ExcerptBEYOND THE EDGE
Mass Market Paperback
Publisher: Harlequin® BlazeTM (Extreme)
Pub. Date: November 2005
"I'd give anything to meet a real man." Fallon Hanover sighed into the speaker phone. Easing back in her chair, she ignored the stack of papers on her desk awaiting her signature as well as her view of the twinkling Sunshine Skyway bridge that connected Florida's beaches with the mainland.
Her best friend since boarding school, Jaycee Ketner spoke slowly in her warm Alabama drawl, her voice reverberating through the empty office as if she were there instead of a state and a half away. "Darling, you're just too picky."
Fallon didn't bother keeping her voice down. No one else worked this late. Her employees had gone home to their families long ago, but she'd stayed in a futile attempt to clear her desk.
"Despite a prenup, the last time I wasn't picky, it cost me five million to get rid of Allen."
The two women had always been night owls and Jaycee's late night calls boosted Fallon's spirits. Jaycee might speak slowly, but there was nothing slow about her mind. "Maybe you should give away all your wealth, have plastic surgery to make you ugly and change your name to eliminate all your fabulous Hanover connections."
Jaycee's sarcasm had pegged Fallon's problem right on the nose. And she appreciated her friend, who understood that there was more to life than appearances and money. In fact, the most important thinglovehad been missing from Fallon's life for so long that she wondered if it wasn't her destiny to find that perfect soul matea man who loved her for herself.
Perhaps that's why she'd secretly gone to work for the CIA right out of college. The sense of adventure had called to her on a primal level. Not only had she revelled in the excitement of her secret identity as she'd ferreted out secrets for her government, she'd sensed she'd never find the right man through normal channels.
Fallon arched her back and rubbed her neck, realizing she'd been sitting so long she was stiff. "What's wrong with a guy wanting me for me?"
"Absolutely nothing. But how can you ever know if a man's attracted to you for the right reasons when you come with so much baggage?"
"I'm over Allen." Her marriage to him had been a disaster. The only good thing about it was that she'd refused to allow the experience to keep her from going after what she really desired. Allen had been smooth, sophisticated and wealthynot as wealthy as she, but comfortable. Once she'd figured out he'd married her only to fund his Internet start up, she'd cut off the funds and he'd turned nasty. The divorce had taught her to be more careful, but she wasn't so burned that she still didn't believe that the perfect man was out thereshe simply had to find him.
"Allen's ancient history," Jaycee agreed. "I'm talking about your charity foundation that requires constant direction, a playboy father who drinks from mid-afternoon until he falls down stinking drunk in the early hours of the morning, a neurotic mother in therapy and on happy pills, a sister whose marriage is on the rocks, a spendthrift step brother, not to mention that you're the brains behind the Hanover conglomerate's success. What real man wouldn't feel threatened?"
"Jaycee, you aren't helping. I can't just ignore my responsibilities."
"You already know what I think."
Fallon rubbed her brow. "How can I simplify my life? Just suppose I upped and ran away, my father might drink himself to death if the butler didn't water down his scotch."
"He's a grown man. You aren't his keeper."
"But it would be irresponsible of me to allow"
"It's irresponsible of your family to burden you to the point you don't have a life."
"Sometimes I wish I could run away to a place where I had no responsibilities, but that's a fantasy. Too many people depend upon me."
"Did you ever consider that if you weren't there to prop them all up, they'd have to stand on their own two feet?"
Fallon shuddered. "Last time I refused to take one of mom's middle-of-the-night phone calls, she almost overdosed. I can't bear her death on my conscience."
"God . . . I'm so sorry. Why didn't you tell me?"
"You were on vacation and in love with that Swiss ski instructor. I didn't want to intrude on your fun time." Although her family's wealth meant that Jaycee lived very comfortably, she'd started a magazine and worked damn hard to keep it running. When she'd taken her first vacation in a year, Fallon hadn't wanted to intrude. Besides, Jaycee couldn't have done anything. Fallon had arranged for the best care money could buy.
"That was a wonderful fling." Jaycee's tone softened at the memory. "That's what you need."
"A fling?" Fallon smiled. "I'm not so picky that I wasn't just thinking the same thing. Hot sex. No responsibilities. No strings. You know if I can't have love, I'm almost desperate enough for affection to go for a man who wants nothing more than my body."
