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Payback Blues


Cannon Cousins Book III





Lizzie Ashworth




Payback Blues Cannon Cousins III

by Lizzie Ashworth

Third Edition 2018

All Rights Reserved


Cover Images: Two women, Monkey Business Images

Stock Photo ID: 116323006; Shutterstock.com

Man, MSPhotographic

Stock Photo ID: 30768167, Bigstock.com


Smashwords Edition






All rights reserved. This book is copyright material and must not be copied, translated, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any form without prior written permission of the author, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorized distribution, circulation or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author’s rights, and those responsible maybe liable in law accordingly.



This book is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters and incidents are either a product of the author’s imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.



Meant for mature readers only.


Dedicated to Ginny, Neil, and Don


We fear the thing we want the most.

Robert Anthony


Table of Contents


Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Epilogue





Chapter One



Riley Montgomery’s morning wasn’t going well. The phone sat dead silent on her desk. No appointments on the day calendar. Not a good sign.

As in, this could be the end of everything. Butterflies of panic fluttered in her neck. Fight or flight—it made no difference. Either way, her life was going down the tubes right before her eyes.

She had already sent her part time secretary Sara home for the day. She paced her office floor, arms crossed and fingers plucking absently at the sleeves of her gray suit jacket. Contingency plans flew through her head, plans she had carefully written down.

#1: Downsize to home office. (terrible idea)

#2: Borrow money. (and repay it exactly how?)

#3: Get a real job.

After that, she couldn’t write anything else.

Why hadn’t anyone from Cannon Company called? Hadn’t they said they would call? Had they hired someone else?

On her desk sitting neatly in their proper files were her clients’ tax returns, withholding schedules, and preliminary second quarter reports—everything on her work list. She had straightened the furniture and rearranged the reception area. Her fingernails couldn’t take more chewing. Her heels tapped across the hardwood floor as she made another round of the office before stopping—again—at the window.

Below, the streets of northern St. Louis bustled with midday traffic glittering in July heat. Sure, there were less expensive offices to be found. Something tawdry reeking of cigarette smoke. In a strip mall. Great message that would send to potential clients.

The kind of clients she desperately needed were small businesses who didn’t have time or know-how to handle financial reports, tax returns, and the horrors of government audits. Or even large businesses with specialized needs. She had excelled in school with her specialization in forensic accountancy and worked hard for years at one of the city’s most prestigious accounting firms. Opening her office in an upscale location seemed like such a good idea at the time.

She opened and then slammed shut one of the file drawers. On top, the fake fern in its elegant vase rocked violently. She hated that she’d begun to question whether going into business for herself had been a wise choice. At Pierson & Angles Inc. she hadn’t been hanging on by a thread financially. Now that she’d become Montgomery Financial Management LLC, the lack of capital investment and meager client base was killing her on a day-by-day basis. If she couldn’t get more clients and fast, phase two of her emergency plan would have to go into effect.

How would it be to return to Pierson with her tail between her legs? Tears blurred her view of the skyline.

“Damn you, Riley,” she said, brushing her eyes angrily. “What are you, twelve?”

A sudden knock on her open office door caused her to whirl around. Blinking through the tears, she saw a man standing in the doorway. With another quick brush of her hands across her eyes, she pulled down her suit jacket and straightened.

“Can I help you?”

“I don’t know,” the man said, raking her up and down with his pale blue stare. “Is this Montgomery Financial Management?”

“Yes,” she said, clearing her throat. Suddenly her gray pinstripe suit seemed inadequate to carry the authority required to face this man’s daunting appearance. His tall muscular frame in a perfectly-fitted dark suit screamed uncompromising power.

“I need to see Mr. Montgomery. Is he in?”

“Mr. Montgomery? I’m sorry…” she said.

“Riley Montgomery,” he said. “About an audit?”

She pulled herself up even more, wondering if her mascara had smeared or if her hair had come loose from the elastic band. “I’m Riley Montgomery.”

He frowned, partly turned as if leaving, and then stepped forward with his hand extended. “Dan Cannon,” he said, gripping her hand in a strong clasp. “I didn’t realize I’d be meeting a woman.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t realize I’d be meeting anyone at this point, Mr. Cannon. I’ve been expecting your call.” She withdrew her hand, trying to calm her ragged breathing. This was an account she desperately needed and he had taken her completely off guard. Damn it.

“I prefer to meet in person,” he said.

“No problem. Please.” She motioned to one of the chairs at the side of her office. “Won’t you sit down?”

He glanced at her again before turning to the chair. She sat across from him. “May I get you something to drink? Coffee? Water?”

“No, I’m good, thanks.”

His glance swept over her again. Did he expect some cheery, chummy attitude? She swallowed, fully aware of her inability to function like the senior partners at Pierson & Angles who spared no effort at the personal approach. Drinks with two hour lunches. Afternoons on the golf course.

That approach bothered her. It seemed like some kind of bribery. Work should be business-like, not a country-club social hour.

“I had hoped we could talk, so thank you for coming,” she said. “What specific needs do you have?”

“Good,” he said. “Right to the point. I’ve found discrepancies in our accounts I’d like reviewed.” He adjusted his posture, piercing her with an intense stare. “You realize I’m considering several firms at this point.”

She lifted her chin slightly and crossed her legs, then shifted her feet again when she noticed the scuff on the side of her best black pumps. “I would expect any diligent business manager to fully assess his options before making a choice this important. I assume you’ve seen our company profile?”

He glanced around and frowned. “My primary concern with Montgomery is the small staff.”

His brusque tone left nothing to her imagination. He intended things to be his way. Typical male, playing the power card. She found herself biting her lower lip and stopped immediately. At least he didn’t seem miffed that she wasn’t fawning over him.

“Our company is complex,” he began, settling deeper into the big upholstered chair and keeping her under scrutiny. “We have multiple tracks to follow—client projects, contractors, employees.”

She tore her gaze away from his chest. Hands. Thighs.

