(June 1, 2010)
“Gray has crafted a tight, suspenseful tale that will have you up at night turning pages.”
–RT Book Reviews
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Uncovering the truth is her specialty
As a forensic accountant, Mia Sauter could usually tell when people had something to hide. She made her living exposing secrets while concealing her own. Then, in Vegas, she met a clever, ruthless man who called himself Addison Foster. One year later, she’s still haunted by his betrayal.
He’s a natural born liar
The truth of him had long ago been buried. Foster was only one name of many; he’d been so many men, he’d lost count. Reinvented as Thomas Strong and hell-bent on revenge, his mission is about to be compromised by the one woman capable of exposing him…
Reunited, they confront the explosive chemistry still crackling between them. But their chance meeting will have consequences, for a ruthless madman has his own deadly agenda. The question is—if they survive the fallout, will he choose love over vengeance?
Excerpt from SKIN TIGHT
The first taste is free.
One year ago, Las Vegas
From her concealed position on the stairs that led to his apartment, Mia Sauter watched Foster’s gold Nissan pull into the assigned space. He drove as he did everything else: cautiously. She noticed how he surveyed the parking lot before he committed to exiting the vehicle. If need be, he could use the door as a shield. She wondered where he’d learned such self-protective behavior and why he needed it.
Oh, it made a certain amount of sense, given that he worked in security. Maybe he had a background in law enforcement or the military; he had that bearing. Though he stood no more than average height, his body held a dangerous edge, as if hard, lean muscle lay beneath his urbane exterior.
There was a precision about him. Some women wouldn’t find him attractive; his features were craggy rather than regular. He had an unruly thatch of light brown hair that looked as if it might wave if he didn’t keep it cut so short. But his eyes were unforgettable—an eerie glacier blue, ringed in silver. When the light hit them just right, they almost seemed to glow. His intensity proved a lure she’d been unable to resist a few days ago.
How humiliating. Still, she had nowhere else to turn.
The apartment complex gave her no clue as to his personality, whether he was, in fact, a man she could trust with her life. Tan stucco and adobe buildings were surrounded by palm trees. If it were daylight, she could have seen the glint of blue water from the community pool. At night, however, there was only the black velvet sky overhead and the glimmer of distant city lights.
Mia knew the moment he spotted her. Foster stiffened and then slammed the door, stalking toward her with a lethal grace that got her blood pumping. Another woman might miss how thin the veneer of civilization ran with him, but she saw the conqueror in the angry, sensual lines of his mouth.
She pushed to her feet, trying not to think of the brutal way he’d rebuffed her. In that moment, she’d felt like the awkward, geeky girl she’d outgrown years ago: one too smart for anyone to look at her twice, who preferred books to boys and had an unfortunate habit of pointing out other people’s faults. Feeling sick, she shoved the awful sensation aside. She wasn’t that person anymore—she’d learned some tact and sensitivity to balance her intellect—and she wouldn’t let him do this to her.
Her friend was in trouble, and she’d do anything she had to in order to help Kyra. No friendship had ever meant so much to her. Not to mention, she had her own safety to consider, so she couldn’t permit personal issues to cloud the situation.
“You told me not to come to the casino again.” Mia was pleased to hear the conversational tone, despite agitation from several sources.
“Right.” He bit the word off. “That would be a bad idea. Have you been here long?”
She could tell he didn’t want her here. His body language made that obvious, but being in trouble in a strange city limited her options. Mia tried to pretend everything was normal: that her best friend hadn’t disappeared and she didn’t have men watching her every move.
“No, the cabbie dropped me off five minutes ago. I’m sorry for dropping by like this, but I wasn’t sure you’d take my call. Can I come up?”
In the dim light, close up, he looked weary and conflicted, as if he didn’t know what to do with her. He’d made it clear how he felt about her, and she hated the necessity of asking his help. But Kyra’s life hung in the balance, and Mia had no pride where her friend was concerned.
“That depends on what you want.”
“Protection,” she said baldly. “I think someone’s after me, and I didn’t know where else to go.”
That news rocked him visibly. His eyes shone silver in the headlights of a passing SUV. He tensed until it went around the bend to park at a different building. Mia tracked the movement as well, his tension sparking a like reaction in her. When the red taillights faded from view, she glanced back at him. He was studying her as if she might bite him.
Well, it was an idea, one she’d entertained a few days ago, before he made his antipathy crystal clear. Maybe she wasn’t a femme fatale, but she’d never had a man react as if her touch carried a contaminant from which he’d never get clean. Generally men’s response ran toward indifference.
Foster seemed to reach a decision. “Let’s go for a ride.”
“Isn’t that what the mafia says to people right before they disappear?” she joked.
