It’s Friday, which means another sneak peek at one of my books! This week, it’s The Plan, a story about Eli and Charlotte, who start out as friends, and then…
Well, check it out!
He was going to be rich.
Filthy, gloriously, supremely rich.
He looked over the signed contract one last time, a serious, contemplative expression on his face, one that would befit a tycoon of his standing, strong and capable, emotionless and detached to those beneath him.
On the inside, though, he was practically doing cartwheels, whooping, and generally acting like a mad fool who was about to get paid.
“Well, everything looks to be in order,” he said soberly, his finger following along the fine print as it had been for the past thirty minutes. “I suppose we can file these then, since the deal has already been made.”
“Already did that, you dunce.”
He lifted his gaze up and across his desk to speculatively eye the brunette who sat sprawled out in one of his chairs, her knees under her chin, where he could see the beginnings of holes in her worn out jeans.
She grinned at him.
“How did you already do that if the contract is still here in my hand?” he asked.
“Technically, it’s not in your hand,” she said. “It’s on your desk.”
“Yes. And already filed, like you said,” he noted.
“The originals are filed,” she answered him. “That’s a photocopy you have.”
He looked back down at the document, squinting. “Are you sure?”
“I’m positive,” she said, dropping her feet to the ground and leaning over his desk, pointing sharply at the bottom of the first page. “Look at your signature. That’s not ink. That’s a photocopy. Eli Herbert Lucas.” She grinned at him again. “Herbert. I’ve been working for you for four years, and that never gets old.”
He frowned. “It’s a –”
“Family name,” she said, leaning back, one knee coming up again. “I know, I know.”
“Like Charlotte is a better name,” he muttered, looking back down at the contract.
“Shut up,” she answered.
“Are you sure this is a photocopy, because it –”
“It’s the new copier,” she said, explaining this away. “Our contract was up with the other company. I found this one. They’d lease us an upgraded machine for half the cost.”
He stared at her. “How did you work that deal out?”
“By virtue of my sparkling personality,” she said.
“No, really,” he said. “How?”
“Told the salesman what we do. His daughter is going to have to make an A in geometry next semester to keep from going to summer school and ruining their big travel plans. I told him we could make a deal if he could make a deal,” she shrugged. “They’re going to Tahiti. Woo, woo.”
She was like that. She could spend five minutes with someone and have their whole life story… and use it to her advantage.
She was brilliant, quite frankly.
“You found out all of that, just to get a deal on a copier lease?” he asked, still impressed every time she did something like this, even all these years later.
She nodded. “Uh… yeah. Isn’t that why you hired me?”
He’d hired her to be a tutor four years ago when they’d been undergraduates, back when his tutoring service business was just getting off the ground.
Seriously. Just getting off the ground, as in he was the only tutor on the payroll he hadn’t even started.
He could remember the day he met her as clearly as if it had happened yesterday.
Calculus I. He was going to be a math major, and it was a class he wanted to ace so as to get himself preference for the more competitive classes later on.
He would’ve aced it… but some other nerd kept screwing up the curve every time they took a quiz.
Grades were always posted by the last four digits of their social security numbers, and loathsome 8392 was consistently at the top of the list. Perfect scores again and again.
Eli had despised the guy from the start, and the third test in, just as he was cursing yet another set of scores that 8392 was leading, he’d seen Charlotte.
She had been turning from the posted scores with a smile on her face. While everyone else had been groaning and moaning, she had been smiling.
Eli had very nearly gasped. “8392!” he’d yelled at her.
She’d startled for just a second, then glancing around her, she’d looked back at him. “Yeah?”
“You keep messing up the curve!” he’d exclaimed, following her as she began to leave the building.
“Maybe you should study harder,” she’d said, her back to him.
He’d run to keep up with her, to get up close so that he could see her face.
It wasn’t anything special. In the thousands of undergraduates on campus, she wouldn’t have been one to stand out. Brown hair, blue eyes, perfectly average in every way, just a nameless face in a sea of thousands of others just like it.
It was entirely possible that they never would have met, if not for calculus.
“I studied my freakin’ butt off for that one,” he said, thinking back to the test. “I just missed one question. How did you get them all right?!”
“Because I’m smart,” she’d said slowly, condescendingly. The nerve. “And I’ve got a scholarship I’ve got to keep.”
He’d understood that. He could relate. He was trying to keep his own scholarships.
And then, he was trying to keep up with her.
Why had she been in such a hurry?
“Am I keeping you from something?” he’d asked.
“I have an interview for a work-study job,” she’d answered. “Not that it’s any of your business. Why are you following me?”
