So now Matt was here, in Starsmith’s Mayfair offices, where not only had they disinherited him, they were trying to make him look a fool. He should leave at once. He glared at Joel Sterling, tall, beautifully suited as before, his gaze assessing Matt just as closely, that fine nose, the lush mouth….
Matt found himself still rooted to the spot, though God knew why.
“This is… surprising,” Joel said. He seemed a picture of calm control, but Matt noticed his hand shook slightly when he put his glass of water back down on the table. “It’s important we talk this through and clear the air—”
“I thought you were just a salesman,” Matt broke in angrily. “Called Joe.”
“Joe…? Oh.” Joel flushed a little. “I’m sorry. You must have misheard me. I didn’t lie. As I remember, you were all for just first names. We both agreed.”
“That’s true. You didn’t lie about that.”
“I didn’t lie about anything.” Joel’s eyes narrowed. “Like the fact that I run Starsmith. I’ve been in the industry for a long time.”
“I know your name,” Matt grudgingly admitted. He’d looked up the listing for Starsmith before coming, but hadn’t bothered with searching any photos of the company principals. “But I told you that night. I don’t do those events.”
“Your family owns a jewellers, for God’s sake—”
“Owned!” Matt snapped so hard that Joel flinched. “Owned. Past tense. It’s yours now, remember?”
“I could hardly forget,” Joel snapped back. “Were you a shareholder?”
It was Matt’s turn to flush. “No. I wasn’t… well, I did freelance work for them. It wasn’t always regular.” Damn Joel and his searching questions! Matt wasn’t going to go into the justification of how Dad had wanted him to be free to take contracts elsewhere, how they adored each other as family but couldn’t work in the same bloody room for more than an hour without growling at each other, how Matt had interests in his cousin’s business too and preferred to be out on the land with Gary rather than trapped in a design office, pandering to whatever his dad’s parochial clients wanted rather than what he, Matt, wanted to create….
Yeah. He ran his hand through his hair with frustration. Joel stirred things up, that was for sure.
Joel gestured to a seat at the table. Matt realised his legs were starting to shake, and he dropped into it both gracelessly and gratefully. Joel sat carefully in a seat opposite. Guess he felt he needed the table as a barrier between them.
Joel cleared his throat. “So why were you there that night, at Claridge’s?”
Matt scowled. “Dad was about to sign the business over to you. We’d just had another row about it, and he looked knackered with it all. I wanted to help him out.”
Joel looked confused. “You argued… but you wanted to help?”
What was this, twenty questions? “Look, I get angry fast—” He could see the flicker in Joel’s eyes, and it better not have been bloody amusement. “—but I back off just as fast when I need to. He was worrying about attending that sodding event. I said I’d go on his behalf.”
Joel nodded slowly, as if working something out in his own mind. “Just to help him out?”
“Yeah. Well. Okay. I had another motive.” The man opposite him flinched again. He surely couldn’t imagine Matt was going to lean over the table and hit him. Matt knew he could appear fierce, but he’d never actually hit anyone in his life. “I thought I could find some of the other owners, drum up some support.”
“To prevent the takeover?” Joel said drily.
Matt didn’t bother to answer. They both knew how that had gone.
“Was that all you were after?”
“Um. Yeah. Why? What exactly are you implying?” Matt’s tongue felt clumsy in his mouth. This whole meeting had been a bad idea from the start, and seeing Joel Sterling again was making everything a million times worse. So, as he often did, he turned defence into attack. “And anyway, what about you?”
“Me?” Joel looked as amazed as if Matt had hit him. “I didn’t know who you were either.”
“Not even the tiniest bit of gloating at having got one over on my family?”
“What?” Joel clenched his hands into fists on the tabletop. “I repeat, I didn’t know you were part of Barth’s and, even if I had, it was purely a business deal. I don’t gloat.”
He made it sound like he’d left such childish behaviour behind at least a century ago, and how come Matt hadn’t? Matt shook his head, his mind a maelstrom of anger and, surprisingly, hurt. “All that shit you spouted in the bar about loving the business and all it meant to you.”
“That was true!” Joel’s expression was furious. “Don’t try and salvage your pride by turning on me!”
“Pride? Jesus, man, you have no fucking idea! You were just taking what you wanted, to hell with anyone who had a different vision of life.”
“If you stopped yelling for a moment and just realised the financial practicalities of business nowadays—”
“I don’t need a lesson from you in what matters! I don’t expect you to understand.”
“Ditto!” Joel all but shouted.
