This story takes place before Rich—which is due out this year.
Callum’s laptop suddenly made kissing noises in the middle of his meeting with Joe.
Joe grinned. “Should I worry about your relationship with that thing?”
“It’s Isobel. She got into the system and changed the notification sound for her messages.”
“The perils of working with your wife.”
Callum cocked an eyebrow at Joe’s perfectly pressed jeans. “You can talk.”
The American just shook his head. “She thinks I should look smart for work.”
“Aye, and now your jeans have a nice ironed line right down the front of them and your T-shirt smells like spring flowers.” His laptop started to make X-rated gasping noises.
Joe laughed. “At least Julia only irons. You’d better answer that before your laptop climaxes.”
With a shake of his head, Callum brought up the message screen.
Your 10.30 is here. He’s seriously stuck up. Are you sure you want to see him?
“It would seem Mr. ‘Brown’s’ here,” he told Joe as he typed his reply: Show him in. I can handle him.
I know you can xxxxxoxxoo
He stared at her message for a second. It was a far cry from the sort of interactions he’d had back in the army. But then again, if his CO had sent him a note with kisses and hugs on it, he’d have been seriously worried. “You ready for this?” he asked.
Joe tapped the folder in front of him. “Bring it on. Let’s see what this guy’s playing at.”
Callum had just cleared his desk when the door banged open.
Isobel’s face was green as she pointed to the distinguished-looking older gentleman beside her. “This is Mr. Brown.” She practically pushed him through the door. “Can you take Sophie for a minute?”
Without waiting for an answer, she shoved their four-year-old into the room and ran. Dressed in a Wonder Woman costume and with a bag of art materials under her arm, Sophie was completely unfazed by being dumped on them.
“Hey, gorgeous,” Joe said. “Pull up a chair beside me and keep me company.”
With a smile, she rounded the desk, climbed up beside Joe and started setting out her sketchpad and pens on the surface in front of her.
Meanwhile, their prospective client stood frowning after Isobel. In his late sixties, with a head of perfectly groomed white hair, he held himself with an air of confidence that only came with money and power. And with the familiarity of wielding both.
“You might want to look into hiring staff who behave in a more professional manner,” he said. “Your receptionist is the first impression your company makes, and my experience thus far hasn’t instilled confidence.”
Callum barely contained a growl. “That staff member is my wife, and she’s three months pregnant, which is why she ran for the toilet. It was either that or puke on the client. Which would be pretty damn unprofessional, wouldn’t you agree?”
“My apologies.” Mr. Brown tugged at the sleeves of his Savile Row suit before opening a button on the jacket. He looked pointedly at Joe. “I don’t believe we’ve met.”
Joe frowned and didn’t bother offering his hand. “Joe Barone. I work here.”
If Mr. Brown was waiting for more information, it wouldn’t be coming his way. He might rule his little kingdom, but things ran differently in the London office of Benson Security, and he had no clout there. On top of that, he’d not only insulted Callum’s pregnant wife but had made an appointment using a fake identity. Which was seriously stupid, because what sort of security company would they be if they didn’t investigate their prospective clients?
“May I?” Brown pointed at a chair, his tone making it clear he felt Callum should have invited him to sit before he’d had to ask.
“Aye, take a seat.” Callum was fast losing patience. Isobel was always telling him that he needed to be more polite, but this guy didn’t deserve the effort. “What can we do for you?”
“Clam,” Sophie snapped and handed him a drawing.
He took it and put it beside him on the pile of drawings she’d already done that morning before flashing her a smile and turning back to Mr. Brown, who was frowning at his daughter.
“I really don’t think it’s appropriate to discuss business in front of a child,” he said.
“Don’t worry. She doesn’t care about anything you have to say anyway. So spit it out. What brings you to Benson Security?” He leaned forward and clasped his hands in front of him on the desk.
“I have a delicate matter to discuss regarding my company.”
Joe flicked open the folder he’d compiled on their prospective client. “You mean Ford-Talbot Pharmaceutical and the rumor that you’re losing money?”
To his credit, the fake Mr. Brown didn’t blanch at being found out. “I see you’ve done some digging.”
“Aye, we tend to do that around here, seeing as we’re in the security business.” Callum cocked an eyebrow at his business partner’s father. “What I’d like to know is why are you here under an assumed name and why aren’t you talking to your daughter, Mr. Ford-Talbot?”
Ford-Talbot cleared his throat. The first sign of nerves since entering Callum’s office. “I thought it best to test the waters first.”
“In other words, you’re scared of Rachel’s reaction.”
He huffed out a breath, making him seem almost human. “Yes, well, you know my daughter.”
Callum snorted. He did indeed. Rachel could eviscerate a man with a few well-placed words. It was actually kind of comforting to know her family wasn’t exempt from her attitude.
“Clam!” Sophie thrust another drawing at him.
He glanced at it. They were getting better, but he still didn’t have a clue what half of them were. That didn’t stop him from keeping every single one—he even had special folders for them.
Rachel’s father frowned at Sophie before returning his attention to Callum, who just stared calmly at him. They were talking in front of Sophie or not at all. He sure as hell wasn’t going to kick his daughter out of the room to please Rachel’s lying father.
Ford-Talbot took a deep breath. “Mr. Barone is right. Rumors are swirling around my company. But the problem goes far deeper than the belief we’re losing money. I have come to believe my competition has infiltrated my company.”
Oh, now that was more interesting than Callum had expected. He cast a glance at Joe, who was all about paying attention now that they’d gotten to the juicy part of the meeting.
“You want us to find the spies and shut their operation down.” Joe said.
