Last week we announced that E. B. Walters’ Dangerous Love (Contemporary, Romantic Suspense, Sexy) (The Fitzgerald Family) is our Romance of the Week and the sponsor of thousands of great bargains in the Romance category: over 200 free titles, over 600 quality 99-centers, and thousands more that you can read for free through the Kindle Lending Library if you have Amazon Prime!
Now we’re back to offer our weekly free Romance excerpt, and if you aren’t among those who have downloaded Dangerous Love, you’re in for a real treat:
in its Audible Audio Edition, Unabridged!
She has her emotions on a tight leash…Born to a Las Vegas showgirl, fashion designer Faith Fitzgerald’s childhood was not easy, until her father found her and whisked her off to L.A. to join his wealthy family.
The rejection by some of her family members hurt, but Faith has moved on. Or so she thinks. She works hard and never lets her guard down, until the day she discovers that someone stole and sold her designs to her competitor and former mentor. To catch the thief and salvage her collection for Fall Fashion Week, Faith turns to her ex-lover, a man who works under the radar and gets results fast. The problem is she has not seen him since she dumped him so unceremoniously.
He’s laid-back and spontaneous…
When former-FBI-agent-turned-security-consultant Kenneth ‘Ken’ Lambert receives a call from Faith asking for his services, he sees a chance to payback the gorgeous designer for the way she used him then walked out on him. But then he learns that she is being victimized by a man whose idea of love is both dangerous and toxic, Ken pushes aside his personal agenda and agrees to help her.
As their investigation progresses, Ken discovers that Faith’s calm exterior hides a woman of character and strength, a woman on the verge of falling apart. Can he help her find the answers she seeks or will she accept his offer instead—acceptance, unconditional love and support?
And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free excerpt:
“Mrs. Riggins wants to see you.”
Faith Fitzgerald looked up and frowned. She hadn’t heard the salesgirl knock or open her office door. But then again, when she had her nose in fashion sketches or fabric colors, nothing penetrated her artistic fog.
“Thanks, Molly.” Faith glanced at her watch and sighed. Eleven o’clock. There was no way she could drive to Barbara Riggins’ home and make it back for her next appointment. Regardless of the fact that she’d been at Barbara’s place two days ago to make the necessary adjustments on her gown, Faith had to go. Barbara was the wife of a renowned producer and a patron of Falasha—Faith’s clothing line. Without Barbara, Faith would not have landed the contracts to design costumes for two major film productions in the past three years, or become the designer for a bevy of women whose creative writing produced hit movies and television sitcoms.
Molly still hovered near the door, Faith noted.
“Call Mrs. Ferreira and cancel her fitting,” Faith said. “I had her down for the noon slot. Tell her I have a family emergency.” Mira Ferreira would have a fit if she knew Faith switched her fitting because of another customer. “Change it to four, or if she prefers later, I’ll be available in the evening.” Which would mean another long drive to Malibu.
She grabbed her car keys from the drawer. “The drive to and from Barbara’s place, not to mention the consult time, is going to screw up my schedule big time.”
“Shhh, not so loud,” Molly whispered, pressing a finger to her lips. “I meant to say Barbara’s in the next room. I left her pacing the floor, ready to commit mayhem. She even refused refreshments. She demands to see you.”
That didn’t sound good. Barbara hadn’t visited the Falasha Showroom since the first time Faith’s Auntie Estelle introduced them four years ago.
Faith hurried around her desk to a side door and pushed it open. The private room she entered had an ambience guaranteed to make any customer feel appreciated—white carpeting and matching plush chairs, antique tables with assortment of drinks, and soft, soothing music in the background. From Barbara’s flashing hazel eyes, the effect wasn’t working.
Barbara sat on the edge of the chair with her arms crossed and lush lips scrunched up in a pout made famous during her years as a talk-show host. Her tennis outfit rode high to reveal toned legs and cellulite-free tanned thighs. Despite the attire, her make-up was impeccable and her professionally styled black stresses tumbled down her shoulders.
“Barbara, what a wonderful to surprise. What can I do for you?”
The diva got to her feet, her hazel eyes flashing, though not a single crease marred the Botox-smooth perfection of her face.
“I’d like to take another look at my gown,” she said in a frosty tone.
“It’s not yet ready, but I’ve sent the spec sheet with the adjustments to my patternmaker. As soon as I get the pattern back, I’ll start the—”
“Show me the one I tried on a few days ago.”
“Of course.” Faith disappeared inside the sewing room, where three seamstresses looked at her with questioning eyes. She shook her head, grabbed the mannequin with the prototype of the gown, and left the room.
