“Six months.”

I stared at the check Dr. Willis Schumacher had given me when I visited him in the hospital, trying to understand how this could have happened. All right, I understood how it happened. On an intellectual level anyway.

A hand reached out and tugged my hair, successfully getting my attention. Victor, my pain-in-the-ass older brother was grinning at me. He’d always pissed me off when he pulled my hair as a kid, but it had always been impossible not to smile at least a little.

Only a little, though.

It would take quite a bit more to make me smile as much as I normally did. I didn’t get down often, but the past week had managed to shoot my mood straight down to the level of toxic.

“Aw, come on, Sis.” Vic braced his elbows on the table and leaned down, trying to catch my gaze. His dark red hair was the exact same shade as mine and the wind blew it back from his face. “It’s going to work out.”

The brisk April breeze had managed to rip my hair from its loose knot, so I glared at him through a tangle of hair. “Six fucking months!”

He sighed and leaned back in his chair. “Toni…”

“Stop it, Vic.”

Aggravated, I surged up from the wrought iron chair and started to pace. We’d met for coffee in Bryant Park, which showed how well Vic knew me. At twenty-seven, he was three years older than me and we’d always been close. It had been Vic and me against our three older brothers more times than I could count. And he knew that what I needed right now was to vent.

“Doc Schumacher had a heart attack, Toni.”

Sometimes, I needed somebody to yell at since I couldn’t yell at life.

“Really?” I practically snarled at him. “So that’s why I spent ten minutes pounding on his chest?”

 

Ribs had cracked. I’d never forget the sound of it. Rubbing the heel of my hand over my chest, I swallowed back the bile that rose there even as I thought of it now, days later.

Vic lapsed into silence. Doc Schumacher, my boss – former boss now – was one of my oldest friends. One of my family’s oldest friends. I’d known him since I was a little girl. He was part of the reason I decided I wanted to help people. I’d had a kitten when I was four, and she’d somehow managed to break her leg. He’d found me bawling in the alley next to my family’s house, the house where my parents still lived.

He’d helped calm the kitten – and me – down, then he’d stabilized her leg and taken me to my parents. Her name had been Reeses. Like the candy. She died a few years ago. I’d never forgotten how kind he’d been. That was one of the reasons I’d wanted to work for him while I put myself through college.

I guess that’s why I wasn’t prepared for the fact that the heart attack that almost killed him would also terminate my employment earlier than I’d planned. Willis had always seemed invincible to me. Even at seventy-two, I’d only seen him as strong and capable. I’d seen him that way up until the moment he collapsed. When he told me that his doctor told him he had to make major changes, I hadn’t truly realized what that would mean.

I was trying to be logical about this. Logical and not selfish, but the job that had paid my tuition, my living expenses, for my books, for everything these past few years was just…gone.

I was six months shy of being done with my Ph.D in psychology. I could have been done two years ago, but balancing the course load with my finances…well. It was basically impossible.

Feeling Vic’s gaze on me, I looked over at him. “Where am I going to find another job that will pay what I make and let me have the days off I need to finish up?”

“I might have an idea,” he said.

His dark eyes shifted away from mine, and I knew whatever he was thinking was probably a bad idea. I loved my big brother, but he wasn’t exactly known for his good ideas. I lifted my face to sky and blew out a breath.

Six damn months. The luck I had sometimes was just ridiculous. Although, looking at it logically, I wasn’t the one who’d technically died for six minutes, so I supposed I was being a bit petty.

“Talk about putting things in perspective,” I muttered.

“If you’re done talking to yourself…”

Glaring at him, I shoved my hair out of my face as the wind snatched at it again. I swore as it whipped across my face. Going to sit back by my brother, I dug through the messenger bag that doubled as a purse and book bag.

“Whatever idea you have probably isn’t the sort of job I want, Vic.”

