Jared’s fingers twitched toward the slew of jumbled shot glasses on the shelf in front of him. He shouldn’t be browsing the gift shop of the hotel he was staying in; he should be on the same conference call as his best friend and business associate, helping to wrap up the biggest sale they’d had in their sights in months. He could have listened in. Just this once. Kept himself on mute and not said anything.
Compulsion won out, and he turned back to the shelf of shot glasses. His fingers flew across the rims and, within seconds, the entire section was a series of straight, neat lines.
He exhaled loudly. Okay, so maybe he couldn’t have listened quietly on the phone and kept his mouth shut.
And none of this junk would make a good souvenir for his sister. She’d asked for something simple, but everyone brought back tiny trinkets from Las Vegas. He was halfway to the gift shop exit when a tucked-away display caught his attention. The digital photo frames were tacky as hell, trimmed with gaudy, gold Greek temples, and was that supposed to be a crown of leaves? Alyssia’s entire desk was lined with photos. It was perfect.
Great. A line at the checkout. His toes tapped a tuneless beat inside his shoes as he waited for his turn to pay. At least waiting would give him something else to think about for a couple of seconds longer.
He couldn’t help checking his watch as he stepped from the store. He’d killed six minutes and fifty-four seconds.
Tate, Vivian, and he would be heading to dinner as soon as the call was done. His associates were staying in the same hotel. But until then, Jared’s schedule was open. Time to sequester myself in my room and get some work done. He’d get back to the proposal sitting in his briefcase for new call center hardware. Answer the emails with red exclamation points on them that had come in during his flight.
His gaze tripped around the lobby as he pulled out his phone and unlocked it. People came and went. The couple checking in, she with silver hair cropped short, he in jeans and a T-shirt and probably thirty years younger, spent more time gazing at each other than looking at anyone else. Even across the room their adoration was almost tangible.
Too bad it won’t last. People never took the time to figure out their own oddities before they hooked up with another person, but over the years, he’d managed to assemble a solid algorithm of what did and didn’t work for him when considering a personal relationship.
He didn’t expect perfection from a significant other, but there was no reason the relationship couldn’t be flawless. The math was there to support it, as long as the variables were right. In a way it was harsh, but it hadn’t let him down yet.
A twinge of envy echoed in his chest as he pulled his attention away from the loving couple, aka pending heartbreak. His eyes grew wide when his gaze landed on the woman whose black hair—complete with a Kool-Aid red streak down one side—just brushed her jaw.
Back to your hotel room. Work awaits. But the woman had his attention, and his feet refused to move. Even from this distance, she screamed chaos in a way that made his fingers twitch with the need to bring order. And at the same time, he couldn’t stop staring.
Her hot pink T-shirt draped off one shoulder, exposing a strap of the black tank top underneath, and her messenger bag hugged her body enough to highlight perky breasts and round hips. Her lips moved as her gaze traveled the tablet in her hands. She glanced up occasionally when she swiped the screen, and then went back to whatever had her so engrossed.
Beautiful. The thought caught him off guard. It was true, her face was attractive and her bag enhanced every seductive curve, but something else had captivated him. He studied her a little longer as she shuffled at half-speed toward an unknown destination. It was the intensity she read her tablet with. Her gaze and focus were enthralling.
Being able to pay attention was an important quality in any individual. Not that he was keeping track. Even if his thoughts were taunting him with images of stripping her shirt off and exploring her bare skin. He had way too much work to do this trip to deal with something like base lust.
He turned toward the elevator.
He exhaled as he stepped into a waiting car. Don’t think about the call. You’ve got other work to do. Like making sure this sale and the next aren’t repeats of those in the past.
His eyes grew wide when the woman with the tablet stepped through the closing doors, only looking up long enough to push a number on the control panel. The elevator sealed them off from the rest of the world, and she continued to stare at the device in her hands.
What’s she reading that’s so fascinating? He inched a step closer and peered over her shoulder. The faint scent of citrus teased him and kicked his pulse up a notch. His mouth twisted in ambivalence when he saw what had her attention. “You know none of that’s accurate, right?”
