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Adam Drake felt the skeptical gaze of every man who sat around the polished table. They'd listened to him, scanned the thick sheaf of papers that was his proposal and leaned back in their chairs, without questions but exchanging knowing glances.
The three men in the room were potential investors from California, men who, so far, hadn't turned him down. Yet. However, Adam knew they each had doubts about his proposaland concerns about Adam himself. He didn't blame them. His reputation was more than a little tarnished.
It was surprising that these investors had stuck around this long.
The lawyer, Brodie, reached into his pocket for a fresh pack of cigarettes. It seemed to take forever for the cellophane to drop onto the table. "I think I can speak for my associates," he said, looking to the other two men and receiving quick nods of approval. "We like the idea of expanding to Seattle, but we've got some reservations."
"This wouldn't be an expansion," Adam reminded the smooth man in the expensive suit. This was a point they'd haggled over before. "I'll own the majority of the hotel. Your capital will be returned, with interest in the amount specified in ten years." He flipped to page six of his proposal and slid it across the table.
Brodie lit up, scanned the neatly typed paragraphs, then flipped through the remaining pages of the contract. He shot a stream of smoke out of the corner of his mouth. "Right, right," he said thoughtfully. "But for the next ten years we would be part owners of your hotel."
"That's right," Adam replied, managing a tense smile. God, he hated this kind of politics. Depending upon other people, wealthy men, to finance his business operation. The thought of being tied to anyone bothered him. That was his problem. Bucking authority. Refusing to bend to the power of the almighty dollar.
So why was he here?
Because he had no choice. Victor Montgomery had seen to that.
At the thought of Montgomery and especially the low-lifes who worked for him, Adam's blood boiled for revenge. He forced his thoughts back to the present.
Brodie, eyeing him still, thumped on the contract with one manicured finger. "This looks good, Drake. Only a couple of clauses to reword, but what's really bothering me" he blew more smoke to the ceiling and squinted at Adam, sizing him up for the thousandth time "is what happened at Montgomery Inns last year "
There it was. The noose again. The rope that would strangle him.
Adam felt the tension in the room. Be cool, he told himself, not showing a flicker of emotion though the sweat was running down his back and his nerves were strung tight as piano wire. "I was never charged with embezzling," he said evenly. His eyes moved from one man to the next.
"But Montgomery never hired you back," a tiny, apprehensive man sitting to Brodie's left, Bill Peterson, interjected. Behind glasses as thick as the bottom of a soda bottle, Peterson's nervous gaze shifted to each of the other men around the table.
"I didn't want to go back," Adam stated. That much was true. He'd never work for a snake like Montgomery again, though he itched to know who had set him up. The memory was still painful. Once, he'd respected Victor Montgomery and he'd thought the older man had felt the same for him. Stupid, he chided himself silently. Victor had shown his true colors and fired Adam swiftly, pressing charges against him, then, when there was no indictment, sending a severance check to him through his lawyerthrough his damned lawyer! Victor hadn't even had the guts to face Adam himself. Only the lawyer had been witness to Adam's wrath and stared in uncomfortable silence as Adam had ripped up the check and tossed the confetti-like scraps into the air.
Brodie's voice brought him back to the present. "Look, Drake, before we go into direct competition with Victor Montgomery, I think we should clear this matter up. The way I hear it, there wasn't evidence enough to indict you, and yet the money that was skimmed off the Puget West project was never located."
The collar around Adam's neck felt tight, the blood thundered through his veins. The money had just vanished. No amount of going over the books had uncovered the missing cash. And in that respect, he was, as project coordinator, responsible.
"That's what we don't understand," Peterson said, while the third partner, a silent man with flat features, said nothing. "There should have been a trail. How could anyone have walked away withwhat was it? Half a million dollars?"
Adam nodded tightly, though he hoped his expression was calm. "Five hundred sixty-three thousand and change."
The silent man whistled.
"That must have taken some doing," Brodie said, stuffing his copy of the proposal into his briefcase.
"I wouldn't know," Adam responded dryly.
