Authors: Mia Sheridan
While I was still looking back, before we were far enough away not to overhear, Lindsey turned to Daphne Hanover and said, "She still acts like she's lady of the manor even though, if the rumors are true, she barely has a pot to piss in." And then the sound of their laughter rang out, piercing me in the gut. Maybe Ginny wasn't being as discreet as I'd hoped.
"Ignore them," Daisy said, grabbing my arm and pulling me into her as we walked. "You were better than them then, and you're better than them now. They very well know it and it
Daisy and I climbed to the balcony and sat down at a stone table with an umbrella over it. Looking over the rail, I watched as Lindsey's group joined a small crowd gathered around a tall, dark-haired man. A brunette in a pale pink dress was standing at his side. Something about the man caught my attention, the way he held himself slightly away from those around him, even as people tried to lean in to talk to him. There was something . . . familiar. The only person I'd ever known with those mannerisms was Brogan Ramsay. I took a quick inhale of air, my heart lurching at the thought. But . . .
This man was too tall, too broad, and the way he held himself was too self-assured to be Brogan. And there was no way he could be here. It was just . . . just because I'd been thinking of him earlier.
Shut up, Lydia.
Yes, that was it.
But I squinted my eyes, trying to look closer. I couldn't make out the man's exact features from this distance, but from what I could see, he looked gorgeous. If my own vision hadn't told me, the gaggle of women—now including Lindsey—vying for his attention, preening and prancing around him despite the woman at his side, would have clued me in. And the woman at his side, although she wasn't touching him, she was clearly possessive, turning her shoulder toward women who got too close, flipping her hair in what looked like annoyance.
"Daisy," I asked distractedly, "do you know who that man is?" I inclined my head toward him and Daisy followed my nod, watching him for a moment.
"No, but he's something to look at, isn't he?" We were both quiet as we stared. "I don't think I've ever seen him before. Should we head on down and introduce ourselves?" She winked at me.
I shook my head, biting my lip, the same strange feeling swirling in my belly. "No," I said, looking back to where he stood. "He has a date. Anyway, I think he's leaving." The brunette at his side had just leaned in and whispered something in his ear, and he'd nodded and started shaking hands with those around him. Daisy and I watched as he strode off, the woman at his side. There was something in the man's walk, too. A familiar movement. I frowned, confused again. Shaking my head slightly, I took a big drink of champagne, dismissing the strange feeling.
It just couldn't be.
Just as the couple were about to exit through the gate that led to the steps at the edge of the garden, the man looked back and up, and I swore our eyes met. I jolted slightly, frowning again, a shiver moving down my spine.
Later, after having both successfully drunk too much champagne and avoided my stepmother and any more run-ins with old high school friends, I said a quick goodbye to the hosts and made my getaway with Daisy in her chauffeured car. We hung out at her house, laughing and talking for a few hours until her husband arrived home and I'd sobered up. Daisy's driver took me to my car, and I made the trip back to my apartment in New York.
As I approached the door to my building, I got the strangest feeling I was being watched. Shivering in the warm early-summer air, I paused and turned around, looking up and down the tree-lined street but not noticing anything unusual. After a moment, I dismissed it as nothing more than the sun and champagne-drenched mind of someone who'd had a long day. Shaking my head and laughing softly at myself, I opened the door and went inside.
The underground, high-stakes poker room was the height of lavish opulence, decorated in shades of black, gold, and red, the materials rich and sumptuous, ornate crystal chandeliers causing light to bounce off the mirrors surrounding the upper portions of the walls. Quiet, classical music drifted through speakers mounted somewhere in the ceiling.
This moment had been a long time coming. I was going to savor it.
The man across from me pulled at his collar as he turned over the card he'd just been dealt. I could smell the tang of his sweat even from the other side of the table. Even if I hadn't been counting the cards, I'd know he believed he had a good hand by the slight widening of his eyes, the way he glanced around quickly to see if anyone else had noticed his reaction. His knee bounced. He had a good hand, but he wasn't entirely sure it was enough. And it wasn't. The king of diamonds I needed to make four of a kind was at the top of the pile. I placed two cards on the table and signaled the dealer, who dealt me two more. Ten of hearts, king of diamonds. I kept my face expressionless, bringing my glass to my lips. I tipped the bartender here exorbitantly well to make sure every other drink I ordered was free of alcohol. This particular round was the real deal. I took a sip, letting the brandy slide over my tongue. At first fiery and sharp, smoothing into soft toasted marshmallow, vanilla custard, a dash of pepper, and then transforming into a nutty oak flavor as it slid down my throat.
