There’s a prologue that precedes this, but we’ll start with the first chapter for now. Enjoy!
Benson Security, London Office, Present Day
Rachel Ford-Talbot should never have allowed her father to hire her company. There were plenty of other security experts in London who could have worked with him just as easily. But no, she’d let sentimentality get the better of her, just because he’d had one teeny, tiny heart attack, and now she was the one suffering. If that wasn’t a lesson in why you shouldn’t help people, she didn’t know what was.
“I don’t see why I have to get involved with the investigation,” she told Callum McKay, one of her three business partners.
As usual, the Scotsman was in a bad mood. One that’d started the day he was retired from the SAS after losing both legs to a bomb in Afghanistan. Even though he had state-of-the-art prosthetics now, he was still permanently grumpy—unless you were his wife or his children. For them, he tried to act human.
“Because,” he said through a jaw clenched so hard it was a wonder he could talk at all, “you’re familiar with your family’s pharmaceutical company, and you’re the one who can get us close to the family members on the board.” He folded his arms over one of his many gray Henleys and glared at her.
Like that would have any impact. Honestly. Didn’t he know her?
“You have a professional spy leading the investigation.” Rachel waved a hand in the general direction of Michael Carter, whom everyone called Harvard. She had no idea why, since he’d studied at MIT. Sometimes it was as though everyone she worked with was in middle school. Shouldn’t nicknames be banned as soon as you hit your twenties? Wasn’t there a law making it so? “Surely a former CIA agent can take care of this investigation all on his own? After all, it isn’t like he has to infiltrate Al-Qaeda; we’re talking about a pharmaceutical company in Surrey. Surely, compared to investigating ISIS, getting to the bottom of some industrial espionage should be a walk in the park.”
On the other side of the conference table, Harvard sat back in his chair, relaxed and smiling. Those dark eyes sparkling at her in a challenge. Something he’d been doing ever since joining Benson Security months earlier. It was as though he knew a secret, a sexy secret, that he was willing to share with her if she’d just take a step toward him. Which was not going to happen. She didn’t do relationships. And she definitely had no intention of entering into a casual arrangement with a colleague. No matter how much he tempted her.
“Rachel,” her father said with long suffering, “you know as well as anyone that Harvard can’t get close to the family without help.”
“Then you help him. You know the company and the family members on the board even better than I do.”
The vein throbbing at his temple brought back many childhood memories. Apparently, that particular vein hadn’t even been there before Rachel was born, and she was the only one of her out of her siblings to cause it to throb.
“How exactly can I help him?” His tone was clipped. “Should I tell everyone he’s my long-lost son?”
Rachel cocked her head as she considered the idea.
“Don’t even think about it,” Callum snapped. “Nobody would buy it.”
“Because Harvard’s African American?” Rachel prodded her partner, because making him snap was too much fun to resist. “How very narrow-minded of you. Father could just as easily have had an illicit affair with a black woman as a white woman.”
“I didn’t have any affairs,” her father barked.
She gave him what she hoped was a sweet smile. “As you keep telling me, this situation isn’t real. We’re pretending, and it’s only for the duration of the investigation. If I can pretend I’m engaged to my bodyguard, surely you can pretend you have an illegitimate son.”
“And have my reputation ruined in the meantime? Do you seriously want your mother to deal with that kind of gossip? Stop being so difficult. We both know you wouldn’t let her suffer like that any more than I would.”
Roger Ford-Talbot pushed back his chair and started pacing the length of Benson Security’s conference room. Pacing was something else he seemed to do more often around her than around her brothers.
“Rachel,” Callum rumbled, “just suck it up and do the bloody job. You’re best suited to it and you know it. How hard can it be to pretend you’re engaged to Harvard? You hardly take your eyes off each other anyway.”
Harvard cocked an eyebrow at her in challenge. Daring her to deny Callum’s claim. Like she cared one way or another what any of them thought.
She absently tapped her red nails against her iPhone screen. “My strengths lie in business management, not in espionage. Or even in any type of fieldwork. And goodness knows I’ve been in enough field situations to know I’m not suited to it. I don’t see why we can’t just give the job you want to give me to Harvard. As Director of Special Projects, he’d have no problem getting close to the family members employed at TayFor.”
“Because,” her father said as he paced, “the company would never appoint someone to a role like that without them going through the interview process, and that involves the whole board. There would be no way to guarantee he got the job, and even if he did get it, it would take months to get him in place within the company. Months where this thief is free to steal whatever they like from us. Whereas you’re a family member and a shareholder, so you could take up the position without delay, or any argument from the board.”
