Tempting the Mogul

"Hey, where are you going with my car?" Kennedy Fitzgerald shouted, racing after the tow truck backing out of her driveway that had her precious Honda attached; the Honda she planned on paying off in full next week.

A few tendrils escaped the headband Kennedy had used to pull her hair back. In a frustrated motion she swept them off her face before flailing her arms at the driver. "You have no right to take my car! I've been making monthly payments!"

The tow truck driver spotting her came to a halt. He wound down his window and peered out. "Look, lady, I'm just doing my job. Pay your car note and the finance company won't repossess your car. It's the way things work."

"Pay my note? What are you talking about?" Kennedy shouted. She could feel her face heating up. "I pay my bills on time, way before they're due. Why am I explaining this to you?"

"Tell the story to the bank. Don't beat up the messenger."

Through his open window the driver flipped her a business card. It floated to the ground. As Kennedy bent to retrieve it he floored the accelerator, and zoomed off with her vehicle attached.

"Miss, you owe me forty-five dollars," the cabdriver who'd been unloading her luggage carped. He'd been watching the action from a safe distance.

Kennedy let out a deep sigh and peeled off a few bills, folding them into the man's open palm. Wait until she got her hands on her cousin Marna. How could she let this happen?

"Can I have a receipt?" Kennedy asked the driver.

He fumbled through several piles of paper and found a preprinted receipt. Where is Marna anyway? Why hadn't she come out to greet her and help her unload? She had to have heard the taxi pull up, or at the very least the noisy tow truck.

Marna had been living with Kennedy rent free. In exchange for not paying rent, she'd agreed to take care of the triplex and collect the rent from the other apartments. This money was to be used to pay Kennedy's bills while she was gone—including the car note.

To make it easier for the money to be deposited, Kennedy had asked her tenants to write checks directly to Marna. She'd instructed her to collect the rent checks on the first of the month from each tenant and deposit them in the joint account they'd opened up.

Knowing that a real person was responsible for collecting checks and depositing the money in an account had given Kennedy peace of mind. She'd left for her assignment in Tokyo feeling confident that her bills would be paid and her house cared for. For six months she'd been coaching Japanese executives on how business was done in America. She'd taught the Japanese everything from social etiquette to how to dress. The position had come with an attractive salary, plus housing. It had also come at exactly the right time.

The Fortune 500 company Kennedy had been working for was downsizing like crazy. When a headhunter called, she'd eagerly listened to his sales pitch. She was single with no dependents, and had a dual master's in Japanese and industrial psychology. Why not?

All in all, not many thirty-year-old African-Americans got a sweet deal like that. Kennedy had it all planned out. When she returned to Seattle she'd go into business for herself. She'd hang out a shingle advertising her services as a bilingual life coach and corporate trainer.

The sky was an unusual blue for Seattle. Cerulean blue, instead of blue-gray. A cool breeze ruffled the budding trees and in the distance, Kennedy saw the snowcapped mountain peaks she'd missed so much and loved to hike.

She stabbed a finger at the buzzer and waited for Marna to come bounding down the stairs and help her with all her bags. Finally, growing impatient, she let herself in through the side entrance.

Behind her, even though it was the end of May, the tulips were still in full bloom. The yard outside the triplex needed weeding and she wondered why Marna hadn't called the gardener as she'd been told to do.

"Do you need a hand?" a male voice asked, behind her.

Kennedy turned to find her downstairs tenant—a techie type—eyeing her curiously. "Yes, Ed, that would be great."

"How was your trip?" he asked, scooping up two of her bags as if they weighed nothing.

"Long, but I got a lot of work done so that was good."

"You liked working with Japanese businesspeople?"

Kennedy tried not to yawn. Jet lag was quickly setting in and she was in no mood for stupid questions. "Loved it. I got to use both my Japanese and organizational development skills. It was fun teaching American business protocol."

Kennedy started up the stairs to her apartment carrying the lightest of the suitcases. Underfoot in the foyer and hallways the Berber carpets were stained and smelly. She did not own a dog, but there was a definite 'doggie' scent to the place.

Ed snorted and filled her in. "Wow! That rottie your cousin had in here really wasn't toilet trained."

Her head began to ache. "What rottie?"

One of her strengths was remaining cool, calm and collected. She taught people how to cope with unexpected life-changing events. Therefore she should easily be able to deal with this.

"Marna's dog, Lulu," Ed said. "I told her the dog was bored and needed toys."

