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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Handle With Care

Helena Hunting

St. Martin's Paperbacks





Lincoln rounds the table and takes the seat next to his grandmother, who’s glaring at him. Gwendolyn’s expression is slightly pinched—which is saying something because most of her face usually doesn’t move. Christophe seems shaken, whether by my actions or the sibling squabble, I can’t be certain.

“I want cookies.” Armstrong drops back down in his seat.

I exhale slowly through my nose. My underwear are sticking to my crotch since they’re covered in my onesugar, one-cream coffee. Armstrong has not apologized for spilling it on me, so I’m done being nice. I turn to look at him. I’m sure my annoyance is obvious.

“What? You mentioned cookies and now I want some. Do we have any? Gluten-free and sugar-free, preferably. Also, low-carb. I don’t spend all that time playing squash to mess it all up with too much sugar.” He motions to his lean physique.

“Can’t we duct tape his mouth shut until we’re done here?” Lincoln says.

Penelope elbows him. “Enough, I won’t say it again.”

“Sorry,” he says. “But it would sure speed things along if we did.”

I ignore their low-level bickering and Lincoln’s snide remarks while I stare at Armstrong. I wish I had some kind of superpower that would allow me to mute him. “Are you done?” I ask through gritted teeth.

“Yes. I believe I am. Is someone going to get me cookies now?” He swallows thickly and taps on the arm of his chair a few times when all I do is blink at him

Someone sighs loudly on my left. I think it might be Gwendolyn.

“No, Armstrong. No one is going to get you cookies. Please refrain from speaking for the rest of the meeting unless you’re asked for a direct response or you have something of value to contribute. I’d like to avoid black eyes as they’re difficult to cover up for press conferences.”

A scoff comes from across the table, which I ignore. I am currently experiencing some serious regret over signing that contract prior to meeting Lincoln.

Christophe resumes the reading of the will as if the almost-brawl never happened, and once they’re finished, Penelope reviews a number of pressing Moorehead matters that will require Lincoln’s immediate attention. Nothing like going from death to business without so much as a rest in peace.

I hope Lincoln will be able to manage the demands. I can create a pleasing public image, but I can’t control his mouth when he’s speaking in front of thousands. His reference to me as a pretty little shield does nothing to instill confidence. Nor do his threats to beat down his brother.

It’s noon by the time the meeting finally wraps up, and thankfully it’s outburst-free. Christophe packs up his things, and Penelope follows him out, leaving Gwendolyn, Lincoln, Armstrong—who’s still muttering about cookies—and myself in the room.

Gwendolyn gives me a tired smile. “Wren, I’d like you to arrange a suit fitting for Lincoln, and brief him on upcoming events, press conferences, speaking engagements, whatever is happening over the next week or two.”

“Of cour—”

“I have plenty of suits, and I don’t need my brother’s babysitter, or Dominatrix, or whatever she is, briefing me on anything.” Lincoln shifts his disapproving gaze my way, his fingers curled around the back of the executive chair he’s now standing behind.

Clearing my throat, I meet that vivid blue glare of his. And just like last night, it feels like I’m being pulled right in, which doesn’t make any sense since he insulted me. “First of all, my name is Wren, so you can address me by something other than she or her. Also, I’m not Armstrong’s babysitter, and I’m definitely not a Dominatrix, or a whatever. I’m an independent PR consultant, and I’m in charge of overhauling your public image.”

“Says who?” His eyes dart to his mother. Dear Lord, this man’s brow is probably permanently furrowed. I might condone Botox if he looks this angry all the time.

"Fredrick, initially.” I nod to his mother. “And I was asked to stay on to handle you.”

“Handle me?” He crosses his thick arms over his broad chest. It’s inconveniently distracting. “By putting me in a suit and being my personal calendar? That’s cushy. What else do you handle, Wren?”

