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First pages

Chapter One

The first call had come seventy-two hours ago—an abrupt, crackly voicemail demanding her cooperation. A simple search of the number indicated it belonged to a burner phone in a city Adeline didn’t recognize. Half-drunk on her own exhaustion and up to her eyeballs in code, she dismissed it as a prank and returned her attention to putting the finishing touches on her life’s work. She turned her phone on silent, poured herself a vile cup of coffee, and wiped the sleep from her stormy grey eyes.

Caruso United’s upcoming go-live was the culmination of six years’ blood, sweat, and tears. Adeline was a renowned hacker—a prodigy—who had mastered computer programming before she’d graduated third grade. Ever since, she’d dreamed of using her unique problem solving abilities to help others but it wasn’t until Benjamin Caruso gave her this job that she’d learned how. It wasn’t an easy journey. Resources were scarce and the hours were long but he believed in Addie’s potential and allowed her free reign of his company. In turn, she had blossomed under the pressure.

Pulling elements from her multiple degrees and pairing it with advanced knowledge of the Dark web, Adeline had created a database that would forever change the landscape of humanitarian aid. The application would allow those in need to ask and answer requests for help without fear of persecution or retaliation. Once it was fully operational, refugees, victims of domestic violence, the homeless, and endangered youth would have a lifeline. Better yet, it was unhackable, untraceable, and immune to any known computer virus or malware. Adeline had worked tirelessly to make it so.

Truthfully, the inception and design of the software had been the easiest part; procuring the funding and sponsorships proved far more difficult. She’d been forced to step outside her comfort zone when it came to schmoozing with benefactors, mostly men, whose intentions were less than noble. Some of them wanted her in their bed, but that hardly bothered Addie; it was the ones who wanted to own her soul—monsters like Malcolm Savage—that robbed her of sleep at night.

Adeline had obtained her bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D. in computer engineering at an extremely prestigious college and had been courted by a myriad of companies who got rich making the world burn: Savage Industries chief among them. Malcolm had spent a fortune trying to own her and her legendary talent long before she was even technically qualified to work for him. She was only sixteen years old the first time they met and it hadn’t been on the most pleasant of terms. Malcolm had been more than a little upset when he learned Addie had hacked into his private files and was threatening to leak sensitive military information. Despite his carefree façade, he was brilliant; he managed to thwart her efforts and instead of ruining her young life by handing over the information to the FBI, he’d offered her a full ride to college instead. He vowed that upon graduation from an accredited program she was guaranteed a position with a generous starting salary and stock options that would’ve primed her to retire before age sixty. The package was lucrative, but Malcolm hadn’t accounted for one major factor: Adeline McGinnis was not for sale. There was nothing on Earth that would make her give up her principles and work for a company that manufactured technology that made the Atom bomb look like child’s play.

Well, almost nothing…

Addie had fallen asleep at her desk again, hunched over a stack of manuals that made a very poor pillow. The blaring ringer of her cellphone ripped her out of a hazy daydream and she fumbled for it, ignoring the crick in her neck. The out of state number she’d ignored before was staring at her, demanding her answer. Huffing irritably, she reluctantly pressed accept. “Hello?”

“A-Adeline,” the panic in her mother’s voice made Addie’s blood turn to ice, “Don’t—”

Her heart threatened to pound right out of her chest; a vortex of fear had opened inside her, enveloping her and sweeping all her good sense away. She gripped the arm of her chair as Sherry McGinnis’s voice faced and a nameless, faceless thug laid out the conditions of her release.

Over the last decade, Adeline’s poor, broke mother had borrowed an exorbitant amount of money to supplement her meager earnings as a cocktail waitress and sunk it into a myriad of ‘get rich quick’ schemes that never panned out. When it came time to pay back what she owed, Sherry didn’t have a dime. According to the goon, their criminal organization had been quite patient—allowing her an extra year and charging only a very reasonable interest rate of ten percent. Still, the deadline came and went but there was no money to be had. Adeline had to understand—their hands were tied. Really, it would have been wrong not to kidnap Sherry and hold her for ransom. As a show of good faith, their organization was willing to give Adeline the rest of the week to come up with a million dollars and bring it to the drop off. At that point, if everything was in order, Sherry would be released and Adeline could take what was left of her mother home…

With the rules laid out, Adeline thought that would be all—until there was a struggle for the phone followed by a wheezing laugh. “Sorry about that, sweetheart, I had to make sure your mama was tucked in nice and tight.”

