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By VONNA HARPER
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2013 Vonna Harper
All rights reserved.
"I said, it's past time for you to leave."
"The hell I will! You guys know where that bastard is. Five minutes alone with him, that's all I'm asking."
"It's not going to happen. Now, turn around and walk out of here."
"No!" The fifty-something man's voice rose. "Do you have any idea of the hell I've been through since that monster—he ruined me and my family, and now you're protecting him."
"Look, I'm going to say this only once. Edge is a magazine, not law enforcement. We report on lawbreakers. We're not now, nor will we ever be, in the business of hiding or protecting them. You read the Wanted feature, which means you know Edge wants those criminals brought to justice as much as you do."
"The hell. All you care about is readership. Damn it, I've stared at that picture of him in Wanted until it makes me sick. It was just taken. Where is he!"
Cheyenne Stensen had been standing with her back against Edge's massive glass front door since she'd stepped inside and into the argument between the disheveled man and Mace Brandt, head of security. She should walk through the foyer and enter the elevator leading to her office, but taking her eyes off Mace was easier said than done.
Big as in six-foot-two-plus big with a wrestler's muscles and a bodyguard's stare, the man rattled portions of her she hadn't known were capable of rattling. What, in part, kept her rooted in place was the question of what would happen if the distraught man started a fight with Mace. The outcome was hardly in doubt, but would Mace risk injuring a man much older than himself, someone obviously going through hell? Although she'd seen Mace on an almost daily basis during the two months she'd been working for Edge, she didn't know the answer.
"I have no idea where he is," Mace said, pulling her back to the moment. "which is why they're featuring him this month. Go home. Wait for justice."
"Justice?" Tears flooded the man's eyes, aging him even more. "The legal system, you mean? Even if Fergo's found guilty, he'll only get his hand slapped. Me and my family, we have to find a way to start over. We're losing our home, my daughter had to drop out of college, and my wife—"
"Leave." Mace's voice was laced with ice. "This moment."
The man had been flexing and unflexing his fingers. Now he knotted them into fists and stepped toward Mace. Mace had been standing behind his desk, which dominated the foyer, but now he glided more than stepped around it, a seemingly impossible move for someone his size. "Last chance," Mace said in that emotionless way of his. "Either you walk out on your own or I'll do it for you."
One moment after another ticked away as the two men stared at each other, reminding Cheyenne of pit bulls. Then the smaller, weaker pit bull all but dropped to his belly. She half expected the older man to roll onto his back, exposing himself to deadly fangs. Tears burned her eyes at the thought of everything the man had endured. If she could get her hands on Fergo, there might not be enough left of him to take to trial.
"Good," Mace said. "And to let you know, if I see you here again, I'll have you arrested."
"Arrested, me? Fergo's the one who needs to be behind bars."
"Which is what Edge is trying to make happen. You have two seconds."
The man wasted a whole second gaping at Mace. Then, while Cheyenne tried to remember how to breathe, he spun on his heels, nearly lost his balance, and pushed through the door, jostling her as he did.
"I feel so sorry for him," she finally thought to say when it was just her and Mace in the shining, climate-controlled entry. "According to the charges against him, Charles Fergo has defrauded investors of millions of dollars, ruined many of them. No wonder that man wants to take things into his own hands."
"His emotions are turning him stupid."
She'd been deliberately keeping her attention off the nerve-unsettling Mace, who'd worked his way into more nighttime fantasies than she'd ever admit. Now, barely believing what she'd just heard, she stared at him. "That's the only thing you're concerned about, that he not act stupid?"
"Yeah." Barely acknowledging her, Mace returned to his desk and settled into the oversized black leather chair designed to accommodate his bulk. He fixed his attention on the front door. "I didn't want to start the morning with an incident."
"Incident? You don't feel sorry for him? Empathize?"
The simple, yet complex response stopped her. It was Monday morning. Any moment now, other Edge employees would come through the door in preparation for work at the country's most successful monthly publication. She'd spent much of the weekend compiling her research material in preparation for turning it over to Edge's senior reporter and still needed a few minutes to prioritize what she believed were the most important elements. But a man, a sexy as hell man who felt no empathy for someone whose world was falling apart had just spoken.
"I can't believe that," she came up with, wanting to find a core of humanity in him. "He's an innocent victim. Everyone Fergo defrauded was innocent."
"So ... this is unbelievable. I don't know what to say."
"Don't say anything."