I ran a brush quickly through the snarls and then separated my heavy hair into two sections. The braided pigtails might look juvenile to some, but it was a style that had been popular for a reason – it worked. Especially for pain-in-the-ass hair like mine.

“Fine.” Vic shrugged. “Don’t listen to me. I guess you can always go to work for the family business.”

I made a face at him, refusing to let the idea even settle in my brain. My family was close, as close as a family could be, really. But there was still tension between Vic and the rest of our brothers. And with Dad.

Vic had gotten into trouble as a teenager, and it still rubbed him wrong that Dad had left him to deal with his mess rather than bail him out even though Vic and I both knew it had been good for him.

But knowing it and liking it were two different things.

“All right, big brother, what exactly do you have to offer me?” I asked, cocking my eyebrow at him. “Dealing cards in some back alley game? Mixing drinks until two a.m.?”

He grimaced at the last one. “Well…”

“I can’t.”

I secured one braid and got to work on the other. Without saying anything else, I finished the second braid, and then dropped down onto the metal chair across from him and took his hand in both of mine. His big paw dwarfed my smaller ones. He was the tallest of all my brothers, towering over me by a foot.

“Vic, I love you, and thanks for trying, but I can’t pull those hours, finish up with school, and stay sane enough to help other people with their problems.” I knew it had only been because of Doc Schumacher’s kindness that I was able to get this far this fast. If I’d needed to get a different job, it would’ve taken me even longer to make it to this point.

Vic looked away, his face going a dull, ruddy red. He wanted to help so bad and I knew why.

Everybody had expected me to go off to Yale on a full ride.

I had expected it.

Then Vic had gotten into trouble, right as I’d been applying for scholarships. He’d gotten in trouble in the worst kind of way – hitting national news and everything.

What he’d done shouldn’t have affected me.

I was smart. No bones about it, I was fricking brilliant. I had graduated from high school at sixteen and, thanks to advanced placement courses, already had a good portion of pre-requisites under my belt. I’d already been accepted to Stanford to pursue my BA, and then on to my Masters before pursuing my Ph.D. But then the deadline for financial aid had passed and … nothing.

So I stayed home.

At first, I told everyone that it just made more sense for me to stay and finish up my BA rather than worrying about transferring credits. I needed to be around my family during the trial anyway. Mom had needed me too. When I’d started on my Masters, no one bothered asking why I hadn’t moved away.

The sound of my phone whistling at me interrupted my heavy brood marathon. I jolted and looked down to see that yet another brother was calling to check up on me. The oldest this time.

I blew out a breath.

Six months. That’s all I had needed.

“Hey, Deacon.”

Deacon was the opposite of Vic in every way. Grounded and steady, my oldest brother was following in my dad’s footsteps and he took the job seriously. Too seriously, and I didn’t just mean he was a damn good electrician. He also seemed to think he was there to watch out for me, like I was still some skinny, brainy little eleven year-old, heading into middle school without him there to look out for me.

“I think I might have a line on a job for you,” Deacon said without preamble.

Rolling my eyes, I said, “It’s sooooo wonderful to hear from you too. Yeah, I’m here with Vic, but it’s a great time to talk and tell me how to live my life.”

Across from me, Vic was laughing and I glared at him. Vic may have been the screw-up, but I was the baby…and none of my brothers ever let me forget it.

I could practically hear him smirking.

“Okay, brat. How are you?”

“Lousy,” I countered. “How’s the family?”

Deacon had married the girl he’d fallen for in tenth grade. They’d gotten engaged after she graduated from high school and had gotten married six months after that. Their fifteenth anniversary loomed in front of them, as well as the first birthday of their fifth, and last, child. Beth had made it very clear that this one would be the last or she’d be giving Deacon a vasectomy herself. Without anesthetic.

“Let’s not discuss that.” Some strain came through my brother’s voice.

“What’s wrong?”