He hid his wince. This was why he didn’t talk to anyone on sales calls except the technical people.
She spun, eyes almost as dark as the eyeliner rimming them taking a moment to focus on his face. Her confusion vanished in a smirk.
“Which bit of it?” Between words, she clacked something against her teeth. A barbell—she had her tongue pierced. There was absolutely nothing logical about the accessory. But knowing as much didn’t stop the blood from draining from his head and racing toward his lower extremities. She traced the metal ball along the back of her teeth, gaze never leaving his face.
His thoughts teased him with images of what it would be like to feel the piercing in other places, and his cock twitched in response. Down, boy. Don’t go there. “The entire article.” She hadn’t balked at his comment. Might as well push the subject.
She glanced at the device in her hands, as if she’d forgotten it was there, and then back at him.
Completely captivating gaze.
“I think you’re being a bit extreme.” She tapped her nails on the edge of the frame, attention locked on him. “You can’t tell me things like gateways, the NSA, and the deep web don’t exist.”
A shimmer of appreciation pinged inside him. She was reading tech and had been absorbed by it. Sexy. He couldn’t think of a better word for it. Except it didn’t make the information any more correct.
“I’m not saying they don’t exist. Just not in that capacity. It’s a sensationalist article meant to strike an irrational fear into people.” He knew better than to unleash his unfiltered thoughts on the general public, but something about the challenge in her expression told him she didn’t mind. It wasn’t as though he was trying to extend the conversation. Or maybe he was just a little.
The car came to a stop, and the door slid open on what he assumed was her floor. Attention never leaving his face, she reached behind her and pressed the Door Open button. “That’s the point.”
He needed to cut this conversation short. Too bad his mouth didn’t agree. “To read something that’s wrong?”
She dropped her tablet into her messenger bag, eyes never leaving his for more than a few seconds. “Someone obviously thinks it’s true. Which means there’s value in being able to plainly state why it’s not possible, and knowing if it actually is.”
“But that’s why computers are fantastic. Only so many possibilities exist, and the things they mention in the article—” he nodded at her tablet, “—aren’t on the list.”
“Not yet, anyway. I love this place, you know?”
The circuits in his head tripped and stumbled, trying to keep up with the conversation. Time to regain control. “I’m not seeing the connection to the Wired article.”
“No connection. It’s my first time here, so I’m still awestruck. It’s amazing, right? All the lights, the people, the energy.”
Now he had enough information to switch tracks and fall back into the discussion. “It’s fixed odds, careless dreams, and when it’s light outside, really dirty.”
What was wrong with him? Besides the fact he couldn’t get a handle on this woman and his fantasy was still running rampant, having now stripped her down to her panties. Did she taste like the faint lemon and plum drifting off her? None of those thoughts are logical. Get a grip.
“Once again, that’s the point.” Enthusiasm shone in her eyes as she talked. “It’s a chance to experience things that aren’t a part of everyday life. For instance, how many of those couples downstairs will only spend the one night together and then never see each other again?” She ducked her head as the question trailed off, but not before he saw the red flush her cheeks. “Sorry. I get carried away. Guys like you probably have more important things on their minds.”
The alarm on the door protested at being held open so long. A part of his brain said the sound was another hint it was time to cut things short. Soon.
“Guys like me?” One thing he never did was one-night stands. But just then, studying each move and gesture and fighting a raging hard-on at the thought of trailing his fingers over her bare skin, he wondered if she was on to something.
She met his gaze again. “Jared Tippins, Director of Information Technology for Skriddie Bust Media, and world-renowned network security genius.”
An uncomfortable chill crept through him, and he shook it off. She could have recited that off his business card, it was so eerily succinct and accurate. Except the bit about being a security genius. That was implied. Was he supposed to know her? Great, he was fantasizing about screwing a prospective client or something. But he would have remembered her. “We haven’t met.”