“What’s this about?” she asked Barbara when she rejoined her.
“The design,” Barbara answered, walking around the mock-up muslin gown draped on a mannequin. “It’s exactly the same.”
Faith shook her head, not understanding. “Of course it’s the same one. But this is just the toile. I’ll use the real fabric once I get the pattern back.”
“No, no, no. I mean, Mimi has the exact same dress.” She slanted Faith a hard look. “I was at her house this morning for a game of tennis, and she invited me to see the dress she plans to wear to the Directors Guild Awards.” Barbara tugged at the toile, almost tipping over the mannequin. “Her husband was also nominated, just like my Sammy. She showed me this exact dress. The dress you designed for me.” She turned and glared at Faith. “Are you selling your designs? Recycling old ones?”
Faith’s stomach had dipped when Barbara said ‘exact same design’—now it churned. “I would never ever use an old design to create a gown for any of my customers, Barbara. I study fashion trends and seasonal colors, and come up with fresh ideas every time you ask me to make something for you. I do not sell my creations either. Do you know who made her outfit?”
Barbara’s eyes narrowed. “Why?”
“It might explain what happened. Please, who designed it?”
The floor tilted under Faith. Dublin House of Styles. That bastard. That no-good, thieving son of a bitch. She didn’t know how he did it, but once again, Sean O’Neal had stolen what belonged to her and passed it off as his.
“Are you okay, Faith? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” She gripped Faith’s arm and led her to a chair. “What’s going on? How can you have the same design as DHS?”
Faith shook her head. How could she explain about her past relationship with that visionless, back-stabbing bastard? She looked up at Barbara’s perfectly made-up face. Would she understand about broken promises and shattered dreams, humiliation and the vow to prove wrong those who hadn’t believed her?
“I did not steal his designs.”
“I never said you did. However, we have a problem.” She took the chair across from Faith’s, concern in her eyes. “The award ceremony is a month away and I need a dress. I can’t wear what I wore to the Golden Globes or other awards. I’ve paid my dues in this business and I absolutely refuse to squeeze this,” she waved a hand to indicate her curvaceous body, “fabulousness into a size zero couture made for matchstick bodies. I need one of your creations.” She reached forward and gripped Faith’s hands. “Only you know how to flatter my body, dear. Only you understand that a woman can have curves and still wear couture. Can you do this?”
Faith struggled to separate what she just learned from what Barbara was demanding of her. Did she have the time to finish the dress on such short notice? Two more of her clients, all Barbara’s friends, were going to the same award show and expected their unique gowns completed. But what if Sean had gotten hold of their designs too?
Another idea occurred to her, snatching her breath like sucker punch. What if he had seen her fall collection for Fashion Week? Her show would be a disaster. No one would believe the designs were hers, just like no one did five years ago. Only this time it would not be limited to DHS. Panic torpedoed through her. What was she going to do?
“Faith!” Barbara called out in a sharp tone.
Faith blinked, reigned in the panic, and forced herself to focus on her client, her very important and influential client. If she had to sew every day and night, pay her seamstresses fat bonuses to finish new gowns, she’d make this happen. “I’ll stop by your place tomorrow night with new designs and fabric selections.”
Barbara beamed. “That’s what I wanted to hear. Now, about this DHS mess—”
“I’ll get to the bottom of it.” She refused to let that bastard screw her over again.
“Good.” Barbara stood, clasped her purse under her arm and started for the door. Before she opened it, she pivoted, and asked, “Aren’t you making gowns for all the girls?”
Faith nodded. ‘All the girls’ were Barbara’s three friends. She’d completed and delivered one already. “I’ll call them and explain.”
A faraway look entered Barbara’s eyes. “No, don’t. Leave the girls to me. ”
“Please, don’t mention DHS.”
“Of course not, dear. I’ll come up with something. Meanwhile get busy. Bring enough designs for all of us to choose from.”
“I will. Thanks, Barbs,” Faith said, reverting to the woman’s nickname.
“It’s the least I can do. What about Estelle? Do you want me to talk to her about this? She and I plan on doing lunch later this week.”
Faith jumped up and walked to where Barbara stood. Once Aunt Estelle learned of this, there’d be no stopping her from going after Sean. “Do you mind keeping this between us for now, at least until I figure out what’s going on?”
Barbara nodded. “I hate to keep things from my sorority sister, so get to the bottom of this fast. If there’s anything I can do to help, let me know.”
