Desiree Holt | USA Today & Award-Winning Author

Masquerade

Corporate Heat, Book 3

Rone Finalist 2019Hunting a murderer is hot work, in more ways than one.

Lindsey Califaro, second in command at Elite Marketing, is suspicious when her boss is killed in a one car accident. She’s had a funny feeling about things around the agency for a while and now her spidey senses are going haywire. Something is wrong and she’s determined to find out what.

John Martino, highly sought after forensic accountant, is sent by Arroyo to dig into Elite’s books and see if there is an answer there. He expects problems but what he doesn’t expect is to find a super smart hot female who pushes all his buttons and sends his sex drive into overload.

As the two dig into Elite’s books and Craig’s private life, they uncover a sordid trail of sex trafficking and drugs so extensive it shocks them. As they draw closer to the real head of the operation the heat between them rises in temperature and their feelings for each other explode.

As they work to blow open the criminal enterprise, their relationship intensifies and John knows he must do everything to protect Lindsey from a master criminal.

Other Books in the Corporate Heat series

Read an Excerpt (Click to show / hide)

Lindsey turned over in bed and checked the time on her little clock. Five a.m. Holy hell. She was sure she hadn’t gotten more than an hour’s worth of sleep combined all night. Most of the time had been spent tossing and turning, trying to get the picture of Craig Wainwright’s dead body out of her mind. Seeing the man she’d worked with for the past four years lying in the morgue, battered and bruised, with all the life drained out of him, was painful and gut-wrenching. A sick feeling lodged inside her even as questions kept rattling around in her brain, bumping into one another.

She didn’t know which shocked her more—Craig’s death and the circumstances, or the fact that his ice-queen of a wife, Natalia, had chosen to contact her as opposed to one of her friends. Or intimate acquaintances, as she called them. After all, their relationship was distantly cordial at best. According to what the police had told them, he’d been killed in a one-car accident on a stretch of road that was not even close to the route to his house. What had he been doing there, anyway? And at that hour of the night?

She looked at the clock again. Five-fifteen. With a sigh, she gave up any attempt to get some sleep and pulled at the covers, which were now all twisted around her body. Disentangling her legs, she pushed herself to a sitting position and dragged herself out of bed.

Today it was important that she be alert and to have all the parts of her brain in maximum working order. As vice-president of Elite Marketing, she was expected to have her shit together all the time. No matter what. Taylor and Noah Cantrell were due at Elite at seven sharp, and that meant being alert and in charge.

When Taylor had brought Elite into the mega-structure of Arroyo Conglomerate four years ago, one condition of the arrangement had been to add another executive-level position to manage the fast-expanding business. Lindsey had been recommended by a business friend of Taylor’s. She was well-respected in the industry and had a great understanding when it came to marketing. Plus she had a well-honed business sense. A high-priced education at the University of Pennsylvania and Wharton School of Finance had seen to that.

She recalled worrying that Craig would think his toes were being stepped on, but he’d told her again and again how glad he was to have her there. He was smart enough to see he needed someone who could shoulder the load with him.

“Some of my clients are taking up more and more time,” he’d told her. “This will really help a lot, especially managing the staff.”

It was important that the Cantrells knew their faith was not misplaced. Besides, she owed it to Craig. Keeping the agency running and increasing revenue was the best tribute she could give him. She was sure the staff, when she told them, would be in upheaval, so she needed to be the steadying hand on the wheel.

She’d hated disturbing the Cantrells last night, and the late hour hadn’t helped. However, it was a standing rule with all executives in every Arroyo division that Taylor Cantrell was to be notified at once of anything out of the ordinary relating to her top people. This more than met that qualification.

Although she and Taylor had only had sporadic contact in person since Lindsey had joined Elite, they had a relationship so strong that video and phone calls handled any business without a problem. But the woman had a way of letting people know if they’d disappointed her, even while she was smiling and being polite. Lindsey wanted to make sure she was ready for anything today.

