Rosenwyn Tremain stared through her BMW’s windshield at the towering gray struts of the road bridge spanning the River Tamar. The gateway to Cornwall. She swallowed anxiously as the line of traffic edged closer to the bridge. In a few minutes she’d be over, on Cornish soil—or, more precisely, Cornish asphalt.
A slash of lightning cut across the leaden sky, briefly relieving the dull afternoon. She shuddered, then nervously fluffed her short hair.
Never set foot in Cornwall. Her mother’s plea whispered in her memory as her car crawled forward.
Rose passed beneath the Cornish coat of arms marking the center point of the Tamar Bridge. Tension clenched her belly. She snatched a breath, held it, half expecting to be smote down by a thunderbolt.
“Oh, for goodness’ sake.” She slapped her palms against the steering wheel. “Pull yourself together, woman, and get over it.” What was the worst that could happen? She’d get a hostile reception from the business she was due to investigate. That wouldn’t be a first. No one liked being told they were insolvent.
Just over an hour later, Rose maneuvered her car along a narrow Cornish lane. She glanced at her satellite navigation system and gnawed her lip. Either the satellite was faulty, or the Elephant’s Nest Public House was in the middle of nowhere. She had a nasty suspicion it was the latter.
She crawled until the road opened out at the head of an estuary. Stopping on a small humpbacked bridge, she stared at the pretty scatter of lighted cottage windows glowing in the curve of the valley. Living in London, she found it easy to forget places like this existed.
The satellite system directed her along a narrow track beside the estuary for another half a mile. Finally, an ancient building with whitewashed walls intersected by black beams shone in her headlights. She swung her car around and parked near the front door. Her watch read five thirty, nearly opening time.
The plan had been to make a start on the financial assessment this afternoon, but the drive had taken longer than expected. As she was late, the best she could do was get the preliminaries out of the way so she could make a quick start in the morning. A small review job like this should take only two days. Then she could spend the rest of the week tracing her father.
Climbing out, she slung her purse strap over her shoulder and grabbed her briefcase. A cool breeze flowed up the estuary with the incoming tide. Salty air tingled in her lungs. So, this was Cornwall—the county of her birth.
Checking out the parking lot, she noticed a red Porsche Boxster, spotless and gleaming beneath a streetlight. The license plate read, MICK. She grimaced. Maybe the problem with the business’s finances was an owner who spent the working capital. She’d met a few of those in her years as an accountant. Mr. Michael O’Connor’s private spending would be her first target—and he wouldn’t like that. Those she investigated never did.
As she walked toward the front door, she paused and stared at the incongruous sight of a fat pink elephant with a wicked grin perched on a nest of plastic twigs. Lucky the guy who owned this place had a sense of humor. He would probably need it when he received her report.
When she reached the entrance porch, the low drone of a powerful motorcycle engine rolled through the darkness behind her. Its headlight flickered amid the trees on the riverbank as it approached. Rose suppressed a strange compulsion to go inside before it arrived. The air vibrated with the thud of the engine as the machine slowed and, with a crunch of gravel, swung into the parking lot.
The man halted beside the Porsche, dropped a brown-booted foot to the ground, and turned his head toward her. The lamplight gleamed off the visor of his helmet. When he looked at her, the three linked stones on her necklace tingled warmly against her skin. She clasped them through her shirt to stop the weird sensation.
He twisted his hand on the throttle, and the roar of the engine snapped her out of her trance. Rose shivered as she took in his green combat pants and battered leather flight jacket. She hoped he wasn’t the owner of the pub.
Dragging her attention back to the pub, she cleared her throat, then strode through the door into the bar. The gentle lilt of traditional Irish music and the smell of wood smoke welcomed her in. After the plastic elephant out front, she was pleasantly surprised by the old-fashioned interior with its beamed ceiling, brass ornaments, and polished oak bar.
A middle-aged woman, with a mass of fair hair secured atop her head by an orange flower, looked up from where she was restocking the shelves behind the bar.
“We’re not open till six, m’ love.” She poked her thumb behind her. “Boss is still out back working his magic.”
Rose suspected the magic had something to do with the delicious smell of food emanating from the back. So Michael O’Connor cooked. He probably couldn’t afford to pay a chef.
Rose slipped a business card from the leather case in her pocket and held it out. “Sorry to call so late. Mr. O’Connor is expecting me. I just want to introduce myself tonight and get the lay of the land. I’ll be back to start work in the morning.”
The woman took the card and read out loud. “‘Rose Tremain. Francis Marchant Partnership.’ You got yourself an impressive list of letters after your name, but it don’t tell me what you’re here for.”
Rose assumed a neutral expression. Keeping the reason for her presence secret from the staff was always difficult. But it was necessary when investigating a business facing bankruptcy.
She gave the woman a reassuring smile. “Mr. O’Connor is expecting me. If you’d just give him my card, I’m sure he can spare me a few minutes tonight.”
The woman flicked the card between her fingers thoughtfully. “Now, which Mr. O’Connor would you be wanting?”
There were two? Rose cast her mind back to the job file. She was certain the Elephant’s Nest belonged to a sole proprietor. “My call is in connection with the pub.” Rose indicated the empty room. “Michael O’Connor’s the owner, I believe.”
The woman’s face split into a warm grin. “Our Mick. Right you are, then. Won’t be a mo.” She disappeared up the three steps leading into the back, and Rose glanced around, suddenly uneasy. She usually dealt with large organizations. She had an inkling this job was going to be very different.
The fair-haired woman scuttled back down the stairs, giggling, and Rose watched expectantly for her latest client to appear. If he were the cooperative sort, her job would be a lot easier.
Michael O’Connor ran down the three steps with the grace of a dancer, flicked back his wealth of chestnut curls, and flashed her a seductive grin.
