Six thousand, eight hundred dollars and ninety-eight cents.
Maddie let the bill flutter to her desk, where it settled like a leaf between her elbows. She dropped her head into her hands.
Lucille, her lovable, irresponsible, artistic sister, wanted to do a semester in Italy, studying the great masters.
Well, hell, who wouldn’t? The problem was, Lucy’s private college tuition was already stretching Maddie to the max. The extra expense of a semester abroad meant dipping into – no, wiping out – her meager emergency fund.
Still, considering all they’d been through, Lucy’s carefree spirit was nothing short of a miracle. If keeping that miracle alive meant slaving more hours at her desk, Maddie would make it work somehow.
Knuckles rapped sharply on her office door – Adrianna Marchand’s signature staccato. Maddie slid a file on top of the bill as Adrianna strode in.
“Madeline. South conference room. Now.” Adrianna scraped an eye over Maddie’s hair and makeup, her sleeveless blouse. “Full armor.”
Maddie shook her head. “Take Randall. I’m due in court in two hours and I’m still not up to speed on this case.” Insurance defense might be the most boring legal work in the world, but it was also complex, and she was buried. She waved an arm at the boxes stacked on her cherry coffee table, the hundred case files that marched the length of her leather sofa. “Remember how you dumped all of Vicky’s cases on me after you fired her for no reason?”
Adrianna iced over. “No one’s job is guaranteed at this firm.”
Maddie glared, unwilling to show fear. But she was outclassed and she knew it. Adrianna’s stare could freeze the fires of hell, and as one of Marchand, Riley and White’s founding partners, she could, and would, fire Maddie’s ass if she pushed back too hard.
“Fine, whatever.” Kicking off her fuzzy slippers and shoving her feet into the red Jimmy Choos she kept under her desk, Maddie whipped the jacket of her black silk Armani suit off the back of her chair and punched her fists through the sleeves. Then she spread her arms. “Full armor. Satisfied?”
“Touch up your makeup.”
Rolling her eyes, Maddie dug a compact out of her purse, brushed some color onto her pale cheeks, hit her lips with some gloss. Then she poked her fingers into her caramel hair to give it some lift. She wore it spiked, like her heels, to make herself look taller, but at a petite five feet she was still a shrimp.
Adrianna nodded once, then charged out the door, setting a brisk pace down the carpeted hallway. “Step on it. We’ve kept your new client waiting too long.”
Maddie had to trot to keep up. “My new client? Because I don’t have enough work?”
“He requested you specifically. He says you’re acquainted.”
“Well, who is he?”
“He wants to surprise you.” Adrianna’s dry tone made it clear she wasn’t kidding.
Before Maddie could respond to that ridiculous statement, Adrianna tapped politely on the conference room door, then gently pushed it open.
Meant for large meetings with important clients, the room was designed to impress, with Oriental carpets covering the hardwoods, and original landscapes by notable artists gracing the walls. But it was the long cherry table that really set the tone. Polished to a gleam and surrounded by posh leather chairs, it spelled confidence, professionalism and prosperity.
Bring us your problem, that table said, and we will solve it without breaking a sweat.
And if the room and the table weren’t enough to convince a prospective client that Marchand, Riley and White were all that, then the million-dollar view of the Manhattan skyline through the 40-foot-wide glass wall would drive the point home. Who could argue with that kind of success?
Now Maddie’s new client stood gazing out at that view, his back to the door, one hand in the pocket of his expensively cut trousers, the other holding a sleek cell phone to his ear.
Through that phone, Maddie heard a woman’s tinkling laughter. He responded in rapid Italian. Not that Maddie understood a word of it. Her Italian began and ended with ordering risotto in Little Italy. But she’d had a short fling with a gorgeous Italian waiter, and she recognized the rhythm of the language. It was the sound of sweaty sex.
Clearing her throat to announce their presence earned her a wintry glance from Adrianna. But the man ignored them utterly. Maddie crossed her arms and looked him up and down with an affronted eye.