But his mind had rested on the word job. He’d already started his business, but things were really new. He’d been to one of the local high schools, and they’d expressed a need for calculus tutors.
He’d determined he’d have to do it all himself. But in light of the way she kept screwing up the curve…
“Forget the work-study job,” he’d said. “I can hire you as a tutor.”
She’d stopped and looked at him. “Wow. You really are serious about that class, aren’t you?”
“What do you mean?”
“You want to hire me to tutor you,” she’d answered.
But she was doing better than he was, and –
“Not me,” he’d clarified, determining silently that he’d study even more for the next test and show her. “I run a business. Hire out tutors. I need a calculus guy.”
“Do I look like a calculus guy?” she’d asked.
“You look like the guy I’ve been waiting for my whole life,” he’d answered. “Or at least this semester. Seriously. I could get you three commitments for the semester. And that’s just what I’ve got waiting right now. Word gets out, and your work can triple. Easily.”
She’d studied him for a while. “Okay, so I’m interested.”
He’d been glad to hear that. “Awesome,” he’d answered. “So, come with me, and I’ll talk through the details with you, and –”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” she’d said. “This is how human trafficking works, right? Small, naïve girl on a college campus goes off with a random guy and ends up being sold into the sex trade, right? Or maybe you’re in it for some organ confiscation thing, huh? Gonna knock me out, take my eggs for a profit?”
Good grief. What in the world?
He’d frowned at this. “No. Why would your mind jump to that?”
“Oh, these things happen,” she’d said, wisdom in her tone. I’m taking a criminology class. Hear all about crazy stuff happening all the time to naïve girls.”
“Well, clearly, you’re not naïve. A little suspicious and nutty, maybe, but not naïve.”
She made a face at this and opened her mouth to say something, likely unpleasant, but he cut her off.
“And I assume you’re making an A in criminology, too?” he’d asked.
“Yeah, screwing up the curve for them as well.”
He needed her on his team. Obviously.
“I’m thinking you could tutor any subject, so go ahead and triple that load I already told you to triple, because you’ll have more students than you want,” he’d said. “Can we at least go on campus somewhere, in public, where we can talk this through? Then maybe you’ll trust me once you get to know me?”
“Once I get to know you,” she’d added, watching him suspiciously before holding out her hand.
He’d breathed a smile, seeing dollar signs dancing all around 8392’s face.
He’d hired even more students, smart students, from that point on, all of them to be sent out to younger students in all subjects, charging fees that were competitive to established learning centers, with the added bonus of sending the college students directly into homes and schools to work with younger students one-on-one. He paid work study wages to his workers and had made a tidy little profit. The business had expanded from then on. So much so that Eli had to close up his other business venture – goat soap production – and sell the goats for an even tidier profit, all because his tutoring business took all of his time.
(Yes. Goats. Goat soap. He was a big deal in the big city, but before then, he’d been on his way to being a big deal in the far reaches of nowheresville. Always a businessman, always a man with a plan.)
His tutoring business was an even bigger success than he ever could have planned, though, and part of the reason was Charlotte.
She’d worked just as hard as he had, not just as a tutor but also as his accountant, and as things had grown, she’d picked up more responsibility, more hours, and more investment in the business.
She did everything now, right alongside him. More than he even asked her to most of the time. She was the reason the business was what it was, the reason that he was what he was, honestly.
She knew him. He knew her.
And she knew what she was doing.
“I love you, Charlotte,” he said very simply, looking at the numbers and thinking about all the money he was going to make.
“Right back at you, Herbert,” she said, tapping the papers again. “That’s yours, by the way. Made the extra copy so you can read it as a bedtime story.”
“You know my favorites,” he said, picking up the whole stack and tapping it into a neat pile, taking the folder Charlotte slid across to him, and sighing appreciatively. “Another reason why I love you.”
“You better watch it,” she chided. “If Alicia hears you declaring your love for me, she’ll come after you. Or after me.” She frowned. “Maybe I better watch my back, huh?”
“Until the end of tax season,” Eli reminded her. “You’ve promised to do my taxes even –”
“Even though I’m leaving you in another month,” she said.
Eli didn’t like thinking about the transition. They’d graduated nearly six months ago. Jobs were hard to find, though, so Charlotte had stayed on with him until her dream opportunity came along. She’d just recently gotten an offer from a huge accounting firm in Houston, and certain that she would take it, he’d made her promise to come back and do his taxes after the new year, just for old times’ sake. (And because she was the best. He didn’t know how he was going to replace her, frankly.)
“Yes,” he said, putting down the folder and looking at her. “And Alicia and I? Aren’t even exclusive.”
