Wealthy, titled, and very privileged, Lady Katherine Hardwicke successfully eluded some of the best thieves in the world in a quest to obtain the Fortunate Buddha. Her time is running out and her enemies are closing in, and one deliciously enigmatic man seems determined to get in her way. Will he save her or end her quest forever?
Jarod Parker wears many faces and lies for a living, but when the same thief steals the Buddha out from beneath his agents not once but twice, this handler returns to the field. His target? The last woman anyone would suspect of being the thief. But is he really after the Buddha or has this brilliant woman stolen his heart?
Their sensuous game of cat and mouse turns deadly when a third player turns up the heat, but can these two liars come clean with each other or will they lose it all?
Lady Katherine Hardwicke sat at the end of a fourteen-foot long conference table. Also present were ten of the most mind-numbingly boring bankers she’d ever met. A display on the screen scrolled through a PowerPoint presentation of the latest Hardwicke Holdings financial statements. These annual meetings killed her, but her father wanted her to know everything about the business and sent her each year to be ‘educated.’ In his opinion, the heir apparent to the Hardwicke fortune needed to be fully briefed on their holdings, their investments, when to cash out and more. Tracing one red nail lightly against the polished mahogany, she found herself wishing for a brother.
Her father’s old-world sensibilities would have left her brothers in charge and she could just collect her monthly stipend from the family trust. The sexist extreme didn’t always carry an allure, but today it did.
The clearing of a throat dragged her attention back to the room. “Lady Hardwicke?” The elderly banker speaking was Fitzhugh. Miles Fitzhugh had been one of her father’s personal financial advisors for over a quarter of a century. He looked down his nose at her, probably still seeing her hair in pigtails and her polka dotted dresses from childhood.
“Yes, Mr. Fitzhugh?” She fought to wipe the glazed expression from her eyes and focused on the man at the head of the table.
“I just wanted to make sure you were paying attention.” If any other man at the table spoke to her that way, she may have bristled. But Miles just couldn’t see her as an adult, so she often granted him the tolerance due an elder.
Often, but not always. “The third quarter decline has been offset by our fourth quarter earnings. Overall, the annual financial loss statement is significantly improved over the last fiscal year, but if we rearrange our investments, withdraw from energy and reinvest in local economies—particularly the booming green movements and organic foods sections in the Midwest—we could see a long-term gain within five years.”
Several of the bankers went from smirking to studying the portfolios in front of them. Two coughed and a third turned away to sneeze, while one of the younger, more unfamiliar bankers sitting near the center of the table watched her. She could almost smell the curiosity in his expression.
“Of course, if we remove our investments from energy, we lose the potential gain in the new hybridization movements developing in Japan and Germany. Our Italian investment, for example, just completed a prototype for a solar powered electric vehicle. Our partner in Norway is working on a refined version of the electric car’s battery that would not need to be replaced annually, but might prove self-sustaining for up to five years. Instead of pulling out money from any of these projects, we would see a greater return in facilitating introductions, supporting future development and reaping the rewards of electric vehicles that are fiscally sound.”
Miles’ wrinkled face bloomed into a grin. “We could do that, Lady Hardwicke. But it’s a gamble.”
“True. So let’s take it a step further. Two presentations ago, you mentioned the application of wind farm technology to greenhouse organics in New Mexico. Why not increase our investment, take the gains we’ve made up in the last quarter toward funding not only these energy and transportation projects, but also the organic food movement? By diversifying, we can offset losses in one area with gains in another, but continue to promote cleaner, more efficient vehicles and healthier food sources.”
Ambrose Bingham rapped his knuckles against the table. He and Miles were her father’s favorite advisors. But if Miles said blue sky, Ambrose would argue that it was red. They were diametrically opposed across the board. “Lady Hardwicke,” he began, his voice filled with patient disdain. “You may think throwing good money after bad in an industry that continues to report losses twenty years after developing on the fringe is a ‘gamble,’ but it’s a fool’s bet. You will lose money in all three areas you’ve mentioned.”
The Hardwicke family fortune amounted to billions, not millions. Small, medium, and large investments in multiple industries, charities, and private start-ups diversified their interests. They maintained healthy sums in every country they did business and worked diligently to stay within regulation. But at the end of the day, the final decisions always rested with her father—or in cases like this, when he appointed her his representative—her.
“Well that might take some research…” Ambrose hedged.
