“Alpha tech geek and a white hot Russian on the run…Hoo boy! You better hold onto your seat. It’s one steamy ride!” ~Audrey Carlan, #1 New York Times Bestselling Author
There’s no code Knox Torren can’t break. He knows no limits when it comes to uncovering intel, especially on anyone who crosses his family. But a skip tracer with a sketchy history presents a puzzle he can’t solve. When he finally meets the statuesque blonde with the intoxicating Russian accent, he’ll try anything to unearth her secrets.
Darya Volkova has been living under an assumed identity for years. Searching for a job that will take her out of the dangerous life she’s built, she has her sights set on Knox: the best hacker in the business. From their first meeting, though, something far more intimate than a professional connection develops.
Darya must overcome still-healing wounds to trust that Knox will take care of her in all the ways she needs. And Knox will do whatever it takes to make sure whatever–or whoever–she’s running from never touches his woman again.
She wiggled her toes inside her grape-colored Chuck Taylors, sorely missing the designer shoes her former boss and benefactor had kept her supplied with. On the meager income her skip tracing jobs provided, it was shoes, or bags, but not both and never ever new. In the end, she’d rationalized purses were quite literally easier to run with than heels, and God only knew when her past was going to rear its ugly head and fire the starting gun.
The Coach tote sat prim and proper on the edge of her bed. It would call less attention for sure, but the Michael Kors boho saddlebag with its tassels and gold grommets had a whole lot more sass and was an almost perfect match for her Chucks.
JJ’s words. She’d pounded the statement into Darya’s head for months and made her vow she’d never forget them.
And living didn’t mean blending in.
She snatched the saddlebag off the bed and started swapping out the contents from her well-worn Patricia Nash bucket bag with the long hippy fringe. JJ was right. Darya had made it nearly two and a half years since she’d fled her home in Russia without one single indication she was still on anyone’s radar. Did she need to be cautious and keep her online presence limited? Absolutely. Just functioning day-to-day under JJ’s identity was risky enough. Never mind doing something stupid enough to catch the attention of the killer she’d left behind. But that didn’t mean she had to turn herself into a shadow dweller who only ventured from her box of an apartment at night. She could live. Could soak up every amazing moment of the heat-laden home she’d made for herself in Dallas, Texas, and make a fresh new life for herself.
With one last check of her appearance in the mirror, she hustled into the living room, humming the new Bruno Mars song she’d downloaded the night before. She paused beside her makeshift office in the tiny dining space beside her galley kitchen, shook the mouse to wake up her computer and typed in her password. The sync process for her mail application kicked in the second she opened it. Rather than sit and watch while her overnight spam filtered in, she sauntered into the kitchen for a fresh cup of coffee.
Maybe, just maybe, today would be the day she’d hear from Knox.
A whole week she’d waited. Seven anticipation-laden days filled with the compulsive need to check her messages on at least an hourly basis. She’d lost count of the number of times she’d reread his initial response to her first email, checking and rechecking to see if she’d misunderstood his meaning.
Not a hard no, but not a yes either.
She slid the coffee carafe back onto the warmer, the nutty depth of the rich dark roast scent weaving an element of early-morning calm into her anxious thoughts. Sipping the bold brew, she leaned a hip against the counter and savored the words on the white-washed sage plaque mounted on the wall. The white font was whimsical, but the words never failed to pack a punch.
That was her goal. The mission she’d accepted the day she’d claimed JJ’s life as her own.
And Knox Torren was a pivotal part of her plans. The foundation for the future she wanted to build—or rebuild as it were.
Three quick dings from her computer signaled the finalized download from her three accounts; one for business, one for JJ’s personal correspondence and one for junk mail. She pulled out the simple ladder chair that matched her Shakespearean writing desk. When she’d left San Diego behind, she’d brought very few of JJ’s possessions with her, but this was one of her favorites. Finished in rustic cherry distressed wood, it was a stronghold of old-world elegance in her otherwise frugal existence. Her new life had been born behind this desk, masterminded by the real JJ Simpson—her own guardian angel.
She forced herself to work through the spam folder first. Sales she tucked away for reference later. Outlandish claims for fly-by-night software and cheap clothing outlets she deleted with a weird amount of satisfaction. At first, she’d taken the time to unsubscribe from the bothersome promotions, but then she realized if she kept up the tidying task, she’d get almost no email at all. And wouldn’t that be a depressing reality?
