Authors: Rebecca Zanetti
“Does the NSA know about this job?” A low thread of something dark wove through his words.
She blinked and told him the first lie of the day. “Yes.”
His chin lifted. “Ah. Interesting.”
She crossed her arms. “What is interesting?”
“You’re a terrible liar, Piper. I like that.” His eyes warmed.
She kept silent, not wanting to compound the lie. What was wrong with her? Every time the guy said he liked something about her, flutters heated her abdomen. He was the
Now she worked in a covert military organization, and she needed to learn to lie better. When she’d moved to Utah, she’d known of the job’s secrecy. Sometimes duty required sacrifice, she’d been told. Something whispered inside her head that the man in the cell had seen plenty of sacrifice. “I’m not lying,” she muttered.
He lowered his chin. “You seem like a smart woman, so I have to ask you, does lying to the NSA seem like a good idea? Does an organization, one that professes to be part of the U.S. military, lie to the NSA?”
The back of her nape tickled. Sometimes, the NSA didn’t want to know everything, which was why it hired out organizations such as the one she now worked for. That much, she’d figured out on her own without the covert training she was currently undergoing. “Nobody is lying to the NSA,” she said evenly.
She cleared her throat. Time to get back to the job at hand. That’s what he was, and what he had to remain. Merely a job. Her time of rescuing stray pets had ended, and she had to stop his attempts to dig into her head. “So far I haven’t been able to reconfigure the code algorithm or to gain a connection between the computer and the chip. The code changes every thirty seconds, so you need the connection to make it work and to pause it. Help me to save you.” Maybe he didn’t want to be saved.
“You really want to help?” he asked, his gaze intent.
“Yes.” She had to prove her usefulness in order to stay, and more than anything, she needed to stay. Plus, now she
wanted to save the man in the cage. The Russians didn’t get to decide when and how he died. The American courts would.
“Then give me the codes and the computer,” he said.
They’d warned her he’d try to work her, and she’d scoffed. Now she saw the reason for the concern. Nobody should be that charming. “How exactly am I supposed to get you the computer?” she asked.
“Help me get out of here.” He dropped his hand. “You’re good, I admit it. But I’m better, and if I had the chance at the computer, I could fix this.”
He was lying. She shook her head. “If you could save yourself, they would’ve given you the chance. You want the computer to contact your allies. The commander warned me.”
That easily, that quickly, Jory turned from an amenable charmer into something… impenetrable. Cold swept the gray warmth from his eyes, and his jaw firmed into a shape harder than granite.
The mask slipped to reveal the killer deep inside.
For the first time, she had no problem imagining him as the bad guy. “I knew you were in there somewhere,” she murmured.
His chin lifted, and his nostrils flared. “You have no idea who’s in here, green eyes. No idea at all.”
“Was it the mention of your allies that did it?” Her knees trembled with the raw need to escape danger, even though he was contained. The hair sprang up on the back of her neck, and her fight or flight instinct bellowed for her to flee. Would a mere cell wall keep a man like him trapped? Somehow, she didn’t think so.
“No allies. Just how well do you know the commander?” Jory asked, his lip twisting.
Piper shrugged again and swallowed over a lump in her throat. “Pretty well. Considering he’s my father.”
IPER STRETCHED HER
neck while her heels clicked on the hard tile in rapid succession. She shouldn’t have told Jory about her father, but as usual, her mouth moved faster than her brain. Considering the neurons in her brain fired quicker than the speed of light, her mouth was a freakin’ miracle.
The brief file she’d studied about Jory showed his proficiency with making connections with people—especially women. Charming them and gaining trust. He’d tried with her, and damn, she’d seen the appeal.
But she had a brain, and she wasn’t some dumb girl to be manipulated. She had to prove that to herself as well as to her father.
Her strengths lay in her mind and computer skills, and she wouldn’t allow any feminine, romantic silliness to get in the way. Not this time.
A swipe of her key card opened a heavy metal door into another secured area in the compound. While gorgeous mountains surrounded them, she’d been spending too much time surrounded by concrete blocks and alarm systems. Yet the computer facilities, the hardware and software, the sheer connection of the place filled her with warmth and pleasure.
These were better than the systems at the compound two hours into the flatlands, but those were being upgraded. She bit her lip. Right now she had the perfect setup and didn’t want to move two hours from town. Why couldn’t they just stay there like they had the last two months?
If she saved Jory, maybe she’d be allowed to work in the satellite office and stay put, which would also keep her mother happy. Her mom was still pissed she’d taken the job. Finally, Piper reached a closed office door at the end of the lonely hallway. She knocked.
The powerful voice straightened her shoulders and lifted her chin. She opened the door and stepped inside, instantly assailed by the scent of gunpowder. Her hands shook, but she forced herself to stride inside and stand by a sprawling wooden desk. “Commander.”
Dressed in a black soldier’s uniform, his unfathomable eyes serious, he nodded toward one of two metal chairs. “Sit.”
She obeyed, crossing her legs and keeping her shoulders back to match his ramrod straight posture. Being nervous was just silly, but her hands sweat, anyway. Taking a deep breath, she braced herself. “I haven’t been able to fix the connection to the prisoner’s chip yet.”
