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Megan Gallagher adjusted the earpiece for her cell phone as she drove away from Houston in her rental car. She clicked a button on the microphone and said two words: "Ryan. Home."
"Calling Ryan home," a computerized voice said in her ear.
There were two rings, then Ryan Prescott Baron answered the phone in his usual way. "Baron here."
"Well, hello, Baron. Gallagher here," she said as she drove up the on-ramp and into freeway traffic heading west.
"You landed okay?"
"Sure. Some security breach held up takeoff for three hours, but I got some work done at the airport, and I finally arrived here." She settled back in the seat, barely taking in her surroundings as she drove.
"Are you at the hotel?"
"No, I'm on my way to a charity ball."
"When I got in, I received a message from Wayne Lawrence, the head of Legal for LynTech. A command to appear at this ball, wearing something fancy. It's black-tie, so I had to get a dress at the boutique at the hotel." A shimmering silver cocktail dress falling to just above her knees. The bill would go into her business expense folder when she got back to San Francisco. "The ball's a big event, and apparently everyone who's anyone at LynTech is going to be there. From the sound of it, I don't think anyone was given a choice. Mr. Lawrence didn't give me a choice, that's for sure."
"Did he fix you up with an escort, too?"
Ryan and she had known each other for three years, almost from the time she'd been recruited by LynTech out of law school into their San Francisco branch offices. She and Ryan had been engaged for the past month. They understood each other, and he understood what she had to do. He knew the rules of business. He played by them every day as the vice president of a large import-export company in the city. He knew that if this was a command performance by a superior, chances were she'd be paired up with someone else who was in the same boat. Thankfully that hadn't happened.
"No, he didn't fix me up," she said, and scanned the signs coming into view.
The last time she'd been "fixed up" had been in law school, when her roommate had decided that she needed a social life and matched her with a recent graduate. Morris, she thought his name had been. No, Norris. And Norris had been divorced with three kids, and after the first excruciatingly boring hour, she'd finally realized that he was frantically looking for a woman to take the pressure off him with his kids so he could further his career. She hadn't let herself be talked into a blind date again and never would. "I figure I'll get there, meet whomever I need to, memorize some names, then plead jet lag and leave."
"Now, that sounds like a plan," Ryan murmured. "Too bad I couldn't get away, or I could be your excuse to leave."
They played well off of each other at business functions. Another way they were well-matched. "I'll do this on my own," she said. "Don't worry about it." She'd been "doing" it on her own most of her life. Her parents had been middle-aged by the time Megan made her appearance. And her only brother headed out for college before she even got home from the hospital. She was very used to being on her own. "The jet lag excuse is just fine."
"Sorry, I've got another call coming in. Probably Brandson. I've been waiting for his update," Ryan said suddenly.
"Okay, go take your call."
"And you go to your ball," he said.
"Love you," she stated quickly.
"Same here," he answered. Then the line went dead.
She pushed the phone's off button, then gripped the steering wheel again, the diamond on her ring finger glittering in the low light. She held her hand up in front of her. Ryan's grandmother's engagement ring, the Baron diamond, was on her finger now. Four carats, marquise cut. And sometime, somewhere down the road, his grandmother's wedding band with inset diamonds in platinum would join it.
It had been a good decision to accept his proposal. In a few years, they'd get married, and that would be a good decision, too.
They hadn't told too many people about the engagement, not even her brother or her parents. Megan told herself she wanted to give them the news in person, but she knew she was hesitant to tell them at all because they'd ask all the wrong questions. Quint especially. He'd had a bad marriage early on, and hadn't been terribly romantic. But when he'd met his new wife, the man had turned into a moonstruck Romeo. All he did was talk about Amy and the two kids they had.
And their mother would go on and on about "being in love" and how exciting and wonderful it was. Being in love was nice, Megan thought. Nice and sensible. That's what she and Ryan had. Nice and sensible, and if people found that boring, so be it. It worked for them.
