Morgan Hunter sacrificed everything for her career. She had yet to encounter anything she wasn't willing to do to succeed...until now.
When she uncovers evidence that the healthy foods she's been hired to promote may be dangerous, she must reevaluate her priorities. As questions mount and the body count rises, she finds herself caught in the cross-hairs of an organization that will stop at nothing to hide its secrets and protect its profits.
With no one else to trust, Morgan is forced to seek help from the man she drove away, but whom she never stopped loving...
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The newly fallen powder fanned out behind Dexter Fowler in a high arch as his skis slammed down at the bottom of each well-formed mogul. His knees bent to absorb the impact from the motion, and he kept his body low over the slope.
He loved the speed he could achieve while careening down the steep grade. The challenge of conquering the most intimidating mountains made him feel alive. The allure of a greater thrill always pushed him further, to the brink of his physical limits, testing the laws of physics.
Mornings like this transported him back to his glory days. He wouldn't trade a moment of his lost childhood, the grueling training regime he had followed for so many years, the adrenaline rush of competition, more broken bones than he cared to count, or the exhilaration he felt over each victory in his career, for anything in the world. His only regret was missing the Olympics by one hundredth of a second, an eternity in the racing world.
He had given his quest for gold everything he had, mentally and physically, but it hadn't been enough. Sometimes, things didn't work out the way a person planned no matter how much effort was expended. The true test of a person's character came from being able to move on, which he did. He focused on his post-graduate degrees, excelling in academics as much as he had in athletics. He then secured a challenging job as an analyst and researcher, which earned him more than enough to get him out on the best slopes in the country at every possible opportunity.
The morning was especially cold, which he loved. The wind biting at his cheeks made him feel alive, and the slopes were still empty except for the hardiest skiers. The recreationists would gradually start arriving as the day warmed, but for now, he had the area to himself.
He hadn't seen a single ski patrol yet, not that there were enough to cover this massive mountain anyway. Dexter was truly in his element, and he loved this place. Alta had challenging terrain, including steeps — slopes with vertical angles that pushed the limit of snow to resist the forces of gravity — and intense tree skiing. The area's ban on snowboarders was an extra bonus. The sport had its place, but, thankfully, it wasn't on this mountain on this morning.
Tomorrow, he would board a plane in Salt Lake City in the valley below and head back to his job in Sacramento. California had its positive points, like beautiful beaches, gorgeous women, and surfing, but he knew he'd start itching for snow before his plane even took off. So, he was determined to make the most of his last day on the slopes in Utah.
Glancing around and seeing no one, Dexter veered off the black-diamond trail, worn down by countless skiers to form aggressive moguls, and entered the trees where the powder was deep and pristine. Skiing out-of-bounds on ungroomed routes added an extra rush. Weaving in and out of trees on the narrow, precipitous chute required split-second reaction timing and a unique skill set few possessed.
He had gone off course in the area every day this week, so he knew every nuance of the terrain and treated it like a giant slalom course. The grade steepened, and there were several significant natural jumps. The trees got closer together aways down, which would eventually force him to return to the main run.
The feeling of weightlessness overcame him as he took air over the last jump. When he hit the ground, his knees took the brunt of the impact. Keeping low, his speed increased. Concentrating on the terrain, he shifted his weight, and using his strength, forced a turn just in time to avoid a tree in his path.
His adrenaline flowed, sending fire through his veins as he wove in and out of the tall pines like gates on a race course. He knew he was getting close to the end of his illegal detour and would have to slow his speed soon to safely reenter the official route. For a minute more, though, he tuned everything else out of his mind except navigating through the trees at the highest rate of speed he could control.
As the marked run came into focus off to his left, he spied another skier ahead on the main route. He wasn't concerned. Even if the person decided to report him, he'd be long gone by the time anyone with authority could respond.
He came alongside the other skier and glanced over. Dexter was still off course. He and the other skier both wore tinted goggles, but it felt as if for an instant, their eyes locked, and the sensation sent a chill down his spine. Dexter noticed the lack of a glove on one hand. It was too cold to have bare skin exposed for long, but that wasn't his problem.
Dexter quickly pulled his attention back to the slope. He was going too fast and not yet out of the trees, so losing focus could be deadly. Just as the thought entered his mind, a loud pop reached his ears, and searing pain raced up his legs. His boots detached from his skis and his body flew through the air like a bullet. With no time to react, he knew a collision with a tree was imminent.
He tried to raise his arms to shield his body, but it was too late.CHAPTER 2
Three Months Later
Morgan Hunter gazed out her tenth-floor office window at the city lights twinkling to life in the desert below. The view alone should have confirmed she had achieved the success she had worked so hard and sacrificed so much for, but after only a week on the job, she feared she had made a huge mistake.
