Her Secret, His Surprise ONLY
Since being disowned by her strict father, Cass Stone has spent her adulthood trying to prove him wrong. Her drive has led to more success than her family ever thought she’d achieve, and life is looking great. Not even an incredible and mysterious one night stand that leaves her a single mom can trip her up…until the father of her baby stumbles back into her life, as sexy and unreliable as ever.
Logan Alexander hasn’t forgotten the night he spent with Cass two years ago, but he never expects to end up undercover as her assistant. His job saves lives—like it should have saved his brother—and he can’t afford complications. It’s difficult enough to maintain his cover as a carefree wanderer when he realizes his attraction to Cass hasn’t faded…and then he meets Cass’s daughter.
Title: Her Secret, His Surprise
Author: Paula Altenburg
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Length: 216 pages
Release Date: July 2014
Pricing is not guaranteed
Her Secret, His Surprise
by Paula Altenburg
Copyright © 2014 by Paula Altenburg. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
Cassiopeia Stone blinked a little behind her black-framed glasses as the alcohol settled in her stomach and spread relaxing warmth through her limbs.
The hotel bar was dark, deserted, and smelled a bit funky. Like a few too many beer had slopped over the tops of overfull steins. The atmosphere was intimate, and the tables secluded enough for private conversation.
In other words, based on her limited experience, it was fairly typical of conference hotel bars.
“We’ve held the Canadian first- and second-line maintenance manuals contract on P-3 aircraft for the past twenty-seven years, and were one of the first Canadian contractors to bring interactive electronic manuals into service. We continue to innovate,” Cass heard herself babble. “We use the same software providers your company does. If you decide to use Kramer Aerospace’s publications department on your upcoming contract, you won’t be sorry, Mr. Finder.”
“I’m sure I won’t be,” the colonel murmured. “Please. Call me Chris.” Under the table, he dropped his hand to her nylon-clad thigh. “Perhaps we could take this back to my room.”
Cass knew how she would have handled this situation when she was sixteen. At twenty-five, and in a business environment, she chose to be more circumspect. It was a shame that Christopher Finder, who had to be at least seventy, seemed to have a thing for younger women—along with a wide strip of ego—because this was where she drew the line. She wasn’t sleeping with him. Not even to score a multimillion dollar contract.
“I won’t take up much more of your time. I promise, I only have a few more slides.”
She inched away from the colonel’s groping fingers, then knocked back her drink maybe faster than was prudent. The next business trip she took, she told herself, she wasn’t getting her fashion advice from the company vice president’s executive assistant. Maxine always looked so elegant, but now Cass knew beyond a doubt that a business suit would have been far more appropriate for the national defense conference than high heels and a short skirt.
Crooking one long, corkscrew curl behind her ear with an index finger, she moved on to the next slide of her PowerPoint presentation. She nudged the laptop around so the retired lieutenant colonel could get a look at the screen and stop staring down the front of her blouse.
She’d come to this conference to staff the exhibit booth for Kramer Aerospace and Defence, and landed a private pitch with the vice president of international business development for one of the major North American aerospace defense companies. She had her eye on a director’s position at Kramer Aerospace that was opening up in a few years. Bringing in a new contract for that department would fast-track her for promotion.
The colonel eyed the half-empty glass on the small round table in front of Cass, then raised a hand to signal for the cute bartender to bring them two more.
She didn’t protest. She simply told herself to slow down. She was nervous and eager, not stupid, and while her new friend Chris might be an old lecher, she had no real concerns about her personal safety.
What she did have was serious angst as to how this meeting might be recapped later if things didn’t turn out the way the colonel would like. Her boss had taken a risk by sending her to this conference in his place, and she wanted him to know that his faith in her hadn’t been a mistake. She needed to wrap up her presentation with some semblance of professionalism.
A ringtone pealed out “Baby Love” by the Supremes, loud in the empty room. The colonel pulled his phone from a pocket and checked the number displayed. He frowned. “Excuse me a moment. I have to take this call.”