Without answering, he led the way back to his car. He had a hardness you didn’t usually see in white-collar workers. She could see him on the deck of a ship or giving commands on a battlefield, not overseeing the day-to-day business at the Silver Lady. When she’d first spotted him in the casino, a shiver of pure attraction had surprised her. He’d worn his dark suit with elegance, but she’d sensed the raw power of him from the first. She wasn’t the type of woman who took one look at a man and wanted him, especially when she needed to focus on finding her friend.
Mia got in the Nissan without urging. She figured he’d know what to do. He had more information about Kyra than he’d shared; she would stake her life on it. Now that she’d gotten in the middle of things, she had to trust him.
He made a call before he joined her. Since he was turned away, voice low, she couldn’t make out what he was saying. That made her a little uneasy; what did she know about him, after all? Eventually, he hopped in and started the car.
The radio kicked in, playing a song from the eighties. She didn’t know where they were going, and he didn’t say. She studied his profile, admiring the clean, strong line of his jaw. He wasn’t handsome, but he had something better: a sharp but solid appeal that said he could weather anything. She liked his eyes. Mostly, they were like cool mountain water, steady and calm in a crisis. Right now, she was glad of that.
“I wish you hadn’t gotten involved in this,” he said, after ten minutes of driving.
The neighborhood had become suburban, and her nerves were prickling. But maybe he’d asked a friend to shelter her for the night. She obviously couldn’t stay at his place. Based on past precedent, she could only surmise that they were watching him as well.
“Me, too. Where are we going?”
In answer, he pulled into the driveway of an ordinary house. The windows were dark, and she saw no sign of welcome within. Her misgivings flared to life.
“I’m sorry.” The regret in his storm cloud eyes puzzled her. “But there’s nothing else I can do.” He leaned over as if to touch her cheek, but he pulled his fingers away at the last moment, contact aborted. “I wanted that kiss, by the way. More than you know.”
Her cheeks fired, and his words confused her enough that she spent precious seconds weighing the wrong comment. “Nothing you can do about what?”
“They won’t hurt you. Just keep calm, do as they ask, and everything will be fine.”
“They, who?” she demanded, her voice gone shrill.
But he turned away, hands firmly on the wheel. Whatever came next, Foster made it clear he wouldn’t help her.
Someone jerked the passenger door open, and then a masked man pulled her from the car.
Present day, Virginia
“I understand your father was Iranian,” the interviewer said delicately. “And you still have relatives there, including your grandfather and numerous cousins.”
He was a silver-haired man, clad in a navy blue suit. His pale blue shirt and gray tie said he was conservative, somewhat lacking in imagination. Mia had learned to read people, based on the clothing they chose.
The hotel conference room was nearly as nondescript as her interviewer. Looking around at the beige paint and the faux-wood theme, she could have been in any hotel in any part of the country. There were no windows to distract her from the inappropriate question.
She had impeccable references. At first she didn’t doubt Micor Technologies would select her, even from a large pool of qualified candidates. Her track record for ferreting out the truth made her the ideal choice. And indeed, everything had been going well until the management ran across her ethnic background.
Mia raised a brow. “How is that relevant?” Oh, he didn’t come right out and say it. But she knew what he was trying to imply. “May I remind you that discrimination is still illegal in the United States?”
Collins was a smart man; he could read between the lines and he knew that after asking about her father’s country of origin, she had a case, should she wish to pursue the matter. If he didn’t want to hire her, he shouldn’t have asked.
His mouth was tight when he offered the contract, standard terms. She had ninety days to unearth evidence of who was misappropriating company funds. They thought it was someone in Accounting, but couldn’t be sure because the culprit was clever.
“I’ll come in under the pretext of updating the company software.” Fortunately, she knew enough about computers to make that fiction convincing.
“I’m afraid that won’t do,” Collins said, shaking his head.
She paused, pen hovering above the pristine white contract. “What won’t?”
“We can’t have word getting out that we’ve hired a consultant. No, Miss Sauter, we need you on the payroll as an official employee. Otherwise, it will raise eyebrows. Our work is so sensitive that we never bring in contractors. Fortunately, we have an IT opening at the moment. Since a monkey could do it, I am sure you will have no trouble balancing that workload against your investigation.”
Gazing into his eyes, she had the uncanny sensation he wanted her to fail. That offended her on so many levels that she couldn’t begin to tabulate them. And considering her math aptitude, that was saying something.
“No problem at all,” she said coolly and scrawled her signature on the contract.
This particular job required an extensive background check and the signing of a nondisclosure agreement. Collins showed his displeasure every step of the way. He was one who thought dark hair and eyes meant secret ties to Al Qaeda.
They concluded their business with a forced civility that left her angry. Mia went from the conference room to her hotel room, changed into workout clothes, and then spent an hour pummeling a target at the gym. She didn’t often lose her temper, but few things set her off as much as bigotry.
Then she wrapped up negotiations with the old couple, sealing the deal on their arrangement. Their condo would do nicely, it seemed.
