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Before becoming a world-famous photographer, what did Ansel Adams aspire to be?
Madison Connelly stared out the window from the largest enclosure in the cube farm at the shimmering waters of Biscayne Bay visible over the rooftops of nearby buildings. As copresident of TotalTrivia, she was entitled to a large private office, but she and Aiden had agreed long ago that doors encouraged isolation. Togetherness inspired innovationthe healthy exchange of ideas that led to creativity.
Maybe, she thought, but right now she wished she could slam her office door shut and make the world go away. She was burned out by what her father would have called "premature success." Her company was barely three years old and it was already being touted as a triumph. If only her personal life was as glorious.
Get a grip, Madison told herself. There's no reason to feel sorry for your self. Concentrate on what you're doing and forget past mistakes.
Madison forced herself to stare at her computer screen as she waited for inspiration. The software program she'd invented culled obscure facts from numerous sources for their online game, but every so often she liked to throw in a zinger. Her favorite was "what if." What if Ansel Adams had his wish? He would have become a concert pianist. Lucky for the world, he hadn't.
If she'd had her wish, she would have pursued a doctorate and
"Madison, there's a man here to see you. How cool is that?"
She swiveled around in her chair to face Jade, TotalTrivia's receptionist. Short blue-black hair gelled up like a rooster's comb and deep red lipstick combined with Cleopatra eyes gave the girl an unfashionable Goth look that was rarely seen in South Beach these days. Jade could easily have told Madison she had a visitor with the interoffice telephone, but the girl never lost an opportunity to sashay by the cluster of cubicles the programmers used, just as she never failed to add how "cool" something was, even when delivering bad news.
"Who is it? I'm not expecting anyone."
Jade consulted a business card she held between bloodred nails that could have doubled as letter openers. "Paul Tanner. He's with Tanner Security Solutions, Inc."
Another geek trying to sell them software that was supposed to prevent other online trivia sites from hacking into their database. Online protection. What a joke.
"Tell him we take care of our own security." She was about to give Jade another lecture on how to screen people, but she spotted Aiden Larsen coming toward her office.
"Hey, Madison," her ex-husband called in his usual upbeat voice. "Got a minute?"
"Not really," she fibbed as Jade ducked out of the cube and began to saunter down the aisle toward the reception area.
Aiden ignored Madison's response and parked himself in the chair opposite her desk. She tried not to notice how handsome he looked. Chloe really knew how to make him dress in a way that emphasized his best features, his height and surfer blond hair.
The irony of the situation irritated her. Aiden would do anything for Chloe, but he'd stubbornly refused to make the smallest change for Madison. Instead, he'd insisted she be the one to alter her looks and life for him. He'd wanted her hair long and ruler-straight, even though it was naturally curly and at the mercy of Miami's humidity. He'd wanted to go out to SoBe's clubs almost every night. It was a scene she hated. Madison had resisted, of course, but it didn't seem to matter now. Aiden was on a new path in lifeChloe's course.
"Where've you been? I tried to get you all weekend."
"Busy." She didn't want to tell Aiden she'd wasted another weekend searching for a place to lease. She couldn't decide on anything, because each property she was shown made her think of the fabulous house in Coral Gables that she'd permitted Aiden to keep in the divorce. Retaining half the business they'd started together had been more important.
"You didn't answer your cell."
"I left it at Erin's on Friday."
The mention of her best friend's name caused one blond eyebrow to quirk. Aiden's brows were less scraggly than they had been on Friday, she noted. Over the weekend, Chloe must have convinced him to go to one of SoBe's stylish spas for a professional wax.
Madison could see Aiden was biting back another negative comment about Erin. For an instant, Madison's brain replayed something she'd heard on the morning news as she'd been getting ready for work. It made her think about Erin and wonder if her friend could have been involved in the incident.
"Why were you looking for me?" She knew it had to be important. Since their divorce they spoke only when necessary. So much for the "togetherness" they'd envisioned when starting the company. She struggled to keep her tone civil. Their last conversation had ended with Aiden accusing Madison of using her tongue like a whip.
"I had such a great idea that I wanted to run it by you immediately. That's why I kept calling. TotalTrivia needs a shot in the arm, right?"
"I guess," she reluctantly conceded, although she knew he was correct. Advertising banner sales were level but she perceived a lack of momentum. On a per-week basis they weren't drawing new gamers the way they once had. They were still raking in a bundle, but similar Web sites were invading the territory they'd once dominated.
"How's this for an idea?" He rocked back in the chair opposite her desk and put his feet up on the rim, the way he used to when they'd been developing ideas for TotalTrivia. "Add betting to our site."
"We've been down this road before." How could he waste her time with this? They'd known when they created TotalTrivia that Internet gambling and auctions made boodles of money. They'd defied the odds by making money with a game that didn't feature gambling.
He chuckled nonchalantly, but she knew better. Aiden handled the business end of their site. He could smell money the way a bloodhound picked up a fresh scent. "True. We have avoided gambling, but now Trivia Mania has added it to their site."
