“Sit your ass right there, Bradford. Damn it, I’ll get to you and this most current clusterfuck in a second.” Livingston Rhodes raked a hand through his short spiked hair as he paced the wide expanse of his office, wishing he was anywhere but here. And now. Noting his younger brother had listened, he focused back on the man he was in the middle of a conversation with at that moment. Gareth Ericsson.
“I can just email you the accountant’s information, man. Sounds like you have a few other things on your plate.” The man’s low, smooth tone slid effortlessly over the line. Gareth was much less uptight since he’d found his woman.
Livingston turned his back on the large, polished, handcrafted oak desk to the massive window overlooking his city, New Orleans, and shook his head. “Please.” He wasn’t in the right headspace for this, wouldn’t be until he got his brother out of town for a while. And he sure as hell wasn’t in the mood for the holiday that was heading toward them.
“I’ll have it to you by the end of the day. I just want to say one thing.”
Gareth’s tone drew his focus like a shark picking up on blood in the water. “Which is?”
“She’s young, but don’t let that sway you. She’s a fucking rockstar at what she does.”
Livingston frowned. A woman? A young woman? Exactly the last thing he needed was a young female coming in to try to fix the mess. Other than maybe two women he was used to them doing whatever they could to get their hands on the fortune surrounding the Rhodes name. At least, that was where his gut was directing him. Until he got to the bottom of everything, all he had was conjecture.
“She’s not going to be like other women around you, Livingston. Single-minded focus is what this woman is about. She’s like you, but cuter and, I have to say, a lot more deadly.”
He watched a city worker hoist a Christmas direction up on a street lamp before the truck moved slowly on to the next. “Cuter? Since when do you notice women? I thought Xandra was the only woman for you.”
Cutting his gaze to the large flatscreen on the wall, which ran stocks most of the day, he noticed the weatherman talking about an early winter storm wreaking havoc over the Rockies. Dumping ungodly amounts of snow and sleet and taking power from thousands.
“She is. I know Daisy because of my Xandra. Red had her come here and check out our books after we had an accounting concern.”
After ensuring his brother remained seated—he was currently scrolling through his phone—Livingston faced the window once more, needing to do one thing at a time. “How come I didn’t hear about it?”
“Not a lot of people did. She came in, worked her magic and nailed down the who, how, when of the problem. After that, we handled it.”
Livingston grinned at the danger in his friend’s tone. They were so alike it was scary. They’d become unlikely friends and, despite their fathers’ attempts to keep running their lives and dictating who they could hang out with, they’d endured. There weren’t a lot of people that he trusted who traveled in their social circle, but Gareth was one. Perhaps the one, aside from his brothers and his best mate, Eli.
“I’ll look for the email. Give that wife of yours a kiss for me.”
“Fuck you, man. Your lips aren’t touching my Red.” There was humor in Gareth’s tone. Mostly. “Daisy Wentz is her name, and it’ll be in your inbox before the end of the day.”
“I appreciate it, Gareth.”
“Always, my man. You need anything, you let me know.”
He was gone.
One crisis having been dealt with, Livingston pulled the earbud from his ear and dropped it on his desk as he turned back to face his middle brother, Bradford.
His brother put away his phone and stood. “I swear I didn’t do this, man.”
“I know. You have no reason to steal from me, you have enough of your own money. But someone”—he took a deep breath and forced himself to unclench his fist—“is making it look that way.”
Livingston was desperate to know who had fucked not just with his business, but also with his brother.
“Thanks for believing in me. I know it’s not easy, especially with Dad being his usual charming self.” Bradford pushed his hands in his pockets, rocking back on his heels.
Livingston rolled his shoulders then took a seat. “I think you should get out of the line of fire for a while as the investigation goes on.”
A disbelieving snort left his brother. “So after that shit you just spewed, you still don’t honestly think I’m innocent in this. You believe that this is my fault, that I would actually be dumb enough and assholish enough to steal from you.”
“That’s not what I’m saying, at all. I’m not in the habit of saying things I don’t mean, and I don’t think you did this. I do think it prudent you take your face out of the limelight for a while.”
Bradford’s expression grew pinched, full of tension, as he shoved his hands through his dark-brown hair. His eyes, normally a soft dove gray, were steely and harsh. Anger burned in them, alive and hungry.
