by AC Arthur
Book 2 in the Donovan Dynasty
Denial and isolation…
International businessman, Roark Donovan has just suffered the greatest loss of his life. After years of being the leader of his family, he had to walk away from them and his business while grappling with the circumstances surrounding his mother’s death. Returning to the English countryside was supposed to be therapeutic and restful. It wasn’t meant to open his heart to love again…or lead to clues about his mother’s murderer.
Tamika Rayder has reached the stage in the grieving process where she’s supposed to accept what happened and move on, but there are still too many questions to be answered about her father’s death in a five-alarm fire. As an arson investigator, she’s the best person to pursue the case, except that with every clue she uncovers, her mother slips deeper into depression and Tamika fears she will lose her next. Roark Donovan is charming and attentive and the blistering passion that immediately erupts between them is the stuff that dreams are made of, but Tamika isn’t used to dreaming of happiness.
And when the past comes back to haunt them, Roark and Tamika must prepare themselves for the deadly inferno that threatens to consume them all.
Book 2 in the Donovan Dynasty
Hyde Park, London
For as long as he lived and as many breaths as he’d be blessed to take, she’d always be the love of his life.
The worship space in Bolton Park Baptist Church overflowed with people who’d come to pay their respects. Their presence added a mixture of heavy perfumes and colognes that, combined with the strong, sweet aroma of the many flowers occupying the space, had Roark Donovan closing a fist over his mouth as he coughed. The couple who’d just walked past, shook his hand and whispered words meant to comfort. All Roark could think was that they must’ve had some sort of competition going for which one could have the most offensive scent.
He was already tired of standing, and he was definitely tired of saying “thank you,” “we appreciate it” and “yes, we’ll let you know if we need anything.” The latter particularly rubbed him the wrong way, because nobody in this room could give him the one thing he needed.
At some point, the clergy filed into the room. Two men cloaked in robes standing just behind the pastor, who adjusted the microphone on the podium before speaking.
Roark had no idea what was said. He sat when they were directed to do so, and as part of the family, was not asked to stand again. When the choir stood, there was singing, clapping and crying. He’d heard more crying in the past two weeks than he ever wanted to hear again. As if on cue, Suri bent down, burying her face in her hands as she cried even harder.
His heart ached for his sister, and when he put his hand on her back, rubbing in small circles, he wished like hell that single act could take all the hurt and sorrow from her. It couldn’t, he knew that, but hearing her cry, knowing she suffered and being helpless to stop any of it, was just another part of this nightmare.
Ridge sat stoically on Roark’s other side, his fists tight and resting on his thighs. Roark’s younger brother wore a black suit almost identical to Roark’s but for the style of their jackets. Their shirts were white, ties a blood-orange color that was their mother’s favorite hue. Suri wore a cream-colored dress with an orange belt and matching shoes. The three children of Maxine Donovan paid homage to the woman who loved and raised them.
Roark was pulled from his thoughts when the pastor stood in front of him. He looked up and listened to what was being said, nodded and then reached for Suri’s hand. She gripped his hand in return, and he recalled the way she used to do that when she was little and he’d hold her hand as they’d crossed the street. At thirty years old, she was ten years younger than him and still much shorter, which he noted when they both stood.
The funeral director was giving instructions for what would happen next, who’d go where and how they’d continue with the day, but all Roark could think about was that this was almost over. The time he had with his mother close by was almost done, and his chest felt like it was collapsing with that thought.
Disregarding what was being said, he released Suri’s hand and stepped away from the first row of seats, where he’d been standing. He walked with steps that felt heavy and labored toward the rose-gold-colored casket and placed both his palms on top. Dropping his head and closing his eyes, he hoped she could feel him, hoped she knew how much he loved and appreciated her for all the sacrifices she’d made for him and his siblings. She’d been everything to him, and now, he wasn’t sure what he’d be without her.
Hands rubbed his back this time, one from the left side and another from the right. Suri rested her head on his arm, still crying, quietly now. Ridge stood close, and the moment Roark heard his brother sniffle, warm tears ran down Roark’s face.
“Who cooked this macaroni and cheese with this awful, crumbly mess on top?”
Bridgette “Birdie” Donovan was not happy today.
Or any other day, for that matter. Roark tried not to pay too much attention to her whenever she was around. Today, he especially didn’t feel like dealing with her bristling candor, nonstop complaints, or burning insults. In short, he just didn’t feel like Aunt Birdie.
“Come over here and get me another plate, and leave that mess in the pan. Better yet, take it back into the kitchen—nobody needs to see that catastrophe.” His aunt was talking to Jade, his cousin Linc’s wife, who was five months pregnant and still as beautiful as ever in a knee-length black dress.
