Read an Excerpt
Gotcha!" Maggie Dillon grinned as the United States's government seal blossomed on her computer screen. It'd taken some time, but she'd finally hacked into the FBI's main database.
Wait a minute. Her initial excitement fading, she leaned back in her chair. The auxiliary security software her company had designed for the FBI obviously hadn't done its job. "Dang it." She fingered down the first of several meticulously arranged stacks of files, pulled out her work-in-progress notebook, and jotted down a few notes for her programming team. That was one back door that needed closing pronto.
"This will make your day." Shannon, Maggie's younger sister and second-in-command breezed into Maggie's office sounding mighty pleased with herself. "I finally found him. The perfect man."
"You sure this time?"
"Positive." Shannon held out a thick manila folder. "On second thought," she said, pulling the file back, "maybe I'll keep him for myself."
"Gimme that already!" Maggie snatched the papers.
She'd spent the last two months looking for a guy with the right combination of business experience and knowledge of Greek customs to run point for her in negotiations with Greece's national defense department. If Shannon and the talent scout they'd hired had finally found the right man, Maggie couldn't afford to waste a single precious minute.
"You used to be fun," Shannon said, pouting. "What happened to you?"
Life had happened.
There was nothing like being solely responsible for two younger sisters to yank a person onto the straight and narrow. And nothing like the baby sister's looming college tuition to make business expansion a necessity. Hell, she'd barely recoveredfrom Shannon's stint at Georgetown.
Maggie flicked at the edges of the bulging file. "Looks like Dawkins went overboard here."
"Probably had something to do with you chewing his butt over the last prospect turning out to be a convicted felon."
"Did you read all this?"
"Every juicy tidbit."
Maggie cleared a space on her desktop, laid the file down and flipped through the papers, intending to read only the most pertinent business information. She glanced down at what was probably a company head shot clipped to the outside jacket of the file. Impeccable black suit. Short dark hair. Impressive wasn't the only adjective Maggie would've used to describe this guy. That faded scar angling down his right cheekbone gave him a serious, almost lethal appearance.
Damn! It riled her that she actually needed a man for anything, let alone one as virile-looking as this. Call her sexist, but she did not want to be working in the same office with this obvious a distraction. "Shred this folder." She pushed away the paperwork and grabbed one of the many three-dimensional puzzles sitting on her desk. "What does Dawkins think I'm looking for? A mercenary playing GQ model?"
"Snagged your line, didn't he?" Shannon asked, one eyebrow arched.
"Rich and sexy?" She rotated a section of the puzzle, aligning the set of numbers. "Your type, not mine."
Shannon laughed. "You've got more strike-outs than D.C. has monuments. Maybe it's time you try someone different."
"It's been a tough day." Maggie tossed the cube back onto her desk and rubbed her screen-tired eyes. "I'll ignore that."
"Suit yourself." Shannon shrugged. "His father was only the American ambassador to Greece, so our man grew up there. Probably has all the right connections, but what do I know?"
Maggie considered the folder again. She pinched two dead leaves off the African violet inhabiting one corner of her desk before curiosity finally won out and she pulled the file back. "What's his name?"
The sound of his name immediately conjured images of sultry Mediterranean nights and delightful ocean breezes. "He's American?"
"Yep. His father emigrated from Greece when he was ten. His mother's a native Californian." Shannon headed for the door. "I'll go get us something to drink."
Doing her best to ignore the irrelevant personal details, Maggie scanned the paperwork. Not only had Ballos grown up in Greece, but he'd also owned a successful international shipping company based out of Baltimore, proving he had good business sense. When Shannon returned a few minutes later, Maggie glanced at her. "This guy's the real thing."
Shannon winked, setting two cans of diet soda between them. "I told you."
"There's only one problem." Maggie tapped the desktop. "He's so impressive, he has no reason to go for what we can offer." She gazed out her window, through the hanging mass of ivy and purple passion vine, at the midsummer heat and humidity rising in waves off the street below. Their offices might sit at a high point in the Adams-Morgan district, but there was nothing impressive about them.
On the block directly across from their mostly restored brownstone, the neon light advertising psychic readings was missing the P, the mom-and-pop Mexican restaurant did barely enough business to keep its doors open, and the bookstore on the corner had a going out of business sign in its window. Not a thriving neighborhood by any means.
Still, the property came cheap, offered a relatively central location, and the top-floor apartment space was large enough to accommodate Maggie, Shannononce upon a timeand their younger sister, Kate. Not to mention the building management had allowed Maggie to build a small greenhouse on part of the large roof area opening off her bedroom. It might be an empty greenhouse, at the moment, but it was there all the same, waiting for the day when Maggie could make time for plants outside of the pots in her office.
"Why should he punch a clock for us?" Maggie mused.
"He has lots of time on his hands. Why not?"
"Because he recently sold his company for a helluva lot of money. Which probably means he'll be retiring and sailing around the world, or whatever else it is that filthy rich people do."
Shannon perched on the edge of Maggie's desk. "He's only in his early thirties. And, from all accounts, definitely not the type to play away the rest of his life."
