Every time Valerie Garfield got an email from someone who also collected thimbles, she was reminded of living on the surface. She’d been collecting them since she was ten years old, when she’d found a bright fuchsia one with green leaves painted on it lying in the gutter near her home. She’d taken it inside, cleaned it up, and placed it on her dresser. From that moment on, she was hooked.
Up until she’d turned twenty, seven years ago, that is, when everyone who was still alive had been forced underground because of the storms. Valerie didn’t have the opportunity to find many thimbles here, in this massive city called NorthWest.
The few antiques dealers who were still in business had been picked clean years ago of anything worth buying. Now, if you wanted to try to find something unusual or unique that might still be left on the surface, you paid a lot of money for a team that worked for Carlyle Imports to go and find it for you. As much as she loved her thimbles, she didn’t have enough disposable income to allow that luxury.
This email was from Renee Medici, who used to live in Salina, Kansas, where Valerie had grown up. Both women had been part of a local club that formed around hobbies such as thimble collecting. Renee and her husband, Collin, now lived in Central and worked for Homeland Cyber Security. There was no longer a club that met physically, but some of the members who had made it underground still kept in touch via email.
Neither woman used their work email very often for personal communication, so Valerie was surprised to see this one from Renee. In it, she asked if Valerie had heard about Betsy Manning, another woman who had been in their club. Betsy was in the hospital after surgery last week to repair a leaking heart valve. Valerie had not heard, and she had to fight back tears as she read the email.
Renee and Betsy were near the same ages as Valerie’s parents would be now if they were alive, but that only served to make her feel closer to the women. Valerie’s parents had not survived the storms, and over the years women she’d known on the surface like Renee and Betsy had served as surrogate mothers to Valerie. She counted Renee and Betsy among her dearest friends now, even though she no longer lived in Central.
"I’m so sorry to hear that." She wrote back.
“She’s doing all right and they had expected her to make a full recovery, but she’s had some complications so will be in there at least another week. I wasn’t sure if you’d be able to travel this far to visit her, but wanted to be sure you’d heard about it.”
“Thank you. I can’t take time off right now. Things are stepping up around here, for obvious reasons.”
Valerie hadn’t said anything directly to Renee, but was certain Renee would have heard by now how busy they all were concentrating on eighteen names. Those names had been intercepted when the hackers, and possibly others, had tried to use an old weather satellite as a way to hide their conversations online.
The Weathermen and HCS believed the original hackers of The Madeline Project were among those eighteen names. Renee and Collin weren’t working on finding the hackers, but Valerie knew news like that traveled quickly around a government organization.
“Yes, I sure do understand. Things are hectic here, too. Sorry you can’t visit but I understand. Take care of yourself.”
“I will. Thank you again, Renee. Talk to you soon.”
Valerie deleted the email and locked her computer screen, then rose from her desk and made her way to the bathroom. She splashed cold water on her face and allowed herself a few moments to think about her old friend, and for the life she’d once had above ground.
Most days, it was difficult to fathom that it had been over seven years now. During that time, she’d earned a master’s degree from NorthWest University, and was now one of the leads on Grayson Jensen’s hacker team.
She’d worked for Grayson just over two years now, and had taken the job because IT jobs were difficult to come by, and she’d had her eye on Jensen Software and Web Development for a long time. It had been around before everyone moved underground.
Moving from Central, which was under what used to be home in Salina, Kansas, had been very difficult. Since she had no family left, the friends who had made it underground with Valerie had since taken the place of her family.
Valerie loved her work, but hadn’t grown very close to anyone here in NorthWest. The hacker teams didn’t socialize much outside of work, and so much of what they did was top secret so unless you found someone with whom you had common interests, there wasn’t much to talk about with them.
Grayson had hired her during the interview, and she’d worked in various departments, moving around too quickly to make friends. Once he realized she had a knack for spotting inconsistencies in code and ferreting out the reason why, he’d moved to his hacker team, where she’d been for a year.
She also had a short-lived history with the handsome, enigmatic CEO, but that was another story. Valerie couldn’t dwell on that right now. She needed to return to work.
No sooner had she logged back into her machine and opened up the project she’d been working on than another email popped up. This one was from Grayson. He routinely sent his teams mass emails several times a day, so she didn’t think anything of it until she went to open it and realized it had been sent only to her.
“Valerie, come to my office as soon as possible. There’s something we need to discuss.”
“Cryptic, much?” she muttered. Sighing, she wrote back that she was on her way now, then locked her screen again. What did he want? After their disastrous attempt at dating a year ago, he only spoke to her now when he came down to this floor and addressed her in a group. They didn’t hate each other. Far from it. At least, she didn’t believe Grayson hated her. She certainly didn’t hate him.
He was a player, and Valerie had made it quite clear she didn’t want to be his flavor of the month. Of course, taking that stand might have been more convincing to both of them had she not waited until they’d had sex a few times before she dug in her heels and refused to see him again.
In the end, he couldn’t guarantee he wouldn’t see other women, and she couldn’t guarantee she could deal with that, so their short-lived fling had come to a screeching halt. If not for the fact she had grown to love her job and the pay was great, she’d have quit.
Now, she was glad she hadn’t, but every time she looked into Grayson’s chocolate brown eyes, the memories of fucking him silly washed over her. Each time she had occasion to speak to him, she still got butterflies in her stomach, wondering if he would ever change his ways, and they could have another chance.
If even half of what the tabloids printed was true, he hadn’t changed his ways. Why should he? He had the world at his fingertips. Between his company and Radcliffe Software and Web Design, the branch of Radcliffe Enterprises that Emmett Radcliffe presided over, Grayson and Emmett controlled the market share in their field. He was a billionaire, and the press followed him wherever he went.
