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Brittany Garrison's life had catapulted into disaster. As she stared at the books spread in front of her, she broke out in perspiration even though she was chilled to the bone.
"Now I know why my accountant disappeared," she whispered. If only she had known about Paine Elsdon's embezzlement of two million dollars before his mysterious disappearance, it might have been possible to catch him.
"There's no escaping the truth," Boyd Dumont remarked.
"The money could have been deposited into an account in the Bahamas or Switzerland. Your former accountant and your money are long gone from South Beach Miami."
She barely heard what her new accountant said. Seated at a table in his quiet office, Brittany couldn't stop thinking about her family. Last month, she'd overheard her oldest brother Parker's clear intentions to take her upscale restaurant away from her when she failed. Her brother Stephen was just as bad.
Stephen's remarks that she wasn't competent in business drummed in her ears with each heartbeat. Brittany Beach was a growing success. The numbers were there in black-and-white.
"Paine must have been embezzling funds from the start," she said, unaware she spoke aloud. "I trusted him because he came with excellent references."
"This could be the first time," Boyd speculated. "Maybe he got into a pinch and took a little, just to borrow it. Once he crossed that line, he kept on." Boyd shrugged his narrow shoulders as the light glinted on his glasses. "I suspect you won't find him."
"How did he get away with this?" she asked, stunned by the deception of someone she trusted. "The books looked fine."
"Your accountant doctored the books. My guess is, he may have had two sets of books. One for you and another one that he kept."
Her fingers drifted lightly over the cleft in her chin that marked every Garrison sibling. "Let me figure out what to do before there's any publicity," she said, thinking it wasn't public awareness she wanted to avoid, but the knowledge of her family. "We'll notify the law, of course."
"Certainly. But you can't wait long before you have to make payroll, buy supplies and meet the endless expenses of a restaurant."
As if she could wipe away her pounding headache, Brittany rubbed her temples. She should be worrying about how to manage so much debt. Instead, all she could think of was family humiliation. They viewed her, the baby of the family, as incompetent. Even Brooke, her twin sister, regarded her as inept. Now, if she didn't do something quickly, she was going to prove them right.
"Temporarily, other than the authorities, I don't want this embezzlement to go beyond this room."
Boyd nodded his bald head. "My work with all my clientsis confidential. But I believe you told me that some of your staff discussed your accountant's mysterious disappearance. Even if you don't hear them, there will be rumors and speculation."
Realizing Boyd was right, she drew a deep breath. "Word travels in the restaurant industry like wildfire," she remarked, pondering her dilemma. "There has to be something I can do,"she said, wondering how she could get the capital necessary to keep afloat.
"Brittany, if I may say so, your brothers can bail you out. Even with this immense debt you're in, they're quite well fixed."
"That's what I'm worrying about," she admitted, biting her lower lip. "I want to solve this problem myself."
Boyd sat in a vinyl chair at the head of the table. "That's a noble ambition, but you're going to have to be practical. They'll wonder why you didn't come to them. And it would cost you the least."
"No," she said emphatically, shaking her head. If Parkerl earned about the embezzlement, Brittany Beach would be gone as if taken by hurricane winds. Parker was a control freak who oversaw all the Garrison holdings. He already wanted her restaurant because the family retained the land, which was one of the last prime pieces of oceanfront property zoned for condos. She knew Parker envisioned condos that would bring in more money than her restaurant.
She rubbed her chin. "Go through this again with me. It's impossible to accept." An hour later, she left his office in a daze.
A week later, Brittany stood in the art deco dining room of Brittany Beach while she talked to her director of services, Hector Garland. The disaster that had come into her life nagged her and she couldn't keep her mind on Hector's conversation. Lost in her own thoughts, she looked around.
From the appearance of the restaurant, no one would guess there was the slightest problem. The cobalt ceiling with softlights was a contrast to dusky pink walls. Candlelight flickered and bouquets of flowers graced the room. Eating areas, where patrons could lounge while they ate, were cushioned in Haitian white cotton. Cocktail waitresses moved around in colorfulhalter tops and low-slung sarongs. Outside the main diningroom was a partially covered veranda, and beyond the whitewashed planks were white cabana tents on the beach. Each tent contained sofas for lounging and eating.
How could such an inviting place be a quicksand of catastrophe for her? Brittany couldn't stop wondering about what she was going to do to save the restaurant and herself.
As she tried to concentrate on what Hector was saying, she noticed a tall, dark-haired man standing in the lobby. She recognized Emilio Jefferies and knew he operated El Diablo, a small, exclusive and popular Cuban restaurant in SoBe that also catered to Miami's jet-set crowd. She had seen her competitor's name and his picture in tabloids, seen him at local happenings and they had met briefly at restaurant events. While she watched, her matre d', Luis Munoz, spoke to Emilio Jefferies and turned to lead him to a table.
When Emilio crossed the main dining room, he moved with the ease of a panther, Brittany thought, watching his long legs and his easy, relaxed stride. In a navy suit and white shirt, he stood out in spite of a clientele of jet-setters, models and buffstuds. She knew from Emilio's press coverage that he was thirty-three and definitely single.
"What's he doing here?" Brittany asked her services director, who turned to follow her gaze.
"I suppose he's curious about us," the slender black-haired man replied. "He's eaten here before. Every month we're having more business. Let's hope we grow to rival El Diablo."
She tried to smile, but found it impossible. More business. Less money. She rubbed her hands together, yet she couldn't stop watching Emilio.
