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When he notices her and Mick, he turns his bright grin from the children, making Lanie blink, and her thoughts scatter in confusion.
Mickey beams back at him with a little wink. Lanie is caught between two floodlights aimed at each other on full blast.
“I know, right. Isn’t he gorgeous? And a genius.”
They reach the bunkhouse, and pass through the back door into the director’s cabin. It doubles as an unofficial office for low-security tasks, because its central location makes it easy to carry documents to any place in the base.
Depositing Lanie’s bag on a bunk, Mickey bounces onto the mattress beside it, continuing with her gushing. “He travels all over the world teaching and building things! He calls himself an architect without borders, even if he barely does any architectural work anymore. He’s only been here for a few weeks, but we all love him. Don’t you just love a man who’s good with kids? He’s so kind and so smart and…”
Mickey continues to babble as Lanie unpacks her minimal belongings into the small drawers. The regular director left the space tidy before going on leave, which Lanie appreciates, even though the neatness won’t last long.
“Not my type,” Lanie finally interrupts when she realizes Mickey is still going on about the man. “Too out of shape. Is Javi here yet?”
“No, sir. He’s not coming, remember? He got replaced last minute by Colonel Jake McGuinness. And, oh, my God, you’re so mean!” Mickey laughs, slapping her denim-clad leg. “I like Ben. He’s got great arms and the best smile. And, he knows how to take care of himself. He exfoliates! And he’s got, like, this oil he uses for his beard. He smells so good all the time, even with this heat and dust and he’s just got the strongest back –”
“Are you sleeping with him?” Lanie raises an eyebrow. For the most part, she doesn’t ask any questions, since the staff can be here for months or even years at a time. As long as they are discreet. It’s not like she’s any better.
Groaning, Mickey flops back on the bed. “I wish! He seemed interested in me last week, but then he was all over Lena, and now it’s Ali.”
Lena? That seems strange, but Lanie doesn’t say anything. “So, why do you care if I like him?”
She taps her chin. “Because! He’s like, your total opposite, and I think he would mellow you out.”
“I’m nothing but mellow, thank you very much.” Rolling her eyes, Lanie stuffs the empty duffel under the bed, then heads out the back door of her cabin. She surveys the perimeter as Mickey bounces along beside her. “Mickey, we have work to do. I’m probably not coming back. I’m going to have to review the inventory reports after all the deliveries have been processed, and I need to do my inspection.”
Mickey paused in her bouncing. “I’m sorry, what?”
“This is probably my last trip here. You know I can’t keep coming back. Plus, Henry told me before I left that the board is threatening me with canceling base nine.”
“Really? I thought it was a done deal.”
“Legally, it is. But they’re getting ready for a total coup, and they don’t care about bylaws and contracts anymore.” Or the secrets she held in her reluctant hands.
There’s a tactical weak point near the school where that new warehouse was built a few years ago. She wishes she’d paid more attention to where they were planning on building it, but she was in on the south coast, and didn’t see the update until months later. She definitely wouldn’t suggest putting it right up against the brush where it was easy for attackers to hide, or for a fire to start. It bothers her every time she sees it, but they aren’t authorized to clear-cut the copse.
“So, what are you going to do?”
“We’re at a stalemate until the next AGM. That’s when they’ll make their move. And I’ll be ready to bring the axe down on them.” At least, she hopes she’ll be ready.
Mickey rubs her hands in glee. “Oooh, that sounds fun. Can we help?”
Hopefully, it won’t come to that. That backup plan is a last resort, that she hopes she’ll never have to use it. Well, mostly. Faking her death and running off to New Zealand looks better and better every year. But she can’t let that happen. Not until the ninth base is completed.
“Just keep up what you’ve been doing. I’m going to show up to that AGM with our fifth consecutive clean safety report, plus an energy report from the eco project, and if they break the NDA’s and gag orders about me, I’ll be ready to break all of mine with the push of a button.”
