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Impossible. This was impossible.
Lily Zaccaro maximized her browser window, leaning in even more closely to study the photo on her laptop screen. With angry taps at the keyboard, she minimized that window and opened another.
Screen after screen, window after window, her blood pressure continued to climb.
More angry keystrokes set the printer kicking out each and every picture. Or as she was starting to think of them: The Evidence.
Pulling the full-color photos from the paper tray, she carried them to one of the long, wide, currently empty cutting tables and laid them out side by side, row by row.
Inside her chest, her heart was pounding as though she'd just run a seven-minute mile. Right there, before her very eyes, was proof that someone was stealing her designs.
How had this happened?
She tapped her foot in agitation, twisted the oversize dinner ring on her right middle finger, even rubbed her eyes and blinked before studying the pictures again.
The fabric choices were different, of course, as were some of the lines and cuts, making them just distinctive enough not to be carbon copies. But there was no mistaking her original sketches in the competing designs.
To reassure herself she wasn't imagining things or going completely crazy, Lily moved to one of the hip-high file cabinet drawers where she kept all of her records and design sketches. Old, new, implemented and scratched. Riffling through them, she found the portfolio she was looking for, dragged it out and carried it back to the table.
One after another, she drew out the sketches she'd been working on last spring. The very ones they'd been prepared to work with, manufacture and put out for the following fall's line.
After a short game of mix-and-match, she had each sketch placed beside its counterpart from her rival. The similarities made her ill, almost literally sick to her stomach.
She leaned against the edge of the table while the images swam in front of her eyes, sending a dizzying array of colors and charcoal lines into the mix of emotions that were already leaving her light-headed and nauseated.
How could this happen? she wondered again. How could this possibly have happened?
Wracking her brain, she tried to think of who else might have seen her sketches while she was working. How many people had been in and out of this studio? There couldn't have been that many.
Zoe and Juliet, of course, but she trusted them with her life. She and her sisters shared this work space. The three of them rented the entire New York apartment building, using one of the lofts as a shared living space and the other as a work space for their company, Zaccaro Fashions.
Although there were times when they got on each other's nerves or their work schedules overlapped, their partnership was actually working out surprisingly well. And Lily showed her sisters all of her design ideas, sometimes even soliciting their opinions, the same as they shared their thoughts and sketches with her.
But neither of them—not even slightly flighty party girl, Zoe—would ever steal or sell her designs or betray her in any way. Of that, she was absolutely, one hundred percent certain.
So who else could it have been? They occasionally had others over to the studio, but not very often. Most times when they had business to conduct, they did it at Zaccaro Fashions, their official, public location in Manhattan's Fashion District, where they had more sewing machines set up, with employees to produce items on a larger, faster scale; offices for each of the sisters; and a small boutique set up out front. Something they hoped to expand upon very soon.
Of course, that particular dream would be nearly impossible to realize if their creations continued to get stolen and put on the market before they could release them.
She collected all of the papers from the cutting table, being sure to keep each of the printed pictures with its corresponding sketch. Then she began to pace, worrying a thumbnail between her teeth and wearing out the soles of her one-of-a-kind Zoe-designed pumps while she wondered what to do next.
What could she do?
If she had any idea who was responsible for this, then she might know what to do. Bludgeoning them with a sharp object or having them drawn and quartered in the middle of Times Square sounded infinitely satisfying. But even going to the police would work for her, as long as the theft and replication of her clothes stopped, and the culprit was punished or fired or chased out of town by a mob of angry fashion designers wielding very sharp scissors.
Without a clue of who was behind this, though, she didn't even know where to begin. Wasn't sure she had any options at all.
Her sisters might have some suggestions, but she so didn't want to involve them in this.
She'd been the one to go to design school, then ask their parents for a loan to start her own business. Because—even though they were quite wealthy and had offered to simply give her the money, since she was already in line for a substantial inheritance—she'd wanted to do this herself, to build something rather than having it handed to her.
