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Chapter One

Today she might kill someone. Or two someones. Possibly more.

She shouldn’t even be in this city. She shouldn’t have allowed her partners to convince her to open an office in Dallas, especially not to make it their new main office. They’d caught her at a weak moment, that’s all it could have been. But then she’d never for an instant thought that in a city of over one and a quarter million people she’d ever have this problem. Another error in judgment.

Fueled by an adrenaline high, Sydnee Prescott snatched up the interoffice memo she’d found on the corner of her desk and hurriedly read. She shot out of her chair and stormed down the hall to Ryker’s office. As much as she loved him as a friend and admired him as one of her partners, he would be the first to go to the investigator’s heaven in the sky. She’d miss him. Well, she’d miss both of her partners, but they’d brought on their demises at her hands themselves. Such a shame. They were handsome, intelligent men with strong futures ahead of them. Until now.

When had the hallway become so darn long? Why had she put on killer stilettos not meant for near-sprinting this morning? She crumpled the memo in her hand, surprised that it didn’t burst into spontaneous flames from the heat of fury tearing through her at the moment.

She barreled along with a full head of steam, stumbled on the torturous heels, righted herself, and ran smack dab into a wall of muscle.

“Whoa,” victim-to-be number two, Kodie, said as he steadied her. “What’s got you so fired up?”

Sydnee shoved away and then made sure she narrowed her eyes so he could see how upset she was with him. Deciding to make only one crime scene in their expensive office suite, she grabbed the front of his Polo shirt and dragged him with her toward Ryker’s corner office.

He winced and followed along. “I take it you’re upset with both of us.”

She didn’t bother with a response. A second later they entered Ryker’s plush office all decorated in ebony black wood, sparkling chrome and lots of glass. He glanced up, raised a curious eyebrow, and continued listening to someone on the phone. She drug Kodie over and shoved him down into one of the ultra-modern black leather chairs in front of the enormous black desk. Then she calmly disconnected her partner’s call.

“Hey!” Ryker barked. “That was a client.”

“I’d say you could call him back later,” she said and shifted her gaze from Ryker to Kodie and back to Ryker, “but you’ll be dead. I’m planning on killing you both. I just haven’t pinned the method down yet. It’ll be horrible, though, count on that.”

Ryker looked at Kodie, who was quietly rubbing at his chest where she must have pulled some chest hairs. She rolled her eyes. “Oh, tough it up. You were Special Ops. You’ve been hurt far worse than that.”

He continued rubbing just to annoy her, she was sure, but he remained silent, waiting.

“PMSing, are you?” Ryker challenged, sitting back in his chair with a hint of a smile.
“You wish!” she snapped, and then raised her hand with the crumpled memo. “Care to explain this?”

“Generally I’m good at unraveling mysteries,” Ryker stated, his forehead furrowing as he looked at the paper. “But without x-ray vision even I can’t read a wadded up piece of paper. Especially clasped in a closed hand.”

With a huff of annoyance, she tossed the wad at him. He easily caught it and attempted to straighten the paper out. She stood tapping the toe of one of her most recent beloved purchases of Christian Lacroix heels.

After a second he asked, “What’s the big deal? It’s just a note letting you know about a new client. A big one. Mucho dinero for a job they need done ASAP.” He glanced at Kodie and winked. “We were thinking of taking a month or so off…going scuba diving, sailing—“

Sydnee blew out a breath and cut him off. “Bikini watching and Margarita tipping you mean.”

Both men shrugged and grinned shamelessly.

Again she rolled her eyes. “Geez, why do I put up with you two?” She plopped down in the chair next to Kodie.

“I thought you weren’t going to anymore. Something about meeting our maker, something about a horrible death rendered by your pretty little hands,” Kodie commented with an even bigger grin.

She lunged out of the chair and grabbed the wrinkled piece of paper from Ryker’s hand. She waved it madly at them. “I got sidetracked. Exhaustion is my only excuse.” She waved the paper again. “Let me put it in words you simpletons will understand. No. Way. In. Hell!”

Ryker leaned forward, serious now. “Tanner-Harbiger International. The name alone should say it all.”

