Men of Steele, Book 3
A hacker framed for espionage. A sniper hot on her trail. Enemies who can't resist falling in love.
Framed for divulging state secrets, reformed hacker Valerie Sanchez has no choice but to run. Worse, when the proof of her innocence is destroyed, things turn fatal. She must decide if the sexy terrorist hunter who mysteriously turns up to protect her is an ally or the real threat.
Former Marine sniper Scott Kramer’s job was supposed to be easy. Follow the hot computer geek who stole plans for classified weapons until she meets her buyer, then let law enforcement take over. But when Valerie becomes an assassin's target, Scott's gut says she’s innocent. Now, he must risk his life—and his heart—to keep her safe.
- In Blindsided, Valerie works for a company called Aggressor, but I had originally called it Red Team. Why? Because, in penetration testing (i.e. testing a company's or computer network's resistance to invaders) and military training exercises, the red team is the one that plays the enemy. But it turned out that Red Team is a popular company name in real life, and it's been used in a couple of fiction series as well. So, I asked my husband (retired Air Force) for ideas, and he came up with “aggressor.” An aggressor squadron is the one trained to act like the enemy in military war games. Perfect!
- The city of Zachari is a fictionalized version of Oxnard, California (so I could take some liberties with it). According to Wikipedia, sugar magnate Henry Oxnard originally wanted to name the town Zachari—the Greek word for sugar—but encountered too much bureaucracy, so he named it after himself instead. So, this one's for you, Henry. Here's a picture of Oxnard from the beach.
- Four Corners, California is also part of my imagination, but would be in the Central Valley, near Yosemite, in the vicinity of Visalia.
- Scott is the only hero in the Men of Steele universe (so far) who is not a former Air Force pararescueman (aka PJ). Don't ask me why, he just came to me as a Marine scout sniper.
- I lived in San Diego for two years in college, and it's always been one of my favorite cities. When I wanted a break from the beach (say, what?), I would sometimes hang out at the Botanical Building in Balboa Park. In Blindsided, Valerie and Scott make a stop here to meet someone.
- Scott listens to indie/alt rock—and has pretty much built a wardrobe from T-shirts displaying his favorite bands—and both he and Valerie share some of my own taste in music. My playlist while writing this book included “Starstruck” by Santigold, “Renegades” by X Ambassadors, “First” by Cold War Kids, “Waves” by Blondfire, and “Ophelia” by The Lumineers.
- Want more Scott Kramer? Check out this interview with him at Read Your Writes (explicit, because he's foul-mouthed 😉 ).
Friday, 7:00 a.m.
VALERIE SANCHEZ SUMMONED HER MOST dazzling smile and prepared to lie through her teeth. She unzipped her long wool coat as she approached the Westgate Defense Systems security desk before the early crowd of employees arrived.
“Hi, there. It’s my boyfriend Brian’s thirtieth birthday today, and I’d like to decorate his cubicle before he arrives.” She tugged the bouquet of Star Wars–themed helium balloons she had picked up that morning, making the shiny Darth Vader and R2D2 bounce.
The security guard, his badge pinned proudly to his chest, glanced around the empty lobby and swallowed. “I’d like to help you, ma’am, but I can’t let in anyone without an employee ID or visitor’s pass. Your boyfriend would have to vouch for you.”
“That would kind of give away the surprise, wouldn’t it?” she asked, her grin cheeky. “But, I understand.” Resting her free elbow on the counter, she leaned forward enough to give the man a glimpse of her already ample, plumped-to-the-max cleavage.
When his eyes strayed to the shiny little charm sewn to the front of her bra, she asked, “What if you escorted me?”
He snapped to attention, raising his eyes to meet her gaze, and cleared his throat. “I can’t leave my post. Not until the other guy shows up.” He checked his oversized sport watch. “And even then, you’d need someone to sign you in.”
Based on her previous surveillance, she was ninety-nine percent positive the other guard wouldn’t arrive for at least ten more minutes. Her partner Jay had pegged this one as more vulnerable and figured if she could get him alone, he’d be more susceptible to her “wiles.”
“I could be your guest,” she said, pushing the red-framed prop glasses onto the bridge of her nose.
His eyes widened. “But I don’t know you.”
“Well, let’s change that.” She held out her hand and smiled. “I’m Vanessa Rios.”
His face reddened all the way up to the roots of his receding brown hair. For a full five seconds, he didn’t respond. Then he grasped her hand in his own thick, clammy one. “John Watkins.”
She resisted the instinct to slide her palm against his. If she laid on the sex appeal too thick, he’d question her devotion to Brian, the programmer whose computer had access to the entire network at Westgate. A man she’d never met.
“Nice to meet you, John. I work in human resources at Farmington International. That’s where I met Brian before he got the job here. We’ve been dating for about two years.” She raised her eyes in thought. “Let’s see, what else? I’m a Libra, my friends call me Van even though I hate it, I have a sister, two cats, and a small apartment in Georgetown. I love living in D.C., but hate the traffic, and someday I want to do something important that changes the world for the better.”
He was giving her a funny look, but she was pretty sure she had him. “Or would it be easier if I just showed you some ID?”
A small part of her almost hoped he wouldn’t give in. As much as she wanted her pretext to work, this guy would be in big trouble if she succeeded. And he seemed nice.
Then again, if he wasn’t doing his job properly…
John chuckled and shook his head. “If you can wait until my partner shows, I’ll take you up.”
She glanced at her watch. “Unfortunately, I can’t. I have to leave for work in the next five minutes or I’m going to be late.” Frowning, she asked, “You know what? When your other half gets here, can you put this stuff on Brian’s desk for me? I was going to really do it up”—she placed a sack of streamers, banners, and party favors on the desk—“but the balloons will have to do. Oh! And don’t forget the cupcakes.”
Popping the lid on the Tupperware full of chocolate cupcakes with colorful confetti candy on top, she pulled out two and leaned over the counter to set them on John’s workspace. “One for each of you.”
The guard laughed outright and shook his head. “You’re something else, Van.” He glanced around the empty lobby, chewed on his lip, and stewed for several seconds before nodding. “All right, surrender your ID and I’ll give you five minutes.”
“Oh, my God, thank you.” She flashed him a smile as she laid her jacket and scarf over a nearby chair. Then she traded the fake license for a clip-on visitor’s badge, grabbed the party supplies, and turned for the elevators. “I’ll be quick.”
“I’ll be watching.” He pointed to the TV monitors.
Heart pounding, Valerie had to keep herself from running across the gleaming white marble. Not that she could have run in her heels anyway. She didn’t have enough practice wearing them, and they were pinching her toes. A minute later, she emerged onto the third floor and made her way along a row of blue cloth cubicles. Based on the map Jay had found God-knew-where, Brian’s desk was the fourth one on the right.
The entire space was eerily hushed, with no sound but the faint hum of fluorescent light bulbs and the whoosh of warm air coming from vents overhead.
She glanced up at the camera stationed on the ceiling behind Brian’s cubicle and waved. Then she clipped the balloons to the desk, casually positioning them to block the camera’s view of the computer. Draping streamers with one hand, she leaned over the keyboard, giving the guard a shot of her ass. She let her dress ride up as she used her other hand to snap a tiny gadget into a slot on the back of the computer.
Quickly, she finished decorating the small workspace and hightailed it to the lobby. “Thanks so much. I really appreciate this, John,” she said, smiling as she returned the badge for the license and donned her winter armor.
“Brian’s a lucky guy,” he murmured as she walked toward the tall glass-encased exit.
If he only knew. She gave the guard a little wave and forced herself to stroll nonchalantly into the cold.
Published: February 2017, ISBN 9780991607327