They both paused. The room seemed to echo with their raised voices. Matt was leaning on the table too, his palms pressing hard on the polished wood, his knuckles almost white.
Joel was breathing heavily. For such a calm, confident man, he looked shaken. But his expression was hard. “I am not Starsmith. I’m an employee, not the company itself.”
Matt snorted. “You’re their puppet. You’re their mouthpiece. You’re their willing servant!”
Joel paled. “How dare you—”
“Because I can,” Matt batted back. “Because you don’t have any hold on me, or my family. Not anymore, and never again.” He pushed his chair back, ready to rise.
“Wait!” Joel slapped a hand on a thick file beside him. The sharp sound gave Matt pause. “This isn’t about us. This is about why Addam called you in the first place.”
Matt tried to get up, he really did. He tried not to care what was in that thick file, what this was all about. His curiosity hadn’t killed his inner cat yet, though he feared it would one day. But for now, he felt the prickle of excitement at what lay there.
But Joel didn’t move to open the file. Instead he met Matt’s gaze again, his voice cool once more. “Why did you come today, Matthew Barth, if you hate us… me… so much?”
No point in holding back now. “Dad begged me to. The stupid sod thinks I’m wasted back home. So I thought I’d come and give you all a bloody good tongue-lashing.”
Joel’s mouth twitched, maybe at the old-fashioned saying, damn him. “You’ve certainly done that. And how is your father?”
“You said he collapsed. You dashed off that night without a word.” Joel’s cheeks were slightly flushed. “If he’s still ill—”
“He’s fine,” Matt interrupted quickly. For a moment he and Joel just stared at each other.
Then Joel nodded slowly, as if he’d come to a decision. “My team tells me you aren’t producing designs for anyone at the moment. So what else are you doing?”
It caught Matt unprepared. He was living off his savings and working, mostly unpaid, in his cousin’s archaeological dig in Norfolk, that’s what he was doing—but he didn’t want to tell Joel that. “None of your business what I do.”
“Unless you come and work for us. For me.” Joel deliberately flattened his hand on the file, as if protecting its contents.
“Stop with the games,” Matt barked. “It took me hours by public transport to get here today, and I’m not looking forward to going straight back again. But I will, unless….”
“Unless?” Joel’s eyes glinted. Matt remembered that pinprick of light in Joel’s pupils from that evening in the bar, just before they’d….
“What’s the project?” he asked bluntly.
“I can’t tell you until you sign a nondisclosure agreement.”
“For God’s sake, and you think I’m being melodramatic—”
“But I can tell you it’s the most prestigious we’ve ever had.”
Matt looked at the file. The edge of a drawing peeked out from the side. “You have Addam de Broek on your team. Why would you need another designer?”
“I wish I didn’t,” Joel said harshly. “But Addam reckons we need you.”
Well, well. Matt couldn’t help but feel flattered, though he wanted to tell Joel Sterling to go to hell. But he also wanted to know what all this was about. If Joel would just tease out that drawing into full view….
Joel took a deep breath. “Whether I like it or not, the ball’s in your court. There’s one more thing you need to know. It’ll be very well paid.”
And therein lay the rub.
Matt needed the money. At least, Gary did, for the dig. They were starting to uncover real finds, but scrabbling away on spare weekends with inadequate tools just wouldn’t do the job.
In the silence that had fallen between them, Joel stood. He looked resigned, though not cowed. Slowly he opened the file and spread the first few papers out onto the table.
Matt gawped. There were design sketches and photos of what looked like current royal treasures. Dear God. Was that one of the crowns from the Tower of London, with a man’s arm and hand that looked exactly like Joel Sterling’s just in shot, resting right next to it? When and how the hell had Starsmith gained such close access?
Matt’s heart thundered in his chest, his fingertips tingling with the ache to open that file completely. He looked back up at Joel. There was a look in Joel’s eyes that reminded Matt of his own excitement with any new discovery at the dig. Gary had often told Matt he looked savage, accompanied by fond but raucous laughter at Matt’s expense.
“All you need to know to make your decision is that our client is the Royal Family,” Joel said softly. His eyes shone, even while his voice was steady.
“This means everything, doesn’t it?” Matt said. “To you, at least.”
“It’s a very prestigious commission,” Joel repeated, more doggedly, but Matt could see a bead of sweat on his brow.
“You’re all the same.” Matt couldn’t resist another poke at the bear. “Money above magic.”
“So prove me wrong!”
They stared at each other, startled, the anger and resentment still simmering.
Then Matt gave a big sigh. “Count me in.” Like it had ever been in doubt.