At First Meet
Book 2 in the Montgomery Ink Legacy Series
NYT Bestselling Author Carrie Ann Ryan continues the Montgomery Ink Legacy series with an emotional, friends-to-lovers romance where second chances begin with a promise.
I fell in love with the wrong man and learned the hard way to ask for help.
I don’t plan on falling again and have no intention of trying.
But when I get invited to a high-powered CEO retreat, I know I can’t say no.
And I can’t go alone.
When my frenemy, Nick, invites himself as my escort, I should walk away.
But there’s no stopping the connection we’ve both ignored for far too long.
Only Nick’s past is far darker than he lets the world know, and the shell he encased himself in is stronger than my own. And when the pain from my past comes back with a force, I’m afraid that walking away will be the only choice—even if it breaks us both.
At First Meet is Book 2 in the Montgomery Ink Legacy series
- Book 1: Bittersweet Promises
- Book 2: At First Meet
- Book 2.5: Happily Ever Never
- Book 3: Longtime Crush
- Book 4: Best Friend Temptation
- Book 4.5: Happily Ever Maybe
- Book 5: Last First Kiss
- Book 6: His Second Chance
- Book 7: One Night with You
The full series reading order is as follows:
At First Meet
I might be a Montgomery, but I felt like a fraud. That is, until I looked around my office and remembered that a Montgomery could do anything. I might not have been born into this family, but I held the name, the connections, the love, and the will to succeed.
I smiled as I tapped on the keyboard, replying to another of the countless emails that had made their way to me.
My assistant and staff went through most of my emails before they even hit my inbox. Mostly because I worked way too many hours a day, had more than one job, more than one multimillion-dollar business, and somebody needed to organize my emails for me.
As somewhat of a control freak, it was odd to think that I even did that. Only here I was, looking through a list of emails that I should probably go through since they were forwarded to my private email address rather than the public one.
My intercom buzzed and I tapped it, smiling, even though Desiree couldn’t see me.
“Yes, Desiree?” I asked, leaning back into my chair while rubbing my neck. I had been working nonstop for the past few hours, and as I looked at the clock, I knew exactly why she was buzzing.
“Don’t skip lunch, or I’m going to have to deal with your parents. Please don’t make me deal with your parents.”
I held back a laugh because my parents weren’t mean or overbearing. No. It was because my parents could love you to the point of feeling guilty when you weren’t taking care of yourself. They would never blame Desiree for me forgetting to eat when I was focusing. But they would ensure that Desiree was eating.
“You only don’t like it because if I forget lunch, it means you have also. Even though it’s on our calendars.”
Desiree walked in rather than finishing the conversation through the intercom.
I might have a corner office in Downtown Denver in one of the few large skyscrapers, but Desiree had her own office right next to mine. I wasn’t going to put her in a tiny little seat where people would call her the dragon when they tried to get to me.
Okay, well, they still called her the dragon, and they had to get through her to get to me, but I wasn’t going to force her to work out in the open where she couldn’t have space to herself. So she had her own office. Her own office with a set of windows, a mini fridge, and more than one timer to remind us to eat lunch.
“I brought us salads because I was in the mood for it, but they’re Mediterranean ones with tons of protein and chocolate chip cookies because it’s not like we don’t deserve it.”
I rolled my eyes and gestured towards the seating area in my office. “Come on, the last time I ate dressing over my keyboard, the IT department growled at me. It’s my building. If I want to drop a large drop of dressing and a crouton on my keyboard, I can.”
Desiree rolled her eyes and sat down, handing me my food. I went and got us two sparkling waters, as well as a few napkins.
“Are we taking a true break, or are we having a working lunch?”
“You and I are both leaving early today, and when do we ever actually not talk about work during lunch?”
I winced. “Okay, you’re right. Now let’s talk.”
“You have a meeting with Diana at one. Which is good because it was supposed to be noon, and then we would be meeting with her while eating salad.”
“I could do that. With dressing running all down my chest.”
“You do throw salad at yourself, don’t you?”
I snorted and placed my napkin in my cleavage so I could protect my shirt. I might run multimillion-dollar companies, have a few million in the bank, and have graced a few magazine covers in my time, but I still ate sloppily. I couldn’t help it. My mind was on a thousand different things, and I really was a dork.
Zach had always hated it. When I spilled on myself because I wasn’t paying attention or the fact that I was just clumsy sometimes. He’d hated it so much, that was the first time he—
I cut myself off, ignoring the way my palms went clammy, and reminded myself that it didn’t matter if Zach hated that I sometimes spilled on myself like a dork or a toddler. It wasn’t his problem. He was gone, and he wasn’t going to come back.
I was safe.
I sucked in a breath, chugged down half my water, then nearly choked because I forgot it was sparkling.
Desiree gave me a look, and I used my spare napkin to wipe my face and continued listening to what the rest of our day would be like.
Desiree didn’t know. I think she had suspicions, but she didn’t know. Most people didn’t.