“Thanks.” She escorted Barbara past glass display cases with colorful jewelry and the mannequins and racks showcasing ready-to-wear Falasha designs. At the entrance, she waved as Barbara entered her ride. Faith stared after the limo, then shifted her attention to the shoppers scurrying along 3rd Street.
She had worked so hard to make her store stand out among boutiques and showrooms at this end of West Hollywood. Located a block from Beverly Hill Center, Falasha had its regular customers who didn’t mind high-end clothes by an upcoming designer. That she also carried jewelry complementing her clothes was an added bonus.
Faith smiled at a bunch of valley girls and stepped aside to allow them entrance into the store. She turned and hurried to the back, where her office was located. Molly made eye contact, indicating she had questions. Faith stared pointedly at the customers and disappeared inside her office.
She sat behind her desk and drummed her fingers on the cherry wood top. How was she going to deal with Sean O’Neal? Going to his showroom would be foolish. He probably expected her to do exactly that. His people had treated her like a traitor before she left five years ago. There was no way they’d let her enter their showroom. Besides, one needed an invite or an appointment to enter the offices at the New Mart building.
Her cousins in law enforcement would step up if she asked them to deal with Sean, but she didn’t want to involve them. Not after one of them nearly lost his job for helping her cousin and her fiancé stop an international antique thief. So who to call? Who could she trust with her worst nightmare, her innermost secret?
The person must be someone outside their family. Aunt Estelle was the only one who knew the real reason Faith broke off her engagement to Sean five years ago. Estelle Fitzgerald rarely let people mess with her family. Five years ago, Faith had pleaded and sobbed buckets to convince Estelle to ignore what Sean did. This time, it would take an army to stop her aunt from marching to the designer’s showroom at the Intersection and exposing him. The ripple through the fashion world would be swift. Sean was unique among Irish haute couturier, the first to blend hip-hop and high fashion, a man most aspiring couturiers revered. Worse than that, the rift could hit closer to home. Sean was related to the second husband of the matriarch of the Fitzgerald family, Faith’s indomitable Aunt Viv. Aunt Viv had never approved of anything Faith did, including ditching Sean.
One thing was for sure, she didn’t want Sean to see her coming. She’d managed to avoid him these past years, ignoring him at family gatherings. She’d play offense, and she knew just the man to do it. Kenneth ‘Ken’ Lambert, ex-FBI-agent-turned-private-investigator.
Something shifted in her belly, the thought of Ken prickling her skin. Faith closed her eyes and leaned back against the seat, the image of him vivid in her head yet she hadn’t seen him in one year and five days, give or take seven hours, but who was counting.
Tall and masculine, with slanted green eyes and chiseled cheekbones, he had the most skillful hands and killer mouth, wicked tongue, and an arsenal of sexual tricks. Their night of pure bliss had awakened in her the kind of passion that could easily have become addictive. So she’d panicked and sneaked out like a coward, vowing never to see him again. The fury in his eyes when he came to her store…
No, there was no point in dredging up ancient history. Except for the sneaky memories blindsiding her now and then, she’d moved on. She even had a couple of flings with men who were great in bed but not mentally challenging. Other than being the best lover she ever had, Ken Lambert was one hell of an investigator. Single-minded, ruthless, and relentless, he was the kind of man you’d want by your side at a time like this.
Faith fought against a wave of nervousness, punched in numbers, and brought the phone to her ear. Before Ken could pick up at the other end, she hung up. He might blow her off over the phone. She had to see him in person. LASEC, short for Lambert Security Consultants, was on Wilshire, a few blocks from her showroom. Faith reached for her car keys for the second time that morning and left her office.
“Do you still want me to cancel Mrs. Ferreira’s appointment?” Molly asked as Faith walked past her.
“Yes, please. I’m going to Textile District for some fabric. I should be back around one.” Once again, she ignored the questions brimming in Molly’s eyes. She blew out a breath and mentally prepared herself for Ken.
When was Sly coming back? Ken reached inside the pizza box, pulled out a cold slice, and bit into it. If he had a choice, he’d carry his latest protégé up the twenty flights of stairs, leg brace and all, just so he could get the hell out of here. Filtering audio and video feeds off surveillance cameras and being cooped up in a puny cubicle while eating day-old pizza wasn’t his idea of fun. He should be back in his office, outsmarting bad guys from the comfort of his chair. He’d earned it. Freedom to be his own boss and to do as he pleased was the reason he left the Bureau.
Stop lying to yourself, nimrod.
A jarring explosion resounded in his inner ears and images flashed in his head—lifeless bodies in the playground and hallways, the pitiful wails of the injured, and the damning accusation in parents’ eyes. Pain blindsided him, and Ken dropped the half-eaten pizza on top of the box, his hand fisting. Three years after the bomb and he still couldn’t erase the images, or the guilt.
