Read an Excerpt
"You volunteered me for what?" Amos Pike lay sprawled on his stomach on the beige-carpeted floor of his office. He was looking up in dismay from a half-constructed toy lunar module to focus on Jeannette Boradino, his administrative assistant.
She smiled. He always worried when she smiled. She ran the business offices of the Pike's Pickled Pepper Toy Company with the precision of a military operation and the no-nonsense attitude of a general. Clients loved her because she got things done, employees respected her because they knew where they stood with her, and manufacturers feared her because she accepted no excuses. Tall and statuesque and always impeccably attired in a neutral-color suit, she had the physical presence to back up her approach to business.
At 41, she'd had almost twenty years' experience in office management, four of them with Amos. She never smiled unless she had something to put to him that she knew he wouldn't like.
"I volunteered you for a bachelor auction." She dropped a folder on his desk and tapped it with the tip of her forefinger. "Airline tickets and itinerary." Then she walked briskly across his office and adjusted the blinds to let in more sunlight. "Don't forget you have lunch at the Top of the Mark at one o'clock with the Dream Stores people. I have a lunch date myself. I'll try to be back punctually, but it's with the headmaster at Kyle's school, and he does tend to go on." She headed toward the door.
Amos was on his feet and in her path in one swift, easy move. "Not so fast, Jeannette." Usually relaxed and unflappable, he did his best to look severe. And when he thought about parading down a runway while women assessed his attributes, looking severe wasn't difficult.
"I've asked you not to commit me to anything without checking with me first." He frowned down at her. "You're usually very good about that."
She cleared her throat and tried to stare him down. "In this case, I thought I'd save both of us a lot of time. It's a charity event for the Lost Springs Ranch for Boys. I knew if I asked you, you'd say no, then your conscience would plague you because you've always contributed to every other fund-raiser they've approached you for. Then you'd change your mind when I'd already told them you wouldn't do it, and I'd have to call back and say you would, and they'd have to readjust their plans. This was easier."
He stared back at her. "You're fired."
She blanched. And blinked. Then her lips parted in disbelief. He saw her struggle against panic.
"I am not," she said, her voice a little high-pitched.
"All right, you're not." He shook his index finger at her. "That was just to remind you which one of us is in charge here. I thought we'd already been through this with the bodyguard thing."
"A bodyguard is a good idea. You should have let me handle "
"Jeannette," he interrupted firmly. "No one handles me. Not bodyguards, not strong women, not competitors out to beat me with trickery rather than talent. I have been looking out for myself for a long time. I'm good at it. Now, would you like to take another approach on this auction thing?"
Amos didn't know much about Jeannette's personal life, except that her husband had abandoned her before she came to work at Pike's, and she had a twelve-year-old son in a private school. He didn't know whether her tough-as-nails approach had developed before or after her husband left.
He only knew that to prevent her from steamrolling him, he had to be tougher than she was. She seemed to respect that.
She swallowed and put a hand up to smooth her short dark hair. She was herself again. "The Lost Springs Ranch called yesterday while you were in the production meeting and asked if you'd participate in a bachelor auction to raise money to save the facility."
Save it? He had a running mental image of seesaws and nickel-pipe jungle gyms, the sage-and-sweet-grass Wyoming landscapehe could almost smell it now, as if he were thereand boys of all ages and descriptions, with one thing in common: they were as lost as the springs that had given the place its name.
"What do you mean, save it? What happened?"
She pointed to the folder on his desk. "Lindsay Duncan, the ranch's owner, faxed some details. Apparently the place has come on hard times and she's hoping the auction will help them with their financial difficulties. They've invited a number of former residents, including you, to come back and save the day."
Amos had another mental image of those boys with whom he'd played and scrapped and dug his way out of despair, and wondered what kind of adults they'd become. He was intrigued by the possibility of finding out.
He stepped over the lunar module and snagged the folder off his desk.
Jeannette picked up his empty coffee cup. "I'll refill this while you look that over. I'm sorry if I overstepped. I thought it was important."
He sank into his high-backed leather chair and gave her an even look. "I think so, too, so there was no reason to go around me. There is never a reason to go around me."
She nodded docilely. "I understand."
He studied her suspiciously for a moment, then turned his attention to the letter from Lindsay Duncan.
Jeannette walked out of the office with a determined step.
"You're sure you're up to this, Meggie?" It was the fourth time Meg Loria's father had asked the question since he'd picked her up for the meeting. "I know how hard it has to be for you withyou knowhaving to cancel everything. But we really need you on this one."
