by J.T. Geissinger
A badass ex-Special Ops officer and a smartass hacker fight a dangerous enemy…and a blistering attraction to each other.
Connor Hughes is an ex-special ops officer, CEO of Metrix Security, and bonafide badass. His private security firm is renowned for its effectiveness. He’s renowned for his lethal precision and iron self-control. But when the former Marine meets a gorgeous young hacker with a mouth as smart as her brain, his control unravels in ways he never could have predicted.
Tabitha West is a genius MIT dropout with a bad attitude, an obsession with Hello Kitty and piercings in unmentionable places. Tabby amuses herself by outwitting the most secure technology systems on the planet. Known in hacker circles as Polaroid due to her photographic memory, she’s as secretive as she is accustomed to working alone. So when Connor decides she’s the only one who can help him catch a cyber criminal intent on taking down one of his clients, she tells him exactly where he can stick it.
But when the cyber criminal turns out to be the Hannibal Lecter of computer crime—and a dark presence from Tabby’s past—Tabby and Connor are drawn into a dangerous game of cat and mouse. They quickly find themselves fighting not only their common enemy, but also an explosive desire that threatens to consume them.
When the stakes are this high and the game this deadly, will falling in love be the most dangerous move of all?
Other Books in the Wicked Games Series
The key to infiltrating a highly secure, access-controlled building that houses multimillions of dollars of technology and proprietary trade secrets lies in one word.
“Good morning!” I say brightly to the receptionist seated behind the large mahogany desk in the posh lobby of GenCeuticals, the top biotech firm in Washington, DC.
She looks up and smiles. “Good morning. May I help you?”
Making sure to maintain strong but nonthreatening eye contact, I say, “Yes. I’m Dena Johnson from corporate. Bob McKenna said I could stop by and take a tour of the facility.”
I hand her my card, which I made yesterday on my home printer. It identifies me as a Senior Vice President of Information Technology.
Of course I’d researched the company and knew what names to use. Dena Johnson and Bob McKenna are actual employees of GenCeuticals. The devil’s in the details, as they say, and successful espionage requires total command of details.
The receptionist—twenty-something, friendly—doesn’t even glance at the card in her hand. “Certainly, Ms. Johnson. Let me call the general manager for you. Please have a seat.”
“Thank you.” While the receptionist makes a phone call, I make myself comfortable on a leather sofa in the seating area nearby.
After a brief conversation, she hangs up the phone, beaming as if she’s just won a prize. “Mr. Hoffmeier will be right out to see you!”
Smiling blandly, I tick off a mental list of failures so far. No inspection of my business card. No request to view my company security badge. No request for a second form of identification. No call to the corporate office to confirm my visit.
Stupid people make my job so much easier.
Never let a sheep guard the chicken coop. The wolves will always find a way in.
After a short wait, the glass doors to the left of the reception desk slide open with a gentle siss of air. Through them bustles a man. He’s fiftyish, balding, wearing a navy blue suit that fit well fifteen pounds ago, and a tight smile. He looks at the receptionist. She gestures to me.
“Ah!” The man scurries over, hand extended. “Ms. Johnson! Welcome! I’m Donald Hoffmeier, General Manager here at GenCeuticals, DC. We don’t often have visitors from corporate—what a wonderful surprise!”
I stand and shake his hand. It’s clammy. His brow is speckled with shining drops.
It’s all I can do not to smirk. I know I’m a bitch, but making people nervous sort of gets me off.
“Thank you, Mr. Hoffmeier,” I purr, batting my lashes. “It’s so nice to meet you. I’m sorry I didn’t call ahead to arrange a visit, but I was on business in the area, and I’ve heard such wonderful things about your operation here that I couldn’t resist taking a look for myself.”
Hoffmeier looks positively dazzled. He stammers, “W-well that’s great to hear! You never know what the higher-ups think of all the hard work you’re putting in.”
He leans closer. His voice gains a conspiratorial tone. “I’d heard rumors of restructuring. Getting rid of some of the middle management, things like that.”
