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For most people, returning to their roots brought on a warm sense of nostalgiabut that wasn't the case for Clay Jenkins.
As he sat in a nondescript SUV on the tree-shaded main drag of Brighton Valley, just three buildings down from the old computer repair shop where he'd first gone to work nine years ago, he was reminded of the life he'd eagerly left behind and had tried so hard to forget.
He could have hired someone else to come in and fix his flagship store, but this was where his new life had actually started.
Hank Lazaro, his friend and mentor, had gotten him his first job there. As a result, the time he'd spent here on the weekends and after school had kept him out of troubleand it had taught him a lot about business and honesty and hard work. It was here that he'd met the financial backer who'd helped him market the computer software program that had made him a multimillionaire before he hit the ripe old age of twenty.
Clay knew he shouldn't attach so much emotional significance to the quaint old building, especially in a small Texas town that, as a teenager, he couldn't wait to escape. But when he'd seen the last quarterly reports and realized that a corporate rep from Geekon Enterprises would have to step in and turn the store around before it went down the tubes well, the task had become personal, and he knew he was the only one he would allow to do it.
He got out of the vehicle he'd rented at the executive airport in Houston, where he'd arrived in his private jet, and sucked in a deep breath of country air. As he caught the aroma coming from Caroline's Diner, his stomach growled, reminding him he hadn't eaten anything but a bagel at the Silicon Valley office earlier this morning.
No one made a better meal than Caroline, at least when it came to down-home cooking like chicken-fried steak, meat loaf, pork chops and the like. He could practically recite her menu from memoryunless she'd changed it. But something told him she'd never do that.
When he'd worked here, he'd eaten lunch at Caroline's every day, filling up on her daily specialno matter what it was. Of course, he stuck to a healthy diet now, but that didn't mean he wouldn't slip off to the diner the first chance he gotfor old times' sake.
Clay removed his dark-tinted sunglasses, doubting he'd need them to hide his identity from any of the locals who might remember him. He no longer looked like the nerdy, undeveloped teenager who'd first got his start working as a computer repair technician at Ralph's Electronics.
Seven years ago, when Ralph died, Clay purchased the business from his widow for ten times its value and made it part of the Zorba the Geek chain, a subsidiary of Geekon Enterprises, which also owned GeekMart, a chain of computer stores that had launched the innovative Geekon line of computers.
Ralph had hired Don Carpenter six months earlier, so Clay had let him continue to manage the Brighton Valley repair shop. Then he'd flown back to Silicon Valley, leaving the sad memories and the small town behind. Or so he'd thought.
But here he was, dressed in a pair of khaki slacks and a black polo shirt, hoping he looked as though he belonged in the bucolic world he'd long since outgrown.
He'd much rather be back in California, wearing one of his many custom-made suits, going out on the town this evening. But when his executive assistant had given him that requested update on the Brighton Valley store and he'd seen that Don Carpenter hadn't turned in his yearly sales-and-service report, Clay had known something wasn't right.
He hated to think that someone was embezzling funds or doing something otherwise illegal in one of his companies, but with hundreds of shops operating around the world, it wouldn't be the first time.
While he could hire someone else to go in and find the causeor the culprithe was determined to handle this situation himself, even if that meant he had to go undercover to do it.
And that shouldn't be difficult. Clay had been too busy to talk to Don in person when he'd purchased the store. Instead, all their conversations had taken place over the phone and via email.
Clay had also grown up in nearby Wexler, so not too many people in Brighton Valley knew him. And just in case anyone followed the business magazines, which he doubted in a one-horse town like this, he'd shaved off his trendy beard, cut his stylish shoulder-length hair, opted for a pair of contacts instead of his black-framed glasses, and traded in his suits and Italian loafers for a more casual look. So he felt confident that his identity was safe.
For that reason, as he stepped onto the sidewalk, feeling a bit like Clark Kent, he held on to his self-assured swagger, unwilling to give up everything he'd worked so hard to perfect.
