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Her Secret, His Surprise
By Paula Altenburg, Kerri-Leigh Grady, Jessica Snyder
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2014 Paula Altenburg
All rights reserved.
Cassiopeia Stone blinked a little behind her black-framed glasses as the alcohol settled in her stomach and spread relaxing warmth through her limbs.
The hotel bar was dark, deserted, and smelled a bit funky. Like a few too many beers had slopped over the tops of overfull steins. The atmosphere was intimate, and the tables secluded enough for private conversation.
In other words, based on her limited experience, it was fairly typical of conference hotel bars.
"We've held the Canadian first- and second-line maintenance manuals contract on P-3 aircraft for the past twenty-seven years, and were one of the first Canadian contractors to bring interactive electronic manuals into service. We continue to innovate," Cass heard herself babble. "We use the same software providers your company does. If you decide to use Kramer Aerospace's publications department on your upcoming contract, you won't be sorry, Mr. Finder."
"I'm sure I won't be," the colonel murmured. "Please. Call me Chris." Under the table, he dropped his hand to her nylon-clad thigh. "Perhaps we could take this back to my room."
Cass knew how she would have handled this situation when she was sixteen. At twenty-five, and in a business environment, she chose to be more circumspect. It was a shame that Christopher Finder, who had to be at least seventy, seemed to have a thing for younger women — along with a wide strip of ego — because this was where she drew the line. She wasn't sleeping with him. Not even to score a multimillion dollar contract.
"I won't take up much more of your time. I promise, I only have a few more slides."
She inched away from the colonel's groping fingers, then knocked back her drink maybe faster than was prudent. The next business trip she took, she told herself, she wasn't getting her fashion advice from the company vice president's executive assistant. Maxine always looked so elegant, but now Cass knew beyond a doubt that a business suit would have been far more appropriate for the national defense conference than high heels and a short skirt.
Crooking one long, corkscrew curl behind her ear with an index finger, she moved on to the next slide of her PowerPoint presentation. She nudged the laptop around so the retired lieutenant colonel could get a look at the screen and stop staring down the front of her blouse.
She'd come to this conference to staff the exhibit booth for Kramer Aerospace and Defence, and landed a private pitch with the vice president of international business development for one of the major North American aerospace defense companies. She had her eye on a director's position at Kramer Aerospace that was opening up in a few years. Bringing in a new contract for that department would fast-track her for promotion.
The colonel eyed the half-empty glass on the small round table in front of Cass, then raised a hand to signal for the cute bartender to bring them two more.
She didn't protest. She simply told herself to slow down. She was nervous and eager, not stupid, and while her new friend Chris might be an old lecher, she had no real concerns about her personal safety.
What she did have was serious angst as to how this meeting might be recapped later if things didn't turn out the way the colonel would like. Her boss had taken a risk by sending her to this conference in his place, and she wanted him to know that his faith in her hadn't been a mistake. She needed to wrap up her presentation with some semblance of professionalism.
A ringtone pealed out "Baby Love" by the Supremes, loud in the empty room. The colonel pulled his phone from a pocket and checked the number displayed. He frowned. "Excuse me a moment. I have to take this call."
He edged his squat wooden chair away from the low pedestal table, scraping it across the funky carpeting so he could stand. Cass breathed easier as he disappeared in the direction of the foyer and men's room.
The bartender brought their drinks. Her brain was foggy enough by now that, when combined with her relief that the presentation was almost done, and the conference was over, the smile she gave him as he settled her drink in front of her was extra-high wattage.
"Enjoying the conference?" he asked, smiling back at her, deep indigo eyes dancing as if they were sharing a private joke. He added a wink for good measure.
Cass met his eyes and read unconcealed interest. She had to admit, she was floored. The man was beautiful. He wore his dark, tousled hair a bit long and brushed away from a high-cheek-boned face in a surfer-dude style. Laugh lines bracketed a wide mouth. If he'd been the one plying her with drinks, she wouldn't think twice about taking her pitch somewhere more private.
She was riding a bit of a high right now, which brought out an innate recklessness that she knew from experience could swing either way for her. She'd always liked to take risks and was quick to seize opportunities. It had gotten her disowned by her father when she was eighteen. It had also gotten her scholarships and an engineering degree without any help from the unforgiving bastard.
That evil inner voice nudged her, the one that pushed her to take risks and sometimes got her in trouble. It said she was a two-hour plane ride from home. No one would know what she did. It also reminded her of the three condoms in her purse that had been there for so long they were due to expire.
