“Hey, Crystal. Table twenty-two has been looking for you. Get over there. What are you waiting for, a personal invitation?”
I grimaced but shot my boss a plastic smile. His nasty look was the same as always. The customer was always right. How many times had I heard the same bullshit?
“Don’t let Charlie bother you. He had a long night with a bottle of bourbon.”
Tammy was always trying to make me feel better. My patience was waning.
I moved past the other tables, heading for the brawny dudes who’d decided to take up residence in my seating area. As I approached, all three of them gave me the same damn lurid twice-over as they had before.
“Can I get you fellows anything else?” How the hell could they eat another damn thing? Without waiting for an answer, I slapped their check on the table, my gut telling me I wouldn’t get more than a penny for a tip.
“Wait a minute, sugar. I didn’t give you permission to leave.”
When the biggest, meanest, and ugliest man of the group reached under my skirt, managing to grab my butt, I snapped, the hard right hook not only landing square in the middle of his nose, but managing to knock his fat ass over in the rickety wooden chair.
Damn, that hurt like hell but all I could do was smile as I stood over him. “That’s what you get for molesting a lady.”
“The bitch broke my nose!” he whined, blood already seeping through his fingers as he held it over his now broken nose.
I turned away, noticing that Charlie had seen the wretched men’s actions. When I walked closer, he shook his head.
“You’ve gone too far, Crystal.”
“Excuse me? Did you see what he did?”
“He’s a customer. You’re an employee.”
Dear God. I’d forgotten just how backwoods certain portions of North Carolina men could be. “Meaning what?”
“Meaning. You’re fired.”
I’d never been fired from a job in my life. To think that the only job I’d been able to get even after graduating with honors from Duke’s Fuqua School of Business had been at a greasy spoon was disgusting. Maybe returning to my hometown all those months ago hadn’t been the best idea.
I sat back in the kitchen chair, struggling to drink my coffee, my stomach churning. I remained in my robe and it was almost eleven, but all the fight had been knocked out of me the night before. The bottle of wine hadn’t helped either. A four-inch pile of bills remained unopened on the table, but I didn’t need to be clairvoyant to know their contents.
Threatening to take me to collections.
I’d fallen so far behind that I couldn’t think straight.
I dropped my head into my hands, taking several deep breaths. If only I hadn’t lost my temper the night before. Then what? Like the lousy almost three hundred dollars I made working my butt off six days a week was going to make a difference.
Not when my mother’s long-care facility cost over five grand a month. I’d drained her savings, what little I’d had in savings and even taken out a loan. It wasn’t enough. If something didn’t give, she’d be kicked out of the facility. I couldn’t allow that to happen. She was all I had left. No brothers. No sisters. Nothing.
I fingered the envelopes, trying to find the courage to open even one of them. A moment of self-pity and rage took over and I raked my arm across the entire pile, chuckling bitterly as I watched them float to the floor.
The sound of the doorbell made me bristle. Within seconds, I was on my feet, grabbing the only thing I could get my hands on quickly, storming toward the front door, and throwing it open with fury. I was ready for war. “If you’re some asshole bill collector, get the hell out of here.” I held up the rolling pin, realizing I looked freaking ridiculous.
The man was tall and extremely well dressed, so much so I doubted that he worked for any of the local collection agencies.
He took a deep breath, his gaze falling to the wooden stick in my hand. “Ms. Washington?”
“Who wants to know?”
He scanned both sides of me, frowning before turning his full attention my way. “If you are Crystal Washington, then it’s urgent that I speak with you. May I come in?”
“You’re not a bill collector?”
His chuckle was soft, full of amusement. “I assure you, I’m not an ambulance chaser, but I do bring important news.” He handed me a card, remaining where he was as I studied it.
The glossy embossed lettering was highlighted in the bright sun streaming in through the open door. Mr. Jackson Parker, Esquire. Great. An attorney. What caught my attention was the city listed on the card.
I lowered the rolling pin, allowing him to come inside, still holding the card in front of me. “Have you come all the way from Miami?”
