Description: Nanotechnologist Dr. Audra McCain has spent years hiding behind her research, shielding herself from hurt much like the dynamic armor prototype she’s worked so hard to build. When she is framed for its theft, she suddenly finds herself on the run with a man whose talent lies in hacking through the toughest of defenses.
Ever since a shattered knee ended his career in the Special Forces, Cameron Scott has felt like an intruder in his own life. Hiding his discontent behind a need-to-win mentality, he earns his living testing security systems by breaking them. When Nanodyne hires him to evaluate their system, Cam discovers someone has already breached the company at the highest level.
As Audra and Cam play cat and mouse with a ruthless thief out to use the prototype for his own sinister cause, they’ll have to break rules, violate security, and fight their growing attraction. But when love makes an unauthorized attack, Cam realizes he may have finally found the one firewall he can’t breach: Audra’s heart.
Cameron Scott hated the F word.
The word rippled through him with a shudder as he swung from the wrought iron fire escape and onto the roof of Nanodyne’s main laboratory. His left knee popped with an audible crack, an uneasy reminder of why he was freezing his ass out here in the first place.
To prove he could.
His breath crystallized in the air and hung in front of his face for a moment before dissipating into the inky January night. Unpredictable low temperatures were sweeping through Phoenix, giving residents a wake up call. Thirty degrees? In Phoenix?
Yeah, that sucked.
The thick tread of his shoes masked the echo of his footsteps. The only sound was the steady ticking of his Aviator watch—a gift from his XO on his medical discharge from the Special Forces.
Had the chief understood how it pained Cam to listen to the seconds pass by—the seconds he’d never again get back, the minutes of his life that seemed ever more pointless—the XO probably would have rethought the choice of going away present.
Still, Cam supposed he was the foolish one. He couldn’t bear to hide the small remaining connection to his A-team away in his sock drawer.
His days with the Special Forces were done. Kaput. Over. But that didn’t mean he had to roll over and play dead. He depressed the pin on the side of his watch and read the time from the blue glow. Midnight. The witching hour. Cam suppressed a snort and dug his lock pick kit out of the pouch on his belt as he squeezed himself between two large turbines that hid access to the heavy steel door.
Once he successfully completed this job, the government would realize he was more than capable of handling large security contracts. Like the last one they’d turned him down for solely based on his disability. His knee cramped in protest as he stuck the tension wrench between his teeth and bent to the deadbolt. Disability, his ass.
His shattered knee did not define him.
Of course Nanodyne was expecting dry reports itemizing their facility’s vulnerabilities, not a little bit of show and tell. But easy equaled boring. Since he couldn’t be in the thick of action with his A-team, he might as well amuse himself in other ways.
He ground his molars together and shoved the pick in the lock. With a few well-aimed jabs and a twist, the steel door clicked open. Cam shimmied inside, wiping a bead of sweat off his brow. He held his breath as his eyes adjusted.
No movement on the third floor. Just as he suspected. The security guards on the ground floor had no idea what went on right above their heads.
He moved down a set of metal stairs before his feet met the plush carpet of the third floor corporate offices. Nothing much to see here. Unless he was after confidential files and accounting documents. Why go for guppies when he could dine on Barracuda?
Cam hurried past the cubicles outfitted with recent computers, past the state of the art sound system. Oh, yeah, this place was definitely a petty burglar’s wet dream. But if he wanted the serious payoff housed on Nanodyne’s second floor, that required additional finesse.
He slunk over to the bank of elevators. One surveillance camera rotated back and forth on its axis in a limited range of motion, providing him with the perfect blind spot. He paused and studied the rhythm of the camera for a moment. Then he slipped past it and disappeared into the musty stairwell.
Descending the stairs to the second floor, he removed a cardkey from its pouch. He ran the thin piece of metal through the reader adjacent to the second floor access door and waited. Both red and green lights blinked on and held; the magnetized card jammed the mechanism. He kicked the door near the electronic lock, dislodging the polarized charge on the striker plates, and yanked on the handle.
Emergency lighting dispelled some of the shadows that hindered his movement down the hall. He detected motion sensors mounted to the wall in three-foot intervals. He dropped to his belly then slithered across the ground in slow mo keeping his target—the large lab at the end of the hall—in his sights.
