The Bare Truth
Just weeks ago, Levi Walsh became the proud part-owner of Beaux Hommes, a bar featuring the sexiest exotic male dancers in the cityincluding himself. But as Levi, a financial whiz in his own right, goes over the books, he realizes something is definitely not right. And then the IRS comes knocking on his door.
IRS investigator Harper Banks is determined not to notice that Levi is hot, ripped and seriously sexy. Her job is to investigate dirty businesses, not indulge in even dirtier pleasures. But even as his skilled seduction melts her rigid self-control, Harper is certain of one thing: Levi is lying to her. Which means she'll have to strip him down and pull him under!
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A paper airplane soared over the top of Harper Banks's cubicle wall and bounced off her computer screen. She picked it up and unfolded it, then scowled. The plane had been made of what had to be the hundredth copy to circulate the office from her most famous pinup photo shoot for a custom motorcycle magazine. Disgust drove a hot flush across her skin.
"Ignore them, Harper." Daniel Miller looked over his shoulder and shouted, "You guys cut the crap already!"
"Forget it, Daniel. They won't stop. I've moved on." A woman might think the universe would cut her a little slack for a slew of bad decisions, but no. No slack for her. She'd spent the past five years paying for blindly leaping for that elusive gold ringand failing.
Her cell gave a Harley-like rumble, the ringtone she'd set for her dad.
"I need to take this," she muttered, turning to face her desk. She swiped her thumb across the screen and propped the phone between her shoulder and ear so she could talk and type. "Hey, Dad. What's up?"
On the other end of the phone, the TV volume decreased and papers rustled. "How's the IRS's newest senior field investigator managing today?" her dad asked, gravelly voice rumbling from deep in his chest.
"Oh, you knowworking to corral corruption and put bad guys behind bars."
"Doin' your job then." He coughed. "You get your copy of Cycle Mania yet?"
"Nope. Hoping it comes in today. Anything good?" Harper tapped her user ID and password into the network portal, absently listening to her dad ramble about the latest innovations for the big choppers they used to work on together. An unexpected sensory memory swamped her and she could smell the rich exhaust of an old Kawasaki H1 500 engine, could feel the smooth glide of cloth over chrome.
She'd loved motorcycles since she was a kid, always interested in the hows and the whys. It had given her a connection with her dad, a way to gain his attention and earn his approval. When had he first let her near the machines he'd made his living from? Absently interrupting him, she asked. "How old was I when I started helping you out at the shop, Dad?"
He snorted. "Couldn't a been more than four. Showed up with one a them Cracker Jack temporary tattoos on your arm, proud as hell and showing it off to all the guys. Without even asking, you grabbed a cloth and set yourself to polishing the tailpipes of that '72 FLH Shovelhead Hard-tail I was chopping. Like you were part of the crew. Had a soft spot for that bike ever since." He paused, his breathing slightly labored from years of smoking. "It's been a long time since I laid hands on anything that makes my heart speed up like that bike."
"Good thing Mom's not around to hear you say that," she teased, clicking to open the desktop file labeled Beaux Hommes. She scribbled a couple of notes on a legal pad and switched the screen to her email inbox.
"She's working overtime at the store this week," he grumbled.
Harper knew just how much it bothered him that his wife had been forced to work at their local grocery store after the custom cycle shop her dad and his two brothers had built went under. Her old man had worked for as long as Harper could remember to design the next big thing in the motorcycle industry, always sure he was on cusp of some great financial payout. It had never come through. He'd been forced to start letting staff go just before Harper left for college, one man at a time. Two years after she'd graduated, he and his brothers closed the doors for good.
It had been just as much of a blow to Harper as it had been for her dad. She'd lived that dream with him, worked side by side to learn the trade, designing custom bikes, running the wrench or the paint gun, managing the books and, like him, always waiting for that one chance to make it big.
Which was why when her former lover, Marcus, offered to help her recognize the family dream, she'd jumped on board. And been screwed over.
Her email pinged. The sound jolted her from rapidly spiraling memories, and the phone slipped from her grasp. Fumbling, she caught it before it hit the desk and put the receiver to her ear. "Sorry. Got a little nostalgic for a second, Dad."
"Nostalgic, my ass. You were thinking about Marcus. You ever hear he gets paroled, let me know. I may be old, but no one's got to puree my peas yet, and my trigger finger's still in fine shape." The man's hostility rolled over the line and through her consciousness, the familiar threat both soothing and terrifying.
