Sebastian didn’t appreciate being summoned by Ethan, but he strode into his office anyway, surprised to find Ashley already there.
Her soft hair fell over her shoulders, her beautiful profile relaxed. Because she didn’t know he was there.
“What’s with the summons?” he asked his brother.
She swung around, obviously surprised to see him.
“You, sit, too,” Ethan said. The fact that he was used to Ethan’s demanding personality didn’t lessen the annoyance he felt. “I don’t appreciate the commands,” he muttered, but sat in a chair anyway.
“Ethan? What’s going on?” Ashley asked, sounding confused.
“I’m still waiting on Parker, but while I have you two, I have something to say.”
Ashley leaned forward in her seat. Sebastian leaned back, waiting.
“You’re both driving me fucking insane.” Ethan held up a hand before they could speak. “I know you both mean well, I know you’re worried about me, but I can’t take the hovering.”
He glanced at Sebastian. “I don’t need my hand held at every meeting. I don’t need my mail delivered by you, as an excuse to check up on me every damned day.” He turned to Ashley. “And I’m sick to death of cranberry muffins.”
“I could make blueberry,” she offered, tongue in cheek.
Sebastian grinned. She met his gaze, her soft lips lifting as they shared their first joint chuckle in what felt like forever, and it felt good.
But he hadn’t realized he’d been smothering his brother. He’d just been worried about him, as Ethan had said.
“I need space.” Ethan looked at Ashley. “Do you plan on going back to London soon?” he asked, his voice gentle.
Sebastian held his breath, waiting for an answer, not ready for her to leave. Not when he hadn’t had a chance to spend time with her, to make headway, showing her the man he really was.
“Honestly? I’m not ready to leave you alone,” she said to Ethan, and Sebastian blew out a relieved breath. “I know you have your family around you, but I feel like it’s so soon, and I want to be here for you.”
His expression softened at her admission. “You know I appreciate everything. Both of you.”
“Sorry I’m late,” Parker interrupted, joining them then, walking in without knocking.
Sebastian wondered why they were all gathered here as Ethan acknowledged Parker with a nod.
“Now that we’re all here, I need to let you know about what’s going on with our San Francisco office and Keystone project on which they’ve been working.”
Sebastian knew they’d won a bid to provide the high-tech locks on all the doors for Keystone, a multimillion-dollar defense contractor, building a new, secure headquarters building in northern California. As far as Sebastian knew, things had been progressing as planned.
Ethan glanced at Sebastian, letting him know without words that he was deliberately including him, trusting him, making up for what he hadn’t done when it came to Mandy.
Sebastian swallowed hard. “What’s going on?”
“Of all the stupid shit that can go wrong, the electronic door locks aren’t closing securely. The prototypes worked fine, but once installed, they’re failing. One piece in the automation is screwing with the entire thing. The whole campus relies on that security. We need to throw money at the problem to determine what’s going wrong, but there’s no extra money to be found. And we all know Mandy had been running that project.”
For six months, Mandy had gone back and forth from New York to California, even living there part time while the project got up and running. She and Ethan had been bicoastal, but it seemed to work for them.
“What I don’t know is where Mandy got the money for her drugs. Now there’s money missing from the Keystone project. Coincidence? I don’t think so. I was blind because I needed to trust her or I had no marriage. And I missed the fact that something was going on right under my nose.” Ethan set his jaw tight, clearly tense and pissed off.
“Shit,” Parker muttered. “What’s the plan?”
Ethan met Parker’s gaze. “I’m going to stay on the software people.” The keys weren’t physical, per se, but used via a smartphone or special key configured to wirelessly perform the opening and closing process. But there were also mechanical parts, and those had been purchased via the California office.
“I want you and Ashley to head out to San Francisco,” Ethan continued. “Figure out which parts aren’t working in the damn locks. Ashley, you can dig through accounting and Sebastian, you can calm Stephan Romano, who’s losing his fucking mind. We can’t afford to lose this project. Our reputation will take a hit, and financially it’ll kill us.”
“You want me to look at the books?” she asked, sounding surprised. “I thought after I turned down your offer to come work here after I graduated, you handed things over to your friend’s firm.”
Sebastian’s gaze grew wide. Ethan had offered her a job? She could have been back here much sooner? Damn.
“I don’t hold grudges,” he told her. “Besides, I need you. I don’t want anyone getting wind of the fact that we’re having problems with such a lucrative project. I trust you,” he said gruffly.
She nodded in understanding. “Of course I’ll help.”
“When do we have to leave?” Parker asked.
Parker, who’d never been meant to have a desk job. He’d been a skiing phenomenon, destined for the Olympics until he tore his ACL on a downhill run and did permanent damage to his knee. Sebastian often did a double take when he walked in here and saw his middle brother in a suit and tie. Parker was a man more comfortable in the outdoors than in the office. He knew the pain his brother felt at being forced into a role he’d never wanted.
Sebastian looked from Ashley to Parker, not surprised that Ethan had chosen Parker to go out and handle Romano. Sebastian had begun to realize they’d put him on deals that were already secure, the lack of trust permeating through his placements in ways he hadn’t recognized until now.
“I’ll go,” Sebastian said, recognizing that this was his chance. The opportunity to show his family he could step up and handle a crisis. Be the man they could rely on.
Beside him, he felt more than saw Ashley stiffen. Going away with him was not in her plans, he thought wryly. But he focused on Ethan, meeting his brother’s gaze, not blinking, not wavering.
He wanted this. Not only because it meant spending time with Ashley but because he needed to prove to everyone, including himself, that he could be trusted.
Ethan’s gaze slid to Parker, who merely shrugged. “Whatever you decide is fine with me.”
Parker’s easygoing demeanor stemmed not only from the fact that he was the middle child, who found it easy to let the chaos of four siblings go on around him, but from the fact that he’d come into this business as a last resort and was willing to do what he was told.
Ethan studied Sebastian, thinking about who knew what, holding Sebastian’s fate in his hand, before nodding. “Fine. You two leave tomorrow.”
Sebastian blew out the breath he’d been holding, before turning to Ashley with what was a deliberately sexy grin on his face. This might be business and it was important, but so was she. And he had no issues mixing business with a bit of pleasure.
Carly Phillips. Take Me Again (Kindle Locations 532-591). Carly Phillips.