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Arielle ran after her father, following him out the front door of the office.
Frank Carter, her own father, walked toward his car and didn’t look back.
The early spring morning was cool on Arielle’s arms because she hadn’t worn a sweater, but the sun was already high in the Arizona sky and beginning to warm the air. She yelled after him, “Dad! Talk to me!”
He stopped walking but didn’t turn around to face her. “Ari, go back inside. The staff will have a lot of questions for the HR department. My sister can’t handle them all. I’m relying on you to help them through this transition.”
“Why didn’t you tell me you were selling the business? I could’ve gotten a loan from the bank and bought it from you instead of selling it to some venture capitalist guy who’s just going to plunder and ruin it.”
He shook his head, still facing away from her. “I wouldn’t saddle you with this turkey. Match Play is hemorrhaging money, and there’s no way to turn it around. I was lucky that the Last Chance company was looking for failing businesses to turn around. At least I got a little bit of my investment back.”
“But this was your retirement plan! It was supposed to double your retirement nest egg in ten years.”
Frank Carter walked away from her. “I’m not going to discuss this with you. This is my problem, and I’ll take care of it. You go back in there and take care of those people, Ari. They need you.”
With that, her father bent and got into his Honda Civic that he had been driving since before he’d retired from teaching, and he backed it out.
Arielle didn’t try to block his car to force him to talk to her. She didn’t think her father would run her over, but he would nudge her with the bumper a few times if she got in his way.
Arielle lifted her hands to her head, intending to run her fingers through her hair, but she smacked herself in the face with her cell phone that she was holding.
She tapped the screen a few times to call her mother, who answered almost immediately. “Mom! Did you know Dad was going to sell Match Play?”
Her mother sighed, as Arielle had heard her do a thousand times. Stacy Carter sighed a lot. “We’ve been discussing it for three days. It seemed like the right decision to make.”
“Why weren’t you honest with me about this?” Arielle demanded.
“Because this is none of your business.”
“But you should’ve told me. Dad should’ve told me, and you should’ve called me and told me. You guys didn’t even mention it at Sunday dinner last weekend, and I was sitting right there!”
“Last Sunday, there was nothing to tell. The venture capitalist firm didn’t even contact him until two days ago, on Wednesday. They just finalized the deal half an hour ago.”
“And how did you know that?”
“Because your father called me to tell me the deal had gone through.”
“And he didn’t tell me? You shouldn’t keep things like this from me. It’s not fair to talk behind my back about important things that affect me. You should’ve told me.”
Her mother sighed again. “Again, other than your job, which is secure for at least another two months, it’s none of your business.”
The betrayal was ripping her apart as much as her frantic worry about her parents was. “You should have been honest with me. How can I trust you guys if you aren’t honest with me?”
“It was a business deal. A bank CEO doesn’t poll their employees every time they make a loan.”
“Dad said he got some of his retirement savings back? What the hell does that mean?”
Her mother’s sigh was both exasperated and mournful. “It means that we gambled and we lost. It didn’t look like a gamble at the time, but it was.”
“You lost? How much did you lose?”
“Pretty much everything. The company that bought it paid us about five percent of what your father has sunk into it over the years.”
“Five percent? That’s horrible! Why would anyone do such a thing? I won’t work for such a man. I’ll go back in and quit right now.”
“Well, you shouldn’t, but that’s up to you. Your father took a lower payout to make sure that everyone kept their jobs for at least two months, and those people will need you to help them transfer their health insurance and retirement benefits as they move to new jobs.”
“I won’t work for a person who would do that. It’s unethical to pay someone a nickel for every dollar they invested in a business, especially when it was their retirement savings. It’s dishonest. What kind of a psychopath would do that to a person?”
“It’s one of the better offers we got,” her mother grumbled.
“But Dad can’t retire on that. It’s not enough.”
“Your father will have to go back to teaching. The public school districts won’t hire a fifty-eight-year-old man with thirty-five years of experience, but the Catholic schools are always looking for retired teachers to teach for a few years.”
“But we’re not Catholic.”
Her mother’s tone lowered and became drier. “He’s a math teacher, not catechism.”
“But that won’t be enough. The Catholic schools pay half of what the public schools do. And they don’t have a retirement plan.”