It was under less than ideal circumstances that she got ready for work on Monday. Last night, the nightmares had come before she enjoyed more than a couple hours’ sleep. Mia loathed herself for being so weak, but she couldn’t seem to shake the trauma of how helpless she’d felt, tied to a chair with a dirty rag in her mouth. It seemed as if she should be over it, as she’d come to no physical harm.
To offset that sense of vulnerability, she dressed in a black suit with a blue, lace-trimmed camisole beneath it: strength, underscored with softness. Mia knew what men saw when they looked at her; she planned that reaction, from her coral-frosted mouth to the matching lacquer on her nails. She had long since learned to make the exterior camouflage the computer within. Men were never impressed that she could add a column of twelve four-digit numbers in her head in less than ten seconds.
Mia took a last look around the place she would call home for the next three months. Unlike most of her contracts, this job wasn’t situated in a city large enough to offer corporate housing, but she’d gotten lucky with a snowbird couple heading to Arizona for the winter. Mia didn’t think Virginia winters were terrible, but the old folks did.
They’d given her a great deal on the place—almost no rent at all—saying she was doing them a favor and they could rest easy knowing someone would water their plants and look after their fat, lazy cat. Mia wasn’t a pet person, but she figured she could handle food and water for three months. The ginger tabby glared at her from its hiding spot beneath the coffee table.
“I’ll be back by six, Peaches.”
The cat looked remarkably indifferent.
Mia stepped out into the brisk morning air and turned her face up to the sky. It promised to be a glorious day, clear, cool and lovely. Too bad she would spend it trying to figure out who was the biggest liar.
With a mental shrug, Mia made her way to the rental car. She’d long since sold her own vehicle because she worked overseas too often to make it practical. Now she included use of a vehicle as part of her contract fee, and it was surprising how few companies balked. If they needed someone to sort out their financial embarrassment quickly and quietly, they had bigger issues than whether to pay for the long-term rental of a Ford Focus.
This car was blue and nondescript in every way. That was good. She didn’t want to draw attention with flash. In her line of work, it would be best if nobody noticed her at all.
The drive didn’t take long, not that Mia was surprised. Before she’d come to an agreement on the condo, she’d timed the commute. If traffic was good and road conditions favorable, she could cover the distance in fourteen minutes.
Micor Technologies sat outside the city limits, surrounded by acres of woods instead of an industrial park. That struck Mia as more than a little odd, but maybe they did testing here that wouldn’t be safe in a high population center. She had no idea what the company did; that information had no bearing on her task.
She pulled up to the gate, where an armed guard sat inside a glass booth. “Badge,” he said, extending a hand.
“This is my first day. I’m to report to HR to have one made.”
“I’ll need your driver’s license. I’m sure you understand I have to call this in.”
Interesting. She’d interviewed off-site at a local hotel. Though she’d driven the commute, she’d never come to the gate before. At other facilities where she’d worked, the guards were less attentive. That suggested a curious level of security.
“No problem.” Mia handed her ID over, and the man got on the phone. It took about five minutes for him to confirm her claim.
“You’re to go straight in and park in the west lot. Go directly through those doors, and the corridor will take you to Human Resources. If you don’t comply with these instructions exactly, you may have difficulties.” His face broke into a half smile, softening the sternness of his warning. “And you don’t want to be late on your first day, right?”
“Absolutely not. Thank you.”
Mia pulled forward and followed the drive to the west lot, as instructed. She told herself the warning flags raised by procedure here was none of her business. As with any other job, she’d find the guilty party, deliver the evidence, and move on. She hadn’t taken a vacation since she spent a few weeks in Florida with her friend Kyra last year, so maybe she’d relax a bit before accepting the next job.
No point in getting ahead of herself, though.
She parked and climbed out of the Focus, studying the complex for a moment. It was a sprawling series of interconnected buildings, all gleaming white metal. The structure looked even more out of place, surrounded by an electrified fence and miles of trees. Again, not her concern, even if insistent warning bells had started going off.
Her heels clicked as she crossed the parking lot. The door wasn’t secured, but there were cameras at this entrance, tracking her every movement. If she veered right or left, she had no doubt someone would come to collect her. Mia followed instructions and continued down the corridor until she came to a suite of offices.
There, a well-coiffed woman in middle years sat behind the reception desk. The room was elegantly appointed in maroon and gray. Abstract art adorned the walls, but Mia didn’t care for it. To her, it resembled nothing so much as blood spatters.
“May I help you?” the receptionist asked.
“Mia Sauter. I need to have my security badge made up.”
“Oh, that’s right. I’m Glenna Waters. Thomas Strong is the director, but he won’t be able to meet with you today. But no worries, I can handle this.”
Mia smiled her appreciation and followed the other woman behind the beige partition, where she stood before a black curtain and had her picture taken. Glenna worked with several different machines, and it took fifteen minutes for her to present a freshly magnetized, freshly laminated card.