He mustered a sorry ass excuse for a crouch once he reached the large glass panes that sandwiched the plain white door of the company’s nanotechnology division.
Here, access was a little bit trickier, a card reader with a keypad attached. But breaking into a place like this wasn’t something one did on a whim, and Cam had taken care of the necessary recon by planting a mini wireless camera near the pad.
Yesterday, he’d had the pleasure of watching a very feminine hand, simply adorned with blunt, French manicured fingernails, spoon-feed him the passcode. Merci beaucoup, mysterious sexy fingers.
Okay, when a lady’s hand alone had the power to turn him on it was time to break down and admit he’d been without a woman for far too long.
His back skimmed the smooth wall as he broke his crouch and peered into the laboratory. Dim fluorescent lights hummed and their bluish beam flickered in an erratic dance overhead.
Coast clear. He shot a glance at the nameplate on the door. Dr. Audra McCain.
The good doctor wouldn’t even know he’d been here. He slid his magnetic card through the reader, punching in the passcode on the keypad. The lock disengaged and Cam slipped inside.
His eyes adjusted to the dim lighting and he took stock of the room. An oversized desk sat in the middle, surrounded by sensitive equipment. Notebooks were stacked on one end of the table next to a new computer. A mug rested at one corner, the only personal item of note in the entire lab. So Dr. McCain was a neat freak, not the sentimental sort to crowd her space with photos of loved ones. But she cared about her equipment; that much was obvious from the way they gleamed even in the thin beam of emergency lighting.
His gazed snagged on a vault along the lab’s back wall. Cam walked closer to his goal, his mind already thinking of ways to circumvent the mechanism.
He crouched for a closer look. Nanodyne had spared no expense on the high-tech model. Made of bulletproof steel, access to the unit could only be obtained via a biometric thumbprint scan along with an authorized cardkey. The technology wasn’t foolproof, but it would deter most intruders unwilling to take on the greater risk.
A sudden click exploded into the silence.
Cam sucked in a breath and froze, trying to place the sound.
The door creaked. Shit!
He dropped from view, his heart jackknifing into his throat. Footsteps echoed across the floor like gunshots. You’re royally screwed, buddy.
He scrambled across the slippery vinyl tile. Which way to go? Couldn’t head for the exit. Couldn’t stay here, either. Perspiration crawled across his neck. He made a quick, desperate search around the lab.
Nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide.
His knee chose that very crappy, inopportune moment to crumple. It struck the floor and skated out from under him. He clenched his teeth to stifle his grunt of pain then scrambled into a crouch, his knee stiff and uncooperative.
Sweat dripped into his eyes. He blinked the sting away and went stomach to floor. Pushing himself along on his belly, like a friggin’ penguin sliding against the ice, he coasted into a tiny alcove beneath Dr. McCain’s chemical fume hood.
His breath wanted to rush from his chest, but he forced it back, releasing it in a slow and steady rhythm despite the burning in his lungs.
He craned his neck and snuck a peek. His narrowed focus immediately snagged on the man who sat at a large metal desk. Unless Dr. McCain had recently decided on a sex change, that was definitely not her.
The man swiveled in the chair and gave Cam an unobstructed view of the emblem sewn on the shoulder of his gray uniform. Nanodyne Technologies?
A security guard. Perfect.
Damn it! None of the tricks Cam used to bypass Nanodyne’s security should have been detected. So why did the guard pick this lab to investigate?
The guard shook his shaggy black hair out of his eyes and held a thin strip of plastic up to the light with latex-gloved fingertips. Wait a minute. Why would a security guard have to wear gloves?
He watched as the man proceeded to strip the backing away from the film and pressed the transparent band to Dr. McCain’s ceramic coffee mug. He peeled the film off the mug, replaced the backing and shoved it into his breast pocket.
With nothing else to do but wait, Cam watched the guard root around in one of the desk drawers and pull out…a hairbrush? He brought it close to his nose and inhaled before plucking several strands from the bristles.
Cam’s brows shot up. You’ve gotta be shittin’ me. Was the guard nothing more than an obsessed admirer of Dr. McCain’s? Possibly some crazed stalker with a hairbrush fetish? Human resources had to screen their applicants better than this.
