Meet Ciel Halligan, aura adaptor extraordinaire, in this charming introduction to Linda Grimes' "sparkling series" (Publishers Weekly).
A genetic quirk means Ciel can take on the appearance of anyone she meets by projecting their aura. This startling ability presents endless possibilities, and she's one of a rare few who has it...so you'd think it'd be easier finding a day job that lets her put it to use. Actress? Model? Ethically dubious and possibly criminal activities, like her best friend Billy? Ciel's long-time crush and fellow aura adaptor, Mark, has found his calling as a CIA agent-a life of intrigue, danger, and the perfect utilization of their rather unique skill set. It seems like the obvious choice to Ciel: She could do good and spend time with her crush. What could be better?
"Seamlessly blending humor and action...This deliciously sexy and fun-filled romp simply is a must-read."-RT Book Reviews, 4 ½ stars, Top Pick! on In a Fix
At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.
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About the Author
LINDA GRIMES is the author of In a Fix and its sequel Quick Fix. A former English teacher and ex-actress, Grimes now channels her love of words and drama into writing. She grew up in Texas and currently resides in northern Virginia with her husband.
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A Short Prequel to the Ciel Halligan Series
By Linda Grimes
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2015 Linda Grimes
All rights reserved.
My first thought as I grabbed the rim of the toilet bowl was, Thank God my brother's bathrooms are immaculate. It's bad enough hugging the porcelain throne without having to worry about extraneous germs.
My second thought was, Ciel Halligan, if you're going to puke, at least do it delicately.
I sucked in a huge breath, still hoping to forestall the inevitable. "Really, Mark—I'm fine. Just leave. Quick!"
Mark Fielding, hard-ass CIA superspy and my brother's roommate, pulled my hair away from my face and held my forehead. "Let it out, Ciel. You'll feel better."
"Gross," I gasped, swallowing convulsively. "Go—run while you can!"
"Grosser than the stuff I was telling you about?" he asked, his voice mild.
Images of blood and guts and knives and garrotes and guns washed over me again. Yeah, a little barf wasn't likely to disturb him. I let go. It wasn't like I had a real choice at that point, anyway. My body had already made a unilateral decision: breakfast was going to be evicted. And not delicately.
Damn. This was so not going according to plan.
An hour before, I'd been standing at my legal-eagle brother's front door, happily anticipating an informal preinterview for my dream job at the CIA. I knew Mark wasn't exactly thrilled with the possibility of my joining the agency, but as my oldest brother's best friend, he'd been obligated to at least hear me out and maybe give me some helpful tips about how to ace my real interview (which I was also counting on him to set up for me). Besides, since he shared the condo with Thomas, it wasn't like he could escape talking to me.
I usually crashed on Thomas's couch when I visited D.C., but, considering the businesslike nature of the meeting, I'd thought it was more professional to stay at a hotel this time. Also, it's possible I set up the whole thing behind Thomas's back, because he was even less crazy about the idea of me working for the CIA than Mark was.
It wasn't that Thomas wasn't aware of my plans to approach Mark—he knew there was no stopping me from doing that—but he might have been under the impression that it was going to happen the following week. (Oops. It's so easy to confuse dates.) Mark would never be able to give me a fair hearing with my big brother listening in, so I'd had to divert Thomas. The prospective client he was currently meeting with across town was planted by me, paid for with a large chunk of change from my graduation-gift coffer. I thought that was an economically mature way to use it. After all, I was investing in my postcollege future.
Sneaky? Granted. But that was the point. Just being able to set up this meeting with Mark without Thomas finding out about it made me feel more confident than ever that I had what it took to be a good covert operative.
I rang the doorbell and waited. I could have punched in the security code—it wasn't like I hadn't figured it out ages before, in spite of Thomas's discretion—but like I said, I was trying to be professional. Professionals don't barge in. While I waited, I smoothed the conservative, charcoal-gray skirt I'd borrowed from my mother and double-checked the high-heeled pumps (also from Mom) to make sure I hadn't scuffed them when I fell off the curb after exiting the taxi. (What? It's hard to walk in heels when you're used to running around campus in your Chucks.)
