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“Don’t answer it,” murmured a female voice to the left of Griffith in his king-size bed, twenty stories above Los Angeles.

“Hm?” Griffith became aware of a buzzing sound to his right. His Blackberry was sitting on the night table, vibrating.

“Don’t get it,” repeated the voice to his left. The voice, Griffith now remembered, belonged to a fashion model named Mona. She appeared to want to keep sleeping.

Though Griffith did his best to accede to a lover’s wishes, he always answered his Blackberry. He reached out from under Egyptian cotton sheets and fumbled for the phone. While putting it to his ear, he squinted at the numbers on the clock. Five a.m. That was a little early, even for him. “Hello?” he said.

“We financial types here in the west get up early,” the man on the other end apologized. “But you told me to call you as soon as I found out.”

In an instant, Griffith came wide awake, placing the voice and its import. It was Edward March, junior vice president at GoldFed Financial. Griffith tensed, like a dog on point. “Did you get the meeting?”

“I got it,” March told Griffith. “He’ll see you at six o’clock tonight.”

“Six,” Griffith repeated. His heart drove to a happy speed as he twisted to a sitting position. “Bring him to my office. You have my card, right? It’s on Avenue of the Stars.”

“Will do,” March said, then paused. “You’re going to wow him, right?”

In his penthouse condominium, Griffith’s mouth split in a grin too ferocious to reveal to the fainthearted March. “You won’t be sorry you arranged a meeting between me and your boss.”

Griffith barely heard Edward March’s relieved, “Good.” He was already hanging up the phone and jumping out of bed. He had thirteen hours to see that he did, indeed, wow Daniel Templeton, the president of GoldFed Financial. Some would have said the kind of presentation that could secure a loan the size Griffith was seeking couldn’t be produced in a mere thirteen hours. Whoever said that didn’t know Griffith Blaine.

As he made for the bathroom, stark naked, he began dialing a number on the Blackberry.

“Oh, Ms. Marshal?” Calling his executive assistant from the bathroom sink, Griffith reached for his toothbrush. “Don’t tell me I woke you?” His tone was innocent, but not the smile he gave himself in the mirror. “Sorry about that, especially if you’re, uh, entertaining that new man of yours, but we have a rush situation on our hands. You know the Wildwood project…?”

While Griffith explained the charts and graphs he wanted his young and eager assistant to rush to the printer, Mona appeared in the mirror behind him.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“…so we’ll need the numbers from our latest run-through,” Griffith went on to Deirdre Marshal. “Put it on the good paper, in the new folders. Just business, sweetheart. That bit wasn’t for you, Deirdre.” Griffith shoved his toothbrush into his mouth and listened to the anxious obstacles Deirdre was imagining would get in the way of assembling the presentation Griffith would put together.

“Business,” Mona repeated. “At this ungodly hour?” Though her blond hair was disheveled, it looked as though it was supposed to be that way. Her skin, her lips — everything about her appearance fresh out of bed and wearing Griffith’s silk robe could have graced a magazine cover. Griffith sure knew how to pick ’em.

He finished brushing his teeth. “I know you can do it, Deirdre,” he said, dropping his toothbrush into its holder. “You’re my right hand, aren’t you? Baby Griffith in disguise?” He laughed at Deirdre’s dry reply, then clicked off the phone. He turned to give Mona a pat on her tiny bottom. “Gotta go, sweetheart.”

She pouted. “I thought you were going to introduce me to that magazine executive today.”

Actually, Griffith had told Mona, angling to get her into bed, that he might be able to get her an introduction. He’d never have been so foolish as to make a promise. “Well, maybe I still can…” he hedged.

Judging by the look on Mona’s face, Griffith could see that he’d damn well better. He snapped his fingers. “We’ll do lunch.” He could make the time. Even with the big Wildwood presentation in thirteen hours — especially so — Griffith could find a way.

Mona, however, looked aghast. “Lunch? You’re suggesting…food?”

