Authors: Deborah Bladon
New York Times & USA Today Bestselling Author
First Original Edition, December 2014
Copyright © 2014 by Deborah Bladon
Cover Design by
Wolf & Eagle Media
This book is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is entirely coincidental. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events and situations either are the product of the author's imagination or are used factiously.
All rights reserved. No parts of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means without written consent from the author.
The TRACE Series
"Lilly. Please, Lilly, look at me."
It's Clive's voice. I'm crouched into a ball, my arms wrapped around my legs. I press my lips so tightly into my knees that I can't speak. I won't speak. I don't know what I could possibly say to him. He's the one who had my picture in his pocket. He took it and destroyed it. Those are the only words that I can hear reverberating through my mind.
"Someone needs to take that god dammed picture down," Clive yells into the chaos.
There are voices everywhere. I see feet scrambling past me. I can feel hands on my shoulders trying to pull me up but I'm frozen. I can't move. Everything I've worked so hard for has vanished because of that picture.
"Take her out of her now, Alec," Clive seethes.
"What the fuck is going on?" Alec's voice is laced with anger. "Who the hell did this?"
"Lilly," Lance, Alec's assistant, is crouched in front of me. "I need you to come with me now. I can take you to a quiet room. Let me help you get up."
I pull my gaze up to his boyish face. He's not much older than me. The first moment I saw him weeks ago I thought about how he looked like an older version of my brother, Reave. Reave was only ten when he died. I wish he was here. I wish they were all here still. I've tarnished their memories forever now.
"Everyone stays in this room," Clive voice bellows over all the noise. "Sit the fuck down. All of you sit down."
There are muffled shouts thrown back at Clive from the audience of reporters and tech bloggers. I can't clearly make out anything. I feel Lance's hand grab mine and I cling to it. I need his strength to help bring me to my feet.
"If any one of you prints or posts the picture of Ms. Randall, I will personally see to it that your ass is dragged into a costly litigation." The room quiets as Clive continues," I own the copyright to that picture. If you've posted it on any social media sites now is the time to delete it. If you don't, I promise I will hunt you down."
"Lilly." Lance pulls harder on my hand, trying in vain to pull me to my feet. "We need to go. You can't stay here."
"Okay," I agree softly. "I'll go."
I feel weightless as he drops my hand before sliding both of his around my waist. I reach for his shoulders to steady myself. I doubt that my feet will support me so I'm grateful that he's carrying the brunt of my weight.
I don't turn to look at the audience. I can hear my name being tossed out but anything beyond that is unintelligible and lost beneath the low hums of the people standing on the stage. I know they all are thinking the same thing. The reckless abandon of my pose in the picture, and the fact that I had a broad smile on my face as I held open my barista uniform to reveal my nude breasts, draws instant conclusions. They all think I'm a joke. No one in the tech world will ever take me seriously after this.
"We're going down this hallway." Lance gestures with his chin towards a long, narrow hallway that leads back to the room I was in with Clive not more than thirty minutes ago.
I let him lead me all the while trying to keep my head down. I can feel the heated glares of my co-workers from Hughes Enterprises as we walk past them. I've let Alec down. He gave me an incredible opportunity and I not only squandered it away, I damaged the reputation of his company.
"Lilly." As if on cue I hear Alec's deep voice right behind us. Another arm wraps around my waist and I can only assume it's his. "Are you alright?"
I nod knowing that I can't form a concrete response. I'm not alright. I can't wrap my brain around what just transpired on the stage.
"Get her some water," Alec barks at Lance as we round a corner and step into the same room I was in with Clive before I stepped on stage for my presentation. "Lilly, sit down."
I feel him lowering me onto a soft chair. I push my hand back to steady my body not wanting to teeter forward. I'm light headed and weak. I clear my throat softly. "Where's Clive?"
Alec crouches in front of me, pushing a chilled open bottle of water into my palm. "Drink this, Lilly. Take a drink."
I do as I'm told even though I can't tell if I'm thirsty or not. I can't tell anything. "How did that happen?"
"We have no idea." Alec's eyes flit over my face. "Where did that picture come from?"
He deserves an answer. It's his event and my picture has ruined the entire thing for him. Not to mention the lasting damage it's going to do to his business. I haven't worked here a month and already my actions have marred his company's good name forever. "I took that picture. I didn't put it in the slide presentation. I wouldn't do that."
"Shit, Lilly." Alec pushes the bottle of water back towards my lips, encouraging me to take another sip. "You practically fainted out there. I know you had nothing to do with it."
I'm grateful that there's no question in his mind about whether I deliberately tried to sabotage his event. "I'm so sorry."
"Did you have that picture on your computer at the office?" Lance is standing next to me now. "Could someone have accessed it from there?"
I glance up at him and see genuine concern there. We haven't spent a lot of time talking since I began working alongside him, but he's been nothing but kind and welcoming to me. Whenever I've had a question, he's run to find the answer for me. "I took it with a Polaroid camera a few months ago. Clive had it."
Alec scrubs his hand over his forehead. "What do you mean Clive had it?"
I'm not about to launch into the sordid tale of how I met Parker when I was using the dating app developed for Corteck. The details that relate to exactly how the picture ended up in Clive's possession aren't going to change the end result. He's the last person who had that picture. "Clive told me he destroyed the picture weeks ago. That's the last I heard of it."
