I park the silver Bentley convertible, which my father gifted me last year for saving his ass, into my reserved spot in the garage of the downtown Denver high-rise building owned by our family conglomerate, Brandon Enterprises. It’s a car he and I both know was far more about his attempt to drag me to the dark side, and aligning me with his way of doing business, than the thank-you for keeping his ass out of jail. I’d have refused the damn thing if my mother hadn’t begged me to take it, insisting I’d bruise him when he’s already fragile and cancer-ridden. Like my father ever fucking bruises and he damn sure isn’t fragile. And if he knew I’d coddled him, he’d most likely spit in my face, and tell me I’m a disappointment.
Killing the engine, I exit the vehicle and stare at my older brother’s white 911 Porsche, also a gift from my father, ironically and most likely for getting us into the very mess I’d returned to Denver to clean up. Jaw clenched, I shove my keys into the pocket of the gray two-thousand-dollar suit I’d bought back in New York, a reward to myself for winning a high-profile case for one of the most prestigious law firms in the country. I wore it today to remind myself that I’m a few well-played cards from conquering the challenge I took when I returned home: Becoming the head of the family empire when my father retires and replacing all the dirty money running through six of the seven asset companies with good, clean, cash. Namely, the revenue produced by Brandon Pharmaceuticals, or BP, the newest asset I’d forced into acquisition only three months ago.
I head toward the elevators, when my cell phone buzzes with a text. Fishing it from my jacket pocket, I glance down to read a message from my secretary, Jessica: Seth just called. Needs to speak to you urgently. I told him you had a meeting at the BP division this morning and he hung up on me. Knowing Seth, he’ll show up at your meeting. Seth was the one person I brought to the company with me, and the only person other than Jessica who I trust now that I’m here.
I punch the call button for the elevator, and dial Seth. “I’m pulling into the BP parking lot now to see you,” he says by way of greeting.
“I just pulled into the garage downtown.”
“Son of a bitch. I’m pulling a U-turn at the security gates. I have something you need to see now, not later, and I can’t talk about it on the phone. Is your brother in the building?”
I glance at the Porsche. “His car’s here so I assume he is as well. What the hell has Derek done now?”
“Let’s just say I’m not sure it’s a good idea that he’s in close range when you find out. Let’s meet outside the office.”
“Fuck me,” I growl.
“No,” he amends. “More like fuck us all.”
“I don’t even want to know what that means,” I say, catching the elevator door that’s opened and already trying to close. “Meet me at the coffee shop.”
“That still puts you in the same building as him. I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“Just hurry the hell up and get here,” I order testily, ending the call and stepping into the otherwise empty car where I punch the L button on the panel to my left. In the short trip to the lobby level, I manage to come up with at least five ways my brother could fuck over the plays I have in action, and I’m still counting.
Exiting into the gray marble corridor, I walk toward the huge oval foyer of the building and then to the right, where a coffee shop is nestled between a restaurant and a postal facility, both of which rent from Brandon Enterprises. I head to the counter when Karen, the owner of the coffee shop—a robust forty-something woman with red hair and a big attitude—appears, leaving me no escape from her habitual chitchat.
“Well, well, well,” she says, leaning on the counter. “Now I know what I’m missing on the morning shift and I do declare that seeing Shane Brandon himself, instead of his secretary, is a better ‘wake-me-up’ than any java shot I sell. But then, you Brandon boys came by those looks honestly. That father of yours is a looker.”
And therein lies the reason she irritates the shit out of my mother and I happily treat Jessica to afternoon coffee to have her bring me mine. Karen’s not only a chatterbox and a flirt, she has it bad for my father.
“All right now,” Karen says, grabbing a cup and pen, and preparing to write. “Large latte with a triple shot?”
“Just what the doctor ordered,” I confirm, though I have a feeling once Seth arrives I’ll be wishing for a bottle of whiskey.
“Will do, honey,” she says, giving me a wink before moving toward the espresso machine. “I’ll add it to your tab.”