After a few minutes, I rang the bell again, figuring I'd give it one more shot before I gave up and let myself in. I was leaning over to wipe a spot off my left shoe when the door opened. Straightening too fast, I overbalanced and pitched forward into strong, bare arms. And the arms weren't the only thing bare—Mark was naked from the waist up, a towel draped over his neck, dark-blond hair still damp from his shower. Jeans zipped but not buttoned. Abs lined up in a row like well-disciplined soldiers.
Of course, Mark didn't seem at all surprised. Why should he? He'd known my klutzy self since I was thirteen years old.
"Little early, aren't you, Howdy?" he said as he grasped my elbows and righted me, amusement plain in his voice. (Possibly his eyes too, but I wasn't exactly looking up that high.)
Howdy was my grandfather's nickname for me. Granddad was a big Howdy Doody fan. Yes, freckles. No, I don't particularly like them, but they came with the green eyes and strawberry-blond hair. Guess it was a package deal.
I'd thought about showing up in the form of someone who looked older and more experienced—as an aura adaptor, I could become anyone, physically at least—but since Mark knew me, there was really no point. It wasn't my special talent I was here to highlight. As an adaptor himself, Mark already knew what I was capable of in that regard. What I needed to convince him of was my seriousness about wanting the job.
"Um, yeah, I guess I am," I said, trying desperately to compose myself. "Dad always says when it comes to jobs, on time is late."
Mark nodded gravely, his gray eyes crinkling the tiniest bit at the corners. "Good work ethic. But maybe he meant five minutes, not almost half an hour. You caught me just back from a run."
I glanced at Mom's watch. Crap. I'd set it twenty minutes ahead to make sure I didn't miss my flight, and I'd forgotten to set it back. Hmm. Would it be better, interview-wise, to appear overeager or incompetent?
I was going to opt for overeager. At least it smacked of a can-do attitude.
"I thought you might want to finish up our interview early so you can get on with the rest of your day. I can come back later, if it's more convenient," I said, giving him my brightest smile.
He stepped back, clearing the way for me. "No sense in that. Get yourself a cup of coffee—I'll just be a minute."
I watched regretfully as he climbed the stairs to his room, sad to see that bare chest leave. Not that I could have formed a coherent sentence during the interview while looking at those pecs, but still.
Once he was out of sight, I slipped off Mom's shoes and carried them to the kitchen with me. I could put them back on before he came back down—no harm, no foul.
My stomach let out an audible cheer at the sight of a box of cinnamon rolls on the counter by the espresso machine. From my favorite bakery, no less. Apparently, the butterflies in my stomach had reconsidered their earlier position on the issue of eating. It was almost lunchtime, and they were clamoring to be fed.
But wait ... was scarfing down a gooey ball of sugary goodness while discussing job possibilities professional? Probably not.
I sniffed the cinnamon-laced air. On the other hand, a growling stomach wasn't, either. Besides, I was a fast chewer. Maybe I could finish one before Mark got back downstairs.
He caught me with a half-eaten roll hanging out of my mouth, waiting as the machine hissed the last bit of the fragrant double shot into my mug. I almost choked. Damn, he was a fast dresser.
He'd added a navy-blue polo shirt and a pair of boat shoes to the jeans. (I couldn't tell if the jeans were buttoned or not—the shirt wasn't tucked in—but for the sake of my concentration, I was going to assume they were.)
I chewed fast and washed down the pastry with a large swig of coffee, scalding my lips and tongue in the process. "Fuck!" I said, dropping the mug in the sink, and then slapped my hands over my mouth.
I apologized for the rude slip of the tongue while Mark filled a glass with ice from the refrigerator door and added water.
"Don't worry about it. It's not like I haven't heard the word before. Here. Kiss this," he said.
I felt my eyes widen. Kiss? Kiss what?
"Hold your lips against the glass—it'll stop the burning," he explained patiently.
Oh. Right. I did it, feeling like a total fool. What kind of idiot couldn't drink coffee without injuring herself? Yeah, boy, that sure showed I was special agent material. Crap.
While I soothed my mouth (and there went the tastefully expensive lipstick I'd purchased especially for the interview), Mark cranked up the machine again. "You want another?" he asked.
