Rules of Negotiation

By: Inara Scott

Chapter One





“Here, kitty-kitty-kitty…”



A pair of yellow eyes glared at Tori from the far rear corner of the dark, empty space under her front porch. She’d brought Fritzy home from the pound less than a year ago, in an attempt to fulfill her destiny as an unattached twenty-something creeping toward thirty. Fritzy, who had apparently been named by somebody with a fondness for all things German, was supposed to give her an outlet. He was supposed to be a vessel into which she could pour all her love and devotion, and hopefully receive something in return.



Instead, he had turned out to be an antisocial beast who resented her frequent business trips and showed his displeasure by peeing on her shoes and shredding her curtains. The pound attendant had conveniently forgotten to mention said cat was Satan with fur.



Tori tried again, crouching down and leaning into the darkness as she shook the small bag of treats intended to lure Fritzy into her arms and then into the cat carrier she’d cunningly left in the car, so he wouldn’t know what was coming. Except that he did know what was coming. He always knew what was coming. Especially at 6:00 a.m., when she had to be at the airport in less than two hours.



Tori tried to keep her voice pleasant. “Here, you pain-in-the-ass monster masquerading as a cat…here, Mr. Fluffypants…”



“Tori, is that you under there?”



She straightened abruptly and hit her head on the edge of the porch. “Shit…I mean, damn it…I mean…”



Her tiny white-haired neighbor, Mrs. Jenkins, who glowed with saintly inner light and probably had never spoken the word “damn,” smiled peacefully in return. “Traveling again?”



Tori nodded and unthinkingly wiped her dusty hands on her skirt, and then stared in horror at the trails of dirt left behind on the silky gray fabric. Her mind started to spin. Plane leaving at 7:55. Ten minutes to the kennel, fifty-minute drive to the Philadelphia airport, assuming there wasn’t any traffic, which of course there would be. Doors closed thirty minutes before takeoff. Security would take at least twenty minutes.



Five minutes to change her skirt?



No way. She had three straight days of traveling ahead, and missing any one of her flights could send her into eternal airport purgatory. She couldn’t afford that right now. Not when her trip culminated in a visit to New York City, where she hoped to lock-down the key terms of the sale of the software business owned by her client, Jerry Tollefson.



She’d been negotiating the contract for months, and knew everyone in her firm was watching—especially the partnership committee. If she screwed this up, they’d never forget it.



Not to mention that, after four years of working together, Jerry happened to be closest thing to a best friend she had. He deserved a great deal, and she was determined to get it for him.



“Why don’t you let me get Fritzy?” Mrs. Jenkins offered.



Tori watched in amazement as the fragile woman tottered to the edge of the porch. Stabilizing herself with one hand on the wooden railing, Mrs. Jenkins peered into the darkness. “Fritzy, you come here right now,” she called, a hint of steel underlying her gentle voice.



A few moments later, an orange-striped tabby curled around Mrs. Jenkins’s feet, mewing and rubbing his head on the old woman’s orthopedic black shoes.



Tori’s heart snapped. She couldn’t even pretend it didn’t hurt.



“I feed him tuna sometimes while you’re gone,” Mrs. Jenkins said, almost apologetically. “Don’t feel bad. I know how busy you are. Cats are difficult, you know. They take things personally.”



She blinked. “I don’t know how to thank—”



Mrs. Jenkins—what was her first name, anyway? Tori realized she had no idea—raised a hand to stop her. “You run along and catch your plane, sweetheart. Fritzy and I will be fine.”



Tori took one final look at the cat—her cat—sprawled lovingly on the ground in front of her neighbor, and ran for the car. She really should have gotten a pet rock instead.









The first thing Brit Bencher, CEO of Excorp Corporation, noticed about Tori was her stance: feet slightly wide-set, shoulders flung back. A large leather purse swung over one shoulder. She held out a stack of papers in front of her.



She was determined. Confident. A worthy adversary.



Good. Brit didn’t do guilt, but he did occasionally do regret. And manipulating a woman without a decent set of defenses had the potential to leave him experiencing exactly that. The same unpleasant emotion he now carried around for having let his little sister move to California and shack up with The Asshole.



Ever since she’d found her boyfriend screwing her best friend almost a year ago, his baby sister had been mired in a deep, painful depression. Brit had persuaded her to relocate to New York in the hopes that a fresh start would help, but she seemed to slip further into her misery once she arrived. She’d been in town for four months, and other than buying groceries she barely even left her apartment.



The rest of the family said he should give her time, but whom were they kidding? At the rate she was going, she’d wither away by summer. Melissa didn’t need space—she needed a job. A job would get her out of the house, give some structure to her days, and, most importantly, give her something to think about other than her prick of an ex.

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