Cynical CEO, Nik Masterton, believes he's finally met a woman who isn't interested in his money
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Blackmailing the Bad Girl
Cutting Loose Series
By Nina Croft, Brenda Chin
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2017 Nina Croft
All rights reserved.
Without a warning knock, the door opened, and Harry strode in. He came to a halt in front of Nik, punched the air with his fist, and slammed a file down on the desk. "I've found her."
"Who?" But even as Nik spoke the word, an image filled his mind. Blond hair and guileless blue eyes. Lips that had felt so soft and tasted so — He cut off the thought as the memories flooded his senses and his body tightened.
"Don't pretend you don't know exactly who I'm talking about." Harry's voice jolted him from the past.
Harry knew him too well. Still, Nik stared at the plain beige file for several seconds. He couldn't make himself pick it up. "I didn't even know you were still looking."
"Liar. Aren't you at least going to take a peek? You're going to love what's in there." He grinned. "Actually, that's probably not true. But it's interesting reading."
"Found who?" Nik's father spoke from where he sat on the opposite side of Nik's desk. He'd come in for his usual Monday morning I don't work here anymore but I'm going to try to tell you what to do meeting.
"Oh, hi, Mr. M," Harry said. "How are you? And how's the lovely Mrs. M?"
"She's driving me goddamn crazy."
"Well, it is an important milestone."
His father turned to Nik. "See, Harry remembered your mother's birthday. Harry's a good boy. I always thought the two of you might have been swapped at birth."
Harry appeared the perfect executive in his silver-gray suit. He also looked more like his father than Nik did: tall, his short black hair immaculately cut, and freshly shaven.
The "swapped at birth" comment had been an ongoing joke throughout Nik's life. They were the same age; Harry had actually been born on the same day, in the same hospital. His mother had been their housekeeper at the time — was still his father's housekeeper — and they'd grown up together. He'd trust Harry with his life, and more to the point, with his money.
Nik ran a hand over the stubble on his chin and glanced down at his faded jeans and white shirt. Unlike Harry, Nik didn't do suits. And he'd gotten his looks from his Russian mother. She was honey blond, with olive skin and eyes like bitter chocolate. Luckily, he got his head for business from his father.
Nik tuned out the conversation. At least the interaction between the other two gave him a chance to get his head around what was in that file ...and the implications. After nearly three years, he'd given up on the idea that he would ever find Sarah.
He'd thought she was his friend. Christ, he'd even believed there might be more than friendship between them. He'd opened up to her as he never had before. And considering the number his ex-wife had done on him, that had been a huge leap of faith. A misguided leap, as it turned out. Because Sarah had kissed him and then promptly vanished, taking a hefty chunk of his money with her, along with the last of his belief in the female sex. He was an idiot.
"Are you still with us?" his father asked, breaking into the memories.
"Sorry." His father was seventy-five but could pass for fifty, and had the mind of a thirty-year-old. Only a heart attack three years ago had convinced him to hand over the reins to Nik. "What were you saying?" "I was saying that your mother is driving me crazy."
"So what's new?"
His parents had always had a somewhat tempestuous relationship. Nik had spent most of his childhood terrified they would split up and he'd be a statistic. But they'd stuck it out — probably because his mother was too worried about losing her social standing to walk away. He loved her dearly, but she'd never hidden her appreciation for the finer things in life.
"This birthday is messing with her head. What the hell does it matter?"
For a woman who believed she had gotten everything because of her looks, turning fifty must be a painful milestone. "It doesn't matter. Just tell her that."
His gaze strayed back to the file. Sarah Daniels. An image flashed in his mind. Small, slender, pale blond hair silky about her shoulders, and blue eyes that had stared up at him with wonder. How had Harry found her? Where was she?
"Why do I get the impression you're not with me?" His father shook his head. "I hope you pay more attention to the business side of things. Otherwise we're going to go bankrupt. And then who'll keep your mother in the manner to which she's become accustomed?"
The company was actually doing better than ever since Nik had taken over as CEO. Not that it would make much of a difference. The family had wealth spread out across the globe, with investments in everything from property to gold mines.
"I think Nik's mind is elsewhere," Harry said.
There was something in his tone that made Nik look at his assistant through narrowed eyes. Harry grinned back. But Nik didn't really want his old man present for this conversation; he could guess what his reaction would be. "Don't you have somewhere you need to be, Dad?" He rolled his shoulders, trying to ease the tension. "Haven't you got a birthday party to organize? A present to buy?"
His father's brows drew together in a frown. Nik should have known suggesting he leave would only increase his dad's interest. But he wasn't thinking straight right now. He had other things on his mind.
"I think I'll stay."
He gave a mental shrug and waved at the seat next to his father. Harry sat down. Nik's hands twitched with the need to flip the file open — to see if it was really her — but he kept them firmly by his side. He didn't want to appear too pathetic.