“A legitimate concern,” she agreed with a tense smile. She refused to be intimidated or to acknowledge the very real sexual appeal of this man. He was probably used to that, women at his beck and call. She stiffened at his implication. “I do have a slim staff at the moment, but at peak times we employ up to six accountants on an as-needed basis. Unlike many firms, I prefer to be very hands-on with my clients. I want our clients to have direct accountability.”

“Hands on,” he mused, cocking an eyebrow. A slight smile hovered at the corner of his mouth.

Of course. If she had to guess in advance how long it would take for this guy to make a sexual innuendo, he was right on time. She refused to rise to the bait. If he thought he might enjoy some side benefit along with the accounting, he could disabuse himself of that idea this very moment. Frankly, men like this had long since worn out her tolerance for such behavior. She challenged his gaze with an unflinching stare.

“I like your approach,” he said as his half smile faded. “And Frank Grayson isn’t a person whose advice I can ignore. I need someone I can trust to be meticulous, Ms. Montgomery.” He stood up.

What did that mean? Was he hiring her? “I’ll have to thank Frank. You can count on me, Mr. Cannon,” she said, also standing.

“Good man,” he said, adjusting his tie.

Did he mean to engage her firm? She could hardly keep the eager smile off her face. She bit the inside of her cheek and shot him a hundred-percent serious glance. “Do you wish to proceed?”

“Immediately. What retainer do you require?”

Riley realized she’d been holding her breath. She forced herself to exhale slowly. Dan Cannon seemed like a decent person, intelligent, well-groomed. His business operation ranked as one of the most respected real estate development firms in St. Louis. The biggest problem with this man might be his overpowering persona—dynamic energy and arrogant attitude exuding from a drop-dead gorgeous body. Lucky for her, after suffering through repeated unwelcome advances by Mark Angles, she felt immune to male charm of any kind.

Okay, not fully immune. This man might be more of challenge than Angles. A lot more.

What the hell was she thinking? She snapped back into business mode.

“A thousand would be sufficient for us to start the audit. Then I’ll bill weekly until we’ve worked through the bulk of the material. Our rate is sixty per hour. I’d like to review the accounts as they stand first, then I’ll want to go through papers, receipts, all the messy stuff.”

“Yes, the messy stuff.” His smile came more fully this time, lighting his pale eyes and sending a shock through her system. “I’ll email the files this afternoon,” he said. “And messenger our check. Would that suffice, Ms. Montgomery?”

“Yes, thanks. Please call me Riley,” she said, walking him to the reception area. “If you wish,” she added hastily, worried he might find first names premature. “It’s—more efficient.”

“Riley,” he said, shaking her hand again. “And you may call me Dan, unless you prefer not to.”

He inclined his head slightly, as if he asked a question.

