Snagging a marriage proposal for her client while on an all-expenses-paid vacation should be a simple job for Ciel Halligan, aura adaptor extraordinaire. A kind of human chameleon, she's able to take on her clients' appearances and slip seamlessly into their lives, solving any sticky problems they don't want to deal with themselves. No fuss, no muss. Big paycheck.
This particular assignment is pretty enjoyable...that is, until Ciel's island resort bungalow is blown to smithereens and her client's about-to-be-fiancé is snatched by modern-day Vikings. For some reason, Ciel begins to suspect that getting the ring is going to be a tad more difficult than originally anticipated.
Going from romance to rescue requires some serious gear-shifting, as well as a little backup. Her best friend, Billy, and Mark, the CIA agent she's been crushing on for yearsboth skilled adaptorsstep in to help, but their priority is, annoyingly, keeping her safe. Before long, Ciel is dedicating more energy to escaping their watchful eyes than she is to saving her client's intended.
Suddenly, facing down a horde of Vikings feels like the least of her problems.
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The ideal vantage point for observing a half-naked man was definitely across the rim of a crystal champagne flute. Especially when the champagne was expensive, the backdrop was a postcard-perfect Bahamian beach, and the man was that one.
He had muscles in all the right places under summer-bronzed skin. Hair on the long side, wavy and breeze-blown, streaked naturally by the sun. No phony salon highlights for him. When he flashed a smile it was sparkly clean, bright, but without that annoying Chiclets perfection. The icing on the beefcake: he didn’t even glance at the bikini-clad beach babes strolling by, some of them close enough to reach out and touch. His ocean-blue eyes were mine alone.
God, I love my job.
He slid into the chair across from me at the boardwalk bistro and lifted a bottle of Dom from the ice bucket. “Another glass?” His question was moot—he was already pouring.
I shrugged. What the hell. There’s always room for more champagne.
He filled a glass for himself and raised it. “To us.”
“To us,” I echoed, gazing into eyes that had the late-afternoon sun glinting in them like miniature whitecaps on a stormy sea. (Normally I gag when overwrought poetic comparisons pop into my head, but this time I was too busy heaving a happy sigh.)
“Mina, I thank heaven every day for the piece of luck that brought you to me.”
“No, I’m the lucky one,” I gushed. The sentiment was surprisingly true. Sure, his words were corny. But he was sincere, and that made it romantic.
It was enough to make me wish I really were Mina.
My client’s soon-to-be fiancé—Henry Howard Harrison III, nicknamed “Trey” for the “III”—took some bills from the wallet he’d just retrieved from our bungalow and anchored them under the ice bucket. He pulled me out of my chair into sun-warmed arms.
“Let’s go back to the house,” he whispered, one hand chasing goose bumps down my back. When he got to the top of my sarong he slipped his fingers beneath it. My breath caught in my throat, hampered by the sudden pounding in my chest, and I leaned in for a kiss that would have knocked my socks off, if I’d been wearing any.
Damn. I could almost feel guilty about taking money for this.
Before I was overwhelmed by … um, let’s call it remorse … he yanked the brightly colored cloth off my waist and ran away with it, tossing me a wicked grin over his shoulder. I was left standing, stunned, in a thong bikini I would never consider wearing as myself.
The corners of my mouth lifted. But I wasn’t me right now, was I? I was Mina. Wilhelmina Augustine Worthington, to be precise. Rich, pretty, pampered … and having fun. I gave chase.
* * *
I reached the front porch of the bungalow minutes after my quarry, puffing from the run. Really, Mina should exercise more. The trouble with borrowing somebody else’s aura is that you get their level of fitness along with it. Not that I’m one to talk. My favorite aerobic activity is reading steamy romantic thrillers. I figure an increased heart rate is an increased heart rate. Why quibble about methodology?
I dabbed my dewy brow with the sarong before tying it back around my waist. I’d found it snagged on a wood-encased garbage bin on the boardwalk—a distraction, no doubt, to slow me down. Obviously our boy liked games. Okay by me. I was ready to play.
“Tr-hhhey?” I wheezed as I went in, blowing silky strands of black hair out of my face. Make that almost ready. But I was sure I’d be fine in a second. Slow breaths, in … out. There.
He wasn’t in the living room or dining area. It was one big open space, tastefully furnished in expensive beach modern, and there was no seminude male figure in it. It wasn’t something I’d overlook. The kitchen was a bust, too.
The door to the bedroom was ajar. Ah. Perfect. I took a second to adjust my bathing suit top, knowing Mina wasn’t the type to approach even a spontaneous romp in bed with boobs awry. They were great boobs, too. I’d miss them when the job was done.
No signs of life in the master suite. The bed was still made, which wasn’t odd since we hadn’t actually been to bed yet. Trey had flown in after I’d arrived, and he’d met me on the beach. I always like to have my first encounter with a significant other in a public and fairly lively place. The distractions help smooth over any small inconsistencies I might show before I get a bead on what I’m dealing with. Trey hadn’t presented any great difficulties—he was pretty much exactly how Mina had described him when she hired me. Adonis incarnate.