Rose felt her jaw go slack. He was the prettiest man she’d ever seen. From his cobalt blue eyes to his perfect lips, everything about his face was finely formed and faultless. As he sauntered out from behind the bar, he hooked his thumbs in the front pockets of well-worn, skintight jeans and tilted his lips into a smile that could probably melt hearts at fifty paces.
Oh, my God. She eyed his body—she couldn’t help herself. He might be pretty, but there was nothing feminine about the muscles outlined beneath his scarlet T-shirt. She felt her mouth slip into a flirty smile and mentally slapped herself. Get a grip. But she couldn’t. She was intoxicated, losing her senses.
He halted before her and extended his hand. “’Tis a pleasure to meet you, Rose Tremain.” He rolled her name off his tongue like an endearment. She caught a whiff of spicy fragrance and felt a liquid tug of arousal deep in her belly.
She closed her eyes and swallowed. This was certainly a new technique for impeding her investigation. She’d faced clients who were hostile, unhelpful, and obstructive, but never before had a client dazzled her with sex appeal.
Opening her eyes, she struggled for control. She bit the inside of her lip hard enough to hurt as she shook his hand. His eyes glittered between spiky dark lashes like the warm blue waters of the Mediterranean, tempting her in for a dip. What heaven she would find if she slid into that water. Let it flow over her. Immersed herself. Gave in to the pleasure waiting to—
A crash of breaking glass behind the bar snapped her back to the room as though she’d been yanked out of sleep. She blinked. For a second her mind swam; then her head cleared. Michael O’Connor still looked pretty, but now her normal good sense kicked in. He was exactly the type of man she always avoided. She’d learned as a child that the beautiful people who hung around her mother were all gloss and no substance.
Professional distance, she repeated in her head. Realizing she still held his hand, she dropped it like a hot brick.
His eyes flickered with confusion. Tilting his head to one side, he pouted. “You’re a strong-willed lass. What’s your business with me, Rose Tremain?”
Rose straightened her back. “I assumed you were expecting me, Mr. O’Connor. You signed my firm’s letter of engagement and agreed to the appointment date.” Although the bank he was in debt to would have given him no choice in the matter.
He shrugged, pulled a squashed packet of cigarettes from his back pocket, and flipped one out. “Not sure I be remembering that.”
Okay, she had encountered this tactic before: denial. “Well, as luck would have it”—she gave him a polite smile, propped her briefcase on a table, and pulled out a copy of the letter he’d returned—“I have a copy here.”
He scowled at her, jabbed the cigarette between his lips, and lit it with a gold lighter. “Grand,” he said in a tone suggesting her presence was anything but. “Me office is this way.”
He led her behind the bar. As he passed the display of cigarettes, he tossed his half-full squashed pack into the trash and grabbed a new one. Okay, so he was extravagant and wasteful. Rose made a mental note to add those to the list of things he could correct to save money.
They mounted the steps, and she followed him along a short corridor with a kitchen off to one side. He took her through to a back entrance hall with a small reception desk in the corner. They must have rooms to let. Perhaps she could stay here?
“I don’t suppose you have any vacancies?”
He glanced back at her and his lips stretched into a grin. The hot, seductive glint in his eyes started to dissolve her brain again until she stamped on the feeling. How the hell did he do that when she had no interest in him?
“You after staying with me, darlin’? That can be arranged.”
Maybe staying here wasn’t such a brilliant idea. “No, forget it. I don’t want to inconvenience you. I should have booked ahead. I’ll find somewhere—”
“’Tis no inconvenience. You’ll have a room on the house.”
“I’d prefer to pay.” She refrained from telling him he needed all the revenue he could get.
He showed her through a door marked OFFICE behind the reception desk.
Rose paused on the threshold and glanced into the room expectantly. For the second time that evening, her mouth dropped open. The massive oak desk in the corner was hidden beneath piles of documents. Cardboard boxes were stacked beside it, also full of documents. But the thing that sent a chill of foreboding through her was not what she saw, but what she didn’t see.
“Where’s your computer?” She glanced behind the door and found nothing but a chair with a slat missing from its back.
Michael O’Connor laughed. She’d heard contagious laughs before, the sort that made you smile, even when you hadn’t heard the joke. Michael’s laugh had her grinning like a fool—at a problem.
“I can’t be doing with all those shenanigans. I like the old-fashioned ways.”
A sense of doom settled heavily in the pit of her stomach. She eyed the heaps of documents. The easy two-day job she’d expected took on mammoth proportions. It was vital to get the investigation out of the way quickly, or there wouldn’t be enough time to find her father. “Are your accounts recorded manually, then?” She searched for any sign of an analysis book but couldn’t see one.
“You’ll be needing me brother, Niall, if it’s computers and accounts you’re after. He’s the one with the gift in this family.”
Oh, thank God. Relief melted through her like the effect of a good cup of coffee. “Can you ask him if he’ll spare me a few hours in the morning to go through the records? From then on I’ll be fine alone, providing one of you remains available to answer questions.”
“Your wish is my command, darlin’.” Michael beamed his bone-melting smile at her again.
This time Rose caught herself before she responded inappropriately.
“I’m always available for a pretty girl,” he said with a wink.
Rose shrank inside from embarrassment. False flattery was one of her pet peeves. She hadn’t been a girl for many years, and her mother had made certain Rose had no illusions about her looks.
With a tight grip on her briefcase, she heaved a determined breath. This job wouldn’t be a problem. She’d complete her report on the Elephant’s Nest as fast as possible, then concentrate on the real reason for her visit to Cornwall. Niall O’Connor would be her point of contact. Hopefully he’d be easier to work with than Michael. Anyone logical enough to keep the financial records must be normal and down-to-earth.