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Mind Your Own Business
By Lutishia Lovely
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2011 Lutishia Lovely
All rights reserved.
Why can't a woman be on top?" Bianca Livingston demanded, tossing shoulder-length, straightened hair over her shoulder. She stood over her older brother as if ready to strike, looking totally capable of kicking butts and taking names. Her quick smile, short stature, and girly frame had caused many men to underestimate her—to their peril. But anyone seeing her now—shoulders back, hands on hips, her perfectly tailored black suit and four-inch heels adding to her aura of power—would believe her capable of running almost anything. "I'm as qualified to run the West Coast division as you are, even more so, matter of fact."
"You're qualified to run the kitchen, maybe," her older brother retorted. Jefferson suppressed a smile. He'd taunted his sister from birth, and he did so now. Her fiery personality was the perfect foil for his laid-back teasing. But even with his ongoing provocations, this time Jefferson's antics masked the seriousness of his quest. He had every intention of being the Livingston who moved to LA to establish the Taste of Soul restaurants both there and in Nevada. But unlike most Livingstons, he didn't like confrontation or competition. He'd quietly made his bid to step away from his cushy position in the finance department to run the West the same way he cooked his ribs: low and slow. "Isn't that why you spent the last nine months in Paris?" he queried to underscore his point. "Learning the fine art of cooking so that you could give our soul food some class?"
Actually, Bianca had fled to Paris to get away from the chain around her neck otherwise known as fiancé Cooper Riley, Jr. But only one other person knew this truth—her cousin, Toussaint Livingston. Initially, forestalling the marriage everyone else believed was a fait accompli was also why she'd expressed interest in running the West Coast locations. But now, after months of talking with Toussaint, who, besides being her confidant and a Food Network star, was also the ambitious brainchild behind their company expanding out West, Bianca wanted to relocate to put her mark on the Livingston dynasty and make the West Coast Taste of Soul restaurants shine.
Bianca replied, "Need I remind you that I have not only a culinary certificate from Le Cordon Bleu, but also an undergrad and a graduate degree in business administration?"
"No, little sis, you don't need to remind me." Jefferson's smirk highlighted the dimple on his casually handsome face, his sienna skin further darkened by the November sun. His deep-set brown eyes twinkled with merriment. "But do I have to remind you that I have double masters in business administration and finance?" Jefferson had been the first Livingston in two decades to follow up his stint at Morehouse with two years at Wharton's School of Business.
Bianca, knowing that she couldn't go toe to toe when it came to her brother's education, tried a different route. She walked away from Jefferson and sat in one of the tan leather chairs in the artistically appointed office. Reaching for a ballpoint pen that lay on his large and messy mahogany desk, she adopted a calmer tone, yet couldn't totally lose the petulance in her voice. "Jefferson, the only reason Dad is promoting the idea of your heading up the location is because you're the oldest."
"And the son, don't forget about that. You know Dad doesn't want to see his baby girl fly too far from the nest."
"Okay, probably that, too," Bianca conceded. It was no secret that when it came to her father, Abram "Ace" Livingston, she was the apple of his all-seeing eye.
"Besides, how are you even considering relocation when you've got a fiancé champing at the bit to get married? Cooper has been more than patient with you, Bianca. Not many men would let the woman they love move to the other side of the world, even if it was, as you successfully argued, for the union's greater good. What did you call it? Increasing your company value and the marriage's bottom line? As if being a Livingston isn't value enough? No, Bianca, Cooper allowed the wedding to be pushed back once already. He's not going to delay it a second time. And you know he isn't moving to LA."
Tears unexpectedly came to Bianca's eyes. She abruptly rose from the chair where she'd been sitting and walked to the window. The glory of the day, boasting colorful autumn leaves framed by a sunny blue sky, was lost on her. "You're probably right," she said, quickly wiping her eyes. "If everyone has their way, in six months I'll be married and in nine have a baby on the way." But how can I marry Cooper after what happened in Paris?
"Hey, sister, are you all right?"
Bianca jumped. She hadn't heard Jefferson rise, hadn't been aware that he'd walked from his desk and joined her at the window. "Actually, no, if you want to know the truth. Jeff, I—"
"Hey man, oh, Bianca, I'm glad you're both here." Toussaint Livingston burst into Jefferson's office, and now rushed toward his cousins on the other side of the room. The seriousness of his countenance took nothing away from a face that models would envy, along with six feet, two inches and almost two hundred pounds of delectable dark chocolate. "We need to roll to y'all parents' house right now. Emergency family meeting."
Their conversation forgotten, both Jefferson and Bianca turned at once, talking simultaneously.
"What's the matter?"
"What's going on?"
Bianca's heart raced with concern. "Why are we meeting at Mom and Dad's house, Toussaint, and not in the conference room?"
