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Title: House of Cards
Author: Ainsley St. Claire
Genre: Contemporary Romance
She thinks she needs to put her family before herself. He’s determined to prove her wrong.
Maggie is the heiress to the
Reinhardt Department Store fortune. Her father died and the board of the
company expect Alex to run the company but they’ve never had a nonfamily member
run the company. The board has a simple solution—she needs to put the family
first and marry Alex. Forget the fact that she isn’t his type and she loves
someone else. Jonathan Best has been in love with Maggie Reinhardt since high
school. Everything he’s done has been for her including escaping from his
family’s clutches and opening a 5-star hotel and casino on the Las Vegas strip.
He can’t forget their last time together and how after so long it was so right.
So, after picking up the pieces he formulates his plan to stop the wedding and
that when things get really interesting.
House of Cards is a standalone romantic suspense novel with a happy ending. It’s the first in the Billionaire Tech Series featuring the team members from the Venture Capitalist and Clear Security series.
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I’m nervous. As I move through my casino, I stop to breathe into my hand and take a quick smell.
It doesn’t smell like anything other than my clean hand. Does this really work to tell if your breath is bad? I don’t know. But I need to figure it out before Maggie gets here.
I’ve been in love with Maggie Reinhardt since we were teenagers, and she called out of the blue to tell me she’s flying in and wants to see me.
She was here a few months ago during the pre-opening for the Shangri-la, my casino resort on the Las Vegas strip, when her brother’s venture capital firm held a corporate meeting here, and he and his fiancée eloped. We reconnected, fell into bed, and it was amazing. It was everything I’ve ever dreamed of. We’ve traded emails and texts and phone calls since then, and I’ve been asking her to come back. But she’s busy with work, and then her dad passed away last month. I went home to Minneapolis for the funeral, but the family was surrounded, and I was buried in the Shangri-la’s official opening back here, so I didn’t stay long, and Maggie and I didn’t really connect.
Her father was an icon. He inherited a high-end department store called Reinhardt Hudson when Maggie and her brother were young, and over time he added what became the second-largest discount retailer, Bullseye, and a mid-level department store called Murphy’s to the company fold. He was a real pioneer in the retail world. But as I understand it, neither of his sons wants to take over as chairman of the board now that he’s gone.
One of those sons, Maggie’s brother Christopher, is my best friend. He’s held that title since we were in diapers. He told me a while back that when their father was gone, they’d find someone to run the day-to-day operations at the company, so he or Stevie would probably just chair the board in name only. Maggie manages the Reinhardt Foundation, but I’m hoping she won’t be tied to living in Minneapolis forever.
When she gets here, I’m going to make my move. I’m going to ask her to move to Vegas, and we’ll start making plans to get married. That’s all there is to it.
I’ve loved her for most of my life, and I created the Shangri-la for her.
This is a good plan, I tell myself as I move through the casino. I love the musical sound the slot machines make. I even have a section of my hotel with old-time slots that actually use coins. They say they aren’t as profitable as today’s machines, but everyone loves the musical beat of coins hitting the tray as the machine spits out winnings.
My hotel is not yet a year old, and already we’re working in the black. I love this town.
Anyway, I never take time off, but while Maggie is here, it will be essential. Shortly after I arrive at the staff meeting this morning, which is held over breakfast, I drop the bomb.
“Listen,” I tell them. “I’m thinking of taking a few days off this week.”
My team consists of my head of marketing, head of sales, the head of the casino, the head of guest relations, the head of guest rooms, the head of security, the head of housekeeping, and the head of maintenance. These people are essential to my operation and have been with me since I started with my concept. They all stop mid-bite and look at me. I’m expecting some push back.
“It’s your hotel,” says Gillian Reece, my head of guest relations and right-hand woman. “You don’t have to run anything by us.”
I nod, a bit surprised. “Good. I have a friend coming into town, and I want to spend some time with her.”