She'd been the one to come to New York and struggle to make a name for herself, Zoe and Juliet following along later. Zoe had been interested in the New York party scene more than anything else, and Juliet had quit her job as a moderately successful, fledgling real-estate agent back in Connecticut to join Lily's company.
Without a doubt, they had both added exponentially to Zaccaro Fashions. Lily's clothing designs were fabulous, of course, but Zoe's shoes and Juliet's handbags and accessories were what truly made the Zaccaro label a well-rounded and successful collection.
Accessories like that tended to be where the most money was made, too. Women loved to find not only a new outfit, but all the bells and whistles to go with it. The fact that they could walk into Zaccaro Fashions and walk back out with everything necessary to dress themselves up from head to toe in a single shopping bag was what had customers coming back time and time again. And recommending the store to their friends. Thank God.
But it wasn't her sisters' designs being ripped off, her sisters' stakes in the business being threatened, and she didn't want them to worry—about her or the security of their own futures.
No, she needed to handle this on her own. At least until she had a better idea of what was going on.
Returning to the laptop, she hopped up on the nearest stool and straightened her skirt, tucking her feet beneath her on one of the lower rungs. Her fingers hesitated over the keys, then she just started tapping, not sure she was doing the right thing, but deciding to follow her gut.
Two minutes later, she had the phone number of a corporate-investigation firm uptown, and five minutes after that, she had an appointment for the following week with their top investigator. She wasn't certain yet exactly what she would ask him to do, but once he heard her dilemma, maybe he would have some ideas.
Then she continued searching online, deciding to dig up everything she could on her newest, scheming rival, Ash-down Abbey.
The London-based clothing company had been founded more than a hundred years ago by Arthur Statham. Their fashions ranged from sportswear to business attire and had been featured in any number of magazines, from Seventeen to Vogue. They owned fifty stores worldwide, earning over ten million dollars in revenue annually.
So why in heaven's name would they need to steal ideas from her?
Zaccaro Fashions was still in its infancy, earning barely enough to cover the overhead, make monthly payments to Lily's parents toward the loan and allow Juliet, Zoe and herself to continue living comfortably in the loft and working in the adjoining studio. Ashdown Abbey might as well have been the Hope Diamond sitting beside a chunk of cubic zirconium in comparison.
The hijacked fashions in question had originated from Ashdown Abbey's Los Angeles branch, so she dug a little deeper into that particular division. According to the company's website, it was run by Nigel Statham, CEO and direct descendant of Arthur Statham himself.
But the Los Angeles offices had only been open for a year and a half and were apparently working somewhat independently of the rest of the British company, putting out a couple of exclusive lines and holding their own runway shows geared more toward an American—and specifically Hollywood—customer base.
Which meant it wasn't all of Ashdown Abbey out to ruin Lily's life, just the Los Angeles faction.
Lily narrowed her eyes, leaning closer to the laptop screen and focusing on a photo of Nigel Statham. Public Enemy Number One.
He was a good-looking man, she'd give him that much. Grudgingly. Short, light brown hair with a bit of curl at the ends. High cheekbones and a strong jaw. Lips that were full, but not too full. And eyes that looked to be a deep shade of green, though that was difficult to tell from a picture on the internet.
She wanted to despise him on sight, but in one photo, he was smiling. A sexy, charming smile that went all the way to his eyes and threatened to turn her knees to jelly.
Of course, she was sitting and she was made of sterner stuff than that, so that wasn't going to happen. But at first glance, she certainly wouldn't have pegged him as a thief.
She continued to scroll through pictures and articles and company information, but much of it was for the U.K. division and the other European stores. The Los Angeles branch still seemed to be finding its footing and working to establish itself as a British clothing company on American soil.
Deciding there wasn't much more she could do until she met with the investigator except seethe in silence, Lily began to close up shop. She checked her watch. She was supposed to meet her sisters for dinner in twenty minutes, anyway.
