Gabe took off his glasses and made a big show of cleaning them with a handkerchief while staring at the same hummingbird sculpture that had fascinated her dad earlier. For what felt like an eternity, he didn’t say a word. Then he put on his glasses and pushed them up the bridge of his nose.
He pocketed the handkerchief. “Deal.”
Her dad nodded as if he’d just agreed to a fantasy football trade, not putting his entire company on the line. “It’s a bet then. You two can use the workshop where I started the company. I like the symmetry of that. It’s an old, red barn at the intersection of Highway Twenty-Eight and Thunder Road. You can’t miss it. Be there at six tonight. Bring a bag. You’ll bunk there.”
“Until then.” Gabe spun on his heel and strode out the door with the cocky strut of a man who’d already won.
Keisha couldn’t wait to show him how wrong he was.
Standing outside of Jacobs Fine Furnishings, his shoulders hunched because of the cold wind gusting all around him, Gabe glared at the small, black loaner car with the drooping bumper and the threadbare tires. Even as a non-car guy, he knew he hadn’t just climbed down a few rungs on the automotive ladder. No. He’d stumbled down to the lowest rung. Still, it got him from point A to point B, which was all he needed to take down Dell Jacobs.
He was so damn close to taking away the one thing that mattered most to the old man. If all went according to plan—which it would—he’d be dancing on Dell Jacobs’ desk within forty-eight hours.
Glancing around at the snow-covered factory grounds, he waited for the all-powerful rush that usually accompanied winning. But the expected buzz of certain victory didn’t flood his system. Instead, he felt like a soda that had gone flat. He searched his surroundings, trying to determine what was off.
The low-slung building with metal siding didn’t look like much, but the potential was there. Most mass-market furniture was manufactured out of the country, but the high-end market remained open to domestic companies. Customers who wanted to buy American, desired something a little different, or craved quality not seen in mass-market furniture were keeping the domestic furniture industry in business. His motives for going after Jacobs Fine Furnishings may not be bottom-line driven, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t money to be made. And he was the man to make it happen. As an added bonus, turning the company around would be like having extra dirt to rub in Dell Jacobs’ eyes. He warmed up to his new plan.
An image of Keisha kicking his ass in cards and laughing about it flashed in his mind, and his gut clenched. Damn. She was a woman. Just like any other woman. Last night was an aberration—a hot one—but still nothing to get in the way of his latest plans.
Ignoring his inner voice laughing its ass off, Gabe zipped up his coat as high as it would go and marched to the loaner car, his shoes leaving tracks in the snow. He yanked open the door with more force than necessary and slid behind the wheel, his knees knocking against the steering wheel. The door let out a yowling creak as he tugged it shut, nearly drowning out his cell phone’s ring. His cousin Carlos’ photo flashed on the screen.
He hit speaker. “Yeah?”
“You on your way home yet?” Carlos asked.
“Not exactly.” Gabe turned the key in the ignition, and the engine coughed to life with a metal-on-metal rattle thrown in for good measure.
“That doesn’t sound like your Aston Martin.”
“Because it’s not.” He pulled out onto the main road, retracing his path from earlier so he’d end up at Highway Twenty-Eight. “There were…problems.”
Carlos’ bark of laughter boomed through the tiny speaker. “Please tell me you didn’t wreck that cherry piece of mechanical wonder.”
“No. It died on me outside of Salvation.” At least he hoped he hadn’t killed it permanently. The big dude at Fix ‘Er Up with the trucker hat and the tow truck said he’d take a look as soon as the roads cleared.
“Did you run out of gas?” His cousin didn’t bother trying to hide the amusement in his voice.
Annoyance steamed Gabe’s cheeks. “Fuck off. That happened once.”
“In recent memory. I told you your habit of driving on E would catch up to you,” Carlos crowed. “Oh man, I am loving this.”
Three times. It had happened three times, and each time, he’d been on his way to close a deal that had fundamentally changed his business. What was gas when it came to those kinds of stakes?
“So glad I could amuse you.”
“You do crack my shit up, but on less funny side of things—your mom called me twice this morning. She does not believe you’re on a weekend getaway with one of your flavors of the week.”
The loaner car’s balding tires hit a patch of slush on the road, and the car skittered to the right. His blood pressure jacked up to one million over a shit ton. He tightened his grip on the wheel and jerked to the left. The tires screeched, but found purchase on the asphalt. His ears stopped throbbing as his pulse calmed.
One disaster avoided and another one bearing down on him. The second one came armed with a casserole dish of cheese and onion enchiladas baked with love and seasoned with guilt. “How could mom have any idea what’s going on?”
“She’s your mom, man. They always know when shit is up.”
An unfortunate and universal truth. But this time the stakes were a lot higher than the time in high school when she found out he’d been sneaking out after curfew to meet Annabelle Rodriguez. He wouldn’t drag his mother into this. He couldn’t.
“Did you tell her?”
“Hell no,” Carlos said, biting out the words. “I wish I’d never told you.”
“I deserved to know.” Anger at being kept in the dark for his entire life had him seeing red. No. He refused to target his mother. She loved him. She cared. Gabe was furious with Dell Jacobs. He was the one who was really at fault. He was the one who needed to be punished. “But that’s not important now.”
“I’m sure she had her reasons for keeping it quiet all these years,” Carlos said.
He’d lived his whole life thinking Cesar was his biological father. He’d never questioned it. Never thought about how strange it was that every maternal relative lived in Harbor City’s middle-class suburbs while he’d grown up in a glass and steel high-rise, going to private schools and spending Spring Break in the French Alps or Monaco. Why his mother and father both had brown eyes while his were blue. Why his mother hyperventilated every time she got into a car.