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"We 're not taking this job."
Campbell Steele stared at the travel itinerary in his sister's outstretched hand and wonderednot for the first timehow a self-proclaimed computer geek like himself had morphed into an undercover operative. He liked a good adventure as much as the next guy, but nearly eighteen months straight on the road with an array ofjobs that boggled the imagination with human depravity was getting old.
The success of House of Steele had surpassed every expectation he and his siblings had when they established the firm three years before and the latest assignmenta babysitting job for a rich heiresswasn't high on his list of priorities. "I've made my feelings more than clear."
"And you know my feelings on work. We take it when it comes."
He made a valiant attempt to stare his sister down and failed miserably. "You look like Grandmother when you get all uppity like that." As an insult it was horrifi-cally low, but the narrowing of Kensington's gaze had the desired effect.
"Here are your tickets. You'll meet Abigail McBane here in New York and then fly with her to Paris tomorrow evening."
"Because some disgruntled employee keeps sending her nasty emails? There's nothing in this for us, Kenzi. Her security folks should be able to uncover something as routine as this."
"There's plenty in this and Abby doesn't want this going through her corporate folks. That's why she contacted us."
"At least be honest with me. You're doing this as a favor for a friend, not because it makes good business sense. I could be helping Liam on that job in London or Rowan figure out her Chicago museum problem. Both need some serious electronics work."
"I've got them covered. Now." Kensington pointed toward the TV mounted on the far wall of her office as a series of photos came up. "McBane Communications had a seven-minute security breach two days ago when their entire satellite system was unreachable from their central command. None of her experts could get remotely into the system while it was happening. Nor could Abby and her electronic skills are rock-solid."
Campbell took in the images that f lashed on the screen before coming to rest on Abigail McBane. She stood in front of a large backdrop, obviously speaking to an audience, her slender frame clad in a fitted business suit and sky-high heels. A lush fall of dark hair fell down her back while wide-set chocolate-brown eyes lit up her expressive face.
The entire package screamed professional and competent, yet innately feminine and he couldn't quite pull his gaze away fast enough.
"She's a beautiful woman."
Since Kensington always saw too much, Campbell deliberately turned away from the screen. "What else?"
"Did I mention her top security team can't find the breach?"
"Inside job?" The question came out, despite his best intentions to stay uninterested.
"Not on the surface. That's what's not jibing for her."
Campbell moved closer to the TV, the images pulling him like a lodestone. The damned Steele curiosity, he knew, even as he turned back to look at his sister. "They've got military-grade security. How else would someone get in? It's got to be an inside job."
Kensington's gaze was laser-sharp, the frank assessment behind her cobalt-blue eyes direct and unyielding. "Maybe yes, maybe no. We both know not everyone can be stopped with a firewall, even ones supposedly as impenetrable as McBane's. Or the government's," Kensington added for emphasis.
Campbell ignored the not-so-thinly-veiled jab at his youthfuland idiot-fueledchoices. "Seven minutes?"
"And her systems people have checked the code?"
"Forward and backward and there's no trace of tampering, viruses or remote entrance."
"She's got a ghost." Campbell knew the level of skills required for a job of this magnitude belonged to a handful of people. He ran through his mental list, discarding names as he went.
"Which is why she needs another ghost. One not employed by the company."
"There are traces. Somewhere, there's evidence in the system of where someone tampered with it. You can't divert that much equipment without leaving a mark."
"Exactly, Campbell. This isn't just me wanting to take this job for a friend." He saw the subtle pleading in his sister's eyes and wondered why she hadn't just started there in the first place.
He might enjoy riling her up and giving Kensington a hard time, but there was no one's opinion he respected more. "Fair enough."
"You're the only one who can find this problem."
He might not be the only one, but he knew damn well he was one of the few who had the skills to match a foe with this degree of systems knowledge.
He also knew Kensington's considerable instincts had hit on something.
So why was he still so reluctant to take the job?
He couldn't fully blame it on lack of sleep or a back-breaking schedule that invigorated even as it pushed him to his limits and beyond. Nor could he blame it on the lingering unease that never failed to tighten his chest when he thought about the threat that had methodically stalked and baited Sarah.
So what was it?
A security breach, conducted through electronic means and across a company with the size and scope of McBane's, was squarely in his wheelhouse.
Kensington pointed toward the travel itinerary in his hand. He saw the briefest flash of sympathy light up her eyes before it vanished as if it had never been. "Get your game face on. You need to be there in an hour. Forty-five minutes if you want a good seat."
