Silicon Valley Billionaires: LAUREN Excerpt

Chapter 1

The day began as both ordinary and extraordinary. The sun shined through the windows of my office as I assembled my lab kit—special gloves, laptop and notes. All of it would have to be decontaminated before I entered the lab, but that was part of my daily ritual. The California sunshine and the fact that I had work to do were normal, but to me, that didn’t make them any less remarkable. I brushed my long blonde hair until it hung neatly over my shoulders, and smoothed my black sweater under my lab coat, preparing myself. Today would be the day my prototype finally worked.

I hoped.

Nodding at Stephanie, my assistant, I headed briskly to the lab. We were running another test that day. Hopefully, this would be the test that proved my invention could do what the world so desperately needed it to do.

But there were one thousand, one hundred and ninety-nine failed tests before it.

I went through the doors to the enclosed space, where I would be sprayed down with decontaminants to ensure the sterility of the lab. Everyone who worked at Paragon Laboratories entered through this space. The entrance was similar to the tube travelers walked through at airport security, where they were asked to put their arms over their heads to be scanned. At Paragon, people put their arms over their heads and were sprayed with an odorless sanitizer, ensuring no fibers or bacteria from the outside world invaded our precious testing ground.

My lab workers greeted me as I entered. At eight in the morning, most of them had already been here for hours. They were running preliminary tests, assembling data, and generating the reports necessary to keep our investors and the FDA apprised of our research.

At the end of the day, I would review all the new material, compile it, then have it electronically locked on my laptop so no one could access it without my direct permission. I always made sure our technology, valued at eight billion dollars, stayed secret. But the dollar amount associated with my invention didn’t interest me, even though I owned the majority stake in Paragon. My invention was my life’s work, my life’s mission, and its ability to help people was the only thing that mattered to me.

I headed directly toward Eva, our head researcher, deep V forming between her eyebrows as she read the data on her computer.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

She looked up, startled. “Nothing. Sheesh, Lauren, you scared me.”

I looked past her to her screen, searching for signs of trouble. “Why are you frowning like that?”

“Because my eyes are tired, and I’m scrunching up my face to compensate, okay? Nothing’s wrong. We haven’t run the test yet. We set everything up. We’re just waiting for you.” Her face relaxed into a smile. “Are you excited?”

I shrugged. “I think I’m more anxious than excited.”

“It’s going to go well. All the signs have been pointing to this.”

We’d run thousands of tests on our prototype, a patch that would scan cells in the human body for signs of disruption, doing the work of a CAT scan and other expensive tests for a fraction of the price, in a fraction of the time.

A thousand tests on our prototype, and not one had worked. Not yet.

Still, every one of those failures had brought me closer to success. Our most recent round of trials had come close. Since then, we’d been working around the clock to update the prototype. I knew what didn’t work, and I was so close to finding what did.

So close, I could taste it.

Eva tucked one of her curls behind her ear and looked at me expectantly. “Are you ready?”

I nodded. “Let’s begin.” I licked my lips nervously, then set up my own computer. I had a private one, separate from the network, on which I kept my own calculations and observations, as well as the most up-to-date configurations of the patch. I maintained this information off the grid to protect it from internal and external hacking threats.

My sister, who knew me better than anyone, said I did it because I was a paranoid control freak. She wasn’t wrong.

I grabbed a small headset off the table and turned on the microphone. “Finn, go ahead.” My directions were piped into a sealed room where the prototype would be tested. The room was adjacent to ours and visible from the lab.

Finn, one of my long-time lab workers, gave me the thumbs-up. He put his gloves on, hit a button on the wall, then a door automatically opened. Test Subject 1,201 entered the room, wearing a johnny. Finn had the man sit down, then assembled the various wires and suction cups on him that would monitor his breathing, heart rate, and stress levels. The test subject sat patiently as Finn arranged the myriad devices.

Finally, Finn seemed satisfied and turned toward us, waiting for instruction.

“Go ahead,” I ordered.

I held my breath as he picked up the patch, removed the backing, and gently placed it on the test subject. Screens lit up above the testing room, ready to display the information from the patch to the rest of us.

“Are all his signs normal?” I asked Eva as data from the monitoring equipment scrolled down her screen.

“He’s perfect. Everything is steady. Nothing should interrupt the output of information.”

I watched the screens above the test room. Finn sat, calmly monitoring the report on his computer. Eva continued to watch her screen. Test Subject 1,201 sat back with his eyes closed. He didn’t know the specifics of the trial, but he knew we were testing a medical diagnostic device. Per my legal team’s protocols, he’d signed a ten-page nondisclosure and confidentiality agreement. Still, he looked relaxed, probably happy to earn an easy thousand dollars for his participation.

I wished I could relax. Instead, I stared at the monitors and waited. A full minute passed. I grimaced, hating the feeling of disappointment forming in my stomach—a feeling I knew all too well.

It’s just another problem you need to eliminate. I tried to soothe myself as the seconds ticked by. If it doesn’t work this time, it’s still something you can fix. You’re so close.

The monitors flickered and came to life. Data suddenly started streaming—the data I’d been waiting for.

“Oh my God.” Eva moved to stand beside me. “It’s working.”

The patch read the test subject’s cells. Any red flags would be highlighted. Once I perfected the reports to weed out imperfect but harmless mutations, I would be able to tell whether this man had cancer, pre-cancer, or any other number of diseases.

