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Kara hated waiting.
She perched nervously on the edge of the gray leather chair in the tastefully decorated reception area and waited for Slade Westin to return to his office. The spacious waiting area was decorated in shades of cream, teal, and gray. Watercolor paintings of skyscrapers, malls, and office buildings complete with perfect landscapes and glass vestibules graced the walls. The décor was rich, pleasing, and designed to impress.
Coming up with a way to raise the money her brother had embezzled hadn't been easy. She'd spent half the night crunching numbers and calculating. The figures hadn't lied. If she took the maximum cash advances on her credit cards and borrowed against every cent in her 401k, she'd be able to come up with exactly fifteen thousand, half of what her brother had stolen from Mr. Westin.
She'd taken the day off work and come to his office without an appointment. She planned to sit in his office until he gave up and saw her, or had her arrested for trespassing, whichever came first.
Whether she made any headway or not she had to try one last time to make him see that he would gain nothing by going to the police. She hoped coming in person and having some cash, as a down payment, would go a ways in changing his mind.
If it didn't? She wouldn't let herself go there. She couldn't. The ramifications of failure were too great. Her mother would be beside herself. The stress of having her son on trial and then having him in jail would be a lethal blow to her mother's already failing health. While she knew her brother was spoiled, immature, and way too impulsive for his own good, she loved him.No matter how much he might deserve whatever he got from Mr. Westin or the police, she just couldn't stand by and let him go to prison. Especially, if she could do something, anything, that would help.
Slade exited his private elevator and strode into the reception area of his office. His receptionist, Leanne, had died her hair a shocking red today. He smothered a grin. Changing her hair color was her latest form of rebellion against the corporate dress code, and he secretly enjoyed her mutinous protest.
Leanne looked up and reached for a stack of messages. "Ms Hastings is here to see you, Mr. Westin," she said, handing him the messages.
God, deliver me, Slade thought with a sigh. He knew what she wanted. He didn't want to play. He'd already made it abundantly clear that he intended to turn the matter over to the police and let them sort out the details.
He thumbed through the stack of messages, knowing he didn't have much choice about seeing her. She was sitting in the reception area and had probably overheard Leanne tell him she was waiting. Still, he wanted to put off the inevitable as long as possible.
He turned and headed toward his office, hoping for a smooth getaway. "Mr. Westin?" a soft female voice asked.
"That's me," Slade answered turning toward the voice with a resigned sigh.
"I'm Kara Hastings. We talked on the phone yesterday. I can't tell you how sorry I am about this."
He lifted his gaze from the stack of messages he'd been sorting. His annoyance at her intrusion dissolved as he allowed his gaze to glide over her.
Innocent. The single word echoed in his brain, reverberating like a sharp kick to some buried part of his soul. The descriptive encompassed her and described her perfectly, yet left plenty of room for expansion into the many layers he sensed buried beneath her surface.
He let his eyes linger on the soft waves of dark hair that hung loose around a pretty face with a pert nose. Her peaches and cream skin glowed softly making his fingers itch to touch the soft line of her cheek and the full swell of her lip.
Her soft musky perfume teased his nostrils as her wide brown eyes skittered away from his. They echoed a hint of shyness and sadness that didn't quite detract from her attractiveness.
She was dressed simply in black slacks and a white sweater that hung off her shoulders. The soft folds of the sweater brushed the full softness of her breasts before drifting downward to skim full rounded hips. The thick folds ended precisely at her knees.
Some would consider her overweight but he found her softness perfect. She was rounded and soft in a way that had him reining in thoughts of plunging hard maleness into female softness.
The shy way she waited for him to take the lead stirred the sensation of deep protectiveness in him.
"Come on back Kara," he sighed, going against his own better judgment, which clamored distantly in his mind.
"Thank you for seeing me Mr. Westin," she said softly as she followed him down the hallway toward his office. Her voice was smooth as caramel and just as sweet, he thought as he paused to open the door before ushering her inside.
Sexy. The word hung in his mind baffling him. It'd been three years since he'd allowed himself to think of sex or of anything remotely connected to it.
"Have a seat Kara," he offered as he sat down behind his desk.
He rested his elbows on the desk, heaved a sigh and tented his fingers as he studied her. His first inclination had been to reiterate his plan to turn her brother's case over to the police and send her on her way but something about her, the sweetness, and the buried sadness in her eyes tugged at him, and God help him he wanted to help her.
