A Beaumont by blood, Zeb Richards has waited years to take the company that's rightfully his. But ownership of the Beaumont Brewery means dealing with a formidable adversary: brewmaster Casey Johnson. She's insubordinate and opinionated—so why does Zeb burn to lay claim to the tempestuous beauty?
Casey earned her place at the company she loves, and no CEO—no matter how irresistible—will come between her and her ambitions. Until one night of wild abandon shifts the balance of power. Now Casey is falling for her boss…and expecting his baby!
Beaumont Bastards: Book 1
Oct. 2016 from Harlequin Desire
ISBN-10: 0373734913 ♦ ISBN-13: 978-0373734917
Casey came to a stumbling stop. Where was he? The desk was vacant and no one was sitting on the leather couches.
But then a movement off to her left caught her eye and she turned and gasped in surprise.
A man stood by the windows, looking out over the brewery campus. He had his hands in his pockets and his back turned to her—but despite that, everything about him screamed power and money. The cut of his suit fit him like a second skin and he stood with his feet shoulders-width apart, as if he were master of all he saw.
A shiver went through her. She was not the kind of girl who went for power suits or the men who wore them but something about this man—this man who was threatening her job—took her breath away. Was it the broad shoulders? Or the raw power wafting off him like the finest cologne?
And then he turned to face her and all she could see were his eyes—green eyes. Good Lord, those eyes—they held her gaze like a magnet and she knew her breath was gone for good.
He was, hands down, the most handsome man she’d ever seen. Everything—the power suit, the broad shoulders, the close-cropped hair and most especially the eyes—it was a potent blend that she felt powerless to resist. And this was her new boss? The man who’d sent out the memo?
He notched an eyebrow at her and let his gaze travel over her body. And any admiration she had for a good suit and nice eyes died on the vine because she knew exactly what he saw. Underneath her lab coat, she had on a men’s small polo shirt with Beaumont Brewery embroidered over the chest—and she’d sweated through it because the brew room was always hot. Her face was probably red from the heat and also from the anger, and she no doubt smelled like mash and wort.
She must look like a madwoman.
A conclusion he no doubt reached on his own, because by the time he looked her in the eyes, one corner of his mouth had curved up into the kind of smile that said exactly one thing.
He thought she was a joke.
Well, he’d soon learn this was no laughing matter.
“Congratulations,” he said in a voice that bordered on cold. “You’re first.” He lifted his wrist and looked down at a watch that, even at this distance, Casey could tell was expensive. “Thirty-five minutes. I’m impressed.”
His imperious attitude poured cold water on the heat that had almost swamped her. She wasn’t here to gawk at a gorgeous man. She was here to protect her workers. “Are you Richards?”
“Zebadiah Richards, yes. Your new boss,” he added in a menacing tone, as if he thought he could intimidate her. Didn’t he know she had so very little left to lose? “And you are?”
She’d worked in a male-dominated industry for twelve years. She couldn’t be intimidated. “I’m Casey Johnson—your brewmaster.” What kind of name was Zebadiah? Was that biblical? “What’s the meaning of this?” She held up the memo.
Richards’s eyes widened in surprise—but only for a second before he once again looked ice-cold. “Forgive me,” he said in a smooth voice when Casey glared at him. “I must say that you are not what I was expecting.”
Casey rolled her eyes and made no attempt to hide it. Few people expected women to like beer. Even fewer people expected women to brew beer. And with a name like Casey, everyone just assumed she was a man—and usually, they assumed she was a man like Larry. Middle-aged, beer gut—the whole nine yards. “It’s not my problem if you made a set of erroneous assumptions.”
The moment she said it, she realized she’d also made some erroneous assumptions herself. Because she had not anticipated that the new CEO would look quite like him. Oh, sure—the power suit was par for the course. But his hair was close-cropped to his head and his eyes… Damn, she just couldn’t get past them.
He grinned—oh, Lord, that was not good. Well, it was—but in a bad way because that grin took everything hard and cold about him and warmed him up. She was certainly about to break out in another sweat.