The man across from me had long ago passed
and had moved on to
. He signaled the waiter for another. Of course, he was too foolish to know that drinking and gambling didn't mix. Or too weak to resist any and all vices offered to him and then to mix them haphazardly, just as he was doing now. And he was about to go down.
A boot to the face. Metaphorically, of course. I resisted the wolfish grin that wanted to spread across my face.
He suddenly looked up at me, meeting my eyes through my glasses, narrowing his. "Have we met before?" he asked. I casually signaled the dealer for a cigarette and leaned forward as he lit it, letting the smoke waft in front of my face, tamping down my senses violently, working not to become overwhelmed, not to grimace. I hated the smell of cigarette smoke, detested it. The man across from me watched the smoke rise, as if in a trance, immediately distracted by the swirling vapors.
"I don't believe so," I said, slurring my words slightly, making sure there was no hint of an accent. I'd worked long and hard to do away with it. He looked back at his cards, pulling at the collar of his tux again.
The other player at the table—a tall, blond man—folded. I caught his eye so briefly; it was only a bare flicker of the lids. An acknowledgment only he would see, much less understand. A sign only two people who had spent years on the streets together, surviving, cheating, looking out for each other, becoming brothers in the truest sense of the word, would recognize.
He turned and walked out of the room. He had done his job—he'd driven up the stakes.
The security detail wandered by, his hands clasped behind his back, eyeing our table. This establishment knew enough to watch me, knew enough to suspect me of something they'd never prove. I wouldn't let them. Counting cards was no effort on my part anyway. I did it without even thinking, without even concentrating. So it was unlikely I'd ever be suspected if I handled myself appropriately and discreetly. And I rarely played now anyway—I certainly didn't need the funds, and my vices were few, gambling not being one of them. I hadn't played in years. That is, until
started playing here. And now it was only the two of us sitting at this table in this high stakes room.
The man was intently focused on his cards, considering doing something very, very stupid.
Do it. Do something stupid.
I knew very well he needed to win—he needed to win desperately. His company was suffering, and badly. I knew because I'd made it my business to know. But I didn't think anyone else knew what dire straits he was in. Not even his family. But I moved that thought aside quickly—I needed to concentrate.
"Let's make this interesting," I said, adding a slight slur and a hiccup to the end of my statement. "What do you say we up the stakes here?"
The man's eyes flashed to mine. I could see the desperation in them as clear as day. God, he was a bloody
poker player. I'd almost feel sorry for him if I wasn't savoring his impending downfall so much.
"What are you thinking exactly?" he asked, trying and failing to keep the note of anxious excitement out of his voice.
"I'm in for five million," I said, downing my drink.
The pulse jumped in his throat and he stared at his cards for a beat.
Do it, do it.
"I'm sorry to say I don't have that kind of capital available," he said.
I lowered my lids and shrugged. "Well, it's been fun." I signaled to the man at the door for my tux jacket.
"Wait, wait." Sweat had broken out on his forehead. "I own a company and I'll sign it over to you if you win." He glanced at his hand again, obviously trying to provide himself confidence in his own ridiculous offer.
I laughed. "What would I want with some unknown company?" I signaled the man by the door again.
"It's worth ten times what you're putting in." He was lying. It was barely worth five million at this point. But I didn't care
much it was worth. I wasn't trying to make a profit—not a financial profit anyway. A personal profit? Well, that was a different story. I narrowed my eyes, holding my hand up to the man walking my way with my jacket. He nodded his head and turned.
I looked down at my hand, allowing a miniscule frown to crease my brow. I swayed to the left slightly, caught myself, and shrugged. "Oh, what the hell! Right, André?" I forced out a loud, obnoxious laugh. The beefy security detail with the earpiece walking slowly past nodded at me, his expression cold and removed.
Looking at the dealer, I asked, "Is there someone here who will record this bet?"
