Ethan shooed the dogs around the corner to their beds in the great room, and led Carrie to his office. It was only a few steps from the front door, but he could feel the hesitance in her steps.
Great. Another woman who was afraid of him.
The tilt of her chin caught his attention, though, making him think twice. Her shoulders were tight and she held that bag as if it was a spare parachute, but she kept her head high.
“I’m going to make us some coffee,” he said, walking down the short hallway to the kitchen. “Would you like to dial nine-one while you wait? You can hold your finger over the last one until you’re safely off the property again, if it would make you feel better.”
“Oh,” she said, blinking. “I’m not worried. I’ve got a pearl-handled 9mm in my secret pocket.”
That jolted a laugh from him. “Right.”
So it wasn’t fear he was sensing, then. He watched her surreptitiously while he put the coffee on, enjoying the interest she’d piqued in him.
“I could have a gun,” she said with a frown. “You don’t know me.”
He didn’t, but he wouldn’t mind changing that. Shiny hair, smooth skin, toned muscles touched lightly by the sun. There was a lot to interest a man.
Right, he thought. A sweet thing like this no doubt had a pleasant-faced, mild-mannered boyfriend or husband in the background somewhere.
Or maybe not. Few women used the missus title anymore and she wasn’t wearing a ring, but if anyone looked like she ought to be married, it was this woman. She had Good Girl written all over her.
“Is this a typical start to your business meetings?” she asked, glancing around herself. “Dogs? Kitchen? Coffee? Terror?”
“No,” he said. “But you’re not my typical client. And you’re not terrified. Of me or my dogs.”
She sniffed and quirked a full, pink lip.
“What kind of clients do you usually see?”
He paused, surprised by the question.
Once upon a time, his work had involved not just creating and implementing new security programs, but neutralizing cyber-attacks on multi-million dollar corporations, with the occasional homeland security consult thrown in, to keep things interesting.
Now, out of sheer boredom, and on a much smaller scale, he continued to offer that vaguest of services: security. As if such a thing could be bought and paid for.
But he’d rarely met clients in person. Being approached by an individual, a civilian, a small business owner, a woman, this was all new.
“Billionaires searching for missing cufflinks,” he said. “Starlets and sex tapes. That sort of thing.”
She raised her eyebrows but didn’t respond. Instead, she crossed her arms and sucked in a breath. She’d done that a few times, he noted. And each time, it drew his attention to the smooth skin of her throat and the collarbones that were all that was visible above the neckline of her shirt.
She also kept gripping and releasing her hands and that pretty, pink bottom lip was slightly chapped, as if she’d been biting it a lot lately.
“I’m not a billionaire or a starlet,” she said. Her voice was tight and clipped. “And mine is more of a virtual problem.”
Fidgety, pale, breathing too quickly. She hadn’t responded to the sex tape comment, which was interesting. Though by the look of her, she was probably just too embarrassed to say the words.
“As you mentioned in your email. You drink coffee, yes?”
Brandy might be a better choice but he could hardly offer her that at this time of day.
“Yes. Black. I don’t have a lot of time, Mr. Nash.”
“And I don’t waste mine, Ms. Logan. You’re having a full-fat latte. I don’t want you passing out in my foyer.”
The espresso machine started sputtering just as she did, sparing him her indignant response. He put a swirl through the foamy head and handed her the mug.
Her hands shook slightly, making a rise of foam slip over the lip of the mug. He gave her a paper towel, then led her to the office.
“Sit. Please,” he added. He spent too much time with the dogs.
He gestured to one of the upholstered guest chairs sitting opposite his massive desk and she lowered herself into it, carefully watching her beverage.
“So, what version of virtual cufflinks have you lost?”
She sipped her coffee, then set it down with shaking hands and put a small, portable drive on his desk.
“I’m a photographer, Mr. Nash,” she said, looking down at her hands. “I take pictures of family gatherings, weddings, school events, that sort of thing.”
She hesitated, then looked up. “But I used to have a different specialty.”
Her cheeks were flushed but she met his gaze evenly.
“I’m guessing it’s not professional poker,” he said, hoping for a smile. He didn’t get it. “Continue.”
“Mr. Nash.” She took another deep breath. If he wasn’t mistaken, there was a flash of anger underneath the discomfort. “This may be a small matter to you, but to me, it’s extremely important. Cherry Lake is my home. My family is here. I’ve lived here almost my entire life. I realize you wouldn’t understand this, but that means something to me.”
Ethan flinched as her mild barb struck a very sensitive nerve. She wasn’t the only one to make sacrifices for family.
“I’m not a mind-reader, Ms. Logan. Nor do you, or anyone in Cherry Lake for that matter, know me.”
She blinked, then shook her head lightly. “You’re right. I apologize. This is… difficult for me.”
