Tired of staring into the crystal-clear turquoise water before her, Ali adjusted her sunglasses and caught a glimpse of the new pool boy. If she weren’t so bored with this resort, he might be worth playing with for a while. She bit her lip with indecision, a quirk that used to drive her ex-husband crazy.
A wicked smile graced her lips. Jack wouldn’t have the opportunity to deal with her bad habits anymore. The day she’d walked in on him and his secretary half-naked and sprawled across his office desk together, there had been n74o need to think over her decision. She had taken him straight to the cleaners, getting the house, the jet, his favorite car—everything possible from a marriage with no prenup, right down to a set of antique silver napkin rings. Most of it, including those napkin rings, sat boxed up in her five-car garage, gathering dust.
She had boxed up her heart as well. Sealed it with a tight lid, locked it in a safe, and hidden it in a deep, dark corner where no one could ever touch it again. At only twenty-four years old, she wasn’t about to put herself on a shelf. Instead, she focused her attention away from anything resembling a relationship and considered only temporary connections with the potential for pure pleasure. With a little help from her friends, she’d discovered how easy it was to seduce a man, get what she wanted, and get away. She’d burned through a ski instructor, two personal trainers, a wannabe rock star, a few waiters, a race car driver and his mechanic, plus a litany of pool boys.
In fact, she was getting too good at it. The exchanges were too easy, too bland. They’d lost their thrill, and she’d needed to spice things up again. The solution came when she’d toyed with the wannabe rock star and made him sing for her attention. From then on, each conquest became a game where she'd devise a different rule for each round.
In the pool, a father tossed a neon pink frisbee over the heads of his three curly-haired children. Squeals of laughter permeated the air as they took turns diving for it. Even with the happy hollers interrupting the usually tranquil atmosphere of her favorite home away from home, lounging here surrounded by nameless guests was preferable to the echoing silence of her empty mansion.
The youngest child missed the disk and it skidded across the pool deck, sputtering to a stop at the pool boy’s feet. In one swift motion, he bent down, plucked up the ring, and returned it to the child. Well-defined shoulder muscles rippled in response to his movements, and Ali curled her fingers around her sunglasses as a thrill sizzled along her spine.
He stood up, turned to face her, and revealed a superbly defined six-pack.
She stopped biting her lip. Decision made.
Her anticipation spiked as she pondered what rules she would apply to this round of the game.
Ali began her seduction by swinging her legs off the lounge chair and leaving the shade of her umbrella to position herself in the mid-afternoon California sunshine. In a practiced move, she withdrew the clip from her hair, and with a slow head shake, let her long raven locks cascade down her toned shoulders. The pool furniture squeaked as she stretched out on her hands, arched her back, and put her best assets—her breasts—on full display. Unlike many others in this swanky, overpriced resort, her ample breasts were one-hundred percent authentic. With intent, she angled herself into her target’s line of sight, turned her head toward him, and smiled.
Ali could tell she had his attention when he tripped over a non-existent crack in the pavement. Of course, it was hard not to notice her. The bright red bikini she wore today shocked against her alabaster skin she was careful never to expose to too much sun. Her lipstick—flown in specially from Paris—perfectly matched the fabric.
The last time she’d run out of this color, Ali had wanted Brenda, her best and oldest friend, to fly to France on the weekend to purchase more. Neither Brenda nor the other women in her circle were available, far too busy with a husband-required high-society dinner. She’d dreaded the idea of eight hours alone on her private jet. In the end, she’d said screw it, it’s only money, and sent her personal shopper there and back in a day to collect two tubes. That night, she’d walked into the glamourous gala alone and undaunted. The perfect Parisian lipstick made her blue eyes pop, and her figure-enhancing, one-of-a-kind gown had made every man want to be on her arm—taken or not.
Now Ali licked those ruby red lips, secure in the knowledge she had the pool boy on her hook.
She removed her sunglasses, setting them on the lounge before sauntering seductively away from him, toward the private cabanas.