“Indeed. Well, since you’re the first person to barge into my office, I’ll tell you the meaning of that memo, Ms. Johnson—although I’d hope the employees here at the brewery would be able to figure it out on their own. Everyone has to reapply for their jobs.”
She welcomed his condescending tone because it pushed her from falling into the heat of his eyes and kept her focused on her task. “Is that a fact? Where’d you learn that management technique? Management ‘R’ Us?”
Something that almost looked like amusement flickered over his gaze and she was tempted to smile. A lot of people found her abrasive and yeah, she could rub people the wrong way. She didn’t pull her punches and she wasn’t about to sit down and shut up just because she was a girl and men didn’t like to have their authority challenged.
What was rarer was for someone to get her sense of humor. Could this Richards actually be a real man who smiled? God, she wanted to work for a man she wouldn’t have to fight every step of the way. Maybe they could get along. Maybe…
But as quickly as it had appeared, the humor was gone. His eyes narrowed and Casey thought, You’re not the only one who can be condescending.
“The purpose is twofold, Ms. Johnson. One, I’d like to see what skill sets my employees possess. And two, I want to see if they can follow basic instructions.”
So much for a sense of humor. Men as hot as he was probably weren’t allowed to laugh at a joke. Pity. On the other hand, if he smiled, it might kill her with handsomeness and the only thing worse than a CEO she couldn’t work with would be a CEO she lusted after.
No lusting allowed. And he was making that easier with every single thing he said.
“Let me assure you, Mr. Richards, that this company did not spring fully formed from your forehead yesterday. We’ve been brewing beer here for—”
“For over one hundred and thirty years—I know.” He tilted his head to the side and gave her a long look. “And you’ve only been doing it for less than a year—is that correct?”
If she weren’t so pissed at him, she’d have been terrified, because that was most definitely a threat to her job. But she didn’t have time for unproductive emotions and anger was vastly more useful than fear.
“I have—and I earned that job. But before you question how a woman my age can have possibly surpassed all the good ol’ boys who normally brew beer, let me tell you that it’s also because all the more experienced brewers have already left the company. If you want to maintain a quality product line, you’re stuck with me for the foreseeable future.” She waved the memo in front of her. “And I don’t have time to deal with this crap.”
But instead of doing anything any normal boss would do when basically yelled at by an employee—like firing her on the spot—Richards tilted his head to one side and looked at her again and she absolutely did not shiver when he did it. “Why not?”
“Why not what?”
“Why don’t you have time to respond to a simple administrative task?”
Casey didn’t want to betray any sign of weakness but a trickle of sweat rolled out from under her hat and into her eye. Dammit. He better not think she was crying. She wiped her eyes with the palm of her hand. “Because I’m operating with a bare-bones staff—I have been for the last nine months. I’m doing the work of three people—we all are. We’re understaffed, overworked and—”
“And you don’t have time for this ‘crap,’ as you so eloquently put it,” he murmured.
Was that a note of sympathy? Or was he mocking her? She couldn’t read him that well.
Not yet, a teasing voice in the back of her mind whispered. But she pushed that voice away. She wasn’t interested in reading him better. “Not if you want to fulfill production orders.”
“So just hire more people.”
Now she gaped at him. “What?”
He shrugged, which was an impossibly smooth gesture on him. Men should not be that smooth. It wasn’t good for them, she decided. And it definitely wasn’t good for her. This would be so much easier if he were at least 70 percent less attractive. “Hire more people. But I want to see their résumés, too. Why let the new people off easy, right?”
This guy didn’t know anything, did he? They were screwed, then. This was the beginning of the end. Now she would have to help Larry write a résumé.
“But…there’s been a hiring freeze,” she told him. “For the last eight months. Until we can show a profit.”
Richards stepped forward and traced a finger over the top of the conference table. It was an oddly intimate motion—a caress, almost. Watching his hand move over the wood…
She broke out in goose bumps.
