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His Broken Past
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As Lander's tough exterior melts away, can Carmen begin to trust him? … or has he been her enemy all along?
The elementary school kids looked back at Carmen with stars in their eyes, especially the girls. In such a poor New York City neighborhood, she stood out like a glittering unicorn. And yet, she felt uncomfortable, even after years of working for her parent’s fashion company, Westward Co. Suddenly her custom leather boots, velvet skirt, and silk blouse felt material. Deep inside, she’d always feared she was in the wrong industry, but it was hard to turn away something she was so good at. Ever since graduating high school early with honors and starting up in her parent’s fashion company, she’d excelled. It was easy for her.
Her dark auburn hair hung down her back in a cascade of loops and ties, resembling a braid but with less structure. Her hair stylist was very good and she enjoyed the display of contained chaos. As she thanked everyone and stepped down from the small, rickety podium, her heart swelled at the thought of providing much needed funds for the school. She’d never given the invitation speech for the annual Trendsetter’s banquet benefit, but she was so glad she’d taken the initiative to do it this year. Each kid whose eyes she met seemed to be radiating their vast dreams for the future. Each smile said brighter days, and every handshake and spontaneous hug said thank you.
“I’m so happy to meet you,” Carmen said, patting the back of a third-grade boy with shaggy, blond hair. He’d squeezed her middle in a breakaway hug, and now his teacher was awkwardly trying to pry him off. “No, it’s okay,” Carmen said. She held his arms gently, and he allowed her to pull back a step or two. Looking into his bright blue eyes, she wished so much for him. Her two older brothers had eyes like his, and she could easily imagine them at this young age.
“Promise me you’ll work really hard in school,” she said.
He nodded even before she’d finished speaking. “I will!” he shouted, heading back the way his class had gone, walking in single file. Such good kids, each of them.
“Miss Rivera?” A little girl pulled on her blouse, and Carmen turned around, lowering to the young girl’s level, sure she had to be a kindergartener. She was so tiny, with a long, black braid hanging over each shoulder and big, dark eyes wide with excitement.
The girl’s face twisted in thought, and she took a loud breath. “Do you go to lots of places?” she asked. Then, she shook her head quickly. “I mean, do you fly around? Where do you go? Have you been to Paris?” She clasped her young hands together, holding them against her chest in dreamy impatience.
Carmen nodded. “I do get to go places, but do you know my favorite place in all the world?”
The little girl’s mouth dropped open as she waited silently.
“My grandfather’s ranch in Wyoming,” Carmen said. “It’s surrounded by a pine forest and sits in front of the hugest mountains ever. There’s a creek and cows and horses.” Memories of Cedar Lodge flooded her mind. Riding along the riverbank and spending long afternoons exploring trails. Even cleaning the barns had seemed fun. It had been so long since she’d been back, and every year she vowed to go. But life was busy, and the fashion industry was relentlessly fast paced. It had been nearly ten years since she’d been back. She swallowed a wave of guilt at the thought, and then her attention turned back to the little girl in front of her.
She’d crossed her arms, and her lips were pressed tightly together. “Well, I wanna go to Paris,” she said in a grumpy tone.
Carmen tapped her little nose with one finger, making her burst into giggles. “I’m sure you will one day. Anything is possible when you work hard and dream big.”
“Time to go, Ignes,” a teacher said, waving the young girl away. She took one last look at Carmen with her beautiful dark eyes, and a smile split across her face, wrinkling her nose. “Bye!” she said, waving with every step across the gym and into the hall until she was out of sight.
“Bye,” Carmen said softly, her heart warming. There was something about the hope of these children who had so little that made her want to act. To give them opportunities and make them believe in themselves and their futures.
Thank goodness for the banquet. It renewed her faith in her parent’s company and her life in general. Sure, she could walk a perfect stretch of red carpet in three-inch Prada heels and introduce a lineup of supermodels without a hitch, but talking to these kids? It was the first time in her professional career she felt truly passionate about anything.
The teachers thanked her, and she shook so many hands, but the memory of those two kids burned in her heart. They were going to do amazing things, and Westward Co. would help them to get there.
