Daring Deception (Off The Grid - FBI #9)- Barbara Freethy


Ten years earlier…

* * *

"It's not what we planned. It's not even close," Caitlyn Carlson said, wanting her boyfriend to refute every word.

"Life rarely goes the way we plan, but we can make it work," Quinn Kelly said.

She wanted to believe him, but she couldn't. She also didn't think it was a coincidence that he wouldn't look at her, that his sea-blue eyes were fixed on his phone.

She took a sip of the hot chocolate they'd just picked up at the coffee cart and looked toward the heavily forested hills above Bolton College, a private university located just north of San Francisco. She loved her school, which was set in a beautiful and somewhat isolated location between the mountains and the California coast. She loved the guy by her side even more.

But despite Quinn's reassuring words, there was something wrong. It wasn't just the March weather that was making her cold; it was the growing distance between them, a gap she didn't understand. In the last year, they'd become incredibly close, so close she knew he wasn't telling the truth.

Did she want the truth?

Their lives were about to change. Maybe neither one of them was ready.

Quinn tossed his empty coffee cup in a nearby trash can and frowned once more at his phone.

"Something wrong?" she asked.

"Lauren needs to change the time of our study group. They're going to meet now instead of at three."

"But we have the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new environmental center in an hour. Will you be done by then?"

"I'm sorry, Caitlyn. I don't think I can make it."

"But it's important." Quinn was getting his master's in ocean sciences, and the new three-story building would provide environmental scientists with incredible new tools. "The facility will directly impact your research."

He finally looked at her, and she could see the conflict in his eyes, which made her feel marginally better.

"I know," he said. "But it's a group project, and I need to be there. Frankly, I think you should blow off the event, too."

"I can't do that, Quinn."

"Why not? Your family is giving it a pass. Who are they sending? Some PR rep?"

"My brother is coming, too."

"Your brother, but not your father. He's the one who should be there. He's the head of Carlson Industries, a conglomeration of companies who have done far more to harm the environment than to help it. If your family was really focused on change, they'd be doing more than just building a study center. It's easier to throw money at a problem than time and genuine commitment."

"You have a point, but the center is a good thing. It's a start. We can at least celebrate that, can't we? I don't want my family or their business to come between us, especially not now." She felt a desperate need to convince him of that. The love she felt for him was deep, overwhelming, and all-consuming. It shouldn't have gotten so serious so fast, but it had—against all odds. They came from different worlds. But when they were together, there was only one world, one island of love, and they were the only ones on it. No one else mattered.

However, as Quinn checked his phone once more, she couldn't help wondering if that was true. Maybe she was on the island alone.

"Why do you keep looking at your phone?" she demanded.

"I'm getting a lot of texts from the study group."

"Is that it? Or is there something else going on? There isn't going to be a protest, is there?" Quinn was part of an environmental activist group on campus, and there were many people in the group who weren't thrilled with Carlson Industries.

"No. There won't be a protest. I made sure of that, Caitlyn. Donovan gave me his word."

"But you still don't want to go, because you're caught in the middle between me and your friends. Isn't that the real reason you're blowing me off?"

"No. And I'm not caught in the middle. The study session is just too important. I'll see the center when it opens. Is it really that big of a deal?"

She sighed. "I guess not."

He put his hand on her shoulders and gave her a smile that made her feel immensely better. "We'll meet up later."

"You promise?"

"Of course. Why would you even ask me that?"

"I just feel like something is off."

"It's going to be all right, Caitlyn. We'll work everything out."

"Are you sure? You haven't really said what you're feeling about all this, Quinn. I've had longer to think about it than you have.