Cocky Prince

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Chapter One

Hayden

That shit. He got the promotion?

I read the email again, leaning closer to the screen. Adam Cade has been at Blue Casino for only nine months, hired as an assistant to the hospitality manager. And now he’s replacing her?

I take deep breaths, my face heating to bursting. Hiring Adam to run hospitality will enlarge his pretty-boy inflated ego to mass proportions. He was overqualified when he came on board as an assistant, but still. I sink my forehead to the desk and thump it a couple of times, puffs of breath fanning across the smooth surface. This means Adam and I are at the same level. Expected to work together…

A knock sounds at the door, and I quickly look up. What are the chances it’s Adam?

Given his knack for infuriating me? High.

I shove my keyboard away and stand, gazing at the distant view outside my window. Lake Tahoe’s mountains, the deep blue water, they’re what I turn to when things fall apart. And until recently, I had left it all behind.

Adam’s promotion is just one small annoyance on top of the heap of crap I’ve encountered after returning to Lake Tahoe to work at Blue Casino. This new stuff I’ve run into is worse than what made me flee in the middle of the night with my family eleven years ago, because it affects more than just a few people.

I square my shoulders and take a deep breath. “Come in,” I say, and look toward the door.

I’m a professional. I can handle this…

The snick of the doorknob sounds, followed by the swish of heavy wood gliding over piled carpet. An Armani-clad, gorgeous man stands in the doorway. My breathing grows shallow and my stomach flutters, like they always do when he enters a room, dammit.

Adam’s mouth twitches, his intelligent blue gaze taking in my face, the set of my shoulders. I’m pretty sure he’s aware of the physical effect he has on me, but I’ll never admit to it.

Another employee walks past my door, stops, and shakes Adam’s hand. “Congrats, man. About time. Now you’re in.”

At Blue Casino, being in means having knowledge of and access to the casino’s illegal activities, and there’s a good chance Adam is a part of that now. Even with his qualifications, no one rises this quickly unless they’ve got an inside connection.

Adam dips his chin in a friendly nod. “Thank you,” he says, and the man continues on. Adam closes the door, sealing us inside. His gaze returns to me.

Adam Cade is exactly the kind of snobby, rich guy I despise. He’s been given every luxury in life—wealth, the right connections—whereas I’ve busted my ass academically and professionally and earned everything. “No need to gloat.” I turn back toward the window, hoping the view will make this encounter less painful. “I read the email.”

I should have been informed of Adam’s promotion before it was announced; I manage the human resources department. Adam was on my short list, but I’d been working day and night to recruit someone else, certain I could find a person more qualified. The fact that the CEO hired Adam behind my back proves the CEO is once again putting me in my place and keeping me out of the loop.

I look over my shoulder when he doesn’t comment right away.

Adam’s sexy mouth is slanted in a mock pout. “No congratulations, Hayden?” His large, masculine hand—rougher looking than it should appear, given his rich-boy upbringing—presses the space above his heart. “I’m wounded. I truly am.”

I snort and stare back at the lake. It doesn’t surprise me that Adam is in with the CEO. Joseph Blackwell, head of Blue Casino, hadn’t wanted to hire me. His hands were tied after a member of his team was caught in an attempted rape of another employee. Blackwell plucked me from the pile of applicants to replace the fired HR director and keep up appearances. Hiring another female in management was good PR in light of the scandal.

Overeager to climb to the top and prove myself, I only realized his reason for hiring me after I’d taken the position.

I returned to Lake Tahoe to prove to myself that I am not weak. There is no way I’m running from Blue Casino and the shifty way the CEO runs things. Those in power at Blue have harmed employees in the past, and I strongly believe they’re still doing it, though I have no concrete proof.

I sense Adam approach, and my skin heats beneath the fitted blouse I’m wearing.

“How should we celebrate?” His deep, rumbly voice is near my ear, forcing me to step to the side. He’s too close. The scent of fine thread and light aftershave fills my senses, and it bothers me. I hate that I’m physically attracted to such a jerk. “I’ll even let you buy me a drink and some hot wings.”

I shake my head and glare at the side of his chiseled prep-school profile. There are so many things wrong with that statement, I don’t know where to begin. I start with the most obvious. “Hot wings?”

His blue eyes capture mine, and my mouth tenses in counterpoint to the hitching going on in my stomach. When he looks at me—really looks—I forget who I am. “They’re my favorite,” he says innocently.

Adam isn’t a man you can stare at for too long without ovulating, but the humor behind his eyes obliterates my hormone haze. When he jokes or snarks his way through a conversation, I’m reminded of the man he truly is. He’s the type of entitled ass who wouldn’t think twice about throwing someone under the bus. I should know.

