Jun 29, 2021
Corner Office Secrets
Book Two in The Men of Maddox Hill
Can a hidden heiress keep her secret as business blends with pleasure? Find out in this Men of Maddox Hill novel by New York Times bestselling author Shannon McKenna.
Sleeping with the boss breaks all her rules
especially when he doesn’t know who she really is…
Secret heiress Sophie Valente is desperate to keep a low profile at her new job—at the architecture firm owned by her long-lost father. But when she’s forced to go on a business trip with her dark-eyed, gorgeous new boss, Vann Acosta, Sophie knows she’s in real trouble. Separating business from pleasure is hard enough. But for two people keeping secrets from each other, the stakes couldn’t be higher…
From Harlequin Desire: Luxury, scandal, desire—welcome to the lives of the American elite. Love triumphs in these uplifting romances, part of the Men of Maddox Hill series:
Read an Excerpt
Vann Acosta stared at the screen, his jaw aching. “Play it again,” he said.
Zack Austin, Maddox Hill Architecture’s chief security officer, let out a sigh. “We’ve seen it ten times, Vann. There’s not much to unpack in the video itself. Just Sophie Valente, taking pictures of a computer screen. Let’s move on to the next step.”
“It’s not time for that yet,” Vann said. “Play it again.”
“As many times as you need.” Tim Bryce, Maddox Hill’s chief technology operator, put his hand on the mouse. “But nothing’s going to change. So there’s hardly any point.”
Vann gave Bryce a cold look. He was not going to let himself be rushed. As chief financial officer of Maddox Hill, he owed it to his employees to get all the facts, and to study them for as long as it took to get clarity.
“I’ll make that call,” he said.
“Where the hell did you put that camera?” Zack asked. “It looks like it was recorded from directly behind your desk.”
“It was.” Bryce looked pleased with himself. “The camera is in a picture frame above the desk. I bought it from a spy gadget website. It has photos of my sons in it. Looks perfectly innocent, but it got the job done.”
“Don’t get ahead of yourself,” Vann said. “Sophie Valente’s been personally developing our own data loss protection software. She’s teaching our IT department to prevent exactly this kind of data leak, right? It’s her specialty.” He looked at Zack. “Wasn’t that the point of hiring her in the first place?”
“Yes, it was,” Zack admitted. “And yes, it seems strange.”
“Very strange,” Vann said. “If she wanted to steal Maddox Hill project specs, she wouldn’t fish for them on Tim’s desktop computer where she could be seen by anyone. She’s smarter than that. It’s far more likely she was conducting a random spot test.”
Bryce’s eyebrows climbed. “On my computer, at twelve thirty on a Friday night? I doubt it. I made a point of talking about the Takata Complex project in front of her last week, and letting her see the documents on my screen. She knew those files weren’t watermarked yet. Drew and his team are still fine-tuning them. I just wanted to see if she’d bite, and she did. The files were copies of old, outdated specs, so she got zip. But I nabbed her. Maybe she can wipe herself off our log files, but she can’t wipe herself off my video camera.”
The smugness in Bryce’s voice bothered Vann. This was not a kid’s schoolyard game. There were no winners here, only losers. “Play it again,” he repeated.
“Be my guest.” Bryce set the clip to Play. It was time- and date-stamped 12:33 a.m. from four days before. For twenty seconds all they saw was a dimly lit office.
Then Sophie Valente, Maddox Hill’s new director of information security, appeared in the camera’s view frame. The light from the monitor brightened, illuminating her face as she typed into the keyboard. The camera was recording her from behind the screen and slightly to one side. She wore a high-necked white blouse with a row of little buttons on the side of her neck. Vann had memorized every detail of that shirt. The silk fabric was tucked loosely into her dress pants, lapping over the wide leather belt she wore with it. Her hair was wound into its usual thick braid, hanging over her shoulder.
She lifted a cell phone and began taking pictures of the screen. Her hand moved quickly and smoothly between keyboard and phone as if she’d done it many times before.
But her face looked so focused and serene. That was not the nervous look of a person doing something shady after midnight. She was not shifty-eyed, or looking over her shoulder, or jumping at shadows.
On the contrary. Sophie Valente was in a state of total, blissful concentration.
“Who logged into your computer at that time?” Vann asked.
“Me,” Bryce said. “But I wasn’t here. I was home watching TV with my wife and son.”
Vann stared at the screen. “It doesn’t make sense,” he said again.
“Facts don’t lie.” Bryce’s voice had a lecturing tone. “I don’t say this with a light heart, but Valente is responsible for our data breaches. She knew the documents weren’t watermarked. She’s avoiding a log trail by taking photos of the screen. What’s not to understand? If you’re confused, we can go over my data—”
“I understood it the first time around.” Vann tried to control his tone, but the look on Maddox Hill’s CTO’s face set his teeth on edge.