Campbell glanced at his watch and quickly calculated the crosstown traffic between their offices and the Mid-town high rise owned by McBane Communications. "It's just a press conference. I'll stand in the back. There's no rush to get there."
"I couldn't care less where you plant your petulant ass. Just get going. Find the bad guy and keep an eye on Abby in the process. Do what we do best."
Abby McBane watched her key staff members file out of her office, a well of suspicion hovering in their wake.
Was one of them responsible?
One of these individualsall of whom she'd known for years. People she'd worked with. Shared holidays with. Traveled and ate with.
They'd all participated actively in their pre-press conference prep session and none seemed different. If anything, Abby knew, she was the one who seemed off, scrutinizing each and every one of them as she attempted to discern a traitor.
She glanced at her inbox and fought to maintain a spirit of hope that had been steadfastly missing the past few weeks. Only time would tell.
With a small sighone of the few she'd allow herself todayshe turned back toward her email. A quick scan of her messages had her gaze alighting on a familiar name.
Kensington Steele. College roommate and the first person who made her realize she had more to offer the world than a smiling face and her family pedigree.
Abby clicked on the message, not surprised with the news.
He'll be there.
Of course he would be. Kensington always got her man, from a series of hot and interesting boyfriends to capturing a surprising number of criminals to getting her reportedly stubborn brothers to do her bidding.
Her friend could kick the ass of the male of their species and have each and every one of them begging for more.
Why'dyou stop taking lessons, Abby girl?
Deleting the message and tamping firmly down on those whispers of self-doubt, Abby grabbed her tablet and flipped through her slides for the press conference. The words floated through her mind as she pictured the various inflection points, the moments she'd pause and where she'd push through the dense information.
Her computer dinged like the final-round bell in a prize fight, signaling it was time for the meeting. She stood and smoothed her skirt, the tablet in hand and her stilettos sinking into the plush carpet as she crossed to the door.
Time to face the music.
Even if she had no freaking idea who was playing the tune.
Do what we do best.
Kensington's words still echoed in his ear as Campbell took a seat in the large auditorium that would house Abigail McBane's press conference. Despite his protests to his sister, he'd arrived early and taken a seat near the front, his long legs stretched out in front of him as he took in the room.
The turnout was considerable, a mix of press and Wall Street analyst types all anxious to hear the next big thing in communications technology.
While he'd moderately enjoyed baiting Kenzi, he'd done his homework, just as he did for every job they took on. McBane Communications was a global leader in satellite and communications technology. The daughter of the founder, Abigail McBane was reported to be cool under pressure and a highly competent executive.
Which meant she must be seriously running scared if she'd go outside her own security teamindividuals who'd been vetted and background-checkedto come to Kensington for help.
A light hush fell over the room as Abby and her team crossed the stage to the podium. He mentally catalogued the line of executives that walked with hermen and women clad in highly conservative business attirebefore taking in the woman everyone had come to see.
That same fall of dark hair he'd noticed while in Kensington's office looked even lusher in person and high cheekbones framed her face with distinction. The V of her jacket revealed a smooth neckline displaying a simple strand of pearls. She was elegant and efficient, beautiful and businesslike.
And when she took a spot behind the podium, Campbell briefly registered a moment of sadness that the spectacular legs on display under the severe cut of her skirt were now hidden.
Just as well, he admonished himself. Between his unexpected resentment over the job and the quick lick of attraction that rode the back of his neck, he needed to get his head in the game.
He glanced down at the slim tablet on his lap, flipping through a few screens of data that matched the opening of Abby's speech. When he'd checked in, the corporate drone who'd greeted him had offered a folder of data or a secure site to download the presentation. Intrigued at the depth of preparation, he'd taken the electronic version and used the download code as his entree into the McBane portal to do some nosing around.
Pleased when several layers of security prevented him from digging further, he admitted their surface protocol was as impressive as he'd expected.
"Which is why our new series of satellites, scheduled to enter orbit in the next quarter, will enable the next layer of consumer technology." Campbell allowed his attention to drift back toward the stage. Abby deftly moved the presentation through several slides, addressing the room with a presence that was as impressive as it was sharp.
He watched heads nod around him and caught the heated excitement of two people next to him as Abby wrapped up the presentation with the implications for the telecommunications industry. Hands flew up and questions buzzed from the floor as she moved into Q and A.