“I didn’t picture you for a hot wings kind of guy,” I tell him.

Hot wings guys are men’s men who like football on Sunday and girls in bikinis, not Armani-clad up-and-comers with connections to the wealthiest people in town.

I glance out of the corner of my eye. His perpetual smirk has fallen, the look that replaced it unguarded—something I’ve never seen on him before. For a moment, my mind races. Did I hurt his feelings?

And why would that bother me? I owe him nothing.

He peers over seductively, and I want to slap myself for questioning whether I hit a nerve. “Don’t judge a book by its cover, Hayden. That’s what you do, isn’t it?” His gaze flickers to the textbooks, business journals, and myriad other tomes on bookshelves covering two-thirds of the wall space in my office.

The books and even my red abstract painting of a woman’s silhouette as she clutches her torso clash glaringly with the Blue décor. I bought the painting the week I graduated from the MBA program. Everything I’ve filled my office with reminds me of my education and how far I’ve come. Just because I relied on books to get me where I am, it doesn’t mean I’m incapable of seeing people for who they are.

Adam is exactly who I believe him to be—an entitled, pretty little rich boy. Very pretty, to be exact, in his taupe suit that stretches over broad shoulders. Being susceptible to the pretty things in life is my one major flaw. The Louboutins on my feet, this beautiful setting I call home—and even Adam.

Just like in high school when I trusted another handsome face, I find myself slipping down a well without a rope, scraping the sides in my designer shoes and the backbone I’ve earned. I thought Blue Casino was the fresh start I’d built for myself. I’m no longer sure of that. But I’m not wrong about Adam.

“I’m busy tonight.” Adam drives me nuts, but my unwanted attraction to him isn’t his fault. He was born beautiful; every woman is susceptible to his presence. It’s not fair to take out that particular frustration on him. “Congratulations, though. On the promotion. Quite a coup. Blackwell took a liking to you from the start. Next thing you know, he’ll be grooming you for his Blue Stars.”

I watch for signs of nervousness, but Adam’s chiseled jaw doesn’t flinch. Nothing shows except the light smile that replaced the flash of vulnerability I thought I’d caught.

Well, that’s that. He must expect to become one of the Blue Stars, or he would have said otherwise when I suggested our CEO wanted to make him one.

The Blue Stars are a group of men who strut around Blue Casino with sapphire signet rings they’ve obtained for outstanding performance or—according to rumor—for being complete dicks and running a prostitution and drug outfit inside the casino.

Someone needs to stand up for the victims inside this place. As far as I can tell, no one is. I’m going to find out what’s going on, despite the CEO’s determination to keep me out of anything of importance, and take the information to the police. If I can turn this place around and make Blue the dream job I hoped it would be, that’s all I could ever ask.

I turn toward my desk to get back to work, but Adam’s large hand wraps around my upper arm, sending a frisson of awareness through me. My gaze slides over his broad chest, past his beautiful mouth and straight nose, and up to his eyes that give me mixed messages.

His gaze falters and his fingers release their light hold on me. “I may not have earned it, but I am qualified, Hayden.”

There it is again, that spark of vulnerability—this time I hear it in his voice. And then it’s gone.

He turns and swaggers toward the door. “Feel free to join us at Farley’s after work. Hot wings are on me.”

I stare as he leaves because I can’t stop myself from checking him out, especially when he can’t see me doing it. “Don’t count on it.”

Why, after all these months, am I wondering if I’ve misjudged Adam? I don’t need doubt affecting my decisions. Not when calling out the casino is the right thing to do. Blackwell and the men he has lapping at his heels are guilty of a whole slew of crimes—I just need to find hard evidence; rumors aren’t enough. But Adam? I don’t want to question Adam’s guilt. This is about justice. For the women who work at Blue Casino and God knows who else the CEO and his Blue Stars have manipulated and hurt over the years.

And if Adam Cade is involved…I’ll take him down too.

 

***

 

Adam

 

“Mr. Cade, let me get that for you.” James, the valet, holds the driver’s side door for me as I exit my Jaguar XKR—an MBA graduation gift a couple of years ago from my father.

I toss James the keys and enter Club Tahoe through the back door, striding down dark hardwood floors and plush area rugs, past a vase with red flowers on a polished stone table. Even in the business offices, Club Tahoe is a thing of beauty.

Esther, my father’s sixty-five-year-old secretary, glimpses my approach from her desk near his office, and grins. She’s wearing a light gray skirt suit, the ruffle of an amethyst blouse peeking above the lapels of the jacket. The combination accentuates her silver hair and presents a sophisticated older woman. Esther is as much a fixture at Club Tahoe as the ten-foot glass-and-wrought-iron chandelier over the entrance.

