Megan stared at the imposing building glowing in the bright afternoon sunshine, wondering if she’d lost her mind. “This isn’t going to work,” she whispered to herself as a chill of dread inched up her spine.
Several people noticed that she was talking to herself and she forced a smile, hoping to reassure the strangers that she was sane. But was she? Staring up at the building, she wondered.
“Just get it over with!” Megan admonished herself, then moved forward, reminding herself that there were worse things in life than being rejected by yet another tech company. Being rejected didn’t even make it onto the top ten list of bad things that could happen to a person.
“Bitten by a shark,” she whispered. “Stoned to death would be bad too.” Someone shot her a startled look; clearly Megan hadn’t spoken as softly as she’d intended. Another reassuring smile and she continued into the building. “Being tossed overboard into a sea of jellyfish,” she muttered, but lower this time.
The receptionist behind the elegant counter smiled in greeting as Megan walked up.
“May I help you?”
Megan was aware that the counter served as a simple receptionist table, but it was really more of a guard area. No one passed by this desk without a badge and a thumb print. Hence the armed guards standing off to the side of the turnstiles that flanked the receptionist area.
Trying to appear calmer than she felt, Megan forced herself to smile politely back at the professionally friendly woman. “I have an appointment with Michael Bradley.”
The receptionist nodded, then turned to type something into her computer. “Ms. Megan Carmichael?” she asked.
“Yes,” Megan replied, and had her identification ready. She’d been told that this would be required before entering the building. It was a secure facility that produced some of the most top secret computer programming work in the world. It wasn’t a government building, although the security here rivaled the security for the Central Intelligence Agency building in McLean, Virginia.
But this was JJH Technologies, the premier technology company that provided technology services to both government and private industries.
Megan had already approached several other technology companies with her idea. Smaller companies. Companies with less resources. They all rejected her idea or offered her terms that were so unfair, she’d actually laughed at a few of them.
Coming here to JJH Technologies might be one of the stupidest ideas she’d had, but why not? She’d been rejected by the smaller companies, why not try hawking her idea to one of the bigger fish? What did she have to lose? Although, JJH Technologies would most likely be considered more of a whale than a fish. By anyone’s standards, this company was definitely a whale. A big whale!
The reality of how huge JJH Technologies really was made her presence here a ridiculous idea. Big companies played things safe. They grew bigger and stronger because of safe, conservative steps towards success.
Unfortunately, the smaller companies didn’t have the resources that she needed in order to bring her idea to the world. She needed the immense power of JJH Technologies, which was why she was standing here, waiting for…something to happen…even though it was a massive long-shot that JJH Technologies would help her out.
“Mr. Bradley will be with you in a moment,” the receptionist said, handing Megan a badge that identified her as a visitor. “Keep this badge on you at all times. And you cannot go anywhere in the building without an escort.” She paused, looking into Megan’s eyes to ensure that Megan understood. “If you would like to have a seat, Mr. Bradley will greet you in a moment.”
“Thank you,” Megan replied, pinning the visitor’s badge to her collar as she perched nervously on the edge of one of the leather sofas.
Looking around, Megan was impressed. If someone wanted to intimidate visitors, this building would definitely do it. The steel and glass architecture was meant to be imposing, giving one a sense of strength and power. Tall, glass walls looked out onto a beautifully landscaped courtyard while granite floors and marble walls in the other direction conveyed the impression that no one was getting through unless they had the right clearance.
“Ms. Carmichael?” a man greeted Megan as he walked towards the sitting area. “I’m Michael Bradley. It’s a great pleasure to meet you,” he said, extending his hand with a friendly smile.
Megan stood immediately and shook his hand. He was attractive in an average sort of way; brown hair, soft, brown eyes, soft jaw, and a perfectly knotted tie. There was nothing about him that stood out in any way. He was just…average. And yet, she knew that he was a vice president in the company, so he had to have a great deal of experience and intelligence.
“It’s great to finally meet you, Mr. Bradley.”
“Please, call me Mike. This way.”
He led her through the complicated security checks, then up to the top floor of the building, into a conference room that looked sleekly modern and ridiculously uncomfortable. “Have a seat,” he offered, sitting on the other side of the table, folded his hands, and looked at her expectantly. The smell of leather and furniture polish hit her suddenly and, for some reason, the lemon scent soothed her, helped her focus.
