How much the world could change in eight hours…
Head spinning, Maya Graham smoothed her dress. It was her favorite, a cheery yellow sundress that showed off her long legs and tanned shoulders. After you cleaned up from a three-mile run on a hot Florida day, it was just the thing to keep cool.
That was her main concern when she put it on this morning.
Then, her boss, Lucian Fowler, called from New York. On a Saturday. He needed to talk to her, now. Not over the phone – in person. No, not tomorrow. Now. As in, a car would pick her up momentarily. That car whisked her to a private airport where a small chartered jet hustled her to New York City and dumped her into a waiting limo. Which, in turn, rocketed through Manhattan traffic to deliver her to the posh New Amsterdam Tower.
That was how she came to be sitting here, in the Tower, with its polished marble floors, watching bankers and investors stalk past in suits and designer gowns, wearing a dress as out of place as a dandelion in a mausoleum. Struggling not to shiver in the Tower’s artic air conditioning.
And why so much hurry, anyway? Maya was an archeologist, not a stock broker. Pre-contact Native American Ethnography fascinated her… but even she had to admit it wasn’t a time-sensitive field.
A black-clad valet appeared at her elbow. “Ms. Graham? Mr. Fowler will see you now.”
“Of course.” She followed him, her sandals whisper-quiet on the hall’s stone floor. A tiny elevator flitted up thirty floors and opened to reveal a long corridor covered in Turkish silk carpets. Pedestals lined it, each one holding some priceless relic. Egyptian curse tablets. Roman busts. A brilliant jeweled egg that was either a Faberge – or a remarkable fake. And good heavens, was that a 17th century English witch-bottle? Each new wonder held her for a moment, like a fly on syrup.
“Ahem.” The valet frowned at the distance opening between them. With a blush, Maya rushed to catch up.
The hallway opened onto a corner office. Floor to ceiling windows offered a breathtaking view of Central Park. In the midst of them, with his hands folded behind his back, stood Lucian Fowler.
Three years she’d worked for the American Prehistoric Ethnography Project, and in all that time, she’d never actually seen her boss. An APEP agent had hired her. Lucian was older than he sounded on the phone – and much more handsome. Age had scattered flecks of grey through his glossy brown hair, but it had not added weight to his sculpted waist or weakened the powerful muscles that moved beneath his red silk shirt as he turned to welcome her.
“Ms. Graham. How good of you to come.”
His eyes lingered on her tanned legs and Maya felt warmth creep onto her cheeks. “Thank you for sending the plane. I’m sorry I didn’t have a chance to change into something more appropriate.”
“Oh, you’re fine.” He chuckled, his eyes crawling up and down her thighs. “In fact, I wouldn’t complain at all if you wore something even more ‘inappropriate.’”
Forget the business suit. Now she wished she was wearing a burka. With an awkward smile, Maya took a chair. And tugged her dress as low as it would go.
Lucian settled down on the other side of the desk, which ended the ogling. “You’re probably curious why you’re here.”
“Yes, sir. I hope there isn’t a problem with the Amesfield dig.”
“No problem at all.” Locking his hands together, he spun lazily back and forth. “Quite the opposite. We are delighted with the work you’ve done for APEP. With just scraps of data, you managed to locate the first Ais and Mayaca settlements in Florida. The Amesfield dig, in particular, is going to expand our knowledge of these tribes a hundred fold.”
Pride welled up, squashing the butterflies of doubt that had troubled her all the way up from Florida. “That’s so kind of you. And thank you, sir, for the generous funding. It was an archeologist’s dream.”
“Oh, you haven’t seen ‘generous’ yet.”
Why did that sound ominous? Maya scolded herself for being paranoid.
“We’re moving you off the Amesfield project.”
“What? But sir! We’ve only excavated one residence. There’s so much more to do!”
“And someone else will do it. Don’t worry.”
But not her? Baffled, Maya bit her lip.
“Ms. Graham, let me be blunt.” Lucian leaned back in his chair, studying her over his steepled fingers. “Any idiot can dig up pots. We didn’t hire you to do manual labor. What we value is your insight, your intuition, and your ability to see patterns in random bits of historical data.”
“Oh. Thank you.” Very complimentary. But all she could hear was that she was losing her beloved project.
“How’s your Dutch?”
“Excellent, sir.” She’d studied all the languages of the European colonies in eastern America: Dutch, Spanish, Swedish, and French.
“Good. As of now, we’re setting you up here in NYC. Your next project involves the early history of the Iroquois Confederacy here in New York State. New Amsterdam back then, of course. Hence, the need for Dutch.”
Maya’s lingering unhappiness swelled. “The history of the Haudenosaunee is well known.”