“Adam.” She stands and engulfs me in a warm hug.

What few know is that along with being put together and elegant, Esther is like a second mother to my brothers and me. Or a first mother, given our own died when I was a child and my youngest brother an infant.

My mother chose to give birth to Hunter rather than fight the breast cancer doctors discovered during her second trimester. I sometimes wonder if she would have made the decision to hold off treatment until after his birth if she’d known how Hunter would turn out. Hunter is one of my favorite brothers, but he is also an unrepentant hedonist.

“How’s the old man’s temper today?”

Esther returns to the desk I’m certain still houses the first-aid kit she used to patch up my brothers and me when we were kids. We went to Esther for comfort because our nanny was a royal bitch. “Mild. His masseuse paid him a visit an hour ago. It was good timing after his investors’ meeting.”

It never matters how well Club Tahoe performs, or that it is world-renowned, Father is never satisfied, his investors equally greedy. They want more. More publicity. More wealthy patrons, though the price for a standard room exceeds the cost of a cross-country plane ticket. Whatever my father has, it is never enough. Which is why my brothers and I stopped trying to impress him long ago. School and sports accolades meant nothing compared to the resort our father built.

After our mother died, Ethan Cade checked out emotionally. Oh, he made sure we were taken care of, but he paid people to deal with those details. He provided for us financially, but even that came at a price. I am the only Cade still willing to pay it.

I have standards, and I like the lifestyle the family money affords. So I play our father’s game, and I live in luxury, while my four brothers flounder in a world of their own making.

I’m envious as hell of them.

After rapping twice on the rustic mahogany double door, I wait for my father’s voice. His deep baritone calls out for me to enter, and I do, with all the Cade assurance born to me. If there’s one thing I’ve learned as Ethan Cade’s son, it’s never to appear weak, never to doubt myself.

I stride into the room and take a seat across from the patriarch, who studies me raptly, searching for a crack in the exterior. He won’t find it. He trained me well.

“Adam, what brings you in today?” He tosses a fountain pen on the desk. His gaze appears distracted. “I’m assuming all goes well at Blue Casino?”

“Better than well.” I try to hold back my satisfaction. What I have to say won’t impress him. I’m not sure why I drove here to share it when a phone call would have sufficed. The fact that I did proves I still desire to please him, which will likely result in the opposite effect. But I wanted to see his expression. To see if, for once, I’ve done something that makes him proud, even if it is never verbalized.

I tug at my slacks and cross my ankle over my knee, attempting to keep things cool. “I’ve been promoted to manager at Blue. Effective immediately.”

My father’s stony expression doesn’t crack. When he fails to respond, I uncross my legs—and wish I hadn’t. Wish I’d stayed the fuck still.

“This is a surprise.”

I feign nonchalance. “Not really. I graduated at the top of my class from Cornell, if you recall.” Which he probably does not. “The CEO has been generous from the start.” A fact even Hayden noticed, and one that seemed to bother her. She’s not the petty sort. I’m not sure what that was about. “I was overqualified for the position you encouraged me to take,” I remind him. “The promotion is a no-brainer.”

My father drops his gaze. He lets out a heavy sigh and spins his full-grain leather chair to the window and the infinity pool beyond, where pine trees dot the landscape for a natural appearance. The deep blue of the lake and its sandy shore lie just past the pool. “You’ve always been loyal. I never realized how that might have held you back.”

For a moment, I’m struck mute.

My father doesn’t back down, let alone admit wrongdoing. His entire world revolves around Club Tahoe. I would have bet my life he wanted my world to revolve around it too. In fact, he stated as much when he insisted I work at Blue Casino to broaden my experience before returning to Club Tahoe full-time.

Is this some sort of trick? Is he testing my loyalty? “I’ve enjoyed the work I’ve done at the club.”

He doesn’t look away from the view. “Yes. Your brothers never did.”

Was that longing in his voice? What the hell?

It’s not like my father hates my brothers, but he hasn’t spoken to some of them in years. They never did what he wanted, and their presence tended to make his blood pressure rise and his face turn a mottled burnt red.

I strain my neck and look around, expecting someone to jump out and yell, “Gotcha.”

When I turn back, my father’s eyes are forlorn. I have the strangest urge to soothe him, which has never happened in my entire life. Ethan Cade isn’t soft. He doesn’t need comfort. He’s a damn self-possessed man. What’s gotten into him?

“My brothers took umbrage at your shoving the company down their throats,” I remind him.

There. That’s more like our typical conversations.