“There you are. You’ll want to wear this at all times.” She flicked her own security tag. “I can give you a lanyard or a clip. Which do you prefer?”
“The clip, please.”
Glenna finished the badge and handed it over. “You’re assigned to IT, which is down the hall from Accounting. I’ll give you a map of the facility to help you find your way. This place can be tricky, but as long as you stay in the admin area you’ll be fine.”
“There are labs on the premises?” Mia couldn’t believe she’d asked that. It was none of her business, nothing to do with the job. Hopefully Glenna would take it as casual interest.
The other woman nodded. “Yes, ma’am. The labs are past the security doors in the east wing.”
“Will off-limits areas be clearly marked?” She tried a smile. “I don’t want to wander wrong looking for the lounge.”
“Your mag strip won’t let you wander into restricted areas, don’t worry.”
“Good to know. I’ve never worked anywhere like this before.”
Glenna nodded. “Most of us hadn’t. You’ll find it’s a good place, though. They take care of their employees. Great benefits and retirement plan. I’ll set you up an appointment with Mr. Strong to talk about rollover of your 401(k).”
That would be natural if she worked here for real. But Mia didn’t have a 401(k) plan to transfer. Her money was invested in a varied portfolio.
“That won’t be necessary,” she said. “I had to cash out recently. Family illness.”
Glenna’s face softened in sympathy. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
She offered a wave in acknowledgment as she left HR, badge clipped to the lapel of her jacket. Following the map proved no hard task, and soon she presented herself in IT, ready to begin. She loved this part of her job: the hunt for clues, following the trail, analyzing patterns of data. And she was good at it for reasons nobody had ever discerned.
After all, it took a thief to catch a thief.
Over the years, he had been known by so many names, he had almost forgotten his own. For the last three months, he had been Thomas Strong. Once the man known as Addison Foster left Vegas, he’d sloughed his old identity like a snake outgrowing its skin. Though he’d always known this last task would require patience, lately he found himself suffering from its lack. Despite his near perfect disguise, he was no closer to accessing the secure part of the facility than he had been a year ago, right after he orchestrated the death of Gerard Serrano.
As director of Human Resources, he had his fingers on everyone who was hired in and out of the facility. In theory, it sounded good. He thought he’d have access to all employees, even the lab workers. But their nondisclosure agreements prevented them from talking to him about their research, once they commenced in the restricted areas. That meant he’d been reduced to a glorified paper pusher with no promise of ever getting closer than he was.
That was unacceptable.
He just needed to find the right angle. Maybe one of the geeky techs would be amenable to seduction. At this point, it was the only approach he hadn’t tried. There were no other weaknesses in security; he’d already tested it extensively. If nothing else, that alone confirmed he’d come to the right place. That part of the complex wouldn’t be locked down if they didn’t have impressive secrets to keep.
He had a feeling he knew exactly what they were hiding.
The intercom buzzed. “Mr. Strong, your two o’clock is here.”
His jaw clenched. Glenna meant well, but she was both managing and proprietary, so she wanted to know where he was at all times in case someone called looking for him. Strong wasn’t used to accounting for his movements; working for prior employers, he’d grown used to a certain amount of freedom, as they had cared more about results than schedules.
He tapped the button to answer. “Great. Send him in.”
This joker wanted to talk about possible career advancement. He worked in Accounting, but he wanted lab management. He’d seen an interior job posting and sought to apply for it, even though his résumé was years too light and his education somewhat inadequate. Jenkins was convinced he had what it took, however, and spent forty-five minutes telling Strong what he thought he wanted to hear.
“I’m a people person,” Jenkins was saying. “I can get results, too. They like me. I’m wasted in Accounting. Any dork can crunch numbers. But give me five minutes with a guy, and I can tell you exactly what makes him tick.”
This should be good.
Strong raised a brow. “Oh, really?”
“Yep.” Confident he was on the right track, Jenkins leaned forward. “Want me to analyze you?”
He smiled. “Absolutely.”
“You live alone,” Jenkins began. “You’re career-driven, so you put work ahead of relationships. You’re self-contained and professional, but you enjoy the outdoors. I can tell that by the calluses on your hands.” He paused, as if to assess the effect of his recitation.
“Very good, Mr. Jenkins.” Strong was careful to keep his expression noncommittal.
But frankly, that wasn’t half-bad. He was inclined to favor the guy’s application to get him out of Accounting. Best to send Jenkins back to his desk before he noticed anything else, however.
Strong’s days had become a miserable wasteland of such appointments. Glenna was too efficient to permit gaps in his calendar that allowed him to roam around the facility. Sometimes he manufactured events to cover his absence, but if that happened too often, she started asking questions. Unfortunately, she was clever, honest, and hardworking.