Roark immediately pushed his chair back and stood. He picked up the plate Aunt Birdie had referred to. “I’ll get you another plate.” He hadn’t been able to hide the crispness in his tone and wasn’t really interested in how his aunt felt about it.
Aunt Birdie was the only girl and youngest child of Roark’s great-grandparents, Rowan and Adeline Donovan. She was ninety-two years old, had no children and had never married. She’d also never worked a day in her life. Thanks to her inheritance from her parents and the increasing worth of her shares in Donovan Oilwell, she never had to. She owned a house in her hometown of Beaumont, Texas but spent most of her time traveling or harassing the staff at the Donovan family-owned Camelot Resort on Sansonique, their private Caribbean island.
For the last two weeks, she’d been in London, staying at the flat Roark had rented for Suri after the fire had destroyed a good portion of his parents’ Hyde Park home. To keep Suri from locking their great-aunt in a closet, Ridge had agreed to stay there with them temporarily. Jade touched Roark’s arm in silent thanks as he walked past her, and he did everything he could to muster up at least a partial smile in response. “Sit down, you’ve been on your feet since eight this morning,” he told her.
Jade and Linc were from Las Vegas, but two years ago, Linc had moved his wife and twin twelve-year-old daughters to Paris, where he’d opened his new casino called the Odyssey.
“I’m fine, just trying to make sure this goes as smoothly as possible.” Jade lifted a hand and tucked her long, dark hair back behind an ear. “I know this isn’t easy.”
“Shouldn’t have had this get-together.” Aunt Birdie rolled her eyes as she looked around the room. “People’ve been dropping by all week, smiling in our faces like they knew Maxine personally. Some of them probably only knew how much money she had after Gabe died.”
Roark chaffed at the mention of his father, who’d died when he was seventeen. “It’s polite.”
“It’s a nuisance,” Aunt Birdie snapped. “And I thought you were getting me another plate.”
After a brief sigh, Roark didn’t even bother to comment, but turned away from Jade and walked toward the kitchen of the hall they’d rented for the repast. Forty-five minutes ago, he’d left his mother’s body at the cemetery, where she’d rest forever.
There were one hundred fifty people in the main hall, sitting at tables topped with white linen cloths. A buffet was set up with enough food to feed double the amount of people who’d received special invitations to the family repast. Roark had wanted to return home. There he could continue working with the fire investigation officer at the London Fire Brigade on the cause of the fire that had torn through his parents’ home, killing his mother as she’d slept.
“Excuse me, sir. Can I help you?”
The starkly spoken question brought his focus back to the present, and Roark blinked before shaking his head. “Sorry. Yes. Could you fix another plate for my aunt, without macaroni and cheese, please?”
The woman, dressed in black pants and a white chef’s jacket, smiled and took the plate he’d extended to her. “Certainly. I’ll bring it to your table, Mr. Donovan.”
He was Mr. Donovan. He had been since that rainy Saturday twenty-three years ago, when he’d stood graveside, watching as his aunts and uncles laid long-stemmed roses on top of his father dusky gray casket. Today, he’d set five long-stemmed orange roses on his mother’s casket—one for each member of their family. She’d always called them her ‘heart’. Even after his father had passed away, his mother had continued to love Gabriel Donovan. Now, the two of them would be together again. Roark swallowed hard and took a deep breath. The release was shaky as he fought back tears. Clenching his fingers into fists at his side, he insisted he was done crying, at least for today.
Remembering to thank the staff member and once again smile, Roark turned away from her. In the main hall once again, he looked around at the many people either sitting at tables or standing in small groups talking. A good number of them were family, Donovans who’d come from as far as Las Vegas, Nevada, and from his mother’s side, the Walters, who were mainly from the UK. Also, in the mix were business associates who’d worked at Donovan Oilwell UK, the branch of the family company Roark’s father had run until his death. The company Roark and Ridge had been running up until two years ago, when Roark had branched off to create a new arm of the Donovan dynasty. Roark had teamed up with his cousin Dane to bring Donovan Oilwell UK into the 21st century by expanding into the clean-air market with a focus on fostering sustainable cities. From that collaboration, Donovan International had been born.
New businesses, new family members—everything was changing.
But change was good. His mother had always told him that. Without change, life became stagnant, boring.
Roark felt like his life was over.
Until a little body slammed into his calves, and the arms that went with said body wrapped around his knees.
“Whoa.” Roark looked down to see the top of a head full of dark brown curls. “Slow down there, buddy.”