“Donny,” she gasped, her heart slamming into her ribs. It had been years since that weasel had broken things off with her mother but Adeline would have recognized his voice anywhere—a nasally, wet rasp that seemed like it could’ve been clear with just one good cough, but never quite did. “After everything my mother did for you, after everything you shared together, how could you?”

Donny kept on chuckling as if she’d told him a joke. “It’s just business, darlin’. Really, you should be thanking me. I’m the only reason your mother ain’t laying in some shallow grave right now. I’m holding the boys off for now but you need to get your ass in gear. They ain’t exactly the patient type.” He paused. “You know what you need to do. I’ll see you later.”

The line went dead and Adeline didn’t waste a second. Booting up her computer, she poured every ounce of strength she had into coming up with a viable solution to this problem. Working at a nonprofit, helping provide aid to vulnerable people both domestically and in distant war-ravaged countries afforded her all the moral high ground she could stand on. Addie slept like a baby every night in an apartment she could barely make rent on and ate a lot of Ramen noodles. There was no extra money lying around, no ‘rainy day fund’, only what was left of her paycheck after bills and an untouchable retirement account Caruso United offered to employees. Even if she borrowed the maximum against that 403B and emptied out her bank account, she might have enough money to fly to California and maybe get herself a coffee in the airport, but it would never be enough to save her mother’s life.

Taking out a loan would never work. She couldn’t exactly walk into the bank and explain she needed a million dollars to pay off a loan shark. Even if Adeline fabricated a brilliant story and convinced some bank manager to hand her that kind of cash, there would be strings attached and a waiting period. She couldn’t get the funds procured before the deadline expired, if at all.

Adeline stared at the tiled ceiling, her heart pounding in her throat. If she couldn’t get the money legally, there were other ways…Malcolm Savage’s onyx eyes and chiseled jawline flickered through her brain and she clenched her fist, willing the image away. No, she’d learned the hard way he was not a man to be trifled with. She wouldn’t make that mistake…not again.

Every waking moment was spent in relentless pursuit of a viable solution. She was forced to rely on her interns to do the final preparations and report any issues on the upcoming launch. Unfortunately, they were useless and the helplessness she felt increased tenfold with every hour that past…Adeline knew she should’ve gone home. She was an absolute disaster. Strawberry blonde hair would’ve been a frizzy mess if she hadn’t pulled it up into a too-tight bun. Grey eyes were red-rimmed and puffy, a purplish hue making her look like a walking zombie. Downing a massive cup of coffee with multiple shots of espresso made her slightly more alert, but she was so jittery from caffeine she could barely sit still.

“How are we doing?” Benjamin Caruso—her boss and the closest thing she had to a friend—popped his head into the communal workspace, his toothy grin oddly bright in the dim light of the conference room.

Forcing a smile, Addie gave him a thumbs up and waved him away. If she hadn’t, he’d have inquired after her health and well being and she wasn’t sure she could get through a rational explanation without bursting into tears. What should’ve been her crowning triumph was overshadowed by the world crumbling around her…

A deep, baritone voice shattered Adeline out of her thoughts. Infamous nuclear engineer Malcolm Savage had been invited to discuss his latest projects on a very popular technology podcast all the interns adored. Today they were discussing some of Savage Industries’ interests in renewable energy, but it wasn’t long before the conversation turned to their military contracts. Malcolm’s biting wit and intellect delighted the interns and they chattered amongst themselves as they finished the work Addie assigned them.

Oh, if they only knew what a world-class jackass Malcolm was. He might sound like a visionary but she knew better; he was a billionaire because he was for sale, no matter what kind of evil his clients had in mind. The longer the interview went on, the more Addie’s stomach began to churn.

Malcolm wanted to improve everyone’s quality of life? Laughable.

Mr. Savage was dedicated to safety. Ridiculous.

