Tall, Dark and Damaged
BOOK 1 in the Damaged Heroes Series
His Life Changed in a Heartbeat.
Disinherited as a teen, Devon Ashby returns home twelve years later as a ruthless CEO, brilliant at negotiating deals, but emotionally stunted. In an instant all he’s struggled to build implodes. Amid the turmoil of saving his company from a hostile takeover, his engagement to a business partner’s high-society daughter hits the rocks. Compounding his troubles, he encounters his high school sweetheart, whose heart he smashed. The vulnerability she awakens leaves him at greater risk than all the crises he faces.
Her Dream Job May Get Her Killed.
While restoring art in a billionaire’s private gallery, Hannah Moore is unwittingly drawn into the dysfunctional family’s confidences. When she discovers the rich developer behind her and her sick aunt’s eviction is the family’s black-sheep son—the lover she’s never gotten over—her desire turns to fury. Always one to avoid conflict, Hannah must stand up to Devon and the growing menace of someone who thinks she knows too much.
A Decades-Old Secret Turns Deadly.
When a family member is murdered, Devon and Hannah become ensnared in sibling greed, festering jealousy, and a tragic secret that’s divided the family. Amid their reigniting passion they race to expose the killer before they become the next victims in this cat-and-mouse game of survival.
Tall, Dark and Damaged
Tall, Dark and Damaged
is BOOK 1 in the Damaged Heroes Series
The full series reading order is as follows:
- Book 1: Tall, Dark and Damaged
- Book 2: Capturing the Queen
- Book 3: A Savage Trick
- Damaged Heroes, Book Four
Tall, Dark and Damaged
THE EXCERPT: Start Reading!
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Devon Ashby cut the engine. “I can’t believe someone tried to torch the place.”
On the other end of the Bluetooth earpiece, his cousin grunted. “Happy fucking birthday to your old man, right?”
Devon climbed out of the rental car, and inhaled the chilly night air. Yep, overlaying the scent of Lake Michigan and decaying fall foliage was the distinct whiff of acrid smoke. If it hadn’t been for the foolish risk of his siblings’ lives, he’d have shaken the perpetrator’s hand. “Gotta go. I’m about to walk into the lion’s den.”
“Don’t screw this up,” Eric said. “Go in, make nice, get out.”
“Relax. I’ll lay that olive branch right on a Wickham silver platter. After signing for the trust.”
“I’m popping the champagne now.”
Devon clicked off and stuck the earpiece in his overnight case. Wind buffeted his coat, its high-pitched whistle and the swishing clack of tree limbs the only sounds in this sleepy suburb. Fine gravel crunched underfoot as he headed toward his childhood home, majestic and formidable in the strategic landscape lighting. Christ, how he used to despise this mammoth symbol of wealth and power and success. Now the thick stone veneer and white-trimmed windows tantalized his adult sensibilities. He’d own a mansion like this one day—only in White Plains or New Canaan. He’d come a long way since leaving Chicago, and after tonight, he’d have it all.
Crisp leaves skittered past his ankles as he passed the Poseidon fountain centering the stately circular driveway. The statue’s trident was raised in triumph at the harvest moon. Talk about symbolism. Devon saluted the sea king, and bound up the marble steps guarded by life-sized stone lions. He vigorously pressed the doorbell. The deep, gonging chime—so familiar—raised goose bumps. You shouldn’t have come. Go home and have the documents express-mailed. As if in agreement, a gust swirled in off the lake, slicing icy talons through his wool coat. Devon scowled at his thoughts and swiveled so his back took the force of the wind. Still, a thin shiver rolled through him.
The massive oak-and-wrought-iron door slowly opened. Golden light and warmth spilled out onto him, like the first rays of a spring sun. At the sight of the ageless butler, Devon broke into a wide grin. “Hey, Joseph.”
“Good evening, sir. It’s a great pleasure to see you again.”
Devon stepped past him, fighting the childish urge to embrace the man who’d adopted his father’s role too often to count. “It’s been a long time,” he said instead, as if the older man wasn’t aware of his twelve-year absence. Talk about lame.
The door closed with an echoing thunk. He should unbutton his overcoat and comment on the weather, but the words died on his lips. One glance around the vast hall evoked memories that crushed him like a steroid-laden linebacker.
The Christmas mornings he’d flown down the sweeping staircase into the formal living room where his presents lay. The black-and-white art-deco tiles, and that dumb game of all-white-tile hopscotch Frannie used to coax him into. Or how they’d race each other past these glowing wall sconces to a dinner as abundant and comforting as his mother’s smile. The ache he thought he’d conquered almost doubled him over. Who’d expect to be ambushed by good memories?
Behind him, Joseph coughed discreetly. Devon consciously steadied his breathing and fumbled with the coat buttons. “How is Mrs. Farlow?”
“She’s well, sir. Very busy with the festivities tonight. May I wish you a happy birthday?”
“Thanks.” Devon grinned as he handed the coat over. Happy birthday. The phrase restored the confidence he’d had climbing out of the car. “I’ll try to stop in the kitchen later and see her myself. I’ve missed her apple pie something fierce.”
The butler bowed, a shadow of a smile touching his lips. “She’ll enjoy seeing you again. I’ll put your bag in your mother’s old bedroom, if that’s all right with you.”
Devon nodded. “Any news about the fire?” The question clearly caught Joseph off guard; family members would never have asked the help, but Devon had long ago parted from the Wickham ways.
