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"There is one good thing about this situation." RJ Kincaid slammed his phone down on the conference table, his voice cracking with fury.
"What's that?" Brooke Nichols stared at her boss. She failed to see a bright side.
"Now we know things cannot possibly get any worse." His eyes flashed and he leaned forward in his chair. The other staff in the meeting sat like statues. "My calls to the prosecutor's office, the police, the courts, the state senatorhave all been ignored."
He stood and marched around the table. "The Kincaid family is under siege and they're firing on us from all angles." Tall and imposing at the best of times, with bold features, dark hair and smoky slate-blue eyes, RJ now looked like a general striding into battle. "And my mother, Elizabeth Winthrop Kincaid, the finest woman in Charleston, will be spending tonight behind bars like a common criminal."
He let out a string of curses that made Brooke shrink into her chair. She'd worked for RJ for five years and she'd never seen him like this. Normally he was the most easygoing man you could meet, never rattled by even the most intense negotiations, with time for everyone and a nonchalant approach to life.
Of course that was before his father's murder and the revelation that his privileged and entitled existence was founded on lies.
RJ walked over to his brother Matthew. "You're the director of new businessis there any new business?"
Matthew inhaled. They both knew the answer. Even some of their most stalwart clients had fled the company in the aftermath of the scandal. "There is the Lar-rimore account."
"Yes, I suppose we do have one new account to hang our hopes on. Greg, how are the books looking?" RJ strode around to the CFO and for a moment she thought he was going to collar him.
Mild-mannered Greg shrank into his chair. "As you know, we're experiencing challenges"
"Challenges!" RJ cut him off, raising his hands in the air in a dramatic gesture. "That's one way of looking at it. A challenge is an opportunity for growth, a time to rise up and seize opportunity, to embrace change."
He turned and walked back across the room. Everyone sat rigid in their chairs, probably praying he wouldn't accost them.
"But what I see here is a company on the brink of going under." RJ shoved a hand through his thick, dark hair. His handsome features were hard with anger. "And all of you are just sitting in your chairs taking notes as if we're at some garden party. Get up and get out there and do something, for Chrissakes!"
No one moved an inch. Brooke rose from her chair, unable to stop herself. "Um
" She had to get him out of here. He was acting like a jerk and if he continued like this he'd do himself permanent harm in the company.
"Yes, Brooke?" He turned to face her, and lifted an eyebrow. His eyes met hers and a jolt of energy surged in her blood.
"I need to speak to you outside." She picked up her laptop and headed for the door, heart pounding. He could probably fire her on the spot in his current mood, but she wasn't doing her job if she let him insult and harangue employees who were already under a lot of pressure and stress through no fault of their own.
"I'm sure it can wait." He frowned and gestured to the gathered meeting.
"Just for a moment. Please." She continued toward the door, hoping he'd follow.
"Apparently my assistant's need to consult with me in private is more urgent than the imminent collapse of The Kincaid Group, and the imprisonment of my mother. Since it's the end of the day I'm sure you also have better places to be. Meeting dismissed."
RJ moved to the door in time to hold it open for her. A wave of heat and adrenaline rose inside her as she passed him, her arm almost brushing against his. He closed the door and followed her out. In the hush of the carpeted hallway Brooke almost lost her nerve. "In your office, please."
"I don't have time to loll about in my office. My mother's in the county jail in case you hadn't noticed."
Brooke reminded herself his rudeness was the result of extreme stress. "Trust me. It's important." Her own firm tone surprised her. She walked ahead into the spacious corner office with views of the Charleston waterfront. The sunset cast a warm amber glow over the water reflected on the walls in moving patterns. "Come on in."
RJ sauntered into the room, then crossed his arms. "Happy now?"
"Sit down." She closed the door and locked it. "What?"
Her resolve faltered as her boss glared at her.
"On the couch." She pointed to it, in case he'd forgotten where it was. She almost blushed at the way it sounded as she said it. What a lovelorn secretary's fantasy! But this situation was serious. "I'm going to pour you a whiskey and you're going to drink it."
He didn't move. "Have you lost your mind?"
"No, but you're beginning to lose yours and you need to step back and take a deep breath before you damage your reputation. You can't talk to employees like that, no matter what the circumstances. Now sit." She pointed at the sofa again.
