Liane Peyton stood outside the imposing building that housed Radcliffe Enterprises in the business quadrant of the city called SouthEast. On the top five floors of this monstrosity were the offices of Radcliffe Software and Web Design, where her new boss, Emmett Radcliffe, was waiting for her.
It was an incredible opportunity for someone who, up until two weeks ago, had been writing code for web designs that no one bought, because her former employer no longer had customers. The company was broke, after years of mismanagement and embezzlement had finally forced it out business. She was lucky to have found this job.
She hated leaving her father and maternal grandmother behind in CentralEast, but the long-term care facility where they now lived was the best in that town, and their care was free. She couldn’t ask for better than that. And, it’s not like they would realize she’d moved over five hundred miles away. For the past six months, neither one had recognized her when she’d gone to visit.
Liane took several deep breaths, inhaling the piped-in air of this bustling underground city, and steeled herself. This was not the time to dwell on the past. She was twenty-eight years old with an MBA in web design, could write code as well as anyone she knew, and she really needed this job. The competition for it had been fierce, as it always was these days for anyone with IT skills. She knew people with her same skills who were washing windows or delivering take-out food for a living.
She’d have been a fool to turn down this opportunity, no matter what city it was in. Travel between cities took forever but was unrestricted. She could return to see her father and grandmother as often as she wished, and whenever she could find the time.
Liane walked inside, putting on her game face, and waited while the receptionist keyed in her name. A green light illuminated the panel above an elevator behind him. The receptionist gave her a fake smile and pointed. “Top floor. His administrative assistant will meet you.”
“Thank you.” She entered the elevator and pushed the button for the fifteenth floor. Rarely were buildings so tall in any of the underground cities. She imagined the view from this one would give a vista of most of the town.
As the car ascended, she took in the clean scent of wood and the intricate scrollwork on the panels lining the car. Even the elevator looked and smelled like money, and that was a far cry from the dingy walls and slightly moldy scent she’d been used to since earning her MBA and taking the first job she could find.
As soon as the doors opened, a woman dressed in a sharp navy suit with her hair pulled back into a ponytail greeted her with a cold smile. Liane hoped this wasn’t a harbinger of things to come. She wasn’t sure she could be happy working in a company where no one was warm or genuine. “Miss Peyton?”
“Yes.” Liane stuck out her hand. “Call me Liane.” When people assumed she was single she rarely corrected them. She’d lost her wedding ring when the storm came through that had destroyed the town she lived in. Since she hadn’t had it on for very long to begin with, there was no mark on her finger.
The woman didn’t shake her hand. “My name is Tania. Follow me. Mr. Radcliff is expecting you.”
The dark, oppressive décor didn’t do much to lift her spirits as Tania led her through so many twists and turns, Liane was convinced she’d spend months lost in this building. Finally they stopped before a set of double doors bearing a ridiculously large brass plaque that read, “Emmett J. Radcliffe ~ President”.
Tania knocked, and then a rich sexy voice called for them to come in. Tania opened the doors and stepped aside so Liane could enter. Liane stood rooted to the spot when Emmett rose from behind a long, curved wooden desk. “Thank you, Tania. I’ll buzz if I need you.”
Tania nodded once without another glance at Liane, and then she closed the doors behind her. Liane stared at Emmett as he sauntered toward her with his hand extended. His grin was warm, but held an unmistakable predatory quality. What the hell had she gotten herself into here?
“Well, there you are, finally.”
He reached her, but Liane didn’t move. She’d never met the man. The interview had been conducted over a video chat, but the feed had been so distorted that day he’d abandoned the video portion and finished the interview by phone. He’d hired her at the conclusion of the call.
She’d seen pictures of him online, but they did not do him justice. Liane was mesmerized by his ice blue eyes and all that dark, wavy hair, cut in a style too long for a man of his position. It gave him an adventurous, dangerous quality that sent her pulse racing and made her clit throb.
She cleared her throat and forced her brain cells to synapse once more. “I’m a bit late.” When she shook his hand, sparks flew up her arm. She’d read about shit like that in trashy romance novels, but never believed it really happened to actual human beings. She’d been wrong. “The traffic was heavier than I expected.”
He shook her hand with a strong firm grip and a dry palm, the grin still in place, and his eyes twinkling with amusement. “Yes, I’m afraid the replacement of drain pipes is taking three times as long as they estimated it would, and has slowed down transport to a crawl. Do you live close enough to walk? That might be a better option until they’re finished with this project.”
At least he wasn’t upset with her. That was a good start. “I don’t know yet. I came straight from my old place this morning.”
His grin faded, and he still hadn’t let go of her hand. “In CentralEast?”
“Yes. I hope the construction doesn’t slow down my moving company by too long.”
“You mean you aren’t even moved in yet?”
“No. I gave the apartment manager at my new place permission to let the movers inside, and asked him to have the boxes stacked up in their respective rooms. The cartons are marked, so even if they screw that up, I’ll still know where to find everything.”
Emmett finally let go of her hand. “Well then, I should let you go and take care of getting settled in today. You won’t be able to concentrate on work with that on your mind.”
“Yes, I will. I don’t worry about things like that.”
