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Excerpt: Nothing Personal

Excerpt: Nothing Personal

Book 2: The Kincaids

Prologue

Desiree was cold. She was so cold.

Her head hurt really bad, too, like something sharp was pounding into it. She tried to raise her hand to touch it, but the pain sliced through her chest, hot and hard, at the movement.

“Mommy,” she whimpered. “Hurts. Mommy.”

She could hear noises, long, low groans, but it was dark, and she couldn’t see. Then she heard the voice, not mad anymore. Scared.

“Lacey? You OK? Lace?”

Desiree was scared too, so scared she couldn’t have moved even if it hadn’t hurt so bad. She was crying now, the tears trickling, warm and wet, down her icy cheeks. And she kept moaning. She couldn’t help it. The same word, over and over.

“Mommy. Mommy.”
 
She woke up clammy with sweat, not sure if she’d said it aloud or not. The tears were there, hot, salty rivulets exactly like the ones in the dream, and the cold was the same too.

Because she’d kicked off her comforter, that was why, and the temperature had dropped, the previous day’s sunshine merely the false promise of late October.

The sadness dragged at her, black and heavy, trying to take her down, under the waves. But she couldn’t afford that, especially not right now.

She reached a hand out for the switch of the bedside lamp, sat up in the pool of light cast by the pretty frosted art glass shade. Swung her feet to the soft surface of the area rug beside her bed and stood, shivering a little in the chilly bedroom. Pulled off her wet undershirt and dropped it into the wicker hamper, found another one in the top drawer of the mahogany bureau, settled it into place, and immediately felt better, less chilled. She sat down again and took a long drink of water from the glass on the bedside table, then switched the lamp off and scooted to the other side of the bed, the clean, never-used side. Pulled the sheet and down comforter up, making herself a cozy nest against the cold and dark.

The dream, sure sign of anxiety, still hovered around the edges of her mind, threatening the sleep she needed if she were going to be at her best the next day. And that wasn’t going to work, so she set about replacing the dark images with a meticulous catalogue of every feature of her cottage. The chandelier in the living room, the rug with its floral pattern in shades of dusty rose and soft green, the small hand-painted wooden table that sat beside her couch.

By the time she got to the robin’s-egg blue of her stove, she was fading. The last thing she saw before sleep took her was the antique glass doorknob of her bedroom, the rubbed, dark bronze fittings around it. Leading into this room, where she was warm. Where she was safe.

Coffee Break

“Shoot.”

Alec heard the soft exclamation, the clatter of multiple small objects hitting stone, and turned. Well, he turned the rest of the way, anyway. Because he’d already been half-watching her, had seen the moment when the important-man-in-a-hurry had bumped into her as she reached the doorway to the lobby, causing her to lose her hold on her purse in her haste to secure her coffee and laptop case.

Now, she crouched as best she could in the slim skirt and narrow heels, scrambling to retrieve the bag’s contents, spilling out over the polished granite floor of the high-rise office building.
Alec stepped out of line and bent to grab a rolling lipstick, a tumbling apple. Handed them to her along with a little notebook, a couple of pens, the energy bar and the tiny container of Tic-Tacs. He let her pick up the travel toothbrush, the metal case with the pinup girl on it. He was pretty sure that was for tampons, because his sister had the same one, and that she’d rather get it herself.

“Thanks,” she said, looking up with a smile that turned a little frozen when she met his eyes. That was puzzling. She looked down again, finished stuffing items back into her purse, picked up her cup of coffee from the floor where she’d set it, and straightened.

He stood along with her. She was taller than he’d realized, her slimness causing him to misjudge her height from a distance. Only three or four inches shorter than his six-two in her heels, and they weren’t that high. He’d already checked them out, along with the rest of her. Gorgeous honey-colored skin, great bone structure, clearly visible with her hair pulled back into a businesslike twist. Classy all the way around, in a deep brown suit with a pencil skirt and belted jacket that showed off her figure, and that he’d been appreciating. A deep yellow top underneath the jacket that contrasted with her auburn hair. And, he realized as he kept looking into them, a pair of truly spectacular eyes.

Tiger eyes. Brown flecked with gold, a deeper brown edging the rim. Tilting up at the outer corners, and he didn’t think it was just the eyeliner. And he was staring.

“Thanks,” she said again with a brief smile.

“Got your lunch, anyway,” he offered. It was lame, he knew, but he had to say something, because he didn’t want to let her get away.  

“Yeah.” She smiled a bit at that. “Didn’t spill my coffee, that’s the main thing.”

Her voice was low, soft. Sweet. A little husky. Her voice said sex. Long slow kisses and cool white wine. And, much later, tangled sheets and breath returning to a heaving chest. That feeling you had when you were lying beside the woman who had just taken you all the way around the world.

Yeah, that’s what her voice was saying. But those tiger eyes weren’t saying anything of the kind. They were wary, watchful. The full, soft lips, painted a conservative rose, were curved in a cool smile.

Her voice said touch me. And her eyes said don’t you dare. It was all very confusing. And the hair was standing up at the back of his neck. Something about her . . . Something . . .

“You’ve lost your place,” she pointed out. “Go get your coffee. Thanks again.” She turned and left the shop without looking back.

He considered following her, gave it up after a split second’s hesitation, and went to get back in line. He had a meeting coming up, and the shot of caffeine would help, though he didn’t really need it. He was fired up, and he was ready.

Because he wasn’t some nerdy programmer, tongue-tied at the sight of a beautiful, confident woman. He was Alec Kincaid, poised at the start of yet another spectacularly successful venture, Master of the Universe.

And his touch was gold.

