When the subjects of Beth Whitney's favorite fantasy and worst living nightmare walked through the office door together, the day from hell took a nosedive.
And really, that shouldn't be possible. Only Beth's shocked vision was telling her that it was. In Technicolor.
It wasn't bad enough that she'd woken early to avoid the alarm clock only to discover that rather than sleeping like good kittens, Mozart and Beethoven had spent the night shredding the perfect silk drapes she'd installed on her condo's living room window only a month ago. The toaster had burned her bagel and her mom had called with yet another candidate in her campaign to rejuvenate Beth's nonexistent love life. All before eight-thirty a.m. and her arrival at work hadn't improved a thing.
Her in-box had been filled with the usual urgent requests, but two messages had sent her head spinning. They were hiring a new agent and her boss wanted the new recruit's office ready by early afternoon. And Ethan Crane was back from his latest assignment and working out of the home office for the foreseeable future. Which meant that she was back to catching glimpses of him that sparked erotic fantasies no good girl would admit to...even to her very best friend. Even to her cat.
And he would tease her...just like he always did, making her notice him. Upping feelings she'd rather pretend did not exist and none of which she would ever allow herself to act on. Not only was the man way out of her league, but he was all wrong for her. He was an agent. He was also too sexy for words and the one man she didn't think would balk at her most secret daydreams.
She balked at them though.
They scared her to death. Almost as much as he did. And there he was. Looking so darn edible, her mouth watered and her feminine center wept. She tightened her thighs and prayed it wasn't going to be a two-pairs-of-panties day.
Maybe she should have let her mom fix her up with Mr. Eligible. Beth needed some kind of diversion to stop her body reacting so strongly to Ethan's presence.
The only problem was, no other man measured up. Not even her worst waking nightmare. If seeing her former fiancé for the first time in three years could not tamp down her body's response to Ethan, nothing would.
Following the two men and wearing a look of benign benevolence she knew was a better cover than sand camouflage in the desert was her father. He was also her boss, which was why she didn't leap from her chair and demand to know why in the heck he hadn't seen fit to warn her of Alan's arrival.
Okay, so it wasn't as disturbing as Ethan's, but her dad had no way of knowing that. For all he knew, seeing her former fiancé for the first time in years was shredding her wounded heart. She almost laughed at the image that thought provoked. Her dad was neither maudlin, nor poetic.
She would settle for marginally sensitive, but that seemed a far off dream too.
All three men were talking and didn't notice her reaction to their arrival. Thank goodness. Her dad saw far too much as it was. She managed to school her expression into a cool smile just as Ethan's green gaze landed on her.
Even mentally prepared for it, her heart ran wild and the secret desires she'd been fighting since coming to work for her father nearly two years ago pooled low in her belly.
However, she managed to keep her breathing and her voice relatively even as she said, "Good afternoon, gentlemen. Ethan, you have two critical messages on your voicemail and a follow up on email. I assume you had your phone off during lunch?"
The subject of her most private fantasies smiled in a way that always sent shivers to interesting, if embarrassing, places. "We didn't want to be interrupted."
Darn. It was definitely going to be a two-pairs-of-panties day.
"I assume I've got a few messages that can't wait either." Her dad's faintly narrowed gray gaze said he'd noted her slight in dealing with Ethan's stuff first.
Good. She'd meant to annoy him. Not unduly. She was a professional after all, but there was no way that he could not know that he should have warned her that he was bringing Alan Hyatt into the office. Only as usual, he'd ignored her feelings and done things his own way, no doubt with some scheme in mind. He never did anything without a plan, but whatever it was, she had no intention of falling in with it.
She and Alan were done. Period.
A man who stood you up at the altar did not deserve second chances. And if her dad could not see that then he was blinder than she'd always believed. A man that vision impaired shouldn't even have a license to drive. And she'd tell him that too, when she got a chance.
Right now, she would do her best to project professional decorum. "Yes, Mr. Whitney. You have several messages, but the most pressing is probably the one from the White House."
