One little baby highlights the fine line between duty and desire...from New York Times bestselling author Barbara Dunlop!
Troy Keiser won't hire a woman, no matter how skilled—or beautiful—for the dangerous work of his elite security firm. Plus, there's no way he could keep his hands off Mila Stern! But when his sister and infant nephew need protection, Troy offers Mila a job...as a caretaker for them both.
Mila doesn't know much about kids, but she'll learn if it means Troy hiring her for more than this assignment. But as she falls for the baby—and her sexy boss!—she uncovers a secret about the boy in her care that could change everything...
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New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Barbara Dunlop has written more than forty novels for Harlequin Books, including the acclaimed COLORADO CATTLE BARONS series for Harlequin Desire. Her sexy, light-hearted stories regularly hit bestsellers lists. Barbara is a three time finalist for the Romance Writers of America's RITA award.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Troy Keiser halted his razor midstroke, glancing to the phone on the bathroom counter.
"Say again?" he asked his business partner, Hugh "Vegas" Fielding, sure he must have misheard.
"Your sister," Vegas repeated.
Troy digested the statement, bringing the cell to his ear, avoiding the remnants of his shaving cream. Sandalwood-scented steam hung in the air, blurring the edges of the mirror.
"Kassidy is here?"
His nineteen-year-old half sister, Kassidy Keiser, lived two hundred miles from DC, in Jersey City. She was a free spirit, a struggling nightclub singer, and it had been more than a year since Troy had seen her.
"She's standing in reception," said Vegas. "Seems a little twitchy."
Last time Troy had seen Kassidy in person, he was in Greenwich Village. A security job with the UN had brought him to New York City, and the meeting was purely by chance. Kassidy had been playing at a small club, and the diplomat he'd been protecting wanted an after-hours drink.
Now, he glanced at his watch, noting it was seven forty-five and mentally calculating the drive time to his morning meeting at the Bulgarian embassy. He hoped her problem was straightforward. He needed to solve it and get on with his day.
"You'd better send her up."
He dried his face, put his razor and shaving cream in the cabinet, rinsed the sink, and pulled a white T-shirt over his freshly washed hair, topping a pair of black cargo pants. Then he went directly to the kitchen and poured himself a cup of coffee, downing it to bring his brain cells back to life.
His and Vegas's side-by-side apartments took up the top floor of the Pinion Security Company building in northeast DC. The first two floors housed the company's reception and meeting areas. Floors three to seven were offices and electronic equipment storage. The computer control center was highly secured, directly below the apartments. The basement and subbasement were used for parking, target practice and storage for a vault of weapons.
The building was state-of-the-art, built after Troy sold his interest in some innovative security software and Vegas hit it big at a casino on the strip. After that, their company had grown exponentially, and they'd never looked back.
The buzzer sounded, and he crossed the living room, opening the apartment door to find the six-feet-four, barrel-chested Vegas standing behind his sister, Kassidy, who, even in four-inch heels, seemed barely half the man's size. Her blond hair was streaked purple, and she wore three earrings in each ear. A colorful tunic-style top flowed to a ragged hem at midthigh over a pair of skintight black pants.
"Hello, Kassidy." Troy kept his voice neutral, waiting to ascertain her mood. He couldn't imagine it was good news that brought her here.
"Hi, Troy." She slanted a gaze at Vegas, clearly hinting that he should leave.
"I'll be downstairs," said Vegas.
Troy gave his partner a short nod of appreciation.
"Is everything okay?" he asked as Kassidy breezed her way into the penthouse foyer.
"Not exactly," she said, hiking up her oversize shoulder bag. "I have a problem. At least I think it's a problem. I don't know how big of a problem."
Troy curbed his impatience with her roundabout speaking style. He wanted to tell her to spit it out already. But he knew from experience that rushing her only slowed things down.
"You got any coffee?" she asked.
"I do." He cut through the vaulted-ceilinged living room, heading for the kitchen, assuming she'd follow and hoping she'd compose her thoughts along the way.
Her heels clicked on the parquet floor. "I've thought about it and talked about it and I'm really sorry to bother you with it. But it's kind of getting away from me, you know?"
No, he didn't know. "Does 'it' have a name?"
"It's not a person."
He tried and failed to keep the exasperation from his voice. "Kassidy."
He rounded the island in the center of the expansive kitchen. "You've got to give me something here, maybe a proper noun."
She pursed her lips tight together.
"What happened?" he asked. "What did you do?"
"I didn't do anything. See, I told my manager this would happen."