He edged his squat wooden chair away from the low pedestal table, scraping it across the funky carpeting so he could stand. Cass breathed easier as he disappeared in the direction of the foyer and men’s room.
The bartender brought their drinks. Her brain was foggy enough by now that, when combined with her relief that the presentation was almost done, and the conference was over, the smile she gave him as he settled her drink in front of her was extra-high wattage.
“Enjoying the conference?” he asked, smiling back at her, deep indigo eyes dancing as if they were sharing a private joke. He added a wink for good measure.
Cass met his eyes and read unconcealed interest. She had to admit, she was floored. The man was beautiful. He wore his dark, tousled hair a bit long and brushed away from a high-cheek-boned face in a surfer-dude style. Laugh lines bracketed a wide mouth. If he’d been the one plying her with drinks, she wouldn’t think twice about taking her pitch somewhere more private.
She was riding a bit of a high right now, which brought out an innate recklessness that she knew from experience could swing either way for her. She’d always liked to take risks and was quick to seize opportunities. It had gotten her disowned by her father when she was eighteen. It had also gotten her scholarships and an engineering degree without any help from the unforgiving bastard.
That evil inner voice nudged her, the one that pushed her to take risks and sometimes got her in trouble. It said she was a two-hour plane ride from home. No one would know what she did. It also reminded her of the three condoms in her purse that had been there for so long they were due to expire.
While the bartender was worth checking out, he’d undoubtedly been hit on enough in his line of work that he’d know exactly what was up, and that irked her a bit. She didn’t like being seen as a cliché.
Then again, she didn’t have to care what his impression of her might be, no matter how cute he was. Let him think what he liked. She’d never see him again. Besides, he could always say no if he wasn’t interested. She had a darned good position with a prestigious company. Years of hard work were paying off, and she wanted to celebrate.
“It’s been a long week. I’m about ready to unwind,” she replied. “But I hate mixing business with pleasure.”
The colonel reappeared, tucking his phone back in his suit jacket pocket as he strode toward them.
Cass gave the good-looking bartender another lift of her lips meant to convey an interest on her part as well, and then she turned back to the colonel, her drink, and the tail end of a presentation she could hardly wait to be over.
Logan Alexander knew when he’d been dismissed.
He tried not to laugh, but she made it hard. He earned his living by reading people, and traffic had been light in the bar all evening so he’d spent most of the past hour watching her work. The pretty little professional playing dress-up seemed to think the black-rimmed glasses she wore made men take her more seriously.
If that was her intention, she should have done something about her hair, too, because the only serious thing her tangle of long, golden-brown ringlets whispered was sexy librarian. She’d done her best to fasten it all back with some sort of fancy gold clip, but instead, managed to look more like she’d just crawled out of bed.
That turned her into a sleepy, sexy librarian.
In reality, Logan suspected she was the company eye candy, probably junior management level, sent here to pretty up an otherwise generic display booth. She’d been attending the annual Canadian Defence Industry conference, or the “See-Dicks,” as he liked to call it. That was because the conference was full of dickheads.
Since he’d nailed one of them to the wall that afternoon, he was feeling pretty damned good. By day, he worked for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. He’d filed his final report to his CSIS superiors and technically, the case he’d been following was now closed. Most of the conference attendees were gone and the hotel was quiet.
He liked tending bar, so he’d offered to finish out this last shift before the regular bartender returned from “vacation.”
Besides, right now Miss Professional was making a sales pitch to a retired light colonel who was only interested in what was inside that silky white blouse, not her PowerPoint presentation, and it was like watching a train wreck unfolding in slow motion. She had no idea the guy she was trying to impress didn’t have any buying power. The retired colonel was one of the many ringers private companies hired to send to these functions so they could schmooze up any important contacts they had left over from their military careers. The real meetings happened away from the actual conference. She was wasting her time.
So was the colonel. He’d never get her drunk enough to score. Miss Professional, although young, was wise to that plan. It also appeared as if she could hold her liquor.
