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Her Secret Alibi

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Her Secret Alibi Debra Webb ???? HarperCollins EUR Could Jolie Randolph be losing her mind? That would explain why the typically focused bank executive had discovered inconsistencies in her usually meticulous work, totally forgotten a business trip and woken up naked in a stranger's bed! Jolie was coming undone and under investigation by the disarmingly handsome Simon Ruhl.But would he bed her or book her?Undercover Colby agent Simon Ruhl had his sights set on Jolie for more than one reason. She was suspected in a money-laundering scheme and she was clearly being set up. Simon was duty bound to protect Jolie from an unknown threat while surreptitiously proving her innocence?all before he went totally insane with desire for her. ?Let me help you?? Simon implored her. ?All you have to do is trust me.? He touched her gently, protectively, his fingers tracing the curve of her cheek. She couldn?t move, couldn?t speak. His thumb slid over her lower lip, sending a rush of desire straight through her. Jolie looked into her dark savior?s eyes. He really had rescued her tonight. He was beautiful?like an angel straight from heaven, except he was dark and alluring. ?None of this makes sense. It?s crazy. Why would you risk your life for me?? she asked, filled with desperation and defeat. He stared at her lips as she spoke, fighting the urge to press his own there, to comfort her and make her forget. ?It doesn?t matter why.? He dragged his gaze upward to look directly into those jade pools of pure fear. ?All you need to know is that I will.? Her Secret Alibi Debra Webb www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) ABOUT THE AUTHOR Debra Webb was born in Scottsboro, Alabama, to parents who taught her that anything is possible if you want it badly enough. She began writing at age nine. Eventually she met and married the man of her dreams, and tried some other occupations, including selling vacuum cleaners and working in a factory, a day-care center, a hospital and a department store. When her husband joined the military, they moved to Berlin, Germany, and Debra became a secretary in the commanding general?s office. By 1985 they were back in the States, and finally moved to Tennessee, to a small town where everyone knows everyone else. With the support of her husband and two beautiful daughters, Debra took up writing again, looking to mysteries and movies for inspiration. In 1998 her dream of writing for Harlequin came true. You can write to Debra with your comments at P.O. Box 64, Huntland, Tennessee 37345. CAST OF CHARACTERS Simon Ruhl?One of the Colby Agency?s finest investigators. He will stop at nothing to bring down the man who murdered his former partner. Jolie Randolph?Is she losing her mind? Falling victim to the illness that plagued her mother? As betrayal threatens her very life, who can she trust? Mr. Knox?The bank?s president and Jolie?s boss. He is concerned that perhaps the stress of Jolie?s new position is more than she?d bargained for. Franklin Randolph?Jolie?s father. He has a secret of his own. Will that secret destroy his daughter? Mark Boyer?He has worked with Jolie for years. She received the promotion he wanted. How far will he go to prove they chose the wrong person for the job? Erica Thornton?An advertising executive and Jolie?s best friend. She wants to help?but can she before it?s too late? Renae Felder?Jolie?s assistant. She has access to Jolie?s calendar as well as her files. Is she as loyal as she?d like Jolie to think? Special Agent Johnson?An old friend of Simon?s in the FBI?s Atlanta office. He is willing to help out a friend, but he can?t look the other way when murder is involved. Raymond ?Big Ray? Brasco?The top mob boss in Atlanta. He doesn?t take no for an answer. Ray Brasco Jr.?The boss?s son. He loves to play games, especially with the innocent. Pierce ?Max? Maxwell?Another agent from the Colby Agency. Max will provide backup and support for Simon. A former DEA agent, Max is always prepared. This book is dedicated to a very special group of folks who have always been there whenever I needed them. I would like to thank the ladies and gentlemen, past and present, of Huntland Bank for their years of dedicated service and continued friendship. You have always added a special human touch to the business of banking. Contents Prologue Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven Chapter Eight Chapter Nine Chapter Ten Chapter Eleven Chapter Twelve Chapter Thirteen Chapter Fourteen Epilogue Prologue Victoria Colby stared out the window of her fourth floor office and tried not to think about the past. She?d had a difficult time pushing it aside lately. It wasn?t like her to dwell on what she couldn?t change. Unfortunately, it grew increasingly harder to do what she?d once been so very good at. Forgetting. If she lived a thousand years she would never be able to forget the man she?d loved, James Colby. He had been her true soul mate. A man of honor?of courage. So few existed these days, it seemed. Her thoughts went immediately to Lucas Camp. Yes, there was another very much like her James had been. Lucas was the epitome of a good man. A part of her longed to share the rest of her days on this earth with him, especially after coming so close to losing him only a few months ago. She shuddered as she thought of that island and those long hours when she hadn?t known if Lucas was alive or dead. But something always made her hold back when it came to commitment, made her second-guess what her heart said. She did love Lucas, there was no denying that fact. Still, there was one thing that had prevented her from moving on with her life all these years. James Colby, Jr. Her son. She blinked, ruing the tears that never failed to surface when she thought of the little boy she?d borne. What good would her tears do? He was lost to her. If he were alive he would be a grown man now. She wondered if he would still look so much like his father. If he would be even half as honorable and courageous. If he were happy. If his life had been pleasant. But most of all she wondered if he was alive. She?d waited all these years, hoping he was, and that he hadn?t forgotten her or the happy home they had shared. Hoping that he would come back someday. A heavy sigh escaped her lips. Most likely she would never know anything, and he wouldn?t come back. But nothing would stop her from hoping. ?You wanted to see me, Victoria?? The sound of Simon Ruhl?s voice startled Victoria back to the here and now. She took a breath and composed herself before facing him. She had the agency. And she had her Colby agents?the very best in the business of private investigation. She had taken the agency her husband had started and gone all the way to the top. That was something. She did not have time to feel sorry for herself. That realization galvanized her and she banished her troubling thoughts. They had a new case. One that was perfect for Simon Ruhl. Victoria returned his smile and charged into work mode. ?Please, have a seat, Simon. We have a new assignment to discuss.? When they had settled, she began. ?Jason Hodges is the head of the board of directors of Atlanta?s First International Bank.? She passed a folder to Simon for his perusal. ?As you?ll see in there, he has a stellar record, as does his bank.? She paused for a moment as Simon reviewed the contents of the file, then smiled when he looked up and asked, ?What?s the problem?? Nothing got past Simon. As a former member of the FBI, he?d had intensive training for just this sort of case. He would know that no matter how neat and tidy things looked on the surface, a great deal of trouble could lie just beneath. His Ivy League education and refined manner were perfect. ?Mr. Hodges has a great many important friends, including a contact or two in the Atlanta division of the Federal Bureau of Investigations. One of his contacts has given him a heads-up that his bank is on the list to be investigated for possible money laundering.? His expression thoughtful, Simon commented, ?Raymond Brasco comes to mind.? Victoria nodded. As she suspected, Simon had maintained his awareness of the top mob bosses affiliated with business in his former jurisdiction. When he?d worked for the Bureau, the Southeast had been a part of his territory. He was definitely the right man for this job. ?Mr. Hodges would like to determine if there is a problem, and if so, clear it up before it becomes a federal investigation. He has hired an outside auditing team. While the team evaluates the bank?s accounting practices, you?ll evaluate the employees. Being a member of this team will serve as your cover.? Simon closed the folder and considered her words for a time. ?Does Hodges suspect anyone?? ?Not really.? Victoria shrugged. ?At least he didn?t admit to suspecting anyone in particular. He feels, however, that the most likely source for any such illegal activities would be in the international department, which is where he?d like you to start. The head of the department is a young woman named Jolie Randolph.? Victoria nodded to the folder. ?There?s a photograph of her with some other employees at a Christmas party last year. Third from the left in the front row.? Simon pulled out the photograph and located the woman mentioned. ?She?s younger than I would have thought for a department head.? ?In my opinion,? Victoria offered, ?her youth would certainly make her vulnerable. I believe?? Before she could stop it, the idea that if her son was alive he would be about that age zoomed into her mind. She blinked, then with effort pushed the thought away. ?I believe she would be a good starting point.? Simon?s dark, analyzing gaze collided with Victoria?s. ?I agree,? he stated, as if he was fully focused on the conversation. But she felt his close scrutiny. He?d picked up on her distraction. Annoyance flared, firming her resolve. She had to get her emotions under control. ?Good.? ?I?ll get started right away,? he added as he pushed himself to his feet. ?Is there anything else you?d like to discuss?? For a brief moment Victoria thought she noted a tightening in Simon?s expression. Perhaps she?d misread the subtle shift. She resisted the urge to massage the ache that had started at her temples. This wasn?t like her. ?That?s all,? she said quickly when she realized Simon was still waiting for her response. After a succinct nod he left her office, closing the door behind him. Victoria pounded her fist against her desk in frustration. She didn?t have time for this. She had an agency to run. She didn?t have time for the past. The media had focused of late on several child abduction cases that hit entirely too close to home. That had to be the