"Absolutely, sir." The dealer signaled to a man by the door who came over with a book and wrote down the terms while the man across the table downed the rest of his drink, his knee bouncing uncontrollably. I assumed a bored expression as we both signed our names.
He laid down his hand, three jacks. Just as I'd thought.
"Let's see what you've got," the man said shakily. Nerves seemed to have sobered him a bit. But his face was flushed, the subtle glee in his eyes telling me this was the thing that kept him coming back: this moment right before it was revealed whether he would win or lose. That addictive, excited hopefulness that had taken down so many men before him.
And then I turned my hand over, revealing my four kings. For a moment he simply stared, as if the math wasn't adding up. His face flushed bright red, and he looked like he was going to throw up.
"I believe I just became your boss," I said nonchalantly, allowing my accent to slip through. I tilted my head, removing my glasses. "Actually, now that I consider it, I believe we have met before. Stuart De Havilland, am I right?" I stuck my hand out, a wild satisfaction moving through my blood. "Brogan Ramsay." Stuart's face blanked and then slow comprehension dawned in his slightly inebriated eyes as he stared at me, his face finally blanching of all color. He gaped. "So very nice seein' ya again." I smiled. It felt wolfish. And this time I allowed it.
"Morning, Carl," I said, breezing through the doors of De Havilland Enterprises, removing the coffee, two sugars, no cream, from the drink holder and placing it on the front security desk.
"Morning, Lydia. Have I told you lately that I love you?"
I laughed, kissing him quickly on his grizzled cheek and heading toward the elevator bank. "Every morning, Carl. And I'll still never get tired of hearing it." I grinned at him and stepped into an elevator as it dinged open in front of me. Balancing the other three coffees in the drink holder, I switched my briefcase to my other hand and pushed the button to the upper floor.
I'd woken up this morning with a hopefulness I hadn't felt in months, a certainty that everything was going to be okay. I had a meeting with my brother at nine, and we were going to go over the quarterly reports. We'd recently won several large construction bids, and there was every reason to believe we'd win several more. Based on the numbers that came in this morning, we'd come up with a plan and even if I had to cut my own salary in half—again—we were going to get back into the black, so help me God.
Going with the
when you look good you feel
philosophy, I'd put on one of my prettiest work outfits, an elegant, fitted sapphire wrap dress and nude heels and spent extra time on my hair and makeup.
Stepping out of the elevator, I greeted Charlene, Stuart's secretary, and placed a coffee in front of her. She was on the phone but mouthed thank you to me. I winked and used my shoulder to open the door of the conference room, walking inside and setting all my things down on the edge of the large mahogany table.
Once I'd gotten all my things situated, I peeked my head out the door. "Hey Charlene, has Dave in financials dropped the reports off yet?"
"There wasn't anything on my desk this morning. Do you want me to call down?"
"No, that's okay. I'll wait until Stuart gets in." I called his cell, but it went straight to voicemail, and so I drank my coffee in the conference room, going over a few emails on my laptop. When Stuart still hadn't arrived forty-five minutes later, I put my things away and headed down to my office, asking Charlene to let me know when he got in. Why did I have the sinking feeling my brother was at home in bed, nursing a hangover as he so often was on Monday mornings these days? I sighed, the hopeful attitude I'd arrived with quickly dwindling.
I walked back up to Stuart's office about noon, but Charlene just furrowed her brows and shook her head. I sighed, turning to leave, when the door opened and my brother walked in. I startled at the look of him, bedraggled and pale. "Stuart?" I asked, walking toward him. "Good Lord, are you sick? Why'd you come in—?"
"Go into the conference room, Lydia." I frowned, and started to ask him what was going on when he cut me off. "Please." That startled me more than anything. I couldn't recall the last time my brother had said please.
"Lydia, do you—?"
I shook my head at the start of Charlene's question. "No, Charlene. I'll call you from the conference room if we need anything." A pit was beginning to form in my stomach. Something bad was going on. Something I was pretty sure I didn't want to know about.
The door clicked quietly behind us. Stuart went and stood at the head of the table, his hands on the chair in front of him. I could see that a fine sheen of sweat had broken out on his brow.