Men were so slow at times. She planted her hands on his desk, leaned toward him and made him sit back. Then she snarled, “Tanner mean anything to you? T-a-n-n-e-r?” When he merely looked stumped, she added, “As in Brandt Tanner.”

“Oh, shit,” Kodie muttered behind her, clearly the more intelligent of her two partners.

Ryker looked shell-shocked. “You haven’t mentioned that name in so long that I, truthfully, didn’t even think about connecting the two names.” He shoved a hand through his thick, wavy blond hair. “Babe, I’m sorry.”

“Of course we won’t take the job.” Kodie stood and moved beside her to wrap a muscled arm around her trembling shoulders.

She sucked in a steadying breath, savored the comfort offered by his embrace, and looked beyond Ryker out the wall of glass behind him. They had moved their office into Fountain Place, one of the most expensive office buildings in downtown Dallas. They could easily afford it, just as each of them easily afforded the luxury homes they owned. Triple D Investigators had made it to the big time. Their reputation was impressive and gave them the ability to turn down any clients they chose to.

Revenge—even if this wouldn’t really be “revenge”—softened her attitude. She’d let her partners live after all.

She moved out of Kodie’s embrace and glanced from one wary face to another. “We might take this job. But you both need to understand that I will be the one making the final decision.” Her stomach churned just at the idea of running into her ex-husband after seven long years.

“I don’t think—“ Ryker began at the same time Kodie said, “Why would you—“

Sydnee leaned a hip against the desk and studied her shoes for a second, and then wiggled one foot. “Aren’t these the greatest heels you’ve ever seen?”

“Syd,” Kodie said gently, clearly wondering if she’d gone over the deep end or something.

She lifted her head and said, “I’m thinking that should I choose to take on this assignment, I might buy a whole store full of these sweet things. Maybe add a pool to my home in Scottsdale. Buy that ridiculously overpriced condo here in Dallas I’m now renting.” She grinned slyly. “Then there’s that island thing with the bikini bimbos you boys were dreaming about.”

Ryker’s expression made it clear he’d shifted into a protective mode. “Honey, we shouldn’t even be considering this job.”

“I agree.” This from her equally protective other partner Kodie.

Warmth and appreciation swirled through her, replacing the cold horror she’d felt upon first reading the memo. The three of them had a unique relationship, tighter than most people who merely worked together. They had history. Each had painful histories behind them and somehow they’d all been in the right place at the right time six years ago and found one another. They cared about each other, watched each other’s backs. But suddenly she knew she’d been coddled by them long enough. Her wounds of the past were scarred over and it was time to move beyond the fact that her marriage had failed.

“Set up a meeting for me. This afternoon.” She ignored that tiny tremble of nerves her declaration had caused and headed for the door.

“That’s pretty short notice,” Ryker said, still sounding against the idea.

“If they want our help, they meet with me at my convenience.” She hesitated in the doorway to look back at her two worried partners. “I’m never bending over backwards for any of the Tanners again.”

As she started down the hallway toward her office, a very unwanted vision popped into her head. A memory of how she’d bent over Brandt’s desk at home and how he’d firmly whaled her bare bottom with a paddle. Oh how painful that had been! He’d spanked her many times during their short, less than two-year marriage. Paddled her, too. But that instance had been particularly painful, because he’d been so certain she’d lied to him. No amount of protesting had swayed him. He’d believed his father instead of her. That had been her last punishment from him…if she didn’t count the agony of moving out the next day and filing for divorce. If she didn’t count the years of trying to bear the pain of leaving the only man she’d ever love.

* * *

“Sonofabitch!” Brandt Tanner glared at the calendar on the monitor across from him. “Who set this appointment up?” he demanded, and then realized he hadn’t punched the phone for the receptionist.

He jammed the button so hard it was a wonder he didn’t break his finger. “Who set up this appointment?”
“What appointment, sir?” came a nervous reply.

Fire rolled through his abdomen and he rubbed at it. He drew a calming breath that failed to soothe him. “The appointment with S. Prescott from Tripe D at 2 this afternoon.”

“Someone from that firm called a few minutes ago to make the appointment.”