“Uh…is something wrong with that?” To be truthful, the lady could use a few pounds on her. “I’ll call you with a time and place.” Smiling blithely, Griffith went to find his clothes. Well, okay, he’d picked one who was gorgeous, fashion savvy — and possibly nuttier than a fruitcake. She didn’t eat food? Considering they’d been together nearly a week, he probably should have noticed by now.

Thirty minutes after watching Mona slink back to bed with a dark look in his direction — possibly still cogitating the evil suggestion of food — Griffith sat on an exercise bike at the L.A. Sports Club, pedaling madly. Well, yes, he had the presentation of his life to deliver, but he wasn’t about to let a little thing like that prevent him from doing the million other tasks he needed to do that day, Mona’s lunch included. It wouldn’t be sporting.

Besides, number one on his list was making sure he didn’t drop dead of a coronary, the way his father had. A worthy endeavor on many levels, Griffith thought, but mostly because he’d be doing yet another thing better than his father.

Not that exercising stopped work. While one of Griffith’s hands gripped the bike’s handlebar, the other held his Blackberry to his ear. “I’ll make it worth your while,” he told his favorite architectural printer. “Fifty percent more than we paid for our last job — if you can guarantee me delivery by five.” Listening to the printer’s remonstrance, Griffith looked at his watch. “Okay, sixty percent more,” he said, and smiled at the printer’s now affirmative response. How money did talk, and Griffith knew just how to make the stuff sing. “But not a minute past five,” he warned.

Griffith was about to make another call when a text message rolled across his screen.

Griffith, you fucker, I’ll get you for this.

On the bike, amid a forest of other businessmen riding madly to nowhere, Griffith laughed out loud. The message was from Simon Grolier.

It was at Simon’s office that GoldFed’s executives were supposed to have gathered this evening. It was to Simon’s pitch for a loan they were supposed to have listened. But Simon’s housing project, only fifty miles north of Griffith’s Sagebrush Valley site, was too close for Griffith to allow Simon to get a loan. The bank wouldn’t agree to finance both of them.

Accordingly, Griffith had cornered Edward March the day before with a portfolio of renderings and he’d been oh, so sweetly persuasive. Could Griffith help it that March had fallen in love with model C, a two-story Tudor with walk-in closets, master bath Jacuzzi, and outdoor barbecue — or that Griffith had promised to sell him one at a significant discount, should his project be the one that got the bank’s loan? Griffith continued bicycling with a big grin on his face. He did like to win.

An hour later, showered, in an Armani suit, and behind the wheel of his Porsche, Griffith used the GPS religiously to drive through L.A.’s August heat. On the phone, he barked orders to Deirdre in between visiting four construction sites, where he took care of the usual obstacles that might hinder on-time completion, and payment on the office leases Griffith had already sold. Somewhere in there he managed to arrange a lunch date for the magazine executive, himself, and Mona.

Multi-tasking was his middle name.

Of all his projects, however, the Wildwood venture in Sagebrush Valley that he was going to present tonight to GoldFed Financial, he considered superlative. Not because of its size, though it was the largest in land area that Griffith had ever tackled. Not because of its beauty, though the untouched piece of real estate was something else. No, Griffith was most proud of the Wildwood project because of its utter ingenuity.

For three decades developers had been eyeing the site and salivating, but unable to do a thing with it. A hundred and seventy-five miles northeast of Los Angeles, in a pocket halfway between San Luis Obispo and Bakersfield, it was an empty expanse of sagebrush and tumbleweeds. The location was ideal for both long-range commuters and second homes. But nobody could build because there was no water.

That is, there hadn’t been any water until Griffith had figured out a way to get some.

Genius. Yup, that’s what he was. Griffith had been the only one smart enough to realize water could flow more than one way down a hill. The engineers and lawyers had taken care of the rest.

It was eleven-fifteen when, stopped for a red light on Olympic, Griffith’s smug smile froze. Yeah, he was a genius, all right. A genius who’d forgotten to tell Mona about the lunch date that was to take place in less than an hour.

Griffith fished out his cell phone as the light turned green. Nearly plowing into a Navigator who’d run the red, Griffith hit the brakes while punching the speed dial number reserved for “latest girlfriend.”

