Winning Sara's Heart
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Finally—she’d said it. There was nothing between them. There couldn’t be, not now—not ever…
He came around the desk and stood in front of her. “What did you think I was going to do?”
“I’m sorry,” she breathed.
He narrowed his gaze, then without warning reached out and cupped her chin. He ignored the way she flinched at the contact as his fingers pressed against her skin. “What in the hell happened to you to make you like this?”
Sara drew back, tried to absorb the pain that came with his words. “Who do you think you are?” she whispered.
He leaned toward her, coming so close that she felt his breath brush her face when he spoke. “Someone who can’t understand where all this anger is coming from, or why you’ve decided to cut off your life for your daughter.” He paused, then said softly, “But then again, I don’t know you, do I? I don’t understand.”
“No, you don’t,” she said, hating the way her voice was shaking.
She expected him to turn and walk away. But he didn’t.
Instead, he looked right at her and said in a low, tense voice, “But I want to…understand.”
Winning Sara’s Heart, part of my series JUST FOR KIDS, centers on E. J. Sommers and Sara Flynn, two people who aren’t looking for anything more than to be in control of their own lives. That premise always intrigues me—how two people can think they’re in control, only to meet that one person who can change everything.
This is a Cinderella story. There’s a “prince” and a “princess,” a magical ball, even a “fairy godmother” named Mary Garner, but no wicked stepsisters. However, there is a little girl named Hayley, who loves both the “prince” and the “princess.” She happens to end up in the middle of the magic that proves that even when two people don’t believe in love, it’s all around them and out of their control.
I hope you enjoy E. J. and Sara’s story and all the magic love can bring to this world, especially when it’s least expected. Please look for the next book in my JUST FOR KIDS series, When Megan Smiles, in March 2004.
Winning Sara’s Heart
Mary Anne Wilson
For Wendy Douglas
For being a great friend when life wasn’t easy. Thanks for being there.
E.J. Sommers didn’t want to be here. He wanted to be anywhere but in the limousine heading into downtown Houston for a meeting at LynTech. He didn’t want to sit in some stuffy conference room, facing the head honchos across a shiny table and negotiate away part of his own company. If it were up to him, he’d be out somewhere in the open, alone, letting his attorney take care of the whole thing.
“Everything okay?” Martin Griggs, that very same attorney, asked. “You look…” His voice trailed off.
E. J. turned to Martin, a thin man in a perfectly tailored, pin-striped navy suit, and with much less red hair than he’d had ten years ago when he’d first come on board with the newly formed EJS Corporation. “Just how do I look?” he asked, his dark hazel eyes narrowing on the man.
“As if you’d rather be drawn and quartered than do this,” Martin said without missing a beat.
“Right on the mark,” E. J. murmured.
“You need to be in the meeting, to show that the power goes all the way to the top, and you’re the one in control.”
E. J. nodded. “I know.”
“But, you don’t look too convinced.”
“Hell, I’m convinced, but you know I’m never sure of anything in business. I do this by the seat of my pants, not because I’ve got some impressive degree to hang my opinions and actions on. I never even made it past high school.”
“Education or not, by doing it your way, you’ve been a success, made millions, and have one of the most viable corporations around. That’s why LynTech wants this deal to go through.”
“Just about everyone else looks at me and wonders when I’m going to fall flat on my face, when I’ll go back to where I belong and leave the big league to the big-league players.”
Martin smiled. “Sure, but you aren’t falling flat on your face, and you’re here, so they’ll deal with you or there won’t be a deal at all.”
E. J. knew that Martin was stating the facts, but he still wondered what he was doing in this situation to begin with. He’d never set out to be rich, to have this kind of power or influence, and he was willing to let part of his company go to try to make his life simpler. Maybe even to figure out where his life was going from here. What he knew was, he needed time and breathing space, and getting LynTech to take over part of his operations meant he’d get what he wanted.
LynTech would get the high-tech branch of EJS Corporation, freeing him up. Quietly, they were negotiating, and it would be a done deal before the rest of the business world knew what was happening. No sharks would go after EJS Corporation. Just a quiet, fast deal. Those were the rules Jackson Ford, the negotiator for LynTech, had agreed to.
“They’ll deal with me,” he muttered, and tugged at the cuffs of the brown leather bomber jacket he was wearing over a plain white T-shirt with blue jeans and his favorite pair of boots.
“You know, you really are a legend in the business world,” Martin said.
“Oh, sure,” he said, almost laughing.
