Park Slope in Brooklyn, New York
NIKKI leaned back against the wall and closed her eyes, fighting for control.
She hadn’t meant to eavesdrop on her sister, Krista. She’d simply planned to ask her about dinner plans, hesitating outside the room when she’d heard her own name mentioned. Her sister’s voice continued—relentless and sincere, inflicting wounds as painful as they were unintentional.
“I’m sorry,” Krista repeated. “I don’t know why you bothered to phone when you already know my answer. I can’t. I owe Nikki. I won’t desert her now.”
Why hadn’t she realized? Nikki wondered in anguish. Why hadn’t she noticed that Krista’s needs were no longer the same as seven years ago?
“She’s my sister, that’s why!” Krista’s voice rose in anger. “She gave up everything to take care of me. What do you want me to say? Thanks. You saved my life but now I’m out of here? I’ve decided to move in with my girlfriend?”
Saved her life? Nikki shook her head. She’d done so little. Offering a home after the death of Krista’s husband seemed the only logical option. She’d been pregnant. What other choice was there? Family came first. Family always came first.
“Well, I can’t and that’s the end of it! After what she sacrificed for me, the least I can do is be there for her now. Keli and I are all she has. And we’re staying until she doesn’t need us anymore.”
Nikki didn’t wait to hear the rest of the conversation. Silently, she retraced her steps down the hallway and entered the small room she used for a secondary office. Crossing to the desk, she opened the top drawer and removed a thick, gold-embossed envelope. It weighted her hand like a lump of lead, and yet the elegant ticket inside was anything but. An engraved wafer of gold, it offered a solution to all her problems.
She had prayed she wouldn’t need to resort to such a drastic alternative. A choked laugh escaped before she could prevent it. She’d purchased the ticket because the situation at work had grown so untenable. It never occurred to her that she’d have a dual reason for going ahead with her plan. Unfortunately, overhearing Krista’s conversation closed all avenues but one.
Slowly, she withdrew a white velvet pouch from the envelope. Inside the protective casing, the ticket shimmered as though alive, flooding the room with a brilliant, golden promise. For many people, the ticket would represent a dream come true.
Before she could control it, a lone tear slid down her cheek.
So why did it feel like a nightmare?
“Oh, Jonah, thank heaven you came.” Della Sanders flew into her son’s arms and hugged him fiercely.
A hint of amusement lightened Jonah Alexander’s grim expression. “Did you doubt I would?” he responded, wrapping his mother in a gentle embrace.
For such a tiny creature, she brimmed with passion and energy and emotion. She was also a woman who inspired unwavering devotion. Jonah had spent a lifetime watching as she charmed those around her with unconscious ease. Some singular quality reflected in her soft hazel eyes and shy, welcoming smile could soften even the most hardened men, men like her second husband, Loren Sanders. In his line of work, tough, ruthless males were the rule rather than the exception and yet she’d won over the steely, confirmed bachelor in five seconds flat.
Della peeked over her shoulder at her husband and offered an apologetic smile. “Loren wasn’t certain you’d be willing to bail Eric out of his latest mess.” Her breath escaped in an exasperated sigh. “And to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t, either. He’s really gotten himself into a pickle this time.”
Reaching around his mother, Jonah offered a hand to his stepfather. “You shouldn’t have waited before getting in touch, Loren. Family always comes first with me. You know that.”
It had ever since Jonah had been a rebellious, angry ten-year-old who’d unexpectedly found himself graced with a stepfather who’d appealed to both his intellect as well as his emotions. Loren had become an unconditional friend. And the deep and enduring love he’d given Della for the past twenty-five years sealed Jonah’s eternal support and gratitude.
“You’ve always been a good brother to Eric,” Loren said. “But the European operation keeps you so busy, we hated to bother you with this. Besides, we didn’t realize how serious it was until recently. I just hope we’re not too late.”
Jonah released his mother and crossed to the floor-to-ceiling windows. The Sanders’ Chicago condominium commanded a stunning view of Lake Michigan—a view that under normal circumstances he’d have taken the time to appreciate. “Tell me about it,” he requested, turning his back on the expanse of tinted glass.
“Eric’s fallen for a married woman,” Della announced starkly. “An older married woman.”
Jonah lifted an eyebrow. Not the smartest thing Eric had ever done, but hardly the most reprehensible. “And?”
“And she works for us,” Loren explained. “Their relationship is interfering with both her performance and his. Between them they almost lost the Dearfield account.”
Jonah swore beneath his breath. It must be bad if Eric had put a woman ahead of their most important client. What the hell could he be thinking? Obviously, handing over the New York branch of the business to his half-brother hadn’t matured him any. “Do I know her?”
“Her name’s Nikki Ashton. She’s—”
“Head of Special Projects. Yes, I’ve heard of her. I don’t think we’ve ever met, though.” Jonah ran a hand across his nape, forcing himself to focus despite his exhaustion. “You hired her right after I left for London. What’s she like?”