Science and Technology’s ‘Man of the Year’ just wanted to help. Well, if that was true, Adeline had just the way to prove it.

Before she could talk herself out of it, she stole away into a private corner. It was just like riding a bike; within moments she was back on the Dark web, falling easily into its spidery web. Losing herself in cyberspace, Adeline had accessed Malcolm’s accounts and with a few keystrokes, several zeros disappeared from his bank account. She sat back, staring at her new account balance and the pressure in her chest began to ease.

Saving her mother’s life was worth any risk.

Besides, it had taken Malcolm years to figure out it was her who had hacked his company the last time…she’d been sixteen then, inexperienced and sloppy. She only needed a few days. Then, when she was found out she’d happily accept her punishment if it meant her mother would be safe.

Someone cleared their throat to get Adeline’s attention and she came up for air for the first time in…she couldn’t remember how long. The four interns looked at her with eager, excited looks but the best she could muster was half a smile. With one problem off her plate, she turned her attention back to the program and took a minute to bask in its glory. “I think we’re ready,” Addie announced. “Let’s bring the servers online one at a time. Dana, we’re going to start with you. Carol, you’re up after him, and then I’ll run point on triage.”

Hours after the software was up and running, her team had thrown themselves into celebrating. Drinks and music were flowing in the lobby, donors and reporters and loved ones were enjoying themselves immensely. Instead of joining in the festivities, Adeline sat back and buried her face in her hands. There was only the oppressive silence of her office and the lump of regret that had lodged itself in her throat.

* * *

“Ms. McGinnis?” Malcolm Savage lurked in the shadows like a panther stalking his prey. Adeline sat up suddenly, coppery hair spilling from its bun and framing her cherubic face. Her steely eyes were wet and her cheeks were flushed. She was up in an instant, grabbing her bag as she stormed past him like a vengeful angel. When she brushed past him, his palms itched with the need to touch her. “Adeline,” he growled, more sharply this time, and she stilled.

“How did you get in here?” she choked. “Mr. Savage—”

Malcolm,” he corrected, narrowing inky black eyes at her. Their gazes caught and held, the electricity palpable in the air as he reached for her. “You and I are well enough acquainted by now, wouldn’t you say?”

Her body seemed to contract and she wrenched away from him like a caged animal, snarling and sneering. “Get away from me!”

If he was perturbed by her outburst, it didn’t show on his face. “I’m not here to hurt you, if that’s your fear. Frankly, I’m not even angry. Color me impressed.” She was wound tight enough to snap and he didn’t blame her. Adeline had always clung to her values; turning down the lucrative lifestyle he offered took gumption. She could be making money hand over fist working on any project her heart desired. Instead, she toiled away in this dilapidated old building that had once been an elementary school working herself to the bone with nobody but inexperienced college students to assist her. He may not have understood it on a fundamental level but he certainly respected the hell out of her. For her to go and do something like this…it was out of character and out of desperation.

“We need to talk. We can do it quietly amongst ourselves…or we can do it at the police station. What would you prefer?” Adeline visibly deflated and Malcolm knew he’d won.

It was oddly anticlimactic. If he was being perfectly honest, he enjoyed sparring with her. There were very few people in the world who could go tit for tat with him…Adeline McGinnis was one of them. Seeing her so dejected left a bad taste in his mouth. He didn’t expect to find her tearful and terrified, cowering in her office. Worst of all, instead of coming here to lord his superiority over her, he felt the urge to help.

It wasn’t like him.

Tears shimmered in her eyes, ready to spill at any moment. Reaching into his pocket, he retrieved a handkerchief and Adeline reluctantly accepted it. “Is there someone I should call? Benjamin perhaps?” Oddly enough, it wasn’t a threat. Malcolm wanted her to have the support of someone she liked and trusted; he was definitely not that person.

“No!” Adeline cried. “I’ll come quietly.”

Malcolm raised an eyebrow at her but said nothing as he shepherded her down the back stairs to where his limousine was waiting. “Alston, take us home,” he barked, then rolled up the partition to give them privacy. The sleek limousine eased into a steady stream of traffic that would lead them beyond the hustle and bustle of Chicago into the more affluent Illinois suburbs where Malcolm lived. He hedged a look at Adeline and found her staring back at him, silent and fearful.

