She needs a fake husband. He needs to protect his best friend…
Ever since I caught my boyfriend getting hot and steamy with another woman, I’ve thrown myself into my career. But now I’m ready to move from being the super-efficient office manager to an operative with Quade Security and Investigation.
Just as soon as I prove to my boss that I’m kick-ass enough to do the job.
So when my grandmother asks for my help, there’s no way I can say no. Her former love has a mission for Jayden—my hot colleague and best friend—and me. What more could I want?
The last thing I want is for Isabelle to be is an operative. She’s my best friend, and I hate the idea of her being in danger. Unfortunately, our boss has other plans.
Isabelle and I go undercover at a resort for happily married couples. But forget moonlight walks and hanging out by the pool. To maintain our cover, we have to participate in activities that would make a nun blush.
Clothes come flying off, and we agree to temporarily be friends-with-benefits while there. No strings attached. No complications. Nothing could be simpler. Right?
Wrong—because there’s another reason we’ve been lured to the resort. A reason that will put our hearts to the test…and our lives on the line.
It’s also possible he has a girlfriend or wife, but she doesn’t like to run with him. Every day, rain or shine. Or as is so often the case during our regular morning runs overlooking the bay and marina…the fog.
He nods back like he does every time he sees me, his long stride effortlessly eating up the distance—the opposite of how the run is for me. My legs and lungs burn, beg me to slow down. Possibly even take a siesta.
Not much farther, I remind them. You can do this. I mentally break out the pom-poms and cheer my legs on while I keep an eye on my surroundings, noting anything unusual for this time of day.
That’s not to say I live in a bad neighborhood and have to watch for thugs and whatnots. But the number one rule of being an operative with Quade Security and Investigations is to be aware of your surroundings. The people, the location, the vehicles. Nothing is ignored. Nothing is considered insignificant.
Truth? I’m not an operative.
I’m the office manager—the person those five hot alpha men couldn’t survive without.
But although I enjoy my job, I have a different career aspiration. I want to be more than just an office manager.
I push myself a little harder and a little further, then slow my pace for the cool down. Even though the temperature isn’t exactly warm, sweat soaks through my T-shirt and running shorts. I can thank the last round of fartlek training—sprints that left my legs burning with resentment and resignation—for that.
I can also thank, with a healthy dose of cursing, Jayden Price.
My best friend. My colleague. And in his mind, my personal trainer.
Who is currently away on a mission, being all dark and dangerous and hot, helping to take down a Russian mafia crime boss.
I power walk across the street to the familiar Victorian-style bungalow, sandwiched between two taller houses. Their exteriors are light blue. Mine is rose pink—the color my grandmother on my mother’s side painted it many moons ago.
When she died five years ago, the house became mine, and I decided to keep the colors as they were: warm and eclectic.
I approach the stairs to the porch. Mojo, the big goofball of Bernese mountain dog, lumbers to his feet. His face shifts into his friendly doggy grin.
“Hey, boy. Anything exciting happen while I was running?” Despite his size, Mojo sucks as a running companion. He doesn’t like to run. At. All. Relaxing is his activity of choice.
Not exactly the dog you would associate with a man like Jayden, Mojo’s owner. You’d expect something big and powerful—and a whole lot of scary—like a German shepherd or a Rottweiler.
Mojo gives me a happy woof.
I laugh. “You don’t say. How about I shower, and then we can head to the office? And maybe the guys will be finished with their mission today.” I untie my sneaker shoelace and remove my front door key from it. Then I unlock the door and let Mojo into my house.
As I walk toward the bathroom, my cell phone rings from the kitchen table. Thinking it might be Jayden, informing me that he and the men are on their way to San Francisco, I make a quick detour to the kitchen and answer the phone without checking who it is.
“Isabelle, darling,” Grandma Josephine exclaims.
A smile breaks out on my face. “Morning, Grandma.” And because I know she’s on speakerphone, and I know her routine, I add, “Good morning, Liza and Henri.”
I open the kitchen cupboard and remove a glass.
The three eighty-two-year-olds say good morning back to me, their voices more excited than they typically are for this time of day. And normally their voices are pretty damn happy.
“I’m in a bit of a kerfuffle,” Granny says. “Can you come over right away?”
“I have to go to work, but I can visit you afterward.”
“Now would be better. It’s rather urgent.” Her honey-smooth voice, which seduced the trousers off many a man in her younger days, has shifted slightly to the panicked zone.
And panic is not an emotion I associate with my grandmother.
“I just returned from my run, and I’m sweaty. Let me shower first.”
“A woman is never sweaty,” Liza says in a falsely snotty tone. “She only glows.”