Just thinking about him made the king-size bed look a lot emptier.
“Trey? Honey? Where are you?”
I’m cool. I can get with a good game of hide-and-seek. But he wasn’t in the closet, or under the bed either.
The bathroom. He was probably in there, just waiting to fill up the tub and play dock the submarine.
Okay, that was a crude and totally un-Mina-like thought.
Not that I could help it. When you grow up with a bunch of guys and a propensity for eavesdropping, crudity is the default mode when sex is on your mind. It’s a situational hazard. Still, I tried hard to stomp it down, along with other vestiges of my real identity—Ciel Halligan, Facilitator. Intrepid Fixer of Other People’s Problems. (Yeah, I know. Goofy. What can I say? I read a lot of comic books as a child.)
My job is made possible by a genetic quirk that allows me to adapt my aura into an exact copy of another person’s. No, it’s not shape-shifting, which is a crock, by the way. Give me a break. Shape-shifting on a biomolecular level? Directed cell morphology—the actual physical changing of tissue—takes time, and lots of it. It wouldn’t be practical. Aura adaptors deal in energy. Much faster, and quite a handy trait for someone in my line of work.
Guess you could say I’m a kind of life coach. At least, that’s my cover with all but the select few nonadaptors who know about us. Only instead of teaching people how to solve their own problems, I just do it for them. My clientele tends to be more comfortable with delegating than learning.
The only tricky part of the job is getting the internals right. The personality. But this time I was determined to stay totally in character on the job. Looking, smelling, and sounding exactly like another person wasn’t enough. To give a believable performance I had to immerse myself in the client’s psyche as well. Otherwise, the whole illusion could collapse around me like a bad soufflé, and I couldn’t afford that. I had bills to pay. Big ones. If I screwed this job up, I could say bye-bye to my business.
Alas, the bathroom was empty, the large array of foaming agents and botanical oils on the counter untouched. Huh. This was getting a little weird. Oh, well. I’m flexible. He had to be around here someplace. While I waited for him to emerge, I ran a handy brush through Mina’s hair. Primping in front of a mirror was certainly in character.
Wait a second … that’s odd. There was a smudge on my forehead. I peered more closely at my reflection. It looked like—
I grabbed a tissue, moistened it, and dabbed the spot. Sniffed it.
It was blood. When had I…? I scrubbed my face clean. No cut. It wasn’t me.
The sarong. It must have been on the sarong. I pulled it off and examined it. Sure enough, there was a still-damp (ick!) splotch, camouflaged by the gaudy, crimson-flower print. I did a quick personal check, even though I knew good and well it wasn’t that time of the month for Mina. All clear.
So what happened? Had Trey tripped and skinned his knee? Maybe he’d gone to the resort’s clinic to get it bandaged. But why would he do that when he had someone right here, ready and willing to play doctor? No, he must be hiding. I just needed to be patient.
I twitched. I don’t really do patience.
My eyes settled on Trey’s luggage. I hesitated, but only long enough to come up with a plausible excuse to use if he caught me: But, honey, you were gone. I found blood. I thought something was wrong—I had to search for clues.
I shrugged. Worked for me.
The bags contained the usual well-off bachelor vacation assortment. Casual clothing, a few dressier duds, a shaving kit with some wonderful-smelling toiletries, a velvet ring box, a spare bathing suit—
Whoa. Back the expectation train up. A ring box? Had Mina turned the reins over to me prematurely? I flipped open the hinged top and was nearly blinded by the flash from the solitaire. I whistled, long and slow. That sucker had to be at least three carats. High clarity, emerald cut, platinum setting. The man was serious.
Well, bite me. Now I couldn’t in good conscience employ any gratuitous persuasive techniques to obtain the marriage proposal Mina so desperately wanted. That part of the job was officially over as soon as I found the ring—professional ethics wouldn’t allow otherwise. (Professional ethics suck.)
My disappointment was interrupted by the sound of Mina’s cell phone.
On the other hand, it occurred to me with expedient clarity, I would be derelict in my duty if I didn’t give the job my full effort until that ring was on my finger. So I dove for the phone and answered with Mina’s sexiest hello.
“Mina, get out of the house.”
“What? Who is this?”
“Get out. Now.” It was Trey, his words tight with fear.
“Trey? What’s the matter? Where are—”
I was cut off by another voice, darker, with some sort of accent I didn’t recognize. “Miss Worthington, I suggest you do as Mr. Harrison says. Take your phone. You will be contacted shortly.” Click.
What the…? Crap. I clutched the cell and ran out the front door. Twenty yards later I was knocked off my feet by a teeth-rattling blast. When I looked over my shoulder, there was a pile of debris where the bungalow had been.
Copyright © 2012 by Linda Grimes