He was tall, over six feet, and she put his weight at a lean one-ninety. Broad through the shoulders, narrow at the hips, he bore himself like an athlete, graceful and relaxed – as if he wasn’t standing six scant inches from thin air, sixty stories above Fifth Avenue.
Though he claimed to know her, she couldn’t place him by the sliver of his face reflected in the glass, or by the sleek, black hair curling over his collar, too long for Wall Street, not long enough for the Italian soccer team.
Everything about him – his clothes, his bearing, his flagrant arrogance – screamed rich, confident, and entitled.
He must be mistaken about her, she decided, because she honestly didn’t know anyone like him. And given his casual assumption that his time was more important than theirs, she didn’t want to.
She held it together for as long as she could, tapping her foot, biting her tongue, but as the grandfather clock in the corner ticked into the fifth long minute of silent subservience, her patience ran out. She uncrossed her arms and reached for the doorknob. “I don’t have time for this shit.”
Adrianna’s hand shot out and clamped her arm. “Suck it up, Madeline,” she gritted through her teeth.
“Why should I? Why should you?” Under normal circumstances, Adrianna had zero tolerance for disrespect, so why was she putting up with this guy’s bullshit?
Flinging a resentful look at the mystery man, she didn’t bother to lower her voice. “This guy doesn’t know me. Because seriously, if he did, he’d know I won’t stand here burning daylight while he talks dirty to his girlfriend.”
“Oh yes you will,” Adrianna hissed. She released Maddie’s arm, but caught her eyes. “You’ll stand on your head if he says so. He could mean millions for this firm.”
The man in question chose that moment to end his call. Casually, unhurriedly, he slipped the phone in his pocket. Then he turned to face them.
Maddie’s heart stopped. Her lips went icy.
Adrianna started to speak but he cut her off, his vaguely European accent smoothing the edge from his words. “Thank you, Adrianna. Now give us the room.”
Without a word, Adrianna nodded once and left them alone, closing the door softly behind her.
His complete attention came to rest on Maddie, a laser beam disguised as cool condescension. Her blood, which had gone cold, now boiled up in response, pounding her temples, hammering out a beat called Unresolved Fury, Frustrated Objectives, Justice Denied.
“You son of a bitch,” she snarled. “How dare you claim an acquaintance with me?”
He smiled, a deceptively charming curve of the lips meant to distract the unwary from eyes so intensely blue and so penetratingly sharp that they might otherwise reveal him as the diabolical felon he was.
“Ms. St. Clair.” Her name sounded faintly exotic on his tongue. “Surely you don’t deny that we know each other.”
“Oh, I know you, Adam LeCroix. I know you should be doing ten to fifteen in Leavenworth.”
His lips curved another half-inch, past charming, to amused. “And I know you. I know that if you’d taken me to trial, you’d have done an excellent job of it. But,” he shrugged slightly, “both of us know that no jury would have convicted me.”
“Still so cocky,” she simmered. “And so fucking guilty.”
* * *
Adam held back a laugh. Madeline St. Clair might be tiny enough to fit in his pocket, but she had the grit of a two-hundred-pound cage fighter.
When he’d last seen her five years ago, she was a bloodthirsty young prosecutor, spitting nails as her then-boss, the US Attorney for the Eastern District of New York – who had his eyes on higher office – shook Adam’s hand and apologized for letting the case against him go as far as it had.
Playing magnanimous, Adam had nodded gravely, said all the right things about public servants simply doing their jobs, and with a wave for the news cameras, disappeared into his limousine.
Where he’d cracked a $6,000 bottle of Dom Perignon and made a solitary toast to a narrow escape from the law.
It had been his own damned fault that he’d come so close to being caught, because he had gotten cocky. He’d made a rare mistake, a minute one, but Madeline had used it like a crowbar to pry into his life until she’d damn near nailed him for stealing the Lady in Red.