He felt like he’d just kicked a puppy. He got up from behind his desk and pulled a chair next to hers. He touched her hand lightly.
“No. I apologize. How about we start again? How can I help you, Ms. Logan? Or is it Mrs. Logan?”
Pathetic. He was pathetic.
“I’m single, if that’s what you’re asking.” A ghost of a smile touched her lips. “And you might as well call me Carrie.”
“Carrie,” he said. “I’m Ethan. Pleased to meet you.”
Her eyes were very blue, he noticed, unable to look away. He liked blue eyes.
“Yeah, we’ll see,” she said, making a face. “I guess I’ll just have to show you. May I?”
She gestured to his laptop and he swivelled it around so it faced them both.
“Do a search on my business,” she instructed. “Forever Yours Photography.”
He typed in the name and watched as a string of results appeared. The first few were obviously her business site but the others looked different.
He heard Carrie’s breath catch in her throat as the first image filled his screen and as soon as his brain processed the picture, he understood why.
The girl in the photo stood in a doorway, facing three-quarters away from the lens, her face in profile. She was naked, except for a length of gauzy fabric that draped from shoulder to hip, then down her legs to puddle at her feet. One leg was bent slightly at the knee, her heel propped against the opposite ankle, allowing a shaft of light to shine between her thighs. Her arms were crossed above her head, her long blonde hair tumbling down over her back, her head tipped up, her eyes shut as if in ecstasy. Her lips curved in a slight, secretive smile.
In the background, on a table beside the window, stood a large piece of chipped blue crockery. A single rose lay on the table, its petals past their prime, beginning to fall. The over-saturated red of the petals was repeated on the lips and toenails, contrasting with the color of crockery. The rest of the image was stark black and white.
He zoomed in, wishing she wasn’t here to witness his reaction. Because, no man alive could look at these pictures without having a reaction of the most intimate kind.
“They were taken when I was in art school,” she said. “In San Francisco. A long time ago.”
Ethan cleared his throat. “So I see.”
He tried to reconcile the image on the screen in front of him with the sweet, good, proper Carrie Logan seated stiffly beside him. Her hair was the same honey blonde, smooth with a bit of wave, but the woman next to him wore it shoulder length and clipped away from her face. Her posture was almost military-like. Or maybe she was a dancer. She was thin enough.
The girl in the photo was definitely her, but she had a lushness to her, soft curves and easy lines. There was a come-hither expression combined with laughing innocence that made him think of birds and flowers and puppies and kittens.
Other images lent context, adding atmosphere and setting to the collection. The open window and ugly blue vase lent a homespun feel to the scene that turned the nude model’s flirtatiousness shockingly, unbearably erotic. He sensed heavy summer air, thick with electricity and anticipation, the deep thud of bass music, the velvet of rose petals, the smell of cloves and nutmeg, the taste of chili peppers and lemon.
He gave his head a shake.
All that from a photo?
“They’re beautiful pictures,” he said.
She gave him a disgusted look. “Here’s the information to access the back end of my website,” she said, writing it on the back of an envelope.
He hastily minimized the page in question and opened a new page, typing in the username and password she’d given him. Immediately, he could see where the problem had originated. She’d likely built the site herself, on a basic template. The security plug-in was useless to begin with, and she was three upgrades behind.
He continued his examination of her online presence. So many photos. So many smiles and friends and happy events. Carrie Logan was a well-loved person who enjoyed her life in this tightly knit community.
The question wasn’t how the photos had gotten out; it was why it hadn’t happened sooner.
“Your website,” he said, “is a sieve and your social media accounts ripe for the plucking.”
“So what are you going to do about it?”
He clicked back to the picture of Carrie and the blue vase but she reached out and closed the laptop.
“The rest is just more of the same.”
Mother of God.
He cleared his throat. “Others.”
She pursed her lips. A shame.
“I took those myself, Mr. Nash. For an assignment. But there are others. Of other women. I haven’t found any of them yet, and I sincerely hope they don’t appear. It’s bad enough having my photos loose.”
Had she put herself through school working for skin mags? Now that, he’d never have guessed.
“So these pictures,” he said. “They weren’t ever published?”
“Mr. Nash.” Her expression could have soured milk. “Early in my career I took what were once called boudoir photos. I don’t do that anymore. So can you help me or not?”
Little Carrie Logan was all vanilla cream on the outside, but underneath? The slow burn of white-hot coals. Who else, he wondered, knew this about her? And why was it so important that she keep it secret?
“The digital files are clearly linked to your site.” He turned to face her. “Ms. Logan. Carrie. I’m not sure how you think I can help. Once something’s on the internet, it’s out there. We can lock the barn door but that horse is already galloping over the county line.”
