The last thing in the world Charles Harrison III wanted was a big party for his fortieth birthday, but it wasn't like he'd had much choice in the matter. His sister Tess had told him that she wanted to have a little family get-together for his upcoming birthday, and he'd agreed to let her. But when he'd showed up at the Kingston Point Yacht Club, the “little family get-together” was actually a huge surprise party, with more than two hundred relatives, friends, and business associates crowded into the largest ballroom.
He truly appreciated Tess's efforts and intentions . . . but Jesus Christ, he did
want to celebrate his big milestone birthday. He'd been swatting away flashes of uneasy angst about it for weeks.
Even now, nursing the one scotch he allowed himself at public gatherings, he looked around the packed room and couldn't shake the feeling that had gripped him recently with a vengeance: the sense that something was missing.
“Tripp!” His father's steely voice boomed from a few feet away. Only his father and his father's old friends still called him that. Charles turned to see his father waving him over to where his father stood with four older men, all equally distinguished and polished.
A pack of sharks
, Charles thought fleetingly as he made his way to them. His father, Charles Roger Harrison II, didn't have friends; he had business cronies. It was hard to keep friends when you were a multibillionaire in charge of an international conglomerate, and heir to a family legacy of four generations. Hard to trust anyone, and hard to know if you were genuinely liked. Charles knew that better than anyone, because it held true for him as well.
“Still can't believe my oldest is forty years old,” Charles II said, giving his son a hearty slap on the back. “Especially when I'm still only thirty-nine.”
The other men laughed as Charles commented, “Ah now, Dad, you don't look a day over thirty-eight.”
“Atta boy.” The patriarch tapped his glass of scotch to his son's. “Listen. We were just discussing the Benson Industries merger. I was thinkingâ”
“Do we have to discuss this now?” Charles asked, a stab of annoyance piercing him. “It's my birthday. Tonight, I'm off the clock.”
“You're never off the clock, Tripp.” Charles II's voice was light, but his gray eyes glinted like blades. “You're COO of Harrison Enterprises. Sun never sets on our empire. Want to keep it that way, you're never off the clock. God knows I've never been. Now”âhe held his son's gaze for a long beatâ“about the merger.”
Charles bit back a sigh and let his father continue. At times like this, Charles wished he allowed himself more than one drink at a party. But the heir to the throne had to be in control and proficient at all times. Above reproach. There was no room to ever be even slightly drunk in public, or to be drunk enough to be gossiped about negatively, or to be off the clock, or to just . . . be.
His entire life, since childhood, Charles hadn't been able to think about much of anything but his place in the family company. As his father droned on about business in the middle of what was supposed to be a party, Charles longed for the ability to just walk away. Of course, he never would. He'd been too well trained. Groomed to be proper, reputable, capable, sophisticated, and most important, to be the shining example of the next generation of Harrisons. From the day he was born.
Charles took a long sip of his scotch as his father's associates launched into the pros and cons of the merger. He gazed at his father's face, the wrinkles and deep frown lines etched into his skin, and thought,
Forty years down . . . forty or so to go.
* * *
Lisette Gardner sat quietly at the round table in the corner with the three kids, who were all completely consumed by their handheld electronic devices. Being the live-in nanny to Charles Harrison III's children was a full-time, arduous task, but she truly loved her job. She glanced at each of them, their dark heads bowed over their games. They were often difficult, but she understood why and had tried to be a source of warmth for them since her first day on the job.
The oldest was feisty Ava, nine going on nineteen, her tongue already as sharp as a teenager's; then sullen Thomas, who already at seven and a half barely swallowed his resentment every day; and little Myles, just turned six a few weeks before, who was rambunctious, but as sweet as they came. They were never boring, that was for sure. Myles was the friendliest of the childrenâprobably because he had only been eighteen months old when his parents had divorced and his mother had moved across the country, so he'd never known a different life. The other two remembered what it was like to have their mother in their lives, and felt the absence more keenly.