“She’s a stunning woman, one of those leggy redheads.”
“Loren,” Della rebuked, “you know how much I hate it when you reduce people to the superficial.”
He fingered his salt-and-pepper mustache and gave an apologetic shrug. “Sorry, darling. Old habits die hard.”
“Get rid of her,” Jonah recommended without hesitation.
Loren cleared his throat. “I’m afraid we can’t.”
“The company needs her. For one thing, she’s brilliant,” Loren admitted. “And for another, she’s just been nominated for the Lawrence J. Bauman Award. The ceremony’s in six weeks. How would it look if we fired someone of that caliber?”
Jonah’s mouth tightened. Unfortunately, they were right. Businessmen and -women nominated for the LJB Award were the most sought after in the country. It would cause irreparable harm to International Investment’s reputation if they were to dump a potential winner on some trumped up excuse. “Have you spoken to Eric about the situation?”
“No,” Della admitted. “We kept hoping it would blow over. You know Eric. He falls in and out of love more often than the wind changes.”
“But not this time.”
Della shook her head, tears gathering in her eyes. “She must be quite a special woman to hold his interest this long.”
Jonah turned to face the windows. He knew Eric well enough to suspect which qualities needed to be so “special” to snag his half-brother’s attention for any prolonged length of time. If Nikki Ashton was a tenth as brilliant as Loren claimed, she’d have figured it out, as well. And she’d have used her wealth of riches to bring Eric to heel. He’d have been easy prey for a savvy—not to mention leggy—redhead.
“What about her husband?” Jonah questioned over his shoulder. “Or doesn’t Mr. Ashton care that Mrs. Ashton is having a fling with her boss?”
“We don’t know anything about him other than he’s been out of the country for the past year,” Loren confessed. “I don’t even think his name is Ashton. She married about the time she started with us, but kept her maiden name. I checked with personnel and Nikki never gave them any details. He’s not part of her insurance or benefit program, either. He’s not even listed as an emergency contact. Only her sister is.” He shrugged. “I’m afraid that avenue is something of a dead end.”
“A modern marriage. How convenient,” Jonah observed drily. He swiveled to face them, folding his arms across his chest. “Okay, Loren. What do you want me to do?”
“Couldn’t you try to reason with Eric?” Della suggested before her husband had a chance to reply. “Or speak to Mrs. Ashton? If their relationship is causing as much trouble at the office as Loren fears, perhaps we could transfer one or the other.”
“We have to be careful, Della,” Loren replied with a frown. “I need Eric in New York right now. Aside from this incident with the Ashton woman, he’s become a real asset to the firm.”
“I’ve seen the reports,” Jonah commented. “I’d hoped it meant he’d finally gotten his act together.”
“Until this latest indiscretion he had.” Loren shot his stepson a look of grim warning. “We also need to handle Nikki with kid gloves. She knows a lot about the company.”
Jonah’s eyes narrowed. “You mean she could do us some real damage?”
“If that’s her angle,” Loren confessed unhappily.
“Would you fly to New York and find out what’s going on?” Della pleaded. Worry etched fine lines between her drawn brows. “Perhaps we’re overreacting.”
Jonah shook his head. “If anything, you’re not worried enough. If Eric is serious about marrying this woman, she could be the worst thing that ever happened to him. But what if he’s not serious? What if he loses interest in her? Would she want to even the score?”
Loren visibly paled. “I hadn’t even considered that possibility.”
“You’ll fly out in the morning?” Della questioned, clutching Loren’s arm.
“I’ll leave now.”
“But you must be exhausted,” she protested. “You’ve just flown in from London. You need to sleep and—”
“I’m tough, Mother. Nor do I believe in jet lag.” A tight smile touched Jonah’s mouth. “Besides, I want to get to New York before Eric realizes I’m in the country.”
New York City, New York
“What do you mean Eric’s not here?” Jonah fought a losing battle with his temper. “Just where the hell is he?”
Eric’s secretary squirmed in her chair. “I’m sorry, Mr. Alexander. He’s left.”
“Left.” Jonah planted his hands on her desk. “Could you be more specific, Ms. Sherborne? Where has he gone? And when will he return?”
“He had to catch a plane.” She risked a swift, upward glance. “But I’m fairly certain he’ll be back by Monday.”
“Monday,” Jonah repeated. Had someone heard he’d returned from London and warned Eric? “Was this a sudden trip?”
“Very sudden. I guess—” She cleared her throat nervously. “I guess he had business out of town.”
Judging by the worried quiver in the woman’s tone and the telltale flush invading her cheeks, the chances of Eric’s disappearance having anything remotely to do with business were next to nil. “Where is he, Ms. Sherborne?” he demanded coldly.
“I’m not certain of the specifics.” She looked everywhere but at him. “I can tell you he booked a flight to Las Vegas.”
“Nevada? What business does he have there? We don’t have any clients or investments in Nevada.”