“Uh-oh…” my head of casino teases. “It’s a her? May your dry spell be broken.”
I smile. I’m not going to dignify that with a response.
Maggie and I haven’t said we’re exclusive, and when you own a large resort that’s the newest shiny object for tourists to visit, you don’t have a lot of time to date. If I have an occasion that requires someone on my arm, it’s only a friend.
Our staff discussion quickly dissolves into lots of ribbing and teasing. I don’t mind. I like that we’re close.
When our meeting breaks up, Gillian approaches me. “We’ll make sure her stay is perfect.”
I know what she’s after. She will spoil Maggie to death, but that’s my job. “I’m not telling you her name so you don’t pester her in any way.”
“Moi? Pester her?” Her smile stretches like the Hoover Dam. “I would never think of doing that.”
I shake my head to make sure she knows. “Really, it’s not a big deal. This is a friend I grew up with, and she’s my best friend’s baby sister. It’s been three years since I’ve had a day off. Just a couple days,” I stress. “I want to hang out with someone who remembers what I looked like as a pimple-faced, awkward teenager.”
She harrumphs. “Somehow I doubt you were ever an awkward teenager.”
I was, but I’m not going to debate that with her. To ensure the Shangri-la’s success, I expel a lot of energy and stress at the gym, so I’m in pretty decent shape.
As I head off down the hall, I begin to remember how perfect Maggie was beneath me, on top of me, and in front of me, and how delicious she tasted. No, I have every intention of enjoying every second and ordering room service for however long her stay might be.
I’m meeting her in less than an hour. She didn’t give me much notice, but I was able to sneak in a quick trip to my favorite esthetician for a facial, and I don’t want to be too vain, but I also did some primping with a fresh haircut and a manzilian wax. It hurt like a motherfucker, but it’s clean and tidy and makes me super sensitive. I’m ready for a lot of up-close-and-personal time. I want Maggie to know I’m going to spend the rest of my life making her happy.
I’m used to walking the property multiple times a day, so I decide to do a quick pass through as I return to my apartment to meet Maggie. I live onsite and made sure the home I set up faced the mountains—away from the strip—and my offices were in a tower across the property, so I’d have to wander through to get to work. I try not to be too predictable and walk through at the same time or take the same path, so I see everything going on at my resort.
As I stroll along today, the employees I encounter have looks of pure terror on their faces. If they had cartoon bubbles above their heads, they’d read, Don’t talk to me. I don’t know why they’re nervous. I never call anyone out specifically. I make a mental note to bring it up with my team and have them address it, if it’s worth it.
“Hello, Mr. Best.”
Ah! Here’s one willing to speak to me. I discreetly glance at her name tag. “Hello, Janice. How are the tables running?”
“Very well, sir. We’ve had a table of frat boys that’s run hot and cold all night. It may break up now that it’s daylight.”
I chuckle. “That’s very good news.” I staff beautiful cocktail waitresses, and my pit boss probably put one of our most stunning dealers—who happens to be married to him—on the table to keep the boys in place and spending money.
My casino manager approaches me. “Hey, boss.”
“Hi. Sounds like it was a good night last night?”
“Yes, it was. Spring break will do that.”
New York City tells the world it’s a town that never sleeps, but here in Vegas that’s not just a saying, it’s our reality. There’s something going on here twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. There really isn’t a slow period. During the summer, when Las Vegas is miserably hot, the conventions are buzzing. At Thanksgiving, the Canadians come down in full force because of the deals and because they’ve already celebrated Thanksgiving. And while it’s a little quieter, all the non-Christians come in full force over Christmas. Maybe it’s because I grew up in Minneapolis and hate the snow, but I love the desert. I love the heat. And I’m finding out I love the casino resort business.
I exit out the far side of the casino floor and head across the property to my apartment. I hardly slept last night. I worked late clearing as much off of my plate as I could so I could take a few days off, and then I was just too excited. Maggie and I have been flirting for months now, and I’ve spent my life getting ready for this moment.
