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Claiming My Vengeance by Jessica Blake (1)

CHAPTER ONE

Gabe

I couldn’t believe it.

Joel Cunningham, a man I had known for years as a partner, a mentor, and as a trusted friend, wore a prison orange jumpsuit with the same casual style he would have sported his tennis whites. His black hair, silvered at the temples, hadn’t been trimmed since his ass was hauled into prison. But the same shit-eating grin he always had on his face, the one that said he knew something everyone else didn’t, didn’t slip as he looked at me from across the courtroom. If anything, his grin widened. And then he winked.

I wanted to fucking strangle him.

Hunter put his hand on my arm, like he knew how close I was to jumping over the railing and beating the shit out of the bastard. “Let it go, Gabe. With any luck, he’ll have a horny cellmate.”

The thought of Cunningham spending what amounted to the rest of his miserable life serving out a twenty-five-year sentence as someone’s prison bitch was mildly satisfying, but it wasn’t enough for me. It sure wouldn’t be enough for the investors he’d systematically defrauded out of millions over the seven years of our business partnership, and it wouldn’t take away the stain on the reputation of my company, Ainsley Holdings.

Joel was out of my reach now, thanks to the armed guards on either side of him. That didn’t mean this was over.

“Let’s go grab a drink,” Hunter said. “I might have some news that’ll cheer you up.”

As if the word “news” had summoned them, the media swarmed us the moment we stepped out of the courthouse into the early summer sunshine. Barricades were set up, crowds of people standing behind them. A few reporters had edged around the boundary, cell phones recording, microphones jabbing forward.

Behind the sawhorses and caution tape were bystanders — tourists and local workers getting coffee on a lunch break, gathering gossip to share at the water cooler later that afternoon. There were handfuls of social media mavericks, their fingers flying as they sent off a tweet and a blurry picture of me, Gabriel Ainsley, the guy who seemed to be on the news all the time lately.

Cunningham’s trial was the biggest corporate corruption scandal to hit Chicago in the last five years, and the post-court coverage was probably streaming on CNN right now. I was beyond sick of being at the center of this circus sideshow.

My driver was waiting, double parked at the curb, but the Lexus wasn’t close enough for us to avoid the barrage of shouted questions, cameras, and dangling microphones. I slipped on my sunglasses and tried not to look like I was inches away from breaking someone’s neck.

“Were you involved, Mr. Ainsley?”

“Do you expect to file bankruptcy?”

“Has there been any word on the missing money?”

“How much did you know about Joel Cunningham’s Ponzi scheme?”

“What is your role in this, Mr. Landon?”

The last question was the one that pissed me off the most. It was directed at Hunter, one of four men I called a friend and trusted implicitly. As the owner of a high-profile security firm, Hunter had his own wild reputation around town, and now that the media had recognized him, they’d try to tar him with the same brush.

I wanted to take some of my frustration out on the local nightly news anchor with the capped teeth, but I limited myself to a growl. I didn’t need any more negative press, and since Hunter had ignored him and was already getting in the Lexus, I forced myself to follow.

“You shouldn’t have come.” I slammed the door, shutting out the reporters.

“Somebody had to keep you out of jail for killing Cunningham. Pierce and I flipped a coin to see who got to babysit you, and I lost.”

“Yeah, and now your face will be plastered all over the news tonight.”

Hunter shrugged, obviously unconcerned. “I’m more photogenic than Jason Pierce anyway.” He leaned over the front seat to talk to Jeff, my driver. “Take us to the Violet Hour on North Damen, and try not to run over any of those vultures when you pull out. That’d be such a shame.”

I shot my friend a no way in hell look. I couldn’t imagine sitting down at my desk for the rest of the afternoon, but as there wasn’t anything available to punch repeatedly except my closest college friend — who annoyed the shit out of me but was too loyal to deserve a beatdown — I had decided I might as well head to the office.

“I’ve got to get back to work.”

“Trust me, Gabe, you need a drink more than you need to get back to work. Don’t worry about those bloodsuckers. Something else bright and shiny will come along soon and distract them. Plus, I’ve got some news.”