Logan had made it easier for her. The drink he’d passed her was virgin. He watched her take a small, cautious sip.
Her gaze cut to the bar over the rim of her glass. For a second, a slight smile of acknowledgment licked at the corners of her full lips before disappearing.
He relaxed. She had a good sense of humor. Not to mention, self-preservation.
She was also adorable. If he had to guess he’d say she’d once been a rebellious teen seeking her daddy’s attention, then turned her life around before too much damage was done—possibly with the intervention of a private school for wayward teenagers. But that was a guess.
He’d bet he had the rebellious teen part right though, and that she wasn’t so far past those years she’d forgotten what they felt like. She had a reckless streak in her, or she wouldn’t be having drinks with the colonel.
The meeting wrapped up. The colonel, realizing he wasn’t going to get what he wanted, passed Miss Professional his business card with a press of his palm to hers and an overlong handshake.
To Logan’s acute disappointment, Miss Professional left the bar without a backward glance. The colonel made a phone call, most likely to his wife, judging by his abrupt change in manner. Then he left, too.
And there went Logan’s entertainment for the evening. He started to clean up the empty bar, wiping down tables and straightening chairs.
Miss Professional returned half an hour later, wearing tight jeans that clung to long legs and a white T-shirt emblazoned with a company logo. She was tall, probably close to five ten, and at six foot three himself, Logan liked that in a woman. The mass of light brown ringlets was loose now, draping over her shoulders and spilling down her back.
He had to admit, he found those curls sexy as hell. He could imagine his fingers all caught up in them, his naked body pressed to hers, those long legs wrapped around his hips…
He grinned as she walked up to the bar where he leaned against the gleaming surface. The black-framed glasses were gone. She had wide, hazel eyes with long, gold-tipped lashes that brushed her cheeks whenever she dropped her gaze.
Right now, her gaze was direct. She smiled right back at him. Every predatory instinct he owned went on red alert.
“Is it too late to order another mojito?” she asked.
“Not at all. Virgin?” He reached for a glass.
She blinked, those lashes fluttering up and down. “What?”
He held up the glass. “Your mojito? Would you like this one with or without alcohol in it?”
She laughed, her eyes dancing with fun and happiness at the shared joke, and he was completely, 100 percent smoked.
She was celebrating. Since he knew the colonel wasn’t in a position to offer her anything business-related she’d be this excited about, it had to be something else.
Something that mattered to her. A lot.
He could identify. He felt like celebrating, too. His job was to investigate the activities of the Canadian Department of National Defence’s maintenance contractors. The dickhead he’d nailed had sold off an entire inventory of aging weapons systems—meaning aircraft that could be turned into bombers—to a third-world country with nuclear capabilities. Illegal on so many levels, not to mention completely lacking in morality. The guy had no doubt thought that by selling the aircraft in pieces he wasn’t breaking any federal laws. Or at the very least, had managed to circumvent them.
Logan’s brother-in-law had been shot down over Afghanistan, on what was meant to be a peacekeeping mission, because some bureaucrat like this had gotten greedy. Six soldiers lost. Nine children left without fathers, his two young nephews included. People handed a little authority could turn into such self-entitled assholes sometimes, with no regard for the consequences to others.
Yet this guy he’d tagged today had been only one link in a very long, complicated chain. The customer who’d bought those weapons systems remained active, and as yet, unidentified.
He flipped the switch on the blender. When the drink was ready he poured it into a glass, added the garnish, and passed it over with a flourish. Then he reached across the bar and offered her his hand.
“Logan,” he said.
“M-M-Mary,” she stuttered as she took it in hers. “M-Mary Smith.”
She sucked at lying. That intrigued him even more. First, because she was bad at it, and he’d assumed she’d be more of a pro. Second, because she felt the need to lie to him about her real name.
She was slumming.
With anyone else, he would have backed off at this point. He didn’t mind the slumming. Being invisible was part of his job. He had no time to pursue permanent relationships with women who needed impressing.
