"I'll be frank, Mr. Michaels. My daughter is the apple of my eye and my pride and joy. The fact that she has been directly disobeying me is very distressing."
From where he was sitting in Sullivan Shaughnessy's office, Hiro Michaels watched the older man pace back and forth across the carpet behind his desk and decided that was a vast understatement.
Sullivan was moving with the manner of a man who had discovered the world was actually flat and his ships had just sailed off the end. Being a wise man, Hiro decided to remain in his seat and not get in the way. "I was only told the conditions of the offer," he finally said. "Why don't you tell me the reasons behind it?"
Sullivan stopped pacing and took his seat once more. Leaning on his desk, his head in his hands, he explained, "My daughter, Aenya, has aspirations of being a dancer. Not that I doubt her skill, but it's not the sort of career I want my child in. I want her to be able to support herself, or at least be supported by a decent husband. I have since forbidden her from going out at night and dancing at clubs, hoping it'll curb her desires."
"Her brother mentioned you lock her in at night."
"Yes." He sighed. "And when she looks at me with those big brown eyes…it damn near kills me. She's horribly spoiled. Her mother died in childbirth and Aenya is so like her… He got up again and went to pour himself a glass of tea that was sitting on the drink bar. "Anyway, I began to notice lately that her shoe bill was incredibly high."
"Her…shoe bill?" Hiro lifted a brow. "How so?"
"A new pair of dancing shoes, every day, for the last six weeks!" He offered the bill, and Hiro whistled softly through his teeth as he saw the amount. "Exactly my reaction. And the worst part is that she does not leave her room as far as we know. If she was dancing in the house, Taegan would hear her since his room is on the floor right underneath."
"Taegan Shaughnessy, your eldest son." It wasn't a question. Hiro knew as much about the family as anyone would; the Shaughnessy Corporation was very big in society. He was also friends with Kienan Shaughnessy, the youngest son and Aenya's older brother.
"Yes." Sullivan drummed his fingers on the edge of his desk. "Aenya refuses to tell me anything, so I decided to try to force her hand. I arranged a contract that says that if any man can determine within three days where she goes every night, he can have her hand in marriage."
"Then she's not yet twenty-one," Hiro surmised. "How old is she?"
"Eighteen." he sighed deeply. "The law raising the age of majority to twenty-one was a great idea in theory. I actually voted for the damn thing. Now it's just a pain in the ass." He rubbed his forehead. "I didn't expect my daughter to be so…"
Hiro hid a smile. "So much like her father?"
He wanted to take offense but he couldn't. It was hard to take offense at the truth. "At this point, I've been hoping she would confess. She has not only held firm, but all potential suitors have completely failed. You're my last hope, Hiro."
Hiro frowned thoughtfully as he looked at the contract. "This contract also offers shares in the company."
"It's a family company," Sullivan explained. "All family members receive shares. I have tried my best to weed out the ones only interested in the company; I do not want my daughter to be in an unhappy marriage. My deepest hope is to find a man she will eventually love, even if it takes a while. Not all love comes at first sight, of course."
Somehow, Hiro got the feeling Sullivan didn't entirely believe it. There was the slightest of smiles on his lips. "Of course," he responded promptly. Really, what else could he say?
"Are you interested?"
"May I meet her first?" he asked. He smiled. "Hardly seems ideal for me to agree when I'm not certain if I will even like her, let alone wish her for my wife. I know nothing about her other than she is willful, devious, and apparently quite spoiled."
Sullivan laughed at the accurate summation. "Oh, you'll like her. Aenya may be all those things, but she is far more. She's an absolutely wonderful young woman, and more than her doting father think so." He walked over to the intercom and pressed a button. "Shelly, send my daughter in." There was a murmured response, and he walked back around behind his desk. "Don't be startled by her appearance. The family wolf follows her everywhere."
Family…wolf? Hiro began to wonder just what the hell he had gotten himself into when the side door opened and he turned his head to see Aenya Shaughnessy walk in, like a princess arriving for court.
He decided that the coffee was spiked. Or maybe he had been in the sun too long. There was no way in hell a mere look at a woman could turn a man's mind into mush and bring every single pulse he had to blinding life. There was no denying Aenya was an exceptionally lovely young woman, mature beyond her years, but a single look at her shouldn't have had his heart pounding so hard it was impossible to breathe.
