DON'T STOP ME |
The first five chapters
The only woman he’s ever loved has sworn to hate him forever.
Get the book one reader called, “A story that could be ripped from the headlines, the McCabe Brothers starts out with a winner.”
Fifteen years ago, Vic McCabe was headed down a one-way road to destruction with the love of his life. But then the unthinkable happened, a mistake that changed their lives forever.
There were times memories would come out of nowhere and hold him still for a moment as if he were a hostage. If he were ever to tell anyone about his fears, about the events he still couldn’t believe he’d survived unscathed…well, he knew no one would believe him. He would never share his past, his secrets. They were his—his pain, his hurt, his mistakes. Vic McCabe didn’t share with anyone.
He took a moment, brushing back the thin gauze of the curtain and staring into the darkness, seeing only the glow of the street lights in the distance and hearing the rain, which had picked up in intensity. It was late, and every sane person was tucked in for the night, sleeping soundly, maybe dreaming of something that wouldn’t give him nightmares and have him sitting up in the dead of night, sweating. No, those people most likely had wives, kids down the hall, and maybe a cat and a dog, a minivan and a small compact. Their biggest worry was whether they could afford to take the kids to Disneyland or skiing in Tahoe for spring break.
It would be an easy life, simple, something Vic could never imagine living.
There was nothing about Vic that fit the mold of comfortable, simple, or easy. He wasn’t made that way. He’d been carved out of the gutter. He wasn’t a nice man, and he knew well he should have come with a warning label.
He heard a rustle behind him: the sheets, crisp white cotton, clean and fresh. They would need laundered again now.
“How long have you been awake?” she asked.
He didn’t turn around. He didn’t have to to picture her running her hands through her long dark hair, sweeping it back from her face. He could hear it, sense it.
“Are you coming back to bed?” There it was in her voice. It was always the same, and again he didn’t have to turn to know she’d most likely sat up, pulled up her legs, feeling the awkwardness of the moment.
“I’ll call a car for you,” he said, but the fact was that he had already sent a text and could see the headlights in the distance down his driveway. The black town car was from the executive service he used when he traveled.
“So that’s it?” she said.
He could feel the muscles tighten in his back as he rested his arm on the window frame with the bite of the cool night air on his naked skin. It was welcome in his discomfort.
He heard the rustle again and this time turned only when the bedside lamp flickered on. She was lovely, slim and curvy as she pulled on her underwear and awkwardly stepped around the bed to find her dress on the floor. It was purple and white, sleeveless, but it did nothing for him now as he watched her hurry, slipping her feet into black pumps. Her hair was dark and full, the way he liked it, a tangled mess, and her cheeks were round and her lips lush. Her face had already blended into all the nameless faces of the women he’d bedded and tossed away. Her eyes were the wrong shade of brown.
She was staring at him now, watching him with dark smudges under her eyes from the mascara she’d caked on, the shadow on her lids that had fooled him for a moment, an image of someone else. It was always the same, the appreciation for his body, the marks on his back and the tattoo he shared with no one, always the same. He knew women loved his body, every solid hard part of him, but then, he worked at it with running, weights, and hitting the bag in his gym at dawn before he started each day.
It was the same thing each time, the same way. He was now walking across the hardwood floor, reaching for the black robe he had tossed over one of two blue easy chairs. He slid it on and belted it just as the woman’s expression became set and distant. Yes, he’d hidden himself from her, and he reached for her jacket, also tossed on the floor, and held it up. She stared up at him for a second and then accepted his help, shoving her arms into the sleeves as he settled it over her shoulders. He stepped back, careful not to touch her again.
“Just give the driver your address and he’ll take you home,” he said as she stood there again in front of him, close, with the same familiar expectation. She was waiting for a kiss, some gentlemanly gesture after he’d fucked her, but the problem was that he wasn’t a gentleman. He was everything bad, everything a mother should warn her daughter to stay away from.
