“Congratulations, Jackson. Because of your hard work and dedication, we’ve decided to offer you a junior partnership with the firm.”
Jackson stared at his boss in surprise. Exhilaration pumped through him. Twelve years ago, he’d been a high school dropout doing manual labor at a ranch in southwestern Texas. He’d moved to Dallas and done everything from waiting tables, to working as a part-time rodeo clown, to being a janitor in the evenings to earn his way through college and get his CPA.
Despite his father’s insistence that Jackson would never amount to anything, he had. This moment proved his father wrong. Jackson was a success.
It took a moment for him to find his breath. “Thank you, Mr. Hollingsworth. I don’t know what to say.”
Mr. Hollingsworth, a fifty-eight-year-old balding man with a shrewd, creative, but always law-abiding mind, nodded. He removed a rumpled handkerchief from his pocket and mopped his shiny head. “You’ve earned it. Your salary will increase by twenty-five percent, you’ll receive an annual bonus, and you can hire an assistant. You’ll also be offered Mr. Till’s office. He’s retiring,” he explained.
Jackson immediately calculated the difference in his salary, and three investment possibilities came to mind. He’d shared an assistant with the other CPAs until now, and Mr. Till, who appeared to be approximately three hundred years old, had a corner office.
This was the stuff of fantasies for a dirt-poor kid from southwestern Texas. This was like winning the lottery. This was the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
He watched Mr. Hollingsworth’s head turn shiny with perspiration and felt an itchy sensation. That same itchy sensation had kept him alive in dark alleys and rowdy bars. That same itchy sensation had kept him away from troublesome females. That same itchy sensation had kept him from being gored by a bull.
It was the same itchy sensation that warned him: if it looked too good to be true, then it probably was.
Mr. Hollingsworth smiled at him nervously.
Jackson’s stomach sank. Oh, shit. Whenever Hollingsworth smiled, there was trouble. Big trouble. He remembered the audit he had managed for one of their larger clients, who had neglected to disclose all their financial activities for a tax return. It had taken months of work to keep the guy out of prison.
Mr. Hollingsworth cleared his throat. “You know we think a lot of you. You’ve earned the respect of all the partners and all the clients you’ve worked with.”
Cut to the chase, Jackson wanted to say. He would have to assess the risk. Life was all about risk. If he could do whatever dirty work the firm wanted him to do, then he could claim his prize.
“Of course, with additional reward comes additional responsibility. We, the partners and I, have carefully evaluated our client list, and we believe you are the man to handle the Granger account.”
“The Granger account,” he echoed in disbelieve. The Granger account was one of the firm’s top five accounts. Compared to the Granger account, everything Jackson had done had been chicken shit. He knew a few things about the account, but not much, because old Mr. Till had kept Harlan Granger’s financial matters close to the vest.
“As you know, Harlan Granger died six months ago, and most of his estate is being held in trust for his daughter, Lori Jean,” Hollingsworth said.
Jackson hadn’t ever met Lori Jean personally. He’d just seen photographs of her in the paper at charity functions or at her home while she posed with a prissy white dog that was probably fed filet mignon every night. Blonde, with a melt-in-your-mouth body, the woman was a looker, but she didn’t appear to have much upstairs.
Hollingsworth cleared his throat. “Since Mr. Till has retired, you’ll be in charge of managing the estate.” He cleared his throat again and fingered his tie as if it were choking him. “Some changes in the conditions concerning the dispersal of the trust have recently come to light.” The senior partner of the firm rubbed his nose and shrugged. “All in the files. You should go ahead and get started on them so you can meet with Miss Granger as soon as possible.”
The itchy sensation climbed up the back of Jackson’s neck again. Something about this just wasn’t right. “What about my other clients?”
“Don’t worry. They’ll be temporarily reassigned. I’m sure you know the Granger account is one of our largest accounts.”
So, why were they giving it to him instead of one of the more senior partners? Jackson shoved his hands into his pockets and decided to test Hollingsworth’s desperation. He’d learned a long time ago that people would spend a lot of money to protect whatever they held dear. Jackson knew Hollingsworth held the Granger account very near and dear.
“It sounds as if this could be more demanding of my time and energy than what I’ve been doing here at the firm,” Jackson said.
Hollingsworth slowly nodded. “You could say that.”
“Do you think it might be more appropriate to give me a raise of thirty percent?”
Hollingsworth paused, then mopped his head and cleared his throat. “I think it could be arranged.”
Jackson didn’t know whether to shout in victory or brace himself for the depths of hell. If Hollingsworth was willing to fork over the bucks, things must be in a helluva mess.
Three days later, Jackson stood on the grand porch of the mansion where Harlan Granger had spent most of his days since he’d hit the big time as an oil baron. He was one of the few who’d managed to survive and thrive during the rough times, and he’d done it by diversifying. By the time he passed away, Harlan owned a bit of everything.