As he made his way down the shady street, he paused in front of the hardware store and gazed at some of the same familiar items showcased for sale. In fact, not much in Brighton Valley had changed since he used to ride his secondhand bike to work every afternoon and chain it up to the parking meter out front.
On the other hand, Clay had morphed into an entirely new being. At twenty-six, he was no longer the scrawny kid who'd had to worry about using a lock to secure that same bike so the football jocks wouldn't steal it, paint it pink and toss it up into the branches of the elm tree that grew in front of the gym.
In fact, with the kind of money and power that he could now wield, nobody would ever mess with him again.
That is, if they knew who he really was.
But Clay didn't want them to know. At least, not yet.
He turned and made his way to the once-familiar shop and let himself in.
The jingling of the bell on the door signaled his entrance, and he took a moment to scan the shelves of new and refurbished computers for sale, as well as the wooden counter that ran the length of the small reception area and blocked the entrance to the workstations in the rear of the shop.
He sucked in a breath and caught the whiff of cinnamon and sugar?
Zorba the Geek hardly smelled like dust and toner any longer. Why was that? And where was everyone? Hadn't they heard the ringing when he came in?
When Clay worked here, he used to drop everything he was doing to greet whoever entered the store. The customer service had certainly gone downhill, which could account for some of the store's trouble.
"Hello," he called out, hoping to alert someone in back to his arrival.
Footsteps sounded, and an attractive redhead came out, the telephone to her ear. She wore a pair of snug jeans and a blue tank shirt that wasn't what he'd call revealing, but certainly caressed her curves When she spotted him, she held up a slender nail-polished finger, indicating she'd be with him in a moment.
Her auburn brows were knit tightly above big, round eyes the same color as the caramel-flavored coffee his executive assistant brought him from Starbucks every morning.
Maybe it was due to the fact that he was growing hungrier by the minuteor to the sweet scent of sugar and cinnamon that had set his taste buds on edgebut damn if those big brown eyes didn't make him crave a taste of caramel.
That is, until the pretty redhead shot him a stressed-out glance that brought him back to reality.
"He's never done this before," she told the caller. "Are you sure it was him?"
Clay suspected she was trying to appease a customer who was unhappy with their service.
"Uh-huh." She bit down on her bottom lip. "What about the other boy? Did he say that Tyler started it?"
Now, that didn't sound like a business-related conversation. Was she on a personal call? With a customer standing in front of her, waiting for assistance?
Okay, so technically, Clay wasn't a customer, but she didn't know that.
In spite of her pretty brown eyes and enough curves to inspire a supermodel to go out and eat a cheeseburger and fries, Clay's annoyance rose to the point that he was having a difficult time remaining quiet.
No wonder the store was in trouble. Don had hired an employee who couldn't be bothered to put business ahead of her personal life.
"I'm sure this is just a onetime thing, Mrs. Paxton. Tell Tyler I'll be there as soon as I can." The redhead ended the call and, with the phone still in her hand, rubbed at her temples as if trying to massage the obvious stress out of her brain.
Then she reached under the wooden counter and pulled out a plate of cookies. "I'm so sorry. That was my son's school and Can I offer you a snickerdoodle? I made them this morning."
So that was what was responsible for the sweet cinnamon-laced scent that had been taunting him since he'd walked in the door.
But serving cookies to the customers? He was pretty sure that concept hadn't been introduced at the last public-relations focus-group session. Maybe the Brighton Valley branch didn't get the memo that they were in a computer repair shop, not a bakery.
Yet he wasn't going to come in with corporate guns blazing and start nitpicking every little thing the store was obviously doing wrong. Not to mention, he was having some pretty heavy hunger pangs. And while he tried to be health conscious, especially in recent years, he'd never been able to turn down sweets.
He picked up a cookie and asked, "Is Don Carpenter in?"
"I'm sorry, but he's out for the rest of the afternoon. Is there something I can do for you?"
