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Six weeks later
Alex looked around his new apartment with satisfaction. This place, with its nondescript decor and discount-house furniture, was a far cry from his pad in the city, but he didn't mind. He didn't need fancy digs. Never had. The only reason he lived where and how he did was because it was expected of him in his position as the director of the Harrison Hunt Foundation.
Thinking about the foundation, he frowned. He'd put out every fire, assigned as many tasks as he could to others and taken care of everything else he could think of before telling his staff he was taking an extended leave of absence. And he knew his assistant, Martha Oliver, affectionately called Marti by all who knew her well, could be trusted to handle ninety-nine percent of anything else that might come up.
But it was that other one percent that worried Alex. Still, he was only a ninety-minute drive from downtown Seattle, and in an emergency, Marti could reach him on his cell and know he'd come as soon as possible. In fact, she'd been texting him religiously, keeping him up to date on everything. Alex made a mental note to give her a hefty bonus when this situation was finally resolved and he was back to work. Which, he hoped, would be soon.
He knew there was no reason to worry. Things would be fine while he was gone. He reminded himself that all he had to do was quickly find a suitable woman to marry, and he might not have to be away from the foundation for long at all.
Alex was not arrogant or vain. But he wasn't unaware of his appeal. All his life he'd been told he was good-looking and wherever he went women made eye contact and flirted. So if he found someone who interested himand that he felt his father and his Aunt Cornelia would approve of, he suspected all he'd have to do was go through the motions women expected from a suitor.
After he and his brothers had decided to go along with Harry's edict, Alex had given considerable thought to his strategy in the campaign to find the kind of wife he wanted. What he'd decided was he would never be able to do so while continuing to work at the foundation. He needed to go somewhere he wasn't known and he needed to be working at an ordinary job with ordinary people.
Then he thoroughly researched Harry's various holdings and narrowed them down to the one where he thought he might not stick out like a sore thumb. He told his father he wanted a position at their distribution center in Jansen, an hour and a half drive from Seattlejust south of Olympia. He already knew most folks in Jansen watched Portland television stations and read the Portland newspaper, so they'd be unlikely to recognize him from any of the publicity photos tied to the Hunt Foundation. And if anyone did recognize him, he'd simply say he was always being mistaken for one of the Hunt brothers.
Alex didn't think he had to worry. He had always tried to keep a low profile. He hated society bashes and disliked the club scene. If not for the foundation and its work, he doubted anyone would ever recognize him as belonging to the Hunt family.
Today would be the true test, though, because in less than forty-five minutes, he would begin his new job at HuntCom's main distribution center.
And new name.
He'd also decided that for the duration of his "hunt" he would be known as Alex Noble. It would be different if he were going to go to work somewhere that wasn't associated with HuntCom, but at the distribution center there was no way he could be Alex Hunt without someone questioning the coincidence of the shared name.
So he'd decided on Noble, which was the surname of a previous stepfather. Alex's mother, Lucinda Parker Hunt Noble Fitzpatrick, was on her third marriage and Alex had once cynically figured it wouldn't be her last, although he'd finally conceded that maybe Terrence Fitzpatrick was the real deal. He and Alex's mother had recently celebrated their twenty-fourth wedding anniversary.
There were things about Terrence Alex didn't like, namely his penchant for thinking money could solve any problem, but he'd done one thing right. He'd given Alex a much-loved younger sister, Julie, although Terrence was doing his level best to spoil her with the enormous amounts of money and gifts he lavished upon her.
Thinking about Julie and her recent escapades, Alex frowned. He wished he could get through to her, but she laughed off his concern, telling him he was "stodgy" and "old-fashioned" and had forgotten what it was like to be young.
Her scorn, even though delivered with affection, had hurt. Alex didn't think he was stodgy. He was just sensible and practical. So he didn't worship at the altar of money and power. Did that mean there was something wrong with him? He guessed in his little sister's crowd, it probably did.
He was still thinking about Julie when he pulled into the employee parking lot at the HuntCom Distribution Center. But when he emptied his pockets and passed through security, he deliberately put her out of his mind. Today he couldn't afford to be distracted by Julie or anything else. He would need all his wits about him to pull off a successful masquerade.
It took an hour to fill out necessary paperwork and watch an orientation film in the human resources department, but by nine o'clockhe was on the first shift which began at eight in the morningthe HR manager's assistant, who made a point of telling him her name was Kim, walked him down to the gigantic storage center, which was a beehive of activity.
Alex couldn't help grinning when a young girl with purple spiked hair whizzed by them on roller blades. At his quizzical look, Kim said, "That's Ruby. She's also a picker."
Alex frowned. "Picker?"