“Well, my glow needs to be washed off before I can join you. And just so you know, I have Mojo with me.”
“Oh, is tall, dark, and handsome joining us?” Henri’s tone is more excited than usual.
“Darling,” Granny purrs, “how many times does Isabelle have to tell you Jayden isn’t gay?”
“I know that. Besides, even if he were, I’m old enough to be his father.”
“More like his grandfather,” Liza points out with a snorted laugh.
“No, Jayden won’t be joining me. He’s away on business.”
All three of them release a disappointed sigh.
“Such a shame,” Liza says on another sigh.
“I won’t be long,” I tell them before ending the call.
Forty-five minutes later, I’m in Sausalito, pressing my grandmother’s doorbell. After a heartbeat, her housekeeper opens the door and lets Mojo and me inside.
I hug Juanita, who is more like family to me. She’s been in my grandmother’s employment for as long as I can remember. Because the elegantly furnished estate home is too massive for her to handle on her own at her advanced age, she mostly does the cooking and light cleaning. A gardener and housekeeping company are also on Granny’s payroll.
Juanita fusses over Mojo, who laps up the attention like a paper towel. “Now, don’t you get fur all over the place, young man,” she chastises him with her typical warm and friendly smile.
He whimpers as if to apologize for snoozing on Granny’s couch the last time we were here.
“They’re on the balcony,” she tells me, even though I already know that. Unless it’s cold and rainy, the trio always eats their breakfast outside.
Mojo and I step onto the large deck that overlooks the bay. My stiletto heels click against the light, reddish-brown tiles.
Granny and Liza are seated on the wicker sofa, looking as elegant as always in their designer outfits. Henri sits in a matching armchair.
In front of them, the coffee table is loaded with teacups and an assortment of cut fruit and pastries, including my favorite—strawberry-and-cream filled croissants.
Which Granny only has on hand when she knows I’m coming over.
So, this definitely wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment request for me to join them.
Henri, being the gentleman that he is, stands. Or at least attempts to stand. It takes him a minute to get to his feet, his movements not as spry as they were twenty years ago. He’s wearing an expensive Italian-cut suit, the jacket a checkered camel fabric. He also has on a burgundy tie, dark-brown slacks, a fedora, and leather shoes that are worth a small fortune.
Henri has always had an eye for fashion.
I walk over to him, and he kisses me on both cheeks. “Looking gorgeous as always, Buttercup. I can’t believe you still haven’t found a beau yet. Those men are nothing but fools.”
I laugh because he says that every time.
“There’s nothing wrong with our Isabelle being particular,” Liza says. I lean down and kiss her powdery cheek. She pinches mine in return, with a teasing gleam in her eyes. “Although if she doesn’t hurry up and find herself a man, her eggs will be as old and wrinkly as mine.”
“Darling,” my grandmother says, “your eggs withered away decades ago. As did mine. But Isabelle has no need to worry about that. Thanks to modern technology, she can freeze her eggs now, so they are still youthful for when she’s ready to settle down with Mr. Perfect.”
I kiss her on the cheek and hug her. “I’m not interested in settling down with a man. I’m too busy with my career.”
Okay, that’s not entirely true. My career hasn’t exactly traveled in the direction I had envisioned it would when I obtained my political science degree.
Before attending college, I had planned to be a human rights lawyer and follow in my grandmother’s humanitarian footsteps. She was a popular film and stage actress in the sixties and seventies and then switched to focus on her philanthropic work.
She never went to law school. It was my father who pursued his law degree—corporate, not human rights. It was my father who strongly encouraged me to follow in his footsteps.
Except, being a lawyer wasn’t for me, I eventually realized.
A lifetime of legal talk sounded dull and uninspiring.
“That’s true,” Liza says. “It can’t be easy working for those five hot men.” She fans herself.
“Any luck yet convincing your boss to promote you to an operative?” Granny asks.
“Not yet. I know Liam wants to hire at least one female to join the team. Possibly two. But he’s been too busy to even consider candidates.”
Plus there’s the matter of him wanting experienced individuals, which I’m not. Or at least not experienced at the level he’s looking for.
“What you need to do is prove you’re fully capable of doing the job.”
“I know, but it’s not like I’ve had the opportunity to do that.” Other than some minor tasks, like interviewing persons of interest who were more likely to open up to a woman than a man.
But I want to do more than that. I want to be involved in the dangerous missions. Like when the government hires the team for operations that require outside assistance, beyond what the FBI and CIA can do.
The side of the company that the general public doesn’t know about.