“Tell me, Ms. Johnson‚ was it Chadwick Beaumont who put on the hiring freeze? Or Ethan Logan?”
There was something about his voice that matched his caress of the conference table. Casey studied him. She had the oddest feeling that he looked familiar but she was sure she would remember seeing him before. Who could forget those eyes? Those…everything?
“Ah,” he said, shifting so he wasn’t silhouetted against the window anymore. More light fell on him and Casey was startled to realize that the green eyes were set against skin that wasn’t light but wasn’t exactly deep brown, either. His skin was warm, almost tan, and she realized he was at least partly African American. Why hadn’t she seen that right away?
Well, she knew why. First off, she was mad and when she was mad, she didn’t exactly pay attention to the bigger picture. She hadn’t noticed the fullness to his frowning lips or the slight flare of his nostrils. Second off, his eyes had demanded her total attention. They were striking, so gorgeous, and even…familiar?
His hand was still on top of the conference table. “So what you’re telling me is that the only non-Beaumont to run this company instituted a series of policies designed to cut costs and, in the process, hamstringed the operations and production?”
“Yes.” There was something about the way he said the only non-Beaumont that threw her for a loop.
And then—maybe because now she was paying more attention—it hit her like a ton of bricks.
This guy—this Zeb Richards who wasn’t quite black and wasn’t quite white—he looked vaguely familiar. Something in the nose, the chin…those eyes…
He looked a little bit like Chadwick Beaumont.
Sweet merciful heavens. He was a Beaumont, too.
Her knees gave in to the weight of the revelation and she lurched forward to lean on the coffee table. “Oh, my God,” she asked, staring at him. “You’re one of them, aren’t you?”
Richards snatched his hand back and put it in his pocket like he was trying to hide something. “I can neither confirm nor deny that—at least, not until the press conference on Friday.” He moved away from the conference table and toward his desk.
If he was trying to intimidate her, it wasn’t working. Casey followed him. He sat behind the desk—the same place she had seen Chadwick Beaumont too many times to count and, at least three times, Hardwick Beaumont. The resemblance was unmistakable.
“My God,” she repeated again. “You’re one of the bastards.”
He leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers. Everything about him had shut down. No traces of humor, no hints of warmth. She was staring at the coldest man she’d ever seen. “The bastards?”
“Beaumont’s bastards—there were always rumors that Hardwick had a bunch of illegitimate children.” She blinked. It all made sense, in a way. The Beaumonts were a notoriously good-looking group of men and women—far too handsome for their own good. And this man… He was gorgeous. But not the same kind of blond handsomeness that had marked Chadwick and Matthew Beaumont. She knew he would stand out in a crowd of Beaumonts. Hell, he would stand out in any crowd. “He was your father, wasn’t he?”
Richards stared at her for a long time and she got the feeling he was making some sort of decision. She didn’t know what—he hadn’t fired her yet but the day wasn’t over.
Her mind felt like it was fizzing with information. Zeb Richards—the mysterious man who was rumored to have single-handedly driven down the brewery’s stock price so he could force AllBev to sell off the company—was a Beaumont? Did Chadwick know? Was he in on it or was this something else?
One word whispered across her mind. Revenge.
Because up until about thirty-seven seconds ago, Beaumont’s bastards had never been anything but a rumor. And now one of them had the company.
She had no idea if this was a good thing or a very, very bad thing.
Suddenly, Richards leaned forward and made a minute adjustment to something on his desk. “We’ve gotten off track. Your primary reason for barging into my office unannounced was about résumés.”
She felt like a bottle of beer that had been shaken but hadn’t been opened. At any second, she might explode from the pressure. “Right,” she agreed, collapsing into the chair in front of his desk. “The problem is, some of my employees have been here for twenty, thirty years and they don’t have a résumé ready to go. Producing one on short notice is going to cause nothing but panic. They aren’t the kind of guys who look good on paper. What matters is that they do good work for me and we produce a quality product.” She took a deep breath, trying to sound managerial. “Are you familiar with our product line?”