For the first time, after years of research, testing, FDA compliance reports and one-hundred-hour work weeks, the patch finally worked.

“Yes, it’s working.” I wrapped my arms around my chest as if I were trying to give myself a congratulatory hug. “It’s finally working.”

* * *

I went back to my office and watched the sun make its way across the sky. I looked briefly at the picture of my parents on my desk, thinking how thrilled they would be with my success.

Thrilled, but not surprised.

That was how I felt too. I’d been working toward this day for six years. I’d pushed everything else to the side—school, sleep and any semblance of a social life. I’d dropped out of MIT my junior year because I’d known then that I was meant to do this work. Before taking on investors, I’d used a large portion of my inheritance to fund my research. It was worth it—creating this technology to help people would make the world a better place. That deep belief and single-minded determination had gotten me through the past six lonely years.

Stephanie buzzed through on my intercom, interrupting my reverie. “Your sister’s here to see you.”

“Send her in.”

Hannah, my younger sister, bounded through the door and pulled me in for a hug. “So excited.”

“Uh. Hi.” I laughed and tried simultaneously to breathe through her tight hug. “I guess you heard about the test.”

“I ran into Eva and accosted her.” She pulled back and studied my face. “Don’t be mad, okay?”

“I’m not mad. Eva knows it’s okay to tell you. You and only you.” I smiled at Hannah fondly. Three years younger than me, with the same blonde hair and blue eyes I had, she was also highly intelligent—but that was where our similarities ended. Our co-workers found me reserved and cerebral, while outgoing and chatty Hannah charmed them. Her personality was why I’d hired her as Paragon’s director of publicity. She gave Paragon’s interviews, which were few and far between, and closely monitored any stories about us in the press.

“Are we going to take this thing public finally?” she asked.

I shook my head. “Not yet. We need to do more extensive testing to confirm these findings. We need to be sure that we have enough successful clinical trials completed to obtain all the necessary FDA approvals. After that, we need to do another round of fundraising with our investors and raise the capital to bring the patch to market. Then we’ll finalize a plan about announcing the technology to the rest of the world.”

“But our secret won’t be a secret for that much longer.” Her eyes glittered. “It’s so exciting—the whole world’s finally going to know what a genius my sister is!”

“Calm down.” I patted her shoulder. “We still have a long way to go. And I’m not really keen on sharing anyway.”

Hannah tilted her head, scrutinizing me. “But that’s what you want, isn’t it? Why aren’t you more excited?”

I smiled, trying to reassure her. “I am excited. I just want to take it one step at a time. And the prototype’s been my baby for so long, it’s going to be hard to let it out into the world.” I got up and walked over to the window, looking out at the acres of carefully maintained lawns surrounding our building. “I like being under the radar. You know that. Once this goes public, everyone’s going to know who we are.”

Unlike other entrepreneurs, I didn’t crave the spotlight. I shied away from fundraisers and promotional opportunities. I’d never given an interview, and I refused to comment publicly about Paragon and the research we did.

Still, I loved running my company. It had been difficult for me to reach out to our board members and the venture capitalists that funded our research, but I’d known it was necessary to make my vision a reality. I’d built an amazing team of investors, directors, and employees. We prided ourselves on the work we did there. We all wanted to make the world a better place.

I would do anything for Paragon and for the prototype. But fame didn’t interest me, and money only did to the extent that it could fund my research.

Hannah came up beside me. “Maybe you can…relax a little now?”

I looked at her out of the corner of my eye. “What on earth does that mean?” Of course, I knew precisely what she meant, but I wasn’t about to take the bait.

My sister frowned. “You could…take a vacation? Go to a spa? Go on a date?”

I snorted. “I can’t do anything frivolous like that. It would be a waste of my time, and you know it.”

“Enjoying life isn’t a waste of time. You haven’t taken a vacation in six years. You should go to the Caribbean and drink adult beverages, preferably the fruity ones with little umbrellas. And you should bring a hot guy.”

“Enough,” I snapped, then immediately felt bad. I turned to her and forced myself to look conciliatory. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be so sharp with you. My baby sister.” I tucked a stray hair behind her ear.

She frowned again. “I’m serious. The phrase ‘you need to get out more’ has never been more on point.”

“This is the only place I want to be. If I took a vacation, or even if I just went home early, I’d still be wishing that I was here. This is where I’m meant to be.”

Hannah rolled her eyes. “Well, lucky for you, it’ll be here when you get back.”

“I’m not going anywhere.”

She smiled, mischief in her eyes. “Oh yes, you are. You have a lunch today, remember? With Gabriel Betts.”

“What?” I pulled up my schedule, and there it was, for today at one o’clock. I cringed. “Can’t you do it? I don’t have time.”

I can’t do it. He wants to talk about technology, remember? That’s why we agreed that you’d be the one to meet with him.”

I held my cell phone and looked at her pleadingly. “But that was three months ago. Today of all days, I can’t leave the lab. Call him and cancel. Please.”

She grinned. “Actually, today of all days, you can leave the lab. Your prototype worked. For the first time ever. There’s absolutely no reason you can’t go to lunch. Besides, Gabriel Betts is hot. He’s a billionaire technology geek too, so who knows? You two might really hit it off.”

I glowered at her. “Stop it.”

“One o’clock at Grove in the Valley. Take a driver. Take security. You might wanna put on a little more lip gloss.” She smiled sweetly as I seethed. “He really is gorgeous. Google him and see for yourself.”