“I have. As I mentioned, I have important news. Is there somewhere I can use to pull out a few papers?”
“Sure.” Still leery, I walked into the kitchen, sliding the slab of wood across the counter then leaning against the edge, folding my arms. I had no idea what the hell he was doing here. “You have the floor.”
Mr. Parker took his time, his expression one of disdain as he sat down, lifting his briefcase and pulling out several files. “You are Crystal Washington, your mother Sheila Washington?”
Shit. This was about my mother. Fucking fantastic. “Yes. What’s going on?”
“First of all, let me tell you how sorry I am about your father’s death.”
What? “I’m sorry. What did you say? I don’t have a father.” The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end.
He lifted a single eyebrow and I could tell he was holding up a photograph. “Yes, you do, Crystal.”
“What the hell is going on, Mr. Parker? I don’t like games and I’m in a nasty mood today. Just spill whatever you need to tell me.”
“All right. I was told that you were straightforward.” He raised his gaze from the files. “Your birth father was Ricco Torres.”
I hadn’t heard the name in years, at least until my mother had started drifting into early stage Alzheimer’s. Then she’d acted as if Ricco was a part of her world and had been her entire life. “Yes. You are correct and while I shouldn’t wish ill on any human, I couldn’t care less that he’s dead. He wanted nothing to do with my mother or with his illegitimate daughter, which is the last thing I heard from him when I was a little girl. So, you might imagine why I couldn’t give a shit.”
He sighed. “Yes, and Mr. Torres was deeply regretful for his behavior and what he called horrible decisions he made. That’s why he made certain provisions in his will.”
I laughed, shaking my head. “The man left me something? A trinket? As if that would make a difference. Pardon my language, Mr. Parker, but are you fucking kidding me?”
“I assure you that what Mr. Torres left isn’t merely a trinket.”
I rubbed my eyes, my day getting worse by the minute. “Then what?”
“His entire estate worth an estimated thirty-seven million dollars.”
It had taken exactly five days to close the chapter of my life in North Carolina, including selling almost everything I owned, which was little based on typical standards. While I hated leaving my mother, the offer was one I couldn’t refuse, even though there were codicils to my father’s will that concerned me.
As it turned out, my father had been a very wealthy man, owning the second largest construction company in Miami. He’d parlayed his holdings into owning an estate, stocks, and a vacation home in Colorado. Everything had been left to his only offspring.
How many nights had I wished to have a father to tuck me into bed or take me to school? While there were broken homes in every walk of life, I’d felt isolated, especially when kids in school had shared stories of their happy home life. I’d never received a birthday card or a holiday gift or an acknowledgement of any kind. I’d been his bastard child and nothing else.
Maybe my longing had been the reason I’d dated older men my entire life, hoping for safety and security. I grimaced at the thought.
At least I’d been able to pay for several months of my mother’s care, the check Mr. Parker had with him enough to cover her care as well as moving expenses. The rest would come in sixty days after all the paperwork cleared. In the meantime, I was required to keep the company going for a period of one year. After that, I was free to do with it whatever I wanted.
Except that the will mandated I also keep every employee no matter the circumstances. From what Mr. Parker had told me, my father had chosen his people carefully and had wanted to ensure that they would be taken care of. I was also required to honor all current contracts as well as integrate new procedures and rules that had been in motion before my father’s untimely death.
Could I handle a multimillion-dollar company?
Hell if I knew.
I’d graduated at twenty from Duke with a degree in finance, obtaining my Masters in eighteen months while I attempted to take care of my mother. I understood the importance of money, even if in my mind it was blood money. I wasn’t certain that qualified me to run any kind of company, let alone a massive construction firm.
At least Mr. Parker had provided me with three names, three employees who were considered trusted by my father, men who would help me as I began the task of taking over. I knew them by name only, but at least it was something.
I’d hated my father for as long as I could remember. While I’d never met him, he’d crushed my mother’s spirit by abandoning her, leaving a near penniless woman to raise an unwanted child by herself. She’d worked three jobs in order to provide a roof over my head. College had only been possible because I’d received several scholarships. I felt like I’d sold my soul to the devil, but I also had no other choice. There were no corporations beating down my doors to hire me.