He would have liked very much to fire her. There was no cause, however, and he had a soft spot for her, as much as she annoyed him. He did his best to live up to the image she cherished of him because her wildest dreams were oddly sweet, innocent in a way that moved him. At this point, all Glenna wanted from life was a fair boss who appreciated her work and respected her efforts. He couldn’t punish her for that.
By the time he got rid of Jenkins, it was nearly three. He scanned the list of new hires, and one name jumped out at him. Mary had a woman named Mia Sauter in for orientation today, but it couldn’t be the same one. Though he’d prefer to check out the new hire, he had two disciplinary cases and a directors meeting thereafter, which took him well past five. And so he’d wasted another day. He wasn’t used to such a crushing lack of progress. It was unthinkable he could get this close to finishing what he’d started and come up against an impassable wall.
Tomorrow would be different. It had to be.
He stepped into the hallway. It was quiet in the complex this late. Most admin staff went home promptly at five, trusting that their work could keep until the morning. The meeting had run long, however, with a couple of blowhards squabbling about God only knew what. Strong had learned months back to appear attentive while in fact he heard nothing.
As he strode toward the exit, he heard the delicate clicking of feminine heels. Someone had worked nearly as late as him tonight. He hastened his step, half-hoping to encounter one of the lab techs, even though he knew it was unlikely by the sound of her shoes. Lab techs wore sneakers or comfortable crepe soles.
When he came around the corner, he stopped walking. Shock ricocheted through him. He recognized this woman, even from the back. Last year, he’d spent enough time staring at the swell of her ass to know it in his sleep. If that wasn’t enough, she was dressed in one of her familiar, sharply tailored suits and she had her raven hair bound in a complicated twist at the nape of her neck. The black pumps made the most of her legs, giving her calves a tremendously sexy curve.
His heart gave an unsteady, excited thump at seeing her after all these months. He calmed himself with some effort. Her reasons for being here had nothing to do with him. Thinking back, he recalled she worked as a consultant, specializing in corporate embezzlement. Intriguing to find her here. That meant there was trouble on the premises, something they needed an expert to resolve. It was more telling that they’d hired her without his knowledge, presented her as a fait accompli as a private interview candidate. Upper management had the right to take on help if they so chose, but the task usually fell to him. Perhaps the silence meant they didn’t trust him.
Or did her presence mean someone high up the food chain had gotten cold feet? Started withdrawing his share of the profits to make a run for it? He might be able to leverage that once he discovered the identity of that individual.
Having Mia Sauter around would complicate his life, no question. He’d fought the attraction in Vegas, knowing it wasn’t fair. He couldn’t let her get close to him; he couldn’t bear her pain when she realized he was everything she wanted . . . and no one in particular. Since Lexie’s accident, few things retained the capacity to touch him, but Mia’s expression when she realized he’d betrayed her to Serrano still put razors to his skin.
It would be painful to see her every day, but if their paths crossed, he would just have to treat her with polite indifference. She’d never know him. Nobody ever did.
For no reason he could fathom, she paused with one hand on the metal handle of the door. He froze. She appeared to be staring at his image in the glass, and then she whirled. Anger sparked from her in near visible waves as she stalked back toward him. Judging by her look, she recognized him.
He stood frozen. This was unprecedented. He was clad in the armor of expectation. She should have no reason to expect to find him here. Ergo, he should be someone else in her eyes, someone she’d never seen.
And yet she jabbed her finger into his sternum, contempt tightening her mouth. “What are you doing here? I told you, I only contacted you for Kyra. Nothing else could have impelled me to get in touch with you.”
His breath went out in a rush. There was no mistaking her recognition now, but he tried to play it off. Perhaps he could convince her she was mistaken. “I’m sorry, miss. Do I know you?”
Another jab with her index finger. “Do you think this is funny, Foster?” Then her gaze narrowed on his badge. “Or should I say Strong? What are you up to? Maybe you’re the one who’s—”
“Shhh.” He tried to glare her into silence, but she was having none of it. Luckily the cameras here didn’t pick up sound, or he might have had some explaining to do. “I’m sure you have questions, but we can’t talk here.”
“Oh, no,” she bit out. “The last time I fell for your cloak-and-dagger bullshit, I wound up tied to a chair. You tell me what’s going on, right now, or I march back to my desk and call Collins. I’m supposed to report any irregularity around here, so I’m sure he’d be interested in what I know about you.”
Beneath her anger, he could see the wound. She’d trusted him. So few people did; Lexie had been one of them, and look what it cost her.
“Mia, please.” He felt strange and off-kilter.
Nobody ever saw him. He couldn’t stem the irrational hope that she was different. He had no right to wish for it, nor did he deserve it, but even if she hated him, it meant more than she could ever realize to be certain she looked at him and saw only the reflection in his mirror.
“You’re a bastard,” she said quietly. “Give me one reason I shouldn’t turn you in.”