Toussaint turned and headed for the door. "That's what we're getting ready to find out. I'll meet y'all there."
Fifteen minutes later Toussaint, Jefferson, and Bianca joined their family members in the living room of Ace and Diane's sprawling Cascade residence. Toussaint's parents, Adam and Candace, and his brother, Malcolm, were already there. The trio from the office was the last to arrive and as soon as they sat down, Ace began speaking.
"We've got a situation," he said without preamble. "Somebody's stealing company funds."
Reactions were mixed, with bewilderment and anger vying for equal time.
"Who is it?" Bianca demanded, ready for battle though the culprit remained unnamed.
"We don't know," Ace replied. "But it's definitely an inside job."
The family members looked from one to the other, a myriad of thoughts in each mind. Who could it be? How did this happen? Is the guilty party somehow connected to someone in the room? One family member even pondered the impossible: Is the thief one of us?
"What kind of money are we talking about?" Toussaint asked. "Hundreds, thousands ... more?"
"A couple hundred thousand," Ace replied, his tone somber and curt.
Again, responses were symphonic.
"What the hell?"
"Who could do such a thing?"
"Oh, hell to the N-O. We're not going to take this lying down."
"You're absolutely right, baby girl," Ace said to Bianca. "We're not going to stand for this, not at all. Nobody steals from our company without feeling the wrath of a Livingston payback."CHAPTER 2
Three hours later and Bianca was still reeling. Whose hand is in the cookie jar ... and how did they grab all of that money without anyone's knowledge? The Livingstons had bandied about a variety of scenarios and made a chart of potential employees, past and present, who they felt best poised for betrayal. Bianca's eyes narrowed as she remembered one name that had come up, a woman who'd had an affair with her cousin and who'd worked for the Livingston Corporation until her relationship with Toussaint abruptly ended. This ex-marketing director had disappeared into thin air and, as far as anyone knew, was no longer in Atlanta. But with the Internet making the world smaller, click by worldwide click, Bianca didn't count out the woman she'd never trusted. Whoever was stealing from what had been a relatively dormant bank account could be anywhere.
A knock at her door startled Bianca from her musings. Belatedly, she remembered Cooper's phone call and subsequent promise to drop by. She took a breath and steeled herself for the encounter. "Hey, Coop," she said, standing back from the door to let him in.
"Hello, dear," Cooper replied, the kiss on her forehead as sexy as that which an uncle or grandfather would bestow. "You look troubled. Come here and tell Papa all about it."
Bianca fought the urge to roll her eyes and, going against every fiber of her being, dutifully followed Cooper into the living room of her designer-decorated townhome. She loved her split-level, three-bedroom spread: the hardwood floors and gourmet kitchen; bright yellows and oranges tempered by ebony wood; windows everywhere, letting in the bright autumn sunshine. The cheery surroundings were in stark contrast to her ever darkening mood.
Cooper sat down and tried to pull Bianca into his arms.
"Please, Cooper," Bianca said, placing more distance between them. "I'm ... not in the mood."
"Some women would welcome the touch of their fiancés at a time like this."
Sorry for what, Bianca? Stringing out our engagement for two years? Becoming more and more engrossed with your work? Or our not having made love in almost a month? Instead of voicing these questions, Cooper refocused on Bianca's bad mood. "What's going on, dear? Something at work?"
Cooper leaned back, waiting.
Bianca hesitated for only a moment before answering. For obvious reasons this matter was confidential, known only to the Livingston clan, the private investigator Ace had immediately hired—and the thief. But not only was Cooper almost a family member, but his analytical, lawyer mind might see clues or connections where Bianca would not.
She turned to face Cooper. "Somebody's stealing company funds."
His only reaction was a slight narrowing of the eyes. "From one of the restaurants?"
"No, from corporate."
Cooper sat up, rubbing his chin in thought. "Corporate, huh? That's interesting."
"Any ideas as to whom it might be?"
"A few." Bianca stood and began to pace. "But the most obvious one right now is our ex-marketing director, Shyla Martin. I think you met her two years ago, at the company Christmas party."
Cooper pondered this statement, even as he remembered why last year's Christmas party had been subdued and low-key. "What does she look like?"
"Tall, attractive. She was Toussaint's date."
"Oh, her," Cooper replied, nodding. "Sure, I remember Shyla. I remember thinking that she was funny and intelligent, and that she and Toussaint made a good couple."
"Yeah, well, she thought they made a great couple, too. And she wanted to make their union permanent." Oh, shoot. The last thing I want to do is put marriage on Coopers mind.
But she'd already done so, as Cooper's next words verified. "So there are women out there who want to get married."
"Okay, I won't press right now. But we've got to make plans for the future, Bianca. Neither of us is getting any younger. It's time to get married and start a family ... soon."
Bianca returned to the couch and sat down. Her brow was furrowed in thought—about the theft, Cooper's words, and other things.
