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Mariska Stonegate waited in the tropical paradise known as the Aqua Bar at the Four Seasons Hotel in Bangkok. The tranquil setting was in crazy contrast to the anticipation that zinged through her body.
Less than three hours ago she'd received a case file on a missing man. Desmond Gladstone, a husband and father of a toddler, had traveled to Bangkok on business three days ago. His wife hadn't heard from him since the day after he landed. At the wife's insistence, the hotel finally checked the room. Except for his bag of clothes and toiletries it was empty. The maid said no one had slept in the bed since the guest had checked in. That's when the wife panicked.
The Thai police weren't as helpful as Mrs. Gladstone would have liked. Since there was no sign of distress in his room, they believed he had wanted to disappear, or that he was having an affair. Mariska's company, Stonegate Investigative Agency, had been hired by the man's wife to find out what happened.
The case had not been a part of Mariska's vacation plans. She'd landed in Bangkok earlier in the day ready to shop for a few days, and then she would head to Phuket Beach for a long vacation.
That's what I get for turning on my phone.
Unfortunately, she had hit the on button, and now she had a case to solve before she could run away to the place of sun-kissed skin and mai tais.
It had been a tough year, and she craved time away from home, and the well-meaning friends who were constantly in her business. Her life wasn't going according to plan, not that she really had one. But she was fairly certain she hadn't spent all those years in school to work in a job where she felt like she was barely keeping her head above water.
She couldn't even go on vacation without work interfering.
Closing her eyes, she pushed the negative thoughts from her brain.
This case is a minor bump on my road to fun.
At least the gang at SIA had hired a local private detective in Bangkok to get some of the legwork done before she arrived.
Mr. Thomas had discovered Gladstone cleared customs, checked into the hotel and then disappeared. That was a start at least. The one thing that bugged her about the mistress theory was if he was in the middle of a tryst—why not stay at the Four Seasons? Room service, six-hundred-thread-count sheets, it was hard to pass up.
A call to his workplace had revealed Mr. Gladstone was on a two-week vacation and they didn't expect him back until the end of the month. Mr. G had lied to his wife.
In Mariska's handbook that made him the winner of the Most Likely to be a Scumbag award.
Soft classical guitar music played and there was a hint of jasmine in the air. She'd never been in such a relaxing bar, and wished that her surroundings would help calm her anxiety about the case. Sipping her San Pellegrino and lime, she turned on her bar stool so she had a better view of the entry.
That's when she saw Matt Damon in a beige linen suit perfectly tailored to his body. Mariska touched her chin to keep her jaw from dropping. He commanded the room as he stepped in.
Oh, my God. No way.
Unable to peel her eyes away, it took a second for her to see that it was apparently Matt's doppelgänger. The eyes were a different color and this guy was taller, broader in the shoulders. And this guy had an air of danger. Not the scary serial killer kind, more a bad boy searching for his next heartbreak. The confidence of the man was nothing short of impressive.
Oh, baby, you can break my heart any day.
His almost perfect face had been marred with a pink scar on his lip. The small imperfection sent Mariska's curious mind into hyperdrive. Had he been protecting someone? Was he one of those guys who worked in fight clubs for a living? Muay Thai fighters were a dime a dozen in Bangkok. More than anything she itched to run her thumb across the spot and kiss it. Her pelvis tightened and her breath caught on the thought of touching him.
Turning his cerulean eyes toward her, he smiled.
Holy crap. She gave a tiny gasp. He was panty-melting hot. It had been too long since she'd spent time with a man like him. Damn if she didn't want to whisk him up to her hotel room right that minute. The idea of plastering herself against his frame made her squirm on the bar stool.
Can you say stalker? You're here for business, Mar. Get a grip.
She chewed on her lip. Maybe if she could settle the case fast.
Before the solitude of the beach, I could get into some serious trouble with that guy.
She tore her eyes away and concentrated on her glass of sparkling water.
When he sat down beside her, she almost choked. Coughing, she turned to look at him.
"I'm sorry I'm late," he apologized. "I hope you weren't waiting long."
I've been waiting all my life. Mariska cocked her head as if she couldn't believe it. "Mr. Thomas?"
He watched her briefly and then smiled. "Yes." He stuck out his hand. "Were you expecting someone else?"
The warmth of him sent a thrill of anticipation through her as she put her hand in his. "No, sorry, I was distracted." By your awesome hotness. "I'm Mariska Stonegate. Thank you for meeting me."
"It's no problem, and it's lovely to meet you." His eyes held hers as if he had nothing better to do than gaze at her.
After a long silence, she realized she'd been staring. Reluctantly taking her hand from his, she sat up a little straighter. "I'm sorry, you weren't what I was expecting."
Something flickered in his eyes. "What do you mean?"
Embarrassed she'd actually said the words out loud, she waved a hand as if to whisk the thoughts away. "It doesn't matter. Have you found out any more information? I read your report about Mr. Gladstone not sleeping in his bed and that his luggage was still in his room. He'd called his wife earlier that day when he landed and told her he was fine, so I'm not sure what to think—"
The bartender walked up to ask what he wanted to drink. Mr. Thomas ordered the same thing as Mariska and his attention moved back to her. "You were saying?"
"That I had the information you'd e-mailed earlier. May I ask your opinion? What do you think happened to Mr. Gladstone? Has he run off with a mistress or do you suspect foul play. The police weren't very forthcoming when I asked if there might have been other businessmen who have gone missing."
Nodding, he leaned forward. "It happens in this country more often than anyone will admit. That's why it's always good to travel with a companion. It's an amazing city, but strange things happen here all the time. People disappear, never to be found again."
