Excerpt: Matters of Heart
He thought he knew what to expect when he stepped through the double doors, but Marco still nearly tripped at the sight of Conference Hall Three completely transformed.
The room took up more than half the second floor of the downtown office, and it was something of a spectacle even on a normal day: more like a grand ballroom than a business venue. A tall, sprawling, ridiculous arena, it did have its uses—especially to a corporation expanding as quickly as Spinelli Medical Technologies.
Tonight the space was barely recognizable, with shimmering fabric concealing the walls and glittering lights woven throughout. White table cloths, gauzy archways over the doors, a couple of chandeliers Marco had never seen before. He eased in among the crowd, fashionably late to his own party. If Adam gave him any grief, he would just claim the tuxedo had given him trouble. A blatant and transparent lie, but one his business partner couldn’t call him out on. Even better, the excuse would let Marco off the hook for the cummerbund he’d left at home on the foot of the bed; he loved being an accidental genius.
He would have preferred one of his usual suits, but a shindig of this caliber didn’t allow for a simple suit and tie, even—especially—from the camera-shy inventor who owned half the company.
There was a reason Adam Callaghan, SMT’s graceful and charming CEO, was the star when it came to events like this. He was good with public image. He knew how to seem affable despite the opaque mask he wore for the cameras. It was an ease Marco envied—he’d never quite mastered that level of control. Hell, Adam prided himself on being unreadable: twenty years of friendship, and he still bragged about his ability to best Marco at poker every time they played.
Adam shone in a setting like this. It was always remarkable to behold.
Marco was a different story, and he was well aware of his own shortcomings. Adam had admonished him to avoid any impromptu interviews tonight, but the warning was unnecessary. Marco hated the spotlight. Nerves did a number on any natural eloquence he might have possessed, sent his brain and his tongue scrambling off script. Better to let his best friend and business partner manage the media circus. It was a division of labor that worked well for them, and Marco secretly relished the protective way Adam shielded him from the press, an early habit of their partnership that had only grown more determined in the years since.
But Marco couldn’t very well skip an event like this. He needed to make a good impression. At minimum, he had to show up and look good. That much, at least, he should be able to handle.
It was a swanky party, well-dressed waitstaff navigating smoothly amid a forest of sleek evening gowns and stiff tuxedos. It felt more like a gala than a press conference. There were dozens of hands to shake, smiles to exchange, faces to pretend he recognized as he navigated the room. He moved farther through the crowd, greeting dozens of guests along the way. He was heading toward the stage with purpose, but no particular hurry. Dale Parson from the Board of Directors was giving a dry speech, clinging to the podium like it was his birthright. Marco tuned out the words—he’d skimmed all the proposed speeches more than a week ago—and accepted a flute of champagne from a passing server.
His eyes searched as he moved, vigilant for the main reason he’d been looking forward to this overblown event.
There. By the stage, holding a glass of red wine and actually listening to the speech. Katherine stood near enough a cluster of other reporters to look sociable, but just enough apart to smoothly disengage from them when she saw Marco approaching.
“Man of the hour,” she murmured, tucking a curly strand of dark hair behind one ear. “Late as usual. Tell me, on the record, what’s it like having a business partner who doesn’t make you work?”
“I work plenty.” Marco kept a serious expression on his face, one that wouldn’t fool her for an instant. Katherine knew him too well. Even if she didn’t, she wasn’t the kind of journalist to be easily duped. “And you know I only come to these things for the canapés.”
He took in the sight of her, trying to be subtle about the appreciative sweep of his eyes. She was a tall woman—nearly as tall as him in her ludicrous heels—so there was plenty to appreciate.
Her smile widened eloquently. So much for subtle. At least her expression held more fondness than exasperation. There was a flash of heat, too, a wordless understanding passing between them. He’d known Katherine would be attending tonight’s event, and he was carrying a condom in the pocket of his tux. Casual as their acquaintance was in all other regards, Marco was confident she would agree enthusiastically to his proposal. It wouldn’t be their first off-the-clock encounter, nor was it likely to be their last.
Marco dropped the unconvincing veneer of solemnity—he’d never been good at feigning seriousness—and grinned in return. He settled beside her and tasted his drink. It was sweet, and as violently bubbly as it looked, and he immediately took a second sip.
“How was Madrid?” he asked her, pretending to pay attention to Parson’s speech.
“Eventful,” Katherine answered blandly. The evasion meant that whatever she’d been covering, he would have to read it in the paper like everyone else. Marco didn’t push.
His gaze shifted, roaming the crowd again. He knew Adam would be waiting for his cue behind the stage’s heavy curtains, but Marco couldn’t help looking for him anyway. Even out of sight, his partner’s presence was an instinctive draw on Marco’s attention—he never did need much prompting to seek Adam out.