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Daniela Roarke knew she was in trouble the minute she stepped through the double glass doors of Roarke Investigations and saw her older brother's smiling face.
Kenneth Roarke never smiled before noon.
Not on a Monday morning, and definitely not on the first of the month, when the rent was due and utility bills had to be paid.
So the smile softening his features that morning was disconcerting, to say the least.
Daniela eyed him warily as she entered the single-story brick building that housed the private detective agency she owned with Kenneth and their brother, Noah. A pair of ancient ceiling fans whirred noisily overhead, circulating humid air that promised to become unbearable as the temperature outside soared, climbing toward another record-breaking June day in San Antonio, Texas. Even the potted ferns arranged around the sparsely furnished reception area had wilted in anticipation of the coming heat wave.
"Mornin', sis," Kenneth greeted her cheerfully.
"How was traffic? Not too bad, I hope?"
"No, not at—" Daniela's gaze narrowed on her brother's face, scanning the strong, rugged features cast in rich chestnut tones. "Wait a minute. What's going on here?"
Before Kenneth could respond, the door behind him opened. Daniela's eyes widened in surprise as a tall, gray-haired gentleman dressed in an expensively tailored navy suit emerged from Kenneth's office, followed by Noah Roarke.
"I really must be going," the visitor said to Kenneth in a deep bass that rang with authority. "I'm expected at a charity auction this morning, and if I'm even thirty seconds late, Tessa will have my head on a spit."
Kenneth chuckled humorously. "I understand. My wife is the same way. Before you go, I'd like to introduce you to our sister, Daniela. El, this is—"
"I know who he is," Daniela said, palm outstretched as she stepped forward. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Mayor Philbin."
"The pleasure's all mine, Miss Roarke." Former mayor Hoyt Philbin clasped Daniela's hand and offered the relaxed, congenial smile that had served him well during twenty-five years in public office. "I regret that I can't stay longer to visit with you. Your brothers have been singing your praises all morning."
"Oh, is that right?" Daniela divided a suspicious look between her two older siblings. Both smiled gamely at her.
Something was definitely up. "Indeed, they have," said Philbin. Shrewd blue eyes roamed across Daniela's face, lingering on full lips slicked with cinnamon-spice gloss, long-lashed dark eyes and riotous black curls that tumbled to slender shoulders draped in silk. Hoyt Philbin gave an imperceptible nod, leaving Daniela with the distinct impression that her appearance had passed muster.
Carefully she withdrew her hand from his firm grasp. "What brings you to our neck of the woods, Mr. Phil-bin?"
Again he flashed that trademark smile. "I'll let your brothers fill you in on the reason for my visit." A silent look passed between the three men as Philbin moved toward the double glass doors. "Thanks for your time, gentlemen. I'll be in touch."
Daniela rounded on her brothers as soon as they were alone. "Will someone please tell me what's going on?"
Kenneth gestured toward his office. "We can talk in there." Over his shoulder he said to his brother, "Noah, why don't you bring Daniela a cup of coffee—with cream and three sugars?"
Daniela stared at her oldest brother as if he'd suddenly grown two heads. Since when did Kenneth Roarke remember the way she took her coffee? He had a hard enough time remembering her birthday, let alone her hot-beverage preferences.
He ushered her into his large office and pulled out one of the two visitor chairs opposite his desk. Daniela sat, still eyeing him as if she'd never seen him before.
Kenneth perched his hip on a corner of the cluttered desk and folded his arms across his broad chest. "How's Mom doing? How'd her appointment go this morning?"
"It went okay. Her blood pressure's still a little too high. Dr. Molina asked me to keep an eye on her, make sure she sticks to the low-carb diet he prescribed. He may as well have asked me to build a flying saucer equipped with Internet access," she grumbled, thinking of her mother's stubborn refusal to give up the high-cholesterol, albeit scrumptious, foods she'd always prepared for her family with great pride.
Daniela pushed out a deep breath that stirred a lock of hair above her right eye. "Other than that, he says she's doing pretty well for someone who suffered a stroke eight months ago."
"Mom's a survivor," Kenneth said, and the two siblings shared a moment of quiet reflection that was interrupted by Noah Roarke's return.
"Thanks, Noah," Daniela murmured, accepting a steaming cup of coffee and taking a careful sip. The brew was a little weak, and nowhere near as good as hers. But then, she'd had plenty of practice. Three years of making coffee for their clients had rendered her something of an expert.
She leaned back in her seat as Noah claimed the chair beside her, stretching out long legs covered in khaki trousers. His features were the mirror image of his brother's, the resemblance between them so striking that strangers often mistook them for twins. But the similarities ended there, for though they'd both chosen careers in law enforcement, Kenneth had opted for a desk job in Internal Affairs, while Noah had worked as a beat cop before being promoted to homicide detective.
"What did Mayor Philbin want?" Daniela asked.
"Our services," Kenneth answered. "He wants to hire us for a big assignment."
Daniela felt a surge of excitement, but kept her expression neutral. She knew, from past experience, that big cases were usually handled by her brothers, with little or no involvement from her. "I'm listening."
"Have you ever heard of Crandall Thorne?"