Mia thought she must be dreaming.
In the past months, she’d thought of him more than once, usually with him at her mercy. She’d never thought that day would come to pass, but here they were. He looked the same: clever more than handsome, sharp, tailored, and ruthless.
“One good reason? Right. Well, they’d never believe you,” he said quietly. “My background is flawless, and if you go raving to Collins, he’ll fire you. I know for a fact he’s looking for an excuse. The man doesn’t like you . . . I can’t imagine why.”
Her lips compressed. She suspected he told the truth, which left her in a less than desirable bargaining position. Mia hated having to do this, but sometimes there was no choice but to walk away and live to fight another day.
“When I bring him proof of what you’re up to, it won’t matter if he likes me. I’ll enjoy seeing you in jail.”
As if the conversation was over, he stepped past her and pushed through into the twilight. Without intending to, Mia followed him. She didn’t like people walking away from her. He stopped then, wheeling to face her.
“If you have a brain in your pretty head, you’ll leave me alone. I’m not stealing from the company, and that’s all you need to know.”
“Well, certainly, if you say so. God knows your word is as good as gold.”
He tensed. “I mean it. Stay away from me, Mia.”
“Obviously you don’t know me if you think you can warn me off,” she said. “I’m going to find out what you’re doing here. And when I do, you’d better hope you’re miles away, because there will be a reckoning.”
Foster—or Strong, whoever the hell he was—smiled and offered a casual wave, probably to appease anyone who might be watching. If she followed him now, it would lend credence to his claims that she was an unhinged stalker. She knew how he’d spin this, and if he succeeded, a black spot would stain her currently flawless résumé. Since she’d worked damn hard to build her reputation, that prospect pissed her off.
Right now, she could only proceed to her car. Mia walked to the Focus and got in, trying to look unconcerned. The drive gave her time to think.
If she hadn’t been so startled to see him, she might’ve played this differently. Clearly, he hadn’t expected her to recognize him, which was odd, given that he looked the same. He hadn’t even changed the cut of his hair, so his surprise made no sense. It hadn’t been long enough for her to forget either.
Her hands tightened on the steering wheel. She remembered everything all too clearly, and that was part of the problem.
She recalled sitting with him in that diner, listening to his reassurances that he’d make sure no harm came to Kyra. She recalled her fear when she realized someone was tailing her. So she’d come to him, expecting him to protect her.
Instead, he gave her to his boss and used her as bait. Twenty-four hours in a dark house with nothing but tepid tap water. Her shoulders ached with remembered agony. If Kyra and Reyes hadn’t come for her, there was no telling what might have happened.
She hated feeling powerless; she hated feeling stupid. That day, she had nearly choked on both sensations. Foster was responsible for the worst thing that had ever happened to her, and she wanted him to suffer for it. Maybe it wasn’t prudent, but she’d dig up the dirt on him, as well locate the embezzler; she’d always been better than average at multitasking.
Those dark thoughts occupied her until she reached the turnoff to her borrowed condo. She parked in her assigned space and went in through the front door. “Hi, Peaches, I’m home.”
It was a bit unusual to have something waiting for her, even if it was someone else’s pet. The cat had apparently decided she was better than nothing because it twined around her ankles, leaving ginger fur on her pristine black slacks. Mia leaned down and gave it a tentative scratch; the animal rewarded her with a motorboat of a purr.
“What do you think?” she asked it. “Can we make this work?”
It led the way into the kitchen, where she refilled its food dish. Mia took that as an affirmative, as long as she remembered her place. She wandered through the condo, examining bits of the Caldwells’ lives. Generally she stayed in furnished units, devoid of any personal touches, so she wasn’t used to framed photographs and mementos of a full life surrounding her.
They’d even left the food in their cupboards for her to use. Mia rummaged and came up with a can of soup. Any other night, she’d have ordered in, but she felt oddly off-center. There were no menus in a drawer by the phone. This was somebody’s home. It was weird, but she felt like something was wrong and she couldn’t put her finger on what.
Banishing the slight melancholy the word roused in her, she ate her food at the tiny kitchen table and then went to the bedroom to change. She was staying in the guest room, less personal than the master bedroom. A shower made her feel a little better, and by the time she changed into her pajamas, she’d shrugged off the odd mood.
Mia gathered her notes from the day’s work and went over them in front of the TV. For obvious reasons, she didn’t use her laptop to log her findings. That information could be accessed remotely, so she used a notepad. Low-tech, yes, but after factoring in her personal shorthand, it meant nobody but her would be reading what she wrote down.
Thus far, there wasn’t much to see, just a list of people who worked in Accounting. Mia wasn’t convinced the guilty party even worked there; it just made sense to try to lay the blame there, as those employees had access to certain accounts. That meant she had a lot of ground to cover and only eighty-nine days in which to do so.
