Choose your battles, Hart. Easier said than done when Triada Tech’s key investors, a group of high-powered men and women in designer suits, are seated across the table from my executive leadership team, all of whom look like they just rolled out of bed for an eight a.m. class.
If I didn’t know better, I’d think I was being pranked.
Fortunately, what the Triada team lacks in professional attire, they make up for in brainpower.
Thank Christ for small favors.
I make a mental note to have HR send another email about the dress code and stride toward the head of the table.
I’m almost to my seat when Mike Bishop, one of Triada’s original investors, blocks my path. “Ready for the launch?”
“Of course.” I scan the boardroom with a critical eye. Everything has to be perfect today. No mistakes. “Epos is going to revolutionize mobile payment systems worldwide.”
“Don’t get cocky, boy. There are plenty of people in the industry just waiting for you to fail.” He scoffs. “Hell, they’re betting on it.”
“Not at all. Some people crack under that kind of pressure, but not you.”
Damn right. I savor that shit like fine scotch.
The media might describe me as a cold, calculating control freak, but they can’t deny I know how to get things done. So what if the gossip rags call me Hartless?
It’s just noise.
I didn’t become one of the world’s youngest tech billionaires by sweating the small stuff. I did it by staying one step ahead of the competition. No easy feat in an industry that moves at the speed of light, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
If that makes me an asshole, so be it.
“Will your brothers be joining us today?” Mike asks, scanning the boardroom. “It’s been a while since they’ve graced us with their presence.”
Don’t I know it. “Miles should be here any minute. Beck is tied up in R&D.”
“Ironing out the final bugs?”
More like avoiding people. “Relax, Mike. I’ve got everything under control.”
The older man chuckles. “Of that I have no doubt. You’re single-minded when it comes to the things you care about. Knew it the first time we met.”
He’s right. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do—nothing I wouldn’t sacrifice—to ensure Triada’s success.
Not when everything I care about—everything I love—can be stripped away in an instant.
He claps me on the shoulder and I step past him, ignoring the animated chatter of my employees, who are arguing the merits of some new Netflix adaptation I’ve never heard of. Not that it matters. No one has ever asked me about something as mundane as a TV show.
Fine by me. I’m shit at making small talk. It’s strategy where I excel.
Centering myself, I mentally review the meeting agenda and arrange my things at the head of the table. Laptop. Phone. Hydro Flask.
There’s a dark smudge on the glossy white table that the cleaning service overlooked.
If you want something done right…
I frown and pull a microfiber cloth from my jacket pocket. It’s meant for cleaning screens, but it’ll have to do. With a quick swipe, I erase the mark and tuck the cloth back in my pocket.
Or it will be once my brother arrives. Where the fuck is Miles, anyway? I check my watch. The meeting starts in two minutes, and the chair to my left is glaringly empty.
I pick up my phone and tap out a quick text.
Me: Where the hell are you?
Three little dots appear as if he’s been expecting the message.
Miles: Something came up.
A muscle flutters along my jaw. Nothing is more important than the successful launch of the Epos mobile payment system.
Miles: Relax. I sent my assistant to take notes. Isn’t that what you really need?
The muscle in my jaw ticks again. It’s no secret I have a revolving door of assistants, none of them lasting more than a few weeks. Despite my brothers’ teasing, it’s not that I’m fussy. I just like things done a certain way. And I have yet to find anyone who can keep up with the demands of the job.
Because you’re a control freak.
I shove the thought aside, not giving an inch to the long list of shortcomings my ex-fiancée eagerly shared with ATX Exposed, Austin’s local gossip column.
Me: What I need is a little of that charm you throw around like confetti.
Miles: Are you saying you miss me? Do you need a hug?
Me: Fuck off. Which one’s your admin?
Miles: The one with the laptop and great attention to detail.
I roll my eyes, in no mood for Miles’s sarcasm.
Me: I meant what does she look like, asshole?
Miles: Seriously? She’s been sitting right outside your office for the past month…
If you’d bothered to notice.
Miles doesn’t need to type the last part. It’s implied. The guilt trip is a waste of time. I’ve always been driven, and I’m not about to apologize for it now. It’s my drive—combined with Miles’s charisma and Beck’s brains—that’s grown Triada from a basement startup to a multibillion-dollar company in just eight years.
Besides, playing nice is Miles’s job. He’s a people person, which is why he’s the Chief Operations Officer responsible for sales, marketing, and human resources, while Beck—the quintessential computer geek—serves as Chief Technology Officer, and I shoulder the role of Chief Financial Officer. We share the CEO duties, though my brothers are pretty hands off, letting me oversee strategy and deal with the Board of Directors.
