Can’t Buy Me Love Chapter 1

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It turned out the Catholics were right. Purgatory was real and it was a small town in the Scottish Highlands. Oh, sure, the locals called it Invertary, but Agnes Sinclair knew better. She wasn’t fooled by the picturesque loch or the rows of crooked white houses. Invertary was where souls came to have the hope sucked out of them—or whatever it was that happened in purgatory. Not being Catholic, Agnes wasn’t sure what went on there, but with a name like purgatory, it couldn’t be good. All she knew for sure was that she’d only been in town for three weeks, and already she’d lost the will to live.

“You called a security firm to investigate me?” She glared at her new boss, the owner of Invertary’s only hotel, and he didn’t even squirm.

He tugged down his red tartan waistcoat, which he’d teamed with a pink button-down shirt, and glared back. “I called them in to investigate the thefts. The ones you informed me were happening. Was I supposed to ignore them?”

“You were supposed to let me do my job and investigate them myself. That’s why you employed a hotel manager. To free you up to take care of the pub and build your new conference center.” The conference center that was still in the planning stage because the land Dougal needed to build it was being held hostage by an old woman the town called Satan. Which seemed appropriate, because if this was truly purgatory, Satan should live in it. Right? She really needed to find a Catholic and have them explain this stuff to her.

“You might be the day-to-day manager, but this is still my business,” Dougal snapped.

It was clear to Agnes, after only three weeks in the job, that Dougal didn’t actually want to let go of the responsibility of managing his hotel. So he’d taken to managing her instead.

In detail.

Every.

Single.

Day.

His micromanagement was beginning to make her skin crawl, and the urge to gag him and lock him in a closet grew stronger by the minute.

Dougal’s white brows furrowed as he huffed a breath that made his matching mustache and beard flutter. Her boss was Santa dressed as Elton John, with a booming voice and a deep Highland burr. Talking to him was like having a bad LSD trip.

It was on the tip of her tongue to demand to know why he’d hired her when he seemed so set on doing the job himself. But she already knew the answer—her sister’s husband had talked him into it. Yep, that’s how pathetic she’d become. Even though she’d spent ten years studying part time to get a degree in hotel management and had countless hours of practical experience under her belt, she needed her sister to find her a job.

There were days, like this one, when she second-guessed the decision that’d landed her in this mess. She’d been offered a job managing a large hotel which was part of a famous chain, and all she’d had to do to secure the position was have sex with the owner. Agnes had politely declined, kicking his nuts into next week as she did so. Less than twenty-four hours later, she’d been blacklisted throughout the entire UK hotel network. Which had led her to this moment—a face-off with disco Santa.

She should have had sex with the creepy hotel owner.

Taking a fortifying breath, she reached deep for what little patience ran in her genes. “I know this is your hotel, and I understand that I work for you. But I just want the opportunity to do my job before you decide you need someone else to do it for me.”

“This isn’t a judgment of your abilities.” Dougal’s voice reverberated off the walls. “It’s an attempt to give you some help. Benson Security can investigate the thefts while you manage the hotel.”

What was left hanging in the air between them was the fact the thefts had only started when she’d arrived in Invertary. She looked her boss straight in the eye. “I’m not the one stealing from you.”

He smacked a beefy hand on her desk. “Did I say that?” He turned to the man leaning in the doorway. The man Agnes had been steadily ignoring since he’d arrived with her boss ten minutes earlier. “Did I, at any point, suggest my manager was stealing from me?”

Agnes tossed her long, straight blonde hair over her shoulder, folded her arms over her gray suit jacket, and tapped her toe. Yes, what exactly did the almighty ‘security specialist’ think of this situation?

The corner of the man’s mouth quirked as he uncrossed his arms and ankles and stepped into the room. At about five foot eight or nine, he wasn’t massively tall, but he would still tower over her if he stepped close. He wore a black long-sleeved tee with the sleeves pushed up, a pair of dark blue jeans, and brown suede boots. Thick, mahogany hair, shorter at the sides, and pulled back in a rough right parting. He reminded her of a younger Tom Cruise. Only with a nose that’d been broken at some point and set crooked. They shared the same lean, muscled physique, and the same amused sparkle their eyes.