"Sorry. Merchandise rep. Same job you're going to do. You know, pick the merchandise from the shelves so it can be shipped to the company or person who placed the order."
"Ah." It amused Alex to think what his colleagues at the foundation would say if they could see him now. Most, he knew, were in awe of him. After all, he was one of the mighty Hunts. They respected him, because he worked as hard or harder than they did, and they knew he cared about the work they were doing, but they still couldn't manage to treat him the way they treated the others on staff. To them, he was out of their league.
"I'm sure you'll be great at the job," Kim said, giving him an admiring glance.
Alex wasn't interested; he'd seen her wedding band. So all he said was, "Hope so."
She led Alex toward a cluster of several people who seemed to be arguing about something. When they spied him, the conversation abruptly stopped and a young womana very attractive young woman, Alex noticedwith wildly curly red hair tied back with a navy-blue ribbon and dressed in snug jeans and a white blouse open at the throat, broke away from the group and strode toward them. Very blue eyes filled with intelligence gave him a quick assessment before turning their intensity on Kim.
"Um, P.J.," she said, "this is Alex Noble, the new member of your crew. Alex, this is P.J. Kincaid, the floor supervisor."
Alex wondered if P.J. had adopted initials in lieu of her first name for the same reason J.T. had adopted his, because she hated her given name. J.T. had said Jared was a sissy name and he would kill anyone who insisted upon using it.
"Hello," P.J. said, thrusting out her right hand. "Welcome to HuntCom."
Alex took her hand and gave it a firm shake. Hers was just as firm. "Hello," he said.
"Good luck," Kim said. She smiled at him, then turned and walked off.
When Alex's attention returned to P.J., her eyes met his squarely. Something about their steady scrutiny disturbed Alex. Did she suspect something? He forced himself not to drop his gaze.
"I'm told you have experience," she said.
Yes, that was definitely a hint of doubt in her voice. Deciding brevity was his best bet, Alex nodded.
"Yes, I do."
"And you worked where before?"
Sticking to what it said on his fake résumé, Alex answered, "At a warehouse in Sacramento."
She looked at him thoughtfully. "What kind of products?"
Her eyes remained speculative. "Why'd you leave?"
He made his voice light. "Couldn't very well commute from here."
She nodded, but instinct told him she wasn't completely buying his story. "You've completed all your paperwork?"
"Had your physical and drug testing?"
"Yes." That wasn't true, but on paper, it said Alex had done so and passed.
"So you ready to go to work?"
"Yes, I am."
Turning, she gestured to one of the men in the group still gathered nearby. "Rick."
A dark-haired, dark-eyed man Alex judged to be in his late twenties or early thirties walked toward them. Like P.J. and Alex and almost everyone Alex had seen so far, except for the employees of the HR department, he wore jeans. His black T-shirt hawked a Red Hot Chili Peppers concert.
"Rick," she said, "this is Alex Noble. You'll be training him." Meeting Alex's eyes again, she said,
"Alex, this is Rick Alvarado. He's been with the company seven years and can answer any questions you might have."
The two men shook hands. Rick's eyes were friendly. Alex liked him immediately and sensed he could turn out to be a friend.
"Follow me," Rick said. "I'll give you a tour of the place so you can get a general idea of where everything is stored." He kept up a running commentary as they headed down the nearest aisle. "You know much about the company, Alex?"
Alex nodded. "Quite a bit. I researched it when I knew I was going to be working here."
"So you know old man Hunt started out by coming up with a new software and things escalated from there?"
Alex nodded. "Now we manufacture just about everything in the computer field," Rick continued. "We have over three thousand products that we ship from this location."
"That many?" Alex said, although he'd already known this.
"Keeps us hopping 24/7. We run three shifts. Eight to four, four to twelve, twelve to eight. Lots of the guys like the afternoon and night shifts, but me, I like days. 'Course, I work the other shifts anytime they need extra hands, 'cause it's overtime, and with three little girls and a wife who likes to give those old charge cards a workout " He laughed. "I can always use the money."
"Three little girls, huh?"
Rick grinned. "Yeah, we had 'em pretty close together. My oldest is eight, the youngest is four." Pulling a wallet from his hip pocket, he took out several photos. "I'll only do this once," he promised, handing Alex the pictures.
Alex smiled at the likenesses. All three girls had curly dark hair and dark eyes. "They sure are cute."
"Yeah," Rick said proudly. "They're good kids, too. Maria, she's been a stay-at-home mom, but in September Jenny, she's the youngest, starts school, so Maria's going to go back to work."
"What does she do?" Alex asked politely.
"She's a preschool teacher. She'll be teaching at Jenny's school."
By now, they'd stopped in a densely stocked aisle.