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Shondra Braddock navigated the narrow metal stairs leading down from the helipad. She was on an oil rig in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico. And it was hot.
She shook hands with the liaison from Stewart Industries who'd met her at the airport that morning. "And now I'll leave you in the capable hands of the crew," the young man said as he turned to leave.
Out of the jumble of workers milling about, an oil-stained man stepped forward. Other than the blond hair brushing his collar from under the hard hat, Shondra couldn't make out much. Hidden among the streaks of grime were a few patches of golden tan, a pair of ice-blue eyes and a smile containing the straightest white teeth she'd ever seen.
"I'll be showing you around." He gave her a sheepish grin. "I'd shake your hand, but " He nodded to his oil-covered hands, which he continued to wipe on a rag. "Sorry about this. I had to do some emergency work on the bottomhole assembly. I didn't want to make you wait while I showered."
"Don't worry about it," she said, reaching out to shake his hand anyway. "I'm Shondra Brad-dock, the new chief compliance officer."
His fingers were strong and firm in hers, and Shondra felt a little jolt when their skin made contact. Deciding the ninety-degree heat was getting to her, she took the rag he offered and wiped her hands before passing it back.
Dressed like the others, he wore brown work pants and a shirt with C.J. stitched on the breast pocket. He'd ripped the sleeves off the shirt, revealing his tanned, muscular arms. Shondra forced herself not to drool. It was no secret that she had a thing for buff, working-class men, and something about this guy was pushing all of her buttons.
Once again blaming the heat, she forced her mind back to the business at hand. "It's nice to meet you C.J.?"
He nodded, flashing her another grin worthy of a toothpaste ad. "Let me find you a hard hat, and we'll get this tour under way."
Less than a minute later C.J. returned carrying a yellow hard hat. Expecting him to hand it to her, Shondra found herself holding her breath as he reached out to settle it on her head himself. Lifting her chin to inspect his work, he nodded with approval. "Perfect fit."
Then he winked at her and Shondra felt a tingle shoot down her spine.
Before she could analyze whether or not he was flirting with her, C.J. was leading her down a narrow aisle. "Have you ever been on a jackup rig?" he called over his shoulder.
Shondra stopped cold, thinking he'd said something obscene. "A what!"
"You're standing on a Tarzan-class jackup rig. We drag it to the drilling site, drive the legs into the sea floor and then jack up the entire rig above the reach of hurricane waves. Once we strike oil, we'll cap the well, jack down the rig and drag it to the next site."
"I see," Shondra said. She had to pay better attention. It wasn't like her to let the proximity of a man she'd just met affect her this much.
As C.J. showed her around the rig, Shondra became convinced he was touching her more than was necessaryguiding her through narrow passageways with a hand on the small of her back or tugging gently on her wrist.
And she knew he was flirting with her when he asked, "What's a pretty girl like you doing working in oil?"
"Come on," she said. "I was born and raised in Texas. It's practically in my blood."
"And you're a chief compliance officer? That sounds very official. Do you enjoy that type of work?" His tone implied that he couldn't imagine that she would.
Shondra laughed. "I love everything about my job. I work best under pressure, the travel keeps me interested and, believe it or not, I enjoy the meticulous attention to detail that risk management and compliance require."
"Whoa." C.J. laughed at her. "Now you sound like you're on a job interview. You can't really love all that paperwork, filing and forms "
"I do and I think I'm going to really like working for Stewart Industries."
Her new job was shaping up to have everything she needed. She'd only been with the company for a week and before she could set up her desk, she'd jumped on a plane to Mexico to research compliance issues for a new drilling site.
That alone would've been enough to keep her interested, but this was more than just a job to her.
A chill tingled her skin despite the heat.
She had a mission that was both personal and deeply painful. So painful, Shondra had to carefully balance her emotions on the subject lest she crack her cool exterior and crumble to pieces on the spot.