She was on the shorter side; probably a foot shorter than him, and he was six-one. She had a slender, graceful figure with baby fine sandy blonde hair and large honey brown eyes. She wore a pale pink dress covered in cherry blossoms that should have been a century out of date but looked perfectly at home on such a modern female. It suited her in a way that was more elemental than fashionable.
Her utter femininity and delicate appearance was not marred at all by the slender black and gray wolf sitting by her ankle. The wolf was taller than average and reached just over Aenya's hip. It was also distinctly female, for Aenya had tied a sassy pink bow around the wolf's neck.
The very picture of innocence, she flashed a smile at her father that revealed dimples in her cheeks. "You called for me, Daddy?"
Hiro was instantly on his guard. His calm, analytical brain kicked in and overrode his surprising desire. He wasn't buying the sweetness and light kick. She was intelligent enough to get out of a locked room without being caught, and she was Sullivan Shaughnessy's daughter. She would be a formidable opponent to any who dared test her.
If Sullivan suspected his daughter was up to anything, he didn't show it as she walked over and kissed his cheek. "I did indeed. I'd like you to meet Hiro Michaels. He has come here today to discuss the contract."
Something that was anger and annoyance flashed across her face so quickly that it was nearly gone before it was truly there. Hiro's sharp eyes missed nothing, yet she was all smiles when she turned to him. Her eyes even managed to sparkle merrily. "So," she said after a quick study, "you're another hunter, huh? Well, at least you're young."
"Aenya!" Sullivan scolded gently.
"It's true!" She pouted prettily. "Most of the men who have come through are too old for me. Daddy, can't you rethink this?"
"Tell me where you go," he countered softly, "and the contract is voided."
Hiro found himself holding his breath. On one hand, he wanted her to confess so that she was no longer under this burden. On the other, he wanted her to continue the charade so he had time to get closer to her. This honey-eyed dancer with a modern mind in an old-fashioned dress was everything he had ever wanted.
She didn't hesitate. "No."
Sullivan sighed, expecting no less. "Very well. You are excused, little one. And take the wolf. She's chewing on my slippers again."
Aenya giggled, and it was a sound of pure enchantment. "Come on, Stormy." She waved a hand at her pet then shot Hiro a look that was as challenging as it was innocent. For a moment, the guileless brown eyes revealed the wildness inside. "Good luck, Mr. Michaels. If you decide to take this contract, you'll need more than youth on your side." With a dancer's grace, she turned and left the room, Stormy padding along at her heels.
The door hadn't even fully shut behind her before Hiro swiveled on his seat, picked up a pen, and scrawled his name across the bottom of the contract. Something satisfied gleamed in Sullivan's eyes as he watched. "Good luck, son," the older man murmured. "You'll need it."
Since Hiro had come over with a suitcase, just in case, all he had to do was bring his bag up to the door. The Shaughnessy home (mansion, frankly) had servants to help run it. An older butler, who looked more like Michael Gough's version of Alfred from Batman & Robin, than Michael Caine's version in The Dark Knight, happily absconded with Hiro's suitcase to take it upstairs to the room he would be using.
Bemused, Hiro headed toward the back of the house where he could see patio doors leading to an immense garden. Aenya was sitting on the edge of a pond with her feet dangling in the water. When he was close, she asked without looking up, "Why, Mr. Michaels? Money? Fame?"
He chose his words very carefully. "A…vision, I suppose. And call me Hiro, please. I can't quite bring myself to call you 'Miss Shaughnessy' and me using your first name and you not using mine went out of style when your dress was made."
Her smile flickered across her face. "It's a family heirloom. But 'Hiro' it is." She looked up at him. "Nobody seems to understand, Hiro. This isn't a game. It isn't a bit of rebellion because I think I should be an adult and I'm legally not. I don't argue with my father being my guardian. I argue with his trying to stop my dreams. This is my life."
Stormy, lying with her head on Aenya's lap, whined softly. He suspected it was in agreement. The wolf's eyes were far more intelligent than he had ever seen in any animal. "Maybe he wants to protect you," he offered.
"Oh, undoubtedly," she agreed. "I know his motives." She nudged Stormy, then got to her feet. She swung around to smile at him. "You're by far the hottest guy to come through here lately. And just because I think so, just because you know so, don't expect me to lower my guard."
A black brow lifted over pine green eyes. It was one thing to be attractive and know it. It was another to have it blatantly pointed out. How the hell Sullivan thought his baby girl was shy was a mystery to him. "Thank you?" He deliberately made it a question and saw her quick grin. With a shrug of one shoulder, and a matching smile, he said, "Don't expect me to be like the others in any way, shape, or form."