In the hazy light of the moon reflecting off snow, Malcolm looked like the hero in a classic movie with his dashing features and dimpled smile…but he wasn’t the hero—at least not to Adeline. In her eyes was a ruthless scoundrel who ran a multibillion-dollar weapons company. He had more government contracts than any one world power could dole out and was known for prioritizing firepower over precision. He was everything she’d gotten into this line of work to stop…and he knew she wouldn’t succumb to him now, no matter what he offered. He’d have to take a different approach this time.

The hired driver took a winding route that led to the Savage Estate. The pristine white house sat on thirty sprawling acres of land, the historic colonial was adorned with Doric columns and it had a massive red door with twin wreaths that had been purchased from the Boy Scouts. The man—the monster—in front of her was a hypocrite like that.

Wrought iron gates opened to admit them beyond the gates, easing around the horseshoe driveway to drop them off at the front. Malcolm exited the limo first, holding a hand to Adeline—which she ignored and slid out, her skirt riding up her thighs. Tugging it down with a huff, she shivered against the cold and wrapped her arms tightly around her waist.

His blood boiled.

Tearing off his jacket, he put it around her shoulders and herded her toward the door. Adeline pretended to ignore the press of his hand at the small of her back and failed as she leaned back against him, waiting for him to put in the access code into the keyless entry system. The moment they were inside, she shrugged him off again and handed him back his jacket with more force than was necessary.

“This doesn’t need to be unpleasant,” Malcolm frowned, hurling the jacket over a chair as he swept into the sitting room. Adeline followed, unwilling to be left alone in the bitterly cold foyer. At least she demonstrated good sense in that decision.

Kneeling before the white marble fireplace, he stoked the flames to life. Once warmth began to fill the room, he returned to her side. “Let’s cut to the chase, then. You hacked my bank account this afternoon.” He watched the fear flash in her eyes and he folded his arms across his chest. “We both know you had access to billions and my most private, sensitive information…and you settled for pocket change.” Standing to his full height, he faced the woman head on. “What kind of trouble are you in?”

Adeline wobbled on her feet and, this time, she didn’t fight when Malcolm herded her over to a plush armchair. He knelt beside her her, his usually cold expression molded into a mask of concern. The maelstrom of emotion she’d been trying to hold back flooded her and he watched her control slip away.

“It’s my mother, she’s been kidnapped,” she cried, her voice a quivering whisper. Reaching into his pocket, he removed a cornflower blue handkerchief and handed it to her. “I got a call from the guys she owes money to. They’ve taken her and are holding her somewhere. If I don’t pay in full by the end of the week, they’re going to…” She couldn’t even say the truth out loud. With shaking hands, Adeline wiped the tears streaming down her cheeks again. “I looked into everything I could think of, Malcolm—borrowing against my 403B, taking out a loan but it’s just not enough. I had to do something and you were the richest person I know…” She shook her head, wiping away the tears before they dripped down her neck. Even with ruddy cheeks and a dripping nose, she was by far the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. Once she’d told him the truth, he swore she seemed relieved. “I shouldn’t have stolen from you. I’ll put it back—every last dime with interest. I’ll come up with another solution. There has to be a way.”

Just as he’d suspected, Adeline was in way over her head.

Malcolm set his jaw. “How long do you think those people are going to wait before they start sending you little pieces of your mother in the mail?” He watched the color drain from her face, but refused to falter. Adeline needed him to be honest, even if it hurt. “I’m sure you’ve traced this to the source. You wouldn’t be so upset if you didn’t know exactly who you were dealing with.”

“His name’s Donald Webster, he’s a loan shark with mafia connections…he and my mother used to be an item back in the day. He says he’s protecting her but I’m sure he’s behind it. There’s something rotten in his soul, I’ve always known it.” Adeline swallowed past the lump in her throat, she leaned toward Malcolm. “Still, I meant what I said—I’ll put the money back.”

“And then what? They’ll kill her and come for you next.”

“I can protect myself,” she argued.