Charlotte gave him a dubious look. “You’ve been dating her for a year, Eli.”
“So?” he asked. “We’re just dating.”
“A year,” Charlotte said again, more insistent. “That means something to a woman, you know.”
Likely. He thought about Alicia, about how he’d met her a year ago when he’d gone from sorority house to sorority house alternately looking for tutors to enlist in his program and dropping off information for services for those who might benefit from having their own tutors.
Smart girls… not so smart girls.
It could go either way in a sorority house full of women. He’d seen plenty of both as he’d made the rounds, and he’d been quite ready to be done with the whole thing when he finally got an audience with the most exclusive group on campus.
Alicia had been the sorority’s president and the scholarship chair both and had ushered him in for a meeting after giving him the runaround and rescheduling him three times. Charlotte had not had similar trouble with the fraternities on campus, as she’d gone to them dressed “like a girl” she’d told Eli later.
He was sorry he’d missed seeing that, honestly.
She’d been granted access every time she’d knocked on a door, of course, and she’d come away with a few good contacts and even better business. Fifty new clients. Eli had been thinking about the numbers when Alicia had finally glided into the room he’d been waiting in and sat down across from him.
“Bless your heart,” she’d murmured, holding out her hand. “All these broken appointments and the waiting, and now, we finally meet face to face, Mr. Lucas.”
He’d given her hand a cursory shake. “You’re the lady in charge, then?”
“Alicia Primrose, yes,” she’d answered daintily, crossing her legs at the ankles as she smoothed out the sundress she wore.
“The Phi Mu lady,” he’d said, knowing that mentioning the house letters was always a big win with these groups. He personally didn’t give a rip, but what was good for business was good for him. And saying two simple Greek letters always seemed to boost business substantially.
Work smarter, not harder. That was his motto.
Alicia had been unimpressed, though. “The president of this chapter of Phi Mu, yes,” she’d said tightly, touching the drop on her necklace. The letters. Again. “A legacy. From my great aunt and my father’s sister both. But I get the sense that you only mention it because it helps your business. Schmoozing the ladies, as it were.”
He’d been impressed by her discernment. She wasn’t a dumb sorority girl.
“Guilty,” he’d said, shrugging. “I’ve talked to so many Kappa Whosits and Gamma Tron Whatsits that I’m not even sure what I’m saying. So, forgive me for insulting your intelligence.”
She’d studied him for a long moment. “Not a Greek yourself, then,” she’d murmured. “I didn’t think I recognized you.”
“No way,” he’d said, thinking that this was totally not his scene. Parties, spending money, socializing, being someone hoity-toity. Not him.
“Hmm,” she’d said, watching him with a question in her eyes.
So, he’d clarified. “I’m from some backwoods town you likely wouldn’t ever go to for fear of ruining those very expensive shoes you’re wearing. My dad is a factory worker. And I was dirt poor when I showed up here. So, I don’t fit the mold.”
He really didn’t. Everything he’d done was intentional. The grades so he could keep the scholarships he’d won. The business so he could set himself up financially for whatever came next. The hard work so that he could be someone bigger than who he’d been his whole life.
Eli Lucas. Someone from nowhere.
Hanging out with frat boys and sorority girls who had life handed to them on a silver platter wasn’t his scene.
“We’re not all like that,” Alicia had said, but he’d known she was like that, at least. The diamond studs in her ears suggested it, as did the highlights in her hair, the very fancy manicure she was sporting, and, yes, those expensive shoes she was wearing.
“I’m sure you’re not,” he’d said when he was sure she was. “But all that said, I’ve not had time to, and I quote, schmooze the Greek world, which includes rushing a frat. Not until now, and not until it had to do with my business, as you’ve already pointed out.”
“Yes, as I have,” she’d sighed, reaching out for the folder he’d offered her.
He’d gone on to explain things to her, to tell her about job opportunities for her sisters, to talk through the offerings the company had for their incoming pledges to get the help they’d need to boost the sorority’s GPA.
She’d listened, studying everything in his portfolio, quietly watching his spiel without offering any words.
He’d been quite certain that this day was a bust. Just as he’d been getting ready to get up and get gone, she’d looked up at him… and smiled.
“Not dirt poor anymore, are you?” she’d said.
“Pardon?” he’d asked, not certain what she was getting at.
“It’s brilliant, actually,” she’d said. “What you’ve done. What you’re doing. Admirable. A man with a plan and all.” She’d nodded. “We’ll have about 120 pledges this fall, and I think tutoring for each of them will be an excellent requirement of their pledge period.”