“We only have a week until the chip engages.” The commander sat back, his sharp gray buzz cut gleaming in the harsh fluorescent lights. “I thought you were the best.”
Actually, after talking to Jory, she might be second best. “The bullet’s impact damaged the chip. I plan to write a new program tonight that may bypass the safeguards put into place earlier, which will hopefully reengage the chip. Hopefully awaken it, if you will.” Her stomach swirled with the need to please him.
His eyebrows drew down. “Is there any chance the chip is completely dead and not just off-line?”
“It’s possible, but I certainly wouldn’t count on it.” The chips had been expertly designed to withstand external pressure, but nothing could remain damage-free from a direct impact from a bullet.
“Then I suggest you remember the clock winding down.”
She swallowed. “I’ve only been close enough to the prisoner to try a wireless connection for a day.” Before that, she’d spent her time rewriting the program, trying to find a different program, or trying to destroy the program, as per her instructions. Letting her get so close to the prisoner with a computer and a wireless connection was their last shot at saving him.
“Humph.” Disappointment rode the grunt hard. “A couple of years ago, when you decided to hack into my system and then taught yourself the chip program and how to manipulate it, I figured you’d be dedicated to solving my problem.” A light that looked suspiciously like pride glittered in his dark eyes.
She shook her head. “I hacked into your servers trying to find my father, you, after an old college roommate of my mom sent her a box of stuff she’d never retrieved from their storage unit. Finding the chip program had been a coincidence.” She’d found the picture of her father and had instantly begun investigating the mysterious commander. Of course, the second she’d discovered the intricate program, she’d set to figuring it out.
And had gotten caught.
She’d never forget the military soldiers showing up to arrest her and toss her in a cell. The lawyer she’d met had urged her to make a deal for ten years in a federal prison.
Then her father, the one she’d never met, had stepped in and saved her ass.
She owed him, but Jory’s questions about the NSA swirled around her head. “How come you didn’t want me to tell anybody at the NSA that I went to work for you?”
The commander shrugged. “You earned your internship with them on your own, and you should be proud of that. Then you went back to school and graduated before earning
this job. Right now, is there any reason to let the NSA know you’re working here?”
She wiped her hands off again. Was there any reason? “I guess not.”
He leaned forward. “We provide vital assistance to the United States government, and some of our work is off the books, as is necessary when defending a country and way of life. I have little care if you let the NSA know you’re working here, but I don’t see the reason.”
It wasn’t like she’d really made any friends there between the work, her schooling, her part-time job, and her mother. And it seemed like the commander didn’t really care if she contacted the NSA, so obviously he wasn’t hiding anything. “I understand,” she said.
If he needed her, she could stay and actually get to know him better, and he seemed impressed with her talents. Every time he’d given her a glimpse into himself, she’d found herself intrigued and wanting to know more. For years, she’d dreamed of her heroic father, and when she’d tracked him down, she’d been thrilled. “I’ll fix the chip.” God, she shouldn’t make that promise. What if she couldn’t keep it?
“I hope so,” he said, no expression on his hard face and the light disappearing from his eyes.
Piper swallowed, her gaze sliding to take in the large office and myriad of antique guns, all killing machines, decorating the walls. Nothing but the desk and two chairs sat in the room, leaving the overall effect as masculine and stark. Just like her father. Would he have been the same—so distant—if she’d known him as a child? “I could also use another pair of hands tomorrow using the second computer in the room. Any ideas?”
The commander nodded. “Yes. I’ll have an aide sent to
you as soon as I can have it arranged, as I assume the new program will be written by then?”
“Yes.” Even if she had to stay up all night, she’d figure out a way to reach the chip. “I appreciate the chance to work here and try.”
He focused on her, no expression in those midnight black eyes. “You proved yourself in your grades and the internship work with Homeland Security. However, if you’re unable to succeed, our genetic bond won’t matter when it comes to working here.”
“I understand.” Her stomach lurched. She couldn’t fail now that she was so close to getting to know him finally. The idea of having her parent think of her as a failure, especially in her chosen field, tightened her stomach until it hurt—especially since her taking the job had pissed off her mother so much. This had to work out somehow.
His gaze gentled. “Even if you can’t write the code, you’re welcome to stay in Utah. I find I like having you here.”
Her throat clogged, and she blinked. He liked having her there? It was the nicest thing she’d ever heard from him, and all her silly, childhood dreams came crashing back. She smiled, barely keeping her lips from trembling. “I’ll figure out how to bypass the computer safeguards. It’s our only chance.”
“Good.” He clasped large hands together on the desk. “After such a rough start with computers, it’d make me proud to see you succeed here.”
Proud? “Okay.” She owed him her freedom, without question. “I know where I’d be right now had you not interceded.” She paused and met his gaze directly. “You saved me.”
The commander lifted one dark silver eyebrow. “I would’ve become involved in your life before you ended up in trouble, had I known you existed.”