He nodded slightly, gave her an appreciative smile, and then swept his hand toward a wall of windows and the conference table in front of it. “Have a seat. Let’s discuss your duties.”
She took a seat facing the windows, and instead of sitting across from her or at least leaving a chair or two between them, he sat right next to her. She caught a whiff of his cologne. Expensive, unassuming, and sexy as hell. Liane moved away slightly, with the excuse of getting a better view of the town. “It’s very pretty here. I love how they planted palm trees and bushes only found in the southern states above ground.”
“That was the idea.” His voice washed over her, smooth and easy. “When the cities were planned in 2072, the architects at BrentCait Enterprises wanted them to resemble the states under which they were built. That’s why they’re divided up in this way. Each one lies underneath what used to be several states.”
She averted her gaze. It was difficult not to think of her life above ground whenever anyone mentioned it. How long would it be this way? Or would she always return to that time in her mind? Liane knew people who were thrilled to live underground, but she wasn’t sure she’d ever grow used to it or be content with it.
He hadn’t asked about her background or family during the interview, but it wouldn’t take a genius to dig up the truth. Surely a man who was president of the web design and software division of a multi-billion dollar communications corporation knew how to find personal information on an employee. If he asked, she’d tell him, but she hoped she wouldn’t have to. Especially not on her first day.
“Yes,” she said, forcing a light tone to her voice. “I remember reading about the architects and the planning of these cities in school. I believe you know the actual Brent and Cait Easton, is that correct?”
His smile was full of amusement. “You’ve done your homework. I do know them, and I’m good friends with their son, Ace.”
Arturo Charles Easton was as much a legend in the communications industry as this man sitting next to her was. Her new boss obviously had friends in high places. Even if he did sit too close to his employees. “In the interview you said I’d be on the design team for new websites. Is that correct?”
He narrowed his eyes slightly and leaned back in his chair, tenting his fingers under his chin. “That was my original plan, yes.” She watched him push a button on the console at the edge of the table, and a tablet unfolded from a hidden compartment. It was then she noticed grooves in the table in front of each chair. How convenient. Instead of staring at each other during meetings, everyone could watch their own tablet.
“I hired you because of your accomplishments in graduate school, not because of the work you did for that crook.”
Liane bit back a smile. She knew it was no secret what her former boss had done, but it was refreshing to see someone of Emmett’s caliber not sweep it under the rug or try to dismiss it as a “mistake”. “I did some pretty good work for him before the company went under.”
Emmett brought up a website which she couldn’t quite see yet. “I know that. It’s not only good work you did. It’s amazing. You have a natural flair for design.” He turned his gaze on her and let it roam lazily over her suit, bare legs, designer pumps and then back up again. When his eyes finally met hers once more, the room was way too warm and her heart was racing. “Even the way you dress tells me you have an attention for detail, and you like things to line up nice and neatly. It’s why you write code so well.”
She shifted her weight, wondering where the hell this was leading. If this man turned out to be nothing more than a sleazebag who tried to get her into bed, she’d be disappointed. The rumors about him ranged from a notorious flirt all the way to a lecherous and dangerous man, but she had hoped they were also exaggerated or downright false. Now, she wasn’t so sure.
He swiveled the mechanism on which the tablet sat so she could see the screen. “Remember this?”
She stared at the website, hardly daring to breathe. Sweat broke out along her hairline and under her arms, and she had to clasp her hands in her lap to stop them from trembling. “Where did you find this?”
“I’ll take that as a ‘yes’.”
“Yes, I remember it.” She felt his eyes boring into hers but couldn’t meet his gaze. “It was a joke. A college prank. They told us they had taken it down.”
“They did,” he said quietly. “But the Internet is forever, Liane.”
“Then why did you hire me?”
“Because you’re beautiful and talented, and I need people like that on my teams.”
She sighed out loud and finally forced her gaze to meet his. “Is that what this is all about? You hired me merely to blackmail me into your bed over something I did when I was eighteen? Emmett, that was ten years ago.”
He had the grace not to look surprised, but he did laugh. She should have been angry at the laugh, but it held an undercurrent of nervousness, which confused her so much that she stayed in her seat. “You’re direct. I like that, too.” His attention roamed over her face and then into her cleavage. He tapped the screen. “Want to tell me about this? And I don’t mean the official version I read in the university disciplinary hearing transcript. Tell me the story behind it. The real story.”
It didn’t escape her notice that he hadn’t answered her question, but it did dawn on her that he wasn’t upset about this. Intrigued, she settled back in her chair, and unclasped her hands. “On one condition.”
The corners of his mouth turned up. “I’m not sure you have any bargaining chips.”
“You’re right. I don’t. But there is something I need you to agree to before I tell you this, because knowing the truth won’t only affect me. There were others involved, and I don’t want this to come back to bite them.”
He tilted his head slightly. “Why do you care what happens to the others?”
She swallowed hard. This was exactly what she had not wanted to do today. Dredge up the past. As she stared from that damn website to his handsome face and back again, she realized she only had two choices. Tell him everything, or walk away and try to find another job.
“Because one of the people who helped me build this site was my late husband, and if he still has family alive somewhere, I never want them to find out this website is still accessible.”
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