Chapter One, Elias
The lobby coffee shop looked like the bastard love child of a Hallmark movie and an ugly
Christmas sweater. Silver garland decorated the front counter, twinkle lights hung everywhere,
and a Christmas tree decorated in coffee-themed ornaments and colorful blinking lights stood in
I almost turned around and left.
And then, the music. Were they serious? It was the beginning of November. Did they
have to play the music, too?
An ominous voice in the back of my mind spoke: it has begun.
I’m dreaming of a white Christmas…
No, I wasn’t. I was dreaming of a cup of dark roast—the coffee here was exceptional—
and the shot of Irish whiskey I was going to add to it that were going to get me through the rest
of this nightmare of an afternoon.
Really, if I could be dreaming of anything, it would be a deserted tropical beach with a
gorgeous woman dressed in something sheer. But I had too damn much work to do to make that
dream a reality.
Yet another reason this day was grating on my nerves. Who scheduled a holiday party for
three o’clock in the afternoon at the beginning of November?
My boss, apparently. Or maybe HR had talked him into it. Either way, getting an email
with a garish invitation complete with snowmen and candy canes, to a holiday party the first
week of November was crap. I didn’t care if they thought that meant more people could make it,
since December was a busy month. It made it harder—impossible, even—for me to claim I had
plans and skip it.
Not that I ever had holiday plans. But in December, I could say I did and no one asked
questions. Early November? Harder to make an excuse.
Plus, this year I needed to play the game. That meant I had to come back to the office
after my off-site meeting and show my face at this party.
The holiday music made my back tighten and my jaw hitch in annoyance. The lady in
line in front of me was having a crisis of indecision. She babbled at the barista, talking a mile a
minute. Her laugh grated on my nerves almost as much as the music. It was all I could do not to
growl at her so she’d move out of my way.
Finally, she ordered something and paid. I stepped up to the counter. The barista was
wearing a headband with blue and white snowflakes that bobbed when she moved.
“Happy holidays!” Her eyes were too wide, like she was slightly insane. Or maybe she
was just overly caffeinated. “What can I get started for you?”
“Twelve-ounce dark roast with room.”
“Room for cream?”
“No. For whiskey.”
“Are you sure you don’t want our special holiday blend?”
My jaw hitched again. I hated being questioned. “No.”
“Okay, no problem. It’s just really good and we only serve it for a limited time.”
I had no idea why she thought I cared. She kept looking at me with those wide, crazy
eyes, an inexplicable smile on her face.
Since she wasn’t ringing up my order, I pulled my card out of my wallet and held it up
with a scowl.
“Oh, sorry.” She laughed and rang up my coffee.
I paid and the too-big smile never left her face.
My brow furrowed. “Why are you smiling like that?”
She shrugged. “I just love the holidays. Don’t you?”
I eyed her with mild disgust. “No.”
That finally got rid of the annoying grin. I moved down the counter to wait for my coffee,
ignoring the tip jar and her half-hearted, have a nice day.
She didn’t mean it and I wasn’t going to.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year…
No, it wasn’t.
They couldn’t have waited until after Thanksgiving? Not that I cared about that holiday,
or any holiday for that matter. But this extra month of Christmas was making my life miserable.
My coffee came out and I got out of there as quickly as possible. In the lobby, a small
knot of people were busy decorating a tall tree in the front window. I rolled my eyes and headed
for the elevators.
A woman stood in front of the bank of elevators with a large leather bag slung over her
shoulder. She was humming something. What was that tune? Jingle Bells? I couldn’t help the
low growl that rumbled in my throat. I was so over this and I hadn’t even been upstairs to the
Still humming, the woman glanced at me. It looked like she was about to say
something—probably some asinine holiday greeting—but as soon as our eyes met, her face fell
and she went silent.
Ding! An elevator opened but she didn’t move. My brow furrowed again—what was
wrong with people—and I walked past her to get in. She still didn’t move, so I pushed the button
for my floor and let the doors close. I didn’t know what her problem was—or why she was
staring at me like she’d just seen a ghost—and I didn’t care.
