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London, England Trafalgar Square
CRIME DOESN'T PAY. Unless you're a professional grifter who's never been caught. Then, yeah, boy, ka-ching! Especially if you're playing the long cons. Time-intensive scams such as bank-examiner schemes, pigeon drops and investment swindles garner thousands, sometimes millions of dollars. Short cons, hit-and-run hustles, can be nearly as lucrative, depending on the grifter's charm and the mark's greed. Not that I understand the mechanics of all of these swindles. But, thanks to the man I'm sleeping with, I'm learning.
My name is Evie Parish and I'm a professional performer. At least that's how I used to make my living, singing, dancing and acting on the stages of the not-soglitzy Atlantic City casinos. Unfortunately the entertainment industry has a bugaboo about mature women. My career, like my fifteen-year marriage, recently hit the skids. Not that I'm bitter. Okay, that's a lie. But I'm learning to let go. Over forty does not equal over the hill. In fact, I've never felt more alive. Creative sex and a challenging new career do wonders for the spirit. Just now, my thoughts were on the latter.
Both guilt and exhilaration rushed through me as I pocketed twenty British pounds and exited a touristy pub. My eyes registered the boxy black cabs and red double-decker buses navigating Trafalgar Square's congested streets, but instead of revved engines and squealing brakes, all I heard was the funky, eclectic soundtrack from the Ocean's Eleven remake. The caper music, though solely in my head, fueled my getaway and fantasy mind-set. I'd had to channel a female version of Brad Pitt's "Rusty" in order to pull off that shenanigan. I had a conscience.Rusty, the crooked card magician, did not.
Walk, don't run, I told myself. Blend. Be a chameleon. A no-brainer for an actress who's been everything from a premenstrual pumpkin to a roller-skating cowgirl, right? Right. Considering the heavy pedestrian traffic and considering that I'd dressed in black (London's denim), it was easy to lose myself in the crowd. I buttoned my peacoat against the brisk evening breeze. Even though I was wired tight, my stride was loose, my expression calm. My brain replayed my mentor's advice should the bartender come sprinting after me.
If the mark seems confused, go on the offense. If the mark seems suspicious or agitated, run.
But no one chased me down. No one yelled "Thief!" When I reached the corner of Northumberland and Whitehall, I pumped my fist in the air and performed my signature victory dance. "I did it!"
"Bloody hell, Sunshine. Dinnae announce it to the world." Arch Duvall, a reformed con artist with a hot body and a sexy accent, clasped my arm and guided me across the bustling intersection.
I still couldn't believe I was with this guy. As in, having a pulse-tripping fling with this guy. Me, a contemporary Doris Day. Perky, blond (this month anyway), a renowned Goody Two-shoes. Meanwhile, he reminded me of the hunky leather-clad Scot in that Tomb Raider movie. Droolworthy physique, dark cropped hair and a perpetual five-o'clock shadow, hypnotic gray-green eyes and a devastating smile. Before you label me a shallow horn-dog, let me tell you his appeal runs much deeper than his rebel good looks. He isn't merely a fascinating confidence man, he's a performance artist. A kindred soul.
"It worked exactly like you said," I blurted. "I paid for my ale, played the dumb American when the bartender gave me all those weird coins in change. Too confusing, I told him. Let me trade in ten one-pound coins for a ten-pound note, please. He handed me the ten-pound note and I passed him the coins, only"
"He told you you were one pound short."
"I pretended to be flustered. Really? Are you sure? Maybe you dropped one. Oh, forget it. Just give me back the coins and"
"Then you really confused the shite oot of him. I was there. I saw." He shushed me and hurried me along.
"I just can't believe it," I said in a rapid-fire replay.
"Because I distracted him by talking a blue streak and changing my mind about what I did and didn't want, I walked out of there ten pounds ahead of the game!"
"I know the scam, love. I taught it to you, yeah?" Yeah. "Change raising," he called it. A short con. But if you scammed ten to fifteen cashiers in a day, you could make a decent score. It was one of a few grifts Arch had taught me this past week. The first I'd tried out on anyone but him.