Grayson lived in a gorgeous apartment, in a building he owned, close to where Addison Carlyle lived. The two men were good friends, but Addison was no longer the player he had once been. He was engaged to a woman named Nadine Jarvis, whose father was a Storm Trooper.
Would Grayson follow in his friend’s footsteps one day? Who knew? Valerie had never been one to believe in fairytales, so she tried not to spend her days fantasizing about Grayson changing his mind and sweeping her off her feet. It was only at times like these, when she was forced to come face to face with him, that the fantasies took over her reality, and she allowed the possibility of being with him one day to materialize.
How pathetic was that? But she couldn’t help it. The man was so freaking hot, and she already knew his skills in bed were legendary. On top of all that, he was a nice person. A really charming and romantic man. It was no wonder women threw themselves at him. She couldn’t fault them. She’d never done that overtly, but she certainly hadn’t ignored him, either.
She stepped off the elevator, and his administrative assistant waved her in without a word. Was that a bad sign? She hadn’t done anything wrong, as far as she knew. What was going on?
He was on the phone, but she walked in anyway and took a seat on the other side of his desk. He glanced toward her, his expression neutral. Why did the man have to be so fucking good-looking? He wore his usual chocolate-brown suit with dark shirt and dark tie. The man was obsessed with chocolate. Even his favorite flogger was that color.
A shiver ran down her spine as she remembered being teased with that flogger. Valerie forced her attention toward the expanse of windows, overlooking the fake lakes dotting the landscape. She had to get a grip on her memories and her hormones.
When he ended the call, he said nothing, so she faced him again. Fear swept through her at the dark look on his face. What the fuck had happened?
“I wanted to talk to you about your relationship with Renee Medici.”
What? “Okay.” Valerie couldn’t remember if they’d ever discussed Renee before, but what did it matter?
“I intercepted an email moments ago that has me concerned.”
“You intercepted what?”
He frowned. “As the CEO of this company, I have the right to monitor emails and IMs of every employee.”
“Cut the crap, Grayson. I know you do. What’s really going on here? You know who Renee and Collin are, and you know they work at HCS. Is there a problem I need to be aware of?”
“I hope not.”
“Meaning what exactly?”
“For starters, I was wondering what your comment to her about things stepping up around here for obvious reasons meant.”
Valerie rolled her eyes, which she knew Grayson hated. “Aren’t the people at HCS working on the same thing we are now? Those eighteen names? The whole company knows it, even if they’re not on the hacker team. Don’t you think everyone at HCS knows it, too, even if that’s not what they’re working on?”
“Valerie, we have to be even more careful now what we say to everyone, especially people outside this company.”
“You’re right. I’m sorry. It was an offhand comment, and I meant nothing by it. Betsy was a friend of mine before we moved underground. I can’t visit her in the hospital, and that sucks. I was merely commiserating with Renee, and giving her a reason why I can’t travel halfway across the country right now.”
His features softened, and as a result she allowed herself to relax a bit. “I’m sorry your friend is in the hospital.”
“Thank you.” God, it was so hard to look at him this long still. She’d never gotten over this man, and she hated that. Valerie took it as a sign of weakness.
“It’s not right you can’t visit her. Most of us don’t have many good friends left whom we knew when we lived above ground.”
She swallowed hard. This was one of the things about him that had first attracted her. This compassion and understanding. “That’s true.”
He nodded a few times. “Then you should go. I’ll accompany you. I have business in Central and was planning on traveling there soon anyway.”
Really? “Excuse me?”
“I have to go to Central on business. You can come with me, and that way you can visit Betsy. But I want you to be very careful what you discuss with Renee or anyone using your company email. I mean it.”
“I won’t use it again to talk to her. I promise.”
While Valerie tried to wrap her head around the fact that Grayson had just ensured she’d spend a train ride with him to Central and back, he clicked around on his computer. “Did Renee say Betsy would be in the hospital or was she being transferred to a rehab facility?”
“No, she said she’d be in the hospital for at least a week.”
“That gives us plenty of time. I’ll take care of the travel arrangements.”
Holy shit. Hold on! “Wait a second, Grayson. Do you think this is a good idea? You and me traveling on a train across the country together?”
He gave her such a profound look of regret that she had to blink a few times. She was hallucinating. That was the only explanation for that look on his face.
“You’ll have your own compartment and your own hotel room. I won’t bother you.”
Guilt washed over her at the resignation in his voice. “That’s not what I meant.”
“What did you mean, then?”
Fuck. He’d backed her into a corner, just like he’d done so many times before. He was a master at it. Either that or she was dense and never saw it coming.
“Nothing.” She rose. “Nothing at all. Thank you for this. I really appreciate it.” Before she gave into the impulse to lunge across his desk and kiss him, Valerie turned and headed for the door. She could feel those dark eyes trained on her ass, moving in her tight jeans as she forced herself to walk at a normal pace.
“I’ll send you the travel arrangements as soon as I make them.”
“Thank you.” She waited until she was in the elevator, then slumped against the wall of the car, grateful no one else was in it. She couldn’t do this. She’d think of some plausible excuse and tell Grayson she wasn’t going.
There was no way she could ride to Central in a train with him, her own compartment or not, and stay sane. And what he’d said made it sound like she’d be staying in the same hotel as him. No. No way. If he insisted on her visiting Betsy she would gladly go to Central, but not on the same train as he rode. And she’d stay with Renee and Collin, not in a hotel where he was staying.
This was not going to happen. Valerie didn’t trust her willpower that much. Hell. She couldn’t even trust it inside this building. Hadn’t she proven that less than five minutes ago? She wasn’t over him. Not by a long shot.
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