I leaned my head back on the leather seat. “Please tell me you know where Devlin Cunningham is.”

If I could get my hands around that bastard’s neck, I’d feel a hell of a lot better, but when the Feds had swooped in and arrested Joel, his weasel son had disappeared. His father’s assets had been frozen when we caught him, but who knew what kind of resources Devlin had squirreled away, or what damage he might have caused before he took off.

“Not yet,” Hunter replied with a slow smile. “But I might know of a way we can find him.”

***

The bar was all but deserted at three o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon, and we grabbed a private table in a back corner. The place had a swanky, speakeasy vibe with dim lighting and dark hardwood floors. The high-backed booths and thick curtains draped everywhere gave it a private feel.

It was usually one of the places the North Loop Five — a nickname one of the guys had coined for our little group — liked to hang out. Today, though, even the excellent vodka and tonic and the subdued piano music weren’t doing it for me in the relaxation department.

“So, what’s the news about Devlin?”

That shady little bastard was a worm-filled apple off his old man’s tree. When Joel asked me to bring him on, I’d had my doubts, but he seemed to be a hard worker and got along well with the contractors and suppliers I used to run the renovation side of my business.

I’d watched him closely for a while, understanding that nepotism could lead to incompetence, but he seemed to be on the up and up, and I hadn’t heard any complaints about him. Now, I was kicking my own ass for not having seen him and Joel for what they were sooner.

“Devlin’s still in the wind, but my computer and I managed to dig up a tidbit that might interest you. Did you know that Joel had a daughter?”

I felt my jaw sag. I hadn’t known, and by the smug look on Hunter’s face, he knew he was dropping a bombshell.

“Joel doesn’t have a daughter,” I said after searching my memory banks for a few moments. “I’ve known the guy for almost a decade. I thought Devlin was his only kid?”

Hunter set his lager down on the table and settled back against the black leather seat, his arms crossed. He always did that. Hunter loved knowing more than everybody else and making sure they knew that he knew more. “Well…”

I narrowed my eyes when he didn’t continue. “Just spit it out. Don’t give me your usual runaround crap and dramatic buildup.”

Hunter heaved out a long, theatrical sigh. “Fine, but you guys always underappreciate my genius. Apparently, Joel was married twice. His first wife, Devlin’s mother, died of breast cancer in the late eighties, when Devlin was just a kid.”

“Yeah, common knowledge. She was from some rich Southern family and brought a lot of money into the marriage. I didn’t know he had a second wife.”

“Not a lot of people do. In two-thousand, Devlin married again. Janet Redmond. Not for money this time. From what I turned up, she was working at the front desk of a hotel near Detroit, and Joel probably met her while he was in town holding one of his investment seminars. I found record of one he did out there that summer, so the timing fits.”

My jaw clenched at the mention of one of Joel’s seminars. I’d met him through one of those seminars. “Why’d he marry her? It’s not like she had money or connections she could offer him, right?”

Hunter shrugged. “I’ve got some theories on that, but hear me out. There’s no other information on Janet except that she had a six-year-old daughter, Olivia, from her first marriage. And there’s not much out there on Olivia, either. She went to good schools here in Chicago, made straight A’s, was on the student council, prom queen her junior year of high school, and graduated when she was seventeen, but after that… bam.” Hunter snapped his fingers. “She’s just gone. The best I could find out was that there were rumors she went to one of those fancy finishing schools in Switzerland and decided to live in Europe.”

“What happened to Janet?” If the wife was still around, she might know where Devlin was holed up. And if she’d divorced Joel, maybe she was bitter and willing to turn on her stepson.

“Drowned in the Cunningham swimming pool about eight years ago. It was ruled as an accidental death, but she had an awful lot of sedatives in her system.”

Son of a bitch. I was furious all over again and gripped my martini glass so hard I could’ve cracked the stem. “How the fuck did I not know any of this? I met Joel ten years ago. We went into business three years later, and if my math doesn’t suck, he’d have been married, his wife still alive, with an extra kid he never mentioned. How did I not even know my business partner was married?”