“What I think,” he said, “is that we all need to take a step back and calm down.”

And that was all she needed to hear to know he was an ex-cop—it was in his tone. The same tone she’d heard many times over the years. Perfect. This was just what she needed. She could have coped with one of the ex-soldiers Benson Security employed—someone taciturn and bad-tempered like her brother-in-law Callum—but not an ex-cop. She’d discovered at an early age that cops were put on earth purely to rub her up the wrong way.

“I don’t need to calm down,” she told him. “I’m perfectly calm.”

He cocked his head and shot a pointed look at her tapping toe.

“This is impatience.” She exaggerated the tapping. “Not irritation.” Although, she was getting there fast.

“Look.” He took a step into the room and spread his hands wide. “I’m sure if we work together, we’ll get to the bottom of this situation in no time at all. That’s what we all want, right?”

Agnes bit her tongue. What she wanted was for everyone to get out of her office and let her get on with her crappy job. The only job she could get. The job that was right in the middle of bloody Scotland when all she’d wanted was to work her way out of the damn country, not become more entrenched in it.

“Exactly.” Dougal nodded decisively as he tugged down his waistcoat—again. “I’ll leave you two to sort this out. I have a council meeting to organize. We’re going to confront Betty and make her negotiate the sale of the land I need for my conference center. She’s holding up progress. This town will die if we don’t attract new business.” When he reached the door, he turned back to Agnes. “I expect you to cooperate fully with this investigation.”

Deep breaths. Think zen thoughts. Don’t imagine strangling your boss with his tartan waistcoat…

“Of course.” She bit out the words through clenched teeth.

Dougal nodded once and strode off, leaving her with the security specialist who was there to investigate her. Because she would bet everything she owned—which wasn’t very much—that she was suspect number one.

It was the story of her life.

***

Logan smiled at the woman who clearly wanted him to leave with her boss. “We weren’t introduced. Logan McBride.” He stuck out his hand. “And you’re Agnes Sinclair. I met your sister Isobel when I visited the London office.”

“That’s nice for you, but you should know that I’m nothing like my sister.”

For a minute, he thought she was going to leave him hanging there with his hand out, but reluctantly, she shook it. A strange tingling sensation ran up his arm at her touch and he had the urge to hold on tight and never let go. Reluctantly, he released her. His hand warm from her touch.

Agnes took a step back, a faint pink blush dusting her cheeks, making him wonder if she’d experienced the same strange urge to hold on tight. Her chin lifted, and she stared him straight in the eye. “Are you going to ask if I’m the thief?”

“Are you?” he said, because she seemed to expect it.

“No.” Her green eyes blazed, as if daring him to say otherwise.

Logan felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. He’d been with the Strathclyde police force for almost ten years before going to work for Benson Security. In that time, he’d asked people about their guilt so many times he’d lost count, and they always clarified their answers. Always. He’d expected her to say something like, ‘No, I’ve never stolen anything in my life.’ Or, ‘No, I’m not a thief.’ To have her just reply with a ‘No’ had his instincts tingling.

“Okay,” he said slowly. “Do you want to fill me in on what’s been happening here?”

“Hasn’t Dougal done that already?” Her eyes flicked between him and the door, giving the impression that she was fighting the urge to ask him to leave. It seemed Agnes Sinclair didn’t like the police. Even ex-police.

“Aye, but I’d rather hear it from you.” He motioned to the guest chair facing her desk. “Do you mind?”

Her jaw clenched for a second, telling him she definitely did mind. “Please,” she said instead.

Fighting a smile, Logan took a seat. Agnes was a conundrum. She was right when she said she was nothing like her older sister. While Isobel was sweet and soft, and slightly dippy, Agnes was sharp as a tack, prickly, and growing more impatient by the second.

She pulled back her chair and sat on the edge of it. The lapels of her gray suit jacket fell open to reveal a stiff white shirt underneath. No jewelry. Only a Timex watch with a classic white face and a black leather strap. This woman was all about business. And he was getting in the way of it.

