The Baby Contract(2)

By: Barbara Dunlop

 She didn’t.

 “It’s not just the emails,” she said.


 “People have started hanging around the stage door after my show, looking for autographs and selfies.”

 “How many people?”

 “Fifty, maybe more.”

 “Fifty people wait around to get your autograph?”

 “You know, your confidence in me is inspiring.”

 “It’s not that.”

 Actually, it was that. He was surprised she had anywhere near that kind of a following.

 “Things are moving fast,” she said. “Downloads of my songs, ticket sales, offers for gigs. A guy on a motorcycle followed me back to my hotel in Chicago last week. It was creepy.”

 Talk about burying the lead. That could be truly dangerous.

 “Were you alone?” Troy asked.

 “I was with a backup band.”

 He was relieved to hear it.

 “I was wondering. You know, thinking.” Her blue eyes were big, and her face looked pale and delicate. “Do you think I could stay with you? Just for a little while? It’s really safe here, and I’m having a hard time sleeping in my apartment.”

 “Here?” Troy’s sense of duty went to war with his desire for privacy.

 “Just for a little while,” she repeated, looking hopeful.

 Troy desperately wanted to say no. He searched his mind for a way he could do that.

 The two of them shared a father, but he had died several years ago. And Kassidy’s mother was a certified flake. Last Troy heard she was living with some kind of hippie junk sculptor in the mountains of Oregon.

 For all intents and purposes, Troy was Kassidy’s only relative. He was definitely her only stable relative. How could he turn her down?

 “How long?” he asked.

 Her face burst into a brilliant smile, and she hopped down from the stool, hurrying around the island. “You’re the best.”

 He wasn’t the best. In fact, he hadn’t even agreed to let her stay yet.

 But she surprised him by wrapping her arms around him and squeezing tight. “Thank you, big brother.”

 Something tugged at his heart. “You’re welcome,” he told her.

 She drew back. “You’re going to love Drake.”

 Wait a minute. “You want to bring a boyfriend here?”

 That put an entirely different spin on the situation. No way, no how, was some random guy going to stay in Troy’s apartment.

 “Drake’s not my boyfriend,” she said, her eyes still bright with joy. “He’s my son.”

 * * *

 Mila Stern was on a mission.

 At times it seemed doomed, but she wasn’t giving up, because Sterns never gave up. She had three siblings and two parents who proved that to her every single day.

 Coming up on noon, she approached the front door of the Pinion Security building, squaring her shoulders, drawing a bracing breath and mentally rehearsing her opening lines.

 Five minutes, she’d tell Troy Keiser. He only needed to listen to her pitch for five short minutes. That was barely any time at all, and it had the potential to increase his business by 10 percent.

 Did 10 percent sound like enough? she wondered. Maybe she should claim 15 percent. Or was fifteen too much of a stretch?

 No. It wasn’t a stretch. The number of women in need of some form of personal protection was growing by the month. In fact, it was growing by the week. Maybe even by the day. Should she say day?

 Yes. By the day. That was a perfectly fair claim to make—15 percent and growing by the day.

 Dressed in pale gray cargo pants, a blue sweater and sturdy leather boots, she pulled open the stenciled glass entry door. The Pinion reception area was compact, decorated in gray tones, with a sleek steel-and-smoked-glass counter curving around the back wall. A man stood behind it dressed in black. His hair was cropped short, his chin square and strong, and his arms and shoulders all but bulging from the three-quarter sleeves of his T-shirt.

 “Can I help you?” he asked in a deep voice.

 She smiled, trying to look friendly and innocuous, like the kind of person a man would want to help. “I hope so,” she said, striding forward to the countertop. “I’m looking for Troy Keiser.”

 The man hit a couple of keys on a computer terminal recessed into the desk in front of him. “You have an appointment?”