“Can I give you my number?” she asked with dimming hope in her eyes, which he couldn’t allow to remain. He had to crush it and slam the door firmly closed so there would be no question in her mind.
“Don’t bother,” he said.
She took a step to the door and paused for a second. “So you really did mean no names.”
Yeah, he really did, and he’d also been clear that he’d never see her again.
“Your bid has been accepted in Tacoma, and after all permits are in place, construction could start as early as May,” Natalie, Vic’s assistant, said. “In Phoenix, we still haven’t heard back from city licensing. The Salem building is completed, and your team has started pouring the foundation for the next two buildings. Your foreman from the first project left you two messages this morning about a conflict with the building inspector, and Naveen called again to tell you he really needs to speak with you regarding some uninsured expenses. From what I understand from the way he went on and on, there are some areas of dire concern.”
Vic didn’t look up. This was the same message he got every morning from Naveen, his accountant, who was all about the numbers. He knew exactly what the uninsured expenses were: hundreds of thousands in medical for one of his employees, Steven Bennett. Vic looked after his people, though, no matter the cost. No one would ever be able to convince him otherwise.
He kept his back to Natalie as he stared at the recent structural report from his engineers. It wasn’t as though he second guessed the people he hired or the work he contracted out. He just needed to know who was doing what, and he always double checked the work. If he didn’t understand some detail, he researched and figured it out. He had to have a hands-on approach because giving anyone his blind trust was something he couldn’t do. Not ever again.
As he continued to read, he saw no noticeable red flags in the PDF report. Vic closed the file on his laptop and then slid around in his chair, taking in the blank expression on Natalie’s round face. She was plump, five feet tall, wearing the same style of clothes she wore every day: a floral skirt that draped past her knees and a blue blouse today, plain and neat, nothing flashy. But then, he hadn’t hired her to look at her. He wanted someone who was good, efficient, who offered no distraction. Distraction was something he saved for the nights he needed something or someone. His work, his business, was where he never allowed his darker side to appear, the side of him that used and took from women to satisfy his needs. That was an invisible barrier he’d established long ago.
Natalie was still watching him, her expression neutral. Her brown eyes were tempered, waiting him out.
“Is that all?” he asked. Yes, he could be a prick, and he often instilled fear and uncertainty in those who worked for him, but that was the only way he knew to be, considering he’d never allowed anyone to get close enough to him to read him, let alone understand him. That was a kind of power he’d never entrust to anyone. It had happened once, and it was a mistake of his own doing that had made him into who he was.
“No, there’s also a woman here to see you,” Natalie said.
He wondered whether he’d flinched, if his face showed anything of the question racing through his mind. “And who is this woman?” he asked.
Natalie gave nothing away, and maybe that was why he liked her so much. She was his wall to the outside world, keeping everyone and anyone away. “Tish Campbell. She’s the same lady who showed up here yesterday and the day before.”
Why was he drawing a blank?
Natalie was gripping a tablet and tapped the screen as if referring to something. “Same woman who keeps stopping by. She asks for you. I say you’re not available and ask if she has an appointment. She says no. I ask her who she’s with, and she says it’s private,” she said with a hint of attitude on the last bit. Natalie was not a woman to show curiosity and pry, but he could tell that whoever this Tish Campbell was, she was beginning to irritate even the pit bull he’d hired to keep people away from him. “What would you like me to tell her? Or should I call security and have her escorted out?” Natalie put her fist on one of her wide hips. Her lips firmed as she waited for his decision. He also knew she’d carry it out without second guessing him, another one of her positive traits.
“How many times has she come by?” He vaguely remembered now, but then, there was always someone trying to get to him.
“Fourteen,” she said dryly as Vic glanced up, leaning back in his chair, for a second feeling something that resembled alarm. He didn’t like it. “Would you like me to call security now?” She was toying with him, giving him a glimpse of her odd sense of humor.
“Send her in,” he said, not giving anything away to even the one woman he knew would have his back.
