The Soldier's Secret Daughter
She stared straight ahead at the stainless-steel elevator door. It threw back at her a blurry reflection of a pink whale.
Her entire life, she’d dreamed of meeting a man like this. Of becoming a different kind of woman—adventurous, bold and sexy—the kind of woman a man like this would fall for. And here he was. Her dream man in the flesh. She wasn’t fool enough to believe a man like this would come along twice in her lifetime. This was it. Now or never.
“I don’t think we’ve met before,” he murmured. “What department do you work in?”
“Uh, I’m in accounting,” she managed to mumble in spite of her sudden inability to draw a complete breath. The elevator dinged and the steel panel started to slide open.
“Accounting. That’s interesting.”
Liar. Accounting wasn’t interesting at all. It was boring. Safe and predictable and orderly. She couldn’t count how often she wanted to jump up from her desk in her neat, bland little cubicle and scream. What she wouldn’t give to be a sexy international spy like James Bond courteously holding the elevator door open for her now.
Her imagination took off. He had no idea who she was. She could be that other woman with him tonight. Flirtatious. Aggressive. The kind of woman who went after men like him and seduced them with a snap of her fingers. She envisioned ritzy casinos, champagne flutes and diamonds. Lots of flashy diamonds.
“What’s your name?” James Bond murmured.
“Uh, Emily. Emily Grainger.” Lord. Even her name sounded boring and safe. And it was too late to lie and call herself something exotic and alluring.
He smiled at her.
Stunned, she turned to face the elevator’s front and about fell over her own feet. Ho. Lee. Cow. He had the greatest smile she’d ever seen. It was intimate and sexy and dangerous—all the things she imagined Bond’s smile would be and more. It drew her in. Made her part of his secret double life. Promised things that no nice girl dared to think of.
“I’m Jagger,” he murmured. “Jagger Holtz.”
The name startled her. He didn’t look like one of the Germans of the heavy contingent of them within AbaCo. And yet she probably shouldn’t have been surprised. He had that same leashed energy, the same self-contained confidence that all the German security types within the firm had. But the way he’d pronounced it had been strange. Her understanding of the German language was that Js were pronounced like Americans pronounced a Y. So shouldn’t his name have been Yagger? Why would he Americanize the name when none of the other Germans in the company bothered to do so?
She turned her whole upper body to look at him again. “What nationality is that name?”
He grinned self-deprecatingly, a lopsided, boyish thing that charmed the socks right off her. “I’d like to say it’s a German name, but the truth is my mother was a Rolling Stones groupie. I think I’m actually named after Mick Jagger.”
Her laughter startled her. A girl wasn’t supposed to laugh at James Bond, was she?
The door opened, and she jumped when he reached out to steady her elbow. “Watch your step,” he murmured.
Electricity shot down, or rather up, her arm, skittered across the back of her neck and exploded low in her belly. Whoa. Did James Bond have this effect on all the girls? No wonder he landed whoever he set his cap for! One touch from him and the women were putty in his hands!
Breathe, Emily. Breathe. Or more accurately, stop hyperventilating, Emily.
How she made it out of the elevator without falling over her feet, she had no idea. Her lower body had come completely unhinged from her central nervous system thanks to that devastating touch on her elbow. Not to mention that clutzy was her middle name. Particularly when she was flustered. And Jagger Holtz definitely flustered her.
“Maybe you’d better just take my arm,” he said.
Good call. Give James credit for knowing a damsel in distress when he saw one. Or maybe he just knew he had that effect on all women.
She’d have been embarrassed, except he offered her his forearm with such obvious pleasure at the prospect of her touching him that she was more stunned than anything else. Was he blind? Or so hopelessly nearsighted he didn’t realize how plain she was? How … completely average?
Of course, he hadn’t actually seen much of her, truth be told. She was wrapped up like a mummy and only her eyes and the tip of her nose were visible. She sighed. He’d figure out soon enough that she was a mousy little thing and not even close to flashy enough to be seen with him. He was the sort of man who would look at home with a supermodel on his arm. The fantasy had been fun while it lasted, at any rate.
They stepped into the lobby of the AbaCo building. The soaring atrium, nearly eight stories tall, was decorated from top to bottom with metallic silver Christmas decorations. Personally, she didn’t like them. They seemed too cold and impersonal.
Hard, even. But then, that wasn’t a bad approximation of the personality of her employer, she supposed.
The shipping firm was intensely German, although it had offices in a dozen major cities around the world. But AbaCo took its Teutonic persona very seriously. There were rules for everything, the rules got followed and the cargo got where it was going on time. Or else heads rolled.