Ken realized he was rubbing his stomach, his finger tracing the memento from that terrible day three years ago. He smothered a curse, focused on his present surroundings and grimaced. His freedom did have some downsides, like the occasional dingy room and day-old pizza. Empty Starbucks coffee mugs overflowed from the garbage can at a corner. The only light in the room came from the neon blue monitors. If it weren’t for the air conditioner, no one would believe he was on a floor above the offices of a lucrative brokerage firm in the business district of Los Angeles.
His gaze swept the monitors and the montage of smaller windows showing the insides of Braun Brokerage Firm. Which one of the sharks milling around, smooth-talking clients, or hugging their monitors was guilty of insider trading? A hungry newbie? A seasoned broker losing his edge? Or an old geezer with too many ex-wives and alimony issues? He had an idea, but needed proof.
One of the windows on the screen showed an assistant leave her office, a cute blonde with long legs and a sexy walk. She stopped by her boss’s office. Ken listened to their brief conversation—she was off to lunch and wanted to know what to get him. Nothing unusual there. They went through the same ritual every day. After the blonde left and entered the elevator, her bespectacled boss pulled a pair of binoculars from a drawer, walked to the window and trained them on something outside the building.
Ken frowned. That was a first. What the hell was the man looking at? Ken scooted closer to the bank of computers and monitors. Too bad he hadn’t tapped into the video surveillance system outside the building too.
His cell phone started to vibrate. He knocked the pizza box off the desk as he fished under it for the phone. His gaze still on the monitor, he flipped the phone open and slapped it on his ear. “What?”
“It’s me, boss,” a high-pitched voice said.
“How’s the leg, Sly?” Ken’s quarry moved from the window just as the motion-activated cameras in the assistant’s office automatically turned themselves off.
“Okay…great,” Sly mumbled. “No, not great. I need to come in.”
“There’s no hurry. Give your leg time to heal. Did you notice anything peculiar about Room-six?” When they’d bugged the brokerage firm, they’d assigned the occupant of each office, cubicle, and desk a number, which was easier to remember than names. Room-six had been nothing but a model employee until now. Ken leaned forward, his eyes narrowing as he followed the man’s movements to the door connecting his office to his assistant’s. Automatically, the cameras in her office snapped back on when he entered.
“Isn’t that the old guy with glasses? I thought there was something fishy about him. He doesn’t spend much time on the phone like the others. Why don’t I come in so we compare notes?”
Sly sounded frustrated, which was nothing new. He was fresh from college with a degree in computers and eager to please. He was also the sixth employee to join LASEC team. Ever since Ken expanded his investigative services to include corporate litigation and acquisition, worker’s compensation claims, and fraud, he’d become too busy to break in new rookies, except in Sly’s case. The kid reminded him too much of himself at that age, unsure of what he wanted to do with his future, angry with his parents for trying to plan his life.
“If you must leave the house for a few hours, go to the office.” Ken’s attention shifted to the monitors. Room-six sat behind his assistant’s desk and reached for the power button on the desk top computer. “Son of a….”
“What’s going on?” Sly cursed softly but loud enough for Ken to hear. “My mother’s driving me nuts. Tell her you need me there or, uh, broke something and need it fixed,” he whispered. “Ma, put the phone down. I’m talking to my boss.”
Ken grinned, not because Mrs. Cooper was driving her son crazy. She reminded Ken of his mother, overprotective and well-meaning but nevertheless smothering. The woman came into town two weeks ago to take care of Sly after he broke his leg hiking. Maybe he should let the kid join him so he didn’t have to pull double duty. It wasn’t like this gig involved legwork. All he had to do was nab the culprit, drop off the memory chip with the incriminating evidence at the Securities and Exchange Commission, and head on home to San Diego. His parents’ anniversary was coming up and his sister would have his hide if he didn’t help with the surprise she was planning.
“I’ll ask your mother to drive you to the office,” he told Sly. “Lucy has another job lined up, something you could do in your sleep.”
“Great! Thanks, boss.”
Ken slid his chair over to the second cache of computers to activate the spy program. He opened the log file storing all computer activity information and within seconds had the e-mail Room-six just sent displayed on his screen. Busted. The old geezer was toast.
Smiling, he finished with Mrs. Cooper, then got up to stretch. They had all the proof they needed to lock up the insider trader for a very long time.
His cell phone vibrated, again. He sat back in the chair he’d vacated and leaned back before bringing it to his ear. “Yes?”