She sashayed out of the room, and I went to my computer, furiously googling Gabriel Betts, the CEO of Dynamica, a Silicon Valley-based company that produced lab-related technology that was used all over the world. I’d never met him before, but based on the pictures I found of him online, my sister was correct. He was absolutely gorgeous.

Still seething, I went to put on more lip gloss.

 

Chapter 2

“This is it, Ms. Taylor.” The driver pulled up outside of Grove, and a valet waited to open my door.

“Would you like me to come in?” asked Timmy, my personal security guard. I counted the rolls on the back of his beefy neck while I tried to gather my courage.

Five. Five neck rolls. “No. I’ll be fine.”

“I’ll be right outside.”

I didn’t doubt it. Timmy and his fleet of men protected me twenty-four-seven. At first, I’d thought it was crazy when my board of directors insisted on that level of security, but as time had gone on and the potential for our device had grown, I’d understood their concern. Only I could perfect the science behind our technology. The investment in our security team ensured my safety.

I accepted the valet’s hand. “Ms. Taylor, your table’s ready inside.”

Out of practice when it came to interacting with strangers, I smiled at him awkwardly and headed into the restaurant. Hannah had eaten there several times with one or more of her many male admirers. In her words, “the food was awesome.” I usually ate a salad from our cafeteria at my desk for both lunch and dinner, so I had no idea what “awesome” meant these days. Luckily, the smells from the open kitchen were wonderful, so I resigned myself to being pleased. At least with the food.

The young hostess had multiple piercings and tattoos. “Ms. Taylor?” I tried to look at all of them at once while she waited patiently. “Mr. Betts is waiting for you.”

She brought me to my table, and I saw Gabriel Betts from behind, sitting and waiting. I hesitated for a moment. He looked large and muscular, almost too big for the small table. I swallowed hard, remembering his handsome face from the photos I’d scrolled through online.

What the hell was I going to talk to him about?

He must have felt me staring at him, because he turned around and flashed me a wide smile. “Lauren, I’m so happy you could make it.”

I forced myself to smile as he stood up, towering over me. I shook his hand, noticing how large and strong it was. I gulped. “It’s my pleasure, Gabriel.”

“You’re taller than I expected,” he said. “And even lovelier than your pictures.”

I took my seat, blushing furiously. “Um…thanks.”

He had short, thick dark hair, dark brown eyes, and just enough lines on his face to make it interesting rather than just blandly handsome. In person, he was what my sister would deem extremely gorgeous.

Or even worse, sexy.

I tried to stop staring at him. I reminded myself that I was the CEO of a large company that employed more than one hundred workers; that I had security guards because my head was filled to the brim with trade secrets worth billions of dollars. I couldn’t turn into a quivering, salivating Chihuahua just because Gabriel Betts was tall and handsome. I could manage to have a normal conversation with this man over lunch.

I hoped.

Gabriel’s dark brown eyes twinkled as he smiled at me. “It’s funny that our paths have never crossed before.”

I took a sip of water. “Not really. I don’t get out much.” Ever. I don’t get out ever.

“So you admit to being reclusive.” He had an easy-going, confident way about him—a way that only insanely gorgeous, successful, and brilliant male Silicon Valley CEOs must have.

I quickly scanned the menu, needing to look away from him. “It’s not that I’m reclusive. I’ve just been busy working.”

“Would you like me to order for us? I come here pretty regularly.”

“That’s okay. I can do it myself.” My tone sounded bristly and curt to my own ears.

Gabriel gently pushed my menu down. “I’m sure you’re more than capable of ordering for yourself. But I’d like to order some of my favorites to share. But only if that’s all right with you.”

“That’s fine, but I need to be back to the lab in an hour.” I looked at my watch, wishing it were already time.

He motioned for the waiter. “Any dietary restrictions?”

“I don’t eat beef, pork, or chicken.”

He smiled and my stomach tied itself in a knot. “Fish and shellfish okay?”

I nodded, trying not to be flattered by his careful attention. “Thank you for asking.”

“You’re very welcome.” His smile broadened, and I noticed a lone dimple located on the left side of his face. For some reason, this annoyed me. A lot.

He ordered all manner of things, some of which I’d never heard of before, and he also ordered wine.

I stopped the server when he went to fill my glass. “No thank you.” To Gabe, I said, “I don’t drink alcohol when I’m working.”

Gabriel motioned to the waiter and my glass was immediately filled, against my will. “You don’t have to finish it. Just enjoy it to taste.”

I frowned at him, but he continued to smile at me pleasantly. “I’m not trying to boss you around, I swear. I just want you to enjoy your lunch.”

I wanted to enjoy it too. But he might have been too handsome to eat across from.

The servers placed sashimi and lobster dumplings in front of us, along with a delicious-looking salad with roasted poblano peppers and shaved Parmesan.

Gabriel held up his wineglass, and I raised mine too.

“Cheers to finally meeting.”

I tentatively tapped my glass against his. “Cheers.”

I took a sip of the wine, which was heavenly, as he started putting food on my plate. I took a bite of the sashimi and tried to ignore its simple deliciousness. I could feel myself getting wrapped up in the food, the wine, our sunny seats in the restaurant, and the man across from me. But I needed to stay focused on Paragon and all the work waiting for me back at the office.

Gabriel was saying something about the food when I cleared my throat. “I don’t mean to be rude, but if we’re going to talk about business, we should do it soon.”

