Excerpt

Seattle, Washington

Late September

“Are you telling me that lawsuit’s still going to trial?” Dragan Markovic glowered from behind his massive desk. “We’ve offered the blasted woman everything short of the moon. Why won’t she settle?”

The young lawyer, part of the Trans Pacific corporate team, was visibly nervous. He fiddled with his pen. A bead of sweat gleamed on his forehead. “According to her attorney, it’s not just about money. Miss Randall wants the public to know how unfairly she was treated. She’s determined to make sure no female employee is ever again fired because of pregnancy.”

Dragan’s scowl darkened. “She wasn’t fired because she was pregnant. I was given to understand that Miss Randall was fired because she couldn’t perform her job.”

“That’s what we’ll be telling the judge. Her work involved trips to the Far East. The pregnancy was too high-risk for that kind of travel.”

“So why wasn’t she given a desk job for the duration?”

The lawyer flinched. “That’s what her lawyer is going to argue. The firing was her supervisor’s call. It seems there was some friction between them.”

With a muttered curse Dragan rose from his massive leather chair and turned to gaze out the floor-to-ceiling window. His top-floor, corner office gave him a sweeping view of the Seattle waterfront, lined by acres of warehouses, piers and gigantic cranes. Two huge container ships, with the Trans Pacific logo on their bows, were moored along the company dock waiting to be loaded with cargo. Beyond them, the gray waters of Puget Sound lay shrouded in September fog.

Dammit, he had a company to run. He didn’t have time to deal with Miss Tessa Randall—a woman he’d never met, nor cared to—and the lawsuit that threatened to smear Trans Pacific’s reputation in the media. Why couldn’t she just take the money, sign the nondisclosure agreement and go away?

“As I remember hearing, she gave birth to twins,” he said.

“That’s right. Identical twin girls. Sixteen months ago.” The lawyer wiped his glasses and replaced them. “They were born seven weeks early. By then her insurance had been terminated. The medical expenses—”

“We’ve offered to cover those,” Dragan snapped.

“I know. But her lawyer’s talking about demanding punitive damages, claiming the stress of losing her job caused Miss Randall to go into premature labor a month later.”

“Can they prove that?”

“They’ll no doubt try. This could get nasty—and expensive.” The lawyer shuffled his papers. “If I could offer a suggestion, Mr. Markovic?”

“Go ahead.”

“I know you don’t like getting involved in these matters. But if you could meet with Miss Randall face-to-face, maybe even offer her an apology on behalf of the company, she might be willing to-”

“That’s out of the question.” Dragan swung back to face him. “I don’t have time and I don’t owe the woman a personal apology. When’s the court date?”

“A week from today. Since Miss Randall worked out of our Alaska office, the civil trial’s being held in Anchorage. There’s still time for you to—”

“I said no. Just handle it. That’s what you and your associates are paid for. If you can’t do your jobs…” Dragan let the implied threat hang on the air. “That will be all for now.”

“Yes, Mr. Markovic. We’ll do our best.” Clutching his paperwork, the lawyer actually backed out of the office.

As the door clicked shut, Dragan turned toward the window again. Muttering a few choice curses in his native Croatian, he gazed into the gathering fog. For two cents he’d fire the whole hot-shot legal team and hire one seasoned attorney who knew how to work the system. As it was…

The melancholy wail of a foghorn echoed through the glass. Reminding himself that he was wasting time, Dragan returned to his desk, switched on his computer and brought up Tessa Randall’s archived personnel file. He hadn't bothered to read it earlier. But now that his legal team seemed to be stalled, maybe it was time he took a look. 

Her photo showed a tousled redhead, surprisingly pretty, with challenging hazel eyes. Even on paper, the woman looked damn sexy.

Her marital status was listed as single, with no indication of a marriage or divorce in her six years with the company. Since she’d become pregnant, there had to be a story behind that—a story that wasn’t mentioned in her file. What the file did contain was a stack of sterling performance reviews. Not only did Miss Randall speak fluent Japanese, but she was highly valued as a contract negotiator. With so much Trans Pacific cargo—chiefly lumber, steel, and other building supplies—going to Japan, she wouldn’t have been an easy employee to replace.

Intrigued, Dragan read the rest of the file. There were no details about her dismissal, only the date. That was a puzzle. Could part of the record have been deleted?

The last entry showed a current address in Bellingham, Washington, a college town across the Sound from Seattle. Wherever she was living now, she’d have to show up in Anchorage for the trial. The question was did he care enough to clear his calendar to be there, too?

Dragan closed the file and switched off the computer. He'd hoped his legal team could handle what he'd once viewed as a simple settlement issue. But he could feel himself being sucked into the drama. Facing Miss Tessa Randall, in or out of court, might be the only way to strengthen his case and prevent damage to Trans Pacific’s reputation. But before it could happen he needed a plan—and a way to find the missing pieces of her story. If he discovered that she’d been wronged he would do the decent thing, but only on his own terms. Whatever happened, nobody was going to blacken his company’s name.

Nobody.

Bellingham, Washington

Six days later

This couldn’t be happening.

Tessa fumbled in her purse for a bottle of ibuprofen, wrenched off the lid and glanced around the bustling air-charter terminal for a drinking fountain. Seeing none, she gulped two tablets dry, gagging slightly as they went down.

Weeks ago she’d booked a single seat on the Alaska Airlines flight to Anchorage. Her parents had agreed to watch the twins for a few days while she attended the hearing for her lawsuit. Then her mother had tripped and broken her foot. To make matters worse, Tessa’s lawyer, Helen Carmichael, had warned her that if they went for punitive damages, the proceedings could drag on for weeks. Left with no choice except to take her toddler twins with her to Anchorage, Tessa had called the airline and tried to reserve three adjoining seats. There were no additional seats available.

