I wake up to the sound of my phone ringing. Cursing at myself for forgetting to turn off the ringer, I sit up in bed. The two women I had taken home earlier from the club are lying on either side of me, fast asleep. I try not to wake them as I get up off the bed.
The screen of my phone guides me in the half-darkness of my bedroom. I make my way to where it lies forgotten on the carpet, among the discarded clothing. When I see Marcus’s name on the caller ID, I don’t hesitate to swipe to answer the call.
“What is it?” I say, snatching up a robe that is hanging on the back of a chair on my way to the balcony. If my CFO and best friend is calling me at 3 am, it’s a conversation that requires privacy.
“The board is calling for a special meeting on Wednesday,” Marcus says. “They want to remove you from the CEO position.”
“They can’t do that.” I shrug into the robe before stepping out onto the balcony. Saldana doesn’t have the numbers—”
“It’s not just Saldana,” Marcus cuts in. “It’s your aunts.”
Shit. Between his two aunts on the board and Saldana — who had never been subtle about his dissatisfaction with me as CEO — they had enough votes to actually fire me.
“Why?” I force my half-asleep brain to wake up and try to think back on everything that’s happened in the company the past few months. The clothing company I ran, Marin Elizondo, is in great shape. The new product line had a successful launch last month. There are no problems with our suppliers or our distribution chain. I could not think of anything they could fault me for.
The silence that meets my question is so long that I wonder if either Marcus or I had fallen asleep.
“It’s you,” Marcus says. “Your lifestyle.”
“Tia Carmen believes your reputation as a serial dater is bad for the company’s brand.”
“You’re not joking, are you.”
“I wish I were. Our recent marketing campaigns have been targeting younger shoppers. Debauchery is not a good look these days, at least not with Amanda Gorman and Greta Thunber’s generation.”
“Fuck.” I run a hand down my face. I work hard. I’m good at my job. Brilliant, if I say so myself. Not being able to commit to a relationship was an unfortunate result of the time I dedicated to work.
It isn’t as if I never tried to find my way into respectable married life. I have. I was engaged to Guillerma Lopez for six months, after all. Gigi was fun while we were dating. The moment I slipped that ridiculously large diamond ring on her finger, she wouldn’t stop haranguing me about spending less time at work and more time with her. It strained our relationship so much I had no choice but to break up with her.
It was the mess with Gigi that made me wake up to the truth— sticking to short-lived affairs was the only thing that made sense, it suited my lifestyle. And if I can’t have a steady relationship, I’m sure as hell not going to become a monk. Work hard, play hard had always been my unspoken motto since my university days.
But I knew Marcus was right. How could I have not seen this coming? Sure, I frequently made the tabloid websites and society pages with my unending string of girlfriends. But I thought that so long as I did my job, it didn’t matter what I did after hours.
“I’m sorry,” Marcus said. “I’m sure this could have waited until morning.”
“No, no, you were right to call me. So the board is meeting on Wednesday. I assume it won’t be officially on the schedule until Monday? Because I haven’t been informed of it.”
“Yes. That fulfills the 48-hour rule for calling for a special meeting. Just.”
I nod to myself. “That should be enough time.”
“Time for what?”
“I don’t know. I’ll think of something.” I turn toward my bedroom. I hadn’t turned on the lights so I could barely make out the figures of the women sleeping in my bed. “Go back to bed, Marcus. I’ll call you in the morning.”
This isn’t the first time I’ve been awakened in the middle of the night — well, technically it’s an hour or so before dawn — by a work call. Specifically, a phone call from Mr. Marin. I reach out toward the nightstand to switch on a lamp as I plug in my AirPods before swiping the screen to answer the call.
“Yes, sir, Mr. Marin,” I say, adopting the tone I use for work.
“My aunts have called for a special meeting of the board of directors on Wednesday,” Raul says. “What do you know about it?” His voice is slightly husky with sleep and I can’t help the tingle that slides up my spine at the sound.
Stop it, Kate.