While the bartender was worth checking out, he'd undoubtedly been hit on enough in his line of work that he'd know exactly what was up, and that irked her a bit. She didn't like being seen as a cliché.
Then again, she didn't have to care what his impression of her might be, no matter how cute he was. Let him think what he liked. She'd never see him again. Besides, he could always say no if he wasn't interested. She had a darned good position with a prestigious company. Years of hard work were paying off, and she wanted to celebrate.
"It's been a long week. I'm about ready to unwind," she replied. "But I hate mixing business with pleasure." The colonel reappeared, tucking his phone back in his suit jacket pocket as he strode toward them. Cass gave the good-looking bartender another lift of her lips meant to convey an interest on her part as well, and then she turned back to the colonel, her drink, and the tail end of a presentation she could hardly wait to be over.
* * *
Logan Alexander knew when he'd been dismissed.
He tried not to laugh, but she made it hard. He earned his living by reading people, and traffic had been lightin the bar all evening so he'd spent most of the past hour watching her work. The pretty little professional playing dress-up seemed to think the black-rimmed glasses she wore made men take her more seriously.
If that was her intention, she should have done something about her hair, too, because the only serious thing her tangle of long, golden-brown ringlets whispered was sexy librarian. She'd done her best to fasten it all back with some sort of fancy gold clip, but instead, managed to look more like she'd just crawled out of bed.
That turned her into a sleepy, sexy librarian.
In reality, Logan suspected she was the company eye candy, probably junior management level, sent here to pretty up an otherwise generic display booth. She'd been attending the annual Canadian Defence Industry conference, or the "See-Dicks," as he liked to call it. That was because the conference was full of dickheads.
Since he'd nailed one of them to the wall that afternoon, he was feeling pretty damned good. By day, he worked for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. He'd filed his final report to his CSIS superiors and technically, the case he'd been following was now closed. Most of the conference attendees were gone and the hotel was quiet.
He liked tending bar, so he'd offered to finish out this last shift before the regular bartender returned from "vacation."
Besides, right now Miss Professional was making a sales pitch to a retired light colonel who was only interested in what was inside that silky white blouse, not her PowerPoint presentation, and it was like watching a train wreck unfolding in slow motion. She had no idea the guy she was trying to impress didn't have any buying power. The retired colonel was one of the many ringers private companies hired to send to these functions so they could schmooze up any important contacts they had left over from their military careers. The real meetings happened away from the actual conference. She was wasting her time.
So was the colonel. He'd never get her drunk enough to score. Miss Professional, although young, was wise to that plan. It also appeared as if she could hold her liquor.
Logan had made it easier for her. The drink he'd passed her was virgin. He watched her take a small, cautious sip.
Her gaze cut to the bar over the rim of her glass. For a second, a slight smile of acknowledgment licked at the corners of her full lips before disappearing.
He relaxed. She had a good sense of humor. Not to mention, self-preservation.
She was also adorable. If he had to guess he'd say she'd once been a rebellious teen seeking her daddy's attention, then turned her life around before too much damage was done — possibly with the intervention of a private school for wayward teenagers. But that was a guess.
He'd bet he had the rebellious teen part right though, and that she wasn't so far past those years she'd forgotten what they felt like. She had a reckless streak in her, or she wouldn't be having drinks with the colonel.
The meeting wrapped up. The colonel, realizing he wasn't going to get what he wanted, passed Miss Professional his business card with a press of his palm to hers and an overlong handshake.
To Logan's acute disappointment, Miss Professional left the bar without a backward glance. The colonel made a phone call, most likely to his wife, judging by his abrupt change in manner. Then he left, too.
And there went Logan's entertainment for the evening. He started to clean up the empty bar, wiping down tables and straightening chairs.
Miss Professional returned half an hour later, wearing tight jeans that clung to long legs and a white T-shirt emblazoned with a company logo. She was tall, probably close to five ten, and at six foot three himself, Logan liked that in a woman. The mass of light brown ringlets was loose now, draping over her shoulders and spilling down her back.
He had to admit, he found those curls sexy as hell. He could imagine his fingers all caught up in them, his naked body pressed to hers, those long legs wrapped around his hips ...
He grinned as she walked up to the bar where he leaned against the gleaming surface. The black-framed glasses were gone. She had wide, hazel eyes with long, gold-tipped lashes that brushed her cheeks whenever she dropped her gaze.
Right now, her gaze was direct. She smiled right back at him. Every predatory instinct he owned went on red alert.
"Is it too late to order another mojito?" she asked.