“Haudenosaunee. It’s what the Iroquois call themselves.” He waved a hand, but she pressed on. “Their history is well documented. And, unlike the Ais and Mayaca, these Nations weren’t destroyed. I really don’t see how I could make a big difference…”
Fowler wasn’t interested in her protests. “We’ve located previously unknown documents from the Dutch colonies which mention Iroquois sacred sites. We want you to locate those holy places.”
That would be a boon to the modern tribes… and an interesting project… but Maya thought of Amesfield and couldn’t muster much enthusiasm.
A fact that was not lost on Lucian. “Still not sold? Let me sweeten the deal. We’ll bump your pay to $200,000 a year.”
Her jaw dropped in a very unprofessional gape. “That’s crazy! That’s four times what I make now.”
Pleased with her greed, Fowler smiled. A cool, predatory grin that stole a bit of her glee. “You deserve it. You deliver, where others have failed. We reward that.”
Two hundred thousand. She’d never heard of an archeologist making that much! All of her protests died, killed by that insane number. “Sold!” she managed to croak.
Her boss rocked back, roaring with laughter. “That’s my girl! I love a woman with ambition! Now, I’m almost embarrassed to tell you that there’s more.”
More… How? Why?
He pushed a thick envelope across the table and tossed a set of keys on top. “Signing bonus of $20,000 cash. Forget your stuff in Florida – just buy new. The keys go to an apartment here on 5th Avenue. APEP will cover the cost of it as long as you’re on this project.”
An apartment overlooking the Park? Good heavens, that must be worth millions!
In the midst of her delight, however, a tiny cloud of doubt crept back. “Mr. Fowler, this is extraordinarily generous…”
Lucian stepped to his side table and began pouring two shots of whiskey. “I’m hearing a ‘but…’ in there.”
“But, why? I mean, I love American archeology. I do! And I’m glad you love it too, but… How can it be worth this much to anyone?”
He held a glass out to her. Fingers numb, she took it. “I’m the businessman. Let me worry about valuations and costs, all right? You just do your job. Or have you decided to turn us down?”
“No!” she yelped. The thought of losing this offer made her sick. “No, I accept!”
“Excellent.” He clinked his glass against hers and raised it high in salute. “I’ll have Human Resources draw up the contract.”
The whiskey burned its way down Maya’s throat and tears blurred her vision. When she blinked them away, she found Lucian staring at her again with eager, hungry eyes. Eyes that bored down on her cleavage.
Maya scrambled to her feet. “Thank you. Uh, thank you again.”
“You’re welcome. You know, you’re a very beautiful woman, Ms. Graham.”
That was… unprofessional, to say the least. Dread knotted in her stomach, sending a pall across her joy.
“I’ll have my personal shopper stop by today. He can help you pick out a new wardrobe.”
“Something more appropriate.” She forced a smile, hoping to defuse the uncomfortable situation.
“Less. I already told you that. Listen, Ms. Graham.” Lucian strolled to her side with the slow, confident gait of a stalking tiger. “I’m sure you find my offer startling. Generous – excessively so, perhaps. But this, it’s nothing.”
The urge to flee rose as he closed, so near that his arm brushed hers. And when he bent down to whisper in her ear, his breath stirred her hair. “It’s a servant’s wages. But you, Ms. Graham, aren’t a servant. There are no limits for a woman of your beauty and intelligence. With the right man at your side, the world could be yours.”
Was he seriously suggesting she become his mistress? Bile rose in her throat at the thought. Yet, behind that slithered the serpent of avarice. Four times her salary – plus a stunning apartment. Could she really pass that up?
If the job requires me to fight off my boss… yes, I can.
But would it? Her time with APEP had been deliriously fun. Generous funding, all the help she needed. In three years, she’d never set eyes on Lucian Fowler. Not even once. Who was to say that it wouldn’t be another three before they met again? Would he even remember her? Sure, she was good-looking – but supermodels lived in this town. As soon as one strutted past Mr. Fowler, he’d forget her completely.
And she’d be rich. How could she turn that down?
In the end, she couldn’t. It was too much money.
She did, however, edge away from him. “I’ll keep that in mind, Mr. Fowler.”
His eyes sparkled. Apparently, the tiger liked playing with his food. “Please do. Johnstone?”
The valet reappeared in the doorway, silent as a ghost. “Take Ms. Graham to Human Resources. Then see that she’s delivered to Tom Mori. My shopper.” He dipped his head to her. “He knows what kind of clothes I like.”
Clutching her envelope of cash, Maya trailed out after Johnstone, feeling both elated and unclean. An offer beyond her wildest dreams… and yet, she felt like she’d bathed in slime.
Mr. Mori knew ‘what kind of clothes’ Fowler liked?
How nice for him.
Maybe she’d start wearing garbage bags to work.