“Fuck you, Livingston. Just because I don’t want to run a casino doesn’t mean I’m a fuckup.”
Damn it! That’s not what he’d meant, not at all. “Fuckup? No. Impetuous? Yes. And moody as fuck. I’m on your side, Bradford.” He rested his hands on the desktop.
“Funny-ass way of showing it.” Hands up in front of him, Bradford moved back to the door. “You want me gone, fine. I’ll be so far gone you can’t find me.” He whipped around and stormed from the room, slamming the door behind him.
“Fuck!” Livingston banged a fist on the thick desk, wincing at the sting of pain that radiated up his arm.
That wasn’t how he’d wanted it to go. He was trying to protect his brother. Did he need it? No, but hell, Livingston had been doing it for both brothers as long as he could remember. Getting between their father and them to take the blows. It was instinctive for him, like breathing.
He could use a vacation.
That shit ain’t happening.
His casino, The Empire, flourished here in NOLA, however he was in the process of getting a riverboat one ready as well. This shit with his brother being implicated in embezzlement had put a huge dent in those plans.
And he wasn’t a patient man, didn’t like delays. But he could use a vacation. Of course, not being a man who indulged in them, they weren’t common. He had had one three months ago, but that had been more of a delay in travel.
His lips twitched as he remembered the night he’d spent with a woman in the bar of a hotel before heading up to his room with her. She hadn’t known him from Adam, hadn’t been interested in anything but sex. Livingston had been all for it.
Waking alone had frustrated him, for he’d wanted to start all over and redo their night together. But it hadn’t been meant to be. She had been gone and all he’d had were the memories.
If he had someone like that around, he may be less inclined to work the long hours he did.
Gareth had just laughed at him when he’d told his friend about his one-night stand. Reminding him that’s how he and Red had met, he’d said to stay positive, she could come back into his life.
He doubted it. He wasn’t sure why a woman he’d met in Seattle would run into him in New Orleans. He wasn’t in the dating scene, and after seeing what had happened to some of the men who traveled in his circles when they did go in that pool, he wasn’t ready to get in.
Sure, there were always going to be people who wanted him for what he could do for them. He was a fucking billionaire. But deep down, in the parts he wouldn’t publicly acknowledge, he wanted something like Gareth had. A woman at his side who loved him for him, not his money. Someone who would have his back no matter what.
The circles he ran in didn’t generate that kind of person. Not that he’d met anyway.
His computer dinged and he stole another look at the television, shaking his head at the ticker stating how much worse the storm was going to get. Losing power in summer was one thing, but during winter with snow and the cold… He was glad he wasn’t there. This Winter Storm Ellis wasn’t going to be anything to ignore. He turned away. They had winter storms, he had hurricanes. Everyone had something.
Opening the email from Gareth, he scanned the information he’d sent over on Daisy Wentz. Whistling at what he read, he immediately picked up his phone and reached out to get her to come here so she could untangle all the threads and thorns that had wrapped around his business.
* * * *
Daisy Wentz flattened her lips as she stared up at the door leading to her next appointment. The Empire. One of the most popular casinos in New Orleans, or so the rumor went. Men and women, both casually dressed and those wearing their finest, moved in and out of the doors like they were in Vegas.
Hell, for some this was as close as they were going to get. Personally, she had no use for a casino—the odds always favored the house and she wasn’t on board with tossing away her hard-earned money. On the other hand, she didn’t condemn them.
Apathetic would be the way to describe how I feel about these places.
Turning her right wrist so she could see the narrow face of her watch with its silver filagree arms designating the time, she took a deep breath. Only to immediately regret it. Not that it was horrible, but there were an awful lot of perfumes and colognes intermixed with the city scents.
She would have to do some exploring while she was here. If she agreed to the job after meeting Mr. Rhodes. Smoothing a hand down the curve of her hip over her purple suit coat, she walked to the door, steps brisk and businesslike.
The security guard at the door eyed both her and the briefcase she carried and shifted to position himself in her path. His dark-gray suit coat fit him like a glove and the slacks he wore completed the outfit. If his intent was to both blend and look intimidating, it worked.
“I’m sorry, ma’am, you can’t take that briefcase inside.”