She wasn’t going there. With her shoulders lowered and her chin high, she stood at attention at the office suite entry until he had rounded the corner at the far end of the hallway. She waited until she heard the elevator bell ding before slowly closing the door.

~~~

Five hours later Riley sat with her shoes kicked off under the desk and her suit jacket tossed over one of the side chairs. She agreed with Dan—there was no sense in wasting time. Her hands shifted between absently smoothing back her blonde hair to its jumbled ponytail and scrolling line-by-line through yet another page of Cannon Company account ledgers he’d emailed to her. She didn’t expect to find discrepancies at this early stage of things. This first flush of work had more to do with getting acquainted—how the company operated, all the elements involved, the flow of money.

And it was a lot of money. Buying and selling property, paying out huge sums to contractors, and promotional expenses seemed to comprise the bulk of their cash flow, aside from salaries for several employees. The two principles, Dan and someone named Alexander Cannon, pulled in salaries plus dividends off profits. But she noticed that in the last two years the dividends had dropped sharply from previous years, especially since the middle of the previous year. No wonder he wanted answers. The flow of company income held fairly steady.

So where the hell was the money going?

She leaned back in the chair and chewed her pen as she spun around to face the windows. A late spring storm lashed the glass, rain streaming down with occasional loud splashes as wind whipped it sideways. Exhaustion suddenly overtook her. An afternoon of intense work on top of a morning—hell, days—of worry and waiting had taken its toll. Peanut butter and crackers for lunch. She whirled back around and found her shoes before standing up to shove her arms into her jacket. A big salad, mindless television, bed—a perfect end to a day that had managed to redeem itself and save her—at least temporarily—from financial disaster.


Chapter Two


Dan Cannon sat on his low-slung living room couch facing the wide expanse of floor-to-ceiling windows. Shadows filled the corners of the high white ceilings and gray walls. Sleek modern furniture with black upholstery, glass and chrome coffee table. Black marble hearth. A few works of art. Not anything he cared about.

Rain coated the glass, blurring the panorama of late night city lights. His image reflected in the window as he swirled the whiskey glass absently in his big hand, his eyes staring out at the night without really seeing. The image of Riley Montgomery kept reappearing in his mind, her lean sensual frame in her trim gray suit and the unmistakable trace of tears in her green eyes. For those first few seconds of seeing her, something inside him twisted so tight he thought he’d break.

He had to give her credit—whatever she’d been crying about, she made a fast recovery as soon as she saw him. Her focus on business had snapped into place instantly, and somehow her determined promise for a ‘hands-on’ approach reassured him. He’d been able to retreat to a more realistic appraisal.

Did she know her business?

Was she the right person for this job?

A follow-up phone call to Frank Grayson eased his last doubt.

“Top of her class, Dan,” Grayson said. “Scary smart. Why?”

“I, well, she seemed distracted. When I first got there, it looked like she’d been crying.”

Grayson paused then cleared his throat. “I think she’s struggling to stay on her feet. Probably shouldn’t say this, but she had big plans when she resigned from Pierson. It’s not easy to start your own business and she did it on a shoestring. Got to respect her independent streak. Hope she can hang in there.”

After the call, Dan had lingered in his office deep in thought. Nothing was more important than this job. If he chose the wrong person, he risked not only his future but the future for Alex and their parents. He wasn’t exactly sure what it was about Riley Montgomery that reassured him. To say she was an attractive woman was an understatement. Looks like that usually meant the opposite of hard-driving, successful career women. But despite her looks, her attitude and demeanor had reassured him. And he’d trust his life to Grayson.

Which was exactly what he was doing.

He hadn’t felt attraction like this in a long time. Or ever, really. Bryn—well, what he felt for Bryn was in a class by itself. That whole situation belonged to a part of him he’d never seen before and might never see again. Really, he didn’t want to think about it.

He forced his memory past Bryn and ran smack up against Cathleen. He couldn’t remember how it felt to desire Cathleen, although he knew at some point he had. Had wanted her enough to run over Alex. Had his head up his ass long enough for her to spend all his money and humiliate him all over town. Hard lesson.

The fact that Riley gave zero acknowledgment to his insinuation meant one of two things—either she had no antennae for sexy communication, or she recognized and wasn’t interested. Either way, everything he’d seen amused and intrigued him.

But whether she intrigued him or not had to remain completely beside the point. This wasn’t about relationships or anything personal. She came highly recommended, and he had to hope she could find the company’s money hole. He ran his thumb and forefinger across the ridge of his brows, warding off a lurking headache.

Wherever the money had gone, it went out the door on his watch. It would take a damn impressive discovery for him to be relieved of the guilt he felt. No matter how hard he tried, it seemed as though he’d never get it quite right with anything in his life. Not with women, not with Cannon. Not even with the two people closest to him, Alex and Bryn. Even at that, he wasn’t the main event.

As for hope… He snorted. He’d learned a long time ago that hope was one of those absurd concepts. He made the best choice, based on the available information, that Riley would be competent in her task. That’s what his life had come down to, a set of operational signposts: gather information, weigh options, make decisions. There were expectations, demands, problems, solutions. Problems got solved or they didn’t. One way or another, this problem would be solved and hope would have nothing to do with it.

He had no doubt that other problems would occur and he’d have to solve them as well. That was his job. Tiredly, he accepted that this was how his life would go, running off in a long stream into the future like the stripes down an endless highway. He couldn’t see much else to expect. He tried to assure himself that success for him meant success for Cannon, more contracts, happy clients, stunning projects of brick or stone taking their places in the real world.

Why couldn’t that be enough?

His jaw pulsed, and he threw the rest of the whiskey down his throat before thrusting himself up from the couch. He stood at the window briefly. Down there, among a million lights and the ragged skyline of St. Louis, Riley Montgomery pursued her private life. Maybe she was in bed already, doing the professional career woman routine. Maybe she had a lover. Fuck, maybe she was married. He didn’t know and shouldn’t care.

That’s how it would stay.

Why the hell he gave that woman a second thought, he had no idea. He crossed the room, set his empty glass on the marble counter, and turned off the lights. The black silk robe brushed open against his boxers as he walked to his bedroom.