source of her problem. She had to find a way to keep her perspective. The past was gone; she couldn?t change it. And no force on earth could bring her son back. Chapter One Awareness came slowly. Jolie?s head felt heavy and all fuzzy inside. Instinct warned that if she moved or opened her eyes pain would follow. But she had to wake up, had to move. She should be somewhere, doing something besides sleeping. If she could only wake up! Gradually, her lids drifted open and she blinked rapidly against the brightness of the room. Focus came in unsteady stages until she could fully absorb her surroundings. The sun rising above the Atlanta skyline poured through the wall of windows facing her, spreading its light and warmth. Jolie frowned as her brain scrambled to place the images she saw. She was in bed. The sheets felt cool and smooth against her skin. What time was it? she wondered vaguely. With her leaden body fighting her every inch of the way, she sat up, cleared her throat and pushed the hair from her eyes. Pain roared inside her skull. She moaned and held her head in her hands until the throbbing eased a bit. Another deeply entrenched instinct niggled at her, urging a response to some threat she couldn?t yet comprehend. She licked her dry lips and grimaced. The taste in her mouth was oddly bitter. She needed a drink of water desperately. With monumental effort she threw off the sheet covering her and dropped her feet to the lushly carpeted floor. Jolie immediately regretted the move. The room spun wildly for a couple of seconds. God, she had a hangover! She stilled. But she didn?t remember getting drunk. What day was it? She scowled and surveyed the enormous room and its lavish furnishings. From the elegant fringed and corded draperies drawn back to reveal the expansive windows, to the exquisite, dark wood furniture artfully placed about the room, the place reeked of wealth, but gave her no clue as to where in the world she was or how she had gotten there. Alarm trickled through her, but her fuzzy brain couldn?t yet work up an appropriate reaction. She stood on wobbly legs and groaned as she rubbed at the steady pounding behind her eyes. She shivered uncontrollably, then froze. Slowly, denial screaming in time with the throb inside her head, Jolie stared down at herself. Naked. Outright panic shot through her veins. She was naked. She surveyed the room again. Where was she? Her chest constricted with fear as she spun around, desperately seeking anything?just one thing?that would provide some shred of evidence as to where she was. Nothing. The rich burgundy of the walls and carpet set off the dark mahogany of the heavy furnishings. The generous windows were all that saved the room from being unpleasantly dark. A pair of upholstered chairs occupied one corner like sentries at designated posts. Exquisite paintings graced the walls. But none of it looked familiar. This had to be a friend?s place, Jolie reasoned with mushrooming dread. The alternative was unthinkable. She trembled at the conclusion forming in her lethargic mind. Oh God. She swallowed convulsively. She wasn?t at a friend?s house. She didn?t have time for many friends. She worked too many hours at the bank. Jolie had only one real friend, Erica, and this was definitely not her apartment. Jolie?s heart beat harder and faster, the blood thudding in her ears. The urge to flee was so strong now that her breath caught. Where was she? How did she get here? She felt confused and lost? And frightened. The sound of spraying water captured her attention, and bewildered, she turned toward the sound. An open door led to what appeared to be an en suite bathroom. Her feet had already taken her halfway across the room before the decision to move penetrated the dense cotton surrounding her brain. She stood stock-still in the doorway to the luxurious bathroom. An enticing, undeniably male fragrance scented the steamy air in the room. Stained glass window, huge sunken tub, gold fixtures and Italian tile all registered briefly, but it was the glass shower cubicle beyond all that to which Jolie?s attention was drawn. Her eyes widened in confused disbelief. A man stood beneath the spray, steam rising above him like a billowing cloud. Dark hair, broad, broad shoulders, muscular back. She jerked back a step when her gaze traced the tight, well-formed buttocks and long muscular legs. She pivoted and took a couple of shaky steps, reality crashing down around her. Jolie shook her head in denial. Her stomach roiled and the breath evaporated in her throat. She had never gone home with a stranger. Never. Never. Never. Clothes. She needed her clothes. Adrenaline burned a path through her veins. She had to find her clothes and get out of here. The man wouldn?t stay in the shower forever. She needed to hurry! Searching frantically, Jolie found her clothes scattered across a chaise longue, her shoes and purse on the floor nearby. She jerked on her panties and then the dress she had worn out to dinner last night. Dinner. Her hands stilled on the zipper at the small of her back. Flashes of memory slammed into her, making her dizzy again. Dinner with Erica at Carlisle?s. Music. Laughing. People coming and going. Jolie searched her memory, struggled to remember. What had happened after that? Why couldn?t she remember leaving the restaurant? A new thought caused anxiety to twist in her stomach. Dinner with Erica had happened on Sunday night. That would make this Monday morning. She looked down at her left wrist and the gold watch she always wore. Eight-twenty. Her heart sank. She had forty minutes to get to work. And she didn?t even know where she was or how she had gotten here? Or with whom. Silence snapped Jolie back to the present. The soft hiss of water had stopped. Fear such as she had never known before welled in her throat. She stepped into her shoes, grabbed her purse and, without looking back, ran from the bedroom. SIMON WATCHED FROM behind the tinted windows of his SUV as Jolie Randolph hurried up the front steps leading to Atlanta?s First International Bank. The short green skirt of her business suit showed off her exquisitely shaped legs a little too well for comfort. The fit of the matching jacket emphasized her slender figure. All that blond hair flowed around her shoulders like gleaming silk, making him want to thread his fingers through it. His groin reacted immediately at the thought. A muscle flexed in his tense jaw. Once Jolie disappeared through the towering ornate doors, Simon dragged his attention back to his cell phone. ?She just went inside.? He listened to the annoyed voice of his client on the other end of the line. ?No, it won?t jeopardize anything,? Simon argued impatiently, his foul mood steadily worsening. ?Jolie is the weak link. I?m certain of that now.? He tugged at the black tie around his neck. ?I have an appointment with the bank?s president at noon. I?ll start applying the pressure right away.? He glanced up at the second floor of the four-story building, pinpointing Jolie Randolph?s office. ?Don?t worry, I?ve got everything under control.? Simon ended the call, then started the car?s engine. He cast another assessing glance at the bank and his lips formed a grim line. If Jolie Randolph thought she had problems now, she should think again. Simon was relatively sure she was in deep. Though he still had a few doubts?doubts that bothered him?she was at the top of his suspect list. But she wasn?t alone on that list. A completely illogical anxiety needled him once more. He had to find a way to keep his objectivity on track here. He?d waited four long years for this opportunity. Whether Miss Randolph knew it or not, her nightmare had just begun. ?MISS RANDOLPH.? Jolie cringed inwardly as she paused in her hasty retreat from the conference room and this morning?s status meeting. Despite her best efforts, she had been fifteen minutes late, and she hadn?t missed the concerned looks Mr. Knox, the bank?s president and her boss, had cast in her direction. She suppressed a weary sigh. There was nothing to do but pay the consequences. Producing her brightest smile, she turned and faced the older man. ?Yes, Mr. Knox?? She met his analyzing gaze head-on. ?Was there something else you needed to speak with me about?? Her boss drew in a decidedly long breath, crossed one arm over his chest and propped the elbow of the other on it so that he could stroke his chin. Jolie had the sudden, almost irresistible urge to tug at the collar of her blouse. She was still shaking inside from this morning?s episode. Three cups of strong black coffee hadn?t helped. ?Are you certain you?re feeling all right, Miss Randolph?? His bushy gray brows furrowed in concern. ?Your new position isn?t proving more stressful than you anticipated?? Jolie gritted her teeth behind her smile for about two seconds. She had received the long-anticipated promotion to vice president of investments just six months ago, and she loved it. Why did everyone, her own father included, have to be so worried about her ability to handle a little extra stress? ?Everything is fine, sir,? she said calmly. ?Just running a little behind this morning.? Mr. Knox tapped his cheek and studied her a moment longer. ?You are the youngest vice president we?ve ever had here at First International,? he reminded her. ?And a woman,? he added proudly. ?Your well-being is of special interest to me, Miss Randolph.? Jolie?s smile was genuine this time. She knew he meant well, however unnecessary his concern. ?Thank you, sir.? Mr. Knox smiled knowingly. ?You earned this promotion, young lady, and I have complete confidence in you. Like father, like daughter.? With that, he turned and strode toward his own office at the far end of the hall. Jolie released her pent-up breath when Mr. Knox was well out of hearing range. Only ten o?clock and the day had hit rock bottom already. With her own office just across the hall from the conference room, Jolie didn?t have far to go to find refuge. She closed the door and crossed to her desk. In spite of all that had happened, she stole a moment to admire her spectacular view. The entire back wall of her office was one big window. Just like the bedroom she had slept in last night. Dread pooled in Jolie?s stomach when she recalled the tense ride in the elevator to the first floor of the unfamiliar apartment building. Her heart had been pounding so hard by the time she?d reached the street and called a cab that she had been almost afraid she was going into cardiac arrest. The entire episode was one big blur, and she barely remembered now what the building looked like. That was good, because she definitely wanted to forget the entire event. Oddly, she had found her car parked outside her own apartment building, though she specifically remembered driving