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  • Writer's pictureAlexis Winter

*Looking For Trouble Sneak Peek*






Chapter 1-Cyrus

“They’re backing out of the deal.”

I drop the paper in my hand and look up at my CFO, Nelson, a panicked expression across his weathered face as he barges into my office.

“What the fuck do you mean they’re backing out?”

“Exactly what it sounds like.” He shuts my door and steps further into my office. “I told you, Cyrus. I told you your reputation would get the best of you someday and it has, goddammit!” His cheeks grow red with frustration as he narrows his gaze at me over his glasses, sweat beading at his temples.

“That can’t happen, so either tell them it’s back on or get my lawyer Terry on the phone to find a legal loophole.”

“There is no loophole this time, Cyrus. They made sure of it in their morality clause in the contract.” He wags his finger at me.

I stare at him, his chest heaving. I reach for the intercom button on my phone.

“Abigail, get Terry Wetzler on the phone for me, please, and let him know I want to see him standing in my office within the next twenty minutes or he can find a new big whale for his firm.”

Nelson rolls his eyes at me, something that irks me in the moment, but I ignore it.

“I don’t pay him two grand an hour to allow deals like this to slip through the cracks. We’ve been in talks with Meridian Telecom for over two years to secure this deal and I’ll be damned if they suddenly grew a set of balls and think I’m too immoral.”

“It’s the shareholders and the board, Cyrus; you know that. Meridian doesn’t just own the largest newspaper and two of the largest television networks in the world; they own several family-friendly networks along with a massive children’s movie company. They don’t want it to get out that the man who just bought them has a reputation for blackmailing and strong-arming his way into deals, let alone the fact that the last woman you went on several very public dates with was married to your business rival, Peter Frisk!”

I snap my eyes up and watch as Nelson flinches. He swallows whatever else he’s about to say when he sees the look on my face. I let out a huff of a laugh and lean forward, folding my hands on my desk as I narrow my gaze at him.

“Are these the issues you have with me or did they tell you all this?”

“Sir.” My intercom comes alive with Abigail’s voice. “I have Terry here to see you.”

I stand up and reach for my suit coat. “Last time I checked, Nelson, I was signing your paychecks so I suggest you lower your fucking voice when you speak to me. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a meeting to resolve this mess that you can’t seem to handle.”

Nelson doesn’t respond. He spins on his heel and waddles his portly body through my office door, leaving it wide open as he grumbles his way toward the elevator. This isn’t the first time I’ve had to put Nelson in his place, and it won’t be the last.

He’s not wrong. I have a reputation, not only in Chicago but throughout my industry. Do I give a shit? No. I don’t blackmail or strong-arm good, ethical people into deals; those kinds of people don’t have dirt I can use against them. But the dirty lowlifes that think they can manipulate me and then want to back out when they realize they can’t get what they want? Well, those are the kinds of rats I enjoy playing target practice with.

I tell them all the same thing. “You want to be a big man and try to fuck me over, be my guest. Because my dick is twice as big and I will show you zero mercy when I strip you of every ounce of self-respect you have for yourself.”

“Terry, thanks for coming over so quickly.” I smile and hold out my hand to my lawyer.

“Didn’t really have a choice now, did I, Cyrus?” He laughs but the sarcasm is practically dripping from his lips. “You know you can call me without summoning or threatening me, right? I’m well aware you’re our biggest client, as are the other partners.”

“Good to hear it.” We take a seat and I launch right into the issue, not wanting to waste anyone’s time. “Look, I’ve got a little issue surrounding my deal with Meridian. Nelson let me know they’re threatening to back out based on a morality clause in the contract.”

“Yes, I’m well aware of the morality clause, as are you. I’m also aware of their threats. We discussed it, or rather, I tried to discuss it with you a few times, but you brushed it off. You told me it was some”—he holds up his hands in air quotes—“‘pious power play’ by them.”

“Because it is,” I double down.

“Doesn’t mean it’s not legit. All of us at Wetzler, Bergen and Pierce have gone over the contract in detail and there are no loopholes. There is no getting around this clause. Another thing I made abundantly clear to you before you even put pen to paper on this deal, but you didn’t seem to be concerned about it.”