Chapter Three


Riley’s phone chirped. She shifted her position on the couch to check the caller ID and muted the television.

“Hello Lucy, what’s up?”

“Got a surprise. Can I come over?”

Her voice sounded excited. Riley briefly struggled with the strong urge to tell her ‘no.’ But she didn’t have to stress about Lucy. “Uh, sure. What’s the surprise?”

Lucy’s laughter echoed through the phone. “Can’t tell you yet, silly. It’s a freaking surprise. I’ll be there in a bit.”

Riley sat with the phone in her hand then got up and padded to the kitchen with her dirty dishes. Lucy wouldn’t care whether she had on pajamas, and she was too tired to change anyway. Whatever the surprise, Riley hoped it wasn’t one of Lucy’s major eruptions. She simply did not have the strength for it.

Lucy’s knock sounded a short time later. Riley opened the door and watched her friend sweep into the room, her umbrella glistening wet and droplets of water on her nose.

“Oh, my god,” Lucy began, her dark eyes darting in excitement. “You are not going to believe this.” She stood the umbrella to drip in Riley’s entry hall and then scooted toward the kitchen carrying a bottle of wine.

Irrepressible Lucy. Riley couldn’t stifle her smile. Energy seemed to form mysteriously inside Lucy’s body and radiate outward onto everything and everyone around her. Her dark eyes and curly dark hair constantly darted and tumbled like a mountain stream. Riley shook her head in amusement, standing at the kitchen bar watching as Lucy rummaged through the drawers for the corkscrew.

“So I’m in the Perth Center this afternoon, and Charlie is in there hanging his work, he’s got a show, you know, and you’re going with me, right, tomorrow night?” Her forehead wrinkled as she glanced at Riley.

“Yes, I said I’d go.” Actually, she had kind of forgotten. She leaned tiredly on the bar.

Lucy’s curls bounced as she popped the cork out of the bottle. “Well, anyway, he tells me he overheard Lymon Ames talking about that piece I’ve got in the Halston exhibit. Lymon said he thought it was powerful, and that he’d like to see more of that artist.” She pulled glasses from Riley’s shelf and splashed them half full of wine. “That artist!” she exclaimed, her smile radiating across the space between them. “That would be me,” she said, swaggering as she handed Riley her glass.

“Shit, Luce.” Riley laughed. “That’s great!” She raised her glass to Lucy’s. “This could be the big break you need. Congratulations!”

“Damn straight,” Lucy replied. “To big breaks!”

Riley bit her tongue for a second then couldn’t keep from spilling her news. “I had a break of my own—it’s a lucky day for both of us. A new account, a big one. Retainer and everything!”

Lucy’s eyes widened. “Damn! That’s fantastic, Riley.” She lifted her glass. “Congratulations to you! No more hanging on by your fingernails.”

The glasses clanged and the two women smiled as they sipped wine.

“Pretty much down to one fingernail,” Riley said, examining her hands with an exaggerated gesture. She allowed herself a moment of jubilation. “Yes! It’s fantastic. Big account. Now if I had about ten more of these, I could relax.” She immediately sobered and took another drink of the wine. “But on the downside, I have to deliver. This guy has problems, looks like money is disappearing and on first glance, I think it’s going to be hard to dig out the cause.” She followed Lucy to the couch.

“Worse,” she continued after a moment’s hesitation, “he’s about the most devastatingly handsome man I’ve seen in my life. I mean, killer magnetism. I’ve got to steer wide around this one.”

Lucy’s face shadowed briefly as she took another drink. “Wow. That’s scary. I thought that Angles guy pretty much secured your immunity to men.”

Riley leaned her head back on the soft upholstery and then turned to look at Lucy. Did she think just because she commented on a man’s looks that she had suddenly lost interest in what they had? Okay, her admission kind of took her outside the margins of her life lately. Or ever. She’d had too many creeps in her life, mostly men who still functioned emotionally like little boys. Super high maintenance. Like she was supposed to take care of them, figure out what they wanted, fulfill their fantasies.

What about her fantasies? Did men even have a clue?

Besides all that, she didn’t have time.

There was so much about Lucy that appealed to her. For one thing, she took care of her own shit. Not a whiner. Full speed ahead, whatever it was. Riley seriously doubted that Lucy would even recognize a so-called barrier if it hit her in the face.

She smiled at Lucy, charmed as always by her intense sexuality. Her green blouse draped over her curvaceous chest, and her tight jeans molded her hips and thighs. Riley let her gaze drift down the jean’s crease before looking back to her smiling face.

“Yeah, I thought so, too. Maybe I need a fresh inoculation,” she said, reaching over to run her hand over Lucy’s breast. The nipple hardened immediately.

“Shit.” Lucy set her wine glass on the coffee table. “Inoculation, stat.”

She swung her leg over to straddle Riley’s lap and brushed her full lips over Riley’s mouth. Riley closed her eyes, breathing in Lucy’s exotic scent. It always provoked visions of desert caravans and men with turbans. Frankincense? Amber? She’d never quite figured out exactly what it was. Lucy swore she had no idea what she was talking about.

Her breasts swelled against Lucy’s—she could feel their hard nipples rubbing against each other through their clothes. She ran her hands up under Lucy’s shirt, across the smooth skin of her sides and over the full satin cups of her bra.

Lucy’s quiet ‘umm’ punctuated the distant television murmur as Riley released the bra catch. Silken skin met her fingertips as she brought her hands around to the front, easing away the pressure lines of the bra. Her light touches circled the heavy breasts, spiraling to the nipple and back. She loved to play with Lucy this way, not fully undressed, teasing as long as possible.

Impatient, Lucy shrugged her green blouse off her shoulders and her bra fell away.

“Damn, girlfriend.”

Riley laughed. With her hands and mouth centered on the soft breasts, she caressed with her tongue and pulled the stiff nipples against her teeth. Lucy’s breasts always made her hot. A little hot swirl circled low in her belly.

Lucy moaned and arched her back. She tugged at Riley’s pajama shirt buttons, pulling them open one by one. Cool air swept over Riley’s breasts. Her nipples puckered as Lucy shifted position and buried her face between Riley’s breasts.

“Oooh, suddenly I’m not so tired,” she muttered.

Lucy teased her nipples with little flicks of her tongue. Then she leaned up and began flicking Riley’s swollen clit through the loose pajama pants.

“Oh, shit, shit.” Her thighs clenched.

“You are so fucking hot,” Lucy whispered.

“I am now.”

Lucy pushed her back to lie on the couch and pulled at her pajama pants until Riley lifted her hips to release them. With one of Riley’s legs dangling over the edge of the couch, Lucy’s hands smoothed over Riley’s thighs toward her freshly exposed pussy. Lucy’s hands and mouth left nothing unexplored as Riley raced closer to orgasm. Suddenly Lucy seized the exposed protrusion between her teeth and sucked it hard.

Heat raced through Riley’s belly, sending a burst of moisture against Lucy’s probing fingers. She wanted her mouth on Lucy’s center. Her hand pushed between Lucy’s legs, forcing a groan.