Her mother said, “I’ve been looking for a secretarial job for the past couple of weeks to help make ends meet. I’m sure I’ll find something. I took a typing test, and I can still type over a hundred words a minute. People always need good secretaries.”
Arielle didn’t have the heart to tell her mother that typing speed wasn’t that important anymore or that ‘secretary’ wasn’t even a job title in the current market. “We can figure something out. We can come up with a plan to get you guys back on your feet within a few years. I’m sure I can figure something out.”
“I am not going to discuss our financial situation with my daughter. This is none of your business and not your problem. It’s our problem, and we will handle it.”
“But I can help.”
“We will handle it. I’m just sorry that it’s going to affect you. I didn’t like it when Frank kept hiring family, like you and his sister Molly and my nephew Joe. When Match Play goes down, it will take everyone with it. I know you’d planned to work there until you got married and had kids, and then you and your dad had some sort of a deal where you could go part-time and work from home so you could raise your kids.”
That deal had been made five years ago, which was goddamn ancient history as far as Arielle was concerned. “Why are we discussing that? I’m not even dating anybody.”
“Yes, but you’ll move on with your life someday. I don’t like how long it’s taking you to get over Nick Chauvin. You know your father and I never thought he was right for you, anyway.”
A zing of rage shot through every cell of Arielle’s body. “We don’t say that name.”
“Nick is a common name. You’re going to need to get over that, too. It’s been three years.”
How did Arielle grilling her mother about their financial situation somehow rotate back to her mom once again haranguing Arielle that she needed to get out there and date, she was wasting her twenties, and her ovaries weren’t going to be producing eggs forever. “Don’t change the subject.”
“I’m just saying that most men don’t cheat. Or at least some of them don’t cheat. Your father never cheated on me.”
Arielle squeezed her eyes shut because the conversation was going down the same well-trodden path that she tried to avoid every minute of her life. “We need to talk about Dad and Match Play and your retirement savings.”
“And I said that I’m not going to discuss any of that with my daughter. We will manage. We managed to raise three kids on one teacher’s salary. We’ll be fine.”
And then her mother hung up on her.
Arielle screamed through her teeth and shook her fists at the stupid, uncaring sun blazing in the sky.
And then she took a few deep breaths, got herself under control, and turned to go back inside the office.
The people working at Match Play were going to have a lot of questions about their healthcare plan, accrued vacation time, and severance packages.
It was Arielle’s job to get those answers for them, and she had work to do.
Mitchell Saltonstall stretched his arms above his head as he sat in the Connecticut office of Last Chance, Inc. and glared at the spreadsheet Jericho had sent over about the “fictional” company of Match Play LLC.
If it was a “fictional” company, then he and Jericho weren’t really colluding and therefore breaking the New Year’s Eve bet contract.
However, Jericho was the spreadsheet wizard, while Mitchell was the hard-nosed businessman. He needed Jericho’s spreadsheets to figure out how to turn Match Play around.
The problem was that Jericho’s spreadsheets weren’t merely bleeding red.
The ledgers were gushing red ink.
They were a goddamn Niagara Falls of vermilion-colored numbers in the Excel cells, and red ink meant negative cash flow.
More money flowing out than in.
When Mitchell had been making the Match Play deal, he’d had to agree not to fire any of the current staff for at least two months, which was an unusual and stupid clause in a contract. He shouldn’t have agreed to it. Half of that staff were extraneous and would go in the first purge in May, anyway.
He needed to get that company lean and mean to start increasing its value so he could win the damn bet for his friends.
When the new version of Match Play officially launched on May first, Mitchell was going to hold a press conference at their Phoenix headquarters to drop it with a bang, and then he was going to start weeding out the extraneous staff in that bloated office. Most one-product companies employed a third of the staff that Match Play did. Half of them were going to go in his first round of cuts, and half of the remaining employees would be laid off a month later.
And Mitchell absolutely had to get Match Play in the black, and fast.
After the first quarter of the year, their bet against Gabriel “The Shark” Fish was going very badly.
Jericho Parr had bought a dilapidated country club with a golf course for his project. Turning around a behemoth like that would be tough. Redirecting large projects was like flipping a U-turn in an aircraft carrier. That golf course might garner a thirty percent increase in value if Jericho was damn lucky.