“I’m sorry. I get a little excited about taking a break during the day. Especially with a beautiful woman.”

I almost choked on my dumpling.

“Once I go back to the office, I’ll be there until ten—and I’ll forget to eat dinner.”

I finally managed to swallow. “You do that too?”

“Of course. I do it most days.” He took a sip of wine, and I tried not to watch him, but I found myself staring nonetheless. His handsome features smoothed out as he sat quietly for a moment. It looked as if he were considering what to say next. “So…regarding why we’re here. I’ve been wanting to meet you for a long time. Paragon’s an interesting business.”

I took another sip of wine. “It’s not that interesting. It’s just a laboratory, really. It’s only interesting if you’re a scientist.”

He nodded. “I’m a scientist. And I went to school in Cambridge too. Harvard.”

“How did you know I went to school in Cambridge?”

He looked at me as if I might be a little bit crazy. “Everybody knows you went to MIT.”

Everybody? Everybody who?

“I didn’t graduate,” I said quickly. I never wanted to pretend to be someone I wasn’t.

“Me neither. I attended Harvard. Sporadically.” He chuckled. “I came out to California to start my business. My undergraduate studies weren’t going to help me get the funding I needed to research and implement my technology. So I decided to cut my losses and come out here to see what I could make of myself.”

“That’s exactly what I did.”

“I know.”

I looked at him sharply. “How did you know that?”

“It’s this little thing called the Internet—you may have heard of it. Did you google me before you came here today?”

“Of course.” The words tumbled out before I could stop myself.

“Well, I googled you too. That’s how I know you’re an MIT dropout.” His eyes flickered with mischief. “Were you only looking at my pictures?”

I coughed instead of answering. The truth was, I had only looked at his pictures and his brief bio. In addition to information about his company, Dynamica, his bio had listed his height (six foot three), his weight (two hundred thirty pounds), and his age (thirty-two).

“Also, I know about you because people talk. Silicon Valley’s not that big—there’s a lot of curiosity about you and Paragon. I also happen to know one of the professors at MIT pretty well. You were his student before you dropped out.”

I put down my fork before I dropped it. “How do you know that?”

“Because I called him and asked him if he’d ever met you. I was doing my due diligence in advance of our meeting. I asked him what you were like.”

“Which professor?”

He speared another lobster dumpling. “Alexander Viejo. He’s engaged to my mother. They’re getting married later this year. He said you were brilliant, by the way. One of the brightest students he’s ever had.”

I looked at him, surprised. Alexander Viejo was a famous biochemist. I’d audited one of his senior-level classes my sophomore year and found him fascinating. “He’s marrying your mom?”

Gabriel nodded. “She lives up in Boston—that’s where I’m from, originally. My father passed away when I was ten. I’m happy that she finally met someone great…who can also consult for my business.”

Damn. I would have loved to have Professor Viejo consult with Paragon. I cursed myself for not getting to him first.

The waiter appeared and refilled our glasses. Despite my protests, I’d managed to finish all my wine. Gabriel had the decency not to tease me.

“I’m sorry to hear about your father.” Dead parents were the last things I wanted to talk about, so I quickly maneuvered the conversation back to business. “What exactly is it that you find interesting about Paragon?”

He laughed. “You’re kidding, right?”

I shook my head, confused.

He leaned over the table toward me. “Everyone’s interested in Paragon. You have the whole industry on pins and needles, just waiting to see what you come up with. Because my business is entwined with lab technology, I have, of course, been paying attention to what you’re up to. I know that with a board of directors like yours, you’ve got to be developing something good.”

I smiled at him. “We are. I’m not going to tell you the specifics because they involve trade secrets, but your instincts are correct.”

“They usually are.” There was that dimple again, and I sucked in a breath. “I was hoping you’d be willing to discuss a partnership opportunity with me. That’s why I wanted to meet with you. I knew a little bit about your background, which, as we’ve discussed, is similar to mine. I’ve watched you from afar for a few years now. Even though you’re very private, Lauren, people still talk. People in the industry admire your work ethic, and they admire how you keep your technology close. I admire those things too. You’re one of a very elite group of female CEOs in the biomedical industry. You’re building your empire on your own, and you have a great shot at success because you’re extremely intelligent and extremely driven.”

I swallowed. “Thank you.” I didn’t know what else to say. I’d been so wrapped up in my research and testing for the past few years, I hadn’t really paid attention to the outside world. I still found it baffling that the outside world knew anything about me at all, or cared.

“Even though I don’t know specifically what you’re working on at Paragon, I do know that it’s something great. Otherwise you wouldn’t have kept it completely secret for so long—not with the list of investors that you’ve got. I can help you. We can help each other.”

“How’s that?”

The waiter brought more food, grilled salmon and ahi tuna, but my appetite had gone. He was offering me a partnership with Dynamica, and I didn’t do partnerships. I needed to break it to him.

I motioned to the waiter for the check. “I’m sorry, but Paragon isn’t taking on partners. Not now, not in the foreseeable future.”

The muscles in Gabriel’s square jaw clenched. I wondered vaguely what it would be like to run my fingertips over the small amount of stubble on his chin—but the thought was ridiculous. I needed to get away from him and back to the safety of my lab.

“My company has the international business contacts that you’ll need when you take your technology public. If you partner with me, you’ll have access to my entire network. The reach of your invention will be global almost immediately. Think about it.”