“And you don’t want Rachel to know.” Callum added. “I’ll tell you right now, that isn’t going to happen. I don’t keep secrets from my business partner.”
“No, that isn’t my intention.” Letting out a breath, Ford-Talbot pinned Callum with eyes identical to his daughter’s. “I want you to talk her into taking the job. I want her to be the one investigating from inside the company.”
Joe let out a low whistle. “Good luck with that.”
It was well known around the office that Rachel had nothing to do with her family business, and tore the head off anyone who asked why.
“Interesting.” Callum sat back in his chair and considered the man in front of him. “At least that explains why you didn’t go to one of the bigger security companies.”
It was Ford-Talbot’s turn to snort. “And risk the wrath of Rachel? I don’t think so. My daughter mightn’t want anything to do with her heritage, but she’d be furious if I took company business elsewhere.”
But that didn’t answer the burning question. “Why do you need Rachel to investigate? She’s the last person I’d send in.”
“Plus,” Joe said, “we have operatives here who are far more skilled. People who’ve done undercover work with intelligence agencies. They would know what to look for and have the ability to find it.”
“I realize that.” His eyes flicked to Sophie, and his gaze softened. “What do you know about Ford-Talbot Pharmaceutical?”
Callum shrugged. “Boutique company. Well respected. Your R&D Department wins plenty of government grants and awards. You have a niche market and you’re the best in it.”
“And”—Ford-Talbot tugged at his tie in a nervous gesture that seemed out of character—“we’re a family-run company.”
“Ah,” Joe said, glancing at Callum. “You suspect a family member might be involved.”
Looking his age for the first time since he strode into the office, Ford-Talbot ran a hand down his face. “I honestly don’t know, but I fear that might be the case. My son,” he paused, “is the CEO. He’s very involved in the everyday workings of the company. Very little gets past him.”
“And that’s why you need Rachel,” Callum said. “No one else would be able to get close enough to the family members involved in the business.”
“I’m afraid so.”
There was a heavy silence, broken by Sophie getting out of her chair, stalking over to Callum, and climbing into his lap. He automatically wrapped his arms around his adopted daughter, feeling his heart melt as he did so. She placed a tiny hand on either side of his face and looked into his eyes, all somber attitude.
“Can I have ice cream? Muma said no, but you can say yes, can’t you, Daddy?”
And there it was again, the word that brought him to his alloy-based knees and had him wrapped around her little finger.
“We’ll get some as soon as this meeting is over, okay?”
“Sucker,” Joe said through a cough.
Callum scowled at Joe as Ford-Talbot smiled wistfully at him and his daughter.
The older man caught his eye. “Hard to believe that Rachel used to do that.”
“Aye, very hard to believe.”
Rachel’s father broke eye contact and looked down at his hands. “I know you might not believe this, but I love my daughter very much. Years ago, something happened with the company that turned her away from the business and distanced her from family. I would very much like to amend that situation.”
“And you think the best way to do that is to sneak in here behind her back, lying about who you are?” Joe said.
“Good point,” Ford-Talbot said with a shake of his head.
The door swung open and the woman under discussion stepped into the room. As usual, she was decked out in a designer suit that must have cost the entire GDP of a small country. Her trademark black stilettos gave her an extra few inches of height and some serious attitude.
She stared down at her dad. “Father, would you like to explain why you’re in my business without informing me?”
Isobel rushed in behind her, out of breath and looking gorgeous. She’d lost that gray/green sheen she had before she’d run for the bathroom. “I tried to stop her, but I was sick and she got past me.” She smacked Rachel on the arm. “Bad Rachel! We talked about this. It’s unfair to take advantage of the pregnant woman.”
Rachel narrowed her eyes at Isobel but Callum wasn’t worried—his wife could take care of herself. “As soon as you push that squealing infant into the world, you and I are going to have a long chat about all the times you’ve struck me.”
Isobel beamed at her. “I’m so proud of you. You used the word infant without looking disgusted.” She wrapped her in a hug while Rachel stood there like a wooden board.
“Callum,” Rachel said. “Do something.”
“It’s hormones.” Callum grinned at his partner. “It should sort itself in another six months.”
“Muma!” Sophie climbed off his lap. “Daddy said I can have ice cream.”
“Did he now?” Releasing poor Rachel, she cast him a disparaging glance. “When are you going to stop giving her everything she wants when she calls you Daddy?” She took Sophie’s hand.
Callum couldn’t answer because the truth would just embarrass him in front of his new client.
“Um,” Joe said, “I think that would be round about never.”
“Dickhead,” Callum told him, receiving a grin for his effort. “Wait until you’re a father. Then we’ll talk.”
A misty glaze filled Joe’s eyes. “Speaking of which. I need to go work on that. Where’s Jules?”
“She’s working on the company accounts,” Isobel said.
Joe grinned. “Perfect. Accounts always make her horny.” He headed for the door.
“What’s horny?” Sophie asked Isobel, who groaned and followed them.
“I take it this meeting is over.” Ford-Talbot looked bemused.
Rachel narrowed her eyes at her father as she shut the door behind Isobel. “Oh, no. It’s just beginning.” She looked at Callum. “And I’ll deal with you later.”
He held up his hands. “I was going to tell you. He’s the one who came in under an assumed name. I’m innocent in this.”
“Of course you are.” She sat down and crossed her legs before glaring at her father. “Start at the beginning. Why exactly do you need Benson Security’s help?”
“Oh, it’s much worse than that, darling,” her father said. “I need your help.”
You can read about Rachel’s investigation into the family company in Rich, due out in a few months.