I’m halfway through my third cappuccino for the morning when Brenton Knox walks into my office.
“Ready to go?” he asks, contradicting the urgency in his voice by slumping down in one of the peanut butter colored scoop chairs on the other side of my desk. I have to stop myself from snorting at how he manages to not wrinkle his perfectly tailored charcoal suit in the slightest.
He’s always impeccably dressed and sometimes I wonder if it’s not all just a form of armor to keep him safe from those vultures who work for his family’s company. Though I guess I can’t really judge, as ever since I left school, I’ve had a weakness for pencil skirts and stilettos.
“Yeah, let me just finish off this email,” I say, focusing my gaze back on my laptop screen. “We’re supposed to be getting a new piece installed next week and I’m just confirming the details of its arrival.”
I’ve worked at the Harrington Gallery for three years now and I honestly still can’t believe that I’m so lucky. After choosing art history as my major in college, I’d sought out internships that would put me in the presence of as much art as possible, reaching out to all the local museums and galleries, and getting very little response. The Harringtons had been the kindest to me, offering me a summer job as an assistant to the gallery’s manager, Mrs. Harrington. And I loved it. Even the coffee runs and sometimes meaningless errands were a thrill for me, because at the end of the day, I still got to work in a place where I was constantly surrounded by beauty. It’s hard to work among masterpieces and ever be sad. So when the Harringtons asked if I wanted a full time job when I graduated, I jumped at the offer.
The first year of my full time job wasn’t too different from my internship, but as Mrs. Harrington began to trust me more, she gave me more responsibility. The experience came in handy when I ended up having to run the gallery on my own starting six months ago. Mrs. Harrington was involved in a car crash which left her bedridden for weeks, and although she’s currently on the road to a full recovery, she did confide in me that the accident left her seeing life more clearly and she thinks it might be time to pass the mantle. And if that’s the case, then I’m more than ready for the challenge.
“Take your time,” Brenton says in a bored voice, fidgeting with the Rolex on his wrist. “It’s not like I’m starving or anything.”
I roll my eyes as I click the send button on the email and shut my laptop. “Why are you so dramatic today?”
“No reason,” he sighs, lifting himself from the chair as I reach down to grab my purse and head for the door.
I’ve known Brenton my entire life. As in, his one year old self literally visited me in the hospital the day I was born. Which means that I know when something’s on his mind, and today he’s definitely distracted. Still, he’s always been open and honest with me, sometimes too much so, which also means that he’ll tell me whatever’s got him so moody at some point and I just have to wait it out until he does.
So I say, “Okay,” with a shrug and lead him out my office door, locking it behind me before we head out to the street.
I don’t even bother asking where he wants to go for lunch, because I already know the answer is going to be Sushi Palace. We’re regulars there every Wednesday, so today will be no exception.
To lighten the mood, I ask him about the dog he fostered over the weekend. He’s always loved animals, and one day, he wants a dog of his own, but right now he’s so busy with work that he feels it wouldn’t be fair to own a pet that he can’t give the proper attention it deserves. So he goes for the next best thing: fostering dogs on weekends when he actually has the time to look after them.
His eyes light up at the mention of the Beagle puppy he’d picked up on Friday night and it sets him off on a conversation that allows him to completely forget whatever was bothering him a few minutes ago.
As we walk, I hold in a laugh as I notice that men and women alike are having trouble keeping their eyes off of Brenton. He’s handsome for sure; tall with thick, dark hair and brilliant blue eyes, but it’s the fact that he exudes warmth and charm that has people drawn to him. He’s always been open and loving and despite the fact that he’s a Knox, he’s never once used his family’s money or power to make himself superior. If you take away the thousand dollar suit and flashy accessories, it’s actually pretty easy to forget that he has money at all.
It was Brenton’s great-grandfather who first began the Knox legacy. The story goes that Theodore Knox worked as a stock boy for a local inn, but worked his way up until he was eventually running the establishment. Once he’d saved up enough money, he bought his own place and the business was passed down and expanded with each new generation. Currently run by Brenton’s father, Knox Industries was a multimillion dollar hotel empire which spanned across the entire country.
Which meant that Brenton had never really been in a relationship. He went through a bit of a wild phase in college, where he was seen out with a different girl each week, but it wasn’t long before he realized that being a Knox meant that he had a certain image to maintain. Besides, it was getting harder and harder for him to tell whether people wanted to be around him because they actually liked him, or because they liked his money.
So he spent a lot of time with me. We’d been seen together since we were children, which meant no one ever assumed we were romantically involved. Plus, growing up together meant that Brenton trusted that I hung out with him for the right reasons.
To be honest, it still kind of blew my mind that I even knew someone with that much money. Because despite the fact that we’d been friends forever, my family didn’t come from the same background of inherited wealth.