"That's the spirit."
"Except as soon as the paparazzi spotted me, we'd be on the cover of every rag. Mom would relapse. My sister would tell me that her kids were taking heat in school. My step brother would use my fling to try and undermine me with the stockholders."
"You know what you need?"
"A secret identity."
A secret identity? For a second the words hung in the air over the phone line as Fallon's fingers tightened around the receiver. Fallon tried to assess her friend's tone, searched for humor, accusation, something to indicate whether Jaycee understood the significance of that statement. A secret identity. She already had one.
Did Jaycee know the CIA had recruited her right out of college and about her undercover work for the Agency? Or was her guess simply lucky? One of the reasons she'd joined the CIA, other than to help her country, was that she enjoyed adding a little spice to her life while ditching her normal responsibilities. She liked each day to be differentnot same old, same old. So while she'd supposedly been touring Europe as a graduation present like most young women in her privileged class, she'd secretly been training at Langley. And she'd proven her worth by partying with the Saudi family on the southern coast of France, picking up gossip that helped the CIA track Saudi money to terrorist organizations. Fallon didn't believe anyone, including Jaycee, had ever suspected her undercover role, but perhaps she'd slipped up.
"Come on, I have enough trouble being me." Fallon forced a lightness into her tone that she didn't feel. "I couldn't be someone else, too."
"You can do anything you put your mind to," Jaycee countered. "And that includes finding a good man. Your problem is that you're so damn busy solving everyone else's problems that you have no time for your own."
"Nag. Nag. Nag." Fallon teased Jaycee all too aware that ever since her six-year-old friend from across the street had died of cancer, she'd wanted to fix the world. She'd felt so helpless and scared as she'd watched her friend sicken. The adults wouldn't tell Fallon what was going on. Ever since, she'd wanted to find a cure for cancer and whatever else went wrong in the world.
Jaycee laughed. "I may be nagging, but I speak the truth." She paused. "You need a man to sweep you away from your normal life."
"I think you've been spending too much time editing the fiction stories in your . . ." Fallon sniffed.
"I smell roasting almonds. Let me call you back." Fallon hung up the phone. Still sitting behind her desk, she tilted her head and sniffed the unusual odor. The last of her employees had left well before seven, and except for the security guard downstairs, she remained the sole occupant at the Hanover Research Institute.
She inhaled again. Could a fire cause such a smell? Unlikely. The detectors would have set off the alarms. And the Chinese take out she'd eaten at ten smelled nothing like sweet almonds. Yet, she couldn't deny the odd odor, pleasantly pungent, permeating the room like an enticing cologne.
Listening intently, she heard nothing except the computer humming, the coffee perking, and the water cooler cycling on in the dim hallway outside her office door. The elevator had remained silent all evening. The fax machine hadn't beeped while she'd worked.
The scent filled her nostrilsa smell that didn't belong. Fallon set down her papers, glanced at her watch. Ten past midnight. Time to go home. She'd mention the odor to the security guard on the way out.
She stood, reached for her purse, and flipped the switch on her computer. The air crackled. Reddish sparks sputtered as if someone had set off fireworks, creating an eerie glow on the high-gloss walls, lacquered desk, and smoked mirrors. Fallon almost gagged on the overpowering stench of burning almonds.
Raising her hand to shield her face, she squinted through ruby, vermillion, and crimson sparks. Was there an electrical short? Had heat lightning somehow bounced into the office building? She retreated until her backside pressed against the glass pane overlooking Tampa Bay. Just what the hell was going on?
When right before her astonished eyes, a man's black silhouette emerged amidst starlike bursts of streaking light, she blinked hard. Where had he come from? One moment she'd been alone, the next, as if her thoughts had summoned him, he'd appeared out of nowhere. Scarlet surges of electricity zapped his barrel-like chest, zigzagged down his wide-spread legs, smoked beneath his black boots. The intruder stood unaffected by the energy spattering around him and ignored the smoke spiraling about his feet.