"What is it?" I asked quietly. I felt myself bracing, drawing inward against whatever he was about to share with me.
"I . . ." He ran his hand through his dark blond hair. It already looked like he'd done that far too many times this morning. "Jesus, Lydia, I'm sorry. I'm so damn sorry. I . . ." he let out a long, shuddery breath and then met my eyes, "I lost the company."
I stared at him, my mind grappling to understand what he was telling me. I shook my head. "Lost the company? That's impossible." I laughed, a brittle sound. "You can't
a company, Stuart. What are you saying?"
"I lost it in a card game. I gambled it. I gambled the company."
I blinked at him: once, twice, three times. "I don't understand," I said, speaking very slowly. "I think you better help me grasp what you're trying to say here."
Stuart raised his arms and dropped them, anger coming over his expression. "I fucked up! I bet the company in a high-stakes poker game, and I fucking lost, okay? I was with our lawyers all morning. I signed it over. It doesn't belong to us anymore. Is that clear enough for you? Are you comprehending?" he spit out.
My blood pressure was skyrocketing, and I felt nauseated. "Don't," I said, my voice a hiss. I pulled a chair back and sagged down into it. "That can't even be legal. Surely there's a way to undo this—"
"There's not. Not unless I want a hit put out on my life. Or maybe yours. Fuck, Lydia, there's no way out of this. I was so close. It was right within my grasp. All our problems . . . solved!
there and then," he snapped his fingers, "gone." He pulled the chair back that he'd been standing behind and sagged down just as I had. "We're fucked."
I shook my head back and forth, reeling. This couldn't be happening. He’d gambled the company? No way out?
A hit . . . on his life?
What the hell?
"No, no, I can't believe this. No, Stuart. Maybe I can talk to the person who bet against . . . what? What is that look on your face?"
Stuart put his head in his hands and raked his fingers through his hair again. After several tense moments he brought his face up, his expression even paler if that were possible. "I haven't told you everything. I . . . Jesus—"
"Just spit it out, Stuart. It can't possibly get any worse." Only it probably could. And knowing Stuart, it would.
"The man who owns the company now," he swallowed, his eyes pools of despair, "is Brogan Ramsay."
My heart stuttered, my breath faltering. I clutched the edge of the table. "Bro . . . Brogan Ramsay?" I breathed.
"Yes, his father used to work—"
"Yes, I know who Brogan Ramsay is! How, though? I don't understand." My heart was pumping out a staccato beat in my chest. I felt like I might faint if I didn't remain sitting.
"You think I do?" he yelled, throwing his hands up again. "He's a
He's been plotting this. We fired his father, do you remember?"
?" I hissed. "
did not fire anyone, you did." Images were assaulting my brain, unbidden.
A summer twilight . . . his lips tasting me, his body pushing into mine . . . the look of . . . reverence in his young eyes . . .
"Because I was protecting you!"
I groaned, leaning my head back on my chair. I remembered it
differently, and I was damn sure Brogan did, too. But I wasn't going to argue with Stuart about this now. I needed to try to fix this. "Where can I find him?"
"No, Lydia. You're not going there."
I licked my lips. "We were friends . . . of a sort, once upon a time. Maybe he'd listen to me, Stuart. I have to try." Plus, I owed him an apology. It had been a long time coming. I'd wanted to apologize to him for so many years. I still carried it like a sliver deeply embedded in my skin.
owed him an apology, too, but I couldn't be responsible for Stuart.
"Give me the address. I don't have the energy to argue with you." I felt drained, zapped completely of the hopefulness from this morning.
"I'll go with you then."
"No, I think you've done enough damage. I'll go alone."
"He's not the same as you might remember him. He's . . . different . . . dangerous. He tricked me." The last part came out sounding like a whine and a wave of disgust washed through me.
I rubbed at my eye. Dangerous? Brogan? I remembered him as sensitive and intense. "I'm just going to talk to him, Stuart. Do you have a better idea? Another solution that you haven't put on the table?" I asked angrily.
"No," he said, his shoulders slumping. "I'm sorry, Lydia. I'm so sorry." He put his head in his hands again.
I couldn't muster any compassion for him, not in that moment. "Then give me the address."
"It's a business address."
