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"I must be out of my mind," Gina Thomas muttered to herself as she drove down Gulf Boulevard, shivering although it was a balmy seventy-degree Halloween night in St. Petersburg, Florida. She stopped at a light, watching a horde of children dressed in costumes and toting orange pumpkins full of candy cross in front of her, safely escorted by harried-looking adults. The light turned green and she didn't notice at first, earning a loud blast of the horn from the car behind her.
"Geez, take it easy," she said to the bright headlights glaring in the rearview mirror and hitting the gas, though she wasn't in any rush, that was for sure.
Nerves—or the fact that the outfit she had on barely covered anything—were the source of her jitters in the first place. It was like driving naked, which was nothing compared to what she was about to do.
The deep red, glittery bodysuit plunged so far up her hips and down her middle that it was more like wearing two halves of a whole suit. She'd intended for nothing to show—she'd ordered a very unspectacular ghost costume that would have covered her completely and allowed her to fade in the background.
When she'd opened the box, she'd found this instead—a scrap of shiny red with a sexy bow-tie collar, a velvet black bowler hat and cane. A pair of "do me" heels that she borrowed from her sister completed the outfit and made it a pain to drive. It was her luck that instead of a ghost costume, she'd been sent a cabaret singer outfit—a "barely there" one, at that.
It had been too late to get anything different, and her sister Tracy nearly had a meltdown when Gina tried to back out of theplan they'd hatched.
"You have to do this," Tracy's pleading voice echoed in her mind as Gina made her way carefully through the bustling streets of St. John's Pass toward the quiet and upscale neighborhoods of Pass-A-Grille beach. That's where she was about to crash the annual Halloween party given by attorney Mason Scott for his clients and colleagues.
Gina would have preferred to do so in a less eyecatching costume, but that turned out to be impossible. All of the local shops were picked over, and so the skimpy costume was her only choice.
Tracy was in trouble. Again.
Gina reminded herself of why she was about to do this, to keep from turning back around, going back to her comfy St. Petersburg apartment where she could slide into her favorite pair of jeans and hand out candy. She had work to do, articles to write, and she'd been in the middle of contemplating a job change. Though she'd thought about it a million times before, there was an ad for an investigative reporter position at one of the local papers.
It was a long way from her position as a restaurant critic. Gina had always fantasized about being a real reporter, getting out in the world, uncovering exciting stories. She had almost talked herself into applying when Hurricane Tracy swept in, needing yet another favor.
Technically half sisters, they'd been raised together. The difference in their paternity didn't affect their closeness, but it made all the difference in their personalities. Their parents were living the good life as retirees in Palm Springs, and Gina made efforts to see them as much as possible. Tracy showed up at holidays, and her parents never seemed to mind.
Tracy was magazine-cover beautiful, adventurous and impulsive—the exact opposite of Gina. Tracy also landed herself in hot water on a regular basis, and she came running to big sister for help whenever she did.
Gina had been covering for Tracy since she could remember. When they were younger, it was for things like Tracy sneaking in the house drunk as a skunk in the middle of the night. More recently, Gina had helped her sibling extricate herself from one bad relationship after another, including her marriage to local bad boy Rio Alvarez. Rio was in the process of divorcing her sister at this very moment.
Gina had begged Tracy not to marry Rio, but her sister never listened. In fact, it had led to one of their more painful arguments, when Tracy pointed out that Gina's dull love life hardly qualified her to hand out advice on romance. They hadn't spoken for a while after that, but they were sisters, and Gina couldn't hold a grudge forever.
Besides, Tracy was right.
Her love life was not just dull, it was dead. Gina had had one serious boyfriend in college, and then he'd taken off to focus on his career. He'd asked her to go, but she couldn't take that risk.
Casual dates and unimpressive lovers had sparsely dotted her romantic landscape ever since. When she'd taken her freelance job as a restaurant reviewer, working from home, meeting eligible or interesting men became even more difficult. Tracy, however, met enough for both of them, and apparently that hadn't stopped after she'd gotten married—or so Rio said.
He claimed that he had the pictures to prove it— pictures that would show Tracy had been unfaithful. Tracy admitted she'd had a one-night stand, and was sorry for it, but Rio had been cheating for most of their marriage. Using Tracy's single, recent indiscretion to cut her off completely hardly seemed fair. Tracy had made a mistake, obviously, and one she was going to pay dearly for.
Tracy had invested her entire savings, including college money she needed to finish her degree now, into Rio's charter boat business. Additionally, Tracy had worked with Rio for five years on the business, but everything was in his name.
Tracy could fight him, but proof of her infidelity made it harder, and the case could drag out forever, still leaving her with nothing but more legal expenses. Without the pictures, Rio's claims were weakened considerably—it was his word against hers. Tracy at least stood a chance then.
Gina did believe that Tracy had loved Rio, which made the current situation all the more difficult. Tracy had made bad decisions from time to time, her choice in men among them, but she didn't deserve this.
So here Gina was, heading to the home of Rio's divorce lawyer, Mason Scott. Their plan to steal the pictures seemed crazier as each mile passed, but it was the only option that would give Tracy any leverage.
Tracy hadn't seen the problem with the costume at all, missing the point that if Gina was breaking into someone's home office, walking around half-naked was probably not the best way to keep a low profile.
At least the odds were good that the pictures were at his home office, where Mason conducted most of his work these days, according to a newspaper article on the firm. Many local companies were saving on office space and overhead by allowing employees to work from home. If the photos were at the downtown location, which no doubt came with much better security, Gina wouldn't stand a chance.
