“I need your help.”
Josh Lewis stared at the woman seated opposite him. He’d known her for years, hadn’t trusted her during any part of that time. She knew that, which was why the words had to stick in her craw. Not that she looked in any way pained. If anything, she was as serene as goddamn always.
That serenity had always pissed him off.
He wasn’t sure why, but she’d always gotten under his skin, and as a result, he’d made it his mission to piss her off as often as he could. Just as, he felt sure, she did with him.
Tapping his fingers against the polished mahogany surface of his desk, he murmured, “You must be desperate if you’re coming to me.” He didn’t make it a question, more of a statement.
Her lips tightened with irritation, but then Samantha Garrett, his best friend’s widow, was usually irritated in his presence. It was standard in their interactions with one another.
“As always, you managed to get to the heart of the matter, Josh, with little concern for politeness.”
He raised a brow. “You’re the one looking to me for help. As far as I’m concerned, I don’t need to be polite. Not now Jamie’s dead.”
Despite himself, and though he believed Samantha was a gold digger, he couldn’t deny that the sorrow that washed over her features appeared genuine.
“Why do you try to hurt me?” she asked softly.
Her eyes closed almost of their own volition, then she turned her head away, shielding her expression from him. Through the tight clenching of the lids, he saw pressed together, and found himself stunned at the sight of her tears.
There was something about Samantha that had always acted like a burr under a saddle. He liked to think of her as being tough as nails, but since Jamie’s death he’d seen other sides of her, sides he didn’t like to contemplate because they challenged his view of her.
Quite frankly, that was something he couldn’t afford.
“You know why, Samantha, because I don’t like you,” he told her silkily. Though he was surprised by her tears, he didn’t particularly feel remorse. Not because he was a bastard, and not because he got off on making her suffer, but it was simply that she was to blame for Jamie’s death.
His best friend was no longer around because he’d made the mistake of marrying the black widow sitting opposite Josh.
She lifted a hand and used her pointer finger and thumb to wipe away her tears. As she did, he noticed her nails weren’t polished or even manicured. If anything, they were gnawed down. Bitten to the quick almost.
As Jamie’s widow, he didn’t really see any reason for her to be anxious. His best friend had been wealthy; well, wealthy was an understatement.
Jamie would have left her well provided for.
But even as the thought crossed his mind, he took into account her skirt suit, and though he wasn’t exactly interested in women’s fashion, he knew he’d seen the outfit before. Several times, in fact. Over a handful of years which meant it was old-fashioned now… Something that he would’ve believed was abhorrent to a woman like Samantha. A woman who was out for all that she could get, and who had achieved that when Jamie had died prematurely.
“I had nothing to do with Jamie’s death.” She tightened her fingers around the purse on her lap. Spearing him with a glance, she hissed, “Why won’t you believe that?”
“Jamie almost killed himself trying to make sure you had everything you wanted. He worked himself to death for you. Because you were greedy. Because you wanted more.”
His nostrils flared, and he could feel his blood pressure start to rise.
He hated that she got to him this way. That she could press all his buttons and fire up his temper.
Rifling through a draw in the side of his chrome and glass desk, he found the metallic silly putty that was his version of a stress ball. Grateful the glass was frosted, he manipulated the dough-like gloop with his fingers, and sought a calm he wasn’t feeling.
Apparently, she felt the same way. She gritted her teeth a second then, like she couldn’t contain herself, blurted out, “That’s bullshit.”
“Is it? Is it really?” He shook his head as his fingers clenched down on the putty. “I don’t think so.”
Her lips pursed as she bitterly spat, “He did it for himself. It was nothing to do with me. Nothing to do with Erin either.”
“Now that is bullshit. Jamie told me how important it was he went to Melbourne college.”
“Yes, because his parents wanted that. Not me. I just want Erin to be safe, and in a school where he’d be among his peers with high-security so he’d never be in danger from the crazies. Nothing more, nothing less. I don’t think that’s for a lot to ask for my only child,” she snarled.
Deciding they were getting nowhere, Josh folded his arms across his chest and rocked back in his chair. “We digress,” he said softly, squeezing hard on the putty. “What help do you need from me?”
She sighed, shook her head. “I shouldn’t have come here,” she said, mostly to herself he figured.
As she made to stand, he leaned forward. It was a dick move, considering he’d made it hard on her to ask him, but he murmured, “What is it, Samantha?”
“You only want to know so you can hold it against me. Or even worse blame me for something else that isn’t my fault.” She huffed out a laugh. “In fact, I was crazy to even think you’d want to help. The last thing you want is for Erin to be with me. You probably think he’d be better off with Jamie’s parents, even though they sure as hell messed up where he was concerned.” She tightened her lips, standing fully upright. “I’ll be on my way. I’m sorry I disturbed you.”
He scowled at her, his spine stiffening as he figured out what she was talking about. “What the hell… Frank and Janice want custody?”
She stared down at him, terror flooding her, making her delicate features freeze in a rictus that pained him, giving him an answer even in her silence.
For all that he didn’t like the woman, for all that he believed Jamie had worked himself to death because of her, he truly thought Samantha was a good mother. Having had a terrible one himself, he recognized the signs of a decent parent.
Sighing, he gently prodded, “Tell me, Samantha. You obviously thought I could help you.”
“Only because I have no idea where else to go, and I figured as much as a dick you are, you’d want the best for Jamie’s son,” she snapped. “I must have been insane thinking…” She blew out a breath, lifted a hand and rubbed her forehead. “I need to get out of here before I lose it. You always do this. Always. When will I learn?”
He blinked. What the hell was she talking about?
Josh watched as she shook her head, almost as though she were having an inner conversation that was irritating her. Then, she didn’t disappear as she’d threatened, instead pinned him with a gimlet stare. “Do you think Frank and Janice were good parents?”
The question surprised him, but he was honest enough to admit, “No.”
Unease filtered through him. Janice and his mother, Elizabeth, were best friends. And anyone in Elizabeth’s circle, he didn’t trust.
Somewhat clinically, he explained, “Well, Janice drinks too much, and Frank is a workaholic. He also has a pretty bad gambling addiction.” Not that that manifested itself normally. Multimillionaires didn’t usually worry about petty bets, after all. Frank played the stock market like a fiend. Dropping millions like whores dropped their panties.
She seemed to appreciate his honesty, because she whispered, “You loved Jamie, didn’t you? That’s why you’re always so mean to me. Because you love him, and you think I was using him.”
“Yes,” he said gruffly, his hands once more tightening around the putty. The death grip made his knuckles ache. “I loved Jamie. Like a brother.”
“So, knowing what you do of his parents, do you want his son to be raised by them?”
He studied her, not too surprised by her words having surmised that was the situation, but still shocked that Frank and Janice wanted custody.
Just like Elizabeth had with him, they’d palmed Jamie off on a nanny from birth to adolescence. Why they’d want a four-year-old, Josh didn’t know.
But then, they could just do the same. Shove Erin with a nanny. Take him away from the one person who actually gave a damn, his mother.
“I think you need to start from the beginning, Samantha.” He dropped the putty, placed both sets of his fingers against the desk once more, and in a conciliatory tone, said, ”Take a seat and tell me what’s happening.”