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“FOR CRYING out loud, are you even listening to me, Matthew?”
Matthew grunted. Sadly, he was. He’d been listening to his cousin Bryce rant for the last hour and a half. How many times were they going to argue over this?
“You’re as stubborn as your old man.”
“I’m going to take that as a compliment.” Did Bryce see the irony in his statement? If anyone was being stubborn, it was him. Matthew had lost count of how many of Bryce’s proposals he’d shot down. It was becoming a common occurrence. Bryce insisted on bringing him proposals from companies Matthew wouldn’t trust to look after his pet rock, much less his clients or the reputation of his company.
“Well, it wasn’t meant as one,” Bryce grumbled.
“Jesus, Bryce, will you give it a rest? It’s a simple word. I’m not sure how else I can say no to make it any clearer. I’m not selling out to those charlatans.”
“But think about all the money we could make!”
“Serpentine Furniture is aptly named. They’re nothing but a bunch of snakes in the grass. They buy the cheapest materials, advertise their products as luxury items, and then when their shoddy pieces fall apart, they blame the customer. Their guarantee is a joke, and their insurance is nothing short of highway robbery. They’re about profit and nothing else. Hart & Home is about more than money. It’s about quality. Our client list dates back to my great-grandfather. We’re talking generations of loyal customers. I’m not going to throw away our legacy, my legacy, for a quick buck, and that’s the end of it.”
Bryce threw up his arms in frustration. He turned to Matthew and placed his hands together in prayer. “Will you at least take a meeting with them?”
“Meeting with them would imply interest, and I have no interest. I’m not doing it.”
“You—” Bryce let out a snarl before spinning on his heels, throwing open the office door, and storming out. Had the glass doors to Matthew’s office not contained hydraulic hinges, his cousin would have shattered them a long time ago. A heartbeat later, Adam poked his head into the office.
“Is it safe?”
Matthew sighed. “For now. Do you want to warn the acquisitions department?”
“Already have,” Adam replied with a bright smile. “The second I saw the vein on the side of his head throbbing, I called Joanne. The team decided to go out for lunch today. They’ll be gone by the time Bryce makes it there.”
Bryce not only had a foul temper, he had a habit of taking it out on his employees. Well, technically they were Matthew’s employees, but Bryce was head of the acquisitions department. Bryce was a great asset, or at least he used to be. He’d been hired by Matthew’s father, Martin, back when his father had been running the company. Bryce had shown a lot of promise, bringing in reputable clients and working toward the hopes of running his own office one day. After Matthew’s father retired and passed Hart & Home on to Matthew, Bryce changed, and not for the better.
They’d been out celebrating when Bryce confronted Matthew just as he’d left the bathroom of the trendy cocktail bar. Bryce clearly had drunk too much, and Matthew had been surprised by his cousin’s anger.
“We both were supposed to be celebrating,” Bryce spat out.
Matthew stared at him. “What are you talking about?”
“When you got the company, I was supposed to get one of the other offices,” Bryce growled, poking Matthew in the shoulder. “I should have been given my pick of San Francisco or Miami.”
That was insane. “Why would you think that? Mauricio is doing an amazing job in Miami, has been for the last ten years. And Sharon’s been fantastic heading the San Francisco office. Why would I replace either of them?”
“Because we’re family.” Bryce swayed before throwing out a hand to steady himself against the wall.
“Bryce, it doesn’t work that way,” Matthew said gently, hating that his cousin was so upset. Bryce might be good at what he did, but he wasn’t ready to manage an entire branch.
“You got the company.”
“Well, yeah. I’ve been working alongside my dad for years, and I’m the next in line to inherit.” As an only child, Matthew was his father’s sole heir, but that wasn’t news to Bryce.
Bryce had been ready to argue some more, but when Matthew’s father showed up, Bryce quickly excused himself. He didn’t bring up the matter again. They hadn’t always seen eye to eye after that, but they still worked well together. Lately, though, all they did was argue. Matthew hoped it was just a bad spell Bryce was going through and that it would pass. He hated to think Bryce no longer had the company’s best interest in mind.
“What else is on the agenda for today?” Matthew asked, refusing to lose any more brain cells on his overbearing cousin.
“You have a two o’clock appointment with your dad to discuss ideas for the new line. He just sent me a list of artists he’s put together for you to look over. I’ll create files containing all the relevant information you may need along with contact details. I’ll have that for you before Martin arrives.”