"Isn't it odd he hasn't been anywhere near Greece, let alone the Mediterranean, for years?"
"He's been busy running his company."
"That originally did a great deal of shipping out of Greece. Presumably, he'd have friends there, family to visit." Maggie tapped the papers in the file. "Maybe he doesn't want to go back. Maybe he hated it there. Maybe"
"Where's the harm in presenting your case?"
Maggie sighed. "How do we convince him to meet with me?" Shannon's cat-got-the-canary smile told her that the issue had already been addressed. She chuckled. "Who knows someone who knows someone who knows him?"
"His parents were longtime family friends of Senator Howard Stiles."
"I roomed with the Senator's niece freshman year." Shannon smirked. "Uncle Howie made a call, and our Mr. Right will be here in " Shannon said, looking down at her watch. "Ten minut"
"Your Mr. Right's here now."
Maggie spun her chair toward the sound of the man's voice. Oh, boy. That company head shot had nothing on the actual sight of Nicholas Ballos. He leaned against the door frame, nearly filling the open space. In black dress pants and a long-sleeved white shirt, he looked crisp, cool. This, after coming in from a muggy, one-hundred-and-two-degrees-in-the-shade July day. His hair was longer than in the picture and a heavy strand strayed low on his brow. If not for the scar on his cheek, more prevalent in person than in his picture, he may have seemed almost approachable.
She set his paperwork in a side desk drawer as inconspicuously as possible. Something told her this man wouldn't take kindly to having his life summarized in a file.
"Hello, Mr. Right." Shannon swaggered toward him. "I'm Shannon Dillon."
"Ms. Dillon," he said. "Apparently, you pulled the strings to get me here."
"I doubt mere strings would've done the trick." Grinning, Shannon turned on her natural charm. "Curiosity maybe?"
He tilted his head. "Got me there."
Oh, please! Maggie barely kept herself from rolling her eyes. She stood, pasting a smile on her face. "Hello, Nicholas." She'd be damned if she was going to call him mister, let alone Mr. Right.
"I'm Shannon's sister, Maggie Dillon." She shook his hand, and, the moment they touched, the playful curve at the corner of his lips disappeared.
"Call me Nick." He studied her, deliberately, even had balls enough to give her hand a slight twist in order to get a better look at the tattoo on the inside of her wrist.
Yeah, you got it. A tattoo. Wanna see my piercings, rich boy? She tucked her hair behind her ears, displaying an impressive row of studs, hoops and ear cuffs. Bite me, Mr. Right.
As usual, whenever the upper-crusty acquaintances Shannon had made at Georgetown compared the two sisters, Maggie's insecurities flared and her armor deployed. She didn't have a college degree backing her play, let alone a high school diploma. Her GED and this business were the only things between her and minimum wage. And at a scrappy five-foot-two with unruly auburn hair, she'd never measured up to Shannon's natural elegance. Not that Maggie normally tried to, but, at this moment, she wouldn't have minded appearing refined and irresistibly attractive.
Difficult to do wearing a T-shirt imprinted with the saying, One woman, two digits, who needs a man?
Putting on what she hoped was a natural smile, Maggie directed him to the other side of her office, to what her programmers called the chitchat pit while Shannon grabbed a pad of paper and sat down to take notes. Instead of a conference table, Maggie had arranged a sofa and several chairs around a large square coffee table, creating an informal meeting area.
"Thanks for agreeing to meet on such short notice." Maggie sat in one of the chairs and motioned him across from her. "I don't want to waste your time, so I'll get right to the point." As he leaned back, his long legs kicked out in front of him, a tuft of midnight-black hair eased over the top button of his shirt. Without thinking, she blurted out, "I need a man. It's as simple as that."
Other than his eyes narrowing slightly, he didn't move. "I'm sure, Maggie, you deserve nothing less."
Arrogant. Too good-looking. And not her type. Still, her fingers itched to touch the curious scar on his cheek, to undo a few more buttons on that starched shirt.
She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. "Let me back up. My company, Universal Security, has recently developed and patented a software product that provides auxiliary security for computer systems. What I should have said is Universal Security needs a man," she said, "with your background to market the software."
"My background?" he said, shaking his head.
"Wrong man. I don't know anything about computers, software or security."
"I have a technical staff," she explained. "What I need is someone who can handle themselves around high-level government officials and negotiate contracts. You ran your own company for years. That kind of experience is invaluable."
Ballos swung his arm around the back of his chair and gazed around the room, appearing to digest the information. If he was half as arrogant and judgmental as he looked, he wasn't going to think much of her company. She was profitable but small with only two offices, hers and Shannon's. Her programmers, nothing more than a group of hackers, worked from their respective homes.
She and Shannon might have up-to-the-minute computer systems and large offices but their furniture was a mish-mash of pieces Maggie and Shannon had found at estate and garage sales. Office casual? Try jeans and T-shirts. Sometimes shorts. Their central air had been known to crash like an overloaded hard drive, especially on days as hot as today.
"You want me to work for you?" he finally said.
See? "My company may not initially be able to offer you much, but we're growing. We have tremendous potential."
"I'm sure you do." He stood and headed for the door. "The answer's no.