it to dinner the night before to meet Erica. Had she gone home afterward? Then gone out again? Why couldn?t she remember? With no time to consider the puzzle further, Jolie had rushed into her apartment, showered and changed, then hurried to work. And still she was late for the weekly status meeting. She?d bet her father had never been late, not once. He?d retired as president of the bank almost six years ago, and he?d left large shoes for all others to fill?including Jolie. Put all of it out of your mind, she ordered. Forcing away the frightening memories as well as the self-deprecating thoughts, Jolie tossed her datafax onto her desk, put away her purse and buzzed Renae, her assistant, to pass along her requirements for the morning. Jolie dropped into her high-back leather chair and closed her eyes for just a minute. To her dismay, in that brief moment of total relaxation, this morning?s few vivid mental pictures played through her weary mind. All images of the man. She shuddered at the thought that a stranger had touched her. She swallowed hard. How could she have allowed that to happen? She had been at dinner and? Erica. She could call her friend. Erica would know what happened. But when her recorded voice came across the line, Jolie remembered that her friend had left early that morning for a business trip. She wouldn?t be back in Atlanta until late tomorrow afternoon. Heaving another disgusted sigh, Julie settled the receiver back into its cradle. The vision of the man?naked, with water streaming over his sculpted body?ricocheted through her still somewhat groggy mind. She shivered. How could she have gone home with that man?been with him?and not remember it? Fear gripped her, cutting off her breath, at the answer that echoed in her brain. She shook her head as if to deny the thought. She was not like her mother. No. That was not possible. She would never be like her. Her mother had been very ill. The last two years of her life had been a roller-coaster ride through the final stages of severe mental illness. Jolie swallowed hard. Living with her mother had been like living with two different people those last months. One had been the loving woman Jolie had known all her life, the other someone she barely recognized. But her mother had been too weak to fight the demons that had haunted her for far too many years to count. Jolie was strong. She was fine. ?Fine,? Jolie repeated out loud. Renae rapped lightly on the door. Jolie sat up straighter and composed herself. She would not think about any of that right now. She had a job to do. A job she loved. She motioned for Renae to come in, then squared her shoulders and forced her attention to her work. ?Miss Randolph?? Renae stepped into the office, a folder clutched to her chest. ?We have a slight problem.? Jolie frowned, then brightened. Good. Work problems she could handle. ?What?s up?? she asked, as her assistant moved around her desk to open the folder and spread the papers out before her. ?There?s a fifty thousand dollar discrepancy in this account,? Renae said tentatively. Jolie scanned the number and then the name of the account holder. This was one of her accounts. ?There must be a mistake,? she murmured promptly. ?I felt certain you would be able to take care of it,? Renae suggested hesitantly. Jolie resisted the urge to frown at her assistant. Of course she would take care of it. Why was Renae behaving so nervously? Realization hit Jolie like a mallet between the eyes. The audit. Next month?s annual audit had everyone at the bank jumping through hoops. ?It?s all right, Renae,? Jolie assured her. ?I?ll handle it. I?m sure it?s nothing more than an input error.? Renae smiled weakly. ?You?re right. I don?t know why I was so worried.? She shrugged. ?This audit thing has us all out of sorts.? ?It?ll be over soon.? ?Oh, I almost forgot.? Renae looked thoughtful. ?A man called for you this morning before you arrived, but he wouldn?t leave a message.? Panic pricked Jolie. ?Did he leave a name?? Renae shook her head. ?He just wanted to know if you made it to work all right.? Panic stabbed deeper. ?He hasn?t called again?? ?No.? Renae frowned. ?It was all very odd.? She smiled wickedly then. ?But he had a voice that would make a nun want to break her vows.? Jolie tamped down the anxiety climbing into her throat. She refused to consider that the call could have been from the man in whose bed she had awakened. She intended to put that episode out of her head. She would simply pretend it hadn?t happened. It was the only way to maintain her sanity. But how could she pretend last night hadn?t happened? Jolie?s stomach knotted. There could be serious consequences. Dear God, what had she done? ?I?ll get to the bottom of this right away.? Jolie tapped the folder and attempted a confident smile. ?Let me know if you need anything else,? Renae said as she skirted the desk and headed for the door. ?Thanks,? Jolie replied vacantly. She watched through the glass wall that separated her office from the hall as Renae hurried away. She and Jolie had worked together for years. Renae was tall, slender and very attractive. She bragged about having a new boyfriend every week. Renae had always considered Jolie too uptight and straitlaced for her own good. What would dear old Renae think if she knew the man who had called this morning was probably the stranger Jolie had slept with last night? She shook off the troubling thoughts and dived headfirst into her work. BY NOON JOLIE KNEW she had a serious problem on her hands. She had exhausted every possibility, to no avail. The money had simply disappeared. She chewed her lower lip and allowed the one word that no banker ever wanted to consider to slip into conscious thought. Embezzlement. But how could that be? This was her account. Though Jolie could have turned over all her accounts to the other department head in foreign investments, she had kept several to oversee personally. These were special clients who preferred Jolie?s brand of financial strategizing. Mark, now the sole head of foreign investments, was not happy about it. He had all but accused Jolie of keeping the best clients to herself. But Jolie was the boss now, and Mark had known better than to push the issue. Besides, she didn?t take him for a guy who really went to the mat on an issue. He?d always seemed a little spineless to her. However, Mark was good at his job. Not once had a client complained about his work. He was dependable and charming, and enormously diplomatic with the bank?s clients. And smart, Jolie had to admit. She stared at the computer printouts before her. She had to be missing something. The money could not have disappeared into thin air. And she sure as hell hadn?t taken it. An uneasy feeling accompanied that thought, but she pushed it away. She did not take the money. And she never made mistakes like this. Jolie flattened her palms on her desk and stood. Enough. She needed a break. She would go out, have a nice quiet lunch and recharge her batteries. The episode this morning still had her shaken, and she hadn?t eaten all day. Lunch was just what she needed. Jolie grabbed her purse and headed for the door. There was a nice restaurant only a couple of blocks away. The place would be crowded at this hour, but knowing Jolie?s discomfort with crowds, Lebron, the owner, would find her a quiet table in the back. She paused before taking the stairs down to the first floor, placing her hand on the ornate banister and surveying the crowded lobby. First International?s was the largest and most elegant gallery in Atlanta. Accustomed to seeing it every day, Jolie sometimes forgot just how lovely it really was, with its marble floors, intricately carved wood decor and leaded glass windows. She smiled. She loved this bank. Patrons lined up before the tellers? windows, others hovered around tables, filling out deposit and withdrawal slips. Atlanta?s financially elite trusted this bank. Trusted Jolie. She noticed Mr. Knox doing what he did best?mingling with the customers and promoting bank-client relations. He suddenly moved to one side, and the man with whom he was speaking came into full view. Jolie?s next breath caught in her throat. He was tall and breathtakingly handsome, with hair as dark as midnight worn in a short style that complimented his angular features. That bronzed complexion completed the heart-stopping picture. She couldn?t recall ever having seen a man quite so handsome. His black suit fitted so well it had to have been tailored just for him. She frowned. Why simply staring at a good-looking man should make her heart flutter like a hummingbird?s wings she couldn?t fathom. She gave her head a little shake and silently scolded herself for behaving so foolishly. At precisely that moment the man?s eyes met hers. Time suddenly stood still. The customers, the sounds around them faded into insignificance. There was only Jolie and this stranger looking at her so intently, as if he knew her and they shared some secret. As if?he wanted her. Jolie had the oddest feeling that they had met before. She tried to think of where or when, but couldn?t perform the necessary cognitive function. She could only stare into those dark eyes. A restless sensation started deep in her belly and spread outward, making her too warm beneath the silk of her two-piece suit. ?Jolie, there?s an urgent overseas call for you.? She whirled abruptly, almost relieved at the summons. Renae?s expression was as anxious as her own must certainly be flustered. Jolie?s cheeks burned with embarrassment when it dawned on her that she had blatantly stared at the man, would still be doing so if Renae hadn?t interrupted. She closed her eyes to banish the image that continued to linger there. She just couldn?t concentrate today. ?Hurry, Jolie, he says it?s imperative that he speak to you.? Renae thrust out a note. ?I?m coming,? she muttered, taking the piece of paper and starting toward her office. She had every intention of going straight there, but hesitated, glancing one last time at the place in the lobby where the stranger had stood. He was gone. She dismissed the peculiar feeling of connection and hurried back to her office. Taking a second to catch her breath, she inhaled deeply, then slowly exhaled. Once more and she was ready. Boy, she was a real mess this morning. ?Good afternoon, Mr.?? Jolie glanced at the note Renae had shoved into her hand ??Millard, this is Jolie Randolph. How may I help you?? She frowned at the words First Royal Cayman Bank scribbled beneath the caller?s name. ?Miss Randolph,? the man began in a thick, distinguished accent. ?I was most concerned when I received your latest deposit transfer without the usual instructions.? Deposit transfer? Jolie wrinkled her forehead in a frown. At a Cayman bank? That was impossible. ?I?m