"It's all right, Dad," Meg replied under her breath as she followed the maitre d' through a sea of tables.
She was sure they didn't need her at all, that this was simply an effort to distract her from having been left at the altar.
Well, it hadn't literally been the altar, it had been the courthouse. Daniel was supposed to have met her there to get their wedding license two days ago and he'd never showed.
Certain he'd simply been delayed by a client, she'd called the law offices of Dalton, Emery and Flannigan and learned that as of that morning, they were simply Dalton and Flannigan. Emery had taken off with someone named Cloris Biederman for her summer home on Maui.
Having her fiance run off with another woman had been hard enough, but when that woman was fifteen years older than Meg, it was traumatic.
Daniel's fax, waiting for her when she got home, said that he would always consider her his friend, but that he'd come to realize she didn't have a romantic bone in her body.
"You get better scores on the pistol range than I do," the fax had further criticized, "and you can throw me three out of three. I'm sorry, Meg. Cloris doesn't know which end of a gun shoots, and when I put my arms around her, she falls into them. She doesn't throw me through a plate-glass window."
What did he expect? When a woman was a trained security specialist, a man should think twice about surprising her from behind on a dark street in Chinatown. Meg had tried to explain that. But neither Daniel nor Jade Wing, whose tea-shop window Daniel had sailed through, had understood.
Meg forced her thoughts back to the moment when the maitre d' stopped at a table occupied by an attractive woman Meg guessed to be in her mid-thirties. The woman had gotten to her feet at their approach and now studied Meg with a frown.
Meg's father reached around her to offer his hand to the woman. "Ms. Boradino? I'm Paul Loria, of Loria Security."
The woman smiled and took his hand. "Hello. Thank you for meeting me on such short notice."
"of course. Ms. Boradino, this is my daughter, Margaret."
The woman shook hands with Meg, then pointed her to the chair across from her. "Please. Sit down." She reached for the arms of her own chair and was momentarily distracted when Meg's father walked around to seat her with courtly charm. She stared at him a moment, then thanked him.
"You're very young," she said to Meg as her father took his place at a right angle to them. "I'm not sure this will work. Mr. Loria, I explained that the situation is dangerous."
Meg drew a breath for patience and smiled. Rejection on all fronts was making her weirdly philosophical.
"I'm twenty-six, Ms. Boradino," she confided. "A better shot than my brothers, and I can take you down faster than my father could." At the woman's startled look and her father's quick clearing of his throat, she added quickly, "Not that he'd try to, of course. And not you, specifically."
Despite Ms. Boradino's very formal manner, amusement flickered in her eyes. "Thank you for clarifying that. But when you're forty-one, twenty-six is very young. And I don't mean to diminish your skills, but the people I'm hiring protection against are ruthless and rather large. And if my boss found out who you are " She suddenly lost her air of control, reached to the middle of the table for a bread stick and snapped it in half. "Let's just say the bad guys won't be your only problem."
Meg smiled flatly at her father. "Thanks, Dad. I've always wanted an assignment where I'm in danger from our client as well as whoever's threatening him."
"Now, let's just think about this," Paul began placatingly. "There's no reason he has to find out you're protecting him." He smiled at Ms. Boradino. "That's the problem, isn't it? He doesn't want protection?"
The discussion was halted temporarily when a waiter arrived with menus and to take their order for beverages. Her father, familiar with the menu, decided they should select their lunch choices, too, and made suggestions to Ms. Boradino, who looked at him as though completely fascinated.
It was the old World charm, Meg knew. Though third generation Italian-American, Paul Loria had been raised with European manners and style. He'd tried to raise his children in the same way, but Meg's three brothers were hopelessly contemporary, and Meg herself didn't seem to be able to find a place where she felt comfortable.
When the waiter gathered up the menus and headed off to the kitchen, Paul nodded at their client. "Start from the beginning. Tell us everything we should know about your boss so that we can all be sure we're doing the right thing here."
Ms. Boradino smiled ruefully. "It's difficult to describe Amos Pike. To say he's a self-made man is an understatement because that only implies business success and wealth. And though he's achieved both, his most admirable qualities have nothing to do with that. He's a wonderful boss because he knows what he wants and he insists upon it from you, and yet he manages to help you give it to him in the way you work best."
For someone who found it difficult to describe him, Meg thought, she was doing a thorough job. And an insightful one.
Her father apparently thought so, too. "Are you in love with him?" he asked gently.
Even Meg turned to him in surprise.
At the woman's startled look, he replied with a kind smile, "With lives at stake, it's important that we know everything. Relationships can make small but significant changes in our approach."
