Chapter One

 

 

Tori

 

Chin up. This is almost over. The reminder bolstered my resolve as I shouldered through the trim, wrinkle-free bodies teeming the halls of San Francisco State University. Stopping in front of a thick-hinged door, I turned the handle and stepped into the still, cool air of the accounting faculty office. The calm was a stark contrast to the usual frenetic pace of the science building, which doubled as the accounting hub. 

The acoustic door clicked shut behind me as a freckled girl, her slight frame dwarfed by the high counter, looked up with a smile. “Hello! How can I help you?”

“Hi. I have a one o’clock appointment with Professor Logan. I’m Victoria McKinley.”

“That’s a pretty name.” She smiled wider before looking back at her computer’s sleek screen. Tucking a russet curl behind one ear, she affirmed, “There you are! OK, Mrs. McKinley, let me see if he’s ready for you. I’ll be back in a moment.”

Glancing at the modern phone system next to her computer, I was at a loss as to why she didn’t just page the department head. Odd. He might be a holdout for the “simplicity of yesterday” kind of guy. Or, the poor dear was hard of hearing. Sighing, I resigned myself to having to yell my conversation for the next fifteen minutes.

I hadn’t heard anything about the new department head, except what had been in the school’s accounting e-newsletter. It had stated he was doubling as a professor while replacing the retiring Professor Payton. The lack of photo accompanying the generic introduction had stirred a fleeting curiosity. 

A resurgence of interest built as the office aide retreated down the hallway. Her houndstooth flats made little sound on the tight-looped carpet as they disappeared around a corner.

Once again, silence reigned as I studied the room for signs of personality among the faded beige walls. Why couldn’t accounting and fun seem to find a middle ground? I doubted the musical theatre offices ever achieved this level of quiet dejection. It was one reason why I missed my former online college experience.

San Mateo Community College had meant three years of online courses spent surrounded by the sunny comforts of home while my son, Sebastian, was too young for school.

Oh no, I groaned to myself, thinking of his age. There were two short weeks until he turned five. I needed to send out invitations to the six people interested in celebrating the event. Collateral damage of Sebastian having a mother as likely to make friends here as a crocodile hunter was at a PETA convention. 

Now, if you put my best friend, Cami, in a room full of these San Francisco, über-chic moms, it’d be like bringing that same crocodile hunter to an Armani show: networking in its most primal glory. 

My lips twitching at the thought, I turned toward the escalating sound of the office clerk’s approach.

“You can go back now, Mrs. McKinley. Professor Logan is in the big office at the end of the second hallway.”

I envied her easy manners as I struggled to achieve an appropriate return expression. Several bad photos over the years had shown it was a futile endeavor. My smiles weren’t painful, just awkward—like a patient in brain surgery without any anesthesia.

The clerk moved around the counter as the phone rang. She pivoted to grab it. “Good afternoon, you’ve reached San Francisco State University’s accounting department. Summer speaking, how may I help you?”

Summer. It fit her: earthy and warm. Walking in the direction she had given me, I peeked into a few open doors.

The first office revealed the usual computer, desk, office chair setup with the addition of a floral calendar pinned to an otherwise bare wall. The next one boasted a plastic-framed print with the word “Integrity” centered below a copper sunset. A small cactus on the desk of the third was the lone sign of life between them all.

Turning the corner, I expected to find more of the same. Instead, I was surprised by the contrast I saw coming from the open door at the end of the hall. 

Bright sunshine highlighted tropical greenery that filled a glazed, Talavera pot sitting atop a wheeled caddy. I recognized the vibrant Spanish- and Mexican-style pottery from the one (and only) trip I had taken out of the country. As I advanced toward the door, I admired gleaming, auburn, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves overflowing with heavy tomes and small, jewel-toned pottery.

Wow! Total snoozeville to steamy Mexican villa in five seconds flat. 

The wood color was stunning, and I focused on it in appreciation. I only knew a few types that had this rich, reddish-brown hue coupled with darker veining. Rosewood, the most recent type I had discovered, was what my statistics instructor, Professor Cummings, said his walking cane was crafted from.

If this guy was anything like my statistics professor, it made sense why he had an aversion to technology. Calling Professor Cummings old-fashioned would be an epic understatement.