“Not really.” She extended the hand not holding the elevator open. “I’m Mikki.”
Which didn’t clear anything up, but did give a name to his out-of-control thoughts. The strain against his jeans had already passed uncomfortable. When her warm, smooth palm nestled in his, it only got worse.
Something hummed in his jeans’ pocket. He dragged himself out of his own head, forcing away the arousal and trying to shake off the disorienting cobwebs left by the fantasy.
She nodded at his waist, playful smirk dancing on her lips, and leaned in close enough to whisper, “You’re vibrating.”
The heat brushing his skin, her teasing voice, and those full lips… He was seconds from suggesting they take this back to her room so he could add some reality to the fantasy. Except, even if she wasn’t everything chaotic and unpredictable, that was his work phone, and no one was buzzing him this late unless it was critical.
“Duty calls.” He gave her an apologetic smile.
“Enjoy work.” She laughed lightly and spun on her toe. “See you around,” she called over her shoulder.
It took the last of his willpower to drag his gaze from her ass before the elevator doors cut off his view. It wasn’t the round shape, or the hint of wiggle—though both were incredible. It was the bounce in her step. Right. Work. Back to it.
His creeping good mood sank with the extra gravity of the rising elevator when he saw the text from Tate. He rubbed his forehead to chase away the tension, but a headache still threatened at the simple note. Dial in. Now.
That was a bad sign. Jared reached his floor, headed toward his room, and pulled up the info in his calendar. He was already calling before he slid the keycard in the lock. Tate wanted him there to finalize details; that was all. If only I believed it.
Jared swiped in the call pin and dropped into the chair in front of the desk in his room—alone. Regret murmured in his thoughts. How can I be so disappointed about letting someone I just met run off?
The line clicked into a conversation already in progress, and it took a few seconds for his ears to adjust to the speaker’s heavy accent. It was why the call was happening after business hours. Skriddie specialized in electronic security for retail stores, and this potential client was overseas, building sites for a wide variety of companies. That was what made the sale so big—they had dozens of customer sites that would need to be verified, tested, and put through the wringer. All of them worth millions, and most of them high-profile.
As an independent third party, Skriddie would be responsible for certifying that each site, and all the customer information contained there, was safe from hackers.
Tate cut through a pause in the dialogue. “I think someone just joined the call.”
“Good evening, or morning, everyone. This is Jared Tippins, director of technology for Skriddie Bust Media.” He kept his tone light and friendly, despite the anxious march dancing through every limb. “I’m sorry I’m late.” Which was ridiculous, since he wasn’t originally invited, but professionalism was what it was. Easy enough to remember, now that the blood wasn’t rushing away from his brain.
“Glad you could join us.” It was unlikely anyone on the call had heard the tension in Tate’s greeting, but after almost three decades of friendship, Jared knew how bad a sign it was. “We just have some questions for you before we finalize everything—”
“If we finalize anything,” someone corrected him.
Jared snarled silently at the receiver, glad no one on the phone could see him. He swallowed his retort and kept his mouth shut, waiting for more details.
“Right, of course.” Tate’s chuckle sounded like it had been strained through a cheese grater. “Jared, we have their head developer with us, so feel free to get as technical as you need to address their concerns.”
Which, Jared knew from experience, didn’t mean he could get technical at all. He’d have to walk a fine line between letting the developers know he was knowledgeable, and not boring anyone else listening in.
And then the questions began. Five minutes in, Jared’s grasp on not getting too in depth slipped. After ten minutes, he tossed all filters by the roadside as he was assaulted with some of the most obscure, low-level questions he’d ever encountered. Ranging from things that hadn’t been an issue since the internet was born, to little-known, cutting-edge techniques he knew almost no one had dared implement yet.
He handled it all, the entire time curious about where the third degree had come from and confident he answered every concern with zero error margin.
“Jared.” He recognized the voice at this point as their developer. “Do you test for all these possible holes in your own network?”