The elevator went up, arriving at my floor with another ding. Before the doors opened, I
could hear the party. Muffled voices and Christmas music drifted through. I took a deep breath
and resigned myself to the inevitable.
If the coffee shop had been bad, this was my nightmare come true. My floor had been
transformed from office to holiday party with a nauseating display of red and green, silver and
gold. Wreaths, garland, and lights had been hung on every available surface and how many
Christmas trees did one office party need? Four? No, there was another one in the conference
room, so apparently five. The din of raucous conversation did nothing to drown the holiday
playlist some dumbass had put together for the occasion.
If that Mariah Carey song came on, I might have to quit.
My coworkers were all dressed for the party, decked out in a mind-numbing array of
terrible Christmas sweaters. A few of the software engineers stood together, laughing at the fact
that they’d all worn the same red and green monstrosity. Phil from sales had blinking Christmas
lights around his neck, Prasad, one of our developers, had silver and gold tassels and a Santa hat,
and Janelle from accounting wore a sweater that made one of her boobs look like a reindeer face,
complete with a red nose.
Ignoring the celebration, I headed straight for my office. It was just after three in the
afternoon, but it was five o’clock somewhere, and there was no way I was doing this without a
drink. There was probably spiked eggnog in the conference room, but I didn’t do eggnog.
I shut the door, surrounding myself in blissful quiet. I set the coffee on my desk, got a
bottle of whiskey from the cabinet, and added a generous pour. I’d contemplated just the
whiskey, but I wanted the hit of caffeine along with the burn of alcohol. Plus, sometimes playing
the game meant being the one to stay sober.
The door opened, flooding my office with the godforsaken music. My assistant, Alice,
poked her head inside.
“Get in here and shut the door.”
She came in and closed it behind her. “Sorry.”
Alice was probably in her late twenties with blond hair and—I actually had no idea what
color eyes she had. Or much else about her, other than she was good at her job and she only
annoyed me about half the time.
Now was one of those times.
Eying her, I took a sip of my coffee. “What are you supposed to be?”
She glanced down at her sweater dress—red with green trim and she had shoes with
pointy toes and little balls on the tips. “It’s my ugly Christmas sweater. Or dress, I guess. I’m an
“You look stupid.”
Her hands went to her hips. I saw that pose a lot. “Well you look like a big old Grinch.
Where’s your holiday spirit?”
My voice was low and flat. “Have you met me?”
“Yes and I rue the day. Except when I get paid. That almost makes it worth it.”
I narrowed my eyes. “If you dress like that again, I’ll fire you.”
She ignored me, although I wasn’t kidding. “Are you coming out to the party?”
“When I’m ready.”
“Okay, well, when you do, watch out for Demi Simpson. She’s already drunk and trying
to sit in people’s laps.”
A shudder ran down my spine. Sober Demi Simpson was a normal middle-aged woman.
Drunk Demi Simpson was a cougar on the prowl. The last thing I needed was her trying to rub
her boobs in my face.
I took a drink of my coffee, once again contemplating a straight shot of whiskey before I
entered the arena.
“I think I’m going to head out, though,” Alice said. “I’ve mingled enough.”
“You can’t leave.”
“It’s three o’clock on a Friday. Where are you going to go?”
“Home? You know, the place where I go when I’m not dealing with your grumpy self at
“We’re still working.”
She gestured toward the party outside. “No one’s working.”
She huffed, like working on an actual workday was some big inconvenience. It wasn’t
like I was asking her to come in on a weekend. I ignored her little display of temper and flipped
through my messages on my phone. Nothing critical.
“Fine.” She opened the door as wide as it would go and left it that way as she walked out.
Maybe I would fire her.
Or not. Hiring someone new would be a pain in the ass and I had enough going on.
I added a little more whiskey to my cup and replaced the lid. Then I wandered out into
Usually, DataStream was a good place to work. We were an IT consulting firm with a
solid reputation, specializing in managed services and high-level data security. We’d gone from
a handful of employees to a thriving corporation of over two hundred people in a short period of
time; and we were still growing.
