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A detail-oriented, Type A personality, Marnie Wain-wright took all necessary precautions. So she checked and double-checked the lock on the street-level door to her business. She closed all the blinds. She flipped the sign on Lose Yourself from Open to Closed.
Only then, in the privacy of the small storefront where she'd converted the back offices into a living space, did she pump her fist in victory and break out her best Michael Jackson move.
"Yesss!" She shouted her triumph, letting down her hair with one hand and switching the satellite radio tuner to dance grooves with the other.
Two months of hard work at Lose Yourself had paid off with her biggest profit yet now that she'd booked an African safari followed up by a beach getaway to Seychelles for a wealthy local couple. Two months of nonstop trolling for clients. Sixty-one days of researching unique trip ideas to appeal to an increasingly competitive travel market full of selective buyers who could easily book online. But her idea to pitch one-of-a-kind fantasy escapes was working.
"How do you like me now?" She sang a tune of her own making, rump-shaking her way into the back to retrieve a bottle of champagne she'd been saving from the days when her paycheck had been fat and the perks of working in promotions for a luxury global resort conglomerate, Premiere Properties, had been numerous.
She hadn't salvaged much financially from that time, thanks to the bad investments she'd foolishly let her financial adviser boyfriend oversee. Little did she know then that he'd been even more clueless than he'd been charming, losing her hard-earned money almost as soon as she'd entrusted it to him. She'd been royally ticked off about that, but that had only been the prelude to him dumping her. On Facebook, no less. Apparently he hadn't been interested in her once she lost her cushy benefits at Premiere. At least she understood Alec's reasons. She never had figured out why Premiere had let her go or how her department had been losing as much money as her boss had claimed. But while getting laid off had hurt, it hadn't broken her.
Tonight's sale proved as much. She'd taken her travel smarts from all those years crisscrossing the globe for Premiere and used them to match up adventure seekers with just the right unique escape to suit them, whether that meant a spa trip to Bali or backpacking around the Indus Valley. The inspiration for Lose Yourself had come from her need to do just that. Since she hadn't been able to take a vacation from her own problems, she enjoyed helping other people to do so.
Ditching her suit in a celebratory striptease for the benefit of a life-size cutout of a Hawaiian guy offering a lei to her, she tugged on a long black silk robe for her private after-party. The Hawaiian dude had been a promotional item from a hotel and not quite in keeping with the upscale, personalized appeal of Lose Yourself. But he was cute company in the copier room that doubled as a galley kitchen until she got on her feet enough to afford a real house again.
"Cheers to me!" She raised the proverbial roof with one hand while she twisted off the wire restraint from the champagne cork with the other.
The happy sound of that cork flying across the room pleased her as much as the taste of the bubbly would. It had been so long since she'd had reason to celebrate anything. About the only other victory that came close was curing herself of the need to throw darts at the ex-boyfriend who'd helped her lose a job and her savings. She used to regularly wing a silver-tipped missile at a photograph taped to the dartboard she kept on an office wall, but she'd torched that picture a month ago in an effort to take ownership of her mistakes.
She'd almost taken a cute guy's head off with one of those darts a couple of months ago, she recalled. Handsome contractor Jake Brennan had been handcrafting a display case for her storefront and had unwittingly opened a door into one of her tiny arrows. It hadn't been her finest moment. Although Jake Brennan himself had been very fine indeed. Memories of his strong arms coated with a light sheen of sweat and sawdust as he'd sculpted the wood into shape had returned to her often ever since.
Pouring the top-shelf champagne into substandard stemware, Marnie lifted one side of her robe like a cha-cha girl before testing out a high kick. A little champagne sloshed out of the cheap glass, but the bubbles felt like an electric kiss sliding down her arm as she lifted the glass in a toast.
No doubt it had been thoughts of Jake Brennan that had her thinking of electric kisses.
"To me!" she cheered, then took a drink.