Hesitating in the doorway, I leaned in, taking in the room’s warmth as the light rolled across my face. I caught a slight movement to the right. Swinging my head around, the bridge of my nose connected with the doorjamb.

Shit! My hand pressed against the sore spot as I tried to focus on what I had seen move behind a heavily carved desk. The object moved again, kicking up a cloud of dust that shimmered in the bright light. It created a perfect halo around the head of the desk’s occupant.

I took another step forward and the lighting shifted. By the time I could make out individual features and my brain received the message my eyes were trying to send it, it was too late. I was already locked in retinal delight with the hottest man I’d ever stood within twenty feet of.

“Professor Logan?” I asked, not sure I had the right office. Discomfited by the breathy tone of my voice, I cleared my throat and tried again. “Excuse me. Are you Professor Logan?”

The younger-than-I-envisioned professor raked his gaze down and back up my form. He met my stare with a look that was impossible to decipher. A slow, lazy smile formed in a perfect balance between “let me pull your pigtails” charming and “wanna come in for coffee” sexy. It worked for him. 

“Yes, Mrs. McKinley, I am Professor Logan. What can I do for you?”

Holy hell, I was sure I could think of a few things. OK, down girl.

“Professor Cummings said I needed to get your acceptance into the accounting major before I can take the rest of the upper-level courses I need to graduate.” 

“Well, Victoria, is it? Let me see what I can do to help fulfill your needs.”

There was that sweltering smile again. I gave up on playing it cool and allowed myself a slow inspection of him.

Brown hair, so dark it looked black, was cut longer and styled to wave loosely back. Dark, thick eyebrows framed green eyes that could never be mistaken for any other color. A hint of facial hair rose from his close-shaven skin and framed a sharp jawline softened by the dip of a cleft chin.

No wonder they hadn’t put a picture with his introduction in the paper. He looked close to my age—mid-thirties at the latest. Even still, he would have had a line stretched down the hallway with hopeful twenty-somethings if they’d caught a preview of him.

“Tori,” I corrected him. Victoria was too stuffy. Cami frequently called me a royal pain in the ass, but that was the extent of my association with anyone of elevated rank.

And then, for the first time since I was five years old, I forgot what my name even looked like as Professor Logan rose from his chair.

Breathe. In and out, Tori. You know how to do this. The absurdity of my thoughts snapped me out of the zombie-like state I was in.

He was just an attractive man with a beautiful face. But the body attached to that face! It wasn’t fair to us normal folks that people like this existed. I felt bad for all the men who’d have to, one day, stand next to him. Few would benefit from the comparison.

The professor stepped around his desk, pulling a richly upholstered chair toward me that looked more comfortable than the spindly, modern one it replaced. Wow, a chivalrous hottie.

“Sorry, that chair is reserved for the students who are here for disciplinary reasons,” he said, nodding toward the displaced plastic. His wink encouraged me to join in his little joke.

It only succeeded in scrambling my thoughts more.

“Please make yourself comfortable, Mrs. McKinley, while I bring up your transcript.”

I took a deep breath and was distracted by his exotic scent as I took the proffered seat. Patchouli and vanilla mixed with something spicier for an intoxicating blend that had me straining toward it. 

Professor Logan turned to walk back to his desk, leaving but a hint of a sweet-smelling wood cleaner.

Giving up, I used the few seconds to enjoy ogling him some more.

He had what I called a “cobra” back. Wide shoulders, clothed in a black, fitted dress shirt, showed off a more muscular physique than I expected from an accounting professor. His athletic upper body tapered to a trim waist. Sliding my eyes even lower, I got a quick glimpse of a rounded, yet taut, set of glutes.

He turned to face his computer and I found his crotch now in my line of vision. I took another second to applaud his choice of flat-fronted, pleated pants. Shooting a look back up to his face before he sat down in front of his computer, I froze.

The tilt of his head gave me all the confirmation I needed that I had been caught.

You are such an amateur, I groaned to myself, sliding into the offered chair. Why was he still staring at me? Didn’t he know this was incredibly awkward?

His expression wasn’t the cocky and self-satisfied smile I expected. He looked—curious.

I was the first to look away and it severed the charged connection.

With an enigmatic “Hmm,” Professor Logan began typing on his keyboard. He paused, his eyes veering left to right on the screen.