I stare at Terry and I can tell by the expression on his face that he isn’t bullshitting me. I don’t exactly enjoy not getting my way, not because I’m a spoiled child but because most of the time, it’s just because someone hasn’t done the work to figure out a new way to get me what I want.

How the fuck else do you think I became the most powerful billionaire in Chicago before the age of forty?

“So what’s the plan then? I just lose one of the biggest deals in media history because they don’t like who I fuck or how I manage my enemies?”

Terry reaches into the left pocket of his lapel, producing a small white business card. He leans forward, placing it on my desk and sliding it toward me with one finger.

“Call Lisa Wade, like I told you to do a year ago.”

I stare down at the name printed in black block letters. She’s a pit bull through and through, owner of the most prestigious PR firm in the city—hell, probably in the US. She’s the person anyone who’s anyone calls the moment they find themselves in hot water.

“This deal hasn’t walked yet, Cyrus.” Terry stands up and tugs gently on his cuffs beneath his suit jacket sleeves. “If it had, I’d have heard from their lawyers. It’s a threat and if there’s one thing I know about you, it’s how you level up and come back swinging twice as hard. Lisa is expecting your call. She’ll get your reputation in check, and then we’ll knock it out of the park with this deal.”

After we say our goodbyes, I sink back down in my chair, flipping the business card in my fingers over and over. I hate admitting defeat and I really fucking hate having to pander to people’s ideas of who they think I should be.

I’ve never pretended to be a saint or a nice guy. I’ve been called the “bad boy billionaire of Chicago” for a reason and I wear it like a badge of honor. I refuse to kowtow to people and kiss their ass just so they shake my hand and smile to my face while stabbing me in the back with their other hand.

I toss the card on my desk and stand up, walking over to the window to look down at the people filling the streets far below. They look like ants from up here.

I think about what my dad would have done in a situation like this. Actually, I know what my dad would have done. He’d have groveled, bent over backward, and sold his soul if it meant that he’d be seen in a better light. That’s the biggest lesson he taught me before he died of pancreatic cancer at fifty-four years old. My dad worked day and night, sacrificed his wife, his health, and his sanity, all so people would think he was a good guy, so he could appease everyone else, and still, he was destroyed by those who pretended to be his friends. He died penniless—in debt actually—and not a single one of those soul-sucking leeches even showed up to his funeral.

I can feel my pulse in my temples; my blood pressure is through the roof. I reach up and tug at my tie, hoping that by loosening it, I’ll find relief, but it does little to help. I glance over my shoulder at the business card on my desk, taunting me. I hate asking for help… I hate admitting that I need help.

“Fuck it.” I walk back over and pick it up, pulling my phone out of my pocket with my other hand and dialing the number—not the one that’s printed, but the one that’s been scribbled on the back next to the words personal cell.

“Lisa Wade.” Her tone is clipped, her voice deeper than I remember.

“Lisa, this is Cyrus. Cyrus Gates.”

“Cyrus! Last time I saw you was at that holiday party where my husband was trying to convince you to buy his boat.” She lets out a throat chuckle. “How are you?”

“Been better I suppose if I’m calling you.”

“Well, tell me what the issue is.”

This time, I laugh. “We both know the answer to that already, Lisa.”

***

“How bad is it?” I squirm in my chair as Lisa pours over her tablet, her tortoiseshell glasses barely hanging on to the end of her professionally sculpted nose. Her white blouse is wrinkle-free, tucked crisply into a pair of slim black pants. Shiny, classic black Louboutin heels adorn her feet that are tucked delicately beneath the chair she’s perched on, one ankle crossed over the other.

She glances up at me, slapping the cover closed before staring me dead in the eyes.

“Could be way worse. Honestly, the fact you don’t have any paternity suits and you haven’t been caught with illegal substances or prostitutes is a big plus in my world.” I smile, but she continues. “That being said, you should have listened to me at that holiday party a year ago when I told you to take that adjunct professor position being offered to you at the University of Chicago.”