She glanced at the clock on the dash of the rental car and grimaced. Mr. Lawrence had requested her presence at the ball by "no later than nine." It was already eight-thirty, and she still hadn't found the right exit to get to the E. J. Sommers estate. She'd been born and raised in the Houston area before leaving six years ago, but she hadn't recognized the name of the road to the estate from the directions she'd been given.
"Meet me on the lower terrace," had been included in the note, too. She didn't know where the lower terrace would be. She'd never met Wayne Lawrence. But she'd find both the man and the lower terrace as soon as she found the estate.
She shifted, adjusted the hem of her dress, then glanced at herself in the rear-view mirror. She'd chosen simple over fussy, confining her shoulder-length blond hair in a French twist held by diamond clips. She'd brushed color on her lips, put on a hint of mascara, and her only jewelry was the ring.
She looked ahead and saw a sign. The right road. She took the off-ramp onto a narrow, two-lane highway and turned the only way she could, south. As she drove around a curve, she sighed with relief when she saw the glow of lights ahead on the right, at the same moment she noticed a sign by the side of the road: Charity Ball, with an arrow pointing straight ahead.
She followed it, and pulled into an expansive entry space paved with cobblestones and faced by massive wrought-iron gates framed by stone pillars. She stopped by another sign: Check In Here. But she didn't see anything except a security keypad. She hadn't been given a code of any type. She looked through the gates and saw the glow from the main house. Even from this distance she could see a lot of activity going on.
She reached for her purse to get out the embossed invitation Mr. Lawrence had sent over for her, figuring there might have been a code on it she'd missed when she'd read it earlier. She skimmed the card, but didn't see anything that resembled a code. All it said was: "Valet service at the ballroom entrance."
She pushed it back in the envelope, rolled down her window and heard the faint sounds of music and voices drifting on the evening air. She looked at the security pad and spotted a phone by the keys. She was reaching for it when a deep male voice startled her.
"Good evening." She turned to see a security guard on the other side of the gates, a tall man in the shadows, moving toward the left pillar. "I'll be right there," he said, then disappeared, only to reappear out of a gate set into the fence on the other side of the pillar.
He came toward her, backlit by the lanterns that framed the entry. "Am I glad to see you," she said as he got within a few feet of the car. She could see now that he was carrying a clipboard in one hand, and there were a gun and two-way radio at his waist.
"Sorry for the wait."
She had to crook her neck a bit to look up at him. He was probably over six feet, lean, in a tailored uniform, but between the night shadows and his uniform cap, his face was almost indistinguishable. "I just need to get into the ball."
He came close enough to touch the frame of her window with one hand, and leaned nearer. "Okay, no problem," he said as she noticed how strong his hand looked, tanned, with square, short nails and a simple gold wedding band on the ring finger. "What's the name?"
He pulled back and scanned the clipboard. "Sorry, ma'am, but you're not on my list."
"Look again. It's Gallagher," she said, then spelled it out for him very slowly.
"There are two Gallaghers on here and you're not one of them. In fact, they've already left."
She knew the two Gallaghersher brother, Quint, who'd been doing work for LynTech for a while, and Amy. Megan had thought they were in New York, but they must have come back for the ball. "Look again," she said, feeling a bit irritated that someone had forgotten to put her name on the list, and that she was now at the mercy of this guard. It was almost nine and she was going to be late.
She wasn't aware she'd said anything else out loud, but he stated, "If you're not on the list, you're not," as he hunkered down by the door. "Sorry."
The dim glow from the inside lights of the car touched his face, and she saw she was being assessed by dark, dark eyes under a slash of equally dark eyebrows. His clean-shaven face looked almost ethnic, with high cheekbones, deeply tanned skin and a strong jaw. And it fell just short of being handsome. No, it was more disturbing than handsome, and she didn't know why. "I need to get inside," she said with more bluntness than she'd intended.
"Not without your name being on this list."
"Oh, just let me in," she said.
"Sorry, I have strict orders not to let anyone in without being on the list."
He was like a broken record. Then she had an idea. She grabbed the invitation off the seat by her purse and turned to where he still crouched by her door. She thrust the printed card at him. "Here, this proves I'm supposed to be in there."