I give his sweaty paw a final shake and then wave my hand dismissively in the air. “Oh well! You know how the rumor mill works. But I can assure you, everyone at headquarters loves what you’re doing here.” I drop my voice. “You didn’t hear that from me, though. Gotta keep the troops on their toes, right?”
Hoffmeier nods so enthusiastically, I think his head might fly clear off his shoulders.
“Okay! Great, great!” He claps like he’s calling a class to order. “So—the tour. Shall we?”
When he motions to the sliding glass doors—accessible only through an electronic badge reader, which mine won’t open because it’s fake—it’s all I can do not to break into a big, shit-eating grin.
“Yes,” I say. “Let’s.” I follow behind him as he leads the way.
Chickens, meet the wolf who’s about to devour you.
* * *
Half an hour later, I’ve toured the executive offices, the acres of employee cubicles, and the enormous manufacturing facility, where I had to don booties and a cloth hair cap and pass through two sets of air locks that whisked away any stray dust, airborne microbes, and aerosol particles from my person, all the while exclaiming my delight at how well managed and efficient everything seems.
Now it’s time to thrust home the sword.
“Mr. Hoffmeier, this is incredible.” I pull off my cloth cap and hand it to a pimply tech in a white lab coat who looks about fifteen years old. He deposits the cap in a wastebasket and helps me wrangle the booties from my heels. I had to leave my briefcase outside the clean room—the briefcase the security guard stationed at the entry didn’t bother to look inside because I was with Hoffmeier, mistake number five—but retrieve it as we exit. “I can only imagine how impressive the IT department is.”
“Oh yes, you’ll want to see that.” Hoffmeier hands his booties and cap to the tech. “The boys in there are top-notch, I tell you. First-rate. Smartest guys in the industry. Though what they do is a little beyond me, it’s all a little hush-hush.” He looks with alarm at my briefcase as if just realizing it’s there. “Oh dear.”
My brows climb my forehead. “Is there a problem?”
“No, no, of course not.” There’s a pregnant pause. “Only, to be completely honest, I think you’ll have to let them search your briefcase before you go in. You know, protecting the trade secrets and whatnot.”
Here we go, I think. So far this has been pathetically easy.
“Of course! No worries at all. I wouldn’t want to get you in any kind of trouble.”
Hoffmeier looks ridiculously grateful that I didn’t try to bluster or pull rank, which makes me wonder how many other people have tried to bully their way into IT. Judging by the way he fawns all over me as we make our way from one building to the next, still happy I didn’t bust his balls, probably more than a few.
We pass through a set of pneumatic metal doors, accessed by Hoffmeier’s security badge and a ten-digit code punched into the keypad on the wall. Inside the doors is a desk with a uniformed guard sitting behind a bank of monitors. The guard slowly rises.
Even in four-inch heels, I’m looking up. The dude is psychotically tall.
“Morning, Mr. Hoffmeier.” The guard nods at my companion. Without waiting for a response, he turns his gaze back to me. “Your name and company name, ma’am?”
I hold his gaze and keep my expression impassive. “Dena Johnson. I’m a Senior VP visiting from corporate.”
The guard nods, punches a few keys on his keyboard, scans the monitor for what I assume must be a list of employee names, and then nods again, apparently satisfied that I am who I say I am.
Mistake number six: No picture to accompany the executive personnel name in the computer file.
“Do you have your security badge with you, ma’am?”
I have the fake badge in my pocket that would pass a visual inspection—I googled what they looked like, laughing that the information was accessible online because some dummy posted a shot of himself on Facebook at the company picnic with the security badge clipped to his shirt pocket for all the world to see—but if the guard runs it through the scanning unit on his desk, I’m dead in the water. So I wing it.
“Sure. It’s here in my case.” I set my case on the edge of his desk, open it, make a big show of rifling through it, and then frown. “I thought it was in here. Oh, shoot—did I leave it in the car?”
Hoffmeier says impatiently, “Surely you can let her in—you see her name there on the roster. And,” he adds, sounding pompous and smug, “she’s with me.”
