The second Sheridan heard “Jingle Bells” on her alarm-clock radio, she knew this day would suck. Big hairy balls. With a groan she rolled over, slammed her palm over the Snooze button, and then yanked the pillow over her head to block out the light. Usually she could sleep for another twenty minutes before the alarm went off again, but she knew there was no use. No matter how hard she attempted to pretend otherwise, the holiday season was upon her. Even though it was only the first day of the dreaded month of December, they’d been playing this wretched holiday music for weeks.
Whatever happened to waiting until Thanksgiving before the radio stations started playing Christmas music? There was a time when all the Christmas specials, music, and decorations didn’t go up until December, but it seemed each year the celebration crept earlier up the calendar, until bam!
, some jackoff decided the day after Halloween was a great time to begin the festivities. Never mind that poor Thanksgiving no longer received the proper attention it deserved. Pretty soon the month of October would be swallowed up by the monstrosity that had become Christmas, and there wasn’t a damn thing she or anyone else could do about it.
With a resigned sigh, she pushed the pillow away and sat up. She wasn’t much of a morning person, but the sooner she got herself together, the faster this day would end. Once out of bed, she went through the motions of her daily routine with little enthusiasm. As she prepared her cup of morning coffee, she checked the messages on her BlackBerry. Most of the messages were from clients, and she’d respond to them when she hit the office. One was from her girlfriend Julie, whom she immediately called back.
Julie would probably be at work by now, but Sheridan needed to hear a quick word of encouragement so that she wouldn’t end up beating the hell out of someone today. Fortunately, Julie answered on the second ring.
“Marketing department. Julie Bennett speaking.”
Sheridan winced at her friend’s enthusiastic greeting. No one should sound so damn chipper at eight thirty in the morning.
“Doesn’t your phone have caller ID? There’s no reason for you to be so formal with me, girl.”
“Hey, Sheridan. Yes, it’s supposed to have caller ID, but ever since they installed this new phone system, we’ve had a lot of problems. I’m just happy that it’s even working today. Last week I couldn’t receive any incoming calls. Anyway, I didn’t think you’d return my call so soon. Shouldn’t you still be in bed? I thought you were taking the day off.”
“Can’t. I’ve been summoned. Otherwise, I would have.”
“Summoned? Sounds pretty serious.”
Sheridan shrugged, not bothering to speculate. “Could be, might not be, but when the big man himself requests an audience, it isn’t something easily ignored.”
“The big guy? As in Seamus McGuire.”
She nodded, even though she knew her friend couldn’t see her. “Yep. The man himself. I wouldn’t go in if I didn’t have to for anyone else, especially for he who shall not be named.”
Julie giggled. “You’re not still on that tangent, are you? I thought the two of you worked out your differences.”
“I’d like to work a knife into that man’s back. We don’t speak to each other unless it’s business related.”
“That’s a shame. I thought when you decided to stay on with the company, you and he had come to some understanding.”
“Of course we did. I understand that he’s a poor little rich boy, born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Do you honestly think he’d be at the head of my department if he wasn’t the big boss’s grandson?”
“From what you say of Mr. McGuire, he doesn’t strike me as the kind of man that would put just anyone in charge, relative or not. Have you ever thought that if you actually gave the guy a chance, you might see a side of him you didn’t expect?”
Sheridan rolled her eyes. Julie was the kind of person who tried to see the good in everything and everyone. It was one of the things Sheridan loved about her, but right now it was slightly annoying. “I’d rather chew broken glass. Besides, there’s no love lost on his side either. I can tell by the way he looks at me that he thinks I’m not worth the dirt on the bottom of his expensive Italian leather shoes.”
“It’s probably all in your head.”
“Uh huh. Anyway, I’m sure you didn’t call me earlier to talk about my douche-bag boss.”
“You’re right. I was calling to wish you a happy Monday, and even though we’re entering the holiday season, I just want you to know if you need to talk, I’m available to you morning, noon, and night.”