“Can I hang up your coat for you?” Jagger asked pleasantly.
She looked up from bending over awkwardly as she tried to pry off one of her boots. She’d brought a pair of shoes to change into for the party, in her bulky purse. “Uh. Wow. That’s really polite of you. I guess so.”
She postponed her boots and straightened. He was behind her immediately, slipping her parka off her shoulders as gracefully as if it were a mink coat.
“Nice dress,” he murmured on cue.
Man. He didn’t miss a trick. He’d clearly aced Date Etiquette 101. Whoa. Back up. Date? They’d met in the parking garage and ridden up in the elevator together. She’d indulged in a momentary fantasy, and that was about as close to a date as they were ever going to get. He was already striding away from her, in fact.
Although in defense of her fantasy, he was carrying her coat to the cloakroom for her. Presumably, he would return with a ticket for her to pick it up later. So he would have to speak with her at least one more time tonight. One more moment to indulge in the idea of a “them.” Her and James Bond. She smiled blissfully. In her world, these little fantasies were about as close as she ever got to the real thing, so why not enjoy them?
If only she had the guts to turn her daydreams into reality.
One thing AbaCo did very well was throw a party. Caterers had set up a buffet line at the far end of the atrium, and she knew from previous New Year’s Eve parties that the food would be delicious. A band was playing background music at the moment but would shift into dance music as midnight approached. And then there was the open bar, of course. Bartenders ranged behind it, ready and waiting to serve nearly a thousand employees and their guests at this, the North American headquarters for the company.
Jagger was back almost before she’d had time to slip into the daring pair of red stilettos she’d given herself for Christmas. She would never dream of wearing them to work, but she hadn’t been able to resist them when she’d seen them. They reminded her of Dorothy’s shoes from The Wizard of Oz, but naughtier, with their open toes and sling backs. She was suddenly fiercely glad she’d splurged on them as Jagger strode back toward her. Her hands went to her hair nervously, smoothing the static electricity from her hat out of its silky brunette length.
His mouth quirked into a smile as if he enjoyed her sudden self-consciousness. Laughter jumped into her eyes in response. After all, it really was a very good joke to think that he might actually find her attractive.
His gaze rather improbably slid lower as he moved toward her. Right. As if there was anything to look at in her drab body. She supposed she was reasonably proportioned, but she was no supermodel. She actually had breasts and hips, and her legs, although shapely, weren’t a mile long. She barely topped five foot four.
Even more improbably, a slow grin spread across Jagger’s face as he took in the view, from her slinky red dress all the way down to her sexy shoes and back up again. Oh. My. Goodness.
He must be drunk. He was acting as though he actually found her attractive.
He held both hands out to her as he reached her, taking her hands in his. “You look fabulous,” he declared. A security guard had drifted over toward them and Jagger turned to the guy. “Have you ever seen Emily look so fantastic?”
The guard, Horace Lighterman, grinned and nodded at her. “You do look great tonight, Miss Grainger.”
Okay, so the male half of the human race had all gone mad. But she was willing to roll with that. Especially if by some strange miracle the madness included her suddenly being perceived as cute. Or even hot.
In keeping with the party spirit of the evening, she replied playfully, “Thanks, Horace. You’re looking pretty spiffy yourself. I love the hat.” The guy had on a pointed cardboard affair that looked utterly ridiculous with his police-style uniform. The silliness of the combination somehow poked fun at AbaCo, and she found that immensely appealing. Her employer could stand to be ridiculed now and then. Any other day of the year, Horace wouldn’t have dared to wear that hat, and she wouldn’t have dared to find it funny. But New Year’s Eve was about letting loose. About taking chances. About new starts.
Someone called for Horace from the security desk just inside the lobby and he turned away from them.
“Come on,” Jagger announced. “Let’s go have fun.”
Let’s? As in him and her? As in wow. There must be definite magic in the air tonight. Either that or a hallucinogen in the water supply.
They’d barely stepped into the atrium proper when there was a ruckus behind her. Several plainclothed AbaCo security guards clustered at the front door, looking like angry wasps. One of them was holding what looked like a black backpack.
“Dance with me,” Jagger announced, more of a command than a question.
His arms went around her and he swept her into a waltz, spinning her effortlessly across the dance floor. Most of the couples dancing were older, executive types. She recognized several vice presidents and their wives, and frankly, she felt a little funny out here with them. But Jagger was such a spectacular partner that she rapidly lost all self-consciousness. He guided her exactly where she needed to be, kept her precisely on the beat and whisked her around the room like Cinderella. Who knew waltzing could be so much fun?