When the security guard’s expression sours, I know Hoffmeier has said the wrong thing. Obviously there’s no love lost between the two.
Wide-eyed and blinking, I protest, “Oh no, no. Please. I don’t want to be any trouble.” I turn to the guard. “You have a very important job to do, sir, I completely understand. I’ll just go get my badge from the car.” Patting my pockets, I mutter to myself, “Gosh, I hope I didn’t leave it at the hotel.”
Then I hesitate as if something has occurred to me. “Or maybe you could just give a quick call to Cathy Suzinski in corporate HR? She could verify my identity.”
Cathy Suzinski does indeed work in corporate HR, but today any calls to her from this facility are being rerouted to my home in Manhattan, where a skinny, scary-smart high school kid named Juanita “One Eye” Perez who has a voice like a forty-year old woman with a two-pack-a-day habit is lounging in front of my TV, feet up on my coffee table, stuffing her face with Cheetos and Red Bull.
I pay Juanita well for the work she does for me, but she’d probably do it for free just to get out of her house. She’s the youngest of seven kids—who all still live at home.
But the guard, after a moment’s thought, shakes his head. “That’s all right. Cathy’s got her hands full this week with new-hire orientations. I probably won’t be able to reach her for hours.”
Another reason I picked a Friday afternoon for this sting is that people aren’t nearly as diligent at their jobs when they’re counting down the minutes to the weekend.
The guard notes my arrival time on a clipboard, prints out a sticker bearing my name that I affix to my blazer’s lapel—avoiding the dragonfly brooch that’s really a tiny camera I’ve been using to photograph everything—and then takes a cursory look inside my briefcase. Then Hoffmeier and I walk through another set of locked doors. We enter a large room inhabited by quietly humming towers of computer mainframes arranged in long rows. Everything is white and gleaming. Combined with the chill in the air and the faint scent of ozone, it puts me in mind of virgin snowfall in a winter woods.
I grin. This virgin’s about to get her cherry popped.
“As you can see, we have state-of-the-art equipment in this facility,” Hoffmeier says, chest puffed. He adds, “It has to be kept air-conditioned for the computers, you see.”
I bite my lip to resist unleashing a scathing tongue-lashing on him. Because apparently the Senior VP of Corporate Information Technology would be ignorant of the fact that large banks of computers have to be temperature controlled on account of her vagina. Which makes her stupid.
Mistake number…oh, hell I’ve lost count: Don’t put the sexist dipshit in charge of VIP tours. Or anything else for that matter.
“Hmm,” I respond, acting impressed and clueless, a nearly impossible combination for me. “And where does the IT team work?”
“They’re just over here.” He holds an arm out, allowing me to move in front of him as we walk the length of one wall, our heels clicking on the tile.
Now comes the risky part.
There’s a chance any one of the guys in the information technology department has actually met Dena Johnson in person during the interview process. If that’s the case, I’m screwed. She’s a sixty-year-old stick-thin blonde with a fondness for pearls and pastel sweater sets, and I’m a twenty-seven-year-old curvy redhead who wouldn’t be caught dead in a cardigan, much less a lavender one, much less a set of pearls.
My heartbeat picks up as we approach a mirrored door. We stop in front of it. Hoffmeier swipes his badge through the reader mounted on the wall, enters his pin number into the keypad, and presses his thumb to a square black biometric scanner.
He gives the scanner a quizzical tap, waits, and then tries the whole process again. When there’s still no result, he glances at me with an embarrassed smile. “Must be on the fritz.”
Then—in a breach of security protocol so fantastic I nearly squeal in glee—he simply raps on the door with his knuckles. It opens from the inside.
“Ruben,” he says curtly to the bearded hipster in the skinny jeans and untucked T-shirt who stands inside the door.
Ruben replies drily, “Hoff.”
Hoffmeier stiffens. Brushing past Ruben—who is now openly staring at my chest—Hoffmeier mutters, “Don’t call me that,” and disappears into the dim interior of the room.