"Excuse me, Brittany," Hector said and hurried away. Barely hearing Hector, Brittany didn't take her gaze from Emilio. He was more handsome in person than in his pictures.
Luis seated him on one of the curved chairs that faced a spectacular view of the white beach. Luis talked to him briefly and left. When Emilio was alone, his gaze circled the room. He looked into Brittany's eyes.
Her breath caught and she stared at him while he nodded and smiled in acknowledgment. She was held by his commanding gaze. With an effort, she smiled in return and then strolled to a table to chat briefly with patrons. Her back tingled and she wondered if Emilio's eyes followed her.
In a few minutes, she left the dining room to return to her corner office, stepping into the spacious room with its polished hardwood floor, teak desk and rattan furniture cushioned in the same Haitian white cotton as the restaurant's other furnishings. A glass wall provided a spectacular view of the private part of the veranda and the beach beyond it. At one end of her office was a long teak-and-chrome table where she worked.
When she was seated at her desk, she pulled up her list of possibilities for funds and read it over again, knowing there was nothing promising. If she didn't do something in the next week, the restaurant was going under.
After racking her brain and coming up with no solution, she went to her private bathroom and looked at herself in the fulll ength mirror. The brightness of her fiery-red skirt and red silk blouse mocked her dying future as owner of Brittany Beach. Her long brown hair was caught in a clip with tendrils hanging loose and curling around her face. The image in the mirror didn't look like a person facing disaster. She smiled at herself, while inwardly, she churned with worry.
Satisfied with her appearance, she squared her shoulders to return to the main area. When she entered the room, her eyes immediately went to Emilio, who still dined alone. She chose to greet her other guests instead of heading straight to his table as she wanted to do.
It was another fifteen minutes before she approached him. He came to his feet and that riveting moment when she had locked gazes with him across the room was nothing compared to looking directly into his thickly-lashed, crystal green eyes. She couldn't resist a swift glance over him and was immediately aware of his height. She was tall, herself, nine inches over five feet, yet he was at least six inches taller. His olive complexion added to his rugged appeal, yet it was the aura of sensuality that took her breath more than his physical appearance.
"Please, sit," she said.
"If you'll join me," he replied in a gravelly deep voice that heightened his magnetism. "I've finished eating. Have a drink with me."
"Thanks," she replied. As she started to sit, he came around to hold her chair. When they faced each other, she smiled at him. "Welcome to Brittany Beach. You checking us out to see what the competition is doing?"
"Sure, but I also enjoyed a fine dinner," he replied. She glanced down to see he'd had crab legs with melted butter.
"One of my favorite selections. I hope you've enjoyed your crab."
"I did, but my evening just got better."
She smiled. "I'm sure you flirt as easily as you breathe," she countered, noting an electrifying tension snapping between them. Now she could understand how he so easily attracted women. "How can I resist?" he rejoined, his deep voice lowerings lightly.
"You've been here before."
"Yes. The food is always good, so I come back occasionally. My compliments to your chef," Emilio said, smiling at her with a flash of even white teeth. Creases bracketed his mouth and his handsome appeal increased exponentially.
"Thank you and I'll tell him. Do you always check out your competition?"
"Sure. I'd guess you do, too, and I'd be willing to bet that you've eaten at El Diablo."
"As a matter of fact, I have. The food was also excellent."
"Thanks. I see we draw the same crowd, so we're direct competitors, but you're my most beautiful competitor, no question."
With a jump in her pulse, she smiled at him, yet she suspected he would put Brittany Beach out of business without a qualm if he could. "Thanks, again. I think there's room in SoBe for both of us," she replied tactfully.
"At least until you take my clientele," he answered lightly, smiling in return.
She laughed. "Our restaurants are sufficiently different. You carry dining to a more sensual level than we do here," she replied.
He glanced around and shrugged. "Everything in here is sensualthe ambience, the ability to lounge while you eat, great food, the very attractive waitstaff, music that has a primitive beat. No, I don't think I have the corner on what's sensuous, Brittany."
He said her name in his husky voice that stirred a tingle in her. She enjoyed sparring with him, feeling sparks dance between them, yet she suspected that her reaction was the same as every other female he encountered. The man reeked sex appeal and she was intrigued that he found her enough competition that he would make himself known at Brittany Beach. Or did he have some other reason for his presence?
"I should get you to write our ads," she answered, wondering what was really on his mind. Or was she reading too much into his visit?
"I could do your ads," he said with another flash of hisw hite teeth. "Brittany Beach, fine dining taken to a new level of sensuality by its gorgeous owner."
Smiling, for a fleeting moment she forgot her worries about her finances. "You exaggerate, but I think I'm going to enjoy having you for a Brittany Beach patron," she replied with a toss of her head.
"Next time, join me for dinner," he suggested and she nodded.
"Whenever you want," she answered. "Unless there's a kitchen crisis or some reason I'm needed elsewhere. I see you're through eating. Would you like your own tour? Or have you already seen everything there is to see?"
"Not even remotely," he answered with a twinkle in his eyes. "I suspect there's a lot more to learn about." His tone suggested something more personal than the restaurant. "Let's do it," he said. "I'm already fascinated. I can't wait to see what else you'll show me."
She was amused by him, flattered, even though she was certain every woman he was around received the same flirting and compliments and she knew she shouldn't put stock in anything he said. She suspected he would look around, flirt some more and leave and she wouldn't see him again unless it was at restaurant functions or SoBe events.
He came around to hold her chair and fell into step beside her as she began the tour. She was aware of him close at her side.