“Fucking fuck,” Lucy swore under her breath.

“Bed,” Riley managed to gasp.

Laughing, the two women ran to the bedroom. In the dim light, she pulled Lucy’s jeans down over her hips, shoved her back to sit on the foot of the bed while she pulled off Lucy’s shoes, and threw the bedcovers back. Lucy spread out across the white sheets, her legs apart.

“Hurry up, you bitch,” Lucy panted.

Riley hovered over the other woman, holding down Lucy’s arms. This was the part she enjoyed the most, dragging out the tension.

“Come on, damn you,” Lucy said, trying to twist away from Riley’s grip.

Riley leaned down, teasing their nipples together. With her knee firmly planted between Lucy’s legs, she nudged harder, crushing the wet heat against her thigh.

“You deserve to wait,” Riley said, pressing rhythmically against Lucy’s center. “I was done for the day before you showed up. This. Is. Your. Pun. Ish. Ment.”

“Fuck fuck,” Lucy cried. “I’m on the edge.”

Riley grinned, massaging Lucy’s hot center with her knee. Lucy’s hips thrust and wriggled in her desperation for release.

Finally Riley relented. Her mouth met Lucy’s in a long kiss, her tongue darting and probing against Lucy’s lips. Then she moved her kisses down Lucy’s delicious body until she parted her swollen vulva lips with her fingertips and teased the pink nub of flesh to a quivering ridge. Her tongue shoved against the nub. She penetrated Lucy’s wet folds with a finger, sliding in and out only a short distance.

Lucy’s hips jerked as Riley delayed any satisfaction.

“You’re killing me,” Lucy said with a groan. “I need you.”

“Take me,” Riley said.

Lucy shifted position, turning around in the bed to put her face between Riley’s thighs. She kneaded Riley’s buttocks and played with the wet opening in taunting little jabs. Riley couldn’t keep her hips from thrusting against Lucy’s hands as her fingers penetrated deeper.

Lucy knew her spots. With Lucy’s mouth clamped on her throbbing clit and her fingers stroking her G-spot, fire raced up Riley’s legs and buttocks and circled in her belly. Everything ignited in a sharp pulsing through her pussy and clit. Her groans and Lucy’s muffled shrieks sank into the soft bed as their bodies thrashed and bucked.

Lucy’s mouth stayed locked on her throbbing clit, forcing the last spasms of her friend’s orgasm. Riley added another finger and spread her tongue through Lucy’s drenched folds, lapping and teasing. Lucy’s pussy contracted around her fingers until her hips quivered in release.

“Oh, baby,” Lucy shuddered, bringing herself tightly beside Riley to kiss her cheek. “Baby baby.”

Riley pulled the covers to their thighs and let her hand rest on the soft curve of Lucy’s hip.

“I think I’ll be saved from Dan Cannon,” she whispered, kissing Lucy’s shoulder. “Successful intervention.”

Lucy’s magical laugh sparkled through the room. “Damn, this day just keeps getting better.”

“Umm,” Riley murmured. “Too bad you have to go home and I’m already there.”

“You’re such a bitch,” Lucy complained, nestling closer to Riley.




Chapter Four



The next day, Riley took the cashier’s check Mr. Cannon had messengered to her and deposited it in her bank account. It had been for a substantially larger amount than she had quoted, obviously a mistake. She had the teller cut a check for the difference so she could repay him.

She hurried down the sidewalk to arrive at Cannon Company offices at precisely nine a.m. Her dedication to being on time bordered on the obsessive, but it was a matter of professional pride for her. Actually, being on time applied to everything, professional or otherwise. Once she’d gotten in the habit of calculating travel time and all the other variables that could impact timeliness, she actually couldn’t stop.

Cannon Company occupied a sizeable portion of the 12th floor of the recently renovated Railway Exchange Building in downtown St. Louis, a massive old building of pale stone with carved fleur-de-lis and ornate sconce features around the entry. Her heels tapped a quick rhythm as she hurried across the marble floor to the elevator. Riding up, she tried to quiet the nervous flutter in her stomach, just as much anticipation of seeing Dan Cannon again as it was the thrill of applying her forensic skills to the company books.

A friendly secretary named Sharon Webb ushered her down a hallway. She was a petite woman with graying hair, glasses, and a friendly smile. Sharon reached inside a doorway and flipped on lights. The sleek conference room appointed with Art Deco lights and heavy period furniture included an exquisite long table of rich dark wood where the first set of files had been delivered. Thick gray carpet sank under Riley’s pumps as she adjusted the jacket of her navy blue suit and surveyed the task before her.

A pitcher of ice water waited on a side table, along with a carafe of coffee, condiments, glasses, mugs. Framed architectural drawings on massive sheets of paper hung along the interior wall. Shielding the room from glaring morning sun, gauzy white curtains covered the wall of windows. Briefly, she wondered if she would see Dan today, but then cautioned herself with a brief smile about her ‘inoculation’ last night with Lucy. If he didn’t show up, she planned to leave the check with Sharon. No way was she going to start things off here with any misunderstanding.

Riley kicked off her high heels, peeled off the suit jacket, and went to work, making neat stacks as she sorted receipts. At each new invoice, she went through the ledgers to check off the entries. Yes, there was software that could do this, and she felt confident that Dan or whoever handled his accounting had already done that. What she was looking for could easily slide past in that approach. This was personal.

Or at least, it felt that way to her. Nothing was more personal to a businessperson than money, after all. Every time she found a slight discrepancy, even a different handwriting, she examined it closely. These were clues in a mystery she was determined to solve. In college, only a few of her classmates ‘got it,’ understood the thrill of tracking down a tiny detail that ultimately proved key to solving a massive problem. She loved that thrill.

After a while, the secretary returned with another box. Except for a few breaks, Riley worked through the morning as box after box arrived. A row of boxes formed an increasingly longer line along the far side of the table. Her stack of printouts bristled with colored flags marking documents she wanted to double check against summary reports.

Her head lolled back against the tall chair as she rubbed her neck. It always turned out like this—once she got started, she never wanted to stop. It always seemed the conclusion hung temptingly close. But, she realized as she checked her watch, it was past one p.m. and any conclusion waited far down the line after many more days, maybe weeks, of work. If she didn’t get something to eat soon, her hunger would interfere with her thinking, and then her work would be compromised. With a sigh, she stood up and fumbled her feet under the table, trying to find her shoes.

The conference room door swung open and Sharon came in with carry-out food. “Mr. Cannon said you should eat. He took the liberty of ordering for you.”

Riley looked up in surprise. She’d become so engrossed she hardly knew where she was or the day of the week. Wonderful aroma poured out as she opened packages of food. Her mouth watered.