I could practically hear the mental debate and finally, he sighed. “Hell, we think Emma has chicken pox. There’s a girl at the daycare…I don’t know the whole story, but somehow she got in without getting vaccinated, and now Emma has it.”

“Oh, no.” Mentally, I was crossing my fingers and hoping, but Beth was a nurse. She knew what chicken pox looked like. I wanted to tell my brother not to worry, but I remembered what it had been like to have chicken pox as a kid and two year-old Emma was going to be climbing the walls. “Keep me updated.”

“I will. Anyway…the job.”

I couldn’t even talk my way out of whatever he had to say now. He was stubborn like that. “Okay, what is it?”

I behaved myself while he was talking and waited until he fell silent before I spoke. “This is Deacon Gallagher, right? Old man? Dark brown hair?” I glanced at Vic, who appeared to be waiting for me to share. “What the hell are you thinking?”

“Toni, be reasonable.”

At least he didn’t scold me for swearing like he’d done when I was younger. Eleven years older than me, he’d taken it upon himself to be another parent pretty much since moment one.

“It’s a job and your hours are negotiable with your boss. You’re matched by hours available and your personality.” He paused and then added, “Okay, keeping that in mind, you’re in trouble.”

“Very funny, asshat,” I said darkly. “You’re screwing with me. A personal assistant? I’m going to school to be a psychiatrist, not a secretary.”

Deacon’s voice hardened. “Our mom’s a secretary, Toni. Remember?”

He didn’t have to point that out for me to feel bad. I wanted to kick myself the second the words left my mouth. “I know that.” Self-conscious, I glanced over at Vic. He gave me a sympathetic look, but it didn’t help.

“Look, Toni. You know what Mom and Dad always told us. There’s no shame in any kind of honest work. And it’s not like it’d be forever. Just until you finish your degree. That does still matter to you, right?”

Nothing else he said could have made me go.

Absolutely nothing.

 

***

 

The gleaming of Winter Enterprises made me think of a penis. I couldn’t help it. I was the youngest of four brothers and they were guys to the nth degree. Everything was a penis metaphor to them, even if it wasn’t. They’d been overprotective, but that hadn’t kept them from talking like typical guys around me.

I actually felt a little bad about thinking that way about Winter Enterprises. While they’d been involved in charities since they were founded by Dominic Snow a few years ago, he’d recently announced that he’d founded In From the Cold to help find people who’d been victims of, or involved with, human trafficking. The foundation had gotten a lot of extra press recently due to the scandal of some high society woman who’d gotten arrested for conspiring to blackmail Snow and his fiancé. Considering his fiancé was a small town girl who’d become his assistant and was now wearing his ring, it had been like Christmas for the media.

Shaking my head in an attempt to clear it, I moved forward. All the people milling around made my nerves jack up even more and that just irritated me even more. I didn’t like being nervous. Ask me to organize and keep track of the workings of an entire doctor’s office, I’m fine. Put me in the middle of my brothers and their crazy friends, no problem. Professionally and with my family, I was a rock, but this crowded job fair was turning me into a five foot, twenty-four year-old ball of nerves.

Taking a deep breath, I made my way inside and looked around, taking a minute to acclimate. Early in life, I’d learned to deal with being thrown into situations where I wasn’t comfortable. One of the many joys of having always been smart.

Lines for registering, lines to get sorted…

What a fucking mess.

I took another look over some of the groups clustered around, and had the sinking sensation I’d have to tell my brother that this just wasn’t going to work out. These were so not my kind of people.

Many of them were dressed to the nines in designer names and expensive haircuts. And then there was me, with my cute sundress and chic little shrug draped over my arm. I had a file and my iPad, while others carried giant briefcases and padfolios likely stuffed with impressive resumes.

“Something of a zoo, isn’t it?”

The quiet voice came from next to me and I glanced up to see a stocky, pleasant-looking man standing next to me. With his salt-and-pepper hair, I put his age in the early forties. “I’d say that sums it up.” I couldn’t help but add, “I see mostly herd animals, very few standing out from the pack.”