“So,” he said, leaning back in his chair. “Things have been going missing from around the hotel?”

She slid a piece of paper over the desk toward him. “It ranges from worthless stuff, like soaps and shampoos, to food from the kitchen and jewelry belonging to guests.”

He glanced down the list. “What kind of jewelry?”

“The expensive kind,” she said evenly, making him think it was an effort for her to remain calm. “We’ve had things go missing from guest rooms, storage, and back of house. There’s no pattern to it. I mean, who steals soap and a diamond ring? It makes no sense, but it has to be someone with access to all areas of the hotel.”

He let out a low whistle. “Why hasn’t Matt been called in?” If people’s valuables were missing, this was definitely a case for the local cop.

“We want to see if we can sort it ourselves.”

“In other words, you’re afraid of bad publicity.” It wasn’t a question. “So, you think a staff member’s behind the thefts?”

Fire flashed in her eyes. “Yes, Logan, I think it’s the staff.” The ‘you idiot’ at the end of that sentence was definitely implied.

“Which one do you think it is?” he asked, just to see how she’d react.

Her jaw clenched and unclenched before she spoke. “I don’t know. That’s what I was looking into before you were called in to take over. Maybe you could tell me who’s been doing this.”

He nodded with fake solemnity. “I’ll definitely do my best to get that information to you, Ms. Sinclair.”

Her fingers twitched on the desk, and her eyes flicked to a heavy glass paperweight with a tiny Eifel Tower inside it. It didn’t take a genius to connect the dots between the paperweight and his head.

Fighting a smile, he asked, “Have you discovered anything that might help me in my investigation?”

“Yes,” she said before slowly enunciating the words, “someone’s stealing stuff.”

It took all his self-control not to burst out laughing. “Do you want to show me where this stuff was stolen from?”

“All over the place.” She narrowed her eyes at him. “You were in the police, right? What were you? A traffic cop? Community liaison? Worked with dogs?”

It was too much. Laughter just exploded out of him. When he caught Agnes’ eye, it was clear she wasn’t joking and was waiting for an answer. And she wasn’t doing it patiently—her hand had inched closer to the paperweight.

“I was with the Strathclyde Police,” he told her, before she started lobbing things at his head. “I made detective before circumstances brought me back home to Invertary, specializing in organized crime.”

“Really?” The incredulity on her face almost made him laugh again.

“Really,” he said.

“Have you been out of the job long?”

“You mean, so long that I’m rusty and have forgotten what I’m doing?”

She gave him a look that said she thought that was another stupid question. “Well…yeah.”

He swallowed another chuckle. She was just too much.

“Look.” He held out his hands in supplication. “We both know you’re perfectly capable of finding out who’s stealing from the hotel. Unfortunately, we both answer to our bosses. And your boss asked my boss to look into this. So how about we work together, get to the bottom of this, and get it done?”

For a minute, he didn’t think she’d take him up on the offer, but then her shoulders slumped. “I hate that you sound reasonable. Fine. But I’m in charge.”

He had to grin. This was the most fun he’d had with a woman in years. “I’m the one with the investigative experience,” he pointed out.

“And I’m the one with the hotel experience.”

“How about we share the lead role?”

“How about you just follow my lead? I’m in charge of this hotel.” She lowered her voice and muttered, “When Dougal lets me.”

“Okay, how about this? Think of me as your consultant. An expert you’ve called in to assist. Can you live with that?”

“That depends. Are you an expert who follows orders?”

“Is there any other kind?” He stood and motioned to the door. “Why don’t we start with you showing me the scene of the crime?”

“Well, seeing as the last thing that went missing was the toilet paper from the downstairs loo…” Her eyes sparkled, letting him know she was messing with him.

“If that’s where you want to start,” he said, “then who am I to argue?”

“Right answer, Clouseau.” She stood, rounded the desk, and strode toward the door. “You coming?” she called back over her shoulder.

With a grin, Logan followed Agnes out of her office—watching her voluptuous backside sway in her staid gray suit trousers.

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