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Samantha Davis frowned at her godmother. Agnes had been there for Sam her entire life. She trusted the older woman, who had stepped in as a mother figure when Sam was still in elementary school. And she was helping her get a job when Sam needed it the most. But even then, she didn't like the sound of this.
Getting up to Agnes's office had been a feat of its own. Sam was pretty certain there were fewer security measures at CIA headquarters.
What was she getting herself into?
Agnes shook her head and pushed the form across the desk to her. "It's nothing to really worry about, honey. Mr. Eden is very particular about his privacy. That's why there are so many restrictive measures to get up to this floor. No one in the building has access except me, Mr. Eden and the head of security. I'm the only one at the company that ever has any personal interaction with him. If you're going to fill in while I'm on vacation, you will interact with him as well, so you'll have to sign the agreement."
An uneasy prickle ran up the length of Sam's neck. Although she and Agnes were the only people in the room, she felt like she was being watched. Looking curiously around the modern, yet comfortably decorated office, she spied a tiny video camera watching her from the corner. There was a second camera on the opposite wall to capture another angle of the room. Who needed surveillance equipment to monitor their secretary?
If it was anyone but her godmother telling her to take this job, she'd walk right out the door. But Agnes wouldn't rope her into a bad situation just so she could go on vacation for her fortieth anniversary. It must seem worse than it was.
And yet, she couldn't put her finger on what was really going on here. She scanned over the confidentiality paperwork with distrust. Brody Eden owned Eden Software Systems. Office solutions and communications. Nothing classified. Nothing that might threaten national security if it was leaked. And yet if she failed to follow the terms of the agreement, she would be obligated to pay a five-million-dollar settlement.
"I don't know about this. Five million dollars? I don't have that kind of money."
"You think I do?" Agnes laughed. "It's deliberately high to ensure no one breaks the agreement, that's all. As long as you do your job and don't talk about Mr. Eden to anyone but me, you'll be fine."
"I don't understand. Talk about what?" As far as Sam knew, Brody Eden was some kind of wizard behind the curtain. He was like Bill Gates without a face. Reporters had tried and failed to find information on him, raising even more questions, mystery and interest. He simply didn't exist before launching his software empire. If people found out she had access to him, she supposed they might come to her for details, but what was so important that she couldn't tell? How he liked his coffee?
Sam didn't understand all the mystery. She'd always assumed it was only to stir up buzz about the company, but the cameras and the contract made her wonder if there wasn't more to it.
Agnes sighed. "Sign the agreement and I'll tell you. It's not a big deal. Definitely not worth blowing this opportunity and this salary while I'm gone. You need the money. Sign." She pushed a pen to her and nodded. "Do it."
Sam did need the money. And the pay was very good. Too good. Suspiciously good. There had to be a reason why, but apparently she wouldn't know until she'd already signed her deal with the devil. Well, in the end, it really didn't matter. Her rent was due and she had fifteen dollars in her checking account. She picked up the pen, signing and dating the agreement at the bottom of the page.
"Excellent," Agnes said with a smile. "Mediterranean cruise, here I come." She got up from the chair and slipped all the paperwork in a folder. She carried it over to a small, silver door mounted in the wall that turned out to be some kind of drawer. Agnes placed the file inside and then slid it shut.
"What is that?"
"I was giving Mr. Eden your paperwork."
"You don't just walk into his office and hand it to him?"
Agnes chuckled. "No. I very rarely go in there."
Sam turned to look at the massive oak doors that separated them from the secret lair of Brody Eden. They looked like they would hold up to a battering ram and were likely wired with sophisticated locks and security like every other door she'd gone through. They were intimidating. Damn near unapproachable. And she was itching to find out what was on the other side.
"And he won't come out here to get it?"
"He does, but only when he feels like it. He communicates mostly through the speakerphone or the computer. He tends to email and instant message a lot throughout the day. The drawer works best for anything else. That's how you'll give him his mail and exchange paperwork with him. When he's done with something, he'll slide the drawer back to you."
