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Viveca Jackson had never been a voyeur, reluctant or otherwise.
She'd been having a lot of firsts lately.
Like being offered a book deal. She'd gotten the thrill of her life a month ago when she'd picked up the phone in her microscopic East Village apartment and her agent told her that an editor wanted to buy her book. Viveca was writing a family history about the Warners, who were Columbus, Ohio, royalty.
Even more exciting, Arnetta Warner, the family matriarch, wanted to participate in the writing of the book.
It was the opportunity of a lifetime.
Viveca had never dared hope that in one fell swoop she'd get the chance to build her career and ruin the reputation of the Warners, the family that had destroyed her family, but there it was, falling neatly into her lap.
Nor had she ever before taken a leave of absence from her job as a reporter for the New York Times, but she'd arranged the time off, sublet her apartment and flown to Columbus for a six-month stay at Heather Hill, the Warner estate.
Who'd ever have thought the Warners would open the doors of their palace to Viveca while she engineered their long-overdue comeuppance?
Was this divine justice? It sure felt like it.
She'd certainly never seen such a staggering display of wealth. In the Warners' world, uniformed butlers answered front doors, and houses weren't houses. They were estates with pretentious names like Heather Hill and with soaring, domed ceilings, curving staircases, silk wallpaper, damask drapes, crystal chandeliers and priceless antiques.
Unbelievable, really. Sickening.
The butlerFranklin Bishop, he'd said his name was led Viveca down a long, windowed hallway and intoa library to wait for Mrs. Warner. She studied him, liking his quiet dignity. He wore a crisp white dress shirt, starchy enough to stand by itself on the floor, dark trousers and black shoes polished to a mirrored brilliance that almost hurt her eyes.
"If you give me your car keys," he said in an accent that had originated somewhere in the Deep South, his lightly lined brown face crinkling into a welcoming smile, "I can get your luggage and put it in the cottage."
"Oh, no," she began automatically. She hated to think of the old gent lifting those heavy bags, but then she gave herself a swift mental kick in the butt. Why not enjoy the trappings of living with the filthy rich? The Warners owed her that much and more.
But she still couldn't inconvenience this nice man.
"I can bring them in later," she told him. "Really."
He held out one weathered palm. "Give me those keys right now."
Not wanting to injure his pride, she handed them over and tried to be gracious about it. "Thank you."
"Tea or coffee?" he asked. "You must be thirsty."
"Oh, no," she began again.
He raised a salt-and-pepper eyebrow, and his lips twitched around a repressed smile. "You trying to put me out of my job?"
"Ah, no," she said. Now she felt sheepish.
"Good." He nodded with satisfaction. "I'll bring you some Darjeeling. You'll like that."
"Thanks. Have you been with the family long?"
"Oh about a thousand years. They couldn't get along without me."
Viveca was still laughing when he winked and left. She reminded herself that in six months, when she finished the research, she'd have to return to the real world, where people handled their own luggage and got their own tea.
Yeah. That'd be an easy transition. Not.
Turning in a loose circle, she gawked openly, something she'd tried not to do in front of Mr. Bishop. She'd thought libraries like this existed only in movies, but she'd been wrong. Thousands of colorful leather-bound books lined thirty-foot-high bookshelves on opposite walls. A staircase on one side of the room led up to a second level, which had a narrow, railed walkway.
Books, books, books.
There was nothing she loved more. If only there had been a plate of brownies with thick, gooey icing on the coffee table, she would have thought she'd stumbled onto heaven on earth. What she wouldn't give to have the run of a library like
Laughing voices and the splash of water outside broke her train of thought.
One of the French doors, she noticed for the first time, was ajar and let in the sweet, heavy fragrance of roses from some unseen garden and the smell of chlorine. Viveca crept to the doors and peeked out.
Blinding June sunlight scorched her eyes for a second or two, but then an amazing scene came into focus. She saw an enormous, glittering sapphire pool surrounded by columns and statues of various Greek gods, lush potted trees and flowers, and them.
She gasped because there was no way to hold in her stunned appreciation of such a man. Or was he a god? She wasn't sure, having never seen anything like him before.
She'd researched him, of course. Andrew Warner, the thirty-five-year-old CEO of WarnerBrands International and heir to the Warner family fortune. He was one of Queen City magazine's most eligible bachelors, Yale graduate, blah, blah, blah.
