Ultimatum: Marriage

By: Ann Major


“Sorry, Claiborne. The decision’s been made. You’re off the project. A lot of people don’t like all the notoriety and publicity you’ve been getting lately because of your association with Mitchell Butler and his daughter, Alicia.”

Jake knew better than to defend himself by saying he was a victim of Butler, too.“I’m just the messenger,” the caller said.

Jake clenched the phone but said nothing more. He wouldn’t beg.

Not that he hadn’t tried to defend himself to the press earlier in the week after they’d set up base camps outside his home and office. All he’d accomplished was to give the reporters words to twist in such a way as to make him look like he was guilty of having been a partner to Butler’s embezzlement scheme.

A final click was followed by a dial tone.

For a second Jake thought about Mitchell Butler and his beautiful daughter. Had she aided and abetted her father?

Jake Claiborne felt his headache build as he replaced the telephone. Not that he hadn’t been expecting such a call.

He wouldn’t think about her. Or the night he’d spent in her arms. Or how cool and aloof she’d been ever since. Not that he could blame her. Hell, he and Hayes Daniels, his twin brother’s CEO, had turned Mitchell into the feds the day after Jake had made love to her.

No doubt she was as guilty as her father. To think or feel anything about such a witch was a recipe for more disaster. No, the thing to do was to move on.

For a long moment he stared down at the miniature New Orleans he’d built. The structures, which were composed of cardboard, plastic and painted foam, looked vivid and exciting on his table against the window. When his icy-blue gaze swept to the model of the brazenly dramatic stadium that until five minutes ago he and his team had still dreamed of building, the hammer in his right temple pounded even more viciously.

Don’t think about her.

Mitchell Butler had been rich and powerful and admired—until six weeks ago. Now his shipyard was bankrupt and his plans for a merger with Claiborne Energy defunct. His pampered daughter had been fired from her job as editor of the Louisiana Observer. Millions were missing from Butler’s offshore bank in the Caymans and from Houses for Hurricane Victims. Or was it billions? The figures quoted by the media seemed to grow exponentially.

Mitchell was broke and so were his investors. Butler, who was the most despised man in Louisiana, was responsible for ruining a lot of people besides Jake.

Tempted to smash the little buildings to the floor, Jake made a fist. He needed a few moments to himself to get his mind off the Butlers and regain his control.

Leaning against his desk and relaxing his hand, he stood there for a long moment, wondering how he’d tell his employees the bad news.

Better to face them now. Better to get it over with.

He jammed his hands into the pockets of his faded jeans and strode out of his private office into that of his secretary.

“Vanessa. Have everybody assemble in the boardroom. Say, in five minutes. And hold my calls.”

Vanessa, who had twenty years on him and a will of iron hardened by a bitter marital experience, continued to tap steadily on her keyboard. She was a formidable worker, A single mother, she’d raised her three boys on her own.

Jake stepped closer to her desk and whispered, “It’s not my fault your ex cheated on you and got that other woman pregnant.”

Frowning, she pulled her gaze from her computer screen and looked up at him.

“Just checking to see if you even knew I was here or heard a word I said,” he said.

“Five minutes. Boardroom. Everybody assemble. Hold calls.” She poked her pencil into her bun, whirled, got on the intercom and barked out the order.

Ten minutes later, his headache much worse, Jake stood before sixty of his employees.

“I have some bad news,” he said, stiffening when they whitened. He disliked disappointing those who counted on him almost as much as he hated failing.

“We can’t get the funding we need to build the stadium. Jones won’t even pay for our latest revisions to the designs…so I’m afraid I have no choice but to…”

He was about to mention he would be calling quite a few people into his office to discuss their termination when Vanessa whirled toward him looking as dark as those first ominous storm bands on the horizon that signaled a hurricane. She slapped a phone into his palm.

She was frowning so coldly he knew better than to ask what could possibly be more important than his informing his employees that because of Mitchell Butler he was going to have to let quite a few of them go.

“Your house alarm system went off. Your service says it’s broken glass and that a perimeter has been breached.”