Why did it matter so much? After his disastrous marriage, he'd finally accepted that the only thing women wanted from him was his money. Then Sarah had made him think that just maybe, he'd been wrong, that there were women out there who weren't gold diggers. Nice women, sweet women. Sarah had been like no one he'd ever met. She'd appeared totally uninterested in his financial status ... right up to the moment she'd hacked into his financial systems, stolen his money, and run.
And he needed to know why.
He was a fool who should have learned his lesson. But deep down, he still believed there was a rational explanation for her actions. He wanted her to be good. The muscles of his gut tightened. Fear? "Tell me."
"Well, for a start, her name isn't Sarah Daniels."
That wasn't anything he was expecting. Though perhaps he should have — she'd vanished so completely. "It's not?" Maybe she was in more trouble than he'd anticipated.
"No, it's Summer Delaney."
Summer Delaney — it suited her. "Where is she?"
"Right now, she's residing in Her Majesty's Prison Holloway."
Hell, she was a thief — she'd stolen his money — so why was he so surprised?
"Who is this woman?" his father asked. When Nik didn't answer — he was still trying to process the information — he turned to Harry. "Well?"
Harry looked at Nik, raising an eyebrow seeking permission. Nik shrugged.
"She worked in the accounts department around the time Nik took over," Harry said. "Embezzled a tidy sum from the company and did a vanishing act. We've been looking for her ever since."
"We didn't involve them," Harry replied.
One eyebrow rose. Nik's father glanced between the two of them. "Why not?"
"None of your business," Nik said. "You don't work here anymore." Yeah, like that was going to have any effect.
"Humph," his father said, then turned to Harry. "Do you have a picture?"
Harry slid a photo out of the file and handed it to his dad. Nik balled his hands into fists to stop himself from snatching it from him.
"Pretty girl. Considering it's a mug shot." He waved the picture in Nik's direction. "I'm guessing that was one of the reasons you didn't go to the police. You always were a sucker for a pretty face. Look at that wife of yours."
"Do not bring up Jocelyn," he snarled. His marriage and subsequent — very expensive — divorce had not been one of his finer moments. He'd loved Jocelyn and believed she loved him, when in fact, all she'd loved was his bank account. He should have learned his lesson back then. Instead, history was repeating itself.
His father shrugged and handed the picture to Nik. He had to force himself to look down. Maybe it was a different girl. But he recognized her straightaway. A head-and-shoulder shot, probably taken just after her arrest. Her face showed a mixture of terror and resignation as she stared straight at the camera.
"Give me the details," he said to Harry. "What's she in for?"
Harry cast him a look as if to say "what the fuck do you think she's in for?" "Attempted embezzlement."
"From someone else?" He could hear the outrage in his voice. It poured through him like an icy deluge. He'd presumed he was a one-off. Special. Not one in a long line of tawdry thefts.
"Shipping company in Glasgow. Same MO — fake identity, got a job as an accounts clerk, hacked into the system, overrode the protocols. But she got careless. Someone picked up on the activity, and they got her before she made the final transfer."
The same amount. He closed his eyes for a moment. His brain wasn't functioning, and he had to force himself to concentrate. "How did you find her?" he asked. "We've been looking for over two years."
"Just chance," Harry replied. "We have a new guy working security. An ex-copper. He was going through the old files and recognized her."
He looked down at the photo still clutched in his hand. Yeah, she was memorable. Her face was a perfect oval, her skin flawless, her mouth small and full. He'd kissed those lips, and all the time she'd been lying to him. That night, they would have made love if they hadn't been interrupted. Right there on the desk in his CFO's office, where he'd come upon her up to no good, though he hadn't known it at the time. Even now, he could remember the feel of her traitorous body pressed against him.
The next day, she was gone.
He'd thought something had happened. Something to make her run. Instead, she'd been on a job, and he'd no doubt been one of many men she'd duped with her wide-eyed looks of innocence.
"So, shall I hand over the file to the police?" Harry asked.
Nik shot his assistant a sharp look. Harry sounded way too amused. Was he so fucking predictable? Part of him wanted to say yes. Give it to the cops. Just to see the look on Harry's face. Besides, she deserved to pay for what she had done.
He should. Really, he should. But somehow, he couldn't do it. "No."
Harry's lips twitched. Yeah, he was so funny.
Nik picked up the typed sheet below the picture and scanned it quickly. She'd been twenty-three at the time of her arrest. No mention of any other crimes. But that didn't mean they didn't exist. Nik hardly believed he'd been her first. And the fact was, he couldn't just let her go on her merry way, no doubt changing her name again and duping some other poor bastard. "How much time does she have left?"
"She's two years into a four-year sentence. But she's out on parole next week."