Bryce did not look as sorry as he professed to be. In fact, he looked gleeful.
Still. The man had been at the architecture firm for over twenty years, working his way up the ranks. More than twice as long as Vann had worked there. He’d never been Vann’s favorite person, but his opinions had weight.
“What is it that doesn’t convince you?” Bryce sounded exasperated.
“Every piece of evidence could be coincidental,” Vann said. “We all use multiple computers. She’s often here at night. She’s responsible for information security. She was thoroughly vetted by the HR department before the hire, and she checked out. We already gave her the keys to the kingdom. Hell, we hired her to code the keys to the kingdom for us. She should be allowed to explain what she was doing before you accuse her.”
“Yes, but she—”
“Corporate espionage is a serious charge. We cannot be wrong about this. I won’t trash a woman’s professional reputation unless we’re one hundred percent sure.”
“But I am sure!” Bryce insisted. “The data breaches started a month after Valente was hired to head up Information Security. She’s fluent in Mandarin. She went to school in Singapore. She has contacts all over Asia, and at least two of the stolen project specs were tracked to an engineering firm in Shenzhen. On top of it all, she’s overqualified for her job here. With her credentials, she could make twice as much if she took a job at a multinational bank or a security firm. She had a specific reason to come here, and I think I’ve figured out what it is. Have you even looked at her file?”
Vann glanced at Sophie Valente’s open personnel file, and looked away just as quickly. Yeah, he’d looked at that file. For longer than he’d ever dare to admit.
It was the photo that got to him. It captured her essence as photos rarely did, and it was just an overexposed, throwaway shot, destined for a personnel file or a lanyard.
Sophie Valente’s face was striking. High cheekbones, bold dark eyebrows, a straight, narrow nose. Her mouth was somber, unsmiling, but her lips had a uniquely sensual shape that kept drawing his eye back to them. Her thick chestnut hair was twisted into her trademark braid, with shorter locks swaying around the sharp point of her jaw. Large, intense, deep-set topaz-gold eyes with thick, long black lashes gazed straight at the viewer, daring him not to blink.
Or maybe that was just a trick of the light. The effect of the proud angle of her chin. And the picture didn’t even showcase her figure, which was tall, toned. Stacked.
Sophie Valente didn’t look like a shifty, dishonest person. On the contrary, she gave the impression of being a disarmingly honest one.
His instincts had never led him astray before. Then again, he’d never gotten a stupid crush on an employee before. Hormone overload could make him blind and thick.
He would not let himself fall into that hole. Oh, hell, no.
“The evidence you’ve shown me doesn’t constitute proof,” Vann said. “Not yet.”
Zack crossed his arms over his burly chest and gave him a level look. Zack knew him too well. They’d served together in Iraq, and worked together at Maddox Hill for almost a decade. His friend sensed that Vann’s interest in Sophie Valente went beyond the strictly professional, and Zack’s level gaze made him want to squirm.
“We need more information,” Zack said. “I’ll talk to the forensic accounting firm I usually use. Meantime, this matter stays strictly between the three of us.”
“Of course,” Vann said.
“We don’t know much about her, beyond the background checks,” Zack went on. “Just that she’s smart and doesn’t miss much, so investigating without her noticing is going to be a challenge. She doesn’t fit the profile of a corporate spy. She’s not a disgruntled employee with a score to settle, she’s not recently divorced, she doesn’t have debts, or a drug habit. She doesn’t appear to live beyond her means, and she doesn’t have a motive to seek revenge. At least, not that we know of.”
“How about old-fashioned greed?” Bryce offered. “Those engineering specs are worth millions to outside firms. We should alert Drew and Malcolm and Hendrick. Now.”
“I’ll handle that when the time is right,” Vann said. “When we’re sure.”
Bryce made an impatient sound. “The time is now, and we are sure. I’m not talking about hauling her off in cuffs in front of everyone, Vann. I’m just talking a discreet warning to the bosses. Who will not thank us for keeping them in the dark.”
“Malcolm and Hendrick are both in San Francisco for the meeting with the Zhang Wei Group,” Vann said. “I’m joining them tomorrow, and Drew’s wedding is afterward, at Paradise Point this weekend. Let it wait, Tim. At least until next week, after the wedding. And leave Drew alone. He’s busy and distracted right now.”
Massive understatement. Drew Maddox was the firm’s CEO, but at the moment, he was so wildly in love with Jenna, his bride-to-be, that he was useless for all practical purposes. It was going to be a genuine relief when the guy took off for his honeymoon and got out of everyone’s way for a while. At least until he drifted back down to earth.