Not to mention the heads that will roll. If they continue to escalate things, the cancer of the Ferami boards will be difficult to resect, nearly impossible without at least a few fatalities. Not for the first time, she wavers on her vow against assassinations. It’s getting harder and harder to win this war with words and sabotage alone. But she doesn’t want her grandfather to be right. She doesn’t want to have to be like him. She doesn’t have to taint the pure, essential work of saving children with the dark, murderous corporate espionage that she’s been chained to for far too long.
Mickey sighs. “I don’t know why they give you so much trouble. You’d think they’d appreciate such a great director like you. You’ve been doing this almost ten years, and you treat it better than any of the so-called board members.”
“Well, not absolutely every single one is garbage.”
“Ha! Name one!”
“How’s the hospital?” Lanie inquires, trying to stifle that familiar rising urge to kill something. She needs updates. It’s hard to stay in the loop when she’s barely around internet most of the year.
Mickey doesn’t even notice the change in subject. “Oh, it’s so wonderful! Ben took a look at it a few days ago, and he’s really impressed, but he says it might be a little difficult to modify because of the roof shape. He says most of the other buildings won’t be too much trouble, though. We’ve been getting families from two hundred miles away! Hundreds of patients just this year. It’s been a bit more of a strain on our hospital rations than expected, though, because of the disruptions from the raid and all. Did you get the report I made with all the stats?”
“Yep.” Lanie checks the pump on the well, embossed with the Ferami logo. For once, it doesn’t look like it’s about to come apart. “Who’s Ben?”
“The hot architect!”
Him. Why does that undignified man-child have to be the crux of her plan? “Finished the reports on the plane. I wasn’t able to get much extra for this transport, though, so we might have a slight delay. Show me the hospital.”
She did want to see the school first. But the kids are finally starting to get picked up from the warehouse, and that Ben guy is still there, too close for comfort. He’s beaming at parents and orphanage staff who come to gather up the children. Bowing and apparently cracking jokes, he towers over almost everyone. They all seem taken in by him, and Lanie feels the sharp taste of annoyance and disdain. He behaves like a combination of a class clown and a jock. There’s nothing she hates more than charmers and show-offs, and this man is clearly both.
The feeling surprises her. There’s basically no one here that she doesn’t at least get along with, and many that she actually likes. A few are even considered friends. If she has a cool relationship with some, it has taken at least some time to develop. She’s never had this instant, visceral reaction to any of the staff, and she isn’t sure what to do.
She resents that it’s only been ten minutes, and things are already off. She’ll have to find out later what happened with Javi. And how to avoid that weird, sickly-sweet engineer. Architect. Teacher. Whatever.
Focusing on the irritated part of her brain helps to drown out the part that can’t keep from smiling at the sight of a man happily playing with a little girl. She wishes she could send a picture of it to hell for her own father. The only problem will be finding out which circle to find him in. Lanie’s heretical self will go straight to the sixth, for sure, and Zarah, her lazy, gluttonous mother, is probably in the third. But Vincent de la Torre could be anywhere. His apparently uncontrollable libido means that the second is possible. But so are the fourth through the ninth. She hopes it’s four, because her greedy, greasy grandfather is bound to be there. Even being with him in paradise would be torture for her father.
They continue on the road to the hospital. Lanie didn’t count on the engineer coming over to talk to her and Mickey. She’s too preoccupied with hilarious fantasies of Grandpa Basso, forced to throw a baseball over and over for his failure of a son, who has to bat in an eternal business suit. By the time she notices the Ben character, it’s too late. She doesn’t realize she’s still smiling when she looks up to see who is suddenly looming over her.
A shock goes through her. Now that she’s seeing him up close, there’s something familiar about this bear of a man. Something that shoots ice down her spine.
“Hey there, Mick! Who’s your gorgeous friend?” he asks in a low, sexy voice, before Lanie’s toes can push her to escape.
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