E. J. knew how he was seen by most people. By virtue of his success and his wealth, women pursued him passionately and men went after his holdings. His business opponents were passionately resentful of what they perceived to be his ability to do what they did, but with a deceptive ease that rankled them. “A cocky upstart with an attitude” was one of the kinder remarks he’d heard. He ignored the worst remarks that labeled him as a man who didn’t know a contract from his elbow and a man who had more luck than brains.
He knew he’d been lucky in his life. But he’d be dammed if he’d apologize for his success. Gossip-mongers seemed to thrive on finding out what he was up to.
“Well, Mr. Legend, we’re here,” Martin said as the limo slowed and pulled to the curb in front of the towering glass-and-metal building that contained LynTech. A security man was there right away, opening E. J.’s door and looking inside.
“Good morning, sir. Can I help you?”
“We’re here for a meeting,” Martin said. “E. J. Sommers and Martin Griggs.”
The khaki-uniformed man, probably in his late twenties, with pale skin and a concerned expression, checked a clipboard he was holding. “Oh, yes, sir,” he said with a smile. “The meeting is in the main conference room on the top floor. Mr. Holden said to send you right up when you got here.”
Martin’s phone rang as E. J. got out, and then the attorney was beside him on the sidewalk, holding up a hand to get E.J’s attention. Martin frowned but didn’t say anything as he listened to the caller. “Oh, for—” Martin finally muttered, his words stopping abruptly as he listened some more. “This stinks. It’s not what we signed on for. I’ll be right up,” he said, and flipped his phone shut.
“What’s going on?” E. J. asked.
“That was Ford. He just found out the deal leaked and the word is on the street. It’s making the rounds.”
E. J. had actually liked what he’d heard of Ford. When they’d spoken, E. J. got the sense that Ford stood by his word. Had he been mistaken? “What happened?”
“He doesn’t know, but it’s out and the sharks are circling. It’s just what you thought. They’re seeing it as a weakness in the structure, and they’re going for blood.” He motioned to the building. “It’s not going to be pretty, but we need to get this done. Come on.”
Suddenly a child screamed and E. J. flinched at the piercing sound. He glanced to his left and saw a harried-looking young woman in jeans and a loose T-shirt trying to carry a squirming toddler toward the entrance to the building. “Hush, Walker, Mommy’s inside. I promise.”
The little boy, with wispy blond hair and a good set of lungs, let out another ear-piercing scream. “Hush, hush, hush,” the woman kept saying as she hurried into the lobby of the LynTech building.
“Sorry, sir,” the security man said. “He’s going to the day-care center inside. Those kids can be a handful,” he said with a shake of his head. “Sure glad I don’t have any.” Then he realized he might have been out of line and backtracked. “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that kids are bad or anything. I mean, you each probably have lovely children.”
“Two girls,” Martin said as he glanced at the closed entry doors. “You say they’ve got a day-care center in there?”
“Yes, sir. Have for a while now, but I never thought kids should be around business stuff. Just my opinion.”
E. J. didn’t care about the kids or why a corporation like LynTech would even have children on the premises. He sure as hell didn’t want to talk about them or where they should be. Kids didn’t matter to him. He didn’t care if LynTech had a high school tucked away in the building. What he cared about was a rotten deal, and he didn’t want any part of what was waiting for them on the top floor.
“Call Ford back and tell him we’re on our way back to Dallas.” He wanted complications out of his life. But that wasn’t going to happen here and now. “We’re cutting our losses and getting out of town.”
Martin didn’t move. “We can’t just walk away without a face-to-face.”
“Ford and Holden both promised it was going to be closed, that we wouldn’t have to go public with the negotiations.”
Martin shook his head. “E. J., in business you have to see things through to the end. You need to tell them—”
“You go and see them if you want to. See what the hell happened, but I’m leaving it.” Frustration was growing in him, along with impatience. He turned to the security man, who was trying to pretend that he wasn’t listening to their conversation. “Where’s the nearest place to get a drink?”
“Coffee?” he asked.
When E. J. nodded the man said, “Over there, in the Lennox Building,” he said, motioning to the structure south of LynTech. “They just put in a sort of bar and restaurant on the ground level. Everyone’s been saying it’s good. Just inside the main doors to the left.”
E. J. glanced at a twin to the LynTech Building, all glass and steel with a sweeping entry and the name Lennox carved into a heavy slab of marble used as a cross support over the doors. He turned to Martin. “Give me some cash?”