Lisette reached over to run her hand over Myles's dark, wavy hair, and he looked up from his game for two seconds to flash a smile. She smiled back before his eyes went back down to the screen. He was the most affectionate, but really, she adored all three. In her almost two years with the kids, she'd watched them grow, and had grown to care for them so deeply she sometimes felt like they were hers. Which was understandable, since she was with them day in, day out, five or six days a week. Caring for the Harrison children was her whole life. And she was fine with that.
“I'm bored,” Thomas grumbled without even looking up from his tablet.
“Me too,” Ava said. “Why do we have to be here?” Her bright blue eyes, so like her father's, regarded Lisette with irritation. “It's not like Dad even cares we're here.”
“Of course he does,” Lisette said. “Don't say that.”
“He hasn't come over to see us since we got here,” Thomas said. “Not once.”
“I want cookies,” Myles said, and yawned.
Lisette glanced at her watch. It was almost nine, and even though it was a Saturday, it was the kids' bedtime. “It's too late for cookies, sweetheart,” she said. If they were home, they'd be doing the nightly routine for bed right then. “You know what? Let me talk to your father. It is your bedtime . . .”
“I want to go home,” Thomas said.
“Me too,” Ava said. “This party's boring. It's for grownups. We're just . . . on display.”
Lisette marveled at how astute the nine-year-old girl was. In this instance, it was sad. “I'll be right back,” she said, rising to stand. “You guys stay here, okay? Be good.”
“Okay, Set.” Myles singsonged the nickname he used for her.
She smoothed out her dress and scanned the crowd, searching for her employer. Among the guests, she spotted the always charming middle Harrison brother, Dane, holding court near the bar with his arm around his sexy wife, Julia. Next to them were the youngest brother, Pierce, and his girlfriend, Abby. Lisette had gotten to know Pierce and Abby well, and she liked them. They came over once a week to see the kids, taking them out to the movies or the park, anywhere that was fun. The kids adored their lively uncle and always looked forward to his visits.
Ah. There was Charles, across the room by the large floor-to-ceiling windows, talking with a group of men that included the Harrison patriarch. Talking business no doubt, she thought, as she started to weave her way through the crowd in her boss's direction.
She found Charles fascinating. He always carried himself with such focus, attentive as a hawk to everything around him. For the most part he was a serious man, exuding intelligence, confidence, and quiet power. His manners were impeccable, and his poise and composure were renowned. But as Lisette had grown to know him, she'd seen glimpses of the humor and warmth he hid from the world and stuffed down inside. At home, alone with his children, was the only time she saw him smile freely or heard him laugh. And even then, it wasn't often enough.
Now, Charles smiled mildly at something his father said, but she could see the smile didn't reach his eyes. He wasn't enjoying himself, which was a shame, considering he was the guest of honor. And a very handsome guest of honor, at that. His face, all angles and strong lines, was a study in masculine beauty. At his temples there were already a few glints of silver in his wavy dark hair, proof of his stressful career. There was an urbane sophistication about him; he'd been born to that. Tall, lean, broad-shouldered, his build was flattered by the lines of his navy suit, and his pale blue shirt set off his bright blue eyes. Instead of his black-rimmed glasses, he'd opted for contact lenses tonight, showcasing those captivating eyes, which locked on her now as she approached. Her heart gave a tiny flutter, as it often did when he focused on her.
Before she could even speak, Charles's brow furrowed with concern. “Is everything all right with the kids?”
“Fine,” she assured him quickly. Her voice always felt softer, smaller in her throat when she spoke to him, but especially in front of others. The other men, all in their sixties, were either ignoring her or studying her. She cleared her throat and said, “But they're getting tired. It
their usual bedtime. I was wondering if you'd mind if I took them home.”
“Is it?” Charles flicked a quick glance at his Rolex. “Damn, you're right. Of course, take them home. They're probably bored anyway. I'll catch a ride with Tess.”
She smiled demurely, grateful for his understanding.
“Hell no!” Charles's father said with disdain. “They're Harrisons. It's your birthday. They should be here. They have their video games; they'll be fine.”