When I reach my apartment, I settle in at my desk and watch her flight arrive from my computer. A little while later I can see her walk onto our property via the security camera feeds. My heart picks up, and my cock is immediately hard. Her blond hair flows with just the right amount of curl. She’s breathtaking. I watch men and women notice her, but she doesn’t see it. That’s one of her many amazing qualities.
At first glance, no one would know she’s an heiress to a major department store. I thumb the engagement ring I bought at Cartier months ago. I saw it and knew I wanted to buy it for her. I think she’ll like it. It’s not too ostentatious, but it’s a beautiful eight-karat center stone with the eternity band covered in half-karat diamonds, all set in platinum. I tuck it away in my safe and shut the computer off.
Moments later, there’s a knock at my apartment door. I open it, and her face lights up.
“Jonnie!” She’s the only person on this planet who can call me that. She steps in for a hug and holds on a few seconds.
I’m ready for this every day for the rest of my life. “Mag-pie. You look stunning.”
“I left the Twin Cities before dawn this morning. I’m tired, grumpy, and I’m sure my makeup is running.”
She looks perfect.
“You’re fabulous. Come in.” I usher her into my apartment, toward the view of the mountains and the golden hues of the desert.
I feel jittery. Maybe if I take her right to the bedroom and fuck her senseless, we can get it out of the way and then talk about our future.
“I was really excited to get your message,” I tell her.
She smiles, and I want to kiss her like crazy.
“It’s been hectic since Dad’s death. The reading of his will had some…surprises for all of us.” She looks away for a moment. “But Christopher and Stevie have been great,” she continues. “My mom, though… She is surprisingly upset.”
She sits on the couch, and I sit next to her. I reach for her hand, and the chemistry is electric. My cock is so hard right now, and I need to taste her. I lean in for a kiss, but she places her hands on my shoulders.
I can see the line she gets between her eyes when she’s worried about something.
“Your mom may be a little cold at times, but I’m sure she’s grieving in her own way.”
She looks at me with a tight smile.
“What is it?”
“Jonnie, I didn’t want to tell you this over the phone, but…”
My stomach drops.
“…Alex and I are getting married.”
It physically hurts to tell Jonnie we can’t be involved anymore. I can barely believe I had the guts to say it, since everything in me wants it not to be true. I’ve had a crush on Johnathan Best since I was in middle school. I spent the better part of my youth dreaming about him, and over the past few months he’s shown me how fun and fantastic a relationship can be. And believe me, that was a welcome change since my life at home revolves almost entirely around work and my family’s standing in the community.
But none of that matters, because I don’t have a choice.
I’ve always known that our company is first and foremost a family affair. That’s been drilled into me since I was a child. Most children learn to identify cars, or maybe planes. I could identify retail chains and read a profit-and-loss statement before I was ten. At my grandfather’s knee, we learned the importance of growing the family business and never taking it public to be at the mercy of stockholders. We were taught business first and family second. We celebrated when other families gave up their businesses to non-family members, went public, or closed their doors. All the better for us. When my grandfather died, my father assumed his role in the company and pushed the same agenda.
It has to be a Reinhardt son at the helm. And once my father was gone, we all knew the duty would fall to one of his sons—otherwise the company would have to be dissolved. The problem is, neither of my brothers is particularly available for the job. Christopher emancipated himself from my parents at age sixteen, and though he’s still part of my life, he will never run the company. And my brother Stevie is not only not interested, he’s not particularly qualified since he’s spent most of the past several years surfing and smoking pot in Hawaii. (I, on the other hand, went to business school and have been growing the foundation portion of the company for several years now. But, you know, I’m a girl, so it doesn’t officially matter—insert eye roll.)
When my father got sick, Christopher and I devised a plan to hire someone to run the day-to-day operations of the company, which would leave me free to continue my work with the Reinhardt Foundation, and Christopher agreed to take the title of board chair. This probably wasn’t exactly what my grandfather envisioned—especially since Christopher isn’t legally an heir anymore—but it seemed workable to us and would allow the company to continue meeting the terms of the will as a family business.