Growth meant opportunity. Opportunity meant money. Money meant success.
I moved around the small groups of people chatting and laughing with their appetizers
and drinks. I seemed to be the only person who’d spurned the ugly sweater. Not like I cared. My
only nod to the casual dress code in our company was to keep the top button of my shirt undone
and cuff my sleeves. I preferred the more professional look of a gentleman in a suit and tie but
that wasn’t the culture at DataStream.
I played the game. And it worked.
I’d risen through the ranks fast, proving myself as the financial wizard I was. My next
goal was CFO.
From there, the world would be mine for the taking.
“Damien is on it but I heard he’s struggling to close the deal.”
The snippet of conversation caught my attention and I paused. Damien Barrett struggling
with anything was something I needed to know about. Pretending not to eavesdrop, I sipped my
coffee and kept listening.
“What’s he struggling with?”
“From what I heard, whoever owns the land doesn’t want to sell.”
“So why not just find a new location?”
“You know how Nigel can be. He wants what he wants. And Damien’s a kiss-ass.”
“True. He better get it done. My clients are getting impatient.”
“Mine, too. The demand is there. We just need the infrastructure.”
With a slight turn, I moved on. They were right about that; the demand was there. We’d
been planning to build a secure datacenter at a remote location for the last six months. At least
half our clients were demanding it and the other half would be when our sales staff pitched it to
them. Damien Barrett—bane of my existence and my only real competition for CFO—had been
handed the project. All the jackass had to do was find a suitable location and secure the land.
How hard could that be?
And yet, here we were, six months later, and apparently no progress.
My mouth twitched in a subtle grin. Suddenly this entire holiday party had been worth it.
I caught sight of my boss, Nigel Ferguson. He was in his sixties, with silver-streaked hair
and a strong jaw. Although he could have been nearing retirement, it was hard to fathom him
ever leaving the company he’d founded. He wore a slightly more dignified version of an ugly
Christmas sweater and drunk Demi had him cornered near his office. Perfect. I could get rid of
her for him and solve his land problem.
Leaving my coffee on someone’s desk, I made my way through a cackling group of
women and headed straight for Demi. She was leaning into Nigel with her hands on his chest. He
had his hands up, palms out, as if to make it extremely obvious that he was not harassing her.
I met his eyes as I approached and tipped my chin, then took Demi’s arm and moved her
a few steps away.
She giggled and sagged against me. “Hi, handsome.”
“Demi, I can’t imagine why your husband left you.”
“What?” She laughed again. “Are you flirting with me, Elias?”
“No. I’m stopping you from making a fool of yourself with our boss.” I emphasized the
word. “Go sober up.”
“I’m not drunk.” With another giggle she tried to slide her hand between my shirt
buttons. “Where’s your sweater? Did you take it off? I can take mine off if you want.”
“Not even if Nigel offered me his job. You’re a disgrace.” I gave her a nudge toward the
elevators. “Take an Uber home.”
With an exaggerated pout, she walked away.
“Thank you.” Nigel straightened his sweater.
“Can I see you in your office?”
“It’s a party, Elias.”
I glanced around at the garish decorations and my back muscles twitched at the music. “I
“Five minutes. Then you go enjoy the party.”
I did not say that it would be a cold day in hell before I enjoyed a company holiday party.
Although I never kissed anyone’s ass, I was smart enough to keep my mouth shut when it was
Instead, I just nodded and followed Nigel into his office.
The literal corner office.
Windows showcased the breathtaking view of Lake Washington and the growing
urbanization of downtown Bellevue, a thriving city just across the lake from Seattle. I didn’t
envy Nigel his office for the scenery, nor the sleek furniture and tasteful decor. It was what this
Money. Success. Power.
Yes, I was after the CFO job. But that was just a stepping stone. This was what I wanted.
And I always got what I wanted.
“What couldn’t wait until Monday?” Nigel asked.
“What’s going on with the site for the new datacenter?”
The quick breath he let out told me volumes. He was frustrated. “It seems to be at a
“Do we have any backup options?”