“I have a meeting with Mr. Rhodes in five minutes. I need the briefcase for that. If you could call up to him and let him know Ms. Wentz is here.”
She wasn’t a fan of confrontations, but she knew her worth with regards to her job. If Livingston Rhodes wanted her to help him, he damn sure would let her in with her things.
Blue eyes roved over her and she knew what he saw. And as was the case with most men, she was found lacking. She wasn’t a beauty by any means. There were curves, not like her adopted sisters had, but she’d spent a few years malnourished and she wasn’t ever going to be like some. Not that she was ugly, she just didn’t command men’s attention by walking into a room. Worked for her, though. She’d spent her growing-up years trying not to be the center of attention.
Following his wordless gesture, she trailed him to a phone by the door and grasped the leather handle of her Buccio Ragusa briefcase with both hands. A gift from her adopted family, it even had her initials monogramed on the left corner of the flap. Outwardly, she presented calm—inside was a completely different story.
Her heartbeat raced like the horses at the Derby, and she couldn’t account for why. Adrenaline kicked through her and she wanted to sit and put her head between her knees. Skin prickling, she scanned the area, grateful for her Transitions, which hid her gaze from the guard and whomever would be watching on the numerous security cameras she didn’t doubt were focused on her.
“I apologize, ma’am. I have a guard coming to escort you to his office.”
“You’re just doing your job.”
He gave a small nod. If it was for thanks, or understanding of her comment, she couldn’t be sure. Didn’t really matter, either. In the next few seconds another man, dressed identically to the one who’d stopped her, appeared. His bright red hair almost brought a smile to her face. Shredded carrots.
Great, now she wanted carrot cake.
“If you’ll follow me.”
She fell into step with him. Neither man had given their name. Is that common? Are they taking me out back to shoot me?
Okay, no more late-night horror shows for her.
I should focus on the carrot cake.
They stuck to the edge of the casino and made their way to a bank of elevators. People moved out of this man’s way without him having to say anything. Hell, even small talk would have been preferable to the awkward silence. A red-and-gray door opened and she stepped in at the man’s gesture.
She didn’t do a lot of talking, but this was bugging her. Not even registering the floor they halted on, she walked out and waited for the man to tell her where to head next. At the end of the short hall, to the left, sat a wide set of double doors.
He opened the door for her and gave her a small smile. “He’s expecting you. And his secretary is right there.”
“I appreciate the escort.” The man slipped away and she progressed to the large glass desk behind which a petite woman sat, her golden hair drawn back in a French braid. “I’m Ms. Wentz and I have an appointment with Mr. Rhodes.”
Her gaze flickered over Daisy as she smiled. “Of course. Right on time. He’ll appreciate that.” Nails a shade of soft bubblegum pink flashed as she picked up the receiver and pressed a button. “Mr. Rhodes, your one o’clock is here.” A pause. “Right away, sir.”
The woman hung up the phone and pushed back from the desk. She walked around the corner and right up to Daisy, who felt dowdy next to this woman in her skin-tight dress and five-inch heels that she walked in so easily.
I have problems with heels.
“Follow me, please.”
Two knocks on a heavy door before she pushed it inward. Daisy entered right after her. The office was spectacular. Definitely masculine in tone. Heavy furniture. Darker colors. Two plants that were recipients of the sunlight streaming in the window taking up one wall. And in the center, a massive desk taking up a large portion of the room.
Her skin tingled once more and she fought the urge to run away. Either that or squeeze her legs together to kill the ache that had suddenly popped up.
“His bark is worse than his bite,” the secretary whispered before she snuck out, closing the door after her.
Skin a living flame, Daisy wasn’t positive about that. Shoving down her uncertainty to the bottom of her thoughts, she approached the desk and the man who hadn’t turned to face her as of yet.
“Thank you for coming, Ms. Wentz.”
It couldn’t be. Could it?
As he rose from the chair and turned to face her, Daisy swallowed. Sunlight gleamed off the smattering of red in his brown hair, so dark it was nearly black. His facial hair was cut tight to his chiseled jawline. Broad shoulders were covered by an onyx black suit jacket, with a hint of red along the lapel that matched the kerchief in the pocket. A white dress shirt and a checkered red-and-black tie finished the view. At least until he moved around the desk, tugging on his cuffs.
“I’m Livingston Rhodes.”
