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By ALISON KENT
Copyright © 2008
All right reserved.
Chapter One "Tell me what you're hoping to find, and I'll tell you everything that I know."
Finn McLain lowered his digital Rebel with telephoto lens and glanced at the woman who'd joined him at the bistro's very small table for two-the table where he'd been working his coffee more than his camera since setting up shop at nine.
She was hot, Miami hot, Latina hot, hot like chilies beneath the Florida sun. Exotic. That was the word. No. Sizzle. She sizzled. Was sizzling. Water droplets on an iron skillet. Empanadas scorching his tongue.
He set the camera on the scrollwork tabletop, stretched out his legs, and wishing for a glass of water, laced his hands low on his belly. Outwardly, he was cool, a pro. He knew his business.
It was his insides that were scrambling to figure out how badly he'd fucked up. If she'd pegged him as more than a tourist, how great was the chance that he'd also been made by his mark?
His dark lenses hiding anything she might see in his eyes, he finally came back with, "Guess you won't buy it if I say I'm just taking in the sights?"
She shook her head, her hair color a mix of brown sugar and honey. "You want to sell me on anything, sweetheart, you'll have to do a better job than that."
"What gave me away?" he asked, still not admitting to any particulars.
She settled into the chair, which looked like it was fashioned from licorice strings, crossing her legs and revealing a whole lot of thigh where her skirt fell open at the side. And not just thigh, he quickly came to realize, just as quickly tugging his gaze from all that bare skin back to her face.
"This is the second time this week I've seen you and your phallic equipment in front of my store," she said.
"You don't say."
She inclined her head, indicating the designer boutique across the way. "Either you're a competitor looking to see what's selling, or you're keeping tabs on someone who frequents the area." The area being a ritzy and exclusive shopping spot near Miami Beach. "Which is it?"
He reached up, pushed his sunglasses a half inch down his nose, glanced over, and winked. "I just like taking pretty pictures."
She narrowed her eyes, her long dark lashes as thick as the bristles on an artist's brush. "More like you don't surveil and tell."
He shrugged lazily. He wasn't one to commit. "You mentioned telling me everything you know. Whenever you're ready ... I'm all ears."
She looked across the street, where cars no longer drove, where trees now grew in beds lush with shrubs and tropical flowers, her mouth twisted up as if she wasn't sure she wanted to say anything at all.
He studied her while her attention was elsewhere, certain she knew exactly what he was doing, while not the least bit bothered by the invasion of her privacy.
It was ten a.m. It was early October. Meaning it wasn't hot enough or far enough into the day for her to look as disheveled as she did.
She'd said the store across the street, Splash & Flambé, was hers, and that led him to believe that she had an intentional reason for looking like she'd just tumbled out of bed, her caramel hair swirling this way and that where it fell free from the clip holding it.
She leaned forward, then propped an elbow on the table's edge and rested her chin in her hand as she met his gaze, daring his to keep from drifting into her cleavage.
But he was a guy, and it was there in the deep V of her neckline, where the lapels of her jacket gaped over her blouse, and he wasn't going to pretend otherwise.
He managed not to swallow his tongue and didn't even bite it when she used the tip of one slender finger to stroke his big lens.
"What would it cost to hire you?" she asked, and he started to tell her she could have him for the price of a postcoital cigarette.
But he didn't smoke, and because he still wasn't sure if she knew he was a PI and wasn't spying for a competitor, he asked, "Hire me for what?"
She inclined her head, her long gold earrings dangling against her neck. "You do this professionally?"
He nodded, still avoiding commitment.
"I need to have some portraits done."
"Cute," she said, with a smirk. "I don't want a random photographer. I want you."
She thought he was a photographer ... or was this some sneaky female test to trap him into admitting otherwise? "You don't know me. You haven't seen my work. You're picking me up on the street. How is that not random?"
"I've seen you. You've seen me."
Oh yeah. Understatement.
"I'd say that qualifies as the start of a beautiful friendship."
He sat straighter, cupped his hands around the metal seat, and lifted the chair, turning it so he could better face her. The legs scraped against the concrete of the sidewalk as he sat, scraped again as he scooted closer, conducting a sneaky-man test of his own.
"Is that what we're doing here? Becoming friends? You, me, and my camera?" Something was going on here. He needed to know what the mystery was.
She uncrossed her legs, then crossed them the other direction, her foot swinging in the space between his calves, her skirt leaving nothing to the imagination where the side slit opened. Her thigh was bare long past the spot where it became her hip, and her skin was bronzed and sleek.
"I have a friend," she began, back to toying with his lens, her nails long and painted with a coat of clear shine. "He owns an art gallery. He's been after me for awhile to hire a photographer before he hires one for me."
