Authors: Mia Sosa
Tags: #Romance, #Contemporary, #Multicultural
New York Boston
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This book is dedicated to my amazing husband. Thank you for laughing at the right moments, listening to my rants, and loving me always. I adore you.
It’s hard to believe I’ve reached the point in my writing career when I have to pen my first acknowledgments. I get teary-eyed just thinking about it, so I’ve poured myself a hefty glass of wine to fortify me. Here I go.
To my husband: Dedicating this book to you is not enough to show my gratitude for your unwavering support and encouragement. You’ve helped me to live my dreams, and you didn’t blink when I chose to reinvent them.
To my daughters: Mommy knows her new career has changed your lives, too; thank you for adapting to those changes in stride. Every hug, every pat on the back, and every question about my writing life means more to me than words could ever say. We each could pretend we love the other more, but I’m content to call us even. Close the book now, okay?
To my mother: It was not until I had my own children that I realized what a special mother
have. I owe you so much, it’s hard to fathom I’ll ever be able to repay you. I’m working on it, though.
To my critique partner and friend, Olivia Dade: You pushed me when I needed to be pushed, and treated me like a delicate flower when I was vulnerable and needy. I can’t imagine what the last year of my life would have been like without you in it.
We did it, lady!
To my editor, Dana Hamilton: After our first conversation, I concluded that we’d work well together, but I had no idea that we’d have so much fun, or that you’d champion my manuscript in the way you did. I’m so glad you have my back, and I look forward to more fun times ahead.
To my agent, Sarah Younger: I can’t definitively say that fate brought us together, though I suspect that’s the case. I
definitely say, however, that I am so fortunate to be working with you. I appreciate your smart advice, your effective advocacy on my behalf, and your hilarious gifs.
To the Dragonflies: I’m so proud to call you my friends. Thanks for answering the Dragonfly call, no questions asked.
To MY: You’ll always have a special place in my heart. I’m so lucky to have you in my life.
: Whether near or far, each of you is always with me.
To the Forever Yours team at Grand Central Publishing: Thank you for welcoming me to the family and for every effort you’ve made to get my manuscript into the hands of readers.
This required more than one glass of wine, by the way.
than Hill couldn’t have imagined a more craptastic morning.
He stood next to his lawyer in a dim and musty courtroom in the nation’s capital. The dreary atmosphere made his stomach churn. And the gluten-free muffin his assistant had given him earlier wasn’t helping matters. Now that he thought about it, what the hell was wrong with gluten anyway?
Judge Monroe, a regal woman with a crop of silver hair and flawless skin, peered at him over her tortoiseshell-framed glasses and cleared her throat. “Mr. Hill, as I’m sure you’re aware, a reckless driving conviction carries the possibility of a one-year jail sentence. It’s not my penalty of choice, but given that you’ve accumulated five speeding tickets in as many months, a fine won’t do.”
Jail? Was she seriously considering jail? Ethan’s heart raced, and his knees threatened to buckle. He even considered running through the Lamaze breathing his sister Emily had practiced in preparation for the birth of his niece.
Judge Monroe clasped her hands and leaned forward. “Your company’s support of charities is to be commended. But in my view, a man who claims such
to charitable endeavors ought to spend time serving the community rather than throwing money at it. I’m sentencing you to community service.”
Ethan’s heart slowed to a gallop. Given a choice between jail and a couple of weeks of community service, he’d pick community service any day. “Thank you, Judge Monroe.”
“Hold on, Mr. Hill. You might not want to thank me just yet.”
Ethan’s stomach twisted, ending its protest with a loud gurgle.
Damn you, gluten-free muffin.
Judge Monroe scribbled on a legal pad. Ethan couldn’t see what she wrote, but the hard strokes of her pen suggested she wanted to stick a figurative foot up his butt. Ethan mentally prepared himself to bend over.
After a few seconds, the judge looked up and smirked. Or was that a snort? Dammit, he wasn’t sure.
“Mr. Hill, I’m sentencing you to two hundred hours of community service, to be completed with one charitable organization over the course of the next six months. Choose a charity that could benefit from your technical skills. And have your lawyer inform my clerk of the charity you’ve selected.”
Ethan swiped a hand down his face. The sentence was outrageous. He calculated the hours in his head, figuring he’d have to spend just under eight hours a week for the next twenty-six weeks to fulfill the sentence. He doubted he could manage to do that on top of his eighty-hour workweek, but he didn’t appear to have a choice.
His lawyer, a buddy from college with stellar credentials and a ruddy, cherubic face, leaned his stocky frame toward Ethan and whispered in his ear. “You got off easy, pal. Judge Monroe tends to take creativity to a new level when she’s pissed. She must have gotten laid last night.”