She interlaced her fingers to keep from wringing her hands. “My mother said you lived a very dangerous life,
and she wanted to keep me safe from it.” From the numerous armed soldiers in every passageway, her mother hadn’t exaggerated. Although keeping a child from her father didn’t set well with Piper, either. “I’m sorry we hadn’t met earlier.” Attending the father-daughter dance at her high school with her softball coach had left an empty place in her belly for a week.
Then at her lowest point, her father had swooped in and saved her.
“I’m glad I realized who you were when you hacked into my system,” he said softly. He eyed his watch. “You’re my daughter, and I couldn’t very well let you go to prison for hacking, now could I? Once I discovered your aptitude, I saw a future for us together, and I need the help.” He glanced at his computer and back to her.
Piper breathed out. He needed her. Now all she had to do was figure out the program, save Jory, and get her mother to relax. “You do understand that I was trying to find you and not just hack into your system, right?”
“I do.” He smiled—a very rare sight. “Of course, once in my system…”
She winced. “I know. Curiosity is the bane of all hackers.”
“Keep in mind what it does to cats.” He lifted an eyebrow.
A chill swept down her back. “I know.”
He cleared his throat. “Has your mother come to terms with your working for me?”
Piper bit her lip, her stomach hurting. “Not really. While I was growing up, she said you were a super-spy for the government who could never contact us.” The dreams Piper had spun of her hero of a father showing up to be in her life, to take care of her flighty mother, had never quite died. She looked around the secured room. “Which was actually the truth.” So why did the truth hurt so badly? “I just wish she would’ve let you decide whether or not to be in our lives.”
He tapped long-tapered fingers on his immaculate desk. “Well, you can’t blame her too much. I do live a dangerous life, and her job was to protect you. She did so admirably.”
True, but now it was time to let Piper make her own decisions. At her lowest point, sitting in a jail with reality smashing her in the face, her father had swept in and rescued her. The government had dismissed the hacking charges, and from that day forward, she’d wanted to please him. To make him proud, even though her mother had argued vehemently against any relationship. “I feel like we have an opportunity to get to know each other now.”
He eyed her. “I thought that’s what we were doing.”
Most men failed at the emotional aspects of relationships, a fact she’d learned the hard way with boyfriends and a disastrous engagement that ended with her fiancé sleeping with not one, but two, of her bridesmaids. At the same time.
Finally, she was in the same place as the commander, and this might be her only chance to get to know him in person. To prove she was worthy and that he could trust her. Her mom rolled her eyes at the thought, saying Piper’s romantic notion of a father didn’t mesh with the reality. But the man didn’t seem to have anybody, and she could be there for him. “I don’t even know why you became a soldier.” It seemed to define him. Hell. It was him.
He rubbed his strong jaw. “My father was a soldier.”
She stilled and then took a deep breath. Carefully, like a scientist approaching a grizzly, she spoke slowly. Finally, some answers. She had a grandfather. “Is he still alive?”
“No. Died when I was eight.” No expression crossed the commander’s face. “The official reason was something about Agent Orange and cancer, but in truth? He wasn’t strong enough. If he’d been stronger, he would’ve beat the poison dropped by our enemies. Soldiers need to be invincible.”
She swallowed. Nobody was invincible, and how odd to demand it. “What about your mother?”
He shrugged a massive shoulder. “She died giving birth—also not strong enough. But she was a woman, so—”
Piper sat up and tilted her head to the side. Her paternal grandmother had died so young and without knowing her child, and something ached in Piper’s chest. But he couldn’t be saying—“So?”
He shook his head. “Nothing. Is that enough information for you?”
“No.” For once, she held her ground. Did he think women were weak? Her eyebrows drew down, while stubborn will welled up. “Women can be just as strong as men.”
His face smoothed into a smile. “Perhaps, but women shouldn’t be soldiers.”
Her breath caught. “Sure they should.”
“No.” He shook his head. “War is for men.”
She sighed. Ah ha. So he didn’t understand women at all. Interesting. That was probably a debate for another day, and she would get through to him. He never asked about her, but maybe that was because he didn’t know how to communicate with anybody not in the military. “Without parents, who raised you?” She tried to squint and see the lost little boy he must’ve been, but only the larger than life leader took form.
“My uncle. Great soldier.” The commander nearly grinned. “Taught me to shoot with an expert’s aim.” He rubbed his right shoulder. “Made sure I learned not to miss.”
Heat uncoiled down Piper’s throat into her stomach, her instincts flaring. “How?” she whispered.
“Any way he needed to. Once I missed two targets in a row, and he broke my arm.” The commander tapped his keyboard and studied his computer screen. “I have a meeting, Piper.”
Her hands shook while she forced herself to stand. Nausea filled her stomach. God. The poor little boy who’d grown into such a hard man. Her heart hurt for him. “Your uncle didn’t have the right to harm you.”
The commander’s eyebrows drew down, and he pursed his lips. “He trained me, not hurt me. Soldiers need training.”
Wow. Okay. Serious minefield there. Even so, for the first time, she could see beyond the soldier’s image. Had her father never experienced love? Maybe she could help him. She cleared her throat. “I wondered if you’d like to come over for dinner sometime soon.” She’d been issuing the invitation for months, hoping they could form a relationship outside the concrete walls, but he’d always refused.