sorry, Mr. Millard, are you referring to an account belonging to a client of this bank?? She considered crossly that it might be something new Mark was involved in. It would be just like him to leave her in the dark. ?No, no, mademoiselle, I?m referring to your personal account.? Jolie almost laughed out loud. ?My personal account? I?m sorry, there must be some mistake.? ?Mistake? There is no mistake. You make a transfer twice per month, and always with precise instructions as to your wishes.? He cleared his throat impatiently. ?Now, may I have your instructions?? Ice formed in Jolie?s stomach. This was wrong. It had to be a mistake. She didn?t have a foreign account. She never made personal transfers of an international nature?with or without instructions. Her heart slammed mercilessly against her rib cage. ?Miss Randolph?? Jolie shook her head in denial of the question she was about to ask. But she had to know. ?Would you give me a balance on the account, please, Mr. Millard?? Jolie slumped back in her leather chair when he recited a number just shy of one and a half million dollars. The room shifted around her, and for one long moment Jolie thought she would faint. This was insane. It had to be some ridiculous mistake. ?You?ve made six deposit transfers since setting up the account in person just three months ago,? he added, obviously miffed that she had no recall of the transactions. She couldn?t deal with this now. It couldn?t be happening. She had never been to the Cayman Islands, much less set up an account at their most prestigious bank. She had to end this call. She had to think. Jolie drew in a harsh, steadying breath and interrupted the man?s continued protests that he had her signature on file, and other personal data. ?Mr. Millard,? she said stiffly, ?I apologize for the misunderstanding. Please handle my latest transfer as you did the previous one.? She had no idea what that meant, but it seemed to appease the man. ?Refresh my memory, if you would, regarding my other deposits.? Ten minutes later, Jolie dropped the receiver back into its cradle. She felt numb. This was crazy. She couldn?t have taken a trip, set up a foreign bank account and transferred more than a million dollars into it without remembering?. Could she? A memory surfaced with gut-wrenching swiftness. Of her mother swearing to her father that she hadn?t bought the clothes and jewelry he?d found hidden in her closet. She?d sworn she hadn?t made the unexplainable charges to credit cards amounting to thousands of dollars. Someone else had done it. Why wouldn?t anyone believe her? Jolie wet her lips and shook her head. No. That wasn?t happening to her. She wasn?t like her mother. She closed her eyes to hold back the tears. She had loved her mother so, but she wasn?t like her. Jolie wasn?t ill. She was fine. Just fine. She swiped the moisture from her eyes and took a deep, bolstering breath. She surveyed her office, taking solace in the numerous plaques and other accolades that adorned the two side walls. She was not her mother. This was some sort of mistake and Jolie would straighten it out. Then she would put this entire deplorable day behind her. Lunch would just have to wait. ONE POINT FOUR MILLION dollars. The amount deposited in the Cayman bank was exactly the amount missing from the client accounts Jolie personally maintained. Each discrepancy, date of withdrawal and amount matched a deposit transfer to the First Royal Cayman Bank. Long after the bank had closed Jolie sat staring at the figures. She pressed her fingertips to her throbbing temples and closed her eyes. There was no explanation for it. The money was simply gone. Oh God. Another wave of near hysteria washed over her. The audit. She had to undo this damage before anyone noticed. She winced. Renae had already found one discrepancy. What if she discovered the rest before Jolie could fix everything? She would never be able to smile at her assistant and assure her that it was a simple input error. Okay, she told herself, squashing the panic exploding inside her. She could take care of this. It was late now. She needed a clear head and a fresh start to undo this sort of damage. First thing tomorrow morning, Jolie would redeposit all the money back into her clients? accounts. She would close the Cayman account and pretend it had never happened. But it did happen, a little voice mocked. She pushed herself out of her chair and grabbed her purse. She had to get out of here. Maybe she could reach Erica at her hotel in St. Louis. Jolie needed a plan. Instead of feeling sorry for herself, she would work the problem out. This time next month, when the audit was over, this whole nightmare would be just a bad memory. She hesitated at the door as a vague image flashed in her mind?s eye?the fleeting impression of a man. She stood very still for a time and attempted to recapture the fragment of memory, but couldn?t. God, she was tired. She turned off her light and locked the door behind her. Everyone else had gone home already. A quiet dinner was just what she needed. But she didn?t really want to go home right now. Her place would be too empty, allowing too many questions to haunt her. The night watchman let Jolie out the side entrance, the one closest to her car. In her haste this morning, she hadn?t bothered parking it in the garage. She?d never been to Lebron?s for anything other than lunch, but it was handy and familiar, so she decided to head there now. She glanced up at the September night sky and its winking stars, and forced herself to relax. Tomorrow would be better. It couldn?t possibly get any worse. Chapter Two Jolie strolled the two blocks to Lebron?s Restaurant. Neon lights flickered and flashed, competing with the streetlamps and passing car lights. She felt better already just being away from her office. Later, when she got home, she would call her dad, just to hear his voice. Everything was going to be okay. She was okay. There had to be an explanation for all that had happened. Lebron?s night manager showed Jolie to a table in the back, where it was quiet. She thanked him and ordered a glass of white wine from the waiter standing by. In an effort to quell the compulsion to fidget, she folded her hands in her lap and waited patiently for her drink. She was fine, she assured that little voice that lingered in the back of her mind. The whole thing could be straightened out. Mistakes happened. This had to be a mistake. There simply was no other explanation. Jolie shifted to a more comfortable position, then stretched her neck from side to side. Despite her efforts to relax a prickly sensation rushed over her skin. She knew the signs. Panic was bearing down on her. She inhaled a long, deep breath and then exhaled slowly. She was okay, she told herself again. She?d had panic attacks before?occasionally. All she had to do was focus on relaxing and she could stop it before it went any further. In the beginning, her mother had taken medication for anxiety and panic attacks. Eventually even that hadn?t helped. Jolie shook her head. This wasn?t the same. She didn?t need medication. She wasn?t like her mother. The memory of waking up in a strange man?s bed broadsided her, and she jerked helplessly. The strange call at the office Renae had mentioned, the numerous accounts with discrepancies? The trip she didn?t remember taking?hadn?t taken! The personal account at a Cayman Bank she couldn?t possibly have opened?all of it whirled inside her head. Jolie closed her eyes and resisted the urge to scream or cry or both. How could this be happening? She had worked so hard. She was just beginning to see the fruits of her labor. The promotion, the professional recognition?she was on her way. She was the youngest VP ever. All of which she had accomplished on her own, after her father had retired. Why did this have to happen now? Tears stung behind her closed lids. The waiter arrived. Jolie snapped her eyes open and managed a strained thank-you as he set her wine before her. She reached for the delicate stemmed glass, but her hand shook so badly that she dropped it back onto her lap beneath the table. She blinked back the tears. She would not cry. She would not fall apart. She was stronger than that?stronger than her mother. She would fix this somehow. ?A beautiful lady should never dine alone.? Jolie?s head shot up. Her gaze connected instantly with the dark, mesmerizing eyes of the man she had seen in the bank?s lobby earlier that day. For one second she wondered if her mind had somehow conjured him up. No?he was real and somehow familiar. Heat flowed through her, vanquishing the ice-cold dread and panic threatening to choke her. ?May I join you?? he asked in a deep, velvety voice that touched some chord deep inside her. Who was this man? she wondered briefly, before she found her voice to answer. Why had he been in the bank today? What had he and Mr. Knox been discussing? And why was he here now? The other tangle of troubles flitted through her mind all over again, as well. Missing money?missing hours. Had last night?s disaster started with her talking to some stranger? Probably. Jolie firmed her resolve and stared defiantly at the sinfully handsome man. ?I hate to injure your pride, sir, but if we?ve met before it proved unmemorable.? Damn it, she fumed. Did she look that easy? She never had before. A slow smile slid across those firm, full lips, making the man even more handsome, if that was possible, but only adding to her growing frustration. If she had ever seen that smile before she would indeed remember it. ?I?m sorry,? he murmured. ?My name is Simon.? He held out his hand. ?And you are?? Jolie looked from those mesmerizing eyes to his hand and back. His charm proved far too potent to resist. She placed her hand, however hesitantly, in his. Long, tapered fingers closed around hers, and just like earlier today, something passed between them. Heat and something more. Something she couldn?t quite define. ?Jolie Randolph,? she heard herself say. ?It?s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Jolie Randolph.? Before she knew what he intended, he bent slightly and lifted her fingers to his lips. The kiss was nothing more than the faintest brush of his mouth, but the effect was devastating. He smiled again, this time at her startled expression. It was as if he fully realized the effect he had on her. ?As I said, you?re much too beautiful to be sitting here all alone.? Jolie tugged her fingers free of his. Her skin was on fire where his lips had touched her. This was ridiculous. He was a stranger. The image of the man in the shower this morning flitted through her mind?s eye. The last thing she needed was another stranger in her life! ?You should choose another pickup line, Mr?.? ?Ruhl,? he told her, his gaze never