Again, he marveled at her smooth answers as question after question flew her way. From her impressions on the implications to wireless providers to an explanation of how each satellite would orbit Earth, there was nothing she couldn't answer. No topic she couldn't speak to with ease.
It was hot as hell, this incredible package of brains and beauty. Campbell felt his attention narrowing on the woman at the podium until a question from the back of the room pulled him from his thoughts.
"Ms. McBane. There are rumors you had a recent security breach of your satellites. Could you explain what that was about?"
The flash of anger in her eyes was briefhe'd have missed it if he weren't watching her so closelybut it was there all the same. "We have regular maintenance on all of our systems on a daily basis. It's routine to manage and repair any and all attempted breaches on our security, as anyone in our industry is well aware of. Hackers don't sleep."
"Yes, but there's a difference between offense and defense. Did you not recently deal defensively with a security breach of McBane Communications?"
Campbell turned in his seat to the smug reporter in the back of the room asking the question. Whispers and murmurs echoed through the room at the man's persistence.
"We have reviewed all of our existing security protocols and found no breaches into or out of our systems."
Campbell knew the response was technically truethe mysterious seven minutes hadn't yet been tied to any formal breach, per Kenzi's intelbut the damage had already been done. Hands were up and people were clamoring with questions, but she drew the presentation to a close.
"Your packets contain all of today's meeting materials. Thank you for joining us." Abby left the stage in reverse order of her arrival, the various members of her team following in single file.
Campbell didn't miss the hard set of her shoulders or the steady clip of her heels as she walked out of sight.
"Damn, damn, damn." Abby dropped her head in her hands as she stared at her laptop screen. Her head of PR had already emailed her with the name of the reporter who'd asked the question about McBane security, confirming what she already knew.
Dan Porterfield was a nuisance, but he was damn good at his job.
So who the hell had told him about the seven minutes? The information was on lockdown until they could figure out what had happened and the few members of her team who did know held positions of trust in her organization.
Could the one responsible have leaked the information?
And what the hell was she really dealing with?
Her phone rang and she snatched it up as her admin's name registered on the display. "Your three o'clock is here to see you. A Mr. Campbell Steele?"
"Thanks, Stef. You can send him in."
With one last look at her computer screen, Abby tapped out a brief set of instructions that the party line to Dan or anyone else who asked was the same. There was no breach and there were no problems with their firewalls. "McBane Communications maintains the highest standards and layers of industry-leading technology," she muttered to herself as she finished typing the email.
Even if the sentiment didn't sit all that well with hershe was worried enough to call in an outside firmthey technically hadn't found anything newsworthy.
The door opened and Stef gestured the man through, before closing the door with a light click. Abby crossed the office toward him and took in a sharper-than-normal intake of breath as she stared up into a pair of blazing blue eyes.
A smile that was too sweet to be fully cocky lit up the hard planes of his jaw. He extended a hand and she caught the briefest glimpse of long fingers and a broad palm before his hand clasped hers. "Campbell. Please."
Heat lit up her nerve endings, the sensation completely at odds with the purpose of his visit. She'd seen photos of him before, but nothing two-dimensional could have prepared her for this reaction. "Abby McBane. It's so good of you to come. Would you like anything? Coffee? Water?"
She retrieved a bottle for each of them before gesturing him toward the bank of couches on the far side of her office.
The urge to take the seat behind her desk and put some distance between them was strong, but the very fact she wanted to do that had her choosing the opposite.
The brief walk also gave her an opportunity to examine Kensington's brother. She'd met the oldest, Liam, once before, but never Campbell and she marveled at the distinct differences between the two men. While no one would miss the resemblance as brothers, Liam had a suave charm that was heady when fully turned on. Campbell had a more subtle attractiveness.
His frame was leaner and if she hadn't felt the strong grip of his hand she might have been tempted to call him skinny.
The memory of that masculine grip had her amending that assessment to lean and rangy as they took a seat on the couch. She watched him shrug out of his jacket and had to acknowledge he was deceptively larger than her first impression, his broad shoulders filling out his button-down shirt.
Oblivious to her assessment, he leaned forward, his hands clasped between his knees. Abby didn't miss the way his dress shirt stretched to accommodate his movement.
Nope, nothing skinny about him.
"My sister filled me in on your circumstances, but I'd like to hear it from your perspective. Especially since it was obvious the question during the press conference caught you off guard."