The vibe in the corporate headquarters and the factory had already put her on edge, and she couldn't help but wonder what happened to her predecessor, Stan Jacobson. No one talked about the man who, up until a month or so ago, occupied this coveted office. Where did he go? Why did he leave? And, even more curious, where was his stuff? Not so much as a stray paperclip littered the desk drawers, and no one had offered a shred of information on the man.
"Ms. Hunter, is there anything else I can do for you before I leave?" The smooth voice of her unusual assistant broke through her thoughts. Aaron Truscott was the first male assistant she'd had in her decade as a top executive. Male executive assistants weren't that uncommon, but his qualifications piqued her curiosity.
In her briefing packet, she had received reams of material to familiarize herself with Giant Cactus Foods, Inc. or GCF as everyone called it, her new position as one of three vice presidents and the head of the Healthy and Delicious Foods division, and Aaron's resume. Just a few years shy of thirty years old, he held a degree in accounting along with a MBA from an Ivy League University. He had worked for a prestigious non-profit lobbying foundation in Washington, D.C. and a major pharmaceutical company before that.
So what is he doing typing my letters and keeping my calendar? She'd have to add that to her growing list of oddities accompanying her latest career change.
"I really appreciate the thorough cleaning job you did prior to my arrival, but I was wondering what happened to Mr. Jacobson's files. It would really help to familiarize me with the position, and I always hate reinventing the wheel, so to speak. If he implemented a strategy that wasn't successful, I most certainly don't want to attempt the same failed practice or program."
"Mr. Hoyle ordered me to shred everything, get you a new computer, and make sure you had a clean slate to work with. He wanted you to feel free to run operations your way and not be concerned about the way things used to be handled. As you know, the Healthy and Delicious Foods division hasn't been performing to Mr. Hoyle's high expectation for the past quarter, so Mr. Hoyle wants a fresh approach."
Morgan studied Aaron for a moment. He seemed so certain of his rationale, and he clearly followed directions without question. Despite never having walked into a new office without a single scrap of paper from the previous occupant, she decided to drop the subject for now.
"Very well, then. Enjoy your weekend."
"You too," Aaron replied as he turned and strode out of the office.
Morgan sank into her chair. She was exhausted. Getting her feet on the ground had proven to be a daunting task. Every night, she poured over spreadsheets until nearly midnight, preventing her from unpacking all the moving boxes stacked in her new duplex apartment.
She spent a good portion of each morning in the factory, watching the production process and picking the brain of her production manager, Wiley Hartman. She enjoyed the manufacturing process, but unfortunately, afternoons were consumed with various staff and board meetings.
Wiley seemed competent and very knowledgeable about the company, having worked his way up through canned, frozen, and snack foods before taking over as the production manager for the Healthy and Delicious Foods division processing facility three years ago. She had taken an instant liking to the man, and decided that if anyone might turn out to be an ally here, it would be him.
Jiggling the mouse, Morgan brought her sleeping computer screen to life. A quick check of her e-mail verified there was nothing new that couldn't wait until Monday. She opened her calendar for the next week and nearly groaned. Her second week on the job, and she had the Food Safety and Inspection Services (FSIS) coming in for routine inspections, and a meeting with the sales and marketing team. On top of that, her new boss and president of the company, Preston Hoyle, wanted a report by week's end on her observations and initial plan of attack for increasing profits and returning the line to its highest level of sales.
"You're here late."
Speak of the devil. Morgan looked up at Preston and smiled. "I'm just wrapping up a few things and wanted to take one last peek at next week's schedule to make sure Aaron didn't add anything new since the last time I checked."
"He'll definitely keep you organized, and don't hesitate to utilize his skills. He's a sharp young man."
Morgan stood, feeling small and somewhat intimidated by the tall, handsome man towering over her. Even with heels on, she couldn't quite look him in his pale blue eyes and had to tilt her chin up. He was closer than she had realized, invading her personal space. His gaze seemed fixed on her lips, so she took a quick step back and reached for Aaron's resume to insert some distance without seeming too obvious.
"I gathered that from his resume, and I can't help but wonder how long I'll have him with his education and experience. He seems a bit overqualified for the job."
"Don't worry about Aaron. He isn't going anywhere, but you should. It's Friday night. You're new on the job and new in town, and you've put in more hours than I expect, especially during your first week. I feel a little guilty about the lack of assistance with your transition, but hopefully, Aaron has ensured you have everything you need. If my in-laws weren't in town, I'd love to take you to dinner and show you what our fine city has to offer."
The only way Morgan could describe the smile that followed his last statement was "lecherous," and warning bells resounded in her head.