I crook an eyebrow. “Seriously? Me teaching? Come on now, Lisa. I might have graduated from their hallowed halls, but I’m sure as shit not their golden boy. They do love to cash my alumni checks though.”

“Just doing a simple search of your name and seeing the top images and articles that pop up about you in the last few months, I’d tell you off the top of my head to stop sleeping with married women, being photographed with women young enough to be your daughter, and athletes who like to break the law.”

“In my defense, Nikki told me they were separated and pursuing a divorce,” I say, referring to Nikki Frisk, the now ex-wife of Peter Frisk, the tech giant of Chicago. “How the fuck was I supposed to know she was lying and just doing it to get back at Peter for screwing their fourth nanny?”

She waves away my excuse. “The public doesn’t know those details. What they saw was a spoiled forty-six-year-old billionaire with a married twenty-nine-year-old woman who is now divorced.”

“That wasn’t on me!” I say defensively. “They made that bed together. I was merely a pawn that was used. And those photos of me with models are old; I haven’t been to one of those yacht parties in ages. Every few months the press circulates some old photo of me with some bullshit headline. It’s clickbait, Lisa.”

“Bottom line, Cyrus, is that the public passed a judgment on you a long time ago that you can’t change. I’m not here to wipe away your past. As my political clients like to say: I’m merely here to help you establish a clean slate, make people forget the past they’re so blinded by your future.”

“I like the sound of that.”

“I’m not sure you will once I tell you how we’re going to do it.”

“What?” The smile fades from my lips as I sit up straighter.

“I called the university. They’re still willing to extend you the offer to teach a grad level class for a semester. The fact is, it makes them look good to perspective students when one of the powerful men in America not only graduated from their institution, but came back to teach a class there… free of charge.” She reaches into her briefcase and pulls out a file, tossing it onto my desk. “That’s the coursework; it starts in four weeks.”

“I’m doing this for free? Of course there’s a fucking string attached.” I reach for the folder and pick it up to read it. “Ethics in Business?” I laugh and close it. “You’ve gotta be shitting me. Of all people to teach that?”

She shrugs. “Trust me, it seemed like a joke to me too, but they insisted they were willing to have you teach it.”

“I’m not a teacher, Lisa.”

“And I’m not a miracle worker, Cyrus. This is gold, handed to us on a silver platter. The bad boy billionaire stops behaving like a twenty-five-year-old trust fund baby and starts teaching ethics at a prestigious institution? Meridian won’t think twice if they know that a school that often outranks the Ivies in academics trusts you enough to teach such subject matter.”

I reach for the folder again and begin flipping through the course information as Lisa stands and gathers her things.

“In the meantime, lay low. I mean it. No parties, no celebrity events, and no young women.” She raises both her brows at me, a deep wrinkle filling in across her forehead like she makes this expression often.

“As you wish.”

I spend the rest of the afternoon and early evening sipping whiskey and hiding away in my office—sulking. By the time I leave and make my way downstairs to my driver, Wes, I’m tipsy.

Professional? Not in the slightest, but all I can focus on is sinking my teeth into a porterhouse and washing it down with a damn fine glass of scotch.

“Evening, Wes.” I toss my coat across the back seat, not bothering to put it on. “Drop me over at The Waterhouse. Craving one of their steaks.”

“Will do, sir.”

I love The Waterhouse because it’s dark and quiet and off the beaten path. I can sit here for hours and not be recognized. I haven’t been by in almost six months actually, so I practically devour my steak at the bar.

“Ready for that scotch?”

“Ready.” I nod to Frank as he takes my plate away and pours me a few fingers of liquor.

“How’s business?” he asks, handing me the tumbler. Frank knows who I am; he’s been the bartender here for the last few years and someone I’ve grown to trust.

“Of all days you should ask.” I shake my head. “Just another day of some morally bankrupt corporation attempting to trample me on their high horse so they can back out of our deal.”

“The Meridian Telecom deal? They want to back out of selling to you?” I’ve vented a few times over the years to Frank about this deal. Typically, I play my cards very close to the vest, but there’s something about Frank that has me talking… Could be the scotch.