Hunter leaned forward and tapped his fingers on the table. “It’s not your fault. We’ve gone over this. Cunningham wasn’t exactly an open book. You’re not the first one he’s conned, but at least you’ll be the last.”

“Doesn’t help.” And it didn’t. I could still see Joel’s complacently smiling face in the courtroom, the bastard. He’d been nailed, and he still had the balls to act like he’d gotten away with something. “So how does any of this help me find Devlin?”

Hunter grinned, obviously happy to finally be getting to the good part, and signaled to the waitress for another beer. “Olivia doesn’t live in Europe. She lives right here in the good old U.S. of A. She owns a bar in Detroit.”

Detroit was definitely more accessible to me than Switzerland. I leaned back and crossed my arms, considering. “How old is she?”

“Twenty-four.”

“And you don’t know anything else about her?”

“Nope. She’s apparently one of the eight people left in the world with no Facebook account, no Twitter handle, no LinkedIn page, and an unlisted cell number. Her business doesn’t even have a website.”

“Pretty young to have her own bar. You think maybe she got some financial help?”

Hunter slid a slip of paper across the table. “Here’s her address. I figured you might want to ask her in person. Detroit’s only a four-hour drive, and you won’t be getting much work done right now anyway, fielding all the press calls. You might as well go check it out. And as a thank you, you can pay for the drinks.”

I looked at the address. The Red Stripe was in Hamtramck, an industrial area of Detroit. I was waist-deep in a dumpster fire here, and couldn’t afford to be away from the office, but Hunter was right. I wasn’t getting a lot done.

My PR team could likely handle damage control better anyway if I stayed out of sight for a few days, and Brian, my assistant, could probably use the mental health break. I hadn’t been the most pleasant person to work for lately.

I tucked the address into my wallet and took out the money to pay for the drinks. If Hunter’s tip panned out, I’d owe him a lot more than beer money.

By the time we left the bar, the sunny June sky had clouded up, and my knee was starting to ache. I’d been able to predict the weather with it ever since a car accident in college, and I didn’t need to look at the roiling gray clouds above the city to know that the weather was about to change. A brisk breeze blew in from the lake, bringing a chill with it that fit my mood nicely.

Jeff dropped Hunter off at his offices on Wacker Drive and then drove me back to my penthouse, where I changed out of my suit and into a pair of jeans, a gray t-shirt and a battered Northwestern University hoodie left over from my construction worker days.

I wasted a few minutes brooding, looking out over the jutting buildings that made up the skyline of North Chicago. Lake Michigan looked sullen and steely to the right of them, tipped with whitecaps whipped into a froth by the wind.

The view suited my mood.

Everything had been coming up shit for me lately, and even though I should have been experiencing some closure after this afternoon’s hearing, I wasn’t. I’d defied expectations and carved out an empire here, and dammit, someone needed to pay for the damage the Cunninghams had cost me.

A half-hour later, I was ready to hit the road, and sure enough, by the time I pulled out of the underground lot, rain was starting to splatter the windshield. Flickers of lightning lit the sky within minutes, and even the blasting radio, the torrential rain that roared over the soundproofing on my Mercedes S560, and the insanity of five o’clock traffic on the Skyway didn’t create enough chaos to drown out my thoughts.

Olivia Cunningham had to be the key to tracking down Devlin, so I could finally focus on recouping some of my losses and getting on with my life. Thanks to her stepfather, I’d lost money, time, respect, and my company’s hard-built reputation had taken a solid hit.

So far, Ainsley Holdings was weathering the disaster, and most of my long-term clients were sticking, especially those on the property management and renovation end of things. The real estate investment side of the business was in far greater trouble. It was looking more and more like I’d have to cut it loose, just to keep the company afloat. Thanks to Joel Cunningham.

As much as I’d enjoy tearing good old Joel limb from limb, he was out of my reach. His pissant son, the one who’d more than likely been in on the whole thing since he’d run like a rat, was a different story. I really wanted to get my hands on him.

Olivia Cunningham was going to help me do it, whether she liked it or not.

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