I would think about it, even if I didn’t want to. I’d started building a list of international distributors, but it was nothing as established as what Gabriel was offering. I sat back and studied his face—handsome, strong, and utterly convinced of what he was saying.

“What’s in it for Dynamica? What’s in it for you, Gabriel?”

“Money. Power. Influence.” A slow grin spread across his face. “And by all means, please call me Gabe.”

 

Chapter 3

I stalked around my office for the rest of the afternoon, feeling off-kilter. Gabe’s offer was unexpected and unwelcome. It was also, however, a great offer. If Paragon partnered with Dynamica before we launched, we could offer our technology to labs and third-party providers all over the world.

I could curate similar contacts over time, but the partnership would make those avenues immediately accessible. The alliance’s attraction was undeniable. The financial compensation Gabe outlined at the end of our meeting was fair. It seemed like an offer I couldn’t refuse.

The problem was, I had to say no. I didn’t do partnerships.

I’d built Paragon by myself, from the ground up. After I’d quit MIT, I moved to northern California and used some of the money my parents had left me to secure a tiny lab space. Then I used more of it to build my first prototype. At the time, I slept at the lab on a futon. I worked sixteen-hour days, alone, fleshing out the idea for the technology. I’d known then that I would one day be successful, but I’d also known it wouldn’t be easy.

I’d been correct—years of trial and error were ahead of me and Paragon. I’d continued my work with the prototype, but I’d finally reached the point where I needed funding to expand my research. I’d made some friends at MIT, and from time to time, they checked in on me. Some of those friends were wildly successful, some of them had family money, and all of them believed in me. They knew my single-minded determination to make my ideas work. They’d become my first investors, and they were all still with me today. With their initial investment, I’d moved into a larger lab space. I formed Paragon Laboratories, hired more staff, started the FDA approval process, and began the technical trials on my prototype.

My mother had no taste for luxury, but she’d always loved diamonds. She admired their strength, their clarity, and their beauty. I’d named my company Paragon after the perfect diamond of one hundred or more carats. If you included all the microbes, the human body contained over one hundred trillion cells, and I planned to use my technology to help analyze them.

But I’d always been very clear that it was my technology.

I’d gained more investors as I’d grown, but I’d never shared the exact results of my research or the nature of my technology with anyone. Instead of filing for patent protection for the patch, which would have released some of the technology publicly, I protected it as a trade secret. Trade secrets were only secure while they were confidential—so I guarded the information fiercely. Only a core group of employees had knowledge of the most up-to-date specs, and even then, they only knew the portion that directly impacted their day-to-day functions. My investors, and later my board of directors, only had a general sense of what I worked on and how I achieved my results. That was okay with everyone because they believed in me, my commitment to the company and to the research.

I never planned on going public. I never planned on sharing what I’d made with other companies—only customers. I’d always wanted to be in complete control of Paragon’s present and future. As its single parent, I knew no one could love it and care for it like I could.

If I partnered with Dynamica, I would have another person to answer to—Gabriel Betts. If he became unhappy about something I did, he could criticize me as an equal. But that wasn’t what worried me. The idea of trusting him, relying on him, and the possibility that he could fail me worried me the most.

I trusted myself because I knew I would never fail—because all my failures were leading to success, and I would never give up. But I couldn’t put that sort of trust in someone else. Not many people were as driven and single-minded as I’d been.

The sky darkened as the options ran through my head. I had a duty to present Gabe’s offer to the board, and they had a duty to analyze it and advise me about whether to accept it. Their answer would be yes, we should partner with Dynamica and reach international customers more quickly than we’d ever planned. We’d make more money to invest back into our research, and then we’d make more amazing things to help people.

They would say yes, and they would be right. We should partner with Dynamica.

But I kept thinking about Gabe. His easy laugh. Those shoulders. How he’d said I was lovelier than my pictures. I imagined working with him on a regular basis, seeing the twinkle in his eyes, seeing that dimple. Having a reason to call him. Often.

And all I wanted to say was no.

* * *

“What are you doing home?” Hannah asked, stupefied, from across the kitchen.

I coughed and looked at the clock. The fact that I was home from work at six-thirty on a Friday night shouldn’t be remarkable—but it was, and I knew it. I also knew the reason was going to push my sister into a state of ecstatic rapture.

“I have a date.”

She clapped her hands together. “Is it with Gabriel Betts? I knew it. I knew it!”

“Calm yourself. It’s not with Gabriel. It’s with Clive Warren.”

She wrinkled her nose. “Huh? I thought he moved to China.”

“He did, but now he’s back. He’s been hounding me to go to dinner for the past six weeks. So I’m going.”

Hannah poured herself a seltzer and frowned at me. “Since when do you go on dates?”

Since I can’t stop thinking about Gabe Betts. I figured that was a clear sign I needed to get out more. Or at least once. I also wanted to prove to myself that I could have a meal with an attractive, intelligent man without breaking into a cold sweat. I’d failed to do that at my lunch with Gabe. I clearly needed practice with social interaction.

And if I happened to like Clive Warren on a personal level, so much the better. So much the better because that would put another layer between me and Gabe Betts, who seemed to pop into my every alternating thought since I’d met him.

“It’s not really a date—not to me anyway. I want to catch up with him about his latest patent. He’s been texting me twice a week. I figured if I finally had dinner with him, he’d stop.”

She raised her eyebrows. “You’re just going to get him all excited. Once he gets a taste, he’ll text you every day. He might even start sexting you.”