Trying hard to look anywhere else, I focused on a glass nameplate resting near the edge of the desk. Thin gold engraving elegantly displayed the name “Professor Mitchell Logan.” I wondered idly if he preferred Mitch.

“I see you only have eighteen more credits until you meet all of your BS and accounting major requirements,” he said.

My eyes moved back to his face and saw that his were still trained on the screen.

“And with a 3.88-grade point average—impressive.” He looked up, smiling at me before glancing back at his computer.

“Thanks.” Apparently, I was going for the Most Eloquent Woman He Had Ever Met title.

Quick, think of something interesting. You are generally considered a wit. OK, maybe a dry one, but still someone funnier than the dull little mouse you are presenting to this divine man—The persistent sense I was being watched interrupted my inner monologue.

“I apologize if I sounded patronizing, Mrs. McKinley. I meant the compliment sincerely.”

Lost to the professor’s meaning, I searched his face and received no clue from his stoic expression. Flustered, I focused on a small freckle above his right temple.

This worked only until he opened his mouth to speak. His top lip lifted higher on one side, drawing my attention, as he explained, “You rolled your eyes after you thanked me for the compliment. I assumed you thought I was talking down to you.”

Nice work. Heat rushed into my face and my heart rate accelerated. I tried to think of a plausible reason for what he saw without giving away my true thoughts. “Sorry, professor, I was searching for the magic words to make you want me as much as I want you” sounded too desperate for a first meeting.

“Oh, sorry—I was thinking about two of the classes I had to repeat to get my GPA up that high.” I leaned forward and flashed one of my (hopefully) less awkward smiles. “Attending school as a single mother has been challenging in ways I don’t think I was ready for.”

This caught his attention. He studied me for a long moment before asking, “So, you are single?”

Pure adrenaline rushed through me.

“I mean, a single mother? I assumed from Summer’s introduction—she called you ‘Mrs. McKinley’—that you were married. My apologies for the assumption,” he explained.

And that easily, my just-for-a-second ego deflated. Really? A man like this could have every Barbie-type or Duchess Kate look-alike he desired. I doubted he wanted a double divorcee with baggage whose claim to beauty expired about ten years ago. 

Clearing my throat and leaning back, I answered, “I was married.” Twice, but you don’t need to know that yet—or perhaps, ever. Keep it light. “My son’s father preferred the buzz of drugs and alcohol to the sober reality of living with his wife and son.”

Wow, that slipped out from nowhere. And you were worried about things getting too heavy.

“I’m sorry to hear that—for you and your son. It’s your ex-husband’s loss.” His cutting tone was at odds with his words. 

My eyes followed his hand as it lifted from the wireless mouse, his fingers tensing as they curled toward his palm.

The tightness in my chest was unexpected.

“Well, he died of an overdose three months after the divorce papers were signed. I’m afraid it was he who paid the ultimate price for his choices.” My voice cracked. “I have the best part of him, sitting in a classroom at this moment.”

The professor nodded his head, his brows creased.

Glancing at the clock on the wall, I added, “Speaking of which, Professor Logan, I need to be back home within the next hour. Would it be possible …?”

“Of course. I’ll send the approval for your request into the major straight away. But there is one more thing I want to discuss with you if you can spare a few more moments?”

Emerald eyes focused on mine, garnering my full attention.

“Sure. What is it?”

“One of the courses you still need to take is the Professional Experience course. Are you currently working in the field? And if not, do you have any internships in mind?”

“No, I’m not working. I don’t have anything lined up yet, either. I’m applying for some of the openings at next week’s career fair.” But, if you tell me your department has an opening, I may just be persuaded—beige walls or not. Get a hold of this obsession, Tori. You don’t know anything at all about this man. Like, if he even likes women. The thought sobered me.

 

He shifted in his seat. “I’m not sure if it would be workable with your son, but how about taking an internship abroad over the summer?”  

Whoa. Not what I was expecting. “Where?”

“Brazil. All expenses paid, of course, and you would have the opportunity to receive a grant. In the past, they have been quite generous. It should cover quite a few ‘extras’ while you are there, as well.” Smiling, he added, “Perhaps a hired traveling companion for you and your son? It would alleviate your concerns over who would care for him while you were working, I imagine.”

Brazil? Well, I did take a year of Portuguese when the Spanish III course was full for two straight semesters. My mind started turning the idea over, and I was surprised when it didn’t rush to shut it down.

