Conning For Keeps (An Agents of TRAIT Novella) by Seleste deLaney
Secret Agent Marissa Jones has a gift. A con artist to the core, after deep hypnosis she can turn into someone else entirely. Marisa's gift has gotten her into hot water over the years, but now more so than ever. With her smoking hot partner by her side, she needs to convince him that not only is she her true self, but also that she can be trusted—even in spite of her past.
…or traitors to the cause?
Trevor Harris has his own issues with the mission, he's got revenge to seek, a cursed painting to secure, and Marissa's sugary-sweet alter-ego to ignore. But when he releases Marisa from her mental cage and things get a little too hot, he ends up finding out what falling for a con artist really means—bigger trouble than ever before.
About the Author
Early on, Seleste deLaney discovered the trick to not fearing the monsters under the bed was to turn them into heroes. Since then, she's seen enough human monsters that she prefers to escape to fictional worlds where even demons must play by the rules and good guys might end up battered and bruised (or dead), but they always win.
Living to southeast Michigan with her kids and a pair of fierce slobber-monsters of her own, she is hard at work on her next book. During rare moments when not battling terrorists, vampires, or rogue clockworks, she loves to interact with readers.
Read an Excerpt
Conning for Keeps
By Seleste Delaney, Allison Blisard
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2014 Seleste deLaney
All rights reserved.
Chain of Fools
When all the threads of life are inexplicably wound around a single spool, there are very few choices in how to respond.
Marissa Joens chose denial.
She nodded, making sure every detail from her careful smile, to her posture, to the words she chose exuded enthusiasm. She even flipped her newly brunette locks over her shoulder because having too much of it forward would shadow her face and made her appear nervous, like she had something to hide.
To the outside world, she'd seem perfectly calm and carefree. The young agent ready to take on any challenge. It was the perfect mask, one she wore almost every day. "Greta and I have worked all the details into the profile. I can't wait to get started."
Josh Marron narrowed his eyes at her, their usual chocolate brown darkening to the kind of glare normally reserved for criminals on the witness stand. She refused to wither. He knew her too well — since she was fifteen and angry at the world. That was when he'd taken her under his wing and taught her how to channel her rage into more useful emotions. No one had ever pushed or trusted her like Josh had. It had been enough to make her believe in herself, which was the only reason she was standing here now, trying not to let him see into her soul.
She focused at a spot slightly past him, picturing all the mundane details of his office so he wouldn't see the evasion in her eyes. Dove gray walls with black framed diplomas and awards. Heavy desk and leather chair. Stark dullness, except for the picture of the woman he refused to talk about. That was the only life in his entire office. But she'd cling to it for a minute. Anything to make her nerves less obvious.
It was a risky venture. Not much got past Josh where she was concerned, more like nothing got past him at all. It was what made him so good at his job as the special agent in charge of their Tactical Response and Investigative Team field office. Hell, he had the stones to run all of TRAIT.
Though he was like an older brother to her, there were some secrets Josh kept under lock and key. That was the thing about a secret government intelligence agency. Everything was need to know, and as the dark spot on their field office's agent registry, she needed to know less than everyone else.
And she'd hate to see the disappointment in his eyes if he realized she kind of missed her past and the freedom she'd had then.
Finally, Josh stopped staring at her. "Okay, go downstairs and get started while we finish up here." He waved at her as she stood. "Don't forget to change."
"Why would I change? I'm perfect exactly the way I am." She winked at Josh and spun, coming face to chest with Trevor, her partner for this mission of awesome-that- could-go-so-very-wrong. "Isn't that right, big guy?"
He scowled down at her, and her smile almost slipped. She patted his pecs as she stepped outside, waiting, hoping, for the expression to turn to something more personal. That was the one he used on everyone, and Marissa had never wanted to be like everyone else where Trevor was concerned. No dice this time, though.
Not that that was anything new.
She walked through the building in a haze. Everything about Trevor screamed at her and made her tingle, which was a bit ironic considering their average daily interaction consisted of about a dozen words on his part, one of which was inevitably "what?"
After years of subtle back and forth flirting, she'd finally decided to screw the unwritten rule about fraternization among agents. She and Trevor had been working late on paperwork and, when his leg brushed against hers for the third time in fifteen minutes, she'd point-blank hit on him. Instead of fessing up to his end of the flirtation, he'd given her the "what?" So, she'd tried again, less subtly. But when she trailed her fingers over the buttons of his shirt and suggested they use the couch against the wall to take a break, he'd turned on the scowl. Since then, it had been the only expression he bothered giving her.
But now they were going to be all alone together on a mission — playing at being engaged. It was the second chance she'd been hoping for.
Except for the damn painting.
Josh knew she wanted it, that she'd dreamed about it every stinking day since she and her parents were arrested in that stupid sting operation twelve years ago. She'd begged to go after Certain Laughter that night, but Mom and Dad had insisted on chasing the bigger score — the one that had been a complete set-up.