So, after taking twenty-four hours and two full bottles of wine, I’d accepted my inheritance. On a steamy Wednesday, I’d finally arrived in Miami, immediately going to a hotel I’d booked. By now, the advance I’d been given was hellishly low, the hotel far more expensive than I could afford.
I’d never been to Miami and in truth, driving into the massive, congested city terrified the hell out of me. I’d never felt so alone in my life, although Mr. Parker had assured me that he’d be available for anything I needed.
Common sense. Maybe that’s exactly what I needed at this point.
I’d taken the rest of the day to go over the volumes of paperwork regarding the company but could only glean so much. Today was the day I was going to the three ongoing construction sites, merely to watch the men and women work. As I pulled into the parking lot of a large construction property, I’d never felt so out of place in my life. Steel girders crisscrossed the landscape, cranes and other heavy pieces of equipment almost everywhere. A chain-link fence surrounded the property, caution signs everywhere. There were stacks of materials covered in plastic and a solid fifty construction workers from what I could tell working on the project.
This was not only the largest but the most profitable project, at least according to the contract I’d been supplied. I didn’t need to be in the actual business to know they were running behind schedule, the delays likely to cause issues with the county and the corporation who’d hired Torres Construction and Consulting. There was no doubt I had my work cut out for me. All three ongoing projects were bleeding in extra costs, which surprised me given what little I’d been able to find in the financial records.
While I had to continue delving into the books, something was going to have to give if I was forced to keep every employee. Great. I’d walk in and cut hours or benefits. Oh, that would make me popular.
When I stepped out of my Cruze, a clunking noise coming from underneath made me grimace. The long trip hadn’t been good for my poor little car. I also realized my outfit had been the wrong choice. Not only was it about five thousand degrees with a bazillion percent humidity, but between the mud and the gravel, my heels wouldn’t cut it. Hissing, I adjusted my sunglasses, studying the building under construction. I’d always admired skyscrapers and this one was no exception.
But God, I felt so out of place.
Have attitude. You can do this.
“Can I help you?” a gruff male voice asked from behind.
When I turned, I had a girlie moment, the hunk standing in front of me lifting his shirt at that very moment to wipe sweat from his eyes. His rock-hard body was straight out of a fitness magazine. I sucked in my breath and tried to find my voice.
“I’m looking for Hunter Bennett, Ryker Thompson, and Thiago Alonso.” I was thankful I was wearing a jacket, or my hard nipples would give him a clear indication of how attracted to him I was. While I’d tried to find out everything I could about the three men, the employee records were obviously in files located on site or the office I’d yet to see. I wasn’t entirely certain who they were, but right now help was what I needed.
“You found Hunter. What can I do for you?”
I held out my hand. “I’m Crystal Washington.”
While he shook my hand, he seemed perplexed.
I cleared my throat. I had to break out of my comfort zone at some point. “I’m the new owner of Torres Construction.”
That’s the moment I got ‘the’ look. I’d seen it before, the look when a man thought I was in the wrong place for the wrong job and was even the wrong sex. He lifted his dark shades, glancing all the way down to my heels before meeting my eyes. Damn, his were the bluest I’d ever seen, his shaggy blond hair lightly blowing in the breeze and the golden tan covering his tattooed and very muscular arms making my mouth water.
“I’m not sure I understand,” he finally said.
“Is there somewhere we can talk?”
He pointed toward an oversized trailer only a few feet away. “Sure thing, Miss Washington.”
“You can call me Crystal.” I followed behind him, a lump forming in my throat. When I walked inside, I heard two other male voices.
They stopped talking as soon as they noticed me, both men grinning, one of then sucking in their breath through their teeth.
And both were equally as freaking gorgeous, buff and brawny, the reason God made tight-fitting jeans in the first place. I ripped my gaze away, offering my hand to both. I’d been around boys at school who thought they were handsome based on the expensive clothing and five-thousand-dollar watches. They were nothing but pretty little boys with boosted attitudes and huge bank accounts. I’d also been forced to endure beer-guzzling, Neanderthal assholes who thought their brawn was attractive.