"I'm Peyton Johnson. The Houston office sent me down to help you get your new accounting system up and running. Don was expecting me."
Clay took a quick bite, and when the cookie melted in his mouth, he closed his eyes for a moment, savoring the sweet taste. Then he quickly swallowed, realizing that he was still waiting for the redhead to explain who she was.
Apparently, he'd have to wait longer, because the phone in her hand rang again and she barely glanced at the display screen before taking the call, ignoring him for a second time.
She did, however, give him the just-a-minute signal before answering, "Yes?"
She might be beautifuland that annoying finger made a damn fine cookiebut he didn't like being asked to wait.
One thing was certain, though. She had no idea who he really was, because no one put Clayton Jenkins on hold.
"Doesn't the nurse have an ice pack?" she asked the caller.
Clay took another bite of the cookie and listened to the one-sided conversation, trying to figure out what was more important than this woman's future employmentwhich was growing shakier by the second.
"Well, Mrs. Paxton, I'm a bit more concerned with my son getting beat up by Conner Doyle, who I believe is a bully, than I am about Conner having to rewrite his essay on the rain-forest biome because he didn't save the document in the computer lab."
Bully? The once-delicious cookie turned to chalk in Clay's mouth. It hadn't been that long ago that a certain football jock had made his adolescent life hell.
"Well, if the document was saved, then uh Well, wasn't it password protected? Uh-huh I see." After a beat, she said, "I'm sure Tyler didn't hack into anything."
Hack? Now, that word sparked a rather magical memory. Years ago, Clay had used his skill in technology to fight back against the bigger and tougher kids at school, and it had worked like a charm.
"Suspended? Don't you think that's a little extreme?"
It sounded like the boyher sonwas in trouble.
"Is Conner being suspended, too?" Those brown eyes widened, and she tightened her grip on the receiver. "What do you mean, 'not at this time'? Actually, don't answer that. Don't do anything. I'll be right there."
After disconnecting the call, she waved at Clay, indicating that he should follow her toward the back office.
People didn't order Clay to do anything, and while every fiber in his being wanted to balk, he trailed behind her as she strode to a desk and yanked open the lower drawer.
She appeared to be in full mama-tigress mode, preparing to protect her cub. Clay couldn't help but be a bit envious of the lucky kid. His own mother had never gone to battle for him. Of course, he couldn't hold that against her. She'd had her own struggles to deal with, and more often than not, Clay had needed to take care of her.
"Listen, Mr " The redhead paused and glanced up from where she'd stooped over, her eyes wide, her lips parted.
Apparently, she hadn't paid a bit of attention when he'd told her his name.
"Johnson," he said, repeating the alias he'd come up with. "Peyton Johnson. And you're . ?"
"Megan Adams." She reached for a black purse that had seen better days, then kicked the desk drawer shut. "I'm so sorry to do this to you, Mr. Johnson. But since you work for Zorba's anyway, would you mind covering the shop for me for a couple of minutes? I have to run to the middle school. It's just down the street, so I'll be right back."
Her keys were in her hand and she was heading out the back door before Clay could voice either an objection or an agreement.
As he heard a car backing out of the parking spot in the alley, he turned to look at the cluttered desk piled with coffee-stained work invoices and an open green ledger.
While stunned and annoyed that the woman had just left him in the back office with all the pricey equipment and access to confidential business information, he decided not to look a gift horse in the mouth. Instead he'd take the opportunity to get a peek at what was really going on with the store, although he had a pretty good idea already.
He still didn't know anything about the woman other than her name, but if her behavior at the front counter and the disarray of this desk were any indication, he knew she didn't have the work ethic that Geekon Enterprises expected from those on their payroll.
And it didn't matter how sultry her eyes wereor that his hands itched to touch her abundant red hair.
Nor did it matter that she made a damn good cookie.
Business came first, and Clay had to do what was best for the storeeven if that meant firing the first employee he'd met.