Work undercover, catch the bad guy, become a full-time Project Justice investigator. Simple enough plan, until Jillian Baxter recognizes the man she's investigating. Her new "boss" is none other than Conner Blakeher childhood crush. Luckily, he has no idea who she is, since Jillian is no longer Jillybean, the short, overweight teenager he publicly humiliated.
Despite their past, Jillian knows Conner isn't a murderer. Nor is he that same cruel boy. In fact, there's much to admire about the man he is. Still, this is an ongoing case and whatever is happening between them will have to wait. As she gets closer to finding the killer, she must decide if she can trust Conner with the truth. And that could be her toughest decision yet.
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I'm in! Jillian Baxter tried not to let the sense of triumph show on her face as the personnel director, Joyce Carrington, droned on about vacation policy and 401(k) plans. Jillian had crossed her first hurdle as a field investigator at Project Justice: she'd been hired by Mayall Lumber. Now she would infiltrate the company and catch a murderer.
"Well, we can go over all this when you officially start," Joyce said breezily. She was a pleasant, matronly sort with a cloud of dark, frizzy hair escaping from numerous barrettes, a blouse with a coffee stain, and a desk piled high with messy stacks of paper itching to be sorted and organized. "We'll make the job offer official as soon as Mr. Blake signs off."
"He'll be your direct supervisor," Joyce said. "I'll warn you, he's quite challenging. He's been through four admins this year already. But with your experience, I'm sure you'll have no trouble."
Jillian's experience was mostly fabricated. Daniel Logan, CEO of Project Justice, had put together a resume that had made her sound like the best administrative assistant in all of Texas, making sure her stellar references would check out.
But Jillian had full confidence in her ability to please this Mr. Blake, whoever he was. He couldn't possibly be any more demanding than Daniel was, and she'd been Daniel's personal assistant for years before transferring to the foundation's investigative arm.
"I'll walk you over to his office." Joyce stood, bumping one of the precariously balanced stacks of paper, which fell to the floor in a flurry of printed reports, invoices, newspaper clippings and employee candidate resumes.
Jillian hopped out of her chair to help clean up the mess. One particular paper caught her eye; it was a memo from the company's public relations office with lots of capital letters and exclamation points.
Under no circumstances should anyone speak with reporter Mark Bowen That was as much as Jillian could read on the fly.
"Oh, goodness, thank you," Joyce said. "I'm afraid I've gotten behind in my paperwork. Things have been a little crazy around here the last few weeks."
Jillian wasn't surprised. When one of your employees was murdered and found in the trunk of your CEO's car, it probably created all kinds of havoc.
Jillian made no reference to the scandalous situation. "Business is booming, then?" she asked innocently.
"Well, yes, business is good. But that's not.. It's just that we've lost some key people recently. Others are retiring, including our acting CEO."
Hamilton Payne. He was the one who had contacted Project Justice, and the only person working here who knew of Jillian's true purpose.
"Your job must be quite demanding," Jillian said sympathetically as she stacked the last of the fallen papers and laid them on the desk. "I hope you have a good admin."
"On maternity leave," Joyce said glumly.
"If I have any extra time, I'd be happy to help you out." Jillian wasn't just being generous. Joyce obviously knew the ins and outs of Mayall Lumberwho the key players were, their salaries, their responsibilities. She and her office could be a gold mine of information.
"Trust me, working for Mr. Blake, you won't have much free time. He'll keep you busy."
Jillian hoped this Mr. Blake wouldn't be too ghastly. But no matter how bad he was, she would make it work. She only had to put up with it for a short time, just until she found something to prove Stan Mayall's innocence.
Mr. Blake's office was on the third floor, in the executive wing. Mayall Lumber was a medium-size operation, with two sawmills, one large lumberyard and a posh corporate headquarters overlooking Houston's Buffalo Bayou. They had only one retail outlet, a small place that specialized in exotic woods of the highest quality for furniture and cabinet makers. Most of their business involved selling to the construction trade and small lumber retailers. Daniel had provided tons of information on the company, which Jillian had dutifully memorized. Her knowledge had obviously impressed Joyce.