Martin tucked the phone back in a side pocket of his briefcase, then reached for his wallet. “I wish you’d carry cash, E. J. Do you know how much more bookkeeping I have to do to account for the dribs and drabs you take off me?” he muttered, then looked up at E. J. as he opened his wallet and held it out to him. “Why don’t you just take what you need?”
E. J. took a few bills, then said, “Put it on my tab.”
“Of course,” Martin murmured as he tucked his wallet back in his pocket. “So, you’re not coming up with me?”
“No, just let me know when you’re ready to head back to Dallas. I’ll be at the bar.”
Martin nodded, then headed into LynTech.
“Can my driver stay where he is?” he asked the security man.
“Sure, no problem.”
“We should be out of here soon,” he said, and was a bit surprised that he felt so let down as he headed toward the next building. He approached the glass doors and caught a flash of his image in the expansive surface. Six feet tall, lean, wearing casual clothes, he didn’t look like a company president, not even like an average businessman. At thirty-nine, he was too old to start wearing pin-striped suits and wing-tipped oxfords, and getting razor haircuts.
His brown, sun-streaked hair was a bit too long, a bit too unstyled, and it swept back from a face that was a bit too angular and showed his aversion to shaving, with the shadow of a day-old beard at his strong jaw. He realized he needed that drink, but coffee would have to do.
He hit the door with the heel of his hand and stepped into a vast reception foyer. Glass, marble, wood and plants were everywhere. He glanced at a massive information desk to the right, set on a highly polished marble floor.
E. J. caught a hint of brewing coffee in the air and spotted the restaurant entrance. Between two immaculately trimmed topiary plants in brass pots, a frosted-glass wood door was labeled in gold-leaf script. The Lennox Caf?. He crossed to it, pushed it back and stepped inside. The cold marble and the glass and steel from outside were replaced by plush burgundy carpeting, polished wood and brass, accented with crystal and mirrors.
There was only one customer at the bar and two customers in the restaurant. The man at the bar was reading from his Palm Pilot while nursing a drink, and the other two men were at a round table near tinted windows, talking business with open briefcases in front of them along with drinks.
A slender blond waitress glanced in his direction while she juggled a tray laden with food. Her startling aquamarine eyes dominated a finely boned face that was slightly flushed. “Someone will be right with you,” she said in a breathless voice, then headed into the restaurant.
She moved quickly, weaving her way through the empty room, approaching the customers. At the same moment she got to the table, one of the two men pushed his chair back, stood and turned, running right into the waitress. The peace was shattered by the crashing sound of impact, falling food and dishes, a startled scream that probably came from the waitress and a jarring expletive that obviously came from the customer.
As if everything had shifted to slow motion, E. J. saw the waitress jerk backward and fall out of sight behind the nearest table. The customer took the full brunt of flying food, and a plate bounced off his shoulder before shattering as it hit the edge of the table. A small man, totally bald, with a dark goatee and wearing a somber black suit, rushed toward the table.
The customer stood there, covered with pieces of food and drenched with what had to have been coffee, while his friend, still seated at the table, hurriedly rescued papers and checked them before putting them back in his briefcase. None of the three men gave the waitress more than a cursory glance as she struggled to her feet, her face crimson and her pale hair falling loose in a tangle around her shoulders.
She scrambled up, hurrying to the man who bore the brunt of the disaster, and she reached out to brush at something yellow clinging to his once-immaculate jacket. Before she could do anything to help, the man hit at her hand, thundering, “Let it alone! You’ve done enough damage.”
She drew back quickly, clasping her hands in front of her, then twisting around when the man in the dark suit pulled her back and away from the customer. “Oh, my…oh, goodness,” the man said ineffectively in a voice with a slight British accent while he all but pushed the waitress behind him. He never stopped his mantra of apologies and offers of help. “We are so sorry,” he was saying. “Just deplorable. Unforgivable. Please, let us make this up to you.”
The man standing barely spared him a look while he shrugged out of his jacket, shaking it sharply and sending the clinging food everywhere. One piece of tomato hit the small man in his chest, imprinting a garish red mark on the pristine whiteness of his shirt. He flicked at it, then grabbed a napkin off of a nearby table and proceeded to blot at his shirt. “Sir, this is unforgivable. Please, we will take care of any cleaning bills for your suit.”
The irate man turned, red-faced, and said, “It’s ruined. It’s trash.” He dropped the jacket on the table, deliberately setting it on the worst of the mess. “And you will take care of it.”
“Absolutely, sir. My name is Bernard Hughes and I’m the manager of this establishment. We will make this right, and do accept our profound apology.”