“You sound like my mother.” Her voice was chilly. “So why then, until now, have they been secure? I had them all on a separate, password-protected site, under a pseudonym. I’d more or less forgotten about them. What?”
She glared at him. People were so trusting, he thought.
“I’m sorry to tell you, but any computer science student could have accessed these photos.”
The thought obviously hadn’t occurred to her.
“But how… why?”
“You mean, aside from being bored teenagers?” He shrugged. “Who knows? But there’s nothing pseudonymous about it now.”
Her face fell. “I have to contain this. I don’t want these photos connected to my other work. They can’t be connected. Not in this town.”
Maybe they had something in common after all. Ethan got up and went to the window. The good girl with a secret. It put her in an entirely different light.
“Look,” he said with a sigh. “If you redo your website properly, adjust the SEO and keywords, install a decent firewall, it’ll be harder to make the connection – not impossible, you understand – but someone will have to make a dedicated effort.”
The relief on her face was almost comical.
“That’s wonderful. How quickly can you do that?”
“Oh,” he said. “I don’t do that sort of work. I could give you some recommendations for competent website designers. That’s all you need.”
He was the cyber security equivalent of a stealth detective-surgeon, able to identify tumors, remove organs, amputate limbs, replace lifeblood, all without the host even being aware that he was there.
She was asking him to remove a sliver from her pinkie.
Carrie’s face fell. Her soft eyes, the color of rainwater, met his and held and he found himself hoping that he passed whatever evaluation she was giving him.
Were those tears sparkling on her lashes?
No. Not tears. Anything but tears.
He did not deal in pleas. Certainly not from women with stormy eyes and milky skin who pretended courage when they were terrified, which is the only kind of courage that mattered.
He kicked himself for answering her inquiry in the first place, but something about the way she’d worded it had appealed to him. It made him wonder about her voice. It sounded like a human. A woman.
It had been a long time since he’d spoken with a woman.
He’d let her in, and now he was stuck. “Carrie,” he said, finally. “What’s the big deal? Boudoir photos aren’t new. Lots of women have them done.”
She blinked, and the sparkle disappeared. She pursed her lips again and adjusted her posture.
“Not here, they don’t.” She shook her head firmly. “Things like that aren’t done in Cherry Lake. Certainly not by me.”
“If you say so.”
But he knew better than most that people were rarely what they appeared on the surface. Even Cherry Lake would have its share, whether she believed it or not.
Suddenly he realized he didn’t like the idea of someone else clicking through the photographs with the blue vase. He felt a strange, unwelcome, ridiculous surge of jealousy, as if they were his. As if it was his responsibility to protect her.
“I’m vividly aware of how dumb I was in letting this happen, okay?” Her color was high, as was that pert chin. He had to admire that kind of spirit. “But I’m trying to fix it now. Are you going to take the job or not?”
“As a security consultant,” he said, “my job is to make you aware that there’s no such thing as security. If someone wants to hurt you, they’re probably going to find a way. Even in the sweet, sheltering arms of Cherry Lake.”
Carrie lifted her eyebrows slightly and gave one slow blink.
“Get invited to a lot of parties, do you?”
He felt unaccustomed warmth prickle his neck.
“I don’t create the truth. I just tell it.”
“It’s a wonder you have any work, if that’s your sell sheet.” She crossed her arms.
“I sell fantasy, lady.” He gestured to the closed laptop. “Just like you do.”
She sucked in a breath, making her breasts swell against the fabric of her blouse. “Thanks for your time, I’ll be on my way.”
She began to get to her feet but he waved her down.
“Stay. Sit. Sorry,” he added, wincing at the dog language. “I didn’t mean to go off on you like that.”
Her jaw slid sideways but she didn’t respond.
“And I didn’t mean to make it sound as if…”
She tilted her head sideways. “Like I ride a stripper pole in my spare time?”
The words dripped off her tongue like acid, in stark contrast to the woman in the photo, so languidly comfortable with her body, her nakedness. Her sensuality.
Ethan wondered what had turned the carefree Carrie of that photo into the uptight woman in front of him.
And what it would take to release that sensual goddess again.
Bells and whistles started going off in his head. Abort, abort, screamed an alarm. Do not go there.
Yet he had a bad feeling that this was an alarm too easily disarmed for his own good.
He lifted his hands in a placating motion. “I insulted you.”
“Damn right you did.”
“I apologize. Again.”
Seemed that’s all he was doing, lately.
She looked up at him. “Okay then. So?”
They stared at each other across the wide expanse of his desk, both breathing hard.
There was an undercurrent running between them that he could no more resist than he could define. He was attracted to her. Big time.
The pretty, proper, town photographer with the seductive past.
“Sure,” he said, finally, cursing himself inwardly. “Why not?”
End of Excerpt