Two Months Later
San Diego, California
Friday, December 2, 2005
Lindsey Fontaine knocked on her boss’s door. It was ajar, so she pushed it open, peeking in. “You wanted to see me, sir,” she started, but then realized there was someone in a Navy uniform sitting across from his desk. “Oh, I’m sorry.”
“No, come on in, Linds.” Her boss, Tom Paoletti, waved her into the room. “You’ve met Mark Jenkins, haven’t you?”
“Not officially,” Lindsey told him. She’d seen Jenkins earlier this morning. Hanging out at the new receptionist’s desk.
Reading rank wasn’t one of her strengths, but Tom was a former Navy SEAL. His company, Troubleshooters Incorporated, did a great deal of business with the government, including the military. Which meant lots of uniforms walked through their door.
The very young man—Jeez, were they really taking them this fresh out of diapers these days?—pushing himself to his feet while favoring his left side was a petty officer, first class.
And oh, yes, he was definitely first-class—in more ways than one. Extra cute, with muscles.
But wait. His rank meant he’d been in the Navy for a number of years, because petty officers started at third class and worked their way up to first. And that meant he couldn’t be as young as he looked.
Shame on her for making assumptions. She should’ve known better—as someone who still got carded. At the movies. When she went to see an R-rated film.
Lindsey knew firsthand what a pain in the butt it was to look far younger than her years.
“Nice to meet you, Lindsey,” Jenkins said as he shook her hand.
Good grip. Solid eye contact. Pretty, pretty hazel eyes. Great smile. Cute freckles. And not too tall, either. She liked him already.
Except for the fact that he was clearly infatuated with Tracy Shapiro, Troubleshooters Incorporated’s remarkably inept new receptionist. Of course, most men seemed to turn into idiots around women who looked like Tracy, the brainless hairdo.
Not that Lindsey had exchanged more than a casual greeting with Tracy, who’d started working there just a few days ago. But there was no doubt about it, Tracy had set Lindsey’s Brainless Hair-Do-o-meter clacking right away. It might’ve had something to do with Tracy bumming five bucks for lunch off of Alyssa—after flat-out flirting with Alyssa’s husband, Sam.
But okay, to be fair, it wasn’t the flirting-with-Sam part that was a problem. Alyssa had to be good and used to that.
The Real Hair-Do Action came from Tracy lamenting her lack of money for lunch, accepting a fiver from Alyssa with only the vaguest of promises to pay it back, and then, without taking a breath, launching into an explanation of how she’d seen the shoes she was wearing on sale, and she just had to buy them, and could they believe she’d actually gotten them for only three hundred dollars?
When Lindsey came to work, she wore sneakers or clunky-heeled boots, bought on sale for $29.95, so . . . No. She could not believe that any pair of shoes, even those made by mermaids off the coast of Sicily, could be worth three hundred dollars.
“Jenk found Tracy for us,” Tom Paoletti told Lindsey now. “They were friends back in high school.”
“Ah,” she said. They were friends back in high school was guy code for Jenk had always wanted to jump her bones. Apparently, he hadn’t given up trying. He no doubt thought helping her get a job might work. “That explains it.”
Oops, she probably shouldn’t have said that aloud.
“I mean, I’m sure she’s just feeling her way, first days and all,” Lindsey added, putting on what she hoped would be perceived as an optimistic expression. “I mean, we’ve all had ’em, right? First days. Kind of scary. Kind of overwhelming . . .”
“Absolutely,” Jenk said, flashing her a grateful smile.
And first days of work had to be doubly hard for Tracy, who’d apparently been intercepted midway through her quest to see the Wizard and finally get a brain.
Cleverly, Lindsey didn’t say that aloud.
“Have a seat,” Tom ordered in that easygoing way he had of making a demand sound like an invitation.
She sat. Jenkins sat, too.
Tom Paoletti was the best boss Lindsey had ever had. Not only was he good-looking in that Captain-Picard-make-it-so, bald-men-can-be-sexy way, but he was also smart and unbelievably kind.
Maybe too kind. Lindsey made a mental note to offer to volunteer to fire Tracy for him. After the past few years she’d had, firing someone would be a cakewalk. She wouldn’t even blink.
