The Billionaire Who Wasn't

The Billionaire Who Wasn't

If you can’t trust your family, who can you trust?
The FBI agent who insists your father was wrongly convicted?
The half sister who begs you to help her prove it?
The stranger who has no motive to lie?
Or that little voice inside your head that says all is not as it seems?

Nina Roth is having a horrible day. Actually, make that a horrible week. In fact, make it a horrible year. Unemployed? Check. About to be homeless? Check. Father’s an international pariah and Nina’s guilty by association? Check. What’s a former billionaire’s daughter to do? The only thing she can—swallow her fear, ignore that little voice inside her head, and embark on an international manhunt that will either save her life or destroy it, once and for all.

 

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Chapter One

Just breathe, I remind myself as I drive my borrowed car into the parking lot of the nondescript industrial park. I circle until I find a space, then check the clock on the dash. Traffic in Los Angeles is as bad as they say, so I always leave extra time. Sometimes I still arrive a few minutes late. But usually, like today, I’m early. I use the bonus time to reread my resume. I have several versions depending on the job I’m applying for and whether I found the posting on my own or was referred by a friend. Not that I have many of those anymore. When your father’s an international pariah, I’ve discovered, it can negatively impact your relationships.

I force myself to wait until five minutes before my appointment time before I reach for the rearview mirror. Lipstick still on lips and not teeth? Check. Mechanically straightened hair still straight? Check. Mascara and eyeliner still in their proper place? Check. “You can do this,” I say and fist-bump my reflection before opening the car door.

I smile at the receptionist, who looks as bored as I know I would be if I were stuck sitting in a windowless office all day. That was one of the things I loved about my former job—I was constantly on the go, indoors, outdoors, and traveling too. Don’t go there, I remind myself for the first time this morning, which is pretty good considering I’ve been up for hours. Your old life is gone. Accept it and move on.

It’s the mantra I repeat to myself at least twice a day, which I consider progress. Six months ago I used to remind myself of this hourly and I still cried all the time. Now I only succumb to tears once or twice a week.

“Nina Roth to see Michael McKenzie,” I chirp.

I’ve become really good at faking happiness these last few months. Sometimes I even fool myself.

“Have a seat,” Bored Receptionist says and nods to the gray fabric chairs lining one wall. “I’ll let him know you’re here.”

As I faux-confidently stride across the reception area, I can’t help but notice the truly cringe-worthy painting hanging on the wall. It’s a picture of a woman staring out at what I presume is meant to be a stormy sea. The gray in the painting is an exact match for the gray in the seat cushions, which complements the gray industrial carpet. That must be the reason Wine World’s decorator chose it, I muse. Then I laugh at my own ridiculousness. Wine World sprung for a decorator? I don’t think so!

Wine World, The Southland’s Largest Wine Retailer! according to all of its advertising, as well as the ten-foot signs affixed above the entrance to each of its twelve retail stores, doesn’t waste money on decorators. I’m guessing the office manager chose that painting. Or maybe the owner’s wife.

I pull my phone out of my purse, not because I think anyone is trying to reach me but to give myself something to do. I don’t look up again until the receptionist asks in a slightly awed voice, “Are those Louboutins?”

I follow her gaze to my foot, which I’d been nervously jiggling. I uncross my legs so both feet are now planted firmly on the carpet and the telltale red soles of my black Louboutin pumps are hidden from view. “Um, I’m not sure.”

Bored Receptionist transforms into Nearly Hysterical Receptionist. “You’re not sure? How can you not be sure? I would know if I’d spent five hundred dollars on a pair of shoes!”

Seven hundred, but I keep that observation to myself. “They were a gift,” I lie. “I thought they might be knock-offs.”

The receptionist pushes back from her desk and charges into the waiting area, and I dig my soles into the low pile. From the look of determination on her face, I’m afraid she might actually rip the shoes from my feet. But she just drops into the chair next to mine and leans down. “No way are those knock-offs,” she says, reverently stroking the black patent leather. “I’m three credits away from getting my associate’s degree in fashion design,” she offers by way of explanation. “I know a knock-off when I see one.”