"Interesting," Madison hedged. Trivia Mania had been their chief rival before their competitor added gambling. She had no doubt gamers on TotalTrivia would flock to a site where they could place bets. "Who's handling their finances?"
"They've contracted with Allied Miami Bank."
"Why am I not surprised?" Madison knew the bank was owned by a group of YUCAsYoung Urban Cuban Americanswith a reputation for financing shady gambling operations. Not all young and ambitious Cubans skirted the law, of course, but some did. It was a temptation unique to Miami, where many immigrants had settled and were making new lives.
"We're thinking that adding betting to TotalTrivia is the way to go. We know Allied Miami has the most experience."
Madison didn't have to ask who "we" was. This must be Chloe's idea. Well, she could say many things about Chloe, but not being one of God's brightest creatures wasn't one of them. Madison had personally hired Chloe, but she hadn't counted on Chloe stealing her husband.
"We're making money. Why risk associating with questionable characters?"
"What if I tell you"
Bzzt-bzzt. Jade was buzzing her from the receptionist's desk. Madison picked up the phone, relieved at the interruption. "Yes, Jade?"
"Mr. Tanner is still waiting to see you. He says it's not about business. This is a personal matter."
"Yeah, right. That's what they all say." She never failed to be amazed at how many creeps crawled out of the woodwork once they sensed a computer game had hit the big time. She must get ten of these guys a week.
"I think he means it." Jade was whispering now.
"Tell him to call me. We'll discuss it on the phone." Madison hung up and turned back to Aiden.
He was watching her intently, and she wondered if she was wearing an outfit she'd had on last week. She tended to wear half a dozen outfits that she liked over and over and over. No wonder she'd never been able to turn geek Aiden into GQ Aiden the way Chloe had. Twice a year Erin forced Madison to donate her old clothes, then took her shopping.
Don't let him make you feel inferior, she told herself. Both Madison's mother and Erin always described her as pretty. Not that they fooled her, but natural blond hair and wide blue eyes did manage to turn a few guys' heads. Unlike Chloe, Madison didn't have much to brag about in the chest department. Chloe was pinup material. Madison didn't care; her brains set her apart. She had no intention of competing in the body department.
"Well, what do you think?" Aiden asked, and though his tone was still casual, she knew his manner meant he was ready to move on this immediately.
She stood up. "Let's do a bit more research. I'm still not in favor of gambling or Allied Miami, but maybe"
"Why? Allied Miami handles all sorts of betting operations. They even have a division set up to process, then pay every bet."
"Wait!" She threw up one hand to stop him. "We don't want to hand over a chunk of our business without thoroughly investigating the situation. It's an invitation to steal from us or ruin our reputation. This isn't something to leap into without careful thought." She picked up her purse. "I've got an appointment."
"Later. I'm in a hurry."
She rushed out of her corner cube and took a left. She headed for the back door to avoid the software salesman. She needed time to think about Aiden's proposal. She might as well swing by Erin's and pick up her cell phone.
Madison climbed into her BMW and lowered the windows to air out the car. Even though it was barely ten o'clock, the Miami sun was scorching a path across the blue April sky. She allowed her mind to drift for a moment. She'd wasted yet another weekend. She was never going to be able to replace the home she'd shared with Aiden.
Why was she trying?
She should lease the condo that she'd reluctantly allowed the Realtor to show her, Madison told herself. She didn't need a yard. This way she could come and go easily. She punched the AC button and reached for her cell phone with her other hand to call the Realtor. Then she remembered she was on her way to pick up her cell.
"I'm losing it," she said out loud. She backed out of her parking space and drove away.
TotalTrivia was located several blocks off trendy Ocean Boulevard in South Beach's low-rent districtif such a thing existed. They'd leased the office space nearly ten years ago, before she had married Aiden, when TotalTrivia had been just another blip on the information superhighway. Aiden had insisted locating in SoBe would lure programmers they could hire for less.
Her ex had been right. Talented programmers often made sacrifices, living in studio apartments or sharing run-down flats just to be in the area. As Erin always said, SoBe was "hip to the max." It was amazing what people would give up to live here.
Maybe Aiden was right about adding gambling to Total-Trivia, but she didn't think so. Letting an offshore bank collect the money was evading the law. Wasn't that the same as breaking the law? Sooner or later the government would catch on and come after them.
South Beach traffic was lightno doubt a fair number of residents were inside nursing hangoverswhich meant Madison had to wait a mere two cycles to drive through most traffic lights. By evening, when the club set went on the prowl, it would take at least six cycles to move through a light.
From ten until dawn, the clubs would be full of tanned guys and women wearing next to nothing, slurping mojitos and chocolate martinis. Sexual energy would pulse through the air like a drumbeat in the tropics.
Madison didn't like the club scene, but last Friday, Erin had wanted to check out two new clubs and she'd gone along. Her best friend since they'd been in diapers, Erin Wycoff had always been something of an enigma. Like a butterfly, Erin was beautiful but difficult to pin down. As close as they were, Madison often didn't know what Erin was thinking. Even when they were young, Erin had kept her thoughts to herself, unlike most teenage girls, who told their best friends all their secrets. But since Madison's split with Aiden, Erin had been the only one who could lift her spirits.