It’s an unconventional business model—which has been pointed out by every consultant and investor we’ve ever enlisted—but it works for us.
Three more dots appear, floating on the screen.
A moment later, the dots reappear.
What the hell is taking so long? Miles never has a problem describing a woman. Ever. Women are his specialty. Or they were before he fell head over heels for Lucy, his former assistant.
Miles: Scarlett Evans. Five-five. Blonde.
Me: You realize that’s vague as hell and describes half the women in the room, right?
Miles: Dude, what do you want from me? I’m not trying to get sued for sexual harassment.
Oh, now he’s worried about lawsuits? That mindset would’ve come in handy last summer when he took his entire team skydiving.
Miles: She’s probably wearing glasses.
I lift my gaze and search the room. There’s only one woman seated at the lengthy table who fits Miles’s description, but since she works in marketing and couldn’t possibly be—
The door flies open, banging loudly against the stopper. I glance at the late arrival. Tardiness has no place at Triada Tech, but it isn’t the newcomer’s lack of punctuality that sets my pulse thrumming.
A mousy blonde scurries across the boardroom in a long pencil skirt and collared blouse, a wisp of hair that’s fallen loose from her bun floating behind her. There’s a flush in her cheeks as she scans the room from behind a pair of tortoiseshell glasses.
Me: The coffee cart girl is your new assistant?
Miles: What’s the big deal?
Is he serious? Not only is she late, she hardly looks up to the job. Christ, she looks like one harsh word would have her crying into her hummus plate.
But I know better than to put that in writing.
Me: Is she even qualified?
Miles: She has a degree. I think.
I stifle a groan.
Miles: I needed an executive assistant. She needed a better job. Win-win.
Yeah, if by win-win he meant he’d listened to his bleeding heart and bypassed the usual hiring process. Miles’s tendency to play fast and loose with the rules always comes back to bite us in the ass, but no one would ever call him Hartless, that’s for damn sure.
Miles: She never got my order wrong. Not once. Mind like a steel trap. You’ll like her.
Doubtful. I silence the phone and slip it into my jacket pocket. For the next hour, my only concern is the Epos launch.
I’ll deal with Scarlett Evans later.
For the love of tacos, please let there be an empty seat in the back. I pause to catch my breath and open the boardroom door, but it slips from my grasp and slams against the doorstop. The resounding bang is like the shot heard round the world, and every head in the room swivels in my direction.
Flames lick the back of my neck as I scan the room for a place to sit. My last meeting ran over, and I had to haul ass from the other side of the Triada campus. Normally it wouldn’t be a big deal—because January—but Austin is in the middle of a freaking heatwave and it’s eighty degrees outside, the unseasonable weather raising a fine sheen of sweat on my skin. Now my blouse is stuck to my back, my hair looks like I’ve run a marathon (which, spoiler alert, I’d never do), and everyone seated around the ridiculous white table is judging the shit out of me for being late.
Nothing new there.
Growing up in a small town, you get used to judgmental stares real quick. It’s practically a survival instinct. Especially when you’re that girl. The one who’s quirky and awkward and never seems to fit in, even in her own family.
At least I don’t have to worry about Nick Hart making me do something embarrassing like sing “I’m a Little Teapot” for being tardy. That’s Miles’s lighthearted shtick. Rumor has it the eldest Hart brother has a pole shoved so far up his ass he couldn’t slouch if he wanted to.
And in the month I’ve been working at Triada Tech, every interaction I’ve had—or, more accurately, not had—with the guy has convinced me the rumor is true. Which is why I’ve made it my mission to avoid him when possible.
I need this job like I need my morning coffee and drawing the ire of the uptight CEO is definitely not on my to-do list.
Still, if they’d taken my suggestion to invest in scooters for the massive campus, I would’ve been on time. And far less shiny. Honestly, what’s the point of even having an employee suggestion box if you’re just going to ignore all the submissions?
Spotting an empty seat by the window, I cut a path directly toward it, but just as I reach for the seatback, a guy wearing a faded MIT shirt steps around me and flops down in the chair.
“Sorry. This one’s taken.”
He doesn’t even meet my eyes when he says it, like I’m so far beneath his paygrade he can’t be bothered to feign sincerity.