But Vann couldn’t knock his friend. It was great that Drew had found true love. No man alive deserved happiness more. They’d been friends ever since they met in their marine battalion in Fallujah, Iraq, many years before, where Drew, Zack and Vann had shared a platoon. He loved and trusted Drew Maddox.
Still, the upcoming wedding had changed things. Drew had moved into a new phase in his life when he got engaged to Jenna. Vann still belonged to the old phase. It felt lonely and flat back there.
But hey. People grew. People changed. Whining was for losers.
He had nothing to complain about. He liked his job as chief financial officer of an architecture firm that spanned the globe and employed over three thousand people. He hadn’t set out to achieve that title. He just did things intensely if he did them at all. An ex-lover once told him he was so laser-focused it bordered on the freakish.
Too freakish for her evidently. That relationship had fizzled fast.
“So how do you intend to investigate her? Is there some way to get her out of the way?”
Bryce demanded. “We’ll bleed out if we drag our feet on this.”
Vann leafed through her file, thinking fast. “You said she speaks Mandarin?”
“Fluently,” Bryce said.
“That’s perfect,” Vann said. “We just found out that they need a last-minute interpreter for tomorrow’s meeting in San Francisco with Zhang Wei. Hsu Li just had a family emergency, and Collette is our usual backup, but she’s out on maternity leave. If Sophie speaks Mandarin, I could ask her to fill in for Hsu. That way, we get an interpreter, and she’ll be out of the investigators’ hair. Sophie will be too busy to notice what’s going on up here. You know how Malcolm is. He’ll keep her running until she drops.”
Zack’s eyebrow went up. “And have her listen in on all the private details of Malcolm and Hendrick’s negotiations with Zhang Wei? You sure that’s a good idea?”
“We’re not going to negotiate the nuts-and-bolts details of the specs in San Francisco,” Vann said. “That’s not in the scope of this meeting. It’ll be about money and timing, nothing all that useful to an IP thief. It’s not ideal, but I think it’s worth it, to get her out of the way for your forensic team to do their work. It also gives me a chance to get a sense of who she is.”
“Well, they say to keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” Bryce chuckled. “Should be no hardship to keep close to that, I’m guessing, eh? Whatever else you could say about the woman, she sure is easy on the eyes.”
Vann ground his teeth at the comment. “I’m not yet assuming that she’s my enemy,” he said. “None of us should be assuming that.”
“Uh, no,” Bryce amended quickly. “Of course we shouldn’t.”
Zack nodded. “Okay, then. That’s the plan. Keep her busy. Keep your eyes on her.”
Like Vann had any choice. Vann glanced back at the computer screen. Sophie Valente’s face was frozen in the video clip, her big, clear golden eyes lit by the bluish squares of the reflected computer screen. She seemed to be looking straight at him. It was uncanny.
Bryce got up and marched out of Vann’s office, muttering under his breath, but Zack lingered on, frowning as he studied his friend.
“You’re tiptoeing around here,” he said. “I agree that it’s appropriate to be careful. You don’t want to ruin her career. Just make sure you’re holding back for the right reasons.”
“Meaning what exactly?”
“You tell me,” Zack said. “Are you involved with her?”
Vann was stung. “No way! I’ve barely even spoken to the woman!”
“Good,” Zack soothed. “Calm down, okay? I had to ask.”
“I am calm,” he growled.
His friend didn’t need to say a word, but after a few moments of Zack’s unwavering X-ray stare, Vann had reached his limit. He got to his feet. “I’ll go to her now,” he said. “I have to tell her we need her for the meeting down in San Francisco.”
“You do that,” Zack said. “Just watch yourself. Please.”
“I always do,” Vann snarled as he marched out the door.
Zack was just being thorough. Careful. That was what made him a good chief security officer. But it pissed Vann off to have his professionalism questioned, even by a friend.
Particularly when he was questioning it himself.
He was careful not to catch anyone’s eye as he strode through the halls of Maddox Hill. He needed every neuron buzzing at full capacity to interact with that woman, considering how sweaty and awkward she made him feel.
Sophie Valente stood in her big office near a window that overlooked downtown Seattle. The door was open, and she was talking on the phone. Her voice was low and clear and musical, and she was speaking…what the hell was that? Oh, yeah. Italian.
Vann was competent in Spanish, and Italian was just similar enough to be intensely frustrating to listen to. His father had been second-generation Italian, but food words, body parts and curses were all that he’d picked up from Dad.
Frustrating or not, Italian sounded great coming out of Sophie Valente’s mouth.
She sensed his presence and turned, concluding her conversation with a brisk I’ll-get-back-to-you-later tone.
