Excerpt: Love On My Mind

Excerpt: Love On My Mind

Book 1: Shades of Love

Chapter One

Chelsea Grant couldn’t tear her gaze away from the train wreck on the screen.

She followed press conferences like most Americans followed sports. The spectacle thrilled her, watching speakers deftly deflect questions, state narrow political positions, or, in rare instances, exhibit honest emotions. The message might be scripted but the reactions were pure reality. If executed well, a press conference could be as engaging and dynamic as any athletic game.

But watching this one was akin to lions in the amphitheater, not tight ends on the football field. Her throat ached, impacting her ability to swallow. She squinted, hoping the action would lessen her visual absorption of the man’s public relations disaster.

He’d folded his arms across his chest, the gesture causing the gray cardigan he wore to pull across his broad shoulders. The collar of the black and blue plaid shirt he wore beneath it brushed the underside of his stubbled jaw.

When he’d first stepped onto the platform, she’d thought he was going for “geek chic.” All he’d lacked were black square frames and a leather crossbody satchel. Now she understood he wasn’t playing dress-up. These were his everyday clothes, and as such, they were inappropriate for a press conference, unless he was a lumberjack who’d just won the lottery.

Had someone advised him on how to handle a press conference? No, she didn’t think so. Any coaching would have helped with his demeanor. The man stared straight ahead. He didn’t look at the reporters seated before him. He didn’t look into the lenses. He appeared to look over the cameras, like there was someplace else he’d rather be. His discomfort crossed the media plane, and her fingers twitched where they rested next to her iPad on the acrylic conference table.

A female reporter from an entertainment news cable channel raised her hand. “Mr. Bennett?”

The man turned his head, and his gaze zeroed in on the reporter and narrowed into a glare. Chelsea inhaled audibly and leaned forward in her chair. His eyes were thickly lashed and dark, although she couldn’t determine their exact color. Brown? Black? He dropped his arms and his long, slender fingers gripped the podium tightly. The bank of microphones jiggled and a loud piercing sound ripped through the air. He winced.

“How does it feel to be handed the title by David James?” the reporter asked, her voice louder as it came on the tail end of the noise feedback.

The camera zoomed in and caught his pinched expression. “Right now, I feel annoyed,” he responded sharply.

“Annoyed? Aren’t you honored?”

“Why should I be honored?”

“Because People Magazine has never named a non-actor as their sexiest man alive.”

“An award based on facial characteristics is not an honor. Especially since I have no control over the symmetry of my features. The National Medal of Technology. The Faraday Medal. The granting of those awards would be a true honor.”

The camera zoomed out and hands holding phones with a smaller version of the man’s frustrated image filled the screen. Flashes flickered on the periphery and he rubbed his brow, like Aladdin begging the genie for the power to disappear.

“How does one celebrate being deemed the most desirable man on the planet?” another reporter asked.

“One doesn’t.” His lips tightened into a white slash on his face.

“Is there a secret scientific formula for dating Victoria’s Secret models? Didn’t you used to be engaged to one?” A male reporter exchanged knowing looks with the colleagues around him. A smattering of chuckles followed his question.

“Didn’t she leave you for another model six weeks before the wedding?”

“So you’re single? Who’s your type?”

“What’s your perfect first date?”

“Can you create a sexbot?”

Questions pelted the poor man. The reporters had found his weakness: his inability or unwillingness to play the game. Now they would try to get a sound bite for their story teaser or a quote to increase their site’s click-through rate. The man drove his fingers through his black hair, a move so quick and natural she knew it was a gesture he repeated often. That, and not hair putty, probably explained the spikiness of the dark strands that were longer on the top, shorter on the sides.

“This has nothing to do with my project,” he snapped, then scowled at someone off-camera.

Chelsea glanced heavenward, grateful she wasn’t the recipient of that withering look.

“Adam, what do you find sexy?”

The reporters didn’t intend to give up easily. They circled, like shark to chum.

“This is why you called me away from my home? Do you have any idea what I’m working on? How revolutionary it is? You told me this was important. You neglected to mention I’d be subjected to idiotic questions by reporters from gossip rags.” He continued talking to the person off-camera, raising his voice to be heard over the sudden uproar that resulted from his remarks. “I’m done.”

He stormed off the stage, his exit allowing Chelsea to see what the bank of microphones had hidden: an enticing bottom half, clad in well-worn jeans. In the wake of his exit, clicks and flashes were the only animation on the screen. A young man leapt onto the platform.

He was dressed in a sleek gray suit, his blond hair perfectly styled, his even, white teeth perfectly bleached. “Thank you all for coming today. Mr. Bennett had to hurry to an important meeting. We’ll be taking no further questions.” He smiled winningly and headed off, ignoring the torrent of questions.

Across from her, Howard Richter, her immediate supervisor, pressed a button. The image froze on the enormous screen and the lights came up. The blackout curtains whirred along their track, unveiling the unusually rare, smog free, sun-drenched view of downtown Los Angeles, the famous Hollywood sign a nametag in the distance. Silence blanketed the room.

