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SAWYER MCNAMARA, the CEO of the Dundee Private Security and Investigation Agency, handed the three agents congregated at the table in the conference room separate file folders. As he took his seat at the head of the table, he glanced at each person, his gaze lingering on Lucie Evans. As if sensing his intense scrutiny, Lucie looked up and glared at their boss.
"What?" she asked, her tone combative.
Sawyer shrugged. "Woke up on the wrong side of the bed, Evans?"
Bristling, Lucie frowned, then growled deep in her throat.
Nothing new there, Dom Shea thought. Any conversation between Sawyer and Lucie started and ended as a battle of wills. The two mixed like oil and water. And the entire Dundee staff couldn't figure out why Lucie was still a Dundee employee. Why hadn't she quit long ago? Or better yet, why hadn't Sawyer fired her? Who knew? Dom sure as hell didn't want to get in the middle of anything. He'd actually dated Lucie a few times. They'd had fun, but from the get-go, it had been apparent that there weren't any real sexual sparks between them, so they'd settled for being friends. Dom wasn't friends with Sawyer. He respected his boss. Liked the guy. Even admired him. But Sawyer McNamara kept a definite distance between himself and his agents.
"I'm sending y'all out on new assignments today," Sawyer said. "Read over the files I've given you, and if you have any questions, now's the time to ask. And if for any reason somebody wants to swap an assignment with another agent—think twice. I chose each of you specifically for the job I assigned to you."
They all understood that was Sawyer's way of saying, if you don't want the job I've assigned you, tough shit.
Dom opened the file folder—a rather thick dossier that included numerous copies of newspaper photos and articles as well as snapshots. The words Bedell, Inc. jumped off the pages at him. In the Southeast, the name Bedell was synonymous with old money. Generations of multi-millionaires accumulating wealth had made the current head of the family a billionaire. The original Edward Bedell, who'd settled in Tennessee before theWar Between the States, had made his fortune with the railroad and later diversified. The current Edward Bedell's holdings covered a wide span of business interests worldwide—everything from real estate and construction to pharmaceutical sales and research. But the Bedell, Inc. headquarters was based in Chattanooga where the chairman of the board lived. Edward personally oversaw the day-to-day running of his family's corporation.
After flipping through the photos, Dom paused on a wedding picture from the Chattanooga Times Free Press dated six years ago. Audrey Bedell and Grayson Perkins. The golden couple. Studying the picture, Dom wasn't sure who was the prettiest, Audrey or her groom. Perkins had model perfect good looks that proclaimed him too gorgeous to be a man.
"You're sending me back to England!" Lucie pounded her fist on the table. Only once. But once was enough to shake the table and startle everyone in the room. Everyone except Sawyer, who narrowed his gaze smugly. The corners of his mouth tilted upward ever so slightly in a hint of a self-satisfied smile.
"Is there a problem with your taking this assignment in London?" Sawyer asked.
Squaring her shoulders and sitting up straight as a board, Lucie glowered at him, her henna brown eyes wide with indignation. "I spent the past two months in London and have had exactly five days downtime. From the initial report I read—" she tapped her index finger on the file folder "—I could easily be in London for another couple of months."
"Possibly longer," Sawyer replied.
Lucie gritted her teeth. "You could send Geoff Monday. He's a Brit and I'd think he'd jump at the chance to go home for a while."
"Geoff is busy on another assignment. Besides, you'll be guarding Mr. Smirnov's wife and children for the duration of his stay in London. He specifically requested a female agent. At present, that's you, Ms. Evans."
"Fine." Lucie gathered up the contents of the file, stuffed them back into the folder, then shot up out of her chair. "I'll check in with Daisy if I need anything." She jerked her shoulder bag off the back of the chair and marched straight to the door, then opened it and paused momentarily. After shooting Sawyer a bird, she left the office and slammed the door behind her.
Acting as if nothing had happened, as if one of his employees hadn't blatantly showed her disrespect, Sawyer glanced from Dom to Deke Bronson. "Finish looking over the files I gave you and if you have any questions—"
"No questions," Deke replied in a gut-deep, gravely voice that so perfectly matched his road-hard-and-put-away-wet appearance. "I think my assignment is pretty cut and dried. No need for any lengthy explanations."
Sawyer nodded. "Call me personally as soon as you get to California and speak to Berger. Putting his personal staff of bodyguards through the Dundee training sessions is a six-week deal, one that will make Dundee's a great deal of money. I'm sending you because you're the most intimidating-looking agent I have. Berger's hard ass staff will take one look at you and obey orders."
Expressionless, Bronson nodded.
After Deke left the room, Sawyer turned to Dom. "I assume you have questions."
"A few," Dom said. "First, am I handling this case alone or—"
"You'll go in alone...initially. If you need backup, I'll arrange it. And all of Dundee's resources will be available, as usual."
Dom tapped the file folder. "Why hasn't he called in the Chattanooga PD on this? If my daughter were missing—"
"That's just it," Sawyer said. "He's not one-hundred percent sure she's actually missing. It's just that no one has seen or heard from her in over a week."
"I'd call that missing."
"I agree...if Audrey Bedell Perkins was your average woman."
"Which she isn't."
"That's right," Sawyer agreed.
