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Authors: Linda Howard

The Cutting Edge

BOOK: The Cutting Edge
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From
New York Times
bestselling author Linda Howard comes a fan-favorite tale of romantic intrigue

Brett Rutland is the top troubleshooter at Carter Engineering, and he's used to getting his way. When he's tasked with cracking an internal embezzlement case, he meets firm accountant Tessa Conway. She's beautiful and interested, but falling for her will not only test Brett's control, it may also jeopardize the case—especially since she's the prime suspect.

The Cutting Edge

LINDA HOWARD

CONTENTS

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

CHAPTER ONE

“T
HAT
,”
SAID
B
RETT
R
UTLAND
in a quietly appreciative voice, “should be illegal.”

Evan Brady had been watching the young woman who had just walked past them, too, and he could only agree. He'd already been in the Los Angeles office for a week, and he'd seen her several times. “You'll have to get in line, along with the rest of us,” he advised Brett dryly. “Her social life would make a Philadelphia debutante green with envy.”

A cool, hard smile touched Brett's lips. “Sorry; I think I'll cut in and go to the head of the line.”

Evan was a little startled, for he'd never known Brett to become involved with anyone in the company before, and he'd really only been teasing. Still, when a man looked at Teresa Conway, other considerations tended to fly right out of his mind. Then he shrugged. “She doesn't look like the general idea of a bookkeeper, does she?”

Brett's dark blue eyes cut sharply to him. “Bookkeeper?”

“And damned good at what she does, too. She has to automatically be considered a suspect.”

Brett nodded, turning his gaze once again to the slim back of the woman and watching until she entered the elevator and he was no longer able to see her.
He and Evan were in Los Angeles to quietly investigate the mysterious discrepancy that an internal audit had turned up in the Los Angeles office of Carter Engineering, which was under the corporate umbrella of the Carter-Marshall Group. When Joshua Carter had heard of the possible embezzlement in his base company, he'd been livid, and Joshua Carter in a rage was something to behold, even though he was now pushing seventy. He'd called in his prize troubleshooter to investigate and handle the problem, and he'd instructed Brett to prosecute to the full extent of the law. Nobody stole from Joshua Carter and got away with only dismissal and a slap on the wrist! Bad publicity could go hang, for all he cared.

Brett shared with Joshua Carter the same cold distrust for a thief; he'd worked too hard to achieve his success to feel anything but contempt for anyone who tried to do it the easy way, by stealing the fruit of someone else's labors. It might take a while, but he and Evan would find the thief, and their handling of the situation would make everyone else in Carter Engineering think twice before they took so much as a pencil home.

Computer theft, by someone who really knew computers, could be a real bitch to track down, but Brett had full confidence in Evan's skills. There were few other people in the United States who could match Evan's expertise with a computer. With Evan working on the technical end, and Brett investigating the people, they'd have this wrapped up before the thief even knew they were coming. The cover story that had been given out was that they were in Los Angeles to investigate the feasibility of a new computer system that was being
considered. Evan could make that look legitimate for an indefinite length of time.

Brett rubbed his jaw consideringly. “Do you know her name?” he asked Evan in an almost absent manner.

“Every man in this building knows her name,” Evan replied, grinning. “Teresa Conway, but everyone calls her Tessa. She isn't married; I…uh, pulled her personnel file.”

“Interesting reading?”

“Depends on what you're looking for. No obvious skeletons in her closet, though.”

“I think I'll combine business with a little pleasure, and take Miss Conway out to dinner,” Brett drawled. “I'll pump her for information on the rest of the department; she may know of someone with financial problems, or have noticed any sudden riches.”

“I hate for you to have to work so hard.” Evan lifted his eyebrows sardonically. “I'll pull night duty for you and take the lady out, so you can get a good night's rest.”

In admirably succinct language, Brett told him what he could do with his suggestion, and Evan grinned. He was thin and dark and intense, and he'd never suffered from a lack of female companionship. Probably he would have asked Tessa Conway out himself before the assignment was finished, but he'd been too busy and now Brett was stepping in, which meant that no one else would have a chance with her until Brett decided to walk away. Women didn't deny Brett Rutland; nature had given him a burning sexuality, a rawly demanding virility that drew women like moths to a candle, but his physical appetites were tempered by the icy control of
his brain. Evan had never met a man more in control of himself than Brett Rutland.

Joshua Carter couldn't have picked a better choice than Brett to send in; he was cool, alert, and he didn't become emotionally involved. Evan had heard it said that Brett Rutland didn't give a damn about anyone, and on occasion he'd thought that the rumor just might be right. The clarity of Brett's thought processes was never clouded by sentiment or emotion. He had a guarded personality; he kept his thoughts well hidden, though most people never realized that, because he was so adept in handling them and bending them to his will.

“When we get back from lunch, I want to read her file,” Brett said now. His navy blue eyes were intent, and Evan felt a moment's pity for Tessa Conway; she didn't have a chance.