To this day, she couldn't help but wonder if Josh hadn't arranged the whole thing in order to get her — the girl who could become anyone — into his unit. Black spot on the roster, but still a feather in his cap. And she couldn't help but wonder what her life would have been like if they'd followed her lead instead.
She shook off the memories as she ducked into the bathroom and changed clothes. Whatever Josh's part in things, she had a good life now. Good friends. A good, respectable job. Certain Laughter or no Certain Laughter, this was not the time to drift back onto old paths, no matter how much the want was there.
To touch the painting. To smell it. To imagine the life of the woman captured within. To trace the strokes on the canvas. Okay ... to hang it in her closet and stare at it before she went to bed at night.
Once more, with feeling, Marissa. The painting doesn't matter. Your old life is gone and you're better off. Let it go and keep working on this new life. Who knows, maybe the mission will be your chance to finally build a relationship with Trevor. After all, you'll be stuck together, playing nice the whole time.
He'll have to notice you.
Too bad she'd be programed to be someone else. The real her would be forgotten in favor of a new personality implanted directly into her memories. It was one of Josh's requirements given the personal nature of the mission — one she couldn't argue with.
After all, she had already wondered if there was a way to replace the painting with a forgery and keep it forever. Definitely safer this way — even if it meant losing her one chance to get close to Trevor.
Giving a resigned sigh, she knocked on the dark gray door at the bottom of the stairs. Gray, gray, everywhere gray. It was like working in the middle of a storm cloud.
A short woman whose blond hair frizzed out of her ponytail opened the door. "Why are you knocking?"
Without considering the move, Marissa reached out and wrapped her best friend in a hug.
Greta wriggled from her embrace. "Sneak attack. Got it. Are you ready?"
And like always, Greta didn't understand Marissa's need for the hugging. But it was a normal part of their friendship, and Marissa hardly noticed. "Definite sneak attack. Have to keep you on your toes. And ..." She sucked in a breath, giving one more thought to Certain Laughter and to Trevor being fake-engaged to not-her-that-would- still-look-like-her. "Ready as I'll ever be."
Greta waved her inside. This was the darkest space in the building with no windows or light to distract or annoy Greta when she worked. Like the monotone palette wouldn't take care of that on its own.
The room was sparsely furnished with a battered metal desk, rolling chair, and threadbare couch — the last part a dingy plaid that wasn't entirely gray but somehow still managed to clash with the boring decor.
Not TRAIT at its prettiest, but this space was rarely about looking good. More about searching for the bad, hunting for trouble and, on days like today, for fucking with Marissa's mind.
After a couple hours under hypnosis, Marissa would emerge with a whole new set of memories. A whole new life. She'd become a person whose only goal in life was to get to the art and make sure Trevor knew exactly where it was. She got them in; he got them out again.
She flipped through the file once more. It was an easy enough mission, but the initial request was scant on details. Whether or not she'd remember any of it, she preferred knowing what she was in for prior to the hypnosis.
At least they'd gotten the stories about the painting right. Certain Laughter had a crazy history. Including the BS about how it was cursed and killed anyone's whose blood touched its surface. Painted by a student of Da Vinci, Certain Laughter shadowed Da Vinci's Head of a Woman. Instead of the subtle browns, though, Certain Laughter brought the twisted face of a woman to life in stark blacks and grays. Calm quiet had not been the sensation the artist brought out, either — this woman looked to be in agony.
It was that silent pain that had always called to Marissa.
That and the mystery.
The piece had been lost to the world more than once. While older records didn't line up, it had definitely disappeared prior to World War II, found after the war in a shipment of art that had been destined for Hitler's personal collection. Oddly enough, once it was found, it had vanished again. Rumors linked it to several political leaders, but nothing was ever confirmed. Now supposedly Leonardo Canalis, mafia don, had it, and the government wanted it back. Why the sudden interest, she couldn't fathom.
Maybe someone was hoping to use it to kill off all their enemies. Stupid people and their superstitions. Marissa rolled her eyes at the idea, wishing she could figure out a better reason.
Don't bother asking for a better "why". Josh will point at the signature, and that'll be the end of it. Stupid Secretary of Defense and his cagey ways.
As Greta dragged the rolling chair over, Marissa discarded the file and settled onto the couch. A spring poked into her back, and she wriggled, waving a hand toward the computer. "You made sure to emphasize the art thing in the profile? I should only be interested in it in the most vain and flighty way possible. And the fail-safes?"
"Do you want to read it again? I put in everything you asked for. Mari is as unthreatening as I can possibly make her. You should easily be able to slip under anyone's radar. "
"No. It's okay." But it wasn't okay. As excited as she was, this mission had Marissa jumping out of her skin already. It was much better that she was going under for it. Though the hypnosis wasn't strictly necessary for her to play grifter, in a lot of cases, it helped to have her truly become the person they needed her to be.