The other two guys, Morrissey Sand and Kingston Moore, were farting around and hadn’t even made an offer on any companies yet.
And, of course, they had no idea what Gabriel “The Shark” Fish was doing out in California. He might have inked a deal on New Year’s Day and was now so far ahead of Last Chance that it would be impossible for them to catch up. He’d probably had a deal all set up and ready to sign on the dotted line, and then he’d bamboozled Mitchell and his friends into a bet that he’d known he could win handily.
The other guys weren’t going to be able to beat The Shark at his own game. Mitchell had to win the bet for Last Chance, Inc. He was their only hope.
To win the bet, they needed a business that would increase its value by at least three or four times, not just a percentage like Jericho’s middle-class country club was going to do.
That’s why reimagining a company would work better than merely improving one.
And that’s why Mitchell was the front runner to win the bet for Last Chance, Inc.
The new app architecture for Match Play was a huge upfront investment, and Mitchell was praying that his gamble would pay off. A computer science company in Andhra Pradesh was building the new dating app from scratch in three weeks. Match Play employed three computer software coders who were just twiddling their thumbs in that Arizona office because three CS guys in Phoenix couldn’t build an app from the ground up in three weeks. The three coders in Arizona could debug and maintain the code until he fired them in May.
Agitation swam under his skin, so Mitchell did the thing he always did when he was getting pissed off at business, which was essentially every day, ever since he was thirteen and away at boarding school in Switzerland. He told his phone, “Call Emily on video chat.”
As the phone rang twice, he felt his shoulders relax and his breath deepen because no one could be stressed and pissed off at the whole goddamn universe while talking to the blond ray of sunshine that was his little sister.
The line opened, and Mitchell could see one blue eye with blond eyelashes and a hooded fold covering her eyelid. “Hello! Mitchell! Is that you?”
Her voice was slightly slurred and thick-tongued when compared to a neurotypical person, but she was as giggly and happy as ever.
He said, “Hi, Emily. I’ve decided to quit my job and become that crazy orange mascot for the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team.”
She giggled a sweet, silly laugh. “April fools! Peregrine already fooled me this morning. I know it’s April the first.”
Their brother Peregrine talked to Emily a lot, too.
Mitchell laughed. “And how is the sunshine of my life today?”
She giggled again. “I am fine, sweetums. How is your business today?”
He told her, “It’s going pretty well. We just got the final computer code installed in the new app that I bought, the one called Match Play. I’m calling my single friends and demanding they sign up for the new dating app for this month’s beta test.”
“It’s funny that it’s called Match Play, when your nickname was Match in high school.”
“It’s like it was meant to be.”
Wonder infused her voice. “Are you going to sign up and go on dates?”
“No, sugarlicious. You’re my whole life. Why would I want to go on dates with someone else?”
“Because you have to get married because I want a sister, and Mom says she isn’t having any more babies.”
“But you should go on dates and fall in love. Love always wins.”
That was Emily’s motto: Love always wins. How could anyone not love that?
But that didn’t mean Mitchell was going on a wife hunt when he didn’t plan to settle down for five or ten years, at least. He had businesses to run, travel to experience, and goals to achieve.
Not to mention a damned-stupid bet to win.
“Em, I am not signing up for Match Play or any other dating app. I’m too busy for dating.”
Emily’s eye crinkled tightly as she grinned. “But if you’re going to be Gritty the Philly Fliers’ mascot, you would have lots of time for dating.”
Mitchell cracked up. “You got me! But I don’t have time for dating right now. You should tell Peregrine that he needs to get married, though. He would definitely love it if you told him that.”
Heh. Peregrine would hit the roof, though not at Emily. He’d chew out Mitchell the next time they saw each other.
Emily said, “Match Play is a really good name for a dating app for golfers.”
“Yeah, I lucked out. Half the reason I bought it was just for the name.”
“I think Match Play is a good idea, a dating app where the first date is always golf. It will make them go out and play golf instead of sitting on their butts.” She giggled because she’d said the word butt.
“That’s always a good idea, Emily. Are you golfing today?”
“No. I am going to work today.” Her smile showed in her voice and her eye in the corner of his phone screen. The Arc, the advocacy association for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, had helped Emily get a job in the cafeteria of a pharmaceutical company for eight hours a week after she’d turned twenty-one. She’d held the position for over a year, and she was so dang proud of it.