Fallon rocked back on her heels, stunned by his astounding appearance. Who was he? What was he? Perhaps his strange clothing shielded him, but she wore no such protection. Before the electric energy could shock her, she dashed toward the door, tripped on a lamp cord, and bumped into an end table, spilling a box of Godiva chocolates. She sprawled across the floor, dropping her purse, scattering the contents, including her gun and cell phone which skidded under the credenza so that both items were out of reach. He could have her wallet, her credit cards, her jewelry and her gunas long as she got away from the zapping electricity . . . and him.
Scrambling on her knees toward the office door, she looked behind herbut he'd disappeared. How odd. She had no idea where he was hiding. Didn't stop to look. However, her office didn't offer many possibilities to conceal a man of his height. But as long as he stayed out of sight, she could keep hoping she wouldn't need to employ her rusty hand-to-hand combat skills, especially against a man so powerfully built.
She moved forward, toward the only exit. And saw him standing directly in her path, his black seamless boots blocking her escape. She swallowed down her surprise and climbed to her feet, looking up. The sparks had disappeared, and there was nothing out of the ordinary in the rest of the roomno fire, no blackened ceiling, no smoke. Even the burning scent was disappearing quickly.
She focused on the man. A glimmering black faceplate, set flush in a helmet that covered his face, gave him the appearance of leaning aggressively forward. A strange one-piece garment constructed of black shiny material strained over the rest of him, outlining every muscle.
She didn't recognize his uniform, but she recognized the type . . . military. A specialist. And if she hadn't been notified of his appearance, he couldn't be CIAnot unless the Agency had royally screwed up. And if he wasn't one of them, he had to be the enemy.
Not even her CIA training had prepared her for these circumstances. Working the party crowd was much more her speednot bumping into mysterious men dressed in sexy black who arrived unannounced in a shower of sparks in the middle of the night.
He folded his arms across his chest. "What are you doing here?"
She wasn't buying into his controlled, I-won't-hurt-you attitude. His voice vibrated with life, yet sounded both warm and resigned, and she couldn't place the accent. Since he'd asked why she was in her own office, he obviously didn't recognize her, a definite point in her favor. Hopefully, he'd have no idea of her secret work for the Agency. And if he didn't know she controlled one of the largest fortunes in the United States, she had no intention of enlightening him.
"I was just leaving."
She edged toward the door. She didn't know how the man had sneaked past security, or where the sparks had come from, or why the electricity hadn't killed him. Only a man with super powers or futuristic technology could have withstood such high voltage. While he more than looked the partthe body beneath that form-fitting material rivaled Brad Pitt'swith his arms folded across his massive chest, he was blocking her exit. Wondering why she tingled from head to foot when the electricity had long since disappeared and if that scent could have possibly drugged her and affected her thinking, she nevertheless sidled three more steps toward the door. Perhaps the sparks had charged the atmosphere or perhaps her nerves were warning her about that which she could not explaina very definite swoop of attraction to the stranger that made her question her sanity.
Fallon must have blinked because he suddenly blocked her path again. She never saw him take a step, never heard a footfall. No one could move so fast and yet . . . That almond scent must have drugged her. She had to be hallucinating. And she certainly shouldn't be so aware of his attractive body, those wide shoulders that didn't quit, his tapered torso and powerful arms.
"Is it after midnight?" A tinge of confusion colored his tone, but perhaps it was just the helmet muffling his voice. He needn't be a terrorist. Perhaps he'd escaped from a mental institution and that explained the strange clothing. Or he might be a thief after one of their highly classified research projects.
Humor him. Stall for time. Ignore the sizzling electrical charge through her veins.
She glanced at her watch. "It's twelve-twenty."
His broad shoulders stiffened. "And the date?"
Refusing to let him draw her into small chat, she sidestepped away once more. "My money and credit cards are in my wallet. Take what you want." And let me go.
"You were not supposed to be here. It's inconvenient."
Fallon gave him an incredulous frown. "Excuse me. You find it inconvenient that I'm working in my office?"
"You will make my work more difficult."
His work? She wondered exactly what that was, but now wasn't the time for a chat. If he thought of her as an obstacle he might be glad to be rid of her. She tried not to think of his alternative to letting her go.
"I'll pretend I never saw you."
He shook his head. "You will remain with me. You need a vacation"
"Vacation?" It took a moment for his statement to register. "You heard my conversation?" She gasped, more alarmed than embarrassed. How could he have been in the room while she'd spoken to Jaycee without Fallon noticing?