Three of the tented structures in a row at this resort were hers, allowing her the privilege of keeping other hotel guests out of her business. The privacy screens were down, and she headed for the side entrance of the middle one. As she stepped into the shade, Ali brushed aside the billowy white curtain and turned back to the pool boy.
His golden hair shimmered in the sun as he strode her way, pausing only for a moment to pick up her sunglasses. The flying fabric of the cabana concealed her as she turned and waited for him.
It didn’t take long for him to catch up. When a capable, bronzed hand drew back the material, her skin prickled with an electric charge that stirred a desire long dormant. The wait was worth the sight before her.
Ali admired her catch. His toned features reminded her of Olympic swimmers: lean and long and just the right type of muscular build. Not so big that when he finally got on top of her, she might get crushed. Glossy hair hung in front of his copper-flecked green eyes, shaded by long black lashes. He was a few inches taller than her, forcing her to tilt her head back to look at him.
A deep voice drew her attention to his mouth. “Your sunglasses.”
“Why thank you,” she said sweetly, cocking her head. “How ever can I repay you?”
He ran his fingers through his wavy hair and responded with a wide grin that revealed a small dimple. Ali’s stomach did a little flip. This would be worth the effort after all. She used her forefinger to make a come-hither sign and backed into her cabana. He followed with a greedy glint in his eyes.
The inside of the cabana was quiet and cool. His tanned, glistening skin stood in stark contrast to the cloud-like blanched furniture, the room all white cloth and glowing, snowy tiles. Like a moth drawn to a flame, she couldn’t resist reaching across the slight distance separating them and touching his upper body.
When she made contact, a slight shock singed the pad of her finger. His body was warm from the sun. With slow intent, she traced the slight indent down the center of his chest, enjoying the way his muscles tensed at her touch. His stare followed her finger as it traveled between the lines of his abs and tucked into the waistband of his swim shorts. She ran a lazy finger along the material to the depression of his hip bone, pulled at the elastic, and let go, resulting in a snap against his taut skin.
His soft chuckle filled the air. The light, playful sound made her wonder what she could do to make him really laugh.
His voice shattered the fantasy. “I’m—”
She settled two fingers over his mouth and mimicked the gesture on her own lips, signaling there would be no more speaking. This would be the rule of the game. They would remain total strangers with everything done in silence. That is, until she made him cry out in pleasure.
He nodded in quick understanding. Did he play games often, too? She pivoted and walked over to the bed, pushing the question aside. What he did before or after didn’t matter. Only this moment when he was hers counted.
Her fingers patted the empty space beside her on the mattress as an invitation. To her amusement, he strolled over, not too eagerly, and settled in. Ali made a pretense of getting more comfortable by shaking out her hair, which really gave her a reason to jiggle her breasts in his face. Usually, at this point, men took that as a “go” signal and dove right into them.
This man only smiled, enjoying the show but making no move.
Hmm, he’s a slow starter. Let’s work on getting his engine going.
She placed a hand on the side of the stranger’s face and drew him toward her. Without hesitation, he willingly obliged, leaning in. When her lips were a hairsbreadth away from his, she stopped. He’d have to put some work into this. Ali needed to feel his desire.
Steady fingers cupped her chin, angling her face so she would look at him, and after a moment’s hesitation, he rested his lips on hers. She’d wanted fiery, rugged passion. Instead, she got velvet lips that gently teased her mouth, making her lean in for more. The room spun and her pulse quickened. To balance herself, she placed her hand on his shoulder. The taut muscles under her palm sent another electric charge through her. Her caress garnered a tiny, guttural noise from her kissing partner, and he shifted his hand from her chin to entwine his fingers in her hair.
A kiss wasn’t usually something she enjoyed with her Romeos. Not many men were really any good at it. In fact, the ski instructor had nearly taken out her two front teeth. So, she tended to move on quickly from this stage of the seduction. This man was different somehow. He knew what he was doing. When they broke apart, a sense of loss stabbed at her stomach.