“No, sir. Very little damage to the theater itself, but your father’s art gallery needs restoration.”
“Do they know who did it?”
Joseph flushed and swallowed. “I don’t believe so, sir. An arson investigator was here most of today.”
Devon nodded. It wouldn’t surprise him if the investigator found multiple people with a motive. In fact, if he’d been here Tuesday night, no doubt he’d be the number one suspect. “I’m glad no one was hurt.” He gazed around the foyer again, seeing the opulence instead of the memories, and his shoulders relaxed. “Are they in the dining room?”
“The party moved to the formal library for dessert and coffee. Dinner was served at eight.” Joseph’s dry tone held volumes of warning.
Devon glanced down the long hallway at the arched doors gleaming in high polish. Even after all this time, he knew what lay in wait. Just like with Henry VIII, when one person displeased the old tyrant, they all got punished. And Devon was an unavoidable hour and a half delayed. He broke into a grin at the challenge ahead. The fearlessness he displayed in the boardroom was a direct result of growing up here. “I’ll handle him.”
He headed swiftly toward the living room, elation growing. Tonight, on his thirtieth birthday, the provisions from his mother’s trust came into effect. It had been a long, difficult twelve years, scraping and clawing his way from a broke and homeless eighteen-year-old to an up-and-coming force in Manhattan. This gift from his mother couldn’t come at a more perfect time in his career. He’d already signed over the inheritance to secure a business loan. The high-risk venture had required the personal guarantee; banks were still too cautious. But the property was a steal, the value from developing mixed-use dwellings too substantial not to snap up. And he wasn’t nicknamed Renegade because he invested cautiously. This deal would ensure his status among corporate giants.
At the arched doors, Devon straightened his tie and shot his cuffs. Soft strains of classical music wafted from within, one of Mozart’s violin concertos. A woman laughed, throaty and melodic. He inhaled deeply, grasped the century-old crystal handles, and thrust both panels open. The laughter died mid-note. Time came to a freeze-frame halt, as if the guests posed for a portrait. His sister, Francine, hair shorter and darker than he remembered, held a china cup to her mouth. Beside her, his half-brother, Rick, had a chokehold on the slim neck of a Château Latour. Across the room, two men sat in wingbacks, their backs to the door, profiles turned to the platinum blonde—the source of the laughter—her mouth still open. And beside her, too close for any misinterpretation, sat his father: majestic, patrician, and grim. No one would ever confuse the etched wrinkles on his face for laugh lines. An expression flashed across his face, too quick for Devon to catch. Regret, maybe?
The old man broke the spell by glancing down his hawk nose at his Rolex. “Ah, the grand return of the prodigal son. My eldest, who goes by a different name…”
Nope, not regret. Devon managed a half-smile, but already his olive branch goal was faltering. “Happy birthday, Harrison.” The irony that his father and he shared a birthdate when they had nothing else in this entire world in common…
Someone cleared his throat, and Devon’s gaze swept over the men again, who’d turned in their seats to face him. He nodded to George Fallow, the family lawyer. He hadn’t aged well by the looks of his sunken cheeks and hunched posture, but the fact he was still here even though Devon was so late was a great sign. Hopefully the trust business could be concluded tonight.
“Honey, Wesley,” Harrison said, “this is my eldest son, Devon Wickham.”
Really? “Ashby,” Devon corrected.
“Grown men don’t use their middle names—unless they’re rednecks from the South.” The condescending tone baited, and Devon’s muscles tensed.
“Ashby is my mother’s maiden name.” He looked pointedly at his father. “Or had you forgotten?”
Those ice-blue eyes sparked with animosity, but when Harrison continued, his voice remained affable. “This is Honey Hartlett and Wesley O’Brien.”
A second passed as Devon waited for how they related to the Wickham birthday dinner to be disclosed, but no explanation came. He nodded once to each of them. Honey responded with a thin-lipped smile, and the young blond guy studiously ignored him.
“Sit down, Dev,” Frannie said sharply. She patted Rick’s arm, and he rose with a grumble. Devon clapped him on the shoulder, murmuring a greeting as he passed by. The last time he’d seen his half-brother, Rick had been a chubby nine-year-old. Their communication over the years had been infrequent and stilted, a shattering example of the collateral damage from that horrific night exactly twelve years ago.
Devon sat beside his sister, and they exchanged a hug. They, at least, had kept in touch through email and holiday video calls. She was thinner than her screen presence, her skin the kind of bluish pale that came from exhaustion. The divorce must not be going well. He grasped her hand, ice-cold and twig-like in his, and squeezed.
An enormous silver tray on the cocktail table before them held coffee and Wickham china. “My dear,” Harrison murmured, and Honey immediately leaned forward, pouring coffee with an elegant tilt of her wrist. She looked about the same age as Frannie. How long had she and Harrison been dating? Frannie hadn’t mentioned her the last time they’d spoken.
When Honey handed Devon the coffee, her cornflower-blue eyes regarded him coolly. Clearly she knew about his black-sheep status. He thanked her, though he didn’t intend to stay at the party long enough to finish it. “I’m actually here for—”
“Drink your coffee,” Harrison interrupted. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my vast years, it’s to enjoy the company of loved ones over business.”
Devon sipped the piping-hot liquid to stifle the abrupt laughter rising up. Never had a man less deserving of the title “father” walked this Earth. He was pretty sure Harrison knew it, too, and couldn’t give a shit. Not to mention the man had run through three wives… Loved ones over business. Yeah, right.