“Yup. Something about me being too immoral.”

“Come on”—he leans his hands on the bar—“you’re Cyrus Gates. Surely, you won’t let them get the upper hand.”

That makes me laugh. “Of course not. I’m just biding my time. Trying to find the perfect opportunity to fucking destroy them and then lowball them with an offer they can’t refuse,” I say in jest. The reality is, I could do that, but it’s not my plan. My plan is to get them to realize that putting some bullshit morality clause into a contract is asinine and it won’t change my behavior or stop me from purchasing them.

I bring the glass to my lips, but pause when I hear a huff of annoyance to my left. I turn and look at the woman I previously hadn’t noticed sitting beside me. Her gaze is forward, buried in a book actually. Her auburn hair is pulled over her shoulder opposite of me. Her exposed neck is long and lean. I let my gaze wander down her body for a second, her oversized sweater giving nothing away, but the knee-high boots and short skirt she’s wearing have me curious about what’s underneath. I’m a sucker for long, shapely legs. I absentmindedly clench my jaw at the thought.

Damn, how the hell did I not notice her?

“Something on your mind?”

“Just ironic, I guess.” She continues staring at her book as she responds dismissively.

“Do tell.”

She closes her book, then slowly turns to face me, the dim light of the bar making her look almost angelic. She’s young, young enough that I almost ask if she’s old enough to even be in a bar. Now I feel like a creep for looking at her the way I did only seconds ago.

“Well, it’s ironic that you’re an infamous billionaire, notorious for—”

“Infamous?” I laugh, cutting her off as I look over at Frank. “This is starting off well. Sorry, continue.” I take another healthy swallow of scotch, my head starting to swim, signaling I need to head home, but I’m far too invested in what this young woman has to say to leave right this second. Not to mention she’s stunning.

“Notorious for being reckless, unmanageable, and oftentimes downright unethical. And yet, you’re criticizing a company for the same behaviors. A company which you openly admit that you plan to destroy, thus proving their own point to them.”

I can’t hide the shit-eating grin that takes over my face. How fucking adorable. Clearly this young lady doesn’t know the first thing about real life and how terrible most humans are, especially the ones with an ounce of money or power. I don’t bother explaining that my comment about a hostile takeover of their company was a joke. She obviously has an already ill-informed opinion of me.

“What are you reading?”

She glances at the book in her hand, then slowly lifts it off the bar to show me.

The Modern Billionaire,” I read the title aloud. “Ah, let me guess… there’s a chapter in there about me?”

“Just finished reading it actually. Turns out, you’re not a very nice guy.” She gives me a look as if to say, and what do you have to say about it?

I smile, finishing my drink and pulling several bills from my wallet.

“To be clear, I’m not criticizing the company for being unethical or immoral. What I don’t like is when they pretend that they don’t do the same practices as everyone else because they own a few kid-friendly, family-focused businesses. And then they turn around and try to fuck me up the ass because they want to appear that they’re not like me, while gladly cashing my billion-dollar offer. Everybody has a price, Miss, and money isn’t an issue for me.”

She opens her mouth like she’s about to respond, then shuts it again, turning her gaze back to the book in her hands.

“Let me guess, they don’t talk about that in there, do they?”

“Well, not really, no.”

“Didn’t think so.” I nod to Frank and slide on my coat.

“That’s the difference between me and all the other billionaires they shit on in books like that. I don’t pretend that donating to a nonprofit or political initiative absolves me of my sins.”

“That aside,” she says matter-of-factly, “the book’s goal isn’t about shit-talking billionaires. It’s to show that there isn’t an ethical means to get there. Somewhere along the way, you stepped on somebody to get where you are.”

“Why is it, that it’s always people who haven’t lived my life, will never be a billionaire, and don’t know me at all who have the most to say about how I’m living? I mind my business. I show respect to those who show respect to me. I don’t step on anyone to get ahead because I don’t have to. Like I said, money talks. I don’t always handle my enemies like I should, and I don’t spare the feelings of people who try to fuck me over, but most importantly…” I lean toward her, placing my hand on the back of her stool till our faces are close together. Her eyes drop from mine to my lips, then back up before I hear her swallow nervously. “I sure as shit don’t pretend to be a nice guy, sweetheart.”

