Some days, Rafe Sullivan hated his job.
The elegantly dressed woman seated in front of him had tears streaming down her face, and her once-flawless makeup was ruined by the black streams of mascara tracking down her cheeks. Rafe slid the box of tissues closer to her, but she was too busy sobbing and clutching the photos he'd just given her to notice.
In each of the dozen pictures, his client's CEO husband was with a different woman. Brunettes, blondes and redheads were all represented. The only thing they shared in common was cup size, as each of the women was very wellendowed, including the young wife sitting in Rafe's office.
"That bastard!" she spat between sobs. "He swore he would never cheat. He said I was everything to him. During our wedding vows, he stood up in front of my family and told me I was the true love of his life." She lifted her gaze from the pictures, her eyes so full of pain. "Why couldn't he be faithful? Is it because I'm not as pretty as these women?"
Seven years ago, when Rafe had decided to leave the police force and open up his own investigation firm, he'd been full of high ideals. Justice. Truth. That was what he'd been after. He now had half a dozen people working for him, and was widely considered to run the best P.I. firm in Washington State.
But how the hell had it come to this? He used to go into every case with an open mind. After all, how high could the statistics be in favor of infidelity? Fifty percent was high, he'd figured. Sixty percent would have been nuts.
He hadn't imagined a world in which 100 percent of the people he investigated were up to no good.
Somewhere along the way, Rafe's reputation for discovering whether or not high-profile men and women were cheatingand they always werehad eclipsed the number of his other investigative cases. He'd been unable to justify turning down these pricey jobs when he had a staff depending on him for salaries and benefits.
Though he'd been doing this for almost a decade, Rafe had never figured out how to numb himself to the moment when he handed his client the pictures he and his staff had taken of infidelity in action. He couldn't help but feel that he was at least partly responsible for their tears.
But, most of all, he hated the way the women moved all too quickly from anger to blaming themselves.
"This is not your fault," he said in a gentle voice.
He would like to have told his client that she was easily as beautiful as the women her husband had cheated with, and might even have reached out to touch her hand in comfort, but hard-won experience had taught him he couldn't even do that.
Comfort and much-needed compliments could be too easily mistaken for something more. He'd only been stupid enough to go down that road once, had known better than to start anything with one of his ex-clients, but she'd been persistent and pretty
and he'd been tired and just plain stupid. Boy, had that been a major screwup.
Now, though he wished he could do more to help his client, all he could do was hand her the tissues.
She finally plucked one from the box to wipe away her tears and running mascara. "I trusted him." Her voice was little more than a whisper now. "How will I ever be able to trust anyone again?"
Rafe knew she was waiting for him to assure her that not everyone was bad, that there were still some good guys out there. But after seven years of catching every cheater in the Pacific Northwest with their pants down, all he could do was remind her, "You have good instincts. That's why you came to me, isn't it?"
She nodded, her eyes finally drying. Thank God.
"Just keep trusting your instincts."
She seemed to think about his advice for a moment before taking a deep breath and wiping the rest of her tears away. "Yes, you're right, that's exactly what I need to do. Trust myself instead of anyone else. And right now my instincts are telling me to take my scumbag husband for absolutely everything he's worth." Renewed life glittered in her eyes as thoughts of revenge took hold.
His client had gone from anguish to self-blame to revenge all in the span of five minutes. It was only 10:00 a.m. He had seven more hours of this to look forward to.
She stood up and smoothed out her silk dress, stained with teardrops. "I can't thank you enough for your help, Mr. Sullivan."
He wished she hadn't had anything to thank him for as he shook her hand. "Good luck with everything."
"My soon-to-be ex-husband is the one who's going to be needing luck on his side," she assured him, before adding, "and I'll be sure to recommend you to my girlfriends." Cynicism now overshadowed her youthful beauty. "I'm sure most of them will be needing your services, too." She was halfway to his door when she turned back to him. "Do you know what hurts most of all? Even more than knowing that he was sleeping with other women? Even more than being lied to?"
Fortunately, Rafe knew it was a rhetorical question, so he simply waited for her to continue.