Jared choked down a sarcastic laugh. Did he monitor his own systems for weaknesses no one had heard of in a decade, or wouldn’t be familiar with for at least six more months? “Of course we do. We conduct internal audits on a regular basis, and my staff is encouraged to keep current on any and all new developments in the technology industry.”
The muscles in his neck tightened, and the beginning of an ache throbbed behind his temples. This was too much like the other two lost sales they’d been sure they’d had in the bag. Both contracts lost to NetSafe Systems. He clenched and unclenched his free hand. And Jared was almost convinced NSS was behind whatever was leading to these lines of questions.
At first he and his colleagues at Skriddie tried to convince themselves it was just sour grapes, that they were pissed off NSS was owning their pitches so much better. But the pattern was too familiar. Every time Skriddie competed with the other company for a client, the question of internal network security came up.
But at least that meant Jared could anticipate the next question and could head off the concern before anyone asked. His network was perfect, and he was certain of that. Time to restore some confidence. “We have copies of those internal and independent system audits. We, of course, would never expect you to put your faith in someone who doesn’t hold themselves to the same security standards as their clients. I’ll send them to the group as soon as this call is finished.”
“We’d appreciate that, thank you.” That would be one of their executives.
“Fantastic.” The dash of stress still flavored Tate’s reply. “So if no one has further questions, we can have the contract ready for you tonight and schedule a kickoff meeting for early next week.”
“I think we’d like to hold off on that,” another of their managers said. “We still have significant concerns and need time to discuss our options internally while we conduct due diligence.”
“Of course.” Tate’s tone was too cheerful. “Let us know if we can answer any more questions at all. We’re here for you.”
Jared muted his phone and kept silent as they exchanged pleasantries and wrapped up. Due diligence my ass. There’s nothing to see. The moment he disconnected, he let out the roar of frustration that had been building in his chest for several minutes. It echoed harmlessly off the surrounding walls.
The pattern was exactly the same as the last two times. That wouldn’t stop him from sending off the information he’d promised. But experience told him it wasn’t going to matter.
Email sent, he dialed Tate and started talking as soon as the line clicked on. “We’re fucked. You know that, right?”
“Intimately.” The phony professionalism had vanished from Tate’s voice. “You with V?”
Vivian, their counterpart from operations, was still in her room working. “No.”
“So she doesn’t know yet. Lucky her.” Tate’s sigh clattered over the receiver. “I say we grab a taxi and find a local place where we can get so drunk we forget this happened until tomorrow morning when NSS rubs our noses in it.”
“We can’t.” Jared didn’t know where Tate had gotten the notion taking the night off was a good idea. “We have to track this down.”
“You’ve vetted this rumor five billion times already.” Tate sounded exhausted. “Staying up all night for the five billion and first time looking for something that doesn’t exist won’t do you any good.”
“You want answers as much as I do.” Jared let the irritation leak into his retort. “If the rumors are still out there, we’ve missed something.”
“What are you going to check that you haven’t yet?”
“I’ll figure that out when I get there.” Finding answers was just as important to his friend. Then again, Tate had a point. They didn’t know where to look next. He could drag this conversation out for the next half hour, or concede, and search for solutions while he tried to unwind. If he was going to yield, he was doing it on his terms.
“All right.” Jared relented. “I’ll ping Viv and then get a recommendation from the concierge.”
“That was too easy. We’re not doing karaoke.”
Jared smiled at the phone. Music was his one outlet. People said it was an artistic medium, but he knew better. A good, solid song followed the same methodology as a well-written software program. There was a math to it. Only so many right answers and a series of patterns that made it pleasant and functional.
Tate was welcome to get wasted. But Jared needed a new angle to approach this problem from, and this was how he wanted to let his mind wander. “Yeah, we are.”
“Pfft. Then V and I are picking your songs.”
“Fine with me. Meet us in the lobby in five.” Jared dialed Vivian the moment the call disconnected.
Maybe he should have chased down miss hot-pink T-shirt Mikki, who had the gorgeous eyes. At least then he’d have some satisfaction to go along with the feeling he’d just been fucked.