Rinnng! A call on her cell phone interrupted her celebration and she scrambled to grab it just in case it was a potential client. Seeing her former colleague's name on caller ID didn't mean it was a casual call. She'd been pitching her fantasy adventures to all her overworked, overstressed friends these past two months.
"Hello, Sarah." Marnie turned the music down just enough to hear her friend on the other end of the phone.
"Hi, Marnie." Sarah Anders's voice was low, her tone oddly serious next to Marnie's good mood. "Have a minute? "
"Sure." Marnie sashayed her way toward the display case the sexy contractor had built, still dancing as she savored the taste of her drink on her tongue. "I'm just having a little toast to rich world travelers who aren't afraid to take a chance on a new business."
"You made another sale?" Sarah asked.
"An African safari. Not exactly the most original trip, but it's long and involved and will keep me in business well into the New Year. Between that and a little holiday escape I booked for a couple who wanted to check out an ice hotel in Quebec City, I've had my best week yet."
"That's great." Sarah's voice didn't match the words.
"What's wrong?" Feeling the groove vibrate the floor through her bare feet, Marnie set her glass on one of the shelves of the bookcase.
"I just wondered if you'd heard any rumors about misappropriation of funds or big losses at Premiere Properties before you left."
"Embezzlement?" Marnie told herself she shouldn't care what happened over at Premiere Properties after she'd been terminated six months ago for bogus reasons. Her boss, Vince Galway, had told her some b.s. about cutting back on promotions, but the company spent money hand over fist to promote its luxury resorts. Still, she had to admit she was curious. "What makes you think that?"
"Nothing concrete." Sarah sighed, a world of stress in one eloquent huff of air over the mouthpiece. "But there's been a guy asking questions this week. He's been discreet enough, saying he's part of some forensic accounting team that Vince hired to double-check the books, but I think something's up."
For the first time in six months, Marnie almost felt lucky to have lost the job she loved at Premiere. Her business was taking off, and she didn't have any worries about corporate scams or office politics.
"I'll keep an ear out since I still do business with a lot of Premiere's hotels." In fact, Marnie had sent more than one client to the properties she used to promote. Although she didn't think it had been fair that she'd been axed with no warning, she still recognized Premiere ran first-class resorts.
"Thanks, Marnie. I'd appreciate any word."
Disconnecting the call, Marnie cranked the tunes back up, ready to get back into celebrating her successes. She'd dealt with enough crap these past six months to know that she damn well needed to toast the good stuff when it came along since life didn't give you happy days like this all that often.
Standing in front of the custom-made bookcase that displayed miniature buildings, crafts and other souvenirs from destinations all over the world, she placed her palms where Jake Brennan's broad hands had once been and ran her fingertips over a smooth edge. He'd done a beautiful job on the piece and he'd done it for a song, all things considered. She'd really needed that financial break since she'd been trying to get the doors open for her business on a budget.
Between the memories of the man, the champagne and the swish of silk around her bare legs, she experienced a rush of longing. Jake had been big-time attractive. Too bad she hadn't been in a better place emotionally when they'd met or she might have invited him to stick around after the job was done. Maybe asked him out for a drink.
Orin her wilder fantasiessimply peeled off all her clothes and plastered herself to that gorgeous body of his.
Walking her fingers across a shelf, Marnie blew a kiss to a model of the Egyptian sphinx on one side of the case and winked at a tiny replica of Michelangelo's David. She had to freshen her flirting skills sometime, didn't she? One day, she'd get back out in the dating world again.
Retrieving her champagne glass, she knocked over an iron Statue of Liberty nearby. As she moved to straighten it, she noticed a smear on the back of the casea dark spot that didn't belong. Unwilling to suffer a smudge in an otherwise perfect display, she reached past the travel guides and mementos meant to entice her clients.
But the spot felt smooth as glassdifferent than the rest of the wooden cabinet.
"That's odd." Shoving aside a few more famous buildings for a better look, Marnie peered into a small circle of smoky glass.