She didn’t frown, didn’t even show surprise in his decision, considering he never allowed anyone to walk through the doors of his office unexpected. Natalie only stared at him as if he’d just exposed another layer of his personality, and she quietly took it in, inclined her head, and started to the door. Then she paused a second, her hand on the knob.
“Oh, and what about Naveen when he calls again?” She waited, and Vic knew he was going to have to make time today for his accountant or the man would keep calling.
“I’ll handle it,” he said before Natalie pulled open the door and walked out to the large reception area. He could hear her say something, and he waited until a tall, slender woman with dark hair and a face that wouldn’t get lost in a crowd stepped into the room. He wondered whether he breathed out his relief when he didn’t recognize her.
Natalie pulled the door closed, and Tish seemed startled for a second by the click as she stood in dark pants, heels, and a dark blazer pulled over a black shirt. He said nothing, not trying to hide how his gaze tracked every intimate curve she had. It was inappropriate, and maybe that was why he did it. She had a great body, attractive, a woman easy on the eyes, and he knew he deserved to be slapped for the way he stared so blatantly. But then, she was the uninvited guest.
What surprised him was that she didn’t seem unnerved or self-conscious. Instead, she stood there, staring right back at him with the same expression he knew was on his face. Wow!
“So, Tish Campbell, what can I do for you?” he finally said to break the standoff.
Instead of smiling, instead of stepping closer to him or even taking one of the two chairs in front of his desk, which he hadn’t offered, she remained where she was. In fact, she lifted her chin. As a slow smile touched her full lips, two dimples broke out, and her eyes were big, bold, deep brown, hinting at some mixed heritage. They sparked with something that said this lady had spunk.
“Vic McCabe?” she asked, and her boldness had him realizing his error in meeting with her. He was also considering firing his trusted assistant. He said nothing, as this time she took a step toward him.
“Thought this would be easy. I’ve heard you’re intimidating, but standing here now in front of you, I know that’s an understatement.” She didn’t smile, and as she seemed to gather herself, he was positive she was putting effort into standing a little straighter. “I wanted to get your comment on an incident in Phoenix, a woman named Badra, and an article that was printed about you having terrorist connections.”
All Vic could do as he stared at Tish, who was staring at him as if she held his balls in a vise and was deciding whether to cause him considerable pain or just toy with him, was tell himself to breathe.
All Vic could do as he stared at Tish, who was staring at him as if she held his balls in a vise and was deciding whether to cause him considerable pain or just toy with him, was tell himself to breathe.
Tish had popped a piece of gum in her mouth the moment the frumpy secretary announced that she’d just won the lottery and would be granted access to the elusive Vic McCabe. She’d had to contain herself, fighting the urge to jump up and down in excitement, because her persistence had always won her the lead, the access, the scoop, the story. As her editor had told her, it was because she didn’t give up. She was like a dog with a bone and always had been, her stubbornness a quality her parents had pointed out.
She was here on a lead. Vic McCabe had money and power, a businessman who’d swooped into Salem from California and was taking over. Her story had originally been about the attractive high-powered executives of Oregon, but something had her digging a little deeper, looking for something that would shatter their positive images and uncover dark truths. Every successful person had something to hide.
Tish waited as Vic, not moving from his chair, watched her in a way that reminded her so much of a cat stalking prey. She had to suppress a shudder, but she was afraid to look away and shut her eyes. She knew with this man, that would be a mistake. Her hands were sweating as she watched Vic, looking for any clue he was rattled, but the man was a rock, not giving anything away. Damn, this wasn’t going to be easy.
“Who are you with?” he finally said, his voice deep, strong, and cutting.
She cleared her throat. Crap, how could she be the one on edge? “Oregon Press,” she said proudly, for a moment wondering whether it sounded forced, as if it gave her some credentials.