His blood pressure, already running high, shot up. And his damn stomach burned; probably the ulcer had flared back up just from the sight of the names involved. “I don’t want to meet with anyone from that firm. Ever. Cancel the appointment.”

Abigail, the poor sixty-something receptionist who had been with the company for almost two dozen years remained silent. Finally, in a wary tone, she said, “I’m afraid your father called yesterday and insisted I call that firm. He said the board of directors formally requested an attempt to hire Triple D Investigators.”

Brandt curled his hands into fists and cursed.

“Perhaps…perhaps, sir, you should call your father.”

Brandt closed his eyes and drew in deep breaths in futile attempts to fight back the headache now pounding in his skull and to ease his rapid breathing. It just didn’t make sense to him. His father had basically hated Sydnee Prescott from the first time he’d even heard her name, something which to this day Brandt didn’t understand. He’d certainly gone out of his way to do everything within his power to get her out of Brandt’s life. Ironically, Brandt had done it. She’d been out of his life but not completely out of his thoughts for seven years.

He rubbed at the ulcer that had started during their final days of a marriage that had been doomed from the start. “Get him on the phone.” It had been weeks since he’d talked with his father. Not long enough. He did not look forward to this conversation.

He was searching his bottom desk drawer for something to ease the headache when Abigail anxiously announced, “Sean Tanner is on the line, sir.”

The instant he picked up the phone, his father bellowed in the British accent he’d been adopting since his move to London, “Make it quick! I’ve got a dinner meeting to attend.”

“Triple D Investigators.” Brandt figured that alone would get the discussion rolling.

His father blew out a deep breath and bit out, “The IRS notified the board that there is something seriously wrong with last year’s taxes. They mentioned possible fraud and financial misconduct in the Dallas office.” He bristled with accusation, like it was all Brandt’s fault. “There will be a formal audit.”

Brandt’s head pounded even more. “This is the first I’ve heard about the subject. I’ll handle it.” He hated being the last to know about matters involving the branch of the corporation of which he was supposed to be in charge. Yet, somehow, on important issues, his father always seemed to be one step ahead of him. Like he had a spy reporting to him. It seriously rankled.

“Can’t you stay on top of matters? Do I have to move back there and take charge again?” Sean questioned and sounded both angry and put upon.

The internal spy thing rolled through Brandt’s thoughts again. His father didn’t need to move back here, he was already more in charge than the appointed CEO, him. He reached up to thread his fingers through his thinning hair, wondering how he managed to keep any hair at all with this habit he’d developed whenever his father frustrated him. He’d been joyously happy—well, as happy as he ever got, which wasn’t much—since the day his father had moved to London three years ago. Seeing him every six months for the big board meeting of the corporation was seeing him too much. He was way past tired of being made to feel incompetent

“I said I would handle the situation and I will,” Brandt countered, almost smiling when he finally located a nearly empty bottle of maximum strength Tylenol.

“Hire that investigation firm.”

Popping the top from the bottle, Brandt growled, “Absolutely not. There are other firms—“

“Hire that firm, only that firm. Understand. The board wants it, insists upon it.” His father waited a second before adding, “Forget about those little problems in your past. Be the professional that you’re supposed to be.” With that decree, he hung up.

Brandt was seriously considering throwing the phone across the room when his two younger brothers appeared in his doorway. Sadly they were both upper management here in the Dallas office as well. He glowered at them. “That was your father, being the asshole he usually is.”

Jeffrey, a year-younger version of Brandt except with more hair—irritating as that was—stepped just inside the office. “Fortunately for me, you are the one in charge here and get the golden opportunities to speak with him. He only bothers to talk to me when he can’t locate you.”

“Abigail called us, thought you might need a sounding board after talking to our father,” Neil stated as he sauntered inside. He moved to sit on the leather sofa across from the lengthy span of a window wall.

Brandt reached for his glass of water to down the pills with. After he’d swallowed them and drew in a couple of deep breaths, he thought maybe his blood pressure had dropped a hundredth of a point. He faced his brothers, who shared the misery of being sons of the great hard ass Sean Tanner.

“Evidently there is serious trouble here in the Dallas office. Enough trouble that the IRS contacted the board and will be auditing us.” He watched for signs of knowledge about the matter on his brothers’ faces, but saw none. At least there were two people in the world he could count on not to betray him.