***

Four Weeks Later…

I drum my fingers on the desk in the office the university assigned to me. I told them several times I really didn’t need an office, considering I own one of the largest high-rise office buildings in the city, but they insisted.

“Oh, trust me,” Miss… Miss somebody I can’t even remember now said to me as she gave me a tour of the grounds at a turtle’s pace. “You’ll need it for grading and student meetings.”

God, student meetings.

The thought of being in an enclosed space with students has my jaw clenching tightly. I glance around the room, once again questioning what the actual fuck I’m doing here when my phone buzzes with a text from Lisa.

Lisa: You’ll be fine. Hope you’re already in your class and not hiding out somewhere running late.

“Goddammit,” I mutter, realizing class started four minutes ago. “How the hell—” I shake my head and grab my tablet to head into class.

The room is large, the rows tiered. Students are mingling, spread out in random clumps around the space.

I shut the door, a little harder than needed to get their attention, and immediately the chatter stops, only to be replaced with a few whispers and murmurs.

“Oh my God. That’s Cyrus Gates. He’s our guest lecturer this semester?” I hear one woman exclaim as she leans toward her friend, both women blushing as they look at me.

“Good morning,” I say flatly. “I have no interest in shouting all semester so everyone sit in the front three rows.” They glance nervously at one another, a few obeying immediately while the others question if I'm serious. “Now!” I shout loudly and they scramble to their feet.

“As most of you probably already know, I’m Cyrus Gates. I will be your professor this semester for Ethics in Business. Since this is a grad level course, I expect you all to behave like adults and be responsible for managing your own time. I have no interest in babysitting any of you. I also don’t care to take roll; this isn’t grade school. If you want to pass, show up. Otherwise—” I point toward the door.

I look down the row of students, most of them bright-eyed and eager, a few still shell-shocked, I assume by my lack of warmth. Several are still bundled up from the January cold of Chicago. A few have messy hair where they’ve removed their beanies. For the most part they look young—mid to late twenties, a few forty-plus-year-olds, along with one white-haired man I’d guess to be in his early sixties.

Then… there’s her. She looks so familiar to me, but I can’t place her.

Pale, freckled skin, long auburn hair that almost reaches her waist, and bright-blue eyes. She’s wearing a mint sweater that hangs loosely off one delicate shoulder, leaving it exposed. Her lips look like the shape of Cupid’s bow, plump and pouty with a hint of pink. I do a double take, then shift my eyes back to someone else so I’m not obvious. I feel a clenching in my gut, Lisa’s words from weeks ago ringing in my ears.

“And stop being photographed with young women.”

I’m not a creep. The reality is she’s right about how it makes me look. I only hooked up with younger women in my past a few times because it was an easy one-night stand. They had some daddy issues to work out, wanted to attend a fancy yacht party or two, and I needed to get laid. I wasn’t looking for forever and neither were they. The responsible, age-appropriate women weren’t throwing themselves at me and I was wallowing in self-esteem issues. Not to mention the thought of settling down and forever was about as appealing as a daily colonoscopy. Nikki Frisk happened to be younger at twenty-nine, but I didn’t actively seek her out.

“Anyone care to tell me what the word ethics means to you?” I say, turning my attention back to my class. I glance around the room, but nobody responds.

She raises her hand timidly.

“Yes, Miss?”

“Presley, Presley James.” She says her name almost as if I should know it, but it doesn’t ring any bells.

I lean back, sitting on the edge of the desk, crossing my arms neatly over my chest. “And what does ethics mean to you, Miss James?”

“It’s a set of… a moral code of conduct. Guidelines for how we should behave.” Her voice is angelic, like I imagined it would be. Breathy and a touch high-pitched.

I nod. “Is that what Webster says or is that what it means to you?”

She chews her bottom lip momentarily. “Both, I suppose. I believe that is what ethics is and should be. Morality because otherwise it’s chaos, anarchy.”

