Thursday, January 7, 2016

Entire First Chapter of A COVERT CONQUEST

Chapter One

Rissa Kerry sighed in frustration as the bustle on her damn bridesmaid dress got caught again in the scrollwork of her chair when she shifted in her seat. Who the hell wore bustles anymore, and how had she ended up in this bridal party?

She’d known Sallie, the bride, from before everyone was forced underground seven years ago, and they were acquaintances still, but hardly BFFs. Sallie had begged her to be in the wedding, whining that she barely knew anyone she could ask. Rissa only knew two other bridesmaids, so she had no clue where Sallie had found the rest of them. She guessed they might be part of Cason’s family or group of friends. The man Sallie had married seemed to know everyone who lived in SouthCentral.

Rissa nearly tore the dress disengaging the bustle from the chair, and then went into the bathroom with the intention of finding a way to remove the damned appendage for good. Her ears perked up when she heard voices coming from the long row of stalls, because Olivia Marin’s voice was one of them. She’d know that annoying tone anywhere. The rant about a laptop didn’t stop as Rissa entered, and she wondered if Olivia even knew or cared that someone else was in the bathroom.

Who was she talking to? Rissa peered into the room with the stalls, but didn’t see anyone. Was she on the phone? Olivia was Sallie’s cousin, and Rissa had the unfortunate luck to be having lunch with Sallie the last two times Olivia had visited from NorthCentral, where she and her husband, Rob, lived.

Travel between cities wasn’t quick, but Olivia made the trip several times a year to visit her favorite cousin. She had not, however, been asked to be in this wedding. Rissa hadn’t bothered asking Sallie the reason why. She didn’t care.

Sallie had brought Olivia along to lunch without letting Rissa know she was going to do it, and it had been all Rissa was able to do both times to hold down her food. The next time Sallie wanted to go out to lunch, Rissa first intended to make sure her cousin wasn’t visiting.

Rissa turned so she could look into the mirror, and began trying to detach the bustle. She stopped at the sound of a male voice.

“For fuck’s sake, Olivia. I don’t know what else to say. All I know is the alarm company called and someone broke into the fucking house. I told you I should have brought along the damn laptop. They took it!”

That was Rob. She’d met him for the first time today, but he had a distinctive voice she now recognized, which meant he was in a stall with Olivia. Why were they arguing in the bathroom? They were both so odd.

“I didn’t know you left one of your laptops home,” said Olivia. “What’s the big deal? The same info is backed up on both, isn’t it?”

“God, you’re a stupid bitch. Yes, the same info is on both, but now they have one. With names and dates.”

Names and dates of what? Holy crap. What were these two into? Rissa flattened herself against the wall, standing as quietly as possible but ready to bolt if they emerged from the stall.

“They don’t know what they have,” said Olivia. “It was a common theft. They’ll wipe the hard drive clean and sell it, or take it apart to use for rebuilds.”

“Unless one of those fucking Weathermen took it.”

Rissa nearly gasped out loud. She worked for one of the men who called themselves the Weathermen. Did Barclay Hampton know what this was about?

“You’re jumping to some mighty big conclusions here, Rob. You told me the police said it was a routine break-in and they only took high-tech gadgets. That doesn’t sound like a planned robbery by one of the Weathermen to me.”

“Are you calling me paranoid now?”

Olivia was a piece of work herself, but how could she stand being married to this asshole?

“Yes, I am! You have been ever since Ace fired you. If you’re so damn convinced they’re onto you, why don’t you stay offline for a while until they back off?”

Oh fuck. Onto him for what? Rissa glanced around, wishing she had something to write with. Barclay needed to know about this, and she couldn’t even record it since she’d left her phone on the table.

“Because people need to know the truth about them,” said Rob. “If your stupid friend hadn’t got herself fired, we’d have everything they know by now.”

“Isabelle tried to hack into systems that you should have known would never let her get inside. She got fired because you forced me to blackmail her with that damn video.”

Blackmail? Hacking into systems? What the hell had these two done? Who was Isabelle? Had she worked for one of the Weathermen? Is that whose systems she had tried to get into?

“And now we have two less inside people,” said Rob, “because Rafael or whatever the fuck he calls himself these days has left the country, and he won’t be allowed back in.”