"You have a manager?"
"A business manager."
"For your singing career?"
The revelation took Troy by surprise.
Sure, Kassidy was a sweet singer, but she was really smalltime. Who would take her on? Why would they take her on? His mind immediately went to the kinds of scams that exploited starry-eyed young women.
"What's the guy's name?" he asked suspiciously.
"Don't be such a chauvinist. Her name is Eileen Renard."
Troy found himself feeling slightly relieved. Statistically speaking, females were less likely than males to exploit vulnerable young women in the entertainment business, turning them into strippers, getting them addicted to drugs.
He gave her face a critical once-over. She looked healthy, if a bit tired. He doubted she was doing any kind of recreational drugs. Thank goodness.
He retrieved a second white stoneware mug from the orderly row on the first shelf of a cupboard. "Why did you think you needed a manager?"
"She approached me," said Kassidy, slipping up onto a maple wood stool at the kitchen island and dropping her bag to the floor with a clunk.
"Is she asking for money?"
"No, she's not asking for money. She likes my singing. She thinks I have potential. Which I do. It was after a show in Miami Beach, and she came backstage. She represents lots of great acts."
"What were you doing in Miami Beach?" Last Troy had heard Kassidy could barely afford the subway.
"I was singing in a club."
"How did you get there?"
"On an airplane, just like everybody else."
"That's a long way from New Jersey."
"I'm nineteen years old, Troy."
He set a cup of black coffee in front of her. "Last time we talked, you didn't have any money."
"Things have changed since the last time we talked."
He searched her expression for signs of remorse. He hoped she hadn't done anything questionably moral or legal.
"I'm doing better," she said.
He waited for her to elaborate, taking a sip of his coffee. "Financially," she said. "Good, in fact. Great, really."
"You don't need money?" He'd assumed money would be at least part of the solution to her current problem. "I don't need money."
That was surprising, but good, though it didn't explain her presence.
"Can you tell me the problem?" he asked.
"I'm trying to tell you the problem. But you're giving me the third degree."
"I'm sorry." He forced himself to stay quiet.
She was silent for so long that he almost asked another question. But he told himself to pretend this was a stakeout. He had infinite patience on a stakeout.
"It's a few guys," she said. She reached down for her shoulder bag and dug into it. "At least I assume they're guys—from what they say, it sounds like they're guys." She extracted a handful of papers. "They call themselves fans, but they're kind of scary."
Troy reached for the wrinkled email printouts, noting the trace of anxiety that had come into her expression.
"What do they say?"
While waiting for her answer, he began reading the emails.
They were from six unique email addresses, each with a different nickname and a different writing style. For the most part, they were full of praise, laced with offers of sex and overtones of possessiveness. Nothing was overtly threatening, but any one of them could be the start of something sinister.
"Do you recognize any of the addresses?" he asked. "Do you know any of the nicknames?"
She shook her purple hair. "If I've met them, I don't remember. But I meet a lot of people, a lot of people. And hundreds more see me onstage and you know..." She gave her slim shoulders a shrug. "They read my blog, and they think we're friends."
"You write a blog?"
"All singers write blogs."
"Yeah, well, we're not as paranoid as you."
"I'm not paranoid."
"You don't trust people, Troy."
"Only because most of them can't be trusted. I'm going to hand these over to our threat expert and see if there's anything to worry about." Troy remembered to glance at his watch. If he wasn't done soon, Vegas would have to take the Bulgarian meeting.
He polished off his coffee, hoping Kassidy would do the same.
"It's not just the emails," she said.
"People have started hanging around the stage door after my show, looking for autographs and selfies."
"How many people?"
"Fifty, maybe more."
"Fifty people wait around to get your autograph?"
"You know, your confidence in me is inspiring."
"It's not that."
Actually, it was that. He was surprised she had anywhere near that kind of a following.
"Things are moving fast," she said. "Downloads of my songs, ticket sales, offers for gigs. A guy on a motorcycle followed me back to my hotel in Chicago last week. It was creepy."
Talk about burying the lead. That could be truly dangerous.
"Were you alone?" Troy asked. "I was with a backup band." He was relieved to hear it.
"I was wondering. You know, thinking." Her blue eyes were big, and her face looked pale and delicate. "Do you think I could stay with you? Just for a little while? It's really safe here, and I'm having a hard time sleeping in my apartment."
"Here?" Troy's sense of duty went to war with his desire for privacy.
"Just for a little while," she repeated, looking hopeful.