As for the threesome’s original discussion about my love life—or rather, lack of one—I’m not looking to find my own happily ever after. My father cheated on my mother when I was a little kid. Mom never remarried after that. Dad did. Four more times. His marriages tend to last as long as a harvest moon. At most.
But I didn’t let this jade me against relationships. Not at first, anyway. I’ve had boyfriends over the years. But none—except for one—lasted long. Richard was a fellow political science major. The love of my life.
Until I found the love of my life going down on another woman. In our bedroom.
He’d never gone down on me, so my discovery was a double layer in the brick wall of disappointment.
I guess it was my fault for not kicking his sorry ass through the door sooner. Even before the situation with the other woman, I knew deep down that he wasn’t the right man for me.
For one, he hadn’t been a fan of the colored streaks in my hair (they were purple back then). And he preferred that I didn’t speak my mind when I accompanied him to the dinner parties his graduate school professors had thrown.
He even hinted more than once that I should also go to grad school and become a boring academic.
All right, he didn’t use the word boring.
That was all me.
A slight breeze blows a strand of hair into my face. I brush it behind my ear and bite into the yummy croissant. “So what was so urgent that I needed to rush over?”
Last time it was because she needed a fourth opinion on an outfit she was wearing to a gala for the opening of an art gallery. It was exhibiting photos by famous photographers—both alive and dead—that showcased the movie stars of the past—also both alive and dead.
“Urgent” means something entirely different to me than it does for Granny.
She exchanges a glance with Liza and Henri. They both rapidly nod their encouragement. “I’ve got the perfect opportunity for you to prove to your boss that you’ll be a great operative.”
“An ex-boyfriend of mine needs your help.”
“Do I know him?” There have been a string of casual boyfriends since Grandpa’s death.
“No. Bernard Bradshaw and I used to be an item before I became famous. He was a director at the time, waiting for his big break. We dated for a few years, but then he had an offer to work in Europe.”
“Okay, but what kind of help are we talking about?”
Henri picks up his teacup. “The kind of help that you and that tall glass of hot stuff can give him, Buttercup.”
Granny grins. “He means Jayden. You and Jayden would be perfect for this mission. And Bernard agreed with me when I told him about you two.”
“Great, but what exactly does he need help with?”
“Bernard would rather talk to you face-to-face about it—because of the sensitive nature of what happened. But what I can tell you is that some information might’ve been stolen from at least one guest while they were staying at his resort. Bernard has several security guards employed there, but he wanted to hire someone from the outside, in case it was an inside job.”
“Paradise Springs Resort.”
“It’s in Huntington Beach,” Liza chimes in.
Granny nods. “That’s right. You and Jayden would be staying there. You’ll love the place. The five-star resort is supposed to be incredible.” She’s positively beaming as she tells me this.
“Jayden and the rest of the team are away on a mission,” I inform her. “But I’ll call Bernard, and he and I can discuss what he needs from us.”
“He doesn’t want to talk about it on the phone. He has kind of grown paranoid in his old age. He wants to talk to the two of you in person about the case. He’s willing to fly you both down for the weekend. If not this weekend, then I’m sure he will be happy to wait until Jayden returns home.”
“Jayden’s pretty busy for the next while.” As the firm’s office manager and Jayden’s best friend, I am more than familiar with his schedule. “But I can easily fly down and meet with Bernard.”
She shakes her head. “That won’t do. If you two agree to help him, you will need to go undercover as guests at his resort.”
“Okay, I can do that. And I don’t need Jayden to join me for that.”
Henri chuckles. Liza giggles. “Buttercup, Paradise Springs Resort isn’t the kind of place a single woman goes to, hoping to find her soul mate. It’s a place where married couples go. Together.”
“That’s right. You and Jayden will go undercover as a happily married couple.” For some reason, Granny looks almost pleased by this.
But I can’t imagine why.
“Why Jayden? The other men I work with are just as good at their jobs as he is.” However, like Jayden, they’re also busy with other cases for a while.
“Yes, but from what you’ve told me, Jayden doesn’t want you to advance in your career at the firm. This would be the ideal way to demonstrate to him that you’re more than capable of doing the job. Just think about it. But I really do think you’ll agree that you don’t want to miss out on this golden opportunity to prove yourself to your boss.”
She has a point there.
“But what if Jayden doesn’t want to come with me?” Which is likely the case if he believes the mission is too dangerous—for me.
Liza giggles again, for a reason only she’s privy to.
Or maybe it’s just me who’s clueless about the cause. The other two appear to be in on the joke, their lips pressed together as though stifling laughter.
“I’m sure, Buttercup, you can persuade him,” Henri says with a wink.