Glory. He’d done the math in his head and was mentally pumping his fist in the air even as he’d calculated the profit. Take THAT in your girly clothes, Charlotte!
“That’ll cost you,” he’d said with a shrug as if it was no big deal.
“Won’t cost me,” she’d said. “Will cost them. But their daddies can afford it.”
No doubt. Her daddy, too, probably.
But who cared? He was going to be rich, thanks to Phi Mu and this snooty woman in front of him.
“When would you like it set up?” he’d asked, thinking that he’d hand it off to another tutor. “When are you getting the pledges in?”
“Soon,” she’d said. “What’s the process look like?”
“I’ll have someone over to set it all up when it’s convenient for you,” he’d answered. “Study hours here at the house would be easy. Or on campus. Or whatever. I’ll make sure whoever I send has a list of tutors and numbers.”
“I’d prefer it if you’d come by and handle it yourself, Mr. Lucas,” she’d said.
And he’d raised his eyebrows at this, wondering if she was questioning the validity of his business and the people he’d hired. “And why is that?”
“Because you’re cute,” she’d said simply.
He’d played it off as a silly, bubble-headed comment from a woman who certainly didn’t mean anything real by it. He’d told her goodbye that day, giving her his word that he’d be the man to come back and get it all going.
Before long, he’d come back. Over the next few months, he’d gotten the tutors all set up, gotten everything running smoothly, gotten paid… and gotten himself a girlfriend he wasn’t all that sure he’d wanted, honestly.
She’d done it effortlessly. The attention was flattering, and he’d been non-committal about it all.
But he’d kept coming back.
Because she was beautiful. Smart. Easy to be around. She took care of him in ways he hadn’t even thought to want. And it was a good feeling, being admired for who he was.
And quite honestly, it made him feel like a real self-made man, coming from where he did, having a woman with her background standing by him.
Shallow. Oh, yeah. But it was the truth.
Charlotte got it. More than he wanted her to, honestly.
“You’re such a jerk,” she said to him in his office, chiding in her voice even though he hadn’t said anything about what he was really thinking.
“Alicia knows it’s not serious,” he said, waving away her concerns. He’d made no promises, at least. Just reciprocated the affection she showed, showed up when she needed him in her life, and… well, that was it.
She didn’t want to be part of his business, his past back in his no-name town, or… well, much of what was going on with him. She just wanted him to be there for her.
See? Not serious.
“Eli…” There was chiding in Charlotte’s tone.
He hated that. Because it was convicting. And it suggested that Charlotte knew what he was really thinking. Which she did.
“Why does it always have to be serious?” he asked.
“Because,” Charlotte said. “It just is.”
Probably. Alicia had been making large hints about what would happen now that they were no longer undergraduates. She was in law school, and what time she didn’t spend there or in study or in meeting up with her sorority sisters to help plan the dozen weddings she was in, she spent micromanaging him and questioning what they were going to do.
Apparently, they couldn’t keep doing what they were doing, which was just hanging out and having a good time. She’d had no problem with it that last year of college, dragging him around like her prize, introducing him into a world he’d never known, and just keeping it low key and simple, all glitz and parties, nothing serious.
It didn’t seem to be enough now, though. Alicia was getting pretty snippy about it all, about how many weddings she had to be in and isn’t this the perfect time of year to start planning a wedding, and, Eli, are you even listening to me –
She’d gotten pretty snippy about Charlotte lately, too.
With that thought, he pushed back from his desk. “Speaking of serious,” he said, reaching in his back pocket for his wallet, “the deal you worked out with the pregnancy centers was incredible.”
Incredible was an inadequate word for what she’d done when she’d booked up another ten commitments and hired out more tutors to take care of it. It had all been on her own initiative, too, like most things were that she did.
She knew what he needed, what the business needed.
“I worked it out with your sister-in-law,” she said, grinning.
“Your pastor’s wife,” he clarified.
“Yours, too, you big dope,” she added.
His mind went to Sunday mornings, with Charlotte leaning over to where he was attempting to take notes on whatever dull sermon his brother, Craig, was preaching, and scrawling, “Wipe the drool off your chin, man. People are looking at you.”
Sundays were always good. And they always concluded with lunch together, just like they spent most days.
He smiled at the thought.
“Yeah,” he said, “but you worked out the new contract. And it was great. They love you down there.”
They really did. All the women at the five pregnancy centers his sister-in-law, Hope, oversaw loved Charlotte. Hope loved Charlotte.
Everyone loved Charlotte.
“Well, maybe,” she said.
“I thought you needed a token of my appreciation,” he said, pulling it out of his wallet with a flourish and handing it to her.