Megan knew the drill. He was waiting for her to make her pitch. “Thank you so much for taking the time to meet with me,” she began as she and pulled a piece of paper out of her bag. “Here is the form I mentioned, indicating that the information discussed here today is my concept and anything coming out of this meeting is my intellectual property.”
Despite the fact that Megan had discussed this with Michael Bradley on the phone, and even gone through the legal department to discuss the form, Michael seemed surprised that she was asking him to sign it. He skimmed the brief legal jargon, then pulled a pen out of the inside pocket of his suit jacket and scribbled his signature. She wasn’t going to discuss her idea only to have him steal it out from under her.
“Thank you,” she said as he slid the signed paper towards her. She slipped it into her folder, then took out a binder. “This is my idea,” she explained. “I think there’s a way to do genome testing on blood that will allow us to detect cancer, or the probability of cancer, two to five years ahead of when symptoms actually show up. The computer system I’ve been working on will…” and she went on to explain in medical terms what she wanted to build and the computer programming that would be required, the security she wanted with the company she partnered with and the timeline that she expected would be needed in order to get the system out to the public.
“As I mentioned on the phone, I’ve done most of the preliminary coding for the program. But I don’t have the capital to build the testing environment. JJH Technologies has the labs that can provide the testing. You have the resources to bring this to market and I’m willing to offer a percentage of the profits for the company’s assistance.”
Nodding, he continued to skim the pages as he asked, “How many companies have you brought this to?”
“Sixteen,” she replied, being honest but keeping her features bland. She definitely didn’t want this man to know how hard it had been so far, the emotional toll she’d endured from all of those rejections. “They thought the idea was too risky.”
“And…” he flipped to another page, then back to the previous one before he shook his head. “When would you want to start working on the testing?”
“As soon as possible. There are people – doctors and patients – who need this technology. The sooner we get this working, the faster we can save lives.”
The man nodded slowly and Megan’s heart rate picked up slightly. Normally, someone had already stopped her before she’d reached this point in her presentation. Some had laughed, telling her that there was no way her programming could do everything she said it could do. Others weren’t even that polite.
There was a long pause as Michael flipped back to the first page, then went through each of the charts in the briefing more closely.
When he’d reached the end again, he looked up. At that moment, she wondered why she’d thought him average. That sharp intelligence was visible now and her stomach tightened with…anticipation? Dread? Hope?
“Come with me,” he said and abruptly stood up, bringing the presentation with him.
Startled, Megan quickly grabbed her briefcase, sighing with resignation. So much for hope, she thought. This was where she was thrown out and told to stop harassing the company employees. There might be a legal threat as well.
“Fire ants,” she whispered to herself.
Mike stopped in the middle of the hallway and turned around, eyebrows raised in surprise. “I’m sorry?”
Megan shook her head and smiled, resigned to yet another rejection. “Nothing!” she replied quickly. Being eaten alive by a million fire ants would be much worse. So, this current rejection wasn’t bad at all. She could survive being kicked out. She probably wouldn’t survive fire ants. Life is all about managing one’s perspective!
But…she glanced back towards the elevators, then in the direction Mike had gone. He’d disappeared into an office, but the door to that office was still open. Odd…he was pointing to the presentation and, while Megan watched, someone behind the door, out of her line of sight, asked questions, a deep, baritone voice that tugged at her memories. A tanned hand reached out and took the presentation.
Megan flew back in time to another tanned hand. A strong hand attached to one of the most confident men she’d ever met. Even now, years later, her body reacted to the memory of what those hands could do to her, what the man could do to her. With just a look, that man could make her world spin away into an erotic joy that never failed to leave her gasping. And screaming. And he always had her begging for more.
Megan jerked back to the present when she realized that Mike was gesturing for her to enter the office.
Megan glanced back towards the elevators, confused. She wasn’t being thrown out? She was…he wanted…they wanted to hear more?
With a jerk, she stepped forward awkwardly, as nervousness and excitement combined to throw her off balance.
“Jake, this is Megan Carmichael. She brought this idea to us and…”
Megan stopped listening. She stopped breathing. It couldn’t be! Not THE Jake! Impossible!
She looked up from the tanned hand…right into the familiar grey eyes of Jake Hughes. It was him!
And…oh my! He was even bigger and sexier than she remembered. Her eyes widened as she stared at the man who had never left her heart. The one man she’d loved almost more than life itself.