Still, Devon was in his father’s house, and an olive branch could turn into lucrative business contacts or partnering on future ventures with Wickham Corp. Why not take the high road and try to build a bridge across the great divide? “Frannie told me about the fire last night,” he commented. He didn’t tack on Joseph’s update about the arson investigator.
“Yes, last night was quite dramatic,” his father answered, his tone lacking any drama.
Interesting. The fire had been in the old-fashioned theater, but it shared a wall with Harrison’s climate-controlled art gallery, filled with masterpieces. “Is your art damaged?”
“There’s too much oily soot covering the paintings to be sure.” Another clipped response. His father wasn’t the kind of guy who kept his displeasure under control like this. And back in the day, a three-degree temperature malfunction in either of his two galleries was considered catastrophic. This was a freaking fire. What had changed? Maybe it was the fact that the perp might be in this very room. Devon glanced at the faces surrounding him, all filled with the usual tension associated with just being in his father’s presence.
Francine crossed her legs. Her foot nudged Devon’s twice. “I saw workers in the gallery this afternoon,” she said to Harrison, then threw Devon a pointed look.
So? He gave her an imperceptible shrug. His disinterest in art was in direct proportion to his father’s obsession for it.
“Some woman with red corkscrew curls,” she added sharply. A buzzing began in Devon’s ears.
“I hired Moore and Morrow Art Restoration.” Harrison poured himself more coffee.
Corkscrew… Moore and Morrow…? Hannah Moore? His Hannah? Something must have registered on his face, because his sister widened her eyes like: Yes, idiot, that’s what I’ve been trying to tell you!
The buzzing grew louder, and goose bumps covered Devon’s arms. Hannah had been here today? Regret at missing her flashed through him a second before his heart squeezed so hard he squinted. Yet another “twelve years ago tonight” memory, the wreckage he’d left in his wake… Jesus.
His hearing returned in time for the tail end of his father’s remark: “—company that discovered those Rubens forgeries.”
“I heard the Art Institute almost closed down after the Rubens scandal,” Francine said.
Devon pulled himself together, focusing on three details. Based on the name of the company, Hannah didn’t just work for a restoration firm; she owned part of it. Second, he’d heard about that forgery scandal at some exhibit Nicole had dragged him to. The well-respected Art Institute of Chicago had unknowingly hung three forged paintings, and the discovery sent the staid art world into a frenzy of paranoid speculation over their own works. Third, his father had unwittingly hired Devon’s high school sweetheart yesterday. Harrison had never met her; Devon had gone to great lengths all senior year to make sure of it.
“The restoration firm is gaining a remarkable reputation,” Harrison said. “Next subject.”
Devon sank into the cushion, a warmth settling in him at Hannah’s accomplishments. Followed instantly by the warmer memory of her soft lips, perfecting the art of French kissing. He inhaled unsteadily. What the hell? He was engaged. All that grand passion, roller-coaster crap was well left to his teens.
A discreet cough captured everyone’s attention. Joseph stood in the doorway holding a white, frosted cake piled high with strawberries. “Don’t sing,” Harrison ordered, and nobody did.
Devon reluctantly shook off the remaining Hannah-daze as his father’s girlfriend cut and plated the perfectly proportioned wedges. Honey had the kind of finishing school grace even Nicole and her aristocratic friends couldn’t pull off. An aura of mystery surrounded her—someone so flawless suddenly appearing in his family. He made a mental note to Google her, because although he shouldn’t care whether she’d snagged a sugar daddy, and Harrison was gullible enough to fall for it, something wasn’t right. The father he’d left behind wasn’t that stupid.
Honey passed Devon his slice, and although Harrison didn’t make eye contact, the old man smiled grimly. This wasn’t an innocent cake choice on his father’s part, and they both knew it. Harrison had been aware a month ago that Devon would arrive on their birthday to sign the requisite papers; the Wickham executive secretary had even insisted Devon stay for the small dinner party. And yet eating even one of the strawberries would cause Devon’s throat to swell up. Part of him felt the intended insult like a shank to the gut, while another side was amused at the calculated lengths Harrison had gone to tonight to ensure his complete discomfort. So much for the sapling olive branch.
With scalpel-like precision, Devon separated the berries and any frosting that even remotely came into contact with them, keeping his expression carefully blank. He was certifiable to even engage in this double dog dare to eat the cake, but he wasn’t going to give his father the satisfaction of refusing the slice. Besides, he’d been so busy working throughout the private flight, he was freaking ravenous. He waited for Honey to lower the cake knife and raise her fork, and then all but shoveled the dessert into his mouth. And felt no remorse helping himself to seconds while his father opened presents.
When Harrison lowered the Jag XKR keys Honey had given him back into the little heart-shaped box, Devon shot a look at George Fallow, who had his briefcase by the clawed leg of his armchair. Good. Devon swallowed the last bite and slid the plate onto the cocktail table.
“I have several announcements,” Harrison’s said, his cup hitting the saucer with a clinking flourish, “which will cumulatively affect everyone here.”
Rick jerked like a puppet on strings, almost spilling the new glass of wine he’d poured. The birdlike clutch returned to Devon’s arm, and when he glanced at his sister, her profile was a study in dread. He frowned at his siblings and redirected his attention to the supremely smug man across from him. What the hell was his father up to?