leaving hers. ?Simon Ruhl. And you haven?t answered my question, Miss Randolph.? Jolie sipped her wine, taking a much-needed break from his intense gaze and pretending to consider his offer. Why was she encouraging him? Flirting, that?s what she was doing. She should simply ignore him so he would leave. ?Actually, Mr. Ruhl, I only want a quiet dinner alone.? She allowed her gaze to meet his once more. Lord knew she already had enough trouble. And this man had trouble written all over his amazing face. His eyes were too knowing and offered a most tempting escape. ?You look like a lady who could use someone to talk to, Jolie.? The way he said her name, the way the French intended, made her tremble. What was it about this man? ?Mr. Ruhl?? ?Simon,? he insisted. She focused on the pale amber liquid in her glass for a time. ?I?m afraid I wouldn?t be very good company.? Simon sat down across from her. ?Why don?t you let me be the judge of that,? he said quietly, soothingly. She should have been incensed that he took such liberty, but instead she looked into those dark eyes and for one moment wanted to believe that this man, this stranger, cared. What the hell? she decided. She had nothing better to do. The thought of going to prison for embezzlement, or worse, skittered through her mind. But not tonight, she decided suddenly. Definitely not tonight. She?d had enough stress for one day. Time to relax and just be. She needed to forget for a little while. Just for tonight. Tonight she intended to put her troubles out of her head. She was going to chat with Simon. She had every intention of finding out who he was and what business he?d had in her bank today. She smiled at her companion. Why not? It certainly sounded better than sitting here beating herself up for what she couldn?t explain. His answering smile sent her heart into overdrive, immediately short-circuiting whatever her next thought should have been. Simon gestured to the waiter and ordered a glass of wine for himself, and another for her. ?So.? He turned that intense focus fully on her then. ?What would make such a pretty lady look so sad?? Boy, he didn?t beat around the bush. Sad, huh? Jolie supposed it would be impossible to conceal the life-altering events of her day. But she wasn?t about to tell him her personal business. Besides, she was supposed to be getting her mind off that subject. ?Bad day at the office,? she hedged as she fingered the stem of her glass. ?Speaking of which?? her gaze moved back to his ??do you come to my bank often?? ?I never mix business with pleasure,? he answered, doing a little hedging of his own. Then he closed his hand around hers, effectively stilling her restless fingers and completely derailing her thoughts. ?And I?m a good listener, Jolie.? The words startled her for a moment, but the desperation twisting inside her made her weak. She wanted to believe the sincerity in those beautiful brown eyes more than she had ever wanted to believe anything in her entire life. What did that make her? Reckless? Maybe. Definitely desperate. ?Tell me, Simon,? she said suddenly, not taking the time to analyze what she was going to say, ?Do you think we become our parents?? Regret and fear rocketed inside her. She had loved her mother; how could she want to banish her memory? But she did. Jolie wanted to pretend it all away. To act as if it had never happened. Something resembling concern flickered in his penetrating gaze. ?No,? he said emphatically. ?No?? Jolie studied his handsome face for some hint of what he might be thinking. It was as if he knew what she wanted to hear, but how could he? ?Absolutely not,? he said resolutely. ?We?re all unique. There?s no one else in the whole world like you, Jolie.? He tasted his wine. ?No one,? he added softly. His thumb caressed her hand in a most distracting manner. She stiffened her spine against the delightful shivers he inspired, and drew her hand away. ?You don?t believe in the sins of the father?or mother?and all that jazz?? He shook his head slowly. ?We choose our own path. Nothing is preordained.? Jolie lifted her glass to her lips, her hand feeling suddenly cold without his warm touch. She drank deeply, then smiled at the man watching her so very intently. ?I hope you?re right, Simon.? She licked her bottom lip, then chewed it thoughtfully for a second or two. ?I really hope you?re right.? ?Tell me about you,? he insisted, the words laced with silky charm. ?Why don?t you tell me everything about Jolie Randolph?? Now there was a lethal question. He couldn?t possibly know that he?d just tossed out the one query she felt suddenly unable to answer. Who was she? Had she really taken a trip she didn?t remember? Stolen money from her own bank? The panic reared its ugly head once more. She swallowed tightly, then forced down a gulp of wine. She prayed he didn?t notice the way her hand shook. ?I?m afraid you?d be rather bored with the subject,? she answered. She hated that her voice sounded so thin?so nervous. Where was the strength she knew herself capable of? Where was the real Jolie? Maybe she was losing more than merely her grip on reality. Maybe she was losing herself. LATER SIMON INSISTED on walking Jolie to her car. The stars twinkled even brighter now, and the crescent moon looked like a lopsided grin high in the dark Atlanta sky. She smiled, feeling much, much better. Maybe it was the company. She stole a glance at the man beside her. In profile, Simon Ruhl looked dark and mysterious and utterly gorgeous. Jolie felt giddy with excitement?something she hadn?t felt in a very long time. He was charming and intelligent. Every touch, every look made her feel warm and tingly inside. It was foolish, she knew. But she couldn?t help herself. She felt like a college coed again, out on a date with the most popular hunk on campus. ?This one?s mine,? she said as they neared her Lexus. She stopped when she reached her door, and turned to her dark savior. He really had saved her tonight. Just then his right hand came up to brush a tendril of hair from her cheek, and her breath stalled in her lungs. He was beautiful. Perfect, she amended, like an angel straight from heaven, except he was dark and alluring in a sinful kind of way. She shivered. The wine, she told herself. It had to be the wine making her so giddy, though she?d consumed scarcely more than a glass. She hadn?t reacted to a man like this since? Who was she kidding? To her knowledge, she had never behaved so irrationally. ?Thank you, Simon,? she said softly, ?for dinner and for taking my mind off?things.? She looked up into those dark, dark eyes and forgot anything else she would have said. ?Thank you, Jolie Randolph,? he said just as softly. ?For a truly memorable evening.? His smile turned teasing, his words reminding her of her earlier comment about any previous meeting between them having been unmemorable. Blushing at the faux pas, Jolie stared at her hands as she unconsciously wrung them. How could she have said something so totally lame to this charming and completely gorgeous guy? As she looked up again Simon moved closer, effectively trapping her between his body and the car. Instead of the warmth he had inspired all evening, unease stole over Jolie. The realization that it was dark and she was alone with a man she had met only hours ago hit her hard. This morning?s panic gripped her all over again. What was wrong with her? Why hadn?t she seen this moment coming? Fresh panic slid down her spine and she flattened herself against the cool metal surface of the car. She had behaved this irrationally before. Last night. Simon?s gaze latched on to hers, and she knew the instant he recognized her fear. He stepped back. ?I apologize,? he murmured. ?It wasn?t my intent to crowd you.? ?I?I should go.? Her heart racing, she reached into her purse for her keys. Her relief was almost palpable when she found them on the first try. She nearly dropped the jangling ring, and Simon took them before she did just that, unlocked and opened her car door. ?Good night, Simon,? she said, as politely as she could manage when he held the keys out for her. She turned away, hoping he wouldn?t notice her jerky movements. She wasn?t losing her mind; she had already lost it. Simon probably thought she was? She didn?t even want to think about that. This was why she?d never had a decent relationship. She couldn?t trust herself, so how could she trust anyone else? It seemed ludicrous that she?d only this moment realized that sad fact. ?Wait,? he murmured. Jolie froze. Slowly she faced him once more, the car door between them like a shield. ?Yes?? She tensed when he reached toward her, but something in his eyes kept her from drawing away. He touched her gently, protectively, his fingers tracing the curve of her cheek. She couldn?t move, couldn?t speak. She could only stare into those intense pools of darkest brown. His thumb slid over her lower lip, sending a rush of desire straight through her. She trembled. As she watched, he slowly, so very slowly, lowered his face to hers. Jolie?s heart thumped hard. She should run, she knew, but she simply could not. He bypassed her lips and kissed her cheek, lingered there a moment longer than necessary. ?Be safe, Jolie,? he whispered against her skin. Before she could respond, he turned and walked away. And she still knew nothing at all about Simon Ruhl. SIMON SAT IN THE concealing darkness of his SUV and watched as Jolie hurried up the walk leading to her apartment building. A few minutes later the lights came on in her living room, then the bedroom. The blinds closed and Simon shifted his gaze to the street in front of him. She was safe at home? This time. He closed his eyes, tightened his grip on the steering wheel and fought the urge to go up and stand guard at her door. Clenching his jaw, he tried without success to banish the images that haunted him. The way she smiled, so innocent and trusting. Her blond hair falling around her shoulders, feathery wisps caressing her face. And those eyes?wide, luminous green with tiny flecks of gold. She looked so fragile and sweetly feminine. He wanted to keep her safe. That wasn?t part of his job. He would not let anything get in his way this time. Brasco was going down one way or another. Simon opened his eyes and stared up at the now dark windows. He had to remember that Jolie Randolph was a suspect. No matter how he reacted to her physically, and despite his instincts to the contrary, he had to remember that Jolie was most likely up to her pretty neck in serious trouble. Laundering money for the mob was no petty crime. And if she was involved with Brasco, she deserved whatever she got. Simon shook his head at the degree of stupidity he had shown tonight. He had bent his own first rule by kissing the woman. Brief though it might have been, a