Her champagne flute fell from her fingers and shattered on the floor. The electric thrill pulsing through her over her good payday fizzled to nothing, even though the bass from an old club tune still pumped through the speakers.
Because at the center of that smoky glass rested a tiny camera lens. Someone had been watching her.
And given the way the gadgetry had been so perfectly incorporated into her custom-built cabinet, she only had one guess as to who that might be. After what she'd gone through with her ex-boyfriend, the next guy who crossed her would be wise to run for cover.
And right now, it looked like that man was none other than her sexy contractor.
Music pulsed from inside the Lose Yourself storefront facade until it sounded more like a raucous bar than a ritzy travel agency specializing in exotic adventures. If Jake Brennan hadn't known Marnie so well, he might have turned around and come back another day, thinking she had company.
But weeks' worth of video surveillance on her fledgling business had not only taken her off his primary suspect list in a major white-collar crime. It had also taught Jake that Marnie liked to dance. And damn, but her shimmy-shake routine while stripping off her jacket and blouse hadn't disappointed.
He would have closed his eyes if she'd ditched more than that. Honestly, he would have. But he'd wanted to be sure she was alone before he went to the door. Could he help it if she had a habit of peeling off work clothes in favor of a silk lounging robe the second she shut her door for the day?
Rapping on the door through the hole in the middle of a fat green holiday wreath, he grinned at the memory of old surveillance footage and the brief, two-minute snippet he'd allowed himself back in the carjust enough to see her whip off the clothes and grab the champagne. He'd made sure to only point the cameras toward her work space for legal reasons, even though she'd had plans to live in the back offices. That had eased his conscience somewhat since he hated the idea of spying on anyone who was innocentespecially in their most private moments. But at the time he'd installed the camera he now sought to remove, Jake had very good reason to think she was anything but innocent.
Inside Lose Yourself, the volume of the music decreased. The quiet of the business district on a Friday night surrounded him and he couldn't help a rush of anticipation at seeing Marnie now that he'd all but cleared her.
"Who is it?" came her voice, sweetly familiar to him after scanning hours of video for evidence in his case.
Yes, he'd gotten to know Marnie Wainwright so damn well that just hearing her voice had him salivating like Pavlov's dog. And that happened even though he'd forced himself to shut off the video feed on those few occasions where she'd started to strip off a little more than a stranger had the right to see.
"It's Jake Brennan," he called through the door. "I did some work on your office a couple of months ago and I think I might have left one of my tools behind."
He knew she'd remember him from his brief stint working there. He'd given her a steal on his labor, mostly because his work was entirely self-serving.
Plus, she'd eyeballed him enough that day to make him think she hadn't been oblivious to his presence in her office. If it hadn't been for his suspicions of her back then, he would have asked her out.
Now that he was going to retrieve the surveillance equipment and declare this part of his case finished, Jake looked forward to seeing her again without his work as a barrier.
Inside, he could hear her slide a dead bolt and flip one other lock open. He could picture it perfectly since he knew the inside of that office like the back of his hand from watching Marnie run her business day in and day out. Other than the brief view he'd allowed himself in the car, however, he hadn't reviewed any tapes in a while. Not since his case had led him in another direction.
Slowly, the door creaked open.
A whisper of black silk fluttered through the crack. She'd left the final latch on the doora long hook like the kind used on hotel roomsso she could see into the street without leaving herself vulnerable.
Recognizing the black silk as the calf-length, sexy number she liked to wear around the place before bed, he swallowed hard, knowing damn well she wasn't wearing much else.
"Sorry to bother you so late"
The expression on her face froze him in his shoes. Pursed lips, a clamped-tight jaw and gray eyes staring daggers at him all suggested he'd interrupted something. Had she been arguing with someone on the phone? Protective instincts flared to life.
"Is everything okay in there?" He stepped closer, trying to look past her into the familiar office interior that he'd seen often enough on his surveillance tapes. Framed prints of the Egyptian pyramids hung next to a map of London highlighting historic pubs.