TTT Stories    No Accounting for Taste

No Accounting for Taste

Tabitha Fletcher wasn’t royalty, but she travelled like she was.

That was the thought running through Luke Taylor’s mind as he watched the private plane his employer had chartered for Ms. Fletcher touch down. He wondered what she would look like.

Would she be flashy and overstated? Cool and efficient?

“Hard to believe all this fuss is for an accountant,” Luke said to his second-in-command, Jerry, as they exited the car.

Jerry shrugged. “Fair dinkum. But the boss figures she’s worth the fuss if she can find the forty million he lost.” He shook his head. “Hard to believe truckloads of cash went missing with no one the wiser.”

Luke clenched his jaw. Those truckloads of cash, as Jerry put it, had gone missing on Luke’s watch. As head of security for the Imperial, Melbourne’s second largest casino complex, he took the theft of forty million dollars personally.

The plane taxied to a stop and airport ground crew pushed a movable staircase into place so the Imperial’s would-be saviour could disembark. Luke strode forward to greet her, studying her crisp, tailored pant suit and chin-length, brunette bob from behind his aviators.

“G’day, Ms. Fletcher. I’m Luke Taylor, head of security at the Imperial Casino Complex.” He held out a hand for her luggage, but she surprised him by retaining a firm grip on her carry-on and meeting his outstretched palm with a handshake.

“Pleased to meet you.” She had a slight, barely-there Bostonian accent, a hint of home that hadn’t been erased by all her world travels.

She fell into step beside Luke and they headed for the car.

“Ever been down under before?” he asked, then winced as he heard the double entendre in his words. Jerry was always ribbing him about spending too much time at work, and maybe he was right. Sometimes Luke felt like he’d forgotten how to talk to people.

The accountant slanted him an amused smile and the tension in Luke’s gut relaxed—lucky for him, she had a sense of humour.

“I’ve never been to Australia,” she said. “Kind of strange, since I’ve been almost everywhere else. I just left Dubai—that one was a big corporate audit—and before that, I was in the Caribbean investigating offshore accounts.”

He glanced down at her. “Blimey, you do get around.”

Jerry snorted as they approached the car, and Luke realized what he’d said—again. Heat crept up his neck. Damn it. As head of security at the Imperial, he didn’t blink an eye when facing down a patron who’d had too much to drink, and he stayed cool as a cucumber in the face of the sundry cheats, thieves, and liars attracted to the casino. But something about this woman brought out the babbling idiot in him.

“Ignore our Luke,” Jerry said as he hopped into the vehicle. “He’s brilliant, but he doesn’t get out enough.”

Luke turned his back on Jerry to frown down at the woman. “Ms. Fletcher, I apologize. I hope I haven’t offended you.” It wouldn’t do to have a VIP report to his boss that he’d sexually harassed her—twice—within minutes of getting off the plane. But more than that, the thought that he might have made her uncomfortable gnawed at him. He barely knew the petite brunette, but he liked the self-reliance she’d shown in carrying her own bag, and the spark of amusement in her eyes.

She waved a hand to dismiss his concern. “What is it you say in Australia? No worries?” She smiled. “Apology accepted. And call me Tabitha—business etiquette is so formal in Dubai, I felt out of place the whole time I was there.”

Luke smiled back as he opened the car door for her and watched her slide into the smooth, leather interior. When he shut the door behind her, he looked up to see Jerry grinning at him.

“Shut it,” he warned his friend and colleague, pointing a finger at him. Jerry ignored the warning. “Got the hots for the hot-shot accountant?”

Luke growled, then swung himself into the driver’s seat. He put the car in gear and drove away from the airport, heading for downtown Melbourne.

“What can you tell me about the missing money?” Ms. Fletcher—Tabitha—asked from the backseat.

He glanced at her in the rearview mirror. “How much do you know already?”

“I was contacted by Tom Baxter, owner of the Imperial, two weeks ago. He told me that his internal auditors have noticed some discrepancies in the past six months that indicated missing

funds, but it wasn’t until several weeks ago that the extent of the theft was uncovered. He asked me to come to the Imperial to conduct an investigation as soon as possible, and here I am.”

“Tom says you’re the best.”

“At the risk of sounding immodest—he’s right.”

“There was a major theft at the Crown Casino, the Imperial’s biggest competitor, in 2014,” Luke said. “Thirty-three million stolen in a heist, a real Ocean’s Eleven kind of thing. Our auditors tell us this is different, that the theft was internal.” His hands tightened on the steering wheel. If he found out that any of his staff was involved…

Tabitha nodded. “Theft by employees is common in casinos.”

