Chapter One

 

 

Tori

 

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

The acoustic door clicks shut behind me as a freckled girl, her slight frame dwarfed by the high counter, looks 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 smiles wider before looking back at her computer’s sleek, large screen. Tucking a russet curl behind one ear, she affirms, “There you are! OK, Mrs. McKinley, let me see if he is ready for you. I’ll be back in a moment.”

Glancing at the modern phone system next to her computer, I’m 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 is hard of hearing. Sighing, I resign 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 that 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 builds as the fluid form of the office aide retreats down the hallway. Her houndstooth flats make very little sound on the tight-looped carpet as they disappear around a corner.

Once again, silence reigns as I study the room for signs of personality among the faded beige walls.

Why can’t accounting and fun seem to find a middle ground? I doubt the musical theatre offices ever achieve this level of quiet dejection. It’s one reason why I miss my former 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 groan to myself, thinking of his age. There are two short weeks until he turns five. I need to send out invitations to the six people interested in celebrating the event. 

Poor guy. As if having a mother with very few living family members doesn’t put him at a disadvantage. He’s also stuck with one who is as likely to make friends here as a crocodile hunter is at a PETA convention. Grimacing, I acknowledge this as the reason playdates had been few and far between.

Now, take my best friend, Cami, and put her in a room full of these San Francisco, über-chic moms. It’s more like what would happen if you brought that same crocodile hunter to an Armani show: networking in its most primal glory. My lips twitching at the thought, I turn toward the escalating sound of the office clerk’s approach.

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

I envy her easy manners as I struggle to achieve an appropriate answering 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, unmindful of my inner struggles, moves around the counter again. The phone rings and she pivots to grab it. “Good afternoon, you’ve reached San Francisco State University’s accounting department. Summer speaking, how may I help you?”

Summer. It fits her: earthy and warm. Walking in the direction she had given me, I peek into a few open doors as I reach each one.

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

Turning the corner, I resign myself to finding more of the same. Instead, I’m surprised by the contrast I see coming from the open door at the end of the hall. 

Bright sunshine highlights tropical greenery filling a glazed, Talavera pot that rests atop a wheeled caddy. I recognize the vibrant Spanish- and Mexican-style pottery from the one (and only) trip I had taken out of the country a few years ago. As I advance toward the door, I admire 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 is stunning, and I focus on it in appreciation. I only know a few types that have 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 is anything like my statistics professor, it makes sense why he has an aversion to technology. Calling Professor Cummings old-fashioned would be an epic understatement.

Hesitating in the doorway, I lean in, taking in the room’s warmth as the light rolls across my face. I catch a slight movement to the right. Swinging my head around, the bridge of my nose connects with the doorjamb.

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

I take another step forward and the lighting shifts. By the time I can make out individual features and my brain receives the message my eyes are trying to send it, it’s too late. I’m already locked in retinal delight with the hottest man I’d ever stood within twenty feet of.

“Professor Logan?” I ask, not sure I have the right office. Discomfited by the breathy tone of my voice, I clear my throat and try again. “Excuse me. Are you Professor Logan?”

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

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

Holy hell, I’m 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.” There, that sounded coherent—I think.

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

There is that sweltering smile again. I give up on playing it cool and allow myself a slow inspection of him.

Brown hair, so dark it could be taken for black, is cut longer and styled to wave loosely back. Dark, thick eyebrows frame green eyes that could never be mistaken for any other color. A hint of facial hair rises from his close-shaven skin and frames 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 looks close to my age—mid-thirties at the latest. Even still, he’d have a line stretched down the hallway with hopeful twenty-somethings if they had caught a preview of him.

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

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

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

He’s just an attractive man with a beautiful face. But the body attached to that face! It’s not fair to us normal folks that people like this exist. I feel bad for all the men who have had to—or will have to—one day, stand next to this man. Few would benefit from the comparison.

The professor steps around his desk, pulling a richly upholstered chair toward me that looks 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 says, nodding toward the displaced plastic. His wink encourages me to join in his little joke.

It only succeeds in scrambling my thoughts more.

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

I take a deep breath and am distracted by his exotic scent as I take the proffered seat. Patchouli and vanilla mix with something spicier for an intoxicating blend that has me straining toward it. Professor Logan turns to walk back to his desk, and sadly, I’m left with nothing but the hint of a sweet-smelling wood cleaner.

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

He has what I call a “cobra” back. Wide shoulders, clothed in a black, fitted dress shirt, show off a more muscular physique than I would expect from an accounting professor. His athletic upper body tapers to a trim waist. Sliding my eyes even lower, I get a quick glimpse of a rounded, yet taut, set of glutes.

He turns to face his computer and I find his crotch is now in my line of vision. I take another second to applaud his choice of flat-fronted, pleated pants. Shooting a look back up to his face before he sits down in front of his computer, I’m frozen in the moment.

The tilt of his head gives me all the confirmation I need that I have been caught.

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

His expression isn’t the cocky and self-satisfied smile I expect. He looks—curious.

I am the first to look away and it severs the charged connection.

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

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

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

My eyes move back to his face and see that his are still trained on the screen.

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

“Thanks.” Apparently, I am going for the Most Eloquent Woman He Has 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 am being watched interrupts my inner monologue.

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

Lost to the professor’s meaning, I get no clue from his stoic expression. Flustered, I focus on a small freckle above his right temple.

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

Nice work. Heat rushes into my face and my heart rate accelerates. I try 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 lean forward and flash 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 catches his attention. He studies me for a long moment before asking, “So, you are single?”

Pure adrenaline rushes 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 explains.

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

Clearing my throat and leaning back, I answer, “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 is at odds with his words. My eyes follow his hand as it lifts from the wireless mouse, his fingers tensing as they curl toward his palm.

The tightness in my chest is 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 cracking, “I have the best part of him, sitting in a classroom at this moment.”

The professor nods his head, his brows creased.

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

“Of course,” he replies as he leans back and looks at the computer again. “I will 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 are now focused on me. His expectant look has 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 sobers me. 

He shifts 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?” he asks. 

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 now, he adds, “Perhaps a hired traveling companion for you and your son? This 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 starts turning the idea over, and I’m surprised when it doesn’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 point out in confusion.

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

Reaching into one of the desk drawers, he says, “The internship is with the U.S. Embassy and consulates over there. You will be assisting their accounting and auditing departments with international fraud investigations.” No doubt seeing the worry on my face, he continues, “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 pulls out the requested pamphlet and scribbles something on it. Walking around the desk to stand beside my chair, he hands it to me in silence. My fingers slide across the top of his as I take 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 makes no effort to remove his hand, so I pull back mine, clutching the pamphlet.

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

“I’ll be waiting, Ms. McKinley.”

My heart pounds as I take quick steps down the hallway. The tingling in my back warns me that I am still being watched.

 

Chapter Two

 

 

Mitch

 

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

I’m charged with energy and no clear reason why until it hits 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’s a surreal feeling to acknowledge that my career is nearing its end—at least with me working as an active officer—as soon as this one crucial mission is complete. 

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’s the type of woman you can 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 runs through me at the memory. I’m not 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 turn mine down a more pious path. Too many years loom ahead for him spent longing for a dad who won’t—can’t, in his case—ever come back home. I know the feeling all too well. It explains why I already feel a draw to Tori and her child.

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 feel 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 will ever experience; but now, I’m tired.

Returning to the high-backed chair and shoving myself down into it, I snatch the office handset from its base. It only takes a second to call the one person who understands why I’m 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 voice the inescapable truth out loud, “And so would I.”

 
Wooden Floor Dinning Room

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