I retreat to the end of the counter where the orders are delivered, resting my elbow on the ledge, retreating into my mind and chasing problems made worse by the division between Derek and I. He’s thirty-seven, five years my senior, and the rightful successor to our father. I’d happily stepped aside and started my own life, but damn it to hell, I know things now and I can’t walk away.
My order appears and I straighten, intending to claim my coffee and find a seat, when a pretty twenty-something brunette races forward in a puff of sweet, floral-scented perfume, and grabs it.
“Miss,” I begin, “that’s—”
She takes a sip and grimaces. “What is this?” She turns to the counter. “Excuse me,” she calls out. “My drink is wrong.”
“Because it’s not your drink,” Karen reprimands her, setting a new cup on the counter. “This is your drink.” She reaches for my cup and turns it around, pointing to the name scribbled on the side. “This one’s for Shane.” She glances at me. “I’ll be right back to fix this. I have another customer.”
I wave my acknowledgment and she hurries away, while my floral-scented coffee thief faces me, her porcelain cheeks flushed, her full, really damn distracting mouth, painted pink. “I’m so sorry,” she offers quickly. “I thought I was the only one without my coffee and I was in a hurry.” She starts to hand me my coffee and then quickly sets it on the counter. “You can’t have that. I drank out of it.”
“I saw that,” I say, picking it up. “You grimaced with disgust after trying it.”
Her eyes, a pale blue that matches the short-sleeved silk blouse, go wide. “Oh. I mean no. Or I did, but not because it’s a bad cup of coffee. It’s just very strong.”
“It’s a triple-shot latte.”
“A triple,” she says, looking quite serious. “Did you know that in some third-world countries they bottle that stuff and sell it as a way to grow hair on your chest.” She lowers her voice and whispers, “That’s not a good look for me.”
“Fortunately,” I say in the midst of a chuckle I would have claimed wasn’t possible five minutes ago, “I don’t share that dilemma.” I lift my cup and add, “Cheers,” before taking a drink, the heavy, rich flavor sliding over my tongue.
She pales, looking exceedingly uncomfortable, before repeating, “I drank from that cup.”
“I know,” I say, offering it back to her. “Try another drink.”
She takes the cup and sets it on the counter. “I can’t drink that. And you can’t either.” She points to the hole on top, now smudged pink. “My lipstick is all over it and I really hate to tell you this but it’s all over you too and . . .” She laughs, a soft, sexy sound, her hands settling on her slender, but curvy hips, accented by a fitted black skirt. “Sorry. I don’t mean to laugh, but it’s not a good shade for you.”
I laugh now too, officially and impossibly charmed by this woman in spite of being in the middle of what feels like World War III. “Seems you know how to make a lasting impression.”
“Thankfully it’s not lasting,” she says. “It’ll wipe right off. And thank you for being such a good sport. I really am sorry again for all of this.”
“Apologize by getting it off me.”
Confusion puckers her brow. “What?”
“You put it on me.” I grab a napkin from the counter and offer it to her. “You get it off.”
“I put it on the cup,” she says, clearly recovering her quick wit. “You put it on you.”
“I assure you, that had I put it on me, we both would have enjoyed it much more than we are now.” I glance at the napkin. “Are you going to help me?”
Her cheeks flush and she hugs herself, her sudden shyness an intriguing contrast to her confident banter. “I’ll let you know if you don’t get it all.”
My apparently lipstick-stained lips curve at her quick wit but I take the napkin and wipe my mouth, arching a questioning brow when I’m done. She points to the corner of my mouth. “A little more on the left.”
I hand her the napkin. “You do it.”
She inhales, as if for courage, but takes it. “Fine,” she says, stepping closer, that wicked sweet scent of hers teasing my nostrils. Wasting no time, she reaches for my mouth, her body swaying in my direction while my hand itches to settle at her waist. I want this woman and I’m not letting her get away.
“There,” she says, her arm lowering, and not about to let her escape, I capture her hand, holding it and the napkin between us.
Those gorgeous pale blue eyes of hers dart to mine, wide with surprise, the connection sparking an unmistakable charge between us, which I feel with an unexpected, but not unwelcome, jolt. “Thank you,” I say, softening the hard demand in my tone that long ago became natural.