Meaningless words that couldn't possibly prepare her for this.
Rising out of the pool just twenty feet away, Andrew Warner was glorious. There was no other word for him. That first glimpse of him froze Viveca into place, and she could no more look away than she could resurrect the dead.
She had a dazed initial impression of a flashing white smile, startling against the healthy honey-with-cream color of his skin, and curly, dark hair flattened against his head.
But then she noticed his body and her gaping mouth went dry.
Water streamed down his long limbs as he sauntered over to an occupied lounge chair and sat beside his female companion's legs. Tall, Viveca thought. He was very tall. Muscular, too, with wide, sculpted swimmer's shoulders, a round butt, powerful thighs and shapely calves. A soccer player's calves. Dark hair dusted across his chiseled chest, tapered through the ladder rungs of his abdomen and disappeared into his blue board shorts.
Watching him grab a towel and run it over his head, Viveca felt a strange, tight knot form low in her belly.
The woman laughed, and Viveca's gaze slid unwillingly to her. Viveca refused to acknowledge her negative response to the woman, who was a shade or two darker than Andrew and had a sleek, precision-cut bob.
She'd been lying on her stomach, wearing only the bottoms of a skimpy red bikini, but now she flipped over and sat up. Viveca was treated to a startling glimpse of large, jiggling, walnut-tipped breasts that stuck straight out like twin Hindenbergs, impervious to the effects of gravity.
Don't watch this, Viveca told herself sternly. You're spying on people in a private moment you don't want to see this you don't
Dismayed and fascinated, Viveca stared as the woman scooted down to the end of the lounge chair, wrapped her arms and legs around Andrew Warner, and pressedundulatedagainst his back.
Viveca whimpered involuntarily. Unwelcome images and questions burned through her mind, demanding answers
What did it feel like to touch that man? To press against that hard, perfect body? To make love with him?
In answer, Viveca's breasts peaked.
Even without touching her, Andrew Warner aroused her more than her few and infrequent boyfriends ever had. This was not good.
Viveca watched as Andrew frowned and pulled away from his companion. The woman laughed, tossed that gleaming hair and, whispering in his ear, snaked her hands down his chest, kneading and caressing.
Viveca couldn't breathe, knowing she should look away and knowing she wouldn't. Slowly slowly the woman's hand slid lower until finally it stroked his crotch.
The woman cooed with obvious appreciation.
Viveca gasped again, loudly, and this time there was no splashing water to drown out the sound.
Andrew's head whipped aroundnaturally he had the perfect hearing of a batand Viveca's reflexes failed. The panicked voice in her head screamed directions at her to hide, but her uncomprehending feet and legs did nothing.
Andrew Warner, her enemy and the sexiest man she'd ever seen, looked directly at the French doors and saw her. And Viveca couldn't do anything other than gape.
For one endless, agonizing, pulsing moment, they stared at each other, connected by a force as powerful as it was invisible. Looking into his bright eyes, Viveca felt a succession of his emotionssurprise, curiosity and something darker.
Viveca was mortified and felt her cheeks flame with enough wattage to light the Vegas strip for a year. In the lamest move of her life, she leapt behind the curtains until she was out of his line of sight, a tactic only marginally more effective than rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
Safely hidden, she slapped a hand to her forehead and squeezed her eyes shut, as if that could block out what she'd just seen, or her reaction.
Stupid, stupid, stupid.
What had gotten into her?
Outside, Andrew spoke, his voice deep and commanding. "Stop it. Get dressed."
The woman said something whiny, and then was silent.
Breathe, Viveca told herself. After a few seconds her galloping heart rate returned to something approaching normal.
Rattled, she slumped back against a bookshelf, rubbed a hand over her churning belly, pushed Andrew out of her mind and focused on the reason she'd come here, to the heart of the enemy.
Justice for her family.
The Warner family had untold millions, private jets, lavish estates and spoiled playboys, and they deserved none of it. For this simple injustice, she'd hated them for half of her thirty years. Hated their glorious living and, most of all, their overwhelming sense of entitlement, as though they thought God had smiled on them, would smile on them forever and to hell with the rest of the world.
Viveca looked to the portrait above the enormous marble fireplace: Reynolds Warner, the late patriarch of this godforsaken family and as imperious as Henry VIII, stared out at her with a fiery gaze.
The painter had captured every bit of the man's energy and power. Staring up at him, Viveca couldn't believe he'd been dead for more than twenty years, or that all that intensity could ever leave the earth.