The newly discovered Renoir masterpiece had been sold at Sotheby’s to a Russian arms dealer, a glorified mobster who cynically expected a splashy show of good taste to purge the bloodstains from his billions. Adam couldn’t stomach it, so he’d lifted the painting. Not for gain; he had his own billions. But because great art was sacred, and using it as a dishrag to wipe blood off the hands of a man who sold death was sacrilege.
Adam had simply saved the masterpiece from its unholy purpose.
It wasn’t the first time, or the last, that he’d liberated great art from unclean hands. He told himself that it was his calling, but he couldn’t deny that it was also a hell of a lot of fun. Outsmarting the best security systems money could buy taxed his brain in ways that managing his companies simply couldn’t. Training for the physical demands kept him in Navy-SEAL condition. And the adrenaline rush, well, that couldn’t be duplicated. Not even by sex. No woman had ever thrilled him that intensely or challenged him so completely on every level.
But now the shoe was on the other foot. One of his own paintings – his favorite Monet – had been heisted clean off the wall of his Portofino villa.
Just the thought made his teeth grind.
Oh, he’d find it eventually; he had no doubt of that. He had the resources, both money and manpower. He was patient. He was relentless. And when he got his hands on the bastard who’d infiltrated his home – his sanctuary – he’d make him pay for his hubris.
But in the meantime, he had a more immediate concern. The insurance company, Hawthorne Mutual, was dragging its feet, balking at paying him the $44 million the Monet was insured for.
Forty-four million was a lot of money, even to a man like him. But it was the company’s excuse for holding it up that really pissed him off. They needed to investigate the theft, they claimed, because Adam had once been a “person of interest” in the theft of the Renoir.
In short, Hawthorne’s foot-dragging could be laid at Madeline’s door. She’d damaged Adam’s reputation, impugned his integrity. Cast a shadow of doubt over one of the richest men in the world.
Never mind that she’d been right about him.
Because she was visibly chomping at the bit, he moved as if he had all day, strolling to the far end of the room, where a leather sofa and club chairs clustered around a coordinating coffee table. This would be where clients chummied-up with the partners after meetings, rubbing elbows over scotch and cigars while the lowly associates – like Madeline – scuttled back to their offices to do the actual work.
He poured himself an inch of scotch from the Waterford decanter on the table, then relaxed into the sofa, stretching one arm along the back, letting the other drape carelessly over the side, whiskey glass dangling from his fingers.
Her steel gray eyes narrowed to slits. “What do you want, LeCroix? Why are you here?”
Lazily, he sipped his scotch, enjoying the angry flush that burned her cheeks. In the prosecutor’s office, they’d called her the Pitbull. He was glad to see she’d lost none of her fire.
Watching her simmer, he remembered how her intensity had appealed to him. How much she’d appealed to him. Which was surprising, really. As a rule, he liked a solid armful of woman, and Madeline was barely there.
At the time, he’d told himself it was because she’d damn near taken him down. Naturally, he had to admire that.
But now he felt it again, that tug of attraction. Something about those suspicious eyes, that spring-loaded body, went straight to his groin. An image of her astride him, nails gouging his chest, eyes blazing with passion, flashed through his mind. Was she as hot-blooded in bed as she was in the courtroom?
Regrettably, he’d never find out. Because he was about to piss her off for life.
He crossed his legs with studied nonchalance while all five-foot nothing of her bristled with temper.
“Hawthorne Mutual is holding up payment on the Monet,” he said. He didn’t bother to describe the painting; she’d remember it. Five years ago she’d subpoenaed an inventory of his art collection. He’d complied – at least as to his legal collection.
“Someone stole the Monet?” For the first time, she smiled, a wicked grin.
He flicked imaginary lint from his knee. “Apparently, even mysecurity isn’t unbreachable.” And wasn’t that a sore spot?