I don’t miss the hint of innuendo. I fight to keep my expression neutral and my voice even as I motion to him as a whole. “My job is to clean up your appearance and make sure you don’t screw up interviews with offensive comments.”

Gwendolyn makes an odd noise and motions to Lincoln. “While I’m sure your current attire worked for your previous position abroad, as the face of Moorehead, you need to dress and look the part. Miss Sterling has an impeccable reputation in her field, and I expect that you’ll treat her with the same courtesy as you would treat me.”

Lincoln purses his lips and sighs. “Fine. Suit fitting it is. If there are reports or a schedule you need me to look at, hand them over and I’ll ask questions if I have any.”

I pass him the stack of folders, the bottom one wet with coffee, and follow him out into the hall, leaving Gwendolyn to deal with Armstrong. I’m sure his temper tantrum is far from over. Lincoln stands there, looking lost, not to mention rough from last night’s alcohol binge. “Your office is at the end of the hall.” I point to the one without a nameplate. I’m sure it will be up by the end of the day.

“Thanks,” he grumbles and stalks away.

I wish my office were in the other direction, but it’s not, so I’m forced to follow him. He has something white stuck in his man bun, a string, or a fluff or something. I take in the shirt stretched tight across his back. Does this man even own clothing that fits, or are they all two sizes too small?

I can actually see the muscles in his back flex with each swing of his arm. He wrenches open the door to his office, his lovely, cushy corner office with the wall of windows overlooking the city.

I continue down the hall to the office I’ve been provided while I’m on contract here. The lone, small window boasts a view of the building across the street. It’s also beside the photocopy room, so it smells constantly of ink, and the ceaseless drone of paper cycling can be maddening. I immediately put on some music to drown out the sound and turn on both of the ancient box fans set up in opposing corners of the room.

Inhaling a deep breath of inky-smelling air, I cross over to the small closet and retrieve my spare dress. I’d like to say this is the first time Armstrong has spilled coffee on me, but it’s not. He’s a hand talker, particularly when he’s annoyed about something, which is pretty much every moment of every waking day, so it happens more than one would think. Normally I drink from a thermal mug to avoid this issue, but I was in a rush this morning and forgot it. It’s likely sitting on my kitchen counter

Ensuring my office door is locked, I quickly slip out of my gray pencil dress and into the maroon dress with the high neckline and full skirt. I never wear dresses that show even a hint of cleavage because I hate having to remind Armstrong to speak to my face, not my chest.

I seal my coffee-stained dress in a plastic bag and toss it in my purse. The dress doesn’t match my shoes, so I change those too, and then set an alert on my phone as a reminder to bring a new spare dress tomorrow.

My panties are still damp and sticky, and I don’t think I can deal with wearing these all day. It’s too distracting. I step out of them and drape them over the vent under my desk, hoping to dry them. I suppose I can always run out at lunch and pick up a new pair, which I’ll bill to petty cash since it’s Armstrong’s fault they’re in the state they are.

It feels odd to be without panties, but I should be able to rectify it in the next hour or so.

I sit at my desk and take a deep breath. The pungent aroma of ink seeps through the vents and into my nostrils. I’m not allowed to burn candles in here because it’s a scent-free building, so I’m forced to keep the giant box fans going all the time. They’re loud, but they’re somewhat effective. I crack my office door to help pull the air through, but not enough that it’s an invitation for people to come in and socialize.

Lulu, who is . . . nice enough, has a tendency to stop and chat every time she uses the copier, which is at least half a dozen times a day.

My first order of business is to review the calendar of coming events and arrange Lincoln’s suit fitting.

I’ve just gotten off the phone with a Saks representative and arranged the suit fitting and scheduled a haircut and manicure at the spa close by when Lincoln bursts into my office, the door slamming against the wall. The cross breeze sends the papers on my desk fluttering to the floor. Goddamn it. I hadn’t paper clipped them yet.

“Do you know how to knock?” I snap.