Like he'd thought. A mystery. "Why haven't you let him? Save yourself the cost and the hassle."
"True," she said, her head still inclined, her fingers now fondling the charms on her earring. "It's just the nature of the pictures he wants. The nature of his gallery. I don't do what I do for just anyone, and so only the right photographer will work."
His antennae twitched. He wasn't sure this was anything he wanted to know. But he had to ask. "What do you do?"
She cut her eyes to his. "I let people look."
Uh, whoa. Just whoa. Finn found his head nodding, like he couldn't keep it still with that picture bouncing around inside.
She let people look.
The next question should probably have been, "At what?" But the way she'd said it, he didn't need to ask.
The wind whipped down the street, rattling palm fronds overhead and sending litter racing, blowing dust up in clouds, which settled to coat the plants that grew thick in the median edging the sidewalks.
Finn had long ago drained his coffee, but he reached for the huge latte mug, anyway, to have something to do with his hands. He could honestly say he'd never in his life been involved in such a bizarre conversation with someone he didn't even know.
Yes, he had taken on a lot of strange cases. A man wanting to know if a neighbor was the one dumping coffee grounds into his mailbox. A woman hoping to find the culprit responsible for the puddles of urine left on the trunk of her car when she went clubbing on Saturday nights. And then there was the bulk of his business, suspected cheaters, and all the resulting-and truly freaky-human behavior.
But a woman who let people look wanting pictures of what she did?
"And you think I'm the right photographer?" Never mind that he wasn't a photographer at all.
He waited.... "That's all I'm going to get?"
"For now? I think so." She reached into the small purse on her lap and handed him a business card. "Tomorrow night. Drinks are on me. I'll give you the rest then."
He took the card, a slick colored number as flashy as the logo of Splash & Flambé. Olivia Hammond.
He didn't tell Olivia Hammond that he didn't live in Miami, that he was only here for a few days, that he didn't have anything with him but blue jeans.
His client had called his Key Largo office and hired him over the phone-something about keeping a low profile and his name out of the news. Surveilling was Finn's business. Lovers' quarrels paid his bills.
"Where?" was what he finally asked.
"Call me," she answered, unfolding her long body from the chair, tossing over her shoulder as she turned, "I'll tell you then."
Finn collapsed against the back of his chair and watched her cross the street through a cut in the thick shrubbery, the panels of her skirt whipping in the wind and revealing the crease beneath the cheeks of her ass.
He continued to watch until she pulled open the boutique's front door and disappeared inside. Then he dropped his head to his chest and scrubbed his hands over his face.
What the hell had just happened?
Before he could begin to figure it out or do more than lean forward again, the boutique's door swung outward, and one of the two managers flounced through.
Finn grabbed up his camera, turned the brim of his Marlins baseball cap to the rear, and got to his feet. He dug into his pocket, came up with a crumpled ten, stuffed it beneath the edge of his mug, and followed his mark.
The man's name was Roland Green, and he managed the Flambé half of the store-the half that catered to men with a penchant for clothes that Finn couldn't see himself wearing to his own funeral, though their fashion statement played just fine in South Beach, where his client was from.
The case wasn't one of suspected philandering by a romantic partner or love interest. Finn got the feeling his client didn't know Green well at all-and that was the situation the man wanted to remedy.
Unable to get Green to give up so much as his favorite flavor of martini, he'd hired Finn to find out if the manager of Flambé was hiding a relationship, having wasted enough of his time uselessly mooning and not wanting the cracks in his heart to deepen into irreparable breaks.
His client's words. Finn swore.
He also swore when Green ducked into a bookstore and coffee shop farther down the street, leaving him no choice but to walk on by or risk being made ... if he hadn't been made already.
Green could've cut through the shop on purpose, knowing full well that Finn following him inside would be the equivalent of letting a bull loose in a china shop. Hard if that happened to deny he had the African American under surveillance.
If Olivia Hammond hadn't pegged him so easily, he wouldn't be suspicious of Green's movements. Finn wasn't careless as a rule. In his profession, he couldn't afford to be anything but vigilant.
True, this particular case didn't hold a lot of appeal, but a paycheck was a paycheck, a client a client, and Finn's beach house wasn't going to up and finish itself. He needed the work.
Since moving to Florida from Texas almost three years ago, he'd been gaining a reputation throughout the Keys. He supposed the hot and sunny clime, combined with the tropical drinks and oiled-down, half-naked bodies, made temptation a lot harder to resist, which in turn kept his PI firm hopping.
He had done a couple of surveillance jobs for his sister Georgia's man, Harry van Zandt, who worked for an organization Finn had enough experience with to know he was better off not having more. But for the most part, his cases were pretty straightforward.