“That’s nuts,” Jeffrey said and shook his head in disbelief.

“Nuts or not, we can’t afford to have problems with the IRS, or the bankers, or the big money backers. We’ve all worked hard to get the company where it is today.” He didn’t add anything about how much each of them had sacrificed a life outside the business.

His brothers looked sympathetic, although they’d sacrificed nearly as much as he had. None of them were married; none of them had families. Brandt had seen his marriage fall apart only months before he took over the reins of this office. His dream of a family ended the day Sydnee walked out the door. Sure, he’d dated since then, even gotten engaged again. But he just couldn’t take a chance at sharing his life with another woman, or take a chance at one day destroying her as he’d done Sydnee.

“What was the argument about this time?” Neil questioned.

Brandt tossed the empty bottle into the trash can under his desk. He forced aside the all-too-familiar ache he got when he thought about his ruined marriage. Would he ever get over it? “The board decided that we need to hire Triple D Investigators to dig into the internal problems. Evidently they’re considered the best.”

Jeffrey nodded. “Numero uno from my understanding. I’ve read about them in one of the business magazines. They don’t just work for anyone these days, so we’ll be lucky if they take us on.”

Brandt snorted. “Lucky isn’t how I see it.” His stomach burned again.

“There is a problem,” Neil prodded.

“A big problem.” Brandt willed his ulcer to go away. “Actually a problem around 5’6”, if I remember right. One with short blonde hair, green eyes, and attitude. A hell of a lot of attitude.”

His brothers both frowned, confused. After a few seconds Neil had an epiphany. “Sydnee? Are you describing Sydnee?” he pressed. “What does she have to do with this?”

S. Prescott!” Jeffrey thumped the palm of his hand against his forehead. “Sydnee Prescott. She’s one of the owners of Triple D. I’d forgotten all about reading that.”

He looked straight at Brandt and said in summary, “Well, damn.”

Neil slumped on the sofa. “The nightmare just gets worse, doesn’t it?”

Brandt turned toward the windows and ducked his head. “Apparently I lead a charmed life. Sired by a boardroom demon who cares more about his businesses than his sons and a mother who abandons her family. CEO of a company I don’t want to run. Divorced from a woman I never should have married.”

He faced his brothers and saw the pity on their faces. “Now I’m about to be forced to work with my ex-wife. A damn charmed life.”

* * *

A glance at the sleek gold Rolex on her wrist told Sydnee that Brandt was playing games with her. There wasn’t a doubt in her mind that he’d been way beyond furious when he’d learned his father had basically already hired her firm without consulting him. He’d probably tired to verbally take his “good old dad” on, and lost. Few people ever bested the almighty Sean Tanner. She had, although neither Brandt nor Sean knew how she’d done it. But she knew and that was all that mattered.

She pulled her iPhone out of her slim designer purse and punched in Ryker’s number. He answered on the second ring and she said in amusement, “He’s making me wait. Power tripping in the only way he can, considering the circumstances.”

“Kodie and I still think we should forget this job. We don’t need it. You don’t need it.”

She heard footsteps in the hallway, several sets of footsteps. Without even turning from where she stood looking out over the downtown area from the sixtieth floor of the Bank One Center, she knew Brandt had arrived. Seven years wasn’t enough time for her to forget his scent, his magnetic presence. Tingles of awareness spiked through her, which was wrong on so many levels. Yet she was anxious to see him in person. Curious if he’d still have the strong alpha attitude, the impossible to ignore sensuality that drew her. Maybe she really was crazy to be here, to be even considering taking on this job.

Her heart raced. He was here now. She would not let him get to her anymore. She was a professional. Choosing to play her own game, she said into the phone, “You’re right, we don’t need this job. Pick me up outside the building in fifteen minutes.” Of course, she’d driven here on her own and Kodie would understand what she was doing.

Brandt strode across the conference room and grabbed her phone, unaware that Kodie had disconnected. He snapped, “She’ll call you back later.” Then he punched End Call without really looking at the phone.