But she’d had a few drinks. She was here on business. And she was celebrating something. In his experience, that often led to reckless decisions that they’d both end up regretting later. He didn’t like liars either, not in his line of work, but with M-M-Mary, it qualified more as withholding the truth. Plus he was working, too. Officially, even though the report had been passed in, he was still on the CSIS clock. He’d need to show up at the office for debriefing first thing in the morning.
But Miss Mary Professional Smith possessed an odd mix of innocence and adventure that he found more than a little appealing, and she had fun in her eyes. She didn’t want to celebrate whatever it was alone, and for some reason, had decided he was safe. She wasn’t reckless so much as spontaneous, and she’d sized him up right. All the next moves would have to be hers.
He was curious how many more she was willing to make.
The drink hit Cass harder than she’d anticipated, probably because of the three she’d had earlier in the day.
That wasn’t going to change her mind about tonight. She was a good judge of character. It had kept her out of jail as a teen. If Logan hadn’t slid her that first virgin drink, she wouldn’t be here right now, sounding him out. She found his quiet confidence attractive. She liked his smile, and the way he didn’t try to pretend not to know what she was after. He also didn’t put on any pressure.
She was in charge.
The drink merely served to relax her.
“What are you celebrating?” he asked.
She ran her finger around the rim of her glass and fidgeted on the bar stool, surprised by the astuteness of the question. She prided herself on being more difficult to read than this. “What makes you think I have something to celebrate?”
“You give off a happy, self-satisfied vibe. While my ego’s healthy enough, I’m pretty sure it’s not all thanks to me.”
She wiped her damp palms on her thighs. This was a hookup, nothing more. She didn’t want to share any details of her life with him. She wasn’t after a relationship. She liked who she was and where she was in her life, but every once in a while, it was nice to pretend to be someone else. Something different. This was the perfect opportunity. And the right guy.
She might as well go for outrageous in answer to his question. She’d stumbled over the fake name, and there was no way he hadn’t noticed because he didn’t seem stupid. Besides, she’d picked the lamest one imaginable. She could blame that much on the alcohol.
“I just got out of prison,” she said. She let out a dramatic sigh as she braced her elbow on the bar and planted her chin in her palm. “You have no idea what a relief it is to finally meet a good-looking man who isn’t dressed in a Corrections Canada uniform.”
His eyes lit up like twin blue lasers as he played along. “Good-looking, huh? What were you in for?”
“Overenthusiasm with a bullwhip and handcuffs. Something might have been mentioned about ‘inflicting permanent physical and emotional scars on the victim.’”
He sniffed in disgust. “The guy was a sissy if he couldn’t handle a little domination.”
She drained the last of her drink and slid the empty glass across the bar toward him. She lifted her chin, sat up straight on the stool, and met those twin laser beams head-on. “Who says it was a guy?”
“Now I’m intrigued.” He took the glass but didn’t offer her another. Instead, he got out the fountain gun and filled two tall tumblers with club soda and ice. He passed her one, then tapped the bottom of his to the side of hers. “Cheers. Good luck staying straight with your probation.”
Logan, his sweating tumbler in one long-fingered hand, leaned against the counter behind him, facing her where she perched at the bar. He had a faint scruff of dark stubble shading his jaw that looked like it might be a teensy bit scratchy on delicate skin. His shirtsleeves were rolled back to expose a small flag tattooed on the inside of one well-muscled forearm. She could see his reflection from behind in the row of mirrors that lined the wall behind the rows of liquor bottles. No bald spots.
She swirled the cubes of ice, watching them jockey for position between the bubbles of soda, and fed him an easy one-liner. “Why did you make me a virgin earlier?”
He didn’t respond with the sexual innuendo she’d set him up for. Instead, he shrugged.
“I don’t like men who ply uninterested women with alcohol, hoping to gain an advantage.”
Cass was charmed because he sounded so sincere. The guy really was hot, and on more than one level. “What if she’s interested and he’s already got an advantage?”