He was writing something, maybe an incident report. Although she stared at the solid arm and even more solid body it was attached to, she was hard-pressed to remember what had intrigued her about him. It had to have been the unknown, the macho body and cool silence responsible for keeping the modern Edge building safe from the occasional crazy pulled out of the shadows by the publication's hard-hitting articles and exposés. Tall, dark, and mysterious with a mass of rich, black hair and gray eyes was one thing. Emotionally dead was quite another.
About to give him a lungful of what she thought of someone stripped of humanity, a childhood filled with hard lessons silenced her. If anyone should know about keeping one's emotions under lock and key, it was her.
"You're right," she said, keeping her tone neutral. "We're here to earn our keeps, not lead the march for an eye for an eye. As a reporter, I know to remain objective so I can do my job. I hadn't thought about it, but the same must be true for you."
Giving up on him, she aimed for the elevator. The moment she was inside, she sank into silence. In some respects, she was in the wrong career. If she expected to go through life reserved and remote as her adoptive parents had tried to program her to be, she should have become an engineer or electrician. Instead, she spent her days talking to and writing about people, usually in crises. That, in part, was why she'd accepted her current job at Edge. Granted, going from thoroughly researching and then reporting on something as a freelance journalist to simply providing background information had initially felt like a demotion, but it was easier to dismiss a situation because she was no longer the one weaving emotion throughout the written word.
Still, how could Mace callously dismiss a man in pain? Not only that, he obviously had no interest in talking to her. One good thing about what had just happened: she'd learned that muscles and a mysterious persona weren't enough. From now on she wouldn't waste time or energy trying to send out sexual vibes to a man without compassion.
The sound of the elevator had ended. Still, Mace continued to stare at the door Cheyenne Stensen had gone through. He knew her name, in part because he'd made it his responsibility to familiarize himself with every Edge employee and in part because she'd been giving out messages any red-blooded male would get. She dressed like the majority of the city's young professional women, her wardrobe tailored and expensive, classy. Her hair was short, the style simple. Her makeup, which he knew next to nothing about, probably took a lot more effort than he'd ever guess. At least she didn't hide her chocolate eyes behind gobs of mascara. One thing he hadn't expected, it didn't look as if she got regular manicures.
For reasons he'd never share with another person and didn't fully understand himself, he'd thoroughly checked her out. As a result, he knew she was single and lived alone close enough to work that she could take the bus if she wanted to. She didn't have a criminal record, not so much as a speeding ticket. His search hadn't uncovered any relatives. Neither did she have what could be considered a best friend, which intrigued him al most as much as knowing she didn't have a boyfriend did. That seemed strange for a woman with a healthy, albeit somewhat kinky, sexual appetite.
The front door opened and in walked Robert Walters and Atwood Colby. His investigation of the pair had reinforced what he'd suspected from the day they'd interviewed him for his position: Edge wouldn't be the success it was without them.
"Morning, Mace," Robert said as the door closed behind him. "Anything we need to know about?"
"It was quiet over the weekend; I've already seen the surveillance tapes. But I just had to kick out someone who thinks we're hiding Charles Fergo."
Robert and Atwood, dressed in clone suits that cost more than Mace put out in house payments and sporting Rolodex watches, exchanged glances that didn't quite qualify as casual.
"What'd he say?" Atwood asked.
"I'll tell you what," Robert interjected before Mace could respond. "We want to meet with you later today—a request to utilize one of your more unique skills. Unless you believe this person constitutes an immediate security risk, why don't you report on what happened then?"
"No, he isn't jeopardizing anyone's safety. What do you mean, my unique skill?"
Robert glanced at his watch, then held up a warning finger as the door opened and a trio of women walked in. "We'll explain later, probably right after lunch." That said, they headed for the elevator.
Being in charge of security at a national publication that was the envy of every other magazine in terms of readership, revenue, and what he'd labeled as presence might have gone to another man's head, but despite his budget and the decisions he made, Mace accepted that he was just another employee. Robert and Atwood not only wrote his checks, they expected and usually received something akin to reverence from those under them. The two were responsible for Edge's phenomenal success, and it was "off with their heads" for anyone who didn't get that simple fact.
Mace did. He did his job. He was rewarded. The reward gave his life meaning, at least as much meaning as it had ever had.
As for what he did on his own hours, that was no one else's business.
Unless Robert and Atwood had uncovered it.
In the wake of a dismissive shrug, Mace greeted the three women. Instead of hurrying to catch the elevator, they clustered near his desk. One was at least fifteen years older than him, but the other two were around his age, Gina married and Sandi engaged, not that either Gina or Sandi seemed to care when they were around him.
"I'm never going to get to work before you do, Mace," Sandi said, hand on hip. "Do you live here?"