"Does someone want to tell me what's going on?" his father asked.
"So, what do you want me to do?" Harry asked.
"Come on. She's clearly a habitual criminal. She'll just go back and do it again. People like her never change."
Again, Harry's voice held a hint of challenge, almost as if he were trying to goad him. All the same, he was probably right. Christ, maybe this was what he'd needed. He'd been drifting since then. Before then really, since the breakup of his marriage. Time to get his life on track and accept once and for all that he knew exactly what women want — money. He hadn't been able to eradicate Sarah, or rather Summer, from his mind. This was his chance to see her as she really was — a double-dealing, money-hungry thief.
Whom he'd never been able to get out of his head.
Because while Sarah Daniels had been a lie, he would swear that one thing had been real between them. Desire. And that night, she'd wanted him as much as he'd wanted her. There had been an edge of desperation in the almost frantic way she had kissed him, held him ... urged him on. Well, this time she could have him. He'd make sure there would be no interruptions.
He sat back in his seat and stared out the window at the blue sky — the exact color of Summer's eyes. She'd be out next week. And he'd be waiting for her. It was time for a little payback. Time to make her see the error of her ways and ensure that she didn't fall back into bad habits. It was his duty. And finally, time to get the inconvenient attraction out of his system and move on.
Would she be pleased to see him?
Somehow, he doubted it.
* * *
"To freedom." Regan raised her plastic beaker.
"To staying on the straight and narrow," Darcy added.
"To putting the past behind us." Summer tapped her beaker against the other two, and they all downed their tap water with as much enthusiasm as if they'd been drinking vintage champagne.
Summer put her beaker on the small table and hugged Darcy, who was closest. Pulling away, she sniffed. "I'm going to miss you so much."
"Hey, I'm getting out in a few days," Darcy said. "You won't have a chance to miss me."
Regan stepped forward for her hug, wrapping her arms around Summer. "And I'll be out in two weeks," she said. "It will go so fast. For you, anyway. You have a lot to keep you busy."
It was true. She had a whole new life to set up. She was putting the old one behind her, moving on. For the first time in years, she felt optimistic about the future.
Summer glanced around at the small cell that had been her home for the last two years. Her first night inside, she'd been so terrified, and lonely, and just plain freaked out. Regan and Darcy had both seemed cool and distant. Never in a million years would Summer have thought she'd end up becoming friends with them. She'd been a loner as a teenager; somehow, she'd never learned how to make friends. And her lifestyle after that had hardly encouraged close relationships. All she had was Danny, her partner in crime. And really, Danny was more family than friend — they'd known each other since they'd been in the same foster home when Summer was fourteen. She'd missed him but had made him promise not to visit while she was inside. The absolute last thing she wanted was anyone connecting the two of them and maybe linking Danny to her crimes.
But somehow, she'd clicked with Regan and Darcy. She wasn't sure she would have gotten through this with her sanity intact if not for these two women. And now they were going to look out for one another. All of them had decided they were never coming back, which meant new lives, new careers. She was looking forward to it.
"Don't sit moping tonight," Darcy said. "Go out, pick up some cute guy. Have some fun."
"I don't think so." She wasn't a virgin, but she certainly wouldn't feel comfortable going into a bar and picking up some stranger.
Anyway, men were the last thing on Summer's agenda. She wasn't putting her future in anyone's hands but her own. All the same, an image flashed in her head. A man she hadn't seen in years, but she'd dreamed about him so many times. Dreams that had left her hot and frustrated and kept his memory burning in her mind. A man with sun-streaked blond hair, dark eyes, olive skin. A long, lean frame dressed in faded jeans. Beautiful lips that had kissed her and lied to her. Okay, he hadn't actually lied, but he also hadn't told the truth. During their nightly conversations after the rest of the accounts department had gone home for the night, he must have known she thought he was one of the maintenance staff. He'd hardly looked like a typical CEO. And she'd only ever seen him after hours. He must have been laughing at her the whole time. A wave of residual rage washed through her at the memory. At least she told herself the choked-up feeling inside her was rage.
"Earth to Summer." Darcy pulled her out of her thoughts.
"Sorry, I was miles away."
A knock sounded on the door. It was time to go. And suddenly, she didn't want to. She looked at the beige walls, the dark green covers on the beds. It was so familiar and safe and ... "I'm scared," she said.
A whole new life. What if she failed?
"Don't be." Darcy smiled, then studied her, head cocked to one side. "You know what your problem is?" "Which one? I'm sure I've more than one."
"Hah. The one where you're a total introvert with an attitude problem. So you let everything bottle up inside until you burst. And then bad things happen."
Excerpted from Blackmailing the Bad Girl by Nina Croft, Brenda Chin. Copyright © 2017 Nina Croft. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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