* * *

A
S
T
ESSA REENTERED
the building after lunch, she smiled at the security guard at the front door, earning an ear-to-ear grin from him and an exasperated snort from Martha “Billie” Billingsley, who worked in the payroll department of Carter Engineering and who was also Tessa's closest friend.

“You'd flirt with a dead man,” Billie growled.

“I wouldn't,” Tessa defended herself good-naturedly. “Besides, there's a difference between flirting and just being friendly.”

“Not where you're concerned, there isn't. You have every man in this building falling all over himself whenever you're anywhere near.”

Tessa laughed, not taking Billie's charge at all seriously. She was a cheerful flirt, laughing and teasing,
but doing it so lightheartedly that it was almost impossible not to laugh with her. Most people liked Tessa—even women—because she wasn't a poacher, despite the sunny charm that drew men to her like iron filings to a magnet. She was always the first person invited to a party because she was so lively. She had a sharp but kind wit, the sort that had people hanging on her lazy words, waiting with almost painful anticipation for her to get to the punch line, then exploding with mirth when she finally got it all said. Tessa's drawl would have driven everyone crazy months ago if the lazy music of it hadn't been so distracting. She was originally from Mobile, on Alabama's Gulf Coast, and Billie had long ago concluded that it would take an earthquake to make Tessa hurry. It was really odd how she managed to accomplish so much on her job, because she approached it with such calm laziness, never appearing ruffled or frantic no matter what crisis was crashing down on the office. Tessa just sort of strolled around, and things somehow got done. It was a complete mystery.

They entered the elevator, where they were joined by the company's computer genius, Sammy Wallace. Sammy was tall and thin and blond, with vague, sweet blue eyes behind horn-rimmed glasses that made him look like even more of a genius. Put him at the keyboard of a computer and he could practically make it sing opera, but he was almost painfully shy. Tessa felt protective of him, even though he was actually a few years older than she, and she greeted him warmly. He still blushed whenever she spoke to him, but he'd learned that the kindness in her eyes wasn't a lie, and he returned her smile. He might usually have his mind on
computers, but he'd noticed how men looked at Tessa, and he felt a little proud that she always spoke to him.

“Do you have a free night for another chess lesson?” she asked, and he blushed a little more at the way she suggested that his social life was so busy that his free nights were few and far between. He liked that, and he gave her his sweet smile.

“How about tomorrow night?”

“Wonderful!” She rewarded him with a dazzling smile, her deep green eyes sparkling. “About seven?”

“Sure. Do you want to play poker again, too?”

“Now, you know I never turn down a poker game.” She winked at him, and Sammy winked back, surprising even himself. He was teaching Tessa chess, and in return she was teaching him poker. He was so good with numbers that he was picking up the basics of poker far more easily than she was handling chess. Tessa played chess with verve and dash, going on instinct rather than strategy, and the board was often chaotic before her adversary figured out what was going on and began methodically boxing in her king. On the other hand, she was very good at poker; she liked the sheer exhilaration of blending skill and luck.

The elevator stopped at the next floor, and several men entered; Tessa moved toward the rear, holding the rail as the doors closed and they all moved upward again. It was lucky that she did hold on to the rail; when the elevator reached the next floor, it lurched violently before shuddering to a stop. Ted Baker, the man standing in front of her, lost his balance and flailed wildly in an effort to keep from falling. He succeeded, but his elbow crashed against Tessa's cheekbone, and she
staggered from the force of the blow. Instantly, the man beside her had his arm around her waist, holding her up, and he swore softly.

The man who had hit her turned around, apologizing profusely. “It wasn't your fault,” Tessa tried to reassure him.

“Baker, have a repairman called to check out the elevator,” the man holding Tessa ordered, and Baker quickly murmured an acknowledgment.

Tessa had already recovered from the brief dizziness caused by the blow, and she tried to move away from the man, but he held her firmly within the hard circle of his arm. Billie squeezed over to them, her eyes anxious. “Tessa? Are you all right?”

“Yes, I'm fine.” But she probed her cheekbone gingerly with her fingers, not certain if she was being truthful or brave. Her face felt a little numb.

“I'll take her up and put ice on it,” the authoritative voice above her head said, and she doubted if anyone ever disobeyed that note of command. Certainly no one in the elevator made any other suggestion. Billie got off at their floor, looking back worriedly at Tessa, but she didn't try to accompany them. Little by little the elevator emptied as it rose higher and higher in the building, and Tessa pursed her lips thoughtfully at what that meant. She wanted to tilt her head back and get a good look at her rescuer, but he was standing slightly behind her, and she really didn't feel safe in moving her head that much. Sensation was returning to her face, and her cheekbone was throbbing painfully.

They exited on the executive floor, where Tessa had been only a few times in the past, since there was
seldom any need for someone from bookkeeping to venture that far afield. He opened a door that had no name on it, but a secretary sprang to attention at her desk.

“Helen, do I have any ice in my office? There's been a slight accident.”

“Yes, sir, I'm certain you do.” Helen jumped to open the door for him, then walked straight to the small built-in bar in the corner of the large office to check the supply of ice. “Yes, there's ice. Do you need anything else?”

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