Troy desperately wanted to say no. He searched his mind for a way he could do that.
The two of them shared a father, but he had died several years ago. And Kassidy's mother was a certified flake. Last Troy heard she was living with some kind of hippie junk sculptor in the mountains of Oregon.
For all intents and purposes, Troy was Kassidy's only relative. He was definitely her only stable relative. How could he turn her down?
"How long?" he asked.
Her face burst into a brilliant smile, and she hopped down from the stool, hurrying around the island. "You're the best."
He wasn't the best. In fact, he hadn't even agreed to let her stay yet.
But she surprised him by wrapping her arms around him and squeezing tight. "Thank you, big brother."
Something tugged at his heart. "You're welcome," he told her.
She drew back. "You're going to love Drake."
Wait a minute. "You want to bring a boyfriend here?"
That put an entirely different spin on the situation. No way, no how, was some random guy going to stay in Troy's apartment.
"Drake's not my boyfriend," she said, her eyes still bright with joy. "He's my son."
Mila Stern was on a mission.
At times it seemed doomed, but she wasn't giving up, because Sterns never gave up. She had three siblings and two parents who proved that to her every single day.
Coming up on noon, she approached the front door of the Pinion Security building, squaring her shoulders, drawing a bracing breath and mentally rehearsing her opening lines.
Five minutes, she'd tell Troy Keiser. He only needed to listen to her pitch for five short minutes. That was barely any time at all, and it had the potential to increase his business by 10 percent.
Did 10 percent sound like enough? she wondered. Maybe she should claim 15 percent. Or was fifteen too much of a stretch?
No. It wasn't a stretch. The number of women in need of some form of personal protection was growing by the month. In fact, it was growing by the week. Maybe even by the day. Should she say day?
Yes. By the day. That was a perfectly fair claim to make—15 percent and growing by the day.
Dressed in pale gray cargo pants, a blue sweater and sturdy leather boots, she pulled open the stenciled glass entry door. The Pinion reception area was compact, decorated in gray tones, with a sleek steel-and-smoked-glass counter curving around the back wall. A man stood behind it dressed in black. His hair was cropped short, his chin square and strong, and his arms and shoulders all but bulging from the three-quarter sleeves of his T-shirt.
"Can I help you?" he asked in a deep voice.
She smiled, trying to look friendly and innocuous, like the kind of person a man would want to help. "I hope so," she said, striding forward to the countertop. "I'm looking for Troy Keiser."
The man hit a couple of keys on a computer terminal recessed into the desk in front of him. "You have an appointment?"
"Not for today," she answered. "We've been corresponding for a few weeks, and my plans were fluid." She stopped talking, hoping he'd draw the conclusion that Troy Keiser was willing, even intending to make an appointment with her.
"Your name?" he asked.
She wished he hadn't asked that, but she couldn't see a way around giving it to him. "Mila Stern."
Troy Keiser—and, she had to assume, the entire human resources unit of Pinion Security—would recognize her name as the woman whose job application they'd rejected three times over.
The man pressed a button on his compact headset.
Mila continued to smile even as tension built within her. She was fully qualified to become a security agent at Pinion, even if Troy Keiser wouldn't admit it. She had a degree in criminology and a black belt in Krav Maga, along with significant technical surveillance and tactical weapons training.
The man waited, and Mila waited. She knew if he talked to Troy Keiser, it would be game over before she made it past the lobby.
Her gaze flicked to the elevator doors behind him. No doubt they were controlled by a passkey. If she was lucky, there was also a staircase from the lobby. She drew his attention by smoothing back her brown hair, pretending to check the French braid that held it in place. At the same time, she surreptitiously scanned the room.
There it was. A stairway door. She let her gaze slide right past it without pausing. If Troy refused to see her, she'd make a break for the stairway. Reception man would have to circle the end of the counter to come after her, giving her a head start of two, maybe three seconds.
He might call for backup on the second floor, but that would take five to seven seconds. She could run a flight of stairs in three, and this was only a nine-story building. She'd duck out at the fourth floor and try to lose them. Assuming the stairwell doors weren't locked. They could easily be locked.
The man ended the phone call without speaking and pressed another number.
Mila waited, hoping a new call might work in her favor.
"Vegas?" the man said into the phone. "There's a woman here for Troy. No, no appointment. Mila Stern."
He paused, his eyes narrowing on Mila.
She shifted her weight to the ball of her left foot, getting ready to sprint.
"Will do," he said. The suspicion seemed to go out of his eyes.
She took a chance and wa...
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