His jaw clenched. He hated it when she called him that. He agreed she couldn't call him "Dad" in the office, but he insisted she at least use "Whit" like the agents did. When she called him "Sir", he knew she was annoyed. When she called him "Mr. Whitney", he knew he was in deep trouble.
His eyes were acknowledging that truth now. Smart man.
"I'll leave you to show Alan to his new office while I go take care of it then," he said.
"He's working here?" she asked, her composure cracking slightly as the reality of why the other man was with her father sank in. "He's the new agent?"
"That's right," her dad affirmed with subtle punitive relish. "I'm sure you'll do a fine job of making him feel welcome."
She'd make someone feel welcome...like the State Department's internal auditor...in her dad's private files. Her eyes glittered with promise her dad chose to ignore as he bid the two agents a good afternoon and headed to his own office.
Oh, he was so going to hear about this later.
"If you're busy, I can show Hyatt his new digs," Ethan offered as the silence stretched on after her dad's hasty exit.
She looked up at him and then at Alan, her usually quick thought processes sluggish in the face of a situation she'd never, ever, not in a million years and a day, expected to face. Her dad had hired the man who had humiliated her in front of friends, family and political hangers on.
"Are you too busy, Beth?" Alan asked, his dark eyes probing, his tone implying more to the words than was on the surface.
He was tall, dark and dangerously attractive. He knew it too, but for a while she had been someone special to him and vice versa. If he really was going to be working for The Goddard Project, then she would have to learn how to deal with his daily presence. She might as well start now.
Besides...it might be a good idea to set a few things straight. She didn't know what her dad had told Alan about her, but whatever it was, she wanted him to know the truth.
Their past would stay in the past.
She smiled at Ethan, though her jaw felt like cracking from the effort. "Thanks, but it's fine. This is part of my job. And you have phone messages to answer."
Ethan nodded, but didn't turn to go immediately. His green gaze was locked on her with disturbing intensity, as if he was trying to see inside of her to that place she kept hidden from everyone else. She couldn't imagine why. As far as she knew, the sandy-haired, to die for good looking agent considered her a talking piece of office furniture.
Wet panties and over the top fantasies aside, that was exactly the way she wanted it too. "Did you need anything else?"
Ethan shook his head and turned to leave, no indication of discomfort at being caught staring in his manner. His tall, muscle honed frame moved off down the corridor with easy grace she both admired and envied. The man was too confident for words. And too much of everything else besides.
"Do you two have something going on?" Alan asked.
Beth's gaze jerked back to him. "Me and Mr. Cool? I don't think so. You, of all people, should know I don't date agents."
"You were an exception I lived to regret."
"I'd rather you regretted walking away."
She stood up, unwilling to rehash the past in such a public setting. "Well, I don't. Sorry."
He sighed. "People make mistakes, Beth."
"And most of us try to learn from them. I certainly learned from mine." She started walking toward the office that had been prepared for the new agent. For him. And darn it all anyway, her dad known that. "Come on. I'll show you your space and explain the computer system and pass codes."
He didn't reply, but he did follow her.
Once they were in the office, she showed him his graphic interface computer.
"Everything is biometrically coded. Once your fingerprint is logged into the system, you can change the computer so only you have access."
She pressed her finger over an electronic eye on his desk and a flat screen rose into view. "Right now, I have access to your system, but it doesn't have to stay that way."
She touched the screen and the login box appeared in the center. "All computer systems have a triple security level access. Your fingerprint brings up the screen and then you log into the basic operating system with a password that changes daily." She typed in the password on the keyboard that had appeared when she touched the screen. "To get into your personal programs and files, there is another password which you can change as frequently as you feel the need, though the agency suggests doing so at least weekly."
"Do the other agents have you coded into their systems for access? Does Ethan Crane?"
"Most of them do, but some don't," she said, ignoring his reference to Ethan. She didn't know why he was fixating on the other agent, but she wasn't going there. She did enough fixating of her own in that direction. "I don't care either way. The accessibility of your system to me is mostly for your convenience, not mine."