They’d have some decisions to make, and fast, the most important being about who would step into Craig’s position. Would Taylor look outside the agency again, and bring in someone new the way she had with Lindsey?

She wasn’t looking forward to gathering the staff when they arrived at the office. Giving them the sad news would be extra tough since she had no answers for them. She could visualize organized chaos while everyone absorbed the news and Taylor dug into Elite to make sure nothing was wrong. It wasn’t, after all, as if this was a normal auto accident, which in itself would have been bad enough. No, there’d be questions, the same ones she kept asking herself.

Lord, please don’t let me lose my shit today.

A hot shower washed away most of the cobwebs, and by the time she had dressed and applied makeup, she felt halfway to being human. By seven o’clock, she had the single serving brewers set up in both the break room and her office, the carousels stocked with a variety of flavors and trays of her favorite pastries set out beside them. The answering service was on notice to continue taking calls for an additional hour. That was all she could do to prepare for what was coming.

She had just taken a deep breath when she heard knocking on the glass doors to the suite of offices.

Here goes.

Stepping into the reception area, she saw the Cantrells standing in the hallway. They were a striking couple, the tall man whose Native American heritage gave him dark, exotic good looks and the woman, with her wavy auburn hair, ocean blue eyes and milky skin a direct contrast to him. They were the quintessential power couple, looking for all the world as if they’d had eight hours’ sleep and had nothing more to worry about than where to go for lunch.

How do they do it?

“Good morning.” She swung the door wide for them. “I’m sorry, I thought for sure you had keys to the office.”

Taylor smiled at her. “Only to be used in case of emergency. I don’t want people to think they have no privacy.”

And who else would consider that important?

“Please come into my office. I have coffee and pastries. I didn’t know if you’d have had a chance for anything on the plane or not.”

Taylor smiled. “Very thoughtful of you. Thanks.”

Lindsey made sure everyone was served before indicating they should sit in the arranged conversation grouping. She waited for them to take the lead.

Taylor took a swallow of her beverage and set her cup on the little table in front of the couch.

“Okay, Lindsey. Tell me everything you know about last night, starting with when you left the office. I’m assuming Craig was still here?”

Lindsey nodded. “I worked until a little past seven before packing it in. He was in his office, working on a project. Maybe more than one, considering the amount of material spread over his desk. I’m sorry I have no idea what it was, but it might have been photos for a couple of magazine layouts. Or he could have been deciding which models to use, since we had three scheduled for different clients.”

“Did he supervise all of them himself?” Taylor asked.

Lindsey wrinkled her forehead. “I don’t think so, but we operated independently so it was hard to tell. Jerry Ortiz worked on a lot with him and we met once a week to catch up. Last night I asked Craig if he needed any help and he said no, he was good. He just wanted to wrap up some details before he went home to spend the evening with his wife. I have no idea how he ended up where he was or why. Obviously, something changed.”

Why didn’t I press him harder? Ask more about what he was doing?

But she’d been tired and more than ready to get out of there. She’d remember that for a long time.

Taylor took another swallow of coffee. “Noah called the police station and had them fax a copy of the report to the house before we left.”

“And they did it just like that? I thought the police were cranky about doing things like that, especially for someone they don’t know.” Then she stopped and heat skimmed her cheeks. “Sorry. I forgot who I was talking to.”

Taylor laughed. “Sometimes being who we are has its advantages.”

Lindsey nibbled on her lips. “Did it show anything?”

“Not much, but it’s just the preliminary report. But at that location, he wasn’t even close to being on the way home when he had the accident. I haven’t spoken to Natalia, but did she have any idea where he might have been headed? Or why he ended up staying so late at the office?”

Lindsey shook her head. “None at all.”

“Had you noticed anything different about him lately?” Taylor asked. “Any change in habits or behavior?”