“And who decides what is moral? Who decides what is chaos?”

She opens her mouth, then snaps it shut again.

“Miss James,” I say and then gesture to the rest of the room, “and all of you for that matter, I encourage you to think for yourself. We all know how the dictionary defines the word ethics or ethical, but in the real world, there won’t be the morality police helping you, guiding you through every decision. That is something that you’ll have to determine for yourself. Your morality will be based on your own life experiences, your own values, etcetera. So again, I challenge you to look inward and figure out what you are willing to live with when it comes to what is moral. Life is one big gray area most of the time.”

“Is that what you do, Mr. Gates?” She stares at me unblinking, her spine stiff. “Do you make decisions in a vacuum based on your own version of morality or do you take into account that there’s a general idea of what is right and wrong when making your business deals?”

She’s feisty… or perhaps defiant. I can’t decide which turns me on more. Fuck, so not the point and the exact opposite of what I’m supposed to be focusing on here.

I can’t hide the grin that settles over my face. I think for a moment, running my finger slowly over my bottom lip as I contemplate my answer. I want to make it abundantly clear to her and the rest of the class that while there are rules that one should follow or abide by, a man like me is far above them.

“No,” I say flatly, staring at her. “Because when you’re as powerful as I am, when you own most of this city and your name is on the company, you get to make the rules, Miss James.” I watch as her throat constricts with a nervous swallow. I lean forward a touch, lowering my voice for emphasis as she clasps her hands tightly in her lap, her knuckles turning white.

“But you nor anyone else in this room has that kind of power so I would highly suggest that someone like you follow the rules because otherwise you might be facing consequences that you’re not prepared to handle.”

Chapter 2-Presley

My body tenses beneath Cyrus Gates’ intimidating stare as my cheeks flush with embarrassment.

This man doesn’t remember me at all. Then again, it was almost a month ago, he was drinking, and if rumors are true, he goes through women like some go through… What is the rest of the phrase again? Tissues? Underwear? Coffee filters? It’s not like I’d stand out from his string of female encounters.

“What the hell, Pres?” My friend Serenity elbows me gently in the rib, but I keep my gaze forward as Professor Gates continues with the lecture.

Regret churns in my stomach, not that I answered his question in such an opinionated manner, but that once again, I can’t shake my uptight attitude that has plagued me my entire life. I don’t want to see the world as black and white. I know there are a lot of gray areas, especially in business, and honestly, I’d give anything to not be so averse to risk for once in my life. I grew up in an area where right was right and wrong was wrong; there was no margin for interpretation… no differing opinions.

When I graduated high school and moved from small-town, central Illinois to Chicago for college, I wanted to experience life on my own terms. Figure out what life meant to me and what I believed. I promised myself I would be spontaneous and fun. That I would finally throw caution to the wind and do all those wild and exciting things you’re supposed to do when you’re young. But here I am, in my last semester of grad school and I’m still walking that line like a tightrope… wanting so bad to let loose yet too scared of the possible consequences.

I pop open my tablet, diving into my notes as the lecture carries on. I try to remain focused on what Cyrus is saying, but the way he casually reaches his hand up to run it through his hair, brushing it away from his forehead, has me mesmerized. He pushes off the edge of the desk where he’s been perched, sliding his suit coat down his arms and placing it gently on the back of the chair behind the desk.

“I plan to discuss with you some of my own experiences in business, the flat-out unethical bullshit I’ve been privy to as well some of my own actions that people have deemed immoral or questionable. I also plan to share with you why I’ve made the decisions I have and why I stand behind them.”

He casually unbuttons the cuffs of his shirt, slowly rolling up each sleeve to reveal his tan, muscular forearms.

I’ve always struggled with attraction. I was jealous when my friends would fawn over some guy they thought was the hottest man alive, even celebrities and pop stars. I just never met a guy who made me have that kind of reaction. The weak in the knees, make your heart skip a beat and your mouth go dry type of drop-dead desire… till right now.