She barked out a laugh. “What goes around, comes around, LeCroix. With your history, Hawthorne will never pay – what was the insured value? Forty-four million?” She sneered, clearly enjoying the irony. “They’ll keep you in court for years.”
He let her savor her last taste of victory. Then he hit her where it hurt.
“Not me,” he said, succinctly. “Us. They’ll keep us in court. Because you’re representing me. For as long as it takes, whatever it takes.”
Her chin actually jerked as she took the blow. Then he finished her off with a short jab to the kisser.
“From now on, Madeline, you work for me.”
* * *
Maddie slammed her door so hard that her diploma jumped off the wall, glass splintering as it hit the floor.
She didn’t spare it a glance, just threw herself into her desk chair and glared at the door, waiting.
Five seconds later, Adrianna barged in, loaded for bear. Planting her fists on the desk, she fired both barrels. “Get your ass back in that conference room and unmake whatever mess you just made. Adam LeCroix is The Most Important Client who’s ever walked into this office.”
“He’s a criminal,” Maddie lashed back. “He should be in an eight-foot cell, not strutting around Manhattan thinking he can buy anybody he wants. Thinking he can buy me!” She jabbed a finger in his general direction. “He can go fuck himself. I’d rather starve than work for him.”
“Then you’ll starve,” Adrianna shot back. She drew herself up, breathed in, breathed out. “You’re fired.”
“Good!” Maddie snapped open her briefcase and dumped out the legal pads. In went her personal things. A photo of Lucy in her cap and gown, smile brightening the cloudy day. Another of Lucy on her first day at college, waving from her dorm window. Lucy again, at her small gallery showing, face alight with wonder and promise.
Maddie stilled. Her eyes dropped to the bill poking out from under Johnson v Jones. No job meant no semester in Italy for Lucy. Hell, it meant no semester of any kind for Lucy, unless the poor kid took on the same crippling school loans that still hamstrung Maddie. That kind of debt took away your choices, killed your dreams. Left you at the mercy of people like Adrianna Marchand . . . and Adam LeCroix.
She had no choice but to give in. Cornered like a rabbit, she lifted her eyes to Adrianna. Who smiled her evil she-wolf smile.
“I knew you’d see reason,” said the she-wolf. Then she reached across Maddie’s desk, hit the intercom button. “Randall, get in here.”
“Yes, ma’am!” He snapped out a verbal salute, sped into the office in record time. Cursed with red hair and freckles, he blushed like a virgin when Adrianna turned her carnivorous gaze upon him.
“Take this.” She scraped Johnson v Jones into a pile and thrust it into his arms. “Judge Bernam’s expecting you in his chambers in two hours for a settlement conference. Don’t disappoint me.”
Randall went pale. “But—”
Adrianna stared him silent.
“Don’t worry,” Maddie cut in, mercifully, “it’s pro forma. The plaintiff’s not ready to settle.”
Randall’s momentary relief died as Adrianna pointed at the boxes on the coffee table, the files on the couch. “Those are yours too. Get them out of here.”
As a brand new hire, Randall had the lightest caseload of any associate. Naively, he still believed that evenings and weekends were his own. His dawning horror would have evoked Maddie’s pity if she hadn’t had her own horror to reckon with: Adam LeCroix, billionaire businessman, international playboy. Art thief extraordinaire.
She swallowed hard, tasting her bitterest defeat.
Five years ago she’d almost nailed him. A circumstantial case, but if only she’d been allowed to take it to trial, she could’ve made it stick. She could’ve convinced the jury that LeCroix was not only the mastermind who outwitted Sotheby’s state-of-the-art computerized security, but also the Spiderman who scaled walls, ghosted past armed guards and, in under four minutes, poofed with the Lady in Red rolled up in a three-foot tube.
But her boss was too chicken to take LeCroix on. With his eyes on a Senatorial bid, he wasn’t willing to risk having a high-profile defeat splashed across the front page of The New York Times. So Maddie had watched LeCroix waltz out of her office, wave to the media whores who worshiped him like a celebrity, and cruise away in his black stretch limo.