The man and his tablemate made to leave. Almost tripping over the waitress’s foot, the tall, angry businessman yelled, “Get out of my way, you idiot!” and pushed past her while she crouched down, attending to the mess at her feet.
E. J. wasn’t sure when he started to walk toward the disaster, or why he was going in that direction at all. But he was, and the men rushed past him without a glance, muttering something about a meeting.
E. J. approached the manager and the waitress. The polite facade and deference the manager had exuded seconds ago was gone. He reached down, grabbed the waitress by her arm and jerked her unceremoniously to her feet. It was then that he knew why he was heading in their direction.
He’d had enough of everything. The bad deal because of some leak at LynTech, and men who treated this woman as if she was in servitude to the lot of them; they all left a bad taste in his mouth. The taste got even worse when he heard the manager saying, “This is all your fault, you idiot! This is coming out of your pay. And if it happens again, that’s it! You are out of here.”
He saw the woman’s eyes, that incredible shade of aquamarine, the way they widened, and the fear in them. “I…I said I’m sorry,” she breathed. “He stood up right when I got here and the tray hit him, and—”
“You threw food all over him,” Hughes muttered. “And if he goes out of here and ruins our reputation when we’re just getting off the ground, well…” He let the words trail off, but the threat in them was very clear. “The suit cleaning or replacement will be your responsibility completely.”
She bit her lip but didn’t fight his hold on her or protest anymore. She just stood there, taking it, and that made E. J. all the more angry. He was right by them now, close enough to see a name tag on the woman’s dress that read Sara, and close enough to see the pressure the man was putting on her arm. High color dotted her cheeks and she swallowed hard before she whispered, “I am so sorry, sir.”
“You will be if you do anything like this again.”
“Hey, take it easy,” E. J. said, laying his hand on the man’s forearm.
Hughes jerked at the contact, looked at E. J., then seemed to relax when he saw a customer. “Excuse me, sir?”
“Let her go,” E. J. said, not raising his voice but holding the man’s gaze without wavering. “Whatever happened here, it was an accident. I saw that idiot stand up right in front of her, and as far as I could tell, he caused all of this.”
Hughes stared at E. J., mentally trying to figure out what in the hell was going on. He flicked his gaze over the casual clothes, the roughness on his unshaven jaw, then looked right at him. The deference he’d shown to the other men was there, but in a measured portion. He wasn’t going to offend a prospective customer by telling him to get lost, but he wasn’t about to just let E. J. run roughshod over him, either.
“Sir, this has nothing to do with you, no matter whose fault it was,” he said tightly. “We at the Lennox Caf? expect excellence from our employees, and if that is no longer the case, they are no longer employees.” He inclined his head to E. J. “I can assure you that your service will be impeccable.”
“Great, but let go of her,” E. J. said.
Red flushed through the man’s skin again all the way up to his bald head, but he let the waitress go. “Get this cleaned up, then come to my office,” he said to her before he looked back at E. J., clasping his hands in front of his chest to partially hide the red stain there. The man was furious about everything, but he was controlled. “Now, sir, the bar or the restaurant?” he asked tightly.
“Yes, sir, this way,” Hughes said, and swept his hand in the direction of the bar.
E. J. glanced at the waitress. She had dropped to her haunches again and was busily scooping the ruined food back onto the tray. He leaned toward her. “Are you okay?”
She looked up, her hair tangling around her shoulders, and he was facing eyes that held jarring anger. Her mouth was tightly set, her skin flushed, and her hands, holding a broken soup bowl, were shaking. “Fine, just fine,” she muttered.
“Sir?” Hughes called to him.
E. J. had no idea why she was furious with him. It didn’t make sense. He killed the impulse to ask her why in the hell she was looking at him like that, and when she turned to get back to the mess at her feet, he walked away. He followed Hughes to the bar area, sat on one of the leather-covered stools and ordered a black coffee. While the bartender got it, E. J. looked in the mirrors that backed the bar. He spotted the waitress coming across the space with the trayful of broken china and ruined food.
He assumed she’d go right past him and into the kitchen area, but he was wrong about that, too. She came right toward him, and as he turned, she faced him with just two feet separating them. He could almost feel her heat as he inhaled a combination of scents, from coffee to flowers.
Then she uttered in a low, tight voice, “What do you think you were doing back there?”
It was then he realized how attractive she was—her full bottom lip and her silky blond hair. The high color in her complexion only emphasized a delicate beauty that owed nothing to makeup. “Trying to help,” he said truthfully, and found himself making an offer that shocked him. “Do you want me to have a talk with your boss about it?”
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