Reality blindsided me like a ruthless heckler. Said heckler being my conscience, and it screamed, Crook! I couldn't tune out or ignore the taunt, as it wasgulptrue. "We have to go back." I spun on the rubber heel of my high-top sneakers.
Arch caught my elbow and swung me back around. "I know, I know. Returning to the scene of the crime is risky."
"There was no crime, love. He gave you too much change because he allowed himself to be distracted, yeah?"
"But his drawer will come up short tonight. He'll get in trouble, maybe even be accused of stealing." Deceiving the guy was one thing. Getting him firedor worsewas unacceptable. Plus, the money in my pocket wasn't mine. Unlike Arch, I didn't see the difference between stealing someone's money and persuading them to give it to you.
"It's taken care of."
"I know the owner. I also know you." He smiled down at me, a devilish grin that accelerated my already zipping pulse. "I only want you losing sleep over one thing, yeah?"
Nudge, nudge. Wink, wink. Sexy thoughts superseded guilt but then gave way to confusion. "Wait a minute. You mean, I didn't con the bartender for real?" For me, it wasn't about the score but the scam itself. Proving to myselfand Archthat I had the chops.
"You conned him, love." His mesmerizing eyes twinkled with pride and
Uh-oh. Zing. Zap. I knew that look. Not that we needed a reason other than that we were hot for one another, but anytime I went against my uptight Midwestern upbringing and deviated from the straight and narrow, Arch got turned on. Did I mention the creative sex? My hoo-ha ached in anticipation. His flat, newly inherited from his grandfather, was in Bloomsbury. A good thirty-minute walk, and that's if we hustled. Knowing us, we'd never make it that far. We'd end up in a coat closet or a darkened alley, making out like two hormonal teenagers. In the short time I'd known the man, we'd groped and shagged, as Arch called it, in some very unusual places. Mostly because I was opposed to doing it in bed missionary-style. Too intimate. Losing my heart to a born manipulator would be a mistake. Because of a cheating ex-husband, my emotions were already fragile. Don't think about Michael. Don't think about how he's having a baby with his twentysomething girlfriend.
Don't think. Live. I cupped the back of Arch's head and pulled him down for a kiss. Quick but deep. Lots of tongue. Zap. There it was. That white-hot connection that consistently melted my bones. Even as I eased away, something I dared not name sparked between us.
I smiled because that was his signature term for I'm toast. Leaning in, I felt John Thomasa heck of a big guystraining against his trousers. "Maybe we should get a cab."
He eyed the heavy traffic. "We can walk it faster, yeah?" He nabbed my hand and set a brisk pace, guiding me through hordes of international tourists and locals. I noted the Mall, a central square featuring fountains, bronze lions and a massive phallic monument to Admiral Nelson, on my left. Up ahead on my right, St. Martin-inthe-Fields, an eerie-looking church that dated back to the 1700s. Yes, I'd had my nose in a guidebook. Plus, Arch had toured me around, happy to show me the city he considered his second home. Everything about London, from the historical landmarks to the Beefeaters and bobbies to the apple-red telephone booths, was of curious interest to me.
Kind of like my companion. My mentor, my lover. A sexy bad boy with a sensitive heart and a James Bond aura. Okay, instead of a license to kill, he had a license to shill, but the man was still double-oh-seven hot. Sean Connery-esque accent. Pierce Brosnan wit. Daniel Craig intensity. Plus, like Bond, he worked for a government agency. Not a U.K.-based operationgo figurebut the covert branch of a U.S. agency. I'd never heard of the AIAArtful Intelligence Agencyand I didn't know what they did exactly, but the specialty branch Chameleon busted up nefarious scams. Special Agent Milo Beckett, who'd founded the team, relied heavily on Arch's grifter expertise. Two weeks ago Arch had acted solo, hiring a civilian actressmeto portray his wife on a couples' cruise. His goal: to take down the ruthless, unscrupulous scum artist who'd murdered his grandfather and who'd cheated countless seniors out of their savings.
I'd landed what I'd thought was a legit acting gig through a quirk of fate at a time when my life was falling apart. Turned out we were both in the midst of a personal crisis and proved balm for each other's emotional wounds. Just now, we were both on the mend. Not that sex was a cure-all, but it certainly didn't hurt.
