Sector Chief Davis motioned for Maon to follow him. “It’s good to have you back on duty.”
“Thank you, sir. Glad to be back.”
“This assignment shouldn’t be difficult. Shipments missing. Possible embezzlement. Ordinarily we wouldn’t assign a marshal. Let the local authorities deal with it. But it involves the Shirley family. Discretion and diplomacy are essential.”
“Understood, sir.” Maon opened the door to the conference room and waved Davis inside. Maon’s jaw clenched. The rest of his career assigned to busywork stretched before him in agonizing stultification. Doomed to pander to the rich and famous; at least his charm would be useful. He was never going to be selected for data analysis if he was given cases like this. This was worse than prisoner transfer. With a roll of his shoulders, he plastered a friendly smile on his face before he entered.
The two women seated at the long dark table were the antithesis of each other. The dull government-issue furnishings were brightened by the older woman. Dressed in a flamboyant print jacket and slacks, she was decked in enough jewelry for two women. Her fingers were laden with rings, and multiple necklaces staggered down her bright blue blouse. Inquisitive eyes snapped to Maon.
The younger one looked familiar. Where had he seen her? Not Tallav. No. Sack Girl from Beta Tau. Today she wore a shapeless gray jumper over a lighter gray ribbed turtleneck. He wasn’t certain, but it looked like her nostrils flared when he focused on her. Mother and daughter. What a pair.
Davis said, “Ladies, I’d like to introduce you to the marshal who will handle your case. This is Marshal Maon Keefe. Marshal Keefe, Audrina Shirley and her daughter, Selina Shirley.”
Maon held out his hand. “Nice to meet you both.”
Audrina responded palm down, fingers curled. Maon realized she expected him to kiss it, so he complied. When he turned to the daughter, he intended to do the same, but she refused to turn her hand, allowing him to take her fingertips in a weak shake. He gave her a half smile. Her head jerked to the side when she snatched her hand away. Maon bit back a chuckle. Timid little thing. If he had to do VIP duty, at least it might prove entertaining.
Sector Chief Davis settled into a seat. “I’ve assigned Marshal Keefe to your case because he has the skills needed to get to the bottom of the problems you’ve been experiencing. Keefe, I’ve sent you all the pertinent files. You should have all the access codes you’ll need. Warrants have already been obtained, authorizing you to search the records of the different companies and individuals involved. You’ll find those in the folder.”
Maon accessed the information on his tablet. “Yes, sir. It’s all here.”
“Excellent.” Davis clapped his hands together. “I understand the ladies have additional facts, so I’ll leave you to get on with things.” With as much haste as he could politely get away with, he rose, shook each lady’s hand, and left.
As soon as the door had closed, Audrina shifted forward in her chair. “Marshal Keefe…Maon. May I call you Maon?” She fluttered her eyelashes at him.
“Yes, ma’am. That would be fine.” Maon fixed an amused gaze on her.
“Please, call me Audrina.” She let her gaze drift slowly down Maon’s body until the view was blocked by the table.
Maon scratched the corner of his mouth, working hard not to laugh outright. “With pleasure, Audrina.”
Audrina preened. “Maon, I’m not really sure why we are here. Selina is making a fuss over nothing. These things have been happening for years. It’s part of business. Katerina is one of our oldest employees. She’s like family. The idea she could steal from us is ludicrous.”
While Audrina had been having her say, Selina’s face tensed, her lips pressing together. “Mother. Normal companies do not have the kinds of problems you have. The shipments lost over the last five years have been worth hundreds of thousands of credits. As business manager, Katerina never attempted to solve the problem. She just wrote off the expenses.”
“Now dear, Maon will get the idea I’m not professional.”
“Oh, Mother. Don’t be upset. Creativity is your strength. Without you, the House of Shirley wouldn’t exist.” She sighed when Audrina turned her face away.
SELINA HADN’T WANTED to distress her mother, but this had to be investigated. If Dad were here, he would handle this, keeping her mother unaware until and unless measures had to be taken. Dad was gone, and Selina didn’t have his deft touch when her mother got emotional.
The marshal, Maon Keefe—why did it have to be him?—directed his next question at her. “You’ve had additional shipments go missing?”