He took it from her and read it, while she frantically looked at the clock again and realized she was now officially late for her meeting. Then he held it back out to her. "Your name's not on this," he said. "You could have picked it up out of the trash."
That was it; she'd had enough. She opened the door, not caring if she hit him in the process, and climbed out. Her first realization when she faced him was that he was big. The security guard was over six feet tall, with broad shoulders well defined by the tight, tailored uniform. And he was annoyed. It was obvious by his stance and by the way his right hand clenched at his side. He let the invitation fall to the ground between them, then he crossed his arms on his chest, a power pose if ever she saw one. At least he didn't pull his gun.
"What's your name?" she asked, lifting her chin slightly and fighting the urge to cross her arms the way he had.
"Rafe Diaz," he said, then slowly spelled it out, letter by letter, as she had done with her name earlier. Then he asked, "Is this a standoff?"
"No, it's a problem," she said.
"I agree," he murmured without any sign of hesitation. "It's your problem."
"No, it's yours. You're being paid to let in guests, to be polite and make life simpler for the people going through these gates tonight, and because of you, I'm late for my date."
"Late for your date," he echoed, then quite deliberately let his gaze slide over her.
Her stomach clenched at the action, but she stood very still until he was finished and looked her in the eye again. "Yes, late, and it's your fault."
"I don't think laying blame is the best idea, so why don't we get past that and you tell me what you think I should do to be polite and make life simpler for you without losing my job in the process?"
He was so composed that it only made her more annoyed. She frowned at him.
"Call someone," she said. "That won't jeopardize your job, will it?"
"I don't know until you tell me who to call."
Argh! She crossed her arms and kept her gaze level with his. "Your boss."
He shook his head. "Not on a Saturday night. Not a good idea. That would jeopardize my job. Give me another person to call."
She was tall, probably five feet ten inches without the flimsy silver heels she was wearing, and she kept her gaze locked with his as she nibbled on her full bottom lip. Oh boy, she was gorgeous in that shimmery dress. Her legs looked as if they could go on forever. Drop-dead gorgeous, and a royal pain. Whoever had given her the huge diamond flashing on her finger would have his hands full.
"Wayne Lawrence," she said suddenly. "Call him. He's the one I'm meeting inside." She cocked her head to one side, and even in the dim light, he could see the way she arched one finely defined eyebrow. "And don't tell me he's not on your list."
Rafe had never liked women like this, women who felt as if they were entitled to have everyone bow and scrape before them. And he'd had enough of being ordered around by her. He'd make the call and get her out of here, one way or the other. "Okay," he said, and moved to the call box on the security pad. As he picked up the house phone, he thought he heard her sigh. A soft sound, not one of anger or exasperation, but one that meant she was tired or worried. It touched something in him, and he didn't want that at all.
He didn't turn, but grasped the phone and pushed in the number they'd given him for contact with security in the house. He identified himself and said, "Find Wayne Lawrence and ask him to confirm a Megan Gallagher as his guest."
"Where is he?" the voice on the other end asked.
"How would I know where he is?" Rafe practically snapped.
He felt a touch on his arm at the same time he heard Megan say, "He's waiting on the lower terrace by the ballroom."
He looked down at her, at her hand on his sleevethe hand with the huge diamond on itthen at her. She drew back, breaking the contact quickly. "That's where he is?"
He saw her put her hand behind her back. "That's where he said we should meet," she murmured.
He gave the information to the man on the other end, then waited while he found Wayne Lawrence. Rafe was more than aware that Megan was still close to him, her delicate flowery scent touching the evening air. He knew it was her scent without even checking, but it didn't match her. The aroma was soft and very feminine, and she was definitely not soft. Feminine? Well, yes, she was that in spades.
"Yeah, she's confirmed as his guest," the other guard said as he came back on the line. "He wants her let in and escorted to the lower terrace right away. So bring her on up."
"But I'm on the gate."
"Brad's coming down. He'll be there any minute. You come on back here with Miss Gallagher as soon as Brad gets there." Brad, another guard, had accepted Rafe as a co-worker with no idea who he really was. Only Zane knew Rafe's true identity and that he was using a fake last name.