Harrison smiled at Honey as his gnarled hand reached for hers. Her return smile held the contentment of a purring cat. “First, Honey has agreed to become my wife.”
Devon blinked at the pair. The simmering gut reaction of something not being right boiled over. Why the rush? Jesus, if he had another half-sibling on the way… But maybe he was looking at this all wrong. Maybe he should feel sorry for Honey. Welcome to the circus, wife number four.
As he added his congratulations to the subdued chorus, he covered Frannie’s hand and squeezed.
“Second,” Harrison continued, “she’ll inherit all the cash, stock, and property I own except for the trust I set up for my grandson.” His gaze flicked to his fiancée, before focusing on Francine. “Provided you both remain under this roof until you finalize that disastrous divorce.”
At her audible inhale, Devon clenched his jaw and stared into the crackling fire. Clearly Harrison was still a smothering control freak with Frannie. It was one thing when their mother died, but his sister was an adult with her own child. To force her and Todd to live here with the soon-to-be newlyweds was downright offensive.
“Third, I plan to retire immediately. Wesley here will be promoted to CEO of the Wickham Corporation tomorrow.” Pretty Boy gasped. “Fourth. Once I’m gone, the entire empire is his to run. None of my three children has ever shown the slightest interest in my businesses anyway.”
Devon heard Rick’s weight shift on the creaky floorboards, somewhere behind him. “Why?” his brother sputtered. “Why would you disinherit us?”
Those arctic eyes focused like laser beams over Devon’s shoulder. “It’s time for you to make your own way in this world, son. It’s time for you to stop gambling on every sport game or horse race, and using my money to pay off your debt. Your credit cards are one big bar tab. You want to engage in those debasing activities, fine. Pay for it yourself.” Harrison sipped coffee without breaking eye contact with Rick. He set the cup in the saucer. “You’re welcome to stay in this house while you make other arrangements, but by our wedding date…when is it again, sweetheart?”
“A week from Saturday.”
He kissed Honey’s hand, his demeanor relaxing. “I expect you to find a job and vacate the premises.”
Rick didn’t respond. The fingers on Devon’s arm had him in a death grip now. He hurt for Frannie, even poor Rick. God knew he recalled the shock and terror this speech evoked. That his father would repeat it now with his last two children, when the old man was the richest son of a bitch in Chicago, was infuriating. Surely the old man could spare some change for his offspring. Honey wouldn’t be able to spend a fraction of it, even if she lived fifty lifetimes.
“George is here to amend the will tonight.” Harrison picked up his coffee cup. “Thank you for the presents. You’re all excused.”
“Come to bed soon,” Honey said in a sultry tone, kissing Harrison’s withered cheek. As inappropriate as the thought was, Devon caught himself wondering how the old man hadn’t died of a coronary already.
It took the others several seconds to rise, and once upright, they moved stiffly, like sleepwalkers, except for old George, who lugged his briefcase as if it held gold bricks. Devon stepped forward, the offer to carry it on his lips, mentally running through room options where they could go to sign over the trust.
“Stay behind. I need to speak to you in private,” Harrison said, and for a moment Devon assumed it was directed at George. But no, his father looked right at him.
“I have to meet with George. I’ll return when I’m through.”
“You’ll sit down.” The old man cocked an eyebrow. Devon was prepared to ignore him and follow George out, except for the warning on the lawyer’s face. He was not prepared to defy Harrison and work on Devon’s rightful inheritance tonight after all.
At the door, a teary-eyed Frannie threw Devon a troubled look, and he winked. The decision on his eighteenth birthday to change his last name had been the catalyst for getting tossed out on his ear. No announcement could possibly apply to him, unless his father was about to extend the olive branch after all and put him back in the will.
How fast could he get out of here and make sure she was all right? She needed to buck up until they could figure out how to get her out from under Harrison’s thumb. Her smile was tremulous, and then the door clicked shut. He sucked in a breath and spun around. “What’s up?”
“I’m surprised you haven’t heard.” And that was how fast his father could switch from wrecking ball to cat-and-mouse.
Devon glanced at his watch. “I’ve wasted enough time watching you play these twisted mind games. Just blurt it out.”
Harrison shrugged, smiling slyly. “You’re right. It’s late and there’s too much to go over. Profit and loss statements, marketing forecasts… I’d like to get an early start tomorrow. Eight o’clock, my home office.”
Devon frowned. “What?”
“Late this afternoon, the Wickham Corporation tendered an offer to acquire Ashby Enterprises. At a surprisingly low cost—I didn’t know your assets were so tied up until I looked into the situation.”
Tendered an offer? Getting the privately held company’s financial information? “Wait a minute.” What an imbecile, letting his father get him all worked up like this. “Eric and I hold fifty-one percent—”
“Held fifty-one percent.” As Harrison took a leisurely sip of coffee, Devon fought the impulse to snatch the delicate cup and hurl it into the fireplace. This was just a psych-out, and he wasn’t going to take the bait.
Harrison gestured with his cup. “Did you even think to draw up a contract between the two of you?”
“We have a contract.”
The hard stare was so familiar—part condescension, part questioning how his offspring could possibly be this stupid. “And you didn’t stipulate an agreement giving each of you first rights to any liquidated shares?”
Moisture beaded Devon’s lip. No. He hadn’t. This was Eric Ashby, his cousin on his mother’s side, his best friend…soon to be his best man. He was family, for Christ’s sake! Surely Eric, the CFO, would have told him if he’d sold shares. “You’re bluffing.”
