Sometimes love takes balls.
Newly retired championship footballer Simon Wood is taking on his next challenge. His plan for a charity to provide funding for underprivileged children to pursue football as a career has passed its first hurdle: he has backers and an executive consultant. Now it’s time to get the ball rolling.
Lucien Morel, heir to the multibillion-euro Morel Corporation, is shocked—and thrilled—to learn his father has volunteered him as consultant to a fledgling football charity. Better yet, the brains behind it all is heartthrob Simon Wood, his teenage idol and crush.
Although Simon and Lucien get off on the wrong foot, it’s not long before they’re getting along like a house on fire—sparks included. But with the charity under public scrutiny, can their romance thrive?
NOT FIDGETING was hard.
That’s stupid, he told himself. He was Simon Wood, for fuck’s sake, a championship professional athlete. He’d been in more high-pressure situations than most people would care to even imagine—on the pitch, in the locker room, in the media spotlight. He was used to being nervous, and not since he was nineteen had he felt the urge to fidget.
This was more important than anything else he’d done, however, although he’d never say so to the millions of football fans around the world, many of whom either idolized or loathed him. But it was. As much as he’d always loved playing football, his career as an athlete was never going to be forever, and while it brought entertainment and pleasure to many, ultimately that had been fleeting. This, though… this could last a long time and benefit a lot of young people.
So Si made a concerted effort not to tap his fingers on the chair arms as he sat in the executive reception of the Morel Corporation in Paris. It was a fantastic coup to have even gotten this appointment with Édouard Morel—most applications for charitable funds went through the Morel Foundation’s director—but once Si had retired and made the decision that this was what he wanted to do next, he’d called in just about every favor he’d ever been owed and leaned on a few contacts he’d made in his playing years just to get this meeting. The Morel Corporation had been his top pick when he’d been compiling a list of possible backers because Édouard Morel was known for following through on promises to charities and for generosity. He needed the older man’s full backing, including his contacts and influence, not just to be one of many charities on the Foundation’s list.
“Monsieur Wood?” Si looked up as the extremely elegant executive receptionist came toward him, her professional smile just that tiny bit more than it should be. He was used to that, of course, from both women and men, and any other time he may have considered signaling that he was open to her offer, but not today. Not here. He would do nothing to bollocks up this meeting.
He kept his smile as neutral as possible as he stood. “Yes?”
“If you come this way, Monsieur Morel will see you now.” Her manner slipped back to purely professional. His message had obviously been received.
Taking a deep breath and trying not to be obvious about it, Si followed her down a hallway. At the end was a set of double doors, and with each step closer, his heart pounded a tiny bit louder in his ears. Relax, Si. You can do this.
They reached the doors, and the woman—she’d told him her name earlier, but he couldn’t for the life of him remember it—knocked once before opening one and poking her head in. A moment later she opened both doors wide and stepped back, motioning for him to enter.
“Thank you,” he said, his throat suddenly dry, and walked past her. He heard the doors close behind him, but his focus was on the man rising from a fancy chair behind the big desk across the room. “Monsieur Morel, I’m so pleased to meet you,” Si said as he crossed the space between them, hand outstretched. “I’m Simon Wood.” He knew the man spoke English, which was a great relief since his French was not good and mainly limited to the sort of slurs that could be used against opponents during a football match.
“I recognize you,” Édouard Morel replied, smiling broadly. “I am not so great a sports fan as my son, but even I could not fail to know who you are.” He shook Si’s hand and gestured for him to sit, while Si wondered if the comment about not being a great sports fan meant he was screwed.
Only one way to find out.
“I must confess, I am very curious about this new venture you wanted to speak about. I am not in the habit of funding new businesses, but several people insisted I must see you.”
Oh, bloody hell. It sounded like Morel was setting up for a refusal already, and Si had only introduced himself!
“It’s not exactly a new business,” Si said, forcing the words through his suddenly too-tight throat. Morel raised an eyebrow, his expression skeptical… and just like that, Si was in his zone. The nerves fell away, the worry disappeared, and he was hyperfocused, completely intent on the end goal.
He knew he was speaking, knew he’d taken out the business plan and was making his presentation, but he wasn’t sure exactly what he said. He felt confident, though, sure of every word and action, could judge Morel’s reactions and change tack as required.