He stood before her, far more than a head taller than she was. His pants hugged lean hips and powerful thighs before falling straight down. She wrenched her gaze back up to those eyes. Pewter gray. Unmistakable. Definitely unforgettable.[AJL1] [Owner2]
Thankfully, her professional mind worked even while her fanciful one stopped to take a break and ogle the sexy businessman before her. She accepted his hand and shook it.
His brow furrowed ever so briefly before smoothing out. It had to have been her imagination that he didn’t release her hand right away.
“Have a seat,” he barked as he retreated back around his desk to his own chair.
He sat after she had. Ankles hooked and slightly to her left, she took a low breath and loosely clasped her hands in front of her. “When you left a message with my service, you didn’t go into a lot of detail. Could you please explain a bit more to me about what you are looking for me to find?”
Livingston leaned forward, hands linked as he held her gaze with an unerring focus.
“There’s been some embezzling going on and I want to know the who and how long, and when you tell me that, I’ll find the why.”
Danger vibrated up from the last part of that sentence.
The way he stared at her had her wanting to fidget, but she’d withstood peoples’ examinations for far too long to let this man get under her skin. Right?
God, she needed to focus. Not focus on the fact that he was the one man in her life who’d ever given her a nickname.
“Please don’t take this the wrong way, but there are plenty of accountants who could go over your records. I’m sure ones who even live here who could do the job.”
Those dark-gray eyes heated with a simmering anger. “This is implicating my own brother, and I know he wouldn’t steal from me. Not ever. Someone is setting him up and I need an impartial party to dig around and find the answers.”
She licked her bottom lip. “Impartial.”
A languid blink removed any and all traces of rage, leaving behind a look almost as if he weren’t sure she understood the meaning of the word and he were debating if he should give her an explanation.
“Yes, we have no ties to one another. You are here strictly for business. Not in New Orleans in hopes there will be a discount if you give me the answers I want.” He sighed and shook his head. “I’ll do whatever it takes to protect my family, Ms. Wentz. Money isn’t an object and I want you.”
Daisy opened her mouth but he continued on.
“Gareth Ericsson recommended you. He said you’ve done work for his wife and his company.”
The first real smile of her day lifted her lips. “Xandra.”
Another minute head tilt before he seemed to shake himself free of whatever spell had gripped him for however short a time. “I have a suite ready for you in the hotel. All your needs will be comped. Whatever you require to get digging into this, let me know and I’ll have it brought up to you.”
He stood and she took her cue from him. “You don’t think this is improper? Because of the connection?”
Livingston arched an eyebrow, somehow managing to look even hotter even as the thick condescension dripped. “Our connection is a business one. I trust Gareth and he trusts you. That’s enough for me and there’s nothing improper about that. I’m sorry, I hate to cut this short, I have another matter to attend to.” He walked to the door. “Monica will show you to your suite and start you with whatever you need. I’ll swing by this evening and we can finish going over everything.”
She’d been dismissed. All without her actually saying she would take the job. She’d sent a message that she would come talk about the work, not that she would take it. He already had his mind made up.
Mind racing, she tried to pull the words she desperately needed to say free from the quicksand that sucked them down. She failed and his broad shoulders faded from her view as the elevator door closed behind him. He never once looked back.
Monica took her to the other side of the casino, walking through the back hallways, and showed her how to get up to the suite reserved for her.
Giving the woman a list of a few items that she would need brought up, she sat on the ottoman after she was alone in the opulent space. Without thought, she pulled up two specific contacts and called them, initiating three-way.
“What’s going on?” Iris, the mothering one of the three, asked.
“Where are you?” Violet questioned as music was turned down in her background.
“I’m in New Orleans for work.”
“Remember I told you both about that night I had in Seattle months ago?”
Both hummed their acknowledgment.
“Tall, broody, sexy and the power to go all night and then some. Yes, we remember you saying it hurt to walk the next morning.” Iris laughed. “What about it?”
“He’s the owner of the company that called me in.”
“No shit?” Violet whistled.
“I have to tell him I can’t do this.” She shook her head. “It’s unethical.”
“What aren’t you telling us?” Iris’ tone grew serious. “Daisy?”
“He doesn’t remember who I am.”
“Fuck!” Both women muttered that at the same time.
She had to agree.