“In enough time to make a difference? I don’t think so.”

She conceded to her stepson’s ultimatum by leaning back in her chair, her composure shaken enough that she fiddled with the wedding band still gracing her left hand.

At least she didn’t seem to notice—or care—that Ziara was late. Sloan, on the other hand, started cataloging everything about her. His gaze traveled down the length of her body to her toes, then back up with leisurely enjoyment.

Dragging her own composure around her like a cloak that granted her invisibility, Ziara walked with measured steps across the carpeting to a chair beside Vivian’s desk. A glance from under her lashes caught Sloan’s interested stare zeroing in on the V of her suit jacket, where the modest edge of a lacy camisole peaked into view. With a great struggle, she forced herself not to adjust, to hold still while his eyes wandered back up to her vulnerable neck. The knowing smirk on his contoured lips sparked arousal beneath her irritation, confusing her further.

Damn man. She could see why Vivian found him so infuriating—professional behavior seemed to be a foreign concept to him. She’d seen the spark of interest before, though never quite this blatantly. Of course, his simple presence had always created an uncomfortable heat in her core that prompted her to keep any previous meetings as short and far apart as possible.

If she’d simply passed him on the street, Ziara would never have suspected him of the professional dedication he was displaying now. His collar-length, sun-streaked hair and the slight crook of his previously broken nose said “surfer boy” more than it did “hard-hitting negotiator.” But the perfectly tailored dress shirt and pants, paired with his take-no-prisoners attitude, demonstrated the real man inside. His electric-blue eyes confirmed her suspicions that his core was pure steel.

She was thankful when he turned back to his stepmother. “This is my father’s legacy we’re talking about, Vivian. I save other people’s businesses every day. Resurrecting Eternity Designs is right up my alley,” he said.

“Yes,” Vivian said, letting the word draw out. “Your...fix-it-up business.”

“You could call it that. I call it the very lucrative process of taking failing companies and turning them into profit-making machines. Too bad you didn’t get in touch with me sooner, but then you’d have to admit that you screwed up.”

The slap of Vivian’s hand on her desk made Ziara jump. She watched her with wide eyes, shocked by the venom scarring Vivian’s normally genteel facade.

“Your father didn’t trust you to take care of his legacy enough to leave it all to you. Why should I?”

Sloan stalked back and rested his hands on the desk, so he could loom over his stepmother. “And whose fault was that? Who slipped poisonous thoughts into his mind from day one, turning him against me so he could be yours and yours alone? Hell, Vivian, if I didn’t know better, I’d think you set his whole will up. You’re the one who made him insist I go for my MBA instead of continuing to pursue my own plans of fashion design, aren’t you?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Of course you do. After all, going from Daddy’s assistant to his wife meant you got to control his entire life and not just his business, didn’t it?”

Oh. Dear. Ziara’s lungs shut down, trapping the air inside. Vivian’s early involvement with Eternity Designs had never been explicitly discussed. Ziara had simply assumed she’d started working with the company sometime after she’d married Mr. Creighton.

The knowledge left Ziara reeling. How many times had Vivian admonished her that only tramps got involved with their coworkers? Ever since her childhood, when Ziara had been bullied because of her mother’s lack of morals, she’d avoided anything that would suggest she was the same. Vivian’s lessons had simply reinforced Ziara’s focus on professionalism and the building of a flawless reputation.

Vivian’s hand shook as she pointed at her stepson. “Don’t talk to me that way, Sloan. It’s disrespectful. Your father would never approve of your tone.”

Sloan leaned in, hard. “Well, he’s not here to reprimand me. If you wanted my respect, you should have tried earning it a long time ago. Now it’s too late.”

“It’s never too late to expect you to be a gentleman. But we just couldn’t get those lessons to stick.”

Sloan laughed, collapsing into the chair as his body shook with a tainted kind of humor. Ziara felt like she was watching a tennis match. Sloan clearly thought he was the winner.

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