A lump formed in Sheridan’s throat as her emotions threatened to overwhelm her. It was only with her friend that she was able to let her guard down and release the pent-up anger the season brought to her. She made no secret of her hate for Christmas and all things associated with it, but no one understood the depth of her loathing like Julie did. “Thank you,” she said a little more gruffly than she’d intended. “But I’m not going to let it get under my skin this year.”
“And how do you propose doing that? You nearly got into a fistfight last year because someone wished you ‘Happy Holidays.’”
“That was then. I plan on taking all the vacation I have banked. I’m stocking my cabinets with junk food and booze, renting horror movies, and staying in my apartment from the second week of December until after New Year’s. Hell, I might not even shower every day.”
“Are you serious?” Julie’s voice squeaked with obvious disbelief.
“As a heart attack. I know I can’t avoid this horrid holiday altogether, but I can minimize the time I spend around all the merrymakers.”
A long pause followed her statement, and for a second, she thought her connection had disconnected. “Jules, are you still there?”
“Yes. I’m just trying to wrap my head around it. Hon, I know how much you despise Christmas, but is hiding from the rest of the world the answer?”
“Got any better ideas?”
“You can stay with me and Gabe. We’d love to have you. At least you wouldn’t have to be alone.”
It was a touching invitation considering this would be the couple’s first Christmas together, and no matter how much Sheridan despised this time of year, she respected others’ right to celebrate it as they wished. Julie, being the person she was, would leave her house undecorated and barely mention the time of year if it meant putting someone else at ease. Sheridan knew it wouldn’t be fair to Julie or Gabe. She let out a deep breath. “That’s a sweet offer, but I’d be a downer. Besides, you two will be too busy humping to even notice I’m there. Seriously, we’ll have time to hang out before I go into seclusion. We still have some wedding planning to do.”
“I’ll hold you to it, but don’t think you’re going to change the subject. You’re more than welcome to stay with us for as long as you’d like. Gabe and I are going to New Jersey on the day of to have dinner with his family, but we’ll be back the next day. We still have a lot to do around the house. We’re painting and having some contractors in to finish the basement.”
Sheridan groaned. “You’re really getting into Suzy Homemaker mode. First you two decide to buy that big Victorian haunted house --”
“It’s not haunted.”
“It’s sooo haunted. You’re my girl and all, but I swear to God, if I hear noises in the attic, I’m running like hell and asking questions later. You know how horror movies go. The black people get killed first.”
“In case you haven’t noticed, I’m black too.”
“I know, and I’m praying for you, girl. Anyway, I appreciate the offer, but I will pass on the invite.”
“Well, it’s an open one if you change your mind. Oh, guess who I heard from the other day.”
“My cousin, Corinne.”
“What? Did you run into her somewhere?”
“No, she showed up at my office asking if she could stay with me for a little while. Apparently she and her mother had a falling out when Corrine slept with her mother’s boyfriend. My aunt kept the boyfriend but kicked Corinne out.”
Sheridan shook her head. “That heffa has a lot of damn nerve. You told her hell no, right?”
“Damn right I did, and it felt good doing it. And when she cursed me out after I told her no, I knew I made the right decision. She called me a stupid bitch, to which I replied, ‘At least this stupid bitch will have somewhere to stay tonight.’”
“I’m sure she didn’t like that.” Like Sheridan, Julie was a product of the foster-care system. But whereas Sheridan had learned to be aggressive, Julie had become somewhat of a pushover in her attempts to please people. Through the help of therapy and an understanding fiance, Julie was standing up for herself more and didn’t seem to have a problem telling people no when she didn’t want to do something. Sheridan knew it was a big step for Julie to stand up to her no-good cousin, who was nothing but a mooch and a skank all rolled up into an assortment of STDs waiting to happen.
“I could care less what she thinks anymore. At one time I would have worried about where she’d go or how she’d take care of herself, but she’s burned me for the last time.”
A smile touched Sheridan’s lips at her friend’s words. “I’m really proud of you, girl.”
“I’m proud of me too. It feels good being my own woman.”
“I’m sure Gabe would argue that you’re his woman.”
Julie chuckled. “You know what I mean.”