“No it doesn’t.” Miles scented the blood in the water and leaned in for the kill. “We’ve already shown a three percent gain overall each quarter we diversified, offsetting any loss—”
“But if we removed the losing investments, those that proved capital losses in the last four consecutive quarters…” Ambrose fired back and within a minute, the two men began flinging figures at each other as though old world duelists, trying to cut each other down with the facts. It didn’t take long for the rest of the bankers to jump in, throwing their support to one side or the other.
Kit rubbed the side of her nose and tried to swallow the satisfaction. When they yelled at each other, they ignored her. Oddly though, one man at the table seemed less interested in the debate than he did staring at her.
The new banker. Paulson? Perkins? Parker.
His last name is Parker. She didn’t recall if Miles used a first name when he’d gone around the table. Mid-thirties, dark, close- cropped hair, a strong chin, and very firm lips that quirked into a smile of amusement. He noticed her attention and flicked a look at the chaos around the table, before tipping his head.
She considered accepting the accolade, but merely widened her eyes in mock innocence and smiled. His grin edged the corners of his mouth wider and turned him from moderately attractive to truly handsome. Awareness shivered over her skin and she forced herself to look away.
Miles rapped the table. The chatter muted immediately. He rose and planted both hands on the table. “This is a pointless debate.
Our task is to apprise Lady Hardwicke of the facts, present prospectus reports, and offer our suggestions. Everything else is moot.”
Grumbling met that statement, but the bankers leaned back in their chairs as though attempting to soothe their own ruffled feathers. Miles stared at her down the length of the table. “Lady Hardwicke, do you feel that you have been briefed fully?”
“To a point.” She gave her father’s old friend a lazy smile. “But I would like full financial statements for the Italian and Norwegian investments as well as the proposed property development in Dubai.” The man to her immediate right jerked at the last. She could almost smell the surprise and delight at the request. He’d brought up the construction deals in Dubai at the beginning of the meeting—nearly four hours before—and been drowned out almost unanimously by the others.
Miles frowned. “Very well. We’ll have the full reports compiled and sent to your hotel.”
“Fantastic.” She rose from the chair, flipped her digital tablet off and slid it into the oversized bag. Every man at the table rose, but it was Parker’s regard she caught herself watching. Speculation joined amusement in his expression. “Thank you gentlemen. As always, it’s been a pleasure. I will see you all again next year.”
She slid a card out of her wallet and handed it to the man on her right—Kevin Donner. “Mr. Donner,” she pulled his attention as the others gathered their things together, shut down laptops and repacked their briefcases. “Please send all of your information to me directly.”
He took the card with a quick thanks and a flash of relief. Miles hated his plan. She adored the old man, but he would take his time to review, tweak, change, and force Donner to backtrack on his suggestions and it would be months before she received anything.
“Yes, ma’am—thank you ma’am.”
Miles took her arm as she reached him and left his things for his assistant to gather. Cane in hand, he led her from the room. A flash of frustration shone in his eyes and his mouth tightened. But the expression, so fleeting, she might have imagined it.
“So, Katherine. How is your father these days?” Miles tucked her hand into the crook of his arm. She slowed her pace to match his uneven gait.
“Retired and enjoying it—mostly.”
Didn’t believe or don’t like it? “Monica encourages him to take it easy, but don’t think he’s completely out. He reviews every file, every report—and if he wants changes, he asks for them.”
“Oh. Good. Good.” Miles patted her hand. At the elevator, she reached out, pressed the button and dropped a kiss on his withered cheek.
“Don’t worry, Miles. I won’t run Hardwicke into the ground. Daddy wouldn’t let me.” Her tone light, placating and teasing, but the spike of guilt shining in Miles’ eyes told her she read his concern correctly. He didn’t want Daddy’s little girl destroying all of Daddy’s hard work.
“Now, Katherine…you know I trust your instincts and your education.” The elevator dinged open and they stepped inside. Whether out of respect for Miles or a desire to not be dragged into the further conversation, the others left them to the privacy of the elevator.
Too bad. She’d hoped Parker would at least follow.
The doors closed and Miles shed the grandfather attitude. “But you lead with your heart and that’s bad for business, dear.”
She preferred the blunt honesty. “And yet, we’re still showing a profit. Your retirement and fortunes are guaranteed, Miles. Times are changing. Hardwicke needs to change with them and stay in front of the cutting edge or risk being sliced in half when it progresses without us.”
“Young lady…” His cheeks popped with the force of his breath and his face flushed. “My point, exactly. You want to gamble on every new idea out there and some are downright foolish. What Donner wants to do is mire us in the Mideast. That’s never good for business.”