My parents and my siblings did because, despite myself, I couldn’t keep secrets from them. I had tried, and I had actually succeeded to some extent. Then I broken down and needed my mother. I needed my mom. She had been there without a second thought. She hadn’t blamed me for my mistakes. Nobody had. The only thing I had to do was hold my dad back from beating the shit out of Zach. That wouldn’t have helped anything. I needed to hold back my cousin, Leif, as well.
I had gone to Leif when everything had happened, things I didn’t even want to think about, but it hadn’t been him who I’d told first.
It had been Nick.
I let out a breath and quickly continued to eat, listening to Desiree and taking mental notes as she spoke because I wasn’t about to let my mind go down that path again.
It had been three months since I walked away from Zach after he had hit me the final time.
After the man that I had loved, the man that I had thought was my world, had wrapped his hands around my neck and threatened to kill me.
It had been three months since I started therapy—nearly every day for a month—and then twice a week after that just to get it out because my family hadn’t allowed for anything else.
And while I hated them three months ago for forcing me to do it, I was grateful.
I was not yet whole, I was not happy or healthy or ready for the future. But I was healing.
Three months since the last time Zach told me that I was ugly. That I was fat. That I needed to lose part of myself in order to be with him.
Three months since I allowed part of myself to go into a secret place, to forget that person ever existed.
Three months since he had laid his hands on me. Three months since I allowed him to do so.
Then I was okay.
I worked in a high-powered profession and did what I needed to do to survive.
“Lake? What’s wrong?” Desiree asked. She set down her fork, her meal forgotten just like mine, and I swallowed hard, grateful I wasn’t crying.
I was so tired of crying.
“Sorry, I’m just thinking.”
“Do you want to tell me about what?”
Desiree wasn’t really my friend. We were close, but we didn’t hang out outside of work. Mostly because she had four kids and a loving wife and had a life of her own. We weren’t people who did much outside of our jobs, and I knew she was grateful for that. She needed time away from my demands and my busy schedule. While I tried to be the best boss, I had a lot of things on my plate, and that meant things needed to be done my way.
So she had seen the shadow I had slowly become when I hadn’t been aware of it.
But I was no longer that woman. I wasn’t the woman she had met when I had hired her, nor was I the woman of three months ago.
I knew three months wasn’t long enough to feel whole. But I was doing better.
And if I kept telling myself that, it would make it true.
“Sorry, my brain keeps going in too many weird directions today. Personal things. I promise, I’m ready to talk with Diana, though. I’m excited about that project.”
Desiree studied my face before she thankfully let it go. “I’m excited too. I know New Orleans has all the vampire places for a good reason, but honestly, Denver needs one, too.”
I laughed, finishing my lunch as we spoke.
“You’re right. I mean yes, there’s more sunlight here than in New Orleans theoretically, but you know we have nighttime too. The vampires could roam in the night.”
“And there could be daywalkers. And we know that I am a huge Twilight fan so we’re just going to let it be known that I would be okay if sparkly vampires walked among us.”
“As long as Jasper does, I’m fine,” I purred, and Desiree burst out laughing, just like I wanted.
“I’m team Charlie all the way.”
“Okay, I can get behind that,” I laughed. “Seriously though, with all these woods and mountainous areas, there could be vampires living out there, or even downtown. And now there’ll be a vampire café for them.”
“We should add that to some of the media,” Desiree said.
“I’m sure Diana has a whole idea for it,” I said with a laugh, and we cleaned up the remnants of our lunch. I went back to my desk and brought up Diana’s file.
Diana was a hardworking single mom of two young boys who used to own a small café in Seattle when she was in her twenties. That’s when she met her husband, and the two of them worked on it together until he was killed in a freak train accident. The city had given her a small stipend, but not enough for the locale, and between that and the memories, Diana moved to Denver to start fresh. She currently worked for somebody else at another café, and the former owner was happy to help out because they wouldn’t be competing with one another. Still, Diana was ready for something niche, something that would make her sons laugh and fit into a certain demographic.
Namely mine and my friends’ demographic.
When Diana walked in, I smiled and got up, holding my hand out.
“I’m so glad that you’re here. Let’s talk.”
“I can’t believe you chose my proposal,” Diana blurted. “Sorry. I know that’s a weird thing to say right off the bat, but thank you, Ms. Montgomery.”
“Please, call me Lake. And I chose your proposal because I like what you have planned, and you have an idea that has merit. And to be selfish, I want to go to your café.”
“Just wait. I am so excited for the drinks and the food we’re going to have, and we’re not going to go too cheesy. I promise no random men with widow’s peaks and overly white chompers that fall out while they’re speaking with lisps.”
“Oh, I’ve seen your proposal. I know exactly what you want to do.”
We sat down and talked about cheese plates and blood bags and other fun items that would go with the vampire club.
It wasn’t going to be a dance hall. It wasn’t going to be all about sex and drugs and everything that some might think a vampire café should be. This was going to be a wonderful afternoon and dinner place, to eat, have a drink, and listen to some open mic nights or other book club events. It was going to be fun. And that’s what Diana wanted.
