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A dangerous exposé that could backfire at any second...
Corcoris Pharmaceuticals destroyed everything for Beth Jones. Her safety. Her livelihood. Even her identity. She has to expose the truth. And she's got an unlikely ally in her undercover ruse: a lab technician who just happens to be a special agent. But Beth certainly doesn't expect the electricity between her and Daniel McManus to consume her every waking moment....
Daniel approaches each case with laserlike focus. But the sparks that fly between him and Beth are as red-hot as the danger that accompanies their every move. Will their mission be successful despite their relentless attraction?
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Linda O. Johnston loves to write. While honing her writing skills, she worked in advertising and public relations, then became a lawyer...and enjoyed writing contracts. Linda’s first published fiction appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and won a Robert L. Fish Memorial Award for Best First Mystery Short Story of the Year. Linda now spends most of her time creating memorable tales of romantic suspense, paranormal romance and mystery. Visit www.LindaOJohnston.com.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Beth Jones slowly pushed a large heavy cart filled with janitorial equipment and supplies through a second-floor hallway at the Corcoris Pharmaceuticals headquarters. Good thing she'd joined a gym and worked out a lot during her last job as an online magazine and newspaper proofreader in Seattle. Otherwise, this part of her new position as a member of the company's cleaning team would have been a lot harder.
Stopping, she pulled her primary cell phone out of her pocket and glanced at it. She'd put it on silent, so she wasn't surprised that she'd missed another call. That made four. Plus, there were a couple of text messages that said the same thing: Call me.
She intended to call Judge Treena Avalon back. But not till later—or maybe tomorrow.
She'd delay contacting Her Honor—for now. After their earlier brief conversation, Beth had anticipated the intense response she'd been getting.
But she had work to do. As she'd initially intended when she got out her phone, she moved her gaze toward the time: 8:30 p.m. This floor, filled with labs where they mostly did testing for quality control, should be empty of personnel. So should most of those containing offices, but Beth had no intention of going there, at least not tonight.
Then there was that other building on the company's grounds, where machinery blended and formed the pills that were transported via an automated assembly line to other machines that stuck them into containers. The job she had taken on here didn't give her the ability to check it out, at least not yet.
It didn't matter. She believed she would be able to find what she needed in this building.
She had been instructed on what her cleaning obligations would be when she started work here five days ago. She'd seen it all before—but from a far different perspective. That was when she had worked here to publicly laud Corcoris, its outstanding pharmaceuticals and its incredibly efficient and marvelous procedures.
Before she knew differently.
She'd been another person then. In many ways. The thought made her smile ironically, but not for long. And she didn't stop. She had a lot to accomplish tonight.
She inhaled, smelling both the fresh aromas of the antiseptic products in her cart and the subdued scents of the medicinal ingredients in the labs beyond the closed metal doors around her. The floor where she walked was composed of linoleum that had been washed last night and this morning by others who had her same job. It would be her turn in a little while.
First she had to clean portions of the labs on either side of her. They should yield at least part of what she was looking for. She'd start with the one on her right. She opened that door.
The lights were on in what they called the clean room. She looked around but saw no one. Good.
Even so, she hesitated, but only for an instant. She wouldn't allow nervousness to slow her down. She had a logical reason to be here even if anyone saw her.
Steeling up her determination, she entered, pushed the cart against the wall, then shut the door behind her.
The first room was where everyone who came to this lab had to change into pristine sanitary garb, even the cleaning staff. Especially the cleaning staff.
She went to the shelves along the wall and plucked from a pile the aqua smock and slacks that would fit over her beige jeans and T-shirt with the Corcoris Cleaning Staff logo on it. She put them on, then grabbed a matching vinyl cap to put over her raven-black pixie-cut hair, plus covers she donned over her shoes. Last she pulled a pair of sanitary gloves from a box and put them on. At least for what she did, she didn't have to wear a mask.
She then grabbed not the cart she had come in with but a second one with essentially the same equipment. The one kept here was removed periodically by other members of the staff and blasted with sanitizers to ensure its purity, as much as possible. Seemed like an oxymoron to Beth—sanitary cleaning equipment. But that was the way things were done around here.
On the surface, it looked as if the procedures took care of all ills.
She knew better.
Finally, Beth was ready. Using one gloved hand, she pushed the lever down on the metal door to the inside lab, then got ready to shove the sanitary cart inside.
