Mischief and the Masters by Cherise Sinclair

  Not Jarvis.

  Once inside, she told the guard about the man and was delighted when he walked right out to look. Look, Dragon Doms, I asked for help.

  In Cincinnati, she’d never sicced a guard on Jarvis. She hadn’t been comfortable asking for assistance—and hadn’t even realized she was behaving abnormally. If she’d been able to get help, her life might have been different. If nothing else, she wouldn’t have felt so helpless.

  My Doms, you have changed my life.

  In so many ways. Love. What an amazing emotion. With a bouncing step, she got into the elevator to the fourth floor. Right now, she felt as if she’d swallowed the sun and was radiating light. She loved them. Both of them. How crazy and wonderful and insane and amazing.

  Should she tell them? Or wait? They cared for her…didn’t they? She was sure they did.

  Insecurity dimmed the glow slightly. What did they feel for her?

  She’d seen how delusional some people could be—like Jarvis who’d been certain she was supposed to be his. Alyssa in the Shadowlands had been positive she should be Nolan’s slave.

  Frowning, Uzuri walked down the hallway to her office, nodding absently at her colleagues.

  It would be better to…to let Max and Alastair make the first move. They were the Doms, right? Only her time at their house was ending. Did they realize that?

  “Ms. Cheval, is there anything you’d like me to set up?”

  Uzuri stopped and blinked at the gray-haired administrative assistant. Mrs. Everson had asked her a question. “Set up?”

  “For your meeting with the sales associates.”

  Meeting. “Oh. Thank you. I think everything is ready.”

  “Very good.” Mrs. Everson gave her an encouraging smile. “Good luck with them.” The efficient, incredibly dignified woman added under her breath, “The buttheads.”

  Suppressing her grin, Uzuri strolled into her office to get ready for the meeting.

  * * * * *

  AN HOUR LATER, Uzuri stood near the front in Brendall’s midsized conference room.

  The sales associates from the women’s fashion department slowly filled the room. The scowls and cold stares they cast Uzuri’s way chilled her blood.

  With an effort, she stood tall and kept her face expressionless. This meeting could get ugly. Nevertheless, something had to be done about the situation. Customers were complaining, and the department manager was at her wit’s end.

  Two more women entered, saw Uzuri, and chose seats near the back, uttering insulting comments. Did they realize several people from upper management were sitting in the back row?

  Uzuri pulled in a breath. Although the sales women were admirably loyal, they were also foolish to let their performance on the job suffer, especially for someone like Carole. And if Uzuri couldn’t turn this around, those women would be fired.

  Her trembling hands felt like ice, but she could do this. She would.

  As she moved toward the podium, Alastair, Dan, and Max entered the room, ignoring the puzzled looks from the nearby administrative people.

  She turned to stare at them.

  Alastair was in one of his beautifully tailored suits. He’d even donned an “adult” tie with not a single cavorting animal. Dan and Max were in their customary detective attire of suit coats and dark jeans.

  When they took seats near the door, she realized they’d come to Brendall’s simply to give her their support. A lovely warmth entered her veins, melting the icy chill.

  Last night, when Max had offered to show up and scare the crap out of any troublemaker in the crowd, she’d thought he was joking. His blue gaze met hers, and he patted his hidden firearm.

  The hysterical giggle rising up in her throat almost made her choke. Bad Max.

  Alastair gave her a firm nod, and she could almost hear his deep voice telling her she could handle anything she put her mind to.

  She could. She would. Thank you, Doc.

  Chin up, spine straight, she stepped behind the podium and surveyed her audience. Mostly hostile.

  “Let’s get started,” she said. “This meeting was called to address concerns about customer service in the women’s clothing department. The administration noted when the problems began—and they know the cause.”

  Uzuri saw faces closing down. The sales associates also knew the cause—and blamed her. “In case you don’t know, I’m Uzuri Cheval, a senior fashion buyer. You have undoubtedly heard something about Carole Fuller’s problems with me and about her termination. Upper management agreed to let me give you the facts. I know how rumors fly through a department. After all, I spent years as a sales associate.”