But as she was shutting down browser windows, something caught her eye. A page filled with "job opportunities at Ashdown Abbey—U.S.A." She'd been perusing the list just to get a better idea of how the company operated.
Now, though, she expanded the window, clicked on the link for "more information" and hit Print.
It was crazy, what she was suddenly thinking. Worse yet that she was contemplating actually going through with it.
Her sisters would try to talk her out of it for sure, if she even mentioned the possibility. The investigator would undoubtedly warn her against it, then likely try to convince her to let him handle it at—what?—one hundred two hundred and fifty.. five hundred dollars an hour.
It would be so much easier for her to slip in and poke around herself. She knew the design world inside and out, so she would certainly fit in. And if she made herself sound smart and qualified enough, surely she would be a shoo-in.
A tiny shiver of anxiety rolled down her spine. Okay, so it was dangerous. A lot could go wrong, and she probably stood to get herself into a heap of trouble if anyone—or the wrong someone, at any rate—found out.
But it was too good an opportunity to pass up. Almost as though she was meant to go through with this, fate bending its bony finger to point the way. Otherwise, what were the chances this particular position would open up just when she most needed the inside scoop on Ashdown Abbey?
No, she had to do this. She had to find out what was going on, how it had happened and get it to stop. And going to work for Ashdown Abbey seemed like a good way to do exactly that.
Not just good—perfect.
Because Nigel Statham needed a personal assistant, and she was just the right woman for the job.
Nigel Statham muttered an unflattering curse, slapping the company's quarterly financial report down on top of his father's latest missive. The one that made him feel like a child in short trousers being scolded for some minor transgression or another.
Handwritten on personal stationery and posted all the way from England—because that's how his parents had always done it, and email was too commonplace for their refined breeding—the letter outlined the U.S. division's disappointing returns and Nigel's failure to make it yet another jewel in the Ashdown Abbey crown since he'd been appointed CEO eighteen months ago.
Disappointment clung to the words as though his father was standing in the room, delivering them face-to-face: hands behind his back, bushy white brows drawn down in a frown of displeasure. Just like when he'd been a boy.
His parents had always expected perfection—an aim he had fallen short of time and time again. But he hardly thought a year and a half was long enough to ascertain the success or failure of a new branch of the business in an entirely new country when it had taken nearly a century for Ashdown Abbey to reach its current level of success in the U.K. alone.
He thought perhaps his father's expectations for this new venture had been set a bit too high. But try telling the senior Statham that.
With a sigh, Nigel leaned back and wondered how long he could put off responding to the letter before his father sent a second. Or worse yet, decided to fly all the way to Los Angeles to check in on his son in person.
Another day, certainly. Especially since he was currently dreading the job of training a brand-new personal assistant.
He'd been through three so far. Three attractive but very young ladies who had been competent enough but hardly dedicated.
The problem with hiring personal assistants in the heart of Los Angeles, he decided, was that they tended to be either aspiring actresses who grew bored easily or quit as soon as they landed a part in a hand-lotion commercial; or they were aspiring fashion designers who grew bored when they didn't make it to the top with their own line in under six months.
And each time one of them moved on, he had to start all over training a new girl. It was enough to make him consider hiring an assistant to be on hand to train his next assistant.
Human resources had hired the latest in his stead, then sent him a memo with her name and a bit of background information, both personal and professional. It probably wasn't even worth remembering the woman's name, but then he'd never been that kind of boss.
Before he had the chance to review her resume once more, there was a tap on his office door. Less than half a second later, it swung open and his new assistant—he deduced she was his new assistant, at any rate—strode across the carpeted floor.
She was prettier than her photo depicted. Her hair teetered somewhere between light brown and dark blond, pulled back in a loose but smoothly twisted bun at the back of her head. Her face was lightly made up, the lines classic and delicate, almost Romanesque.