And that’s what I wanted.
And that’s what my job was.
“I’d love to know exactly how you got into this. You’re so young. And here you are, helping out other women. I love it.”
I was used to this question, so I answered it quickly. “I graduated from high school early, and while I was in college, I worked with a professor, and somehow I was lucky enough to invent some tech that did really well.”
It wasn’t the most detailed version of my life, but it was part of it.
“Well enough that I didn’t have to focus too much on where I wanted to go after that, so I made sure I got my master’s in business, and I now want to use what I’ve learned to help others. Others like you. I want to help women and those in need to finance what they want to do. Part of my business is owning our tech company and working towards the future, and the other part is going to the future in a different way. I want to make sure that small businesses can get off the ground without the huge worry that they can compete in a man’s world. Because despite however far we’ve gone, we’re not there yet. So I want to help you. Women-owned businesses need to be out there. They need to be at the forefront. We want single moms not to have to choose between working for themselves and ignoring their children and working for someone else and not paving the road for their children in the first place. So I’m going to help you. And I get a vampire café at the end of it.”
Diana wiped tears away. I hadn’t meant for her to cry.
This was my job—to make sure that I paid it forward. I made sure that others had the chance I was given.
By the time Diana left, I was smiling and I knew that I’d made the right decision accepting her proposal. There were a few more proposals I had to go through, as well as my own tech business to do. But I was doing well. I also happened to own a stake in the next generation of Montgomery Ink Tattoos with Montgomery Ink Legacy, so I wanted to stop by there later and meet up with my family.
I worked enough hours, had enough jobs that I didn’t have to worry about going home to an empty house.
Because at least he wouldn’t be there.
I shuddered, and as I closed the door, the delivery man dropped a ream of paper. It echoed in the building and I froze, sweat sliding down my back as a metallic taste slid over my tongue. My hands shook, and I was grateful no one could see me. I gently closed the door as I fought to suck in breaths. But nothing would come. My airways closed, and I staggered over to the bar area and poured myself a glass of water from the pitcher, sloshing some over the rim as I forced myself to drink, to breathe.
Close your eyes, Lake.
Count to ten.
I didn’t even have to get to ten before I could breathe.
That wasn’t bad, that time. I was getting better.
But I texted my therapist and told her about it anyway. We would talk about it in the morning for my next session, and I would find a way to get over it.
Because I had to.
I couldn’t help others if I couldn’t help myself. So I needed to get over it.
There was a knock at the door, and I quickly looked in the mirror, making sure I looked presentable.
I looked fine. Not sweaty or pale or as if I just had another panic attack for no reason. I looked like Lake Montgomery, kick-ass CEO who could do no wrong.
And that’s what the world needed to see.
“Come in,” I called as Desiree walked in.
Her eyes were wide as she handed me an envelope.
“What is it?”
“I think I have an idea, but I need you to open it.”
I frowned, but I pulled the gold envelope from her hand and nearly dropped it.
“Elite? Wait, what day is it?”
“It’s the day you think it is,” Desiree answered.
I quickly opened the envelope. Odd that they would send letters like this rather than emails or phone calls.
Because I knew what day it was and exactly what this should be.
Lake Montgomery, we invite you to the Elite 40 Under 40 retreat of the year. You are our 40 Under 40. CEOs who have set an example for the world and are our future.
There was more information, but I just stared at her.
“I can’t, seriously? How is that even possible?”
“You know how that’s possible. You are the best boss ever and are Elite.”
“I just can’t believe they picked me. I mean, I do kick ass. We kick ass,” I emphasized as I looked between us both, and Desiree beamed.
“Well, you kick ass, and I know you’re thinking about the fact that there’s only ever been a handful of women invited.”
“Bingo,” I mouthed. “There’s probably what, one or two women each year for how many years now? I can’t believe I’m one of them. I can’t believe I just said that as if that’s a good thing,” I growled.
“It is a good thing. You can’t say no to this. You have to go.”
I nodded tightly. “I know I do. It’s good for the company. It’s good for our future. It’s good for the women that I can help. And hell, I guess it’s good for me.”
Desiree grinned, talking a mile a minute, as I looked down at the invitation again and looked at what I had missed the first go-around.
Lake Montgomery plus one.
As in, I needed to bring someone with me.
And I couldn’t go by myself, not as a woman, to a male-oriented event. And not as a woman who most recently hid from the world because she hadn’t been able to see the monster beneath.
And I had no one to take. No one because I wanted no one.
I had made the wrong choice before, and I wasn’t going to do it again.
But I couldn’t go alone. Not to something like this.
And once again, I felt like a fraud.
Because a Montgomery would know what to do.
At First Meet
is available in the following formats:
Sexism in the workplace, arson, past assault, pregnancy, death, pregnancy complications, grief, past childhood abuse, past trauma, past parental death, depression and anxiety.