His experience with women was not deep, but certainly wide enough to know you gave a female more than an hour’s notice she had to get dressed. He hissed when he got her voice mail message. “Sorry,” he sang out anyway, after the beep. He was now past the intersection and weaving in and out of traffic. “Sorry, sorry, sorry. I should have called you earlier, but I got you that meeting. Lunch, remember? What? Oh. Mona. You’re there?”

Griffith’s initial elation he’d actually reached the woman faded fast under her blistering onslaught. It wasn’t Griffith’s lack of advance warning that bothered her, but his continued insistence on shoving food down her throat. She went on at some length regarding his utter lack of consideration regarding calories, a flaw that apparently outweighed his financial generosity and magazine connections. Griffith was not surprised when she ended the conversation by ending the relationship. Even he could read the signs. “No hard feelings?” Griffith asked, but she’d already hung up on him.

With a sigh, Griffith pressed the end button. Well, that was a new one. Usually a woman broke up with him because of his harried schedule and lack of attention. Often sheer exhaustion had him neglect making love to a lover — as he had the night before with Mona. Now, on top of these flaws, he apparently ate too many calories.

Griffith shrugged and dialed his magazine friend to cancel. Easy come, easy go. The magazine connection and a Prada handbag had won him Mona. Something of the same ilk would get him the next one. Money could do more than merely sing, Griffith had discovered.

He was starting to feel relieved, actually, about Mona’s decampment when his cell phone rang, the number displayed revealing it was the other woman in his life. He swore softly but sincerely.

The muscles in his neck tensed. Expectation of pain. But experience told him it was better to take the call than leave it hanging over him. So drawing in a deep breath, he answered. “Hello, Mother.”

Once he’d opened the floodgates, it was impossible to stop the deluge. A storm of complaints crashed over him, all concerning how he was running his life and how his bad choices adversely affected his maternal parent. Didn’t he know how she worried?! He was working too hard. Not eating right. He couldn’t possibly be happy. And when — when — was he going to find a decent woman?

For the love of —

His mother seemed to think Griffith was still the sniveling, ineffective child he’d left behind years ago. She thought he had no idea of what he needed in his life or how to go about getting it.

Never had Griffith’s mother acknowledged his success, all he’d accomplished and owned. Instead she focused on her perception of deficiencies. None of these were deficiencies at all but simply — bizarre ideas of hers. A decent woman?

Worst of all, however, was that he let her get to him. Listening to her could cause a traitorous dissatisfaction to steal over him, as if he weren’t perfectly happy with his life just the way it was. As if — as if — there were something wrong with him.

And maybe there was! He was thirty-five years old. Why did he let his mother, of all people, reduce him to questions and unhappiness?

Knots tightened across his shoulders. His head started to pound. And that was before she asked when he’d be coming to visit.

Griffith’s eyes widened. A searing pain shot through his temples. “Oh, no, I don’t think so, Mother.” Fighting the pain, he turned up the ramp off Olympic Boulevard onto Avenue of the Stars. “No scheduled trips to New York. Nope. Not Thanksgiving. Impossible. And Christmas is when we’re breaking ground on the Wildwood project in Sagebrush Valley. Uh uh.” He slid the Porsche between a Corvette and a Prius and rolled his eyes when his mother complained he would probably never come to visit. If only he could arrange that!

He accelerated triumphantly past the Corvette. “After New Year’s,” he finally relented, putting it off as long as he decently could. “Goodbye, Mother,” he said, before she could drag him down any further. He switched off the phone, and breathed out hard through his nose.

In a minute he’d get back to normal, the true Griffith Blaine; hard-ass entrepreneur, success. He was happy. He was fulfilled. He was perfectly satisfied. He was most definitely not lacking — in anything.

At his office in Century City, Griffith immediately jumped into helping Deirdre put together the PowerPoint presentation. Hard work made him feel back in control. He checked with the printer and reminded the caterer not to overcook the salmon dinner he’d ordered for his guests.