“So, you’re saying it went well?”
Carmen stopped in the middle of rambling about the school visit, and her three friends laughed together. Seated at a small round table in a courtyard just off Fifth Avenue, they each had various café sandwiches in front of them.
Violet waved a perfectly manicured hand at Carmen. “I’m sorry to interrupt,” she laughed. Her long, blonde hair brushed to one side in the wind, catching the eye of a man walking past, to which she paid no notice. Her soccer star boyfriend had her whole heart, after all. She winked one blue eye back at Carmen. “I wasn’t sure the story would ever end if I didn’t.” She patted Carmen’s hand. “I’m glad to hear you’re excited about it.”
“Me too,” Aries said, taking a bite of her turkey sandwich with tomato, lettuce, and avocado. Her silky black hair was a bundle of ringlets that bounced around her head playfully. Across her beige face was a spattering of dark freckles that no doubt played a role in landing her a host of modeling spots in the television industry. She stood out in the best way, and it was definitely working for her. “It makes sense,” she said, washing down her sandwich with a sip of strawberry lemonade and tilting her head the way she always did when she was thinking mathematically. She eyed Carmen. “Your soul craves purpose, and your career doesn’t exactly match that. Add in a heartfelt benefit banquet and everything comes together.”
“I’m happy for you, Car,” Maddie chimed in quietly, her canvas bag looped over one shoulder and sagging as proof it held a very thick book. As owner of a wildly successful independent bookstore in New York City, she’d found her place. Working for a big publisher had been soul-crushing, she’d said, and leaving had given her the freedom to follow her dreams.
“Thanks, you guys,” Carmen said. She took a bite of her sandwich, comparing her life to Maddie’s. The fashion industry had given her a glamorous start, and in the beginning, she adored the lights. The shimmer. Everything. It had set her apart in her school and gave her a professional edge that other kids just didn’t have. But it had cost a lot as well. Not in dollars, but in time.
Spending her summers with her grandfather at Cedar Lodge had ended after she’d turned sixteen and began helping her father with designs. He was a highly artistic man and talented beyond anyone she’d ever met. His attention to quality and courage to be unique were what built his brand from the ground up. His childhood in Spain had gleaned a sense of chic minimalism that, when added to western culture, had created Westward Co. A beautiful blend of modern and rustic styles. They caught attention in New York like a wildfire in late summer.
Carmen checked her phone. “I have to go,” she said. “I need to stop by my apartment before heading back to work. You’re all invited to the banquet, okay?” She lifted the strap of her purse over her head, letting it fall across her body. When she glanced back at her friends, they all had the reactions she’d been expecting. Violet was sweetly pleased, Aries’ smile shone like the sun… and Maddie couldn’t have rolled her eyes any harder.
Carmen laughed. “Love you,” she called over her shoulder.
The three friends answered together, “Love you, Carmen.”
Her walk was swift and purposeful, the way a New Yorker should walk. She’d grown up with it, and only when she’d spent the summer at Cedar Lodge did she have trouble getting back into the groove. She thought back to her time in Wyoming, roaming about the Bridger-Teton wilderness and simply being still. It had been incredible. Every single time. Only when she returned from two months of calm and work did she forget what city life was, and what a New York pace was all about. When she was younger, she’d stumble, trying to keep up with her parents or friends from school. They’d laugh and tease her, but her father was always silent. He never had much to say when it came to her grandfather. But then, he didn’t criticize either. Whatever had happened in their past, she appreciated that much.
Thoughts of Wyoming usually weren’t so frequent, but over the course of the day, she’d been thinking of Cedar Lodge almost constantly. She saw herself in those kids as she spoke, and she imagined the Tetons capped with snow whenever she looked past the sky-rise skyline.
Her apartment was a townhouse, which she adored. Having her own private entrance had been a must, even though her parents would prefer she live in a more secure condo building. But she was comfortable in that part of the city, and the best feature was the view. She climbed the concrete stairs from the walkway, entering on the second floor. At the back of the room, a spiral stairway in the corner led her to the top floor, where her bedroom was, along with an incredible glimpse of Prospect Park. She’d always preferred it to Central Park, although it was much smaller.