The man she’d left without any word or explanation!
Jake stared, not sure he was seeing properly. Megan Carmichael. She was still shockingly beautiful. Her full mouth was the kind that men fantasized about and actresses spent thousands of dollars trying to replicate. Add adorable freckles sprinkled across her nose, giving her a gamin look and those eyes! From the first moment she’d looked in his direction, those eyes had seemed to be able to see into his soul.
She was thinner than he remembered. Her hair, what he could see of it, now that it was pulled back into a tight knot on the back of her head, looked darker. Perhaps a bit paler in some places?
But otherwise, she was exactly as he remembered.
He noticed the shock in her eyes as well and hoped she was as surprised as he was.
Jake suddenly realized that the awkward silence had gone on too long and pulled himself out of his stupor. He stepped forward to greet the woman who had…No. Megan hadn’t broken his heart all those years ago. He’d vowed that she hadn’t. She’d destroyed his faith in women. Because Megan…what they’d had…
He shook his head abruptly, banishing the memories.
“It’s been a while,” he said, extending his hand. What was he feeling? Anger? Irritation? Definitely surprise. A bit of fury, which was unjustified, since he hadn’t allowed her to get close, he reminded himself.
When he felt her small hand in his, felt the delicate bones, he knew that something wasn’t right. His eyes narrowed as he tried to figure out what was different about her. It wasn’t just her weight or her hair. Something….
Mike looked between both of them, his eyes taking in the subtle interactions between the two of them. “Do you two know each other?”
She tried to pull her hand away, but Jake tightened his grip, holding her hand steady in his. She’d gotten away from him once before. Megan had slipped away from him in the dead of night. No note, no explanation. Not even a phone call or text telling him goodbye. Not this time, my sweet, he thought with molten vengeance. You won’t be going anywhere until I say you can!
Mike was still waiting for a response and Jake replied without taking his eyes away from Megan. “We met back in college.”
Mike looked between them, obviously putting the pieces of the puzzle together before his eyes finally rested on Megan’s. “You went to MIT?” he asked, impressed because Massachusetts Institute of Technology was one of the hardest schools in the country to get into. It was one of the only schools that considered aptitude only. Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and other Ivy League schools allowed alumni recommendations to influence their admissions process. But MIT evaluated applicants only on skills, testing, and grades.
“She didn’t finish,” Jake snapped before Megan could reply.
He watched in fascination as her wide, sensuous lips pressed together. Damn it! He remembered watching her lips while she sipped water. Spoke. Smiled!
Megan jerked her hand away, effectively snapping his thoughts away from her mouth. He watched with interest as that hand smoothed down over her stomach nervously. She looked away from Jake, smiling to Mike. “It took me a bit longer to finish. But I have a master’s degree in computer science,” she announced, ostensibly to Mike, but Jake knew that the dig was aimed at him.
“I guess you wanted to enjoy a walkabout for a while?” His lips curled slightly. “Or was it called a gap year back then?” A slight snarl slipped into his tone.
Megan’s incredible mouth stretched into a sexy smile, one that didn’t reach her beautiful brown eyes. Eyes that perfectly matched the freckles she was still trying to hide with makeup.
With a slight tilt of her head, she calmly explained, “I took some time off. But isn’t the ending what matters most?”
Jake’s fury at her non-explanation, combined with her abrupt disappearance years ago, erupted with her comment. She looked nervous, her eyes were calm, but he could see the pulse beating at the base of her throat. Jake wasn’t sure if he wanted to pull her into his arms and hold her, or demand a real explanation. Playing by her rules, he nodded slightly, following her lead. “Yes. The ending is exactly what I’m thinking about.”
He knew the exact moment when Megan changed her mind about working with JJH. Her eyes widened ever so slightly at his reminder, then those incredible lips widened again, looking soft and sexy as she absorbed his harsh tone and the even harsher reminder of what she’d done all those years ago. She rallied though! Straightening, she looked up at him with a professional smile pasted in place. But her smile was fake. He knew her too well not to notice that the smile didn’t reach her eyes.
Completely turning away from Jake, she extended her hand. “It was a pleasure speaking with you, Mr. Bradley,” she stated, making it clear that Jake wasn’t included in that pleasure. “I appreciate you taking time out of your busy day.”