His warning was followed by giggles, and when the little boy looked up at him, Roark couldn’t help but chuckle too. He also couldn’t resist picking the toddler up and holding him close.
New life. Maxine had loved kids and had never missed an opportunity to tell her children how many grandchildren she’d wanted. In the past few years, she’d slacked off a bit on saying this to Roark because of his divorce, but he knew she’d still felt the same. She’d wanted a house full of grandchildren, who’d be the fifth generation of Donovans. As Roark nuzzled a chubby cheek, he closed his eyes with the pang of disappointment that his mother would never be granted that wish.
The feeling wasn’t allowed to fester, as from the other side, another toddler had latched onto him. Now, Roark chuckled harder before bending down to scoop the second smiling kiddo into his arms.
“Good catch.” Noelle Remington smiled as she walked up to him and crossed her arms over her chest. “You look pretty comfortable with those two.”
“I’m not upset they found me.” In fact, their laughing eyes and cheerful voices—even though he couldn’t understand their child-like gibberish—gave a sprinkle of joy on this otherwise bleak day. “They were running around so much at the flat last night that I only saw them in a blur.”
Noelle was his cousin Brock’s wife and Jade’s sister. Brock and Noelle ran Linc’s Gramercy II casino in St. Michael’s, Maryland. The set of twins Roark held in his arms were their children, Bradyn and Natasha.
“They don’t call them the ‘terrible twos’ for nothing,” Noelle quipped. “But kids look good on you.”
They felt good too, a fact that only brought back the pain Roark was becoming all too accustomed to. “We don’t have any little children here. Well, now we have your sister’s twins, Torian and Tamala, but they’re not children. I know, because they told me so a few months ago when I took them to a fashion show in Paris.”
In contrast to her sister, Noelle wore her hair in a short, curly style that closely resembled her children’s except for her bright blond color. She also wore a black dress with black pumps and large diamond stud earrings. “Yes, my nieces are really growing up. I didn’t see them that often when they were living in the States, and now that they’re all the way across the pond, I’ll see them even less.” She smiled when Bradyn reached out to her, and she lifted him from Roark’s hold. After kissing his chubby cheek, Noelle returned her attention to Roark. “I just wish this visit could’ve been for a better reason. I’m so sorry for your loss, Roark. I know we’re far away, but if there’s anything you need that Brock and I can help you with—”
Roark knew how that sentence would end, and he cut her off with a shake of his head. “I know. Our family’s always been tight-knit, even when thousands of miles apart. But we’ll get through this—Ridge and Suri and I.” He’d said those words a lot in the past two weeks. He’d even sat with his brother and sister trying to convince them that those words were true. But inside, Roark wasn’t so sure.
“And Aunt Birdie. I heard her telling Uncle Bernard and Uncle Albert that she wasn’t leaving until she knew the three of you were alright. She said your parents would’ve wanted it that way.”
“I don’t know about that,” Roark added with another shake of his head. “Aunt Birdie and my mum had their moments.”
“Aunt Birdie has moments with everyone,” Noelle replied and then reached out to rub her hand over her daughter’s head. “Are you getting sleepy, sunshine?”
Roark looked down at Natasha, who’d rested her head on his shoulder and stuck her first finger into her mouth. He hadn’t noticed she’d stopped giggling, but had instead allowed himself to languish in the warmth of her against him. “I can bring her over to your table.” He wasn’t going to let her carry them both across the crowded room, even though he’d seen how easily Noelle handled both the toddlers in the past few days.
“Thanks. We brought their car seats inside, so she can nap in there until we leave.”
There were six family tables set up and positioned toward the front of the room. Brock, Uncle Albert and Uncle Bernard were sitting at one when Roark and Noelle approached.
“It’s nap time,” Noelle said, and Brock immediately stood to take Natasha from Roark.
“Thanks, man,” Brock told him.
“No problem.” It wasn’t a problem to hold two of his youngest family members, or to watch their sweet faces as they were set into the seats and given cups of milk.
“How you holding up?” Uncle Bernard asked.
Roark nodded. “I’m good,” he lied.
“He’s steady, like Gabe was,” Uncle Albert said.
Albert and Bernard were technically Roark’s cousins, as their father and Roark’s grandfather were brothers, but they were senior members of the family and as such were given the respect of a title before their names. Just as Linc’s daughters called Roark “Uncle Roark.” Respect was something branded into the minds of all the Donovan children from day one.
Uncle Bernard agreed with a nod. “And smart too. I’ve seen the financial reports from Donovan International. You and Dane are building something great there.” That was said with the pride of a Senior Donovan, for the son he’d just gotten to know in the past couple of years, and for Roark, whom they’d all kept tabs on since his father’s death.