“Ten years ago? Probably not. But Dubai is a capitalist’s boomtown with multiple opportunities for legacy and investment.” She bit down on the next words. Old fashioned and mired in the past as he may be, she did genuinely like the old man. “Look, I asked to see his plans. I want to get a good feel for what he is seeing. Maybe he’s got ideas and connections we don’t. I didn’t agree to anything.”
“Hmmph.” Miles folded both hands on top of the cane and leaned on it. “Don’t try to placate me. You’re going to listen to everything I say, nod respectfully, and just go do whatever the hell it is you want.”
Laughter rippled through her and she was still chuckling when the express elevator dinged open on the ground floor. Despite his infirmities, she led the way out because Miles wouldn’t have it any other way. Pressing another kiss to his cheek, she winked. “How about I promise to discuss it with you before I do what I want to do?”
“It’s better than nothing.” He returned the buss to her cheek and patted her arm. “Give my regards to your father and remind him he owes me for that last poker game.”
“Yes, sir.” Another wink and she pivoted on her heel to head out. Midtown Manhattan hummed with foot traffic, cars, and tourists. Her limo sat out front waiting for her. If she hurried, she could be at LaGuardia in a couple of hours and, after weeks of delay, finally be on her way to Los Angeles.
A very masculine hand caught the door in front of her and pulled it open. Startled, she glanced to find Parker smiling at her. His easy expression didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Mr. Parker…”
“Lady Hardwicke.” His voice lacked any discernible accent, but possessed a distinctly masculine quality, low and direct. He motioned her through the door and followed after her. He caught the second door and opened that as well.
Traffic noise spilled over them as they stepped out onto the sidewalk. “You handled those men very, very well up there.”
She appreciated the compliment. “Thank you. You didn’t seem to have much to add to the conversation.”
“It wasn’t a conversation.” The right corner of his mouth turned up into a wry grin. “Or at least, that wasn’t their plan. They wanted to brief you, have you sign off, and move on.”
She nodded, bemused that he noticed. She walked over to the limo and handed her purse to the driver who opened the back door and stowed it inside. “It’s what they usually expect, although I’ve never done what’s usually expected of me.”
“I liked it. You handled all of it gracefully. But why Dubai?” He canted his head, curiosity in his tone, not criticism.
Intrigued, she arched both brows and closed the gap between them to less than a foot. “Why would I want to distract them?”
“So you can close the deal you really want, and then make a peace offering after you concede to their wishes.”
Her belly fluttered. Oh, hello, Mr. Intelligent and Sexy. That should be illegal. “Interesting supposition. What deal do you think I’m really after?” If only she planned to stay in the city for another few nights, she might be able to explore the depths of this man—or at least find out if he is married.
“You didn’t comment on the Costa Rica proposal at all. In fact, you distracted them with a colorful golf joke and derailed the entire conversation for an hour.”
A warning tingle raced up her spine. “Clever deduction, but maybe I just like golf.”
Parker laughed, a hard, delicious sound that caressed her. Excitement curled in her chest. “That’s why you stared off into space when they debated the last Master’s.”
Did he watch me through that whole meeting? She rifled her memory for what areas of their organization he represented, but couldn’t place him. “I learned a long time ago, it’s good business to not disagree with the men you’re talking to, particularly about their favorite sports.” She made a show of glancing at her watch, even though she knew the exact time. “I have a flight in a couple of hours, would you like to join me for drinks on the way to the airport? My driver can take you wherever you need to be after.”
“I would enjoy that.” He motioned to the car.
Ronald, her driver, gave her a mildly amused look as she slid past him and into the car. She scooted over the seat and moved her purse before Parker joined her. They had a wide selection of drinks in the mini bar, but Parker chose a bottle of water.
So did she.
Leaning back, she crossed her legs, very well aware that the skirt rode up and with no table between them now. “So tell me about Costa Rica, Mr. Parker, and why you think that’s the deal I should be interested in?”
Amusement creased his face. “Jarod.”
“I’m sorry?” She played dumb easily enough, paint on a pretty smile, lift her brows and blink. Most men bought it.
“Jarod Parker.” He held out his hand and she took it. “But please call me Jarod.”
He smiled, holding her hand hostage. “Would you mind Kat?” “Actually, I prefer Kit.” “Kit.” He rolled the name around on his tongue. Her gaze went unerringly to his mouth. What else could he do with that tongue? “Kit Kat—I like it.”
Her face warmed. Dear God, was she blushing? Clearing her throat, she extracted her hand and opened the water bottle. “I prefer Kit, but I reserve that only for my friends. So you may call me Katherine.” Time to get some distance and perspective.
“Whatever you say, Kit Kat.” He settled back against the seat and the tingles radiating out from her middle increased.