Nothing like taking photographs of a woman who let people look.
Deciding to call off his work on the Green case for the day, Finn crossed the street and did his best to blend in with the growing crowd of shoppers and tourist types. The trip to his Jeep took him past the bistro where he'd talked to Olivia Hammond earlier.
He stopped and glanced again at Splash & Flambé and what he was pretty sure was her office space on the floor above. He'd seen movement there previously, though he hadn't paid much attention, since the subject of his investigation worked downstairs.
Then he lifted his gaze, studying the single window above the bistro's green-and-white-striped awning. It directly faced those above the boutique. If Olivia Hammond let people look, it wouldn't hurt to check out exactly what the view from upstairs offered.
Before he called her to see about meeting tomorrow night-because there was no question that he was going to do both-it might be interesting to see for himself if she kept the blinds in her office drawn.
And if not, what she did behind closed doors, knowing she might have an audience watching her every move.
Chapter Two DEA agent Roman Greyle had been living undercover as Roland Green now for close to twelve months. He had no problem with the role he'd taken on for the duration of Operation Bebé Bust.
Assuming an identity so far removed from his own was no big deal. This was what he did. What he'd been doing for six years out of his ten with the agency.
But if he wasn't careful, as in eyes in the back, top, and bottom of his head careful, he was going to blow a yearlong investment of highly trained talent and government resources because of a distraction with ash-blond hair, long, limber legs, and infallible gaydar.
Jodi Fontaine had pegged him as straight the first time they'd met. She'd come into Flambé a month ago with her boss, Dustin Parks.
The gallery owner was a good friend and customer of Livia's. She refused to offer any items for sale in the boutique without first passing them under his critical eye-or so the story went.
The way Roman saw things, Livia's "friend" wasn't as concerned with the success of her business as he was with being the first in South Beach to wear her designer finds.
Still, he seemed a nice enough guy, a little too nice to Roland at times, and it wasn't Roman's business how Ms. Hammond conducted hers-except that her having Dustin vet her new stock had brought Jodi into his crosshairs and put him in hers.
That fateful day, while Parks and Livia had checked out and chewed over a bounty of just arrived pieces, Roman-as Roland-had hovered and flitted and acted the fool.
He hadn't paid much attention to Jodi, but his acting chops had not gone unnoticed by her. She'd pulled him aside to give Livia and Dustin their space.
Since Roman didn't give a true shit about the designers, the clothes, or customer service, his Roland persona had protested only enough to make it look good, then left with the younger woman and Livia's blessing.
He'd thought he could grill Dustin's assistant on what she might know about Tomás Bebé, who-unbeknownst to the rest of the store's employees-delivered more than special orders to the boutique's back door.
Once Jodi had manhandled Roland out of the boutique and down the block to the bookstore, she ordered them both vanilla lattes and cornered his ass on one of the sofas.
And then she'd told him to give up the gay, because Paris Hilton was a better actor than he would ever be-and because Jodi worked in an art gallery with an 80 percent gay clientele and knew without a doubt that her carnal knowledge of men could wax the floor with his.
He'd tried not to laugh but had ended up spitting hot, foamy milk all over her lap. The easiest thing to do then would've been to unload the truth, haul her up to straddle his thighs, and expand her carnal knowledge database.
But his act had convinced the people he most needed to be convinced for twelve months, and so he'd feigned distress, grabbed a stack of napkins, and blotted at the mess.
She'd been wearing straight-legged black pants that revealed little of her shape, but when she'd parted her thighs to give him access to the spill, it had taken a chunk out of his big, bad control not to stroke her there, between her legs, and watch her blue eyes catch fire.
She'd known it, had been unable to hide the thrill of outing him, even though he hadn't admitted a thing. That moment had been when their battle of wills had begun, and goddamn, if it hadn't turned into an all-out war.
Now he jumped when she called, because that was in Roland Green's nature, but it was Roman Greyle waiting for the end of this operation so he could take the leggy blond distraction to bed.
He found her in the bookstore's low-traffic history section. She sat curled into the corner of a cushy two-seat sectional, a book opened on her lap, her very ample cleavage showing in her neckline's low V.
She'd figured fairly early that he was a breast man, and Roland or not, he'd had a hell of a time keeping his eyes off her spectacular rack.
He breathed deeply of paper and ink and fresh brewed coffee, and as he sat, he also breathed deeply of her. She always smelled like sunshine, a day on the beach. He thought of fucking her beneath a cloudless blue sky, in the rain, with stars reflected in her eyes.
Excerpted from Maximum Exposure by ALISON KENT Copyright © 2008 by Alison Kent. Excerpted by permission.
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