kiss was a kiss. It wouldn?t have been a big deal if he hadn?t been affected, if he hadn?t wanted to pull her into his arms and make it real?but he had. Still wanted to. Simon swallowed back the need welling inside him. He swore hotly at his inability to maintain control. He could deal with the fact that Jolie Randolph was beautiful. He could even deal with the slender curves of her toned body. But what he couldn?t turn away from was the sweetness, the innocence she radiated. She needed protecting, and the damned woman didn?t even know it. Whether she was guilty or not, which she probably was, Jolie was on the edge of a deadly precipice. Men like Raymond Brasco played for keeps. Big Ray or any one of his men wouldn?t hesitate to kill someone like Jolie if she got in his way or failed to live up to his expectations. Simon knew that firsthand. The input he?d received from his old colleague at the local Bureau office backed up his every conclusion. Raymond Brasco hadn?t changed. Jolie Randolph was in over her head. And Simon wanted to protect her more than he wanted to take his next breath, and that didn?t sit well with him. He had a job to do. This time it was personal. He had been watching Jolie and another of the bank?s employees, Mark Boyer, for two weeks now. He likely knew more about them than they knew about themselves, particularly Jolie. Simon?s former life in the Federal Bureau of Investigation had taught him every trick in the book when it came to profiling a suspect. Unfortunately, the time he had spent watching Jolie had somehow evolved into something deeper for him. And that was dangerous, for her and for him. Not to mention it had never happened to him before. Not once. But her circumstances were different. There were things she apparently didn?t know. Things that could tear her whole world apart. Tomorrow his cover at the bank would be put in place, facilitating the investigation requested by the bank?s board of directors. By hiring the Colby Agency to look into the situation, they hoped to head off a full-fledged federal investigation and possible scandal in the media. With major corporations making the headlines every day, the board wanted action fast. Monitoring Jolie?s and Mark Boyer?s activities at work would be much easier from the inside. The contact he?d had with Jolie so far would keep her off balance. Simon needed her unsure of herself. Boyer was slick, and tripping him up wouldn?t be easy. But Jolie was vulnerable. Simon had no choice but to work this investigation from the most accessible angle. He had to turn up the heat and intensify the pressure until she snapped. Time was of the essence. The feds wouldn?t be put off much longer. They wanted answers. The memory of the way Jolie had looked at him in the bank today when she?d hesitated at the top of the stairs, as if she had remembered something or recognized him, seeped into his thoughts. Simon?s response was immediate and savage. That connection had been real, at least on some level. He had felt it too strongly to believe otherwise. And tonight, there had been something?some sort of mental as well as physical connection. If he couldn?t maintain his objectivity where Jolie was concerned, Simon would have to reconsider his strategy. Maybe even turn over her after-hours surveillance to another investigator at the Colby Agency. Simon had already taken a risk by not telling Victoria that this case hit far too close to home, was personal to him on more than one level. She wouldn?t like it if she discovered his omission. He would simply have to deal with her disappointment and irritation when the time came. All that mattered to him at the moment was bringing down Brasco. If Simon had to call in backup to prevent getting in too deep with Jolie, then he would. That would keep him on track and out of trouble. But he had a feeling that no force on earth could keep him from wanting Jolie. Chapter Three By early afternoon on Tuesday Jolie breathed her first real sigh of relief. She had corrected each account discrepancy, and then carefully covered the original erroneous transaction with a side note alluding to an investment maneuver. Though she hated the dirty way it made her feel, at least no one would ever have to know that the money had been missing. Jolie refused to consider that her actions were much like those of someone in denial. Just like her mother. Not today, she told herself firmly. Today she wasn?t going to think about that. Jolie shuffled through her messages, prioritizing them as she went. Most of her regular work had gone by the wayside this morning. Now she would spend the afternoon playing catch-up. Simon?s handsome face suddenly filled her mind?s eye. Heat flared inside her at the memory of his gentle touch. He had listened with such complete understanding as she?d rambled on and on about how screwed up life could get sometimes. Though she hadn?t actually told him anything that had happened, she?d talked all around it, and he?d listened. She had felt so much better by the end of the night that Jolie was certain Mr. Ruhl must be a psychologist or counselor of some sort. She?d completely forgotten to pursue the issue of why he?d been at her bank talking to the president. She supposed he was just another customer. She smiled. A very nice customer. And definitely the best looking man she had ever seen. Remembering the sweet way he had kissed her cheek sent a shimmer of desire through her. Now that kiss was one for the record books. He had given of himself and his time all evening, and expected nothing in return. Just a simple peck on the cheek. Heat swirled beneath Jolie?s belly button. Well, perhaps that wasn?t quite an accurate description of Simon?s brief kiss. There had been a definite fire kindling between them, but he had held back because she was uncertain, and she felt truly grateful. If Simon had taken advantage of her, she would have fallen apart. Vulnerable was apparently her new watchword. She still hadn?t been able to reach Erica to ask about the missing hours Sunday night. Jolie forced away the knot of emotions that accompanied the memory of waking up in a strange bed. She would not think about that until she could question Erica and more accurately analyze what had taken place that evening. Besides, she rationalized, she?d had her hands full this morning with straightening out her accounts. There was nothing she could do about her strange behavior Sunday night. It was done. She just had to make sure it never happened again. The fact that she had dined with another stranger last night, had even allowed him to walk her to her car, disturbed her, but not nearly as much as it should. Why did her life feel suddenly so out of control? ?Knock, knock, madam vice president.? Jolie looked up to find Mark Boyer loitering in her doorway. She could have done without a visit from him today. But he was here, and to tell him to jump out the nearest window, as she would have liked to do, would be rude and unprofessional. ?Good afternoon, Mark,? Jolie said in her most chipper tone. ?What can I do for you today?? Mark plopped into a chair facing Jolie?s desk. ?Actually, I wanted to do something for you,? he suggested in that patronizing voice that made her want to cringe. Jolie folded her arms over her chest and leaned back in her chair. This should be interesting, she decided. ?And what would that be?? Mark Boyer never did anything unless it would somehow prove to be to his own personal benefit. He pulled a concerned face. ?I?m worried about you, Jolie,? he said with what appeared to be complete sincerity. She knew better. ?You don?t look well. I think you need a break. Take a few days off. I?ll cover for you.? Anger flared so fast that she barely kept herself from lashing out at him. Calm, Jolie, she chastised herself. This is business. You can?t go biting off the heads of co-workers. Mr. Knox wouldn?t like it. ?Thank you for your concern, Mark,? she said evenly, then smiled weakly. ?But I?m fine.? He splayed his hands. ?Don?t try to fool me, Jolie. I?ve known you too long. You?re not fine.? He shook his head and made a negative sound in the back of his throat. ?Not by a long shot.? He smiled suddenly, as if some realization had dawned. ?Why don?t you take a little vacation?? His tawny brows formed a perfect V above his calculating eyes. ?Didn?t you spend a couple of days in the Caymans two or three months ago?? Jolie?s heart almost stopped. A chill sank clear through to her bones. She blinked rapidly to mask the fear in her eyes. ?I said I?m fine, Mark,? she repeated firmly. ?I don?t need a vacation.? He looked taken aback. ?Well, you don?t have to get testy about it, Jolie. It was merely a suggestion.? She stared at him coolly. ?I?ll take your suggestion under advisement. Now?? she turned to the reports scattered on her desk ??if you don?t mind, I have work to do.? She glanced up once more. ?And I?m expecting a client,? she added by way of dismissal. He stood, then shrugged. ?Don?t say I didn?t warn you,? he remarked casually. ?Burnout happens all the time in high-pressure positions. Just ask your father.? Seething at his comment, Jolie didn?t bother to respond, but shot a cross look in his direction. Her father hadn?t burned out, he?d simply chosen to retire early. Even a decade after her mother?s death they had both struggled with the memory and heartache. How could Mark throw that painful past in her face? It was hard to believe that she had once considered him a nice guy. They had worked together for two years. Together they had made quite a name for themselves in the investment department. The ?golden ones,? that?s what they had been called. She and Mark had made a great team. Both were young, with him only a couple of years older than herself, and equally ambitious. Both had blond hair; she supposed that was where the golden part came in. And though she and Mark had never been friends in the true sense of the word, they had maintained a good working relationship. But Jolie?s promotion had changed all that. Everyone had expected him to get it instead. He was a man, after all, and he did have a few months seniority on her. But she had gotten the promotion. And he hadn?t forgiven her yet. Had even made remarks behind her back that it was only because her father had once been president and the board had respected his reputation. When Jolie?s anger receded all that was left was panic. He had said she?d taken a trip to the Caymans. That couldn?t be. She hadn?t gone anywhere this year. Fear crept into her racing heart. But why would he say it if it weren?t true? What did he have to gain by lying? It wasn?t as if she couldn?t verify whether she had taken a trip or not. She just didn?t remember taking one. Her mother had disappeared for days at a time that last year of her life. She