It's what made her such an invaluable asset to TRAIT. Less risk of discovery. Less risk of her fingers deciding to get sticky and make off with the painting, too.
And there was another damn spring. She readjusted, trying to quiet her mind and searching for a comfortable position where she'd be able to forget everything she knew.
Order and discipline. That's what Trevor saw every day when he walked into the office. Other people called for splashes of color, but he didn't see the purpose. Serious work needed a serious space. It was one reason he and the special-agent-in-charge got along so well. Josh Marron's office was a perfect mirror of the man: all business.
Trevor leaned against the wall as Josh ran down the details Marissa couldn't be responsible for, given that she wouldn't consciously remember who she was. Which would make this much easier on Trevor. He didn't need to be on constant alert wondering when her criminal nature was going to pop up and cause trouble.
Granted, she'd kept that mostly under wraps on missions, but he'd noticed the way her eyes lit up when she saw something shiny. The last thing he wanted was to be responsible for dealing with her regressing and deciding art thief was her preferred job title. He didn't need a partner in crime. Any trouble he got into on this mission would happen solo.
"Remember, Harris, as long as she's under, TRAIT isn't on her radar. If dogs need to be called in —"
"It's on me. I know." Trevor rubbed at his jaw, his fingers scraping against roughness before hitting the short, tight beard. He'd been so busy thinking about the mission that he'd forgotten to shave this morning. There was nothing for it now.
Still, guilt over what Josh didn't know ate at him. If he had any clue about Trevor's conflict-of-interest where Leo Canalis was concerned, he'd be off the mission. And maybe that would be for the best, but he had no intention of playing confessional in Josh's office. "Are you sure I'm the right man for this? A beautiful, white woman and a hulking, black man might draw too much attention. Maybe Cal ..."
"Burrows is good, but he's still too volatile if things go wrong. With Marissa, I need someone who can do his job and protect her until she's herself. Plus, it's not the 60's. Hell, it's not even the 80's. You'll be an hour outside of Denver and in a tourist area. No one will give the two of you a second glance. Besides, you aren't going to be the only interracial couple there." He grabbed a file folder from the top of his desk and held it out. "I trust you. More than that, she trusts you."
That was fine, but Trevor didn't trust himself.
He didn't trust her.
And he certainly didn't trust himself with her.
Marissa was the kind of woman men lost themselves over — smart, beautiful, fiery — and Trevor had found himself wondering "what if" on more than one occasion. When the chance came that night after the mess Cal had made, he'd done the best backpedal of his life. No matter how attracted he was to her, Marissa was bad news — a criminal lurking right under her polished TRAIT exterior.
Regardless of how long it had been since she was arrested, her past never seemed all that far from her present, and it was what kept him in check. His best friend's death had saved Trevor from losing himself forever to a life of gangs and crime; he refused to risk her sucking him back into that kind of darkness.
And this mission carried a heavy enough risk of that happening anyway.
"So it's a 'no' on the replacement."
Josh frowned, his brows pulling together in the way he normally saved for phone calls about their budget. "Do your damn job, Trevor. That's what it means."
Job. Sure. He flipped through the file, trying to focus on what he was supposed to do at the wedding. "What the hell's so special about this painting anyway?" There wasn't much about Certain Laughter in the paperwork other than some historical piece about the artist that meant nothing and a grainy photo tagged to some bullshit about a curse. The trail of ownership was spotty at best. And the art was hideous. Like some talentless hack had tried to copy a master then decided halfway through to make cover art for a death metal album.
The grumbling from behind the desk meant the conversation would be over soon. Trevor was as fluent in Josh-Marron-noise-making as he was a dozen other languages. This one came in useful more often than the others, though.
"We are in a budget crunch. The Department of Defense is breathing down my damn neck. So if the Secretary of Defense comes to me and says, 'Get this painting away from Canalis,' we get the damn painting. If he told me it was a matter of national security to get Kim Kardashian's bra and panties, I'd send every agent in until we got the right damn set. Follow your orders and get the job done."
"Yes, sir." He stalked out of the office, barely suppressing the urge to slam Josh's door hard enough to shatter the window. But he was a professional, not a child. And it was in his professional best interest to get over his irritation.
The mission was a damn babysitting job. That was it.
Things might not make sense to him, but he didn't have to know why some politician wanted an ugly, old painting. What he did need was to understand exactly how Marissa's memory implants worked so he could help her through the snatch and grab — maybe that would keep him preoccupied enough he wouldn't think about Canalis at all. He tromped down the stairs as loudly as he could so they'd know he was coming.
Greta stood in the doorway, frowning at him. "If we'd started, you would have ruined the whole thing." She was a good eight inches shorter than him but, at the moment, she sounded furious enough that he winced.
Excerpted from Conning for Keeps by Seleste Delaney, Allison Blisard. Copyright © 2014 Seleste deLaney. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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