Carlyle Stone glared at the Excel spreadsheet. Not even her death stare could change the bottom line. “Not good.”

   Her assistant’s shriek sent her hurrying into reception. “What’s wrong?”

   Desiree Hott stood barefoot on her desk, her eyes wide with fear. “Another mouse.”

   Carly sighed. “Those traps aren’t working. Did you see where it went?”

   “Wherever it went isn’t far enough.” Desiree shuddered. “You know how you hate spiders? That’s how I feel about mice.”

   “I was hoping we could get rid of them ourselves, but I’ll call an exterminator.”

   “Why don’t you call your dad?”

   “I told him, but he hasn’t done anything. Maybe this is the universe telling me to step away.”

   “Not true. The universe wants you to stay because if you don’t, the bad guys will win.”

   “Well, then, the universe is going to have to throw us some meatier cases, and by meatier, I don’t mean in the form of a rodent.”

   “It’s that bad?”

   Carly nodded. “Another few months and Stone Investigations won’t exist.”

   Frowning in that oh-so-familiar way, Desiree twirled a chunk of pink-streaked blonde hair. “Don’t say that.”

   “I’m behind on rent. If I don’t pay the electric bill, we’ll be working by candlelight.”

   “Can’t you work something out with your dad?”

   When Carly’s grandpa passed in February, her father took over as building landlord and her free ride came to a screeching halt. Though her dad charged her less than the going rate to rent the Pennsylvania Avenue office in southeast D.C., it was still a big chunk of change that she didn’t have.

   Carly’s sigh was laced with frustration. “He hasn’t been so great about returning my calls.”

   “Okay, so what happened to the new clients Sinclair sent our way?”

   “Two still haven’t paid. One wants to barter. She doesn’t believe money is the best way to do business.” Carly groaned. “My grandpa would hang his head in shame at what I’ve done to his beloved business.”

   “You haven’t done anything wrong.” Desiree climbed down, slipped into her stilettos, but kept her gaze glued on the floor. “People don’t seem to need private eyes like they used to. They hunt for people on the Internet. DNA testing is done by spitting into a test tube. I’ll make it a point to ask everyone who comes in for a referral. No worries.”

   “Thanks,” Carly said before returning to her office. But she was worried. She needed a lot more than referrals to turn her business around. She needed a solid case, something that would allow her to put her investigative agency back on the map.

   And make Grandpa Pierce proud of her.

   Because God knows, her parents weren’t.

   The doorbell chimed. Must be my three o’clock. She rolled the silky lip gel across her lips, then tugged her suit jacket down. I need this, so git her done.

   Desiree tapped on her office door. “Craig Pluckett is here.”

   With a smile, Carly rose and shook his hand. “Mr. Pluckett, I’m Carly Stone. Have a seat.”

   “Call me Craig.” He settled into the chair across from her large antique desk.

   “Craig, your assistant explained that you’re shopping PI firms. Who are you working with now?”

   “I’m not at liberty to say. What I can tell you is that they’ve jacked their prices way up.”

   “Are you looking for routine background checks for your hotels in the D.C. region?”

   “No, the entire country. My department oversees as many as a hundred and fifty background checks a week.”

   Carly did the math in her head and perked up. If she landed this gig, she could pay her overdue bills and have money left to advertise, something she desperately needed to do.

   After discussing particulars, Carly determined she could save the hotel giant tens of thousands. “I’ll email you my proposal. When are you making your decision?”

   “In three months, when my current contract expires.” Craig glanced at his watch. “Where’s Carlyle? I’d like to meet him before I leave.”

   “You already have. I’m Carlyle.”

   Craig paused. “I thought Carlyle was a man.”

   Ah, crap. She let the silence speak for itself.

   While shifting in his chair, he cleared his throat. “I…um. Every private investigator I’ve ever worked with has been a man. How long have you been in business?”

   Her stomach dropped. His tone had changed. “My grandfather, Pierce Stone, founded and ran Stone Investigations for almost forty years. I have a college degree in criminal justice and have worked here for a decade. I’ll include references with my proposal.”

   “Is Mr. Stone here?”

   “Unfortunately, he passed away in February.”

   “I’m sorry for your loss.” Craig rose. “Sure, send over those references along with your proposal.”

   As she pushed out of her seat, her cheeks heated. This wasn’t the first time she’d been overlooked because she was a woman-owned business or because she was running her own investigative firm. Sometimes she hated how the world worked.

   After showing him the door and watching her opportunity vanish down the hallway, she shook her head as she passed Desiree’s desk. As she reviewed the agency’s financials one more time, she fiddled with her stackable rings. If things don’t turn around, I’ll have to let Desiree go. That’s gonna suck.

   The door chime rang. Maybe Craig changed his mind.

   “Hey!” Desiree called out from reception. “I thought your kind only ventured out after sundown.”

Sinclair’s deep chuckle filled the office. “Hey, sis. Carly here?”

   In addition to being one of her closest friends, Sinclair Develin was Desiree’s brother. Not by blood, but by the strong bonds of family he had with the Hott clan.

   Grateful for the distraction, Carly rolled into reception.

   Sinclair’s embrace was tighter than usual and, when he released her, the lines around his eyes were etched deep. He was every woman’s dream, except Carly’s. Carly’s heart had been captured decades ago. While she could appreciate Sinclair’s intense blue eyes, luscious dark hair, and that devilish smile, he’d always been the brother she never had.

   In all the years she’d known him, Sinclair had never dropped by unannounced and he never went anywhere without an agenda. Laser-focused, he was a Washington power player, known as The Fixer. His business prowess and connections had opened doors for her professionally, but her history with him dated back to middle school, when he was Ashton Hott’s biggest rival turned adopted brother.

   “Ash has been shot.”

   The air got sucked out of Carly’s lungs and she clutched her chest.

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