My nerves started to thrum. “Ugh, don’t make me nervous—you know I don’t even know what that word means!”

My sister’s face softened. She knew that between the two of us, she was the worldly and sophisticated one with the boyfriends and the trendy clothes, and I was the bookworm with neither. And that was the way I preferred it. “Aw, don’t be nervous. You’re going to be fine. I only met him once, but he seemed like a nice enough guy. He’s not as hot as Gabriel—hey, how did lunch go, anyway?”

I shrugged. “It was fine. He wants us to partner with his company for international distribution.”

Hannah’s eyes glimmered with excitement. “That’d be great, right?”

I shrugged again. “I have to present it to the board. I have a feeling they’re going to say yes.”

“So, what’s the matter?”

“Nothing,” I lied.

“You suck at lying.” She put her hands on her hips. “Tell me what’s wrong.”

I sighed, deflating. “I just don’t know if I can trust him.”

Hannah nodded as if she understood. She was the person in the world who knew me best, so she probably did. “But you don’t have to trust everything about him. You just have to trust that he’ll perform his side of the contract. He’s probably capable of that, right?”

“Probably.”

“Then it’ll be okay. Plus, maybe he’ll bring his hunky self around the lab every once in a while. That wouldn’t suck!”

I rolled my eyes. “You aren’t doing much for my nerves right now.”

She looked me up and down and sighed. “This probably isn’t going to make your nerves any better, but is that what you’re wearing to dinner?”

I wore a simple white sweater and black skirt, which I had paired with black tights and flats. “Yes.”

“That,” she said, pointing up and down at my outfit, “is the opposite of sexy.”

I crossed my arms against my chest. “That’s fine with me. I wasn’t going for sexy.”

Hannah groaned. “Where is Clive taking you?”

“Some steakhouse.”

She looked incredulous. “Doesn’t he know you don’t eat meat?”

I shook my head. “I didn’t feel it was necessary to burden him with personal information about me.” Hannah groaned again as I looked back at the clock. “I have to go. The driver’s probably already out front with security.”

Hannah stalked back to the fridge and pulled out a bottle of wine. “I’ll be holding a vigil, waiting for you. I have my cell phone, and I have wine. You call me if you need anything.”

I collected my coat and headed for the door. “Got it.”

“Hey,” Hannah called from the island. “Try to have fun. It won’t kill you. I promise!”

“It just might,” I muttered to myself as I went through the door.

* * *

The pretty hostess nodded at me. “Ms. Taylor? Mr. Warren’s already waiting for you at your table.”

I had a vague sense of déjà vu. The fact that this was happening to me twice in one week was nothing short of miraculous. Two different men, two different restaurants. It was an all-time personal record for me.

I spotted Clive, resplendent in a dark suit, before he saw me. He looked handsome and meticulously groomed, his dark hair gelled carefully, his tortoiseshell glasses immaculate. He even had a dark purple cloth in his pocket, which seemed a bit prissy, but what the hell did I know?

“Lauren!” He jumped to his feet and hugged me warmly. “So glad you could make it.”

He held my chair out, and I sat down stiffly. The steakhouse was very opulent, with red velvet banquettes, heavy draperies, and ornate chandeliers. I felt underdressed, but there was little I could do about it.

I forced myself to smile at him. “This is very…nice.” I actually found the restaurant ostentatious and distasteful, but I kept that to myself. “Thank you for inviting me.”

He smiled, and I relaxed a little. “Oh please, let’s be honest—I’ve been making a fool out of myself, begging you to have dinner with me.”

Clive had been on Paragon’s board for a full year, and I’d gotten to know him reasonably well during that time. We’d parted on good terms when he relocated to China to oversee his company’s operations. Since he’d been back, he’d been busy with the patent he was developing for his own company, Warren Technologies. Clive’s company developed software and other high technology for use across a wide swath of industries, including healthcare.

Clive waited patiently while the waiter filled out wineglasses. “How is Paragon these days?”

My smile was genuine. “Very well, thank you. We’re still in clinical trials, but we’re also in the early stages of strategizing our introduction to the market.”

Clive pulled his glasses down and gazed at me over them, looking impressed. “Wow. I guess ‘very well’ is an understatement, then.”

I happily took a sip of wine. “I’m thrilled, as you can imagine.” The fact that my prototype was finally working was an amazing achievement.

“Well, cheers to your success.” Clive raised his glass to mine. “May it continue.”

I toasted him and took another small sip of wine. Although I enjoyed the warmth as it spread through me, I vowed not to drink much more. Wine plus my giddiness over the week’s achievements could result in too much relaxation. Based on the way Clive’s eyes kept wandering over me, I figured being relaxed wasn’t the most prudent course of action for the evening.

Still, I needed to be polite. “How was China?”

“It was a whirlwind. Have you ever been?”

“Never.”

His gaze lingered on me, making me feel exposed in spite of my long-sleeved sweater. “I might be going back for business soon. Perhaps you can accompany me.”

I sat there, feeling slightly flabbergasted. Was Clive Warren asking me on a date to China?

“So, what should we order?” Clive looked over the menu. “The foie gras with pancetta wrapping is amazing. The kimchi-glazed pork belly is also outstanding, as is the bone marrow.”

I was about to interrupt his proposed meal choices when a large hand squeezed my shoulder.