"Since when does Marna have a dog?" Kennedy threw over her shoulder.

Ed shrugged. "Oops! Talk about open mouth and insert foot. Lulu's a stray Marna found wandering the streets. She's a sweetheart but totally untrained. She ran Marna."

Kennedy sucked in a breath while using the green key to unlock the top lock. "Where is Marna anyway?"

"Uh, didn't she call you?"

Kennedy narrowed her eyes and again looked at Ed. Mentally she counted to ten. "Why would Marna need to call me? She knew when I was coming home. I e-mailed her."

"Did she e-mail you back? That's better than what she's been doing to me."

Come to think of it, Marna hadn't responded but Kennedy had thought nothing of it. Her cousin was notoriously scatterbrained and always acted as if she was overwhelmed.

Ed set down Kennedy's two bags. "You should be good to go from here."

"Uh-uh. Not until you tell me what you know."

Ed was beet red. He wore the uncomfortable expression of a man caught between rock and granite. He shuffled from one foot to another.

"Ed," Kennedy groused. "Better fess up if you know what's good for you. Seattle's rentals are pretty steep and you've got a great deal as my tenant."

Ed exhaled loudly. "Never thought you'd be a fan of bribery. Marna's been gone for almost three months. Some kind of an emergency came up and she had to leave."

Kennedy's throat closed down. She tried to control the wheezing sounds coming from her nose and the buzzing in her ears. She was close to hyperventilating. "Then how on earth have you and the Dopwells on the second floor been paying your rent?"

"Marna told us to send the rent to a P.O. box."

"What! Better give me that box number."

"No problem, I'll get it to you."

Kennedy's temples were pounding. She could not allow herself to get out of control. There had to be a logical explanation to it all. She kept thinking of her silver car that had just been repossessed. Was the triplex that she'd saved so hard to buy on the brink of foreclosure, too? How many months late was everything anyway? She'd need to call the bank immediately.

The minute she pushed open her top-floor apartment door, Kennedy knew she had her hands full. A damp, stagnant odor almost knocked her over. The rottweiler had left her mark here, as well. Kennedy flipped on the lights and braced herself. The suitcase she was holding fell from her limp fingers, making a dull thud. She felt Ed's steadying hands on her shoulders as she surveyed the destruction.

"Sit and I'll get you a glass of water," he proposed.

Unable to answer him, Kennedy just gaped. Her beautiful place was in ruins. The Persian carpets were a mess and the sofa she was still paying for had ugly yellow markings. She shuddered thinking about what those stains were. Her lovely wooden floors were scratched. The baseboards and moldings had been chewed on.

No wonder Marna had bailed before Kennedy came home and killed her.

Ed lined up the suitcases in the foyer and hastily opened up windows. A cool spring breeze soon filled the interior. It wasn't enough to camouflage the smell.

"Airing the place out should help," he announced, his voice chipper. "It'll be too much for you to do alone but tomorrow you can call a cleaning service."

Kennedy exhaled loudly and willed herself to calm down. She'd been named after John F. Kennedy, the thirty-fifth president of the United States, and a man her mother thought walked on water. She'd liked that he promoted equal rights and world peace. But Kennedy's thoughts right now were anything but peaceful.

"I can stick around and help you straighten up," Ed offered.

"You've done enough. Just get me that mailbox address and I'll take it from here." She thanked him and walked with him to the door.

"I really don't mind helping," Ed insisted. "In fact I would be glad to do what I can."

"You're sweet, but no. I need to do this alone."

After he left Kennedy wandered through what she playfully called her penthouse, assessing and itemizing the damage. Many of her personal possessions would have to be dumped. They'd been either chewed or soiled on. She began a list of things she needed to do first thing tomorrow.

She'd need to call someone in to clean the carpet in the bedroom and the living room's upholstery. She'd have to find someone to look at the wooden floors and see what could be done about them.

Kennedy glanced at the blinking answering machine. All of her friends and family knew that she'd been in Tokyo. They knew how to reach her via e-mail or cell phone. She'd entrusted her cousin on her mother's side, to house sit and pay her bills. Marna was between jobs and needed a place to live. She seemed grateful for the small income Kennedy was willing to pay.

Kennedy had had some trepidation about turning over a responsible job like collecting rent, and bill paying to a flake. She would have much preferred her brothers to take on the task, but Lincoln lived in Eastern Washington, too far ...