would return with no memory of where she had been or what she had done. Jolie?s lower lip trembled with the emotion swelling inside her. And then, finally, when her mother could bear it no longer, she had ended her misery. That wouldn?t happen to Jolie. There had to be another explanation. ?Jolie, I?m glad you?re in,? Mr. Knox announced from her door. Jolie snapped to attention, automatically standing to greet the bank?s president. She manufactured a smile. ?Good afternoon, sir.? She racked her brain to recall if they had an appointment. Surely Renae would have reminded her. Jolie felt weak with worry. Maybe Renae had reminded her and she had forgotten the meeting, anyway. ?I hope we?re not interrupting anything that can?t wait,? Mr. Knox said as he gestured for someone to enter ahead of him. Jolie waited expectantly for the mystery guest to step around Mr. Knox and into her office, but when he did she wasn?t prepared. Simon Ruhl. ?Hello, Miss Randolph,? he said in that low, velvety voice as he approached her desk and thrust one square hand in her direction. Confusion reigned supreme. Jolie stood there, stunned, for one long, awkward moment. ?Miss Randolph, this is Simon Ruhl,? Mr. Knox explained. ?The bank has contracted his firm to conduct an informal audit just to make sure we?re ready for the real thing next month.? ?Hello,? she managed to murmur. She placed her hand in his, and those long fingers curled around hers, sending heat straight to her center. He held on a beat longer than was proper. Jolie could feel the strength radiating from him, a strength obviously tempered in his gentle touch. Those dark eyes held her in a sort of sensual trance. She shoved the foolish reaction aside. ?Simon has assured me that we won?t even know he?s here.? Mr. Knox chuckled. ?That may be a bit optimistic, but I?m sure he?ll manage without getting in anyone?s way.? Simon?s reassuring smile was pure charm. ?Trust me, Mr. Knox, First International?s board of directors would never have hired me had they not had complete faith in my ability to conduct this audit with little or no disruption in the bank?s status quo.? Mr. Knox crossed his arms over his chest and rocked back on his heels. ?Of course,? he agreed. ?I certainly want to facilitate your effort to that end, so I?ve decided to have Miss Randolph be the liaison between you and the bank?s staff.? Jolie felt the color drain from her face. She couldn?t do this. This man knew too much about her already. Though she had revealed nothing earth-shattering, she had allowed herself to be far too open with him. He read her too easily. He made her feel things she shouldn?t feel. How could they start over with that kiss between them? Jolie turned to Mr. Knox, praying that she could change his mind. ?To be honest, Mr. Knox, I believe Mark would be a much better liaison,? she said, as calmly as possible with her heart racing for some unseen finish line. Mr. Knox seemed to consider her suggestion for a moment. Jolie didn?t dare look at Simon. If she looked, she would only get trapped in that rich coffee-colored gaze again. The bank president tapped his cheek thoughtfully. ?Mark would be a wise choice, as well,? he said noncommittally. He looked from Jolie to Simon. ?Actually,? Simon said, drawing Jolie?s reluctant attention back to him, ?I?ve heard so much about Miss Randolph?s stellar reputation, I was really hoping to have a chance to work with her.? Something remotely akin to amusement flickered in his challenging gaze. ?The board is very proud of Miss Randolph,? Mr. Knox interjected quickly. ?But you?ll find her a tad shy of the limelight.? Simon?s smile was triumphant. ?I?m sure we?ll work quite well together.? Mr. Knox clapped him on the back. ?Excellent. Well?? he turned to Jolie ??I?ll leave Simon in your capable hands, Miss Randolph.? Jolie nodded, unable to marshal a verbal response. She waited until Mr. Knox had closed her door behind him before she turned back to Simon. ?Why didn?t you tell me?? she demanded, irritation overriding all else at the moment. In a blatant act of intimidation, Simon allowed his gaze to roam down her body, then slowly back up to her face. Her fists clenched at her sides. Every nerve ending stood at attention?whether from anger or awareness, Jolie couldn?t quite determine. Simon slid his hands into the pockets of his trousers and studied her until he had satisfied whatever motivated his arrogant behavior. This was a side she hadn?t seen last night. Maybe this man wasn?t all she?d thought he was. ?The decision wasn?t made until this morning,? he said quietly. ?There was no reason to tell you last night. Last night,? he added, ?was pleasure. This is business.? ?You should have told me anyway,? she said in a scathing tone, as upset with herself as she was with him. ?You knew who I was. You took advantage of the situation.? With slow, deliberate steps, Simon walked around her desk to stand directly in front of her. Too close. Her breath caught when he leaned even closer, but for the life of her she couldn?t move away. ?No,? he murmured, so near to her that she felt his warm breath on her lips. ?I didn?t take advantage of the situation.? He looked at her lips as if he might just kiss her right then, right there. ?I could have.? His gaze connected with hers once more, heat and challenge smoldering there. And something else?a knowing that made her nervous?restless. ?But I didn?t.? Jolie stumbled back, stopped by her desk. ?My assistant will?will show you around,? she stammered. Unable, or maybe unwilling, to take her eyes off him, she fumbled across her desk until she found the right button and pressed it. ?She?ll introduce you to the rest of the staff.? ?Yes, ma?am.? Renae?s voice resonated from the intercom. If her life had depended upon it, Jolie couldn?t have said what exactly it was at that moment that held her speechless. Something about the way Simon looked at her made her want to eagerly submit to his wishes. But she couldn?t?wouldn?t. Her survival, personal as well as professional, depended on it. The silence stretched on, screaming between them for endless seconds. ?All right,? he finally said, the words somehow releasing her from that surreal hold. ?Renae, would you step down to my office, please,? Jolie instructed in a breathless tone that made her want to kick something. Simon?s gaze held hers captive a moment longer before he turned and walked back around to the front of her desk to wait for her assistant. Relieved to have some space between them, Jolie attempted to focus on the matter at hand. ?How long will you be with us, Mr. Ruhl?? she asked with as much authority as she could dredge up. He shrugged one broad shoulder. ?That depends on you, Jolie.? She shivered. He did that on purpose?said her name that way. ?Mr. Ruhl?? ?Simon,? he insisted. ?I don?t think?? ?I do,? he challenged. Where had that obstinate attitude been last night? Better yet, where was the charming, soft-spoken gentleman she?d met? She resisted the urge to squirm beneath the intensity of his continued gaze, and, to her credit, managed not to look away. Fortunately, Renae walked in just then and shattered the building tension. ?Renae?? Jolie cleared her throat ??this is Simon Ruhl.? ?Renae Martin.? She offered her hand. ?It?s a pleasure to meet you, Simon.? Jolie frowned. Renae had never once called her by her first name. When Simon took Renae?s hand, the woman all but melted into a puddle. Jolie rolled her eyes. Was no one immune to the man?s charm when he chose to turn it on? ?Renae,? Jolie said, drawing her assistant?s reluctant attention. ?Mr. Ruhl is conducting a preliminary review in preparation for next month?s audit. I?d like you to introduce him to the department heads and see that he has whatever he needs to complete his work.? Renae?s smile was wide and appreciative. ?I?ll be happy to.? She turned to Simon. ?Follow me, sir.? Simon took one last, lingering look at Jolie, and this time she did squirm. He gave her a final curt nod, then walked out the door. Jolie had the distinct impression that she had just been warned. SIMON RECEIVED THE GRAND tour of Atlanta?s First International Bank, not that he needed it. He had studied the blueprints already. He knew the place as well as the engineers who had designed and built it. The introductions hadn?t been necessary, either, but he had gone through the motions. He had conducted a thorough background investigation on every employee at the bank. Though Jolie and Boyer were his prime suspects, Simon left nothing to chance. The Bureau had trained him well in that regard. The Colby Agency expected nothing less. He glanced at his watch. Two o?clock. Boyer was in a meeting with clients. Jolie had seemed pretty nervous an hour ago. Time to rattle her cage again, he decided. Simon strode down the long, carpeted corridor. All the offices, with the exception of the bank president?s, had glass walls facing the hall. He supposed that architectural design fostered an air of trust. Everything was out in the open. Even the conference room provided a full view from the hall as well as the lobby. The rear wall in each vice president?s office was solid glass as well, providing a noteworthy panorama of the Atlanta skyline, but leaving only the partitions between each office to provide any privacy. Simon paused at Jolie?s open door. He thought about knocking, but decided against it. With her back to him, the telephone tucked between her ear and shoulder, she appeared deeply engrossed in her conversation. Simon walked slowly, soundlessly to her desk. ?No, no, that can?t be right,? she argued with the person on the other end of the line. Jolie sighed in obvious frustration. ?Yes, I know that?s what it says. Okay, do you have the hard copy of the receipt?? There was a pause. ?I?d like to see it. No, I?m not disputing the payment. I?I was considering going back and couldn?t remember the hotel I stayed in before.? She was lying. He didn?t have to see her face; he could hear it in her voice. Subtle inflections that the average person wouldn?t notice gave her away. ?No, not for bank business?no.? Another long pause. ?A copy will be fine,? she said with clear relief. ?Yes, thank you.? Jolie turned around and hung up the phone. Worry was etched across the delicate features of her face. Simon?s gut clenched automatically at the pain he saw there. If he could only get her to come clean with him. It would save him a lot of trouble and quite possibly save her life. His presence finally penetrated her preoccupied state. Her head came up, surprise, then fear registering. ?Planning on taking a trip?? he asked pointedly, pressing her with the precise look he knew undid her composure. Her discomfort was immediate. The satisfaction Simon usually garnered when he knew he had hit his mark was not