He stalks across the room, his long legs eating up the distance in two strides—it’s not a big room, but still, he’s tall and his strides are aggressive.

He drops a folder in front of me, causing the remaining pieces of paper to fall to the floor.

I gesture to the mess he’s made. “Thanks so much for that.”

He slaps one hand on my desk and leans in, his eyes narrowed with anger and mistrust, neither of which I’ve earned.

He stabs a jagged-nailed finger at a piece of paper. When he speaks it sounds like his vocal cords have gone a round with a cheese grater. “An average PR consultant in Manhattan makes between sixty and seventy-five thousand dollars a year and that’s on the high end, and you make close to four times that. Explain to me exactly how you managed to wrangle that kind of salary out of my father.”

I glance at the contract I signed eight months ago. Just wait until he sees the new one. “First of all, I’m not an average PR consultant. I work with people in situations that are particularly unsavory and handle them.”

“Handle them how?”

“I find a way to smooth things over in the public eye.”

“So you’re trying to tell me your ability to handle my brother is worth a quarter of a million dollars? Were you sleeping with my father?” His nostrils flare and his cheeks tics. “Or was it Armstrong?”

I push out of my chair and round my desk, so I’m standing in front of him. It frustrates me that I have to look up to meet his gaze, but there’s no way he’s getting away with such heinous accusations. “I don’t care if this is your company now. I am not your employee, and you have absolutely no right to barge into my office and make unwarranted assumptions based on my salary. Secondly, I have no idea what your relationship was like with Fredrick, or how you’ve framed your opinion of him, but at no time during my contract did he ever make a pass at me—God rest his troubled soul.”

He’s the king of squinty eyes with all the narrowing he does at me. “What does that mean, ‘God rest his troubled soul?’”

“Have you met your brother? He’s a goddamn human parasite.”

If I had to guess, his lips are pursed, but I can’t tell through the lumberjack beard. The only version of him I like remotely so far is the drunk one. Although, my job isn’t to like him, it’s to make him presentable.

“Is it really a surprise that I’m being paid this much money to sort out Armstrong’s shitstorm? While you’ve been off saving the world, I’ve been trying to clean up his messes. And let me tell you, I earn every damn dollar because there are a lot of messes, and I hope you’re not going to be the same kind of problem, because if that’s the case, I’ll be renegotiating for more money.”

“You’re trying to tell me you make this kind of money for babysitting my brother?”

That’s it in a nutshell, but that makes me feel . . . like I’m falling short on my potential. This job as a whole makes me feel that way. I imagine it’s what it would be like to get a degree in journalism with the hope that I’d be writing stories for Time magazine or a reputable paper and end up writing clickbait articles on things like giant cocks or tattoo regrets instead.

“I make that money for ensuring his previous bad behavior isn’t splashed all over the media and whatever else that entails.”

“It’s the ‘whatever else that entails’ that I want to know more about.”

I mirror his crossed-arm pose. “Not that I need to defend myself to you, but I would rather sleep with an angry grizzly bear than allow your brother to touch me.”

Lincoln arches a brow. “He put his hands on you today.”

“And as you witnessed, I handled him. I have authorization to restrain or subdue him if the situation calls for it. It’s written into my contract. Are there any other family members you’d like to accuse me of sleeping with to validate my salary? Your mother or grandmother perhaps?”

His eyes flare, and he makes a gagging sound. He straightens and runs his palm over his scraggly beard.

I want to take a brush to it. And to his hair. The unruliness is driving me nuts.

He’s still staring at me, and I’m still staring at his mess of hair. I doubt he even bothered to brush it this morning. Thank God I don’t have to wait long before it’s taken care of. “Well?”

“That’s just . . .”

“Horrifying to consider? Which is exactly how I feel about the possibility of sleeping with any member of your family in exchange for money. I may handle a lot of unpleasant things, but your brother’s penis is certainly not one of them and never will be. Are we quite done here?”