“I know. Well, I have to run. Normally I could care less what time I get to work, but even I’m not crazy enough to keep Mr. McGuire waiting. I swear to God, if the pay wasn’t decent and the economy wasn’t so bad, I’d leave that place just so I wouldn’t have to deal with the jackass.”
“I’ll talk to you later, Jules.” She hung up before her friend could respond, not wanting a lecture about trying to get along with her dickhead boss. She swore that man was out to get her.
Sheridan had started working at McGuire’s -- a prestigious supplier of fine ingredients to food companies -- in their sales department. She had thrived at her job, easily becoming the top salesperson in her department. She’d quickly proven to everyone around her that she was excellent at what she did and didn’t take shit from anyone, which was why she got along with nearly all her coworkers. She’d even caught the attention of the big boss -- because of the money she brought to the company by securing big contracts. She could make her own hours, she enjoyed the travel she had to do from time to time, and she made over and beyond her base salary through commission and sales.
Everything had been pretty gravy that first year at McGuire’s until the old sales director had retired and his replacement arrived in the form of Brady McGuire, Seamus’s grandson. She’d had him pegged from the first moment -- a rich boy who’d basically been handed everything in life. How else had he earned the coveted director job besides being the CEO’s grandson? When he wasn’t busy getting on her case and looking down his nose at everyone, he was fending off bimbos. A few of the ladies he’d dated had shown up to the office, not to mention the women in the office found excuses to cross paths with him.
If Sheridan were being honest, she had to admit that on first sight, Brady McGuire was good-looking. No. Actually he was fine as hell, drool inducing even, with his loose-limbed, broad-shouldered body.
His suits were clearly tailored, yet there was no hiding his muscular build. And though he was probably no taller than six feet two, he was a virtual giant to Sheridan, seeming larger than life. Yet he moved with the ease and grace of a man half his size. His chiseled jaw, square dimpled chin, and full, almost petulant-looking lips had the appearance of being carved from smooth granite. Ink black hair, which he wore a little overlong, fell just below his collar in thick waves. His most arresting features were eyes so deep a blue they were nearly black.
Too bad he was such a prick; otherwise she’d be all over him like funk on a monkey. As she headed out the door, she whispered a silent prayer that she wouldn’t have to put her foot up his ass today.
* * * * *
Brady could think of several things he’d rather be doing than being lectured by his grandfather, one of which was walking barefoot over rusty nails. He sat stoically, looking straight ahead yet not quite meeting his grandfather’s eyes.
“Brady, are you listening to me?” the old man practically roared.
“Of course, you were expounding on the importance of keeping the Smith account. I’m on top of that.”
“And I expect you to stay on top of it. Their contract is up for renewal, and word is Bradley’s is trying to move in and swipe the account right out from under us. I’m sure you don’t need me to say it, but I will anyway -- your ass is on the line if that happens.”
Brady raised a brow. Since he’d come on board with McGuire’s, his grandfather had made it clear that he’d be granted no special favors, nor did he expect it. Loving grandfather aside, Seamus McGuire was a shrewd businessman and wouldn’t let nepotism get in the way of the business he’d built from the ground up. Even Brady’s father, Seamus’s own son, had been shown the door when he’d proven his incompetence. Brady knew if he made one misstep, he’d be out just as fast as his father had been, if not faster.
He sat straighter in his chair and met his grandfather’s eyes to show he was not intimidated. “Certainly. I wouldn’t be worth my title if I couldn’t retain our clients. I’ll do whatever it takes in order to keep this account.”
“Glad to hear you say it. I take this to mean you’re willing to accept the client’s invitation to stay on their island for the two weeks right before Christmas.”
Brady traveled frequently for his job, so this wasn’t such a big deal, but there was a hitch in his grandfather’s voice. He had a feeling Seamus wasn’t telling him everything. “That shouldn’t be a problem. Was that all?”
“Because this account is so important, I’ll want you to take another salesperson along with you. In most instances, I’d suggest you take the salesperson who procured the contract; however, since Herb Carlton has retired, that’s not an option.”