Bianca's eyes widened at Cooper's question. Am I that transparent? Are the memories so poignant, so strong, that they're written all over my face? "What do you mean, what happened?" she asked breathlessly.
Again, Cooper's eyes narrowed, as they often did when his sharp mind whirled. "Between Toussaint and Shyla ... what happened?"
"Oh, right, between Toussaint and Shyla. You know what happened to them, Cooper. Alexis St. Clair happened."
"Of course I know about Toussaint's wife, Bianca." And the baby they're expecting. "But I didn't know that Alexis caused the breakup between him and Shyla, nor would I imagine Shyla as the type of person who would go to these extremes as a result."
"It wasn't just about their breakup." Bianca sighed, remembering that she'd never shared with Cooper the extent of what went down between the Livingstons and their former employee. She gave the short version: how Shyla Martin's attempt to come between Toussaint and the love of his life had cost Shyla her job.
"Oh, I see. Shyla not only lost love, but she lost money, too." Cooper nodded his head. "That makes your assumption that it is her imminently more plausible." Cooper eyed Bianca, noting her stiff countenance and rigid neck. "Come here, dear," he quietly commanded, even as he reached for her arm. "Don't you worry your pretty little head about a thing. We'll get to the bottom of this."
This time, Bianca did not resist as Cooper pulled her into him. Talking this situation out reminded her of the things she loved about him, and one of those things was that he made her feel safe. In many ways this fair-skinned, freckle-faced man was like her dad, Ace Livingston, and Bianca would never deny that Cooper was a good man who came from an upstanding family. But that was the problem. She respected him, admired him, even loved him—as one would a good friend. But Bianca wasn't in love with him, the way she wanted to be with a man when she walked down the aisle. The way she'd fallen for a Frenchman in Paris, after only two months of dating. Cooper might be able to help her solve the mystery of who stole the company money. But as Bianca laid her head on his shoulder, she wondered who would help her solve the mystery of how to get over the man who'd stolen her heart.CHAPTER 3
On the other side of town, in the comfortable surroundings of the same den where the news had broken, stealing was also the topic of conversation. After work, the Livingston men had returned to Ace's house for further discussion on the day's news. They were joined by Sterling Ross, the tall, dark, debonair family friend who was also one of the country's most preeminent detectives. Jefferson watched Toussaint prowl the room, while his dad, Ace; his uncle, Adam; and his cousin Malcolm refreshed their drinks. Sterling flipped a page on his pad and continued writing notes.
"I think the money trail will lead to Shyla," Toussaint said, a slight scowl marring his otherwise perfectly chiseled face. Like a fine wine, thirty-three-year-old Toussaint Levon Livingston only got better with age, and like everything else, marriage and impending fatherhood agreed with him. "She went away a little too quietly, no fuss at all. I know Shyla, and trust me, that's not like her."
Ace returned to his seat and passed a hand over his smooth, bald head. "You paid her two hundred thousand dollars, son. I'd say that's a fuss. Granted, she wasn't happy about leaving the company—"
"She wasn't happy about leaving Toussaint," Jefferson interjected.
Ace grunted. "But I don't think she'd stoop to stealing. Shyla is classier than that."
"Besides," Adam continued, "the choice is almost too obvious. It's been a year since she left the company. All of her company credit cards were cancelled immediately. How would she have accessed the account? Why would she risk her reputation, not to mention her freedom, by stealing from us?"
"Because she's being influenced by the man who shot you, that's why!"
Toussaint's observation quieted the room. Sterling stopped writing. The name of the man who'd left Adam Livingston clinging to life on the Livingston Corporation's parking lot pavement hadn't come up in the earlier meeting. At that time, the focus had been solely on past and present Livingston employees. But now everyone's mind was on the man who'd eluded capture for almost a year: Quintin Bright.
Adam responded. "We know that for a while they were in the same place at the same time. But we don't know if they met—"
Toussaint snorted his disbelief.
"And if they did meet," Adam continued, "we have no idea what they talked about. And even if our name did come up, would a man like that admit to a crime, and would a woman like Shyla keep quiet about it?"
"For a brothah like Q?" Toussaint offered. "She'd keep quiet and she'd stay in touch. Shyla might be classy, Uncle, as you say, but she's got a messy side."
"Wait," Sterling said, holding up his hand. "You guys are getting ahead of me. Adam, you know the identity of the person who tried to rob you?"
"Robbing was the last thing on that asshole's mind." When Sterling's brow rose, Toussaint realized that he had said too much. Robbery was the motive police assumed had led Quintin Bright to shoot Adam, the motive quoted in newspaper articles and television reports. The Livingstons had done nothing to dispel this assumption.
Excerpted from Mind Your Own Business by Lutishia Lovely. Copyright © 2011 Lutishia Lovely. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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