Of all the arrogant, lowdown, dirty…
Irritation sparks in my chest. If this is how Triada welcomes all their new employees, it’s no wonder there’s a morale problem. I open my mouth to say as much, but no sound comes out. I’ve never been good at standing up for myself—the mere thought of confrontation gives me hives—so when the arrogant seat snatcher turns his back on me, the dismissal is almost a relief.
Way to be a doormat, Scar.
“If everyone could take their seats.” The request comes from Nick Hart, and though the words are delivered with his usual cool detachment, the fact that they’re directed at me sends a shiver racing down my spine.
Or maybe it’s the chilly air of the boardroom clashing with my sweat-soaked skin.
Oh, is that what you’re doing now? Lying to yourself?
I squash the sarcastic little voice and move down the length of the table, clutching the strap of my messenger bag.
Where are all the empty seats? I’m not that late.
The grumpy CEO/CFO clears his throat, the sound echoing like a warning in the now silent boardroom.
Quit making a scene.
Mama’s reproachful words are as familiar to me as my own name, and like Pavlov’s dogs, I respond immediately.
My gaze darts around the table, settling on the only empty chair: Miles’s.
No way. No way can I just prance up to the head of the table and sit my butt down in my boss’s chair. I’m an executive assistant, not an executive.
It’s ridiculous. It’s brazen. It’s…my only option.
You can do this. It’s. Just. A. Chair.
Exactly. Just a chair. I suck in a breath, rally my lady balls, and march to the front of the room, planting one red kitten heel in front of the other.
Please don’t let me trip over my own two feet.
There’s no way my pride could handle it. Not gracefully anyway.
I pull out Miles’s chair, a cushy blue monstrosity with the Triada logo emblazoned on the back—three interlocking triangles—and sit. The instant that cushion hits my backside, I realize the flaw in my plan: my feet don’t reach the floor.
Because of course they don’t.
Could this meeting get any worse?
Leaning forward, I fumble for the lever to adjust the chair’s height. The heavy weight of judgment presses down on me as two dozen pairs of eyes track my every move. My fingers close around a flat handle, and, hoping it’s the correct one, I pull.
The seat drops with a loud thwump and slams into the base.
So much for subtlety.
“Are you quite finished?” Nick Hart asks, each word scraping over my skin like a shard of glass.
I slide my laptop from my bag and turn to the CEO, meeting his steely gaze. He intimidates the hell out of me, but I’d roll naked in a field of chiggers before admitting it aloud. The way he struts around the office like God’s gift, he probably gets off on that sort of thing.
The BDE is strong with this one.
“Sorry.” I force a smile. “For being late. And for the chair. And—”
I snap my mouth shut and I swear to God the corner of his mouth twitches.
Not likely. The man hasn’t smiled in the history of ever.
It’s just as well. Nick Hart is hotter than the hinges of hell, and if he actually smiled? Well, it’s not a stretch to imagine some panties going up in flames, mine included.
Why do the sexy ones always have to be jerks?
Because the universe is a dick, obviously.
The guy is literally the definition of tall, dark, and
horned handsome with thick, artfully styled hair, hooded umber eyes, and the kind of chiseled jaw that looks like it was sculpted in a quarry. Throw in the scruffy five o’clock shadow, and, meow, the man is my catnip.
Or he would be if he weren’t such an ass.
Without another word, Nick Hart turns his attention back to the room. I open my laptop and pull up a fresh document as he dives into the same canned greeting he’s recited at every other meeting. The one I memorized weeks ago. It’s like someone gave him a script to follow, and he doesn’t dare deviate from it.
Whether it’s from fear of losing control or something else is anyone’s guess.
Honestly? I couldn’t care less. I hate these kinds of meetings, the ones where my entire purpose is to take notes and pretend to be invisible. It doesn’t matter that I’m just months from completing my master’s degree. No one takes the opinions of an executive assistant seriously. The last time I tried to speak up during a meeting, one of the middle managers thought I was offering to refill his coffee.
Which, okay, I did because it was easier than making a scene, but that’s hardly the point.
And the point is?
It’s insulting. And it smacks of patriarchal bullshit.
Still, it pays better than the coffee cart, so I keep my mouth shut and my opinions to myself.
Once I finish my master’s, more doors will open. In the meantime, there are worse ways to spend an hour than listening to Nick Hart’s sexy voice.
“Mike, can you give our investors an update on the latest from operations?”
The Vice President of Operations sits up straighter, puffing out his chest. “Yes, sir. Ops has been focused on the low-hanging fruit this period. I’ve encouraged my people to pivot and think outside the box to ensure the Epos launch raises the bar, creating best practices for all future product rollouts. We’ve identified cross-departmental synergies, and it’s all hands on deck to ensure we’ve got the proper bandwidth for success.”