Narrowing her gaze on C.J.'s back, she was able to keep her thoughts focused. It was up to her to find out all she could about Stewart Industries. This was a crucial task because her family believed someone within the company had a connection to her father's recent death.
When her father's former personal assistant received an anonymous call stating that Harmon Braddock's fatal car crash hadn't been an accident, Shondra couldn't sit back and wait for answers. Then they found evidence of a flight to Washington, D.C., and calls made the day of Harmon's death that traced back to the main switchboard of Stewart Industrieswhich made no sense. Her father's personal assistant, who knew everything about her father's business dealings, knew nothing about a connection to Stewart Industries. Clearly something wasn't right.
This information had left Shondra and her brothers, Malcolm and Tyson, with a lot of questions. For the time being, their mother, still deeply in mourning for her husband, was being kept out of the loop. At least until they had solid answers.
Her family needed to know the truth about Harmon Braddock's death, and Shondra had found a way to get on the inside at Stewart Industries. She'd called in a few favors and wrangled herself a position with the company.
She was good at what she did and the Braddock name carried a lot of weight in Houston. Even though she had her own agenda, she would do her job to the best of her abilities. Her pride wouldn't accept anything less.
After showing her the technical side of the rig where all the hard work got done, C.J. took her to the crew's quarters, the cafeteria and the rec room.
Occasionally some of the roughnecks would ogle her openly. Shondra knew she was an attractive woman, but she didn't take the extra attention personally. She suspected some of these men hadn't seen a woman in weeks, which could account for their admiring stares. At least that was how she explained the heated looks she felt coming from her tour guide.
But if C.J. did have a bit of a crush on her, she could use it to her advantage and do some subtle probing about the company.
"I was hired by Carl Stewart," she said, dropping the name of the company's CEO. "Does he ever come down to the rig and see you guys?"
"Not too much," C.J. replied, and to Shondra's disappointment, he did not elaborate.
"I guess he's starting to pull back from some of the operations. It's my understanding that he's preparing to pass the title of CEO on to his son Connor," she prodded.
C.J. simply shrugged. "That's my understanding, too."
Shondra was puzzled. Up until then, C.J. had been chatty and forthcoming. Now he seemed to be holding back. Her initial research suggested that SI was really tight with information. If she couldn't even get an oil-rig worker to schmooze about the bigwigs, maybe SI really did have something to hide.
"I've never met Connor Stewart. What is he like as a boss?" turned up the wattage on his winsome smile. "Are you nervous about meeting the company president?"
Shondra shook her head. "Overpaid suits with fancy titles don't scare me. Trust me, I've dealt with enough of those. My only concern is learning the ins and outs of this company so I can do my job effectively."
C.J. laughed. "Well, I'm sure that's all that really matters." He led her around a corner and stopped in front of a door. "I think that covers everything. We've got an empty office here where you can start reviewing the paperwork for the new site."
"Thanks for the tour." She reached out to shake C.J.'s hand. Once again, she took a moment to appreciate the firm grip of his strong, work-roughened hands.
She found herself wondering what all that grime on his face was hiding. Though his features were smudged, she could tell they were well put together.
Shondra knew it was wrong to mix business with pleasure. But growing up in a household of overprotective men had nurtured her rebellious streak. Besides, it was more than likely she'd never see this man again. In a few hours she'd be on a plane back to Houston.
What would C.J. say if she asked him to join her in that empty office? He'd been eyeing her with those wicked blue eyes all afternoon. He'd probably say yes.
With a sigh, Shondra waved goodbye and ducked into the office alone. As usual, her rebellious streak never extended past her thoughts.
At the end of the day, Shondra was a good girl with a naughty imagination. She grew up under the heavy weight of expectation, and despite temptation, she couldn't bring herself to let anyone down.
The daughters of African-American families in prominent positions in politics did not make scandal. That made backroom romps with oil-rig workers strictly forbidden.
But she could daydream