There was a slight hesitation in the old man’s voice. His grandfather wasn’t one to beat around the bush, and Brady wondered why the hesitancy. “Not a problem. I’ll take Jensen. He’s reliable, professional, and --”
“I want you to take Lewis.”
Brady was thankful he didn’t have anything in his mouth; otherwise, he would have choked. “Sheridan Lewis?”
Seamus leaned forward and folded his arms over his desk. “Do you have a problem with that?”
Being thirty-six years old, Brady wasn’t easily cowed by anyone, but his grandfather still had the ability to make him feel like a child at times. Now was not going to be one of them. “The woman is an absolute nightmare. She’s holding on to her job by a thread. Besides being inappropriate, insubordinate, and just plain annoying, I think the client would appreciate a more polished approach.”
Seamus sat back in his chair and gave Brady a long, hard stare in silence. “Are you finished?”
“I could go on about her, but for the sake of professionalism, I’ll leave it at that.”
“Good. Now that you’ve had your say, I’ll have mine. Brady, I didn’t pay for all those fancy schools you went to and offer you a position at my company in order for you to jeopardize a huge account because of a personality conflict. Personal feelings aside, she’s the best, and I only want the best to handle this client.”
“This isn’t up for further discussion. I want the two of you on that island in three weeks, or you both can start looking for new employment before the holiday season is over.”
It was rare when his grandfather pulled rank in such a high-handed way, and though he knew Seamus didn’t make idle threats, Brady wasn’t going to allow things to end on that note. From the time Brady had first butted heads with Sheridan Lewis, his grandfather had always taken her side. In fact it often seemed to amuse Seamus whenever Brady would relay her antics to him. The old man would just chuckle and tell Brady to let the wee lass be. Wee she might be, but Sheridan Lewis was a huge pain in Brady’s ass, and frankly he was tired of the old man defending her.
“I agree that she does bring in the largest amount of revenue, but it is not just about that, it’s the overall performance that matters. The woman waltzes in the office every morning as if everyone should be grateful she showed up. She doesn’t take constructive criticism well, and she’s disruptive to the other employees. If it were up to me, I would have let her go, but for some reason you seem to have a soft spot for her. Is there something going on I should know about?”
Again came the throaty chuckle Brady had become accustomed to whenever he complained about his walking nightmare come true. “Ach, if I were thirty years younger perhaps. I’m not one of those old fools who takes up with a younger woman as if I have something to prove. Besides, I’ve had enough love to last a lifetime with my Eileen, rest her soul. No, my interest in her doesn’t lie in a romantic sense.”
“Then where does it lie? It can’t be strictly business. You don’t even defend some of the more long-standing employees the way you do her. She’s only been at McGuire’s for a few years, yet the few times I’ve seen you two interact, you act like she’s an old family friend. I just don’t get it.”
“There’s nothing to get, and let me reiterate, Sheridan and you on this trip is not up for debate. It’s going to take the best McGuire’s has to offer in order to secure this account, and she’s the best.”
“But she --”
“Can sell ice to an Eskimo. Make it happen. The lass should be here in a few minutes, and I expect you to behave with the professionalism that I know you’re capable of. While I’m quite serious about handing the reins over to someone else if I’m not satisfied with your performance, I’d much rather leave the company in the hands of family.”
Brady clenched his jaw. There was a gleam in his grandfather’s eyes that warned him not to say another word. He knew just how far to push, and he’d already reached his limit.
The phone buzzed on Seamus’s large oak desk -- cutting through the tense atmosphere of the room. The older man clicked on the speaker. “Yes, Marla?”
“Sheridan Lewis is here to see you. Should I send her in?” the assistant practically sang into phone.
“Of course. And could you reschedule my ten o’clock for later this afternoon?”
“Will do, sir. I’ll send Ms. Lewis in.”
Seconds later Sheridan walked through the door, sashaying from side to side as if she were on a catwalk. “Good morning, Mr. McGuire.” Her smile was wide as she strode toward Seamus’s desk, but when her gaze fell on Brady, the smile completely vanished.