She took it from his hand with a grin that only grew as she saw what it was. “Lloyd’s Tacos. Fifty bucks. That’s a lot of tacos, Eli. Thank you.”
“You’re going to share, right?”
“Of course,” she said. “Where else would we go?”
It was their go-to place. Eli had finally talked Alicia into going a few days ago, and she’d practically held her nose the entire meal, looking around at the dive. But the sour expression she’d had over the accommodations had been nothing compared to the look she’d given him as he’d told her he was getting a gift for Charlotte.
For all the work she’d done, obviously.
Alicia had argued her point that any woman would be irritated that her boyfriend was buying his female friend a gift, and when he’d told her that it was just Charlotte, she’d bitten back several words, then hissed, “Should’ve gotten her a gift card to get some new clothes because she needs them. Or a manicure. Because she needs that, too.”
“Alicia signed the card, too,” he said, thinking about the argument that had erupted after all that.
Charlotte smiled at the name, scrawled on later when Alicia felt bad and was trying to make it up to him.
“She probably thought a pedicure would be a better gift,” she murmured.
Well. It was like Charlotte was psychic sometimes.
“Maybe,” Eli shrugged.
“But I’ll take tacos over pretty toes any day,” she said. “Though I probably do need to step up my game for this weekend. My toe game, not my taco game.”
“Your taco game is already on point,” Eli agreed.
“That it is,” she said.
“What’s going on this weekend?” he asked, settling back in at his desk.
“Tyler has a big announcement,” she said, smiling. “Told me to wear my best dress. He’s getting the whole family together.”
“His, not yours,” Eli murmured, knowing already that Charlotte’s family was for all intents and purposes non-existent. Her dad had passed away when she was too young to even know him, and her mother had been distant long before Charlotte had moved out to go to college. About the only family she kept in consistent touch with were her grandparents, who were missionaries overseas, and her uncle, Mark, who worked for the mission board and was gone more often than he was stateside.
“Yes, Tyler’s,” she said, nodding.
“What’s his big announcement?” Eli asked, thinking about Tyler, Charlotte’s boyfriend, a guy who seemed too heavenly minded to be any earthly good a lot of the time, quite honestly. She’d met him a year ago at some missions conference they were both at, her for her Uncle Mark, and him, there to hear about the mission field. They’d connected over her stories about her grandparents and her uncle, and Tyler had been a consistent part of Charlotte’s life ever since.
Which was annoying to Eli, quite frankly. He couldn’t say exactly why, other than the way Charlotte seemed to become a different person around him. With Tyler, she was all soft looks and soft words and gentleness. With Eli, she was her – brash, honest, and tough.
Why the difference? Because she was in love with Tyler. Or at least that’s what Eli suspected.
Charlotte confirmed the suspicion with a smile. “I’m not really sure what the announcement is,” she said demurely. “But he’s been talking about the future a lot. About a plan he has. A plan that he wants me to be in on.”
Plans. A future.
That sounded like Alicia, which meant…
“Do you think he’s going to propose?” he asked, surprised to hear the shock in his voice.
She shrugged. “I don’t know… maybe.”
“Are you even a couple?”
She frowned at him. “Yes, Eli,” she said. “Because unlike you, Tyler has no problem committing.”
“I don’t have a problem with committing,” Eli said.
He didn’t. Or, at least, he didn’t think he would. One day. Eventually. He couldn’t imagine it with Alicia, but…
“Oh, yeah, you do,” Charlotte said. “I can tell by the look on your face.”
Well, maybe he was frowning a little. “You’d tell him yes, though?” he asked. “You’d marry Tyler?”
And become some homely little submissive wife who changes all the good in you to please him? He didn’t say that last part. He was surprised that he thought it, quite honestly.
“This is a weird conversation to be having with you,” she murmured. “It’s a little personal, and I’ve already told you too much.”
“We talk about everything, though,” he said.
They did. Charlotte knew him better than anyone else did. His list of friends was… well, short. He didn’t have time for friends with the business and all that it required of him. It was mainly just Charlotte.
He was good with that. Why ruin a good thing? Charlotte was just about the best person he’d ever known, and they had the best relationship he’d ever had, honestly, so –
“We do,” she said. “But, you know, maybe that needs to change. Especially if Tyler…”
If he wants to marry you.
“You’re going to tell him yes?” he asked again, more than a little hurt at the thought of anything changing with Charlotte, especially because she was thinking about… well, marriage. To Tyler. Stupid, irritating Tyler.
She simply smiled.
And for the first time in their long friendship, Eli found he didn’t have any words for her.
Want to read more? Get your copy of The Plan here!