The corner of Richard’s mouth twitched. “It’s beer, right?”
She rolled her eyes at him, which, surprisingly, made him grin even more. Oh, that was a bad idea, making him smile like that, because when he did, all the hard, cold edges fell away from his face. He was the kind of handsome that wasn’t fair to the rest of humanity.
Sinful. That was what he was. And she had been too well behaved for too long.
She shivered. She wasn’t sure if it had anything to do with the smile on his face or the fact that she was cooling off and her sweat-soaked shirt was now sticking to her skin. “That’s correct. We brew beer here. I appreciate you giving me the go-ahead to hire more workers but that’s a process that will take weeks. Training will also take time. Placing additional paperwork demands on my staff runs the risk of compromising the quality of our beer.”
Richards didn’t say anything. Casey cleared her throat. “You are interested in the beer, right?”
He gave her another one of those measured looks. Casey sighed. She really wasn’t so complicated that he had to stare at her.
“I’m interested in the beer,” he finally said. “This is a family company and I’d like to keep it that way. I must say,” he went on before Casey could ask about that whole “family” thing, “I certainly appreciate your willingness to defend your staff. However, I’d like to be reassured that the employees who work for this brewery not only are able to follow basic instructions,” he added with a notch of his eyebrow that made Casey want to pound on something, “but have the skills to take this company in a new direction.”
“A new direction? We’re…still going to brew beer, right? We’re not getting into electronics or apps or anything?”
“Oh, we’ll be getting into apps,” he said. “But I need to know if there’s anyone on staff who can handle that or if I’m going to need to bring in an outside developer—you see my point, don’t you? The Beaumont Brewery has been losing market share. You brew seven thousand gallons a day—but it was eleven thousand years ago. The popularity of craft breweries—and I’m including Percheron Drafts in that—has slowly eroded our sales.”
Our sales? He was serious, she realized. He was here to run this company.
“While I understand Logan’s cost-cutting measures,” he went on, oblivious to the way her mouth had dropped open, “what we need to do at this point is not to hunker down and hope for the best, but invest heavily in research and development—new products. And part of that is connecting with our audience.” His gaze traveled around the room and Casey thought there was something about him that seemed…hopeful, almost.
She wanted to like her job. She wanted to like working for Zeb Richards. And if he was really talking about launching new products—new beers—well, then she might like her job again. The feeling that blossomed in her chest was so unfamiliar that it took a second to realize what it was—hope. Hope that this might actually work out.
“Part of what made the Beaumont Brewery a success was its long family traditions,” Richards went on in a quiet voice. “That’s why Logan failed. The employees liked Chadwick—any idiot knows that. And his brother Phillip? Phillip was the brewery’s connection with our target market. When we lost both Phillip and Chadwick, the brewery lost its way.”
Everything he said made sense. Because Casey had spent the last year not only feeling lost but knowing they were lost. They lost ground, they lost employees, they lost friends—they lost the knowledge and the tradition that had made them great. She was only one woman—one woman who liked to make beer. She couldn’t save the company all by herself but she was doing her damnedest to save the beer.
Still, Richards had been on the job for about two hours now—maybe less. He was talking a hell of a good game, but at this point, that was all it was—talk. All talk and sinful handsomeness, with a hearty dollop of mystery.
But action was what this company needed. His mesmerizing eyes wouldn’t right this ship all by themselves.
Still, if Richards really was a Beaumont by birth—bastard or not—he just might be able to do it. She’d long ago learned to never underestimate the Beaumonts.
“So you’re going to be the one to light the path?”
He stared her in the eyes, one eyebrow gently lifted. God, if she wasn’t careful, she could get lost in his gaze. “I have a plan, Ms. Johnson. You let me worry about the company and you worry about the beer.”
“Sounds good to me,” she muttered.
She stood because it seemed like a final sort of statement. But Richards stopped her. “How many workers do you need to hire?”