Pure heat shot through him and he barely stopped the chair from tipping backwards. That sexy husky voice was unmistakable. Unforgettable. Exquisite face framed with luxurious auburn hair, brilliant blue eyes, and lush lips flashed in his head. His empty hand fisted, but that didn’t stop the haunting images of her from mocking him.
Faith astride his body, flickering candlelight reflected on her glistening skin, perfect tits that fit his hands, eyes half-closed in ecstasy as she rode him hard. Under him, whispering erotic words in his ear, driving him insane.
Christ, how could the snapshots of her still be in his head? A night of wild, mind-blowing sex and he’d been completely whipped. Ken swiped a hand over his face and tried to think of something else, anything to cool his heated blood before he could speak.
She’d walked out on him, damn it. Refused to return his phone calls and reduced what they had to a fling when he stopped by her store. But he’d bounced back, hadn’t he?
“Yeah, who’s this?” He knew it was immature to pretend he couldn’t recognize her voice, but over twelve months of reliving that one night and comparing her to every woman he slept with was a real libido killer.
“It’s Faith. I’m sorry if I caught you at a bad time. I can call later.”
“Hang on a second,” he interrupted, panic spiraling through him at the thought of her hanging up. He rested the hand holding the cell phone on the desk and smothered a curse under his breath. Where the hell was his control? She was no longer important. Remember your motto. No emotional entanglement with women, especially this one.
Ken brought the phone back to his ear. “Faith…Fitzgerald, right?” He strived to keep his voice neutral.
“Yes. I’m at your agency and no one will tell me where you are.”
“I’m at a job.”
There was brief silence. “I need to talk to you, Ken.”
“Why?” That didn’t come out right. “About what?”
This time the silence lasted longer. “I need your help with something but I’d rather explain the details in person.”
His help? After she screwed with his head. She must take him for a patsy. He punched a button on the keyboard to save the incriminating footage and e-mail on a memory stick. “Sorry, can’t help you. I’m swamped.”
“Please, Ken. I wouldn’t come to you if it weren’t important.”
He checked at his watch and sighed. It was half past eleven. He was tired from staring at the screen for hours on end and needed to eat something other than cold pizza. “Fine.”
Oh, sweetheart, you don’t want to thank me yet. “Have you had lunch?”
“No, but I’ve a rather busy schedule this afternoon.”
“I’m sure you can make time to eat. Wait for me outside my office. I should be there in fifteen minutes. Twenty tops.” He hung up before she could protest again.
He ground his teeth, hating himself for giving in to the plea in her voice. His day had just gotten worse, or better, if he played this right. The woman who’d haunted his dreams was in desperate need of his help. Whatever she wanted from him, she wasn’t getting it unless she played according to his rules.
Faith watched Ken’s SUV roll toward her. She held her breath as he pulled up at the curb, got out, and rounded the hood. Dressed in black jeans, a matching tee, and boots, he looked like a panther strolling through the jungle, stalking his prey, green eyes alert. Faith shivered. Wrong metaphor.
She frowned. He looked harder than she remembered. The stubble on his chin enhanced his tanned skin. His high cheekbones were more chiseled, and the slanted eyes he’d inherited from his Japanese mother narrowed. Had he grown leaner too?
She smiled. “Hi, Ken.”
“Faith.” He closed the gap between them and enveloped her in a hug. “It’s nice to see you again.”
His whispered breath brushed her sensitive ear. What was he doing? He was supposed to be impersonal and business-like. Not wrap her in his masculine scent and warmth, and screw with her thought process. It took all her self-control not to melt in his embrace. She’d forgotten how wonderful it was to be held by him, how fragile she felt. She didn’t return the embrace, her body stiffer than a plywood plank.
If Ken noticed her lack of response, it didn’t seem to bother him. He stepped back and flashed his signature half-smile that caused a lone dimple to flash. “How long has it been?”
“One year and, uh,” Faith caught herself before saying “five days” and covered the gaffe with a laugh. “Counting. You’re looking well.”
“Life’s been good.” He leaned forward to open the passenger door, drawing her attention to the muscles shifting under his T-shirt. Biceps tensed then relaxed as he grasped the handle and released. He glanced at her, a sardonic smile on his lips as though he knew she’d been ogling him. “Shall we?”
Faith didn’t move. “Where are we going?”
“To lunch. Don’t worry. You’ll like the food.”
Funny she’d forgotten this annoying side of his character, the side that got a kick out of keeping her off balance. First the invitation to lunch despite her objection, and now he was refusing to tell her where they were going. “How do you know I’ll like it?”