This one was as heavy as the other cart. She knew that. This was the third time already that she had had the assignment of cleaning the most pristine labs on this floor, which she had volunteered to do. Not that most people on her shift worked this late. But despite being part of the daytime staff, she'd been able to manage it—this once, at least.
She wasn't certain yet what she was looking for, but she knew that whatever she needed to discover was hard evidence of the fraud being committed by Corcoris in the blending and selling of its pharmaceuticals.
Would she find anything at all of use tonight?
Security cameras were posted inside the lab, so she couldn't just snoop around, examine samples, then grab them.
At least she couldn't do it obviously. But people expected the cleaning crew to insert themselves into nearly all parts of an area to scrub them. Nearly was the key word. She'd already been warned about the kinds of equipment that were off-limits, cleaned by the techs as they used them.
She was new here, though, and if she happened to make a mistake or two, go too far—
"Hello." A deep male voice from behind her startled Beth. She pivoted, heart pounding, her hand instinctively going to her throat as she gasped.
The man who stood there was tall. Why hadn't she seen him? Heard him? His outfit was white, indicating that he was one of the technicians who worked here, not part of the cleaning staff. His blue eyes stared at her through large black-rimmed glasses. She couldn't see much of his face through the white mask that covered its lower half, but he immediately pulled that down.
Unlike her, he didn't wear a plastic cap, and she could see that his hair was a pale shade of brown that reminded her of amber ale. It was straight and hung a bit over his forehead. His jaw was angular, his smile wide, and his shoulders broad beneath his jacket.
"Hi," Beth managed to say, trying to smile just a little despite her still-quivering nerves—and her dismay. She wouldn't accomplish anything here tonight, at least nothing she wanted to do.
"Sorry I startled you," the man said, still grinning airily as if that was part of his job. It gave the impression he was a friendly geek. He was probably harmless—and definitely good-looking. "I was just finishing up a test. You're here to clean?"
Beth nodded, then made herself look down at the floor as if she were shy.
She'd taken on a whole new personality over the past year, assuming one that appeared quiet and uncomfortable around people. That made her appear well suited to do something that was often solitary, like proofreading—or being a member of the cleaning staff.
"You can start over there, if you'd like." He pointed with his gloved hand toward the far wall, where shelves filled with sealed boxes labeled Beakers and Test Tubes and other items used for testing scaled the walls. Beneath them was a counter with several large metallic microscopes and some testing machinery she couldn't identify.
"Thanks," she whispered, and edged by him.
She felt his eyes boring into her as she passed, and her shoulders cringed.
"I'm Daniel McManus," he said. "Lab tech extraordinaire."
She nodded, but that clearly wasn't enough.
"And you are...?" he pushed.
She turned partway back toward him. "Beth Jones," she said in a raspy voice. "Cleaning crew...ordinary." She hesitated. "I think it would be better if I left and came back later."
"No need to run. I'm finishing up here soon."
"Really. It's fine." He turned away from her.
She considered ducking out anyway. But if he really wasn't going to be here long, she could observe some of the procedures he used—and then get to work doing what she really wanted to once he left.
She grabbed the handles of her cart and pushed it along the outer aisle toward the destination he'd pointed out to her. Time to get to work...cleaning.
Pretty lady, Daniel thought. Or so he believed from the little he could see of her. Violet eyes that glistened from beneath that silly, supposedly sanitary, hat she wore. High cheekbones and full lips that she sucked in as if to hide how lovely they were.
He couldn't see her figure beneath the loose clothing but she seemed slender, of medium height.
Beth Jones. He would add her to the list of people here he was investigating, out of an abundance of caution. He didn't really envision cleaning staff as being among those who had banished quality control in exchange for profits at Corcoris Pharmaceuticals. But he'd been in different areas of law enforcement long enough to know he couldn't trust anyone.
He shot another goofy smile toward Beth Jones to maintain his cover, since she seemed to be watching him out of the corners of those gorgeous eyes as she removed a bucket and paper towels from that unwieldy cart she'd been pushing. Her head turned swiftly as if she was embarrassed at being caught, and she immediately began removing boxes from one of the topmost shelves and placing them on the gleaming metal counter below.
He imagined what might be beneath those unisex clothes as she reached up and began cleaning.
His genuine smile, as he turned back toward the microscope he'd been using, was at his own folly. He'd been here for not quite a month, acting friendly and like a techie nerd. His closest contacts to date were others who conducted quality-control tests in this lab as a backup to the tests run in the manufacturing facility on the Corcoris campus.