However, after my father passed and we gathered for the reading of his will, we realized he had changed one of the provisions my grandfather originally established. Rather than being run by a Reinhardt son, my father had made the chairman of the board position open to any Reinhardt heir, throwing me into the running as well. But the real kicker? He left my grandfather’s archaic provision that says the head of the company must be married.
After my brothers had gone home, my mother turned her sights on me. She rejected Christopher’s compromise proposal out of hand, and said it was clearly up to me to carry the company forward, as a real heir. And I’d have to get married to do so.
Whatever Jonnie and I have, we’re nowhere near ready for marriage, and I haven’t opened that relationship to my mother’s scrutiny anyway. It would never survive.
But Mother had a solution all ready for me—so ready that I now realize she’d likely been working on it for months. The Walker family, owners of Elite Electronics, are close family friends of ours, and their son, Alex, has been my best friend since we were little. Our parents have joked for years that someday Alex and I would marry, but now I’ve learned my mother isn’t kidding.
Not only does marrying Alex Walker fulfill the will requirements, it also brings Elite Electronics into the Reinhardt Hudson fold, creating a merger and keeping the family company firmly in hand all at the same time. Mother gets giddy whenever she talks about it, and she’s set out to plan the wedding of the century.
In my mother’s eyes I have no prospects of a good man, so why on earth wouldn’t this be perfect? I’ve tried a few times to explain my position, but if she’s going to insist on a strict interpretation of the will, I’ve begun to see that this is the only way to keep what my family has built for generations intact. And so I’m stuck.
My announcement that I’m getting married is still hanging in the air, Jonnie’s face blank, when his phone rings.
What terrible timing—or maybe it’s the best timing ever, since I’m not certain hashing this out face to face with Jonnie is a task my resolve is up for. He draws me in like a magnet, and I already want to just cave, forget about everything, and let him take me to bed.
But I owe it to him to explain why I’m marrying Alex, even though my heart wants to be here with him and leave my scheming mother behind to manipulate someone else.
Jonnie listens on his phone for a few moments, an urgent look in his eyes and signaling to me with one finger—a plea asking me to wait. I know he wants to tell me what I already know: I’m making a mistake. In many ways it feels like a mistake to me, too. But it’s an unavoidable one, and I worry he’ll never understand.
“Okay. I’ll be right there,” he says. “Tell Queen Diva to hold on.” He disconnects his call and throws his hands up, exasperated. “I’m sorry. I really want to have this conversation.” He reaches for both my hands, and I look at him. “I really, really do. I just have a crisis I have to attend to.”
I nod. Waiting a little bit won’t change my mind, and if I say too much now, I’ll start to cry.
He squeezes my hands. “I need to have this conversation with you. I want to understand.” He searches my eyes. “This is not what I was expecting when you said you wanted to meet with me. We’ve got to discuss this. Please give me the chance to talk to you.”
With a deep sigh, I nod. “I have two hours, and then I have to leave for my return flight. I’ll wait as long as I can.”
“You’re leaving so soon?”
I nod. “I’m sorry. I need to be back for a Reinhardt board meeting tomorrow.”
He leans in and gives me a kiss on the forehead before running toward the door. He looks over his shoulder. “I promise, I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
The door closes behind him, and I know he won’t be back in time. Queen Diva is exactly as described: a high-maintenance performer who has more talent in her little finger than I have in my entire body. She’s his in-house talent, and he’s shared with me before that she gets herself worked up about things and it’s difficult, but she’s worth all the hassle. She packs the house five shows a week—over a hundred and forty shows a year. The Shangri-la keeps fifty percent of each ticket sold, and her theater seats just under three thousand people. Which means she earns more than forty million dollars a year—and before costs, so does the Shangri-la. That’s not chump change.