"He couldn't possibly," Gina countered. "Come on, Mace, what'd you do this weekend? What lucky lady got her itches scratched?"
Even as he picked up his pen in preparation for completing the incident report, he wondered how the women would react if they knew the truth, but they never would because whatever their itches, they weren't the kind he had any interest in scratching.
Cheyenne, however, might be a different story.
If Robert were the CEO of a business with stockholders, his opulent office might have gotten him fired. However, as a principal owner of Edge, Cheyenne figured he had a right to spend the profits as he saw fit. Besides, the mahogany, glass, and chrome furniture was impressive, the original oil paintings beautiful. Even though Robert couldn't be more than five feet ten and 150 pounds, his innate confidence prevented the office from dwarfing him. Obviously professionally decorated, the room was large enough to include a round meeting table with six chairs in addition to his desk. From the looks of the material in front of four of the six chairs, she guessed that's where they'd be sitting. So who beside Robert, Atwood, and she was expected?
Standing in the doorway waiting for Robert to acknowledge her, she added commanding to her assessment of the man. Commanding was a positive label, one given to someone others followed because that person knew what he was doing and led by example. In Robert's case, however, as in Atwood's, healthy doses of arrogance went hand in hand with their self-confidence. She found the arrogance a little off-putting.
"Sorry." Robert put down what he'd been scanning, stood, and headed for the round table. Although he'd left his reading material behind, she recognized what she'd given him this morning. "I wanted to make sure I got the complete picture," he said as he sat. "Excellent job, Cheyenne. I can't think of anything you didn't cover. Now, be honest. Not the most exciting subject you've ever researched, is it?"
Her assignment had been to take a thorough look at the various ways and efficiency or lack of when the VA communicated with those who'd come to the agency for assistance. Robert hadn't said what he needed the information for, but she'd guessed he was planning to write a piece or series of pieces on the bureaucracy's operation.
"At first I wasn't sure how I'd tackle it," she admitted, sitting across from him. "Then I went online. People aren't shy when it comes to speaking their minds, especially if they believe they haven't been treated as they should be."
She might have said more except she sensed Robert wasn't interested in her methodology. Remembering that he and Atwood wanted to talk to her about a project, she glanced at the folder in front of her but didn't open it. She started to cross her legs only to stop because she'd worn a skirt today. Granted, it hit below the knee and wasn't tight, but she had no intention of revealing any more leg around Robert than she had to.
The man had never come on to her, nothing like that, but there'd been an undercurrent to the way he looked at and talked to her that kept her woman in a risky world antenna on alert. It was, she'd concluded, as if he was waiting for her to make the first move. Not going to happen.
"You haven't started without me, have you?" Atwood asked, startling her because she had her back to the door and hadn't heard him coming in. Not waiting for a response, Atwood plunked his slightly overweight, albeit well-dressed body in the chair to Robert's right.
Leaning forward, Robert planted his elbows on the gleaming desk, something that made her feel like an outsider passed between the two men. It was as if they shared a silent language and knew things no one else did.
"We'll begin as soon as he gets here," Robert said. "In the meantime ..." He focused his full attention on her. "In the meantime, we want you to know how pleased we are with the work you've done for Edge. The freelance pieces you wrote prior to coming on board convinced us that you're the kind of person we want on staff. Frankly, too many journalists are lazy. They don't double-check their facts, and they aren't wordsmiths."
If there were wordsmiths in the room, the label applied to Robert and Atwood. The men's articles were professional and polished. Instead of slanting an exposé, they presented the facts in straightforward prose, leaving it up to readers to draw their own conclusions. At the same time, their use of interviews and personal experiences subtly pulled readers in the direction the two wanted them to go.
Pieces were outwardly balanced with both sides of an argument or position being given equal weight. What probably wasn't obvious to someone who didn't make their living fashioning the written word was that whatever side Robert and Atwood were on came across as the more polished, clear, and direct, while the other was somewhat muddied or defensive.
"I appreciate hearing that my anal tendencies are considered pluses," she said, "especially coming from you. Both of you have earned every award you've received."
Atwood smiled one of his half smiles. "It's just the three of us here, Cheyenne, so you can be honest. Is that your goal, to garner some of those awards for yourself?"
Taken aback by the unexpected question, she retreated behind silence. She'd become a reporter because she was a stickler for accuracy, and the written word intrigued her, but trophies and plaques were hardly her life's goal. The thing was, she wasn't sure she had one.
Excerpted from HIS SLAVE by VONNA HARPER. Copyright © 2013 by Vonna Harper. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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