His targets included those people, somewhat. But his eyes were more often on the company's muckety-mucks. He'd also had some limited success hacking into their computer files.
Nothing especially useful so far, but he had time.
He smelled the cleaning fluid that Beth Jones was using across the room and glanced toward her. She seemed busy scrubbing that shelf. Not watching him or anything else. Even so, he'd learn more about her. Soon.
Feeling a vibration in his pocket, he took off one glove and yanked out his ultra-smartphone. This was neither the time nor place to talk to his caller, but he'd return the call later—and ask some more questions since he didn't yet have all the answers.
He sent the caller into his voice mail. He took a fresh glove from the box and put it on, then pulled his mask up and got busy working on the formulation he was supposed to be analyzing via the microscope.
Interesting work here.
Too bad it wasn't really what he did.
Except...maybe he could accomplish something. He pulled the slide he was using out and put it aside. Then he crossed the room and approached Beth Jones. "Why don't I help you?" he said, pulling his mask below his chin again.
She stopped scrubbing and stared with a gaze that reminded him of the proverbial deer in the headlights. "Oh. No. I'm fine."
"I said I'd help you." He grabbed another bottle of cleaning solution and pulled paper towels off the roll she had put down on the counter.
"No. Really. I—"
"Don't argue with me. Just take advantage. You'll be able to get out of here sooner." He didn't act like the nice geeky guy he usually did but made his tone curt. He wanted to unnerve her to see what she'd do, how she'd act.
"I'd better just go," she said again.
"And I said no."
She looked almost fearful now, the way she stared at him. He shrugged off the pang of guilt. It was just another method of investigation.
But he hadn't really wanted to scare her.
"I'm a pretty good cleaner when I want to be," he said more winningly. "And I want to be. Let me help."
She said nothing but turned away.
And Daniel got to work scrubbing the far end of the shelf below the one she was working on—keeping his attention more on her than on what he was doing.
He continued silently for about three minutes. Telling himself that he wasn't doing his job by just observing her—as pleasant as that might be—he said, "I don't think I've seen you before. Have you been working here long?"
"No." The briefness of her reply made it even clearer that she didn't want to talk.
"I'm new to this area," he said. "I've only been here about a month, but I think California's Orange County is great, and I love this town—Moravo Beach. Don't you?" No response except the briefest of nods as she scrubbed the shelf even harder. "Are you from around here?" he persisted.
"No," she said. Again, she volunteered nothing extra.
"I didn't set out to go into the pharmaceutical industry," he said, "but I majored in chemistry in college. Even got my master's degree in it, so this is a really good opportunity for me."
As he said this, Daniel realized he might be boxing himself into a corner with his partial lies. What could she respond to that? She was part of the cleaning staff. As attractive and intelligent as she looked, it was possible that she'd never even finished high school, let alone got any higher degree. If he wanted her to relate to him, to divulge information about herself, he was going about it all wrong.
"But I really don't want to talk about myself," he continued. "Like I said, I find this area really great. Do you like to go to the beach?"
"Sometimes," she said.
"Great! We'll have to go there together one of these days."
Her glance at him suggested that she was astounded. "I don't think so. I'm not... I mean, I do as much overtime work as I can. I need the money."
There was something in the way her lips flattened for the briefest moment that suggested she wasn't lying and that she felt ashamed by her situation. Even so, her eyes looked at him almost challengingly—for a short enough time that he could have imagined it.
Or at least he could have if he weren't an operative skilled in investigation and well trained to read people and their body language. Although he could just be looking for signals to give himself a reason to continue to press her.
"Got it." He kept his tone light. "We all do what we gotta do." He paused. "Would you like me to let you know if I hear of any better-paying job opportunities?"
She stopped scrubbing and stood looking at him. "You know, Daniel, if I didn't know better, I'd think you were trying to flirt with me."
He laughed aloud. "I didn't think I was that obvious." No, he was being even more obvious. Although not for the reasons she thought. At least not entirely. He didn't want to find this woman, who was dressed in the least sexy outfit he could imagine, at all seductive...and yet she somehow was. "So...how about if we go out for lunch one of these days and you can tell me how a beautiful woman like you wound up cleaning shelves instead of...say, modeling?"
That way, he'd be able to pick her brain even more. He wanted to believe she w...
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