“Trust me. Shall we?” He indicated the inside of the SUV again, a gleam in his eyes.
She trusted him enough. The problem was she didn’t trust herself. Her emotions got the better of her whenever he was around. But fighting him on where they were going to eat when lunch was the last thing on her mind was pointless. She needed his help and must play nice.
Faith nodded, walked passed him and slid onto the passenger seat. The scent of leather mixed with his familiar musky aftershave enveloped her. She closed her eyes and sighed, soaking it in. She’d been fooling herself about the effect this man had on her. The attraction was still there, stronger. Though she prided herself on being intuitive, she couldn’t read him yet.
“How have you been?” he asked when he joined her and started the engine.
Faith opened her eyes and glanced at him. “Good, just keeping busy.”
“I heard you’ll be heading to New York City in a few months.”
“Where did you hear that?”
“Here and there.”
In other words, Ashley and Ron had discussed her upcoming Fashion Week show in his presence. What else had they divulged? Ken and Ron were tight.
“Yes. I plan to have a show during Market Week, but it overlaps with Fashion Week here in L.A., so I’m heading to New York.”
He eased into traffic. “Still planning on conquering the fashion world?”
The slight mockery in his tone didn’t escape her. Her commitment to her career was the excuse she’d used to refuse a relationship with him.
“Something like that,” she answered without rancor or apology. “Are you still enjoying the freedom to do as you please?”
“I try.” He chuckled.
They headed east then took a left at South Robertson Boulevard as though going toward her place, and kept up the back and forth banter until Faith relaxed. That changed when he pulled into the parking lot of The Haven, a trendy restaurant on Melrose Strip frequented by the young professionals and Hollywood celebrities.
“Is this where we’re having lunch?” She eyed the sprawling two-story building and the flow of people going in and coming out.
“I hope it’s not a problem.” Ken jumped down, handed the valet his key, then came around to her side and opened the SUV door.
“You know that this is my cousin’s place.”
What was Ken up to? Making her pay for what happened months ago? The Haven was the one place where being seen with him would spread like a wildfire.
“If you have a problem with it, we can eat elsewhere. I thought you wanted to talk, and no place offers privacy like the Haven.”
She hadn’t thought of it that way. No one needed to know why they were together. If it became an issue, she could always fib that she’d run into him and they decided to have lunch together.
“It’s not a problem. I was surprised, that’s all.” Faith stepped down and allowed him to steer her toward the entrance.
Her cousin, Chase, had done an amazing job with the building. Before he took it over, it was a Chinese restaurant. He not only changed the name, he had remodeled and redecorated. Good advertisement drew customers, but the exceptional services and wonderful food, private dining rooms for parties, VIP lounges, and cabanas for romantic dinners made them come back again and again. The multiple entrances and exits for celebrities and dignitaries to slip in and out unnoticed didn’t hurt either. The Haven was one of the hottest spots in L.A.
Faith smothered a groan when she saw her cousin, Liz, at the entrance, ushering guests inside. The Haven was like the Fitzgerald’s work farm. Most young relatives in college worked there part-time and gossiped about the stars they saw. Liz was at the top of the gossip-chain, which meant that the Fitzgerald clan would know she was out with Ken in a matter of days.
“Hey, Faith,” Liz said. Then her eyes popped and she squealed, “Ken! What a surprise to see you.” She hugged him, holding him a little longer and tighter than necessary, Faith noted. Ken shot her a bewildered look, indicating he didn’t recognize Liz but Faith just shrugged. Liz let him go long enough to add, “We haven’t seen you since Ashley’s wedding.”
Realization dawned on Ken’s face. “I’ve been keeping busy.”
“Obviously not too busy for Faith,” Liz teased, pouting.
“We bumped into each other and decided to have lunch, Liz,” Faith lied in a tone that didn’t invite more questions. Ken shot her a mocking glance, which she ignored. “Could you lead us to a table?”
“One of the cabanas,” Ken corrected, moved closer to Faith, and resting his hand on her waist.
Liz’s eyes rounded, obviously misunderstanding his gesture. “I’ll see what I can do.”
She raised her hand to her ear and spoke softly on the microphone hidden on her wrist, but her eyes stayed on them.
“We’ll need a few minutes,” Liz told them. “Why don’t you wait in the lounge? I’ll come and get you as soon as a cabana becomes available”
Faith allowed Ken to lead her to the lounge’s burgundy leather couches and chairs. The bar next to it was closed until four o’clock, but a waiter brought them water, which Faith sipped while she stewed. Ken was being impossible. It was one thing to bring her here, but quite another to act like there was more going on between them. She didn’t know how long she could take it before she snapped. Ken seemed content studying her as if she was a puzzle he planned to solve. Faith fidgeted, wishing he could say something to break the tension.