Which reminded her—she was still angry about that little deception too. “When I turned thirty, I told you that I didn’t want my shares in the family company. I told you to get rid of them.”
“And I assumed you were making an emotional and irrational decision that you would regret later, so I kept them for you.”
Callum snorted. “Aye, the first thing anybody thinks when they meet Rachel is that she’s emotional and irrational. To listen to you talk, I wonder if we know the same person.”
Her father ran a hand through his pristinely coiffured silver hair. “Regardless of everyone’s perception of my daughter, it’s a good job that I kept hold of her shares in Tay-For. Otherwise there wouldn’t be any way to get your team in place to investigate the family.” His head fell forward and he shook it. “I can’t believe that it’s come to this. I can’t believe that someone I trust is stealing from us.”
Rachel rolled her eyes. “Really? You can’t believe it? Uncle Theo’s on marriage number five while the payments for his first four marriages are crippling him financially. Not to mention we have no idea what connections the new wife brought into the family. I believe he picked this one up in a strip club. Cousin Rupert has a well-known gambling problem—the problem being he never wins. Aunt Clarissa has been in rehab three times. And when she relapses, she’d sell a kidney to get a fix, so it isn’t a stretch to believe she’d sell company secrets instead. And that’s just scraping the surface. Who knows what everyone else is doing in behind closed doors? Although I’m sure that information will be fascinating once our tech team digs it up. You may as well face facts; we’re a family of criminals. We just do it wearing Prada.”
To emphasize her point, she brushed some imaginary lint from her black Prada pantsuit.
“Do you really have to be so facetious, Rachel?” Her father dropped back into his seat, looking frustrated. “This is serious. Someone almost stole the details of our flagship drug. We’ve invested ten years in research and development for that drug, and if there hadn’t been a glitch in the system, the information would have made it into the hands of our competitors. If anyone had put it into production before us, it would have meant millions of pounds down the drain. Who knows what our spy has already sold or is planning to sell now? All I know is that if we don’t stop them fast, it will be the end of the company. Is it too much to ask that you sacrifice a few weeks of your life to help prevent that?”
“Is it necessary to be so dramatic?” she asked him.
“Apparently it is, because you aren’t taking this seriously.”
“Oh, I’m taking it very seriously. I just don’t think I’m the best person for the job.”
“You’re the only person for the job.” Callum thumped a fist on the table. “Stop being such a whiny wee wean.”
Rachel gave him an icy stare. “If you’re going to insult me, could you at least do it in English?”
He made a growling sound that was neither Scottish nor English.
Harvard shifted in his seat, drawing all eyes to him. The seams of his blazer strained against his shoulder muscles as he sat up straight. She couldn’t help but appreciate the cut of his jacket and matching black shirt. They’d obviously been tailored to fit his larger-than-average frame to perfection.
When she eventually looked at his face, he had that secretive little smile again. She frowned, and he smiled wider.
“Gentlemen,” he said, his focus still on her, “could you give us the room for a second? I think Rachel and I have to discuss this alone.”
“I disagree,” Rachel said as her father and Callum practically ran out the door.
“Don’t forget we’re having a family dinner tomorrow night,” her father called over his shoulder. “We’re expecting you at seven. No excuses.” He caught Harvard’s eye. “I’m hoping you’ll be able to bring your fiancé along too.”
Callum cut her off. “Family later. Work now.” And then he slammed the door shut behind them, leaving her alone with the man who drove her crazy—even in her dreams.
She narrowed her eyes at the tall black American with his rich brown skin and dark, dark eyes. “There’s nothing to discuss. I’m not a security operative. I’m a managing partner.”
“I disagree.” He clasped his hands on the table in front of him. “I think what you are is a coward.”
Rachel gave him a cold smile as she drummed her blood-red nails on the tabletop. “I don’t much care what you think. As I pointed out earlier, I’m your boss. I gave up worrying what employees thought about me before I turned ten.”
“I’m not one of the maids at the family mansion. And you’ve been involved in the security world long enough to know that the team leader has authority over every member of their team. Even if that member is a partner.”
“You might be team leader, but I’m not a member of your team.” She stood, slinging her favorite Hermes handbag over her elbow. “This discussion is over. I’m sure you’ll find a way to run the investigation without me.” She walked around the table, heading for the door. There was a bottle of Merlot at home calling her name.
“What’s the problem exactly?” Harvard turned in his seat to face her. “Are you worried your high-class friends and family will think less of you for bringing home a black man? Aworking-class American black man at that. They’ll know I’m your employee—especially seeing as I’ll also be playing the part of your bodyguard. They’ll think you’re screwing the help. Tut-tut. That’s even worse than good old Uncle Theo.”