"No, thanks. I think I'll stick with the water." There. That showed sound judgment, didn't it?
He filled a mug for himself (a triple shot), grabbed the cinnamon rolls, and led the way to the dining room table. "Have a seat, Howdy. Tell me what's on your mind."
"Well," I said, eyeing the roll he took from the box, "I wanted to discuss the possibility of"—I swallowed hard, watching him bite into it—"working for—"
He pushed the box toward me, licking his lips. "Have another. They're good."
No. You shouldn't. You're here to discuss jobs. "Okay," I said.
What can I say? I'm defenseless against the sugar-and-cinnamon combo. It was either indulge or sit there and drool while watching him eat. I was pretty sure drooling would leave a worse impression than chewing.
"Sooo," I started again after downing the roll, "what I wanted to talk to you about—"
"Tastes better with coffee," Mark said, sliding his mug toward me.
I picked it up and sipped, careful of my still smarting upper lip. The coffee had cooled somewhat, and he was right—it complemented the cinnamon flavor much better than the ice water did.
I swallowed and pressed on. "See, all I need from you—"
He reached into the box again. "There's one more. You want to split it?"
"Are you purposely distracting me from the topic at hand?" I asked. I was kind of getting the idea he didn't want to hear what I had to say.
"Of course not. I just thought I'd better feed you first, in case you fell off your shoes earlier because you were faint from hunger." Again with the almost eye-crinkle. Nice that I could at least be entertaining.
"Ha-ha. Those aren't my shoes. I borrowed them from Mom. They should come with a warning label," I said wryly.
"Speaking of your mom, could you give her a message for me? Tell her—"
"No! I mean, yes, of course I'll tell her whatever you want me to, only first, I want finish our interview, okay?"
He took a breath and let it out slowly. "About that—"
"Don't you dare shut me down before you even hear what I have to say!" I leaned forward, pushing his mug and the pastry box out of the way. "Mark, I'd make a good agent; you know I would," I said.
His eyes lost their humor in a blink. "There's a lot more to it than you realize. It's not just sneaking around on secret missions, pretending to be somebody else. It isn't"—he gave my outfit a quick onceover—"playing dress-up."
Ouch. "I don't expect to be playing. I'm perfectly aware that it's dangerous work. I also know how important your job is to national security. You're a major asset to our country. I want that too—I want to help."
He looked steadily into my eyes, gauging me. He finally nodded. "I can get you something administrative—"
"That would be a waste of my ability, and you know it," I said. Kept my voice reasonable too. Very professional. I didn't want to come across as a spoiled schoolgirl, expecting to be handed her dream job on a silver platter as soon as she graduated. I wanted him to see that I was serious about serving my country.
Besides, the government could use another aura adaptor. It wasn't like there was a glut of people with our capability. The adaptor gene isn't common; I'd be surprised if there were more than a couple hundred of us in the whole world. A few hundred out of seven billion—and most of us supremely uninterested in government work. Mark couldn't do everything for the CIA—he was only one guy. Well, at a time. While aura adaptors can become an exact replica of anyone they've grabbed some energy from, they can't subdivide themselves. I could take some of the load off him.
His gray eyes cooled, becoming more calculating. Spook eyes. "Okay. Fieldwork. So, how do you feel about killing people?" he asked bluntly, an underlying challenge in his otherwise even tone.
I lifted my chin. "If I have to. If it's part of protecting our country."
It was his turn to lean in. "You think it's that easy?" he said, his voice no longer measured. "Like some kind of first-person shooter? Real life kills aren't like video games, Ciel. They aren't always from a safe distance, and they sure as hell aren't on the other side of the TV screen."
I winced. He knew how much I loved to play Call of Duty. Heck, he'd played it with me himself countless times. Did he have to throw it in my face?
Apparently, he did, and his aim was deadly accurate. "Most kills are close—close enough to feel the wet, sticky heat of the blood. Close enough to taste it, if you don't remember to keep your mouth closed. Even once you learn to keep your lips clamped shut, you can't keep the stink of it out of your nose—and not only the blood. People don't always die clean or pretty or fast. They lose control of their bladders and bowels ..."