“I owed you,” she says, her voice steady, but there’s a hint of panic in her eyes that isn’t what I expect from this clearly confident, smart woman.
“What’s your name?” I ask.
“Emily,” she replies, sounding just a hint breathless. I decide right then that I like her breathless but I’d like her a whole lot more if she were naked and breathless. “And you’re Shane.”
“That’s right,” I say, already thinking of all the ways I could make her say my name again. “I’ve never seen you here before.”
“I’ve never been here before,” she counters and I have this sense that we are sparring, when we’re not. Or are we?
My cell phone rings and I silently curse the timing, some sixth sense telling me that the minute I let go of this woman, she’s gone, but I also have to think about whatever explosion Seth is trying to contain. “Don’t move,” I order, before releasing her to dig my phone from my pocket. I glance down at the caller ID to find my mother’s number, and just that fast, Emily darts around me.
I curse and turn, fully intending to pursue her, only to have Seth step in front of me. Considering the man equals my six feet two inches, and is broader than I am wide, he stops me in my tracks. I grimace and he arches a blond brow that matches the thick waves of hair on his head. “Looking for me?”
“You’ll do,” I say, reaching for my coffee and bypassing it to pick up Emily’s instead, or rather holding it captive for the return I doubt she’ll make.
“Good to see you too,” he says, the words dripping with his trademark sarcasm, which five years of knowing him has taught me to expect.
“Bring me good news for once,” I say, motioning us forward, leading the way through several display racks of chocolates and coffees, as well as a trio of empty tables, to claim a seat at a corner table facing the entryway.
Seth sits next to me rather than across from me, keeping an eye on the door, the ex-CIA agent in him ever present, his skills and loyalty paired with his no-nonsense attitude only a few of the reasons I recruited him from my firm in New York. He opens a large white envelope and pulls out a picture, setting it in front of me. “The private security company we contracted to do surveillance on your brother delivered this to me about an hour ago.”
I stare down at the image of my brother handing a large envelope to a man I’ve never seen before. I eye Seth. “Who is he?”
“He works for the FDA.”
Any remnant of pleasure I’d taken from the exchange with Emily disappears. “Obviously it’s related to the pharmaceutical division and I don’t even want to think about how many laws we broke in that exchange.”
“That’s why I wanted you to see it right away.”
“Do we know what was in the envelope? Do we know anything?”
“The FDA employee’s name and tenure. That’s about it, but I authorized the security team to follow him as of today.”
I glance at the picture, wrestling with anger that will get me nowhere but the hell to which my brother is trying to drag me. “This is the aftermath of last week’s stockholder meeting. I walked in there singing the praises of BP profit margins, with the promise that once the FDA approves our new asthma drug, it would allow us to let go of all the dirty money.”
“And all they heard was the chance to double their money,” Seth supplies. “Enter Derek, who promises to make it happen in a ploy to claim the table. You knew this could happen. We talked about it. Dishonest people don’t suddenly become honest.”
“No,” I say tightly. “They don’t. And I haven’t been operating with the same killer instincts as I did in the firm or this wouldn’t have happened.”
“Because you still haven’t let go of the firm.”
“It’s not the firm I haven’t let go of. It’s my brother. Because despite my denial, I knew staying meant my brother became my enemy.”
Seth leans closer. “Listen to me, Shane. I’m thirty-five years old. I did seven years in the CIA and five years of contract work all over the world before I happened to take a job that threw us together. I’ve seen monsters. I’ve seen criminals. I’ve seen your family and I say this not just as the person you hired to have your back, but the friend who would have it anyway.” He taps the image of my brother in the photo. “This man is your enemy. And I’m not going to let you forget it.”
“He’s also my brother, and this is my family, who I want to save.”
“You may not be able to.”
“I’m aware of that and if I don’t take this company as my life, the way I did my law career, I won’t succeed. And believe me, I’ve navigated enough family-driven litigation to know that blood divides as easily as it unites, especially when money and power are involved. I have to get ahead of this before we all end up bloody or in jail.”
“So we agree. This is war.”
“It’s always been war.”