Ethan’s gaze darted to the judge, whose tight expression made him wonder whether she’d heard his lawyer’s quip. He’d dealt with intimidating businessmen twice her size, but when her bespectacled gaze landed on his face, Ethan barely suppressed the urge to squirm.
She took a deep breath. “Mr. Hill, use this sentence as an opportunity to think about your choices. Self-destructive behavior is one thing. Behavior that endangers others is quite another. And be prepared to take the bus for the next several months. What you do after that is up to you, but if you get another speeding ticket, this court will impose the maximum penalty. Got it?”
“Got it, Your Honor.”
Judge Monroe nodded. “Court is adjourned.”
The slam of her gavel against the bench might as well have been a slap upside his head. As he watched the judge exit the courtroom, Ethan vowed never to speed again. He couldn’t afford to go to jail. Not again anyway.
* * *
Back at the office, Ethan’s first task was to update the company’s board about his legal situation. Two years ago, the board had taken a chance on him. He’d be wise not to alienate any of its members, especially when those members had hired him based on his vow that his reckless days were over.
He’d just begun to type an e-mail to the board when Mark Lansing, the company’s CFO, waltzed into his office. Mark also served as his personal pain in the ass. And though he hesitated to tell Mark this, Ethan considered the man his best friend.
“Well, well,” Mark said. “If it isn’t Dale Earnhardt, Jr., in the flesh.”
“Very funny. This time, I’m screwed.”
Mark rubbed his hands together as he sat down. He didn’t bother to hide his wide grin. “What happened?”
“She gave me community service. Two hundred hours of it.”
Mark scrunched his brows and whistled. “That’s harsh.”
“Harsh or not, the sentence stands.”
“How long do you have?”
“Six months. I get to pick the organization, but it has to be the right fit for my technical skills, whatever that means. And I’m going to use my first name there.”
He hadn’t used his first name since he’d left home to attend college at Penn. Sure, he wasn’t a household name, but thanks to Google, anyone could easily discover his role in the corporation. If all went according to plan, no one at the organization would know he was the CEO of a multimillion-dollar communications company. And no one would know about his unflattering past.
Mark tapped his lips with a single finger. “And by first name, do you mean you plan to go in under the radar?”
Exactly. If no one knew who he was, the board could pretend it never happened. “Right. Something on your mind, Mark?”
Mark’s gaze shifted around the room as he tapped his hands on Ethan’s desk. His eyes were bright. Too bright. “Give me a minute. I’ll be right back.” Before Ethan could stop him, Mark shot out of the chair and left the office.
Ethan turned back to his computer. He’d just finished the e-mail to the board when Mark returned and dropped a section of the day’s newspaper on his desk.
“Check that out,” Mark said.
Ethan sighed, the steady throb at his temples making him more irritable than usual. “What am I looking for?”
“C-2. Flip the page.”
Ethan turned the page. The headline of the full-page article read,
LEARN TO NET TEACHES STUDENTS AND SENIORS HOW TO SURF THE WEB
A photograph of a woman and two young boys accompanied the article. The boys sat in front of a computer and the woman stood behind them, her arms draped over their shoulders. Her dark, wavy hair fell against her cheeks, and her brown eyes gleamed with excitement. He scanned the first paragraph, searching for her name.
A dozen images hit him at once. All of them involved Ms. Ramirez in a compromising position. With him. He looked up at Mark, who studied his reaction to the photograph. Ethan shrugged and tossed the newspaper on the ever-increasing pile of untouched papers on his desk. “I’ll read it later. I need to get this e-mail out to the board.”
Mark smirked. “Okay, sure. It’s too bad, though.”
“What’s too bad?”
If he’d had a gun pointed to his head, Ethan would have been hard-pressed to explain why he was disappointed by that knowledge. “How do you know?”
Mark smiled. “It says so in the article you’re going to read as soon as I leave.” With his smile still in place, Mark sauntered through the door and saluted Ethan before he closed it.
When the door clicked shut, Ethan dove for the paper and placed the page in front of him. According to the article, Ms. Ramirez had been promoted from program manager to director three months ago.
The mission of Learn to Net—or LTN, as she referred to it in the article—was to serve individuals without regular access to computers, educating them about online research libraries, online job applications, social media websites, and other resources on the Web.
He read further, looking for information about Ms. Ramirez’s engagement. Finding none, he gritted his teeth, speed-dialed Mark, and placed the phone in speaker mode.
Mark answered after the first ring. “What?”
“It doesn’t say she’s engaged.”
Mark chuckled. “No, it doesn’t. But you’d only know that if you read the entire article in the few minutes since I left your office. You’re so predictable that I can predict when you’re trying not to be predictable.”
“Is she engaged or not?”
“I have no clue,” Mark said.