Well, technically, it happened that first night I saw him at The Waterhouse. The moment I heard the bartender mention the name Cyrus Gates, my ears perked up. He really is notorious and that book I was reading, among other articles I’ve seen over the years, has made it clear the man doesn’t care what anyone thinks. Something about that I-don’t-give-an-F attitude and the way he carries himself is extremely attractive to me. A man that rich, that powerful that nobody can buy off or sway his opinion has me thinking all sorts of inappropriate thoughts. I feel my eyes glaze over and my head tilt as I wonder if he has that kind of dominance and power in bed.

No! This is wrong; this is so wrong on so many levels. This is Cyrus Gates, the man has a reputation as one of the worst men in Chicago who just so happens to be my professor and oh, I don’t know, is old enough to be my dad!

I feel my throat constrict and I reach down for my water bottle as a coughing fit threatens to erupt. Just as I bring it to my lips and take in a full mouthful of water, I cough, spraying the water half on the floor and half on my tablet and lap.

“I hope that you’ll feel com—are you okay, Miss James?” His brows furrow as he turns his attention to me, the rest of the class following suit as I attempt to wave away his concern.

“Ye—yes,” I manage to croak out after swallowing down the remaining water, nodding my head vigorously to reiterate my response. I wipe the water droplets from my tablet with the sleeve of my sweater while trying to nonchalantly dry my mouth and neck where the water ran down.

This is one of those moments people talk about wishing the floor would open up and swallow them whole. If I thought my cheeks were red earlier, they’re almost on fire at this point.

His eyes linger on me for a moment as he carries on with what he was saying.

“As I was saying, I want this class to feel open to discuss your thoughts on what I share with you. Like Miss James did earlier.” He gestures toward me, only deepening the burning sensation on my cheeks. “This class is for you, not for you to spare my feelings. This class is for you to learn, ask questions, even the most uncomfortable ones.”

I sink a little lower into my chair, hoping that if I stay focused on the screen in front of me, I won’t notice the way his eyes burn through me, like he can read every thought in my brain.

The second the bell sounds to signal our class is dismissed, I gather my things and make a break for the door, Serenity following closely behind me.

“What was that all about?” She catches up to me, grabbing my shoulder to spin me around so I face her.

“Nothing. I just answered Professor Gates’ question.”

She gives me a coy smile. “Yeah, we all saw that. I mean, what was with the tension between you two? Do you know him or something?”

“Uh, everyone knows him; he’s Cyrus Gates.” She gives me another look. “No, I don’t know him, Serenity. I just let it frustrate me that he’s our adjunct professor. Come on, that man teaching Ethics in Business? That’s like having a six-year-old with an Easy-Bake Oven teach a culinary class at Le Cordon Bleu.”

Serenity giggles, rolling her eyes at me. “I don’t think that’s quite the right analogy, but I get what you’re saying. Let me guess. That billionaire book you were reading made you hate him?”

I shrug. “Yeah, maybe.”

“Pres, maybe it’s a good thing to learn from someone like him, someone who doesn’t pretend to follow all the rules while we know they’re full of shit. He did tell us that he isn’t saying act like him; he even encouraged us to question his decisions. Besides”—she reaches out and touches my elbow—“we are getting our master’s in public relations, odds are, we’ll end up representing someone like him someday. You’re going to have to remove your personal feelings from it or your ass will get fired immediately.”

“You’re right.” I shake my head, my shoulders falling with the realization that I’m still way too uptight. I need to learn to relax, let go of the things that I have no control over. It’s never served me to be so stressed out and tense all the time. “Guess I’m still working on that part of it. Ugh, now I feel bad that I overreacted. Why do I always shoot my mouth off like that?”

She rubs my back. “Because you’re still that somewhat innocent young girl who moved to the city to experience life and let loose… You just haven’t figured out how to do that yet.”

I think back to when I met Serenity my first week on campus at the University of Chicago. We were both studying business with the desire to continue on with a master’s in public relations. She was instantly my best friend, even though she’s the complete opposite of me. She was born and raised in Chicago, already had a huge network of friends, and knew all the best hot spots and party scenes. I, on the other hand, grew up three hours south of the city in a farm town that had one stoplight and kids that drove tractors to school.