That had been bad. But this . . . this was a nightmare. She was at the man’s mercy. There was no way she could walk away from her job at Marchand, Riley and White and into another that paid as well. Not in this economy.
She suppressed a shiver. Not since she’d left her father’s house had she felt so vulnerable to a man. She’d sworn never to let one control her again, but now LeCroix had her by the proverbial balls. And he was diabolical. If he learned about her childhood, he’d use her personal demons to turn the screws tighter still.
She couldn’t – and wouldn’t – hide her revulsion at working for him, but she could never let him know how much it cost her.
* * *
Adam ended another phone call, checked his watch. Six minutes. By now, Madeline would have capitulated and she’d be processing her defeat. Girding her loins – that image made him smile – for the short walk to this conference room and the crow-eating apology the Marchand vixen would expect her to deliver.
His smile grew to a grin. That would be the day. He might have Madeline’s back to the wall, but he knew better than to expect an apology out of her. And he didn’t want one.
What he wanted was his $44 million, and to see Hawthorne’s high-and-mighty CEO – Jonathan Edward Kennedy Hawthorne IV – blanche when Adam showed up with his former prosecutor in his corner.
Hawthorne mistakenly believed that because his great-whatever-grandfather came over on the Mayflower and started what was now the oldest, most hide-bound, hoity-toity insurance company in America, he could jam Adam up. That he’d quail at veiled threats to dredge up old rumors about the Lady in Red.
Not likely. If Hawthorne’s smarmy lawyers had done their homework, they’d know Adam didn’t give a damn about bad publicity. He didn’t give a damn about the press or the public or the next story about him on Page Six of The Post.
What he cared about was not getting screwed over byanybody. Most assuredly not by some blueblood who thought his money was better than Adam’s simply because it had more age on it.
Well, Hawthorne had a big surprise coming. Never in a million years would he expect Madeline to join forces with Adam, when the whole world knew she’d done everything in her power to convict him. Why, the press had made hay with it across the globe, sensationalizing the story of the upstart prosecutor’s tenacious pursuit of the self-made billionaire, dubbing it the Pitbull versus the Piranha.
For that reason alone, her mere presence on his payroll would neutralize any once-a-thief, always-a-thief argument Hawthorne could make about the Monet. And if he cooked up some other reason to deny Adam his money, then he’d turn her loose on him. Hawthorne wouldn’t have a chance against The Pitbull.
His grin widened. The icing on the cake was that Madeline would hate every minute of it. He couldn’t have dreamed up a sweeter revenge if he’d tried.
When the idea had first come to him a week ago, he’d wondered how he could rope her in. The woman had more integrity than anyone he’d ever met. But a quick and dirty investigation into her finances turned up her Achilles heel – her sister Lucille. Sixty percent of Madeline’s income went to cover the girl’s expenses. Room, board, clothes, travel, and the killer – tuition at the Rhode Island School of Design. The kid got some meager financial aid, but she took no loans at all. Madeline covered every penny of it.
She literally couldn’t afford to lose her job.
After that, all it took were some vague promises of future business to her shrew of a boss, hinging, of course, on Madeline’s cooperation, and he had her right where he wanted her.
The door to the conference room opened and the Pitbull herself strode in. She snarled over her shoulder at whoever remained in the hallway, then slapped the door shut and stalked the length of the room, a short stick of dynamite, ready to explode.
He couldn’t suppress another smile. He’d always loved to blow things up.
She pulled up in front of him, close enough that even from her unimpressive height she was looking down at him. She snapped out one word.
He let his brows rise a centimeter. Gave her not one inch of ground.