Keep it businesslike. This is one itch you cannot scratch…shouldn’t even be thinking of scratching.
“Yes. Three. A shipment of evening gowns for Hampton in the Sympallan Drift. Swimwear to a boutique on Beta Tau. And the samples for the new line we are manufacturing on Qingdao in the Bing Lon Sector. The Qingdao delivery had security tracking devices which were deactivated while the package was waiting in a transshipment warehouse on Tollonia.” Selina scowled, locking onto Maon’s navy-blue eyes. A hint of something like the rays of a star sapphire flashed from them, sending a spark straight at her. Damn.
She dropped her gaze, fixating on the table. Maybe he’d think she was shy or one of those Tallavan women who disliked men. It didn’t matter as long as he didn’t discern her attraction to him and didn’t connect her to the Whip Hand.
She flicked her gaze up for a moment. Maon was tapping his steepled index fingers to his lips.
“Hmm… Ladies, I’ll need access to your source records. A forensic accountant may be needed, but first I want to check for patterns in your lost shipments. It sounds like this is a long-term problem. With enough data points, I’ll be able to make useful interpolations.”
Her gaze still focused on the table in front of her, Selina mindlessly twiddled a button on her jacket. “Our headquarters is here. In Cahernamon. You’ll receive complete access.” When she realized what her fingers were doing, she dropped her hand to her lap, lifted her chin, and stared straight at Maon. “You will report your findings to me. Katerina does not know we are looking into the finances, just the missing shipments. Please be discreet with her and anyone else you come in contact with inside or out of the House of Shirley. We have a reputation to uphold. Scandal is unacceptable. Are we clear?”
Maon’s body stiffened at her words; his fingers gripped and released the edge of the table. “Yes, Ms. Shirley. I hear, and I obey.” He locked his gaze on hers, and when she didn’t look away, he grinned. “I think we’ll work well together.”
Selina slowly leaned forward, offering her hand, her brow furrowing the tiniest bit. “Good. I’ll expect you tomorrow morning.” It was clear she’d have to be direct and to the point to discourage Marshal Keefe’s penchant for flirting.
Maon took Selina’s hand, keeping it pressed between the warmth of his fingers and palm. His clasp was firm but gentle as though he’d tempered his strength while exerting the exact amount of pressure that would please Selina. “Why not this afternoon? I’ll go over the case file and meet you at thirteen? Or we could do lunch together?”
With a jerk, Selina pulled from his grasp. Gods, what was she thinking? He was not tailoring his actions to suit her. Nor did she want him to, except where this case was concerned. What was wrong with her? Now he was looking at her with a pleased, almost smug expression that made her nostrils flare and her cheeks, already warm, heat further.
Audrina chose that moment to join the conversation again. “Lunch would be lovely.” Her fingers brushed Selina’s arm when she asked, “Don’t you think so, dear?”
“Mother, you may lunch with the marshal, but I’m much too busy.” She flashed a glare of warning. Then she redirected her gaze to Maon. “I’m sure the marshal understands.”
Maon flourished a cheerful grin. “I’d be delighted to take you to lunch, Audrina. Where would you like to eat?”
Audrina swayed in her chair. Eyes gleaming, she said, “Oh, let’s go to the River Bend. If I’m going to lunch with a handsome young man, I want to show him off.”
“Mother!” Selina knew her mother was just having fun, but with Maon Keefe?
“I feel the same when I’m going to lunch with a beautiful woman.”
If her mother had heard the low chuckle the man had made before responding, it would only encourage further flirtation. Not what Selina wanted, but better he play with her mother than Selina herself.
When Maon rose to his feet, Selina released a quiet sigh.
“Shall I pick you up, or would you prefer to meet me at the restaurant, Audrina?” Maon asked.
“Let’s meet there at twelve. I have some shopping to do this morning.”
“That sounds good. And I’ll see you, Selina, at thirteen or a little after.”
Selina gave a curt nod and allowed Maon to escort them to the lift.
* * * *
With a bounce in his step, Maon returned to his desk and brought up the case file on his vidscreen. The House of Shirley. He’d been wrong. This was definitely more interesting than prisoner transport. Maybe it wasn’t busywork. At least with this assignment, he’d be able to use his analytical skills. With the bots he had available to him, it shouldn’t take long to discover who was stealing from the company. If he timed it right, he’d have the chance to figure out Selina Shirley. What a bundle of contradictions. He’d pegged her as shy and passive, but she had a bossy, aggressive side that was enticing.