Helen, a silver-haired marvel of efficiency, had booked a charter flight for Tessa and the twins and arranged for housing and a daytime nanny in Anchorage. Problem solved. Or so Tessa had thought—until now.

Fighting tears of frustration, she strode down the corridor toward the waiting area, where her friend Penny, who’d driven her to the airport, was keeping an eye on the twins.

Strapped into their side-by-side stroller, Maddie and Missy were getting plenty of attention from passers-by. Dressed in identical pink coveralls, with their blue eyes and flame-colored curls, they were truly adorable. But when they were tired they could be cranky little hellions.

They were tired now.

At the sight of their mother they started to cry, bucking against the safety harnesses that kept them in the stroller. The closer Tessa came, the louder they screamed. Their little arms reached out toward her, Missy begging to be picked up and cuddled, Maddie just wanting to get loose and run.

Tessa’s headache was getting worse and the ibuprofen wasn’t working fast enough.

“What’s wrong?” Penny, a perky blonde with a husband and three school-age children, gave her a concerned look.

Tessa shook her head. “You’re not going to believe this. My flight’s been canceled. Some kind of trouble with the plane.”

“Well, if it’s their plane at fault, don’t they have to get you another flight?”

“So far all the people behind the counter have done is shrug and roll their eyes. I’m going back in there again and pitch a fit until I get some results. It may take a little time. I just wanted to give you a heads-up.”

“Don’t worry about me. I’ve got all the time you need.” Penny glanced at the two fussing babies. “Maybe if we wait, the little munchkins will wear themselves out and go to sleep.”

“I put some snacks and juice in the diaper bag,” Tessa said. “That might help settle them down. Sorry about this, Penny. I know you’ve got other things to do.”

“Don’t worry about it. And don’t come back here until you’ve got another flight.”

The twins screamed louder as Tessa walked back down the corridor. Their cries tore at her heart but turning around to look at them would only make things worse. What a mess. Maybe she should’ve settled for the generous amount the Trans Pacific lawyers had offered her. But as Helen, a fiery advocate for women’s rights, had reminded her, there was more at stake here than money. Her lawsuit would make an example of Trans Pacific and set a precedent for future cases.

Squaring her shoulders and setting her jaw, she marched up to the check-in counter for Northwest Charter Air, where she’d left her luggage. “This is an outrage,” she said. “I have a ticket and a reservation. I’m not moving from this spot until you find me another flight to Anchorage.”

The middle-aged woman behind the counter shook her head. “I’m sorry. We’re booked solid. There’s no other plane avail—”

“I might be able to help you.” The subtly accented baritone, as deep and sensual as the purr of a tiger, vibrated along Tessa’s nerves, as if someone had brushed a velvet-clad fingertip down her cheek. She turned with a startled gasp.

The man standing behind her was strikingly tall with dark hair and the coldest slate-colored eyes she’d ever seen. His chiseled features—a square jaw, straight nose and high Slavic cheekbones—were too strong to be called handsome, but his very presence exuded power and masculinity. He was simply dressed in jeans, a muted plaid wool shirt and lambskin jacket, but the watch on his wrist was a high-end steel Rolex, sleek and expensive.

With his flinty eyes and Eastern European accent, he could have played the sexy villain in a Hollywood spy movie.

He was a stranger—surely she’d remember if she’d ever met such a man. But something about him seemed familiar. Was he an actor? Maybe a newscaster she’d seen on TV? He hadn’t introduced himself. Had he assumed she’d know who he was?

Tessa found her voice. “I beg your pardon,” she said. “Did you just offer to help me?”

“I couldn’t help overhearing,” he said. “I’ll be taking off for Anchorage in a few minutes. There’s plenty of room in the plane. You’re welcome to come along—at no charge, of course.”

“You’re sure?” Tessa wavered on the edge of uncertainty. The man’s offer had come as an amazing stroke of luck. But there had to be a catch. She would never get into a car with a strange man. Would getting into a plane, especially with her precious babies, be any different?

“My plane’s outside.” He spoke as if sensing her hesitation. “It’s a private craft. But I happen to be a co-owner of this charter company. If you’re worried about your safety, Miss Burris, here, can vouch for me, can’t you, Marlene?” He glanced at the woman behind the counter.

“Oh, yes,” she simpered. “Absolutely, sir.”

“So make up your mind, miss. We need to leave before the fog comes in.” He spoke like a man accustomed to getting his own way.

How could she refuse, when this might be her only chance to get to Anchorage with the twins? “Yes,” Tessa said, taking the plunge. “I’d be happy to accept your very kind offer.”

“Fine.” He glanced down at her stacked luggage, which held more clothes, snacks and diapers for the twins than things for herself. “Are these your bags? I’ll have them put aboard.”

“Yes, thanks. But right now I need to get something. I’ll only be a couple of minutes.”

Tessa raced down the hall toward the waiting room. She should probably have told her rescuer about the twins. But now that she’d agreed to go, she didn’t want to take a chance on his changing his mind. He’d said there was plenty of room. And even in a small plane, the flight from Bellingham to Anchorage couldn’t take more than a few hours. How big an imposition could two little children be?

Such a riveting man. Why did that chiseled Slavic face seem so familiar? Where had she seen it before? In a magazine? Maybe on TV? If she didn’t remember his name soon she would have to swallow her embarrassment and ask him.

 

Copyright © 2015 by Elizabeth Lane
Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.
 

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