He saluted her with the half-empty glass of club soda. “Then alcohol wouldn’t be necessary, now, would it?”
“For the record, the virgin wasn’t necessary either. I can take care of myself.”
“Since we’re stating things for the record,” he replied, those laser-blue eyes warm and steady on hers, “you wouldn’t have to worry about safety with me.”
That was the opening she’d been waiting for. She leaned on the bar, bringing herself into his personal space and within easy batting range. She gave him her best smile. “I think you’re safe enough.”
He set his drink down. He stepped up to the plate. And he stroked the pad of one finger along the length of her cheek to the underside of her chin before tipping her face upward. His answering smile was way better than hers. Her insides swirled.
“There’s only one way to find out,” he said.
And she was going to take it.
A jolt of anticipation exploded through Cass, along with a vestige of common sense. She was a sucker for risk taking, but she wasn’t a gambler. She wasn’t dumb either. Not when it came to her future. She didn’t want to be seen crossing the lobby and entering an elevator with him. She had no idea who from the conference might still be here, if they had any connection to her company, or if they might recognize her later. If she’d learned anything in life, it was to cover her ass.
She had two entry key cards for her room.
“Do you personally return items that are left at the bar, or do you hand them in at the desk?” she asked.
“It depends on the item.” His grin, sexy and slow, dampened her panties. “And who left it behind.”
She took one of the key cards from her back pocket and dropped it onto the bar between them. Then she spread all of her cards on the table.
“Room 2014. My flight leaves at ten in the morning. I’ll have to be out of here before eight.”
Two months later, as Cass sat on her bathroom floor with her head hanging over the toilet bowl, she was forced to acknowledge that condoms probably had expiry dates for a reason. Her purse, a catchall for dry pens and other junk with sharp edges, might not have been the safest place to store them either.
She’d had quite the celebration that night. All she’d wanted was a fun time and a memory. It seemed she’d gotten more than she’d bargained for.
Logan was going to be really hard to forget now.
When the dry heaves finally ended, she sat back on the cold white tiles and rested her sweaty forehead on her knees, wondering what she should do, and too tired to think.
She knew she should try to reach him and at least tell him he was going to be a father, and reassure him she had no expectations, only thought he should know. She had a good job and didn’t need child support. No way could he afford it on a bartender’s tips. She wouldn’t do that to him.
She closed her eyes. Her baby’s father was a bartender. Her own, a minister with rigid beliefs, would have a stroke if he knew. But hers would never find out because he’d cut all ties a long time ago and made it clear that no one else in the family was to speak to her either. None of her sisters, or her mother, had ever dared disobey him.
Cass was the lone rebel. The black sheep.
She’d been on her own for more than seven years now. She’d made a good life for herself. She had a few close college friends she could trust, but they were scattered around the country. She never discussed her personal life at work, so no one there would ever know that this pregnancy was the result of a one-night stand.
The best one night of her life.
Logan had been everything she’d expected and then some. Funny, sweet, smart…and gone before she woke up in the morning, so things hadn’t ended on an awkward note. She hated to screw up the memories for either one of them by contacting him now, but her conscience wouldn’t allow her to keep this to herself.
She struggled through the workday, and when four thirty arrived, stumbled back to her apartment to grab a nap on her couch before dinner.
At eight o’clock in the evening, she braced herself and called the bar at the conference hotel. She asked for Logan, and after a lengthy pause, was told she must have the wrong number. Her fingers tightened around her cellphone, causing the volume button to chirp in her ear. Vegetable soup and whole-wheat crackers swirled in her stomach, threatening a comeback.
“He worked there two months ago,” she insisted.
There was another long stretch of silence. She heard hushed voices as people conferred in the background. Then she was told that they didn’t know of anyone by that name who’d ever worked for them. She hung up the phone, both terrified and relieved. Once again, she was all on her own.
But she wouldn’t be alone for much longer.
She made a mad dash for the bathroom and spent the rest of the night throwing up.