"Perhaps, I'm the man you need to fill your fantasy." The disembodied voice coming from behind the black faceplate unnerved her. She had yet to see his face and at his personal comment alarm zinged down her spine.
But when he again blocked her path, speaking in a slightly stilted way as if English was not his native tongue, her breath lodged in her throat. She hadn't seen him move. He was simply just there, in her way, preventing escape.
Suddenly, the faceplate in his helmet disappeared. One instant his features were covered and the next his face was bared. He stared at her with eyes as black as a midnight sky shimmering with bright stars that held her captive for a moment. Finally she let out her breath, relieved he was . . . human. And oh was he human, with his bold nose and arrogant brows and cheekbones to die fora turn of phrase that did nothing to ease the tension churning in her gut. Yet she found those human features reassuring. Somehow his enigmatic entrance into her office had caused her to conjure images of aliens and monsters, not compelling eyes that softened the harsh high cheekbones, thin lips curling into a sexy grin, and an expression of curiosity that did more to stimulate her imagination than to increase her wariness.
Reminding herself that bad guys could have pretty faces, she forced her legs into motion, lurched around him and sprinted through the doorway. At the speed he moved, at any moment, she expected him to jerk her to a halt. As she rounded the first corner and headed for the red exit sign above the staircase, she didn't dare risk a glance back.
Her heart raced. Her palms dampened with sweat as she shoved against the heavy stairwell door. It swung open, and she lunged into the murky hallway.
Not too fast.
As she dashed down the steps, she listened for the creak of the metal door opening behind her and a sign of pursuit. Nothing.
Good. Mr. Dressed-in-black Handsome must have wanted her wallet after all. Rushing down another flight, she wondered if she dared stop and take the elevator.
While she debated, inexplicable, unnatural icy chills suddenly washed over her. But she ignored her shivers, believing her physical reaction an after shock to her previous adrenaline rush of fear.
She wasn't yet safe, she reminded herself. If the intruder took the elevator with the intention of intercepting her somewhere between this floor and the lobby, she should exit the stairwell on one of the lower floors to avoid him. Perhaps she should try to make it to another phone to call 911 but the other offices would likely be locked and although she could pick a lock, she was way out of practice. As Fallon considered her options, she fled down the third flight.
Her stomach suddenly cramped with nausea, knocking her to her knees. Fallon had been frightened before. This sensation was intensely different. Dizziness engulfed her in a vortex. Only a fierce grip on the bannister kept her from plunging head first to the concrete landing.
Her heart pounded like a jackhammer in her chest, and she fought back the blackness of a faint. Unable to go on, even if her life depended on doing so, she collapsed to a sitting position on a step, barely maintaining the presence of mind to lower her head between her knees.
Fallon wasn't prone to illness or fainting. In fact, she couldn't recall ever missing a day of school due to so much as a cold. She'd never experienced anything like this and hoped she never would again.
"You will feel completely better in a few minutes," he said with a thread of concern in his tone.
At his voice, she jerked up her head. He was standing beside her, his gaze sympathetic, as if he cared about her plight. Where had he come from? He'd seemed to just appear out of nowhere. Splitting pain from the sudden motion of turning her head caused her to moan. Damn. She knew better than to reveal weakness. But her head felt like an army was marching through it.
He extended an arm toward her, a damp paper towel in his hand, almost as if he'd known in advance how ill she'd be feeling. "Put this on your forehead."
She dabbed the cool napkin on her heated face and neck, head aching too much to think past his inexplicable behavior that was both kind and eerie. How had he known in advance she would require soothing relief? What motivated him to try and ease the discomfort? Despite the questions reverberating in her mind, she was grateful when her physical woes eased with the surprising speed he'd predicted. Her stomach settled. If only she could get her spinning thoughts in order.
Who was this guy? He'd sneaked into her office, eavesdropped on her private conversation and not only did he move faster than her eyes could focus, he'd anticipated her sudden illness and foreseen her seemingly miraculous recovery.
He spoke gently as if he understood her brain was tender from the strange illness. "For your own good, you must accept that I mean you no harm and"
"For my own good?"
"Every time you leave me, the illness will strike."