"Like Hannibal Lecter?"
"Something like that," Agnes said. She sat back down at her desk, where Sam would be working for the next month, and folded her hands. "Okay, now that the legalities are handled, we have to have a chat."
Sam took a deep breath. The last half hour's discussion had built up a nervous tension that drew all her muscles tight. Now that she'd signed on the dotted line, she wasn't sure if she really wanted to know what was so closely guarded. And yet her curiosity was burning at her. "What have you gotten me into, Agnes?"
"Do you think I would've worked here for as long as I have if the job was terrible? I have had horrible bosses and he isn't one of them. I adore Brody like he's my own son. You've just got to learn how to handle him. He'll be less prickly if you do."
Prickly. Sam didn't like that word. She preferred her bosses to be without sharp, biting barbs. Of course, having a sexy, charismatic boss had only led her to heartache and unemployment. Maybe a prickly, distant one would be better. If she was rarely in the same room with him, she couldn't possibly have an affair and get fired.
Sam turned to one of the video cameras. She was uncomfortable having this discussion knowing he might be listening in. "Is he watching us on those?"
Agnes looked at the camera and shrugged. "Probably, but there's no sound. He can only hear us on the speakerphone unless you yell through the door. Right now, we're able to speak candidly, so I'll tell you the big secret. Mr. Eden was disfigured in an accident a long time ago. Part of his face was damaged very badly. He's very self-conscious about it and doesn't like anyone to see him. He also doesn't want anyone to know about his injury. That's the main reason for all the mystery. No one can know he's scarred like he is. When and if you do see him face-to-face, it's best if you go on like you don't even notice it. Keep the surprise, the disgust, the pity inside. It might be hard at first, but you'll get used to it."
She wasn't supposed to, but Sam couldn't help the pang of sympathy she felt for her new boss. How lonely it must be to live like that. It sounded horrible. It made her want to help him somehow. It was just her nature.
Her father had always called her "Daddy's Little Fixer." Sam's mother had died when she was in second grade, but being only seven hadn't stopped Sam from stepping up to be the lady of the house. She was never much of a nurturer, but she got things done. Socks with holes? Mended. No money for groceries? Macaroni Surprise for dinner.
If someone had a problem, going to Sam would guarantee it would get dealt with quickly and efficiently. Even if they didn't think they had a problem, she would fix it. That's why her two younger brothers referred to her as "The Meddler," instead.
But how could she help Mr. Eden if he kept himself hidden away? "Will I even see him? It sounds like he doesn't come out."
"Eventually, he will. Grumpy, like a hibernating bear. But his bark is worse than his bite. He's mostly harmless. Mostly."
Sam could only nod while she tried to absorb all of this. Agnes continued on, telling her about the various tasks she was responsible for. Aside from the basic secretarial stuff, she was also expected to run errands for him.
"I pick up his dry cleaning? Doesn't he have a wife or something to do that?" she asked as she looked over the list Agnes had typed up for her.
"No. He's single. When I say you and I are the only ones to see him, I mean it. You'll pick up coffee for him in the morning. Sometimes I get his lunch, but most times he will bring his own or have something delivered to the lobby, which you'll have to go get."
The man really didn't go out in public. It was mind-boggling. "How can someone live their life without going outside? Without going to the store or the movies or to dinner with friends?"
"Mr. Eden lives his life through his computer. Whatever he can do from there, he will. What he can't do, you do for him. You're more of a personal assistant than a secretary. He doesn't pay a premium salary for you to sit around filing your nails and answering the phone."
Apparently not. But Sam could deal with this. Now that all the secrets were out in the open, the nervous butterflies had faded. This might not be so bad. "When do I start?"
"Tomorrow. You'll shadow me tomorrow and Friday, and then you'll be on your own for the next four weeks."
"Okay. Any particular office dress?"
Agnes shrugged. "Most of the employees here are fairly casual dressers. Mr. Eden wears suits every day, although I've never been able to figure out why given no one sees him but me. You have such a flair for fashion, so I'm sure you'll be fine."