The sensation didn’t last long, though. Follow-up kisses on her neck sent little shivers through her body. He continued toward her breasts, and Ali stirred with impatience. Aaah, here we go. He’s finally getting to the good stuff.
Her insides clenched deliciously as he kissed the tender hollow just above her sternum. With the intent to get those lips closer to more sensitive skin, she tried to move, but he planted his other hand on her stomach and, with a gentle grasp, kept her in place. He didn’t go any lower. Rather, he held her in suspended anticipation while he worked on this one sweet spot. The ache in her nipples burned, needing his hands, his touch. She squirmed, but he had her oddly pinned in his grip, the contact sending tingles up her spine. She let him have the illusion he was in control.
At last, he offered her some relief when he slid his palm off her stomach, his warm touch trailing around her waist and onto the small of her back. Their bodies crashed together, her skin flaming with his heat. The sweet kisses didn’t relent, but rather traveled along her shoulder now. He used his teeth to deftly nudge the strap of her bikini out of the way.
Ali hovered in a state of acute awareness, unable to remember the last time anyone had cherished her body the way this man did. She melted into his arms, letting all the worries of the world outside wither away. Nothing existed except for the pool boy and her.
Until a shrill voice broke the moment with, “Well, what do we have here?”
Sam sprung away from the woman in the red bikini, nearly dropping her on the floor. He had no idea where to look or what to do with his hands.
Not true. He wanted to put them back on her sumptuous body—the one he’d only just begun to explore. But the sound of his new boss’s voice had interrupted the treasure hunt.
He had only been employed by Mrs. Marino for a few days, yet her loud tone was instantly identifiable. Not able to meet her eyes and hoping in vain she didn’t recognize him, he studied the ground.
“Oh, here it is!” exclaimed his partner in crime, a little too much excitement in her voice. “My contact. I found it!”
The ruse was pretty lame. Sam had no doubt the resort owner couldn’t have missed their entwined bodies searching for something else altogether.
He glanced over to find his kissing partner on the floor, on her knees. A flash went through his mind of something else he would rather her be doing down there, but that wasn’t going to happen. Not right now, at any rate.
“Thanks for your help, young man.”
Young man? He couldn’t be much younger than her, this crimson-clad stranger, around whom all sense of willpower had evaporated with one come-hither stance. Still, he chose to play along.
His mumbled response didn’t receive a reply. As usual, the help was quickly forgotten in the presence of another client. Mrs. Marino helped the woman upright and he moved away from them, toward the door.
“Oh, Brenda, hey. I didn’t know you were around today,” his temporary paramour exclaimed, a little over-exaggerated. He assumed discretion was the better part of valor and left, slipping through the curtains and into the space between the cabanas.
The bright sunlight accosted Sam as he hit the hot pool deck. The bar area beckoned, offering sanctuary and the opportunity to lie low. In truth, as he nodded at Ryder—the other bartender on duty—Sam decided he really needed a drink.
He poured himself a tall glass of papaya juice, refraining from adding a shot or two of vodka. There had already been enough club rules broken today. No need to give his new boss any more reasons to fire him. He needed this job.
Since losing his last position, money was always on his mind. Being homeless in Southern California wouldn’t be so bad; it didn’t really get cold in this part of the country. Not like back home, where winter was a real season, with snow measured in feet and water turning to ice in more than just drinking glasses. Yet, he didn’t relish living on the beach. A big brand-name gym had opened up down the boardwalk and with more customers flocking to the dollar-a-month membership fee, the independent gym he'd been working at was forced to cut staff. With no seniority, he’d been the first man out.
He’d enjoyed being a gym instructor. The job had given him a sense of worth and losing his means of income had hit him hard. The owners had said they intended to hire him back when business got better. Things hadn’t improved and he’d been forced to search for another way to bring in the dough.
Used to starting anew, he’d found other ways of getting his hands on cash. Discovered how to be resourceful. In the past, he’d learned a hard lesson about relying on the kindness of others—or their notion of obligation—to make ends meet. That “kindness” came with strings attached. Or, in Sam’s case, big heavy ropes, the kind usually attached to anchors. He’d made a choice to be anchor-free.