“Thanks, Uncle Bernard. We’ve been working really hard on developing innovative techniques, and we’re starting to see some success.” Those words were easy for Roark to say. Business had always been easy for Roark.
“Carrying on the legacy, that’s what it’s all about,” Uncle Albert added. “I’ve got grandkids, Bernard’s got grandkids. Our children are all married and branching off into their businesses. That’s what our great-grandfather wanted. It’s what Gabe and Maxine wanted. The three of you have to carry on for them. You have to keep the family going here.”
“Yes, sir,” Roark replied, accepting yet another responsibility to carry. He felt his phone vibrating in his pocket and immediately reached for it. “I should take this,” he said with an absent glance at the screen.
Uncle Albert stood, clapping a hand on Roark’s arm. “Don’t let everything be about business, Roark. Enjoy your family while you can.”
Because tomorrow wasn’t promised.
Uncle Albert hadn’t said those last words, but Roark knew how the saying ended. He knew, because his mother had said it often after his father’s death. Just as she’d been sure to keep their small family as close to her as she possibly could, until she couldn’t anymore.
“I will, Uncle Albert. I promise.” But Roark didn’t know how far that promise was going to go. Right now, he couldn’t see past his grief to do much more than handle the most mundane of business tasks, let alone think about how he was going to keep his family together. And by the time he’d gotten out of the main hall and into the foyer of the building, his phone had stopped ringing.
After swiping the screen to see the call had come from a number he didn’t recognize, Roark looked up at the sound of his name. He pushed his phone back into his pocket and walked across the room to where Linc and his other cousin Cade were standing.
Cade was on the phone with his back turned to them, but Linc reached out and clapped a hand onto Roark’s shoulder when he was close. “He’s on the phone with Investigator McGee. They went back over the scene this morning, using the dogs to see if they can identify an accelerant.”
Linc and Cade also wore black suits, white shirts and orange ties. In fact, every member of the family had been asked to wear something in that color scheme in honor of Maxine. As he thought of that now, he recalled Jade and Noelle had been wearing a wrist corsage made with the same orange roses that adorned his mother’s casket.
“Why didn’t he call me? I specifically told him to call me with any developments,” Roark said when Linc’s words registered in his mind.
Linc let his hand fall from Roark’s shoulder as he nodded. “And we told him not to bother you with it today. The only reason I’m telling you now is because they think they found something.”
Roark didn’t like that there’d been a concerted effort to not tell him what was going on with his mother’s case, but wasn’t going to argue that point here today. Besides, Cade was an FBI agent; he could obviously get more information than Roark would be privy to, even though Cade’s specialty was profiling and not fire investigation.
Cade turned to them, tucking his phone into his pocket. “Gasoline,” he told them with a solemn look.
Linc smirked. “Not very original.”
Rage clawed at Roark. “In the house. How did someone get into the house and pour enough gasoline around to torch the entire second floor? There’s a top-notch security system that wasn’t disturbed in any way.”
“Yeah, I know.” Cade showed no outward reaction, but Roark knew that was because he was in work mode. “McGee’s gonna continue his investigation, but it looks like he may be turning it over to the homicide detectives at some point.”
Cade’s words were bland, and Linc followed them with a concerned look, while Roark felt like exploding. Anger poured into every crevice of his body, inching out the grief that had taken up permanent residence since the night he’d received the call that had changed his life.
“I’ve got some contacts within the MPD too.” Cade may have worked primarily in the US, but he knew the ins and outs of all the law enforcement agencies over here such as the Metropolitan Police Department. “I’ll be on the phone with them first thing tomorrow to see if he can stick his nose in before McGee finishes with his report.”
Cade had also gotten the autopsy report expedited. Roark’s fists were balled so tight the muscles in his arms began to ache.
Linc slid a hand into the front pocket of his pants. “Have you talked to Ridge and Suri about all this?”
“No. I don’t want to worry them.” Roark ignored the fact that he was keeping info from his siblings, the same way he’d just been angry about Cade and Linc keeping info from him.
“The media isn’t going to give a damn about worrying any of us. The fire being in such a prestigious neighborhood, not to mention the resulting death of one of the wealthiest women in London, has already been receiving front-page coverage. Tabloids are just beginning to dig into whatever they can find on Aunt Maxine, going back to when she and Uncle Gabe first moved into that house. This won’t be our secret for long.”
Roark knew Linc was right. He knew he should talk to Ridge and Suri, but he couldn’t. How was he supposed to tell his brother and sister that their mother had been murdered?