If he thought his poor attempt at riling her would get results, then he was seriously deluded. “I don’t have to explain myself to you, and as I’ve said before, I don’t much care what you or anyone else thinks either.”
He got out of his seat and positioned himself between her and the door. “Or maybe it’s the thought of returning to the company you’d once planned on running. The company you suddenly turned your back on ten years ago. Is that what’s freaking you out? One day you’re talking about becoming CEO of Tay-For, the next you’re gone, and telling the family to give away the shares you’d inherit. Why did you walk away, Rachel? I’ve done some digging, and no one seems to know.”
Which is exactly how she planned to keep it. “Not everyone follows through on their childhood ambitions. I simply outgrew the family business. And I seem to have outgrown this conversation too. Prove you’re the ace spy we were led to believe you were when we hired you, and do the job without me.”
Instead of backing off, as most reasonable people would have done, he took a step closer. For a second, it seemed as though the air was rushing from the room, and she felt quite light-headed. Harvard always smelled like the ocean. Like freedom. Or recklessness…
“Tell me what’s going on and I’ll help you,” he said softly.
Jumping beans started bouncing in her stomach. “Nothing’s going on. I just don’t want to revisit the past. Or deal with my family on a daily basis. There’s nothing you can say that would make me go undercover with you, so you may as well give up.”
“How about this?” He lowered his head to whisper against her ear, making her shiver as his breath swept over the sensitive shell, “The word around the office is that you’re scared to play the part of my fiancée. People are saying you won’t be able to separate fact from fiction.” He touched her hair, running the straight length through his fingers, and she swore she could feel it right to her toes. “There’s a betting pool. Ryan’s bet a thousand pounds that you won’t be able to resist me. In fact, most of the bets are on the side of you giving in to the attraction between us.”
“There’s no attraction between us.” Had that sound breathier than usual? No. No, it hadn’t. She sounded the same way she always did—cold and distant. Exactly how she liked it.
His eyes warmed. “Oh, Rachel, I know you’re gonna lie to me, but you should at least be honest with yourself.”
She forced a snort of amusement. “Arrogance isn’t an attractive trait in a man.”
“Arrogance, or confidence?” His lips skimmed the flesh beneath her ear, and it felt as though every inch of her skin was electrified. There were only a few millimeters between their bodies, and the heat from his much larger frame engulfed her. She felt warm when usually she felt cold. He was lulling her into a false sense of security. Teasing her with his presence. Daring her to reach out and close the distance between them.
She took a step back instead.
His smile was pure male amusement. “You should know that I placed a five thousand pound bet you’d be in my bed before the mission ends. What do you think my chances are?”
“About the same as getting me to fall for this juvenile attempt at reverse psychology. Did you really think I’d jump at the chance to prove you and the other idiots placing bets wrong?”
“No, but I thought you might like to prove the women on the team right. They all bet against me.” He gave a self-deprecating smile. “Elle said there wasn’t a guy on the planet who could tempt you if you’d already decided against him. Megan placed a side bet that you’d shoot me before the investigation was over.”
Now that was interesting.
Damn it, the man was playing her, and she was beginning to fall for it. Although, it would be good to prove him and the other annoying men she worked with wrong…maybe…
She seriously considered whether being close to Harvard would be a problem for her. Sure, he was big and sexy and had muscles that made her mouth water. But that didn’t mean she had to give in to the urge to touch. She was famous for her stubborn streak. It’d helped her resist princes and Hollywood stars. She could definitely resist the advances of one overly confident ex-spy.
All amusement disappeared from his face. “We really do need you on this, Rachel. If there was another way, we’d have found it by now. Without you, we just won’t have the access to people that we need.”
And, unfortunately, he was right. They all were—even Callum. But she didn’t have to like it. “Fine,” she said with a good measure of bad grace. “I’ll play my part, but that’s all I’m doing. Don’t expect anything else.” She brushed past him to open the door. “And tell the idiots who bet against me to get their money ready. I don’t lose.”
“Oh, you wouldn’t lose, Rachel. Even if you did give in, you’d still come out a winner. I’d make sure of it.” His voice was a purr of promise that made her thighs clench.
“You know what they say about a man and his ego,” she said as she walked away. “The bigger the ego, the more he feels he has to prove.”
His deep, echoing laugh followed her as she strode past reception and out into the London sun. Hailing a cab, she took a deep breath and straightened her shoulders. There was no place for emotion in this. The decision was made. She was going back to Tay-For. And to the past that she’d fought to leave behind.
I hope you enjoyed your first taste of Rich. You can order the rest of it here if you did: Order Rich