It was obvious the secretary would rather be anywhere other than pinned beneath his arctic stare. “Perhaps Mrs. Ashton’s assistant knows,” she finally suggested, the idea of passing him on to someone else clearly appealing to her. “Her name’s Jan and her workstation is right across the hall.”
Jonah stilled, fury gathering in his hazel eyes. “Mrs. Ashton’s secretary is more familiar with Eric’s movements than you are? Why is that?”
“Oh, no,” she sputtered in alarm. “You don’t understand. You see, Mrs. Ashton went to Nevada, too. Mr. Sanders didn’t say where he’d be staying and I thought, perhaps, since the two of them were going together . . .” She trailed off miserably.
Jonah stepped away from her desk, letting her off the hook. “You thought that since this was a business trip, Mrs. Ashton and Mr. Sanders might be sharing the same hotel, and that Jan would have the particulars. Is that right?” He made sure she caught the stern warning behind his explanation. One breath of gossip about this weekend tryst and her career at International Investment would come to an abrupt end.
Comprehension dawned in her wide eyes. Drawing a deep breath, she nodded. “Yes. That’s exactly what I thought.”
Without another word, he crossed the hall. Jan proved to be quite efficient. Although she didn’t have any information about Eric’s movements, she had all the pertinent details regarding Nikki’s. Within minutes, he had a copy of her itinerary and booked himself on the next flight to Las Vegas. Which left one more vital chore, he decided grimly.
Ignoring Jan, he thrust open the door to Nikki’s office and walked in, shutting it firmly behind him. He paused just inside the dim room. The November sun was fast becoming a chilly memory as the afternoon waned. It wouldn’t be long before the Friday rush hour started in earnest. He didn’t bother to check his watch to see how close he risked cutting the drive to La Guardia Airport. He couldn’t remember which time zone he’d set it for anyway. This little fishing expedition would have to be swift.
He glanced around, a light floral scent assailing him, a perfume he’d never smelled before. It could only belong to one person. He inhaled deeply, feeling as though he drew Nikki’s essence into his lungs. It wasn’t the musky odor he’d have associated with a sultry redhead. Instead of black satin and lace, her perfume brought to mind a Victorian parlor filled with fresh flowers, sunshine, and lemony beeswax.
He shook his head, amused. Clever woman. Something heavy and overtly sexual would have been too much of a cliché. Eric would have seen through that in a fast second. No, she was smart. Cloak a sexy package with an air of charming innocence and she’d bring most men to their knees.
Crossing to her desk, he switched on a high-intensity lamp. It cast a blazing circle of white in the middle of the mahogany tabletop. Files were placed in neat, orderly stacks to one side, and just outside the pool of light stood a framed photo. Intrigued, he picked it up.
The picture of a young, laughing girl jolted him. He hadn’t suspected that Nikki Ashton might have a child. Career women hot to marry the boss’s son rarely came encumbered. He studied the photo. The girl couldn’t be much more than five or six, her tiny-boned features surrounded by a cloud of strawberry blond ringlets. A woman held the child tight within her grasp. Nikki, no doubt. He couldn’t tell what the mother looked like, since the child’s flyaway curls obscured most of the woman’s face. Only her eyes and hair were clearly visible—china blue eyes brimming with laughter and hair a shade or two darker than the little girl’s.
It wasn’t much to go on.
He returned the photo to its former position on the desk and glanced around, searching for any other personal touches that might reveal more about Nikki. But the desk—hell, the entire room—was practically barren, its decor austere and stark and unrelentingly tidy.
His gaze came to rest on the one other jarring note to the office. A scraggly line of badly tended plants filled the window ledge. For some reason, the plants bothered him. A lot. They suggested some clue to her personality he couldn’t quite pinpoint, but exhaustion and a relentlessly ticking clock kept the vital piece from taking shape. Later. He’d think about it later, when he had the time.
Besides, what could a bunch of half-wilted plants mean other than she’d purchased something bright and pretty on a whim and then couldn’t be bothered to care for it?
Finally, he turned his attention to the appointment book centered within the circle of light. He didn’t hesitate to invade her privacy. He flipped rapidly through the pages. Tucked between Wednesday and Thursday he found a thick, gold-embossed envelope, empty except for a small rectangular card. He pulled it out, scanning it swiftly.
The Cinderella Ball. The Montagues wish you joy and success as you embark on your search for matrimonial happiness.
At the bottom he found an address and the date of the ball.
It was today’s date.
It didn’t take long for the full impact to hit. Nikki had flown to Nevada to attend some sort of marriage ball. He thrust his hand through his hair. It could only mean one thing. Mrs. Ashton was now free of her unknown husband and available to marry. And Eric, without question, was her groom-to-be.
Jonah gritted his teeth. Well, not if he could help it. Because when he caught up with the beautiful, scheming Mrs. Ashton, she’d regret ever interfering with his family. He’d see to that.