Cars were jammed into every spot along the narrow roads of Gulf Way. It was a lovely location, overlooking the water, with a private brick boardwalk. She made her way toward the house, which had elaborate decorations and lights strung all over the porch and yard. Squeezing into a parking spot, she took a deep breath, steadying her nerves.
This was it.
Due to the nice weather, several groups of guests congregated outside. That would make it easier to blend in and crash the party. All she had to do was glom on to a group and follow them through the door. Slipping the sparkling mask that covered the upper half of her face into place, she took a deep breath and tried to ignore her doubts. Peering in the slim rearview mirror, she hardly recognized herself.
She looked… exotic. So different from her normal, understated lifestyle. She'd never met Mason Scott, although he was a familiar name in local Tampa-St. Petersburg circles, and known as a ruthless divorce attorney whose clients were never disappointed with his results. She'd also seen him mentioned in the social pages, out on the town with some notable woman or another. She wondered what he'd do when he found his pictures missing?
Second thoughts assailed her as she walked up on the porch. She nearly turned around and left after a swarthy pirate wiggled his glued-on eyebrows at her, giving her a close once-over.
What if Mason did have security? What if she was caught?
"You're late! Where have you been! I've been calling the agency for the last hour!" A woman hissed in her ear, grabbing Gina by the arm and nearly pulling her off her feet.
"You were supposed to be here by seven! It's after eight!"
The woman was agitated and confused, and Gina opened her mouth to argue, but found herself pulled along again, behind a tall curtain covered in wispy netting and fake spiders that draped across the hallway.
"The band has been playing, so at least there's been music, thankfully, but everyone's expecting a singer. We always have a singer," the woman continued, not letting Gina get a word in edgewise. "They have your music, and everything is set to go. You go through there to the stage, okay?"
"Wait—no, I'm not who you think I am," Gina began. "I'm not the singer you hired."
"What do you mean? Did they screw up at the agency? For their prices? If you can't do this, you'll have to take it up with Mr. Scott directly, and see what he wants to do."
The frazzled older woman was dressed as a witch and more than looked the part in her agitated state. Her hat was crooked, her makeup smudged, and Gina felt bad for her. "I swear, organizing these events is going to be the death of me. Something always goes wrong. Let me go get Mr. Scott, and you can—"
"No!" Gina blurted, panicking. There was no way she could meet face-to-face with Mason. What if he recognized a family resemblance? Rio could have mentioned her, and Gina couldn't take the chance.
Her options were limited. She could leave as soon as the woman's back was turned, but then she'd let Tracy down.
Or she could… sing.
Her voice was okay. She'd been in a few school musicals, and she sung around the house, in the shower, on karaoke nights with friends and at holiday gatherings. After a few beers, generally.
Can I do this? she thought breathlessly.
Did she have a choice? The witch was staring holes in her.
"Uh, I meant I'm not the same singer they intended to send. She was, uh, sick. So I don't know the songs she had lined up."
"Oh…" The woman put a hand to her forehead. "Okay, then. There are some with Halloween themes, and a few more modern blues numbers. If you don't know her playlist, you can tell the guys what you want, and they can probably accommodate."
Gina nodded stiffly, nerves making her so tense she felt brittle. "Can you let themknow I'm sort of unprepared?"
"Sure, I'll be right back." The woman rushed off through the curtain, ostensibly to talk to the musicians.
Gina cleared her throat and tied to calm down. She'd sing a few tunes and then disappear to find Mason's office. Maybe being on stage would give her a chance to get the lay of the land and keep track of Mason. This could work, right?
Or it could be a total disaster. When the woman came back, informing her that everything was set, Gina tried to step forward, but couldn't get her feet to move. She could hardly believe it when the woman actually planted her hands on Gina's back, shuffling her toward the stage, giving her no choice in the matter.
Mason Scott hoped the heavy makeup and the fake fangs he'd been wearing for the last two hours—with at least four more hours to go—masked the intense boredom he was suffering. Why did he even throw these parties anymore?
Because it was expected. His law firm expected each partner to organize some social event once a year to keep in contact with their clients, old and new, and to allow for social interactions among the increasing number of people in the firm who were now telecommuting. This was the price he paid for working from home most of the time. Dozens of people, among whom it would be a challenge to find a handful he could call real friends, invaded for a few hours once a year.
His brother Ryan, a bartender at a local beach bar, walked up to him in a brightly colored Speedo. The rest of him was bare skin covered in colorful patterns drawn on with body paints.
"This is your costume? Or did you just come from work?" Mason teased.
"Hey. I bet you don't want to hear another joke about blood-sucking lawyers, but I have a couple I've been saving," Ryan threatened in good humor, raising his beer. They'd always enjoyed razzing each other about the contrast in their lifestyles, but it was all in fun. Mostly.
"I thought so. Nice party."
"Same ol' same ol'."
"She went back to her ex."
"Tough break, man."
Mason shrugged. "It was never anything serious." Though the stupid vampire costume had been her idea, and now he was here stag, suffering one clichéd comment after another about fees sucking people dry, etc., etc.
Mason hadn't handled Cynthia's divorce, but he should've guessed she'd been using him to make her husband jealous—especially when their last date was at an art gallery showing that her husband managed.
Mason supposed he hadn't cared enough to… care. It wasn't as if he had any permanent plans with the woman. Permanent hadn't ever been a part of any of his relationships thus far in his life.
"You here with anyone?" he asked Ryan.
Ryan, as always, had a sparkle in his eye. "Nope, but hoping I won't go home alone."
"You never do."
"Man, you've got plenty to choose from here.