 
It’s Not Personal, It’s Business

“So there you have it,” Alec said three hours later, sweeping the conference table with a glance that made brief contact with each of the venture capital firm’s board members. He offered his best dazzling smile, proven one hundred percent effective to date in three out of three road shows exactly like this one. “That’s Hal. The best virtual assistant software ever, the one that’s going to reset the bar. Just a little something that’ll change the world as we know it.”

“You’re asking for ten million.” That was Ron Jacobs, EnVisitech Capital’s managing partner. “That’s over 120 percent more second-round funding than last time.”

“Because it’s 200 percent more project than the last one,” Alec answered smoothly. Objection One, right off the bat, just as he’d anticipated. “And if you look back at Page 17, we’re projecting a five-year ROI that’s more than 250 percent higher than the projections I showed you three years ago. And that one paid off pretty well, as I recall.”

“It did,” Ron agreed, as the rest of the board looked back through their presentation packets, or gazed at Alec with unreadable expressions. “But there were some bumps in the road.”

Alec made a dismissive gesture. “There are always bumps. Show me a startup without any bumps, and I’ll show you . . . Well,” he laughed, “I can’t even show you one, can I? Because they don’t exist. But we’ll sail right over those bumps. We’ve done it before, and we’ll do it again.”

Ron exchanged a glance with the man to his left, a finance wizard named Calvin Tang whom Alec had never cared for much. Buttoned up, like all finance guys. Focusing too much on the bottom line, and losing sight of the top line, of the limitless revenue potential that would pay the bills, and make all of them rich. Alec forced himself into patience, never his strong suit, and waited.

“We’d like a little more documentation. A little more . . . insurance. Regular assurance that AI Solutions is on track, and is going to stay that way,” Ron said after a pause.

“Whatever you like,” Alec promised easily. “We’ve got a new Ops guy just about to come on board who’s got some pretty fantastic credentials, and we’re ready to roll. You’ll see all the reports you could wish for.”

“We’ve got an alternative arrangement in mind,” Ron said, and the look in his eye left Alec in no doubt, despite the mildness of his words, that he meant business. Ron wasn’t a yeller, but he hadn’t got where he was by being soft.

“Rae Harlin,” he said now.

“Ray Harlin?” Alec said blankly. “Who’s he?”

Ron smiled a little. “You’ve never heard of Rae Harlin? Not exactly keeping up with your industry journals, are you? Quite the up-and-comer, Rae, with all due respect to your candidate.”

“On the technical side, I’d say I’m pretty current,” Alec said, keeping his cool with some effort. “Operations, I’ll grant you, I’m not up on all the latest.” And he’d been out of the loop for a while, but that wasn’t the kind of thing you reminded people about. Not when you were asking them for millions of dollars, you didn’t.

“Exactly,” Ron said. “Hence the insurance.” He rose from his richly padded black leather chair with athletic ease, reminding Alec that Ron, despite the gray hair, still played handball three times a week.

The older man stepped around the deeply polished mahogany table, walked across the large conference room with its panoramic view over the San Francisco skyline, and opened an interior door, leaning inside for a few words. Then stood back and held the door for a woman who walked past him and seated herself composedly, raising her gaze politely to Ron and waiting for him to continue.

Alec was never at a loss, but he was at a loss now. It was the woman from the coffee shop. What was she doing here?

“Meet the fourth member of your executive team,” Ron said. “Rae Harlin, your new CFO.”

“Oh, hell no.” That was Joe, on Alec’s left. The words were muttered, but Alec heard them. He’d been listening to Joe mutter since their freshman year of college. When he was writing code, Joe’s patience was limitless. And when he wasn’t, he could get a little . . . intense. He wasn’t happy now, and neither was Alec.

“I have a candidate,” Alec insisted. “A good one. You can see his resume on Page 34.” He recited from memory, as always. “I prefer—we prefer to choose our own team.” His glance to left and right took in not only Joe, but Brandon Matthews, in charge of sales and marketing for their fourth new venture. Fourth time lucky, Alec could feel it. Just like the third time, and the two before that.

“You can choose your own team, if you like,” Ron agreed. His tone was affable, his eyes weren’t. “And look for funding someplace else.”

“We’ve done well with you, Alec,” he went on when Alec would have retorted. “This isn’t personal, it’s business. At this level of risk, we want accountability. And we want adult supervision.”

“Adult supervision,” Alec repeated.

“That’s right,” Ron said. “We know you’re good on the tech side, and so is your team. But it’s not a frat house, and it’s not somebody’s garage. It’s serious money, and serious business. We want to back your venture, but it’s up to you. Accountability that satisfies us, or find yourself other funding.”

“And, Alec,” he said, pulling the younger man aside when, at last, the meeting was over. After Alec had pulled the mask back on, smiled and shaken hands across the table with Rae Harlin—who’d still barely spoken a word, just fixed those tiger eyes on him in a level, assessing gaze that he found oddly disconcerting—and promised her he’d call her later in the day to set up a time to meet. When she’d left the room with the rest of Ron’s group and Alec’s two partners, and Alec was preparing to do the same.

“I’m saying this to you alone,” Ron said now. “But I’m saying it seriously. This part is personal. Keep it zipped. This industry’s about to hit a wave of sexual harassment litigation that’s going to make the last couple decades look like a company picnic. Companies have got to start toeing the line, or it’s going to come back to bite them. That’s one reason I insisted—and make no mistake, I’m the one who insisted—on Rae. You’ve always kept the work under wraps, though she’ll be keeping a good eye on data security too. But privately, or not so privately, you—you personally—have earned yourself one hell of a reputation. Don’t let it screw you up, or screw us up, or you’ll regret it.”

“I’ve never harassed a woman in my life.” Alec forced the words out through lips that had stiffened. “What I do in my personal time is nobody’s business but my own.”

“Then,” Ron said, “we have nothing to worry about, have we?”

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