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HOLLY STEPHENS had decided to be late for work, so late she would be. The later the better. She steadfastly refused to glance at her watch as she sat in Seattle's rush-hour traffic, a chaos she usually avoided by starting early. Her old, uptight, anal-retentive self might want to know exactly how late she was, but the new, easygoing Holly Stephens didn't care.
She might even throw her watch in the trash when she got to the office. Or at least put it in a drawer for a couple of days.
Some folks might think being late for work didn't count when you were co-owner of the company. But anyone who made punctuality an art form, as Holly did, would know just how much it had cost her to lie in bed for an extra half hour. Dawdling as she got ready, making herself a proper breakfast, taking a longer route to work... Sheer agony.
But nowhere near as painful as being labeled Control Freak of the Year in a highly respected business magazine last week.
Even now, pain stabbed behind her ribs at the reporter's hatchet job. It was supposed to have been one of those glowing profiles--Holly had recently been named Washington Businesswoman of the Year, an incredible accolade for a twenty-six-year-old accountant. And to be fair, the journalist hadn't stinted on reporting her accomplishments. But his sidebar--A Day in the Life of a Control Freak--had detailed just how uptight, how controlling she was. Colleagues who called to congratulate her on the award studiously avoided all mention of the control-freak piece. But sooner or later each conversation reached an awkward silence, followed by a rush to get off the line.
She didn't blame them.
Because every wordof that article was true. And now that she was forced to think about it, Holly didn't like what she'd become.
Over the weekend, she'd decided to let go of some of the behaviors that had served her so well in the battle to build her business in a competitive, male-dominated field. She would reinvent herself into a more relaxed, sympathetic person, one other people liked. One she liked.
Being late for work was a symbolic gesture of her resolve.
To her chagrin, relief fluttered inside her as she turned into the parking lot of the inappropriately named Greenglades Office Park. The flutter became a flapping of alarm when she saw the knot of people around the open doorway of the offices of Fletcher & Stephens, Certified Public Accountants. Surely her being late for work didn't warrant this much attention?
As she eased her Toyota into her parking space, Holly began sifting through potential explanations for the crowd's evident fascination.
The most palatable was that her assistant, Linda's, overly romantic boyfriend had once again filled the office from floor to ceiling with balloons. Holly shuddered. It could take days for three hundred heart-shaped balloons to pop. Any suggestion of a mercy killing--attacking them all at once with a very large needle--would be interpreted by Linda as a personal insult. And assistants who worked to Holly's level of detail were hard to find....
Holly flipped her visor down to check her makeup in the little mirror. Then she remembered she didn't worry about that kind of thing anymore and flipped it back up. As she climbed out, she directed her most carefree smile at the people milling around. No one smiled back.
She was headed across the narrow strip of concrete when a flash of insight hit her.
A fire alarm.
That would explain why everyone was out on the sidewalk. But why the ominous air? Unless it wasn't just a false alarm--could her office have truly been on fire?
Even more reassuring than the absence of fire trucks was her distinct memory of following her "old Holly" routine before she left the office late last night. She had turned the printer, the copier and everything else electrical off at the wall, and then stood on her chair and pressed the test button on the smoke alarm. These precautions made her business partner laugh, on the occasions Dave stayed late enough to witness them, but no way would Holly allow her office to burn down through inattention.
By the time she'd discounted the fire theory, she'd reached the sidewalk, and the crowd parted to let her through, their muted "good mornings" almost a sigh.
Holly had barely put one black pump over the threshold when a burly man with thinning, sandy hair materialized from the dimness of the office and barred her way. "You can't come in here, ma'am."
"This is my office," she said. "Let me through." Okay, that did sound just the tiniest bit controlling.
"Please." She tacked on a smile of apology as she peered past the man to count at least five more of his ilk swarming the cream-and-gray interior.
"Are you Holly Stephens?"
"Special Agent Crook, FBI."
For a second Holly thought this was a prank--an FBI agent named Crook? Indeed, a snicker escaped her before she realized the badge he held in her face and his expression were both extremely serious.
This couldn't be about her being late for work. And as far as she knew, being the world's biggest control freak wasn't illegal. "Have we been robbed? I know I set the alarm yesterday, I always--"
"Ms. Stephens--" The interruption was barely civil and his tone snapped her attention back to him "--we're here to investigate a fraud. We have a warrant to search these premises."
Once again, the unfamiliar pieces of the morning's picture rearranged themselves, kaleidoscope-like. Holly struggled to make sense of them. She'd gone from balloons to fire to robbery to...fraud? Swiftly, she ran an inventory of the firm's clients. Which one had been stupid enough to try something illegal? And why hadn't she spotted it?