Mitchell smiled back at her. “Do well at work.”
“I always do. After that, I have my reading tutor.”
“Busy day, today.”
“Never too busy for my honey bunny big brother.”
The silly nicknames were a game they’d played since she was a kindergartener and he was a teenager. “I suppose I should get back to my work since you think I wouldn’t be a good NHL mascot.”
“Is Match Play a lot of work?”
“Well, yeah. After the other deals fell through when I tried to buy the Sticks chain of golf stores and that ladies golf apparel company, I had to find something else fast. I work a lot at my job, but I like it when the businesses succeed. A strong, stable business that pays employees fairly and does a good job is beneficial for everyone. Last Chance doesn’t wring all the money out of companies and then set them on fire like some other venture capital firms.”
“That’s evil,” Emily said.
“Yes, it is,” Mitchell agreed with her. These calls with her were the best part of his day.
“And you’re not evil,” she told him.
“No, I’m not.” Or at least he tried not to be, sometimes. “But it’s a lot of work to make these companies work right.”
“Can I help?” she asked.
“It’s business, honey. Not family.”
“But I like to help, and I’m good at my job.”
“I know, sweetie-snookums. But this is different than bussing trays in the cafeteria and restocking the milk cooler. Not bigger, just different. You wouldn’t like business. There’s a lot of reading involved.”
“Oh,” Emily said. “My reading tutor says I’m doing better. I want to read A Wrinkle in Time all by myself.”
“That’s amazing, sugar plum. And I know you’ll get there. But my job is business, not family.”
“But I want to help you.”
“You help me every day by being the bright ray of sunshine that you are, honey bear. I think I can come to Mom and Dad’s house this weekend to see you, and I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
The New Owner
On May first, Arielle arrived early at the office, lugging coffee supplies and snacks that she’d bought with her own money because the new owner had cut the office supplies budget to zero and installed crappy vending machines in the break room.
It was unethical to pay people with one hand and then grab that money back with the other for a damn cup of overpriced coffee and a packet of stale crackers. She hoped that the new owner lost money on those damn machines.
Those big old machines made the break room hot, too, which made the air conditioning work harder, which ran up the electric bill because the temperature outside was already over ninety degrees because it was May in Phoenix. The Easterner new owner probably wasn’t netting nearly as much money as he thought he was, and it served him right.
And now, the damned new owner was going to add insult to injury and hold a press conference at noon to announce the official launch of Match Play, the dating app.
A dating app.
Jeez, no wonder her father had taken what little money he could and left instead of staying through the transition. Even though the app was theoretically golf-related because the first dates were all a round of golf that had to be booked through the app, it still felt like a betrayal of everything her father had built.
And she hated to admit it, but the golf courses were signing up their tee times with them again because Match Play was charging inflated rates for booking the times, which netted the courses more money than they made with that mega-store app Golf Wow, damn it.
Moreover, during the beta test, the cancellation rate had dropped to zero.
Because there was an optional box to check for subscribers saying that they would pay for the tee times if they matched and specifying what courses they would play, women golfers were signing up in unprecedented numbers even during the beta test.
Was it just for the golf?
The app’s retention rate was nearly a hundred percent for all genders, which was phenomenal for a dating app, even for just the first month.
But now the beta test was over, and the app was opening up to anyone to download and start “Matching” that day.
Arielle shoved the cookies and chips she’d bought into the drawers just like they always had been and ripped open a new box of artificial sweetener packets.
The new owner was going to arrive just before the noon press conference started. He was just going to blow in and order everyone around like a king.
It was stupid.
He was stupid.
She stomped out of the break room and into the main office.
The new owner even had a ridiculous Easterner name, they’d discovered, Mitchell Saltonstall. What kind of a stuck-up prig had a snooty name like that? She was surprised it wasn’t Mitchell Saltonstall the Third or Esquire or something. It had too many consonants, especially L’s. Arielle liked nice, normal names like Joanne, Julio, Rosita, ShaDonna, Ladonna, Kumar, Jamal, Guadalupe, Ming, Carlyn, Sunil, Anjali, Tyrone, Emma, and Dylan, which were the names of the employees gathered in the office’s main area, waiting for Mitchell Saltonstall to arrive.