“I suppose it makes sense,” Jerry put in. “People are around all the flashing lights and excitement day in and day out. Maybe they play the slots or have a drink after work and before they know it, they end up with an addiction to feed.”

“That’s part of it,” she agreed. “Another part is that the casino industry is often seasonal. In Nevada, for instance, tourism drops during the winter months and casino employees make fewer tips. Combine that with economic recession and opportunity, and you have a recipe for theft and fraud.”

“You know a lot about how casinos work,” Luke commented. Tabitha grinned. “It’s my business to know.”

The high-rises of downtown Melbourne flashed past the windows of the Town Car, then slowed and disappeared from view as Luke pulled into the Imperial’s underground parking garage. The casino and hotel complex took up an entire city block, and not a metre of space was wasted. Luke directed Jerry to let Tom Baxter know they had arrived, then accompanied Tabitha in the elevator to the ground floor of the complex.

This time, she let him carry her bag, and he looked sideways at her as they boarded the lift. Was it a sign that she was comfortable with him? That she didn’t feel she had to prove anything to him?

“Welcome to the Imperial Hotel,” he said when the doors slid open to reveal a marble-floored lobby and a gleaming reception desk. “I’ll show you to your suite and send the concierge up to see if you need anything. When you’re settled in and ready to meet with Tom, ring down to the front desk and I’ll come escort you to his office.”

“No need for that,” Tabitha said briskly. “I don’t have much unpacking to do, so I might as well meet him now and dive right in.”

“Are you sure?” Luke raised his eyebrows. “You just got off a fourteen-hour flight. No one will fault you if you want to rest a bit, freshen up.”

“I slept on the plane.”

“You must really love your work.” Most people would have been more than happy to be wined and dined on the Imperial’s dime.

“I do.” Tabitha nodded. “It can get lonely sometimes, always moving from place to place, living out of a suitcase. But I’m incredibly lucky that I get to travel so much.” She sounded convincing, but Luke noticed that her smile had dimmed a bit. “Anyway, enough about me. Why don’t you tell me how you came to work at the Imperial?”

Luke led her back onto the elevator. “Not much to tell, really. I grew up on a farm, got a business degree because my parents wanted me to. Tried a few different things, didn’t like any of them. I thought I might become a tradie—a tradesperson,” he clarified at Tabitha’s questioning glance. “I like to be on my feet, on the move, instead of holed up at some desk.” He nodded at her. “No offence.”

“None taken. Obviously you ended up here instead of in a trade, though. How did that happen?”

Luke answered as they exited the lift at the top floor of the high-rise. “While I was trying to make up my mind about what to do with my life, I took a security position at the Imperial. It was supposed to be temporary, but I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. I liked working with people, learning about the different scams they try to pull, meeting tourists from all over the world. I wasn’t bad at the job, so I started pulling some shifts doing surveillance as well as working the floor.” He shrugged. “Eventually, I worked my way up to my current position.”

Luke stepped aside so Tabitha could precede him into Tom’s office, then closed the door behind them. The owner of the Imperial stood up and came around his desk to shake her hand.

“Don’t let Luke fool you,” the older man told her with a twinkle in his eye. “He’s far more than a security guard. In his time here, he’s completed a master’s degree in IT security and revolutionized the way we approach surveillance around here. Which is way he’s taking it hard that so much money has gone missing on his watch.”

“And you’re not?” Tabitha took the seat Tom offered her. “You seem quite relaxed for a man who’s been robbed of forty million dollars.”

Tom patted a hand against his breast pocket. “I’m in good shape for a man in his seventies, but my doctor tells me I have to watch my blood pressure. No sense worrying myself into an early grave. Either you’ll find the money or you won’t. That’s what I have insurance for.” He narrowed his eyes shrewdly and a hint of the multi-millionaire business mogul inside him came to the surface. “Besides, if you’re as good as your reputation, you’ll catch the thief.”

“I’ll do my best,” Tabitha promised.

“Excellent.” Tom leaned back in his chair. “What do you need to get started? I’ve made an office available for you, and my staff have been instructed to answer any questions you might have. Luke will be your point person and will help you in any way he can.”

Tom and Tabitha continued to talk shop and Luke made himself comfortable in a chair across the room, where he could watch the pretty accountant. He didn’t know how she managed it, but even after a flight that had lasted more than half a day, she was bright eyed and sharp as she leaned forward to listen to Tom. It was refreshing to meet a woman so confident, yet so lacking in ego.