And those reactions weren’t always positive. “I do not spend charitable funds on games,” had very nearly pulled Si out of his focused state.
Finally he sat back in his chair, awareness widening again as Morel flipped once more through the business plan for the program. He’d made his pitch. Now to see if it had worked.
Morel looked up, and Si’s gut clenched. “You have secured 25 percent of the funding required for startup and the first year?”
Si nodded. “Yes. There are various grant organizations across Europe that have indicated they would be happy to support the program. I can’t officially apply for them until we’re up and running, of course, but I’ve been assured the funds will be allocated when I do. That will account for 5 percent. The other twenty is coming from me.”
Morel seemed impressed by that. “Really? Twenty percent?”
“I was very good at my job, monsieur, and not as foolish with money as some might assume footballers are. I strongly believe that this program can do a lot of good, and I’d be an idiot not to put my money where my mouth is before looking for funding.” Was that too aggressive? Maybe he should have just shut up.
“Very well.” Morel put the business plan down and sat back in his superfancy chair. “I will not lie—I have never been inclined to support sports charities. I believe money is better used on basic necessities and education.” Si’s stomach sank. “However, you have made a very good point that sometimes young people have different priorities and that life cannot just be about necessities. Pleasure is important too. So here is what I propose. You have 25 percent of funding already secured. The Morel Corporation—not the Foundation—will fund an additional 60 percent of what you need for the first five years of the program, with an option to review then.”
Si wanted to leap up and scream in victory. Sixty percent was more—heaps more—than what he’d hoped for from Morel, and a five-year commitment? Outstanding! Instead, he smiled broadly. “That’s very generous of you, sir. Thank you. You won’t regret this.”
Morel held up a hand. “I am not finished. You have an MBA and an excellent understanding of football and the needs of young players, but I believe no actual experience with running a business or charitable endeavor?”
Where’s he going with this? “That’s correct, sir, and why the plan”—he nodded to the bound document on the desk—“allows for the hire of an experienced business manager.”
“But surely those funds can be put to better use? Let me instead propose this. My son, Lucien, will consult on the setup of the program, train you to run it, and oversee operations for the first five years. His time and expertise will be an additional part of the Morel Corporation’s contribution.”
There was a roaring sound in Si’s ears. Morel was giving him an executive consultant? Si couldn’t claim to be current on who all the movers and shakers of the business world were, but Lucien Morel appeared in the business news almost as often as his father. Having his knowledge and expertise attached to the program would be…. Si couldn’t even think of a word to describe how good.
Belatedly, he realized Morel was still speaking.
“… and so I will personally provide the final 15 percent of funding that you require.”
Si blinked. “I…. Sorry, could you repeat that?” He knew it was less than professional, but he needed to hear the words again.
Morel smiled. “I said, I am aware that it may prove difficult to obtain funding from other organizations with a Morel representative overseeing operations, so I will personally provide the additional funds. No insult to you, but with the size of the contribution the Morel Corporation is making, I would feel more comfortable to have Lucien involved, and if that requires an additional contribution from me….” He shrugged, a very Gallic gesture, and Si nodded. Christ, was it Christmas? His birthday? Every good day he’d ever experienced rolled into one? There could be no other explanation for the level of good fortune he was in receipt of today.
He stood when Morel did. “I will have Lucien’s assistant contact you to arrange an appointment, but here is his information. His name is Paul.” Si took the offered business card, feeling rather numb, shook the man’s hand, and left the office. He walked down the hall, nodded to the receptionist, rode the lift down thirty floors, and left the building. It wasn’t until he was out on the busy Paris street, faced with several hours before he needed to be at the airport for his flight home, that it hit him.
He’d done it.
Twenty years of wondering, of wishing, of thinking maybe one day. The scrupulous efforts to put money aside during his early playing days, when teammates his age were blowing thousands—sometimes millions—on posh houses and cars, holidays abroad, and designer gear. The years of scraping out time to study for his degrees in addition to his grueling training, match, and publicity schedules.
It was all paying off. He’d had the business plan, and now he had the funding too.
And an executive consultant of the like he could never have dreamed of hiring.
Si laughed out loud as he walked down the street, everything seeming bolder, brighter, happier.
He loved Paris.
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