“Please tell him ‘thank you,’ this is perfect!” Riley replied, smiling at Sharon. Chinese—noodles, rice, stir-fry. Even a large cup of green tea. She spread napkins on the glossy table and opened more cartons, jamming bites into her mouth as she continued to compare receipts to entries.

As the afternoon progressed, strands of her hair worked loose under her constant fidgeting. She hardly noticed. What she was finding so far consisted of tiny errors going both ways, some invoice amounts entered in the system for a greater amount, but others for lesser amounts. If anyone had been trying to fix the books, this wouldn’t have been useful. There were a few entries without invoices, but nothing that would add up to the scale of the losses. She rubbed her forehead and glanced around the table where mostly empty cartons of food and tea sat jumbled with her napkins alongside neat stacks of the receipts she had most recently reviewed.

The conference room door opened and Dan Cannon stepped inside. “Ms. Montgomery,” he said with a nod. “It’s five-thirty and we’re closing our offices. Shall I provide a key?”

Riley looked up and let his words sink in. His suit jacket draped over his arm and his shirt sleeves had been rolled halfway up revealing tan, muscled forearms. His presence overpowered her. Damn it. Her stare settled briefly on his face, meeting his eyes.

“Five-thirty? Sorry, I got absorbed.” She looked at the messy table and hurried to stuff food cartons into the bag. “Sorry, I’ve made a mess. Shall I, uh, what trash container should I use for this?” She came around the end of the table, realizing as his gaze ran over her body that her shoes remained under the table. “Sorry…” she flushed, holding the trash and looking around.

“Three ‘sorries’ is more than enough,” he said with a laugh. “Here, let me have the trash,” he continued, striding toward her. His hands brushed hers as he took the bags.

She jerked back from the brief contact. Instant sparks shot between their fingers, one of those ridiculous things you read about, his eyes met hers, et cetera. With a slight shake of her head, she turned and went back to the table where she crouched to find her shoes.

“Riley?” His voice came directly behind her. “Can I help you with something?”

She rose up quickly, bashing her head on the edge of the table, which knocked her back on her butt with a sharp pain cracking down her temples. “Oh!” Her legs flew out as she tried to regain her balance.

A firm grip on her hand steadied her. Flushing in embarrassment, she grabbed the damn shoes and clamored up from the floor. He pulled her up and she collapsed in the chair. She could feel the heat on her cheeks. Of all the stupid…

“Sorry to startle you. Are you alright?” He hovered over her, those damn forearms looming in front of her face.

She gingerly felt of her head where she had hit it on the table. A small knot had formed. “Yes, I’ll be fine. I’m sorry.”

“Another ‘sorry,’” he said in an amused tone. “If you’d like to get your things together, I’ll show you out.”

Her hand brushed over her hair where her ponytail had long since dissolved into chaos. The fall and awkward recovery had jacked her skirt halfway up her thighs. She dropped the heels to the floor in front of her and wriggled her feet inside before standing up. She could only hope he didn’t judge her professional work by the jumble of the last five minutes.

What the hell got into her, anyway? She normally had complete confidence in what she was doing and had handled any number of awkward situations over the years. And she really wasn’t clumsy. She felt completely flustered and out of control.

Great.

With a jerk, she pulled on her jacket, grabbed her briefcase and purse, and looked over the table. “Oh, wait—I forgot. The deposit you sent yesterday.” She fumbled in her purse for the check. “Here—you overpaid me.”

He glanced at the check and shook his head. “It wasn’t an overpayment. I thought it might help for you to have more to start. I’d prefer you not be distracted by any financial concerns while you work here.”

Riley’s mouth formed a brief “O” as heat flooded her cheeks. Had he seen something, maybe the scuffed shoes? She felt incredibly embarrassed. Did he think she was a charity case?

His expression brooked no protest.

“Well, that’s very generous,” she said. “Thank you. But—are you sure?”

“Completely sure,” he said with a smile.

The warmth in her face spread down her chest and curled into a small knot low in her belly. She shoved the check back into her purse and glanced at the files.

“Will this be disturbed over the weekend?”

He stood by the door staring at her intently. “No,” he said after a moment’s hesitation. “I’m locking the door.”

She brushed past him on her way to the hall and heard his key turn the lock. They walked in silence to the elevator. A mixture of aftershave and his personal scent made her nostrils twitch. Just standing this close to him also made certain other areas twitch, but that was so far out of the realm of consideration, she ignored it.

Her neck prickled as the elevator descended. She couldn’t seem to get her clothes properly adjusted, but didn’t want to keep fussing over herself. She could feel him looking at her from where he stood slightly behind but beside her. Should she try to initiate conversation? Somehow she had to recover her dignity, reassure him she was perfectly capable of taking care of business.

“Do you have plans for a fun weekend?” she blurted out. It was the only thing she could think to say. And completely inappropriate. Now he would think she had some agenda, or that she really cared about his personal life, neither of which was true. She bit her lip and looked up at his curious stare.

“I suppose you could call it fun,” he murmured with a grin. “A few things around the house, maybe catch a social event or two, you know, build those business contacts.”

Damn, his smile did something magical to his eyes. “Yes,” she said, remembering to breathe. “I know how that works.”

The elevator dinged open at the lobby and she straightened her jacket again before aiming her steps to the entry.

“Where are you parked? Can I give you a lift to your car?”

She turned to face him where he had stopped near the elevator. “Oh, I’m just down the block at the Gaston Garage. It’s the only one I found that wasn’t under renovation.”

“Lots of construction going on around here. Good for business.”

He smiled, another heart-crushing flash of ice blue eyes and all the right creases and dimples. He pointed at the door marked “Garage” at the back of the lobby, then looked back at her. “We’ve got a few reserved spaces. Next week, you should park here. We can provide a voucher.”

“Oh, yes, that would be quite welcome,” she said. “Thank you again.”

After a brief hesitation during which a hundred thoughts ricocheted around in her head, she walked as calmly as possible toward the entry, aware of him watching her. The fresh outside air did little to cool her heated condition.

If he decided to find someone else for this work, she could only blame herself. Everything he had seen of her this afternoon had been entirely unprofessional, definitely not her best foot forward. Whatever the hell was wrong with her, she needed to get over it fast.

As she marched down the street, she determined that in future, assuming the job remained hers, she would think about the numbers only—and not muscular forearms. Or dimples. Or any of the many other aspects of Dan Cannon that somehow had become emblazed on her brain.