She frowned. "Is that a trick question? Who in this town hasn't heard of Crandall Thorne? He's a hotshot defense attorney who specializes in helping white-collar criminals beat the rap—like that scumbag CEO three years ago who defrauded his employees of their retirement savings, but got off because the government couldn't make the charges stick. Or the labor union boss who was charged with racketeering and money laundering, but walked away scot-free thanks to his fork-tongued attorney." Her mouth twisted cynically.
"Again I ask, Who hasn't heard of Crandall Thorne?"
Kenneth and Noah exchanged amused glances. "Gee, El, don't be afraid to tell us what you really think," Noah teased.
Daniela took aim at his shin with the pointy toe of her alligator-skin sling-back pumps. He laughed, wisely moving his leg out of harm's way.
She returned her attention to Kenneth. "What does Hoyt Philbin have to do with Crandall Thorne?"
"While in office, Philbin spent a great deal of time and resources investigating Thorne's law firm. He believes that Thorne has ties to the Mexican mafia and is guilty of everything from bribery and witness tampering to economic espionage and public corruption. Unfortunately—or perhaps fortunately for us—he hasn't been able to prove any of it. His failure to take down Crandall Thorne has been, if you'll pardon the pun, a thorn in his side. Now that he's out of office and retired from politics, he's free to use his wealth any way he sees fit." A slow grin crawled across Kenneth's face. "And he's chosen to share some of that wealth with us. All we have to do is establish a link between Thorne and the Mexican mafia, or provide some incontrovertible proof of the firm's criminal negligence. Then Philbin and his buddies at the U.S. Attorney's Office will take care of the rest."
Daniela frowned, taking a sip of coffee. "With all due respect, how are we supposed to get the dirt on Thorne when all the king's men have failed? I mean, don't get me wrong, fellas—we're good. But if the mayor and his arsenal of investigators couldn't get the job done, what chance do we have?"
Kenneth smiled as if at some private amusement. "What we have over 'all the king's men' is a secret weapon."
Daniela blinked, nonplussed. "I don't understand." Kenneth stood and rounded the desk to claim the leather executive throne behind it. He not only had the largest office in the building, but the best furniture.
"Crandall Thorne is very ill. He's suffering from acute renal failure, according to Philbin's sources, and there's talk that his only son, Caleb, will soon step in to run the law firm. That's where you come in, Daniela."
Daniela had a sneaking suspicion she wasn't going to like what her brother said next. So she said it for him. "You want me to befriend Caleb Thorne in order to get the goods on his father."
"That's the general idea." Kenneth traded a speaking look with his brother before adding, "Of course, making him fall in love with you would almost guarantee we get the kind of dirt we really want."
Daniela gaped first at Kenneth, then Noah. She set her cup down on the desk, sloshing hot coffee onto the mahogany surface, and lunged to her feet. "I don't believe this! You're asking me to sleep with a complete stranger?"
Noah looked stricken. "Of course not! We wouldn't—"
"You might not, but I wouldn't put anything past him," she fumed, jabbing an accusing finger toward Kenneth's face. "For the right price, Kenneth Roarke would sell his own mother to the devil!"
"Hey, that's not fair!" he protested, indignation propelling him forward in his chair. "For your information, the main reason I accepted this assignment was Mom! Philbin's paying us enough money to make sure she never even thinks about working another day in her life. If you don't believe me, take a look at the retainer he left behind."
Daniela hesitated, then grudgingly reached for the check he'd thrust at her. She thought her eyes were deceiving her when she saw the amount made payable to Roarke Investigations.
She lifted incredulous eyes to Kenneth's face. "This c-can't be right."
"Oh, it is, believe me. Hoyt Philbin is very serious about securing our services." In the gentle, conciliatory tone he used to calm hysterical wives hell-bent on catching their husbands in the act of cheating, Kenneth said, "Sit down, Daniela. Hear us out before you make any hasty decisions. Please?"
She sat, but only because he'd asked nicely. She passed the check back to him, half-afraid it would turn to fairy dust if she clutched it a moment longer. That kind of money would not only ensure their widowed mother's permanent retirement from nursing, but would give Pamela Roarke the down payment necessary for the Hill Country ranch she'd secretly dreamed of owning for years. Daniela would have to be a fool, or the worst kind of daughter, to turn down such a golden opportunity.
Still, it rankled that her brothers had accepted an assignment—in which she would play a crucial role— without her knowledge or consent.
"No one's asking you to sleep with Caleb Thorne," Noah began, with a pointed look at his brother. "What Kenny was going to say earlier is that there are other ways to make a man fall for you, ways that don't necessarily lead to the bedroom." He flushed, as if he couldn't believe he was actually attempting to school his baby sister on the art of seduction.
Smothering a grin at his obvious discomfiture, Daniela reached over and squeezed his well-muscled shoulder. "It's all right, Noah," she said with sham gravity. "I'm twenty-seven years old. I think I've been around long enough to figure out how to make a boy like me without compromising my virtue."
Kenneth roared with laughter, and Noah scowled. "All I was trying to say is—"
"You're a very beautiful woman, Daniela," Kenneth interjected dryly. "You've never had any trouble attracting members of the opposite sex—at least, not since you were a gawky preteen with a mouthful of braces and Buckwheat-wild hair."
"Gee, thanks for the reminder," Daniela grumbled, unable to rally a comeback because Kenneth Roarke had always been good-looking and popular with the girls. So had Noah, for that matter.