Inside people. This was bad. She needed to get out of here and call her boss.

“He was careless,” said Olivia. “He shouldn’t have set the strip mall on fire. That was stupid. If he’d just kept his head down he’d still be a foreman on that job, and he’d have an inside track to Damien’s company.”

If Olivia meant Damien Rivera, Rissa knew that name. He lived in SouthWest and ran a construction company. He was one of the Weathermen, too.

“No, he wouldn’t. They found out about the lumber pricing scheme. They were going to fire him anyway.”

Rissa realized she’d have to memorize all this. She had no idea how much of this Barclay already knew, but she had to tell him what these two had said.

“You still have an inside person at Hampton Data. Maybe she knows if one of the Weathermen has your laptop?”

Fuck! Rissa held her breath, waiting for one of them to say a name, but three women walked in, talking loudly and laughing. Rissa glared at them. When she heard one of the stall doors open, she slipped out of the bathroom. She didn’t want Rob or Olivia to know she’d been listening.

The bustle would have to wait. She retrieved her phone and went outside, walking away from the building and ducking around a corner to make the call so no one would see her. She had worked at Hampton Data Recovery Services for almost a year, but if she’d exchanged words with Barclay ten times, that was being generous. However, this could not wait until Monday morning. She had to find someone who had his personal phone number.

He might be at the office. The man worked all the time. When he’s not out with his woman of the month, that is. That much was true. He was in the tabloids more than anyone she knew. It was Saturday night. He was likely on a date, but she took a chance anyway and called his office phone. It might go to voice mail, but it was worth a shot.

“Hampton here.”

Rissa nearly dropped her phone. “Um, hi. This is Rissa Kerry. I work for you. That is to say, I work on one of the data recovery teams under—”

“I know who you are, Rissa.”

He did? That was news to her. Sure, she’d spoken to him, but wasn’t aware he’d connected any of their brief exchanges with an actual person.

“Oh, okay.” Could she sound any more idiotic if she tried? “Um, I’m at a wedding, and I just overheard a conversation that you need to know about.”

“Oh? You’re not drunk, are you?”

That voice! So full of sexy humor. Did he always sound that way on the phone?

“Not even close.” Rissa glanced over her shoulder, but she was alone. “May I assume you know who Rob and Olivia Marin are?”

His hesitation answered the question in her mind before he spoke. “Yes. Why do you ask?”

Gone was the sexy humor, replaced with suspicion and possibly fear. What the hell had she stumbled upon?

“The wedding I’m at is Sallie Davis’s. Well, Sallie Davis Pease, now. She’s Olivia’s cousin, and this is what I just overheard Olivia and Rob talking about.” Rissa outlined what she’d heard, making sure to include the key points about blackmail and having inside people, including one at Hampton Data Recovery Services.

He didn’t speak for so long after she finished that Rissa thought she’d lost the call.

“And you didn’t overhear a name?”

“No. Other women came into the bathroom and Rob and Olivia stopped talking. But Olivia definitely referred to the inside person as female.”

“Did they see you?” His voice was too sharp, and the hair on the back of her neck prickled.

“No. I stepped out before they emerged from their stall.”

“Thank you, Rissa. It shows real dedication to track me down on a Saturday night and tell me about this.”

“I wasn’t sure you’d be at work.” I thought you’d be out, or in bed with a woman.

“My plans tonight changed.”

Was that a hint of sarcasm? None of your business, Rissa. Let it go.

“Well, okay.” She felt awkward now. “Is there anything you want me to try to find out?”

“How close are you and the Marins?” His voice was still sharp, and again she wondered what the hell was really going on here.

“Not close at all.”

“Then it might be best if you pretend you never heard what they said. I don’t want anyone on the fringes involved in this mess.”

“Why is it a mess?” Had Rob’s laptop been stolen by one of them? Had Barclay had a hand in this?

He cleared his throat. “I need to make a few calls. Thanks again, Rissa. I’ll see you on Monday.”

Before she could respond, he disconnected the call. Who the hell was she actually working for? What was going on here, and why was a laptop from someone who lived in another city so damn important to her boss and his friends?


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