She looked hot. Sleek, professional. Her braid was twisted into a thick bun at the nape of her neck today, and slim-cut black pants hugged her long legs and world-class backside. A rust-colored, loosely draped silk shirt was tucked into it. She was already tall, but spike-heeled dress boots made it so that she was just a few inches short of his own six-foot-three frame. Her clothes didn’t hide her shape, but they didn’t flaunt it, either.
There was no need to flaunt. Her body effortlessly spoke for itself. He had to constantly course-correct the urge to stare.
She laid her phone down. “Mr. Acosta. Can I help you with something?”
“I hope so,” he said. “I hear you speak fluent Mandarin. Is that true?”
“Among other things,” she said.
“Was that Italian I just heard?”
“Yes. I was talking to the IT department in the Milan office.”
Then she just waited. No greasing the conversational wheels with friendly chitchat. That wasn’t Sophie Valente’s style. She just stood there, calmly waiting for him to cough up whatever the hell he wanted from her.
Most of which was unspeakable. And extremely distracting.
Vann wrenched his mind back to the matter at hand. It took huge effort to keep his gaze from roving down over her body. “I’m going to San Francisco for the negotiations for the Nairobi Towers project,” he explained. “Our Mandarin interpreter had a family emergency and we need someone last-minute. I was wondering if you could help us out.”
Sophie’s straight black brows drew together. “I am fluent in Mandarin, yes. But simultaneous or consecutive interpreting is not my professional specialty. I do know several top-notch specialists in Seattle and the Bay Area, however. It’s last-minute, but I could put you in touch. Or call them myself on your behalf.”
“I appreciate the offer, but both Malcolm and Hendrick prefer to use in-house interpreters,” he told her. “The interpreting doesn’t have to be perfect, just serviceable. And it’s just Mandarin to English, not English to Mandarin. Zhang Wei will have his own interpreter. His grandson will be with him, too, and the young Zhang Wei speaks fluent English. We’d rather have you do it rather than to call someone external.”
“If that’s their preference, I’m happy to help,” she said. “But it will slow down the work we’re doing on the watermarking, as well as my plans to implement the new three-step biometric authentication process. I had sessions scheduled all week with the coding team, and the project can’t go forward without me. That’ll be delayed.”
“It’s worth it to facilitate Malcolm and Hendrick’s meeting with the Zhang Wei Group,” Vann told her. “I’ll make sure everyone is on board with the new timetable.”
She nodded. “Okay. Will we fly down with Malcolm and Hendrick tomorrow?”
“They’re already in San Francisco, at Magnolia Plaza,” he told her. “Be prepared for an intense couple of days. Hendrick, Malcolm, Drew and I have back-to-back meetings scheduled with Zhang Wei and his people all through Thursday and Friday.”
Sophie’s mouth curved in a slight smile. “I’m no stranger to hard work or long days.”
“Of course not.” Vann felt awkward and flustered, his mind wiped blank by that secret smile and what it did to her full lower lip. “My executive assistant, Belinda, has the briefing paper she was going to give to Hsu Li. She’ll arrange for a car to pick you up tomorrow morning. Talk to her about the travel details, and I’ll see you on the plane.”
“Great,” she said. “Until tomorrow, then.”
He turned and walked away, appalled at himself for feeling so sweaty and rattled. It already felt sleazy to gather information on a colleague without her knowledge.
It would be even worse if he got all hot and bothered while doing it.
But there was no question of getting sexually involved with her. He never got involved with coworkers, much less subordinates. That was begging for disaster.
Vann ran his sex life with the same detachment he used for his professional life. His hookups were organized to never inconvenience him. He never brought his lovers to his own home, and was equally reluctant to go to theirs.
He favored hotels. Neutral ground, where he could make some excuse after he was done and just go, with no drama. And he was careful to sever the connection before his lovers got too attached.
He was a numbers guy. He liked control. He kept his guard up. That made him a good CFO, and it had made him a good soldier, too. He was chill under fire. He’d learned from the best.
Sex was fun, and giving satisfaction to his lovers was a point of honor, but emotionally, it ended right where it started for him. It never went anywhere.
Which worked for him. He was fine right where he was.
He had no playbook for coping with feelings like this. He didn’t even recognize himself. Muddled and speechless. Distracted with sexual fantasies and embarrassing urges.
He had to stay sharp and analytical. Vann didn’t buy Tim Bryce’s accusation. It just didn’t fit with his impression of Sophie Valente.
He needed to find out more about her to defend her innocence effectively, but that was going to be a hell of a challenge, if just listening to that woman speak Italian on the phone reduced him into stammering and staring.
Not a great beginning.