About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
"No, don't tell me. Let me guess." Victor Gray raised a finger in a halting gesture. "Stiletto Cosmetics."
Folding the business section in half, Cole slung it across his desk in disgust. "How'd you guess?"
"If you're frowning, it usually has something to do with them."
Cole pushed away from his desk and began to pace in front of the wall of windows offering a panoramic view of downtown Nashville. He'd known when he'd returned to his hometown that reviving his family's troubled cosmetics company would be a monumental task.
The widely held opinion that Espresso Cosmetics was old-lady makeup was firmly entrenched. Moreover, an upstart cosmetics company had set up shop in town, grabbing both headlines and Espresso's dwindling customer base.
"The media's handing out good press to Stiletto like candy on Halloween," he muttered. "Meanwhile, we can barely get a reporter to return a phone call."
Victor hovered in the doorway. "They're just capitalizing on their fifteen minutes of fame since that singer mentioned them on television. It won't last much longer."
Cole wasn't so sure. Stiletto had been generating buzz on the web even before pop star Crave gave them a shout-out on national television. He stopped midpace to glance out the window. An electronic billboard in the distance stood out against the gray January skies. It flashed continuous images of a cheeseburger with toppings stacked nearly as high as Espresso's aging eleven-story building.
He stared blankly at it, his mind on how Stiletto was gaining ground with a generation of young women Espresso was desperate to attract. Unfortunately, an article in today's paper had pushed that demographic even further out of their reach.
"I stopped by to see if you wanted to go to lunch with me later," his stepfather said. "I saw a billboard of the most mouthwatering burger I've ever seen on the drive in this morning, and I've been drooling ever since."
That burger did look good, Cole thought. Real food. A lot better than the upscale dining experiences he'd endured while handling Espresso business these past months.
He also recognized that Victor's invitation was for more than lunch. His late mother's second husband, the only father he'd ever known, was extending another olive branch to help rebuild their once-close relationship after eight years of estrangement.
"Another time, Vic. I doubt I'll have an appetite by lunchtime. Dinner, either."
"So are you going to tell me what's going on or keep frowning until your face gets stuck like that?" the older man said, still hovering in the doorway.
"There's something you need to read."
Cole watched his stepfather hesitate before venturing beyond the doorway into the overhauled office that no longer bore the feminine traces of the company's founder.
Cole snatched the copy of America Today off the mahogany executive desk he'd brought in to replace the elegant Queen Anne writing table his mother and Espresso founder, Selina Sinclair Gray, had ruled from. Snapping it open, he pointed out the article responsible for his current mood and handed it to Victor.
He watched his stepfather's eyes narrow as he zeroed in on one of the photos accompanying the story. The older man drew the newspaper in until it nearly touched his nose.
"Exactly," Cole said, still steaming over it. Then he caught an uncharacteristic gleam in Victor's eyes. It lit up his entire face. In fact, he was practically ogling the newspaper.
What the ?
"God knows I worshipped the ground your mother walked on," his stepfather said, "but would you take a look at those long legs in that short skirt and those high heels. I don't see a thing here to put a frown on a man's face."
Cole snatched the paper back from him.
Victor shook his head and a sly grin spread over his lips. "She's got a young Angela Davis thing going on with that wild Afro, too. Yes, sir! If I were five or ten years younger, she'd be your new mama."
Cole stared at the smaller photo he'd ignored before, the larger one having grabbed his attention and earned his ire.
"More like twenty-five to thirty years younger," he grumbled. "She could be your daughter."
Cole frowned at the photo of the woman sitting on the edge of a desk. So this was Stiletto's owner. His gaze drifted to the untamed mane of kinky coils surrounding a no-nonsense face and full, unsmiling lips. Sage Matthews looked exactly like what she and her company werea pain in his ass.
He shoved the newspaper back at his stepfather and pointed. "This photo is the problem."
Victor re-examined the newspaper and then looked up at him. "The young lady in this one is okay, but not nearly as good-looking as that Matthews woman. She's smoking hot."
"Enough about her."
"Okay, okay," his stepfather said, still examining the photo. "You know, the old woman standing next to the young one in this picture looks kind of like "
"A man in drag." Cole finished. He jabbed his finger toward the offending photo of an attractive young woman juxtaposed against an older one presumably representing Espresso. "Not only are they relegating us to the brand for senior citizens, they exaggerate the point with one of the ugliest old ladies I've ever seen."
"Well, as you just said, he's no lady."
A vein on the side of Cole's head pulsed. "You think?" Sarcasm permeated the question. "What gave it away, the hot mess of a gray wig or the damned goatee?"
"Hmm." Victor tilted his own graying head to one side, then the other as he continued to study the grainy color photo. "Not really a goatee. I'd say it was more of a five o'clock shadow."
"Are you actually defending that photo?" Cole asked.
The corner of his stepfather's mouth quirked upward.
"You know he kind of looks like the guy who stars in those Maw-Maw movies."
"Who or what is a Maw-Maw?"
Victor looked up, an incredulous look on his face. "Wow. You have been out of the country a long time. Maw-Maw is the star of a slew of movies about a wisecracking, busybody matriarch, who can't stop sticking her nose in her family's business." He chuckled and shook his head. "Can't believe you never heard of them. I have a couple on DVD. I'll let you borrow them."
"No, thank you," Cole said firmly, his patience waning.