The personnel director stopped in front of an oak door and tapped softly. "Mr. Blake?"
"It's open," a deep voice called from inside.
Jillian barely had time to register that something about the voice struck a chord of familiarity before Joyce ushered her inside the gorgeous office.
The first thing Jillian noticed was the woodwood floor, paneling, box beams holding up the ceiling. It was all stained a dark cherry color with beautiful grain. The furniture was made of wood, too. Despite the lack of upholstery, the chairs looked warm and comfortable.
The desk, big as a Humvee, was made of some gleaming, exotic wood with a stripe pattern, reminding her of a crouched jungle beast. The only softness in the whole room was a low-slung 1960s retro sofa.
Finally she raised her gaze to the man behind the desk, her new boss. Every sane thought, every polished word she'd been about to use to introduce herself, melted away like mist in the sun. The giant, egotistical, bastard sun.
Mr. Blake. Conner Blake. The boy who had made high school a living hell for her. The boy she had once desperately loved, then hated with all the angst a fourteen-year-old girl could muster.
The cocky, mischievous boy was now a man, but despite the umpteen years since she'd seen him, he was instantly recognizable. A bit taller, a bit broader in the shoulders, hair more sandy than blond, but the beautifully carved planes of his face had grown only more handsome with the passage of time.
"Mr. Blake, I'd like you to meet your new administrative assistant, Jillian Baxter."
He looked at her then, and she figured the jig was up. She would have to slink back to Project Justice with no job, her first undercover operation a bust because she had, in a fit of adolescent revenge, slashed two of her potential boss's tires, an impulsive act that had only escalated her humiliation into high school legend.
But the look on his face reflected not a hint of recognition, only what she surmised was mild irritation at having to deal with the mundane task of welcoming a new assistant.
She held her breath as introductions, handshaking, and small talk ensued, waiting for the inevitable moment when he remembered. But, amazingly, it never came. Conner Blake had once been the center of her world. Apparently Jillian Baxter had been nothing but a tiny, forgettable blip on his radar screen.
He was still so gorgeous. It wasn't fair that the universe would give one man that much sexy charisma. Even as the feelings of humiliation welled up, fresh as a new coat of nail polish, her heart thumped with an irregular tempo from the simple contact of a handshake and the knowledge that he was sizing her up.
What did he think of her, this new acquaintance suddenly thrust into his working life? While he retained a certain essence of his high school face and physique, she looked very different than she had the last time he'd seen her, as a high school freshman. She'd grown five inches and lost twenty pounds, for starters. The chlorine-bleached, frizzy cloud of hair from high school, courtesy of swim team, was now tamed into a sleek bob with expert lowlights.
She'd still been in braces her freshman year. She'd also worn glasses. And then there was the nose. She'd broken it at a swim meet her senior year, and since she'd needed rhinoplasty anyway, she'd asked the surgeon to transform her nose so it was more in proportion to her face.
If her name didn't ring a bell, Conner probably wouldn't recognize her by her appearance, and that was a very good thing. If she didn't shine during her first undercover assignment, she might never get any respect from her colleagues at Project Justice. She would forever be Daniel's ex-assistant, the one who'd made a fool of herself by falling in love with her boss.
That's all over now. New life, new goals. Jillian Baxter, finally grown up at age twenty-seven, knew what she wanted to do with her life. She wanted to help exonerate those unjustly accused of crimes. And she didn't want a manany man. The two men she'd given her heart to, devoted every fiber of her being to, had both brushed her aside with not even a flicker of interest.
The wanting hurt, and the rejection hurt, and why should she put herself through that again? Ever?
"So, I'll expect you to be prompt," Conner was saying. "I start my workday at 7:00 a.m., and therefore, so will you."