Malcolm scoffed. “Like hell you can! These men are vultures. They’re not above hurting your friends, the people you care about, and leaving a trail of carnage in their wake. And if you can’t pay, they’ll find ways for you to work off your debt but it won’t be cut and dry. They’ll make you pay for the rest of your life and when you inevitably crack and die, they’ll go after your children.”

Adeline squared off with him. “I don’t have children.”

“Not yet you don’t but who knows what’ll happen down the line! Do you really want to gamble with your future?” It was his intention to scare the hell out her and it was clearly working. She sat in front of him, stunned silent, her nails marring the expensive leather of his chair. Malcolm raked a hand through his dark hair. “Here’s what’s going to happen: you’re going to give the money to the loan shark and get your mother out of that situation. I’m going to help you.”

Grey eyes narrowed skeptically. “I’m not going to trade one raw deal for another. I already told you, I’m never going to work for you.”

“I know you don’t trust me but you’re going to have to try. I’m in this now, whether you like it or not.” They both knew she had no choice. “Take some time to get adjusted to the idea. I’ll make some tea.” It wasn’t something he’d have done for just any woman, but she looked so distraught he felt he needed to comfort her.

Hoisting himself up from the floor, he padded into the kitchen and put the kettle on. Tossing a bag of chamomile into a heavy ceramic mug, he leaned his hip against the shimmering granite countertop and tried to banish the image of Adeline’s sad eyes from his mind.

When he returned to the living room with tea in hand, he found her kneeling backward on the couch, staring at the portrait he’d commissioned after his first billion-dollar deal. “It’s a pretty good likeness, wouldn’t you say?”

For the first time that night, Adeline smiled and it warmed Malcolm all the way through. “I don’t know. It doesn’t quite capture your conceit…but I guess it’s not the worst I’ve seen.” He held out the warm beverage, watching her expression change. For a moment, she hesitated and then accepted what he was offering. “I have questions,” she announced.

“Fire away.”

Adeline tucked her legs beneath her. “What exactly do you get out of all this? I mean, you’re basically handing me money you know damn well I may never be able to pay back. I don’t see how this benefits you at all. So, what’s the catch?”

Malcolm raised an eyebrow at her. “You must think me the worst kind of villain if you think I’d use this tragedy as an excuse to extort you.” Silence hung in the room, stretching between them. There was almost nothing she’d subvert her morals for but family clearly came first. He respected that. Family was something he’d yearned for. With two failed marriages under his belt, he was no closer to passing on the Savage legacy than he had been ten years ago. Adeline’s difficult position gave a unique opportunity and he wasn’t going to squander it. “The money is yours. No obligation to pay me back—”

“Malcolm!” she huffed, exasperated.

“Let me finish,” he pressed. Heart pounding, hands sweating, and his mind turning, Malcolm swallowed back his fear. “I want an heir.”

Head cocked to the side, confusion crossing her features, Adeline stared hard. “So…you want to adopt me?”

He practically growled, sending his scalding anger through the room. “I’m in no way old enough to be your father!” He was twelve years her senior, hardly an insurmountable age difference. “I’m talking about an arrangement. I help you with your problem and you assist me with mine. I want a child and you’re the perfect woman to deliver me one.”

Adeline set her tea aside out of necessity, her breathing erratic. Malcolm worried he’d gone too far…and then she spoke. “You know you could hire a surrogate for a hell of a lot less than a million dollars.” She wet her lips. “Why me, Malcolm?”

“I know the kind of person you are. You’re focused, dedicated, and, most importantly, you’re brilliant. On top of that, you’re a beautiful woman. You’d give my child the greatest genetic advantage.” Malcolm leaned in closer. “It’s an even trade, Adeline. Blood for blood. What could be more appropriate?”

There was really no arguing with his logic, but he was certain it didn’t make her choice any easier. “I don’t know…” she breathed.

He sat back, looking so calm and cool on the outside even though panic ravaged him internally. “That’s my offer: I will give you the money, I’ll even accompany you to hand it over and collect your mother but in return, I want my legacy to continue. It’s the only thing I want.”

It’s the only thing he’d ever wanted…

Malcolm watched the battle rage inside Adeline. On the one hand, she could save her mother from certain death but on the other, she’d be beholden to him for nine months. It wasn’t an enviable position…but she’d made her bed and he was giving her ample opportunity to lie in it.