Sydnee faced the man who had won her foolish heart the first time they’d butted heads back in Los Angeles. He’d been so absolutely hot as he’d stood before her in that hallway of the Los Angeles Times where she’d gone to apply for an internship. They’d argued about something she no longer remembered. His dark brown eyes had gone nearly black; the nostrils of his aristocratic nose had flared. As she studied him now, she realized he’d only gotten hotter, sexier with age. She was in trouble.

Fighting the reaction in the same way she always protected herself, she went on the defense. She pulled out attitude from her weapons of attack. Taking her phone back, she said impishly, “Thinning and graying. Still a stud muffin, though.”

Although she wasn’t really paying attention to them, she was pretty sure she heard both of his brothers chuckle under their breaths. Not so, the perfectly coiffed and all-too-familiar, bleached blonde with them. No, she bristled.

At first Brandt just blinked in surprise, and then he frowned. “Mouthy as ever, I see.”

An awkward moment or shared memories passed between them. He’d never had much of a sense of humor. How many times had he taken her over his knee and warmed her bottom for being “mouthy,” as he called it? Too many. Did he still spank the women in his life? Or had she been the only unfortunate one? Thank God her partners didn’t know anything about that part of their relationship. No other man had ever even laid a hand on her bottom, and she wouldn’t have allowed it. Oddly, she felt her buttocks quiver, felt warmth building low in her body.

For just a second Brandt’s eyes darkened, his nostrils flared.

Then someone cleared their throat and both of them jerked back to the present time. Sydnee told herself her heart was racing because of the situation, not because of the man with the handsome, scruffy face she so wanted to touch.

She looked away from temptation and forced a smile. “Amanda, always a pleasure.” Lie, lie, lie. The woman curled a lip in return.

Sydnee’s smile grew warmer as she greeted his brothers. “Jeffrey, Neil.” Good men, like her partners. She had missed them.

Brandt motioned toward the long, gleaming mahogany conference table. “Shall we sit down?” He didn’t wait for her or offer to pull out a chair, simply moved to the head of the table.

His brothers headed for chairs on opposite sides of the table. Jeffrey pulled out a chair immediately to Brandt’s right for her, but Amanda zeroed in on it and sat down to his clear annoyance. “Thank you,” she said with a victorious smile.

Neil shook his head in disgust and started to pull out another chair for her, but she chose to sit at the far end, well away from everyone else. Amusement lightened her mood, even more so when Brandt leveled a less than pleased glance at Amanda. Her pointed chin went up and her brilliant red lips pursed.

Deciding to end the first round of games, Sydnee set her purse on the table with a small thud and claimed everyone’s attention. She smiled in challenge. “Okay, boys and girl, you have five minutes to convince me not to walk out the door and never look back.”

“Who are you to take command of this meeting? It’s Brandt’s place,” Amanda, Financial Executive Officer of the corporation and long-time pain in Sydnee’s life, snapped.

“You really don’t want to play with me,” Sydnee stated with hard-earned confidence in who she was now.

Brandt looked from a scowling Amanda to her. His heavily shadowed jaw tightened. “This will never work. We’re done here.” He pushed his chair back to stand, but Amanda’s statement stopped him.

“I told Sean last week that this was a ridiculous idea. We don’t need an outsider checking into our business.” She focused on Sydnee. “Especially not her.”

Before Sydnee could react with the proper amount of indignation, Brandt snapped, “You knew about this arrangement? Last week? Hell, I didn’t know we even had a problem until this morning.”

Amanda shrugged one shoulder enough that the low-cut front of her gray suit worn without a blouse nearly exposed more breast than it should have. “He must have decided not to mention it to you earlier, for whatever reason.”

Neil cleared his throat. “We can air these little family problems later.”

“Yes, we need to stay focused,” Jeffrey added, appearing uncomfortable.

Brandt’s expression revealed how much he really wanted to pursue the matter about Amanda knowing something he should have known first. But he drew in a deep breath, closed his eyes a second, and then nodded. Pain flickered in the depths of his eyes when he gazed down the table at Sydnee. He rubbed at his forehead.

For a second she almost felt sorry for him. Until she remembered how he’d not believed her, how he’d turned on her. Even back then his father was manipulating his sons, and her. She really didn’t want to experience that again. She pulled her purse toward her and said, “Brandt’s right. This is probably the first thing we have agreed on in a long time. This will never work out. You’ll have to hire another investigator.”