Meg concluded that was hogwash. Her father was interested in their client and wanted to know what or who stood in his way.
Ms. Boradino shook her head. "I'm seven years older than he is."
Paul shrugged as though that were negligible. "A young man delights in a woman with experience. Just as an older man can find rejuvenation with a younger woman."
Meg held back a wince at her own recent proof of his claim.
Her father seemed to realize what he'd said and cast her a quick, apologetic glance.
She shrugged her forgiveness.
"We're friends," Ms. Boradino said. Then she seemed to reconsider. "Well, not precisely. I have trouble letting people get that close." Then she glanced at Paul and at Meg, clearly startled that she'd admitted that much. She went on briskly. "He's the finest man I know, as a businessman and as a human being, and I don't want him to be hurt because of his own stubborn pride." She seemed suddenly to notice the two halves of bread stick in her hands and dropped them onto her bread plate. Then she dusted off her fingers.
"He's a toy manufacturer," she said. "You've heard of Pike's Pickled Pepper Toy Company?"
When Paul shook his head, Meg nodded. "Yes, you have, Dad. You bought that little boy next door the castle where you put the water in the moat and sea monsters go around in it. Remember? That was a Pike product."
Ms. Boradino brightened. "That's right. That was our bestseller last year." She sobered again as quickly. "Competition for the toy market has always been very intense, but since the development of Amos's Interactive Space Station, I'm afraid it could become deadly."
"Why do you say that?" Paul asked.
"It's all been top secret, of course," she replied calmly, though she fiddled nervously with a fork. "We even missed the February toy show in favor of this later one here in San Francisco. Amos needed to refine the software that comes with the station after NASA agreed to give him some data." She put the fork down and met Paul's eyes, then Meg's. "There was a mysterious fire at our factory and a break-in at our office, and Amos was mugged by four men in his condo's parking garage. Fortunately, one of the other residents was returning with a couple of friends and the muggers took off. I think someone was out to get the designs for the station, so Amos finally hid them. Even I don't know what he's done with them, or with the prototype."
"But why the muggers?" Meg asked. "Did they think he had the plans on him?"
"Perhaps," Ms. Boradino replied. "Or maybe it was just revenge."
"But that's getting pretty personal for a business intrigue."
Ms. Boradino spread her hands. "That was what made me suspect Jillian Chambers."
Meg nodded, waiting for her to explain.
"She's the CEO of Chayco Toys," Ms. Boradino elaborated. "Pike's only real competition in the toy market. She and Amos used to see each otheruntil Amos found her photographing his designs at his home one night after they'd been together." Ms. Boradino looked skeptical. "She still insists he misunderstood her intentions. That she was designing something similar and wanted to match the plan to hers to see if they could coordinate their designs for a joint project."
Paul made a scornful sound. "Pretty thin excuse."
"She's been trying to get him back ever since," Ms. Boradino continued, "but he doesn't deal well with having been lied to or deceived." She smiled wryly at Meg. "So you'll have to be careful."
The waiter arrived with a carafe of gewurztraminer and poured three glasses. When he left, Boradino said with a worried frown, "My real concern is that Jillian, who has always been high-strung and impulsive, has taken a dangerous turn. Her business is in trouble and I'm afraid she blames Amos for it. I wouldn't be surprised if her intentions have changed from simply trying to get him back to ruining him. And everybody in the business is waiting to see the space station demonstrated at the upcoming toy show. The software allows a child to take trips from the space station in over a dozen directions, both factual and fictitious."
Her voice had risen in excitement, but now fell as she added, "If Jillian can prevent him from being there with it, she can ruin him. It's taken a great financial investment to get this far with it, and Amos has an electronics company waiting for the word to start production, depending on the reaction at the show."
"Okay, you're convinced the situation is desperate." Meg leaned toward the woman. "Why is it so hard for Pike to see this? If there's been a fire and a mugging and an attempt to copy his plans, and he still doesn't want protection, I don't see what we can do for him. When's the toy show?"
"The weekend after the bachelor auction."
Meg was confused. "What bachelor auction?"
"That's part of the plan Ms. Boradino has come up with." Paul raised his glass in a toast. "And it's really rather a clever one. Shall we toast it?"
Boradino raised her glass to his.
Meg didn't. "I think I'd like to hear the plan first."
Paul lowered his glass with a shake of his head at their client. "Meg's very methodical. Gets that from her mother. She's never one to be surprised by the unknown, and exasperating as that can be for those of us in her personal life, it's an invaluable quality in a bodyguard."