Swallowing her uncertainty, Adeline finally nodded. “I will agree on the condition that we keep it professional and I get inseminated. You said this was an arrangement and I want to keep it as uncomplicated as possible.”

“Suit yourself,” Malcolm agreed dourly. She was right; sex could complicate things both personally and legally. There were no shortage of women who wanted him in their bed for his money, his influence, and even his rugged good looks; he could satisfy any of his needs with one of them. Adeline would be a surrogate, plain and simple. “I’ll have my lawyer draw up a contract. I don’t wish for there to be any question as to the terms of our agreement.”

Nodding her assent, Adeline picked up the tea again and drained her cup. “I’ll sign whatever you want but I need to bring the money to a drop-off point in California by the end of the week.”

“I’ll charter my private jet immediately and send a car to bring you to the airstrip tomorrow at ten.” When Malcolm stood up, Adeline followed suit and they met in the middle of the room. He held out his hand and she gripped it firmly. The firelight cast shadows over the room, flickering menacingly as they struck their bargain. “So, we have a deal?”

“Yes,” Adeline agreed and this time, there was no hesitation in her voice—only weariness.

Summoning the driver to take Addie back to her apartment, Malcolm instructed him to make sure she got in safe. As he watched the car disappear from view, he closed his eyes. Waking up this morning he had no idea everything he’d ever wanted might fall into his lap. There was no telling what tomorrow would bring for either of them, but Malcolm was certain that nothing would ever be the same.

Chapter Two

Men like Malcolm Savage didn’t bother with commercial airports. He had a pilot on standby and his personal flight crew could be prepped at a moment’s notice.

Adeline met him at the airstrip the following morning with a duffel bag full of money and a tote she’d purchased in Ethiopia during a summer abroad. It was sturdy and functional, though nowhere near as fancy as the Louis Vuitton bags being loaded into the plane by Malcolm’s staff. He took his time schmoozing the air traffic controller on duty—a woman in her early sixties who’s braying laughter could be heard across the tiny airport. He paused, winking at Adeline before he led the way across the tarmac.

Malcolm’s private plane was the height of luxury with seating for up to six—including two attendants. Along the back wall was a fully stocked bar with shimmering crystal glasses arranged in a cabinet designed to withstand air travel. Glancing around the cabin, Addie waited for direction. This was Malcolm’s plane, after all. She wouldn’t want to offend him by sitting in the wrong seat. He was the epitome of a kind host, settling her bags in a compartment and then ushering her to pair of plush armchairs on either side of an attractive circular table.

Once they were settled, Adeline couldn’t help but stare at the stewardess who bustled around, completing their checks. Her low-cut top exposing her heavy breasts as she leaned over; another inch and everything would’ve been on display. The buxom blonde placed a glass of amber liquid on a napkin in front of Malcolm, then she turned, her smile dazzling. “Welcome aboard, Miss McGinnis. My name’s Cherry.”

Well, that figured.

“Is there anything I can get for you?”

“No, I’m alright,” Addie replied, slipping on her seatbelt and pulling it snugly around her waist. When Cherry walked away, she realized the woman was wearing six-inch heels. Adeline couldn’t walk in shoes like that on a perfectly flat surface, let alone on a vessel that was headed into the sky. It got worse when the woman bent over to secure the luggage, her tiny skirt riding up and exposing a bright pink pair of panties to the entire cabin.

The display didn’t faze Malcolm at all. He stared unabashedly, swirling the amber liquid in his glass. “Something to say?” The corners of his lips curved upward into a half-smile.

Adeline’s gaze snapped to his face and she pursed her lips at him. “Why do I get the impression these flight attendants are usually topless?”

Malcolm chortled. That was answer enough.

She sat silently, hands folded neatly in her lap as they were cleared for takeoff and taxied to the runway. No matter how many times she’d had been on a plane, she still got nervous during takeoff and at landing. It was silly, really. Technical and mechanical failsafes on every aircraft helped reduce the risk of dying in a fiery crash…

Reminding herself of that fact didn’t help.