“At least ten. What I need most right now is maintenance staff. I don’t know how much you know about beer, but most of what I do is automated. It’s making sure to push the right button at the right time and checking to make sure that things come together the right way. It doesn’t take a lot of know-how to brew beer, honestly, once you have the recipes.” At this statement, both of his eyebrows lifted. “But keeping equipment running is another matter. It’s hot, messy work and I need at least eight people who can take a tank apart and put it back together in less than an hour.”
He thought about that for a moment. “I don’t mean to be rude, but is that what you were doing before you came in here?”
She rolled her eyes again. “What gave it away?”
He grinned. Casey took another step back from the desk—away from Zeb Richards smiling at her. She tried to take comfort in the fact that he probably knew exactly how lethal his grin could be. Men as gorgeous as he was didn’t get through life without knowing exactly what kind of effect they had on women—and it usually made them jerks. Which was fine. Gorgeous jerks never went for women like her and she didn’t bother with them, either.
But there was something in the way he was looking at her that felt like a warning.
“I’ll compromise with you, Ms. Johnson. You and your staff will be excused from submitting résumés.”
That didn’t sound like a compromise. That sounded like she was getting everything she asked for. Which meant the other shoe was about to drop. “And?”
“Instead…” He paused and shot her another grin. This one wasn’t warm and fuzzy—this one was the sharp smile of a man who’d somehow bought a company out from under the Beaumonts. Out from under his own family. “…you and your team will produce a selection of new beers for me to choose from.”
That was one hell of a shoe—and it had landed right on her. “I’m sorry?”
“Your point that the skills of some of your employees won’t readily translate into bullet points on a résumé is well taken. So I’d like to see their skills demonstrated in action.”
She knew her mouth was open, but she didn’t think she could get it closed. She gave it a shot—nope, it was still open. “I can’t just…”
“You do know how to brew beer, don’t you?”
He was needling her—and it was working, dammit. “Of course I know how to brew beer. I’ve been brewing Beaumont beer for twelve years.”
“Then what’s the problem?”
It was probably bad form to strangle your boss on his first day on the job. Tempting, though. “I can’t just produce beer by snapping my fingers. I have to test new recipes—and some of them are not going to work—and then there’s the brewing time, and I won’t be able to do any of that until I get more staff hired.”
“How long will it take?”
She grasped at the first number that popped into her mind. “Two months. At least. Maybe three.”
“Fine. Three months to hire the workers and test some new recipes.” He sat forward in his chair and dropped his gaze to the desk, as if they were done.
“It isn’t that simple,” she told him. “We need to get Marketing to provide us with guidance on what’s currently popular and two—”
“I don’t care what Marketing says.” He cut her off. “This is my company and I want it to brew beers that I like.”
“But I don’t even know what you like.” The moment the words left her mouth, she wished she could take them back. But it was too late. He fixed those eyes on her. Heat flushed down her back, warming her from the inside out. “I mean, when it comes to beer,” she quickly corrected. “We’ve got everything on tap…” she added, trying not to blush as she motioned to the bar that ran along one side of the wall.
Richards leaned forward on his elbows as his gaze raked up and down her body again. Damn it all, he was a jerk. He only confirmed it when he opened his mouth and said, “I’d be more than happy to take some time after work and show you exactly what I like.”
Well. If that was how it was going to be, he was making it a lot easier not to develop a crush on him. Because she had not gotten this job by sleeping her way to the top. He might be the most beautiful man she’d ever seen and those green eyes were the stuff of fantasy—but none of it mattered if he used his power as CEO to take advantage of his employees. She was good at what she did and she wouldn’t let anyone take that away from her.
“Mr. Richards, you’re going to have to decide what kind of Beaumont you are going to be—if you really are one.” His eyes hardened, but she didn’t back down. “Because if you’re going to be a predator like your father instead of a businessman like your brother, you’re going to need a new brewmaster.”
Head held high, she walked out of his office and back to her own.
Then she updated her résumé.