“The lady doesn’t eat meat, Clive. You probably should have asked.” Gabe Betts towered over our table, wearing jeans and a button-down shirt open at the throat. He looked down at me with a grin, his brown eyes twinkling, his dimple showing. “Shouldn’t you be at the office?”

I stared at him, mesmerized by his handsome face and square jaw. I squirmed underneath his grasp, but it wasn’t a bad squirm. Was I uncomfortable? Hell yes…but not in a bad way.

“I. Um,” I started hopelessly.

“Gabriel. Nice to see you. And even though she’s usually still working at this hour, Lauren kindly agreed to take time out of her busy schedule to have dinner with me,” Clive said pointedly.

“So you’re having dinner, huh?” Gabe completely ignored Clive, his eyes never leaving my face. “I didn’t know you liked to go to dinner.”

“I don’t.” I looked up to see Clive’s face fall. “I mean—I do. I just don’t usually have time.”

“Good to know,” Gabe said, finally releasing me. His smile faded and a muscle in his jaw jumped as he glanced at Clive. “Nice to see you two. Enjoy your evening.” He didn’t sound as though he meant it, and I worried for a moment that he was mad at me. And then I wondered why I cared.

He stalked away, and Clive rolled his eyes. “What an ass.”

I raised my eyebrows, surprised. “He’s not a nice person? I thought you two were in the same group.”

“What group is that?” Clive was back to reading the menu again, but he looked skeptical. He was probably annoyed I wouldn’t eat pork belly wrapped in bacon.

Feeling shaky, I took another sip of wine. “The Silicon Valley tech-CEO billionaire boys’ club.” My skin burned where Gabe had touched me. I wanted to turn around and search the restaurant for him, but I knew that was rude.

Clive laughed. “I’m not in any club like that. I don’t have the time or the interest.” He looked up from his menu, his eyes raking over me again. “What about you? What are you interested in?”

I clutched my wineglass as if it were a life preserver. Clive’s question seemed loaded and inappropriate. I wasn’t attracted to him in the slightest. He was nice-looking and successful, but he did nothing for me. Did he think I’d said yes to dinner because I was interested in him?

It only then occurred to me—that was exactly what normal people did.

“I’m actually interested in your latest patent,” I said bluntly.

He laughed a little and sat back. “I figured as much.”

The waiter came over, and we ordered. Thank goodness there were scallops on the menu and we were that much closer to being done. I didn’t know if Gabe was still in the restaurant, but I felt like someone was watching me. I just wanted to go home, eager to put an end to the evening as soon as possible.

“My latest patent is something you should be interested in, actually.”

“How’s that?”

“I’ve been working on a deliverable system that might dovetail nicely with Paragon’s work.” He went into a detailed, technical description of his new invention.

I nodded at all the appropriate places, but my mind wandered as I picked at my dinner. Where was Gabe? Was he here on a date? Was he here with his girlfriend?

“What I’m interested in,” Clive was saying, “is partnering with Paragon once your technology goes live. If you’re interested in talking about it in more detail, I can have my team put together a proposal.”

I didn’t want to be rude, but the technology he’d described wouldn’t be a good fit with Paragon, and I wasn’t interested. “Paragon’s not really in a position to take on partnership deals right now.”

“Oh, really? Why’s that?” Clive sounded defensive.

I took a deep breath. “We’re not ready to come to market yet. When we do, it’s going to take some time testing the waters before we’re ready to commit to long-term contracts with partners. We’re not ready for that sort of commitment.”

He put down his fork. “Then why were you having lunch with Gabriel Betts earlier this week? Weren’t you talking about partnering with Dynamica?”

It was my turn to put down my fork. “How did you know about that?”

Clive shrugged. “I might not be in the Silicon Valley CEO billionaire boys’ club, but people still talk.”

“Gabe and I had lunch.”

Clive sniffed. “Oh, so it’s Gabe now?”

I stiffened, trying to keep my anger in check. “We talked about business, yes, but I didn’t make any agreements with him.”

Clive pulled down his glasses again, and I decided he was not even remotely attractive. “But will you?”

“I’m not going to answer that.”

He leaned across the table and over his pork bellies, or whatever they were. “I think you at least owe me that much.”

“I don’t owe you an answer or anything else, because it’s none of your business. And I don’t appreciate the turn this conversation’s taking.” I didn’t like being pushed. Clive had no right to interrogate me. It was unacceptable. I took out my wallet and put two hundred dollar bills on the table. “I’m ready to say good night now.”

“Lauren, wait—” Clive said, but I was already up and halfway across the room, securing my pocketbook against me.

I waited impatiently while the hostess collected my coat. I didn’t want to give Clive the chance to get to me. His aggressiveness had taken me by surprise and had left me feeling slightly sick. I felt as if I might cry, which was a foreign and utterly repugnant sensation.

“Do you need a ride?”

I whirled to find Gabe standing at the door with his own coat on, ready to go.

“I have my driver, thanks.” The hostess handed me my coat, and I nodded at her silently.

Clive rounded the corner then. His face fell when he saw Gabe standing near me. “Lauren, they just poured us some more wine. Please, come join me.” He sounded as though he were pleading.

I shook my head. “I need to go. I’m exhausted.” I suddenly realized how true that was. This was why I didn’t go out much. The world wanted all sorts of things from me, but I could only give it my technology, on my own terms. All the maneuverings and fancy restaurants were just too much.

“Just for a minute—” Clive started, but Gabe stepped forward.