Luke smiled to himself. It didn’t hurt that she was easy on the eyes, too. Her dark hair was straight and shining in a blunt cut that should have been severe. But on her, it was…gamine.

He suppressed the urge to snort. Listen to him—gamine, for Christ’s sake. If Jerry knew what he was thinking, he’d never hear the end of it. Still, maybe he and the accountant could get to know each other while she was in Melbourne.

“Luke? Are you with us?”

He pulled his gaze away from Tabitha to find Tom frowning at him. “Sorry. I was just…thinking.”

Tom’s smile said he knew exactly what Luke had been thinking about. “Ms. Fletcher is ready to get started, so you may return to your usual duties. I’ve asked her to call you if she needs anything.”

Luke nodded and strode across the room to hold the door open for Tabitha as she shook Tom’s hand, then made her exit.

“Would you care to have dinner with me this evening?” he asked her when they were back in the hallway.

She turned her head to look at him slowly, a look of intense concentration fading away. “Sorry, what was that? I was so caught up in getting started, I tuned everything out for a minute.”

Luke shifted his weight. Clearly, she wasn’t thinking along the same lines he was. “It was nothing. I just said to call the front desk when you’re ready for dinner. They can make a reservation for you at one of the Imperial’s restaurants.”

She smiled. “Great, thanks.”

Idiot, Luke thought as he took his leave of her. Of course she didn’t want to have dinner with him. She was probably used to dating high-profile businessmen who had careers equal to hers.

Hell, maybe she even had a boyfriend already—or a girlfriend. For all he knew, Tabitha had heard him ask her to dinner, and she’d been embarrassed by it.

“She’s out of your league, Tucker,” he told himself as he headed for the casino floor. It was time to get back to his job so she could do hers. And when she was done, she would get back on a plane and leave.

The thought bothered him more than it should have.

* * *

A week later, Tabitha got up from her borrowed desk with a groan. She put her hands to the small of her back and stretched out the kinks in her sore muscles. She’d pored over every scrap of paperwork available to her, checked and re-checked columns of numbers until they swam in front of her eyes. She’d interviewed Imperial staff at every level, from custodial staff to C-level executives, and she finally had an answer for Tom Baxter about his missing millions.

So why did she feel so…unsettled? She sighed as she shuffled a loose stack of documents into order. Her investigation had been textbook—she’d followed the money, quantified the exact amount of the loss, gathered evidence, and finally identified the culprit. It should have been an open and shut case. But something about the ease with which she’d solved it bothered her.

“Something bothering you?” a man’s voice asked from behind her.

Tabitha jumped, let out a yelp of surprise, and turned to find Luke Taylor standing in the doorway. “I didn’t hear you.”

He nodded. “No surprise there. You look like you have something on your mind.” He ran his eyes over her appraisingly, and a tingle of awareness ran up her spine. “Crossed arms, tense shoulders,” he observed. “Classic signs of stress. Are the financials still not adding up?”

“No, it’s not that.” She deliberately uncrossed her arms, let her hands fall to her sides. “Actually, I’ve got news to share with Mr. Baxter. Could you let him know I’d like to see him?”

“Actually, I’m under standing orders to take you to him as soon as you have something to tell him.” Luke stepped back out of the doorway. “Come on, I’ll take you to him. He’ll just be sitting down to lunch with Conrad Mason, his VP of Client Relations.”

“You don’t like him,” Tabitha said. “Mason, I mean. I could hear it when you said his name.” “It’s that obvious, is it?” Luke gave her a small smile as she fell into step beside him. “I don’t

have anything against the bloke. He’s just sort of…smarmy.” “Smarmy?”

“Likes to hear himself talk.” He glanced down at her and grinned. “A bit of a wanker, if you want to know the truth.”

Tabitha laughed. She knew exactly the type he meant—she met enough of them in her line of work. It was one of the reasons she rarely dated.

“I haven’t seen you around much this week,” she said—casually, she hoped. It had only occurred to her after she’d turned down his invitation that perhaps he hadn’t offered to share a meal out of politeness. That maybe he was actually interested in her outside of work.

He glanced at her. “Need something?”

She bit her lip. “I thought we might have dinner, after all, but I’ll be leaving as soon as I give Mr. Baxter my report.”