Her heart began to race, a cold sweat breaking out over her upper lip and temples as the plane climbed higher into the sky. A bit of wind out of the northwest was causing minor turbulence; if her nerves weren’t already frayed, Adeline could’ve overcome it. Unfortunately, she found her anxiety insurmountable today. She squeezed her eyes shut, her breaths coming at odd intervals. She heard Malcolm sigh and found his bourbon pressed into her hands.

Drink,” he commanded. “You obviously need it more than I do.”

Alcohol had never solved any of Adeline’s problems…then again, it hadn’t made any of them worse either. Instead of arguing, she wrapped both hands around the crystal glass and took a long drink. Tipping it back, the cool liquor slid down her throat and warmed her stomach. Clearly, this was an expensive bottle because the aftertaste was smooth and smoky.

When they had reached altitude, his personal attendant came by and refilled Adeline’s glass and then left the decanter. Addie let Malcolm pour her another one after that, finishing it just as quickly as the first. With her body warm and her head staticky, she curled up and happily accepted a blanket they kept in some kind of warmer. “Mmm, thanks Cherry,” she hummed. “You’re sweet. We should hang out sometime.”

“Have a nice nap, Ms. McGinnis,” the woman smirked, patting Malcolm’s shoulder as she walked by. By the time she got to the cockpit to check on the pilot, Adeline was already out cold.

* * *

There was no power on earth that could keep Malcolm from smiling. This was a side of Adeline McGinnis he’d never seen before and it was oddly endearing. She was pressed up against the window, her soft breathing fogging up the glass. She seemed peaceful and it comforted him. With her settled, he turned his attention to the paperwork the lawyer had e-mailed him this morning. As a businessman and notorious cad, he kept legal counsel on retainer; it certainly came in handy at times like this. With just a few hours notice he had the first draft of a contract whipped up and ready to be reviewed. Once Adeline’s mother was out of danger, Malcolm could move forward with his agenda without delay. Until then, he had to play the waiting game. He’d been married and divorced twice, so he was more than familiar with the process…

The three hour flight put their arrival smack dab in the middle of California’s morning rush hour. Malcolm had a car parked at the airstrip, ready and waiting when they deplaned. With a bit of prodding he herded a groggy Adeline to her seat and helped her buckle in. She continued her nap while he expertly navigated his way along the back roads until he pulled up in front of a charming condominium.

It was a fairly nondescript single story bungalow with a one-car garage. From the outside, the home was nothing that would truly stand out as opulent. It was the view that made this place so special; one side overlooked a massive crater on one side and, on the other, was a pristine view of the ocean. The smell of salt air and sunshine wafted through the house as Malcolm herded Adeline inside. He settled her on the crisp linen couch before he pulled open the shades and slider, inhaling the sweet floral breeze. The fresh air seemed to have perked his companion up, though she remained suspiciously silent as he bustled around the house unloading their bags.

Finally, Malcolm cleared his throat. “A friend owns this place. When she heard we were headed out this way, she was more than willing to offer up the keys.” He caught the look of horror on Adeline’s face and froze. “What?”

“Did you tell her why we were here?” she breathed.

“You mean did I tell her we flew in to pay off a bunch of gangbangers? Please.” He scoffed. “It’s not so far fetched that I would take a young lady on a tour of wine country. You wouldn’t be the first…” Adeline rolled her eyes and he sourly folded his arms across his chest. “I’m not an idiot, Adeline.”

She visibly relaxed, smirking at him over her shoulder. “Debatable.”

Malcolm didn’t laugh, that would give her the wrong impression, but his mood lifted at the sight of her smile. Addie hoisted herself off the couch he found himself watching her as she explored. She seemed taken with the smaller bedroom and marveled at the sleek black furniture and canopy bed. A walk in closet lined the way to a small washroom and a heavenly steam shower; he could sense her approval. Padding to the fridge, she pulled it open and her jaw dropped. “Whoa!”


About me

Marina Black is an author who was born in the state of Connecticut. She's a busy registered nurse who works at a bustling inner city hospital. By night (and the occasional weekend), she is a prolific writer who has penned many short stories and works of fiction over the years, but her true passion is romance. Marina can often be found enjoying the beach or snuggling with her adorable pug puppy. There's no love truer than that of a girl and her dog!

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