Page 1 of Corrupted

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LONG SPLASHES OF purple and pink bruise the night sky as the sun sets low over the Vieux Port. The gorgeous harbor front is busy tonight, compliments of an unusually warm December in the French Riviera. Numerous tourists stand shoulder to shoulder, admiring the luxurious yachts bobbing gently in the warm Mediterranean Sea, while others line up to ride la grande roue, or as we call it back in New York, the Ferris wheel.

The view is picturesque and worthy of a photo, but after spending a week at the International Festival of Creativity, I just want to drive back to my villa, eat something home-cooked and climb out of this suit. Except late-night drinks with one of my longtime designers await me, which is why I’m currently headed for Movida’s, an exclusive gentleman’s club in the heart of downtown Cannes.

I pull up in front of the impressive architectural building and hand the keys over to the valet. Long strides carry me up the aged stone stairs two at a time. As my name is checked off the exclusive invitation list, I catalog the smoky room in search of Luis. His arm lifts in his fashionably cut Luis Laurent original, as he waves me over. I smooth the lapels of my jacket, and admire the extravagance of the drawing room as I make my way across the marbled floor. I circle large white pillars and nod to men of all ages and ethnicities, while they nurse topshelf liquor around rich mahogany tables.

A chuckle catches in my throat as I consider the exorbitant amount of wealth in the room. I’m a long way from the streets of Philadelphia, where my sister and I were tossed around in foster care, oftentimes getting separated. When we were kids, I swore to Peyton that when I got older, I’d make something of myself and would never let anyone or anything tear us apart again. Thanks to Penn Pals, the dating app I created at Penn State University—while I was an undergraduate computer science student—as well as my online clothing business, Hard Wear, I now have the means to create a better life for my sister and me as well as other kids who are unwanted and unloved.

Luis stands as I approach, the lines around his eyes crinkling as he pulls me in for a hug. I bend to accommodate his short stature and pat him on the back. His silver hair has thinned a bit since my last visit, but his smile is just as bright and welcoming.

“Nice to see you, my friend,” he says in a thick French accent that is as rich and smooth as the man himself.

“How have you been, Luis?” I ask, as he waves a hand to the seat beside him. I lower myself, and give a curt nod to the others seated around us. They return to their conversations, and it’s clear Luis and I are the only two conducting business in the club this Friday night.

“Never better,” he says and leans toward me. “Shall we get our business out of the way before drinks and entertainment?”

I laugh. “I do love how you always get straight to the point.”

As he reaches into a leather satchel and pulls out a tablet, I steal a glance at the elevated stage. I’ve never been to a gentleman’s club before. They have them in New York, but it’s not really my thing. What is my thing? Hell, I can’t remember the last time I did something just for fun. But I do wonder what kind of entertainment they have in store for the crowd of men tonight. Not that I plan to stay. After days of hard-ass negotiations with other suppliers, I’m dead tired on my feet. Luis powers up the tablet and turns it my way, dragging my focus back to the reason I’m here.

“Here is what I’ve worked up for you,” he says, and I look over the designs created exclusively for Hard Wear. Money was tight at Penn State and I held down three jobs to save for my sister’s tuition, often wearing secondhand clothes to keep my monthly budget in line. Hard Wear was born out of my personal need for quality, yet affordable clothing. Young professionals who must look their best, but either hate to shop or are struggling financially, now have somewhere to turn. That was my end goal.

Luis takes a big drag from his cigar, and I run my finger over the tablet, sliding it to turn the pages. Impressed at what I’m seeing, I study the specs for the new young casual line I want to introduce to my loyal customers.

“These are perfect, Luis.” I lift my head to find him smiling at me. “You’ve worked up the numbers?”

“A little higher than you’d like,” he explains with a frown. “Shipment costs are increasing.”

Trust doesn’t come easily to me; it’s one of the first things to go when you’re in foster care. People tell you one thing, only to turn around and do another. I might have learned distrust in the system, but my cynicism was fortified back in college when I fell for Londyn Harding, a spoiled little rich girl from the right side of the tracks. I shared my clothing app idea with her, talked animatedly about it for days on end, only for her to turn around and share it with her entrepreneurial daddy, giving them the jump on the market share. But the man I’m sitting across from, well, we’ve been working together for many years, and I have faith in his designs and his numbers.

He presses a few buttons on his tablet, and presents me with a spreadsheet. I study the figures carefully, and mentally do a cost breakdown. The numbers are higher than I would have liked, he was right about that, but I can work with them. My new line is going to be a hit. After seeing the mock-ups, I’m sure of it.

“We could use a different fabric,” he explains. “But it won’t give your customers the quality they’ve become accustomed to.”

“We’re a company that stands behind what we promise,” I recite. “Customer trust is important.” Hell, any kind of trust is important to me. Luis nods in agreement. “Okay,” I say. “Send these to me, and we’ll get the contract signed.” I hold my hand out and he shakes it. I wish all negotiations were as easy as this one, but when push comes to shove, I don’t back down, which is how I managed to build a multimillion-dollar business before the age of thirty.

“Always a pleasure doing business with you, my friend,” Luis says and snaps his fingers. A moment later we’re presented with two snifters of brandy. I lift mine in salute and we both take a swig. The amber liquid burns down my throat and I welcome it. I set the glass down, and I’m about to conclude the night when Luis puts his hand on my arm.

“You must stay for the auction.”