"We've been over this, Dad. I'm a federal officer now, so no threatening to off anyone when we talk, yeah?"
"Some days I wish you'd joined the mafia instead of the IRS."
"Funny guy." She absently scanned the email that had just landed in her inbox and froze. It was what she'd been waiting forthe green light to move on the strip club. And she'd been named the lead investigator. Three months of subtle but hard work and endless hours of research had finally paid off. She was going to take these guys down.
She interrupted her old man. "I've got to go, Dad. Work's calling. I'll be out of town for a few days, but I'll call soon."
"Be careful, baby girl," he said, voice husky.
"Always. Love you both." She hung up, already out of her chair and in motion. Gathering the loose files on her desk, she shoved them and her laptop into her beat-up messenger bag. Daniel nearly ran her over as he charged into her cubicle as she headed out.
He grinned. "You get the email?"
"Yep," she said with an answering smile. "I'm cleared for Seattle."
"They're giving you the lead on this one. It's about time. You earned it."
"Thanks." She swallowed hard. "You're still on the case, though."
"Yeah. I'll follow you in a weeksooner if you need meand we'll wrap up whatever you've got, get the local field office involved for cleanup and close the case. Standard fare, but this is your first time flying solo, Harper." He studied her with a decidedly calculated look. "You cool?"
"Cool? Man, she's colder than the Arctic in January," a voice muttered over a near cubicle wall.
"You know, just because you have a dick doesn't give you carte blanche to act like one," she snapped. Still, the guy's barb stung.
As the only female investigator in this division, she'd expected to have to smash some glass ceilings, but she hadn't anticipated the outright animosity she'd faced from her peers and, in some cases, superiors.
Yes, she'd once been investigated herself by the IRS's criminal investigative unit, but she'd been exonerated completely.
And seeing that process in action, observing the security with which the agents had done their jobs, had prompted her to pursue the kind of financial stability she'd never known growing up. Dreams were great, but they didn't pay the mortgage or put food on the table. So she'd put her accounting degree to work for the very entity that had proven to her that policy and procedure could give her a different type of satisfaction.
Daniel, the only coworker who'd shown her any level of genuine camaraderie over the years, offered her a hand and tipped his chin in the direction the slight had come from. "I'll deal with that later."
"Don't bother." One corner of her mouth kicked up. "On a scale of one to infinity, my witty factor will always be higher than most of these guys' sperm counts."
He laughed, ignoring the sputtering of a couple of voices nearby. "You really should have ditched the rules and gone out with me when I asked."
"Yeah, well, I'm still of the opinion that if you break the rules, you own the consequences. Besides, I wasn't ready for that kind of commitment." And after Marcus, she probably never would be.
He considered her, his eyes searching her face. "What would it take to make you break the rules?"
"Nothing short of a life-changing experienceand I'm not looking for that kind of commitment, either." Daniel reached for her but she stepped out of range. "I'll catch the red-eye to Seattle first thing in the morning and check in after I get a feel for the place. Keep a bag packed on the off chance I have to call you in early."
"I'll pack as soon as I get home." He tipped his head toward the lobby and spoke so low Harper had to lean in to hear him. "Don't go out there with the idea you've got something to prove to these desk jockeys, Harper. That's how people end up getting in over their heads."
"I'm almost six feet tall without heels, so the odds of me getting in over my head are slim to none. Tell the director I'm out and I'll be in touch after I wrap the first day."
She started for the lobby, her stride long and sure. The anomalous snap of her stiletto heels on the thin industrial carpet was muted but still set her apart from the muffled shuffle of men's dress shoes. She couldn't care less. She'd been given her first solo assignment, and she was going to workand closethis case with her notorious efficiency.
For a brief second, she felt sorry for the strippers at Beaux Hommes. She hated to see people lose their jobs. But corruption couldn't be stopped otherwise. They could dance at other clubs.
The owners, on the other hand, the men she suspected were using the club as a front to move large amounts of cash? Harper intended to make those men pay the highest possible price for their lies and corruption.
And to her, the price to be paid for deception was never high enough.
Levi Walsh propped his elbows on the small desk and tunneled his fingers through his hair. A monstrous headache had settled on his temples. If it kept evolving at this rate, it would become a full-blown migraine before the club opened its doors later tonight. Considering he was the marquee dancer this evening, he couldn't afford the complication. Because Levi was in deep shit.