What could she really say? All she had were vague suspicions. Still…

“Anything you can share,” Taylor prompted, “no matter how small, could be helpful. You know I have a lot of confidence in your opinion.”

“I just want to make sure I’m not mistaking pressure nerves for something else.” She got up to brew another cup of coffee. She’d have to be careful not to drink herself into caffeine overload today. “Craig was smart and savvy, and knew what he was doing. But lately I got the feeling he was dealing with a lot of pressure. Maybe because of some of the large accounts he’d taken on. People who wanted more campaigns and bigger ones.”

Taylor frowned. “Do you think they were too much for him to manage?”

“No.” Lindsey shook her head. The last thing she wanted was to damage Craig’s reputation as a top marketing person in his field. “And you know yourself how good the money was.” She paused, choosing her words with care. “But if I’m truthful, the last couple of years he seemed, oh, antsy, I guess, is the best way to put it. Like he was walking some kind of fine line. I have no idea what it could have been, though. Elite is doing extremely well. We almost have more clients than we can handle, especially as we’re expanding our international market. In fact, we even discussed bringing another person on board to handle some of the smaller accounts.”

Taylor smiled. “An abundance of business is always good to hear. But…”

“Yes.” Lindsey nodded. “But. I kept getting the distinct feeling something was off. I was hoping to have something more concrete than just a feeling before I approached him about it.”

Noah leaned forward and placed his coffee mug on the table.

“Was it financial, Lindsey? If he was keeping things from you, that could be a problem.”

A tiny knot tightened in her stomach and she did her best to keep her voice even. “Truthfully, Mr. Cantrell—”

“Noah,” he interrupted. “I think it’s time we dispense with formalities.”

“Noah.” Can I express my reservations to him without being sure? The last thing she wanted was to create trouble where there was none.

“Lindsey.” Taylor’s voice was friendly but firm. This was, after all, business. “The president of a viable marketing company that is a component of Arroyo Enterprises has died both unexpectedly and in odd circumstances. It may turn out to be a sudden heart attack and he may have just been taking a drive to clear his head after a long workday. But I trust your instincts. If there is even a hint of something bothering you, then you need to share it with us. I have to know how we’re going to handle things going forward.”

The knot in her belly got a little tighter. “Going forward? Do you think you might close the agency?”

“No.” The other woman shook her head. “Not at all. Not even a consideration, unless we find something really dire. But we can’t have a vacuum here. You know yourself this agency is a moneymaker, and that looks good on the Arroyo balance sheet and to the board of directors. If we need to get in front of something, now is the time to do it.”

“And there may be nothing at all to worry about.” Lindsey cleared her throat. “Please keep in mind that this is just my impression.”

Taylor nodded. “Understood.”

“Okay. Like I said before, for the past two years or so, Craig has seemed edgy. Jumpy even, at times. As if he was wrestling with some kind of problem. He was traveling a lot for these photo shoots, much of it out of the country. That wasn’t a bad thing. We’ve expanded at a rapid rate in the global marketplace, which means customers with a wide variety of tastes. Plus, a lot of our clients like the tropical settings for layouts. I offered several times to help ease his load, but he was very proprietary about his clients and insisted on managing everything himself. I had little to do with the foreign trips. Now and then, Natalia went with him on the trips—I think to help corral the models.”

Noah lifted an eyebrow. “He didn’t ask you to go with him? Or one of the account managers?”

“Sometimes Jerry Ortiz, who worked closely with him, but he usually made it plain he preferred doing it himself.” Lindsey shook her head. “I was busy overseeing everything else when he was tied up with one of these projects, and the models were, well, a handful for one of the account managers to handle. They were strictly Craig’s baby.”

The Cantrells exchanged a glance.

“Would you say there was anything improper going on between Craig and any of the models?” Taylor asked.

“No, nothing like that.” Again, Lindsey shook her head. “Not at all. But something was on his mind.”