While she has brought me out of my shell a lot, I still can’t seem to shake my good girl persona. I had confessed to her early on in our friendship that I wanted to shed that image, that I wanted to experience life and enjoy my twenties, take a few risks and explore my wild side. Unfortunately, I became so engrossed in school and my internship that a few frat parties, two mediocre short-lived romances, and one weekend in Vegas where I spent almost the entire time writing a paper in the hotel room was as wild as it got for me.

“Besides,” she says, pulling me out of my thoughts, “we both know you’re smarter than him. He’s just a man with a shit ton of money so people admire him.” She winks at me. “It’s our final semester of school forever; take some notes and learn a few lessons from one of the most powerful men in America. It could come in handy someday. Plus, having a connection like Cyrus Gates in the world can’t be a bad thing, right?”

I chew my bottom lip for a second, listening to her.

“You’re right.” I glance over her shoulder just as Mr. Gates exits the building and starts walking away. “Hey, I’ll catch up with you later,” I say as I step around her. “Thanks again for the pep talk, as usual!” I wave to her as I attempt to walk quickly down the sidewalk, dodging the icy patches.

“Professor!” I half shout as I round the building toward the parking lot. “Professor Gates!”

He stops and turns around, a look of confusion on his face as he squints against the sunshine that bounces off the snow.

“Hi, Professor.” I attempt to hide that I’m half out of breath.

He lets out a laugh and shakes his head. “Please don’t call me that.”

“Um, pardon?”

“Professor,” he says with that sexy grin on his lips, “makes me feel… old. Call me Cyrus, or Mr. Gates if you have to.”

“Oh, okay, sorry… Mr. Gates.” I smile nervously.

“What can I do for you, Miss James?” He seems half-annoyed as he pulls back the sleeve of his coat to check the time on his watch. It’s only now I’m realizing how imposing his figure is. Fitting that a man this powerful also looks like he could rip off his suit and be a Marvel superhero at any second. His shoulders are broad, his chest thick and pronounced, even beneath a suit and winter coat.

“I—uh, I wanted to apologize actually, for earlier.” He crooks an eyebrow at me, as if he doesn’t understand what I’m talking about. “I could have been more respectful. I didn’t mean to be argumentative or come across as holier than thou when you called on me in class. I guess what I’m saying is, I’m sorry for not thinking critically and getting defensive instead when you challenged me.”

“I didn’t perceive any disrespect, Miss James. Have a good afternoon.” He turns back toward his car.

“You don’t remember me, do you?”

Shit. I hadn’t planned on reminding him about our little interaction, but once again, before I can think, the words come out of my mouth.

His shoulders square and he turns back to look at me, his eyes studying me momentarily.

“The Waterhouse. I was the woman at the bar… reading the book. The one who said you weren’t a very nice man.” I pause, waiting for a reaction, but he continues to stare at me which makes me even more nervous. “I guess I should apologize for those comments as well, huh?” I smile, hoping he laughs it off.

Recognition smooths his previously perplexed face and a grin tugs at the corner of his mouth. “That’s right… the woman at the bar.” The way he says it has my stomach doing a little flip. His eyes change, growing darker as he runs them down, then slowly back up my body. He drags his hand slowly over his jaw like he’s contemplating what to say next. Then he takes a step closer to me.

“Don’t ever apologize for being honest, Miss James, and don’t”—he narrows his gaze and it makes my stomach clench—“ever compromise your beliefs because you think you overstepped a boundary or owe someone an apology for them.” He steps back and turns to walk back toward his car but stops after taking just two steps.

“One more thing, Miss James.” He only half turns back to face me. “As a young, beautiful woman, never be afraid to stand up to a man like me no matter how unprofessional or disrespectful it might be perceived because this world is full of wolves that will fuck you over and toss you aside and they’ll be praised for it. That’s the one lesson you need to learn from this class this semester. I might not be one of the nice guys, but I won’t lie to you.”

I watch as he slides into his sleek black sports car without another word and drives away. His advice hanging heavy in the air, I try to understand, but the only word he said that seems to echo in my ears is beautiful.

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