 “Not for today,” she answered. “We’ve been corresponding for a few weeks, and my plans were fluid.” She stopped talking, hoping he’d draw the conclusion that Troy Keiser was willing, even intending to make an appointment with her.

 “Your name?” he asked.

 She wished he hadn’t asked that, but she couldn’t see a way around giving it to him. “Mila Stern.”

 Troy Keiser—and, she had to assume, the entire human resources unit of Pinion Security—would recognize her name as the woman whose job application they’d rejected three times over.

 The man pressed a button on his compact headset.

 Mila continued to smile even as tension built within her. She was fully qualified to become a security agent at Pinion, even if Troy Keiser wouldn’t admit it. She had a degree in criminology and a black belt in Krav Maga, along with significant technical surveillance and tactical weapons training.

 The man waited, and Mila waited. She knew if he talked to Troy Keiser, it would be game over before she made it past the lobby.

 Her gaze flicked to the elevator doors behind him. No doubt they were controlled by a passkey. If she was lucky, there was also a staircase from the lobby. She drew his attention by smoothing back her brown hair, pretending to check the French braid that held it in place. At the same time, she surreptitiously scanned the room.

 There it was. A stairway door. She let her gaze slide right past it without pausing. If Troy refused to see her, she’d make a break for the stairway. Reception man would have to circle the end of the counter to come after her, giving her a head start of two, maybe three seconds.

 He might call for backup on the second floor, but that would take five to seven seconds. She could run a flight of stairs in three, and this was only a nine-story building. She’d duck out at the fourth floor and try to lose them. Assuming the stairwell doors weren’t locked. They could easily be locked.

 The man ended the phone call without speaking and pressed another number.

 Mila waited, hoping a new call might work in her favor.

 “Vegas?” the man said into the phone. “There’s a woman here for Troy. No, no appointment. Mila Stern.”

 He paused, his eyes narrowing on Mila.

 She shifted her weight to the ball of her left foot, getting ready to sprint.

 “Will do,” he said. The suspicion seemed to go out of his eyes.

 She took a chance and waited a moment longer.

 He ended the call. “You can meet Hugh Fielding on the second floor.”

 Yes. At least she’d make it out of the lobby.

 “Is Troy here?” she dared ask.

 “He’s busy at the moment. But Vegas should be able to help you.”

 She wanted to ask what Troy was doing, or more importantly where Troy was doing it. Was he on the second floor or somewhere else?

 The man pressed a button, and a light on the elevator behind him turned from red to green.

 “Thank you,” said Mila, heading for the elevator.

 She knew that Hugh Fielding, nicknamed Vegas, was Troy’s business partner. He might not have recognized her name. Then again, he might be planning to run interference, to keep her away from Troy, maybe even to escort her directly out of the building.

 During her research of the company, she’d learned Troy Keiser undertook most management functions, including making the hiring decisions. It seemed Vegas Fielding was the technical expert.

 She stepped inside the elevator. The two was already lighted on the panel. Taking a chance, she reached out and pressed nine—might as well get as far away from Vegas as possible to start her search. The white circle lit up.

 The doors closed, and she moved to a front corner, flush against the wall beside the door. If she was very lucky, Hugh Fielding would think the car was empty and assume she was catching the next elevator.

 It stopped on two, and the doors whooshed open.

 Mila held her breath, hearing phone chimes and several voices outside. No footfalls approached the elevator, and none of the voices seemed raised in alarm.

 The doors closed again, and she let out her breath, easing out of the corner as the numbers counted to nine.

 When the doors opened on the ninth floor, Troy himself stood outside. His arms were folded over his chest, and his feet were braced apart. It was obvious he was expecting her.

 “Seriously?” he asked with an arched brow.

 “Hello, Mr. Keiser.” She quickly exited the elevator.

 If it descended without her, she’d have at least a few moments with him.

 “You just broke into my building.”

 “No,” she disagreed. “Mr. Fielding invited me in. I’m sure nobody could break into the Pinion Security building.”

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