But for now, she didn’t have time to look at the view. She only needed to grab her laptop for a meeting with her parents. Rushing back outside, she hurried to the brand-new location for Westward Co. just around the corner from where she’d had lunch with her friends. It had only been weeks since they’d snagged a spot on the illustrious Fifth Avenue. Her mother and father had both been so busy with the move, they hadn’t had time for anything else. It was why she’d offered to give the invitation speech to each of the elementary schools that year.
She hurried in through the front of their shop, although she would usually have chosen the back entrance. It was incredible to see the glistening window display and the people passing by as they looked in. The store was busy, with two associates busy ringing up orders and a bundle of other customers milling about. She went through a door to the back where there was a hall and a few additional rooms. One was a break room and then there was a small office, along with their meeting location, her parent’s office. It was large and comfortable, with a window facing a private courtyard.
But she stopped after one look at her mother. She’d been talking to her father, who was on the phone, and both of their hands were gesturing with the conversation. It was a habit her father had grown up with, and after they’d gotten married, her mother had quickly adopted it. She could always tell how tense the conversation was, simply based on how much they were both moving. And right now, their arms were flying.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
Her mother spun around from the phone and walked up to her quickly, giving her a squeeze. “Hello, my Carmen,” she said. It had been her greeting as long as Carmen could remember. Like a pet name, but more than that, as if her mother were saying I love you every time she spoke her name.
Carmen glanced at her father as his voice rose.
“I told you, this is a ploy, Andrew,“ he said. “Simon has been at my throat since I started. Since I dared to take on the fashion industry here. The Cinque Thread Gala is a strike at my company and that’s all it is. You know this is true!”
There was silence, and Carmen was too stunned to ask another question. Her father was a very quiet person, especially when it came to business. To hear him this close to shouting was practically unbelievable.
“I understand, my friend, but we are this close to the finish line. We’ve made it so far.” He paused and turned around, nodding solemnly at Carmen and her mother. “Uh-huh,” he said, the fight having left his voice. “Yes, I understand. Of course, and to you as well. Good day to you.” He ended the call and sighed, sinking his phone into the pocket of his Westward Co. slacks, made to fit as comfortably as jeans.
A voice chimed from the intercom. “Mr. and Mrs. Rivera, there’s someone here to see you.”
“Yes, just one moment please, Charlotte,” her father said. He took a step closer to them with his arms crossed, and his sleek, black brows furrowed. “I’m afraid we have some bad news, Carmen,” he said, glancing at her mother before facing her again.
Her mother sighed, clearly already aware of what he was going to say.
“The Trendsetter’s banquet, as you know, is made possible entirely out of donations. Big name celebrities come to claim a tax cut in the way of donating to the community. It’s a win for them, and a win for us.”
Carmen’s jaw tightened with a small wave of contempt. Generosity simply as a way for the wealthy to avoid paying taxes was hardly chivalrous. But she silenced her critical mind and responded with a nod. “Yes,” she said. “I’m well aware of it.”
“Well, it seems we are being railroaded by another, much bigger fashion name.” He stopped to sigh again, as if he’d rather not continue.
Her mother’s voice rang out in amateur Spanish. “Esos asqueroso, malos, sin valor—” Her hands flew through the air with each insult, but she stopped when her father took her hands in his. His face was sad, but he chuckled lightly. “My dear, your accent is terrible when you’re angry.”
She wrapped her arms around his neck. “It’s not fair.” Her voice was quiet and sincere, spoken for him alone.
Carmen’s heart was pounding through it all. Finally, they stepped away from each other and faced her. She couldn’t wait another moment. “Tell me what that means for the banquet,” she said, trying to hold herself together as much as possible. Her quick temper was something she’d learned to harness. She hadn’t exploded on anyone since she was young, but that was mostly because she hadn’t felt so passionate about anything since starting work at Westward. Not until now. And now, she could feel the passion boiling inside of her, daring anyone to challenge it.