“Am I?” Nothing in those hardened features indicated so.
Devon kept tight control of his expression, aware that any shock or panic was an added bonus for the bastard. “Aren’t you getting ahead of yourself, old man? My board and major shareholders are loyal friends. They’ll never accept your offer.”
“Wesley is expediting the deal and assures me your friends are quite unhappy with your leadership. I expect to own your company before my wedding. Thank you for the birthday gift; I’m sorry I have none in return.”
Devon gripped the back of the loveseat as the icy reality of his failed night of triumph cut through him. All the blood, sweat, and toil that had gone into creating his company… Just to be snatched by Harrison, who had as many international irons in the fire as Donald Trump. Christ, there was no way Devon could return to Manhattan and face Nicole with this news. “Why are you doing this? To any of us?”
“How tediously dramatic. If you’ll excuse me, I have a fiancée waiting.”
Yes. This was how he could get his father to see reason. “I have three words for you: Anna Nicole Smith.”
Harrison stiffened and set his cup down hard. “Honey’s an heiress in her own right.”
Scoffing would be too immature. If only Nicole were here, sporting “that look.” No man could stand up to her frosty disbelief and derision. Devon spread his hands, willing his voice calm. “Then why disinherit Frannie and Rick? You didn’t during your other engagements. Why is wife number four winning the lottery? And what if, a year down the road, this marriage ends in the dumpster like your last two? Please tell me you had her sign a prenup.”
Harrison’s lips quivered into a snarl. “How dare you speak to me like this.”
“How dare you force Frannie to live here.”
“That’s none of your goddamned business—”
“How dare you give Rick a week to find a job and a place to live—”
“You presume to come into my house and tell me how to run it?”
“And you presume to take over Ashby Enterprises?” Their volume had grown louder with each exchange. Devon clenched his jaw. This was beneath him. “You’re not getting my company, old man,” he said softly. “All you did was declare war.”
Was it his imagination, or did his father’s hand tremble ever so slightly? When he refocused on the gnarled fingers, Harrison clenched his fist, but the illusion of invincibility was broken. His father suddenly resembled exactly what he was: a seventy-year-old man, trying desperately to remain the fire-breathing dragon in a broken-down castle.
Devon spun on his heel, suddenly ill with shock or the lack of food followed by a ton of sugar. He had to get out of here while he could still stand.
He stalked the length of the room but hesitated when he reached the door. He swung around and met Harrison’s glower. The question he’d ignored for so long resurfaced with the blinding intensity of a neon light. He didn’t care; he just wanted to know—ever since he’d been a small boy. “What did I do to make you hate me this much?”
The glare turned to disdain rather than surprise or shock. “Let’s start with you dropping your God-given name like you were ashamed of it. If you didn’t want to be a Wickham, then you weren’t getting a Wickham cent. And you damn sure weren’t living under my roof.”
“Frannie and Rick want to be Wickhams, yet they got the same treatment tonight, so I call bullshit.” Devon groped blindly for the doorknob, blood boiling. “And you know exactly why I’m an Ashby. I’ll never share a name with the man who murdered my mother.”
Harrison huffed a breath. “I expected the histrionics when you were nine, but I didn’t tolerate them twelve years ago, and I won’t now. Your mother committed suicide. Grow up.”
A haunting sense of powerlessness sagged Devon’s shoulders. “You’re lying.” But the words were barely audible and steeped in resignation. Harrison had been powerful enough even back then to shut down the investigation and get a suicide ruling. Devon would go to his grave knowing his mother had loved her children too much to take her own life. But he’d never be able to prove it.
Devon slipped into his mother’s old painting studio, which was now a drab sitting area, stuffed with more grandiose relics and artifacts. No lingering scent of oil paints or turpentine remained. He closed the door softly behind him and dug out his cell phone, his fingers shaking so hard it took several tries to scroll down and tap Eric’s number.
“Tell me the good news, Renegade,” his cousin greeted cheerfully, and the pop of a champagne cork followed.
“Did you sell shares?” Devon said through clenched teeth. The background sitcom laughter stopped abruptly, the ensuing silence a yawning pit of hell. He groped for the nearest marble statue as disbelief threatened to take him down.
“A few. Why?”
“And you didn’t think to tell me? Or give me first offer?”
“This was totally temporary, Dev. I sold last week, and I’m about to purchase them back. What the hell’s going on?”
Devon wiped the sweat from his upper lip. “We no longer hold the majority of shares, and somehow my father just launched a hostile takeover. We’re officially at DEFCON 1.”
“Wait…takeover? I’m the damn CFO. I haven’t heard anything. Why? How?”
“I don’t know.” He paced to the window, the whole evening blitzing through his mind. Something wasn’t right. The timing was too odd. Too convenient. “I know my old man, Eric. He’d have figured out a way to destroy me long ago, when we were a fledgling upstart. This isn’t his idea. I want to know who’s behind it and why.” He started for the door. “Wake up a damn private investigator. Get as much information as you can on a Honey Hartlett and a Wesley O’Brien.”
“Will do. Did you sign for the trust at least?”
“No.” He stopped in his tracks. “Jesus fucking Christ. It’s already pledged to secure the bank deal. What happens to my money if we’re taken over?”