“Do you have another job waiting for you?” Luke asked. “Not immediately, but—”

“But nothing.” Luke interrupted her with a smile. “Why don’t you stay another day? Hell, stay a week and see the city. If you’ve found Tom’s money for him, he’ll likely insist on comping a room for you.”

“I don’t know…” But Tabitha was wavering. How long had it been since she’d taken a proper vacation? Years, at least. “I’ll think about it.”

“So, what do you have for me?” Tom asked when they sat down across from him in one of the Imperial’s five-star restaurants. He speared a stalk of asparagus. “Want some?” he offered. “I can put an order in for you. Conrad hasn’t joined me yet.”

He raised a hand as if to call over a waiter, but Tabitha stopped him. “Nothing for me, thanks. I ate at my desk.” She never managed to tear herself away from her work until a job was done.

She opened the folder she’d carried down from the office and handed over her report. “It doesn’t surprise me that it took your people a number of months to detect the theft—it was incredibly diverse. And there was someone on the inside making sure the investigation didn’t progress as it should have.” She paused to let her words sink in. “I’ve identified fifteen different fraudulent schemes, each used to filter a small amount of funds from the Imperial’s operations. Over time, it added up.”

A nattily dressed man strolled into the restaurant and approached their table, and Tabitha broke off.

“You can speak freely in front of Conrad,” Tom said as the man pulled up a chair. He leaned forward. “But did you say fifteen schemes? How is that possible? Who’s responsible?”

Tabitha’s mouth thinned into a flat line of distaste. “It appears that the thief is one of your internal auditors. Among other things, he cheated on expense reports using inflated foreign exchange rates and billed the casino for his personal housekeeping expenses.” She ticked off the offences on her fingers. “He also advanced credit to clients—accomplices—who were not credit- worthy, then wrote off the bad loans and split the funds with them.”

She glanced over at Luke. “There was nothing security could have done to catch this kind of thing. Not with someone on the inside keeping it buried.”

Luke’s shoulders relaxed, and Tabitha realized it was the first time she’d seen him completely at ease since they’d met. She looked at him curiously. Had he blamed himself for the disappearance of Tom’s money? If so, his guilt was misplaced, but she could appreciate his commitment and loyalty.

“Well, I’ve certainly lost my appetite.” Tom flipped through the report and pushed away from the table with a sigh. “If you’ll excuse me, I need to call the police.” Luke rose from his chair to mirror Tom, but the other man waved him off. “There’ll be time enough to review what went

wrong tomorrow. Why don’t you show Ms. Fletcher a bit of Melbourne? She’s only seen it through the windows of her office.”

He turned to Tabitha. “If your schedule will allow you to stay on at the Imperial as my guest, I hope a week spent playing tourist will change any negative perceptions you might have after wading through the muck created by one bad apple.”

“Told you so,” Luke murmured as Tom walked away.

“We’re all very grateful for your hard work, Ms. Fletcher.” The newest arrival to the table held out his hand. “Conrad Mason, Senior VP of Client Relations. Perhaps you’d prefer that I show you around our fair city instead of Luke? I know all the best places. And I’m sure he wants to get back to work, figure out how something like this could have happened on his watch.” The smile he aimed at Luke was condescending.

Tabitha eyed him coolly. The man’s even, white teeth were over-bleached, she thought, like two rows of Chiclets in his mouth. “As I told Mr. Baxter, there’s nothing security could have done. And I’m sure Luke will make a wonderful escort.”

Mason’s eyes narrowed. “I guess there really is no accounting for taste, is there?”

Tabitha got to her feet and looked down her nose at him. “I was just thinking the same thing.” She strode out of the restaurant with Luke on her heels.

He laughed when he caught up to her. “You put him in his place, didn’t you?”

“Ugh, you were right. He is a wanker.” She smiled as she tried out the Aussie slang. “Give me a minute to run up to my room and get changed? I find I’m looking forward to playing tourist, after all.”

“I’ll be here,” Luke promised.

When Tabitha returned in more casual clothing, he led her out of the casino complex into the heart of downtown Melbourne.

“What would you like to do?” he asked. “We’ve got art galleries and museums, great restaurants and shopping, golf, cultural centres.”

She glanced up at him shyly. “Would you laugh at me if I told you I’m desperate to see a Tasmanian devil?”

“A Tasmanian devil? Not a kangaroo or a cuddly, little koala?”

“I was obsessed with Tasmanian devils as a kid. I did a project on them in school once. Did you know they’re the largest carnivorous marsupial in the world?”