"True," she admitted, "you're already different. You're talking to me as if I'm a human and not a prize. I've had to double-check periodically to make sure there isn't a 'for sale' sign around my neck."
Gravely, he said, "And prime real estate is so expensive these days." He studied her face curiously. "You're still in high school?" he asked.
She sighed. "Yes. And yes, I'm eighteen, and yes I'll be nineteen around graduation. My birthday is in June." It was currently November. "I started school late. My father is a smidge overprotective."
"I hadn't noticed," he murmured blandly.
"He's so subtle, isn't he?" She shrugged one shoulder as she let him help her up the slippery incline away from the pond. "The school has allowed my 'suitors' to follow me around to my classes; I presume you will be doing it as well."
He was fascinated. She truly was very small. She wasn't just short; she was also incredibly slender and fine boned. It took considerable strength not to pull her into his arms and see how well she fit. Stormy's presence helped his control. She looked ready to chew on his ankle.
"You presume right," he decided. With honest sympathy, he said, "I take it the school is enjoying this."
"Bad enough I'm a Shaughnessy," she muttered, her brows pulling together into a scowl, "but now this. I could punch them all!"
After a thoughtful moment, he decided, "You are cute as hell."
Her mouth fell open. She warily took a step back, her cheeks turning a pink as becoming as her dress. Without a further word, she whirled and fled into the house, nearly knocking over one of her brothers as he sleepily staggered past with a cup of coffee in hand.
That was interesting, Hiro decided. She confronted him head-on about his being attractive, but turned skittish when he indicated he thought she was cute. He would have to see if he could piece together that puzzle at the same time as the others. If anything, today wouldn't be boring.
Aenya didn't stop running until she was safely in her room. She cursed herself as she swiftly changed out of her dress and switched into her school uniform. She loathed her school uniform. She understood it was a requirement for a private school, but she hated the way the clothes looked and how oddly vulnerable she felt in the knee-length skirt. The sexism didn't appeal to her either.
She had a secret compromise that no one except her brothers knew about. She wore a pair of dancing shorts under her uniform. That way if some jerk wanted to try to flip her skirt, he wouldn't get a peep show. Even at private schools, teenage males were perverts.
She scowled as she looked in her mirror. It hardly seemed fair that she was eighteen and still in school. Okay, she wasn't officially an adult until she was twenty-one, but she wanted to be out of high school and start working on college. She only had three classes; she was bored out of her mind.
With a sigh, she left the room and headed downstairs to the dining room. Hiro was already there and so were her brothers. The only open spot was next to Hiro, so, reluctantly, she went and sat down. Thankfully, she had a brother on her other side.
Peeking at Hiro from the corner of her eye, she felt again that flutter in her heart and somewhere lower in her belly. Attractive? Yeah, he was. Attracted to him? Yeah, she was. And attraction was the understatement of the century. She was in so much trouble.
Over a wide yawn, her brother Kienan said, "At leasht we can trusht Hiro."
"Try it without the yawn," the second eldest brother, Mel, said as he squinted at the textbook in front of him.
"Glasses," both his siblings said.
Muttering, he put them on. "I hate math."
"That's why I cram it down your throat," Taegan noted in amusement. He was the eldest at twenty-eight, followed by Mel at twenty-four, Kienan at twenty, and Aenya at the age of eighteen.
Hiro was mentally acquainted with all of them. Part of his job as a private investigator was to find information; before coming over to the house, he had been sure to get all the information he could. Of course, the fact that he had been friends with Kienan for several years helped.
He looked at Taegan curiously. The older man was a math instructor at the college his brothers attended. As the eldest, he had been the next in line to inherit the company, but obviously he hadn't—that duty was currently on Mel's shoulders. And thinking it, he asked Taegan, "Did your dad blow a gasket when you decided not to follow in his wolf-chewed slippers?"
Kienan almost fell out of his chair laughing. Taegan pulled him upright without looking. He tipped his glasses down to study Hiro then smiled. "A little. You know, I must say I'm impressed. You're better than the rest who have come through. You're actually, genuinely, interested in us."
"If I'm to marry Aenya," he countered calmly, and felt her bristle, "then I ought to know my brothers-in-law."
Mel peered over the top of his glasses, reluctantly intrigued and impressed by the new male in their midst. "You're cocky."
