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"We'll reach the estate soon," Griffin Vaughn said to his executive assistant, Sophie LaRue, as their rented SUV thundered down the Colorado highway, headed into the mountains.
He was driving; he preferred to drive himself rather than hire limos because he disliked putting his safety in someone else's hands, professional or not. Sophie sat in the passenger seat, her entire attention focused on the breathtaking Colorado scenery. The sweeping vista was shadowed by the distant Rocky Mountains, and the entire scene was overhung by an ominous gray winter sky.
At Griffin's words, she glanced over at him. "I hope so. We need to be done at Lonesome Lake and back down off the mountain before the weather hits."
In her mid-twenties, with wavy, dark blond hair and light brown eyes almost the same color, Sophie was a knockout, hands down. The cinnamon-colored sweater she wore beneath a stylish wool coat accented her undeniable curves, and her neatly tailored pants managed to be simultaneously professional and sexy. Even a cynical, "been there, done that, got the scars to prove it" businessman like Griffin could appreciate the aesthetics. However, that didn't change the fact that she was a dozen years younger than his thirty-nine, and she was his employee, both of which meant she was way off-limits, even if he was looking. Which he wasn't.
Yet he kept feeling the need to fill the silence that stretched between them as the highway unwound beneath the rental's wheels. The fact that he bothered trying to make small talk, which he wouldn't have done with Sophie's middle-aged, über-experienced predecessor, Kathleen, just went to prove what Griffin already knew: he was badly off hisgame.
He was tired, hungry and irritable. His meeting in New York City had started off bad and had gotten worse the longer he and Sophie stayed, forcing him to pull the plug after only two days of negotiations. He'd decided to return home to San Francisco and see if things went better long-distance, only to have his private jet delayed several hours on the tarmac while air traffic control tried to reroute them around a series of major snowstorms that were blanketing the Midwest.
The frustrations and delays had all added up to Griffin being in an admittedly foul mood by the time they'd finally taken off. That was why, when he'd gotten the voice-mail message that renovations to his Rocky Mountain retreat in the Four Corners region of Colorado had been delayed yet again by another "accident," he'd ordered his private plane to set down near Kenner County. Griffin had suspected for some time that his contractor, Perry Long, was taking him for a ride, and it was past time to deal with it.
The pilot, Hal Jessup, had warned him that there was some serious weather on the way, but Griffin had been adamant. He might not have sewn up VaughnTec's acquisition of the HiTek memory module he was jonesing to get his hands on, but he was going to get something done on this trip, damn it. He was going to deal with Perry Long, once and for all. The swindling contractor wasn't going to know what hit him.
Besides, according to the weather forecast, they had a few more hours before the blizzard hit. That should be plenty of time for him and Sophie to drive out to the estate, get a look at the renovations, and then drive back down into Kenner City, where Sophie had already booked them into a decent B and B. She had also arranged for them to meet with Perry the following day, weather permitting. And it damn well better permit as far as Griffin was concerned. He was done with the contractor and his excuses.
"Looks like someone's getting a jump on being stranded in the snow," Sophie said as they rounded a corner and an accident came into view up ahead. Behind a row of cherry-red flares, a battered pickup truck was stuck partway in a ditch off to the side of the road. A police cruiser and tow truck were on-scene, their lights flashing brightly in the gloom. Several men were huddled around the rear of the entrapped vehicle, working on securing a winch to the rear axle.
"Don't let the weathermen talk you into blizzard-induced hysteria," Griffin said. "They're in cahoots with the grocery stores, trying to sell out all the bread, eggs and milk."
She grinned a little and lifted a shoulder. "I'm a California girl. I've never been in a snowstorm before. Until three days ago, I'd never even been on a plane."
Griffin stifled a wince at the reminder of just how green his new executive assistant was. He'd told the retiring Kathleen to find her own replacementsomeone efficient with no social life to speak of, who wouldn't mind working the crazy-long hours required by his position as head of VaughnTec. He hadn't bothered reminding Kathleen that his new assistant should be middle-aged and highly experienced, because he'd figured that would've been a given.