“Uh, I guess.” He has the decency to appear chagrined. He makes a move toward the door but stops and pinches the bridge of his nose. “Wait, no. You were at the funeral. And then you were at the bar last night.”

“I was.” I nod and fold my hands behind my back so as to appear composed rather than nervous. I sincerely didn’t believe he’d remember me. Now I have to question exactly how much he recalls.

“You took me to my cousin’s penthouse. Where I’m staying. You were in my personal space. Why did you do that?”

There really isn’t a point in lying. If he doesn’t trust me, it’s going to complicate my role here. “Because I was asked to ensure you made it home safely. You were drinking heavily and your presence was needed here today.”

“You gave me painkillers.”

“And water, yes.”

“Was that part of your job as well?”

“To help nurse your hangover? No. But it was meant to make my job easier today, although I’m not sure it’s had the impact I would’ve liked. You’re rather surly despite my efforts to make your hangover less of an issue.” A thank-you would be nice, though I doubt I’ll get one.

For a split second it almost looks like there’s a smile under all that beard. “So, just doing your job?”

I nod. “Just doing my job.”

"Right.” He collects the folder and turns to leave.

“You have a suit fitting tomorrow morning.”

“Tomorrow morning? I have lots of suits; I’ll make one of those work.”

“Are they like the ones you wore to the funeral?” I ask.

"Yeah, why?”

“Well, they may have fit you five years ago, but they certainly don’t fit you now. I’ll text you the details and add them to your personal calendar.”

“You can’t do that without my cell number.” His smugness would be grating if I wasn’t two steps ahead of him.

I flash a fake smile. “I already have all of your personal details, Lincoln. Right down to your shoe size. And you can’t be late like you were this morning, so it might be a good idea to avoid the scotch tonight so you’re less bear and more human. You’ll need to use these things called manners. I can email you a refresher on what those are, should you need it.”

“Sarcasm is a weapon of the weak.”

My ears are on fire as he heads for the door. Jerk. I was being witty, not sarcastic. “Thanks so much for offering to help clean up the mess you made.” I turn to address the crinkled papers scattered on the floor.

It’s common courtesy to offer assistance if you’re the one who made the damn mess. Even Armstrong, who is the most epic of douches, has some manners. Usually he’ll try to look up a skirt or down a shirt while he’s being polite, but it’s better than this.

I turn to retrieve the papers when two things happen, a power surge ramps up the box fans—it happens at least twice a day, and at the same time Lincoln pulls the door open again. The simultaneous actions create a vortex of air inside my office, and my skirt flutters into the air. Like I’m Marilyn Monroe and I’ve stepped onto one of those subway grates. The fabric rises quickly, and a breeze hits me right between the legs, which is the exact moment I remember that I’m not wearing panties.

I drop the papers and battle the fabric back down. It’s fruitless, though, the wind tunnel whirls through the room like Dorothy’s freaking tornado, and the back of my dress goes up. I meet Lincoln’s gaze from across the small room. All it takes is a second of eye contact before those ridiculously blue eyes pull me in, and weird, inappropriate things start happening to my body. It’s irritating as hell. I don’t even like this guy, but my body seems as if it hasn’t gotten the same memo as the rest of me. Even more aggravating is the realization that based on his expression, he totally caught an eyeful of cooch.

Lincoln stands frozen at the door, eyes wide and fixed on my crotch, mouth hanging open.

“Close the damn door!” My voice is siren high. And loud.

“Right. Yes. I’m going. Now.” He steps out of my office, pulling the door closed behind him.

My dress settles around my knees. “Dammit.” I drop into my chair, which is probably what I should’ve done as soon as the wind tunnel started, but clearly I’d been too panicked to think straight.

On the upside, I went to see my waxer last week, so he’s seen my girl bits when they’re looking their finest

On the downside, my project for the next six months has seen my naked girl bits.

Copyright © 2019 by Helena Hunting