Finished with her spam, she clicked on her work. Two follow ups, three new jobs and an inquiry on pricing from a new company.
Well, at least that was promising. Since relocating to Dallas nearly nine months ago, she’d managed to pick up six new companies, all of them focused on collections or repossessions and offering steady income. She jotted out a quick response to the new vendor, attached her pricing sheet and scanned the rest of the emails. Nothing there that couldn’t wait until tomorrow for her attention, which meant she could finally give in and get to what she hopped was the good stuff.
She clicked her personal account.
Too fast, her brain processed the senders. Her shoulders slumped and she slouched against the hard backrest. No Knox. Not even anything worth reading. She snagged her coffee and glared at the calendar displayed in the corner of her mail application. Whether she liked it or not, it might be time to face reality. Knox was a successful businessman with more than enough opportunities to keep him occupied. What were the odds he’d be interested in anything she had to offer? And the truth of the matter was, he wasn’t the only person who could help her reach her goals. It was just he’d been introduced to her life in such a serendipitous way she couldn’t help but think reaching out to him was the right move. Too many times she’d followed that same gut instinct only to have it save her life. She wasn’t about to ignore those signals now.
Guiding her cursor to her work files, she opened the one labeled and double-clicked the file at the top.
The image she’d saved from an online Dallas news article a few months ago filled her screen. Seven men, all vastly different in appearance yet obviously comfortable in each other’s presence, faced the camera with open smiles. Most were standing, some with a casual arm thrown around another and others lifting their drinks in salute, but two of the men leaned against gleaming motorcycles. One had dark hair down to his shoulders and a wicked gleam in his eyes. The other was Knox.
With his butt perched on the edge of his seat and his ankles crossed, he smirked at the camera as if he had a naughty secret he was just dying to tell. Where the rest of the men favored either extremely short hair or styles long enough to buck convention, Knox’s was somewhere in the middle and cut in a way that made him look like he’d just surfaced from a good tussle in bed. His jeans were worn enough she’d bet they felt as soft as spun cotton, and his green T-shirt with faded white lettering molded his lean but sculpted torso. A tattoo peeked from the edge of one shirtsleeve and another marked his bared forearm. No matter how many times she’d tried to zoom in on the graphic, she’d yet to make out the details, but it definitely had a tribal flare. Edgy to match the thick leather cuffs and bracelets he wore on each wrist. According to Jason, he was the ultimate geek and hacker all rolled up into one, but on the outside he looked like a rock star.
She flipped to the next picture, one pilfered from a technical review article shortly after he’d released his successful Lystilizer app. It was less candid. More professional than the one with his friends and lacking his genuine smile, but accented his gray eyes.
The next picture was her favorite. Used for a story about his aiding the government after giving up his blackhat ways, they’d ironically used a mugshot taken when he was eighteen. Even then he’d been attractive, aiming his smug grin at the camera and demonstrating not the least bit of remorse for whatever he’d been caught doing. Honestly, she wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d been flipping the bird at whoever took the picture.
Knox was smart. Brilliant. Even if Jason hadn’t told her so over and over for the last many months, anyone would glean the same impression with one look at him. Challenge and charisma poured out of every image.
Sighing, she closed the pictures and all the background applications. Her infatuation was stupid. Of all the people for her to turn borderline stalker on, she had to pick a top-notch hacker. Not a great idea for an average girl. A horrid idea for a woman desperate to dodge any kind of unnecessary attention. But Knox was the best. A man who’d built an amazing life for himself from almost nothing and had a history for taking talented people under his wing.
Reality was reality, though. If he didn’t respond in the next few days, he probably had no intention of doing so, and the last thing she’d do was beg. She might not have the natural ability he possessed, but what she lacked in innate skill, she more than made up for in tenacity. Otherwise, she’d still be in Russia and a kept toy for a tyrant.
She logged out of her computer, stowed her empty coffee mug in the dishwasher and tidied up her desk.
JJ’s laughter-rich voice moved through her thoughts.
Hitching her purse on her shoulder, Darya paused beside her desk. Her coaster sat perfectly aligned with the top of her wireless keyboard, and her paper clip holder, stapler and Post-its were all neatly lined up beneath her monitor.
She pushed the Post-its out of their orderly formation, leaving the neon yellow stack cockeyed, and grinned. So what if Knox hadn’t contacted her. Today wasn’t about strategy or planning for worst-case scenarios. It was about living and giving. Enough for her for JJ.