"Confident." He smiled. "Your baby brother is cocky."
"I'm self-assured," Kienan muttered.
"You're cocky," his three siblings and Hiro retorted.
Aenya said nothing as a lively discussion ensued. She was not happy. She didn't want Hiro to win her brothers' favor. She didn't want him to become a part of the family. She didn't want to like him, or be attracted to him. She didn't want to be so aware of him, conscious of even his leg bumping hers. Unfortunately, her wants didn't seem to be counting for much.
When Sullivan walked into the dining room, she was grateful for the distraction. "Morning, Daddy!" she called cheerfully. Her heart fluttered as she felt Hiro's gaze on her face. Eyes that color in a face that handsome couldn't possibly be healthy for women. Why didn't he have a Surgeon General's warning somewhere?
"Good morning, kids." Sullivan sat down at the table with surprising grace. He was still a lean and attractive man in a black suit even though he was creeping into his sixties. Proving it might be more genetics than healthy living, he groaned when he saw the fresh fruit being put in front of him. "Why do I have fruit and you have bacon?"
"Because your cholesterol was far too high when you went to the doctor last," Taegan explained. He sharply rapped Kienan's wrist with a spoon when he tried to sneak their father a piece of the forbidden pork. "We like you healthy and fit."
"My children are tyrants." With a grumble, Sullivan began to eat the fruit.
"Not that they take after their father," Hiro noted.
The four siblings exchanged a grin with their father. No one could deny it. Sullivan Shaughnessy was known for his steel fist in a velvet glove ways; it was practically a family motto.
"What about you, Hiro?" Mel asked. "Kien said you're a private investigator. I remember you saved his ass a few years ago."
Hiro nodded. "It was in high school. I was a senior and he was a freshman. Some other seniors decided that he needed to learn the 'laws of reality' or some such crap. They decided to try to beat him up."
"Hiro decided they wouldn't," Kienan added dryly. "I was left standing there with my mouth hanging to my knees, not a scratch on me. He got a black eye, though. Someone snuck in a punch."
"I didn't duck fast enough." Hiro smiled. "Anyway, it's not a worry now. I understand someone went into martial arts after the incident. And got a black belt."
"Two." Pride filled Aenya's voice. "And he's won tournaments."
"So you naturally want to solve problems?" Sullivan asked Hiro.
"Oh, very much so. I'm the guy who never played Sudoku because it was too easy." He flicked a glance at Aenya who was pointedly staring at her plate. "I'm tenacious and stubborn. When I set my eyes on a goal, I always get it. And I never leave a puzzle undone."
"I have to get ready for class." She got to her feet quickly. "Excuse me."
Mel watched her run out of the dining room. He had seen her run from the conversation at the pond, too. He turned back to study Hiro. "Aenya isn't usually like this," he said thoughtfully. "You've really got her nervous. I've never seen her run from anything. She's little, but she's spirited."
"Willful," their father muttered.
Hiro agreed with both, but was too polite to say it. Instead, he said, "Maybe because she senses she's met her match." He glanced at Sullivan. "May I take her to school?"
"Normally the chauffeur takes her." Sullivan eyed him. "What kind of car do you drive?"
Taegan quirked a brow at Mel and Kienan then all three looked at Sullivan. Both Taegan and Kienan owned motorcycles, and Sullivan had expressly forbidden Aenya to ride with either because she was small.
Sullivan hesitated then very slowly said, "I will trust you to keep her safe." He sighed. "I'm well aware that I've been…harsh about her safety. If she comes through unscathed, then I'll be willing to let her ride with you sometimes, Kienan."
"Geez, finally. Drives me nuts when she gives me that big-eyed look and I have to tell her no."
Hiro got to his feet. "In that case, I need to go make sure she doesn't desert me. Please excuse me."
All four males watched him leave the room, then Sullivan turned to his sons. Taegan studied his father, then asked quietly, "Are you sure about this, Father?" He wasn't referring to the motorcycle ride, and they all knew it.
"I'm sure. I saw this morning precisely what Kienan suspected I would. I'm desperate, boys. Kien, you had better be right about all of it."
"I am." He wasn't being cocky; he was just confident.
On a sigh, Sullivan took a drink from his coffee mug and then promptly sputtered. "What is this? It tastes like some sort of fiber supplement. Where's my coffee?"
"Your blood pressure was high too."
©S. J. Garrett. All rights reserved. Do not reprint/publish without permission.