That elicited a chuckle, his dark blue eyes sparkling.

“If you don’t mind my asking, what position are you applying for?”

I took a closer look at him and realized with a start that he was an employee here. Not that he wore a nametag. This place probably stopped with the nametags outside the lobby.

“Personal assistant,” I said slowly. I shifted toward him, using the movement to tuck my single file folder behind my back. I was really starting to think this was a bad idea.

Exclusive.”

I didn’t know what to say, so I just nodded. Exclusive was the name Winter Enterprises had given to the new service offering to match up personal assistants with the New York elite. Again, I told myself I was an idiot. This so wasn’t the job for me. What did I know about helping out the jet set?

What did I care about the jet set?

“May I?” He held out a hand, clearly waiting for the file I’d stowed behind me.

Reluctant, I turned over the file. He opened and skimmed it, but I had the feeling he was more interested in me than in what a couple of papers had to say. “What would you do if your employer received a call that they were being investigated by the IRS for tax fraud?”

“Call their accountant,” I responded without even thinking. What did I know about their taxes? “And probably whatever lawyer they have on retainer for that sort of thing,” I added after a moment. If they were rich enough to use a service like this, then they probably had a lawyer.

He flicked me a look over the edge of the file, but I couldn’t read it.

“Your client asks you to pick up someone at the airport and to make sure that their luggage bypasses security. Would you ask questions?”

Frowning, I held his gaze. This was a loaded question. I could already tell. Finally, I shrugged and said, “I would tell my client that, while I don’t need to know what’s in the luggage, I wouldn’t be comfortable bending the law. If the client insisted, I would hand in my notice. I don’t want to work for criminals.”

He nodded and held out a hand. “I’m Robson Findley. Come on. I’ll finish your interview myself.”

 

***

 

It was the quickest and weirdest interview of my life. Instead of asking me about my previous experience, he hammered me with more odd questions.

It’s your off night and you get called to order some flowers and candy sent to an unknown address. What do you do?

You’re meeting a friend for your employer and the friend hits on you. Do you tell your employer?

You’re visiting your employer and you hear some unusual noises coming from one of the rooms. What do you do?

It didn’t take me long to realize that this wasn’t going to work. I didn’t interrupt though. I wanted to be able to tell Deacon I at least gave it a fair shot. I waited until there was a gap and then rose. “Mr. Findlay, I really appreciate the opportunity, but I don’t think this job would be right for me.”

“Yes?” He cocked his head, eyes shrewd, but not annoyed. “Just why is that?”

I didn’t have an exact reason I could give, and in a moment of utter desperation and stupidity, I blurted out, “I don’t like rich people.”

It sounded offensive enough that I assumed I’d be thrown out on my ass as soon as he called security. I lifted my chin, crossed my arms over my chest, and waited.

To my surprise, Findlay laughed. He dropped down into the chair behind his desk, tipped back his head and actually laughed. A few moments passed before he stopped, but when he looked at me, his eyes were still glinting with mirth. “Can I be blunt with you for a moment?”

I stared at him.

“Sometimes, I don’t like them much either.”

 

The moment he said it, he blinked, almost as if startled he’d actually said it.

It was a look I was familiar with. I was always having people tell me things they wouldn’t have told anyone else. I’d been told I have one of those faces. It’s not really all that great.

 

He cleared his throat and began shuffling papers on his desk. “As I was saying…”

He hadn’t been saying anything, but I didn’t call him on the lie, just watched as he regained his composure.

“I think you’re going to work out rather well, Ms. Gallagher. Assuming we find you the right match. And while I still need you to fill out the forms, I already have a couple of ideas for good matches.”

Hesitant, I eyed the forms. I still had some serious misgivings about this.

“Perhaps you should have an idea what it pays,” he said with a smile.

The figure he named made my jaw drop.

Hello college tuition.

 

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