The stretch between jobs had been longer this time, and with his savings gone, he was living paycheck to paycheck. And since most of his pay went to rent, the money left over didn’t leave a lot for incidentals like food.
Access to free sustenance was a perk of the new job, the all-inclusive nature of the resort extended to the staff as well as the guests. One simply had to go about it the right way. One of those ways was to make friends with the other staff members.
For most of his life, finding friends had never been much of a problem. He wasn’t sure why; it just always happened. Of course, he wasn’t naïve enough to believe his good looks were appreciated by all types of folks. In Sam’s mind, he was more boyish rogue than classic Hollywood stud, yet he was able to use it to his advantage. “Boyish” was approachable. “Boyish” was forgiven for silly blunders—like getting caught making out with the guests.
Sam sipped the cool juice and licked his lips. His mind filtered back to recent events in the cabana. The taste of the woman’s mouth on his, the sensation as he ran his hands over her silky-smooth skin, the way her body fit when crushed against his.
The moment he’d turned and noticed her sitting on the lounger, he’d been struck with a need to be with the bikini-clad woman. It had been like nothing he’d ever experienced before. He’d almost had to stop himself from throwing her over his shoulder and taking her back to his cave to have his way with her. What had she done to him?
He gulped the rest of the chilled contents of the glass, attempting to extinguish the reignited fire. One glass wouldn’t do it. He refilled the cup then downed it as well. Poured a third glass. This woman had stirred up a permanent volcano under his skin.
It wasn’t like him to walk away from his responsibilities for the promise of sex, but one look from her and all reason had flown out the window. He couldn’t quite believe what had happened. If his boss hadn’t interrupted them, sex was where they were headed. He was sure of that.
What got him the most was when she’d smiled at him. A beautiful smile. One capable of stopping an elephant in its tracks. Yet, behind the expression, he’d sensed sadness. No, desolation. His longing intensified, shifting to an immediate need to protect her, to do whatever he could to make her better. Even if it involved nothing more than holding her hand.
This new rush of sensation had thrown him off balance. His feet had betrayed his eagerness, causing him to stumble as he’d crossed the pool deck. How could a stranger have such an effect on him?
By the champagne flutes, Ryder leaned against the bar, arms folded, grinning like the Cheshire Cat. “See you’ve met Ms. Stinson.”
Sam squeezed his glass. Had he witnessed the seduction? Seemed so. “Who is she?”
“The woman I’m going to marry, once she notices me of course.” Ryder, normally a man of many grunts and few words, went Shakespearean on him. “Her name is Ali Stinson, but up until a few months ago, she was Mrs. Jack Blackhorne.”
“Someone walked away from her?” Sam couldn’t understand how she could be divorced.
“Dude, tell me about it.” Ryder’s noggin swung like a bobblehead. “I mean, the guy has enough money, he could bag any woman he wanted. Still, that woman is fine.” He elongated the last word for effect.
Ali came from money. It wasn’t surprising, given the outfit she wore. He wasn’t a connoisseur of woman’s clothing, but one of his first jobs after arriving in LA had been an assistant to a famous fashion designer, sourcing fabric and keeping her fueled with coffee.
The business intrigued him, always on the search for what to do with his new life. He’d paid attention to what people reacted to, where price points broke, and he had learned how to tell quality from flashy trash. Ali oozed quality. Not many people would probably notice the difference, but he’d bet his last dollar she’d scoured the universe to find the red lipstick coating her lips. A perfect match for her bikini. In a past life, he’d talked daily to women like her, and to them, these little things mattered as much as world peace.
“So, this Blackhorne guy is rich?” asked Sam.
“Rich? No. Jack Blackhorne blew past ‘rich’ when he was still in diapers. Boatloads of money. Armadas. The family is in pharmaceuticals. Been making money off other people’s pain for decades.” Ryder lowered his voice. “I overheard Mrs. Marino saying even though Ms. Stinson got everything she asked for in the divorce, including the mansion and a bunch of other big-ticket items, this wasn’t even a drop in the bucket for her ex-husband. Said he wouldn’t even notice the change in his bottom line.”