Taking in the elegant architecture of the whiter-than-white building, large columns, polished brass fixtures, and well-kept porch, Jackson couldn’t help remembering the shabby house where he’d lived as a child. The tin roof had leaked, the floors were warped, and it was a wonder the faulty wiring hadn’t caused a fire. The hot water system was busted more often than it was working, so cold showers were the norm. He fought a twinge of feeling out of place. For a sliver of a moment, he was thirteen again, without a degree in accounting, wearing hand-me-down torn jeans from the local Goodwill store instead of the Brooks Brothers suit he’d bought on sale.
He didn’t belong here.
Jackson thought of Lori Jean Granger. She probably didn’t know what a cold shower was, and he was certain her home had always been warm when it was cold outside and cool when the summertime heat hit.
She also, however, hadn’t learned to manage her pocketbook, and by the looks of her accounts, he was going to have to teach her. It had taken some persistence, but he’d finally cracked Hollingsworth. Now he knew why no one else wanted this account. And he was still shaking his head over it. He’d imagined every possibility but the one Hollingsworth finally coughed up. As he’d begun to suspect, the woman scared them. Not, however, because she was a raging bitch, but because she was this sweet, helpless woman that men just couldn’t say no to like she had some mystical power over them or something. Jackson rolled his eyes. A Lorelei of accountants, with the ability to sink their careers into the bottom of the ocean. By the looks of her accounts, Till had rarely said no. Jack snorted. Well, Till had been a fool. Jackson wasn’t...and he would have no problem saying NO to Lori Jean Granger.
He shifted his heavy briefcase to his left hand and pressed the doorbell. Within a moment, a woman in a uniform answered the door. “You’re the accountant?” she asked.
He nodded and extended his hand, a memory of his mother flashing through his mind. She had been a maid, and she’d told him everyone, including the garbage man, deserved courtesy. The lesson had stuck. “I’m Jackson James, thank you. And you’re?”
She blinked in surprise. “I’m Mabel, thank you very much.” She accepted his hand and shot him a considerate glance that gave him the odd sense that she could see everywhere he’d been since he was born. “You’re new, aren’t you?”
“New to Miss Granger,” he said.
“I thought so. Please come into the parlor. Miss Granger will be right down.”
Hearing the echo of his shoes on the gleaming marble entryway, he shot a quick glance at the chandelier hanging from the ceiling and the double stairway leading to the second floor. He followed the housekeeper into a room furnished in cherry and walls lined with oil paintings and mirrors.
“Tilly, I have your favorite drink,” a young woman said in a musical voice just before the body attached to the voice entered the room. “Whisky, a double” Big blue eyes met his in consternation as the woman carried her prissy dog tucked under her right arm and in her left hand Tilly’s drink. “You’re not Tilly.”
Whoa! He inhaled and caught a draft of a scent that reminded him of the sweetest tease. So this was Lori Jean Granger in the flesh. She looked and smelled good enough to eat. He could see why those doddering old fools would be falling all over themselves. But he wasn’t a doddering old fool. Her skin looked like cream, her lips a deep pink rosebud currently set in a moue of unhappiness. Her blonde hair hung just past her showers like a silk curtain. Her white cotton dress with tiny red dots skimmed over breasts that reminded him of ripe peaches and down over the feminine curves of her waist and hips to just above her knees. She wore red high heels, the kind of heels that could give a man wicked fantasies. They were the kind of shoes a man wanted to see a woman wear when she wore nothing else.
Jackson pulled his brain out of its death spiral headed straight for his crotch and hardened his heart before another part of him turned hard. He met her gaze and extended his hand. “I’m Jackson James. I’ve been assigned to handle your account. Mr. Till has retired.”
She frowned. “I didn’t realize.”
Jackson nodded. “It was a surprise to a lot of people.” But not to the partners, since Mr. Till had royally screwed up.
She shot him a troubled glance. “Oh, well, would you like some whiskey?”
She looked as if she could use it. He shook his head. “I don’t drink on the job.”
“Oh, that makes sense.” She glance around and set the drink down on a table and turned back to him. “Mr. James, then.” She shifted the dog to the other arm and shook his hand. “I’m Lori Jean. It was kind of you to make a house call. I do need to arrange for some additional funds.”
“We should discuss the status of your trust. You’ve talked to your attorney?” he asked.
She gestured toward a chair. “Please have a seat. Yes, I talked with Clarence. He said something about the possibility of a more recent will.”
“That’s right,” Jackson said, wondering if she was truly in the dark or if she was just acting. It didn’t matter, he thought as he opened his briefcase and pulled out three fat files. He was ready to turn on the light. “A more recent will has been found, and your father stipulated that half of your trust will be given to you when you’re thirty and the other half when you reach fifty-five. Until then, you’ll be given a sizeable annual allowance. Unfortunately, you’re twenty-four years old and you have spent your allowance through your twenty-eighth birthday. Some adjustments will have to be made in your spending.”