“The lady said she’s tired. She’s going home now.” Gabe towered over Clive, and I watched as the smaller man took a step back.

“I believe Lauren’s capable of speaking for herself.” Clive’s face was pinched as he regarded Gabe. Even though he was a technology nerd, Clive Warren was still a self-made billionaire, a successful entrepreneur in his own right. He was probably not used to being intimidated and literally talked down to.

I sighed. I really wanted to extricate myself from their pissing contest, and I could still feel the tears threatening. “I have been speaking for myself. You’re just not listening. Good night, gentlemen.” I headed out toward the valet, hoping my driver and my security detail would appear as soon as possible. I needed to get out of there. I tapped my foot while I waited, inwardly berating myself for accepting Clive’s invitation.

“Lauren.” Gabe came out of the restaurant. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.” In the night air, I willed myself to calm down. “I just really want to go home.” My voice sounded small.

Concern marred his handsome face. “Let me take you.”

I sighed. “Even if you drive me, my driver will just follow us. It would be redundant, not to mention a waste of gas.”

“I have an electric car.” Gabe’s grin finally crept back. “So although it may be redundant for me to drive you home with your driver following behind us, it won’t be a waste of gas.”

I surprised myself by laughing and relaxed a little. Maybe this was giving in, but it felt good. “Okay. But I really do want to go straight home.”

“Of course.”

The valet brought my car first. I leaned in and explained to my driver and security detail that Gabe was driving me home, and they were to follow. Gabe’s car came next. “Such an awesome ride,” exclaimed the young valet as he hopped out of the driver’s seat and tossed the keys to Gabe. “Please let me park it for you again!”

“Deal.” Gabe smiled at him and tipped him generously. Then he opened the car door for me—it swung up and opened as if it were a wing—and I got down into the fancy, electric whatever-it-was.

Gabe slid in beside me and I turned to him. “What type of car is this?”

“A Porsche 918 Spyder. Well, it’s based on a 918 Spyder. I had it custom-made. The regular ones don’t come with doors like that.”

I looked at him skeptically as he revved the engine and pulled onto the road. “And it’s electric?”

“It’s a hybrid. I try to run it solely on electricity, though. So you needn’t worry about the gas waste.”

I sighed. “You can stop making fun of me now.”

He kept his eyes on the road but smiled. “Are you having a rough night? Clive looked like he might cry back there.”

“He didn’t like what I had to say.”

“He’s an asshole.”

“Funny, he said the same thing about you.”

Gabe raised an eyebrow. “I’m not surprised. Why were you having dinner with him, anyway? You could have been having dinner with me. And I wouldn’t have even mentioned the pork bellies.”

I shook my head and couldn’t help it—I laughed again.

“Oh, so now pork bellies are funny? You’ve skipped out of work before ten, you went on a date, and now you’re laughing at the poor pork bellies. You’ve gone rogue, Lauren.”

My laughter subsided, and I shook my head. “I wanted to talk to Clive about his latest patent, to see if it would be something worth acquiring. It wasn’t. And he didn’t want to hear that I wasn’t interested. He didn’t seem to take it well.”

“I don’t blame him. I wouldn’t want to hear that either.” We were quiet for a minute as Gabe drove through the hills to my home, following my directions. “Are you going to tell me no, by the way? I can take it. Unlike Clive Warren, I’m a man.”

You certainly are. I then realized I had gone rogue. Ugh. “I have to present your offer to my board. It’s worth taking to them, in any event. We’ll go from there.”

He nodded, still watching the road. “Fair enough.”

“What were you doing there tonight, anyway? Did I take you away from your date?” I was glad the car was dark because I could feel my cheeks burning.

He glanced over at me. “No. I was alone, having dinner at the bar. Typical bachelor CEO Friday night kind of thing.”

“Oh.” It was all I could think of to say. Relief flooded me when he pulled into my long driveway and my car pulled in next to us. Timmy hopped out of the passenger seat and surveyed the premises.

Gabe glanced at him. “You have security with you?”

“When I go out, yes. The board thought it was a good idea.”

“Your board has an excellent reputation for a reason. I approve.” He turned back to me. “So, tomorrow’s Saturday. I’m assuming you’re working?”

“Of course.”

“So am I. But as tomorrow night is Saturday night, and Saturday night is a night when people often venture out to get dinner, I was wondering if you’d like to do that too? With me?”

“You know I don’t do dinner.”

“Well, if you can make time for dinner with Clive Warren, you can make time for dinner with me. Plus, you said you liked going to dinner.”

“I was just trying to be polite.”

“Perfect. I’m asking you to dinner, you’re trying to be polite—it’s officially a date. I’ll pick you up at eight.” He got out of the car and opened my unusual door for me, his eyes twinkling in the dim light spilling from my house. “That should give you time to put in a solid ten hours at the office, enough to assuage your impending guilt.”

He took my hand and helped me out from the car. We stood together in the dim light spilling from my house. “Good night, Lauren. I’m looking forward to tomorrow.”

I shook my head and stifled a smile. “Okay.”

“Don’t sound so excited.” He grinned, and I caught a flash of dimple as he headed back to the driver’s side. “You’ll give me a big head.”

I couldn’t suppress my smile. “Good night.”

He smiled at me once more, then disappeared, reversing his beast of an electric car and speeding off into the night.

“Ms. Taylor?” Timmy called. “Are you okay?”

“I think so,” I called back.

The truth, however, was a little more complicated than that.

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