These guys were different.
They were rugged, dirty and sweaty from hard work, gravel dust covering their tattooed arms, vibrant ink that pulled at my gaze. All three of them wore tight tee-shirts, accentuating every defined muscle in their abdomens.
I hated the fact my mouth continued to water, my mind shifting to dark and devious places. That wasn’t me.
“This lady says she’s the new owner of the company,” Hunter said casually as he leaned against one of the file cabinets, folding his arms. I heard the disdain in his voice.
Now both the other men looked at me warily.
Ryker was the epitome of tall, dark, and handsome, his stark midnight eyes and long eyelashes, chiseled features, and killer body breathtaking. He stood in a muscle tee-shirt and tight, faded jeans, both highlighting his stunning physique.
When I glanced at the third man, all time seemed to stand still. I’d never had this kind of reaction to any man before in my life. I realized I was quivering, uncertain if I could put two coherent sentences together. The man was all brawn and the take-no-shit expression he wore harbored a hint of danger.
Thiago was also a creature of beauty, his gray hair, beard, and intense green eyes giving him a dominating aura. While all three were older, Thiago was easily in his late forties. The moment I shook his hand, a bolt of electricity seared every muscle. I was floored at my body’s reaction, trying my best to maintain a nonchalant attitude. My God, the man’s muscular arms were larger than my thighs, his broad shoulders and barrel chest creating a pitter-patter in my heart, butterflies in my stomach.
A rush of filthy images fluttered into my mind catching me off guard. What was wrong with me? This was business and nothing more.
While all three of them shook my hand, their eyes held death rays. These were the men my father had trusted. I wasn’t certain whether to be surprised or annoyed given their arrogance. I’d hoped they would befriend me to some degree until I got the lay of the land.
I had the distinct feeling that I was wrong.
“Do you mind explaining what you’re talking about?” Hunter finally asked.
I turned to face him, feeling entirely out of place. “Ricco Torres was my father. After his death, it was his wish that I take over the company.”
Ryker was the first to laugh, Thiago joining him seconds later.
“You are shittin’ me. Right?” Hunter asked, a wide grin on his face. “Who put you up to this?”
The heat in the metal building was oppressive; however, I refused to allow them to see me sweat. I raked my hand through my hair, thankful I had natural curly red hair. Anything else and I’d look like a wet mop. I could tell that I was going to have to play hardball with these guys. Well, that was just fine by me. I took my time removing my jacket, placing it on the seat behind the single desk. When I turned around, I moved around the desk, sitting on the edge. Within seconds, I was cognizant that my nipples were hard as pebbles, both poking through the thin material of my blouse.
“I never kid about business, gentlemen. I was willed my father’s corporation. While I intend on keeping it, there are going to need to be a few changes made. I’m sorry if that challenges your manhood because I’m a woman stepping into the role, but the sooner you get used to it, the better. I was told the three of you would prove to be helpful in the transition. I hope Jackson Parker wasn’t wrong. You do know that name, don’t you?”
Cut the nasty tone, Crystal.
“Whew,” Thiago whistled. “You come on strong, lady. Yeah, we all know Parker.”
“I guess I have to come on strong,” I answered, already chastising myself for falling into a ridiculous trap. They didn’t know me, and I certainly didn’t want to know them. Well…
“All right. I’ll ask. What kind of changes and what kind of help is this Parker dude expecting?” Thiago asked.
“Certain rules that have gone lax. Unfortunately, there will need to be some alterations in benefits as a cost-cutting measure.” What is wrong with you, Crystal? I was nervous around three big, sexy brutes who knew a hell of a lot more than I did. That’s what was wrong. “As far as helping me. I’ll need detailed reports regarding the ongoing projects and whatever is on the horizon.”