“Do you know anything else about her?”
Ethan threw his head back against his chair. “I’m surrounded by people who are useless to me.”
“You’re wrong. I listen. Aren’t you the man who whined about wanting to meet someone without the baggage of your pseudo-celebrity status getting in the way? Here’s your chance,
“Your craftiness scares even me.”
Mark snorted. “One day, you’ll thank me. I’m hanging up now.”
“Is this about the company?” Mark asked.
“Good, because I’m not inclined to provide any more advice about your miserable love life.”
“Mark, shut the hell up already. This is about the computer systems upgrade.”
“What about it?”
“Where are the old computers going?”
“I don’t know. The IT department handles recycling and donations.”
“Have the old computers donated to Learn to Net, but arrange for them to be donated anonymously.”
“I’d love to, but I can’t.”
“No low-key donations, remember? Board policy. All charitable donations are to be publicized within an inch of their lives. The gift of corporate giving comes with shameless promotion of the company.”
Of course. Ethan had recommended that policy. From a business perspective, it made sense. Now, it seemed cold. Manipulative. “I remember. Never mind.”
“No, that’s all,” Ethan said. Then he disconnected the call.
Rather than e-mail the board, Ethan browsed LTN’s website. It was a legitimate charitable organization, with locations in New York and D.C. Given his company’s interests in Internet communications, Ethan’s decision to complete his community service hours with the organization was a no-brainer. His choice to serve there had nothing to do with its director.
Ethan squeezed his stress ball, a constant companion since he’d become the company’s CEO. He hoped he wouldn’t regret the decision to work with LTN. The court had ordered him to serve the community. And he would. Pretending to be someone else. At an organization with an attractive woman at its helm.
What could go wrong?
* * *
Gracie Ramirez sat at her desk and reread the letter she’d received from Nathan Dempsey, a lawyer at a prestigious law firm near DuPont Circle. Two weeks ago, she’d agreed to host a man who’d been sentenced to community service for reckless driving. Nicholas E. Hill. Sounded plain enough. Mr. Hill’s lawyer had assured her that his client posed no threat to her or LTN’s members, and he’d even provided a statement attesting to Mr. Hill’s criminal record. According to that record, the man only possessed a lead foot, but given LTN’s limited resources, she would have been crazy not to accept the free help that went along with that foot.
With her morning to-do list set, she turned to her computer to work on LTN’s annual report. Her fingers hovered over the keyboard, however, and she dropped her head. She had yet to tackle the worst part—the organization’s woeful lack of funding.
Uh-uh. There’d be no pity party for her. She was going to stay positive. She refused to dwell on the fact that she’d inherited a mess of an organization, one that hadn’t made a serious effort to solicit donations to ensure a steady cash flow. Still, if she didn’t secure funding soon, the doors of the D.C. location would close by the end of the fiscal year. And Gracie would return to New York, where her father would greet her with open arms and a smug expression.
She’d accepted failure in her love life, but failure in her professional life was
A rap on her door jolted her out of her thoughts. Gracie grimaced when she saw Daniel Vargas standing at the threshold. His family, like hers, lived in New York. Somehow he’d finagled his way onto LTN’s board. As a result, she’d come to think of him as her father’s spy.
Daniel swept into her office and assumed a stance that reminded her of a soldier at attention: feet wide apart, chest out, and hands behind his back. “
Hola, Graciela, esta todo bien?
“At ease, Mr. Vargas. Everything’s fine. What can I do for you?”
“I was wondering if you’re available for lunch.”
Gracie was thankful she had a good excuse today to turn him down. “I can’t, Daniel. I have someone coming in soon. For community service. I have to give him a tour of the facility and get him started on a couple of projects.”
“Fine. Another time, then.”
Daniel was a prominent architect in the city, and almost universally regarded as a catch. Daniel himself thought he was a catch. Just another reason she considered him an arrogant and eligible man who simply happened to draw excellent architectural plans.
Gracie opened a drawer and reached for her purse, an excuse to avoid his gaze as she turned him down for the fifth time. “Daniel, we’ve been over this before. It’s not going to happen. I just don’t think of you that way. And your role on the board presents a clear conflict of interest.” She peeked at him to gauge whether any of her spiel was sinking in.
His chest caved in at her words, but then it puffed back out. “I’m a patient man, Graciela. You will come to your senses. And when you do, I’ll resign from the board. It’s that easy.”
Gracie’s mouth gaped. Did he think the casual way in which he treated his position on the board somehow endeared him to her? Not in this lifetime. “I’ve got a lot of work to do, Daniel. Was there anything else?”
Wise enough to take the hint, he cut a corner and pivoted toward the door. “No, no. I’ll catch up with you some other time.”
She waved him off, dismissing him and his perfectly styled hair.