Unfortunately, my brain is already imagining what he’s wearing at that moment. Does he sleep in his boxers? Naked?
Does he have a woman in bed with him?
At that last thought, I swallow a lump in my throat. Trying to focus on the topic at hand, I reply honestly, “Nothing.” I don’t bother trying to recall whether or not I’ve gotten word of a special meeting next week. I know I’d remember. “I hadn’t been informed about this. But I’m sure tomorrow— I mean, in the morning I can find out—”
He cut me off. “They hadn’t filed the paperwork yet. Which is why we didn’t know about it until now. But it’s happening.”
There’s something in his tone that tells me he has more to say about it. “What’s the agenda?” I ask. I already had my Notes app ready to jot down anything important.
“They’re firing me, Kate.”
I feel my heart leap in my chest. “No,” I whisper. “I mean, why?”
Wide awake now, I get up. I’m going to need caffeine for this.
I head to the kitchen as Raul explains the situation. My sister Maricar who is visiting is in the living room, still awake and bingeing something on Netflix. She frowns upon seeing me. She knows I’d gone to bed hours ago. I wave my hand to indicate that everything is fine. Knowing her, it’s safe to assume she knows this is a work call. She’s always on my case about how I need to have boundaries when it comes to my boss but she can lecture me about it in the morning. I meant to make myself a coffee. Instead, I end up sitting on the counter, an empty mug in my hand, listening to him speak.
“Oh,” I say when he finished.
“You don’t seem surprised.”
I take a deep, silent breath. What can I say? This isn’t a surprise. Granted, I didn’t expect his aunts to take such an extreme measure as actually firing him from the CEO position. They were family, for God’s sake. Surely, they could have talked about it first?
“Ms. Hernandez has made her thoughts about your … lifestyle known. It’s no secret she thinks it could make the company look bad.” I wince at the last word. Raul Marin is a grown man of thirty-five. So long as he isn’t hurting anyone, people have no right to make judgments about how he chooses to live his life. Not even his relatives. Even if the cold truth is that the rules are different for the CEO of a billion-dollar corporation.
Sure, Kate. Keep telling yourself you personally don’t care he brings home a different woman every week. Tell yourself it’s better than him being married and devoted to a single woman.
I lay my phone down on the marble counter to keep myself from gripping it too hard. Some days I wonder if he still loves his ex-fiancée, Gigi. If he still thinks about her.
The silence that follows tells me that nothing I just told him is anything he doesn’t already know.
“I think,” I say, then pause, thinking. “I think they’re anticipating some problems with the acquisition of DS. That’s why they’re railroading this.”
“Carmen and Grace will be nominating Bianca, I think.”
I nod to myself. Bianca Hernandez-Smith is Raul’s cousin and currently the company’s Chief Operating Officer. “She’s the obvious choice. And she’s, well…”
“Married. A stable family life. Kids,” he says.
Another long silence. “Your thoughts?”
I clear my throat. “Well, you can speak to your Tia Carmen—”
“No, Kate,” he says, interrupting me. “What do you think about me?”
Gorgeous. Smart. Funny.
“Sir?” I feel my face flush. “I don’t understand.”
“Do you agree with my aunts’ assessment of my character?”
“No, of course not. But they’re not wrong.” I know he expects me to give it to him straight. Still, it doesn’t stop the nervousness that courses through me. “You told me that much of what constitutes leadership is good communication. Every action is a message. What you choose to show of yourself to the world and your company is a message too.”
The truth is, Raul Marin doesn’t need this job. He’s the heir to his family’s food manufacturing empire. Marin Elizondo was just one of their business interests. But it wasn’t a matter of money or a job. This job — this company —was his passion.
I catch my breath at the sexy hum I hear over the phone. He does that when he’s thinking. I should be used to it by now, having been his assistant for seven years. And yet, heat sparks in my belly upon hearing it.
“Do you have a plan, sir?” I say. I know we’ll need to figure out a strategy before Monday. That means we have a little over twenty-four hours.