John tapped on the glass door of Israel Landry’s office and waited for the man to lift his head from his laptop screen and wave John in. Israel was a Black man at least ten years John’s senior, putting him somewhere in his mid-forties. His midnight-black hair held rows of deep, three-sixty waves that seamlessly seeped into a light fade. He was broad and muscular, more fit that some men half his age. If he wasn’t John’s boss, the man would definitely spark John’s interest. But there was no way John would ever cross that line by mixing business with pleasure.
That was the one thing he warned his clients about over and over. Nothing could sink a campaign quicker than a sex scandal. If you wanted to win, you had to keep your dick in your pants. Not to mention, as attractive as Israel was, John only saw him as a mentor, someone who’d shown him how to be the best at what he did. As much as he could appreciate the man’s good looks, the only interest John had in him was the promotion to named partner.
“Hey, John.” Israel beamed as John slipped through the glass door. “Thanks for dropping by.” He pointed to the chair on the opposite side of his desk before standing and reaching over to shake John’s hand. “Congratulations on a great debate.”
“Thank you, sir. Lennox Carlisle is an incredible candidate to work with.”
Israel nodded. “Carlisle says as much about you.” Israel pointed to the phone on his desk. “He called here earlier and sang your praises. I think his exact words were, ‘If you don't make that man a named partner, you’re a fool.’”
John chuckled. He could definitely see Lennox saying something like that. “Not to be presumptuous, but is that the reason you called me in?”
Israel stood up, perching himself on the front of his desk so there was nothing standing between them.
“Sort of,” Israel replied. “But first, I needed to share some significant details about the company before I do.”
John’s heart began beating faster, partly due to anticipation, partly due to fear. He’d been an equity partner for five years now. There were others who’d been in the same position longer, but still weren’t as close to this achievement as John was. Getting here took much more than hard work—it took absolute certainty that he was the best person for the job. He knew that. He just couldn’t tell by Israel’s facial expressions whether his boss was aware of that too.
“As you know, we are looking to expand the firm. If we do, we’re going to need a third body to help us do that, another named partner. To cut to the chase, you have both my and Adams’s vote of confidence. But before we agree to promote you, we have to be sure of two things.”
John sat up, crossing one long leg over the other and placing his hands atop his knee. Although his adrenaline was up, he’d worked in this business long enough to know that appearance was perception. He would never let anyone see him sweat.
“And they are?”
John’s smooth baritone was rewarded with a gentle smile from Israel. “The first is the capital contribution. The cost is twenty percent of the firm’s annual profits. Can you swing that?”
John did calculations in his head. While the cost was steep, he’d learned to make his money work for him a long time ago through investments, so coming up with the money would be as simple as writing Israel a check.
“Yes, I can. What’s the next thing?”
Israel braced his hands against his desk and took a deep breath before he spoke. “More important than the money is trust. Can we trust you?”
John was about to speak before Israel raised a hand to stop him. “John, when you become partners in a business, you have to be able to trust each other. Having someone who will cross lines or won’t have your back—that’s the quickest way to destroying your business. This firm is in my blood. My father and his partner started this firm from nothing and turned it into the success that it is. I won’t let anyone tear it down. So, before Adams and I bring in someone else, we have to be sure we can trust them.”
John’s eyes narrowed as the tiny hairs on the back of his neck stood up. For as long as John had worked here, Israel had been a stand-up guy, and John had never known him to do anything shady. He took a breath, steading himself, giving the man the benefit of the doubt.
“My record shows—”
“Your record shows you’re good at your job. I need to know if I can trust you with my life’s blood. That I can trust you to do what’s best for the partnership, and not just for you.”
John nodded. Israel wasn’t wrong. Plenty of businesses fell apart because partners weren’t honest or careful.
“And how am I to prove I’m trustworthy to your satisfaction?”
Israel’s smile bloomed and his face lit up with warmth. “By taking care of the thing that’s even more precious to me than my business.”
“What’s that?” John waited for Israel to enlighten him. Whatever this test was, John would smash it. He’d worked hard for this opportunity and he wasn’t going to let anything stand in his way.
“While I can’t disclose the identity of this person, there’s a high-ranking government official in California looking for a new PR firm to represent their agency. This could be a huge account, and Adams and I are very excited to be in the forefront of this race. She’s out there right now schmoozing them. Apparently, things are going so well, they want the other half of the partnership out there too. The only problem is, with this upcoming four-day weekend, I planned to take care of a personal errand.”
Butterflies twisted in John's stomach. Doing favors for your boss could end up biting you on the ass in more ways than one. But he wanted this damn promotion so before he said no, he had to at least hear what the ask was.