Yet Kathleen had hired green, gorgeous Sophie LaRue and disappeared on her retirement cruise. Worse, she had either left her cell phone behind, or she was ignoring his calls, in a blatant signal of "Don't call me, I'll call you." Griffin should know; he was a master with that line. But he'd given up after a while anyway, because what good would it do him now to bark at Kathleen? She'd retired. What happened next was up to him.
He'd been tempted to un-hire Sophie the moment she'd walked through his office door, introduced herself, knocked him for a loop with an instant blast of sexual chemistry, and five minutes later spilled most of a pot of coffee on a stack of important papers. But Kathleen had already shown the new executive assistant the basics of the job, and Griffin was in the middle of delicate negotiations to acquire a memory module that was vital to his newest handheld computer PDA. All of which meant he didn't have the time to interview or train another assistant. Besides, he trusted Kathleen, and figured she must've seen something in Sophie, some reason she thought the two of them would click. Kathleen had always had a knack for reading people, and predicting which employees would work well together. Trusting that even if he didn't see it right off the bat, he'd let his new assistant stay on the job, and they'd both done their best to make it work.
He'd overlooked her occasional bouts of inexperience and nerves, and the clumsiness those nerves seemed to bring out. For her part, she'd worked the long hours without protest, and often took paperwork home with her when she left for the night. And if he'd caught a hint or two that Sophie reciprocated the raw physical attraction he felt for her, they were both doing a fine job of gritting their teeth and ignoring it. They'd been working together nearly a month now, and they'd achieved a functional, if tenuous, boss-and-assistant relationship.
"The cop's waving for us to pull over," she said now as they rolled up to the accident. "I hope your license is good."
"If it's not, I'm blaming it on you," Griffin said, only halfway joking as he stopped the rental and lowered the window.
"Afternoon, folks," the cop said, taking a not-very-casual look from Griffin to Sophie and back. "If you're planning on spending the night in the hotel, you missed the turn by about a mile. Nothing much up this way except pines, rocks and ice." The officer looked to be in his late thirties. He was tall and dark-haired, with vivid blue eyes that were cool and assessing, and didn't look like they missed much.
Griffin saw the edge of a pointed star on the cop's uniform shirt beneath his heavy parka, and made the connection. "Sheriff Martinez?"
The cop's eyes narrowed. "Do I know you?"
"We spoke on the phone when your people needed access to my estate. I'm Griffin Vaughan." Griffin nodded in Sophie's direction. "My assistant, Sophie LaRue." When there was no immediate response from the sheriff of Kenner County, a flutter of long-unused instinct stirred the fine hairs at Griffin's nape. "Do you want to see our IDs?"
Martinez shook his head, and finally relaxed a degree. "No. It's fine. Sorry. Things have been complicated around here lately. We're giving everyone a second and third look." The sheriff paused. "Are you two headed up to Lonesome Lake?"
Griffin's new estate had been named for the large, spring-fed lake on the property, one of only a few open bodies of water in the immediate area. The lake was located near the main entrance to the sprawling grounds; the driveway cut straight across the middle, running over a sturdy cement-pylon bridge. The promise of summertime fishing, along with a hell of a mountain view, had sold Griffin on the place. The lowball price hadn't hurt, either, though in retrospect it should've been a red flag. Since he'd taken possession of Lonesome Lake, the property had been one long-distance headache after another.
Griffin nodded in answer to the sheriff's question. "Just a quick in-and-out. I gave the live-in couple the month off because of the reno, and the construction crew has undoubtedly gone home to wait out the weather, but I wanted to get a look at the place before we sit down for a meeting with Perry tomorrow."
"You picked a hell of a time to visit." Martinez glanced at the sky. "They're saying this storm could take a couple of days to blow through, maybe more."
"We'll be back down in the city before it starts," Griffin said. "I don't have any desire to be snowed in up there until after the reno is complete." And certainly not with his executive secretary. Lonesome Lake was intended for family, not business.