Sam did his best not to roll his eyes. In this world, there were a few people with far too much money and too many people with far too little.
“Rumor has it,” continued Ryder, “Blackhorne only married her for her family connections. The Stinson family has a lot of blue blood running through it, if you get what I mean.”
Sam tried not to wince. He grasped exactly what Ryder meant.
Why did pedigree hold so much weight in this world? Just because some dead relative decided 250 years ago to be a rebel and board a boat called Mayflower to start a new life in this country, their descendants were afforded some upper-class status. Hell, this country tore down its history daily to build bigger and better buildings. For some reason, membership in the blue-blooded elite club got you through doors no amount of money could.
“The Blackhornes are new rich, and apparently Jack has big plans when it comes to politics,” Ryder confirmed. “Ms. Stinson was supposed to be his ticket. The man throws it all away to screw around with his secretary. Dumb, dude. So dumb.”
Sam agreed. The information regarding Ali’s ex-husband was interesting, but he wanted to understand more about the woman herself. Such as, was she a regular at the club? Before he had to ask, Ryder filled in the gaps.
“So, anyway, she’s, like, single now. And loving the new life, according to Mrs. Marino. From what I see, I’d agree. The woman has an easy time of it. You know she has three of those cabanas permanently rented for her? Likes her space from the ‘regular’ guests. Spends her days strutting around in the sexiest stuff you have ever spotted. She has this one white outfit, man, it would make a blind man salivate.”
The back of Sam’s neck tingled in ire, not appreciating the way Ryder spoke about Ali, as if she was a piece of meat to be ogled. This time, he did steer the conversation in another direction, cutting Ryder short by asking how well Ali was acquainted with the boss.
“Dude, those two are thick as thieves. When Mr. Marino isn’t around, Ms. Stinson spends a lot of time here with the boss’s wife.”
This was music to his ears. At last, Sam discovered the news he wanted. Ali would be coming back to the resort. He would have another opportunity to…well, he wasn’t sure what, but he wanted a chance to try something. It’s not like he could ask her on a date.
He’d just about managed to cool himself down when he spotted a certain red bikini heading straight for him.
Ali was pissed.
Mostly over the news Brenda had dumped on her moments ago. A fraction of her anger had to do with what Brenda had interrupted to deliver said news. She decided to focus on the former.
“What do you mean, I have no credit?” she asked Brenda.
Her best friend regarded her as if she was a child about to throw a temper tantrum. Brenda had almost ten years on Ali and married an older man. Brad, her husband, was exceedingly successful and owned a string of clubs and resorts like the Diamond Club around the world.
The hospitality industry seemed glamorous on the outside. Brenda had explained through first-hand knowledge that the business was grueling. Mix in high-end clientele demanding whatever they wanted simply because they had money, and the situation added up to long days and nights for the resort owners. Brad was always traveling the globe, and he often left her here alone.
With her divorce, Ali found herself in the same lonely boat, and the two had grown closer with the shared experience. Added on top was Brenda’s tendency to be a huge gossip and her love of living vicariously through Ali. She was free to live every scenario Brenda, as a married woman, could only fantasize about.
Ali, for her part, admired Brenda’s love for life, her bull-in-a-china-shop attitude, and her worldly experience. With no siblings, she treated Brenda like the big sister she’d always wanted. A big sister with a big personality.
“Well, with Brad off scouting for the new location for our club in Columbia”—Ali didn’t care what Brenda’s husband was wasting his money on this month—“I was up all night running the monthly accounts, and your payments bounced the last two months.” Brenda placed both hands on Ali’s shoulders. “Honey, I ran your credit card, and it got declined. Three times.” She made a cutting gesture with her fingers.
Ali gasped. “They told you to cut up my credit card?” A chill ran along her spine. This was not happening.