  From the looks of surprise, many hadn’t realized she’d started as one of them. Carole had made it sound as if Uzuri had come here, waving her new degree and shoving the veterans around.

  “I’ve been in retail sales since I was sixteen, usually in women’s clothing. Over three years ago, I took a sales associate position at Brendall’s in St. Pete. Meanwhile, I was taking evening classes at the university. When I obtained my bachelor’s degree, I was an assistant fashion buyer there. Last year, I transferred here to Tampa as a senior buyer.” She gave them a wry smile. “After a decade of working in retail, I don’t think you’d call me an overnight success.”

  A few return smiles flickered.

  “That’s my background. Now for the conflict. One day, I was in the women’s department to observe what products were selling. A sales associate kept walking away from customers needing help to offer her assistance to women who appeared wealthier. She did this three times while I was watching. Before leaving, I expressed my concern to the floor manager.” Uzuri nodded to the manager who stood off to one side.

  “Ms. Cheval said exactly that to me. Nothing else.” The manager’s anger was obvious. “Carole had already racked up complaints about her behavior with customers, many from her own colleagues on the floor. Yes, from you.” She pointed to the audience. “I’d already given her two official warnings. That day, I told her if she received any more complaints, she’d be let go. Rather than taking responsibility for her own actions, she blamed Ms. Cheval.” The manager’s disgust came through loud and clear.

  “That was all Uzuri did?” Whispers drifted up from the audience.

  “But Carole got fired.”

  A louder woman protested, “Cheval got her fired.”

  “Bullshit.” Obviously losing patience, Max rose.

  Dan stood hastily, set a hand on his shoulder, and spoke instead. “Mrs. Fuller decided talk wasn’t enough. She engaged in an act of vandalism one evening. She and another woman flattened a tire on Ms. Cheval’s car. They knew Ms. Cheval would leave after dark. Both women confessed, by the way.”

  He paused, let the murmuring die down, and continued. “It was dark and pouring rain when Ms. Cheval found the flat tire. She tried to return to the building to wait for a tow truck.”

  Max growled, “And she was run down in the parking lot.”

  Shock showed on every face.

  Dan shook his head. “The driver wasn’t Carole Fuller, yet her vindictive vandalism almost got Ms. Cheval killed. Ms. Cheval refused to press charges.” Dan’s hard face showed he’d have enjoyed tossing Carole behind bars.

  A woman whispered, “Those guys don’t look like our security guards.”

  Max set his hands on his hips, which pulled his jacket back enough to show his holstered weapon and badge.

  Several women shrank down in their seats. Others gave him interested stares that made Uzuri want to slap them. Mine.

  Instead, she cleared her throat. “That’s the history between me and Mrs. Fuller. Now let’s move on to a more serious problem. These are some of the complaints the company has received in the past week.”

  She handed the microphone to the manager who read three of the letters. One complaint described a rude sales associate so well that the woman cringed.

  After finishing, the manager said, “I’ll add this. After
receiving these letters, verbal complaints, and reviews, the administration is considering terminating every sales associate in our department. They feel they might do better with new staff.”

  Faces went pale.

  Uzuri took the mic. “Administration has two concerns. One, that morale in the department affected treatment of the customers. The second is…well, Carole would only assist a certain subset of the customers on the floor. She’s not alone in that preferential behavior.”

  The audience was silent. Not giving Uzuri anything back.

  “I know how tempting it is to help the women who appear to have more to spend. Why waste time on the rest?” Uzuri held her hands wide. “Commissions are what pay the rent, after all. However, customers who are ignored get angry. For every person who actually complains, many more will simply take their business elsewhere. Brendall’s can’t afford that. Neither can we.”

  She had them. Expressions were open, showing agreement…and worry.

  Alastair, so sensitive to people’s emotions, gave her a nod of approval.

  Encouraged, she kept going. “Our company policy is that every customer is a star with us. We don’t care if the woman can only afford a pair of socks or is buying apparel for a European vacation. If treated fabulously, the woman who buys socks this year will return for her business wardrobe when she scores a fantastic job. We’re not only selling for today—we’re cultivating our future buyers.”