Griffin had bought the estate to be a getaway for him and his three-year-old son, Luke, and Luke's male nanny, Darryn, both of whom were waiting for him back in San Francisco. The estate was intended to be a luxurious "just the guys" cabin, a place that would let him retreat from the hoopla that came with being a multimillionaire under the age of forty who made regular appearances on the Steele Most Wealthy list and almost all of San Fran's "Most Eligible Bachelor" roundups.
Those lists invariably included personal tidbits such as his divorce from songwriter Monique Claire, his single father status, and the fact that he'd been a decorated marine technical specialist before taking over struggling VaughnTec and making it into a megacorporation.
Back when Griffin had been in the military, he'd built weapons and tracking tools out of whatever he'd been able to scrounge from the field. As a civilian, he focused more on handheld computers, but the gadget-building theory was the same, and the self-discipline and ruthless logic he'd learned in the battle zones had served him well in the business world.
Unfortunately, his military service only added to his dossier as far as the San Fran socialites were concerned. That, combined with his net worth and dark good looks, had made him the target of too many gold diggers to count. In fact, he'd stopped counting the wannabe Mrs. Vaughns around a year ago, right around the time he'd stopped dating. His lack of interest had only increased the pressure from the gold diggers, which was why he'd bought Lonesome Lake. He needed to get the hell away from his work and the city he'd grown up in, and he wanted someplace comfortable to do it.
Which was great in theory, but so far had been seriously lacking in practice, due to the construction glitches.
Griffin had hired Perry as his general contractor based on the Realtor's recommendation and a handful of local references, and had signed off on a basic updating of the forty year-old structure. At first, the contractor's reports of things needing immediate repair or replacement had seemed reasonable enough. As the months had dragged on, though, and the schedule had doubled, and then tripled, Griffin's patience had decreased in direct proportion to the budget's increase. Now he just wanted to put an end to whatever the hell was going on up at the estate, regardless of whether that meant a sit-down with Perry or lining up a new contractor.
"We should get moving if we're going to beat the storm," he said pointedly to the sheriff.
Martinez glanced up the road, though Lonesome Lake was a good ten miles further along the two-lane track leading into the foothills. "Do me a favor and call me when you get back to Kenner City, so I know you made it down off the mountain safely, okay?" The sheriff rattled off a number. "Got that?"
Sophie nodded and entered the number in her sleek, sophisticated PDA, which was one of VaughnTec's newer designs. "Got it." Once she had the number keyed in, she tucked the handheld into the pocket of her stylish wool coat, keeping it close at hand.
Still, Martinez didn't look satisfied.
Getting the distinct impression that the sheriff wasn't at all happy with their plan, Griffin lowered his voice and said, "What aren't you telling us?"
Martinez grimaced, and for a moment, Griffin didn't think he was going to answer. But then the sheriff said, "Look, there have been some incidents in this area lately. First, there was that body that turned up, the dead FBI agent?" At Griffin's nod of remembrance, he continued, "Well, after that, we found an abandoned car with a baby in it. A baby, for God's sake. And then one of our crime scene analysts was attacked the other day not far from here, further on toward Lonesome Lake. The weather's been playing hell with our ability to process the scenes, which is logjamming the investigations and to top it all off, the Feds think there's a chance that Vincent Del Gardo might still be in the area." The sheriff shook his head. "Logically, those incidents probably aren't all connected, but Just be careful up there, okay?"
Griffin muttered a curse under his breath, but nodded. "Will do."
"Call me if you need anything." The sheriff stepped back and waved them on their way, but his eyes remained dark as he watched them pass.
His figure had barely begun to recede in the distance before Sophie said, "Who is Vincent Del Gardo?"
Griffin knew he probably should have told her about the recent problems near Lonesome Lake, but to be honest, he'd all but forgotten about them. Between the HiTek negotiations, Kathleen's retirement and various other business matters he'd been juggling against his responsibility as Luke's father andhis desire to be involved in as many pieces of his son's life as he possibly could be, he simply hadn't given much thought to the issues in Kenner County. He'd assumed the matter would be settled by the time the estate was completely renovated and he brought Luke and Darryn out for a visit. So he hadn't bothered updating Sophie on the situation.