“All right.” Taylor leaned back in her chair and again something passed unspoken between her and her husband. “Here’s what I’d like to do. Noah’s heading to the police station to see if they’ve learned anything else. They’ll have gone over the car by now, to see if there were any mechanical problems.”

Maybe that was what it was. But… “Craig kept that car in tiptop condition.”

“Mechanical problems can still happen,” Noah pointed out. “I want to make sure they’ve checked every single thing.”

Taylor turned to Lindsey. “You and I need to decide what we’re going to tell clients and share that with the staff. Additionally, because Elite has a high public profile, as soon as word gets out, the media will be like starving wolves at your door. How about if you draft something and run it by me?”

Lindsey nodded. “I can do that. Are you thinking about a press conference?”

Taylor shook her head. “No. I want to low-key this. In fact, I don’t want to make a general announcement. We’ll need to call his list of clients, something I think is best you handle. If they ask, we’ll send them a brief statement electronically. And we should get ready for calls from others as word trickles out. Maybe even the media, although I hope not. He had a pretty high profile in the Miami–Fort Lauderdale area, right?”

Lindsey nodded. “Okay. I’ll get something put together for you to take a look at. Before we do anything, however, I’d like us to meet with the staff. We have to tell them right away. When Craig’s in town, he’s always in his office early. His absence will raise questions. How about I get them in the conference room as soon as they arrive at work?”

Taylor nodded. “Yes. Let’s do that.”

Lindsey wet her lips then asked the question she’d been battling with. But it was important that she knew. “I should probably wait until we get past this immediate crisis, so I hope you’ll forgive me for asking.” She put on her best professional face. “Are you planning to bring someone in from the outside to take over in Craig’s place?”

The Cantrells exchanged a look and Noah gestured to his wife.

Your deal, he told her in unspoken acknowledgment.

“We discussed this on the way over here from Texas,” Taylor answered. “We’d like you to step in as head of the agency. Think about it. You know the operation and the clients. And we know you. It would be one less thing to worry about. Elite would be in very good hands and both the clients and the staff know you.” She paused. “Unless you’d rather not do it. But, Lindsey, you’re the logical person.”

For a moment Lindsey wasn’t sure she’d heard right. “Take charge of Elite?”

“That’s not a problem, is it?” Noah asked, his face expressionless.

“Of course not.” She was stunned. “But what about Natalia? Won’t she inherit Craig’s share of Elite? She might not like having me around.”

Taylor shook her head. “We prepared for that. In all the Arroyo subsidiaries, if the partner passes away, Arroyo does a buyout with the surviving spouse. If there’s no spouse, then with the estate. We can’t have unqualified people suddenly in charge of our subsidiaries just because they inherited.”

“Makes sense. That means you’re buying the other fifty-one percent of whatever business it is, right?”

“That’s correct. It then becomes a wholly owned subsidiary of Arroyo, so you don’t have to worry about some idiot coming in and making a mess of things. It’s your baby, at least for now.”

Lindsey didn’t know whether to be thrilled or terrified. “Thank you both for having such faith in me.”

“Your reputation and history speak for themselves. That’s why we sought you out to begin with.” Noah rose from his chair and held out his hand. “We know you’ll do a great job, Lindsey. And now I’m going to leave you and Taylor to dig into what’s going on here and keep things running smoothly while I get on with my business. How about dinner at eight to recap the day and see where we are?”

Lindsey’s head was spinning, but she managed to nod. “Whatever you need, I’m there.”

“Good. I’m glad we got that settled.” Taylor grinned at her husband. “I knew we’d made the right decision.”

“Okay, then. I’m out of here.”

It said a lot that Noah Cantrell did not leave without kissing his wife goodbye. It was a good indication of the strength of their relationship and how comfortable they felt in their own skins.

As soon as Noah was gone, Taylor refilled her cup. “Okay, Lindsey. Let’s get to work.”

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October 23, 2018
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