Matt Starr, CEO of Digitech, entered the lush corporate offices like a whirlwind. While the offices were state-of-the-art, Matt himself looked like a vagabond. He flopped down on his ergonomic chair and propped his feet on the glass-topped desk that was virtually bare of all ornamentation. He removed his baseball cap that said Lulu's Bait Shack on the brim and turned it around. Now he was ready. For what he didn't know.
He eyed the hole in the knee of his jeans. It looked to be the same size as the hole in the toe of his right sneaker. The thought pleased him. He swiveled his chair around so he could look at the long line of pictures on the shelf behind him. Lily sitting on a swing, Lily hanging a Christmas ornament on her tree, Lily and Buzz mugging for the camera, Lily sitting at his side on a park bench. Lily, Lily, Lily. His very own charming Lily. He smiled when he looked at the date on his computer screen. In a little less than three weeks they would be man and wife. His smile stretched into a wide grin. Married. Kids. Dogs. Cats. Maybe a bird. A house. A yard and a lawn mower. The whole damn ball of wax.
The media called him a legend in his own time. Wall Street loved him and his company. Investors loved him because they trusted him. He'd made them all rich. And now he was ready to move on so that all the buttoned-up MBAs and high-tech computer geniuses he'd recruited over the years could run the company.
He was thirty-seven, and he'd done it all. He'd done the Himalaya thing, climbed Everest, chatted with the Dalai Lama, almost got married once, kissed Mother Teresa on the cheek, shot the most dangerous rapids in the world, gone big-game hunting in Africa, almost got married once, graduated at the top of his class at Harvard, almost got married once, was a billionaire several times over. According to the press, he had it all, but they were wrong. He wouldn't have it all until the day he married Lily. But that was no one's business but his and Lily's.
Lily. Sweet, charming Lily. The girl he'd left standing at the altar ten years ago because he was afraid of commitment. At the time he thought it was a fair trade-off as he walked awayâactually rode away on his Harleyâand started up Digitech on a shoestring. It had been a hollow ride to the top. What good was success and victory if you didn't have someone to share it with? He'd searched for her for years with no success. The detectives he'd hired said she dropped off the face of the earth. They also told him he was wasting his money continuing the search. And then, by chance, he found her. It had been Marcus's idea to plan an Extreme Vacation package for the high-level executives at Digitech. He'd signed on himself at the eleventh hour. It was the best thing he'd ever done in his entire life.
He closed his eyes to relive the moment as his index finger worked at the hole in his jeans. He'd followed his employees out to the center of the campground prior to trekking off into the wilderness. Gear was to be checked, pockets emptied. Nothing was to be left to chance. He was on his knees, unzipping his backpack for inspection by the survival guide when he looked up to see a pair of long, suntanned legs wearing Timberline boots. And then he looked upward again to see the face he'd dreamed of for ten long years. Speechless, he could only stare, and mutter, “I've been looking for you.”
It wasn't the Lily he remembered. This was a new breed of cat. She was lean, mean, and hard as nails. She'd only laughed once during the twenty-one-day trip from hell, and that was when he developed a raging case of poison sumac. She'd warned him not to touch the plant, but he hadn't listened. From that point on, she'd worked him like a pack mule and didn't give an inch during the entire twenty-one days. He did her bidding as he itched, scratched, and cursed. He refused to buckle or cave in no matter how miserable he was. Alone at night in his sleeping bag he marveled at the change in her, marveled that not by word or deed did she acknowledge that she'd ever known him, much less slept with him, that she had waited at the altar for him. When he slipped, because he wasn't paying attention to her instructions, and rolled down the side of the mountain, she'd peered over the ridge, and said, “You have exactly fifteen minutes to get your ass back up here or we're leaving without you. Rules are to be obeyed.” He'd never moved so fast in his life, but she was as good as her word; they'd left without him. It took him another hour to catch up. She'd called him a prairie flower, a
and a few other choice names. Later he realized it was her M.O. as well as the other guides' M.O.
Matt laughed. The whole crew had been a bunch of
but at the end of the twenty-one days, every single man and woman on the trek had hugged Lily and promised to stay in touch when they returned to civilization. Everyone but him. He'd wanted to bawl right then and there when she turned away from him.
He'd waited that night until the camp fell asleep before making his way to her cabin. There was no way he was leaving Ozzie Conklin's Survival Camp until he told her what he wanted to say. He heard the rush of wind, smelled the fragrant evergreens, and then he was flat on his back staring up at the stars, the big dog standing guard. He muttered a ripe curse. The big dog growled as he planted a huge paw on his neck. “Awwk,” was all he could manage by way of sound.
“It's three o'clock in the morning, Mr. Starr, and you don't belong in this part of the camp. I suggest you get up and go back where you belong. If you don't, I'll fire this gun smack-dab in your gluteus maximus. And if you're facing me, you'll get it where it will do the most damage. Buzz, come.”
Matt rolled over and managed to get to his knees. “Okay, okay. I'm going, but before I go you're going to listen to me even if I have to wake up this whole damn camp. What's it gonna be, Lily?”
“I'll give you ten minutes. I have to be up at five to take out a new group. Make it quick,
“Look, I'm sorry. I know those are just words, but they're true. I tried so many times to tell you I wasn't ready to get married, but you didn't listen. I was young, and I wanted my chance at the brass ring. I got the ring, but I lost you. A day hasn't gone by that I didn't think of you. I even hired detectives to find you. I tried, Lily. For years. I never stopped loving you. Not for one single minute. I wish I could say if I had it to do all over again, I would do things differently, but it would be a lie. I'd do the same thing. I wasn't ready to get married, it's that damn simple. I wasn't ready for it. We would have ended up hating each other. I didn't want to work for your father the way you wanted. I tried to tell you that, too. Jesus, Lily, you never listened to anything I said. You were so hopped up to get married, and that's all you wanted. You didn't look ahead to the future. I wasn't ready for kids and diapers and bills out the wazoo. Yeah, I walked away, but you weren't blameless. You changed. You aren't the Lily I remember.”