Her stupid money manager handling her settlement from the divorce must have screwed up. The plan was to fire her ex-husband’s patsy and move her money elsewhere. The firm had implied the importance of not making any rash financial decisions without a proper review. A switch of firms meant disrupting automated payments, potential fees, and tax implications. The process sounded complicated. Besides, finding time to search for someone else took…effort. There were always more imperative things to do. Such as, seduce hunky pool boys.
She licked her lips at the memory of those abs.
Focus, Ali, she reprimanded herself. This is serious.
“Look, I’m sure there has been some mistake.” Brenda put her hand on her hip. “Why don’t you call your guy? Make him work for those fees he takes off your account.”
As usual, her friend was right. One angry phone call, and this would be sorted out.
Ali crossed over to the table with her purse and dug around for her phone. Opened her contacts and scrolled for his number. Had she ever even called him?
She’d been to his offices to finalize the divorce. Tall chrome monstrosities located in the heart of LA, dark wood paneling trying to give off the illusion of old-world charm. All the trimmings one would expect from offices managing the money of those making more in interest in a day than regular people’s yearly salaries.
At last, she found the number stored under Bank Robber and jabbed at the screen without any regard for her recent mirror manicure.
“How may I direct your call?” A perky voice struck a nerve.
Ali envisioned Jack’s secretary on the end of the line gripping the phone with brightly painted nails, her California-standard bleached hair falling in waves over sun-kissed shoulders.
“This is Alexandria Stinson-Blackhorne.” Her attitude ramped up a notch. As a rule, she refused to use her full first name; it had never suited her. For years, she’d suspected her parents chose the name for the son they wanted and had modified it for the girl they got instead.
Her married name left an unpleasant taste in her mouth, as if she’d sipped soured milk. She never used it anymore, still, the surname carried weight in a firm where the Blackhorne family paid the salary of most of the employees. Might as well use it to her advantage.
The girl started to say, “Oh, hello, Mrs.—”
Irritation built inside Ali, and she wasn’t interested in anything she had to say. “Put me through to Mr. Garland immediately.”
Ma’am? Ali’s lips crushed together. She was far too young to be called “ma’am.” Her foot tapped against the tile floor as she flashed a grumpy smile at Brenda while on hold.
Moments later, the receptionist came back on the line. “I’m sorry, he isn’t available right now. Can I take a message?”
“Not available?” The pressure in Ali’s chest increased, boiling her blood. “You told him I was calling? Mrs. Blackhorne?” She had to stop herself from spitting.
“Yes, ma’am.” Was this girl using ma’am on purpose to get on her nerves? “He…um…can’t be disturbed.”
“Can’t be disturbed. We’ll see about that.” She hung up and turned to Brenda. “Seems I’m going to have to go down there and remind Mr. Garland who pays his bills.”
“You go, girl.” Her friend loved a catchphrase. Ali winced at the outdated reference.
She dropped her phone into her bag, shoved in her cover-up and snatched up her sunglasses as if they were at fault for her current situation. If Mr. Garland thought he could push Ali Stinson aside for some hot new client, he was sorely mistaken. “Traffic is going to be a bitch this time of day.”
With a wave, she stormed out of the cabana, mentally preparing for a fight.
As she brushed past the bar, Ali was acutely aware of the pool boy studying her every move. “Ma’am” my ass, she seethed, giving said ass a wiggle as she walked by.
~ * ~
Traffic hadn’t been as bad as Ali expected, and she arrived at the offices of Halstead, Henry and Garland without getting her white silk skirt too creased. With purpose, she strode into the lobby, ignored the receptionist, and made her way to what she hoped was Mr. Garland’s office.
These types of places always had plaques on the doors—vanity be thy name. Ali was confident she would find the right office without much effort and headed straight for the ones in the corner. The trip didn’t take long; the rich didn’t sit near the back. Without bothering to knock, she walked right in.
Her opening volley exploded in an empty room. Mr. Garland wasn’t there. Well, this was inconvenient.