Amanda glowed with having won the battle without there actually having been a battle.

But Brandt abruptly asked, “Why you? Why your firm?”

Sydnee hesitated and finally said, “If it only involved me, I’d have to say the why would be for cruelty’s sake…your father’s specialty.”

A vein pulsed in his neck but he didn’t argue the fact. Once upon a time he would have, but she suspected he’d come face-to-face with his father’s cruel actions many times since she’d last known them all.

She forced aside the twinge of sympathy she felt for him. “As for my firm, Triple D is the best of the best. I’m sure your board of directors made him well aware of that fact. It had to be like eating rotten crow for him to even attempt to play nice and approach us. Although he didn’t contact me directly.”

She looked at all three of the brothers. “My understanding is that he called and talked to Ryker. Actually, I was told, that Sean demanded we take the job. Naturally the order rubbed my partner wrong.” She smiled. “Ryker counter-demanded an outrageous fee, which your father agreed to pay…and which we fully intended to charge. If we accepted the job. What your father—and obviously all of you—don’t know is that I make the final decisions on what clients we work for. And you all are not one of them.”

A flash of respect dashed across Brandt’s face, mirrored itself in his brothers’ eyes. It almost weakened her decision not to take on the job.

Then Amanda pulled some papers out of a slim folder she’d carried in and held them up. “We have a contract.”

Now she wanted her firm to work for them? Interesting.

Sydnee met the other woman’s narrowed eyes and explained, “You have a contract with only two of the necessary signatures from Triple D. Until I sign, as I said, there is no agreement.”

Anger flared in Amanda’s eyes; her face heated and she focused on Brandt. When he didn’t respond, she touched his forearm as it lie on the table and he flipped a pen in his fingers in frustration. He flinched and she pulled away, seething at his reaction. Sydnee had heard from old mutual friends that Amanda and Brandt had become lovers not soon after their divorce. They’d even gotten engaged a few years back, but something had made them call it off. Something on Brandt’s side, Sydnee guessed. And Amanda was not happy about it. She wanted him, which was clear.

Before Brandt could step into the conversation, Sydnee asked, “Why are you now pushing for the agreement? When only minutes ago you didn’t want an outsider checking into your internal problems?”

Amanda’s lips thinned. “Because it is what the board has decreed. I may not like the decision, but I stand behind it.”

“What do the three D’s stand for?” Brandt suddenly interrupted.

Sydnee smiled. “Dark, deadly and dangerous. Since I’m not the dark one, you’ll just have to guess whether I’m the deadly one or the dangerous one.”

“Oh, I already know the answer. Dangerous.”

Once again Neil cleared his throat. “I’m going to need more water if I have to keep doing that.” He met her gaze and said, “I think it’s time we got beyond these posturing games. Syd, we need your firm’s services. Period.”

Brandt didn’t look happy about his brother’s statement. Amanda looked ready to explode again, like he’d stolen her thunder. What a strange, hateful woman.

In an attempt to lighten the moment, Jeffrey said, “Would a lot of groveling help?” He glanced at Brandt and back to her. “Maybe not from big brother, but I’m not above it.”

In spite of all the bitterness of the past, Sydnee had nothing against either Neil or Jeffrey. They’d stayed out of the horrible divorce. They’d not believed the lies their father had said about her, lies that Brandt had so easily accepted as truth. Except for one. She honestly didn’t think he’d ever believed his father when he’d tried to convince Brandt that she didn’t love him.

“Possibly. Kissing my feet?” The crazy woman in her decided to torture Brandt and she stuck her leg out and wiggled her foot. “Just don’t slobber on the shoes too much.”

Suddenly Brandt stood, his shoulders taut, his expression hard to interpret, but not his words. “We need to talk. Now. My office.”

So the games were finished. Even though his brothers looked worried and Amanda hostile, Sydnee stood as well. She snagged her purse and followed him from the room.

Would you like to read more?  Tangled Lies by S.K. Fero is a completed story on Bethany's Woodshed.  Click HERE to Join and you'll be reading more within minutes.