"Yes, sir, Mr. Blake," she said with all the icy politeness she could muster even as her mind screamed, 7:00 a.m.? Is he crazy?
Joyce beamed. "Very good, then. Jillian, come with me and we'll get all your paperwork started." She headed out the door, and Jillian offered a nod to her new boss and followed. "Oh, goodness, I haven't even shown you your work space. It's just around the corner from Mr. Blake's office, here. I'm afraid it's a bit of a mess. The previous admin has been gone three weeks and things have piled up."
Jillian took one look at the office and cringed. It would take her hours to shovel this place out. She couldn't stand to work in a disorganized space.
"I should have warned you Mr. Blake starts the workday early," Joyce rattled on. "I hope that's okay."
"It's fine." Jillian wasn't a morning person, but she would do whatever it took to please her new boss, even if she despised him down to his rotten, cruel core.
"I really need that report ASAP." Hamilton Payne, acting CEO at Mayall Lumber, sank into the wingback chair opposite Conner's desk. At first glance, Hamilton gave the impression of a doddering grandfather, but Conner knew he wielded a keen mind and as director of sales had cultivated a healthy client base and a steady stream of new business for twenty years or more. He was running things while Stan was incarcerated, but he was on the verge of retirement and didn't relish his new leadership role.
"I'm working on it." Conner shuffled through the papers on his desk as if he could actually accomplish something.
"Maybe your new secretary could help." Ham was obviously trying to keep a straight face, but Conner could tell he was about to burst out laughing.
Conner pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed.
"You met her?"
"Joyce trotted her around and introduced her. I don't know why she thinks I want to meet every damn secretary she hires."
"She does it for themso they'll feel important."
The new girl was hot, that was for sure. The moment she'd walked into his office, Conner's brain had short-circuited and he hadn't heard a word Joyce said. He'd been too busy cataloging those mile-long legs, which her short skirt and stiletto heels showed off to perfection.
The rest of her was just as stunning, from her nipped-in waist, her long, elegant neck to her huge, innocent blue eyes.
Innocent, right. A woman built like her was made for sin. She was a distraction he didn't need. Good thing she wouldn't be around long. For some reason, they never were.
"I'll make the report a priority," he said to Ham. "I've just been a little distracted. With Greg gone, I'm shuffling people around, trying to cover all the bases."
Ham lowered his voice. "Have you learned anything new? About who might have killed him? You and I both know it couldn't have been Stan."
Conner's throat tightened every time he thought about Stan Mayall toughing it out in a jail cell. Stan wasn't just a boss to him. He'd been a mentor, a sounding board and a good friend. For three years Stan had also been Conner's grandfather-in-law, as dear to him as any blood relative could have been. They'd remained close even after Conner's divorce from Chandra.
"Of course he didn't do it. There's no way a jury would convict him." But the case might not even get to a jury, if Stan's health continued to decline. He'd been diagnosed with cancer just a week before his arrest. "It's not right. He should be at home, where Chandra can take care of him."
"I know." Ham shook his head sadly. "I wish there was something we could do."
Conner was doing something. He was peering into every nook and cranny of this company, searching for a motive for murder. He'd even found his way into Greg's email account. So far, he'd turned up nothing concrete. But Greg's personal life was a minefield of broken relationships and family feuds. Maybe his mysterious girlfriend, "Mariposa," was involved. Conner knew of her only through the sexy emails she and Greg had sent back and forth. Maybe Greg had dumped her, and she'd hired a killer and told him to make it look like the murder was work-related.
It was a theory, anyway.
"Keep me in the loop." Ham pushed himself to his feet. "I'm supposed to retire in less than a month. I can't put it off any longermy doctor and my wife have ganged up on me. But I don't want to leave Stan, or the company, in the lurch."
"I swear, Ham, we'll figure it out. The most important thing we can do is to keep the company afloat. So when Stan is exoneratedand I know he will behe'll have a job to return to."
And Conner could finally get his own life back. He would gladly walk away from this corner office and burn every one of his silk ties.