The abrupt silence on the other end was his answer. He’d just lost millions. He’d left twelve years ago, penniless and unemployed, and in the space of twelve minutes tonight his father had done it to him again. Devon’s breath came in short bursts. His shirt clung to his back.
“I’ll check with our lawyers,” Eric finally answered. “Surely they can try to find a loophole to get some of it back.” The words held hope, but the tone didn’t. “What are you going to tell Nicole?”
Devon closed his eyes. Shit. She’d said she’d wait up by the phone, and he doubted it was with any semblance of patience. Nicole was the kind of woman who rewarded brilliant business acumen. They both had high expectations of each other and were well on their way to staggering influence. Or had been. What could he possibly say to her about tonight? She didn’t suffer failure, and despised excuses. Until now, it’d never been a problem. He wasn’t ready to watch his demise in her esteemed regard; there were too many unanswered questions.
“I’ll text her that the birthday reunion is turning into a late one, and I’ll call her in the morning.”
His cousin’s grunt held a distinct warning, which Devon ignored. He could handle Nicole; it wasn’t any of Eric’s business. He ended the call and made his way upstairs and over to his sister’s wing. Outside her door, he took a couple of deep breaths and refocused on her problems. Harrison rolled over others without mercy, and she’d never stood up to the old man like he had. She’d never hardened through their torturous childhood, so if tonight had been a shellshock for him, it must have been an atomic bomb for her.
He knocked softly, and Frannie answered in seconds, blotting her puffy eyes with a tissue.
“Hey.” He drew her into a bear hug. “I came as soon as I could.”
“What did he say to you?”
“Nothing important.” He’d come to talk her into defying the old man’s blackmail, not burden her with more horror. “You got a raw deal, Frannie—”
“At least she isn’t homeless like me,” Rick called, sinking onto the floral sofa in the suite’s living room. He tilted his wine glass and finished the last drop.
Devon bit back a harsh reply at the pity party. Twelve years ago he’d left for New York that very night and never looked back. Granted, he’d smashed Hannah’s heart in the process, and the guilt sometimes still rendered him sleepless… But he hadn’t sat moping, even when he was dirt broke and sleeping on Eric’s spring-less sofa. “Put the glass down and sober up,” he said. “I’m here to help you guys figure something out.”
“There’s nothing to figure out, Dev. We’re disinherited.” Frannie teared up again. “But you sure made it look easier than this.”
“Stop letting him win, Frannie. You don’t have to stay.” He winced at his outburst, but her waterworks meant surrender, which was abhorrent.
“Defying him means robbing my son of his trust fund.”
“You know he wouldn’t disinherit Todd. Call his bluff.”
“I can’t risk it.” She sobbed, and although he gave her his shoulder, he stood too stiffly, patted her back too mechanically. Everything in his life was neat and clean and lacked messy emotions. There was something to be said for compartmentalizing. Crying wasn’t problem-solving. It was a wasted reaction, something he couldn’t deal with and hadn’t since…jeez. Since Hannah. Funny how everything kept coming back to her tonight.
“What about me?” Rick interrupted. He spread his arm to encompass the living room. “At least she has a roof over her head. I have nothing.”
Devon hesitated. “Isn’t your mother still alive?”
“I’m not living in Phoenix!”
Devon frowned down at his sister. “It’s not the weather,” she whispered, sniffing. “Susanna is a surgical nurse.”
So no middle-class living for Rick. New York would shake the entitled attitude right out of him. “You went to Northwestern, right?”
“What was your major?”
Devon shrugged. “Come out to Manhattan. I have a lot of connections, and you can stay with me until you get on your feet.” He checked himself. Even though he and Nicole didn’t live together, she’d have a problem with a slacker brother underfoot indefinitely. “I mean, at least through the winter while you get your bearings.”
Rick’s lips twisted. “Maybe.” His gaze went to the bottle, although he didn’t reach for it.
Yeah, Nicole would have his hide for this impulsive invitation. She had little tolerance for anyone who wasn’t grimly ambitious and rock steady in climbing to the top of the social scene. It was what they loved about each other. They knew what they wanted in life and had found the best partner to get there. Rick would be a serious speed bump along that road, but Devon wasn’t going to take it back if his brother needed him. Eric had once offered him a leg up from homelessness, and Devon would pay it forward too.
“You’re limiting your choices, Rick, and you’re in no position to do so. Cut the pity party, man up, and both of you fight for what you want.”
“I want to stay here.” His brother crossed his arms.
“That’s no longer an option. Rearrange the world until it’s something else you want.”
“Easy for you to say—getting a massive trust fund.”
Devon opened his mouth to snarl an obscenity, but Frannie waved him off. “We only have each other. Let’s not say anything we’ll regret in the morning.”
He scrubbed a palm over his jaw. They were going around in a circle, and he had his own problems to deal with. Besides, Frannie was right; they needed to band together. “How long has Harrison been dating Honey?”
“Six weeks, give or take,” she said softly.
Stupefying. “How did they meet?”
“I think some charity auction. She moved into his adjoining suite within three weeks.”
“I still can’t believe this,” Rick spat, his face flushed crimson. “Blonde hair, big boobs, and she gets all my money. I’m so mad I could fucking smash something.”
Or set the house on fire? Devon frowned. “Either of you know anything about the fire?”
Rick shrugged and looked away.
“We all evacuated the house Tuesday just before midnight,” Frannie said. “Firefighters put it out easily enough, but something makes them think it’s arson.”