“And you’re, what?” He gestured as if starting the sentence for her. “You’re here because…”
Okay, he was giving her nothing. This wasn’t even going to be challenging. It was beyond pulling teeth. “I’m here because I had a tip about you, Mr. McCabe. It’s not often a man like you sweeps into the state and establishes a business, outbidding other contractors in the area, not one as big as you in California and now moving into Washington and Arizona, with plans to set up shop in New Mexico, too. With the trouble you had….”
She was waiting for him to jump in and say something, clear his name and deny it. They always started to sweat and usually gave something away about now, sometimes something she hadn’t even been looking at. That was what everyone did when she came knocking, but Vic seemed so calm. From those eyes, the way they watched her, she knew he didn’t get rattled, and maybe he was someone who shouldn’t be toyed with. She swallowed again.
“I’m just a businessman, Ms. Campbell. Not sure what you’re after. Who’s your source? A tip, you say?” He leaned forward and then stood. He was tall and ripped, wearing black jeans and a black T-shirt. He stepped around the desk, coming closer, and she just watched him, her breathing shallow, her heart pounding. He seemed so calm, so in control.
“I can’t reveal my source.” She’d found the story in the Phoenix Tribune, and after leaving a dozen messages with the Phoenix PD, she’d finally received a call from a burner cell phone with no name, just a tip that Vic had been responsible for a botched terrorist attempt and had somehow walked away.
Then he smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes, which had become cold, watching her, taking in every part of her. She realized her mistake as he reached for his phone and pressed a button. “She’s a reporter” was all he said before hanging up. What an odd thing to say.
“I would be very careful if I were you,” he said just as the door opened. “False rumors have a way of becoming fact very quickly, and I’m not a man to be messed with.”
She stepped to the side, taking in two men in blue jeans, both tall and built. She noted the company insignia, McCabe Contracting. One of them placed himself between her and Vic, who hadn’t moved other than to cross his arms as he continued to stare at her. She had to fight the urge to pull at her jacket, as the man made her feel he could see through everything she had on, as if she were standing naked in front of him.
“Please escort this reporter off the property,” he said. “Let everyone know that if she’s seen here again, they’re to call the police and have her arrested for trespassing.”
“Look, I’m not going away,” Tish said. “I’ll do this story with or without your comment, and I guarantee you it would be better if you shared your side.”
A hand touched her arm. “Let’s go,” one of the men said.
She pulled away. “Don’t touch me,” she snapped, but there was no hesitation as she was ushered out of the office. In the moment before the door closed, she took in Vic, who watched her like a caged animal who had been set free, and he was now coming for her, the one who had captured him.
She shivered, for the first time realizing that with Vic McCabe, she was swimming with a hungry shark.
Vic lifted the crystal decanter and poured a finger of scotch, fifteen-year-old single malt from a small village in Scotland. This bottle was the best he’d ever had, giving just the right amount of burn to shake up his senses and help him sift through the events of the day.
He hadn’t fired Natalie, although she’d worried he might. He had to admit that he hadn’t done his homework on the reporter. From now on, anyone who showed up without an appointment and without having been checked by his security team wasn’t getting past her. He’d gotten sloppy, and that was something Vic McCabe never did.
Natalie was his gatekeeper, and he hadn’t realized how much he depended on her until that day. It unsettled him. Relying on anyone was a weakness he’d sworn he would never display again. His past had taught him never to rely on anyone for anything.
“Badra…” Just saying her name had him aching, and the strength that kept him grounded evaporated in that moment, all because Tish Campbell had dared say a name she wasn’t worthy to repeat. Where was she?
“Mr. McCabe, dinner is ready, sir,” his housekeeper said. “Would you like to eat in the dining room, or should I bring a tray in here?”
He knew his housekeeper well enough to know she would stand and wait all day until he answered. He wasn’t hungry, and he should have told her not to bother. “In my office,” he said. “I’ll eat there.” He turned to face Nora Anderson, an older woman, in her fifties, who ran his house and took care of everything for him. She lived in a suite in back and wore the same outfit every day: black pants, a white shirt, and a black vest over top. She was the first woman he’d ever met who had trained as a butler, and she ran his house like a dream.