Biting the inside of her cheek to keep quiet, Lisette just stared. That man proved over and over that he was the coldest, most selfish bastard she'd ever met. How someone as wonderful as Charles had come from someone as horrid as his father, she'd never know.
* * *
Charles turned to glare at his father. “Dad. They're young children. They're bored, and they're tired. They've been here long enough. Now they're going home.”
Charles II just snorted, rolled his eyes, and looked around at his cronies, his expression condescending as he shrugged. “Pandering to children. I thought you were smarter than that.”
Feeling his blood pressure rise, Charles reined in his temper as he replied evenly, “I'm smart enough to know what young kids need and to respect that. Excuse us.” He turned his back on the group of men, grasping Lisette gently by the elbow and walking away with her.
“He's such an ass,” Charles muttered.
Lisette only nodded in response.
“Thank you for finding me on this,” Charles continued. “I didn't realize what time it was. Also, you got me away from that pack of wolves. I owe you.”
Lisette finally cracked a tiny grin. “Didn't know I was on a rescue mission.”
“I should have sent up smoke signals.” He grinned back and looked down at her, stopping a few feet from the kids' table. “I hope you got something to eat here? The food's pretty good.”
“I did, thank you. The children did also.”
“Good.” Charles's eyes skimmed over Lisette briefly. All night, it had felt like his effort not to stare at her was an exercise in restraint. Because she didn't get dressed up and made up like this very often, and the problem was, she looked beautiful. Wearing a simple sheath dress of burgundy silk and matching heels that showed off her shapely calves, her thick dark hair up in an elegant twisty bun and her coffee-colored eyes set off by smoky makeup, she looked like one of the glamorous socialites who crammed the room. Actually, she was one of the prettiest women in the whole place.
Even in her usual attireâplain tops and yoga pants, hair in a braid or ponytail and little or no makeupâhe'd always thought Lisette was attractive. But tonight, from the minute she'd come down from her room . . . Every time he looked at her, something hot and hungry hummed in his veins. It had taken him off guard, these new stirrings, and he wasn't comfortable with it. Nevertheless, he suddenly felt compelled to say some of what he was thinking out loud. “You look really lovely tonight, by the way. I'm not used to seeing you all dressed up like this.”
A soft blush colored her cheeks, and her dark eyes rounded before flickering away shyly. “Tess said to dress up, so . . .” Lisette shrugged. “Thank you,” she murmured.
“You're welcome. That color is great on you.” He realized he was staring and cleared his throat. Many times he'd cursed himself for hiring a nanny who was beautiful. Tonight was no exception. In fact, tonight he was cursing himself for it more than ever. It was more than a distraction, it was . . . What the hell was it? He walked over to his children, sitting at a table looking bored out of their minds. “Hey, guys.”
“Hi, Daddy!” Myles smiled and shot out of his chair into his father's arms. “Are you having a fun birthday party?”
“It's fine,” Charles said, hugging his youngest. “But you know what? Lisette said you guys are kind of bored. And it's past your bedtime. She's going to take you all home now, so I wanted to say good night.”
Myles hugged his father tighter. “I love you, Daddy.”
Charles's heart filled. He kissed the top of his son's head. “I love you too, little man.” He looked over at his other two kids. “Anyone else have a hug for your dad?”
Ava put her tablet down and got up slowly, circling the table to give her father a weak hug. Thomas didn't even look up from his tablet; he kept playing his game with total concentration.
Charles hugged his daughter, then said to Thomas, “Didn't you hear me?”
“I heard you,” Thomas grumbled, still not looking up. “Good night.”
Charles felt the sting. His middle child was so full of anger; it worried him. Sometimes, Thomas reminded Charles of his youngest brother. As a kid, Pierce had been surly like that, full of simmering hostility all the time. He'd been miserable growing up, with no mother to nurture him and under constant attack from their father. But Charles never attacked Thomas. He made sure that Thomas felt cared for, didn't he? So why was Thomas still so angry all the time? Swallowing a sigh, Charles said, “Thomas. It's my birthday. A hug good night would be nice. Indulge me.”