"Hmm. My mind was set on a different direction where Gladstone was concerned." Mariska wasn't sure how to broach the next question, but they were both professionals so she decided to lay it out there. "I'm wondering if—you know, a lonely businessman traveling to an exotic locale—if he…" She could feel her cheeks turn pink. She was far from a prude, but this subject was tough to talk about with a complete stranger.
"If perhaps he took in a bit of the local color? Visiting one of the many establishments where a man such as himself could possibly relieve some stress," he said, picking up her train of thought.
She laughed at that. "I'm not sure I could have put it so delicately, but yes, that's what I'm asking."
He glanced over her shoulder. "I see my associate. Please excuse me. I'll be right back."
Mariska didn't want to spy, but she couldn't help watching as he prowled across the bar. There was something about the way his body moved like a big cat stalking prey. At the entryway he spoke with a white-haired Asian gentleman wearing a panama hat and holding a file folder. Mr. Thomas handed the man some bills, and the older gentleman gave him the folder.
The bartender delivered the drink and she paid for it. As Thomas approached her again, he read through the file. Sitting down without glancing up from the paperwork.
That must be some interesting reading. "Your drink is here." She pointed to the glass when he sat down.
"Thanks," he said, without looking up from the file. "My associate brought me some news about our Mr. Gladstone." He frowned as he glanced up at her. "It's as I suspected. Mr. Gladstone asked the bellman to recommend a good place for a sauna and massage."
"Is that such a bad thing? After an eighteen-hour flight it sounds like a great idea to me." As soon as she said the words she regretted them. "Oh, a massage."
"Exactly." Mr. Thomas's right eyebrow rose.
Embarrassed didn't begin to describe how she felt. She really did need to pay better attention. The last thing she wanted was to make a fool of herself in front of this guy. "Sorry, I'm a little slow today. Couldn't sleep on the plane. So, do we have a location?"
"The bellman gave him several options, but had no idea which one Mr. Gladstone chose."
Mar pursed her lips. "Hmm. Well, I guess I'd better check them all. At least I have a lead now. I should get started."
He looked at her as if she had jumped off the crazy train. "I don't think it's a good idea for you to go off on your own."
"Do you have a problem with that?" She'd run across her share of chauvinistic males. It happened a lot in the investigative business, but she was disappointed that Mr. Thomas didn't think she could do the job. His hunk factor went down at least a third. She didn't care how big his muscles were, or that her fingers had an urge to run through his hair.
He held up his hands in surrender. "No, not at all. I know for a fact women are as capable as men, many times more so. I also know your mostly female agency has a highly successful closed-case ratio." At her surprised look he explained. "I do my homework, Ms. Stonegate. I had to make sure you were a legitimate organization before agreeing to help with your case.
"What I meant was that you shouldn't go to these places alone. I'm sure you can handle yourself, but as I mentioned before, it's best to have a companion while traveling in Bangkok if at all possible. I'll escort you, no additional fee required."
Mariska was once again embarrassed for jumping to a conclusion. "That's generous of you, but I'd feel more comfortable compensating you for your time." She sounded so calm and professional. Inside she was jumping up and down like a teenager who'd met her favorite heartthrob.
It's going to be such a drag having to spend a few more hours with the hottest guy I've met in a really long time.
She almost laughed out loud. When this case was over she did need a good long break. And sex. She needed a lot of sex. Maybe then she wouldn't want to jump the first cute guy to come along.
He checked his watch. "It will be a few more hours before the bars and massage parlors open. Is there something you'd like to do until then?"
Mariska's mind went straight to a naughty place and she had to make herself not glance down at his groin.
She leaned toward him. "Yes, as a matter of fact, I'd like to go to bed."
Jackson couldn't believe his luck. Mariska Stonegate landing in his lap was a gift. That they'd both ended up in the same hotel bar looking for information was nothing short of divine intervention. He'd have to thank the universe the first chance he had. Of course right then he had to concentrate on keeping his pants from tenting.
He knew what she meant by the "bed" comment. She'd arrived in Thailand after an eighteen-hour flight, but parts of his body weren't as understanding as his brain. Shifting in his seat, he imagined a nice cold shower.
It wasn't easy, since Mariska Stonegate was beyond enticing. Long legs poked out of a flowered skirt, and he'd even noticed her dark red toenails. Curves in all the right places and her eyes—he'd never seen a shade of green so light they were almost translucent. Her curly hair had been pulled back in a haphazard ponytail, giving her the look of a college coed on summer break.
Jackson knew better. She was intelligent and obviously damn good at what she did. Even in his business he was aware of SIA. They worked in every part of the world. Then there was the fact that her mother, Janice Stonegate, was a legendary operative. That last name had been his first clue that Mariska was someone who could help. He wondered if she even knew her mother had ever been in the CIA, before quitting to open up her own security and investigative firm.
People in his business knew about Janice, because she was one of the few international operatives to transition into civilian life successfully. She'd been killed in a plane crash last year, and many wondered if, after thirty years away, her past had finally caught up with her.
Jackson couldn't believe his luck in running into her daughter. When he'd walked into the bar he'd been looking for an ally. Dawson, his handler, said he was sending a friend. Dawson had a history of using women to convey messages, and she was the only one there. When he heard her last name, he knew he'd hit the mark.
She might not even know that she was the "friend," but she would have resources, something Jackson was seriously low on at the moment.
She seemed like a genuinely nice woman. It was unfortunate he had to pull her into his plan, but he had no choice. If it made Jackson a lying bastard, so be it.
For once, luck certainly seemed to be on his side. When he discovered Mr. Thomas was a private investigator, Jackson had slipped right into the role. Mariska was an asset in his world, and he needed her more than she could ever imagine.