“My kid brother is arriving tonight and I was supposed to spend time with him and keep him occupied while he’s here on break. He’s kind of a bookworm who needs to get out of his shell, so I had a bunch of fun activities planned for the two of us.”
John's eyes narrowed as he took in all that Israel was saying. “Are you asking me to babysit your little brother?”
“In a word? Yes. The kiddo has always been too flighty and naive for his own good. He’s very impressionable, and I want to make sure he’s taken care of if I can’t be here to look after him.”
Israel stared directly into John’s eyes and he could see how much love and concern the man had for this kid.
“He’s a wonderful kid. He’s the most precious thing in my life. Take care of him while I’m away. Keep him safe and happy while I’m gone, and I’ll know that you are the person to join our partnership.”
“So,” John continued, “if I babysit your kid brother and keep him out of trouble until Monday, you’ll trust me enough to put my name on the door?”
“Exactly,” Israel answered.
It was unorthodox, John would admit. But it didn’t matter. He loved kids and enjoyed being fun Uncle Johnny to his brother’s litter of rambunctious little ones. This kid would love him, too.
“John.” Israel’s deep baritone interrupted his thoughts, forcing him to focus on his boss. “Besides judging your loyalty and dedication to our potential partnership, I also need to know you are someone who understands balance.”
John’s brows furrowed and Israel must’ve read the question behind his eyes because he held up his hands to stop John from speaking.
“I know you’re productive. But I need to know you understand how to have a full life. Because people who only know how to work burn out eventually. Being a named partner isn’t like being an associate or even an equity partner who only has to report for duty. You have to be here, and you have to be able to handle everything that comes your way. There’s no one to pass the buck to, and there’s no one to pick up your slack if you go down.”
“And you think hanging out with your little brother will help me find balance?”
John wasn’t so sure of that. He’d heard similar things from his mother who worried that he would one day end up like his father, dying way too young and leaving behind a heartbroken husband and children.
A shiver ran through John as he thought about the only man to ever make him want his mother’s whimsical scenario of a grand love. It had been nearly a decade and a half since their fiery affair ended, but its impact still lingered, leaving singe marks around his heart that he’d never been able to shine away.
He blinked away the image of two young, hopeful men who hadn’t met real life yet. That man wasn’t his, and the thought of love muddying the path to his conquest strengthened his resolve. He buried those memories deep. It was the only way he could dismiss his mother’s worries as paranoia. Just because that had been her fate didn’t mean John and this imaginary spouse of his would share the same.
Right now, he was in his prime and he had to take advantage of the fact that he didn’t need to split his time and attention between home and work. But there was something in Israel’s voice that made him think the man knew a little of which he spoke.
Nevertheless, he couldn’t let doubts creep in now. Although it had broken John’s heart then, he could finally admit that his ex had made the right choice to end things when they graduated from college. Once John returned home, there was a job waiting for him. And after his father died, his only focus was fulfilling the man’s last wish.
He was too close to getting what he’d spent the last five years working toward. And if the only thing standing between him and that goal was the boss’s kid brother, John had this in the bag. His memories of fiery nights of passion and fun days spent together could go right back to the depths that he’d buried them in so long ago. His future was now, and he was about to take it in hand.
John stood and extended his hand to Israel. “You’ve got yourself a deal.”
“I knew you were the man for the job,” Israel replied, handing him an envelope. “Inside the envelope is my address, my keys and my credit card. Take him wherever he wants to go, or wherever you think the kid could have some good, wholesome fun. I ordered a car to pick him up from the airport. He should be here—”
“He’s already here. That is, if I’m the he you’re speaking of.”
John’s entire body stuttered to a stiff halt. That voice sounded smooth, rich, and strong—and most of all, familiar.
John’s heartbeat wildly in his chest as his brain tried to make connections that John tried to block with every fiber of his being.
“Great timing as always, kid.” Israel raised his hand and gestured for the person to come closer. It was only then, when the man stood directly in front of him, that John couldn’t deny his past has caught up to him.
“John Christos, let me introduce you to my kid brother and your ward for the next four days, Zion Martin.”
John’s eyes locked onto familiar dark ones and a shiver of need spread through him. The first thing he saw were those dark, soft locs that bled into a light fade with sharp corners on either side of his brow. He’d spent hours running his finger through that hair. His fingers automatically began rubbing together at the sense memory of those hairs prickling his fingertips.
His heart thudded against his chest as recognition danced in his brain. Here in the flesh—deep, dark, delicious, bronzed, muscular flesh—was his ex-lover, the man he’d almost given up his future for, Zion Martin.
It was only his years of training as a PR strategist that kept him from losing his shit right there for his boss to see. So instead of the confusion and discomfort running through his system, John’s practiced facade fell into place as he lifted his hand and shook Zion’s before saying, “It’s my pleasure to meet you, Zion.”
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