She drew a blank. "I'm sorry," she said to the FBI agent, "you're going to have to fill me in. Who exactly are you investigating?"
Special Agent Crook exhaled heavily. "You, Ms. Stephens. We're investigating you."
"MISSING?" AnnaMae Trimble leaned back in her chair and rubbed her chin. "The trust account that normally holds millions of dollars of your clients' money has been cleaned out, and you say Dave Fletcher is missing?"
Holly closed her eyes and pressed her slim frame farther into her friend's corduroy couch. "Of course he's missing. What would you have me think?" she demanded. "That he's run off with the money?"
"That sounds about right." AnnaMae must have noticed the rising pitch of Holly's voice because she softened her next words. "It's the most likely possibility. I don't want to believe it any more than you do."
"Liar." Holly opened her eyes. "You've never liked Dave."
AnnaMae dismissed that with a wave of her hand. "All the more reason why I don't want you going to prison for him."
"Dave's on vacation in Mexico," Holly said with exaggerated patience. "He flew out Friday night--the airline confirmed that to the FBI. Just because he's not at the hotel he said he'd be staying in, it doesn't mean he's a thief. He's due home in four weeks. He'll be back, you'll see."
AnnaMae met her gaze steadily, but said nothing. "The investigation will prove I'm innocent." Holly twisted her fingers in her lap. "No one's going to lock me away."
"No jury will convict you, I grant you--not with that impossibly honest face." AnnaMae's lips twitched as she scanned the sedate navy business suit Holly wore with a peach silk top. "One look at Miss Goody Two-shoes and the FBI will be laughed out of the courtroom."
"It won't go to court," Holly insisted. "It's a mistake, that's all. The main problem right now is the inconvenience I have to suffer while they figure it out."
Inconvenience. That was putting it mildly. Holly had spent the whole day answering pointed questions from Agent Crook and his cronies. She could have howled when they told her she wouldn't be allowed back into her condo, not even to collect some clothes. They claimed to have been tipped off that she was hiding evidence at home. So the condo had been secured and would be searched whenever they got around to it.
She sat in AnnaMae's cozy cottage in the suburbs with a hundred dollars in her purse and her bank accounts frozen. AnnaMae was the only person who'd been sympathetic about last week's magazine article. She'd even called the journalist a lying creep, when both of them knew the truth. Now she had offered Holly a bed for as long as she needed it. But even if Holly could ignore the clutter her friend lived in--and she was trying very hard to do that--there was more to life than sleeping. She couldn't contact any of her clients while the investigation was underway, and no one would employ her in her present circumstances. No home, no clothes, no business, no money...
"I'm late for work just one lousy day," she said through gritted teeth, "and this is what happens."
AnnaMae's hoot of laughter drew a reluctant smile from Holly. Which was wiped off in an instant as a fresh thought assailed her. "The twins' college fees are due at the end of the month. The money's sitting in my bank account--there's no way I'll have access to it in time. What am I going to do?"
"How about you let your siblings pay their own way?" AnnaMae said, eyes wide, as if she hadn't suggested it a hundred times before.
Holly didn't intend to have that tired old argument with her friend again. They both knew she would dance naked down Columbia Street in rush hour before she would let the twins slide back into the mire of poverty in which they'd been raised. "Maybe I can get some work reviewing audits," she said. "Something back-room. Surely someone will accept me as innocent until proven guilty?"
"It's possible," AnnaMae said doubtfully. They sat in silence for a couple of minutes. Every so often, AnnaMae tutted.
The solution hit Holly with knock-out force. "Jared Harding!"
"Are you kidding? The man's a hood."
"You don't know he's done anything illegal," Holly said, though just last week she'd have said exactly the same. But she was no longer the kind of person who tried to force others into her own mold.
Besides, she was desperate. "I know Harding sails close to the wind," she said. "And maybe he does stretch the law to its limits."
"He delights in bending the rules and making a mockery of people who play by the book. People like you," AnnaMae said.
"Some people would say that's just good accounting." It pained Holly to articulate an attitude she'd always despised. As far as she was concerned, there was right and there was wrong. You chose one or the other--you didn't mess around trying to prove that wrong could be right and vice versa. That certainty was the only thing she'd inherited from her mother.
"Why are you playing devil's advocate? Your clients don't have to go to court to prove the legality of their dealings. Jared Harding practically keeps the courts in business with the hearings his company has to attend."
"And he wins every single one," Holly pointed out.
"You're right, he does push the envelope. But I happen to know that right now he needs someone who plays strictly by the rules. He's involved in a couple of sensitive acquisitions--he doesn't want even a sniff of complaint attached to them."