Her mother is ill and in desperate need of expensive surgery. Hoping to earn the bonus attached to finishing it on schedule, Madeleine flies from New York City to the west Texas desert to take on the doomed Desert Oasis resort project. Soon, Madeleine finds there is one thing hotter than the desert sun: his name is Jake, and he is an irritating Texan whose disapproval of city life puts them at odds in everything.
Madeleine Winters gazed out the car window at the construction site--nothing more than steel beams and concrete to her untrained eye. Her mouth fell open with a silent curse. Beams in the vertical steel frame had been forcibly bent until the building resembled a partially bloomed flower wilting in the middle of the west Texas desert and not the gleaming hotel it was supposed to be. Her field was program management, not construction, but she doubted the structure sitting in the middle of the desert was right.
"Wow!" Eric, the car's driver and her personal assistant, exclaimed. "That can't be normal."
Her gaze went to the two bright yellow bulldozers near one corner. One was still connected to a beam by a thick steel chain while the other had been tipped over. She stepped out of the car's AC into to the desert's sauna-like heat and shielded her eyes despite the sunglasses.
There were more signs of intentional damage: crushed tiles, colorful graffiti, and tools and construction materials scattered everywhere.
Her black suit was meant for the temperate weather back east and her slingback heels for sidewalks. A late flight left her tired, and the sight of her pitiful project worsened her headache. She felt sorry for the building, even knowing how ridiculous that was. Given the project's bloated financials, she suspected the amount of damage done would soak up more money and time than she had.
Which was why her boss, Nigel, offered her such a pretty bonus if she could complete it on time. She'd expected a mess, but nothing like this.
"You probably should learn to fire people more politely," Eric said. He was a wiry, small man who appeared to be no older than fifteen despite being closer to thirty than she was. In one hand was a BlackBerry; in the other, a PDA.
"I thought I was polite," she said with a frown. "Where the hell are the security guards Alex hired before ditching this place last week?"
"Alex didn't do a lot of things he said he did," Eric reminded her with a glance down at the PDA. "Alex pissed off--or fired--the only four local companies capable of building this far in the west Texas desert. The last we had to bring in from ... I can't even pronounce it. I don't even know if they're based in the US. It's Javier and Sons Construction."
Anyone who knew Alex knew he couldn't handle organizing his car let alone overseeing a mega-challenge such as The Desert Oasis. The misshapen beginnings before her were meant to be real estate tycoon Dylan Howard's latest venture: an exclusive, uber-luxury spa and hotel stranded in the middle of the Texas desert, one so exclusive that non-millionaires would not be invited to stay.
Alex was on his way out, and this had been the final push. No one had heard from him since he ditched the project a week ago. She understood why.
"That must be them." Eric indicated the single-wide trailer off to one side. It was nestled between stacks of sandstone and hefty wooden crates. Four large white utility trucks with extended cabs were parked a short distance from the office. Several men perched on the edges of the trucks, and the door to the office was open.
Her phone rang, and she looked at the number, recognizing it as her mother's doctor's office. She motioned Eric onward and answered.
"Is this Madeleine Winters?" a prim voice asked. "Yes."
"This is Grace from the billing department at Dr. Jordan's."
Madeleine grated her teeth, knowing what Grace was about to tell her. "You missed your last two payments. I don't want to refer your account to
collections. You'll have to find a new doctor if you're not able to bring your account up to date."
"I took out a loan that should've transferred to my account today," Madeleine replied in the same tone. "If not, I'll have it tomorrow. Either way, I'll transfer the funds by noon tomorrow."
"Very well, Ms. Winters."
Madeleine hung up and drew a deep breath. Her mother's cancer treatment and nursing home had already eaten through both their retirement savings and a second lien on her house. Her credit cards were maxed out, and the bank had been very, very hesitant to extend the latest lifeline. When Nigel offered her the six-figure bonus for finishing this project, she leapt at the opportunity, even though her gut warned her against it.
She needed the money too bad to say no.
She regained her resolve and made her way carefully toward the office, twisting her ankle only once on the rocky ground beneath her four-inch heels. She straightened and dusted her suit jacket before ascending the rickety metal stairs to the office.
The contrast of the building's dark interior blinded her. She paused inside the doorway and blinked, making out several quiet forms in a small reception area sporting two worn couches in front of a cluttered desk.
She raised her sunglasses and gazed at the three silent men standing before her.
One beefy, older Mexican's white shirt labeled him as Javier. Another wore blue with the familiar logo, Smithson Contracting. The third was small and round with an oily smile.