His voice grew harsher as he talked, his eyes grimmer, flinting over as he went on to explain, in verbal Technicolor, the kills he'd witnessed up close and personal. The longer he spoke, the queasier I felt, not only at the images he was planting in my head but at the idea of him being there, a part of it. He never said which of the kills he described were his own—he didn't always work alone—and I didn't ask. Couldn't ask.
The one that sent me running for the bathroom involved a garrote applied a little too firmly to an assassin's throat. The man's head had fallen backward, leaving his neck gaping like Nearly Headless Nick, only with blood spurting from the severed carotid artery and mouth still moving, trying to form words.
Geez, way to ruin Harry Potter for me.
Once my stomach was empty, Mark stood by while I rinsed my mouth and splashed water on my face. "I had to tell you," he said quietly.
I nodded, still shaky. He looked ... what? Remorseful? A little bit sorry, at least?
"Listen, I'm taking the boat out. Why not come along? The fresh air will do you good."
I almost refused but then thought, What the hell. What else was I going to do with my day? It was bound to be more fun than this little interlude had been. "Okay. But I have to stop by the hotel to get my things before checkout time. I can't afford another night there if I don't have a job lined up. I'm parking on your couch."
"You can take my room tonight; I'll be staying on the boat," he said, eyes once again warm. Guess he was more pleased with the outcome of the interview than I was.
* * *
Hot breath tickled my left ear. The voice attached to it whispered, "Those steely gray eyes ... that chiseled jaw ... those bulging biceps. Can't you just see your name tattooed on that arm, maybe inside an adorable little heart with an arrow through it?"
I elbowed my sort-of cousin Billy Doyle in the gut as I tore my eyes away from Mark, whose biceps were, in fact, bulging quite nicely as he anchored the sailboat the three of us were aboard. Shame it wasn't hot enough for him to take off his shirt—his chest would look incredible with the gorgeous Chesapeake Bay sunset as a backdrop. Not that watching him fully clothed was any hardship. After my spectacularly failed preinterview, I considered it a consolation prize.
Too bad Billy had shown up to join us. He pushed my elbow away, oofing out a laugh. "Sorry, cuz, but you make it so easy."
My mom and Billy's stepmom were sorority sisters from way back and therefore honorary aunts to each other's offspring—hence, the "cuz." His dark, curly hair and black-lashed, inky-blue eyes drew their own share of female attention, but we'd been best frenemies for as long as I could remember, so it was hard for me to picture him as an object of lust.
"Shut up," I said. "For your information, I was watching the dolphins. I can't help it if Mark got in my way."
Now, Mark, on the other hand, I'd been crushing on since Mother Nature had whacked me with the hormone stick at puberty. All it had taken was one shared Thanksgiving dinner at my parents' house, and I was lost. His moody gray eyes had grabbed my heart (and, okay, a few other places) and hadn't let go yet. I'd tried to put that aside during our interview, but now that being professional no longer mattered, I felt free to indulge myself.
"Uh-huh," Billy said. "Thinking of becoming a marine biologist now, are we?"
I scowled up at him. He was almost as tall as Mark and equally buff in his own way, I supposed. Maybe not Mr. Universe, but I'd never heard any of his countless girlfriends complain.
"Hey, don't get mad at me," he said. "Mark's the one who made you barf. It's him you should be pissed off at."
"He told you?" I said, surprised. Mark wasn't the type to blab about embarrassing stuff. Covert operatives were supposed to be discreet.
"Not in so many words. It was more the way your complexion matched your pretty green eyes when I met you guys at the marina. Your cheeks are usually much rosier when you've spent time around the spook. You had a sickly pallor. Ergo, Mark must have given you the 'wet work' talk."
My stomach gave a minor heave but was quickly soothed by a deep breath of fresh sea air. "Sounds like you're familiar with it," I said. Wet work was an apt description. Odd how the motion of the waves didn't bother me at all, while the mere thought of ... yeah. Best not go there.
Excerpted from Pre-Fix by Linda Grimes. Copyright © 2015 Linda Grimes. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Excerpt from The Big Fix,
Tor Books by Linda Grimes,
About the Author,