Since Arch kept a tight rein on his emotions and personal history, I didn't know him well. But I liked him. Call me bewitched. The man was complicated and intriguing. A master of disguises. Charismatic and dangerous. He could charm the devil into trading his pitchfork for a halo. By his own admission, he could not be trusted. I didn't wholly believe that, although I was stymied by his absolute lack of guilt pertaining to his past grifts. There are scam artists and scum artists, he'd once told me. Dinnae confuse the two. Did I mention he was slick? Just like my ex-husband, a silver-tongued, double-talking entertainment agent. S-L-I-C-K. Arch couldn't be more wrong for me, and yet he felt like the perfect fit.
Lost in my thoughts, I heaved a dramatic sigh. "I'm screwed."
"Not yet, lass. But soon."
That promise sizzled through my skin and ignited a fire down below. My brain and body burned with immediacy. This was my last night in London. My last night to enjoy whatever it was Arch and I had going, because once we were both back in the States, whatever this was had to end. He didn't know that yet. He also didn't know that I'd talked Beckett into hiring me as a full-time member of Chameleon. I'd been waiting for the right time to tell him, like maybe three minutes before I got on the plane. I didn't want to break off with Arch, but I didn't want to compromise my new job, either. Beckett had a no-hanky-panky-between-team-members policy. This was my shot at being a real-life Charlie's Angel. A kick-butt crime fighter. The casinos didn't want me, but my country did. Powerful motivation for sacrificing a fling. Clichéd as it was, I hoped we could still be friends.
The thought of possibly severing our unique connection made me sad and reckless. I squeezed his hand and jerked him toward a small, chic restaurant. "There's gotta be a coat closet in there."
He tugged me in the opposite direction, hustled me through the doors of the National Portrait Gallery. "You're kidding."
The sizzle in his smile said otherwise. He guided me up the stairs into a main concourse, a chaotic room brimming with museum visitors.
My skin prickled with two parts excitement, one part dread. A darkened alley would've been preferable. Seedy but less crowded. Then suddenly we were in a deserted hallway. We passed two doors. The third was ajar. Arch tugged me over the threshold. Not a coat closet but a janitor's storage room. Close enough.
I jumped his bones.
The unexpected impact knocked him against the wall of shelves. A metal bucket fell and clipped his shoulder"Dammit!"then clanged to the floor.
"Sorry. Let me kiss it and make it better." I shoved his leather blazer off his shoulders. What I really wanted was to rip off his shirt and lick the Celtic tattoo banded around his bicep. That tattoo drove me wild. Only I couldn't get to the tattoo because his jacket snagged at his elbows. "I guess I should've waited until we stripped and then jumped you."
"Do you really want to get naked in a room full of cleaning products, Sunshine?"
"Good point." My luck, I'd topple into a bin of toxic rags and break out in hives. I wiggled against his arousal.
"Maybe just half-naked."
"You're killing me, yeah?" He whirled and pinned me against the wall, kissing me into a stupor. He was good at thatkissing me stupid. I willed my knees not to buckle as he worked the buttons of my peacoat. I fumbled with his belt buckle. His fingers skimmed beneath my long-sleeved T-shirt and expertly unclasped my lacy bra. I moaned my approval even as my mom chastised from afar, Are you crazy?
Mom and I didn't see eye to eye on a lot, but I had to agree. Fooling around in a popular museum wasn't the brightest idea. Then again, I was in idiot mode. I reached into Arch's briefs and palmed JTbig, hard and ready to rock me.
Arch caressed my breasts and whispered sexy expletives in my ear as I stroked his admirable length. Scottish accent plus dirty talk equals me squirming and begging. "Touch me." Crazy talk. What if someone walked in? Even as that thought crossed my lust-soaked brain, I shoved his pants down over his hips, gasping as he sucked my earlobe and unzipped my pants. I almost came undone the moment his fingers dipped into my panties. I groaned, anxious and disappointed when his hand stilledclimax interruptus. "Why"
"We've got company, love."