Sam tried not to laugh at her godmother's mention of her "flair for fashion." That was one way to put it. Another way was that she was obsessed with clothes and shoes. The more girly and feminine the better. She loved sparkles and glitter, pinks and purples. The right pair of platform heels or leather handbag could nearly send her into a climax.
Sadly, her past two months of unemployment had been devastating for her wardrobe. She'd gotten so discouraged from how everything ended at her last job that she'd slipped into wearing sweats and T-shirts all the time. Heels seemed like overkill for watching Lifetime movie marathons.
But that was in the past. She had a job, she was out in the world and her fashionable ways would reign once again. So yes, Mr. Eden would be getting a trendsetting eyeful from his little video cameras.
"Let's go get your badge and codes setup. They'll scan your fingerprint to get you access to this floor while we're there, too."
Sam got up from her seat and started following her godmother to the exit. Feeling brave, she stopped for a moment and looked back up at the video camera that was tracking her movements across the room.
Looking directly into the lens, she flipped her long blond curls over her shoulder and straightened her posture defiantly. "If you're going to spend the next month watching me from that little lens," she said, knowing he couldn't hear her, "I hope you like what you see."
"Like" was an understatement. Samantha Davis was distracting.
Brody had watched his new assistant train with Agnes for the past two days as though he were watching a fascinating new film. The two large screens that were connected to the surveillance cameras had captured his attention the moment Samantha came up for her interview. He'd ignored most of his work. Missed a conference call. He was just intrigued by her and the way she would turn to the cameras as though she were watching him as he was watching her.
He supposed it might be because he wasn't exposed to many peoplewomen in particularbut even if he were, he couldn't help but think that Samantha would catch his eye. He liked the thick golden-blond curls that spilled over her shoulders and down her back. Her skin had a kiss of sun like she enjoyed jogging or swimming outside. He was drawn to her large brown eyes and bright smile. She wasn't particularly tall, but she made up for it with sky-high heels that made her legs look fantastic when she paired them with short pencil skirts.
She was really quite striking. Certainly a change of scenery from fifty-nine-year-old Agnes.
He loved Agnes like a mother. She was hardworking, efficient, if not a touch crotchety, but he liked her that way. Agnes was an office dynamo. It made Brody wonder how he was going to get through the next month without her.
Agnes had mentioned this anniversary trip months ago. He had had plenty of time to prepare. And yet, he still wasn't ready to deal with the actuality of her leaving for that long.
When Agnes suggested hiring her goddaughter to fill in while she was away, it seemed like a sensible suggestion. But he hadn't thought to ask if her goddaughter was attractive. He supposed most people wouldn't think that mattered either way, but it did to him. Brody avoided most people, but he avoided beautiful women the most diligently.
It didn't make much sense to anyone, especially his foster brothers, who were constantly riding him to get out and date. But they didn't understand what it was like. When they approached a beautiful girl, they only had to worry about rejection. And considering his three foster brothers were all handsome, successful and rich, they didn't get rejected very often.
When Brody approached a beautiful woman, he knew rejection was a given. But that wasn't the worst of it. It was the look on a woman's face when she saw him. That first reaction. That flicker of fear and disgust that even the most sensitive and polite person couldn't suppress. In Brody's world, that always came first, even if followed by a quick recovery and an attempt at indifference.
But what was even worse than that was the expression of pity that inevitably came. Brody knew there were people with worse injuries than his. Soldiers came home from the Middle East every day with burns that covered over half their bodies. They didn't hide away. Some were even outspoken advocates, role models for other victims. People were inspired by their strength to look beyond their scars.
That was a noble choice, but it didn't suit Brody. He hadn't been injured serving his country, and he wasn't interested in being the public face for acid burn victims. Being pitied one person at a time was bad enough. He couldn't take the massive public wave of sympathy all at once. He supposed that was why he'd gained a reputation of being not just a recluse, but a real bastard. He didn't like being that way, but it was a necessity. People didn't pity the villain, even if he was disfigured. They just figured he got what he deserved.