A stunned RJ lowered himself onto it.
Brooke poured three fingers of whisky into a crystal tumbler with shaking hands. Everything really did seem to be going to hell in a handbasket for RJ. Until now he'd faced each disaster with composure, but apparently he'd reached his breaking point.
Their fingers touched as she handed him the glass, and she cursed the subtle buzz of awareness that always haunted her around RJ. "Here, this will settle your nerves."
"My nerves are just fine." He took a sip. "It's everything else that's screwed up. The police can't really believe my mother killed my father!"
He took a long swig, which made Brooke wince. She bit her lip. The pained expression on his handsome face tugged at her heart. "We both know it's impossible, and they'll figure that out."
"Will they?" RJ raised a dark brow and peered up at her. "What if they don't? What if this is the first of many long nights in jail for her?" He shuddered visibly and took another swig. "It kills me that I can't protect her from this."
"I know. And you're still grieving the death of your father."
"Not just his literal death." RJ stared at the floor. "The death of everything I thought I knew about him."
She and RJ had never discussed the scandalous revelations about the Kincaid family, but they were both aware she knew all the detailsalong with everyone else in Charleston. They'd been splashed all over the local media every day since his father's murder on December 30th. It was now March.
"Another family." He growled the words like a curse. "Another son, born before me." He shook his head. "All my life I was Reginald Kincaid, Jr. Proud son and heir and all I wanted to do was follow in my father's footsteps. Little did I know they'd been wandering off into some other woman's house, to sleep with her and raise her children, too."
He glanced up, and his pain-filled gaze stole her breath. It killed her to see him suffering like this. If only she could soothe his hurt and anger.
"I'm so sorry." It was all she could manage. What could she say? "I'm sure he loved you. You could see it in his face when he looked at you." She swallowed. "I bet he wished things were different, and that he could have at least told you before he died."
"He had plenty of time to tell me. I'm thirty-six years old, for Chrissakes. Was he waiting until I hit fifty?" RJ rose to his feet and crossed the room, whiskey splashing in the glass. "That's what hurts the most. That he didn't confide in me. All the time we spent together, all those long hours fishing or hunting, walking through the woods with guns. We talked about everything under the sunexcept that he was living a lie."
RJ tugged at his tie with a finger and loosened his collar. Recent events had given him an air of gravitas that he'd never had before. The strain hardened his noble features and gave his broad shoulders the appearance of carrying the weight of the world.
Brooke longed to take him in her arms and give him a reassuring hug. But that would not be a good idea. "You're doing a great job of keeping the family together and the company afloat."
"Afloat!" RJ let out a harsh laugh. "It would be a real problem for a shipping company if it couldn't stay afloat." His eyes twinkled with humor for a split second. "But at the rate we're losing clients we'll be belly up in the bay before the year is out if I don't turn things around. For every new client Matthew brings in, we're losing two old ones. And I don't even have a free hand to guide the company. My fatherin his infinite wisdomsaw fit to give his illegitimate son forty-five percent of the company and only leave me a measly nine percent."
Brooke grimaced. That did seem the cruelest act of all. RJ had devoted his entire working life to The Kincaid Group. He'd been executive vice president almost since he left college, and everyoneincluding himassumed he'd one day be president and CEO. Until his father had all but left the company to a son no one knew about. "I suppose he did that because he felt guilty about keeping Jack secret all these years."
"As well he might." RJ marched back across the room and took another swig of whiskey. "Except he didn't seem to think about how much it would hurt the rest of us. Even all five of us Kincaids together don't have a majority vote. Ten percent of the stock is owned by some mystery person we can't seem to find. If Jack Sinclair gains control over the missing ten percent he'll get to decide how to run The Kincaid Group and the rest of us have to go along with it or ship out. I'm seriously considering doing the latter."
"Leaving the company?" She couldn't believe it. Selfish thoughts about her own job disappearing almost toppled her concern for RJ.
"Why not? It's not mine to run. I'm just another cog in the machine. That's not what my dad groomed me for or what I want for myself." He slammed the empty glass down on a table. "Maybe I'll leave Charleston for good."