"So what does Daddy Moneybags think happened to his daughter? And what does her hubby think?"
"Bedell told me that at first he feared she'd been kidnapped, but there hasn't been either a ransom note or a phone call. He then assumed she'd gone off on one of her spur-of-the-moment trips."
Dom eyed his boss speculatively. "Mrs. Perkins is not the faithful type. Occasionally, she goes on vacation with her latest lover."
"What does Mr. Perkins think about that?" Dom asked.
"I have no idea, but you'll get a chance to ask him when you interview members of the family."
"Not your typical all-American household." Sawyer chuckled, the sound little more than a muted grunt. "Hardly."
Glancing at the file, Dom said, "Billionaire father, Edward. Spoiled-brat, thirty-year-old playgirl daughter, Audrey, who is missing. The fourth Mrs. Bedell, who is only a few years older than Bedell's daughters. Cara Bedell, younger daughter and half sister to Audrey. And last but not least, the blue blood hubby, Grayson Perkins."
"You have a mystery to solve," Sawyer said. "If it begins to look like more than a rich bitch deliberately putting a few more gray hairs in Daddy's head, contact Lieutenant Desmond of the Chattanooga PD. He's the man you'll want on this case if things turn nasty."
Dom nodded. "You think somebody killed Audrey Perkins?"
"From the initial report we compiled on the lady, I think it's possible that there are quite a few people who would like to see her dead."
"HONESTLY, EDWARD, I don't see why you thought it necessary to hire a private detective to find Audrey." Patrice smoothed her hand over her neatly coiffed dark hair, styled and colored to perfection. Everything about Patrice Whitmore Bedell screamed I'm rich. "It's not as if she hasn't gone off on these little jaunts before."
Cara despised her stepmother. Tall, leggy, bosomy. And young. Far too young for her father. A gold-digging whore who had stroked the high and mighty Edward Bedell's sizeable ego and sucked his aging dick. Cara wondered how much of either the stroking or the sucking occurred now that Patrice was Mrs. Bedell.
Edward swirled the bourbon around in his glass, then glared at his wife. His fourth wife. Audrey's mother, wife number one, had been the love of their father's life. Unfortunately, Annaliese Bedell had died in a automobile accident when Audrey was barely two. Four years after his wife's death, he'd remarried. Wife number two had been Cara's mother and Edward had married Sandra Gilley only because she was pregnant. The marriage lasted until Cara was a year old, then ended in a bitter divorce.A couple of years later, her mother had committed suicide. Wife number three had come along when Audrey was twelve and Cara six, and that one had lasted ten years. Norah Lee had tried to be a mother to them. She'd failed miserably. And she'd also failed just as miserably in her three attempts to give Edward another child, praying each time to carry the child full term and praying just as hard that the baby would be a boy. She'd miscarried twice—both girls. And gave birth to a stillborn son.
Three years ago, Daddy dearest had brought home a new bride—the stepmother from hell. It hadn't mattered so much to Audrey because she and Grayson had their own home and didn't have to live under the same roof as that woman. Cara supposed that at twenty-four, she should have her own place, but some lingering hope deep inside her kept her here, at the Bedell mansion, close to a father who was usually indifferent to her. He'd provided for her, given her everything money could buy, but he'd never loved her. Not the way he loved Audrey. And more than anything on earth, she wanted her father to love her.
She had grown up in awe of her big sister, wanting desperately to be just like her. That, of course, had been impossible. Where Audrey was small-boned and slender, almost delicate in appearance, with a mane of fiery red hair and a temper to match, Cara was a rawboned, freckled, strawberry-blond. Audrey was the life of the party, the center of attention, a great beauty like her mother. Cara tended to be a wallflower, quiet and reserved and looked far more like their father.
"Audrey has never stayed away more than a week without letting me know where she was," Edward said in a low, steady voice. "She would never intentionally worry me...worry any of us. Gray and Cara both feel certain something is terribly wrong and that we should search for Audrey."
Edward downed the last drops of liquor then handed the glass to Jeremy, his minion. Or at least that's the way Cara had always thought of her father's servant-of-all trades—chauffeur, butler, personal assistant. Jeremy Loman possessed the appearance of a nonentity, being medium everything—from brown hair and eyes to average height and built. Not handsome. Not ugly. And he had the personality of a zombie, seldom speaking unless he was spoken to, standing guard over her father as if he had no other purpose in life.
"She's off with that lowlife scum Bobby Jack Cash and we all know it," Patrice said. "You're a fool to waste money on a detective from that expensive agency in Atlanta."
"It's my money," Edward told her. "And Audrey is my daughter."
"And my wife," a voice from the doorway said. Everyone stilled instantly; then one by one, they turned and stared at Grayson Perkins IV. Cara's heart did a ridiculous little rat-a-tat-tat when she looked at her brother-in-law. It had always been that way for her, ever since she first laid eyes on him when she was thirteen and he twenty-one. Gray's mother had been on the board of some charity that Norah Lee had served on and the two became fast friends. Long after Norah Lee left the Bedell family, both Gray and his mother, Emeline, remained friendly acquaintances. Edward had hand-picked Gray for Audrey, deciding that his pedigree was far more important than the money his family lacked. The Perkins family contained predecessors who were Old South blue bloods, Confederate heroes and English aristocracy.