"Excuse me?" The man was certifiable. A body of steel and a mind of mush. She would have screamed if she thought her tender head could take it. Instead, she spoke with care. "I don't want to stay with you."
"You have no choice." Warmth and regret colored his voice. But then his oh-so-interested gaze swept over her and he shot her a charming smile. "You belong with me now."
Oh God! She wasn't buying into his cute dimples. A crazy man had claimed her for his own. But at least he didn't sound as if he intended to kill her. And while she lived she had a chance to escape. Or call for help. But how?
His idea that fleeing his presence could have caused the nausea she'd just suffered was absurd. As the sickening dizziness faded, her thoughts raced. Never before had she endured such disabling queasiness. Perhaps it was the strange almond scent that had sickened her. The few times she'd suffered from sea sickness, the illness came on gradually and disappeared slowly. What she'd just experienced hit as fast and hard as a speeding truck. Odd, she'd recovered almost as quickly.
Glancing at the man, she searched for clues to his identity and character. There were no marks of identification to relieve the unremitting black of his strange suit, no badges, no lettering, no insignia. And by the way he stretched the limits of the material, he clearly hid nothing in a pocket.
Nor, despite his words that made no sense, could she deny the intelligent compassion in his eyes or the charming half grin on his lips, and she had the feeling he would have liked to have taken her into his arms to comfort her but sensed his touch would have alarmed her.
His sheer size tended to dominate the area around him, but his voice remained gentle, almost soothing. "Fallon, it's time we leave here."
She looked into his black eyes and wondered why she didn't feel more threatened. Was she drugged? As she listened to the thread of determination in his tone, it seemed prudent to humor him. Her CIA training had taught her that a hostage should try to make their captor see the victim as a person. While she wasn't exactly certain what would happen if she refused to cooperate, she didn't think this was a good time to find out. If he knocked her unconscious, she couldn't fight back. With no one in the building except the guard downstairs, a scream for help was unlikely to be heard. So, she stood, straightening her suit jacket, and gazed into his mesmerizing black eyes and tried to gain information.
"How did you know my name?"
His arm swung out, her purse dangling from his index finger. She grabbed it, but didn't bother checking the contents for her weapon. She already knew from the weight that he hadn't returned her gun. Since the expression in his eyes as much as his patient demeanor told her that petty thievery was beneath him, she figured that after rifling through her wallet he'd learned her name.
Wariness of his motives gripped her, but she hesitated to run from him again. The memory of that sudden illness was too sharp just yet to try again. Besides, he'd delayed to collect her things, knowing that at the speed he moved, he could easily catch her.
Damn! What did he want? Why did he stand so close, looming over her as if he feared she might collapse and he'd have to catch her. She imagined those big arms scooping her up, gathering her against his chest and wondered what was wrong with her. She should be assessing the danger, gathering intel, not sizing him up as a man.
His earlier admission of overhearing her private conversation put her at a distinct advantage. But she planned to fully recover and find out exactly what he was after. Obviously, he didn't mean to kill heror he'd already have done so.
She lifted her chin and rocked back on her heels. "Who are you?"
He fired a wicked grin at her. "My name is not important."
"Then what is?"
"We don't have time for explanations right now. I need to watch television. Where is the one in your office?"
"It's being serviced."
"Do you have one at home?"
Just when he'd convinced her of his intelligence, he said something so wacko she was back to thinking he'd escaped from the loony bin. While she wanted to leave the stairwell and go down to the ground floor where she might possibly find some help, she didn't want to bring him to her home.
Yet lying to him about the television didn't seem like a good idea, either. "Yes. I have television but the cable is out."
He raised his brow as if in disbelief that both her televisions required repairs. But then he shrugged. "I'll fix it."
Before she exhaled, she found herself standing next to her car in the parking garage. How could it be? One moment she'd stood on the stairwell in her office building and the next instant she found herself twenty stories lower, having somehow crossed through tons of steel and concrete. She had no memory of walking down the stairs, taking the elevator, or going through the lobby where she'd intended to call out for help. Had he drugged her? Used a martial arts neck hold to knock her out?
Shaken, Fallon faced the unperturbed stranger over the hood of her car. "How did you do that?"
"How did we get from upstairs to down here," she snapped her fingers. "like that?"