  Nods. Omigod, she was getting nods of agreement.

  “And as a side note—when I was a sales associate, I learned the hard way that you can’t judge a person’s wealth by their appearance. Giving everyone exceptional service isn’t a bad idea, because we really don’t know with whom we’re dealing. To show that, I thought we’d have some fun to finish off this meeting.”

  There was a windowed door in the front of the room. Uzuri turned that way and held her hand up to let Jessica know she and the other three could come in.

  Uzuri stood stunned as a…a mob entered. Four. I only asked four people to come.

  Ben led the way in his usual scruffy jeans followed by Marjory, an African-American friend from the university in a red blazer and black dress slacks. Kari was dressed in a suit for parent-teacher conferences.

  What was Master Raoul doing here? Heavily muscled, the Hispanic Dom wore his usual jeans and polo shirt.

  The next person… Uzuri’s breath stuttered to a halt. Master Z’s mother, Madeline Grayson, was one of the wealthiest people in the city. Uzuri could deal with rich, but this was Master Z’s mother. Omigod. She hadn’t been invited. Moreover, she wore sweat pants and a T-shirt. That was so wrong.

  Following her was Vance in his dark I’m-an-FBI-agent suit. Gabi was in jeans and sleeveless shirt with her usual blue streaked hair and a new Celtic temp tattoo on her upper arm. Mistress Anne wore casual business attire—tan pants and a blue button-up shirt. Carrying little Sophia, Jessica looked like a stereotypical housewife in jeans and one of her leftover maternity tops.

  Uzuri swallowed and tried to remember her speech. Since the manager had given her a list of saleswomen who constantly targeted richer customers, Uzuri selected one. “Phoebe, point out which three would probably get you the best commissions?”

  Phoebe chose Kari, Vance, and Marjory. Good, not racist, at least.

  Two more made the same choices, although one chose Anne instead of Marjory.

  The manager grinned and in an unplanned move, called out three more sales associates. “Ladies, which three would you choose last, let’s say?” The manager gave Uzuri a wicked glance.

  Oh, score. Two of the women decided Ben, Jessica, and Mrs. Grayson were on the bottom of the list. Another apparently didn’t like people of color. Her choices were Master Raoul, Ben, and Marjory.

  “We have our contenders.” Uzuri smiled at her audience and turned to her friends…and volunteers. “I asked you all to come without changing or dressing up or down. Is this what you normally wear this time of day?”

  Nods from everyone—including the people she hadn’t invited. Like Madeline Grayson. Jessica’s eyes were dancing, the little sneak.

  Wanting—totally wanting to start with Mrs. Grayson so she’d leave, Uzuri held firm and started at the end of the line.

  She walked to Jessica, kissed Sophia’s cheek, and smiled at the fragrance of baby powder and milk. Recognizing Uzuri, the little angel gurgled happily, getting “aww” sounds from the audience. “May I introduce Jessica who is a CPA and whose husband is one of the city’s leading psychologists. They live in a stone mansion outside of town where she works from home because of this little bundle of joy.”

  One of the sales associates muttered, “Mansion? Should have picked her.”

  Uzuri moved to Mistress Anne. “Anne works as a… Um.”

  Anne chuckled. “Call it a glorified private detective. I’m certainly not rich.”

  The woman who’d picked her got teased by her friends.

  “This is Gabi.” Uzuri got a quick hug. “She works as an FBI victim specialist.” The people who hadn’t picked her as rich were smiling until Uzuri added, “Her husband is one of the city’s prosecuting attorneys.”

  Eyes were widening.

  When Uzuri stopped beside Vance, he bent to kiss her cheek. “Vance is an FBI agent.”

  Next person. Uzuri froze.

  Madeline Grayson made a tiny snorting sound, put an arm around Uzuri, and took the mic. “Please excuse my casual attire.” She smiled at Uzuri before speaking into the mic. “I didn’t hear about your…party…until my personal trainer had already arrived. I’m delighted that I was able to attend.” Her aristocratic voice carried the same intonations as Master Z’s.