Brodie's brows jerked up as he jabbed out his cigarette in the hotel ashtray. Apparently he didn't believe Adam. "You have to understand our position. We can't very well hand over several million dollars until we're absolutely certain that what happened over at Montgomery Inns won't happen to us." He offered Adam a regretful smile. "If you could ever clear up exactly what happened over there, then maybe we could talk business. In the meantime, I don't think we have a deal."
The other men nodded in silent agreement. Adam didn't blame them. If he were in their shoes he wouldn't trust a man who'd nearly been indicted for embezzling, a man still proclaimed a thief by one of the largest hotel chains on the west coast. Trouble was, Adam was sick of being a scapegoat.
Pushing himself upright, Adam pulled together a grim smile and shook each man's outstretched hand. He watched as Brodie shepherded the small group from the room. Only when the door slammed shut behind the Cal-ifornians did he let out a series of invectives that would have made a sailor blush. He yanked off his tie and threw it over the back of a chair, then loosened the top buttons of his stiff white shirt. What had he expected? This meeting had been no different than the two others he'd put together.
Face it, Drake, he told himself, you were convicted even though you were never tried. With leashed fury, he knew that the black stain on his reputation wouldn't disappear with time. No, he had to find out who had set him up and why. Otherwise, he was finished.
He had his suspicions, of course. There were several people with whom he'd worked at Montgomery Inns who had been jealous of his rapid rise in the corporation, a few who were desperate, and still others who were just plain greedy. Any one of those people could have set him up to take the fall. And fall he had. Once one of Victor Montgomery's golden boys, he was now the black sheep. The Judas.
Until he could prove himself completely blameless, he would never be able to set himself up in business. As he saw it, he had no choice. He had to do some digging and find out just who had hated him enough to frame him for embezzling money he'd never seen. For the past year he'd tried to put the damned incident behind him, but it kept rising like a phoenix from the ashes of his career at Montgomery Inns, to torment and thwart him. Fortunately, he'd already started an investigation to prove his innocence once and for all.
"Quitting?" Victor's eyebrows shot up, and he stared at his only child in disbelief. He'd just walked into the office and found Marnie sitting, waiting, in one of the client chairs. Then she'd lowered the bomb. "Have you gone out of your mind?"
Marnie dropped her letter of resignation on his desk. This scene with her father was going to be worse than she'd imagined. Her father was shocked. Pain showed from his blue eyes, pain at the thought of her betrayal.
"Why for God's sake? And just what do you think you're going to do?" he demanded, slamming his golf bag into a corner closet, then ripping off his plaid cap and sailing it across the office in frustration.
Marnie opened her mouth to answer, but her father wasn't finished raving. "You can't quit! You're my daughter, for crying out loud!" He mopped the sweat from his brow and stuffed his handkerchief into the pocket of his golf slacks.
Marnie had been waiting for him for half the day. She wasn't about to back down now. She'd spent too many hours arguing with herself and gathering her courage to give in.
"I'm serious, Dad," she said quietly, her voice firm. "This is just something I need to do."
"Bull!" Her father crossed the thick expanse of putty-colored carpet and glanced at the calendar lying open on his huge mahogany desk. He flipped through the pages while Marnie surveyed his office with jaded eyes.
Opulent, befitting the reigning monarch of a hotel empire, the suite boasted inlaid cherrywood walls. Brass lamps, etchings, sculptures and buttery leather furniture added to the effect. Behind the office, a private bath with a Jacuzzi, a walk-in wardrobe and king-size bedroom, were available whenever Victor was too busy to drive home.
Grabbing the receiver in one hand, Victor punched a series of buttons on the phone. "Kate?" he barked, still flipping through his appointment book. "Cancel my two o'clock with Fergusonno, on second thoughtjust stall him. Ask him to meet me at the site tomorrow at" he ran his finger down a page "ten-thirty." Scowling across the room at Marnie, he added, "Just tell him that something important came up, something to do with the opening of the Puget West hotel."
Marnie refused to meet the anger in his eyes and stared instead through the bank of windows in his office. Glimpses of the rolling gray waters of Puget Sound were barely visible through the tall spires of Seattle's skyline. Thick pewter-colored clouds blocked the sun and threatened rain. A jet, headed north, was nearly invisible through the low-hanging clouds.