Time wasn’t usually a factor. Under normal circumstances, she came in as a contractor. Pretending to be a regular new hire at this company brought its share of limitations because she couldn’t move as freely.
For example, she’d undergone orientation today with a pregnant HR rep, so she’d lost several hours. It wasn’t like she could say, Sorry, I won’t be here long enough for your policies to matter. She couldn’t afford to draw attention to herself.
To further complicate matters, her boss in IT also seemed to think she was bucking for his job, another unwanted complication. They’d made her résumé a bit too impressive, and now he worried that once she was trained, he’d be let go. Based on what she’d seen of his work in just one day, if she were really who they said, then he’d have reason to fear. As it stood, Greg Evans was just an annoyance she didn’t need.
She needed to find some way to reassure him or he’d make her life difficult. Maybe I can appeal to him as a fellow slacker . . . show him appearances can be deceiving. Once I’ve established a rapport with him, he’ll be more likely to respond to my questions. Mia knew well enough that if she handled him skillfully, he’d tell her damn near everything she wanted to know without even realizing he’d been pumped for information.
The cat butted her hand, and she stroked him reflexively. “I guess we’d better get used to each other, huh? Do you snore?”
Peaches stared at her out of supercilious green eyes that said, So what if I do?
Mia had to smile at that. She put aside her notes and started her nightly before-bed ritual, which included skin care and ended in a cup of apple cinnamon tea. At this hour, she should have been asleep, but Kyra had promised to call, and she’d never let Mia down. Not once. In her darkest hour, Kyra showed up to make things right.
As if in answer to her thoughts, the phone rang. No number came up, but she knew who it was. When she answered, she could hear a party in the background, raucous music underscored with bongo drums.
“Kyra?” She pitched her voice loud in the quiet condo.
“The one and only. How are you?”
“Good. Just started a new job. You?”
“Great.” Kyra sounded like she meant it in ways Mia could only guess at.
She experienced a pang that she refused to call jealousy. After everything Kyra had gone through in the last two years, she deserved to be happy. “Where are you?”
“Bali, I think.” Her voice became indistinct, as if she’d turned away to ask someone. A gravelly rumble came in answer, nearly close enough for Mia to make out the words.
She imagined the man nuzzling Kyra’s neck, whispering at her to get off the phone already, so they could drink or dance, or do whatever they did on a beach with music pounding like waves on the shore.
“Yes,” Kyra said at length. “Bali. You?”
“Virginia. I’ll let you go. It’s late here. I can’t imagine what time it is there.”
“Afternoon. It’s soooo gorgeous. You can’t imagine—” Kyra broke off with a husky laugh.
No, she couldn’t. Her life suddenly seemed colorless. She didn’t want to envy her friend because she had the life Mia had wanted, one with structure and rules, and tangible signs of success. Nobody would ever ask her to sail off into the sunset.
“We’re heading for Singapore next. I’ll call you this time next month. Love you.”
“You, too,” Mia said, but Kyra had already disconnected.
She had exactly what she wanted. It had taken years to achieve. So why wasn’t she happier about it?
Strong’s day did not begin well.
Because he’d been up late, pondering the problem Mia Sauter presented, he overslept. That meant hurrying his morning routine, and he hated when things didn’t go according to plan. There was a reason his schemes always succeeded: his relentless ability to make circumstances fit his expectations. He’d been doing it for years.
So cold coffee and burned toast pissed him off. They seemed symptomatic of Mia’s overall effect on his life. She shouldn’t be here.
But since she was, he could make use of her. It might even be for the best.
By refusing himself in Vegas, he’d enjoyed a rare sense of human decency. Clearly that was alien—and definitely not his style—so he might as well enjoy her now, since the universe had dumped her in his lap a second time. He didn’t like using his ability this way, but once he touched her, she’d forget all about that petty vendetta against him.
He would disappear, of course. In his place, she’d see whomever she loved best, or wanted most. By now he ought to be used to it, but the prospect still gave him an unpleasant jab. He’d liked seeing his own reflection in her eyes, even if she hated him. By the time he reached Micor, he’d resolved the conflict in his mind.
He’d done this a hundred times. The routine was comforting, even as it strangled him. Glenna greeted him with a query about how he’d slept and a cup of coffee, prepared exactly as he liked it. There were two reps in HR who reported to him, but he didn’t interfere with them much, which made him a great boss in their eyes.
Today, as if his decision to betray Mia a second time was a good omen, inspiration struck. “Todd could use your help, Glenna. He’s doing six-month evaluations, and I’m sure he would value your insights. Do you mind?”
The admin assistant beamed. “How did you know I’ve always wanted to get a little more hands-on with the HR side of things?”
She had? Good to know. This might serve to keep her off his back. “Well, Mary will be taking her maternity leave in a month. Maybe I ought to look into a temp to replace you at the desk and see how you do as a rep.”