It seemed like forever before Liz approached them clutching two menus. “A cabana just became available.”
They followed her past the crowded main floor to the patio and the open-air eating areas with umbrellas and cabanas.
“Do you want me to tell Chase you’re here?” Liz asked as soon as they sat.
Faith shook her head. “No, that won’t be necessary.”
Liz winked. “Okay. Enjoy your lunch.”
A waiter appeared to take their orders. Faith decided on salmon salad and caramel iced coffee. She didn’t think she could eat much in her present nervous state. Ken went for sirloin steak frites, potato wedges, and a side order of crab cakes. He added a large cola. Within seconds, their drinks were placed in front of them.
“So what can I do for you, Faith?” Ken asked, taking a long sip of his pop.
Faith removed her sunglasses, folded them, and slipped them inside her bag, her movements slow and deliberate. Liz had given them the corner cabana with a brick wall behind Faith and another beside them, but the entrance flaps were tied back, giving them a view of the outside eating area. She glanced at the other customers to make sure they were concentrating on their own food and conversation.
“I want to hire you to steal some designs from my competitor’s offices,” she said.
Ken choked on his drink and started to cough. “What?”
“I want to hire you—”
“Jeez, don’t repeat it. I got it the first time.” He looked toward the nearest tables to make sure his voice hadn’t drawn attention. A few people were looking their way. He got up, undid the knot holding the flaps of the cabana entrance, so the white material fell into place, giving them total privacy. He pinned Faith with a hard gaze as he sat.
“Why would you want me to do something like that?” he asked, not masking his shock.
“Because he stole my designs, and I want proof so I can plan my next move.”
The relief that raced through Ken left him light-headed. He gulped his drink, wishing it was something stronger. He glowered at the maddening woman in front of him. Why did she always throw him a curve ball when he least expected it?
“Why didn’t you just say so in the first place?”
She shrugged. “I needed to get your attention. This is not a joke or a game for me. I need your help.”
Blunt as always. He’d been basking in the knowledge that she needed him for something, that he had her exactly where he wanted her. He just hadn’t expected this. Breaking and entering to getting back stolen properties was one of the services his staff offered to clients, but so did their competitors along the West Coast.
“You’re good at what you do and I want the best.”
Silence followed. Then she leaned toward him again, the movement distracting him because it drew his attention to her cleavage. “Ken, when I decided I didn’t want a relationship—”
“With me,” he supplied, recalling her exact words. His gaze reluctantly returned to her exquisite face framed by rich auburn hair.
“With anyone,” she corrected, speaking through her teeth. “My decision had nothing to do with you personally. I was at a stage in my career where I didn’t need the distraction. I still don’t.”
Now he was reduced to a distraction. When it came to their relationship, or lack thereof, everything she said pissed him off. “That makes two of us.”
“Then it’s a good thing we got that out of the way.”
“Good. About your request, you do know breaking and entering alone is a felony?” he asked, raising a questioning brow.
“Yet you do it all the time for clients looking for solutions without caring how you achieve them.”
Funny how selective her memory was. She remembered what he’d said about his company, but not what she’d told him about their relationship. “Sure, when I agree to take a case. I haven’t agreed to take yours.”
He stopped talking when the waiter brought their food. He knew he was being a hard ass, but she shouldn’t assume he’d jump through hoops to accommodate her just because she implored him with those mysterious blue eyes and flashed a sexy smile. Ken sliced his steak and placed a piece in his mouth. He needed to be at his best when dealing with this woman, and he always focused better on a full stomach.
After several bites, he noticed she was playing with her salad instead of eating. The confidence she wore like one of her designer outfits was missing. When she lifted her drink to her lips, her hand shook slightly. She wasn’t as calm as she projected, and he was a world class jackass for punishing her now.
“Okay. Tell me what’s going on.”
She put her drink down. “Five years ago, after I finished studying at Parson School of Design, Sean O’Neal hired me as an intern. After a year, he made me one of his assistant designers. I thought I’d get a chance to show my talent, use my own designs, but you either did things his way or you were out. He was the master, and we, his pupils. I was stifled. I started sketching on the side. I had no idea he knew what I was doing until I discovered he’d used my designs to procure a loan to expand his clothing line. I confronted him and things turned ugly between us.”