"He obviously didn't think I'd have the smarts or the nerve to find out what he was doing. If he wanted so badly to end our marriage, if he knew he didn't love me anymore, he should have been brave enough to just man up and tell me to my face." Her eyes narrowed. "But he didn't even have enough respect for me to do that."
As soon as she left his office, Rafe sank back on his leather couch and ran a hand over his face. And that was how his sister, Mia, found him a few minutes later when she burst into his office.
"I swear," she said, "the best-looking babes in the world come out of your office, and they're always wearing the most gorgeous and expensive shoes, too. Another rich guy screwing around on his trophy wife, huh?"
Rafe didn't bother to open his eyes. Or to acknowledge the question Mia already knew the answer to. Instead, he said, "If you're here to ask if you can take my Ducati for a ride, the answer is, and always will be, no." Lord only knew what his impulsive sister would do to his motorcycle if he let her have the keys, even for fifteen minutes. Besides, if she hurt herself by driving too fast or too wildly, his parents would kill him.
"Well, you certainly need some cheering up today, don't you?" He could hear her grinning even without looking at her. "Lucky for you, that's why I'm here."
Finally, he opened one eye. "Whatever you've got up your sleeve today, I'm not up for it. Try me again in six months."
"Trust me, this is going to make everything better. I promise."
Mia reached into her big red leather bag, something he guessed cost nearly as much as his motorcycle, and pulled out a piece of paper. Though he had never indicated he was in the market for a summer house, she'd been telling him about various lake properties for the past several months, emailing him pictures and handing him flyers when they were over at their parents' house for a meal. The constant barrage of lake house listings had got him thinking which, he knew, was entirely Mia's intent.
A couple of months away from crying, jilted trophy wives and cheating captains of industry?
Sounded like heaven.
His siblings all loved their work, especially Mia. She was so good at selling real estate that she'd opened her own brokerage well before she'd hit her thirties. His brother Adam had never seen a historic house he didn't want to rehab. Ian, the oldest Seattle Sullivan, made millions while he slept. And their brother Dylan had been sailing since before he could walk, so it made perfect sense that he was building some of the best boats out on the water.
Only Rafe was stuck with a successful business that was draining the life out of him, one day at a time.
"I don't need another house," Rafe muttered.
He closed his eyes again, settling deeper into his couch and kicking his feet up on the coffee table. Instead of making an irritated comment, or pushing his feet off the table, Mia let silence fall between them. Frankly, the silence worried him more than anything, given that his sister was not known for her deeply meditative states. Rather, she was the perfect combination of the Tasmanian devil and a whirling dervish. He was trying to muster up the energy to put a stop to whatever it was she was planning, when something sharp hit him between the eyes.
"Ow! What the hell, Mia?" There was a paper airplane on his lap, its nose bent from the impact with his forehead.
"Just look at it already. I know how busy you are consoling weeping women all day, and I wouldn't bother you unless it was really important." She pointed at the paper airplane. "Trust me, this is important."
Knowing it was best to humor her so that he could get on with his shitty day, Rafe unfolded the airplane. There wasn't much printed on the listing page apart from the fuzzy picture at the top, but it was enough for him to understand exactly why his sister had dropped everything to bring this to him.
"It's not April Fool's, is it?"
He honestly couldn't believe what he was seeing. Their parents had bought a lake cabin in the Cascade Mountains when he was a little kid, and they'd spent every summer there until Rafe was fourteen. That was when their father had lost his job, and everything had changed for their family. It had sucked when they lost the lake house, but it had been far worse to watch their father lose his self-confidence and turn gray almost overnight. Worse still, they'd still been grieving over the unexpected loss of their father's brother, Uncle Jack. It had been a difficult time for the West Coast Sulli-vans and, even now, Rafe didn't like to think back to those years.
"As soon as I saw this listing, I rescheduled my appointments to race over here to show it to you."
Rafe glanced down at the flyer again. It didn't look as if a single thing had changed since he'd last been there, and he was glad to see it. Man, he'd loved that placehad looked forward to summer all year long because of it. Hiking, swimming, boating, fishing, waterskiing. and girls. So many pretty girls in bikinisit had made a teenage boy's head swim.
"You've got to make an offer," Mia insisted. "Today."