He touched the screen with his finger and the application he'd brushed over opened up. Another touch and a picture on the screen zoomed to twice its size. "Holy shit. It's completely touch interactive."
"It gets better." She touched some things on the screen and a holographic three dimensional model of one of their latest lab gadgets appeared in front of the screen. She dismantled it before his eyes by touching the right places on the mirror image on the screen. "You can go 3-D with any graphic with the capability."
"It will probably be another year or so before even the screen is available on the consumer market and longer than that for the holographic imagery to make it to market, but we have access to some of the worlds most advanced technology."
"So do the bad guys...or so I've been told."
"Right. That's the point of our organization. To stop technological advancement making it into the wrong hands."
"Your dad told me The Goddard Project was put together during World War II when it was discovered that civilian scientists who our own State Department were ignoring were being spied on by our enemies."
"And their technological advances were being taken advantage of while we dismissed them as crackpots."
"Like Samuel Goddard."
"Yes. His rocket propulsion concept made it into German hands without his knowledge and we didn't even have a clue until our own military spied on their experiments."
"That's when we started taking rocketry seriously."
"And a host of other things."
"Hence the name The Goddard Project?"
"Didn't Dad tell you that?"
"We were discussing my first case actually." Alan leaned back against the desk, crossing his long legs encased in slacks at the ankles. "He told me you'd be happy to fill in the blanks on the background of the organization."
Of course he had. She was going to kill him. "There isn't much more to tell. TGP never got disbanded, but it stayed ultra top secret over the decades. Unlike a lot of agencies, it never got top heavy with political brass either. I find it amazing that in a town like D.C. the secrecy thing has remained so strong. Our funding comes from the State Department, but almost no one knows we exist."
"I sure as hell didn't."
"Which just goes to show that the FBI doesn't know everything."
His lips quirked. "No, I guess it doesn't."
"Don't feel badly. Until I got clearance to work for him, I thought my dad just worked for the State Department. I'd never even heard the initials TGP. I don't know if my mom knows to this day what agency her husband works for."
"And you haven't told her?"
"Yes, of course. Anyway, I keep my word."
"I do too, honey. When I can..."
"You would die rather than give up state secrets, I know."
"I'd die for some other things too."
"The past is over, Alan. Please don't bring it up again and please don't call me honey. We're co-workers now. Nothing more." Three years ago, the way he was looking at her would have melted her bones, but she didn't feel anything anymore.
Nothing at all and she was really glad. Fantasizing about Ethan had been good for something. She had to stifle the grin that thought brought.
"I'm sorry about what happened, you know."
"You said so at the time and I believed you, I really did." She sighed. She guessed it had to be said once more and with feeling. "But I also knew that if you could stand me up at the altar for the sake of a case, there would be a lot more situations in which I'd come a poor second to your job. I wouldn't have tolerated that very well. For both our sakes, I'm glad I realized that in time."
"It could have been good, damn it."
"No. I'm not forbearing like my mother. I would have insisted on coming first sometimes...most times if you want the truth. You could never have given me that."
He ran his hands through dark hair cut short to FBI standards. "What I do is important."
"I'm not denying that. I'm really not, but the relationship between a man and woman is important too. Face it, there just wasn't any hope for us."
He sighed. "I didn't want to believe that then and I don't like it now, but I can see you still mean it."
"You haven't spent three years pining, I know you haven't."
"No." He smiled, his eyes acknowledging the hit. She was sure he'd had a much more active love life in the past three years than she had. "But I've never felt the same about another woman and I spent that time wondering what could have been."
"Nothing good. Nothing truly permanent. Not even if we had gotten married." She'd never even shared her deepest fantasies with this man.
Fantasies she sensed Ethan would understand and maybe even get into, but ones she doubted Alan would have taken seriously or been willing to act out.
When she'd realized that, she'd also realized that she'd held a lot of herself back from him. Lack of trust because he was an agent...or just a man? She'd never decided which, but it didn't matter. He hadn't loved her enough to put her first and she hadn't loved him enough to tolerate his job or trust him with her innermost being.
They were actually pretty lucky they hadn't ended up married. They would have hurt each other. She was sure of it.