I realize this woman is not going to be the person who decides whether or not I get this job—a job I really, really need, by the way—but I still don’t want to contradict her, especially since she’s right. But nor do I want to fess up to the fact that I’m wearing a pair of shoes that probably cost more than her weekly salary. I’m saved from having to respond by her buzzing phone. She runs back to her desk to answer it, then nods and says, “I’ll bring her right down.”

“Call me Big Mike,” Michael McKenzie says as I shake his outstretched hand. The moniker suits him since he is several inches past six feet tall and well over two hundred pounds. I immediately imagine him playing football in his younger days, and now, in middle age, with thinning hair and an ample belly, watching the game from the comfort of his Barcalounger, a cold beer in one hand and the TV remote in the other. When he releases his grip, he motions to the chairs across from his desk. “Take a load off.”

The chairs in his office are clones of the ones in the reception area, and I smile to myself as I realize Wine World must’ve gotten a discount for ordering in bulk. It seems fitting since that is their retail strategy as well.

I sit down and cross my legs, making sure the hem of my skirt is as close to my knees as possible and the sole of my raised shoe is pointing behind me. Not that I think Big Mike would recognize a Christian Louboutin, or even know what a Christian Louboutin is, but I’m not taking any chances.

I notice my resume sitting on his desk, but instead of scanning it in front of me as most of my previous interviewers have done, he leans back in his chair, folds his arms across his man boobs, and says, “So, Nina Roth, tell me why I should hire you.”

I hate this question, but I’m prepared for it, having answered it at least ten times in the last six months. I launch into my well-prepared answer: “I have a degree in viticulture and enology from one of the best winemaking programs in the country, and I spent a year working at a vineyard in Sonoma. I doubt you will find another applicant who knows more about wine than me.”

He unfolds his arms, but his shirt remains stuck to his chest, and I realize that his boobs may be bigger than mine. Sad, mostly for me. “I’m sure that’s true,” Big Mike says. “But this position is selling wine, not making it, and you’ve never worked retail before.”

That’s not entirely true. I didn’t just work at that vineyard in Sonoma, I owned that vineyard, or my father did. But I always leave that fact off my resume. It prompts too many questions I don’t want to answer. Instead I give him my stock reply: “I worked in the tasting room on weekends. I can track inventory, run a cash register, and I’m great with customers.”

Big Mike smiles knowingly and finally reaches for my resume. “Yes, tell me a little more about Platinum Hills Winery. What exactly was your position there? Your resume doesn’t say.”

I swallow hard. This is the point in the interview where it always gets difficult. I don’t want to lie, but I can’t tell the whole truth either. I paste the smile onto my face and hew to my preplanned (and admittedly sexist—forgive me, feminists, but I really need this job) answer: “I guess you could say I was a bit of a Gal Friday. I worked in the vineyards, the cellar, the warehouse, the tasting room, wherever they needed another pair of hands. I’m sure you realize that my passion is for the winemaking, but I can absolutely handle the business side too. I negotiated all of our deals with distributors, and I’m sure I could handle negotiations with suppliers too,” I add, assuming that would be most relevant for this job.

Big Mike smirks. “Normally those are all separate positions. It’s very unusual for one person to be involved in everything.”

“Yes,” I acknowledge, mostly because I have no choice, “but Platinum Hills was a small winery, so we all pitched in.”

And then it’s as if someone watching us has flipped a switch because everything starts moving in slow motion, and we’ve become animated characters too! I’m no longer me; I’m a tiny mouse. And Mike is a hungry cat eyeing me as his next meal. I watch as a sly grin spreads across his face, then he licks his lips and pounces (metaphorically, of course). “I know who you are, Ms. Roth.”

Fuck!