"I appreciate the sentiment, Mr. Hoyle, but it has been a long week, and as soon as I can close up here, I'm heading up to Sedona to our family vacation home. I plan to relax with a glass of wine and one of the Healthy and Delicious Foods entrees I haven't tried yet before I tackle a year's worth of dust and cobwebs tomorrow."
"Now that's dedication, but don't get too carried away with these products. Your figure is just fine the way it is," he said, letting his eyes linger too long on her breasts. "And please, call me Preston. I'm sure we'll be working very closely together, including plenty of late nights, so no need to be so formal."
Morgan didn't know how to respond to his last comment so returned her focus to an innocuous topic. "According to the promotional material supplied by the advertising team, the Healthy and Delicious Foods line isn't just for weight loss. I must admit, I'm very impressed with the data on GCF's revolutionary natural sweetener, MFHG3, derived primarily from the monk fruit and hoodia gordonii. Not only does it sweeten foods, but the steroidal glycosides found in the Hoodia plant are reported to curb the appetite. It sounds almost too good to be true."
"Yes, MFHG3 took this company from a small local manufacturer to a national powerhouse, catering to the thin-obsessed and health-crazed society. MFHG3 has changed the playing field and has all the other companies scrambling to catch up, but enough shoptalk. You need to get out of here, and if I miss my dinner reservation, my mother-in-law will yap about it all weekend. I would like to hear more about this place in Sedona soon. Sounds like a perfect weekend getaway from the heat, the city, and the stress of the job. Maybe you'll even give me a tour one of these days."
Not in this lifetime. She bit her lip and didn't respond.
The smile he flashed at Morgan as he departed her office made her shudder. He seemed perfectly professional during the interview process. She hadn't been alone with him in the same room all week, but this brief exchange warned her to avoid one-on-one time with her boss as much as possible, especially after hours in an empty and dark building.
Morgan dropped into her desk chair, powered down her computer, and stowed the lightweight laptop in her briefcase along with several files she had procured from accounting. Grasping the knob on the lower side drawer of her desk to retrieve her purse, she was reminded of one more thing she had forgotten to do this week.
She had intended to have Aaron submit a work order to have someone fix the drawer. Since it didn't completely close, she wasn't able to lock up her purse when she was down in the ground floor factory — not that anyone could get into her office with the tenacious Aaron sitting just outside her door. Mostly, it was simply annoying. The drawer shut enough that she didn't catch a shin, so she forgot about it until she was stowing or retrieving her purse.
"I can't believe this little gap is bugging me so much. I must be turning into my ex," Morgan huffed as she sat down on the floor and scooted under her desk with the small flashlight from her key chain, hoping her boss didn't return and catch her with her skirt hiked up.
She ran her fingers along the track and felt something at the very back. Wriggling even further under the desk, she shined the small light in the area where she detected the obstruction. The item was affixed with tape, but it took little effort to pry it free.
Crawling back out into the light, Morgan examined the small item. No larger than a paperclip, its identity was clear. She held a tiny flash drive between her fingers.
Hmm, curious place to keep data. She pondered the matter while looking closely at her find. "Wish I wouldn't have already powered down my computer," Morgan muttered as she dropped the small device into her purse, flipped off the lights, and headed for the elevator.CHAPTER 3
"What do we have?" FBI Special Agent Devyn Nash asked as she paced in front of a wall-sized digital whiteboard.
Her partner, Nick Melonis, and her boss, Special Agent in Charge (SAC), Gerald Conroy, studied the elaborate diagram she had created. The rest of the group, SACs from three other FBI field offices and their designated agents, watched in various states of disinterest.
"A bunch of accidents," one of the men in the back mumbled.
Devyn glared at Richard Smith, an agent from the Sacramento field office. Apparently, he didn't realize he was already on her list for ratting on her for requesting information on a case she was supposed to stay away from. She must be slipping. Being on her list used to be a very bad place to be, but the man didn't seem terribly concerned as he continued to try her limited patience.
Taking a deep breath, she counted to ten, something Nick had been encouraging her to do before responding to any comments she deemed stupid. She glanced at her partner and he nodded his approval of her restraint.
"That used to be the predominant theory," Gerald Conroy interjected, "but there was nothing accidental about what happened in Wyoming. The hired assassins were professionals. The man in charge indicated before he died that there is a tie to three other incidents, which were originally deemed accidents by local law enforcement and therefore were not officially investigated by the FBI. Those incidents occurred in, or are connected to, companies in your jurisdictions, which is why you're all here. I've spoken to the other SACs, and since the most recent and clearly verifiable crime happened in our district, we'll take the lead, but we need to all work together to find out what's going on. Cooperation is key. It's essential to keep information flowing so nothing slips through the cracks again. Devyn, brief everyone on what we know for sure."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Taste of Tragedy"
Copyright © 2016 Kim McMahill.
Excerpted by permission of Prism Book Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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