My father met Brenton’s father in prep school. Dad was a scholarship student, sent to the best academy in the country by parents who wanted a brighter future for their only child. Harrison Knox befriended my dad on their first day in American Literature class and they’ve been friends ever since. They both received admittance to ivy league schools, but my father was on the verge of declining his offer due to not being able to afford the tuition when he discovered the Knoxs had already set aside a fund to get him through the next four years.
He vowed to pay them back and prove that he was worthy of such an investment. After college, Dad got a job as the assistant to the assistant producer of a national news broadcasting channel. He worked his ass off until eventually, he was given his own show: In the Details with Charlie Fenwick.
Despite our vastly different upbringings, Brenton and I had always been best friends. Which is why when he says, “We’ve been friends a long time, huh,” I instantly know something’s up.
“What do you want?” I say, taking a bite of my vegetable tempura.
He blinks at me innocently. “What are you talking about?”
I roll my eyes. “People only ever talk about the length of time of a relationship if they’re leading up to asking a favor.”
Plus, I’ve known him long enough to know that’s exactly what he’s going to do.
Shoving a salmon roll in his mouth, he mumbles, “Since when are you a psychologist?”
“Just answer the question,” I sigh.
Swallowing his sushi, he sits up straight and looks me directly in the eyes. “Will you marry me?”
I assume he’s kidding, so I say, “Sure.”
His eyes grow wide. “Really?”
“Yeah,” I shrug, still thinking this is some sort of joke. Until I notice that all the color’s left his cheeks and he kind of looks like he’s about to pass out. “Oh wait, you’re serious.”
“Yes,” he whispers. “I’m serious.”
Putting down my chopsticks, I lace my fingers on top of the table. “Yeah, you’re gonna have to explain.”
I love Brenton like he’s my family, because he basically is, so I’d do absolutely anything for him, including marrying him in a heartbeat if he truly needed me to. But I’m not sure what universe would require that of either of us.
He inhales and exhales deeply to calm his nervous before replying, “My dad’s retiring.”
“Wow, that’s big news,” I blink in surprise, knowing full well that Harrison Knox stepping down as CEO of Knox Industries was sure to cause a buzz in the business community. And it has major implications for Brenton’s future. “Is that why you’re being so weird today?”
“Kind of,” he nods. “Obviously, him retiring means he’s going to have to appoint a new CEO for Knox Industries.”
“And he’s considering you?” That would be the most obvious choice. Knox Industries had always been passed down along the bloodline. And seeing as Brenton is Harrison’s only child, it makes sense that Brenton would be the next in line to be CEO.
But apparently Harrison doesn’t think so, because Brenton clarifies with, “Me and Lucas Whaley.”
“Lucas Whaley?” I scrunch my nose in disgust at the name. “That douche who works in marketing?”
He’s loud mouthed and obnoxious and despite the fact that he’s married, he’s a little too loose with his hands.
“Yeah, well, he’s been kissing my dad’s ass for years,” Brenton replies, grabbing a tuna roll a little too tightly with his chopsticks and nearly causing the contents and the middle to spill out. “And there’s nothing my dear old dad would like more than to put someone in power that he can control even when he’s no longer running the company.”
That did kind of sound like Harrison. As generous as he may be, he’s also extremely protective of his company, and if he doesn’t think Brenton is ready to take over, then it makes sense that he would choose a successor he can easily manipulate.
Still, I’m not sure how Brenton’s proposal fits in this equation. “Okay, but what does this have to do with you needing me to marry you?”
“As you know,” he says calmly, “in my family, appearance is everything.”
I snort. That’s the understatement of the century. “Yeah, I got that the first time I came to your house for dinner and thought I’d accidentally ended up in a scene from Downton Abbey.”
Maybe I should have seen it coming, seeing as Brenton literally grew up in a mansion, but tuxedo clad waiters at a family dinner seemed a little excessive.
“Right,” he nods. “So for my dad, a CEO is someone who has their entire life together, including their personal life.”
Realization dawns on me. “Which is why you need a wife.”
“Yep,” he lets out a frustrated sigh. “I mean, we wouldn’t actually need to get married.”
“No?” I lift my eyebrows in surprise.
“No,” he shakes his head. “My parents already know you and trust you, so us just being engaged would probably be enough to convince my dad that I’m ready. Once my position in the company is official, we can call off the engagement.”
I suppose that makes sense. And it’s cleaner. Since having an actual wedding for a fake relationship would be so much effort. Lifting the corners of my lips into a smile, I say, “How diabolical.”
He laughs, seeming much calmer than he was a few minutes ago. “Are you in or not?”
Honestly, I’d made up my mind thirty seconds in to this conversation. Brenton is my best friend and I love him more than he probably knows. Plus, he’s put his ass on the line for me on more than one occasion, so it’s about time I returned the favor. Leaning towards him as though I’m telling him a juicy secret, I whisper, “Of course I’m in.”