It was Deirdre who broke down. At three-thirty, Griffith took a look at her and knew she was at the end of her rope. His assistant was a good soldier, but Griffith knew better than to push a person past her limits. Her fine brown hair was escaping the fancy barrette into which it had been smoothed. He smiled and folded up his laptop. “I think we should both go home, take a break.”

Deirdre, her own Armani suit badly crumpled, visibly relaxed. “You’ll finish up the PowerPoint, then?” Her hazel eyes begged him.

“I’ll finish it.” Rather than breaking, Griffith thrived under pressure. But he did go home, his laptop riding shotgun. There’d be fewer interruptions at his condo and he could take a shower. Completely gone was the shadow of his earlier dissatisfaction.

At four-fifty, Griffith finished the PowerPoint presentation. It was golden. He emailed the presentation to himself at the office, ran into the shower, and was in the elevator going down to his car at five-twenty.

As he got out of the elevator and stepped into the concrete of the parking garage, thoroughly jazzed, his cell phone buzzed. Deirdre. Of course, there had to be some last-minute emergency, especially according to Deirdre.

The elevator and parking garage were both empty at this hour. The high-powered residents of the building did not start returning home from their jobs until well after seven. So Griffith had the place to himself as he let the phone buzz two more times, then juggled the things he was carrying in order to answer it. He’d just managed to extract the phone from his trouser pocket when a rude and heavy weight dropped onto his shoulders.

“What the — ?” Cell phone, car keys, and the suit jacket he’d been holding dropped to the ground as the same force spun Griffith around. Adrenaline shot through him, and that was before he found himself facing three thickset men wearing stocking masks.

No way. No fucking way. Muggers. After ten years in L.A., he was experiencing his first personal attack — and at such an inconvenient moment!

If there hadn’t been three of them, and such a large three, he might have fought, just on principle, but he was a practical man. He only had forty minutes to drive through rush-hour traffic to Century City. “I won’t fight.” He held up his hands. “Go ahead and take my wallet.”

For answer, the largest of the three swung his fist into Griffith’s gut. Griffith doubled over, registering pain and anger in equal measures. Goddammit, he’d offered them money. The golden medium. He didn’t have time for senseless violence. Using his anger and the strength gained from ten hours spent at the gym every week — not to mention a dozen years of boxing lessons — Griffith came up swinging.

And connected. Not that it did him much good. The second largest of the three, unharmed, socked Griffith in the jaw. After that it became a free-for-all. Seething, Griffith did his best to do some damage, but it was three against one and his main goal was to escape the conflict altogether. He had to get to Century City.

It was when one of the hoodlums maneuvered Griffith into a stranglehold and started squeezing that Griffith realized these guys wanted more than his wallet. A lot more. He went from anger to terror and back again.

This could be random murderousness, or it could be — Well, okay, he’d made enemies in his thirty-five years on earth. Fine, a lot of enemies. But that was par for the course. It was a dog-eat-dog world out there, and Griffith was a top dog. But the scrapping and brawling he did in the business world was…a game. It shouldn’t lead to this.

With a strength now born of desperation, Griffith wrenched out of the stranglehold. But he was caught by another of the thugs, who pulled his left arm high behind his back, immobilizing him.

“Get the stick,” this hoodlum ordered.

To Griffith’s horror, another one of the masked men produced a hypodermic needle.

“Oh, no,” Griffith muttered. He struggled again, but to no avail. The man with the needle flicked a finger against the hypo, then sent it through the material of Griffith’s shirt and into his shoulder. “No,” Griffith groaned, but he could feel the sting and then cool liquid shooting into him.

“Did you get him?”

“Yeah.” The man with the syringe stood in front of Griffith. With his eyes grotesquely flattened by the stocking mask, he said, “That oughta do it.”

“That ought to do what?” Griffith wanted to know, but the words didn’t come out right. His tongue felt large in his mouth, his brain sluggish.

Simon, he thought. It was the one coherent idea left to him as his mind turned toward darkness. This had to be Simon Grolier’s doing. Simon, Griffith’s rival for the bank’s money and who’d even text-messaged a warning.

But I’m supposed to win. It was Griffith’s last thought before he slumped, boneless, to the concrete floor.

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