I walk back and forth in front of the full-length windows and look out over the desert. The hues of orange and purple are stunning and so different from anything I grew up with. Minnesota’s state motto is the Land of 10,000 Lakes. Granted, we also say the mosquitoes are the size of small birds because of all the water. It’s the opposite here, and I like the dryness and heat.
I continue to pace in front of the window, one minute willing Jonnie to return so he can talk me out of this decision and the next praying Queen Diva keeps him so we don’t have to have this wretched conversation in person. I’ll never convince him. I’m not sure I‘m convinced. I just am out of other options.
Time inches by. I check my watch every fifteen seconds and my email every five. Waiting. Wishing. Hoping. Dreading. The silence is deafening, and I jump each time I hear a subtle bump or flicker—probably the air vents or nothing at all. No Jonnie.
Finally I can’t take it anymore, and it’s time to return to the airport. I need to leave. Taking a piece of paper from my purse, I write a note: I’m sorry. Magpie
As I walk out of his apartment and through the hotel to my waiting car, I secretly want him to see me. I want him to find me one last time. Marrying Alex means I’m preserving the company, but I’m losing an incredible lover and a great friend.
On my flight home, I can’t stop crying.
“Is everything okay?” the flight attendant asks.
I wipe my eyes, knowing my mascara is probably all over my face. “Just a bad break up,” I explain.
She nods sympathetically and after a moment places a glass of amber liquid in front of me. “A double scotch. It may burn going down, but it’ll help numb the pain.”
I try to crack a smile. “Thank you.” I take a small pull from the glass and marvel at how I’ve changed the course of my life. After a few minutes, the drink does as she’s promised, and my tears dry as the numbing begins.
When I arrive in Minneapolis, Richard, our family driver, is waiting to meet me. He takes one look at me and brings me into his arms. Once again I begin to cry. He and Hazel always know how to make me feel better.
Richard Patterson and his wife, Hazel, our housekeeper, have been surrogate parents to my brothers and me. I adore them. They never had children but essentially raised us as their own. They attended everything we did and made life bearable. They were supportive when my oldest brother, Christopher, emancipated himself in high school and worked his way through college and into the profession of his choice. They guided him to the U—as they call the University of Minnesota—and then to the University of North Carolina for medical school, instead of Carlton and business school like Father wanted. When my younger brother, Stevie, announced he wanted nothing to do with Reinhardt’s and moved to Hawaii and opened a surf shack on Kauai instead of going to college, Hazel and Richard were the ones who visited him and eventually talked him into coming home. I was the child who always did as my parents asked and when they asked. I’m the dutiful daughter, and my mother never fails to capitalize on that.
“How was your trip?” Richard asks.
He knows the pressure I’m under.
“It was okay. But can we take the long way home? I’m not ready to face my mother.”
We drive the scenic route from the airport toward our family home, Reinhardt House, in the upscale St. Louis Park neighborhood of downtown Minneapolis. I suppose it’s a little strange that I still live there at age thirty-one, but that’s just how it’s done in our family—or it would be if either of my brothers played by the rules. I have my own space, and for a long time it helped me feel a part of the Reinhardt tradition. Only lately has it begun to seem suffocating.
I can see signs of spring trying to burst forth in the scenery outside my window, but as we drive, my thoughts inevitably return to Jonnie. He was the coolest guy on our high school campus. He had this level of confidence most boys don’t find until later. His swagger had all the girls swooning; his blue eyes melted even some of the teachers’ panties, and he had a mop of hair that always looked perfect. I learned quickly that girls wanted to hang out with me to get access to my brothers and Jonnie, which made me cautious about other women—a trait I’ve kept to this day. But I never got to hang out with any of their friends. The three of them wouldn’t let any other boys near me. I blame them for my desperate high school love life, which seemed to follow me to college.