The man extracted a Ziploc bag from his pocket, shoved the hair inside and added it to the cache in his pocket. He turned from his perusal of the desk drawers and bent over the computer. His hunched shoulders blocked Cam’s view of the monitor, but he saw the man insert a small drive into the USB hub.
Taking information or leaving it?
He ducked beneath the hood; his foot slipped from its perch along the side, the toe of his boot thumped against metal. The man stiffened and suddenly swiveled around in his seat.
Cam’s eyes slid closed. His breath stagnated in his throat. The vein in his right temple throbbed, sending a shaft of pain through his eyeball. He pressed his back further into the alcove. Maybe if he shrunk himself enough he’d disappear altogether.
To get caught by a security guard who could blow the whistle on his entire objective would suck; to get caught by a man who was clearly up to no good—and could cause him all manner of bodily harm—would suck a hell of a lot worse.
Heavy footsteps echoed on linoleum and his eyes sprang open. The clop of the guard’s shoes slowed as he drew closer. And closer. And then closer still until a pair of gray slacks filled Cam’s line of vision. Near enough that he could have sworn the polyester brushed across his arm when the man stopped in front of the fume hood.
A bead of sweat trickled under the collar of Cam’s shirt and slid slowly down his spine. His watch counted down his demise with the explosive tick from its second hand. He held his breath. Pressure built in his lungs and screamed for release.
The squawk of a walkie-talkie cracked the silence. “Movement on the first floor. Can you check it out?”
A ragged sigh plundered into the static. “Ten-four. I’m on my way.”
The man moved away from the hood, his footsteps punctuating his brisk walk to the door.
Cam peered around the corner and watched the man duck out of the lab. He sagged against the wall. Relief flushed his veins and air flooded his deprived lungs. He waited several tense minutes to make sure the guard wouldn’t return then tumbled out of the alcove and onto the floor. He had never been able to resist a puzzle and couldn’t help being intrigued by the one he’d just stumbled upon.
He’d stake his Aviator—the only thing in his possession worth a damn—that something sinister was afoot in Nanodyne’s hallowed halls.
Audra McCain rapped her knuckles on the glass and waved at the security guard. He rose from his station at the desk and strode over to unlock the door.
“It’s a little early for work, Dr. McCain,” he remarked as he let her inside.
She glanced at the bronze clock hanging in Nanodyne’s foyer. Twelve-thirty a.m. God, he must think her completely loony, coming in at this time of night.
She sent the guard a small smile. “I couldn’t sleep.”
Weariness crawled up her spine, but it seemed she and her good buddy, insomnia, were destined to keep each other company a little while longer.
With her assistant on an extended leave, her workload doubled. But she’d gladly pick up the slack if it meant Margaret could spend twenty-four hours a day at her daughter’s bedside. A pang pierced Audra’s heart as she rooted in her tote bag for her identification card. She hoped the young girl would pull through.
Audra slid her card through the reader, dropped her bag on the x-ray’s conveyor belt then walked through the metal detector to find the guard looking at her expectantly. Still wondering what she was doing here, no doubt.
“I was lying awake in bed and suddenly realized what’s wrong with the liquid in the carbon nanotubes.” She grinned and shook her head. “It’s all in the ratio. I need to make adjustments before I take my samples to ChemTech this afternoon.”
He appeared dazed by her scientific babble. “Have a good day, Dr. McCain.”
“You too.” She snagged her bag off the x-ray machine and slung it over her shoulder.
She stepped into the elevator and punched the second floor button, a burst of energy coursing through her veins. One month until deadline on her prototype and she needed every minute of it for the final testing. It wouldn’t do to come in late on her first big government contract.
The steel doors slid open and she headed for her lab. She slid her card through the secured access and punched in her code. Pulling open the door, she stepped inside and flipped the light switch, a possessive thrill zinging through her as she headed for her desk.
Her lab. She loved saying that. Loved the pristine white walls and the sharp clean lines of her equipment. Everything had an order. A place. A—
What the hell?