“I’m not sure, professor. Do you have anything I can take with me—a pamphlet or something? I mean, I don’t even know what I’d be doing there,” I pointed out in confusion.

“Yes, of course,” he declared, giving a small shake of his head.

Reaching into one of the desk drawers, he said, “The internship is with the U.S. Embassy and consulates in São Paulo. You will be assisting their accounting and auditing departments with international fraud investigations.” 

 

No doubt seeing the worry on my face, he continued, “Trust me, nothing too crazy. Verifying balances, keeping track of questionnaires, and some other supportive tasks. The goal is to expose students to things they might not find in a domestic company that will better prepare them for working with global firms and international corporations. It’ll open many doors for you. And with your grades, I doubt any of this will be difficult. Please, consider it.”

He pulled out the requested pamphlet and scribbled something on it. Walking around the desk to stand beside my chair, he handed it to me in silence. My fingers slid across the top of his as I took it, the warmth a welcome sensation.

“My cell phone number, as well as my email address, are on there. Please let me know if I can assist you with anything else.”

He made no effort to remove his hand, so I pulled back mine, clutching the pamphlet.

Standing, I found myself a head’s length away from the charismatic hunk. Reeling a bit from his energy, I breathed, “Thank you, Professor Logan. I’ll let you know about the internship.”

“I’ll be waiting, Ms. McKinley.”

My heart pounded as I took quick steps down the hallway. The tingling in my back warned me that I was still being watched.

 

Chapter Two

 

 

Mitch

 

Watching the sweet curve of Tori McKinley’s ass as she hurried down the hall, I shook my head again to clear it. Turning back to the chair her delightful backside had just occupied, I ran my hands across the edge of it. My fingers glided over a spot where a section of her long mahogany hair had cascaded in glossy waves.

I was charged with energy and no clear reason why until it hit me. I had conducted nine similar interviews within the past two weeks, and not one of them had left me feeling as unsettled as this one.

Meeting Tori had awakened dormant desires. The suppressed thoughts weren’t particularly original but were strong enough to survive the lonely span of my career with the Central Intelligence Agency. It was a surreal feeling to acknowledge that my career was nearing its end—at least with me working as an active officer—as soon as this one crucial mission was completed. 

I had always hoped for a simple retirement: a wife, a kid, and a porch swing overlooking a few hundred acres of land. After the bevy of spoiled, powerful women I had bedded and maneuvered, I looked forward to settling down with a woman like Tori. Mild-mannered. Family-oriented. She was the type of woman you could build—or rebuild—a life around.

Although not a beauty by today’s filtered standards, she had features that would age into something timelessly attractive. It had been hard to focus on anything other than her full bottom lip, so I had fixed my attention on her eyes instead. Those incredible eyes: deep-set and tilted up at the edges. They had given the otherwise wholesome brunette an exotic look. At first, the color fooled me, appearing as a warm chocolate-brown until she lifted her chin a little higher. The bright sunlight had gleamed in her eyes while she had explained what a prick her ex had been, giving them a luminous quality. It was then I had noticed the green surrounding a small bit of brown in her irises. Beautiful, bright hazel eyes.

That you caught staring at your crotch.

A renewed jolt ran through me at the memory. I wasn’t sure why it had been a revelation that the timid brunette was a sexual being, considering she had a son. I doubt he’s a product of immaculate conception, knucklehead.

Regardless, thoughts of the kid shifted my focus. Too many years loomed ahead for him spent longing for a dad who wouldn’t—couldn’t, in his case—ever come back home. I knew the feeling all too well. 

And yet here you are ready to send the two of them on a potentially dangerous mission, in a foreign country. Even worse, without arming them with the truth. Raking my fingers through my hair, I felt the familiar tension stealing across my back and shoulders. As a rule, I tried not to focus on the damage done from having to either use or lie to almost everyone I had met during the past two decades. Nineteen years of a life lived like few people would ever experience; but now, I was tired.

Returning to the high-backed chair and shoving myself down into it, I snatched the office handset from its base. It only took a second to call the one person who understood why I was willing to sell my soul to the devil. “Victoria McKinley just left my office. You were right, she’ll be perfect. They’ll eat her up like a piece of warm apple pie.”

Ending the call, I voiced the inescapable truth out loud, “And so would I.”