Chelsea shook her head slightly, as if awakening from a daydream, then stared at the two people who controlled her fate at Beecher & Stowe.

“That was a disaster,” she said bluntly.

When the silence continued, Chelsea leaned back in the white leather chair, shifted on one hip, and crossed her legs, her beige Louboutin-clad foot dangling. “I’ll admit it was entertaining, in a TMZ sort of way, but what does it have to do with my performance review?”

“What would you have done differently?” Rebecca Stowe asked, ignoring her question. The older woman, and named partner, was a legend in the PR community, being one of the first to understand and predict the impact digital marketing would have on both organizations and consumers as early as the late nineties.

“I would’ve told him why he was at the press conference, I would have prepped him for the type of questions to expect, and I would’ve guaranteed that he was dressed properly,” she said, extending a finger to emphasize each point. “Publicity basics that eluded Peter Sonic from Kellerman.” She waved her hand dismissively, thinking of the man who’d tried to regain control after his client had stormed off.

“What do you know about Adam Bennett?” Howard asked, shifting directions.

Chelsea shook her head. “Not much. That press conference was a year ago, right? I remember all the hype surrounding a non-celebrity on the cover. He’s CEO of Computronix and a wunderkind in the tech community. He’s known for creating both hardware and operating systems that I use on a daily basis.”

“You heard him allude to something he was working on?” Howard asked. “Since the press conference, he’s been holed up in his house in the Santa Cruz Mountains and no one has heard from him. Until two weeks ago.”

“He contacted us?”

Not surprising. If the press conference was a sample of the type of representation he had with Kellerman, it was little wonder he was interested in Beecher & Stowe, one of the top PR firms in the country.

“No, I did.” A voice from behind her.

Chelsea turned her attention to the fourth person in the room, a handsome, sophisticated, and stylishly dressed man, who exuded an air of authority that commanded respect. She’d immediately noticed him sitting at the back corner of the table when she’d first entered. She was sure she didn’t know him, and the lack of an introduction compounded by the press conference debacle had worked to dismiss him from her mind.

“Chelsea, this is Michael Black, COO of Computronix,” Rebecca said.

Chelsea held up her phone. “I’m a huge fan of your work.”

He smiled, his light blue eyes dazzling. “Likewise.”

She tilted her head to the side. “You know my work, Mr. Black?”

“Please, call me Mike,” he invited. “And I do. What you pulled off with Ellis York was amazing. You took a girl heavy with talent but low on polish and turned her into a media darling in under two years. She wouldn’t have won the Golden Globe without that transformation. And the fact that Leon Bush is now co-hosting Sports Talk Live is due, in large part, to your handling of the whole cheating scandal last year.”

Pride expanded in her chest. Receiving praise from a man with Mike’s credentials and clout warmed her.

She loved her work. Controlling a person or product’s image, dictating the way they were perceived—it was her reason for being. She believed she’d been groomed for it from a young age. Unlike many of her colleagues, she hadn’t gotten into PR blinded by the glitz and glamour of three-hour lunches and red carpets. She’d been almost clinical in her decision, possessing that critical awareness of the burning need to have people view you differently while lacking the power to make that happen.

That insight kept her going when her entry-level salary was barely enough to cover her rent and student loans, when her workload was so heavy she barely had time for a three minute lunch, and the only red carpet she walked was the one inside the Chinese restaurant around the corner from her apartment. Seven years later, that same insight was fueling her to the top of the industry.

“Thank you. Bush has oodles of charisma…and luck. As for Ellis, she deserves the credit for her success. She was willing to make the effort. Working with her was easy.”

Mike sighed. “I wish I could say the same about Adam. He’s going to be difficult.”

She stiffened, her gaze swiveling between Mike, Rebecca, and Howard. “You want me to work with Adam Bennett?” Horror coated her words.

Only a rookie would find this assignment appealing. On the surface, it didn’t seem like a hardship. The man was sexy. There was a roughness and edge to him many would find appealing, especially considering his intelligence. When she thought of computer geeks, the dangerous man she’d seen on the screen did not come to mind.

But his attire and mannerisms? The way he’d handled the reporters? Walking away from the press conference? This would be a nightmare of epic proportions.

As Executive Managing Director of West Coast Entertainment, Chelsea had earned the right to choose her own accounts, and she chose to work with clients who wanted her help. She loved clients who were motivated but didn’t possess the tools to achieve their goals. However, clients who needed the help, but didn’t want it? Clients like Adam Bennett? They were assigned to assistant account coordinators.

“Before we go any further…” Mike flipped open the cover on his tablet and tapped the screen. A few seconds later, he handed it to her. “This is a non-disclosure agreement. By signing it, you concede that what we talk about in this room, as well as any work you do for us, will be held in the strictest of confidence. You will not divulge it to anyone who is not working with you on this project.”

Chelsea scanned it quickly before glancing up at her bosses.

“We’ve already signed it,” Howard assured her.

Nodding, Chelsea signed her name with the stylus he provided and handed the tablet back to Mike.