Matthew smiled. That’s what made Hart & Home special. Their furniture and décor were designed and created by artists, whether they were carpenters, glassworkers, or crafters. Matthew sought out exceptional talent, the best materials, and offered customers beautifully handcrafted items unlike any other. Yes, their products were priced on the high end, but in return, customers received exquisite pieces that outlasted any offered by the average furniture store. Many of their pieces became heirlooms, passed down generation to generation.
“That’s great,” Matthew replied, excited. He was on the hunt for something dazzling to launch for the spring catalogue. His stomach growled, and Adam laughed softly as he brushed his wispy blond bangs out of his eyes.
“Lettuce Eat is on their way with your lunch. Cobb salad with avocado dressing and a sweet tea. Oh, and a slice of lemon cake.” Just as Adam said the words, there was a knock on the door. Adam let in the sweet-faced delivery girl, his smile wide. “Hi, Ruth. Perfect timing. Mr. Hart’s stomach was just serenading me.”
Ruth laughed, greeting Adam before walking over to Matthew. “Good afternoon, Mr. Hart.” She returned Matthew’s smile as she placed the brown carrier bag on his desk. “No walnuts, as usual, and I added an extra side of dressing like you asked.”
“Thanks, Ruth. You’re the best.”
As Ruth and Adam made idle chitchat, Matthew arranged his lunch on his desk. Lettuce Eat made some of the best salads in the city, in his opinion. The Cobb salad with avocado dressing was one of his favorites. Although as much as he would love to say he was loyal to them for their salads, the truth was they made an incredible lemon cake. Matthew loved lemon cake. He loved lemon anything, really.
Once Ruth was on her way, Adam turned back to Matthew. “I’ll get started on those files.”
“Great. I’ll run through them with my dad, see what he thinks. If all goes well, I’d like to start setting up some interviews.”
“You got it.”
Matthew was buzzing with excitement. He loved seeing artists at work, and while he had a fine eye for detail, his own artistic ability boasted merely a wide range of stick figures. Adam put his calls on hold while Matthew ate his lunch and checked emails. He needed to find a nice gift for his parents’ fortieth wedding anniversary and check with his tailor to see if his tuxedo was ready. His parents’ anniversary gala was only a couple of months away.
A tickle in his throat made him cough. He took a sip of his tea, hoping he wasn’t coming down with something. Last thing he needed was to be stuck in bed. He didn’t usually get sick in the spring. The change in seasons tended to set off his allergies something fierce, but he was never without an antihistamine, just in case. His throat was sore, so he sipped some more tea, feeling it go down thick. A wave of dizziness hit him, along with a sharp pain in his abdomen. His face felt hot, and his heart raced, his face starting to go numb.
Oh God. He stared down at his salad. Dropping his fork, he grabbed the small trash bin under his desk and threw up. He held the bin in one hand and opened the small drawer on the right. Where the hell was his EpiPen? He rummaged through the drawer, tossing things out. It wasn’t there. Shit. Why wasn’t it there? Setting the bin on the floor, he ransacked his desk, his breath labored, and the numbness moving up his face.
Matthew hit the Intercom button on his phone. “Adam… I need… you.” He was having trouble breathing, and his hands wouldn’t stop itching.
Adam opened the door, the smile on his face disappearing when he saw Matthew.
“Matthew!” Adam ran to his side, looked from Matthew to the salad, then back. Cursing under his breath, he told Matthew to hold on as he dialed 9-1-1.
“Adam,” Matthew wheezed. The room was fuzzy, his vision blurry, and any moment his heart was going to pop out of his chest, or at least it felt that way. He heard Adam’s frantic voice as he spoke to emergency services. Matthew blinked, and he was being injected with something. His head lolled to the side before he was moved.
“You’re going to be okay,” Adam assured him, running a hand over his head. It felt nice. Matthew didn’t have anyone to fuss over him. To take him home, watch over him, kiss him, and make it all better. If he died, Adam would miss him, so would his parents and his friends, but he didn’t get to see much of them these days. Everyone was so busy. Busy with work, families, kids…. As Matthew sank into the shadows, he thought about his legacy. Hart & Home was all he had, and when he was gone, his legacy would be too. The thought saddened him.
MATTHEW HAD been awake several hours now, antsy and itching to go home. He’d woken up in the hospital feeling groggy, sore, and dehydrated, but more importantly, alive. They had him hooked up to an IV to get some liquids in him, and it was bugging the hell out of him. The cheerful nurse who’d been in his room earlier informed Matthew he’d suffered a severe allergic reaction, and according to test results, he’d ingested peanut oil, which made no sense at all.