He was the one who'd killed her father, even if he hadn't done it with his own hands. He was the corrupt villain who'd built a company on the broken backs of his workers. He was the one whose legal but immoral policies had poisoned the corporate culture of WarnerBrands International.
He was the one whose name she most wanted to smear.
He had spawned a dynasty of men every bit as spoiled and entitled as he'd been, and engineered the fairy tale of a loving, beautiful family, much like the Kennedys, committed to good works and public service.
But the Kennedys had had dirty linen, and Viveca was here to air the Warners'.
She knew just where to start, too. She'd already arranged an interview with one of Reynolds Warner's mistresses.
Soon the world would know just how dishonorable the Warners really were. How corrupt their private lives. How all that glittered wasn't gold with them, no matter how they seemed to shine and glow.
Anger, hot and vicious, shuddered through her.
How dare they laugh and play and swim in beautiful pools when their clothing company was nothing but a glorified sweatshop? When her father, God rest his soul, had worked his fingers to the bone for them, and then lost his arm in one of their death-trap machines?
Remembering sobered her up immediately, until all Andrew Warner's intoxicating but unwanted effects left her body and only the familiar, seething rage was left.
Oh, yes, she remembered
The day the phone rang when she was fifteen. Mama's screams. The hushed whispers of relatives. The day, weeks later, when Daddy came home from the hospital, minus his right arm and his will to live. The day he started drinking.
Mama's constant tears, Daddy's shame as he tried, and failed, to dress himself, her parents' anger when the Warner family paid Daddy's medical bills, gave him a small settlement check, and sent him on his way to provide for his family as best he could.
And there were more painful memories.
The loss of their apartment and the laughter that had made the place a home. Daddy's alcoholism and early death from liver cancer. Mama's death the following year.
How many other accidents had occurred inside War-nerBrands factories before they finally shipped their operation overseas, where they could maim and kill without government interference? How many other lives had the Warners ruined? Hundreds? Thousands? Did the Warners know, or care?
They would know. Once Viveca got finished with them.
That was why she was here. To expose their true nature.
She'd given up on revealing their unscrupulous business practices. They were too clever now, too powerful, and they knew how to walk the line and keep things just this side of legal.
But the soulless Warners had a soft underbellytheir personal lives. Viveca would expose them for the corrupt bastards they were, and she would do it with their help.
Viveca had waited, and worked, her whole life for this opportunity, become a reporter in the hopes of one day exposing the Warners for what they were. She'd neglected her personal life so she could work toward the chance to avenge her dead father, but it was worth it because she'd sold the book proposal.
How beautifully her plan was coming together.
Jarred back to the present, Viveca smiled and stood in time to see Mrs. Warner sweep in from the hallway.
"So nice to meet you, Mrs. Warner."
Willowy Arnetta Warner, trailing the light scent of jasmine, shook Viveca's hand in a bone-crushing grip that belied her seventy-plus years. Her piercing eyes were a light, icy brown that perfectly matched her twinset. Fat Barbara Bush pearls offset her café-au-lait complexion and short, natural silver hair. She must have been quite a beauty back in her prime, Viveca thought. She'd seen ancient black-and-white photos of Mrs. Warner's graduation from Howard University, and they didn't begin to do her justice.
"So nice to meet you, Viveca." The sharp, crisp voice held only the vaguest hint of a Southern accent, but of course she'd left New Orleans more than half a century ago. "Sorry I kept you waiting. Is Franklin getting you some tea?"
"Good." Mrs. Warner waved a diamond-laden hand at the sofa, and they sat. "I'm so excited about the book."
"So am I. I can't wait to get started."
"Take a day or two to get settled in the cottage. There's an office there, or you can work in here."
Mrs. Warner pointed to a desk in the corner, on top of which sat a banker's box filled, no doubt, with records. Viveca's pulse rate picked up as she saw the wealth of information waiting for her. Records hid skeletons, and she was skilledand determinedenough to find them.
"You'll want to interview everyone, I assume?"
"My family bible is here, and Reynolds's over there." Mrs. Warner indicated the books stacked on the desk. "Mine is over a hundred years old."
"And I have other documents Well, you'll see."
"You've been very thorough. That's wonderful."
Mrs. Warner smiled fondly up at her husband's portrait. "The Warner family has a proud history, and I"