She heard her father slam down the phone. "Okay, let's get out of here," he said, and dropped the letter of resignation she'd worked so hard to write into his wastebasket.
"Can't we talk here?"
Grabbing his keys, Victor shook his head. "Not a good idea."
Then she understood. Shoving her arms through the sleeves of her coat, she asked, "Do you still really think you've got some spies in the company?"
"I thought all that was taken care of when you fired Adam Drake."
Her father jammed a hat onto his head. "And I thought you were convinced he was innocent."
"He was," she said flatly. "He got off, remember?"
"He just had a damned good attorney," Victor grumbled, snagging his jacket from the back of his chair. "But that's over and done with."
"Then why're you still paranoid?"
"I'm not paranoid," he snapped. "Just careful. Come on, I've got to check things out at the marina, see that the repairs on the Vanessa are up to snuff. We can talk on the way."
"Okay," she muttered, barely holding on to her temper. "But you can't just toss my resignation into the trash and expect me to forget all about it. I'm serious, Dad."
"You don't know what you want."
"That's where you're wrong," she said quietly.
The firmness in her tone must have caught his attention. His head snapped up and for the first time since he'd entered the office, he seemed to see her as she really was. His lips pursed tightly and beneath his tan his skin took on a paler hue. "Let's go," he said, his voice much lower.
He didn't even bother changing from his casual pants and sports coat.
In tense silence they strode abreast through the corridors to the elevator. Marnie barely kept herself from quaking at his anger. He was a handsome man, a man who accepted authority easily. His features were oversized, his hair thick and white with only a few remaining dark strands, his eyes intense blue, his nose aristocratic. For a man pushing sixty he was in good shape, with only the trace of a paunch near his waistline. And right now he was beginning to seethe.
"I don't know what's gotten into you," he said when the elevator doors had whispered shut and with a lurch the car sped down sixteen floors only to jerk to a stop at the subterranean parking lot.
"I just think it's time I stood on my own."
"All of a sudden?"
She slid a glance in his direction. "It's been coming on a long time."
"Ever since that business with Drake," he surmised with disgust.
"Before that," she insisted, though it was true that nothing had been the same since Adam Drake had been fired. There had been a change in attitude in the offices of Montgomery Inns. Nothing tangible. Just a loss of company spirit and confidence. Everyone felt itincluding Victor, though, of course, he was loathe to admit it.
"And then you decided to break up with Kent," her father went on, shaking his head as he searched the pocket of his jacket for his pipe. "And now you want to leave the corporation, just walk away from a fortune. When I was your age, I was"
"working ten-hour days and still going to night school, I know," Marnie cut in. Her heels clicked loudly against the concrete. Low-hanging pipes overhead dripped condensation, and she had to duck to escape the steady drops as she hurried to keep up with her father's swift strides.
She stopped at the fender of Victor's Jaguar. He unlocked the doors and they both slid into the cushy interior. "You should be grateful."
Marnie closed her eyes. How could she explain the feeling that she was trapped? That she needed a life of her own? That she had to prove herself by standing on her own two feet? "I am grateful, Dad. Really." Turning to face him, she forced a wan smile. "This is just something I have to do"
"Right now? Can't it wait?" he asked, as if sensing her beginning to weaken.
"But the new hotel is opening next week. I need you there. You're in charge of public relations, for God's sake."
"And I have a capable assistant. You remember Todd Byersblond, wears glasses"
Victor waved off her explanation.
"Well, if he's not good enough I have a whole department to cover for me." That was what bothered her most. She didn't feel needed. If she walked away from Montgomery Inns, no one, save Victor, would notice. Even Kent would get by without her.
Her father fired up the engine and shoved the Jag into reverse. "I don't understand you anymore." With a flip of the steering wheel, he headed for the exit. "What is it you really want?"
"A life of my own."
"You have one. A life most women would envy."
"I know," she admitted, her spine stiffening a bit. How could she reach a man who had worked all his life creating an empire? A man who had raised her alone, a man who loved her as much as he possibly could? "This is just something I have to do."