His absence wouldn’t stop her. She’d find someone in charge. With this in mind, she turned around and slammed into an expensive gray suit. A tall, elegant man with silver hair, dark brown eyes, and lines of experience etched on his face filled the material.
“Mrs. Blackhorne. Were we expecting you?”
She tensed at the use of her ex-husband’s surname. A vague memory of negotiations in a boardroom floated through her mind. This man had sat beside Jack. So, he was either Halstead or Henry.
Time to take control. “I’m here for Mr. Garland. Urgent business.”
“Ah, I am afraid Mr. Garland is…currently indisposed.”
She sucked in a breath, ready to demand Mr. Garland get un-disposed.
“Please, let’s discuss this in my office.” He motioned toward another door. “I’m sure you will be more comfortable there.”
Ali weighed her options. A confrontation in the open would cause him the most embarrassment, yet her current circumstances might not be this man’s fault. Maybe a little honey would help and encourage a quick resolution. She agreed and followed him to an even bigger office next door.
Floor-to-ceiling windows ran the entire length of the room, offering a view of sand and water in the hazy distance. The space was split into three distinct zones. Two leather couches and two angular steel and leather chairs created a sitting area. A table large enough to seat six and a massive walnut stained desk comprised the other sections. Mr. Halstead—or so she assumed, since this was the name on the office’s door—directed her to the couches.
“Can I offer you a drink?”
With a nod, she accepted, and he plucked two glasses from a bar recessed in the wall. He poured a dark amber liquid into each before offering her one of the glasses and taking the single chair beside her.
“Thank you.” Time to turn on a little charm. “I need this after the day I’ve had. You see, there seems to be a problem with my account.”
“Yes, I’m aware.”
She started her next sentence before the full meaning of his words hit her. “I’m sure—um…excuse me? You’re aware?” She tried to keep the hysteria from her voice.
Mr. Halstead took a sip of his drink. “It recently became apparent that Mr. Garland has been…taking advantage of some of his client’s funds for personal gain.”
She blinked. And blinked again. Taking advantage? This wasn’t going how she’d expected. The plan was come in, throw a little tantrum to get things sorted, and let the high of pushing around rich men in suits fuel a shopping trip while downtown. On the drive, she’d already decided to treat herself to dinner at a favorite restaurant in the area.
Not willing to give anything away, she sat straight and pulled together her best brave face, the one she’d used to get through her divorce. No one got the satisfaction of seeing her troubled, least of all associates of her ex-husband. “What does ‘taking advantage’ mean…exactly?”
“Well, not to be crude, but your account has been drained.”
“Yes. You have no money.”
The glass in her hand began to shake. No money. This couldn’t be the case. She had to have money. There must be some mistake. Her funds couldn’t simply disappear overnight.
Well, it may not have been overnight. Truth be told, she didn’t even really have any idea of how much money she was supposed to have. There’d been plenty of expensive items she’d got in the divorce—the house, the jet, the car—and they took money for upkeep. Add on her lifestyle. It’s not like she shopped on sale. If she wanted something, she never questioned the purchase. Never mind the things she didn’t care about, but if someone else had, she got. One had to keep up with the Joneses at least, if not lead the way.
All these expenses added up, and she hadn’t taken the consequences into consideration. She’d never had to. This was Jack’s area—the business end of their lives. He had to be in control. Of everything. A shadow crept across the room like a ghost as the sun went behind a cloud. Ali clamped both hands around the tumbler of scotch and tried to swallow. Logically she knew Jack wasn’t there, but her pounding heart hadn’t caught up.
There was an urge to refute Mr. Halstead’s claim but there’d be no point. She didn’t have the password to her bank account, never mind an idea of what a financial statement looked like. Her money manager could have been emptying her accounts for months and she wouldn’t have had a clue.
Panic caused her skin to crawl. Ali opened her mouth to protest but came up empty.
“Ah, these things are unfortunate.” The old man waved his hand as if he was swatting away a fly. “I can assure you, we’re investigating fully. Mr. Garland will be found, and your money should be returned to you. Or if it’s gone, well, that’s what insurance is for.”