He glanced at it, satisfaction gleaming on his face, before continuing. “Adam has created a device that will change the face of personal computing. We’ll be unveiling it at a special product launch on April eighteenth. Adam will be a major part of that launch and we need him to be ready. And that,” he pointed to the still image of an empty bank of microphones on the large screen, “is not acceptable.”

She agreed. But this couldn’t be her problem. She turned to Howard.

“I work in entertainment, not tech. I handle actors and athletes, people who understand the business. I’ve never handled “real” people. Plus, that’s only five weeks away. With the three new accounts I signed last quarter, there’s no way I can fit this in.”

“We’ll re-assign those projects to several of your account executives,” Howard said. “They can take the lead for the next few months. Right now, Adam Bennett is your main priority. When you’ve worked your magic on him, you can catch up on the other accounts.”

Chelsea’s coffee and mid-morning snack seesawed in her stomach. They were pulling her off other high-level accounts?

Rebecca leaned her elbows on the table and steepled her fingers. “Chelsea, I know you came to this meeting expecting an offer of partnership.”

Had she blown her chance by hesitating?

The pressure of unshed tears stung her eyes and panic clawed at her chest, threatening to erupt and decimate the mask of calm professionalism she always wore at work. She didn’t want to make partner. She needed to make partner. There were times she’d thought she’d always be Dirty Diana’s daughter. That her childhood, featuring an endless parade of her mother’s men, bug-infested apartments, and a short stint in the foster care system, would twist around her ankle like a weed, impeding her efforts to rise above her formative years. Making partner in one of the top PR firms in the country would finally whitewash her past and confer her self-respect.

But if she didn’t make partner at Beecher & Stowe, it was never going to happen. Since she’d already achieved upper management status, her options were to continue working for a company where there were no further opportunities for advancement, or leave and start over at another firm. A firm that would hire her for her contacts and skill and compensate her well, but would never offer her a partnership, assuming she was damaged goods because she didn’t ascend the final rung on Beecher & Stowe’s corporate ladder. Neither prospect came close to assuaging the echo of hunger that constantly reminded her of her upbringing.

“I’ve worked hard and paid my dues. I’m the youngest executive manager ever. In the past eighteen months, I’ve bought in business worth a quarter of a billion dollars.” She jabbed her index finger into the conference table to emphasize her words.

“We are well aware of your contribution to Beecher & Stowe. When Mike approached us and requested the best for this account, we immediately thought of you. You’ve shown us your media relations savvy, marketing and business management skills, and a strong work ethic. Now we need to see your firm-first mindset. Can you put the needs of the firm above your own? Of course you have the right to work on the clients you brought in. They’re important to you. But Computronix is important to us.”

A flush of giddiness tingled through her body, causing her hands to tremble. To cover, she pulled them down to her lap and twisted to stare at the abstract paintings on the wall, the only splash of color in the conference room’s muted palate. She hadn’t lost her opportunity. If she understood what Rebecca had intimated, Chelsea still had a shot.

“To be clear: If I make Adam Bennett presentable for the Computronix project launch in five weeks, you’ll make me a partner?”

She held her breath.

Rebecca smiled. “How does Director of US Client Management sound?”

Chelsea exhaled. Like everything she’d been working for her entire adult life. She was so close the honeyed scent of success teased her nostrils. There was no way she would let an obnoxious tech geek prevent her from fulfilling her ambition. “You’ve got yourself a deal.”

“Great.” Howard beamed, offering her two thumbs-up.

“There’s one small caveat,” Mike cautioned.

It didn’t matter. She’d do whatever it took to complete this assignment.

“Adam is a brilliant man, but he’s…demanding. You’re not the first professional we’ve hired to help him. He says we’re trying to change him and he’s refused to work with any of them.”

That didn’t sound good. “Isn’t that why you need my help? Aren’t you trying to change him?”

“No. We don’t want to change Adam. I don’t think anyone can. But we can’t have him being surly and rude to reporters. Not in this day of instant uploads that go viral in minutes.”

“So what’s the problem?”

“If he knows we sent you, he’ll be resistant. You’ll need to find another way to approach him.”

This assignment had left strange in its rearview mirror and was hurtling toward bizarre.

She swung her widened gaze back to Howard and Rebecca. “Is that necessary?” she asked. “You’re adding an element of espionage to an already difficult task.”

A large part of her success at her job was her insistence on brutal honesty with her clients, a practice she’d embraced after emerging from a childhood of lies generated by her mother. She may spin stories for the media, but she always delivered the unvarnished truth to her clients. Always. She was often the only person who did.

Mike’s lips tightened. “Trust me, we’ve run out of other options.”

“We’ve always had faith in your abilities,” Rebecca said. “This wouldn’t be the time to make us question that belief.”

“My brother said your mother is a whore. She must be cheap, because you dress like shit.”

“Does your mother take food stamps? What about layaway?”

She blinked away the taunts from her childhood. She’d do whatever it took to ensure she’d never end up poor, used, and disgraced like her mother.

“Consider it done.”