I noticed the harsh look between them. All three of them smelled like sweat and testosterone, woodsy and appealing, even if their immediate attitude was surly. I knew what I’d said was shocking, but I couldn’t tell them a single thing about my father’s will, including why the changes were necessary. That had been another codicil. At this moment, I had an odd sense that my father had been hiding something. Why I thought that way I wasn’t certain, but when Mr. Parker hadn’t been up front about my father’s death, a red flag had gone up.
“He died of natural causes, Crystal. Sadly, alone in his bed.”
When asked about who’d examined him after his death, Mr. Parker hadn’t provided an answer. I’d known right then something was off.
Hunter moved closer, his jaw clenched. “Were you made aware that while Ricco was the CEO of the company, the three of us were promoted several weeks ago? That means the three of us actually run the company with full autonomy.”
The heat of his body was oppressive, his scent sliding into every cell in my body. His gaze fell again, sliding straight to my breasts. He was giving me a full court press in an entirely different way.
And I immediately bristled. I stood to my full height, which was a solid six inches shorter than him even in my heels. He’d pissed off the wrong chick. “I’m sorry, Mr. Bennett, all promotions are on hold at this time.” I should have known Mr. Parker wouldn’t tell me everything. Granted, I still had stacks of paperwork to read. I also should have done my homework. If they’d been running the company, then my father had intended on taking a step back.
“What. The. Fuck?” Ryker threw out.
I snapped my head in his direction, giving him a nasty look. If I didn’t get control right now, I never would. “I am the owner, CEO, and the woman who signs your paychecks. I suggest you watch your language.”
Ryker’s nostrils flared, his dark eyes twinkling. “I’m so sorry to hurt your virgin ears.”
Don’t lose your cool. Just breathe.
I felt boxed in. I’d obviously handled this entirely wrong. “I assure you that I will consider your promotions, but I need to ensure the company is strong enough. That will take me a couple of weeks. In the meantime, I expect you to perform your duties as required. If you don’t, then you’re going to have to be disciplined. Now, can I count on you?”
Disciplined? What the hell was I doing? Winging it, which never went over well.
“Disciplined?” Thiago snorted, shifting closer and giving me another hard onceover.
What the hell was it with these guys?
You’re a woman coming into their world.
Yeah, well, even if my inner voice was correct, I couldn’t show any fear.
“If necessary,” I managed, half croaking the two words.
He chuckled. “Well then, Ms. Washington, we aim to please. You can certainly count on us to provide help. Just be careful what you ask for.”
Thiago’s answer was full of another round of testosterone. I held my head high as all three men shared another look between them.
“What kind of reports do you need from us?” Hunter asked, his gaze hard and cold.
“I know you’re in charge of all three projects,” I said to Thiago. “I need a detailed report on where we are, especially this one, including the stage they’re in. From what I can tell, the projects are late and exceeding the determined budget and I need to know why. Do you think you can do that for me?”
“In a week or so. There are lots of pieces I’m juggling right now,” he countered.
“Tomorrow. I need the reports by five p.m. tomorrow.”
Thiago took a deep breath, answering for the three of them. “Very well, Ms. Washington. We’ll be happy to provide assistance but after you get your feet into the projects, we are going to have a discussion about what was promised to us. Do I make myself clear?”
Now he was trying to dictate to me? Oh, hell, no. I inched closer, slapping my hands on my hips. “You seem to forget that I own the company now. I suggest that by the next time we have a discussion you’ve changed your attitude.”
He smiled, a knowing kind of look that ripped through me like wildfire. Whew, the man was dominating as hell. I doubted this was going to work.
My nerves kicking in, I yanked my jacket off the chair, heading for the door. When I brushed against Hunter accidentally, a surge of electricity soared through me.
“Be careful, Ms. Washington. There are ferocious beasts who make their home at construction sites.”
“Is that a threat, Mr. Bennett?” I asked, anger rushing into me.
“Not at all. I would hate to see a beautiful woman hurt on the job.”
I walked out before I lashed out, which I knew wouldn’t be in my best interest. When I climbed into the car, I realized I was shivering all over. What the hell had I gotten myself into?