“Why me? It’s stupid to expect me to help you with the Monet. One thing you’re not is stupid.” She crossed her arms. “That means you’re dragging me into this for revenge. Since it’s been five years, and the only price you ever paid for stealing the Lady in Red was to get more attention from your fans in the press, why risk a $44 million recovery by putting me in the middle of it? Why not find someone who might actually believe you didn’t steal your own Monet, and leave me the fuck alone?”
Adam swirled his scotch. When he’d envisioned this inevitable moment, he’d imagined responding to her attack with a swift accounting of her precarious financial condition followed by a hard boot in the ass to bring her into line. Now that the time had come, he didn’t want to do either of those things. He liked her this way, with fire in her eyes.
The truth was – and this surprised him – he wasn’t quite comfortable using her sister as a sword to force her to her knees. Maybe he had a soft spot for sibling affection – he wouldn’t have guessed it, having none of his own. But more likely it was his business sense kicking in. After all, her feistiness would be an asset in his battle with Hawthorne. It wouldn’t behoove him to break her spirit.
But he did have to show her who was boss.
“Do sit down,” he said in an even tone that neither challenged nor gave ground. Then he dropped his gaze to the chair, a clear signal that if she wanted to meet his eyes, she’d have to park herself in it.
After five deliberate seconds plainly meant to show that she was sitting because she wanted to, not because he commanded it, she let one cheek touch leather. It hardly made a dent; she couldn’t weigh more than 90 pounds soaking wet.
She’d left her jacket in her office, and her sleeveless top stretched over breasts that fit her proportions exactly. Not that he was looking; he kept his eyes on her face, but his peripheral vision caught the action as they swelled up and out with each annoyed breath.
“Adam,” he cut in. “My top advisors go by given names. I find they speak more freely that way.” He smiled slightly. “Although you don’t seem to have a problem speaking your mind to the boss.”
“You’re not my boss. I work for Marchand, Riley and White. You’re my client. I’m . . . ” here she choked on her words, “your attorney. You don’t pay me. The firm does. I don’t report to you. I represent you. That’s all.”
He tilted his head, did a sympathetic smile this time. “Perhaps Adrianna wasn’t clear. It’s true that you aren’t directly on my payroll. But make no mistake. You work for me. You report to me. I am your onlyclient, and my whim is your command.”
She shot out of her chair and he almost laughed. He had gone a bit far with that last part. But really, she was asking for it.
“You can take your whim—” she snarled, but he cut her off again.
“I’m sure you have many fascinating and original ideas about what I can do with my whim,” he said, “but that’s not what I’m paying for. I’m paying for your time, your efforts, and your undivided attention. And by undivided I mean twenty-four seven.”
Her eyes bugged. “I have a life, you know.”
“Do you?” Insulting.
Her cheeks went up in flames.
He could have told her what he knew right then and there, that not only were her finances in the crapper, her love life was circling the bowl along with them. But why let her know that his private investigators had turned her life inside out? He’d save that bombshell for another day.
Still, her lack of romantic involvements – past and present – surprised him. His investigators had checked as far back as her undergraduate days at Boston University and found no relationships lasting longer than a three-day weekend. Granted, it would take a brave man to bare his junk to her – he’d find himself short a nut if he looked at her crosswise – but even so, there’d been no shortage of interest through the years. It was Madeline who refused to get serious.
Her flushed face told Adam that there was a story there. In time, he’d find out what it was. For the moment, though, he had all the leverage he needed.
“Get your things,” he said, “I’ll take you home.”
She bristled. “I can get home on my own, when I’m good and ready to go.”
Ignoring her, he set his glass on the table, pulled out his phone. “Fredo, bring the car around. We’ll be down in five.”
“I’m not riding with you!”
He dropped the phone in his pocket. Rose to his full six-foot-two, and watched her head tip back to hold him in her furious glare.
He curved his lips, part smile, all menace. “Five minutes, Madeline. With your things, or without them. That much is up to you.”
And he walked past her and out the door.
A Save the Date Novel
In Print and Ebook
September 30, 2014