Two hours later his EBC signaled it was time to head to his lunch with Audrina Shirley. Had any other marshals read the file or researched the House of Shirley company before handing the case off to him? Couldn’t have. They wouldn’t have missed the obvious red flag. For now he needed to get going. The restaurant was a short walk, but he didn’t want to be late.
Although his view was partially blocked by the shimmering blue streams that created a lightfall behind the hostess station, Maon scanned the restaurant while telling the hostess he was meeting Audrina Shirley. He didn’t spot her among the muted blues and greens of the leafy decor. In one corner, another larger lightfall illuminated water trickling in a gentle cascade over river rocks, the sound filling in the gaps in conversations in the room. While the hostess led him to the table, winding through pale blue linen-covered tables packed with lunching members of the landed class, Audrina stretched her arm up, fingers waving in a rapid flutter of motion. Shit, he liked this woman. She enjoyed having fun as much as he did.
“Ms. Shirley, could a man ask for a lovelier luncheon companion?” He swept her hand to his lips for a quick peck of greeting, giving an amused smile in response to the twinkle in her eyes.
“Marshal Keefe, you are such a flatterer.” While Maon sat, she raised her voice. “I’m so sorry Selina couldn’t join us, but this will give us the opportunity to speak plainly.” She reached out and patted his hand, returning to a normal volume. “That should do. One must give the gossips a direction to head.”
“Why, Audrina! You have depths of deviousness I would never have suspected.”
Audrina arched an eyebrow at him. “Selina hides behind a mousy persona, but she is a catch of the first order, Marshal.”
“Yes, ma’am. I’m beginning to see that.” He was young, marriageable, and a marshal. All these things pointed to potential matchmaking. However, the plan for his future didn’t include marriage. Matrimony was one certain failure he could and would avoid at all costs.
Conversation stopped while they placed their orders. Maon waited while Audrina looked out the window next to their table. Her face had grown solemn, all traces of the gregarious flirt gone. Without turning to look at him, she began. “Hold tight to life, Maon. It can take you places, wonderful places, and then plunge you into murky sludge that steals your breath.” She turned to face him, eyes piercing him.
“Yes, ma’am. I’ve learned that,” Maon responded. The chair’s padding abruptly insufficient, he shifted his legs while his mind turned back to the failures he still struggled to surmount.
Audrina held his gaze. “Have you? Yes, I believe you have. You’ll understand then that when I lost my husband, my life altered radically. I’m about to tell you a secret no one besides Selina and myself know. For the last year and a half, Selina has been the creative force behind the Audrina line of the House of Shirley. Since my husband’s death. The House of Shirley was always small. My husband and I never cared to expand beyond the Tallavan sector. When Selina joined us five years ago, she took the business farther into the Federation.”
Audrina paused while their food was served. She plucked a minicuke from her salad and nibbled before continuing. “Selina left the business of the Audrina line to us—my husband and I. She brought on designers in locations throughout the Federation and established production to support the new lines. How she manages all this, including finding new talent to replace those who go out on their own once they’ve made a name for themselves at the House of Shirley, I’ll never know.” Audrina shook her head gently. A brief smile made her look younger. “When Geoff died, I lost a piece of myself that I’ve never gotten back. I’d come in and muck about the office, but my design concepts were dreadful. Selina worked at night, slipping me a data cube each morning. We’ve carried on that way ever since. I suppose this question of missing shipments wouldn’t have become an issue if Selina hadn’t decided to expand in this sector.”
Maon swallowed his bite of sandwich and asked, “How so?”
“Well, most people don’t realize that couture alone doesn’t make much money. Audrina Couture always lost more than it made. The profit comes from the ready-to-wear lines that are less expensive and more”—she waved a hand in the air—“how would you say it…more practical?” she said, laughing at her own expense. “Things the average consumer wears for everyday life.”
“I’ve seen some of your couture designs. I understand.”