  “Thank you for coming.” Uzuri turned to the audience. “This is…” Omigod, how could she introduce Master Z’s mama?

  Chuckling, Vance said the words Uzuri couldn’t possibly utter. “That’s Madeline Grayson, who could probably buy Brendall’s with pocket change.”

  “My boy, that sounds quite tacky,” Mrs. Grayson said in disapproval, even as laughter filled her eyes.

  “Oh my God, I saw her at the inaugural ball, dancing with the governor.” Whispers ran around the room.

  Uzuri swallowed and took the mic back from Mrs. Grayson. “Thank you.”

  “You are quite welcome. Continue now; you’re doing splendidly.”

  With the subtle kick in the butt, Uzuri kept going.

  “This is Mas—” She stopped abruptly, feeling her cheeks heat. Master Raoul didn’t laugh…quite. “This is Raoul who owns an international civil engineering firm.”

  “That means he’s rich,” Vance said blandly, and when she glared at him, added, “No, don’t hit me, Zuri; I’d have to arrest you.”

  Laughter ran around the room, and she realized exactly what he’d done. He’d made her human and cute and one of the group.

  “This is Kari who is a schoolteacher.”

  “In a suit?” One of those who picked her made a disbelieving noise.

  Kari leaned forward to say into the mic, “I have parent-teacher conferences all day. I always dress up for those, since parents listen better if I wear a suit. I look nice, but I’d be the customer only buying a pair of socks.”

  The silence said she’d gotten her point across.

  “Finally, this is Ben.” To her relief, he gave her a hard hug. Mistress Anne must not have tortured him too badly for helping her learn to pick locks. She smiled up at him. “He’s rather well known as the photographer BL Haugen.”

  “Holy shit.” The awe in the voices and whispers were so, so satisfying.

  “Good job, sweetie,” Ben murmured in his rough voice.

  Uzuri stepped back, facing her friends…her friends…and tried not to let her voice break. “Thank you all for the gift of your time today. I think the next time you visit Brendall’s, you’ll find that the women’s department has the finest customer service in the city.”

  “Hell with that,” one of the associates s
aid. “In the state.”

  The cheers of agreement chased away the shadows like the sun emerging from behind the clouds.

  Chapter Twenty-Seven

  ON FRIDAY MORNING, Holt got sucked into playing some vigorous two-on-two basketball with the neighborhood teens who had the day off from school. Hey, a game beat jogging any day.

  Taking a breather, he glanced at his phone and winced. He still hadn’t had breakfast, and Uzuri’d be over in a couple hours for lunch. Before she showed, he needed a bite of something and definitely a shower.

  Should probably clean up the place, as well since Nadia was coming over that evening, and she was a neat freak. “Gotta go, guys. Thanks for the game.”

  “You bet,” Duke said.

  His taciturn buddy with the multiple piercings added, “Yeah.”

  “Thanks for showing me that lay-up trick,” Wedge said.

  “You’re welcome.” Holt grinned at the three. All about fifteen years old. Too young to drive, too old to play backyard tag with the younger set.

  “Tomorrow?” Duke asked.

  “Nope. Got work.” Holt considered his schedule. “How about Sunday afternoon?”

  Duke silently checked with his crew and nodded. “You’re on.”

  Holt gave them a chin lift, tossed Duke the basketball, and headed for home. The exercise had left a nice buzz in his muscles.

  Fun game, too. Good kids. They sure as hell hadn’t been the ones to fuck with his Harley.

  As Holt strolled toward the duplex, he enjoyed the sounds of a peaceful neighborhood—a lawn mower buzzing, children laughing, a beginning pianist mangling “Für Elise”. In a front window, a tiny poodle bounced and barked.

  Nice area. Although his singles complex made it easy to meet women, the constant parties and noise had grown tiresome. After all, he had a girlfriend now and wasn’t “single” any longer.

  “Gah!” A toddler “assisting” her mother with weeding held up a dandelion for him.

  “Thank you, sweetheart.” Winking at the mother, he accepted the flower and studied it gravely. “That’s a great flower.”

  “Gah,” the munchkin agreed.

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