Erin had insisted on going to Sweet Cheeks and another club whose name Madison couldn't recall, but as soon as they were there, drinks in hand, Erin had wanted to leave. Too hot. Too crowded. Too many airhead guys.
Well, that was the club scene for you. A club wasn't "in" unless it was crowded with hunky guys and scantily clad babes. And jam-packed places were hot. That was a given.
They'd gone back to the little cottage Erin had rented and ordered pizza from an all-night pizzeria. They'd sat chatting about the move Madison couldn't seem to make, but Erin had seemed distracted, on edge.
Still, Erin had scored a major point when she'd claimed Madison was in denial. By searching for a large home to replace the one she'd shared with her ex-husband, Madison was attempting to hang on to the past. The last time Madison's mother had telephoned from some remote island in the South Pacific, she'd told Madison the same thingin different words. "Oh, baby doll. Try something new. Get on with your life."
Madison had admitted Erin was probably right and had left after finishing a slice of cardboard-tasting pizza. She'd only realized the next day that she'd forgotten her cell phone. She'd tried to catch Erin on Saturday and again on Sunday but hadn't been able to connect. Maybe she hadn't even wanted to reach Erin, hadn't wanted to explain why she was still asking the Realtor to show her large homes.
A bit of trivia popped into her head, which often happened when she was thinking of something distressing. How much wine does one grapevine make? The average vine yielded twenty-four pounds of grapes. That was enough to make ten bottles of wine. She hadn't used this fact on TotalTrivia because inexact measurements like "average" caused arguments and players would claim their answer was correct.
She told herself to forget about trivia and concentrate on finding a place to live. The owners of the house where she was staying would return soon. Gambling and trivia could both wait until she'd settled her life.
At this hour of the morning, Erin was probably out making sales calls for the sunglass company she represented. It didn't matter if Erin wasn't home. Madison had a key to her friend's place. She could pick up her cell then call the Realtor. Signing the lease on the condo and making arrangements would take the better part of the day, but Madison didn't care. She didn't want to return to TotalTrivia until she'd had a chance to consider Aiden's proposal.
It was quieter in the middle-class neighborhood in South Miami where Erin lived. People were at work, children in school. She turned into the narrow driveway and shut off the engine. The white cottage with an attached single-car garage was a legacy of the early twentieth century, when snowbirds from the North built small, inexpensive bungalows where they could wait out the winter in Miami's warm sun. Snowbirds now clustered like bees in the hives of condos that riddled the state. This neighborhood had morphed into a working-class section of the city.
She slung her purse over her shoulder and got out of the car. On her way up the walk to the front door, she selected the key Erin had given her from the seldom-used ring of keys at the bottom of her purse. She rang the bell and heard its chime echo through the small house. As she expected, Erin wasn't home. She attempted to put the key into the lock. It didn't fit.
Suddenly, Madison remembered her friend mentioning getting a new garage door opener and new locks. Erin had forgotten to give Madison a new key.
"Great, just great," she muttered under her breath. Standing on the small porch, Madison noticed a silver Porsche had pulled to the curb across the street. It seemed out of place in this neighborhood. A tall, dark-haired man stepped out. He glanced in her direction, then locked the car.
Madison wondered if Erin had hidden a spare key in the small yard behind the cottage. She went around back, but didn't bother to check under the flowerpots. Erin wouldn't hide a key in such an obvious place. She looked around, thinking, then spotted a dog turd over by a bush. Erin was an animal lover and always had been, but she didn't have a dog. The landlord wouldn't allow any pets. Erin got her pet fix by volunteering at an animal rescue facility.
She toed the dried pile and it rolled over. Just as she suspected, there was a latch on the bottom. These rock-hard devices had become popular with pet owners. A close look revealed they were molded pottery of some kind, but to the untrained eye, they looked like a deposit a dog would make. She picked up the fake turd and opened it. A shiny new key was inside. Leave it to Erin to hide a key in plain sightin a fake dog turd that looked disturbingly real. So real, you could almost smell it.
She rushed up to the back door. For a moment she paused and gazed up at the flawless blue sky, feeling inexplicably troubled. The key fit in the lock and the door creaked open inch by inch. She brushed her odd reaction aside and stepped into a small service area with a washer and dryer.
A noxious odor she couldn't identify hung in the close, humid air and made her stomach roil. Obviously, Erin had burned a funky candle. She opened the door leading into the kitchen and was greeted by a golden retriever with runny eyes. A small pile of dog poop accounted for the odor. Why hadn't Erin let this dog out?
"Hi, there. What's your name?" When had Erin gotten a dog? She hadn't mentioned a word about it when they'd gone out on Friday. She'd probably found the retriever at the rescue center and couldn't resist even though her lease specified no pets. With Erin, you never knew what was going on.
"Erin, it's me," she called out, in case her friend was still home but hadn't heard the bell. No response.