"That's fine—even better. There'll be plenty of people around."
"I don't think it's that kind of business." He raised his head, his expression a mixture of fear and dejection. But he reached into his jacket pocket and brought out a business card and pushed it across the table. I reached out and grabbed it.
I followed the instructions from my GPS to the address on the business card, pulling up in front of a nondescript red-brick home in Woodlawn, a neighborhood in the Bronx known as Little Ireland. All this time he was so close? After he'd left—
don't sugarcoat it, Lydia, after he'd been kicked off
—our property, we'd looked for him and hadn't had any luck. It was as if his family had simply disappeared. I'd even wondered several times if his father took Brogan and his sister back to Ireland after that day.
. I cringed, as I always did when I thought about it. I sat in my car for a few minutes, staring at the building, working up my nerve to go inside. Stuart had said it was a business address, but it looked like someone's home. Taking a deep breath, I stepped out of my car into the muggy air, straightening my dress as I crossed the street. One glance at the clouds above told me we were about to experience a summer shower.
The brass knocker had the head of a ram on it. My heart rate had sped up, and I worked to calm my breathing as I lifted the knocker and used it to rap twice.
I was about to come face to face with Brogan, after all this time, all these years.
After a minute, I heard footsteps coming toward the door and stood completely still as it was pulled open. My breath came out in a whoosh when I saw a boy, no more than fourteen standing in front of me. "H-Hi," I stuttered, clearing my throat and pulling my spine straight. "My name is Lydia De Havilland. I'm here to see Brogan, that is, Mr. Ramsay."
The boy raised one brow, letting his gaze roam down my body in a suggestive way. I stiffened and gritted my teeth.
Insolent little brat.
"Is he in?" I demanded.
"Aye," he stood back and waved his arm, indicating I should come inside. I hesitated only briefly before stepping over the threshold. The foyer was nondescript, lots of dark wood and a faded oriental carpet on the floor. It was devoid of furniture or wall hangings.
I jolted slightly when the door slammed behind me, fidgeting with my purse strap and waiting for instructions from the boy. He appeared to text something on his phone, then put it in his pocket, and gave me another gesture to follow him. I did, walking down a hallway and turning into what appeared to be a waiting room. There was a large leather couch, several bookshelves lining the wall, and a coffee table with a few financial magazines on it.
I sat down on the leather couch and the boy sat down next to me. I scooted over slightly and smiled at him politely. His eyes swept my body again, a cocky smirk on his face. My God, the boy didn't even have facial hair yet. "How's the form?"
"What's the craic?"
"I'm sorry, I don't—"
A door on the other side of the room suddenly opened and a tall, dark outline stood in the doorway. "Rory."
The boy—Rory—stood abruptly and moved around the table. I stood, too. "Sorry, Mr. Ramsay. This fine thing is here to see ya." I did understand that. I pulled myself straighter. My heart was now a frantic drumbeat in my chest as I stared at the man I'd only known as a boy so many years ago. My nerves stretched tight, tension coiling in my stomach. I was suddenly having difficulty pulling air into my lungs. He took a step closer, into the light, and it felt as if time stood still. Brogan Ramsay stood in front of me. He was
man now, tall and broad, his black hair cut shorter than it'd been the last time I'd seen him. He removed a pair of black-rimmed glasses, and I stared at his face. It was the same and yet different. I recognized the ice-blue beauty of his eyes, framed by thick, inky lashes and black, slashing brows, and the sensual shape of his mouth. But the difference showed in his strong jaw and sculpted cheekbones—the bone structure of a full-grown man. He was even more beautiful than I remembered. The girl in me swooned and melted just a little. But I wasn't a girl, I was a woman, and I stiffened my spine. I wasn't here to swoon.
His gaze finally moved from Rory to me and lingered on my face for one startling moment as my breath caught, his eyes hard chips of blue ice. I froze under his cool assessment. He looked away as if in disinterest, and I released a breath.
"I told you I require a visitor's name, Rory."
"I sent it, sir."
Rory swallowed. "Phone's acting the maggot, sir. Strangest thing. Lydia De Havilland." He swept his hand toward me as if I were royalty, but Brogan's eyes didn't follow it. A small muscle twitched in his cheek.