Did she have insurance against her money disappearing? Ali had no clue.
“Either way, the matter should only take a few months to clear up.”
A few months. The pounding in her ears spread to her temples. Was this man insane? What was she supposed to do without money for months? There was her trip to the Amalfi Coast coming up. A housekeeper to pay. A charity ball at the end of the month she needed a new gown for. Oh, and she had to eat. How would she pay for…anything?
If Jack were here, he’d be doing cartwheels at her distress. More proof she couldn’t survive without him around.
The reflection forced her to calm her erratic heartbeat. There was no way she would let her ex-husband get a hint she was in trouble. Her parents weren’t an option either; they’d only emphasize how rash she’d been in divorcing the perfect match they’d been delighted with. Who else was there left to help? No one.
“Of course.” She matched Mr. Halstead’s nonchalant demeanour and tried a different tactic. “In the meantime, how much do I have to accommodate me? Is there a monthly allowance or…?” She had no idea how to finish the sentence.
The old man regarded her with a blank stare. “I’m not familiar with your particular situation. Still, I suggest you access your other fund sources for the duration. I assure you we will resolve this as quickly as possible. We do value your business here at Halstead, Henry and…well…” A sad smile graced his mouth. “In the meantime, if you need anything, we’re here to help. Someone can assist with transferring cash into new accounts for you here. I will personally look after the details. Just give my name to your other bank.”
Other bank? She wanted to punch this man. There was no other bank. Everything she had was here.
“I don’t think so,” she blurted.
“I mean, this is unacceptable. Do you treat all your clients this way? What would my…Jack have to say concerning this?” It almost killed her to bring up her ex-husband, but one must play with the cards dealt. She may be in the dark on some matters, but Ali had witnessed this place bend over backward to accommodate the Blackhorne Trust. He was a big fish, and she needed to swim in his wake one more time.
The older gentleman took a languid sip of his drink and uncrossed his legs with slow intent. “We can call him if you like. Mr. Blackhorne could help explain.”
She set her jaw. Well played, Mr. Halstead.
Faking a lightness she didn’t feel, Ali plastered on her best negotiation face. “Won’t be necessary.”
Mr. Halstead glanced at his oversized, platinum and gold wristwatch and rose from his chair. “I am afraid I do have another client coming in. Wouldn’t want to keep them waiting. You understand.”
Oh, she understood all right. She’d beheld the move a million times before. Her ex-husband practically owned a copyright on the maneuver. She was being dismissed. There were important people to attend to, people with more money than her.
Mr. Halstead led her back to the reception area, stopping to ask the girl at the desk to confirm that Ali’s contact information was up to date. He shook her hand and promised to keep her in the loop. She turned to say something, but he’d disappeared back into the plush, carpeted halls of the office, leaving her with the perky receptionist.
Blondie bounced when she recited Ali’s number and told her to have a “terrific” day. As Ali stepped into the elevator, she hoped the girl’s sparkly pen exploded and left her cleaning up glitter for days.
Back in her car, she rummaged through her purse. Ali hoped she could find enough money to pay the parking attendant—but there was nothing in the overpriced accessory to fix this situation. Just gum, a few loose condom packets, a tube of her favorite lipstick, and a wallet containing one ten-dollar bill alongside a collection of now useless credit cards.
She tossed her bag aside, tilted her head against the headrest, and closed her eyes. How had this happened? Her stomach rolled as the reality of her finances settled in. She needed to figure out what to do next. Her world was crumbling around her. Again. The situation was too much, and hot tears pricked at her eyes. After pinching her ear, she shook her head, not willing to break down in public. She had to get home.
Determination set in as she removed her suit jacket and undid another button on her blouse, exposing her natural assets. She’d require a different kind of currency to get out of this parking lot.
Thank you for spending an afternoon in Ali and Sam’s world.
To find out how Ali survives without her money (and how Sam helps),
buy the book here
Warning: Expect drama, emotions and romance.