She’d mention that to Tom later, when Mark Jenkins wasn’t around.
“We’re going to be playing the part of Red Cell—the terrorists—in a training op with SEAL Team Sixteen,” Tom told her now. “Jenk is going to be liaison as we work out the logistics.”
“Really.” Lindsey looked at the SEAL. “How . . .” Convenient, she was about to say, since his being liaison would give him even more access to Tracy. Except, Tracy was not a multi-tasker, and his distracting presence would be far less convenient for everyone else in the office. She, for one, was extremely tired of answering the phones because Tracy had managed to screw up the voice mail system again. “Interesting,” she said instead, because they were both waiting for her to finish her sentence.
Day-am, the freckles across Jenk’s nose were positively adorable, especially when he frowned. Combined with those hazel eyes, rimmed by thick, dark lashes . . .
He was beyond cute, but it was probably in a way that he himself hated. Baby-faced cute. His mouth tightened slightly, because he misunderstood her comment. Interesting. . . . “I’m twenty-eight years old.”
“Oh,” she said. “No, I wasn’t—”
“You were wondering,” Jenk said. “I could see that you were wondering, so . . . Now you know. I’m old enough to vote.”
“Actually, I wasn’t wondering.” Lindsey glanced at Tom, who smiled, apparently in no hurry to talk about that training op. Red Cell. That was going to be some kind of fun. “I mean, I was earlier, but then I did the math, figuring that you probably went to college and then . . . I had you at more like thirty, if you want to know the truth.”
She’d surprised him. “You really thought . . .?”
She shrugged. “Hey. Without makeup, I look about twelve.”
He looked at her—really looked.
“Being flat-chested helps with the illusion,” she said. “I’m five feet and three-eighths of an inch tall—you better believe I count every eighth. I’m also the same age as my bra size—30A. The A is for my four-oh average at UCLA, which I attended before my seven years with the LAPD.” She smiled at him. “I’m one of Tom’s best bodyguards, by the way. I specialize in the protection of people who might not want their friends, business associates, and/or enemies to know they’re being protected. Because I could tell that you were wondering.” She’d stunned him, so she turned to Tom who was now flat-out grinning. “Red Cell, huh? So you called me in here, boss, because you want me to play the part of Dr. Evil, the terrorist mastermind, right?”
Lindsey liked Tom for a lot of reasons, but particularly because she made him laugh. Some people didn’t get her sense of humor, although Cutie-pie Jenkins seemed to be on the same page after he’d shaken off his shock.
“Sorry, I’m the terrorist mastermind of this one,” Tom told her. “It was a direct request from Admiral Tucker.”
Ah. “Which makes me . . .” She let her voice trail off. “Mini Me?”
Tom laughed again. “Tempting, but no. Not quite.”
Uh-oh. “Please don’t say that I’m—”
He spoke in unison with her. “The hostage.”
Lindsey stared at him.
“Someone’s got to be the hostage,” Tom pointed out, undaunted by her scathing disbelief.
“Yeah, but come on. How realistic is it for the hostage to weigh only ninety-two pounds?” She leaned forward to argue. “Don’t you want to give the SEALs a challenge?” Lindsey turned to Jenk. “Tell him you want a challenge. Tell him you want, I don’t know, Sam Starrett to play the hostage. What is he? Six and a half feet tall? Two ten? Now if only he had a heart condition, too, he’d be a perfect hostage.”
“This time it’s going to be you,” Tom told her.
She knew when to stop pushing, so instead she sighed heavily. “All right.”
“We’ll talk more later,” Tom said, four little words made even more intriguing by the gleam in his eyes. Was it possible she was going to be more than the hostage? Suddenly this was back to maybe being fun.
“I just wanted you to meet Jenk,” Tom continued. “If he needs help with the scheduling—or really anything,” he added addressing Jenkins directly, “he’s going to come to you, Linds.”
Oh, good. She was going to get to be the secretary, as well as the hostage, helping out with scheduling. Whoo-freakin’-hoo. She would have complained that she never saw Tom assigning Sam Starrett to help out with the scheduling—except for the fact that Sam was bitching about Tom giving him a similar task just last week.