“Yes, well Geoff handled that part of the company while Katrina managed the couture portion. We expected to lose money and never thought much about it. Selina has the brain for business. We would have continued on, but with Selina now designing for the Audrina line, she fell in love with the pyantha
yarns used in our signature evening wraps. She wanted to market a new Audrina professional women’s ready-to-wear line that incorporated pyantha-based fabrics.”
Audrina’s eyebrows rose. “Really, a marvelous idea. So Selina.” Her head shook back and forth the tiniest bit, and her eyes bored in on him as though daring him to suggest otherwise.
“We’d been buying pyantha fiber from the same producer for, well, forever. It’s spun into yarn for hand knitting in our privately owned mill on Gallarda before being sent to Tallav. Selina discovered what she terms the abnormalities while deciding on the best location for the fabric mill needed for the new line. She insisted on an investigation. So here we are.” With a sigh, Audrina picked up her fork and took a bite of her salad.
Maon, who’d finished his sandwich while listening, leaned back in his chair. “I’m glad she did.” Thoughts raced through his head. The case files had already led him in a particular direction that Audrina’s narrative had reinforced. He couldn’t wait to delve into all the Audrina shipping receipts.
* * * *
Selina watched Maon peruse the House of Shirley’s Audrina offices. Creativity exploded in vivid colors, splashing across a neutral white decor, blending and complementing each other in a myriad of swatches, accessories, and garments. Vidscreens and high-tech sketch pads were accompanied by colored pencils and paper pads. His face didn’t reveal what he was thinking beyond a rather bland curiosity.
Selina brought his attention back to her by gesturing to the stocky woman standing expectantly beside her. The woman’s boxy business attire accentuated the tension in her body.
“Katerina, this is Marshal Keefe. He’ll be looking into Audrina’s shipping problem. Marshal, Katerina Donnelly. She’s operations manager for Audrina.”
Maon extended his hand to Katerina. “How do you do, Ms. Donnelly? I’ll try not to take too much of your time.”
“Ms. Shirley believes it’s important, so I’ll do whatever I can to assist you,” Katerina responded, one shoulder lifting ever so slightly.
Maon nodded. “Thank you.”
Selina’s response was brusque. Inside she bristled. Katerina couldn’t have made it clearer. She didn’t agree that the investigation was critical. But then, if she were guilty, that was exactly the tack Selina had expected her to take. “Please give Marshal Keefe any information he requests. Have you set up a working space for him as I asked?”
Katerina’s lips flattened to a thin line before she responded. “Yes, ma’am. I’ve made one of the intern desks available for his exclusive use, and Records is prepared to grant him secure access to the entire system.”
“Excellent, Katerina. Please assign an intern to assist him.” Selina turned her focus to Maon. “Marshal, please join me in my office.”
“Certainly,” Maon said to Selina and then addressed Katerina. “I’m looking forward to working with you, Ms. Donnelly.” Arm extended, he smiled and shook Katerina’s hand.
Unable to watch Maon making nice with the woman she suspected of the thefts, Selina turned on her heel and headed out the door to wait for Maon to catch up at the lifts. Before he reached her side, she punched the button to call the lift to take them to the executive offices of the House of Shirley.
Selina found it easier to be in Maon Keefe’s presence if she didn’t look at him and spoke to him as little as possible. The unsettled reaction that his proximity triggered was unnerving. It went back to those winks at the Whip Hand on Beta Tau. The man was so damn confident. He couldn’t have guessed they’d eyed each other across the public play space. The latex hood she’d worn had hidden her face. That was a relief. Asking for a replacement marshal was impossible. If it wasn’t for her standing on Tallav, her concerns would have been passed on to the local Guardia. She was stuck with him, but she wouldn’t let him interfere with her personal life. No matter how attractive he was. He wasn’t her type. Not in the least. Why was it taking the lift so long to move two floors?
“That’s a lovely shade of gray you’re wearing today.”
“Thank you.” Her jaw clenched.
“Does it have a particular name? Placid pewter? Faded shadow? It’s very… gray.”
“Not that I’m aware.” Damn the man. I’d like to…
The lift opened, and she strode toward her office, ignoring anyone who attempted to halt her. The look of thunder on her face caused most to deviate from her path. “Antoinette, please let Delia know our meeting is slipped back ten minutes. Thank you.” She briskly swept inside. “Please close the door behind you, Marshal.”