He'd bought into the club as a 25-percent owner six weeks ago. After the three other owners discovered Levi was an investment whiz, they'd encouraged him to check out the books. They didn't realize he'd been the kid who'd gone to the University of Washington at age sixteen and then the Foster School of Business for his postgraduate degree at age twenty. They only knew him as the shy boy who'd been thrust onto the stage during open-call night on a fraternity dare. The other dancers had bet against him surviving the experience. He'd taken their money right down to the last dime. He'd enjoyed working at the club and believed in its earnings potential. Even so, prior to the purchase, Levi had taken a couple of days and done an in-depth review of the profit-and-loss statements and both the digital and manualentry ledgers. The club turned out to be a bigger moneymaker than he'd estimated, so he'd bought in. It had nearly wiped out his and his parents' investment funds, but the returns should have been immediate.
But then, just days after he'd signed the contracts, he'd learned via a passing comment from the general manager about a third ledger, one the guy used to track "daily stuff" before entering firm numbers into the formal ledgers. That had made Levi very uneasy. Since then, he'd had been bugging the general manager, Kevin Metcalf, to hand over that third ledger.
It had taken almost a month to corner him, but Levi had caught Kevin in the main office this morning and demanded the ledger, no excuses. Kevin had handed it over and retreated to his private office without a word.
Now that the manualentry book was in his hands, though, Levi was sorry he'd pressed. Something was seriously wrong. Granted, he was busted-ass tired after having been up all night entertaining Sarahor was it Tara? Whatever. He wasn't nearly so tired he couldn't decipher simple doubleentry bookkeeping ledgers.
Leaning forward again, he parked his head in his hands and tried to view the ledger entries from a different perspective. It didn't help. They didn't add up. "What a frea-kin' mess."
The club's general manager ought to be whipped with the electrical cord from an adding machine for the mess he'd made of this thing. There should be checks and crosschecks to ensure nothing was omitted, skipped or forgotten. Not in this case. How the company managed to function blew his mind. That he depended on it for roughly half of his monthly income? His gut cramped.
The digital files he'd reviewed had led him to believe the club was raking in the cash. If he'd seen this third ledger, he would have abandoned the deal before he reached the end of the book's first page. Levi had made a very bad and very costly mistake.
Picking up his cell, he hit speed dial for the direct number to Jeff Wheaton, the owner Levi was most familiar with. The alcohol distributor was also the owner who'd originally approached Levi about buying in.
The man answered on the second ring. "Wheaton."
"Jeff, it's Levi."
"What's up, man?"
"Have you seen the manual ledgerthe third ledger Kevin keeps for the club?" The pause on the other end stretched out so long Levi checked his phone's screen to ensure the call hadn't dropped. "Did I lose you, Jeff?"
The guy cleared his throat. "Apologies. I was trying to remember whether I'd ever seen his working ledger."
Levi blew out a hard breath. "This isn't a working ledger, Jeff. This is a mess of epic proportions. There's no way the P&L sheets and the digital ledger can be right if Kevin's entering figures from this thing."
"I'm sure it's fine, Levi."
"And I'm sure it's proof the books aren't right," he bit out. "How can you be sure?" It sounded as though Jeff was speaking through a clenched jaw.
"I'm looking at his ledger right now. The guy has alcohol purchases categorized as income, payroll written in and then written over multiple times in ink so there's no telling what the right numbers are, and quarterly tax payments have been deducted more than once. I'm on page one." Levi closed his eyes and scrubbed a hand over his forehead. "It's royally screwed up."
"If it will give you peace of mind, I'll make a couple of calls, get in touch with Mike and Neil, and find out what the accountants have been apprised of," Jeff said, his words strung tight and close together. "In the meantime, why don't you get together with Kevin and ask him about his methods?"
The headache tightened its invisible metal band, crushing Levi's skull. "Just keep me posted."
The distinct click of the call disconnecting sounded louder than it likely was. Levi swiped a thumb across the screen to make sure his phone was off before tossing it onto the paper-littered desk. Slowly rising, he kept his hands braced on the desk and let his head hang loose as he took a few slow breaths.
There's an easy answer to this mess. The club's never missed payroll, never had vendor issues. No way is it as bad as it seems. Just my paranoia. I would've noticed if something had been wrong, really wrong, when I reviewed the books.
Lifting his face, Levi slid his glasses down and, rubbing the bridge of his nose, shouted as loud as he could manage without cracking his head wide-open. "Hey, Kevin!"
Nothing but silence.
He'd find the guy and drag him in here, get him to explain the convoluted system Levi hoped and prayed was being used. "Kevin!"