"I told you yesterday that your brother's case was a matter for the police. So far I haven't heard anything that has changed my mind about that," he said.
Her expression tightened, and she bowed her head. "I know you said you weren't interested in taking payments but--Is there any chance you might change your mind about it?"
He felt a jolt of sympathy. She was sweet and innocent. He knew it hadn't been her that had inflated expenses and pocketed the difference. It bothered him to see her cowed in shame.
"It will take me a few weeks but I can get advances from my credit cards and borrow against my 401k. I can give you fifteen thousand as a down payment on what my brother stole and pay the rest in payments."
"Kara," he sighed, wanting to punch her brother's lights out for bringing shame on her. "My problem with taking payments isn't the money itself. I could afford to forgive the money entirely and it wouldn't change my standard of living even a little bit."
"If it's not the money then why not take the payments and move on?"
"It is not the damned money; I won't get the money back by going to the police, at least not for a long time." His voice came out harsher than he intended and laced with the frustration he felt toward her brother. Ted was talented, and up until the accounting department had brought the questionable numbers to his attention he had planned to promote him.
"What did Ted do with the money?" he asked his voice softening. "Any chance he still has any of it?"
Kara shook her head and dipped her chin. There's that shame again, he thought. "He got caught up in gambling again. He's had problems before and I should have known he was in trouble when he had money, but I didn't." She shrugged, her voice small and filled with guilt. "Things were really tight financially and I was just glad he was finally getting things together and was able to help out a little."
Damn it to hell. He hated gambling and the pain it caused its innocent victims. Remembered sadness filled him as he recalled his fourth birthday and the excitement that had fired his blood as he'd looked forward to a real party with friends from Sunday school and balloons and everything. In the end the party hadn't happened. The sheriff had shown up and hauled the family's meager belongings to the curb and in the struggle to find another place to live his birthday party had been forgotten. It hadn't been the first or the last time his family had been evicted due to his father's gambling the rent money on a horse that couldn't lose or a football game that was a sure thing.
Slade leaned back in his chair and sighed. He wondered what financial obligations Kara was struggling under that her brother was shirking.
He felt the stirring of dominance he'd worked to bury and an irrational desire to protect her from the pain gamblers brought on their families.
He studied the blunt tips of his tented fingers. He could take the worry of her brother going to jail off her shoulders. He didn't have to go to the police. Helping her would cost him thirty thousand dollars, but it was a doable solution. He could afford the loss. Not going public with the embezzlement scandal would save a lot of negative press and questions around how her brother had managed to skim thirty thousand dollars without being immediately caught.
Financially it was probably a wash. If the negative press cost him even one contract it could easily cost him hundreds of thousands more than the thirty thousand her brother had taken.
He liked Kara. She stirred his protective instincts and made him feel alive in a way he hadn't in a long, long time.
Still, gambling was an addiction. If her brother was addicted he probably needed to be allowed to hit bottom. He worried that without the threat of jail Ted would continue to gamble until he was in so deep he couldn't get out and that would be worse for Kara in the long run.
"What about your parents Kara?"
"My dad is dead. Her head was tipped forward; her eyes focused on her lap. "Mom has heart disease and emphysema. She doesn't know about Ted's--problems. I don't want to tell her if I don't have to. Sh-she is not well and I'm afraid that the stress of a trial would j-just be the end. The doctors say she doesn't have l-long and I don't want her last to be--" She sucked in an audible breath and bit her lip before rushing on. "Well--you know what I mean--"
Slade thought for a minute she was going to cry and didn't know what he'd do if she did.
He was spared from further consideration on the matter when the intercom on his desk buzzed. "Mr. Westin, Mr. Blake is here."
"Put him in the conference room, I'll be finished in a minute."
"I'm sorry to intrude on your day," Kara said softly.
"It's not a problem Kara," he said and meant it. "Ted has created one hell of a big mess. I don't know yet what I'm going to do about it, but you've given me a lot to think about. When I've made a decision I'll let you know."
He stood and Kara followed suit. "Thank you Mr. Westin. I appreciate your kindness and your willingness to at least think about meeting me half way."
"You're welcome Kara, but don't thank me yet. I'm not guaranteeing you any outcome at this point."