Now Luke did laugh. “I might have heard that somewhere. If you don’t mind a bit of a drive, the Healesville Sanctuary is part of a breeding program aimed at saving the devils. It’s about an hour away.”

During the drive to the sanctuary, Luke and Tabitha discovered that they both loved Bruce Springsteen, hated pickles, and that Tabitha had never tried Vegemite. “It’s made from leftover brewer’s yeast,” Luke explained. “It’s sort of salty and…” He shook his head. “It’s hard to explain. You’ll have to try it for yourself.”

She stared at him. “Children eat this stuff? Willingly?” “Sure. It’s like your peanut butter and jam.”

She made a face. “If you say so.”

At the sanctuary, Tabitha made a beeline for the Tasmanian devil enclosure and sighed with delight at the sight of the small, fierce animal. “They’re exactly how I pictured them.”

For the rest of the afternoon, Luke enjoyed watching Tabitha’s excitement over seeing Australia’s native fauna. “Which one did you like best?” he asked when they climbed back into the car. “Other than the Tasmanian devil, of course.”

Tabitha shook her head. “I can’t choose. I loved how roly-poly the echidnas were, but the platypus was cool too. And then there were the koalas. They’re just as cute as everyone says.”

“Did you know they make a noise like a party horn when they fight?” “Shut up!” Tabitha punched him lightly in the arm. “They do not.”

“It’s true,” Luke protested. It was good to see her so relaxed, he thought. But as they approached the Imperial, the muscles in her jaw tightened. “What is it?” he asked. “Something’s still bothering you about the case, isn’t it?”

She nodded. “You’re perceptive. I found some irregularities related to clients’ travel expenses. I flagged them for review by Tom’s regular accountants, but it was nothing illegal.”

“What kind of irregularities?”

Tabitha frowned. “The casino sometimes makes travel arrangements for VIPs, which is industry standard, but it looked like the Imperial’s preferred travel agency always charges full price fees. The Imperial must be a major client, but there were no discounts, no seat sales, nothing.”

Luke gritted his teeth. “Conrad Mason’s wife owns a travel agency.”

“And as the Senior VP of Client Relations,” Tabitha said slowly, “he would be in a position to designate preferred service providers. I bet his wife’s agency is booking travel for the Imperial’s customers at discounted rates, then charging the casino full price and pocketing the difference.” Her face paled. “What if Mason is behind all the other fraudulent activity I found? What if he framed that auditor? We have to tell Mr. Baxter before the wrong person is arrested.”

“Damn it.” Luke smacked a hand against the steering wheel. “I should have known Mason was up to something.”

He took a sharp turn into the parking garage and the vehicle jerked to a stop. They jumped out of the car and took off for Tom’s office at a jog. They found him behind his desk, as he had been when Tabitha had met him the week before. But instead of standing up to greet them when they burst in, he looked up wearily. The twinkle in his eye was gone.

“Have the police come yet?” Tabitha asked breathlessly.

Tom nodded. “They’ve been and gone. Took Malcolm Jansen with them. I suppose I should thank you for your hard work, but my heart isn’t in it. Jansen has been with me for ten years.”

“I don’t think it was him.”

He stared at her. “But your investigation pointed directly at him.”

She explained her suspicions about Conrad Mason and his wife’s travel agency. “I can’t know for sure without seeing the travel agency’s records, but there’s a chance Mason may have fooled us all.”

Tom snatched up the phone and began to dial. “I expect the police will be interested to hear your theories.”

As it turned out, they were.

“I’m glad they’ve got the real thief,” Tabitha commented to Luke later as they watched Mason being taken away in handcuffs.

“Thanks to you.” He turned to her. “The day we met, you told me it gets lonely sometimes, always travelling from job to job. What if you had the opportunity to stay in one place?”

“What do you mean? My work—”

“I have it on good authority that Tom is planning to offer you a permanent position on staff.” “Hmm.” She turned the idea over in her mind, then looked into Luke’s eyes. Did he want her

to stay for personal or professional reasons? “Do you think I should accept?” “Tom frowns on romantic relationships between employees.”

She looked away as embarrassment washed over her. “Of course. I didn’t mean—”

Luke tilted her chin up so he could meet her gaze again. “But I think he’d be willing to make an exception.” He leaned in to kiss her and heat sparked between them. “Will you stay?”

She laughed and pulled him close for another kiss. “I’ll think about it.”

by Nicola R. White from Canada