“Maybe, but I’d like to see if we can make this work.” He leaned against his desk. “The
mountain location is ideal for physical security, the land out there is affordable, and there’s an
existing town where on-site employees could live. There’s even a college. It’s not big, but it’s a
Something about his description pricked at me. Small town with a college? Mountain
That sounded a lot like—
“Where is it, exactly?”
“It’s off highway ninety-seven on the other side of Steven’s pass. The town’s called
I cleared my throat. “I’m familiar with it.”
This should not have been hard to admit. Who cared if I’d lived there? It was just a small
town. It didn’t mean anything to me.
I pushed aside the vestiges of emotion that tried to well up inside me. “I used to live
there. When I was a kid.”
“You’re kidding. Tilikum is your hometown?”
“It’s not my hometown. I just lived there for a while.”
“Do you get back there often?”
He lifted his eyebrows like he was mildly intrigued. But I wasn’t here to reminisce about
my shitty childhood. It wasn’t anyone’s business.
Taking down Damien Barrett. That was my business.
“I hear Damien’s having a tough time securing the land.”
Nigel nodded, a quick burst of frustration coloring his features. “I thought we’d have
wrapped it up months ago. It’s a farm that’s been struggling for years, but Damien can’t seem to
convince the owners to let it go.”
“Who are the owners?”
“Faye and Russell Cook.”
If I’d still had a heart in the cold, empty space in my chest, it might have stopped beating
at hearing those names. But I didn’t, so nothing happened.
“I know the Cooks.”
Nigel’s eyebrows lifted again. “You do? Family friends or something?”
More like the parents of the girl I’d almost married when I was too young to know better.
“Something like that.” I paused, keeping my posture casual, like this was just an idle suggestion,
not a calculated move. “Do you want me to talk to them?”
“That would be great. Damien’s been dealing with their daughter.” He picked up a folder
from his desk and started thumbing through the pages. “Her name is in here somewhere.”
“Isabelle.” Her name rolled off my tongue like it had no meaning.
Good. Because it didn’t.
And that meant I could take care of this. Feelings need not apply.
“Right, Isabelle Cook.” He held the folder out to me. “If you could get this moving, I’d
really appreciate it.”
I took it. “Consider it done.”
“Great. Now, enough work. Go have a drink and enjoy the party. You can tackle this on
I nodded, giving him the impression that I’d do what he said.
Instead, I left his office and went in search of Alice.
I found her in the conference room, chatting with one of the receptionists. I didn’t know
her name but she straightened as I approached, putting a slight arch in her back so her boobs
“Hi, Mr. Stoneheart.”
I ignored her and shoved the folder at Alice. “Make copies of these and meet me in my
“Because we have work to do.”
“It’s the holiday—”
“Holiday party? Like I give a shit. You can party on your own time.”
Alice glared while the receptionist batted her eyelashes at me.
“You’re buying me a very expensive Christmas present this year,” Alice said. “I hope
you realize that.”
“I already bought you a present.”
“That was last year.”
“And I’m not staying late. I have to go pick up my daughter.”
“Any more demands before you do your job?”
“No, that’s it.”
“Good. Now make me the copies and put the originals on Nigel’s desk.”
I didn’t wait for her to reply. I already knew she’d do what I told her. And we did have
work to do. I needed to find out everything I could about the Cook family farm. Current acreage,
ancillary assets, number of employees, debt to income ratio.
If I knew Isabelle—and I did—she was the reason Damien was having such a hard time
closing this deal. I’d never encountered a woman more stubborn than Isabelle Cook. If she didn’t
want to do something, she’d dig in her heels like an obstinate donkey.
Like Horace, the guard donkey.
I wondered if they still had Horace. Mean son of a bitch.
Shutting out the noise of the party, I also shut the door on that memory. Who gave a shit
about Horace the guard donkey? What I needed to worry about was ammunition in the upcoming
battle. If I could get enough data on my side, I’d have this deal closed with a phone call. Isabelle
was stubborn but so was I.
And I was going to win.