Even better than Jonnie in high school, though, is the Jonnie I reconnected with last fall at Christopher and Bella’s surprise wedding. He showed me around the Shangri-la—almost as if he wanted my approval. His excitement and enthusiasm were contagious, and it doesn’t hurt that he’s even more handsome than he was in school. His hard, muscular body has filled out and his eyes are still a mesmerizing blue that make my panties wet. I was glued to his side the whole weekend, and after the wedding, we landed in bed, which fulfilled a lifetime of fantasies for me—and more. I was innocent in so many ways, and he was kind and gentle. I couldn’t have asked for a more kind and patient lover.
And since then, I’ve talked to him via text or phone every single day. Until now. That’s likely over, and I’m heartbroken that my duty as a Reinhardt daughter has officially eclipsed my ability to manage my personal life.
I one-hundred-percent hate this, though I do adore Alex Walker. He’s been my best friend since we were in kindergarten, and I’ve known since second grade that he likes boys—just like I do. I love him regardless, but I don’t want to marry him. I don’t want a loveless marriage that’s nothing more than a business transaction.
I fucking hate my mother.
I hate the situation she and Alex’s father have created for us.
When Richard pulls up in front of the house, I remain in the car. I’m still not quite ready to get out and face my future. After a moment, Richard comes around and patiently holds the door open. I finally check my makeup, and as predicted, it’s a mess. I take a moment to fix it, as I don’t need additional criticism from my mother. She has a comment about everything I do—what I wear, my makeup, my hair, how I spend my free time, and the color of my nail polish.
Eventually I exit the car, stand next to Richard, and take a deep breath.
“You can do this,” he says, just loud enough for me to hear.
I adore this man. I reach for his hand, and he gives me a comforting squeeze.
When I reach the door, I enter to find my mother standing in the foyer in her navy blue St. John knit suit, which is impeccably tailored to her petite frame. She’s also wearing stockings and Ferragamo ballet flats, and predictably, every hair in her bob is perfect, despite the humidity. There’s nothing out of place behind her false smile.
She looks at me with one eyebrow up.
“I’m home,” I tell her.
She smiles. “Good. I have some wedding details to go over with you. We have the photographers coming. We need to make the official announcement in the society papers so no one thinks we’re rushing this and you’re pregnant.”
I snicker. Alex once told me a vagina looked like a closet with the curtains poking out and smelled like a fish market. There’s no way we’ll ever consummate our marriage.
“—and the right people must be able to plan and save the date,” my mother prattles on. “This is going to be the society event not only here in Minneapolis, but across the country.”
“Yes, Mother.” There is so much I’d rather say to her, but my heart aches, and I don’t have the energy to fight with her right now. Since my father’s death, she has become more and more difficult, and I’ve realized how much my father tempered her.
“I have a few things to manage for the Foundation, but I’ll circle back with you this evening.”
Before she can comment further, I go to my room, shut the door, and crawl into my bed. I hug my pillow and cry until I fall asleep.
About the author:
Ainsley St Claire is a
Romantic Suspense Author and Adventurer on a lifelong mission to craft sultry
storylines and steamy love scenes that captivate her readers. To date, she is
best known for her series Venture Capitalists.
An avid reader since the age of four,
Ainsley’s love of books knew no genre. After reading, came her love of writing,
fully immersing herself in the colorful, impassioned world of contemporary
Ainsley’s passion immediately shifted to a
vocation when during a night of terrible insomnia, her first book came to her.
Ultimately, this is what inspired her to take that next big step. The moment
she wrote her first story, the rest was history.
Ainsley is in the midst of writing a nine-book series called “Venture
When she isn’t being a bookworm or typing
away her next story on her computer, Ainsley enjoys spending quality family
time with her loved ones. She is happily married to her amazing soulmate and is
a proud mother of two rambunctious boys. She is also a scotch aficionada and
lover of good food (especially melt-in-your-mouth, velvety chocolate). Outside
of books, family, and food, Ainsley is a professional sports spectator and an
equally as terrible golfer and tennis player.
Connect with Ainsley:
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