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BE MINE FOREVER
By ROSEMARY LAUREY
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2005 Rosemary Laurey
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSeptember. Devil's Elbow, Oregon.
"Miss Connor, your father will see you now."
Alan Grant was the newest in a long line of personal assistants. "Thanks! He's in the library?"
Alan nodded. Elizabeth crossed the slate-floored hall and turned the crystal knob.
An interior designer had worked long and expensively to create a British nobleman's library on the Oregon coast. The room had fascinated her as a child, but now she'd actually seen a couple of stately home libraries and knew a fake when she saw it.
Her father was standing by the window, beside Laran Radcliffe. Darn! She'd purposely come to the house rather than the office to avoid Laran. What was the man doing here? Had he moved in? They seemed so joined at the hip, it made her wonder if her father slept with him. She held back a smile at that thought.
"Lizzie, my dear!" Her father greeted her with open arms. "This is a surprise." She hugged him and they air-kissed, just missing touching. He stood back, his hands on her shoulders. "Now, what's so important it brought you all this way?"
"Good afternoon, Miss Connor."
"Good afternoon, Laran." The man made her flesh creep. It was those eyes, and the belly-of-a-snake white skin that looked as if he never sweated. "Could I talk to you alone, Father?" She was not discussing this in front of Laran Radcliffe, like as not he was in cahoots with the Marshes.
Her father hesitated. Was he going to insist the man stayed? No, thank the Goddess! At a nod from her father, Laran walked noiselessly across the Aubusson carpet and closed the door behind him.
"Well, Lizzie? Shall we sit down?" Her father indicated the leather-covered wing chairs by the now-empty grate. "What is it brought you all this way, that you can't tell me on the phone, and you won't say in front of Laran?" He leaned back in his chair, elbows resting on the arms and fingers steepled. His air of amusement irked her. He wouldn't smile when he heard what she had to say.
"There's something major wrong at Mariposa. Fraud perhaps."
He looked her up and down. She resisted the childhood urge to make sure her hair was smooth and her socks pulled up. "What makes you think that?"
"They have two sets of financial records."
That got his attention. His eyebrows rose as he lowered his fingers and meshed them as if praying. "I never realized you were an auditor."
"I'm not, but I do know how to add up. They've got something funny going on: a separate record of transactions only identified by numbers. Some quite big amounts. I think they're skimming off into their own pockets. Corresponding amounts don't appear in the ledgers."
"That's quite an accusation. Can you be sure?"
"Sure enough to come all this way to tell you." At the time, it seemed important to discuss this face to face, but now ...
"How did you explain that to the Marshes?"
"I told them I needed a week off to let you know they were cooking the books!"
"Dad, I'm not stupid. I told them I was coming home for Heather's birthday."
"Heather?" He frowned as if not recognizing the name. "Oh, Adela's girl."
"My sister." The only one she had, despite her father's four failed marriages. "I'm going to see her before I return."
"I hope you'll spend some time here."
She'd planned to. "A couple of nights."
"Good. Now, what exactly do you think you found over there?"
She explained, as best she could, and to her surprise her father listened to every word. "You're sure about this?"
"Dad, I'm not a CPA. Let the experts check. If I'm wrong, fine, but if I'm right, something downright sleazy is going on."
"So it would seem." He frowned. "Have you mentioned this to anyone else?"
"Dad, I'm not stupid! From things the Marshes said, Laran approached them to buy when the company was foundering. They don't exactly cross themselves when they say his name, but they'd do anything he asked." As would most of the small workforce who regarded Connor Inc. as their savior.
He pursed his lips as if considering the possibility. "You think Laran would set up something underhand?"
She'd have no trouble believing anything of her father's right-hand man, but she kept that to herself. "I didn't say that, Dad. I just think having someone other than him check this out would be a good idea."
He smiled. "Lizzie, you're right; this won't go beyond these walls. I'll have it looked into. Get yourself unpacked, and this evening I'll take you into Florence for dinner. Maybe we can spend a little time together."
"That would be great."
Assistant Alan was hovering in the foyer as she closed the library door behind her. "Miss Connor, I took your bags up to your room. If there's anything else you need ..."
Everything else she needed right now was beyond the talents of eager Alan. "I'm fine, thanks."