I suppress the urge to roll my eyes—hard. Mike is the epitome of every obnoxious, self-important office stereotype ever. The guy is a fountain of meaningless buzzwords and speaks endlessly without saying anything.
All we need is a bottle of tequila, and we could get wasted with a round of Bullshit Bingo.
Don’t the other executives see it?
Right. My fingers fly over the keyboard.
Operations—Mike (aka The Human Buzzword
–Ops doing the bare minimum at their illustrious leader’s direction.
–Relying on support teams to ensure launch success because what does the company’s largest department even do all day?
I type steadily, recording Mike’s worthless report and every other mundane update on the Epos launch as the meeting drones on.
If I’ve learned anything about the executive team, it’s that they love to hear themselves talk. Which is problematic for several reasons, the most pressing being that I have a hard stop at five o’clock.
I scan the meeting agenda, anxiety unfurling deep in my chest. We’re just over halfway through the list of topics. There’s no way we’re going to finish on time, and I can’t duck out early because…designated notetaker.
I cannot be late for class.
“Levi, any news from the real estate developer?” the CEO asks, picking up a pen and repositioning it so it’s parallel to his laptop. Because God forbid anything in his perfect little world be out of order. “We need that land to support next year’s expansion.”
My ears perk up. Like all of Silicon Hills, Triada’s campus is sprawling. And from what I’ve observed during my short time here, the company culture is suffering from growing pains, unable to keep pace with the rapid growth.
What Triada needs is an Organizational Behavior Specialist, not another expansion.
Not that anyone’s asking me.
Levi clears his throat and leans forward, bracing his forearms on the table.
“I’m glad you asked.” His booming voice carries across the room easily, and the guy next to him flinches, sliding his chair back from the table as if it’ll protect his eardrums. “The developer owes me an update, but I know he’s getting some pushback. We’ve got a few folks who don’t want to sell, so he’s working through those negotiations.” He taps his pen on the table and shakes his head in apparent dismay. “We’re offering fifteen percent above fair market value, so I don’t know why they’re dragging their feet. If it were me, I’d take that deal and move in a heartbeat.”
I snort, and, realizing my mistake, quickly cough to cover it up as I update my notes.
Real Estate—Levi (aka Loud Talker)
–Developer update overdue.
–Acquisition delays despite Triada’s offer of FMV+15%.
–No reason for holdout since residents can just pack up and go…says the guy who’s never had to load a U-Haul or shamelessly ply his friends with beer in exchange for help on moving day.
The chair to my right squeaks as the devil himself, Nick Hart, spins in my direction. His posture is relaxed, but when I meet his stare, there’s a challenge in his dark eyes. One that says he doesn’t appreciate the interruption. “Something you’d like to add?”
Heat floods my cheeks and I shake my head, unable to force words past the giant lump of embarrassment clogging my throat.
His brow flicks up, but he doesn’t push.
Thank you, sweet baby Jesus.
Relief washes over me as he turns back to Levi and says, “I want that update before you leave today.”
Long hours, missed lunches, and impossible deadlines are the status quo at Triada.
Oh, Nick Hart plays by the same rules, but for him it’s a choice. And from what I’ve seen, he never says thank you. Never offers a word of praise—because it’s expected.
The man is about as warm and cuddly as a Terminator.
Is it any wonder they call him Hartless?
When the meeting finally wraps up at a quarter after five, I pack up my laptop in record time. If I break about a thousand traffic laws, I might be on time for class.
Wishful thinking, sis.
Probably, but I have to try.
“Just a moment, Miss Evans. I’d like to speak to you in private.”
I’m halfway to the door when Nick Hart’s smooth baritone stops me in my tracks.
Shit. Is he going to reprimand me for laughing during the meeting? Panic spirals through my veins. It had been unprofessional.
And it would be even more unprofessional to pretend you didn’t hear him just now.
I draw a steadying breath and turn on my heel. “I’m sorry, Mr. Hart. Were—” My voice squeaks like a cartoon mouse, and I try again, because nerves be damned, I am not okay being the type of person cowed by wealth and privilege. Or, you know, the chain of command. “Were you talking to me?”
“Is there another Miss Evans in my brother’s employ?” A sardonic smile curves the edge of his full lower lip as he looks me over from head to toe, his dark gaze leaving a trail of heat in its wake. I immediately realize two things. One, I’m in over my head. Two, this is the side of Nick Hart I’ve been warned to avoid at all costs.