“Very good, sir. Will you be needing anything else?” she asked, so professional and drama free. He liked that, needed that.
“That’s all, Nora. Take the rest of the night off. I can clean up after myself.”
Then she was gone, and Vic took in the big living room, the dark polished wood, the open stone fireplace, and the oil painting of a mother and child mounted over the mantel. She was lovely, and there was such love there. It was something he longed for but had never had. Maybe that was why he loved it so much. An elusive woman, a love for a child. It was interesting and such a fairy tale.
Then there was Badra. Vic strode across the entryway, looking up to the stairs, the second level and the third, which he had yet to do anything with. He could see it all as he walked through an archway into what had once been a parlor or a library, one with large windows, a second fireplace, and a smaller brown sectional in front of his large desk, on which sat a plate with a warming cover. He lifted the top and took in the lamb chops, sautéed carrots, and greens. He was about to put the lid back on, but he knew that if he didn’t eat something, his housekeeper would worry he hadn’t liked it. It was the only womanly thing about her that she couldn’t shake. So he pulled up his mesh chair, tapped the keyboard of his desktop until the screen came on, and sliced into the lamb chop. He took a bite, tasting the herbs and rosemary, a hint of mint. It was perfect, tasty, yet he still had no appetite.
As he chewed, he typed in “Badra” and “Phoenix” and waited for her name to pop up. There it was, but it wasn’t Badra or him that he saw in that article from all those years ago; it was her parents. There was nothing else.
That day over fifteen years ago had been one of the best and worst of his life. It was the day he’d lost everything, including Badra, who had meant everything to him. “What happened to you?” he said. After all these years, Badra wasn’t just a memory. She was a part of him. She had promised to love him forever, yet she now hated him and had left him, and he had to let her go.
“Mr. McCabe, have you heard anything I’m saying?” Naveen swiveled in his office chair, lifting a paper file from the stack and adding it to the already open file on Steven Bennett, the young man Vic had hired as a favor to his old friend Neil Friessen. “The medical bills, the bills from the care facility, the physio, the specialists, they all exceed the employee medical insurance the company provides. The therapy bills alone that are coming in from this specialist…” He was lifting up several sheets of paper, appearing more and more worked up as the seconds ticked on. “They’re not covered, not on the list of recommended service providers.”
“Look, Steven has a young wife and a new baby, and a shitty thing happened. He’s getting back on his feet, and there’s no way he should have to settle for a second-rate physiotherapist when he can have the best. Just pay them, all of them, and any others that come in for Steven. However you want to write it off is up to you, but I told you before that I want Steven looked after. I have the money.” He didn’t miss the frustrated look on Naveen’s face. The man was so old school in a lot of ways but so very good at what he did. His East Indian heritage really stood out in moments like this. Naveen’s office was small and cluttered: an accountant’s dream, Vic’s nightmare.
“Remember, Naveen, Steven doesn’t know. Make sure this stays between us.” He took in the annoyance on his accountant’s round face, the way he slouched over the desk in his crisp white shirt and brown tie. His black hair was neatly combed back, he never smiled, and he was soft and paunchy from too much deep-fried food. Vic had noticed the man had a weakness for it.
“Yeah, yeah.” Naveen waved him off, but Vic already knew he would never share anything about the business. He’d been with Vic from the beginning, when his tax return had become too big for him alone. Naveen had then been a struggling accountant in a storefront mall, working for a tax company, pumping through hundreds of personal taxes at crunch time in the spring, his talent being wasted.
Vic walked down the hall. On the second floor, there were four offices, a waiting area, and a large cafeteria for the workers. Everyone employed at McCabe Contracting was currently in the field, including Steven Bennett, who was still recovering from brain trauma, having been beaten nearly to death one night while out getting ice cream for his pregnant wife. Steven was young, he was strong, and he’d fought back from a coma no one had believed he’d ever wake from. There was something in that young man’s drive and will to live that inspired Vic to be a better person, so he’d made sure there would always be a place for Steven with his company.