"Oh, come on. You have to at least see Maw-Maw Passes the Plate. It's the one where Maw-Maw puts an envelope containing a thousand dollars into the church offering plate by mistake." His stepfather burst into a fit of laughter, slapping the newspaper against his thigh. "The old girl starts leaping over the church pews, like a sprinter clearing hurdles in the summer Olympics, trying to get it back. She even tackles a deacon. It's hilarious!"
Cole cleared his throat loudly.
"I'm not interested in any movie featuring a grown man wearing a dress. Right now, all I care about is this article and the damage it's doing to Espresso's image, which isn't one bit funny."
"Sorry about that, son." Victor dabbed at the tears that had gathered in his eyes from laughing. "I guess I got sidetracked." He extracted a pair of reading glasses from his shirt pocket and resumed studying the article.
A few minutes later, he shrugged. "Okay, so they took a bit of a dig at us. Try not to get so bent out of shape over it. It's not that big a deal."
"Not a big deal?" Cole fumed, the headline imprinted on his brainNot Your Granny's Makeup: Stiletto Cosmetics Puts Its Spiked Heel in the Competition. He quoted the article, "As Cole Sinclair makes a last ditch attempt to rescue his family's declining Espresso Cosmetics from near extinction, an edgy new brand is poised to pick up the torch."
Victor removed his glasses, folded the paper and tucked it under his arm. "We just had our first successful collection in nearly a decade thanks to you," he said.
"And there wasn't a single word in the press about it, despite the efforts of our public relations team."
"Still, it was a huge boost to Espresso employees who haven't had much to celebrate in a very long time," the older man said. "You should be patting yourself on the back, not worrying about a ridiculous photo in some rag."
"America Today has a nationwide circulation. Not to mention online and international editions."
"My point is Espresso is finally making a comeback," Victor said.
"Comeback?" Cole leaned against the front of his desk and folded his arms. "We're a long way from what I'd consider a comeback.
"A sold-out holiday collection was a heck of a good start."
Cole shrugged off the praise with a grunt. His first order of business as CEO of Espresso's cosmetics division had been to sit down with the company's chief financial officer, Malcolm Doyle, to find out exactly where years of stagnant sales had left them financially.
The second had been to untie the hands of the creative and product-development teams and allow them to do their jobs. For too long their ideas had languished due to Victor's insistence on remaining loyal to what he believed Cole's mother would have wanted for her company.
"You've done more for Espresso in five months than I accomplished after years of being in charge." Victor's chin dropped to his chest, his gaze cast toward the carpet. "It's just I thought."
"The success of the holiday collection was just a drop in the bucket." Cole cut him off, refusing to play the blame game.
All he cared about was making Espresso relevant in the cosmetics industry again. It was too late to take back the harsh words he'd exchanged with his mother the very last time he'd seen her. Now the only way he could make it up to her was to save her legacy.
He swallowed hard. "We'd need a tsunami to erase the red ink from the company books and our old-lady image from women's minds." Rounding his desk, Cole tapped at his computer keyboard until the survey he'd commissioned appeared on the screen. "I was going to email you a copy of this later, but you might as well take a look at it now."
Victor sat in Cole's leather executive chair, once again retrieving his reading glasses from his pocket.
"This is a survey taken over the holidays of customers shopping at various department-store cosmetics counters," Cole explained. He leaned over Victor's shoulder, right-clicking the mouse to expand a page. "Here are just a few of the comments female shoppers made when asked about Espresso."
The older man read aloud. "'My great-aunt uses their foundation. We call her Auntie Cake behind her back because her face always looks like it's been dipped in batter.'" Victor winced. "Ouch."
"It gets worse."
"Nope. Keep reading."
"'Their makeup counters are deader than a morgue.'" Victor read another one. "'I didn't know they were still around.'"
Cole pointed out a remark made by a twenty-two-year-old woman actually making a purchase at an Espresso counter. This time he read it aloud. "'I'm only here because my grandmother ran out of her favorite pink lipstick. No way I'd wear this old-lady stuff. I'm a Stiletto girl all the way.'"
His stepfather exhaled a long drawn-out breath. "This is why you're so peeved about that article."
Cole nodded. "The more I think about it, the more I believe it's too late to change people's minds about us. Our senior-citizen image is too entrenched."
"But " Victor started to protest, but Cole held up a hand to stop him.
"Hear me out," Cole said. "Why keep banging our heads against a brick wall? Stiletto already has the hip, edgy vibe and is gaining popularity with the young demographic we're chasing."
"I'm not following you, son."
Cole smiled for the first time in what felt like weeks. Why hadn't he thought of it before?
"It's the acquire-to-grow strategysomething I was in charge of implementing during my tenure at Force Cosmetics. Simply put, if we can't beat them, we'll just have to buy them?''
He paused to give Victor a chance to let the idea sink in. "We would keep Stiletto's name and packaging the same, meanwhile continue to revamp Espresso and rebrand it as makeup for the classic or mature beauty or something along those lines."
The older man pressed his lips together a few moments, before he finally spoke. "Couldn't we just develop our own offshoot brand?"
Cole shrugged. "We could, but that would take a long time. Even then, consumers can be fickle. There's no guarantee it would catch on and turn into a winner for us."
"But how?" Victor frowned, deepening the creases in his forehead. "You heard what Doyle said. The cosmetics division is buried in red ink. Your sister's Espresso Sanctuary spas propped us up until you came back and threw us a lifeline."
Cole crossed his arms over his chest. While Espresso's finances had dwindled in his absence, his personal wealth had grown tremendously. "Don't worry. I've got it covered," he said. "I'm about to make Ms. Matthews an offer too good to refuse."