Devon was quiet a moment. “Harrison didn’t seem too concerned that someone had tried to torch his house.”
“He’s adamant it’s something electrical.”
Honey, the fire… When did his father get so old he was blind to the blaringly obvious? “Who discovered the fire?”
Joseph? What was the old butler doing up that late and in that section of the mansion? And why withhold the detail tonight in the foyer? A sense of foreboding stiffened Devon’s spine. “Anything else going on I should know about?”
His siblings looked at each other and shook their heads.
“I have a crucial meeting in the morning, and then need to reschedule George, but I’ll bump my flight back a little and help you guys figure out what to do.”
“Have breakfast with Todd and me,” Frannie said. “I want you to meet my son.” They agreed on a time, and he hugged her once more. As he walked to the door, he purposely ignored her telltale sniff. He could solve problems until the sun came up, but was clueless when it came to emoting empathy or comforting tears—a negligible flaw once he’d surrounded himself with people who were the exact same way.
He unknotted his tie as he roamed toward the other end of the house. Industrial fans grew louder with every step. This wasn’t anywhere close to his mother’s old room, where he’d sleep, but he needed to know something he couldn’t bring himself to ask his siblings. After crossing through the first editions library, which linked the east and west wings, he turned the corner and stopped. A haze lingered down the long hallway, even though the fans in the theater now sounded like turbo engines. Inside the gallery, a few sooty paintings still hung on the walls. He grinned and turned away. Question answered: Hannah would be back tomorrow.
Hannah Moore gratefully took the mug of coffee Gretchen Allen handed her, and sat in one of the plastic orange chairs in Moore and Morrow Restoration’s break room. Thankfully, no one else had arrived for work yet. She had no energy for the cheerful-boss mask, and with Gretch, she didn’t have to. Once her personal trainer, Gretchen’s energetic, positive outlook had catapulted her from a weekend Starbucks buddy, to best friend, and now Moore and Morrow’s office manager.
“Let’s see it,” Gretch ordered, looking darling in a black spandex onesie with anatomically correct skeletal bones glued on. Halloween was her high holiday. No one else in the office would bother dressing up today. After all, Halloween wasn’t until Tuesday.
Hannah reached into her purse and slid the red eviction notice across the Formica table. “Thirty days,” she said, even though their hours-long phone call last night had covered that in the first sentence.
Her friend scanned the information and shook her head. Not a strand in her spiky blonde hair moved, although her skeleton earrings jingled as they danced. “How can they tear down an entire block? We need to call the local news. Get some neighborhood protests started.”
Hannah fingered her mug handle. She had no time to march with a sign when the project of a lifetime had just fallen in her lap. She didn’t even have time to find another apartment. “I looked up some realty links after we talked. The majority of places I can afford are either in unsafe neighborhoods or too much of a commute.”
“How’d your aunt take it?”
“She was up half the night. So agitated that even with the oxygen tank, she had one of her episodes. I don’t think her health can take the stress of a move. I mean, she’s eighty-seven. She’s lived there since before I was born.”
“It says here they’re holding a meeting tonight.” Gretch underlined the sentence with her finger as she read aloud. “‘To assist with alternate housing possibilities and answer any tenant questions, as your welfare and transition to new living arrangements is our utmost concern.’ What a bunch of bull.” She glanced up, slitting her espresso-brown eyes. “We’re going, and we’re fighting this.”
“I don’t have time to make a fuss.”
“No, you don’t want to make a fuss. Embrace conflict! Take a stand.” She jabbed the notice in Hannah’s direction like a saber, the bones attached to her forearm making it look like two emphatic people. “Meet me at Bakers Square at five; we’ll have dinner, and I’ll go with you.”
The potential in-your-face conflict made Hannah’s stomach churn. “Why waste the energy? There won’t be anything we can do; the sale and teardown are legal.” She nodded to her open briefcase, where apartment leads were neatly paper-clipped together. “I have thirty days to find a place, pack for both of us, move, and still coordinate an expedited restoration of the Wickham art.” She petered out and sipped some caffeine, fighting the cloud of doom.
“Breathe from your gut.” Gretch morphed into her commanding personal-trainer mode. “You’ll get through this. Give me some of those leads, and I’ll call in between doing payroll and receivables.”
“Thanks. I’ll really owe you.” Hannah handed over a third of the stack, but her relief was short-lived. Shoving any of her work onto someone else, even her best friend, was proof she was drowning. She’d been brought up to finish her chores, fix her own problems, and never complain. Period. “Any place that’s wheelchair accessible and takes Boots.” She should be ashamed that at the ripe old age of thirty, she was bunking with her maternal great-aunt and Aunt Milly’s ancient tabby, but Moore and Morrow Restoration was still in its infancy. Every penny that didn’t go toward Milly’s meds and in-home care went straight back into the company. The Wickham project took precedence over protests and media interviews.
As if reading her mind, Gretch tossed the red notice back. “How did it go over at the Wickhams’ yesterday?”
“I told you. We won’t know the full extent of damages until we clean the soot off.”
Gretch folded her impressively toned arms, quite a feat with the clunky bones. “I’ll rephrase. How did it go?”
Damn the curse that made redheads blush this easily. It all came down to Devon and those ten months of soul-encompassing love soooo long ago. Why did that moment and that man still haunt her? “It was weird,” she admitted. Simply walking into his house had brought back a tsunami of memories she’d buried long ago, and they’d kept her on edge all day. Even after eight hours of hauling art from the smoke-filled gallery down to a sitting room they’d used to pack and crate, the jumbled emotions had kept her tossing and turning last night as much as the eviction notice.