"Not at all. Virgin?" He reached for a glass.
She blinked, those lashes fluttering up and down. "What?"
He held up the glass. "Your mojito? Would you like this one with or without alcohol in it?"
She laughed, her eyes dancing with fun and happiness at the shared joke, and he was completely, 100 percent smoked.
She was celebrating. Since he knew the colonel wasn't in a position to offer her anything business-related she'd be this excited about, it had to be something else.
Something that mattered to her. A lot.
He could identify. He felt like celebrating, too. His job was to investigate the activities of the Canadian Department of National Defence's maintenance contractors. The dickhead he'd nailed had sold off an entire inventory of aging weapons systems — meaning aircraft that could be turned into bombers — to a third-world country with nuclear capabilities. Illegal on so many levels, not to mention completely lacking in morality. The guy had no doubt thought that by selling the aircraft in pieces he wasn't breaking any federal laws. Or at the very least, had managed to circumvent them.
Logan's brother-in-law had been shot down over Afghanistan, on what was meant to be a peacekeeping mission, because some bureaucrat like this had gotten greedy. Six soldiers lost. Nine children left without fathers, his two young nephews included. People handed a little authority could turn into such self-entitled assholes sometimes, with no regard for the consequences to others.
Yet this guy he'd tagged today had been only one link in a very long, complicated chain. The customer who'd bought those weapons systems remained active, and as yet, unidentified.
He flipped the switch on the blender. When the drink was ready he poured it into a glass, added the garnish, and passed it over with a flourish. Then he reached across the bar and offered her his hand.
"Logan," he said.
"M-M-Mary," she stuttered as she took it in hers. "M-Mary Smith."
She sucked at lying. That intrigued him even more. First, because she was bad at it, and he'd assumed she'd be more of a pro. Second, because she felt the need to lie to him about her real name.
She was slumming.
With anyone else, he would have backed off at this point. He didn't mind the slumming. Being invisible was part of his job. He had no time to pursue permanent relationships with women who needed impressing.
But she'd had a few drinks. She was here on business. And she was celebrating something. In his experience, that often led to reckless decisions that they'd both end up regretting later. He didn't like liars either, not in his line of work, but with M-M-Mary, it qualified more as withholding the truth. Plus he was working, too. Officially, even though the report had been passed in, he was still on the CSIS clock. He'd need to show up at the office for debriefing first thing in the morning.
But Miss Mary Professional Smith possessed an odd mix of innocence and adventure that he found more than a little appealing, and she had fun in her eyes. She didn't want to celebrate whatever it was alone, and for some reason, had decided he was safe. She wasn't reckless so much as spontaneous, and she'd sized him up right. All the next moves would have to be hers.
He was curious how many more she was willing to make.
* * *
The drink hit Cass harder than she'd anticipated, probably because of the three she'd had earlier in the day.
That wasn't going to change her mind about tonight. She was a good judge of character. It had kept her out of jail as a teen. If Logan hadn't slid her that first virgin drink, she wouldn't be here right now, sounding him out. She found his quiet confidence attractive. She liked his smile, and the way he didn't try to pretend not to know what she was after. He also didn't put on any pressure.
She was in charge.
The drink merely served to relax her.
"What are you celebrating?" he asked.
She ran her finger around the rim of her glass and fidgeted on the bar stool, surprised by the astuteness of the question. She prided herself on being more difficult to read than this. "What makes you think I have something to celebrate?"
"You give off a happy, self-satisfied vibe. While my ego's healthy enough, I'm pretty sure it's not all thanks to me."
She wiped her damp palms on her thighs. This was a hookup, nothing more. She didn't want to share anydetails of her life with him. She wasn't after a relationship. She liked who she was and where she was in her life, but every once in a while, it was nice to pretend to be someone else. Something different. This was the perfect opportunity. And the right guy.
She might as well go for outrageous in answer to his question. She'd stumbled over the fake name, and therewas no way he hadn't noticed because he didn't seem stupid. Besides, she'd picked the lamest one imaginable. She could blame that much on the alcohol.
"I just got out of prison," she said. She let out a dramatic sigh as she braced her elbow on the bar and plantedher chin in her palm. "You have no idea what a relief it is to finally meet a good-looking man who isn't dressed in a Corrections Canada uniform."
His eyes lit up like twin blue lasers as he played along. "Good-looking, huh? What were you in for?"
Excerpted from Her Secret, His Surprise by Paula Altenburg, Kerri-Leigh Grady, Jessica Snyder. Copyright © 2014 Paula Altenburg. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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