Once in her old room, she kicked off her shoes, pulled a chair over to the window and, propping her bare feet up on the window ledge, gazed at the white caps and the gray ocean, and wondered why she'd come all this way to get brushed off, and how soon she could decently leave.
* * *
"You heard?" Piet Connor knew the answer. Laran looked angry enough to spit nails or bite the nearest neck without foreplay. "I'm not sure how to handle this ..."
"I'll take care of it. If all she has is an unlucky guess, we have no problem. If she persists in delving where she shouldn't ..." He paused. "It's a shame we involved her."
Piet frowned. It was Laran who'd suggested they draw Lizzie into the operation by degrees. "It was your idea."
"My idea was to have it known she'd set up the system. She wasn't supposed to unearth the alternative records and maybe jeopardize the entire setup!" He scowled. "She talked to no one else about this?"
"She said no, but ..." Piet's stomach knotted. "Maybe she already has. To the FBI."
"If she had, I doubt you'd be here to discuss the matter."
Piet's knees wobbled, and he was already sitting. "This is terrible! What are we going to do?" Panic rose, as if to swallow him from the inside out and engulf him and the organization he'd spent years establishing. What if word spread to his confederates? "This could be a disaster!"
"It could," Laran agreed, "but it won't be. I'll see to that." He stepped over to the antique walnut desk and took Piet's hand in his. "You're worrying too much." He held the hand to his face and listened as Piet Connor's blood raced through his body. "Calm down, Piet." He gently licked the skin covering the pale blue veins. "Relax. Elizabeth mustn't sense your concern." He lapped back and forth until the veins protruded through the skin. As Piet's heartbeat calmed and his shoulders untensed, Laran bit.
Piet let out a slow sigh of satisfaction, and smiled-a smile softer and more genuine than anything his four wives had ever seen. His little murmurs of pleasure were cut short as Laran stopped sucking and licked the wound to seal it.
"You stopped too soon!" Piet protested, his body ready for, and needing, more.
Laran shook his head, a hard light in his dark eyes. "No, Piet. We'll consummate this after dinner. Patience."
Ocean watching wasn't enough to erase the sense of menace and disorder that got worse each time Elizabeth came home. As a child she'd felt chaos and tension around her, and it had been Adela, Heather's mother, and the second of Elizabeth's three stepmothers who'd taught her how to protect herself from unsettling influences.
She needed those skills now. The turmoil around her was overwhelming. If she was to stay calm and focused the next couple of days, she needed a safe refuge.
She took two bay leaves from a small box in her suitcase and crumpled them in the four corners of the room. That done, she lit a pale gray candle, set it on the floor by the sliding-glass doors, and sat cross-legged in front of it. Breathing slowly, she concentrated on the light dancing on the narrow wick and the cleansing influence of the slow-burning flame. She shut her eyes as her mind embraced the calm.
Some minutes later, relaxed and at peace, she blew out the candle and crossed over to the adjoining bathroom. After showering, she pulled on a fresh pair of slacks and a clean T-shirt. She picked a purple one to go with the new silver and amethyst chain she'd bought in England. A touch of mascara, and the new lipstick she'd treated herself to at the duty-free, and she was ready. She picked up her black leather coat and her pocketbook and, closing the door behind her, went slowly down the wide, curved stairway.
Out the front door, she crossed the gravel drive to stand on the cliff edge, and watch the breakers below. She loved this spot; as a child she'd all but lived out of doors. Maybe in the morning, she'd climb down to the beach, as she had as a child, or do it the grown-up way and take the path.
Right now, she needed to convince her father to do something about the setup in Devon. Tonight at dinner, she'd talk to him again and convince him, to at least send someone to check. Things there were so rotten, even she had found the stink. An auditor would no doubt crack the shenanigans wide open.
She walked back toward the house. Darn! Laran was waiting, hip propped against the car, obviously all set to join them. Before she had the chance to suggest he stay behind and let her spend an evening alone with her father, Dad arrived and hustled them all into the car.
As the sound of the engine faded down the drive, Alan took the stairs two at a time and made straight for Elizabeth's room. His skeleton key was unnecessary; the door was unlocked. His instructions were to search the room, make copies of any floppy disks or CDs he found, and photocopy any papers. There were no papers, other than a letter from a woman named Heather. A thorough search revealed no disks or CDs, and her wallet held fewer credit cards than his own, plus a driving license and a library card.