~~~

Dan stood in the lobby until Riley’s form hurried past the building’s front windows. Everything about that woman perturbed him and not in a bad way. Well, not bad if he was a horn dog on the make. Which he was not.

Well, fuck, whatever. His cock said otherwise. He adjusted himself, trying to forget what he’d just seen.

When she’d fallen in the conference room and those legs pumped into the air, he had barely been able to keep his hand from running up that silken thigh. The sudden urge surprised him. Jesus, he hadn’t realized how much he needed a woman.

He felt a sudden urge to drive fast and hit things. Instead, he slammed into his car, tossed his briefcase on the passenger seat, and turned up the volume on a Miles Davis compact disc. With more than a few curses, he maneuvered the car through downtown rush hour traffic. Once inside his condo, he poured a glass half full of whiskey and took a drink before shucking off his shoes and suit. Whatever he had on his calendar for the evening, it would have to work with jeans.

That trip with Alex last year had ruined him. Suits never used to chaff. Now, after five days in a suit, he couldn’t live another minute dressed up. Sometimes he found himself deep in thought remembering the cabin, the heat pouring off that wood stove, and the decadent pleasure of wearing the same clothes for days at a time. The satisfaction of basic living still surprised him. He zipped up the jeans and elbowed his way into an old t-shirt.

Still in sock feet, he walked back across the living room and pulled up his laptop. He didn’t want to go anywhere, but a niggling reminder lurked somewhere in the back of his mind. He scrolled down the calendar page. Damn. A gallery showing. He’d promised to meet Henry Wilkins. Henry had some young artist under his wing, Charlie something, and insisted Dan view his work.

No doubt Henry hoped Dan would spend some money, send a signal to other guests that that the artist’s work had merit. But Dan wasn’t in any position to drop a chunk of money on a piece of art even if he liked it, which he doubted he would. Anyway, most of the modern stuff left him cold, and it seemed increasingly difficult to find anything else. If he had a dime to spare, it wouldn’t be abstract. He’d found himself lately longing for landscapes, pastoral scenes of rivers and mountains.

Not that he went out of his way to buy art. That had been one of Cathleen’s many methods of disposing of their income, although in retrospect he wondered if all those showings hadn’t been more about her trolling for men to add to her collection. He’d been glad to see her purchases go with her, even if the condo now looked a little bare.

He took another drink. Fuck Cathleen. Fortunately, catching her in the act meant he didn’t have to give her any alimony. Damn good thing. With this situation at the company, his finances hovered on the brink of disaster. If the audit didn’t uncover the problem, he would have no choice but to face some major downsizing in his lifestyle.