"If you say so." He stuck his hand out. "Friends?"
She smiled and shook the proffered hand. "Friends."
She finished explaining the computer system and how to access central agency intelligence to him, then took him on a tour of the facility. He was impressed with the gadgets lab. All the agents were. Men and women alike, they didn't get recruited for TGP unless they were well versed in and enamored of the high tech world.
He reached out to touch a pen that had a micro-computer and phone in it.
Vannie, the head of the lab, smacked his hand. "Don't touch. We're still testing that one."
Alan yanked his hand back and grinned down at one of their best developers. "Hi, my name is Alan Hyatt. I'm the new recruit."
"I'm Vannie and I'm busy." She looked at Beth. "You got that supply thing worked out with the chip manufacturer?"
"They're working on it, but we're probably going to be getting our product from Koo Lim. Is that a problem?"
"I need it now. How long is that kind of shipping going to take?"
"They can get here the day after tomorrow."
"Good." Vannie turned to go.
"I heard that," floated over her shoulder as she disappeared in one of the lab cubicles.
"Watch it. Vannie isn't just one of our best developers, but she's in charge of assigning gadgets for field operations."
"In other words, don't piss her off or I'll be carrying last years technology into battle."
"Something like that."
"I heard that," came out in a growl over the cubicles wall and sounding ten times more menacing than Vannie's reaction to the surly comment.
"She may be diminutive in stature, but she makes up for it in attitude and she's too shy to be comfortable with comments on her looks."
"Her? Shy?" Alan asked in disbelief as Beth led him from the lab before he really annoyed the other woman.
Beth just laughed, but she wasn't kidding. Not really. In the lab, Vannie was a fire breathing dragon, but out of it, she was quiet and definitely wary of men.
"I always wanted to be 007 when I was a kid," Alan said as they walked back toward the main office and her desk.
"I think most of the agents here did."
"Even the women?"
"Hey, don't knock Jane Bond...when they run out of movies to make on James, they're going to start on her."
"Is there such a thing?"
"In someone's imagination and in our department...yes. We've got a couple of female agents that would make Old James look like a has been."
"I believe it. I'm looking forward to meeting them," he said with a wink.
They were both laughing when they reached her desk.
Ethan was standing beside it, his six foot, three inch frame towering over her empty chair. His sandy hair looked like he'd run his fingers through it and his green eyes were watching her with barely concealed impatience. "There you are."
She was used to his impatience, but not the unnerving way he was looking at her. Like he was really seeing her. She'd been noticing him for over two years...but the reverse. Well, it was a totally new sensation, and not altogether pleasurable.
Those feelings zinging along her nerve endings weren't pleasure, they were trepidation. Right. Of course they were.
"I was helping Alan to settle in."
"For over an hour?"
"What? Have you been buzzing my desk every five minutes, or something?"
His lips flatlined, but color scorched his sculpted cheekbones, confirming her teasing suspicion.
She stared at him in shock. "I've got my cell phone on me. All you needed to do was call it."
"It wasn't that important."
It had been important enough for him to come and hover over her desk, waiting for her return.
"I didn't think you'd be gone that long," he added.
"She was just giving me a tour of the facility," Alan said, measuring the other man with an indecipherable expression.
"Impressive, isn't it?" Ethan asked, with some pride, his tone and expression as if the antagonism had never been there.
"Very," Alan replied.
Ethan had been recruited for TGP right out of special agent training and had been with the organization for nine years already. The possessive pride made sense...the antagonism did not. Unless he saw her as an extension of the agency and thereby as belonging to him first and the new recruit second. Strictly in a professional capacity of course.
But she'd never seen this kind of territorial behavior in him before. It was really odd...and just a little exciting. Even if she knew it had nothing to do with her as a woman, or even being a person really.
Too much about this man excited her.
In her opinion, he was the best operative they had. Which also made him the worst candidate for her sexual fantasies imaginable, but she couldn't stop thinking about him that way. She was just glad he didn't have any idea about the thoughts that went through her head when he was around...or when she was alone in her bedroom at night.
