“You can take a couple minutes,” he said, gesturing to the empty space beside him.
Her eyebrow arched at his implied command, but she settled sideways on the couch and crossed her long legs. She’d fastened her waist-length hair into a high, sleek ponytail. The look was both modern and retro and showed off her large brown eyes and bold cheekbones to great advantage.
With the toe of her black stiletto a mere inch from his pant leg, she propped her elbow on the back of the couch, rested her cheek on her palm and waited for him to speak. Quick to smile, she was the most upbeat, optimistic person he’d ever met. She was sunlight to his shadow. Forever close, always untouchable.
He sipped his drink and surveyed her over the rim. The dark circles beneath her eyes told him she was working harder than ever since Tiberius had been murdered several weeks ago.
“You should take some time off,” he said, aware that what she did was none of his business.
“And do what? Sit around and grieve?” She must have heard the edge in her tone because after a long sigh, she continued on a milder note. “I know it’s what most people do when they lose a parent, but I can’t think of a better way to honor Tiberius’s memory than to work.”
JT nodded in understanding. “I’m sure he’d approve.”
Although he’d been given the middle name, Tiberius, after his mother’s younger brother, until the last few months JT had never had the chance to know his uncle by anything other than reputation. JT had been raised in Miami where Stone Properties had their headquarters. Tiberius rarely left Vegas. And the bad blood between Tiberius and his brother-in-law and JT’s father, Preston Rhodes, made any chance of a relationship between JT and his uncle impossible.
The hard feelings between Tiberius and Preston went back twenty-five years. According to what JT had gleaned from family friends, Preston had accused Tiberius of embezzling from Stone Properties and had convinced James Stone to fire his son. Then, five years later, James had died and JT’s father had used his influence over his wife, Fiona Stone—bowing to pressure from her father, she’d never taken her husband’s last name—to get the board of directors to vote in favor of making him chairman and CEO.
“Thanks for coming to the memorial service this morning,” Violet said. “I know you and Tiberius weren’t close, but lately he’d talked a lot about how he regretted all the years he kept you out of his life and how he wished he’d gotten to know you.”
Regret tightened in his chest. “I had no idea Tiberius felt that way.” JT sucked in a deep breath and let it out slowly.
When he’d arrived in Las Vegas to run the local family operations, his opinion of his uncle had been formed by what he knew about Tiberius from his father and grandfather. Although relations between him and his uncle stayed tense for many years, after seeing how much Violet admired Tiberius, plus all the positive things said about his uncle by other Las Vegas businessmen, JT had begun to suspect that if Tiberius had done what his father had accused him of, there’d been a good reason.
“When it came to your family, he could be hard-headed,” Violet said with a faint smile. “And he really hated your dad.”
“The feeling was definitely mutual.”
Violet remained lost in thought for a moment. “Lately he’d mentioned quite a few times that he thought you’d do a terrific job running Stone Properties.”
The compliment landed a direct hit in his gut. He wished he’d had a chance to get to know his uncle the way Violet did. Now it was too late. “I’m leaving the company.”
JT heard himself say the words and wondered at his impromptu disclosure. He hadn’t divulged his inner thoughts to anyone. Not even his cousin, Brent, and they were as close as brothers. JT peered into his drink. Had Rick infused some sort of truth serum into the cocktail? JT set the glass down. When he looked up, he caught Violet staring at him in surprise.
“Why would you do that?”
“When I turned thirty two months ago, I gained control of my trust fund and the thirty percent of Stone Properties shares my mother left to me when she died. This enabled me to dig into the finances and see what my father has been doing lately.”
“The properties are overleveraged. My father’s been borrowing too much trying to expand and with each property that gets built, our resources are stretched closer to their breaking point.” In his gut was a ball of frustration that had been growing steadily these last sixty days.
“I had no idea.” Sympathy made her voice soft. She felt sorry for him and he hated it. “Have you shared your concerns with your father?”
It wasn’t like him to disclose his difficulties to anyone, least of all someone as tightly connected to the competition as Violet. But then, she wasn’t just anyone. She was special. Through her he was linked to a part of his family he’d never known and just being around her made him feel less alone.
JT picked up his drink once more. “He won’t listen and since he controls the majority of the shares, I don’t have leverage to affect current policy.”
“If you leave Stone Properties, what are you planning to do?”
He’d never been one to show his cards, but Violet’s attentiveness made her easy to confide in. She acted as if she had all the time in the world to listen to what ailed him and offer sensible feedback. He’d be a fool not to listen to her opinion as a businesswoman. But it was her friendship he craved. And if he was honest with himself, her body he longed to devour.
“I’ve been cultivating some investors,” he said. “I’m going out on my own. My uncle didn’t need the family business to be successful and neither do I.”
“Are you sure that’s the best idea? Tiberius let your father drive him out of the business and never stopped regretting it.”
“No one drove him out,” JT corrected her. “Tiberius was caught stealing from the company and was fired.”
Her disappointment in him was like clouds passing in front of the sun. “He was framed.” She truly believed that. “By your father.”
JT sat perfectly still beneath the weight of her accusation while his thought raced. A normal person would rush to defend their father against such slander, but JT had seen the company’s financials for himself and knew his father was not telling the stockholders everything. That made him a liar in JT’s books. Nor would he ever champion his father after the way Preston had treated JT’s mother.
But he wasn’t ready to jump on the bash-Preston bandwagon either. As conflicted as JT was about his father, he put a high value on loyalty.
“If that’s true,” he said, his tone neutral, “all the more reason to break with the company and my father.”
Determination flared in her eyes. “Or you could stay and fight for what’s yours.”
While JT appreciated her spirited defense of his inheritance, he’d been contemplating the wisdom of staying with Stone Properties for a couple years. It was worse now that he had seen the company’s financials.
“I hate being powerless to stop him from taking apart all that my grandfather built.”
“I can understand that.” Without warning her gaze sharpened. “These plans of yours, do they mean you’re leaving Las Vegas?”
Was she hoping he wouldn’t? The thought of not seeing her every day made him grim. Did it bother her as well?
JT searched her eyes for answers, but saw only curiosity. With Violet, what you saw was what you got. Her openness fascinated him. She never seemed to worry about guarding herself against hurt or disappointment.
It was a major factor in why he’d never pursued her.
Not long after he’d arrived in Las Vegas, he’d