“I was thinking it might be a good idea to have the two teams meet, sometime in the next week,” Jenk suggested. “Maybe over at the Ladybug Lounge?”
“Really?” Lindsey was skeptical. “That doesn’t seem very realistic. Meeting in advance, at a bar?”
Hello, Osama, can the boys in your San Diego sleeper cell make it to a party on Tuesday night?
“This is a silver bullet assignment,” Jenk informed her, then translated. “Just short of R&R. Or it was supposed to be. Before Admiral Tucker got it into his head that it would be a kick to pit Tommy here against the new CO of Team Sixteen.”
Yikes. Lindsey looked at her boss. “Your old team versus your new?” she asked. “That’s gotta suck. For your old team.” She turned back to Jenk. “We are so going to kick your butts.”
“Yeah, I don’t think so. We’re SEALs. And—no offense, Tommy—Commander Koehl’s a good CO, so—”
“The poor guy,” Lindsey said. “Because, like, isn’t Team Sixteen still referred to as ‘Tom’s Team’? I mean, that’s gotta sting. Koehl’s been there, what? At least a year already. That must be frustrating. And now if he loses—when he loses—”
Tom interrupted. “Training ops are not about winning and losing. They’re about learning. About improving.”
Lindsey looked at Jenk, who was looking back at Lindsey with an expression equally disbelieving. Not about winning? Who did Tom think he was kidding?
“And yes,” Tom continued. “This was supposed to be fun. So let’s see if we can’t find the time for that social event. Don’t forget to invite Lew Koehl. Let’s try to downplay the winning and losing thing. Starting right here and now.”
Lindsey looked over at Jenk again. “I’m down with learning,” she said, even as she gazed pointedly at the spot where his rear was planted in that chair, making a tiny kicking motion with her foot.
“Totally into improving,” he agreed, shooting her back a discreet L for loser, shaped with his thumb and forefinger, out of Tom’s line of sight.
Lindsey couldn’t help it. She laughed, covering it quickly with a cough.
Tom, of course, wasn’t fooled. He rubbed his forehead. “I’m serious, people. This is going to be . . . at best, difficult. Both for Commander Koehl and for me. I want you working together. Let’s turn this into a win for everyone.” He smiled tightly. “Except maybe Admiral Tucker.”
“We should look at a calendar,” Jenk told Lindsey. “And exchange cell phone numbers.”
Those words coming from those lips should have made her heart beat harder. Mark Jenkins wanted her phone number. He was cute and funny and smart—and tremendously flawed. He had, after all, the hots for the Hair-Do. And his wanting Lindsey’s number was purely work-related.
No doubt about it, he was Lindsey’s type. Perfectly, cleanly out of reach, unless, of course he got a little drunk and ended up going home with Lindsey as his solid second choice.
Oh, yeah, if she played her cards right, she could get totally skewered by this one.
Although it had been quite some time since she’d been skewered—or preskewered, which was far more enjoyable.
Still, a little distance would probably be prudent.
“Wouldn’t Tracy be a better person to assist Jenkins with this?” she suggested, even as she took one of the Troubleshooters Incorporated business cards off of the little holder on Tom’s desk. She wrote her number on the back. “I mean, I’m happy to do it, of course. I was just thinking, since they’re, you know, old friends”—wink, wink—“Jenk might appreciate spending time with her.”
Jenkins liked that idea. “Thanks,” he said, pocketing the business card, still rummaging for one of his own. Yeah, she had been right about him favoring one side. He definitely didn’t have full range of motion in his left arm.
Her own shoulder—her right one—twinged in sympathy.
If she hadn’t just decided to keep her distance, she could’ve given him some rehab and recovery tips.
Tom, meanwhile, wasn’t as thrilled as Jenk was about her Tracy idea. “You’re the official TS Inc liaison,” he told Lindsey. “If I need answers, I’m going to come to you. But you can absolutely let Tracy help. That’s what she’s been hired to do. In fact, you can use this opportunity to get to know her, help bring her up to speed.”
Tom was an excellent leader. He was capable of reading his subordinates even when, like Lindsey was doing right now, they were wearing their best poker faces.
“We’ll talk about that later, as well,” he said. “I’ve got a few more things to discuss with Jenk.”