Home > Once Upon a Billionaire (Blue Collar Billionaires #1)

Once Upon a Billionaire (Blue Collar Billionaires #1)
Author: Jessica Lemmon

Chapter One

 

 

Vivian


Vivian Vandemark isn’t my real name.

It sounds fancy, though, doesn’t it? That alliteration of both Vs is to die for and reminds me of a classy label on clothing. Vandemark could have been the next Gucci. Maybe in another life.

I changed my name because my actual last name has been tainted by the man who gave it to me. My father is a criminal. Was. Was a criminal. It’s hard to get used to the idea that he’s no longer living. One would think since he was in prison for the last several years he’d be easy to forget, but that’s only because I haven’t told you who he is yet.

Walter Steele.

Yes, that Walter Steele.

The man who robbed his investors of millions and millions of dollars to line his own pockets. That man is my father.

Was. Damn. That really is hard to wrap my head around.

The trial was bananas. It lasted one hundred days, and during that time my mother, brother, and I were harassed nonstop by the press. That was six years ago. Since then I’ve fallen off the radar.

My mother quite literally fell off the radar when she swallowed a lot of pain relievers and chased them with a lot of vodka. That was the day my father was sentenced. By then I was twenty-three and out of the house. My younger brother, Walt, was twenty. He’s been trying to finish what booze my mother didn’t since then. He’d been an addict most of his young life. I’ve never enjoyed escapism as a hobby.

Until now, I suppose.

Chicago is a far cry from Clear Ridge, Ohio. Clear Ridge has an unassuming Midwest vibe. The town is mostly shopping malls and chain restaurants, tall maple trees, and fences surrounding green, grassy yards. The live-work site currently being built is unique to this area. It’s impressive, even if the company building it is the bane of my boss’s existence.

I’m employed in a government office in this aspiring city. The building I walk into each day is half the size of my father’s former summer home. Half.

I used to be a high-powered executive. All my faith, trust, time, and savings were wrapped up in our family’s company. And then it all turned out to be a sham. On my watch, everything fell apart. Steele Investments toppled like a house of cards, taking my position with it. My father went down with the ship, the rest of my family “spared,” if you could say that.

I’ve never felt more powerless. Watching my life crumble reminded me of TV footage of the World Trade Center vanishing in a plume of smoke on 9/11. When I left that life behind, I swore never again.

I’ll never again stand by, unwittingly, while someone steals (steal/Steele—how about that for irony?) people’s life savings and retirement funds. I thought I was living the good life, but it was blood money.

Now, I buy my clothes at department stores or Target—they have some really nice clothes, by the way. I also cook at home a lot—not well, but I’m learning. And I endure the office coffee even though I pass a drool-worthy Starbucks each and every morning on my way to work.

I’m paying penance for a life I never chose. Thanks, Dad.

The second I set foot in the office, I’m met with raised voices. The loudest of the two is Gary, an otherwise mild-mannered inspector at our bureau. I don’t think I’ve ever heard him raise his voice. My boss, Daniel, however, has a well-known temper. His blood pressure often runs high—you can tell by his reddened face.

Gary and Daniel are in Daniel’s office, and while I can’t make out what they’re saying, it’s obvious they’re having a disagreement.

“Amber.” I lean into my coworker’s cubicle. “What’s going on?”

She looks over her shoulder and gives me a smile that is half amused, half surprised. “Gary is fit to be tied.”

“Yeah, I hear that. What’s it about?”

“Who do you think?” She raises one prim, blond eyebrow.

“Nathaniel Owen,” I answer. The billionaire in charge of the live-work project has been mentioned about a billion times since I started working here, and never favorably.

“The one and only.” Amber, still smiling, stands and leans a shoulder on the cubicle wall. We’re both facing Daniel’s closed door where the “conversation” is going strong. Nathaniel Owen’s name is used like a curse word in this place. I’ve never interacted with him personally, but I’m familiar with the type.

Rich. Entitled. The kind of man who believes he’s above the law.

The door swings open and Gary steps out, his mouth a firm line of disapproval. He huffs past Amber’s cubicle and we brace ourselves for Daniel’s wrath when he looks at us. No, wait.

Looks at me.

“Vandemark. Get in here.” He vanishes into his office.

Daniel is in charge of my paycheck, a paycheck I need very badly, since I refuse to touch the money in an account I set up after Dad’s trial. That money is for my brother’s rehabilitation. Those places aren’t cheap, and I’ll drain every dime out of it if it makes him better. I failed him once—I won’t fail him again. He’s the only family I have left.

Anyway, my paycheck. It’s all that stands between me and homelessness, so I tend to be more gracious to my boss than he deserves.

Amber whispers “good luck” as I leave her side and enter the lion’s den, aka Daniel’s office.

“Good morning.” I try to sound breezy.

“Not even close.” He’s pacing the floor, hands on his hips, frown marring his receding hairline. “Nathaniel Owen is a burr in my ass.”

That should be the motto of the Clear Ridge Bureau of Inspection.

“I need you to go to the Grand Marin site,” he tells me. “Owen’s crew is there today, and I have it on good authority he has a meeting with the mayor which means he’ll likely be onsite. I don’t care if the mayor is in Owen’s pocket. We are not. At least we aren’t any longer.” He mutters that last part while looking out the window facing the alley.

“Not Gary?” I can’t imagine a scenario where Gary would do anything short of aboveboard.

“Owen paid off Gary. He had to have.” Daniel’s face turns beet red. “That electrical inspection paperwork flew in here on wings for my approval. It was way too fast. Gary was bribed. Mark my words.”

I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but in this case Daniel makes a great point. Nothing happens fast in our little government bureau, and it’s particularly suspicious that Owen seems to make things happen at lightning speed compared to everyone else.

“Did Gary quit?”

“I fired him.” Daniel puffs up his chest, proud.

“Seriously?”

“No one at CRBI accepts bribes and remains on my payroll.” He ices me with a glare. “You’ll do well to remember that since you’re heading over there.”

My blood heats. I’d never accept a bribe. Especially one from a stubborn billionaire.

“We have a narrow window to teach Owen a lesson. You’re just the woman to do it.”

“I hope you understand that I will not falsify paperwork in order to shut him down, either. I respect your mission, Daniel, but I’m not going to stoop to Owen’s level.”

My boss’s grin is a tad creepy, but approving. “I know you won’t. All you have to do is ask Owen for proof of a passed electrical inspection. He won’t be able to show you one because he doesn’t have one—not legally, anyway. I never signed off on it. Therefore, you can shut him down.”

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