She squinted at the small circlet of blue that glowed around her computer’s power button. Her heart squeezed. No way did she leave it on. Her boss demanded tight security; she insisted on it herself as well. Her research was her life. But if she hadn’t left it on…
She dashed over to her desk and dumped her bag on top. Her shaky hand slid over the mouse and wiggled it. The computer screen blinked to life and sent a jolt of dread up her spine. Oh, God, no. Someone had accessed the schematics for her prototype.
She’d spent three years of intense research and development on her revolutionary dynamic armor in the hopes of changing the fate of soldiers on the battlefield. With the armor’s unique properties that allowed it to harden or soften as needed she would help save lives. But not if someone intended to undermine all her hard work.
Everything from the complexities of the nano-fabric to the magnetic field ratio was spelled out in her computer. She’d thought the state-of-the-art password protection impenetrable. If someone had managed to crack into her computer, what was to stop them from—?
She gasped. “No. Oh, please, no.”
The denial burst from her lips and she continued the chant as she snatched up her ID card and made a beeline for the vault at the back of the lab. She slipped the card through the reader and pressed her thumb to the biometric scanner. Her pulse quivered at her throat until the lock disengaged.
She tore open the door. “Thank God.”
Relief turned her tense muscles to mush. With a shaky breath, she reached out and fingered the lightweight material of the suit. The armor was safe.
Safe? What was she thinking? If anything her prototype was more at risk then it was minutes before. Whoever accessed her files might intend to return for the armor at any moment. She had to call security. Right now.
Audra slammed the vault shut, spun—and nearly collided with someone blocking her path. She pulled up short. Her eyes jerked to the man’s obstinate gray ones. A lock of thick brown hair edged across his furrowed brow, his sharp jaw pulled taut.
Unease snaked through her stomach and wound its way up her throat until she had to breathe in short, choppy bursts.
“Why didn’t he grab the armor?” Though his question was muttered between tense lips, she caught the perplexity in his words and hesitated.
Who was he? The man’s accomplice?
His gaze narrowed and he reached for her. Her eyes widened as his rough hand drew closer and her heart leapt into her seized esophagus, jarring a high-pitched scream from her voice box.
“Be quiet, damn it!” he hissed.
But she was through listening to anything he had to say. Her adrenaline spiked, she shoved his hand aside and twisted her body to duck past him. All she had to do was make it to her desk and call security. Her shoes squeaked against the tile with every footfall, closing the distance between her and the phone.
She was almost there. Almost—
The man’s muscled arm wrapped around her shoulders, his hard chest pressed against her back. “Damn it. Would you wait a minute?” His warm breath grazed her ear and sent a shiver down her spine. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
Wasn’t that what all the bad guys said moments before they strangled the life out of you?
She wasn’t going to fall for it. She pitched forward in an effort to break the man’s hold, but his muscles barely tightened against her frantic movements. Struggling wasn’t going to get her anywhere. She needed a weapon—the sharper the better.
She shot out her hand over her immaculate desk. No stapler or letter opener in sight. Damn it, why did she have to be so organized? Her fingers wiggled, reaching, reaching for anything—
“Take it easy—”
—and connected with the handle of her ceramic mug. She closed it in her grasp, swung the cup off her desk in the direction of what she hoped was the man’s head.
His arm fell away from her shoulders and darted upward to block the quasi-weapon from connecting with his skull. He closed his hand around the mug and wrenched it from her grip.
“What’s with all the aggressive shit?” His eyes slid over her like molten steel. “I said I’m not going to hurt you.”
“Like I’m supposed to believe that.” Her chest heaved and she stiffened against the desk.
“I’m a man of my word.” From the way his gaze bored into hers and his jaw pulled tight into a serious kink, she could see he was telling the truth. But he ruined the effect with a scowl. “No need to go all Rambo on me.”
“You were attacking me—”
“I wasn’t attacking you. I was trying to keep you from doing something stupid.” He glanced at her mug and a short chuckle burst past his lips as he read the caption. “Nice.”
Heat crawled up her cheeks. She held out her hand. “Give that to me.”
“Scientists,” he read out loud in a voice dripping with laughter, “just regular people…who are way smarter than you.”
She notched her chin in the air. And because she was smarter than him, she refused to let herself get sucked in by the intriguing twinkle in those smiling eyes. “I’m calling security.”
The cocky bastard had the gall to grin at her pronouncement.