“I loved you so much. I couldn't imagine my life without you. Maybe you're right, and I didn't listen. You should have told me. You took the coward's way out. You literally left me standing at the altar in a wedding dress. My parents spent a lot of money on that wedding. We all looked like fools. The pity was the worst of all. That's all in the past. Now that we cleared that all up, I think it's time for you to head back to bed. The camp bus will be here at seven to pick you up. I leave here at six, so we should say good-bye now. By the way, you did pretty good out there.”
“You were magnificent!” He heard her suck in her breath. “I'm really sorry, Lily. Can we be friends?”
“Why don't we just leave things the way they are. You have your life, and I have mine. Our lives are so totally opposite we have nothing in common. I'll send you a Christmas card. Have a safe trip home. Come on, Buzz, time for bed.”
“I want more than a Christmas card, Lily. Now that I found you, I'm not going to lose you again.”
“Good night, Matt.”
Matt's feet thumped to the floor. Hands jammed into the back pockets of his jeans, he stared out at the New York skyline. That year was the toughest of his life as he pursued her with a vengeance. He was relentless and finally, during the Christmas holidays, he'd asked her to marry him. She agreed and said if they still felt the same about each other a year from now, the wedding would go forward. Now that year was up. Three weeks from now he would be married. He knew in his heart and in his gut that he and Lily would live happily ever after. He was turning in his high-tech world for a world of domestic bliss. He could hardly wait.
He watched a light snow begin to fall. His thoughts turned to Christmas and what he was going to get Lily for a present. He was so caught up in his thoughts he didn't hear Marcus come in until he felt his hand on his shoulder.
“Matt, I'm calling it a day. I promised my wife I'd try to make it home early for a change. Don't forget the reporter and photographer will be here first thing in the morning. High-Tech Man of the Year three years running. Now, that's something to be proud of. You gonna wear a suit and tie?”
“Nah. I hate that shit, Marcus. Been there, done that. Isn't it time they picked someone else? You should apply for the job,” Matt said carefully, his gaze still locked on the skyline.
Marcus shrugged. Long years of familiarity allowed him to say what he thought and when he thought it. He and Dennis Wagner had been on the right and left of Matt from the beginning and knew the workings of Digitech almost as well as their boss did. “Matt, what are you going to do about...”
Matt threw his hands in the air. “I don't know. With all the safeguards we have in place, I can't figure out how he could have done it, and all we have are suspicions at this point. Maybe I just don't want to believe it. He's my best friend. We played together in our sandboxes from the age of three on. The guy's been with us forever. We pay him five times what the others would pay him. I need to know why.”
“Big lump sum right up front. Piracy goes on all the time. It's the name of the game. Our security is top-of-the-line. No one said he did anything. Yet. He's being watched. Ten million, possibly more, in some bank in the Caymans would be my answer,” Marcus said smoothly.
I don't like this guy
, Matt thought.
“If this gets out, and he's innocent, the man's life is ruined,” Matt said. “No one will touch him. He's got his whole life ahead of him. He doesn't need the money. He's got all those stock options. I'm having a hard time with this, Marcus. On top of that, he's a friend. Now if it was you, I could almost understand, with that high-maintenance wife of yours.”
“You're treading on my personal life, Matt. Don't go down that road. I see the wheels turning. What's your plan?”
“It's not a plan. I've got three weeks till the wedding. Things are running smoothly here. I'm going to hit the road and see what I can find out. I'll be discreet. Sometimes those detective agencies are so eager to get results they forget they're dealing with human beings. I forgot that once. When you want to know what's in a man's future, you have to go back to his past to see where he's been. I, better than anyone, know that. The new software is safe. You can go home now, Marcus. I'm going to phone Lily and call it a day myself. Give my regards to your family.” He listened to his own voice and wondered if Marcus was picking up on his tone.
Marcus clapped Matt on the shoulder. “Happiness becomes you, old buddy. It's hard to believe in just a few weeks you're going to be an old married man like the rest of us. By the way, when are the Christmas bonuses going out. Aren't you late this year? Need any help on that?”
“I've got some catching up to do, but I'm up to it. Married life that is. I haven't decided on the bonuses yet. Do you need yours?”
“I can always use money. Christmas is an expensive time of year. Betsy saw some diamond earrings she wants. It's not a problem. I still can't believe you're not going to be here when we unveil the new software after the first of the year.”
“I'll be honeymooning. C'mon, are you telling me you and Dennis aren't up to this?”
“This is your company, Matt. How's it going to look with us standing there instead of you?”
“It's going to look great because you're going to be wearing a suit and tie. I, on the other hand, would appear as I am now. Go on, get out of here. Tomorrow is another day. I'll be leaving right after the Man of the Year thing. I'll call. Have a great holiday, Marcus, and I'll see you at the wedding.”
The buddy-buddy crap bothered Matt. He felt his eyes narrow as he stared at Marcus Collins's back. No, he did not like the man, and he despised his artificial-looking wife. He offered up a small prayer that Lily would never turn into a Betsy Collins. Matt looked down at the hole in his sneaker. It looked like the hole was bigger than it was a little while ago. He wiggled his big toe until it worked free of the canvas. He beamed at his accomplishment. He turned his baseball cap around, adjusted it before he turned off the lights in his office. He'd call Lily on his cell phone. It would make the ride home less boring. God how he loved that girl!