The letter, IDs, and cards copied and returned, he checked her rental car. He found two CDs: Aida and John Michael Montgomery. He didn't think much of her choice of music. Just to be certain, he slid both disks into the CD player. He was right, Miss Connor's taste in music sucked. He put one back in the player and the other in the glove compartment where he'd found it. Job done, he double-checked the house and settled down to watch a Terminator video.
So much for a father-daughter dinner, with Laran brooding over the meal. Elizabeth wasn't sure who she was most frustrated with-herself for failing to convince her father he really did have a potential problem, her father for brushing her concerns aside, or Laran for pretty much telling her she had no idea what she was talking about.
The serenity she'd created by meditation, and her time on the cliff, had been zapped. If she was as stupid as they both made out, it was a wonder her father had ever trusted her to work for him. Serve him right if the Marshes were robbing him blind. She'd done her best. If he chose to ignore her, tough cookies! And with that last thought, she undressed, and got into bed.
She woke rested, and much calmer. She'd let herself get steamed up last night. She'd have another go at talking reason to Dad at breakfast-except Laran would be there. Apparently he did live in the house, so as to be always on hand. The man needed to get a life! No, Connor Inc. was his life. Just as it was her father's.
She drew back the curtains on sky as gray as her mood last night. As she watched, the first drops of rain hit the glass. So much for climbing cliffs today. Perhaps she'd drive inland to Eugene, or browse the bookstore she loved in Florence, or just stay in and finish the novel she'd started on the airplane.
She glanced at the book with a blue and yellow design on the cover and realized it had been moved. Looking around, she noticed details she'd been too weary and wound up last night to catch: one of the hangers in the closet was a little askew; even the underwear in her drawer was more neatly folded than she ever left it. That was the giddy limit! She'd come all this way to warn her father someone was trying to rip him off, and what did he do? Brush her off while someone searched her room! Who? She couldn't picture Laran poking through her panties. She shuddered and laughed simultaneously at that image! Had to have been eager, helpful Alan. The damn sneak! She was tempted to complain to Dad. Let him know Laran's stooge did a piss-poor job.
Why waste her breath? Dad wasn't interested in what she thought, and she wasn't staying here so Alan could count her Tampax in his spare time. She'd planned on visiting Heather. She'd arrive a couple of days early.
That decided, Elizabeth showered fast, wondering if they'd checked out her body wash and loofah, and dressed, before repacking. Leaving her case upstairs, she went downstairs for caffeine and toast.
Alan, the presumed sneak, arrived as she was spreading the local marionberry jam on toast. Was it her imagination, or did he look shifty as he said good morning and helped himself to coffee? Maybe he was trying to decide if she had the black or the pink bra on this morning. She was tempted to tell him and wrap the other one around his neck. "I wasn't sure what Dad does about breakfast these days."
"He has it in his suite, as does Mr. Radcliffe. I take them up coffee and cereal and fruit about eight."
It was only just after seven. "I'm glad I didn't wait." She took the second slice and buttered it.
While Alan left to do whatever a good little spy did in his master's office, Elizabeth reached for the phone. Might as well let Heather know she was coming. Given the time zones between Oregon and Chicago, Heather would already be at school, but she'd leave a voice mail.
"... a damn nuisance!" She almost hung the phone back up at her father's voice, but her own name caught her attention. "I sent Lizzie to get her involved. I wanted it on the record that she'd been there. How the hell was I to know she knew that much about computers?" If he'd been to her graduation, he would have.
"What are you doing about it?" an unidentified male voice asked.
"I can't have her broadcasting this. It would ky-bosh the entire operation. Laran is taking care of her."
It seemed a leaden fist clenched her heart, lungs, and mind. Her pulse raced, her chest heaved, and her sweaty palms almost dropped the receiver. Whatever was going on in Devon was deliberate, and downright crooked. She had made the right decision to get out of here, and she intended to do it before Laran could "take care of her."
Excerpted from BE MINE FOREVER by ROSEMARY LAUREY Copyright © 2005 by Rosemary Laurey. Excerpted by permission.
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