He looks me dead in the face. “That was my mistake. I should never have pushed so hard. Should have given you and your brothers more freedom to pursue other careers.”

Holy shit. Who is this man? To hear my father even suggest he’d be open to us working anywhere other than Club Tahoe sounds foreign. And why is he saying it now? “Dad: Levi, Wes, Bran, and even Hunt—they’ve made lives for themselves, regardless of the past. You don’t need to…to worry.”

He nods tightly. “You think they’ll visit?”

I chuckle without humor. “Since when did you want us to visit? Work here, sure, but—”

He looks at the family photo of the six of us taken a year after my mother’s death. In the picture, my father is standing behind us near the front gates of Club Tahoe. My brothers and I are wearing identical blue polo shirts and slacks we weren’t permitted to so much as touch with our fingers, let alone get dirty. What’s not revealed in the picture is that my brothers and I waited for over an hour for our father to show up. He’d been too busy with work to make the shoot on time. Which left four boys and an eighteen-month-old restless and confused.

“I’ve not been there for you,” he says, shocking me further. “I shouldn’t have put Club Tahoe first. I plan to change that.”

Something is wrong here, or this is a setup. He’s lost his damn mind. I’m twenty-seven; my brothers range in age from twenty-two to twenty-nine. We’re adults. Even if this weren’t a joke, it’s a little late. “Look, Dad. I don’t know where this is coming from or what you have planned, but don’t push the others. They’re happy.”

I nearly wince at the intensity behind the gaze my father sends me. “Are they?”

“Happy?” I ask, just to be sure I’m following. Because this entire conversation is surreal.

He nods.

I’d like to say, yes, of course they’re happy, but the truth is, I don’t know. Sometimes I suspect my brothers are as lost as I am.

I sit forward. “They’re grown men. They make their own choices.”

He studies me for a long moment before his gaze flickers away. “Congratulations. On the promotion. You like it there?” He looks over at this last question as if my answer is important, when my happiness has never been important to him. In my entire life, my father has never asked what I wanted.

“I enjoy the work.” Better to agree and get this uncomfortable conversation over with, but as soon as the words leave my mouth, I realize they’re true. Working at Blue has felt right from the beginning. Or at least, from the moment I set eyes on Hayden Tate.

Hayden is…different. She doesn’t cower. For some twisted reason, I like that. She’s refreshing in a lifestyle that grows stale. Or maybe it’s the way her curvy hips swish back and forth after I’ve pissed her off and she’s storming away from me—I haven’t decided. Either way, she’s made Blue bearable, and now I’ve been promoted. It can only get better from here.

From what I’ve heard, management bonuses, coupled with the increased income I’ll be receiving, will keep me in comfort. I won’t need my father’s money to stay flush. And I’d give anything to prove to my brothers that I can make it on my own.

I lost my brothers’ respect when I started cashing in on the trust fund payments our father dangled while they walked away to live their own lives. My brothers have my back, but they’ve never understood why I put up with our father’s crap.

I thought the job my father ordered me to take at Blue Casino was to ensure he still had me as his lackey, just more experienced. Some part of me still believes it. But if his words are true, and he’s open to me working somewhere else, I’d just as soon never work at Club Tahoe again. I’d like to become my own man, the way my brothers have. Which means I can’t screw up the opportunity Blue has given me.

I stand and reach across the desk, shaking my father’s hand with a firm grip, the way he taught me to when I was four years old. “I’d better get back. I’m meeting with friends to celebrate.”

“Don’t be a stranger, Adam.” He squeezes my palm, the look in his eyes sincere.

“No,” I stammer. “Of course not.” But I have no idea what he’s talking about. My brothers and I are all strangers to him. It just so happens I’m a closer stranger than the rest of them.

I exit his office and stop in the reception area, staring blindly at the opposite wall. Whatever is going on with him, it can’t be important, or I’d have heard about it in the local news. He’ll be back to his overbearing, ornery self in no time.

“Everything all right?” Esther is sitting at her desk, her eyebrows pinched in concern.

“Fine.” I grin and pull a butterscotch candy from my pocket, placing it in front of her. My brothers and I used to leave Esther her favorite candy whenever we visited. Now, I’m the only one who sets foot in this place.

I walk toward the exit, and Esther’s soft voice drifts toward me. “He’s proud of you, you know.”

My back stiffens and I freeze, a prickle of unease floating across my neck. The atmosphere in here is off. I’m not used to heart-to-hearts with my father. Or with Esther, as kind as she’s been over the years.

I thought I wanted my father’s pride in me. Now that I have it, I’m too disturbed by his behavior to feel anything but confusion.

I offer a confident smile that I don’t feel over my shoulder, and exit Club Tahoe.