I hold out my hand to Mr. Ruben. “Hi. I’m Dena Johnson.” I smile. “But you can call me John.”
All the risks pay off when my new best friend Ruben, who clearly has never set eyes on the real Dena Johnson in his life and hates Mr. Hoffmeier with a passion, raises his gaze from my boobs to my face and drawls, “Don’t mind if I do, John.”
With a lazy grin, he takes my hand in his and leads me inside.
Twenty minutes later, I’ve met the three other guys on the team, gotten a detailed description of all their security measures, secretly taken dozens of pictures of the equipment, and installed a bot into their mainframe via a USB drive I had stashed in my bra that will allow me access to their network via my own servers.
To say I hit the mother lode would really be understating the situation.
“Well!” I say brightly, smiling at Hoffmeier. “This has been wonderful! But I don’t want to keep you any longer on a Friday.” I turn to the four IT guys standing in a cluster to my right. Ruben is still staring at my boobs. This guy must not get out a lot. “Thank you so much for showing me around, guys. I really appreciate it. Corporate will hear exactly what kind of a job you’re all doing here.”
Hoffmeier beams. The three other guys—whose names I’ve forgotten—smile sheepishly and shift their weight from foot to foot. Ruben, coming out of his breast-induced stupor, says, “Sure, great, I’ll walk you out,” and takes me by the arm. He steers me out the door before Hoffmeier can get a word in.
“Nice meeting you!” I call over my shoulder, listening to Hoff exclaim behind me.
Ruben takes a shortcut through the facility. We’re in the lobby in no time. We stop beside a stand of potted palms in one corner, near the front door.
Ruben shoves his hands into his front pockets and stares at the floor. “So, uh, if you have any other questions, uh, I could, you know, take some time to answer them. Over drinks. Tonight.”
Aww. He’s asking me out.
It’s too bad I’ve sworn off men, because he’s actually really cute with his messy man-bun and scruffy beard.
It’s also too bad I’ll be costing him his job.
“Thanks, but I’ve got an early flight in the morning.”
He nods, looking like he knew a no would be forthcoming. Feeling bad for him, I lower my voice and lie, “Actually, I live with my boyfriend, or I totally would.”
Surprised, he looks up. I blink like a baby bird, which is what I do when I’m trying to look coy. I’m crap at flirting, but it seems to work, because Ruben breaks into a bashful smile.
“Okay. Well…if you guys ever break up…and you’re in the area again…”
I smile back, nodding, wondering how long it will take him to try to connect with Dena Johnson on Facebook or Instagram and get the surprise of his life.
I’m giving it an hour.
I murmur a good-bye, head out to my rental car, and tear out of the parking lot, tires squealing. In twenty minutes, I’m back in my suite at the Four Seasons Hotel. There’s a bottle of Dom Perignon on ice waiting in my room. The note accompanying the bottle reads:
A little gift to take the sting out of failure. Yours, Roger Hamilton.
I laugh for longer than I probably should, but honestly, showing a man his weaknesses after he’s insisted he doesn’t have any is a perversely satisfying part of this job. I can’t wait to demonstrate to the vastly overconfident CEO of GenCeuticals—Roger Hamilton, my client—exactly how much of a non-failure today was.
The bigger they are, the harder they fall. And nothing is ever completely secure, no matter what fail-safe systems you think you’ve put in place.
I kick off my heels, strip out of the loathsome tailored suit I wear only on jobs, ignore the champagne, and pour a sparkling water into one of the crystal flutes beside the ice bucket. I get into the bathtub, where I luxuriate in victory and soak until I’m almost a prune. Then I climb out, dry off, wrap the fluffy white towel around my body, and head to the bedroom.
Where I find a man—a huge, tanned, dark-haired beast of a man, clad all in black—sprawled in the middle of my bed with his arms propped behind his head and his giant booted feet crossed at the ankle.
I scream and drop the glass. It shatters against the marble floor.
The beast grins, revealing a set of perfect, gleaming white teeth.
“Howdy, sweet cheeks. It’s nice to see you again too.”