She blinked at him. “Are you sure? I probably spend too much on clothes, but most of my money goes to charitable foundations.” She lifted her shoulders and smiled. “I’m a philanthropist. Tilly always found a way to squeeze some money out of the trust for me.”
That was why Tilly had retired. Tilly had skated a fine line of getting the firm in trouble over how much he had allowed the Granger babe to get her well-manicured fingers on.
“Mr. Till didn’t have the information regarding the final will.”
“So are you saying that my father left me all this money, but I can’t touch it even for a good cause?”
“Exactly. You may live in the house and you will be taken care of, but there is a limit to the amount you are allowed to spend.”
Her eyebrows furrowed and she absently stroked her dog. “But what if it’s for charity?”
“There is still a limit.”
She gave a sigh of impatience. “But this is what I do. I’m a philanthropist. I fund worthy causes.”
“Not when you don’t have the funds.”
“What am I supposed to do until I turn thirty?” she demanded.
“You still have two years’ worth of allowance. If you budget your money”
“Budget!” she echoed. “My father had so much money he couldn’t spend it fast enough. I can’t spend it fast enough.”
“You’ve made an impressive start,” Jackson muttered.
“Budget,” she said again. “I can’t believe this.”
“I can help you. That’s why I’m here.” It hadn’t taken long for Jackson to figure out exactly what his job was and why he had been chosen. His job was to say no to Lori Jean Granger because no one else could. His job was to teach the woman some real-world restraint, and the reason he had been chosen was because his bosses knew that when he came to heiresses who spent money with the same ease most people sent water down the drain, Jackson had no heart at all.
Lori didn’t like this accountant. She frowned as she watched his face, all stern lines and no-nonsense scowls. She wanted a different one. She wanted sweet old Tilly back. Tilly had chastised her about her donations, but after a double shot of whiskey, he’d always found a way to loosen the purse strings.
The attorney, Clarence, had left her several messages, but Lori had been away visiting one of her sisters and her brother in Philadelphia. Ever since Harlan died, she'd been trying to fill up the empty space inside her, but so far, nothing had worked. Being with her sister Katie and her family had helped a little, but Lori felt useless unless she was helping to fund her charities.
She had felt useless since her horrible horseback riding accident in college several years ago. She'd nearly died, and it had taken three surgeries and months of rehabilitation to put her back together again. Riding had been the passion of her life, and she hadn't ridden a horse since. First, her father had forbidden it. Now, without him, she was too frightened. Scaredy-cat is what her sister Delilah would have called her, and Delilah would have been right.
Lori bit her lip and felt the beginning of an unwelcome but familiar edgy sensation. She was one of four offspring, and she'd gotten lucky with the sperm donor. She'd won the lottery when it came to fathers. Her father had not only loved and adored her, he'd also been loaded. The only thing he'd requested in trade for his devotion and riches was that she leave her mother, half sisters, and half brother behind. She'd been willing to hide her contact with her half sisters and brother until the accident. After that, she just couldn't hide her desire to connect with them anymore, and she feared that was what had broken Harlan's heart.
She'd felt guilty most of her life. Guilty for having a wealthy father. Guilty for having siblings he didn't approve of.
The nasty, edgy feeling built inside her so that she couldn't sit still. "There must be some way," she ventured. "Some creative accounting way"
"Creative accountants and their clients often end up in prison."
Lori glanced at him again. She was surprised they'd sent someone so young. He didn't seem the least bit affected by her appearance. She wondered if he was gay. He didn't look gay. Except for his suit, he didn't look like an accountant, either. He was tall, with broad shoulders. His nose looked as if it had been broken, but he wasn't ugly. He wasn't handsome, either. Strong jaw, she noticed. She had the un-fun sense that he would be stubborn.
"There's got to be a way around this," she said.
He placed a file of papers on the coffee table. "I'm leaving you with a copy of the will and the amount of allowance you're due for the next six years. We can meet again tomorrow," he said, then paused. "Provided you don't start any new charitable foundations or go on any shopping sprees."
She frowned at his dry tone. "I don't like your attitude, Mr. James. I'm not sure I want to work with you. Perhaps I should call Mr. Hollingsworth about working with someone else."
"Good luck," Mr. James said in a confident tone that grated on her.
"Why good luck?" She demanded.
"Because everyone else said no to the job. I'm the only sap they could talk into taking you on. They're all afraid you'll turn them into mush and send their careers down the toilet."
"I'm not that difficult to work with! I'm not rude or arrogant or"
"No. You just come across as so sweet and helpless that you make men feel like they have to take care of you. They want to give you everything you ask for, everything you wish for."
She didn't like the image he was painting of her. She didn't like it at all. "I'm not helpless."
He cracked half a smile that didn't reach his piercing eyes. "Here's your chance to prove it."