“There you are,” Vic said, taking in Steven. The boy was tall, lanky, still using a cane, waiting outside Vic’s office. “How are you feeling today?”
“Good, happy to be back,” he said, and Vic noticed how his left hand was folded in his lap as if he were hiding it. It was the one that fought to do very basic things, including holding a set of pliers. “Just wondering what I’ll be doing.”
“You’ll be helping me,” Vic said, still wondering how much to dump on this young man, who seemed at times like twenty-one going on forty.
“I’m just worried you’ll one day realize you made a mistake and let me go,” Steven said. “I’m not like I used to be.”
Vic noticed the way he leaned on his cane as he walked. He looked tired today. “You feeling okay?”
Steven made a face as if to shake off his comment. “Of course. Just sometimes…” He rested his hand on the back of a chair and lowered himself into it, taking in the desk and glancing to the side a moment as if thinking some heavy thoughts.
“Give yourself a break, Steven. How’s physio going?”
Steven still wasn’t looking at him.
“They said I may only get my hand back to seventy percent. Not sure how I’m supposed to do wiring or any of my job. I need both hands to work.”
Ah, so that was it. Vic wondered whether Steven had any idea of the walking miracle he was. “You get to hold your baby, your wife,” he said as he leaned back into his chair, hearing the swoosh of the leather. “You’re getting around, walking. Seventy percent is good, and I told you before that it’s you who’s the asset.”
“How am I an asset? I was hired to finish my electrical apprenticeship. I was almost done, and now I don’t know how it’s going to be possible.”
Even Vic could tell Steven was being unusually pessimistic today. Had to be a bad night or something. “Why don’t you tell me what has you doubting yourself? I told you before that I want you on my team. Sometimes life throws a curveball and has you changing direction. Right now, you can’t do the hands-on labor, electrical work, but what you can do is check the work that has been done already.”
It had just come to him, and he noticed Steven frowning even more. Now he was thinking.
“But that’s Al’s job,” Steven said. He was quick. It was true that Vic had yet to talk to Al Brown, his foreman, who oversaw all the electrical work and a crew of fifty.
“It still is, but I need more eyes. You’ll report to Al and me. I’m expanding operations, and when that happens, quite often people can be spread too thin. I can’t have that, so this is where I need you. It just takes one mistake going unchecked to cause me licensing problems in other states, so right now you’re going to be one of my gatekeepers to make sure there are no flaws.” He wondered whether Steven was going to come up with any other reasons why he couldn’t do the job.
“You sure? I don’t want you to give me something just for the sake of it.”
“Look at me, Steven. Do you really think I’m the type of man who’d create something just to keep you busy?”
“I guess not.” Steven was shaking his head just as Natalie peeked in and tapped on the door.
“Sorry to interrupt,” she said. “Steven, Katy called and left a message for you. Your physiotherapist has bumped up your appointment for this afternoon, and she asked you to give her a call.”
There was something in his expression—awkwardness, embarrassment. Vic wasn’t sure what it was.
“Steven, go to your physio,” he said. “That comes first. When you’re done, you can head over to the site.”
Vic watched Steven leave and speak briefly with Natalie on his way out. She was about to close the door when Vic said, “Natalie, just a minute. I need you to do something for me.”
“Sure, of course.” She stepped into the office and closed the door behind her.
Vic reached for a pen and scribbled on a piece of paper. “I need you to do a search on this name.” He slid it across the desk, and Natalie took it in and gave him a curious look.
“Badra Walker…and what am I looking for?”
He said nothing, as he could feel his heart kick up a beat. His secretary frowned. “Call that PI I hired and tell him I’m looking for anything and everything: location, address, phone number,” he said. And where the hell she disappeared to.