New York, 1999
Her eyelids drooped low as she stared at the bubbling fountain. Streams of water glittered over the panels of onyx which had been installed flat against the office hallway. In the board room a few feet away, she could hear her father droning away about business statistics. The sound of his baritone voice lulled her even further into a drowsy state.
Suddenly, the door clicked open loudly, jarring her from her momentary sleep. A herd of businessmen filtered out of the room.
She took a deep breath and slumped into the hard cushions of her chair, swinging her legs idly, performing a sort of executive Where's Waldo? as she counted the number of women in the crowd—two total, out of thirteen.
Last to appear was her father with his assistant, Jean.
She was a frazzled, middle-aged woman with a spartan bun tied tight on the crown of her head, and when her father wasn't at home, she kept close at his heels.
He spoke to her over his shoulder. "I'm done for the day. Make sure you get the minutes on my desk before tomorrow morning."
"Yes, Mr. Stanhope. Good night." The woman nodded, scribbling notes on her PDA before walking down the corridor to the elevator.
It took Arthur Stanhope, CEO of one of the most successful Fortune-500 companies in the United States, to remember that his daughter was sitting there, but when he caught sight of her, his demeanor changed. The facade of the businessman fell away and he took on a warmer air. He sighed when he noticed she didn't return his smile.
"I'm sorry, Harper. The meeting ran longer than I expected." He copped a squat in front of her. "How about we go out for some ice-cream?" She was eleven, and that meant she wasn't too old to be put in a good mood by promises of sweet things, or so he thought.
"No. That won't be necessary," Harper said, standing up and dusting off her school uniform.
He quirked a brow. "Necessary? You love ice-cream. Are you feeling okay?"
She sighed, much as her father had done moments before. "Can we just go home, please?"
He tipped his head. "Are you really upset with me?"
She averted her gaze. "I'm just tired."
He set a hand on the crown of her head, her downy-soft black curls falling between his fingers. "Don't worry, sweetie. Tomorrow, the new nanny starts working, and Simmons will drive you straight home after school. You won't have to sit through another boring board meeting again."
She looked up at him now, her emerald eyes focusing on his. "That's not really true, is it?"
"What do you mean?" He stuffed his hands in his jacket pockets. She looked just like her mother for a moment, a woman who had the power to unsettle him more than any other one, and not in a good way.
"I'm going to be just like you when I grow up, aren't I?" she asked. "One day all I'll do is go to board meetings."
He was taken aback by the gravity of her question, and didn't know whether it had a negative or positive connotation in her mind.
He took his daughter by the shoulders, looking at her young face. It was twisted with frustration and fatigue. "Harper, I don't know exactly what the future holds, but I think you're old enough to know the truth." He raked his fingers through his hair. "I would like very much for you to take over my company one day. Your mother and I couldn't give you any brothers and sisters. I would like to leave my legacy to you. I know if I leave it to someone else, they'll run everything I've built into the ground. But you're smart, and talented, and I know that when the time comes, you'll make the best decision for everyone involved."
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When he died, Eric King left his company, King Industries, in Mallory's care, entrusting her to keep his legacy intact. For years, she's struggled to keep his dream alive, sacrificing everything to ensure she has something to pass on to her son. Wes...