he sell to someone who’d rip out its heart and soul, too.
Eve flashed him an indecipherable smile before delivering her verdict as calmly as if she was reading a recipe. “I’m offering eight hundred million for fifty-one percent.”
His heart leapt, adrenaline speeding the blood rushing through his veins at the same time his shoulders weakened with relief. It was a great offer, easily twenty percent higher than any of the others they’d entertained, and from the firm with the best reputation for saving jobs.
And so he stood up from his chair, buttoning his suit jacket. “I appreciate you coming to see us today, Ms. Klein. Since it seems unlikely we’ll come to an agreement, I won’t waste any more of your time.”
He extended his hand, ignoring his brother’s panicked expression. Eve didn’t reach for it, didn’t stand, and he could swear he saw a sliver of playfulness slide into her professional smile as she opened the leather portfolio on the table in front of her.
She was enjoying this, and that was sexy as hell.
Eve motioned him back down. He hesitated, then mustered a quietly exasperated sigh and resumed his seat.
She clicked her pen to life. “What’s your counter?”
In that instant, the atmosphere between the two of them changed, shifted from clinical professionalism to the hot, chemically charged thrust-and-parry of flirting. He arched a brow, unbuttoning his jacket. The tip of her tongue swept out to moisten her lips. They sized each other up like wolves in heat, the tantalizing pull of lust heightened by the threat of gleaming, razor-sharp teeth.
“We’re not doing this for less than a billion.”
She shook her head. “I’d need so much equity for a billion, keeping your name over the door would be false advertising.”
“You’re already asking for a controlling share, why do you think I care about whose name is on the stationery?”
She tilted her head, almost chiding. “I think you care a lot, or I wouldn’t be here. Keller and Sons is a great business, and I don’t want it to become unrecognizable. I do, however, want it to be profitable.”
“You’re starting to offend me,” he scoffed. “I have a purchase order from the biggest luxury-goods retailer in Dubai—”
“And no cash to fulfil it.” She folded her hands on the table. “I can’t go higher than nine hundred.”
“Nine-two-five, and no layoffs. Any savings you make on this transaction shouldn’t come out of the payroll budget.”
“The human capital cost isn’t what concerns me, and I’m not here to put anyone out of a job. But I can’t go higher than nine hundred,” she repeated firmly.
He took a deep breath, shaking off the lingering heat of his attraction to this clever, commanding woman—his type to a tee. He was about to make the biggest decision of his career—or what used to be his career—and for the first time in his life, he was the least important person involved. Regardless of what happened to Keller and Sons, he’d be fine. He’d go back to New York, find another job, and slot right back into the groove of fast-paced private equity. Whatever personal financial loss he took on this sale would be recouped in his first bonus.
But he wouldn’t abandon the workshop full of specialist watchmakers who’d never find another job unless they moved away. He had to do what was right for Janet, Noam’s assistant, who remembered everyone’s birthday but forgot her laptop password at least once a week. Or Maria, the receptionist they allowed to work erratic, ad hoc hours to accommodate her son’s hospital appointments. Or Robert, an ex-felon and possibly the world’s slowest janitor, absolutely its worst handyman, who’d been promised a job for life by their dad after Robert stopped to help him change a tire on the side of the road in the pouring rain while colicky baby Noam wailed in the back seat.
He leveled his gaze on Eve Klein, praying to God he could trust her with this business, these people. That in this, the most important of choices, he was making the right one.
“Nine hundred million for fifty-one percent—but not today.”
She squinted, a flash of triumph quickly dissolving into bewilderment. “Excuse me?”
“One month.” He leaned forward, the significance of this caveat seeming to bow his spine, pushing him closer to her. “For one month we’ll work together on your strategy for the business. I’ll walk you through the problems; you’ll share your ideas for solutions. We’ll be partners. If after thirty days I’m satisfied Keller and Sons is in good hands, the deal is done. If not, we’ll renegotiate—or walk away.”
Doubt shaded her expression. “That sounds like a lot of work for no guarantee. How do I know you won’t back out of the deal and then implement all my plans?”
Because I’m a man of my word. Because I have no interest in spending any more time cleaning up my brother’s mess. Because to me, Keller watches are nothing but diamond-encrusted handcuffs and I can’t wait to be free.
“I guess you’ll just have to trust me,” he replied.
She studied him for what felt like an hour, her brow slightly furrowed, dark eyes alert and unblinking. He didn’t wonder what she saw, or whether she was trying to put him off, or even if she was likely to accept his offer. He knew it was his last, and his best. She could take it or leave it.
Please, please take it.
“You’ve got a deal,” Eve announced abruptly, extending her hand across the table.
Saul’s arm twitched with the impulse to close the negotiation, but he wasn’t in charge. He looked over at his brother, who sat wide-eyed and unmoving.
“What do you think?” he asked.
Noam blinked slowly, like an owl that just flew into a window. “Okay.”
“Done.” Saul shook Eve’s hand, every muscle in his body weak and trembling from spent adrenaline.
She rose and he also got shakily to his feet, not quite believing that it was finished. The year of constant anxiety, unending stress, simmering guilt, and unprecedented personal disruption were over.
He had a buyer. He could leave Orchard Hill, this time for good.
Not yet, he cautioned himself. He still had to use the next month to assure himself this was the right deal, and that Keller’s new owners weren’t planning to fire everyone and move the manufacturing overseas.
But the end was in sight, so close he could almost feel the lift of the plane taking off, smell the exhaust fumes as he waited for a taxi, hear the swish of the elevator as it glided toward the Chelsea apartment he shared with—had shared with Sandrine.
His fantasy stuttered and stopped.
Maybe he’d get a hotel room to start.
“My assistant will send over the particulars and start scheduling our transition meetings.” Eve’s voice snapped him back to the present.
“Fine. Noam will show you out.”
“Perfect. Thanks for your time today. I’m looking forward to working together.”
He met her gaze then, and didn’t find what he expected. She didn’t look smug, or triumphant, or even eager to move on to the next meeting on her agenda. He saw only sincerity and openness, and had the unnerving sense that every word she said was true.
He nodded, remaining guarded. He’d worked in private equity long enough to know no one was really who they seemed—although Eve Klein was certainly a strong contender to be the exception.
Noam escorted Eve into the hallway. As soon as the door shut behind them, Saul sank into his chair and pressed his palms over his face.
“It’s done,” he muttered to the empty boardroom.
His grandfather, Jakob Keller, built this room, selected the wooden table in front of him, the same table where he’d signed over his leadership to his son, David Keller—Saul’s father. Decades later David did the same, handing down his title to Noam Keller, his oldest son, who was eager to take his place in the line of succession.
And today he, Saul Keller, had sold his grandfather’s American dream, his father’s pride and joy, and his brother’s long-awaited proving ground to the highest bidder.
Saul eased up from his seat, weary and utterly drained. He’d take the rest of the day off. He wouldn’t talk to Noam, or his mother, or the face in the mirror. He’d go for a run, drink some Scotch, and then go to bed and get the longest night’s sleep he’d had in a year.
Then, when he woke up tomorrow, he’d be one day closer to finally leaving this place and never looking back.
End of Excerpt