He could practically smell the campfires, could feel the cool water cover him as he jumped off the end of the dock. But he'd already been over this with himself a hundred times. He had employees who counted on him. He had half the Seattle elite banging on his door, demanding he investigate their spouses. He wasn't a kid anymore with no responsibilities. He couldn't just pick up and leave his business behind.
Rafe forced himself to put the paper down on the table in front of him. "My next client will be here in fifteen minutes."
"Have Ben take her for you."
"Ben has his own appointments."
"He's good with your screwed-over wives. Better than you, actually, because he's less cynical about it all."
Rafe was six foot three, with broad shoulders and big hands. People rarely called him on his bullshit. But though his little sister was a foot shorter and weighed at least sixty pounds less, she wasn't the least bit afraid of going toe-to-toe with him.
"We can all see what this job is doing to you," she told him now. "Seriously, you should have seen the way you looked when I walked in. Heck, look at yourself right nowyou're stressed out just thinking about meeting with another client."
His sister was a know-itall. The problem was, sometimes she actually did know what she was talking about. Still, he had to say, "You think it's that easy? That I can just buy the cabin, turn over my clients to Ben and head out for the summer?"
"Why can't you? I mean, you are the boss."
"You're the boss over at Sullivan Realty, but you're not exactly buying a lake house and leaving your employees to pick up the slack."
"True," she agreed a little too readily, "but there's one big difference between you and me. I like my job. Besides, when's the last time you took a real vacation?" Before he could reply, she said, "Fact is, there are always going to be people cheating, so there is always going to be more work coming your way. You're the only one who can press the pause button, Rafe. Especially after what happened to you with"
His glare cut her off before she could talk about the same damn thing that everyone had been talking about for the past couple of monthsthe knife wound to the side of his ribs. He was over it. Why couldn't they be? The guy had barely hooked the tip into Rafe's skin before Rafe had thrown him across the parking garage.
And yet it grated more than he liked to admit that his little sister was right about his taking some time off. Not because he was afraid of being jumped again in a dark parking lot, but because a guy needed to recharge his batteries every once in a while. Sex was usually good for that, but lately even the few hot hours in the sack he'd managed with women who weren't looking for love any more than he was had fallen pretty damned short of the mark.
Mia was also right about his employees; he'd made it a point to hire the best, and he could trust them to keep things running for a little while.
Just the thought of waking up to the sound of water lapping on the shore instead of traffic outside his window, and getting out in his fishing boat rather than handing tissues to sobbing women, had him feeling almost ten years younger.
"Okay, you've sold me on a vacation," he told his already gloating sister, "but I can rent a place."
She picked up the flyer from the coffee table. "Remember how we used to have cannonball contests off the dock and the Jansens next door would vote for the winner?" He had to laugh at the memory, the sound rusty after being out of use for so long. He hadn't seen little Brooke Jansen or her grandparents in more than fifteen years, but he hadn't forgotten them.
Rafe looked down at the picture of the lake house. "I loved this place. We all did."
Mia's gaze was no longer challenging or gloating. He and his siblings often fought and teased, but at the core of it all they loved each other
and they always looked out for each other, too.
"You loved it more than anyone, Rafe. You've got the money. It's time to finally use some of it. I really wish you'd take my advice and go clear your head out on the lake."
Rafe figured he could keep arguing with her, but what was the point? He wanted the cabin, and not just for himself. For his whole familyespecially his parents, who should never have lost it in the first place. This time, he would make sure they would never lose it again.
He picked up the listing and looked more closely at the picture. At first glance it hadn't looked too different from the way he remembered it, but now he noticed the peeling paint, the overgrown shrubs, the worn and crooked front steps.
"After all these years, it'll probably need some work."
"I'm sure it will, but you're nearly as handy as Adam. And you know he'll be thrilled to weigh in on how to best fix any problems you might find. The listing agent and I have been playing phone tag all morning, so I'll find out more specifics right away. The flyer says it's furnished, so hopefully there will be enough there to get you started."
If it were any other house, he would have had Mia show him more pictures and give him the inspector's report, but he knew this place inside and out. Sure, he didn't know anything about the people who had lived in it for the past eighteen years, but how much could there be to fix?
"You win. I'll make an offer."
Mia's grin lit up her pretty face. "I knew it!"