They were standing in small, dejected clusters, muttering about what would happen that day.
Those were friendly names, regular names, not the kind of names that would ruin a guy who had taught in public school his whole life and was now tutoring high school kids in a learning center and desperately trying to find a teaching job for the fall. Mitchell Saltonstall was probably a sniveling guy with nasty hair and a chain-smoking habit who stole pennies from the convenience store change-sharing trays.
Mitchell Saltonstall. It just sounded stuck-up.
Arielle’s molars slid against each other, and her jaw clicked. The teeth grinding was new, her dentist had said and told her to knock it off.
All morning, Arielle liaised with the event planner who’d marched in and demanded half of the cubicles be shoved aside to make room for a podium where Mitchell Saltonstall was going to stand and launch his stupid dating app.
He was already literally shoving Match Play’s employees aside to aggrandize himself. Such a typical move for a narcissistic psychopathic business tycoon.
Arielle slapped a smile on her face and helped out with the preparations because that’s what she always did.
The event planner was a middle-aged Black woman named Lourdes who was in charge and knew it. Everyone instantly did her bidding. The offending cubicle partitions were broken down, and half of the desks were moved and stacked faster than Arielle thought possible.
Meanwhile, the other employees whispered that Saltonstall was doing his presser at the office because he was going to distribute pink slips to half of the staff right after the press conference. He needed them to be smiling while the reporters were there, so that’s why he was doing it afterward.
That sounded just like a venture capitalist. Arielle completely believed the rumor.
At a quarter until noon, the podium had been erected in front of dark blue curtains hanging from a rod nailed to a blank wall.
Like Mitchell Saltonstall, Arielle stewed. Fake, superficial, and self-important.
Reporters began to trickle into their office.
Lourdes, the event planner, met them at the front door, shaking hands and showing them to the long table of submarine sandwiches, snacks, and carafes of fresh coffee laid out just for them while the hungry employees watched.
Arielle tapped her foot because this could not be any more of a metaphor if she’d tried to make one.
The clock at the back of the office clicked, and both hands were pointing straight up toward high noon.
Arielle had worn a scarlet red cocktail dress that day that hugged her curves because she was Frank Carter’s daughter, and she was not going to fade into the background of the new owner’s press conference like a despairing little mouse.
She had finagled a spot right beside the podium but facing in because she was going to force him to stand there and do all his evil dirty work while he knew she was watching him.
If he had any shred of decency left in his twisted soul, he would at least feel bad while he did it.
Through the glass front door of the office, they all watched a long black town car slide to a stop just outside.
The chauffeur hopped out and opened the car’s rear door.
Of course, Mitchell Saltonstall would insist that a servant open his door for him. What a giant dick.
The glass on the front door was slightly warped from the Arizona heat and sun, but they all saw long legs and a tall man unfold from the back seat of the limousine.
He reached for the door with one hand while buttoning his jacket with the other. His long strides covered the carpeting that was a little dirty because the cleaning service had been cut to half-time.
Arielle had just been about to launch a mental tirade about idiotic psychopathic narcissists who wore suits with suit jackets in Arizona in May as if they thought they were special and expected the heat to part for them like the Red Sea for Moses, when Mitchell Saltonstall approached the podium and looked directly at Arielle.
His eyes were brilliant green above sharply cut cheekbones, and his dark blond hair was tousled and fell over his forehead. He moved like an athlete, quick like a tennis player, and had a lean body to match. He watched her, his eyes flicking downward for just a second at the red dress she wore that had become just a little tighter from emotional overeating during the last two months, and he smiled right at her before he breezed by and stood behind the podium.
Mitchell Saltonstall was tall, astonishingly so. The entire crowd of nearly fifty employees, the reporters, and the event coordinator looked up as they watched him take the podium.
He grasped the sides of the podium, grinning, making him even more ridiculously handsome. He almost started to speak, but he caught Arielle’s eyes and smiled a little wider with one side of his mouth.
It was just the red dress, Arielle told herself. Her scarlet dress was so tight that her boobs were plumping out the top, and that’s what was attracting his attention. She shouldn’t have worn it. She didn’t know what to do when a smoking-hot man like that smiled at her.
Mitchell Saltonstall blinked as he looked back at the crowd and announced, “Welcome to the new Match Play.”