forthcoming. Yet he remained standing, adding to her mounting distress. He needed her off balance. He told himself repeatedly that last night?s performance had been necessary?but a part of him knew that it had been all too real. It wouldn?t happen again. Maintaining his perspective was far too important to risk any sort of slip. She licked those full, pouty lips. ?I?? She shook her head as if to clear it. ?I was checking on a hotel for a friend.? She glanced at her desk, then back up at him. ?Was there something you needed?? She frowned. ?Renae will?? ?You,? he interrupted smoothly. ?I would like to review your computer files now.? Jolie shot to her feet so fast her chair banged against her credenza. ?I haven?t had lunch yet. Could we do that around three?? She was gathering her purse before Simon had a chance to answer. She was putting him off. He inventoried her posture once more. Putting him off, hell, she was ready to run. Time to move in for the kill, so to speak. Simon shoved his hands into his pockets and shrugged. ?Sure. I missed lunch, too. We can discuss your work history over lunch.? Her hopes of ditching him dissolved like a sand castle in the evening tide. ?We can do that,? she offered hesitantly. ?As long as you don?t mind stopping by my place,? she added quickly, her eyes brightening with renewed inspiration. ?I have to pick up a quarterly report I left at home.? Simon smiled. She hoped?no, she prayed, he would bet?that her ruse would deter him. Jolie Randolph was not nearly good enough at playing this game. The stakes were far too high for him to give even one inch. ?I?ll drive,? Simon offered, to her utter dismay. A THOUSAND QUESTIONS flitted through Jolie?s dazed mind on the ride from the bank to her apartment. She had taken a trip to the Caymans. She closed her eyes and drew in a shaky breath. The proof was in her travel folder. She blinked furiously to stem the tears brimming. Oh, God, how was this possible? She had left on Friday morning and returned Monday afternoon. Her own files showed the time away from the office, and the signature on the travel voucher was hers. At least it looked like hers. Oh God! Nausea rose in Jolie?s throat. She fought to contain the emotions churning inside her. She felt more than certain that Simon would not appreciate her soiling the interior of his fancy sport utility vehicle. She swallowed, then breathed deeply and slowly. Calm, she had to stay calm. The travel clerk had acted as if it took an Act of Congress to pull Jolie?s three-month-old travel record. She needed to see the actual hotel receipt with her signature. She had apparently failed to keep a copy for the file in her office. The travel office wouldn?t provide her with a copy of the receipt until tomorrow. And she had to know today. Jolie had also spent twenty minutes on the telephone getting the details on the one purchase that appeared on her personal credit card during that lost weekend. According to their records, she had evidently purchased a T-shirt in a George Town tourist shop. If that were true, the garment had to be in her apartment somewhere. Jolie stole a glance at Simon. How could she do that with him dogging her every step? She plowed the fingers of one hand through her hair and tried to hang on to her vanishing composure. It wouldn?t do for her to come unglued in Simon?s presence. He knew too much already. And Jolie had the feeling that he suspected her of some wrongdoing, as well. Why else would he be watching her so closely? Trying to shake her up? She closed her eyes. God, what had she done? ?Here we are,? he announced as he parked the car. Jolie looked from Simon to her building and back. It wasn?t until that moment that she realized she hadn?t given him directions or her address. ?How did you know where I live?? she demanded, trepidation taking all the sternness from her tone. He gifted her with a little smile that altered only one side of his mouth, yet affected her entire being. ?I know where everyone who works at the bank lives.? ?Why?? Her voice sounded strained. ?Because it?s my job,? he told her bluntly, as if that answer should not only be clear to her, but reasonable as well. Stunned, she watched him get out of the car, walk around the hood and open her door. Who was this man? A suffocating panic tightened her chest. Did she really want to know? Maybe she should just go back to the office and do this later. No. She had to know now. She couldn?t live a minute longer than necessary with the uncertainty. The trip to the fourth floor was made without a word spoken and with only the echo of their footfalls in the building?s blandly painted stairwell to break the deafening silence. Forcing a calm she didn?t feel, Jolie unlocked the door to her apartment and pushed it open wide as she hurried inside. ?Make yourself at home, Mr. Ruhl, I?ll only be a minute.? ?Nice place,? he remarked nonchalantly. Jolie didn?t look back. She didn?t have to. Simon Ruhl?s tone might sound casual, but there was absolutely nothing casual about him. She knew that now. He was no doubt already thoroughly appraising the way she lived for inclusion in his report to the board of directors. Her decorating was very contemporary and Spartan, but her purchases were fine quality. Would he take one look at her choice in furnishings and decide she lived above her means? Did they suspect her already? Did they know about the money? By the time Jolie reached her bedroom, she was practically running. Drawing a deep breath, she took a moment to collect herself. Five minutes. That?s all it would take for her to check the closet and the drawers. Simon wouldn?t know what she was up to. He would be too busy analyzing her lifestyle, weighing it against her annual salary. She rushed to the walk-in closet and riffled through the contents. She checked her entire hanging wardrobe twice. Nothing. She moved back to the center of the room and took stock. It had to be here somewhere. If she had given it to Erica, her friend would have worn it at least once. Her father would certainly have done the same. Jolie had never seen any such shirt. That meant it had to be hidden somewhere. She checked her watch and swore. Six minutes had passed. She had to hurry. Her hysteria rising with each passing second, she jerked first one, then another drawer open. She inspected the contents as quickly as possible, tossing to the floor whatever got in her way. Lingerie, hose, sweaters, socks. No T-shirt sporting a Cayman Islands logo. Damn it, she had to find it. Jolie tunneled her fingers through her hair and surveyed the mess she had made. Her eyes latched on to the night table near the bed and its two unopened drawers. She rushed to the bed and dropped to her knees. The top drawer held magazines, tissues and aspirin. Frustrated now, she jerked the bottom drawer a bit harder than necessary. It pulled all the way out and overturned, its contents spilling across the beige carpet. This was useless, she ruminated as she stuffed two scarves and a Georgia Bulldogs cap back into the drawer. She paused when she reached for the last item on the floor?a neatly folded white T-shirt. Everything inside her stilled, and she didn?t even breathe. Almost in slow motion she reached out and picked up the cotton garment. She shook out the folds, and something fluttered to the floor, but Jolie couldn?t take her eyes off the screen-printed blue sky and matching blue waters, the sandy beach and brilliant disc of golden sun. She shook her head in defeat. This couldn?t be. There had to be some mistake. The T-shirt fell to the floor as her now limp hands dropped into her lap. What was she going to do? Something white on the carpet drew her splintered attention. It was an elegantly embossed business card. Frowning, she picked it up and read the printed words. ?J. L. Millard, First Royal Cayman Bank.? A telephone number was listed beneath the name. Panic snaked around Jolie?s neck and tightened. She had stolen her clients? money. She had taken a trip, purchased touristy stuff?spent the night with a stranger. And she had no memory of any of it. ?There?s a call for you from the bank.? Jolie jerked around. Simon loomed in her bedroom doorway. There was no way he could miss the fact that she had trashed the room in an obvious search for something. She placed the business card on her night table and scrambled to her feet. ?A call?? she echoed with rising hysteria. ?I didn?t hear the phone.? Jolie ran her damp palms over her jacket, pretending to straighten it, then glanced at the cordless extension on the table by the bed. Had she turned off the ringer and forgotten? Simon simply stared at her in that intent, unnerving way of his. ?It?s Renae,? he said carefully. ?I?ll get it in the living room,? she suggested as calmly as her churning emotions would allow. Summoning her courage, Jolie took a step in his direction. She had to get out of here, away from him. ?Did you find your report?? Jolie clenched and unclenched her fists. Her fingers were numb. She felt lightheaded. ?No,? she said tightly as she forced one foot in front of the other until she had crossed the room. She paused at the door, waiting for him to step aside. One second turned to five before he moved, and her heart pounded at least three times for each one. She started forward again, but his arm went up across the doorway, blocking her path once more. Jolie fought the fear that was building steadily inside her, tugging at her flimsy controls. ?Jolie, if there?s something wrong, you can tell me,? he said softly. ?I need to get that call,? she announced, as if he hadn?t spoken at all. She trembled in spite of herself. ?They probably need me back at the bank.? He was closer now, leaning into her. She felt his warm breath on her hair. ?I?m very good at solving problems, Jolie.? She closed her eyes and sucked in a sharp breath as the remaining threads holding her together stretched even thinner. Images, voices, emotions all ran together inside her head. Her legs felt too weak to hold her up. She wanted to run, to hide, but didn?t have the strength. Jolie could only stand there and pray she would wake up from this nightmare soon. Then, summoning every ounce of resolve she could, she forced her eyes open and manufactured the firmest glare she could aim in his direction. ?Would you just let me through, please?? ?All right.? He relented what seemed a lifetime later. ?If you?re certain there?s nothing you want to talk about.? ??? ???????? ?????. ??? ?????? ?? ?????. ????? ?? ??? ????, ??? ??? ????? ??? (https://www.litres.ru/pages/biblio_book/?art=39925834&lfrom=390579938) ? ???. ????? ???? ??? ??? ????? ??? Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, ? ??? ????? ????, ? ????? ?????, ? ??? ?? ?? ????, ??? PayPal, WebMoney, ???.???, QIWI ????, ????? ???? ?? ??? ???? ?? ????.