“Was there any sign of your guy?”
“Devon. And he’s not my guy.” For Pete’s sake, it was eons ago and she was well, well over him. But her heart stuttered over the phrase my guy and she tapped her foot rapidly. “There’s no trace of his existence in that mansion, which is no surprise.” And was actually a relief. If she’d come upon a photograph or gone into the family gallery to see whether his portrait still hung there, she’d have been unable to function. And dealing with Harrison Wickham had required every professional brain cell.
“Did you run into anyone besides the father? Someone knows how Devon is and what he’s doing.”
“I honestly don’t care, Gretch.” Immediately her palms prickled, and Hannah pretended to fix her ponytail to rub them against her wide plastic barrette. No way was she going to admit she Google-stalked Devon regularly and knew he was a hotshot private equity CEO about to marry the heiress of Tucker’s Fine Chocolates in seven months. And two days. And approximately nine hours, given the time difference.
Gretch stirred her coffee thoughtfully. “Do you think he came back for that party the servants were setting up?”
Hannah smiled at the thought. “He won’t ever come back to Chicago. Not even if the house had burned down. Or if Harrison had died in the fire that burned the house down.” She’d seen the last of Devon on that stormy night when he’d stood on her mom’s porch steps, soaking wet and spewing hateful words about his father and the final argument that had gotten him kicked out.
Then he’d tugged her hand and insisted she go with him on a Greyhound to New York. Knowing her mom had end-stage ovarian cancer. He’d refused to consider staying in Chicago, getting a job—even for a week or a month. Who gave that kind of ultimatum? “Let’s talk about something else,” she said sharply, desperate to dissolve the image of his stricken face when she’d chosen her mother. Of his sudden realization that he literally had no home, no family, no money, and no love of his life. “How did it go here yesterday?”
“Walter’s on a tear about Bernice again. Told me to tell you she started the Matisse project using beeswax and resin as the backing.”
Hannah swallowed her dread. “I’ll handle it on my way out.”
The skeleton earrings jingled again. “He’s furious. He wants you to fire her.”
Hannah stood and rinsed her mug without answering. There was no way she was going to fire Bernice, and Gretch knew it. Even if Bernice had screwed up and used some 1970s restoration technique that was proven to tighten over a decade and cause the paint to crackle.
“I’ll handle Walter,” she murmured, returning to the table and her briefcase. “I have to get to the Wickham estate before the team arrives. Oh, and make sure Walter gets these.” She slid yesterday’s restoration summaries, art measurements, and crating supply needs across to Gretchen. “And I’ll need releases faxed to Mr. Wickham before I can begin transporting his paintings.”
She pointed to the tiny red shape Gretch had glued under her left breast. “The little paper heart is adorable, by the way.”
“I’m going to use it again when I’m Grinch at the Christmas party.”
Despite herself, Hannah laughed. “We don’t dress up for Christmas parties, dummy.”
Gretch quirked an eyebrow. “Have you checked the employee suggestion box lately?”
Still snickering, Hannah stopped by Bernice’s lab, still dark and empty. Humor morphed into relief. Thank God she’s not here yet. Hannah jotted a note ordering the Matisse backing to be stripped and redone using mulberry tissue. Then, not leaving anything to chance, she also recommended applying the tissue with a boar’s-head brush. An elementary choice and probably insulting to Bernice, but Walter was the Morrow in Moore and Morrow Restoration, and Bernice was on wafer-thin ice. Maybe today would be one of her good days and the project would be a snap.
Anxiety ate at Hannah as she trudged out into the bright, chilly morning. Eventually she’d have to deal with Bernice. Using the Wickham project and her hunt for housing as authentic excuses would hopefully mollify Walter, for now.
Once on the El, crowded with jostling commuters, she held on to an overhead pole and texted him that the Bernice situation was under control. Walter was born for sales and schmoozing clients. No doubt he’d find a way to tell Bob Schmidt—probably over golf or cocktails—that his Matisse would not be restored by the original promised date.
Hannah pocketed her cell phone and focused on the day ahead. Not the custom crating of priceless art or dealing with Harrison Wickham. More like drumming up the courage to step back into that mansion and deal with those body jitters again.
She’d stupidly peeked into the smoke-filled theater after the fire chief had left. Even through the haze, those ruby-velvet seats had caused her heart to squeeze painfully. The years had vanished in an instant, and she’d half expected Devon to magically appear, striding out of the smoke with that crooked, suggestive grin. They’d spent so much time in this dark hideaway, groping each other with the urgency of dumb, young lovers. Oh, the many nights they missed “seeing” the movie.
It was a crying disgrace—a professional restorer in the midst of a project of a lifetime, frozen at the entrance of a theater like a lovesick teen. But then again, the last time she’d been in there, she had been a teen. And lovesick. The visceral memory of Devon’s delicious mouth and the slinky feel of worn velvet on bare skin was as real as if it’d happened the day before.
But today would be different. The memories wouldn’t be so stark, she’d avoid the theater at all costs, and, like she’d told Gretch, there was no speck of evidence Devon had ever lived in that mansion. He’d probably be relieved to hear it. She exited the train, smiling at Gretch’s impossible suggestion that Devon would ever come home.