Alec's eyes dart up from my face towards where Lance is standing behind us. I know what he's thinking. For a fleeting moment of time when I first turned and saw the picture I thought the same thing. Corteck and Hughes Enterprises are direct competitors. They're both fighting to get into the very competitive app market. Sabotaging a press day event would have a lasting impact. I know Clive is ruthless but after all the tender moments we've shared and the words he's whispered into my ear, I can't believe that he'd do something this malicious to me.
"Go get Clive." Alec waves his hand towards the closed door. "Get him the fuck in here now, Lance."
"Lilly." It's Clive. He's kneeling in front of me now, his hands cradling my face. "Are you okay? You're so pale. Do you need a doctor?"
I do. I wish Ben were here. I've thought about texting him and asking him to come. Right now, he's the only person I can trust. "I'm okay. I don't need a doctor."
"We need to talk, Clive," Alec says. The anger within his tone is clear and palpable. As soon as Lance had left to find Clive, Alec had bolted to his feet and paced the floor in front of me.
"Not now." Clive's eyes don't leave my face. "Who the hell was operating that slide show?"
"Lilly told me you had the picture." I see Alec's finger dart into the air in my peripheral vision. "This is on you, Clive."
Clive's grip on my face tightens. He turns his gaze up towards Alec. I can see the tightness in his jaw as he opens his mouth to speak. "Fuck you. This is all on you. You need to find the asshole that put that picture up."
"How did someone else get the picture?" I whisper the words out not knowing if they're loud enough for Clive to hear. "You had the picture."
His head turns back towards me slowly. "I don't know. I swear I shredded that fucking picture."
I can't pull anything from his stoic expression. I can see concern in his eyes but it's veiled by anger. I watch as he takes a heavy swallow, perspiration building on his upper lip.
He suddenly jerks forward until his lips are hovering next to my ear. "I need you to think very hard about whether you showed that picture to someone other than my brother."
The words sting so deeply that my breathing stalls. I pull back, wanting to look him directly in the eyes when I answer. "Parker was the only one. He was the one I sent it to."
"You're sure?" His brows lift.
I want to wrench free from his grasp but there's no room for me to move. I'm trapped in this chair and in the knowledge that he's questioning a fact that I've been very clear about. He knows that I didn't show that picture to anyone else. "I am positive," I spit the words out clearly, one-by-one.
He rests his forehead against mine. "I have to make a few calls. You stay right here."
I nod even though I know that as soon as I can feel any sensation in my legs again, that I'm going to stand and try to find a back exit so I can slink out of the building. I can't think with everyone milling about me and Clive questioning whether I gave another virtual stranger a peek beneath my barista uniform.
"It's Clive," he snaps into the phone. "I'm sending you a picture. I need copyright on it yesterday. Get your ass to Washington and make it happen now."
My hand fists as I pull myself up. I can't let this happen. It's my picture. I took it. "No, wait."
Clive pulls the phone from his ear. "Lilly, I'm doing this to protect you."
"It's my picture." I briefly glance at Alec and Lance wishing they would leave the room and this conversation. It's too personal. It's all become too personal. "I own the copyright to it. I already do. I know that I do."
A small smile tugs at the edge of his lips. "You do but I'm taking an extra step in case we need to take any action."
My head is still reeling but I'm grounded enough to know that standing in the background while a man like Clive Parker takes ownership over my half-naked picture is not a good idea. We may be connected now but I can't predict the future. I've learned that valuable lesson from my own past. I have to own that picture, and if that means investing every dollar I have to make it happen, I will. "I will handle it myself."
"I have my attorney on the phone right now." He gestures towards his smartphone. "I'll get him to register you as the copyright holder."
That's a debt that I don't want to have hanging over my head. "I have a lawyer. I'll ask him."
I see the doubt in his expression before he even speaks. "My attorney has experience in matters like this. I think you should let me handle it.
I let him walk out of the bistro that night with my picture. I should have kept it when he slid it across the counter to me. I can't make another mistake that will impact my future. I need to take control of this now. "No. I'm going to take care of it."
I watch as his gaze shoots back to where Alec and Lance are standing. I know I'm putting him in a difficult position. He controls every aspect of his life and the lives of those around him and I'm willfully pushing against that. "We'll go to my place and talk about it more, Lilly."
"I can't right now," I say quietly. "I need to talk to Alec."
"Alec?" He sighs. "Why do you need to talk to him?"
I pull on the silver hoop earring dangling from my ear. He's not making this easy for me. "I work for him. I need…I mean, I want to talk to Alec about my future."
His hands leap to my neck, his fingers splaying across my flesh. I flinch when I feel one brush against my scar. "You don't need to do that today. You can come back and work for me."
They were the words that I didn't want to hear. The notion that Clive arranged for that picture to be displayed to hurt me or force me back to Corteck is hovering in the room like a brightly dressed elephant. I know that Alec and Lance have to be thinking the very same thing.
"I'd like to talk to Lil," Alec calls from behind me. "We need to talk."
"Later, Alec," Clive says as he brushes his lips over my forehead. "Give her some time. She's been through enough today."
"She wants to talk to me, Clive." He pushes the point and I'm grateful that he does.
I nod slowly. I need to find out where I stand at Hughes Enterprises. If my ass is going to be tossed into the street, I need to consider what my next move will be. Running back to Clive's company isn't going to happen, especially after what took place today.
"I'm going to go find out who the hell put that picture in the slideshow," he whispers into the skin of my cheek. "Send Lance to find me when you're ready to go home."
I don't respond. I can't. I just stare into the face of the man I thought was my saving grace. Now, all I see is someone I'm not sure I can trust.