His appetite disappeared. He hated people in power, who abused their position and stepped on the underdogs. Or those who covered their incompetence by shifting blame when things went wrong. People like that was the very reason he quit the Bureau.
Faith’s voice rose and fell, at times shaking with anger, but her gaze didn’t waver from his. She finished with, “After Mrs. Riggins left, I realized he might have my entire fall collection, which means I won’t be able to have a show this spring. Or if I went ahead, everyone will assume I copied his designs.”
Ken wanted to nail the bastard to the wall. As soon as the thought crossed his mind, he backpedalled, remembering who he was dealing with and how easily she could screw with his head. He couldn’t afford to get worked up on her behalf.
“Why didn’t you expose him when he stole from you before?”
“It would have been his word against mine. I was a nobody while he was already a household name. At least now, a few people can vouch for me.”
“I don’t think stealing from him is such a good idea.”
She scowled. “Why not?”
“You need more than one woman claiming he made the exact same dress as yours. You need to know if he has your store bugged or if someone at your place is working for him.”
Faith blinked as though the idea never occurred to her, then her shoulders dropped. He couldn’t explain why the defeated expression on her face bothered him. Despite his wish to remain indifferent, something shifted inside Ken. Their past became insignificant. His instinctive reflex to protect the innocent surfaced.
He reached over, covered her hand and squeezed. He immediately regretted the gesture. Her soft skin reminded him of other soft parts of her body, places only a lover knew. He felt a stirring behind his zipper and withdrew his hand as though scalded.
“I’ll think about it and come up with a strategy,” he said.
“Does that mean you’ll take the case?”
A radiant smile lit her face. “Thank you.”
He didn’t want anything from this woman, including gratitude. In fact, he wished he’d had this discussion in his office, keeping things official and business-like. But no, he’d hoped to wine and dine her, show her what a good thing she’d passed up. Bad move on his part. From now on, he’d treat her like any other client.
He went back to his food, his thoughts going through the different ways he could solve her problem fast and with minimal face-to-face contact. As if she understood he needed to be left alone, Faith didn’t speak either. She concentrated on her salad.
When he dropped her by her car later, he didn’t linger.
“I’ll be in touch,” he said.
She gripped his arm before he could walk away. “Fashion Week is in February, Ken. I don’t have much time.”
He stared pointedly at her and reached a decision. “I wasn’t going to mention this, but how many people have access to your designs before they’re turned into clothes?”
“My assistant and salesgirl, Molly Bolden. Deidre Jamison, the jewelry designer whose products I carry in my store. She custom-makes her pieces to match each outfit I design, so we tend to collaborate. The three seamstresses I use get to see the patterns and the toile, but they sign a confidentiality agreement.”
He had no idea what a toile was, but signing contracts didn’t mean jack to a thief. “Have you spoken to them about O’Neal?”
“Don’t, just in case one of them is his spy. I don’t want you trusting anyone right now. And if possible, don’t leave designs lying around. Let me come up with a plan then I’ll stop by to discuss it.”
She nodded. “Okay.”
He didn’t move until she entered her car and drove away. Despite what he told her, he planned to break into O’Neal’s offices and photograph the man’s designs. He just needed to work out the details.
Ken rolled the portable table packed with the computers he’d used at the Braun job into the main room of his offices. His workers broke into applause, including Sly, who had converted the visitors’ waiting area into his workstation because of his cast.
“What?” Ken asked, parking the table against a wall.
“You closed the Braun case ahead of schedule,” Duncan said. He was the oldest of his employees, an ex-military with the pipeline to gadgets and foot soldiers whenever they needed them. “Wheeler just called. He got your e-mail.”
“He wants to talk to you about another SEC case,” Lucy added.
“I called it first,” Duncan said.
Ken nodded. “I’ll need your help retrieving our video and audio devices from the brokerage firm. Sly, I know you need more space for that cast, so use my office instead of the couch. Where’s Rodriguez?”
“Finishing the injury claim case,” Lucy said. “From the pictures Rod uploaded, the man had serious whiplash. We’re talking physical therapy, pain medication, muscle relaxants, the whole nine yards. His claim is definitely not fraudulent.”
Either way, the company the man was suing would pay big. “When Rodriguez gets in, we’ll have a brief meeting. Lucy, come into my office, please. Sly, give us a few minutes.”
He entered his office with Lucy right behind him. He closed the door, sat on the edge of his desk, and crossed his arms.
“How much do you know about high fashion?” he asked. Lucy had been with him the longest and he could trust her with just about anything.
“I know I can’t afford it at my present salary,” she quipped.
Ken smiled. “Nice try. What do you know about Sean O’Neal?”