Her eyes widened. “Do you mean it?”
“Absolutely. You’ve been with this company longer than half the people here. And you’ve been running HR since before I got here, as I understand it.”
Nobody had ever said that to him, but he figured it was true. And even if it wasn’t, she’d enjoy hearing it. He knew a great deal about manipulating people.
“You’re too much,” she said, beaming. “I’ll just report to Todd, shall I?”
Todd was a lazy ass, who would dump the evaluations on Glenna if it had been cleared by the boss. He’d then spend his time cruising the Internet, and she would do his work for him in addition to her own. That ought to keep her too busy to wonder where Mr. Strong was or what he was doing.
To keep up appearances, he went into his office and checked e-mail long enough for Glenna to settle into her new task. He knew what would follow, and shortly thereafter, Todd popped into his doorway. “Thanks for the help, Mr. Strong. I guess you knew I was swamped, huh?”
“I remembered you’re handling the evaluations by yourself.”
“Right. I was afraid Mary would get all the help since she’s pregnant and all, but I should’ve known you’d have my back.”
Why? He wanted to ask. Because we’re both Caucasian and male? Todd epitomized everything he despised.
“Not a problem,” he said. “I trust you’ll remember this down the line, if I need something from you.”
The smile slipped from Todd’s face. He registered that he was on precarious ground, but he didn’t understand how he’d gotten there. “Sure. Sir. I’ll get back to work.”
“You do that.”
He gave it five minutes more, and then he slipped out of HR. He headed to IT, which was, as one might expect, a plain gray room full of cubicles and computer equipment. Curiously, only half the desks were occupied, including the one where Mia sat.
“I’ve got you on my schedule to talk about your 401(k),” he said with a friendly smile. “It’s all right. You must’ve forgotten.”
Her dark eyes shot daggers at him as she rose. “I must have. You could have e-mailed me a reminder.”
They both knew she wouldn’t have come.
“Oh, I like meeting all our new hires personally.”
She clenched her jaw, but followed him out into the hall before she brought up a balled fist as if she’d like to sock him in the nose. “I don’t know what you’re playing at, but if you think you can get away with—”
“Shut up and follow me.” The departments were all bugged; in the halls there were cameras instead. He could dispense with the pretense out here, as long as he appeared to be playing his part.
He had no doubt she’d like to kill him. Her glare practically blazed a hole in his back as they went back to HR. Instead of sitting down, he shut the door behind them and then leaned against his desk. If she remained standing, too, she would look nervous, like a child called before the headmaster. If she sat, the height difference would offer him the apparent advantage and authority. He could see the exact moment she worked it out.
She surprised him by taking up a stance on the other end of his desk, propping a hip as if she owned the place. Well, well. Mia knew a thing or two about body language, too. He supposed it made sense, given her line of work.
They could talk freely in here. Strong routinely disabled the listening devices in his office in ways that made it look as though the wiring had come loose through the rough treatment of janitorial staff. He made a game of it, in fact.
“What do you want?” she demanded.
“You threatened me yesterday,” he said silkily. “That wasn’t smart. You tipped your hand, and now I know you’re a danger to me. What are we going to do about it?”
She took a step forward, stupidly putting herself within arm’s reach. “I already told you. Now you have no excuse when I take you down. I wanted you to see me coming and realize you can’t do anything to stop it. Now if you’re done wasting my time, I have work to do.”
Dispassionately, Strong considered the obvious solution. He should kill her. At this point, he had done so many dark deeds that one more would scarcely matter. If he did, it wouldn’t be here. He would arrange for her vehicle to fail on a deserted stretch of road, and then things would end quietly for Mia Sauter, with a garrote.
Her body would disappear for good in the Monongahela National Forest. If they ever found her, wild animals and the elements would have taken care of any trace evidence. Strong knew how to get away with murder.
In the beginning, he had not been so methodical. He’d killed the first two targets, just simple murder, before he became more exacting in his drive for revenge. In the end, death didn’t seem like enough in answer for what had been done to him and, by extension, Lexie. He wanted his enemies to suffer, so his plans became more . . . elaborate.
She seemed belatedly to register the darkness in him. Some people never saw it at all, or not until it was too late. Mia took a step back, but she was too slow. He curled his fingers around her forearm and drew her in.
“Let go of me.” Her voice shook slightly, belying her bravado.
So she had sense enough to fear him. He wished that didn’t make him feel sick. But overall, it was for the best. She wouldn’t remember her fright long.
“I don’t think so,” he whispered. “Remember how you wanted me to kiss you, Mia? You practically begged for it.”
“That’s a lie.” She turned her face away, probably hoping he wouldn’t realize she was lying now.
He trailed his fingertips down her cheek, bracing for the horror of seeing her eyes go fuzzy. “Don’t worry, princess. I’m about to give you exactly what you want.”