Matthew used the hospital phone to place a call to the owner of Lettuce Eat, who assured him there were no traces of any kind of nut or nut oil in his salad or dressing. They’d been serving Hart & Home for years, were aware of Matthew’s allergies, and he believed them when they said they had no idea how peanut oil had gotten into his salad. Unfortunately, Matthew’s days of ordering from Lettuce Eat were over. He’d have to find somewhere else to get his lemon cake from. Damn it. He loved their lemon cake.
After hanging up, he made another call. This one to Robert Graves, his head of security. As expected, an investigation was underway at both Hart & Home and Lettuce Eat. If anyone could get to the bottom of what happened, it was Robert and his team. The man took security very seriously. He was also taking this as a personal failure on his part.
“I should have been there.”
Matthew sighed. “Rob, it was your day off. You are entitled to those, you know.”
“Yeah, but look what happened.”
“Stop. You came as fast as you could. Besides, you couldn’t have known. No blaming yourself. That’s an order.”
Robert grumbled something under his breath, and Matthew chuckled.
“I’ve put in a call to an old detective friend of mine. I’ll get to the bottom of this, Matthew. I promise you.”
“I know you will. Keep me posted.”
“Will do. You rest up, and if you need anything, just let me know.”
“I will.” Matthew hung up, feeling better knowing Robert was on the case.
“How are you feeling, Mr. Hart?”
Matthew smiled at the tall, elegant doctor who stopped beside his bed. She returned his smile and checked his vitals.
“Quite the scare you gave us.”
“Scared me too,” Matthew muttered. He’d had accidents in his life, some close calls with allergies as a kid, but this was the biggest scare he’d had. Normally he carried an EpiPen with him, and he should have had one in his desk. Where the hell had it gone? He was sure he hadn’t used it. He would have remembered. Then there was the whole peanut oil business. It was either a terrifying coincidence that his EpiPen disappeared the very moment he ended up ingesting peanut oil, or someone was behind this. Well, they’d know soon enough.
As much as he hated the thought that someone wanted to hurt him like this, it wouldn’t be the first time his life was threatened. The problem with having wealth and prestige was that there was always someone out there who wanted to take it away. All Matthew wanted was to lead a peaceful, uneventful life. He might as well ask for a unicorn.
“Everything’s looking good, so we’ll be releasing you soon. Your friend is outside waiting for you. Would you like me to send him in?” the doctor asked, her expression sympathetic.
Matthew nodded, grateful Adam had come. Not that he expected any less from his dear friend. Adam was always looking after Matthew. Even now, he was certain Adam felt awful about not telling Martin, but he did it because he knew that was what Matthew would prefer. Matthew didn’t want to worry his parents unnecessarily, especially since doctors had instructed his father to avoid stress as much as possible after his heart attack a couple of years ago. The rest of Matthew’s friends were either away on business, vacation, or snowed under. Who else was left? Jesus, what if he hadn’t made it? He supposed his parents would have been called, but still.
The doctor went back to checking his vitals. Did she think it was sad? All his money, his investments, his penthouse apartment and social calendar, and he’d never felt lonelier. He had no one to hold his hand and kiss it better.
Soon after the doctor left, Adam popped his head in. “Can I come in?”
“Of course you can. Silly.”
Adam rushed over to the bed, tears in his eyes. He threw his arms around Matthew and hugged him. Matthew returned Adam’s embrace, suddenly feeling emotional. He sniffed and tried to keep himself together. It was fine. He was fine. A close call. That’s all. A really close call.
Adam pulled back and wiped at his eyes. “You scared the hell out of me.”
“I know. I’m sorry. Thanks for not telling my dad.”
Adam nodded as he took a seat in the armchair by the bed. “I told him you had to reschedule and we’d call him back. I feel like such a jerk.” He sighed heavily. “But I understand.”
Two hours later, he sat beside Adam in the back of his car, staring out at the city streets filled with bustling people. He felt so removed from them. Generally he was as happy as the next guy. He was happy with his life, his job, his family. Could he really complain? He was so very lucky in many ways, and yet something had to change. Matthew didn’t want to be alone anymore. Like he did with every obstacle in his life, he’d face this one head-on. But first, he’d have to enlist a little help.