Ethan fixed his attention on her and her whole body tightened with primal anticipation she fought to hide. "I need some things from you."
Now why all of the sudden did that very frequent and very normal request sound so indecent?
It was all she could do to bite her tongue and hold back an offer of anything he wanted.
"I'll see you later, then," Alan said, drawing her eyes back to him.
He saluted her with two fingers like he used to do before saying goodbye. She nodded abstractedly and scooted around her desk to take her chair. Ethan was back to watching her with that strange, inner shiver inducing expression. And he was standing much, much too close.
"What?" she finally asked in exasperation after several seconds of silence.
"What's going on between you and the new recruit?"
"I don't think so. Earlier, you could have cut the undercurrents with a knife and just now he was looking at you intimately."
"Intimately? I don't think so." She knew Alan's intimate look and that hadn't been it. It had been more his "just friends" look. She was pretty sure. Three years was a long time...his looks could have changed.
"You're wrong. He was looking at you like he knew you intimately."
She rolled her eyes, putting on a good show of humored indifference, but inside she was gasping for air. Where was all this personal interest coming from? She couldn't afford for Ethan to start to notice her as a person. Her feelings for him were precarious enough as it was.
"You're imagining things," she dismissed.
"I'm a good operative, Beth."
He smiled in acceptance of the compliment and leaned back against her desk, his strong thighs only inches from where her hands had automatically gone to rest on her keyboard. "I got that way by relying on my instincts. I'm not imagining anything."
She pulled her hands from the keyboard and pushed her chair away just a little bit, but the move did nothing to diminish the impact of his nearness. She could smell his expensive aftershave, the crisp clean scent of his designer t-shirt and signature black jeans, even the faint fragrance of boot leather so close to her. He was surrounding her with his presence as effectively as if he'd touched her and her heart wasn't going to bear the strain. Neither were other, more demanding parts of her body.
She took a deep breath and nearly cried out at dumb that had been as every sense went up a notch in awareness of his masculine appeal. "Even if you aren't, and I'm not conceding anything, it's none of your business."
She was really proud of how calm and firm she sounded.
But he looked totally unmoved by her declaration. "Maybe, but I'm curious. And when I'm curious, I always find out what I want to know."
"Curiosity killed the cat."
"Not any cats I've known. You can tell me, or I can find it out for myself. I'm good at that sort of thing, baby."
He'd never called her baby before and he said it so seductively that the word went through her like a five alarm fire, sending every nerve ending clamoring for things she could never allow. How she maintained her composure, she had no idea, but she managed it. Years as the daughter of a mostly absentee father and mother who made Machiavelli look like a political novice had been good for something, she guessed. She'd learned to hide her emotions early and had to draw on every scrap of that ability now.
"I don't know why you'd waste the time bothering, but whatever floats your boat. Be my guest." She waved her hand in the air as if it didn't matter to her one way or another.
It did though. She didn't need her public humiliation rehashed around the water cooler. But she wasn't all that worried, even though she knew Ethan was an extraordinary agent. He could only find out her past from two people and she didn't think either of them was going to talk. At least they'd better not.
He reached out and touched her. Just a light brush with the back of his fingers along her jawline, but it sent the desires inside her careening out of control. "Don't worry, Little Beth, I intend to."
"Why?" she asked, meaning more than his determination to know her past. But why had he decided to start treating her like a flesh and blood woman now? Why did he care about her past? Why had he touched her?
He shrugged. "Like I said. I'm curious."
The words hit her like a smack in the forehead. Curiosity. Nothing else. He wasn't touching her sexually. He didn't feel the sensual pull toward her she felt toward him. If she wasn't careful, she was going to make an idiot of herself.
She surged up from her chair, stepping toward her filing cabinet as if there was something in it she wanted. "You said you needed something."
"Yes, Beth, I need something all right."
The words were like dark sorcery, filtering through her mind and wreaking havoc with all sorts of connotations she knew he didn't mean. But with a superhuman effort, she managed to maintain her professional façade and answer the question that had him so impatient to begin with.