Not for the first time, Dan ran down the list of possible thieves: Julia, the bookkeeper; Amy or Connie, assistants to him and Julie; or worst case, the former accounting firm, Brace and Stanton. He’d known Scott Brace most of his life, and Mark Stanton almost as long. That either of them would steal from him simply didn’t process. But then, neither did the idea of embezzlement by any of the three women. Sharon, their secretary? Not a chance in hell. He shook his head and drained the glass before pushing himself up from the couch to check the oven for whatever his housekeeper had left for his dinner.

~~~

Riley stood in the shower trying to relax. Her head hurt, her neck hurt, her body hurt, and even hot water and her favorite rosemary-goats milk soap didn’t seem to knock her out of her funk. Too much stress, her entire energy focused on the Cannon documents for hour after hour of fruitless analysis. On top of that lingered the damn head bump under the observant eye of Dan Cannon. She toweled her hair and threw on a robe before going to the kitchen to pour a drink.

Hell, it was Friday night and maybe the normal thing for a single female her age would be to look forward to an outing certain to be thronged with eligible men. But the last thing she wanted to do was go out with Lucy to a damn art show. Men were off her radar, maybe permanently, and she had no money to buy anything. Which left exactly no reason for her to go.

But she had promised and in an hour or so, Lucy would be pounding on the door, full of excitement and expecting the same from her. Even with their pact, Lucy wasn’t one to take men or anything else off her radar. Riley knew her old friend would flame up at the first enticing male opportunity, and she didn’t begrudge her that. They’d been through too much together to let a little matter of sex or even romance get between them. And yes, if she insisted, Lucy would let her off the hook for the night. Much preferable would be an evening to wash the dirty dishes piled up in her sink, straighten things on the counters, and generally tidy up so she could feel like her life had some order.

Still, she felt obligated and now that the wine was kicking in on her empty stomach, she felt a thready rush of pleasure at the idea of circulating in a room packed with music and joviality. At least she didn’t have to drive. On the downside, that meant she’d be trapped at the show until Lucy decided to leave, and she knew from past experience that Lucy saw these events as an integral part of her professional development. Kissing and hugging, meeting and greeting, getting her name and face out there—Riley agreed those things were necessary, and in the right frame of mind, would have approached the evening as a business opportunity of her own.

She shook her head and slid onto the comfortable couch with a bag of salted almonds and a bottle of wine. The familiar upholstery grabbed her tired body and a sharp pain radiated from the knot on her head. She flipped through the channels, settling on a program only a few minutes before changing. Everything annoyed her, not a good portent for the rest of the evening. Her sudden memory of the end of her tiring day at Cannon caused her to grimace at her clumsy exit.

What actually upset her, she realized as she poured more wine, was the impact of Dan Cannon’s body. Something about his presence set her teeth on edge. She needed that distraction like a hole in the head.

“Halfway there on the hole part,” she muttered to herself, gingerly touching the sore lump. Of all the ridiculous…

A sliver of argument raised its voice as the evening news droned on TV. She was a big girl now, experienced in her field and pushing thirty. Perhaps she could dally with the man, satisfy her growing urge to play with what promised to be an incredible sexual experience. She flashed on his arms tied behind him as she teased his body. Everything about him made her mouth water. She’d never ruled out sex for pleasure. It wasn’t like she had some big moral issue with such things.

But, damn it, she knew herself well enough to know that she had never figured out how to have casual sex with a guy. Dan Cannon was not the one to learn on.

Swearing off men had been her only alternative after slowly coming to hate the constant leers and innuendo coming from Mark Angles. He didn’t seem at all constrained by his marriage, or by laws against sexual harassment of employees, or by common decency. By the time she’d saved enough money to start her own company, she’d lost count of how many times he’d cornered her to run his hands over her breasts or slap her ass.

Besides, if she felt attracted enough to let a man touch her body, there wasn’t anything casual about it. At the moment, she couldn’t remember when that was. College maybe, when she had believed the sun rose and set with Dwayne Highland. That same year, she had ventured into a fling with a female grad student who showed her that she didn’t have to put up with male egos to have a good time.

This Dan Cannon guy exuded a rare male charisma that captured her imagination and now was luring her toward something she couldn’t risk. She knew it like she knew the back of her hand. He was a road straight to heartache. This zingy hot feeling curling down her belly when she thought about him had to stop.

She drained the wine glass, poured more, and stood at her closet. Now that she had fucked off, the time of Lucy’s arrival rapidly approached. Dizzy with wine and fatigue, she tried on dresses and fancy tops and none of it suited her. She kept thinking of how she would look for Dan. And Dan wouldn’t even be there.

With little time left before Lucy’s arrival, she yanked out the green silk, probably way too fancy for the evening but people wore all kinds of stuff to these events. She wanted to look good for Lucy, help create the buzz Lucy needed. A sense of rebellion stirred in her chest. She slipped the dress down over her nude form and belatedly pulled on a pair of thong panties before jamming her feet into her shiny black heels.

No way was she torturing her sore head with a ponytail. She stared in the mirror at her straight blonde hair. It trailed past her shoulders and down the front of the dress, almost to her breasts, which, she suddenly remembered from previous excursions in this garment, presented themselves prominently against the sleek silk. The neckline of the dress lay smoothly across her collarbone and over the shoulder before plunging to a deep draped line halfway down her back. The skirt flared a little, but most of her leg room came from slits up both sides.

Modeling briefly side to side, she made a face at herself in the mirror, ogling wide-eyed with a green stare. As best she could reason with the wine flush heating her body, she looked like somebody on the make. On second thought, maybe this was too much for the gallery or her status in life. She went back to the closet and pulled out a black dress, maybe more suitable, but then Lucy was yelling at the door.

“What do you think,” she said, turning in the hallway as Lucy closed the door behind her. “Is this too out there?”

“Shit,” Lucy said, her eyes dancing. “Nobody will look at Charlie’s art.” She dropped her shawl and did her own turn. “What about this?”

Riley had always been attracted to Lucy’s body, even when they were dating men and entirely hetero. Her medium build had just enough curve to be wonderfully voluptuous. Her full breasts piled up over the extremely low straight-across neckline of an orange satin sheath, pulling the fabric taut. Riley’s nipples tightened as her stare lingered on Lucy’s breasts.

“Oh, God, Lucy, is that one of your vintage finds? It’s fabulous.”

“Yes, can you believe, twenty bucks at Goodwill.”

With an evil grin, Lucy modeled the dress, jutting her hips sideways as she turned. The sheath fit like a glove, molding over the curve of her butt and down her thighs to just past her knees. Her short black hair bounded exuberantly around a red sequined headband, and long red earrings dangled three inches down her neck. A pair of sexy red heels finished it off.

“You’re right, nobody will look at Charlie’s art.” Riley laughed, downing the last of her wine. “But if he wanted excitement, he’s got it.” She followed Lucy down to her car.

They were halfway to the gallery when she realized she had never eaten anything for dinner.

“I’m trashed on wine,” she giggled to Lucy. “I forgot dinner.”

“Don’t worry, Charlie spent a wad on refreshments.” Lucy patted her leg, sliding the silk up her thigh and allowing her little finger to brush over the front of Riley’s panties.

Riley picked up the hand and put it back on Lucy’s leg. “No, no, I’ll have a wet spot on my silk if you keep that up.”

The gallery lot already bulged with cars. They had to walk a half block, hanging onto each other and trading brief kisses.

“Look at this,” Lucy enthused as they edged in the doorway. A sea of bodies packed the place. Voices rose and fell against the jazz music playing in the background. “Come on,” Lucy urged. “Let’s find Charlie.”

Riley could feel men’s gazes following them as they shouldered their way through the crowd. She needed more wine if she was going to keep the headache from coming back. A waiter passed with a tray of filled wine glasses and she grabbed one for herself and one for Lucy.

“Luce,” she yelled over the noise, handing her the glass. “Did you see any food?”

Lucy pointed to the far corner where a mini-bar stood next to a long table covered with dishes of food. Riley smiled, nodded, and made sign language about her intentions before gulping half the wine and then starting in that direction.

Moving through the room felt like swimming in hot brie. Excited bodies heated by wine and late July Friday night energy rubbed against her every step of the way. No way not to have body contact. She shrugged and relaxed into it as faces turned to her with big smiles.

Music thumped her eardrums. Big canvasses mounted on wall panels formed staggered corners through the center of the room. Bits of shouted conversation drifted past as she worked her way through the crowd. Even larger works hung on the main walls, bright colors in abstract landscapes and portraits. By the time she had made it two-thirds of the way across the room, her wine had disappeared and she felt truly drunk.

A huge canvas appeared in front of her, sweeping lines of what she guessed were hills splashed across the scene in luminous shades of orange, yellow, red and shading down to magenta. A cool turquoise stream, daubed with emerald and lime and white accents, splashed to the foreground. At least, it looked like it should be a stream. Water rivulets formed in thick streaks of the brilliant paint.

“This is my favorite,” a voice said at her ear. “What about you?”

Hair stood up on the back of her neck. That voice—she could see him without looking. Dan Cannon. What the hell was he doing here? She was way too trashed to deal with a client.

Her eyes slid sideways as she turned her head. She licked her lips, trying to form the right words as her blurry gaze connected with his. Shit. Those pale blue eyes, smiling at her barely a foot away from her face. She felt her body drift toward him. Her nipples tightened. Shit. Shit.

“Umm, yes,” she breathed, lifting her glass to take a drink before realizing it was empty. “Oh, shit.” She rolled her eyes. Did she just say ‘shit’ in front of a client. “It’s very beautiful, I like it. Good colors,” she said, enunciating her words carefully.

A big smile creased his face and she felt his hand on her waist. Heat blazed from his hand across her back and over her buttocks. Oh god, she had to figure out how to stop this. Her mind wasn’t working very well. She leaned slightly into his hand.

“A little tipsy,” she said in a confidential tone. “Forgot dinner.” She nodded with a lopsided smile.

He raised an eyebrow and leaned toward her. “Shall I refresh your glass and grab a few bites of food?”

“Oh, yes.” Her eyes opened wide. She reached up and pulled her hair back behind her ears, standing on tiptoe to figure out how far it was to the food. She didn’t know if she could get all the way over there on her own. She really needed to sit down. “Ohh,” she said again, grasping his arm.


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